It goes without saying that bees are a critical element in a garden and no less so in the rich plant collection of the UC Botanical Garden. In fact, the Garden is host to a large and varied collection of wild native bees with dozens of recognized species (http://www.helpabee.org/).
The Garden also offers a rich smorgasbord to a large population of the more common European honeybee, Apis mellifera. These likely originate from various maintained beehives and wild colonies in and around Strawberry Canyon. In fact, the Garden frequently houses several formal beehives that are being used by student and faculty researchers on campus.
Unfortunately, the native bees tend to be solitary and do not lend themselves to easy or reliable observation and the standard honeybee hives, which are designed to produce honey, are not readily amenable to observation other than watching bees entering and leaving. To give the public more access to the secret lives of honeybees and the inner workings of their hives, we worked with local beekeeper Steve Gentry to design and install an observation hive. This hive is relatively thin, fitted with a clear plexiglass front, and placed inside the warm Tropical House with provisions for the bees to come and go without interfering with or impacting visitors.
The hive was not intended to produce honey; in fact, on many occasions, it was necessary to feed honey to the bees because of the suboptimal conditions created by the shape and location of the hive which is constructed for the purpose of observation.
The colony usually appears to thrive for most of the year. It is easy (and fun) to watch the building of new cells, laying of eggs, growth of young and emergence of new adults. To facilitate observation, the queen who is sometimes difficult to spot despite her her large size, was also marked with a blue dot for easy identification. Unfortunately, presumably because of the suboptimal conditions for prolonged colony growth, we usually lose our colony each fall as they swarm out and seek a more comfortable abode. In one year, a new wild swarm reoccupied the hive in spring but in most years, it is necessary to reintroduce a new, freshly-captured wild swarm.