chilled bees & yellow rain

Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) – one of hundreds found on the snow.
Click on all images for larger views.

Yesterday, Don, Sabrina and I spent part of the morning hiking at the Ferguson Forestry Centre near Kemptville. When we left the house, the temperature was around -13C (9F), but the sun was shining brightly. We didn’t find it too chilly walking through the forest, but when we reached the open fields of the tree nursery beds, the wind felt absolutely frigid. However, we persevered, deciding to hike along the road that circles the perimeter of the nursery bed cells. There are around 18 cells — large “fields” planted with tall cedar hedges between (see below). Each cell is occupied by the many tree species available at the forestry centre (as some may recall, we have a few dozen trees on order for pickup this spring).

At the northwest end of the nursery fields, the road passes by a cluster of bee hives within a small fenced area. We chose to walk along the path that loops past the hives, before rejoining the road. As we approched the fence, we noticed bees flying around the hives. A few more steps along and we began to find bees on the snow surface — what must have been several hundred of them. The largest number were found in a wide swath leading about 30 to 40 meters to the southeast.

Closer to the hives, we found bees scattered all over the snow. As we stood watching, the odd bee emerged from the small holes in the tarpaper protection around the hives. Almost invariably, the bees would fly around for awhile, but eventually zoom down to crash on the snow. Once there, they would crawl around for awhile, gradually becoming more feeble as they kicked their legs weakly while burrowing into the snow. Those that ended up on their backs would lie kicking at the air for awhile and then become still. I began photographing the bees and found that a certain number of them – perhaps about 10 percent or so – were surrounded by a dark golden liquid. I also soon discovered that the number of bees on the snow was probably far higher than at first appeared as some of the bees had managed to dig down into the snow until they were almost entirely out of sight. I finished up shooting photos and we continued on our way — but not before noticing that there was a small gang of Chickadees hanging out in the cedar hedge behind the hives. The birds were taking turns making quick dives to seize something from the snow surface between the hives. We weren’t able to see just what they were grabbing, but suspect that the bees were the prize.

Last night, after dinner, I decided to post my bee observation field notes to the Eastern Ontario Natural History list-serve, to which I subscribe. I posted roughly the same notes as above, along with a few links to photos, and asked for feedback from the apiarists among the members. Not long after, Dr. Fred Schueler (the moderator of the list-serve), replied that the unfortunate bees were, in fact, making defecation flights when they were struck down by the chilly air. Not being a bee keeper, I was entirely unfamiliar with this behaviour — and, of course, that reminded me once again, that just as I’m close to the point of congratulating myself for knowing, oh, perhaps a tenth of one percent of everything there is to know about insects, I inevitably discover something that reminds me that I actually know only about 1/500th of one percent – if that.

Not being one to let this new mystery rest, late last night, I did some checking around online and found quite a number of references to defecation flights in bees. Apparently, apiarists discuss this kind of thing and can even divine something about the health of their bees by the appearance of their bee poop. As you can see from one of the messages, there’s a difference between “bad” bee poop and “good” bee poop. I quickly checked through zoomed in close-ups of my bee hive photos and, hey! it looks like all of them are okay — no bad bee poop! Also, the snow around the hives compares favourably to one of the “good signs” photos linked to from the bee forum comments (see above).

Now, as I’m sure most of you know, some of us can’t simply seek and find the information we most require once we get started. No, we soon become side-tracked and begin reading all sorts of fascinating peripheral stuff that is somehow connected with our original example. Well, my defecation flights research soon took a left turn, leading me to discover a number of “other” interesting facts. For example, my world has been much enriched by discovering that, during the Vietnam War, a number of Yellow Rain incidents occurred, and these were thought to be some form of chemical weapon, or a weaponized biological substance developed by the Soviet Union. However, as stated in the above wikipedia link to Yellow Rain, that theory was later contested:

In 1987, these charges were later disputed by Harvard biologist and biological weapons opponent Matthew Meselson, who travelled to Laos and conducted his own investigation. Meselson’s team noted that trichothecene mycotoxins occur naturally in the region and questioned the witness testimony, suggesting an alternate hypothesis that the yellow rain was the harmless fecal matter of honeybees. The Meselson team offered the following as evidence: separate “yellow rain drops” which occurred on the same leaf, and were accepted as authentic, consisted largely of pollen; each drop contained a different mix of pollen grains, as one would expect if they came from different bees, and the grains showed properties characteristic of pollen processed by bees.

Of course, not one to stop there, I had to do a bit more reading, and soon found this page on the subject of War and Bees: Military applications of apiculture, a subject which I’ve long wondered about. Surely someone must have tried to utilize bees as weapons of war. Picture the havoc that could be caused by a bee’s nest “bomb” flung into the trenches of the enemy lines! In fact, I once asked a military officer friend about the subject and he said he couldn’t recollect an incident involving bees as weapons. The only anecdote he could offer was of an encounter with a huge paper wasp nest while taking a group of young recruits, armed with machetes, out on a trek through the bush. While marching along, one young man suddenly shouted, “Look, it’s a big bee hive!” Just as the officer began to shout, “Get away…”, another of the recruits gave it a great chop through the center with his machete, thus triggering the group’s need for a very hasty retreat.

One final bit of sleuthing from last night turned up an interesting piece entitled The Tualang Tree, the Giant Asian Honey Bees and the Hindu Myth of the Princess, Hitam Manis– Dark Sweetness…, about a visit to the Malaysian rainforest, written by Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary P. Nabhan. It’s well worth a read through if you have the time. It contains a story about the restorative powers of the golden showers (defecation flights) of the Giant Asian Honey Bees. Be sure to check out the photos close to the bottom of the page. One of the writers notes that the “voiding of the feces is thought to be involved with thermoregulation, of cooling the bees and keeping the nest from overheating in the tropical heat.” Interesting stuff.

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