The BioGeek Memoirs: Bees

The last few days have been warm and sunny, and the perennial shrubs are starting to green up out in the garden. My patch of catmint is already coming back to life and the return of bees to the garden is right around the corner.

Honeybee in my catmint last year.

I just love bees! I used to be afraid of them as a child (I mean, who wouldn’t be? They are kind of scary and they sting!) until I learned the difference between bees and wasps. Now I get a little thrill seeing the bees buzzing around plants in the garden and set boundaries with the paper wasps whenever they build a hive in my yard. (Here’s the boundary… if the wasps leave me alone, they are safe. If I get harassed or stung that nest is history!)

Of course, I am planting things that the bees like in my yard! They just love my sedum and viburnum along with the catmint, but they also spend some time with the dandelions. They absolutely love the neighborhood flowering trees. Just as I have established some boundaries with the wasps in my yard, I have negotiated some boundaries with the (male) neighbors over dandelions. They tend to get a little worked up if I don’t eradicate every single dandelion in the front yard, so I do stay on top of them out front… (sigh)… but in the back I have some carefully maintained dandelion plants that are now the size of romaine lettuces. Bees love dandelions!! Since dandelions bloom really early in the spring they are an important source of pollen for bees so I let them bloom and then cut off the seed globes before the seeds fly. Later in the year the leaves on those dandelion plants are food for my wild bunny. Shhhh… the dandelions are a secret that my favorite neighbor, Alton, doesn’t know about. He mows the front lawn for me every week in the summer, and wonders why I won’t let him do the back yard… ūüôā

Bunnies eat dandelions!

Long ago I had a bumblebee nest in my back yard. These bees (they are kind of fuzzy instead of smooth, are larger than honeybees, and mine had a red band at the top of their abdomen) live in things like woodpiles or holes in the ground. In my yard the bees were living in a hive in the ground, so I built a little shelter over the nest with flagstones. The hive survived year after year, and we came to love these gentle little bees.

Bumblebee at my catmint. See the fuzz?

The bees flew exact flight paths every afternoon coming home with pollen, and if you accidently walked into the flight path, they would bounce off you (repeatedly) and hover in the air waiting for the path to reopen. It was so cute! These bees were so gentle that no one in our family was ever stung except for a cat who took a nap on top of the opening to the hive… sad boy, we found the bee clinging to his belly once we calmed him down.

Morgan: that bee was a nightmare!!!

Every year as a biology teacher my students and I learned about bees as we watched a NOVA program together called Tales from the Hive. The students loved, loved, loved this show. I attended a workshop on bees at the University of Colorado and put my name in to win a beehive for my classroom and sadly lost to another teacher who absolutely, positively did not deserve that hive as much as I did (!!!) but I’m over it now. Sniff. The students and I were all crushed at the news that I had lost…

Why learn about bees? Well, bees are especially important in our ecology as pollinators. Basically, flowers are all about reproduction, and if the pollen on the flower (the male part) isn’t carried to the female part of the flower there won’t be any seeds or baby plants in the future. Plants get pollinated by lots of different means, but many plants rely on bees. The flowers are specifically designed to attract bees, and bees rely on the flowers to survive. We benefit from this relationship between bees and plants as the resulting process produces a lot of our food. Some crops are 90% dependent on bees for reproduction, and altogether about one third of our food is dependent on bees. Believe it or not, as the blooming season moves north up the planet there are mobile beehives that travel north as well, traveling to orchards and fields, bringing the bees as pollinators for those crops. As a teacher I could use bees to teach about ecology, evolution, invertebrates, sociobiology, and bioethics. Bees were really important to me as a teacher!

So, how much do I love bees? Well, I spent a summer reading a whole series of books about bees and blogged about it here. I spent a week one June on horseback in the Colorado wilderness riding a horse named Industrious Bee.

Bee and me. What a great week that was!!

I spent another summer teaching an advanced biology program with the best student teacher ever and learned even more about bees here in Colorado because his mother was a beekeeper. When the program ended in July, I received a little gift package of honey from him. See. If bees are involved, all things are good!

How much do I love bees? Well, I knitted myself my own little bee to keep me company over the winter.

The pattern for this bee is by Claire Garland and is called Bees are Beautiful.

Yes, they are!

Biology Brain

When I taught high school biology I had a sign over the door of my classroom that said “Biology is Life”. (I also had a poster with a picture of Charles Darwin and a caption that said “AP Biology: Adapt, Migrate or Die”, but that is another story…) Anyway, I thought my sign over the door was cute. And true.

This week I finally took on the task of weeding out my flower beds and getting them ready for the new year. Really, a simple and somewhat rewarding task, but for me an afternoon of¬†rich classroom memories and an endless rush of biological trivia. It was so much fun, in fact, I thought I’d take all of you on a short trip through my garden. Ready? Here we go!

Unweeded Garden
What a disaster! This garden has several little tea roses, a beautiful English rose, and some nice perennials. Ugh. Mostly I see dandelions

Flower and Bee
Clever camera: it focused on the grass instead of the flower. (and my biology brain reminds me that the grass is a monocot and the dandelion is a dicot. Thanks bio buddy…) Oh, well. You can still make out the bee in the flower, can’t you? We think of dandelions as pests in our gardens (well, I do!), but they are actually early blooming plants and an important source of food for bees and¬†

Ladybug
my personal favorite (after bumblebees) the ladybug. Later on the youngsters from this beetle will help keep my aphid population on the roses under control, so that makes dandelions a good thing,

Dandelion Puff
I know that they are good for the wildlife, but I still have to get rid of these darn plants so my roses can shine. Look at this puffball of seeds (dandelions use wind as a dispersal strategy chants my brain… The seeds can survive up to 5 years and help the plant population survive fires…)

Dandelion root
and the root! I’ve been told that the root as also an adaptation to help the plant survive prairie fires. Don’t know about that one, but we all know we need to get the root out or the plant will come back. (That root is a tap root . Thanks biology brain…)

Pill Bug
Oh, wow. A pill bug! I love these guys. I would teach my AP Biology class how to make potato traps and assigned them the homework of catching 10 bugs over a weekend so they could design experiments using them in little choice chambers. The students learned how to design controlled experiments, drew conclusions about animal behavior, and the bugs had a fun outing and all the potato they could eat. It was fun, really. (Arthropods, crustaceans really, says the ever intrusive biology brain.) Over the years so many bugs were released in the flower beds at the front of the high school a robust population could be counted on to bail out any student team that forgot to do their homework.

Earthworms
Exactly the same type of thing happened at my house where yearly¬†infusions of classroom earthworms¬†established many happy¬†garden occupants. (Annelids, says the brain. If you accidentally cut them with the shovel they will probably make it, but not as two new worms. ) My students loved to name and race their worms. If you¬†put them in your hand you can feel the little bristles on their tummies (Setae! Thanks, brain.) The bristles anchor the worm as it pushes forward in the soil. Kind of like wax on cross country skies…

Rose Seeds
The English rose has a mature rose-hip with seeds in it. Look at these guys. I wonder if I can get them to sprout and grow. (…the seed is really a baby plant and the food it needs to grow. The food part of the seed is double fertilized so it has more copies of the roses’s chromosomes than the rose plant does. Roses, unlike humans, can have different chromosome numbers… shut up biology brain. Enough!!)

Finished Rose Garden
The weeding is done. You can actually see the rose plants OK now. They all came through the winter in good shape and are putting out new growth. ¬†The largest rose is my Princess Alexandra of Kent rose, and it has started growing the first buds. All is looking good. Time to mulch, feed (plants need the elements in fertilizer to make more proteins and to copy the¬†DNA in their¬†cells so they can divide… yep, the brain is still going…) and get to work on the other jungles gardens.

Rich with life, details and memories, my gardens are once again growing.

Biology is life!!