Processing bees

Pinning tools :)
Pinning tools :)–Collection jars, scissors for cutting out labels, a hand lens, pins and board and alcohol

Processing bees (getting dead bees pinned and ready for identification)  is tedious, or it can be. Having company–and a libation–makes it much more enjoyable.

When I first became interested in bees one of my first questions was, “How many kinds or bees are there in Seattle?” Three years or so later, I still don’t have an answer for that question but one should be available soon.  Until the last year or two, it seems that no one had done a survey of Seattle-area bees–at least not one any bee person I asked knew about. Now, two groups of people are looking at just what bees are around in Seattle and other areas of the Puget Lowland and I’m helping to process bees for one of those groups.

Once you start processing bees from a survey you begin to understand why no one has done it before, it is a lot of nit-picky, repetitive work–and there can be a lot of bees–around 1600 from the survey I’m helping with. Here’s an idea of what bee researchers have to do before they can even start exploring their data.


netting bees–or at least looking for bees to net

You buy some little solo-style bowls and some white, yellow and blue paint (Specific paints are recommended in the extensive and exhaustive USGS publication, The Very Handy Manual: How to Catch and Identify Bees and Manage a Collection (A Collective and Ongoing Effort by Those Who Love to Study Bees in North America.))  Those are all colors bees like and may be attracted to, and they seemingly like particular shades and brands better than others. Also useful are the “blue vane traps.” One can also sweep for bees with nets but there tends to be some operator bias in that–“look at that beautiful green bee!” (There’s also bias in the bowls, large bees have definitely been seen escaping.) You put your colored bowls (and blue vane traps out) at specified intervals for a particular length of time (a few hours to a day or two). If it’s only for a few hours you want to pick a sunny spot where the bees are likely to be passing by.

You come back, dump the bowls (and blue vane trap bees) into a strainer and then put your bees into some sort of container. Ideally, you take them back for processing that day. You rinse all the soapy water off, tuck the bees in a tea strainer and then blow them dry with a hair dryer (bees with nasty, matted down hairs are harder to identify and not nearly so attractive.) Once they’ve been coiffed. It’s time to pin. For medium to large bees you stick a pin (similar to those used for sewing–they come in different thicknesses) through the thorax (middle section) of the bee. You stick the pin through a little off center (because there may be things that need to be seen right in the middle of the bee). You want the bee to be flat, neither listing to the right or left or down by the head or tail. Then you hold the pin in one hand with the bee’s heiney end facing you and close to your face. You cup the head end in your other hand and blow on the bee (so from stern to bow if you will). This should blow out the bees wings. Variations in the wings are keys to identifying bees. Plus, if the bee has its wings lying down on its back, you can’t see much of either the wings or the bee’s body. Once the bee dries, if you try and move body parts too much you’re more likely to break something off.

pinned bees
pinned bees

Next, you add little tiny labels to each and every bee (clearly, not yet done in box above) to say where the bee was collected, by whom and where. Cutting out many fingernail sized labels is slow–and boring.

Now, finally, the bee is ready to be stuck under a microscope and identified so some other day I’ll talk about how easy it is to spend a good half hour and key your way to the completely wrong bee!




Anthidium maniculatums having sex on a hebe. Not sure how they're hanging on!
Anthidium manicatums having sex on a hebe. Not sure how they’re hanging on!

I like Anthidiums, even though the one species seen around Seattle, A. manicatum, is a Euro-invader. They are fairly common, big enough to see and recognize without a microscope and they engage in interesting activity. Plus,  I have a really nice photo of two Anthidium manicatums having sex. Jaime Pawelek of the Urban Bee Lab at UC Berkeley told me they are a group of bees that you fairly routinely see having sex on plants. Are they particularly horny? Exhibitionists? Continue reading Anthidiums

Bees of Seattle

Agapostemon, female
Agapostemon, female

I’ve wondered which bees I can reasonably be expected to find in Seattle and the information hasn’t been that easy to find. I’ve started to help prep bees for a recent survey being conducted at two sites around Seattle so I’m starting to get a handle, at least to the genus, on what kind of bees Seattleites are likely to find in their gardens. To help us through the bee free days of winter, every now and then, I’ll profile one of these genera. Continue reading Bees of Seattle

42% loss of managed honey bee colonies 2014-2015

Photo from University of Maryland news release
Photo from University of Maryland news release

Bee season is pretty much done here in Seattle. There may be some things in flower, there pretty much always is around here,  but it appears that our long, warm, dry time may be over. As my daughter said today as we drove through the finest of mists with the wipers on superlow, “It looks like Seattle today.” Indeed.  Chances are, I’m going to have to wait for February/March before I start hunting for the bees again. Continue reading 42% loss of managed honey bee colonies 2014-2015

Happy leaf desecration – leafcutter bees

Megachile addenda (F) Photo courtesy of Sam Droege's Flickr Photostream
Megachile addenda (F)
Photo courtesy of Sam Droege’s Flickr Photostream

Leaf cutter bees are members of the family Megachilidae known for using a wide variety of materials in their nests–leaves, mud, resin, pebbles– and carrying pollen on their abdomen rather than their legs. Leafcutters use their impressive mandibles (mouth parts) to cut the neatest little semi-circles out of leaves to make little cigar-like leaf houses for their babes to grow up in. They definitely have certain plants that they like for their house-making, roses being one but I’ve also noticed the characteristic round holes on epimediums. Other things munch plants, including root weevils but they, so far as I know, don’t make those tidy rounded holes in the leaves. Continue reading Happy leaf desecration – leafcutter bees

Agastache–a bee winner

agastacheOk, I screwed up. I don’t know which cultivar this Agastache is. I stuck one of the little cards in the ground at the plants’ feet and therefore didn’t feel the need to put the name in long-term memory storage, or better yet, in a note somewhere. The card is gone and so is the cultivar name of this fine bee plant that has just kept on going all summer long–with hardly any deadheading to boot.

Now I suspect that it is Agastche ‘Purple Haze’ but no guarantee. I probably planted it in early June and it has bloomed non-stop since. For most of the summer I noticed bumble bees on it. When I checked today, only a few honey bees were visiting. Makes sense. The bumble bees should be winding down their season now whereas the honey bees likely still have high numbers in the hive.


I also planted some zinnias at the same time (‘Magellan Orange’). They’ve grown well but definitely aren’t bee (or anything) magnets. Nevertheless, there were some honey bees on them today. Some were drinking and some would walk around on the plentiful petals, seemingly confused as to where to find the restaurant. It would appear that some of the markers that bees use to find the nectar have been bred out or the multitude of petals may make for a cacaphony of signals, which can be equally confusing.

Golf course bees

Xylocopa virginica (eastern carpenter bee) on Monarda punctata at Rivermont Golf Course in John's Creek, GA
Xylocopa virginica (eastern carpenter bee) on Monarda punctata at Rivermont Golf Course in John’s Creek, GA

I’m doing research for a book on bees and went to visit, of all the unexpected places, a golf course. This is an atypical golf course. They have worm bins (actually a worm condo), they use compost tea, and they’ve planted some plants for pollinators. On the last day of August, the plot was not at its most beautiful but it was full of big, fat carpenter bees, Xylocopa virginica, that were loving the native bee balm, Monarda punctata. I also saw 5 different species of butterflies (or moths) and a really cool wasp with iridescent deep blue wings. On a golf course. It was really cool. Continue reading Golf course bees