We are back in Minnesota after spending a week or so in the Boston, Massachusetts.  Our mode of transportation was an automobile.  I am not fond of commercial radio and I have been trending toward financial/monetary podcasts as well as political podcasts.  Of the podcasts we listened to, I kept noticing a common idea that threaded its way through them.  The idea or tacit notice would popup here or it would popup there.  The idea is not new, it is not even that exciting.  Nassim Taleb, Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute, wrote a book on the subject called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.  I lean more toward a less eloquent sounding name: disruptive forces.

Outside, it is in the low 40s F (~5.5 C), but I am sitting in our living room; we have a nice fire going in the fireplace.  With a dip into the mid-30s (~1.6 C) on the docket for this evening, a nice fire feels, well, quite nice. We are burning wood from our property – walnut, apple, and cedar, but mostly, we are using buckthorn (pdf).

In Minnesota, at the Federal government level and in forty-five other states, buckthorn is considered a “noxious weed.”  The designation of “noxious weed” is a way in which governments can apply a whole host of existing laws and regulations without explicitly codifying Rhamnus cathartica __L. in legislation.  Noxious weeds are generally considered detrimental to economical or societal wellbeing (Cannabis sativa, for example, is classified as a “noxious weed” in many states; whether Cannabis is detrimental economically or societally, is, in an of itself, a completely other topic). This means that there are regulations in place to disincentivize the further dissemination of buckthorn and the others on the list of noxious weeds.  Even the penalties associated with the laws and regulations that are supposed to govern willfully and knowingly the spread of noxious weeds and invasive species (both flora and fauna) can be viewed as an attempt at a disruptive force.

With this idea of disruptive forces bobbling around in my head for most of our time in Boston and on the road to and from Boston, we were driving through Chicago, Illinois, last week, I was listening to a podcast of Science Friday.  The segment that struck me as being particularly fascinating was the discussion and pitching of Steven Strogatz‘s new book, The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Mathematics from Zero to Infinity.  Steven is a Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  The book itself sounds quite interesting – as the playful title might suggest, it is a book where you get a smattering of mathematics without having to hold a bachelors degree in mathematics; you will not be held to know a Bernoulli differential equation from a Bernoulli trial.

\Huge{\lim_{x \to \infty} \dfrac{1}{x} = 0}  The segment that I piqued my curiosity was that of the discussion of zero and infinity. It is common place, nowadays, to simply disregard zero as that number that is after negative one but before positive one.  It is a special number – multiply any number by zero, and you get zero.  Add zero to a number and you get that same number back.  And, of course, there is infinity.  It is universally accepted by all but a fringe; infinity, however, can still be a difficult concept to get one’s noodle around.  Infinity, like zero, has special properties.  Divide any regular number by infinity, and you get zero back (the calculus limit, above, is a way of expressing this).  Infinity minus one is still infinity.  There are other properties, as well.

What does zero or infinity have to do with disruptive forces?  You need only to look at the late-medieval into the early Renaissance-era Europe and the Catholicism that ruled academia and most aspects of knowledge, life and thought of that time.  Giordano Bruno, an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and for his time, a free thinking radical.  Bruno was born in 1548 A.D. and became an ordained priest by the age of 24.

Among Bruno’s “crazy” ideas that caused the Church to get all-up-in-his-business was how he considered infinity to exist outside the context of God.   The Church felt this notion, this belief was disruptive enough to warrant an inquisition.  Remember what Monty Python character, Ximénez shouts, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”  And of course, the end result of his trial by this Roman Inquisition was rather disruptive for Bruno’s continuation as a living person: he was burned at the stake for being a heretic.

Let us jump back to invasive species.  When you think of invasive species, if you are in eastern Minnesota, you might think of lamprey or zebra mussels.  If you are in a cohort of beekeepers in Ontario, in and around Thunder Bay, you will likely think of another pest: Varroa destructor, also known as, varroa mites. With an importation ban on honeybees from the United States to the south, and geographic isolation – 700 km to the east and west from most populations, Thunder Bay was on the short list of outposts of varroa-free honeybee colonies.  Varroa first made it into Canada in 1989, but because of Thunder Bay’s isolation  and because of the watchful eyes and ears of one zealous beekeeper named Jeanette Momot, the area stayed mite free…until the late summer of 2012.

Searching through my emails and group message posting to construct a timeline, I first noticed something was a miss with my friends in Thunder Bay when, by chance, I noticed a terse posting from Dean Harron (I last wrote about Dean in my North to Ontario post) referencing a conversation he and I had started on April 8, 2012.  More digging into posts; I found the conversation Dean was referring to:

However if we import bees from the south we all will not have any bees or beekeepers in the North at all. Alot of time and patience has been devoted by our senior beekeepers to have it remain this way, however there are some beekeepers that do not agree…what a shame!  We hope their egos will be satisfied when this destruction happens in the Northwest [of Ontario].  It will not be beneficial to anyone to say the least.

The “senior beekeepers” Dean speaks of include Jeanette Momot, previous written about in the same North to Ontario post, and himself.  Saying that the senior beekeepers were devoted is putting it lightly.  In June of 2011, I had an email conversation with Jeanette; I asked her about the history of the Thunder Bay bees.  She replied with a lengthy and interesting history of the bees, her background and a self-deprecating shot at her bee-addiction:

I started grad school in the Entomology Department at Iowa State University with Walter C. Rothenbuhler in March of 1962, where he was working on hygienic behavior of honeybees.  It had been found that this behavior made them resistant to the devastating disease American foulbrood, which had destroyed countless colonies in the states previously.  I spent the summer of ’62 working with his group on this problem at Iowa State in Ames, Iowa.  Then he was offered a position at Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, and several of his graduate students were invited to transfer as well.  So I was involved with these studies until 1964, when I received my M.S. from Ohio State.  I worked for the USDA in Fargo, N Dakota on insect control problems for a couple of years, then married and wound up back in Columbus among the bees.  We moved to Thunder Bay in 1975, but didn’t have bees until we purchased our country property in l977.  We have been keeping bees, producing honey and raising queens ever since.  Of course, I always looked for hygienic behavior in the queen mother used for the bulk of queens produced, as well as wintering success, gentleness, and honey production in the progeny, but also tried to raise a queen from each colony as well, to keep the genetic diversity.  That works because queens mate with 15 to 20 drones each.Inbreeding would lead to poor brood viability.  If the colony wasn’t hygienic, I would replace her, of course.  We had a wide assortment of bees here in the Thunder Bay District.  I was partial to the Buckfast line developed by Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey in England.  I was able to acquire Buckfast bees from Weaver’s Apiaries in Navasota Texas, and I would usually buy some queens from them each spring, until the border to Canada from the U. S. was closed in 1987.  We also had Mraz bees, Carniolans from Hawaii and elsewhere, Caucasians, Italians — we tried everything.   I always raised some queens, but since 1987 have produced all of my own queens, as well as many for the local Thunder Bay District beekeepers.  We worked hard to keep our area free of mites, and have succeeded so far.  I  also sold some bees to Mn beekeepers along the north shore of Lake Superior for many years, and they must like them, as they keep coming back for more.  We are one of the few mite free areas left in the world, and are having a hard time convincing our government to protect our status.  It is also too bad that we cannot send nucs across the border, as it is very difficult to shake packages of bees in 50F weather, and we have that and colder even at the end of May.  Our biggest problem is the weather, the long cold winters and our short growing season.  Of course farming methods, cut before bloom to keep the protein content of the forage high doesn’t help either.  July used to be the best month for honey production; now it is often our worst.  But beekeeping is still very addictive;  I have been trying to quit for about 10 years now.  Maybe it is an obsession!</p>

Jeanette Momot – June 20, 2011

Jeanette has been the driving force behind keeping mites out of the Thunder Bay region.  She has gone to great lengths to preserve her work; she mentioned once to several of us that she had a mole at the post office in Thunder Bay, and if someone had honeybees mailed in to the region, she would get a call from this mole.  She would then contact the person who purchased the bees and explain the potential harm these non-Thunder Bay bees could pose to everyone’s apiaries in the district.  She would then go one step further; if the person would agree to destroy the package of bees, she would replace it for them with a package of local bees plus a queen at no charge.

Thus, twenty-five years of work is now threatened.  Late this summer word started to trickle down from the Thunder Bay region; varroa mites had arrived.  This unfortunate happening will go unnoticed by the scores of Canadian tourists that pass through Thunder Bay on their way to points south – like for the shopping excursions into Duluth, MN.  A small handful of dedicated hobbyist beekeepers in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota, have taken notice and are now trying to measure the situation, gauging what to do next year for they made annual treks north of the border to obtain fresh packages of mite-free bees and queens.  It is a disruptive force select handful of fellow beekeepers.