Support a Book

Mathijs and his dog, Azima

I’ve received a fascinating message from a relatively new beekeeper. The note was from a young man who is crowdsourcing funds to help pay for the translation and printing of an unusual beekeeping book.

Mathijs Herremans is a young Dutch beekeeper with nine colonies. Beekeeping has been a great experience for him. He tells us that his enthusiasm for bees has opened doors which his autism had kept closed in the past. It is often difficult for people with autism to participate in social activities, but Mathijs finds that he can talk about bees with strangers at honey markets and he enjoys interacting with the older beekeepers at his bee club.

The book which Mathijs is writing is based on a series of interviews with beekeepers in other parts of the world. He has met with beekeepers in the Netherlands and Spain and plans to go to Sicily in April. He has corresponded with beekeepers in other areas (including Cuba, Poland, Madagascar, Chile, Australia, and Pitcairn Island!). His contacts include commercial and organic as well as tree and skep beekeepers. He tells me, “I used to think there was only one way to keep bees, now I know there are so many!”

European dark bees: Apis mellifera mellifera
(photo by Miksha)

Mathijs does a lot of volunteer work for the beekeepers in his Association and is learning from the more experienced beekeepers. He is very ambitious this year – in addition to writing his book, he plans to learn queen breeding. Last year, he started keeping European dark honey bees found on Texel, a Dutch island.

Texel is a small, isolated, tourist destination with a few colonies of bees native to the island. Harsh varroa treatments of bees are avoided. Most beekeepers there rely on a system they call “Dreigangenmenu”, which sort of means three-course meal. This includes interrupted brood management, drone removal, and some soft organic-based chemicals. Mathijs tells us that the native dark bees have apparently built up some varroa resistance. Annual mortality rate is less than nine percent.  Mathijs (among others, of course) is considering ways that other isolated Dutch islands might be used to breed native European varroa-resistant bees.

Here is a link to his crowdfunding page. Mathijs would like to reach €5000. Any amount will get him closer to his goal. The book will be printed in Dutch, then if funds allow, he’ll follow with an English translation. Today, using my pseudo-anonymous Dutch pen name (“Gast“) I donated €10 to the project. I hope that you can spare a few dollars, too. The fundraiser page is in Dutch – don’t let that scare you. Donations speak the international language of the Visa card.

Posted in Beekeeping, Books, Outreach | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Crazy Russian Hacker lost all his bees!

My son is a fan of a YouTube sensation who calls himself the “Crazy Russian Hacker.” Taras Kulakov came to America from the Ukraine as a child refugee. He’s 30 now. A few years ago, he began making fun videos about things that interest him. Stuff like the taste of military rations, how chainsaw guards work, dry-ice lollipops, exploding giant gummi bears (filmed in slo-mo) – all the while narrating in a thick Russian accent. (His favourite expression, “BOOM!”). Sounds delightful. The young man has a staggering 10 million followers and his videos have amassed over two billion views. That’s right: TWO BILLION VIEWS!!

Last year, Taras got interested in bees. He makes a heck of a lot of mistakes (“BOOM!”), but his love for his bees and his incredible enthusiasm are endearing. Well, this winter, the Crazy Russian Hacker discovered that six of his seven hives – which were strong and healthy in September – are now dead. (“BOOM!”). Taras, a North Carolina beekeeper, suspects moisture killed his bees. But I don’t think so.  Please watch his short video before continuing to read my blog post.

I decided to write to the crazy Russian.  Here’s the letter I’ve sent.  Feel free to add your own comments below. Taras and I will appreciate your thoughts.

Hello Taras,

My 15-year-old son, Daniel, is a huge fan of your work. He asked me to write to you about your beekeeping disaster. I have been a beekeeper for 50 years – as a commercial operator and also as a teacher, leader or workshops, author of beekeeping books and journal articles. I am also associated with the local university’s ecology department.

First, allow me to express my admiration for your enthusiasm and your attitude towards the world around you and also my condolences for the loss of your bees. Here’s what I think happened.

I think that your bees have died from varroa mites and the viruses which mites carry. You had strong populations which dropped suddenly. They used to call this colony collapse disorder. Not exactly what occurred in your hives, but similar. This is a varroa-associated syndrome.

I noticed (in an earlier video) that you used Api Life Var, which is an organic treatment for “the suppression of mites”. I appreciate your intent to use an organic method, but the ingredients – thymol, eucalyptus oil, menthol and camphor – are only partly able to reduce mites. This is especially true if the bees have sealed brood (your hives had a lot of sealed brood) because the chemicals don’t reach the mites inside the sealed brood where mites hide and reproduce. Under ideal conditions, Api Life Var may sometimes kill 95% of the mites, but you must have no brood in the hives. It’s less effective in a long-season climate like yours and especially ineffective when there is lots of brood in the hives. You might need four or five consecutive treatments which include some broodless periods.  I think you may have had only about 50% mite kill. Two months after you treated with Api Life Var, the varroa population exploded and (BOOM!) you now have dead hives.

You are correct that moisture is a leading cause of winter loss, but with moisture, the bees would have been moldy inside their cells and stuck between the frames, not lying on the bottom boards. They would be mushy-wet and covered with mold. The frames would not be as clean as yours are in your video and there would have been five times as many dead bees as you saw.

I don’t like doing an autopsy without first-hand observations, but your video shows good detail. I think mites weakened the hives (this can happen in a matter of days, once the tipping point is reached), most of the bees flew out and died, the remainder did not have a sufficient population to survive, they succumbed to the cold and the blood-sucking mites – and (BOOM!) they dropped to the bottom of the hive.

After falling dead, their bodies were later soaked by the dripping jars. A strong colony keeps their box and syrup warm. But inside a dead hive, the fluctuations in warm and cold weather causes the syrup to leak. With a strong colony, any minor leaking syrup is immediately consumed.

Most beekeepers would not feed their bees constantly through the winter for two reasons. As you correctly point out, it adds moisture to the hive and damp hives are hard on the bees. Secondly, syrup stimulates the queen’s egg-laying. It is better that the colony have a non-egg period when the weather is the coldest, then you should start feeding them right away in early spring (probably February in your area).

Again, thank you for your work and for raising awareness about beekeeping. Your videos are fun to watch and instructive.

Best wishes,

Ron Miksha

Posted in Beekeeping, Diseases and Pests, Movies, Outreach, People, Save the Bees, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Why your honey gets hard

High-glucose honey – nicely granulated.

One thing that puzzles a lot of new (and used) beekeepers is the way that some honey granulates while other honey doesn’t.  There are a number of things that affect crystallization rate, including ‘seed’ floating in the honey (dust, previous granulation bits, bees’ knees), temperature (granulation happens more quickly at about 10C/50F), moisture (drier honey solidifies faster), and floral type.  Floral type may be the most important, so let’s look at that.

As you all know, nectar collected from different flowers has different chemistry – aromas, flavours, minerals, acids, water content, sugar types. If we focus on granulation, the important element is sugar type.  When plants create sugar, the sugar begins as sucrose – like common table sugar. Sucrose is a disacchride which enzymes can break into two monosacchrides – glucose and fructose. Bees add most of the enzymes, though some of the activity begins back at the flower. Glucose and fructose, the products of enzymes acting on sucrose,  are both sugars, but they are quite different.

Fructose is about twice as sweet as glucose. Honey high in fructose (tupelo, black locust, sage) is much sweeter than honey lower in fructose (honey dew, dandelion, buckwheat). When I say ‘high’ in fructose, I mean honey with about 40% fructose while lower fructose honey is around 30%. The rest of the honey is made of water, glucose, some sucrose, and other sugars. Here’s a chart I made of average compositions of 490 samples of USA honey:

 You can see that honey varies a lot. These numbers come from 490 samples, collected and chemically analyzed by the USDA. They represent about a hundred different floral types or blends of floral types. Looking at glucose content of honey, we see it can be as low as 22% in some samples and as high as 41% in others.

The amount of glucose is the most important factor in determining whether honey will granulate. Varieties such as dandelion, canola, and cotton are over 35% glucose. These honeys don’t last long in the liquid state.

You may be wondering why different honeys have different amounts of glucose (or fructose or other components). In a future post, I’ll give an explanation, but for now, keep in mind that the same variety (say, canola) will have approximately the same fructose/glucose ratio whether it’s produced in Poland or Canada or on sandy soil or deep loam. I think that’s pretty cool – plant biology determines sugar ratios.

When it comes to granulation, the most important factor is the floral type and its percentage of glucose. You usually can’t do much about that, unless you purposely move hives to avoid some flowers. One of the things that you have a little control over is moisture. Although it’s always a good idea to harvest fully-ripened honey with less than 18.6% moisture, drier honey will crystallize more quickly. If you think of honey as a supersaturated solution with glucose suspended in water, then if you have less water, you have a more saturated solution. Highly saturated solutions precipitate solids. In honey, that’s called granulation. So, dry honey crystallizes more quickly.

Here’s a graph I made that shows how moisture and glucose are related:

Here’s how this chart works:  everything above the blue line granulates within six months. Let’s say that your honey is from tulip poplar, which is usually about 26.5% glucose (see the table, right). You can expect your tulip poplar honey to crystallize if the moisture content is below about 16.5%. If the honey is wetter than that, it will probably not granulate very quickly or at all. Of course this depends on your honey being purely from tulip poplar trees and not mixed with spring fruit bloom or basswood.

On the other hand, if your honey is from one of the sources which typically have more than 30% glucose, you can see from the graph that no amount of moisture level will keep it from granulating. Well, that’s not strictly true – if water content is, say, 25%, it may stay as a liquid for a long time. But it will ferment, sour, bubble out, and taste awful. In fact, the law says honey must be below 18.6% water to be legally sold as ‘honey’. Anything higher can be trouble.

One last thought. If you work with honey, you’ve probably encountered containers that are watery near the top, but granulated just below the syrupy surface. Honey can absorb moisture from the atmosphere in a humid climate. (To some extent, the water in honey may also float up above the solids.) When you see honey like this, it’s because the upper part of the jar has high moisture. Because of the higher water content, the top hasn’t granulated, but instead may smell sour.

Digging down into the jar a bit, you likely find chunky crystals of honey. This is likely the exact same honey type, but the difference in granulation is due to the water content of the honey – wetter on top, drier below. The photo, above, illustrates this rather nicely. As long as the surface honey hasn’t begun to sour or smell yeasty, you can pour off some it, melt everything, and stir it. This restores the honey to something more palatable – as long as the resulting newly stirred and melted honey isn’t above 18.6% moisture.

If you are interested in honey qualities in general, you might like this presentation I made about a year ago for the local bee club. It goes into a lot of detail on honey chemistry:

Posted in Honey, Science | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Have you lithium-chlorided your bees yet?

Varroa mite on bee.   (Image credit: Piscisgate)

A friend (Thanks, Thomas!) sent a note this morning about a new mite treatment. It was developed at the University of Hohenheim, Apicultural State Institute, Stuttgart, Germany. Findings were published in Nature.  So, I am guessing that the science – as presented in the paper (Lithium chloride effectively kills the honey bee parasite Varroa destructor by a systemic mode of action), is probably solid.  Nature is offering the paper as “Open” which means that you can read it freely. So, take a look.

Lithium chloride powder: LiCl

The researchers may be on to something.  Rather than fumigating an entire hive to kill varroa, bees uptake lithium salts. Later, when the mites suck honey bee haemolymph, they get poisoned.  (The research paper calls varroa the “haemolymph-sucking ectoparasitic” mite.)  This treatment is a different approach to controlling mites.

There may be some advantages.  If we feed a miticide to bees via sugar syrup, the hive contamination might be reduced. (Except, of course, if the bees are allowed to actually store the syrup!)  And, of course, this could be another tool in the battle against nasty ectoparasites.

A big drawback may be worker bee mortality, which increases significantly at LiCl doses high enough to be effective against mites. We don’t know what will happen in actual hive conditions.  With long-term feeding of lithium chloride to bees, the researchers tell us:

“…different concentrations of LiCl were continuously fed until the last caged bee died to investigate response to long-term exposure. Here, the treatment significantly reduced the average lifespan of freshly hatched worker bees from 26 days in the untreated control cages to 23 and 22 days for 2 mM and 10 mM LiCl, respectively (n = 60 bees, P = 0.024, log-rank test; Supplementary Table S6). In bees that received the highest concentration of 25 mM LiCl the lifespan was significantly reduced to 19 days on average (Fig. 3a).”

With this in mind, overdosing might be easy, resulting in dead bees.  Beekeepers will have to learn to curb their sloppiness. (Always a big problem.)

Lithium chloride is harsh. It’s used in industrial chemistry. It’s toxic to mites, bees, and beekeepers:  “Acute poisoning in man reported after 4 doses of 2 g each of lithium chloride, causing weakness, prostration, vertigo, and tinnitus.”  [To repeat:  Beekeepers will have to learn to curb their sloppiness. (Always a big problem.)]

However, I can see this – or something similar – developing into an effective treatment.  Maybe someone could correct me, but I don’t think we have any current treatment that works from the inside of the bee out (like lithium chloride does) but instead, all miticides work within the bees’ exterior environment (the hive).

For me, the concept is interesting. On the other hand, I’d keep my distance from lithium chloride. And, effective and clever as this idea might be, you are feeding bees a poison which then poisons varroa.   Though lithium chloride may have a role to play as other miticides lose their efficacy,  it makes sense to wait. Over time, will repeated use of lithium chloride kill your bees? Will it contaminate your equipment?  Have you lithium-chlorided your bees yet? I hope not.

Posted in Diseases and Pests, Save the Bees, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Rotten: Lawyers, Guns & Honey

I’m invariably cautious – even cynical – about beekeeping movies. But I just saw one that breaks the mold and restores faith in the potential for delivering a great story about the honey industry without lies and exaggeration.  The one-hour documentary Lawyers, Guns & Honey delivers. It’s one of the very few bee films which you can watch, learn from, and enjoy without getting irritated that the producers hadn’t done their homework.

I need to thank a regular reader of this blog, Susan, for suggesting this film. It apparently came out on Netflix yesterday (January 5). She had a few comments which I’ll share. Here’s Susan:

“It seemed to get most of the facts straight as I know them—the trans-shipping from China with falsified papers through other ports, the adulteration and contaminants, the sheer demand that can’t possibly be met by real bees, etc. It only shows the industrial side of the honey biz, with a side on the migratory pollinator biz, so innocent citizens might believe there is no other kind of honey out there except mostly the “warehouse blended”variety—which gets quite a long look. And there are NO women beeks shown—only a couple women in secretarial roles.”

I felt the same way upon watching the documentary. (Although, I have to add that one of the women was a high-power international sales rep who ended up in prison and the other is president of a large bee farm.  Like Susan, though, I didn’t actually see any women in bee yards.) Susan’s summary also touches on the one weakness in the documentary – the focus is on commercially handled honey, though there is a piece on Clint Walker’s farm where the audience gets a glimpse of honey made and sold locally by a beekeeper. However, the goal of the production was to explore global, industrial-scale honey activity.

Netflix describes the film as a look at “the new global honey business and largest food fraud investigation and prosecution in history — a scam known as Honeygate.”  There is much more – including bee thefts in California and the almond pollination business.  A lot is squeezed into one hour and a few things are left out, but the omissions don’t lessen the impact of this documentary.

Lawyers, Guns & Honey is an absolutely great film.  It’s well-researched and well-photographed, resulting in a compelling story. Watch it. If you have Netflix, the film is the first release in the new series “Rotten.”  It is on in the USA and here in Canada – hopefully in other countries as well.  I don’t give away accolades very often. This documentary deserves everyone’s attention. Recommend it to your friends.

Posted in Beekeeping, Commercial Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof, Movies, Pollination, Save the Bees | Tagged , | 23 Comments

Americans eat four cents of honey every day. Wow.

It’s January. Here in Canada, that’s usually the coldest time of the year. Time to eat some honey.  A healthy, quick energy treat that’s not too bad to feast upon. Especially good mixed with whiskey and lemon juice if you think you’re getting a winter cold. I know people who use honey with whiskey even if they’re not getting a cold.

I don’t know which month has the most honey consumed, but I’m guessing January. The average North American honey consumption rate is about one-and-half pounds (750 grams) per person per year.  About 2 grams per day. I was wondering what 2 grams of something might look like.  At the top of my Google search was this stuff, which sells for $30 for 2 grams. (Check out YouTube’s How to Weigh Weed For Dummies.) Two grams looks like this:

Two grams of honey retails for about 4 cents.  (Cheaper than the weed, above, at $30 for two grams. By the way, this is an awfully expensive way to get fuel for your bee smoker.)  Honey at four cents a day? That’s how much money the average person (in North America) spends on a daily honey habit – about four pennies.  (And we don’t even have pennies in Canada anymore!)

Obviously, a pound-and-half of honey per year per person is not much. A family of four would be racing out to the grocery store to buy a one-pound jar every two months to keep it in stock.  Meanwhile, good ole plain white granulated sugar is eaten at a rate of about 100 pounds a year. Why is refined sugar almost 100 times more popular than honey?

Wealthy countries like the USA, Canada, and most of Europe eat a healthy pound, more or less. In Germany, the average is one kilo (over two pounds!) while in Sweden, it’s closer to one pound.  Meanwhile, for the entire world, the honey-eating average is only one-third of one pound. Barely enough to dampen the palate. If the global average increased to the German average, we’d need seven times the current world honey production. But I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. And the chance that honey will ever match refined sugar?  Pretty close to zero.

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Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Honey, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

2017: The Year in Bee Review

As 2017 draws to a close, let’s look back at the year’s best beekeeping stories. With lower honey prices in 2017, some beekeepers left the business and colony counts fell a little.  Back in 2016, I reported that honey bees were in recovery – colony collapse hadn’t been reported in five years (now six) and (in Canada, at least) there were more bees than anytime in Canadian history.

Many of the world’s 20,000 species of bees are in trouble from chemical exposure, climate change, and habitat loss. Some have been listed as endangered, at risk of becoming extinct. However, honey bees are managed livestock – their numbers rise and fall depending on honey prices and pollination demands of fruit and almond growers. Worldwide, the number of kept honey bees is still near last year’s record high because beekeepers do all they can to care for their little friends, feeding and protecting them – and earning a livelihood from their bees.

The most popular post of 2017 was my story on Chinese honey.  One More Thing About Chinese Honey… focused on the dreadful way that wet honey is often taken right from the broodnest, then dried in industrial evaporators until its moisture is low enough to sell the syrup as “honey”.  It’s not what you and I would call honey.

The second-most read piece from 2017 was a revision of the story of Warwick Kerr, the Brazilian geneticist who “Invented Killer Bees”. I’m glad that you liked that piece because Kerr’s story, published on his 95th birthday, is important on a lot of levels. The Brazilian military dictatorship tried to destroy Professor Kerr, but his worked helped the poor people of his country tremendously.  If you missed that blog post, I hope that you’ll find time to read it now.

In 2017, people from 174 countries dropped by to learn some bad beekeeping (Hello, Zambia! And Azerbaijan, Mongolia, Bosnia, and 170 other countries!) from this blog. The majority of readers are in the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, so I will continue to write mostly in English and mostly about beekeeping in the west.

I published 101 bee blog posts in 2017 – that was about 75,000 words. A lot of bee news, ideas, and opinions.  All of those bee stories were fascinating,  but here are some of my favourites:

January 2017

One More Thing About Chinese Honey…

We hear a lot about Chinese honey. It’s worse than most people realize.

February 2017

Beekeeper Royally Stung

From a news story about a fellow (“Prince Charles’ beekeeper”) trying to keep his bees alive by doing something he apparently wasn’t supposed to be doing.

Maple Syrup is Dark

Maple syrup has a dark side.

March 2017

Eating the Vomit of Slaves?

There are people out there who say honey-eaters are consuming the vomit of slaves. Bees are slaves? The idiots couldn’t be more wrong if they tried.

Black Pollen in March

Pollen comes in many colours – mostly golden yellow, but white, green, tawn, you name it.  Bees are packing in black pollen right here in Clagary. Thing is, no flowers are blooming.

March 30: World Apitherapy Day

March 30th, my birthday, has been chosen as World Apitherapy Day. What an honour!

April 2017

Daffodils in December

Daffodils are blooming much too early. What does that mean for bees?

Judgement Day for Aggie Days

Calgary has a Stampede and at the fair grounds is an annual Aggie Days agricultural exhibit. This year we judge local honey. See what’s involved in honey judging.

World’s Sweetest Honey

Not all honey is created equal. I use some stats and 505 samples of honey from the USA (and few hundred more from abroad) to find the world’s sweetest honey.

March on Down

The March for Science and all its associated excitement. Enough here for a 2-part story, so I posted two consecutive pieces.

Have These Kids Found a Way to Kill Varroa?

Can a comb brush off varroa before it enters a hive?  That’s what these elementary school kids figured would happen with their 3-D printed gadget.

May 2017

PolliNation Podcast

There are just a few really good bee-related podcasts. PolliNation is one of them. Produced by one of Oregon State’s newest profs, my friend Andony Melathopoulos.

May 20: World Bee Day

Every day should be World Bee Day.

Good Queen; Bad Queen

With 20 comments, this was one of our most engaging post in 2017. This is basically an overview of some differences in queen bee quality.

June 2017

Mind the Gap!

We look at the infamous “June Gap” – the period after the spring nectar flow, but before the summer and autumn honey comes in.  It’s a risk time for the bees.

Miel Carlota: Once the World’s Biggest Bee Farm

Not much is remembered about Miel Carlota, founded by German immigrants to Mexico. They had over 50,000 hives back in the 50s. Then their company disappeared.

July 2017

The Beekeeper Everyone Knows

Sir Edmund Hillary was likely the only beknighted commercial beekeeper. And he and his friend Tenzing Norgay were the first to survive Mount Everest’s summit.

Are You Giving It Away?

This post is a look at honey prices. Most of us are giving it away.

August 2017

Does the Truth Matter?

My perennial gripe.  These days it seems telling the truth is no longer a matter of honour. I’m getting tired of exaggerated bee stories passing as news in the media. I vent a little.

The Lazy Bees

My friends at the Hutterite Colony try to emulate the honey bee’s work ethic. So do the Mormons who live near us.  Should I tell them that bees are a wee bit lazy?

September 2017

The World’s Weirdest Beekeeping Family

The world’s weirdest beekeeping family.  Now a motion picture.  Need I say more?

My Failure as a Beekeeper

In this six-part series (!), I expose my very bad beekeeping.  Just when you think it can’t get worse, it does.

95th Birthday for “The Man Who Made Killer Bees”

This was the most popular post for the entire year. The man who brought Africanized bee stock to America had his 95th birthday. Warwick Kerr’s story is important. I’m glad that thousands of you read this piece.

They Got Me – on Kiwimana Podcast

Kiwimana, a great bee podcast out of New Zealand, called me up and we chatted for an hour. Want to hear how I ramble unfettered by print? Here’s your chance!

October 2017

Creamed Honey

Here’s a simple and practical explanation of how creamed (spun?) honey is creamed and spun. Includes the secret formula.

November 2017

Unseen Pollinators

This blog post is a short summary of a paper by Jeff Ollerton which reviews the state of the world’s pollinators. What’s happening to them?

December 2017

Busy as a Bee

Writing this blog is one of many things that fill my day. This blog is important to me and in Busy as a Bee, I apologize for not writing enough.

The Man Who Discovered that Bees Can Think

2017 was the 150th birthday anniversary of Charles Henry Turner. He was an American bee scientist who figured out that bees can solve problems, have personalities, and think. But he’s largely unappreciated, almost forgotten.


That’s a quick summary of some my favourite blog posts from 2017. I only write when I get a free hour or two, but it added up to 101 short stories – enough to fill a small book. With the new year upon us, I hope you’ll drop by occasionally and see what’s new in bees in 2018. Meanwhile, have a healthy, happy, and sweet new year!

Posted in Apitherapy, Bee Biology, Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof, Diseases and Pests, Friends, History, Hive Products, Honey, Honey Plants, Killer Bees, Movies, Outreach, People, Pesticides, Pollination, Queens, Save the Bees, Science | Tagged | 6 Comments

The Man Who Discovered that Bees Can Think

You probably know that Karl von Frisch figured out how honey bees use their waggle-dance to communicate. He won the Nobel Prize for that and for other studies of bee behaviour. I think it was well-deserved and his experiments withstood criticism and independent confirmation. His discovery was intuitive and required hundreds of replicated experiments conducted over years of work in personally risky circumstances in Nazi Germany. But there is another scientist who came close to figuring out many of the things which brought von Frisch fame. The other scientist did his experiments in America, decades earlier. But he’s mostly unknown, largely forgotten.

This year – 2017 – marked the 150th anniversary of Charles Turner’s birth.  He’s likely the most important biologist you’ve never heard.  Charles Henry Turner published at least 70 papers, mostly on animal behaviour. Years before Karl von Frisch realized that bees possess colour vision and can recognize and remember patterns, Turner had published his own results on exactly the same thing.  Turner published the first research showing that insects can learn and solve problems.  At the time, in 1900, it was generally believed that invertebrate activity was due to reaction to chemical and physical stimuli, without the need for neural discernment. Following Turner’s discoveries, we have seen that insects of all sorts exhibit signs of personality and certainly demonstrate problem-solving skills. Turner’s experiments created a new field of science focused on cognitive ability in insects and other invertebrates.

Turner’s father, from Alberta, Canada, was a church custodian. A church custodian who was known as a master of debate and who – in the 1870s – owned several hundred books.  Charles Turner’s mother, who was from Kentucky, was a nurse. Our budding scientist was born in Cincinnati where he attended public schools and graduated as class valedictorian. Charles Turner studied biology at the University of Cincinnati, graduating in 1891 – the same year he published his first paper (“Morphology of the Avian Brain”) in the Journal of Comparative Neurology. He followed that with another avian neurology paper, this time published in the prestigious magazine Science. He earned his MSc just a year later. His research moved from dissections and interpretations of bird nervous systems to spiders, river shrimp, and insects. Turner was also the first to demonstrate Pavlovian conditioning in an insect. In 1907, Turner became one of the first African-Americans to receive a graduate degree from the University of Chicago. His doctorate, “The Homing of Ants: An Experimental Study of Ant Behavior,” was emblematic of his work in the learning and thinking patterns of invertebrates.

One of Turner’s biggest discoveries involved honey bees, which he trained to recognize shapes and patterns and which – he discovered – could remember the colours of hidden trays of sugar syrup, returning to the correct colours even when tray positions were scrambled.

Dr Charles I. Abramson, a professor at Oklahoma State, investigated Charles Turner’s life. Abramson, in his piece “A Study of Inspiration” describes Turner’s honey bee research:

“Turner begins the paper with a scholarly review of the literature in which the various theories of why bees should see colors are enumerated, followed by a discussion of the limitations of the existing data.

“To investigate the problem, he studied honey bees in O’Fallon Park in St. Louis. He designed various colored disks, colored boxes,and “cornucopias” into which the bees were trained to fly. Thirty-two experiments were designed, and controls for the influence of odor and brightness were instituted. The results of his experiments showed that bees see colors and discriminate among them. It is interesting that in considering the results of his experiments, he believed that bees may be creating, in his words, “memory pictures” of the environment. The idea of memory pictures is certainly contemporary.

“The second paper of the series on honey bee learning was stimulated by the color vision paper. The methods used were identical to those in the color vision paper with the exception that various patterns were used, as were colors. The use of patterns and colors on the same target is the first use, in my opinion, of the compound-conditioning methods popular in contemporary studies of animal discrimination learning. The study contains 19 experiments and the results show that honey bees can readily distinguish patterns.”

Although he earned his PhD as a magna cum laude graduate at the University of Chicago, Turner didn’t find the sort of work that such a brilliant scientist would be expected to receive. He ended up with no laboratory to direct, no grad students to mentor, and no position at any research university. He applied to various universities, but was routinely rejected due to his race. Consequently, Turner spent most of his career as a high school science teacher at the Negro Sumner High School, conducting his experiments at a city park, paying for his spare-time research out of his own pocket.

Historian W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:

Charles Turner “became a teacher in a small colored Methodist school in South Atlanta which had at the time about a dozen college students, no laboratories and few books. He received inadequate pay and a heavy teaching load . . . but the only appointment carrying a living wage that he was able to get was in the Negro Sumner High School in St. Louis. There he stayed until he died of overwork. He was a promising scientist; with even fair opportunity he ought to have accomplished much; but his color hindered him.”

Charles Henry Turner died young from a heart attack, passing away in 1923 at the age of 55. For a comprehensive biography and an analysis of the science behind Turner’s work, I invite you to read “A Study of Inspiration” by Charles I. Abramson.

Most of the material in my blog piece today comes from various papers by Abramson, who has researched Turner’s life for years. You can download Dr Abramson’s biography about Dr Turner, see a brief review in Nature, or read more about Turner (and see some family photos) at Abramson’s Charles Henry Turner website. It would be a nice tribute to Charles Henry Turner if you could read more of his story as the sesquicentennial of Dr Turner’s birth draws to a close.

🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝

Posted in Bee Biology, Culture, or lack thereof, History, People, Science | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

Langstroth: The Great Christmas Gift

I’m repeating a blog which I post each Christmas Day, Langstroth’s birthday. He is often considered the inventor of modern beekeeping.

Langstroth

Langstroth, 1810-1895

He invented the modern beehive, making it easier, more productive, and less stressful for bees. However, Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth earned nothing from his invention and suffered severely from self-doubt, melancholy, and clinical depression. Yet, he changed beekeeping to its core and on his birthday anniversary (Christmas Day!) we give homage to the most important beekeeper America ever produced.

Langstroth was born December 25, 1810. That was some Christmas gift to the world, wasn’t it? His childhood seems to have been typical for a kid who spent a lot of time on his hands and knees on the streets of Philadelphia, trapping bugs and ants with table scraps. “I was once whipped because I had worn holes in my pants by too much kneeling on the gravel walkways in my eagerness to learn all that I could about ant life,” Langstroth wrote.

He built paper traps for beetles and flies, leading to a traumatic experience when his grammar school teacher – fed up with six-year-old Lorenzo’s wasted bug time – smashed his paper cages and freed his flies. Lorenzo was sent to cry himself to sleep inside a dark cupboard at the school. The teacher’s reform strategy worked. Langstroth gave up his interest in insects and became a preacher instead.

Langstroth's Andover church

Langstroth’s Andover church

Langstroth studied theology at Yale. At 25, he was offered a job as pastor at the South Church in Andover, Massachusetts. Even in Langstroth’s day it was an old prestigious church. In 2011 it celebrated its 300th anniversary. The plum assignment as pastor at South Church was a recognition of the young man’s abilities.

While visiting a parish member, Langstroth noticed a bowl of comb honey. He said that it was the most beautiful food he had ever seen. He asked to visit his new friend’s bees. Langstroth was led to the fellow’s attic where the hives were arranged near an open window. “In a moment,” Langstroth remembered, “the enthusiasm of my boyish days seemed, like a pent-up fire, to burst out in full flame. Before I went home I bought two stocks of bees in common box hives, and thus my apiarian career began.” Langstroth had been bitten by the bee bug.

Head troubles

Throughout his lifetime, Langstroth suffered badly from manic-depression. In the mid-nineteenth century there was little anyone could do to help a person afflicted with mental illness. The only solace was temporary and usually came to Langstroth when he was with his bees.

The young minister felt that he wasn’t an effective parson because of his recurring dark days, so he quit preaching and became principal of a women’s school instead. By all accounts, he was a empathetic minister and a dedicated teacher, but bouts of depression forced him to cancel sermons and classes. He needed a change. Bees were the only thing he knew that could give him peace, comfort, and meaningful work while fitting into a life disrupted by debilitating illness. But sometimes not even bees could stop what he called his “head trouble” when darkness crept upon him.

He built an apiary and hoped to make his living from bees. But that summer, severe depression returned and lasted for weeks. He sold all his colonies in the fall. Then he started with the bees again. His life would turn over again and again with periods of manic enthusiasm and productivity followed by gloomy months of despondency. During his depressed phases, Langstroth took shelter in a bed in a dark room. He would remain there, immobile, for days. “I asked that my books be hidden from my sight. Even the letter “B” would remind me of my bees and instill a deep sadness that wouldn’t leave.”

When he was able to return to his bees, Langstroth made great strives at increasing efficiency in his apiary. He made his tasks more effective. He would never know when depression would return, so he worked day and night during highly productive manic periods.

Eureka!

The major inefficiency in the apiary was the design of the boxes which held his bees. The boxes were usually simple wooden crates with solid walls and small holes which the bees used as entrances. During harvest of a hive, the lid was lifted from the crate. Attached to the lid would be wax combs which the bees built in haphazard jumbles. The combs cracked and broke during the beekeeper’s excavation, causing a sticky mess and disturbing the excited bees. It was a messy, nasty way to inspect bees and harvest honey.

Langstroth noticed that bees often left a small space around the edge of their combs. Sometimes, upon lifting the lids, he would find wax attached to both the lid and the walls inside the hive, while at other times the hanging combs were not stuck to the hive walls at all. Langstroth’s brilliant insight (his Eureka! moment) was to notice that the space was about 3/8 of an inch when the combs hung freely. If a comb were closer than that to a wall, the bees would attach it to the walls. But at 3/8 inch (actually, between 6.35 and 9.53 mm), the bees always left a space. He had discovered “bee space”.

Langstroth’s next step was brilliant. He made wooden frames that held the wax combs, designing them so they dangled within the hive’s box with their wooden edges always 3/8 of an inch from anything that might touch them: the lid, the interior box walls, the box bottom, other frames. Positioned like this, the bees neither waxed the frames together nor stuck them to the sides or bottom of the hive. The result was a beehive with movable frames. Combs could be lifted, examined, and manipulated. It was 1851 and modern beekeeping had begun.

Langstroth frames, the heart of his invention

Langstroth frames, the heart of his invention (Source: R. Engelhard)

Colonies could be handled more gently. Frames could be inspected for disease, queen quality, and honey and pollen reserves. Movable frames meant queen bees could be produced and strong hives split (by sharing frames between two or more new hives) – increasing colony numbers while preventing swarming. It was a new era in beekeeping. The next few decades were “The Golden Age of Beekeeping“.

Easy to use, easy to make, easy to copy

L.L. Langstroth was not alone in figuring out bee space and inventing applications for it. About the same time, some European beekeepers (Huber, in Switzerland and Dzierzon in Poland/Germany, Prokopovich in the Ukraine) had made similar discoveries. But Langstroth created a simpler hive. His Langstroth beehive was a fine example of North American utilitarian craftsmanship. Efficient, practical, and cheap.

Langstroth’s invention was so simple and inexpensive that his patent was readily violated. Minor modifications were touted as significant improvements to Langstroth’s original design, circumventing the patent. Langstroth began a number of lawsuits against the more flagrant violators, but when the court cases began, his “head troubles” returned.

He dropped the litigation when he realized he could not win and when his illness prevented a spirited defense. Realistically, it was impossible to stop imitations and adaptations. Beekeepers – who were often handy farmers and carpenters – quickly built one or two hives with frames for themselves. Langstroth sought one dollar to license each box, which was a huge price in those days. But his real discovery was “bee space” which could not be patented. His position was like trying to patent sails for ships after discovering wind. Even Langstroth’s supporters wrote that Langstroth should have simply allowed the idea to flourish in the public domain. Trying to enforce the patent was expensive. It left Langstroth nearly bankrupt.

Frames, dangling in a hive. (Source:

Frames, dangling in a hive. (Source: D. Feliciano)

With a plethora of modifications and with similar boxes being designed in Europe, Langstroth’s great contribution may have entered the world anyway and without much credit to him. But the retired minister had one other major contribution to society. It earned him much-deserved praise and even a bit of money. In one feverish six-month manic spell, Langstroth wrote one of the greatest beekeeping books ever produced.

Hive and Honey Bee

Langstroth's Hive and Honey-Bee, first published in 1853

Modern copy of Langstroth’s 1853
Hive and Honey-Bee

In 1852, working for six months without stop and almost no sleep, Langstroth wrote The Hive and the Honey-Bee. This book, revised and expanded in more than 40 subsequent editions, is still a reliable source for beekeepers. When Langstroth wrote it, there were other good bee primers on the market, but his book moved to the top spot. You may read the original 1853 book on-line. I’ve read and re-read my 1859 copy with its 409 pages of fading text protected by orange hardboard covers. It earned its spot in my library. Within the book are chapters on Loss of the Queen (and what to do about it), Swarming, Feeding, Wintering, and Enemies of the Bees. It’s a very practical guide to keeping bees and much of it is still relevant today.

Langstroth never found lasting peace from his cycles of manic depression, though in his 60s he traveled to Mexico and discovered that the stimulation and change of scenery gave him an unexpected respite from depression. The illness returned when he returned to his home, but he remembered the break from head troubles with great appreciation. He lived long enough (85 years!) to see his work appreciated, his name honored, and his book sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Despite his life-long disability, he had a long, full life, three children, and interesting work. And he made a phenomenal contribution to beekeeping.

Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday,
Lorenzo Loraine Langstroth!

Posted in Beekeeping, Books, Culture, or lack thereof, History, Hives and Combs, People | Tagged | 7 Comments

Solstice

My friend Nichol sent this picture of her backyard hive. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? A quintessential image of winter in Canada. Besides being a great photographer, Nichol is a woodworking artisan. She handcrafted the hive equipment in her workshop.

It’s winter here in the north. Today is the day we get the least sunlight – less than eight hours. Even while the sun shines on the bright side of the horizon, it hugs the edge, casting long shadows, even at noon.

Tomorrow will be different. Helios will hand us four seconds more sunlight. But I won’t notice the gift. I wonder if the bees will. They are much more attuned to nature’s whims.  In a week, each day will be almost four minutes longer; in a month, nearly an hour. Surely, you, I, and the bees will appreciate that.

Many forces affect our bees – wind keeps them home; flowers draw them out. In cold, they cluster; in heat, they stretch. What about the increasing daylight as winter’s solstice passes? That affects them, too. I kept bees in Florida for a dozen winters and saw egg-laying escalate in early January – even in chilly dearth years when pollen from red maple, willow, and live oak was scarce. Even without a good pollen flow and without warm weather, the days lengthened and the bees responded. We witnessed this in January, in Florida. However, only a sadist breaches a Calgary hive in January to investigate a colony’s welfare. (Which was fine until the irresponsible lout intruded.)

My thanks, again, to Nichol for sharing her wintery photo. I hope that the next few months of cold and snow (for you northern readers) passes pleasantly. Spring is just 91 days away.

Posted in Beekeeping, Friends | Tagged , | 6 Comments