Honey bees (Apis mellifera) love crocuses, but only if the crocuses are producing nectar and pollen, as well as having a detectable scent. Unfortunately, many hybrids may not have pollen, nectar, or scent because these traits have been bred out of them. So, if your garden goals include attracting pollinators, be sure to look for heirloom seeds and plants. Don’t be fooled by pictures of a butterfly photoshopped onto a beautiful flower in the seed catalogs.
The crocuses in the photos below were purchased as bulbs from Old House Gardens in Ann Arbor, Michigan, several years ago. I chose the Crocus Tapestry from their catalog, which contained (still contains) 5 Mammoth Yellow (1665) bulbs, 5 white Snowbunting (1914) bulbs, and 5 bulbs each of 3 lavender crocuses–King of the Striped (1880), Tommies (1847), and Vanguard (1934). Yes, those are dates in parentheses, so you can rest assured that they are heirloom crocuses, guaranteed to attract pollinators. The lavender crocuses shown below are Tommies and Vanguards, sometimes I’m not sure which is which.
The truth is, when I first noticed dozens of bees swarming the crocuses, I didn’t know they were honey bees. I wasn’t even sure they were bees. Consulting a book on my bookshelf, The Bees in Your Backyard by Wilson and Carril, I determined their identity and started to learn something about them. Since honey bees are social insects, I worried about where their hive was located. An online fact sheet from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture informed me that natural colonies of honey bees are extremely rare. So I was left to wonder who was keeping honey bees in my suburban New Jersey neighborhood. Honey bees may travel 3 miles or more to find a good source of nectar and pollen. When I discovered that our town’s community garden, which, as a bee flies, is about a mile away, provides space for beekeepers, that mystery was solved.
I was relieved to learn the whereabouts of the hive because a member of our family is allergic to stings and once visited the emergency room due to multiple wasp stings. As many people do, we called them “bee stings,” but they weren’t. It turns out there was a hornets’ nest in the lawn he was mowing at the time. It was a scary experience. Other members of the family, including me, have been stung by yellow jackets. Daisy, my yellow Labrador garden dog, and I were chased by yellow jackets once, when we unknowingly got too close to their nest in our magnolia tree. Only a handy garden hose, which I grabbed to spray the yellow jackets, saved us from multiple stings. Hornets and yellow jackets are wasps, not bees. Still, bees do sting, so I was relieved to learn these honey bees were visitors to my garden and not taking up residence.
While wasps can sting multiple times, honey bees sting only once, and only worker bees, which are always sterile females, can sting. Worker honey bees are the only bees to have a sting with a barb on it, so it sticks in the skin of a predator and keeps pumping out venom. When the worker bee pulls away, the sting and venom sack are torn from her abdomen, and she dies as a result. Honey bees are social insects. There are tens of thousands of workers in a hive. When a predator attacks the hive, worker bees will defend it by stinging the predator. Some worker bees will die in defense of the hive and the queen bee, but a majority will live to carry on. Honey bees rarely sting when they are foraging away from the hive, although it’s always best to keep a respectful distance.
I am still puzzled by the presence of these honey bees this spring. Did their hives just recently become established. Did my crocus patch finally get large enough to be detected from a distance by the bees. Did the honey bees visit my garden last year and I just didn’t notice. Today is April 10. The crocus flowers have been gone for some time now, and so have the honey bees. Will they come back when other flowers bloom. I have more questions than answers.
Honey bees are not native. European colonists brought them here in the 16th century. Today they are used extensively for industrial agriculture pollination with hives shipped around the country as needed. Parasites can have a devastating effect on honey bee populations, and a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder has caused honey bee populations to decline. It also may be the case that the presence of honey bees impacts native bee populations adversely. Much has been written about these problems, which are beyond the scope of this post.
On September 30, 1852, Henry David Thoreau and 3 friends set off in a wagon to find wildflowers where there might still be honey bees. Most of the wildflowers were gone, but finally they discovered a sunny hillside near Walden Pond where goldenrod and asters were still in bloom, and they heard the hum of bees. They had brought especially made boxes in which to collect some bees, as well as dried-powder paint of different colors to mark the backs of bees they collected.
The trapped bees sipped honeyed water that had been placed in the boxes until they had their fill. After receiving a daub of powdered paint on their backs, the bees were let loose to return to their hives. Thoreau and his friends knew there were hives in the village, but they also seemed interested in perhaps finding a new wild hive.
The first painted bee they released circled around the box in ever larger and higher circles, as if, Thoreau says, “to examine the premises that he might know them again” and then “as if to ascertain the course to his nest.” After this, the bee “darts off in a bee-line” toward the village hives. Subsequent bees set loose in a similar fashion also went off in the direction of known hives.
The first bee, marked with red paint, came back straight to the honey box within 22 minutes, but this time, after loading up again on honeyed water, “he” took off, but without circling, as did the other bees, marked with different colors of paint. Thoreau refers to the bees with the masculine pronoun, I guess not knowing at that time that worker honey bees are all sterile females.
Thoreau makes the astute observation that a casual “rambler in the most remote woods and pastures” would never guess that the bees he sees there might be from his own village, “perhaps from his own yard, come to get honey for his hives.” Thoreau writes he “felt richer for this experience,” which taught him that “even insects in my path are not loafers, but have their special errands. Not merely and vaguely in this world, but in this hour, each is about his business.”
Thoreau and his friends were scouting out wildflowers and honey bees in September. They didn’t seem to consider the collection of pollen. Their emphasis was on the honeyed water, a substitute for nectar, being fed to the honey bees in the boxes. Workers collect nectar from flowers and transport it back to their hives. The nectar is partially digested and then regurgitated into honeycomb, and finally thickened into honey when the bees buzz their wings over the honeycombs to evaporate excess water.
What Thoreau describes as circles the bees made when they left the box with honeyed water is now commonly known as the “waggle dance,” which is executed by a worker bee as a means of communication to sister worker bees. indicating to them both the direction of and distance to a food source she has discovered. Although Thoreau’s bees were heading to the hive, the waggle dance usually takes place at the hive, showing the way to a new food source. As Thoreau observes, this dance occurs only at the beginning of the foraging expedition. After that, the bees take off in a bee line, as there is no longer the need for circling.
The more I learn about the common flora and fauna in my garden, the richer I feel for the experience, as Thoreau says. Birds, butterflies, and bees are not loafers but have their special errands. Egocentric persons may think these creatures are on display for their pleasure, but that pleasure is a byproduct. Life goes on whether we observe it or not. I find it hard to express how wondrous these little creatures seem as “not merely and vaguely in this world, but in this hour, each is about its business.”