Friday, April 22, 2011

And now they're back...

Two weeks ago we all piled in the truck and drove across town to pick up two 4 pound packages of bees complete with a couple of "Minnesota Hygenic Queens".  The man providing the bees had just driven through the night up from California to fetch about a million bees from an apiary near Chico.  We arrived at his place down a long gravel drive to his little corner of rural improbably located in the middle of town.  Just beyond his own orchard bee-yard and garden, we found him at his barn/shop with another fellow standing a little bleary-eyed next to crates of bees stacked six feet high.

We chatted for a bit, mostly about bees and new mite treatments and whatnot as he pried loose a couple of screened boxes for us and then 'bee-vac-ed' a handful of hitch hiking bees from the outsides of the boxes so as to make the trip home with five humans and 40,000 bees in the cab of our truck something other than a temptation of fate.

Installing bees in hives is a great treat, one I've enjoyed only a dozen or so times in my life.  It's actually a very safe exercise, one that looks much more harrowing that it is in fact.  The bees want to be in a new home and because they have no hive to defend, are docile and easy to handle.

This time around I did the first of our two hives and Kristin tried her hand at the second.  We pulled the queen in her small cage out, gave the bees a generous misting of sugar water, unceremoniously tumbled them into the hives we'd prepared, gently swept stragglers off the rim of the boxes, and replaced the roof.  Within the span of  about 30 minutes we were done and smiling broadly at the fact of our garden once again blessed with a pollination solution of unsurpassed quality and beauty.

Earlier in the season, with empty hives from our winter disaster, I'd been worried about pollination.  As the plums bloomed almost no bees visited their blossoms.  The pears flowered next and appeared to be similarly neglected.  Even the irresistible cascading flowers of our Red Flowering Currant were mostly bee-less.  It  was Silent Spring in miniature and, from the narrow perspective of a gardener, portended a potentially cheerless harvest.

Now, however, things seem to be gently swaying back to resemble the springtimes I remember as a boy when every flower and budding thing teemed with so many bees they could be heard from yards away on any given day.  As our new bees progressively map their forage in helical fashion, I see them find and begin to enjoy each new set of blooms as they come into season:  apples, collards, strawberries, cherries, poppies, tulips, daffodils, maples, and on and on, a different feast for them each week for the next three months.  Mindful of my friend Whitey's wonderful garden in which our native Douglas Asters abound, I have this year propagated some in my own beds purposefully to offer the bees the unusually late-season bloom and nectar flow the asters provide.

Bees fill me with a sense of gratitude and wonder that is difficult to express.  I watch them closely in their doings and every year notice some thing I had not before, some thing not new....or new only for me...which bees perfected some millions of years ago and despite such perfection continue to practice each day, colony by colony, flower by flower, ad infinitum.  Watch one grazing on lupine flowers someday and you will see what I mean.  Though harvesters, they are experts at giving as much as they take, by the act of pollination ensuring and even vigorously expanding the livelihood of their food sources.  Gentle creatures by nature, they are also prodigiously weaponized for their size.  They are master builders capable of crafting perfect, flowingly ordered comb in spaces of even the most unlikely and random configuration.

I am happy to once again have the opportunity to share space with these marvels in my garden.  So is the Western Jay who lays in wait at their hive entrance to snatch a few bees in flight as a snack now and again.  I'm sure my garden in whatever way one understands it is also 'happy' for their renewed presence.

We are all fortunate here and elsewhere beyond our knowing.

make our drive home  be collaborating on the task of

Monday, March 7, 2011

And now they're gone...

Sadly, my two hives fell victim this winter to some unknown malady, which I suppose means colony collapse or 'CCD' as it's known nowadays.

Bee colonies have long suffered from common ailments such as mites, fungal infections, and bacterial diseases. But, of late, their fortunes have taken a serious downturn. Colonies simply disappear leaving plenty of food behind and no signs indicating what was the matter.

These apiary Roanokes have puzzled scientists, but they don't much puzzle me. I say that without the least bit of arrogance or pride, but with more than a little sadness and frustration.

We treat bees badly on the whole, so badly in fact that given a sane moment or two we might better ask ourselves how in the world they've lasted this long rather than why they're now vanishing. We steal their food, move them around to suit our ends, breed them into shockingly narrow genetic corners, and poison them with millions of pounds if not tons of commercial herbicides and insecticides each year.

The barrage of bad behaviors we've inflicted on bees is the problem. But, maddeningly, our reductive penchance for quick fixes and 'answers' now has us mostly casting about for the 'secret' behind bee die-offs. We've pointed the finger at everything from cell phone signals to viruses.

But, more likely, we are the problem or, more precisely, our relationship with the rest of the biosphere is the problem. Somehow, we've come to the conclusion that we own it. Planet as chattel.

If there is a smoking gun here, my guess is that it's probably the neonicotinoid pesticides we've grown attached to in the past decade. These beauties are sold under trade names such as "Cruiser", "Platinum", and "Admire". We like these insecticides because they're easy on mammals.

By design, however, they're not easy on insects. Neonicotinoids are built to wreak havoc on insect nervous systems. It's hard not ask whether that might also have something to do with the fact that bee colonies stricken by colony collapse simply get confused and wander away from their hives.

Whether by design or chance, it can hardly be lost upon the creators and purveyors of poisons like these that their apparent lack of effect on humans and other mammals would considerably enhance their saleability in this day and age where 'green' is increasingly a feature and a commodity in its own right. It's always important to hide the bodies.

Ironically, the very reason we're able to be so naughty in a planetary sense is also the bad news we're going face in the form of consequences: we're perched precariously atop the food web.

Bees, those lovely insects we're busy trashing, do all their magic quite a bit farther down the line...but not that much farther. We depend directly upon them for about 30% of our food supply via pollination. If bees go, we'll know about it in the worst possible way.

Here's the short version: If you use toxins, don't. Find alternatives. Accept tradeoffs. Think farther out in your own self-interest. Be more patient. Try participation instead of control.

There's a good chance your next meal or the one after that will depend upon it.