Visits to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo just became a little bit sweeter with the arrival of a new honeybee colony. With a hive made of glass in the Zoo’s Pollinarium and full access to the outdoors, these bees are showing off the wondrous ways of their world.
“Our display allows you to get up close,” said Zoo entomologist and invertebrate keeper Donna Stockton. “You can see the bees going in and out of the exhibit; watch them dance; and study the pollen cells, nectar cells, honey cells and brood cells. You can really observe this complex society in action.”
To celebrate the bees’ arrival and generate buzz, the Zoo is calling for entries on the website from individuals of all ages in two categories: favorite honey recipes and original honeybee poems. In addition to displaying entries on its website, the Zoo will randomly select one participant from each category to take a private tour with their families of the Zoo’s Pollinarium and Invertebrate Exhibit. (For video of the new colony, check out the Zoo’s YouTube page.)
The Zoo has started a new honeybee colony annually for the past few years, with varied success. Other colonies perished after varroa mites attacked the hive or the worker bees brought pesticides back. In a previous year, invertebrate keepers watched as a larger, different species of bee stole the colony’s honey and wax. And when the colony grows too large thanks to good animal care, half of the hive will leave to look for a new home, often taking the queen along. This colony has already done so once since its arrival in May, but a new queen has emerged and keepers are hopeful this colony will last. “Sometimes it’s a challenge to start and keep a colony, but no matter what happens, we learn something new about these important insects and are grateful to share the experience with our visitors,” Stockton said.
Habitat loss, pesticides and climate change all pose a threat to honeybees and other species of bees. Bees in the United States have also been mysteriously abandoning their hives and disappearing en masse since 1996, worrying farmers who depend on these pollinators. By moving pollen from one place to the next, the insects play a vital role in fertilizing fruit, nut and vegetable crops. Domestic honeybees alone pollinate more than $10 billion worth of crops each year in the United States.
“Nobody is sure yet exactly why the bees are vanishing, but individuals can help by giving honeybees and other pollinators a safe home in their backyard,” said Alan Peters, curator of the Invertebrate Exhibit and Pollinarium. “All it takes is a small pesticide-free garden with nectar- and pollen-producing plants and lots of sunlight. The bees will help ensure that the garden continues to thrive.”
To enter the drawing, submit a honey recipe or honeybee poem to the National Zoo by noon Tuesday, July 6. Invertebrate keepers will provide the private tour to winners July 10 as part of the Zoo’s Garden Day event, where visitors will learn about Zoo horticulture, how plants and animals coexist and what everyone can do in their own backyards. (Note: Winners must make their own way to the Zoo.)