We recognized the swarm by its hum.
When we first stepped out of our cars and looked onto the fields of Ayers Creek Farm, the cluster above our heads looked more like gnats, but the familiar buzz made things clear. A little later, Matthew Shepard of the Xerces Society would tell us this swarm was made up of honeybees; bumblebees can be recognized by their deeper, louder hum.
Once attendees were split into two groups, ours followed Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek to a corner of his property where Dan Hiscoe, a beekeeper, was waiting. A retired carpenter, Hiscoe now spends his days keeping bees, because, “where else would you work but in a field of flowers?” Almost immediately after our arrival, Hiscoe motioned us to a nearby fruit tree, onto which a swarm of bees – an estimated 20 – 30,000 in number– was clinging. Brushing his hands into their midst, he explained that these bees were not at all aggressive. Honeybees are aggressive when they are protecting their hive and the swarming bees, having left the hive, were essentially homeless. We watched as scouts were sent “househunting” and, a few minutes later, even witnessed the bees gracefully move off – a new home had been found.
A cause of swarming is congestion in the hive, which presents just one of the many challenges of beekeeping. With the queen laying about 2,000 eggs a day, the beekeeper must be nimble to stay ahead of the curve and give the bees sufficient room to expand.
This is not the last of the beekeeper’s concerns.
Also topping the list are pollution, pesticide use, and whatever new disease springs up every two years or so. With this slew of factors working against the bee, it is no wonder that when asked about Colony Collapse Disorder, Hiscoe seemed relatively unconcerned. After all, what has been coined a “disorder” may just be a perfect storm of some of the factors that have always threatened bee populations. Additionally, as Hiscoe pointed out, bees have incredible regenerative properties. The prolific reproductive capacity that the beekeeper must support can also be a security policy of sorts if one colony collapses – a replacement hive can populate relatively quickly. According to Hiscoe, many California beekeepers whose hives collapse simply order new queens from Australia and begin the process all over again.
Of course, this last statement provokes a few questions about the sustainability of such a global system: With the state of oil supplies around the world, how long can we afford to transport goods – including pollinators - from thousands of miles away? And what happens to this system if the countries from which we are ordering replacement hives experience colony collapses to the same magnitude as ours? Needless to say, we did not come away from the pollinator event feeling that the media has wildly over exaggerated current threats to bee populations. However, like the bees themselves, the phenomenon of widespread colony collapse is much more complicated than we could have imagined
For what we learned about native bees, follow along to part two..
-Amanda and Patrick