Award-winning journalist Hannah Nordhaus tells the story of migratory beekeeper John Miller of Gackle, N.D., who trucks his bees throughout much of the country to pollinate farmers' crops, including almonds in California.
She frames her story with interesting tidbits about bees, bee health, honey, research and beekeepers.
Nordhaus writes exceptionally well. Although not a beekeeper, she followed Miller around to his bee yards, beekeeping conferences and to his home in Gackle (which is about 100 miles from Bismarck).
Bees, she says, "are creatures of routine, sticklers for order. Their short lives revolve around tending and cleaning and feeding the queen and the young. Bees are single-minded. They do not ditch their queen just because they feel like it. They do not get restless and leave their young. They do not go on flights of fancy. They do not enroll in semesters abroad on a whim or grow dreadlocks or get tattoos or go on extended vacations. They do their jobs."
That's her marvelous lead-in for colony collapse disorder (CCD), the mysterious phenomenon characterized by adult bees abandoning the hive.
Nordhaus describes Miller as a guy who loves bees, spreadsheets, humor and his friends. He's descended from Nephi Ephraim Miller, a Mormon farmer known as "the father of migratory beekeeping" and the first beekeeper to produce "the nation's first million-pound crop of honey."
Miller maintains one of the biggest beekeeping operations in the country--although not quite as big as South Dakota's Richard Adee, who has 80,000 hives, Nordhaus says.
Born in 1954, Miller has a "Jimmy Stewart-like voice and an eternally bemused expression," Nordhaus writes. He doesn't cuss. He uses "cowboy words" (especially when he gets stung).
Other bee guys mentioned in her book include California queen producers Pat Heitkam of Orland and Bob and Bill Koehnen of C. H. Koehnen & Sons of Glenn. (Note: Students who enroll in bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey's annual instrumental insemination class at UC Davis visit these queen bee-breeding operations.)
Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. (1907-2003), also mentioned in The Beekeeper's Lament, was Cobey's mentor. The Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road at UC Davis bears his name.
Laidlaw is considered "the father of modern queen-rearing," Nordhaus points out. (Note: he's also considered "the father of bee genetics.")
"He (Laidlaw) was the pope to anybody that raises queens," Heitkam told her. "To have shaken his hand is an honor."
Nordhaus writes as if she's chatting with John Miller in his living room and we're listening in and don't want the conversation to end. We want to hear more about the bee folks, how they feel about their bees, and what they're doing to ward off pests, pesticides, diseases and the like.
Anyone who has ever opened a hive can identify with Nordhaus' comment: "Ask any beekeeper: bees are addictive--their purposefulness, their solidarity, their endless complexity. Miller loves nothing better than the sight of a teeming frame of bees, of sealed-up honeycombs and brood heady to hatch."
"Ah," he told Nordhaus, "that's prosperity right there."
Bee folks are like that.
She got it right.
There's nothing quite like a cone--no, not an ice cream cone.
A purple coneflower.
The purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea, family Asteraceae), looks like royalty in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven at the University of California, Davis.
The drought-tolerant plant is a favorite of not only gardeners, but honey bees, bumble bees and sweat bees.
The haven, a half-acre bee friendly garden planted next to the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, is open (free admission) from dusk to dawn. It's a year-around food source for honey bees, an educational experience for visitors, and a research garden.
Most folks who visit the garden vow "I'm going to plant those purple coneflowers in my garden."
If they do, it will be like royalty. The throne is where the honey bee sits. She's graced with yellow jewelry (pollen). As she moves, she wears a robe--a robe of petals.
There's nothing like a purple coneflower.
If you want to attract honey bees in your garden, you can't go wrong by planting catmint (genus Nepeta).
Honey bees like the mints. So do cabbage white butterflies, wool carder bees, carpenter bees and hover flies, among other insects.
Nepeta is easy to grow. It can tolerate drought, neglect and an occasional cat. The soft lavender flowers amid the gray-green foliage add a dreamy mood to the garden. Catmint is also a perfect hiding spot for spiders trying to grab dinner. Gardeners claim it's resistant to deer (that's why we have no deer!) and to rats. Don't know why rats avoid it, but it must have something to do with the cats!
A rather sluggish honey bee paused last weekend, long enough for us to capture a few images. Unlike the plant, she didn't appear to be in mint condition. She stood out, stood up, and slipped to the ground.
When you install bee condos--those wooden blocks with holes drilled in them to attract nesting native bees--sometimes you get the unexpected.
Home invasion! Home invasion!
We installed two bee condos, each about the size of a brick, in our yard. One is for leafcutting bees (genus Megachile) and is filled quite nicely, thank you, with 10 tenants. Another, with larger holes, is for blue orchard bees (BOBs, genus Osmia). Despite our "vacancy" sign (discounted rates, free WiFi, free continental breakfasts), nothing is occupying it except earwigs.
Earwigs! We're wigged out.
They were especially persistent in the damp weather.
Native bee guru Robbin Thorp, a native pollinator specialist and emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, who has researched native bee holes with colleagues John Barthell and Gordon Frankie, told us: "We found that mostly wasps and earwigs occupied the largest holes. Only a few of the introduced leafcutting bees that could not find appropriate size holes when bee populations were abnormally high would make aberrant nests in the larger cavities. By 1990, we scaled back to the three diameters that our bees use: 4.5, 6.5 and 8 mm (3/16, 1/4, and 5/16 inch) for our studies in California."
The earwigs, Thorp says, "are not so likely to be present now that the weather is hot and dry, but in shady, damp, cool areas, and especially early in the year when it is wet and cool, they can be a problem."
Their research, published in Environmental Entomology in 1998 and titled “Invader Effects in a Community of Cavity Nesting Megachilid Bees (Hymenoptera: Megachilidae)” involved native bee species and their introduced competitors.
In their paper, they wrote that the European earwig (Forficttla auricularia L) from Eurasia and northern Africa, was introduced into North America at the turn of the century. "It has invaded most counties in the state of California since its apparent introduction in the late 1910s (Essig 1923, Langston and Powel! 1975)," they wrote. "Its populations have grown to high numbers in natural areas, especially in riparian zones where humidity levels are relatively high (Barthel! and Stone 1995). The earwig is most active during evening hours, climbing into tree crowns to scavenge and hunt but hiding in cracks, crevices, or holes during the daylight hours."
Active indeed. Those European earwigs soon found our condo for BOBs (which perhaps should now mean Big ol' Blast).
What's a picnic without bugs? What's a county fair without bugs?
If you meander through McCormack Hall at the Solano County Fair, Vallejo, you'll see plenty of insects. The Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis is staffing a table of "Meet Your Local Pollinators," including butterflies, bees and bee mimics. Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator at the Bohart Museum (home of seven million insect specimens) also brought along honey bee photos, posters and other information from the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Department of Entomology.
The museum specimens include two "oh-my!" drawers (that's what people say when they see these fascinating displays); a collection of native bees from UC Davis graduate student Emily Bzdyk; and California butterflies. Accompanying the display is a framed poster of California's state insect, the California dogface butterfly, the project and design of Fran Keller, UC Davis doctoral candidate in entomology. Davis naturalist-photographer Greg Kareofelas scanned the butterfly images.
But be sure to look on the walls where young photographers and graphic artists are displaying their blue-ribbon work. You'll see honey bees, dragonflies, butterflies and other insects. Future entomologists, perhaps?
A three-year-old named Nicholas Razo of Dixon created a colorful paper butterfly, the kind that UC Davis butterfly expert Art Shapiro probably would like to see in real life. Young Nicholas may give Professor Shapiro some competition in a few years.
The fair, which opened today (Aug. 3) and continues through Aug. 7, is themed "There's No Place Like Home."
There's no place like home for us--and the insects who populate the earth.