The Zen of Bees

I found this photo that brings back a lot of memories for me.

tagged bees also
Bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) with numbered tags. (With thanks from the Plowright Bee Lab, University of Ottawa, Canada.)

The photo shows just a few tagged worker bumblebees in a wooden container separate from the nest, with a glass nectar tube to feed the bees.

I studied bumblebee memory for my PhD and I put tags on a LOT of bumblebees. It was how I was able to tell the bees apart from each other, since to the human eye all the bumblebees in a colony pretty much look the same. Each small, plastic tag has a different number and you can even use different coloured tags if you want. You can order these tags and special “bee glue” online.

(We tried special “bee paint” once to paint a different colour in the same spot as the tags in the photo, but that ended up being pretty messy!)

The reason I called this post “The Zen of Bees” is because when I labelled bees I had to go into a sort of zen-like state. I had to really, truly relax and concentrate on what I was doing. Only years later did I realize that what I was doing was being “in the Now” or “in the present moment,” or however else it is described these days.

I had to really concentrate because labeling bees puts you at a very high risk of being stung. And it is very stressful for the bees.

Here is how we did it:

  1. Turn off all the lights in the room except for a lamp with a red light bulb. Bees can’t see red very well so if they escape they are less likely to fly and more likely to skitter away, making it easier to catch them. They are also less likely to see you and sting you.
  2. Very gently, with long tweezers, pluck out a bee from the nest by one of her back legs.
  3. While still holding her with the tweezers, place her on a sponge.
  4. With your free hand, place a thin piece of clear plastic on top of the bee. The piece of plastic has a hole punched in it and you line up the hole to where the label will go on the bee’s back (thorax). (You know those plastic acetates teachers used for overhead projectors? That stuff works well.)
  5. While gently holding the bee with the tweezers between the sponge and the plastic, release the tweezers. The bee is now sandwiched between the sponge and the plastic. It takes practice to know how much pressure to place on the plastic to hold the bee down so she doesn’t squeeze out and run away.
  6. The poor bee is probably buzzing frantically and might even poop. Bee poop is a yellow, sticky liquid that squirts out from the back of the bee. It’s important to work as quickly as possible because the bee’s stress levels are likely through the roof.
  7. Place a dot of glue on the bee’s back that is exposed by the hole in the plastic.
  8. Place a plastic tag on the glue.
  9. Blow gently to help dry the glue. (I liked to watch the bee’s fur blow with the breeze. I find bumblebee fur very endearing!)
  10. Once you think the glue is dry, with the tweezers, gently grab the bee by one of her back legs.
  11. While holding the bee with the tweezers, lift the plastic off the bee and put the bee back into the nest. (She might squirt more poop in this process.)
  12. You’re done! You might want to watch to see if she uses her legs to swipe off the label if the glue is not completely dry. If she swipes off the label, label a few more bees first to let her calm down before labelling her again.

This was the most gentlest way we could think of to put tags on the bees. You have to restrain the bee to some degree during the process because as soon as you put anything on a bee’s back, she will use her legs to try to swipe whatever it is off of her.

(I always wondered what the glue and tag must feel like to the bee. Was it like wearing a backpack?)

As intense and scary as the labeling process was, I actually quite enjoyed it. It seemed like surgery. Although I didn’t like putting the bees under stress, it was a necessary part of my research and I tried to make the bees as comfortable as possible. I talked to the bees a lot, trying to soothe them, because at some level I think it helped. (Maybe it helped me more than the bees!)

Depending on the size of the bumblebee colony, there could be 100-200 worker bees to label. This means a lot of time spent labeling. But it also meant a lot of time spent in “bee zen.” Which I think is a pretty nice place to be.

During my research there were many opportunities to slip into “bee zen,” even just while watching the bees.

My research came to to close years ago, but I think there are many day-to-day, non-bee situations where we can slip into “bee zen.” Don’t you?

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