Sun is for foraging, but bees love shade
Last Saturday I spent the day participating in a BioBlitz as a “bee specialist.” My friend Glen Buschmann from OlyPollinators roped me into this duty and it turned out to be fun. During a BioBlitz, groups of citizen scientists record all the species they can find in a specific area in a set amount of time. Guiding the groups are people with expertise in identifying plants, animals, birds, bees, fungi, and other creatures.
As we left the study area, I asked Glen if he would like to stop by my house and see my bees. I ended up leading him from hive to hive, most of which are separated by hilly terrain and wooded, overgrown paths. I almost skipped the last one because, seriously, once you’ve seen one hive you’ve seen them all, right? But we continued to trudge up the hill, noting various plants and animals along the way.
When we arrived at the uppermost hive stand, I freaked out. No longer occupied by just one colony, the shaded deep-in-the-trees hive stand was now occupied by two. Now that’s a blitz!
Disregard the ads and live where you want
So this is the thing I love about honey bees. I had strategically placed three bait hives and three swarm traps around my property. The swarm traps are up in trees, the bait hives on the ground. They all contain swarm lures. But did this swarm pick any of those? Of course not. Instead, it chose a brood box that was sitting on a hive stand waiting to be carried down the hill.
The brood box, perched on the cover of an empty hive, contained eight old frames and was topped off with an inner cover I had taken from the occupied hive. So that’s it: just a box and an inner cover. The bees were lustily coming and going through the hole in the top. Chances are I wouldn’t have noticed this colony for days, so I named it after Glen, who was the reason I discovered it. So Glen’s hive, it is.
Breaking all the rules
The most interesting thing is that the swarm broke every rule in the book, which is precisely why I keep telling people there is no book—at least not one humans can understand.
- The books say that bees prefer sun, but this location is in dense shade for nearly the entire day. A huge big-leaf maple towers over it, and younger trees flank all sides.
- The books say that a swarm won’t move in next door to another colony because bees like to space themselves away from competition. This one is within three feet of a large, well-established colony.
- The books say a swarm prefers a location high off the ground, but this one is, at most, three feet up.
- The books assume the entrance must be on the side, but these bees were happily coming and going from the top.
Setting up a permanent hive
Anyway, I did the human thing and installed them into beekeeper-friendly housing. I moved the brood box to the side for a moment (it was incredibly heavy) and gave them a screened bottom board and slatted rack, including a lower entrance. Then I moved the brood box back into place and added a super with an upper entrance.
Being impatient, I tried to do away with the top entrance in the late afternoon by placing a telescoping cover over the inner cover. But the bees were having none of that. Within a half hour, I couldn’t even see the telescoping cover under all the bees, yet no bees were investigating the new entrances.
I ended up removing the telescoping cover and letting them use the top entrance for the rest of the day. Early this morning, while everyone was still inside, I again closed off the upper entrance by adding the telescoping cover. We’ll see if that works.
Sun vs shade for honey bees
If you read about feral honey bees, you know they like shade. Feral bees frequently reside in trees at the edge of the forest, which gives them the benefit of sunny foraging nearby but protection from hot sun. People often insist that hives be placed in early sun or all-day sun, but that is for the benefit of the beekeeper, not the bees. Beekeepers like to maximize honey production by putting the bees to work early and keeping them busy all day.
Similar to the situation with large hives, I think we get confused about what we want versus what they want. Left to their own devices, honey bees maintain small colonies in the woods. Thinking back, when I was a kid hunting for colonies with my grandfather, we didn’t search open fields, we searched in the forest among the older deciduous trees.
Deciduous trees are ideal for bees. In spring they provide a ton of forage, either pollen, or nectar, or both. In the summer they protect the bees from the hot sun. And in the winter, the leaves fall away and let the sunlight warm the hive. Not only that, but the the older trees often provide the hollow cavities where honey bees like to nest.
Sometimes we need a reminder
Glen’s hive is a reminder to me that bees love shade. Although their choice of housing seems unexpected, when you think about it, it makes total sense. Like all animals, bees want to be comfortable and protected, but they define those things in their own way.
Honey Bee Suite