Dead bees rising

Honey bees always surprise me. Two weeks ago, after my swarm in a tree moved into a bait hive, I noticed a grapefruit-size cluster beneath the hive stand. The vast majority of the swarm had gone inside, but this one ball of bees was hanging from the screened bottom board.

It was hard to get to, but I crawled under the stand and brushed them off the screen, hoping they would enter the hive. But instead, they flew around a bit and re-clustered in the same spot. Other things needed my attention, so I left them.

That night was cold, just above freezing. The next morning, I went to see if they had gone inside, but they were dead. The whole grapefruit had fallen from the screen and lay asplat on the ground beneath the hive stand. I was annoyed no end I hadn’t done more to help them.

With my hive tool, I scraped the pile out from under the stand and pulled it apart with my fingers. I was worried that the queen might be there. I thought it unlikely, but I sorted through the bodies anyway. The ball comprised mostly workers, although about forty percent of it was drones. Spread out in the grass, it was a big pile, but I saw no queen.

I walked away thinking I should probably clean up the mess. Maybe later. The sky was clear, and in a couple of hours the sun chased away the cold.

Armed with a feeder, I went back to the hive and nearly freaked. My dead bees were crawling in the grass! Some were leaving the pile and flying in great arcs, some were fanning and stretching. Nearly every last one of the dead bees was reincarnated as a live bee. I watched, mesmerized, until they disappeared into their hive.

Obviously, what I thought were dead bees were just cold bees. The cluster wasn’t large enough to keep itself warm, so the bees became chilled and immobile. When they could no longer grasp the screened bottom, they fell to the ground. Their apparently lifeless state was ultimately cured by the sunshine.

What bothered me most, though, was something else. Upon seeing the resurrection, I immediately recalled a hive that I had cleaned out about three weeks earlier. Bees that had been alive the day before died on an exceptionally cold night. It was a small colony, but it still had plenty of food. Nevertheless, when I saw the dead bees, I immediately cleaned out the hive and tossed everything.

Now I keep wondering, should I have waited? Should I have let them warm up before I tossed them? I will never know, but it is certainly a lesson for the future.


Pollinators on the night shift

Nocturnal pollination is something I seldom think about, but this fascinating article by Paul Manning at Poky Ecology describes a host of nighttime pollinators in lowbush blueberry. Really, I had no idea how busy a berry bush in the dark could be.

In a series of experiments, researchers found that as much as one-third of the lowbush blueberry crop may have been pollinated by nocturnal visitors, a population that does not include bees. The research provides another indicator that bees—and particularly honey bees—get credit for a lot of work done by others.

The post also details some of the limitations of honey bees as pollinators, one of my favorite subjects. Since honey bees do not like cold, fog, mist, overcast, wind, or darkness, they are often holed up watching re-runs while everyone else is out working. Still, honey bees remain the darlings of modern agriculture. I often think they have us fooled.

In his post Paul asks, “How can agricultural systems be optimally managed, if we don’t even know the entirety of species acting as pollinators?” My question is similar: If application rates for pesticides are set by using the honey bee as the test insect, how do we know the effects of these chemicals on other insects? In fact, we don’t.

This blog post is well worth a read, and it may very well give you a new perspective on crop pollination  . . . and creatures of the night.


Blueberries: who is responsible?


Taranov split in photos

Since I’ve written many posts about Taranov splits, I’m not going to belabor the whys and hows. Still, I’m always amazed that it works so well. For me, it is the best way to split into non-compatible equipment. In this case, I was splitting a top-bar hive into a Langstroth.

I had thought this hive wasn’t very strong until I was working in the garden and heard the distant hum of a hive preparing to swarm. I checked all my other hives first, found nothing, and then checked the top-bar hive. Sure enough, the bees were restless and darting. Luckily, it started to rain, but I knew I would have to split as soon as the sun reappeared.

If you want more specific information on how to do a Taranov split, I’ve listed some prior posts at the end of this one.


I keep changing the fabric I use to hold the swarm. This was an old terrycloth towel that I cut and stapled to the underside of the ramp. It worked well, but I should have used more staples. Quite a few bees got between the board and the fabric. © Rusty Burlew.
I measure the divide between ramp and landing board to four inches. In this photo the hive opening is stuffed with rags to keep them inside—they were itching to swarm. © Rusty Burlew.
Now I tape the sheet onto the board and add staples. Tape alone has come loose and staples alone have ripped the fabric, so now I use both. © Rusty Burlew.
I shook each top-bar over the sheet, but if they had swarm cells, I used a brush. Unfortunately, I didn’t always see all the swarm cells under the bees. Here there are two cells on one side and one on the other. © Rusty Burlew.
I use two picnic benches set parallel to each other as a hanging rack. I pull one bar at a time, shake it, then hang it. © Rusty Burlew.
I found sixteen capped swarm cells, and two uncapped. I cut some of the cells off to add to the new split, since I don’t know where the queen went. © Rusty Burlew.
Before I was done shaking frames, the bees were already marching up the ramp. © Rusty Burlew.
I took this photo just after shaking the last frame. © Rusty Burlew.
I had the sheet to one side of the hive and the benches on the other. I usually arrange it differently, but a load of cordwood was recently dumped right where I needed to work. © Rusty Burlew.
This is what I call the “great divide.” The swarming bees cluster under the ramp and the foragers return to the original hive only four inches away. © Rusty Burlew.
A good-sized cluster hangs from the ramp. To get it into the Langstroth, I just pick up the whole ramp and bang it into the top box. I use an empty box on top of a full deep, which acts like a funnel to get them in. I was working alone, so I have no photos of that process.  © Rusty Burlew.
I wasn’t sure if that cluster at the peak comprised swarmers or stayers, so I brushed it into the Langstroth as well. They will go wherever they want, but I gave them an option. © Rusty Burlew.
Here is the Langstroth ready to move. I used inner covers on the top and bottom, taped shut with no openings. Strapped together, it was easy to put in the wheelbarrow. © Rusty Burlew.
At home in my messy garden (I’m working on that). I gave them a feeder, a frame of honey, and a few capped queen cells. © Rusty Burlew.

Related Posts

How to prevent swarms with a Taranov board

The great divide: a taranov split

Details of the Taranov split

A toast to Taranov

A wall of bees

One of my favorite blogs, TrogTrogBlog, is written by Christopher Wren, a beekeeper and nature photographer living in northern England. Anyone who manages to take photos of wild bees has my immediate attention, but Christopher is especially talented. He says:

My interest in bees began seriously when I started keeping honey bees three years ago but spread to bumble bees and solitary bees through my photography. The blog started last June mainly as a way of sharing the photos I took and things I saw with a wider audience. You’ll see it covers all types of natural history and not just bees, but at this time of year I could put bees in almost every post.

This particular post appealed to me because of the wall. Just think, a wall 400 years old was built around the time European settlers first came to North America . . . and the solitary bees love it just the same.

Thank you, Chris, for letting me run your story, A Wall of Bees.

This beautiful old cob wall stands alongside a lane leading to the church in the village where I grew up—Nether Heyford in Northamptonshire, England. The wall is probably more than four hundred years old and is home to thousands of solitary bees, each with its own separate nest. I walked past it hundreds of times when I was young, on my way to ring the bells in church, without realising its secret.

Cob is an ancient material used for building walls and houses. It uses a mixture of clay, straw and water and is strong and thermally efficient. Locally the mix included stones and animal bones. Several of the older houses and cottages in the village have cob walls.

When I visited the village last week there were dozens of bees flying in front of the wall. Most of them were female hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes), with only a couple of males (I think most of the others will already have died off after mating). The females were bringing pollen and nectar back to their nests and they hovered for a few moments before finding the right hole and diving in.

There were also quite a few cuckoo bees, Melecta albifrons, a specific cleptoparasite of Anthophora plumipes. They were easier to photograph as they were settling on the wall and walking around from hole to hole trying to judge which nest to invade. Interestingly the incoming flower bees paid them no attention. Melecta bees have a different shape with a flatter abdomen and no scopa (pollen-collecting hairs) on the back leg. Most have prominent white patches on the abdomen and legs although some almost completely black. They also have brownish wings and a much quieter buzz than the flower bees.

I also saw a few tawny mining bees (Andrena fulva) at the outer and lower edges of the wall.

Christoper Wren

The old cob wall. © Christopher Wren.
Solitary bees nest in the cob wall. © Christopher Wren.
Thousands of solitary bees live in close proximity. © Christopher Wren.
Anthophora plumipes female. © Christopher Wren.
Anthophora plumipes is also known as the hairy-footed flower bee. © Christopher Wren.
Anthophora plumipes female entering her nest. © Christopher Wren.
Melecta albifrons is a cuckoo bee, parasitic on the hairy-footed flower bee. © Christopher Wren.
Melecta albifrons looking for a nest to invade. © Christopher Wren.
Melecta albifrons. Cuckoo bees lay their eggs in the nest of other bees.  © Christopher Wren.
Melecta albifrons lets the Anthophora bee do all the work. © Christopher Wren.
Melecta albifrons patiently waiting. © Christopher Wren.


Honey is not bee vomit

Why do people insist that honey is vomit when observation says otherwise? Seriously, does it look like vomit? Smell like vomit? Taste or feel like vomit?

Animals don’t build storage units for vomit, they don’t save it for winter meals, and they don’t rob each other of it. My guess, although I’ve never experimented, is that most vomit has a short shelf life and an in-your-face pull date. And antibacterial properties? Hmm, let me think.

In fact, the nectar a bee collects never goes into its digesting stomach or into its intestines. The nectar goes into a honey stomach where it is stored for a short time and mixed with special enzymes. But between the honey stomach and the bee’s digestive stomach is a one-way valve, a check valve of sorts. If the bee needs some fuel, some of the nectar can go through this valve, but once through, it can’t go back. Nothing from the bee’s digesting stomach or the bee’s intestines can return to the honey stomach.

When the bee enters her hive, the contents of the honey stomach—and only the honey stomach—are transferred to other bees through trophallaxis before it is ultimately stored in the comb. Excess water is then fanned away until the honey is the proper consistency for capping.

For some reason, people believe that food which reappears after having gone “down the hatch” must be vomit. But vomiting is defined as the involuntary and forceful expulsion of stomach contents, usually associated with illness or poisoning. Regurgitation, on the other hand, is considered normal, voluntary, and without unpleasant side effects. Other animals, such as birds, regurgitate partially digested food to feed their young, but bees store undigested food in a convenient and separate carry-pouch.

I sometimes get the feeling that those who insist that honey is vomit are in some­ way trying to belittle or denigrate honey as “nothing special.” But honey is indeed special as are the creatures that make it.

In the diagram below, the arrows show which way the food can move. Once the food goes through the one-way valve (proventriculus), it cannot move back into the honey stomach.

mouth↔esophagus↔honey stomach (crop)→one-way valve (proventriculus)→digesting stomach (ventriculus) →intestine→rectum→anus


Honey shows no characteristics of vomit.