Powdered bees

As described in my last post (Battling Bees), my current research project involves mass-marking bees from 8 separate observation hives so I can determine mineral preferences of each individual hive, and track how those preferences might correlate with hive health.

To mark the bees, my summer interns (four industrious interns over two separate summers) and I modified a system devised by James R. Hagler, a research entomologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Hagler’s system is great for mass-marking Langstroth hives; the homemade marking apparatus consists of a tube, wood, glue, cheese cloth, and marking powder. The apparatus sits on the entrance of the hive, and holds the powder in the cheese cloth. The powder-filled cheesecloth is positioned to hang in front of the hive entrance so that the bees have to brush up against it—and thus get dusted with the powder—on their way out of the hive.

For mass-marking our observation hives, we had to get creative and make some modifications to Hagler’s method. Rather than the rectangular Langstroth hive entrance with a sturdy landing board, our observation hives have tubes that are threaded through the wall of the hut (the observation hives themselves are inside the hut, and the bees have access to forage outside via the tube)—there isn’t anywhere to “sit” Hagler’s marking apparatus.

After a few trips to the hardware store and more than a few trips to the craft store, we had a prototype marker. But after some testing, we had to go back to the drawing board. It turns out that if you droop cheese cloth filled with powder in front of an observation hive’s exit tube, the bees will chew at the cloth until it’s no longer in their way (they are often smarter than we give them credit for).

For version 2.0, we swapped the cheese cloth for vinyl mesh satchels (made with love and a glue gun) that we could fill with powder from one end, and then tape over the entrance of the hive, with just enough room for the bees to get out. This time, the bees tried to chew the mesh out of the way but quickly gave up and dealt with their slightly blocked entrance for the marking period, which was anywhere from 5 – 7 hours (depending on the bees’ temperament and the weather) a few days a week. Success! We picked a unique color for each observation hive and could easily tell which bees came from which hive.

This year’s interns got even more creative. Filling the satchel from the side was messy, and using tape with beekeeping gloves was just not ideal. After another trip to the hardware store and the craft store (I spend a surprisingly large amount of time in hardware stores and craft stores), we came up with a solution: Velcro (industrial strength, of course). For version 3.0 we made new mesh satchels—this time, the satchels could be loaded with powder from the top—and attached the Velcro to both ends of the satchel, and both sides of the entrance tube.

It’s a lot of fun watching our marked bees forage at our tasting table and fly around campus (I occasionally see a pink bee flying around) but it’s really neat when the colored powder starts to make its way into the hive products. The bees are usually pretty good at getting the powder off before they go back in the hive (with the exception of this seemingly lazy yellow bee), but there are just some parts that they can’t get. As a result, we end up with hives with different colored wax combs (red, blue, pink to name a few).