Meet the drones

Action shot! Check out those huge, beautiful eyes

I found this drone scrambling around on the ground in our yard. I don’t know why he was there. Perhaps he was all worn out from nightclubbing. Perhaps the ladies in his hive had booted him out. It’s hard to say. But I enjoyed taking a close at him, to appreciate the difference between him and his sisters, the worker bees, first hand.

Worker–Queen–Drone

Drones are longer than the workers, and a lot thicker through the body. Not so large that they’d be mistaken for bumble bees, but they’re definitely big, husky boys. The queen is longer than a drone, but much more slender–and anyway, unless you happen to catch her mating flight, you’ll never see a queen out and about. So if you spot an extra-large honey bee, it’s a drone.

The other dead giveaway for drones is their huge, shining eyes. Drones have one function only: to mate with a virgin queen. Should one come by. And should they be able to catch her. So they have to be on constant lookout, and moreover, they have to be looking up at all times, because she won’t be stretched out on a lounge chair, waiting for him to bring her a cocktail. She’ll be flying super-high up. He needs those huge eyes to spot her.

(As an aside, I don’t know why drone has become a synonym for a mindless worker (e.g. office drones). Drone should be a synonym for a highly privileged but ultimately disposable male, a male who lives off the work of others, his sole function to continue his genetic line, i.e, an aristocrat. I read a P.G. Wodehouse novel in which a gentleman’s club–in the historical, English sense of the term, not the euphemistic strip-joint sense–was named the Drone’s Club. And that was the best use of drone I’ve yet encountered.)

The last thing–and the coolest thing–you should know about drones is that they don’t have stingers. They cannot sting. Or bite. Or even wound you with a sarcastic remark. They’re lovers, not fighters. So if you’ve always wanted to pet a bee, don’t be afraid to pick one up.

Erik has been reading up on the amazing, secret life of drones lately, and I hope he’ll post about that soon. It will blow your mind.

Thirsty bees

Did you know bees need to drink water? They seek out shallow water sources like puddles and bird baths.

Even if you don’t keep bees, you can help out our little pollinator friends (and a host of other wildlife) by keeping a bird bath or even just putting a saucer of fresh water out for them. You can do this even if you don’t have a yard–try keeping a saucer of water on, say, a balcony railing or in a window box.

If you keep it full, and in the same location, word will spread and the bees will come and belly up. It may take a couple of weeks for a worker to discover the water source, but once she does, she will take that information back to her hive and they will never forget where it is.

The benefit to you is that if bees are coming to drink in your yard, they’ll do you the return favor of pollinating your garden.

Bees are not known as good swimmers, so it really helps if you put a stone or something in your bird bath–even in a saucer–so they have somewhere safe to perch while they drink. We keep this odd calcified beach-thing in our bird bath. (Don’t worry, it’s not salty anymore.) The bees really dig the way the water rises up into the nooks and crannies.  I dare say our bath is one of the most popular bee bars in town.
One of the busiest bee hang outs we’ve ever seen is a piece of modern sculpture by Aristide Maillol at the Getty Center. It’s this massive marble block thing that is skinned with a continuous flow of water. On one nice spring day we watched as hundreds of bees used it as their drinking fountain. If you ever happen to go to the Getty, check it out. It’s down in the little garden at the base of the hill where the trams come and go. Nice to see modern sculpture is good for something. ;)

Bees: Shown to the Children

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Homegrown Neighbor lent us this beautiful little book. The author is Ellison Hawks (what a name!) and dates to 1912. This book is part of a series of books for kids on various natural history topics, all titled the same way (i.e. X: Shown to the Children). I’d love to see the whole collection.

Every time I read an old children’s book, I’m struck by the sophistication of the language and themes presented, and wonder why this has been lost, and then try not to despair for civilization. Take this passage about intruders to the hive, from the chapter called Workers in the City (in the book, the hive is conceptualized as a bee city). It’s poetic and morbid and violent fascinating–all things I would have loved as a child:

Sometimes a mouse or a snail enters the hive, and then indeed there is great excitement. Imagine a great elephant-like creature, thirty or forty feet high, with a tail thirty feet long, to come walking into one of our cities, and you will have some idea what it seems like to the bees when a mouse is foolish enough to poke its head in the hive! But the bees are not frightened; the guards are promptly called out, and the poor mouse is soon put to death by hundreds of stings. Having made sure that the intruder is quite dead, the bees leave his body to the scavengers, who are confronted with the problem of disposing of it. If it were left it would cause disease and pestilence throughout the city, and it is too big and heavy for them to move. It is true that they might bite it into tiny pieces and thus carry it outside the hive, but this would take too much of the bees’ valuable time. A better plan is thought of, and the body is soon covered over with a thin coating of wax. It is thus embalmed in a beautiful white tomb, which is made perfectly air tight. If the tomb is near to the door, and interferes with the passing in and out of the workers, tunnels are cut through it. Sometimes when we look inside a hive, we may see two or three of these little mounts of was, and we may be sure that each one is the grave of some intruder who had no right to be there.

Granted, I believe foreign bodies in the hive, such as mouse corpses, are actually covered with propolis, not wax, but I’m not going to hold it against the authors. First, I’m not sure if I’m right or not, and at any rate, the idea is the same, and very well described.

There’s so much good to say about this book. It’s illustrated with early photos, line drawings, and pretty full color illustrations. In somewhat more than 100 pages it covers bee anatomy, behavior, the process of collecting nectar, hive society, beekeeping basics and even includes a chapter on “The Ancients” which addresses the apparently long-lasting ancient supposition that bees are born from the rotting bodies of oxen (?!?). I’m wondering if that was more of a symbolic conceit, because surely the ancients were no dummies and could tell the difference between blowflies and bees. But it makes for colorful reading, and again, as a child, I would have been entranced. Even if I couldn’t understand half the words.

Turns out this book is hard to find in the US because it’s an UK title. There’s only one Amazon listing, and it’s $23, and a couple more expensive at Alibris, but lots of UK listings for less. We may have to begin direct negotiations with Homegrown Neighbor for this copy.

UPDATE: A reader wrote in to tell us the whole book is available online, for free, at the Hathi Trust Digital Library. So if you want you can jump over there and page through it. I’d checked Google books, and it’s not there. I’m glad to learn of Hathi. They’ve got three other books in the series, too, btw.

A Taste of Honey – Story from the BBC

Gentle readers,

Mrs. Homegrown here. When we renamed our blog Root Simple we were making a commitment to build a better blog. We don’t have the change all mapped out yet–we’re letting it evolve organically (how else?) but one thing we’ve known for a long time, and that is that we wanted to partner with Eric Thomason and Julia Posey from Ramshackle Solid. We’ve long admired their aesthetics, the grace with which they live simply, and the way they’re raising their boys: free and bold.

Don’t worry, Ramshackle Solid fans: they will continue to document their adventures on that blog, just as always. Here at Root Simple they’re going to liven up our game, dropping by with opinions, ideas and information that you probably wouldn’t get from me and Erik, making Root Simple a more interesting place. At the same time, Erik and I will continue to blog as we always have.

So give them a big welcome! And now, on with Eric’s first post, about one of my favorite subjects, the healing power of honey:

photo credit: edibleoffice via creative commons lisc.
The other night, Wednesday Feb 9th to be exact, while suffering a bout of sleeplessness, I had the great good fortune to hear this very interesting 27 min. audio story: A Taste of Honey (BBC)
It’s a very informative news piece starting with the history of mankind’s honey consumption and cultivation, discussing small scale vs. large commercial apiaries, colony collapse and ending with new breakthrough medicinal application of honey for aliments ranging from types of cancer to drug resistant staff infections.
One type of honey in particular, manuka honey, has very effective antimicrobial properties due to an additional compound found only in some wild manuka (leptospermum scoparium) in New Zealand.
Here’s a statement from the Summer Glow Apiaries website:

In laboratory studies honey with high UMF activity (over UMF10) has been found to be effective against a wide range of bacteria including the very resistant helicobacter pylori (this bacteria causes most stomach ulcers), the wound-infecting bacteria staphylococcus aureus and escherichia coli, streptococcus pyogenes (causes sore throats).

If you don’t have the time to listen or prefer to read, much of the health benefits being explored are discussed here in this BBC print piece from 2004: Harnessing Honey’s Healing Power

Santa Monica Legalizes Beekeeping

Last night the Santa Monica city council voted to amend their municipal code to allow beekeeping on single family properties. Now, legalizing beekeeping is a bit like legalizing sunshine. Bees, after all, do their thing whether or not the government permits it or not. For every beekeeper in an urban area there must be hundreds of feral bee colonies living in walls, roofs and compost bins. Nevertheless, Santa Monica took a big step forward, joining cities around the world such as New York, Denver, Paris and London who have aligned their codes with the laws of nature.

Santa Monica’s amended code establishes a few rules:

  • Beekeepers are limited to two hives.
  • Hives must be registered with the City Animal Control Office.
  • Hives must be five feet from a property line.
  • Hives must have a six foot screen around them or be at least eight feet up (screening forces their flight pattern upwards).
  • Hives must be given enough space so they don’t swarm.
  • Hives must be requeened each year.
  • A water source must be kept nearby.
  • In addition, Santa Monica Animal Control officers were given new clarifications on their search powers when conducting investigations.

All of these requirements make sense to me except requeening and the arbitrary five foot distance (you have to screen them anyways so you’ve already got a six foot fence next to the hive box). And I can’t imagine how requeening, a practice I don’t agree with, will be enforced.  I also hope that the Santa Monica Animal Control officers have the proper level of law enforcement training needed with their new search powers. And it’s unfortunate that you still can’t keep bees on multifamily properties (assuming every tenant signed off on the idea).

Quibbles aside, the Santa Monica City Council did the right thing. Now, what other cities will jump on the common sense bandwagon?

Your Questions Answered

Patching into our Google voice number.

Got behind in answering our questions by phone–sorry! Here’s our belated reply:

Question from Liz: Do we have bees?

A: Yes, but not on our property. We keep bees the “backwards” way, i.e. naturally, without the many treatments and gadgets most beekeepers use. Bees are probably the easiest of all our crazy home ec projects. They don’t really take much tending. For more information on backwards beekeeping see www.backwardsbeekeepers.com. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, the Backwards Beekeepers hold a monthly meeting and maintain a Yahoo group. See the website for details. If you’re not in the LA area the Backwards website has lots of how-to videos starring the always entertaining Kirk Anderson.

Question from Katie: How do you keep chickens on a small lot? In a run or with a chicken tractor? How do you keep the smells down?

A: From our limited experience with our first flock of four hens, they definitely are happier when they have space to run around. I guess it depends on the disposition of the flock.  I had to enlarge their run when I found them pecking at each other. Our backyard landscaping is not open enough to use a chicken tractor, but that might be an option, though I’d worry about predator proofing it. We have a wicked raccoon problem here. As for keeping smells down, we use a “deep bedding” method–we throw down a very thick layer of straw or leaves, 6 to 12 inches, that we get at the feed store. I keep throwing straw in the run as needed. It kind of composts in place. I rake it out once a year and throw it on the compost pile. It does a good job of keeping smells and fly populations down. The thick bedding also keeps them busy–they like to scratch around in it.

Moving Bees Out of a Meter Box

Nuc box (new home) on left–utility box enclosure (old home) on right.

I got an email the other day from someone who had a beehive in his electric meter box, a popular destination for bees in this area. It was a very small hive that had taken up residence just a few weeks ago. The house was about to be put up for sale so I had to get them out pronto.

I brought along a cardboard nuc box–a temporary hive box used to transport bees. I smoked the electrical box (actually a wooden enclosure that surrounded the actual electrical box) to calm the bees. I cut out the small piece of comb and tied it in a frame which I placed in the nuc box.

Now came the hardest part of these hive “cutouts,” as they’re called: convincing the hive to move out of their old home and into the nuc box. Normally I would spray them with sugar water to immobilize them, brush them into a dust pan and dump them into the nuc box. But these bees scampered up into the inaccessible upper part of the electrical box enclosure.  I discussed demolishing the enclosure to get at the bees, but the homeowner was, understandably, reluctant to do that just before putting the house up for sale.

In desperation, I remembered something that organic beekeeper Michael Bush suggested, that you could use your smoker to herd the bees to where you want them to go. Sure enough, a few puffs of smoke brought the bees to where I could flick at them with a paint brush and catch them with a piece of newspaper as they fell, covered in sticky sugar water. After a few minutes of desperate flicking and sugar water spraying, much to my astonishment, down plops the queen. She landed, gracelessly, upside down and alone on the newspaper. Thankfully, she was uninjured. I couldn’t believe my luck. Just a few minutes earlier I thought that the homeowner would have to call an exterminator.

I put the queen in the nuc box and flicked the rest of the bees out of wooden enclosure–most of them took flight. I quickly plugged up all the entrances to the electrical box with painter’s tape and steel wool and put the nuc box on a ladder near their old hive entrance.

The moral of the story? Wherever the queen is, the rest of the bees will follow. Within minutes worker bees began fanning the entrance to their new home to alert the others to head into the nuc box. I took a long break to give foraging workers in the field a chance to join their queen in her new home. After the sun went down, I plugged up the entrance to the nuc box and taped it up carefully as the bees were to travel with me in a hatchback (not the ideal automotive choice for beekeeping duties). After an epic freeway journey the hive arrived at its new home in Altadena.

This hive is so small that their odds for survival at this time of year aren’t good. But at least they have a chance. Hold this young colony in your thoughts.

Fading into the Soft White

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Honeybees congregate on our floating row covers to die. Every day, two, three, four or five will choose to land one last time on this billowing white fabric that covers one of our garden beds. There they will cling while their strength wanes, until they fall off to be lost in the mulch.

I know worker bees don’t live very long. They work so hard that by the end of their lives, their wings hang in shreds. Their little bodies just give out. And I know that I should not think of them as individuals, but as expression of the will of the Hive. Still, there’s something melancholy about the way they ride these white waves. Perhaps their fading senses lead them to the brightest place they can find.

Colony Collapse Disorder “Solved”

Russell Bates of the Backwards Beekeepers keeping bees naturally.

Media coverage of beekeeping, particularly colony collapse disorder gets me a bit frustrated. This week saw the release of a study from the University of Montana, Missoula and Army scientists at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, linking CCD to a co-infection of a previously unreported virus and a common bee parasite called nosema. As usual, most reporters failed to do their due diligence, except for Katherine Eban at Fortune magazine who explored the ties between the lead researcher in this study, Jerry Bromenshenk, and pesticide manufacturer Bayer Crop Science. See her work in a provocative article, “What a scientist didn’t tell the New York Times about his study on bee deaths.”

Aside from the glaring conflicts of interest (Bromenshenk is also developing a hand held device to detect bee diseases including the ones in this study), I think what’s missing in bee research, in general, is a whole systems approach to the problem. Not only are commercial beekeepers trucking their bees thousands of miles, but they are using miticides, not allowing the bees to form their own comb, limiting the numbers of drones, breeding weak stock and exposing the bees to pesticides such as imidacloprid (manufactured by Bayer!) to name just a few questionable practices. All of this bad beekeeping promulgates bees with weakened immune systems. The researchers may find a “solution,” but with weak bees some other problem will come along in a few years and we’ll be right back where we started. Meanwhile the big commercial beekeepers cling to pesticides as the cause of CCD since this thesis allows them to carry on without addressing all of the aforementioned practices.

CCD is nothing new–it’s happened before and will happen again until we start keeping bees in a more natural manner. To “solve” CCD with some kind of treatment regimen or a hand held detection gadget is a bit like the government propping up those “too big to fail” banks. Everything works fine until the next bubble comes along. I believe that the long term solution lies with folks like the Backwards Beekeepers, Dee Lusby and in the words of the late Charles Martin Simon. In short, work with nature not against her.