Icelandic Bees

Iceland is more than spectacular volcanoes, ground quakes and rupturing continents. It has bees, too. Some say that the first founder bumble bee blew in with the wind. Others think that Iceland’s first bumble bee hitched a ride aboard a Viking ship, hidden among hay, ponies, and sheep on the 1,000-kilometre journey from the north of the British Isles. Bee DNA shows that the first bumble bee, Bombus jonellus, likely arrived on two distinct occasions, so both theories may be right. More recently, between 1959 and 2010, four other bumble bee species were found in Iceland.  All these species are well-represented throughout northern Europe and likely arrived as stowaways.

Bombus jonellus, Iceland’s first bee
Photo by Ivar Leidus

I have some problems identifying things. I am badly colour-blind. Also I often mistake my wife for a hat, so Dr. Anselm Kratochwil of the University of Osnabrück has kindly identified the species for me. The following photographs were taken in Reykjavik by family members and me.

This is my favourite photo. It was taken on a cool rainy summer morning in the hilltop gardens at Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrímur’s Church). The bees had been foraging the night before and camped out overnight. In the morning, they began twitching their muscles to warm up as soon as the rain ended and the sun shone. On this Centaurea cyanus (bachelor’s button) are Bombus hypnorum, left, with brown thorax hair and black abdomen, and on the right, Bombus lucorum, the White-tailed bumble bee.  These are different bee species, of course, so their placid sharing of a bed was quite surprising.

  Here’s another Bombus lucorum, foraging on Centaurea cyanus:

Yet another B. lucorum. It’s important, of course, to not frighten the bee.

The next bee, Bombus hypnorum, is the newest accidental arrival in Iceland. Once restricted to continental Europe, in the past 20 years it has colonized Britain and Iceland. Typically, Bombus hypnorum has a dark ginger thorax (mid-section) but this one has an unusual black thorax. She is visiting flowers of Syringa vulgaris (lilac).

By now,  Bombus lucorum’s thorax of light-yellow and black bands of hair and its abdomen of light-yellow and black bands followed by a white tail is familiar to you. The plant species is Philadelphus coronarius, which we call mock orange.

Thanks again to my sister, Jane, who took the best of these photos and to Anselm Kratochwil for all the identifications. I regret that I didn’t see honey bees in Iceland (another non-native insect on the island), but perhaps next time.

Posted in History, Native Bees, Travels | Tagged , | 4 Comments

It was bees, not the Prince, who pranked the Queen

Well, I fell for this, too. It was too cute. And the story – Prince Philip dresses as a palace guard to prank the Queen of England – was enchanting. But completely wrong. Seems a swarm of bees descended on a royal ceremony, perhaps the birth of Saint Ambrosia.

The photo of the Queen giggling with Prince Philip involves bees, say Snopes and the BBC.

Event image

In the wake of the Duke of Edinburgh’s death, a photo from 2003 emerged of Queen Elizabeth II laughing with the Duke. Chris Young, the photographer who took the picture, spoke with the BBC about the day, and Snopes also says it was due to a swarm of bees at Windsor Castle during a review of the Grenadier Guards. Photo via @PAImages

No, Elizabeth and Philip aren’t laughing because he pranked her by dressing as a palace guard. They’re actually giggling at a sudden bee swarm causing a ruckus during a ceremony. “As colonel of the regiment, the duke was standing in full uniform, as he prepared to accompany Her Majesty.” – BBC News

The situation was not caused by a prank, but a swarm of bees. Also, Prince Philip wasn’t dressed as a palace guard.

The swarm settled under one of those little folding wooden chairs that guests are forced to sit on when they attend events such as this. You can see the swarm and the Beekeeper to the Rescue on the BBC website, here.

Posted in Humour, Strange, Odd Stuff, Swarms | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Should you feed pollen supplement?

In mid-March, Stevo Sun, a Calgary resident, sent some gorgeous pictures of honey bees foraging on silver maple. Maple is an ornamental here, at our elevation and latitude. But for less than $250, you can pick up a young tree and drop it into your Calgary yard. I’ve seen some nice maples, now approaching 20 or 30 years in age – so, with care, they can survive our dry climate, short summers, and long cold winters. It may surprise some readers that maples don’t grow in every corner of Canada. There are parts of Canada where the maple appears only on flags, not in every front yard. For ubiquitousness, the bumble bee would have been a better symbol on our flag.

The maple and bee photographs were taken March 16, two weeks ago. That was a mild day, but not warm. (It was around 14 °C, 57 °F.) Our local internet chat group was buzzing with reports of pollen sightings. Optimism swept the city. But after that pleasant respite, the temperature fell far below freezing. Natural pollen didn’t return for ten days. The I saw tiny dots of pollen in one bee’s baskets, but I didn’t want to embarrass the little worker by taking a picture of her and her sad dab of pollen.

Pollen supplement: Saving the bees?

Because our spring is always slow arriving here in Calgary, I began feeding pollen supplement on March 26. Some readers may have begun in February. Today, the temperature here is a few degrees warmer than it had been in mid-March when the first pollen arrived. Colonies are brooding up quickly, with a several frames of open brood in each, but nary a speck of stored pollen. I placed some large pollen cakes (15% pollen with vegetable proteins) right above the brood. I have no doubt that this will be eaten within ten days and then I’ll be adding the next pollen supplement.

We recommend that beekeepers continue feeding pollen supplement (and honey or sugar, too) continuously until after the main spring flow starts and the weather is stable. A break in pollen supplement accompanied by a few days of bad weather may result in worker honey bees killing and eating much of their brood due to the lack of protein to feed it. In the next two pictures, you can see how nice the brood was on March 26, but looking closely, note the absence of pollen near the brood. Honey stores (about four frames) were nearby, but being consumed quickly. These bees needed food and I gave it to them.

Nice brood for our area in March.

Close-up: note the absence of pollen and honey stores.










Here in the Calgary area, we feed pollen supplement at this time of the year because spring weather isn’t reliably mild. The first teaser of natural pollen may be followed by days of freezing temperatures (it was this year). Honey bees aren’t flying enough to bring in the massive amounts of protein it takes to build their population. But I have another reason for feeding pollen supplement to honey bees. It might surprise you.

In most locations, it is almost impossible to overstock an area with honey bees during the peak flow. But before and after that brief time, there might not be enough pollen for all the bees in the area, resulting in stiff competition among bee species for a limited amount of food. This is especially true in the spring, when honey bees and native bees are building their brood nests. An overwintered honey bee hive will expand from almost no brood and ten thousand bees to ten frames of brood and forty thousand bees in two months. Observant beekeepers tell us that it takes one frame of pollen and one frame of honey to grow each frame of brood.” This would require about thirty or forty pounds of pollen to build the colony’s spring population.

Back-of-the envelope math suggests that if one colony of honey bees consumes thirty pounds of pollen, they will need to find 40 to 60 billion grains of pollen.  With an estimated 50,000 pollen grains per flower, honey bees visit something like one million flowers to achieve this. Grain size and a flower’s pollen production rate will add a lot of variation to this number, of course. But you already see the point – supplying honey bees with pollen supplement will reduce a colony’s use of wildflowers and perhaps lessen its impact on native bees.

Leave some for the other bees.








Posted in Beekeeping, Honey Plants, Native Bees | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

World Therapy Day (and a couple of birthdays)

Today is World Apitherapy Day. And it’s my birthday.  Coincidence? Maybe.

Apitherapy, which means using bee stuff for health, can include eating pollen, propolis, wax, royal jelly, bee larvae, and honey – or rubbing them on your face. But for many, apitherapy is bee sting therapy. Stings are sometimes promoted as a treatment for autoimmune disorders, like MS and rheumatism. Less frequently (but with more notice), bee venom is an ingredient in skin creams  – as you can read here. (And here, here, and here.) However, a recent death due to a bee sting administered as apitherapy is newsworthy.

Just winking?

I don’t want to deflate the World Apitherapy Day balloon, but if you’re not careful, bee sting therapy can be fatal therapy. Most long-time beekeepers have been stung thousands of times (That’s not an exaggeration.) without adverse effects. But for some people, a bee sting can be much worse than a bit of swelling, redness, and pain. A single bee sting can kill. Although bee sting therapy may work wonders on some auto-immune syndromes, stings might send a patient into systemic shock. That’s what reportedly happened to a woman in Spain.

She had been treated without incident on several earlier occasions, but this time, the woman went into shock and never regained consciousness. She later died from organ failure at hospital. Such bee-therapy fatalities are rare. Only one other treatment is known to have ended a life. However, a meta-analysis of several hundred studies showed that a significant number of therapies have caused serious reactions. The figure given in the analysis (Risk Associated with Bee Venom Therapy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis) indicated that 12% of people undergoing bee venom therapy from live stings (as opposed to physician-administered controlled injections of bee venom) experience serious reactions.

In two of the courses which I help teach – Making Money from Honey and Beginner’s Beekeeping, We always show a slide about bee sting therapy. For the beginners’ group, I mention it because many new beekeepers know the health benefits of a jab of bee venom, as seen on YouTube. We try to be sure that they understand the risks involved. For more advanced beekeepers, I mention bee sting therapy as something they may have considered as a source of income (and a way to help people). In both courses, I strongly advise against applying stings on anyone. Intentionally inflicting bee venom so that a client may gain health benefits might be considered “practising medicine without a license.” And you could kill someone.

This leads me to look again at the role of bee-sting therapy as a treatment for Covid-19. Back in June 2020, I wrote about scientists in Wuhan, China, who claimed that beekeepers in the area didn’t get the virus. They claimed that bees had protected the beekeepers:

“In Hubei province, the epicentre of COVID-19 in China, the local beekeepers association conducted a survey of beekeepers. A total of 5115 beekeepers were surveyed from February 23 to March 8, including 723 in Wuhan, the outbreak epicentre of Hubei. None of these beekeepers developed symptoms associated with COVID-19, and their health was totally normal.”

I was skeptical. In fact, I wrote: “I have limited confidence in their study because it has grandiose statements and is a one-off. But it was allowed on the US government’s National Institute of Health website, so maybe it carries some truth. I’ll leave it to you to decide, but I still don’t fully trust it. The paper makes bold claims about the extreme effectiveness of bee stings as protection against Covid-19. In short, it seems too good to be true.”

It looks like I’m not the only one who had doubts about the report from China. Maybe honey bee stings aren’t really working against the Covid virus. A peer-reviewed paper, Beekeepers who tolerate bee stings are not protected against SARS-CoV-2 infections, published six months after the Chinese study, disagreed with the earlier report. In the new study, German researchers contacted the German-beekeeping community requesting information on beekeepers who had been in contact with Covid. Based on Germany’s population (82 million), and the percent who are beekeepers (0.2%), along with the number of people exposed to the corona virus during the study period, the researchers calculate that about 540 beekeepers in Germany were in direct contact with the virus. They managed to find 234 of them. Of those 234, 2 died and 45 became quite sick from the virus. Remember, the Chinese scientists claimed that out of 5115 Wuhan-area beekeepers, none died nor became ill. The German researchers reject the Chinese findings:

“The study shows that beekeepers are not immune to infections caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Especially, our data do not support the hypothesis that beekeepers are not affected by SARS-CoV-2 due to their exposure to bee stings and the associated immunity. The severity of the disease was not influenced by various variables like how long they had been a beekeeper, total number of bee stings received, number of bee stings received in the year 2020 and potentially allergic reactions to bee stings.”

This doesn’t mean that bee sting therapy has no use in medicine. But it does remind us to be cautious and question what we hear or read. Maybe the German study isn’t perfect, either. However, my blue-pill aversion swings into overdrive whenever anything sounds too good – or any study shows extremely confident numbers, as the Wuhan study did.

Filip Terc apitherapy
Filip Terč, Father of Apitherapy 1844-1917

You may wonder why March 30 is World Apitherapy Day. Today is not only my birthday, but it’s also the birthdate of the most important early promoter of healthy bee stings, Filip Terč, whom you see glaring at you adjacent to this sentence. Terč practiced medicine in Maribor, Slovenia, over a hundred years ago. As a young man, he suffered badly from rheumatoid pain until, at age 22, he was accidentally stung by an defensive mob of irritated honey bees. It changed his life. His pain was gone.

Terč began a serious study of the effects of bee venom therapy. He published the first clinical trials of the therapeutic effects of bee stings in the 1888 publication “Report on the Peculiar Connection between Bee Stings and Rheumatism”. He presented the results of treating 680 patients with the collective application of 39,000 stings. (An average of 60 stings/patient, administered over several months.)  He claimed that 82% experienced a complete cure, 15% had partial recovery, and just 3% had no relief from their rheumatoid condition. Although his work was published over a hundred years ago and his results have not been disputed, the medical profession is still cautious about the link between rheumatism, auto-immune dysfunctions, and some of the elements of bee venom. With immune disorders ranging from multiple sclerosis to allergies on the rise, the use of apitherapy treatments are finally becoming more accepted and generally more widely available. So, with cautious caveats, celebrate World Apitherapy Day. (And send regards to all those beekeepers with birthdays today).

Posted in Apitherapy, Science, Stings | Tagged | 6 Comments

Sylvia: The Red Comet

My brother David, as Otto Plath.

I discovered Sylvia Plath in the ’80s. PBS asked my oldest brother to pose as Sylvia’s father in their documentary of the great American poet. PBS was looking for a man who resembled Sylvia’s father, a German immigrant named Otto Plath. PBS also needed a set that would pass as Otto Plath’s Massachusetts. Finally, they wanted bees that resembled the bumble bees that Dr Plath studied. PBS chose Florida to play Massachusetts and my non-German brother as Otto, the bumble bee scientist who was Sylvia Plath’s father.

Otto Plath was an entomologist, specializing in bumble bees. At home, he kept a few hives of honey bees. Donning a beekeeper’s uniform, my brother comes and goes throughout the documentary, as Otto Plath himself seemed to, in the eyes of young Sylvia. Otto died when Sylvia was eight. This had an indelible effect on her life.

I found the PBS documentary on YouTube. Here is a very short clip that shows my brother, David, as the ephemeral Otto, as Sylvia remembered him.

Watch the series, on YouTube, beginning with the first segment here.  The hour-long documentary is comprised of six short pieces. I hope that you will watch the entire story of a beekeeper’s daughter.

If you haven’t read any of Sylvia Plath’s confessional poetry, please do. It may be difficult for us, during this dismal pandemic, to disappear into the dark world of this brilliant young lady who died on her final suicide attempt, aged just thirty, 58 years ago today. But reading Plath is something we can do in her memory. And it will make us better.

Plath struggled for years with her severe depression. And with her unconventional perspective on the landscape of our lives. And with her sheer  brilliance and talent. A 160-IQ can be hard to focus. Her paintings won awards. Posthumously, she was honoured with a Pulitzer for her poetry. An over-achiever, she had worked as a successful model and had kept a journal from age 11. Near the end of her brief life, she kept honey bee hives in her English garden. Finally, she was mum to her children, Frieda and Nicholas.

The definitive biography of Sylvia Plath was published this fall. Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, by Heather Clark, takes its title from Plath’s poem called “Stings”, which Sylvia Plath wrote from the perspective of a woman who sees herself as a red comet, a bee, flying against an expansive blue sky. The woman shows bravery – handling the bees barehanded, just as the male bee-seller who had brought her the hive. Then, she begins worrying about the hive, wondering if it even has a queen. All, of course, symbolizes the real Sylvia Plath, worried, weak, strong, destined. Heather Clark’s 1,114-page biography, Red Comet, was celebrated at its October release:

“The full, complex scope of poet Sylvia Plath’s life and writing is given a bracingly thought-provoking reexamination in this massive—and massively absorbing—biography.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“Mesmerizing . . . Comprehensive . . . Stuffed with heretofore untold anecdotes that illuminate or extend our understanding of Plath’s life . . . Clark is a felicitous writer and a discerning critic of Plath’s poetry . . . There is no denying the book’s intellectual power and, just as important, its sheer readability.” —Daphne Merkin, The New York Times

“One of the most beautiful biographies I’ve ever read.” —Glennon Doyle

“Revelatory . . . Plath’s struggles with depression and her marriage to Ted Hughes emerge in complex detail, but Clark does not let Plath’s suicide define her artistic achievement, arguing with refreshing rigor for her significance to modern letters. The result is a new understanding and appreciation of an innovative, uncompromising poetic voice.” —The New Yorker

Several of Sylvia Plath’s signature poems are about her father, bees, and beekeepers. Here’s one of my favourites.

                        The Bee Meeting, by Sylvia Plath

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers—
The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.
In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,
And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?
They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.

I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?
Yes, here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock,
Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees.
Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice.
Thev will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear.

Which is the rector now, is it that man in black?
Which is the midwife, is that her blue coat?
Everybody is nodding a square black head, they are knights in visors,
Breastplates of cheesecloth knotted under the armpits.
Their smiles and their voices are changing. I am led through a beanfield.

Strips of tinfoil winking like people,
Feather dusters fanning their hands in a sea of bean flowers,
Creamy bean flowers with black eyes and leaves like bored hearts.
Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string?
No, no, it is scarlet flowers that will one day be edible.

Now they are giving me a fashionable white straw Italian hat
And a black veil that molds to my face, they are making me one of them.
They are leading me to the shorn grove, the circle of hives.
Is it the hawthorn that smells so sick?
The barren body of hawthorn, etherizing its children.

Is it some operation that is taking place?
It is the surgeon my neighbors are waiting for,
This apparition in a green helmet,
Shining gloves and white suit.
Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?

I cannot run, I am rooted, and the gorse hurts me
With its yellow purses, its spiky armory.
I could not run without having to run forever.
The white hive is snug as a virgin,
Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.

Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove.
The mind of the hive thinks this is the end of everything.
Here they come, the outriders, on their hysterical elastics.
If I stand very still, they will think I am cow-parsley,
A gullible head untouched by their animosity,

Not even nodding, a personage in a hedgerow.
The villagers open the chambers, they are hunting the queen.
Is she hiding, is she eating honey? She is very clever.
She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and she knows it.
While in their fingerjoint cells the new virgins

Dream of a duel they will win inevitably,
A curtain of wax dividing them from the bride flight,
The upflight of the murderess into a heaven that loves her.
The villagers are moving the virgins, there will be no killing.
The old queen does not show herself, is she so ungrateful?

I am exhausted, I am exhausted—
Pillar of white in a blackout of knives.
I am the magician’s girl who does not flinch.
The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands.
Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold.

Posted in Books, Culture, or lack thereof, Movies, People, Personal | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A rare seed guy

You know how the mention of a name from long ago can bring back memories that you thought had slipped away forever? I had that experience recently. Browsing American Bee Journal, this ad caught my eye. It was from the Ernst Seeds Company.  That was a name from my childhood. I went to the company’s website: “Ernst Conservation Seeds: hundreds of species of native and naturalized seeds.” This Pennsylvania-based company carries dozens of flowering plants – from Achillea millefolium (Common Yarrow) to Astragalus canadensis (Canadian Milkvetch), and that’s just the letter “A”! The rest of the alphabet lists hundreds more species. Ernst specializes in wetland rehab species, but carries native wildflowers to fit most environments and feed most native bees. (Though, I have to say, I was disappointed when I didn’t find Chamaenerion angustifolium, aka fireweed. Hopefully, they will fix that.)

Shortly after seeing the ABJ advertisement, I heard a Beekeeping Today Podcast, featuring Calvin Ernst, a founder of Ernst Seeds. In a charming interview, Kirsten Traynor  talked with Calvin Ernst about Ernst’s Pennsylvania roots. Then I recalled our connection. In the late 1960s, when Calvin Ernst was just starting to raise seeds, he contacted my father, a western Pennsylvania beekeeper.  I was a child, hopping out of the passenger side of my father’s big International truck, clutching a smoker. It would be my job to smoke the migrating pollinators. A few years later, I would be allowed to drop the hives along the edge of Calvin Ernst’s purple crownvetch fields myself. Our family was paid $3/hive at the time, the going rate for off-season pollination.

Crownvetch was “discovered” by my first-ever boss, George Sleesman, the director of Pennsylvania Plant Services. Sometime in the 1950s, the state Department of Transportation asked Sleesman to find a plant that might be a good, attractive, low-management creeper to prevent erosion on the deep roadway cuts through the Appalachians. Sleesman, the state’s chief apiary inspector, scoured the Pennsylvania hills for sturdy plants that could hold eroding road embankments in place. Crownvetch caught his eye.

A few years after crownvetch had been chosen as the best conservation groundcover, the Department of Transportation looked for someone to grow the seed. Calvin Ernst was studying at nearby Penn State University. Calvin and his brother Luther decided to take up the challenge of growing crownvetch for seed production. In a couple of years, they had 180 acres of crownvetch and hired our bees to pollinate his fields.

Crownvetch is still sometimes planted, but we know now that it is not native to North America. When Sleesman found it, it had already turned wild in Pennsylvania. Had we known that it was non-native, it probably would have been selected anyway at that time. More recently, we have begun to recognize the many advantages of native plants. (I’ll come back to the pros and cons of native vs non-native in a later post.) Early on, Calvin Ernst became a native-plant enthusiast. By 1990, he learned to grow a wide range of native plant species. Ernst Conservation Seeds now offers hundreds of native plants in its catalogue. Although the company started with crownvetch, today Ernst Seeds can suggest native plants to do the job of erosion control and reclamation.

If you have a few minutes, listen to Kirsten Traynor and Calvin Ernst as they discuss the growth of interest in native plants and Ernst’s role in making such seeds available. You can download the show (Season 3, Episode 26) from your favourite podcast provider, or hear it on the net at Beekeeping Today. I think you’ll enjoy the program.

Posted in Ecology, Honey Plants, People, Personal, Pollination | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

The hills were alive with the sound of buzzing

The real Maria

You know the story of Sister Maria, the governess for Georg von Trapp’s mess of singing angels. Today, January 26, 2021, would have been her 116th birthday. Maria Augusta von Trapp, or Baroness von Trapp, was stepmother seven of the Trapp Family Singers. She wrote The Story of the Trapp Family Singers from her Vermont farm in 1949. The book became the musical and the musical became the film The Sound of Music.

I like the sound of the Sound of Music.  After fleeing German-annexed Austria on the eve of the second world war, Maria and her family settled in the United States on a farm in Vermont. She was encouraged to take up beekeeping by her husband, Georg. Yes, the singing nun became a singing beekeeper.

Maria von Trapp wrote The Story of the Trapp Family Singers to promote the family’s music business. Her original story seems to have been mostly accurate. Embellishments were added by Hollywood.  Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the songs we love, greatly enhancing the award-winning (Five Oscars!) 1965 movie. For most of us, the movie is our only link to the von Trapps.

I was curious about what happened to the singing family, so I researched their exile. I was surprised to learn that when they escaped the Nazis, they took a train to Italy (the movie has them walking into Switzerland). Then they toured around Europe as a singing troupe, went to America, returned to Sweden to sing, then ended up back at their estate in Austria for a few months. Sixty-year-old Georg persistently refused to serve in Hitler’s navy, so they finally left permanently (again by train). By the way, Baron von Trapp was a decorated naval officer commanding a fleet of submarines during the first world war. He sunk a dozen Allied (British and French) war ships and some cargo freighters.

How does an Austrian become a naval officer? Austria is landlocked, far from the ocean.  Georg was actually born in Croatia, not Austria. Croatia has a thousand miles of bays, coves, and seaside. Much earlier, the Austrians had taken over Croatia and treated it as their colony. Austrians built forts and navy bases along the Croatian coast.  Georg’s father was an Austrian officer, deployed in Croatia when Georg was born there. Although Georg von Trapp rightly refused to live under the German flag in Austria, he grew up in a foreign country occupied by Austria. (Why does everyone want to occupy someplace else?)

Though not born in Austria, Baron Georg von Trapp was a real Austrian patriot. Before Germany took over Austria, Hitler’s people tried to destroy the banks in Vienna. One of Georg von Trapp’s friends was a banker. Georg placed his family’s vast wealth into the Austrian bank to try to keep it afloat. It sank, the von Trapps were broke, and took to earning grocery money through singing gigs.

Maria von Trapp teaching Julie Andrews how yodel like a beekeeper:

I used to be bothered when I learned that a popular book or movie (based on a true story) wasn’t faithful to the true story. Then I began to realize that art doesn’t have to imitate life. It helped when I remembered that my favourite artist, van Gogh, wasn’t creating documentaries in the cornfield or teaching astronomy on starry nights. I can live with that. The beauty is in the interpretation.  So, it doesn’t matter that the von Trapps lived a slightly different story than the movie’s musical family lived.  The only important thing is that Sister Maria moved to Vermont and became a beekeeper.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, History, Movies, People | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Propolis vs Covid

Bernie wears his Covid mask while I prepare to open my hive.

I think propolis is the most underrated product of the hive. Bee stings can be a wonderful therapy for autoimmune disorders while honey and pollen are wholesome foods with strong and vocal advocates. Meanwhile, I think that royal jelly is much over-rated – it does not extend human longevity and it can only be produced by murdering future queens.

The sticky stuff ringing the hive cover’s feeding hole is propolis. I had a small cover over the drilled-out hole and bees glued it in place.

That leaves propolis, the underrated sibling of hive products. I have seen it cure mouth sores, skin disorders, and reduce the annoyances of colds.

Honey bees gather propolis resin from the buds of poplars and coniferous trees. Honey bees gather the tacky stuff to seal cracks and holes in their hive, especially in preparation for winter. Greeks named it ‘propolis’ as they noticed that it was found ‘pro’ (before) a ‘polis’ (city) of bees. But bees may also smear a thin veneer of propolis over foreign intruders inside the hive. If, or example, a grasshopper enters the hive, dies, and can’t be removed, bees entomb the dead body in  propolis, which limits the spread of bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Propolis has strong antibiotic properties, so it’s not surprising that scientists have tested its efficacy against Covid-19. A January 2021 paper – not yet peer-reviewed –  reports the results of treating three randomized groups of 120 hospitalized patients: using a placebo, a 400-mg/day dose, and an 800-mg dose/day of propolis. There was little difference between the propolis dosage levels tested, but both significantly outperformed the placebo. People treated with propolis recovered and left the hospital several days earlier. Here’s the paper’s abstract, published January 8, 2021:

Among candidate treatment options for COVID-19, propolis, produced by honey bees from bioactive plant exudates, has shown potential against viral targets and has demonstrated immunoregulatory properties. We conducted a randomized, controlled, open-label, single center trial, with a standardized propolis product (EPP-AF) on hospitalized adult COVID-19 patients.

Patients received standard care plus propolis at an oral dose of 400mg/day (n=40) or 800mg/day (n=42) for seven days, or standard care alone (n=42). Standard care included all necessary interventions, as determined by the attending physician. The primary end point was the time to clinical improvement defined as the length of hospital stay or oxygen therapy dependency. Secondary outcomes included acute kidney injury and need for intensive care or vasoactive drugs.

Time in the hospital after intervention was significantly shortened in both propolis groups compared to the controls; median 7 days with 400mg/day and 6 days with 800mg/day, versus 12 days for standard care alone. Propolis did not significantly affect the need for oxygen supplementation. With the higher dose, significantly fewer patients developed acute kidney injury than in the controls (2 versus 10 of 42 patients). Propolis as an adjunct treatment was safe and reduced hospitalization time. The registration number for this clinical trial is: NCT04480593 (20/07/2020).

Although the paper is not peer reviewed, it’s worth a view and may be solid. One of the authors is David De Jong, whom I respect. The paper will likely be peer-reviewed, but that could take months. Promulgating potential treatments now seems reasonable – especially when the curative agent has been used for generations to reduce cold and flu effects.

Posted in Apitherapy, Hive Products, Science | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

Better Hives: Dzierzon’s Boxes

Jan Dzierzon, 1901, age 90.

Here in North America, we believe that modern beekeeping began with Langstroth, who discovered bee-space and movable frames. But Europeans are celebrating the Polish beekeeper, Johannes Dzierzon, for the same accomplishments. On the continent, it’s Dzierzon, Dzierzon, Dzierzon, everywhere you go. Especially today, on Dzierzon’s 210th birthday.

Johannes Dzierzon was from a Polish family in Silesia. Trained in theology, he combined research and practical work in beekeeping with his duties as a Roman Catholic priest, before being compulsorily retired by the Church and eventually excommunicated. Luckily, it was the 1800s – he wasn’t executed for his lack of conformity. More on that in a moment.

Dzierzon frames, c 1840

During his 50 years as a priest, Dzierzon oversaw a rural parish where he spent much of his time beekeeping. In 1838, he devised the first practical movable-comb beehive, which allowed manipulation of individual honey combs without destroying the structure of the hive. But three years before that, at age 24 (!) Father Johannes Dzierzon flipped biology upside down by discovering that some creatures (male honey bees) develop from unfertilized eggs. It took scientists a few years to accept this remarkable finding.

The American entomologist Everett Phillips wrote about Dzierzon’s discovery of parthenogenesis in the 1903 72-page Review of Parthenogenesis:

The parthenogenetic development of the male eggs of the bee, Apis mellifica, was first observed by Johannes Dzierzon, a priest at Karlsmarkt, Germany. He was a bee-keeper of many years’ experience and a good observer. The theory was first announced in the Eichstadt Bienenzeitung in I845, and in 1852 was published in book form. His arguments were briefly as follows:

(1) A queen to be of any value must be fertilized by a drone. This takes place on the wing, high in the air. Drone eggs are not fertilized, but worker and queen eggs always are. The supply of semen is enough for a lifetime. No clipped queen can be fertilized, as copulation never takes place in the hive. Dzierzon wrote, “The power of the fertile queen, accordingly, to lay worker or drone eggs at pleasure is rendered very easy of explanation by the fact that the drone eggs require no impregnation, but bring the germ of life with them out of the ovary; whilst otherwise it would be inexplicable and incredible. Thus the queen has it in her power to deposit an egg just as it comes from the ovary, and as the fecundated mothers lay it; or by the action of the seminal receptacle, past which it must glide, to invest it with a higher degree, a higher potency, of fertility and awaken in it the germ of a more perfect being, namely a queen or a worker bee.”
(2) The most important point in the theory is that “All eggs which come to maturity in the two ovaries of the queen bee are only of one and the same kind, which when they are laid without coming in contact with the male semen become developed into male bees, but on the contrary when they are fertilized by male semen produce female bees.”

This strikes at the root of and completely abolishes the time-honored physiological law that an egg which is to be developed into a male or female individual must always be fertilized by male semen.” Dzierzon refers to Riem, a French naturalist, for the fact that laying workers lay only drone eggs. In I854 Dzierzon wrote: “If the drone egg does not require fertilization, Italian mothers must always produce Italian drones and German mothers, German drones, even when they have been fertilized by drones of another race.”

Dzierzon even had an explanation for the way fertilized eggs differentiate as worker or queen. He discovered that it was due to early-development nutrition, i.e., royal jelly. I am in awe of the brilliance of early scientists such as Dzierzon who made such discoveries without any genetic tools, before Mendel and others began unravelling genetics.

None of Dzierzon’s work or discoveries lessens the importance of Langstroth’s work. The American Reverend Langstroth independently created a cheap practical hive about 20 years after Dzierzon’s efficient movable-frame hive. Both wrote a great deal about practical beekeeping and both worked for their respective churches. Dzierzon, a Pole who attended a Protestant grammar school before entering the priesthood, was excommunicated at around age 60 when his years of radical politicking and his disagreement with papal infallibility finally caught up with him. He left his parish, and moved to a hamlet in his childhood province.  Of his new home, he wrote:

In every direction, one has a broad and pleasant view, and I am pretty happy here, despite the isolation, as I am always close to my beloved bees — which, if one’s soul be receptive to the works of the Almighty and the wonders of nature, can transform even a desert into a paradise.

During his retirement years in Silesia, Dzierzon continued researching and publishing. (He wrote 800 papers and 26 books in his lifetime.) After thirty years of excommunication, the infallible pope had died and Dzierzon reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church. He died at age 95, probably holding a hivetool.

My copy of Dzierzon’s most popular English translation. I flip through this book every January 16.

Posted in Beekeeping, History, Hives and Combs, People | Tagged , | 6 Comments


I was one of the first Facebook users on my block. I’m not usually an “early adapter” – I let others struggle with beta versions, then I move in when the system is actually working. But I heard about Facebook almost 15 years ago and quickly saw how easily I could meet beekeepers around the world. I learned a lot from them, visited some, and gained some new perspectives. This led to lasting friendships (and business) with Chilean and Hungarian beekeepers, and connections to inspiring folks like Lesli Sagan, who started Avital’s Apiaries (see “computer guru starts bee-driven business” in the Ithacan newspaper).

Facebook also helped me connect with family. With almost a dozen siblings and a hundred cousins, nephews, nieces, and misfits, there was always something interesting going on. I shared photos of my kids’ brilliant concertos and my backwoods road trips. It seemed pretty good.

I think my first Facebook scare was when I wrote to a high school friend through Facebook’s Messenger (an email service). I told her that I was going to take a few extra days in Holland and hopefully, finally, see some work by van Gogh – an artist whom I adored since childhood. I posted the private note to her, then went back to my Facebook home page where ads greeted me for tickets to the van Gogh museum and lodging in Amsterdam. Facebook had read my Messenger mail. Creepy.

I cut back on my Facebooking. I stopped posting so many personal photos. But I kept my ‘business’ page, a place where I announced new bee blog posts (like the one you are reading right now). Then, some months ago, I placed a short piece with a link from Facebook to here. Facebook’s security forces blocked me, saying that the site I was linking to “did not meet community standards.” A beekeeping site? Not meeting community standards? There was no recourse. The badbeekeeping blog was banned from Facebook. I wrote to them, but never got an answer. I tried to post more pieces with links to this blog but they were all banned as “not meeting community standards”. Was the problem all those photos of scantily-clad bees? They wouldn’t tell me. Meanwhile, disgusting links to alt-news, anti-science, pro-fascist and antifa sites were everywhere. I saw some very ugly stuff posted by some of my Facebook  ‘friends’ – but my bees were still banned.

Then suddenly, a few weeks ago, Facebook lifted the ban against my bee blog. No explanation, no apologies. This certainly is not a big deal on the worldwide scheme of dank despair – except for what it reveals about monopolies, privacy, and the pursuit of wealth. I still use Facebook, but I rarely publish family stuff there anymore. I’m exploring alternatives, such as Reddit which is a bit wild and reckless, but entertaining and occasionally informative.  I’ve been tweeting for 10 years. Twitter has its use, and is especially good for announcements.  I’m using the WordPress blogging platform and I have a couple of private web servers. But should I explore other venues to replace Facebook? Am I missing anything?

Posted in Outreach, Personal, Strange, Odd Stuff | 22 Comments