Wildlife

Excerpt from The Bee Mother

In this beautifully illustrated book, readers will learn about the essential role of the bumblebee, honeybee and yellow jacket wasp in the Xsan ecosystem  

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Reproduced with permission of HighWater Press (Winnipeg),  from The Bee Mother by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw Brett D. Huson and illustrated by Natasha Donovan (©2024). 

A New Queen

Winter’s chill recedes, and the spring salmon return to the fishing holes. It is an exciting time for the Gitxsan as life returns to the lax yip, the territory, and soon the majagalee, flowers, will bloom.

March is the time of Wihlaxs, Black Bear’s Walking Moon. Nox Ap, the bee mother, awakens from her winter slumber along the realm of Xsan, the River of Mists. Nox Ap seems to appear from the great beyond as the bumblebee queen crawls out of her warm hiding space.

Nox Ap is looking for a new home. She searches for a small underground burrow or a hollow decaying tree. Like Nox Ap, a yellow jacket wasp also seeks a new home. The yellow jacket queen needs space to hang her paper hive. Honeybees, more recently introduced to Gitxsan lands by settlers, have found their way into the wild. A swarm of honeybees and their queen have left an overcrowded hive to start a new one.

The yellow jackets build their paper hive—called Anda Ap, bee pouch—on a sturdy tree branch, while the honeybees make a bigger home in the hollow of an old tree trunk. Although their homes look different, the process to build them is similar. They start by creating a series of small cells that will later make up the giant hive. The worker bees will take over as the queen focuses on laying more eggs and growing the hive.

Unlike wasps and honeybees, bumblebees don’t build big hives, looking instead for places to build smaller nests. Nox Ap has found a place to lay her first eggs—in the hollow of a crumbling pine tree close to the pillowy moss floor. In her new nest she weaves her eggs in a cocoon of food and wax. They will pupate and eventually emerge from the cocoon as full-grown worker bees. 

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A Busy Summer

It is now Lasa ‘yan’tsa, the Budding Trees and Blooming Flowers Moon. After spending the better part of springtime building up her nest, Nox Ap will lay many eggs throughout the summer, including those that may become next year’s queens. She sends worker bees out to collect the pollen and nectar needed to sustain the nest.

As pollinators, bumblebees and honeybees are vital to the land. The people along the River of Mists know them as nature’s gardeners, while their relatives, the yellow jackets, are nature’s pest control. Though the yellow jackets are pollinators too, they are known for being predators, hunting among the flowers and plants for flies and other pests to bring back to their hives for food.

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With the help of Nox Ap and her bee relatives, the fruits and vegetables that the Gitxsan depend on will thrive. 

The honeybee hive has filled the hollow tree trunk and now oozes with honey. Unlike bumblebees, who store just enough nectar to feed their queen through the winter, honeybees produce enough honey for the whole hive to survive with some left over to share. This honey is a new and welcome sweet food source for the Gitxsan. It is also a delectable treat for a lucky bear who happens upon a busy honeybee hive. 

Nox Ap’s young queens and drones are now flying out onto the land, leaving home for more solitary living. Some will become food for birds, bats, and other insects. The solo drones have only one purpose—to mate with young queens who will start their own nests next spring.

As the summer closes in on fall, the Gitxsan see more and more yellow jackets. This increase in wasps tends to occur when communities fill with the smoke of wilp sa hon, smokehouses. The yellow jackets can’t turn down a tasty feast of salmon any more than a Gitxsan can.

More recently, people have come to see wasps as a nuisance. Still, their role in pollination and their voracious appetites for beetle grubs, flies, and other harmful pests are integral to healthy gardens and living spaces. But they’re usually seen as unwelcome visitors as the Gitxsan prepare freshly caught salmon for the smokehouse.

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