Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Flit, Humm & Buzz:

The arrival of the season's first Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at our feeders occurred this week. I work with a program that provides funding for someone that works with these brassy little guys, so it was a joy to see them arrive. They are so damned cheeky that when we went to replace the food over the weekend, one of them was cursing at us in hummingbird-ese, and pushing in under our hands to get to the feeder. They are truly in your face, often literally, hovering a few inches from your nose, making a frightening hum like a bumblebee on steroids, and chattering away like mad.

It's amazing to think that these fellows are possibly coming all the way from Tamaulipas and Veracruz areas of Mexico. The big question is whether they come across the Gulf of Mexico to Florida, and then go North, or whether they take the shore route through Texas. No one knows, because no banded hummingbird has ever been recaptured in a place allowing us to figure out their migration route. Personally, I wonder about their metabolism during an over-water route crossing -- hummers eat insects as well as nectar, and it's quite possible that there are sufficient insects over most of the 500-plus km crossing, especially if they skirt the Cuban coast. But still... there's not much body weight to play with!

All this reminds me of bees, and the interesting symbiotic relationship they have developed with small segments of our population. There is an interesting subculture of bee-keepers in New York City, known as the New York City Rooftop Beelicious Honey Apiary -- they all maintain hives of bees for making honey that is sold at various markets and delis around the city. Apparently the bees do very well, living hundreds of feet above the madding crowds, placidly going from millionaires penthouse gardens to tenement flowerpots. No bears to raid their hives, either. Just the occasional fight against City Hall, which insists they are "wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm," and so are illegal to keep.

The other segment of the population that is mixed up with bees is a little more interesting. Migratory beekeepers actually move millions of bees around on tractor-trailer rigs, putting out their busy workers for hire to farmers along the route who need crops pollinated. Farmer pays cash, truck unloads hives, bees go to work for a day or two, plants are pollinated, hives are reloaded, honey is made, and off they go again to the next field, following the weather North! There are some good pictures of this going on here. A lot of food crops depend on this little-known group of people, who have been moving bees from Southern states and Mexico into Canada for almost 100 years.

Unfortunately, like the africanization problem (which causes honey productivity to drop, and for the bees to become "wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm") there is another threat looming from the South. The Varroa mite, which was originally exported from Japan to Brazil, is slowly moving North. This nasty creature infests bees and can kill off an entire hive -- fortunately they do reproduce and spread very slowly, but it will mean that customs at the border for those fellows will take a little longer.

"Sir, would you mind asking the Queen to lift her wing? Yup, that's right. OK, well y'all have a nice day pollinating now! You're free to go ahead."