The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Bees & Beekeeping: Present & Past

Bees & Beekeeping: Past & Present – March 2024 The Dangerous Lives of Foraging Bees: Part 1

- March 1, 2024 - excerpt by Wyatt Mangum

Away from the protection of the hive, foraging bees suffer a dreadfully high death rate. The various fates of the bees are not often photographed in a collection and shown to the beekeeping public. From photographs saved in various dedicated folders since 1998 (on a succession of hard drives), we will see how bees died or when they could have suddenly been killed. For most of the upcoming photographs, I have not released them for publication anywhere. Until now. Let’s begin.

While poorly understood, some bees in winter will self-evict, presumably because they suffer from some malady. Strangely, these bees leave the cluster in the cold. In minutes, they fall into a chill coma and die. Shivering in a freezing wind, I have stood in an apiary and observed bees self-evict from a hive, one at a time, every few minutes. At night in the bee house with single-comb observation hives, I have watched with a thermal camera similar single bees leave the winter cluster, trying to get away. Figure 1 shows a closeup of two self-evicted bees that perished in the snow.

Beginning in late winter to early spring, the occasional chilly afternoon occurs, and bees rush from the hives, desperate to find water. With only thick honey in the hive, the bees need water to thin the honey to use it as a component of brood food. Even with the onset of spring, colonies with large brood nests and larvae to feed keep water demand high, as indicated by the number of bees at water collection sites.

Although we live in a rural environment, I provide water for my bees at the home research apiaries and just make sure the out-apiaries, mostly in even more remote locations, have nearby water sources. Figure 2 shows the inside of a large open-top water tank, the kind used for providing water to large livestock. This water tank is modified to be like a small pond. I put a layer of mud in the bottom and transplanted the lily pads from a local lake. Similar to a pond in the spring, the lily pads have died back to their roots, leaving just a tank of cold water with my wide slant board in it, which gives the bees plenty of space for the arrival and departure of their bee traffic. In early spring, I float scrap wood (untreated, unpainted, no plywood) in the tank to help the bees avoid falling into the cold water. While the floats greatly reduce drownings, occasionally the cold water claims more than just bees (see Figure 3).

The large water tanks have acquired another function. Given their pond similarity, the tanks have become home to “our” frogs, various species that moved in and claimed them. Especially after a rain, a tremendous burst of calling comes from the tanks, located by the front porch. Most are small tree frogs. The next morning all is quiet around the tanks, except for a few bees beginning their routine water collection.

One morning a couple of bees struggled in the “water,” trying to climb onto a dry place. Figure 4 shows a bee just fallen in or perhaps mistakenly landed near where I found her. No dry landing sites were near her. Even if at full strength, and not chilled by being suddenly wet, I doubt this bee could ever relaunch as some bees manage to do. This bee had an additional difficulty.

Look at Figure 4 again. Direct your attention to the bee’s right compound eye and proceed directly to the lower left corner of the photograph. Three faint circles passed by (and three more are in front of the bee). More precisely they are three spheres. Each originally contained a frog egg (from the previous night’s mating calls). At the time, the eggs had developed into tiny tadpoles, each with a large abdomen. Unfortunately, the bee had become entrapped in not just water, but also a more viscous clear jelly that protected the frog eggs.

To save this bee, I used my usual technique. I slipped my index finger under the bee and slowly lifted her up on just my fingertip, letting the water and the thicker jelly drain around the bee before setting her down. In a spot of warm sunlight, I placed the bee where she could quickly dry off.

In the summer after the main nectar flow has concluded, the bees resume water collection at the stock tanks, including at other sites like old cast-iron bathtubs collected over the years. With the rise in summer temperatures, the bees use water to cool their hives. One, rarely two, large frogs seem to claim these separate water locations. These large frogs, potential bee predators, have not noticeably disturbed the bees, whose collecting behavior can become frantic in the late afternoon heat. The bees crowd around the edge of the water, load up, and leave (see Figure 5).

From building hives near these water sites, the frogs quickly became accustomed to my racket. They stopped jumping in the water to hide when I came near. After the frogs habituated to me, I could …