You, me, the bee, and the wind

Saturday was Windsday here. The forecast claimed we would see record high temperatures and some wind. They were almost right with the temps – it was close to a record and continued the trend of the past two months: warm and dry. T-shirt weather, in the winter, in Canada. But the weather folks were a bit subtle when they told us to expect some wind. It was the wind that legends are made of.

What happens to bees on a windy day? Even though it was quite mild and honey bees would normally enjoy a bit of exercise, windy-day bees stay home, eat honey, and play cards. Or they become argumentative grumps like the rest of us. Beekeepers know that bees are aggressive on windy days. This weekend, it would have been impossible to work bees anyway. The smoker couldn’t be tamed and lids and frames would be airlifted to other apiaries. But it is windy-day aggression that intrigues me at the moment.

Decades ago, scientists noted that flat, expansive, windy places have sadder people. Statistically, North Dakota leads the nation in both depression and dusty wind. Abroad, Hungary has long been studied as Europe’s nation with the highest rate of suicide and depression. (Hungary is a land-locked, mostly flat country with a huge windy prairie.) Is there a link between the wind and depression statistics, or are these just coincidental? The Swiss Meteorological Institute believed the link and looked into health problems appearing during spells when the Foehn Winds blew down from the Alps. The people at the institute attributed stress, anxiety, depression, exhaustion, fatigue, dizziness, and body aches to the winds, resulting in increased rates of suicide and highway accidents. It seems winds can sometimes bring misery and chaos. But why?

Why does the wind make us sad and make our honey bees aggressive? Some research points to the tendency for dry dusty places to have more particulate ionization during windy weather. The friction of moving air with and against dust ionizes the particles. An excess of positive ions occurs in some windy conditions and it seems that the positive ions are not a very positive thing when it comes to human moods. Possibly related are the effects of living near wind turbines, which may stir the air and further ionize it. Complaints have been coming from people living near large wind farms (you can read a CBC news story here) with people citing depression, elevated blood pressure, and mood swings – although it may simply be the result of the noise and the unsightly turbine views.

Medically, the increased positive ions around our heads may be enough to disrupt neural activity. Even at a very minor level, such disruption could make it harder to concentrate, think, and even motivate movement. The brain may compensate for the stress by working harder, bringing on headaches, fatigue, and sleeplessness. All this may sound like pseudo science (and maybe it is), but there probably is some general malady at play. Obviously, not everyone responds the same and the grumpiness is not universal. Personally, I am not prone to depression, but when I farmed in southern Saskatchewan, my motivation and energy were invariably sapped on windy days.

How about the bees? People and insects don’t always respond the same way to similar external pressures, of course. It’s not usually safe to extend our attitudes and motivations to our bees – that’s a tendency called anthropomorphism and it leads to comments like, “Hey, look at that bee on the clover – do you see that? She’s smiling!” It may be true that ionic particulates make bees aggressive, but it may be a stretch to believe their lips are sweetly curled on nice days. However, it is pretty good advice to avoid working bees on days when it is so windy that both the smoker and the smoke become airborne.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeeping.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
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