Honeyland, Reviewed

Bees, Conservation & Otherworldy Honey

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In the well-kept hives tended by beekeeper Fred Merriam in Georgia, every bee has a job to do. Credit Stephen B. Morton for The New York Times

Kim Severson last caught my attention about a year ago. She covers food culture for the New York Times, and this is the fifth time we have found a story of hers a perfect fit for our platform’s themes. Food intersecting with conservation is always welcome, and honey specifically is on my mind these days. Honey bees? Always of interest. During our transition from India back to Costa Rica over the last two years we spent much of our time in Atlanta. The honey in this story was available in the farmer’s market we shopped at, and we occasionally indulged. I am gratified to learn more about it here:

On the Trail of Tupelo Honey, Liquid Gold From the Swamps

Hurricanes, blights and encroaching development have cut into the harvest in Florida and Georgia, but a small cadre of beekeepers still fiercely pursues this lucrative prize.

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Tupelo trees, which produce small, nectar-filled light green and white flowers for two weeks each spring, rise out of swamps in the Altamaha River Basin in southeastern Georgia. Credit Stephen B. Morton for The New York Times

ODUM, Ga. — The most expensive honey in America starts in these mucky Southern swamps, where white Ogeechee tupelo trees twist up out of water so dark you can’t tell if that was an alligator or a snake that just broke the surface.

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Tupelo honey fresh from the comb has a distinctive light green tint. Credit Stephen B. Morton for The New York Times

For two precious weeks each spring in this slice of southeastern Georgia and in the Florida Panhandle, tupelo trees bloom with pale, fragile flowers that look like pompoms for tiny cheerleaders. Beekeepers tuck their hives along the banks, or occasionally float them out into the water on rafts. Then the bees get to work, making honey that looks and tastes like no other.

Good tupelo will glow with a light green tint, especially when it’s fresh from the comb and bathed in sunlight. The first taste is of cinnamon with a tingle of anise. That gives way to a whisper of jasmine and something citrusy — tangerine rind, maybe? The honey is so soft, light and buttery that the only logical move is to chase it with another spoonful. Continue reading

Rwandan Charismatic Megafauna (& Honey)

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Seth sent a few more messages, in the form of images, from Rwanda. One day soon I will describe what he is doing there, but for now the images say more than enough.

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While elephants are a childhood favorite animal for Seth, he had seen Asian elephants in the wild, so that probably made seeing giraffe the charismatic topper so far.

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Once zebra is added to the list of species seen, it might start feeling like all is well in the wild (even if we know it is not).

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Waterbuck with African Fish-Eagle

One of the few photos that had any words to explain was this one, which is to be expected of a birder in the realm of charismatic megafauna.

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But of all the photos, the one that caught my eye was the one above, which I do not yet have an explanation for but it is in surrounded by the following photos which put it in some context.

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That gives a hint.

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This answers the question.

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And this makes it crystal clear. Seth had already sent an image from an earlier field visit that he knew would catch my attention.

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The origins of Organikos can be traced to a project I led in 2005 in Paraguay, where I had the idea that wild-hunted honey from the Pantanal region could share the taste of place with the world while at the same time providing much-needed cash infusion to the honey hunters and the protection of their wilderness areas. Seth knows that story and knows to send me photos of honey from wild places as a polite indication that the idea was a good one, if not original.

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Community, Collaboration & Bees

Members of the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective inspect one of their apiaries. The collective trains displaced coal miners in West Virginia on how to keep bees as a way to supplement their income. Courtesy of Kevin Johnson

We never tire of highlighting good news about bees. Thanks to NPR, Jody Helmer, and the Salt for bringing us this to our attention.

Out-Of-Work Appalachian Coal Miners Train As Beekeepers To Earn Extra Cash

Just like his grandfather and father before him, James Scyphers spent almost two decades mining coal in West Virginia.

“These were the best jobs in the area; we depended on ’em,” he recalls.

But mining jobs started disappearing, declining from 132,000 in 1990 to 53,000 in 2018, devastating the area’s economy. In a state that now has the lowest labor-force participation rate in the nation, the long-term decline of coal mining has left West Virginia residents without new options to make a living.

Scyphers was fortunate to find a construction job, but it paid 2/3 less than what he earned underground. He often took odd jobs to make ends meet. One of those odd jobs included building hives and tending bees for the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective.

“I wish this group had been here 30 years ago,” he says. “Our region needs it.” Continue reading

Floral Communication Better Understood

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A bee collects pollen from a flower. DARREN STAPLES / REUTERS

 Thanks to Ed Yong, 6+ years in our pages, whose work we always appreciate:

Plants Can Hear Animals Using Their Flowers

And they react to the buzzing of pollinators by sweetening their nectar.

When people pose the old question about whether a tree falling in an empty forest makes a sound, they presuppose that none of the other plants in the forest are listening in. Plants, supposedly, are silent and unhearing. They don’t make noises, unless rustled or bitten. When Rachel Carson described a spring bereft of birds, she called it silent.

But these stereotypes may not be true. According to a blossoming batch of studies, it’s not that plants have no acoustic lives. It’s more that, until now, we’ve been blissfully unaware of them. Continue reading

Fungi, Bees & Future

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Lilli Carré

Fungi first appeared in our pages thanks to Milo. And the name of the essayist below was mentioned a couple times earlier as well. He deserves more attention, especially if his attention is focused on bees:

Will Mushrooms Be Magic for Threatened Bees?

We might be able to save honeybees from viruses transmitted by invasive parasites without chemical treatment.

By Paul Stamets

Mr. Stamets is a mycologist.

Sometime in the 1980s, microscopic mites that had been afflicting honeybees outside the United States found their way to Florida and Wisconsin and began wreaking havoc across the country. These parasites have invaded and decimated wild and domestic bee colonies. Along with other dangers facing bees, like pesticides and the loss of forage lands, the viruses these mites carry threaten the bees we rely on to pollinate many of the fruits, nuts and vegetables we eat. Continue reading

Citizen Science, Children & Bees

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Scientists expected bees to gradually cease buzzing as the sky darkened during an eclipse. Instead, they stopped altogether. Credit Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

After following the work of Nicholas St. Fleur for a couple years now–his beat includes archaeology, paleontology, and space among other of the things we care about on this platform, including conservation–his most recent story below is my favorite for one reason, namely citizen science. Specifically the participation of youth in such an important scientific investigation:

The Moon Eclipsed the Sun. Then the Bees Stopped Buzzing.

Researchers worked with a small army of elementary school children to collect audio recordings of bees as they visited flowers along the path of last summer’s total eclipse.

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National Forest Service workers at the Bridger-Teton National Forest Office in Jackson, Wyo., took a break to watch the Great American Eclipse last year. Credit Celia Talbot Tobin for The New York Times

Last year’s Great American Eclipse drew hundreds of millions of eyes to the sky. But while people across the country “oohed” and “aahed” at the phenomenon, it appears the bees went silent.

So found a new study that monitored the acoustic activity of bees before, during and after totality — the moment when the moon completely blocked the sun — during the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Researchers at the University of Missouri, along with a small army of elementary school children and other volunteers, collected audio recordings of honeybees, bumblebees and other types of bees as they visited flowers along the path of totality Continue reading

Option Bee

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Heidi Younger

The Blue Orchard Bee recently came to our attention thanks to Natalie Boyle. However, it seems the species has some competition as potential saviors of the farming industry.  This article by Catherine M. Allchin,  Honeybees Are Hurting. What Else Can Pollinate Our Food?, illustrates how…

…The dominant pollinator is under siege, straining the business of farming. Now growers are turning to alternative species to help their crops.

Jim Freese grows apples, pears and cherries on 45 acres in the north-central part of this state, on sagebrush-studded land his grandfather bought in 1910.

Walking among trees laden with shiny red cherries, Mr. Freese recalled that four years ago his trees were not producing well and his farm was financially struggling. Like many growers, he had been relying on rented honeybees to pollinate his cherry trees every spring, along with wild bees and other insects.

But that year, spring was expected to be cool. “Honeybees will just sit in the hive in cooler weather,” Mr. Freese said. He needed a way to ensure more flowers would develop into fruit than in the past.

At a horticulture meeting, he learned that blue orchard bees — a native species that doesn’t make honey or live in hives — could be used to supplement honeybee pollination. Blue orchard bees will fly at cooler temperatures.

Mr. Freese bought 12,000 cocoons and set them in his orchard to emerge when the trees bloomed. His investment paid off. “We doubled our cherry production from any previous record year,” he said.

His wife, Sandee Freese, said: “The little bees have been a godsend.”…
Continue reading

Bee Awesome

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Will Nissen’s bees north of Bakersfield, Calif. Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

Thanks to Jaime Lowe for this:

The Value Of Pollinating Bees

We love all creatures great and small, even (we try as best we can) the pesky ones. It is not because we are generous, though we hope we are. It is because we see their value. For hopefully obvious reasons, pollinators are our favorite bees. Our lives depend on them. That is why we have featured dozens of stories about them. Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this one:

Watch This Native Pollinator Build Her Bee-Jeweled Nest

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A female blue orchard bee forages for nectar and pollen on Phacelia tanacetifolia flowers, also known as blue or purple tansy. Blue orchard bees are solitary bees that help pollinate California’s almond orchards. Josh Cassidy/KQED

While honeybees and their buzzing hives and hyper-fertile queens get all the press for pollinating our food supply, the hard-working blue orchard bee is one of 4,000 bee species native to North America that does its solitary work in relative obscurity. That is, until now.

In the video, you can see how this bee builds its nests, alternating mud and a purple nectar-pollen mixture in hollow, skinny spaces. The blue orchard bees are preparing a purple lunch box of sorts for their offspring so they have food to eat in the tunnel. The blue orchard bees’ work looks more like jewelry or even scoops of trendy ube ice cream than a nest. Continue reading

Using Canine Sense of Smell to Save Bees

Cybil Preston, chief apiary inspector for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, is expanding her canine detection program, training dogs to find traces of American foulbrood, a bacteria that can decimate beehives. Credit Andrew Mangum for The New York Times

There’s plenty of news about bees being under environmental threat, so we thank NYTimes contributor Tejal Rao for this story of harnessing a natural strength of one species to help save another.

With a Sniff and a Signal, These Dogs Hunt Down Threats to Bees

Ms. Preston seals dog toys in a plastic bag with foulbrood to saturate them with the scent. Credit Andrew Mangum for The New York Times

JARRETTSVILLE, Md. — Cybil Preston stretched her bare hands into a noisy beehive and pulled out a frame of honeycomb, its waxy cells filled with nectar, its surface alive with bees.

“This girl right here was just born,” she said, pointing out a bee with a silvery thorax. “See how her hair is still matted down like a teddy bear?”

Ms. Preston, the chief apiary inspector for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, was on a routine survey of registered colonies northeast of Baltimore. “I’m always looking for signs and signals,” she said, as she examined a worker bee with a misshapen wing. “It’s like ‘CSI.’” Continue reading

Insects, Underappreciated Often-Charismatic Fauna

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This article by Robin McKie, Observer science editor, will have you thinking differently about what are often called the pests of summer:

Where have all our insects gone?

There is a crisis in the countryside – and a massive decline in insect numbers could have significant consequences for the environment

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A great yellow bumblebee. Its numbers have declined steeply in recent years. Photograph: Alamy

When Simon Leather was a student in the 1970s, he took a summer job as a postman and delivered mail to the villages of Kirk Hammerton and Green Hammerton in North Yorkshire. He recalls his early morning walks through its lanes, past the porches of houses on his round. At virtually every home, he saw the same picture: windows plastered with tiger moths that had been attracted by lights the previous night and were still clinging to the glass. “It was quite a sight,” says Leather, who is now a professor of entomology at Harper Adams University in Shropshire. Continue reading

Bess, Honey & Nothing

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Not only can a honey bee count, it understands the concept of zero, according to researchers. CreditFrank Bienewald/LightRocket, via Getty Images

Thanks as always to James Gorman, one of the best illuminators of any variety of natural mysteries who we never tire of citing in these pages. He tells funny stories sometimes, about beautiful as well as awesome phenomena that we want to know. And he knows how to tell it:

Do Bees Know Nothing?

Researchers say bees understand the concept of nothing, or zero. But do we understand what that means?

What would it mean if bees could understand the concept of nothing?

That would be really something.

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Bees were rewarded when they landed on cards with more shapes.CreditScarlett R. Howard et al.

Yet that is what scientists reported Thursday in the journal Science. Bees had already demonstrated they could count. Now, the researchers wrote, bees have shown that they understand the absence of things — shapes on a display in this experiment — as a numerical quantity: none or zero.

This is a big leap. Some past civilizations had trouble with the idea of zero. And the only nonhuman animals so far to pass the kind of test bees did are primates and one bird. Not one species, one bird, the famed African gray parrot, Alex, who knew not only words, but numbers. Continue reading

Butterflies Bear Bucolic Benefits

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Milkweed was first mentioned in these pages  so long ago I had forgotten their importance to Monarch butterflies, a seemingly perennial topic for our contributors. So thanks to Margaret Renkl for keeping that tradition going in her Monday op-ed, and reminding us in the process that while it is not all good news out there, it is also not all bad news:

Monarchs in My Garden, at Last

NASHVILLE — I was pretty proud of myself the spring I planted my first organic garden. It was the mid-1980s, and I was a first-year graduate student in creative writing, a program entirely unrelated to horticultural mastery. But I had taken a college course in environmental biology, and I knew the basics: The more chemicals you use in a garden, the more chemicals you’ll need in the garden. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, more reliable than the seasons.

At my house, companion planting — marigolds in between the broccoli, tomato vines encircling the spinach — would repel bugs the natural way. Any lingering pests would be dispatched by beneficial insects like ladybugs and praying mantises. One evening I watched happily as cabbage white butterflies flitted over silvery broccoli leaves. Those little white butterflies pausing in the gloaming on the water-beaded broccoli made for a tableau of bucolic harmony. Continue reading

“Birds & the Bees”: More Than a Metaphor

Scientists say that studying bee behavior could help them understand hummingbird behavior, too. Credit DansPhotoArt on flickr, via Getty Images

Members of our team have long been fans of bees and all bird species, with a particular soft spot for hummingbirds in particular. With their gemlike plumage and engaging personality, what’s not to love?

You Should Think of Hummingbirds as Bees With Feathers

What’s small, buzzes here and there and visits flowers?

If you said bees or hummingbirds, you got it. And you wouldn’t be the first if you mixed the two up. In Medieval Europe, some called bees the smallest birds. In Chinese and Japanese, the words for hummingbird translate into “bee bird.” Today we call the smallest hummingbird — weighing less than a penny and only a bit larger than the biggest bee — the bee hummingbird.

And now a group of researchers say we should embrace our history of lumping the two together. The way scientists study bees could help them study hummingbird behavior, too, they argue in a review published Tuesday in Biology Letters. Continue reading

Being Better For Bees

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Richard Coy inspects one of his hives near Burdette, Ark. Honey production at this location fell by almost half this year — which he attributes to the drifting of weedkiller dicamba to nearby flowering plants. Dan Charles/NPR

By coincidence two days in a row we have encountered important stories related to bees–yesterday’s more inspirational and this one more troubling:

There is one small field on Michael Sullivan’s farm, near the town of Burdette, Ark., that he wishes he could hide from public view.

The field is a disaster. There are soybeans in there, but you could easily overlook them. The field has been overrun by monsters: ferocious-looking plants called pigweeds, as tall as people and bursting with seeds that will come back to haunt any crops that Sullivan tries to grow here for years to come.

“I’m embarrassed to say that we farm that field,” Sullivan says. “We sprayed it numerous times, and it didn’t kill it.”

Pigweeds, which have become resistant to some well-known herbicides, infest a soybean field in northwestern Arkansas. Dan Charles/NPR

These weeds have become resistant to Sullivan’s favorite herbicides, including glyphosate, which goes by the trade name Roundup.

Yet the rest of Sullivan’s farm is beautiful. As farmers like to say, the fields are “clean.” There is not a weed to be seen. Continue reading

Minnesota Bee Atlas & Citizen Science

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Agapostemon virescens, a sweat bee native to Minnesota. Photo © John Flannery / Flickr through a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

We have met and heard of plenty other skeptics of citizen science, and the conversation is always interesting; we of course enjoy hearing of conversion stories. Thanks to Meredith Cornett and Cool Green Science for this:

On Bee-ing

Science is my day job. Has been for more than two decades. So why would I want to also participate on an amateur basis?

For years I scoffed at the very notion of “citizen science.” I dismissed it as cumbersome, unreliable, and yielding data of questionable quality at best. In short, I was sniffy about the whole thing, and kept it at arm’s length. I was not alone. In fact, many of my colleagues dismissed citizen science as mostly a feel-good endeavor. Continue reading

Honey With Urban Terroir

The bees’ home at the Javits. Beekeeping was illegal in New York until 2010 when the ban was lifted. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of bees, both environmentally and agriculturally.  So we’re suckers for happy bee stories, especially urban bees. Kudos to the New York City Board of Health for lifting the Giuliani-era ban against urban bee-keeping, not to mention the Javits Center green-roof sustainability project!

Atop a Manhattan Convention Center, a Harvest of Honey

Let us begin not with the who, which was several thousand bees and a bunch of people in anti-sting gear that looked like spacesuits, or the what, which was harvesting honey. Let us go directly to the where.

It was not a bosky setting that would bring to mind the Robert Frost poem about good fences and good neighbors, but the south roof of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s Far West Side. Here the neighbors are the unfinished towers of the Hudson Yards development. They ring what has become an urban meadow — the south roof, mostly covered by 6.75 acres of kaleidoscopic sedum. It is yellowish green. It will turn red in time for Christmas.

The bees have been in residence since spring. The first 12,000 came from California, transplanted in a three-pound container that looked like a shoe box with screens on both sides. They were placed in wooden hives, which look like stackable drawers. There were 60,000 to 80,000 by midsummer.

The accommodations are typical of urban apiaries. Liane Newton, the director of nycbeekeeping.org, who tends them, described her role as “convincing them they live in a tree trunk when they live in a file cabinet.”

Her persuasion seems to have paid off. “They made cells for closets, cells for babies, cells for storing pollen,” she reported one morning last week. “One amazing thing about bees is they have this architectural inclination.” Continue reading

Bayer, Bees Beware

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Researchers monitored the health of these wild bees, from the species Osmia bicornis. They nest inside small cavities, such as hollow reeds. Courtesy of Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Thanks to National Public Radio’s special forces, aka the salt, for their ongoing search for interesting news and stories related to the intersection of nature and food:

Pesticides Are Harming Bees — But Not Everywhere, Major New Study Shows

In the global debate over neonicotinoid pesticides, the company that makes most of them has relied on one primary argument to defend its product: The evidence that these chemicals, commonly called “neonics,” are harmful to bees has been gathered in artificial conditions, force-feeding bees in the laboratory, rather than in the real world of farm fields. That company, Bayer, states on its website that “no adverse effects to bee colonies were ever observed in field studies at field-realistic exposure conditions.” Continue reading

Atlas Obscura, Miscellanea

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Bumblebees pollinating flowers during the study. NICOLE MILLER-STRUTTMANN

The story connected to the photo above is worth the few minutes, just as the dozens of other bee stories you will find in these pages have been. After reading it I started exploring the site where I found it. Finally. I see that Amie linked to and commented on this story reported in Atlas Obscura last year. I remember reading her post and then going to the source, as I did each of several other times when we have featured their work in these pages.

For well over two years we linked to their stories without any of our individual names attributed to the commentary on the story being linked to. When a post on our site has no name other than La Paz Group it just means here is our kind of story, enjoy. When a post has one of our names on it, it means the same thing only with more attention to detail. Today I finally had reason to explore Atlas Obscura, and realize that as much as I am committed to what we do and our communication about that work and related miscellanea, I might be just as happy doing what they are doing:

Atlas Obscura is the definitive guide to the world’s wondrous and curious places

In an age where everything seems to have been explored and there is nothing new to be found, we celebrate a different way of looking at the world. If you’re searching for miniature cities, glass flowers, books bound in human skin, gigantic flaming holes in the ground, bone churches, balancing pagodas, or homes built entirely out of paper, the Atlas Obscura is where you’ll find them.

Atlas Obscura is a collaborative project. We depend on our far-flung community of explorers (like you!) to help us discover amazing, hidden spots, and share them with the world. If you know of a curious place that’s not already in the Atlas, let us know.

There is plenty out there to discover, so let’s start looking!