Tom Theobald: Notes from the Beeyard 7-23-12
October 16, 2013
The sunflower leafcutter bees are done and gone, but the squash bees showed up this past week, I've written about them in previous years. There are two closely related genera, Peponapis and Xenoglossa, that have evolved in the Americas with the family of squash, melons, pumpkins and the like, the cucurbits.
The close relationship between the cucurbits and the squash bees began with the earliest efforts at agriculture on the part of indigenous peoples of North and South America, and as that cultivation advanced, so did the squash bees. They are solitary, ground nesting bees, and like many other solitary bees, are gregarious nesters. Very early risers, some have even developed the ability to fly in near darkness. This probably had some evolutionary advantage, they could beat the heat and the competition. Their range has extended far beyond their beginnings as the squash family was cultivated across North and South America as both garden and market crops.
The cucurbits are dependent on pollinators to develop fruit and seed. Cucumbers, for example, require multiple visits on the day the flower opens or they will be deformed. The cucumber is a series of ova and if one or more fails to be fertilized you get a cucumber with a pinched in waist in one or more places along its length.
Honeybees have taken over most of the pollination for the cucurbits, but where the squash bees are present they probably do most of the pollination before the honeybees are even up. For market gardeners this means they may be paying a pollination fee to a beekeeper for bees that aren't really needed, but there is no way to know if the squash bees will show up from one year to the next or show up in sufficient numbers and the honeybees are the insurance. For those of you who are market gardeners, or just plain old run of the mill gardeners like me, you might be surprised at how many squash bees you have, get out there early some morning and check.
As a kid growing up on the lake my summers were punctuated by these natural comings and goings. While insects weren't particularly high on the agenda, summers were punctuated with baby robins and baby blue jays and we always had a wash tub populated with frogs, turtles crabs, or whatever else we might encounter on our adventures. Baby bullheads were always an event when they first showed up, an inky cloud 2 feet across that consisted of perhaps a thousand babies less than an inch long, herded along in the shallows by their parents. It was an easy matter to wade out and catch however many we wanted and for a while they would take up residence in the wash tub, for turtle food and for our observation. Most of these critters tolerated the disruption of their lives and went back to the lake or the creek when we lost interest.
I had a coming and going just this Saturday, one that I could have done without, and I hope the going is just as quick as the coming. I got back from a trip to Laramie Saturday and the first phone message I listened to was from a landowner up north. She had been by the bees and a bear had been into them. A little further down the road she saw the bear, headed east along the Highland Canal, a yearling it looks like.
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So I loaded up the bear gear and drove up north to see what the damages were. I had just been through the bees the day before and some of the colonies were actually putting on some honey. I hoped the bear hadn't gotten into the best hives. Too often a bear will start with the tallest hives because they can get some leverage, they stand up on their hind legs, push, and over they go. Fortunately the bear had gotten into only one, it was one of the better ones and I lost a super of honey, but the hive bodies stayed upright and there was no damage to the bees.
I was up there until after dark Saturday putting the bees back together and doing some of the preliminary stuff to start on a bear fence, and I was back for most of the day Sunday. It wasn't all bad, Miles came out Saturday night and again Sunday and on Sunday he brought Karen, his youngest daughter and she fished a bit in the Highland while Miles and I worked. It was a hot day, between 95 and 100, but there was some shade and the beeyard is in a beautiful, remote spot, Miles brought lunch and the three of us had our own little picnic. By late afternoon the fence was up.
I had a little trouble connecting with the Division of Wildlife on the weekend, I had everything I needed except a ground rod and a battery, but I got those Monday and Monday evening I hooked up the charger and tested the fence. Everything is up now and it should keep the bear out. He didn't come back Saturday or Sunday night before I got the charger going, luckily, but he is somewhere downstream and likely to test my defenses on his way back up.
I mentioned my "bear kit" and since I imagine most of you don't have to confront bears, let me tell you what it includes.
"Negative conditioning" is the primary objective, make the bear's encounter with the bees as unpleasant as possible without hurting the bear, so most of the gear is aimed at that purpose. First I have a million watt light, so I can see what I am doing out there in the dark if I need to, and it really lights up the landscape. Next I have a small Freon horn (I don't think they use Freon anymore) that puts out an ear piercing screech. That gets the bear's attention and will usually get them moving.
A single shot 12 gauge is part of the kit, and if the horn doesn't get things started, then next come the cracker shells. These are 12 gauge shells that shoot the equivalent of an M-80. They go about 30 or 40 yards before exploding, and while our recent rains have reduced the fire danger, I still try for an air burst, a high arc above the beeyard before the explosion. The next step in the escalation, once the bear is on the move, would be some rubber buckshot in the butt to seal the deal.
I had a sow and two cubs farther up the Highland north of McCall Lake years ago that I saw, but otherwise I never see the bears, just their handiwork. I've used the cracker shells once, but never the rubber buckshot. The final step is one I hope I never have to take, and that would be in the event that the bear would choose to fight rather than run. For a time I took along my 30-06 as a backup, but that isn't very practical at short range because it's scoped. Next I thought the 410 with slugs might be the answer, but that probably doesn't pack enough punch. Now I'm down to 12 gauge slugs as a backup, but as I said I hope I never have to resort to them and doubt that I ever will.
I don't know what you did this past Sunday. Many of you were probably recreating in one fashion or another. If you are a farmer or a rancher you may have been doing just what I was — working. I hadn't planned to, but when something needs to be done it can't be put off. I was thinking of that as I drove north Sunday morning. I'll be 70 in December. I have friends who are taking cruises on the Danube, vacationing in Hawaii, spending obscene amounts of money on their self-indulgence, and I'm heading out for a 100 degree day building bear fence to protect bees that may not make a crop and that may die in the winter. What a life. Aren't the rest of you a little bored? ❖