Nuns of honey

I bumped into this photo a few days ago when I was writing an article for Deutches Bienen Journal, Germany’s beekeeping magazine. I was trying to picture sisters at a convent in Quebec, tending their hives in the 1920s. This photo came up in a web search, but it was within a mass of old pictures, none of them dated or described. It’s an interesting picture, isn’t it? We can only guess at the date (nun fashion is pretty stagnant). My grandmother owned a metal pitcher similar to the one being used to feed the bees, which might take this back a hundred years. The photo image quality also suggests sometime between the ’20s and ’40s. The hives seem European, but North Americans with small, immobile apiaries sometimes use similar boxes. Where was the apiary? Obviously in some northern temperate area with enough rain to produce deciduous trees and lots of brush.  Maybe it was Quebec in the 1920s. But maybe not.

It’s interesting to see beekeepers without veils, dressed in black clothing in the bee yard.  It’s probably chilly and the bees are losing strength – maybe white suits and veils were used by these nuns in mid-summer. But maybe not.  The colony being fed is hanging out at the entrance, so it is likely still fairly strong. Or maybe Sister Melissa kicked the hive to awaken the bees, but I doubt it. You can never guess the whole story from a single picture.

For the German beekeeping journal, I wanted to describe the Sisters of Ursuline, who mostly live in an ancient convent in Quebec City. The Quebec mission was established in 1639. The Ursulines were organized a hundred years earlier by the Italian saint, Angelica Meirici. Since its founding, its purpose has been the education of girls and care of the sick. The Ursuline convent (the Monastère des Ursulines de Québec) was the first place in North America to educate girls.

Bees were part of the mission, too.  According to the March, 1921, American Bee Journal, the Ursuline Sisters kept 22 colonies of bees on the shores of Lac Saint-Jean in Roberval, where they produced 4,020 pounds of honey in 1920 – that’s a 183-pound (83 kg) average. Not bad for anyone, anywhere.

Catholic missions have long been known for their beekeepers, whose original task was to produce wax for candles, which, according to Catholic requirements, had to be purely beeswax (produced by the virgin workers of a honey bee hive). That requirement was cut to 51% beeswax for most liturgical uses around 1900. Today, beeswax is usually not required in church candles at all. But originally, many monasteries keep bees mostly for beeswax candles. Honey was a nice bonus.

I visited a Franciscan monastery a few years ago in southern Hungary where an elderly monk showed me his hives. (Here’s the full story.) The monastery colonies were lined against a wall in a courtyard. Father Celerin and his dog Pempo (Hungarian for propolis) guided me to some huge bee boxes with extra-deep frames. It was early October, the weather was mild, but the bees were settling in for winter.  The hive strength, winter stores, and tight brood cluster were not extraordinary, but in the presence of the old monk, in the courtyard of the old monastery, examining hundred-year-old hives, the sense of continuity was palpable.

Father Celerin, right, the old monastic wall, and the huge hives.

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Turner’s (belated) Birthday

I can’t believe that I missed reminding you yesterday that it was Charles Turner’s birthday. Here’s the story of the man who figured out that honey bees can think.

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You probably know that Karl von Frisch figured out how honey bees use their waggle-dance to communicate. He won the Nobel Prize for that and for other studies of bee behaviour. I think it was well-deserved and his experiments withstood criticism and independent confirmation. (Although there are still a few distinguished scientists who contest the theory.) His discovery was intuitive and required hundreds of replicated experiments conducted over years of work in personally risky circumstances in Nazi Germany. (Von Frisch had some Jewish heritage.) But there is another scientist who came close to figuring out many of the things which von Frisch discovered. The other scientist did his experiments in America, decades earlier. But he’s mostly unknown, largely forgotten.

Charles Turner is likely the most important biologist you’ve never heard. Charles Henry Turner (February 3, 1867 – February 14, 1923) published at least 70 papers, mostly on animal behaviour. Years before Karl von Frisch realized that bees possess colour vision and can recognize and remember patterns, Turner had published his own results on exactly the same thing. Turner published the first research showing that insects can learn and solve problems. At the time, in 1900, it was generally believed that invertebrate activity was due to reaction to chemical and physical stimuli, without the need for neural discernment. Following Turner’s discoveries, we have seen that insects of all sorts exhibit signs of personality and certainly demonstrate problem-solving skills. Turner’s experiments created a new field of science focused on cognitive ability in insects and other invertebrates.

Turner’s father, from Canada, was a church custodian. A church custodian who was known as a master of debate and who – in the 1870s – owned several hundred books. Charles Turner’s mother, who was from Kentucky, was a nurse. Our budding scientist was born in Cincinnati where he attended public schools and graduated as class valedictorian. Charles Turner studied biology at the University of Cincinnati, graduating in 1891 – the same year he published his first paper (“Morphology of the Avian Brain”) in the Journal of Comparative Neurology. He followed that with another avian neurology paper, this time published in the prestigious magazine Science. He earned his MSc just a year later. His research moved from dissections and interpretations of bird nervous systems to spiders, river shrimp, and insects. Turner was also the first to demonstrate Pavlovian conditioning in an insect. In 1907, Turner became one of the first African-Americans to receive a graduate degree from the University of Chicago. His doctorate, “The Homing of Ants: An Experimental Study of Ant Behavior,” was emblematic of his work in the learning and thinking patterns of invertebrates.

One of Turner’s biggest discoveries involved honey bees, which he trained to recognize shapes and patterns and which – he discovered – could remember the colours of hidden trays of sugar syrup, returning to the correct colours even when tray positions were scrambled.

Dr Charles I. Abramson, a professor at Oklahoma State, investigated Charles Turner’s life. Abramson, in his piece “A Study of Inspiration” describes Turner’s honey bee research:

“Turner begins the paper with a scholarly review of the literature in which the various theories of why bees should see colors are enumerated, followed by a discussion of the limitations of the existing data.

“To investigate the problem, he studied honey bees in O’Fallon Park in St. Louis. He designed various colored disks, colored boxes,and “cornucopias” into which the bees were trained to fly. Thirty-two experiments were designed, and controls for the influence of odor and brightness were instituted. The results of his experiments showed that bees see colors and discriminate among them. It is interesting that in considering the results of his experiments, he believed that bees may be creating, in his words, “memory pictures” of the environment. The idea of memory pictures is certainly contemporary.

“The second paper of the series on honey bee learning was stimulated by the color vision paper. The methods used were identical to those in the color vision paper with the exception that various patterns were used, as were colors. The use of patterns and colors on the same target is the first use, in my opinion, of the compound-conditioning methods popular in contemporary studies of animal discrimination learning. The study contains 19 experiments and the results show that honey bees can readily distinguish patterns.”

Although he earned his PhD as a magna cum laude graduate at the University of Chicago, Turner didn’t find the sort of work that such a brilliant scientist would be expected to receive. He ended up with no laboratory to direct, no grad students to mentor, and no position at any research university. He applied to various universities, but was routinely rejected due to his race. Consequently, Turner spent most of his career as a high school science teacher at the Negro Sumner High School, conducting his experiments at a city park, paying for his spare-time research out of his own pocket.

Historian W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:

Charles Turner “became a teacher in a small colored Methodist school in South Atlanta which had at the time about a dozen college students, no laboratories and few books. He received inadequate pay and a heavy teaching load . . . but the only appointment carrying a living wage that he was able to get was in the Negro Sumner High School in St. Louis. There he stayed until he died of overwork. He was a promising scientist; with even fair opportunity he ought to have accomplished much; but his color hindered him.”

Charles Henry Turner died young from a heart attack, passing away in 1923 at the age of 55. For a comprehensive biography and an analysis of the science behind Turner’s work, I invite you to read “A Study of Inspiration” by Charles I. Abramson.

Most of the material in today’s blog comes from various papers by Abramson, who has researched Turner’s life for years. You can download Dr Abramson’s biography about Dr Turner, see a brief review in Nature, or read more about Turner (and see some family photos) at Abramson’s Charles Henry Turner website. It would be a nice tribute to Charles Henry Turner if you could read more of his story on this belated anniversary of Dr Turner’s birth.

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The $3 Billion Vacation

I’ve heard ‘three billion dollars’ as the ‘permanent’ cost of giving 700,000 US government workers an unexpected 35-day vacation. There were also thousands of consultants furloughed because of the federal shutdown.  According to economists, who mostly look at lost income plus wage-earners’ reduced spending, $3 billion left the economy forever, causing a drop in the US GDP. Three billion is a lot of coins and that’s just the hit to direct wages plus the domino effect – for example, laid-off folks might not eat out, which causes a drop in restaurateurs’ income, which leads to reduced hours for chefs and servers, who won’t be buying gas to get to work, and on and on. However, we’ve heard reports of people in the US Coast Guard selling clothes and toys at yard sales to make ends meet, so some money was coming back into the economy. (Read that last bit with as much sarcasm as you can muster.)

The unrecorded costs of the shutdown could also end up in the billions.  Research that helps everyone from farmers to physicians was stalled for over a month. In some cases, it can’t be restarted. Shutting down experimental medical cultures, cell lines, and on-going agricultural tests destroy information vital to disease control. The longest-running predator-prey study in the world (observing, tracking and counting moose and wolves in Michigan) went on for 40 years. Until this January. Scientists couldn’t enter federal lands to gather year 41’s data.

According to Dr Rush Holt, a former congressman and physicist, “Any shutdown of the federal government can disrupt or delay research projects, lead to uncertainty over new research, and reduce researcher access to agency data and infrastructure.” The unpaid scientists weren’t even able to enter closed federal lands where observations and experiments were taking place.  Locked labs and buildings turned some science experiments into mould- and fungi- growing exercises.

Drippy dead bees

Three days ago, the science journal Nature reported on the shutdown, “Dead bees, dusty offices: US scientists face post-shutdown malaise”. The dead bees were stacking up at the renowned USDA bee disease research lab in Beltsville, Maryland. Here’s the way that Nature described the scene:

A refrigerator overflowing with dead honey bees and larvae greeted Jay Evans when he returned to his lab at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Beltsville, Maryland, on 28 January.

Evans, an entomologist, is one of the thousands of federal scientists who were locked out of their labs during the longest US government shutdown in history. “We are very backed up,” he says of the USDA lab, which monitors bee pathogens and parasites. “And some samples were sitting at the local post office, and they are a little degraded. They’ve been sitting for a month and a half.”

The journal Science reported on a bumble bee rescue project:

The shutdown has also stung entomologist Rufus Isaacs of Michigan State University in East Lansing. Some endangered bumble bees he has collected are now “sitting in a fridge in my lab” and can’t be shipped to USDA laboratories until they reopen. He notes that a few months’ delay in agricultural research “can mean a whole year of progress is lost, because if we don’t have the answers from the recent experiments, we don’t know how to prepare for the coming growing season.”

Scientists, farmers, and physicians will carry on. But if we think the economic costs are limited to $3 billion dollars, and if we thing that the shutdown didn’t hurt people outside the federal payroll, we are likely mistaken.

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How many honey bees are there? A 2019 update.

Two trillion. That’s the estimated number of honey bees that are kept in hives around the world. The following piece is reblogged from Emily Scott’s Adventures in Beeland. Now we know that the number of bee hives in the world went up again – now at 91 million kept hives and millions of feral colonies! Thanks, Emily!

Adventuresinbeeland's Blog

A year ago I wrote a post titled ‘How many honey bees are there?‘, after a question on Quora got me intrigued about whether any kind of data exists on worldwide honey bee numbers. Would anyone really have counted?

Well, it turns out they have… sort of.

At the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization website, FAOSTAT, you can now download the latest 2017 data on the number of managed bee hives worldwide across 125 countries (though not my own country, the UK!). The individual country data can be downloaded as a juicy detailed spreadsheet or the data can be visualised in interactive attractive graphs for you in the Visualize data section – this tells us that there was a worldwide total of 90,999,730 hives (up slightly from 90,564,654 hives in 2016).

© FAO, Production of Beehives world total 1961-2017, Web address:, Accessed: 14/01/19

These graphs on…

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Is bee-talk keeping you awake?

So, you’re hauling bees across the country – and you’re drowsy. Or having trouble staying awake while doing the dull, repetitive manual labour we call extracting. What do you do? A lot of people keep their eyes open by listening to a good podcast or audiobook.

Over the past year, I’ve written about two of my favourite bee podcasts.  Kiwimana, recorded by Gary and Margaret Fawcett in New Zealand, has a nice mix of news and interviews with beekeepers. They talk to bee folk all over the world, making it a truly international podcast. A while ago, Gary caught up with me for about an hour – you can listen to that interview here: KM113 with Ron Miksha.

Another podcast which I enjoy is PolliNation, from Oregon State’s Andony Melathopoulos. Andony, a fellow Calgarian whom I’ve known for years, does bee and pollinator extension work in the USA at Oregon State. He interviews people active in pollination with all sorts of pollinators (especially bees) and in all sorts of habitats. Last year, I chatted with Andony for his 54th podcast, Ron Miksha – Crop Pollination: Past, Present and Future. My interview was largely a look back on how we used to pollinate with honey bees, in the old days though I made some predictions about the future of pollination that are bound to be wrong.

Podcasts are one way to make use of otherwise boring trucking and extracting time. But a few days ago, a member of our local bee club (Calgary and District Beekeepers) mentioned that some old bee books are available as free audiobooks. These free recordings are readings from books that are older than 1923, which means the copyrights have expired. As such, any of us can copy, annotate, post, and publish or record any bits we like without infringing on anyone’s legal rights. This includes reading them for an audiobook site.

One such free audiobook site is LibriVox which carries the tag Free public domain audiobooks read by volunteers from around the world. If you have a pleasant voice, some free time, and an old bee book, you could contribute, too. I’m not a great reader, often tripping up words and mispronouncing some of them, but if I ever find myself with a few extra hours, I’ll volunteer.

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

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

The site has a search option, so you will find a few classics such as Langstroth’s  Hive and the Honey Bee. What would Reverend Langstroth think if he knew that his book, written back in 1853,  was ‘recorded’ by someone else’s voice, then enjoyed on a small gadget by beekeepers using automatic whirling machines to sling honey from Langstroth frames? It’s  amazing to think of the new things we use everyday – cell phones, electricity, and big flatbed trucks, all of which he wouldn’t recognize – yet the basic hive and frame that Langstroth developed is largely unchanged.

To enjoy audio clips of bee classics, go to the LibriVox site. There, you can listen on your computer without downloading. You may also link into iTunes and park the audio files there.  Below are some of the bee books available from LibriVox. These books are pretty old, so the modern reader is cautioned to ignore a lot of the advice, or at least use a sieve to filter out the bees knees from the honey. But for a quaint historical perspective, they are good. Enjoy!

Burroughs: Birds and Bees, Sharp Eyes, and Other Papers

Casteel: The Behavior of the Honey Bee in Pollen Collecting

Clark: Constructive Beekeeping

Edwardes: The Lore of the Honey-Bee

Fabre: The Mason-Bees

Langstroth: The Hive and Honey Bee

Lockard: Bee Hunting

Saunders: Wild Bees, Wasps and Ants and Other Stinging Insects

Wolf: Apis Mellifica

Posted in Beekeeping, Books, Culture, or lack thereof, History | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cats catch up with bees

This Twitter tweet is cute as a kitten. It’s nice, but we all know that bees are way smarter than cats. Bees have been behaving like this for years. Nevertheless, it is reassuring to see vertebrates are learning what some inverts have known for a long, long time.

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2018 a little recap of interesting posts from Ron Miksha

I’m giving thanks this morning to Stefan, a beekeeper/blogger in San Jose, who has decided to take a a year-long break from blogging to travel the world. My gratitude is for Stefan’s blog (which I hope he’ll continue after his sabbatical) and because Stefan has surprised me by listing my most popular Bad Beekeeping Blog posts of 2018 as a farewell note to his readers. Thank you, Stefan!

Meanwhile, I think everyone would enjoy revisiting his posts about getting started with backyard beekeeping. Also, send him a note if you live somewhere interesting and maybe he can drop by and say hello to you and your bees. I’m in Calgary. Maybe he’ll visit us this summer!

A Jar of Honey San Jose

Ron is a Canadian Beekeeper and active Blogger, trainer and a real asset to the beekeeping world to me. His Blog:

I am taking a one year break from Beekeeping in 2019 as I will travel for a year. Here is the list of really interesting topics

  1. Rotten: Lawyers, Guns, and Honey
  2. Have you lithium-chlorided your bees yet?
  3. Kicked out of a farmer’s market
  4. Dr Warwick Kerr, the “Man Who Created Killer Bees”, has died
  5. Crazy Russian Hacker lost all his bees!
  6. Why your honey gets hard
  7. Causes of winter losses
  8. Should you feed s tired bee?
  9. Nuisance-free beekeeping
  10. How to predict a honey flow

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Hot Bee Topics in 2018

Well, what a year for the friends of bees! I give thanks. First, for the bees. Then, my family. I’m also grateful that my body held out for another year. I feel privileged to have readers for this blog, too. (I’m looking at you. Thanks for looking at me.) This blog had over 100,000 views in 2018 and even made it into Feedspot’s top five bee sites. Readers dropped by from 176 different countries.  Knowing that I have readers makes me want to write.

So, I’m sorry that I didn’t post more often. It’s not for lack of stories – I’ve got dozens of pieces queued up. There’s a lot happening in bee culture these days. My problem is the short days we have – just 24 hours isn’t enough to do the writing I need to do.  I’ve been working on a graduate degree at the University of Calgary and have been busy with some volunteer activities in other areas.  Also during 2018, I participated in a podcast interview with Andony Melathopoulos, wrote articles for American Bee Journal, BeesCene, and the Czech beekeeping journal. I somehow found time to teach beekeeping workshops with the Calgary & District Beekeepers Association, I went looking for bumble bees in Iceland, and I  presented at the United Beekeepers of Alberta conference.  But I didn’t find enough time to write much for the readers of this blog.

If you have been as busy as me, you probably missed some of my posts this year. So, here are my top-ten most-viewed blog posts from 2018, with the most popular at the top:

  1. Rotten: Lawyers, Guns, and Honey
  2. Have you lithium-chlorided your bees yet?
  3. Kicked out of a farmer’s market
  4. Dr Warwick Kerr, the “Man Who Created Killer Bees”, has died
  5. Crazy Russian Hacker lost all his bees!
  6. Why your honey gets hard
  7. Causes of winter losses
  8. Should you feed s tired bee?
  9. Nuisance-free beekeeping
  10. How to predict a honey flow

Those are the top ten out of 73 posts that I published in 2018.  I won’t predict how much I’ll post in 2019, nor will I hazard any predictions about what the year will bring. Together, we’ll see what happens. Meanwhile, hold on tight – the new year begins in just a few hours!

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Give a Gift of Bees – for $35?

Do you have $35 to give to a family so that they can have their own bees? You can bring honey and pollination to someone who needs it. Donate before 2018 calls it a day. Don’t ask me how this charity can provide “a hive, honeybees, training and all of the essentials for pollinating a buzzing family business”  for $35.

Plan International has a good reputation with 69% of donations ending up in the right place according to a reputable independent monitor. A couple of years ago, my kids chipped in to buy a few pigs for a family in central America through Plan International. The piglets cost $90. I suspect that those little squealers have crossed to the other side by now. A hive of bees, on the other hand, might live for generations.

Go ahead. Buy someone some bees. Plan International.

Posted in Outreach | Tagged | 2 Comments

Beekeeping Barbie

My 12-year-old daughter never cared a lot about Barbie dolls but if this had been around a few years ago, she probably would have liked it. Nice to see that Mattel, Inc. finally made a realistic role model!  Here is a reblog from The Honey Bee Queen Blog:

She got her very first Barbie from her Great Aunt Jane. This Barbie is a super cool beekeeping babe with her own bee hive and honey stand complete with an honor system cash register. 


I wasn’t sure if we were going to introduce Barbie dolls to our kiddos, but this the coolest one I’ve ever seen.


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