Friday, June 20, 2008

Our Bees Have Disappeared: An Elegy For Good Friends

Ever since the flooding of the basement and the following weeks we've been noticing a distinct absence of the bumblebees who make our garden their home. We thought it odd from the beginning but wondered if maybe, due to the rainy weather, they were just laying low for a while. Now, given the string of mostly sunny, dry days we've had in the last week, we've been watching for them to reappear. And they haven't. Though the main gardens aren't as floriferous as they will be later this month and into July, there's still quite a bit they usually work on ... Nope, not a trace. Well, we concluded tonight that our bumblebees have disappeared, and are probably dead at this point.

There's a story in this, and a theory as to why they disappeared, so bear with me.

Back in spring of 2000 when Fernymoss planted our first two hollies in the Woodland Garden, he planted the first, and kept hitting something rocky the deeper he dug, but fortunately he ended up planting it up higher. When he went to plant the second a short distance away, he again encountered a stubborn rocky area, but this time it was buzzing angrily! He quickly concluded there was a bee hive down there and started filling back in, then planted the holly anyway. Over the years, the hollies have thrived and grown, no matter what was down there.

We talked to a few people about what he could have encountered and a good number said that with a lot of the older houses in the neighborhood (ours is 107 yrs old this year), there used to be cisterns in the yard, and the location where he found the buzzing could well be a long buried cistern. That made sense to us, given some of the truly odd things we've dug up from the yard over the years (a phenomenon I've also heard is quite common from folks in the neighborhood). So, cistern or not, one thing was certain: there was a bumblebee hive down there.

That was good news to us! I've always admired bumblebees for their incredible work ethic, and their clumsy, but generally friendly demeanor to meddling humans who get in the way of their duties. And they're probably (just short of Sphinx Moths) my favorite insect to photograph (as regular readers here already know). We've really enjoyed having them around (though sometimes they can get inconvenient when we want to weed) all these years, and now we face either an extinction or a greatly reduced population in the garden. And that is a very sobering and sad thought. They were some of our best friends in the insect kingdom, and we're going to really miss them if what we think happened is truly the case.

Here's how we theorize what happened. If (as we suspected) they were living in an old cistern down there, given the events of the early morning hours of June 6 (when we had over 4 and a half inches of rain in 2 hours), which led to the storm drain overload and the flooding of our basement with a foot of water, they simply drowned. In their time of rest, no less. That's a truly heartbreaking thought, but unless they miraculously reappear soon, we'll have to just assume that their hive was wiped out that night, and with the subsequent substantial rains we got in the following days.

If so, it's a cruel irony that the very place they had safely inhabited for years may have well become their tomb. We're going to miss them, greatly. We've depended on them for nearly ten years as our garden buddies who take on a good number of the pollination duties around here, and without them, I wonder what the long term results will be. Our gardens are very bee, butterfly and other beneficial insects friendly, and a disruption in the delicate balance of the ecosystem we've helped to maintain concerns us seriously. Without one of the most stalwart and reliable insects, such as the bumblebee, we may experience some serious, unforeseen consequences.

Much has been made (and rightly so!) of the catastrophic losses of homes and businesses and general damage during the 'Flood of '08,' but I wonder if similar insect disappearance events are happening elsewhere around the state. Are we just beginning to witness the gradual (or sudden?) disappearance of native species as well? I don't mean to sound preachy, but humans weren't the only ones affected by the truly catastrophic weather patterns we've been experiencing recently. All kingdoms, flora and fauna as well as humans have been affected. And I think the other species deserve some recognition of their losses, if that is truly the situation in which we now find ourselves.

Editorial note: Nothing would make me happier than to have to 'retract' this post if/when the bees make a reappearance in the garden. But I observed an ominous detail today when I noticed that the Bee Balm has started to bloom, and it was more than curiously devoid of insect activity. That's not a good sign, as it is one of the favorites of the bumblebees (and hummingbirds). If the bees don't reappear by the time the Purple Coneflowers bloom (which will be happening soon), we'll know for sure. I really hope I'm pleasantly surprised and relieved to see that happen ....


FARfetched said...

Here's hoping they come back from their Vegas vacation (or wherever they were able to stay dry)!

We've only seen a few honeybees here in the last couple of years, but other insects have picked up the slack: moths, carpenter bees, even some wasps and/or mud daubers. I've seen things on the butterfly bush I don't even have a name for. So even if the worst comes to pass, I believe things will adjust. That doesn't make the bumblebees' contribution worthless, mind you, but we can all hope things will work out.

olivia said...

Oh no. That's really sad to read IVG. I hope you can retract too, but you're right - w/ those flowers not drawing, that's not a good sign. Well ... maybe they made it out and are busy setting up a new hive. In any case, I hope you see a return of your bees.

Sylvana said...

We have a hive of large black and cream (B. impatiens, I think) bumblebees living in our crawl space. I would very much miss them. They are very gentle, beautiful and helpful.

Maybe yours are busy rebuilding, or sand-bagging. In any case, if your garden is bee friendly, you will have bees again.

boran2 said...

Hopefully they've just been slowed a bit by all that rain. It seems unlikely that the cistern was filled completely, maybe a number will have survived.

I've seen a good number here even with all our rain, and we have gotten a lot. It has rained every day for about a week now. I just photographed one today on one of my perennials.

Annie in Austin said...

No bumblebees is not good, IVG. Maybe any survivors can regroup and start over? A British nature site suggests burying an old teapot with the spout sticking out in order to attract a bumblebee nest, but maybe that would attract yellow jackets instead if you did it in Iowa.

How interesting that your house is over 100 years old.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hey FAR, we really do hope they will reappear, and maybe we'll be surprised as we work around the garden this weekend. It just seems so ominous to me that they're not visiting their favorites. We see few honeybees, and they definitely don't live in the garden but come from elsewhere. Who knows who visits those (infamous) butterfly bushes? :-)

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hi Olivia! I sure hope I can post a big "I was wrong!" post sometime soon. We'd like to think they made it out, but given we had about 4 ft of water in the street, and the storm came in late at night, they mostly likely were sleeping and didn't know what was coming. Anyway, great to see you back around these parts! Did you see that Angry Gramps McCrazy was in Ottawa today attacking Obama? Good thing you're still out of the country, so you missed that!

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hi Sylvana! Thanks for visiting, and I took a quick look at your place and definitely will be back ... especially liked the recipe section, and had to look at Beer Butt Chicken just to see how you do it. I've heard about that but never tried it. And I lived in WI for 9 years!

I totally agree w/how you characterize their demeanor too, because ours are very gentle too. I've only gotten stung once --and it was my fault because I was trying to pull a mess of bindweed away from a holly and didn't see him-- I cared less about my sting than the fact that due to my negligence, he gave up his life.

But I love bees (except the Africanized 'killer bees' that genetic mutation gone wrong), in case you hadn't noticed, lol.

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hey ho B2!
Perhaps you're right about the cistern, but there was about 4 ft of water in the street (probably 5 or more in the intersection). And remember, this was the first time in 10 yrs that the basement has flooded ... I'm probably being too gloomy, but I miss them! They give me a BUZZ. :-)

You should post some of your favorite flower photos at SLB ... you could classify it as the flora of the Island, hehe.

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hey there Annie,
"No bumblebees is not good." Thus, the lament that I hope turns out to be premature ...

I think I'll skip the teapot trick. One, we don't have an old teapot, lol. And I bet you're right that it would more likely attract yellow jackets, which I positively loathe. I think a lot of people don't realize they are really wasps (thus the nasty disposition), get stung and blame it on a bee.

We have a lot of (mostly benign, except for a few hornets) interesting wasps that come around, especially when Miss Wilmot's Ghost Eryngium blooms. They're just on the cusp of blooming so I should have some representative pics soon. They attract lots of wasps, mostly the littler ones we consider beneficial garden predators of nastier bugs.

Alas, Miss Wilmot's Ghost has been partying too much the past few years and has achieved weed status. I'm going to have to pull quire a few to thin them out, but I'm going to wait until I get pics and blooming is done, then I'll nip the seeds from dispersing. I do hope I can find homes for some of them, but a lot of people balk at having something that looks like a thistle (even though it isn't) in their garden. I've had people walking by express fear of them, until I tell them to touch them to see for themselves ... surprise then sets in, lol.