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?
Honey Bee Suite