If you enroll in a beekeepers' course at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis, one of the instructors you're likely to meet is Charley Nye, manager of the facility.
Meet Charley Nye, behind the veil.
Charley remembers distinctly when bees first drew his interest.
As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, he enrolled in an introductory entomology class. “I remember seeing the research technician standing in and indoor flight cage, surrounded by bees,” Nye said. “They were flying from the hive to a feeder stand and completely ignoring her. We covered the long history of beekeeping in that class around that same time and I was just amazed at how much knowledge had been collected. I applied for a job and started working as an assistant to the research technician I saw that day that spring. I spent the next three summers working for the lab of Dr. Gene Robinson and learning as much as I could.” (Note: Access this YouTube video to hear Gene Robinson speak on " Me to We: Using Honey Bees to Find the Genetic Roots of Social Life" at the Feb. 22, 2016 UC Davis Chancellor's Distinguished Speakers' Colloquium.)
Charley went on to spend eight years in Illinois working with the bees—three as an undergraduate assistant and five years as the facility manager and research technician. He joined UC Davis in December 2015.
“Adapting to the California ecosystem has been a bit of an adjustment,” Nye said. “A big part of beekeeping is understanding the ecosystem you live in. If you've got a bee yard that doesn't have a water source close, you may need to move water in during dry periods. Different flowers provide nectar and pollen at varying quantities, so being aware of what's going on in the environment can give you some insight into whether or not you might need to assist your bees with some sugar to make it until the next bloom. That has honestly been my favorite part of moving here, learning about all the trees and shrubs and wildflowers and when they bloom. It's a constant process through the year, and being my first year here it's been really enjoyable to watch the seasons progress."
"I think the general public's knowledge of bees has made amazing advances in recent years. The shortage of bees for agricultural purposes here in the Central Valley really brought beekeeping into the news, followed by a lot of documentaries and things that made people want to be beekeepers or at least plant pollinator friendly gardens. Lots of people bring up beekeeping documentaries they've seen, and I don't think beekeepers were experiencing that 20 years ago. Overall, I'm mostly impressed with the amount of bee related knowledge out in the world right now.
Myths and misconceptions about bees? Often people associate bees with stinging, and falsely claim they have an allergy. “I've been doing this long enough that I don't laugh at people when they tell me they are allergic, but I think people don't completely understand what allergic means,” he said. “Only one or two people out of 1000 are actually allergic and have a life threatening reaction--most people just experience pain and swelling. I try to point out to people that when it hurts and makes their hand swell up, that might not mean they have a bee allergy, but most of the time I just nod my head and move on. I worked a booth at a local fair and half my conversations were people telling me they were allergic because it hurt. I get stung every day, and I can attest that at no point does it stop hurting.”
Nye divides his time with the labs of Extension apiculturist Elina Niño, pollination ecologist Neal Williams, and Brian Johnson, who studies the behavior, evolution and genetics of honey bees. “My responsibilities are pretty spread out,” he said. “The majority of my time is spent keeping the bees healthy enough for experiments.” In peak season, “it's pretty common to just have a few weeks' notice that we need any number of healthy full sized colonies, and like other animals, you can't grow a calf to a full sized cow with any magic tricks, so we try to buffer that by keeping a tight schedule for disease monitoring and making sure all our colonies are as robust as possible.”
What does he like the best about his job? The least?
"My job has a great balance between working out in a natural setting going through bee hives, and coming back to the lab and getting involved in research," he said. "I think doing either one of them by themselves would get a little tedious for me, so I feel really lucky to be able to split myself between the two. The least? It might be kind of a strange complaint, but foxtails. I spend a lot of time walking through tall grass and those foxtails burrow into my shoes and make me crazy. And I'm told I have to worry about them going up my dog's nose? I would say it's an urban myth but the seeds ability to get into my shoe and under my sock is practically magic."
(Editor's Note: Here's a list of the 2017 apiculture courses that the E. L. Niño lab is teaching; registration is now underway.)
"Here's what I know about honeybees," she began. "They are more complicated to care for than chickens. Inside the hive, the characters are more complex than inside the coop. Four years into a dream come true, and I've still got to learn about the most important pollinators of plants: the bee."
A colleague and friend, Georgeanne Brennan, inspired her to keep bees. "Her large, year-round kitchen garden, as well as her fruit trees and the orchards surrounding the area where she lives, provide a diverse diet ofr the bees," Evans wrote.
Evans traces her initial interest in bees to the UC Davis bee biology program. While a student majoring in consumer food science, she learned of Professor Harry H. Laidlaw Jr., the widely acclaimed "father of honey bee genetics" working the bees at a facility on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus. Today the facility, operated by the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, memorializes him: the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility.
Still connected to her alma mater, Evans serves on the advisory board of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center. Besides her bee veil, she wears many other hats: author, writer, illustrator, gardener, backyard chicken raiser, and consumer food advocate.
This is how it all began.
At a garage sale.
Evans says she bought her beekeeping essentials at a garage sale--well, all the essentials except for the hives and bees. That would come later. Her neighbor, Steve, a longtime beekeeper (and "chicken keeper") proposed they keep bees together.
"We started with one hive," she recalled. "Our queen, who at one point we thought we lost, was hard to spot--the drones easy. They are larger than workers and raised in the larger cells...The hive is about 90 percent female, with one queen..."
The first bee book she read was The Backyard Beekeeper, authored by Kim Flottum, editor of the Bee Culture magazine. More books followed and the book of one is now a library of many.
Evans marvels at the intricate societal structure of the 20,000 to 60,000 bees in any given hive, and the incredible distance the worker bees travel to gather pollen and nectar: up to five miles. The queen especially draws her interest.
"I take heart knowing that the queen, but for her maiden flight, lives her whole life inside the darkness of the hive," she wrote in Confessions of a Backyard Beekeeper. "I still feel I know so little of their ancient ways, their highly ordered, female-controlled society. Sometimes at night, I walk outside under the stars and put my head to the hive to hear the sound of wings at work, and a dream come true."
Keeping bees is definitely addictive as Evans confirms. "Do I keep bees," she asks, "or do they keep me?"
Evans' piece is one of 36 in the book. It's edited by Ipinion Syndicate founders Debra DeAngelo, editor of the Winters Express, and David Lacy, assistant professor of English at Folsom Lake College and a former Davis Enterprise reporter.
Most of the authors wrote about cats and dogs, drawing readers in with their heartfelt stories mixed with humor and pain. Others wrote about horses, pigs, hens, squirrels, hamsters and finches. (Yours truly wrote about Xena the Warrior Princess, a tuxedo cat with a "foot in the bug world": a leg with a mark resembling a butterfly.)
DeAngelo and Lacy describe the book on Amazon as "heart-warming anthology about pets — cats and dogs, hamsters and horses — and the humor, healing and heartbreak they bring into our lives. They make us laugh, cry, and sometimes swear, but we couldn't live without them... even though, sadly, sometimes we discover we must. Each story is written by an iPinion Syndicate columnist or blogger, each one with a unique voice and message about life with her or his beloved pet or animals in their lives."
DeAngelo, interviewed recently by reporter Tanya Perez of the Davis Enterprise, said that "IPinion doesn't make an income by advertising." The site, http://ipinionsyndicate.com, is an advertising-free website. "We're trying to figure out how to support our project in a more fun and positive way,” DeAngelo said, calling the book “a perfect holiday gift, a perfect stocking-stuffer.”
Plans are now underway for book reading/signing from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 3 at The Avid Reader, 617 Second St., Davis. The book can be purchased on Amazon and at the book store and signing.
(Note: Interested in learning beekeeping or advancing your apiculture skills? Extension apiculturist Elina Niño of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, has announced the 2017 list of beekeeping courses at the Laidlaw facility.)
For the past three decades, woolly bear caterpillars have accurately predicted a Republican or Democrat win in the U.S. Presidential elections.
This year, despite the pollsters, pundits and political fervor, the woollies again successfully predicted the outcome.
Just as noted UC Davis ecologist Richard “Rick” Karban and his lab prognosticated.
Karban and his fifth-year doctoral student, Eric LoPresti, study the woolly bear caterpillars, which populate the cliffs of the Bodega Marine Reserve, above the Bodega Marine Laboratory, Sonoma County. The fuzzy reddish-black caterpillars, which feed primarily on lupine, are the immature form of the Ranchman's Tiger Moth, Platyprepia virginalis.
Sometimes the population booms; other times, it's a bust, said Karban, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In their 30-year census of the same lupine patch, they noticed that when the population thrives, a Democrat heads to the White House. When the population dives, the Republicans take over.
And why not? “Paul the Octopus had a pretty good run predicting soccer matches in 2012, so perhaps the woolly bears have earned as much credibility at forecasting this presidential election,” Karban said last May.
Although most polls forecast a Democratic win, the UC Davis Woolly Bear Presidential Election Outlook did not.
However, they are not all that pleased with the outcome. “We're kind of bummed,” Karban said. “We didn't want to believe that the woolly bears were predicting a red outcome.”
The scientists, who study insect-plant interactions, first announced their presidential outcome predictions in a poster displayed at the 2014 Ecology Society of America meeting, held in Sacramento. Then this year, on April 25, they expanded on the concept, complete with intricate charts plotted in red and blue, in LoPresti's Natural Musings blog, “The Woolly Bear Presidential Election Outlook 2016,” co-written by scientists in the Karban lab.
“Each March, Karban censuses the same patches of lupine that he has for over 30 years,” LoPresti explained in Natural Musings. “The study asks a vexing question: Why are there are so many caterpillars in some years and so few in others? Many insects, including pests cycle like this, therefore it is of keen interest to many. Dozens of papers later, Karban, his students, and his collaborators have answered a great many questions, including how caterpillars deal with parasites, whether population cycles are influenced by rain, whether caterpillars enjoy eating plant hairs, and how caterpillars avoid their predators.”
The woolly bears, as presidential forecasters, drew national attention. Washington Post reporter Karin Bruilliard ran with it in a piece published April 26: “These Fuzzy Little Caterpillars Are Better at Predicting Elections Than Most Pundits.”
“Who's going to win the presidential election?” Bruilliard asked. “Heck if we know. Try to answer that question without a crystal ball and you'll run head-on into a dizzying array of national polls and state polls, fundraising tables and delegate counts, endorsements and prediction markets.”
LoPresti posted in his Natural Musings blog on April 25 that the woollies “seem to be leaning Republican.”
“Given their (pollsters') wildly erroneous predictions thus far for both primaries, trusting their predictions for the general election seems ill-advised,” LoPresti wrote. “The woolly bears, on the other hand, have a 100% accurate prediction record over the past 30 years. In years of low abundance, a Republican is elected, and in years of high abundance, a Democrat.”
“A superficial examination suggests that 2016 will be a Republican year – woolly bear abundance is not particularly high,” LoPresti noted. “However, looking a little closer, it may not be. The number of woolly bears per lupine bush in 2016 (0.53) is higher than the average Republican year by 152% and is 36% above the highest Republican year ever recorded (1988). However, it is only 27% of an average Democratic year and still only 36% of the lowest Democratic year (2008). This result is without presidential precedent in the last 30 years.”
What about the next presidential election, now that Vice President Joe Biden has indicated he might run?
“The woolly bears have not weighed in on Joe Biden,” Karban said.
Karban, internationally known for his work on plant communication, is the author of the book, Plant Sensing and Communication (University of Chicago Press), hailed as a landmark in its field. He has researched plant communication in sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) on the east side of the Sierra since 1995.
Plants can eavesdrop, sense danger in the environment, and can distinguish friend from foe, Karban says. A plant under a predatory attack will emit volatile chemical cues, enabling its neighboring plants to adjust their defenses to better protect themselves.
Karban is featured in the Dec. 23-30, 2013 edition of The New Yorker in Michael Pollan's piece, “The Intelligent Plant: Scientists Debate a New Way of Understanding Plants."
Specifically, California bees and blooms.
Even more specifically, undomesticated bees (that is, not honey bees).
Did you know that:
- Of the 4000 undomesticated bee species in the United States, some 1600 species are found in California?
- Seventy percent of bees nest in the ground, and 30 percent in pre-existing cavities?
Like honey bees, native bees are declining due to pesticides, habitat destruction and fragmentation, global climate change, drought and other extreme weather events, and lack of nutrition.
Native pollinator specialist Thorp, a Bohart Museum associate, is a distinguished emeritus professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology and also the co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University Press). He retired in 1994 after 30 years of teaching, research and mentoring graduate students but continues his research on pollination biology and ecology, systematics, biodiversity, and conservation of bees, especially bumble bees. Among his special interests: native bees of the vernal pool ecosystem.He maintains his office in the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus.
Native bee expert Frankie is a professor and research entomologist at UC Berkeley. His specialty is behavioral ecology of solitary bees in wildland, agricultural, and urban environments of California and Costa Rica. More information on his projects can be found at www.helpabee.org. See also the Bay Nature interview.
Coville, who holds a doctorate in entomology from UC Berkeley, is a noted insect and spider photographer. Check out the photos on his website. Coville also has a strong interest in the biology and behavior of Hymenoptera and has published papers on Trypoxylon wasps and Centris bees.
Ertter is curator of Western North American Botany at the University and Jepson Herbaria, UC Berkeley. Primary research interests include western floristics (including the East Bay), systematics of several members of the rose family (that is,, Potentilla, Ivesia, Rosa), and the history of western botany.
California Bees and Blooms showcases 22 of the most common genera (and six species of cuckoo bees). You can learn about their distinctive behavior, social structure, flight season, preferred flowers (there are more than 6500 flowering species or angiosperms in California), and enemies, such as praying mantids.
The some 200 photos in the book will help you identify native bees, such as the bumble bee and carpenter bee below. We found these foraging in our backyard pollinator garden.
All summer and into fall, we spotted the familiar reddish, black and white bugs scurrying around on our showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, and tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica.
Showy bugs on showy milkweed.
The ones we saw: the Small Milkweed Bug, Lygaeus kalmii. Like its name implies, it's small, about half an inch long.
They're primarily seed eaters, but they're opportunistic and generalists, says insect migration biologist Hugh Dingle, emeritus professor of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, author of the popular textbook, Animal Migration: the Biology of Life on the Move. "They'll get protein from wherever they can find it," he said. Dingle, whose research includes migratory monarchs, said the milkweed bugs not only eat seeds, but they also eat monarch eggs and larvae and the immature stages of other butterflies. Forever the opportunists, they eat other small bugs as well--if the opportunity arises. And they feed on nectar, too.
Some scientists have seen them feeding on insects trapped in the sticky pollen of the showy milkweed.
The bugs, it seem, have few predators. They feed on the toxic milkweed, which makes them distasteful to predators, prey to avoid. Their warning colors (red and black) strike home that fact.
In the fall, as the seed pods burst open, it's a horticulture/culinary war between the milkweed growers and the milkweed bugs. Both want the seeds: the humans to plant them and the bugs to eat them.
(Note: Research shows that the milkweed bug also feeds on other plants. Read about the opportunist Small Milkweed Bug in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society.)