Female valley carpenter bee (Xylocopa varipuncta), resting on a cool morning.

Tethered

A few people who know me will know that there is a story in this photo. They will also know that there is a bug in this photo, which isn’t obvious because the picture was taken with an old, low-res, Kodak Instamatic film camera. But trust me, it’s there.

The skinny kid is me at age fourteen. It’s summertime, and it’s the 1970s, as you may be able to tell by my stylish outfit. (It’s the socks. They are the fashion equivalent of a mic drop.) I’m on the front lawn of the corner house two doors down from where I lived, on Burlington Avenue in Billings, Montana. There’s a reason for my odd posture and goofy expression. The reason has to do with a bumblebee.

My best friend for many years back then was Mike Williams, who was the grandson of the people on the corner. Their names were Mernie and Dutch Pippin. They were wonderful neighbors, whose kindness and generosity would be impossible to overstate. Mernie was like a second mother to my mom – she taught Mom to quilt, which became her lifetime passion – and the Pippins were like a third set of grandparents to me and my sisters and brother. I’m certain that many people whose lives intersected with the Pippins felt as we did about them. Literally and figuratively, their door was always open.

As a kid, I spent every possible moment outside. Describing my childhood summers may sound idyllic to the point of parody, but here you go, in brief: We ran around the neighborhood, in and out of everyone’s yards, hunting bugs. We slow-walked in the alleys bisecting our blocks, heads down, searching the crushed gravel for agates. We hiked the sandstone cliffs at the north edge of town looking for lizards and snakes and black widow spiders. We rode our bikes out to the flooded gravel-pit ponds east of town to catch sunfish and turtles. We found leeches and minnows and snails in the creek in the city park a few blocks away, and caught aquatic insects – backswimmers and water boatmen and whirligig beetles – in the shallow, wide puddles that the park’s irrigation system left behind as vernal pools. We slurped Kool-Aid popsicles made in Tupperware molds. We ate homemade donuts fried in Mernie’s kitchen. We played kick-the-can at night. We “camped out” in tents in our backyard. When it rained we made elaborate Hot Wheels tracks or played Yahtzee on Mernie and Dutch’s screen porch. We shot at stuff with slingshots. We rode our stingray bicycles as if they were mountain bikes. We built elaborate toy structures out of popsicle sticks, which we then blew to smithereens with fireworks purchased with the money we made mowing lawns. We survived many unintelligent choices, more than a few of which our parents never knew about, more than that of which they did know about, and let us think they didn’t.

Okay, enough nostalgia. This is a story about science.

One day, Mike and I were walking past his grandparents’ open garage, and one of us noticed a bumblebee fly inside. The bee wasn’t lost; it was coming in with purpose, coming in for a landing. It in fact landed on the floor, on a soft cushion of cottonwood fluff which had eddied against a stack of storm windows leaning against the inside wall of the garage.

Sidebar #1: Definition of terms:

1: Cottonwood fluff. Cottonwoods are in a family of deciduous trees that includes poplars and aspens. They are so named because they shed seeds which disperse with airy, allergy-inducing, dandelion-like bits of cottony fiber, which float through the air so abundantly that it can seem to be snowing in summer. The nearly-weightless cotton swirls in the slightest breeze, but eventually it falls, gathering in clumps and drifts, catching in corners and sidewalk cracks or sifting down among grass blades, finally disintegrating or being driven into the earth by summer rains.

2: Storm Windows. In colder climates, especially on older homes without modern windows with double-pane insulated glass and built-in screens, many houses have inner, double-hung permanent windows made of single-pane glass, plus two interchangeable sets of outer frames which are switched seasonally. The cold-weather set are frames with glass, and are called “storm windows”; the warm-weather set have screens instead of glass, and are called, well… “screen windows.” It is a twice-yearly chore to put on the screens in springtime, the storms in fall. (I did not enjoy this chore, by the way. Especially putting on the storm windows, which always had to be washed first.)

So: That summer per usual, Mernie and Dutch’s storm windows were stacked upright inside their garage. And that summer, per usual, a small pallet of cottonwood cotton, maybe six inches wide and half an inch thick, had gathered in an eddy against the stack of windows. It was on this cotton cushion that Mike and I saw the bumblebee make a soft landing – after which it ambled behind the window frames, out of sight.

Hm. Why would it go back there? There are no flowers in a garage. Then, after a moment, a bumblebee came out from behind the windows, walked onto the cotton runway… and flew out of the garage and off into the sky. It was obvious – behind the windows, the bees had a nest. We watched for a while as bumblebee workers came and went. We started to wonder: How long were they gone gathering pollen before they returned? Were we seeing the same few bees go back and forth, or were there many?

Sidebar #2: Bumblebee basics.

There are thousands of species of bees, most of which are actually solitary insects that don’t build hives, but most bumblebee species are social, meaning that they live communally in family nests, like honeybees (although in much smaller numbers). Bumblebees often nest in abandoned rodent burrows or other ground-based, sheltered areas. Like honeybees, bumblebees have a queen, smaller workers (all female), and a few male drones. Unlike honeybees, bumblebee queens don’t stay in the nest, but fly to flowers just like the workers. Also, bumblebees don’t create stores of honey, which honeybees use as food to keep workers alive over the winter; in bumblebees, only the queens survive past the fall.

So: We had found a bumblebee nest. We didn’t want to move the windows and risk damaging the nest or disturbing the bees (or getting stung). But then I thought: When biologists want to study grizzly bears or birds or antelope, what do they do? They put on radio collars or leg bands or ear tags to keep track of individual animals and study their movements. Why couldn’t we tag a bumblebee?

We could and we did. We borrowed a spool of white thread from Mernie and readied our home-made butterfly net. Then we waited for a bee to exit the nest, and captured it as soon as it took flight from the cottonwood launching pad. One of us held the net taught around the bee so that it couldn’t move, and manipulated its position until one of the bee’s back legs stuck out through the netting; then the other of us gently tied a piece of white thread to the bee’s leg. We trimmed the thread so that it was only about an inch long, then opened the net and let the bee fly off to forage. After that, all we had to do was check our watches and wait.

After about a week or maybe twenty minutes, the tagged bee still had not returned. Of course, the whole point of the experiment was to learn how long the bee was away, but… it was longer than we thought it would be. I mean, what if a bee was typically gone for an hour? Or longer? Or what if it never came back? What if it got eaten by a bird?

Science was hard.

It occurred to us that perhaps our experiment wasn’t perfectly designed. Maybe, instead of waiting for a tagged bee to return, it would be better – scientifically – if were able to follow it. Then, we’d know not only how long it was gone, but where it went. So we caught another bee, tied a short bit of thread on its leg, let it go… and ran to follow it. By halfway across the yard, we’d lost sight of it. Okay, again, this was clearly an experimental design flaw. The piece of thread was so small that by the time the bee gained any distance and/or height, we simply couldn’t see it, especially against a bright sky.

The answer was obvious – a longer piece of thread. So we caught another bee exiting the nest, and this time, we tied on a foot-long piece of thread. We let the bee go, and it took off, fast and strong, apparently completely oblivious to the thread trailing behind it, like a person coming out of the bathroom with a piece of toilet paper stuck to their shoe. But we were right – it was easy to see the longer thread and follow the bee. Surprisingly to us, the bee didn’t fly low at garden height, where the flowers were, but angled upward until it was twenty feet in the air. But we could still see it because of its foot-long tail, so as it crossed out of the Pippins’ yard, then through Mrs. Mecklenburg’s, then into mine, we were able to track it, no problem – until our new experimental design also revealed an unanticipated design issue.

Above my backyard, as the bumblebee flew through the locust tree at the corner of our house, the trailing end of the thread caught on a thin twig. But the bee wasn’t just caught by the thread’s end, leaving it straining forward like a dog pulling on a leash – instead, the bee flew in what could accurately be called a death spiral, whipping around the twig like a tetherball around a pole, so that within about two seconds the hapless insect was bound to the branch, lashed tight.

Oh, crap. I felt terrible. There was no way to climb up and free the bee. Maybe it was time to abandon our experiment. But we’d gotten pretty good at tying threads on bee legs. It seemed a shame to waste this newfound skill. That’s when we hit on another idea.

What if… we tied on an even longer piece of thread, like five or six feet… and held onto one end, so we could fly the bee like a tiny, self-powered kite? A bee on a leash. It wasn’t science, but it did sound fun.

So we tried it, and it worked. And that’s what I’m doing in the picture. The task required concentration, in case the bee headed right at you, or started to wind around you like you were a tree branch. It’s why I’m squinting weirdly in the photo – I’m watching the bee. Mike and I spent an hour or two flying bumblebees. When a bee started to get tired, we’d un-tether it and let it go, then switch to a fresh one. We attracted a fair amount of attention from passing cars. To people driving by, who from all the way out in the street probably couldn’t see the thread or the bee at the end of it, we must have looked a bit deranged as we slowly moved around the yard while gesturing oddly, like we were practicing some bizarre form of tai-chi.

I’m not sure at what point Mernie asked us what we were doing, but I assume she looked out the window and her curiosity was piqued in the same way as the people driving by. In any case, once she did learn what we were up to, she was delighted, and got her camera.

We were never stung, by the way. There were a few close calls, but bumblebees are pretty hard to provoke, and they didn’t seem to associate us with the frustration of having their flight paths governed.

Also, we didn’t completely abandon scientific inquiry; we briefly experimented with related insects to see how they compared to the strong-flying bumblebees. Honeybees and leafcutter bees simply weren’t able to lift more than a few inches of thread. Paper wasps were stronger, but were decidedly less patient with the experience – just FYI, paper wasps hold a grudge – so we stuck with our original good-natured species.

I don’t recall that we flew bees on a leash again; probably some other great scientific notion grabbed our short attention spans after that day. So I’m glad Mernie took pictures.

I’ve told this story a number of times, but there is one aspect that had never occurred to me until recently: I don’t think this “experiment” would happen today, at least not in exactly the same way. The reason has to do with the habits of both bees and people.

The world has changed since I was a kid, in many ways for the better – lots of things have improved scientifically, educationally, and socially. But some things are inarguably worse. Parts of our natural world, especially, are struggling.

Sidebar #3: Struggling Bees.

You’ve read that the honeybees are dying and you’re worried. You can stop. They’re fine. In this country, honeybees are domesticated insects, and in fact are not even native to North America; they are basically the cows and sheep of the bug world. They are important pollinators for many crops, and there have been problems with some colonies dying, which is serious and needs study and vigilance – but they are not going extinct. Far from it. In fact, in the U.S. right now, honeybee populations are actually high. And because they are domesticated, even if some honeybees die, beekeepers can always just breed more. So despite alarmist internet memes, you don’t need to worry. Your supply of almond milk is safe.

On the other hand, a number of native bee species, including some bumblebees, are in trouble. They don’t get the publicity that honeybees do, but many are reduced in numbers, threatened, or endangered. There are lots of reasons for this, including the usual suspects – pesticides, disease, monoculture farming, threats from invasive species, climate change, and of course habitat loss.

But loss of habitat doesn’t always mean cutting down forests or plowing up native grasslands. Those are the biggest parts of the equation, perhaps, but a bumblebee queen looking for a place to nest just needs a small, sheltered spot. To her, an abandoned rodent burrow on a wild prairie looks pretty much the same as the narrow space behind a stack of storm windows leaning against the wall of an open garage. She makes her choice and moves in and starts to lay eggs, by instinct and necessity in a place that is hidden from danger yet open to the outside world, with its nectar and pollen.

But nowadays, would a garage be left open all day, so bees could freely come and go? Unless you’re in a rural area or a very small town, probably not. Mine never is; it is closed and locked, so the items inside are safe from the outside world, with its thieves and vandals.

My garage is simply not available habitat, as the Pippins’ garage was. Literally and figuratively, some doors are no longer open.

I look back on my awesome-sock-wearing, bee-flying, lizard-chasing, turtle-catching days with fondness, but with a measure of guilt as well. Not every creature I encountered was better for the experience. While most animals that I caught I took care of for a while then let go, no worse for the wear, and I wasn’t harming endangered species, I did kill insects to put in my collection, and the baby horned lizards didn’t make it, and I never found the skink that escaped in my bedroom, and let’s face it, the bees probably didn’t enjoy being flown around like toys. But while I have regrets, I am at the same time grateful for all of it. Because there is no substitute for hands-on.

You can be amazed and inspired by a beautiful photograph or the incredible high-definition footage in a modern nature documentary. But I think amazed and inspired more easily become passion and love when there is a physical connection. Even if that connection is as thin as a piece of sewing thread.

It’s why now, many years later, my house and my small suburban yard are full of wild and not-wild life: lizards and birds and fish and tortoises and insects and spiders and even a few mammals. It’s why I don’t spray pesticides in my garden or mind the wasp nests in the eaves. It’s why I grow native plants. It’s why, even though my garage is closed, the rest of this 70-by-135-foot flat suburban lot is available for whatever walks, climbs, or flies in, looking for a place to nest.

It’s why, as an adult, I spend every possible moment outside.


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