A summer without meat bees

Michael Raffety

Nov. 3, 2010

What a summer! A summer without meat bees. We whacked more flies than normal, but no meat bees. It was ideal barbecue conditions this year. One wonders what good are meat bees anyway?

They’re good for something, according to an Introduction to Earth, Soil and Land in California by David Carle, part of the UC Press’s California Natural History Guides.

“Despite their troublesome interest in sodas and hotdogs, the wasps have a beneficial role as voracious predators of other insects, including many flies, caterpillars and beetles that are home, garden and farm pests. They also scavenge from decomposing bodies and rotting plant material. They in turn become food for birds, skunks, raccoons and bears.

Yellow jacket wasps take over old gopher holes and make them bigger. It’s the darned skunks that got me in trouble once with the meat bees. I noticed where a skunk had dug some rock and dirt out of my road bank. They are always trying to dig up moles and gophers. I got a shovel and started throwing the dirt and rocks back in the dug-out part of the bank. That’s when I discovered it was a meat bee hive and I got stung on the top of my head and up my sleeves.

As the book mentions, they can sting endlessly unlike honey bees, which lose their stinger. So I went running up the hill waving my arms about and patting my head and ripping off my jacket. I came back with a better jacket, a hat and a can of wasp spray. As far as I’m concerned their contribution to the natural order of things is less than a rattlesnake. As Carle wrote, “Yellow jackets love meat protein and high energy carbohydrates in picnic foods, which they bring back to their nest to feed the growing larvae,”

Oh, great, that’s all we need is more meat bees.

So what is a book about earth and soil all about?

“The goals of this book are to turn ‘people and land’ concepts back toward their basis in the earth, to encourage people to appreciate their basis in the earth, to encourage people to appreciate the living soil as the literal foundation for environmental concerns, and to help them understand soil connections with water, air and fire topics covered in other books in the Californians and Their Environment

Among the things that create soil — and we do need dirt — is lichen. Apparently lichen secretes acids that break down rock. The soil itself is enhanced by nitrogen-fixing bacteria and then the cleanup crew comes in to scour over any decomposition — bacteria, fungi, worms, flies, mites and moth larvae. Then the predatory wasps and beetles show up.

As Carle noted, “a teaspoon of a forest soil may hold 1 billion bacteria, a teaspoon of soil may contain 40 miles of fungus fibers. Thousands of amoebae and other single-celled protozoans and hundreds of nematodes can occupy a teaspoon of fertile soil.”

Yikes, that’s a whole lot of stuff in dirt. One can see where two contradictory sayings come from: “Kids who eat dirt build up their immune system,” or “Eat dirt and die.”

The latter saying may arise from a particular “soil fungus that lives in the dry, alkaline soils of the southern San Joaquin Valley causes symptoms in humans that may be mistaken for a cold or flu.” But inhaling the spores can give one “valley fever.”

Most people don’t notice it and get immunity. Those with weakened immune systems, though can develop chronic lung disease.

Dirt can be “mitey’ dirty. Yes. “There can be 100,000-400,000 mites in each square yard of moist forest soil,” Carle wrote.

California has 100 million acres. (That trillions and trillions of mites) It’s been divided by Spanish land grants, homesteading, gold mining claims, railroad land grants, yet more than half of California acreage is wild land. About 48 million acres is federal land or Indian land held as a federal trust. “Only Alaska and Nevada have a grater percentage of state acreage in the form of federal land,” Carle wrote.

Yosemite, until it became  a national park, was California’s first state park. The second was the Marshall Monument, dedicated in this county in 1891. There are 278  state park units on 1.5 million acres, including 320 miles of coast. The national park system covers 8.2 million acres of this state .

Farmland accounts for 29 million acres as of 2009, with 12.5 million of that in crops and 16.5 million in livestock grazing. “There were almost 80,000 farms and ranches, but the great majority of acreages was divided among 5,000 particularly large land holdings.”

David Carle is a state park ranger. This is his third book. It includes 92 color photographs and 18 maps in 256 pages. Price is is $19.95 in paperback.

One more note about the meat bees. Winter was rather cold. Remember the foot of snow on Dec. 7, 2009? Then May’s average temperature was way below normal. It was 69 degrees, with the 10-year average being 77. Maybe that killed off most of the meat bees.

Speaking of weather, this October’s rainfall totaled 5.68 inches. Only eight other Octobers exceeded that total in 136 years of record keeping here.: October 1877  had 6.6 inches and the total for the year was an unremarkable 37.02 inches; October 1883 had 5.72 inches and a less remarkable 35.86 inches of total season rainfall; October 1890 had 9.07 inches and an annual total of a whopping 78.13 inches; October 1899 recorded 7.73 inches and the year ended with 38.69 inches, about average; October 1951 had 5.7 inches and big annual total of 56.26 inches; October 1963 recorded 11.39 inches and the season ended with 44.35 inches, well over the average; the last big October was 1983 with 6.03 inches and a season total of 43.49 inches, again very good.

Looks like a 5:3 chance of this October indicating a good rain year. I received a call from Strawberry to report the weekend of Oct. 23-24 when we got 5.27 inches at PG&E Missouri Flat measuring station boulders could be heard rolling down the river as the South Fork of the American River rose under the heavy rainfall.

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