Tag Archive | climate change

Hummingbirds: an Ongoing Commitment



This Gaura has been as delightful a plant as any I’ve ever grown. Catching a glimpse out the window this morning I marveled at it again, dancing in the breeze in early September sun. I planted this a couple of times in the ground, but it wouldn’t overwinter, so I tried again this summer in a big clay pot. The combination of pink, white and red flowers has been spectacular.


It draws hummingbirds as well as bees, even though the hummingbird feeder is just five feet away. Nothing is better food for these tiny dynamos than actual flower nectar.

I’ve mentioned some tips about feeding hummingbirds in previous posts, but I’m motivated today to just tell all. A friend asked me the other day, When should I take down my feeders? She asks me this every year. Every year, I tell her, About ten days after you’ve last seen a hummingbird.

Really? I thought you were supposed to take them down so they don’t miss their migration. Somehow this Myth resurfaces every fall instead of the answer I’ve given everyone who asks me for years. The birds won’t stick around late just because you have your feeders up: in fact, even after your summer population leaves, migrants passing through will benefit from your feeders staying up and clean.*

It’s not just the feeding schedule that matters when you commit to sustaining a hummingbird feeder through the season. Every summer, I inevitably encounter ill-kept feeders at the homes of people who should know better. Some of you have learned to keep your feeders clean, and some of you haven’t. Next time I have to say something, I’m naming names! And yes, I am scolding. I can’t help it, it’s in my nature. I’ve been subtle about this issue long enough.


Everybody means well when they put out feeders. Despite our best intentions, as frail and fallible humans, we don’t always follow through. Feeding hummingbirds isn’t something you do at your convenience, because it’s nice to have the pretty birds around. It’s a commitment: You commit to serving the welfare of the birds daily, because otherwise you contribute to their demise. There are so many ways to do it wrong, and the consequences are dire.


Blue and red salvias planted in pots around the patio, when fed and deadheaded regularly, provide bountiful food for young hummingbirds migrating later than their parents, and learning to trust my garden as a reliable resource. I’ve learned it’s worth it to buy these tender perennials annually and tend them well, for the bountiful beauty they provide with both their blooms and their pollinators.

IMG_7334-131IMG_7300-132Caveat: exactly when to take down feeders is an art as well as a science; some people in the far north take them down at the first hard frost, or even earlier. This may be where the Myth originates. Places with year round hummingbirds obviously don’t need to stop feeding at all. I could send you straight to Audubon for all you need to know about feeding hummingbirds, but that would leave me nothing to say.

Here in the central latitudes of the continent, experience tells me to leave my feeder up for at least ten days after I’ve seen the last hummingbird, cleaning and refilling it as needed.* There is always a last hummingbird, sometimes after I’ve taken down the feeder, so I keep a jar of nectar in the fridge for a few weeks even when I think I’ve seen the last one, just in case of an exhausted straggler. I’ll make one cup, and if I don’t use it in a week I may make another cup. A small waste of sugar is worth a hummingbird’s life.

This time of year, I see mostly summer’s youngsters in my garden. They’re learning what’s good food and what’s not. They check out all the flowers, and don’t use the feeder nearly as much as their parents did earlier in summer. Many adults, especially males, are already moving south. These juveniles are exploring, gaining insight and wisdom, as they check out red honeysuckle berries and rose hips as well as salvia and snapdragons.IMG_7225-128IMG_7329-130Tending hummingbirds demands dedication. When you put out a feeder you initiate a real relationship with a particular population of little beings, the closest thing to fairies in our remaining wild world. Connie and John used to feed hundreds of hummingbirds of four species just a few miles south and a thousand feet higher than I live here. They were committed. They brewed gallons of fresh nectar a day, and their feeders never had a chance to get cloudy or moldy. The sound was amazing! They moved to Wisconsin.


That shit shouldn’t even be legal to sell. Would you add an absolutely unnecessary red chemical to your every meal? No, you wouldn’t. Red food for hummingbird feeders is a sales scam, and hard on their tiny kidneys. Yes, they’re attracted to red, and that’s why feeders are usually red, but the food in them should be clear.

Once and for all, the best and cheapest nectar takes just a few minutes of your time. One (1) part refined white sugar to four (4) parts water. One to four, sugar/water, nothing else. You can put them both in the pan together, bring to boiling, and boil for a minute or two (no more!), or you can boil water in your kettle, pour it into the jar with the sugar, and shake the bejesus out of it until it settles clear, and you can’t see any sugar residue. The reason you heat the water is to increase its absorption of the sugar granules. There’s no need to cook it, as long as you make sure the sugar is thoroughly dissolved. Then let it cool to room temperature before pouring into clean* feeders.

I hear that hummingbirds don’t like to drink cold nectar, so maybe when you have refrigerated nectar you want to change your feeders at night. When they come to feed in the morning, the nectar is ambient temperature. On super hot days, nectar can spoil quickly, so change it every day or two even if they haven’t finished it. In early spring or fall, if it’s going to freeze at night, bring feeders in for the night and put them back out early in the morning so the food is there, not frozen, when they wake up.


You don’t have to scrub them every time you fill them, but you do have to rinse thoroughly in hot water, and swish away any sticky residue with a bottle brush or your fingertips, depending on the design of the feeder. Audubon recommends no soap, as the residue can harm them. Clean your nectar storage jars the same way you clean the feeders, every time you empty them.

You do need to rinse and refill more often during hot weather than in cool weather. And if there’s any sign at all of cloudiness in the nectar, or debris, or black or grey on the feeder, you DO need to scrub with hot water or a light hot water-vinegar solution, and rinse really really well. By the time you see that black stuff on the feeder, you’re already killing birds. It’s that simple.

An adult hummingbird who acquires fungus from your feeder carries it home to her tiny babies in their nest. She could die from it and leave them to starve, or she could transmit it to them. Or both. So keep your feeders clean. Invest in a bottlebrush or two, and get a pack of these perfect little brushes for the ports. It doesn’t take long for nectar to spoil in hot weather, and it doesn’t take you long to keep the feeders clean if you have the right tools for the job. I use really hot water if I’m cleaning a glass feeder, and less hot if I’m cleaning a plastic vessel.


I got rid of the feeders I kept for seed-eaters the summer before I started letting my two new kittens outside. It isn’t fair to bait the birds in when I’ve got cats that can’t help trying to catch them. I compromised on hummingbird feeders, cutting my three down to one, and kept that one mainly to supplement the flowers, which don’t always bloom at the right times anymore, another consequence of climate chaos. Last week I found the first dead hummingbird ever at my front door, and I think it was the one I photographed the day before, struggling to fly and feed.

IMG_6813-147You almost never see a hummingbird sitting still to feed. This little one was crashing about in the flowers all morning, clinging to stems while trying to feed, and tangling in the potted plants, most unusual behavior. Was she too young? Or too weak, or injured, or what? IMG_7016Another hummingbird kept diving at her, and I first thought it was the usual mine!mine!-aggression they all display while protecting a food source or territory. But the struggling bird didn’t seem to mind the other one, and when I followed them into the honeysuckle (with binoculars) it looked as though the strong bird was trying to feed the weak one. Were they migrating together?

IMG_6857-145Everywhere she flew this other bird followed, at times flying up underneath her as though for support or encouragement. Something was very wrong. It looked like the little slow one had a tuft of feathers sticking out where there shouldn’t be one, as though she might have an injury. It’s possible that this bird was snagged by a cat claw, or perhaps hit a window, or was in some other way compromised. IMG_7086It was one of those heart-wrenching moments when you wish there was something you could do but you know there’s not. Though she was flying badly she was still too fast for me to catch. And if I had, what then? So I left her to her fate, which I suspect was to be brought to my doorstep the next day, intact though darkly damp from cat saliva. I feel bad about that. These are the complex paradoxes that keep us dancing on our ethical toes.

Every choice we make has consequences, some (or most) of which we never fully know. Know that if you choose to put out hummingbird feeders, there’s only one right way to do it: Keep the feeders sparkling clean all summer, and keep them up til all the migrants have flown through your area. With habitat fragmentation, compromised migratory routes, and climate chaos all throwing anthropogenic challenges at these energetic little jewels, the least we can do if we choose to feed them is to do it right, helping rather than harming them.IMG_7232-140-141


Raging Spring

Dramatic weather on the national news: record heat in the Northeast. Katie reports it was 91 in New Hampshire, Julie said 86 in New Brunswick. This afternoon I sawed a large limb off the wild plum, once the snow had dropped off it. Last night late, when I let the dogs out for midnight whiz, I was staggered by the weight of snow on all the trees and shrubs in the yard. With all their spring leaves on, their fading blossoms and baby fruits, they’ve so much more surface to hold the snow.


A twelve-foot tall New Mexico foresteria outside the front door, flattened by snow. Behind it, that white mound between two junipers is the Amur Maple, easily a fifteen-foot tall sapling, limbs bent to the ground.

This was an especially dense wet snow. Limbs were down all over town.

I’ve felt particularly useless all day. Some national and some extremely local politics have drained me. I woke up anxious, felt like a fish out of water all day. My head is full of spaghetti. I am uncharacteristically dark; or perhaps I am cyclically dark. I gather this is the kind of matrix that causes spring’s swelling suicide rates. Winter has gone and things remain the same; snow returns with vigor. This too will change.


The wild plum tree, broken under melting snow. Below, the same tree forty days ago…



The massive pink honeysuckle, its fragrant blooms just opened days ago and covered in bees, bent this morning under a thick blanket.


The flowers were resilient. Irises so recently in bloom I’ve haven’t begun to photograph them, bowed but not broken, standing nearly straight by afternoon, after everything melted. Before it started snowing again.


Everything all gorgeous last weekend when I started planting annuals in pots, bringing out herbs and dahlias, potting up tomatoes, sprouting peppers.

Tonight I find surprising relief in watching the Weather Channel. Powerful storms rage across the central plains. Twelve tornadoes so far today, again. The winds this spring and last have been planetary. The atmosphere whips itself into a frenzy. We see only a small segment of the world’s weather on our television, maybe it’s different in other countries. We only see, for the most part, the weather over the continental US.

I might have been driving across the continental US this very day. If so, I’d have been glued to the Weather Channel, on TV if I could get it, or on my laptop, if I could get internet wherever I was hunkered down for the night, at whatever state park or back road hotel. Many’s the night I’ve fallen asleep to the weather, having memorized my place on the map, what county I was in so I’d know the name if I heard it under a tornado watch or warning, knowing the nearest towns in each direction, my exact location on the weather map as it flashed on the screen so I could track the radar at night.

There was a thrilling sense of aliveness on those treks across the country; knowing how near I was camped to a train track, so I would know if I heard a freight-train that it might actually be a train and not a tornado; knowing whether I was above or below a nearby dam, in case it blew; taking my chances having weighed all factors I could conceive of, always having an exit plan. I let myself escape the frustrations of today, my own harsh judgments, in the shiver of excitement watching weather. Feet of snow in the Rockies. Trailer park flattened in Kansas, tornado vortex signature in Missouri, spectacular lightning in Oklahoma. I might have been any one of those places today, but I’m not.

I inhale deeply, and exhale, my first relaxed breath of the day: I could have been there, driving my dogs and camper across the country to be with my dear auntie next week for her ninetieth birthday. I had planned to be on the way. But I decided a couple of months ago not to go, and I could not be more grateful. I did something right today, anyway: I stayed home.

Love and Heartache


Just a couple more jars of apricot jam left from last summer… savoring every single morsel since the harvest looks bleak this year. Neighbor Fred taught me how to tell if the fruit has frozen, and it sure looks like I won’t have many, if any, apricots this year. 

But the good news is, so far, as the radio DJ said a couple of weeks ago, Looks like we’ll have fruit this year, folks. Our valley’s abundant fruit crops, cherries peaches pears apples nectarines, apparently survive, a boon to all the fruit farmers, thus far. Who knows what the next day will bring? We’ll know more later!


Keeping up with the tulips: The gorgeous red tulips I thought were toast after the first spring snow rebounded dramatically and lasted another week or two.


It’s been warm sun interspersed with rain, hail and snow the past few weeks, and the four varieties of naturalizing tulips in the south border keep going strong, opening sequentially, including Tulipa tarda, Tulipa batalinii, Tulipa linifolia above, and one I can’t decipher on my map.


I found the old map from when I first planted this border years ago, naming all the varieties of tulip, iris, grape hyacinth, and groundcovers. Too bad I abbreviated some, and can’t read others. Special jonquils and red species tulips, above; More tulips, and Biko the leopard tortoise keeping down weeds, below.



And talk about tulips! The tulips at Deb’s house on Easter were glorious.


The tattooed girl brought violet syrup and fresh violet blossoms for our Easter Dinner cocktail, violet martinis, and an hors d’oeuvre featuring the complicated green endive that she grew, below.



A true friend comprehends the importance of an uncontaminated cheese knife.

The flowering trees are almost done, and may or may not produce fruit. Blossoms on both apples look dingy today after three inches of snow last night and a low of 28. Whatever survived that could drop tomorrow if it reaches the predicted low of 21. All spring it has been like this. The trees started weeks earlier than usual, so we all knew it was an iffy season. I’ve been making the most of their beauty, hanging out with each tree as it began to bloom, following it through its fullness ~ full of blossoms, full of bees ~ and into its flower-fading leafing out.


The wild plum buzzed with clouds of bees punctuated by a couple of red admiral butterflies alighting here and there, now and then, in the manner of butterflies. The plum tree grew from the root stock of the almond, a huge sucker that came up in the first or second spring, too vital to destroy. I dug it up, transplanted it, watered it. It thrives. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t start something wonderful from root stock.


Mourning Cloaks also migrated through for a few days.


Bee flies have been buzzing the trees and especially the Nepeta (catmint), as have bumblebees.



I don’t profess to know flies, but these cute ones were all over the wild plum, too, everybody doing their spring thing.


This female sweat bee fought off swarms of males while mating with one on the wild plum.


The peach tree flowered next, tiny pink blossoms that didn’t attract too many bees…


… but there were some!


Next came the crabapple, growing more dazzling every day.




Just not as many bees as I expected on the crabapple, though there were some sweat bees, honeybees, a few bumblebees, and some digger bees like this Centris. Note the distinctive giant eyes of this genus.


The heirloom apple just a few days ago, as this round of storms began to materialize.

Meanwhile in the woods this month, wallflowers and paintbrush, cactus and mustards, Astragalus and TownsendiaPhasaria and more all seemed to bloom earlier than usual.


Indian paintbrush blossomed a couple of weeks early, and hummingbirds arrived shortly after. But not very many…



Puccoon is like that old friend that you see once a year if you’re lucky, for just a few days over spring break, and you’re so delighted and you pick up right where you left off laughing and talking and catching up; only when you see puccoon, you’re just happy and you both laugh and there’s no need for conversation.



We haven’t spent much time on the canyon rim this spring, once we figured out that the growing nest in the cottonwood just off from the bench belonged to a skittish pair of redtail hawks. Here she’s sitting, but not setting. Once her eggs were laid she hasn’t spooked off the nest; she lies flat on top, just the round of her head and her beak giving away her presence as she incubates her precious eggs. Philip says they haven’t seen near the usual number of redtails on their side of the valley, but there’s been a pair of harriers over the fields.


Six kinds of carrots, last year’s seeds, sowed early. Maybe they’ll make it, maybe not. More seeds on order just in case, or for a second crop.


These people I live among, we celebrate tulips, bee trees, planting seeds, and redtail hawks, the rites of spring. We celebrate the wild life, the fruits and fields and feasts of our valleys, the stars in the sky. We honor the land and cherish our relationships with it. What else can we do?

We write our Representatives, march with millions, endeavor to make change. It’s an uphill battle, that’s for sure, against greed and corruption, against entropy. It’s a sense not just of personal mortality, but of planetary mortality, the sweetness to this spring.


While friends march in cities for the Peoples Climate March, I stay home and repair myself. Though I made a sign, my back has been too tender to take to the streets.

It’s been a brutal month for a sensitive person. It’s so hard to keep up with the dreadful actions coming from the government, the crimes against nature and humanity. The pronouncements, executive orders, earth-killing life-stealing human-rights-smashing bills and deregulations, the assault on American public lands that belong to us the people and not to multi-national corporations bent on extraction. Not just once or twice a week, but a pile of them every single day, day after day. Mutterings of war, deep worries for the future. It’s sickening, is what it is, more and more often literally.

I worry far less now for my own life than I do for the lives of all the other living things I share this place with: first of course the bees, honeys and bumbles, diggers and long-horned and sweat; also the trees and flowers and shrubs, the deer and bears, and the mountain lions here; and lions far away, all the magnificent wild felines of the world: snow leopard, clouded leopard, the jaguar sentenced to be fenced out of expanding her range northward as she needs to with climate change… Any single thought leads in a dozen different desperate directions.

Every living creature on the planet is at risk with this Kleptocracy, in the hands of a madman dedicated to further eroding the planet herself and the lives of all beings. It’s encouraging today to see thousands of people on the streets, and listen to legislators and activists around the country. Fighting the sense of overwhelm, I write letters, make calls, support friends; cherishing the life and beauty around me, I prune trees, plant seeds, pull weeds, and let my love for Nature grow along with my heartache. What else can I do?




The first crocuses opened this morning, bereft of bees.

The first crocuses opened this morning, bereft of bees.

One day a month or so ago I saw bees flying in and out of the hive. It was very early, some time in January, but it was a warm day. I was a little surprised but had enough else on my mind that I didn’t pay attention to it other than to pause a moment to watch them. There weren’t a great many, which made sense for the time of year. I wish now I’d watched longer, paid close attention to what they were doing, where they were going, if they were only bringing carcasses out of the hive or were flying for water or what. I may have been in the midst of the Raven crisis, or it might have been even earlier, in December. It struck me as only a little odd, and easily explained by climate change (or just weather). I failed to write it down.

Then it was cold again for awhile. And then it was warm again. Early last week the eerie absence of bees came over me like a chill when I suddenly realized it was warm enough for them to be out. We were just days away from crocus blooms, and I’d heard the occasional bee buzz by during the week before. I went to the hive with foreboding. Sure enough, dead silence. I unhooked the insulating panels and looked in the window. No bees.

In the doorway, a couple of dead bees. I pulled them out and more dead bees fell into the doorway. I scooped out three or four spoonfuls with a twig, until they stopped coming. I did what I always do with a shock: acknowledged it and moved on to something else, set it aside until I could pull together the wherewithal to face it. In this case that meant, in addition to emotional fortitude and another pair of hands, a big chunk of time free of other obligations and demands, uncluttered and scrubbed kitchen counters and sinks, and a collection of sieves and containers.

I anticipated a large honey haul, one silver lining in this bee tragedy. Another was a sense of relief. Maybe there are just those two, maybe I’ll come up with more as this loss unfolds. I’ve not been in right relationship with these bees since the beetastrophe at the end of their first summer here. I fucked it up. I learned a lot from that, and I’ve learned a lot more investigating this beenundrum.

So far the honey haul hasn’t materialized, and the relief has darkened with sorrow. The only comfort I can take is that in the fall, before I hooked on the insulating panels, I could see there were far fewer bees in the hive than there had been going into the preceding two winters. They must have swarmed sometime during the summer and I missed it. I wasn’t outside as much as usual. I was away five days in September. It could have happened any time.

All along in this adventure my primary reason for keeping the hive has been to provide habitat for bees, a garden for them to feed in and a home base for them to swarm from, intending that they would spread out from here, colonize the canyon, some of the hollow trees in the woods. In short, especially since the beetastrophe, I have regarded my hive as a conduit for the propagation of this superorganism rather than as a honey source for me. So if they swarmed at least once they’re on their way.

We used the hive tool to scrape propolis and separate the false back and the first bar.

We used the hive tool to scrape propolis and separate the false back and the first bar.

Deb and I opened the hive on Sunday afternoon. The lid was sticky with a big wad of propolis in one back corner, but there was nothing trapped within it to suggest an invader. The bars were tightly sealed together and to the hive frame with propolis as well, and a good comb had been started on the back of the false back. It took forever to get the back off and the first bar separated, and when I lifted it out it was solid honey, and I mean solid. It had all crystallized, like maple sugar candy only honey instead. It was delicious.

Clean empty comb on the back side of the false back. Hmmm.

Clean empty comb on the back side of the false back. Hmmm.

The first bar of honey was SO heavy, and even the comb had been crystallized. Eating a mouthful yielded only a tiny bit of wax.

The first bar of honey was SO heavy, and even the comb had been crystallized. Eating a mouthful yielded only a tiny bit of wax.

We worked apart the next three bars one at a time, a tedious sticky task, and the scene became macabre. Dead bees littered the floor, and clung scattered to the combs in various positions as though frozen, some emerging from the combs, some heads in; some with an arm raised or tongue out, wings open or closed. As we worked, a lone honeybee sipped from the exposed comb oblivious to us. This was heartening; at least there are some bees in the yard from somewhere.

Small and large blackish patches showed on the walls and the floor and we wondered if they were mold. As we pulled each bar we scooped dead bees off the floor. Those next three combs each had a lot of capped honey and a little bit of empty comb. Much of the capped comb looked greyer than I thought it should, and we wondered if that was mold, but when I sliced off the caps the honey inside looked clear and dark and perfect.

A robber bee from somewhere else drinks from exposed comb as we work.

A robber bee from somewhere else drinks from exposed comb as we work.

We see dead bees on the floor after we've removed the first two bars.

We see dead bees on the floor after we’ve removed the first two bars.

Three bars full, heading for the kitchen to see what we can salvage.

Three bars full, heading for the kitchen to see what we can salvage.

Slicing off the caps reveals clear dark honey inside the cells.

Slicing off the caps reveals clear dark honey inside the cells.

I decided the honey was clean and the caps look grey just because the honey is so dark and distilled; these back combs must be two years old. I didn’t open the hive last spring because I was dizzy, and never quite had the confidence or energy to tackle that task. I have only harvested honey twice, and the first time was the beetastrophe. The second time, with the bee doctor here, went well. We pulled three combs that were golden and full, but only about half the honey had been capped; the rest were cells that were half-full of half-formed honey, more like thick nectar. So I don’t really know what fully capped honey should look like especially if it’s been there awhile, or what range of colors is normal for healthy comb.

Sunday evening I cut and sliced and tried to chop two of the combs into pieces to strain through a screen colander into a stainless steel bowl. Much of it was crystallized or so thick it just wouldn’t drip from the comb. The next day I tried the the third comb in a stainless colander with bigger holes, and it still drained sluggishly. I put both bowls in the sunroom, and warming the comb helped it drain better. Still, for all the pounds of honey in those combs precious little fell through to the bowls.

Moving toward the front two bars at a time the dead bees on the floor become thicker.

Moving toward the front two bars at a time the dead bees on the floor become thicker.

Frozen in time.

Frozen in time.

Dark old comb near the nest holds more dead bees, and what are those weird nipple-like things in the caps on the top right?

Dark old comb near the nest holds more dead bees, and what are those weird nipple-like things in the caps on the top right?

As we proceeded pulling bars the next afternoon, the honey caps continued to look grey, and most of the empty comb darker and darker brown the farther forward we got. That made sense; this was the original brood comb, yet parts of these combs were also full of honey.

Another couple of bees flew in from somewhere to scavenge with us. We found more black stains on walls and floor, more dead bees on the combs, and more and more on the floor. In the front corner where they clustered there was a mound just behind the door. I slid all the full bars toward the back and we scooped out the dead bees, then I put fresh bars in the front of the hive and we closed it back up temporarily.

The rest of the honey salvage operation will have to wait until I process the three combs we pulled Monday, and I’m still puzzling over the best way to do that. Will it all be as thick as the first three combs? Should I try to cut off all the caps or just mash the comb? And where in hell did I put my honey-straining kit that I spent good money on and saw when I was cleaning out the storage unit last fall but can’t for the life of me find right now when I need it?

Deb doesn’t like the look of the capped comb, which is funny because I’m usually the germaphobe and I feel oddly secure about this honey. She doesn’t want me to put any more of it in my mouth until I’ve ascertained whether it’s safe, i.e., exactly what happened in the hive, and is the honeycomb moldy or otherwise tainted?

I’ve looked online and found a few videos of dead hives, all of which look similar to mine: Bees frozen in place, comb of all colors, capped honey from gold to grey, masses of dead bees on the floor. Some of the narrators concluded that their hives froze; another sent his bees off to a lab and confirmed varroa mite infestation. One showed how to look for tiny white specks of mite poop in the cells. Nobody mentioned the various comb and honey colors.

So I pulled out the microscope, and shook some of the dead bees out of the jar I’d collected them in onto a piece of freezer paper. Sure enough, mites. Lots of them. Maybe it was mites alone that killed the bees, weakening them or infecting them with a virus. Maybe the extra warm winter combined with the insulation caused a ventilation failure and mold contributed to the die-off. Maybe they did freeze, one bitter cold day in January following their first foraging. Maybe all these challenges stemmed from the mess I made of their hive that first terrible time I opened it. Probably some combination of the above wiped them out.

Now that I've seen the mites through the microscope I can see them in this image. Naked eye not so well, especially in the first flush of discovery. But now I know what to look for.

Now that I’ve seen the mites through the microscope I can see them in this image. Naked eye not so well, especially in the first flush of discovery. But now I know what to look for.

Same thing here: mites everywhere in and around the pile that dropped in front of the door.

Same thing here: mites everywhere in and around the pile that dropped in front of the door.

Once I dumped some of the dead bees onto white paper and looked under the microscope it was easy to discern the varroa mites.

Once I dumped some of the dead bees onto white paper and looked under the microscope it was easy to discern the varroa mites.

Zoom. Two mites. Nasty creatures.

Zoom. Two mites. Nasty creatures.

I’ll continue to investigate and inquire. Meanwhile, the house is redolent with honey. I need to clean up the kitchen and jar the honey I’ve already collected. I need to decide whether to try to salvage the rest of it, or simply cut the combs off the bars and fling them willy-nilly over the cliff for spring bears to find and feast on. I need to steam clean the hive at the car wash. I need to look up how to make mead. I need to take a nap.

I don't know enough to say what I'm seeing here. Some of these cells may have held bee larvae. The white speck top center might be mite feces. The glistening blobs inside the cells could be calcified honey. The bee doctor identified some cells as such when he opened the hive two years ago, and he was perplexed by the phenomenon.

I don’t know enough to say what I’m seeing here. Some of these cells may have held bee larvae. The white speck top center might be mite feces. The glistening blobs inside the cells could be calcified honey. The bee doctor identified some cells as such when he opened the hive two years ago, and he was perplexed by the phenomenon.

In the center cell in this image there are a couple of white things that look like the discarded skins of the last stage of mite metamorphosis.

In the center cell in this image there are a couple of white things that look like the discarded skins of the last stage of mite metamorphosis.

Just another cool picture of the comb.

Just another cool picture of the comb.

A poor dead bee like so many just hanging out where it expired. It strikes me as odd: Did they all die at once, instantaneously? Why are some frozen in mid-stride and others fallen to the bottom? Complex and full of mystery.

A poor dead bee like so many just hanging out where it expired. It strikes me as odd: Did they all die at once, instantaneously? Why are some frozen in mid-stride and others fallen to the bottom? Complex and full of mystery.

“Will you get more bees?” the friends ask. I don’t know. Not this spring, unless they move in on their own. “How do you feel about this?” they ask.

The bees gave me three summers of ecstasy photographing them, and three years of living intimately with them. I learned a whole lot. They inspired me to buy close-up binoculars and an excellent macro lens, opening a grand new universe of tiny creatures in the garden that I had never seen before. They enhanced and expanded my world view. I feel exceedingly grateful. If they did swarm, those bees know where the garden is and will be back. I feel hopeful. The silence in the garden makes me ache like the absence of a dead pet. I feel sad, but not guilty.

I did not have great success with mammals initially either. The hamster died when I was six or seven, the rabbit a couple of years later, both probably from neglect. It took decades to learn the patience and the language required for each species, each individual dog or cat that followed those first ill-fated pets. Animal care is a steep learning curve, and mistakes can be costly. Now I’ve got the mammal thing down. I’ll try again with bees eventually, and I’ll be a better bee guardian for all I’ve learned during these first few steps into the realm.

Unhappy Monster

Yesterday was so warm the bees were swarming out of their hive and flying busily about. Tomorrow, more happy thoughts and images will come, but I woke up this morning with a fully formed rant pouring out of me. Bees are at stake, too.

Yesterday was so warm the bees were swarming out of their hive and flying busily about. Tomorrow, more happy thoughts and images will come, but I woke up this morning with a fully formed rant pouring out of me. Bees are at stake, too.

Like many, I was paying attention when news of global climate change first broke, when the science of air, water, and food pollution was young and appalling even then, when the income gap between workers and management began to grow at an alarming rate. I trusted that because the information was out there, everyone else would also pay attention and solve the problems and change the world as I was trying to do.

I worked in the field of environmental education for years, and did my best to awaken the minds of an ignorant public about many of these issues, along with the slaughter and imminent extinction of large mammals like elephants and rhinos   for their horns, the magnificent great apes for bush meat, and illegal trade in endangered birds and reptiles. I also tried to teach people awareness about concepts as simple as not dropping their cigarette butts in the arid desert or dry forests, where pollution at best and catastrophic fires at worst could result. I became disillusioned and depressed over time, finding that people, at least the people I was directly trying to reach, were not responding. Was my approach flawed? Or was it just supreme stupidity and hubris in our species? Or something in between, simple laziness and self-absorption?

I moved to this valley twenty-two years ago to work a volunteer job as an intern at the High Country News for three months, and like a handful of interns over the years, chose to stay here rather than pursue the next item on my agenda, which happened to be graduate school. Instead I turned my focus toward building my own home and learning to grow my own food. I took the first steps in a continuing journey to cultivate peace of mind and equanimity, to live with compassion in an increasingly hostile world.

I admit it. I became a misanthrope, a hermit, and eventually a Buddhist. Yes, I know, the misanthrope isn’t compatible with Buddhism, but living mindfully is a struggle and my hateful feelings about the human species are diminishing with constant practice in compassion. And for a Buddhist to start every paragraph with the word I is indeed ironic. But now I am merely discouraged, disgusted, and disillusioned with myself. The me that turned away from education and activism, trusting that younger, stronger voices would carry on the work, that the tide would change with our accumulated efforts, that slaughter of rhinos would stop, that demolition of rain forests would slow, that the extractive industries on which our greed-based economy that fuels pollution, inequality and war would die out in favor of alternative energy sources, that climate change, which is a fact and our fault as a species, would be gotten under control. Because the news was out! The information was there, here, and now that people knew we would surely change.

My initial crisis of despair came when it became crystal clear to me that none of this mattered to most humans. That we simply didn’t care, and it wasn’t going to change, and we as a species, and the planet as a result, were doomed.

Then I took some comfort in geological time, in the idea that we may die out as a species, but that the planet over enough time, eras and ages, would heal, new species would arise, life would go on on this elegant blue marble spinning through the galaxy, with us or without us. Twenty, thirty years later, much to my dismay, it seems we are capable even of endangering that, with radioactive disasters and chemical aberrations and toxic spills; we are capable even of destroying life on this planet. Who can say that Mars didn’t once support life which got too stupid for its own good?

Many of my friends are a generation older than I am. One of them told me once, talking about this subtle World War III in which we are engaged, that she couldn’t help but feel it might have been averted if she had done more herself. Really? I thought. You couldn’t have changed it by yourself. But now I look at people who are still trying, after all these years, still fighting the good fight, like Bill McKibben, Amy Goodman, and countless others, and I understand what she was saying. Maybe if I hadn’t stilled my voice twenty years ago, turned to a life of silent reflection, seeking only inner peace and equanimity, I could have made a bigger difference. Maybe her and my voices together, along with all these others, might have tipped the scale.

Another friend has worked his entire life in the field of conservation. At seventy-seven, he has just learned that his latest endeavor has caught the eye of a billionaire. His dream may soon come into a huge amount of money to make it a reality. I told him it makes me ashamed that I gave up on the movement all those years ago out of pure despair.

I quietly built a house of non-toxic ingredients and powered it with the sun. I gave up my all-wheel drive vehicle in favor of a little Honda civic that got, at the time, the best gas mileage available outside of a hybrid which cost too much. I live a low-impact life with a small ecological footprint. I’ve put 155 acres of land including old-growth piñon juniper forest and a half-mile of wild canyon into a conservation easement, which theoretically will be protected in perpetuity. At least for as long as people are able to keep alive the legal entity that protects it.

But what does the future hold for this one piece of land? For this planet? Why won’t our species accept the hard truths and make the difficult, in some cases selfless changes that are required to save it from certain doom? Despite the hard work and eloquent voices of activists in the conservation, equality, and anti-war movements across the planet, the extinction of elephants, rhinos, and tigers is near certain and countless other less charismatic species have already vanished in this sixth great extinction, caused solely by a complex of human behaviors; income inequality has soared to a truly staggering gap and bigotry continues across the spectrum of human differences; and the war that began with 9/11 spreads and festers insidiously, province by country, across the world, spawning atrocities against untold millions, even billions, of human lives, from murderous drones and gassings to the abolition of privacy.

Why do greed and intolerance continue to cause such misery for our own species and so many others across the globe? Why, in the face of science and realization do we not make the necessary changes in our behavior? What kind of monsters are we?