Echoes of Colony Collapse Disorder

Interesting in light of our current concerns about Colony Collapse Disorder to happen on this description of "spring dwindling" in A Thousand Answers to Beekeeping Questions by Dr. C.C. Miller, published 1931:

Dwindling.—Q. (a) Why do some colonies (having plenty of stores and a fairly good number of bees) start brood-rearing in the latter part of winter and get a good deal of capped brood and brood in all stages, and when cold weather comes they whole outfit dies? This is happening with me two seasons. (b) How can I avoid this thing?

A. (a) This seems to be a case of what is called spring dwindling. The cause is somewhat in doubt. It looks a little as if the bees were old, had more brood started than they could take care of, then died off with the strain of trying to provide digested food for the brood, sometimes swarming out with plenty of food in the hive. (b) I don’t know, unless it be to have colonies strong with bees not too old the preceding fall.


Backyard Beekeeping

Nice article in today's New York Times about beekeeping, and the importance of breeding for genetic diversity instead of relying on chemical-doused hives to prop up weak bees. Seems like, ever so slowly, the idea of more organic, natural beekeeping based on an understanding of genetics and local adaptation is being resurrected in various quarters.

Although the beekeeping magazines are still stuffed to the gills with ads for medications, artificial feed, and other bizarre products to foist upon the bees, the voices for sustainable, low-impact beekeeping seem to be growing louder and more numerous, even in traditional venues and publications. That's good news—hope it keeps up!



We, and the bees,
are lucky. Autumn
is being generous to us.


Bees, Livelihood From

From A Thousand Answers to Beekeeping Questions by Dr. C.C. Miller, published 1931:

Bees, Livelihood from.—I have been trying to decide on a move for several years; that is, in the keeping of bees. I had a slight experience of two years with bees, but just became greatly interested in them when I left the country to accept a position in the Postal Department in New York City. I still hold such a position, but my desire and love for bees have increased so much that I am contemplating a change to the country. My hesitation comes from the doubt whether I could make a good living from them alone should I devote my entire time to them. What is your opinion? Would it be wise and profitable to give up my position of $100 a month to lurch into beekeeping? I would not go in extensively at the start, but try and feel my way as I advance. Will you kindly give me advice I seek as to whether there is a profitable field in the keeping of bees as a business proposition?

A. Your question is one that is exceedingly difficult to answer. If it be a mere matter of dollars and cents, I should say that beekeeping is a good business to let alone, for the same amount of brains and energy that will make you a living at beekeeping will make more than a living at almost any other business. But if you have the great love for beekeeping that some men have, then it may be the part of wisdom for you to choose beekeeping in preference to any other business that would net you ten times as much money. For your true beekeeper doesn’t have to wait until he has made his pile before he begins to enjoy life, but every day is a vacation day, and a day of enjoyment.

But you must make a living. Can you make a living at beekeeping? I don’t know. There are a few who make a living at beekeeping alone. There are probably a few more of them who can. You may be one of them, and you may not.

It would not be advisable for you to cut loose from everything else and start in at beekeeping with the idea of making a living at it from the very start. If you have enough ahead so that you can afford to do nothing for a year or two, with a fair assurance that you could take up your old line of work at the end of the year or two, if you should so elect, then all right. For you must count it among the possibilities that the next two years may be years of failure in the honey harvest.

If you can take such a risk, perhaps you can grow into quite a business with bees, while still continuing at your present business. Indeed, that might be the best way. In a suburban home you could probably care for 25 or 50 colonies mornings and evenings. Or, you might have a roof apiary in the city. The profit from them would be all the while bringing you nearer the point when you could cut loose from everything else. After a year or two you could judge better than anyone else whether it would be feasible and advisable to try beekeeping alone.


Honeybees Luv Dogspit

I'm gathering photographic evidence of a natural phenomenon never before described in the scientific literature: honeybees gathering dog saliva for purposes as yet unknown.

For about an hour in late July, I observed this honeybee return over and over to gather dog saliva from the gnawed end of this, my dog's favorite stick. Once the honeybee became obsessed with the stick, I had to bribe the dog with another toy, so he wouldn't wind up competing with the bee. The dog, needless to say, was not amused.
Here's a shot from September—the dog's favorite Frisbee, with honeybee on board.
Again, I observed the bee gathering saliva from the toy for more than an hour after the dog had finished playing with it. She returned the next day to do the same thing. I mention the timing of these two observations because, given the short lifespan of a honeybee, I doubt this was the same honeybee as the one on the stick.
Off she goes, carrying her treasure back to the hive. My theory is the bee is going for the salts in my dog's saliva. I hope, over time, to gather more portraits of honeybees on dog toys.


Wind Power

Give this one a chance...it will all make sense in the end.

A Swarm's Whereabouts

Orange Hive swarmed, for the second time, on Labor Day weekend. In the morning, we saw the swarm high up in a tree near the hive, and by late afternoon it was gone to parts unknown.

Last weekend, Wren and I were taking a walk down the road and lo and behold, there were the bees in a hollow tree. Interestingly, the entrance was an eye level, which kind of surprised me. I would have expected them to choose a more elevated location, but what do I know?I'm not sure why so many of the bees were clustered outside the entrance, but there they were. The entrance hole is the little dark spot in the midst of the bees. Foragers could be seen going in carrying pollen, so I guess at least some comb has already been built.Unfortunately, this late-swarming group has a thin chance of surviving the winter—just not enough time to build enough comb, store enough food, and do the reproductive work needed to ensure a large enough cluster of bees to keep the tribe warm during the long, cold winter. On the other hand, the autumn weather has been kind thus far, with warm days continuing and no hard frost due for at least another week.

I've learned a lot this summer about being sure to have enough volume in the hive to accommodate the rather astonishing population of bees that can build up in a healthy colony in a relatively short time. Three swarms and a hell of a lot of bearding bees have taught me the hard way. I really like the design of the top bar hives I have been using, but suspect lack of space may have been a problem for me and the bees. A friend is building me even bigger top bar hives for use next spring and I am hopeful that this will alter some of the crowding dynamics I witnessed this year. Only time will tell.

For now, I hope you'll join me in wishing the best to the bees who set up housekeeping in the hollow tree down the road. I'll provide updates if and when there's something new to report.


Birdchick Rocks

One of my favorite blog discoveries of late is Birdchick: The Birdwatching Adventures of Sharon Stiteler. If you're at all interested in birds and bird photography, check it out.

Turns out, Birdchick is also a beekeeper. She recently posted some amazing shots of bees removing pollen from their sisters' pollen baskets and her hilarious essay, Hello Bee Sting, Goodbye Dignity is well worth reading.

She also has some funky things going on re: disapproving rabbits.

Honeybee vs. Bumblebee

There was quite a fracas in front of Green Hive the other day. This bumblebee must have wandered too close to the honey-filled hive. The honeybee hung on to the bumblebee and wouldn't let go. The fuzzy interloper's larger sized didn't deter the honeybee one bit. Based on the honeybee's position in the shot below, I suspect it was stinging, or trying to sting, the bumblebee. When a honeybee stings a mammal, its stinger dislodges in the victim's skin, causing the bee to die. But when a honeybee stings another insect, it can sting multiple times without losing its stinger (and its life)—or so I've read....In any case, the battle was a dramatic one, with much buzzing, struggling, frantic rolling about in the grass, and several failed attempts at escape by the bumblebee.
(Note the bits of yellow pollen on both insects. The bumblebee should have stuck with pollen-gathering, and steered clear of the honey cache.)

Finally, after much tussling, the bumblebee managed to fly off, with honeybee in tow. In the blurry shot below, the bumblebee is flying out of the frame with the intrepid honeybee hanging on upside down for the ride of its life. (You can also see the bumblebee's pollen basket stuffed with yellow pollen. It's impressive that the bee could fly off carrying the weight of both the pollen load and the mad honeybee.)


Artisan Bees

Exquisite bell jar bee-building in collaboration with Turlough, as featured in Hive Mind Bee Blog. See the slide-show of the bees developing their comb inside the jar.

Fall/Of The Honeybee Drones

We have been warned that first frost may come tomorrow night. If it's a killing frost, it will be a big deal for the bees—the precipitous end-stop to the nectar-gathering season, the end of life, in a sense, as the bees have known it.

You can feel the intensity of the shifting season at the hives; it rivals anything that came before, or it so it seems. Several species of goldenrod are giving nectar in abundance and the bees are working the blossoms like wild.

I took a walk deep into the gold and purple field yesterday afternoon. A beautiful, crisp autumnal day of shining sun. Apples red in the trees. Monarchs rising and falling on the currents of the breeze. The honeybees, it seemed, were everywhere. Dozens and dozens of them working every stand of goldenrod. A few working the white and purple asters, and one rugged individualist foraging the very last of the black knapweed. No detail overlooked, nothing going to waste.

With these final days of gathering in anticipation of the oncoming cold comes the inevitable time of consolidation for the colony: the eviction, the mass murder of the drones.

This morning, I was startled to see a bee drag a big white drone larva from the hive. I then noticed other drone larvae on the ground nearby. The bees are cleaning house—they know they won't need drones during the long, cold winter. Those honeycomb cells can be put to better use storing the food the workers and queen will depend on during the months of no flowers, the months of weather too cold to explore, scout, forage, fly.
The workers are also kicking out the adult drones. At this point, the unfortunate drones represent nothing more than freeloaders, consumers of nectar and honey so carefully stored in the hive to provide the hope of winter survival. The drones are a liability the colony can no longer afford. Here, a daddy longlegs consumes an evicted drone.
I'm fond of the bumbling, good-looking drones, and in my strong desire for stories with happy endings, I wish things could be another way. Fortunately, I'm not running the show here. Nature takes a bigger view and has imbued the honeybee with the immeasurable efficiency and practicality of the hive-mind. These creatures who spend their hours gathering sweet elixir from the flowers certainly cannot be accused of taking a sentimental view of life.

Here's a particularly good looking guy biting the dust.

And here's an action shot: a worker beating up on a drone. The worker is on the right, the drone is on his back—he's defenseless. He has no stinger and no hope of being allowed back inside. Before long, he will perish of cold or hunger or, perhaps, of a broken heart.

In The Life of the Bee, Maurice Maeterlinck writes vividly of the otherwise happy-go-lucky drones' response to "the massacre of the males":

"The great idle drones, asleep in unconscious groups on the melliferous walls, are rudely torn from their slumbers by an army of wrathful virgins. They wake, in pious wonder; they cannot believe their eyes; and their astonishment struggles through their sloth as a moonbeam through marshy water. They stare amazedly round them, convinced that they must be the victims of some terrible mistake; and the mother-idea of their life being first to assert itself in their dull brain, they take a step toward the vats of honey to seek comfort there. But ended for them are the days of May honey, the wine-flower of lime trees and fragrant ambrosia of thyme and sage, or marjoram and white clover. Where the path once lay open to the kindly, abundant reservoirs, that so invitingly offered their waxen and sugary mouths, there stands now a burning bush all alive with poisonous, bristling stings."

Abstractions with Bumblebee

Honeybee on a Fallen Star

The flower fell.
But that didn't stop
the bee.


Rude Awakening of the Day

"One in three amphibians, one in four mammals, one in eight birds and 70% of plants so far assessed are believed to be at risk of extinction, with human alteration of their habitat the single biggest cause."
Shame on us. This isn't really a surprise, but more of the same and it doesn't exactly make the six o'clock news because, well, you know...we've got more important things to worry about like who this year's Oscar host will be, Led Zeppelin's reunion gig, and whatever dumb thing one or another of our would-be future dumb presidents had to say today.

The quote comes from a BBC News article, which also makes the following interesting and worthwhile points:
"Many in the environmental movement argue that too much money and attention has gone on climate change, with other issues such as biodiversity, clean water and desertification ignored at the political level.

"The World Conservation Union's assessment is that climate change is important for many Red List species; but it is not the only threat, and not the most important threat.

There are conflicts between addressing the various issues, with biofuels perhaps being the obvious example. Useful they may turn out to be in reducing greenhouse gas emissions; but many conservationists are seriously concerned that the vast swathes of monoculture they will bring spell dire consequences for creatures such as the orangutan."

Yes, we've dug multiple environmental holes that we'd better start digging ourselves back out of—and fast. While we're at it, let's not kid ourselves: the aforementioned "vast swathes of monoculture" will bring equally dire consequences for the orangutan's sister-species, us. Danger, Will Robinson! Earth to humans!


R.I.P. Alex

Here's something you don't see every day— a New York Times obit for a parrot. A taste:

Scientists have long debated whether any other species can develop the ability to learn human language. Alex’s language facility was, in some ways, more surprising than the feats of primates that have been taught American Sign Language, like Koko the gorilla, trained by Penny Patterson at the Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org in Woodside, Calif., or Washoe the chimpanzee, studied by R. Allen and Beatrice Gardner at the University of Nevada in the 1960s and 1970s. When, in 1977, Dr. Pepperberg, then a doctoral student in chemistry at Harvard, bought Alex from a pet store, scientists had little expectation that any bird could learn to communicate with humans. Most of the research had been done in pigeons, and was not promising.

But by using novel methods of teaching, Dr. Pepperberg prompted Alex to learn about 150 words, which he could put into categories, and to recognize small numbers, as well as colors and shapes. “The work revolutionized the way we think of bird brains,” said Diana Reiss, a psychologist at Hunter College who works with dolphins and elephants. “That used to be a pejorative, but now we look at those brains — at least Alex’s — with some awe.”

And the poignant last bit:
Like parrots can, he also picked up one-liners from hanging around the lab, like “calm down,” and “good morning.” He could express frustration, or apparent boredom, and his cognitive and language skills appeared to be about as competent as those in trained primates. His accomplishments have also inspired further work with African Grey parrots; two others, named Griffin and Arthur, are a part of Dr. Pepperberg’s continuing research program.

Even up through last week, Alex was working with Dr. Pepperberg on compound words and hard-to-pronounce words. As she put him into his cage for the night last Thursday, Alex looked at her and said: “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

He was found dead in his cage the next morning, and was determined to have died late Thursday night.

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes eloquently in the NYT on the lessons Alex might teach us. Here's a taste:

"A truly dispassionate observer might argue that most Grey parrots could probably learn what Alex had learned, but only a microscopic minority of humans could have learned what Alex had to teach. Most humans are not truly dispassionate observers. We’re too invested in the idea of our superiority to understand what an inferior quality it really is. I always wonder how the experiments would go if they were reversed — if, instead of us trying to teach Alex how to use the English language, Alex were to try teaching us to understand the world as it appears to parrots."



Before I had bees, I had worms. I got them about a year ago and boy, do they assuage the guilt that comes with being an American consumer. Having them devour our banana peels, rotted cukes, and overripe whatevers has significantly reduced the weight and volume of our weekly bag of city-trash. I used their castings in the lettuce bed this spring and no question about it, the bed's productivity quadrupled, with our first great harvest after four relatively pathetic years.

Interestingly, the honeybees seemed VERY interested in the worm castings, too. The bees landed on the castings I'd spread on newspaper before transfer to the garden and sucked up whatever good stuff was there to suck—Minerals? Salts? Wormy mojo? I guess I'll never know.

In any case, it was great to see this homage to wormdom in the Times today. Check out the article and then go out there and get yourself some worms. It's a great stepping-stone to becoming a beek and a fun, low-tech way to give Mother Earth a hand.

Autumnal Musings

Autumn has definitely come to Hooterville, complete with an explosion of aster and the first hesitant dropping of maple, birch and chestnut leaves.
It puts one in a reflective state of mind. As pretty as it is this time of year, I'm always sorry to see summer end. Yes, it's 90 degrees today, but it's still autumn! I know it, and the bees surely know it.
They're working hard gathering nectar and pollen off the aster, jewelweed, and goldenrod. These plants are providing the remaining nectar flow of the year—the last flow the bees have available to them before winter restricts them to a long period of waiting in the hive. It's truly a race against time, against the hard frost that will nail the remaining flowers and end the flow entirely, forcing the bees to survive the winter on whatever they have stored up until that point.

This girl's pollen baskets are packed, and she's entering the hive to store what she's collected. Then she'll go right back out again and collect some more.
I did a "hive dive" (inspection) of Rebel Rebel the other day. Things were looking pretty crowded in there and I wanted to see what was up (especially because—did I forget to mention it?—Hive Orange swarmed last weekend, just in time for my mother's visit!). During the visit to the hive, a little honey dripped from my hive tool and these bees were quick to gather it up. I love how pretty they look when they do that! Like girls at a soda fountain in an Archie comic book.

One curious bee decided to check out my record-keeping notebook. There's always so much to see and do in the hive that I have to write everything down right then and there to keep track. The record-keeping helps me follow the many changes that occur in each hive from week to week, as well as my own actions and the results of those. There is so, so much to learn. I hope my brain is big and wrinkled and grey-mattered enough to handle it all.

The notebook comes from a great letterpress printing studio called Foxglove Press.

CCD & Other Acronyms

We've been hearing for several moons now about CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder). Now we're gonna hear a lot about IAPV (Israeli acute paralysis virus), which has been recently named as highly correlated w/ CCD, though not yet known to be causative. You may soon start hearing more about something called KBV (Kashmir bee virus), as well.

May I respectfully suggest we human beings take out a big, fat, super-shiny mirror and look into the possible impact of MESS (Manmade Environmental Stupidity Syndrome)?


Colony Collapse Disorder News

The initial research (and it is very initial) is out, and points to Israeli acute paralysis virus as a possible culprit in the mass honeybee die-offs reported by commercial beekeeping operations earlier this year. Researchers are not claiming to have "solved the mystery," but they do seem have isolated a "prime suspect."

However, the researchers caution, the prime suspect almost certainly has one or more accomplices. These may or may not include poor nutrition; pesticides; moving honeybee colonies hither, thither and yon; and other forms of perfectly legal honeybee abuse.

Read all about it.


The Land of Milk and Honey

Recently, my partner, Wren, got back from Israel and brought some wonderful honey (orange blossom + lemon blossom) home with her. As we tasted it, we wondered about the origins of the phrase, "the land of milk and honey."

Well, ask and ye shall receive, right? Tonight, skidding 'round the New York Times website, I was rather astonished to see this AP headline: Archaeologists Discover Ancient Beehives.

Here's the deal:

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Archaeologists digging in northern Israel have discovered evidence of a 3,000-year-old beekeeping industry, including remnants of ancient honeycombs, beeswax and what they believe are the oldest intact beehives ever found.

The findings in the ruins of the city of Rehov this summer include 30 intact hives dating to around 900 B.C., archaeologist Amihai Mazar of Jerusalem's Hebrew University told The Associated Press. He said it offers unique evidence that an advanced honey industry existed in the Holy Land at the time of the Bible.

Beekeeping was widely practiced in the ancient world, where honey used for medicinal and religious purposes as well as for food, and beeswax was used to make molds for metal and to create surfaces to write on. While bees and beekeeping are depicted in ancient artwork, nothing similar to the Rehov hives has ever been found before, Mazar said.

The beehives, made of straw and unbaked clay, have a hole at one end to allow the bees in and out and a lid on the other end to allow beekeepers access to the honeycombs inside. They were found in orderly rows, three high, in a room that could have accommodated around 100 hives, Mazar said.

The Bible repeatedly refers to Israel as a ''land of milk and honey,'' but that's believed to refer to honey made from dates and figs -- there is no mention of honeybee cultivation. But the new find shows that the Holy Land was home to a highly developed beekeeping industry nearly 3,000 years ago.

''You can tell that this was an organized industry, part of an organized economy, in an ultra-organized city,'' Mazar said.

At the time the beehives were in use, Mazar believes Rehov had around 2,000 residents, a mix of Israelites, Canaanites and others.

Ezra Marcus, an expert on the ancient Mediterranean world at Haifa University, said Tuesday the finding was a unique glimpse into ancient beekeeping. Marcus was not involved in the Rehov excavation.

''We have seen depictions of beekeeping in texts and ancient art from the Near East, but this is the first time we've been able to actually feel and see the industry,'' Marcus said.

The finding is especially unique, Marcus said, because of its location in the middle of a thriving city -- a strange place for thousands of bees.

This might have been because the city's ruler wanted the industry under his control, Marcus said, or because the beekeeping industry was linked to residents' religious practices, as might be indicated by an altar decorated with fertility figurines that archaeologists found alongside the hives.


Cross-pollination with Festival of the Trees

Very excited to have had my photo of a freewheeling caterpillar accepted for the recent Festival of The Trees blog carnival, a most engaging project. The picture chosen by FOT is part of a series featured in my Nature is an Art Gallery post in early Aug.

more on mountains

A few days ago, we discussed the insane practice of mountaintop removal. It's an unforgivable form of true ecoterrorism being actively promoted, supported, and enabled by, you guessed it, our current "administration."

The letters in the Times this week are so eloquent on the topic at hand, I felt the need to share them here.