22-31 January 2006

Installment #302---
Visitor #Amazing Counters

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Beekeepers are as busy as their bees during spring, summer, and fall, so we suppose any industrious apiarist would look forward to cold weather and the chance for a breather from three-season caretaker duties. Even though a beekeeper has less hive-tending come winter, their European Honey Bees, Apis mellifera, don't hibernate; despite the cold, the bees' home is a literal "beehive of activity" in which hundreds of workers frenetically fan their wings to generate heat that keeps the queen and her troops from freezing. Many workers eventually die from all this flapping, but a healthy hive that made enough honey in the warm months will survive winter's chill and liven up considerably when spring arrives.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Athough Honey Bees aren't hibernating, it's pretty unusual to see them out and about in the Carolina Piedmont during January, and they've certainly been flying at Hilton Pond Center. With local January temperatures averaging a whopping SIX degrees above normal in 2006, most days this month were mild enough for worker bees to forage. Only problem was virtually all flowering plants in these parts are keyed to photoperiod--not ambient temperatures--so there was hardly enough daylight to stimulate growth of nectar-bearing blossoms the bees could visit. About the only plant ignoring the cold and producing flowers at the Center was a large "candy cane" Camellia planted long ago by previous residents of our old farmhouse (above). This 15-foot evergreen shrub, whose ancestors were brought over from the Orient, begins flowering each December and blooms for a couple of months despite ice storms and sub-freezing temperatures. Our current winter probably feels downright tropical to the Camellia, which has produced a bumper crop of red-and-white flowers that most winters go unappreciated by normally inactive pollinators. This January, however, on many days when the mercury registered at least 50 degrees, the Camellia has been a magnet for hungry Honey Bees.

Despite its four-inch diameter, we're not sure an individual Camellia blossom has all that much to offer--big showy cultivars often are essentially sterile--but that certainly hasn't stopped bees from diving into the blooms' pollen-bearing stamens in pursuit of nectar (above). On any given day the Camellia has had a hundred or more open blossoms, each with at least one bee trying to determine if sweet juice lies hidden beneath the flower's reproductive parts.

Again, we're not sure what the nectar load of a hybrid Camellia flower might be, but it should be more than what could be found in a tray full of shell corn, cracked corn, and white millet seeds. If this sounds like a silly statement, let us elaborate. One afternoon in mid-January, Susan Hilton pulled into the carport at Hilton Pond Center following another long day's work as a high school counselor. As her vehicle came to a stop, she could look straight through the carport at a covered platform feeder that doubles as a trap stand for bird banding work. Most winters Susan would have spotted a bunch of cardinals, jays, or other seed eaters at the food tray, but none were present. Instead she witnessed what she thought was a bunch of bees landing on the platform, so she hurried into the old farmhouse and reported her observation to her loving husband.

After warmly welcoming her home, we first asked with some incredulity whether those really were bees she had seen, and then--convinced by her confidence--went out to take a look for ourselves. Susan was, of course, absolutely correct; from a distance we could count a couple of dozen Honey Bees on or around the feeder (above). We cautiously inched closer--a near-death experience with a wasp sting during our college days made us eternally respectful of all species of hymenoptera--and then closer still, until we could essentially rest our chin on the feeder platform. From this bee's-eye perspective we could see the bees were flying in, landing, and plunging their heads into little cracks and crannies between the corn and millet. Some bees even looked to be probing the mix with their tongues (below).

We were amazed--no, spellbound--by this behavior. We'd never witnessed Honey Bees foraging anywhere but on flowers, and since they didn't seem to be chewing the seeds we were at a loss to interpret their behavior. In times like this, we called on the experts by sending out an E-mail inquiry to Entom-L and BugNet, two very active Internet groups that deal with insects and related arthropods. As expected, it wasn't long before we started getting responses that helped clear up our "Mystery of Honey Bees at the Birdseed."

What we learned from bee experts is that our Hilton Pond Honey Bees--made active by much-warmer-than-usual January temperatures--weren't really "looking for food in all the wrong places." Initially the Honey Bees were probably attracted to our big Camellia--the only plant blooming in the neighborhood--where they apparently found little or no nectar. So they began investigating other potential food sources, one being seeds in the nearby platform feeder. This behavior, although we had never witnessed anything like it, turns out not to be all that unusual to folks who have more intimate knowledge of Honey Bees, Apis mellifera.

It seems that Honey Bees--in the absence of energy-rich flower nectar--begin looking for other protein-rich sources. Normally bees acquire their protein in the form of pollen--nectar is a carbohydrate--so when no flowers are in bloom they collect other kinds of dust that could contain protein. Such protein is essential for the hive because after the queen begins laying eggs her newly hatched larvae need lots of it for growth and development. Even though corn is thought of as high in starch (carbs again), its kernels do contain some protein, so it appears the worker bees at Hilton Pond were doing the best they could for future sisters by gathering corn dust to take back to the hive.

Chip Taylor, the University of Kansas entomologist best known for his project on Monarch Watch butterfly tagging, tells us dust collecting by Honey Bees is actually quite common in spring. If pollen is unavailable, Honey Bees collect all sorts of dust that contains carbon--even coal dust. Dr. Taylor reports that in open markets in Central and South America it's not uncommon to see bees collecting flour from open sacks or spillage--a behavior also well-known in Africa--and that beekeepers sometimes put out "pollen substitutes" such as high-protein soy flour in spring and fall.

If the pollen baskets on the hind legs of the two Honey Bees in the photo above are any indication, these little insects are working really hard for not much corn dust. There's only a small accumulation of gray, shiny material in baskets that during spring and summer would be full to the brim with bright yellow-orange pollen grains (right).

Although the Hiltons had never observed Honey Bees at bird feeders, the phenomenon isn't a big surprise to bee experts. What it took to acquaint us with the bees' dust-gathering behavior was an unusually warm January that activated bees at a time when there were essentially no pollen-producing flowers. Even after 24 years in residence, there's always something new to learn about at Hilton Pond Center--in this case that under the right conditions the phrase "busy as a bee" is just as applicable in winter as in summer, fall, and spring.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center
Thanks especially to members of Entom-L and BugNet for commentary

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Be sure to scroll down for an account of all birds banded or recaptured during the week, plus other nature notes of interest.

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

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Oct 15 to Mar 15:
Please report
your sightings of
Vagrant & Winter


15-21 January 2006

Carolina Chickadee--1
American Goldfinch--1
Northern Cardinal--1
White-throated Sparrow--1
Purple Finch--2

* = New species for 2006

5 species
6 individuals

8 species
21 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
124 species
46,597 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)
Northern Cardinal (2)
08/16/05--2nd year male
08/22/05--2nd year male


All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

--With only 21 new birds captured, the month just ended will go down as the least productive January in our 24 years of banding at Hilton Pond Center. Most years we handle 35% or more of our annual bandings in December and January--months in which usually dependable numbers of Purple Finches, House Finches, American Goldfinches, and Pine Siskins flock to our feeders and traps. (Purple Finches did finally start trickling in this week--we managed to band two of them--but not in their typical numbers.) Since all four of these winter finch species may be facultative (not obligate) migrants that fly south only when food supplies dwindle on their breeding ranges, it may be that a milder-than-usual winter up north has allowed them to stay there. Or maybe West Nile virus really HAS taken a toll on bird populations in the eastern U.S.

--If some of these thousands of American Robins and Common Grackles hanging around the Center would just enter our sunflower seed traps, our numbers of banded birds would increase exponentially.

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