wild bees and native bees

Who knew vacuuming could be so much fun?

Mini-bee-vac cleaning a dandelion.

Interest in wild bee populations skyrocketed after the appearance of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Although CCD is strictly a honey bee thing, it caused many people to think seriously about pollinator conservation, just in case things got worse with the honey bee.

But many folks still don’t realize that honey bees do not pollinate everything, not even close. If we want our future world to contain most of the plants we now have, we need to get on the stick with bee conservation.

Who is doing all the work?

I first began studying wild and native bees about ten years ago, just as CCD was getting a lot of press. At that time, it was the most obscure thing I ever tried to study. Very few resources were available, so I had trouble figuring out where to start. And even when I went into the field, I didn’t see any bees. Oh sure, there were honey bees, bumbles, masons, and carpenters—all the monster bees—but I couldn’t see the rest.

Now that I know what to look for, I realize that bees are everywhere. And now that I know what to look for, I believe honey bees get most of the credit for work the other bees are doing.

It’s not that honey bees aren’t working—of course they are. But they’re getting lots of help, help you can barely see. It’s taken me nearly ten years to learn to see bees, and that’s while I was actually looking for them. Imagine if I wasn’t looking.

We don’t appreciate what we can’t see

It turns out that things that look like splinters, fibers, dirt specks, or fruit flies are often bees. The smaller ones can require magnification just to tell whether they are actually bees, not flies or beetles. It’s a world hidden from most of us. When you look into a flowering tree and see a thousand honey bees plying their trade, you’re probably also looking at three or four thousand no-see-em-sized bees working right alongside—and getting exactly zero credit for their efforts.

Remember, before 1622 when the the colonists imported honey bees, all the plants in North, Central, and South America were being pollinated, no problem. Many creatures were faithfully executing all that work, but it wasn’t honey bees.

A room morphed into a lab

Since CCD was described, many more resources have come available for those who want to study bees. Since that time, I’ve amassed piles of information. My writing room, which used to be respectable, now looks like the room of a preadolescent boy, with trays, jars, and boxes filled with bees, dissecting kits, microscope slides, nets, test tubes, diagrams, and posters, along with miscellaneous wings, legs, and abdomens. I’m really too old to be having this much fun.

But my newest bee toy has me ecstatic. I got the idea for a mini bee vac from another bee enthusiast. I poured over the Amazon selections for several days before I finally purchased a small cordless vac that is designed for cleaning keyboards and dashboards. The idea here is simple: instead of netting a bee, you just suck it up.

The perfect mini bee vac

Mini vacs come in all different sizes and shapes, but I chose one that was small and easy to pack. I also opted for a clear canister so I could see whatever I caught before I opened it. And best, it conveniently charges on a USB, which means I can charge it in my truck between stops.

When the vac first arrived, I was disappointed: I couldn’t feel any suction on my hand. Convinced it wouldn’t work, I almost sent it back, but it didn’t seem worth the hassle.

On my first day out in the field, I remained unconvinced until I spotted a bumble bee on a blue camas lily. I turned on the vac and approached the bee. Thwup! The vac swallowed the whole thing in an instant, both flower and bee! “Holy s—,” I said, startled.

I pulled back and the flower popped out, all of a piece and good as new. Inside, the bumble walked around as if she did this kind of thing every day. I hate to kill bees, so I don’t keep anything I can easily identify. I depressed the latch, the canister opened, and the bumble was free to leave. And she did.

I have to tell you, this is just too much fun, and I have never so enjoyed vacuuming in my whole life. The best part is you get to see the bee (or whatever) up close and personal. The catch is not harmed, so you can let it go. And it’s better than a net for easy viewing and release. The canister will hold lots of bees, so you don’t have to open it every time.

If you catch a specimen you want to keep, it is fairly easy to remove the filter and drop the bee in jar.

Good for other bugs, too

After my first few tries, I began seeing all kinds of applications for the mini bee vac. I can collect honey bees from skylights, mason bees from window frames, and even spiders from the bathroom floor. And those yellowjackets bugging your bees? Thwup. Thwup. Thwup. Imagine the possibilities!

The vac is not perfect. If I could change one thing, I would make it smaller. But still, it fits in my backpack along with my collapsible net and camera, so I can’t complain.

By the way, I was never fond of preadolescent boys, especially when I was their age. Specifically, I could never understand the point of putting slippery things—frogs and slugs—in a mason jar. Why slime a perfectly good jar when you could fill it with lightening bugs and make a lantern instead?

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Mini-bee-vac cleaning a dandelion.

A mini bee vac can easily collect the native bees off a flower. © Rusty Burlew.

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32 Comments

  • LOL what fun to read this! I could picture you vacuuming up that first bee, flower and all, and possibly the shocked look on your face. You are right about all the “bees” out there. I have seen 1/4 ” gnat sized bugs with pollen sacks on their back legs…..TINY BEE! I love just to gaze at my zinnias and see all the different pollinators. Thanks for the fun read.

  • I would like to use your “Are you one of the 80%…” article during an Introduction to Beekeeping we are giving at a Central Coast Beekeepers seminar, Newport Library, Newport, Oregon. I’m going to give out this as a handout at the end of the class.

    My section I will be giving is titled “The Dumpster Divers’ Guide to Beekeeping”. I make a lot of my own equipment so I’m passing along some of the things I’ve learned. Please advise your requirements.

    Best Regards,
    Jon Sumpter

  • Hi, Rusty. I’ve got an idea….I have floors with fibers, dirt specks, and other assorted unknown matter, also, some window frames, spider webs, and a couple of bathroom floors that may have the odd honey bee wandering around. Co-incidently, its the Spring Wine Fling here, so if you want to drive up to Kelowna we could tackle my spring housecleaning (bring your vacuum), take a look at whatever bees we suck up, and then hit the Wine Trail.

    I might use the vacuum to get rid of those nasty wasps that hang around here; I lost a whole colony to those marauders last summer. The vacuum might be the answer.

  • Nice article, made me laugh out loud and the family looked at me as if to ask, ‘what’? but then reconsidered.

    Jon, I would really like to read what you have to say about ‘dumpster diving’ for bee equipment. I used to drive a trash truck and got lots of good stuff out of the trash I used in my beekeeping. I even found a queen excluder in the ditch (that I would have not known what it was had I not started beekeeping) that I use on the bottom of my plastic laundry tub I use for my uncapping tank. I had to cut it down on one side but it works great. The best use of a queen excluder I have come up with yet.

    Ken

    • Ken,

      Just an aside. I have two chicken yards separated with wire fencing. I keep the chickens in one yard and then switch them to the other yard through a hole in the wire fencing, just big enough for chickens. I keep the hole closed with a queen excluder, which is the best use I have ever found for one.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Enjoyed your article. I, too, have a mini vac. There’s a little shop, nearby, that has items that the dollar stores can’t sell. They sell stuff for ridiculously low prices. A few years ago, I bought the grandkids an explorers kit, that contained all kinds of nets, magnifiers, slides, and a little vacuum, that is great for sucking up bugs. It has a removable, clear plastic observation container too. Of course the grandkids tired of it in 5 minutes, so grandpa repurposed it. Works great catching queens!

    I see Jon mentioning dumpster diving beekeeping. I have become quite adept at beekeeping on a shoestring. My hives are homemade. I do buy my frames. My bees are feral bees. I started 3 years ago, caught my first colony, from my neighbor’s big oak tree. I figure the bees use it for a navigational beacon. I caught 2 swarms last year, and I checked yesterday, and have a new bunch. As soon as I rehived these, I’ll stick it back up. After all, I ordered two for this year too.

    I did manage to catch a swarm, last week, with a bigger homemade bee vac. These gals were 30′ up on a tree limb. My vacuum is an old 1 hp shopvac, that pulls the bees into a pair of nested buckets. The inner bucket has the sides cut out, and #8 hardware cloth installed. I have about 30′ of swimming pool hose attached, and 2-10′ sections of conduit can be added to that, for reach. There’s just enough leakage in the system to gently pull the bees in, without tearing them up.

    • Al,

      I know a number of beekeepers who use modified shop vacs for catching swarms, but I have never tried it. The swarms I see like to settle about 80 feet up, so I just watch them and sigh. No way can I get up there!

      Now you’ve gotten me to thinking about the explorer’s kit though. I really need one of those …

    • Karen,

      I linked to it in the article. It’s under the subsection “A room morphed into a lab,” second paragraph.

    • Philippa,

      I wondered about that. One consideration would be the size of the opening. The one I have has a small opening that might not be large enough for a really fat bumble bee. You would have to look at the openings before selecting one. The other issue, of course, is that the hornet would need to land. From what I’ve read and heard, Asian hornets swipe bees out of the air. It would be an interesting experiment, however.

  • Hi R,

    In a recent fb post I mentioned that I’d like to see a return of beekeeping to our desert valley. There used to be a commercial endeavor here, which ceased. I did, however receive a cautionary statement that our particular environs should not consider “beekeeping” as it would or could negatively affect the wild bee population.

    I’m not a commercial grower of anything, I do however like the idea of having local honey. We have a Chilean Mesquite outside our back door, and it sounds like you’re walking into a swarm. I love it!

    My Question? Should I encourage local private folks to establish a top bar hive for personal use?

    thanks

    J

    • Joe,

      The effect a honey bee colony has on local bees depends on the type of bees that live there as well as the type of plants. I’m not familiar with your area, but perhaps the local people noticed significant changes before and after the introduction of honey bees. Perhaps you should delve deeper into their
      cautionary statements. Honey bees are hoarders and they can strip the nectar from plants that would otherwise feed many, many native bees. The type of housing they use (top-bar hive vs any other kind) won’t make any difference.

    • Laurence,

      I don’t have much faith in BeeSource, but there was an interesting article in the BugSquad Newsletter (UC Davis) about a native honey bee that lived in North America 14 million years ago. Called Apis nearctica, it went extinct a long while back. The article concludes by saying, “But Apis nearctica is proof that North America was a native range of the honey bee…Honey bees were likely truly absent from North America during the Pliocense and Pleistocene, not becoming reintroduced until the major European colonization of the New World in the early 17th century.”

  • It seems as if many more people are taking up beekeeping as a hobby. Is there a risk in some areas of honeybees out competing the native bees for food resources, or having an impact on the native bees?

    • Pat,

      Yes, absolutely. It is worse with some bees than others, depending on the their size and tongue length, among other things. But lots of honey bee hives can have a detrimental effect. In some of the counties in eastern Washington where lots of alfalfa seed is grown, the economy is dependent on alfalfa leafcutting bees and alkali bees. In some of those areas, you need a permit to bring in honey bee hives during certain seasons in order to reduce competition.

  • Thanks for the great laugh Rusty – this reminded me of my days collecting bugs as a little girl – love your articles!

  • Fine article!

    And the first three chapters turned me into a humble beekeeper……..

  • Hi Rusty,

    If I may respond to Phillipa.

    You don’t need to have a gentle vacuum for hornets and wasps. Those have been spawned in the pit of Hell. I have no compassion on them.

    The first batch of yellowjackets I dispatched had moved into my house. Since this is a single family dwelling, I was bent on evicting them, with extreme prejudice.

    My wife had an older vacuum cleaner with the see through canister. The yellowjackets were flying wildly in and out of a hole in an outside wall. I duct taped an extension handle, for painting ceilings, to my hose, and placed it next to the entrance. Fired up the sweeper and started beating the house. The angry demons came flying out, and “Floop!” right in the sweeper. I probably sucked up 90% within minutes. It took me the rest of the day to pick off the rest. I just shut the sweeper down for a while, fired it back up, and beat on the house some more.

    When I was done, I opened the void, and removed the nest. I think I sprayed some peppermint oil in there too. Then sealed it up. No extra tenants have returned.

    Bees get pampered. Yellowjackets get dead.

    • A shop vac loaded with a little gravel works well too, and can be cleaned for further use in the garage.

  • Rusty,

    One method we use to get those 80 ft. swarms is the shotgun. Shoot the branch they’re on, try not to hit the bees, and they drop right down. Works great.

  • Hi Rusty- I met a guy at the Virginia State Beekeepers meeting who used a computer keyboard sized vacuum with a tube attached to the suction end to vacuum up hive beetles. He said it works like a charm. I think I’ll try it.

  • Any recommendations for a bee vacuum for swarms? I’ve been watching youtube videos until my head spins. Michael Bush on his website, and a local beekeeper who tried it, said it was very hard to use without killing a lot of bees. But your little unit sounds just right. If only there was one with that exact mount of suction, for swarms.

  • I clicked your link; your vacuum produced up to 1500 PA, which is about 0.2 psi. Great starting point for calibrating any home-made bee vacuums I think!

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