a discovery of bees: meet delilah

While I had the fortune during my week off from work to observe the arrival of the mining bees in my yard, it was still early spring and the weather was chilly. Even with the sun out, the wind cooled the skin and the star’s rays never fully warmed thoroughly enough to fend off the spring breeze.

It rained during the night after I discovered the bees. It was a hard rain too, and I worried about the newly dug holes the bees had been working so furiously to create. Despite my fear for their well being, I convinced myself that they would be fine. I was sure the bees had evolved well enough to figure out how to burrow into the ground and not be washed away in a spring thunderstorm. However, when I looked up mining bees, they often dug into slanted hills, or sides of ditches, to help prevent the rains from destroying their homes. My bees had made their homes in flat, sandy soil, mostly beneath the roof of the apartment building, but also right where the rain drained off the roof, creating even heavier drops to fall three floors below to where they burrowed. I prepared for utter destruction come morning.

Delilah and a dandelion

I found Delilah in the grass the first day I discovered the mining bees. I offered her a dandelion for some energy.

The damage was less than I thought it was going to be, but it was hard to see the entrances to each bee home. The cone of dirt they built up outside their openings had been beaten down significantly for the homes that hadn’t been fully protected by the apartment roof.

As I surveyed the holes, I remembered the bee I had seen lying in the grass the day before. When I first discovered the bee, I thought it was dead, and I was going to collect it for closer observation, but as I pushed the blades of grass down near it, I saw it twitch. It barely moved, but it was still alive. I wasn’t sure what it needed. I found a dandelion and placed it near the bee in a vain attempt to offer it some sustenance from something I had no idea if it could even use.

The day after the storm was still cloudy, wet, and quite cold. I made my way over to the bee in the grass to see if it had found its way home. If it wasn’t gone, I was sure it would now be dead, and I felt bad that I hadn’t done more to save the poor bee the day before.

delilah-and-finger.jpg

Delilah, only the size of my fore fingernail, was in rough shape after being pounded by rain overnight.

I found her where I had left her, the dandelion wilted and soggy. The bee’s wings were dark with moisture, her hair ruffled, and one of her front legs bent at an awkward angle. I hadn’t studied her close enough the day prior to see that she had probably been injured the whole time. I parted the grass around her again, and once more I saw her frail body twitch. What a durable creature. I dashed inside to grab some sort of container to put her in, determined this time to try to save her. I found a small dish—one fit for a small serving of salad dressing—and gently slid the cover beneath her and carried her to my porch, shielding her body from the wind that threatened to blow her away. I laid her on the cold cement for a minute to look more closely at her and took a picture to compare her size to my finger. Then I put her in the container and took her inside to help warm her up.

I had lunch plans that day with my aunt, and I was almost late meeting her for an Indian buffet. I was kind of nervous that my bee would wake up suddenly and be loose in my apartment and trapped inside, so I considered my options. I looked hard at my bee in the container, laying so still I wasn’t really sure if there was any hope she’d make it. I decided to name her Delilah, then carried her dish carefully in my hand, and took her with me to lunch.

Delilah in car

Delilah looks at me from inside her container as we prepare to drive off in my car to lunch.

By the time I got to the restaurant, Delilah had moved within her container, and I felt hopeful for her recovery. I showed my aunt, who was slightly bemused, and wasn’t sure why I had to bring the bee along, but laughed and said, “only you would bring a bee with you to lunch.” I left the bee in the car though, anticipating that the restaurant staff might question why I had a bee in their dining room, and I wasn’t sure how to adequately explain that one.

After lunch, Delilah was even more active. Her wings had lightened as they dried, although it looked like one was beyond repair. I struggled with the idea of killing her, wondering if it was a merciful thing to do if she was in pain, or if she was slowly recovering and would be able to fly away on her own again. She had survived so long already injured, outside in the cold, I couldn’t just ignore her resilience. But I had no idea how to nurse a bee back to health.

I can’t remember if I Googled what to do or if I shared a picture of Delilah and a friend on Facebook suggested it to me, but I mixed together a small bit of water and sugar, poured it in a shallow bowl, put rocks in the bowl, and placed Delilah on the rocks, with one little drop of sugar water close by for her to try if she wanted. Apparently, sugar water can help fatigued honey bees. I hoped it was the same for mining bees.

Delilah's bowl

Delilah sits in her new temporary home, a bowl of sugar water and rocks.

Occasionally I checked in on Delilah. She moved a little bit every now and then. I saw at one point that she had either stepped off or slid off a rock and was half in the sugar water. I helped her out and thought for sure that was the end of her, being now covered in a sticky substance that she certainly did not have the energy to try to clean off.

Delilah close up 2I took a few pictures and videos of Delilah. I considered sending her body to UW-Madison if she died so that they could for sure tell me what kind of bee she was and potentially use my mining bees for some sort of research, or put into a data file of native bee populations in the state of Wisconsin, but I became attached to Delilah. I obviously knew she was just a bee, and besides her broken wing and leg, there was no way for me to tell her apart from any other bee I saw outside. But there was just something so amazing to have the bee there with me in my apartment, now moving more than she had in a day and a half. I couldn’t just give her away to be dissected. I didn’t know for sure if the university would have been willing anyway.

Delilah backI should have tried to save Delilah earlier, so I felt I owed it to her to let her rest in peace, buried beneath the earth she came from days, or only a week before, to begin her short, yet productive, life. And that is what I did come late evening once I noticed that she had not moved in hours. She didn’t stir when I prodded her with a gentle breath of air. She didn’t move to grasp a thin stick I had used to place her in the sugar water dish. I only hoped that she had had enough time to lay her eggs upon a pod of pollen and seal her future offspring safely in the ground. The mining bee’s adult life is short, and it put me  at ease to consider that maybe Delilah had done all she had needed and had passed on normally as mining bees do, and that I will have the honor to look on at the new brood come spring, knowing that some of those bees had a very tough and beautiful mother named Delilah.

Delilah head on

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.