Friday, November 15, 2013

You can call me Queen Bee

Two weeks ago, we discovered a cluster of bees in our vineyard, clumped on a branch:

Since there is no hive to protect, the bees are much less aggressive.

It was my first time seeing a cluster of honeybees this close, and it has been quite a fascinating learning experience. I didn't know how aggressive they would be, but I did know I wanted to get in as close as I could—curiosity and Instagram beckoned!


I was able took a bunch of photos and videos from less than 1 foot away without disturbing them at all. The cluster is just a buzzing ball of crawling fuzzy bodies and vibrating wings. You can hear the soft hum and even feel the wind from the vibrations if you get close enough. They are shivering around the queen to maintain a core temperature of 95°F, even though can get to 70°F during the day and 40s at night.

Over the first day or two, we debated whether or not to initiate the expensive and time-consuming hobby of bee-keeping. $300 for a starter kit? We can buy decades' worth of honey with that money! Did we have time to invest into starting another hobby? No, not really. However, we still needed the colony removed, and called upon our neighbor Cedrus across the street, who has been raising bees for about 5 years, to help us. He told us that this colony, a ball 6 inches in diameter, contained only about 1000 to 2000 bees—minuscule compared to the typical size of around 50,000 workers. This colony probably has a 50% chance of surviving the winter here, where nighttime temperatures not uncommonly dip into the mid-20s.

Cedrus came by with a hive box, smoke can, and some other gear to capture the queen and transfer the colony to the safer and warmer abode to build their new hive. Pine needles or eucalyptus leaves are used for the smoke. The smell is rather similar to incense and it calms the bees.

A colony can have up to 100,000 when the queen is laying over 2,500 eggs a day at the height of the season.

The smoke hides the alarm pheromone that bees emit when they feel threatened. It is also hypothesized that they respond as if evacuating from a forest fire, and thus are less attentive to predators. Using a bee brush, Cedrus broke off the clumps of bees from our grape vine into a small bucket and poured the bees into the box. He found the queen, only slightly bigger than the workers, after a few sweeps and tried to get as many bees into the box as he could, since such a small colony needed every last bee to survive the winter.

Apis mellifera (queen and workers)
The queen is only slightly longer than the workers, and can be difficult to spot for the untrained eye. (wiki)

Dumping and maneuvering bees into the box. His pant legs are bunched up so they won't accidentally get caught in his clothes.

While some beekeepers wear gloves, Cedrus explained that gloves prevent you from feeling bees if you accidentally get too close to one. If you touch one with your bare skin, they will buzz and you can ease the pressure once you feel the vibrations. However, the vibrations don't pass through gloves as easily, making it easier to squish them. Killing a worker bee will release alarm pheromones to the other workers, who in turn raise their aggression. After handling bees for a while, he noticed they were becoming slightly more aggressive: they would bump his hands with their head, but never stung him.

After he closed the top, he asked me to help him by lifting the hive box so he can brush off bees from the bottom before placing it down on the ground. "Are you allergic to bee stings?" he asked. "I've only been stung once. Don't you find out the second time around whether or not you are allergic?" I asked. Actually, he explained, your allergenicity can change at any point. Some people find out they are allergic upon the first sting, while others notice their reactions change after beekeeping for over 20 years.

We kept the lid fixed with a log.

Fearless (or reckless?), I put on the hat and net over my head, roll up my sleeves, and step up to the task. Having multiple honeybees land on your bare skin is frightening, exciting, and humbling. Recognizing that they are not aggressive and trusting in both their instincts and my own made me feel much closer to nature, and to an extent, more at peace.

The next day, I came out to check on the honeybees. I could no longer hear their buzzing inside the box, and could only detect activity from a few that came in and out from the opening. Back on the grapevine, where they were before, I could see clusters of white beeswax where they had started building for a few days.
Grapevine with remnants of a few days' worth of beeswax.

It has been a great learning experience - both from our knowledgeable neighbor as well as some subsequent "light" reading on wikipedia. I look forward to observing them in the coming months!

Further reading:
Colony Collapse Disorder
Haplodiploidy (male bees develop from unfertilized eggs and are haploid)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Writing

Writing cover letters is annoying. Not only annoying, but incredibly depressing as well. Unless you have amazing life skills that are hot in-demand AND you are great at sales pitches, constructing a cover letter can be a painful trial-and-error process of learning how to sell yourself. This is especially complicated for those of us who learned English as a second language, because if you are a slow writer like I am, each application can take up to a few of hours to complete, especially if you include research involved for each job. The number of applications I can complete in one day is tiny compared to the number I should be sending out to have a decent chance at finding something suitable, which makes this process even more depressing. As a result, writing and sending out cover letters and resumes can be a long, consistent, and painful reminder of your sad state of unemployedness. Moreover, if you are a recent graduate who finds yourself with a degree that doesn't amount to much employability, it also serves as a depressing reminder of the amount of debt you have put yourself (and perhaps family members) into.

On the bright side, I feel like my writing has been getting marginally better with each job application I send out--which got me to thinking about how my writing had improved in the past. If I hated writing so much, then why am I writing this blog post about writing? After all, isn't this blog mostly photo- and art-focused?

The truth is, I don't actually hate writing. I only dislike one big aspect of it: the slowness. The thing I dislike the most is knowing how slow the process is for me compared with other people. I don't like being aware of how long the thoughts first take to form in my head, and then the length of time for them to get translated and transcribed by my hand. I began learning English at age 6, which delayed my having a proper grasp of more advanced writing abilities until much later -- probably over a decade after my peers had developed them. My mom constantly stressed the importance of reading. I know, now, how right she was -- how important reading books is to the mind's ability to not only build vocabulary and learn about society, but also the ability to synthesize complex ideas -- but when she was saying these words to me throughout grade school, they sounded like a constant nagging at something that I was doing inadequately, and the negativity shunned me away from novels. (I chose, instead, to indulge in graphic novels -- great stories, fewer words, and a burgeoning passion for drawing and art.)

The writing section of the SATs was especially grueling for me. At the end of the 45 minutes -- or however long they gave you -- I was struggling to finish 2 coherent paragraphs to get a score of 4 ("is mostly organized and focused, with a progression of ideas that is mostly coherent" but "demonstrates inconsistent facility with language and uses mostly appropriate vocabulary") while my friends were getting full 6s ("is tightly organized and focused, with a smooth and coherent progression of ideas," "demonstrates a facility with language through the use of descriptive and appropriate vocabulary," and "uses intelligent variation in sentence structure"). (I had a hard time finding a reference to the descriptions, so Sparknotes to what I found.)

On the other hand, I have grown up to be a highly logic-oriented person. I love puzzles and scored 800 on all of the SAT math sections, allowing me to indulge on the things I was good at and neglect those that I wasn't succeeding in. I was afraid of practicing my writing because things written were meant to be read, and the thought of my peers who seemed like they were born with the facility of the English language felt so embarrassing that I didn't do anything. I loved life, art, and ideas, and writing about them gave me a means to formulate more coherent thoughts. Over the years, I had kept up a personal blog, and I noticed that my writing for schoolwork flowed with more ease when I wrote more compared in it. At some point, I realized that writing was not an enemy -- that it was okay to send ugly incoherent drafts to be brutally ripped apart before they can be put back together into a slightly more intelligible package. I'm not sure I learned to get over my embarrassment, but I sure did learn to ignore it. After all, isn't blogging mightier than the sword in this day and age?

Thanks to habit, I am still not a habitual reader -- although I love it whenever I do read. There are quite a few books on my reading list, and it's always exciting to get best-sellers for $1 from second-hand stores. I've discovered that Librivox is a great solution for those of us who 1) never actually read the classics in school or don't remember them, and 2) don't really have the time to do it now, but 3) would still like to catch up with the rest of the edumacated world. I've gotten through most of my high school reading list now by listening to mp3s of really fantastic volunteers, but part of me is still optimistic that I may, some day, actually put in the time to read the actual words myself. Maybe.

Well, if you've made it this far, congratulations; I hope that my writing wasn't too painful to endure. :)

Alice statue in Central Park at night, not inundated with kids.

(Also, feel free to reach out if you know of a job opening in the health field in NYC!!)