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A wintertime reading list for bee lovers

After I posted about the new book by Wilson and Messinger Carril, several people wrote with their own suggestions for wintertime reading. Following is a summary of those books. Since I’m uncomfortable recommending those I’m not familiar with, I’ve only included those I’ve read.

As many of you know, I strongly believe the best beekeepers know bees—their biology, lifestyles, morphology, habits, diet, and environment. Knowing about bees allows you to make good management decisions, decisions based on fact rather than hearsay, decisions based on observation rather than recipes. Furthermore, the more you know about all bees—all 20,000+ species—the better you will understand honey bees. No bees exist in a vacuum, and honey bees are no exception.

The books listed below are in no particular order—just the way they came off my book shelf. All are available on Amazon and I’ve included links to the format I have, but other formats are usually available.

So curl up by the fire with some brandy-laced hot chocolate and revel in the life of a Megachile or ponder the life of a Coelioxys. These are great books and I wish I could have read them twenty years ago. But now is better than never. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley. 2010. The book explains in great detail how honey bee swarms decide on a new home and how they agree on when to move. Seeley provides his raw data in charts and graphs, as well as his conclusions and insights. The book is not easy reading (you have to pay attention), but it’s packed with interesting tidbits about swarms. Good photos, too. Honeybee Democracy

Bees: A Natural History by Christopher O’Toole. 2013. This is a coffee table book about bees. (Do people still have coffee tables?) Anyway, large format with large awesome photos. It’s a good place to start if you know nothing about native species because it’s not too technical yet gives a broad overview. Fairly easy to read, a nice introduction to bees. Bees: A Natural History

The Bee: A Natural History by Noah Wilson-Rich. 2014. This book has a little of everything–a good overview of bee biology, anatomy, behavior, and evolution, as well as interesting sections on the the environmental challenges faced by bees and the interaction between bees and humans. There is even a section on beekeeping. The book covers a lot of ground without too much depth in any one area, but it is well-written and well-illustrated. The Bee: A Natural History

Bumble Bees of North America by Paul Williams, Robbin Thorp, Leif Richardson, and Sheila Colla. 2014. This is an in-depth guide to bumble bee identification. Although it will tell you everything you ever need to know about North American bumble bees, I find it difficult to use. Most of the problem lies within the genus Bombus; because bumble bees are so variable, it is extremely difficult to tell them apart. The book includes keys, photos, coloration diagrams, and excellent distribution maps–lots of information but not for the feint of heart. Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton Field Guides)

A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson. 2014. Some books I don’t want to end, and this was one. It reads like a cross between a novel and an adventure story as it follows the author’s fascination with bumble bees from childhood to the founding of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. Along the way you will learn more about bumbles than you ever thought possible. A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees

A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm by Dave Goulson. 2014. This is a story about how the author purchased a 33-acre farm in rural France and turned it into bumble bee habitat. Insects, flowers, wildlife, nature, and the curious mind of an entomologist makes for entertaining and readable science. I never tire of reading Goulson’s work. A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm

Field Guide to the Common Bees of California Including Bees of the Western United States by Gretchen LeBuhn. 2013. As soon as this book arrived in my mailbox, I read straight through it three times. The author selected the most common genera of bees in her location and for each genus she provides­­ detailed illustrations by Noel Pugh, a genus summary, description, similar insects, food resources, nest particulars, and flight season. She even includes a pronunciation guide. Field Guide to the Common Bees of California: Including Bees of the Western United States (California Natural History Guides)

California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists by Gordon W. Frankie et al. 2014. You don’t have to be from California to appreciate this book. The book details the basic families of bees and the plants they like using colorful photos of both. It also explains the complex relationship between bees and flowers and explores ways to build better native bee habitat. California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists

The Forgotten Pollinators by Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan. 1996. This is a book about plants, pollinators, and their amazing interdependent relationship. Well written in a story-like format, the book follows the authors’ research into the “pollination crisis” and disruption of some of the world’s most fragile ecosystems, including the rain forests. The Forgotten Pollinators

Keeping the Bees: Why All Bees Are at Risk and What We Can Do to Save Them by Laurence Packer. 2010. This is one of my favorites even though it has only four pages of photos. The book follows the adventures of Packer and his associates as they study bees here and there throughout the world. The book is packed with information about bees and bee decline. Keeping the Bees: Why All Bees Are at Risk and What We Can Do to Save Them

The Buzz about Bees: The Biology of a Superorganism by Jürgen Tautz. This is my number one choice for basic honey bee biology. Amazing photos and excellent descriptions of how the bee and the colony actually work. I refer to this book constantly. The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism

Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial insects with Native Plants by Heather Holm. 2014. This book looks at native plants and the pollinators and beneficial insects that are attracted to them. The author divides the native plants into different habitat types, shows what they need to thrive, and describes what pollinators and beneficials you will most likely see. Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants

Bee by Rose-Lynn Fisher. 2010. This is picture book for honey bee lovers. The photographs, taken with the aid of an electron microscope, reveal the honey bee and all her parts in stunning detail. Whether you are a beekeeper, gardener, photographer or just curious, this book is a joy. There is nothing like seeing the parts up close to understand how they all work together to pollinate our world. Bee

Bees: An Up-Close Look at Pollinators Around the World by Sam Droege and Laurence Packer. 2015. This is essentially a picture book, but the photos are far from ordinary. The book contains extreme close-ups of some of the worlds most fascinating bees with write-ups about each one. Bees: An Up-Close Look at Pollinators Around the World

The Bees In Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril. 2016. My new favorite. The book is chock-full of identification tips, including photos of wing veins, detailed depictions of facial patterns, tongue diagrams, and photos of similar genera. Each genus has a pronunciation guide, a size-range diagram, a distribution map that shows not only where the bee occurs but also the likelihood of occurrence in that area. Best, the book contains hundreds of little highlighted text boxes that reveal bee trivia, and the whole thing is well-written and easy to understand. The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees

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A guide to North American bees

I am in love . . . with a book. I pre-ordered the new bee book by Joseph S. Wilson & Olivia Messinger Carril not knowing anything about it, but when it arrived, I became immediately and hopelessly enthralled.

I read until dinner and read while I mashed potatoes. Later, I read late into the night. After finally turning off my light and staring at the ceiling for awhile, I got back up and read some more.

The next morning I decided to e-mail my friend at OlyPollinators about the book, but when I opened my e-mail, there was a message with the subject line, “A book!!” Glen had beaten me to it.

The new book has the ridiculous title of The Bees in Your Backyard. Ridiculous because it sounds like a children’s book, sort of like “Dick and Jane Go to the Seashore”—but it is so much more than that.

I have a shelf about three feet long full of books that I use for wild bee identifications. Most have only short sections on identification methods, and most are extremely limited, covering only certain families or certain geographical areas, or having complex keys with no photos. Each time I want to i.d. a bee, these books spill out over the floor as I ruffle through them, usually to no avail.

But this book is different. According to the back cover, “It gives detailed accounts of every bee family and genus in North America, describing key identification features, distributions, diets, nesting habits, and more.” Did you catch that? Every genus in North America! It also has more than 900 color photos.

The book is chock-full of identification tips, including photos of wing veins, detailed depictions of facial patterns, tongue diagrams, and photos of similar genera. Each genus has a pronunciation guide, a size-range diagram, a distribution map that shows not only where the bee occurs but also the likelihood of occurrence in that area. Best, the book contains hundreds of little highlighted text boxes that reveal bee trivia, and the whole thing is well-written and easy to understand.

This is the book I have been waiting for, the one I wish I had years ago. If you are at all interested in wild and native bees—and as a beekeeper you should be—this is the book for you. It is published by Princeton University Press and is available in both softcover and Kindle editions. Although I usually buy e-books, when it comes to field guides and references, I prefer printed materials. The print edition of this unbelievable book is only $22.39 on Amazon.

Enough said. Now I’m going to dig out that little box of dead bees I’ve been keeping in my closet and see if I can figure out who they are. The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees

Honey Bee Suite

Notice Board . . .

In case you missed it: A Song of the Bees

The blaming of the shrew

Athough I’m not a hundred percent sure, I believe we are blaming the wrong shrew for damage wrought on bee hives in Canada and northern parts of the United States. Both Fletcher Colpitts, Chief Apiary Inspector of New Brunswick, Canada, and the Bee Informed Partnership website are blaming the European pygmy shrew, Sorex minutus, for the destruction. However, I can’t find evidence that the European pygmy shrew even lives in these areas. It seems more likely that the native species, the American pygmy shrew, Sorex hoyi, is the culprit.

According to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the American pygmy shrew is found throughout much of Canada and in certain northern parts of the United States. It is an extremely small mammal, averaging about 3 grams when fully grown. According to the University of Michigan, this shrew can grow to about 90 mm in length, although about a third of that is tail.

The problem for northern beekeepers is that the pygmy shrew, which survives on a diet of invertebrates, has discovered that honey bee hives have much to offer: a nice warm place to eat with lots of fresh meat on the menu. They can squeeze through a hole less than 1 cm in diameter, so standard mouse guards won’t keep them out.

I didn’t know anything about shrew predation until I began asking other beekeepers what I was seeing last winter. During the coldest months, when no yellowjackets or similar predators are around, I was finding legs, wings, and headless bees with hollow thoraxes on the landing board of one particular hive. Other hives in the area were unaffected. Each day I would brush the entrance area, but by the next day the body parts reappeared.

Phillip Cairns, a beekeeper from Newfoundland and author of Mudsongs.org suggested it might be shrews, and I believe he is correct. Not only is the evidence consistent, but I see dead shrews once in a while—courtesy of my cat—so they definitely live in my area.

Shrews apparently have a very high metabolism and have to eat constantly in order to keep going through the winter. From accounts I’ve read, the shrews hunt at the outer surface of the honey bee cluster, snatching those bees that are cold and slow. Once captured, the shrews like to consume the contents of the thorax. They get into the thorax by pulling off the bee’s head or drilling a hole right through the exoskeleton, leaving it hollow, and scattering wings and legs in the process. They also leave a trail of fecal matter wherever they go.

Those who have dealt with shrews in the past find that a quarter-inch mesh (6 mm) will keep them out. The problem with quarter-inch mesh is that it will knock the pollen loads from the honey bee’s legs, so it can only be used when pollen collection is not occurring. At other times, a larger mesh must be used, at least 3/8 (10 mm).

In the past, Phillip has lost a number of hives to shrew predation. My colony survived the winter, although it was small and slow to get restarted in the spring. When I opened the hive on a warm day, I did not find a shrew, but I did find many more of the hollowed out bodies and piles of poop, especially on the top bars. It is still not clear to me whether the shrews spend the winter in there the way mice do or if they come and go, but they definitely disappear in spring when the bees get feisty enough to chase them away.

I will definitely be screening that one hive and maybe the ones near it. And if anyone can shed light on the species issue (Sorex minutus vs. Sorex hoyi) I’m eager to know the answer.

The following photos showing shrew damage in a winter hive are courtesy of Phillip Cairns of MudSongs.org.



BroodMinder transmits hive data to your phone

Today, for the first time in my life, I supported a crowd-funding campaign. The object that caught my attention was the BroodMinder, invented by Richard Morris and his team. The device is a temperature and humidity logger designed specifically for bee hives. The slender device, Model 42, slips under the inner cover and rests atop the brood frames.

From there, the device sends wireless updates to your Apple or Android phones and tablets, so you you can monitor hive health without opening your hive in freezing temperatures.

Here’s a description from the BroodMinder website:

Designed to last two years on a single coin cell, the BroodMinder provides continuous service throughout the winter “no matter how endless it may seem” eliminating the need to open the hive.

Accurate to 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit and 3% relative humidity, you will notice the slightest of changes, allowing intervention before it is too late.

The BroodMinder logs and stores measurements once every hour for the entire two years. This means that at any time, you can retrieve and analyze the data, thus allowing for early preparation for next season.

I became very interested in hive temperature and humidity last year. You may recall some of the posts I wrote that highlighted the work of other beekeepers, including Bill Reynolds and Kevin O’Donnell. I learned a lot about what goes on in a winter hive by examining their findings, and it piqued my curiosity.

This unit uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology and Texas Instrument’s latest temperature/humidity chip. It is housed in a 1/4″ bee-resistant wrapper, and records data about the heat and humidity that rises to the top of the hive.

Do I think this is essential beekeeping equipment? No. Do I think it’s totally fascinating? Yes! Right now, the BroodMinder is on Indiegogo and a $40 pledge (plus shipping) will reserve one for you. After the first 500 units are spoken for, the price goes up to $60.

If you decide to spring for the BroodMinder, let me know. I will set up a page here on Honey Bee Suite where we can post results and compare notes. I think it will be fun.

Honey Bee Suite

The BroodMinder is inserted under the inner cover, just above the brood frames. © BroodMinder.com.