Tuesday, January 08, 2008

'The Humble Bee' F.W.L. Sladen

My favorite librarian came through again. This time with a copy of 'The Humble Bee' It's Life History and How To Domesticate It. What a treasure! Even though it is written about bumble bees (bombus and psithyrus) in England long ago ( published in 1912) there is so much about the day to day life of small hive bees. It is written in such a way as to endear the creatures as you go about trying to understand them.

Did you know that many bumble bee queens spend the cold months burrowed under ground or within moss bits or other garden debris ? Or that there are imitation bumble bees that lay their eggs in bumble bee nests leaving them to be raised by the host colony? And though bumble bees do not create great combs of honey that can be harvested by bee keepers,they do store little open pots of honey within the nest. Some for use by the queen and workers as they go about their work or to be fed (mixed with pollen) to growing larvae and some to be eaten after the queen's long solitary hibernation . Bumble bees are valued for their pollinating activity rather than honey production.

Life for a bumble bee is precarious, with damp causing illness and bad weather bringing death by starvation.The larvae of many flies and wasps and even a few moths eat the brood. Add mites, nematodes and small mammals like badgers,moles,weasels, shrew and field mice all after a bumble bee meal. It is a wonder very many bees make it from year to year.

Sladen studied the bumble bee by finding and taking many nests, mostly after a queen began to lay but before the adult workers emerged. Building an observation enclosure that would keep light from the nest and keep the bees contained, allowed him to lift the top of the nest and watch what happened inside. He saw the queen lay her eggs and then feed and nurture them until the first workers were able to take over those duties. He watched the queen effectively fight off predators and other queen bees. He recorded revolts and egg laying behavior by worker bees. He watched many nests fail and took note of conditions when nests grew large and strong. He helped out by taking workers from strong nests and adding them to slow weak ones, for the most part without problem. He also introduced alternate queens and studied the results. All fascinating work in which to participate .

The latter section of the book is filled with pictures and descriptions of many bee species, one of the first works of it's kind and maybe not of interest to north americans. But the rest of the book is certainly well written for the lay person that is interested in pollinators and also enjoys a good read. Sladens lifelong passion is clear and engaging. I recommend making the effort to find this excellent book.

I first read about 'The Humble Bee' at Patrick Roper's

The Square Metre

An excerpt from the introduction...
Clothed in a lovely coat of fur, she is the life of a gay garden as well as the modestly blooming wayside as she eagerly hums from flower to flower, diligently collecting nectar and pollen from the break to the close of day. Her methodical movements indicate the busy life she leads-a life as wonderful and interesting as that of the honey bee, about which so much has been written. Her load completed, she speeds away to her home. Here , in midsummer, dwells a populus and thriving colony of humble bees. The details of the way in which this busy community came into being, what sort of edifice the inhabitants have built,how they carry out their duties, and what eventually will become of them will be explained...

and about the end of an old queen...

In the case of B. pratorum, and probably of other species whose colonies end their existence in the height of summer, the aged queen often spends the evening of her life very pleasantly with her little band of worn-out workers. They sit together on two or three cells on the top of the ruined edifice, and make no attempt to rear any more brood. The exhausting work of bearing done, the queen’s body shrinks to its original size, and she becomes quite active and youthful-looking again. This well-earned rest lasts for about a week, and death, when at last it comes, brings with it no discomfort. One night, a little cooler than usual, finding her food supply exhausted, the queen grows torpid, as she has done many a time in the early part of her career; but on this occasion, her life-work finished, there is no awakening.


Blogger jodi said...

What a fascinating post! I'm very fond of bumble bees, and this is one reason we're an organic garden--with a LOT of dandelions, including in the grass (what other people call 'lawn'.) Have you seen the Xerces post about the bumble bee called B. terricola? they're a native bee that Xerces is looking for, tracking bees that are in decline, and we have them here, happily--probably in part because of the dandelions.

11/1/08 8:22 PM  
Anonymous Carole said...

Beautiful post, I plan to look for the book. Carole

13/1/08 8:45 PM  
Blogger Gloria said...

Thanks Jodi. I read the Xerces information about tracking specific bees. How cool that you have identified one of them in your own garden. Did you see my post about Bee Spotter at the University of Illinois site?
Bee spotter - citizen scientist
I hope to add a few spottings this year.

Carole, isn't the writing great. Can you imagine that Sladen was only sixteen when he began to collect and study bumble bees?

15/1/08 9:56 AM  

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