Some of the greatest discoveries of how honey bee colonies work have been made using observation hives: glass-walled hives that allow scientists to monitor the activities of the colony. Setting up my observation hives in early April marked the true start of my field season. Coming into lab to greet, stare at, and admire my bees has often been the highlight of my days since then.
One of the coolest things about observation hives is that you can introduce marked bees in order to examine how individuals or groups of individuals of the same age behave in the hive (or should I say beehave?). Below are some pictures of the Queen (marked with a yellow paint dot) and some individually marked workers (identified by number tags).
A reality of keeping bees indoors is that sometimes a bee or two will escape and fly around your lab for a while. This happened a lot when I first started supplementing my hives with extra sugar water. Giving sugar water to bees stimulates the colony to grow (i.e. rear a lot of new bees) and is a pretty common practice in beekeeping.
The sugar feeder above is placed on a wire mesh that allows the bees to access the feeder without me having to open up the hive to change out the feeder. However, early in the season my bees weren’t adequately using the feeder this way. In order to get them to use the feeder, I had to take out the wire mesh and put the sugar feeder directly into the hive. What this meant was that every time I had to refill their feeder I had to take it out and leave an area of the hive open momentarily. Consequently, a few bees usually flew out during this time because they were clinging to the top of the feeder when I removed it.
About a week after I began feeding my bees, I tested to see if the were trained to the feeders enough to start using them through the mesh. They were—which meant I could refill their feeders without letting some stray bees out every time. Unfortunately, over the next few days a mystery arose. Every hour or so, I would find a couple bees flying around my lab and the facility. Sometimes I’d find just one bee, other times a handful. I rechecked my hives to make sure there weren’t any openings that would be letting the bees escape from the hive. As far as I could tell, my hives were totally secure and there shouldn’t have been any way for them to get out.
Personally, I’ve grown accustomed to the company of bees. Having a few flying around the lab doesn’t bother me, but I do sometimes try and catch them so I can get them back into their hive. More often than not, the bees fly to the door leading outdoors because they are attracted to the sunlight coming through the window in the door. At that point, I can just open the door and maybe give them a little push to get them back outside where they can fly back into their hive entrance. However, one of my hives is in the room across from my lab. Since it’s a communal room often used by people who aren’t as habituated to having bees buzzing around them indoors, it’s more polite to not let a bunch of bees out to roam around. So, the mystery had to be solved!
Whenever I have a bee-related predicament that I can’t figure out I usually take it to my lab tech and bee guru, Charley. I told him about the problem and we walked over to my lab. Perhaps in anticipation of having their escape plans discovered by Charley, in the few minutes between me walking to his office and us walking back together, not one or two but about fifty bees had made their way out of one of the hives! They were all in my lab room, which allowed us to deduce that it was probably one of the hives in my lab that had the leak. Since there was such a flood of bees coming out of one of the hives we realized we could probably figure out what was going on if we just kept watching them closely. Within about thirty seconds, Charley noticed where the bees were coming from.
Using some small holes that I had left open when I used these hives last summer, some very exploratory bees had figured out that they could make their way out of the hive through these holes. These holes were previously used to screw on the plastic lids of the hives, but have since been replaced by a tape system. Apparently the bees have gotten more curious and crafty since last year! I’m not sure why so many bees had figured out that they could use the holes literally right before Charley came in to help. Perhaps there was some social learning and following-the-leader going on.
To be clear, it’s definitely not the case that the bees are pining to leave their hive and actively trying to escape. Rather, the bees likely found themselves outside of the hive (but not actually outdoors) and tried to follow various light sources in order to make their way back home, a tricky endeavour in a room full of artificial light. In any case, the mass exodus of bees did make it very easy to figure out what was going on, which is usually how these things go for me in the field: I have a problem, I think about it and scratch my head for a while, and then once someone else comes to help me the answer immediately becomes obvious.
Luckily, the solution here was as simple as the problem. We just taped up the holes and I haven’t seen a stray bee around the lab since!
Author Bio: Adrian Perez is a first year in the animal behavior graduate group. He studies division of labor in honey bees.