Friday, June 28, 2013

Conophytum frutescens

Conophytum frutescens (MRO31, 9 km S. of Komaggas)
Conophytum frutescens is something of a misfit. In a genus known for compact and sometimes even largely subterranean growth, it produces stems with internodes up to several centimeters long; old plants of C. frutescens develop reliably into little shrubs. Most conophytums have autumn flowers, but C. frutescens is in full bloom at the summer solstice. The orange mid-day flowers are also quite unusual: similar coloration only otherwise occurs in conophytums with nocturnal blooms, or in hybrids between species with violet petals and species with yellow petals.

Conophytum frutescens is endemic to the quartzite hills around Komaggas, an isolated town in central Namaqualand in South Africa's Northern Cape Province. Komaggas is just on the eastern edge of the coastal plain and seems to support a fairly lush vegetation, relative to surrounding areas at least. In addition to supporting the tallest Conophytum, the geophytes of Komaggas seem to grow to unusual size. I've found populations of Massonia depressa there with twin leaves, flat to the ground, as big as dinner plates. The area is also home to a form of Eriospermum aphyllum, a tuber with photosynthetic stems branched like an old rooftop TV antenna, that is two or three times the size of the plants seen anywhere else.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Entomology-themed Trip to Central Connecticut

Magicicada septendecim
There were some interesting insect-related events going on in Hamden, Connecticut this past weekend. The Brood II 17-year cicadas are out, and the nearest location to see them in large numbers is the Connecticut River Valley. I don't think I've ever run into periodical cicadas before, so it was a new experience for me.

Adults and shed skins from nymphs on a birch tree.
As promised, in the right places there were a lot of the little guys. I went to some hiking trails near the intersection of Old Lane Road and Old Farms Road, and saw many thousands of them perched on vegetation and flying through the canopy. The humming call of the males was constant, but not overwhelming. The weather was partly overcast and the volume of the cicada song seemed to rise when the sun peeked out, only to recede into the distance when a cloud passed overhead.

Nymph emerging from the soil.

Adult shedding its skin
There was a van and a car from Canada parked in a power line right of way in the area with the cicadas and some French Canadians were out beating the bushes. The leader of the Canadian group turned out to be a freelance entomologist, Andre Desjardins, who was visiting to check out Connecticut insect life. Southern New England is apparently the closest that Magicicada gets to Quebec. He thought that the cicadas would be active well into July and was very excited to be able to see them and collect some specimens.

Tom Seeley and an artificial honeybee swarm.

The other motivation for a trip to Hamden was a visit by Thomas Seeley of Cornell University, who was invited by the Connecticut Beekeepers Association to talk about his research. I had read Tom's recent book, Honeybee Democracy, and enjoyed it quite a bit. His talks mostly covered material from the book, but with a lot more illustrations and videos. Since the 1970s, he has conducted a series of really clean, clever experiments designed to tease apart how bees decide on a new home when a colony reproduces by swarming. He's figured out in surprising detail how scout bees evaluate potential nest sites, how they integrate this information with the rest of the swarm and make a decision about which is the best site, and how at last they manage to move tens of thousands of bees and a queen to a new home, which most of the swarm has never actually visited before.

Tom also demonstrated one of his basic experimental tools, an artificial swarm with a caged queen set up in the fields at the state agricultural experiment station. We could watch the scout bees advocating for nest sites (using the famous waggle dance) on the surface of the swarm, and see how different locations at various distances and directions gained or lost popularity over the course of the day. The swarm never actually came to a decision and tried to take off (apparently, they would have returned once they realized the queen was left behind in her cage), but it was fascinating to observe the process for a while.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Queen Bee Raising

Queen cells cut off of combs and pressed onto a top bar to consolidate them. Possibly we should have sliced out a bit more surrounding comb to have more material to work with and reduce the chances of damaging the cells.
The bees have been booming (apparently, it's an unusually good spring for them, with better than average weather and nectar-producing plant flowerings). Populations built up, with the consequence that some of the hives starting making new queens, in preparation for swarming. Swarming means that half the worker bees leave with the old queen, and freshly hatched virgin queens fight it out to see who will take over the hive and/or also take off with their own swarms. The beekeeper wants to discourage swarming but still have a strong colony to make honey, and so has to try to achieve a delicate balance where the colony has just enough open space in the hive and the population hovers barely below the level where it tries to spawn a daughter colony.

Recently hatched virgin queen, soon to be added to a small, queenless "split."
Girlfriend Devan and I (well, mostly Devan) have been discovering swarm cells (queens being raised in preparation for swarming), and dealing with it by pulling out the cells, along with frames of bees. This weakens the colony a bit, discourages swarming, and also creates new colonies that can be added to the apiary or sold. The split colonies with queen cells or virgin queens have been going to various outlying locations to get established and the queens mated: bees are weirdly inflexible about the location of their hive, and if you move a split within the 2-3 mile radius where they might recognize some landmarks, most of the bees that had ever been outside of the hive will abandon their new home and fly straight back to their original colony.

The first of the new mated queens this spring.
The first successfully mated new queen actually wound up getting put back into one of our original colonies, to take the place of a queen from last year that was going downhill (laying not enough eggs, in a spotty pattern). The later splits are getting established now, and I'll know in a week or two if they worked out as well as the first one.

The main point of all this: five pounds of delicious local wildflower honey.
The strongest of the hives is producing a lot of honey, at the moment probably mainly from clover, black locust and multiflora rose. There's one medium super (hive box placed on top of the main colony) full of finished honey, capped with wax in the comb. That's about 50 pounds right there, plus a second super the bees are working on filling pretty quickly, and a couple of other supers on smaller hives that are starting to see some comb getting built and nectar processed into honey. So yeah, I already know what friends and family are getting for Christmas this year, unless they express strong, preferably medically-based objections.

Swarm about 40 feet up in a Pitch Pine.
Two swarms have gotten away from the apiary in spite of our efforts at swarm prevention. I have some bait hives up in the area to try to catch swarms, and a few scout bees showed interest in these, but in the end the swarm pictured here took off for parts unknown, only a couple of hours after leaving the hive. It was a shame to lose the bees and their queen, who was quite productive, but the hive they came from is still plenty strong, and it was fascinating to witness the swarming process.