Firefly Night: A Language Made of Light

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My friend Iren from Abiquiu just wrote me that on the full moon some fireflies were lighting up the night down by the river’s edge. I was so happy to hear that news because last summer those diminutive lanterns were absent around the casita even though it is situated close to the river.

 

In my Maine backyard this summer some green and gold lights continue to flash their signals just before dark lasting into the night. I find myself looking for patterns, and counting firefly numbers obsessively, almost against my will, remembering what was…

 

When I first moved to the mountains 30 plus years ago I camped in the field next to the brook and couldn’t fall sleep at night, struck by “lightening bug” wonder. It seemed as if the field itself was on fire with thousands of these magical lights that blinked as they skimmed the tall grasses, glowing like emerald jewels from the ground. When my camp was built it was awash in firefly light, and each year I anxiously awaited magical, mystical summer nights when my nocturnal friends would appear. The first evening or so after they arrived, I couldn’t resist capturing a few to keep in a ventilated jar overnight, just as I had done as a child.

 

When it started I thought it was my imagination. Maybe it was a bad year for fireflies I rationalized, the first summer I noted the absence of an abundance of lights hovering over the field. But I was wrong. Year after year, journal entries confirmed my worst fears. The fireflies were disappearing and there was nothing I could do about it.

 

Even now that I know that our insects are experiencing a holocaust there is a child in me that cannot accept that fireflies are leaving us and that its just a matter of time before these insects disappear for good. I recently read that tourists flock to places where (synchronized) fireflies are still abundant.

 

The grief I feel is visceral.

 

Fireflies are winged beetles. When a chemical called luciferin inside their abdomen/tail combines with oxygen, calcium and adenosine triphosphate a chemical reaction occurs that results in bioluminescence. This ‘cool’ light is the most efficient in the world because almost 100 percent of the energy used is emitted as light and not heat.

 

A similar group of organisms are glowworms. The term “glowworm” can refer to firefly larva or wingless adult female fireflies—some of which are not in the firefly family Lampyridae. Both glowworms and fireflies are bioluminescent.

 

Each species uses it own pattern of lightening flashes to attract a mate, and most fascinating is that some fireflies synchronize their yellow, pale red, green, or orange lights. Several studies have shown that female fireflies choose mates depending upon specific male flash pattern characteristics. Higher male flash rates, as well as increased flash intensity, have been shown to be more attractive to females in two different firefly species.

 

Many would be predators are repelled by firefly blood that contains defensive steroids which apparently taste awful!

 

Some firefly larvae can emit light from underground, and in some species the eggs glow. The underground-dwelling larvae of the lightning bug are carnivorous and feast on slimy slugs, worms and snails. Others live in the water, have gills and eat aquatic snails before coming ashore. Most adult fireflies feast on pollen and nectar.

 

Three main factors for firefly disappearance are habitat loss (when fields are paved over fireflies don’t migrate; they simply disappear – this fact may suggest that these insects may be tied to a particular place), logging, toxic chemicals like DEET (which tend to linger in aquatic environments where many fireflies start their lives), and light pollution.

 

Most species of fireflies thrive as larvae in rotting wood and forest litter at the margins of ponds and streams. And as they grow, they more or less stay where they were born. Some species are more aquatic than others, and a few are found in more arid areas—but most are found in fields, forests and marshes. Their environment of choice is warm, humid and near standing water of some kind—ponds, streams and rivers, or even shallow depressions that retain water longer than the surrounding ground.

As previously mentioned both male and female fireflies use their flashing lights to communicate. All species speak a language of light.

Human induced artificial light pollution (including those cute little solar lights) may interrupt firefly flash patterns. Scientists have observed that synchronous fireflies get out of sync for a few minutes after a car’s headlights pass. Light from homes, cars, stores, and streetlights may make it difficult for fireflies to signal each other during mating—meaning fewer firefly larvae are born next season. Where fireflies once had uninterrupted forests and fields to live and mate, homes with landscaped lawns and lots of exterior lights (that some people leave on all night) are now the norm.

I find it distressing that so many folks are obsessed with the idea and the reality of ‘Light’ in all its manifestations and yet we are losing the very creatures who actually speak the language made of light.

Losing Time on North Pond

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(author on her way to launching her kayak – its to the right)

 

After having missed a summer kayaking I was overjoyed when I finally slid my little blue otter into the waters of North Pond this year.

It was a blue and gold day when I paddled out to see if the rose pogonias were still in bloom in the bog at the southwest end of the pond. These delicate pink and white native orchids with their fringed tongues that rise above a rich sphagnum moss community are a sight to behold for any orchid lover. I was amazed by this year’s abundance of flowers.

Attaching my line to a couple of cattails so I could drift and contemplate this marvelous boggy neighborhood, I was initially struck by the sheer diversity of plants that inhabited the nitrogen poor ‘island’.

That’s when I saw the pitcher plant flowers. Why is it that I am so enamored by these solitary dark crimson and green flower spikes? Perhaps because they seem so improbable in an otherwise low growing community of plants, except for a few, none of which tower over the pitcher plant inflorescences except for the occasional swamp maple and cattails. After examining one perfect five lobed flower with its central starred balloon like center I looked for its companion, the pure white flower of the diminutive sundew, also held high above tiny rosettes of sticky red clusters, but they had already gone by.

For the millionth time I wondered why it was that these two carnivorous plants grew in such close proximity to each other. I suspected some kind of mutualism or relationship must occur between the two, one that benefited both plants, but had never found any research to support this idea. I did know that the flowers of the two carnivorous plants, held high above the plants on stalks prevented the carnivores from trapping those insects that would pollinate them, an adaptation like most, that always amazed me. Both kinds of flower heads followed the sun, that is, they were heliotropic.

I pulled myself in close to the bog to inspect both the pitcher plant and its friend the sundew with my usual curiosity. Carnivorous plants occur in locations where the soil is too poor in minerals and/or too acidic for most other plants to grow (although in this seemingly diverse bog one might argue that point). The pitcher and sundew have evolved traps to lure, drown and digest animal prey to supplement nutrient-poor soils, providing us with a perfect example of the complex relationship between plants and the places they grow. Both are deadly traps for mosquitos.

The pitcher plant consists of a group of hollow, reddish-green leaves, each connected to a stem that extends roots downward into the bog. Each “pitcher” has an upper, flared lip that has hairs that curve downward and is generally partially filled with water. Insects attracted to the pitcher crawl inside the modified leaf and are prevented from leaving by the downward pointing hairs. Eventually the insects tire and fall into the water where they are digested for the most part, by bacteria. The products of digestion, high in nitrogen and containing amino acids, are absorbed by the leaf, supplementing photosynthetically produced organic matter. The water contained by the leaves supports a community of interesting organisms that include bacteria, protozoa, rotifers, and other creatures. In some places pitcher plants even devour spiders, salamanders, and small frogs.

The round-leaved sundew has a number of small rounded leaves attached to a central stem. The modified leaves form a sort of rosette. Each leaf has glandular hairs around its edge and most leaves have a drop of a sticky substance attached to the end of each hair. Insects like mosquitos and ants become trapped in the drops. When they try to escape their frantic motions cause the leaf to fold over the insect. The whole process takes about 30 minutes. The prey is subsequently digested and the digested nutrients, also containing essential nitrogen and amino acids, are absorbed into the plant, supplementing the food produced photosynthetically.

 

Amazing, don’t you think?

 

Another observation suddenly occurred to me while I was examining the two plants. Both plants were primarily reddish and green. This color correspondence might be another clue supporting my idea that these two plants benefited from each other in very specific ways…

 

Suddenly my eye caught the loon floating high and then sinking in the water nearby. This one was fishing. The loon dipped his/her head and bill into the water searching for fish with his very red eye that come fall would turn gray for the winter. The red eye, it is believed, filters out blue and green light making for more effective summer fishing. The brilliant red may also help a loon attract a mate.

 

The dark shadow on the water caused me to look up into a late afternoon sky, just in time to see the white eagle’s tail. A top predator was flying over my head. And it was late.

 

Reluctantly, I decided to paddle back to the dock. Hours had passed while I was enthralled by what I had seen at the bog and my never-ending unanswered questions.

Wild Rugosa Roses

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I have lived around Rugosa roses most of my life. Most people who visit coastal areas are familiar with these thickets of fragrant and very thorny rose bushes that are covered in white or magenta flowers during the summer and have shimmering deep orange to red seed – pods in the fall. The bushes thrive growing wild often spreading by rhizomes in the sands and dunes that are closest to the ocean. The plants also reproduce by seed. No other wild rose bush has such a density of thorns on each stem which makes it easy to distinguish from any other wild rose. The single or multi-floral blossoms waft an impossibly sweet scent towards the discerning nose while providing bees and insects with the sweetest nectar imaginable.

 

When I moved inland the first bush I bought was a Rugosa rose. Although they do not grow as prolifically in the Maine mountains as they do on the coast, it is still possible to have beautiful healthy blossoming bushes gracing your yard, and over the years I have watched mine spread slowly through the sandy soil, the new shoots always trying to catch the sun. Each June I look forward to picking richly perfumed flowers for the house. This year the roses bloomed late and caught the first heat wave that hit Maine. I was disappointed to have the roses peek for such a brief moment in time, although there will be a second bloom later this summer. Even so, the scent of blooming roses outside my window awakened me at dawn for a week.

 

Imagine my surprise when I moved to Northern New Mexico to spend winters and discovered Rugosa roses thriving at gas stations! My respect for these tough denizens of the wild increased as I witnessed the bushes blooming under a fierce southern summer sun. I was determined to buy one for the casita…

 

It wasn’t until Mother’s Day while visiting greenhouses that my friend Andrew spotted a few small bushes in an area that was overflowing with hundreds of pots of more cultivated roses. I was so excited to have found what seemed to be a lost friend because I had asked about buying these roses earlier in the spring only to discover that no one seemed to carry them. Frankly, I was surprised, because if these bushes thrived in unlikely places like gas stations in Santa Fe, they would probably grow well just about anywhere. I have developed a deeper respect than ever for tough plants after living in the desert!

 

Needless to say, I returned home that day with a small blooming Rugosa rose that I tenderly planted in front of the south porch. The bush had just a few blooms left on it so I left them on the bush, bending down to smell the deep magenta flowers instead of picking some. By the time I left for Maine the bush had developed small green seed pods called rose hips. Because I have a drip system in place, (thanks again to Andrew), I am hopeful that the bush will take, although I know from personal experience that planting these roses can be tricky.

 

When I researched Rugosa roses for this article I was astonished to learn that most of these roses originated and are native to Asia and Siberia with smaller populations native to this continent, Europe and Africa.

 

The rose as a species according to fossil evidence is 35 million years old and in this country some 150 species, including Rugosas, eventually spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere, from Alaska to Mexico.

 

Apparently, garden cultivation of roses began some 5,000 years ago, probably in China. We are so fortunate to have so many kinds of wild roses growing in this country and now I have some understanding of why there are so many wild species. Roses have been around for a very long time! There is another pale pink wild rose that grows wild in Iren’s Bosque in Abiquiu and here on my property that is also very fragrant. Years ago, I also transplanted a tiny white rose from Bowdoinham Maine that has mushroomed into a giant wild bush near the brook that used to be covered in bees. These one-inch single white rose clusters are also amazingly fragrant. Sadly, many rose hybrids loose their scent and are ignored by pollinators which is why I prefer wild ones.

 

The petals of the screened-dried Rugosa rose make fragrant long lasting indoor bouquets (dry petals in an attic or warm place until they crush easily).

 

Best of all, this rose produces delicious nutritious edible seed pods for humans and non humans alike. The fruit can be eaten raw or cooked because the hips are sweet. If one has the patience to make rose hip jam as I have, the rewards are considerable. The fruit is a fairly large size for a rose with a relatively thick layer of flesh and is rich in Vitamin C. Inside the seeds are a good source of vitamin E, and can be ground into a powder and mixed with flour or added to other foods as a supplement. It is also possible to make a tea combining the fruit with some leaves that is very pleasing to drink. If my little rose bush In Abiquiu makes it I plan to make a sun tea that combines rose hips and mint leaves from my southern garden. Just the thought makes my mouth water.

 

There are other practical reasons for growing this species. It hybridizes easily with other roses and is valued because it is so disease resistant and tolerant of road salt. It is also an excellent plant to control erosion.

Black Bear Intolerance in Maine

Living with Black Bears

 

As a Naturalist/ethologist I am compelled to keep on speaking out on behalf of Maine’s Black bears because they are so misunderstood.

 

A person has a million to one chance of being killed by a black bear. We are 32,000 times more likely to be murdered by another human.

 

Black bears are primarily vegetarians.

 

Black bears are maligned thanks to certain individuals, ans special interest groups like the NRA and state fish and wildlife agencies who are interested in perpetuating the myth of the “nuisance” or “killer bear” to foster their own agenda.

 

In reality, Black bears are extremely shy, intelligent animals that outperform chimps in many tests of learning. They have navigational abilities that defy scientific understanding. During hibernation Black bears are capable of healing themselves of life threatening wounds and are able to re-cycle toxic bodily waste without damage to muscle tissue.

 

Black bears co – evolved with trees as a prey animal. Black bears cannot live in areas where trees do not provide them with adequate protection.

 

Black bears are very nervous animals who convey their fear by moaning, slapping the ground, huffing, blowing, or in extreme cases, false charging when surprised or approached by humans.

 

If we want to co –exist with bears we need to learn their language – all they are asking is that we give them some space.

 

We also need to re- interpret bear behavior in terms of their fear and not our own.

 

Understanding a bear’s fear helps a person to re-evaluate what appears to be threatening/aggressive behavior.

 

A “nuisance bear” is a hungry bear and most human-bear conflicts occur late in the spring and early summer after bears have emerged from their dens in April/May. Initially, these animals are sluggish and have no appetites. Their hunger returns after metabolism returns to normal in about three to four weeks. After ingesting tender grasses they search out bulbs, corms, ants and larvae as they wait for the first berries to ripen.

 

The 40 – 70 pound adolescents are most vulnerable during this period. After their second spring Black bear mothers leave them to mate. The young are searching for territories, are immensely curious as well as being hungry and this is when they are likely to visit backyards for a snack. Sometimes adult bears do too. I am always astonished when people complain about bears destroying feeders when the solution is obvious: take bird – feeders in during late spring and early summer especially at night.

 

Well documented research by bear biologists (www.bear.org) reveals that given a preference, Black bears will choose natural foods over birdseed/garbage as long as it is available. There is a brief period during spring/summer when natural food is scarce. It’s worth repeating: if you don’t want bears in your backyard take bird – feeders in.

 

With an exploding human population we are taking over the land these animals have lived on in peace for millennia. Why can’t we learn to share resources without taking measures to destroy these iconic denizens of our forests? In Ely Minnesota for example, supplemental feeding keeps bears from visiting backyard feeders and reduces nuisance bear complaints to almost zero.

 

However, in areas like Minnesota people choose to co –exist with bears, and don’t insist that wild animals conform to human expectations. Maine is fortunate to have a stable black bear population, one that attracts many visitors – hunters among them – Why couldn’t we choose to do the same?

April’s Frog Moon Resurrection

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The Frog Moon Mystery

 

April’s second spring moon was almost full as she rose through the cracks of the cottonwoods. The acequias were filling across/down the field and a small amount of rain had fallen two days earlier. Diminutive lime green leaves feathered the trees. I was just walking in the house when I heard the call.

 

I stopped dead in my tracks, stunned. Then wondered if I was having some kind of audio – hallucination. A paracusia, or audio hallucination is a form of hallucination that involves perceiving sounds without auditory stimulus.

 

After all, it had three years since I had heard one of the most beloved sounds that I associate with spring…I kept listening, sat down on the steps, my ears on fire. The unmistakable trill.

 

After a timeless pause, the practical side of me took over. I entered the house, got my recorder, and began recording the song.

 

I have been listening to the musical trill of tree frogs since I was a child, and I knew this song by heart. A gray tree frog was singing just beyond what I call the magic portal, a natural cathedral framed by bowed cottonwoods that opens into the next field.

 

After about an hour of listening and recording even the skeptic in me was forced to accept that this really was a gray tree frog. Sadly, I never heard a female’s answering call. It was also clear that this male frog was not being challenged by other tree frogs (who call out to establish territories as well as to attract females) because there apparently were no others in the area.

 

This latter fact did not surprise me. All frogs have been endangered since the 1960’s and many have become extinct.

 

“In Silent Spring” written in 1962 a brilliant and dedicated biologist, and true “mother of the environmental movement” warned us about the Great Silence that was about to descend upon us as a result of indiscriminate pesticide use, and no one listened.

 

Frogs and toads are the canaries of water, land and air. Because they breathe through their skin they are indicators of the massive amounts of pollution we are allowing to consume our planet “forgetting,” of course, that eventually these pollutants will kill humans too (the ultimate dis-connect).

 

Just before I went to bed that night I opened the door and heard the solitary tree frog crying out to the moon.

 

The next morning I compared my recording with the songs of grey tree frogs online, and of course they were identical.

 

For two days I researched every New Mexican tree frog and listened to about 50 recordings and came up with nothing that sounded like the recording I had.

 

How could this be? Grey tree frogs are denizens of the wetlands and forested areas of the northeast – east of the Rockies.

 

Meanwhile, my beloved gray tree frog is still singing his heart out even during the day, something I have never heard any of the Maine gray tree frogs do unless rain or heavy mist blanketed the mountains. At these times they sing periodically.

 

As of this writing, even in the wind my little friend is still calling – the voice of yearning crying out in the wilderness… Three days in a row.

 

At present I have no answer to this particular mystery and welcome any commentary the reader might have.

 

What follows is a little natural history on these one to two inch frogs that come in every shade of gray to green, depending upon the vegetation they inhabit.

 

The gray tree frog’s scientific name is Hyla versicolor. The frog’s ability to alter its skin color also changes with respect to the time of day and the surrounding temperature. When my brother and I were children we would capture these frogs and place them on leaves, lily pads, wild grasses, bark, lichen etc. just to watch how fast they could change color! Their skin becomes much lighter at night and darker during the day.

 

Gray tree frogs hibernate in the winter by taking refuge in trees. They survive sub -zero temperatures by producing glycerol to “freeze” during which time they also stop breathing while still being able to maintain interior metabolic processes. A virtual miracle, that.

 

Supposedly the gray tree frog’s range covers much of the eastern United States, from northern Florida to central Texas and north to parts of southeastern Canada but obviously, some of these frogs are moving west, or were here in the first place. Tree frogs are an arboreal species that occupies a variety of wooded habitats. They are most often found in forests, swamps, on agricultural lands and in wooded backyards.

 

All need access to trees and a water source. I don’t know when it occurred to me that I am surrounded by the perfect habitat here as well as in Maine. When gray tree frogs are young and newly metamorphosed, they usually remain near the forest floor tucked into bark, detritus, or high grasses; later they transition to the forest canopy. As an adult I have captured some that like to hide in the rough bark of the white pines next to my brook (Maine).

 

Adult gray tree frogs mainly prey upon different types of insects at night because they are nocturnal. Mites, spiders, plant lice, snails and slugs are common prey. They may also occasionally eat smaller frogs, including other tree frogs. They search for insects in trees, where they can climb vertically or move horizontally with their fantastic toe pads that cling like suction cups.

 

The males begin trilling in early spring, shortly after emerging from hibernation. In the mid-range areas males begin calling in late April to early May. In Maine I don’t begin to hear them until late May. Males call to females from trees and bushes that are usually close to overhanging streams or standing water.

 

The exact timing of breeding for gray tree frogs varies based on temperature and their location throughout the range. Most reproduction takes place early on, although the musical trilling lasts from late April to early August (May through September in Maine). Individuals may mate up to three times in a season.

 

Males are very territorial and will fight other males to defend their area. Fights may last 30 to 90 seconds and consist of wrestling, shoving, kicking and head butting until the subordinate male retreats. Females are sexually di-morphic (bigger) and initiate mating by approaching a calling male.1,000 to 2,000 eggs which are externally fertilized by the male. Since actual mating occurs while the frogs are floating in water, eggs are deposited into the water in small clusters, attached to a reed or some kind of floating debris. Tadpoles usually hatch after three to seven days, depending on the water temperature. As youngsters, these frogs are painted scarlet or orange-vermilion with black blotches around the edge of the crests, so unlike other species they are easy to identify. Bodies and tails are patterned with many specks of black and gold. Like most tadpoles, they eat algae and organic detritus found in the water. Tadpole development depends on water temperature and is variable, but vernal pools must have standing water for some time, a real challenge here in Abiquiu.

 

After three days of trilling this poor little frog must be exhausted. I can only hope that there is one female that will hear his call…

Personal Note:

I wrote the above piece for a publication after having what for me was and continues to be an extraordinary experience  with a tree frog that doesn’t even belong in the desert – a frog that is so dear to my heart.

My childhood memories are permeated with frogs. While most kids had dolls I befriended a large squealing amphibian which i took to bed with me at night. Additionally my little brother and I loved caught, and studied these remarkable amphibians and I cannot think about frogs without conjuring up my brother’s spirit from the deep. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the day I finally buried his ashes on my land in Maine (just below the house), nestled against a glacial  granite boulder covered with lichen moss and ferns, the resting place situated just beyond the brook. This burial of his ashes occurred after a waiting period of 32 years… I had no idea at the time that it was Earth Day because i never celebrated it – every day is an Earth Day for a naturalist like me.

Each year around Davey’s burial day I have unusual experiences – usually with a hawk – and indeed one occurred yesterday when a Kestral landed on the porch and just hung out there for about ten minutes even though the bird could clearly see me moving around. I thought, oh, Davey’s spirit is moving close by. I don’t believe in god or any kind of after life, but my lifetime experiences have taught me that something of the person must live on – or can be accessed after death. For me, these apparitions occur as an encounter with some natural force – an animal bird etc and I am always moved from one perception of reality to another – beyond or outside time – this is what mysticism is all about.

It wasn’t until I wrote this article that I realized that the visit from the hawk was only part of this year’s Davey encounter and that another one was already in progress with the coming of Gray Tree Frog. The hawk is a visceral presence year after year reinforcing the power of the relationship between us. But the frog signifies  – dare I say the word? – resurrection from death to life, transmutation, transformation, rebirth, are all part of this creature’s animal powers and are inextricably woven into this story about Davey and me. So, something is shifting here on a personal level, although I don’t pretend to have any idea what it is.

Add to this “holy week”. I have been writing about Earth’s crucifixion every day – submitting a few articles for publication even though I knew how radical my ideas would be perceived. Not surprisingly, only one essay was published – silence – around the others.  Evidently to write about Earth’s Bodily crucifixion during holy week just doesn’t sit well with the DOMINANT christian overlay, the SPLIT OF MIND AND BODY, the SPLIT OF SPIRIT from the BODY OF THE EARTH and the power of its flow even in otherwise broadminded venues… oddly I am not upset – especially because this gives me insight into WHAT IS.

But there is something to the fact that this frog who doesn’t belong here in the first place and surely will not be able to breed here is still crying out on resurrection day.

Bumblebee Vibration

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In physics waves explain how energy is propagated or transmitted. Vibrations are the physical evidence of waves/particles. Waves and vibrations are everywhere in Nature. Vibration is a patterned or random change over a period of time and the wave is a length traveled during the vibration period.

Something that is vibrating may shake at the same time. … This vibration will send sound waves to the ear and to the brain. I would add that vibrations are also experienced directly through the body, and that bodies may actually pick up signals that the brains (in humans) routinely miss. Indigenous peoples have intuitively understood that every living thing has its own wave/vibration – which to me is like a kind of signal or signature that says,“ I am a bumblebee or a pear tree” or in this case “I am a bumblebee that needs pollen so I shake my body”.

Intuition and sensing are non – rational, experiential ways of knowing not much valued in a culture like ours.

Scientists have discovered that wild bumblebees are born with the ability to remove pollen from nectarless flowers using high-frequency vibrations.

The study, published in the Journal of Insect Behavior, is the first to show that the ability to vibrate flowers to extract pollen is an innate behavior in Bumblebees and one that is refined over time and gives a rare insight into the complexity of the pollination services provided by these creatures.

The research was carried out by evolutionary biologist Dr Mario Vallejo-Marin of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, along with other colleagues.

Vallejo-Marin states: “We studied captive bumblebees from their very first exposure to flowers that need to be vibrated to extract pollen and found the creatures instinctively and almost immediately begin vibrating their bodies.

We also found that over time and with practice, bees are able to tune down their vibrations, removing pollen while potentially saving energy. Initially bees tend to vibrate on the flower petals, but after two or three visits they focus their efforts exclusively on the part of the flower where pollen is produced. Bumblebees learn to reduce the frequency of the vibration they are using during pollen extraction as they gain more experience manipulating flowers that require vibrations to release pollen.

This shows the extensive capacity of these insects to learn complex motor skills to maximize their rewards from each flower they come into contact with.”

Although bumblebees’ ability to learn how best to collect nectar is well documented, this study is the first to show how vibrations change while foraging for pollen. The study also “proves” (westerners must have documented proof) that the buzz bees produce during flight and during pollen collection have clearly distinct acoustic signals.

20,000 species of plants including major crops, such as tomatoes and potatoes, rely on vibrating bees for pollination services. Apparently only some bees use vibration to collect pollen.

The study concludes that it is only by learning how bees pollinate that we can understand the consequences of declining bee populations. I find it fascinating that scientists are catching up to the Indigenous understanding that each creature uses its body vibration to ‘communicate’; bees use it to communicate with the flower in order to gather its pollen, but the above scientific conclusion seems simplistic to me because it neglects to mention what we already know, namely that pesticides are killing all insects including bees at an alarming rate.

Bees – Who Knew?

 

 

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With Honey bee populations in decline due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and other factors, one study conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of Massachusetts seems to offer some hope. It showed that two different species of bees fed a diet of sunflower pollen had dramatically lower rates of infection by specific pathogens. These pathogens have been implicated in slowing bee colony growth rates and increasing bee death. Bumble bees on the sunflower diet also had generally better colony health than bees fed on diets of other flower pollen.

However, the study also revealed that Honey bees on the sunflower diet had mortality rates roughly equivalent to that of honey bees not fed a sunflower pollen diet, so the positive short term effects don’t include longevity. Bumblebees, (our most efficient pollinators) didn’t seem to have the same problems with longevity.

Bees are adept at collecting sunflower pollen. Annually, some two million acres in the United States and 10 million acres in Europe are devoted to growing sunflowers, making sunflower pollen a ready and relevant bee food.

Sunflower pollen is low in protein and some amino acids, so it’s important that bees have many diverse wildflowers to choose from in addition to sunflowers, especially for generalists like bumble bees and honey bees.

Bees fed exclusively sunflower pollen often develop poorly, slowly, or not at all. What remains a mystery is that many bee species who are not generalists like Honey or Bumblebees collect pollen exclusively from the sunflower family; in fact, it is believed that bees specializing in sunflower pollen have evolved multiple times.

Another study done on (solitary) Mason bees discovered that bee species specializing in sunflower pollen were not attacked by a common brood-parasitic wasp, (Sapyga). One probable conclusion is that some bees, at least, are protected from (some) parasites by feasting on sunflowers; this may help explain the frequent evolution of specialization on sunflower pollen among these insects.

While I was researching bee related articles I came across some startling and disturbing information about the use of pyrethrum. Pyrethrums are naturally occurring compounds extracted from chrysanthemum plants that are used to make pesticides; this family includes sunflowers. Pyrethroids have the same basic chemical make-up but are not naturally occurring and are a man-made product also used as pesticides.

 

What I didn’t know is that pyrethrum is considered to be a low toxicity pesticide only from a human standpoint.

 

Supposedly, there is also a relatively low toxicity level with respect to birds and mammals. (I can’t help wondering how many non – human species have actually been studied). What we do know is this natural insecticide is toxic to cats and extremely toxic to fish. It follows that amphibians would also be negatively impacted by the use of pyrethrum. And what about the catastrophic decline in songbirds who are the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine”?

 

Animals that are exposed to toxic amounts of pyrethrum may experience loss of coordination, paralysis, convulsions, respiratory failure, and death. With bees, foraging behavior may change, and as with more deadly agricultural pesticides, the bees may lose their ability to learn the skills needed to extract nectar and pollen.

 

According to a recent New York Times article the Earth has already lost 80 percent of her insect population for reasons are ‘unclear.’ Yet we know how deadly the use of backyard and agricultural pesticides are, and we continue to use them. How is it that we didn’t pay attention to insect losses until CCD occurred with our bees? Our astounding lack of awareness and attention with respect to Nature is backfiring. Without insects as pollinators, humans will be left without food. We are all connected. Clearly there is an increasing need for field-realistic research into the reasons behind the decline and loss of any species and the impact of any pesticide on bees, humans, and non – humans alike.