Monday, August 16, 2010

Monday, August 9, 2010

Novel Ecosystems and the face of the Anthropangaea

This article says it all- from the importance of genetic diversity to recognizing that sometimes landscapes with very few native species can provide real value. There is a battle brewing among the scientific community that asks,
"What will the future of forests on the human dominated Anthropangaea look like?"

Article found in Nature Magazine...
A small group of ecologists is looking beyond the pristine to study the scrubby, feral
and untended. Emma Marris learns to appreciate ‘novel ecosystems’.
Joe Mascaro, a PhD student in a T-shirt and
floral print shorts, is soaking in the diversity
of the Hawaiian jungle. Above, a green canopy
blocks out most of the sky. Aerial roots
wend their way down past tropical trunks, tree
ferns and moss-covered prop roots to an understorey
of ferns and seedlings. The jungle is lush,
humid and thick with mosquitoes. It is also as
cosmopolitan as London’s Heathrow airport.
This forest on Big Island features mango
trees from India (Mangifera indica); Cecropia
obtusifolia, a tree with huge star-shaped leaves
from Mexico, Central America and Colombia;
rose apples (Syzygium jambos) from southeast
Asia; tasty strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum)
from the threatened Atlantic coast of
Brazil; and a smattering of Queensland maples
(Flindersia brayleyana) from Australia. It also
has candlenuts (Aleurites moluccana), a species
that humans have moved around so much
that its origins have become obscure. There is
at least some native Hawaiian representation
in the form of hala, or screwpine (Pandanus
tectorius), which is pictured on the crest of
Punahou School, where US President Barack
Obama studied. There are no Hawaiian birds
here though. Mascaro sees plenty of feral pigs,
descendants of those brought by settlers from
other parts of Polynesia or from farther afield.
The soil is black and rich. Mascaro likes it here.
Most ecologists and conservationists
would describe this forest in scientific jargon
as ‘degraded’, ‘heavily invaded’ or perhaps
‘anthropogenic’. Less formally, they might
term it a ‘trash ecosystem’. After all, what is it
but a bunch of weeds, dominated by aggressive
invaders, and almost all introduced by
humans? It might as well be a city dump.
A few ecologists, however, are taking a second
look at such places, trying to see them
without the common assumption that pristine
ecosystems are ‘good’ and anything else
is ‘bad’. The non-judgemental term is ‘novel
ecosystem’. A novel ecosystem is one that has
been heavily influenced by humans but is not
under human management. A working tree
plantation doesn’t qualify; one abandoned
decades ago would. A forest dominated by
non-native species counts, like Mascaro’s
mango forest, even if humans never cut it
down, burned it or even visited it.
No one is sure how much of Earth is covered
by novel ecosystems. To help with this article,
Nature asked Erle Ellis at the University of
Maryland, Baltimore County, who produces
maps of ways that humans use Earth, to take
a stab at quantifying it. Defining novel ecosystems
as “lands without agricultural or urban
use embedded within agricultural and urban
regions”, Ellis estimates that at least 35% of the
globe is covered with them (see map, overleaf).
Their share of the planet will probably expand,
and many ecologists think that these novel ecosystems
are worthy of study and, in some cases,
For one thing, some novel ecosystems seem
to provide a habitat for native species — sometimes
crucial habitat, if all that the species originally
had is gone. They also often do a good
job of providing ‘ecosystem services’, those
things that nature does that benefit humanity,
such as filtering water in wetlands, controlling
erosion on hillsides, sequestering carbon from
the atmosphere and building soil. Provision of
ecosystem services is a popular argument for
preserving intact ecosystems, but many of its
advocates blanch a little when it comes to making
the same case for these ‘weedy’ areas.
Mascaro actually prefers novel ecosystems
to some native ones that are so vulnerable to
damage by humans that they require intense
management to maintain in their ‘pristine’
state. He sees the latter as museum-piece parks.
“Do we value the fact that nature contains a list
of things that were there 1,000 years ago, or do
we value it because it has its own processes that
are not under human control?” Mascaro asks.
For him, the value is in the processes.
Watching such processes unfold has scientific
merit to many researchers. Novel ecosystems
are often ideal natural experiments for
studying things such as community assembly
— how species find their way to a place and
which species become permanent residents
— and evolution of species in response to one
another. In essence, it takes a dynamic ecosystem
to study ecosystem dynamics, and these
novel ecosystems are the planet’s fastest movers.
Mascaro bets that all the rules of thumb and
general relationships developed over the years
by ecologists working in ‘intact’ or ‘historical’
ecosystems will probably also apply in these
new assemblages, but no one knows for sure,
because no one has studied them much.
There are some questions about the ways in
which things might be different in novel ecosystems.
Will landscape types remain the same,
with forests replacing forests and grasslands
replacing grasslands? Will novel ecosystems
evolve faster? Will they be dominated by one
species, as many who study invasive species
fear? Will species composition oscillate wildly
for decades or even longer? “We can’t know
except to observe it,” says Mascaro.
Havens of biodiversity?
One of the first researchers to see the importance
of the scrubby parts of Earth was Ariel
Lugo, a forest-service ecologist in Puerto
Rico. In 1979, Lugo was managing researchers
who were measuring the ground covered
by trees within pine plantations that were not
being actively managed. His technicians came
back to headquarters sweaty and discouraged.
“They said that they couldn’t measure the trees
without clearing all the new undergrowth,”
says Lugo. “They said it was impenetrable. I
thought they were wimps.”
The idea that ecosystems dominated by
pine, an invasive species, were so thick that his
workers couldn’t even walk through them went
against a central assumption of ecology: that
native forests will be the lushest. Millennia of
co-evolution should have created an ecosystem
in which almost every niche is filled, converting
the available energy into trees and other species
in the most efficient way. Conservationists
also generally assume that native ecosystems
contribute best to ecosystem services.
Lugo went to see for himself. Sure enough,
the pine plantations were bursting with vigour,
far more so than nearby native-only forests
of the same age. Lugo did a systematic study
of the pine plantations and some mahogany
ones, and found that the plantation understoreys
were nearly as species rich, had greater
above-ground biomass (the sheer weight of all
the living things) and used nutrients more efficiently
than the native forest understoreys. He
submitted his results to the journal Ecological
Monographs1. Reviewers were horrified. In the
end, it took almost a decade to get the paper
past peer review.
Since then, Lugo has found many novel ecosystems
in Puerto Rico and elsewhere that are
much more diverse than native forests, but that
are largely ignored by ecologists. “That diversity
doesn’t count because they are the wrong
species,” says Lugo, shaking his head. He’s
found alien trees that, by creating a shaded canopy
on parched, degraded pastureland, make
possible the establishment of native trees that
could never cope with such an environment on
their own. As a result he now finds it difficult
to despise invasive trees as he thinks his colleagues
do, and even embraces the change. “My
parents and their parents saw one Puerto Rico,”
he says, “and I am going to see another Puerto
Rico, and my children will see another.”
Lugo wasn’t the only researcher thinking
along these lines, but it was not until 2006 that
the new approach gained a manifesto — and a
name. Lugo and 17 other researchers published
a paper called “Novel ecosystems: theoretical
and management aspects of the new ecological
world order”2 suggesting that such systems were
worth scientific attention. To demonstrate the
depth of resistance to the idea, the published
paper quoted referees’ comments on the submitted
manuscript: “One reviewer commented
that the examples are ecological disasters, where
biodiversity has been decimated and ecosystem
functions are in tatters, and that ‘it is hard to
make lemonade out of these lemons’.” But Lugo
and his colleagues saw it in a different light: “We
are heading towards a situation where there are
more lemons than lemonade,” they wrote, “and
we need to recognize this and determine what
to do with the lemons.”
The amount of land taken up by novel ecosystems, defined as unused lands
embedded within agricultural and urban landscapes.
Lemons can have their own value, says restoration
ecologist Richard Hobbs, lead author of
the paper and now at the University of Western
Australia in Crawley. Some novel ecosystems,
he says, are “alternative stable states”, relatively
entrenched ecosystems that would be very difficult
to drag back to historical conditions.
Around the time the paper came out, Mascaro
became interested in Lugo’s work and set
out to see if his results could be replicated on
the windward side of Hawaii’s Big Island. Were
the many novel ecosystems on the islands nurturing
any native species? Were they providing
ecosystem services? He studied 46 forests
growing on lava flows of varying ages at various
altitudes and dominated by a variety of species,
including albizia (Falcataria moluccana),
a fast-growing tree from southeast Asia, and
Australian ironwood (Casuarina equisetifolia).
He found that, on average, the forests had as
many species as native forests. But by and large
they weren’t incubating natives as they seemed
to in Puerto Rico3.
Part of the reason for the difference may lie in
the uniqueness of Hawaiian flora, which evolved
in isolation for up to 30 million years4. Not many
plants got to Hawaii in the first place, so competition
and predation pressures weren’t very
fierce. Without having to worry about being
eaten by anything larger than an insect, raspberries
and roses lost their thorns and mints lost
their minty defence chemicals. When people
introduced plants from other parts of the world ,
along with their attendant herbivores, Hawaiian
plants couldn’t compete.
Futuristic perspective
But Mascaro’s results didn’t put
him off the novel-ecosystem
concept. For one, he found
that in many measures of forest
productivity, such as nutrient
cycling and biomass, novel forests
matched or out-produced
the native forests. They might
not be ‘natural’ in the eyes of
purists, but they are behaving
exactly as they should . “These
ecosystems, like it or not, are
going to be driving most of
the natural processes on Earth,” he said at the
2008 Ecological Society of America meeting
in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It’s a message that
Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy
in Seattle, Washington, wants to see
move from the academic world to the world
of conservation management. “You hear conservationists
talk about what they want to save,
what they want to stop,” he says. “They should
talk about what they want the world to look like
in 50 years.” Studies of novel ecosystems could
help conservationists to “face the facts and be
strategic”, Kareiva says, rather than trying to
beat back the unceasing tide of change.
Kareiva is a great fan of the ecosystem-services
argument for preserving nature. But he
admits that the problem of what to do when
novel ecosystems provide better services than
the native ones is “a question we don’t talk
about that much”. Nevertheless, he is willing to
imagine a world in which, for example, exotic
strains of the reed Phragmites are allowed to
thrive in US wetlands because they provide a
great habitat for birds, rather
than be torn out in an expensive
and potentially fruitless attempt
to return native vegetation to
Ecosystem-service arguments
are powerful enough to
get some ecologists to abandon,
or at least put to one side, their
deep distrust of novel ecosystems.
Like many of his peers,
Shahid Naeem, an ecologist at
Columbia University in New
York, says he “would love to get rid of every
invasive species on the planet and put all the
native species back in their place”. Yet he’s willing
to see what can be made of novel ecosystems
as he feels an imperative to improve conditions
for the billions of humans on Earth.
The idea that novel ecosystems provide
welcome diversity has also gained traction.
Thinking on ‘invasive species’ has mellowed
significantly since the field was first established
in the 1950s. Newer work by the likes of Mark
Davis at Macalester College in Saint Paul,
Minnesota, and Dov Sax at Brown University
in Providence, Rhode Island, has shown that
the vast majority of species that humans move
around can slot into new ecosystems without
driving anything else extinct, and that the common
vision of invasive plants forming dense
monocultural stands that take over everything
else in their path is actually the exception. Yet
the newcomers in novel systems can still be a
genuine worry.
Peter Vitousek, an expert on Hawaiian
biodiversity at Stanford University in California,
would put albizia forests in the category
of dangerous invaders, because they wipe out
stands of the native ‘ōhi‘a tree (Metrosideros
polymorpha). He acknowledges the services
that novel ecosystems provide and that “they
may even support native biological diversity in
some important circumstances”. But, he adds,
“as with many good ideas, [tolerance of novel
ecosystems] can be taken to an extreme at which
it is no longer useful. I think most of the albizia-
dominated stands of Hawaii represent that
extreme.” His point is well illustrated where one
of Mascaro’s albizia forests abuts a native ‘ōhi‘a
forest. The albizia trees on the boundary actually
lean out towards the ‘ōhi‘a — growing sideways
to escape the shade of the next row in, encroaching
on the natives’ sunlight and looking poised
to usurp them. It is a menacing spectacle, and an
apt symbol for their tireless expansion.
Mascaro grants the point. “I can understand
where a manager wants to bulldoze an
albizia forest if they are worried that it is going
to exterminate an ecosystem type that is the
last on Earth,” he says. “If we want to debate
whether to use or conserve novel ecosystems,
we will always have to deal with the risk they
pose to other systems. But at the moment, we’re
scarcely debating it at all.”
Novel ecosystems are likely to cause at least
some extinctions. For example, species that
have evolved dependent relationships with
other species are less likely to do well in a world
in which the pot is stirred and everything is
redistributed. Hawaiian honeycreepers, beautiful
birds that often feed only on one type of
flower, are not doing well; several are already
extinct. So for those who care about slowing
or stopping the rate of such extinctions, novel
ecosystems are a net negative .
James Gibbs, an ecologist at the State
University of New York in Syracuse, subscribes
to this view. “I think celebrating [novel ecosystems]
as equivalent or improved is not appropriate.”
As an example, he points to Clear Lake
in Northern California, where the number of
fish species has risen from 12 to 25 since 1800.
Sounds like a success story. But, says Gibbs,
species that were found only in that lake were
replaced with fish that are common elsewhere
— so there was a net loss in biodiversity. A similar
caveat may hold for the genetic diversity
hidden within a species. Forests dominated by
the offspring of a handful of exotic colonizers
could be less genetically diverse than forests
that have sat there for thousands of years.
A question of values
In the end, the question of novel ecosystems,
like so many questions in ecology and conservation,
boils down to what
should be valued most in
nature. For people who value
processes, such as Mascaro,
novel ecosystems are great
hubs of active evolution. For
those who value ecosystem
services, any novel ecosystem
could be better or worse than
what came before depending on
how it operates. For those who
care about global extinctions or about preserving
historical ecosystems, they are bad news.
Gibbs says he values the exquisite complexity
of ecosystems that have evolved together over
thousands or millions of years. “Why are we
worried about the extinction of languages, the
roots of music, all these weird cuisines?” he
asks. “There is something about diversity and
our need to steward it. It is the subtlety and the
nuance and complexity that makes life interesting.”
Novel ecosystems seem, to him, to lack
this value, to be samey and artificial, “sort of
like eating at McDonalds” .
To Kareiva, though, that attitude is “one of
the reasons the conservation movement is failing.
To think there is some kind of garden of
Eden pristine ecosystem. There is none! That
view is just going to get us nowhere.”
Indeed, the Garden of Eden view, in which
ecosystems are static, is no longer widely held.
Th is means that novel ecosystems, far from
being a new phenomenon, simply represent
the latest changes on a dynamic Earth. Gradual
climatic changes and sheer randomness mean
that some species wander around continents
over vast timescales, fleeing glaciers, splitting
up and reforming . This is why Davis and some
others do not like the ‘novel’ label. “Ecosystems
are always new, from one year to the next,” says
Davis. “Ecosystems are always encountering
new species — it might be not
from another country but from
100 metres upstream. Much
more accurate would be to refer
to these as ‘rapidly changing’
ecosystems — but I guess that
is not catchy enough.”
Standing in his Hawaiian
forest, Mascaro is all too aware
of change — and it is something
he values, even if humans did
have a hand in the process. He never swore allegiance
to preserving ecosystems as they were
before humans arrived, as many conservationists
of an older generation did. “People come
up to me and say ‘it sounds like you’ve given
up,’” says Mascaro. “I want to say ‘I never took
up arms, my man’. This isn’t about conceding
defeat; it is about a new approach.” ■
Emma Marris writes for Nature from
Columbia, Missouri.
1. Lugo, A. Ecol. Monogr. 62, 2–41 (1992).
2. Hobbs, R. J. et al. Global Ecol. Biogeogr. 15, 1–7 (2006).
3. Mascaro, J., Becklund, K. K., Hughes, R. F. & Schnitzer, S. A.
Forest Ecol. Manage/ 256, 593–606 (2008).
4. Ziegler, A. Hawaiian Natural History, Ecology and Evolution
157 (University of Hawaii Press, 2002).
See Editorial, page 435.
“There is no garden
of Eden pristine
ecosystem. That
view is just going to
get us nowhere.”

Vol 460|16 July 2009
NEWS FEATURE NATURE|23 © 2009 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved
Vol 460|16 July 2009

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Translational Ecology

It's difficult to define oneself in any field, but sometimes I find it especially hard to define myself, as I wear a number of different hats in my work.  Landscape designers don't conduct ecological surveys, and ecologists aren't called upon to draft construction documents.  Good to know I'm not the only one who is working to build a bridge between the gulf that separates science and action.

William H. Schlesinger from Science Magazine in this week's edition writes:
"Ecology is well into its second century as an organized scientific discipline, rich with observations, experiments, and a general understanding of how the natural world works. Today's environmental scientists have a powerful array of tools and techniques to measure and monitor the environment and to interpret vast and diverse data. Yet despite producing an enormous amount of new information, ecologists are often unable to convey knowledge effectively to the public and to policy-makers. Unless the discoveries of ecological science are rapidly translated into meaningful actions, they will remain quietly archived while the biosphere degrades.
Global warming, the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, invasive species—these are but a few of the issues concerning environmental scientists and, increasingly, the public. What is needed is a new partnership between scientists and advocacy groups that conveys ecological information accurately and in ways that stakeholders (including policy-makers, resource managers, public health officials, and the general public) can understand. Just as physicians use "translational medicine" to connect the patient to new basic research, "translational ecology" should connect end-users of environmental science to the field research carried out by scientists who study the basis of environmental problems. Translational ecology requires constant two-way communication between stakeholders and scientists. It should continually alert scientists to aspects of the environment in need of study to produce new data, while clearly synthesizing what is already known from field studies and its relevance to policy. The partnership's purpose should be to ensure that all stakeholders know the implications of scientific discoveries and understand their impact on alternative ecological diagnoses.

Figure 2
Good examples of translational ecology involve interdisciplinary teams of scientists, engineers, public health experts, and members of the end-user community. A recent study of the environmental impacts of mountain-top–removal mining involved a collaboration between ecologists and public health experts.* Earth Justice and other nonprofit groups used this material to convince the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue new guidelines that will severely limit most such mining practices. In earlier years, research by wetland ecologists helped the EPA outline how to recognize and delineate wetlands, based on soil characteristics. Other scientists are now working with advocacy groups to help policy-makers understand the implications of human perturbations of the global nitrogen cycle. And we can be sure that scientific analysis of the impacts of deep-water petroleum extraction will also be forthcoming—in this case, unfortunately, as a retrospective.
Translational medicine grew from the recognition that basic research findings were not moving effectively into the development of drugs and treatments. To overcome this problem, in 2006 the U.S. National Institutes of Health established a Consortium for Transforming Clinical and Translational Research, which grants Clinical and Translational Science Awards. These awards have recently been increased to over $250 million for the next 5 years, expanding the consortium to 55 institutions nationwide. Translational ecology should similarly connect the end-users of environmental science with the major funders of environmental research.
This week, the Ecological Society of America concludes its annual meeting in Pittsburgh. The world's largest international organization of ecologists can play a critical role in spurring translational ecology. It has drawn together more than 3000 scientists, policy-makers, and citizens to explore the causes and consequences of this year's theme, global warming. Many of the sessions call for ecologists to take charge and improve science education and literacy, so that issues related to global warming are not misunderstood. Connecting ecology to stakeholders in these and other ways should enhance the understanding and application of ecological concepts, ensuring that scientific rigor is brought to bear on the world's many environmental challenges."

Original story at Science HERE
William H. Schlesinger is president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY. 

Monday, July 5, 2010

Beam-Raising at Columbia Science and Natural Resources Center

We recently celebrated the raising of the last beam for the new Science Center at Columbia College in Tuolomne County, California.  This building will be LEED Gold, which is fitting for a building placed atop a former gold mine in the foothills of the Sierras.  The main features of the building are the geothermal wells to heat and cool the building, large solar panels, plus the centralized preparation room for the science labs.  Outside in the landscape, we selected plants native to the foothills and county of Tuolomne to restore surrounding habitat and shade the hardscapes.  My contribution to the project was awarded the highest possible number of LEED points for landscape water efficiency and site development. 
I see this place as a nurse site to reintroduce plants that were missing from the surrounding landscape due to the degradation suffered during the gold mining days.  Not only did we chose plants that were missing from this community, but we also chose plants that would provide food and shelter for animals of the foothills.  What added to the complexity was finding plants that fit these requirements and were also available in the nursery trades in the quantities we need for this project. 
When we undertook this project, we intended to preserve all the trees between the building and roadway, and as part of this the key trees had been given special names so as to give them more significance in the planning process. This helped keep us all on the same page when later in the process, other professionals assigned the trees their own numbering systems, which ordinarily could have made things really confusing. Here we are three years after the initial planning process began, and unfortunately bark beetles have hit the region hard as a result of climate change, in ways we have yet to imagine.  Our Sentinel Pine became infected very recently, and there is no cure for the diseases the insects bring with them.  The Sentinel was a loss we all mourned, as the building footprint had been determined originally by our desire to keep this, the site's largest pine, standing tall and providing shade for the hard surfaces below it. 
Designers are rarely asked to consider the future of a project or product after their ideas have manifested themselves in the physical, let alone years into the future.  On my projects I try to incorporate the history of a place- in this case, the gold mine and even the time before this- as well as possible outcomes for the future to create a long view that guides my decision process.  In this case climate change threw me for a loop, and I imagine many other people have been experiencing unanticipated outcomes as a result of human factors they hadn't considered. What happens, for example, if predictions come true and we in California lose so many of our key species?  Will we no longer even have redwoods, or oak forests?  And if not, what will there be, if anything? 
These are questions that continue to vex me, but I counter these uncertainties by incorporating into my plans ecological principles such as redundancy, genetic variation, and adaptation.  In the end, if I have done my job well, no one will even know I was there at all.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Columbia Child Development Center

We recently celebrated the opening of the Child Development Center in Tuolomne County, California.  The team (myself included) designed this center on the campus of Columbia College to allow mothers to continue their education by providing a fun place for their children while they're at class.  The place is revolutionary on many levels.  The five building center mimics a village in the rural foothills, with each age group in their own miniature house.  Rather than sequestering operation away in a different area, each building has two classes united by a kitchen with washer and dryer in the center, so the children are never far from the sounds they associate with home.  It seems as if it were designed by the children themselves, with doors and windows, even the sinks and toilets, set at their height.  My favorite part is that the center was set in the middle of a mature oak forest, with no grade changes, so the buildings are on piers to prevent damage to the root systems of the trees.  These trees, aside from being loved by the children, will serve the purpose of keeping the buildings cool in the summer, part of our LEED design. The photos where you can't see the buildings for the trees- that's the point! I was brought on the projects as an ecologist with the goal of preserving as many trees as possible. 

For more on this project see my other post

Monday, June 21, 2010

Honey bees: the queen

Now for the most important member of any beehive: the Queen.
There is only one queen bee in every hive, and she is responsible for the production of all other bees. She is easily spotted in the hive if you know to look for her long abdomen.
A queen starts out as an egg, identical to the rest of the eggs of all the other female bees of a hive. What makes this egg develop into something special is that as a larvae she hatches and develops inside a larger sized cell in the honey comb- called a queen cell or a supercedure cell.
This extra room allows her to grow larger and she develops over a longer period of time. The large cell signals that bees who feed her to give her extra protein in the form of pollen, and an extra dose of royal jelly. Royal jelly is fed to all baby bees, and this substance is made up of protein, sugar, water, fats, vitamins and minerals. It is this extra royal jelly and the large queen cell that allows a bee to have fully developed sex organs. The queen exudes with these sex organs a group of pheromones which allow her to control the behavior of the rest of her hive. These pheromones have many different effects, from keeping the hive calm to telling them how healthy the queen is, and how to develop the new comb they are making.
As many of you know, we have several of our own hives, including a hive that my Honey and I caught as a swarm in our neighborhood. This hive has not been dong well, due mostly to the terrible weather we had while the swarm was transitioning into their new home. In the massive die-off of the hive we lost more than 75% of the bees, including the queen. It was awful, but we decided to keep an eye on the remaining hive and see what would happen.
When the weather changed and the bees began to emerge again in their new home, they quickly started to realize that their queen was gone. Her pheromones had worn off, telling the workers to prepare new queen cells. They built these cells outside of the typical comb, pointing the openings downward. Then they simply took unhatched eggs and placed them in the new queen cells. We watched as they did this, and soon we had a couple of capped queen cells.
When there are more than one of these queen cells, it's a battle for the fittest when the new queens begin to emerge. The virgin queen who survives the fight will leave the hive to mate with the male bees of another hive before she returns to spend the rest of her life laying eggs and being fed and groomed by the workers, her daughters. She only mates one time, but may mate with many males. She will carry that sperm with her the reset of her life, using it only to fertilize the female worker bees of her hive.
When a new queen returns to a hive without a queen, she begins to restore life of the hive back to normal.
We monitored our new hive, and a little more than two weeks after we discovered we needed a new queen, there she was- furry in her newness. She quickly began filling the ready comb with eggs, and the hive is recovering rapidly in this warm weather.

This queen here in the center is newly hatched, and you can tell this because she is unusually fuzzy.  As she ages the fur will wear off and she will become more shiny.
Now this new queen-making is not just confined to those hives who may have lost queens. The making of a new queen is the way this super-organism reproduces itself, and the hive gets the urge in the spring to split and make two. Some beekeepers say this need to reproduce can be minimized by giving the bee hive extra room in the spring as their numbers increase, but even with extra hive boxes the wary beekeeper should be checking her hives every week during the spring for those queen cells.
If a new queen hatches into a hive that already has a queen, when she returns mated her mother will sense she is there by the extra pheromones. The old queen will take half her workers and leave the hive to her daughter as a legacy ensuring her survival. The flight of the old queen with her bees to a new place is the swarm. In nature this urge to swarm allows bees to reproduce and meet the pollination needs of the land, and bees would move into dead trees and rock crevices nearby. But in the city bees can move into places they aren't wanted, so it is important for beekeepers to keep an eye on their hives by checking regularly for those queen cells. Any cells must be removed before they hatch, the cycle taking a total of 16 days.

Tune in to the next article for more about swarms, coming soon.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Honey Bees: Life of a worker bee

For the next article in this series on honey bees I'll be describing their life cycles.
First, each bee in a hive is not considered an individual in the way we think of, say, a human in their community. We think of each hive as the individual, or superorganism. Queens and the males- drones, have specific jobs that do not change as they age, their roles being the female and male sex organs of the hive. The rest of the bees, the female worker bees, are responsible for a step in the series of roles as they develop through the stages of their lives.
All worker bees hatch from a fertilized egg that has been laid in an empty cell of the honey comb. These cells are usually grouped in clusters located in the center of a frame of comb, with cells full of pollen and then honey surrounding them on the outside edges of the frame.
The baby bee hatches first as a grub-like larvae. She will stay in her individual cell as she grows. These babies are fed by their sisters until they are ready to pupate, at which point their older sisters cover up the end of their cell and they metamorphose into the adult while
closed away.

When the new baby bee emerges from her cell, she has her adult body like her older sisters, but is covered in a fuzzy fur that makes her easy to spot in the hive. Her first role in life is to tend to various tasks in the hive, from feeding her younger sister larvae to tending the queen or cleaning the hive. These bees do not leave the hive yet and haven't yet learned to fly, and so they tuck their new wings close to their bodies.

As the bees age they change roles again and become field bees. In the hive the bees are easy to spot, since they look like your quintessential bee- less hair and wings held out ready to fly.   You'll see these bees as they leave the hive their first time, where they fly up circles in a flight to orient themselves to the hive and their surroundings. As they become accustomed to the outside world, these bees venture further and further in search of nectar and pollen to bring back to the hive, traveling up to three miles. When they find it, they return to the hive laden with their treasures.

When a field bee has found a particularly tasty spot, she reports it to her hive mates with what we call a 'waggle dance'. This communication is not completely understood by humans, but we do know that is a representational language they use to tell other bees where the sweet spots are. I think it looks like the happy dance I do when I get a new contract for work.
When these field bees return with pollen they are met by hive bees who take the pollen and store it in comb. When they return with nectar they exchange it with the hive bees who deposit it in a different section in the comb.
As a bee ages and gets closer to the end of her life, her role changes again. She uses her flight experience to protect the hive, acting as a guard bee. When we go through the hives it is the guard bees who fly against the hoods of our bee suits. Funny thing though- the guard bees are programmed to fight off attackers such as bears, and so they don't go for our hands but our eyes. With a hood and a docile hive, I usually go gloveless so I can add touch to the experience- this way I crush fewer bees and I can feel the temperature of the hive. The hive bees will simply move out of the way of my fingers, while the guard bees buzz around in the air. A bee who stings ends her life for the sake of her hive, so it is rare that honey bees, who are accustomed to people tending their hives, will be aggressive towards humans.
 This is my hand, and I'm holding a cage with one of my queens in it, covered by her worker bees.  (No humans were harmed in the making of this photo)

Next article: the queen bee

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Honey bees: the hive boxes

Last night at a fundraiser for the Headlands Center for the Arts, I ran into a friend who has been reading my postings on Facebook on my beekeeping. She confessed to knowing almost nothing about bees. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who find it a mystery. So I've decided to go through the basics so that more people can be informed.

First, beekeeping has undergone changes in the centuries up to now, and the traditional round beehive image that most people associate with bees and honey is no longer in widespread use. Instead, most beekeepers, commercial and amateur alike use a system of stacked boxes with frames in them. The frames can be removed for inspection and honey extraction.

The frames have a distance between them that calculates the space bees need to form a single layer of honeycomb on the frame and then ha e enough space to pass through. This is called "bee space" and is typically 3/8 of an inch. Frames are molded to have a preformed honeycomb impression and then dipped in bees wax to give the bees a headstart on making comb. It is part of this boost we humans give the bees that frees up more time for them to make extra honey for us.
This frame in the photo here is a perfect brood frame, with the spacing of baby bees in the center of the frame with honey on the outside.

The boxes for the frames are stacked on top of one another and have different depths depending on what use they will have. Typically the bottom frame and box assembly is what we call a deep hive body, and this is where the heart of the bee colony lives. The queen moves freely throughout the box laying eggs and making new worker bees. The hive body is sometimes all the beekeeper starts out with in the spring, and the bees have lived in just this one box all winter.

As spring begins, the queen starts laying more eggs to ramp up for the summer. Beekeepers begin adding more boxes to the top of the first hive body. Frames that are for honey are shallow to be more lightweight, we call this box and frame assembly a medium super. The queen is excluded from these boxes, and without eggs in the comb the bees fill them with honey.
Honey is basically processed nectar from plants. The bees collect nectar and pollen from flowers and bring it back to the hive. Nectar is gathered into the bee's mouth, where it mixes with enzymes from the bee that start the process of becoming honey. The nectar is then deposited into the cells of the honeycomb and then dehydrated to remove the water. This finished product, honey, is the main source of food for the adult bees.
Pollen is like protein, and this is fed to the growing baby bees. While most Native bees do not make honey, all bees eat pollen, and they have a few different ways of carrying the pollen. If you look at a honey bee, you can see pollen carried in the special pouches on their hind legs. This pollen, like honey, is also stored in cells.
When a beekeeper is extracting honey, they take the frames out and with a hot knife they slice the caps off the honey cells and use an extractor to spin out the honey into buckets before then pouring the honey into jars. The frames are then put back into the hive boxes where the bees repair the edges and fill them with honey again.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Design for Wildlife part 1, Design for Bees

Honey bees have been getting press coverage lately with Colony Collapse Disorder, a yet undetermined affliction that has killed more than a third of the US bee population every year for the last four years. Honey bees have co-evolved with humans for centuries, and a collapse of these pollinators would mean a reduction by 1/3 of all the food produced in the United States. This is a serious matter that is just one piece of evidence of how broken our national food production is in this country, but I'll save that for another blog entry. What's certain about this is that we will become increasingly more dependent on the pollination of native bees for our crops. Most people are familiar with honey bees and bumble bees, but many of the small flying insects who frequent flowers are also bees. In fact, 3/4 of the planet's plants need insect pollination for reproduction, an evolution that occurred long before humans domesticated honey bees.

There are over 1600 species of native bees in California, with over 80 in the San Francisco Bay Area alone. They come in all color ranges, from metallic shades of blue and gold to fuzzy red, stripey green and black. The female Valley Carpenter Bee, reminds me of an orangutan with her gorgeous orange fur. Her mate is blue and shiny.
This bee in the poppy in Halictus escholzia, a sweat bee. 
Bees have a wide size range, from smaller than your pinky nail to the length of your thumb, often in the same family. The little bee down here is the smallest of San Francisco's carpenter bees, Ceratina acanthus.

Recently I had the pleasure of catching a bee called Megachile while at a friend's garden, and it buzzed with more ferocity than a cellphone on vibrate in my fingers but did not sting me. Why not, you ask? Honey bees and bumble bees have stingers, but these bees, like many animals, rely on bluff to protect them, since they sacrifice their own life to sting. If you think bees are dangerous then you have them mixed up with their cousins the wasps and hornets, who are aggressive and sting multiple times. Bumble bees and honey bees are social and live in hives of many thousands of individuals, meaning that they have a reason to protect the rest of their sisters in their hive by stinging. As a beekeeper I can assure you that even when opening up the lid of their boxes these bees rarely sting. They've been selectively bred to be gentle.
The rest of our native bees are solitary, most not even possessing a stinger at all. The solitary bees differ from honey bees in more ways than just that. Solitary bees have a shorter season when they're actively pollinating flowers, and have often evolved to coincide their life cycle with the flowering cycle of the native plants they pollinate. Many bees are specialists and feed only on one plant or one family of plants, such as the Sunflower bee Diadasia enavata, who pollinates many plants in the sunflower family. Scientists and farmers have been experimenting with these and other specialized pollinators such as the megachile family of bees. The short season of the bees can be be extended by staggering the times bees hatch, they do this by keeping sone of the nests in shade, and bringing them out to warm in succession, and as the nests warm the baby bees hatch.
If you want to have these amazing creatures in you garden, it isn't the size of your planting bed that will entice them- as most only need 16 square foot of space to lure them in to explore.  What bees need most are plants that have evolved to time their flowering to the bees, habitat, and water.
Gordon Frankie and his Berkeley Bee Garden group have been working to give the public more information on native bee habitat.  Check out their website for hours of information, including plant lists and beautiful photos.