Winter’s coming – are you insulated?

Neither me nor the bees needed insulation in Florida’s winter.

When I kept bees in Florida, I didn’t wrap my hives for winter. In Pennsylvania, where I grew up, we sometimes wrapped hives with thin black building paper. That was supposed to keep wind out of the cracks and heat the hives with absorbed sunlight on those rare winter days when the sun shone on the Appalachians. It was there that my father also taught me that “moisture is the real killer” and he showed me how to slip burlap under the hive lid, leaving part of it dangling outside the hive, because “the burlap will act as a wick and draw the bees’ vapors out.”

Southern Saskatchewan (near Montana) – bees wrapped in wind-breaking cardboard.

In my 20s, keeping bees on southern Saskatchewan’s bald prairies (a dozen miles north of Montana), I used black cardboard boxes with a bit of pink insulation just over the lids. Winter winds sure can blow way out there. During my mid-thirties, I kept bees in northern Saskatchewan while attending university. My 300 hives were always grouped in blocks of four, each touching the other, the block surrounded with R-12 insulation on the sides and R-20 atop, then wrapped with tar paper and tied half as neatly as a solstice gift.

When I kept a few bees in the Rocky Mountain foothills, southwest of Calgary, the insulation pack was lighter. But later, I had 500 hives out on the prairie, east of the city. We sometimes strung the bees in long lines and wrapped them – because that’s what a local beekeeper was doing. (I’m a great fan of copying the locals.) But I don’t think it was that smart.

This is an odd way to winter. Drifting can be bad and working the hives isn’t easy.

We changed the formation the next year to this:

This works better. Notice the sides have little insulation.
There was R-8 equivalent on the lids.

Now I’m down to 2 backyard hives in the city. I always dreaded dealing with insulation and wrapping material, which would rip in the winter, spewing material across the landscape. It was hard, working alone, to pull winter material around a hundred hives a day when the wind was whipping. Sometimes the wind worked as a third hand, holding stuff in place, but wind has a short attention span.

Even well-wrapped hives can end up with ripped cases by spring.
This didn’t bother the bees fetching pollen.

So, I was determined to try something different. Someone mentioned polystyrene hives. These are thick-walled plastic boxes that keep hives cool in summer and warm in winter. Calgary rarely has hot summer days, but we get plenty of chilly summer mornings because of our high altitude near the Rockies and because we have very dry air. So, in Calgary, keeping bees in R-7 packaging year-round isn’t a bad idea.

Polystyrene walls are thick! The bee cluster looks like they are inside a tree trunk.

I started with two new packages and all new equipment last year for our backyard bees. It was partly so that I could experience what hobby beekeepers face, since I teach hobby beekeepers. Starting anew, I figured that I’d try the extruded polystyrene foam hives.

In a way, this brought to mind  memories of my Pennsylvania beginnings. My father was a big fan of plastics, which were relatively new in those days. He had built a home-made vacuum mould which turned clear thin sheets of plastic into comb-honey trays. He built a plastic frame which snapped together around a sheet of foundation. I was 17 when he asked me to build a wooden form that could serve as a mould for a hive body. I made one, rather crudely, and he came home a few days later with two cans of chemical which, mixed together, foamed up and hardened into polyurethane. That’s the stuff you see sprayed inside the rafters, beams, and ceilings of some big hollow steel warehouses. My polyurethane box held frames, but shattered when I dropped it. Luckily, no bees were involved. That was my only effort with urethane hives.

In Calgary, decades later, I was again holding a plastic foam hive box. This one didn’t break when I dropped it. I installed packages into my two polystyrene hive bodies. When the inevitable spring snowstorm arrived a week later, the bees clustered warmly. The package bees grew inside their cave. But, honestly, I didn’t see any big summertime advantage. And the boxes were big and clunky.

In July, I was asked by a friend, Robert, what I thought of the insulated hives. I told him that they didn’t seem so special. Robert told me to wait until next March, “that’s when they show their value.”  Well, I was glad already, in the fall, when I didn’t have to winterize the two colonies. [By the way, those two packages each drew 35 frames of foundation, gave us 40 pounds of excess honey each, and both had stored 60 pounds of winter honey.]

One of the two packages performed more poorer than the other, going into winter with just seven deep frames of bees, but plenty of honey. By February, it was down to three frames. I ordered a replacement package, set to arrive in April. The other colony was fine. In early March, the weak hive was even weaker, with just two frames of bees. But a month later, it had overcome its funk and was developing nicely. I cancelled the package bee order. My little colony continued to grow, generating a huge mass of bees that gave us 80 pounds of honey (we extracted 120 pounds from the better colony). I’ve seldom seen an almost-dead March colony recover and make honey like that. I think the success was due to the hive’s wind-tight, thermal-right brood chambers.

I’ve been asked about moisture problems with polystyrene equipment. My own experience showed no issue. No moisture built up under the lid, though I kept an upper entrance open for ventilation, just in case. In our dry climate, too much water in the hive is rare.

About the only complaints I have with the brand of polystyrene boxes I have is that the bottom boards aren’t removable for spring cleaning, the boxes can chip easily with a hive tool, and frames fit too tightly – another 1/8-inch would have helped.

Frames fit too snuggly. Glued with wax and propolis, they are hard to pull loose.

I also had problems with birds and squirrels picking at the material. We have big black and grey squirrels living in the trees beside the hives. I caught one chewing on the hive. I don’t know if the poor girl was trying to sharpen her teeth, lining her home with polystyrene chips, or simply snacking on plastic.

The white area was eaten and exposed by critters.
You can see polystyrene ‘sawdust’ on the ground.

At $30 to $40 for each chamber, they are pricey. But winterizing material also costs money and I didn’t want to fuss with wrapping insulating material around my hives. I guess the bottom line is that I’m happy to use them again this winter. And I think they saved a hive that would have died last winter.

All wrapped for winter!
Snow atop a hive either means the hive is dead or the lid is well-insulated.

The polystyrene lids keep heat in the hives well.

Posted in Beekeeping, Hives and Combs, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , , | 34 Comments

Apimondia 2019: Thursday (some presentations)

I am the shadowy guy, lower left.

On Thursday at the Montreal Apimondia, I gave a presentation about the average distance bees fly while foraging. The full title was Foraging distances of commercially-deployed bees: a meta-analysis.  When I find some time, I’ll do a voice-over and create a version of the talk that you can watch. The bottom line is that there is really no single, simple answer – foraging distance is highly landscape-dependent. This is important. Whether you are a farmer trying to figure out where to place rental bees for efficient, economical pollination or a land manager trying to reduce the effects of high-density non-native bees, you need to know where the bees will be flying. The presentation included foraging distances, which I’ll talk about in another post, another day.

During Apimondia, there were 269 oral presentations. I found it hard to attend all the talks I wanted to because so much was happening at the conference. On Tuesday, however, I moderated a session on “Diversifying income sources for beekeepers“, so I was forced to stay in the hall, introduce speakers, field questions from the audience, and (crucially) yank microphones from speakers’ hands when their time was up. Since I had to sit there anyway, I decided to use my time wisely and listen to the speakers. I’m glad that I did. I learned a lot.

I can’t do fair summaries of anyone’s talks, so I’m not going to try. Here, however, is a list of the titles of some of the talks which I attended. I’m listing them so you can see some of the variety of subjects covered.

Beekeeping, women and sustainable development

Approaches to targeting the poorest people through beekeeping in
Amhara, Ethiopia

Fiji’s Beekeeping Mentor Program

Royal jelly has beneficial effects on lipid profile, satiety, inflammation
and antioxidant capacity in asymptomatic overweight adults

Colombian propolis with biological potential: antitumor and
immunomodulatory action, in vitro assay in osteosarcoma cells

The Growth of a Prairie Operation: 35 Years of Growth and Taking
Advantage of New Opportunities

Meeting the Ontario Market: Honey Packing and Queen Production

Pollination Markets and Bee Forage

Chinese Version of “Fable of The Bees”

Dynamics of queen demand and supply in CanadaModeling the economic impact of Varroa destructor on Australian beekeepers

Building on a Commercially Viable CIDA/Kenya Beekeeping Collaborative Program to a Transformative, Self-sustaining Enterprise

The crisis of Ukranian beekeeping of 2018 and ways to go out from it

Diversifying Income Sources for Small Farmers through Beekeeping with Indigenous Bees in India

Genetic selection of the honeybee (Apis mellifera L.) in a northern climate

The Saskatraz Breeding and Selection Program 2019

Quality and Performance of Imported and Domestic Queens

Honeybee mating and its impact on queen performance and health

Drone factors influencing queen reproduction and health

Building your Brand: The Importance of Integrity

Conservation and design of forage habitat for bees, the challenge of “partial habitats”

Colony health in intensified agricultural landscapes: monitoring the impact of forage availability on honey bee hives in heavily cultivated areas

The potential of urban agriculture to create landscapes of abundance for native and honey bees

It looks like a long list. I guess it is. This surprises me because I didn’t realize how many talks I actually attended until I listed them. My own talk was on Thursday afternoon. I couldn’t stay around after it. I ended my talk at 2 and was on my way to the Montreal airport at 3. On the flight back to Calgary, I flipped through the lists of talks printed in the Apimondia guide book and realized that I missed over 200 good ones during my four days at the conference. Maybe next time, in Russia, I’ll see more.

Posted in Bee Biology, Beekeeping, Commercial Beekeeping, Ecology, Native Bees, Pollination, Science | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Apimondia 2019: Wednesday (And a scandal)

Wednesday at Apimondia was a more relaxed day for me. I ran into several more friends, looked around the city of Montreal, sat at several talks, viewed more posters, tasted more honey in the exhibition hall, and shared an afternoon meal with a group of friendly Scottish beekeepers. They were friendly after they checked which clan I represented. (No problem on that one, considering my central-European roots!)

Wednesday was also the day that I heard about the big scandal. OK, not really a ‘scandal’ – I used that word to get you to read this piece. ‘Disturbance in the fabric of the universe’ may be a more fitting expression. An important part of Apimondia is the World Beekeeping Awards program. Gadgets, books, and honey are judged and awarded appropriately. (At the 2005 Ireland Apimondia, my bee website and blog won Silver. I cherish the medallion they gave me.)

Unfortunately, the honey competition didn’t go sweetly this year. Last month, the honey entries were sent to labs for adulteration and contamination testing. Forty percent of honey entries failed the tests. I don’t know which tests were conducted or by whom, but this was major bad news for the honey industry and for the competitors. If the best beekeepers in the world can’t produce perfect honey, who can?

Perhaps the tests were conducted at one part per trillion, with zero tolerance for herbicides, pesticides, or other materials. If zero-tolerance was the limit, then I’m not surprised. Zero tolerance would keep us from eating much of anything. But there were a lot of angry voices coming from the judged entry displays where irate contestants bludgeoned the innocent volunteers who guarded the stations. Not a pretty image.

Out of these 15 entries, 12 ‘failed laboratory examination’.
Overall, 40% of the honey competition entries were rejected.

Darker honey suffered the most rejections, which surprised me. I usually thing of the dark stuff as more wholesome – sometimes it originates in organic apiaries. I found this incident stunning and I worry about future competitions. Yes, honey has to be pure. But I wonder about the way it was tested, the contamination sources, and the level of tolerance.

I don’t have much information. At this point, the story is in the rumour stage with questions floating around about methodology. From the Bee-L Listserver, there is a report that one contestant filled two entries from the same vat and received two  disqualifications for two different reasons. If I learn more, I’ll post more.

Posted in Honey, Science, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Apimondia 2019: Tuesday (Posters)

This blog post is out of sync (“Tuesday” is being posted on Saturday), but as a good friend once told me, “It’s always Tuesday somewhere.” Truth is, it gets hard to post on a blog while on a conference. I’m behind.

On Tuesday at Apimondia, I arose early and headed up to the big conference centre. I was staying about 2 kilometres from the venue in downtown Montreal, but I’d been told to arrive before 8:30 on Tuesday to put up a poster that Dr Lawrence Harder and I produced about urban beekeeper socio-economic demographics.

I was surprised that our poster was given the best spot out of the posters that were up on Tuesday – it was number one in line, next to the doors that led into conference talks.  I’ll write in detail about our poster later, but for now, I’ll say that the subject was “Who becomes an urban beekeeper?” We used considerable math and data to come to a summary. We looked at neighbourhoods across Calgary and compared the number of apiaries in each neighbourhood to each community’s demographics (age, education, unemployment, home value, hospital visits, immigration, tendency to change houses, etc, etc). This helped us figure out if urban beekeepers are mostly old or young; rich or poor; and so on. When I find some time, I’ll write up the results and methodology here on this blog. Meanwhile, here’s the poster, which I’m posting on this post:

Hey, that’s me, on the left, with my poster on urban beekeepers. The young man is Matthew Polinsky, who also entered a poster at Apimondia (see below). Matthew’s grandfather was Derek Alen, a kind and extraordinarily talented Saskatchewan beekeeper who helped me out considerably when I was about Matthew’s age.

Matthew Polinsky researched an interesting topic: “Beekeeping in Canada: Trends of self-sufficiency and participation in the global honey bee trade”. In other words, how is Canada coping at raising it’s own queens and bees instead of importing them in the spring from warmer countries? That was a politically hot potato back when I was in my twenties and raising queens in Florida to boost my Saskatchewan hives. In those days, I used Canadian mother stock to produce queens in the south. It went well for me until the government disallowed the importation of USA bees. Nearly bankrupted me (and it did bankrupt some Canadian beekeepers). Border closure was supposed to keep mites out, but they soon showed up anyway. Closing the border caused the huge drop in beekeeping success in the graph on Matthew’s poster, below, where the bee population, honey production, and pollination services crashed in 1987 and didn’t recover for about thirty years.

Matthew found that empowering self-sufficiency and enhancing bio-security have had some long-term benefits. Today, many Canadians raise their own queens, winter losses are only around 25%, and the number of managed honey bee hives has recovered since ’87 and recently passed to even higher numbers. Only a bit over half of the queens heading Canadian colonies are now bred abroad (mostly in New Zealand, Chile, and Hawaii) while just over a hundred-thousand packages are imported from the south Pacific, which is down from before the border was closed and the bees came from our continent. It will be interesting to see how this goes over the next thirty years. Matthew’s email is on his poster and you can see the poster in better resolution at this link. It’s a nice study, though I don’t agree with all the conclusions.

Poster topics were amazingly diverse. Among the rush of time and the squeeze of people, I only read about ten posters, but I photographed twice as many for reading later. Some were highly technical, others, not so much. There was considerable artistic license on display. Including the hand-drawn montage, below.

I have a story to tell about this poster. During the conference, a friend told me that he had considered doing a poster but was a little intimidated. I said, “Don’t be. Anything you do will look better than one that is up right now. Come on, I’ll show you.” So, I led him to the poster you see above. I began to encourage my friend, “See, you just need to glue together some paper and drawn something.” I continued like this until the author called out from a bench behind us. “Hey! That’s mine!” So, I explained to her, without apologizing, that she had submitted something which my friend could easily surpass. She laughed and said that I made her day – and my remarks confirmed that it was worth it for her to have entered her poster. Her poster’s point, which I obviously missed, is that “Creativity and Diversification…Inspires” as her title says. I guess it really does.

Before moving on to the more scientific posters, here’s another one that I found unusual. I checked their website,, to learn more, but remained just as mystified. Guess I’m getting old. On the website, I discovered these words, Working with Bees is all about overcoming fear. The Hive is love incarnate. The Hive is the window to our new world. It takes patience and emotional energy to dismantle power dynamics Ð more awkward than a newborn goat.”   OK. Moving on.

My friend, professor and podcaster Andony Melathopoulos, with Matthew Bucy, entered this poster. It looks a bit unusual. As Andony explained, he hadn’t read the poster entry requirements carefully and made the poster wide rather than tall. Some careful pruning and taping made it fit into its assigned spot. I think that Andony planned this all along, getting funky to draw attention to the message: labels might be wrong on those cans of poisons. This is a big deal. In the USA, they say that “The label is the law.” but what happens when the label doesn’t correctly align with FDA recommendations?

Now, less comment from me and more posters. These are just two percent of the 566 posters which were on display over the four days!

This poster introduces an AI-powered phone app from Bee Health Guru. It shows how the app can monitor and follow the spread of bee health problems. The poster was posted by respected semi-retired professor Malcolm Sanford, whom I have been following online for years. I had a nice chat with Malcolm and was glad to see that his talents are being fully engaged in the bee world.

Chatting with this presenter helped me understand the key role of nutrition in combating bee viruses.

Michael Palmer traced his background in bees and the importance of good queen rearing.

That’s all I’ll post. This was intended to give you a taste of the incredible breadth of bee research being conducted. Someone at the conference told me that more papers on bee-related subjects have been published in the past ten years than in all the preceding years. I don’t know if that’s true, but every new study shows us that there is still much, much more for us to learn.

Posted in Beekeeping, Friends, Science | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Apimondia 2019: Taste the honey!

Apimondia has honey. There are probably some serious honey trades going on among the world’s buyers and sellers visiting Montreal. The rest of us are getting small tastes of Slovenian acacia, Alberta white alfalfa, Chilean ulmo, Chinese jujube, and Argentine organic Yunga. I once dreamt of taking a self-guided honey-connoisseur tour of the world. I only had to go as far as Montreal – the honeys came to me.

Here are a few pictures:

Brazil – world’s largest organic honey producer. Very lovely. Supermel.

Scandia Honey Company, Alberta, Canada.
Family-run producers of some of the world’s best honey.
This is Tique.
Her parents run thousands of hives.

This is a very classy gift.
A brief-case full of fine honey from the United Arab Emirates.

Chilean honeys, including bacteria-fighting Ulmo.

Mongolian mountain and hill honey. Why not?

The Australian jelly bush is related to manuka. Its honey, produced on the east coast of Oz, has the same antibiotic properties but without as much hype and drama.

Yunga honey, from the northwest mountains of Argentina. I chatted with the brothers who manage thousands of pristine acres, just for organic honey.

Posted in Hive Products, Honey | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Apimondia 2019: Monday

Monday, September 9, was a head-expanding day for me at Apimondia. This biannual event attracts thousands of attendees from across the globe. This year, it’s in Montreal – a mere 3,008 kilometres (as the crow flies) from my home in Calgary. There will be 269 oral presentations and 566 science/bee posters. There are also 50,000 square metres of exhibition floor space.

I feel like a kid with a dollar in a candy store. It’s impossible to decide what to take in when Honey: What is it and how to ensure its authenticity? and What’s New in Honey Bee Biology? and …possible effects of neonicotinoids on workers, drones, and queens, and Bee products – nutritional value, physiological vs. pharmacological effects, and Research on beekeeping development are all being presented at the exact same moment! It’s like this for four days – five simultaneous presentations, each in a different hall, each important and charming in its own way.

I couldn’t decide which presentation to hear. So I spent my time touring the exhibition hall instead.  It was a United Nations of bee gadgets, associations, exotic honey tasting, electronics, and business introductions. At least twenty countries are represented, with Brazil, Russia, and China each having spacious displays. United Arab Emirates, Moldova, Greece, Argentina, Mongolia, Korea, Slovenia, India, Ukraine, Malta, Romania… and I’m sure I’ve forgotten some.  Ethiopia and Chile had especially large displays as each is vying for a shot at the 2023 Apimondia Conference. Will it be Addis Ababa or Santiago? Where would you go, if you could, to learn about bees four years from now?

Here are some pictures from the exhibition floor at the Montreal Apimondia. Today, I’ll share the exhibits of some of the countries. On later posts, I’ll show world honeys, Canadian exhibitors, and then bee gadgets.

Chile, hopefuls for the 2023 Apimondia Expo

Ethiopia, hopefuls for the 2023 Apimondia Expo

Melita – queen producers from the Mediterranean Malta-island area

The next Apimondia conference will be in Russia.

Bee supplies from Greece.

The Brotherhood of Ukrainian Beekeepers

Russia will host the next Apimondia, September 2021.

Brazil: the world’s largest producer of organic honey.

Slovenia, the world’s biggest fan of beekeeping.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Outreach, Travels | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Apimondia 2019: Saturday

Landed in Montreal early this morning (12:15am) and reached the hotel over an hour past midnight. My wife and teenagers are with me. None of us had been to Montreal before, so it’s a nice treat. Unfortunately, the family flies back to Calgary Sunday night. They will miss all of Apimondia, but to be honest, they say they get more than enough bee talk from me and they don’t mind taking a pass on the conference. So, they head back to work and school while I stay on to party with the other 12,300 Apimondia delegates.

McGill, with a family friend and my family

McGill, with a family friend and family

This morning we toured McGill, one of Canada’s top three universities. (Alumni include Bill Shatner and Leonard Cohen.)

Both teenagers have an interest in McGill. For the 17-year-old senior in high school, the school is especially relevant. We met a family friend and had a nice tour. The kids (and we parents) were suitably impressed with the look and feel of the urban campus.

After the McGill walk around, we ended up at Schwartz’s, also known as the Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, for a fantastic smoked-meat sandwich with sweet soft pickles and coleslaw. The latter two tasted just as Mom used to make them.

We were able to squeeze my wheelchair through the crowded, 100-year-old deli to a table where our family devoured the incredible food. In Montreal? Eat at Schwartz’s.

Ethnicity runs deep in this city. Just down the street we passed two Hungarian food stores and – a first for me outside Europe – a Slovenian butcher shop. I’m not sure what makes the Slovenian meat shop different from other meat shops, but it was cool to see such a place outside Ljubljana.

From there, we continued down Saint Laurent Boulevard, past an anarchist bookstore called l’Insoumise (“The Insubordinate”). My 17-year-old went in to talk shop with the guy at the counter and to see if they had any Jordan Peterson books. I would have gone in, too, but this little revolutionary bookstore has steps and I was in my wheelchair. I should have a chat about inclusivity with the bookstore committee (the comité libraire) which runs the place. Also, I would ask why they have bars around the shop window and door. Was that to protect against, you know, lawless anarchists?

I guess even anarchists in Canada worry about anarchists on the street.

Our walk took us through Montreal’s Chinatown. We didn’t stop as none of my family ever buy much of anything (except for books), we had just eaten (though I love Chinese food, I was full of Schwartz smoked-meat), and besides, I had nearly knocked down someone with my wheelchair and didn’t want to risk a second almost-crash.

We continued on to the old city, near the St Lawrence River, where we found the Notre Dame Basilica. Its first stones were laid by the parish 450 years ago. There was a wedding just leaving, fittingly in a drizzle that turned into a heavy rain.

At this point, having travelled around six kilometres, we headed back (soaked) to our hotel. We will do a bit more sightseeing tomorrow, then in late afternoon, three-quarters of us are flying to Calgary. I’m the quarter who stays for five more days. Then it will be all about bees as I tour the acres of bee equipment and take in as many of the 269 talks and 566 posters as I can. My idea of fun.

If you are in Montreal for the Apimondia bee conference, drop by and see my presentation 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. My poster will be up all day on Tuesday, September 10 – look for poster P.07.143.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Travels | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

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!

Posted in Science | Tagged , | 7 Comments

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