The sunny days are diminishing as summer rolls into autumn, and as the sun descends, the bees’ flight lulls to rest. Bees sense and respond to light and use the sun to orient themselves and navigate. Along with their two large compound eyes that are used for vision, bees have three simple eyes that sit atop their their heads in a triangular formation. These are called ‘ocelli’ and they sense light.
There is a video circulating the internet of honeybees flying in an enclosure in a laboratory. The video shows the researcher turning off the lights in the enclosure, causing the bees to drop to the ground instantaneously, showing how honeybees will not fly in the absence of light.
We notice similar behavior in the field on days where clouds pass over the sun intermittently. When the sky is bright, our plants bustle with pollinators, and when shadows come over, most bees are suddenly out of sight. It makes sense that as the days get shorter and colder the sight of pollinators will become more and more fleeting!
Some bees are still coming out during the warm October afternoons, and collecting their final energy reserves for the winter. Goldenrod, Douglas’ aster, California poppy, bee balms, and black-eyed Susan, amongst other late blooming pollinator plants are still providing bees with nectar and pollen during this time of transition.
During this season, honeybees and bumblebees predominate the landscape, while long-horned bees (genus: Melisoddes), leafcutter bees (genus: Megachile) and sweat bees (family: Halictidae) can still be seen as they finish up resource collection in the Willamette Valley.
Honeybees must make enough honey before temperatures drop and they can no longer leave the hive, so you’ll find them foraging for pollen and nectar as late in the season as possible.
In late summer and fall we begin to see an influx of bumblebee queens. During the summer, the queens are busy reproducing in their underground hives, while worker bees take to the landscape. However, near the end of the foraging season, new queens hatch and fly out to find mates and food. You may see bumblebee queens getting their last bits of food energy before overwintering, while the rest of the colony (males and workers) dwindle away.
Check out this guide to Bumble Bees of the Western United States to see which Bombus species are found in your region and what time of year they are active.
Many solitary bees are finishing their last nests where they’ve laid eggs for the next generation of their species.
If you care for nest boxes in your garden be sure to take appropriate steps to bring your bees indoors and clean their cocoons. Check out the Linn Master Gardener Association Bee Notes email list to receive timely emails about the seasonal steps of caring for mason bees.
When solitary adult bees finish reproducing and nest building, their work is done, so they die off. But small carpenter bees, from the genus Ceratina, are an exception. Ceratina females remain as late into the cold season as they can muster in order to guard their nests.1 These protective mothers fend off predators, pests and parasitoids that try to invade the nests.
This fall, we hope you are able to see some of the last glimpses of bees of the year!
This post concludes our series on what the bees are doing right now! Thank you for taking part in this seasonal journey through the lives of bees in the Willamette Valley.
1: Danforth, B. N., Minckley, R. L., & Neff, J. L. (2019). The solitary bees: Biology, evolution, conservation. Princeton University Press.