Unseen Pollinators

If you are interested in ecology (and especially pollination), there’s a great piece you’ll want to read on Jeff Ollerton’s website. Dr Ollerton (University of Northampton) has just released a comprehensive paper on pollinator diversity in Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics. If you go to Jeff’s blog, you can follow his link and get a copy of his paper. I enjoyed a couple of hours of deep introspection reading his article this morning. There’s a lot to think about.

I’m not going to paraphrase Ollerton’s piece – it’s written in a clean, accessible style. You’ll have no trouble reading Pollinator Diversity and Why It’s Important. I won’t repeat his work here, but I will give you a little summary and a few extractions that are particularly interesting. (To me, anyway.)

Here’s the bottom line.  For the health of our ecology – including agricultural endeavours – diversity of pollinator species is essential. Diversity of species means a wide variety of kinds of creatures. We tend to go for quantity as a solution for our problems, but throwing more honey bees into a pollination problem is not necessarily the best fix. The loss of pollinator varieties frazzles the strands of the threads holding flowers, fruits, and foragers together in the web of life. Many – perhaps most – of these pollinators are largely unseen, unstudied, and virtually unknown. For example, there are ten times as many species of moths that work as pollinators. But they work at night. Most of us have never watched a moth pollinate a flower.

We (beekeepers) usually figure that if an anonymous pollinator or two disappears, honey bees can step in and fill the void. But here are two things to think about:

1) many pollinators are specialists which effectively pollinate flowers which honey bees usually ignore (or physically can’t work); and,

2) if the world is becoming too harsh for some pollinators, then it’s probably becoming too harsh for our own favourite pollinator. What’s good for the bumblebee is likely good for the honey bee, as Marcus Aurelius never quite said.

Vase of ill-fated WannaBeeFlowers.
(Original art: Daniel Miksha)

What happens when non-mellifera pollinators disappear? Here’s a wee example to consider. Let’s say that a certain type of flower (the glorious WannaBeeFlower, for example) is well-adapted to pollination by one of those 20,000-or-so odd bee species that populate our world. That WannaBeeFlower is sometimes also visited by honey bees who just grab a little nectar and run along to more enticing clovers. But because of those other bees, the WannaBeeFlower gets pollinated and blooms nicely season after season. Then one year, a clover parasite wipes out the clover. Your honey bees might starve, but they turn to the WannaBeeFlower. If that flower’s main pollinator goes extinct, the flower might also disappear, leaving your bees hungry on the bad year. Multiple this by a thousand similar flowers and their main pollinators and you can see the problem.  This is a selfish and narrow-minded reason to preserve diverse pollinators, but it gets our attention.

Of course there is more. Although honey bee keepers perform herculean tasks to keep honey bees flourishing, it’s becoming more and more expensive and frustrating. The same pollution and pesticides that are killing the “lesser” bees also affect honey bees. Conservation measures that help all of the pollinators will help your honey bees, too.

Those are only a couple of reasons that biodiversity is important. If we remind ourselves of the vast interconnected ecology of living things, we might disabuse ourselves of our narcissistic concern for our own hives.

I’m going to step off my palmolive box for a moment. If you want the facts presented without editorial comment, read Ollerton’s piece. It’s important. But before you go away, here are a few gleanings from his biodiversity paper that you can carry with you:

  • We usually think of honey bees when we think of pollinators. But one in ten terrestrial animals (including humans) pollinate flowers.
  • Wind plays an important role in pollination – but a whopping 87.5% of all flowering plants are visited by bees, bats, birds, butterflies, and other beasties.
  • New species are being identified daily. Today’s 350,000 species of pollinators (!) which visit 352,000 species of flowering plants (!) is an underestimate.
  • Heterocera (moths) are the most common pollinator species group (123,000), followed by Coleoptera (beetles, with 77,000), and Hymenoptera (bees and freinds, 70,000). Rhopelacera (butterflies) are relatively less diverse, represented by 18,500 known species that engage in pollination.
  • A thousand species of birds do some pollination work as well as a couple hundred bats. But to date, only three different species of marine worms have been spotted carrying pollen. Why’s that?
  • The effectiveness of pollinators varies a lot. Some rarely help flowers, but as a group, bees are the most prolific – probably because of their large hairy bodies – and because bees are almost completely dependent upon flowers for all their food.
  • The diversity of pollinators varies a lot across geographic areas – flies dominate in the arctic, bumblebees are dominant almost everywhere in the world except Africa, and there are almost no birds which work as pollinators in Europe, though elsewhere in the world they are important.

Dr Ollerton also tells us that there “is also much that we do not understand about the potential effects of pollinators that have been introduced to parts of the world in which they are not native.” Honey bees (which are not native to the Americas, Oceania, and much of Asia) may impact native species of bees. Their deleterious effects seem limited,  ranging from insignificant to potentially disruptive, depending on the biodiversity of the environment and the density of the managed honey bee colonies. If just a few non-native honey bee colonies are kept in areas with a variety of flowering plants, they probably are not displacing other pollinators. But we don’t really know for sure – this aspect of ecology hasn’t been thoroughly studied.

It’s possible that people who keep bees are doing more ecological good than harm. Here’s one reason. If you care about your bees, you will be more eager to support green spaces in your community and will be more likely to complain to city hall when the spray planes leave their hangars. Having more beekeepers means having more voices for initiatives that will help all the pollinators. In balance, keepers of honey bees are likely doing more to preserve wild pollinator habitat than they are to reduce foraging opportunities for other pollinators.

More good than bad?

Posted in Bee Biology, Ecology, Pollination, Save the Bees | Tagged , | 19 Comments

Creamed Honey

I’ve written about ‘creamed’ honey before, but I think it’s time to mention it again. I don’t know what you call smooth honey – some folks call it creamed (though no dairy products are involved), spun (though no spinning is involved) or smooth (which it certainly is!).  If you had a nice crop of honey this year, you might like this way to present honey. Fall is the natural time to make creamed, or spun, honey. Your main season is over, the weather is turning chilly, and cool weather helps the fine-granulation process that results in great creamed honey. And creamed honey will certainly boost your sales.

Brenda and Mike with some of their creamed honey.

Brenda and Mike with some of their creamed honey

These friends of mine, Brenda and Mike, make great creamed honey. The bees are kept in the Rocky Mountain foothills where the honey is usually mild and light. Brenda handles the honey smoothing at her home.

 I’ll give you Brenda’s recipe:

smooth honey recipe

It’s actually pretty simple. Heat the honey until it’s completely liquid with no granulation crystals left in it. Cool it to room temperature and stir in some creamy ‘seed’ honey. Stir and stir and stir. Pour it into the final containers and store it in a cool place. The seed can be creamed honey from your previous batch of creamed honey. If this is your first year making the stuff, you’ll have to get some creamy (“spun”) honey at the grocery or from a friend. After that, keep some in reserve for the next crop. People use from 5 to 20 percent seed, but most add about 10 percent.

creamed honey

Once ‘creamed’, the honey will stay this smooth for months – or even years.

Selling granulated honey is tricky. If it crystallizes slowly, big grainy chunks form. If moisture is a bit high, the water and honey may separate after packing, with a layer of sour fermenting honey-water floating above large, unattractive grains. Because most of the honey here in Canada granulates quickly, beekeepers learned to pack it in pails with wide lids, making the honey accessible after the inevitable hardening. This became known as “real” honey while honey that stayed liquid (which was rare) was suspected of being overheated or adulterated. That’s why, even today, crystallized honey is more common that liquid honey on grocery shelves in Canada.

But granulated honey sometimes spoils because it’s usually not heated enough during packing to kill yeast. Another common problem is the growth of over-sized granulation crystals (if honey crystallizes slowly over several months, the crystals are bigger). Poor quality granulated honey was common in the early 1900s. At the time, most Canadian honey was packed in gallon-sized tins and sent off to England. After producing, packing, and shipping across the ocean, beekeepers sometimes weren’t paid – the buyers in London had to dump the stuff as it had soured or had a watery layer on top. A young Canadian ag-scientist, Elton Dyce, recognized the problem and spent years looking for a fix.

Dyce was working at the Ontario Agriculture College (now known as the University of Guelph). In the 1920s, he taught apiculture to farm kids who came to the school from across central Canada. They told him about the honey that went bad back on the farm. From their samples, he noticed that finer-granulated honey had less moisture-separation problems. And it generally tasted better.

At age 28, Elton Dyce moved to Cornell University in New York to work on a Masters’ in entomology. Until he developed his system, most efforts to improve honey focused on heating it. This resulted in longer-lasting liquid honey, but Dyce felt that such honey wasn’t what consumers wanted on their tables. At Cornell, he continued to work on the Canadian honey problem. Three years later, he filed US Patent 1987893, simply called “Honey Process and Product“. He began his patent claim by stating that the use of honey is inhibited because it can be gritty and inconsistent unless heated. Then, he said, such liquid honey becomes drippy and harder to use. Dyce had a better idea. In paragraph 4 of his claims, Elton Dyce spelled out his system:

4.) A honey product made by heating honey to a temperature sufficient to destroy yeasts, quickly cooling it to a temperature below the melting point of honey crystals preferably about 75 degrees F., adding about 5% of fine grained crystalline honey, agitating the honey to distribute said nuclei uniformly thruout the honey, and controlling the temperature within a few degrees of 57 degrees F., whereby a fine-grained, fondant-like product is formed.

That’s the entire method, now known as the Dyce Process: Heat honey to destroy yeast, quickly cool it to 75 ºF, uniformly mix in fine-grained crystallized honey (‘seed’), and store it at 57 ºF. Quite soon, your honey is a smooth, fine-grained fondant. At this stage, the honey is attractive, ships well, and won’t spoil.

Dyce’s patent was issued 80 years ago and has long-since expired. Anyone may now use his technique to make perfect, tasty, smooth honey. My friends Brenda and Mike proved that to me.

*Part of the preceding is from my 2016 American Bee Journal article.

Posted in Friends, History, Honey, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Why are Hives Damp in the Winter?

Last time, I wrote about my over-wintering misadventures with wet hives. In many parts of the world (I’m looking at you, England.), the biggest winterkill comes from moisture, not disease or starvation. During the winter, water may collect under the hive’s lid and drip down on the cluster, soaking the bees and ultimately turning them into moldy compost.

Don’t let your bees become compost mold.  (Credit: Wikimedia)

it doesn’t take much to understand the problem – wet bees chill easily in winter. Chilled bees die. You can talk to local beekeepers to find out how they vent their hives – upper entrances, straw, or burlap bags draped like wicks hanging out of the upper cover. I’ll leave it to you to research what you need in your area. Instead, I’d like to look at how all that deadly water gets into the hive.

The water comes from the honey which the bees eat. Normally, there are about 9 pounds of water in every 50 pounds of honey. As the bees eat, the water is released. In summer, bees need water – for cooling the hive, diluting the honey they eat, mixing with bee bread, and as a mild laxative (“cleansing their metabolic wastes”). I’ve seen estimates that bees produce 68 pounds of water for every 100 pounds of honey they make. (I’m not sure how that figure was derived, but it’s in this paper.) This is all great in the summer when bees are cooling hives, feeding brood, and flushing toilets, but in the winter, little water is needed and usually none is actively collected.

In warm weather, vapour exhausted by the bees drifts out of the hive. Wrapped in winter long johns, the hives have trouble getting rid of water vapour. Significantly, and compounding the problem, cold air is not able to contain much water. That’s why you’re more likely to see dew in the cool morning, not in the warm afternoon. As water escapes the winter brood nest, it collects like dew above the cluster. There, it may freeze, then thaw and drip down onto the bees.

The difference in the amount of water in cold air, compared to warm air, is dramatic. This has nothing to do with warm air “holding” water more easily – the oxygen and nitrogen don’t slide apart, making way for water molecules, nor does CO2 grab water and ‘hold’ it in the air. Instead, with warmer temperatures, water  molecules are more energized and bounce around. When chilled, the low-energy water is likely to condense. This condensation is the cause of morning dews and beekeeper woes.

You can buy plexiglass inner covers like the one above to peak at your wintering bees without disturbing them. I’ve never done this and can’t tell you if the bees winter OK under glass, but this picture clearly shows the water that’s built up.
(By the way, a friend gave me this photo and I don’t know where she got it. If it’s yours, please send me a note and I’ll give credit and a link to your website.)

In a bulletin written by Andony Melathopoulos, now a professor at Oregon State University, Andony shows us a breakdown of the water vapour concentration and the quantity of air which needs to vent out of a hive to get rid of a cluster’s exhaust. He shows that a colony gives off 3 to 10 grams of water each hour. (This assumes that the bees are eating about half a kilo of honey each day, roughly one pound per day and 18% of the honey is water.)  Extremely cold winter air at 100% humidity has a water capacity of only 0.4 grams per liter. Warmed by the bees’ heat, the air above a cluster may reach 5 ºC (40 ºF) and then (temporarily) it can ‘hold’ 3.4 grams of water, hence taking up the 3 grams of water exhausted by the bees. But if that slightly-warmer, moisture-saturated air does not move out of the hive, the air rises and cools and then releases its water inside the hive. To prevent this, the water-laden air must move out of the hive before it cools and before it rains down on the winter cluster. To stay dry, a hive must remove a liter of air every hour. A sealed hive can’t do that.

So, your winter hive needs to breathe. Place the apiary on a sloped hillside where you have some air drainage. Use a hive vent system appropriate for your geography. If you make the mistake which I made a few years ago (see my last blog post), you may end up with a box of dead moldy bees. Don’t be me!

Posted in Bee Biology, Beekeeping, Science, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Winterprep: What’s the neighbour doing?

After talking to the neighbouring beekeepers, we found the best way to wrap the bees in our area – not too much insulation, but wind-resistant wraps are essential here.

Fall has arrived and you’re preparing your bees for winter. If you are new to beekeeping, this should make you nervous. You might lose every colony you have in the next few months. What you do now  has a huge impact on how your bees will look in March. Don’t make the big mistake that I made when I moved from Saskatchewan to Alberta. I didn’t prepare my hives for winter properly and most of them died.

Some years ago, when I took a job in Calgary, I turned my Saskatchewan bee business over to a farm family that lived near me in the northern bush country. I’d been keeping 300 hives of bees on the side while I did my geophysics degree at the university in Saskatoon. But I was moving eight hours away. I sold everything I had in Saskatchewan, moved the family to Calgary, and started working. Once on my new job, I searched for a beekeeper with a few hives for sale. I bought six hives and put them on a friend’s farm outside the new city.

Over-dressed for occasion

Things went OK that summer. I made a little honey. Almost every weekend, I had the fun of getting out of the big city (Calgary has a million people) and into the beautiful rustic countryside. When autumn arrived, I wrapped my hives. I wrapped them the way I did back in the northern bush, two hours north of Saskatoon. I piled layers and layers of extra-thick insulation around and overtop the hives, after grouping them into a single big cluster of six contiguous colonies. These bees were prepared to endure six months of Arctic cold, just like I’d seen in northern Saskatchewan.  But my new hives were now in southern Alberta, which often has mild winters. It can get 15 degrees above freezing in January!

I lost four of my six hermetically-sealed colonies. By March, when I went to check on them, my hives were drenched in their own sweat. I had sealed them too tightly, they couldn’t exhaust their moisture, and (because they were so well insulated) they didn’t have a chance to enjoy the balmy days which we had during the winter. They were in the dark (literally) and the occasional warm winter days went unnoticed by the bees. I learned later that local beekeepers tend to lightly wrap the sides of the hives (to keep wind from blowing in) and put a little insulation over the tops. They always wrap their hives for winter, but not to the extreme I did my first year. In the next photo, you can see what I learned.

In a windy winter area, weights and straps hold the wraps on. We didn’t use side insulation, but there is a little above the covers.

So, even though I’d been keeping bees for years by then, I had violated two of the big lessons every beekeeper should learn early – (1) all beekeeping is local; and, (2) learn from the locals. They might be gruff and snarky, but they have a lot to teach you.

Next time, I’ll write about one of the biggest causes of winter loss: water. We don’t think about moisture – dampness in the hives – often enough. Everyone worries about starvation and failing queens, moldy dead bees are a reality for a lot of beekeepers each spring.

Posted in Beekeeping | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

They Got Me – on the Kiwimana Podcast!

Just a short blog post today…

If you’ve been curious about my voice (which has been described as dull and boring), you have a chance to hear it in its full-depth vibrato. I was in conversation with Gary Fawcett of the inimitable Kiwimana podcast. We chatted about getting into the bee business, producing comb honey, teaching others how to keep bees, and (oh my!) neonics and GMOs.

To find the podcast on I-tunes, simply search kiwimana. To go to the Kiwimana website, click here – or,  for instant gratification, you might be able play the full podcast inside your web browser using the player below.  Enjoy!


Posted in Culture, or lack thereof | Tagged | 3 Comments

How Well Do You Know Your Bees?

Which of these insects are bees?

How well do you know your bees?  Most of us have neighbours who think that every wasp, bat, and unicorn that appears in their backyard is one of our pesky honey bees. I guess it’s understandable that people of small thought will swat at every hovering insect while screaming “A Bee, See?” – but that doesn’t have to be you when it comes to flies or ants that mimic various minor species of bees.

The New York Times Science Section has a bee identification quiz for you. It’s fairly easy if you stop and think about each one. Here, at the top of my blog page, is the picture from NYT, but you’ll have to go there to participate.  Click on each bee image and then click the DONE link that will appear while you’re making your selections.

Here’s what you should see as soon as you complete this little bee quiz:

After you complete and submit the quiz, an article about bee population decline will open.  Don’t forget to try the bonus question (How many species of bees are in the USA?) which appears in the article. It is only slightly alarmist in tone and will give you an idea of what people are thinking about these days when it comes to disappearing bees.

If you are really interested in this subject, the author (Joe Wilson, Utah State) recently co-authored  Interest exceeds understanding in public support of bee conservation, which appeared September 5th in Frontiers in Ecology. It’s a good read, too, though it’s currently behind a paywall.

Posted in Bee Biology, Save the Bees, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , | 3 Comments

My Failure as a Beekeeper: Part VI

The wet towel treatment.

My anno horribilis apis had one more final insult to bestow upon my ever-shrinking self-esteem. Our little hive was attacked by robber bees. Once again, it was a scene entirely reminiscent of Tolstoy’s dying Moscow:

There is no longer the measured quiet sound of throbbing activity, like the sound of boiling water, but diverse discordant sounds of disorder. In and out of the hive long black robber bees smeared with honey fly timidly and shiftily… Formerly only bees laden with honey flew into the hive, and they flew out empty; now they fly out laden. – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Chapter 20.

Alas, one morning about a week ago, we were greeted by hundreds of bees surrounding our defeated little hive, the colony that had failed to raise a queen. I had been planning a trip to my daughter’s farm to return the miscreant hive. Now the demise and return of equipment were urgent. I was compelled to conclude the sad business of the hive that had failed.

If you’ve never experienced robbing – at your shop, from the back of a truck, in an apiary –  you have been very, very lucky. Or you simply never noticed that robbing was going on. If the latter is the case, please consider a different hobby – if you are oblivious to the stinging rage of robber bees, then you should put away your hive tool.

An inexperienced beekeeper may think something wonderful is happening at the hive when he/she approaches and hundreds of bees are encircling it. The scene can be quite exhilarating, at first. Like showing up at your house late one evening and seeing dozens of people racing in and out. You might think they are there to decorate your home for a surprise party for you. Then you notice, as Tolstoy did in the little excerpt above, that those unexpected guests are arriving empty-handed but leaving with your stuff.  So it is with the robbing bees. They are having a party and you are paying for it.

It was just nine in the morning. My daughter came into my office, “Dad something is going on at the hive. There are too many bees flying around it.” Since this had been an odd colony all year, I didn’t know what to expect. Were they absconding, leaving their home for some better beekeeper’s apiary? But soon I saw the excited bees and I could hear the unusual high-pitched buzzing. As I neared the nuc, I could see greasy black bees fighting the hive’s guards at the small entrance. Other than the auger hole partially obscured by a wire-mesh screen, the box was sealed and impenetrable. But the robber bees were attracted by the smell of honey and were trying to get in. It was obvious that a few had slipped past the guards and were looting the goods, carrying honey to some distant hive, and returning each time with more bees to help with the theft. At 9 am on a mild morning, a full scale attack was already underway.

To enter, bees slip around the edge of the screen. Wasps tend not to learn that trick but robbers usually figure out the route. Most of the bees in this picture have just arrived to steal from the nuc, only a few actually live here. The nuc’s own bees (there are just a couple thousand still alive) are doing their best to keep the thieves out. Notice that these robbers are not black and sticky the way Tolstoy described. That’s because the robbing has just started. After a few hours, the robbers will begin to look rougher, loosing their fuzzy hairs along with their dignity as the melee progresses.

What would you do in this situation? Would you accept that the small hive was good as dead and you might as well let the robbers clean out the equipment for you?  I hope not. First, your hive may harbour bee diseases or mites which the invaders will collect and haul back to their own homes. Never let bees rob! I cringe when I hear a new beekeeper report leaving their extractor and equipment outside for a few days so robbers can ‘clean it up’. In most parts of the world, that’s illegal because it’s an easy way to spread disease. In a big city like ours, there is a second reason to avoid allowing bees to rob.

Robbers come in marauding hordes that would impress Atilla. Two bees become twenty in fifteen minutes. Those twenty invite two hundred. Within an hour or two, you may have thousands of robbers. Robbers, when they leave their own home, only get a partial set of directions – so they wreak havoc in a wide area while looking for the site of the looting. That wide area can include neighbours, kids, and pets. That’s the second big and very important reason not to allow robbing – you might hurt the folks next door.

To me, seeing robbing in action gives a rush as if I were seeing the start of a fire. There’s not a second to waste – it has to be stopped or it will grow until the entire world is consumed and your neighbours will tar and feather you. As they should.

There are tricks that might stop the robbing. An effective one is to turn on a sprinkler. My 15-year-old ran over with the garden house and we put it atop the nuc. First, though, I covered the hive with a large towel. When the water started, the robbers scattered and the towel became wet, sticking to the nuc’s lid and sealing the little auger hole.

Bees kept coming for a half hour because they were still being instructed by scouts back at the hive. It took time before everyone got the message that “It’s raining over at the Miksha’s.”

Thus ended my year of failed beekeeping. There were certainly years when, as a commercial beekeeper with a thousand hives, I lost more money. But this was pretty crushing. Among my lessons:  Don’t keep a weak hive. Don’t go to Europe mid-summer. You can’t control everything. You never can tell with bees. And, most significantly, let everything be a lesson.

As we assessed the damage, my son asked what’s next. I told him that we could shut the water off in another hour or two and leave the wet towel in place until evening. We did. Then, as it got dark, he helped me slip the hive back into the same big black plastic bags that held the nuc when I brought it from my daughter’s farm.  My 15-year-old wants to try again next year. But as he lifted the plastic-clad hive, he said, “Dust to dust. Plastic bag to plastic bag.” The colony had run its course.

Even after fifty years around the bees, things sometimes go wrong.  If you think you know everything about bees, you don’t know anything. I have sometimes heard new beekeepers, puffed up with self-importance, brag about their skills. If those folks beekeep for a few years, they usually become humbled by their bees and acquire a less arrogant attitude. Eventually, they come to agree with the old adage that “Beekeeping is one of those things where you start out knowing everything but as the years go by, you realize you know less and less… If you keep bees long enough, you figure out that you really don’t know anything at all.”

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My Failure as a Beekeeper: Part V

Our nuc, after losing its queen. Anarchy ensues as laying workers take over.

When a colony has lost its queen and not replaced her, the hive is almost certain to die a slow and sorrowful death. The great plans we had for this small nuc – a source of a pound or two of honey, a reliable pollinator for next spring’s crab apples and raspberries, a teaching tool for my kids – died with the queen.

A few days after returning from summer in Hungary, we opened the hive, and saw a bit of new brood. But rather than the nice neat rows of uniform workers-in-progress, we saw the random and ugly brood of poorly-forming drones growing inside cramped worker cells. Beekeepers sometimes call this ‘bullet brood’ as the cells are sealed extra high, shaped like bullets, in order to accommodate the large body sizes of drones pupating in skinny worker brood cells. Our hive had laying workers.

Not the brood we wanted.

Remember that workers are females, but they have ‘under-developed’ ovaries and few tubes, as the text books explain it. Workers can’t mate, so they lay unfertile eggs. Unfertilized eggs become drones. Hence, laying workers, having seized control of the palace, become the Snowballs and Napoleons of the Bee Farm – cunningly leading their minions to disaster.  You’d think they’d do a better job, considering their humble origins.  But once they take over, laying workers ruthlessly cling to power. Some beekeepers find it so difficult to deal with a laying-worker hive that they shake the bees into the grass some distance from the colony and insert the frames (without bees) into a better hive. Many beekeepers believe it’s futile to try to requeen a laying worker hive because the new replacement queen is often killed.

I have pondered the odd system in which a queenless hive allows workers to lay eggs, none of which has any chance of becoming a new queen. [The South African cape honey bee (Apis mellifera capensis) actually produces queens via worker-laid eggs, but that’s the stuff of magic and requires a longer blog post than this one.]  Our western (European) honey bee workers may lay eggs, but they always become drones. What’s the point to that? The hive is going to die, so why all those drones?

If you think of drones as mobile DNA tanks which can easily move to a new hive and possibly mate and carry forward the dying hive’s genetic stock, then it does make sense. From an evolutionary biology perspective, a creature’s mission is to preserve and spread its genes. The laying-worker’s drones are samples of the colony’s DNA. It’s one last chance to send genetic missives out into the world, carrying the unique code of the colony before it’s gone forever. This also explains why laying workers often destroy a queen introduced by a beekeeper. The new queen represents foreign DNA. If introduced before laying workers take charge, such a requeening may be tolerated. But afterwards, there is the obvious conflict regarding dispensation of life codes.

Because I discovered the laying workers in mid-August, after the season’s honey flow had ended, I knew that we’d be starting with other bees next spring. This colony was as good as dead. It was a zombie hive, perhaps still living and gasping, but in reality, very nearly dead. A hive with no future, except for those drones which would fulfill the hive’s final mission.

I knew what needed to be done. The nuc would have to go back to my daughter’s farm where it came from, the bees released and allowed to drift into strong hives in the apiary. The combs would be reused in other hives. The drones? Well, they’d carry the message forward. The idea that drones would be propagating the DNA of the gentle hive gave me some solace, but one more tragedy awaited my little hive.  I’ll write about that tomorrow.

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


This week, we should celebrate Warwick Estevam Kerr, the man who made the killer bees. September 9th is his 95th birthday. Just like his bees, Kerr comes from hot, tropical Brazil. And just like his bees, Dr Kerr has been much maligned and misunderstood in the popular press. But Kerr did more to help his country’s agriculture than perhaps any other individual.

When the Africanized hybrid honey bee entered our awareness in the 1970s, the bee was described as a killer bee (in Brazil, they called it the assassin). The man who brought African honey bees to South America was turned into a mysterious fiend who had “disappeared from sight” after “he turned killer bees loose”. Well, he did disappear for a while. He was in prison. But not for any reason you might guess. First, some background.

What was Kerr’s crime?

Dr Warwick Kerr brought Africanized genetic stock to South America in 1956. In today’s context, importing an alien creature from another continent seems horribly reckless. In Dr Kerr’s day, the importation of bees from Africa was hardly daring. First, recall that all honey bees in the Americas are imported from somewhere else. Honey bees are not native to the western hemisphere. Second, Kerr was not introducing a new species. The African bee (Apis mellifera scutellata) is a cousin of a common European honey bee, Apis mellifera iberiensis, which was in Brazil when the African queen bees arrived. Kerr’s importation of 26 queen bees from Tanzania is in league with importing Clydesdales long after Arabians and Morgans were already established. Kerr’s goal was to improve the non-tropical honey bees which farmers were using in Brazil. He rightly assumed that tropical genetic stock would be more successful in his tropical country.

Warwick Kerr’s sour reputation came directly from the Brazilian government. Although he was a geneticist and was at first entrusted with developing a better bee for Brazil’s farmers, the Brazilian military dictatorship attacked Kerr’s stand on civil rights. He was imprisoned in 1964 when he publicly fought government corruption. In 1969 he was re-arrested, this time for protesting that Brazilian soldiers who had raped and tortured a nun went unpunished. Sister Maurina Borges, who ran the Ribeirão Preto Orphanage, was an activist; the soldiers were part of Brazil’s military dictatorship, committing crimes encouraged by the government. [See page 16 of this 2005 interview with Kerr.] Most of the western press didn’t bother to investigate the reasons behind the Brazilian government’s dismissal of Kerr’s work, his qualifications, or his imprisonment.

Creating a clown

All of this is lost on most people who write about this subject. For example, this is from a blog promoting a book called The Animal Review: A Report Card. The writer calls Dr Kerr a clown:

“It is strange and unfortunate that there is not a Nobel Prize for Really Bad Mistakes In Science. This international award could be presented annually in Stockholm by a sad clown wearing a lab coat and goggles, giving scientists that much more of an incentive to get things right for once. Brazilian geneticist Warwick Estevam Kerr would have made a fine nominee. For it was Mr. Kerr who introduced Africanized honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) to the Americas. Oops. Bring in the clowns…

“The full scope of the blunder was not immediately apparent to Kerr. Being a brilliant geneticist, he brilliantly assumed the African queen fugitives would breed with feral bees — thus diluting their infamous aggression.

“But on the bright side, Africanized honey bees pollinate plants and plants are crucial to agriculture production everywhere in the blah, blah, blah, blah.”

” Warwick Estevam Kerr, Grade: F- ”

Almost everything in the preceding story is wrong, but I put it here to illustrate how the popular press saw Dr Kerr – a clown deserving an F- grade. In fact, it’s the lazy reporters who earn a big fat Fail.

Here’s another example: National Geographic blunders portraying Dr Kerr in their 2006 documentary, Attack of the Killer Bee. “Incredibly, nearly one trillion killer bees can all be traced back to just one man…” [I’ll bet you know who they’re talking about.] In Africa, says NG, Kerr “chose the best specimens he could find, but he noticed something disturbing.” (At this point, the actor playing Kerr gets stung on the finger and yelps “Ouch!” in pain. “Doctor Kerr was wrong. Very wrong. And the western hemisphere is still paying a steep price.” This is verbiage that sells, even if utterly wrong.

You should watch the first few minutes of the following NG fantasy. The devilish portrayal of the black Africans who sold Kerr the ‘deadly’ bees is also vile racist National Geographic reporting, but that’s fodder for a whole different story. I have the video below queued up to start at 3 minutes – that’s where an actor playing Kerr gets ready to leave for Africa. Don’t bother to watch more than a minute or two of this.

The Killer Bees

Warwick Kerr was responsible for bringing African genetic stock to Brazil in 1956. As a geneticist, he wanted to improve the health and hardiness of the European honey bee which came from Portugal in 1834. That European strain was poorly adapted to the tropics, so the Italian honey bee (Apis mellifera ligustica) was imported in the 1880s, but it wasn’t much better. A few farmers and monks kept the languid bees, mostly to collect beeswax for church candles.

In 1956, Brazil’s annual honey production from the European honey bees was just 15 million pounds. Brazilian agriculture was expanding and needed a tropical honey bee for pollination and honey production. After the African bees arrived, Brazil’s beekeepers produced 110 million pounds. Brazil went from 43rd in the world to 7th largest honey producer. By 1994, L.A. Times headlined: “Brazil’s honey production has soared since the ornery invaders took over beekeepers’ hives”. Today, most of the world’s organic honey is produced by Africanized honey bees in Brazil’s remote forests. The honey is doubly organic – produced in areas untouched by pesticides and produced in Africanized hives which are naturally resistant to varroa – so mite meds aren’t used in those colonies.

Honey bees with African genes are more aggressive than European bees. Beekeepers in Brazil had to learn appropriate management techniques. Although the venom is the same, more bees attack if their colony is disturbed. People have died from massive stings. Those deaths are sorrowful and this story about Dr Kerr’s bees should not dishonour personal tragedies. Some of the traits which make Africanized bees exceptional pollinators (refined olfactory sense, quicker movements, flights in inclement weather, superior navigation skills) also make them more likely to sting. However, they can be managed by farmers and beekeepers. Indiscriminate killers they are not.

Decoding sex among stingless bees

At first, Warwick Kerr worked with Melipona bees, not honey bees. Some of Brazil’s poor and indigenous were wild honey gatherers, or meleiros. Meleiro, isolated and rural, is named for the meleiros, who are named for Melipona honey trees. There are only 7,000 meleiro people, but their precarious existence in the 1940s – which included raiding Melipona bee trees – concerned Dr Kerr during his bee research. He hoped that his work would draw attention to the importance of preserving Melipona, their habitat, and the people who lived off those bees. Understand and help the Melipona, and you help the meleiros, figured Kerr.

Melipona q of the meleiros

Melipona quadrifasciata of the meleiros (João Henrique Dittmar Filho)

Melipona quadrifasciata is a eusocial stingless bee, native to southeastern coastal Brazil. The meleiros call it Mandaçaia, which means “beautiful guard,” as there are always guard bees defending the narrow entrance of their colony. Brazil’s Melipona builds mud hives inside hollow trees. These have narrow passages allowing just one bee to pass at a time. Stingless bees, they can give a nasty bite, but their intricate passage system also defends against predators.

Dr Kerr’s first influential paper, “Genetic Determination of Castes in Melipona” (1949), researched the development of males, females, and workers among Brazil’s common stingless bee. Kerr found that their caste development was different from honey bees. Drones in both species are haploid, but in Melipona, things get weird for the girls.

In Apis mellifera, “a larva develops into a queen or into a worker depending upon the food it receives. In Melipona, on the other hand, caste determination is genotypic. Fertile females (queens) are heterozygous in some species for two, and in other species for three, pairs of genes, homozygosis for any one of which makes the individual develop into a worker.” – Kerr, 1949.

For the exotic Melipona quadrifasciata, alleles (one-half of a gene that controls an inheritance, for example the ‘b’ in a ‘Bb’ gene) determine caste. Drones (as in honey bees) are haploids with a single set of chromosomes; queens and workers are diploid (two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent), but queens have some specific alleles that are different, or heterozygous (for example, AaBb), while workers have identical, or homozygous, caste-determining genes (AABB, AAbb, aaBB, or aabb combinations). If you find this confusing, imagine sorting it out with 1940s technology, as Kerr did.


From Kerr’s 1950 Melipona paper

The real Warwick Kerr

Kerr was born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1922, into a middle-class family with Scottish roots. He received an agricultural engineering degree, then specialized in genetics. His work as an entomologist spanned decades, with research that included genetics of honey bees and native Brazilian bees, as we’ve just seen.

Warwick Kerr’s post-doc research was at the University of California, Davis (1951), and at Columbia University in New York, under the renowned evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky. One of Kerr’s influential papers, “Experimental Studies of the Distribution of Gene Frequencies in Very Small Populations of Drosophila melanogaster“, cites Dobzhansky as an adviser and is co-authored by a University of Chicago genetics statistician. This fruit fly research was done way back in 1954 and the paper was one of the first to deal with the nascent field of genetics statistics. Eventually, Kerr published 620 research papers during his 60-year career.

Warwick Kerr is largely responsible for establishing the study of genetics in Brazil. He was a director of the National Institute for Research in the Amazon and worked at the University of São Paulo. Later, at the Universidade Estadual do Maranhão, he created the Department of Biology and served as Dean of the University.

Warwick Kerr says that his most important work was developing staff, technicians, teachers, and researchers in his country. At the University of São Paulo, he established a department of genetics which focuses on entomological and human genetics, using mathematical biology and biostatistics. Kerr has memberships in the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Third World Academy of Science, and the US National Academy of Sciences.

I’ll end with a pleasant little video made four years ago. In it, you will see that his interests have shifted to botany. The film is in Portuguese, but even if you don’t understand the language, you’ll get a good idea of Warwick Kerr’s enthusiasm and curiosity.

(** I wrote this  post last year, then edited parts of it for today, so you may remember it. I won’t apologize – we should all hear about the real Warwick Kerr at least once a year.)

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My Failure as a Beekeeper: Part IV

Dead queen syndrome.

This is the fourth piece in my six-part description of my colossal failure as a beekeeper this summer. If you’ve been following this little series, you saw how I acquired a little queenless nuc, transported it to my home, and watched as it raised queen cells. But it appears that wasps  captured the queen during one of her mating flights, leaving the colony terminally queenless.

A hive usually recovers after being queenless. If a queen suddenly dies (crushed by a beekeeper?), the workers feed a few larvae a steady diet of royal jelly. In most cases, a new queen develops, mates, and takes over the colony’s egg-laying chore.

If something goes wrong (as in the case of my little hive where the queen developed but then disappeared before laying), the hive is in big trouble. If a beekeeper has more than one colony, she could quickly insert several more frames of brood and young bees into the dying hive, essentially creating another nuc and giving the bees another chance to raise a queen. Caught at the right time, a new laying queen might be accepted by the hive.  I might have done this, but I had just one hive so there was no back-up brood. I could have driven off to my daughter’s farm and returned with more brood, but I was in Europe, so I missed my chance.

Experienced beekeepers can guess what happened next. I’ll quote Leo Tolstoy, one of the 19th century’s best beekeepers, who compared Moscow to a queenless hive in War and Peace.

Here’s Lev Tolstoy’s description, from Chapter 20 of War and Peace:

Meanwhile, Moscow was empty. There were still people in it, perhaps a fiftieth part of its former inhabitants had remained, but it was empty. It was empty in the sense that a dying queenless hive is empty.

In a queenless hive no life is left, though to a superficial glance it seems as much alive as other hives.

The bees circle round a queenless hive in the hot beams of the midday sun as gaily as around the living hives; from a distance it smells of honey like the others, and bees fly in and out in the same way. But one has only to observe that hive to realize that there is no longer any life in it. The bees do not fly in the same way, the smell and the sound that meet the beekeeper are not the same.

To the beekeeper’s tap on the wall of the sick hive, instead of the former instant unanimous humming of tens of thousands of bees with their abdomens threateningly compressed, and producing by the rapid vibration of their wings an aerial living sound, the only reply is a disconnected buzzing from different parts of the deserted hive. From the alighting board, instead of the former spirituous fragrant smell of honey and venom, and the warm whiffs of crowded life, comes an odor of emptiness and decay mingling with the smell of honey. There are no longer sentinels sounding the alarm with their abdomens raised, and ready to die in defense of the hive.

There is no longer the measured quiet sound of throbbing activity, like the sound of boiling water, but diverse discordant sounds of disorder. In and out of the hive long black robber bees smeared with honey fly timidly and shiftily. They do not sting, but crawl away from danger. Formerly only bees laden with honey flew into the hive, and they flew out empty; now they fly out laden. The beekeeper opens the lower part of the hive and peers in.

Instead of black, glossy bees- tamed by toil, clinging to one another’s legs and drawing out the wax, with a ceaseless hum of labor – that used to hang in long clusters down to the floor of the hive, drowsy shriveled bees crawl about separately in various directions on the floor and walls of the hive. Instead of a neatly glued floor, swept by the bees with the fanning of their wings, there is a floor littered with bits of wax, excrement, dying bees scarcely moving their legs, and dead ones that have not been cleared away.

The keeper opens the two center partitions to examine the brood cells. They reek of decay and death. Only a few of them still move, rise, and feebly fly to settle on the enemy’s hand, lacking the spirit to die stinging him; the rest are dead and fall as lightly as fish scales. The beekeeper closes the hive, chalks a mark on it, and when he has time tears out its contents and burns it clean.

So in the same way Moscow was empty when Napoleon, weary, uneasy, and morose, paced up and down in front of the Kammer-Kollezski rampart….

My hive was Moscow at its worst. It was August and my story just gets worse. It was too late to fix the colony and . Tomorrow, I’ll describe the inside of my hive. It was much as Tolstoy said, “There is no longer the measured quiet sound of throbbing activity, like the sound of boiling water, but diverse discordant sounds of disorder.” That – and other sad signs of defeat – will be our subject tomorrow.

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