One of the amazing things about keeping bees is learning about things that are not bees. There is a lot to learn, after all. In recent weeks, Sarah and I have noticed a number of other flying insects interacting with our bees. Usually, not in a good way.
One of our first encounters was about a week and a half ago, while we were checking on the Langstroth hive. We were worried, as we had not seen much in the way of larva the last time we checked, and suspected we may have lost the queen. While this trip proved that assumption incorrect with a plethora of larva, we apparently caught the attention of some sort of wasp.
While sorting through the frames, one of the workers stung my glove. I brushed her body onto a nearby empty hive box and continued my work. A few minutes later, Sarah called for me to look at something.
It is kind of hard to tell, but that wasp is just a tad smaller than the dead bee it is attempting to cart off. It was trying its damnedest to bite the head off of the dead bee, but utterly failing. I have no idea what kind of wasp this is. I am used to yellow jackets, but they are, well... more yellow than this.
A second bee made some valiant attempts to rescue her dead sister, harassing the wasp until it flew away.
Cue to this weekend. I usually have dinner with my mother on Saturdays, and I arrived a little early to check on the bees. As usual, we hung out on the deck for a few minutes just chatting. While chatting we noticed what we thought was a large, dark bee fly by. I didn't think much of it, though she commented that since we had bees this year, she thought she was noticing other insects she hadn't seen before.
After a few minutes of chatting, I got up to check the hives. I could tell from a distance that something was up with the top-bar hive. Bees were weaving haphazardly around the entrance, and the last few feet of their flight path. The entrance was covered with guard bees. As I got closer I could see a few dead bees on the ground.
I sat and watched for a few minutes and noticed two of the dark "bees" occasionally would fly into the area and attack the bees, grabbing them in mid-flight and sending them falling to the ground. Once the bee was dead, they seemed to lose interest and would fly off seeking another victim.
But the dead bees were not left alone. A single yellow-jacket was also flying around, picking through the corpses and enjoying a free meal. What was left over from the yellow-jacket, carpenter ants were picking through and hauling off.
My closest guess to what the dark "bees" where is the bald-faced hornet. Bald-faced hornets will kill bees to feed to their larva. However, if this is the case, these hornets sucked at their job. First, they were not killing many bees; they had a high miss ratio, either missing when they went for the kill or getting run off by defenders. Second, they never ate a single bee while I was observing. Usually, the dead bee would fall to the ground completely ignored by the hornets. The yellow-jacket and ants seemed to be the beneficiaries here.
The hive entrance has been wide open for a few weeks. We initially had trouble with robber bees, so I sealed the entrance until only a couple bees could pass through at a time. This makes it easier for the bees to defend the hive. However, after a few weeks, that issue passed and I opened it back up. Now, faced with aggressive hornets, I sealed it back up again, though not as tightly.
When Sarah and I returned the next day, things were looking much better. The two bald-faced hornets were gone, though a yellow-jacket was still there probably wondering where all the free food had gone. I did see a few carpenter ants, probably wondering the same thing. I'll leave the entrance narrowed for now and see how things go.
So my mother may be right. Or maybe these things have always been around in plain view and we are now only noticing them. Raising bees has certainly brought me more in touch with the sting-y bits of nature.
Too many words, not enough pictures: