Archive for February, 2010

A World Without Bees, Benjamin, A. and McCallum, B., Pegasus Books, New York, NY, 2009

Even when I have little money, a new hardback book on bees is tempting, especially when it has as extensive a bibliography as A World Without Bees.  To some extent, I had been waiting for a book like this to be written.  A lot of people ask me if the bees are in danger and I say, “Yeah, that’s what I keep hearing,” but to what extent I did not know.  This book elucidated the extent of the horror quite well.

The modularity of pollination networks

But first, let’s cite some examples from the book of how incredible bees are: 1.2 million hives are driven into California each spring to pollinate almonds.  Each acre of orchard is given two hives or about 80,000 bees.  Just estimating, the bees of each hive will have to make an average of 45,000 trips a day just to acquire enough pollen and nectar to raise its young and survive the winter.  30 years ago, an acre of orchard would produce 500 lbs of almonds.  Today, with bees brought in for pollination service, that same acre will produce 3000 lbs of almonds.

So consider now how dependent we are on bees, not just individually but on the scale of our culture and civilization, when around 70% of the food we eat is dependent upon insect pollination, and for our needs, honeybees do it best.  So now consider this statistic: during 2007 and 2008, over one third of all honeybees disappeared.  800,000 losses in 2007, and a million in 2008, all due to what has been called “Colony Collapse Disorder” or CCD, for short.

Varroa Mites

What is causing it?  No one knows.  Let me repeat that; no one knows.  Culprits?  1) The stress of agri-industrial beekeeping, in which bees are shipped from Maine to Florida to California to Montana on the backs of trucks.  Honeybee pests and diseases have been known to spread more rapidly because of this practice, and many if not all migratory beekeepers supplement their diet with sugar-water and substitute pollen to increase colony sizes in late winter.  2) A narrowing gene pool, in which the new colonies created by bee-breeders are drawing from limited stock and diversity to respond to new stresses in the environment.

USDA: Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the US

3) Varroa Mites, new strains of familiar viruses, fungi, beetles, and potentially viruses mutating to cooperate with mites.  And 4) Pesticides, GMOs, and monoculture.  A bee slurps nectar from a flower whose DNA has a fragment of shellfish DNA in it… is that okay?

Unfortunately, all research to date has been inconclusive because scientists can not isolate which problem for bees is causing the major problem for bees.  It’s either a perfect storm of all conditions, or something has changed.  If you don’t read this book, please start paying attention.  This is a really big deal.

Additional reviews:

http://thealternativeview.org/AWorldWithoutBees.html, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jul/20/scienceandnature

And a commercial beekeepers letter to bee journals:



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Flyable Days Ahead! Thursday, Sunny. Highs in the mid 50s. Northeast wind 10 to 15 mph.

Let me introduce you to one of my favorite phrases of the beekeeping craft: ‘flyable days’.  About that time in late winter when the sun pops out and the temperature warms up a little, inspiring you and me to maybe work around the yard or go for a walk in the park, on those days the bees also emerge.  Sometimes it’s just warm enough to make a quick evacuation of their bowels, but sometimes a few daring foragers are going to go abroad to see what’s available.  These days are so exciting to me.  It means spring is coming and I”ll have the opportunity to ‘crack’ open a hive soon.

The Carniolan

Here in the Northwest, the maple buds are just beginning to turn red, a few cherry trees have bloomed, and I spotted some catkins on a birch tree this weekend, all very good signs for the bees and ourselves.  At Matt and Monica’s house in the Central District, the Carniolans were out collecting pollen from somewhere, dull white balls pressed into their pollen baskets.  That observation speaks volumes right there: the queen is laying eggs and the workers are retrieving pollen to feed the larvae.  My bee-sense is telling me they are happy, and barring an unusually cold and wet pre-spring, they’ll get off to a good start this year.  But the Italians were quiet.

"Glowing" Italian

The Italians are beautiful bees, quite golden in color, and I swear they seem to glow with the sun coming through them.  They are famous for being gentle and developing huge populations that produce copious quantities of honey.  However, from what I have read, heard, and observed, the Italians prefer 55 degree temperatures before they venture out into the day.  They also maintain a large-ish population through the winter, which means they require larger stores of honey to survive. The Carniolans, on the other hand, are purported to fly at around 50 degrees, and the queen will let the populations shrink through the fall and into the winter, ensuring less mouths to feed during the darker dearth.  It must have been just right for the Carniolans, and not quite right enough for the Italians.

Today was not quite a flyable day, but we had a long, suspended flyable moment, with the sun beaming for a while and then a cold front moving in.  On my porch late this morning, I spied a honeybee in the crocuses, filling her pollen basket with bright orange pollen.  Per my ritual, tomorrow morning I’ll be checking the Weather Underground for fairly accurate predictions of the day’s weather.  Here’s wishing you many flyable moments tomorrow until we reach flyable days.

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When A Date Goes Horribly Wrong

In recognition of Valentine’s Day, I offer you two options of advice regarding love and bees: either introduce your honey to the bees, or don’t.  The bond between bee and keeper is strong, and there is no finer discriminator of “the one” than Apis Mellifera:

“An apocryphal ‘telling the bees’ tale appeared in the November 1938 edition of the magazine Atlantic Monthly concerning the wedding of a young lass in the Lake District to a stranger to those parts.  Although the bride’s family had accepted their new son-in-law as an honourable man, the bees judged his character differently, and when he was taken to be introduced to the bees in accordance with the requirements of the ritual, they stung him to death.  It appears that bees had just cause to doubt the bridegroom’s veracity according to the evidence revealed during the investigation into his demise.  It transpired that the bridegroom was a bigamist, who had changed his name to avoid identification and was seeking a new young bride with a dowry.” *

I usually employ bees for determining a potential, viable mate.  I ask them to open a hive with me.  Not to see if they get stung to death by the bees, but to see if they are willing to be brave and curious, allured into the unknown through an act of daring.  If they refuse after I “guarantee” they won’t get stung, then I know they are not the person I am seeking.  The only exception would be the kind of allergic reaction that finds me giving an emergency tracheotomy in the field, but even then, I’m sure it would become a deal-breaker in the end.

But I have had experiences with bees and loves which in hindsight were telling of the direction of a relationship.  Several years ago I asked my girlfriend on a date to help me harvest some honey on a very hot, dry August day.  I had never heard a beehive roar before that day, but they were not happy with me or her.  By the end of the experience, we were both doing the bee-dance across the field.  I received seventeen stings, mostly to my left arm, and she received eleven.  It was one of those obstacles in a relationship that take a lot of time to reconcile if you ever do, and although she has become a dear friend and we can laugh about it now, the bees were telling us something that day.

Don’t worry; it’s not all stings and fleeing when we ask the bees.  May you find yourself sitting in reverie of your sweetie, with bees alighting nearby.  Indeed, there is no finer sign than that.

*In Pursuit of Liquid Gold; Ogden, R B; Penwell Limited; Callington, Cornwall; 2001

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