Saturday, April 24, 2021

My Writing in the NY Times on Earthday

My writing was included in an opinion piece in the NY Times on Earthday, entitled "When Climate Breakdown Hits Home: Readers share how environmental issues are changing their lives."

The term the editors used in the title, "climate breakdown," is a useful variation on climate change and climate crisis, given the damage extreme weather is doing to the systems that sustain our lifestyles. Here's my contribution to the piece:

For years, people in my community have ignored education campaigns and scolding letters to the editor and continued putting plastic bags in their curbside recyclables. Only when crews stopped taking recyclables contaminated with plastic bags did people stop. It took about a month to change everyone’s behavior.

Then Covid hit and people were forced again to change their ways, this time on a much larger scale. We proved ourselves adaptable, resourceful and even capable of finding silver linings, one of which was rediscovery of the great outdoors.

Local environmentalists still cling to the notion that education will cause people to change their ways voluntarily. Necessity in the form of policy change is the only form of education most people learn from, but we’ve been taught to resent those who dare impose necessity upon us. It’s sad that such an adaptable species is saving all of its adaptability for the endgame. — Steve HiltnerPrinceton, N.J.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

A Bee Tree in Herrontown Woods

 On April 12, I received an email from Jenny Ludmer saying she'd found a bee tree in Herrontown Woods. Jenny does a lot of good work locally at Sustainable Princeton, and she and her daughter have also helped out at our Princeton Botanical Art Garden, creating an educational display of wildlife bones on the rootball of an upturned tree. A bee tree, she explained, is a tree in which honeybees have a nest. This one is in 

an old tree just a few paces from the Green trail (about halfway from the Red and Yellow trails). The entrance to the honey bee nest is about 40 feet up in the tree and facing away from the trail.

She felt it safe to disclose the location, since it's so high up. My ambivalence about disclosing the location came from a post I had written last year around this time about having witnessed a swarm of honeybees in that same area of the preserve. I was told that the day after I posted, someone wearing a bee suit had come to Herrontown Woods and made off with the swarm! That was not exactly my intention.

With Jenny's email came some great photos showing bees already active in the nest. I'll quote extensively from her email, and then add a few things I've learned since.

I first discovered that honey bees live in trees about a year ago when I spotted a swarm in that very spot. Knowing that swarms never travel too far from the hive, I wondered how it got to the middle of Herrontown Woods. After reading several of Thomas Seeley's books and taking a class from Michael Thiele of Apis Arborea, I learned that not only do honey bees live in forest trees, they thrive in them. 

Yes, across the country, honey bees are suffering. Mites and numerous other calamities plague honey bees and make beekeeping a costly and depressing endeavor. Wild honey bees, on the other hand, are doing things just as nature intended. Instead of living low to the ground in thin-walled hive boxes, wild honey bees are nestled high in big trees, surrounded by thick trunk walls which protect them from temperature extremes. Unlike in traditional smooth hive boxes, honey bees cover the rough interior of the tree cavity with propolis, a sticky anti-fungal and antibacterial substance which helps create a healthier microenvironment for the bees. Furthermore, while traditional beekeepers maximize the size of their hives in an effort to harvest extreme amounts of honey, wild honey bees actively limit the size of their nest to about 40 liters and swarm frequently to spawn new generations and help prevent any large infestations of mites. Perhaps more importantly, no beekeeper decides the genetic line of these wild bees and there's no moving them around the country as farmers see fit. Nature and evolution ensure that the healthiest bees thrive precisely in the location where they were born.

So while traditional beekeepers claim the only way to keep honey bees alive is to medicate and artificially feed them, nature has a different story to tell. I hope all beekeepers get to learn from Thomas Seeley and Michael Thiele. 

Jenny's email led me to learn more about what honeybees experience in the early spring. In her photo here of the nest opening, you can see a bee exiting. The red flowers in the photo are red maple, whose flowers--early and abundant--are an important source of sustenance for bees.

Through a beautiful description of early spring activity in a bee hive, I quickly gained an appreciation for how risky early spring is for honeybees, and how important early sources of nectar are as the bees use their last winter stores to up the temperature of the hive, raise new young, and take "cleansing flights" as the weather warms. Even when flowers like maple are available, stormy spring weather may keep the bees from foraging.

That got me taking a closer look at early flowers, like this pussy willow in the Herrontown Woods botanical garden. Didn't see any honeybees, but this fly looked different from your usual fly. 
There's a progression of native spring ephemerals in the forest, beginning around the first week of April. This bloodroot is being visited by a bee, likely a native bee. (Honeybees were introduced from Europe in colonial times.)
In some areas we still have patches of wood anemone, 
and the spicebush are numerous, though their flowers last only a few days.
Hepaticas are very rarely seen. 

The far more numerous spring beauties would be worth taking a close look at for visits from honeybees.

One of Jenny's photos is of a honeybee taking a drink amidst the leaf litter on the forest floor. 

Here is a description of one of Thomas Seeley's books. Thanks to Jenny for letting us know about one of Herrontown Woods' hidden denizens.

Honeybee Democracy--a book

Honeybees make decisions collectively — and democratically. Every year, faced with the life-or-death problem of choosing and traveling to a new home, honeybees stake everything on a process that includes collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building. In fact, as world-renowned animal behaviorist Thomas Seeley reveals, these incredible insects have much to teach us when it comes to collective wisdom and effective decision making. 

Friday, April 09, 2021

The Pandemic, Recycling, and How People Change

          "Environmental education is just words on paper waiting for necessity to make them required reading." 
           -- SKH

People have always embodied a contradiction. As a species we are extraordinarily adaptable, and yet we often resist voluntary change and complain about any change imposed upon us. This contradiction is embodied in the nation's lack of action on the climate crisis. We are resisting even small changes in our behavior now, as if saving our adaptability for the massive changes to come. 

The pandemic's imperatives sent much of that irrational tentativeness and procrastination packing. We changed our lives radically to save lives. Necessity mobilized our long dormant resourcefulness and capacity to adapt. 

As an environmentalist, I believed for many years that people could be convinced to change their ways if given a convincing reason to do so. I believed in the power of logic and knowledge to change the world. Personal experience led ultimately to my letting go of such idealistic notions, and recent years have dramatically demonstrated nationally how hard it is for people to let go of emotionally satisfying fictions. 

Yet I worry that many younger environmentalists, propelled by enthusiasm and a sense of rightness, will nevertheless mistakenly invest their time and youthful energy in trying to get people to voluntarily change their ways. 


Even before the pandemic, in the fall of 2019, there was a local example of how real change happens--the Mercer County recycling program used in Princeton. For years, Mercer County and Princeton have been telling residents NOT to put plastic bags in curbside recycling bins. Flyers were distributed, scolding letters to the editor were written, yet the plastic bags remained as numerous as before. 

Why did all these attempts at education fail? Because the county's lack of enforcement was in itself a far more powerful form of education. Residents learned not from words but from what they can get away with. The only education that mattered was a lax policy's powerful message that plastic bags were really okay, after all. 

Finally, collection crews were told to leave bins that were contaminated with plastic bags uncollected on the curb. Only then, when residents were denied service, did they change their behavior. Within a month, all residents had learned a lesson that countless flyers and reminders had failed to teach.

It was at that moment, when residents found their bins unemptied, that they finally sought out the information necessary to conform to the county's requirements. Being highly adaptable and resourceful humans, they quickly changed their ways and began following a rule they had been ignoring for years. 

The same holds true for any other environmental aim, be it more nature-friendly landscaping or reducing one's carbon footprint. As the examples of the pandemic and curbside recycling show, necessity is what changes behavior. It mobilizes an innate resourcefulness, adaptability, and inventiveness that otherwise remain dormant. In this sense, education is just words on paper waiting for necessity to make them required reading.