The First Bee


The season’s first bee – well, the first bee I saw, I’m sure there were others – landed outside on our house wall a last week and dithered there for a few minutes before departing again. Then there were more, bumping clumsily into the window of my office and startling me, or just hovering and making a lot of noise.

So today I went to the back of the house and checked the spot in the roof where a colony of bees takes up annual residence. And sure enough, there they were, a small swam of them already busy with work in the upper eave of our house wall.

There’s a reassuring regularity to their annual return. It means life is taking its habitual course. The early seeds of springtime, each promising new life: Bees gonna fly, flowers gonna bloom and trees gonna grow. And it’s time to be planting the seeds of the season out in the garden.


A crazy corn variety, glass-gem corn, a non-GM corn variety. Created using tradition cross-breeding of US native corn varieties.
Photo: Greg Schoen

Sometime soon, the Brazilian parliament is going to be voting on whether seeds will continue to follow the age-old cycle of containing the life of a new spring. A bill to allow the use of sterile seeds has been in the pipeline since 2007, and is due for an imminent vote after being postponed late last year due to protests.

So-called Terminator seeds, or ‘gene-use restriction technology’, has banned around the world for its inherent danger and, dare I say, its inherent immorality. The genetically-modified seeds are programmed to die off after a single crop, which is to say, each crop is its own complete and finished cycle. Each new crop requires a new purchase from the seed company.

It’s not that most farmers don’t already buy their seeds from companies already, and it’s not that farmers and gardeners like myself haven’t been buying seeds from companies for the past century or more. And there are well-publicized conflicts when farmers replant patented seeds without paying the licensing fee – i.e. keeping back a seed stock from the previous year’s harvest for replanting. Still, the GM crops have an infuriating habit of spreading beyond their planting parameters and mixing with non-GM crops.

The proponents of the gene-use restriction technology in Brazil say the sterile plants would be for non-food crops only, and would be used only for medicinal plants and the fast-growing eucalyptus trees that feed the paper-making industry.

Glass-gem cornPhoto: Greg Schoen

Glass gem corn
Photo: Greg Schoen

But once a ban has been broken, it’s been broken. Even if the uses are meant to be limited, non-food, and ‘beneficial to humanity’, as Eduardo Sciarra, Social Democratic party leader in the Brazilian Congress, has said.

A handful of seed companies control 60% of all seed patents around the world. Many farmers, large and small, are already dependent on seed companies and the narrow range of seed crops they supply.

A loss of biodiversity and monoculture as well as economic dependency often result.

Seed companies like Monsanto and Syngenta hold patents on gene-use restriction technology, but have pledged not to implement these patents. If the door were to be opened, however, how long could each company resist the tug of economic activity? Adding the option of sterile seeds to this could initiate a disastrous cascade, the antithesis of the annual cycle of life heralded by the bee outside my window.

I encourage you to take a moment and join me in signing a petition to remind the Brazilian parliament of its responsibility, not just to its own people and environment, but to ours as well.

Last year’s bees.


Roundabout Flowers

Bannockburn High School- 3rd year flowering Photo: On the Verge

Bannockburn High School- 3rd year flowering
Photo: On the Verge

It’s been a trend in recent years to replace the mown grass of urban traffic verges and roundabouts with wild flowers. The flowers require less maintenance, they’re easy on the eyes, and they are thought to provide habitat support for pollinators such as bees, bumblebees, butterflies and hover flies, all of which are under pressure for a variety of reasons, including pesticides, habitat loss and disease.

A University of Sussex study published in Insect Conservation and Diversity has quantified just what kind of impact this kind of wild flower intervention can have in a short time.

An initiative in Central Scotland oversaw the conversion of city areas usually covered in mown grass – roundabouts, road verges, parks, school grounds, the edges of sports fields. The study examined 30 of these sites over a period of two years after the flowers had been sown.

Bumblebee on cornflower.  Photo: Dave Goulson / Univ. of Sussex

Bumblebee on cornflower.
Photo: Dave Goulson / Univ. of Sussex

In just two years, they found 50 times more bumblebees and 13 times more hoverflies in areas that had previously been flower wastelands.

The seed mix used incorporated a variety of meadow flowers from the region. The project and its results show just how simple it can be to provide pollinator-friendly areas within cities.

This has been a trend in my corner of the world, as well. And looking at the lush, lively fields of flowers that fill most of the roundabouts in our area, I’m not really sure why we ever thought putting in mown grass was a better solution in the first place.

Roundabout in Wick, Scotland Photo: Caithness

Roundabout in Wick, Scotland
Photo: Caithness

Hedged Chaos

It’s autumn, so my gardening to-do list is longer than during those lazy summer days of light irrigation, the occasional pass with the lawnmower and a bit of deadheading to encourage just a few more blossoms. I am a dedicated but sometimes slothful gardener, happier to carry the weight of guilt than wield the clippers more than absolutely necessary.

Our lawn in its natural state Photo: PK Read

Our lawn in its natural state
Photo: PK Read

The lawn is green and full, but not always with grass; the flower beds are alive with color, butterflies, bees and hawkmoths, and not a few unsprayed aphids.

And a confession: I don’t always pick up the windfallen apples and plums right away. I sometimes let them nestle under the trees, earthbound air fruit, and watch the birds feed and fight over them. Guilt’s sharp prods aren’t as persuasive as watching the birds swoop in to feast.

Now I’ve found some vindication, or at least a bit of support that my shaggy approach isn’t all bad.

Our rural corner of France is being built upon at an astonishing rate, developed, redrawn in asphalt lines, flat lawns and Lego-straight hedges.

A lizard on our stone fountain. Lots of refuge to be found in the mass of untrimmed rosemary around it. Photo: PK Read

A lizard on our stone fountain. Lots of refuge to be found in the mass of untrimmed rosemary around it.
Photo: PK Read

But according to more than a few sources, a garden allowed to get a bit fuzzy around the edges is a garden that encourages more life for the locals – birds, small mammals, beneficial insects, and the plants themselves. With an wary eye still kept on the spread of any invasive species, allowing a bit of chaos is all in the order of life.

Leaving the fallen fruit returns nutrients to the ground, and draws insects, which in turn attract native wildlife.

We see the occasional hedgehog waddling up the length of our garden wall this time of year – I’ll be leaving the garden gates open and a pile of leaves heaped near the woodpile just in case.

By which I mean to say, I am ready for another cup of tea, and I might not get through today’s gardening to-do list. Again.

Rampant trumpet vine on the house wall. Photo: PK Read

Rampant trumpet vine on the house wall.
Photo: PK Read


Gardenista postCould we please be less fanatically tidy by Kendra Wilson

The Wildlife Gardener by Kate Bradbury


Sticky Stories

When I started out today, I had planned on writing a peppy post on the use of bees to monitor pollution around European airports. It’s an upbeat story that pops up from time to time in the news. This week, it was Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague. Over the past couple of years, several airports in Germany have implemented beehives as a part of air-quality controls. The idea is that pollutants will show up in the honey, and that clean honey means clean air.

Honey produced by bees at the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague is checked for its quality and presence of pollutants in the environment. Caption and credit: REUTERS/David W Cerny

Honey produced by bees at the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague is checked for its quality and presence of pollutants in the environment.
Caption and credit: REUTERS/David W Cerny

It’s a pleasant thought, the use of bees to check on air, and what could be sweeter than honey?

So, as I checked for a few back-up articles or papers, I came across a 1990 Associated Press article, republished in the Seattle Times – Honeybees May Help To Monitor Pollution.

In the article, former University of Montana professor Jerry Bromenshenk describes bees as “flying electrostatic dust mops.” Along with nectar and water, the bee’s surface electrical charges and body hair also pick up everything from heavy metal particles to toxic pollutants.

Unfortunately, the article also states that “honey is the least useful of all beehive products for monitoring pollution. Bromenshenk (said) contaminants are rarely detected in honey or found only in the parts per trillion range.”

So how are bees best utilized as pollution monitors?

By grinding up their bodies and testing the resultant material.

Okay, so now the story is a little less sweet.

Bees in a field near my house. Photo: PK Read

Bees in a field near my house.
Photo: PK Read

A 2011 article in PRI’s The World quotes a bee expert involved with biomonitoring at Frankfurt Airport as saying that since honey samples taken from beehives stationed the airport, a busy freeway and a rural forest all showed the same low level of pollutants, maybe bees have a built-in detoxification process that renders the honey rather useless as a biomonitoring tool – although it would make bees an even more interesting study subject in terms of pollutant processing.

So why the cute stories of beekeepers on runways?

I admit that I don’t know much about bees or the very latest in bee research. I’ve written about them in various contexts on this blog, but this biomonitoring is new territory for me.

Another few minutes of fact-checking revealed that Bromenshenk himself, a long-time expert and proponent of bee and bee health, has come under fire for receiving funding from Bayer Crop Science, one of the main producers of the neonicotinoid neurotoxin that was banned this year in the European Union. But does that discredit his work done in the 30 years before he received that funding?

Image: Honeymark

Image: Honeymark

This all just reminded me that when it comes to environmental issues and how they are discussed in the media, things are rarely as straightforward as they seem. And while the truth might be hidden somewhere in there, we can always find stories to support our favorite arguments.

I know a good public relations move when I see it.

But now I want to know: Is the captivating notion of bee biomonitoring to validate the clean air around airports any more than a charming story meant to soothe worried minds?

Dry Wall

Our friend's house in a less-weeded state. The house won a 2009 Green Building Award. Bay Area, California

The Skillman Residence.
The house won a 2009 Green Building Award. Bay Area, California

A few years ago, I spent a couple of peaceable afternoons with a good friend atop her California roof, weeding the landscaped grasses of her sustainably-built home. When we started, the large roof was an overgrown lawn; when we finished, the sweeping lines of the grasses and succulents were restored to their usual beauty. We agreed that roof-weeding was a perfectly pleasant and productive way to pass the time among friends.

Living wall of Hotel Modera, Portland, Oregon.  Photo: Mike Davis/The Oregonian

A nice example of a living wall – Hotel Modera, Portland, Oregon.
Photo: Mike Davis/The Oregonian

One thing I learned from this experience, however, is that living roofs and walls require maintenance in the same way that my garden and window boxes need tending. Left to their own devices, they do what most neglected gardens do: they either dry up, or become overgrown. And I’ve thought, for larger urban buildings, that this is an entirely new and unaccustomed area of building maintenance activity for most businesses.

I found an example that confirmed my suspicion, the living wall on a large home supply and hardware store in our area. This wall was installed around three years ago, and I remember driving by it and being impressed. Now it looks like this:

Desiccated vertical garden, Thoiry, France Photo: PK Read

Desiccated vertical garden, Thoiry, France
Photo: PK Read

Living walls can now be purchased in prefabricated modules, and can be installed to encourage storm-water absorption, insect, bird and bee populations, and function to clean air and cool large buildings.

But they require water-tight insulation on the inner building wall side, and just as importantly, irrigation and regular care on the green side. Things we aren’t accustomed to doing on the outer walls of buildings. In construction parlance, ‘dry wall’ usually means a wall built of a prefabricated material (as opposed to wet plaster). Technically, this wall would qualify, even if it no longer fits the builder’s original intent.

It's likely that this modular garden could be 'replanted' with new modules - for the time being, dozens of noisy birds and at least one beehive have taken up residence, so it still counts as a 'living wall', I guess. Photo: PK Read

It’s likely that this modular garden could be ‘replanted’ with new modules – for the time being, dozens of noisy birds and at least one beehive have taken up residence, so it still counts as a ‘living wall’, I guess.
Photo: PK Read

Just because the requirements of green, living walls bring new challenges, doesn’t mean we can’t learn to adapt.

I’m hoping this will be a new job description for large cities: Wanted: Building maintenance expert. Must be an experienced vertical gardener.

Sober Expectations

Spring vineyard, Napa Valley, California Photo: PK Read

Spring vineyard, Napa Valley, California
Photo: PK Read

I saw recently that Napa Valley wineries had already started their grape harvesting season as of August 1 this year, almost two weeks earlier than the average, due to a short winter combined with a long and mild spring.

So I wondered whether our long, wet, cold winter, combined with a long, wet, cold spring and a massive hailstorm, had affected harvest expectations in our wine region of western Switzerland.

The answer, in a word, is: Yes.

Expectations for the Swiss vendanges – the wine harvest – are not high this year. The June 20 hailstorm destroyed around 6% of the Swiss vineyard crop within five minutes, affecting a potential 6 millions liters (1.6 million gallons) of Swiss wine. Harvesting isn’t expected for the remaining vines until well into September.

Swiss vineyard after a hailstorm Photo: Les News

Swiss vineyard after a hailstorm
Photo: Les News

Over in the French Champagne region, about three hours north from where we live, violent hailstorms from July 26-27 destroyed large swathes of vineyards – some areas experiencing a 10% loss, others 100%, with an overall loss expected of around 30% of this year’s crop. The same holds true for the Burgundy region.

Hailstorms (and even a “mini-tornado”) destroyed vineyards, but to a lesser extent, in the Bordeaux region as well. The French and Swiss Ministries of Agriculture are looking into adjusting insurance strategies to allow for ‘climatic risks’ in the future, as the assumption is that extreme weather will only increase.

French language viticulture news stories make for grim reading these days. What’s left of the crop will be harvested late.

Photo: RTS Info

Photo: RTS Info

So I guess California’s Napa Valley was a winner this year in vineyard climatology.

As for my single, heroic muscadet grape vine, which usually produces around 20-30 kg (45-65 lbs) per year, I don’t expect we’ll get more than a few good bunches this season – the cold, the wet, the wind have all done their part and our vine is the barest it has been in almost twenty years.

I do have one good harvest story this year, though – the lavender I planted last year as a part of a bee and butterfly section has attracted a healthy colony of bumblebees, who come and harvest pollen every afternoon. Their loud communal buzz fills one side of the garden, an industrious song for the summer heat.

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year - most colonies only number 50 or less, so I'm assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby. Photo: PK Read

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year – most colonies only number 50 or less, so I’m assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby.
Photo: PK Read

Thistle Query

Sometimes I get asked about my thought process when it comes to ‘green thinking’.

Today I came across an illustrative example.13070023

I was out on a run, and was distracted by a large number of photogenic thistles in a field of goldening wheat. I stopped and pulled out my cellphone camera to snap a couple of shots, which required me to step up into the field itself. Actually, I thought they were thistles at first, but then noticed they had no spines – I suspected a kind of Centaurea. So my first idle question was to figure out exactly what they were when I got home.

It was only then that I noticed the many bees moving around the blossoms. Not frantically, but as if they had all the time in the world to gather pollen from this particular source. Looking out over the field, I realized that it was rife with purple blossoms (cornflowers? pink bleuets?), large patches of the stuff, purple islands in the gold.

We’ve lived in this area for almost 20 years, and every year, the photogenic fields look like this:

Wheat fields, eastern France, 2012

Wheat fields, eastern France, 2012

Filled with the red of the common poppy. So regular is the distribution of poppy among the wheat that I’ve always assumed it was planted along with the grain for some reason of soil nutrition. Surely otherwise any herbicides would have wiped out the poppies along with everything else.

CIMG0384But this year? Almost no poppies. There are the roadside swathes of red, not to mention the errant poppies that manage to grow between the flagstones of our terrace, but the fields are just golden. Except for these pretty flowers.

So I wonder:

Have the herbicides changed?

Was a diluted herbicide applied to this field (since I’m pretty sure this isn’t an organic crop)?

What makes these flowers (centaury?) special and why are they flourishing in a few fields this year?

Given the number of bees harvesting pollen on this field, what will they use for pollen once the field is harvested? And since harvesting equipment is already positioned on the field in these pictures, and rain is predicted for the rest of the week, I’m guessing harvesting must be imminent.

Also: What happened to all the poppies? Was I wrong about the intentional seeding of poppies, and for some reason, they no longer survive current herbicides? If they were intentionally planted, why has the practice stopped?

And so on and so forth. These questions all popped into my mind during the 3-4 minutes it took me to take my pictures.

It’s not that I have answers to any of these questions, or even that I will go out of my way to resolve my puzzlement in this particular case.

It’s just how I approach a thistle, that’s all.13070025

And, by the way, I think the flowers are Centaurea scabiosa, also known as knapweed or centaury. A common weedy plant in temperate regions of Europe and Asia.

All photos: PK Read

Other Landscapes

Silverweed (Potentilla anserina) Photo: Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

Silverweed (Potentilla anserina)
Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

We humans often assume that when we look around, we are seeing the world as it really is. While we know that other animals have different ranges of vision, we don’t usually think that the animals may be seeing an entirely different landscape.

I’ve talked in previous posts (here and here) about how research has shown that bees are drawn to flowers that emit weak electrical charges as well as blossoms that have a bit of caffeine on tap.

Here are some beautiful images of the invisible world that bees and other insects are seeing. For example, the flower at the beginning of this post, the modest yellow tormentil (Potentilla erecta), is seen quite differently by a bee, which has fewer colors available in the visible light spectrum of color than humans, but many more in the ultraviolet (UV) range. So a bee or other insect might perceive the same flower more like the image on the right.

Some insects better perceive darker colors, and would be drawn to the dark blue version of the anemone below.

Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa)
Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

One recent Australian study has looked at the influence of bee vision on the evolution of flower colors. According to Adrian Dyer of Monash University, “Previous research has determined that color vision present in modern bees actually evolved before angiosperms, meaning the plants probably adapted their flower color to take advantage of pre-existing conditions.”

Bees tend to be loyal to a given type of plant as long as it continues to provide food. Ensuring that it is ‘seen’ by the right pollinator, even using a UV-visible bull’s eye to aid the pollinator’s aim, is an efficient way for a plant to distribute its pollen.

So many different worlds inhabit the very same world we see around us, and we are just beginning to see some of them.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Photo: Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Photo: Bjørn Rørslett


Photographer Bjørn Rørslett’s website – Worth a visit for the wide range of flowers in his UV and infrared catalogue. See what your garden might look like to pollinators.

Proceedings of the Royal Society B studyParallel evolution of angiosperm colour signals: common evolutionary pressures linked to hymenopteran vision by A.G. Dyer, S. Boyd-Gerny, S. McLoughlin, M.G.P. Rosa, V. Simonov & B.B.M. Wong

Bees in the Eaves

Honeybees under the eaves Photo: PK Read

Honeybees under the eaves
Photo: PK Read

For the third year running, a bee colony has taken up residence in a roof corner of our house. We thought about having them removed, but thus far they don’t seem to be doing any harm. We don’t hear them, they don’t come into the house, and they can’t extend their realm by much because the wall upon which the roof sits is made of stone. We’ve had a couple of beekeepers offer to try and take the swarm before they settle in spring – one of these years, we might try that. For now, considering the stress bees are under right now around the world, we’re letting them stay. In the UK alone, bee populations have dropped by an estimated 10-15% over the past couple of years.

The European Union, over the objections of several member states (including the UK) the recent EU ban on neonicotonoid pesticides to assess the effect of these substances on honeybees – this will likely also have a positive effect on pollinators in general. Pesticide producers (including Bayer and Syngenta) are firm in their conviction that the banned products do not play a role in the undisputed decline of honeybees (and other pollinators), and cite industry-funded studies as proof of safety.

As it turns out, these products are relatively new. Neonicotinoids are the first plant-derived insecticide. Just fifteen years after their commercial introduction, neonicotinoids are most widely used pesticides on the planet, and generate over $2 billion in sales annually.

Studies show the concern of their safety to the environment, nonetheless they are widely held to be comparatively safer  to mammals, birds and plants than earlier, synthetic organophosphate and carbamate insecticides. Manufacturers warn that with the neonicotinoid ban in place, farmers may opt to use these earlier insecticides. With the high revenues and global popularity of neonicotinoids, it should come as no surprise that producers would try to tout the safety of their products.

This is a clear case of regulation vs. strong commercial interests, where the free market may not necessarily arrive at the best and safest solution. A 2012 post at Scientific Beekeeping offers a balanced approach to the whole discussion, yet comes out against a ban because evidence isn’t yet ‘conclusive’.

Even if neonicotinoids are simply the final drop that forces the cup of impacts on bee colony collapse to overflow, the precautionary approach would still seem prudent. Hopefully, this precautionary approach will be implemented elsewhere, as well.

Relevance of honeybees to US agriculture Source:

Relevance of honeybees to US agriculture, and threats to U.S. honeybees


European Environment Agency (EEA) article – Neonicotinoid pesticides are a huge risk article – Agrochemical majors hit by EU’s neonicotinoid ban by Mike Toohey Buyer’s Guide overview – Neonicotinoid Insecticides Insight

2006 study commenting on early safety concerns re:  neonicotinoids – Neonicotinoid Insecticides by Uok Kim

A Floral Buzz

Image: NakedZealot

Image: NakedZealot

It seems the way to make yourself memorable to a bee is to give it a little something that will jazz its buzz and keep it coming back for more . There was the recent study on flowers that offer a mild electrical jolt, and now there’s evidence that some flowers are able offer a mild dose of caffeine to maintain pollinator loyalty. Too much caffeine can be toxic – as any college student knows – but just the right amount can stimulate without poisoning the drinker. As it turns out, bee brains may share certain preferences with human brains when it comes to favorite stimulants.

Smart barista flowers serve up just the right amount to ensure they, rather than their decaf competition, will get better pollination. Bees can taste the difference, and the flower with the best caffeine is the flower they will remember.

Science articleCaffeine in Floral Nectar Enhances a Pollinator’s Memory of Reward (2013), by G. Wright, D. Baker, M. Palmer, D. Stabler, J. Mustard, E. Power, A. Borland, P. Stevenson

Scientific American blog post: The Scicurious Brain – Plants give bees a caffeine buzz 

New York Times article: Nectar that gives bees a buzz lures them back for more, J. Gorman