Goodbye, Susan

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

A friend whom I never met has passed away. Her memorial service was on the weekend. Susan Rudnicki was a regular reader and commented here frequently. If you’ve been following this blog over the past year or two, you have seen her insightful notes.

The things she cared passionately about, I think, were  her family, the environment, and her bees.  Maybe not in that order!  She was also a vocal advocate for the welfare and education of girls and young women in developing countries.

We had good-natured sparring matches over her advocacy of foundationless frames and the utility of Africanized stock.  I quickly learned to appreciate many of Susan’s perspectives. When I was writing a piece last year about Warwick Kerr for American Bee Journal about the arrival of Africanized bees, I called Susan. We had a wonderful hour of bee chat and she made her case for her beloved AHB cutouts. She saved bees that others would have killed and she brought them home to her backyard. She especially liked the fact that her AHB stock is varroa-resistant, so she was a chemical-free beekeeper. We talked about  lot of things in that hour and I learned from her. That interview, three months before she received a devastating diagnosis, was the only time I’d spoken to her. I fully expected to share a few laughs and maybe a beer with Susan at Apimondia this September. It won’t happen.

In January, Susan sent me a private note. The subject line was I am sick. I was crushed as I read her email. She wrote that she’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I answered immediately. First, maybe the doctors were wrong. That certainly happens. Second, she’s thin, female, avoided carcinogenics, ate organic, exercised among the bees – if anyone was a candidate to beat the odds, it was her. We stayed in touch. But pancreatic cancer takes 95% of people diagnosed within five years. In Susan’s case, it was five months.

Susan Rudnicki was the most prolific comment-poster on the Bad Beekeeping Blog. I feel honoured that she would have chosen this forum to express her thoughts and opinions so openly and freely. I’ll end this post today with a few random excerpts from her many, many comments. If you didn’t get a chance to read these notes from Susan in the past, you will quickly see why her friends, her bees, and the whole world will miss her.

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

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

November 14, 2018 responding to a post about Prince Charles:

I must say, that is the first time I have ever seen a dress shirt and tie under a veil! I like Prince Charles and think he has a good heart, even with inheriting a lot of tricky history and loads of burdensome etiquette.

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

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

September 12, 2018, responding to comments in a post about lithium varroa treatments:

In the nine years I have been keeping locally adapted, feral survivor stock honey bees, gathered from swarms and structural cutouts, I have never treated for any parasites or diseases. I use foundationless, Langstroth frames and boxes, no queen excluders for an unlimited brood nest. I do not lose ANY every winter. The only time I have lost colonies was failure to supercede their queen, and those have been very few. I do not buy queens. There ARE mites in my colonies, but the number is well managed by the bees themselves and the loss to DWV and other viruses is minimal. In order for the immune and behavioral challenge response to remain well honed, the pathogen must be present at a minimal level. This is fundamental to survival fitness. This concept was at the center of the studies of the Arnot Forest Bees done by Thomas Seeley of Cornell and which he has published about in books. Modern targeted breeding and heavy management of pathogens has removed the evolutionary adaptive process that ALL organisms employ and certainly applies to honey bees. As in the rapid resistance developing to antibiotics used for controlling human and animal bacterial diseases, Vd is rapidly becoming resistant to our devised management via treatments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝

From her published obituary: 

Susan Theresa Rudnicki passed away on May 23, 2019 at the age of 63. Susan was born on February 10, 1956 in Burwell, Nebraska. She attended San Diego State University for her undergraduate years, followed by graduate work in dental hygiene at the University of Southern California.

Susan dedicated her life to the protection and proliferation of the natural world. Besides her monthly donations to financially support up to 90 different associations focused on the preservation of the environment, Susan is widely respected across the South Bay and greater Los Angeles area for a lifetime of volunteer work in botanical gardens, animal rescue, animal advocacy, petitioning progressive environmental policy, and beekeeping/bee rescuing… Susan’s home garden is widely recognized as a native wildlife habitat, pollinator proliferator, and animal sanctuary. Her garden was certified 15 years ago by the Native Wildlife Federation as a Wildlife Sanctuary and became a notable landmark for native garden tours in Los Angeles…

Susan’s fierce, unwavering activism was matched by her drive to educate herself and others. She utilized the power of our interconnected world to collect sound and respected peer-reviewed research that backed up her concerns about the drastic changes occurring on our planet. She took every chance to teach others about the anthroposcene’s greatest threats to the environment and its inhabitants. Every conversation on human-orchestrated atrocities was a time where she could help others recognize how they can directly impact the conservation of the natural world. Susan did all of this because of the deep love she held for our planet. Every moment in life was a chance for her to give back, to show gratitude for nature’s bountiful glory by making others aware of our need to consistently protect it.

Susan committed the final decade of her life to rescuing, rehoming, and rejuvenating beehives across the Los Angeles area. She was consistently relied upon by LAX for rescuing swarms on airport property and countless local residents of Los Angeles who discovered hives in their walls or around their property. She spent years volunteering as the sole bee rescuer for Manhattan Beach Public Works, rescuing and rehoming beehives across Manhattan Beach in humane, chemical-free processes. She continued to mentor beekeeping apprentices all the way into the final days of her life.

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

Pollinator Week 2019

Icelandic bumble bees, seen on my 2018 trip to the ice island. Chilled by a cold rainy summer, they are just waking up as the clouds began to unveil the sun. (Photo: Jane Miksha)

In the past three or four years, I began to notice that honey bees aren’t the only bees in the world. What a surprise! There are over 20,000 other versions. Some as big as elephants, some as small as pin heads.  Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but the range in shape, colour, and size of bees is impressive.

I’m still a western honey bee enthusiast, enamoured by their manners and their advance form of civilization. I still want to be buried in a beehive when I die. But I’ve been researching bee ecology at the University of Calgary and have become more and more fond of the other species.  Pollinator Week, which begins today, June 17, reminds us all to notice the other pollinators – including some ants, butterflies, bats, birds, and several hundred other creatures.

The elephant shrew, practicing on sugar before moving on to nectar.

Among the more unusual/ignored pollinators are bats, toads, and mongooses (mongeese?). The BBC has a fun page that talks about mongoslings which transport pollen while snacking on nectar (to wash the taste of cobra from their mouths, I suppose). BBC also mentions the elephant shrew which uses its elephant nose to probe flowers for pollen and nectar, spreading goodies from blossom to blossom. (Incidentally, this mouse-sized creature is genetically closer to elephants than shrews – as you can see from its face.)

In China, some farmers carry little brushes into orchards, dusting pollen on pear and apple blossoms. In areas bordering Tibet, apple crops must be hand-pollinated by humans. These are areas so remote and rugged that it’s not possible to haul in native eastern honey bees (or any other non-human pollinators). Although wind and gravity may do some apple pollination work, Wired magazine credits local farmers with doing “100% of the pollination” – depending on variety and need for cross-pollination, that might be true. Both Wired (Will We Still have Fruit if Bees Die Off?) and Huffington Post (Startling Effect of Shrinking Bee Populations) claim that the impending extinction of bees has caused humans to hand pollinate. They are wrong. Read their articles and see for yourself.

Dusting pollen on pears in China. (Credit: HuffPost)

Pollinator Week has a wide variety of pollinators to celebrate: Birds, bats, toads, butterflies, shrews, humans, gravity, and wind. We, of course, want to give due credit to bees. After all, they help pollinate our gluten-free favourites: squash and blueberries. (Not to mention apples, almonds, rambutan, mangos, kidney beans, canola, and kiwis. And a few dozen more.)

Yesterday, a friend asked me what she could do to encourage pollination in her garden. I fumbled for an answer. Do you buy a hive of bees, bring in leaf cutters, masons, bumble bees, or elephant shrews? Or do you plant flowers that will attract bees, shrews, and maybe humans to your backyard? If it’s bees you are after, you might like to look at this website: You’ll find excellent (really excellent) guidebooks that will help you decide what to plant to attract bees and butterflies to your own garden. Though, alas, no mention of attracting shrews, mongooses, or humans. You’re on your own with those.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Ecology, Outreach, Pollination | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Remembering Eva Crane: Beekeeper and Physicist

June 12th. I have an excuse to write a bit about the amazing Ethel Eva Widdowson, born in London on June 12th, 1912. By age 30, she had defended her doctorate in nuclear physics, begun to teach at Sheffield University, married stockbroker James Crane, changed her name to Eva Crane, and took home a beehive as a gift from a wedding guest.

It may seem odd to receive honeymoon bees, but it was 1942. England was at war. Sugar was rationed. Those bees were intended to help the newlyweds through the wartime food shortages. Unexpectedly, the bees led to a whole new career for Dr. Eva Crane.

Photo from cover of the book
Eva Crane : bee scientist 1912-2007
edited by Walker and Jones

Eva Crane studied the sciences. She was one of only two women earning a maths degree at King’s College London in 1933. This was followed by an MSc in quantum mechanics in 1935 and her PhD in nuclear physics in 1937. Shortly after, she began lecturing. She could have led an outstanding life as a theoretical physicist, but alas, her bees got in the way.

In the early 1940s, she moved from the male-dominated math and physics field to an amazing career in the arguably more male-centric world of bees. Today, with about half of new beekeepers female, we forget that bee clubs in Crane’s day were completely under the thumbs of men – usually fussy old gentlemen with starched collars. They tolerated women as organizers of beekeepers’ picnics and (sometimes) as secretaries of their clubs.

To suggest women had a subservient role is to make an understatement. During the 1940s, Gleanings in Bee Culture hosted a regular column about beekeeping titled ‘Spinster Jane Says’, which I presume was written by a female writer. In Dr. Crane’s day, women also appeared in bee magazines as authors of “Home Cooking” pages, as did ‘Mrs. Benj. Neilsen’ who explained how to make Christmas fruit cake with honey in the December, 1943, issue of Gleanings.

There were rare exceptions, as Kentucky Chief Apiarist Tammy Horn Potter notes in her books Bees in America, and especially Beeconomy. In many cultures, bees are a thing that women do, but in the west during the past centuries, it’s been largely a male domain. As late as the 1970s, when I moved to Saskatchewan to beekeep, I was appalled when the Saskatchewan Chief Apiary Inspector published a piece about the woman’s role in operating a honey house. In the July, 1979, issue of the American Bee Journal, he wrote,

“I maintain that women have a penchant or inclination towards tidyness and cleanliness. It is both part of their nature and part of their training. . . One of the prime answers to an untidy, unsanitary honey extracting set-up would be to get the man out of the extracting plant and into the field and put a tidy, neat and authoritative woman in charge of the extracting, for where cleanliness has become a habit it has ceased to be a chore.” – Ed Bland, 1979.

So, in 1979, an authoritative woman might have been running a honey kitchen, but few were researching and writing about bees. For example, out of roughly 300 of the volumes in my home bee library that were published before 1960, only eleven were written by women. That’s about 4%. (I also have 550 bee books published after 1960 – 15% written by women.) My point is not to redress any historic bias against women in the western world’s beekeeping (I’m not the best person to do that!), but rather to describe the world of beekeeping when Dr. Eva Crane became part of it.

Upon receiving her beehive/wedding gift, Eva Crane subscribed to a bee journal and joined the local bee club. Three years into beekeeping, in 1945, she published an article about mead and another about honey.

True to the times, soon after acquiring her first hive, Dr. Crane became secretary of the British Beekeepers Association’s research committee. I assume they picked her because they figured that she would listen well, have good penmanship, and take notes accurately. Besides, she had a PhD in nuclear physics. Actually, I suspect that being ‘secretary’ of the BBA research committee was more akin to being the person who got things done. She quickly moved ahead.

By 1949, Dr. Crane was editing Bee World. She turned it into a prestigious place to publish. The same year, she was the founding director of the Bee Research Association, later renamed the International Bee Research Association (IBRA). From 1949 to 1962, the IBRA offices were in the Cranes’ living room in Berkshire. But it grew. The organization eventually ended up in Cardiff, Wales. Beginning in 1962, Dr. Crane edited the IBRA’s Journal of Apicultural Research, as well as Bee World (editing it from 1949 to 1984).

Dr. Crane not only edited bee journals but wrote hundreds of research articles herself. I used to think of her as a master librarian, a person with an encyclopedic grasp on bee literature. I saw her 700-page books (which featured hundred-page bibliographies) as the tedious and conscientious work of a sequestered bookworm. Then I discovered her travels in pursuit of bee lore. From her New York Times obituary:

For more than a half-century Dr. Crane worked in more than 60 countries to learn more and more about honeybees, sometimes traveling by dugout canoe or dog sled to document the human use of bees from prehistoric times to the present. She found that ancient Babylonians used honey to preserve corpses, that bees were effectively used as military weapons by the Viet Cong, and that beekeepers in a remote corner of Pakistan use the same kind of hives found in excavations of ancient Greece.

The meticulousness of Dr. Crane’s research showed in her examination of ancient rock images involving bees and honey. She studied 152 sites in 17 countries from a register of rock art she established herself for her book “The Rock Art of Honey Hunters” (2001).

Dr. Crane wrote some of the most important books on bees and apiculture, including “The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting” (1999). In a review in The Guardian, the author Paul Theroux, himself a beekeeper, called the book a masterwork “for its enormous scope and exhaustiveness, for being an up-to-date treasure house of apiaristic facts.”

The Guardian wrote this:

Everywhere she went she sampled the life of local people, sometimes in the remotest areas of the world. She went to share her beekeeping knowledge and teach governments, NGOs and farmers, recording these travels in Making a Beeline (2003). Typically, she always claimed to have learned much more than she taught. She acquired a huge collection of beekeeping artefacts that, combined with other materials, constitute the IBRA historical collection. Some 2,000 items have now been digitally photographed and recorded while the actual items will be in an international museum, being established in Belgium.

Eva Crane, 1957, at the world’s largest bee farm (Miel Carlota) in central Mexico.

From her own book, Making a Beeline, written in 2003 at age 91, Eva Crane summarizes her travels to 60 countries, always looking at bees. She recounts the people she met, the hives and flowers she saw, in Cuba (1957), the USSR (1962), Egypt (1978), India (1980), Nepal (1984), Pakistan (1993), Spain (1998), and dozens of other countries. In 1965, Dr. Crane was in my part of Canada. Here’s a small piece from Making a Beeline which will give you a bit of a taste of the way she saw the world:

In Edmonton [Alberta, Canada] we first went to the provincial TV station, where I was put on a programme “June is the ice cream month”. I was then interviewed at the national TV station, and finally gave a lecture in the university. From Edmonton I went by airbus to Calgary, then to the Federal Research Station at Lethbridge with Jack and Lorraine Edmunds. Dr. Geordie Hobbs was rearing the wild bee Megachile rotundata there, as a substitute for bumblebees which suffered too much from parasites in that area to be useful for crop pollination.

Next day I caught a plane at Calgary to fly east to Saskatchewan for yet another bee meeting and TV interview, at Saskatoon. With Doug McCutcheon the provincial apiarist and Everett Hastings, I went to Everett’s isolated queen mating apiary by Candle Lake. It was some 30 km north of the inhabited area, in forest which stretched uninterrupted to the tundra. To enter the apiary we had to disconnect the anti-bear fences from their batteries, and then unhook five separate strong wires. In the evening sunshine we also explored the edges of Candle Lake, where there were yellow water lilies that the moose liked to eat. Gulls and killdeer (a plover) were on the beach, many duck and mergansers were flying over, and a solitary loon – a diving bird– was just offshore. Moose, elk and bears all live here but none of them came our way.

Doug took me further east to Nipawin to visit Dr. Don Peer whom I had met in 1953 when he was a graduate student in Madison, Wisconsin. He had now developed large-scale beekeeping on scientific lines, and had 1,000 or more hives. He bought packages of bees each spring and made two-queen colonies from pairs of them. Each of these had 90 to 100,000 bees by July, and could store 20 kg of honey a day from the main flow – mostly from legumes, alfalfa and fireweed.

Lest we dismiss her life’s work as last century news, I would argue that the relevance of history is eternal. Dr. Crane’s endless travels, writing, and documenting played a role in understanding something of concern to almost every beekeeper today – varroa mites. During her travels in the 1960s in the USSR, she noted that western honey bees kept in Russia’s far east Primorsky Krai area (just north of Korea’s Apis cerana bees) had become hosts of varroa. The mite came from the local Asian bees which have had varroa for aeons.

You may know that varroa coexists with the cerana bees without killing Apis cerana colonies, but when the mite jumped to our western honey bee (Apis mellifera), it was devastating. Dr. Crane noticed that some Russian Apis mellifera had managed to adapt to the parasites. She wrote about it. Researchers, reviewing the bee literature when varroa arrived in the USA, noticed Crane’s article. They sent scientists to Russia and came back with the (somewhat) resistant bee which North Americans now call ‘The Russian Bee’. If you have these, you can thank Dr. Crane. (And, of course, the USDA.)

Dr. Eva Crane’s early affliction with the bee bug was total. She never recovered, remaining smitten sixty years later when she was still contributing articles to bee journals. You can access dozens of them at the Eva Crane Trust. They are free to download (but please read the rules). Articles cover subjects as diverse as Honey from different insects to English beekeeping from 1200 to 1850 and Import of Packages into Britain in 1963.

Dr. Eva Crane was 71 when she published The Archaeology of Beekeeping (1983), 78 when she released Bees and Beekeeping (1990), and 87 when her 700-page World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting (1999) was published. She died in 2007. By then, she had 312 publications. The last, “The beginning of beekeeping in Siberia”, was an article printed in Journal of Apicultural Research months before her death at age 95.

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Do you know the queen colours?

honey bee queen colours modeled by QEII

The queen fashionably models the honey-bee queen colours.

If you mark your queens, you should follow the international queen-colour code: White in 2016 and 2021, Yellow in 2017 and 2022, etc. This system has been around for decades because it’s uniform, consistent, and lets a beekeeper know the age of the queen while making it easier to spot her in a crowd. (As you can see from the picture above.)

A few weeks ago, I was showing a hive as part of a field school that I was helping teach for the Calgary and District Beekeepers. I noticed that the new hive, installed as a package in April, had a queen marked in red. I’d forgotten that this year was supposed to be green. Turns out that the queen was from New Zealand and caged in December (mid-summer there), so it was marked red by the Kiwi beekeeper who sold it. That poor queen, young though she be, will always be thought of as a year older.

Queens produced this year should be marked green. A yellow queen in your hive is growing old and a blue or white one might need to be replaced.  If you have trouble remembering the order (White, Yellow, Red, Green, Blue), here’s a mnemonic: Will You Raise Good Bees?  (Or, maybe you prefer the more graphic: Why your rotting goat barks.)

Posted in Beekeeping, Queens, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged | Leave a comment

Can we learn old tricks?

I have a small collection of old bee books, and I like searching them for new ideas. (If you can’t get new ideas from old books, what’s the point of history?) My favourite beekeeping books are the ones that tell stories about beekeepers. Most convey a lot of moral truth about tenacity, fortitude, and perseverance.

I like stories about the failures and successes of beekeeping, especially when told from a personal perspective. My own book, Bad Beekeeping, released fifteen years ago, tells the story of my younger days as a commercial beekeeper and it (so I’ve been told) has become something of a minor classic in the bee literature. I am grateful for that, but I have encountered a number of much better books that tell better yarns about beekeeping of yore.

One of my favourite personal-account beekeeping books is Fifty Years among the Bees (1911) by C.C. Miller.  Dr Miller (1831 – 1920) was born on this date, June 10, and had an 89-year-long kick at the honey can. He wrote a lot about beekeeping, but Fifty Years is a true classic. Like me, Miller was from western Pennsylvania and headed west to become a commercial beekeeper. That’s pretty much where our similarities end. CC, as most people called Dr Miller, was brilliant and highly successful – arguably the best beekeeper of his generation.

He lived during the “Golden Age of Beekeeping” – an era about a hundred years ago when good beekeepers, like Miller, managed 300 hives, produced 50,000 comb sections a year, and made a comfortable living of it. CC originally trained as a physician. He gave that up because he was in constant fear of making a mistake that might kill someone. When beekeeping came to him as an accident, it consumed him, became his vocation, and replaced the practice of medicine. In 1861, at age 30, his wife caught a swarm in a basket. Miller devoted the next 15 years to learning the bee craft. By then, bees had become his only source of income. By working hard and living frugally, bees supported him for the rest of his years.

Miller was humble and unafraid to expose his mistakes to the world. Unlike the many beekeepers with swollen egos, his goal was simply to make enough money from bees that he could afford to spend all his time beekeeping.  To quote his book, “It is not the yield per colony I care for, unless it should be to boast over it; what I care for is the total amount of net money I can get from bees.”

Fifty Years is a great story, a personal tale of how one can live a good life as a beekeeper. If you can’t find a decent hard-cover edition (Years ago, my father gave me his copy.), you can download it online as a PDF at The book was published over a hundred years ago, the copyright has expired, and over a thousand people have likewise downloaded Dr Miller’s informative and amusing story.

Here’s how the book begins:

“One morning, five or six of us, who had occupied the same bed-room the previous night during the North American Convention at Cincinnati, in 1882, were dressing preparatory to another day’s work. Among the rest were Bingham, of smoker fame, and Yandervort, the foundation-mill man. I think it was Prof. Cook who was chaffing these inventors, saying something to the effect that they were always at work studying how to get up something different from anybody else, and, if they needed an implement, would spend a dollar and a day’s time to get up one “of their own make,” rather than pay 25 cents for a better one ready-made. Vandervort, who sat contemplatively rubbing his shins, dryly replied: “But they take a world of comfort in it.” I think all bee-keepers are possessed of more or less of the same spirit. Their own inventions and plans seem best to them, and in many cases they are right, to the extent that two of them, having almost opposite plans, would be losers to exchange plans.”

You can picture this group of trail-blazing beekeepers, grumpy and provoking each other, shaving and dressing in a crowded room at a conference hotel. The book has at least as much to say about beekeepers as it does beekeeping. Sometimes the most useful lessons are taught by people who have made a few mistakes and then shared their experiences. It’s certainly less painful than creating one’s own stupid follies and then trying to recover from them. On this anniversary of CC Miller’s birth, I recommend turning a few pages of Fifty Years among the Bees. You probably won’t regret it. And you might learn some helpful old beekeeping tricks.

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Save the People

Collins Bay Penitentiary, Kingston, Ontario

A few decades ago, most prisons had farms. Inmates grew some of their own food while learning a few basic skills. That changed for a number of reasons, partly because of the tendency to lock everyone up if they couldn’t afford a good lawyer. Just too many people in the system to consider proper rehabilitation and training.

Kingston, Ontario, has Canada’s most notorious prisons. Hardened criminals are sent there for long sentences. Recently, farms began to reappear at maximum security penitentiaries in Kingston.  Collins Bay and Joyceville Institutions each have ten colonies of bees on their farms. These are not part of a “Save the Bees” effort. It’s a “Save the People” program.

Prison Hives

Beekeeping can be so much more than a business or hobby. Handling bees can calm a person, focus the mind, and lead to keen and sustained interest in nature. Skills related to beekeeping include carpentry (making hive equipment), animal husbandry, marketing, food safety. Character traits that are fostered include self-discipline, courage, and responsibility.

Bees are non-judgmental, giving everyone an equal chance to fail or succeed in their presence. Prison farms are learning to use honey bees as a gateway to healing and reform. It’s great to see these Kingston, Ontario, initiatives.

Joyceville Institute now has bees.

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Laying worker, new queen, or both?

Following on yesterday’s post about laying workers, I thought I should add this important caveat.  If you have a new queen (from a split which was given a young caged queen, for example), you may occasionally find multiple eggs in a few cells.  If you are sure you have a young queen (you’ve seen her), then don’t destroy the hive in the way you’d handle an actual laying worker hive.

Check that the young queen is present and eggs are attached to cell bottoms, not on cell sides. My friend Robert McBain of Worker and Hive Bee Supply sent this photo. He told me that it’s from a hive with a new queen, not a hive completely over-run by laying workers.  He’s probably right.

I used to see the occasional multi-egged cells in mating nucs when I was raising queens. I don’t know if the odd laying worker was active in the nuc (there are always many laying workers present, even in queen-right colonies), or if it was simply the work of a young queen still learning how to count to ‘one’ – either way, the issue always cleared up in a week and the new queen did just fine.

Posted in Bee Biology, Beekeeping, Queens | Tagged , | 5 Comments

At least one of these bees is a laying worker

Can you spot the laying worker?  (Photo: Chris Manton)

At least one of the bees in the picture above is a laying worker. Can you spot her?  I can’t. But if you read this post to the end, you will have the answer – and a really nice bonus, a video clip of a laying worker laying an egg.

I wouldn’t be able to point out the laying worker, but I’ve heard people claim that “when a laying worker takes over a hive, you’ll notice her because of her long abdomen.” There’s so much wrong with that statement. I’ll explain in a moment.

First, a few words about laying workers. Although it may seem handy to have some extra egg-laying honey bees in your hive, the progeny of a worker is a drone.  Workers are females and can lay eggs. However, they can’t mate, so their eggs are never fertilized. Unfertilized eggs become drones. A colony with no queen will eventually develop laying workers but the offspring are drones, not workers, so the colony fails.

Why do laying workers exist in the bee world?  Creatures of all sorts persist for generations if they do things that produce and nourish their offspring. The present generation is a reflection of the survival strategies of earlier generations. One result has been the abundance of drones in dying colonies. Whether it’s a hive with a drone-laying queen or laying workers, failing colonies spread their genetic “seed” through drones that fly off and perhaps mate with a queen, keeping the lineage alive, even if the colony dies. The bees don’t think in these terms, of course. Instead, it’s a natural process which gets reinforced because those failing colonies that issue lots of drones will carry the genetic tendency to produce laying workers and issue lots of drones in future generations. So, it’s natural and reinforced by circumstances of survival.

Workers that begin to lay eggs are probably more common than we realize. Even in normal, queen-right colonies, the many workers lay eggs. According to Jay and Nelson, 1973, ovary development in worker bees is least common in (1) queen-right colonies with brood, but increases in occurrence in (2) queen-right colonies without brood, in (3) a colony which has some laying workers and no brood,  while the development of ovaries in workers is almost a sure bet in (4) a colony with no brood and no queen.  Obviously, to avoid laying workers, keep a queen and brood in your hive.

A few years ago, scientists found the actual chemical pathway that queen mandibular pheromone, or QMP, suppresses the workers’ egg laying. Their work was important enough to be published in the prestigious Nature. The scientists conducted experiments with adult worker bees by depriving them of QMP. In absence of the queen pheromone, they noticed that one-third of workers develop egg-laying capacity. In the presence of QMP, 5% of workers are not fully inhibited and can lay eggs. I wasn’t aware of either statistic and was surprised at how high these rates are.

If 5% of workers in a normal queen-right colony are able to lay eggs, do they? That could mean thousands of laying workers in a queen-right hive. Well, in addition to the eusocial biological control (fully developed mated queen vs unfertilized laying workers), the bees have mechanisms in place to deal with errant egg laying. Most worker-laid eggs are disposed by house-keeping bees. As queen pheromones would not be present in eggs laid by workers, other bees treat the eggs as they would treat any bits of garbage.

The other statistic – one-third of workers in queenless, broodless hives can be laying workers, is equally surprising.  I had previously assumed that “a few” workers in a queenless hive become laying workers. My assumption was based on the evidence that I’d seen – rarely are there more than a few hundred worker eggs in a depleted queenless hive. So, my hunch was that ovarian development among workers wasn’t common, even in a fully queenless hive. But the Nature journal paper tells us that “In a queen-less environment, if there is no opportunity to make another queen, approximately one-third of honeybee workers activate their ovaries and lay eggs. These eggs are unfertilized and haploid, and they generate fertile male offspring.”

For a beekeeper, laying workers are a discouraging sign. Since it’s most likely to happen in a colony with no queen and no brood, you have to blame yourself for letting the colony fall to such a low state. If you discover a laying-worker hive among your own bees, I might suggest that you give up beekeeping – except that it’s happened to me, too. And every honest beekeeper I’ve ever met will fess up. Stuff happens.

This is one of the best pictures of the result of laying workers that I’ve ever seen. If you see multiple eggs, more than one larvae in a cell, and eggs stuck to the cell wall instead of the cell bottom,  your queen is gone and laying workers have developed.
(Photo by Michael Palmer via

A laying-worker hive is trouble. The situation means that you’ve lost production, the queen is long gone, and your colony is dying. It’s also a notoriously difficult problem to fix. If one-third of the bees in a queenless hive are laying workers, this highlights the challenge beekeepers face when trying to establish a new queen. Our standard advice is to move the boxes a few metres from the old stand and shake all the workers from the combs. At the old location, reuse the equipment and add some young bees, brood, and a good queen. When the bees return, they will find that you have made some changes at the old location and will generally accept this as an improvement. You won’t always be successful, but you’ve increased your odds of re-queening success to perhaps 80 or 90 percent. Other beekeepers have other tricks, but this is what I learned as a youngster and it seems to work.

Let’s get back to the mistaken statement I began with, “when a laying worker takes over a hive, you’ll notice her because of her long abdomen.” By now, you realize that a single laying worker does not ‘take over’ a hive but many laying workers arise because the important suppressive queen pheromone is missing. What about recognizing a laying worker by abdomen size?  Let’s take a look at the picture from the top of this post again:

Can you spot a laying worker?

Here’s one of the known laying workers:

We know that this is a laying worker because of the amazing video which follows, which is from Chris Manton, a UK beekeeper whom you can follow on Twitter: @ElmTreeBees.  (Go see what he’s up to.)  He deserves your attention after sharing this remarkable video of a laying worker at work:


Posted in Bee Biology, Beekeeping, Diseases and Pests, Queens, Science | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Are you listening to your bees?

Experienced beekeepers approach their hives as one might enter a church or temple. With quiet respect. Once there, we listen. That’s an important part of our role.  The listening beekeeper knows in an instant if the colony is queenless or has been defending against marauders (wasps, skunks, robber bees). From sound alone, I can’t tell if the hive will be swarming soon or if it is overrun by mites or disease. But some scientists think the information is there, in the air, audible cries of distress or joy produced by the hive.

If we could listen to a thousand hives a day, remember the pitch and rhythm, and relate that to the health and demeanour of similar hives embedded in our memory from our past experiences, we might know a lot more about our hive. This is a project that Jerry Bromenshenk, David Firth, and their associates have spent years developing. Technology and persistence have led to an app, a small computer program, which can be installed on a cell phone. The phone’s microphone picks up the sounds from a hive and analyzes the sounds against thousands of sounds heard in thousands of other hives. Using an artificial intelligence algorithm (a system that learns from its own mistakes), the phone can return the best guess possible about what’s happening in the hive.  As more and more beekeepers use the system (and report their own real-time diagnosis of hive conditions), the better the app becomes.

Your bees are calling.

This bee app is being perfected by Dr Jerry Bromenshenk and his team at Bee Alert Technologies.  Jerry is associated with the University of Montana. He presented at our big United Beekeepers of Alberta conference here in Calgary in September. At the UBA meeting, he discussed new bee technology. One of the things that Jerry described is the phone app which listens to a colony and then deduces the state of the hives’ health.  When he was in Calgary in the fall, Jerry demonstrated the system on my backyard hives. The app concluded (without opening the hives) that all was well.  The app was right – my hives survived the winter and are booming now.  This system has real potential and has been noticed around the world. Along with Bee Culture and ABJ, it has even been featured in Economist magazine.

Would you like to help get this app rolling out to the public?  The more information it analyzes, the better it gets at decoding a beehive’s health. And if you join the fundraiser ( within the next three days, your contribution gets you one of the first copies of the app – and the satisfaction of potentially improving the way we all keep bees. I’m excited about the prospects, but wary to over-sell the product. I doubt that it will ever be perfect. Heck, my new van sometimes has issues and it’s been 120 years in development. But it is still a step or two above a horse and wagon for my needs. This new app is likely to also be a step or two above my ears when it comes to diagnosing the well-being of my beehives. After 12 years of research and development and two years of testing, this device is ready for all of us to test.

Here’s a bit straight from Dr Jerry Bromenshenk:

On May 1, we launched a Kickstarter project to finalize Tuning of our AI-Powered, Honey Bee Health Guru app. We also intend to add Automatic Alerts and Mapping of the spread of honey bee pests and diseases.   We have just 10 days left  three days left to raise funds and recruit participants:

Kickstarter backers can get a pre-release version of the app. We are looking for 500 backers, and we are close. By the end of May, we will have an established core group of citizen scientists.

We also have a ProVersion of the app aimed at helping Professional Beekeepers improve the ease and accuracy of colony health management. Thus, we are looking for commercial beekeepers who might collaborate with us to tune the ProApp for each commercial operations unique needs. This objective is over and above the objective of the basic app. Providing new tools to improve the efficiency of bee management while reducing overall costs is a personal goal of mine.

Brief Summary of the Bee Health Guru app and the ProVersion:

Our app lets the sounds of the colony itself tell us about each colony’s health condition. Our data recording, AI-powered analyses, and inspection reports are mostly automated. Recording and analysis take less than a minute per hive. Use of the app only takes a few button clicks.   All information can be sent to a Cloud site with the click of one button.           Time, date, location, type of phone, phone operating system are automatically added. From the Cloud, we can send automated reports back to the Professional beekeeper. Have 20 crewmembers in three states? If any or all use the app and hit the upload button at the end of the day, the Professional Manager/Owner will get a summary of all hives checked with the app and a listing by hive and location those that need attention.

Also, whether a hobby, sideliner, or Pro, when app information is sent to the Cloud, we can:

1) Use that information to fine tune the performance and accuracy of the app,

2) Automatically generate alerts to the Pro, for each Pro’s beekeeping operation,

3) Automatically produce regional reports of pest and disease outbreaks and map the spread (similar to the measles outbreaks of the CDC).

Thanks for your help in getting the word out. When we launched the Kickstarter, I did not include information about the ProApp – the basic Kickstarter project might not have been funded. At this point, we have secured the initial pledge funds, so we are moving forward in these last 10 days to expand our goals – namely, the inclusion of the ProApp testing and development and the addition of automated alerts and mapping of the spread of emergent pest and disease incidents.


Jerry Bromenshenk, Ph.D.,

Pres/CEO of Bee Alert Technology, Inc.

Posted in Bee Biology, Beekeeping, Diseases and Pests, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Another podcast you’ll like

I’m a steady fan of two great beekeeping podcasts. Kiwimana, produced in New Zealand, is a nice mix of practical beekeeping, bee news stories,  and interviews with beekeepers. The PolliNation podcast, made up of bee chats with Dr Andony Melathopoulos and his guests, comes from Oregon State. It focuses on research and various pollinators, including honey bees. Both podcasts, possibly desperate for material, invited me for conversations with their hosts during the past couple of years. I am interviewed at these two links: Kiwimana and PolliNation.

Recently, I became aware of a new podcast that may also be worth my time. Bloomberg (the business news firm) started The Business of Bees podcast on May 1, 2019. You can subscribe through I-Tunes or Android-friendly machines, or you can listen through your computer at this link.

It looks like The Business of Bees will be a series of interviews and analyses about bees in general and the financial burden of beekeeping in particular. Today’s release includes some general history of beekeeping – from ancient Egypt through Langstroth’s bee space. Along the way, Tammy Horn Potter, and several beekeepers, are briefly interviewed. The podcasts are well-written and informative. Rather than long interviews, Bloomberg is presenting 20-minute vignettes narrated by broadcasters Adam Allington and Dave Schultz. Last week, they discussed almond pollination and colony collapse disorder.  I don’t yet know if The Business of Bees will be a favourite podcast for me, but it’s got my attention. See if you like it: Bloomberg’s The Business of Bees.

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