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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a discovery of bees: part one

On an early, abnormally hot spring day, I sat outside reading. The clouds occasionally absorbed the heat of the sun and offered short reprieves from the heat. I stopped reading often; I had just started a new book, and it was taking some time getting used to the characters and pacing. As my eyes wandered the little patch of green I called my yard, I noticed many insects flying quietly just above the grass. At first glance they looked like flies, but they were oblong and hovered with purpose, unlike the irregular, spastic routes of flies that have no regard for personal space. These insects came close to my feet, but never touched. Their bodies, I noticed, were furrier than flies and were a dull grey colour. When one finally slowed enough for my eyes to be able to take a longer look, my chest fluttered in excitement. Bees? Were they honey bees? I panned over towards my apartment building and saw dozens more buzzing around about a foot off the ground.

Part of me froze in fear, suddenly alarmed at the number of the stinging insects. As much as I celebrate their existence, I still take care around bees, and my initial reaction is to tense up and to stay clear. But, as I took in the sight, my fear dissolved into delight.

From ten feet away, I studied the bees that were flying above the sandy, rocky area of my building’s dripline. As I observed, my excitement rose. I saw a larger bee rise above the rest and tangle with another in midair. I thought I was witnessing a honey bee mating ritual. I quickly Googled whatever crossed my mind: “honey bee mating,” “young drones in spring,” “color of young honey bees.” I read that queen honey bees mate in the air, about 25 feet above the ground. Then I saw several large bees. I searched for “bees in my yard” and found results about “mining bees.” After some very quick reading, I determined I probably did in fact have mining bees in my yard and the males were the ones I had seen first. The bigger ones were indeed females and only the females could sting, but wouldn’t unless threatened. I opened the camera on my phone and slowly walked towards where the bees were hovering the thickest, snapping pictures and videos only inches from the bees.

Male and female

Female mining bees of this species are larger than males. They are orangish in colour and have black abdomens. Males are much smaller and are grey in colour.

It’s quite beautiful that such small creatures are unperturbed by a giant walking among them, holding a large red and white phone in front of them. Yet we, large lumbering beasts, feel threatened by such peaceful insects at the first millisecond of a buzz we can hear. As I walked among them, I thought back to an article I wrote on urban bees when I was in college. I can’t remember when I first learned about how important bees are to the well-being of the world. I think it was a botany class earlier in my college years. Or maybe a friend told me. Anyway, the science journalism class I took in my last year of school offered me the chance to write about something more exciting than politics or campus news, and as I contacted local beekeepers, grad students, and geneticists, I fell in love with bees. So much so that I believe any friend I had that semester became annoyed (although they did not all express it) at my constant–and unsolicited–presentation of bee factoids. But these were not honey bees in my yard and I was thrilled to learn more about what sort of native bee species found its way to me. I began referring to them as “my bees.”

My book quickly forgotten and the sun slowly sinking, giving off its final and strongest rays of the day, I sat in the rocks outside my ground-floor window, mesmerized by my bees. They barely made a sound as they flew around. Doing what, I still had to figure out. I saw a female brush briefly with a couple of males, but they didn’t mate. All the bees seemed to be relatively preoccupied with their individual missions. I fell in love, and I watched as they tested the ground and began to burrow into it. Looking around I saw many openings of what I assumed to be the beginnings of homes. How many were occupied, I could not tell, but it was clear the insects were aptly named. After a few more clicks of my camera, I gathered my things and let them be, anxious to learn more about my colony of mining bees in the coming weeks.

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