published: September 2019

Garden Guru: What’s up with the bees?

by Matie Belle Lakish

The bee’s wings were shriveled and useless. The poor thing looked normal in most ways, but with short, crumpled wings it couldn’t fly. Bees tend to remove dead and injured bees from the hive, and they often end up scattered on the ground. Several bees, both alive and dead, were spread around a four-foot radius of the hive entrance, about half of them with deformed wings. What was going on?

I called José Villa, of Cottonwood Creek Apiaries, who with his wife Sandy, have become my go-to experts on local bee issues. They came and took samples of my bees and counted tiny invaders called Varroa mites. I had a bad infestation.

Varroa mites, I have since learned, have invaded the North American bee’s world since 1987. Wikipedia says, “Varroa destructor is an external parasitic mite that attacks and feeds on the honey bees Apis cerana and Apis mellifera. The disease caused by the mites is called varroosis. The Varroa mite can only reproduce in a honey bee colony. It attaches to the body of the bee and weakens the bee by sucking fat bodies.” It also carries DWV, Deformed Wing Virus, which was the culprit attacking my bees’ wings. “Adult mites suck on the fat body of both adult bees and bee larva for sustenance. As the fat body is crucial for many bodily functions such as hormone and energy regulation, immunity, and pesticide detoxification, the bee is left in a severely weakened state.”

As an organic gardener, I did not really want to introduce super-toxic chemicals into my hive, but with José and Sandy’s help, we gave my bees two treatments, one with Formic acid, and later with Thymol crystals. That helped, but not enough. When we opened my hive this spring, all the bees were dead, even though they still had plenty of honey left for winter food. So sad.

I liked my bees. I would sit and watch them coming and going from the hive, and observe their vigorous activity in gathering nectar and pollen, even though I had to keep them in a heavy steel-wire cage to protect them from bears. My real motivation in keeping them, however, was their pollination activity. Most fruiting plants, including all fruit trees, require insect pollination. What was I to do without my pollinators?

Dr. Olivia Carril recently presented a program on bees at the Baca Wildlife Refuge, which gave me hope. I learned that there are roughly 950 species of bees in Colorado and, while less research has been done on these wild bees than on honey bees and bumble bees, it appears that mites on wild bees are not a major problem, and wild bees can be excellent pollinators.

Most species of wild bees are solitary and ground dwelling. Depending on the species, they may use holes dug by other creatures, or may dig holes themselves. Some species use leaf or plant litter, and even hollow stems of plants as nurseries for their young.

Bees are members of the order Hymenoptera, which also includes ants, wasps and sawflies. During dinosaur times, ancestral wasps ate other insects, but evolved, with the arrival of flowers, into bees that preferred pollen and nectar. Many varieties of bees eat nectar, but most do not store it, preferring pollen as food for their young. A typical ground-dwelling bee may enter a tunnel, dig about a dozen small dens, deposit eggs and food in each tiny den, then either exit or guard the tunnel entrance until the larvae mature. Some entrances may be obvious, but many are so small that humans wouldn’t notice them.

Bees come in many sizes, but generally have hairy legs and bodies compared to wasps, their closest relatives. This is what makes them ideal as pollinators, as plant pollen sticks to the hairs and is then transferred to the next flower. Some bees only visit one species of plant, but many are generalists and visit many plant species. Some are so specialized that they can’t pollinate.

Recently I was looking at a Rocky Mountain Bee Plant, the pink/purple flower that is blooming abundantly in our area, and I thought I saw mosquitos landing all over the flowers. Upon closer examination, I saw tiny, shiny green bees buzzing about it. They seemed to be gathering pollen from the tiny anthers sticking up from the blossoms. From Dr. Carril, I learned that these tiny bees are specialists called Fairy Bees. They only feed on Bee Plant pollen, and are so small that they cannot reach the pistils of the Bee Plant, so are not useful as pollinators.

On the opposite size spectrum are the Bumble Bees. The largest ones are breeding females, who live in colonies of up to 100 bees. Workers collect nectar and pollen to feed themselves and colony offspring, including some males that live outside the hive, then die at the end of the year. Enough females survive to form new colonies the next year, usually in odd cavities in trees. A beautiful bumblebee, Bombus huntii, has a large band of orange on its abdomen, and is common around the state, and in my garden.

Mason bees are solitary bees that nest in tubular holes, such as hollow twigs or holes bored in wood. They will first gather pollen and nectar to feed the larvae, deposit it in the hole, then lay an egg in the mass. They then plug this with mud, and begin another egg case. Usually several egg cases are deposited in one hole before the hole is completely plugged with mud to wait for the next spring. Blocks of wood with holes drilled to an appropriate size may attract Mason bees, which are even more effective pollinators than honeybees.

While these, and many other varieties of wild bees offer hope for future pollination of plants, many of us are still concerned for our honeybees. Breeders are at work developing bees that seek out and remove the mite in the pupae stage, offering some protection to the hive. Some of these resistant bees are now available to bee keepers.

Other serious issues facing honeybee populations include widespread insecticide use on crops which bees pollinate. Wild flowers are also in decline in many areas, forcing bees to rely more on flowering crops that may expose them to chemicals.

For locals considering beekeeping, the bears, cold climate, and short growing season, as well as Varroa mites, are factors to consider. José and Sandy are willing to assist serious beekeepers. They can be reached by phone at 719-256-4010.

Bees are fascinating creatures, and I can recommend the book, The Bees In Your Backyard, A Guide to North America’s Bees, by Drs. Joséph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril. Visit their website, for more information.