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Stalking an aggregation of tiny holes

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 .

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

This aggregation of tiny holes is right in the middle of a gravelly logging road, in a sunny flat spot.
This aggregation of tiny holes is right in the middle of a gravelly logging road, in a sunny flat spot.
A hard rain the night before flattened the tumuli (the mounds of dirt around the holes) but the bees began rebuilding as soon as the sun came up.
A hard rain the night before flattened the tumuli (the mounds of dirt around the holes) but the bees began rebuilding as soon as the sun came up.
The bees often cruise around just above the ground, looking for the right hole. Sometimes they go into the wrong one, only to pop out a moment later. Oops. Sorry.
The bees often cruise around just above the ground, looking for the right hole. Sometimes they go into the wrong one, only to pop out a moment later. Oops. Sorry.
This bee had to reopen the hole when she got back from foraging. For some reason, the entrance had caved in.
This bee had to reopen the hole when she got back from foraging. For some reason, the entrance had caved in.
Sometimes the bees walk around, seeming to be looking for something. Perhaps she's deciding on a new place to build.
Sometimes the bees walk around, seeming to be looking for something. Perhaps she’s deciding on a new place to build.
She looks like she belongs to the genus <em>Halictus</em>, a small sweat bee.
She looks like she belongs to the genus Halictus, a common sweat bee.
She dives in, head first.
She dives in, head first.
This <em>Sphecodes</em> cuckoo bee is a parasite on sweat bees. The cuckoo cruises around until she finds a nest where she can lay her egg on a pre-made pollen ball while the true owner is out foraging.
This Sphecodes cuckoo bee is a parasite on sweat bees. The cuckoo cruises around until she finds a nest where she can lay her egg on a pre-made pollen ball while the true owner is out foraging. This nest won’t do because the head of the owner is just below the surface.
The <em>Sphecodes</em> can often be seen sitting on the sidelines, waiting for an opportunity.
The Sphecodes can often be seen sitting on the sidelines, waiting for an opportunity.

Comments

Jennifer S Dixon
Reply

Fascinating as always to read your posts!

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Jennifer.

Granny Roberta in northwest Connecticut USA
Reply

Beautiful pictures. But where’s the pictures of the bear. And the dog. And the cougar?

Rusty
Reply

Roberta,

When one encounters a bear, one doesn’t stop to take pictures. Somewhere, though, I have a photo of the cougar tracks. I sent them into the forest service for a positive i.d.

Ray
Reply

Woah! Rusty! I was gripped by your narrative! Reading from the (complete?) safety of my UK home I am in awe of US beekeepers who regularly fend off bears from their bees! Now we have your dog/husband walks with bears and cougars. It’s one thing you guys having electric fences to ward off night time prowlers but 300lb bears, on their hind legs, in broad daylight, in front of you! Cripes! So how far away from your home are you when you made these encounters? Too far to run to safety I’m guessing! You are all very brave as far as I am concerned!!

Rusty
Reply

Ray,

When walking the trails, I’d say it’s about a mile, but as the bee flies (or the bear scrambles) I’d say it’s about a quarter-mile from home.

Annie Murphy
Reply

Thank you for the work you do and for sharing it and your insights with us! As a first year beekeeper, I have learned so much from reading your posts.

Nancy Baker
Reply

Thank you for your photography. I live in coastal Georgia, and have often seen herds? flocks? groups? of red and black insects skimming the top of the vegetation in our meadow. They are VERY fast and I have never managed to capture one for investigation. But they sure look like that last pic of the cuckoo bee. Now I have GOT to find out for sure.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Thank you Rusty. You are my favorite buzzfeed.

Glen

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Glen. I always think of you when I’m out there crawling around on the ground.

Katkoot
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Thank you for your fantastic stories. So much knowledge shared so simply and fun. My fascination with bees never ends, especially with the boosts I get from your posts.
Katerina (Katkoot)

Anna S.
Reply

Captivating story and beautiful bees! I find bears fascinating, too, but not when they get too close to my bees …

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