We can learn much about honey bees by observing bees in their natural habitat. Residents of my Arkansas Delta county called today and described a colony of honey bees living in a huge, hollow cottonwood tree at their home. Cottonwoods are among the tallest trees in the Delta, climbing to nearly 150 feet. This gnarled tree had weathered many a season and showed the damage of numerous wind storms and lightning strikes. Hollow cavities in storm-damaged trees provide excellent spaces for honey bees to build their nests.
The colony moved into the ancient tree this past October. Colonies that swarm late in the year often fail to build enough comb and store a sufficient amount of honey to survive the winter. Fortunately, there was a good nectar flow from goldenrod this past fall. If you click on today’s photo, you can see the entrance to the natural honey bee nest about 23 feet above ground on the underside of a large, hollow limb. Four sheets of clean, light-colored beeswax honeycomb hang down from the opening in the tree. The darkened comb previously held brood and pollen. Like a screened bottom board on a modern bee hive, the open bottom of this natural nest allows hive debris and parasitic Varroa mites preened by the bees to fall to the ground. All of the exposed comb is empty; the bees have moved their cluster upward over the winter. The empty cells filled with air make excellent insulation for the colony’s nest. The sheets of comb themselves help calm the winter winds. The homeowner and I watched the honey bees actively flying from their natural nest. An international pilot, he discussed how insecticides are sprayed inside the cargo holds of aircrafts before landing in foreign countries to prevent the unwanted transfer of bees or other insects. This colony should be successful in its new home. It found a suitable tree and a family concerned with protecting the bees and the environment.