Remembering Susan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bees and the Australian Fires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Bee Yards, Climate, Commercial Beekeeping, Ecology | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

The Perfect Cup of Tea

The perfect cup of tea starts with honey. At least, that’s how the royals do it. It’s hard to argue that anyone else would know better. They’ve got history, experience, connections and money. And tea is important in their part of the stratosphere. So how do you do tea, if you want to do it royally?

Begin by putting honey in the cup. Not sugar. Brew the tea –  100C for English breakfast tea, or 70C for green tea, measured with a thermometer. (Butler style, I dunk in a clean finger – you get to know the temperature with experience.) Black tea should be brewed for five minutes, and not consumed at all, while green tea should only get three minutes, then enjoyed vigorously.

If you must use milk, as the Queen herself does, it goes in last. Now, you might sit back and watch the clouds in your tea, but proper etiquette demands that you stir the concoction – never in circles! – but slowly back and forth, like the paddle of a canoe that will never cross a lake. Oh, and never let the spoon clang against the side of the bone china while paddling or you’ll be having tea with the servants before you know what’s happened.

Remember, the honey goes into the cup before the tea. That’s easy to remember – add the best first. What sort of honey should you use? The mildest you can find. It should be white, never amber, and very neutral in flavour. Buckwheat or manuka will turn your tea into medicine. How much should you use? Well, that depends on the type of honey. If you use a high fructose honey, such as tupelo, one or two small drops is probably plenty. On the other hand, honey that’s high in glucose (such as canola), is not as sweet and may take a spoonful. You really should work this out for yourself – I don’t know how well your taste buds control your life. What I do know, however, is that a good cup of green tea with honey in mid-winter will make life worth living.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Honey, Humour | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Seeing 20-20

What will the new year (and decade) bring?  Although “20-20” denotes perfect vision, I doubt we’ll be so lucky. I suspect that we’ll continue with our near-sighted attitudes toward . . . everything. We can’t help it. We’re hardwired that way.

If the world gets better during the next decade, it will be by accident, not by intention. I’m not fatalistic, but my sense of realism is as thick as a blood clot. Will the ocean’s plastic islands disappear? Will superbugs become less super? Will carbon dioxide turn into foliage? Will temperatures fall? Icecaps grow? Will extinct bee species return to pollinate vanishing flowers? The likely answers are “No, no, no, no, no, and no.”

As an ecologist-in-training, I’m definitely an odd character. Most of my colleagues-in-training think that ecological salvation will only come if we return to a primitive lifestyle and commence a complete overhaul of the human psyche. They advocate retraining people to see the future more clearly, to care more deeply. If re-education doesn’t work fast enough, let’s make a bunch of laws to protect the world from ourselves.

I’m rather sure that won’t work. In successful beekeeping, you have to know your animal and deal with what you have. Bees are complicated, hard to get to know. Human animals are even more difficult. If we wish to clean up our messy bed, then scolding, shaming, and appealing to the better side of human nature won’t get the job done. You have to offer money.

A few weeks ago, our bee-ecology think-tank tried to come up with some universal cultural function that could encourage people everywhere to build a better world. For us, ‘a better world’ meant one with less pollution, healthier people, expanses of natural space, and a stable climate. What universal cultural attribute appeals to almost everyone, almost everywhere, and can be used to entice a better world? Money. Granted, there is a tiny portion of humanity that doesn’t care much about money. But that altruistic minority are already building a better world. They don’t need to be bought.

The average Nick on the Street needs to be given a penny for your thoughts. He won’t take your thoughts/ideas/suggestions without a little cash coming into his hands. This may sound cynical – it’s not. I’m just reporting the state of humanity. It’s been this way for millennia.

But here’s the good news. As societies become wealthier, people live longer, healthier lives. Girls grow up before they marry. Air becomes cleaner. Cities become safer. I’ve travelled a lot – including south Asia, South America, rural Mexico, central Europe – and I’ve seen that people don’t need much to be happy. But it’s only after the kids are fed and safe that we think about clean rivers and clear skies. We need a certain level of prosperity before we can save the planet.

In this new decade, let’s do what we can to make the world a little wealthier. What can we do? Beekeeping is one of the skills you might pass along. Perhaps honey bees, kept in vast numbers in the wrong places, have a bad effect on ecology. Nevertheless, a colony or two of honey bees can lift people out of poverty and give under-employed women and men a livelihood to pursue with dignity. Beekeeping encourages practical skills and business acumen while yielding wholesome food. Want to make a difference in 2020 and beyond? Support responsible beekeeping through community outreach, especially in developing areas. It can change lives and create a better world.

May you help others prosper in 2020.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Ecology, Outreach, Personal | Tagged | 1 Comment

Goodbye, 2019

As 2019 draws to a close, let’s look back at some of the year’s beekeeping stories. Honey prices were lower again in 2019, forcing some beekeepers out of the business. Still, many countries now have more honey bees than anytime in history, although other bee species are disappearing.  2019 was the year that we became aware of the insect apocalypse. We also learned that, unlike Jack Sprat, varroa eats fat. And nearly half of the honey exhibited by beekeepers at Apimondia contained some chemical contaminants. Finally, we note the passing of research scientist Tibor Szabo, who had spent 70 years studying bees  – and was awarded the prestigious Order of Canada for his work.

Well, 2019 is over. This year, I managed to publish 73 blog posts (about 40,000 words). Read them all, if you have time. But if time is your enemy, here were the ten most visited posts on the Bad Beekeeping Blog during 2019:

1) How many honey bees are there?  (About two trillion.)

2) Comb on demand (Manufacturing artificial, fully- draw wax comb.)

3) Apimondia 2019: Wednesday (And a scandal) (40% of honey entries were chemically contaminated.)

4) Good Neighbour Beekeeping  (How to be a good beekeeping neighbour.)

5) Ulee Jackson has died    (Actor Peter Fonda was Ulee Jackson.)

6) Have you ever seen a queen like this?  (A strangely-pale queen and her drones.)

7) The Death of Sylvia Plath  (The greatest bee-poet of her generation.)

8) If it looks like a bee, it’s a wasp  (Wasp, bee – what’s the diff?)

9) At least one of these bees is a laying worker  (Laying workers are a lot more common than we thought.)

10) Winter’s coming – are you insulated?   (Button up!)

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

The Richard Taylor Centennial

I certainly could not let this year pass without a note or two about Richard Taylor, American beekeeper and philosopher. He would have reached 100 years in November. Alas, he expired seventeen years earlier.

It’s hard to say which of his lives will have the longer legacy – his beekeeping or his philosophizing. His university textbook, Metaphysics, was used in colleges for over thirty years. Even now, his many beekeeping books are read daily by beekeepers who want a simpler perspective on sideline beekeeping. He wrote with the authority of a life-long beekeeper who had 300 hives in upstate New York. And he had a clear and easy writing style in all his work.

In November, I wrote an article about Richard Taylor for American Bee Journal. If you missed it, you should subscribe to ABJ. Each monthly edition of the magazine is over 100 pages and almost every page is worth reading. The yearly cost for the online version is about what you’d get by selling three one-pound jars of honey.  If you don’t subscribe already, here’s a link to my article, you can read it for free. Maybe it will convince you to read the magazine.

                                                     🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝

Posted in Beekeeping, Books, People | Tagged | 1 Comment

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 219 years old, if he hadn’t been struck down in his 85th year from complication of elderliness. Langstroth’s movable frames and his brilliant beekeeping book, The Hive and the Honey Bee, were his gifts to you.


Langstroth, 1810-1895

He invented the modern beehive, making it easier, more productive, and less stressful for bees. However, Lorenzo Lorraine 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 (Christmas Day!), we give homage to the most important beekeeper America ever produced.

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’s Andover church

Langstroth studied theology at Yale. At 25, he was offered a job as pastor at the South Church in Andover, Massachusetts. 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 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.


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.

Langstroth frames, the heart of his invention

Langstroth frames, the heart of his invention (Source: R. Engelhard)

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“.

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.

Frames, dangling in a hive. (Source:

Frames, dangling in a hive. (Source: D. Feliciano)

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

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

Modern copy of Langstroth’s 1853
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.

Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday,
Lorenzo Loraine Langstroth!

Posted in Beekeeping, Books, History, Hives and Combs, People, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Making honey talk

A biochemistry student at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, has been analyzing proteins in honey. Since proteins (for example, pollen grains, shown above) make up only about 0.1-0.5% (one to five parts per thousand) of the volume of a typical honey sample, the scientist developed a ground-breaking system to poke through all that honey and look at the teeny bit of protein that’s there. In the process, she and her colleagues developed a new way to identify the types of pollen and other proteins lurking in raw natural honey.

Effectively examining protein in honey has been a long-term goal for palynologists, the folks who study pollen. Their task is to identify pollen in honey in order to determine floral source. Let’s say that you are a honey packer and you need to confirm that some honey for sale by a commercial beekeeper is mostly buckwheat, for example, and not badly burnt foul-tasting bakers’ grade honey. (Really, the two are hard to tell apart!) You would send the sample to a palynologist. She would whirl the honey sample in a centrifuge to concentrate the solids, then cook the material in acids to expose the unique exine patterns of the pollen grains. Next, the palynologist mounts the grains on a gridded microscope slide and counts the number of clover, jujube, and buckwheat pollen grains. The last step requires the most experience – you sit immobile on a lab stool for hours, listening to classic Norwegian heavy metal band Miksha blasting in your ear buds, counting pollen dust that only a few dozen people on Earth can recognize. This service costs about $200.

So, here’s the breakthrough. Rocio Cornero, left, originally from Mar del Plata, Argentina, used “multifunctional core-shell nanoparticles, which are a concentration method based on an affinity bait covalently bound to a polymer nanoparticle. When applied to a protein solution, the nanoparticles rapidly capture, concentrate and preserve solution-phase analytes, which can be then measured with standard analytical methods.” I kick myself that I hadn’t thought of this first!

the Orbie MS

That’s still the easy part. It gives you a little bottle of solution-phase analytes. How do you analyze the analytes? You simply set up “tandem mass spectrometry using a Thermo Fusion Orbitrap mass spectrometer”.  Now we are getting somewhere. Tandem, of course means ‘two’ – like the tandem axles on your bee truck. The first mass spectrometer (MS) of this tandem setup separates the peptides (mostly pollen parts) by weight, then spits them into the second MS, which actually identifies the fragments. “Ah-ha!” you say. “Exactly how does it identify the fragments?” Well, not through a microscope in a palynologist’s lab. This new system is automated. However, you’ll need a reference guide that looks up and identifies the flying peptide chips. Rocio Cornero explains, “[we use] proteomic databases including Apis mellifera, geographically consistent plants, bee pathogens such as deformed wing virus, Varroa destructor, and Nosema ceranae, and plant pathogens. In order to ensure the specificity of the identified peptides, we applied a bioinformatics pipeline to compare peptide sequences to the entire RefSeq non-redundant database.” So, you need an instantaneous information delivery system (let’s call it a computer) and the entire non-redundant RefSeq, or peptide database. You’ll have to build your own RefSeq, or go to a a local RefSeq-builder. If there’s one nearby. I’d build my own.

If you were brave enough to read the previous paragraph, you noticed that the peptides (small protein-like molecules) that are identified include parts of bees’ knees, mites, and plant pathogens – all found in the original honey sample along with the pollen. (Should we tell our honey customers?) The pollen bits can identify floral sources that might have sourced the honey, but the honey sample also contains other peptides that can indicate which diseases your bees – and surrounding plants – are carrying! Now, I’m getting excited.

So, congratulations to Rocio Cornero and her mentors – Drs. Alessandra Luchini and Lance Liotta – at George Mason. This new method might be transformative. (See the abstract here.) Rocio Cornero hopes that the entire system will be available in a few years for beekeepers as an instantaneous, portable tool. The benefits could include identifying organic pesticides, bee diseases, pathogens, and pollen from flowers that made the beekeepers’ honey.

Rocio says that her father, a beekeeper, was her inspiration. He passed away this year in Argentina. Among the test honey which proved her system will work were two samples from her father’s bees – the last honey he ever produced.

Posted in Diseases and Pests, Honey, Science, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Interview at CJSW with Ian Perry

Inspecting urban hives, Calgary, May 2019.

A couple of months ago, I was invited to chat about my research with Ian Perry, who runs a radio/podcast interview program (Keeping Green) at the University of Calgary’s CJSW. Ian is interviewing people who are studying ecology in western Canada. He has a smooth, smooth voice and a gifted interview style. So, we had a rambling chat, mostly about bees, and loosely focused on my research in bee ecology at the University of Calgary.

What is my work about? Well, I hope that you will listen to the interview, which is linked below. Briefly, I’ve been looking at the effect that honey bees in the city of Calgary have on native bees in the city. Backyard beekeeping has grown exponentially here. (We had 127 hives in 2008, about 1300 in 2018 – a ten-fold increase!) Maybe all those imported bees are harming the local bees?

Some neighbourhoods are probably overstocked with honey bee hives. If that’s the case (my research results are still pending), there may be some negative impact on bumble bees and solitary bees. To understand the issue, we (my summer students and I) set up hundreds of empty bumble bee and solitary bee houses around the city to monitor the success of wild bees occupying those boxes and developing nests when honey bees are around.

In addition to monitoring all those wild native bees, the work has involved gathering pollen from honey bee and bumble bee colonies, collecting 240 samples of pollinators in biodiversity traps set around the city, extensive mapping (and field scouting) of floral resources, and other details that I will write about another day. It’s a big project. I was lucky to have a good team helping me.

Hear the interview here. Or click below.

Posted in Beekeeping, Ecology, Native Bees, Personal, Science | Tagged , | 6 Comments

National “I Love Honey Day”

I’m not sure how serious this is, but someone somewhere has declared December 18 to be national I Love Honey Day.  I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do. But here’s an idea: Go out and buy some honey. Then eat it.

Even if you make your own honey (and who doesn’t these days?), you should consider buying some. You’d want to look for something unusual, of course. Maybe you live in a dark honey area but one of your friends has produced some nice water-white stuff. Perhaps from fireweed or sweet clover. Or perhaps you don’t make comb honey but you can get some from a nearby market. The point is, you can try something different while encouraging a local beekeeper. From the sample, you can critique the jar and its label while you inhale the honey’s aroma.

If – due to principle or poverty – you can’t or won’t buy another’s honey, then celebrate the day with a bit of your own stuff. Or you could just sit and think about honey. Have you ever held a spoonful of honey and just dripped it all on the floor, then sponged it up and threw it into your compost bin? Probably not. But here’s your chance. It will surely get you thinking about the lovely sticky stuff.

If you are totally at a loss for celebration ideas, then just kick back and enjoy Herb Albert’s brassy Taste of Honey – it was number one on the charts on this day back in 1965. And it’s such a sweet song.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Honey | Tagged | 4 Comments