Monday, February 28, 2011

Undertaker Bees

Bees and people aren't too much different.

When a person dies there are people who have the special job of taking care of the dead body.

When a bee dies there are workers who have the special job of taking care of the dead body.

See? Bees are like people... or maybe people are like bees.

Nature is marvelously designed so that each little bit and piece is not wasted. When we see a dead animal on the side of the road it can be sad. But nature will take care of these corpses by helping to remove them. Little beetles and flies that specialize with dead animals will come and do their job.

If a bee dies outside in the field, she'll fall to the ground. Her body will most likely become a meal for a foraging mouse, a bird, wasps or ants.

Where my bee hives are I've watched as a bird flew down to pick up dead bees to eat.

Inside the hive, if the bodies of dead bees can't be left to pile up otherwise there would be a crowded mess. And it wouldn't be clean.

Have you ever picked up a dead fly and found it to be very lightweight? That's because it's body has dried out over a few days.

Undertaker bees will sometimes wait a few days so a dead bee body will dry out. Then it won't be so heavy to carry.

They grab the body and half fly and half drag it out of the hive. Sometimes the bee will be heavy and big like the drone in these photos and video. Then another undertaker bee will come and help.
They'll pull and yank the dead bee across the platform outside the hive. At the edge they'll actually fly off, carrying the body and then they'll drop it.

It's all in a day's work for the undertaker bees.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lazarus, Come Forth!

The story of Lazarus is about a man who died and then came back to life. This is a story like that.

Last time we looked at how bees form a cluster inside their hive so they can keep warm all through the long cold Canadian winter.

We also looked at how bees are awake in the hive, eating their honey. Then on winter days that aren't too cold the bees will fly out to poop.

Before the bees fly out they warm up their flight muscles.

The bees in these pictures flew out but they must not have warmed themselves up enough before they left the hive. They fell to the snow where their bodies grew cold and they froze.

Have you ever gone outside on a winter day and you didn't dress warm enough? Sometimes I've thought it wasn't that cold and then after I'm outside I wish I had my hat or scarf so I could keep warm.

Once on the snow these bees would try to get warm enough to fly but usually they get too cold and they can't. It's sad that they die....
except for the day when I was there.
I scooped up a handful of bees and I held them in my cupped hands for about ten or fiften minutes.
Slowly I started to feel a little movement inside my hands, a little foot would wiggle here, a little head would turn there.
I'd keep my hands cupped so that the heat from my skin would warm the bees.
Like the story of Lazarus the bees came back to life. They woke up from their cold dead stupor. I warmed them up enough that they could fly.
Sometimes I wish I could be at my bee yard every day so I could warm the bees. But that wouldn't really be right. Nature has a plan and the bees live short but productive lives.

The queen, safe and warmed inside the hive will soon lay more eggs and there will be more bees.
This is a video of me warming up the frozen bees.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Snow Day.... for Bees

Winter in the bee yard can look very lonely and quiet.

The hives sit unmoving and there's very little activity outside.

We have cold winters in Ontario, Canada, so beekeepers put covers called 'wraps' around their hives.

The wraps are like putting a blanket on the hive. It helps to keep the bees warmer by stopping the cold wind blowing into the hive.

The beekeeper will also put a piece of wood across the large entrance of the hive, leaving only a small hole for the bees to come and go.

Are you wondering about bees coming and going in winter? They do, just not very much. You see bees don't actually hibernate. Hibernating would mean sleeping a lot and not eating. The bees stay awake all winter and they snuggle together on their honeycombs in a tight cluster.

They shiver their wing muscles, which is like exercising and it makes their bodies warm. By snuggling they share their body heat. Just like how penguins form a cluster and cycle from the outside edge where it's colder to the inside where it's warmer, bees will take turns being warmer in the middle.

Can you guess what food they'll eat? Honey of course. All their hard work all summer long is for this moment, the cold days of winter. They can eat their honey and use it's energy to keep themselves warm.

But there's something else that happens when you eat..... you have to go to the bathroom! On days when it's not so cold the bees will actually fly out of the hive to poop. If they don't get too cold they'll make it back into the hive.

[See this photo - you can learn more about how this became Yellow Snow here].

Unfortunately, some bees will get too cold when they fly out and they'll fall to the snow. Then they can't warm up their muscles enough to fly. That's sad because they'll die.... unless I'm there to warm them up.

I'll tell you about that next time.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Something Really Big

Here's something really simple but really BIG that you can do to help the bees.

It's really easy too.

Ask your parents, grandparents, teachers, friends and neighbours to let the dandelions bloom.

Many people don't like dandelions and that's okay. Ask them if they could just wait until the flowers die, before they go to seed to cut them down with the lawn mover or to pull them out.

That way the bees would get some time to visit them.

[Do you think this bee is using the cell phone to tell people about Dandelions? She might be....]

Dandelions are one of the best spring flowers to bloom that offer lots of pollen for hungry bees. After winter the bees need lots of protein for their babies and dandelions offer the perfect food for bees.

And if you were hungry you could eat the leaves in your salad. And you can roast the roots. Some people even make wine from them.

The more you think about dandelions the more they seem like the perfect flower food for everybody.

Before we looked at the importance of pollen as a protein source for growing baby bees. So doing this one small thing--letting the dandelions bloom--will end up being a really big thing for bees.

I just know the bees want to say thank you for helping.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Predators in the Garden

Have you heard the saying, "Busy as a Bee"?

Honey bees are well known for keeping themselves busy gathering nectar and pollen and caring for their young.

They forage in the garden with a focus on gathering as much food as they can for their family back in the hive.

It's a busy and difficult life for a bee. And sometimes it's downright dangerous.

To you and me a bee is an insect but to many others they're a nice juicy protein snack. That's right, they're a good meal for a hungry predator.

There are many predators in the garden that feed on insects like bees. Most of them are also insects. That doesn't seem fair does it?

Can you think of an insect predator? Yes, a spider.

Spiders are very good hunters that help to control insects in the garden. Their sticky webs can often catch a bee.

Or they'll hide lie in wait for a bee. This white crab spider hid under the petals of the purple cone flower. The bee can smell the nectar and pollen offered by the flower and so she lands on the flower. Before she knows what's happening the spider leaps out and grabs her and gives her a poisonous bite.

Sadly it's all over for the bee. She's become a spider's meal.

In the photo above can you see the white spider hiding on the purple flower?

Another larger predator of bees is the large dragonfly (pictured at left). They can catch a bee in mid air. Hornets too are much larger and stronger than bees and will catch them and eat them.

Then with their strong mandibles (mouthparts) they'll bite the bee's head off, killing it.

Other garden predators are the preying mantis. This stick-like insect (pictured at left) can sit very still, looking like an innocent leaf. Then it'll spring forward when a bee lands close by and catch it with it's claw-like arms.

Birds will catch bees in flight and eat them too. Frogs and toads have long tongues that can lash out and catch them.

Mammals like raccoons, skunks and bears love to eat bees and bee larvae too.

Everywhere the bee goes she's in danger of becoming a meal.

And finally, other predators will feed off the dead bee corpses, insects like ants or rodents like mice.

The death of a bee is sad but the good thing is that in nature nothing ever goes to waste and her body will nourish other creatures who are in need of a meal.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Birds and The Bees

Let's talk about the birds and the bees.

They have a lot more in common than you might realize.

Think about something that both birds and bees can do.

They both have wings and they can fly.

Bees have something else that birds have but you'd need to look close, very close and use a magnifying glass to see.

Bees have feathers.

What? It's true. They do.

When we look at bees we see their lovely golden fur. We say things like 'fuzzy bee'. They do look fuzzy.

If you magnified the hairs on a bee you would see they are actually plumes just like the feathers on a bird, only much more delicate.

The fur or feathers keeps the bee warm on cold days and during the winter.

These feathers are perfectly designed. They are light and airy so the bee can fly.

They are thick and warm so the bee can retain her body heat and survive through the cold winter.

Last time we looked at how a bee uses her fur to collect pollen through static electricity.

Now you can see why bees of a feather stick together!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Electric Bees

Have you seen the commercial on TV advertising the Swiffer sweeper?

The swiffer has a cloth that glides across the floor and the bits of dust and debris can't help themselves. They attach themselves to the Swiffer like a magnet.

But what does this have to do with bees? Bees and the Swiffer have a lot in common. If you've ever been to a birthday party and played with balloons then you're like bees and a Swiffer too.

Have you ever rubbed a balloon on your hair and then stuck it to your body? When you rub it you create static electricity.

When the Swiffer rubs across the floor or an object, it creates static electricity too.

Static electricity is like a magnet to little particles like dust..... or something similar to dust.... Pollen.

When a bee flies through the air static electricity builds up in her fur. Then she lands on a pollen covered flower.

The tiny particles of pollen can't help themselves, like magnets they are drawn to the bee and attach themselves to the bee's fur.

This makes it easier for the bee. She'll sweep her legs over her body to collect the pollen.

Then she'll take some of her spit to moisten it to make a lump.

She'll stick the lump to stiff hairs (called pollen baskets) on her back legs.

After that she'll fly home with her load.

So next time you see a Swiffer sweeper, pretend like a bee and give it a try.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Imitation is the Best Form of Flattery

Who do you admire the most in the whole world?

Is it a movie star or a famous singer? A teacher? Your older brother or sister? Or your hero?

Have you ever been tempted to act or dress like them?

If so then your thinking isn't very different than a whole lot of insects.

You see many insects admire bees and wasps. It's because they have stripes which are very fashionable in the insect world... and they have stingers.

Stripes are a warning to others: I have a stinger so don't mess with me!

Have you ever worn striped clothes? If so, you are copying bees and letting everyone around you know that they should be careful.

You might have a stinger too.

Copying is popular in the insect world. It's called insect mimicry.
Insects use mimicry as a disguise to hide like pretending to be a leaf or a tree branch or to scare other insects away with painted big eyes or by releasing a terrible smell.

There are lots of flying and crawling insects that don't have stingers or venom but they want to have stripes so they look like a bee or a wasp. Can you guess why they'd want to look like that?

So that other insects will be afraid of them and think they have a stinger.

[This picture from the Wikipedia web site shows several stingless insects pretending to be wasps].

Next time you're in the garden and you see a striped insect, take a closer look.

Is it a bee or a wasp or another insect pretending to be one? It may well be a little harmless fly, pretending to be a bee.