Tag Archives: insects

Treasuring bees, saving the world

Bees love tall thistle (Cirsium altissimo) shown with a bee, Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri

The invitation came from Susan Friedman, whom I met on the weekend with Joanna Macy, and whose native plant gardens were part of Retaining Paradise. The Work that Reconnects workshop was held at Canticle Farm, an urban farm in Oakland, a more or less rectangular open space created by combining the yards and gardens behind a collection of houses. During the weekend the bees swarmed, meaning that the queen, responding to pressures in the hive, led a large number of her subjects out to form a new one. For an afternoon, thousands of bees hung in a mass on a sturdy tree branch, while scouts went looking for new sites. In the meantime, a beekeeper on someone’s speed dial was called to put the swarm into a new hive box and take it to another farm. 

This extraordinary event led Susan, already thinking about having a hive on her property, to find a class on beekeeping. Though it had never occurred to me to do such a thing, when she asked me if I was interested I immediately wrote back, ‘Of course.’ So there we were, on a hot June Saturday, in a demonstration garden a couple of blocks from San Francisco’s City Hall. Our teacher, Mark, was an utterly engaging bee geek, who punctuated his opening talk with continual delight at the intricate, fascinating life of the bees he is clearly passionate about. 

Bees love prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Biological Station, Flint Hills, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Biological Station, Flint Hills, Kansas

Though I had no expectations about my fellow students beforehand, I was surprised at how young everyone else was, starting with Mark. We were a small group, but still, the idea that there are six young, urban professionals interested in spending a golden summer day learning about keeping bees was very heartening. Because keeping bees is, in it’s broadest sense, keeping the world. 

Bees were here with the dinosaurs. The relationship between bees and flowers is 130 million years old. Starting in the paleolithic era, cave drawings all over the world include scenes of figures climbing ladders to get honey, buzzed by a swarm of bees. People have written about their fascination with bees and the joys of honey ever since the alphabet was invented. But they may not survive the world we have created. And we may not survive without them. 

Bees love camas (Camassia quamash) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Camas (Camassia quamash) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Mark took us through the basics of hive life: the development of the queen and her prodigious task of laying up to 2000 eggs a day. The myriad, unceasing tasks of the female workers who do all the work of the hive. They tend the queen, feed the young, forage for and store nectar and pollen, make honey, create wax, clean house, vibrate their wing muscles to regulate temperature. All lives are brief: queens can live for five years, though are considered productive for three. Workers live about a month and a half. The far fewer male drones, whose only job in life is to fertilize queens from other hives, die in this task or by being ejected from the hive at the end of the summer. So, to keep the hive going, new life needs to be constantly fostered.

Their work ethic is prodigious. One pound of honey means that 10,000 bees have flown 75,000 miles in short segments, visiting up to 8 million flowers. A good forager will have brought back a total of 1/4 teaspoon of nectar in the course of her life. She’ll also bring water, and pollen collected on her bristly hairs or in pouches on her legs. As she flies from flower to flower in search of nectar, she leaves some of her pollen load on the next flower she visits, and picks up more, performing the crucial task of pollination as she goes.

Beehive frame with honey, covered by beeswax, in the upper right. In the lower right are cups with white larva, and capped cups that house the pupae. You can see the glint of light on the cups holding nectar, on its way to becoming honey. The larger cups at the bottom right are for drones. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Bees on a beehive frame with honey, covered by beeswax, in the upper right. In the lower leftt are cups with white larva, and capped cups that house the pupae, from which will emerge adult bees. At the top center, you can see the glint of light on the cups holding nectar, on its way to becoming honey. The larger cups along the left hand frame are for drones.

The highlight of the class was donning bee suits and opening the hives. Bee boxes with portable wooden frames of comb long ago replaced the round, impenetrable beehives that meant bees had to be killed to harvest honey. We pulled out the hanging frames and watched the bees at work. Mark suggested dipping the end of a twig in the honey and holding it to the bees’ heads. The tiniest imaginable red tongues zipped out to lick it off. He showed us the queen, which he had marked with a green dot.

All this time the bees were very calm. We were well covered, though I was soon unconcernedly pulling my gloves on and off to take pictures. But after a while the bees began to buzz and fly more dramatically, the result of getting too warm on that hot day, and anxious about the well-being of their tribe. So we closed the boxes again.

Bees love wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

Our class was not about native bees. Beekeeping is devoted to the imported European honey bee, Apis mellifera, whose communal lifestyle and behavior make it a mobile pollinating force for agriculture, and a prolific source of honey. But all bee populations are excellent pollinators, some native ones far more so than the honey bee. All are losing ground dramatically. In the last 120 years, we’ve lost half of our native bee species. There is no one cause, and the problem, though far more acute now, was first noted in 1860. 

Even then, loss of habitat to growing urbanization and industrialization, along with widespread clearing for agriculture, were among the culprits. Since World War II, intensive farming has done away with the old hedgerows between fields, full of varieties of wildflowers and brambles. Vast fields of wind-pollinated grains have no flowers for bees to forage. Vegetable farmers largely harvest crops like lettuce and radishes before they flower and go to seed. That leaves fruit and nut trees, and vegetables that develop from the ovaries of flowers, like squash.

Bees love western wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Western wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

But even in places where such crops are abundant, as in the Central Valley of California, bees are rapidly losing ground. When they don’t kill the bees directly, pesticides, especially the neonicotinoids introduced in the 1990s, damage their nervous systems, impairing their ability to navigate and forage, thus weakening the whole hive. Any loss of vitality leaves bees prey to mites and fungi that can devastate the colony.

Monoculture is another issue. The almond groves in the Central Valley bloom for three weeks. Before and after, if there are no native hedgerows, and no flowering ground covers, there’s nothing to keep the mostly non-colony-forming native bees in place. The honey beekeepers load their hives onto trucks and move them to the next crop, a potentially stressful lifestyle that may also be impacting those bees.

Bees love red monkey flower (Mimulus lewisii) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Red monkey flower (Mimulus lewisii) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

What would life without bees be like? From a human perspective, we would lose most flowers, most fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, tea. Our diet would consist largely of grains and meat from animals that eat those grains. Without clover and alfalfa, the dairy industry would falter, and beef prices would skyrocket. We would have lettuce for salad while the seed supply lasts, but no cucumbers or tomatoes, and no oil or vinegar. No jam or jelly, no strawberry shortcake in June, no pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. No lemonade or orange juice. Our most nutritious vegetables — like broccoli, carrots, onions, kale — would be gone.

Cotton clothing would disappear. Our gardens would be green. No more fields of wildflowers. The 20% of flowers pollinated by butterflies, beetles, and hummingbirds would still exist, but butterflies are also disappearing. All ecosystems would eventually diminish as bee-pollinated plants died off in alpine meadows, grasslands, forests, wetlands, deserts. The ability of these systems to regenerate soil, filter water and clean the air would be impaired, endangering more and more plants. Eventually, all living things could be under threat.

Bees love smooth aster (Aster laevis) taken at a rest stop planted with native plants in Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Smooth aster (Aster laevis) at a rest stop planted with native plants in Wisconsin

Thus the loss of bees is far more than a human problem. Because of the threat to agriculture, farmers and scientists the world over have been working to figure out why we’re losing bees and what to do about it. But though the solutions are challenging, and the sudden collapse of colonies devastating, it isn’t hard to figure out why bees are struggling. We’ve produced a planet that is inhospitable to them. And, as I wrote when contemplating the loss of lichen to climate change, a world that’s inhospitable to our fellow inhabitants may soon be inhospitable to us. 

Instead of trying to harness the bee to our needs, we would do better catering to theirs. If we create a world where they can flourish, chances are far better that we will, too. Among the answers: organic farming and gardening. Bee friendly hedgerows dividing farm fields and native flowering groundcovers among crops. Regenerative agriculture. Sustainable development. Preservation and restoration of habitat. Gardening with natives — the plants native bees evolved with — like the bee-loved flowers accompanying this post. This is the quilting together of restored habitat I wrote about in Retaining Paradise

Bees love strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus fendleri) Cross Canyon, southwest Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus fendleri) Cross Canyon, southwest Colorado. There is a bee dedicated to pollinating cactus flowers.

In the end, it all depends on how we think about these things. We can choose to look at the world from a bee’s point of view, or a forest’s, or a river’s. Or from the perspective of an intact ecosystem. By and large, our culture and economy don’t support this way of seeing. We contemplate a meadow that took 4.5 billion years to evolve and see it as a potential shopping mall. We see driveways and houses and swimming pools. As understandable as this view might be, given our culture, and to some extent our needs, it’s destroying the world we depend on.

Without bees, flowers may never have evolved. Without flowers, and their nutritious fruits, we may never have evolved. We share over a third of our genes with bees. Our connections with our fellow beings, as with the planet we all arose from, are profound. What if instead of seeing bees as merely useful, or fascinating, or in the way, we could see them as kin? With such a shift in vision, gardening, farming, and habitat restoration become ways to foster the vitality of our cousins as well as ourselves. We become a vast extended family — flowers, fruits, bees, soil, water, humans — weaving the fabric of life together.

Bees love blue wild iris (Iris missouriensis) taken in Monticello, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Wild iris (Iris missouriensis) in Monticello, Utah

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Blessed unrest: the bioblitz

Silver puffs (Uropappus lindleyi) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Silver puffs (Uropappus lindleyi) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

I’d never seen the word bioblitz until I got my first invitation to one. It had instant appeal: join a group of volunteers to survey a specific area, in an effort to catalog every species you find. Being on the ground taking photos of plants and bugs is one of my favorite things to do. Doing it to gather information for organizations who protect these lands made it even more appealing. And doing it with a group of people made it fun. So off I went.

And it was just like that. Sponsored by the Marin County Parks Department and an organization called One Tam, volunteers met at Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve and divided into four groups. Ours went to a meadow and immediately began photographing and discussing grasses, seed heads, insects, leaves, flowers. For the most part, we took photos with our phones, because as we went we were uploading our observations to an app called iNaturalist.

California brome (Bromus californica) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California

California brome (Bromus californica) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

Even though the point of the photos is information, not aesthetics, I’m used to photographing slowly, and the app was new to me. The group spread out, leaving me happily immersed in grasses since the wildflowers had largely finished in that dry meadow. I enjoyed the chatter drifting back as my fellow blitzers debated the finer points of identification. This went on for about three hours, and then we went to a local library to have lunch, continue plant identification, and upload observations to iNaturalist.

In the short time since, the word bioblitz keeps popping up. Memories of my wonderful time in Missouri came back when I received the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s newsletter, announcing an upcoming bioblitz. I looked up others in Marin, and there have been plenty. It’s a popular project with schools. The one I went to was One Tam’s third this season. I don’t know where I’ve been, since the word has been around since the 1990’s, first used by the National Park Service, who do one in a different park every year. Last year they had a burst of them to celebrate the park service’s centennial. They happen all over the world.

A clover seedhead in the Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

A clover seedhead in the Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

There have always been species studies of various kinds. Some are strictly academic, with areas carefully plotted and divided by stakes, then monitored over seasons and years. There are other community species counts, like the Christmas bird counts held in many places. One of the things I loved about my bioblitz was its casual seriousness. The surveys are important for the care and planning of these areas, and some of the people were very knowledgeable. But anyone can come, learn, be part of taking care of the natural world. The more experienced people helped me navigate iNaturalist and identify plants. And I helped one man, who, seeing that I’d switched to my SLR camera with its telephoto lens, came up with a bug on his arm.

On that warm, windy Saturday, out under the blue sky, counting living things, we were one of the millions of threads that Paul Hawken writes about in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World. One Tam is the Tamalpais Lands Collaborative, an environmental organization created in 2014 to help coordinate the work of five other groups for the benefit of Mount Tamalpais, its parks and watershed. Their job is to pool the expertise and resources, and coordinate the efforts of the National Park Service, California State Parks, Marin County Parks, Marin Municipal Water District, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

California oat grass (Danthonia californica) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

California oat grass (Danthonia californica) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

I heard about the bioblitz via Marin’s chapter of the California Native Plant Society, a real force for knowledge about and preservation of native plants throughout the state. Such groups rely on ardent volunteers for help, and often for their existence. More occasional volunteers show up for days of species counting and cataloging, removing weeds, planting natives.

iNaturalist, which started in 2008 as a graduate project, is now connecting naturalists, professional and casual, all over the world. It has almost 500,000 active users. In the week before my bioblitz, 5,497 of us signed up. My 29 observations were a tiny fraction of the 15,000 that were added in the twenty-four hours between May 20 and 21. A worldwide endeavor to create “a living record of life on earth,” iNat itself, now part of the California Academy of Sciences, feeds its data to other organizations, like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

Thus, once home after the bioblitz, and uploading observations to iNaturalist, I was connected to ever more threads in a widening community. I listed my observations on my own page,  and added them to the One Tam Gary Giacomini Bioblitz project. The next thing I knew people in the iNatualist community were filling in missing identifiers. That prompted me to keep exploring to get closer to the actual species. After looking at caterpillars online until my eyes crossed, I remembered that another member of our group had pointed out the one above, so went to see how he identified his photo. He had a question mark on his find, but I kept checking and went with it. The second I typed in ‘white-lined sphinx moth,’ iNat’s Identotron popped up with a page of taxonomy. Then a group called ‘Moths of California’ picked it up.

White-lined sphinx moth taxonomy from iNaturalist's Identotron

White-lined sphinx moth taxonomy from iNaturalist’s Identotron

This was very addicting. I began to look at bugs. I searched online for ‘gray metallic beetle’, then added ‘insect’ when I got a lot of Volkswagens. The closest one I could find landed me on BugGuide.net. I signed up and posted a bug ID request for the beetle below. Almost immediately someone came back with metallic wood boring beetle, in the family Buprestidae. Since there are almost 400,000 species of beetles, this was close enough to make me perfectly happy. Delighted with that experience, I did another bug, and located its family.

Metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae)

I’ve written before about how much comfort I take in the millions of people Hawken writes about in Blessed Unrest. At a time when so much seems to be unraveling, the idea that a simple bug identification request can link me to an insect lover somewhere in the world, promises something else. The bioblitz I did is connected to all other such days, and the people who participate in them. The preserve I was in is named after a county superintendent who was instrumental in land preservation. The network of groups that sponsored the day represents thousands of dedicated public servants and volunteers, who donate serious amounts of time and money. The North American Native Plant Society has located at least one native plant group in every US state and Canadian province. The California Native Plant Society is a conservation powerhouse with 35 chapters. All that was connected to this one small bioblitz in one small area of the world.

Slender clarkia (Clarkia gracilis) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Slender clarkia (Clarkia gracilis) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

Our earth is at great risk from actions and inactions on many layers — governance, corporate, private. Our definition of economic progress includes seeing the world as a resource to be despoiled for profit. Countering that are millions of people weaving a net both by their individual actions, and by their work as part of a community or organization. We are the embodiment of the beautiful Hindu image of Indra’s net, the web stretched across the heavens by the great god, reaching into infinity.

At every intersection of the threads, he set a glittering jewel, each reflecting every other in the vast expanse. Nothing exists alone. Everything we do radiates from one gem to another, ad infinitum. Action works both ways: every thread that is destroyed echoes through the whole. But every thread that is woven or rewoven also resonates throughout. I like to think of the net in constant motion, like a jeweled spider web in a soft breeze, moving gently but persistently with the steady reverberations of our blessed unrest.

Unidentified grass in the Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Unidentified grass in the Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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