A delicious meal of wasp larvae

Last winter was mild here in western Washington, so I predicted a surge in yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets this summer. Sure enough, they are everywhere and I’m bracing for battle. Come autumn, when the wasps are looking for a treat, the honey bee colonies will be prime targets.

Like bumble bee queens, mated yellowjacket and hornet queens find a protected place to overwinter. In a normal year, many don’t make it till spring due to the cold and wet weather. But when the winters are especially mild, the number of surviving queens spikes and wasps appear everywhere.

Last week my dog was barking like an idiot and he wouldn’t come to me, so I began thrashing through the understory myself to discover the problem. I found him with his forepaws on a tree, barking into the leaves. When I looked up into the tree, I was amazed to see a huge yellowjacket nest.

The nest was light gray and egg-shaped, wider at the top, and yellowjackets were walking all over the outside surface. Unfortunately, it was right in the heart of my apiary, about equidistant from all three of my hive stands, and about thirty feet from the ground.

I wanted to get a photo but there were too many leaves for a clear shot. My husband said he would help me trim back some branches later in the week, so I collected the dog and left the ‘jackets alone.

By the time we went back to cut the branches, the nest had been attacked and about half of it was completely gone. Shreds of the gray outer covering where hanging in the lower branches and the wasps were in a frenzy.

In retrospect, I think the dog was barking at whatever was trying to get the wasps. At the time I was perplexed because I didn’t think he would bark at a wasp nest. But something else wanted that nest—a raccoon is my guess—and that was the creature my dog objected to. I hadn’t seen anything else up there, but once I saw the nest I stopped looking for other things, so I could have easily missed it.

In the following days I saw many yellowjackets collecting wood fibers. Normally, I only see them harvest fibers in the early spring, but I suspect that in an emergency—such as when someone trashes your home—it is necessary to rebuild. They love weathered unpainted wood, and I often discover them by the sound they make, a scratching or scritching noise as they scrape the wood with their mouthparts. They chew the wood into a paste-like substance which they use to build the nest covering.

I don’t know what will happen to the damaged nest but I suspect that if the queen survived, the colony will repair the nest. I can’t get close enough to the nest to be certain of the species, but I believe it belongs to the common aerial yellowjacket, Dolichovespula arenaria.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Yellowjacket-nest
I didn’t get a “before” shot, but you can estimate the nest’s original size from this “after” photo.The nest had been completely enclosed with a small entrance hole in the center bottom. © Rusty Burlew.

 

Stung from behind

I just got stung three times on the butt. How is that possible? How can you face your bees and get attacked from the rear?

Well, it has to do with my favorite pants. My brown and grungy cargo pants are perfect for working around the yard. I fill the pockets with screwdrivers, trowels, hive tools, and duct tape and I’m good to go for hours. Trouble is, they are wearing out. Several thin spots (aka holes) have developed at the knees and where I sit. I tend to forget about the ones in back simply because I can’t see them.

A nectar dearth is coming

Since October I’ve been working my bees without any protective clothing at all. Winter and spring bees, swarming bees, and bees high on early nectar are docile and forgiving—gentle as snuggly kittens.

But the times they are achanging. It’s hot and dry. The blackberry flowers are withering. The clover is crispy. The dandelions are turning gray. All of which means the honey bees are testy and restless.

All I wanted to do today was give my smallest colony—the third and final swarm to arrive from elsewhere—an upper entrance. It was a 30-second job, but at least I had the good sense to wear the top half of my bee suit.

What I thought was a struggling little cluster turned out to be a boiling cauldron of pent-up hormones. Once I removed the gabled roof, six-legged fighter pilots went airborne. The ground force oozed thickly over the side of the brood box. I watched transfixed, amazed at how fast this tiny swarm had multiplied.

It was right then that someone discovered the left side thin spot. Yowee! I grabbed my a . . . um . . . my seat with my left hand and squeezed the fabric, partly to relieve the pain and partly to cover the thin patch. I was saying unkind things to no one in particular when someone else found the right side. Jeese um! I grabbed the right side with my other hand.

I stood there, arms braced in a not-so-feminine posture and wondered, “How does this work? How can I finish the job without letting go?” Alarm pheromone wafted from each sting and I knew there would be hell to pay if I wasn’t careful. I backed up a few feet. And then some more.

General pandemonium

By now the air was thick with bees and my dog was launching himself, biting and snapping. The neighbor’s horse clicked stones as it hurried away. The cats left. This was not good. I had to replace the lid.

When the pain began to recede, I let go of my nether regions, snatched up the roof, and dropped it in place. Just as I did, number three voted with her sister, also on the left.

I ran into the garage because bees dislike dark places, and wiggled around until dead bees dropped from the legs of my pants. I counted five, so maybe there were more stings, but I didn’t care enough to look. I kept thinking: all that pain and no upper entrance.

Well, there’s always next time . . . beekeeping is full of next times.

Epilogue

At one point last year, I decided never to write about stings again—a vow made because one reader has chided me about having so many bees in my clothes. But I do get lots of bees in my clothes, and I like to write about stings, partly because it makes me feel better—sort of like getting a purple bandage from the school nurse—and partly because so many beekeepers put on a pretense about stings. It seems that getting stung is so “uncool” that it’s better to lie than admit it happens or that it hurts like hell.

So next time you see a beekeeper all red and splotchy with one eye swollen shut and a pinky finger the size of a sausage, mark my words: it has nothing to do with bees.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

How the honey bee makes pollen pellets

A honey bee has three sets of legs, and each set is different. The last two legs—the hindlegs—are designed to compress and carry the pollen pellets that are characteristic of honey bees and bumble bees.

We’ve all seen those hard round nuggets in various colors and sizes, but did you ever wonder how the bees pack the pollen into a ball? Well, the secret tool is called a pollen press. The pollen press is actually made of two flat plates that are hinged together. One plate is on the distal end of the tibia, while the other is on an adjacent segment called the basitarsus.

If you lined all the leg parts end to end, starting at the thorax you would see:

coxa→trochanter→femur→tibia→tarsus→pretarsus

However, the tarsus is further divided into several sub-segments: the basitarsus and four small tarsomeres.

What I have shown below is the joint between the tibia and the basitarsus, because that joint is the pollen press.

When the joint is bent, the plates pull apart and the bee stuffs the opening with pollen that she collects from her body. First, she uses all six legs to scrape the pollen into one place: the inside of the hindleg basitarsus. Then she combs it off the basitarsus with stiff bristles on the edge of the pollen press called a pollen rake. She cleans the left with the right and the right with the left, until the open press is full of pollen.

When she straightens her leg, the plates close against the pollen and force it up into the pollen basket. It’s like a tube of toothpaste: when you squeeze the two sides together, the paste comes out the top. Here, when the two plates are squeezed together, the pollen is forced up into the pollen basket. Although it may seem backward, the pollen basket is actually filled from the bottom.

Every time the bee grooms the pollen from her body, she works the pollen down to the inside of the basitarsus of the rear legs and then into the press before she gives it another squeeze. Is that cool or what?

The leg part shown below was taken from a dead honey bee I found in my driveway. She had one of those cards that said, in case of her death, she was leaving her body to science. RIP.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Inside-of-hindleg
The inside of a hindleg. When the joint is open, the pollen press can be filled by raking the pollen off the opposite leg. © Rusty Burlew.
Outside-of-hindleg
The outside of a hindleg. You can see the indentation where the compressed pollen will accumulate, called a tibial corbicula or “pollen basket.” © Rusty Burlew.

Plays well with others, not

When Honey Bee Suite was only a few months old, several of my friends told me the site was too “text heavy” and needed more photos. At the time, I was extremely discouraged by this news. After all, I began a blog because I wanted to write, not because I wanted to take pictures.

Nevertheless, I began working on it and slowly accumulated a photo library. Capturing good bee portraits is not easy, but I found that the harder I worked the luckier I got. Since those early days, photography has become one of my favorite parts of blogging and I spend many hours in pursuit of the perfect bee photo.

“I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it”
― Thomas Jefferson

The photo below, while not perfect, is the result of one of those rare moments when everything comes together. The little green berry bee was on a blackberry and I was trying to get her in focus, end to end. As I depressed the shutter button, a kamikaze-style bumble bee came out of the sky and rammed the berry bee. In an instant everyone was gone. Discouraged, I went looking for another berry bee.

Traumatic bee battles happen all the time. While I’ve spent many days among the flowers, I’ve noticed big bees attack little ones, and vice versa. I’ve seen honey bees attack natives, and vice versa. Even bees of the same species chase each other away. These encounters nearly always leave the flower empty, so it’s not so much the attacking bee wants that particular flower as much as it wants the other bee to leave. They seem to have the “I don’t want it, but you can’t have it” mindset.

When I was done shooting for the day, I went inside to look over my photos. It was then that I discovered this photo. Somehow, the attack happened at the very instant I pressed the button, and somehow everyone is more or less in focus. Serendipity at its best.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Bumble bee and berry bee share a flower.
The berry bee, Osmia aglaia, was minding its own business when the bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii, dove in for the attack. The gray pollen is characteristic of blackberry flowers. © Rusty Burlew.

Xylem sap for honey bees

A discussion of water sources for bees would not be complete without a mention of guttation. Drops of liquid that you see along the edges of a leaf—or sometimes at the very tip—are actually drops of xylem sap. The process that delivered the sap to the leaf margins is called guttation.

Drops of xylem sap

The roots of plants take up water from the soil. While they soak up the water, they also take up salts, minerals, fertilizer, and pesticides. As the osmotic pressure in the roots increases, it pushes the sap upwards throughout the plant, preventing the plant from wilting during the night.

The excess sap is exuded through pores and can be seen as little droplets.The pores where the xylem sap oozes out are called hydathodes. Unlike leaf stomata, which are open only during the day, hydathodes are open all day and all night. Because the xylem sap contains many different materials, deposits of dry matter are often left behind when the water evaporates from the leaf.

Not all plants produce guttation drops. The phenomenon is restricted to herbaceous plants and some vines. Trees and other woody plants are too big for the osmotic root pressure to push liquid throughout the plant.

Not transpiration, not dew

Guttation should not be confused with transpiration or dew. During the day, a plant loses moisture through the stomata in a process called transpiration. Transpiration, which occurs in all terrestrial plants, helps to keep the plant cool, whereas guttation does not. And unlike guttation, the water from transpiration escapes in the form of vapor—not liquid—and it is pure.

Guttation droplets are easily distinguished from dew by their location. Guttation occurs only at the hydathodes at leaf tips or margins, but dew condenses anywhere on the surface of a leaf. Guttation drops form a regular pattern, whereas dewdrops do not.

Guttation and bees

On dry days, bees of many species can be seen drinking guttation droplets. Unfortunately, some research has shown that bees drinking the xylem sap of plants treated with systemic insecticides can be poisoned by the liquid. Guttation occurs in many grass-family plants, including maize and other grains that are commonly treated with systemic insecticides.

This morning, during a quick inspection, I found a number of plants with guttation drops in my garden, including grape, lemon balm, lamb’s ear, tomato, and nasturtium. My bees seem to like the lamb’s ear the best, and I often see them crawling along the leaf margins, lapping up the minerally (and pesticide-free) water.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Guttation-drops-on-lamb's-ear
Guttation drops along the perimeter of a lamb’s ear leaf. © Rusty Burlew.
Guttation-on-a-grape-leaf
Guttation oozing from a grape leaf. © Rusty Burlew.
Guttation-on-lamb's-ear
This morning, all the lamb’s ear leaves were edged with pearls. © Rusty Burlew.
Guttation-on-lemon-balm
Leaves of lemon balm decorated with guttation drops. © Rusty Burlew.