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Sunflowers in a commercial field in California

Sunflowers in a commercial field in California

Ferrebeekeeper is always chasing down where domesticated plants and animals originally came from.  Bananas are from Malaysia and New Guinea.  Quinces are from the Near East.  Goats are from Crete and Iran. Turkeys seem to have come from Mesoamerica. Pigs are from Eurasia (sometimes these sites are somewhat less than specific).  All of this leads to the question of what came from here?  Are there any domesticated animals from eastern North America? Are there any domesticated plants that didn’t come from Eurasia or Africa or some tropical wonderland?  It is autumn and the answer is right outside.  All domesticated sunflowers everywhere descend from a variety originally native to the woodlands in the central east of North America.  Some of the earliest archaeological finds of domesticated sunflowers come from 3000 to 3500 year old sites in Illinois, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  Of course answers as to what happened thousands of years ago in societies which did not leave written records are always open to debate and to new findings—so a subset of archaeologists think that sunflowers too were first domesticated in the great temple societies of Mesoamerica.  But until they come up with truly conclusive evidence let’s say the useful yellow plants are from Arkansas.

It is possible I will have to change this article around, but this evocative Aztec-style picture was made by modern artist Zina Deretsky

It is possible I will have to change this article around, but this evocative Aztec-style picture was made by modern artist Zina Deretsky

Sunflowers are a genus (Helianthus) of approximately 70 species of tall aster flowers (asters are a family of flowering plants which include cornflowers, periwinkles, cosmos, and lots and lots of other flowers which I have not written about).  Domesticated sunflowers (H. annus) are annuals which grow to 3 meters (9.8 ft) tall in a growing season. According to my sources, the tallest sunflower on record somehow grew to a height of 9 meters (30 feet), which I find implausible (though I would dearly like to see such a thing).  Sunflowers spend their energy on growing a full head of large oily seeds.  The head of a sunflower is a complex and botanically interesting combination of different sorts of flowers growing together.  The “petals” are produced by sexually sterile flowers which fuse their petals into an asymmetrical ray flower. A whole ring of these peculiar flowers surround the inner head, where individual disk flowers are oriented in mathematically complex relations to each other (seriously, try drawing the head of a sunflower and you will soon appreciate the peculiar juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity going on in the form).

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Sunflowers were first imported to Europe in the 16th century. They have become commercially important in the modern world largely because of their inexpensive high-quality oil (although the seeds are roasted, milled, baked, and otherwise made into every sort of foodstuff you could think of).  Young sunflowers do track the sun across the sky during the day, but they swiftly lose this ability as their buds open.

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The sunflower has garnered a vast variety of spiritual, aesthetic, and cultural meanings as it moved around the world and became one of humankind’s favorite crops. However nearly every culture is inclined to associate it with joy, beauty, abundance, and the sun.  They are wonderful plants.

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Sad news from America’s apiculturists: nearly a third of domestic bees in the United States did not survive the winter of 2012/2013.  Before 2005 the winter loss rate was between 5% and 10%, but after that year, colony collapse disorder, a mysterious affliction which caused domestic bees to fly away and never return, ravaged the poor honeybees. Losses of 30% became common.  Beekeepers were somewhat hopeful that the worst of the scourge was passing after the winter of 2011/2012 (when losses fell to 22%) however apparently that year was anomalous.  At least it seems that this winter’s losses were not the result of classic colony collapse disorder–rather than flying away to nowhere the bees stayed put in their hives. Yet the insects they were sadly weakened and diminished and the attenuated hives proved unable to start new broods in the spring and just withered away.

WHY? (No seriously--why?)

WHY? (No seriously–why?)

This is a huge and perplexing problem.  At least a third of our food supply is dependent on the hard-working yellow and black pollinators.  Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake—as are our favorite fruits, vegetables, and nuts.  This past year a number of studies indicated that neonicotinoid insecticides were partly to blame for bee losses (along with vampiric varroa mites, a decline of wild flowering plants, greedy beekeepers who overextend their hives, and a bacterial disease horrifyingly named “European foulbrood”) but the compounds are non-toxic to other animals and immensely lucrative to big chemical companies.  In Europe the compounds were banned this year, so comparing European bee hives with American ones in coming years should at least help us understand the problem.

Some scientists have also suggested that a lack of genetic diversity in domestic bee populations is also contributing to the problem.  Maybe we need to go online and find some new life partners from around the globe for our hymenopteran friends.  The infamous Africanized killer bees seem like they have some immunity to some of the issues behind bee die-offs.  Maybe we need to come up with a better name for those guys and see what they are up to this summer.

Sigh...so, um, what do you gentlemen do?

Sigh…so, um, what do you gentlemen do?

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