The things we overlook are the things we should look for.
Take mustard and honey bees.
You've seen mustard thriving in fields, but have you ever considered planting some seeds from a nursery in your garden so honey bees will have something to eat in early spring? (And then, of course, replacing the mustard with other plants so the mustard does not go to seed? The soil also benefits.)
We've been planting mustard now for several years, and it's a joy to watch the bees foraging, flying and gathering pollen and nectar. Sometimes they'll stop in mid-air to clean their tongues.
"The importance of pollen to the health and vigor of the honey bee colony cannot be overstated," writes Norman Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, in his book, Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees. "Honey bees need a balanced diet. Honey satisfies the bees' carbohydrates requirements, while all of the other nutrients--minerals, proteins, vitamins and fatty substances--are derived from pollen. Nurse bees consume large amounts of pollen, converting it into nutritious secretions that are fed to developing larvae. During an entire year, a typical bee colony gathers and consumes around 72 pounds of pollen."
"Pollen in the plant world is the equivalent of sperm in the animal world," Gary continues. "Fertilization and growth of seeds depend upon the transfer of pollen from the male flower parts (anthers) to the receptive female parts (stigma)."
Yes, airborne pollen causes most human allergies, Gary acknowledges.
But for us, watching the bees go airborne with a load of pollen is a treat, a treasure and a tribute to their industrious bee-ings.
The three "F's" win hands-down: family, friends and food.
But "insects" should definitely added to that list. They are among the tiniest of critters on this planet, but think of their importance in our lives and in our ecosystems.
As British entomologist-zoologist George McGavin, author, academician, explorer and television presenter wrote in an article published in 2004 in The Guardian: "They are the most successful multi-cellular life form on the planet...Insects have endured for hundreds of millions of years. They have survived the numerous global upheavals and catastrophes that spelled the end for much greater and grander creatures and they will continue to be a major part of the Earth's fauna for many more millennia."
McGavin, an honorary research associate at both the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Oxford Department of Zoology, points out that insects are "the food of the world."
"Most of the higher animal species on Earth eat insect--they are the food of the world," he writes in his piece on Why I Love Insects. "All of the blue tit chicks in the British Isles alone consume 35bn caterpillars before they become adult. A single pipistrelle bat, the smallest bat species in the UK, has to eat between 2,000 and 3,000 insects most nights to stay alive."
McGavin also emphasizes the importance of pollinators and recyclers, that "we depend on bees for perhaps as much as a third of the food we eat....As recyclers, flies and beetles devour carcasses and clear prodigious quantities of dung every day."
We met George McGavin in July 2012 at a sunflower field in Winters. He and his crew were there to film a documentary on ultimate swarms, featuring Norm Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis. Gary, an author, scientist and now a retired professional bee wrangler, clued him in on bee behavior.
Like many scientists, McGavin loves to share his enthusiasm for insects, something we all need to appreciate more and to support as much as we can. For example, the Entomological Society of America launched a Chrysalis Fund to bring insect education into the classroom. According to the website, it's "supported by donors dedicated to the mission of enhancing insect education for K-12 students. Teachers and educators with creative ideas for insect-themed programs or projects are encouraged to apply for funding." (On a side note, UC Davis distinguished professor Walter Leal donated his $1000 honorarium from the recent ESA Founders' Memorial Award Lecture to the Chrysalis Fund. See YouTube video.)
So, what are we thankful for? Family, friends and food, for sure.
And the list also includes...insects.
Today is Labor Day 2019, a federal holiday celebrated the first Monday of September.
However, "the girls" are working, as they do every day of the year, weather permitting.
"The girls" are the worker honey bees.
Unless you keep bees or have access to a hive, you mostly see them foraging. But inside the hive, they are also nurse maids, nannies, royal attendants, builders, architects, dancers, honey tenders, pollen packers, propolis or "glue" specialists, air conditioning and heating technicians, guards, and undertakers.
They ensure the survival of the hive, but their life span is short.
"Worker bees live for approximately five to six weeks in the spring and summer," writes author and retired bee scientist and bee wrangler Norman Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, in his book, Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees."Those reared in the fall live for several months--long enough for the colony to survive the winter--and are replaced by young bees in late winter or early spring."
In peak season, a honey bee queen can lay 1500 to 2000 eggs a day, and most of them will be worker bees, the most needed of the three castes (queen, drone and worker) in the hive. Although the smallest, but they do most of the work. The queen is the egg layer. The drone's role is strictly reproduction.
Worker bees forage within four to five miles of their hive. If you provide no nectar or pollen sources in your yard, they'll go elsewhere.
Theirs is a dangerous occupation. No thanks to predators (such as birds, praying mantids and spiders) and pesticides, many do not return home at night.
Like to photograph them? Try the "magic hour," which occurs about an hour before the sun sets. We love photographing them on Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia). The light is soft, warm and welcoming.
(Editor's Note: Interested in becoming a beekeeper or learning more about beekeeping? Be sure to check out the UC Davis-based California Master Beekeeper Program, directed by Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. The next course is on managing varroa mites, a major pest.)
The phrase "can't cut the mustard" (not able to handle the job) doesn't apply to honey bees. It's spring and honey bees are emerging en force from their hives to collect nectar and pollen to feed their colonies.
The fields are awash with mustard.
By the way, O. Henry, in his collection of short stories, The Heart of the West, was apparently the first known person to use the phrase, "Cut the mustard." He wrote: "I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard."
Today we hear the more negative version, "can't cut the mustard."
Meanwhile, it's a joy to see a bee swathed in gold dust from the mustard. In doing so, our bee is akin to the kid with a milk mustache. Life is good!
"The importance of pollen to the health and vigor of the honey bee colony cannot be overstated," UC Davis emeritus professor and retired bee wrangler Norman Gary writes in the newly published second edition of his book, The Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees. "Bees need a balanced diet. Honey satisfies the bees' carbohydrate requirements, while all of the other nutrients--minerals, proteins, vitamins and fatty substances--are derived from pollen. Nurse bees consume large amounts of pollen, converting it into nutritious secretions that are fed to developing larvae. During an entire year a typical bee colony gathers and consumes around 71 pounds (35 kg) of pollen."
The next time you see honey bees collecting pollen, think of a colony gathering 71 pounds of pollen a year!
When folks hear about the 70-year beekeeping/bee wrangling career of 85-year-old apiculturist Norman Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at the University of Davis, they ask:
"How many times have you been stung?"
Let's see, can you guess?
Gary, internationally known as "The Bee Man," began keeping bees at age 15 in Florida. His career includes hobby beekeeper, commercial beekeeper, deputy apiary inspector in New York, honey bee research scientist, entomology professor, author, bee wrangler and Guinness World record holder.
He once trained bees to fly into his mouth to collect food from a small sponge saturated with artificial nectar. His holds the Guinness World record (109 bees inside his closed mouth for 10 seconds) for the stunt. He's also the person behind the "bee suit" record in the Guinness World Records; Gary clustered more than 87 pounds of bees on a friend.
So, how many times has he been stung?
"I didn't keep records, of course," the Sacramento-area resident understandably points out. "Many thousands for sure! I was probably stung over a thousand times during one summer as an apiary inspector in New York state. We didn't wear gloves."
"People don't understand that a sting is not very significant if you remove the stinger within several seconds before much venom is injected," he says. "So we worked fast and took chances that resulted in more stings but we didn't mind that much because we developed a strong tolerance, without significant reactions, and removed the stings instantly."
"During my long career, I manipulated much greater numbers of colonies more frequently than most bee researchers because my research was field-oriented. So several hundred stings per year for 70 years is a lot of stings. My guess is that the total number of stings would be around 20,000. Unfortunately the sting number estimates were greatly exaggerated during some of my TV shows. But that is show biz!"
Gary, author of the newly published Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees, second edition, writes in his book that "most people have an exaggerated sense of dread concerning bee stings due to a wealth of misleading negative information in the media."
Bees are defensive, not aggressive, he says. "Defensive behavior happens only when you are very close to the hive. Bees foraging on flowers or collecting water certainly have the ability to sting, yet they behave as if hey are totally defensiveless. They will fly away in response to the slightest disturbance. Remember, a bee that has stung dies within a few seconds and the colony benefits only if this sacrifice is made in defense of the colony."
Gary, who holds a doctorate in entomology from Cornell University, joined the UC Davis entomology faculty in 1962, retiring in 1994 after a 32-year academic career. He has authored more than 100 publications, including scientific papers, book chapters and popular articles in beekeeping trade journals. During his professional bee wrangling career spanning four decades, “The Bee Man” served as a consultant and bee stunt coordinator for 17 movies, 70 TV shows and six TV commercials. Among his credits: the movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes” and TV appearances with Johnny Carson and Jay Leno.
In his book, Gary covers activities inside and outside the hive, reproduction, management of colonies, honey and other products, urban beekeeping, beekeeper education (he mentions the UC Davis-based California Master Beekeeper Program), and entertaining with bees, among other topics.
That's in addition to colony defense and sting prevention. "The Bee Man" zeroes in on stinging behavior, getting stung, minimizing the effects of stings, reactions to stings, and why bees sting.
Why do they sting? "Defensive behavior is necessary for their survival, to protect the colony and the stored honey and pollen."