Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ponds, Birds, and Bees! Oh MY!

Coop met at Waterloo Aquatic Education Center again this week, and we explored the pond. Big nets, little nets, containers, buckets, identification cards, magnifiers...we were all set, and were not disappointed with the tadpoles, newts, bullfrogs, dragonfly nymphs, whirligig beetles, giant water bugs and tiny bluegill we found (and released).  Well, not all the tadpoles were released - we were asked by the woman who runs the center to keep a few for the resident newts to eat...

Eliza stalking something..

After an hour of exploration and then a picnic lunch, we drove about 10 minutes to the home of one of the coop members.  Their backyard has been certified as an official Backyard Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. To be certified, the backyard (or schoolyard, or park) must provide food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young for beneficial animals or insects.  It was a mown half acre of grass when they moved in 7 years ago and now there are trees, cattails along the stream, prairie grasses, and a meandering bluebird trail, along which are several bluebird boxes.  It was an inspiring little spot to see (surrounded by the mown acres and acres of her neighbors) - it didn't take much land to make quite a home for a variety of birds, amphibians, bats, and insects!  We learned about the greatest obstacle for the bluebird population here - the persistent, bullying English Sparrow.  In fact, T and her husband make their weekly rounds of the bluebird boxes and oust any nests of the English Sparrow that they find, residents and all.  Of the 5 that we checked today, 3 had messy sparrow nests in them, 1 had an abandoned bluebird nest, and one housed a swallow.  

A robin fledgling

The tree swallow, who just lay several eggs since last night.

T and her daughters showed us the bat box on their garage, which they think houses about 20 adult little brown bats and a nursery of babies.  I had not thought that bat houses were very successful, but they thought they'd give it a try when they discovered that bats were using their picnic table umbrella as one of their roosting spots (apparently bats usually have two - one for their daytime sleeping, and one for resting in at night, in between hunting expeditions), and the bats accepted it.

Then we were shown an empty hive that her husband left out for us - he keeps a few different kinds of bees - as well as the smoker and the parts of the bee suit that he has.  I had always thought that the smoke had a calming effect on the bees, so they would not swarm and sting - didn't you? Well, it's not so.  They smoke makes them think their hive is on fire (duh - smart bees!), so they quickly eat as much honey as they possibly can, to take with them on their journey to find a new hive.  When they are so full of honey, they can't bend their bodies very well to sting, so they tend not to try.  T also explained that when you see a swarm of bees they are not likely to chase and sting you, because they are also on their way to find another hive, and so are also full of honey!  This all became infinitely more interesting about 20 minutes later when the mamas were lounging in the shade, watching the kids play, and T suddenly started calling to Eliza who had wandered off towards some trees. She beckoned her to come quickly, and then pointed out what you may sort of be able to see below:
If the blue sky above the trees looks a little hazy, it's because it's filled with bees.  The timing of T's explanation could not have been better.  No one panicked, except T, knowing how upset her husband was going to be that he was losing an entire colony of bees (off, presumably, to follow a newly groomed Queen to a new hive).  She had also just explained how to "capture" such a swarm, so we immediately started to try and figure out if we could do this for them! In steps our heroine, K.  In fact, what did it was hearing T's daughter exclaim, "We need a man!" K's hackles were raised, and she determined to set things right (she is a self-made farmer and horsewoman who raises beef cattle and sheep - the proverbial tough gal with a heart of gold. She is awesome.)  So, here she is suiting up:
We waited for the swarm of bees to form a ball, which they eventually did - it looked like a black mass on a branch of a small pine tree.  Here is K pushing the empty hive we had just been looking at under the mass of bees, which you can maybe see in the branch above.
Now here she is shaking the branch of bees.  The hope is that when they drop onto the hive they will find it a welcoming home and will choose it to be their next hive.  Of course, you need to convince the Queen of that, so this took a few shakes to get all the bees down onto the hive.  And then you wait.
Here you can see that most of the bees have fallen onto the hive, though at the very top of the photo you can just make out a smaller ball of bees (T commented that there must have been several pounds of bees - the branch is much higher in this photo, as most of the bees have fallen) - K went back for a couple more shakes.
This was even cooler than the pond exploration!  Unfortunately, most of the kids were so hot and tired that they missed out on this part of the excitement.  I'll have to let  you know whether or not this was successful - we had to leave before all the drama was over.  It definitely made my day - inspired by people who care so much for the wildlife around them, inspired by learning more about the life of bees, inspired by the willingness of a friend to help a friend by doing something they never imagined themselves doing...


Merry said...

I'd say this was pretty darn exciting!!I've just read a fluff novel called Recipe for Bees about a family of bee raisers.How neat that you all got to see this happen!

alissa said...

holy crow! that is awesome!!