The Observation Beehive at the Missoula Insectarium

The observation beehive at the Insectarium was installed in July 2017.  Our visitors can now watch as the busy bees go about their business. What is normally obscured by the dark wooden sides of a traditional beehive can now be observed by our guests. Read on to learn more about our amazing observation beehive!

About Scott, our Bee Guy, and Merrill, our Carpenter Guy

Scott Debnam helped to design and establish the observation hive at the Insectarium. Scott is a graduate of the University of Montana Wildlife Biology program and has 16 years’ experience managing the research colonies for the University. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. from the Division of Biological Sciences. His research focuses on the movement of pollinators through the environment and the ecological patterns that influence their plant choices. Scott uses the honeybee as the model species for this research. Scott has extensive expertise with honey bee ailments and pests, as well as an intimate knowledge of the insects that he is eager to pass on to others. You may spot Scott in the Insectarium from time to time checking on the bees and our hive.

Merrill Bradshaw is a very talented local carpenter who worked closely with Scott to design and build the observation hive. Merrill’s work focuses largely on working with gourmet reclaimed lumber. You’ve likely already seen his handiwork when you first enter the Insectarium – he designed and built our front desk out of lumber that came from centuries-old barns around Montana that were being dismantled. You can learn more about his work at his website.

 

Frequently Asked Questions about our Hive

Where did the bees come from and how did they end up inside the Insectarium? Scott ordered a “package of bees”, three pounds of bees and a queen, from Western Bee Supplies.  Scott then set up these bees in a traditional hive at his research station at Fort Missoula. Once the bees were well established and reproducing he and Merrill were able to take five frames of bees from that hive and insert them into the observational hive. This was done early one morning in the parking lot of the Insectarium. Scott and Merrill then rolled the observation hive into the Insectarium and attached it to the tube that connects the hive to the outside world. After a few days of adjusting to their new environment the bees set about the business of being bees – collecting pollen and nectar, making honey.

Can the bees get out? The bees are 100% free to come and go as they please. You’ll see that the hive is connected to our window via a long, flexible, silver tube. That tube lets the bees access all of the pollen, nectar and propolis (a sticky, sap like substance used in hive maintenance) they need to survive. Since that tube is connected directly to the hive and a specially cut and sealed hole in our window, there is no chance of the bees making their way into our exhibit area.

What will the bees do over the winter? Like all honeybees our bees will hunker down and stay inside the hive all winter. We will keep their tube to the outside open so they do not become anxious and will be able to tell what the weather is like outside. They take their cues on when to start foraging again from the outside air temperature.

How do they bees know where their home is? The bees know which hive to go home to just like you know which house to go into at the end of the day. While your primary sense for knowing which house is your home is likely sight, bees use both their vision and their sense of smell. Some bees will stand at the end of the hive opening, the window sill, and waft out pheromones to help foraging bees navigate and return to the hive.

What happens to all of the honey the bees in the observation hive are making? Our bees will eat all of the honey that they made all summer and eat it over the course of the winter. Bees make honey for the specific purpose of eating it to survive the winter and they will keep making more honey so long as they have space to fill up. Commercial beekeepers get honey by providing their bees with plenty of space to make that honey. As they take away frames of honey the bees will fill that newly emptied space with more honey. This cycle continues until the end of the summer when the beekeepers leave the bees with enough honey to survive the winter. Our bees live in a very small hive so they don’t have enough space to make enough honey for us to take some away from them. In fact, we will actually be feeding them surplus honey from other hives so that they have enough for the winter.

Is it dangerous to have a hive downtown? There is no danger in having an observation beehive downtown, for the bees or for the humans. The bees love being downtown because downtown businesses and residents keep flowering plants in bloom longer than they would be in the wild. The wild flowers growing along the highway are also within the 3 – 5 mile radius that they’ll fly in search of food, which makes them very happy. Our honeybees want as little to do with downtown shoppers and residents as the humans do with the bees. The bees forage individually, so don’t travel in packs harassing passersby.

 

Additional Bee Video Content

Learn more about how our honey bees reacted to this summer’s intense forest fire season.