Nothing piques my curiosity like an aggregation of tiny holes, neat little excavations in nondescript ground. Who lives down there? How deep? What do they eat? Why did they choose this place?
Earlier this summer, while walking the dog in the forest, we stumbled across a small aggregation in the center of a sun-drenched logging road. I had just written a post about drone congregation areas, and my husband was questioning my terminology. Aggregation. Congregation. I understand the confusion. It’s very easy to confuse the lifestyles of honey bees with “real” bees.
Life in an aggregation
The bees in the aggregation were busily coming and going, carrying tiny yellow-powdered legs. Each shimmied down her personal pit while, above, a bevy of red-tailed cuckoo bees hovered barely above the ground, waiting for a female to leave her nest unguarded. As soon as one left on her next foraging trip, a cuckoo would dive in to lay her egg on the homeowner’s provisions. Such drama. Human thugs in no way have a corner on the home invasion market.
We leashed the dog and stepped around the bees so as not to collapse their tumuli. Tumuli, those little mounds of excavated dirt that surround each hole, offer some protection from sluicing rains that might flood the hole. A pounding rain the previous evening had flattened some of the mounds and pockmarked the surrounding soil. But now the bees were rebuilding and fresh soil was piled on top of the old.
Back to the bees
Once home, I stowed away the dog and husband, collected my camera, and proceeded back to the aggregation. Although they are both polite about my predilection for stalking six-legged things that sting, you can see their relief when I take off on my own. Back at the aggregation, I scrunched down low and waited.
The pollen-laden bees returning from a foraging trip often tried two or three holes before finding the right one. Sometimes one would disappear down a hatch, only to reappear a second later. Whoops. Wrong hole. Sometimes a bee would try several before finding the right one. When she finally found the proper address, she vanished—sometimes for several minutes—before reappearing with bare legs and empty scopae, ready to do it all again.
Sweat bees and their cuckoos
The bees here appear to be in the genus Halictus, medium-sized sweat bees that are prolific pollinators of a wide variety of plants. They carry pollen on their hind legs as well as along the sides of their abdomen. I could sit in the fragrant warm breeze for hours, watching them struggle to raise the next generation.
The cuckoo bees are in the genus Sphecodes and are regular nest parasites of Halictus bees. The cuckoos are fascinating in their own right, and they are some of the most beautiful of all the bee species. I don’t mind seeing them because both the host and the specific parasite are signs of a healthy ecosystem, working the way it was designed to work.
Sharing the forest
Although I am famously unafraid of the forest and have done my share of solo backpacking, I had recently read about the bicyclist who was attacked and killed by a cougar up in North Bend. That report, coupled with the cougar tracks I had seen in this same spot last winter, entered my mind from time to time as I watched the bees. Now and then I would glance at the steep bluff that rose above my head, wondering. Then I shrugged it off. If a cougar wanted to pounce off the cliff and have me for snack, there was little I could do about it. So why worry? I continued to photograph the bees.
The very next day as we once again approached the aggregation of tiny holes, we stopped long enough to tether the dog. I took only a few more steps before I stopped dead in my tracks. There, in the road ahead, was an enormous black bear. My gasp was echoed by my husband who spotted him at the same instant. The dog was oblivious.
The bear was big, we estimate 250-300 pounds, standing upright in the logging road and giving us the once-over. Almost immediately he—or maybe she—dropped down on all four and lumbered into the trees not far from my upper hives. We could hear it thrash through the understory for a minute or so, and then all was quiet.
End of the story
That is the end of the story, at least for now. My hives are still intact, and the cougars, bears, and bees persist in the day-to-day drama of surviving in world that is rapidly closing in on them. I am a mere visitor, grateful for the brief encounters into their lives and thankful to see one more aggregation of tiny holes .
Honey Bee Suite