Ecology Center Posts Archive

The Wonderful World of Honey Bees

Honey Bees

The Wonderful World of Honey Bees

By Kym Car

Have you ever seen a honey bee at work? These important pollinators are among nature’s hardest working creatures, collecting nectar and pollen from flowers to produce honey and other products. A single bee visits over a hundred flowers to collect one load of nectar and pollen to take back to the hive, often traveling significant distances to do so. Overall, a honey bee hive will tap approximately two million flowers and fly over 50,000 miles to make one pound of honey!

Honey bees are fascinating creatures as well as an important part of the world’s agriculture and economy. Their relationship with mankind is as old as civilization and one that has always been mutually beneficial. Honey bees (Apis mellfera) have been well-cared for over centuries by apiculturists, who are rewarded with bee products for their efforts.

As part of The Fells’ mission to educate and foster good stewardship, it seems all too appropriate to welcome these important pollinators to its grounds. Two hives of honey bees, on loan from Beekeeper and Master Gardener Tressa Gaffney, will reside at The Fells starting in April and be part of its renowned gardens, pollinating the many flowers and complementing the work of the landscaping staff.

In addition, The Fells will offer special programs about bees and pollinators, including “The Bee Lady”, Wendy Booth’s program How Sweet It Is. The Fells Master Gardner series will also offer programs with information about pollinators and gardening, along with other educational exhibits in the John Hay Ecology Room in the Main House, and school programs.

One doesn’t have to be a beekeeper to help honey bees survive and even thrive. Such programs offer members and guests the opportunity to learn more about helping bees and other pollinators survive and even thrive in home gardens. The ideas may include alternatives to chemicals and pesticides which can be harmful to honey bees and other pollinators, as well as what flowers to add to the landscape to attract and sustain bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Did you know red and purple flowers are a favorite since they often produce more nectar than other colored flowers? The Fells and its Master Gardener programs are a wonderful way to learn more.

Learning to enjoy a colorful lawn of dandelions can also be a big help to honey bees. Dandelions, often thought of as weeds, are one of nature’s earliest blooming wildflowers and important to honey bees and other insects. (The dandelion’s leaves and roots also provide health benefits to humans.) Likewise, learning to tolerate other blooming grasses in the lawn such as wild clover is also beneficial.

No doubt, many readers have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) currently affecting many hives. According to the US Department of Agriculture, CCD is defined as “a dead colony with no adult bees or dead bee bodies but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present.” Despite this latest problem, honey bees continue to prosper with good management practices.

While CCD may be a new problem, honey bees have always had enemies in the animal kingdom. Bees are susceptible to a number of predators and diseases: many other insects such as hornets, yellow jackets, wasps, praying mantis, and spiders are a danger as are amphibians such as toads and frogs. Mammals such as bears, skunks, raccoons, opossum who appreciate the bees and their honey also pose a threat.

More often, the biggest threat to a colony’s health is the number of bacterial and viral diseases, and parasites. In the 1990s, Foul Brood Disorder threatened honeybee colonies and decimated feral bee populations. (Since honey bees are not native, non-managed hives are considered feral rather than wild.) Were it not for beekeepers over many centuries, honey bees may be endangered or even extinct. Instead, honey bees contribute $14 billion in value each year to US crop production, according to the American Beekeeping Federation. That’s a tidy sum for an insect not even native to the Americas.

Honey bees are notoriously hard-working, as often heard in the phrase “busy as a bee.”. A single worker bee can fly two miles to collect nectar, with some distances recorded as far as six miles. The hive is highly organized and structured with distinct divisions of labor and social caste. One could say that hives are one nature’s first factories, a model of industry producing honey as well as beeswax, bee pollen, and propolis (bee glue).

Of the more than 20,000 species of true bees worldwide, only about eight species actually produce and store honey. According the US Department of Agriculture, honey production in 2014 increased by 19 percent from the previous year. A recorded 2.74 million colonies produced a total of 178 million pounds of honey in the United States, a sweet deal for producers and consumers.

This is an impressive number for insects especially considering honey production ceases in winter, though the industrious bees work year round and don’t hibernate. One hive produces an average of 25 pounds of honey and even as much as 60 pounds. Honey is a complex blend of simple sugars with antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. It has medicinal uses in many countries as well as a food source. Honey is graded according to the color and consistency. The type of flower determines the color of the honey, with clover being among the lightest and buckwheat among the darkest.

In addition to being a highly organized, efficient sweets factory, the industrious honey bees are also amazing engineers of nature. The honeycomb structure is a stroke of nature’s engineering genius. Whether found in nature or man-made, the columnar hexagonal honeycomb design allows the minimal amount of material needed with minimum density while having high compression and shear properties. Though honey bees have used it for thousands and thousands of years, modern manufacturing and engineering, particularly in the aerospace industry, are fairly new to making use of this fine design. What a wonder that beeswax can be strong enough for the storage of so much thick, sweet honey and broods of developing bees.

Honey bees are truly fascinating creatures. The Fells invites you enjoy the world of honey bees next time you visit, whether in one of the many wonderful gardens or at the John Hay Ecology Exhibit Room or though one of several special programs.


Honey. British Beekeepers Association. 8 January 2016. <>

How to Make a Pound of Honey. Contributing author(s). Canadian Honey Council. 8 January

2016. <>

Wikipedia Contributors. Honeycomb Structure. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 2 Dec 2015.

Wikipedia Contributors. Honey bee. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 8 Jan 2016.

Turpin, T. Honey Bees Not Native to North America. On Six Legs, Purdue Extension 11 Nov


Rucker, R., et al. Honey Bee Pollination Markets and the Internalization of Reciprocal Benefits,

American Journal of Agricultural Economics, pp. 956-977, July 2012.

USDA Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health. Alexandria, VA,

Oct 15-17, 2012. USDA documents.

Honey Bee Health and Colony Collapse Disorder. USDA Agricultural Research Service. 5 Nov

2015. <>

Honey Bee Disorders. University of Georgia College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences.

8 Jan 2016.



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Where Have All The Monarchs Gone?

butterflySome scientists say it’s a sign of the decline of the species. Others point to population surveys indicating that the population is stable, but the monarchs are not migrating.

Are we to lose one of nature’s spectacles?

Either way, there has been a very conspicuous absence of monarch butterflies at The Fells. As a designated Monarch Way Station, we have purposefully left our “meadow” area untouched and left it in its natural state. There are a large number of milkweeds, as well as an abundance of nectar producing plants. All the right ingredients were in place. I went into the meadow late July to look for signs of monarch larvae. I was unable to find any sign of eggs, larvae or even signs of larvae feeding on the milkweed.

We were prepared to net, tag and release as many monarchs as we could and send the information to Monarch Watch, a group of researchers and volunteers dedicated to the study of the monarch butterfly, but come August there was still no sign of any monarchs. There were signs of cabbage butterflies, even several painted ladies, and a prolific number of bees. But not a monarch was to be seen. Since we were not able to collect and study any monarchs from the gardens, I contacted Monarch Watch to purchase larvae for the Ecology Room. After three weeks, I received a notice that they were experiencing a decline in the number of larvae they were able to collect as well. The monarchs were just not reproducing. This I found most troubling.

There has been a 90% decline in the monarch population in the past 20 years. During the 1996-1997 season it was estimated that monarch colonies occupied about 20.97 hectares (100 acres or 10,000 sq. miles). Last season, 2013-2014, monarchs covered only 0.67 hectares. In addition, there was a 56% decline in the population from 2013 to 2014. Scientists have been concerned enough to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to include the monarchs on the Endangered Species List.

Scientists speculate reasons for the population decline. Climate and weather fluctuations and loss of habitat are major contributors.

Monarch butterflies are very sensitive to weather conditions. The monarchs migrate to warmer temperatures and cluster in colonies on the tops of trees for protection from the elements and to provide more warmth to each other. A monarch butterfly has difficulty moving in temperatures below 55° F. As temperatures decline, the butterfly becomes paralyzed. Strong winds and heavy rain will blow many of the monarchs from the clusters to the forest floor, where they are more susceptible to dew, colder temperatures and even frost or snow. Climate change is also impacting the propagation of monarch populations. In the past, enormous Pacific systems produced by El Niño have moved into Central Mexico during January and February producing heavy rains, hail, high winds and freezing temperatures. In 1992, 70% of wintering monarchs froze to death after a storm of strong winds and heavy rainfall.

Loss of habitat is also a major factor in the specie’s declining numbers. The monarch is losing both winter and summer habitats. During the winter, monarch butterflies cluster together in colonies in the pine and fir forests of Central Mexico. Many of these forests have disappeared due to excessive logging projects, and only a dozen of these sites remain. In the U.S. and Canada, milkweed, a food and breeding staple, is disappearing from the landscapes. Herbicides used on crops are killing milkweed. The presences of milkweed in a cultivated field will reduce crop yield. Crops have been genetically engineered to be unaffected by the use of strong herbicides. As a result, farmers can apply them indiscriminately to their fields without harming corn or soybean crops. Before the use of herbicide, farmers had to till the weeds from the fields. It was time consuming work and 20-40 plants per acre survived. The use of herbicide can reduce milkweed by 58% with a lot less work and effort on the farmer’s part.

The governments of Mexico, Canada and the United States have recognized the crisis and have initiated steps to combat the species decline. Mexico has created a Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, designating a protected area in central Mexico to host the majority of wintering monarchs. To combat the specie’s decline, on November 12, 2015, The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $4 million conservation plan to protect the habitat of the monarch in the Midwest and Southern Great Plains. Farmers in both the U.S. and Canada are being urged to put aside portions of their land to allow for growth of milkweed.

MilkweedIndividuals are also urged to help. People can plant milkweed and other nectar plants to create a “monarch way station” in your community. Seed kits and detailed guides are available through Monarch Watch (800-780-9986 or through the web ).

So why all the fuss about one species of butterfly? One scientist stated that the monarch butterfly is the “canary in the cornfield” indicating problems for all insects, especially for our pollinators. “The Monarch is a symbol of a bigger biological problem”. Loss of habitat, climate changes and use of herbicides and pesticides are having a huge impact on the ecosystems that support our food supply. We live in a world where there is a very delicate balance among All plants and All creatures. We need to be aware and maintain that balance through consciousness of efforts and education, especially to our children.

The Education Department at The Fells will also be joining the initiative to support the preservation of the monarch population. Habitat preservation and education will be the goals for next year. We will continue to maintain the Monarch Way Station at our site. We are planning an educational display in the John Hay Ecology Room where visitors can witness the metamorphous of the monarch larva. Children’s workshops will be provided to educate area students about the monarch butterfly and the importance of milkweed plants. To quote Rachel Carson, “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species — man — acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.” We want to educate the children to acquire the knowledge and power to be good stewards of our world, even if it starts with one species of butterfly.
Milkweed propagation:

“Bring Back The Monarchs.” Bring Back The Monarchs. Monarch Watch, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <>.
“Save the Monarch Butterfly.” N.p., 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. < 12 2015>.
Conant, Eve. As Dwindling Monarch Butterflies Make Their Migration, Fed Try to Save Them. National Geographic, 11 Oct. 2014. Web. 2 Oct. 2015. <>.
Conniff, R. “Tracking the Causes of Monarch Butterfly Decline.” The Guardian Environment Network, 18 Apr. 2013. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <>.
Ranosa, T. “Monarch Butterfly Population In Mexico To Quadruple, Experts Estimate.” Tech Times RSS. Tech Times, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <>.
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Bird of Light

What’s your favorite book by nature writer John Hay? When we posed this question to Dave Anderson, he answered swiftly and without hesitation.

DSC_0047 (497x750) (166x250)“My favorite is The Bird of Light. John Hay had a lifelong love affair with the ocean and his homeplace really was Cape Cod. This book was a culmination of essays written in previous books and he goes back to being a poet.” 

“The terns John Hay wrote about in The Bird of Light are the arctic terns. This bird spends our winters in the southern hemisphere and spends our summers at the North Pole. It goes from one end of the earth to the other. It’s the most extreme long distance migrant.”

“John Hay’s poetry is where he started. He was a poet, a nature poet, and then he became a naturalist.  His first books were photo books, but really they were poetry books. He became an essayist because he figured out he had to sell books. His mentor was Conrad Aiken, a poet, and that was what he loved. After his great success — starting with The Run (1959), The Great Beach (1963) and many more books — in The Bird of Light (1991) John Hay returned to his roots as nature poet once more and the imagery in that book is so beautiful. I think John Hay is at his best when he is not just naturalist, but nature poet.”

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Dave Anderson is the Director of Education with the Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests. This spring on Saturday June 8th he will return to The Fells to co-lead a hike with readings from books by John Hay.

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Beech Brook Boulder Rolls into Manhattan

Want to go on a quick walk from New Hampshire to New York City? You’ll start at The Fells gatehouse, go down to the Woods Trail, and turn left. If it’s been raining, or the snow has been melting, you’ll start to hear the rushing waters of Beech Brook. When you reach a wide planked bridge, stop.

What you see is replicated exactly within a diorama at the American Museum of Natural History.

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A boulder, left by a glacier more than 14,000 years ago, stands about the height of a person, adorned with snow or green moss, depending on the time of the year. Beech Brook curves under the rock, drops in two small chutes and winds out of sight towards Lake Sunapee. One tall hemlock, two yellow birches and several young pine trees frame the scene.

Clarence Hay (1884-1969) used to bring his son John Hay (1915-2011) to this brook and proclaimed it the purest water in New Hampshire. Clarence was an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, and he chose this spot (now part of the John Hay Wildlife Refuge) to be depicted in a diorama there.  When John became a nature writer, the brook and its story found its way into his writing.

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In his autobiography, John wrote of the dioramas he encountered in the halls of the American Museum as a boy. To him, they were “like windows, open to unending possibilities.” About this diorama, he wrote, “One familiar exhibit was of our forest brook in New Hampshire that used to provide us with the purest of waters. Its centerpiece was a great rock I had passed by many times.”

As part of our work at The Fells and the John Hay Ecology Center, we are studying how the forests of the Fells may look  in the future, given various scenarios for local land use management and larger-scale environmental shifts, such as climate change. It is clear the diorama may provide a unique window back in time to help inform our project.

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Though no one at The Fells is certain of its exact age, we suspect the diorama dates back to the 1920s. The diorama is said to be life size; each plant and rock fissure reproduced with painstaking care, along with an added blue jay, mink, and grouse. The boulder and surrounding scene is forever frozen in time – an ecological time capsule – while our own forest continues to evolve.

The discovery of this diorama prompts closer observation at The Fells as trees grow, branches fall, logs decay, and wildlife comes and goes. We invite artists, ecologists and photographers to help us document the many facets of this part of the Hay estate. We encourage the American Museum of Natural History to explore our shared landscape, with an eye to its research and education potential.

The next time you’re in New York or New Hampshire, stop by our boulder and drop us a line!

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