Back in July 2023, we wrote a Bug Squad blog about a feral bee colony inside a cavity of a sycamore tree on the UC Davis campus.
The triple-digit temperatures resulted in bee bearding.
Bees engage in bearding (forming a "beard" outside their hive or colony) when the temperature soars and it's too hot to maintain the internal 94 degree temperature. As the late Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen (1944-2022) of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology used to say: All honey bee colonies must maintain a temperature of 94 degrees, or the brood (eggs, larvae and pupae), will be adversely impacted. When the inside temperature rises above 94 Fahrenheit, bees resort to (1) bringing more water into the colony to cool it down and (2) bee bearding, meaning that some of the adults will leave the colony and "beard" just outside the entrance to help reduce the heat load inside. The "bearders" are helping their brothers and sisters-to-be survive.
Today the sycamore tree colony is expanding. With binoculars or a telephoto lens, you can clearly see the comb build-up.
It's a beautiful, incredible sight--Mother Nature at her finest--and something we never tire of seeing. Seeing a wild bee colony is bee-lieving.
Call it “The Battle Over a Tree Hollow."
Feral bees have occupied—and abandoned—a sycamore tree cavity in a Vacaville neighborhood for at least two decades. They occupy it in the spring, summer and fall, and then the colony either absconds or dies back in the winter.
When this winter proved exceptionally cold and rainy, a clever squirrel moved in.
A place to stay warm. A perfect sleepy hollow.
Then in early April, scout bees from a spring swarm begin circling the tree. Wait! There's an intruder inside.
Squirrel: "Occupied! No vacancy!"
Bees: "Out, it's ours!”
Squirrel: “Finders, keepers! I was here first!”
Bees: “But it's ours! This is our bee tree!”
Cars speed by. Residents trudge by with leashed dogs. Birds chirp. A hound bays uproariously. The sleepy squirrel pokes his head out occasionally as if to ask “What's all the ruckus about? Can't a squirrel get some sleep?”
More bees buzz around his head.
“Occupied!” Mr. Squirrel shouts again. “No vacancy!”
The score: Squirrel: 1. Bees: 0.
Then one mid-April day, the tenant vanishes.
The bees quickly move in. Call it a "hollow victory" for the bees.
The score: Bees: 1. Squirrel, O.
Now a queen bee is busily laying eggs. The workers are performing their age-related duties: nurse maids, nannies, royal attendants, builders, architects, foragers, dancers, honey tenders, pollen packers, propolis or "glue" specialists, air conditioning and heating technicians, undertakers, and guards.
Who was it who said "Everything works if you let it?" The American rock band, Cheap Trick.
So said bee scientist Thomas Seeley, the Horace White Professor in Biology, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University, when he addressed the 2018 UC Davis Bee Symposium on "Darwinian Beekeeping."
Seeley, who studies feral or wild bee colonies in the 4200-acre Arnot Teaching and Research Forest owned by Cornell University, emphasized that "honey bees are superb beekeepers; they know what they're doing."
Fast forward or "buzz" forward to Africa.
Have you ever seen a feral bee colony of the African honey bee, Apis mellifera scutellata?
Son James Keatley Garvey, CEO and founder of Self LLC, captured images of a feral bee colony on Feb. 19, 2013 in a fig tree in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.
The colony's architecture is nothing short of incredible--sort of like immaculate construction! Comb building, as evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin observed, is "the most wonderful of all (insect) instincts."
Josh van der Ploeg of andbeyond.com--he's a guide, public relations manager and podcast host--told us in an email that scutellata is "the more commonly occurring bee species inland. The tree they have constructed their hive on is a giant-leaved fig tree or Ficus lutea."
Bees share the Maasai Mara National Reserve with The Big Five (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and African buffalo) as well as four more to tally The Big Nine: cheetah, giraffe, hippo and zebra. The reserve, primarily of savannah grasslands, rolling hills, and riverside crossings (Mara and Talek rivers), is located along the Great Rift Valley area, about 140 miles from the capital city of Nairobi. Established in 1961 as a wildlife sanctuary and now comprised of more than 700 square miles, it also hosts the Great Migration, known as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, and one of the ten Wonders of the World.
“I've not been to Africa, but I have read a fair amount about beekeeping in different parts of the continent,” Seeley wrote in an email. "I know that in the grassy woodland regions, nest sites are rare for colonies, so often they have to nest in the open, as shown in your son's photo. If a swarm sees a protective cavity, it will use it. This is why beekeepers in this region of Africa have good success in hanging up log hives."
Log hives are the most widely used type of hives in Africa, according to the Apiculture Platform of Kenya.
Seeley, who teaches courses on animal behavior and researches the behavior and social life of honey bees, shared an image of a log hive painting that his late mentor, Professor Roger Morse (1927-2000) of Cornell purchased in the 1970s at a market in Kenya. Morse was known as "the Cornell entomology professor who championed the art and science of beekeeping."
Seeley, who joined the Cornell faculty in 1986, has authored numerous books, including Honeybee Ecology (1985), The Wisdom of the Hive (1995), and Honeybee Democracy (2010). Look for his next book, Bees' Ways: 20 Mysteries of Honey Bee Behavior Solved, in the spring of 2024.
It's spectacular. It's awe-inspiring. It's a work of art.
And it's home to a feral honey bee colony in Vacaville.
A Vacaville resident contacted us awhile back about a feral honey bee hive built 30 feet off the ground in a Modesto ash tree.
The bees anchored the comb among the limbs so well that it survived the winter storms of 2010-11. Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet...nor colony collapse disorder...
It's still viable. Bees forage in the gardens, tend to their brood, and make honey.
Noted apiculturist Norm Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Davis, and author of a newly published book, "Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees," estimated that the feral bees probably built it in the spring of 2010. Leaves hid it from public view until winter.
Bee folks at UC Davis speculated that the heavy rains and severe winds would topple it. Not so. It's still going strong.
Some cities, including Vacaville, have ordinances prohibiting bee swarms or feral bee colonies. If bees build it, the homeowner/tenant must remove it. (6.24.130 Wild swarms of bees. "No person shall keep, maintain, or allow to remain on any property, lot or parcel of land under his or her ownership or control any wild swarms of bees.")
It's easy to see why a city would pass such an ordinance--especially in areas with Africanized bees, which are more defensive than the European/western honey bee.
With this colony in Vacaville, however, the bees are minding their own business and the neighbors don't mind at all. (Note: the homeowner is pursuing removal, but wants to save the bees.)
Meanwhile, it's a colony to bee-hold.