I woke up Monday morning to sirens, smoke and a litany of texts from concerned family and friends. The first text I read was from my housemate telling me Santa Rosa, the city where I live, was on fire. The city itself. Within minutes I was dressed and throwing belonging into my car, searching the blackened skyline for flames, and trying to find out if I was in immediate danger. All across Sonoma county people had been doing the same since the middle of the night, sometimes with only minutes of warning to flee. The story is the same, grab your pets, grab you photos and get out.
Forty minutes later, I was drinking coffee in a sort of dazed stupor at Wildflower Bakery while evacuees streamed through, sharing stories of rescuing horses, moving goats, or what to do about the kids, the dog, and the cats currently stuffed into the suburban out front. I didn’t have any pets to try and save. I’m a beekeeper. My little charges don’t move in a flash. I can’t ask them to hop in the car with some treats and a leash.
My hives are located in a safe area in southern Sonoma County, but I can think of a handful of hives that friends and clients have had to abandon, hoping that their home and their hives stay standing. It’s still going on, as I write. A friend just sent a text telling me how she spoke to her hive, telling them what was going on before being forced to evacuate her property. It’s all we can do, really. Tell our girls to hang in there.
Since the fires broke out I’ve been thinking a lot about the life forms, human and otherwise, that are left so helpless and exposed during this time. Thinking about wild animals fleeing their already confined habitats, easily finding themselves in neighborhoods and backyards, no evacuation centers for them to rely on.
I have been thinking about how hard it is to keep bees alive. About the myriad of issues they face due to climate change and human impact: habitat loss, pesticides, cognitive issues from lack of diversity in food, reduced nectar flow from drought and heat, record breaking temperatures, disease and smoke. This August, wildfire smoke from further north and a major heat blast forced many bees in the region to consume large amounts of their honey stores. Now the fires are here, the smoke thick and the bees hunkering down to try and survive another major blow.
So what happens when forest fire becomes a reality for bees? When the sky fills with smoke, bees fill their bellies with honey and vigorously fan their wings to try and push the toxic air out of the hive. They stop flying and retreat inward. Counter to popular belief they are not preparing to abscond.
Since ancient times, beekeepers and honey hunters have used smoke to suppress colonies and “calm them down”. Bees' response to smoke is to consume honey. The consumption of honey is also an indication of swarming in the spring, and a correlation between honey consumption and swarming/absconding has been drawn without really understanding the nature of a hive. Bees preparing to swarm in early spring must first prepare the queen for flight. The queen is much larger and heavier than her sons and daughters. When preparing to swarm, attendants put the queen on a diet for a few weeks to help her shape up for flight. In a forest fire, the queen is too heavy to be able to fly (Tautz, "The Buzz About Bees") . Without a queen, the colony dies.
A recent study in South Africa indicates that wild bees don't flee from forest fires, but instead, try to ride them out. They do this by building a protective “fire-wall” of propolis over the opening to the hive, and retreat deep within. While this study is specific to wild bees in Table Mountain National Park, South Africa, the findings point to inherent species-wide behaviors in response to fire. To see photos click here.
“Once the fire has passed, the landscape is filled with powdery grey sand and the blackened skeletons of the larger shrubs. It is this devastation of their environment which the bees encounter after the fire has passed where neither nectar nor pollen is available to them. This is when the imbibed honey is essential to tide them over this dearth period which is about 2 to 3 weeks long before the fire-loving ephemerals sprout from underground bulbs or rhizomes and flower in profusion, having been relieved of competition from other plants.” (from The Natural Beekeeping Trust).
As backyard beekeepers, our hives are much more at risk to fire than the types of wild colonies described above. For one, our man made hives do not offer the insulation and protection a thick tree or stony outcropping might provide. Second, years of breeding for “desirable” traits has led to a loss in semi-domestic bees’ ability to build sufficient propolis seals, let alone a true propolis fire-wall.
What then, can we do to support our colonies in a time of raging fire, habitat loss and smoke damage?
If you can safely return to your property, offer your bees a clean water source, such as a bird bath. You may find many displaced birds visit your watering hole as well!
Do not go into your hives while the smoke is still strong in the air
Consider late fall feeding for bees that have or are in the midst of consuming large amounts of their winter honey stores.
Rebuild for the bee as you help rebuild your community and your home. Plant for pollinators.
Do not take honey. Period.
Talk to them. People have been doing it for centuries. Tell them what happened. Tell them about the land, the community, your experience. They may not understand our words, but they understand our mood, intentions and above all, our love.
Honey bees are an indicator species. They are the barometer for the ever-increasing volatility of our climate. They are the clarion call toward a massive restructuring of how we steward, respond, and relate to our planet. In the wake of this week’s devastation, they remind me that I am a human animal. I am not above or separate from the many animals struggling to survive in a compromised ecosystem. We are living creatures with sensitive nervous systems, responsible for the delicate balance of life we so often forget we are a part of.
Be safe. Be kind. Be aware. Take action.