An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Honeybees

Flight of the Bumblebee

bumblebee and turtlehead 049A4838If you examine plants that are still flowering this late in the season (such as asters, goldenrod and late-blooming turtlehead) early in the morning when it’s still quite cool or late in the day, many of the pollinators you see will be bumblebees, not honey bees. One reason for this is that they have different temperature tolerances for flight. You rarely see a honey bee when the temperature is below 57°F as they cannot fly when it is this cool. Bumblebees, however, are capable of flight when the air temperature is as low as 50°F.

Even so, bumblebees cannot take off unless their flight muscles are above 86°F; they maintain the temperature of their thorax (where wings and wing muscles are located) between 86°F and 104°F regardless of the ambient temperature. The way in which they raise the temperature of their thorax involves uncoupling their wing muscles so that the wings themselves do not move. They then use their wing muscles to shiver and raise the temperature of their thorax until it’s sufficiently warm enough for them to fly.

At rest a bumblebee’s body temperature will fall to that of its surroundings. If it is cool out, and the bumblebee wants to take flight, you can actually see its abdomen pumping to ventilate the flight muscles. An entomologist studying this phenomenon discovered that the rate of pumping can give an indication of the temperature of the bee. It ranges from around 1 pump per second when the bee is 86°F, to 6 pumps per second when it reaches 95°F.


Eastern Cottonwoods & European Honey Bees

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One species of tree you might encounter if you’re in a floodplain is the Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoids), a member of the Willow family and the Poplar genus. Because it can tolerate flooding, it often grows near river banks and disturbed wet areas. The buds of Eastern Cottonwood are large and somewhat sticky, due to the resin that they contain. Resin exudes from the buds during the fall as well as the spring, and is evident even in winter when you see it frozen in droplets on the buds (see photo). In trees, resin serves to seal wounds and defend against bacteria, fungi and insects.

European Honey Bees discovered that the properties of cottonwood resin which benefitted cottonwood trees could also benefit them. They collect the resin from the outside of Eastern Cottonwood buds, mix it with wax and apply it to the walls of their nest cavity. This “bee glue” is referred to as propolis, and, as it turns out, serves as an antimicrobial barrier as well as a sealant. Various bacteria, fungi and other harmful microbes are kept at bay by the resin contained in propolis. It also directly reduces two diseases of Honey Bees, chalkbrood and American foulbrood.

Interestingly, if a mouse or small rodent happens to die inside a hive, and the bees can’t remove it through the hive entrance, they often seal the carcass inside an envelope of propolis.  This prevents the hive from being affected by the mouse’s decomposition.

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White-margined Burrower Bugs Soon To Hibernate

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White-margined Burrower Bugs (Sehirus cinctus) are true bugs, members of the order Hemiptera. The red and black bugs in this photograph are immature nymphs and have molted once. Their coloring serves as a warning to would-be predators that they are at the very least distasteful, and possibly poisonous. Adult White-margined Burrower Bugs are roughly ¼” long, and black with a white margin (not visible in photo) along the edges of their forewings.

These bugs feed on the seeds of plants in the mint and nettle families. Being true bugs, they feed not by chewing but by piercing seeds with a sharp beak, injecting digestive enzymes, and then sucking in the partially digested food.

White-margined Burrower Bugs are fairly unusual for non-social insects in that the mothers provide care and provisions for their young, much like social insects such as ants, paper wasps and honeybees. The adults dig shallow burrows into which they place a supply of seeds and lay between 120 and 150 eggs next to the seeds. They guard their eggs and brood and bring more seeds as needed for 1-3 days after the eggs hatch. At this point, the young bugs can forage for themselves.

Adults dig down into the leaf litter in late fall, where they overwinter and emerge next spring ready to mate. If you see a large cluster of White-margined Burrowers Beetles, do not be alarmed, as they do not bite nor are they interested in eating anything but species of mint and nettle.

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Black Bears Seeking Protein

9-2 hornet nest torn by bear 083Although insects and animal matter make up less than 10% of the annual black bear diet, they are a crucial part of it. Black bears get most of their animal protein from ant brood, hornet larvae, tent caterpillars, march fly larvae, grubs (especially June beetle grubs), and snow fleas. Among the most preferred sources are bee and hornet larvae. Berries and other fruit don’t have a great amount of protein, but they do have some (blackberries = 2 grams of protein per cup). If the summer berry crops fail, insect brood is especially important, especially at this time of year, when bears are seeking protein, fats and carbohydrates, putting on as much as 30 pounds per week to sustain themselves through the coming months of hibernation.

When tearing apart a beehive, yellow jacket nest or bald-faced hornet nest (see photo), bears do get stung, particularly on their ears and faces (their fur is fairly impenetrable). Apparently the reward is worth the aggravation. After filling themselves with brood (and in some cases, honey) black bears shake vigorously in order to rid themselves of any insects that are caught in their fur.(Thanks to Alfred Balch for photo op.)

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button.


Goldenrod Crucial To Honeybee Survival

8-13  honeybee and goldenrod 028Goldenrod is one of the most important flowering plants for honeybees because it is a prolific producer of nectar and pollen late in the year. Blooming in the late summer and fall, this bright yellow-flowered composite provides nectar for the bees to build up stores of honey for winter. (Goldenrod honey is dark amber and strong tasting.) Goldenrod also provides pollen to help stimulate the colony to produce brood late into the fall. The pollen adds considerable amounts of protein, fats, and minerals to the diet of the late-season bees, helping ensure that they will have food throughout the winter.

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Sacrificial Honeybee Drones

6-26-15 drone 039A honeybee colony has one (fertile, egg-laying) queen, several hundred male drones and thousands of (sterile) female worker bees. The drone’s one and only function is to mate with and fertilize a queen. (They do no work in the hive, and are fed by workers until fall.) Early in a queen’s life, she makes several mating, or nuptial, flights. On these flights, she mates — in midair about 200-300 feet high — with anywhere from one to more than 40 drones. They are usually not from the queen’s hive, but may be from several other hives. The average number of drones with which a queen mates is 12. The queen stores up to six million sperm from her mating flights, and retains them for the remainder of her life — two to three years, for a long-lived queen. (Recent research shows that the more times a queen mates, the more attractive she is to her worker bees, due to pheromone alterations, and thus, the longer she lives before being replaced.)

While the queen may live several years after mating, the few drones that manage to partner with her do not, for they die after mating. Although brief, honeybee mating is dramatic. The drone inserts his endophallus (internal penis) into the queen’s sting chamber and with great force injects his sperm into her. The force with which this is done is so powerful that it ruptures the endophallus, separating the drone from the queen. The drone dies shortly thereafter. (At this time of year, honeybee hives often swarm due to overcrowding, with the old queen departing with half of the hive; a new, virgin queen then takes her nuptial flights.) Photo: A drone honeybee which lost its life after successfully mating with a queen. Discovered and photographed by Boston Beekeeper Association founder, Sadie Richards Brown.

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Exposed Honeybee Colony

honeycomb IMG_5036In the Northeast, honeybees typically choose a protected site such as a hollow tree in which to build their hive. Harsh winters demand this protection. Infrequently you will see where an attempt has been made to survive the elements without anything to contain the heat that the honeybees produce by shivering, or to block the wind, snow or sleet. Inevitably, this far north, the colony does not survive the winter.

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New England Aster Providing Bees with Late Season Nectar & Pollen

10-13-14 new england aster & bumblebee 356At a time of year when nectar and pollen sources are few and far between, New England Aster provides many species of bees with food. This composite seems designed specifically for easy pollination. Its open, wide flower shape provides a flat surface for insects to land on, and because the nectar and pollen are not hidden deep inside the flowers, both long- and short-tongue bee species can easily access them. Unlike honeybees, bumblebees do not have a large store of honey in their nests, so they need pollen and nectar throughout the season. Thus, the few flowers such as New England Aster that blossom as late as October are visited frequently and in large numbers. (Only the queen bumblebee overwinters, but the workers continue collecting nectar and pollen up until they die in late fall.)

New England Aster flowers close at night, when there are fewer pollinating insects flying. If an unusually cool period arrives during the time when New England Aster is blooming, the blossoms also close. Although it may seem that the aster is losing pollination opportunities during a cold day, bees are not very active in cool weather.

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Viper’s Bugloss Flowering

7-9-14 viper's bugloss093Even if it weren’t such a beautiful and vibrantly-colored flower, Viper’s Bugloss, Echium vulgare, would be notable just for its name. “Bugloss” is of Greek origin, from a word signifying an ox’s tongue, and alludes to the roughness and shape of the plant’s leaves. Some say the dead flower-head and/or seed resemble a snake, and in the 1600’s this plant provided a popular cure for snake bites. A long-flowering (all summer and into the fall) member of the Boraginaceae family, Viper’s Bugloss is particularly popular with bees. It produces nectar throughout the day, unlike most plants which produce nectar for a short period of time. With an unlimited supply of Viper’s Bugloss, honeybees can collect between 12 and 20 pounds of nectar a day.

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Honeybee Scavenger

2-10-14 chickadee & bee33 174If the weather warms up sufficiently in January or February, honeybees take advantage of it and use this opportunity to leave their hive to rid themselves of waste that they have accumulated since their last flight and to remove the bodies of dead honeybees. They don’t fly very far before dropping either their waste or their dead comrades on the snow. This ritual is quickly noted and taken advantage of by animals that are not hive dwellers and need constant fuel in order to survive the cold. Black-capped chickadees are one of these animals – the chickadee in this photograph repeatedly landed on the hive body, and if a dead bee was available at the hive entrance, the chickadee helped itself to it. Otherwise it would survey the snow in front of the hive and then dart down to scoop up a bee in its beak before flying off to a branch to consume its nutritious meal. (Note dead bees at the hive opening, awaiting being taken on their final flight. Screening keeps mice out, but allows bee to enter and exit.) Thanks to Chiho Kaneko and Jeffrey Hamelman for photo op.

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Chicory Pollinators

7-19-13 chicory pollenTwenty minutes of observing air-borne visitors to a patch of roadside Chicory revealed nine different species of pollinators, including bees, flies and beetles. Most of the insects were bees, which makes sense, as honeybees, leafcutting bees and ground-nesting bees are the primary pollinators of this flower. Without exception, all of the pollinating insects were covered from head to toe with Chicory’s white pollen grains. As they circled the flowers’ stamens collecting pollen, the insects’ bodies were inadvertently dusted with some of it. Thanks to these diligent pollen-collectors and transporters, American Goldfinches and other seed-eating birds will be feeding on Chicory seeds come winter. (Electron microscopy by Igor Siwanowic and Scienceworks.)


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Milkweed Visitors

Milkweed is in full bloom right now, presenting the perfect opportunity for young and old alike to discover the multitude of butterflies, beetles, bees and other insects that are attracted to these magnificent flowers. If you visit a milkweed patch, don’t leave before getting a good whiff of the flowers’ scent – one of the sweetest on earth. How many of the insects you find are carrying milkweed’s yellow pollen “saddlebags” on their feet? You might want to check out my children’s book, MILKWEED VISITORS, which I wrote after spending the better part of one summer photographing the various insects I found visiting a milkweed patch. ( http://basrelief.org/Pages/MV.html )


Honeybee Hives

Rarely do you see or hear about honeybees attempting to construct a hive outdoors that isn’t inside a hollow “bee tree” or in a rock crevice.  Occasionally they do attempt it, but as the empty cells in this exposed comb attest to, honeybees aren’t likely to make it through a Vermont winter without some shelter for their hive, even a winter as mild as the one we just experienced.