Bees On and Off Broadway

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I recently came across bees in an unlikely venue: a play called “Constellations” that revolves around the relationship between a physicist (Marianne) and an urban beekeeper (Roland). The play explores different perceptions of time in a way that is comprehensible to those of us who know very little, or nothing, about quantum mechanics, string theory, parallel universes and other theoretical concepts. But bees also have a role in “Constellations,” and in their own way, they get great reviews.

For one thing, the theater program quotes Roland’s wonderful description of honeybees. “They have an unfailing clarity of purpose,” he says in the play. “If only our existence were that simple. If only we could understand why it is that we are here and what it is that we are meant to spend our lives doing.”

In addition, the program handed out to the audience by Wilma Theater ushers included two black and white photos — a close-up of bees at work building honeycomb, and a picture of an urban beekeeper checking out hives on the Saint Ermins Hotel roof in Westminster, Central London.

And finally, while researching “Constellations,” British playwright Nick Payne noted that he spoke with urban beekeeper Steve Benbow, a well-known London beekeeper who has been profiled in numerous newspaper and magazines and is the author of a book titled, The Urban Beekeeper: A Year of Bees in the City.

Benbow himself might make a good subject for a play. His two grandparents were beekeepers, part of the inspiration behind his decision to launch The London Honey Company in 2004, according to an article in The New York Times. Inspiration for that venture also came during a trip to Paris when he visited hives on top of the Palais Garnier opera house and the Luxembourg Gardens.

According to the Times article, Benbow produces 10 varieties of honey distributed to well-known department stores (think Harrods) and hotels. He keeps hives on the roofs of art museums, including the Tate Modern, Tate Britain and the Victoria & Albert. In the “Constellations” program, he note that “honey produced at … the Tate Modern is toffee-like in taste and is very different from the citrus-tasting honey produced by the bees at Tate Britain, which forage on limes and giant acacias.” Clearly a man who knows his honey.

“Constellations” was first produced in London in 2012. In 2015, it moved to Broadway with Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson playing Roland and Marianne. I doubt that many well-reviewed performances offer us such wonderful commentary – both poetic and educational – on bees and the starring roles they have in our everyday offstage lives.

Is a Robo Bee in Our Future?

Will honeybees welcome the idea of a drone to help them in their role as pollinators, or will they feel their prime function is being usurped by foam core, plastic and propellers?

Anna Haldewang, a senior at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia, developed what she calls “Plan Bee,” a “personal robotic bee controlled by a smart device and designed to mimic how bees pollinate flowers and crops,” according to a CNN article last month.

Haldewang says her goal is to call attention to the important role honeybees play in our food chain, to raise awareness of the dangers caused by Colony Collapse Disorder, and to create a tool that will illustrate the wonders of pollination. An actual bee is so small “that you don’t notice how … it’s pollinating flowers,” she told CNN. “With the drone, you can see how the process works.” And when it is flipped upside down, “it looks like a flower.”

The prototype is yellow and black, but that’s about the only nod to the insect it is trying to mimic. Plan Bee is made with lightweight foam core, a plastic shell and propellers to keep it in the air. “Each of the drone’s six sections has tiny holes underneath through which the devices sucks in pollen from a flower,” then stores it in a body cavity before it is “expelled for cross-pollination,” according to the CNN article.

[Actually, bees suck up nectar, not pollen; pollen is collected in little sacs on the bee’s legs. It’s unclear how this will affect’s the drone’s mechanics.]

SCAD’s design students come up with about 1,600 ideas every quarter, all part of their required  course work. Meanwhile Haldewang hopes to patent her invention, the first step to bringing Plan Bee to market. Whether or not this tiny drone will do the job that millions of honeybees perform every year – without a patent or propellers – remains to be seen. beedrone

Saving the Bumblebee

Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, was an historic day for bee preservation, according to an article in today’s (Jan. 12) Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service named the rusty patched bumblebee to its endangered species list, “the first bee species in the continental U.S. to receive that designation,” the Journal reported, adding that in September, seven yellow-faced bee species found in Hawaii were added to the list.

The designation means that a concerted effort will now be made to stop the decline in the rusty patched bumblebee population. The bee’s numbers have dropped by 87 percent since the late 1990s. An endangered species designation could, for example, affect “the approval process for some construction sites and other land use,” the Journal points out.

Bumblebees face the same dangers as honeybees, including overuse of pesticides, loss of habitat, and attacks from parasites like the varroa mites. But rusty patched bumblebees can fly at colder temperatures than other bees, and their larger size and heavier weight allow them to delve deeply into flowers, like snapdragons, that the smaller honeybees find inaccessible, according to the Journal article. They are important pollinators of such crops as tomatoes, cranberries and peppers, and can be found mainly in the Upper Midwest and Northeast.

So, would the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service take similar action to protect honeybees, which pollinate 70 out of our 100 major crops and add about $15 billion to crops’ value each year? Recent estimates suggest that 42 percent of honeybee colonies collapsed in 2015, significantly higher than the 31 percent that have died each winter for the past 10 years. It’s unclear how high the 42 percent figure would have to go before honeybees get the same recognition, and protection, as their bigger cousins.

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Bees in Cuba

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During a trip to Cuba with my family December 27 to January 3, I spent some time trying to find beehives and beekeepers. I was partially successful: The accompanying photo shows me in front of a collection of hives on the road to Las Terrazas, a pioneer eco-town (now more of a tourist town) about one hour outside of Havana. We didn’t see any beekeepers, although a sign near one of the hives suggested that they are the property of the military. And during a visit to Havana’s Colon Cemetery — one of the largest in the Americas, filled with beautiful Gothic and Neoclassical memorials as well as interesting legends about some famous inhabitants — I had a private moment with a few honeybees. They were busy pollinating a collection of flowers left at a memorial dedicated to a 13-year-old girl and her baby, buried together in an elaborate tomb constructed by the girl’s husband. The bees looked smaller than the ones I am used to seeing in the U.S. but it could have just been my imagination. In any case, it was a nice moment.

Napoleon and the Honeybee

Next time you have a reason to check out Napoleon Bonaparte’s coat of arms, look closely at the left hand side. You will see a grouping of honeybees — Napoleon’s choice to represent his imperial rule.

The bee apparently sent several different messages to Napoleon’s constituents. It referred back to earlier French kings who chose the bee as a symbol of immortality and resurrection. The bee is also a nod to French industry where it was incorporated into clothing, curtains, carpets and furniture.

In his coronation ceremony, Napoleon — proclaimed Emperor of the French in 1804 — wore a robe decorated with what was said to be 300 bees. So it’s not surprising that his nickname was “The Bee.”

Napoleon also chose the eagle for his coat of arms because of the bird’s association with military victory. Historians note that the eagle beat out a number of competitors for the honor, including a  lion, an elephant, a cockerel, an oak tree and the fleur de lys.napoleonbeebetter

In the end, these carefully chosen symbols didn’t help. Napoleon was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, bringing to an end the Napoleonic era. He died in 1821.

Bees Are Brainier than You Think

Despite having brains that are .0002% the size of human brains, bees are able to learn skills and teach these skills to others.

According to a new study in the journal PLOS Biology, British researchers were able to train 23 bees out of a group of 40 to pull strings that were attached to tiny artificial flower discs containing food bees like to eat, according to articles on Reuters.com and Smithsonian.com.

These “trainer” bees were then mingled with other bees who hadn’t seen the string trick; after watching the trainers, 60 percent of those bees learned to pull the string themselves. In a group of bees without trainers, only two out of 110 performed the task.

When one trained bee was added to “three colonies of untrained bees … about 50 percent of each colony figured out how to pull the string” once they were paired up with a trained bee, the Smithsonian article noted. Even when “the trainers died, the ability to pull on the strings continued to spread throughout the colonies.”

According to the researchers, “more sophisticated forms of social learning … specific to human culture may well have evolved from simpler forms of learning and cognition.” In other words, even the tiny brains of bees can teach humans about evolution.

Watch a video of the experiment.

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Bee Pledge of Allegiance

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Two months ago we wrote about an initiative launched by the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, Calif., to create 3,600 square feet of bee habitat where kids and their families could observe the lives of honeybees and other pollinators.

This update came in yesterday from Patricia Narciso, the Museum’s director of development and marketing:

“During EY Connect Day at Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, 50 employee volunteers from EY (formerly Ernst & Young) helped 57 fourth graders from a nearby school to create art installations using natural and recycled materials. Everyone learned an original Bee Pledge from our environmental educator, Biret Adden:

‘Bees bring us flowers (hands “bloom’ like a flower)
Bees make our lunch (hands in front)
I pledge to protect them  (right hand over heart)
and love them a bunch! (left hand crosses over right)’

With the goal of educating the next generation of environmental stewards, adults and kids worked together to craft bee artwork from recycled cans, build bee baths from upcycled bakeware, and learn from Children’s Discovery Museum environmental educators about risks to favorite foods due to dwindling bee populations. The artwork inspires awareness about bee conservation and the environmental education space under construction at Children’s Discovery Museum.”

Good News, Twice, for Bees

It’s been a busier than usual week for bees. According to an October 3 story in the Washington Post, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to put seven species of yellow-faced bees, all native to Hawaii, on the Endangered Species List – the first time bees have been so designated.

These bees – whose name derives from their distinctive yellow-white facial coloration — pollinate many of Hawaii’s trees and shrubs, and are key to maintaining the health and diversity of the state’s forests.

Also on October 3, the Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution declaring the state’s largest metropolis a “Bee Friendly City,” according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The resolution was designed “to encourage and promote urban beekeeping and to raise awareness of the importance of bees to our environment.” More than 200 apiaries are registered in Philadelphia County, and the city itself is where the “removable-frame hive was invented in 1851,” the Inquirer reports.

Back to Hawaii and the Endangered Species List. According to the Post, it took almost a decade to achieve the Endangered Species designation. Karl Magnacca, a Hawaii-based entomologist who helped research the bees for the Oregon-based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, told the Associated Press that the designation “is excellent news for these bees, but there is much work that needs to be done to ensure that [they] thrive.”

The article also notes that while honeybees get most of the bee-centered publicity because of their pollination efforts, some scientists contend that wild bees deserve just as much attention, “even if fewer wild species are responsible for crop pollination.” Native bees also help maintain habitats for other species.

Interesting fact: The Xerces Society is named after the Xerces blue butterfly, “the first butterfly known to go extinct in North America as a result of human activities,” Magnacca told the AP, the Post reported.

Butterflies are pollinators, too. We should all hope that bees — honeybees, bumblebees, native bees, all bees — don’t suffer the same fate as the Xerces blue.

 

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Recent “Bees on the Roof” Sightings

Sirius Radio interviewed me and a local beekeeper last week about the book, beekeeping and Colony Collapse Disorder; and the National Geographic Voices site published an article about the book and my comments on CCD on its home page on Tuesday.

In addition, I appeared at the Baltimore Book Festival on Sunday with a girls’ reading club that had read “Bees on the Roof” and were on stage with me to discuss the book during a 38-minute podcast.

It was a wonderful event. The girls pointed out themes and characters they especially liked, while the emcee encouraged them to talk about topical issues like cheating, bullying, disobeying one’s parents and so forth – all touched on in the book’s plot. I will be returning to Baltimore for another book discussion, this time with a group of sixth-grade boys. I think the discussion will be vastly different, but I have no idea how.fullsizerender8

One Beekeeper, Two Wright Brothers

Leave it to a beekeeper to make aviation history. An Ohio entrepreneur/beekeeper named Amos Root was, according to reports, the only person to actually witness the Wright brothers’ airplane flights in 1904 and 1905. And not just witness them, but write about them in a publication he founded called “Gleanings in Bee Culture.”

Root makes an appearance in David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers” and also in an article on PBS’s Nova site. As the Nova site says, “almost as astonishing as the fact that a pair of bicycle shop owners invented the airplane” is that the first “accurate reporting on their earliest flights appeared” not in The New York Times or Scientific American, but in “an obscure journal for beekeepers.”

Root, a beekeeping hobbyist from his early twenties on, started a company in Medina, Ohio, that made beehives and beekeeping equipment. One of his best inventions was developing removable frames so that a beekeeper could harvest honey without destroying the hive.

Root also started a candle-making company called Root Candles that is still in existence today. According to an article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the company, which sits next to Amos Root’s old homestead in Medina, makes 20 million home décor candles every year. The company’s president is a great-great grandson of Amos.

Root, who showed a lifelong interest in technology, heard about the Wright brothers’ efforts to fly and drove to Huffman Prairie outside of Dayton to witness their first successful effort.

According to the Nova report, he had the following comment on the historical event that he witnessed: “…These brothers have probably not even a faint glimpse of what their discovery is going to bring to the children of men. No one living can give a guess of what is coming along this line, much better than anyone living could conjecture the final outcome of Columbus’ experiment…”

 

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Photo from Wikipedia