Bees Kill Endangered Penguins

Endangered African penguin. (Source: Wiki)

Well, this isn’t a nice story. Apparently 63 endangered African penguins were stung to death by honey bees last week. My first thought, of course, was that the culprit was one of the more vicious African honey bees – Apis mellifera scutellata or adansonii, the cousins of America’s Africanized honey bees. But the penguins lived along the south cape of Africa and they seem to have bee attacked by a disturbed a nest of Cape honey bees, a honey bee not generally known for such cruelty.

The Cape bee, Apis mellifera capensis, is an unusual race of honey bees. It is particularly known for its ability to produce workers capable of producing female offspring. (Other honey bees have ‘laying workers’ that can only produce drones.) The Cape bee has been naturally restricted to the Cape region of South Africa. But agricultural pollination led to commercial migratory beekeeping in South Africa. This resulted in some relocation of capensis outside their normal range. Unfortunately, capensis is a social parasite – they can occupy other races’ nests and quickly replace them. Consequently, the government has divided scutellata beekeepers from capensis beekeepers with a strictly enforced demarcation line.

A second fun fact about the Cape bee lies in its centuries-old cultural connection to the area’s indigenous people. The Xhosa have a tradition of welcoming wayward swarms of Cape bees by making a tank of beer and celebrating the bees’ arrival with a few rounds. (I know Calgary swarm-collectors who have a similar tradition here in my hometown.)

According to the New York Times, the Cape bees may have attacked the Cape penguins when their nest was disturbed:

All the penguins had multiple bee stings, and “many dead bees were found at the site where the birds had died,” according to a statement from the South African National Parks. “Therefore preliminary investigations suggest that the penguins died because of being stung by a swarm of Cape honey bees.”

No external physical injuries were observed on any of the dead penguins, the statement said.The penguins migrate to the area annually. The bees found near the dead birds are native to the area, “usually coexist with wildlife” and “don’t sting unless provoked,” according to Dr. Alison Kock, a marine biologist at the South African National Parks.

The penguins had been stung around the eyes and on their flippers, areas not covered by feathers, Dr. Kock said.

“The feathers over the penguin’s body are densely packed and it’s unlikely the bees stings could have penetrated through these feathers,” Dr. Kock said in an email. “On the other hand, the skin around the eyes and flippers have no feathers and the stings could penetrate in those regions.”

Tests are underway to determine if a toxin or a disease was a factor in the penguins’ deaths, park officials said. So far, officials believe the bees’ nest was disturbed, causing “a mass of bees to flee the nest, swarm and they became defensive and aggressive,” Dr. Kock said. “Unfortunately the bees encountered a group of penguins on their flight path.”

The Cape Penguin is endangered, so the loss of sixty birds because of bee stings is serious. However, those deaths pale in comparison to what we humans have been able to accomplish. Oil spills in 1994 and 2000 killed 30,000 of the birds. Overfishing has reduced the birds’ food supply, resulting in starvation and less reproductive success. But for now, the stinging bees and sixty dead penguins are making headlines around the world.

Posted in Ecology, Killer Bees, Stings, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Free International Symposium

Global Trends in Beekeeping. This two-day symposium is being held in Moscow. Registration is free, but if you are in the western hemisphere, be prepared for a couple of very early mornings. (The Congress begins at 10am, Moscow; 3am in New York.) I think the low, low registration price is partly because this event is intended to persuade us to attend the next Apimondia, September 2022, also in Russia.

This year’s symposium, Global Trends in Beekeeping, features presentations in apitherapy, disease management, economics, general beekeeping issues, and overviews of beekeeping in Russia and the Apimondia 2022 host region of Bashkortostan. If you’re not an early riser, register anyway as talks will be filmed shown later online during the Congress.

Posted in Apitherapy, Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Waxing in the and Waning Days of Summer

Our summer is drawing to a close. After record-breaking heat, we’re now getting seasonal temperatures (though no frost yet, which is unusual). Fortunately, we are having some much-needed rain. In the heat of summer, I set up our solar wax melter. Now it’s time to put it in the garage.

In all my decades of beekeeping, I never owned a solar wax melter. (Actually, one of my brothers built one for my honey farm a few years, but the design wasn’t quite right – it was too big, too deep, and not easily turned to catch the sun.) Two years ago, I bought a small one, designed for hobby beekeeping. It is light-weight, easily rotates into the right position, and produces beautiful sun-drenched yellow wax.

This melter, built by Uncle Lee’s Bees in Calgary, is almost perfect. It quickly builds a high temperature. It is easy to load and clean. I find it hard to believe that it was designed, produced, and sold for just a few hundred dollars. (You can buy one from Worker and Hive in Calgary.) On the other hand, it would take a hobby beekeeper a few years of wax sales to earn the $335CAN ($260US) that it cost. But that’s not the point. Producing nice-quality wax and doing it cleanly, efficiently, using the sun’s energy – and not on the kitchen stove! – is the real point. We found that this melter took the pressure off the kitchen, kept bowls and cutlery from being destroyed, and saved on our electric bill.

If you don’t have one of these remarkable gadgets, consider getting one. There are a lot of designs available. We like ours, especially since it works so well and was manufactured in our own city. If you don’t have your own solar-wax-melter factory nearby, here’s the link to buy one made in Calgary.

To keep debris out of the wax, we use a disposable dish cloth (a roll of 50 will cost less than $10) – disposable, but also reusable (we run three or four cycles on each, depending on how much junk is in the wax being melted). Here in Calgary, the melter only works on bright sunny days, though melting begins at ambient temperatures as low as 15C (60F). We usually revolve the box three times (or whenever we think about it) to catch the most direct sunshine. We don’t use any water in the plastic tray that catches the wax drippings. If the wax is from fresh cappings, there will be quite a bit of honey in it, which will be dark but not burnt-flavoured. I save it for my tea.

Some photos of our deck’s summertime conversation piece:

If you sell your wax at craft-store prices (and you should), you might get $20/pound and actually pay for the melter within your lifetime. Amazon has some good-quality beeswax at $160/pound ($10/ounce). At that rate, the melter pays for itself in a couple of sunny days.

Or, you might simply make some duck candles and charge a couple hundred dollars for each.

Posted in Beekeeping, Hive Products, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Blue and Green in the Flower Patch

Good scientists do their best to remove bias from their observations and experiments. Statistical methods such as blocking, double-blind trials, use of appropriate controls, and randomization are among their key tools. Results are suspect when hypotheses are designed after data are collected, when confirmation bias, cultural bias, and other errors of judgment creep into experimentation, analysis, and interpretation.

But what type of bias is indicated when scientists study more blue flowers than green? Tall ones rather than short? How does unconscious bias – predilections for favourites – affect our ecological examinations? As Martino et al. state in their May 2021 Nature communication, “Plant scientists’ research attention is skewed towards colourful, conspicuous and broadly distributed flowers”. Charismatic organisms get our attention.

The researchers performed a deep dive into literature associated with studies of plants in the southwestern Alps, determining which species were most researched by scientists exploring the plants in this biodiverse area. They looked at a few hundred published papers and demonstrated that

morphological and colour traits, as well as range size, have significantly more impact on species choice for wild flowering plants than traits related to ecology and rarity.

Specifically, the Martino team found disproportionate research was conducted on pretty flowers.

This analysis indicated how the choice of investigated species across the literature in the last 45 years has been strongly influenced by plant traits related to aesthetics.

Aesthetics. Prettiness. It’s sad that this equates to greater scientific curiosity. But it does.

The researchers found a significant relationship between the number of published papers and flower colour. Blue flowers were the most studied. White and red/pink were much more studied than ugly-duckling brown or green flowers.

. . . traits such as bright colours, accessible inflorescences and conspicuousness are shown to drive research attention, highlight what we call an aesthetic bias in plant research. While aesthetics is today used to refer to art and beauty (often in direct opposition to scientific values like objectivity), the Greek root of the word refers to sensory perception. . .
Here it is interesting to note that humans have evolved trichromacy, that is the separate perception of wavelength ranges corresponding to blue, red and green regions through specialized structures. It has been speculated that the evolutionary acquisition of colour vision in humans and other primates led to an increased ability to locate ripe fruits against a green background. The human eye is thus optimized to perceive green, red and blue which, according to colour psychology theory, also greatly impacts people’s affection, cognition and behaviour. The evolved and physiological aspect of human perception is also demonstrably affected by sociocultural factors, since education, class, gender, age, cultural background all shape how we perceive the world. . . What matters is that this bias affects the representativity of data used to ground research priorities and conservation policies and, as such, risks compromising efforts to effectively focus plant conservation activities and preserve plant biodiversity.

There was also a significant positive effect of plant stem height and a weak negative effect of flower size on research interest – taller plants have more easily accessible inflorescences. (Who wants to crawl on hands and knees to examine ugly flowers?) Finally, the scientists found that there is a positive effect of range size on research interest. This might mean that a broad range makes a species available to more researchers, increasing the likely that it would be studied. But broadly distributed plants are less prone to extinction. For many ecosystems, uncharismatic species with a constricted range might manifest an unexplored, out-sized environmental niche effect of great importance. But we won’t know if we avoid studying ugly organisms.

All of this should be very concerning for anyone interested in understanding ecological systems as completely as possible – without ugly data missing. The authors suggest that “when plant scientists select to study a specific wild plant among the pool of species available in a given study region, it may be that factors unrelated to the biological question end up influencing species choice and introducing biases in the research outcome.” I doubt that many of us recognize how this unintended bias could skew our understanding of an ecological system or landscape.

But I’ll conclude with this contradictory message. If we realize that our research has a bias, and we focus on ways to mitigate it, then maybe it’s not so bad to disproportionately investigate the charismatic. Most of us don’t explore nature in a social vacuum. We are attracted to pretty things. We need funding. We want public appreciation for our conclusions. It’s easier to get money and attention for a project studying the handsome and beguiling than the homely and beleaguered.

Few creatures are as charismatic as bumble bees – except, perhaps honey bees. To me. They have my attention. So, I study them, day and night. But I’ll try to be more aware of the hundreds of other (less charismatic) animals with whom they share their patch of earth.

Posted in Ecology, Science | Tagged , | 2 Comments

September Bears

Some of the damage was already repaired when this picture was taken. (Credit: Charlotte Funke)

Our part of the world (Calgary, Alberta, Canada) has been home to black bears and grizzlies for about ten-thousand years. In recent days, they’ve mostly resided in the zoo and probably as household pets in a few basements – though I hope not. When bears wander into town from the Rocky Mountain foothills, they are quickly trapped and moved away. Rather than joining Timmy’s dog on a canine retirement farm in upstate New York, they tend to find themselves released somewhere along the eastern slopes.

People who live in our nearby foothills, or higher up along the slopes, are in bear country. Bears might wonder into a bee yard anytime from perhaps March to November, depending in the weather. One July, we had a grizzly dig under a fence at one of our higher-elevation yards, while another year, a gigantic early-August black bear was chased out of one of our locations by my brother, who yelled and chased the bear. My brother said that he made a big mistake. Don was armed with only a hivetool and ended up quite a distance from the truck when the bear stopped, turned towards him, and rose up on its back legs, over a head taller than my 6-foot-tall brother. As Don tells it, the bear looked at him from just a dozen metres away, then slowly dropped back onto all fours and ambled away – without eating my brother. Lucky Don.

I just received some notes and images from a beekeeper who lives half an hour west of Calgary. Charlotte Funke has a tidy bit of land with Bed and Breakfast lodgings in Bragg Creek, Alberta. She keeps several beehives near her house. All the pictures (and the video) on this web page are from her and her security cameras. One young black bear did all the damage you see here, all in one night. Although there is a well-constructed fence, she tells me that the gate to the fence was misaligned when it was latched this weekend. The hot line was grounded, and the bear entered the bee yard. You can see, in the next picture, that the fence, if properly-powered, should withstand most bear visits. (The arrow shows how the gate wasn’t hooked up correctly. It was accidentally hooked to the ground wire because the cotter pin on the last live wire had fallen off.)

It’s shocking how quickly a single bear can destroy an apiary. (A married couple is twice as bad.) I’ve seen big bears lift and carry away a hive, dropping it several metres away, probably thinking it had to take its food to the dining area. The bear featured on this page sat in place, eating. This awakened the human family whose approach scared the bear into a tree. It stayed there for an hour while they cleaned up the mess. You can see some of the damaged equipment. Bears eat wood, wax, and wires to get at the brood.

Finally, a video taken by security cameras. It was dark, the bear was at a distance, but you can see the bear, ‘hiding’ behind the tree before climbing up the first night, when the damage was done. The bear came back the following night, but by then the fence had been fixed and kept the bear out. A large, hungry bear might still bust through an electrified fence, anxious to fill its belly and add body fat, as bears must do in the autumn. Hopefully, this young one has had enough trouble and will look for easier pickings elsewhere.

Sound up. I was whispering in this voice-over . . .

Posted in Bee Yards, Beekeeping, Diseases and Pests | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Not the only bees in town

Hunt’s Bumble Bee (Bombus huntii), Calgary. (Miksha)

Although my life has centred on honey bees, I realize that they are not the only bee species in town. Here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, we have about 200 species of bees – from giant bumble bees to rather petite sweat bees. Most have specific roles in our city’s ecology, pollinating wildflowers that few other insects visit.

Our local wild bees include over a dozen species of bumble bees. Through my research (investigating how honey bees and native bees interact), I learned to appreciate bumble bees for a lot of reasons, including their precarious lifecycle – a mated queen hibernates alone for seven or eight wintery months, emerges to find a home in the spring, lays a few dozen eggs (caring for the first batch by herself), then lays the eggs that become drones as well as next year’s queens before she dies in late summer). Anywhere along the way, the chain might be broken, the bee nest doomed.

Bumble bees aren’t tidy housekeepers. (Miksha)

Although the bumble bee lifecycle is insecure, we delight in seeing the husky bees affably buzzing among the flowers. Bumble bees look so clean and tidy that we are surprised by their unkempt nests with bits of leaf, seed, dead bees, and haphazardly strewn nectar and brood cell cups. (Bumble bees are messy housekeepers!)

Working with bumble bees, we also discover that they almost never sting while working away from their hive. However, they are indignant and persistent defenders when their homes are disturbed. I’ve been stung by bumble bees dozens of times while digging into nests during my research. They mostly strike eyes and lips, sting multiple times without losing stingers, and don’t respond to smoke. I find that their stings, while persistently striking an offender, have only about half the pain impact of honey bee stings, and a quarter that of wasps. Your own experience may vary.

A University of Calgary student, Tobyn Neame and their supervisor, Dr. Mindi Summers, have produced an excellent field guide of the various species of bumble bees in Calgary. Along with my suggestions and some data, the artwork of Sarah Ritchie and Tobyn Neame, and the contributions of taxonomist Lincoln Best (who can identify the species and sex of any local pollinator flying on its way to a meadow), the team produced a valuable book about bumble bees.

Reduced-size sample page from the bumble bee field guide by Tobyn Neame, Sarah Ritchie, and Mindi Summers

Even if you are not in the Calgary area, you will be enchanted by this field book’s information and artistry. The easy-to-use guide details locating, photographing, and identifying bumble bees. Many of these Calgary bumble bees also reside across the North American west, the prairies, and mountainous areas – so the guide’s utility stretches beyond our city. If your own environment does not include any of the species highlighted here, you may consider creating a similar book for your own community: Tobyn Neame’s work will inspire your effort.

Download your own free copy of this brilliant field guide here.

Posted in Books, Ecology, Friends, Native Bees, Outreach | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

The Story of my Life (in less than two hours)

I had a wonderful interview with Sylvia and Luca from Vitamina Bee, an Italian videography/website. We touched on everything from veganism to bee-on-bee competition, the history of beekeeping, my Master’s research, and my early life on a farm with nine siblings.

You’ll know more about me than you need to know, but it was quite interesting to contrast European beekeeping (in Italy) with my North American misadventures. Enjoy!

Posted in Beekeeping, Books, Commercial Beekeeping, Ecology, History, Personal | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Free Beekeeping Information!

A couple of evenings ago, I Zoomed into a Western Apicultural Society mini-conference. This is a new monthly affair for the 43-year-old educational organization. The mini-conference is one of the few positive results of the dreadful Covid lockdown. Virtual conferences such as this have sprung up among civic groups, and I’m grateful to the Western Apicultural Society (WAS) president and leader, Jerry Bromenshenk of the University of Montana, for his tireless dedication to WAS. Jerry and a small group within WAS organize these well-attended monthly conferences. You can still watch any that you missed – WAS has archived a dozen conference videos on YouTube.

July’s WAS mini-conference, “Beekeeper Education and Communication: Meet the Editors“, featured Eugene Makovec (American Bee Journal), Jerry Hayes (Bee Culture), podcasters Kim Flottum and Jeff Ott, as well as special panelists Malcolm Sanford (APIS Newsletter) and Medhat Nasr. A cross-section cast of bee communicators.

Panelists at the WAS mini-conference, July 2021

The mini-conference panelist musings will be posted next week on the WAS Video page. Meanwhile, I’ll write a bit about why I tuned in. Although my question was not directly addressed, I was keenly curious about the financial well-being and long-term prospects of printed bee media. With free beekeeping information available on podcasts, blogs, and free papers, will our favourite beekeeping magazines be around forever? (American Bee Journal is already 160 years old!) Of course, my question was intended to get the editors talking about the future and how they might adapt. But, as I said, my submitted question wasn’t tackled.

I did, however, glean a bit (albeit indirectly) from the conversation. The bee publishing industry is apparently healthy. Subscription numbers are similar to levels I remember seeing many years ago. I suspect that people are continuing to purchase magazines for two principle reasons: 1) Trust; and 2) Contact.

We trust a bee magazine where expert experienced beekeepers are the editors. They are gatekeepers who reject unsound articles (or relegate them to the ‘letters to the editor’ pages). Unfortunately, there are no sentries stationed atop YouTube channels or blogposts. Without a second opinion, a monitor, a referee, or informed judge, anyone can write anything for anyone on the internet. I know because I get a lot of notes from new beekeepers who have been persuaded by some really peculiar advice and then refuse to take the truth for an answer. Nevertheless, there is some good information on the web. But it’s not curated information – it is up to you to curate the authors. That can be a lot of work. Sometimes you think that you’ve found a good source but it turns out to be a dog that’s doing the typing.

Purchasing a subscription to a magazine gives a special contact, or connection, to a bee communicator. You don’t always get the same feeling from a keyboard and monitor. Paying for a magazine is a bit like joining a club. Your money helps pay the editor’s salary and the fee given to authors. You are not just a guest, but a co-owner. (Admittedly, my own blog’s viewers number in the tens of thousands each month and many have become ‘net friends and regular commentators.)

The other form of contact is purely tactile. One of the editors during the WAS discussion mentioned that he likes holding a magazine. Probably most people do, though I prefer reading from screens. However, I still get great pleasure from hoarding printed books and magazines. Nevertheless, I figured that most people are moving towards digital, but one panelist on the WAS program indicated that only 600 or so buy digital – that would be well less than 10% of the subscribers. I was quite surprised at the low number.

My conclusion is that bee magazine publishing is a healthy industry and may be around for a long time. Beekeepers’ habits are slow to change and we tend to be loyal customers. We will keep buying bee journals. In fact, the advent of the current windfall of free beekeeping information – with its biased foibles and irregular quality – may actually convince many people that a small investment in a magazine subscription is the safest way to stay up-to-date.

Posted in Beekeeping, Outreach | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Day of Days

Today is a special day. It’s Nikola Tesla Day. But, it’s also the anniversary the first day of the “Scopes Monkey Trial”, which started on a sultry Tennessee morn, almost 100 years ago. And it’s Don’t Step on a Bee Day – let’s see if we can keep that up all week!

Also, on this brilliant July Tesla-Scopes-Don’t-Step-on-a-Bee Day, I am breaking my long self-imposed blogging hiatus. I’m doing that with an important public-service announcement.

Many of you know that I have a motor neuron disorder (similar to ALS). For me, typing, guitaring, walking, and singing Verdi’s La Traviata have become increasingly difficult. You’d think that would be enough of a challenge, but in late May, I decided to have a heart attack. For extra drama, I scheduled it on my wife’s birthday, following a lovely meal of our favourite East Indian take out. (Restaurants were still Covid-closed at the time, so we ate at home with the kids.)

Here’s my PSA. If you’ve just had a delicious dinner with family and you start to have serious heart burn, maybe it’s something else. After our dinner, I felt awfully unwell – dizzy and weak with uncomfortable chest pains. The birthday girl suggested that we visit the hospital, but I wasn’t interested in going anywhere. I was sure I had overeaten, and in half an hour, I was feeling better and shuffled off to bed. However, I had barely touched the pillow when I had a painful jolt to the chest, neck, and arms. No one in my large family had ever had a heart attack, so I quickly ruled that out. However, I was feeling quite badly and agreed to go to the hospital. Within half an hour, I was wired up and blood tests were happening. Then I had the third heart attack of the evening. It was very serious. A few hours later, doctors placed a stent in a primary artery entering my heart – it was almost completely clogged with bacon grease.

So, my PSA-warning to everyone reading this. Even if you and your ancestors have no history of heart issues, even if you are not overweight, even if your last cholesterol blood work was fine, you need to know the signs of a heart attack and be prepared to expect the unexpected. Some of the signs which I ignored were long-term fatigue and swollen feet. That had been going on for months. The immediate signs which took me to the hospital were severe pain in my chest and arms. Don’t be a Ron. Take these signs as deadly serious warnings.

I am still recovering and have reduced my work, but I hope to get back to blogging about bees regularly again. Today is a start. Meanwhile, pay attention to your body – and don’t step on a bee, either.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Personal | Tagged | 12 Comments

Honey bee song from the honey bee country

The link to this video came to me from Gorazd Pavčnik, who lives in the land where two of my grandparents were born. These Slovenian singers have incredible harmony. Singing and beekeeping are national pastimes in Slovenia – here they combine sweetly. Hope you enjoy the sound (and the scenes of beekeeping in the little Alpine country). Volume up!

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof | Tagged , , | 6 Comments