Meet a Miner Bee-Andrena astragali

There are more than 4,500 species of bees in the world commonly referred to as “Miner” bees.  This one in particular, the Andrena astragali, is a specialist that likes to forage on a plant called the “Death Cama” AKA Toxicoscordion.

Toxicoscordion venenosum (Death Camas) - Flickr - brewbooks
By brewbooks from near Seattle, USA (Toxicoscordion venenosum (Death Camas)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Death Cama is known for being poisonous as it contains a type of neurotoxin that is harmful to just about everything in every part of it, even the nectar.  Everything except Andrena astragali that is.


Kamikaze Bees

Pretty much all bees have stingers on them or “stings” in general.  Also, pretty much all bees sting to defend themselves and their nests.  This is pretty well established.

However, what most people don’t realize is that not all bees lose the sting once they have used it to sting something else.  As a matter of fact, pretty much only Honey bees, Apis mellifera, lose their sting due to having it literally ripped from their body along with the venom sac after having stung something else.

A honey bee stinging
Through different studies, we’re pretty much convinced that honey bees actually know they are going to die when they sting.  They know it and they do it anyway.  In Japanese, “Kamikaze” means, “Divine Winds”  referring usually to hurricanes an such.  I’ve heard it they looked on Kamikaze airplane fighter pilots as being a special attack wreaking terrible destruction.  This, I think, is a pretty interesting description of what damage can be done to an opponent when you are willing to go to such dramatic feats to not just defeat the enemy but utterly eliminate them.  Think of the devastation a hurricane can do.

A honey bee, knowing it gives it’s life in it’s sting to defend nest and self is essentially going all out, literally giving it’s everything to overcome the perceived enemy at any cost.  I think the concept of a swarm of bees taking to the air in order to not just defend the colony from attack but to make that enemy entirely go away is true to the concept of Kamikaze.  Just about everything that has taken to raiding a honey bee hive, from wild bears to human beekeepers and everything in between,  has learned to regret that decision as it runs as far away as fast as it can.

Not all bees lose their stings, oh no, pretty much all the rest can keep going back to give a gift that keeps on giving until the threat removes itself.  Bumblebees are known as exceedingly docile and calm out in the flowers.  There’s a time though when those bumblebees can attack ferociously if you are interfering with their nest.  Not only will they come out to sting in defense, they retain the sting and just coming in again and again and again, etc…

Related image
A bumblebee dealing out a sting.

Honey bees don’t always lose their sting though.  It depends on what they are stinging.  If they sting another honey bee for example or something of similar size and makeup, they will mostly keep the sing instead of having it pulled out and dying.  In larger, thicker skinned creatures though, the tiny barbs that are on the sting will catch and not only stick in to be yanked out of the bee, they continue the attack after the bee has detached.

Oh yes, the honey bee stinger is actually a more complicated thing than a simple barbed needle.  In fact, it is two needles working together in a piston-like motion so that once inserted into the body of a victim, they continue to dig themselves in even deeper giving more direct access to the venom in the connected venom sac that came off with the sting.  A good reason to never pinch the sting to remove it is because by doing so, often more venom is injected by squeezing the ven0m sac along with the sting.  Scrape that sting out with a knife, plastic card, even a fingernail instead.

File:Stechende Biene 12a.jpg
Getting down to the business end of the stinger.
That isn’t the end to the mischief the honey bee has wrought in stinging though.  Oh no!  It’s not done done with us yet.  Not only does it’s stinger get physically, forcibly removed from it’s body, leaving it in our body.  Not only does the sting continue to dig deeper into the skin to deliver its venom more effectively.  While she has indeed gone off to die, the little worker bee who has wounded us so, she has also left a chemical marker scent upon us.  A pheromone that acts as a beacon to other honey bee workers flying to the defense.  We are now not only wounded, we are now tagged so that the other bees have a persistent pheromonal version of GPS straight to us.  That’s right, running will avail us little safety, we are marked and they will come to finish the job.  Sounds ominous doesn’t it?  It’s a good thing they aren’t overly persistent.

Most of the time, if we can get anywhere from 20 to 100 yards away (depending on the breed of bee) they will consider having done their job sufficiently and removed the immediate threat and call the forces back home.  Whew!  This is actually true of pretty much all stinging bees.  They really don’t intend to utterly eliminate us, just remove the immediate threat.  Once the perpetrator clears out of the immediate area, most bees are fine with calling a cease fire and returning to battle stations.

In fact, there are times, again depending on the breed of honey bee, where instead of stinging immediately, they give us a warning instead.  A simple little bump, a head butt if you will.  Simply just to let us know, ” Hey pal, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll high-tail it out of here cuz playtime’s over.  Don’t make me have to tell you again.”  yes, I am anthropomorphizing but it’s more fun that way.

So now you know a little more about the stinging activity of bees.  It’s a good thing to know.  Just remember, bees don’t “attack”  they aren’t going out looking for a fight.  That would be the wasps and hornets.  No, bees just want to do their thing and be left alone.

Think of it as bees are all about, “Don’t start none, won’t bee none.”

Meet The Bumble Bee

Ah, our fuzzy friend the Bumble bee. It is actually part of the Order of bees called Hymenoptera and in the Family known as Apis or “Apidae”. Yes, that makes it related to the honey bee which is where most people recognize the word “Apis” from.  It is specifically in the Genus “Bombus” and from there we can tell them apart by a sub-genus, species, then sub-species. For most common discussion, we start with and use the genus, etc…

For example, the bumble bee that was recently added to the U.S. Endangered species list is “Bombus affinis”.  Most people know it as the “Rusty Patch” bumble bee.

Appalachian Bumble Bee (180992746).jpg
By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World – Appalachian Bumble Bee, CC BY 2.0

Actually, there are 8 sub-genus and 46 different species of bumble bees in North America alone.

Bumble bees are some of the fuzziest bees of them all.  That makes them incredibly effective pollinators.  All that fuzz helps them bee one of the best in another way as well.  They are the first to emerge in the spring and the last to settle down in the Autumn due to their special adaptation to dealing with cooler temperatures than other bees might tolerate.

Just here in the Omaha, Nebraska area where the Bee Smart beekeeping project is based, we can expect to see at least 6 to 10 different bumble bee species the Northern states and especially the Western states have an even greater diversity which can see 11 species or so on the low side up to as many as 24 different species in an area on the higher end.  What’s more is that due to the fact that not all of the continental U.S. have been thoroughly surveyed, there could very likely be even more than we realize.

Bumble bees are semi-social bees that don’t build huge nests like honey bees but small nests either at ground level or below ground most of the time.  In most cases, Queen bumble bees lay eggs that are intended to be reproductive and able to mate and start their own new nests the following Spring.

Once a new queen has emerged and mated in the Spring, she typically flies off to a new location, abandoning the nest site where she was born.  Once she finds a new site to her satisfaction, she begins building a new nest and, collecting food up and then laying several eggs.  When those bees emerge, they generally aren’t mated but work to help build the nest and allow the queen to focus on laying more eggs, building the colony while the others handle the foraging and defenses.

File:Bumble Bee (2631102304).jpg
Bumble bee at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. By Paul Stein.

Bumble bees are some of the largest bees around and to match that size, they have some of the biggest stingers for defending the nest.  Despite their weaponry and in some cases aggressive tendencies to defend the immediate nest site, bumble bees are also well known to be some of the most docile and least aggressive of all the bees out and about when they are foraging.  You are least likely to be stung by a bumble bee away from their nest while they are bobbing around your flower garden.

Bumble bees are affected by pesticides and have a number of predators and parasitic pests that spread disease among them like honey bees and other types of bees have to deal with.  It is ALWAYS highly recommended to leave a bumble bee nest alone if you find one somewhere as they typically won’t cause harm unless their nest entrance is located somewhere human and animal traffic will be very near and cause disturbance.


Honey in the Kitchen

Did you know that you can obtain honey in at least five different forms?

  1. Liquid/extracted honey
    1. This is the typical liquid honey you get in a jar.
  2. Chunk honey
    1. This is large pieces of honey comb with honey inside of it stuck inside a jar of liquid honey.
  3. Cut-comb honey
    1. This is full combs of honey that have been cut into a square.
  4. Creamed honey
    1. This is honey that has been whipped and allowed to crystallize so fine that it seems smooth as butter and is spreadable.
  5. Section-comb honey
    1. This is honey comb filled with honey that was put into special sections and filled in with wax comb and honey and removed as a whole unit.

You can take a container of crystallized honey (no, it’s not “gone bad”) and make it liquid again one of the following ways…

  • Place the container into a hot, dry area and it will re-liquify in a while
  • Place the container in a hot water bath and it will re-liquify relatively quickly
  • Very small amounts can be placed into a microwave oven on low heat and re-liquified rapidly.

What does it mean when you see “Raw Honey” on a label?

Raw honey in this case refers to liquid honey that has not been filtered or has had very little straining and/or it has not been heated above 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit.

What is in most commercially packed honeys such as we find on store shelves?

Most commercially packed honey is honey that has been blended from two or more sources in order to deliver a consistent flavor and color.

Can I replace sugar with honey in my recipes?

As a matter of fact, yes, you can swap honey for sugar in most recipes.  As a matter of fact, honey is noted in baking as helping to maintain moisture and “keep” better.  It has been further noted that in some cases it helps to draw out more subtle flavors in a recipe.

There are times when cooking that due to honey being acidic, some recipes require that honey be neutralized.  If that is the case for your recipe you can mix in about 1/12 of a teaspoon of baking soda per cup of honey added.  that’ll fix it.

Generally speaking, you can follow the list below for conversion.  Keep in mind, honey is sweeter than cane sugar, less is more.

  • 1/4 cup sugar = 3 tbsp honey
  • 1/3 cup sugar = 3 tbsp honey
  • 1/2 cup sugar = 1/3 cup honey
  • 1 cup sugar = 3/4 cup honey
  • 2 cups sugar = 1.5 cups honey

How should I store honey?

Honey should generally be stored in a cool (just under about 50°F), dry area.  If honey is heated too much, too often or is stored for too long it can darken in color

What is all this about moisture content in honey?

Moisture content is very important to honey because if too much moisture is present, the honey can start to ferment, that’s not a good thing unless you meat to make mead.

For example, U.S. Grade A Honey is not supposed to be above 18.6% moisture content or it isn’t Grade A anymore.  As a matter of fact, if it isn’t at least or lower than 18.6%, it can’t even qualify for most honey judging competitions.Interestingly enough, if any honey is at or below 17.1% moisture content, it pretty much just won’t ferment.

Defining Honey

So what kinds of honey do we usually find in our honey hunt?  The has a list of definitions available used by a great many who work with honey professionally.  Look this list over and see if you know which honey is which.  Let’s do this Jeopardy style.  I’ll give you the answer fit then I’ll post the question.

  1. This is honey that has been filtered to remove various solids (like wax particles) and pollen grains.
    1. What is…Filtered honey.
  2. This is honey is it naturally is inside of a sealed comb or that is extracted but not filtered or heated.
    1. What is… Raw honey.
  3. Honey that has been heated and to meet certain temperature and time conditions mostly to destroy yeast that may be present but also to minimize crystallization for long shelf life.
    1. What is…Pasteurized honey
  4. These are any number of very thick honey products we can eat sometimes blended with various fruits, flavorings, nuts,spices but not other sweeteners.
    1. What are…Honey spreads.
  5. This is honey that has been very finely crystallized on purpose to make a spreadable and delicious smooth consistency.
    1. What is…Creamed honey
  6. Honey that is comprised of two or more different sources regardless of floral source, flavor, density or color.
    1. What is…Blended honey.

What about honey for diabetics, Is it OK to use instead of sugar?

There’s an interesting thing about honey and diabetics.  On the one hand, there is glucose in honey.  Of course, glucose is a problem for diabetics and should be avoided in general.

Having said that, Honey has invertase which helps invert the sugars in nectar.  Combine the inversion with dehydration and now you have honey.  Because of that inversion though it has been noted that honey is more readily absorbed into the bloodstream.

What that ultimately means for diabetics is that if you are really watching your blood sugar levels, are getting plenty of active exercise, and are feeling a bit risky, then a little it of honey is lot having a bit more table sugar.  Less goes further in this case.  Seeing as honey is actually said to be sweeter than table sugars, you really don’t need to use that much at all.

Obviously I’m not a doctor and I’m not about to give you medical advice.  But now you have some information to start you off on a sweet investigation hopefully leading you to a much better informed decision you can make for yourself.

That’s it for today folks.  Keep coming back to visit us at the Bee Smart beekeeping project and we’ll bee sure to share some more sweet info your way.


Honey and allergies? Does it help?

Honey, Help Me

The idea that consuming honey being able to alleviate allergy symptoms has been around for a very long time.  It’s a bit of a complex issue.

There’s the pollen, there’s the honey and there’s the person.  All of these things and the things about them have to be taken into consideration.

The basic idea falls into a treatment or therapy called immunotherapy.  Trying to get the human body to build up an immunity to the agent through minor exposure is what’s going on.

The Honey

First of all, honey, raw honey is what we’re talking about in this case, has a number of extras in it that get processed out through filtering and pasteurization otherwise.  Honey entirely unfiltered will have a certain limited amount of pollen grains mixed in it.  Most honey, even processed has some amount of pollen grains, only raw honey has the most not having any filtered out.

Consider also that most honey is harvested in the late Summer and early Fall.  To have the type of pollen necessary to make immunotherapy work, there has to be enough for the body to work with yet not so much as to trigger the allergic reaction that we are trying to reduce.

Some suggest there may even be trace amounts of bee venom in honey.  Not very likely as the “business end” of the bees where venom is produced, stored and released has nothing to do with and is nowhere near the cells when nectar is being deposited, sugars are inverted and it is dehydrated to turn it into honey.  I’m not saying it’s impossible, just highly improbable.

Another much more valid concern is that the honey is not dehydrated enough (ideally between 17 and 18 percent water) and may become fermented, moldy or otherwise compromised.  Again, not likely but it does happen if beekeepers aren’t checking the honey they harvest properly.

A third concern is that of certain bacteria called “Botulism”.  It’s interesting to note that websites like WebMD add a warning about unprocessed honey possibly leading to botulism when raw honey naturally contains certain enzymes which inhibit and prevent the presence of many bacteria, botulism being one of them.  The very act of pasteurization kills the inhibiting enzymes, thereby allowing bacteria to grow unchecked.  Though the author of the article at WebMD and others similar fail to acknowledge this.  I suspect their study for such articles failed to even include talking with a beekeeper or beekeeping related research person.

The Pollen

Because plant pollens are very largely genetically similar, the saying that, “The Devil is in the details” applies here.  Honey is mostly collected later in the year and primarily from every flowering plant the bees find.  However, some of the biggest pollen allergy triggers are from grass and grain pollens.  The bees rarely pick these types of pollens up.  If a persons allergic responses are primarily exclusive to grass pollens, honey won’t bee the source of relief they had been hoping for.

Also, in unfiltered, raw honey, there potentially could be enough of a pollen type present to initiate an allergic response in someone who might likely not even know they had an allergy to a particular type of pollen.  It has happened.

The Person

Of course, people themselves are each different and have different reactions to exposure to various stimuli.  The severity or degree of allergic response is unique for each person.  Each individual also has their own immune system that may be strong or not-so-strong depending on a variety of factors.

One person with few allergy triggers and a strong immune system may find that only a small amount of honey in only a few instances  has helped them feel better.  Someone else with perhaps a lower immune system might need more or more frequent consuming of honey to experience relief.  It’s all a big crapshoot really.

So, Can it or Can’t it?

Ultimately yes, raw honey has been found to help people with certain types of pollen allergies find a reduction in allergic responses and experience some degree of relief from allergy symptoms.  Whether it can help for any person will require some experimentation by that person.  Trying various amounts, various frequency of intake, even different honeys from different areas might make a difference.  Or, it might not make any difference at all for those unlucky enough to have the wrong pollen allergy, low immune systems, greater allergic symptom responses or some combination of any or all of these.

One thing I can tell you for sure is, honey  tastes so darn good, it makes all the experimentation worthwhile.


There is no contest, all bees rock

Sometimes looking at particular articles or watching videos, etc… a person might get the impression that some folks want you to beelieve that some bees are more important than others or that some species of bees are more important to expend effort and resources on than others.

Of course that’s ridiculous.  I know it, you know, and deep down, even those people know it too.  All bees are pollinators, true.  Some species are more effective and others are more efficient.  Some specialize in specific types of plants and others aren’t so limited, but they all get the job done one way or another.

Some bees considered native bees can bee fantastic pollinators that often get overlooked and not much attention.  Others, like honey bees, get lots of attention but get the “outsider” treatment because they are considered feral or non-native.

Why is it that honey bees get so much attention even when other bees may be more effective or efficient pollinators?  In large part because of honey.  Honey bees not only pollinate, they selectively or specifically pollinate and they produce harvest-able stuffs like honey and beeswax in great quantities.  They are also extremely manageable, much more so than most other types of bees.

Not that makes honey bees “better” or more worth saving or getting attention.  It just means that they offer something unique to human society that is extremely desirable.

Bumblebees, honey bees, mason bees, alkaline bees, squash bees and all the other bees are awesome insects and provide a super necessary service in pollination that allows people to have crops in abundance.

Let’s not focus on one or another.  Instead let’s show them all some bee love.

Cicada Killers; Menacing Predators or Ugly Butterflies

This is the Bee Smart website but you won’t beelieve how often I get asked about other flying critters.  That’s OK though.  Most of the time it leads to some very cool teaching opportunities about bee conservation.

One of the most trepidatious questions involves the Cicada Killer Wasps.  Yes, they are actually wasps and they are really big, really ugly and really aggressive.  They scare the beejeebers out of most people.

The female is the larger of the two and also the predator.  She is a hunter of other big, ugly insects that most people don’t want around.  She does have a stinger but it’s pretty much reserved for prey.  It’s a rare thing indeed to hear of a female Cicada Killer stinging a person or animal unless they were actively trying to make her sting them.

The males, those wild flying acrobats that seem to dart aggressively at anything near them?  They couldn’t hurt you if they wanted to.  They are males and as such, they are born without a stinger.  They couldn’t hurt you if they tried.

Yes, the female is a devastating predator, only to other insects, and the males are aggressive acrobats that are pretty much not much more than ugly butterflies.

When you see them, don’t bee afraid.  They are pretty much harmless to people and animals.  They also put on a great aerobatics show.

Bee Smart Video Highlight: Yappy Beeman and How To Build A Swarm Trap Cheap

Yes, this is a video from one of our podcast Beehooligans, Travis “Yappy Beeman” Ulbrich.  Yap is a hero of frugality when it comes to beekeeping and getting things done.  Keep an eye on this one folks.  No, really, keep a close eye on him.

BTW, Yappy isn’t usually headless on the podcast, but that may be more of a bonus here for you folks.

Bee Smart Video Spotlight-Washing Beekeeping Gear by Norfolk Honey Co.

Hey gang, One thing we are starting here at the Bee Smart beekeeping project is to bring good beekeeping information to your attention with a new “Spotlight” on videos, websites and more.

Why re-invent the wheel when we have so many great content creators sharing awesome stuff already right?

So today we bring to your attention a very useful topic about cleaning beekeeping protective gear.  Stewart fro the Norfolk Honey Company in the UK has some nice videos that will be among future spotlights.

Hopefully we can get Stewart on the podcast with the Beehooligans to find out more about him and his operation.

How Do You Do it? Hive assembly poll – fasteners

What type of fasteners do you use when building hive boxes?

Visit the Bee Smart Forum after the poll and give us the details about how you build your boxes.