It’s the bee’s knees: Join us for LaB 5555 Friday and learn all about the art of beekeeping!

Etymology meets entomology at this Friday’s LaB 5555: The Bee’s Knees.

LaB 5555 | Bee's KneesMany etymologists speculate that the expression “the bee’s knees” originated as an abbreviation of the British expression “the be-all and end-all.” This was shortened to “The B’s and E’s” and ultimately slurred together into the unlikely expression “the bee’s knees.” Nifty, huh?

However the phrase originated, we know Friday’s LaB 5555 will live up to it. With live music by The Suffers, noms on the patio from It’s a Wrap, Firehouse Tacos, Zeapod Cakery and Oh My Gogi! AND samples of Independence Brewing Co.‘s honey Braggot for the first 250 people, it’s bound to be sweet.

So whether you’re bringing your honey or aim to find one on the dance floor, join us this Friday from 8 to 11 p.m. and dive in to the art of beekeeping with the Houston Beekeepers Association.

You must be 21 to attend, or feel the STING of rejection. For tickets, click here.

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 to find your local chapter.

HMNS@100: Henry Attwater – Naturalist

One of the founding collections of the Houston Museum of Natural Science came from Henry Philemon Attwater.  Born April 28, 1854 in Brighton, England he would become, as did many nineteenth century gentlemen, a naturalist.  But not in his native country.  In 1873, he immigrated to Ontario, Canada where he tried farming and beekeeping.  His growing interest in natural history led him to the preparation and exhibition of natural history specimens.  He worked with John A. Morden collecting specimens in Bexar County, Texas in 1884.  The following year he and Gustave Toudouze were hired to prepare and exhibit specimens in the Texas pavilion at the New Orleans World Fair.

Attwater married Lucy Mary Watts, a widow with two children, on December 31, 1885.  They never had children together and the family moved to London, Ontario.  We get the first inklings of Attwater’s enthusiasm for museum exhibits when he opened a small museum in 1886.  Unfortunately, it did not prosper and closed the following year.  During those few years in London, Ontario he must have found time for singing.  A review in a local paper there singled him out as a fine soloist.

Creative Commons License Photo credit:
Beaverton Historical Society

In 1889, the family finally moved to Texas where Attwater again tried beekeeping for a short while in Sherman before settling in San Antonio.  The next decade saw Attwater really start to come into his own as a naturalist.  He collected specimens throughout the state and lectured and wrote on agriculture and natural history.  He found employment preparing exhibits of Texan wildlife and natural products at fairs and expositions.  When he became the agricultural and industrial agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1900 the Attwaters moved once again, this time for good, to Houston.

By the time Attwater had relocated to Houston he had already gained recognition and respect from other naturalists and scientists.  In particular, the ornithological collections he made in Bexar County in 1892 received a great deal of attention.  His field notes were published in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History and he provided notes for several other books. 

He was elected a director of the National Audubon Societyin 1900 and re-elected for another five year term in 1905.  It was also during this time that Attwater became known for his conservation efforts.  He was instrumental in the passage of the 1903 Model Game Law.  Four years later he served on the game-law committee which recommended hunters’ licenses be required for resident and non-resident hunters and that the revenue from the licenses and fines be restricted exclusively for game protection and propagation.  When he retired from the railroad in 1913 he immersed himself completely in the study of natural history.

Surprisingly, Attwater was not a 1909 charter member of the Houston Scientific Society, which I wrote about in an earlier post as the organization that would one day become HMNS.  But at some point, he sent out brochures for the sale and disposal of his self-titled “Museum of Natural History and Other Specimens.” Today, HMNS has several copies of this undated brochure and also a copy of another undated brochure simply titled “Exhibit of Products and Resources of South Texas.” 

I mention the second brochure because it solicits a larger Texas audience, while the first targets Houston specifically.  What is certain is that in January 1916, there was an exhibition of “The Attwater Exhibit: Texas Samples and Specimens” at City Hall here in Houston.  (A confusing note adds that it is the gift of The Progressive League to the city.  I’ve not yet discerned if the exhibit fee perhaps was borne by the Progressive League or if the League actually bought the collection exhibited, though I lean towards the former.) 

In the July 28, 1917 edition of The Houstonian, an unsigned editorial pleads for Houstonians to not lose the valuable “Atwater (sic) Museum” to Dallas or San Antonio.  The founders of the Witte Museum in San Antonio purchased a collection from Attwater in the 1922/23.  I’m still researching which collection went to San Antonio.  But I did find notes from the Houston City Library dated June 2, 1922 which contain the first mention of Sigmund Westheimer offering to purchase the Attwater collection (whichever one it was) and donate it to the Library and the City of Houston.

Creative Commons License Photo credit: Designatednaphour

H.P. Attwater died September 25, 1931; his grave is at the Hollywood Cemetery on North Main.  The Attwaters lived at 2120 Genesse Street and although it’s known that his widow was still living there in 1940, sadly no house stands at that address today. 

However H.P. Attwater’s collections and legacy live on.  From a quick and very unacademic Google search I found specimens that he collected in the collections of the Witte, Smithsonian, Field museum, Dallas Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles County Museum, American Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, and of course here at HMNS.  His field notes and articles can be found online.  Several species were named in his honor, the most well-known in Texas being the Attwater’s Greater Prairie Chicken.  Today, conservationists continue Attwater’s early conservation work in ongoing efforts to conserve the Prairie Chicken and its natural habitat.  This early naturalist and his work loom large still.

These are a few of my favorite things

Well, it’s been a year since the grand reopening of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and what a year it’s been.  We had an awesome opening last May with a whole weekend full of fun and excitment.  

Soon after the opening we had “Adopt A Butterfly” and a swarm of Ecoteens.  (Ecoteens are wonderful young volunteers that can always be found somewhere in the museum in the summer time.)  We also shared our newly renovated exhibit with all of our docents with an exciting week of docent training.  


Me lounging on a GIANT spicebush
swallowtail caterpillar

With all the hard work that went into redoing the exhibit, it was great to hear all the compliments from our docents and patrons.  I have talked to many guests that come back regularly to see their favorite parts of the exhibit and it’s always interesting to hear what they like, so I thought that I would share my favorite parts with you.

The huge spicebush swallowtail caterpillar that greets everyone at the very beginning of the exhibit is probably my favorite sculpture.  I got to see this go from a hunk of foam to a plain colored caterpillar to the wonderful masterpiece it is today.  It is so fun to see kids and adults posing with the caterpillar – what a great way to start off the exhibit.

I promise I am not going to go through the whole exhibit but my second favorite part is the hallway leading up to the Brown Hall of Entomology.  The colors are so bold and I still find myself in awe when I walk up and down the stairs.  


There is also a section of the hall that displays how wonderful ants are at building their homes.  There are three casts of actual ant nests displayed with a video of how they were made.  (CBS News recently did a great story on the man who developed this casting process; you can see it here by clicking on “The Secret World of Ants.”) It’s pretty cool to see the structure of the fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, nest and how many tunnels they have. 

A lifesize cast of an anthill and all the tunnels

Beetles, aka Coleoptera, are a main part of our exhibit because one out of four living animals on earth is a beetle!  There is a beautiful preserved beetle display showing specimens from some of the major beetle families.  I think I’m partial to this section because Erin and I spent hours sorting through our beetle collection. 

A few days before the grand reopening we both spent A LOT of time planning and actually putting together this wonderful beetle display.  We have a quiz game hosted by a very southern dung beetle that is probably the most popular interactive section of the Entomology Hall.  I love this game because it gives visitors a chance to get a bit competitive with their friends and learn cool stuff about Arthropods at the same time. 

I would really love to share with you everything that is in the Entomology Hall, but I will give you the chance to come see it youself. 

We did not change much inside of the actual rainforest, but we did get an observation bee hive.  I have to say that this is super cool and I sometimes find myself spending a lot of time watching it.  This is probably one of Nancy’s favorite parts of the exhibit.  She has even taking up backyard beekeeping herself. 

Another thing about the rainforest that is brand new are the butterfly charts.  You can borrow one of these when you go into the exhibit to help you identify the butterflies. 

The last part of the exhibit is downstairs where the old insect zoo used to be.  My absolute favorite part about this area is the “beneficial insects” game.  It’s kinda goofy, but lots of fun and I’ve seen so many kids begging their parents to stay so they can play longer. 


Another part of this area that I really enjoy is the “eating insects as food” section.  To see the look on peoples faces when they realize that the vending machine in front of them doesn’t have the normal stuff but instead has bugs to eat is priceless! 

I hope you enjoyed my favorite things and remember that I just touched the surface of what we have to offer.  I hope that if you haven’t had the chance to come check out our one year old renovated exhibit you will come soon.  I would also like to hear back from you guys as to what some of your favorite things are!