Paper Wasps: Your New BFFs

img_0018

We don’t spend nearly enough time admiring the works of nature, because we are too busy admiring ourselves. Sure, humans invented smartphones, but what is a smartphone compared to an acorn? The thing is, the more you learn about nature, the more you learn about it, the more it blows your mind.

All this summer I’ve been fascinated with Polistes dominula, the European paper wasp. In North America there is a native paper wasp, which is quite similar, but the non-native European variant is more the wasp you will  likely be dealing with in urban/suburban North America, because unlike their native counterparts, Euro wasps aren’t shy. They are the ones who will build a nest by your back door, or on the side of your mailbox. Paper wasps build those distinctive, easy to recognize papery nests made of many cells. There are other types of native wasps which build with different materials, such as mud. Honeybee colonies, of course, are made of wax, and in cold climates you’ll never see those just hanging out in the open air. Honeybees like to build inside cavities.

Polistes dominula really like our front porch, and every year we host a colony out there. The nest rarely exceeds the size of a tennis ball. This year, though, it is more than twice that size. This is our fault. We did not knock down the previous year’s empty nest, so they were able to reuse it and get a real jump start in terms of colony size. (Generally they don’t like to reuse nests, but can do so– in this case the queen started a new nest next to the old nest and annexed it as she built).

img_7454So the population of wasps is accordingly quite large, and perhaps a bit worrisome to visitors, who make it up our stairs only to be confronted with a large wasp nest by the door. Yet we have not had any bad encounters with our waspish neighbors. In fact, we’ve never had a single problem with our porch wasps ever, not one sting, despite the fact the like to nest a couple feet from our front door, despite the fact I hang laundry all around them, despite the fact that Erik’s favorite chair is just beneath them

They truly are peaceable creatures, which is why it saddens me when I hear that someone panicking about a wasp nest, calling the exterminator or heading off to the big box store for a can of poison. When I hear about this, I always want to bring up a few points:

  1. Paper wasps are, as I’ve said, peaceable unless their nest is disturbed. The process of trying to get rid of them is what makes them ornery.
  2. They should not be confused with yellow jackets, those reviled picnic crashers who are attracted to meat and like to hang out on the lips of your soda can. Those guys live in underground nests. Your resident paper wasps will not hassle you if you’re doing backyard grilling or enjoying lemonade on the porch. They don’t like our food.
  3. Wasps are seasonal creatures. They build their nests in the spring and the colony disperses in the fall. You can solve your wasp “problem” by simply waiting it out. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you! Wait til they die off in the fall, knock the old nest down, and next spring, keep your eye out for any single wasps trying to establish nests in your space. That would be a queen trying to start a new colony. It is a lot easier to discourage a single wasp than to wait and deal with a full populated nest. But I never discourage them, because…
  4. Wasps are a gardener’s best friend! Sure, ladybugs are cute and all, but wasps are stone cold killers working for your benefit, like your own army of mini Dexters. Their favorite prey is caterpillars, e.g. your arch enemies the cabbage lopers and hornworms, but they are also fond of aphids. They swoop down on garden pests like tiny eagles–or flying monkeys–or homicidal Amazon drones– and drag their ravaged bodies back to the nest to the nest to feed their babies. Only the larvae are carnivorous. The adults live on nectar, so wasps are both pest hunters AND valuable pollinators. You want a healthy garden? Host a paper wasp colony.

These are my arguments for adopting a tolerant attitude for paper wasps around your house. Here are some more cool things to know about them:

Only fertile queens survive the winter. The rest of the colony disperses and dies. The fertile queens mate one last time in the fall, and then find some little nook in which to hibernate over the winter (this is amazing to me and I haven’t found any details about it yet.)  In the early spring she emerges and builds a tiny nest, like maybe six cells, to generate a first generation of workers to help her out.

These workers are female, as with the bees, and as soon as they hatch they get to work on enlarging the nest and feeding and tending the next generation of workers. So when you look at a paper wasp nest, this is what they are doing. The wasp nest is a fairly mellow place compared to the extremely crowded, restless interior of the honeybee hive. If you watch a wasp nest, mostly they just seem to be hanging out there, while a few come and go. What they are actually doing, as far as I can figure, is slowly masticating wood pulp to make new cells, or stuffing caterpillars down larvae mouths.  They are daylight creatures, so during the day the nest will only have a few wasps on it, whereas in the evening they will all come home and every inch will be covered with huddled bodies.

I’d love to take a closer look at all this, but as mellow as our relationship might be, I’m not sticking my nose inches from their nest! Someday, though, maybe we can set up a spy camera.

Here is one of those jaw dropping natural science facts: wasps choose the destiny of the developing larvae in the nest– whether will they be workers or “founders” — that is, fertile wasps. They influence this by vibration, by drumming with their antennae. These vibrations alter the gene expression of the larvae, pushing them one way or the other.

If I’ve got my facts right, the males are produced only with the purpose of breeding–like honeybee drones, they do not work. The wasp queen is mobile, so she can choose to mate with males in her own nest, or to go out on the town looking for love– and more often she chooses non-nestmates. Which I understand, because more than likely their nestmates leave the toilet seat up all the time.  Freewheeling males attract fertile queens by staking out key landmarks, such as trees, and marking the leaves and stems with scent. I believe they prefer Drakkar Noir.

I’m feeling a little bittersweet, sitting on the couch, admiring our wasps and knowing that their days are numbered by winter–even a winter as insubstatial as the one we have here in LA. The other day something unusual happened at the nest: suddenly, most of them were airborne and swirling in circles around our porch. This is something I’ve never seen before. I only noticed because I heard the “tip-tap” of wasp bodies hitting the glass of our front door. At first I thought they might have been attacked by a bird or something, and were all riled up, but after watching for a while, I realized they didn’t seem angry, and in fact, it reminded me of something the honeybees do called orientation. Whenever a new batch of workers is hatched in a hive, they all flow out of the hive and circle around it in a big cloud for a few minutes. They are learning how to recognize the hive so they can locate it when they go out in the world. It looks crazy for a couple of minutes, and then ends as abruptly as it started. It was the same case with the wasps– the party (?) lasted for only 15 minutes or so, but was pretty impressive while it lasted. I imagined it might terrify some folks, who would assume the wasps were swarming and up to no good. I wondered if perhaps they’d just hatched their batch of males for their fall mating, the last party of the year. Maybe those males were orienting, or maybe they were all dancing their last, joyous dance before the quiet of winter sends them all to sleep.

For a complete run down of the wasp life-cycle, the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web provides a really detailed read.

Peter and the Farm

We haven’t seen this very “red in tooth and claw” documentary yet but, ladies and gentleman, this is how you do a trailer! From the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s synopsis of Peter and the Farm,

Peter Dunning is a rugged individualist in the extreme, a hard-drinking loner and former artist who has burned bridges with his wives and children and whose only company, even on harsh winter nights, are the sheep, cows, and pigs he tends on his Vermont farm. Peter is also one of the most complicated, sympathetic documentary subjects to come along in some time, a product of the 1960s counterculture whose poetic idealism has since soured. For all his candor, he slips into drunken self-destructive habits, cursing the splendors of a pastoral landscape that he has spent decades nurturing. Imbued with an aching tenderness, Tony Stone’s documentary is both haunting and heartbreaking, a mosaic of its singular subject’s transitory memories and reflections—however funny, tragic, or angry they may be.

Peter and the Farm will be in theaters and available on demand through Amazon Video and iTunes starting November 4th. More info here.

Varroa Mites: No-Treatment is the Best Treatment

Drone pupae with varroa mites. Image: Wikipedia.

Drone pupae with varroa mites. Image: Wikipedia.

The narrative in the mainstream press about beekeeping tends to be about brave and environmentally conscious beekeepers fighting the scourge of big ag’s pesticides. But the truth is far messier. Step into the world of beekeeping and what you’ll find is a swarm of acrimonious finger pointing and a heavy reliance, by conventional beekeepers, on pesticides. Why would beekeepers use pesticides? Varroa mites.

The varroa mite is a tiny blood sucking parasite that hops on individual bees and infests whole colonies. Originally from Java, varroa first appeared in the United States in 1987. By far the number one topic at any conventional beekeeping conference is the varroa mite. My beekeeping mentor Kirk Anderson likes to quip that the singular obsession with varroa is “like going to dog show where everyone only talks about fleas.”

One of the controversial aspects of what’s come to be called “backwards” (named after an essay by Charles Martin Simon and taught by Anderson) beekeeping has been two practices: keeping feral bees for their believed varroa resistance and not treating bees in order to favor stronger colonies.

Let’s first define what a “feral” bee is. Honey bees are not native to the Americas. They were, most likely, brought here by the Spanish. Since that introduction, some honey bees escaped tended apiaries and took up residence in forests and cities where they have lived, happily, for centuries without much human intervention. To clarify, when I say “feral” bees I mean untended honey bees (Apis mellifera) not any of the 4,000 species of native bees in North America such as carpenter bees and bumblebees.

Most conventional beekeepers buy or breed their own colonies and queens. Backwards beekeepers collect swarms and remove and relocate feral colonies. When it comes to varroa mite these feral colonies have gone through a process of natural selection. When varroa arrived in the Americas, no doubt, many feral colonies died out. But the ones that had natural resistance survived. Over time feral colonies have developed hygiene practices that greatly reduce the varroa problem. They still have varroa, but they don’t succumb to it.

Most controversially, natural, backwards beekeepers such as myself do not treat our bees for mites, believing that such treatment interferes with the microbiome of the colony and leads to bees that lack natural resistance to varroa. No-treatment beekeepers don’t even use so-called “natural” treatments such as dusting with powdered sugar or essential oils.

A technological solution to varroa?
A recent article in Wired Magazine profiled Jerry Hayes, A Swarm of Controversy In Their Struggle for Survival Against Killer Mites, Bees Get an Unlikely Ally: Monsanto. Hayes was a state beekeeping inspector in Florida and an advice columnist in the American Bee Journal before taking a job with Monsanto. The article looks at Hayes’s work at Monsanto which uses RNA interference (RNAi) to target varroa. It’s easy to see why Hayes would be interested in RNAi technology. It has the potential to knock out varroa mite without the many problems of current miticides. Critics of RNAi, however, bring up the issue of risk management: the unintended consequences of using a novel technology such as RNAi. If something did go wrong it could go very wrong, what some scientists refer to as an “oops” moment.

The ideas in the article, like much science reporting in the mainstream press, suffer, in my opinion from what Nassim Taleb calls the “technological salvation fallacy,” the idea that solutions are always technological. It’s an approach that Taleb criticizes as “blind to risk.” It goes hand in hand with an 18th century Enlightenment narrative of continuous improvement that, I believe, is proving incredibly dangerous (see climate change, nuclear weapons, industrialized genocide etc.). To step out of this Hegelian view of history is, in our contemporary culture, to be a crank a description I’ve come to embrace.

My cranky advice for beekeepers
A prescient 1998 paper in the Journal California Agriculture predicted,

It is unlikely that European bees will evolve resistance [to varroa] because commercial beekeepers must treat their colonies with miticides to stay in business. Varroa eliminate feral European colonies that are then replaced either with AHB [Africanized honeybees] or with European colonies derived from nonresistant commercial colonies. In the end, AHB will spread to their ecological limits, wherever they may be.

The future predicted in that article has arrived. I have heard, from three sources in the natural beekeeping community, that conventional beekeepers are secretly buying feral AHB colonies and queens. The reason is simple. AHB colonies live with and don’t succumb to varroa because they were never treated for the problem.

My experience is limited to Southern California and I’ve only kept (well mannered) AHBs. But the no-treatment approach is not limited to AHB. Here’s what Michael Bush has to say about no-treatment beekeeping in an article on his website, Four simple steps to healthier bees,

What is the upside of not treating? You don’t have to buy the treatments. You don’t have to drive to the yard and put the treatments in and drive to the yard to take them out. You don’t have to contaminate your wax. You don’t upset the natural balance by killing off micro and macro organisms that you weren’t targeting but who are killed by the treatments anyway. That would seem like upside enough, but you also give the ecosystem of the bee hive a chance to find some natural balance again.

But the most obvious up side is that until you quit treating you can’t breed for survival against whatever your issues are. As long as you treat you prop up weak genetics and you can’t tell what weaknesses they have. As long as you treat you keep breeding weak bees and super mites. The sooner you stop, the sooner you start breeding mites adapted to their host and bees who can survive with them.

The treatment vs. no-treatment issue is so tribal in nature that, perhaps, we will have to wait for the pro-treatment technological salvationists to depart, along with Elon Musk, for those Martian colonies (good luck with that one guys) and leave us treatment-free beekeepers in peace on good old planet Earth.

The Great Beekeeping Debate

Jan-van-der-Straet_Bauerlicher-Bienenstand

Of all the subjects we cover on this blog none is as controversial as beekeeping. I think most outsiders would be surprised as just how testy things get when conventional and natural beekeepers bump into each other. It’s a debate every bit as heated as gun control or abortion.

The two sides are divided on a number of practices. Probably the most important is the issue of whether or not to treat bees for diseases and pests (most notably, varroa mites). Other issues include the use of foundation, keeping feral bees, re-queening and the type of bee housing. Even within each camp there’s a kind of spectrum between a hyper-interventionist stance and a hands-off approach. Some “natural” beekeepers treat their bees with essetial oils, for instance.

But I think the divide is more philosophical. It’s about systems thinking versus an overly reductionist stance. Reductionsim and systems thinking, in fact, can be complimentary. In science you take apart a problem to look at individual causes and effects. But you must, at some point, put those parts together to look at the whole. As the alchemical saying goes, “solve et coagula,” “dissolve and join together.” Reductionism is fine and useful. What’s not good is the arrogance that comes from thinking that since you understand part of the problem you understand the whole and can immediately start applying technological solutions. As Nassim Taleb has pointed out in his books The Black Swan and Anti-fragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, monkeying with complex systems from a point of ignorance leads to horrible, unintended consequences.

Take the issue of varroa mite treatments. Let’s say you test a miticide’s toxicity on bees. You expose the bees to the miticide. The mites die and the bees live. Success! But . . . the unforeseen. What if that treatment wreaks havoc on the microbiology of the hive? What about a chemical’s effect on the symbiotic relationships with those microorganisms and their bee hosts? What happens when the mites develop resistance to the miticide? What happens when propped-up weak bees swarm and establish themselves in the midst of a feral population? These are all difficult to understand long term questions that highlight the danger of moving quickly from an isolated study into an immediate application. Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has written and lectured extensively on these issues.

Natural and conventional beekeepers are also asking different questions. I’ll be frank. The California State Beekeeper’s Association meeting that I attended in 2015 left a very bad taste in my mouth. It really should have been called the Almond Pollinator’s Association meeting. It was all about facilitating the pollination of California’s unsustainable 1 million acres of almonds. Those million acres are pollinated by at least 1.7 million beehives that have to be trucked out of state every year once the almond pollination season is over. Speaker after speaker blamed natural beekeepers for their disease problems. Retired UC Davis bee expert Eric Mussen brought the ad hominem attacks to a fevered pitch by calling natural beekeepers, “hippies” and “bee-havers.” I haven’t heard “hippie” used this way since Spiro Agnew left this mortal coil. And Agnew would have been right at home with an organization that still has a ladies auxiliary in 2016 (in contrast to natural beekeeping organizations I’ve seen that are integrated and, in fact, made up of a solid majority of women).

The question of how we pollinate millions of acres of monocultured crops in different parts of the country is a different question than how to keep a few hives in a biodiverse urban area. To be fair, the first question is essential since it’s how we currently keep everyone fed. But much of the advice given to large scale beekeepers does not always apply to small scale backyard beekeepers.

The hubris can go both ways. Those of us on the natural beekeeping side can also think we understand the whole better than we do. We can fall into the same reductionist traps. Just because a mite treatment is “natural,” such as dousing a hive in essential oils, does not mean that it’s healthy for the bees. We also must not lose sight of the fact that we are in a relationship with honeybees that goes back many thousands of years. They aren’t exactly wild animals in most places and may depend, to varying degrees, on our support. Someday we might reach a kind of sweet spot between highly interventionist and low intervention beekeeping methods. My bet is that it’s on the low intervention side of the equation, but only time will tell.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Beware of Bee Removal Scams

banner-home-a
If you’ve got bees living in your wall you’ve got three options: leave them in place, call a beekeeper to remove them or an exterminator to kill them. The best choice is just to leave them in place as long as they aren’t bothering anyone. The second best choice is to call a beekeeper to open up the wall, remove the bee comb and bees and take them away. I did a post on how a bee removal like this is done.

I suspect most people reading this blog will not want to call an exterminator. On top of killing a living, sentient being, an exterminator will leave all the honey in the wall. The honey will attract pests and, possibly, drip through your wall or ceiling. Bees left in place will not let their honey drip or get robbed by mice.

Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot of fraudulent bee removal companies out there who promise “humane” removal but who actually just use chemical fumigants to force the bees to abscond. Colonies forced out this way are nearly certain to die. Having done a lot of cutouts it’s easy to see why fly by night companies do this. Proper bee removal is a lot of work and many property owners aren’t willing to pay what it’s worth do a bee removal properly.

If you need a bee removal service do not just Google “bee removal.” The same sort of scam going on with locksmiths is going on with bee removal services. A panicked homeowner with a bee situation makes an easy target. Bee removal scammers, just like the locksmith scammers, show up and start jacking up the price. Then they do substandard, possibly dangerous, work.

If you’ve got a bee problem look up your local beekeeping association or club and ask for a referral. If you’re an LA local you can contact HoneyLove or send me an email through this website. If you’re in my part of town and the work doesn’t involve ladders, I might be able to help.

Save