Painting the Bees


Photos © The Good of the Hive 2016

Let’s celebrate bees –  and enjoy a really cool art project at the same time! Matthew Willey, an energetic and talented artist, is highlighting beauty and nature with a series of gorgeous honey bee murals.  It’s an ambitious project. Willey’s plan is to personally paint 50,000 honey bees (the number typically found in a colony). There are 11 bees in the mural just above, so it would take over 4,000 similar paintings to reach that goal!

I asked Matt how long it will take to paint murals with 50,000 bees. He told me that he anticipates spending 15 to 20 years at this project. “But the idea is not to hurry and has nothing to do with time. I actually do not get tired of painting bees. Each mural is different and I keep challenging myself to take things to the next level with the work. It is freeing to have the subject matter be anchored in the bees and let the imagination go from there,” he said.


Photos © The Good of the Hive 2016

The murals (which you can view in detail at his The Good of the Hive webspace) are cropping up around the USA and eventually beyond. (Canada? “At some point without a doubt,” answered Matt). Today, you can find his murals from LaBelle, Florida (Curtis Honey Company) to Seattle, Washington (Broadstone Sky Building).


Curtis Honey Co., Labelle Florida.   Photos © The Good of the Hive 2016

Several ambitious murals are in North Carolina – near Durham (at Burt’s Bees’ offices), Chapel Hill (Estes Hills Elementary School), Raleigh (NC Museum of Natural Sciences), Asheville (Foundation Skate Park), and Carrboro, where he worked in blistering heat to paint the town fire hall. I asked Matt about it: “The Carrboro mural was painted in excruciating heat, but I just imagined that the firefighters inside the building where I was painting work in REAL heat! And every time a little kid comes by and points at the big bees with excitement, my heart melts back into the work. Even with all of the issues that come with painting large, public outdoor murals, it really has been an incredibly joyful experience so far.”


Carrboro Fire Hall Photos © The Good of the Hive 2016

Matthew Willey’s The Good of the Hive mural project is just starting its second year. His team will be launching a crowd funding effort in a few weeks and I’ll remind you when it happens. I’d like to contribute a little to this effort and hope you will, too. We’ll have more of Matt’s art on this blog when we visit him again in March.

(All photos on this posting are courtesy The Good of the Hive: Photos © The Good of the Hive 2016.)

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

This Cat Don’t Eat Honey

jump-puffHumans can taste one drop of sucrose (table sugar) diluted in 150 parts water. A honey bee outranks our sugar sensitivity six-times over: about one part in a thousand and the bee is on it. What about Puff, the cat?

Puff doesn’t jump on command nor does she care much for honey. Why do cats lack the fundamental sweetbuds that seem to line almost every bit of real estate on our human tongues? I, an ordinary sample human, have a sugar addiction. Cats don’t. Lucky them – they can’t taste sweetness. Rotten carcasses, however, seem to attract their licky tongues.

The science of sweetness taste-testing goes back about a hundred years. A group of three scientists – Beister, Wood, and Wahlin – working at the University of Minnesota led the way. They ‘invited’ undergrad students to lend them their tongues. Droplets of pure water (Yummy!) were placed on student sugar buds. As the experiments progressed, more and more sugar was added to the water until the students reported that they could taste the sugar. This is known as a ‘threshhold taste test’ and it was repeated by the scientists with a range of sugars – sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltose. Those four are the principal sugars in honey.

The scientists carefully tested and documented the relative sweetnesses. In their 1925 paper, Carbohydrate Studies, they wrote, “”Although the consumption of sucrose has increased rapidly…accurate information as to the relative sweetness of pure sugars is lacking.” Their research confirmed that fructose is more than twice as sweet as glucose. Food packers love information like this – they can buy half the amount of fructose and give consumers the same sweetness with fewer calories. (In a later blog post I will discuss how fructose has become a ‘bad’ sugar in recent years.)

The three scientists assigned a value of ‘100’ to sucrose. Then, comparing sucrose to the other sugars’ sweetness as judged by the college students, they derived the scale below. By the way, the researchers did their science at the University of Minnesota where they taught, marked tests, wrote papers, and advised students. But they were never paid properly nor given the title ‘professor’ because it was 1925 and they were. . .  well, you know, girls, not boys.

The Beister-Wood-Wahlin Sugar Sweetness Scale

The Beister-Wood-Wahlin Sugar Sweetness Scale

None of this means much to a cat.  Cats don’t enjoy ice cream or rocky mountain fudge. Or honey. (Good thing, house cats get plenty fat without having a sweet tooth.)  So, why do some cat food makers add sugar? Well, they know that the cats’ humans will taste the stuff before passing it along to their masters.


Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, History, Honey | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Beekeeper Royally Stung


“Save the Bees!” – with Tetracycline?

A rather sad story today. Sad on several levels. A couple of months ago, we learned that “Prince Charles’ beekeeper” was charged with using a prohibited chemical in his hives. The chemical is a medication used throughout North America and other places around the world, but in the UK, even the king’s own bees aren’t supposed to eat Terramycin without a proper prescription. On Wednesday, the case was settled in court. Here’s why the story is sad.

First, the press coverage. Though Murray McGregor once produced honey for the prince’s Duchy Estates, he’s not exactly ‘the royal beekeeper’ which several news stories contend. Telling the story like that may be a jab at the prince. Prince Charles is known to favour unadulterated organic foodstuffs so the suggestion that honey associated with him might not be wholesome has some folks amused. Mr McGregor is not the royal bee man but the connection has thrust McGregor awkwardly into the news and cast an embarrassing umbra upon the affairs of the crown.

Second, Mr McGregor seems to have been trapped.  He was charged for something that might be commended in other circumstances – keeping his bees alive. He allegedly went online and ordered both Terramycin (to fight brood diseases) and Checkmite (to check mites) as medicines for his bees. He reportedly had asked government vets to provide the medications which he thought his bees needed, but they allegedly were taking too long to produce the paperwork and the meds. So, he acted illegally on his own. From The Scotsman:

McGregor, 61, of Blairgowrie, Perthshire, faced a total of seven charges relating to breaches of the Finance Act 1973, the European Communities Act 1972 and the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2008.

Of those, he pled guilty to importing the unauthorised medicinal product, Terramycin 100MR, between July 2009 and October 2010.

He also admitted giving the Terramycin 100MR to an animal, namely the honey bee, in contravention of the relevant regulations. He admitted a third charge of possessing the substance without authorisation.

burning-foulbroodThird, the fine is pretty steep. In cash it is over $3000 US, but in the past McGregor has been ordered to “remove the drugs” from his bees. Since chemicals can be identified at rates of parts per billion, his equipment may need to be burned to comply, if this is enforced. So, it could cost tens of thousands of dollars – not to mention goodwill, lost sales, and a sullied reputation.  Mr McGregor – who owns the biggest honey farm in Scotland – will pay for years.

Fourth, this issue casts an unwanted light on the fact that honey bees are sometimes treated with medications. Not all bees and not everywhere, but the average news consumer doesn’t have time to learn that – they often just take home an abbreviated message:   something might be wrong with the honey they poured atop their morning’s crumpet.

Finally, the story is sad because it seems to involve a planned violation of rules put in place by the local beekeeping community. All beekeeping is local. Although American beekeepers have agreed to use some medications to control some bee diseases, other jurisdictions are trying to regulate bee drugs strictly or ban them entirely. Individual beekeepers may find it expedient to circumvent the rules –  but if they do, they undermine efforts (and sacrifices) already made by their colleagues.

Two years ago, Herald Scotland ran a huge piece about Mr McGregor. The story was entitled, “Save our bees – why one Scottish estate is supporting bee keeping and why we should do the same”.  Save the bees? Perhaps that’s why McGregor fed them meds. As his attorney told the court,

“…some of the colonies were showing signs of disease. The scale of this was unprecedented within the industry. Further tests showed it was widespread. The disease continued to spread. If left unchecked it would effectively decimate the bee population. Burning all the hives was not a viable option.”


The Hopetoun Estates – home to the Earl of Hopetoun and 224 colonies of bees

The Herald Scotland’s “Save our Bees” article describes how McGregor tends 224 of his hives on the Earl of Hopetoun’s estate. These are part of McGregor’s 3,000 colony operation. While visiting the estate, the reporter tasted some fresh honey cut right from a comb. The Herald Scotland reporter described it as “aromatic and dizzyingly addictive. It is a cliché but if nectar has a taste, this is it.”  If oxytetracycline has a taste, I wonder what that would be.  If drugs were in the reporter’s tasty morsel, they would have probably been harmless and not likely responsible for the “dizzyingly addictive” effect which she experienced.

This all leads to the general issue of whether we should medicate or not. I’m not going to dig into that today, as I’ve covered it several times in the past and will undoubtedly do it again in the future. I will say, though, that in North America, mites and foulbrood are rampant and will destroy most untreated bees in short order – unless the beekeeper is vigilant and able to keep bees in a careful, diligent manner. This requires dedicating the time and attention necessary to use natural means to keep bees healthy. It may be accomplished by an experienced hobby beekeeper. Occasionally, commercial folks also work out a system that maintains strong healthy colonies with little or no non-organic meds. (See, for example, Randy Oliver’s outfit in California.)

Meanwhile, if an entire nation or two is trying to avoid chemicals or has restricted their use significantly, then a beekeeper is obligated to follow the rules or pay a price.

Posted in Beekeeping, Diseases and Pests, Honey, Save the Bees | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

One more thing about Chinese honey. . .

Jacques with honey that's ripe for extracting.

Jacques with honey that’s ripe for extracting.

Occasionally, we take honey from the hive too early. It’s bad honey – some beekeepers call it “green”. High in moisture, and maybe not fully enzymatically converted by the bees. Nectar is ‘wet’ – sometimes 90% water and just 10% sugars. Also, some varieties of flowers have really high sucrose levels – bees add enzymes to reduce the disaccharides (sucrose) into monosaccharides (fructose and glucose), turning nectar into honey. Honey is not honey if the bees haven’t finished drying out nectar’s excess moisture or if the enzymes added by bees have not finished hydrolysizing the sucrose.

Beekeepers dread pulling immature honey from their hives. I’ve been in shops where dehumidifiers are roaring, blasting hot dry air at supers stacked in staggered piles so that the honey gives up some of its excess water. Sometimes high-moisture honey is blended with appropriately dry honey to come up with a product that meets honey’s definition – 18.6% moisture or less. Canadian and American beekeepers hate the extra work and especially hate the inferior product that results, so dehumidifiers are rare and the problem is usually fixed by leaving honey on hives until it’s ready.  But surprisingly, wet honey seems to be a business model in parts of China.

Nectar, shaking out of a frame during the honey flow

Nectar, splashing from a brood chamber frame

Traditionally, Chinese beekeepers have kept bees differently than beekeepers in most other parts of the world. Many Chinese do not own supers. Instead, they open the brood chamber and remove frames close to the brood nest where fresh nectar arrives. To your left is a picture which I took  years ago near the Montana-Saskatchewan border. Frames taken from the red-coloured brood nests are often very, very wet. (For us, ‘red’ meant STOP). Green boxes were used as supers. Brood nest nectar (from the red boxes) splashes out easily. That’s why we don’t extract from brood chambers. But the Chinese often do.  This was noticed in the 1990s when a US Commerce Department study stated:

“Differences in the honey production process between the United States and China have been reported at the extraction stage. As previously mentioned, the beekeeper in the United States employs a hive structure that consists of supers for honey storage, which allows the honey to dry and ripen. In China, beekeepers reportedly do not use supers, and extract honey from the comb on a daily basis, so that the honey is unripe and high in moisture content, which encourages fermentation. Such extracted honey is collected and taken to processing plants for heating and drying, but while such processing may stem fermentation, it cannot reverse the process and, as a result, honey from China may have the bitter taste associated with fermentation.”

Canola and litchi (lychee) honey in China is often pulled aggressively from brood chambers, resulting in ‘honey’ that’s about 30 to 40% water, instead of below 18.6%, which legally defines honey.

To remove the excess water before the stuff ferments and spoils, the liquid is taken to processors who use a vacuum system to dry it until it resembles honey. If you think you’d like to similarly game the system, you can by a vacuum-actuated honey dryer from one of several Chinese equipment manufacturers. I suggest that you don’t do this as your honey won’t be that great and might not be legal. But one Chinese equipment maker tries to tell us:

“1.) This set of Equipment are made of 304 stainless steel, easy to operate, reliable, efficient, vacuum suction honey; and, 2.) They can achieve high vacuum and low concentration temperature is ideal for honey processing equipment.”

The cost is about  US$4,000 and handles one drum per hour, so maybe you’ll want to buy several.


As the ad above says, “Once Cooperated, Forever Friend”. I’ll add a corollary: “Once uncooperated, forever foes”.  The ad also says “Quality Makes Difference” and that’s why you should avoid Chinese honey.  You can see that the problem with Chinese honey extends beyond poisonous agricultural contaminants and adulteration from industrial sugars. It’s a systemic problem. Although Chinese “water honey” might be benign and simply the result of a traditional aversion to multi-stored beehives, the result is not honey. Honey can’t be rushed.

Bees collect nectar (which may be from 20 to 100% sucrose and from 20 to 90% water) and bring it back to the hive for processing and storing by honey bees. Bees add enzymes that reduce the sucrose to simpler and better sugars which toil our bodies less when we use them. But the conversion takes a bit of time. House honey bees share nectar from forager bees and they add catalyst enzymes that transform nectar into honey. Some of the excess moisture is removed in the hive by the bees’ fanning, but the enzyme process that converts sucrose into fructose and glucose is a hydrolysis process – it takes one water molecule to convert each sucrose molecule. So, evaporation is not the whole story and it’s not enough to remove a gallon of water from three gallons of nectar in a vacuum chamber and then sell the stuff as honey.

Fortunately, a new test that uses Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy may help detect immature honey. It’s already used to create profiles of what real honey looks like.  Of course, this adds another cost to the price of honey. For now, your best defence might be to buy local honey (unless you are in China or some other country that harvests water honey).  In most of the rest of the world, beekeepers try to harvest capped honey, properly produced by honey bees.

Posted in Beekeeping, Hive Products, Honey, Science | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

Happy Birthday Johann Dzierzon

Here’s a very nice blog post from Beekeeping 365 about Jan Dzierzon, a pioneer beekeeper who  isn’t as well known or as appreciated as he should be. It’s great to see this biography about him!


Okay, as many of my beekeeping friends might remember, I started December vowing to answer to, and identify myself as, “Lorenzo” to reservation takers, waitresses, and others. I am pleased to report that this has worked out well, with the exception of that overly serious State Trooper, so I am extending the practice another month. But Lorenzo Langstroth’s birthday month has come and gone and it is time to pick another beekeeper to honor. I encourage anyone so inclined to participate in this exercise of giving and responding to the name of a famous beekeeper for the month. Who knows when a question on the Certified Beekeepers test may become a simple remembrance due to your participation in this venture. So, with no further delay, during the month of January I will give and respond to the name, “Johann” in honor of Johann Dzierzon born January 16th, 1811. Apparently…

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Posted in History, Hives and Combs, Reblogs | Tagged , | 1 Comment

155th Anniversary of a Botany Professor Search Image for January 14, 2017 - geneticist/botanist Carrie Derick Doodle for January 14, 2017 – geneticist/botanist Carrie Derick

Just a short post today, and though it’s about genetics and botany, bees (my usual blog subject) are mentioned only indirectly.  It’s the 155th anniversary of the birth of Carrie Derick – one of the world’s first geneticists. Derick was the first female professor in a Canadian university and the founder of McGill University’s renowned genetics department. I wouldn’t know any of this, except used the image above as today’s search doodle.

derick-book-coverMs Derick was born January 14, 1862, in rural Quebec and studied at McGill and Bonn University. In her era, women had just been granted the right to a university education. She was 50 in 1912 when she finally was recognized as a professor at her university, though she’d been working as one for twenty years. By then, her research had earned her recognition as a scientist. She is known for her book Notes on the Development of the Holdfasts of Certain Florideae, written when she was 37, which was among the first studies of the effects of “light, temperature, or the density of the surrounding medium, and in adaptation to vegetative reproduction” on botanical growth and reproduction.

c-derickCarrie Derick was teaching school in her hometown at age 15. She moved to Montreal to continue teaching and (in 1887) to enter McGill University (three years after women were first allowed to enroll).  She skipped first year, jumping directly into her second year of studies which she completed with a 94% average, the top mark at the university that year. She began teaching (demonstrating, they called it, as McGill’s first female botany instructor). It was 30 years before she became a professor.

Derick earned her PhD at Bonn University (1901-1905), completing her course work and thesis, but was granted neither the title Doctor nor the PhD she’d earned. Such degrees were not granted to women at that school at that time. She returned to McGill in Montreal, taught botany and genetics, and ran the new genetics department. In her fifties, still not recognized as a professor, she wrote to the university’s principal for her overdue promotion. She was granted professorship in 1912 – at a pay one-third of what her male colleagues were given. She continued to run her department and work as a professor until her retirement, 17 years later.

As a direct result of Derick’s pioneering work, women scientists are almost as numerous as males today – and almost paid as well, too. In our own area of interest, the fortitude and courage of Carrie Derick helped us receive the enormous contributions of the women of entomology who followed – including Eva Crane, Martha Spivak, Tammy Horn, Meghan Milbrath, Christina GrozingerGloria D Degrandi-Hoffman, Cath Keay, Susan Cobey, Michelle Flenniken, Diana Sammataro,  and a hundred others.   A huge amount of what we know about bees (and how we care for them) would be missing without the contributions of these and many other women who chose to enter the world of the honey bee.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Genetics, History, People | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The Center (of beekeeping)

mercer-county-mapIn the 1800s, states tried to place their county seats near the county center. The county seat usually hosted the county government, the county court, and (conveniently) the county jail. Being equidistant from all villages, it seemed fair. In my own childhood home county of Mercer, Pennsylvania, the town of Mercer became the county seat. I was 16 when I drove our old farm truck to Mercer so that I could take my driver’s exam. I remember my father clutching his passenger door the whole way there, rather sure that he wouldn’t survive my poor driving, though I did come home with license in hand and started commercial beekeeping that summer. It was lucky for my dad that the county seat was centrally located. Had it been in Grove City, our trip would have been ten minutes longer. As you can see in the map, the county seat is near the county center (actually 7 kilometres south, but there is nothing but woods at the actual center).

sask-mapIt’s not hard to find the geographic center of a square and Mercer County is very nearly a square. Later, I lived in Saskatchewan, Canada. It’s another jurisdiction which presents little challenge when looking for its center. Saskatchewan’s motto, “Easy to draw; hard to spell”, tells it all. The only surprise with Saskatchewan is that the center is ‘way up north’ – 99% of Saskatchewanians live south of center. The northern half is sparsely populated Canadian Shield while the southern half of Saskatchewan has been flattened out to accommodate millions of acres of wheat fields. And a  million European settlers.

rugby-ndFor years, the geographic center of North America has been described as this stone and mortar monument in Rugby, North Dakota, located 60 kilometres south of Manitoba, Canada. I used to drive past the obelisk a couple times a year back in the days when I owned honey farms in both Florida and Saskatchewan. There I am, thirty years ago, daughter in arms, standing at the center of North America. Had the monument been ten kilometres off Highway 2, this photo would have never happened. But there it was and so was I, back in 1985.

Finding the Center

In 1929, a US Geological Survey geographer cut out a cardboard map of the continent and balanced it on his finger. The balance point – the center of the continent’s mass (if all the mass of the continent were smeared around equally) was taken as the center of North America. He found the spot near the North Dakota towns of Balta and Orrin, 30 kilometres southwest of Rugby. Both towns claimed to be the center, but Rugby sent an application to the US Patent Office to trademark the name, leading suckers like me to believe we’ve been to the center when, in truth, we hadn’t. But the laugh was on Rugby last summer when the trademark expired and a bar owner much further south in North Dakota bought it. So, briefly, Hanson’s Bar (with “On-Off Sales” of liquor) became the continent’s center. But hold on to your cowboy hat, the center is moving again.

Geographers with a sense for plate tectonics might choose to use the continental shelf as the outer boundary demarcation, pushing the center east. Others may omit Central America, claiming the extremities of southern Mexico as the bottom of North America. This would slide the center well into Canada, especially if Canada’s claim of the North Pole proves that North America goes that far.

Wolfie's Place

Wolfie’s Place, Center, ND

Now a State University of New York (at Buffalo) geographer wants to redefine North America’s center. Peter Rogerson has mapped a spot 175 km southwest of Rugby, North Dakota. His center is near the center of Center, North Dakota. The town – population 571 – got its name when it was determined to be the geographic center of Oliver County, North Dakota and thus chosen as the county seat, back in 1902. Center, ND, is only 30 kilometres north of Interstate 94, so Americans travelling from New York City to Seattle may consider the hour detour to stop, look, and have something cold at Wolfie’s Place. Or maybe not, since the trademarked Center of North America(TM) is actually at a bar 115 km east. But an ambitious family would stop at both, I suppose.


The Center of Oliver County, ND – the center of North America?

Why move the center from Rugby to Center (or legally, Hanson’s Bar)? For that, we turn to Dr Rogerson’s wonderful 2015 paper, “A New Method for Finding Geographic Centers, with Application to U.S. States“, published in The Professional Geographer. Rather than cutting up a cardboard cereal box, as the USGS scientists did in the 1920s, Rogerson used a computer and an algorithm that:

“. . . minimizes the sum of squared great circle distances from all points in the region to the center. This entails

(1) projecting regional boundary points using an azimuthal equidistant projection,

(2) finding the geographic center of the projected two-dimensional region, and

(3) then transforming this location back to a latitude and longitude.

This new approach is used to find the geographic center of the contiguous United States and to provide a new list of the geographic centers for U.S. states. This list improves on the widely used but inaccurate list published by the United States Geological Survey in 1923.”

This all makes sense, of course. One wonders why it took almost 100 years to sum the great circle squares. Regardless the town with the crown, North Dakota is probably the state at the center of North America (though Pierre, South Dakota has tried for the trophy).  Being central, North Dakota attracts beekeepers from their wintering apiaries in Texas (2,000 km), California (2,000 km), and Florida (2,500 km).

The Nation’s Honey State

North Dakota is the place with the most summertime bees and it makes the most honey of any US state. Though California and Florida usually get the biggest notice as bee states, North Dakota quietly earns recognition as the top honey producing state – a title held for about 15 consecutive years. Bees arrive from California almond pollination and Florida orange groves by late June, then they forage wild sweet clover, alfalfa, canola, and sunflower until September. During the summer months, almost a quarter of all the hives in the USA are in North Dakota. Then they head south again – very few commercial beekeepers stay the winter.

North Dakota, the center of America, has not always been Honey Central. A hundred years ago, honey production was just getting started on the northern plains. The oldest reference I found in American Bee Journal was a reader’s question: “What’s the best time of year to move bees to the Dakotas?” That was asked in January, 1881. (The answer given was April or early May.) So, we may assume honey bees began to be kept there in the 1870s or 1880s.

North Dakota Apiary, 1910

North Dakota Apiary, 1910

The 1910 US census shows just 279 hives of bees (and an average crop of 27 pounds) while by 1914, there were 495 hives (and an impressive 72 pound/hive average). Ten years later, in 1924, John Lovell (Honey Plants of North America) describes North Dakota as something of a wasteland. “…winters are severe, the acreage of apples, pears, and plums is small, and … alfalfa is not largely cultivated.” However, Lovell notes that in river valleys with wild sweet clover, “an average of 150 to 200 pounds per colony is not uncommon.” Still, it wasn’t until the late 1940s that beekeepers really discovered North Dakota.


Me, again, up on the truck bed.
Smarter than lifting pallets by hand!

One of the first large-scale commercial operators in North Dakota was Earl Emde. I worked with Earl (and bought bees from him) years ago. He told me that when he was based in California, a drought forced him to load a truck with 200 hives and head east. He scouted for days before he found thick tall sweet clover and a rancher willing to give him a bee yard. He unloaded, then rushed back to California for another load of bees. The Emdes had about 5,000 hives by the 1960s, most of them in North Dakota. They were pioneers of commercial trucking of bees (before the war, bees mostly moved by rail). The Emdes invented the pallet quad and were among the first to use forklifts in apiaries.

Back in the 1970s, when I was getting started with bees, North Dakota had 50,000 colonies and made 5 million pounds of honey. I remember a huge debate about “overpopulated” nectar forage. Some states enacted laws to restrict bee yards. It was a mistake. Over the next few decades, North Dakota’s colony count and honey production increased ten-fold. Today, it’s 500,000 colonies and 50 million pounds. Recent crop averages have been the same (100 pounds) as they were in 1970.

For the past dozen years, North Dakota has persistently led the states in total honey produced. If we include similarly blessed South Dakota, the territories makes one-third of all of America’s domestic crop. About that Center –  there are about 200 hives of bees kept in and around Center, North Dakota, though I don’t think there are any beekeepers living in the town – if you know better, let me know.  But just 50 kilometres (30 miles) away, Bismark and Mandan are home to a dozen beekeepers, most of whom have two or three thousand hives each. Who knows, maybe Bismark is the continental center?

Posted in Commercial Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof, History | Tagged | 3 Comments

Bees That Watch Bees


Picture this. A bee with her tiny face pressed against a window, spying on other bees so she can see where the treasure is hidden. Sounds ridiculous to me, but it turns out to be true.

The experiment

In 2013, Canadian scientists presented a puzzle to four different bumble bee colonies. The bees had to fly to blue artificial flowers that had sweet syrup hidden beneath fake plastic petal-discs. Two colonies were given the task of finding the syrup without any training or help from the researchers. They failed miserably. But bees in two other colonies were helped in one of three different ways:

a) dead bumble bees were glued to the partially hidden syrup feeders;

b) successful bees were allowed to talk to recruits and explain where the syrup was hidden; or,

c) bees were allowed to watch their friends foraging.


The experimental flowers  (Source: Mirwan & Kevan)

In all three of the assisted training experiments, the bumble bees successfully found the partially obscured syrup. Unassisted and untrained, the bumble bees went hungry. Properly trained, they eat. You may read the experiment’s details here: Social Learning in Bumblebees”.

The University of Guelph researchers – Hamida Mirwan and Peter Kevan – are not sure how the bees communicated the foraging trick to their hive mates. They write, “The means of in-hive communication are not understood and warrant intense investigation.” Indeed it does. How on earth could one bumble bee tell others to “fly to the blue plastic flower, don’t be fooled by the big bright fake petal, but look under it, near the back, and you’ll find a hole you can stick your tongue into and Wow! you’ll be surprised by the sweetness of the extrafloral nectaries on those artificial flowers!”  That’s amazing communication.

high-four-beeBut before we give all the smart bumble bees a hearty high-four, we have to wonder why the dead bumble bees glued to the flowers worked as a feeding cue. This points to seriously flawed bee-brain reasoning – it should be apparent to even the most inept bumble bee that the dead bees had found nectar, then died. Shouldn’t this be a warning to other bees? I think smart bumble bees would have said, “Poisoned. They’ve been poisoned by the artificial flowers.” They should have put two and two together and decided it was a trap, not a treat. But the experimenters used bumble bees. I don’t think honey bees would have been as foolish.

Finally, we have the test bees who were allowed to watch. No whispering, no communication, just peeking through the window while other bumble bees worked. I think that this is almost as amazing as the talking bees. (Almost, but not quite.) The bees that watched the foraging bees saw which colour flower to visit and where the syrup was hidden. Can you imagine the thought process involved?  “Look! There’s Gertrude. She’s only going after the blue flowers, but silly bee, she’s not landing on top the petals… oh, wait. I get it. The syrup is hidden below the petals. Clever.”

Practical applications

bee-watching-tv-2Some people accuse scientists of conducting pointless pure research, but I can see a great application here. Educational bee documentaries. Small mp4 players should be placed inside honey bee hives. A movie switches on at six in the morning. It’s just a little movie about bees working almonds. It loops continuously. The plot is like this: Bee approaches trees, gathers pollen, then the actor-bee is filmed flying to a different cultivar to gather more pollen, assuring cross-pollination. Maybe subliminal messages could be included – flashes of fat happy larvae being fed beebread, for example.  After ten minutes, the theatre shuts down, with a repeat show every hour until 4 pm.

For pollinator bees trucked in from out of state, the movies might play during the two-day drive – sort of like in-flight entertainment. Then when the poor bees are set out in the almond groves, they’ll feel like they are in a comfortable, familiar surrounding and they can get right to their job of working themselves to death.

Posted in Bee Biology, Science, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

2016 in Bee Review


2016 was a year for the bees. Honey bees were in recovery. Colony collapse hadn’t been reported in five years and (in Canada, at least) there were record numbers of kept hives – there were more bees than anytime in history.

That doesn’t mean all is well with the world. Native (‘wild’) bee species have been suffering from chemical exposure, climate change, and continued habitat loss. Their numbers are likely going down. Kept honey bees fared better because beekeepers do all they can to care for their little friends, feeding and protecting them.

Honey prices were low during the past year. I think prices will continue to trend low in 2017. I predict that some beekeepers will leave the business. We’ll see if that sad prophecy comes true.

I wrote a lot in 2016 – 141 bee blog posts. That was about 110,000 words, or the equivalent of a full-length book.  (And it’s all free – isn’t the internet wonderful?) In order of popularity, blogs with the most views this year were Why Vegans are Wrong, Bees Do Do-Do, Saving Honey, The Honey Threshers, The Price of Honey, The Man Who Made Killer Bees, and Cuba’s Organic Honey.

With this blog, I’ve had a chance to look at a lot of bee science and news over the past 12 months.  Here are some of my favourite 2016 bee stories:

January 2016

The Honey Threshers

A century ago, threshing crews worked their away across the American and Canadian prairies, harvesting farmers’ grains. When I was rather young (not quite a century ago) one of my Saskatchewan buddies signed up for a threshing crew job. Maurice … Continue reading

Putin Likes Organic Food

Russia’s Vladimir Putin has suggested that anyone who sells or grows genetically modified foods on his turf should face a few years farming in Siberia.  He has proclaimed Russia will be GMO-free and he’d like to see his farmers raise … Continue reading

February 2016

Bees are Meaner if Childhood is Miserable

Some aggressive honey bees were raised to be mean. Some bees, it seems, grow up on the wrong side of the honeycomb. Or, as one experiment shows, in the wrong sort of hive. Illinois and Pennsylvania researchers conducted a brilliant … Continue reading

Big Brain, Small Brain, Bee Brain

A bee brain is bigger in the summer, when there are more things to learn, experience, and think about. It shrinks in the winter, which must be a blessing because bees spend weeks on end doing nothing – an active … Continue reading

Almonds, Water, and Bees

February is almond pollination month in California. A couple of nights ago, the CBC aired a story about almonds, water, and bees. They try to cover everyone involved – the consumer who loves the heart-friendly food, the almond grower who … Continue reading

March 2016

De-stressing during the Oscars

In our continuing series on Oscar-winning beekeepers… Leo says keeping bees reduces stress during the annual awards cycle. Funny, I find it helps me the exact same way.  Similarly, beekeeping seems to be a preferred pasttime for Scarlett Johansson, Morgan … Continue reading

Location, Location, Vocation

My last two blog posts (Alberta is Beekeeping and Canada’s Hive Beetles) were unseemly braggadocious pitches. I wrote about how great beekeeping is on Canada’s western  prairies. Alberta, Canada, has not had CCD, but instead has increasing numbers of kept … Continue reading

Buzz the Bee is on Vacation

General Mills is sending Buzz the Bee, their cheerful Honey Nut Cheerios spokesbug, on vacation. Or into hiding. In a campaign bound to raise awareness for the world’s suffering bees, and maybe to inadvertently sell more Cheerios, packages of the … Continue reading

April 2016

Saving Honey

Brag time.  We just got home from the big Calgary science fair competition. My 13-year-old won three awards. Here’s the kicker: his project was called  Saving Honey with Sound.  His experiment was based on sending ultrasonic energy waves into combs … Continue reading

Packages Arrive in Calgary!

Calgary has a hyper-active bee club. Members help members with all manner of thing. Equipment exchanges, educational programs, disease control. The latest big event was the arrival of 160 packages of bees from New Zealand. By the way, 160 packages … Continue reading

Bee Rustlers on the Rise

In the old days, cowboys occasionally stole cows. Horse thieves were sometimes hanged. Not always, though. Back in Val Marie, Saskatchewan, a cattle town that I lived in for ten years, there was a fellow named Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault … Continue reading

May 2016

Drawing the Bee

Not long ago, Scientific American had a piece about drawing. The story, written by a biology professor, encourages us to look at nature and draw it. The case is made that drawing helps you understand what you are observing. But … Continue reading

May 20: World Bee Day

There’s a small country in Central Europe, a very beautiful alpine country, called Slovenia.  Slovenia has only about two million people, but this tiny country is very big in beekeeping.  Tucked between Italy and Austria, it has both mountains and … Continue reading

Sweet Sweet Clover (part 1)

Every June there is a wash of yellow along the edge of almost every highway and trail in North America. The yellow is from sweet clover that grows and blooms all across the continent. It’s wild and it has been … Continue reading

June 2016

Investigating the Crime Scene

A few days ago, I read an interesting American Bee Journal article by Tammy Horn (et al.) and it made me think differently about something. Although I know that poisoned bees represent a real crime, I never really thought of … Continue reading

The Price of Honey

The price of honey has been falling for over a year. Honey is such a strange commodity. It’s agricultural. It’s ubiquitous (produced on all but one continent). It’s easily transported. Doesn’t need refrigerated. Doesn’t spoil (though quality may diminish with … Continue reading

The Bees’ Sixth Sense

Bees sense the environment differently than humans. For example,  bees can see ultra-violet colour and distinguish it from violet and white, yet they see red as if it were black. They sense the orientation of polarized light. Their massive compound … Continue reading

African Beekeeping May “Save the Trees”

Rather than “Save the Bees”, it’s “Save the Trees” in central Africa. A story from Zimbabwe reminds us that beekeeping can be very, very good for ecology. Bees (and beekeepers) are saving Zimbabwe’s forests. The country of Zimbabwe, lest we … Continue reading

July 2016

Bees Do Do-Do

Diapers for bees?  Some folks stopped me when I was leaving an apiary that I once had in a Florida orange grove. They didn’t own the grove, but their house was within fifty yards. They told me that my bees … Continue reading

Bird-brained Hunting Partner

Scientists may have proven that African Honeyguide birds “communicate” with their human partners. You have probably already heard about this, as it’s been reported this week in Zaire’s Times, the New York Times, The New Yorker, and fine papers everywhere. … Continue reading

August 2016

Rooftop Bees

There’s a jolly fat man up on the roof. With a smoker and hive tool. Rooftop beekeeping seems modern, trendy, and new, but it’s been happening for generations. Ever since homes had rooftops. I’m surprised there isn’t a Rooftop Beekeepers … Continue reading

Zombees in Canada

I wish I had good news. Canada’s first confirmed case of zombees has appeared – on Vancouver Island, out in the Pacific. Hundreds of kilometres from my home in Calgary.  Zombie zombees, like the human kind, are undeads who are … Continue reading

EpiPens: $250 in USA; $85 in Canada

Here’s something sure to stir controversy. The price of the life-saving EpiPen went from $50 US (in 2008) to somewhere between $250 and $400 US this month. That’s if you live in the USA. This morning, I was at the … Continue reading

It Doesn’t Take an Einstein

You’ve seen the memes. Albert Einstein is pictured with a caption that says “if honey bees disappear from earth, humans would be dead within 4 years!”  I got tired of seeing this repeated and decided to dig deeper than  the … Continue reading

Should a “Bee City” Ban Honey Bees?

In February, Toronto became Canada’s first certified Bee City. This week, a bedroom community just outside Calgary became Canada’s second. I heard the news last night on a CBC radio interview of Dr. Preston Pouteaux, a hobby beekeeper who apparently … Continue reading

September 2016

The Worker Who Would Be Queen

Bees have a complicated social structure which some political scientists have sought to embrace. In the old days, people assumed that the King Bee ruled with an iron fist that imposed order, harmony, sacrifice, and unflinching duty. Now that the … Continue reading

Climb Every Mountain; Raise Every Dollar

It seems that Saving the Bees has turned into quite a nice little cottage industry. Although honey bees are more numerous today than any time in history, some people seem intent on telling other people that the honey bees are … Continue reading

The Man Who Made Killer Bees

Today (September 9) is the 94th birthday of Warwick Estevam Kerr, the man who made the Killer Bees. Just like his bees, Kerr comes from hot, tropical Brazil. And just like his bees, Dr Kerr has been much maligned and … Continue reading

October 2016

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 … Continue reading

Why Vegans are Wrong

I have a vegan acquaintance. He is a mild, considerate, and generally pleasant young man. He thinks that beekeeping is cruel and inhumane. He tells me that honey-eating encourages theft and the abuse, imprisonment and exploitation of insects. “Tell me … Continue reading

November 2016

A Metaphysical Life

Today is the  anniversary of the birth of one of my beekeeper-heroes, Professor Richard Taylor. He was an early champion of the round comb honey system, a commercial beekeeper with just 300 hives, and he was a philosopher who wrote … Continue reading

December 2016

Lawsuits Amidst Toxic Allegations

Australia is having a food fight.  Well, a honey fight, actually, and there are lessons aplenty to be found in it.  First off, a Save the Bees gentleman, Simon Mulvany, of Melbourne, launched a name-calling campaign against Australian honey packer … Continue reading

Let’s see if I write as much in 2017 as I did in 2016. 141 posts would be fun to match, but I have no writing schedule, I just add to it when I have a spare hour or two. I hope you’ll drop by occasionally and see what’s new in bees. If you have a story you’d like told here, drop me a line and I’ll consider it. Meanwhile, I hope that you’ll have a healthy, happy, prosperous new year!

Posted in History, Outreach | Tagged | 6 Comments

The Bee Movie, Altered

bee-movie-posterBlending humor, tech prowess, and blatant disregard for the sacrosanct, youngsters have satirized Bee Movie on YouTube. Since it’s still winter break, and you may be looking for pointless online entertainment, here are some of the Bee Movies recently damaged by teenagers.

Jerry Seinfeld wrote and produced Bee Movie in 2007, just when colony collapse was being noticed. As such, it’s funny that his honey bees were not disappearing, but were going on strike for fair wages.

Before watching some of the parodies, you may want to watch this official trailer, as released by DreamWorks Animation, to remind you of the film.

So, that was just the trailer. Here’s the entire 91-minute Bee Movie, uncut, but shown in just 7 minutes: every time the word ‘bee’ is said, the movie speeds up.

Now, back to the Bee Movie official trailer, but all the honey bees were replaced by some kid in the basement. In this clip,  they look like bumble bees:

Here’s another way to watch the Bee Movie trailer – everytime the word ‘bee’ is said, the screen doubles its number of images. No one has every explained why this should have been someone’s Youtube project, but here it is.

If you’ve seen too many bees lately, here’s Bee Movie with every bee cut out. Confusing, yes, but it does get rid of the pesky little bugs.

Well, that’s quite enough, but it gives you an idea of what people with too much time have been doing the past few months. (Yup, writing beekeeping blogs.)

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Humour | Tagged | 2 Comments