Help us thank the birds and bees (and bats, moths and flies!) during National Pollinator Week

For the next several paragraphs, we’ll be talking about a few very special flying creatures (and some others) that are called pollinators — to whom we owe huge thanks for providing much of the food we eat! 

Without these pollinators to carry their pollen from flower to flower, plants could not form fruits or seeds to reproduce themselves and feed our whole ecosystem of hungry animals — including humans. Did you know that at least one of every three bites you take is thanks to a pollinator? (More if you are vegetarian.)

Although the world’s pollinators include many of the animals you’d expect and more (e.g., also butterflies, beetles, monkeys, even some rodents and lizards), the most important pollinators of our fruit and vegetable crops are insects, particularly bees. Unfortunately, today many pollinators are in danger due to habitat loss, overuse of insecticides, and other factors. To learn more about the threats facing pollinators and what you can do to help, visit the Pollinator Partnership’s webpage at pollinator.org.

National Pollinator Week, June 16-23 this year, was initiated by a group of biologists calling themselves the “Pollinator Partnership,” whose goal was to bring the public’s attention to the vital ecosystem services provided by pollinating bees, butterflies and moths, beetles, birds, and bats — and to make people aware of the urgent issue of their declining populations. 

Seven years ago, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to designate a week each June to commemorate the importance of pollinators. Pollinator Week has now grown to be an international celebration.

From feasting to beekeeping, learn more about the efforts of these hardworking — and essential — animals in three special events planned for National Pollinator Week. 

Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the Cockrell Butterfly Center
Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m.

In addition to the Butterfly Center and Insect Zoo, you will visit the containment room and rooftop greenhouses — areas not open to the public where staff cares for the Museum’s butterflies and other insects. Kids 5 and above welcome! Click here for ticket info.

Beekeeping Class
Wednesday, June 18, 6 p.m.

From the tools and techniques needed to start your own apiary to tips of daily life with bees, beekeeper Shelley Rice will share the basics of starting your own beehive and how to harvest wax and honey naturally and safely. Participants will meet at Shelley’s private apiary. Advance registration required. Click here for ticket info.

Cultural Feast: A Culinary Cultivation — All About the Birds and the Bees
Sunday, June 22, 6 p.m.

In the perfect kick off to summer, join the staff of the Cockrell Butterfly Center at Haven for a five-course meal showcasing the contributions of bees and other pollinators to our food sources prepared by chef Randy Evans. Culinary historian Merrianne Timko will discuss the culinary history of these pollinator-focused ingredients. Advance reservations required by June 16. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets online. 

Buzz or flutter: Who matters when it comes to pollination? (Hint: It’s everybody.)

In economic terms, bees far outstrip butterflies and moths as pollinators. However, there are some plants that are exclusively pollinated by butterflies — especially some wildflowers and garden ornamentals — and several night-blooming species are specifically pollinated by hawkmoths.

Butterflies and moths are members of the insect order “Lepidoptera” — the scaly-winged insects. In addition to the scales covering adults’ wings, Lepidoptera have unique mouth parts as adults: a long, thin, double-barreled, flexible “straw” that is kept coiled up when not in use and extends to reach deep into flowers to extract nectar. This long proboscis means the plants that butterflies and moths typically pollinate have long, thin floral tubes, making the nectar inaccessible to other pollinators with shorter tongues, such as bees or flies.

courtesy of Wikimedia commons

The technical term for butterfly pollination is “psychophily” — psyche being Greek for butterfly.  Butterfly-pollinated flowers are usually brightly colored (butterflies have the widest-known range of color vision in the animal kingdom), especially in yellows, oranges, reds, pinks, and purples or combinations. Scent is apparently not important for butterflies.  However, the flower structure and position is important.  Butterfly-attracting flowers are often produced in showy terminal clusters of smallish blossoms, each with a floral tube that contains nectar and is easily accessible by the butterfly’s long proboscis.

Smaller flowers are usually pollinated by smaller butterflies, which have relatively shorter probosces; large butterflies such as swallowtails have very long probosces and a longer “reach.” Some familiar examples of “classic” butterfly-pollinated flowers are pentas, lantana (indeed many plants in the verbena family), thistles and coneflowers (and many other members of the sunflower or aster family), and milkweeds, among others.  Milkweeds are especially interesting as their pollen is not powdery but occurs in masses or pollinia, each of which bears a little hook that catches on a butterfly’s leg as it probes among the flower clusters.

A few butterflies (mostly the genus Heliconius in the longwing butterfly family) are known to collect pollen on their proboscis and absorb the amino acids from it.  In general, butterflies do not have the “carrying capacity” for pollen as bees do with their hairy bodies.  However, as they move from flower to flower, enough pollen accumulates on their legs or proboscis to get the job done!

Moth pollination is termed “phalaenophily” (phalaen- meaning moth). A number of moths, including tiger moths, noctuid or owlet moths, and more, visit flowers.  But the best-known pollinators among the moths are the hawkmoths, also known as sphinx moths — the adult form of hornworm caterpillars. These large, powerful fliers are basically the nocturnal equivalent of hummingbirds.  Hawkmoth-pollinated flowers are usually white or pale-colored, making them stand out from the surrounding vegetation at night.  They have long floral tubes to accommodate the very long proboscis of these moths, and many are highly fragrant in the evening, or may only open after dark.  Some examples are moonflower, Brunfelsia, Brugmansia and Datura, night-blooming jasmine, four o’clocks, and evening primrose.

Back to bees:  most of us think “honey bee” when we think of bees, but there are many other bee species, from the familiar bumblebee (not common in our area) to the giant carpenter bees, to tiny sweat bees and colorful leaf cutter bees. These different bee species also have favorite flowers to visit for nectar or pollen (most bees only collect pollen).  For the technophiles, pollination by bees is called “melittophily.”

The wonderful variety of flowers — their shapes, sizes, colors, scents and time of day they bloom, even their placement on a plant — have all evolved to attract a pollinator, often a specific one.  Since plants are rooted in the ground, they depend on things that move, mostly flying things — whether butterfly, moth, bee, fly, hummingbird, bat, or even wind — to transfer their male gametes (in pollen) from flower to flower so that the plants can make more of themselves through forming fruits and seeds.

Next time you are out in your garden, in a field of wildflowers, in a gardening shop, or any place with an abundance of flowers, stop to look more closely at the blooms and think about what pollinator that plant might depend on for its survival.

Cockrell Butterfly Center Fall Plant Sale Oct. 8!

This time of year, gardening can make you feel as hot as Priscilla Queen of the Desert

With water restrictions and heat advisories, who wants to get into that mess? The drought and high temperatures have also caused butterflies to suffer, leaving their numbers well below normal for the season. In addition to the gardens we plant to supplement their diet, butterflies rely on native plants throughout their lifecycle. The lack of rain has caused the wildflowers either to have a very short blooming period, or not bloom at all. That means a decrease in nectar for butterflies. Native host plants as well are suffering in the dry heat, leaving caterpillars short of food as well. Triple digit temperatures cause female butterflies to not lay eggs and in general cause the overall populations to languish.

But, there is good news.

Soon the triple digits should be a thing of the past and we can all get outside and start tending our gardens again instead of watching through the window as they shrivel. The butterflies will be back as well and we need to be ready for them.

HMNS Fall Plant Sale
Cockrell Butterfly Center Fall Plant Sale Saturday, October 8

If your garden needs perking up, head over to the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Fall Plant Sale on Saturday, October 8th, from 9 to 11am, on the 7th level of the parking garage at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. We will have a wide variety of host and nectar plants to attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds to your garden.

HMNS Fall Plant Sale
The Cockrell Butterfly Center is the perfect place to see gorgeous,exotic butterflies – but you can help
preserve these fragile wonders by creating a butterfly habitat for local species
in your own backyard.

Check out the list of available plants for more information.

Here are some tips for attending the plant sale:

1. Get there early. This year our sale is only from 9 to 11 am.
2. Bring a wagon to cart around your goodies.
3. We take cash, check and credit cards.

Great Swarms of Bees!

As many of you know, we have an observation honeybee hive in the Butterfly Center. It was initially installed in the Rainforest Conservatory by a professional beekeeper during the recent renovation of the Entomology Hall – and you can learn more about beekeeping in several exhibits there.

If you haven’t seen our hive, make sure to check it out next time you’re here.  The set-up is really cool – the one-frame-thick construction sandwiched between plexiglass makes it possible to see all the bees and watch their fascinating behavior.

If you’re lucky you’ll see the queen making her rounds, laying eggs in any available cell, several attendants clustering around her.  Drones are possible to spot, for those with a discerning eye – they are stockier and have bigger eyes than their hard-working sisters.  You can see workers coming in and out of the tube leading to the great outdoors, where they forage for pollen and nectar, or watch them working inside the hive.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
This is the tube the bees travel through to get outside the Butterfly Center.
See a full set of images on Flickr.

It’s especially fun to see the pollen-laden returning workers doing the waggle dance – telling their sisters the distance and direction to a flowering patch, and how productive it is.  Deciphering this amazing bee language won Karl von Frisch the Nobel Prize in 1973.

But the same features that make the observation hive such an ideal observation tool also bring problems.  The main constraint is the structure’s small size.  Beekeepers can add another hive body and endless numbers of “supers” to their colonies as the number of workers in them grow.  But the observation hive cannot be expanded, and with only three frames and one small super, it quickly fills up with bees during the active summer season.  During these months the queen is an egg-laying machine, producing several hundred to a couple of thousand eggs per day.

Bees have a natural way to control their populations – when a hive gets too crowded, they swarm!  As I now know, thanks to joining the Houston Beekeepers Association, swarms are a common phenomenon.  But most people don’t notice them – I certainly had never seen a swarm until this year.  During a swarm, the old queen leaves the hive, taking about half of the workers with her – they go off to find a new home.  The bees left behind tend several developing queens that were laid in anticipation of a swarm.  Usually there is more than one young queen – this is hedging bets, just in case the first queen to emerge doesn’t make it back to the hive.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
A swarm of bees looking for a new home. See a full set of images on Flickr.

When the new, virgin queen emerges from her pupa the drones swarm around, closely following her as she leaves the hive.  She swiftly flies high up into the air, hotly pursued by her eager suitors.  Only the fastest can reach her and there, high in the sky, she mates with several of the speediest.  The drones die after mating.  The young queen returns to the colony, her abdomen filled with enough sperm to fertilize the several million eggs she will lay during her lifetime.  She will never leave the hive again, unless she heads up a swarm.  If there are other developing queens in the hive, the new queen will sting them to death, eliminating all competition to her reign.

But what happens to the bees that leave the colony during a swarm?  Thanks to the observation hive, I can tell you!  Our colony swarmed late last week (for the second time this summer, we think – we missed seeing it the first time).  A few days before the bees swarmed, they seemed more agitated than normal.  It also appeared to us that there were more drone cells (bigger than the normal cells that contain baby worker bees).  It was hard to see them underneath the masses of bees, but we thought we could glimpse at least a couple of queen cells.  These structures, which look like peanuts hanging down off the edge of the comb, are the nursery chambers for a new queen bee.

Queens are produced by feeding the larva a special diet of royal jelly.  This amazing substance is produced by worker bees.  All bee larvae get a bit of this extremely nutritious secretion, but are also fed a lot of “bee bread” – a mixture of pollen and honey.  In contrast, baby queens are fed royal jelly exclusively.  As a result of this special diet they grow bigger (thus needing the special cell), are fertile, and develop several days faster than the sterile worker bees.  Queen bees also can live for several years, while workers survive only 6-8 weeks.

But back to the swarm.  At some point about half of the bees inside a crowded hive, led by the old queen, stream out of the hive, and land some likely place – in this case, on the branch of a jujube tree growing only about 15 feet from the Butterfly Center.  They formed a tight cluster of solid bees, probably 30,000 bees or so.  The swarm cluster may stay put for a few days while scout bees scour the surrounding area for a likely new home.  If they find a potential new home (usually in some sort of cavity) the group migrates en masse to take up residence.

Since swarms can sometimes take up residence where they are not wanted (inside the walls of a house, for example), responsible beekeepers will do their best to keep their hives from swarming by being sure the hive has room to grow, or by dividing a large hive in two before it swarms (the presence of queen cells is a good indication of an impending swarm).  We don’t have any way of expanding the observation hive – but were happy to see that this swarm was easily accessible.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
Suiting up! See a full set of images on Flickr.

So Zac and I suited up and proceeded to capture the swarm.  Standing on a ladder, Zac gently brushed the bees off the branch and into a cardboard box.  The first glob of bees fell with a thump to the bottom.  We couldn’t get all of the bees but got most of them and taped a screened top over the box (unfortunately it turned out to be a bit leaky!).  We were fairly certain that we did get the queen, however, as the remaining bees did not stay on the branch but buzzed around uncertainly, eventually returning to the observation hive.  All in all the bees were fairly calm during the process although we both found several stingers embedded in our gloves after we had finished.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
Attempting to move the bees.
See a full set of images on Flickr.

Since I had lost my “home bees” earlier this year, I had an empty hive box at home and was excited to get new bees!  After work that day I put the box of bees into the trunk of my car and drove home.  There I placed them in a corner of my yard for the night.  In the morning I would “hive” them into my empty box, which I had repainted and filled with new frames.  In the meantime I spritzed some sugar water over the screen to give the girls something to eat.

The next morning I saw that many more bees had gotten out and were flying around the box.  I suited up and prepared to put the bees into my hive.  Unfortunately it was not an elegant process – we had put so much duct tape on the box that I had a hard time opening it, especially with those heavy gloves on (really experienced beekeepers often don’t use gloves while working with their bees – but I’m still a neophyte and really don’t enjoy getting stung).

I finally got the box open and as gently as possible tried to dump the bees into the hive body.  It was a bit messy and bees were flying everywhere.  I managed to cover things over, and watched for a while.  The bees that had fallen outside the hive appeared to be crawling in to join their brethren (or should I say sistren). Thinking all was well, I went off to Wabash to get a couple more frames as I had only 8 of the 10 needed to fill the box.  About two hours later, my frames put together, I came back to the hive.  All was quiet, with some bees flying in and out.  Quite a bit of the sugar water in the boardman feeder had been consumed.  A good sign, I thought.

Cautiously I approached the hive, and gently lifted the top.  All was calm – too calm.  I lifted the top completely off and – oh no!!!  The hive was empty, except for a number of bees (probably from another hive in the neighborhood) coming to rob the feeder.  My bees had flown the coop!  Sure enough, I looked around and about 40 feet up in a huge water oak in my neighbor’s yard, I could see the cluster of bees as a dark wedge.  Drat!  There was no way I could retrieve them from so high.  A day or two later, they had disappeared – hopefully to a nice hollow tree and not to one of my neighbors’ attics!

I learned the error of my ways from Joe, another staff member here at the museum who – as I found out too late – has a lot of experience with bees (I think he keeps six hives himself).  He told me that when he is housing a swarm, he lets the swarm sit in the capture box for 3-4 days, feeding them with sugar water, before introducing them to a new home.  If you move them from one place to another too quickly after they swarm, he says, they just take off.

As they surely did.  So I guess I’ll be ordering another “package” of bees this coming spring, to fill my empty hive.

Beekeeping at the Cockrell Butterfly Center
See a full set of images on Flickr.

In closing, and despite the unsuccessful swarm capture, I can attest that keeping bees is easier than you think, is increasing in popularity and in importance (since many commercially kept bees are succumbing to various ailments), and is absolutely fascinating.

If you are a gardener, these essential pollinators are a natural fit – especially if you grow fruits and vegetables, as more bees mean a bigger crop!  There are some wonderful books on beekeeping, including the excellent “Beekeeping for Dummies.”  Leisure Learning offers a course on beekeeping at least a couple times a year.  And there are several beekeeping associations in the Houston area; go to www.texasbeekeepers.org to find your local chapter.