librarian + adventurer


Birds + Bees

April 27 - May 1

Sunday morning I woke up EARLY to walk the bird trail with my mom and dad. If you don't know them, I'll give you a little bit of a background. The Virginia Bluebird Society is an organization committed to "preserving the Eastern Bluebird and other native cavity nesters." Its a really cool organization, and if you're into birds at all you should check out their website. Anyways, they maintain several Bluebird "trails" throughout the state, and my parents work one of those trails.

Once a week (or as close to that as possible), my parents walk a 3.2 ish mile loop and individually check and document the contents of over 70 bird houses. Typically, these houses contain Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, and Chickadees, though we also saw a Wren nest. When they look into each box, they record the species, the nest status (partial or complete), and then how many eggs/babies are inside. I love walking this trail, and made sure I would be able to help when I was making my plans to fly in. 

Click on images to enlarge

Opening a box and seeing 5 baby birds (some having just been hatched in the last few days) is one of my favorite feelings ever. Last time I helped with this, I was in charge of recording all of the data (dad didn't come with us that time), and it was a little stressful. It was so nice to come with both my parents and get to enjoy just walking and learning - they're both so knowledgable and love talking about this!

The nest that is pictured below is a Tree Swallow nest. Tree Swallows use grasses to build the base of their nest, and then line the top with feathers. Their eggs are a solid white color. 

Tree Swallow nest

Tree Swallow sitting just outside it's nest.

The nest pictured below is filled with baby Bluebirds! Bluebirds build their nests in a circular pattern when viewed from the front (you can't really tell in this picture) and they lay bright blue eggs (THOUGH about 1-5% lay white eggs and my one of the birdies on my parents' trail lays white eggs!). When you open the boxes, the babies think you're their mother there to feed them. If you make noise (I liked to "chirp chirp" back at them), they'll lift up their heads and open their beaks wide. ITS BASICALLY THE CUTEST THING YOU'LL EVER SEE IN YOUR LIFE!

Five bluebird eggs (the color is a bit distorted because it was totally in shadow, but they are a BRILLIANT blue color in real life). 

Baby Bluebirds - this will be quite a full nest once the babies are about to fledge!

The houses are all standard built and "cavity" nesters use them. They have a predator guard that serves as a pseudo-front porch for the birds. It allows them a space of refuge while waiting for room inside the birdhouse and a place to get their bearings when exiting while protecting them from hawks swooping in. And while I love hawks (and all birds of prey, really), it makes me happy to know that these little birdies I've watched grow up won't be eaten without at least having a chance to fight back/escape. The houses also all have a snake guard that protects them from snakes climbing in and eating all of the eggs. Again, I love snakes and what they do for our environment, but I'd rather they find their meals elsewhere. The entry holes can have a reducer placed in them, narrowing the opening and making it so that only chickadees will nest in that particular box. I love that even though its the Virginia Bluebird Society, they make homes for all birds!

If you're interested in building a box of your own, the VBS has plans on their website HERE

I got super emotional towards the end of our walk because we had both a Bluebird pair and a Tree Swallow pair swooping at us as we checked the boxes. Birds are really incredible animals and different species will band together when threats to their nests arise. If a snake is trying to get into a box, you'll see all different species of birds working together to get the snake out AND THAT IS SO INSPIRING TO ME!!! I love that my parents do this and that I get to learn so much about all sorts of things because of them!


Freshly split bee box, more on that below!

My parents have been beekeepers for several years now. It's been so fascinating to watch them begin this hobby and then thrive in it (if you've never had some of my parents''re missing out). I didn't want to suit up and actually work the bees - it was like 87° and humid as all get out - but I did stand close by to watch what they were doing.

On Sunday, they had 5 hives. Hive 1, though, was HUGE and had too many bees in it so my parents wanted to split the hive. In order to do so, they had to find the Queen. This meant going through each frame (what my mom and dad are holding in the pictures below) in each box until they found her. That might sound impossible (especially if you're not a beekeeper yourself), but the Queen is relatively easy to spot once you know what you're looking for. Still, they had to go all the way to the bottom box of a 5 or 6 box hive in order to spot her.

Dad examining one of the frames

Momma looking at the bottom of a frame for the Queen

Still searching and dripping sweat while doing so - my dad's glasses kept slipping off his face!

If you're like me and very much afraid of being stung by a bee, the thought of working with them is probably overwhelming. I will say, though, that I've never been stung by one of my parents' bees and even if I did I would be okay with it because now I have a better understanding of honey bees and what they're doing - that poor bee just wanted to protect the hive!

Back to the point - beekeepers can opt to use smoke to help make the bees more docile while they're working with them. When the smoke is inhaled by the little bee lungs (actually a system of tubes that carry oxygen to and carbon dioxide away from cells. These tubes connect to the outside world by a series of holes called spiracles), they think there is a forest fire making them retreat into the hive and gorge themselves on honey. When their little bee tummies are full of honey, they are less active and less likely to sting. The smoke also helps stop them from spreading an alarm pheromone, which as you can imagine, is very nice. 

The bees will crowd around the entrance to hive and use their wings to create a sort of fan to cool off the inside. The bees hanging from the bottom of the box just show you that there are waaaayyyyy too many bees in this hive. 

Photo credit: momma Baker.

STILL NO QUEEN, but this frame gives you a better look at just how many bees were in this particular hive. The tool in my dad's hand is used to loosen the frames from the box - everything is pretty sticky inside a beehive!

After making it to the final frame of the final box, my mom finally spotted our girl! This was great news because the hive desperately needed to be split to make more room - it was unhealthy (and dangerous in the heat) for them to be living in such crowded conditions. Once they found the queen, they moved her box over to the other side of the apiary (fancy word for bee yard) and began deciding what other frames they would take. In order for the split to work, the new hive needed capped brood, honey, and a large amount of bees themselves. 

Moving the entire box to the new hive location. We were nervous the queen was going to fall off because she was on the very bottom of the bottom box! This picture also gives you a sense of how many bees are flying around- just look at my mom!

Moving select frames to the new hive

Choosing what frames need to be moved. Each box can fit 8 frames and any open slots will be filled with empty frames that the bees will quickly fill up

Once they had enough frames, they began shaking bees into the box. This process is, quite literally, what it sounds like. They picked up a frame that had a lot of bees on it, took it to the new hive, and shook until the bees fell off. It was crazy to watch! The bees that are currently in the hive won't leave for a few more weeks - the foragers leave early in the morning looking for pollen and nectar. The queen will lay eggs and all of the bee roles will begin to fill. Bees all have different jobs depending on their age: young bees are attendants to the queen or nurse bees and become foragers in the last days of their lives. Bees are pretty metal - they literally work themselves to death. 

My parents will set up a sort of landmark (a stake with tree branches tied to it, for example) that the bees can use as a map to help differentiate their home from the other 5 in the apiary. It's a really cool process, and bees are incredible insects all things considered.

So there you have it, a hive split and the apiary grows from five to six! Two days later, my mom got a call from a local high school principal and caught a swarm that was at the school. So now my parents are up to seven!

If you have any questions at all about the birds and/or the bees (pun TOTALLY intended), don't hesitate to ask! I'll forward your question to momma B and she'll be more than happy to answer - she loves educating people about how cool her hobbies are.