Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Bees Get a New Home

As you walk by it may look much like business as usual. But for those of us working with Pacific Science Center’s observation bee hive, some huge improvements have just been made.

Our observation hive has been in use for thirteen years, and has held up remarkably well. But some of the acrylic pieces started showing signs of wear, and a few were irreparably broken. When Life Sciences Manager Sarah Moore put in a work request to fix a few parts, she little knew neither how extensive the repairs would be nor how much easier they would make everyone’s life. Furthermore, Sarah didn’t even consider that the repairs would bring out new behaviors in the bees.

The hive has four “doors” between the inner part of the hive where the honey comb is displayed, and the running board below, which leads to a tube out to the outdoors. The bees spend most of their time either flying and collecting food outside, or up on the combs. But connecting these two areas is critical. The doorways must be big enough for bees to feel comfortable using them, too small to be drafty and of course, the doors must be secure so that no bee gets out into the exhibit area!

A full hive of honey can weigh upward of sixty pounds, and much of that weight rests on the frame below, including the structure the doors are built into. Over time, the plastic in this part of the structure cracked and finally broke.

Exhibit Developer Craig Matsuda was tasked with repairing these broken fixtures. Sarah imagined this would be a fairly specific set of repairs, but Craig recognized that due to the age of the plastic, rebuilding the whole structure made more sense than fixing only the broken parts. Craig thought hard about how to make the bees happy, and added some innovations.

So in addition to new doors, the bees got new porches, a new feeder box, and best of all, new windows!

The area below the hive is a sort of porch – a transitional space between the interior and the outside. Like a porch in a house, it helps keep out drafts and pests. Also like many porches, it accumulates debris. Craig had the brilliant idea of adding four little pluggable holes to use as cleanouts. We can put the hose of a vacuum cleaner into these spaces and remove crumbs of wax, deceased bees and anything else that shouldn’t be in a hive.

The new feeder space holds a pint mason jar, which can be filled with honey or sugar water to feed bees over the winter. Right now they should be getting most of their food from flowers outside.

For many years, the exhibit has featured glass panes covering the hive. Glass has the advantage of being very clear and very scratch resistant. A second Plexiglas sheet protected the glass pane, so broken glass (and angry bees) were never a real concern. But glass is very heavy. And we used a metal frame to clamp the panes of glass onto the hive.

Craig wanted to try scratch resistant Plexiglas instead of glass. Sarah had some concerns. Plexiglas can generate static electricity, which bees would probably hate. It also fogs up easily. But the benefits are compelling.

Not only is it shatterproof and lightweight, but it could be attached to the hive with screws, eliminating ten or fifteen pounds of metal.

This year for the first time, lifting the frame of bees and sliding it into place was easy!

Now that the bees are in their new space, they are doing some behaviors we have not seen before. They are building all the way up to the top of the enclosure. In the past, they ignored the ceiling area. They are also spending more time in their porches, potentially building honeycomb in a new area. The Plexiglas is a much better insulator than the old glass windows, so the hive is better at retaining heat which will help their brood mature well. And the new hive transmits sound really well. Put your ear down near the porch and you can hear the sounds of the bees buzzing. It’s exciting - and a bit intimidating.

Looking for the queen? Here’s how to find her:

Welcome to your new home, bees. While observation hives are a tricky structure to deal with, we hope these new changes make it a more comfortable home for you and a great learning opportunity for our visitors!

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