Steve Vai, Beekeeper

Steve Vai, guitar wizard extraordinaire, performs in Calgary tomorrow night at the Jack Singer Hall. I won’t be there. I respect his talent immensely and as an ex-guitar guy myself (albeit, three or four orders of magnitude below Mr Vai), I would have enjoyed the show. But tickets are $47.75 to $359. For $359, I suppose you get to sit on stage with Steve.

If I sat on stage with Steve (me, in my wheelchair; he, in his beekeeper boots), I’d ask him how he plays after he’s been stung on the fingers. Steve Vai  is nuts about beekeeping. He’s been at it for 20 years, so he’s no newbie. Then I’d ask him what it was like to play aside Frank Zappa, in Van Halen, Spinal Tap, Ozzy Osborne, Alcatrazz. Then I’d ask if it was true that he sold 15 million solo records but blew all the money on beekeeping.

If you got bored of the video at the top of this post, you might like to watch Steve lighting a smoker and chatting up brood chambers, drawn comb vs foundation, and wildflower honey crops in the next video. I hope you’ll watch the video below – you’ll be amazed at what Steve does with his 1,000 pound annual harvest. This is one sweet guy.

Anyway, Steve, if you’re reading this before you go on, thank you for your music and welcome to Calgary. Enjoy the show – it’ll be a good one!

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Outreach, People | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Golden Bee Award


Years ago, an American senator began handing out prizes that he called the Golden Fleece Award. Started in the 70s by Wisconsin Democrat senator Bill Proxmire, the Golden Fleece was an anti-science thing, intended to highlight how wasteful it is to give research grants to those splurging scientists who blow big wads of cash studying esoterics like the sex lives of the screwworm.

Why is the sex life of a screwworm funny?

Well, hello!

Well, hello!

The screwworm develops from eggs laid by a fly. It was once common in the southern USA. A fly could lay about 400 eggs in any cuts, wounds, or skin sores on a cow. The cattle often died from the parasitic worms that followed. Before 1980, cattle ranchers estimated that they lost 2 billion dollars a year because of the nasty worms. No chemical or pharmaceutical company was interested in finding a cure because most of the farmers could hardly afford hay, let alone medicines for their cows.

The USDA set some entomologists to work on the problem. They created sterile screwworms. By 1982, the fly and all its worms were eradicated from the USA. Since then, farmers (and consumers of beef and milk) have saved billions of dollars, just because someone did the research to rid America of the parasite. [This year, 2016, screwworm was found again in Monroe County, Florida. I think that’s the first spotting in the USA in 34 years. It probably arrived from imported horses. You can be sure that it will be eradicated again.]

The Golden Goose arrives

golden-gooseIn the 1970s, when the screwworm project was underway, it was easy to mock the scientists involved – after all, they were studying the sex lives of screw worms. Such research was often the target of funding cuts. To balance the mean-spirited effects of the Golden Fleece award, and to help point out the unexpected rewards of scientific research, the Golden Goose Award was created. The Golden Goose highlights research which might have easily been defunded but instead produced broad unforeseen benefits.

This year, the Golden Goose Award recognized a group of scientists who created The Honey Bee Algorithm. Here’s a short video that explains the algorithm and its significance.

Did you notice the scientist say that when a honey bee follows a waggle-dance, she usually doesn’t make it to a new flower patch on her first try, it takes her a little time for her to get efficient? Sounds interesting, but unimportant, doesn’t it? When you do research, you don’t know where it’s going to go. In the next video, you’ll see Senator Chris Coons, who tells us that honey bee research in the way bees forage led to an algorithm that IT companies use in their design of efficient servers  for the management of internet traffic. Too, me that’s amazing. You can be sure that the bee scientists who began unraveling the way bees learn to forage were not thinking about internet servers. Not at first, anyway.

The Golden Goose Award for the Honey Bee Algorithm was presented in September to John J. Bartholdi III (supply chain logistics), Sunil Nakrani (AI, computational science, mathematics), Thomas D. Seeley (a bee scientist!), Craig A. Tovey (industrial and systems engineering), and John Hagood Vande Vate (international logistics). Funding for their work included the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research.

First, study bees

The story begins with Cornell honey bee researcher Tom Seeley. He became interested in understanding how thousands of honey bees efficiently forage – visiting millions of flowers within a 5-kilometre radius – without ‘benefit’ of a central organizing authority. This is similar to internet servers – they never know how much traffic there will be (similar to changing weather interrupting nectar flows) nor how much data will be carried at any moment (similar to the way flower density and nectar flows change).  Data distribution systems and nectar gathering systems both have only vague notions of future events. Colonies, like servers, have to be ready for the biggest flows imaginable but also for dearths. All of this without a boss.

To understand how this worked, Seeley and his grad students anesthetized  the population of a small nuc hive and glued ID labels to the thoraxes of 4,000 bees. Then they observed the bees foraging at pots of sugar syrup the researchers had distributed at various locations around the hive.


Part of what Tom Seeley realized is that foraging honey bees make individual decisions that benefit the entire hive. This does not imply that bees have free will or high-level intellectual reasoning. But if a bee returns with nectar and readily finds a housekeeping bee eager to take and store it, then that ‘indicates’ the hive urgently needs what was found. In that case, the forager begins a waggle dance to draw attention to what she’s found. On the other hand, if the returning bee finds it hard to unload her fresh nectar, it probably ‘indicates’ that other bees have found plenty of nectar already. So a recruiting waggle dance isn’t necessary – in fact the returning bee may even change her own strategy and follow another dancer’s lead to a better forage spot. In human terms, a teenager catches up with friends at the mall and wants to tell them about a great dance spot he’s found but they’re all excited about another place – they are really, really excited, so he tags along with them and doesn’t even mention the lame place he’d just discovered.

Second, apply bee dances to optimal distribution networks

As Seeley was unraveling the hive foraging/communication system (“The Honey Bee Algorithm”) John Vande Vate was trying to optimize leaderless distribution. Serendipitously, he caught a National Public Radio interview of Seeley describing his findings. Vate realized there might be a useful application in his own work. So he traveled to Cornell to meet Seeley and to learn about the algorithm. It took years of collaboration with engineering colleagues at Georgia Tech (Craig Tovey and John J. Bartholdi III)  before Vate, Tovey, Bartholdi, and Seeley distilled the essence of the the bees’ activities and found a way to apply it to distribution and allocation puzzles. According to their mathematical model, bees transition through a sub-optimal ‘learning’ phase which opens avenues for discovery. Without discovery, new (potentially better) sources can’t be found.

It was a few years before the Honey Bee Algorithm was applied to the internet server distribution problem. Although the engineers and the bee biologist saw that the bee algorithm was a novel approach to solving some mathematical problems, it wasn’t until Sunil Nakrani asked Craig Tovey for advice on solving the internet distribution issue that everything came together. Companies that host websites have to be prepared for irregular demand and changing conditions. They would benefit from systems that ‘learn’ optimal, but dynamic, paths to relay data to customers. Nakrani developed the bee algorithm into his Ph.D. dissertation and it was quickly shortlisted as one of the best computational dissertations in the United Kingdom that year. The bee-based paper Nakrani and Tovey wrote describing their research has been cited hundreds of times. It’s been used as a basis for traffic flow, fuel economy, and work-efficiency studies. As puts it:

“Today, web hosting services are implementing biologically inspired algorithms like Tovey and Nakrani’s to drive larger revenues and more efficiently operate server farms in the rapidly growing $50 billion global market for web hosting services. And the field Tovey, Bartholdi, and Vande Vate stumbled into – self-organizing systems and biomimicry – is a burgeoning area of research that includes everything from biologically-derived adhesives and fluorescent proteins to systems engineering solutions inspired by bees, ants and other social insects.”

So, this is what the Golden Goose laid: a beautiful Honey Bee Algorithm. Because funding came from federal government sources, the work immediately entered the public domain where it was shared by commercial developers and academic problem-solvers. Nakrani was largely funded by the UK government, the others were supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research.  As Bill Gates says about the Golden Goose, “Government R&D budgets are very small, and yet they are absolutely critical to drive innovation forward.” Sometimes innovation advances one little bee-waggle at a time.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Science, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments



Today, Gary Fawcett, of Kiwimana Podcast spent a grueling hour listening to me drone on and on about bees and beekeeping and beekeeping and bees. It was undoubtedly grueling for him, but I had fun.

For those of you who don’t know, the kiwimana podcast, produced in the beautiful hills of the Waitakere Ranges west of Auckland, New Zealand, is a great source of bee chatter, knowledge, insight, and gossip. At Kiwimana, Gary and Margaret keep some bees, advocate for the environment, and produce their outstanding podcast.

In a typical interview show, Gary offers some lucky beekeeper somewhere in the world the chance to rant about their bees and beekeeping adventures. I like the format and the fact that Gary is so unobtrusive – the guests feel like it’s their own show and Gary is their friendly guide. Conversation includes advice, issues on bee politics, favourite books, and the like. Some of the past guests include Randy Oliver (the Scientific Beekeeper), Hilary Kearney (Keeping Bees Like a Girl), Bill Catherall (the Bee Vlogger), Australian beekeeper Victor Croker, and James Rogers  who keeps bees in Japan. I’ve left out a lot of other great names that you’ll find among the nearly 100 podcasts at kiwimana.


But today, was my turn, a lesser beekeeper. When the podcast goes live in a few weeks, I’ll let you know, give you the link, and you can hear my rambling enthusiasm for the hobby and business of bees. In the meanwhile, give Gary and Margaret a listen at kiwimana.

<— This is I, blogging and listening to great podcasts.


Posted in Friends, Outreach | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A Penny for my Thoughts


I began blogging in October, 1995 – 21 years ago this fall. In those days, it wasn’t called blogging. It was called “spilling your guts in public.” Of course it was a much smaller public back in the days of noisy slow dial-ups. The website has over 300 of my old webpages, including one from 1998, where I had a few crappy-looking pages about bees and where I wrote a regular piece on the Latest News in Apiculture. My site used ugly frames and it had graphics that danced around, but the site is saved in digital heaven where it will live on and embarrass me forever.  From’s WayBackMachine, here’s what my site looked like back then:

Bee Home Pages 1998

Some of the 1998 news that I wrote about hasn’t gone away. Congress wanted 4.2 billion for ag subsidies. President bill Clinton threatened to veto that – he wanted $7.7 billion for the farmers.  Another story mentioned a rooftop beekeeper in New York City, “with bees as far as 12 storeys up so they won’t sting anyone.” I also reported on Prince Charles accepting a traditional Slovenian beehive for his garden but having it taken from him by British agriculture customs. So many of the same sorts of stories – politics, beekeeping, personalities. It’s been fun reviewing beekeeping art, culture, and politics over all these years.

Through all this time of internet writing and reporting on bees, I never placed any advertising on my sites.  These days, I get approached by someone weekly with some promo scheme – they want to pay me to add their stuff to my pages. Sometimes it’s to sell their products, sometimes it’s to increase their Search Engine Optimization score. I’ve always said no, thanks.

Churchill used a cigar, not a pen. Cool, eh?

Churchill used a cigar, not a pen. Cool, eh?

Sir Winston Churchill, who wrote a dozen best-selling books, said that only a fool writes for nothing. I write because I have to write. I’ve got no choice. But preparing blogs keeps me learning about bees. Nevertheless, sometimes I feel a bit foolish (in the Churchill way).

But I don’t want to promote anyone’s better flowing hives or hotter idea for killing mites. Any endorsement would compromise my duty to criticize crap when I see it.  I might advertise good beekeeping stuff at some point -but only if it doesn’t seem that I prefer one smoker-maker over another.

Perhaps I could advertise trucks, trips, and TVs? Those are things I don’t write about. (Not much anyway.)  There wouldn’t be a conflict of interest. I’m giving it a shot. The folks at WordPress (the blogging platform that carries this blog you are reading) have offered me a few pennies a day if I let them post on my site. I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I’ve decided to give it a test run for a few months. I’d be pleased as a beekeeper hiving a swarm in May if you’d let me know what you think about this idea and the WordPress ads. If they’re not appropriate, or if they are too distractive, or if the adverts start featuring bug spray, send me a note ( and let me know.  Thanks.

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The Synthetic Apiary

The Synthetic Apiary. (Image:

The Synthetic Apiary. (Image: MIT Media Lab)

Well, this is weird. The video at the end of this link is great, but the whole concept is weird. It’s an artificial, synthetic apiary. I’ll rank it with the Flow(TM)Hive for a reason that will become apparent in a moment. But the weird concept we’re looking at is an artificial indoor living space for frolicking honey bees.

Most beekeepers like the natural touch of wood, the taste of honey, the buzzing in the ears, and the sticky wax on the fingers. I guess that’s one of the many reasons that I’m against the dreadful honey-on-tap hive. The Flow(TM)Hive is perfect for an artificial plastic world – a turn-the-tap and here’s-your-honey mentality. Well, the synthetic apiary I’m about to review should be filled with flow hives. And then forgotten.

holodeckIn ArchitectureDaily’s piece, called “Neri Oxman + Mediated Matter Create Synthetic Apiary to Combat Honeybee Colony Loss”, we learn about an artificial apiary that looks like a Star Trek holodeck.

“Computer,” demands Captain Picard, “make me an apiary.” And this is what he gets: a weird white world of perpetual spring where bees have an unending supply of sugar water and fake pollen. You see, Jean Luc Picard forgot to order trees and grass and flowers and stuff.


   (Image: MIT Media Lab)

Regular readers of this blog know that I rant against silliness whenever I find it, yet I’ve got a soft spot for technology and design. As Neri Oxman says, the synthetic apiary is just a ‘proof of concept’ – investigating whether bees can be kept alive in an artificial environment. I understand the design experiment. It’s interesting and laudable. But weird, from a beekeeper’s perspective.

Proof of concept was established long ago when commercial beekeepers (including some of my friends) began parking tens of thousands of colonies in huge wintering warehouses where temperature, light and humidity are controlled.  Bees can survive in an artificial space, we already know that. To me, the synthetic apiary looks too much like a dystopian future – some warlord has captured two hives and two beekeepers and has put them in his man cave while just outside his walls, Paris has been incinerated in a nuclear war. Or something.


                    (Image: MIT Media Lab)

The article about the Synthetic Apiary (“to combat honeybee colony loss”) duly notes that seven (of the world’s 22,000) bee species have been placed on the endangered species list and this experiment points the way to combat honey bee colony loss. Fortunately, honey bees are actually increasing in number, though some other species are, in fact, threatened. Had the designers done their homework, they may have chosen one of the threatened bee species, a nice bumblebee, for example, but that’s another issue.

In a practical sense, the synthetic apiary fails on many fronts: Bees will survive a few months on concoctions of sugar syrup and substitute pollen, but they need a natural variety of amino acids and minerals to actually thrive. They need propolis and floral pollen. They need a ceiling 100 metres high and a picard-facepalm2-kilometre hallway if drone and queen will mate, or they’ll die after the old queen dies. They need an artificial sun that travels across the sky, otherwise, the bees will be attracted to artificial lights and won’t return to their hive. They need flowery meadows, fresh water, open skies. They need a better holodeck.

Anyway, I hope that you will check out the video and the story. I honestly liked the film. The photography is brilliant – even if the entire concept is, well, a bit weird.  And knowing that the bees won’t survive like this, it all becomes macabre.

h/t Robert

Posted in Bee Yards, Culture, or lack thereof, Save the Bees, Strange, Odd Stuff, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Double or Nothing?


A gentleman at our bee meeting posed a challenging question a couple of weeks ago: “What should I do with a weak hive? I think it might be queenless.” Well, it depends, of course.

I’m continuing with the series of questions which I overheard at a bee meeting not long ago. Today, it’s about weak/queenless hives. As in all bee questions, we are given just a bit of information. It’s not the beekeepers’ fault – they might not know what clues to look for and what information to bring to the club when they present their questions. (Actually, if they knew what information is needed to answer the question, they’d probably already know what to do.)

Here are the previous questions from this series:

The fellow asked us, “I have four good hives, but I think that the fifth might be queenless –  what should I do?” Whether the hive has a queen or not, he has a problem. It’s getting late in the year, so a queen-right weak hive most likely will die over winter. A queenless hive is trouble at any time.

Conventional wisdom says that you take your winter losses in the fall. Get rid of hives that won’t winter because if they die, you’ll have the sad task of the bee mortician, taking care of little dead bodies next spring.  Taking your winter losses in the fall doesn’t mean killing any bees. It usually means doubling up the weak with the strong so you save the bees – and maybe even the queen in the weaker hive.

Doubling-up goes like this:

  • Pick a healthy, strong, queen-right colony as the double-up partner for your worthless scum hive. (Sorry, I know that you’ve been nursing it for months, giving it extra attention, extra food, and maybe you’ve tried requeening it once or twice.  But this child just never did well.) If the poor hive is not sick (Nosema? AFB? Varroa? EFB? Hive beetles? K-wing? Galleria mellonella invasion? Acute Bee Paralysis Virus? Acute appendicitis?) but has been a persistent drain on the apiary’s cumulative production average,  it’s time to sing some hymns.
  • Consolidate the weak hive into a single box – pick out the best frames, all the brood, extra honey (especially in the fall), and end with just a single chamber.
  • Take the lid off the stronger, partner hive. Put a sheet of newspaper on the strong hive, as if it’s a substitute lid. Newspaper quality matters. Don’t use free cheap ‘traders’ newspapers or anything published by Rupert Murdoch. Pick something like the Times. Your bees are going to be looking at that paper for the next week, so they might as well learn something from this experience.
  • Poke a few holes into the newspaper, then set your freshly amalgamated weak single on top. (Check the video above!) Only the perforated newspaper should separate the two units.  Cover the top unit with a real lid. Over the next few days, the bees will read parts of the paper and then remove it from the hive. Meanwhile, the bees’ odours and pheromones will blend, and the bees themselves will slowly mix. By the time the paper is eaten, the bees will be one big happy smells-the-same family.
  • As soon as you’ve doubled them, you should probably feed your new monster hive. If you’re using frame feeders, you have the advantage of feeding the lower, stronger unit separately. You likely need to feed the top (weaker) hive, too, but be extra careful not to let leaky syrup start a robbing frenzy or your weak top unit will be in trouble and you’ll wish you hadn’t seen this web page and started doubling the weak.
  • Finally, a week or two later, you may want to sort frames, consolidate brood, and squeeze the big hive down into two boxes. This is optional. Plenty of beekeepers winter in three stories. You, too, could become one of them. But as winter is nearing, make sure the hive is in good winter shape, heavy, with brood down, honey up, and bees covering almost everything.

But what about laying workers?


Laying workers’ brood

A wrinkle in the scheme (or wrench in the works, mud in the eye, or spanner in the works, if you prefer) occurs if the weak hive is queenless. Then you’ve got issues. My usual recommendation is not to let your hives become queenless. But let’s assume you thought you were smarter than I am (which wouldn’t take much) and you’ve managed to create a weak and queenless hive.

If the hive has been queenless for a week or two, emboldened workers will feel liberated, gender-fluid, and will start laying oodles of eggs. Unfortunately, none of them will be fertile and all will develop into drones. As if that’s not bad enough, if you suddenly insert a good laying queen into the laying workers’ den, they will kill her. And if you set such a hive atop a good strong hive, the laying workers will likely dominate and they and their allies will kill the queen in the (formerly) good strong hive. So, what’s a beekeeper to do?

I’m not going to go any deeper into laying workers right now. About six weeks ago, I wrote too much on laying workers (see The Worker Who Would Be Queen). In brief, laying workers are best treated crudely. On a warm day, walk the box a few metres away from the apiary and shake all the bees off the frames and onto the ground. Laying workers will mostly be stuck in the grass. The ‘normal’ workers will usually fly back to the old stand (but the hive will be gone) and then will enter neighbouring hives. This works OK during a nectar flow when every bee is welcomed, but not so well in the fall when the arrivals may be taunted, teased about their humble origins, or simply have their wings torn off by guard bees. But they may also end up joining the successful hive. I don’t know another option for laying workers so late in the season, if you do please send a comment.

Double or nothing

So, here’s the bottom line. In an era when 30 or 40 percent  of good hives may die during the winter, don’t expect many weak ones to make it through to spring. If the poor hive is not queenless (and laying workers aren’t running the place), don’t be reluctant to double the hive. It’s better than nothing.

Posted in Beekeeping, Queens, Save the Bees | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Water in Honey

Nectar, shaking out of a frame during the honey flow

Nectar falls from a frame during a honey flow

Honey is about 80% sugar and 18% water. The rest is minerals and ash*, pollen grains and bees’ wings. The sugars and water come from nectar secreted by flowers. When flowers produce nectar (as a way of attracting pollinating insects and birds), it is very watery – maybe 20 to 90 percent water. (This varies a lot.) So bees may carry three or four or even ten pounds of nectar for each pound of honey they produce.

The bees remove water so that honey will be safe to store without fermenting into honey wine. Fermented honey would not last long in a crowded hive because the bees would drink it all in one evening of intoxicated merry-making. That would really put the ‘waggle’ in their famous waggle-dance.

For honey to be stable, the nectar needs evaporated until less than about 18.6% of honey is water. I’m not sure if anyone has figured out how the bees know this number. My hunch is that honey bees don’t actually know. They haven’t perfected their hygrometric skills – we sometimes find honey in the comb that’s been sealed and is not quite stable. In time, it can begin to sour or ferment. That’s really rare, but it can happen, so it points to some design flaw in the bees.

Last month, a friend brought some bottled honey to my home. It came from sealed frames. Surprisingly, it tested over 20% moisture. High-moisture honey is rare in western Canada, but my friend’s bees had been in a heavily wooded spot with poor air drainage. I told him that he had a few choices. He could deep-freeze it, then take out a little at a time and use it quickly. He could cook it until the honey’s yeasts died, but that would darken the honey and give it a burnt flavour. He could possibly feed it back to his own bees, if all the hives were AFB-free. Or he could make wine.

What you need: a refractometer, sampling spoons and toothpicks, clean-up cloths, markers to label the frames, and honey.

What you need: a refractometer, sampling spoons and toothpicks, clean-up cloths, markers to label the frames, and honey. A table cover is a nice idea, too.

A few days ago, another beekeeper brought honey to me for testing with our bee club’s refractometer. Her honey was still in the comb. Nearly all of it was low-moisture, some all the way down to 16%. But there were also a few frames of unsealed honey – it looked watery. Some of that watery honey approached 21% moisture. Fortunately, there was just a little which was that high. The highest-moisture honey was on the lightest, unfinished frames. The honey flow had ended days ago, so I was surprised that the bees hadn’t dried it out yet. But they had not and she’d removed the honey frames. Since there was so much dry honey (maybe 100 pounds) and so little wet honey (maybe 3 pounds), I did the math and told her to extract it all at one time and let it mix together. [Here’s the math: 100 pounds at 16.5% mixed with 3 pounds at 21% is 16.5 + .63 pounds of water in 103 pounds of honey, making it a very safe 16.7% – if well mixed during extracting.]

To mix the trivial amount of higher moisture honey with the thicker honey during extracting, it would make sense to stagger frames in the extractor and not do all the wet ones separately. I was really surprised that on one frame which we’d tested, the open cells were 20.5% moisture and the sealed honey, just inches away, was 16.2%. You could tell immediately that there would be a big difference – the sealed honey was very thick and sticky while the open honey was quite wet. (It takes only a surprisingly small percentage to go from watery to thick.)

The sealed honey was 16.2% moisture; unsealed was 20.5% (in the spot I tested).

During the nectar flow, you can get very watery nectar in cells right next to dry honey, but we were looking at the frames days after the flow had ended. On this particular frame, I think the small patch of sealed honey was made earlier in the season – it had a darker hue and slightly different flavour than the newer, wetter honey. Nevertheless, I was surprised by such a large difference in moisture in honey on the same frame, well past the end of the season.


(*) An astute reader has pointed out that it’s not really ash, but the burnt residue of the honey following chemical analysis. See the comments below.

Posted in Beekeeping, Friends, Honey | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Sometimes They Get Caught (then gently tapped on their knuckles)

Honey laundering: "Illegally claiming a false origin for honey in order to avoid taxes. Example: Falsely claiming Chinese honey was produced in Malaysia."

Honey laundering: “Illegally claiming a false origin for honey in order to avoid taxes.
Example: Falsely claiming Chinese honey was produced in Malaysia.”

This is a piece about someone in the USA who was caught selling tainted honey. This was not his first brush with the law. The same gentleman, Douglas Murphy, was an executive at American Rice, Inc. when the feds found him guilty of authorizing over half a million dollars in bribes to Haitian officials in connection with the sale of his company’s rice to the poorest country in the hemisphere. Part of the criminal activity, according to the court documents, included paying bribes for permits that were granted to charities that were allowed to import duty-free. American Rice Inc. was not a charity. Here’s the rice re-cap from the SEC’s website:

On October 6, a federal jury in Houston, Texas, found defendants Douglas Murphy and David Kay, former officers of American Rice, Inc., a Houston based rice company, guilty of authorizing over $500,000 in bribes to Haitian customs officials during 1998 and 1999 to reduce American Rice’s import taxes illegally in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The jury also found defendant Murphy guilty of obstruction of justice in connection with a parallel civil investigation of the bribery payments by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Murphy, a resident of Texas, was American Rice’s president at the time of the violations. Kay, also a resident of Texas, was an American Rice vice president of operations and reported to Murphy. The defendants are to be sentenced on January 6. This criminal action, brought by the Department of Justice, arose out of a joint investigation with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

On January 6, 2004, rice-defendants Murphy and Kay were sentenced – you can read how the judge handled that here.  But all that was over ten years ago – long enough to pay one’s debt to the world’s poor and maybe become a humanitarian doctor or an aid volunteer or something. But last year, Murphy was back in the news.

The Houston Chronicle ran this headline: “Honey smuggler busted”. The honey smuggler is not Douglas Murphy who spent half of his five year sentence in prison on the rice bribery conviction, but a wealthy Chinese-American who was fraudulently importing honey which the American government claims came from China but was misrepresented as Malaysian. (There are millions of dollars involved in these crimes.)  U.S. Customs and Border Protection found Jun Yang guilty of honey smuggling and sent him to prison for three years. This came about because a government secret agent worked at a company called Honey Solutions Inc., where Douglas Murphy was a director.

A government undercover officer became friendly with Yang by posing as a “bad guy”, according to the feds.  Thomson-Reuters World Trade Executive put it this way: “…Honeygate was so successful in part because an undercover ICE agent was placed in Honey Solutions – a real operating company that had its own customs fraud violations, which placed it well to uncover other bad actors. This style of approach takes a page from narcotics and organized crime investigations, but given the success of Honeygate, it could be used more frequently in food and customs fraud cases.”

The short of it is that Yang’s transshipment scheme unraveled and Honey Solutions (which was not accused of importing circumvented honey) paid a $1,000,000 fine, agreed to cooperate in the investigation (they allowed the undercover agent in) and said it “accepts and acknowledges responsibility for its conduct and that of its employees and agents.”

And Honey Solutions director Douglas Murphy was sentenced to six months in prison. This was for distributing honey from Poland adulterated with an antibiotic. According to court records, the honey was delivered to Houston for 65 cents/pound. Such honey might have cost twice as much if not contaminated.  In his admission of guilt, Murphy acknowledged he knew the honey was adulterated with Chloramphenicol: “MURPHY, while in the course of the discharge of his duties, caused Honey Holding to issue purchase order 461 and in doing so, agreed to purchase from ALW Food Group the adulterated container of honey from ALW Food Group’s purchase order 995 at a discounted price of 65 cents per pound, with the price reflecting duties paid and delivery to Texas, and did so knowing that the honey was adulterated with Chloramphenicol.”  Interestingly, because of his previous rice-bribing, the Global Anti-Corruption Task Force observes:  “This appears to be the first time in U.S. history in which the government has brought new charges against a previously convicted FCPA [Foreign Corrupt Practices Act] defendant.”

Meanwhile, Honey Solutions Inc. has fought for its good name as a wholesome provider of quality honey (including Non-GMO and USDA Organic) by demanding retractions of false statements about its dealings. The American Honey Producers (AHPA), for example, had to retract statements it made about Honey Solutions Inc. on their website. According to PRNewswire which ran a piece (citing Honey Solutions as its sole source),  the AHPA corrected their story and acknowledged “the government did not claim Honey Solutions purchased or sold ‘tainted’ or impure Chinese honey” and “the government did not charge Honey Solutions with tax evasion.”


They paid a million dollar fine.

So, let’s be clear about this. Honey Solutions’ director was sentenced to prison, this time for distributing honey adulterated with an antibiotic and the feds nailed Jun Yang for transshipment – but Honey Solutions Inc. is as sweet as the honey it sells. They paid a million dollar fine, a director went to prison, but, I repeat, “the government did not claim Honey Solutions purchased or sold ‘tainted’ or impure Chinese honey” and “the government did not charge Honey Solutions with tax evasion.” This sounds like a wholesome company, caught up in unfortunate circumstances, doesn’t it? Remember, the government did not claim that Honey Solutions Inc sold tainted Chinese honey nor has it charged Honey Solutions with tax evasion.

It’s a confusing story, so I’m quoting this, from the Houston Chronicle:

Yang and his company, National Honey Inc., deployed at least four companies to manage imports of Chinese honey – imports that would be unfeasible under antidumping duties as high as 221 percent of the honey’s value.

The transshipment scheme unraveled only after a government plant in the Baytown company Honey Solutions won Yang’s trust.

“Because of the complexity of the case, the underlying facts and the proving up of these very complicated schemes, it required us to essentially put in an undercover agent who pretended to be a bad guy,” said assistant U.S. attorney Andrew S. Boutros in Illinois’ Northern District, the lead prosecutor in the government’s string of successful honey cases.

According to court documents, the government plant began working at Honey Solutions as director of procurement in June 2011, shortly after Douglas Murphy, the company’s director of sales, was released from prison. Murphy had served about half of a five-year sentence for bribing Haitian officials in connection with his rice export business.

In a deferred prosecution agreement in 2013, Honey Solutions agreed to pay a $1 million fine.

Last week, Honey Solutions issued a news release noting the expiration of the deferred prosecution agreement with the government. But the company said it continues to assist an investigation into the honey industry.

The release asserted that neither the company nor its owner, officers or employees had been indicted or criminally charged with illegally transshipping, smuggling or importing Chinese honey into the U.S. The release did not mention company agents.

Above, I highlighted the phrase deferred prosecution agreement. That’s when a prosecutor agrees to grant amnesty in exchange for the defendant agreeing to fulfill certain requirements.  You might like to read this piece from Corporate Crime Reporter: Why Were Honey Companies Given Deferred Prosecution Agreements? In part, the piece tells us:

A second company, Honey Holding, doing business as Honey Solutions of Baytown, Texas,  admitted to charges that it purchased, processed, and sold the Polish-origin honey that was adulterated with the antibiotic.

Despite these admissions, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago allowed Groeb and Honey Holdings to enter into deferred prosecution agreements.

And one more time, for clarity: the government did not claim Honey Solutions Inc. purchased or sold tainted Chinese honey nor did it charge Honey Solutions with tax evasion. And I’m not claiming any of this either. I’m just repeating court records and depositions. You may draw your own conclusions over whether a “deferred prosecution agreement” was justified – apparently the prosecutor thought so.

All of this might seem esoteric. So, a little bad honey was sold to an unsuspecting public. And some honey, produced in China, was fraudulently imported (by Yang’s companies) to the USA. Who gets hurt?

We all get hurt: Honest honey packers (and there are many) have to compete against this crooked crap where prices are undercut by tainted honey and by honey without import duties properly paid. In May, 2016, Homeland Securities estimated it lost over one hundred eighty million dollars in revenue from illegal honey imports alone.  Meanwhile, beekeepers get hurt as they have to sell cheaply to be competitive with dirty imports. Consumers may be literally, physically hurt by adulterated honey. Finally, honey gets a bad name and sales drop.  It’s a dirty business, done for greed, just so criminals can have a bigger house, a fancier car, a grander vacation – at the expense of ordinary working people.

Although a few people were caught, some guilty pleas were entered, and a wee bit of jail time was awarded (Doug Murphy got 6 months – the law allowed for up to 25 years), millions of dollars in potential profit from honey laundering and associated malpractices is still a huge incentive when the punishment is not much more than a tap on the knuckles.

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Morgan Freeman’s Bees

By now, most beekeepers have heard that Morgan Freeman is a beekeeper. Morgan Freeman is incredible. Whether you enjoyed him driving over Miss Daisy or just gaining redemption after Shawshank, you likely admired the way the man can perform.

I’ve long appreciated Freeman as an actor, but really began to appreciate him when I started watching his series of science documentaries on Discovery, the astrophysics lectures called Through the Wormhole. Respect for the actor is deep – he was born in Tennessee, grew up in rural Mississippi, yet became comfortable in Hollywood. To top it off, at age 65 he earned his pilot’s license and he flies a Cessna 414. He’s now 79. He decided to become a beekeeper a couple years ago, at age 76. And it’s not just a one-hive gimmick – he’s got about 40 hives on his Mississippi farm.

Here are a couple of clips of Freeman the beeman on TV:

More bee talk, a couple nights ago:


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Upside-Down Almond Pollination


Arriving in Australia.

It’s September, but some beekeepers are just wrapping up almond pollination and moving their bees to canola.  Sounds late. California’s almonds finished in March. Canola blossom ended months ago, too. But not for Australian beekeepers.

Here’s a news piece from SunraysiaDaily:

MILLIONS of bees trucked into Victoria to pollinate almond plantations last month are now working their magic to help boost the state’s spring canola crops.

“The honey bee industry provides benefits of between $4-6 billion to the Australian economy each year, and specifically to pollination-dependent plant industries such as almonds, cherries and pome fruit,” she said.

Beekeepers who move to almond pollination into the southern state of Victoria will face many of the same issues as California pollinators – monoculture limits nutritional diversity, pesticides wreck hives, trucking stresses the bees, and pests transfer hive to hive in the dense apiaries.  Hopefully, the migratory beekeepers are being compensated for all this.

Australia is now the world’s second largest almond producer, having just passed Spain’s production. Australia is still far behind the USA. California produces about 2 million tonnes a year; Australia, about one-tenth that. But the Australian groves are expanding. With that, the need for pollinating honey bees is growing, of course.

In 2009, just 55,000 colonies were rented for almond pollination in Australia. In 2012 about 110,000 honey bee colonies were trucked into Australia’s almond groves. This year, it was 195,000 with 300,000 expected to be rented within 5 years.


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