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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19 Responses to “chilled bees & yellow rain”

  1. robin andrea Says:

    Seems unfortunate that their defecation flights coincided with such cold temperatures. I didn’t read the links yet, but this post makes me wonder how often bees defecate? How do they ever survive winters? I’ve never thought about bees in winter, because I never see them. I think I must have just assumed they hibernated or were in some life stage that let them stay in their hives. Shows you what I know!

  2. Laura Says:

    When you mentioned in comments on my blog that you’d be doing this post, I expected to read that you’d found dead honeybees having been carried out of the hives by others as part of the cleanup/sanitation that bees do on warmish days in the winter.

    As smart as bees are, you’d think they’d realize it was too cold to go out of the hive. Very interesting – will have to go check out your links.

  3. Peter Says:

    I read the initial messages to the listserv lastnight and hoped for an interesting post on your blog today. Lucky me ;-) I was initialy thinking it was a purge of older worker bees, maybe triggered by a chemical response from the queen or other bees, as I had read something similar before, I think. I certainly didn’t guess bathroom breaks sa the cause!

    Also, related to animals as weapons of war, I always found the bat bomb an interesting bit of history.

  4. Xris (Flatbush Gardener) Says:

    “Watch out where the huskies go
    and don’t you eat that yellow snow”
    – Frank Zappa

  5. Wayne Says:

    Great discoveries on a hike! We’ve kept bees, and the euphemism at the time was “cleansing flights” :-) Ours would pop out and then back in on winter days, but they didn’t have quite the challenges that yours face.

    I recall the embarrassment of the Reagan Administration when analysis of “yellow rain” proved likely to be bee poop. They had affixed quite the ledger of accusations involving chemical warfare on the phenomenon.

    I didn’t know about the possible thermoregulatory aspect. Bees do sit in the front opening and act as living fans for ventilating the hive on hot days, but then again, they don’t seem to have that problem in your story.

    I haven’t seen hives blackened like that. Neat idea!

  6. Dave Says:

    “Golden showers”? Hoo boy. Looks like you’ve made a golden Google bomb here, Bev!

  7. Duncan Says:

    Laura said “As smart as bees are, you’d think they’d realize it was too cold to go out of the hive”
    Well, from my experience, sometimes you’ve just gotta go.:-)

  8. burning silo Says:

    robin – Some of the web pages said that, in the north, bees can go many weeks without making flights. I assume that certain weather conditions must trigger the flights, but once in cold air, a bee can’t fly well. I guess the combination of warmth from strong sunlight, with frigid air temperatures, would be a deadly mix!

    Laura – At first, I wondered if it was some kind of hive cleaning activity, but then we found so many of the bees kicking around on the snow that we realized there was something else going on — not exactly what I expected either!

    Peter – Thanks for the link to the bat bomb reference. Wow! I’d never heard of such a thing before. How bizarre!

    Xris – Ha! Uhm…yah… I think I’ll be a little more careful about which snow I eat from now on! (-:

    Wayne – Yes, these deadly flights must be more of a northern peril for Honey bees. Undoubtedly, there is a different set of perils down your way. I found the references to the yellow rain in Vietnam to be quite interesting. Just another reminder that “intelligence” isn’t necessarily intelligent at all.

    Dave – Do ya think? (-:

    Duncan – Ha! Isn’t that the truth!

  9. Jim Poushinsky Says:

    Last winter I was fortunate to go sailing in Banderas Bay, off the Pacific Coast of Mexico near Puerto Vallerta. About 2 kilometers off the South shore of the mountainous jungle coast (where the Predator movies were made) we were were suddenly attacked by bees that landed on us, crawled under clothing, and bit two of my crewmates before we reacted. Six of us were trapped in the open cock-pit using our best martial arts skills to swat the bees which just kept coming and coming, about a dozen landing each minute. This went on for a good 20 minutes as we raced away from the shore and finally got beyond their range. The reaction of my crew-mates ranged from barely contained panic to cool-hand Luke.
    I found my rubber sandal made an efficient swatter. I hate to think if I’d been alone, without all the extra hands to ward off the bees. Considering the record long cold spell that is killing our bees this winter, I wish I was back sailing on the Deja Vu Again. Thanks for triggering this memory of warmer climes!

    BTW Xris, it’s not just bee poop that causes the yellow snow Frank is cautioning us about eating :-)


  10. burning silo Says:

    Jim – Thanks for sharing the bee story! Yes, It can be quite scary when a cloud of any kind of biting insect descends on you. I was once bitten numerous times by flying ants that suddenly appeared in clouds here at the farm. Weird weather we are having lately after the very warm weather that went on in to mid-January, but then plunged down for so long. I hope we’ve seen the end of it now and that the weather will now remain milder until spring.

  11. Cathy Says:

    Poor wittle bees. Very interesting, but it must have been a little tough watching that suicidal behavior. Photography gives us a layer of remove from the drama around as we fiddle with the buttons and levers. This is a situation that’s pretty ripe with the potential for potty humor. I’ll be sharing your pictures and interesting info in the morning with my Arizona traveling companions.

  12. burning silo Says:

    Cathy – Yes, the camera itself is a layer between us and what we’re looking at, but in a way, when doing macro photography, I find it draws me even closer to the insect world as the LCD screen shows me what’s happening in greater detail than anything I could possibly see without the aid of some kind of magnifying glass. However, I think the attitude that develops is one of being a documentarian – almost a type of war correspondent — especially when photographing insects as there are constant life and death struggles going on everywhere you look. So, you’re in Arizona! That’s one of our favourite places to roam.

  13. Virginia Says:

    After keeping bees for three years, I haven’t scratched the surface of all there is to know about them. A neat fact is that they build their combs until there is a “bee space” of 7.5mm between structures, and if I space the frames wrongly, they’ll happily build one out way too far, so that the wax combs end 7.5mm from the bare plastic on the other side! Everything we do as beekeepers bows to their instincts and desires. They don’t adapt to us-we adapt to them, and maybe they feel the same way about the weather-when they’re going out, they’re going out, and there are no two ways about it! My bees were just seen outside sunning themselves on the side of the hive during a warm spell (about 35 degrees), and I live in Minnesota!
    I’ll never understand them, and that’s half the fun.

  14. Leslie Says:

    I’d have thought the bees would notice the cold and wait until a milder day, too.

    Supposedly bats can tell from deep within their caves whether the weather outside is nice or not. Occasionally some will be mistaken and fly out into a rainy evening, and their wings are so thin that a raindrop can tear through the membrane. This usually results in death, as the bat cannot fly with a torn wing.

    I don’t know why your bee story reminded me of a bat lecture I heard on a trip to Carlsbad Caverns but I suppose that must be it. The “knowing” or “not knowing” about outside conditions, and how a bad decision can so quickly result in fatality.

  15. Cathy Says:

    I love it! A war correspondent. The other universe inhabited by insects is startling. I’ve turned my binoculars upside down to magnify spiders and other insects on the boardwalk railing when there’s been a lull in the birding. It really undoes your sense of scale and your sense of man’s centrality in the scheme of things. I’ve jerked the binoculars away because my squeamish gut won out over my mind’s curiosity about the chomping and romping writ large.

  16. burning silo Says:

    Virginia – Thanks for posting some of your own experiences on Honey Bee behaviour. They certainly are interesting, and yes, they seem to have a mind of their own. I photograph a lot of Bumblebees and find that some of the species have very different termperaments than others. Some are quiet and some are quite aggressive. Lots to learn in any case!

    Leslie – I think the strong sunlight must trick them.. perhaps making it seem as though it will be very warm outside. Once they get out flying around, it’s one of those “Arrrgh!!! I shouldn’t have left the hive!!”
    How interesting about the bats and rain! Thaks for posting about it.

    Cathy – Yes, very true about sense of scale. Since I started insect photography back about 4 years ago, my feelings concerning size of insects have chaged radiacally.

  17. Cindy Says:

    fascinating photos and post.. my Grandfather kept bees for years, but they didn’t get cold weather like this in Oklahoma. I have a great book called ‘keeper of the bees’ and it didn’t mention this abberant behavior. We had a small moth at the door yesterday, the sun alone is enough to warm alot of insects out of dormancy- unfortunately they don’t make it out there long.
    As always, I learned something new by your post :)

  18. burning silo Says:

    Cindy – From what I’ve been told by friends up here, this kind of behaviour isn’t uncommon, but I guess it’s the end of the bees if they venture out on a cold day such as we had last Saturday. In any case, it certainly was a surprise (somewhat unpleasant) to find such a large number of bees stranded in the snow.

  19. Molly Says:

    That lends a whole new meaning to the saying “when you gotta’ go you gotta’ go.”