• 15146

    Hive Gallery

    The Hive Gallery features photos of beehives, honey bees, honey . . . whatever readers have sent me. Explore

  • 15148


    Not for you, for them. Find recipes for all those tantalizing treats like sugar cakes, pollen substitute, and grease patties. Explore

  • 15142


    Find links to the most popular posts on how to do everything from building a frame to moving a hive. Explore

  • 15147


    The glossary is constantly updated with definitions, acronyms, initialisms, and links to Wordphile discussions. Explore

Stung from behind

I just got stung three times on the butt. How is that possible? How can you face your bees and get attacked from the rear?

Well, it has to do with my favorite pants. My brown and grungy cargo pants are perfect for working around the yard. I fill the pockets with screwdrivers, trowels, hive tools, and duct tape and I’m good to go for hours. Trouble is, they are wearing out. Several thin spots (aka holes) have developed at the knees and where I sit. I tend to forget about the ones in back simply because I can’t see them.

A nectar dearth is coming

Since October I’ve been working my bees without any protective clothing at all. Winter and spring bees, swarming bees, and bees high on early nectar are docile and forgiving—gentle as snuggly kittens.

But the times they are achanging. It’s hot and dry. The blackberry flowers are withering. The clover is crispy. The dandelions are turning gray. All of which means the honey bees are testy and restless.

All I wanted to do today was give my smallest colony—the third and final swarm to arrive from elsewhere—an upper entrance. It was a 30-second job, but at least I had the good sense to wear the top half of my bee suit.

What I thought was a struggling little cluster turned out to be a boiling cauldron of pent-up hormones. Once I removed the gabled roof, six-legged fighter pilots went airborne. The ground force oozed thickly over the side of the brood box. I watched transfixed, amazed at how fast this tiny swarm had multiplied.

It was right then that someone discovered the left side thin spot. Yowee! I grabbed my a . . . um . . . my seat with my left hand and squeezed the fabric, partly to relieve the pain and partly to cover the thin patch. I was saying unkind things to no one in particular when someone else found the right side. Jeese um! I grabbed the right side with my other hand.

I stood there, arms braced in a not-so-feminine posture and wondered, “How does this work? How can I finish the job without letting go?” Alarm pheromone wafted from each sting and I knew there would be hell to pay if I wasn’t careful. I backed up a few feet. And then some more.

General pandemonium

By now the air was thick with bees and my dog was launching himself, biting and snapping. The neighbor’s horse clicked stones as it hurried away. The cats left. This was not good. I had to replace the lid.

When the pain began to recede, I let go of my nether regions, snatched up the roof, and dropped it in place. Just as I did, number three voted with her sister, also on the left.

I ran into the garage because bees dislike dark places, and wiggled around until dead bees dropped from the legs of my pants. I counted five, so maybe there were more stings, but I didn’t care enough to look. I kept thinking: all that pain and no upper entrance.

Well, there’s always next time . . . beekeeping is full of next times.


At one point last year, I decided never to write about stings again—a vow made because one reader has chided me about having so many bees in my clothes. But I do get lots of bees in my clothes, and I like to write about stings, partly because it makes me feel better—sort of like getting a purple bandage from the school nurse—and partly because so many beekeepers put on a pretense about stings. It seems that getting stung is so “uncool” that it’s better to lie than admit it happens or that it hurts like hell.

So next time you see a beekeeper all red and splotchy with one eye swollen shut and a pinky finger the size of a sausage, mark my words: it has nothing to do with bees.


How the honey bee makes pollen pellets

A honey bee has three sets of legs, and each set is different. The last two legs—the hindlegs—are designed to compress and carry the pollen pellets that are characteristic of honey bees and bumble bees.

We’ve all seen those hard round nuggets in various colors and sizes, but did you ever wonder how the bees pack the pollen into a ball? Well, the secret tool is called a pollen press. The pollen press is actually made of two flat plates that are hinged together. One plate is on the distal end of the tibia, while the other is on an adjacent segment called the basitarsus.

If you lined all the leg parts end to end, starting at the thorax you would see:


However, the tarsus is further divided into several sub-segments: the basitarsus and four small tarsomeres.

What I have shown below is the joint between the tibia and the basitarsus, because that joint is the pollen press.

When the joint is bent, the plates pull apart and the bee stuffs the opening with pollen that she collects from her body. First, she uses all six legs to scrape the pollen into one place: the inside of the hindleg basitarsus. Then she combs it off the basitarsus with stiff bristles on the edge of the pollen press called a pollen rake. She cleans the left with the right and the right with the left, until the open press is full of pollen.

When she straightens her leg, the plates close against the pollen and force it up into the pollen basket. It’s like a tube of toothpaste: when you squeeze the two sides together, the paste comes out the top. Here, when the two plates are squeezed together, the pollen is forced up into the pollen basket. Although it may seem backward, the pollen basket is actually filled from the bottom.

Every time the bee grooms the pollen from her body, she works the pollen down to the inside of the basitarsus of the rear legs and then into the press before she gives it another squeeze. Is that cool or what?

The leg part shown below was taken from a dead honey bee I found in my driveway. She had one of those cards that said, in case of her death, she was leaving her body to science. RIP.


The inside of a hindleg. When the joint is open, the pollen press can be filled by raking the pollen off the opposite leg. © Rusty Burlew.
The outside of a hindleg. You can see the indentation where the compressed pollen will accumulate, called a tibial corbicula or “pollen basket.” © Rusty Burlew.

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.


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.