All about bees

“One day I think I know everything there is to know until one day I wake up and realize I know nothing.” Anonymous

When I was 29, I distinctly remember thinking to myself that I knew all there was to know in life. Then I gave birth to my first child and all that thinking was turned on its head, for with her birth a whole new world was opened to me, and with each step along the way there was a new discovery.

The natural world is much like that. Whether I learn on my own out in the woods, fields and gardens, or through books, I am continually astounded by what I do not know. Insects and plants seem to appear out of nowhere to teach me the truth of how amazingly mysterious life really is.

Author Dave Goulson exemplifies the true naturalist who, from childhood, was examining frogs, birds, insects, even road kill, in his own childish way; and he was most fortunate to have parents who indulged him. I, too, was fortunate to have such patient parents who allowed me to do similar things, like getting milkweed leaves for my Monarch caterpillars on a long road trip, stopping every hour or so for fresh leaves. Back then, before extreme mowing or herbiciding, milkweed was found all along the major highways. Imagine that!

Goulson is a particularly curious British chap who, as a grown man, worked with Ph.D. candidates, and together they studied all sorts of peculiar insects, especially butterflies and bees. His books, “A Buzz in the Meadow” and “A Sting in the Tale” have taught me things I never knew and expanded my feelings of awe for wild things even more than before. I knew very little about bumblebees until I read his books, and I will never look at bees the same as I used to. In fact, I can hardly wait to examine them more closely this year now that I know more about them.

You may notice bees of many different sizes and colors on your flowers. A few of these will be actual bumblebees, native to our country, but others, such as the honeybee, were brought here by settlers in the 17th century. Among many other fascinating bees, native and non-native, there are the Mason bees. Mason bees are just the females convert clay into cement-like material. Some may choose to build inside empty snail shells, in flower pots, or old wood piles, and some line each nest with snips of flower petals. To me, their structures are not only works of art but labors of love, as well.

Mining bees are black with long hair, or as Goulson calls it, fur. They are very important pollinators, and not to be feared so long as you keep your distance. The female (queen) digs a long branching tunnel in the soil, creates a brood cell (for the egg) at the end of each branch, and stocks each cell with pollen balls and nectar pots as food for larva after hatching. Then she lays one egg on each pollen ball in each cell, and then the cell is sealed. As the larva develops, it eats the pollen and the nectar which had been provided by the queen mother. A loving act ? Or an act of survival ? Likely both...

Bees are very private and tend to create their nests in obscure, out of the way places such vole holes in meadows and fields, but now and then, we will find them in our compost piles. Our tendency to fear anything that stings can be a real problem for bees, as well as for the healthy pollination of our flowers, fruits and vegetables. Rather than destroying the first bee nest we see, I suggest we get curious and watch the behaviors of the residents closely. Even wasps and hornets are important for the control of things like bean beetles and asparagus beetles. I no longer have such pests due to my tolerance, and appreciation, of my wild winged neighbors (one exception being the yellow jacket !)

There are 25,000 known species of bee, some as tiny as a grain of rice, and others huge and furry (in Alaska). All of them are essential for life to continue as we know it on this earth, many of them pollinating only specific plants. Without them there would be far fewer seeds, unless, of course, we employ human pollinators with tiny paint brushes or vibrating wands as some countries like Australia do. However, without pollinators we would have fewer wildflowers, just squash and cucumbers, and we would be spending all day out in our gardens with our paintbrushes and wands!

Did you know that bees get high on the alcohol content of the nectar in flowers they feed on? Perhaps that is why I see them fall asleep, after a long day, on the last flower they suck. Perhaps that is also why they are slow to awaken until the flowers warm up and the nectar ferments. Who knows? It is all a great mystery, unless you are a botanist/entomologist who spends hours trying to find out why bees have smelly feet. Yes, smelly feet.

Next I will continue to explore with you some of the bizarre, little known, truths of the amazingly mysterious insects we are all curious about, especially anyone who is reading this article, or you who are investigating the natural world in your own mysterious way. Through curiosity most discoveries are made, and if we all got more curious, along with our children, we just might heal our world, and ourselves.

A honey bee enjoying the nectar of a plant

This winter I found a large cocoon (size of a large lemon) attached to a twig down by the chicken coop. I feel lucky to have even seen it as it is covered with dead leaves and looks very much like nothing special. However, having seen such cocoons in years past I recognized it immediately as that of a magnificent large moth. Excitedly, I broke off the twig and brought it up to the porch where I stood it upright in a sturdy container for observation.

With the warmth of early to mid-spring, one of three moths will emerge from this cocoon: Cecropia, Polyphemus, or Promethea. I am excited to see what it will be, but until then, it remains a mystery.

I have found in all my years of observation and discovery that most things we take for granted in nature happen in secret. Like most creatures, including the human creature, insects have very private personal lives. Not only that, they are all specialized with particular talents, and most of them make significant contributions to the quality of life as we know it on this amazingly mysterious Earth.

In my last essay, I left the reader hanging when I said that bees have “stinky feet.” With my apologies to Dr. Dave Goulson who discovered this peculiar trait in bees, I will proceed to explain why bees have “smelly,” not “stinky” feet. Smelly is not always stinky. Sorry, Dave.

So what does Dr. Goulson mean when he speaks of smelly feet? As he was observing the behavior of bees in his extensive meadows in France, he found that bees are very particular as to which flowers they feed on. Not only do different species of bees specialize in specific types of flowers to suck, but they seem to know, somehow, whether a particular flower has recently been fed on by another bee. Perhaps you have observed in your own gardens bees hovering by a perfectly fresh looking flower, but passing it up for another. I know I have seen this, and often wondered about it.

Dave Goulson set about the “fiddly business” of measuring the the quantity of nectar in the rejected flowers and found that they had less nectar in them than the chosen flowers. Somehow bees knew which flowers had the most rewards, but how were they doing it? Much like we humans, bees are very busy and have no time to waste sucking dry flowers. Of course, the flowers they reject eventually create more nectar so perhaps that same bee will come back to suck later.

So now we have two mysteries to solve. First, why are bees in such a hurry with no time to waste (in other words, busy?) And what are those smelly feet all about anyway?

First of all, in flight a bumblebee flaps its wings 200 times per second, according to bee experts like Dr. Goulson. This generates a lot of heat which it needs to keep its body temperature at least 30 degrees Centigrade; but of course this comes at a cost: bumblebee flight is enormously expensive in terms of the energy it uses. A bumblebee with a full stomach is only ever about 40 minutes from starvation and so cannot waste energy sucking at dry flowers or it may perish before the days end. So you thought it was difficult being a human when the car breaks down and you have to put hard earned money and precious time and energy into fixing it. I guess bees and humans are not so different after all!

But what about those smelly feet? As it turns out, after examining the feet of bees Dr. Goulson discovered that every bee, in fact every insect, leaves a trace of oily liquid wherever they go. So bees, even butterflies, leave a footprint wherever they land, which is then detected by the antennae of other pollinators. Antennae of insects are finely tuned to detecting the oily traces and can readily “smell” just a few molecules in the air around a flower and on the petals themselves. This amazing built in mechanism saves the bee time and energy that would be wasted climbing inside empty flowers.I must confess, now I am worried more than ever as to how lawn chemicals and herbicides might interfere with and even kill these important, sensitive, insects.

There is much about the natural world most of us do not know, and what I have written here barely scratches the surface. I don't know about you, but I will never look at my flowers, and the insects that depend on them, the same this spring and summer. So, enjoy the emerging beauty in your gardens and the world at large. And never lose your curiosity or your sense of wonder, for that is equally a part of our natural heritage — even smelly feet!

Article by Christine Maccabee, Master Naturalist

Nature Note for 5/22/2016