Wasps aplenty

A long stretch of freezing weather is the best wasp control. Many of the overwintering queens succumb to the cold, which limits the nest density the following spring.

But after a mild winter such as we had on the Pacific Northwest coast, the queens thrive in vast numbers. This is the worst year I have seen—wasps are everywhere.

At my place, the bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) are especially bad. They cruise six inches off the ground looking for prey, three or four circle every hive, and my garden is black with them.

This time of year the hornets and yellowjackets work in different ways. The ‘jackets scour the ground under the landing board selecting dead bees to take home. But the hornets get right in the traffic flow going to and from the hive. One will shadow a bee in flight, then attack in mid-air. When it succeeds at knocking the bee to the ground, it pounces, and a fight ensues.

The combatants make a distinct buzz, and I can usually find the pair by sound alone. They spin around as they fight, each trying to sting the other. But the hornets are huge and fat compared to the honey bees. It is not a fair fight.

I’ve netted hundred of hornets this year. When I swipe at them, I usually get one hornet and a half-dozen honey bees, then I dispatch the black-and-white and release the bees. Yesterday I was amazed to see a hornet attack a honey bee while they were both in the net—a novel take on the last supper.

A few days ago I was happily netting hornets and flattening them with a stone. (They make a nice crunch, like biting into a kernel of freshly popped corn.) I didn’t realize I was being watched until my husband muttered, “Hell hath no fury like a women scorned.” Hmm. I have to say I was flattered.

Do you remember the nest of aerial yellowjackets (Dolichovespula arenaria) I photographed just after it was destroyed by an unknown assailant? I was relieved for my bees, but within two weeks that nest was completely rebuilt. I photographed the refurbished nest just in time because when I looked again, it was creamed once more—torn to shreds—with even less remaining than the first time.

The devastated nest reminded me that, while it’s not easy being a honey bee, it’s not easy being a wasp either. Churchill had a quip for that: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”


Aerial-yellowjacket nest
This is the repaired nest of aerial yellowjackets about 2 weeks after I discovered it torn apart. The long dangling piece on the right was probably part of the original nest. © Rusty Burlew.
This is an enlargement of the two wasps you can see at the center top of the nest. The nest is high up, so this is the best shot I was able to get.

Packing more than pollen

“If it’s not tied down, just take it.” That seems to be the philosophy of this honey bee photographed by Christopher Wren in northern England. In his TrogTrogBlog, Chris wrote that he was watching his bees working astrantia flowers when he noticed something unusual in this bee’s pollen basket. On closer inspection he discovered the object was a stamen from one of the flowers with the anther glued into the pollen basket and the filament sticking out.

Neither Chris nor I have ever seen something like this. Not only is it unusual, but it’s a great shot. Chris has an amazing collection of photos on his blog, and he is particularly adept with both birds and bees, so be sure to check it out.

Honey bee packing a flower stamen. © Christopher Wren.

Related posts:

Stealing honey: bee-on-bee robbery

Due to hot and dry weather in many areas, beekeepers are already messing with robbers. I’ve heard sad stories from beekeepers whose full honey supers suddenly turned up empty, and others whose smaller colonies were wiped out. This is not unusual, but it can bewilder new beekeepers.

Besides taking the honey, the presence of robbing bees attracts wasp predators, especially yellowjackets and hornets, who dine on all aspects of a beehive: bees, brood, honey, and bee bread. Once they get started, both robbers and wasps are hard to stop, so prevention is key.

Having lost hives to these predators myself, I believe in reducing entrances early—much earlier than seems necessary. If you think of an entrance of a source of ventilation, and keep it wide open, you are more apt to get caught by a robbing frenzy.

Think of an entrance as an entrance for everyone—your bees, other bees, and predators. If you want ventilation, use alternate devices such as a screened bottom board, screened inner cover, screened ventilation ports, or similar. A large entrance is not ventilation—a large entrance is trouble.

Where I live, I reduce the entrances when I remove the honey supers at the end of June. The key to entrance size is to make it commensurate with the size of the colony.

Most standard entrance reducers come with two hole sizes, one about 3/4-inch long, and one a little less than five inches long. I sometimes use the longer opening for large colonies, but I rarely use the 3/4-inch size except for the smallest of colonies. Instead, I like a two-inch opening for most hives during a dearth. You can make them easily out of a piece of 1-by-1. I made a bunch one year with various hole sizes. When it comes times to reduce, I carry the bucket of reducers with me and select a size on a colony-by-colony basis.

Last week I was near my smallest hive when I noticed a commotion on the landing board. When I got closer I was amazed to see this little colony with a much-reduced entrance had taken down a bald-faced hornet. Way to go! They were in a tizzy trying to remove it, with two to three bees pushing and dragging to no avail. (After I shot the photo, I gave them a hand.)

The other thing that works well is a robbing screen. I have some that I bought online, but I think they are too complicated and too expensive. I don’t need all the adjustable entrances and swinging doors, so I’m in the process of making a simpler design which I will share once I’ve tested it. Remember that robbing screens work just as well for yellowjackets and hornets as they do for robbers, so don’t hesitate to use them.

Quick! We’ve got to dump the body! © Rusty Burlew.

Robbing bees: questions and answers

What is robbing?

Robbing is a term used to describe honey bees that are invading another hive and stealing the stored honey. The robbing bees rip open capped cells, fill their honey stomachs, and ferry the goods back home. They will fight the resident bees to get to the stores and many bees may die in the process.

When does robbing occur?

Robbing can occur anytime during the year, but it is most evident in the late summer or early fall, especially during a nectar dearth. Robbing can often be seen in the early spring as well, most frequently before the first major honey flow.

Why does robbing occur?

Honey bees are compulsive hoarders. They will collect nectar or honey from any source they can find, and that includes a poorly guarded or weak hive. Personally, I think “looting” is a better description because, like human looters, they tend to prey on the weak and vulnerable, especially a hive with a problem.

Think of it like this: It is a hot August afternoon. It hasn’t rained in weeks. The flowers are long past their peak and the few that remain are crispy. A gang of bored workers with too much time and not enough to do is hanging out, looking for trouble. Suddenly, one of the gang picks up on a scent . . . sweet! It’s coming from a nearby hive where the beekeeper has spilled some syrup. A few scouts check it out and believe they can overpower the lethargic guard bees lounging in the heat. Within minutes the dancers post directions on CombBook and the siege is on.

How can I recognize robbing?

Sometimes a weak hive will suddenly come to life. You, a new beekeeper, are ecstatic because a hive you thought was dying is now thrumming with activity—bees are everywhere. You think the colony has finally turned itself around. But when you go back the next day, no one is home. The honey frames have been stripped clean, bees lie dead on the ground, and the small colony is decimated.

At other times, the signs are more subtle:

  • Fighting bees tumble and roll—sometimes on the landing board, sometimes in the air.
  • Dead bees lie on the landing board or on the ground in front of the hive.
  • Robbing bees can often be seen examining all the cracks and seams in a hive, even at the back and sides.
  • Robbing bees are often accompanied by wasps that are attracted to the dead bees as well as the honey.
  • Some of the bees in the fray may appear shiny and black. This appearance is created when the bees lose their hair while fighting. Both attackers and defenders may have this appearance.
  • Robbing bees never carry pollen on their legs.
  • Robbing bees often sway from side to side like wasps, waiting for an opportunity to enter the target hive.
  • Pieces of wax comb may appear on the landing board as the robbers rip open new cells.
  • Robbing bees are louder than normal bees.
  • Because robbing bees are loaded down with honey when they leave the target hive, they often crawl up the wall before they fly away and then dip toward the ground as they take off. This may not be immediately obvious, but if you study them for a while, you can see it.

What can I do to prevent robbing?

It is much more effective to anticipate robbing and take preventive measures than to try to stop it once it starts. Here are some strategies that may work—at least some of the time.

  • Reduce entrances at the first sign of a nectar dearth. Bees can successfully defend their hive if they have a large enough population and a small enough entrance.
  • Many beekeepers have observed that Italian bees rob more often than other sub-species. If you keep Italians, you should be more vigilant.
  • It appears that queenless hives are more vulnerable to robbing than queenright hives. Make sure all your hives are queenright as robbing season approaches.
  • Entrance feeders seem to promote robbing more than other feeders, probably because the food source is so near the hive opening. Use some other type of feeder during nectar dearths.
  • Small or weak hives are particularly vulnerable. Consider combining such hives before a nectar dearth.
  • Commercial robbing screens are highly effective devices that allow the resident bees to get in and out while discouraging the robbers. These can be especially valuable for use on weaker hives that you do not want to combine.

What can I do to stop it?

Once it starts, stopping a robbing frenzy is not easy.

  • Smoking will not stop robbing, but it will give you a reprieve while you close up the hive. Get the smoker going and set it next to the hive while you work.
  • Reduce entrances to a very small opening. Some beekeepers stuff grass in the entrance—a technique that keeps out the robbers but allows some airflow.
  • If robbing is really intense, you can simply close up the hive opening with hardware cloth or screen in a size the bees cannot get through (#8 or #10 work well). Close up the hive completely for several days until the robbers give up. If necessary, be sure to provide feed, pollen, water, and ventilation for the confined colony.
  • A water-saturated towel thrown over the hive confuses the robbers but allows the hive residents to come and go from underneath the towel. Evaporation from the towel keeps the hive cool.
  • Install a robbing screen. This device re-routes the hive residents through an alternative entrance while the robbing bees, following the scent from the hive, continue to butt into the screen.
  • Some beekeepers spread a commercial product such as Vicks Vaporub at the entrance to the colony. This product contains strong-smelling compounds such as camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol that mask the hive odor and confuse the robber bees.
  • Some beekeepers recommend removing the lids from all the hives in the apiary. The theory is that the bees become so busy defending their own hives that they stop robbing other hives. However, if the robber bees are coming from somewhere other than your own apiary, it won’t work. Also, it will do nothing to stop wasps and other predators from entering your hives at will. This is not a good strategy for an inexperienced beekeeper.


Wool carder bee: a military prototype

Male wool carder bees remind me of ancient warriors. I can just imagine some military commander of yore seeing this flamboyant bee and exclaiming, “Yo! We need uniforms like that!”

From that day forth we had men wearing suits of armor equipped with knives and daggers, face plates designed to protect and intimidate, stripes to signify rank, gold cords attesting to wealth and superiority, and—best of all—fringe dangling from arms and legs. Heck, even American cowboys wore fringe.

These bees definitely live up to their looks, aggressively protecting the territory they stake out for their women. The bee in the photo was just waking up from a long and damp sleep in the lemon balm, but by the time I had captured a few photos, he was up and working. He spent the rest of the day circling that lemon balm, head-butting into bumble bees, honey bees, flies, wasps, butterflies and all other intruders that dared to come near his patch.

As aggressive as they are, I never tire of watching them. This particular bee was one of the first in my area. I saw him mate once, but so far not many females have appeared. Normally, I see wool carders in August, so their time is approaching.


A wool carder bee showing off his fringe-bedecked legs. © Rusty Burlew.
A wool carder bee showing off his fringe-bedecked legs. © Rusty Burlew.
The male wool carder has a yellow face and white beard. © Rusty Burlew.
The male wool carder has a yellow face and white beard. © Rusty Burlew.
These bees have spines for attacking intruders and gold fringe along the abdomen. © Rusty Burlew.
These bees have three spines for attacking intruders and gold fringe along the abdomen. © Rusty Burlew.

Preparing for patrol duty. © Rusty Burlew.
Preparing for patrol duty. © Rusty Burlew.

Why do my hives smell like meat?

Last week I wrote that my hives smelled like meat. This created something of a stir. Some folks wanted to know why while others wrote to tell me my hives were dead or dying. Others were confused . . . or thought I was.

For many people, odors are strongly correlated with specific memories. Often, just a hint of an odor reminds us of a place or time—or even an emotion—we experienced when we first smelled something new.

The butcher shop smell that is firmly planted in my mind originated during my Pennsylvania childhood. I was frequently sent to the local IGA to pick up a cut of meat. My grandmother would sometimes phone in her order, or sometimes write it on the outside of a brown paper sack, and then send me to fetch it.

The butcher had a place in the back of the store that always smelled the same. I would stand on tip-toes so I could watch the man in a white blood-spattered apron wrap the meat in paper, tie it with string, and use a black crayon to scribble a price on the small parcel. Then I carried it to the checkout girl who wrote the price in a notebook and sent me off with a small piece of hard candy.

Oddly enough, my husband knows the butcher shop smell too. He remembers it from an IGA butcher in Quebec where his family purchased meat long ago. He doesn’t associate the larval smell with the butcher smell like I do, but he says it’s close. “If a meat counter smelled like that today,” he says, “the health department would shut ‘em down.”

His theory about the smell is that it came from the blood-soaked wooden butcher blocks and planked wooden floors that were common in those days. The surfaces, floors, and utensils were kept as clean as possible, but nevertheless, the wood soaked up the “juices” and retained the unique butcher shop aroma.

It wasn’t a bad odor—not like something rotten—but just the residual smell that accumulated from years of dressed carcasses. I’m told that wood has its own antibacterial properties, so maybe that’s why we’re still here today. Who knows?

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve eaten red meat, but when I’m near a brood-producing hive, the odor puts me right back in that IGA. My theory is that meat is high in protein. Larvae is also high in protein. And basically, protein is protein. Bears, raccoons, birds, skunks and many other hungry predators will risk hordes of angry stingers in hopes of scoring a high-protein snack. Heck, even humans eat fried bee larvae (I hear it’s good with beer).

In the spring when brood production is high, thousands of uncapped cells are laden with larvae—packages of meat arranged in cute little cubicles. While the adult bees fan the hive to keep it cool and dehydrate the honey, the scent of proteinaceous larvae is fanned from the hive as well . . . and that is why my hives smell like meat.

A honey bee hive is a complex place, and it doesn’t surprise me that different people smell different things. I believe that “hive smell” is a mix of honey, wax, propolis, woodenware, adult bees, and brood, and I believe that individuals have varying degrees of sensitivity to each of the components.

It also changes with the season. In the fall, when little brood is being raised, I’m much more likely to smell the honey. On really hot days, I’m more apt to smell the beeswax. Even though I recognize all the different odors as belonging to a beehive, I can definitely smell the season.