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How to help honey bees survive in this heat

Water trays benefit these beneficial insects in more ways than one

A honey bee pauses for a bit of nectar as well as pollen from a coneflower. Honey bees search for water to cool the hive when temperatures get above 96.8 degrees.

A honey bee pauses for a bit of nectar as well as pollen from a coneflower. Honey bees search for water to cool the hive when temperatures get above 96.8 degrees. Kathy Morrison

People and pets aren’t the only ones who need ways to stay cool during triple-digit heat; bees could use some help, too.

Honey bees in particular benefit from water trays – shallow dishes of water with pebbles or marbles or corks – when temperatures go above 100 degrees. (The pebbles give bees a place to land so they don’t drown.) Honey bees are using that water not just to drink but to cool off their hives.

According to research from Oregon State University, honeybees use water – and wings – to create their own version of A.C.

Water tray with marbles
Here's one example of a water tray for bees and 
other pollinators. The tray is a pot saucer, filled most
of the way with marbles, then water. It sits on a 
small upturned terra cotta pot.

“Honey bees are somewhat adapted to extreme heat,” report OSU researchers. “As soon as temperatures in a honey bee colony edge up beyond 96.8 degrees F., worker bees line up at the entrance and start fanning their wings. In addition, a special group of water-foraging bees begins scouring the surrounding area for water, which they collect and bring back to the nest.

“The bees distribute droplets of water around the nest, which works in parallel with the fanning to create the equivalent of honey bee A.C., or air conditioning. As temperatures rise to extreme heat levels, more honey bees will start to forage for water.”

Bumblebees tend to suffer most from the heat; they have trouble flying when it’s over 100 degrees, say the researchers. Bumblebees have been seen foraging for water (and may visit available water trays), but it’s not certain if they use the honey bee A.C. method to cool their nests.

Other bees don’t make as much use of the water trays, says OSU, but have other ways of coping. Ground-dwelling bees – which include many native bees – avoid the heat by staying under the cool soil.

One thing is certain: Most bee activity drops dramatically in triple-digit temperatures. Instead, they’ll forage (and pollinate) in the very early morning hours after dawn or just before twilight. Expect spotty pollination of squash and melons until weather cools back to normal.

How much longer will this current heat wave persist? According to the National Weather Service, Sacramento can expect afternoon highs over 100 through at least Thursday, July 11. That would match Sacramento’s all-time record of most consecutive triple-digit days – 11 – set in July 2009.

For more on bees and heat:

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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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