Archive for July, 2016

Vacancy for Non-Social Bees




It wasn’t just another Sabbath. This past Sunday was  “Pollinator Day” at a Twin Cities garden center. Did you miss it? So did I.

Did you forget to give thanks to the legions of bees, butterflies and other insects that pollinate much of the food we depend on?

More than $15 billion a year in U.S. crops are pollinated by honey bees alone, including apples, berries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, alfalfa, and almonds. And that doesn’t include the provided value delivered by other non-semidomesticated native bees, butterflies, moths and other insects. It’s one more example of how we puny primates are intricately dependent on natural systems for our survival.

How is it that not one presidential politician will make mention of this undeniable maxim?

On Sunday afternoon, I strolled confidently out to an artificial  bee nesting box to make my biweekly observations. Confidently is the operative word since most folks associate bees with stingers. But in this case I’m looking for mostly non-stinging bees, those that tend to be solitary and non-social. There was no need to don my old beekeeping protective garb to tend to this innocuous task.

One of the adaptations of social bees and wasps is that they must protect their hordes of vulnerable young (larvae). Consequently, they have evolved to defend the nest with a stinger that can inject a painful venom. Not all bees have venom.

As a volunteer bee nesting box observer for the University of Minnesota Bee Atlas project, I have agreed to regularly go out to a nearby bee box that I erected back in the spring and see if any bees have decided to move in. No efforts to census the bees of Minnesota has been undertaken since 1919. And then 67 species were tabulated. Entomologists feel that the real number of bees could number around 400 in Minnesota with over 4,000 species in North America.

The intent of the project is to help University entomologists figure out how many native bee species there are living in Minnesota. While most folks have a simple image of a bee, there are over 20,000 species of bees in the world and many of them are solitary and reclusive. They come in different sizes, colorations and patterns. Many are not social in working to create a social unit of hundreds or thousands of individuals.

Earlier this spring, I mounted the wood block of wood, deemed the bee box, onto a common wood post that hosts an old bluebird nesting box. The block of wood has a grid of various sized holes drilled into it. The idea is that scouting bees of various species will find the holes irresistible nesting cavities. Rather than see the bees that take choose these quarters,  I will likely see the fruits of their labor.

The bees lay their eggs inside the cavity. This is called a brood cell. After the egg is deposited, the adult female  will stock the chamber with nectar and  pollen. Then she will plug the entrance to the hole with natural materials such as sand and mud or grasses and small plant fibers. Unbeknownst to the motherly instincts of procuring nectar and pollen from nearby flowers, she is a keen agent of pollination.

Bee atlas volunteers submit our observations  online to the University of Minnesota. The bee blocks will be collected and sent to the university in the fall where entomologists will raise the larvae to adulthood for easy identification.

The intent of the project is to decipher the information and hopefully learn more about  species distribution and bee diversity. This will provide a base as to how to track how bee populations are changing and how those changes might affect land management decisions.

Over the past month nearly all the largest diameter holes, under the number one column, have been plugged with shaggy plugs of dried grasses. I have no clue which species but it appears to be valued real estate. And only the bottom three or so smallest of holes in column 3 are cemented by dense plugs of what looks like sand.

I wonder will August bring on the hordes for the mid-sized holes?



Timely rains, combined with a prairie burning program has resulted in an amazing prairie flower bloom this summer. Bumblebees seem to care less about my strolling through thick lavender patches of bee balm or clumps of orange butterfly weed. They are too busy collecting nectar.


The dazzling  celebrities of pollinators are the butterflies. They are far more popular to the public because not only are they beautiful and graceful andthey don’t sting.

The popularity of the monarch butterfly has skyrocketed over the past two years and recently the 1,500 mile Interstate 35 corridor from Texas to Minnesota has been titled the “Monarch Highway.”

Last month, the Minneapolis StarTribune reported, “The Monarch Highway is part of a program backed by President Obama, who formed a Pollinator Health Task Force in 2014. The group, which consists of representatives from government agencies in six participating states and private entities, is crafting a plan to protect pollinator habitats nationwide, including I-35.”

The reward for the day came when I lay down amongst the stand of black-eyed susans and light purple bee balm. Looking up into the sky through the filagree of stem and bloom pollinators were stitching their hurried selves back and forth in a parade of pollinators.


black-eyed susan sky



Great spangled fritillary butterfly on bee balm.

An Arctic Fourth of July


“What I’d really like to do is something for the country. I don’t mean the American flag and the president. I mean for the country.”

• “Cutuk” in the novel Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner


A year ago today four of us were heading down an Arctic river on a “freedom float.” For nearly a month we paddled the Utukuk River in Alaska to the Chukchi Sea at the southern margin of the Arctic Ocean.

For most of the 200 miles of paddling and hiking we felt the aloneness but not the loneliness of the vast arctic tundra. Formally known as the Naval Petroleum Reserve, this piece of real estate is the size of Indiana and has only a few native villages within it. No freeways, nor roads connecting anything other than some streets within the villages.

President Harding established the Reserve in 1923. At that time the U.S. Navy was transitioning from coal-fueled ships to those that would run on petroleum. Personally I get a nervous tick when I find the word “petroleum” used in the description of a wilderness area.

According to the Alaska Wilderness League, “the Reserve includes some of our nation’s most vital natural resources – millions of acres of wilderness-quality lands with critical habitat for migratory birds, brown bears, caribou, threatened polar bears, walrus, endangered beluga whales and more. The Alaska Native communities that live along the Reserve have maintained a subsistence lifestyle for thousands of years based on the Reserve’s living resources.”

This is a land where the river braids and snakes its way like endless ribbons of silver, off the north slope of the Brooks Range. This mountain range, over 700 miles long, is the largest in the world above the Arctic Circle. The Utukuk snakes its way out of the naked foothills onto the “arctic prairies” of the coastal plan.

This unrestrained landscape is home to the Western Arctic Caribou herd, over 400,000 animals. We missed by mere days the main passage of migratory herds as they pushed over the river heading to the coastal plains where calving would take place. Tracks and worn trails were everywhere.

It’s only natural that predators follow this moving meat market. We saw 10 grizzly bears, a handful of wolves and abundant golden eagles.

Daily we “oohed and aahed” at the blessedly mute floral fireworks. Hudson Bay Company agent and explorer Thomas Simpson explored the arctic coast from 1836-39. In his journal he referred to the arctic landscape as “party-colored” as it is crowded with stunted arctic flowers. Short in nature, their colors boldly but silently beg for the attention of pollinating insects.


Arctic lupines and tiny saxifrages provided purples. Bursts of bright yellow quivered in the arctic poppies and draba. I loved the cushions of pink displayed in moss campion. In some places the bell-shaped white flowers of arctic heather grew so dense that the land appeared snow-covered.

On July 3rd, we finally got to the 125-mile long Kasegaluk Lagoon. The lagoon is home to nearly 4,000 beluga whales, over half the world’s Pacific black brant population and scores of other species of waterfowl and shorebirds, not to mention walrus, seals and polar bears. Although the lagoon was designated a “special area” in 2004 restricting all oil and gas leasing for ten years, there is no permanent protection.

Two Inupiat communities are located at each end of the lagoon. Their combined population of less than 800 people depends on the lagoon and adjacent lands for their grocery store, as they are very much a subsistence population. Freedom for these Inupiat is found in the life-rich, healthy waters and the quiet, vast landscape that provides their sustenance.

Back in the 1970s, while nearing the end of a long canoe trip in Canada’s Northwest Territories, we were surprised to hear a motor approaching our camp. A three-wheeler was carefully wending its way across the tundra. The young Inuit man pulled up, smiled and shyly got off his machine to talk with us. English was clearly not his first language.

Predictably, when one falters in trying to find meaningful dialogue with a stranger, we fall back on the predictable query and we asked him, “What do you do for a living?”

He looked confused in response to the question but then hesitantly explained, “Why I hunt. I fish. I live.”

Before he drove off, he unwrapped a good-sized portion of a fresh caribou quarter and gave it to us. With a smile and a timid wave he drove off over the seemingly infinite landscape. We stood quietly watching and suddenly became aware of liberties unlike anything we had ever experienced.

When I participate in wilderness living, my ego is set aside and the jangles, rings, roars and squeals of civilization are absent. I am gloriously made small so that I might better take in great quaffs of real freedom.



I have had the privilege, yes, and the freedom and means to indulge in paddling several thousand miles of remote, wilderness rivers. Here in this quiet land we can forget keeping time and live simply. Here our actions are ruled only by moments of hunger or need for sleep.

But on each wilderness trip, I have felt the shackles of schedules. We had to paddle to a certain point at a particular date to get picked up so that we could make our way back to our civilized homes where we would engage in a litany of work and life schedules.

It’s absolutely true that as a consuming being, I am dependent on the noises of commerce. However, I periodically need to check into the wild for an adjustment to my soul. It is here that I experience raw, unabashed joy and taste real freedom.

If I fly a fly a flag patterned with stars and stripes am I a greater patriot than one who sacrifices and toils for a healthy land?

I would argue that poisoning and ravaging our soils and waters is an act of terrorism that threatens services that allow you and I to live healthy lives. Any act to minimize that threat should be recognized as heroic as it secures a greater likelihood of a safer and vigorous tomorrow.

After two days of paddling the brackish waters of the long lagoon, we pulled our canoes up to the Inupiat village of Point Lay. It was the 4th of July. After securing permission to set up our two tents on the beach below the village, we were invited to a celebration feast and drum dance. It mattered little that we were strangers or looked different from almost all 189 residents of the community.

Excited to perhaps eat local cuisine such as beluga, caribou, or seal, I have to admit feeling disappointment when we discovered tables covered with platters of hot dogs, burgers, salads, chips and even apple pies. It seemed wrong that most of this food was flown in thousands miles. But then I realized that much of the food I eat in Minnesota makes a similar long trip to get to my plate.

A single four-wheeler decorated with twin clusters of balloons and a flag made up the shortest parade I have ever seen.



And that evening under the midnight sun, residents of all ages listened to the seated drummers and danced stories of ancient times. We were mesmerized by the subtle and demonstrative movements that spoke of walrus hunts, kayak paddling, celebrations and other tales foreign to our repertoire. But that didn’t stop the locals from beckoning us out onto the floor to joinnin their dance. While we moved with little of the grace that we had witnessed our efforts inspired scores of smiles.



I challenge you to do something for the wild places that depend on humans to watch over them. One thing you can do is go to the Alaska Wilderness League website. One year ago, President Obama made a historic decision for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and called on Congress to protect it as wilderness. And believe it or not, it has bipartisan support. We have a great opportunity this year to protect the Arctic Refuge. Please join in thanking President Obama for his leadership on Arctic issues and ask him to take action to give it the strongest protections possible.   Go to and click on “Sign the petition.”