Stinging Insights

They say bee stings are more painful in the fall, and without having the slightest ideas why that might be, I'm beginning to think it's true. Got a couple of stings on my hand while checking the very crowded Green Hive the other day and couldn't believe how different these stings felt from those received earlier in the summer.

My experience throughout the summer has been that the sting "zaps" for a moment, then subsides. The real problem comes the next day, with heavy-duty itching and minor swelling. My stings have typically bothered me, itch-wise, for 2-3 days, but never actually hurt. It's been surprising to find the bee sting is more about annoyance than pain.

The stings I got the other day were a different story. My hand swelled up in a major way and really bothered me for 24 hours—not only itching me to the point of insanity, but somewhat painful and "hot" as well. Then, in hour 26, nada. A completely different pattern from the previous stings.

Either my bio reactions are changing as my body begins responding to periodic low doses of venom or there's something different about bee stings in autumn or something was different about the way these particular stings were delivered.

Could it be that as autumn comes and the fruits of the bees' labor accrue, the bees develop an ability to inflict more pain on those who would tamper with their precious winter stores? The beeyard is now redolent with the scent of honey. It is intoxicating and magical to smell from 10-15 feet away the warm, wafting aroma that just a few weeks ago could only be discerned by standing directly beside the hive. The aroma is an attractant to be sure. Perhaps the bees somehow know it and have enhanced their defense mechanisms accordingly.

A Little Ditty

A friend of my mom's had this to share, and I couldn't resist passing it along...

The queen bee was a busy old soul…
who had no time for birth control

And that is why
in times like these
there so many Sons-of-B’s.


I never realized how much I'd enjoy watching the honeybees sip water to take back to the hive. I was especially beguiled by this bee, who selected a clover leaf for her soda fountain shortly after a mid-day rainstorm.


Grace Paley, Dead at 84

Grace Paley, a wonderful writer and a truly grand human being, is no longer with us. Here's to Grace's life as a committed activist—a self-described “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.”

I had the honor of basking in Grace's presence at many an anti-nuke and peace rally over the years. She was a tough-minded, soft-hearted woman with a great smile and a wonderful sense of humor. She balanced great humility with the strength of her convictions. She stood up for what she believed in—with a twinkle in her eyes. She was, to me, a shining example of what a being a writer, an artist, and a citizen could mean.

Mountaintop Removal

A disgusting, immoral practice to be enshrined by Shrub & Co, if the fossil-fuel vampires get their way.

This administration goes out of its way to pillage America the (once) beautiful. The Appalachian Center for the Economy & The Environment is one group fighting back on this issue.

I think they just got themselves a new member.



The bees have discovered the zinnias.Adios, amiga!

On this cold and rainy day...

It seems appropriate to post these pictures, taken only yesterday.It's strangely fitting that sunflowers should bloom just as summer prepares to turn itself in to autumn's custody. One last blast of what the glorious season is all about—bold color, exuberant sun, perpetual birdsong, all-embracing light....

Now it's changing into the next thing and the little sorrow of a falling leaf is upon us. "Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it," said Russell Baker. If summer would stay, we wouldn't suffer. Nor would we savor it so.


Meet HONEY-B, Brainchild of THUY3

Last week, during an unsuccessful web search for vintage honeybee images, I found myself gaping at a strange, robotic-looking honeybee on a cool site called Vinyl Pulse. Was this monstrous cherub a sculptural comment on the sorry state of the ecology? A (f)risky blow-up doll? A kachina from a hyper-pollinated planet in search of new ground to forage? A religious lawn ornament from a near-future cult of mutant-honeybee worshippers?
Whatever it was, I had to have it come and pollinate us over here at GlobalSwarming. The artist, Thuy3, responded graciously to my request to share in the glory that is “HONEY-B”.
Thuy3 was also kind enough to talk a bit about her inspiration for HONEY-B:

“When TWEEQIM was asked to customized the "HONEY-B" toy, I was excited because Bees are one of my favorite creatures on earth. I've always been fascinated by the nature of the BEE. The process of pollination and making honey is amazing to me. I like its contrasting color of bright yellow and dark black. So instead of just painting anything on the toy I decided to do a Bee.

“I’ve always enjoyed watching nature and am inspired by all the beautiful plants and flowers. I enjoy watching plants and flowers grow throughout different seasons. I like the different shapes and curves of them. So I painted the body with shape of leaves, plants and flowers.

“Many people are afraid of Bees because of their sting, which in some instances has caused death. I painted the skull on it, because of his dangerous aspect, yet gave him a smile, because it is not his nature to harm.

“I was quite pleased with the result and am looking forward to it being returned. It has been traveling throughout different art shows in Asia, and it wants to come home.”

Thuy3's baby boy is nicknamed BEEBAO, which means storm of bees. (In Vietnamese, Bao means storm and powerful.) Bee-storm, Bee-power; I like it! So much so, I might have to rename myself BEEBAO—or at least give the name to a future hive. Here’s a painting of the original BEEBAO by Thuy3. Amazingly, the real BEEBAO is even more adorable than the painting!


Cause of Colony Collapse Disorder Revealed

Found this little gemstone while hanging out on Beepocalypse:

"I like the theory that visitors from another planet have decided they were going to abduct the smartest organisms on the planet, and they've picked the honeybees."—May Berenbaum, University of Illinois entomologist


The Naked Hive

These bees decided to go for a more al fresco approach to comb-building.

These photos are from Ruthven Park, Ontario, as seen on the Ruthven Park Nature Blog. To learn a bit more about what's going on here, go here.


Break On Through (To The Other Side)

What exciting occurrence is pictured below?It's the emergence of worker bees—the next generation. In the shot above, you can see three different cells being chewed open by bees preparing to enter the world. Today, while working in Hive Orange, I had the privilege of witnessing this emergence for the first time. I'd seen drones make their exit before, but never the workers.

Below, you can see one girl almost finished chewing her way out. Beside her, another worker is just beginning to break on through (to the other side). Below these cells is a recently vacated cell; note the ragged, chewed-out edge. Also, see how fuzzy the fully emerged bees are? These are very likely newly emerged bees whose first assignment upon leaving the cell is to clean it so it can be re-purposed for storing new eggs, pollen, or nectar. Here's a closeup of a worker chewing her way out.
A worker's first few weeks of life are devoted to "house duties": cleaning cells, attending to the queen, feeding the larvae, producing wax and shaping it into comb, capping the nectar once it transmutes to honey, etc. Later, she'll move on to guard duty toward the front of the hive and ultimately, she'll become a field bee foraging for nectar.

What must it feel like to be a honeybee, newly emerging as a winged being, eying the world for the first time? Of course, most bees are born in darkness deep within the brood-nest of the hive. I guess you could say this girl was lucky, born into a nice view of mountain green and summer-blue sky. By the time she's ready for her first forays out of the hive a few weeks from now, the mountains will be stippled with the colors of autumn.


Schmidt Sting Pain Index

Ever wonder what a bee sting feels like in comparison, say, to a paper wasp or yellow jacket sting? If so, behold the wittily nuanced descriptions of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, and let us hope we will never know these things for ourselves.


Verlyn Klinkenborg has a good piece in The New York Times about what's left of the ecosystem and our "role" in caretaking, stewarding, and/or leaving it be. His thoughts on the nature of nature and the nature of our dumb ideas about nature are right on.

Here's an outtake, but I recommend the whole piece:

It is certainly possible to make wiser and wiser decisions about how to live, but what if the world we make our choices in becomes, in natural terms, steadily poorer and less diverse? More and more, we find ourselves choosing only among the consequences of regrettable choices we made before.

Humans are competent to do many things. But I do not think we are competent to run a global ecosystem. Something has been irretrievably lost by the time we begin to believe that we can manage nature for people. The essence of nature is that it is not “for people.”

My lack of faith in humans as global managers isn’t just a philosophical conclusion. It is based on the sorry, sorry evidence. The fact is that we have begun to run the global ecosystem already and are doing a terrible job of it.

To put it mildly....anyway, read the piece. Then go out there and so something about it.


A Disquieting Inflorescence

No, it's not a posthumously published Edward Gorey story, but a ubiquitous scoundrel of a plant named burdock. You may recall that in the recent Got Milkweed? post, we explored the risky nature of pollinating that flower—talk about unsafe sex!

Well, burdock puts milkweed to shame when it comes to pathological tendencies. Three years ago, an innocent looking burdock blossom savagely murdered a beautiful young hummingbird at the edge of my garden and earned my eternal wrath. Since then, I've done all I can to eradicate it with a scythe. It's great exercise!

It's also a Sisyphean undertaking. My bemused neighbors occasionally catch me in the act and shake their heads. "You'll never get rid of that stuff," they say, unaware that I've got a vendetta to fulfill and more than enough Italian in my blood to make good on it. However, as one who at least aspires to mental hygiene, I ritualistically transform the bitter herb of revenge into the sweet heirloom tomato of environmental correctness by building mountain-high compost piles out of the burdock's elephantine leaves and massive stems. Again—good exercise!

The irony is that burdock would be a great weed to have around if it didn't have such murderous tendencies. The roots are edible (I've had some wonderful Japanese preparations and I know it's popular in old-world Italian cooking). The flowers are a pretty purple. And come to find out, the honeybees and bumblebees really like it. So what's not to like?

The problem lies in the tiny, Velcro-like barbs that surround the base of the flower. (In fact, the man who invented Velcro reported having gotten the idea from observing these, or similar, plants.)

Although most pollinators seem to make their visits to the flowers without incident, plenty don't. Between the horrifying hummer incident and a bird skeleton I found stuck to the dried flowers one winter, I am so over this plant!
As if the above-mentioned incidents weren't enough, the other morning, I found a bat struggling to get free from a burdock flower. I ran home, threw on my beek suit and gloves, got my "surgical equipment" and freed it, but its wings had been torn and I believe it perished after I left it, still clinging upside-down to the burdock stem—one of the most forlorn sights I've come upon in a long time.
Afterwards, in the interest of further building my case against this pernicious plant, I conducted a brief census of a patch of burdock and found 2 stuck honeybees—one practically mummified, the other still alive but beyond assistance.
I assume the evolutionary excuse for this barbed structure is dispersal. The idea would be that the dried, seed-rich flower adheres (temporarily) to the leg of a deer, say, and is transported to another area, thereby extending its range. Just so we know it's not being mean for the hell of it.

The thing is, it's a pretty good-looking plant and it clearly appeals to the local pollinators. So let's for a moment simply enjoy these images of burdock at its best.
A bee's-eye view.

Inviting-looking pollen available to all who chose to provide pollination services herein—but watch those barbs!

An old girl (note tattered wings) with pollen-dusted head.

Coming in for a landing....

A lovely bumblebee virtually saturated in fairy dust.

The great chronicler of honeybee life, Maurice Maeterlinck, spoke eloquently of the sadness we often find alongside nature's beauty, abundance, and joy.

"...all things in nature are sad, when our eyes rest too closely upon them....At the present hour the duty before us is to seek out that which perhaps may be hiding, behind these sorrows; and, urged on by this endeavor, we must not turn our eyes away, but steadily, fixedly, watch these sorrows and study them, with a courage and interest as keen as though they were joys. It is right that before we judge nature, before we complain, we should at least ask every question that we can possibly ask."
Words to live by...with scythe firmly in hand.


Complete Metamorphosis—The Video

A quick primer on the honeybee lifecycle.

How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later

This is a bona fide meander; I found this fabulous speech given in the late 1970s by sci fi hero Philip K. Dick and thought it was amazingly prescient and rich.


On hot days, it's fun to watch the honeybees collect water from the dewy grass. If you watch closely, you see them sip up droplet after droplet of dew—it's amazing to see how much they can carry.

This clever little honeybee comes repeatedly throughout the day to gather water from the Styrofoam self-watering seedling tray I keep on the deck. I guess she likes a slightly higher-tech setting for all this water-gathering business.
Speaking of tech, the bees use the water to cool the hive by fanning it with their wings. That's pretty much how an air-conditioner works. H. Sapiens aside, I can't think of any other animal beside the honeybee that has figured out how to air-condition its living quarters—sans electricity, no less. Rock on, smart little bee.


Top Five Reasons I Got Stung

1. The dead bee I picked up wasn’t dead.
2. I bothered the bees before a thunderstorm.
3. My swarm-catching technique could use some refining.
4. I inadvertently squished a bee while working in the hive.
5. I deigned to get too close to the queen.

The sting doesn’t hurt so much as it surprises. And then it itches. For days. To the point of insanity. The sting and its aftermath remind you to be gentle, careful, methodical, considerate, slow-going, and—always, always—respectful of the bees.

We've done it again....

Brought to you—or rather, taken from you—by that oxymoron, humankind.


Honeybees and Goldenrod

Last week, tightly clenched goldenrod buds appeared everywhere, suppressing their yellow but hinting at good things to come. I've been told that the nectar flow from goldenrod is one of the major honeybee forage sources in this area. Its appearance, like the blue jays calling, is also a signal that here in the Northern Catskills, summer has shifted into low gear for the steep decline toward autumn.
Two days ago, the goldenrod started really showing its stuff. And today, of course, the honeybees were on the case. This girl is plunging her proboscis into the flower's nectaries, and has packed a modest amount of goldenrod pollen on her pollen basket (located on her hind leg—a.k.a. the bee's knee).As this honeybee travels from one goldenrod blossom to another, she'll continue mixing pollen with saliva and then packing it into the basket. (Unlike other bees and pollinators, a honeybee will continue working the same type of flower, continuously, with different individuals working "monogamously" on various types of flowers at any given time. This week, along with the goldenrod, the bees seem to be mainly working the thistle, knapweed, and burdock.)

This honeybee has packed her pollen basket nice and full.
Here's a closeup of the pollen basket filled with a load of protein-rich pollen to fortify and sustain the hive.


A Tour of the Hive

Two weeks ago, I paid a visit to the bee yard to confirm that the (previously) virgin queens had mated and were laying "the next generation" in Hive Orange and Green Hive, both of which swarmed on June 21, taking with them the old queens and leaving newly raised, virgin queens behind. I was pleased to find plenty of evidence that all was well, reproduction-wise, in both hives. Here's a quick tour of what I found. (Click the photos to view them in a larger format.)

In these two combs, you see just what a beekeeper hopes to find: plenty of capped worker brood—the cells covered by the tan-colored, porous-looking caps in the middle of the comb. Notice that these capped cells form a nice pattern filling in the majority of cells in the the comb. This is suggestive of a good queen who has laid each of her eggs in a efficient pattern along the comb. Bordering the top of the comb, the bees store nectar (note the pale or yellowish uncapped cells) and capped honey (whitish caps).

Below that are some dark, uncapped cells in which pollen is being stored. Both food sources—honey for carbs, pollen for protein—are conveniently located above the brood cells to make it easier for the nurse bees to mix "bee bread" (pollen + nectar/honey) to feed the larvae numerous times a day over a period of several days. During this time, the larvae grow at a rapid rate. Once they are ready to morph into the winged creature we know as the honeybee, the cell is capped and the magical rearrangement of the bee's molecular biology begins.

Here you see larvae being fed and attended to by nurse bees. You also see some capped cells inside of which are larvae undergoing metamorphosis.

Once the bees have built out enough combs for a nice, big broodnest, they start building honeycombs—combs with larger cells for storing honey and pollen that will be used during times of dearth and, of course, during wintertime when nothing's blooming and it's too cold for the bees to fly. The dark cells in this lovely bee-composition contain pollen. Along the top and upper-middle right is capped honey. There are also some as-yet empty cells and cells containing uncapped nectar.

After the bees bring nectar into the hive and deposit it in the cells, it takes some time (and effort on the bees' part—mainly through the fanning of their wings) to reduce the moisture level to the point where it becomes honey. Once it does, the bees cap the cell with wax, keeping the precious substance clean and protected for future use. As William Longgood observes in his great book The Queen Must Die, "To the bee, honey is the ultimate reality."

Here's a closeup of the pollen, capped honey, and open cells. By the way, the pollen colors vary enormously as different plants come into bloom and are visited by the bees. I can't be sure, but I suspect this pollen is from white clover.

When I look at a closeup like this—and every time I visit the hive and watch how hard the bees are working—I can't help but think about how many dozens of trips by dozens of bees it takes to fill a single cell with honey or pollen. Truly, every teaspoon of honey and every grain of pollen represents a herculean effort on the part of the honeybees.
And that's leaving aside the genius of the comb itself...