miscellaneous musings

Beekeepers, wild bees, and the happiness of pursuit

I spent a good portion of last week on a bee trip, this time to the high desert of central Oregon. My bee trips give me an opportunity to meet other beekeepers, photograph native bees in their natural environments, and take a break from my website. Not to mention, they give me scads of things to write about.

The last thing I said to my husband before heading south was, “I don’t know what I will learn, but I know I will learn something.” And indeed I did. The trip was perfect in every way—well, almost—and it certainly did not lack in learning experiences. I ran into new-to-me bees, beekeeping methods, equipment, food, plants, terrain, and lifestyles.

At home on a hill

My hosts on this excursion, Naomi and Larry Price of Prineville, are dedicated honey bee stewards who are enthusiastic wild-bee watchers as well. They are also passionate beekeeping mentors and ardent guardians of the environment. What a perfect fit! Their energy and commitment to bees is infectious. To tell you the truth, they had so much to show me, I was about worn out by the end of the second day. I was so tired I slept on a ring of keys.

The home Naomi and Larry built is off the grid, high on a hill with an unparalleled view of central Oregon. The landscape, bedecked by ponderosa pines and native grasses, is fresh and wild. Honey bee hives are spaced far apart, and lush plantings support an abundance of wild pollinators. Nowhere have I ever seen such a density of wild bees as in their garden.

The happiness of pursuit

A few days before I traveled to Oregon, I was talking to Nancy Partlow of OlyPollinators about chasing things that are hard to find. She was saying that the things we covet, the things we constantly seek, are the things that are difficult to obtain. I’ve heard it called, “the happiness of pursuit.”

I’ve been thinking about pursuit a lot since then. If you are a collector of objects, it is the rare baseball card, postage stamp, or figurine that consumes your attention. If you watch birds, chase storms, or climb mountains, there is always the elusive one that you never quite manage to see, or just miss, or can’t get to. As Nancy says, these quests consume our thoughts and drive us a little bit further, a minute longer, a tad higher. They make us happy.

The bee we want to see

My pollinator friends are no different. We want to see the bee, moth, or hover fly we’ve never before witnessed. We want to give it a name, check it off our list, and photograph it as proof. No matter how many you see, you want to see one more. There is no end to the search. No arrival. No finish line. You just keep pursuing.

Unlike some of my pollinator friends, I’m totally fixated on bees and those things that hunt bees. Other pollinators don’t interest me much and, honestly, I can’t tell one from the other. During my search for bees, however, I do run into things that capture my imagination, and I will often snap a photo. For example, right now I have mini frogs—chartreuse, tangerine, and saffron—stuck to the siding of my house. Weirdest thing.

New bees, strange plants

While touring the property with Naomi and Larry, I was introduced to curly-cup gumweed, my new favorite pollinator plant. And while photographing the assortment of native bees on said plant, I saw my first ever Triepeolus bee, and not only did I see it, I was (eventually) able to identify it! This is me tripping. You have no idea how these sightings stir me up.

It was so much fun. I would be photographing one bee while Naomi would call, “There’s something over here!” and Larry would say, “Over here!” Back and forth I went, running myself ragged, and staining the left knee of my jeans with Oregon dirt. I just love to be with people who “get it.”

Pollinator nirvana in Bend

Later, we went to Bend where I met Joel Brown and Ryan Huff. Joel is a beekeeper and Ryan is chairman of the Central Oregon Native Plant Society. Their residential property has been turned into a bee haven where I was given free reign to photograph pollinators as long as I could bear it. The variety of plants they tend is mind-boggling, and each one seems to attract a different set of pollinators. It was here that I also met the felines Tansy and sweet Willow. When I lived in Corvallis, I too had a Tansy. And Willow is a rescue kitty that I completely fell in love with. I had an overwhelming urge to tuck her in my camera bag and sneak away.

From Bend we traveled to Redmond, where I met the new manufacturers of the Valhalla hive, Bruce and Vivien Hight. Many of you may remember the Valhalla, a long hive designed by Naomi and Larry specifically for beekeepers who have issues with lifting and manipulating standard hives. The Valhalla has been upgraded, improved, and rechristened the Valkyrie. Production of the new model is underway, and several other specialty hives are in the works. In an upcoming post I will detail the features of the Valkyrie and provide ordering information. The redesigned hive is unique, bee-friendly, and just plain cool—even if you don’t have lifting problems.

A rare and special treat

One of the highlights among many was my first taste of Melipona honey. I had long ago resigned myself to the fact that I would never get to sample the renowned honey of the South American stingless honey bee. I’ve read about it, heard about, written about it, but I didn’t see a way to actually taste it. It was a problem without an answer.

So imagine my shock when Naomi pulls what looks like a bottle of rum from the cupboard and says, “Have you ever tasted Melipona honey?” I about keeled over. All I could think of to say was, “Where did you get it!” More on that later.

Many blurry photos

The one thing that didn’t work out so well was my photos. I took hundreds and hundreds of blurry photographs. In fact, you’d think that pure chance alone, without the help of a viewfinder, would yield better results! A combination of fast bees, wind, a flash that got stuck, and general photographic ineptitude combined for some disappointing results.

But I must be philosophical. The photos, although not magazine sharp, are good enough for bee identification and that, after all, is the main purpose. I can still check all those bees off my list—the assortment of Hylaeus, Nomada, Ceratina, Melissodes, Andrena, Osmia, and all the others. A great photo, when I get one, is just an added bonus.

Plenty to write about

In the weeks to come, I intend to write about the many plants and bees I saw, as well as the upgraded Valkyrie hive, the Melipona honey, and some beekeeping techniques that are completely new to me.

I drove home in a state of wonder, trying to remember not to forget the many exciting things I experienced in a few short days. When I finally pulled into my parking spot at home, my mind was immediately jolted into the present. My house and yard were shrouded within a mass of shifting, darting, careening honey bees—a swarm so large and loud I was speechless. This welcoming committee of thousands, what turned out to be a false swarm, took up my next two days. More on that, too.

In the meantime, I urge you to chase that elusive thing that steals your heart. Run it to the ground if you must, but remember it’s the quest that makes you happy. And when you find it—if you find it—remember to turn your eyes to the next one on your list.

Honey Bee Suite

Honey bees and the happiness of pursuit: designing a better hive.

Naomi (foreground) and Larry Price work the bees in a newly redesigned Valkyrie long hive.

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  • What is the bee whose picture is on your blog page? (It disappears when the blog entry expands.)
    I saw that bee yesterday on my Cleveland Sage! I keep seeing the native bees but can’t get pictures for ID.
    Location: So Cal, 10 miles from the coast, near scrub.
    Thanks, Marian

    • Thank you so much! I love to get these posts cleaned up before thousands of emails go out! You have no idea how I appreciate that.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I met Naomi and Larry last month at a Master Beekeeping event at Oregon State University held once a month called Friday in the Apairy on campus. She and Larry shared their passion and their secrets for trapping out feral bees from trees in their community. I was as impressed with her knowledge as I was by her passion for the keeping of bees. All of her honey bees are sourced from local feral hives.

    It was a joy to meet them and have her later help us execute a trap out that first creates an extension of the feral hive with a tube, then induces nurse bees and then the queen to “Come on Out” with a frame of brood (without bees) for a lure. Then a one way wire funnel in installed so bees will not be able to get back in to their hive and if all goes well they inhabit the new box and can be moved.

    James Hagerman

    • James,

      It just so happens that Naomi is in the process of detailing her system for tree trap-outs. When I get it, I will post it to this site.

  • Went to the Valkyrie site seems like a neat idea, however only half of the screen was usable because of the silly Facebook pop up.

  • Rusty,
    How beautifully you express and encourage us to peruse the elusive thing that steals our heart.
    You have inspired me after months in the doldrums.
    Thank you.

  • Wonderful post, Rusty! Your enthusiasm is infectious, and greatly appreciated. Cheers to you!

  • Hi Rusty

    I have noticed recently that when going through my hives to check new queens that need marking (I do not clip) that when you actually pull the frame that the queen is on the note changes in the hive, certainly a help if she is being elusive, never noticed it in the past but maybe I am getting more aware this days, have you noticed this? Love your blog & have suggested to our newbees & mentees that they read it as well.

    Andy Kingman UK

    • Andy,

      I have never noticed that, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I will pay more attention.

  • Hi,

    Is the bee Marian asks about Anthophora urbana?

    I’m in the UK, so not common to us I think.

  • Just want to say how very much I enjoy your posts. Thank you! (from Hamilton, Montana)

  • I just love your articles, you are killing me on having to wait for the rest of the stories.

  • Hi Rusty,
    I’m so glad you enjoyed central Oregon! I live in Powell Butte, the cow filled agricultural area between Redmond and Prineville. I’ve been thrilled with the diversity of native bees and butterflies that visit my gardens now that I raise them with pollinators in mind. It’s awesome to see my bees benefiting from my hard work, but there IS something really special about attracting natives that I never even knew were here. Thanks for visiting, and thanks for the lovely post. 🙂