Last week, during a "check in" on Rebel Rebel, I was fortunate enough to see (and hear!) the queen. Below, you can see some of the workers gathered around her, kind of encircling her. She's the larger "redder" bee below them. This stance, whereby the bees face inward toward their queen, is one of the easiest ways to spot a queen. Maeterlinck describes this encircling as looking like a grandmother's brooch, while a more recent book describes it as a daisy, with the workers as the petals and the queen at the flower's core.
Here's a better shot of the queen as she makes an all-too-brief appearance, only to be subsumed again moments later by her attentive and protective compatriots.
I guess video isn't really live, but these days it's pretty close. I was so blown away by seeing my first swarm (nearly a month ago today) that I kind of flipped out and started repeating myself (and talkin' a bit like a Beverly Hillbilly), but I'm sure you'll overlook that and focus on the truly amazing phenomenon at hand. Enjoy!
After a few intense minutes of flying through the air with the greatest of ease (even in a very high wind), the swarm alights on a small sumac, where it clusters around its queen.
I’m glad I asked the farmer’s son not to cut the humble stand of milkweed along the barbed wire fence. Twice a summer, the local dairy farmers hay the field for cow feed and bedding. If the weather’s right and the field’s growing well, they might just get a third cut in.
But the honeybees have been so enjoying the 207 milkweed plants (yes, I counted them), that when I heard the tractor coming up the road for the second haying of summer, I ran outside to intercept. I pointed to the purple flowers and asked the driver—the farmer’s 12-year-old son—to please spare them. The kid visibly recoiled when I explained that I’d started beekeeping and that the bees really loved those flowers. Thanks to his kind compliance in mowing around the milkweed-populated edge of the field (probably in large part to avoid the dreaded bees), the frenzied action on the milkweed blossoms has continued unabated for more than two weeks now.Along with the pleasure of watching dozens of honeybees visit the milkweed blossoms, there is the delight of listening to the satisfied work-sound of the proverbial busy bees. Several times a day, I find myself drawn up the hill to the milkweed stand to receive a dose of "happy buzz" therapy. The bees softly rising and landing on the blossoms, the hazy-sweet aroma permeating the area, and the concerted hum of bees fulfilling their life’s mission are quintessential expressions of summertime—the place I want to be.
The bees have drawn me to the milkweed, but the milkweed has turned out to hold a fascination all its own. Its a pollinator-magnet, hosting a kaleidoscopic array of life forms so fascinating I’m seriously considering a mid-life career shift to entomology.
Milkweed also has a nefarious side, as we'll see in a moment. But first let's walk on the sunny side of the Milkweed Street and say howdy to some of the many denizens of and visitors to this remarkable plant.
Many of us know milkweed as the host plant for the famed monarch butterfly, which (unfortunately) has proven too nimble and elusive for this paparazzo. I have been able to catch the monarch in its caterpillar form: an unparalleled example of the marriage of style and substance.
Other, less camera shy butterflies have been enjoying the milkweed as well.
The Great Spangled Frittilary
The Eastern Comma (At least I think it's a comma. If there are any serious bug people reading this, please feel free to correct this or any other inaccurate IDs.)
Some kind of Hairstreak (possibly Edwards)
The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Some type of skipper.
Some other kind of skipper.
There have also been many moths, including one of my day-flying faves, the Virginia Ctenuchid Moth.
But the real revelation was going to visit these plants at night. Hundreds—and I mean hundreds—of moths gather there, making the daytime scene look subdued by comparison. My night shots aren't so hot, but you get the idea.
The cast of characters seen during the day also includes...The Small Eastern Milkweed Bug
The leafcutting bee (I think that's what it is)
A drone fly.
A bee-like fly?
Golden Northern Bumblebee (I think—in any case, it's adorable!)
Green Stinkbug (Note that the lower part of the insect's left leg is missing. Also note the little yellow "droplet" adhering to its right leg. The story behind all this will soon be revealed.)
An unidentified dragonfly.
A beetle and an ant.
Some kind of bumblebee?
Hornets and wasps of various kinds.
Now let's turn our attention to the aforementioned "nefarious" side of milkweed. WARNING: Some of these images are of a graphic nature (pun intended)—and may upset small children or exceedingly sheltered adults.
Some weeks ago, much to my horror, I began to notice honeybees entering the hive with tiny bright yellow "spokes" attached to their feet, giving the appearance of some kind of deformity. These bees were "limping" into the hive, dragging their feet in a most disturbing manner. In most cases, the deformity appeared on one or both of the hind feet, but sometimes it was apparent on the front feet as well, as in the case of this poor bee.Needless to say, I freaked. I then proceeded to spend a quiet, anxiety-filled evening Googling variations on the terms honeybee foot deformity, honeybee foot anomaly, honeybee foot anatomy, honeybee foot fungus, honeybee medical conditions, and honeybee disease. Like a first-year medical student studying malady after malady, it wasn't long before I started experiencing symptoms of the many horrid honeybee diseases out there. However, nothing I found resembled the strange foot disorder.
Luckily, my Organic Beekeeping listserv once again came to the rescue. Someone on the list explained that if milkweed was blooming in my area (and it was), the foot "deformity" might actually be little pieces of milkweed pollen that had gotten stuck on the bees' feet. Sure enough, the very next day while perusing the milkweed I found a dead bee with these bits of pollen stuck to both her hind feet and forefeet. During the same visit, I got this photo of a bee working the milkweed blossoms with this strange botanical material attached to her feet and proboscis.
I also began to notice that various insects, including honeybees, flies, and moths, were becoming "stuck" to the blossoms. Here, a fly struggles to extricate its foot.
It seems the milkweed plant extracts a price for access to its alluring nectar. According to a delightful book published in the 1920s called Honey Plants of North America:
"Milkweed flowers are called pinch-trap flowers because they possess a remarkable clip-mechanism found in no other family of plants. Two club-shaped masses of pollen are attached by flexible bands to a small, dry, triangular disc placed midway between them. In this membraneous disc there is a wedge-shaped slit at one end. In its effort to obtain a foothold on the smooth flowers an insect is likely to thrust a claw, leg, antennae, or tongue into one of the slits. If one of these organs is drawn upward in the slit, the dry disc becomes tightly clamped to it. When the insect flies away it carries with it the disc and the two masses of pollen strapped to it. Exposed to the air, the strap-like stalks dry and draw the pollinia close together. As the insect alights on another flower, they are easily thrust between two anther wings, where they come in contact with the stigma; but, once inserted and pulled upward, they can not again be withdrawn. The insect can obtain its liberty only by breaking the connecting bands. If it cannot do this, it perishes slowly of starvation. Disc after disc may thus become attached to an insect until it is crippled or helpless."
Here's a closer look at the "ball and chain" structure in question. Note the tiny black string of "beads" attached to the bee's feet, as well as the bright yellow pollen.
A captive moth struggling to escape. Milkweed Street is rich in colorful characters, but not without its sad dramas.
A moth that didn't make it. Note the moth-dust on the three surrounding buds: evidence of a frantic, protracted struggle.
A limb sacrificed for the greater good.
After my psychodrama with Google, I felt a little less alone when I read the remainder of the entry in the Honey Plants book:
"Not a season passes that inquiries are not received from beekeepers requesting information in regard to these peculiar appendages; and many explanations of them have been given by persons not familiar with the flowers of the milkweed. Some regard them as a fungus, others as a protuberance growing on the bee's leg, and still others as a winged insect-enemy of the bee."And here's what it's all about: once pollinated, the flower morphs into a tiny pod that grows to become the familiar, canoe-shaped milkweed pod that cracks open in fall and spreads its silky-topped seed pods through wind dispersal.
The milkweed—its pedestrian, somewhat demeaning name notwithstanding—turns out to be a rather exciting plant: sweet-smelling and good-looking enough to attract a dazzling array of pollinators, unique in its role as the sole host plant for the glorious monarch butterfly, and clever enough to have evolved a form of pollination insurance unique in the plant world.
The humble stand of milkweed at the edge of the field has turned out to be a most intriguing spot to hang out this summer. Like I said, I'm glad the farmer didn't cut it down.
A weathered old honeybee with tattered wings works the milkweed blossom.
The Wall Street Journal has just published an informative article on "bee gardens" and native pollinators (which the honeybee isn't, by the way—it's an import and an important import at that!). The associated video is worth checking out, too.
My one beef is that the article makes much of the "threat" of getting stung when attracting bees to the garden, going so far as to include a "sting pain index" for various types of bees. Honestly, getting stung by a nectaring bee is an absurdly overstated risk. Unless you are running around your garden like a maniac smacking down bees, they have much, much better things to do than mess with you.
It's a little like warning someone to be very, very careful about eating bananas due to the risk of slipping on the peel.
Beekeeping is an endless series of mysteries, at least for the beginner. The bees do this, the bees do that, the bees defy the books and articles about them. The bees are charismatic, creative, outspoken, enigmatic. They are predictable except when they aren’t. They are unpredictable within the context of a complex, ancient set of social and behavioral rules. They are ignoring you completely as they go about their business or watching you with an intensity you feel in the bones.
As you work the hive, the bees look at you with their eyes and you look at them with yours.
That’s the gist of what organic beekeeping guru Dee Lusby wrote in response to one of my many ignorant questions on the Organic Beekeeping listserv earlier this summer. I was commenting about how nervous it made me to have thousands of “agitated” bees “staring” up at me through the spaces between the top bars while I worked the hive. In response, Dee wrote something that changed my whole attitude toward spending time with the bees.
“Learn to enjoy the sweet little bees. You will do fine! They look at you with eyes and you look at them….Tak[e] frames up slow….[so] you can see their daily normal movements. By observing this daily normal movement and any deviations is how we learn to follow the bees and their needs to see if something is wrong. It’s also how we learn to pet our bees with fingers and play with them and eye them, and talk to them and enjoy!!!”I went into beekeeping because of an affinity for honeybees, a love of insects and flowers, a desire to travel more deeply into the miracles of pollination and seasons and nectar flow and animal mind. And I looked forward to each opportunity to explore the hives for “inspections” (a clinical word that in the future I will replace with “visits”—as a bee visits a flower, I visit the hive.)
But also there was fear, and a not-knowing of the bees—an inability to interpret the many sights, sounds, and even smells of the hive. A difficulty realizing that the bees might simply be staring up at me out of interest, curiosity, or alertness rather than out of agitation or alarm. Of course, a welcoming bee-stance is something I have to earn through gentle, methodical, kind-hearted, well-informed beekeeping.
Now, when I open the hive and ever so slowly pry apart the top bars so I can pay my visit to the bees, I smile at all the little faces gazing up at me with an intelligence so intimate and remote it scrambles my brain. I look at them with my eyes; they look at me with their eyes. And then I speak to them, the sweet little bees. And learn to listen as they speak back.
I came upon a beautifully written treatise on sustainable beekeeping last evening. The author, Phil Chandler, articulates better than I ever could some of the thinking behind beekeeping off the chemical grid, as it were. If you're thinking about taking up beekeeping, or interested in understanding the context for the current honeybee crisis, I highly recommend it.
Commercial and mainstream beekeeping is pumping bees full of antibiotics and chemicals, essentially breeding weaker bees with no chance of developing natural resistance to pests and diseases. This growing weakness is, of course, met with more chemicals and man-made "solutions" that are lucrative for certain humans and devastating for bees, our environment, and our already corrupted relationship to our brethren in the natural world.
In addition, our pollination practices undermine bees' nutritional needs, forcing them to collect monolithic nectar sources by treating them as pollination machines. One illustration: the underbrush of almond orchards is assiduously mowed to prevent other blossoms from "distracting" the bees from their (forcibly) assigned task, meaning that they have no choice but to collect nectar and pollen from a single plant: almond. In nature, bees visit a diversity of blossoms to ensure a rich variety of nutritional inputs.
These are just a couple of quick illustrations of how we're screwing, and screwing up, the bees.
There are alternatives, though you'd never, ever know it from reading the beekeeping books out there. It's a bit like the myth that organic farming is somehow less efficient or productive than dousing our food supply with chemicals, trashing the health of the topsoil, and wrecking the ecosystem to "manufacture" bright and pretty (and pretty tasteless) tomatoes, strawberries, or watermelons, in and out of season. There's a new report showing that organic farming more than holds its own against conventional farming practices. It's worth a look.
Rebel Rebel had been settled in for a week and the memory of the swarm-dramas of latter day June had begun to fade. Some guests came by for lunch and I proudly gave them a tour of the bee yard. We were standing by Hive Orange while I held forth about my recent swarm-catching (mis)adventures. Suddenly, one of the guests fixed his gaze on a sumac a couple of yards behind me and murmured, What's that?!
We all turned our gaze to where he motioned.Yes, it was a swarm in the tree! Actually, an afterswarm. Whereby a colony, having already "thrown a swarm" in which some bees depart with the old queen while others stay in the hive with new queen cells decide, once those queens hatch, to create smaller swarms with the new queens leading the excursions. (Confused yet? Don't even try to keep up with the bees; they are much more complicated than we can possibly fathom.)
My guests felt they'd gotten more than they'd bargained for (in a good way). I was baffled. I was intrigued. I was also, to paraphrase Vladmir in Waiting for Godot, growing weary of this motif. It was hard not to take this afterswarm personally; were the bees so disgruntled with my beekeeping skills that they were going to afterswarm themselves until the hives were empty?
I also found, to my surprise, that swarm catching is a rather addictive pursuit. Once again, the bees were temptingly located on a low branch—why not take them? But no, I fought the urge; I'd had enough drama for one summer. I decided to let the free-spirited bees go their way in the world—may fortune smile upon them.
I did enjoy watching the swarm cluster alter its shape over the next day or two, in response to warmth, cooler weather, and mild rains.
Two days later, a second afterswarm appeared in another sumac at the edge of the bee yard. This time, I was fortunate enough to see the bees swarming in the air—a deeply energizing sight—and form a small cluster on a very low branch.By now, swarming was becoming a way of life around here. Each day, I wandered to the bee yard a few times to check on both swarms. The second, smaller afterswarm disappeared after two days; the first afterswarm continued to hang around, tempting me with its presence.
Slowly, inexorably, the idea of capturing this afterswarm gained traction. Several factors contributed to my succombing to the siren call:
(1) I was becoming hopelessly addicted to swarm catching. Is there a 12 Step Program for this sort of thing? (We admitted we were powerless over the swarm....We came to believe the bees could restore us to sanity...etc., etc.)
(2) We were due for very severe weather in the form of Biblical hailstones the next day.
(3) The swarm had stayed put for more than four days, leading me to wonder if there was a shortage of affordable honeybee real estate nearby or if the group simply lacked the necessary get up and go to make it on their own.
(4) Most importantly of all, Rebel Rebel was looking a little undernourished, bee-wise, and I was beginning to suspect that I'd failed to get the queen in during the multi-part hiving process or that part of the colony had left with many bees, or both. With no queen, Rebel Rebel was doomed. With a shortage of workers, the colony was endangered. I knew there was a queen in the afterswarm cluster and the idea of adding this queen along with a pool of workers began to seem like a bright idea that just grew brighter—until it became a blinding force.Compare this paltry action at the threshold of Rebel Rebel to the pictures of the boisterous colony in its first few days, as shown in the preceding posts.
For the second time in as many weeks, a hapless weekend guest was enlisted to help with the hiving. My partner, Lauren—who'd missed out on the original swarming and swarm catching, much to her dismay—was also here, and the three of us were up at 5 the next morning to catch the swarm and combine it with Rebel Rebel.
The hiving was the polar opposite of my previous experience. It was calm, quiet and utterly peaceful. The entire afterswarm was transferred (by our guest—perhaps this is why it went so smoothly) on its branch directly into Rebel Rebel. Not a single bee was dropped, lost, harassed, or traumatized. We closed up the hive and left the two groups in Rebel Rebel to get to know one another. By late that afternoon, the groups had joined forces, the branch was empty of bees, and the hive appeared to be humming.
Who says country life is boring? Never have I been this overstimulated by my life in the city.