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Wasps aplenty

A long stretch of freezing weather is the best wasp control. Many of the overwintering queens succomb 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.”

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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.
Aerial-yellowjackets-outside-of-nest
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.

Bee-with-stamen-Christopher-Wren-650px
Honey bee packing a flower stamen. © Christopher Wren.

Notice Board . . .

In case you missed it: A Song of the Bees

Washboarding bees arockin’ and alickin’

A strange honey bee behavior known as “washboarding” or “rocking” continues to elude an explanation, but it is fun to watch. Worker bees gather in large groups—either inside the hive or out—and rock back and forth while seeming to lick the surface beneath them. The motion has been likened to that of scrubbing clothes on a washboard.

Katie Bohrer and Jeffrey Pettis of the USDA-ARS Bee Research Lab studied washboarding bees and discovered a number of things.

  • The washboarders were all worker bees.
  • They started washboarding at 13 days old.
  • The peak amount of washboarding occurred in workers between 15-25 days old.
  • Washboarding increased from about 8 a.m. to about 2 p.m. and then remained constant to as late as 9 p.m.
  • When given three different surfaces, the washboarding increased as the surface became more textured. Slate produced the most washboarding, followed by unpainted wood, and then glass. The surface-type data, however, did not produce statistically significant results.

Some beekeepers have noticed that washboarding occurs more frequently at the end of a nectar flow and others swear the bees will “clean up” any particles you place on the hive entrance. Other sources claim the behavior “polishes” the surface and thus eliminates rough spots where pathogenic organisms might congregate. Beyond speculation, however, no one has been able to provide a concrete explanation.

For a really cool video of washboarding, click on the link below. If you look carefully, you will notice that the rear four legs of each bee tend to stay in one place, while the front two legs do all the work. This outstanding video was provided by Alexander Wild.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Five favorite plants for the bee garden

Since this is the season when gardening catalogs flood my mailbox, I can’t help but think about next year’s pollinator garden. My five favorite pollinator plants are all species that attract a wide variety of wildlife. In addition, they all are relatively easy to care for and don’t require a lot of water.

Agastache comes in various forms and colors and is attractive to many bees and butterflies. You can plant an entire garden of just Agastache using purples, oranges, reds, and pinks. These perennials flower over many weeks and are unappealing to deer and rabbits. My favorites include the hybrid “Blue Fortune” which is especially attractive to native bees and “New Mexico Hummingbird Mint” which draws butterflies and bumble bees as well as hummingbirds.

Perovskia, or Russian Sage, is a real pollinator-pleaser. Some of the varieties such as “Blue Spire” become absolutely coated with bees of all descriptions. It has dark blue flowers on spikes that reach about 4 feet high. Deer and rabbits walk right by, while the bees hang on in ecstasy.

Oregano was a surprise to me. I originally planted it for the leaves, but I’ve found that whenever I need a picture of a wild bee I’m sure to find one—or many—hanging out on the oregano plants. Oregano comes in many varieties and the small flowers range from pink to white.

Ceanothus, or California lilac, is a fragrant and colorful evergreen shrub. The first time I ever really noticed one was in front of a public building in Tacoma. I walked by and saw that it was covered—I mean absolutely infested—with honey bees. I cut a twig and took it to a local nursery for identification. These shrubs are very drought tolerant and the flowers are the color of blue that honey bees love. Ceanothus is also freely visited by other species including bumble bees and sweat bees.

Goldenrod is an especially good bee plant because it blooms very late in the year when bees are having a hard time finding forage. The bright yellow flowers attract many species of bee, especially bumble bees. Since goldenrod is tall it makes an excellent plant for the back of a garden or along a wall or fence. This past fall I often saw seven or eight bumble bees on one inflorescence. Goldenrod is another plant that requires little care and little water.

Even if you only have room for a pot or two, you will be surprised at the number of pollinators you can attract with these plants. Other plants with similar characteristics will work as well, including lavender, salvia, penstemon, and catmint.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite