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Planting a garden for leafcutting bees

Whenever I write about leafcutters, someone from the Entomological Society of America writes to remind me that the official common name is “leafcutting” bees. To me, the phrase “official common name” is an oxymoron. The official name is the Latin scientific name, and the common name is what the local people call it.

I understand that entomologists want to reduce confusion, but isn’t that what the Latin name is for? I simply love to hear local variations in names. Furthermore, I think that insisting on a “official” common name destroys a rich treasure trove of vocabulary.

My favorite example is a gem. The group of insect pollinators that we northerners call “hover flies” are often referred to in the southeastern states as “steady bees.” Now granted, a hover fly is not a bee, but once you see one of these creatures defy gravity, you know exactly what either group is referring to, right?

Leafcutters are fun to watch

As winter approaches I like to think about my pollinator garden. This year I’m fixated on leafcutters. As far as wild and native bees go, I think the leafcutters are one of the most charming groups. The way they hold up their pollen-coated abdomens is absolutely endearing. Their arched backs always remind me of gymnasts and dancers.

Two summers ago, in 2015, I had a succession of leafcutter species all season long, one right after the other. This past year, I had some but not nearly as many. So I’ve been doing some research to find out exactly what to plant for them.

Leafcutting bees are closely related to the so-called mason bees. They are both in the family Megachilidae (which means “large jaws”). Most of these species live in cavities, so it is easy to get them to nest in tubes, reeds, and straws.

Most of the leafcutting bees are in the genus Megachile (meg-uh-KYLE-ee). They collect and store pollen much like other natives, but they cut circles out of leaves and petals to use for nesting materials. If you are quick, you can sometimes see them carve the discs and fly away with them. Or you can see them arrive at their nest and force the piece into the nesting tube. The pieces are used to line the nest, build partitions, and close off the entrance.

Alfalfa leafcutters are small and quick

Most often we hear about the alfalfa leafcutting bee (Megachile rotundata), an introduced species. They’ve escaped from the alfalfa (lucerne) fields they were imported to pollinate, and now they occupy a wide range of habitats. These small bees are quick and not nearly as spectacular in appearance as some of the native species, but they are still fun to watch.

I will never forget standing in an alfalfa leafcutter domicile in eastern Washington, inhaling the fragrance of fresh-cut alfalfa wafting from the nests. The leafcutters zoomed to and from the domicile with the frenzied gentleness of a honey bee swarm, completely ignoring me.

Most of the leafcutters I have here at my place are larger than the alfalfa leafcutters, more similar in size to a honey bee. But leafcutting bees have a different physical presence. As I mentioned before, they hold their abdomens aloft, giving them an arched appearance. And they often hold their wings out to the side as they forage. Their abdomens are large, rounded on the bottom, and often laden with pollen.

Attract leafcutters with the things they need

To attract leafcutters to your garden, you need to provide the things most bees require: sources of pollen, nectar, water, nesting sites, and building materials. Having watched leafcutters for a number of yeas, I’ve noticed that the flowers they forage on are not necessarily the same ones they use for building. I want to provide both, if I can figure out what those are.

Last year, my leafcutters loved cosmos for both building and foraging. They adored the blue bells (Campanula) for foraging, but I never saw them build with it. They used the leaves of my Clematis but never touched the flowers. This year, they frequently foraged on the open-centered dahlias, sunflowers, mints, and phacelia but never harvested any discs from those flowers. Many leafcutters love to build with the petals of Clarkia (farewell-to-spring) and some species use Clarkia exclusively.

Of course, many leafcutters get sprayed for stealing bits of rose and lilac leaves. This is sad, of course, because, although the leaves look like they were hit with a shotgun, the plant is not permanently damaged. I’ve also seen leafcutters use both the flowers and leaves of Thunbergia (black-eyed susan vine) for discs, but I don’t know if they forage there. They also use the petals of partridge pea.

What else should I plant?

So far this fall I’ve order Clarkia and Cosmos for next year. I have the dahlia tubers from this year, and I hope to get some more Campanula. If you know of anything attractive to leafcutters, I would love to hear from you.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Leafcutter-she-bee
This leafcutting bee is foraging on Phacelia. You can see the thick hairs on the underside of her abdomen. This area is used for collecting pollen. © Rusty Burlew.
Leafcutter
This is an alfalfa leafcutting bee. © Rusty Burlew.
Leafcutter-on-dahlia-4
This leafcutter is foraging on a dahlia. You can see her large mandibles (big jaws) and the edges of her hairy abdomen. Also note how she holds her wings out to the side while foraging. © Rusty Burlew.
Cosmos-with-bite-marks-Rusty-Burlew
This honey bee is foraging on a cosmos that was damaged by a leafcutter. © Rusty Burlew.

 

Why does this bee suit smell like vomit?

I don’t get many emails from nd.gov, so the ones I get tend to attract my attention. What does the state of North Dakota want with me this time? I wonder.

The sour smell of curdled milk

It turns out the message was from the curator of a history museum, and his question concerned a smelly bee suit. He explained that the museum had recently accepted a donation of a used beekeeper’s suit, but the staff was disturbed by the powerful smell. The curator described it as “baby spit up—curdled milk with the smell of stomach acid.” He said they couldn’t figure out why the suit smelled so bad or why the odor was so strong.

The curator mentioned that the suit had been used in both North Dakota and in the California almond orchards. He did some Internet research and discovered that some flowers produce bad-smelling honey, so he wondered if the foul smell could come from aster honey.

A good beekeeping mystery

First, I eliminated the aster honey: it can smell bad but not like that. Whenever I smell that sour, vomit-y smell, I’m reminded of lactic acid bacteria. If we assume the odor on the suit was not from an obvious cause—that is, the beekeeper didn’t get sick on it—I think the odor could have resulted from lactic acid bacteria living among the fibers.

Lactic acid bacteria are common organisms that decompose sugars in anaerobic (low oxygen) environments. They often cause spoilage in foods, including wine, and the scent of lactic acid bacteria is often described as “sour milk, cheesy, or rancid.”

Honey bees are loaded with lactic acid bacteria

We know that lactic acid bacteria live in the honey bee gut. In fact, researchers at Lund University in Sweden have found 13 different species living in the honey stomach of healthy bees. These bacteria metabolize sugars such as glucose, fructose, and maltose, all of which are found in nectar and honey.

Now we can assume that some of the gut bacteria are excreted in honey bee feces. And we can also assume that bee feces frequently adorns a beekeeper’s clothing, along with drips of honey and nectar.

If the suit was well-used and then stored in a low-oxygen environment such as the bottom of a plastic bucket or a toolbox in the back of a pickup, a large number of these bacteria could thrive on the bits of bee feces and the splatters of honey. Let the suit incubate in that warm, low-oxygen, food-rich environment for a few weeks and I’m sure you could nurture something that smelled really gross.

A second guess: butyric acid

I was pretty content with this theory until I remembered that some beekeepers use butyric acid to remove bees from honey supers. Butyric acid is a component of human vomit and the source of its characteristic odor. The smell is strangling and offensive, and it could very possibly be the real culprit here. The thing that confuses me is the description of “baby spit-up,” which to me is much milder than butyric acid, which is downright disgusting.

Of course, it’s impossible to establish the cause without seeing or smelling the suit in person, something I’m happy to miss. So I guess our smelly suit will remain an unpleasant mystery.

In any case, I wonder: Do people really donate filthy beekeeping suits to museums? Without washing them first? Wonders never cease.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Why does the bee suit smell like vomit?
Did the bees cause the odor or the beekeeper? Pixabay photo.

Happy Thanksgiving from Honey Bee Suite

My two favorite holidays are Independence Day and Thanksgiving. I love July 4th because I’m a natural-born pyromaniac, and I live far enough from civilization that I can light fireworks to my heart’s content. But I love Thanksgiving because it remains the least commercialized of the American holidays. I usually spend a quiet day cooking, reading, and walking in the woods.

It’s the bees who set the table

Since I’ve been keeping this website, I’ve always acknowledged the bees on Thanksgiving day. I thank them for providing us with the stunning array of foods we eat, the flowers, the trees, the seeds and all the other things they provide for us. And when I say bees, I mean all of them, from the tiniest Perdita to the great carpenters and everything in between. To them, I am eternally grateful.

Although the bees have given me the subject of this website, it is you, the readers, who have given me the reason to keep going and to persist in spite of an endless string of obstacles. Today is the day for me to thank you.

The Internet is not a friendly place

If I had known how difficult it would be to maintain a website like this, I would have never started. And this year has been the hardest yet. The Internet is a scary place in many ways, and a self-hosted website is nothing but a target. You become a bullseye for spammers, for denial of service attacks, for malware, for worms and viruses, and for just plain nastiness. And the bigger you get, the more the bad guys notice.

From the outside, it may seem like most of my time would be spent writing and researching, but it’s not like that at all. In the beginning it was, and back then I posted nearly every day. But the site evolved in a way I didn’t envision, and now I spend the bulk of my time answering beekeeper questions.

However, the biggest part of my adrenaline reserve is wasted on wondering where the next attack is coming from and what form it will take. I’m a wreck every time I access my site, wondering if it’s still there, and trying to decide what I will do if it’s not. I have a knot in my stomach that never goes away.

The ups and downs of websites

At least three times this fall my site was down for the better part of two days in a row, and each time I wondered if I would ever get it back. It’s a crazy, helpless feeling when the thing you’ve built for seven years just disappears.

So the little website that was almost free in the beginning now runs up an incredible tab. I pay for professional grade hosting and backups and spam filters. I pay another company for a firewall, malware detection, monitoring, and a second set of backups. And I pay another company for high-speed Internet and another firewall.

And because of reliability issues, I also pay to have my subscriptions delivered. In addition, I’m in the process of adding a photo site to store and distribute the photos you keep requesting. It’s a spiral. And I’ve just been told I should hire a professional to optimize the site, due to a seven-year accumulation of useless code that gets in the way.

On keeping promises

I made a promise to myself right from the beginning, that I would keep this site secure for both me and you. I never want a reader to worry about malware or viruses. I’ve vowed to keep the content polite, civil, and as accurate as possible. I vowed to have no garish display ads or pop-ups that push the text out of view or prevent you from leaving. In fact, anything that bothers me as a reader is permanently banned.

So when Thanksgiving rolls around each year, the people most in my mind are the donors who have kept me up and running for another year. I can guarantee that without your generous support, this site would cease to exist in a heartbeat.

And as I’ve explained to many of you, it’s not only the money but the vote of confidence that a donation provides. Your votes keep me slogging through the bad times, the blank screens, and the nasty emails. To you generous folks I send my heartfelt thanks and a sincere wish that your Thanksgiving is filled with joy and happiness.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Pumpkins and squash for a happy thanksgiving
Bees of many types pollinate pumpkins and other squash. Pixabay photo.

Thirty-four gift ideas for beekeepers

This year I’m dividing the gift ideas for beekeepers into categories to make searching a little easier. With one exception, all the items on the list are things I use myself, and they have received my seal of approval. Some of the items are inexpensive “stocking stuffers” and some are more expensive, but each can be used time and again by a beekeeper.

Books

    • Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley: This is the book to read if you want to understand swarms and swarming. Although swarms may seem random at first, Honeybee Democracy clearly explains the highly organized maneuver of colony reproduction.
    • The Buzz About Bees by Jurgen Tautz: The Buzz About Bees takes you inside the beehive and explains how bees work and how the colony operates. In spite of the title, this is not a children’s book. Outstanding photographs throughout.
    • Simple, Smart Beekeeping by Traynor & Traynor: This is an excellent beginner book with top-notch illustrations. If there is someone on your gift list who is new to beekeeping, Simple, Smart Beekeeping would be a great place to start.
    • The Bees in Your Backyard by Wilson & Carril: After people start to keep honey bees, they invariably become aware of all the other bees in their backyard. The Bees in Your Backyard will help answer their questions and identify many of those bees.

Beekeeping

    • Bee Brush: Bee brushes are especially soft so you won’t injure your bees. Still, learn to use them properly and brush up, not down.
    • Hive tool: The standard hive tool that comes with beginner kits is definitely not my favorite. The only hive tool I use is the one with a J-hook on one end. I couldn’t keep bees without it.
    • Swarm Commander: This is my go-to swarm lure. Although it may seem expensive at first, catching just one swarm will more than pay for it. Just spray Swarm Commander into a swarm trap or bait hive and wait. My first bottle returned a total of eight swarms.
    • Essential Oils: If you like to use essential oils as bee supplements and attractants, 100PureEssentailOils.com has many types at reasonable prices. I’ve purchased from them many times with no problem. My favorite bee attractant is anise oil.
    • Everclear: Unlike isopropyl alcohol, pure grain alcohol is non-toxic. When I’m cleaning propolis from things that don’t need it, including my skin, I prefer the non-toxic stuff. Everclear can be found at most liquor stores and, depending on your state, is available in 151 or 190 proof. You can also use it to make your own swarm lures from dead queens.
    • Sugar: Beekeepers need sugar for a variety of reasons, including candy boards, syrup, queen corks, and fondant. Whenever sugar is on sale, I stock up on fifty-pound bags of plain white refined sugar. It may sound like an odd gift, but a few fifty-pound bags would certainly be memorable.
    • Ratcheting tie-down: I use tie-downs to strap my hives together rather than a brick or stone. I also use them for moving hives on a hand truck or a pickup truck, and I even use them to strap my ladder to a tree when I’m inspecting a swarm trap. I like the kind without hooks on the end (called endless loop tie-downs), but they are harder to find.
    • Propane Torch: I love a propane torch for lighting a smoker because it is fast and efficient. Don’t forget to give a canister of propane along with it.
    • Smoker Pellets: Whether you use a torch or not, KwikStart Smoker Pellets make lighting any smoker easy, and they give off lots of cool, white smoke.
    • Organic Beeswax: People often want a source of organic beeswax to brush on their plastic foundation to lessen the amount of pesticides in the hive. This pure beeswax can also be used for cosmetics.
    • Uncapping Knife: If you extract your honey, a good uncapping knife is indispensable. This stainless steel version is sharp and has a nice feel to it.
    • Honey Sieve: For getting wax debris and bee bits out of your extracted honey, this double stainless steel sieve works well.

Electronic

    • IR Camera: This is the new must-have gadget for beekeepers. You can get attachment cameras like the Flir that work with iPhones and Androids. All winter long the infra-red photos allow you to see exactly where your colony is, how big it is, and whether or not anyone else (like a mouse) is living in there too. (In case you were wondering, this is the one exception. I’m hoping to get a Flir, but I don’t have one yet.)
    • Broodminder-TH: Using Bluetooth technology, the Broodminder-TH allows you to monitor both the temperature and humidity inside your hive with a glance at your smart phone.
    • Broodminder-W: This ingenious scale weighs your hive once every hour for six months before you need to replace the button battery. The information is sent directly to your smart phone.
    • Microscope with Camera: Until I got a microscope, I didn’t realize how handy they can be for beekeeping. With a power of just 400x you can do your own Nosema testing, you can see bee anatomy up close and personal, and you can gaze at the remarkable architecture of pollen grains. Most modern microscopes come with cameras that attach to your computer so you can save and share your images.

Beeswax Crafting

    • Paint Strainers: You can usually get two sizes, one or five gallons, that are designed to fit inside plastic buckets. They are great for straining honey, liquid wax, or even paint. You can find paint strainers at stores like Home Depot, or at Amazon.com.
    • Double Boiler: Nice to have for melting wax. Don’t go for an expensive one, though. They will be pretty much useless for anything else after the first melt.
    • Crock Pot: Another excellent way to render beeswax. As with the double boiler, though, it’s best to have a separate one for melting wax. These get messy in a hurry.

Protective Clothing

    • Bee Suit: I especially like the Natural Apiary bee suits. They carry several different weights, but the most inexpensive one has served me well. My favorite is the camouflage print. I’ve had fewer stinging incidents with the camouflage (don’t ask me why) but the best part is that wax/propolis/bee poop/and honey stains hardly show. White and other colors are also available.
    • Bug Baffler: This two-piece lightweight suit is made of fine mesh often referred to as “no-see-em” netting. Although not as durable as a cotton suit, I like the Bug Baffler for quick jobs in the apiary, especially on hot or humid days. For some reason, I’ve never gotten stung through this suit. I think there is something about the netting that confuses the bees.
    • Velcro ankle straps: I like to use these when I’m wearing jeans. They keep the little angels from crawling up your legs.

Workshop/Honey House

    • Hardware Cloth: Hardware cloth of various dimensions is always useful around an apiary. I use #8 (eight holes per inch) most frequently for things like bottom boards, inner covers, ventilation ports, robbing screens, and queen cages. Ten-foot rolls are available.
    • Electric Drill: Every beekeeper needs either an electric or pneumatic drill and a good selection of drill bits and attachments, including screw drivers and hole saws. Building stuff for the bees is one of the best parts of beekeeping.
    • Fluorescent Green Spray Paint: for those beekeepers who like to trap drones for mite control, this is an excellent way to mark those frames for easy removal. Look for spray paint at Home Depot or other hardware stores.

Gardening

    • Yellowjacket Traps: The best traps are made with pheromone lures that attract wasps, hornets, and yellowjackets but are completly unappealing to bees. My favorite is the standard Rescue! trap. The traps can be used many years by adding fresh pheromones that can be purchased separately.
    • Butterfly Net: I use a butterfly net for catching bees for identification, trapping and killing hive predators such as wasps, and even removing honey bees from inside the house. A long handle is good for bees trapped in skylights. Butterfly nets come in all sizes and prices. One good source is the Educational Science Online Store.
    • Seeds or seed mixtures: All beekeepers love seeds and are always looking for just the right thing to plant for their bees. You can buy individual varieties such as cosmos or borage, or go for a seed mixture designed for your local area. I like Wildseed Farms for good regional mixes.
    • Flowering trees or shrubs: Need to feed a crowd (of bees)? Try planting a bee-friendly flowering tree or shrub such as cherry laurel, black locust, or California lilac (Ceanothus). Be sure the tree is adapted to the local area.
    • Native Bee Condo: Enthralled by honey bees? All the other bees are interesting too. A simple mason bee condo is fascinating to watch and is a unique addition to any garden, large or small.

I hope this list will give you some ideas for yourself or your favorite beekeeper. Most of these items are not beekeeping necessities, for sure. But they are fun to have and sometimes make your beekeeping life easier.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Gift ideas for Beekeepers: The BroodMinder
The Broodminder-TH sends temperature and humidity readings to the beekeeper’s smart phone. Photo courtesy of Broodminder.com.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

How the inverse square law governs the distribution of bee poop

A while back I received an intriguing letter from a homeowner complaining about his neighbor’s beehives. The letter said, in part, “This year the landowner at the rear of my house installed approximately fifteen hives. Consequently, for three months now my house and cars have been smothered in bee poop. The beekeeper has said he will move the hives further along the field and this may alleviate the problem. I wonder if this is true. The nuisance is prolific; all my windows need cleaning daily as well as the cars.”

When I read the letter to my husband, he replied in true engineer fashion, “Tell him the inverse square law applies here.” So helpful.

The gist of the inverse square law

The inverse square law states that “the intensity of an effect such as illumination or gravitational force changes in inverse proportion to the square of the distance from the source.” Loosely (very loosely) translated that means that as you get further and further from the source of the problem, its effect gets less and less.

How the inverse square law explains bee poop.
Imagine S is the hive and each red arrow is a bee.Borb [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
While the inverse square law works really well for some things like light and radio waves, it works less so with bees. Still, it’s worth taking a look at this neat little diagram I borrowed from Wikipedia. If S is the source (the hive), and each little red arrow represents a bee, you can see that as the you get further from the hive, the bees become further apart. Bees that are further apart will deposit less poop per unit of area.

So in theory, at least, if the beekeeper moves the hives further away from his neighbor’s house, less bee poop should land on the neighbor’s windows.

Bees do not behave like electromagnetic waves

Unfortunately, unlike electromagnetic waves, bees have a mind of their own, and they do not radiate in perfectly straight beelines from a specific point and keep going forever. Nope. Bees have ideas, and ideas are antithetical to the laws of physics.

Will more distance reduce bee poop?

I can think of several reasons the inverse square law might come up short (or not) in this situation. Let’s take a look of some of the obvious ones. Bear in mind, they are all speculation on my part.

  • Honey bees, I believe, are more apt to drop their load soon after leaving the hive. Carrying it any further than necessary would be energy wasteful, and biological systems do not waste energy. If this is the case, moving the hives further away might help a lot.
  • Honey bees do not radiate evenly from the hive, but go in chosen directions. If a field is in bloom on the other side of the neighbor’s house, the bees may all go there at the same time. Thus, time of the year would play a big part in how much poop landed on the target windows.
  • I learned in master beekeeping class that honey bees compensate for wind speed and direction while navigating. While I haven’t worked out the details, it looks like the wind could have a substantial effect on their flight path.
  • Bees fly around objects. Obstacles in the bees’ path could hurt or help the homeowner, depending on where they are. If trees or buildings funnel the bees over the house, that is bad. If they funnel the bees away from the house, that would be good. Perhaps the homeowner could build a wall around his property. I understand there are people in government who could help.

My answer to the homeowner

When I finally I answered the letter, I wrote:

The inverse square law states that “the intensity of an effect such as illumination or gravitational force changes in inverse proportion to the square of the distance from the source.” This law applies to bee poop as well, with some exceptions.

Because of the inverse square law, a little further away could make a big difference in the number of droppings. Also, I think most bees drop their load soon after they leave the hive, which should also help.

But if the bees are traveling to a certain area, say a field or orchard, and they are passing over your place to get there, the decrease may not be as great as expected. So ultimately, it is impossible to answer your question.

I would recommend that you encourage the beekeeper to move his hives and see if that works. I think there is a good chance it will help. Try to work it out with him because these situations can get messy if you decide to use the courts. If you are reasonable, he may be reasonable too. We hope. And hit him up for some honey when you talk to him. Even if you don’t like honey, it makes a great gift for your friends.

So there you have it. A day in the life of a bee blogger. I never heard from him again, probably because he thinks I’m nuts.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite