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. 

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