Hourglass bees

Hourglass-bees
These bees have white hourglasses stenciled on their thoraces. Public domain photo.

What looks like an hourglass-shaped paint splotch on the thorax of some bees is actually pollen. In the past I often saw these stripes—usually in yellow—and wondered what they were. The bees look like they squeezed through someone’s freshly painted woodenware.

But according to Roxanna Mattingly in her fascinating book, Honey-Maker, the design occurs when pollen-covered bees groom. The honey bee uses her two midlegs to clean pollen from her forelegs and the back of her thorax. However, there’s a place she can’t quite reach, right down the middle of her back.

She swipes each side of her thorax and the pollen in removed in an arc, much like the sweep of a wiper blade on a car. The hourglass design remains after she’s reached as far as she can on each side.

Comments

Jody
Reply

As a new beekeeper, you can imagine what thoughts I had when I witnessed these stripes on my bees this past fall! First I thought someone else’s colony was invading—thinking someone “painted” those stripes… yeah, right!

After I posted the question to those at the Vermont Beekeepers Association, I was told a lot of “newbees” have the same concern. It was due to the pollen of the jewelweed, now in bloom!

(That’s a great photo, too, showing the stripe!)

Teri
Reply

I took your advice for winter reading and got a copy of Rosanna L. Mattingly’s book Honey Maker. It is a really good book and I will recommend it to other beekeeping friends. I also recommend your site, by the way. Many thanks!

Teri

Lori
Reply

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have seen this many times and worried it was a sign of a brewing problem in the hive. You have a knack for adddressing practical beekeeping issues as well as pollinator esoterica!

Debbie
Reply

Well, I thinks someone needs to tell those drones to clean “those girls” (sorry) backs while they are just standing around waiting their turn.

Emily
Reply

This often happens with Himalayan Balsam in the UK. I like to call them ‘badger stripes’. Some people worry that their bees are going mouldy!

Bill Castro
Reply

I have a video of one of our survivor colonies with this pollen stripe…can send it if you would like.

Rusty
Reply

Bill, I would love to see it.

Rusty
Reply

Wow, yours really do look painted. But right at the end you can see some with pollen baskets loaded with the exact shade of white. Very cool!

Adam Hickman
Reply

That area actually has a name. It is called the acnestis. It’s the area that an animal cannot reach on their body. Think about it in terms of cows and cats. Cows have a really large one, but flexible cats probably don’t.

Rusty
Reply

Adam,

I have a question. All the definitions I find for “acnestis” say it is the part of any animal where it can’t reach to scratch; in fact, that is the derivation of the word. Is it used to describe the area where you can’t groom as well? It’s a fine point, I know, but I don’t want to end up using it the wrong way.

Adam Hickman
Reply

Scratch, groom, rub, reach… I didn’t really see much of a difference. It doesn’t really matter to me what the animals reason for reaching for that spot, its just the spot that it can’t reach. Maybe it is just for scratching, but it’s still an interesting that somebody would come up with a name for that spot. That was one of the words on “Says Who” on NPR a couple years ago. It just stuck with me.

Rusty
Reply

Adam,

Okay, I’m sold. I just love a really cool word! Thanks for informing me.

Mark Martin
Reply

That is really cool. I have yet to see that in my own hives but it is nice to know about so I don’t freak out when I do! Thanks for sharing!

Rusty
Reply

Mark,

I have to admit I freaked out the first time I saw it.

Rusty
Reply

Great video, Phillip. The music says it all.

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