Bee Hotel

Today, my partner and I took advantage of some perfect weather and a day off to walk around one of MSU’s gardens and enjoy some nature curated and cultivated in a human aesthetic. As an agricultural school, Michigan State has any number of gardens to sit in and read, and for today’s garden, we’re sitting in a horticultural demostration garden.

At one end of the garden, tucked away, the garden’s curators have created a strange sort of craft project. A bee hotel built of tiny bird houses full of tiny straws and drilled holes. A sign outside explains that most bees are solitary sorts, preferring a single dwelling to a hive. Though they’re useful pollinators and good at eating pests, they don’t make honey as such and they live in small holes. Like those in the bee hotel. A peak into one of these with my hand lens reveals one of its denizens poking its head out like an old man leaning out into the hall in a flop house.

On the edge of its tubular cell, a pile of yellow dust made me wonder, what could that be? I had an idea, but I also had my microscope on hand. So no need to merely guess. I could look. I gathered a pile from one room into the well of a slide, and took a look.

Theory confirmed: it was a pile of pollen left behind by one of the bees. As food, I suspect. I showed this to some children walking by, who were less concerned with the pollen than with a general worry about the bees. But then another pile made me wonder. Were all the bees eating the same pollen? A separate pile of powder gave me a chance to check this out.

The shape of each grain of pollen is completely different in this pile. What’s more, they aren’t mixed types of pollen, as I would expect if they were eating generally. So I think that they must be eating from one plant or another. This could either be because a single species prefers a single plant or it could be because I am looking at a single meal from a single bee on a single day of the year.

Regardless it reminds me of the joy of using these instruments as field microscopes and that discovering what exists on the smallest levels can show us not just what is there, but can illuminate how the creatures around us live.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Manu Prakash says:

    What a delightful observation @Matt Rossi. Fascinating – a bee hotel.

    As solitary creatures that don’t collect too much honey, the constraints of visiting the same flowers is limited. Also, aunts and uncle bees can’t teach them which one are flowers filled with “goodies” – so they could stick with what they know. It’s a remarkable observation of why social insects have an upper hand – they can “potentially” create a knowledge based society. Just speculation, but it would be remarkable if true.

    Looks like you are settling well in your new home Matt. Welcome back 🙂


    Ps: a new foldscope design is almost ready. A lot of feature all you foldscope super users will like – specially focus locking. More on that soon via email 🙂

  2. Matthew Rossi says:

    That’s an interesting thing to consider. Since social bees can communicate to each other (via dance!) where the good flowers are, they must be able to find a richer set of food sources. Whereas our friends in the bee hotels must figure out for themselves where to get supplies. I imagine a way to test this would be to sample the pollens found in the honey produced by colonial bees and see how the variety shakes out compared to whatever the solitary bees make.

    And it’s good to be back! It took a while and a winter, but the new city has some wonderful opportunities for exploration. Boat rental is a thing again on the ponds, so I plan in the next weeks to investigate who lives in the offshore of the pond. I also am taking an exciting trip this week (finally learned to drive) to the Kellogg Biological Station to guest lecture in a class on podcasting science. I’m sure something good will come of that.

  3. Matthew Rossi says:

    Also, excited to see this new model of foldscope. Focus lock remains a touch difficult for me, and I’m itching to try some longer time lapses.

  4. Manu Prakash says:

    Kellogg station sounds very exciting. That’s wonderful. Soon we will have enough units; that you can share foldscope with people who come to your talk.

    Yes; keep an eye on your email next week. We will be shipping some new designs to foldscope super users. I know you will love it.. it’s dramatically different in a good way – yet familiar 🙂


Leave a Reply