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Today’s garden-themed post features a flower which I have never planted—indeed, having grown up in farm country, I am somewhat alarmed by this plant. Yet, as I walk around the neighborhood I am beguiled by its seductive beauty (plus there aren’t too many ponies in Brooklyn these days). I am of course talking about the Rhododendrons, a large genus of woody heaths which speciate most prolifically in Asia around the Himalayas, but also can be found throughout Eurasia and into the Americas (particularly the Appalachian Mountains). Actually, I was dishonest in the first sentence (it’s a national fad these days), I have, in fact, planted azaleas, which are a species of rhododendrons, but I am writing here about the big showy purple rhododendrons, and we will leave real talk about azaleas for another spring.

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In the In the Victorian language of flowers, the rhododendron symbolizes danger and wariness. This is fully appropriate since some of showiest and most highly regarded rhododendrons are indeed poisonous: they contain a class of chemicals known as grayanotoxins which affect the sodium ion channels in cell membranes. Rhododendron ponticum and Rhododendron luteum are particularly high in grayanotoxins. Humans are somewhat less susceptible to these compounds than other mammals (like poor horses, which just are apt to drop stone dead from browsing on rhododendrons), however, as is so often the case, our cleverness, grabbiness, and our taste for sweetness also puts us at higher risk for consuming grayanotoxins.
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Bees are drawn to the large colorful (and sweet) flowers of rhododendrons and they use the grayanotoxin rich pollen and nectar to make honey. If a bee hive incorporates a few ornamental azaleas into the honey, this is not too dangerous, but in regions where rhododendrons dominate and all come into bloom at once, the resultant honey can be extremely dangerous. This “mad honey” is said to cause hallucinations and nausea in lower doses, but in larger quantities it can cause full body paralysis and potentially fatal breathing complications. Like the hellebore, rhododendron honey was one of the first tools of deliberate chemical warfare. Strabo relates that Roman soldiers in the army of Pompey attacking the Heptakometes were undone by honeycombs deliberately left where the sweet toothed Romans would find them. It seems best to appreciate rhododendrons by looking at them. In fact, if you live in a Himalayan fastness surrounded entirely by rhododendron forests (or if you are attacking the Greek people of the Levant) maybe don’t eat honey at all…not until later in the summer.
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The high Himalayas  seen above the village of Ghandruk, Nepal (photo from http://holeintheclouds.net)

The high Himalayas seen above the village of Ghandruk, Nepal (photo from http://holeintheclouds.net)

The world’s largest honeybee, the controversial Himalayan cliff honey bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa) lives high in the Himalaya Mountains among the craggy peaks of Bhutan, Yunnan, Nepal, and the Himalayan provinces of India.  The large honeybees are renowned for building large nests/hives within the inaccessible overhangs of huge cliffs. These nests tend to be found at altitudes between 2,500 and 3,000 m (8,000 and 10,000 feet) built into cliffs which face to the southwest.

Honey-huntingAlthough Himalayan cliff honey bees have complicated lives within a densely layered hierarchical colony, they are not controversial because of their social complexity, but rather because of taxonomical quibbles. Before 1980, Apis dorsata laboriosa was classified as a subspecies of Apis dorsata (the giant honeybee of Soth Asia), but during the eighties and nineties, the Himalayan cliff honey bee was thought to be a unique species (Apis laboriosa). In 1999, the species was demoted back to a subspecies of Apis dorsata (although some genetics-minded entomologists argue that it is a distinct species). Hopefully you followed all of that—it sounds like more vertiginous twists of naming might still lie in the near future.

Himalayan Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), photo by L. Shyamal

Himalayan Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), photo by L. Shyamal

Perhaps some of this confusion comes from how inaccessible the bees are.  Only gifted mountaineers and free-climbers could ever hope to reach the lofty hives where the bees deposit their precious honey and larvae.   From their towering homes, the bees are able to forage nectar and pollen from upland meadows of the Himalayas (which burst into extravagant fields of flowers during the brief seasons of spring and summer).

A Nepalese Honey Hunter Risking his Life for Cliff Honey (photo by Eric Valli)

A Nepalese Honey Hunter Risking his Life for Cliff Honey (photo by Eric Valli)

Sadly for the bees, there is a terrible catch—the spring honey which they harvest from the high mountains comes partially from the nectar of white rhododendrons (which contain a grayanotoxin).  The spring honey from rhododendrons is red in color and, when fresh, reputedly has a narcotic effect on humans.  Honey hunters risk life and limb to climb high up the mountains.  They then use long poles to rob the bee hives–all while teetering hundreds or thousands of feet above a sheer precipice and being attacked by angry giant bees! The honey fetches a huge premium among the rich of Japan, Singapore, and China even though grayanotoxins are, you know, toxins, and can cause cardiac problems in addition to the soothing intoxicating effects.

Photo credit: Andrew Newey

Photo credit: Andrew Newey

Okapi (Walton Ford, watercolor on paper)

Okapi (Walton Ford, watercolor on paper)

Walton Ford is a contemporary artist who paints realistic large-scale watercolor paintings of mammals and birds.  The creatures are often placed in anthropomorphic contexts (where they dress or act like people). Because the paintings are so large, the artist tends to annotate them in beautiful copperpoint longhand (although it is a bit hard to see in this example).  In this painting, a shy okapi, the wraith of the African jungle is trying to purloin a piece of honeycomb from a dangerous gun trap.  The okapi’s face is filled with purpose but the ominous fire on the horizon and the hunting paraphernalia in the foreground hints at a dark outcome.

Detail

Detail

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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?

Carnival-colored Honey (Photograph by Vincent Kessler, Reuters)

Carnival-colored Honey (Photograph by Vincent Kessler, Reuters)

In October of 2012, Beekeepers in Ribeauville (a town in the Alsace region of France) were shocked to find that bees were producing vivid green and blue honey.  The hard-working insects were not mutants or abstract expressionists.  They had apparently found a source of colorful sugars which they pragmatically incorporated into their preparations for winter.

It works surprisingly well as a vivid abstract work made with mixed media.

It works surprisingly well as a vivid abstract work made with mixed media.

Shocked by the unnatural shades of the sweet honey, the town’s apiarists combed the local countryside until they found the apparent source—M&M candy fragments.   A local biogas plant (a sort of industrial recycling plant) was processing candy fragments from a nearby Mars Candy plant.  The adaptable bees discovered barrels filled with the sugary waste and began converting it to honey and stocking up their honeycomb.  French law however is stern concerning what constitutes saleable honey (honey must be transparent to brown & produced from plant products) so the wacky carnival honey will never see market.  Additionally workers at the biogas plant have enclosed all the candy dust so that the industrious insects don’t take over their jobs.

Artist's Impression

Artist’s Impression

 

Ancient Egyptian bee Hieroglyph

In prehistoric times there was no sugar.  Sweetness was only to be found in fruits and berries–with one gleaming exception. Pre-agricultural humans were obsessed with hunting honey (in fact there are rock paintings from 15,000 years ago showing humans robbing honey from wild bees).  The golden food made by bees from pollen and nectar of flowers was not merely delectable: honey is antiseptic and was used as a medicine or preservative.  The wax was also valued for numerous artistic, magical, medicinal, sealing, and manufacturing purposes.

But wild bees were hard to find and capable of protecting themselves with their fearsome stinging abilities.  One of the most useful early forms of agriculture was therefore beekeeping.  The first records we have of domesticated bees come from ancient Egypt.  An illustration on the walls of the sun temple of Nyuserre Ini (from the 5th Dynasty, circa 2422 BC) shows beekeepers blowing smoke into hives in order to remove the honeycomb.  The first written record of beekeeping—an official list of apiarists–is nearly as old and dates back to 2400 BC.  Cylinders filled with honey were found among the grave goods discovered in royal tombs.

Honey was treasured in the (sugar-free) world of ancient Egypt.  It was given as a fancy gift and used as an ointment for wounds. Although honey was too expensive for the lowest orders of society to afford, ancient texts have come down to us concerning thieving servants “seduced by sweetness.” Wax was also precious.  Wax tablets were used for writing.  Wax was an ingredient in cosmetics, an adhesive, a medicine, and a waterproofing agent.  Wigs were shaped with wax. It served as the binding agent for paints.  Mummification required wax for all sorts of unpleasant mortuary functions.  Perhaps most seriously (to the ancient Egyptian mind at least) wax was necessary for magic casting.  By crafting a replica of a person, place, or thing, Egyptians believed they could affect the real world version.

According to Egyptian mythology, bees were created when the golden tears of Ra, the sun god, fell to earth.  Bees are even a part of the foundation of the Egyptian state—one of the pharaoh’s titles was “king bee” (although Egyptians might have grasped rudimentary beekeeping skills they missed many of the important nuances of hive life and they thought the queen was a king).  The symbol of fertile Lower Egypt was the honey bee and the Deshret–the Red Crown of Lower Egypt is believed to be a stylized representation of a bee’s sting and its proboscis.

The Red Crown of Lower Egypt

Honeybee on a Cherry Blossom by digiphotolover

Since 2006, beekeepers in Europe and North America have been reporting mysterious mass die-offs of honeybees.  Although this has been a problem which has sometimes affected beekeepers in the past, the worldwide scale of beehive failures subsequent after 2006 was unprecedented.  Worldwide bee populations crashed.  Since bees are directly responsible for pollinating a huge variety of domestic crops–particularly fruits and nuts—the threat to our food supply and agricultural base extended far beyond the honey production which people associate with bees.  An entire community of free-wheeling apiarists came into the limelight.  For generations these mavericks would load up their trucks with hives of bees and drive to orchards in bloom.  For the right…honorarium…they would release the bees to pollinate the almonds, broccoli, onions, apples, cherries, avocados, citrus, melons, etcetera etcetera which form the non-cereal base of the produce aisle (as an aside, I find it fascinating that there is a cadre of people paid to help plants reproduce by means of huge clouds of social insects—if you tried to explain all this to an extraterrestrial, they would shake their heads and mutter about what perverts earthlings are).

A truck of bee hives to ensure that food crops are pollinated

As bees have declined, honey has naturally become more expensive, but so too have a great many other agricultural staples.  Not only has the great dying hurt farmers and food shoppers it has also affected entire ecosystems—perhaps altering them for many years to come.  “Pollinator Conservation” (an article from the Renewable Resources Journal) opines that “Cross-pollination helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive.”

Scientists have been rushing to get to the bottom of this worldwide problem, pointing fingers at varroa mites (invasive parasitic vampire mites from China), pesticides, global warming, transgenic crops, cell phone towers, habitat destruction, and goodness knows what else.  The lunatic fringe has leaped into the fray with theories about super bears, aliens, and Atlantis (although I could add that sentence to virtually any topic).  So far no theory has proven conclusive: exasperated entomologists have been throwing up their hands and saying maybe it’s a combination of everything.

An extremely cool illustration of Imidacloprid acting on insect nerves from Bayer (the original inventor/patent holder of the compound)

Yesterday (March 29th, 2012) two studies released in “Science” magazine made a more explicit link between colony collapse and neonicotinoid insecticides.  The first study suggested that hives exposed to imidacloprid (one of the most widely used pesticides worldwide) produced 85% fewer queen bees than the control hives.  The second study tracked individual bees with radio chips (!) to discover that bees dosed with thiamethoxam were twice as likely to suffer homing failure and not return to the hive. Suspicion has focused on neonicotinoid poisons as a culprit in hive collapse disorder for years (the compounds were hastened into use in the nineties because they were so benign to vertebrates), however the rigorously reviewed & carefully controlled studies in “Science” bring an entirely new level of evidence to the problem.  Unfortunately this also brings a new variety of problems to the problem, since neonicotinoids are tremendously important to agriculture in their own right (sorry Mother Earth) and since they are such handy poisons for, you know, not killing us and our pets and farm animals.

A Honeybee Drone

Even though honey bees they mimic humans in some ways (for example with their rigidly hierarchical hive organization), they are alarmingly alien in many respects.  Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the lives of honeybee drones—the male bees which play a role in reproduction but are otherwise alarmingly superfluous to the workings of a bee hive.

Drones are born from unfertilized eggs either laid by queens or by laying worker bees (which can only lay drones).  Because the drones develop from unfertilized eggs they have only one set of chromosomes (a reproductive process known as arrhenotokous parthenogenesis) and each drone produces genetically identical sperm. A fertilized queen can lay female worker bees which have two sets of chromosomes (diploid).   Worker bees are extremely closely related as sisters since they share identical genetic information from the father (as opposed to most other animals where male sex cells are not all genetically identical).

Drones do not posess stingers and can be safely handled.

Drones are different in appearance from female bees.  They are slightly larger than worker bees but smaller than the queen.  They have extremely large eyes, perhaps to help them find a queen while flying.  Additionally, drones lack stingers (which are really modified ovipositors and thus unique to female bees). Drones from different hives congregate at certain locations not far from a given hive (it is unclear how they choose or mark these locations).

Drones do not engage in the useful toil so characteristic of the workers.  Male bees do not gather nectar & pollen, take care of larvae, or build the hive.  Lacking stingers, they do not act as soldiers.  Their only purpose is to mate with a queen—though only one in thousands will fulfill this destiny.  Mating is accomplished in midair and proves fatal to the drone.  His reproductive organs break off inside the queen and the contusion proves mortal.  Drones have no place in an austere winter beehive.  As winter approaches in cold weather locations, worker bees cast all of the drones out of the hive to perish.

Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)

Out of all the hymenoterans, Ferrebeekeeper has been looking forward to writing about honey bees.  Not only is honey delicious (and the striped workaholic insects strangely endearing), but honey bees have one of the most successful colony systems extant.  As noted in a previous post, a hive of honey bees is a conundrum—is it 50,000 souls working together in a city state or is it one living organism?  Unfortunately, as one reads through the writings by beekeepers, one realizes that it is not easy to answer this question—or even to write a short essay concerning honey bees.  Their societies are too complex to be readily summarized.  Writing about a hive of honey bees really is like writing about the myriad affairs of a city-state.  The bees forage in different locations, store their produce in different forms, build structures, establish castes, fights wars, and undergo succession crises.

All of that is true during the warm part of the year. As temperatures drop to around 20° Celsius (50° Fahrenheit), things change a great deal within the hive.  Honey bees do not hibernate like bears (or like bumblebees which also snuggle down in a little lined den) instead they use honey stores and teamwork to stay warm.  Honey bees do not have internal warming mechanisms like mammals, but they have each other and they have powerful wing muscles.  The bees cluster together into a ball with the queen at the middle.  Worker bees close to the queen shiver their wing muscles and thereby generate heat.  Workers at the outside of the ball act as insulation (and benefit from transferred heat).  If the ball becomes too hot it expands outward and the space between bees allows heat to escape.  If it becomes too cold the bees press inward.  Tired workers move towards the outside of the ball where they can be inert whereas cold workers on the outside move towards the inside.  You might notice I am only writing about female bees—the workers and the queen—this is because all of the male drone bees are regarded as expendable and are thrown out of the hive to die in the cold as soon as temperatures drop.

In the beginning of the cold season  the queen is not laying eggs (broodless) and the temperature within the cluster is about  27 °C (81 °F), however as spring nears a new brood of workers is needed and the interior temperature of the cluster rises to 34 °C (93 °F) in order to make egg-laying possible.  Hives with too few bees can not stay warm this way and they perish in cold winters, however adequately large hives with ample honey reserves can survive temperatures which dip deep deep below freezing. Even in large well-provisioned hives there are winter dangers though.  Moisture can build up in heavily insulated hives and form icicles which subsequently drip down on the bees in non-freezing weather and chill them (or burden them with fungi).  And prolonged deep cold can prove disastrous. The bees congregate around a single honey store when the temperatures are extremely cold and then they spread out and move to another honey deposit when the weather is better.  If the weather stays too cold for too long they deplete all of the honey and freeze—inches from abundant supplies of life-giving honey.

Swan of Tuonela (Gabriel de Jongh)

It will probably not surprise you to know that much of the mythology of Finland and Lapland is concerned with impossible quests which ineluctably lead to destruction. Louhi was queen of the bleak realm of Pohjola as well as being a sorceress, a shapeshifter, and possibly a demigoddess.  She possessed several daughters of ineffable loveliness. In order to win the hand of one of these beauties, a hero had to pass a test stipulated by Louhi.  These tasks were always impossible or very nearly so. Additionally if a hero somehow seemed to be on the brink of accomplishing his quest, Louhi would use her sorcery to ensure that he failed.

My favorite of these myths concerns the hero Lemminkäinen, a warrior and shaman who fell in love with one of Louhi’s daughters. Louhi promised the maiden’s hand to Lemminkäinen only if the hero could bring back the lifeless body of the swan of Tuonela.  Tuonela was the Finnish underworld, a magic haunted island ruled over by the dark god Tuoni.  Getting there was no easy task and returning was much harder (several other stories about suitors seeking the daughters of Louhi involve Tuonela and its dreadful snares).  The swan was a transcendent being which swam around the island of the dead singing.

The Swan of Tuonela (Ben Garrison, 2011)

After great travails Lemminkäinen made it to the underworld and he found the magic swan, but as he drew his arms to kill the bird, Louhi’s cruel guile became apparent.  The swan began to sing a haunting song of divine beauty. The golden notes described life’s splendor and its heartache—the wordless music summarizing everything that people long for and care about in their journey from the cradle to the grave. The impossible sadness and magnificence of the song moved Lemminkäinen’s heart and he realized he could not kill the great bird. As Lemminkäinen faltered, he was spotted by the gods of the underworld.  Infuriated that anyone should threaten the great swan, Tuoni’s blind son sent a poisonous watersnake to bite the suitor.  Lemminkäinen tried to sing away the venom with a shaman spell but he knew no words of magic against watersnakes.  The whirlpool of the river of death caught him and his body was ripped into pieces which sank among the underwater boulders.

Lemminkäinen did not return home and his aged mother began to worry about him.  She went through the world seeking him in the dark forests of the south and in the lichen-shrouded wastes of the north.  She spoke to bird and bear and deer and fish looking for her son. She questioned the yellow moon and the silver stars but they were indifferent.  Finally she prostrated herself before the red sun as it set in the west and the sun god gave her the terrible answer that Lemminkäinen was lifeless, cut to bits in the black river of Tuonela. Broken with grief she went to the smith god Ilmarinen and begged him to make a huge dragging rake for her with a copper handle and steel tines. Then she went to the river and laboriously found the many waterlogged fragments of Lemminkäinen’s corpse.   She pieced the shattered bones and torn sinews together and sang the most powerful songs of healing magic to reassemble the body, but still her son remained lifeless.  All of her prayers and supplications and lamentations went unheeded by all gods and creatures save for one.  A little bee landed in front of her and promised to help.

Lemminkäinen’s Mother (Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1897, tempera on canvas)

Furiously buzzing her wings, the tiny insect flew away up into the sky and then farther up to the vault of heaven.  She crossed Orion’s shoulder and flew across the great bear’s tail.  Finally she reached the heavenly abode of of Jumala, the Creator God, where he had crafted the universe.  The bee flew through the immense palace until she found a golden vessel filled with healing honey.  Then the little bee took a drop of the honey and flew down through the stars back to Lemminkäinen’s mother.  Together they placed the honey on his tongue and color came back to his lifeless form.  He struggled and shuddered and then gasped for air, waking from the world of death with its whirlpools and dark waters. But the swan’s haunting song was with him all of his days as was knowledge of what waits in the death’s dream isle at the end of the world.

And that’s how Lemminkäinen learned that Louhi’s daughter was an unsuitable bride.

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