Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Resilience of Nature

Nature generally restores the land, plants, and animals after disturbance. In my recent travel across the American West, I came upon two large-scale examples. First, I visited in the town of Wallace, Idaho on the one hundredth anniversary of the great fire of August, 1910, the largest fire in American history. The forests are completely re-grown and there remains no evidence of the massive fire, which killed 90 people and destroyed most of the silver mining town of Wallace. Wallace, in today’s picture, is recognized as the location of the fictional movie, Dante’s Peak. Next, I travelled through Yellowstone National Park, which encountered massive fires in 1988. The fires, mostly caused by lightning, spread rapidly along the ground, fueled by a heavy layer of debris from evergreen trees damaged by pine bark beetles. Today, after 22 years, evergreen trees stand 10 feet high among the scorched trunks of trees killed in the fire. Grasses and wildflowers cover the ground where sunlight now encourages growth. Some mountain slopes are carpeted in pink blossoms of fireweed, often the first flowering plant to arise after a forest fire. I observed large numbers of animals thriving in the re-growth of the understory plants. A mule deer browsed on a diverse stand of wildflowers. A spruce grouse and her clutch of chicks moved cautiously between tufts of native grasses growing next to bubbling volcanic mud pots.

The resiliency of nature gives me hope that our honey bees will rebound from the simultaneous attacks they have encountered from numerous sources: pests, pathogens, chemicals in the environment, and the stresses placed upon the bees by the beekeepers. We often attempt to use the honey bees as agricultural tools to pollinate food crops grown in mono-cultural plantings which don’t afford the bees adequate or complete nutrition. The honey bees should respond to efforts to breed resistance to parasitic mites and other pests and pathogens. Chemicals can be prudently applied, and nutrition improved through diverse wildflower growth.


  1. Indeed. The key to getting the bees there is generational cycling - breeding from your own queens in your own hives, keeping diverse stock and drawing from an even more diverse stock of drones. It makes me feel more and more that we should let bees swarm, as the feral hives cycle much more successfully and frequently than the "kept" hives and are therefore hardier stock. They will rebound with time, I have faith, as they will outbreed the problems - it just takes time...

  2. Dom,
    Thank you for the insightful comment. When honey bees reproduce on a colony-wide basis through swarming, they increase their numbers, expand their territory, and increase the number of diverse genes in the area. While it is accepted that feral colonies declined significantly in numbers after the introduction of parasitic mites, researchers at the University of Arkansas found two old strains of honey bees while examining feral colonies: German dark bees and Eastern Mediterranean bees. Neither of these strains has been imported in over one hundred years. It is good to have the genes of surviving honey bees available when our queens make their mating flights.

  3. Richard,

    Yes, nature's regeneration is so fascinating and is all the more reason to take better care of it! So many people seem to have this idea that the damage humans have done is irreversible, so there is no sense in starting to take better care now. It's just an excuse if you ask me. Laziness.

    And I love how you used the example of the fire to segway into your hopes for the bees. They are remarkable creatures -- one of the reasons I find this blog fascinating. I hope you continue to chronicle your observations at your bee farm and any improvements you see in the bee populations. I think bees and other animals tell us so much about what we are doing wrong to the environment, to our bodies by proxy. And your writing here, as well as other efforts, can help us understand more! Your information may be just as valuable as scientists'.