World Honeybee Day at a Meadery

Silver Hand Meadery, Williamsburg, VA
Silver Hand Meadery, Williamsburg, VA

Plans for the morning were interrupted when I heard the Silver Hand Meadery in Williamsburg was filling glasses for all-comers this morning. And why? It’s World Honeybee Day on the third Saturday in August. The calendar event has gone international since 2009 for celebrating the benefits of pollinators and the only kind that manufactures sweet liquid gold.

There was more to attract attention than the chink of glasses in a small crowd gathering to start the weekend with “Cheers!” A beautiful mural stretching yards along a wall leading to the front door was unveiled by the meadery’s owners. It is as colorful as a children’s picture book, full of bright flowers, bees, and butterflies under a blue sky. The artist Emma Zahren-Newman titled it: “The Flight of the Honeybee, circa 1622.” Why the date? It is reckoned to be the year when the Virginia Company of London shipped honeybees to the Jamestown colony, then only 15 years old and barely hanging on after starvation and a fractious relationship with local Native Americans.

Although many native bee species exist here, they were probably the first honeybees introduced to North America. Evidently, they didn’t do well in this climate at first, but they followed the westward march of the frontier as European settlers grew new crops that depended on the services of Old World insects then and ever since.

Night Flight

Barth Bailey (Unsplash)

Do you fly at night sometimes? I flew in my dreams last night with arms outstretched for gliding over rooftops. I didn’t see any birds although on landing back in reality in the morning I learned that an estimated 10,400 birds had flown across James City county overnight. They headed ESE at an average speed of 14 mph.

The fall migration begins in August for some birds, including green herons, yellowthroat warblers, and the scarlet tanagers that were featured in last week’s post. Normally active by day, they migrate at night for safety. The numbers passing through surged between 10 and 11 pm, flying at 1,500 feet, although nocturnal migrants sometimes fly up to 10,000 feet to save more energy.

I checked other counties I know. Over 64,000 birds flew SSE down the Appalachian chain at around 3,000 feet across Pocahontas county, WV. If you live in the United States, you can check the spring and fall migrations in your country from radar records at The BirdCast Migration Dashboard.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager
Photo: Inge Curtis

Spotting a Scarlet Tanager in the upper story of an Eastern Forest transports me to the tropics. And it is a tropical forest dweller in our winter months.

Our Northern Cardinal is almost as rosy and House Finches a bit less. Their red plumage is thought to come from carotenoids obtained in the diet (originally beta-carotene, the abundant precursor in plants—think carrots). Since tanagers are mostly insectivorous and insects have a lot of carotenoids, there is an easy explanation for why tanagers are bright red, except for an awkward fact.

While cardinals remain much the same color the year round, male Scarlet Tanagers are much less rouge when they go south, although they still have black wings and a black tail. They look like female tanagers, olive-yellow. Their diet is still based on insects in the tropics, so that is unlikely to account for the change. Since their testosterone levels plummet to female levels after the breeding season, does that suppress gene expression in the liver where carotenoids are converted to pigments (by p450 cytochrome enzymes)? Please enlighten me, readers.