Garden Gate: Invasion of the bee-snatchers sets hives abuzz

When is a bumblebee not a bumblebee? When it’s a cuckoo bee. Female cuckoo bees infiltrate host colonies. It then kills or subdues the queen of that colony and forcibly (using pheromones and/or physical attacks) “enslave” the workers of that colony to feed her and her developing young. When the young emerge, they leave the colony to mate, and the females seek out other nests to attack. (Marion Owen photo)

Things have gotten pretty ugly around our yard and garden.

It started with a few small feathers resting on top of the soil near an emerging primrose. Then I found a few more feathers sprinkled on the lawn. I put two and two together when I stood in the driveway and followed the peeps and long chirps into the woods across the street from our garage. The sounds were coming from a pair of merlins that had taken up nesting in a spruce tree near the house. At first I, and the local birding community, were pretty excited to hear about this small species of falcon taking up residency in Kodiak’s ‘burbs.

“You can say goodbye to all your songbirds though,” a friend warned.

Though silhouettes, I could watch the drama unfold: One of the merlins passed a small, limp “package” to the partner, which proceeded to systematically pluck feathers from the small corpse. One at a time, the tiny, delicate feathers sashayed down to forest floor.

Then, late last week, the light was just right, so I fitted my camera with a macro lens and took off toward flowers in search of bumblebees. Readers of this column will recall that I’ve developed an appreciation for our local, wild bees and that I’m working on documenting the different species of pollinators, we have in Kodiak; especially bumblebees.

No sooner had I approached a clump of purple, drumstick primroses, that a large bumblebee began probing for nectar in the same clump. It seemed intent on sampling each blossom, which made me happy because I’d rather collect specimens with my camera rather than kill and skewer them with a straight pin in the name of research.

After a good 15 minutes of shooting, I went back to my office to load up the photos and start looking through printed keys and online references to identify my bee model. I also sent a copy to Bruce Short in Anton Larsen Bay, since he is also working on identifying local insects.

“Ah, that’s Psythyrus insularis,” he wrote. “It looks just like the one I caught one the other day.”

What? I froze in disbelief. This was not a real bumblebee. It was a cuckoo bee, an imposter. The name “cuckoo” is given to a variety of different bee lineages that have evolved the kleptoparasitic habit of laying their eggs in the nests of other bees, much like the behavior of cuckoo birds. Many species of cuckoo birds lay their eggs in the nests of other species, with the eggs often resembling those of the chosen host. You can figure out the rest of the story.

And so it is with bees. Females of cuckoo bees lay their eggs in cells provisioned by the host bee. When the cuckoo bee larva hatches, it consumes the host larva’s pollen ball (a source of food) and, if the female kleptoparasite has not already done so, kills and eats the host larva.

As explained in Wikipedia: “In a few cases in which the hosts are social species (for example, the subgenus Psithyrus of the genus Bombus (bumblebees), which are parasitic bumblebees, and infiltrate nests of non-parasitic species of Bombus), the kleptoparasite remains in the host nest and lays many eggs, sometimes even killing the host queen and replacing her.”

I’ve resigned myself to sharing this part of the planet with a songbird-munching pair of merlins. After all, I can’t really do anything about that. Nature’s way, right? But for the bumblebees, or rather the cuckoo bees, that’s another matter. Let me say I won’t be just photographing them from now on.



It’s time to clean out the freezer of last year’s berries, or celebrate the coming of summer by buying some frozen ones in order to make this yummy cobbler. This recipe contains has what you might think of as an oddball ingredient: carrots. The combination of carrots and berries however, dances well together in this dish: the berries dye the shredded carrots, fooling finicky eaters, and the carrots are all a part of my sneaky nutrition, cooking conspiracy.

Carrot-Berry Cobbler

6 cups fresh or thawed, plain or mixed berries (raspberries, blueberries, salmonberries, blackberries, etc.)

1/4 cup whole-wheat flour

1/4 cup sugar

Zest from 1 to 2 oranges, diced (about 1 to 2 Tbl)

1 cup grated carrots

For the topping:

1/4 cup whole wheat flour

1/4 cup all purpose flour

2 TBL sugar

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

2 TBL chilled butter

1/3 cup plain yogurt

2 TBL vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Coat an 8 by 8-inch baking dish with cooking spray. In a large bowl, toss grated carrots and berries with whole wheat flour, sugar and orange zest. Transfer the mixture to the baking dish and set aside. In a medium bowl whisk together the whole-wheat flour, all-purpose flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Cut in the butter using two knives or a pastry cutter into pea-sized bits. In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt and oil. Add to the dry ingredients, mixing just until moistened. Drop by spoonfuls onto the fruit. Sprinkle with a little sugar. Bake for 30 minutes, or until fruit is bubbly and top is golden brown. Let stand for at least 10 minutes before serving. Makes 6, 3/4 cup servings.


With Steve Brown, UAF Cooperative Extension Agent on Saturday and Sunday, June 1 and 2 at Fisherman’s Hall:

• Saturday, June 1: noon, Chicken University (Raising poultry in Kodiak); 2 p.m., Fast Composting (Quick and easy)

• Sunday, June 2: noon, Organic Fertilizing; 2 p.m., Lawn Maintenance. Refreshments will be served. Bring a friend. For more info, contact Marion Owen (4876-5079)

Marion can be reached at Archived copies of garden columns and an RSS feed can be found at You can also join “Kodiak Growers” on Facebook.

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