Buzz, Buzz, Buzz, What’s all the Buzz?

Well, bees, of course. That’s what’s a buzzin.

Last week I witnessed my fourth swarm this season. I’d never even seen a swarm or a natural hive in my entire life and now I’ve seen four! I think the bees are trying to tell me something; they’re in my future.

I wrote about the first two swarms in an earlier post.

The third was witnessed about three weeks ago out at Wainui. Bruce & I had walked down the hill to the beach one afternoon and as we were walking back up the dirt road to our house, we came around a corner and I could hear them. Loud buzzing. I glanced up and saw maybe 200 bees flying around, not super agitated, but still a bit chaotic. I looked over to the left and there were the other thousand, already forming their cluster on a branch just about a foot off the road and within reaching distance. We stood and watched for a few minutes. Bruce was disappointed he didn’t have any ‘bee-catching’ equipment as we certainly would like to have additional bees. But the bee-family-expansion was not meant to be that day.

Wainui Swarm

The fourth witnessing occurred last week on the property in Wainui. We’d discovered about a month ago that some bees had gathered into the roof of our sleepout and were forming a hive under the tin roof. Not a good place for a hive. Rather than kill them, which is what most people would do, we wanted to ‘catch’ them and create another hive. Bruce has been saying for weeks now that he needs to get to that task, but it hasn’t happened.

Last weekend I was out at the property by myself, working in the yard, and doing a lot of activity back and forth through the orchard which sits in front of the sleepout. When I checked in the morning, the bees were buzzing about the tin roof normally, going about their pollen-collecting business. Nothing out of the ordinary. Around mid-day, I came back up to the orchard and I could hear LOUD buzzing. I was standing maybe a 100 feet away from the sleepout. I glanced up and thousands of bees were buzzing about. Swarm. Again, I watched for a few minutes as they agitated and swirled haphazardly around. I left to go back to the house to call Bruce and when I got back about 15 minutes later, the buzzing had subsided and I couldn’t see any bees. “Darn,” I thought, “I missed them. But they can’t be too far.” So I approached the sleepout and peeked around, listening intently. Finally I saw a handful of bees about 15 feet from the sleepout swirling around some trees. I got closer and sure enough, there they all were – thousands of them, forming their hive on a low-lying branch about six feet off the ground. I was able to get within five feet of them to witness their activity. I had no fear. Unfortunately I had no camera either so no super close-up photos to share.

So yeah, bees are on my mind. And they seem to be on a lot of peoples’ minds as I’ve been seeing articles left and right about bees featured in a wide spectrum of media. Michael Pollan, an author I enjoy, wrote an interesting piece recently in the New York Times Magazine titled “Our Decrepit Food Factories” (12/16/07) wherein he discusses the use of the buzzword ‘sustainability’ and illustrates just how unsustainable our modern industrial agricultural practices are, citing two examples: In one he relates the increase in the breakout of an antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus in human beings to the increase in use of antibiotics on concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO’s or factory farms) whereby because of the intensity of antibiotic used on the animals, the bacteria are evolving rapidly and developing resistant strains. There’s no direct proof yet that this is where humans are picking up this strain of bacteria but many scientists are convinced that there is causality.

The second example cited had to do with honeybees and the very extreme problem facing many beekeepers: Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. Apparently thousands of hives across America are disappearing into what apparently seems like thin air. Many beekeepers lost anywhere from 20-80% of their hives in 2006 and 2007; enough to warrant media attention around the world. Similar stories have been reported in Europe. The cause for this phenomenon is not yet known, but speculation runs wide that it could be due to a virus, parasites, mites, genetically engineered maize crops which are poisoning the bees, electromagnetic radiation, and auto-immune deficiency. Whatever the cause, what is known is that the bees are being taxed. Pollan cites the example of the California almond season. California produces 80% of the world’s almonds. Almonds are pollinated by bees and the pollination season is quite short. The amount of land for such production is so vast that the almond growers need to import bees from around the country and from overseas to pollinate the blossoms. Hives that should be in winter dormancy are suddenly trucked across the country in the dead of winter; bees and hives are interspersed; germs and parasites are intermingling. It’s easy to see how this could be a breeding ground for a national or international bee epidemic.

CCD is a serious problem. A third of all our crops are pollinated by honeybees. No bees, no garlic, apples, broccoli, brussel sprouts, citrus, melons, onions, almonds, turnips, parsley, or sunflowers, and then some. Just a week or so ago, I received a notice in one of the e-newsletters I get, about a new documentary that’s being made called The Vanishing of the Bees. Check out the trailer on the website. It’s informative and scary.

Bees are fascinating creatures and so integral to our lives. I’d never really given it much thought until Bruce took up beekeeping last year. My hesitancy about having them is gone and I support Bruce in adding more hives. I’m trying to learn as much as I can.

I stumbled across this book at the library by accident (a sign from the great universe?) and found it to be quite an enjoyable read. Called “Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey, The Sweet Liquid Gold That Seduced the World” by Holley Bishop, she weaves a tale of her own experience as a novice beekeeper with the story of commercial Florida beekeeper Donald Smiley intertwined with an engaging historical account of beekeeping over the millennia. Bees, pollen, beeswax, bee stings, and the ever-so-important liquid gold – honey, are all delved into with lots of interesting factoids such as:

  1. Honey is so sweet that bacteria can’t survive in it, so it was our first food preservative and all-purpose wound salve.
  2. The queen determines the sex of her offspring by parceling out sperm collected from her one and only maiden flight out of the hive. Fertilized eggs become female worker bees; unfertilized eggs become male drones. A hive is 99% female!
  3. A worker bee will make up to 50 pollen-collecting trips a day and can travel a distance of up to five miles. Each trip lasts from five minutes to a few hours depending on the proximity and abundance of the pollen.
  4. Bees have been used in warfare since ancient Greco-Roman times to inflict pain, punishment, and torture. Romans developed shipboard swarm catapults for naval battles; the Greeks released bees and wasps into tunnels to plague advancing enemies; medieval warfare relied on ‘bee bombs’ or hives that were thrown over castle walls to thwart attackers; in Vietnam, native fighters set bee traps against American troops; in modern day, the American military is testing the use of bees for use against the war on drugs and terrorism as bees have a keen sense of smell, can be easily trained, and are easier to maintain than dogs.
  5. Bee venom is being commercially harvested and used in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, arthritis, lupus, and chronic fatigue syndrome (a carefully applied sting or two numbs the site and stimulates the immune, anti-inflammatory, and circulatory systems)
  6. Beeswax (for candles) was for royalty, the church, and the very rich. From the tenth century to the sixteenth century, the church was the biggest and wealthiest consumer of wax in the entire world; at Queen Elizabeth I’s funeral, 10,000 wax torches lit the procession.

So, next time you see a bee a buzzin, take a moment to pause, observe, and be thankful for what these little creatures bring into our lives. For without the bees, life would be far less bountiful.