Look at this gorgeous North American solitary wasp (click the image for a bigger version if you like). Now wonder about its name – why is it named after a bird? After all, cuckoos are hardly known for their brightly coloured plumage. The answer lies in its lifestyle. Cuckoo wasps are so named because they breed by surreptitiously laying an egg in the nest of another (usually) wasp or bee – just as cuckoos do to other birds. Then the young cuckoo wasp larva hatches out, eats the larva of the host animal, and then enjoys the provisions the mother has left behind for her own offspring. From the cell emerges not the expected bee or wasp, but another species entirely – the adult cuckoo wasp.
The cuckoo wasps (and there are many species, including quite a few in the UK) have some special adaptations to help them do this. They have a really long egg-laying ovipositor, that can extend telescopically to let them insert an egg deep into a host cell. They also have the ability to curl up into a protective ball, like some woodlice do; with strong armour on the back, and gaps underneath where they can tuck their legs and antennae safely. It must be a hazardous life being a parasite – those host bees and wasps can bite and sting!
In 2007 The Ranger wrote about his local colony of Philanthus triangulum, the European beewolf. Sadly, in 2008 the fearsome little things were nowhere to be found – perhaps they despaired of the dismal weather. In 2009 too I searched without success, but inspired by Ian Boyd’s find in Newchurch I recently went back for a second look at the sandy banks on Ryde seafront. This time sharp eyed Cat spotted the tell-tale signs of excavations a little way away. It seems that the original site had been covered by drifting sand over winter and now seemed too sandy even for these sand-loving creatures. But not far off they were hard at it, murdering bees industriously.
If you read The Ranger’s recent post about Slovenian bee-houses you must have shared his frustration at not to be able to see more detail of the exquisite little pictures painted on these traditional hives. Help is at hand from the interesting Virtual Beekeeping Gallery. The site has a bit more information about the bee-houses (looks like it has been translated, but it’s so charmingly written there’s no need to correct it):
They were decorating the small front borards over the gullet with different little pictures depictings Saints, people and animals and especially from everyfay lige. The contents of the pictures on the beehive box endind is sometimes religious, sometimes educational but evry often also both humoristic and satirical. Today we cannot definit exactly when the first beehive endings were made and we can only guess as to the cause of such a sort of paintings. We do know that the first dated beehive ending origantes from the year 1758. Ubfurtubately most of them in the passage of time were lost, partly beacuse people did not know to appreciate their historical and documentary value
As well as providing a great deal of bee-keeping information in many languages, the Virtual Beekeeping Gallery has a small gallery of images from the bee-houses – here’s a sample:
The bear and the bees: a Slovenian bee-house painting
The Ranger also found another website with more bee-house information, and some more nice pictures. Pcela.co.yu seems to back up The Ranger’s theory about bee orientation, and add another helpful function to the list:
These beehives are called “kranjiči” (Carniolans). A small wooden bee house was built in the sheltered part of an orchard. So honey bee colonies were kept under one roof, protected from snow and cold in winter and sweltering heat in summer. Thanks to certain advantages, such bee houses are still very popular in Slovenia today and contribute to the cultural image of the landscape. In the mid 18th century, a unique folk art, the painting of beehive fronts, began to emerge in the territory of Slovenia… These can still be admired today in the Museum of Apiculture in Radovljica. Simple bee houses became true open-air art galleries… depicting historical and biblical events, as well as everyday village life. Because of these painted bee hive fronts the bees were able to orient themselves more easily, and the beekeeper was able to distinguish among the beehives better. This help him to remember which bee colony had already swarmed.