Bombus spp. – The Bumblebees

by Julie Tennis on April 11, 2014

S. Name: Bombus spp. (BOM-bus)
C. Name: Bumblebee
Size: 10-23 mm

Flying teddy bears, bumblebees are large and furry and easy to spot. Several species can be found in each state with different species being active at different times of the year. They typically have a base color of black with yellow, orange and/or white markings on the head, thorax and abdomen. These markings are used to identify different species.

In Washington State the bumblebee is the only native bee that lives in colonies. Unlike the honeybee, a bumblebee queen starts a new colony at the beginning of her nesting season and that colony dies in the same year. They generally nest underground, but nests can also be found in clumps of grass, woodpiles, bird nest boxes and under items left on the ground (like pots or an upside-down wheelbarrow). At Bee Haven Apiaries we cultivate brush piles to help provide habitat for these bees as well as other wildlife.

Bumblebees carry pollen in “pollen baskets” on their hind legs, depressions called corbicula that are surrounded by stiff hairs that hold the pollen in. They also collect some nectar, which they store in wax cups in their hive, but they do not stockpile it nor do they process it into honey. The small amounts of nectar they are able to store are not enough to sustain the colony for more than a day or two. If the weather become too cold or stormy for more than a few days, the colony could starve.

If you like to grow tomotatos, bumblebees should be your favorite pollinator. They are particularly suited to pollinating certain plants, like tomatoes, because of a technique these use called “buzz pollination.” Buzz pollination is accomplished when the bee grasps the edges of the flower with all six feet and then flexes her wing muscles, causing her and the flower to vibrate at a high frequency. This sonication is actually a more efficient method of dispersing pollen.

Andrena spp. – The Mining Bees

by Julie Tennis on April 4, 2014

Genus:  Adrena (an-DREE-nuh)
Common Name:  Mining Bee
Size:  7-18 mm

If you find a patch of bare or lightly-vegetated ground filled with holes that look like they were poked in with a pencil, you may have found an aggregation of mining bees.  Mining bees are medium-size bees that are generally dark in color.  Individual species can range from black to dull metallic blue or green with bands of pale hair on the abdomen.  These bands of hair give the bee a striped appearance, making it easy to confuse with the non-native honeybee.

These bees will nest in large groups, called aggregations, but each female digs her own nest tunnel.  The Andrenas prefer sandy soil near or underneath plants.  Each egg gets its own little side chamber off the main tunnel, coated in a secretion that soaks into the surrounding soil.  The female polishes the brood chamber by rubbing it with her abdomen.  Pollen is collected onto hairs, called scopa, on the upper portion of the hind legs, giving the female the appearance of carrying the pollen in her “armpits.” The female forms the pollen into a ball large enough to sustain the new bee into adulthood. She lays an egg on the pollen ball, then seals up the chamber. This is how the female mining bee spends her adult life – creating and provisioning the next generation.

The first time I came across an aggregation of mining bees I was standing in the center of it for about five minutes before I realized where I was. (I’d pulled over on the side of logging road to admire the valley below.) Once I noticed the bees flying in and out of holes in the ground, I stooped low for a closer look. The bees were very docile; timid, in fact. Which makes sense – although they nest near one another, it’s every bee for herself. Attacking a predator would only risk the bee’s life, so she stays hunkered down in her hole until I move away. Despite my presence for over 1/2-hour, none of the bees acted aggressively or attempted to sting me. (My point here is – if you find an Andrena aggregation – leave them be! They are not a threat.)

To find nesting Andrenas, walk along dirt or gravel roads with loose soil. Mining bees hatch in the spring, when temperatures get in the high-60′s (F). I’ve found them in May and June here in Pacific County, Washington.

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Will Bees Suffer so We can Grow More Oysters?

by Julie Tennis on March 7, 2014

Commercial shellfish growers in Washington State want to begin using the most toxic pesticide to bees, Imidacloprid, to control burrowing shrimp in Willapa Bay.

Burrowing shrimp (Neotrypaea californiensis and Upogebia pugettensis) are native to Willapa Bay but carry little commercial value. They can have a negative impact on commercial shellfish operations by churning up sediment that suffocates oysters being rasied on the muddy floor of the bay.

While some scientists believe there would be little chance of bees coming into contact with the chemical, I have questions that I have not yet found answers for; such as, how will flowering shoreline plants be protected from drift from the spraying operations? I’m also curious as to how incidental kills of other invertebrates, such as crabs and other shellfish, will be avoided. And while toxicity is reported to be relatively low in fish (such as salmon), what will the long-term effects of this chemical be on the fish, and the people who consume them?

Although the first public comment period has passed, the threat to our own health as well as that of our bees and other wildlife is too great to allow this proposal to continue unchallenged. As one local citizen has pointed out, this proposal “seems like a short term solution to a long term problem.” Rather than going for the “quick fix” of a chemical, let’s look for natural ways to put the burrowing shrimp populations back in balance in Willapa Bay.

What do you think? Should we allow Imidacloprid to be used in Willapa Bay? What other alternatives do we have?

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Bumblebee Workshop

July 30, 2013

There are many ways to know an animal. Scientists often get to know an organism by killing it, dissecting it, and becoming intimate with every organ and each tiny process. I prefer to simply observe Life playing out in its plant and animal forms, in its beautiful dance of self-volition and primal directive. I believe [...]

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Leafcutter Bee at Work

July 24, 2013

I’m intrigued by animals who do the unexpected. There is no lack of examples of unexpected events occurring in the animal world, at all levels, in all species. All we have to do is watch and we see amazing things. The critter I want to talk about today is one of those animals. On the [...]

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The Buzz on Bees Episode 4: Interview with Jan Smit

July 18, 2013

While traveling in Holland last month I had the good fortune to visit fellow bee enthusiast, Jan Smit.  Jan, a co-author on the Netherland’s definitive guide to native bees, De Nederlandse Bijen, refers to himself as a hobbyist.  After spending some time talking with him about his work with bees and touring his collection, I [...]

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