Of birds…

… and bees. In early spring, we placed a number of bird houses into our garden. In a city like ours, these are generally occupied by house sparrows (I wish, we had blue birds!)

Sparrows in the bird house under the crab apple tree

By mid spring, every bird house had tenants. Right now, the birds are raising their second brood of the year. When they feed their babies, even sparrows need more nutritious food than bread crumbs or seeds. They look for insects. Our sparrows have discovered a never ending supply of insects in the garden: the bee hive. The sparrow parents hang out near the hive entrance, snatch a bee, sometimes in mid flight, and carry it off. Sparrows are not the only birds that have learned about this convenient food source: A while ago, we observed a cardinal catching bees, too. Oh well…

A few days ago, the sparrow babies from the blue bird house fledged. We saw see them hop about on the ground. Flying was clearly not yet their favorite way of getting around, although they can fly when they must (like when a photographer gets too close).

Tow young sparrows. Their beak has still the bright yellow edge and their mouth is also yellow. This feature makes the beaks irresistible to parent birds and tells them where to put these bees.

A little earlier, a family of young starlings visited the garden. They are grey-brown instead of shiny black and almost as cute as baby sparrows. Starlings also nest in cavities and could theoretically move into our larger bird houses. So far, we have not seen starling tenants, though. The parents of these starlings must have build their nest in a different hole. Maybe there is a hollow trunk in one of the trees nearby, or they found a man-made nesting place.

A young starling tried to get to some water that had collected in an empty planter.

It is amazing how well starlings, sparrows, robins, pigeons, doves and even cardinals and hawks have adapted to living in a city as big and busy as New York City. All of them seem to thrive among us humans and our buildings, roads and small parks. Good for us who enjoy watching them!

Make Music New York 2018

Last Thursday was June 21 and thus time for Make Music New York. For us, it meant to get treated to a performance by the Nevermind Orchestra. With their fun brass sound, the band attracted listeners of all ages into the garden and to the fence.

The Nevermind Orchestra plays for an audience inside and outside of the garden.

Especially children were enchanted by the music. I witnessed how a little boy would rather listen some longer instead of going out to get ice cream. And a little girl joined the band with her toy instrument.

The band was joined by an aspiring young musician

It was a perfect evening with balmy temperatures. The garden looked lush and pretty after a rainy night. By the time the band had finished its set, the first fireflies came out. Happy Summer everyone!

National Pollinator Week

This blog has been a lot about bees lately, and I will stick with this subject for just a little longer, because this week is National Pollinator Week.
You may know that without honey bees, there would be no almonds, peaches, apples, cherries, blueberries or strawberries in our super markets. Bees need to visit and pollinate the flowers of all of these plants, or there will be no fruit.

However, there are many more pollinators than just honey bees. In fact, in our garden, most flowers are visited by other insects, while the honey bees fly off to richer pastures (right now, to the linden trees across the street).

Over the last few days, I went to the garden in the morning and at night to document which pollinators I can find on our flowers.

Leaf cutter bees. Females collect pollen on their bellies, as can be seen in the top middle photo. On the bottom right is a leaf that has been “punched” by a leaf cutter bee.

I found the first signs of a different pollinator by looking at leaves, not flowers. Some leaves of of our roses had holes in them that looked as if someone had put a hole puncher to them. This is the work of leaf cutter bees (Megachile spp.). These bees do not live in colonies or hives. Every female makes her own nest inside of a hollow stem. She carefully lines it with the leaf circles that are missing from our roses, provisions this nest with pollen, lays an egg and seals the cell. It is thought that the leaf-lining prevents the growth of molds and bacteria that could spoil the food for the bee’s offspring. Our leaf cutter bees are about as large as a honey bee, but they are easily distinguished: while honey bees collect pollen on their legs, leaf cutter bees collect it on their bellies.

Long-horned bees. The upper right photo shows a female with short antennae. The bees with long antennae are males. On the bottom left, a male has just landed on a female. At night, male long-horned bee are asleep on their favorite sunflowers.

Since the first sunflower relatives opened their flowers, I always find Agile Long-horned Bees (Melissodes agilis). They seem to be really partial to flowers of the Aster family, and this is where they hang out for eating, foraging and for sex. In the morning, I could observe how males dive-bombed at females that were sitting on the flowers. A tussle ensued and both bees tumbled into the vegetation. Like the leaf cutter bees, long-horned bees are solitary. Therefore, there are as many males as females around. Males are distinguished by the very long antennae that gave these bees their name. At night, I found male long-horned bees huddled together on a sunflower. Sometimes there were one or two, once I saw as many as five. Long-horned bees build their nest in the soil.

Two tiny masked bees on a rose flower.

While long horn bees are also about the size of a honey bee, a careful look at the beautiful old garden rose “Apple Blossom” revealed that its flowers were visited by tiny black bees. These are masked bees (Hylaeus sp.), another species of bees that do not live in colonies. They build their nests hollow dead twigs. There is something to be said for a garden that is not perfectly tidy!

Bumble bees on milkweed and lavender.

Many kinds of flowers are visited by the common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens). Bumble bees live in colonies, have a single queen and usually build a nest in the ground, often in an abandoned rodent burrow. I saw quite a few bumble bees and suspect that their nest is somewhere in our garden.

An Eastern carpenter bee rests on a hydrangea flower.

While the masked bees were the tiniest bees I could find, the largest one was an eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica). Carpenter bees build their nests in holes that they chew into wood. Many home-owners are not happy when they see these big insects hover near their houses. We don’t have to worry: our shed is made of metal and  carpenter bees come to our garden only to forage.

A Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae) enjoys lavender nectar.

Not all pollinators are bees. On my morning walk, I also saw butterflies. Finally, there are moths, wasps, flies and beetles that visit flowers and play a role in pollination. If we are lucky, we may even see a hummingbird.

Flies are pollinators, too. This one sits on a celery flower.

It is wonderful to know that all of these diverse insects come to our small patch of green in the middle of New York City!

The bee story, a sequel

Our beekeepers had been anxious about the queen-less hive. Another inspection revealed no sign of a fertile queen. Even the previous queen cells were gone. Without eggs or young larvae, the workers could not raise a new queen either. This was not good. Without a queen, the colony cannot exist.

Bee keepers have some tricks in their hat to revive a hive and help the unemployed bees, too. One of them goes like this: take eggs from a thriving hive and put them into the queen-less hive. The bees will then build a new queen cell, carefully move an egg into this cell and feed the larva with royal jelly. Also: move unemployed worker bees to a hive that can use their labor.

Last Sunday, Ray came back to do just that. This time, there were 5 of us helping, as we had to open both hives, check for frames with eggs and keep all bees from getting too upset by keeping the smoker going. Ray first opened the old “white” hive that currently doesn’t have a queen.

Opening the white hive

A frame full of honey

We found that, not surprisingly, these bees had not been lazy. Since there was no brood to take care of, they had made a huge amount of honey. In fact, almost all frames contained only cells that were filled with honey. The box was correspondingly heavy. It needed two people to lift it. A quick search on the internet reveals that bees must visit two million flowers and fly around 50,000 miles to make one pound of honey. This box contained many pounds of honey. Isn’t this totally amazing?

We were glad that our bees were so productive. But we would have been even happier, had we found larvae or eggs instead. These were present in our new “green” hive (along with several frames filled with the sugar water that we had fed them).

Brood cells: In the middle and bottom of the left photo, white larvae are visible inside of open cells. These larvae are still being fed. The other cells contain pupae and have been capped with wax. In the right photo, some larger cells with dome-caps can be seen on the edge of the frame. These have drones inside. Drones are bigger and twice as heavy as worker bees and need more space inside of their cell. A worker bee spends 9 days as larva and another 9 days as pupa. Queens develop a bit faster and drones take a bit longer.

Ray selected a couple of frames with a lot of eggs to move from the green hive to the white hive. We would then move an entire box with honey frames and workers from the white hive to the green hive to give these ladies something else to do.

This swapping of brood and workers has one problem, though: Bees are very loyal to their queen and defend their hive against intruders. To simply mix bees from two hives could result in a massacre, even if the bees come from the same hive initially, like ours. Therefore, we had to make sure to brush off the bees from the frames with eggs before placing them into the white hive. For adding the workers to the green hive, we resorted to a trick. Because hive recognition depends on scent, bees can get used to their new environment as long as this happens slowly. A sheet of newspaper placed between boxes containing two kinds of bees keeps them apart for a while until they are adapted and chew the barrier apart.

Preparing the green hive to receive a box with bees from the white hive. Excess wax has to be scraped off. The Sunday New York Times lies ready to serve as barrier between the boxes.

So this is what Ray did for our bees. He taped a page of the Sunday newspaper over the frames with the green-hive-bees and placed a box with bees and honey from the white hive on top. Then both hives were reassembled. It took the bees a while to calm down and go inside. The new bees on the green hive had an entrance on the top of the hive, as they were, for the time being, kept from using the bottom entrance. After another hour or so, they had reoriented themselves more or less. We now had to hope that the foreign bees were accepted into the green hive. Most of all, we were hoping that the new eggs in the white hive would be raised to become queens.

The first part worked quickly. By the end of the next day, some strange grey-green fuzz covered the ground under the hive. A close inspection revealed that this was the shredded New York Times. Also, all bees seemed to use the bottom entrance to the hive. A couple of days later, we opened the hive again to remove the paper. But the bees had done a very thorough job on their own. Every bit of newspaper in their reach was gone.

Shredded newspaper between leaves and some wax under the hive. The bees did a perfect job removing the foreign barrier.

It will be a while until we know whether the second aim of this operation also worked. It takes about 3 weeks until a new queen hatches and then, again, she needs to go on her mating flight and come back to the hive. Meanwhile, the workers in the white hive are bringing in more nectar every day. By the way: we got a chance to sample the honey. It tastes very floral and mild.

One of our ladies collects rose pollen

Update on our bees

As you know, our bees swarmed a little over a week ago. Thanks to East Village bee keeper Ray Sage, we were lucky to catch the swarm that day. A couple of days later, Ray came back with a proper hive. The weather favored us: it was cold and rainy. Ray and Sara gave the swarm some honey from our old hive and a tub full of sugar water. Now, they had not only a dry and cozy home but also enough food to keep the queen happy and start building cells. Who would want to leave under these conditions?

Sara and Ray with the new hive. The yellow container holds sugar water as food for the bees.

We watched the hives over the week. Our “newbees” finished several portions of the sugar water and also went out to collect nectar and pollen.

Last Sunday, our beekeepers decided to take a look inside the hives. They were curious what progress the swarm bees had made, and they wanted to know whether the old hive had a new queen yet.

Checking the hive

For this planned home-invasion, our bee keepers donned protective gear and started the smoker. It contains wet burlap, paper and dried herbs. This combination produces smoke that does not smell too terrible and calms the bees.

Smoke soothes the bees (photo: Joe O’Connell)

First, the old hive was looked into. It has three levels. The shorter top level holds frames where the bees are supposed to store honey. The two lower taller boxes were full with frames that contained cells with brood: bee larvae at different stages of development and pupae. There were also a number of queen cells. These are larger than regular cells and have the shape a peanut. The larvae inside of these cells are fed a lot of royal jelly every day, a special diet that causes them to develop into queens instead of worker bees.

A frame covered with bees (photo: Joe O’Connell)

Our bee keepers did not find eggs in the cells of the old hive. This is a sign that this hive currently does not have an adult queen. For the colony to survive, the workers need to rear a new queen. This queen has to fly away, mate with drones from a different hive and come back alive. Her early life is pretty dangerous until she is back home. Then however, she’ll be very well sheltered and taken care of around the clock and can live up to 4 years. This mating flight is a mysterious event. Drones congregate in certain places and queens somehow find these congregations. How this happens is still unknown, despite centuries of bee keeping and decades of honey bee research.

The bees are carefully brushed off to reveal the cells and their contents (photos: Joe O’Connell).

A look into the new hive showed encouraging activities: there were newly build cells and some of them contained eggs! Here, the queen was doing her royal duty and her workers were busy. No wonder, that they were drinking so much sugar water every day. They have to make a lot of wax to outfit their hive. When a bee is well fed, it is nice and warm in the hive (91 °F to 97 °F) and she senses the need for it, a worker bee secretes wax scales from glands in her abdomen. This wax is then chewed and mixed with pollen and propolis (a resin) to be ready for building the perfect structure that we know as honey comb.

Honey bee (A. mellifera) with wax scales projecting from the ventral side of her metasoma (posterior body region), against white (left) and in a hive (right). Photographs by Helga Heilmann, photographer with the BEEgroup, University of Würzburg (www.beephotos.de). 

Wax scales at the abdomen of honey bee workers (photo: Helga Heilmann, BEEgroup, University of Würzburg; www.beephotos.de)

Bees are truly amazing animals. They do so much work, and all of it is well coordinated. Mind you, I am talking about female bees only. The males do nothing. Their only job is to provide the queen bee with millions of sperm for years of laying up to 2000 eggs per day. Knowing that most of them don’t even get to mate, and those that do die in the process, I feel a bit sorry for them.

However, our virgin queens desperately need to mate with drones, otherwise there will be no more worker bees and thus no honey for any of us. Therefore: best of luck to the queens and her mates for a successful wedding flight!