Sacred Honey Bee Evening video clip, CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO VIEW

Sacred Honey Bee Evening video clip, CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO VIEW
Click on this photo for a video of "Evening in Honor of the Sacred Honey Bee". Photo by Daniel Bahmani

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Beekeeping Project Empowers Peruvian Indigenous Group

When he goes to visit the Maijuna people in the Peruvian Amazon, Mason student German Perilla is welcomed by the name they gave him — “ua” — which means, simply, “bee.”

An appropriate name, given that last year Perilla brought more than 600,000 honeybees to their small community as part of a beekeeping program through his studies at Mason. Perilla is pursuing a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, with a focus in environmental science and community engagement.

Tucked away in a remote part of the northeastern Peruvian Amazon, the Maijuna Indians are a very isolated group of forest-dwellers. Today, there are approximately 400 Maijuna individuals living in four communities. Perilla began working with the Maijuna through Mason professor Michael Gilmore, an ethnobiologist who’s been working with the Maijuna for many years and helping them maintain their cultural, biological and ecological traditions.

Twice a year, Perilla travels to the Amazon to do workshops and classes with the Maijuna. It’s not an easy journey. After a nine-hour plane ride to Iquitos, the capital of the Peruvian Amazon, Perilla then travels by boat for almost 24 hours to reach Maijuna lands.

Once there, Perilla teaches the beekeepers about the biology, ecology and behavior of bees, the flowering cycle of jungle plants and practical management of the hives. The group will also learn how to harvest honey and wax and make products such as candles, jams and creams.

Love at First Sight
Ever since he first started working with bees, Perilla was, well, stung by the idea.

“The very moment we opened the hive, it was love at first sight. I’ve been working with bees ever since,” he says.

Perilla has worked on beekeeping projects all over the world. As part of the United Nations Solidarity Network in his home country of Colombia, Perilla worked with refugees of war, showing them economic opportunities with bees and small animals. In Israel, he participated in the Bees for Rural Development program.

His Maijuna beekeeping project is funded in part by the Rainforest Conservation Fund and Mason’s New Century College, as well as by private donations.

Gilmore says that Perilla’s project is perfect in many ways.

“I’m most excited about the fact that the Maijuna can use the beekeeping project for income, but still maintain their traditional lifestyle,” he says. “The bees will provide an economic means to these communities without causing any environmental destruction.”
Empowering a Community

But perhaps the most important component of the project is the community empowerment it provides.

Many of the older Maijuna do not know how to read or write, but this program allows them to provide for their families and communities. Perilla is also helping the community develop a co-operative to which the beekeepers will sell all their raw materials wholesale. The co-op will then make all the byproducts, market and promote their products and resell them to consumers.

“They have to learn to relate commercially to their product and learn about taxes and law,” says Perilla, who is passionate about training the Maijuna not only how to work with bees but also how to have confidence and power.

“One of the failures I’ve found in these types of programs is that they’ll train them to be beekeepers. And that’s it. That doesn’t work.”

The co-operative will allow the communities to earn money that they can use for needed services such as medical care, school supplies and clothing. Perilla and Gilmore are also helping the Maijuna on a greater scale to protect their ancestral land from government development and outside poachers by giving them the confidence to control their own destiny.

“They are incredibly involved in the project,” says Gilmore. “German is excited about this project, and the Maijuna are, too. They view the project as their own, and that’s really important and central to the goals of this project.”

Says Perilla: “For me, it has been a real fulfillment of life. You can really make a difference there, and that is what is important to me. Conditions may be harsh in many respects, but the satisfaction you get from doing this is worth it. Whatever it is, I’m contributing to saving the Amazon and empowering these people, so I’m proud of this moment.”

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Kids' Bumblebee Study Creates Buzz in Science Journal

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)
Getty Images

A study published in the prominent British science journal Biology Letters has discovered that bumblebees "can use a combination of color and spatial relationships in deciding which color of flower to forage from." And also, that "science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before."

Those were the conclusions reached by the study's authors, who are almost all between the ages of 8 and 10. The students at the Blackawton Primary School in Britain observed local bees and found them capable of using color patterns to find the sweetest flower.

Young researchers at Blackawton Primary School in Britain discovered that buff-tailed bumblebees can use color patterns to find the sweetest flower.
Study researchers from the U.K.'s Royal Society called their conclusion a "genuine advance" in bee science.

"This paper represents a world first in high-quality scientific publishing," Brian Charlesworth, editor of Biology Letters, told the BBC. The students worked with their teachers and a professional (i.e., adult) scientist, Beau Lotto. But Lotto said the study was "entirely conceived and written" by the students, according to the BBC.

And indeed, the study has traces of its pint-sized authors everywhere, from the colored pencil the kids used to demonstrate patterns in the bees' behavior, to peppered references to the novel nature of their work. "This experiment is important, because, as far as we know, no one in history (including adults) has done this experiment before," the students wrote in the study.

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The kids even used puzzles to get to the question at the center of their study: Can bees figure out which flowers have salt water in them and which have sugar water instead? They can, the students concluded.

Lotto said that while the study lacked statistical analysis, "the experimenters have asked a scientific question and answered it well," according to The Guardian. He said that while the students at Blackawton are impressive, children around the world should have the opportunity to work on such projects.

"I certainly don't think this is something that only we could have done. It's something that lots of schools could do," he told "It would be lovely to have this sense of community around learning all over the country and all over the world."

The Honey Bee Colonies are ok again. Joy! (a commentary ---decide for yourself whether or not you comment at the end)

Jon Carroll, "Datebook" SF Chronicle, Friday April 15, 2011

I am so stoked about the honeybees making a comeback. I had thought - a lot of people had thought - that the scourge of colony collapse was so powerful and mysterious that it might never be solved. And indeed I was right - as far as I can tell, science did little to reverse the problem. Oh, there are theories, but it seems to me that the situation just reversed itself, at least for this year.

When I first read an article in the New Yorker about colony collapse, it seemed like the end of the world. Without bees, agriculture suffers, plants fail to thrive, farmers go out of business. And the nature of colony collapse - entire little bee cities just completely failing - made it sound like something from Chapter 4 of an apocalyptic science fiction novel.

Only the benign aliens can save us now, I thought. Of course, in today's doomsday culture, speculative fiction produces very few benign aliens. Today's aliens only hasten the destruction that we are already bringing on ourselves. All of this is scary, but we live in scary times. If we could reduce the fear level just a few notches, people might begin to make more rational decisions.

Unfortunately, it is in the interests of both politicians and the media to keep the fear dial ratcheted up to 11. Which leaves those of us prone to worry in a state of agitation. Breathe, now; the bee colonies are on the upswing. Humans may have developed a workaround.

It wasn't until I read the item in Nancy Friedman's fine blog, Fritinancy (full disclosure: Nancy is a friend), that I realized there was a name for what I am suffering from: declinism, "the belief that something, particularly a country or a political or economic system, is undergoing a significant and possibly irreversible decline."

Fritinancy continues:

"According to Paul McFedries of Word Spy [a website], 'declinism' was coined in 1988 by the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington for an essay in Foreign Affairs. Huntington wrote:

" 'In 1988 the United States reached the zenith of its fifth wave of declinism since the 1950s. The roots of this phenomenon lie in the political economy literature of the early 1980s that analyzed the fading American economic hegemony and attempted to identify the consequences of its disappearance.'

"McFedries calls declinism 'the "apocalypse soon" school of international relations'; its opposite is 'triumphalism,' coined in 1964. 'Declinism' appears to be a back-formation from the much earlier 'declinist.' An 1831 citation for 'declinist' appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, which (says McFedries) 'mentions the "doctrine of the decline of science" and labels one of its proponents as "the leader of the Declinists." ' "

Now, it makes me very happy that in 1831 there was a movement that believed that science was dying. Subsequent events proved that science was, uh, so very not dead. So the declinists were wrong. I take that clouded crystal ball as evidence that our own predictive mechanisms may be equally murky. Maybe ubiquitous texting does not represent the end times. Just a thought.

Kelly Zito of this very newspaper quoted Frank Pendell, president of the California State Beekeepers Association, as saying: "We're learning new ways to deal with (colony collapse disorder), so the numbers are getting better. It's just like hitting your finger over and over with a hammer. You learn to stop doing it."

And yet, as I understand it, it is unclear what caused the reversal. Maybe it was just this year's heavy rains; maybe it was intervention by apiarists to divide the colonies more frequently and create more little bee societies. Since the cause is not known, it is fruitless to speculate on the results, given just one data point. There are cycles in things, as we know, and a lot of short-term fluctuations are just part of the great wheel of life.

In the longer term, of course, things progress or regress depending on where you're standing. The Roman Empire is no more. Our problems with bubonic plague are just not as serious as they used to be. Once we hadn't been to the moon; now we have. (An interesting question, he said parenthetically, is what good the moon landings did in the larger scheme. Were they dead ends or new beginnings? This is not a decision we can make right now, although we can and do have rhetoric.)

So when I think about politics, when I think about Obama and the congressional Republicans and the Tea Partiers and corrupt Democrats feeding off the kleptocracy, I try to think about the bees. Things come in cycles, and we have little control over them. Do good work and wait it out, is my advice. I am a declinist no more.

Look to the honeybee, my child, for it shall teach you the meaning of life, as well as what goes well with toast.

Shut up your doors, my lord; 'tis a wild night. My Regan counsels well; come out o' the

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Commentary posted by Urania
No, no, no! I respectfully disagree with the conclusion and tone of this commentary on the bees. Things do come in cycles --yes--but to state "we have little control over them" deflects away from the possibility we have as humans to make responsible and thoughtful decisions about how we treat animals (bugs,bees and all life on the planet); the bees NEED us as advocates. Instead, we have increasingly treated the bees as a commodity that can be manipulated for our use, while ignoring their basic biological needs. Go see the new beautiful and informative film "Queen of the Sun", playing now in theaters. Please inform yourself more thoroughly about this complex situation. It is NOT that this is just another cycle, or if it is, it could be the end cycle (not to be a fear monger, but read the statistics). I have a blog where I post all the latest information on the state of the bees (without commentary for the most part--this time excepted: I do not consider myself a declinist. To state 'do good work' is well and good. But to blithely believe that the bees are in a fine state of health again, just because of one article, is hardly accurate. Read the statistics, read "Toward Saving the Honey Bee" by Gunther Hauk. Or "A Spring without Bees" by Schacker, or "Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis" by Rowan Jacobson. These are not just alarmists foretelling the end of the world, they are authors who have done their research, are laying out the facts, and suggesting ways in which we CAN have control over our actions --which may be of great benefit to the bees, and to the overall state of our earth and world.

Honeybees making a comeback in California

Beekeeper Paulino Dustamante prepares a commercial shipment at Honey Bee Genetics Inc. in Vacaville.

After tumbling to a 23-year low in 2007, California's commercial honeybee population seems to be on the rebound - though a mysterious and deadly epidemic persists in ravaging some colonies.

Apiarists in the state, most of whom rent their bees to farmers for crop pollination, say this and last year's wet winters - and more plentiful greenery - may have helped temper the effects of "colony collapse disorder," a little-understood scourge that has virtually wiped out some bee stocks across California and the United States.

But other beekeepers say they've simply gotten better at compensating for the die-off by dividing their colonies, importing new queen bees or buying whole colonies outright (the number of bees in a commercial colony fluctuates through the year, ranging between about 20,000 and 150,000).

"We're learning new ways to deal with (colony collapse disorder), so the numbers are getting better," said Frank Pendell, president of the California State Beekeepers Association. "It's just like hitting your finger over and over with a hammer. You learn to stop doing it."

The number of honeybee colonies in California is at its highest level in seven years - good news in a state where the black-and-yellow bug represents a critical link in the multibillion-dollar food-production cycle. In their search for nectar, the buzzing insects unwittingly distribute pollen - the equivalent of male sperm - to the female part of plants. Nearly 100 California crops, including melons, sunflowers, carrots, cauliflower and almonds, rely on bee pollination.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service, one of the only state or federal agencies that track honeybees, counted 410,000 colonies in California last year, up from 355,000 in 2009 and a rock-bottom 340,000 in 2007.
Count considered low

In general, the national data under-represent the number of colonies because the annual survey is voluntary and does not include operations that strictly rent their bees for pollination; most industry watchers put the number of California colonies at 500,000 to 550,000.

That remains well below the recent peak of 620,000 colonies in 1989 (the records go back to 1987). Nevertheless, honeybee experts are heartened by what they see as marked improvement in the health of many hives - particularly after the 2007 nadir.

One factor may be Mother Nature. More rain in 2010 and 2011 may have boosted the bees' floral food supply, and lower summer temperatures may reduce heat-related stressors, according to Eric Mussen, a well-known bee authority at UC Davis.

"On the whole it looks like the bees are doing better," Mussen said. "With a little luck, this may be one of our better years."
Cyclical die-offs

The loss of 15 to 25 percent of a colony's bees over a winter is pretty normal, Mussen said. And over the history of apiculture - European honeybees were brought to the United States in the 1600s - mass deaths are not unheard of. Wild bee populations have plunged in recent years due to loss of habitat, and commercially raised bees have succumbed to cyclical die-offs due to a host of diseases and microbes.

Colony collapse disorder - first described in 2006 by a Pennsylvania beekeeper who lost most of his bees after trucking his hives to Florida for the winter - is striking in its devastation. The sickness seems to target the insect's gut, interfering with its ability to take in nutrients. While the disorder culls an average of one-third of each colony's bees in California and the United States, in some cases up to 90 percent of the workers simply fly off and die. Scientists are still struggling to find the culprit - or culprits.

Recent research suggests several causes working in tandem, including dry weather, poor food sources, environmental stress, insecticides, fungi, mites and viruses. Some have even blamed genetically modified crops and cell phone radiation.
Almonds need bees

While scientists continue to narrow the suspects, farmers are keeping a close eye on the bees' fortunes. No product has more at stake than the state's $2 billion annual almond crop.

Each year, the almond bloom in the Central Valley requires about 1.5 million honeybee colonies for pollination, or about half of all the commercial colonies in the United States. Beekeepers charged between $140 and $165 per hive this almond season, Pendell said; one acre typically requires two hives for pollination.

Tom Parisian, who tends 3,500 colonies in Vacaville, has changed the way he rents bees to almond farmers after colony collapse disorder claimed about half of his bees in 2008.

For instance, some growers use pesticides that experts have implicated in the bee plague. On days when farmers spray those chemicals, Parisian removes his hives. It's expensive and time-consuming, Parisian said, but if the tactic helps keep his bees healthy, he's willing to take the hit.

Parisian also supplements his bees' diet with syrup to boost protein levels and treats the colonies with anti-viral medicine.

"You can't tell which one or two things may be having an effect," he said. "But the bottom line is the bees came through last winter in better shape - probably better than they have been in 30 years."

Still, no cure for the disorder exists, and Mussen continues to hear from beekeepers who lose half of a colony seemingly overnight.

E-mail Kelly Zito at

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Build the buzz to save the bees

Thanks for helping build the buzz! On April 11, 2011 we sent the 23,986 signatures we collected to the EPA along with a swarm of handcrafted bees that visually demonstrate the massive support for this issue.

If you’d still like to add your name to the petition, you can send a postcard to the EPA directly at this address:

US Environmental Protection Agency
Office of Pesticide Programs (Division 7507C)

Attn: Steven P. Bradbury
Ariel Rios Building
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20460

For updates on the campaign, please join our mailing list »

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Rest Stop Keeps Honeybees From Dropping Dead From Overwork

The United Kingdom's bees are overworked and declining, so Jamie Hutchinson designed landing pads that help them rest and recharge.

After five years of breathlessly freaked-out news reports, nearly all of us have heard of "colony collapse disorder" -- the label scientists have given to a mysterious decline in bee populations observed since 2006. After hearing that a mass die-off of bees would spell certain doom for the human race, designer Jamie Hutchinson felt compelled to do something to help avert the coming beepocalypse.

While the bees' plight almost certainly isn't going to result in the extinction of humanity, his creation -- an adorable little hut called "Bee Station" -- may help reduce the stress on the bee populations in his native United Kingdom.

Hutchinson designed Bee Station as a kind of "truck stop" for the overworked honeybees left pollinating local plants after many of their kin died off. Apparently, these bees are so stressed out that Britons have observed them dropping near-dead on their lawns and sidewalks -- when all they need, says Hutchinson, is a comfy place to rest and recharge with some sugar water. Conscientious bee-helpers could just put egg cups of sugar water in their gardens, but they'd soon get uselessly diluted by rainwater. The Bee Station solves this problem by providing a roof over the exhausted insects' heads.

This isn't some silly greenwashed stunt, though -- Hutchinson did his research, designing his earthenware huts specifically for two species (Bombus pratorum and Bombus horotorum) that seek out similar structures naturally to rest in. The round top shelters the bees from rainwater and stiff breezes, while the "feet" of the Bee Station hold reservoirs of sugar water. At $65 a pop, the Bee Station seems a bit pricey as a way to anthropomorphize insects that'd just as soon sting the sh*t out of you as accept a little TLC. But as GOOD magazine points out, the little buggers' pollinating services are worth $220 billion, so offering a bit of help while they're in a slump can't hurt. And let's face it, a cute white Bee Station would look a hell of a lot better in your flower bed than that stupid gnome you've got now.

Please note: (Comment added by a reader): "This is an interesting project, but this article has one glaring mistake:

"Hutchinson did his research, designing his earthenware huts specifically for two species (Bombus pratorum and Bombus horotorum)..."

Those two bee species that this was designed for are not honeybees, as this article repeatedly suggests. Those are bumblebees! Very different! Hutchinson "did his research", but apparently the author of this piece did not. "

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Honeybees 'entomb' hives to protect against pesticides, say scientists. By sealing up cells full of contaminated pollen, bees appear to be attempting to protect the rest of the hive

'Entombed' pollen is identified as having sunken, wax-covered cells amid 'normal', uncapped cells. Photograph: Journal of Invertebrate Pathology

Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent, Monday 4 April 2011 17.21 BST
Honeybees are taking emergency measures to protect their hives from pesticides, in an extraordinary example of the natural world adapting swiftly to our depredations, according to a prominent bee expert.

Scientists have found numerous examples of a new phenomenon – bees "entombing" or sealing up hive cells full of pollen to put them out of use, and protect the rest of the hive from their contents. The pollen stored in the sealed-up cells has been found to contain dramatically higher levels of pesticides and other potentially harmful chemicals than the pollen stored in neighbouring cells, which is used to feed growing young bees.

"This is a novel finding, and very striking. The implication is that the bees are sensing [pesticides] and actually sealing it off. They are recognising that something is wrong with the pollen and encapsulating it," said Jeff Pettis, an entomologist with the US Department of Agriculture. "Bees would not normally seal off pollen."

But the bees' last-ditch efforts to save themselves appear to be unsuccessful – the entombing behaviour is found in many hives that subsequently die off, according to Pettis. "The presence of entombing is the biggest single predictor of colony loss. It's a defence mechanism that has failed." These colonies were likely to already be in trouble, and their death could be attributed to a mix of factors in addition to pesticides, he added.

Bees are also sealing off pollen that contains substances used by beekeepers to control pests such as the varroa mite, another factor in the widespread decline of bee populations. These substances may also be harmful to bees, Pettis said. "Beekeepers - and I am one – need to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask what we are doing," he said. "Certainly [the products] have effects on bees. It's a balancing act – if you do not control the parasite, bees die. If you control the parasite, bees will live but there are side-effects. This has to be managed."

The decline of bee populations has become an increasing concern in recent years. "Colony collapse disorder", the name given to the unexplained death of bee colonies, is affecting hives around the world. Scientists say there are likely to be numerous reasons for the die-off, ranging from agricultural pesticides to bee pests and diseases, pollution, and intensive farming, which reduces bee habitat and replaces multiple food sources with single, less nutritious, sources. Globalisation may also be a factor, as it spreads bee diseases around the world, and some measures taken to halt the deaths – such as massing bees in huge super-hives – can actually contribute to the problem, according to a recent study by the United Nations.

The loss of pollinators could have severe effects on agriculture, scientists have warned.

Pesticides were not likely to be the biggest single cause of bee deaths, Pettis said: "Pesticide is an issue but it is not the driving issue." Some pesticides could be improving life for bees, he noted: for many years, bees were not to be found near cotton plantations because of the many chemicals used, but in the past five years bees have begun to return because the multiple pesticides of old have been replaced with newer so-called systemic pesticides.

Studies he conducted found that bees in areas of intensive agriculture were suffering from poor nutrition compared with bees with a diverse diet, and this then compounded other problems, such as infection with the gut parasite nosema. "It is about the interaction of different factors, and we need to study these interactions more closely," he said.

The entombing phenomenon was first noted in an obscure scientific paper from 2009, but since then scientists have been finding the behaviour more frequently, with the same results.

Bees naturally collect from plants a substance known as propolis, a sort of sticky resin with natural anti-bacterial and anti-fungal qualities. It is used by bees to line the walls of their hives, and to seal off unwanted or dangerous substances – for instance, mice that find their way into hives and die are often found covered in propolis. This is the substance bees are using to entomb the cells.

The bees that entomb cells of pollen are the hives' housekeepers, different from the bees that go out to collect pollen from plants. Pettis said that it seemed pollen-collecting bees could not detect high levels of pesticides, but that the pollen underwent subtle changes when stored. These changes – a lack of microbial activity compared with pollen that has fewer pesticide residues – seemed to be involved in triggering the entombing effect, he explained.

Pettis was speaking in London, where he was visiting British MPs to talk about the decline of bee populations, and meeting European bee scientists.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

"Earth Democracy": A one hour speech delivered by Vandana Shiva @ Portland Community College, Oregon, February 2011

Up 'till now, I have only posted items that specifically focus on the honey bee. I will continue to do so. I have decided, however, to post this one hour speech by Vandana Shiva because her message is so powerful, and ultimately relates to the plight of the honey bee on a broader scale. Shiva speaks about Monsanto, seed saving, the politics of food, and the wisdom of traditional farming methods.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Honeybees are found to interact with Quantum fields

Written by Adam Frank

Tuesday, 10 February 2009 06:55
How could bees of little brain come up with anything as complex as a dance language? The answer could lie not in biology but in six-dimensional math and the bizarre world of quantum mechanics.

Honeybees don't have much in the way of brains. Their inch-long bodies hold at most a few million neurons. Yet with such meager mental machinery honeybees sustain one of the most intricate and explicit languages in the animal kingdom. In the darkness of the hive, bees manage to communicate the precise direction and distance of a newfound food source, and they do it all in the choreography of a dance. Scientists have known of the bee's dance language for more than 70 years, and they have assembled a remarkably complete dictionary of its terms, but one fundamental question has stubbornly remained unanswered: How do they do it? How do these simple animals encode so much detailed information in such a varied language? Honeybees may not have much brain, by they do have a secret.

This secret has vexed Barbara Shipman, a mathematician at the University of Rochester, ever since she was a child. "I grew up thinking about bees," she says. "My dad worked for the Department of Agriculture as a bee researcher. My brothers and I would stop at his office, and sometimes he would how show us the bees. I remember my father telling me about the honeybee's dance when I was about nine years old. And in high school I wrote a paper on the medicinal benefits of honey." Her father kept his books on honeybees on a shelf in her room. "I'm not sure why," she says. "It may have just been a convenient space. I remember looking at a lot of these books, especially the one by Karl von Frisch."

Von Frisch's Dance Language and Orientation of Bees was some four decades in the making. By the time his papers on the bee dance were collected and published in 1965, there was scarcely an entomologist in the world who hadn't been both intrigued and frustrated by his findings. Intrigued because the phenomenon Von Frisch described was so startlingly complex; frustrated because no one had a clue as to how bees managed the trick. Von Frisch had watched bees dancing on the vertical face of the honeycomb, analyzed the choreographic syntax, and articulated a vocabulary. When a bee finds a source of food, he realized, it returns to the hive and communicates the distance and direction of the food to the other worker bees, called recruits. On the honeycomb which Von Frisch referred to as the dance floor, the bee performs a "waggle dance," which in outline looks something like a coffee bean--two rounded arcs bisected by a central line. The bee starts by making a short straight run, waggling side to side and buzzing as it goes. Then it turns left (or right) and walks in a semicircle back to the starting point. The bee then repeats the short run down the middle, makes a semicircle to the opposite side, and returns once again to the starting point.

It is easy to see why this beautiful and mysterious phenomenon captured Shipman's young and mathematically inclined imagination. The bee's finely tuned choreography is a virtuoso performance of biologic information processing. The central "waggling" part of the dance is the most important. To convey the direction of a food source, the bee varies the angle the waggling run makes with an imaginary line running straight up and down. One of Von Frisch's most amazing discoveries involves this angle. If you draw a line connecting the beehive and the food source, and another line connecting the hive and the spot on the horizon just beneath the sun, the angle formed by the two lines is the same as the angle of the waggling run to the imaginary vertical line. The bees, it appears, are able to triangulate as well as a civil engineer.

Direction alone is not enough, of course--the bees must also tell their hive mates how far to go to get to the food. "The shape or geometry of the dance changes as the distance to the food source changes," Shipman explains. Move a pollen source closer to the hive and the coffee-bean shape of the waggle dance splits down the middle. "The dancer will perform two alternating waggling runs symmetric about, but diverging from, the center line. The closer the food source is to the hive, the greater the divergence between the two waggling runs."

If that sounds almost straightforward, what happens next certainly doesn't. Move the food source closer than some critical distance and the dance changes dramatically: the bee stops doing the waggle dance and switches into the "round dance." It runs in a small circle, reversing and going in the opposite direction after one or two turns or sometimes after only half a turn. There are a number of variations between species.

Von Frisch's work on the bee dance is impressive, but it is largely descriptive. He never explained why the bees use this peculiar vocabulary and not some other. Nor did he (or could he) explain how small-brained bees manage to encode so much information. "The dance of the honeybee is special among animal communication systems," says Shipman. "It conveys concise, quantitative information in an abstract, symbolic way. You have to wonder what makes the dance happen. Bees don't have enough intelligence to know what they are doing. How do they know the dance in the first place? Calling it instinct or some other word just substitutes one mystery for another."

Shipman entered college as a biochemistry major and even spent some time working in a biology lab studying the hemolymph--the "blood"--of honeybee larvae, but she quickly moved her interest in bees to the side. "During my freshman year," she says, aI became more attracted to the beauty and rigor of mathematics." She switched her major and eventually went on to graduate school and to a professorship at the University of Rochester. For several years it seemed as though she had wandered a long way from her childhood fascination.

Then, taking an unlikely route, she found herself once again confronting the mysteries of bees head-on. While working on her doctoral thesis, on an obscure type of mathematics known only to a small coterie of researchers well-versed in the minutiae of geometry, she stumbled across what just might be the key to the secrets of the bee's dance.

Shipman's work concerned a set of geometric problems associated with an esoteric mathematical concept known as a flag manifold. In the jargon of mathematics, manifold means "space." But don't let that deceptively simple definition lull you into a false sense of security. Mathematicians have as many kinds of manifolds as a French baker has bread. Some manifolds are flat, some are curved, some are twisted, some wrap back on themselves, some go on forever. "The surface of a sphere is a manifold," says Shipman. "So is the surface of a bagel--it's called a torus." The shape of a manifold determines what kinds of objects (curves, figures, surfaces) can "live" within its confines. Two different types of loops, for example, live in the surface of a torus--one wraps around the outside, the other goes through the middle, and there is no way to transform the first into the second without breaking the loop. In contrast, there is only one type of loop that lives on a sphere.

Mathematicians like to examine different manifolds the way antiques dealers browse through curio shops--always exploring, always looking for unusual characteristics that expand their understanding of numbers or geometry. The difficult part about exploring a manifold, however, is that mathematicians don't always confine them to the three dimensions of ordinary experience. A manifold can have two dimensions like the surface of a screen, three dimensions like the inside of an empty box, four dimensions like the space-time of our Einsteinian universe, or even ten or a hundred dimensions. The flag manifold (which got its name because some imaginative mathematician thought it had a "shape" like a flag on a pole) happens to have six dimensions, which means mathematicians can't visualize all the two-dimensional objects that can live there. That does not mean, though, that they cannot see the objects' shadows.

One of the more effective tricks for visualizing objects with more than three dimensions is to "project" or "map" them onto a space that has fewer dimensions (usually two or three). A topographic map, in which three-dimensional mountains get squashed onto a two-dimensional page, is a type of projection. Likewise, the shadow of your hand on the wall is a two-dimensional projection of your three-dimensional hand.

One day Shipman was busy projecting the six-dimensional residents of the flag manifold onto two dimensions. The particular technique she was using involved first making a two-dimensional outline of the six dimensions of the flag manifold. This is not as strange as it may sound. When you draw a circle, you are in effect making a two-dimensional outline of a three-dimensional sphere. As it turns out, if you make a two-dimensional outline of the six-dimensional flag manifold, you wind up with a hexagon. The bee's honeycomb, of course, is also made up of hexagons, but that is purely coincidental. However, Shipman soon discovered a more explicit connection. She found a group of objects in the flag manifold that, when projected onto a two-dimensional hexagon, formed curves that reminded her of the bee's recruitment dance. The more she explored the flag manifold, the more curves she found that precisely matched the ones in the recruitment dance. "I wasn't looking for a connection between bees and the flag manifold," she says. "I was just doing my research. The curves were nothing special in themselves, except that the dance patterns kept emerging." Delving more deeply into the flag manifold, Shipman dredged up a variable, which she called alpha, that allowed her to reproduce the entire bee dance in all its parts and variations. Alpha determines the shape of the curves in the 6-D flag manifold, which means it also controls how those curves look when they are projected onto the 2-D hexagon. Infinitely large values of alpha produce a single line that cuts the hexagon in half. Large' values of alpha produce two lines very close together. Decrease alpha and the lines splay out, joined at one end like a V. Continue to decrease alpha further and the lines form a wider and wider V until, at a certain value, they each hit a vertex of the hexagon. Then the curves change suddenly and dramatically. "When alpha reaches a critical value," explains Shipman, "the projected curves become straight line segments lying along opposing faces of the hexagon."

The smooth divergence of the splayed lines and their abrupt transition to discontinuous segments are critical--they link Shipman's curves to those parts of the recruitment dance that bees emphasize with their waggling and buzzing. "Biologists know that only certain parts of the dance convey information," she says. "In the waggle dance, it's the diverging waggling runs and not the return loops. In the circle dance it's short straight segments on the sides of the loops." Shipman's mathematics captures both of these characteristics, and the parameter alpha is the key. "If different species have different sensitivities to alpha, then they will change from the waggle dances to round dances when the food source is at different distances."

If Shipman is correct, her mathematical description of the recruitment dance would push bee studies to a new level. The discovery of mathematical structure is often the first and critical step in turning what is merely a cacophony of observations into a coherent physical explanation. In the sixteenth century Johannes Kepler joined astronomy's pantheon of greats by demonstrating that planetary orbits follow the simple geometric figure of the ellipse. By articulating the correct geometry traced by the heavenly bodies, Kepler ended two millennia of astronomical speculation as to the configuration of the heavens. Decades after Kepler died, Isaac Newton explained why planets follow elliptical orbits by filling in the all-important physics--gravity. With her flag manifold, Shipman is like a modern-day Kepler, offering, in her words, "everything in a single framework. I have found a mathematics that takes all the different forms of the dance and embraces them in a single coherent geometric structure."

Shipman is not, however, content to play Kepler. "You can look at this idea and say, `That's a nice geometric description of the dance, very pretty,' and leave it like that," she says. "But there is more to it. When you have a physical phenomenon like the honeybee dance, and it follows a mathematical structure, you have to ask what are the physical laws that are causing it to happen."

At this point Shipman departs from safely grounded scholarship and enters instead the airy realm of speculation. The flag manifold, she notes, in addition to providing mathematicians with pure joy, also happens to be useful to physicists in solving some of the mathematical problems that arise in dealing with quarks, tiny particles that are the building blocks of protons and neutrons. And she does not believe the manifold's presence both in the mathematics of quarks and in the dance of honeybees is a coincidence. Rather she suspects that the bees are somehow sensitive to what's going on in the quantum world of quarks, that quantum mechanics is as important to their perception of the world as sight, sound, and smell.

Say a bee flies around, finds a source of food, and heads straight back to the hive to tell its colleagues. How does it perceive where that food is? What notation can it use to remember? What teens can it use to translate that memory into directions for its fellow bees? One way, the way we big-brained humans would be most comfortable with, would be to use landmarks--fly ten yards toward the big rock, turn left, duck under the boughs of the pine tree, and see the flowers growing near the trunk. Another way, one that seems to be more in line with what bees actually do, would be to use physical characteristics that adequately identify the site, such as variations in Earth's magnetic field or in the polarization of the sun's light.

Researchers have in fact already established that the dance is sensitive to such properties. Experiments have documented, for example, that local variations in Earth's magnetic field alter the angle of the waggling runs. In the past, scientists have attributed this to the presence of magnetite, a magnetically active mineral, in the abdomen of bees. Shipman, however, along with many other researchers, believes there is more to it than little magnets in the bees' cells. But she tends not to have much professional company when she reveals what she thinks is responsible for the bees' response. "Ultimately magnetism is described by quantum fields," she says. "I think the physics of the bees' bodies, their physiology, must be constructed such that they're sensitive to quantum fields--that is, the bee perceives these fields through quantum mechanical interactions between the fields and the atoms in the membranes of certain cells."

What exactly does it mean to say that the bees interact with quantum fields? A quantum field is a sort of framework within which particles play out their existences. And, rather than assigning an electron to one position in space at one particular time, you instead talk about all the different places the electron could possibly be. You can loosely refer to this collection of all possible locations as a "field" smeared out across space and time. If you decide to check the electron's position by observing it, the interaction between your measuring device and the field makes the electron appear to be a single coherent object. In this sense, the observer is said to disturb the quantum mechanical nature of the electron.

There is some research to support the view that bees are sensitive to effects that occur only on a quantum-mechanical scale. One study exposed bees to short bursts of a high-intensity magnetic field and concluded that the bees' response could be better explained as a sensitivity to an effect known as nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, an acronym commonly associated with a medical imaging technique. NMR occurs when an electromagnetic wave impinges on the nuclei of atoms and flips their orientation. NMR is considered a quantum mechanical effect because it takes place only if each atom absorbs a particular size packet, or quantum, of electro-magnetic energy.

This research, however, doesn't address the issue of how bees turn these quantum-mechanical perceptions into an organized dance ritual. Shipman's mathematics does. To process quantum mechanical information and communicate it to others, the bee would not only have to possess equipment sensitive to the quantum-mechanical world; to come up with the appropriate recruitment dance, it would have to perform some kind of calculation similar to what Shipman did with her flag manifold. Assuming that the typical honey-bee is not quite intelligent enough to make the calculations, how does the bee come up with the flag manifold as an organizing principle for its dance? Shipman doesn't claim to have the answer, but she is quick to point out that the flag manifold is common both to the bee dance and to the geometry of quarks. Perhaps, she speculates, bees possess some ability to perceive not only light and magnetism but quarks as well.

The notion that bees can perceive quarks is hard enough for many physicists to swallow, but that's not even the half of it. Physicists have theorized that quarks are constantly popping up in the vacuum of empty space. This is possible because the vacuum is pervaded by something called the zero-point energy field--a quantum field in which on average no particles exist, but which can have local fluctuations that cause quarks to blink in and out of existence. Shipman believes that bees might sense these fleeting quarks, and use them--somehow--to create the complex and peculiar structure of their dance.

Now here's the rub. The flag manifold geometry is an abstraction. It is useful in describing quarks not as the single coherent objects that physicists can measure in the real world but as unobserved quantum fields. Once a physicist tries to detect a quark--by bombarding it with another particle in a high-energy accelerator--the flag manifold geometry is lost. If bees are using quarks as a script for their dance, they must be able to observe the quarks not as single coherent objects but as quantum fields. If Shipman's hunch is correct and bees are able to "touch" the quantum world of quarks without breaking it, not only would it shake up the field of biology, but physicists would be forced to reinterpret quantum mechanics as well.

Shipman is the first to admit that she is a long way from proving her hypothesis. "The mathematics implies that bees are doing something with quarks," she says. "I'm not saying they definitely are. I'm just throwing it out as a possibility." And when she publishes her research, probably sometime next year, no doubt many scientists will be turned off by her dragging quarks and quantum mechanics into the picture.

"The joining of mathematics and biology is a fascinating endeavor and is just getting under way," says William Faris, a mathematician at the University of Arizona. "Connecting quantum mechanics directly to biology is much more speculative. I frankly am skeptical that the bee dance is related to quantum mechanics. The mathematics she uses may be related to a completely different explanation of the bee dance. This is the universality of mathematics. To venture into quantum mechanics may be a distraction."

Shipman isn't the first scientist to go out on a limb trying to link biology to quantum mechanics. Physicist Roger Penrose of Oxford University has postulated that nerve cells have incredibly tiny tubes that serve as quantum mechanical detectors, and other physicists have expressed similar ideas, but they are by no means widely accepted.

It is risky for a young scientist to take on a radical theory. Championing an unproved or unpopular idea is a good way to put your academic career on permanent hold. "My thesis adviser was worried, too," says Shipman. "He was happy to know that I am beginning collaborations with biologists."

However, Shipman is too excited about the ideas to care about the risk. "To make discoveries that cross disciplines, someone has to start. I know there is always resistance to new ideas, especially if you are approaching the problem from a different perspective. Sometimes theory comes before discovery and points the way toward the right questions to ask. I hope this research stimulates other researchers' imaginations."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Saturday, April 9 at 11 am! Turn Your Garden into a Pollinator Paradise!

The incredible Kate Frey speaks at Annie's Annuals AMAZING SPRING PARTY in Richmond, CA

Want butterflies? Happily humming bees? Hummingbirds nesting and butterfly eggs and gargantuan bumblebees? Here are some gems that are sure to draw a crowd!

Helianthus 'Delta'

Eryngium tripartitum

Phacelia viscida

Cirsium occidentale

Echium plantagineum

Spring Party!

Come celebrate our most joyful season and share in our own brand of silly merry-making amid our lovely gardens all a-bloom! Bring your buddies and the kids! As usual, we will have music and dancing, FREE munchies, a mega-raffle, games, contests and fun and informative talks all for you!
Bring a plethora of pollinators to your own garden!

As pollinators the world over are struggling, it's more important than ever to plant pollinator and bee-friendly gardens. They not only ensure that your fruits and flowers get pollinated, but they help restore habitat to species hard hit by urban and agricultural development. The good news is that the same flowers that offer pollen and nectar resources to bees, birds, butterflies and insects make US happy, too! Kate will share what a pollinator garden consists of and how to create one in your own yard! We think this is an extremely important talk - you must come!

Kate is an award-winning designer, who won gold twice at the Chelsea Flower Show for her mind-bogglingly beautiful and sustainable wildflower gardens. And she is our HERO for the incredible work she has done in helping bees and pollinators of all types through her amazing gardens.

Last year, Kate invited all of us at Annie's to visit the thrilling "Melissa Garden" she created in Healdsburg, CA for the owners of a local winery. Created as a bee sanctuary where hives are treated as living beings, the bees are raised in innovative hives and provided with an exuberant pesticide-free gardens brimming with year-round food and nectar sources. I don't think anyone else has created a garden quite like this anywhere in the world. I highly encourage you to visit it yourself and be inspired as much as we were!

Annie's is now on Facebook!
Come on over and be our friend!
OPEN 7 DAYS, 9 - 5!

Check our current availability list for a fabulous selection!

PS: Make sure to add to your address book!
That way, you are sure to receive messages and updates from us.

Annie's Annuals & Perennials
Business Office: 801 Chesley Ave. Richmond, CA, 94801
Nursery: 740 Market Ave. Richmond, CA 94801
(888) 266-4370

World Premier: The Beekeeper, a new play

Tonight is the last night. Hope it will be playing elsewhere soon.


By Jennifer Lynne Roberts
Directed by Laura Lundy-Paine

March 18-April 2
Buy tickets now!

Cast: Kit Asa-Hauser (pictured), Donald Hardy (pictured), Melissa Keith , Julian Lafferty, George McRae*, Sandi Rubay.

Oleta’s father Francis has died, and she must return to the small Oregon town she left behind to put together the shattered pieces of the past. Rippling with mystery and emotional force, Beekeeper takes us on a journey from past to present and blurs the lines between what is, what could have been, and what must be. A haunting world premiere by Bay Area playwright Jennifer Roberts.

Rhythmix Cultural Works, 2513 Blanding Avenue, Alameda [Map]

HIVE NIGHT - Thursday, March 17 at 7pm
$10-$15 Sliding Scale preview. Come meet a Beekeeper!
Bay Area Beekeepers & families get free cookie & a coffee. Buy tickets now!

Enjoy champagne reception following the show Buy tickets now!

FIRST SATURDAY - March 19 - Not to be missed!
$40 ticket includes a Pre-show Cocktail Hour! Come meet the Playwright, Director & Cast. Enjoy a custom cocktail by St. George Spirits. Buy tickets now!

TALK BACK - Thursday, March 24
Talk Back with Cast, Director, and Playwright following the show Buy tickets now!

Performances: Fridays and Saturdays, March 18, 19, 25, 26, and April 2 at 8pm
Please note: no Friday, April 1 performance
Thursdays, March 24 & 31 at 7pm Buy tickets now!