a rediscovery of bees

Nearly a year ago to the day, I was sitting outside enjoying my last few days of a much-needed vacation and was astounded to see bees flitting about my yard. I guess spring is my preferred vacation time, because this year I found myself in the same situation. Only now, I knew to be on the look out for the mining bees.

I had been looking forward to spring not only because Wisconsin winters always feel too long, but because I was eagerly awaiting the emergence of the mining bees come April or May. After all of my research about last year’s bees, I couldn’t wait to see the life cycle continue and observe the adult bees emerge, knowing that they had hatched from the eggs laid last spring. Perhaps some of them would even be the sons and daughters of Delilah!

Day 1 | Saturday | 22 April 2017

With only a couple days left of my annual spring vacation, I am fortunate enough to have a warm sunny day to relax outside. I glance through my bedroom window that is only inches above the ground and hold back an audible squeal of excitement. The bees are back! I grab my camera, slide into my shoes, and dash out the patio door and stand in awe as my eyes fly eagerly scan the yard. The sun is bright and hot, and the heat stirs the bees beneath the earth, enticing them to emerge, and welcoming them with a warm embrace of light.

It must be one of the first days the bees are out of the ground. At least, one of the first days that both male and female bees are out together. Where I was late to observe the bees last year, this year I think I am lucky enough to see two different mating pairs. I squat in wonder, as I watch within a few inches of each other, a female claw her way slowly out of the earth and a male and female bee twist their bodies together in what I can only assume to be their mating ritual. 

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A male and female mining bee presumably mate. Males are light yellow to grey in color and females are dark yellow or orange in color. 

They fly about me peacefully, allowing my awkward form to kneel and crouch among them with my phone only inches from their small bodies. Knowing that only the female bees sting, and presuming that they are not too territorial yet without their own homes to defend, they are quite amiable to a human lumbering about. 

After I have my fill of picture taking and video recording, I plop myself in a lawn chair with a book and read while they carry on beginning their short adult lives. Amazement and excitement continue to distract me from my book, especially when a bee lands on my leg and rests for a while there, its wings raising and lowering in a slow rhythm, as if it is trying to catch its breath.

Day 2 | Sunday | 23 April 2017

The bees do not come out until the sun has had time to warm the top soil and beat heavily on the area instinct had brought bees to last year (or perhaps the year before). It is a windy spring day and after a failed attempt at a bike ride, I settle into my spot outside my window, balancing on a two-by-four frame nestled in a bed of rocks. It allows me to sit close to the bees and observe their movements while not taking up valuable land. I see less male bees flying around, and of those that I do see, their energy is definitely waning. 

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Three female mining bees look for the perfect spot to build their homes.

The females on the other hand are busy testing the sandy soil and preparing to burrow into the ground, creating tunnels for each of the eggs they’ll lay upon a pod of pollen. I wonder what they think of me looming over them, casting a cold shadow over their home openings. At least I serve as a real scarecrow. Many birds watch from the trees, but they stay clear of the insects hovering over the ground as I watch.

Day 4 | Tuesday | 25 April 2017

A few days later, I only have a short amount of time after work to observe how the mining bees are faring. The evening weather is a bit dismal; the clouds send down sprinkles of rain every now and again. I can see though that the female bees have been extremely busy. The ground is littered with dark circles of dirt. The conical mounds around each new bee home are slowly becoming more defined. 

20170423_165522A few bees flying slowly over the ground keep me company as I grill dinner. It is the first day I no longer see any male bees and I wonder if they have perished already or if they are underground with the other females. I realize that I have no idea if the bees go back into the homes from where they came while they search for new places to dig new nests. Do the males dig their own homes? Or do they just emerge to mate and then fly off in search of other mates and food and die far from their original home? 

Day 6 | Thursday | 27 April 2017

My evenings are often busy and do not allow me much time to sit outside and observe my bees. It is late in the evening, near sunset when I am able to see what is happening in my yard. I have just finished about a three mile walk in cold and dreary weather, but still I see two bees floating above the ground where the homes have now become more defined. The bees work so quickly, but there are not too many budding plants around. I wonder how far the bees travel to find pollen to pack away underground as a food store for the eggs that will soon be laid . . .

At the time of my writing this, it would be day ten since I saw the bees for the first time this spring. It has been a few days of cold and rain, so I haven’t seen the bees, and the holes to their homes are hard to spot in the flattened and soaked earth. I wonder if the bees take the time during these rainy days to construct their tunnels and wait for the water and future sun to generate a more varied array of flowers to bloom.

From what I have read, mining bees live for four to six weeks once they emerge, so perhaps I shall see them again when the rainy days end. Or, maybe they brave the wetness, knowing they can not wait for a respite from nature if they are to successfully lay their eggs and have enough food for their brood to consume as the egg transforms into a larva and then a pupa and finally into an adult.

There is so much I do not know, and probably never will know about the mining bees. I still am not sure what species lives outside my apartment although it’s a good chance it is Andrena dunningi. But I do not need to know every detail of their lives to still be ecstatic each time I see the bees. I don’t know how to explain what I truly feel watching the bees. It is an odd mixture of happiness and giddiness. Perhaps it is a sense of novelty. Or perhaps it is a feeling of honor to have the chance to observe a native bee species in its natural habitat in a world that continually threatens the lives of such benevolent and beneficial pollinators such as my mining bees.

Watch my video of this year’s mining bees and witness the bees mating and burrowing as detailed in this post.

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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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