Friday, December 21, 2012

The Winter Solstice

Human societies throughout the world have measured their calendars according to the changes in seasons. Today is the winter solstice, the day with the shortest sunlight and longest night. Peoples around the world have studied the change through the year in the length of the day and the angle of the sun. Early agrarian societies observed the movement of the sun and learned to time the planting of their crops with changes in seasons. This timing was important for maximizing the reproduction of precious crop seeds for feeding expanding human populations. Just as plant reproduction is associated with the seasons, so is the reproduction of many animal species. Today, on the winter solstice, honey bee queens start reproducing the first young for the next year. Most colonies interrupted their queen from laying eggs in the fall by restricting the food they feed her.

Successful reproduction is so important that it leads the activity of most species. The process is not always accurate, though. A report in The New York Times,, describes attempts in nature for reproduction between members of different species. Antarctic fur seals occasionally attempt to mate with king penguins, birds that the seals normally hunt and eat. It is unknown whether such acts, known as “misdirected mating,” are simply a matter of mistaken identity or if there is another cause. The Times piece also describes misdirected mating involving California sea otters and Pacific harbor seals. In the Bahamas, bottlenose dolphins regularly attack smaller spotted dolphins in acts of sexual violence. Similar occurrences of misdirected mating occur in a number of other animal species. At Peace Bee Farm, we regularly observe drone honey bees chasing purple martins as if they were following a queen bee. Today’s photo, taken in July, shows three drones in pursuit of a purple martin. Today, the winter solstice, the migratory martins are in their winter home in South America. Two bald eagles circle the bee farm; the bees remain clustered in their hives.

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