Tuesday, March 20, 2012

UnBEElievables by Douglas Florian

I went to my local bookstore last week to have a look at Douglas Florian's new picture book, UNBEELIEVABLES. "We don't have it in stock," Molly told me. "People don't buy books of poetry." This statement depressed me for the rest of the day. I've been trying not to think about it ever since, because it will just continue to make me depressed off and on forever.

So, let me begin by making a pitch for poetry: you should buy it. You should read it. Your kids will love it. We've got the whole oeuvre of Shel Silverstein sitting on the bookshelf in my daughter's room. When we read it, we read it aloud - sometimes 20, 30 poems in a night. Sometimes the poems are funny enough to cause us to burst out laughing. Sometimes the sheer delight of feeling words tumbling off the tongue is what sets us to giggling. We compare favorites. We re-read the ones that we can't shake out of our brains. We purposefully and accidentally memorize stanzas. If there's a more lovely, likely way to get your kid to feel the true power and magic of literature, I don't know what it is.

Florian's COMETS, STARS, THE MOON, AND MARS (Harcourt, 2007) and INSECTLOPEDIA (Harcourt, 1998) are two clearly-themed books of poetry that have enjoyed a lot of reading, re-reading and memorizing around here. Which is why I was so excited for the publication of UNBEELIEVABLES - not to mention, it's also about bees, a subject near and dear to my heart (I finally got a look at it at Barnes and Noble today). About a dozen short poems touch on such topics as drones, pollination, the queen, the waggle dance, and even CCD. Accompanying text offers more in-depth explanation for the science-minded. But the real treat, as ever, is Florian's artwork. A mixture of gouache, pencil and collage, his paintings are at once sweet, visually descriptive, and beautiful - the perfect accompaniment to the poems themselves. The picture below doesn't even begin to to them justice. Obviously, I'm a fan.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Bees in the Movies

A couple of years ago, we were hit with a wave of movies about bees. Alas, most were uninteresting to, or otherwise unsuitable for, kids. Seinfeld’s BEE MOVIE was just junk, from a factual standpoint. VANISHING OF THE BEES and COLONY both sought to address the terrifying issue of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), but wound up sounding like propaganda (and poorly organized propaganda, for grown-ups, to boot).

Still, there are some pleasant and informative (and free!) options out there for the kindern. Here are a few of my picks:

NEW YORK CITY BEEKEPER, a 3-1/2 minute film hosted by two young boys who visit a Manhattan beekeeper on his rooftop. It’s the perfect length and slant for the very wee. 

CITY OF BEES, a mini-mini-documentary of 1-1/2 minutes that visits a country beekeeper. Also suitable for the extra-young. 

PBS’s excellent 50-minute documentary SILENCE OF THE BEES, observes the life of the American honeybee, and discusses how it’s crucial to our existence. While it also touches on CCD, it does so in more measured tones, suitable for older kids with broader attention spans who won’t freak out at the implications of crop loss to humanity. You can find excerpts of it on youtube – an 8-minute version, and a couple of 2-1/2-minute versions about the waggle dance and “the importance of bees,” are perfect for medium-size kids who can grasp medium-size concepts.

Finally, my friend the beekeeper John Howe was featured in a 15-minute documentary a few years ago. Titled ROOFTOP BEES, it’s available for purchase from the filmmaker. 

Know of another bee flick that’s great for kids? Write in and let me know!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Knitted Bees to Cheer this Dreary Day

The knitted bees of Hannah Haworth make me smile. Maybe it's the lace wings. Maybe it's the vision of their profusion (50 in all). I imagine, if they were buzzing about Brooklyn right now, they'd be on the lookout for knitted magnolia blossoms - some real ones are just about to bloom down the block.

Photos courtesy of Hannah Haworth
Want to knit some bees of your own? Find Haworth's pattern here; and a cute bee kit from our old friend Anna Hrachovec here.

PS, answering my own question from Wednesday, hummingbirds can indeed be found (although not yet by me), in Brooklyn. The ruby throated hummingbird is apparently a frequent visitor to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

And Now, a Few Words from our Favorite Beekeeper: John Howe

As many people learned after the publication of THE HONEYBEE MAN, the story was inspired by two Brooklyn apiarists. One of them, John Howe, spent a lot of time talking to me about the habits of honeybees, and introducing me to his colonies on his Fort Greene rooftop. Yesterday, I asked him a few questions about what bees and beekeepers are up to around these here parts.

It was an warm winter and seems to be an early spring. Does this have any affect on the bees?

“Most people’s bees survived the winter. But otherwise, the warm weather is bad. The bees are more active, but they don’t have enough food in their winter stores. I heard warnings to FEED YOUR BEES all over the internet. There was a hairy period in January and February when there was warm weather but no flowers blooming.  Everyone started freaking out and feeding their bees syrup and fondant (home-made bee candy) like mad in February.

“But then the flowers all started coming out freakishly early and the bees started bringing in the goods – people told me their bees were bringing back pollen, which means they’re probably bringing back nectar as well. So we have averted disaster.”

What are beekeepers in Brooklyn doing to get ready for the warm months ahead?

“They’re inspecting the hives, making sure the queens are okay. They start laying eggs in February, so there should be plenty of brood by now. If not, and the queen is old, she might be out of eggs, so people may be ordering new queens.”

How does that work?

“The new queen gets put in the hive in a box about the size of an iPod. The bees could kill her, but you want to make sure they’ll accept her. They know she’s a queen, but not their queen. So you put her in the hive in this wood-frame box that has screening on the sides and a hole in the bottom that is plugged with fondant. By the time she’s eaten her way through the fondant, she’s free [of the box], and the bees are used to her, and 99% of the time, they accept her.”

Anything else beekeepers are looking for?

“They’re also checking to make sure there are no swarm cells in the hives: if there’s a new queen [that was born in the hive], that means the old queen will  take off with about half the hive to a tree somewhere and scare the daylights out of people.”

Is there any reason to be afraid when bees swarm?

“It’s not dangerous at all. In fact, bees are the least dangerous when swarm. Bees are territorial; they defend their hive. But they don’t consider a temporary home defensible. You can even touch their temporary home and they’ll be passive. And actually, even in the hive they can be gentle. But when people see swarming, they get this ‘killer bee’ mentality.

“When bees swarm, that means their  hive is overcrowded. To find a new home, they send out scouts, who report back. They’re looking for place that’s dry; is of a certain size, like the inside of a refrigerator; and with a small defendable entrance, like in a hollow tree or a crevice in building.

“People wonder, well, different scouts go different places; how do the bees decide which place is the best? How do bees make decisions? They’re very democratic. And bees are very honest. They vote, and there’s no ego involved. A bee that’s found a great location will do a vigorous dance, and  all the other bees will sit up and take notice. If she’s found a mediocre place, she does a less-great dance, and not that many bees will gravitate to her. They gravitate to the bee that does the longest and most vigorous dance – they will move physically around to that bee. Then the scout leads them off to the new location.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Bank Street or Bust!

Yester-warm-sunny-day, with my thoughts already skipping toward bees and spring, I got word that THE HONEYBEE MAN was a finalist for Bank Street College of Education's first annual Cook Prize. I'm so thrilled and honored, I thought I'd take the opportunity to launch a week of posts about children's books, science, and bees. I hope you'll join me here in the days to come!

I'll start with a look at the prize and the three other excellent finalists (winner to be announced on May 17). The Cook Prize is meant to honor picture books about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in the eight-to-10-year-old reader range. Apparently, it's the only national children's choice award to honor a STEM book, which makes it doubly (triply?) exciting that three of the four finalists have local (New York) settings.

Of course, THE HONEYBEE MAN is set on a Brooklyn rooftop. BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY (Melissa Sweet, Houghton Mifflin 2011) traces the history of the floating puppets we all know and love in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. MEADOWLANDS: A WETLANDS SURVIVAL STORY (Thomas F. Yezerski, FSG 2011) is a love story, of sorts, to the polluted New Jersey marshland's fragile ecosystem. The fourth book, ABOUT HUMMINGBIRDS (Cathryn Sill, Peachtree 2011), explores the life and times of the tiny birds, in all their various habitats. (I've never seen one in Brooklyn, but I'm always on the lookout - we've got bees, after all. Why not hummingbirds?)