Bye ’21: Don’t let the door hit you. . .

This was the year that my motor neuron (ALS variant) advanced more than anyone would like, but I’ll especially remember 2021 as the year I had an unexpected heart attack! (Three, actually, but who’s counting?) I am still plodding along with my graduate studies at the University of Calgary, but I took a few months off to recover, so it is delayed. I also took time off from this blog – I didn’t have the energy to write much. 2021 had the fewest blog posts (just 29) that I have published in almost 25 years. Although I didn’t write much, readers read a lot. My blog had the most visits of any year. In fact, I’ll remember this as the year that I passed 500,000 views. Thank you all.

Many of my most popular posts (measured by views from readers) were written a year or two ago, but still attract a lot of visitors. Here are several, listed from the most viewed.

Do you know the queen colours? 2021 queens were marked with a white dot. What colour will 2022 be? Why was this the most popular post about queen colours this year? Answers will be obvious if you follow the link.

How many honey bees are there? A 2019 update. Although this post was published in 2019, it still attracted a lot of visitors. How many honey bees are there? I’ll write an updated post about bee numbers in 2022.

Why Vegans are wrong. That’s right, they are wrong. Not about eating animals, but about honey. Although I published this piece in 2016, it remains a perennial favourite. Card-carrying vegans won’t eat honey as it’s against their rules. Read this piece to see why they are wrong, so wrong.

Sweet Sweet Clover (Part 1) A story too big to tell in one post, Sweet Sweet Clover Part 2 was also much-visited in 2021. Originally a noxious weed, then a Salvage Jane, now an invasive pest. It is still the world’s best honey plant.

The Man who made killer bees. One of several pieces I’ve written about entomologist Warwick Kerr. This one was written before his death, published as a birthday gift to him. When he passed away in 2018, I wrote his obituary, which was expanded a bit and published in American Bee Journal.

Surprisingly, all of the above stories, much read by many of you, were published before 2021. Nevertheless, they were the most visited on my BadBeekeepingBlog during 2021. This is likely because these particular pages, having been around for a while, have worked their way up the search engine rankings and have also ended up on a lot of other people’s websites. If you haven’t read some of these, follow the links and enjoy your tumble down the beekeepers’ rabbit hole.

For those of you who have survived year two of the epic pandemic, congratulations! Best wishes for an unremarkable new year. And thanks again for reading!

Posted in Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof, Personal | Tagged | 4 Comments

EO Wilson, 92, has left the lab

Edward Osborne Wilson: 1929-2021 (photo CC)

The entire Earth was Ed Wilson’s lab. When his death was announced on Monday, I knew that I wanted to write a few words words in his honour, but I also knew that this would be a difficult task. One can not write just a few words about EO Wilson. In fact, there are books recounting his life and legacy. Not bad for an entomologist from Alabama.

The year Wilson turned eight, the Great Depression was biting hard across America. It was also the year that Ed’s mother divorced his alcoholic father. And it was the year that young Ed Wilson lost an eye while fishing. The accident ultimately prevented Wilson from studying plants and large animals, he said, and forced his one good eye to focus where stereo-vision is less important. He looked down to the ants.

Ants fascinated him. (Eventually they would become the subject of one of his two Pulitzer Prize-winning books.) As a child, Wilson set about identifying all the ant species in his neighbourhood. Still in high school, he was first to discover that the South American red fire ant (an extraordinarily damaging invasive pest) had reached the United States. He discovered these ants near his home in Mobile, Alabama, though they were likely established for several years around his harbour town. He was simply the one who was curious enough to spot them. Wilson would make a life out of discovering the obvious, the things hidden in plain sight.

After high school, he tried to enlist in the army – so he could eventually have the GI bill pay for his education. He was rejected due to his sight disability. Somehow he managed to pay for his education at the University of Alabama, then he was invited to Harvard. He earned his PhD there and eventually taught, wrote, and conducted much of his research at Harvard.

I knew Professor Wilson’s work on eusociality, a type of species organization defined by cooperative brood care, overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labour into reproductive and non-reproductive groups. In other words, the sort of society we find among ants, bees, and very few other creatures. This concept interests beekeepers, of course. It led to the idea of the “Super-organism” – the colony is a unit, with lungs, thermostat, pantry, defence – even an ovary, shaped like a queen. It can catch a virus, run a fever, become infertile.

EO Wilson was among the first to contemplate one of the most important aspects of eusociality, the seemingly anti-Darwinian nature of self-sacrifice. Very few species among the millions on Earth have individuals willing to die so that others can live. Darwin and his followers maintained that among life’s clearest goals is the reproduction of one’s own kind. This ties survival of the fittest, natural selection, and evolution into a tidy package – any species made up of individuals that do not strive for replication would not exist today. Although humans are likely the only creatures to understand this from a scientific and philosophical vantage, all living things participate in the struggle to survive and reproduce – or perish.

And yet, we have social insects (and sometimes social humans) who sacrifice their lives so that others may live and reproduce. Ants are known to attack an intruder, dying by the hundreds, but continuing to attack until the intruder is dead or gone. Humans have jumped on grenades or marched into cannon fire to serve comrades of their tribe. And bees? Here’s some of what Wilson wrote about the bees’ altruistic nature in his 1979 Pulitzer-winning book, On Human Nature:

Honeybee workers have stings lined with reversed barbs like those on fishhooks. When a bee attacks an intruder at the hive, the sting catches in the skin; as the bee moves away, the sting remains embedded, pulling out the entire venom gland and much of the viscera with it.

The bee soon dies, but its attack has been more effective than if it withdrew the sting intact. The reason is that the venom gland continues to leak poison into the wound, while a banana-like odor emanating from the base of the sting incites other members of the hive to launch kamikaze attacks of their own at the same spot.

From the point of view of the colony as a whole, the suicide of an individual accomplishes more than it loses. The total worker force consists of twenty thousand to eighty thousand members, all sisters born from eggs laid by the mother queen. Each bee has a natural life span of only about fifty days, after which it dies of old age. So to give a life is only a little thing, with no genes being spilled.

Sharing the capacity for extreme sacrifice does not mean that the human mind and the “mind” of an insect (if such exists) work alike. But it does mean that the impulse need not be ruled divine or otherwise transcendental, and we are justified in seeking a more conventional biological explanation. A basic problem immediately arises in connection with such an explanation: fallen heroes do not have children. If self-sacrifice results in fewer descendants, the genes that allow heroes to be created can be expected to disappear gradually from the population. A narrow interpretation of Darwinian natural selection would predict this outcome: because people governed by selfish genes must prevail over those with altruistic genes, there should also be a tendency over many generations for selfish genes to increase in prevalence and for a population to become ever less capable of responding altruistically.

In the last paragraph cited above, Wilson reflects on one of the main results of occasional altruism: “fallen heroes do not have children.” Altruistic genes should fade from mankind, but Wilson goes on to consider that culture, a result of selective pressure, has partially sublimated genetics in our species with respect to altruism. Almost. Wilson oscillates, just as society oscillates, between the roles of culture and genetics. Culture should press toward cooperation and altruism; genetics toward individualism and selfishness.

He writes, “Human beings obviously occupy a position on the spectrum somewhere between the two extremes, but exactly where? The evidence suggests to me that human beings are well over toward the individual end of the spectrum. We are not in the position of sharks, or selfish monkeys and apes, but we are closer to them than we are to honeybees in this single parameter. Individual behavior, including seemingly altruistic acts bestowed on tribe and nation, are directed, sometimes very circuitously, toward the Darwinian advantage of the solitary human being and his closest relatives. The most elaborate forms of social organization, despite their outward appearance, serve ultimately as the vehicles of individual welfare. Human altruism appears to be substantially hard-core when directed at closest relatives, although still to a much lesser degree than in the case of the social insects and the colonial invertebrates. The remainder of our altruism is essentially soft. The predicted result is a melange of ambivalence, deceit, and guilt that continuously troubles the individual mind.” 

You may wish to read his classic On Human Nature to learn more. Wilson’s adherence to the role of genetics as an explanation for human behaviour and variation quickly branded him a eugenicist, racist, and troglodyte in some circles. Sociobiological research, which he was instrumental in creating, was at the time particularly controversial with regard to its application to humans. Sociobiology established a scientific argument for rejecting the popular idea that human beings are born no innate mental content. This belief, popular in the early 1970s, states that culture functions to increase human knowledge and aid in survival and success. We are born with a blank slate, an uncorrupted brain, which can be programmed with high standards of morality and interpersonal diffidence.  In the final chapter of his book Sociobiology (1975), Wilson argued that the human mind is shaped as much by genetic inheritance as it is by culture – if not more. There are limits on just how much influence social and environmental factors can have in altering human behaviour, he said.

Critics misunderstood this message, or at least didn’t want it broadcast for fear of lending credence to potentially illiberal ideals. In an attempt to dump cold water on Wilson’s sociobiology conclusions, a pitcher of ice water was dumped on him by demonstrators (who chanted, “Wilson, you’re all wet!”) while he attempted to address a scientific conference in 1978. Wilson, generally appreciated for his calm demeanour, later related that the stunt “may be the only occasion in recent American history on which a scientist was physically attacked, however mildly, simply for the expression of an idea.”   Of course, since the 1970s, physical violence against scientists espousing unpopular ideas has vastly expanded.

Ed Wilson’s ecological research was impressive. Besides coining the word “biodiversity,” which he used to explain the fundamental concept of connectivity among Earth’s variety of life forms, he worked on a practical level to enhance sustainability and encourage stewardship for the planet. His get-your-hands-dirty efforts included discovering 400 species of ants – and figuring out the chemical means they use to communicate. By examining islands in the Florida Keys, Wilson determined the importance of habitat size and habitat location that keeps animal populations viable.

Ecologists will continue to associate his name with biodiversity, biogeography, microevolution, group selection, and the taxon cycle. If these concepts feel beyond the reach of the ordinary intelligent non-specialist, consider viewing Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life, an online resource accessible to all of us. Cooperating with the Smithsonian, various biodiversity organizations, and several laboratories, this resource lists and describes millions of species of life. One simple search (“Insects“) returns 1.3 million pages of photos and details; a similar search on “Apiodea” is sure to delight bee enthusiasts – it presents over 75,000 pages of bee images.

Posted in Bee Biology, Books, Culture, or lack thereof, Ecology, History, People, Science | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Langstroth’s Christmas Present

I’ve been posting this piece every Christmas for a while. If you’ve read it before, read it again. Or not. Christmas Day is L.L. Langstroth’s birthday. He’d be 211 years old, if he hadn’t been struck down in his 85th year from complications of elderliness. Langstroth’s movable frames and his brilliant beekeeping book, The Hive and the Honey Bee, were his gifts to you.

Langstroth

LL Langstroth

1810-1895

He invented the modern beehive, making it easier, more productive, and less stressful for bees.

However, Langstroth earned nothing from his invention and suffered severely from self-doubt, melancholy, and clinical depression.

Yet, he changed beekeeping to its core. On his birthday anniversary), we give homage to the most important beekeeper America ever produced.

Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth Langstroth was born December 25, 1810. That was some Christmas gift to the world, wasn’t it? His childhood seems to have been typical for a kid who spent a lot of time on his hands and knees on the streets of Philadelphia, trapping bugs and ants with table scraps. “I was once whipped because I had worn holes in my pants by too much kneeling on the gravel walkways in my eagerness to learn all that I could about ant life,” Langstroth wrote.

He built paper traps for beetles and flies, leading to a traumatic experience when his grammar school teacher – fed up with six-year-old Lorenzo’s ‘wasted’ bug time – smashed his paper cages and freed his flies. Lorenzo was sent to cry himself to sleep inside a dark cupboard at the school. The teacher’s reform strategy worked. Langstroth gave up his passion for insects and became a preacher instead.

Langstroth's Andover church

Langstroth studied theology at Yale. At 25, he was offered a job as pastor at the South Church in Andover, Massachusetts (left). Even in Langstroth’s day, it was an old prestigious church. In 2011 it celebrated its 300th anniversary. The plum assignment as pastor at South Church was a recognition of the young man’s considerable abilities.

While visiting a parish member, Langstroth noticed a bowl of comb honey. He said that it was the most beautiful food he had ever seen. He asked to visit his new friend’s bees. Langstroth was led to the fellow’s attic where the hives were arranged near an open window. “In a moment,” Langstroth remembered, “the enthusiasm of my boyish days seemed, like a pent-up fire, to burst out in full flame. Before I went home I bought two stocks of bees in common box hives, and thus my apiarian career began.” Langstroth had been infected by the bee bug.

Head troubles

Throughout his lifetime, Langstroth suffered badly from manic-depression. In the mid-nineteenth century, there was little anyone could do to help a person afflicted with mental illness. The only solace was temporary and usually came to Langstroth when he was with his bees.

The young minister felt that he wasn’t an effective parson because of his recurring dark days, so he quit preaching and became principal of a women’s school instead. By all accounts, he was a empathetic minister and a dedicated teacher, but bouts of depression forced him to cancel sermons and classes. He needed a change. Bees were the only thing he knew that could give him peace, comfort, and meaningful work while fitting into a life disrupted by debilitating illness. But sometimes not even bees could stop what he called his “head trouble” when darkness crept upon him.

He built an apiary and hoped to make his living from bees. But during his first beekeeping summer, severe depression returned and lasted for weeks. He sold all his colonies in the fall. Then he started with the bees again. His life would turn over again and again with periods of manic enthusiasm and productivity followed by gloomy months of despondency. During his depressed phases, Langstroth took shelter in a bed in a dark room. He would remain there, immobile, for days. “I asked that my books be hidden from my sight. Even the letter “B” would remind me of my bees and instill a deep sadness that wouldn’t leave.”

When he was finally able to return to his bees, Langstroth made great strives at increasing efficiency in his apiary. He made his tasks more effective. He never knew when depression would return, so he worked day and night during productive manic periods.

Eureka!

The major inefficiency in his apiary was the design of the boxes which held his bees. The boxes were usually simple wooden crates with solid walls and small holes which the bees used as entrances. During harvest of a hive, the lid was lifted from the crate. Attached to the lid were wax combs that the bees had built in haphazard jumbles. The combs cracked and broke during the beekeeper’s excavation, causing a sticky mess and disturbing the excited bees. It was a messy, nasty way to inspect bees and harvest honey.

Langstroth noticed that bees often left a small space around the edge of their combs. Sometimes, upon lifting the lids, he would find wax attached to both the lid and the walls inside the hive, while at other times the hanging combs were not stuck to the hive walls at all. Langstroth’s brilliant insight (his Eureka! moment) was noticing that the space was about 3/8 of an inch when the combs hung freely. If a comb were closer than that to a wall, the bees would attach it to the walls. But at 3/8 inch (actually, between 6.35 and 9.53 mm), the bees always left a space. He had discovered “bee space”.

Langstroth’s next step was brilliant. He made wooden frames that held the wax combs, designing them so they dangled within the hive’s box with their wooden edges always 3/8 of an inch from anything that might touch them: the lid, the interior box walls, the box bottom, other frames. Positioned like this, the bees neither waxed the frames together nor stuck them to the sides or bottom of the hive. The result was a beehive with movable frames. Combs could be lifted, examined, and manipulated. It was 1851 and modern beekeeping had begun.

Colonies could be handled more gently. Frames could be inspected for disease, queen quality, and honey and pollen reserves. Movable frames meant queen bees could be produced and strong hives split (by sharing frames between two or more new hives), thus increasing colony numbers while preventing swarming. It was a new era in beekeeping. The next few decades were “The Golden Age of Beekeeping“.

This picture of a frame, as designed by Langstroth, is from the May 1902 American Bee Journal!

Easy to use, easy to make, easy to copy

L.L. Langstroth was not alone in figuring out bee space and inventing applications for it. About the same time, some European beekeepers (Huber, in Switzerland and Dzierzon in Poland/Germany, Prokopovich in the Ukraine) had made similar discoveries. But Langstroth created a simpler hive. His Langstroth beehive was a fine example of North American utilitarian craftsmanship. Efficient, practical, and cheap.

Langstroth’s invention was so simple and inexpensive that his patent was readily violated. Minor modifications were touted as significant improvements to Langstroth’s original design, circumventing the patent. Langstroth began a number of lawsuits against the more flagrant violators, but when the court cases began, his “head troubles” returned.

He dropped the litigation when he realized he could not win and when his illness prevented a spirited defense. Realistically, it was impossible to stop imitations and adaptations. Beekeepers – who were often handy farmers and carpenters – quickly built one or two hives with frames for themselves. Langstroth sought one dollar to license each box, which was a huge price in those days. But his real discovery was “bee space” which could not be patented. His position was like trying to patent sails for ships after discovering wind. Even Langstroth’s supporters wrote that Langstroth should have simply allowed the idea to flourish in the public domain. Trying to enforce the patent was expensive. It left Langstroth nearly bankrupt.

With a plethora of modifications and similar boxes being designed in Europe, Langstroth’s great contribution may have entered the world anyway and without credit to him. But the retired minister had one other major contribution to society. It earned him much-deserved praise and even a bit of money. In one feverish six-month manic spell, Langstroth wrote the greatest beekeeping book ever published.

Hive and Honey Bee

In 1852, working for six hectic months with almost no sleep, Langstroth wrote The Hive and the Honey-Bee. This book, revised and expanded in more than 40 subsequent editions, is still a reliable source for beekeepers. When Langstroth wrote it, there were other good bee primers on the market, but his book moved to the top spot. You may read the original 1853 book on-line. I’ve read and re-read my 1859 copy with its 409 pages of fading text protected by orange hardboard covers. It earned its place in my library. Within the book are chapters such as Loss of the Queen (and what to do), Swarming, Feeding, Wintering, and Enemies of the Bees. It’s a very practical guide to keeping bees and much of it is still relevant today.

Langstroth never found lasting peace from his cycles of manic depression, though in his 60s he travelled to Mexico and discovered that the stimulation and change of scenery gave him an unexpected respite from depression. The illness returned when he returned to his home, but he remembered the break from head troubles with great appreciation. He lived long enough (85 years!) to see his work appreciated, his name honored, and his book sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Despite his life-long disability, he had a long, full life, three children, and interesting work. And he made a phenomenal contribution to beekeeping.

Langstroth's Hive and Honey-Bee, first published in 1853

Merry Christmas

&

Happy Birthday!


to Lorenzo Loraine Langstroth

Posted in Beekeeping, Books, History, Hives and Combs, People, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Bees in the Snow

Bees that died in the snow, December 23, 2021.

New beekeepers (and some of us old ones) worry when we see ‘lots’ of bees in the snow during winter. The black dots (above) are frozen stiffs – bees that left their hive and didn’t make it back. To me, this is a really sad sight, but not a disturbing one.

If we assume that northern hemisphere honey bee colonies drop their populations from 30,000 bees in late October to 15,000 in late February, that’s over one hundred dead bees every day. We’d much rather see them outside the hive than piled up on the bottom board. One might argue that the dead bees in front of the hive might have lived all winter. Perhaps they were otherwise healthy bees looking for winter flowers. That’s possible. It’s also possible that these were weakly bees taking cleansing flights (honey bees will not defecate inside their hive unless the entire colony is weak and dying). The poor insects were not strong enough to make it home after visiting the bushes.

Regardless the cause, a few dozen bees in the snow does not generally mean trouble for the wintering colony. More worrisome is a prolonged cold spell (Calgary, where these colonies live in my backyard, is at the beginning of two weeks of minus 20s). When it’s especially cold, the bees don’t even try to fly out to exercise their monthly constitution. That’s when we should worry.

Posted in Beekeeping | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

The Bees are Fine

My favourite line from one of my favourite movies was spoken by Peter Fonda, playing Ulee Jackson in a film about a Florida beekeeper. When Ulee visits his son, who is in prison for robbery, the son asks about the bees. Ulee answers, ‘Mites are choking them, pesticides are killing them, the drought’s starving them… they’re fine.’ That line contributed to Fonda’s Oscar nomination for best actor in 1997, which he narrowly lost to his friend Jack Nicholson.

The bees are fine. Honey bees, long rumoured to be dropping like flies towards extinction, are doing as well as cows, sheep, and other livestock. To maintain livestock in their current numbers, humans manage animal diseases and pests, supply food in times of famine, and control the beasts’ reproduction. For bee farmers, that means a lot of expense. Dead colonies are replaced by raising new queens and dividing strong colonies into multiple offspring. This allows bee losses to be replaced and total colony counts to increase, as it has been doing worldwide for years.

Although managed honey bee colonies die off at a higher rate than we were accustomed to a generation ago, today’s one-third annual loss is still better than the survival rate of untended wild colonies, which have a first-year death rate of 77%, and a second-year of 16% (Seeley, 2017). Feral colonies don’t survive well, but we expect much more from our boxed ones.

As if to confirm the striking success of managed honey bee colonies, Statistics Canada has just released its annual summary of Canadian honey crop production and honey bee populations. First, according to official counts, Canadians have never kept this many honey bee colonies. We are now at 810,000 colonies, managed by 13,000 beekeepers – up 40,000 colonies from 2020.

The value of honey produced (over one-quarter of a billion dollars) has also never been higher. If you do the mental math, you’ll see that the “average” honey income per beekeeper is a bit over $20,000. You may wonder how beekeepers buy all those trucks and supers – and feed and clothe their flock of young’ns – on $20,000. Well, most beekeepers (95%) are hobbyists who crank their extractor a few times and sling out five hundred dollars in honey money. A small minority of Canada’s beekeepers are commercial and in the business like a bad marriage – it’s all they know and it’s too expensive to get out. That small minority grosses an average of $400,000 in honey sales. It still doesn’t leave much to live on after trucks, supers, equipment, buildings, feed, medicines, and trips to Vegas are factored in. But that’s a story for another day.

Meanwhile, here’s a chart I made from the StatsCanada data. This graph looks back to 1924, when Canadians owned fewer than 300,000 honey bee colonies. Since then, we’ve almost tripled that number.

Posted in Beekeeping, Commercial Beekeeping, Honey, Movies | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Look at me! I’m green!

A Calgary oil company’s office tower has a bee just around the corner. This beautiful wall-poster points the way to the bee. Yes, ‘the bee’ according to the sign. I would be quite embarrassed if I had allowed such a glaring grammar error to appear on an otherwise attractive sign. Bee’s, of course, means one bee, and the “bee’s new home” is nearby. Bees’ is the word they wanted. Plural possessive. Around the corner, there were about 60,000 of them. Was there no editor, no one checking spelling and grammar? Yes, folks, even here in Calgary, Canada, we are experiencing the collapse of basic knowledge of Grade 3 grammar. But alas, that’s not the only problem here.

So, there are honey bees in downtown Calgary. I suppose that there was a green statement (and a few dollars exchanged) by the folks involved. As we perpetuate the myth that honey bees are threatened, we entice landlords and corporations of all sorts to sign up for beekeeping. Bees are green. Sort of. In addition, companies are luring office workers away from their home offices in covidly-compliant backyards and on isolated sunny decks with the promise of honey bees and gardens outside the office towers that employees are expected to reenter. The New York Times has had two recent articles extolling the delights of skyscraper-beekeeping. (See here and here.)

The investment company Nuveen has spent $120 million renovating its office tower at 730 Third Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, overhauling the lobby, devoting the second floor to amenities and refurbishing a 22nd-floor terrace.

And the finishing touch? Two beehives on a seventh-floor terrace.

Following the latest trend in office perks, Nuveen hired a beekeeper to teach tenants about their tiny new neighbors and harvest honey for them to take home.

Office workers who were sent home during pandemic lockdowns often sought refuge in nature, tending to houseplants, setting up bird feeders and sitting outdoors with their laptops. Now, as companies try to coax skittish employees back to the office and building owners compete for tenants when vacancy rates are soaring, many have hit on the idea of making the office world feel more like the natural world.

The effort seeks to give office workers access to fresh air, sunlight and plants, in tune with the concept of biophilia, which says humans have an innate connection with nature. Designs that include nature are shown to promote health and wellness.

I can’t fault a company for wanting to encourage sanity among its warehoused employees. But honey bees don’t need to be part of the mix. Although honey bees may not severely injure the environment (and they are certainly required to sustain our current farming practices), honey bees interfere with the natural ecological balance of our landscapes. Instead of honey bees atop an office tower, a flock of comfort chickens might be more suitable and less environmentally invasive. Here in Calgary, where honey bees are not native and where native bees may be displaced by these honey bees, they are not needed to keep native wildflowers pollinated. That’s the job of wild, native bees.

As long-time readers of my blog know, I am not on an anti-honey-bee crusade. I love observing their model society, communication skills, and synchronized responses to the whims of nature. I was once a commercial beekeeper, dropping dozens of colonies at a time into unsuspecting meadows. Today, I keep two colonies in my backyard as a source of fascination and honey. However, setting colonies on the roof of a big-city skyscraper, in a floral vacuum where they may need fed sugar-water and where native bees struggle to survive even without competition, is a mistake.

Here’s a picture of the colonies. They are attractive, but unnecessary, additions to the building’s sterile gravel environment. Why not a potted plant to feed the wild bees instead? Seriously. It would look better.

Photos are courtesy of my son, David Miksha, who passed through this office tower on October 14.

Posted in Bee Yards, Ecology, Save the Bees | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Bees Kill Endangered Penguins

Endangered African penguin. (Source: Wiki)

Well, this isn’t a nice story. Apparently 63 endangered African penguins were stung to death by honey bees last week. My first thought, of course, was that the culprit was one of the more vicious African honey bees – Apis mellifera scutellata or adansonii, the cousins of America’s Africanized honey bees. But the penguins lived along the south cape of Africa and they seem to have bee attacked by a disturbed a nest of Cape honey bees, a honey bee not generally known for such cruelty.

The Cape bee, Apis mellifera capensis, is an unusual race of honey bees. It is particularly known for its ability to produce workers capable of producing female offspring. (Other honey bees have ‘laying workers’ that can only produce drones.) The Cape bee has been naturally restricted to the Cape region of South Africa. But agricultural pollination led to commercial migratory beekeeping in South Africa. This resulted in some relocation of capensis outside their normal range. Unfortunately, capensis is a social parasite – they can occupy other races’ nests and quickly replace them. Consequently, the government has divided scutellata beekeepers from capensis beekeepers with a strictly enforced demarcation line.

A second fun fact about the Cape bee lies in its centuries-old cultural connection to the area’s indigenous people. The Xhosa have a tradition of welcoming wayward swarms of Cape bees by making a tank of beer and celebrating the bees’ arrival with a few rounds. (I know Calgary swarm-collectors who have a similar tradition here in my hometown.)

According to the New York Times, the Cape bees may have attacked the Cape penguins when their nest was disturbed:

All the penguins had multiple bee stings, and “many dead bees were found at the site where the birds had died,” according to a statement from the South African National Parks. “Therefore preliminary investigations suggest that the penguins died because of being stung by a swarm of Cape honey bees.”

No external physical injuries were observed on any of the dead penguins, the statement said.The penguins migrate to the area annually. The bees found near the dead birds are native to the area, “usually coexist with wildlife” and “don’t sting unless provoked,” according to Dr. Alison Kock, a marine biologist at the South African National Parks.

The penguins had been stung around the eyes and on their flippers, areas not covered by feathers, Dr. Kock said.

“The feathers over the penguin’s body are densely packed and it’s unlikely the bees stings could have penetrated through these feathers,” Dr. Kock said in an email. “On the other hand, the skin around the eyes and flippers have no feathers and the stings could penetrate in those regions.”

Tests are underway to determine if a toxin or a disease was a factor in the penguins’ deaths, park officials said. So far, officials believe the bees’ nest was disturbed, causing “a mass of bees to flee the nest, swarm and they became defensive and aggressive,” Dr. Kock said. “Unfortunately the bees encountered a group of penguins on their flight path.”

The Cape Penguin is endangered, so the loss of sixty birds because of bee stings is serious. However, those deaths pale in comparison to what we humans have been able to accomplish. Oil spills in 1994 and 2000 killed 30,000 of the birds. Overfishing has reduced the birds’ food supply, resulting in starvation and less reproductive success. But for now, the stinging bees and sixty dead penguins are making headlines around the world.

Posted in Ecology, Killer Bees, Stings, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Free International Symposium

Global Trends in Beekeeping. This two-day symposium is being held in Moscow. Registration is free, but if you are in the western hemisphere, be prepared for a couple of very early mornings. (The Congress begins at 10am, Moscow; 3am in New York.) I think the low, low registration price is partly because this event is intended to persuade us to attend the next Apimondia, September 2022, also in Russia.

This year’s symposium, Global Trends in Beekeeping, features presentations in apitherapy, disease management, economics, general beekeeping issues, and overviews of beekeeping in Russia and the Apimondia 2022 host region of Bashkortostan. If you’re not an early riser, register anyway as talks will be filmed shown later online during the Congress.

Posted in Apitherapy, Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Waxing in the Waning Days of Summer

Our summer is drawing to a close. After record-breaking heat, we’re now getting seasonal temperatures (though no frost yet, which is unusual). Fortunately, we are having some much-needed rain. In the heat of summer, I set up our solar wax melter. Now it’s time to put it in the garage.

In all my decades of beekeeping, I never owned a solar wax melter. (Actually, one of my brothers built one for my honey farm a few years, but the design wasn’t quite right – it was too big, too deep, and not easily turned to catch the sun.) Two years ago, I bought a small one, designed for hobby beekeeping. It is light-weight, easily rotates into the right position, and produces beautiful sun-drenched yellow wax.

This melter, built by Uncle Lee’s Bees in Calgary, is almost perfect. It quickly builds a high temperature. It is easy to load and clean. I find it hard to believe that it was designed, produced, and sold for just a few hundred dollars. (You can buy one from Worker and Hive in Calgary.) On the other hand, it would take a hobby beekeeper a few years of wax sales to earn the $335CAN ($260US) that it cost. But that’s not the point. Producing nice-quality wax and doing it cleanly, efficiently, using the sun’s energy – and not on the kitchen stove! – is the real point. We found that this melter took the pressure off the kitchen, kept bowls and cutlery from being destroyed, and saved on our electric bill.

If you don’t have one of these remarkable gadgets, consider getting one. There are a lot of designs available. We like ours, especially since it works so well and was manufactured in our own city. If you don’t have your own solar-wax-melter factory nearby, here’s the link to buy one made in Calgary.

To keep debris out of the wax, we use a disposable dish cloth (a roll of 50 will cost less than $10) – disposable, but also reusable (we run three or four cycles on each, depending on how much junk is in the wax being melted). Here in Calgary, the melter only works on bright sunny days, though melting begins at ambient temperatures as low as 15C (60F). We usually revolve the box three times (or whenever we think about it) to catch the most direct sunshine. We don’t use any water in the plastic tray that catches the wax drippings. If the wax is from fresh cappings, there will be quite a bit of honey in it, which will be dark but not burnt-flavoured. I save it for my tea.

Some photos of our deck’s summertime conversation piece:

If you sell your wax at craft-store prices (and you should), you might get $20/pound and actually pay for the melter within your lifetime. Amazon has some good-quality beeswax at $160/pound ($10/ounce). At that rate, the melter pays for itself in a couple of sunny days.

Or, you might simply make some duck candles and charge a couple hundred dollars for each.

Posted in Beekeeping, Hive Products, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Blue and Green in the Flower Patch

Good scientists do their best to remove bias from their observations and experiments. Statistical methods such as blocking, double-blind trials, use of appropriate controls, and randomization are among their key tools. Results are suspect when hypotheses are designed after data are collected, when confirmation bias, cultural bias, and other errors of judgment creep into experimentation, analysis, and interpretation.

But what type of bias is indicated when scientists study more blue flowers than green? Tall ones rather than short? How does unconscious bias – predilections for favourites – affect our ecological examinations? As Martino et al. state in their May 2021 Nature communication, “Plant scientists’ research attention is skewed towards colourful, conspicuous and broadly distributed flowers”. Charismatic organisms get our attention.

The researchers performed a deep dive into literature associated with studies of plants in the southwestern Alps, determining which species were most researched by scientists exploring the plants in this biodiverse area. They looked at a few hundred published papers and demonstrated that

morphological and colour traits, as well as range size, have significantly more impact on species choice for wild flowering plants than traits related to ecology and rarity.

Specifically, the Martino team found disproportionate research was conducted on pretty flowers.

This analysis indicated how the choice of investigated species across the literature in the last 45 years has been strongly influenced by plant traits related to aesthetics.

Aesthetics. Prettiness. It’s sad that this equates to greater scientific curiosity. But it does.

The researchers found a significant relationship between the number of published papers and flower colour. Blue flowers were the most studied. White and red/pink were much more studied than ugly-duckling brown or green flowers.

. . . traits such as bright colours, accessible inflorescences and conspicuousness are shown to drive research attention, highlight what we call an aesthetic bias in plant research. While aesthetics is today used to refer to art and beauty (often in direct opposition to scientific values like objectivity), the Greek root of the word refers to sensory perception. . .
Here it is interesting to note that humans have evolved trichromacy, that is the separate perception of wavelength ranges corresponding to blue, red and green regions through specialized structures. It has been speculated that the evolutionary acquisition of colour vision in humans and other primates led to an increased ability to locate ripe fruits against a green background. The human eye is thus optimized to perceive green, red and blue which, according to colour psychology theory, also greatly impacts people’s affection, cognition and behaviour. The evolved and physiological aspect of human perception is also demonstrably affected by sociocultural factors, since education, class, gender, age, cultural background all shape how we perceive the world. . . What matters is that this bias affects the representativity of data used to ground research priorities and conservation policies and, as such, risks compromising efforts to effectively focus plant conservation activities and preserve plant biodiversity.

There was also a significant positive effect of plant stem height and a weak negative effect of flower size on research interest – taller plants have more easily accessible inflorescences. (Who wants to crawl on hands and knees to examine ugly flowers?) Finally, the scientists found that there is a positive effect of range size on research interest. This might mean that a broad range makes a species available to more researchers, increasing the likely that it would be studied. But broadly distributed plants are less prone to extinction. For many ecosystems, uncharismatic species with a constricted range might manifest an unexplored, out-sized environmental niche effect of great importance. But we won’t know if we avoid studying ugly organisms.

All of this should be very concerning for anyone interested in understanding ecological systems as completely as possible – without ugly data missing. The authors suggest that “when plant scientists select to study a specific wild plant among the pool of species available in a given study region, it may be that factors unrelated to the biological question end up influencing species choice and introducing biases in the research outcome.” I doubt that many of us recognize how this unintended bias could skew our understanding of an ecological system or landscape.

But I’ll conclude with this contradictory message. If we realize that our research has a bias, and we focus on ways to mitigate it, then maybe it’s not so bad to disproportionately investigate the charismatic. Most of us don’t explore nature in a social vacuum. We are attracted to pretty things. We need funding. We want public appreciation for our conclusions. It’s easier to get money and attention for a project studying the handsome and beguiling than the homely and beleaguered.

Few creatures are as charismatic as bumble bees – except, perhaps honey bees. To me. They have my attention. So, I study them, day and night. But I’ll try to be more aware of the hundreds of other (less charismatic) animals with whom they share their patch of earth.

Posted in Ecology, Science | Tagged , | 2 Comments