Welcome to The Bad Beekeeper's Blog
What would it be like to keep bees for 80 years? You could ask 92-year-old George Birks, who started back in the 1920s. The price of a loaf of bread was 9 cents; a pound of sugar was 7 cents; gasoline was 30 cents a gallon. And honey retailed at about 5 cents per pound. You'd be happy earning a dollar or two a day. When George Birks began his 80-year beekeeping odyssey, he may have driven an open two-seater 9-horsepower Adamson.
George Birks was introduced to the sport of bee-dodging by his uncle. As a Brit, he would have experienced the bombs and sugar rationing of the Second World War, the demise of small farm holdings, and changes in climate. Mr Birks says he started more than 80 years ago. By the time he was 12, he was an experienced bee wrangler and became a founding member of the Hartlepool Boys High School Boy Scout group, where he earned his bee farming badge. By the way, if there is any doubt that he has been living in the English countryside, he was originally from Hartlepool, but now lives in Arkengarthdale, which is near Reeth, in Upper Swaledale, and he has chaired bee clubs in Yorkshire, Beverley, Cottingham, Alnwick, and Harrogate. This week, the Richmond and Beverley Beekeeping Associations presented to him a certificate commemorating his 80 years.
A couple of weeks ago, a warehouse fire destroyed a bee outfit's shop at an old kibbutz in Israel. A dozen hives were lost, along with processing equipment and supers. The kibbutz was founded in 1934 by progressives from Poland and Croatia who planted orchards and made the desert blossom. The honey farm at Kibbutz Gat is mostly intended to help with pollination - Gat is home of Primor, one of Israel's largest juicer makers. The pictures of all the wrecked equipment on the fire fighter's website remind me of a honey house fire I once had. Or, rather, those photos show me what might have happened had not been able to control the blaze. I was lucky, I was able to smother my flaming wax melter. If you jump over to the website with the burnt hive photos, you can see how bad things could get. I don't know how many honey house fires happen each year, but I'm sure there are a few too many. A beekeeping colleague in Nipawin, Saskatchewan (Dr. Don Peer) years ago built a very long narrow honey shop: "Just in case of a fire," he told me.
Today is the 60th Anniversary of The Conquest of Everest. It was 1953, Queen Elizabeth was just about to begin her first day on the job as queen of the world's imperial empire. In 1953, a typical TV was a box bigger than the average 'fridge. And it took 3 days before the world knew whether Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had climbed the peak of the mighty mountain (named for a British Tea Company surveyor), or if they had died trying. As ABC news said today: "Sixty years ago, on May 29, 1953, a New Zealand beekeeper and a Nepali sherpa reached the peak of Mount Everest in Nepal."
Yes, Sir Edmund Hillary was a New Zealand beekeeper. Not the backyard, one hive under an apple tree sort of beekeeper, but a real-life honey farmer. And for a few seasons after his famous conquest, he went back to tending the 1,400 colonies scattered around his island home. At the time, he didn't think the climb was a big deal and he expected his moment of glory to fade quickly. It didn't.
Hillary climbed Everest in 1953. Off season, he continued exploring remote corners of the Earth - in 1959, he wrote a book about his discoveries in Antarctica. 1959 was also the last year he was a commercial beekeeper. Here, from his book A View from the Summit are Hillary's own words about his beekeeping experiences: "My brother Rex was a year younger than me and he, too, was part of our family beekeeping business. Rex and I worked well together as a team. He was smaller than me but very strong and vigorous. In the friendliest fashion we competed energetically with each other, often running side by side with heavy loads of honey to pile them on our truck...we actually enjoyed the beekeeping. Our thirty-five apiaries were spread out on fertile dairy farms up to forty miles away, so we were always on the move. The spring and summer, when the bees were gathering nectar, was a time of great excitement. The weather made beekeeping a tremendous gamble, of course. Each apiary we visited could have a substantial crop of honey in its hives or almost nothing. Rex and I reveled in the hard work."
Canada's spring has been frightfully slow this year. Snow was on the menu coast-to-coast-to-coast in April and early May. As seasoned beekeepers will admit, wintering bees at our latitude is not too hard until mid-March. In springtime, cold damp windy weather can take a heavy toll. Just when you feel you've done a great job packing and preparing the boxes, and losses don't seem significant, you find fewer live hives with each spring inspection. This is when queen losses become apparent and small populations don't achieve critical mass. Bees drift, the elderly succumb, the failing queens expire.
Things were not so bad in southern Alberta. Erika told me winter losses were around 15% down in Milo, Alberta. I haven't been out looking at those bees - they are now Erika and Justin's project to manage. But I have been listening to the results other beekeepers have posted, and it's generally not so good. My friend John Gibeau, owner and operator of the amazing Honeybee Centre out near the Pacific coast, has told the Surrey Leader that things have been better. Mostly due to high winter losses several years in a row, blueberry pollination is in trouble. "...there's not enough bees to go around," according to the news pieces "Bee shortage stings farmers, beekeepers." Mr Gibeau reported that new blueberry plantings, increased colony density on existing fields, and fewer commercial hives has meant "growers are out thousands of colonies." Growers need about 4 hives per acres to assure a good fruit set.
Here's a new twist on the old fashioned Honey Massage. This one actually uses old-fashioned honey. The sticky massage seems to be increasingly popular in Europe, judging by the YouTube videos from Romania, Czech Republic, and especially videos such as this news clip (Was ist eine Honigmassage?) from Germany. In fact, the German Honey Massage videos outnumbered all the others when I did a search.
So what's the point of a honey massage? According to numerous websites, honey is the only really natural massage ointment available. That is likely true. This series of 'how-to' videos will teach you how to do the massage and will tell you the purported health benefits: "It nourishes the skin, stimulates and moves lymph, frees up the fascia, and creates a space for stagnant fluid." And many more things. I am always leery of multiple and diverse health claims, and I don't understand what this instructor means by "moving lymph," "freeing fascia," and especially "creating spaces for stagnant fluids" - though I'm not really keen on hearing a definition for the last one. However, the video will teach you how to prepare and perform the honey massage.
We are always happy to see new uses for old honey. And I suspect it really does work magic on sore tired muscles. Certainly it helps beekeepers sell more honey. So, of course the honey massage is a great idea!
Enjoying spring?. Soon you may have even more of a good thing. According to a detailed study published by a group of geophysicists associated with the American Geophysical Union, spring will start arriving 17 days earlier in the north, if we think of spring as the time flowering trees burst into blossom. Just so you are clear on this - spring will remain March 20 or 21 in the northern hemisphere (unless the Earth rolls over on its side); spring will continue to be the day that nights are 12 hours long, and then begin to shorten as we approach summer. But some smart geophysicists used their high power computers to model Future Earth, looking ahead to 2100 and found that climate changes already occurring will force tulip poplar and linden (basswood) as well as sourwood and acacia (black locust) to flower weeks early.
Alongside articles about dipolar magnetism and low-frequency seismic waves, the journal Geophysical Research Letters cites a simulation credited to four authors who projected budburst of deciduous North American trees, finding several troubling results. With a warmer climate, trees will blossom earlier (you don't need your Princeton PhD to understand that). But according to the research, the various trees that once bloomed over a couple of months will cluster closer together, resulting in what the paper's abstract euphemistically calls "the potential for secondary impacts at the ecosystem level." This means your bees, of course. Instead of a long minor honey flow, they may have a more intense, short and sweet nectar rush. The change will happen over a few decades, so your management skills will have time to adapt. The other summary point the research makes: "We expect that these climate-driven changes in phenology will have large effects on the carbon budget of U.S. forests and these controls should be included in dynamic global vegetation models," Ominously implying that the rate of climate change will accelerate, the so-called "Snowball Effect," or, in this case, the "No Snowball Effect."
Charles Darwin was a famous geologist before he published his revolutionary evolutionary treatise. He was also a well-rounded naturalist. It was Charles Darwin who discovered that some bumblebee species gnaw into the side of deep-throated flowers, cheating their pollination obligation. These are short-tongued bees. Their excuse is that they can't reach the nectar, so they steal. The consequence is the flower loses its nectar without the benefit of pollination. (There are other bees, long-tongued sorts, who later correct the damage, so the flower can reseed.) Flowers have been trading food for pollination services with the animal kingdom for at least 100 million years. Darwin realized that the robber bee's activity was not within the usual evolutionary scheme. Although the flower may have evolved deeper and deeper tubes while a compatible bee evolved a longer and longer tongue, neither expected an interloper to wonder onto the scene, perhaps blown in by a windstorm many generations earlier. With enough time, the flower may develop a toxic base to discourage theft. When Darwin discovered this bad bee habit - and wrote about it in a naturalist journal - he recognized, correctly, that the bee's behaviour was learned, not inherited.
Recently, a bumblebee expert, David Goulson, added to Darwin's discovery. Goulson, at Britain's University of Sussex, spent a couple of summers with his assistants in Switzerland. There they tracked bumblebees amid alpine flowers called yellow rattle, which hides its nectar deeply. Their observations took them to 13 different mountain meadows where they spotted the bumblebees and discreetly followed them, like undercover cops witnessing crimes. After each bee was seen robbing 20 flowers, a profile was written up and filed. As it turned out, novice bumblebees watch experienced burglars - and learn their techniques. They inferred this from the fact that most bees in the meadow poke holes into the same side of the yellow flower's base, either right or left; not both, and not randomly. If you look at the picture, above, you can see that the flowers are rather tight to the stem. From an observer's vantage, the right side is obvious. Although there is no advantage in selecting the right (or the left) for drilling, biting, and poking through to reach the nectar, the bumblebees tend to always work the same side as other bees are working. And it may change the following year, when everyone pokes left, for example. And it can vary from meadow to meadow. The point is, some original thief makes a choice each year, sticks with it, and everyone else copies. Learned behaviour at its finest.
I have found some time to read the book, A History of Beekeeping in British Columbia from 1950 to 2000, and have thoroughly enjoyed it. Like most prairie dwellers, I have trekked out through beautiful British Columbia as often as possible. So I am somewhat familiar with the areas the book delves into - places with the names Central Cariboo, Skeena Valley, East Kootenays, and Maple Ridge, among many others. These names always conjure great memories of gorgeous scenes and wonderful places. But I lingered longest among the dozen pages devoted to the Peace River Area. When I was but a teenager, I drove up to the Peace, thinking I should become a beekeeper there. The scenery is wonderful. The Peace River, a part of the Arctic-bound Mackenzie watershed, is dramatic and inspiring. But, of course, it was the rumours of 300 pound honey crops grown from packages of bees that really enticed me. As it turned out, an opportunity opened up for me in Saskatchewan, instead. But I've often wondered how my life might have evolved had I gone to work for Ernie Fuhr, or the Van Hans, or someone else up on the Earth's rooftop, and then slowly began building my bee farm somewhere just off the Alaska Highway. When I read the BC Bee History and the clips about 430 pound averages, well it seems whimsical now. I'm glad that the author, Douglas McCutcheon, has collected the stories of the bees and beekeepers that belong to these places.
Part of the great beauty of British Columbia, and the great challenge in preparing a book like this, is centered on the extreme diversity of climates, agricultural regions, and environmental domains of the province. The author does a nice job of pulling it all together. From rocky-peaked mountains to foggy islands, bucolic pastures to rolling plains, BC hosts beekeepers everywhere, all with unique conditions, many with unusual forage crops, some engaged in a climate with Mediterranean bliss, others struggling in a severe continental environment. It all makes for an interesting compilation.
There is a lot to enjoy in the History of Beekeeping in BC. We tend to ignore our history too readily. And that condemns us to make blunders that might have been avoided. But the real joy in a book like this one comes from reading the dozens of sketches about the characters who were beekeepers last century. What would beekeeping be without "characters" anyway? Who would dare keep bees, if not the folks who live a tad bit differently from the rest of society? We are indebted to Doug McCutcheon and the editors and assistants at the BC Honey Producers Association who worked so hard to capture the memories, organize the stories, and publish the book. To them, many thanks.
If you would like to get a copy of this interesting book, you can order it by visiting the BC Beekeepers' website. The book is large-format, contains 334 pages, over 100 photos, and covers a lot of interesting history. A bargain for $30. All proceeds beyond recovering the cost of production will be donated to the Boone Hodgson Wilkinson Trust Fund for Honey Bee Education and Research.
Here's a honey of a lawsuit. Target Corp has been targeted in a legal action by a Ms. Cardona, apparently of somewhere in California, who discovered from her on-line research that the $3 bottle of honey she purchased at a Target store had been filtered or processed to remove its pollen. The shopper filed a class action lawsuit claiming that the product was in violation of California laws, according to Forbes.
Target responded that the applicable federal rules provide no standard for what constitutes "honey" and that the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act requires companies to label their food products with "the common or usual name" which in this case would be honey. If Target were to call the product something like "Honey (without Pollen)" according to the presiding judge, such a label would then be in conflict with federal regulations, and would be illegal. On that basis, the suit was preempted.
This sounds like an interesting job. You may have heard that there are about 40,000 species of bees in the world. Most are solitary, some live loosely with familiar neighbours, and a very small number, like the honey bee, are truly social insects. OK, 40,000 in the world. But how many in my backyard? Well, a Saskatchewan scientist - Cory Sheffield - has been asking the same question. During the past year, Dr Sheffield has wandered around Saskatchewan, collecting bees.
At least 200 species live in Saskatchewan. I'm a bit surprised the number is so low. If the world has 40,000 species, and many of those occur in huge territories, then I thought the number would be closer to 1,000. Sheffield also thinks there are more than 200 species. Until now, there really hasn't been an exhaustive Saskatchewan bee-type census. Back in Nova Scotia, doing graduate work, the scientist rediscovered a bee that was thought extinct for 60 years. Sheffield found two individuals of Macropis Cuckoo Bee (Really, I'm not making that name up.) in Nova Scotia, and he is now looking for it among the bees of Saskatchewan. This type of bee once covered the eastern states and Canada by the millions - from the Carolinas to the Dakotas and back along southern Manitoba, southern Ontario and Quebec, and out to Nova Scotia. The cause of the bug's (temporary) extinction isn't clear. Perhaps habitat loss; perhaps some pest or pesticide.
Dr Sheffield is also trying to match up flowers to the various bees being identified in Saskatchewan. He may catalog crop-by-crop, looking at the important pollinators for each field. The only agriculturally significant types of bees known now are the leaf cutter bee (important for alfalfa pollination) and the honey bee (important for almost everything). Undoubtedly, other bees are useful, but aren't being commercially used to the same extent. It may be that some lucky field crop will be identified as teaming with some unusual pollinators that could be caged and shackled, then exploited by the millions, labouring to reduce the cost of strawberries or canola oil or some other goodies.
Scientists are learning a lot about bees. One of their latest forays into the little creatures' heads involves a relatively simple experiment. Bees were divided into three groups. One group was trained to visit one colour of artificial flower. Let's say pink. The pink flowers had drops of sugar syrup planted into their hideous little plastic blossoms. Similarly-shaped blue, yellow, and red flowers were dry. The first group of bees learned to stalk pink flowers. In a few hours of intensive training, they ignored all the others, just foraged on pinks. Then, a second group of bees were placed behind a screen mesh window where they were allowed to watch their sisters, and presumably, ask questions of the foragers. After watching for a while, they were turned loose on the same artificial flowers. They ignored the mixed colours, generally preferring the test colour of the day, in this example the pink ones. Finally, an independent group of bees, kept back at the hive somewhere, was brought in. They stumbled around, finding the right flowers by trial and error. (This is because they had missed the lectures earlier in the day.)
It seems bees are able to watch and learn. This puts them several rungs above high school students on the evolutionary ladder. We want to thank Erika Dawson, Aurore Avaguès-Weber, Lars Chittka, and Ellouise Leadbeater, all working in London, for their paper "Learning by Observation Emerges from Simple Associations in an Insect Model" in Science Direct, published April 4, 2013.
I've always wondered if honey bees are watching me when I'm watching them. Now that I know they are, it's a bit creepy. But on the practical application side, farmers might put together videos that bees can watch in the privacy of their own hives. The bees could watch other bees out pollinating apple blossoms and ignoring dandelions, for example. This would get the little bugs excited and interested in getting out to the trees. Now that's really creepy.
Frost in Florida this morning? It's almost April. Beekeepers - queen breeders and citrus honey producers - must be upset. Cold weather at this time of year in Florida is as welcome as Love Bugs in May. The frosts were limited to a few pockets north and/or west of Orlando, so maybe damage was limited.
I remember some awful freezes when I lived in the Sunshiny State, way back in the '70s and 80s. It seemed to freeze hard every winter. Sometimes just as the citrus trees were budding out. That, of course, usually killed the crop. But the worst year (I think maybe 1981) it froze so hard in mid-February that the sap in the orange and grapefruit trees, which had started to rise a couple of weeks earlier, froze. As it did, there were explosions - it sounded like shot gun blasts, actually - as the trees were ripped apart from ice swelling their trunks. We could move our bees. Grove owners are not so lucky. The ice in this photo is from overhead irrigation that can sometimes keep the temperature a few degrees above freezing. In this case, the air was so cold that the ground water in the irrigating system couldn't fight the cold for long. This picture, by the way, is not from this year's freeze, but from quite a few years ago. The farmer was a close friend of the family. By the time I took this photo, he had moved away from scrubbing a living from a few acres of Florida melons, pole beans, and okra and had hit on the idea of making crafts from cypress stumps that were left behind in gator- and moccasin-infested swamps in his neighbourhood. Armed with a 30-inch chain saw (to cut the tree stumps, not the alligators) and rigid hip-boots, he waded into the swamps and pulled out the remains of the giant trees, dragged them to his truck, hoisted the water-logged stumps into his drying kiln, then created tables and pendulum clocks from them. Sounds like hard work (it was) but it was easier than farming. And it paid better.
Meanwhile, a few years later and almost two thousand miles to the north, it stayed above freezing last night in Calgary. Unlike Florida, though, we have no flowers blooming yet. Pollen usually doesn't start in this part of Canada until around April 15. Anyway, good luck to the farmers, grove owners, and beekeepers down in Florida's swamps this week.
Beers and Bees? Or is it Bees and Beers? I can never get my priorities in order. The Calgary and Area Beekeepers' Club had a beers and bees gathering at the Royal Canadian Legion on Kensington tonight. The event has been going on for a few years (not continuously, mind you), but somehow I could never get over to the hall for an evening of frivolity. Part of my excuse is that I have trouble walking, so I was concerned about access. Then a friend reminded me that the Legion building is a club house for old soldiers. Most of the members trouble walking. Of course it's accessible! There were darts and beers and a few old Canadian soldiers. Fewer by the day - our last World War I vet died in 2010 (he was 109) - but we still have a number of WWII men and women with us yet. Canada joined the Allies in the war in 1939 - the USA didn't fight until almost 1942, so Canada lost a lot more soldiers based on our population in that war. Canada also has vets from the Korean War. But not Vietnam - Canada wasn't in that fight, nor was it in Iraq. However we've had soldiers in Afghanistan. We also have a lot of peacekeeper vets. The Canadians invented the Blue Beret United Nations Peacekeepers, for which Prime Minister Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957. (The peacekeeping soldiers themselves later won a Nobel Peace Prize, in 1988.) Canada has a long tradition of wedging its men and women between warring factions and forcing cease fires. But I'm off-subject, aren't I?
Beers and Bees and more Beers was really well-attended. There were about 40 beekeepers and beekeeper-groupies gathered around the tables, slopping suds and slurring bee words. I met some newbies. It is surprising how many people are just getting started at getting stung. Close to where I was parked was a wild-eyed partly-shaved man who told me he has been stocking up on food, you know, just in case the world should come to an end, or the Commies take over, or something. He and his family would then be living in their basement, eating honey until they could venture out and repopulate the Earth. It was reassuring that after the rest of us are dead from whatever, there would be people of such interesting caliber to rebuild civilization. I was going to tell him that, but he left before we spoke much. probably just as well. The other folks at the get-together were more interesting. A fellow on the opposite side of the table had bought his first hive in December. His purchase was from a reputable beekeeper, so he was safe buying in the middle of winter. However, I wouldn't recommend that to anyone. He was lucky his bees safely relocated a hundred miles from their former home and are now settled in behind an inner-city house near a big park, not far from the Bow River. This newbie had watched hours of beekeeping videos and read a couple of books. He was devouring bee-knowledge like a typical fanatic newbie.
Also at this social were a large number of seasoned beekeepers. Some of the crusty old-timers had been keeping bees for dozens of years. So there was a lot of story-swapping and some good-natured distribution of bad information for the consternation of the newbies. At least, I overheard some bad information and the newbies would have been consternated, but they were too busy jotting notes on paper napkins. There was one person at the party who was a self-proclaimed non-beekeeper. Nevertheless, he was also seeking bee information, of a very interesting nature. He was trying to find out if having bees on private property might allow a person to claim an agricultural exemption for land-tax purposes. "That is an interesting question," I told him, and by that point in the evening I was too tired to make up any mis-information for him, so I said, "I really don't know," which is not far from the truth. When I kept bees in Florida, I was twice asked to place apiaries on land that was zoned industrial so the property owner could get a substantial break in property taxes. Suddenly, it was farmland. However, I was a migratory beekeeper and eligible hives had to be stationary, so I didn't participate. This is not a ruse. If idle land is heavily taxed because of its future potential value, it is fair to ask for reduced tax rates, based on what the land is actually used for at the moment. And bee spots are hard to find, so it helps the beekeeper, of course.
I had a Guiness. A buddy paid for it. I stole some onion rings from someone else. I chatted a while with a beekeeper who drove in from an hour out of town. He wintered six hives. He hasn't un-wintered them yet. (Springed them? What's the word? Beekeepers 'winter' hives; do we spring and summer them, too?) My friend thinks they made it through the past six months of cold and snow. On a warm afternoon this week, he tapped on the walls of each dwelling and was greeted by a friendly "Go Away!" - the tell-tale roar that the seasoned beekeeper loves hearing this time of year.
Have you ever had this problem? All your friends are growing nice elegant bee-beards, but yours just looks so limp and lame. The on-line newspaper, The Onion, visits a young man named Matthew Cruikshank, a 34-year-old Vermont resident who has exactly this problem! The Onion is featuring Mr Cruikshank on their lifestyle page of the March 25 issue. You can - and should - read the whole story: Man Has Trouble Growing Full Beard of Bees. Enjoy.
Today a beautiful new book arrived from British Columbia. A History of Beekeeping in British Columbia from 1950 to 2000, was written by the experienced BC beekeeper, book collector, and historian, Doug McCutcheon, and rendered into a fine finished format by a team at the BC Honey Producers Association, including the co-ordinator/editor, Diane Dunaway. Doug McCutcheon is a well-known, well-connected beekeeper, former chief apiary inspector, and is knowledgeable about all phases of beekeeping and all parts of BC.
This book is something of a continuation of an earlier and much slimmer book, A Hundred Years of BC Beekeeping, written by William Turnbull, in 1958. That previous volume covered 1858-1958. It was written in such a different era and different style. One of the first things I noticed was the new book includes a very brief summary of those first hundred years and it does great justice at redressing something that the older book included which really bothered me. It seems that from 1850 to 1950 only white males - of British ancestry - were worth writing favourably about. Particularly galling in the earlier book are derogatory references to Chinese-Canadians (in the 1950's book), calling those people "Chinese coolies" and "the Chinamen". The 60-year-old book also holds its nose at Wing Lee's pioneer 1920 apiary of 40 hives, suggesting the man's honey wasn't good enough until strained by the neighbouring (white) beekeepers. I am glad that the new release corrects that misguided tone in its text and also carries vintage photos of those Chinese honey producers and their apiaries - and pays appropriate respect to all the innovative early westcoast beekeepers. There are many other ways in which the new book - A History of Beekeeping in British Columbia - is much better than the older book. I'll briefly elaborate on some of the especially nice things I have noticed in my quick glance at Doug McCutcheon's book. In a couple of weeks, I'll review his work in more detail.
The new History of Beekeeping in B.C., which is just entering its final printing, has a well-considered layout. The book includes a good table of contents which describes the four main parts of the book and the several dozen sub-sections. It flows well. A 50-page historical story covering the years 1950 to 2000 moves along from decade to decade; this is followed by a 150-page geographic breakdown of beekeeping around the province. Legal matters (inspections and inspectors) and associations and their activities take up the remainder of this hefty book. Photos are abundant and the regions map is essential to help those of us from other parts of Canada find our way around British Columbia's diverse beekeeping areas.
The book is a welcome addition to the history of beekeeping. And it should be read by BC beekeepers - especially newbies - who will benefit greatly by knowing the people and struggles preceding them. But beekeepers from other parts of the country (and around the world) will learn much from a few pleasant weekends thumbing through this volume. The book will be available in a month, but you can pre-order through the association's website, if you follow this link. I'll have a little more to say about the book in a few weeks, after I finish devouring it.
How does one get 50 different bee-specialists to work together on a project? Sounds like herding cats, if you ask me. But that's what agricultural engineer Lucas Garibaldi of Argentina's National University of Río Negro is doing. The fifty researchers were involved in a study of wild pollinators vs managed colonies of bees, examining the effectiveness of their pollination of 41 different crops - from almonds, cherries, grapefruit, kiwis, to zucchini cousins. The work was conducted in 19 different countries around the world. The finding was that wild bugs (bumblebees, beetles, flies, butterflies, among others) often do a better job - setting a higher proportion of flowers forming seeds and fruits.
In a task that must have involved decent eyesight, strong concentration, and an affinity towards boredom, the scientists counted visits of honeybees and wilder critters, then compared the numbers with crop yield. They found that an increase in visits by wild bugs can double the amount of fruit that a similar increase in visits by managed honeybees will have yielded. In other words, if 500 bees visit an apple's flowering branch, then the honey bee count is increased to 700, maybe you get 6 more apples. If those extra 200 bugs are other non-honey bee pollinators, expect 12, not 6, extra apples. I'm not surprised. Different insects work under widely varying ranges of temperature, different times of day (and night) and different sorts of wind and sunlight conditions. Some flowers may be open at times that managed honeybees simply won't get out of bed.
Now what? We may have reached a point where huge acreages of monocultured fruits and vegetables will give way to smaller groves and fields. Ecologically and environmentally, it would make a healthier world, of course. Honeybees would still be rented for optimal pollination services, but surrounding meadows and mixed woodlands would be home to co-pollinators. And the woods and meadows would also give the managed honeybees a better (more diverse) diet, keeping them healthier, and ultimately improve the grower's pollination results even more. The paper's abstract further states: "...visitation by wild insects and honey bees promoted fruit set independently, so high abundance of managed honey bees supplemented, rather than substituted for, pollination by wild insects."
What the heck is Gene Expression? Researchers working at the University of Illinois are tricking honey bees in order to learn about something called Gene Expression. As if the poor bugs don't have enough to worry about, scientists are fooling the bees into thinking they have traveled farther through a tunnel leading to food if the tunnel's walls are painted with tightly spaced stripes. I can imagine the poor bee: "Almost there, almost there, almost there..." as the scientists madly squeeze the little stripes closer and closer together. Actually, it sounds like a fun experiment. Here is the real key part of the research - tricking honey bees into thinking they have flown a long distance (when they actually haven't) alters gene expression in their brains. You know that genes carry information from one generation to the next. That explains why both your neighbour and his son drag their knuckles on the ground when they walk among humans. But genes also provide information to your body on how to produce proteins and RNA. Those are important for determining how the body's cells react to stress and change, among other things. Recently, scientists have found bugs are good models to study gene expression. One example, from research at Purdue, gene expression in termites is being studied to see how the insects digest wood. They investigated over 10,000 gene sequences in a study that might lead to using wood as a bio-fuel (in a different way than throwing another log on the fire, I suppose).
Bees and Genes. Last year, researchers showed how changing jobs within the hive results in a genetic change in each individual bee - all the way down to the DNA level. A paper by B.R. Herb in Nature Neuroscience showed how bee behaviour effects the chemicals hanging around DNA and changes their activity. The research team particularly found gene expression modified when foraging bees were forced to work as nurse bees. So did a similar joint study by Tempe's Arizona State University Gro Amdam and John Hopkins University's Andrew Feinberg. Gene Robinson, the scientist who did the bee-tunnel research (which is a different attack on understanding gene expression) points out that in the case of foragers doing nurse bee duties, we can't be sure of the causal link - the research does not necessarily prove that epigenetic mechanisms cause behavioural differences.
The experiment and what it means for you and your twin sister in Kansas: Since honey bees do their famous waggle-tail figure-eight communication dance at the end of a foraging trip, the researchers made a tunnel lengthy enough that the stripes confused the foraging bee about her distance of travel. After reaching a pot of gold, or probably honey, at the other end of the tunnel, the forager raced back to the hive where she did her dance to tell other bees where to go - and crucially, how far to fly. Some lucky grad student probably got the job of watching the bee dance and making scientific notes about it. Then, I suppose, a delicate lobotomy had to be performed to see what genes were modified, or 'expressed' and how that compared with control-group bees. This study was led by entomology professor Gene Robinson, and paid for in part by the National Science Foundation. The ultimate result is to help us understand a huge range of behavioural traits related to changes in the way genes synthesis proteins and other chemicals that effect biology. The long-term result could be a better understanding of addiction and behaviour disorders in humans. And an explanation of why identical twins may be so different in personality, even when genes are identical at birth.
Almonds need bees. And beekeepers need almonds - to pay their bills. In California - which produces about 80 percent of the world's almonds - hundreds of thousands of acres stretch from Red Bluff to Bakersfield. Each acre ideally has 124 trees, spaced 16 by 22 feet. The Almond Board of California estimates the grower spends close to $4,000 per acre per year to grow those nutty trees. In the past, the typical pollination fee was $280/year to set the seed on one acre. It will be more this year. This is arguably the most important cash outlay the grower pays. With enough good pollinating honey bees, the harvest goes from perhaps less than a 1,000 pounds per acre to as much as 2,600 pounds per acre. With wholesale prices bouncing around $1 - $2 per pound, the gross revenue can be as low as $2,000 in a year when prices are down and bees are lazy, all the way up to $5,200 per acre when the bees, weather, and prices all hit by California's karma. Growers need strong hives with oodles of stamen-shaking pistil-poppers available. Or, they go broke.
According to several news stories, there will be a shortage of managed beehives available for almond pollination chores this spring. With 760,000 acres of almonds, roughly two million colonies of bees need to show up for the bloated blossom fest. California has half a million. 1.5 million hives will arrive from other states - from Maine to Florida and Dakota to Dakota. Actually, from almost every state in the States. The big draw for all those bee hives which will be chained to diesel-belching flatbeds is, of course, money. Beekeepers are paid for taking care of those hives, keeping them strong and healthy against all manner of environmental threat. Hives will rent for about $200/hive this year - an all-time high - because of the bee shortage. Eric Mussen, UCLA Davis, says the reason for the higher price is a paucity of bugs this year. "Bees across the country are not in as good shape as last year," Dr Mussen told ABC News. He says bees are under stress, hives are consequently weaker, colony count is down. Among the stresses have been droughts in the Mid-West and the conversion of land from nectar-producing alfalfa and clover into ethanol-producing corn fields (corn doesn't give nectar to feed bees).
Almonds have been around forever - so why the problems now? It's true. Egypt's pharaohs, and China's Q'ins and Hans knew about almonds. We are told that when the Biblical Aaron's stick was stuck in the muck, almonds bloomed in Israel. From there, the Romans spread the nuts throughout their empire, so that eventually southern Europe, north Africa, and the Near East all had almond groves. By the time Vincent Van Gogh painted the theme picture on this web page for us that you see above (1889, in southern France), Franciscan priests had already brought the first almond trees to California. In all those places, almonds somehow managed to attract enough pollinators to keep their gene pool from dwindling. There were enough bees - usually feral bees - and tree densities were perhaps a handful per acre, not hundred. In such cases, bees don't need trucked thousands of miles. Part of our problem today is the sheer density of monocultured crops.
About thirty years ago, when almond groves first began to spread like California art studios, growers started to invite thousands of hives into the Great Central Valley, recognizing that bees doubled their nutty yields. Beekeepers were paid a modest fee. Now that fewer young people can be convinced to keep bees, and now that we've done such a dandy job on our climate and environment, the resulting bee scarcity has jacked up rental fees. As we saw with the numbers, above, growers sometimes have a little wiggle room to pay more. But not much. The California Nut Board says the average profit has been around $400/acre, but that's without paying for the land and property taxes and interest - and now, the increased pollination fees. At any rate, surviving beekeepers will do OK this year. Hope the same can be said for the growers.
Lining up the Hives. The University of Essex (England) Mathematics Department has teamed up with a software designer to create an app that may help beekeepers and orchard owners maximize pollination in orchards. The venture, code named "Project Beeswax" even caught the attention of the TED Talks group of brainiacs. The mathematician behind the project, Dr Abdel Salhi, is testing the feasibility of mathematical optimization theory to estimate the minimum number and the best distribution of beehives in an orchard to achieve effective pollination of apple trees.
Researchers have been out at a local orchard to investigate configuration ideas that may help with developing their mathematical models. The first phase of this study will be completed near the end of March 2013. Chief mathemagician, Dr Salhi, said “I was excited to undertake this project because it seems an ideal area to deploy mathematical methods of optimisation. The underlying problem is potentially very tricky to solve. However, good approximate solutions will be very rewarding indeed. It is also a good opportunity to work with the local farming community.”
Money (about $7700) was granted by the Technology Strategy Board to help Andrew Lewis of Simul Systems Ltd. develop the app (an app is a small software application) for tablets, desktops and laptops. If successful, it will reduce the number of hives orchard growers must rent from beekeepers. Wouldn't it be nice if beekeepers could be paid to haul in just 8 hives to a 4-acre grove, instead of 16? A lot less handling of hives, fewer stings, and less annoying money to deal with.