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HumBug: Mystery Markings

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Honeybee showing marking on thorax. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Honeybee showing marking on thorax.

I can't say how long it's been since I first noticed many of the honeybees in my backyard appeared to have been marked. Their thoraxes looked white and dusty on top. At first I thought they might have been branded by the owner of their hive. A tiny brush near the entrance to the hive could be loaded with something to differentiate one group from another. Another thought was that they might have been treated with a miticide, to control an infestation of the dreaded varoa mite.

Honeybee showing marking and corbiculae. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Honeybee showing marking and corbiculae.
I asked my beekeeping friends but no one was using anything like that. The marking persisted longer than the life of the typical worker bee, so I doubted it was a leftover from some bee rancher's attempt to track his or her flock. None of the bumblebees, mining bees, carpenter bees, mason bees or long horned bees I saw carried the mark.
Honeybee being marked with pollen by anthers where it's hard for the bee to clean off. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Honeybee being marked with pollen by anthers where it's hard for the bee to clean off.
I focused on a rosemary flower I expected to be visited shortly and suddenly found myself grinning at the realization: The bees were being marked by the rosemary blossoms themselves. Rosemary flowers are constructed differently than many other flowers. The anthers and stigma are positioned arcing over the lip petal where the bee lands, giving its back a dusting of pollen when as it drinks nectar.

A pistil picking up pollen from a bee's back. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A pistil picking up pollen from a bee's back.
Because it is out of reach of the bee's normal grooming, it stays there and is not added into the corbiculae (pollen carrying baskets on the bee's hind legs) to be fed to the larvae. Since this pollen is placed in one of those hard to reach places — like that itch on your back you can't quite reach — it remains to pollinate the next rosemary flower.
A side-feeding Mason bee avoids anthers. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A side-feeding Mason bee avoids anthers.
Flowers evolved to take advantage of insect mobility to transport the protein rich pollen between each other rather than expend mass quantities as dust in a shotgun dispersal. While providing nectar to attract the honeybees the rosemary flower has adapted a more economical pollen delivery system by restricting how much of it the honeybees can eat. Many of our local wild bees have adapted to not carrying this load which is why I didn't see similar markings on them.

Hover feeding mining bee avoids anthers. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Hover feeding mining bee avoids anthers.

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