The week in photos

Due to some irritating software issues, I’m behind in adding photos to the website. But here are a few highlights from the last couple of weeks.

First, this unusual hive belongs to Dr. Michael Ishitani. He writes, “For my Italian and Carniolan hives, with a decorative skep, cedar shingle roof and copper peak, national flag, and porcelain bee decoration. My first year…perhaps I went a little too fancy but the girls seem to be doing well!🐝”

Also note the upper entrances and platforms. For more photos of this hive, including a close up of the skep, see Reader Hives.

© Michael Ishitani.

Several more people have sent photos of bees on sunflowers, including this one by Bryan Bender. I love the head-to-head bees, a bumble and a honey bee. More sunflower photos can be seen in the Sunflowers gallery.

© Bryan Bender.

Phillip Cairns of generously shared his photos of shrew damage in his hives. This image and seven others can now be found in the post, “The blaming of the shrew.”

© Phillip Cairns.

Are you looking for a new tattoo? Well, here is the latest on the arm of Anthony Planakis. He writes: “It’s an addition to my honey bee waggle dance, so even if I’m not by my hives, they’ll always be with me!” The quote is based on George Bernard Shaw, “Go to the bee, thou poet: consider her ways and be wise.”

© Anthony Planakis.


Clearly a waste

The first line in the Huffington Post story reads, “An amateur photographer has captured an amazingly rare sight in his own back garden—a bee urinating.” No doubt, the photo by Mark Parrott is awesome, but is the bumble bee actually urinating?

In fact, the bee digestive system does not divide waste into solids and liquids—instead, all of it is collected in one place. The bee digestive system is more or less a straight line.

The mouth is connected directly to the esophagus, and the esophagus extends through the head and thorax all the way back to the abdomen. In honey bees, after food goes through the esophagus it travels into the crop (or honey stomach) where it is stored for transport back to the hive.

At the end of the crop is a one-way valve known as the proventriculus. Anything that passes through this valve moves on to the ventriculus (also known as the true stomach or digesting stomach) where it is digested. But anything that goes through the one-way valve cannot go back the other way. So food that is digested cannot re-enter the crop, and this is why nectar is not bee vomit. Nectar that will be used to make honey never makes it into the digesting stomach, only the crop.

The ventriculus is lined with cells that secrete enzymes that digest any nectar and pollen that has passed through the one-way valve. At the far end, the ventriculus is attached to the ileum, which is like a small intestine.

Right where the ventriculus meets the ileum, about one hundred malpighian tubules connect to the digestive tract. Malpighian tubules act like our kidneys. Just like our kidneys filter waste products from our blood, the malpighian tubles filter waste products from the bee’s hemolymph. This liquid waste, which is analogous to urine, is dumped into the ileum where it joins the solid waste from the ventriculus.

The ileum removes nutrients from the digested food and moves the waste further along the digestive tract. From the ileum, the waste products from both the ventriculus and the malpighian tubules move into the rectum where it is stored until the bee can defecate through the anus.

All bees are built in a similar way, but the crop is more developed in those species that carry nectar back to the nest. The flow of food and waste through a honey bee looks like this:

mouth↔esophagus↔crop (honey stomach)→proventriculus (one-way valve)→ventriculus (digesting stomach)→ileum (intestine)→[waste from malpighian tubules joins food waste in the ileum]→rectum→anus


So back to the photo, I would say the bee was defecating rather than urinating. But clearly she had a lot to drink that day. Who knows? Maybe she was getting ready for a mandatory drug test and was trying to flush away all the poppy nectar she drank.


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 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



Smoke and bees

To my readers in Australia and New Zealand: I send my heartfelt and sincere thanks to firefighters from your two nations who have come to join the thousands of North American firefighters in their quest to extinguish the wildfires raging across the western United States. Thank you a million times over. My prayers are with the fireman and their families everywhere, but a special nod goes to those who have come from half a world away.

Saturday morning I was perplexed. At 9 am my bees were not out enjoying the warm sun, but remained hive bound. One bee—perhaps two—per minute appeared on the landing board. I went around to several hives and witnessed the same behavior. Immediately, I feared a catastrophe. A pesticide kill? Some new disease? I knocked gently on each hive, fearing the worst. But each knock sounded solid and dense—no sign of hollow hives—and each knock was answered with an insistent roar.

Since I had been planning to open one of the hillside hives and replace the bottom board, I decided to start there and see if that hive was equally weird. It was.

It is a small hive, but I had to take off a honey super and an excluder to get down to the brood box. Then I would have to move the brood box and slatted rack before I could replace the bottom board. During the procedure, the bees remained totally docile and none flew out or threatened while I was dismantling their home.

In the space below the excluder was a warren of burr comb all split open. About an inch of bees immediately converged on the broken cells, lapping up the honey. I needed to scrape away the burr comb but there were just too many bees. Although I seldom use a smoker, it seemed like there was no alternative.

I covered the two halves and went down the hill to fetch the smoker. On my return, I noticed even more bees crawling up between the frames and accumulating atop the burr comb.

Once the smoker was burning well, I gave the bees a few good puffs. Nothing. Not one bee crawled down between the frames. I added an empty super and a lid to contain the smoke, and puffed under the lid. After a couple minutes, I opened it up. They were all still there. Dumbfounded, I tried again.

Ultimately, I ended up brushing bees and scraping away some of the burr comb, and then setting the super down on top of it, hoping not to kill too many. All this commotion and the bees remained as passive as day-old bread.

I guess I was too worried about my bees to notice the atmosphere, but when I returned to the house, my husband said, “Something is strange. Everything looks red.”

And then I did notice it. Whatever the sunlight touched took on a reddish-orange tint. Anything brown—like the crispy lawn and the sun-scorched trees—bore a chestnut glow. The look was familiar but it took me a while to remember. “It’s smoke,” I said finally. “Smoke from the wildfires.”

And it was. The winds had brought smoke from the many fires in eastern and central Washington, about 300 miles away. At first, we noticed only the odd light. Later, we could smell it as well. By evening, the sun itself took on a red and eerie cast.

I began to wonder if the atmospheric smoke kept my bees home and docile. Is that why they weren’t out foraging? Is that why they remained inured to the home invasion? Is that why the addition of more smoke made no difference to their behavior?

Truth is, I don’t know the answer, but it certainly seems related. I’ve never seen bees so indifferent to the addition of smoke. Maybe, after hours of breathing it and hours of living in it, the addition of more smoke made no impression on them. Maybe they had reached a sensory limit.

Today is a bit better. A few more bees are out, the light is more normal, but the smoky odor persists. What do you think? Is atmospheric smoke affecting the bees, or is it something I’ve overlooked?


Take the dog hive challenge

This is where we come to the rescue of urban beekeepers who want to keep their hives out of the public eye. A few years back I wrote a post called, “Out of sight, out of mind” where I explained why concealing your hives from passersby might be a good choice. Recently Frank, from I know not where, responded to that post with the idea of concealing a hive in an altered dog house.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I think it’s a clever idea. As I explained in that post, passersby are not in much danger of getting stung, but they often get upset at the thought of getting stung. I still get lots of mail from bee-fearing individuals who want to know how they can force their neighbor’s to get rid of their bees, or worse, how to kill their neighbor’s bees.

Because there is so much creative talent out there, I thought I would ask. The challenge is to come up with a design for a faux dog house that could be used to conceal a bee hive. From a distance, most people are not intimidated by a dog house, in fact, they pay little attention. Along the lines of Frank’s idea, I’m thinking of something that has a hive opening at each end and some kind of back door or removable roof that would allow beekeeper entry.

I’m not limiting the design ideas to just dog houses. I’ve seen pollinator housing that looks like birdhouses, and chicken coops that look like storage sheds, so anything that you might ordinarily see in an urban or suburban yard might make good camouflage.

So if you’d like to sketch an idea, I will publish any I get. Or, if you already have such a thing, send a photo. This is just for fun, but who knows? Someone may use your idea to keep their bees safe from the neighbors.

Also, anyone wanting to add their photos to the Reader Hives gallery or the Sunflowers gallery, please e-mail your photos to: rusty[at]honeybeesuite[dot]come.