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Notice Board . . .

If you have pictures of your bees or hives you want to see on the Reader Hives page, please send them along. You can e-mail them to: rusty[at]honeybeesuite[dot]com. Please include a caption for the photos.

Is death camas a threat to honey bees?

A while back, beekeeper Bill Reynolds of Minnesota asked if I knew anything about the toxic effects of mountain death camas on honey bees. He was concerned because he recently found a large patch of it not 100 yards from his hives.

Although I found many references that claimed death camas is deadly to honey bees, I haven’t been able to find any information about how attracted honey bees are to it. It sounds like both the nectar and pollen are toxic, but whether honey bees like it or not is unclear.

The whole death camus issue is murky. First of all, the plant is known by several different scientific names, depending on who you ask: it may be referred to as Zigadenus venenosus, Zigadenus nuttallii, or Toxicoscordion venemosum. In addition, it bears a vast collection of common names including mountain death camas, grassy death camas, mystery grass, poison garlic, poison wild onion, poison camas, and hog potatoes.

Apparently bees leaving death camas flowers exhibit erratic flight. If this is the case, the poison acts quickly—maybe so quickly that a forager can’t get home to report her findings to nest mates? I don’t know. But a paper by Hitchcock (1959) reported that Osmia lignaria (orchard mason bees) fed death camas toxin were paralyzed then died. Similarly, both larvae and adult bees fed sugar water laced with death camas toxin were killed in 89% of the bee species tested.

Oddly enough, there is a specialist pollinator for mountain death camas, a species of ground-dwelling bee called Andrena astragali. Trepedino (1982) found that the scopae of this little bee contained primarily the pollen of mountain death camas, which was taken back to the nest and stored for the larvae. The adult bee, however, nectared on plants other than death camas for its own energy needs.

So there’s lots of interesting information out there, but none that answer the question. Has anyone ever seen honey bees foraging on death camas? Should Bill worry or not?

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Mountain death camas growing in Minnesota. © Prairie Home Farm.
Mountain death camas growing in Minnesota. © Prairie Home Farm.

Favorite watering holes

Florence, a beekeeper and blogger in eastern Ontario, sent some photos with a question: Why do her bees return to the same watering holes day after day, even when it is raining and closer-to-home sources abound?

My first thought was that the bees want their usual dirty water, the water with a nice green odor and decaying bits of algae and plant slime. But Florence pointed out that she cleans her birdbaths daily due to the questionable sanitation habits of her feathered friends. Hmm. I don’t know the answer to this, except I believe that once the bees find a reliable source of drinking water, they would rather return to it than seek out a new one. There is something comforting about a known location . . . but there I go anthropomorphizing again.

I recently purchased a couple of potted Stachys byzantina plants for the amusement of my wool carder bees (or for my amusement, whatever). But day after day as the wool carders frolic in the lemon balm six feet away, the Stachys is covered with honey bees that appear to be drinking from the leaves. I water the pollinator garden in the morning, and the downy leaves of the Stachys capture a fair bit of moisture that the honey bees seem to love; you can see their tongues go right down between the fibers.

Other than that, my honey bees seem to like the mucky water that leaks from the bottom of my raised garden beds, the slimy water that seeps out of the hill, and the slick surface of a rotting wooden spool—one of those huge things that once held metal cables—that now rests, forever damp, beneath the branches of a western hemlock.

Honey bees drink water, true, but they also use water for evaporative cooling of the hive. For example, they will spread water in a thin film on the edges of brood cells and then fan their wings to evaporate the water and bring down the internal temperature of the hive.

If cooling is the primary use of the water they collect, then any nutrients it may contain are superfluous to the intended purpose. In fact, you would think that dirty water would leave a residue—like a hard water deposit—on the comb. And since I seldom see other bee species drinking water, it makes me think that evaporative cooling is the primary purpose of honey-bee collected water. All of which muddies the question of why they seem to like it smelly, familiar, and green.

Maybe Florence’s bees are using the bird bath water for cooling and the lily pond water for drinking. That seems way too organized, but who knows? Ultimately, Florence may be right. She says they are really just social drinkers.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Water or a spinach smoothie? © Florence .
Bees drinking during a rain shower. Is that plain water or a spinach smoothie? © Florence Hill.
Social drinkers. © Florence .
Just after the rain, social drinkers lap up a certain crystal clear liquid. © Florence Hill.
Honey bee drinking from a Stachys leaf. © Rusty Burlew.
Honey bee sipping from a Stachys leaf. © Rusty Burlew.

Nectar dearth and summer stress

Many of us are in a summer nectar dearth or are fast approaching one. Several things happen to your bees when days are hot and forage is scarce. Here is a list of management ideas that will make the summer less stressful for you and for them.

  • Honey bees short on water may decide to try the neighbor’s swimming pool or bird bath. Since this can put a strain on the relationship, put out some water for your bees. A bird bath with rocks, a bucket with a wet rag, or a drip irrigation line can all be used to slack the bees’ thirst.
  • Your bees may seem testy or even aggressive when you go near. Even though your colony was docile as a newborn babe up till now, it may suddenly seem hostile. This is natural when supplies of food and water start running low. Don’t go routing around inside your hive looking for what’s wrong. The way they see it, you are what’s wrong. Give them some space during this time, and they will resume their sweet dispositions when the days cool.
  • Beware of robbing bees. Bees from robust colonies may decide that the easiest way to stock the pantry is to steal supplies from a weaker hive. If you see evidence of robbing—bees wrestling on the landing board or fighting in the air—reduce the entrances of weak hives. This may seem counter-intuitive during a hot spell, but it could save your colony.
  • Provide lots of ventilation. Bees cool the interior of the hive by fanning, but for fanning to work, the air needs a place to come in and a place to go out. Since you may be reducing your entrance to prevent robbing, it is extra important to use a screened bottom, a screened inner cover, a slatted rack, or a small upper entrance.
  • Robbing bees are not the only critters on the prowl this time of year. Hornet and wasp populations peak in the autumn just when the honey bees are having a tough time finding forage. These predators love a weak honey bee colony because the adults can get honey for themselves and nice juicy bees for their offspring. Be careful not to spill honey near a hive and do not use entrance feeders. Small drips can bring hoards of predators to feed on your bees—another reason to keep those entrances small.
  • Beware of the Varroa mite population. With diminishing forage and shorter days, your colony will raise less brood and evict the drones. Overall, the colony size will decrease. The Varroa mites, however, remain strong. Without drone cells available they will use worker cells, and since the colony has fewer brood cells than before, the mites will cram themselves into the remaining cells. Varroa can easily overwhelm a colony this time of year, so it’s a great time for a sugar roll and mite count.
  • Bearding is common on hot summer days. Although new beekeepers often confuse bearding with swarming, they are not at all related. Bearding bees are merely gathering outside the hive to keep themselves cool and to lessen the heat load on the inside of the hive. The best you can do for them is make sure the hive has good ventilation. Other than that, don’t worry.
  • Experienced beekeepers have been through summer dearth before, but many newbee colonies are lost during the first nectar dearth that comes along. Why? Because the colony seems so robust and busy, it is hard to imagine things could change that fast . . . but they do. So be on the lookout for signs of summer stress and take steps to help your colony through it. A little bit of prevention goes a long way.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite