Bees learn to drive tiny cars

“Are we there yet? You know, we could have flown.”

I wouldn’t believe this if I had seen it with my own eyes! Sam Droege, bee scientist extraordinaire, has a USGS Flickr website populated with great bee photographs. Last week, somewhere around April first, Sam posted the results of some clandestine bee training going on in a secret lab in the USA. They are teaching bees to drive tiny cars!

The scientists reward successful drivers (“Keep it between the ditches, ladies!”) with a sweet treat. Eventually, I guess, the bees get good at driving and take their car out for a spin, just for fun. I understand that they . . .  well, let Sam’s group tell the story:

Bees Learn to Drive Very Small Cars.

Scientists capitalized on recent revelations that bees are a lot smarter than previously thought. In addition to being able to count and solve simple puzzles USGS scientists at the Patuxent Native Bee Lab have taught bees to driver miniaturized automobiles. Using rewards such as flower smoothies and honey laced with addictive pollens, bees were gradually induced to drive in order to continue receiving their rewards. The study came to an unfortunate ending when one of the lab assistants was overwhelmed by angry bees who felt that the researchers were holding back on their pollen loads. Future plans are in the work to use less coercive methods and talks are in progress with several bee advocacy groups. For release on April 1, 2019.  Photography by Brooke Goggins.

Posted in Humour, Native Bees, Science, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Comb on demand

There’s a reason that this comb looks nearly perfect. Credit: BREAT

Here’s something that I never thought anyone would manufacture. It’s fully-drawn comb, just the way bees would make it, if bees were machines.

I’m impressed with the technology, but I’m not sure how marketable these manufactured combs will be. Perhaps beekeepers who operate in regions with cool, short seasons (like Iceland?) would want ready-made new comb so their bees wouldn’t need to draw out foundation.  Also,  beekeepers who are starting packages on all new equipment or those expanding their hive count might become customers of the artificial beeswax drawn combs. It would depend, of course, on how much the combs cost.

The manufacturing company, a Spanish outfit called BREAT says its motivation is

“…to focus on the renovation of honeycomb without any chemicals, which translates into a much healthier beehives. One of our main concerns is to preserve the environment in order to allow the bees to produce an exceptional honey.
“Our challenge has been to invented a machine that make honeycombs like bees and we have achieved that. The benefit of using these honeycombs is absolutely unbelievable, as it improve productivity of bees. Now they don’t have to making wax for building honeycombs and they dedicate more time and resources to honey production. Bee colonies also benefit into a better environment for brood nest where our honeycombs provide epitome conditions cycle growth of bee.”

BREAT, which engineered this system, is trying to sell the machinery, not necessarily the finished combs.  You would buy a big machine that looks like this:

To see the system in action, BREAT has released this video:

Posted in Beekeeping, Hives and Combs, Strange, Odd Stuff, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged | 6 Comments

Good Neighbour Beekeeping

It’s worth repeating. Especially at this time of the year. Be a good neighbour beekeeper.  I wrote the following post last March. If you missed it, here’s your chance to miss it again….

🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝

Tired of irritating your neighbours with your pesky bees? Help is on the way. A very bright professor at Oregon State, Andony Melathopoulos, has co-authored a guide which you should read:  Residential Beekeeping: Best-practice guidelines for nuisance-free beekeeping in Oregon.   It was written in Oregon for Oregonians but the advice will help urban and suburban beekeepers everywhere.

The manual is a colourful, user-friendly booklet that should keep you from looking like the guy in the picture above.  The best-practice guidelines manual begins by describing why beekeeping is important:

“While residential beekeeping can prove extremely rewarding to the beekeeper (a single colony can produce more than 40 pounds of honey, as well as other valuable products such as pollen, propolis, and wax), it also provides considerable benefits to neighbors and the city as a whole. 

“Honey bees play an important role in the residential community, providing pollination for the beekeeper’s property and for properties up to two miles away. As cities and towns encourage residential beekeeping and it becomes more established, the benefits increase and become integrated into a number of public services, such as educational projects, income opportunities for under-employed populations, and personal and community-building activities.”

The booklet then gives you the nuts’n’bolts of doing it right.  Topics include flight path, water for the bees, swarming, defensive behaviour, prevention of robbing, locating the apiary, proper number of hives to keep, stings, allergies, good neighbourliness, and lots more. It doesn’t cover a few things which every beekeeper should know (diseases and mites, for example) but that’s not the purpose of this guidebook. Instead, the clear focus is on being a good citizen backyard beekeeper and not a nuisance. There are a few paragraphs about legal stuff, town ordinances, and apiary registration which won’t be completely transferable everywhere, but the rest of the manual generally is applicable for most community beekeepers.

This is a well-organized, well-written, and well-illustrated manual. For example, here’s a simple figure showing how to reduce pedestrian contact with your bees. As most beekeepers know, honey bees very rarely sting when they are away from their hive (unless you bare-footedly step on one or try to pick one off a flower – then, I’m sorry, but I’ll side with the bee on this). Close to their nest, however, bees can become rudely defensive. Foot-traffic along a pathway in front of a hive entrance almost always causes trouble for the bees and for pedestrians. Thus, this simple but appropriate drawing:

From Best Practices:   Illustration by Iris Kormann, © Oregon State University

There are a few things missing from this 17-page manual (for example: how to stop robbing once it has started; how to carry a hive of bees into your back yard without discommoding the neighbours) but this guidebook doesn’t pretend to cover everything.  There’s a lot more you need to know before you start beekeeping – things you should learn at a two-day beginner’s bee course taught by your local bee club. For those extra details, the authors recommend that you participate in a bee course, learn from a good neighbour beekeeper, or at least seek out good practical advice.

Further, the authors suggest, “…the Best Practices are guidelines only, and are not intended nor should they be considered as hard and fast codes, rules or ordinances that must be followed and enforced. Rather, the Best Practices are to be used to foster nuisance-free residential beekeeping.” This manual provides the closest thing I’ve seen to best practices for backyard beekeepers. This guidebook isn’t just for beginners. Even if you have been keeping bees for a long time, you will pick up a few things and maybe adjust some of your unintentionally mistaken habits.

By the way, some of you will remember meeting the principal author, Andony, on my blog – he hosts a popular bee talk podcast, PolliNation, produced at Oregon State University.  I’ve written about it a few times. If you haven’t caught some episodes by now, give it a chance. A lot of good bee science is chatted about on that podcast.

Meanwhile, download your own copy of the best practices guidelines for residential beekeeping at this link. It’s a well-written, practical, helpful manual that will help keep hobby beekeepers from being nuisance beekeepers.

Posted in Bee Yards, Beekeeping, Books, Outreach | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Comb honey euphoria?

Three million people have watched this 12-minute video of a person eating honey comb and fried chicken. Every nuance of the first stage of digestion is clearly visible and audible. Microphones focus on noisy chewing and slurping sounds.

Why would anyone, let alone 3 million folks, watch someone eat honey comb? It has to do with ASMR, something I didn’t even know existed until today.  Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, is a thing. It refers to a tingly, exciting euphoria that some people spontaneously experience when they are exposed to particular everyday events that the more callous of us don’t recognize as stimulating. These are everyday events like gum chewing, whispering, or, better yet, eating comb honey.

I can almost imagine people developing an elevated state of well-being from eating comb honey. But to feel that way by watching and hearing someone else eat honey? Excuse me, but really? Really? Have we become a world of watchers instead of doers?

According to a New York Times’ piece, How A.S.M.R. Became a Sensation, the “psychological oddity” [0f witnessing someone eat comb honey] is a powerful sensation among those lucky enough to get a charge out of uncommonly common stimuli. It sounds harmless, like a form of transcendence far healthier than the tingle of opioids. As the Times reported, it can arrive “in a wave, like a warm effervescence, making its way down the length of [the] spine and leaving behind a sense of gratitude and wholeness.” Read the article if you must know more.

Personally, I don’t get it. But apparently many of the three million people who have watched the noisy demolition of a large chunk of comb honey and several hunks of chicken receive some pleasant benefit. I’m just pointing you towards a cultural phenomenon that’s new, and (I think) rather odd. But as we used to say in the old days, whatever floats your boat.  At least the video will likely boost comb honey sales for the Savannah Bee Company.

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

Beekeeping goes Global

Global TV interviewed me at noon today. Our chat went OK. I covered most of what I wanted to talk about in the five minutes allotted. I’d like to give a special thanks to Liz Goldie, who helped immeasurably with the preps and props. Liz is the most active member of our local bee club, the Calgary and District Beekeepers Association. Also a warm thank you to my friend Bert Blouin, a past bee club president, for loaning his observation hive. Of course, there is also gratitude to Global TV for inviting me and the bees. Finally, thanks to the station’s great staff for pushing all the right buttons – thanks, Heather, Tiffany, and Sarah.

Please take a look and tell me what you think. What you would do differently if you were on this show?

Posted in Ecology, Outreach, Save the Bees | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

A bit of pollen

The bees have found lots of little bits of early pollen.

Today’s high was only 12 ºC (53F), but the bees had discovered pollen. It’s surprising how small the pollen pelts are, and doubly surprising that nearly every bee is carrying some. Both of our backyard colonies are weak, but coming along. Both have sealed brood and enough bees to nurse their young. Although pollen is flowing, we still gave both hives a pollen cake to help them help themselves.

Pollen supplement, placed on top bars, over pearl brood.

The better hive has four frames of brood. That’s not much, but there were plenty of young adults emerging. With all the fresh pollen, the bees may be on their way to the big league. Should you feed supplementary pollen when the bees are gathering pollen? Well, it’s only April 3rd.  Here in Calgary, it can turn cold in a hurry at this time of the year. The last of the spring snowstorms is still in our future. The pollen supplement will help the bees through the bad weather that’s surely coming.

I see adults emerging from the brood!

This was only our third look at the bees for the year. On a mild day in mid-January, we gave them a bit of fondant. They were very weak and were already up in the second brood chamber. I’m glad we fed them because it turned really cold for the next six weeks. Then, on March 22, we dropped the hives to single-story and gave the bees their first pollen supplement and some liquid stimulation-syrup. Today, it was more pollen and an inspection of the brood nests. I was happy with what I saw.

If you work bees in cool weather, expect them to hang on to your clothes and face. It’s what they do.

Posted in Beekeeping | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Polar Vortex Insurance: Extended to Beekeepers!

Our local Auto Club (Alberta Motor Association) is offering Polar Vortex Insurance. This is a great new feature (for members only) – if the temperature stays at -25C, or colder, for any 14 consecutive days, each paid-up member gets to file a claim with the insurance company and collect a 14-day tropical holiday.

I have heard that they are considering a special insurance clause to also replace any dead overwintered honey bee colonies at the same time (for members only). They will replace them with tropical bees, as long as a ‘clean health’ certificate shows that there was never any nosema, dysentery, starvation, viruses, varroa mites, chalk, European, or American foul brood present at any time in the past.

This special offer from AMA Insurance was announced today, April first. Once again, our motor club is a trend-setting organization. Nice work, folks!  Read the details here – it’s worth your time.

Posted in Climate, Humour, Save the Bees, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

March 30: World Apitherapy Day

Today is World Apitherapy Day. And it’s my birthday.  Coincidence? Maybe.

Apitherapy, which means using bee stuff for health, can include eating pollen, propolis, wax, royal jelly, bee larvae, and honey – or rubbing them on your face. But for many, apitherapy is bee sting therapy. Stings are sometimes promoted as a treatment for autoimmune disorders, like MS and rheumatism. Less frequently (but with more notice), bee venom is an ingredient in skin creams  – as you can read here. (And here, here, and here.) However, a recent death due to a bee sting administered as apitherapy is newsworthy.

Just winking?

I don’t want to deflate the World Apitherapy Day balloon, but if you’re not careful, bee sting therapy can be fatal therapy. Most long-time beekeepers have been stung thousands of times. (That’s not an exaggeration.) We may forget that, for some people, a bee sting can be much worse than a bit of swelling, redness, and pain. A single bee sting can kill. Although bee sting therapy may work wonders on some auto-immune syndromes, stings might send a patient into systemic shock. That’s what reportedly happened in Spain.

A 55-year-old woman was undergoing bee sting therapy to treat stress and muscle fatigue. Her fatal sting was not her first bee sting – she had reportedly been getting sting therapy monthly for two years. Her fate is really unusual. If a severe reaction occurs, it is usually within the first few treatments. Sadly, although she had at least 20 previous sting sessions over many months without incident, the woman suddenly developed a “loss of consciousness immediately after a live bee sting,” according to the Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology:

During an apitherapy session, she developed wheezing, dyspnea, and sudden loss of consciousness immediately after a live bee sting. An ambulance was called, although it took 30 minutes to arrive. The apitherapy clinic personnel administered methylprednisolone. No adrenaline was available. When the ambulance arrived, the patient’s systolic pressure had dropped to 42 mmHg and her heart rate had increased to 110 bpm.

The woman never regained consciousness and later died from organ failure at hospital. Such bee-therapy fatalities are rare. Only one other treatment is known to have ended a life. However, a meta-analysis of several hundred studies showed that a significant number of therapies have caused serious reactions. The figure given in the analysis (Risk Associated with Bee Venom Therapy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis) indicated that 12% of people undergoing bee venom therapy from live stings (as opposed to physician-administered controlled injections of bee venom) experience serious reactions.

In two of the courses which I help teach – Making Money from Honey and Beginner’s Beekeeping, We always show a slide about bee sting therapy. For the beginners’ group, I mention it because many new beekeepers know the health benefits of a jab of bee venom, as seen on YouTube. We try to be sure that they understand the risks involved. For more advanced beekeepers, I mention bee sting therapy as something they may have considered as a source of income (and a way to help people). In both courses, I strongly advise against stinging anyone. Intentionally inflicting bee venom so that a client may gain health benefits might be considered “practising medicine without a license.” And you could kill someone.

I don’t want this blog posting to be an anti-apitherapy diatribe. I think that there is a lot of evidence that bee sting therapy can help some people some of the time. I’ve met people who claim that they are alive and active today because of bee stings. But I still refuse to get involved in administering the treatments myself – I’m not a trained first-responder. If something goes very badly wrong, the patient needs to be in the hands of someone with proper emergency experience.

Filip Terc apitherapy

Filip Terč, Father of Apitherapy 1844-1917

That’s my soap box speech for apitherapy caveats. You may wonder why March 30 is World Apitherapy Day. Today is not only my birthday, but it’s also the birthdate of the most important early promoter of healthy bee stings, Filip Terč, whom you see glaring at you adjacent to this sentence. Terč practiced medicine in Maribor, Slovenia, over a hundred years ago. As a young man, he suffered badly from rheumatoid pain until, at age 22, he was accidentally stung by an defensive mob of irritated honey bees. It changed his life. His pain was gone.

Terč began a serious study of the effects of bee venom therapy. He published the first clinical trials of the therapeutic effects of bee stings in the 1888 publication “Report on the Peculiar Connection between Bee Stings and Rheumatism”. He presented the results of treating 680 patients with the collective application of 39,000 stings. (An average of 60 stings/patient, administered over several months.)  He claimed that 82% experienced a complete cure, 15% had partial recovery, and just 3% had no relief from their rheumatoid condition. Although his work was published over a hundred years ago and his results have not been disputed, the medical profession is still cautious about the link between rheumatism, auto-immune dysfunctions, and some of the elements of bee venom. With immune disorders ranging from multiple sclerosis to allergies on the rise, the use of apitherapy treatments are finally becoming more accepted and generally more widely available. So, with cautious caveats, celebrate World Apitherapy Day. (And send regards to all those beekeepers with birthdays today).

Posted in Apitherapy, Culture, or lack thereof, Outreach, People, Stings, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

Our backyard bees get a make-over

Morning, March 21: Snow and ice on the ground. Wintered hives are in two deeps.

First the good news:  They survived.  Then, the reality: Kinda weak.

For the past few days, it’s been mild (15C, or 50F), so my 16-year-old and I did a complete backyard bees make-over. Mind you, looks aren’t everything, but this was a more serious make-over than I get when I drag a brush through my morning hair and teeth. The two-storey wintered hives are now singles, brood repositioned, bottoms emptied of dead bees, frame-feeders filled, pollen supplement smeared over top bars, frame-rests scraped, and honey-frames relocated.

Following, I show how we worked the over-wintered hives, step-by-step. We opened our two hives in turn, completely finishing one before moving on to the next hive.

1) We gently puffed (just a little) smoke into the upper entrances. I wintered in double-deep Langstroths. Hive bodies are polystyrene with R6 insulation (compared to R 0.75 for 3/4-inch wood). There was no exterior insulation, so we didn’t need to unwrap winter insulation material – a task I never liked when I ran my commercial honey farms.

2) The bees wintered with smaller populations than I’d like. All the bees in both hives were in their upper boxes. Daniel removed the hive lid, placing it upside-down, on the ground, near the hive. The lids had bees in them. Those bees stayed on their upside-down lid through the entire process. The upper box (which had the bees, queen, and brood) was placed catty-corner on the inverted lid. This way, no bees were hurt and we could get into the bottom box to examine it. It’s hard to see, but the box on the right is the second chamber, sitting at an angle atop the inverted lid on the ground.

3) We took every frame out of the bottom chamber, separating honey frames from empty ones, leaning the frames against my nearby wooden bench/seat. We scraped a few handfuls of dead bees and debris off the bottom board, making it nice and clean. Don’t panic if it looks like there are a huge number of dead bees (photo, left). Unless, of course, the whole colony is dead. Then, panic is justified. In our case, those dead bees represent natural death over five months and the colonies were actually OK. It looks worse than it is. If you see signs of dysentery (we didn’t), then you need to consider fixing something. After cleaning up the bottom, we placed a frame feeder into the totally empty bottom box which sat atop the nicely cleaned bottom board. I used my hive tool to scrape propolis and wax from the frame rests before putting the feeder into the chamber.

4) The bees and brood were in the upper box, still perched nearby on the inverted cover. Starting from the end frame farthest from the main cluster, Daniel removed that frame. Since it was empty, we set it aside. If it had had some honey, it would have gone into the empty box sitting on the clean bottom board. In this way, we transferred the frames of brood, as well, looking very quickly for any sign of sick brood. (Luckily, there wasn’t any.) In the end, the top box was emptied of all frames, the lower box received all the brood and some frames of honey. By the way, in transferring the brood, we were careful to keep the combs in the same order as they had been, not disturbing the cluster shape. It is still March and the weather is unstable here. We didn’t want to risk splitting the brood nest.

5) We filled the division-board (frame) feeder with syrup that I’d made in the morning from 8 litres of water (which weighs 8 kilograms) and 8 kilos of sugar. By the way, you can use organic sugar, which Costco sells for three-times the price of regular sugar. This is a steep premium, but if you feed ten kilograms (25 lbs) in the spring, it will cost about $20 more than feeding non-organic. I’m just mentioning this because one of the local organic certifiers allows organic sugar to supplement the bees. We also placed a splotch of pollen supplement above the brood nest on the top bars. Again, if you’d like to go organic, you can trap a little pollen and blend it with organic sugar (or some of your own honey from disease-free colonies), along with organic whey and a bit of organic water.

6) We closed the lid on the (now) single-story hive, quickly placed all the extra (mostly empty) combs into the empty deep rim, and Daniel-the-sixteen-year-old hustled everything to the garage where it will wait a few weeks before being placed back on the singles to make them doubles again.

So, both of our backyard colonies survived. One is just fine – it even had sealed brood spanning three frames. The other is really weak – maybe a pound of bees and just a single patch of brood. I’ve ordered a new package which I’ll install over screens above the weak hive, then eventually combine the weak colony and the package. Maybe I’ll have a two-queen colony for a few weeks in the spring, we’ll see.

So, the hives were inspected for disease, cleaned of dead bees and wax bits, fed protein and carbs, and made cozy in singles. The latter step may seem unnecessary, but consolidating the bees in one box when they don’t need two at this time of year (at least here in Calgary) conserves heat and increases the colony’s defences. Some beekeepers will say that small colonies of bees are “less demoralized” than they’d be in a big, hollow, 2-storey hive. That’s bestowing a bit of an anthropomorphic spirit upon the bees, but there might be some truth to it.

Afternoon, March 21: Spring hives are now in single deeps.

Posted in Beekeeping | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Every bee has a job: a short National Geographic video

National Geographic, the society of nature, geography, and the occasional bewildering cause, posted this short clip today. It explains the stages of ‘bee jobs’ that change with a honey bee’s age. Among its rabbit-hole nuggets, the film mentions that the bee brain is the size of a sesame seed. That’s something to chew on.

There are some simplifications, but the videography is superb. Enjoy…

//assets.nationalgeographic.com/modules-video/latest/assets/ngsEmbeddedVideo.html?guid=00000169-a22d-dcc2-affd-f6bf7cf20000

Or, follow this link.

Or click the pic below:

Posted in Bee Biology, Movies, Outreach | Tagged , | Leave a comment