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Dead bees rising

Honey bees always surprise me. Two weeks ago, after my swarm in a tree moved into a bait hive, I noticed a grapefruit-size cluster beneath the hive stand. The vast majority of the swarm had gone inside, but this one ball of bees was hanging from the screened bottom board.

It was hard to get to, but I crawled under the stand and brushed them off the screen, hoping they would enter the hive. But instead, they flew around a bit and re-clustered in the same spot. Other things needed my attention, so I left them.

That night was cold, just above freezing. The next morning, I went to see if they had gone inside, but they were dead. The whole grapefruit had fallen from the screen and lay asplat on the ground beneath the hive stand. I was annoyed no end I hadn’t done more to help them.

With my hive tool, I scraped the pile out from under the stand and pulled it apart with my fingers. I was worried that the queen might be there. I thought it unlikely, but I sorted through the bodies anyway. The ball comprised mostly workers, although about forty percent of it was drones. Spread out in the grass, it was a big pile, but I saw no queen.

I walked away thinking I should probably clean up the mess. Maybe later. The sky was clear, and in a couple of hours the sun chased away the cold.

Armed with a feeder, I went back to the hive and nearly freaked. My dead bees were crawling in the grass! Some were leaving the pile and flying in great arcs, some were fanning and stretching. Nearly every last one of the dead bees was reincarnated as a live bee. I watched, mesmerized, until they disappeared into their hive.

Obviously, what I thought were dead bees were just cold bees. The cluster wasn’t large enough to keep itself warm, so the bees became chilled and immobile. When they could no longer grasp the screened bottom, they fell to the ground. Their apparently lifeless state was ultimately cured by the sunshine.

What bothered me most, though, was something else. Upon seeing the resurrection, I immediately recalled a hive that I had cleaned out about three weeks earlier. Bees that had been alive the day before died on an exceptionally cold night. It was a small colony, but it still had plenty of food. Nevertheless, when I saw the dead bees, I immediately cleaned out the hive and tossed everything.

Now I keep wondering, should I have waited? Should I have let them warm up before I tossed them? I will never know, but it is certainly a lesson for the future.


Pollinators on the night shift

Nocturnal pollination is something I seldom think about, but this fascinating article by Paul Manning at Poky Ecology describes a host of nighttime pollinators in lowbush blueberry. Really, I had no idea how busy a berry bush in the dark could be.

In a series of experiments, researchers found that as much as one-third of the lowbush blueberry crop may have been pollinated by nocturnal visitors, a population that does not include bees. The research provides another indicator that bees—and particularly honey bees—get credit for a lot of work done by others.

The post also details some of the limitations of honey bees as pollinators, one of my favorite subjects. Since honey bees do not like cold, fog, mist, overcast, wind, or darkness, they are often holed up watching re-runs while everyone else is out working. Still, honey bees remain the darlings of modern agriculture. I often think they have us fooled.

In his post Paul asks, “How can agricultural systems be optimally managed, if we don’t even know the entirety of species acting as pollinators?” My question is similar: If application rates for pesticides are set by using the honey bee as the test insect, how do we know the effects of these chemicals on other insects? In fact, we don’t.

This blog post is well worth a read, and it may very well give you a new perspective on crop pollination  . . . and creatures of the night.


Blueberries: who is responsible?


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.