a discovery of bees: part two

All of my bees are dead. They have been for quite some time now. Although, that is probably obvious as it is winter in Wisconsin. But the lives of the mining bees lasted only several weeks, and it was a short-lived bout of excitement for myself. I felt like I missed out on witnessing their entire adult lives, either because of my hectic life, or because their windows of activity were quite short and irregular each day. But, alas they are gone, and in only a few short months, I may witness the emergence of the next generation that my bees laid with care beneath the earth outside my apartment. For that, as I discovered through a bit of research, is the sad and yet beautiful life cycle of the mining bee.

It’s surprisingly difficult to find information on my bees. I told you in my last post about the day I first discovered the bees in my yard. After taking ample images and videos, I hustled inside to do a bit more research. I tried finding my exact bee online, but there was always something not quite right about the bees I was finding. They looked very similar, but they just weren’t my bees. After trying to narrow my focus to just mining bees and native bees in Wisconsin, I found a PowerPoint presentation done by a UW-Madison graduate student. She had her contact information on it, so I emailed her a couple photos asking for her expert opinion on what sort of bee I had discovered. Although she only “could give [me] a definitive ID if [she] had the bees under a microscope,” she surmised that my bees were called Andrena dunningi. She also encouraged me to post my pictures on the Bug Guide, as many professional taxonomists visit the site and could help identify my bee with more precision.

Andrena dunningi

A sketch of one of my mining bees. They look very much like honey bees but are smaller, thinner, and darker.

After a somewhat thorough Google search and after sifting through my pile of library books (surprisingly, children nonfiction offers the most helpful information of bees), I learned the sad truth that my mining bees would only live for four to six weeks. At the time I had already witnessed a decline in the population flitting about when the early spring sun beat down the heaviest on their homes and I would dash outside to see them at work. I didn’t know when the adults had first emerged. They could have been out for a week or two already by the time I initially saw them. And now my time with them was already ending. But it was still a cool thing to have witnessed after learning what they had been doing with their short lives.

The adult mining bees emerge in late spring. Well, it actually depends on the type of mining bee, as some will emerge in summer or fall, depending on what their food source is and when it blooms, thus aiding in pollination while being able to gather pollen and nectar to store with their eggs. What’s fascinating about insects like bees, which are so important to the life of so many plants, is that the plant and pollinator have evolved to fit each other’s needs. Especially regarding the relationship between native plants and their native pollinators, like so many solitary bees (like my mining bees) are in Wisconsin.

When I first saw my mining bees, both the males and females were flying around. I assumed it was time for them to be mating and that they had just recently emerged and had begun their mating process. But maybe that had already passed and the males I saw were the last of them, living out their final days, searching for what nourishment they could find and turning now and again to a female for some last-day-on-earth action. I thought I witnessed a little bit of their mating rituals, which is the only reason I say this. But perhaps their midair entanglements were more platonic than I imagined. Both male and female bees were quite tolerant of me as I hovered over them with my massive phone, crouched among the stones to observe them. You can watch a video of some of their activities that I witnessed on that initial day of discovery.

While the males died off rather quickly–I never saw them after that first day–the females lived for a couple more weeks. I’m still not sure what their special food is or if they’re a specialty pollinator (as some mining bees apparently are), but what the lady bees do in their short life is a beautiful thing, and something that I think truly speaks to the importance of bees as pollinators.

The purpose of the adult female mining bee’s life, once she emerges, is to mate, dig a nest, and lay about five or so eggs, which she lays on pollen pods that she has created from her foraging (and pollination) efforts. She then seals the eggs in individual caves. She can even waterproof each little egg cavern with a special chemical that is produced in an abdominal gland. After she has laid her eggs and sealed them, and her work is complete, she dies.

In the coming weeks of spring and summer, the eggs will then hatch, the larvae will eat the stored pollen, and pupate into adults that will lie dormant through the winter months, and emerge in the spring to do the same thing all over again. It’s such a beautiful symbiotic relationship. The bees emerge at a time when a certain plant is blooming. The bee travels from flower to flower, pollinating the plant to help it produce its own fruit, and the bee takes the flower’s nectar and pollen and saves it for its future offspring.

It was kind of sad the few days towards the latter of part of May when I would go outside in the evening and only see a few bees remaining. And then there were none. My friends and family who knew about my bees were shocked when they’d ask, “How are your bees?”and I’d reply simply, “They’re dead.” I always had to clarify. “But that’s normal.” The usual response then was, “But why? What do they do?” And I’d eagerly explain.

All of my bees may be dead, but come spring, I’ll be around to see their labor pay off and witness the new generation follow their instincts to mate, forage, and dig a nest for their offspring. It’s a simple and beautiful life cycle, and one I am excited to witness again, but this time with knowledge and preparation. 

Life Cycle of a Mining Bee

The life cycle of a mining bee. Some mining bees emerge at different times of the year. Created by G.M. Cottrill.



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