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No matter how many beekeeping books you've read, you need Rosanna Mattingly's Honey-Maker to bring it all together. Honey-Maker is a handbook about the worker bee herself—what she does, how she does it, and how all her little parts work together. For less than the price of one average queen bee, you can learn the secrets of the worker in minute detail. She—and the book—are nothing short of awesome.

On a wing and a prairie

I wanted to say more about the mining bees I discovered last week. According to my sources at BugGuide.net this bee is in the genus Anthophora, but that is all they could say based on my photo. So I looked up Anthophora in A Field Guide to the Common Bees of California and learned that “you often hear these bees before you see them.” This was encouraging news because that is exactly what happened.

This Anthophora is on a sweat shirt. After a few photos, I released it back to the prairie.

On that day I was walking the trails at Mima prairie looking for bees to photograph, but other than a few Bombus vosnesenskii, which are as common as dandelions, I wasn’t finding anything. I was giving up when I heard a noise that sounded like a honey bee swarm. I stood stone still for several moments before I could pinpoint the direction. What I found was a patch of kinnickinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), a low-growing shrub in the Ericaceae family, clouded over by a mass of bees.

Kinnickinnick has deep bell-shaped flowers that require bees with long tongues.

These bees were fast. I tried to photograph them for a half hour before I realized they were never landing on the blossoms, they were only hovering over them and milling about. That behavior, coupled with their white faces, lead me to believe they were all males. They weren’t foraging—they were waiting for females to stop by their fully-guarded kinnickinnick. “How about a nice meal at my place, sweetie?” Smooch, smooch.

The bees moved so fast that I could barely see them, let alone photograph them, but I got the impression they were very hairy, about the size of a honey bee, but blocky rather than tapered at the abdomen. They seemed grayish, but it was hard to tell. I finally went for my butterfly net and scooped a few into a test tube.

A few minutes in the test tube subdued them, at least momentarily. The one I finally photographed walked out of the tube and across a sweatshirt. “Gotcha!” I whispered, pressing the shutter. Not a great shot, but something.

Later on, I read that you can sometimes see groups of males in the early morning, clustering on nearby plants and hanging by their mandibles while the females sleep in their underground tunnels. Not all species do this, apparently, and I don’t know about this one. Nevertheless, I headed back to the prairie the next day before sunrise.

I didn’t know where to look, but it seemed like a worthwhile effort. The idea of multiple males, soaked in morning dew and hanging by their jaws, was a satisfying thought.

But, alas, nothing. However, the prairie was eerily beautiful at that hour, and peaceful. No birds, no bees, no hush of wind, and it smelled like the produce aisle of a grocery store—wet, cold, and green.

Subsequent trips to the prairie have revealed no more mining bees, but I’m on a mission to find the ladies. Next in line to bloom is camas, so I will take a look at those.


Sunrise at Mima Prairie.
Dew drops on last summer’s grass.
Mounds of kinnickinnick. As soon as the mist cleared, the bee activity began anew.

I was so much smarter then

If you are prickly, easily offended, or a second- or third-year beekeeper, please do not read this. Hey, you! Yes, you, the second-year beekeeper out there who is trying to sneak a peek! Please go away!

Wow, that was close. Anyway, for the rest of you, I have completed a one-sided, unscientific, and misguided study on the knowledge base of beekeepers correlated with the length of time they’ve been keeping bees. And this is what I found:

The beekeepers who know the least are the first years. No surprise here. Many don’t know a mite from a mouse—after all, they both live in hives—but that’s okay because they are soaking up knowledge and learning fast. They read, attend classes, ask questions. They are grateful for any help they can get.

The beekeepers who know the most, those who actually know everything there is to know, are the second- and third-years. If there is a question, they have the answer. If you have an opinion, they will let you know what they think of it—and you. They don’t read, because they could write it better. They don’t listen, because they could say it better. Trust me, there is not one thing about bees that they don’t know. If you need a fast answer and confident opinion, they are the people to see. I am happy for them as they revel in their vast knowledge.

Then, long about the fourth year, something happens—their knowledge begins to erode. It’s not that they know less, it’s that they know so much that they begin to realize how much more there is to learn. It dawns on them they’ve seen but the tip of the iceberg. They begin to see issues as complex rather than simple. They begin to see answers as multi-faceted, not smooth and round. The amount they want to learn slowly grows until it becomes infinite.

You’ve heard of the “tree of knowledge?” Well, I think of it like this: The first years are on the ground, right where the tree breaks through the soil. The second- and third-years are on the trunk where everything is smooth, well-defined, and nothing is messy. Those who’ve been at it longer are up in the limbs, branches, and twigs where every question has more than one answer and all the pathways are obscured by leaves.

Knowledgeable beekeepers start sentences with indeterminate words like, “sometimes,” “often,” or “possibly.” They read, go to lectures, search the web, and experiment. Each year that passes, as their knowledge increases in multiples, they feel they know less . . . and they want to know more. They are awed by the bees, mesmerized, humbled. They never have fast answers, only well-considered opinions that are tempered with experience and the realization that there are no easy answers—not about bees.

But, yes, the exception makes the rule. Of course there are second- and third-years who are not know-it-alls and old-timers who are. Furthermore, I don’t really think the progression from knowing nothing, to knowing everything, to knowing just a portion is bad. It’s just the way it is.

I am speaking partially from experience gathered from my website, classes I’ve taught, and lectures I’ve given, and partially from being there. I used to know way more about bees than I do now. Actually, I used to know just about everything. But once I began studying bee nutrition, pathogens, pesticide interactions, reproduction, genetics, health, hygienic behavior, flower selection, pollen composition, communication, social interaction, nest-site selection, and environmental stressors . . . well, let’s just say I know less and less every day.

‘Nuf said. Now back to the books before I lose a few more percentage points.


Where on the tree are you?