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    Hive Gallery

    The Hive Gallery features photos of beehives, honey bees, honey . . . whatever readers have sent me. Explore

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    Not for you, for them. Find recipes for all those tantalizing treats like sugar cakes, pollen substitute, and grease patties. Explore

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    The glossary is constantly updated with definitions, acronyms, initialisms, and links to Wordphile discussions. Explore

Plays well with others, not

When Honey Bee Suite was only a few months old, several of my friends told me the site was too “text heavy” and needed more photos. At the time, I was extremely discouraged by this news. After all, I began a blog because I wanted to write, not because I wanted to take pictures.

Nevertheless, I began working on it and slowly accumulated a photo library. Capturing good bee portraits is not easy, but I found that the harder I worked the luckier I got. Since those early days, photography has become one of my favorite parts of blogging and I spend many hours in pursuit of the perfect bee photo.

“I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it”
― Thomas Jefferson

The photo below, while not perfect, is the result of one of those rare moments when everything comes together. The little green berry bee was on a blackberry and I was trying to get her in focus, end to end. As I depressed the shutter button, a kamikaze-style bumble bee came out of the sky and rammed the berry bee. In an instant everyone was gone. Discouraged, I went looking for another berry bee.

Traumatic bee battles happen all the time. While I’ve spent many days among the flowers, I’ve noticed big bees attack little ones, and vice versa. I’ve seen honey bees attack natives, and vice versa. Even bees of the same species chase each other away. These encounters nearly always leave the flower empty, so it’s not so much the attacking bee wants that particular flower as much as it wants the other bee to leave. They seem to have the “I don’t want it, but you can’t have it” mindset.

When I was done shooting for the day, I went inside to look over my photos. It was then that I discovered this photo. Somehow, the attack happened at the very instant I pressed the button, and somehow everyone is more or less in focus. Serendipity at its best.


Bumble bee and berry bee share a flower.
The berry bee, Osmia aglaia, was minding its own business when the bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii, dove in for the attack. The gray pollen is characteristic of blackberry flowers. © Rusty Burlew.

Xylem sap for honey bees

A discussion of water sources for bees would not be complete without a mention of guttation. Drops of liquid that you see along the edges of a leaf—or sometimes at the very tip—are actually drops of xylem sap. The process that delivered the sap to the leaf margins is called guttation.

Drops of xylem sap

The roots of plants take up water from the soil. While they soak up the water, they also take up salts, minerals, fertilizer, and pesticides. As the osmotic pressure in the roots increases, it pushes the sap upwards throughout the plant, preventing the plant from wilting during the night.

The excess sap is exuded through pores and can be seen as little droplets.The pores where the xylem sap oozes out are called hydathodes. Unlike leaf stomata, which are open only during the day, hydathodes are open all day and all night. Because the xylem sap contains many different materials, deposits of dry matter are often left behind when the water evaporates from the leaf.

Not all plants produce guttation drops. The phenomenon is restricted to herbaceous plants and some vines. Trees and other woody plants are too big for the osmotic root pressure to push liquid throughout the plant.

Not transpiration, not dew

Guttation should not be confused with transpiration or dew. During the day, a plant loses moisture through the stomata in a process called transpiration. Transpiration, which occurs in all terrestrial plants, helps to keep the plant cool, whereas guttation does not. And unlike guttation, the water from transpiration escapes in the form of vapor—not liquid—and it is pure.

Guttation droplets are easily distinguished from dew by their location. Guttation occurs only at the hydathodes at leaf tips or margins, but dew condenses anywhere on the surface of a leaf. Guttation drops form a regular pattern, whereas dewdrops do not.

Guttation and bees

On dry days, bees of many species can be seen drinking guttation droplets. Unfortunately, some research has shown that bees drinking the xylem sap of plants treated with systemic insecticides can be poisoned by the liquid. Guttation occurs in many grass-family plants, including maize and other grains that are commonly treated with systemic insecticides.

This morning, during a quick inspection, I found a number of plants with guttation drops in my garden, including grape, lemon balm, lamb’s ear, tomato, and nasturtium. My bees seem to like the lamb’s ear the best, and I often see them crawling along the leaf margins, lapping up the minerally (and pesticide-free) water.


Guttation drops along the perimeter of a lamb’s ear leaf. © Rusty Burlew.
Guttation oozing from a grape leaf. © Rusty Burlew.
This morning, all the lamb’s ear leaves were edged with pearls. © Rusty Burlew.
Leaves of lemon balm decorated with guttation drops. © Rusty Burlew.

Notice Board . . .

In case you missed it: A Song of the Bees

Washboarding bees arockin’ and alickin’

A strange honey bee behavior known as “washboarding” or “rocking” continues to elude an explanation, but it is fun to watch. Worker bees gather in large groups—either inside the hive or out—and rock back and forth while seeming to lick the surface beneath them. The motion has been likened to that of scrubbing clothes on a washboard.

Katie Bohrer and Jeffrey Pettis of the USDA-ARS Bee Research Lab studied washboarding bees and discovered a number of things.

  • The washboarders were all worker bees.
  • They started washboarding at 13 days old.
  • The peak amount of washboarding occurred in workers between 15-25 days old.
  • Washboarding increased from about 8 a.m. to about 2 p.m. and then remained constant to as late as 9 p.m.
  • When given three different surfaces, the washboarding increased as the surface became more textured. Slate produced the most washboarding, followed by unpainted wood, and then glass. The surface-type data, however, did not produce statistically significant results.

Some beekeepers have noticed that washboarding occurs more frequently at the end of a nectar flow and others swear the bees will “clean up” any particles you place on the hive entrance. Other sources claim the behavior “polishes” the surface and thus eliminates rough spots where pathogenic organisms might congregate. Beyond speculation, however, no one has been able to provide a concrete explanation.

For a really cool video of washboarding, click on the link below. If you look carefully, you will notice that the rear four legs of each bee tend to stay in one place, while the front two legs do all the work. This outstanding video was provided by Alexander Wild.


Five favorite plants for the bee garden

Since this is the season when gardening catalogs flood my mailbox, I can’t help but think about next year’s pollinator garden. My five favorite pollinator plants are all species that attract a wide variety of wildlife. In addition, they all are relatively easy to care for and don’t require a lot of water.

Agastache comes in various forms and colors and is attractive to many bees and butterflies. You can plant an entire garden of just Agastache using purples, oranges, reds, and pinks. These perennials flower over many weeks and are unappealing to deer and rabbits. My favorites include the hybrid “Blue Fortune” which is especially attractive to native bees and “New Mexico Hummingbird Mint” which draws butterflies and bumble bees as well as hummingbirds.

Perovskia, or Russian Sage, is a real pollinator-pleaser. Some of the varieties such as “Blue Spire” become absolutely coated with bees of all descriptions. It has dark blue flowers on spikes that reach about 4 feet high. Deer and rabbits walk right by, while the bees hang on in ecstasy.

Oregano was a surprise to me. I originally planted it for the leaves, but I’ve found that whenever I need a picture of a wild bee I’m sure to find one—or many—hanging out on the oregano plants. Oregano comes in many varieties and the small flowers range from pink to white.

Ceanothus, or California lilac, is a fragrant and colorful evergreen shrub. The first time I ever really noticed one was in front of a public building in Tacoma. I walked by and saw that it was covered—I mean absolutely infested—with honey bees. I cut a twig and took it to a local nursery for identification. These shrubs are very drought tolerant and the flowers are the color of blue that honey bees love. Ceanothus is also freely visited by other species including bumble bees and sweat bees.

Goldenrod is an especially good bee plant because it blooms very late in the year when bees are having a hard time finding forage. The bright yellow flowers attract many species of bee, especially bumble bees. Since goldenrod is tall it makes an excellent plant for the back of a garden or along a wall or fence. This past fall I often saw seven or eight bumble bees on one inflorescence. Goldenrod is another plant that requires little care and little water.

Even if you only have room for a pot or two, you will be surprised at the number of pollinators you can attract with these plants. Other plants with similar characteristics will work as well, including lavender, salvia, penstemon, and catmint.