Daffodils in December?

DC: Cherry blossom time   (Photo by Rizka)

Cherry trees in Washington bloom around April March first. Things are changing.

Erik, a beekeeper/writer/blogger in northern Virginia keeps a nice online calendar showing flowering dates in his neighbourhood. It’s only a couple of years old so it just gives us a small window into recent changes that may be happening to the climate in his area. I hope he keeps the calendar going for years and years to come. But already, it shows surprising drama.

On Erik’s calendar, dandelions are blooming a month earlier each year for three years in a row. In 2015, dandelions opened on April 10th. To me, that seems like the norm that I remember, growing up in nearby Pennsylvania, decades ago. But in 2016, the lions were roaring in March. This year they began flowering February 25th.

When ten of the hottest years on record have occurred within the past twenty (according to NASA) and carbon dioxide levels are at their highest in millions of years, only an ostrich would continue to enjoy the cool earthly delight of a head in the sand. These climate changes trouble me. Although I have been a lifelong beekeeper and have run commercial honey farms over the past 40 years, my job as a geophysicist keeps me interested and informed about earth-systems.

“The world has been hot before; it’ll be hot again.” Have you heard that one? It’s sort of right up there with, “House fires happen; they’ll happen again.”  In the distant past, a build-up of CO2 was partly responsible for polar icecap melt which resulted in higher seas, heat, humidity, and dinosaurs. High levels of carbon dioxide trap the sun’s heat and the planet’s surface warms up. It’s elementary physics and not exactly rocket science. However, most scientists are amazed at the speed of the global meltdown. We really thought we could pass this problem along to our grandkids.

Rex Tillerson, now US Secretary of State, but formerly head of Exxon, has said that climate change is real and he directed Exxon to support the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate. Tillerson claimed that climate change was at least partly anthropogenic (human-activity driven). At his nomination hearings for his current job, he said that after 20 years as a scientist and engineer, he had concluded that “the risk of climate change does exist.” He also believed “action should be taken.”  In the past, he has indicated that stopping climate change isn’t likely and he advocated that engineers will need to find ways for us to survive the inevitable.

If climate change is inevitable, what does that mean for farmers and beekeepers? Most of the commercial farmers and beekeepers whom I know are climate change skeptics. They tell me that climate change is natural and has happened before. They’re right to be skeptical. Personally, I think we should be skeptical about everything. On the other hand, if rejection of science is a political reaction and not a logical deduction, then it’s not skepticism but dogmatism that’s informing the discussion.

Farmers and beekeepers have to prepare for Tillerson’s inevitable climate change. Beekeepers are actually in a more envious state than other farmers because hives are mobile. Here are some suggestions to survive probably climate disruptions. I’m sure that you can think of more.

Pay attention. You might be a climate skeptic. But meteorologists are becoming better at predicting the next  month’s weather. If they predict drought or an unusually wet winter, weigh the information with an open mind. They may be right, so take advantage of the warnings.

Look for more bee yards. If you are on the prairies, have some back-up yards at higher elevations or northerly places. Be prepared to move bees. Make arrangements with beekeepers in places that you might invade so they can help and profit from your arrival.

Own more supers. There may be years when your hotter bee locations are also wetter and huge bumper crops result. Expect wider fluctuations in crop size. No honey one year; manna from the gods the next. That’s likely to be the rule.

Pollinate. As farmers also suffer swings in rainfall and heat, they will depend more and more on bees for pollination. You may lose honey crops to drought but pollination contracts might keep you in the bee business.

Mind your pennies. Some people buy a Cadillac after a bumper crop. Those folks become ex-beekeepers. Saving money for famine years will be more important than ever.

Shut off the lights. Trivia waste of energy is part of the problem. On the other hand, beekeepers can be proud that their business is one of the few that (calorie-for-calorie) generates more food energy than it consumes in production of the food.

I’ll avoid the politics of climate change in today’s blog post. I understand that some libertarians see climate change warnings as a plot to undermine their freedom to pollute without consequence. But accepting science and making preparations to protect your business and your family are just exercises of common sense, not exercises in leftist manifestos.

I help teach a beginners’ beekeeping course here in Calgary. Two years ago, going through the sequence of nectar sources and their flowering dates, I told the class, “Dandelions reach peak bloom May 25th. You can set your calendar to it.” Then came the spring of 2016 with dandelions peaking in mid-April. Made quite a fool of me. In 30 years of Calgary beekeeping, it was the first peak bloom before May 15th. I think that I’ll be fooled rather regularly from now on.

Meanwhile, another look at the calendar that started today’s blog post. Erik has listed a favourite spring flower, the daffodil. Daffodils do little to help bees but they make a beekeeper’s life a bit brighter. Dabs of bright yellow on an awakening drabscape are always welcome. In 2015 in northern Virginia, daffodils were noticed in flower in April. In 2016, it was March. 2017, February. If that retro-trend continues in 2018, they should be out in January. In 2019, it’ll be daffodils in December. (No, I don’t really think so. But I’ve been fooled before.)

Posted in Beekeeping, Climate, Honey Plants | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

World Apitherapy Day

A Healthy Honey…

On March 30, we usually celebrate World Apitherapy Day at our house by eating fried drone brood seasoned with dandelion pollen and buckwheat honey while receiving a few intentional bee stings on our finger tips. What a fun day!

I first learned about apitherapy when I was 17. We had 300 hives scattered around the county. The bees were my job, assigned to me by my father who had enough other farm work to manage. Twenty of those colonies were on the edge of an abandoned hay field. In the fall, when I delivered honey/rent to the landowner, he told me that our bees had been stinging him. Of course, I felt awful. But the bees were a couple hundred yards from the old guys’ house so I was puzzled. “No, not your fault, don’t move them!” He explained that almost every day he trudged across the field to take a sting on his elbow. He said it had cured his annoying rheumatism. I’d never heard of such a thing before. The bees were practicing medicine and I didn’t have a clue about it.

Well, today is World Apitherapy Day. It’s celebrated on March 30 because it’s my birthday. And, coincidentally, Filip Terč, the Father of Modern Apitherapy, shares the date. He was born March 30 1844, and I was not, so we are not the twins most people think we are. And my sporadically produced blog is more current than his.

Terč spent much of his scientific career in Maribor, Slovenia, exploring the benefits of bee-sting therapy on patients with rheumatoid arthritis and other disorders. He published his results in 1888 in a Vienna medical journal. This was the first modern scientific account of apitherapy.

Filip Terc apitherapy

Filip Terč, Father of Apitherapy 1844-1917

That’s Filip Terč glaring at you adjacent to this sentence. Terč was born in a remote Czech village in western Bohemia, but ended up in Slovenia where he worked as a physician. As a young man, he suffered badly from rheumatoid pain until, at age 22, he was accidentally stung by an aggressive mob of irritated honey bees. It changed his life. The pain was gone.

Terč began a serious study of the effects of bee venom therapy. He published the world’s first article on the clinical trials of bee sting therapy, the 1888 paper “Report on the Peculiar Connection between Bee Stings and Rheumatism”. He presented the results of his treatment of 680 patients with the collective application of 39,000 stings. 82% showed a complete cure, 15% had a partial recovery, while 3% had no relief from their rheumatoid condition. Those are an impressive number of trials and very impressive results.

His work was published 130 ago. His results have not been disputed, but the medical profession was slow at accepting the link between rheumatism, auto-immune dysfunctions, and bee venom. With the rise in cases of immune disorders (ranging from multiple sclerosis to lupus to allergies), the use of apitherapy treatments are becoming more widely available. If you’d like to learn more, there is a great collection of materials at the Bees for Life: World Apitherapy Network website.

Posted in Apitherapy, History, Hive Products, People, Stings | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Beekeepers Come; Beekeepers Go

“Beekeepers become proficient after four years.”

Between 45% and 75% of British beekeepers are newbies – in their first four years. Only 10% have been at it for more than ten years.  I guess it’s similar in Canada, Australia, and the USA. I saw the UK numbers on Chris Slade’s bee blog and he heard them from Margaret Murdin who gave a lecture on Becoming a Proficient Beekeeper. She says that we are novices for the first couple of years, improvers for two to four years, then (hopefully) we acquire enough skill to be ‘proficient‘.

I think turnover is highest in the first year or two. Beekeeping sounded like a good idea at the time: Save the Bees™, Help the Flowers, Get Some Honey. Perhaps you were going to be a hippie farmer, but you were born forty years too late. That’s lucky. The guys in this picture apparently wanted to be farmers – that’s why they were hanging out at Yasgur’s dairy farm. After the cow, it was going to be bees. It wasn’t. They were grateful instead.

But then your bees arrived. They stung the neighbour’s dogs (all of them) and your spouse wasn’t particularly impressed with the way bees eat sugar, queens, and money. And where was all that free honey you’d promised?

Beginning beekeeping can be pretty devastating the morning after the bees arrive. Or the evening after your first attempt at extracting. Or when a mite-infested laying worker has brood infected with foulbrood. It can be grim. But beekeeping can also be addicting. Like gambling. You may grow fond of the little fuzzies and decide to soldier forward. (With all those tight upper lips, I’m surprised that 90% of English beekeepers give up within ten years.)

Your best chance at success is to find a mentor and latch on tightly. Mentors don’t come cheap – you may need to serve pie with a beer and listen to old stories of by-gone beekeeping. Old beekeepers love to talk. If you make the mistake of feigning interest during an epic swarm-capture tale, expect to hear the same story again and again. With some modifications.

But your mentor will encourage you in a few ways. You’ll learn surprising tricks that will keep your bees alive. Maybe you’ll make some honey. However, the most significant lesson will come when you eventually realize that if that old geezer who has been talking your ears off can keep bees alive, well, so can you…

Posted in Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof, Humour, Outreach, Save the Bees | Tagged , | 13 Comments

Black ‘Pollen’ in March

A friend sent this great picture of a honey bee trucking home some very dark pollen today. Since flowers are not yet blooming here in Calgary, I’m pretty sure that the ‘pollen’ is coffee. Bees have been known to gather discarded grounds – a couple of years ago, I posted a little video of such a coffee party going on near my niece’s home in Arizona.  Here’s the clip again:

Nichol, who makes some great beehives at Ruby’s Bee Suite in Calgary, asked me to confirm that the black pollen in the photo is indeed coffee. I can’t be certain, but it’s likely. On mild, late-winter days (mid-March), bees can be positively desperate for something to collect. I’ve seen them haul sawdust and grain dust from cattle feed troughs. They can be such a nuisance that carpenters quit cutting and cows quit eating.

honey bee collecting coffee grounds in pollen baskets

Arizona honey bee picking up coffee grounds.

Anything pollen-like is picked up. I don’t know if the bees actually use the stuff when they get back at the hive or if some foreman/lady scolds them for their stupidity. The best way to redirect the bees’ attention and give them some nourishment is to do what Nichol did – by offering some saved pollen. She noticed that the black coffee grounds ‘pollen’ soon vanished from the returning foragers’ kneecaps.

It’s a good time to begin feeding substitute pollen here in Calgary. Real pollen will be coming in around mid-April so any bee larvae which are developing right now will be nurse bees (and perhaps foragers) by the time crocus and willow are blooming. A good rule of thumb is to give the colony a pollen patties boost (or, less effectively, dry pollen/soy meal) about a month before fresh pollen is available.

Posted in Beekeeping, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

A Cold Canadian Wedding

I’ve been preoccupied. My oldest son’s wedding was on the weekend. I’m sharing a couple of pictures. The bride’s family came from Colombia. Because of work, they were only able to visit for a week.  I was disappointed that we were having unusually cold weather here in Calgary. On their arrival, (March 7), they were greeted by minus 23 C – cold even by Canadian standards. Their hometown has never seen frost (the lowest temperature ever recorded there was 15 C, about 60 F) and is usually 35 C, summer/winter and almost day/night.

Well, I didn’t need to feel apologetic for the crime committed by our weather gods. They loved experiencing the frost-biting cold and they loved seeing snow for the first time in their lives.  Here’s what it looks like when my son takes his new in-laws out for the real-deal, Calgary-style cultural experience. A cold, cold Canadian wedding with warm, warm feelings of love and happiness.

Carmen, my son David, his wife Yesenia, and her brother, Danny

It was a beautiful Latin-Canadian ceremony with a blend of North and South American traditions. My son’s new wife has been in Canada awhile and is a language teacher.  Her visiting family stayed in our home for a few days, tasting maple syrup, my wife’s Hungarian cooking, and some locally produced honey.

The honey was an especially big hit – apparently the only honey seen in Colombia by this family is as thin as water and as dark as molasses – and not particularly sweet. Thinking that it might just be a sugary syrup, I asked, Miel de abejas?  and they told me that is was and they seldom ate it.

In contrast to their local honey, they liked our thick, white, mild version – a good reminder that if you give people something really delicious, it’s appreciated. Either that, or guests from South America are especially gracious – something I certainly noticed during the past week.

I’ll leave you with one more picture. This was the moment that the newest Mr and Mrs Miksha celebrated their partnership. My grandson, the ring-bearer, thought it was rather funny.

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

Eating the Vomit of Slaves?

This headline showed up in my beekeeping news feed this morning. It’s a disgrace to the cause of fighting against the abuse of animals and it shows total stupidity of the subject on the part of the PETA writer responsible. By headlining false, poorly-researched opinions and presenting them as facts, credibility for the worthy cause of defending apes, dogs, horses, chicken, cattle, and other mammals and birds is lost.  Honey bees are not enslaved, and honey is not bee puke – however, it’s the inane slavery remark that leaves me gob-smacked.

Bees are free to leave their hives whenever they want and free to fly wherever they wish. Comparing slavery to the homes provided to honey bees is a disgusting debasement of the suffering endured by humans who actually have experienced real slavery. Bees are free and are not abused. The forty-five million slaves in the world today  (and the hundreds of millions in the past)  have no such freedom. If PETA wants to fight an important cause, fight against the modern wretched practice of buying and selling humans. And when you are done, come back and tell me what you think you know about bees and beekeeping.


Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Outreach, Save the Bees | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

International (Bee-)Women’s Day

A swarm catcher in 1883

Today (Wednesday, March 8) is International Women’s Day. Women have always played an important role in beekeeping. In developing parts of the world, it is usually women who tend hives and produce honey for their families’ food and cash. In some cases,  honey money is a major part of a struggling family’s existence.

Here is part of a report about Uganda from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization:

Typically, a trained project officer from the NGO Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO) provides training, advice and starter equipment to families supporting orphans and chosen by the local UWESO branch. The beekeepers develop the hives and gradually increase the number, so that after two or three years a family may be operating about 30 hives. Each hive should produce two crops of honey and wax each year, which can be taken to the UWESO collecting centre and sold to local companies for local and export markets. This can provide a return of perhaps US$1400 in a year – well above the average family income level in rural areas.

The cost of such a project to the Trust is about US$140000 including the costs of the project officer, equipment and a collecting and processing centre. If 150 families can each increase their annual earnings by US$1 400 – the return on the single investment of US$140 000 is, amazingly, about US$210 000 each year! Even if some families underperform, the financial returns amply justify the investment.

From the same source, reporting on Afghanistan:

FAO provided training for women and men beekeepers. Since beekeeping can be practised in a home compound, beekeeping was regarded by the Taliban regime as an acceptable activity for women in Afghanistan. In addition to harvesting honey, a highly valued food under current circumstances, the women learned to make skin ointments and other secondary products useful for people living in harsh and isolated conditions. Men and women have been given training in making all the equipment needed for frame-hive beekeeping, so that they can continue without need for external inputs.

Glenda, a Calgary Bee Club teacher

Here in Calgary, it’s easy to see the influence of women on the progress of responsible beekeeping. This weekend, I participated in the Calgary bee club’s beginning beekeeping course. Two of my co-presenters were experienced female beekeepers while over half of the 60 students in our class were women.

One of our city’s other bee organizations – Apiaries and Bees for Communities – was developed by Eliese Watson, a passionate beekeeper who started ABC Bees in 2010. Eliese describes her organization, “We work with beekeepers, honey bees, native bees, and ecosystem development to ensure that the skin of our cities supports ecological diversity and protects all of us. We aim to conserve and protect bees and the communities that rely on them.”

Honey Queen

The leading roles of women in beekeeping should not be news nor very interesting. But 25 years ago, our club was 90% grumpy old men. Some of those grumpy old men have had a hard time acknowledging that our female beekeepers are usually smarter and more committed than the oldtimers. That may be because the ladies are younger and more enthusiastic than the older gentlemen, but it remains a fact. Hopefully, we are getting past the days when women were expected to bring the coleslaw and participate in Honey Queen pageants and do little else. (Not to disparage the hard work and promotion these women have done (!) – but men often forget that much more has been contributed.)

Eva Crane and eight of her books

Women beekeepers are not a new phenomenon. Great beekeepers of the past include Lady Agnes Baden-Powell, founder of the Girl Guides. In the 19th and early 20th century, she encouraged thousands of young ladies to pick up a hive tool. In the USA, Anna Botsford Comstock (How to Keep Bees: A Handbook for the Use of Beginners, 1905) was a pioneer at educating modern North American beekeepers. More recently, nuclear-physicist-turned-beekeeper Eva Crane made huge contributions through her books and organization work at the International Bee Research Association. Famous people who were also beekeepers include Maria von Trapp, Sylvia Plath, Scarlett Johansson, and Martha Stewart. And we have all known women who ran bee businesses – sometimes pretending that it was their lazy or inept husbands who were in charge.

Today, there is increasing awareness of the role women play in beekeeping.  Ontario Bee Journal had a great article last year with the witty title The Beeyard Ain’t No Place for a Woman. You’ll enjoy reading it. Some of the best websites (Women in Beekeeping, Emily Scott’s Adventures in Beeland,  Emma Maund’s Mrs Apis Mellifera, Girl Meets Bee, and Beekeeping Like A Girl) are produced by great beekeepers. These days, many – perhaps a majority – of bee scientists are female. Around the world, they are producing ground-breaking studies in genetics, environment, and disease/pest control related to honey bees:  International (Bee-)Women’s Day is a day worth celebrating!

Posted in Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof, History, Outreach | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Golf Magazine Calls Bee Study “Frivolous”

A magazine dedicated to knocking a ball into a hole in the ground is calling a bee study frivolous. I can imagine no greater authority on frivolity than a magazine called Golf DigestHere’s a link to their flippancy. While you are there, be sure to watch some of the golf videos that show people knocking their small white balls into holes in the ground.


Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Humour | Tagged | 5 Comments

Maple Syrup is Dark

maple-syrup-tappingIt’s February. Maple syrup time in Quebec. The saps are flowing!

I live in western Canada (no maple syrup trees here on the windy prairies) so I don’t think a lot about the sugar tapping going on at the moment in the east. But maple syruplers (sur-PLERS) are the honeyman’s kindreds so I occasionally follow the maple news.

Most people know how the craft works. A sugar shack owner leases maple trees, drills some boreholes and then nails cans on the unlucky trees. Syrup bleeds, draining into buckets. It’s water with 2% sucrose.  In the sugar shack, a sugarman boils and thickens the thin syrup. Here’s a short tapping video, just in case you’ve never seen it done:

As days grow longer and temperatures become warmer, a sugar tree’s sap rises.  The tree awakens from its wintry stupor and prepares its blossoms and leaves. Sugar sap is like a cup of morning coffee. It’s a jolt of energy which the tree made the previous season and stored safely below ground, then used in the spring.

A lot of trees store sap below the frost line, then pump it upwards in late winter to give a burst of growth. In fact, here’s a list of 22 trees that can be tapped for syrup.  Sugar maples give the biggest volume. With a 2% sucrose concentration, it’s also the sweetest syrup. As a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, I snuck a taste from buckets dangling among sugar maples on property our family owned.  I was not impressed. A few Februaries later, I ventured inside a sugar shack and watched as 40 gallons (taken from two nearby trees) was condensed into one sweet gallon. That tasted much better.

Honey or maple syrup?

Honey is healthier than maple syrup. Maple syrup is pure and natural sap, boiled and caramelized in a sugar shack. It is pure plant sugar, so it’s almost 100% sucrose. When plants create sugar, it is always sucrose. Sucrose is the sugar we get from cane and beets – it’s table sugar.  Sometimes sucrose is reduced by natural enzymes into simpler, healthier forms. When we eat sucrose (table sugar), our bodies’ enzymes break sucrose into simpler monosacchrides. In honey, flowers and bees add the enzymes, turning nectar into healthy honey. Maple syrup is 97% sucrose; honey is 2% sucrose.

waffles-and-syrupVegans avoid honey but advocate maple syrup. That’s wrong. If beekeeping is done correctly, it doesn’t hurt bees; however, stolen tree sap makes a difference to the health, growth, and blossoming of maple trees – so tapping ultimately hurts foraging insects. Although maple syrup soaks the breakfast which my daughter and I make Sunday mornings, I wonder about the harm people are doing by tapping millions of trees. Are we depriving bees of some of the early nectar they might get if the sap made it up to the tree tops instead of ending up on my breakfast?

Damaged trees

The people who make and sell maple syrup say that very little tree damage is done and they are probably both correct and biased.  I found this PDF from The Journal of Northeast Agriculture. It describes the (‘slight’) damage done by a taphole bored through bark, beyond the thin vascular cambium and then into the fibrous vessel cells that transport water, nutrients, and sugar to the tree’s stems and leaves. Although it might not be painful for the maple tree, harvesters are told to give a tree a break for a year if it looks distressed and to poke new holes in spots far away from the previous year’s tapholes so that the tree’s wounds have a chance to heal.  At one website, I read that trees may be tapped for 40 years without being killed. Somehow that seemed less reassuring to me than if the writer had not mentioned it at all.

The dark business of syrup

can_flag_75Beyond the (minimal) environmental degradation inflicted by tapping the lifeblood out of Canada’s cherished symbolic flag-leaf tree, there is an unseemly dark business in the maple syrup industry. About 50 years ago, maple syruplers in Quebec formed a syrupler’s cartel.  A libertarian may argue that producers should be allowed to join together and set prices. For tree folks it has worked nicely – the price of maple syrup has been good for tappers. Almost all of the world’s maple syrup comes from Quebec and the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producer’s 7,400 members. Supported by the provincial government, it’s illegal for non-members to tap trees and market their own stuff. This has effectively created a monopoly which Sunday morning pancakes have subsidized for years. It also wrecks the lives of small sideliners who would like to earn a few dollars tapping. It’s turned them into black market entrepreneurs, until they get caught and busted.  Here’s their story in a short video:

But wait! There’s more. The Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers has been so successful controlling the sale of 77% of the world’s maple syrup that the price has hit $1,300 per barrel.  That’s 25 times the cost of a drum of oil and a bit more than a barrel of honey (which, by the way, is healthier and is not controlled by a quota-setting cartel).  The Federation du Dark Syrup keeps the price high by keeping millions of pounds of maple syrup drummed up in steel barrels and stacked in huge warehouses where it is sold for a price set by the federation. In storage, the stuff is referred to as the International Strategic Reserve, or the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve. The federation is operated as a government-sanctioned cartel to control global maple syrup prices and supply, and was called “the OPEC of the maple syrup world” by the Economist in 2013.

Drums of maple syrup - part of the Global Strategic Reserve.

Drums of maple syrup (or air?) – part of the Global Strategic Reserve.

You might worry that millions of pounds of expensive sweetener stored in a few big buildings in Quebec villages might become a target for theft and fraud.  It was.  In 2012,  $13 million dollars of maple syrup (six million pounds) was stolen from the strategic reserve. Regulators who dropped by regularly to count the barrels didn’t notice that half of the strategic reserve was missing because maple syrup barrels had been replaced by barrels of air.  An intrepid inspector climbed a stack of drums to count them and one empty drum fell. It should have weighed 620 pounds and been steady as a rock. Police were called and thousands of empty barrels were discovered.  (The ultimate imitation maple syrup.) Eventually about 30 people were arrested and most of the Global Strategic Reserve was recovered.

Posted in Honey, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

The Place to Pair (and pair and pair) with a Bee?

(Photo: Stephen Bennett)

Well-mated queen. How’d she get that way?   (Photo: Stephen Bennett)

Maybe I should have written this blog in Latin.  When I was a kid, I saw a bee biology book where the author switched to Latin when he got to the part about how queens and drones get together to make little baby bees. Until then, I had no interest in learning Latin.


A growing interest in Latin

I can see the author’s point – unless you’re headed to the priesthood, you have no reason to learn about honey bee sex. Or at least, the author figured that you need to attain a certain level of classical education before you’re exposed to the birds-and-bees part of bees.  Well, I’m not going to start writing this blog in Latin, mostly because I can’t. [However, Res apis mel: Dulcis in fundo!]  If the mechanics of insect sex is too raunchy for you, go study some Latin and then come back when you’re ready.

Here goes. A friend told me that she heard (from a wise source) that queens return to their hive after each individual drone encounter, one drone-friendship per trip. The workers clean her up before her next date. As most beekeepers know, when a young queen enters a drone congregation area, she’s pursued by drones, one of whom mates with her. Much to the drone’s surprise, his penis gets ripped out of his body (maybe this should be in Latin) and the drone falls to the ground, dead. My friend told me that she just learned that the queen immediately flies home where worker bees remove her ‘mating sign’, then she goes back out again. I didn’t think that was true, but her source seemed authoritative.

My recollection is that the queen kills a few more drones before heading home. But, then, I thought – do I know this for sure? Has anyone seen this adventure?  It happens way up there, out of sight,  as E.B. White noted:

Love-in-air is the thing for me
I'm a bee,
I'm a ravishing, rollicking, young queen bee,
That's me.
I wish to state that I think it's great,
Oh, it's simply rare in the upper air,
It's the place to pair
With a bee.

This we’ve known for a couple of hundred years (thanks, Huber and Janša) – queen leaves hive, meets drones, mates in the air. But does she return after each drone? The fact that the last drone’s man-parts block her passage implies that a trip home to freshen up might be necessary before the next nuptial. I wrote to two of the greatest bee sex experts that I know – Dr Larry Connor and Dr Norman Gary. They both wrote back within minutes!

Lawrence Connor, Honey Bee Sex Expert

lawrence-connorLarry Connor, via Facebook, wrote, “This is answered clearly in the new Koeniger book, Mating Biology of the Honey Bee. They show that a queen can be mated fully in one flight.”

He went on to say that the other story (heading home each time) is just plain wrong. I have Dr Connor’s own books on the subject (Queen Rearing Essentials, 2009; Bee Sex Essentials, 2008) and he writes, “The drone separates from his endophallus left in the queen, falls to the ground and dies. Almost immediately, as another drone mounts the queen, the endophallus of the previous drone is forced out as he mounts her to repeat the process.” That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?

The Koeniger book (written by Gudrun and Nikolaus Koeniger with Jamie Ellis and Lawrence Connor),  Mating Biology of the Honey Bee, 2014, is one of the few bee books in the world which I don’t own. (I’ll fix that.) Koeniger et al. can be previewed here – the book looks great and there’s no Latin anywhere. I love that the dedication includes Anton Janscha (!) but not Francois Huber (There is a long-standing academic feud regarding which one to credit for discovering how honey bees mate. My own money goes with the Slovene, Anton Janša.)

Mating Biology of the Honey Bee has a seductive table of contents: Absent Fathers; How to Meet a Mate; Internal Anchorage of Drone and Queen; and thirty other cool/hot subjects. If you’d like to get your own copy – or Dr Larry Connor’s bee biology books – check out the publisher – Wicwas Press.

Norman Gary, Queen Mating Pioneer

norman-gary-with-clarinetI sent the same question (“Do queens multiple mate each flight?”) to Dr Norman Gary and he answered that they usually do have multiple matings each flight. I specifically wanted to know about the proof. You know, in these days of ‘alternative facts’ and belief as a substitute for proof, I wanted to know the background. Have we actually seen the multiple matings or do we base the idea on conjecture – the number of minutes, the number of flights, the final spermatheca load. Maybe scientists are just guessing. Well, it’s not speculation. The multiple matings per flight are real.  I like the context that Norman provided in his answer to me. Dr Gary was the first researcher to observe mating behavior of flying drones and queens under controlled conditions. Motion picture cameras were just becoming reliable and could capture in slow-motion.  Gary and his associates observed and photographed the action.  Here’s part of his letter to me, received yesterday afternoon:

I designed an aerial suspension apparatus to display flying virgin queens tethered by a thread around two feet long that was attached to the thorax.  These queens were attached to horizontal line elevated 20-30 feet high, an altitude permitted normal mating flight behavior of drones.  In one experiment I witnessed 11 drones that mated with a tethered flying queen.  There were only a few seconds between each mating.  I introduced that queen to a colony and she laid eggs normally.  Drones cannot mate with the queen until she opens the sting chamber during flight.  Each drone removes the “mating sign” (endophallus) left by the previous drone.  There is good evidence that queens mate with a total of approximately 15 drones.  But the typical queen usually takes one or two mating flights, not 15!  So there is no question that the queen mates with multiple drones per mating flight.         – Dr Norman Gary, 2017

Professor Gary wrote his first observations in a paper that appeared in Journal of Apicultural Research in 1963. The study, “Observations of mating behavior in the honeybee”,  (Gary, N.E., J. Apic. Res. 2(1):3-13.)  can be accessed by members of the International Bee Research Association. Norman Gary – inspirational teacher, mentor, bee wrangler for movies (he ended up living in California), and accomplished clarinetist – has written more than 100 research papers over his years at Cornell and UC Davis. His most recent book, Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees, has had excellent reviews.  Published in 2010, it’s up-to-date and a good guide for aspiring beekeepers.

What do I know?

I wonder if either Lawrence Connor or Norman Gary were thinking that Ron Miksha (me) should surely know basic bee biology. The scientists were respectful and helpful with their responses. But, you know, the thing about science is that it changes. We think we know something, then someone comes along and proves it wrong. Or adds to the story. Or makes you question your ideas. Anyway, I knew that I could get the latest state of the knowledge from either (and both) of these guys.

I don’t have a copy of Dr Gary’s original flick of queen-drone intimacy.  (I hope someone does!) But here is something that few people outside this blog have ever seen. I have pictures of the scientific experiment as it was being done at Cornell back in the early 1960s. My oldest brother, David, was a high school summer student technician at Cornell when the experiments were going on. In August 1961, David took the pictures below. These unusual historic photographs document the historic documentation of how a queen mates.

Cameras getting ready for the first queen mating pictures. <br>Dr Norman Gary is to the right.

Cameras getting ready for the first queen mating pictures.
Dr Norman Gary is to the right. When he saw this picture,
Dr Gary said, “I would not have been wearing a tie during normal research operations! “

This tethering device secured multiple queens and led to Norman Gary's discovery of the queen mating pheromone.

This tethering device secured multiple queens and led to Norman Gary’s discovery of the queen mating attraction pheromone. Gary was the first to witness multiple (11 times!) mating sequences.


The queen being lowered down from the tower shown in the previous photo. From here, she was introduced into a hive and began laying eggs.

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