Sue Cobey is world renowned for her work in trying "to build a better bee." With colleagues, she collects drone semen throughout Europe and deposits it in Washington State University's honey bee germplasm repository, aka "the world's first bee sperm bank." Cobey works closely with entomologist Steve Sheppard, professor and chair of the WSU Department of Entomology.
Cobey is renowned, too, for teaching courses on queen bee insemination and queen bee-rearing courses. She draws students from all over the world, and there's always, always, a waiting list.
We first met Sue in May 2007 when she began managing the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis (she's now based at WSU).
You won't find anyone, anywhere, more passionate about honey bees or the need for diversity. Or the need to protect them. In October 2010, she told us that her overall goal "is to improve colony health to supply the critical and demanding need for pollination of the nation's agricultural crops."
Reporter Joel Millman of the Wall Street Journal successfully captures Cobey's passion.
Cobey talks about queen bee insemination, why bees are in trouble, and why the United States needs to unplug the genetic bottleneck. Honey bees, you see, are not natives. European colonists brought them to what is now the United States in 1622. Indeed, honey bees didn't arrive in California until 1853.
Cobey is especially fond of the subspecies, the Carniolans, originating from Slovenia. But she also works with Caucasians from the country of Georgia, and the Italians, the most common bee reared in the United States. To paraphrase Will Rogers, she's never found a bee she didn't like.
We are continually asked if Cobey still offers queen bee insemination classes. Yes, she does, but they're small, private classes. She will offer the classes in July and August. She also plans to teach a queen-rearing class at Mt. Vernon, Wash.. Dates not set. (She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Meanwhile, Cobey is working her hives on Whidbey Island and doing research at WSU. And enjoying every minute of it.
The Queen Bee of the Queen Bees--that she is.
To bee or not to bee?
That was not the question. There was no question. The answer was "yes" before the event began.
When visiting bee scientist Jakub Gabka of Warsaw, Poland, studied at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis last summer with noted bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, she held a bee beard event for the Laidlaw crew.
Gabka struck this pose--which graces the cover of the current edition of American Bee Journal.
How did it feel? It’s heavy, it's hot, and it tickles, he said.
Cobey, now a bee researcher at Washington State University (she also teaches queen bee insemination classes and queen bee rearing classes), loves doing bee beard events.
It’s an educational and entertaining activity best done in the spring when the nectar flow is heavy, when the temperatures are optimum, and when the bees “are fat and happy,” she says.
You do not want to try this at home. Only beekeepers should do this, and with a seasoned bee beard coordinator. Proper knowledge, preparations and training of the bees are crucial. A novice, unaccustomed to being around bees, might freak out. Literally.
“The fact that honey bees are venomous insects with the ability to sting when threatened, must be respected,” Cobey says.
Cobey has organized bee beard venues at a number of places, including Ohio State University’s Rothenbuhler Honey Bee Laboratory and the Laidlaw facility (her former workplaces), and in Washington state, where she and her husband, Tim Lawrence, a county Extension director, now reside. (See her research lecture, "Enhancing Genetic Diversity in the U.S. Honey Bee Gene Pool" on the Lewis County (Wash.) Beekeepers' Association website), along with more bee beard photos.)
Beekeepers are passionate about their fascination with honey bees, Cobey acknowledges. "The ultimate beekeeping experience is getting intimate with bees and literally looking a bee in the eye."
Cobey will be writing a "how to" piece on bee bearding in the near future.
Meanwhile, if a photo is worth a thousand words, what is a photo of thousands of bees on your head worth?
Published by Wicwas Press of Kalamazoo, Mich., it doubles as a university textbook and a "how-to" resource for beekeepers. It's also a great book for those interested in learning more about honey bees and their biology and behavior.
We first met Caron and Connor at a Western Apicultural Society meeting in 2009 in Healdburg, Calif. Caron holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University, and Connor received his doctorate in entomology from Michigan State University. At the time Caron was a professor/Extension entomologist with the University of Delaware. He is now retired and living in Oregon.
Connor's credentials include Extension entomologist at The Ohio State University, president of Genetic Systems, Inc. in Labelle Fla., a bee breeding firm; and owner/operator of Beekeeping Education Service and Wicwas Press. A prolific author, he's published many books and articles.
Both are on the "bee speakers' circuit," so to speak. They know bees!
Their 20-chapter book delves into such topics as sociality, honey bee anatomy, dance language communication, pheromone communication, foraging and bee botany, the honey harvest, pollination, bee mites, and diseases and pests, to name a few.
Yes, the book touches on bee stings. (As an aside, isn't it a shame that when many people think of "honey bees," they think first of "stings," rather than pollination, bee products and amazing superorganism? For beekeepers, stings just come with the territory.)
"Beekeepers often become complacent about bee stings; they are a normal occurrence of keeping bee colonies," Caron/Connor write. "With an increase in the number of stings, beekeepers become less reactive to the stings. They are a fact of life; something to tolerate as a beekeeper."
Caron/Conner not only recommend that you grab the smoker and puff smoke on the sting site but "Withdraw from the open colony and rub or wash the site with water to remove the chemical odor."
How to relive the pain? Personally, I use a meat tenderizer. Write Caron/Connor: "Apply an over-the counter sting relief remedy or a cool compress, ice, mud, or meat tenderizer to provide some relief."
The bee sting photo (taken by yours truly and published in the Caron/Conner book) shows a Carniolan bee owned by bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, stinging Eric Mussen. What you see is the bee's abdominal tissue as it tries to pull away. At the time, we were walking through the apiary at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, and the bee became defensive. "Kathy, get your camera, ready," Mussen said. "The bee's going to sting me."
Usually a bee sting is a clean break.
Speaking of breaks, bee scientists and beekeepers are gearing up for the next Western Apicultural Society meeting, to be held Oct. 16-19 in Santa Fe, N.M.
Mussen, a founder and five-time president of the organization, says the organization was "designed specifically to meet the educational needs of beekeepers from the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming; the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon; and the states of northern Mexico."
Membership, however, is open to all interested persons--beekeepers and non-beekeepers alike.
It’s good to see so many children’s books being published about bees.
One of the latest ones is Buzz About Bees (Fitzhenry & Whiteside) by former elementary school teacher Kari-Lynn Winters, who asked for—and received—one of my photos of beekeeper Brian Fishback of Wilton wearing a bee beard.
Fishback, a former volunteer at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis, is a past president of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers’ Association and spends a lot of time educating people—especially schoolchildren—about bees. He also teaches beekeeping classes.
“From the first moment I opened a hive and held a full frame of brood covered with bees, I was in utopia,” Fishback said of his first encounter with bees in 2008. “Everything came together. In my hand I held the essence of core family values.”
That same year, he and his wife Darla purchased a ranch in Wilton and renamed it the BD Ranch and Apiary. They are their two daughters are pursuing a self-sustaining life. “I catapulted into this way of life, knowing that honey bees would provide us with pollination as well as a natural sweetener,” Fishback recalled.
And the bee beards? It’s an educational and entertaining activity best done in the spring when the nectar flow is heavy, when the temperatures are optimum, and when the bees “are fat and happy,” says noted bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, formerly of UC Davis and now with Washington State University. She has coordinated bee beard activities at Ohio State University, UC Davis and now WSU.
“Don’t try this at home—not without a seasoned bee-beard coordinator who adheres to the necessary preparations and precautions,” Cobey says. “The fact that honey bees are venomous insects with the ability to sting when threatened, must be respected.”
Why bee beards? Beekeepers, she points out, are not only passionate about bees but fascinated with them. Donning a bee beard provides an opportunity to observe bee behavior up, close and personal--to literally "look the bees in the eye."
The beekeepers who participated in Cobey's beard activity last year at the Laidlaw facility agreed that the beards are "heavy, hot and they tickle." After all, we're talking about wearing 10, 000 bees!
As for Winters' new book, it's a colorful, easy-to-read work with lots of interesting facts about honey bees and other bees. It does, however, contain some incorrect information, such as:
- “The swarm can contain tens of thousands of worker bees—all following the queen.” The queen doesn’t lead the swarm, as anyone who has read bee scientist Tom Seeley’s book on The HoneyBee Democracy knows.
- Winters quotes Albert Einstein as saying: “If bees disappeared, humans would have only four years left to live.” Only problem is: Einstein didn’t say that. That’s an urban legend.
- Winters also writes that cell phones may cause interference with a bee's navigational system, which bee scientists have long discounted. She advocates creating a “cell phone-free zone” near the bee hives. “Post signs and ask people not to use cell phones in that area.” We've seen scores of beekeepers answering their cell phones in the apiary or returning phone calls.
Overall, though, this is an interesting book, with catchy chapter titles, such as “”The Whole Ball of Wax” and “Bee-Ing Alone.” We passed it around in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. One bee scientist really liked the “Waggle Dance” poem on page 2. “Pretty good,” he said.
In addition to honey bees, Winters also touches on carpenter bees, mining bees, leafcutter bees and mason bees, which should inspire youngsters to go out and try to find them. She relates the difference between bees and wasps. She offers instruction on how to build a blue orchard bee (BOB) condo or nesting site (which we have in our back yard). There’s a fun game, “Leave Me BEE,” included in her book. And, a great recipe for a honey/lemon gargle.
By the time children finish reading the book, they're likely to (1) want to become an beekeeper (2) want to become a bee researcher or (3) just want to glean more information about bees.
For sure, they'll all appreciate bees more, thanks to this buzz about bees.
Now that's Italian!
The Italian honey bee (below) nectaring on a zinnia at the University of California, Davis, is striking for two reasons: she's as gold as starthistle honey in the sunlight and she's a very young forager.
"That is a pretty young bee to be a forager," said Exension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology. "Look at all that baby hair."
When European colonists introduced honey bees (Apis mellifera) into the Jamestown colony (now Virginia) in 1622, it wasn't the Italian. It was what beekeepers call the "dark bee" subspecies of Northern Europe, Apis mellifera mellifera.
The Italian or Apis mellifera ligustica didn't arrive in America until 1859. "The American beekeeping public was enamored with the newly available yellow and gentle bees," bee breeder-geneticist and co-author Susan Cobey wrote in a chapter of the book, Honey Bee Colony Health: Challenges and Sustainable Solutions. "As a result, Italian-type bees form the basis for most present-day commercial beekeeping stocks in the U.S. Following the arrival and success of honey bees from Italy, U.S. beekeepers developed an interest to try other honey bee subspecies."
Indeed, it took 231 for years for honey bees to arrive in California. Beekeeper Christopher A. Shelton introduced honey bees to the Golden State in 1853, establishing an apiary just north of San Jose. (Check out the bee plaque at the San Jose International Airport.)
Cobey, of UC Davis acclaim, serves as the project leader of the Honey Bee Stock Improvement Program, working with Steve Sheppard, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology, Washington State University, and other scientists.They aim to enhance the genetic diversity of domestic bee stocks through the importation of honey bee germplasm (drone sperm).
Meanwhile, this week over at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, staff research associate/beekeeper Billy Synk (who worked with Cobey at Ohio State University) is extracting honey.
If you look at the backlit honey, it looks just like the young Italian honey bee that Mussen says "is pretty young to be a forager."