Her bees are so refined

Earlier this week, beekeeper Debbe Krape of Delaware was called upon to make an unusual bee rescue. The colony, shown below, was building its new home at the Sunoco Refinery in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. On Monday, Debbe sent me a short message along with the photos:

We were able to cut the leaves of wax off and bring them home. Holding the leaves in frames with rubber bands. Lots of brood. Saw the queen and got her, too. All going in a hive now.

The next day, she followed up with an account of the entire event:

“The installation process went a little differently than we had planned, but then, in our experience, nothing with bees goes exactly as planned. So to follow up…

We had slipped the leaves of wax into a cardboard box that had dowels poked through from side to side creating six slots to support the leaves vertically to bring them home. It turned out to be too hot and the wax too soft to stand much handling once we got home, so frames and rubber bands were out.

Lifting the leaves was an issue, too. Kitchen tongs, 2 pairs at a time, using very little pressure worked well and were more gentle than clumsy fingers. Hard to sting tongs.

[The] next OMG-what-do-we-do-now alternative to hold the leaves in the hive was an antique silver toast holder, the kind with wide slots and a little handle. The plan at that point had been to stand the leaves in the holder and set it in the middle of the hive box, adding frames with foundation on either side. That worked for the smaller leaves, but the larger ones were too soft and heavy and they began to flop over, so we resorted to carefully standing the larger leaves which are full of capped brood and honey between the frames with foundation, using the frames to give gentle vertical support. However, the antique toast holder is still down in the hive. Too disruptive to take it out at that point.

I have no idea what the bees will make of all of that or what they will do with it. I will say that they were extremely good-natured throughout the whole ordeal—confused certainly, with lots of swirling in the air during our make-it-up-as-you-go installation, but never angry. No stings. Hope they make it.

It was fun having the audience of refinery workers standing around watching us, clearly amazed at our seeming bravery. Getting into the refinery was in itself very interesting, requiring a lot of security, IDs, tags, badges, escorts, etc. The funniest part though was that trucks without names or logos are not permitted on the premises. I drive a big red Chevy Express passenger van with no company name or logo (obviously), but I do have a “Catch the Buzz. Keep Bees” bumper sticker on the back, so our company/truck’s name on record for security purposes is “Catch the Buzz.”

Bee rescues have taken us from a multi-million dollar mansion to an oil refinery in 2 weeks. [It's] amazing where beekeeping can take you.

Less than 24 hrs later, a peek at our refinery bees reveals they are already drawing wax on the foundation frames. We’re hoping the brood in the leaves we brought home—and there was a lot of capped brood—survive and hatch out.

Kitchen tongues and antique silver toast holders make me think of breakfast at Tiffany’s more than bee rescue at a fuel refinery . . . but you never know what to expect with bees. Next time I’ll let Debbe fill you in on the multi-million dollar mansion.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Editor’s Note: Debbe is the beekeeper responsible for one of the most popular bee photos on the web. If you haven’t seen it, but sure to take a look.

Refinery bees. © Debbe Krape.
Refinery bees. © Debbe Krape.
Highly refined white wax. © Debbe Krape.
Highly refined white wax. © Debbe Krape.

How to recognize a nectar dearth

“How can I recognize a nectar death?” is a common newbee question and a hard one to answer. I think most experienced beekeepers know which plants are in flower in any season, which bloom follows another, and how long each lasts. They are attuned to variations in the weather from year to year, and they know if things are early or late.

Here in the coastal Pacific Northwest, we can expect the summer dearth to follow the blackberry bloom—an event that coincides with the beginning of the dry season. But if you dropped me in the middle of Texas, Alberta, or Kentucky tomorrow afternoon, I wouldn’t know the plants, the weather patterns, or the rhythm of the seasons.

Also “dearth” will mean different things, depending on where you live. The dictionary defines dearth as “a scarcity or lack of something”—a definition with some wiggle room. A nectar dearth in some areas means there is a lot less forage than before; in other areas, it means nearly a complete absence of nectar. Again, the local people know what they mean, but it is hard for a complete stranger (or neophyte) to understand.

But no matter how you define dearth, the bees know the real status of the nectar flow. Honey bees behave in distinctly different ways when nectar shortages occur, so that is the surest way to recognize a dearth. No doubt, different beekeepers will notice different behavior changes, and not all bees in all places will behave the same. Nevertheless, below is a list of behaviors I have noticed over a number of years. Just remember that your list may be different.

  • You will often see honey bees on flowers they normally avoid. Not just honey bees but others, such as bumble bees, are suddenly trying new foods—eating their spinach, so to speak.
  • Bees will sometimes re-sample flowers. That is, they go back to a flower they already tried once and try it again. This is rarely seen during a good flow.
  • Robbing and fighting may occur. You may see a tussle on your alighting board or dead bees on the ground in front of the hive.
  • Dumpster diving. Yesterday I harvested Ross Rounds, and I left the wet supers outside on the picnic table for a few minutes. The minutes quickly turned into an hour and when I returned, I discovered the supers hidden by a brown and pulsating mass of bodies.
  • Bees alight in odd places. This morning I saw some on the side of the house, one crawling up my water bottle, a few loitering in the bed of the truck. Bees with no place to forage can’t complete their main mission. They may act displaced, bored, or bee-wildered.
  • Similarly, bees will investigate promising smells. They may check out your bee suit, your hive tool, or you—especially if you use scented products. They check out anything that may contain a drop of nectar, even the odor of barbecue sauce.
  • Flying low. During a dearth, my bees often dash, dart, swoop, and dive around the yard. They perform close-up fly-bys—not aggressively, but curiously. They are loud because they are close, inspecting and hunting. During a nectar flow, the bees usually fly out of the hive and then up. They know where they are going and what to do. Bees in a dearth mill around, looking for a place to go and something to do.
  • For the reasons above, my bees become visible from the house. During a nectar flow, I never see my bees from the house because of their foraging patterns. But during a dearth, I can often see them fly by when I look out the windows or open a door.

How about you? Have you noticed something different that warns you of a nectar dearth? If so, please let us know.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Honey-bee-end-of-season
Honey bee taking advantage of the last of the blackberries. © Rusty Burlew.

Dropping in for a visit

This morning I hiked into the Capitol Forest to photograph bees. I found a few, but nothing I didn’t expect. Several species of Bombus and one species of Melissodes frolicked in the bull thistles; a few honey bees sampled the cat’s-ear.

I was heading home along an old logging road that is steep and graveled—marbles on a sliding board—when suddenly my feet flew out from under me. Instead of trying to catch myself, I instinctively cradled my camera in my arms and let my body land where it would, which happened to be on my tailbone. Damn, that hurt.

It’s funny how we are: cameras and lenses are easily replaced, tailbones not so much. Yet we have an instinct to preserve stuff over health, which I will never understand. It must be bred in the bone, as they say.

Anyway, I sat there for a minute assessing the damage when I noticed holes all around me. It seems I had landed in a bee community. I was awestruck: I have walked those roads hundreds of times looking for bee tunnels, and I have never seen a single one. And now, quite by accident, I had dropped into the center of town.

Since both my camera and my backside were all of a piece, I began to photograph the holes. After a while I got worried that maybe I was wrong: maybe the cute little tunnels belonged to ants or something equally unsavory. Curious, I peeked into one of the holes. Someone peeked back.

Moments later a small bee landed near me. I haven’t yet verified her identity, but I believe she was a species of Andrena. She was about a half-inch long with a shiny dark green tint—one of those high-end paint jobs where you can see your reflection. She was upset at my visit (I think I crushed some entryways) and she began digging furiously. Occasionally, she fell backwards down the sloped surface, then she would right herself, run back up, and dig some more. When I finally left the little community, she was still hard at work and covered with dirt from stem to stern.

For some reason, my bee (mis)adventures always go this way. When I’m looking for bees I never find them, but when I’m not paying attention, there they are.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Perfect little entrance holes leading to bee tunnels. © Rusty Burlew.
Perfect little entrance holes leading to bee tunnels. © Rusty Burlew.
Someone peeking at the peeker. © Rusty Burlew.
Someone peeking at the peeker. © Rusty Burlew.
The bee begins to rebuild her entryway. © Rusty Burlew.
The bee begins to rebuild her entryway. © Rusty Burlew.
Even though this bee is covered in dirt, you can still see my reflection in every segment of her shiny abdomen. © Rusty Burlew.
Even though this bee is covered in dirt, you can still see my reflection in every segment of her shiny abdomen. © Rusty Burlew.

Bees on Eryngium

The photo below came from Trent Amonett of Pullman, Washington. He writes:

I took the attached photo this last weekend. We’re in the dearth here in Pullman, and my bees are visiting food sources in my yard, which they normally don’t do. The thistle is a perennial that came with the house. I came close to pulling it the first spring after we moved in until it turned a pretty silvery blue and I realized it wasn’t a weed. Anyway, I like the photo a lot, and everyone I’ve shown it to so far has been more interested in the thistles when to me it’s about the bees.

Update: Thanks to all the folks who correctly identified this plant as Sea Holly, Eryngium planum.

Honey bees on thistle. © Trent B. Amonett.
Honey bees on thistle. © Trent B. Amonett.