Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Some Common Bees

Some Common Bees, and How They Live

By A. Hyatt Verrill

From St. Nicholas Magazine, August 1897. Digital capture August 2008 by Doug Frizzle

WHAT reader of St. Nicholas is not acquainted with the Bumble-bee, that happy-go-lucky, clumsy rover, the very mention of whose name brings up visions of summer skies, broad fields pink with clover, or meadows golden with buttercups, from which comes the ceaseless, hot, sleepy sound of her droning? But well known as she is, how many know how our busy black-and-yellow friend lives?

In early spring, when the meadows first take on a tinge of green, and the apple-trees put forth their rosy buds, we may often see a single large Bumblebee flying low and swiftly back and forth across the lawns or pastures.

These great bees are the queens who have just awakened from their long winters sleep, and are now seeking some favored spot wherein to commence housekeeping and found a colony; for these insects, like their cousin the Honeybees, live in colonies consisting of three classes, or castes — "drones," or males; "queens," or females; and "workers." When our big queen has at last discovered a satisfactory building-site, usually a deserted mouse-hole, she cleans it of all rubbish and litter, and places within a hall of pollen, in which she lays her eggs. The young grubs hatch out possessed with enormous appetites, and, feeding on the pollen, eat into it in all directions. At last, when fully grown and their craving for food is satisfied, they spin cocoons of silk in the remains of the pollen, and change to pupae. While her family is thus sleeping quietly within their silken cells, the old queen is constantly at work building up and strengthening the cocoons with wax.

Finally, their sleep being over, the pupa-cases burst, and the young bees come forth in all their glory of black-and-golden livery and gauzy wings.

This first brood consists entirely of workers, who immediately fall to and relieve their tired mother-queen of all work and duties, with the exception of laying eggs. They fly hither and thither, always busy and industrious, now plunging into the center of a gorgeous hollyhock or a sunny dandelion, or buzzing about among the modest daisies, or diving head first into some sweet-scented, aristocratic lily or rose, always emerging from their quest for honey covered with the golden dust of pollen. The honey and the pollen thus gathered are stored away, and the eggs laid in the waxen cells from which the workers issued; and the next brood, composed of drones and young queens, feed upon this store of nectar.

Unlike the Honey-bees, the Bumblebee queens, to their credit be it said, are not of a jealous disposition, but live peacefully together in one nest until in the autumn the family breaks up, the old queens, workers, and drones perishing, while the young queens, forsaken and alone, crawl away to some protected spot, wherein to pass the winter and reappear in the spring and found another colony.

If you should examine a Bumblebee's nest, you would probably find among our busy, hardworking friends a number of individuals who never labor for their living; and although they come and go with perfect freedom, never bring pollen or honey, nor aid in making wax. These are the "Guest-bees," or Inquilines, a species which depend on their host the Bumblebee to furnish them board and rooms rent free.

The Inquilines, like the European cuckoo or the American cow-bunting among birds, lay their eggs by stealth in the Bumblebees’ nests. The young, when hatched, are cared for by their foster-parents, and when full-grown are treated with as much consideration as though they were guests of honor. Why the Bumblebees should permit their uninvited visitors to remain with them is a mystery; for although some species closely resemble their hosts in size and color, others are quite different. It can hardly be supposed, therefore, that they are mistaken for rightful members of the colony. On this account many naturalists have thought that they perform some important service in return for their hospitable reception; but of what this duty, if any, consists has never been discovered.

If you will look carefully along the under side of the ledge on any old board fence, you will probably be rewarded by finding one or more round holes, about half an inch in diameter, and as true and smooth as though bored with an auger. By placing your ear close to the wood you may often hear a low, buzzing sound issuing from within. If you are patient, and will watch the hole for a short time or strike the wood in its vicinity a sharp blow, a large black-and-yellow insect will come tumbling forth, and fly buzzing away. "A Bumblebee!" you exclaim. "What was he doing in there?" But, nevertheless, you are mistaken; for although in general appearance she certainly does resemble our Bumblebee friends, yet should you compare the two, you would find them quite different. In our new acquaintance the stripes are pale ocher-yellow instead of the rich golden color of the Bumblebee; and the yellow pollen-baskets on the hind legs of the latter are replaced by a brush of coarse, stiff hairs.

This insect is the "large Carpenter-bee," and well named she is too, for no human carpenter could bore neater holes, or chisel out the wood to form a dry and cozy home better than does this little creature with no tools save those Nature furnished in the form of sharp, horny mandibles or jaws. After boring the hole to a depth of about an inch, the Carpenter-bee turns at right angles to the entrance, and patiently cuts a long tunnel, a foot or more in length, parallel to the surface of the wood. The completion of this long, dry chamber necessitates hard, unceasing labor for several weeks, and then the little carpenter combines business with pleasure by taking frequent excursions to sunny fields and gardens, to gather honey and pollen from the flowers' store. From the nectar thus obtained she forms a paste which is packed closely in the end of her newly built house, and on it lays a single egg. Next, small chips, made in boring the hole, are brought, and mixing them with a secretion from her mouth, she fastens them on the sides of the tunnel, working round and round in a spiral, each turn of which reaches nearer the center; until, finally, a thin wooden partition is formed, walling off the egg and its little store of honey-paste. Against this wall more honey is packed, another egg laid, a partition built, and the operation repeated until the chamber is completely filled. The first egg laid is the first to hatch, and the tiny white grub comes forth and at once commences to feast upon the food so providentially placed within his little chamber. Finally he goes to sleep, and while he slumbers his skin grows hard and brown, while ridges and protuberances appear upon its surface. At last the little pupa bursts open, and a perfect bee comes forth, with his shining black head close to the dainty wall his mother built. This, all unmindful of her toil, he immediately tears down, only to find his way to freedom checked by his next younger brother or sister, still asleep in its pupa-case. After waiting patiently the pupa which bars his progress hatches out into another bee, who tears down the wall to his own cell, to find another pupa barring his way, when both are compelled to remain by the pupa beyond. Finally, the last bee is hatched, and, breaking down the barrier which hides the world of flowers and freedom from his view, the whole brood swarms forth to try their restless, gauzy wings in the bright sunshine.

Perhaps some of my readers may have noticed on their rose-bushes a number of leaves in which neat round or oblong holes were cut. This is the work of the Leaf-cutting Bee, a pretty little insect looking much like the common Honey-bee, but with stout orange-red legs and metallic-green reflections about the head. Although the mutilated leaves are all too common, the nest for which they are sacrificed is seldom seen; for this little bee is a carpenter as well as a leaf-cutler, and hides her home away deep in the heart of some old post or board. The hole is much like that of her busy relative, the Carpenter-bee, but smaller, and instead of forming a tunnel at right angles to the entrance, penetrates directly into the wood. When the hole is drilled to her satisfaction, our little friend stops carpenter-work, and flying to the nearest rose-bush, selects a tender, perfect leaf. From this she cuts oblong pieces, which are carried to the nest and formed into a thimble-shaped tube at its bottom. This tube is next filled with pollen and honey, on which a tiny egg is placed. Another trip is taken to the rose-bush, and this time perfectly circular pieces a trifle larger than the diameter of the tube are cut. These the little worker forces into the upper end of the tube, forming a tightly fitting stopper. These operations are repeated until the hole is filled with tubes, one above another. The lowest eggs hatch first, and each young bee waits for the one beyond to go forth, in the same manner as the young of the large Carpenter-bee.

The End

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.