Ready for the cold?

Podcasts continue to grow in popularity. People are spending about two hours each day following the wise musings of their favourite word-weavers. I heard that Joe Rogan signed with Spotify for $100,000,000 (though he’s locked in for ten years).

I rarely listen to Joe Rogan. He’s OK, I guess, but he doesn’t talk about bees. (I mostly listen to beecasts.) One of my favourites is PolliNation, hosted by ex-Calgarian Dr Andony Melathopoulos. Andony is one of the best bee presenters you’ll ever have a chance to meet. He works at Oregon State University and his podcast originates there.

You can catch Episode #156 of Pollination on your podcast provider’s app. This episode, Preparing hives for winter,  is another great one. Andony meets Dr. Shelley Hoover in one of her research apiaries. Shelley has worked for Alberta Agriculture, been president of the Entomological Society of America, and is now the Apiculture and Pollination Scientist in the Department of Research and Innovation at the University of Lethbridge, in southern Alberta. Her research focuses on honey bee health, breeding, management, pest management, and nutrition, as well as canola pollination. She knows a lot about honey bees.

Shelley Hoover and Andony Melathopoulos, in Lethbridge, Alberta, in 2016.
I took this photo when they were both working at the agriculture research station.

This week’s PolliNation podcast covers wintering from a northern prairie perspective. Shelley Hoover manages 95 hives across the border from Montana. Don’t miss this podcast. Among the topics:

Starvation is still a common cause of over-wintering colony death. (Especially among hobby urban beekeepers, where it ranks as the leading cause of honey bee mortality.)

Shelley gives her bees 20 litres (5 gallons)  of 2:1  sugar syrup in the fall. At over 25 kg (60 pounds), that’s a lot. Feeding finishes by early October.

The bees are fed heavily in the fall so they don’t have to be fed in the spring. This reduces the chance of accidentally getting sugar into honey supers. Also, fall feeding is easier – it’s warmer and colonies have larger populations, so the feed is stored quickly.

She combines weak hives that would die over winter.  All wintering hives have at least  two deeps full of bees.

Dr. Hoover recognizes the importance of ventilation. Hives have multiple entrances, including upper ones. The alternative is, she says, wet dead bees.

Hives are wrapped with insulating material by mid-October and unwrapped in April or May.

Finally, listen to the podcast to find out why Shelley never drives next to a potato chip truck on Alberta highways.

Posted in Beekeeping, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Frosted Honey

My cousin, who lives in Europe, sent me the photograph above. She was wondering what had gone wrong with her honey – and how she could fix it.

First, I have to wonder if this is something ‘wrong’. Honey with this mottled, marbled, frosted look isn’t necessarily bad. If you produce honey with moisture below 18.6%, and keep all stages of the process clean, you can almost certainly safely eat the product. However, if you hope to sell it, you may want the honey to look “normal” – you don’t want to explain anything unusual to your customers. As I child, I worked in our family’s produce stand. We sold tomatoes, peppers, squash, and such. I learned, around age seven, that trimming outside leaves from a cabbage head made it sell better. Often, there was nothing wrong with the parts peeled off, but by offering less, we sold more. It’s usually the same with honey. Filter out the wax and pollen, and it sells more easily.  Maybe this is what we should do with ‘frosted’ honey – melt it and pour it back into the bottles. It will look better. That’s probably easier than educating a consumer about the higher quality of natural honey over heated honey.

What causes ‘frosted’ honey? I don’t  have much experience with this, so I passed the question along to some friends. They had a range of ideas. As usual with beekeepers, my five consultants had different opinions.

Since a lot of readers are harvesting, packing, and selling their late-season honey this weekend, I figured that I’d post the responses here for everyone’s benefit. Not only will you see some answers, but you’ll see how beekeepers think about things.  If you have thoughts to share, take another look at the photo above, read the paragraphs below, and add your ideas in the comments.

Here is what I asked my friends:  “My cousin sent me this photo from Europe. She’s wondering why her granulated honey has two types of crystallization, how to ‘fix’ it, and how to prevent this from happening in the future.”

Answer 1)  In the honey quality and defects workshop at Apimondia, the guy told us a theory I’d never heard before. He said honey contracts a tiny bit when it crystallizes and it’s that contraction that causes the “frosting.” He said honey that crystallizes quickly shows this more. He said to avoid it, one should slow down the crystallization process by keeping it at some temperature. Unfortunately I don’t remember the temperature. Based on my own experience, I’d say 14-16C, maybe as low as 12. The degree of contraction also depends a lot on the variety of honey, which is basically the sugar ratios and crystal size. Based on my own experience, I tend to agree that certain varieties of honey are much more prone to this than others. Again based on my own experience, moisture content may also play a role.

I’ve heard the air bubble theory too. In a way, they’re kind of the same thing because the white parts are where there is more air. I guess the ambiguity is whether the air is there because the honey contracted when it crystallized or whether it was in the honey before it started crystallizing. It could be a combination of both.

So Ron, I would amend your proposed solution by saying pay attention to the speed at which the honey is allowed to crystallize and aim for a moisture content of somewhere around 17.3%, keeping in mind that some varieties of honey will do this regardless of the packer’s best efforts.

Answer 2) Frosting is a component of storage temperature with increased risk if jarred honey is stored too cold, low humidity honey is at greater risk. Best storage temperature is 14-15 C. Never put jars with honey in a colder environment after jarring.

Answer 3)  The whitish colored stuff is wax, pollen etc. I usually don’t filter honey. Just settle it out. When the honey granulates – the very small non-sugar stuff separates out. Some of it floats on top but we always see some of the white streaks in nearly all jars. We just stir it in before use. This retains the good flavor elements in the honey. Well that’s our thoughts.

It is a visual that makes people think it is bad – It does not look like the processed  honey from commercial packers. Our food seems to need to look perfect to some commercial standards. I think that’s not a good model.  When I got a chance to go to Mexico and went to the supermarket – saw all kinds of produce that was not as “pretty” as the produce here. The food was perfectly OK.

Answer 4) It could be a bit of fermentation. If not blended together and was a some trace of wet honey, it may have risen to the top as the jar settled. It could also be different nectar sources that are not well blended and crystallizing at different rates. My proposed solution, warm it liquid and shake it up well.

Answer 5) I went to a talk at Apimondia given by the company that had won the best creamed honey in the world in 2018. They called this “frosting”. The speaker said it was caused by tiny air bubbles being trapped between the honey and the sides of the jar. I guess that is why it normally forms near the top or the shoulder of the jar. I had this problem one year when I took cold jars from the basement and added my honey without warming the jars first. This “frosting” started out like your cousin’s but continued to spread over time. I heated the honey in the jars and stirred the warmed honey. Depending on how many jars she has, this will work. It looks weird but it tasted the same. Sometimes, I can get the same white coating on the top of my 50 pound honey pails where the honey/air bubbles have crystallized on the surface. It is fine when I reheat the honey.

So, a variety of opinions on the cause of frosting. Most answers focus on temperatures (of jars and of storage conditions), on air trapped in the honey, and on moisture (most said ‘too much’ but answer #2 suggested the honey’s moisture was too low.) There was also a comment on honey variety – poor blending of two different varieties, or simply the fact that some honey may be more prone to frosting because of sugar chemistry.  There was also the suggestion that fermentation or excessive wax/pollen caused this, though I don’t think that’s right.

My friends’ solutions to fix the jars? Melt the honey and repackage it. Answer #4 also says that the honey should be ‘shaken’ after melting. I’d say ‘gently stirred’ to avoid introducing air bubbles.

What do you think? What causes frosting and how would you fix jars that have it? Feel free to comment below.

Posted in Beekeeping, Friends, Honey | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Covid: Saturday at the Hive

Mark Soehner’s Saturday at the Hive
in his idyllic backyard apiary.

Our local bee club (Calgary & District Beekeepers Association)  coordinates a nice summertime event, Saturday at the Hive. Experienced beekeepers offer to show their colonies to newer beekeepers. The guest list is limited and cleared through the bee club, but all the risk, planning, and teaching is left to the host. I thought it would be cancelled because of Covid-19, but after the province eased meet-ups a bit, these Saturdays at the Hive gatherings proceeded.

Mark, welcoming his guests to his socially-distanced bee event.

A friend asked me to attend his event. I was the old-timer who could help answer questions and demonstrate beekeeping tactics. Of course I said yes – it was a chance to meet some new beekeepers and enjoy a light delicious dinner and bee talk. Who could say “No” to that?

So, last Saturday, I drove over to Mark Soehner’s home and rolled my wheelchair into his back yard. I arrived late – Mark had already set up some tables with bee equipment and samples of his award-winning backyard honey. Ten folks showed up, most wearing covid masks. You can see mine, left.

After introductions and some background (Mark has kept bees for four years and has lived at his lovely home for 41 years!), the history of each hive was detailed: Mark had made 2 splits a few days earlier; a couple hives were strong honey-makers; another was a swarm that Mark caught eight days earlier. There was a lot to describe and demonstrate to the group of visitors.

If you decide to host a similar gathering in these awkward deadly days of Covid, you will be doing a big favour to a lucky group of beginning beekeepers – a long as you don’t make them all sick, of course. Encourage them to wear masks. Have plenty of space around the demonstration hives. Search for a couple of good example frames (pollen, queen cell, pearl brood, etc.), hold the frame away from your body and let people walk by, single file, like they might when they are visiting Mona Lisa at the Louvre. You can do this and keep everyone safe, entertained, and informed.

Guests, coming by single-file, to get a bit of learning slapped on them.

Left to right: Guest Michael, me (Ron), and host Mark.

Posted in Bee Yards, Friends, Outreach | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Covid: How we got our bees

Some really unusual things have been going on in the bee world since the advent of Covid-19. These include a big setback for beekeepers in my community and the rescue of stranded Canadians in Central America – a rescue performed because of commercial beekeepers. I’ll get to these in a moment.

First, let’s talk about beekeeping in the time of Covid. Hobby beekeeping is pretty much the same as it was last year. We wonder and worry about the rains, the temperatures, the flowers, the mites. Commercial Covid-beekeeping is a bit harder. The government of Alberta even issued a Covid-19 Beekeeping Guidelines bulletin.  It is mostly for the 200 commercial beekeepers in our province, but if you are a hobbyist and haven’t learned how to wash your hands by now, that’s included.

As I said, hobby beekeepers have it easier. We can go out to our backyard bees without a mask and take bee communion. (So far, there’s no evidence that our bees will pick up this respiratory virus.) Unfortunately, hobby beekeepers who need mentors will find that a bit awkward. Social distancing and sharing bee inspection techniques are almost mutually exclusive. Also, bee clubs are generally not clubbing, so the newbee looking for help may be turning to the misinformation-depository known as YouTube. But perhaps you are lucky enough to have a bee club with a strong on-line presence sharing questions and answers. Next blog post, I’ll write a bit more about this.

I used to be a commercial beekeeper, but now I putter around with two backyard honey bee colonies and use a few other hives for research. My research required some new colonies, so I set up a nuc purchase. Buying nucs was a new experience for me. Over the years, I’ve made thousands of nucs, but not bought any. A couple years ago, I acquired packages through our bee club, just for the experience of growing a couple hives from scratch on all new hive equipment.

This year, needing a few new colonies, I decided to try the nuc experience instead of packages. (There’s nothing wrong with packages – they do very well and you enjoy the thrill and tension of watching a colony dwindle to a tiny cluster during that three-week period when older sisters die and young ones haven’t yet emerged. Then, Ka-Boom, the little colony explodes into a powerful hive and you know that you have picked an interesting hobby.)

This spring, I bought several 5-frame nucs. I made arrangements in early March for May delivery from coastal British Columbia (Canada’s Florida, but with fewer palms and covids). A friend drove his truck and trailer down to the coast, helped the seller prep the nucs, then drove about a hundred of them up the Fraser Valley, across the continental divide, and into Alberta’s land of honey.

I was lucky to have these extra colonies. (Here’s one, right, being transferred from the white box into a full 10-frame box.) I had nucs, but most Alberta beekeepers had ordered packages. Packages didn’t arrive this year. They were supposed to reach Alberta in late April, coming from New Zealand. Because of C-19, flights (even those carrying bees) were cancelled. Some commercial beekeepers purchase thousands of packages to replace winter losses or expand their outfits. These folks couldn’t get the bees they needed and are running fewer colonies this summer. Unfortunately, this past winter was one of our worst ever for winter losses, with about 40% of the province’s honey bees dying. With high winter-kill and no way of using packages to build up their apiaries, they would have wanted nucs, but Canada retails fewer than 5000 nucs, while in a normal spring, 70,000 packages are brought into the country.

The scarcity of replacement bees means that Alberta’s hive count is down. This made some home gardeners nervous about their backyard gardens. There is no reason to be overly-concerned – honey bees focus on big fields (and forests) of uniform flowers for nectar and pollen; backyard gardens are mostly pollinated by bumble bees and other native species. It’s mostly those minor bees that take care of gardens, not honey bees.

The local TV news heard about the plight of farmers and gardeners so they phoned. I suggested that they would learn more from farmers and beekeepers and sent them off to interview some of those folks. They did, but then they came back to me to get the city-side of the story. I’ve linked the news piece here.  You can watch the video interview of a bee-man, farmer, and me here:

Now, a completely different corona beekeeping story.

Commercial beekeeping in Alberta depends on Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs). These folks are experienced beekeepers who live in Nicaragua, the Philippines, eastern Europe, South America, and other places four months of the year, then show up in Canada to help the big outfits – bee farms with thousands of colonies. The workers come back year after year, usually working at the same bee businesses. Without them, commercial beekeeping wouldn’t survive in the manner it is conducted today.

Most of the TFWs fly into Canada in April or May. This spring, Covid-19 stopped most air traffic. Canadian commercial beekeepers chartered a plane to carry about 100 beekeepers north from Central America. Then they discovered that Canadian tourists and business folks were stranded in Central America and also needed a trip north. Here’s an excerpt from Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail:

A chartered plane carrying an unlikely combination of travellers is scheduled to depart Nicaragua for Canada on Monday: temporary foreign workers bound for commercial bee operations, and Canadians who had been stranded in Central America amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flights out of the capital of Managua have been suspended as international travel slows to a near standstill, complicating efforts to bring workers into Canada to help manage the spring hive-building season – a vital time when bees reproduce and burgeon into healthy colonies. Led by a queen that lays up to 2,000 eggs each day, honey bees are good for more than their name implies; they are critical to the cross-pollination of fruits, vegetables and canola.

To stave off a labour shortage that could impact the food supply chain and hurt the beekeeping industry, the Canadian Honey Council took matters into its own hands. At a cost of roughly $200,000, the council chartered a plane to fly 80 skilled workers from Nicaragua to Canada, touching down first in Calgary, and then continuing east to Saskatoon, Brandon and Toronto.


Posted in Beekeeping, Commercial Beekeeping, Pollination | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Don’t Step on a Bee Day

squashed Benny

There’s a day for everything.

Today is Don’t Step on a Bee Day.

See if you can keep it up all week!

Posted in Humour, Save the Bees | Tagged | 3 Comments

Covid: Do your bees have the cure?

Well, I hope you enjoyed your break away from my blog. I did. Sometimes its nice to hit that big fat reset button in the middle of the desk. I hit it when my head fell on my desk one afternoon and just stayed there. I’m feeling a little better now.

You must be tired of all the Covid-19 stuff by now, but that’s exactly where I’m picking up my blog today. I just read a paper written by someone in Wuhan, China – the place the virus began. I have limited confidence in their study because it has grandiose statements and is a one-off. But it was allowed on the US government’s National Institute of Health website, so maybe it carries some truth. I’ll leave it to you to decide, but I still don’t fully trust it. The paper makes bold claims about the extreme effectiveness of bee stings as protection against Covid-19. In short, it seems too good to be true.

However, as a matter of general interest, here’s an excerpt from the study (read the full piece here) that relates how beekeepers in the Wuhan area seemed immune to Covid-19 during their epidemic:

“In Hubei province, the epicentre of COVID-19 in China, the local beekeepers association conducted a survey of beekeepers. A total of 5115 beekeepers were surveyed from February 23 to March 8, including 723 in Wuhan, the outbreak epicentre of Hubei. None of these beekeepers developed symptoms associated with COVID-19, and their health was totally normal.

After that, we interviewed five apitherapists in Wuhan and followed 121 patients of their apitherapy clinic. These patients had received apitherapy from October 2019 to December 2019, and all the five bee apitherapists have the habit of self-apitherapy for their own health care (apitherapy means making use of bee venom from the honeybee’s sting to treat or prevent certain diseases). Without any protective measures, two of the five apitherapists were exposed to suspected COVID-19 cases and others were exposed to confirmed COVID-19 cases, but none of them were infected eventually. None of the 121 patients were infected by SARS-CoV-2, and three of them had close contact with immediate family members who were confirmed SARS-CoV-2 Infection cases.”

There have been other claims that apitherapy (bee stings) will prevent or cure the novel corona virus. I don’t follow unproven, untested medical advice. Bee sting therapy may be effective in relieving some ailments, but the newness of Covid-19 has not allowed proper and thorough testing. And, as always, we need to remind ourselves of the potential fatal impact of bee stings on hypersensitive people. Further, practicing medicine without a licence is a serious offence.

However, this whole thing is intriguing. Bee stings can stimulate the immune system. If you get stung regularly, please comment below. Have you been tested for C-19? Did you have the virus? Whatever your answer – or thoughts on this story – be sure to let us know.

Posted in Apitherapy, Science, Stings, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , | 19 Comments

Big Bee Meet

This is sort of a public service announcement for Alberta beekeepers. Alberta is a place in Canada, population 4 million, north of Montana, home to the Calgary Stampede, some NHL teams, and the best honey in the world. Deer and antelope roam here, too. I mention all this because most of my readers are not from Alberta, so this gives some context about what follows. If you’re not in western Canada, you might not care about this. In that case, you can come back later when you can stay longer.

I’m a director of United Beekeepers of Alberta. Our next AGM and conference is two weeks away. If you are in Alberta, Saskatchewan, or BC., come visit us at this big bee meeting. It’s in Spruce Grove, near Edmonton, the second-largest city in Alberta (home of the High Level Bridge Streetcar, among other fine attractions).  Our meeting includes ten entrancing speakers, a lunch, edible snacks, non-edible honey competition, trade show, and a chance to get my autograph – if you successfully bid for a copy of one of my books.

Seriously, folks, the cost is trivial ($25), the folks are delightful, the talks entertaining, and you should be there. Don’t miss the United Beekeepers of Alberta Conference, Saturday, March 14, in Spruce Grove, Alberta.  Learn more about the event and register before it sells out.

Posted in Outreach, Personal, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , | 3 Comments

A Guide to Controlling Varroa

Varroa (Scott Bauer, USDA)

Morgan Roth

Spring is arriving in the north, and a young man’s mind thinks about romance. And varroa. There’s a nice new single-page guide that offers a quick look at integrated pest management (IPM) for the varroa beast. You can read some of the details, here, at the Entomology Today website, or read a complete paper on the topic at the Journal of Integrated Pest Management. Both pieces were written by Morgan Roth (et al.), an entomology research assistant at Virginia Polytech.

Here are a few lines from the abstract of “Biology and Management of Varroa destructor (Mesostigmata: Varroidae) in Apis mellifera (Hymenoptera: Apidae) Colonies”, which appears in the integrated pest management journal.

…overuse of synthetic acaricides in the past has led to widespread acaricide resistant V. destructor populations. The application of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques is a more recent development in V. destructor control and is suggested to be more effective than only using pesticides, thereby posing fewer threats to A. mellifera colonies. When using IPM methods, informed management decisions are made based upon sampling, and cultural and mechanical controls are implemented prior to use of acaricide treatments. If acaricides are deemed necessary, they are rotated based on their mode of action, thus avoiding V. destructor resistance development.

This, of course, is relatively well-known advice. But the quality of the article, published this month, is worth your time. You can follow the historic migration of varroa from a largely benign existence on Apis cerana in Asia, to its nearly world-wide domination as a parasite that chews out bits of Apis mellifera. The paper covers biology and reproduction, current controls (synthetic and organic acaricides), non-chemical treatments, and of course, how all things fit together in the IPM model.

Here’s a bit more, from the section Soft (Organic) Acaricides:

Soft acaricide treatments have been steadily increasing in popularity, as they rarely accumulate to harmful levels in hives and bee products (Rosenkranz et al. 2010). Oxalic acid that can be sprayed, trickled, evaporated into hives, or used as crystals, is thought to be preferable for use in autumn and winter months (Rademacher and Arz 2006). Lactic acid is also used in small apiaries during the autumn and winter, is administered by spray, but is a time-consuming treatment strategy (Kraus and Ben 1994). Formic acid is administered as a fumigant, inserted into hives on saturated pads or in gel pads (Elzen et al. 2004), or in gel packs, and is best used during summer months, or during a period of the year when average daily temperatures reach 15°C (Satta et al. 2005). These organic acids all occur naturally in honey (Kraus and Ben 1994, Rademacher and Arz 2006, Gunes et al. 2017); however, high levels of formic acid vaporization can be toxic to bees, therefore, acid concentrations and hive temperatures should be monitored while treatments are being administered (Elzen et al. 2004). It is recommended that day temperatures range between 10 and 33°C when formic acid strips are in use (Honey Bee Health Coalition 2018). Despite the risks, formic acid is also the only soft acaricide that is known to kill mites in A. mellifera capped brood cells, which makes it an attractive option (Fries 1991). The modes of action for these acids are unclear, but it is suspected that oxalic and lactic acid lead to mite death via solution acidity, and formic acid is thought to eventually interfere with V. destructor metabolism and respiration (Rosenkranz et al. 2010).

Many essential oils have also been tested for use in V. destructor control, however, thyme (thymol), marjoram, sage, wintergreen, clove, and turpentine (camphor) oil, are most commonly implemented, and have been somewhat successful (Imdorf et al. 1999). These treatments may be administered as fumigants, sprays, powders, saturated absorbent materials, or gels (Mondet et al. 2011). These essential oils are believed to be effective due to their neurological effects on V. destructor (Blenau et al. 2012). Tobacco extract was also shown to be an effective acaricide, especially when used in combination with clove oil (Mahmood et al. 2014). Thymol, purchased as Apiguard gel or powder, is the most commonly used essential oil. Thymol is considered to be more effective than tau-fluvalinate, which could be due to resistance (Ahmad et al. 2013) even though it can have different effects on bees of various ages and is still ineffective on mites in bee brood (Mondet et al. 2011).

I think that the articles, in Entomology Today (a synopsis) and the Journal of Integrated Pest Management, are worth your time. They will certainly help you know your enemy and maybe even restrict the voracious vermin to destroying your neighbours’ hives, instead of your own.

Posted in Bee Biology, Beekeeping, Diseases and Pests | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Remembering Susan

I never met Susan Rudnicki, but we sparred regularly right here on this blog. She was passionate about her California Africanized bees, about young women’s education (especially in developing countries), and about the need for us to take care of this planet. Our disagreements were minor, engaging, and illuminating. I felt like we were friends, pen pals of a sort, though our correspondence was public, shared on the web.

This went on for a while and Susan became one of the most regular members of the comment gallery. Then, almost exactly one year ago, she sent me a private note, telling me that she was sick. She had pancreatic cancer. A tiny proportion of people with this diagnosis live for years. I was sure that she would be one and encouraged her natural optimism. She was thin, active, strong, and maintained a healthy diet. She was unlikely to be inflicted with the disease in the first place, and she was likely to enjoy many more years of advocacy and fussing over her bees. But within months, she died.  If you’d like to know more about this amazing person, you can visit this blog post.

Next weekend, January 18 and 19, the HoneyLove organization is holding a Natural Beekeeping Conference at LA’s University of Southern California campus. Among the presenters will be Michael Bush, Les Crowder, Dr. May Berenbaum, Sam Comfort, Jacqueline Freeman, Michael Thiele, and many more. The conference is in Susan’s backyard, so to speak, and she would have loved being there.  She will be, in spirit, and she’ll be remembered with the presentation of a memorial scholarship. If you’d like to know more about that, send a note to

                   🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝

Here are a few of the nearly 100 comments that Susan left on the pages of this blog. . .

December 30, 2018, responding to a post about Beekeeper Barbie:

“…my dad brought home some ponies from the auction when I was 6 and that was it for my “indoor life” anyway. Completely horse crazy for the next 15 years. Still don’t have TV either.”

November 5, 2018, responding to a post about philosopher/beekeeper Richard Taylor:

“Well, thank you for this!! I think Taylor would be extremely concerned with the current state of wealth consolidation in the US and the world generally. The wealthy of our administration seem hell-bent on mining and extracting for profit at a ever increasing rate, while the climate science directly instructs us to be going in the opposite direction.”

August 10, 2018, responding to a post about record heat in Calgary:

“I live in Los Angeles—Manhattan Beach, exactly, but the summers are getting hotter and the heat is more prolonged. Today, there are 22 major wild fires burning in our state, and so-called “fire season” which used to be Sept to Dec is now ALL year. We got a total of 4.79 inches of rain last year, all of it in Jan and March. My bees are struggling in a new apiary … in a rugged So Calif peninsula location surrounded by wild plants dessicated from prolonged drought. The heat is now so intense in summer that I have not only SBBs but fully ventilated screened tops under the top boards. My screened inner covers are the design found on HoneyBeeSuite here — Since my colonies are all foundationless (natural comb, no wires or foundation or plastics) they can melt under intense heat and crumple over. Once, I found honey running out the entrance onto the ground from some collapsed combs in my hives—I have mostly deep boxes. So, that is how I mitigate what is sure to be a ever more severe weather pattern of intense temperatures.”

December 27, 2017, responding to the man who discovered that bees can think:

“Thank you so much for this! von Frisch gets all the attention. This reminds me of the study of the double helix, in which Watson and Crick get the accolades by their research, but much has been made of how Rosalind Franklin’s images and research were fundamental to the W and C outcome.”

Finally, a month before her death, in Susan’s last contribution to this site:

“I keep wild (feral sourced) Apis mellifera, and assert there are thousands of wild colonies of honey bees in the Los Angeles basin. They are far from going extinct. Also, there is no connection between “honey bee farming” and the prosperity of wild honey bees.”

Susan Rudnicki with her beloved Africanized bees drawing foundationless comb in a Langstroth frame, 2018, Manhattan Beach, California.

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

Bees and the Australian Fires

Australia is on fire. When I heard about the thousands of people who were fleeing – some being rescued from beaches by the navy – and then saw photos of black smoke, red skies, and stampeding kangaroos, I worried about the firefighters, homeowners, and displaced people. Then I began to worry about the bees of Australia.

The country has hundreds of species of bees, many residing in eucalyptus forests, which are comprised of oily trees capable of igniting like candles. Australia’s native bees are being consumed by flames, even as you read these words. The bush fires have killed trillions of insects and half a billion vertebrates. Those estimates are based on the landscape, 60,000 km² (24,000 square miles), burned so far. That’s an area larger than the state of West Virginia. It’s an area equal to 15% of all the arable land in Australia. The entire country is affected by ash and drifting smoke. Some of the soot has travelled at least 2,000 miles to New Zealand, causing mountain-top glaciers to turn grey.

Yesterday, the temperature topped 120 °F, (49 °C) around Sydney, Australia’s largest city, and 111 °F (44 °C) in Canberra, the capital. Even without fire, honey bees have a rough time surviving such heat. 120 °F is the temperature that honey combs, laden with honey and brood, begin to sag. Comb will eventually be wrecked in the hive, especially if covers aren’t shaded or insulated. Before 100 °F, most bees quit foraging and those that are flying carry water to cool their colony.

Smoke from forest and bush fires also cause severe problems. With black sooty smoke shrouding vast areas, nearly every bee in the country has had days of disrupted foraging. Just like you and me, bees can’t work well when the air is thick with smoke.

Australia’s drought – now in its fifth or sixth year – was devastating this spring.  Even without bush fires, honey bees have been doing poorly because flowers have dried out. Due to the lack of rain, beekeepers have been losing money in Australia for several years. In Tasmania, honey production has dropped by 90% due to drought and smoke. Now it’s much worse.

It’s much worse because bee yards have been ravaged, colonies killed, equipment torched, combs destroyed. I haven’t heard all the bad news, but what I’ve heard is sobbering. Beekeepers are emotionally drained. They live their lives around bees. They build their equipment themselves, by hand. They care for their honey bees, work to prevent diseases and strive to keep their little helpers safe and healthy. Beekeepers become attached to the wonders of the hive and the bees themselves.

So, it’s devastating when you can’t help the bees. Late last month, when a beekeeper tried to move his hives out of a threatened forest (fires were 60 kilometres away), he found the road barred by police who wouldn’t let him enter. Fire fighters said it was too dangerous, and they would know the risks. It took almost a week for the flames to burn a path to his apiaries, but fire eventually arrived. The beekeeper lost eight hundred colonies in the blaze. Financially, it’s almost impossible to recover from such a loss. The emotional strain of losing the beautiful insects will take years to overcome.

I know a hard-working beekeeping family, the Curkpatricks, in the state of South Australia. I’ve done a little business with them in the past. I’d been worrying about their south-coast honey farm for a few weeks. Here are pictures from one of their apiaries – after fire swept in during the last few days of 2019.

This is what they saw, driving into their apiary, at 8am December 31:

The colonies were completely destroyed. Below, you can see the mix of melted comb, hundreds of pounds of honey, and charred honey bees.

Destruction and loss. Honey bees won’t leave their hives, even when their combs are burning. The fire swept through the yard, burned the hives, and kept moving. It doesn’t look like there was a lot of brush, probably mostly tall dry grass. The fire was likely moving very fast, propelled by high winds, as the lower tree trunks were scorched, but not the upper branches. Unfortunately, when the flames reached the hives, the equipment (and bees) burned.

Below is a detail from the photograph above. You can see that the eucalyptus trees took quite a bit of trunk damage. The debris in the foreground, of course, is from beehives that caught fire.

This was a horrific fire. I hope that the family that managed these bees will quickly recover from their nightmare. If you would like to help them (they produce beautiful comb honey) check their store, restaurant, and Facebook website.

The Curkpatrick family is not the only beekeeping family with major losses. As a result, several initiatives have started fundraising campaigns for Australia’s beekeepers. Here is one that details why beekeepers particularly need help and it offers a way that you can participate. Please do what you can to help.

Reporting the honey bee damage does not trivialize the loss of human life, homes, and larger animals in Australia. So far, over two dozen people have perished while fleeing or fighting the fires. Today I learned about cattle dogs who died alongside the cows they were trained to protect. The cattle were trapped against a barbed-wire fence. The dogs wouldn’t leave their cattle, even as the fire consumed them.

Meanwhile, there has been some nasty press about the Australian government’s lack of climate action. Even the New York Times has pointed out the irony of a government in climate-change denial, now trying to sweep up the ashes. As a person who has spent thirty years working in geophysics, and now involved in statistical ecology, I’ve seen the data and I understand it. Although the Earth has experienced higher temperatures in the distant past, I know that this disaster has been fuelled by coal and oil. But I won’t blame the hard-working farmers, ranchers, and beekeepers. They are the victims here.

Uncontrolled fires today in Australia.
Heat, drought, and poor fire management have set the continent ablaze.

There has also been finger-pointing directed at land managers who didn’t burn off the bush from time to time in controlled fires that would have reduced this week’s carnage. Indigenous Australian traditions included regular, well-timed burning of the brush. Western practises ignored those customs, greatly exasperating the inferno. There is plenty of blame to share for the conditions that led to this summer’s Australian bush fire disasters. Changes will be made on all fronts.

Summer is far from over. The damage will last for years, especially the mental trauma. Beekeepers often work in very remote areas. Some have reported that hearing the anguished screams of injured, burnt animals in bush and forest apiaries has severely affected them and their young beekeeper-labourers. This is horrific, it won’t end soon, and effects will last for years. For today, let Australians focus on recovery and the challenges ahead. Then they will roll up their sleeves and do what needs to be done to prevent future catastrophes.

Posted in Bee Yards, Climate, Commercial Beekeeping, Ecology | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments