Bees in the buckwheat

Here is something I would do if I could. Bees in a field of buckwheat seems too good to be true. The source of my all-time favorite honey, Fagopyrum esculentum, just doesn’t want to grow in my shady forest apiary. Believe me, I’ve tried. So I have to be content looking at a photo like this and dreaming about the molasses taste of buckwheat honey. Sigh.

Thank you, Wayne, for the photo, even if it makes me wistful.

Beehives in a flush of buckwheat flowers. Photo and hives © Wayne Gillispie.

Don’t roll your queens

Queens can get rolled when the beekeeper lifts a frame containing the queen or lifts a frame adjacent to one with the queen. In the tight space between frames, the bees become bunched together or pressed against the comb or frame. If a queen becomes caught in a tight space or within a mass of bees, round and round she goes as the frame is lifted. She may be damaged or killed outright.

A rolled queen is always a sad event, but it’s worse in late fall. In the fall, the frames are likely to be heavy with honey, and a thick layer of honeycomb is often built in an arc right above the brood. Adjacent frames may grow together along the top, or nearly so. If a beekeeper is not careful, he can roll the queen against these thick layers and destroy her.

Also, by fall, there is apt to be a build-up of burr comb and propolis inside the hive. It can be frustrating to loosen frames that are glued together and a beekeeper may impatiently make a wrong move. For new beekeepers, especially, this can be frustrating: the frames were easy to manipulate when they were new, now everything is stuck to everything else. How annoying.

Along with the increased likelihood of rolling a queen comes the decreased likelihood of finding a replacement. As each week gets colder, it gets harder to find queens, more difficult to ship them, and trickier to install them, so extra care should taken during every fall inspection.

The most common advice is also the best: remove an end frame first. The end frames are often the easiest to remove, frequently contain less honey, and are least likely to contain the queen. Once the first frame is removed, you can safely slide the next frame into the empty space and lift it without rubbing against the others.

Note that I said “least likely to contain the queen,” not “never contains the queen.” Queens are free spirits, and occasionally you will find her where you least expect her. So go easy and take your time, even on the very first frame.


Robber flies grab bees in flight

Both of these photos arrived this week with the same question, “What is eating my bees?” The top photo, taken by beekeeper Wayne Gillispie, came from northeastern Kentucky. The second, by beekeeper Roger Taylor, came from Gallatin, Tennessee. Each predator has a honey bee in its jaws.

These creepy-looking bugs are in the family Asilidae and are commonly known as robber flies or assassin flies. Based on the photos, it might seem like they have a predilection for honey bees but, actually, just about any insect will do for a midday snack.

The family is huge, comprising about 7000 species, and they all eat insects. Many of them enjoy meals that are large and feisty, so they will go after dragonflies, wasps, bees, grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, and beetles. Most have spiny legs that aid in capturing prey in the air and holding it still.

Once an insect is captured, the fly stabs it with its proboscis and injects paralyzing enzymes. In time, the enzymes digest the insides of the prey and the robber fly sucks it out, like coconut milk through a straw . . . or a protein-fortified smoothie.

Robber flies occur nearly everywhere, but more species are found in places that are open, warm, and sunny. They are only incidental predators on honey bees and nothing for a beekeeper to worry about. Just keep taking those cool photos.


A robber fly in northeastern Kentucky. Photo © Wayne Gillispie.
A robber fly in Gallatin, Tennessee. Photo © Roger Taylor.

The sign of the sting

Since we’ve been talking about wasps, I want to show you a couple of cool photos taken by Bill Reynolds of Minnesota. He writes:

The yellowjacket hornets have been behaving themselves and doing a good job cleaning up the dead bees in front of the hives. Every once in awhile I will find a dead yellowjacket amongst the dead bees. I recently took a closer look at the hornet and found a honey bee sting had dispatched the wasp.

This required excellent powers of observation. I’m quite impressed that Bill found the stinger . . . or that he even looked. I suppose it goes with being a good photographer, but in any case, I love the photos. Very instructive! Too bad the bee had to die too.

A honey bee stinger. © Bill Reynolds.
A honey bee stinger. © Bill Reynolds.
A honey bee stinger embedded in a yellowjacket. © Bill Reynolds.
A honey bee stinger embedded in a yellowjacket. © Bill Reynolds.

Italian mob takes down a wasp

Photo © Craig Scott.
Photo © Craig Scott.

Although I can’t actually see the victim, I’m taking the photographer’s word on it: inside this marauding ball of bees is a bald-faced hornet, Dolichovespula maculata.

Sometimes timing is everything, and I was just lining up a little pile of bald-faced bodies here in Washington when this photo arrived from Craig Scott in Delaware. Craig says:

We’ve seen a few bald-faced hornets flying off with bees recently but this one ran into the Italian mob. Took about a half hour, but in the end the wasp lost. Not sure if they stung her to death or used the heat treatment. No bees died from what we could see.

The ones on my patio where killed by me—not my bees. After a number of years with very few bald-faced hornets, I see them everywhere this year. Conversely, I see almost no regular yellowjackets. I’ve spent several years going after yellowjacket queens, and since nature abhors a vacuum, the bald-faced hornets have returned with a vengeance.

What do these wasps mean to a beekeeper? Like other wasps, bald-faced hornets feed insects to their young. They prefer live prey and will often snatch it right out of the air. Honey bees are delicious (apparently) and bald-faced hornets are often seen circling the hives, waiting for an opportunity.

Some years ago I witnessed a honey bee hive that was being routed by yellowjackets. Below the hive, a hoard of bald-faced hornets picked off struggling bees and wasps that were tussling on the ground. Although I don’t consider the bald-faced hornet to be a big threat to a hive, a determined wasp will certainly take as many bees as it can get. However, as you can see above, a healthy honey bee colony can defend itself. Once the bees get angry, watch out.

Bald-faced hornets are not really hornets but a species of yellowjacket. They are seldom called yellowjackets because they are not yellow, so they are known by various names including white-faced hornet, white-tailed hornet, or blackjacket—none of which are particularly apt since they are not hornets and a blackjacket is an entirely different species (Vespula consobrina).

Their life cycle is very similar to other yellowjackets and to bumble bees. Queens and drones emerge in late fall, mate, and the queen overwinters in a protected place. Come spring, the female begins a nest, cares for the first batch of workers, and then stays in the nest to lay more eggs while the workers mind the nursery, forage, and defend. Except for new queens, the colony dies off as winter weather arrives.

The nests, constructed in trees and bushes, are often described as football shaped (that would be an American football). The wasps chew wood fibers to make a pulp for nest building, and they forage for nectar and live insects to feed the young. Colonies range from 100 to about 650 individuals, with an average of about 400.

Thanks, Craig, for exposing the mob.


Bald-faced hornets at nest entrance. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Bald-faced hornets at nest entrance. Wikimedia Commons photo.