Monday, November 28, 2011

The Birds and the Bees

Charlotte Canelli is the Library Director at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood.

As my husband would say, it’s all about the birds and the bees. Okay, wait! Before you think that I’m revealing too much, we’re talking about Gerry Canelli’s hobbies. He has many of them, including photography, golf and wine. Yet both birds and bees are fun to talk or write about.

Soon after I met Gerry, I was introduced to his collection of carved wooden shorebirds lining the walls of his home. And, as you would guess, he had me at the Piping Plover.

I mean, there is something so endearing about a man who adores beautiful creatures, especially birds.

In May of last year, I wrote a From the Library column titled “Saving the World and Other Backyard Projects”. In it, I described Gerry’s first month as a beekeeper in 2010. Shortly after the column appeared, the several thousand bees in the hive multiplied to over sixty thousand. In the summer months our backyard hive was a buzzing frenzy of activity and an amazing adventure.

Clothed in his white beekeeper suit cinched at the ankles and wrists, Gerry tended his hive armed with a smoker, thick gloves and a netted bee hat. He began a blog and posted photos and videos of his bees in action. There were up-close and personal views of flying worker bees, pouches stuffed with mustard-yellow pollen. There were male drones twice the size of the female bees. And there was that fabulous queen.

A hive of 60,000-80,000 bees has only one queen. She is impregnated once by multiple drones but she remains fertile for life and lays up to 2000 eggs per day eight months of the year. She can live for 3-5 years.

The other female bees, or worker bees, live for only 6 weeks during the busy summer months and four to five months the rest of year. These worker bees take on important occupations. They clean house, dispose of the dead, guard the hive, build the honeycomb and nurse the young. Just 21 days into their careers, they begin to forage instead and to collect the pollen (food for the colony) and nectar (for honey) from up to eight miles away.

Nursing bees tend to the young in embryonic forms or as tiny, fully-formed baby bees. That summer Gerry shared amazingly clear photographs of the various first stages of the honeybee – first deposited in the cell as tiny as a broken grain of rice. Only days later it is plump and swollen, squeezed into every space of the cell. Soon, that larva is capped with wax to await development. This process takes about 21 days from egg to bee. (Queen bees take less and drones take longer.)

Gerry worked hard that first summer making sure the bees had water during the hottest August days. He peered out our window waiting for active flight after the first sun of the day had warmed up the sides of the wooden hive. Like a proud father he noted how many bees were still buzzing into the hive at sundown.

In late August 2010, Gerry took steps to fight off the dreaded Varroa mite – the scourge of honeybees. Yet, despite all of his dedication and hard work, sometime late in autumn Gerry lost his hive. It was a sad day when he finally realized that the hive had dwindled to a few thousand bees. It was most likely due to the loss of the queen – whether through accident, disease or parasite. We’ll never know. In the next couple of weeks in December the hive was empty of life.

A focused Gerry forged ahead this winter. Armed with more information, more supplies and a second hive, he installed two new crops of bees in our Norfolk backyard in early spring. Since April they have flourished under his loving care.

Mid-July we excitedly collected several pounds of delicious sweet amber. I was delighted to scrape aside the waxy comb and watch cups of honey drip in our kitchen. Later we harvested another twenty pounds. We are keeping our fingers crossed – in the last week of November, with mild and sunny days, the bees seem happy, active and ready for their winter rest.

No one quite knows what is happening to world’s honeybee population. Colony Collapse Disorder (or CCD) was is a phenomenon that only became known to the world of beekeeping during the years 1996 through 2006. It has become depressingly widespread in the five years since. It varies around the world, but on average 40% of honeybees hives don’t survive the year.

Various theories include the deadly spread of the Varroa mite or our reliance on poisonous pesticides. Additionally, genetically-modified crops may be to blame. More likely, it is a deadly combination of all of these. No one knows for sure.

What we do know is how rewarding it is to raise bees. There are even rooftop beekeeping associations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx where some beekeepers have to break the law to keep hives.

The documentary DVD, “Queen of the Sun: What the Bees Are Telling Us” (2011) will arrive at the library sometime in January and we hope to screen it for interested patrons. This “engaging, alarming and ultimately uplifting film weaves together a dramatic story that uncovers the problems and solutions” to this crisis in nature.

Another documentary DVD, “Vanishing of the Bees” (2010) is available now at the library. It chronicles the demise of the honeybee, the relationship to honeybee commercial ventures in this country and the struggle of those who rely on the honeybee for their livelihood. Most of all, it informs us that we are all in trouble if the honeybee does not find its way back to health.

Remember if our DVD is not available or if we don’t have a copy, you may request it from any of the 42 Minuteman libraries online. Reference librarians can find most items at other libraries within Massachusetts or New England. If you need help finding materials at the Morrill Memorial Library or within the Minuteman Library Network, please call the Reference or Information desks (781-769-0200) or visit the library in person.