Apimondia 2019 starts next week!

Apimondia is the bi-annual international bee festival. Two years ago, it was hosted by Turkey; two years from now, it will be in Russia. This year? Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

There are a lot of reasons to visit Montreal. The Notre-Dame Basilica and 21,000-species of plants in Montreal’s botanical gardens come to mind. If island living is not for you (Montreal is on an island), Apimondia’s organizers have tours that will take you away. You can see what’s available at this site. But with 350 oral presentations, 566 posters, and thousands of feet of exhibits and vendors, sight-seeing might not fit your schedule. You can find the complete program guide (a 117-page book) on line, here.

If you have time, drop by and see me present a talk about foraging distances of leafcutters, honey bees, and bumble bees (Foraging distances of commercially-deployed bees: A meta-analysis; 1:45pm, Thursday, September 12, Room 517B) or see my poster (“Who becomes an urban beekeeper?”), which is formally titled Demographic and socio-economic influences of urban beekeeping. It will be up all day on Tuesday, September 10 – look for poster P.07.143.

See you at Apimondia 2019!

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You thought bees were vegetarians?

These bees are arriving with more than vegetables. (Photo: Miksha)

Well, looks like another sacred truth has been shattered. Bees eat beefy little microbes as part of their regular diet. Never again will I stand in front of a class of new beekeepers and implore them to marvel at the wonderful fact that bees get all their nutrition from flowers: carbohydrates from nectar; protein (and vitamins and minerals) from pollen. Apparently, the “meat” of microorganisms also makes up an important part of a bee’s lunch.

I was just getting over the unrelated bacterial facts that (1) our bodies contain ten bacteria for each human cell; and, (2) bacteria thrive in oppressive heat and pressure kilometres below the Earth’s surface. Well, if they are everywhere, and if they exist in nearly infinite numbers, I guess our bees couldn’t avoid eating a few.

But this Scientific American magazine article, reporting on this bit of research, suggests that bees actually need the meat that microbes provide. They seek it out. If you keep bees long enough, you’ll believe almost anything about them. Many of us have seen how a starving colony of honey bees will cannibalize its brood (eating the youngest first). It’s a dirty little secret that we don’t share in public (except on bee blogs). Bees were never strictly vegetarians, and we knew it all along. But bee cannibalism is one of those things we can accept – the brood was going to die anyway and maybe the colony will survive. Sort of like eating the seed corn during a deep famine, or participating in the Donner Expedition. But this latest news is new and unsettling. For me at least.

Dr Dharampal, U of Wisc.

Prarthana Dharampal and Shawn Steffan, both at the Madison branch of the University of Wisconsin, found that bees eat enough microbes to qualify as omnivores – animals that consume both plants and animals. In fact, Dharampal speculates that bees who are collecting pollen may actually be foraging for microbes – a good place to find micro-organisms is pollen. If this theory is substantiated, my head will hurt adjusting to another new reality.

Part of the University of Wisconsin team’s experiments included feeding sterilized pollen to mason bee larvae. A control group of bees received regular, microbe-contaminated pollen. The larvae fed sterile pollen ate the same pollen with its array of lipids and vitamins and minerals, but with none of the ‘germs’. The larvae that were fed the ‘clean’ food soon died.

But wait – there’s more.  Some are speculating that the damage we are unintentionally doing to the environment is killing the nutritious microbes that live on plants that are visited by bees. Is this yet another factor making life unlivable for bees?

Posted in Bee Biology, Diseases and Pests, Ecology, Pesticides, Save the Bees, Science | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Feel like a MOOC?

You can never know too much about bugs.  That’s why I signed up for Bugs 101, offered by a rival school, the University of Alberta. (That’s up in Edmonton – I’m in Calgary, at a different, and arguably warmer, closer,  maybe better, university.) If you are curious about bees and other insects, you will like this Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). It’s free (or you can pay a little and earn a certificate). You learn at your own pace (though there are flexible deadlines meant to encourage you to keep moving ahead. You’ll need two or three hours a week to cover the material. Here’s where you can enrol in the course.

The folks at the University of Alberta put a lot of effort into creating this MOOC. Lots of videos, interactive practice, discussion forums, well-selected readings. Here’s Bugs 101 own description:

Of all the animals on earth, which are the strongest for their size? What about the fastest? Who were the first animals to evolve flight? Insects take all of these titles and more! As the most abundant animals on the planet, insects and other arthropods affect our lives in so many ways. From beneficial interactions like pollination and biological pest control, to the transmission of life threatening diseases; this course will teach you about the big ways that these little arthropods impact our lives.

In Bugs 101: Insect-Human Interactions, you will be plunged into the diverse (and sometimes alien) world of arthropods to learn how they work, what they do, and how insects and humans interact every day.

After completing this course, you will be able to:

Describe the evolutionary relationships between insects and their arthropod relatives
Inventory major groups of insects and their diversity
Demonstrate evolutionary adaptations that make insects successful
Discuss insect biology and human-insect interactions
Evaluate positive and negative interactions between insects and humans
Propose practical and symbolic roles insects play in human societies

If you are like most bee enthusiasts, you’ve never really studied the biology of bees. As this MOOC is about insect-human interactions, there is even a week focused on honey bees, too. Sign up and we’ll be classmates.  Course ends December 1, 2019.

Posted in Bee Biology, Beekeeping, Ecology, Outreach | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

How did your bees do?

You hear the question every time beekeepers meet. “How did your bees do?” The answer is usually in pounds, barrels, or dollars in the bank. The question came up recently here within Calgary’s bee club.

We have an extremely well-run bee association. Among our 400 members, there are many experienced beekeepers who work hard at mentoring newbies.  Sometimes mentoring means inviting folks into a bee-filled backyard (either one-on-one as friends, or as part of a formal “Saturday at the Hive” event.) We, of course, also offer bee courses with field days. They sometimes end up looking like this:

Here I am (seated, in the wheelchair) surrounded by one of our groups of eager students.

Other mentoring happens at the monthly Bees and Beers evening where loose lips have rescued many sunk hives over the years. Mentoring also takes place monthly at our well-attended meetings:

We also mentor from afar by contributing to our bee community’s gossip group (an online gab and Q&A fest). Here, everyone uses real names and tempers only rarely result in insults or threats to show up at someone’s home with a baseball bat because of, you know, differing approaches to beekeeping.

Every now and then, someone starts a particularly interesting thread in the gossip-and-advice chat group. Last week, a member asked people to comment on honey production. Here, in Alberta, Canada, crops often reach 200 pounds, so exaggeration isn’t necessary. Western Canada can be a great place to make honey. When asked about honey production, several hobby beekeepers answered. I was impressed with the consistency and honesty of the answers. Beekeepers, like fishermen, tend to exaggerate. But almost universally, the respondents this year claimed between 70 and 90 pounds per hive as their expected extracted crop for 2019. A friend with a dozen hives emailed me privately to say his crop is just 75 pounds. Some folks whom I help occasionally made a similarly small crop from 35 hives west of the city. Meanwhile, a very good commercial beekeeper told Global News that his crop will likely be half of his normal 160 pounds per hive.

It was a discouraging year for honey bees here in southern Alberta. Cool wet spells were interrupted by only a dozen nice honey-making afternoons. Such are the vagaries of honey production. Some years simply yield fewer pounds in the jar. Sort of wrecks the bragging.

But maybe we brag about the wrong things?

I’m as guilty as almost all other beekeepers when it comes to boasting about the size of my crop. But years ago, I heard that beekeepers in Sweden give the highest bragging rights to those beekeepers who lose the fewest colonies each year. I don’t know if that tale is true, but I’d like to think so. In that case, the metric for measuring greatness focuses on what the beekeeper does for the bees rather than what the bees do for the bank account.

I’d add that good beekeeping also involves mentoring responsible beekeeping as well as successful wintering. That means doing your best for both neighbour and bees. By the way, below are my own two backyard hives with my 12-year-old daughter helping me. Next week, the whole family will extract the third deep from both hives and the five medium boxes. (About 200 pounds.)  The good news – the bees survived last year’s rough winter and developed into good colonies. Trying to do it right, Swedish style.

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

Arrested for importing three bottles of honey

This gripes me.  Here’s a guy, holding down two jobs (construction and cleaning) who had his life destroyed by US Customs because he brought three jars of honey home from Jamaica while returning from holidays.  He declared the honey in Baltimore when he landed (as one must). But customs insisted he had ‘liquid meth’ after a sniffer dog made a mistake.  After the man was arrested, jailed for almost three months, and lost his jobs, the results came back that the stuff was honey.  No controlled substances. The officers wouldn’t believe their own labs’ results (but they believed the dog), so they ran the tests again while the guy waited in prison.  Same results – no smuggled drugs of any kind.

“Someone dropped the ball somewhere,” Haughton’s lawyer said. “An innocent man spent 82 days in jail for bringing honey into the United States.”

Meanwhile, millions of pounds of rice-sugar honey are smuggled through circumvented routes and the offenders get…. nothing.  When will people wake up, insist their guards enforce the laws that need enforcing, and leave the average Joe alone?

Full story:

Innocent man spent months in jail for bringing honey back to United States

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Honey, Strange, Odd Stuff | 3 Comments

Photographs of readers

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (U of Chicago) has posted a piece on my research on his own website. This will help catch up the followers of my blog who have been wondering how I’ve been spending my summer!   – Ron

Why Evolution Is True

Well, I’ve run out of readers with fancy sports cars, but we have plenty of other interesting people on tap. One is Ron Miksha, who shows us that you can be a grad student at any age. All it takes is curiosity.

I’m a bee ecology grad student at the University of Calgary. I am  working with Lawrence Harder, a bee and plant ecologist, investigating  the effects that non-native honeybees may have on native bees. Here in  Calgary, the urban honeybee hobby grew from 120 backyard bee hives to  about 1300 in the past ten years. That growth may be displacing local native bees. We are measuring bee reproductive success compared to honeybee colony density around the city. We are also researching direct resource competition.

Although I am getting up in age and using a wheelchair to get around, this photo shows me doing what I like best.  It was…

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National Honey Bee Day

I haven’t quite recovered from World Bee Day (May 20th) and here it is, World Honey Bee Day, which coincides with National Honey Bee Day, as it’s practiced in the USA. Clever that they both fall on the same third Saturday of August. But both of the August honey bee days compete with the bigger, far more important May 20th world bee day. (And mid-way between these celebrations is Don’t Step on a Bee Day.)

I’ll not complain that bees are celebrated twice each year with special holidays – schools closed, solemn parades, TV specials. At dinners across the land, Einstein will be invited to stand up and say a few words about the plight of mankind if the bees all die. Meanwhile, the little pollinators go about their tireless sacrifices, pollinating with careless abandon, assuring that the apples and cherries are there for all those pies baked on Bee Day. The whole world celebrates.

Or am I the only one who has heard of this holiday?

I asked colleagues if they will party for the bees, but they looked at me as if I’m weird, maybe a beekeeper or something.  They seem oblivious and are a bit surprised to learn that there is such a holiday. Same with my calendar, which doesn’t recognize Bee Day – it’s not pre-printed on any of my calendars, in fact. Maybe the publishers haven’t recognized the importance of the day. (Halloween is on the calendar. And Christmas. Why not Bee Day?)

In the USA, the holiday started out as National Honey Bee Awareness Day about ten years ago. That worked out so well that they had to drop ‘Awareness’ from the name. (How can you build awareness for an insect that everyone is already aware of?)

If you are wondering how one celebrates August 19th’s Honey Bee Day, I found a website that offers some suggestions. Here a couple of their ideas and my reasons why these are bad ideas:

1) Collect local wildflower seeds and spread them to where nothing is growing.  Me: It sounds like a good idea – in mid-August, you sow your wild seed ‘where nothing is growing’ – like on a highway or in a lake. But seriously, planting seeds in August?

2) If you can’t raise bees, talk to your friends who have space and get them interested in raising bees.  Me: If you can’t talk yourself into raising bees, do you really have the skill to talk someone else into raising bees?

3) Encourage beekeepers to open their apiary to friends.  Me: Yes! Bring your own jar and pick your own honey. Doubt you’ll see those friends again.

4) Buy some mead and learn about this amazing drink!  Me: OK. This one’s a winner. Celebrate Bee Day with some authentic fermented nectar of the gods.

Out of celebration ideas? On these lazy summer days (unless you’re a hard-working beekeeper), you might lie in the shade with a good bee book.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Humour, Save the Bees, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Ulee Jackson has died

Peter Fonda died today. Most accolades will mention his starring role in 1969’s Easy Rider. I won’t. Instead, I’ll talk about his performance in Ulee’s Gold. That movie gave Fonda his only Oscar nomination (he lost to his friend Jack Nicholson, in As Good as it Gets).

In addition to being a powerful drama about the sort of situations too many families fall into, Ulee’s Gold portrays the beekeeping lifestyle with clarity, accuracy, and compassion. From a beekeeper’s perspective, movies just don’t get any better. If you want to peek inside a beekeeper’s life a little, or introduce the beekeeping world to friends or relatives who don’t seem to quite understand it, this movie is the perfect vehicle to make that connection happen. Peter Fonda, in the role of Ulysses Jackson, acts as if he had kept bees for thirty years. This strong, inward-looking character is so completely believable that the Florida Beekeeper’s Association gave Peter Fonda their highest recognition – he was named Beekeeper of the Year when the movie came out.

The plot is entirely plausible, at times a bit measured, but the slow pace is necessary to build the drama and to keep the tale believable. A wayward son, an addicted daughter-in-law, a wild teen-aged granddaughter, an introverted younger granddaughter, a divorced (twice) neighbour, and more bee work than he can manage, make up Ulee’s immediate world. His internal world is haunted by friends he lost in Viet Nam and a wife who died six years earlier. The story becomes rough, with some crude language, as Ulee faces his son’s accomplices in crime. Parents may feel the language and some of the scenes – especially of the drug withdrawal – are too graphic for younger audiences. Despite these minor caveats (by today’s standards, the movie is tame and there are no gratuitous scenes of violence or sex) it is an excellent, powerful drama.

Ulee’s Gold opened among the top ten films in North America on its release week, with gross weekend ticket sales of almost one million dollars. The movie was not heavily advertised, so we might assume that many of the audience attended because of the absolutely stellar praise the media lavished on this work. IN Jersey called the movie “Pure Gold”. Variety described this movie as “A gem of rare emotional depth and integrity… graced by a completely unexpected performance from Peter Fonda that is by far the best of his career.” The New York Times Review called Fonda’s performance the best in his entire career.  Entertainment Weekly agreed, saying, “Peter Fonda gives the performance of his life… playing with almost biblical rectitude…with a hint of tenderness that can wrench your heart out.” Among Entertainment Weekly’s praises were a nod to Van Morrison’s closing credits tune Tupelo Honey, which the reviewer describes as “a gift to the audience”.

As a beekeeper (who kept bees in Florida), I was especially enamoured by the dialog:

When describing his work to his neighbour lady-friend, Ulee says, “What with moving bees, pulling honey. chasing bears… it’s pretty hard work. Most young folks wouldn’t be bothered. But don’t get me going talking about bees…”

In a scene where you would expect Ulee to crack someone’s skull, Ulee’s nemesis, Eddie Flowers, says, “I always thought it was a stupid business, messin’ with bees.”  Well, Eddie, you’re not far off the mark.

When his imprisoned son asks how the bees are doing, Ulee says, “Mites are choking them, pesticides are killing them, the drought’s starving them… they’re fine.”

The movie was written and directed by Victor Nunez, who says that he got the idea from a chance glance at a newspaper with a photo of a beekeeping family on the front page. Ulee’s Gold was featured as the Centerpiece Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival when it came out in 1997. Peter Fonda won a Golden Globe Award for his performance.

I’ll close this post with a gift to my audience: Here’s Van Morrison with the movie’s theme song:

PS: A second gift: I recommend that you see this movie. My family will be watching it again tonight.

Posted in Commercial Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof, History, Movies, People | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Coconut Monkeys

Some years ago, I had a job that I didn’t like. The money was good, but the work was bad. I was stuck in “Coconut Monkey” syndrome.

Farmers in south India are sometimes plagued by monkeys stealing their crops. The bright little thieves raid fields en masse, grabbing anything edible. The peasants chase the animals, but the monkeys always come back.

According to a tale I read in Robert Pirsig’s Motorcycle Maintenance book, one farmer had an idea. [Trigger warning: Monkeys die just ahead.] The farmer hollowed out a coconut, leaving a small hole, just big enough for a monkey to stick a hand in. A bit of rice was dumped inside it and the coconut was chained to a stake.  Here’s the trick. A monkey will reach in, collect rice in its fist, but not be able to pull its clenched fist out of the small hole without releasing the rice inside the coconut. A monkey won’t drop free food, even if a farmer is running at him with a club.

I’ll admit that I’ve been a coconut monkey more than once in my life. I just can’t let go of a ‘good thing’, even if I know it could kill me. I’m trying to learn that lesson, but sometimes I forget. I was reminded of the tale a couple days ago when I heard about those marauding monkeys again. This time, they were environmental refugees.

A troop of monkeys, climate-change refugees fleeing an intense monsoon, were stealing coconuts and breaking into homes for food. They had figured out that they could by-pass locked doors by climbing up on the roof, peeling off a few roof tiles, then dropping into the pantry. And what a mess. Even worse, the desperate little hooligans ripped up 55 beehives in a nearby apiary.

Those monkeys were hungry, having been displaced by the vagaries of climate. Monsoons have happened for generations, but they are becoming worse – except in the years that they don’t show up. This leads me back to human coconut monkeys. If climate is running at us with a club, but we are busy clinging to our allegorical rice, do we let go or do we stay the course and suffer the consequences?

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Ecology, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged | 4 Comments

Bees in Space

Fifty years ago, I was a kid, glued to the TV, fascinated by man’s first frolic on the moon. Grainy black and white images from the moon filled our grainy black and white television. It was a signal from the space, beamed to NASA’s earth-bound receivers, relayed to KDKA in Pittsburgh, then sent as an analog wave of organized static to the antennae on a 15-foot post clamped to the side of our rural farmhouse on the edge of the Appalachians. As a geeky youngster with thick glasses, I misunderstood the moon mission’s purpose.  I thought it was all about science and exploration. Soon, a moon  base would be built, then the flight to Mars, then Alpha Centauri, where I’d meet English-speaking aliens with huge heads and tiny bodies. That’s the way it was supposed to go.

But three years later, the moon flights ended. We haven’t ventured back. What went wrong? Nothing. Now I realize that my expectations were mistaken. The American space effort, “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” as President Kennedy said, was the real goal. Not science. The moon mission proved to the world (and Russia), that no one messes with the USA. Americans could set a goal, commit billions of dollars, muster huge technological expertise, and see an enormous task through to completion. Mission accomplished. A few more rock-picking excursions followed, but there was no political reason to return.

Bees in space, examined by James van Hoften, crewman on the Challenger. 1984: NASA.

Scientists at NASA always understood that science was a lunar tag-along. To foster public interest in space exploration (and to help their plea for future flight funding),  several down-to-earth experiments were widely publicized. High schools were invited to propose science investigations. One proposal led to bees in space.

In 1984, over ten years after the last moon walk, an experiment suggested by Waverly, Tennessee, high school student Daniel Poskevich, was carried aboard the Challenger Space Shuttle. His experiment included 3,400 honey bees in a glass-windowed aluminum observation hive. A similar hive was kept on Earth as a control. What would space bees do?

In their log book, the crew recorded: “Day 7, comb well-developed, bees seemed to adapt to 0-g pretty well. No longer trying to fly against top of box. Many actually fly from place to place” within their observation hive.  During the mission, worker bees produced a mere 30-square-inch comb (in the same hex-pattern as ordinary Earth-comb) and the queen laid just 35 eggs in the new comb.  None of those eggs hatched.

And? Well, if a space-queen’s eggs don’t hatch, this doesn’t bode well for the future of weightless honey production. I guess this is good to know before some California beekeeper ships a semi-load of bees upwards. Flowers might be an issue, too, though I’ll bet real crypto-currency that someday, in a greenhouse on Mars, tomatoes will be pollinated by bumble bees. And they will flourish.

I know. These are Martian potatoes. They don’t need bees. But the concept is the same.


Posted in History, Queens, Science, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , | 2 Comments