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Cultivating an obsession with bees

I awoke to wind. In the faint moon glow, I could see a chain of poplars silhouetted against the sky, the upper branches tossing and thrashing. Individual trees synchronized into a chorus line, bending with the rhythm of each successive gust. The musky essence of sagebrush reminded me I wasn’t home.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 159 No 9, September 2019, pp. 1017-1020.

Each time I visit the desert, I wonder about the night winds. Why does a barren landscape, still as death during the day, come alive at night? Why do undulating rows of windmills that turn lazily by day, spin like crazed pinwheels under darkened skies?

As I watched the trees, I heard a short yip, a single chirp from a lone coyote. Moments later, a second bark was followed by a protracted howl. The plaintive cry was soon answered by another. And another. Within moments, a frenzy of disparate screams, sounding both cunning and vicious, reverberated from the sage. Feeling like a piece of meat, I shivered and cuddled deeper into my sleeping bag.

Windmills that barely move during the day come alive with the evening desert winds.
Windmills that barely move during the day come alive with the evening desert winds. All photos by Rusty Burlew.

Departing on a bee safari

Summer bee safaris are a highlight of my year. All winter long, holed up in the sodden darkness of the 47th parallel, I think about where I will go and what bees I will see.  Once Earth warms in spring, I leave home — my pickup laden with nets and tripods, cameras and peanut butter — in search of a bee I’ve never seen and a story I’ve never told.

Of course, the obvious place for bee hunting is the desert. Bees evolved in arid climates and deserts are hot spots of bee biodiversity. The biggest and the smallest, the prettiest and the weirdest all live in the desert, waiting for the ephemeral bloom that will keep them barely alive for another year.

This dainty Dialictus foraged on roadside weeds in the mustard family.
This dainty Dialictus foraged on roadside weeds in the mustard family.

Encircled in the wind

The lonely howl of wind and coyotes reminded me of a previous bee trip. Camped on a desolate wildlife preserve in Oklahoma, the night wind arrived like a freight train, deafening and powerful. My daughter tied our tent to the bumper of her car and hoped the fabric wouldn’t tear itself apart. We ate a quick meal of stale granola bars and cold hot chocolate, then unrolled our bags, shouting to be heard though we were just inches apart.

As twilight fell, a battered pickup appeared in the lonely outpost. Through the dim light and the crash of wind we could see three men in the front seat and twice as many rifles mounted across the rear window. A perimeter road circled the campground, but we were the only tenants. After the truck slowly passed our site and disappeared behind a pile of boulders, we breathed a sigh of relief.

But five minutes later, the menace returned, having circled the entire camping area. Because of the wind, we couldn’t hear the truck approach, so it was only yards from us when its high beams penetrated our nylon walls. This time the truck crept by even more slowly, but all we could hear was our own pumping hearts against the scream of the wind. Ker-thump. Ker-thump.

We took stock of our situation and decided it was bad. With no one else around for miles, we were at their mercy, and because we couldn’t tell if we were being taunted or stalked, we decided to flee. Regardless of their agenda, we decided our campsite wasn’t worth fighting for.

As soon as the truck dipped behind the boulders a second time, we frantically cut the ties to the tent, stuffed everything into the backseat, and hightailed out of there. As we bumped down the gravel road, we could see the lights of the pickup as it slowly began its third circuit.

Although neither of us likes to fold in the face of danger, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to cut bait and run. My daughter, a combat veteran who had just returned from Iraq, said it was one of the scariest moments of her life.

Metallic green sweat bees enjoy flowers in the Asteraceae family, no matter where they are found.
Metallic green sweat bees enjoy flowers in the Asteraceae family, no matter where they are found.

Potholes state park

Potholes State Park in eastern Washington is not named for an unkempt road but for giant potholes that were formed from flooding during the Pleistocene. The sunken saucers vary from 30 to 70 yards across, and from 10 to 60 feet deep. Until the 1950s they remained dry and dusty, but after the completion of the O’Sullivan Dam in 1949, things began to change. As the water table rose, the potholes began to fill from the bottom, eventually becoming little lakes.

The state park is at the southern end of the reservoir and is a popular spot for year-round fishing. Sure enough, as I got close, the scent of aquatic life overwhelmed me. The brackish odor was an odd counterpoint to the aroma of sage — like fish with stuffing. It brought back memories of the crunchy baguettes and cheese we ate when I worked on Cape Cod and thrived on the tang of the sea.

Many types of wildlife are attracted to the reservoir behind O’Sullivan Dam. Like this gosling, I hate being last in line. Photo shows last gosling in a row of 9 trying to catch up.
Many types of wildlife are attracted to the reservoir behind O’Sullivan Dam. Like this gosling, I hate being last in line.

Insects, not mosquitoes

When I first arrived at my campsite I was greeted by great clouds of insects. They hovered around me like mosquitoes, quivered in the air, and whispered in whiny high-pitched frequencies. A couple of times I breathed them in like black flies and swallowed some that wedged in my throat. No amount of water dislodged their creepy skeletons, and I imagined wet insect wings — body still attached and legs kicking — stuck to the back of my tongue. I was chagrined. How could I photograph bees while breathing in mosquitoes, probably blood-laden ones, at that?

Thing is, they didn’t seem to bite. Even after hours in their disconcerting presence, I hadn’t a single welt. It was then I began to take pictures of them. Up close and personal, they didn’t look anything like skitters, but I had no idea what they were.

I have since learned that the insects were non-biting midges, also called lake flies, in the genus Chironomus. The larvae live in lake sediments and thousands of species inhabit diverse parts of the globe. The cloud-like masses of Chironomus I encountered were mating swarms, which provide great feasts for swallows, bats, and other terrestrial beings. Personally, I thought they were a bit too tickly for a snack item, but maybe that’s just me.

Lake Flies are aquatic invertebrates, spending part of their life on land and part in water.
Lake flies are aquatic invertebrates, spending part of their life on land and part in water.

Ticks and snakes

Like all my recent excursions, the trip to the central Washington desert was all about the bees. I was alone this time, and the first night, as I listened to an assortment of desert sounds, I begin to itch. The sensation was psychological, occasioned by the two dog ticks I pried from my neck just before dinner. Neither had embedded, so I was lucky. Nevertheless, I was unnerved by their presence and kept scratching and peering inside my clothes with a flashlight.

Teardrop shaped, flat as a leaf, and equipped with more legs than necessary, ticks are nasty creatures. Like mites, ticks have a predilection for biting, sucking, and spreading disease. They remind me of varroa mites and I began to wonder if honey bees itch when mites latch on. I imagine they do, since they try so hard to dislodge them.

All day long I had knowingly traipsed through tick territory. Sage brush is full of ticks and rattlers, but when I’m on a bee hunt, I forget all that. My eyes stray to the next flower; my ears concentrate on the hum of wings. Chasing the bee that momentarily alights on a spiny desert plant is so much more compelling than a chance encounter with the evil empire — at least until it finds you. As with most addictions, you can never get enough, and finding the next bee is paramount.

I haven’t encountered a rattlesnake in many years, although I have vivid memories of them coiled beneath cattle guards as I bicycled on America’s byways. Now I remain wary, but undeterred. I have no delusions about shooting one with a .38 revolver, although I manage to convince myself that at least the holster makes one ankle harder to bite.

Many small bees, like this Lasioglossum, take advantage of early desert blooms such as wild blue flax.
Many small bees, like this Lasioglossum, take advantage of early desert blooms such as wild blue flax.

The hum of wires without wires

That evening, I made the acquaintance of the campers next door, a father, son, and grandson who seemed enchanted by a woman camping alone and chasing bugs. As we chatted about fish and bees, the insects-not-mosquitoes got louder and more persistent, and they seemed to have settled into the trees directly overhead. I asked if they heard the high-pitched whine, and the middle one explained that what I heard was the hum of high-tension wires. “Oh,” I said, perplexed. “Good to know.”

For the next three days, I craned my neck, scanning the firmament for any such wires, anywhere, but the sky was blank. Then too, once the evening winds appeared, the bugs and the sound both vanished. Although I didn’t say so, I remained unconvinced. Call me a skeptic, but I really need to see to believe it.

The one that got away

The next morning I broke camp early to follow the trail along Frenchman’s Creek. I meandered through dusty sagebrush and brilliant balsamroot the color of caution tape. The trail itself went from gravel to sand to missing, and I ended up thrashing through prickly things I couldn’t identify and thinking about those snakes. The crash of water through its channel quashed any hope of hearing a rattle in advance, so I just concentrated on looking for bees, which I also couldn’t hear.

The balsamroot had passed its prime, but dainty wild blue flax blossoms provided a feast for tiny sweat bees. For twenty minutes I chased a frenetic digger bee from plant to plant. She wore a boldly-striped, skin-tight outfit, but I never got a photo. Bee stories are like fish stories: The biggest, most colorful, most perfectly proportioned creatures are the ones you never capture, a situation which only enhances their mystique.

Andrena mining bees are very common in spring. Wide hair bands along the compound eyes make the genus easy to identify.
Andrena mining bees are very common in spring. Wide hair bands along the compound eyes make the genus easy to identify.

Parking lot trees

On the way back to camp, I stopped at an empty parking lot that featured a gigantic trash compactor. The area was fringed on two sides by banks of willows in full bloom. Each bloom was laden with honey bees and several types of Andrena mining bees. One Andrena I had never seen before sported a strawberry-red abdomen that glinted in the sunshine. Behind the compactor was a stand of wild roses that hosted a frenzy of bumbles, honey bees, mining bees, and sweat bees.

I could have stayed in the parking lot for hours, but the scent of charcoal lighter and fried onions summoned me back to the camping area. Having forgotten to pack a bottle opener and something to drink from, I excavated the cork from a bottle of Pinot Grigio with a screwdriver and tipped up, further amusing my new friends. Camping is so much more fun when you forget things — at least some of the time.

Dozens of Andrena bees with red abdomens plied the willows for pollen.
Dozens of Andrena bees with red abdomens plied the willows for pollen.

Anatomy of an obsession

As a child, I thought bird watchers were strange folks. I couldn’t imagine driving for hours, then hiking in the hot sun laden with binoculars and cameras and notebooks, just for a glimpse of something soon to fly away. So you saw it. So what? I was confused by those who treasured ragged field guides, annotated and bookmarked, tattered and dirty.

But did I turn out any differently? My bee identification guides are losing their pages. In my tent, I hastily riffled through one until pictures of Halictidae unbound themselves and fluttered through the air like the bees themselves. My cameras and notebooks are accompanied by catch cups and vials, magnifiers and nets. Truly, I make some of those bird watchers look like dilettantes.  

I was taught that obsession was a bad thing — a life misdirected. Certainly, there are types of obsession that are best left to the books that name them. But now I see that obsession can be a gift, one that provides direction and purpose. It can give you joy at each success and motivation at every failure. It can open your mind to learning and your heart to teaching.

So whether it’s golf or beekeeping, car racing or fishing, go ahead and cultivate your obsession. Feed it. Pamper it. It’s okay to be a little bit crazy, possessed by a desire to turn over every figurative rock. Chasing bees has changed my life, and I get untold joy from finding a bee in a keyhole, a light socket, or a wheel well. I will never tire of catching a swarm or, failing that, watching a swarm take off to unknown places and untold adventure.

My obsession with bees has taken me to new places, taught me new skills, and introduced me to other equally obsessed people, which is one of the greatest pleasures of life. So join me in your own obsession and learn what unbridled curiosity can teach.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Cuckoo bees, like this Nomada, wait for an opportunity to lay eggs in the nests of other bees. Nomada can be seen wherever Andrena are plentiful.
Cuckoo bees, like this Nomada, wait for an opportunity to lay eggs in the nests of other bees. Nomada can be seen wherever Andrena are plentiful.

Comments

Spokexx
Reply

That’s some great writing there, Rusty. I could picture it all. The truck of bandits, the dry desert, the night starry sky camping. I didn’t know you wrote this well. Bees are a wonderful obsession.

michael skeels
Reply

Wow. All I can say is “Bravo” . Wonderful article Rusty. Michael

Marilyn
Reply

While I definitely have the bee watching obsession, somehow I didn’t get the naming part. My family and friends think I’m crazy. I plant cosmos and zinnias, collarette dahlias and sunflowers just so I can go out in the sunshine and watch the bees. Love them all, large and small, but bumblebees are my favorite. I couldn’t go out hiking by myself so I plant flowers all over the yard.

Janet Geren
Reply

You are an amazing writer. Thank you for sharing your love for the bees. You are amazing, so is your daughter 🥰

Rusty
Reply

Janet,

Well, that’s an interesting comment. You know her?

Rick A - Warner
Reply

Rusty could there be Bee identification books out there like the golden books about orchids? Some that are pocket size and able to be carried? Your words pull us in right from the start thank you for sharing your passion with us . Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Rick,

Bee identification is difficult. If you’re very skilled, you can often identify a bee down to genus by sight or photograph, but getting down to species often requires dissection, or at least a good stereoscope. Still, it’s a lot of fun to put a name to a new find. I highly recommend “The Bees in Your Backyard” by Wilson and Carril because it gives a good overview of the North American genera. If you can learn to identify a genus in one place, you can likely identify others in that genus regardless of where they appear.

Gord Seifert
Reply

Great story! The description of the winds reminded me of a campsite on Blue Lake, just south of Coolee City on highway 17, where a friend’s tent almost blew away altogether but was fortunately stopped by a few trees. And also of a couple of visit’s to the Spokan KOA where the wind kept me up for hours, both times. Washington seems to have a lot of night winds.

Sara Miller
Reply

A thoroughly romantic and passionate read. Thank you. You are always welcome to camp here on 165 native acres surrounded by the Crooked River National Grasslands where you would be safe. About 15 miles from Naomi Price’s house. Spring wildflower volume and variety dependent on over winter snowfall amounts. I’m looking forward to seeing TWO THOUSAND BLOSSOMS.

Rusty
Reply

Sara,

Really? I could never say no to an offer like that! I will contact you off site so we can chat. A trip like that would make a great article for 2 Million Blossoms. By the way, I have had a sneak peek at the finished issue for January, and it is awesome. I can’t wait for it to arrive.

Thank you for writing. You will hear from me in a day or two.

Barb
Reply

That was an amazing read! Drew me in from the beginning and very suspenseful! When campsites are scary they can be very scary! And for future reference, a large screw works well for a wine opener too!

I love what you say about obsessions and how they open your heart to teaching. I have the same experience with my passion…

Daniel Pepper
Reply

Great writing as always. Thank you, Rusty!

I remember being a camp counselor in Wisconsin sometime last century. We had finished a 4 day canoe trip down the St. Croix river with our teenage coed campers, and had set up our tents in a small county park where the county highway crossed over the river, anticipating our pickup rendezvous the next day. Sometime around 1 am we were wakened by Harley’s rolling through the campgrounds, between our campers’ tents, and then settling close by where they started bonfires and partying. We counselors crept from tent to tent telling the kids to be quiet, no flashlights, no eye contact! It was a relief when before dawn the motorcycles started up again and left us alone.

Rusty
Reply

Daniel,

I’ve been camping, hiking, and backpacking for most of my life, frequently alone. Friends often ask, “Aren’t you afraid of bears, cougars, snakes, etc?” But it always comes down to the same thing: humans are the scary species. I can easily picture your pastoral tenting scene being thoughtless invaded in the middle of the night.

Chet Calhoun
Reply

Scanning down to comment and “Bravo” took the words right out of my mouth. Loved it! A cousin Russel had the nick name Rusty but it was followed with a B_ _ _.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Chet.

Jim Harper
Reply

Rusty,

Thank You for sharing your amazing story!

It was nice to share your camping adventures and see the beautiful pictures of native beess you took. So many have been lost as new subdivisions and shopping centers replace their native habitats.

Have a Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas 🎄🎁😇or Happy Hanukkah 🕎 !

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Jim.

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