Okay, I’ll admit it.
I have a soft spot for honey bees.
Today I fished out some thoroughly drenched honey bees from our swimming pool.
Indeed, the pool looked like an Olympic meet for Apis mellifera.
It appears that while the bees were foraging on the nearby cherry laurel blossoms, they tumbled into the pool. That's when I saw them--struggling--and netted them.
I could say “They looked like drowned rats,” but I’m not and they didn't. They looked like very much like drowned honey bees.
I took a plastic spoon, dipped it into a jar of starthistle honey and offered it to them. They sipped it, gathered a quick burst of energy, and off they buzzed.
I suspect they returned to their hives. Maybe tomorrow they'll be back foraging in the cherry laurels, but hopefully, they won't be back in the pool, and will warn their sisters of the danger through head butts.
Saving a few bees, one bee at a time, is a little like saving starfish on the beach. Author Loren Eiseley inspired others with this story:
“While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, stagnant in my work, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. there were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, 'It makes a difference for this one.' I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.”
― Loren Eiseley
Today the honey bees were starfish.
The neonicotinoid pesticides are creating quite a buzz in the bee world.
Research published this week in the Science journal zeroed in on the effects of the neonics on honey bees and bumble bees.
Science writer Eric Stokstad, in his news analysis headlined "The Field Research on Bees Raises Concern About Low-Dose Pesticides," indicated that, bottom line, more research on pesticide testing and regulation is needed.
"Five years ago, bees made headlines when a mysterious condition called colony collapse disorder decimated honey bee colonies in parts of the United States," Stokstad wrote. "Now bees are poised to be in the news again, this time because of evidence that systemic insecticides, a common way to protect crops, indirectly harm these important pollinators. Two field studies reported online this week in Science document problems. In bumble bees, exposure to one such chemical leads to a dramatic loss of queens and could help explain the insects' decline. In honey bees, another insecticide interferes with the foragers' ability to find their way back to the hive. Researchers say these findings are cause for concern and will increase pressure to improve pesticide testing and regulation."
Stokstad was referring to these two research articles published in Science:
1. Neonicotinoid Pesticide Reduces Bumble Bee Colony Growth and Queen Production
2. A Common Pesticide Decreases Foraging Success and Survival in Honey Bees
Meanwhile, Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology is fielding calls about the research.
On Wednesday, Mussen talked to science writer Eryn Brown of the Los Angeles Times.
Here's her quote from her news story:
“There are a whole lot of things that stress the honeybees,” said Eric Mussen, a honeybee specialist at the University of California, Davis. “You can’t point your finger at one thing and say, ‘That is the problem.’ ”
Mussen cautioned against singling out neonicotinoids when other pesticides could have similar effects on bees. Besides, he said, many insects have built up immunity to neonicotinoids, so farmers are likely to switch to different pesticides anyway.
As Mussen has been saying all along, the declining bee population is due to a number of factors: pests, pesticides, parasites, diseases, malnutrition and stress.
So, there's no silver bullet--no major culprit--that's causing the declining bee population. It's a multitude of factors. Scientists continue to investigate them all.
Today at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis, we borrowed a plastic spoon and offered a taste of honey to newly emerged honey bees.
It was their sisters' making and now it was theirs. And soon, they will be making their own.
Norman Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis and author of the newly published book, Honey Bee Hobbyist, the Care and Keeping of Bees, writes that "When all conditions are ideal (good weather, long days, intense nectar secretion and very populous colonies), bees can collect enormous quantities of nectar--perhaps around 6 pounds or more in one day--yielding around 2 to 3 pounds of honey per day."
Still, we often hear folks complain about humans stealing honey from the hives.
"Bees consume most of the honey they make," writes Gary, who has kept bees for more than six decades and continues his work as a professional bee wrangler. "Honey is primarily food for them and secondarily a treat for us because they produce more than the require for sustenance, which is 200 pounds per colony annually. The extra honey--anything over 200 pounds--is known as 'surplus' honey because it can be harvested without jeopardizing colony survival."
However, hobby beekeepers usually expect to produce around 100 pounds of honey per hive, he says.
That's definitely more than just a taste of honey!
Bee swarms are absolutely fascinating.
Several years ago, when bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey was teaching a queen- rearing class at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, her students received an extra bonus: they witnessed a bee swarm.
Right in front of them, as if on cue, the bees left the entrance of a hive and clustered on a nearby tree branch. That was Lesson No. 1. Cobey and crew quickly captured them and moved the swarm to a vacant hive. That was Lesson No. 2.
Actually, bee swarms aren't that rare on the UC Davis campus. They're just difficult to see because we're usually looking down instead of up.
This week UC Davis employee Suzan Carson alerted us to a bee swarm in the North Hall/Dutton Hall complex. She pointed to a tree branch, about 30 feet off the ground, where, in the deepening shadows, a cluster hung like grapes. "Good eye!" we said.
Today, toting my telephoto lens, I returned to capture an image of the cluster. They were still there, but probably won't be for long. The pending rainstorm may drive them from their temporary home, observed Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology.
Norman Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, explains the ins and outs of swarms in his newly published book, Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees.
"The act of swarming is perhaps the most dramatic event in the lives of honey bees," Gary writes. "Here's how it happens: Egg production increases dramatically in response to warming spring weather as well as an abundance of pollen and nectar from spring flowers. Within a few weeks, the colony population essentially doubles. Multiple queen cells--usually at least six--are constructed in the brood nest. A few days prior to the emergence of a virgin queen, the old queen's ovaries begin to shrink. Egg-laying essentially stops, and she loses enough weight to permit flight for the first time since her mating flight."
So basically there's "no room in the inn" for the burgeoning population. The colony divides. The swarm usually heads for a nearby tree to cluster on a branch while the scouts search for a new--and appropriate--home.
Meanwhile, back at the old hive, new queens are emerging and what happens next isn't pretty. "Rival queens engage in fierce stinging attacks until only one virgin queen remains," Gary writes.
About a week later, the victorious queen will depart on her mating flight to a drone congregation area, mate with 12 to 25 or so drones, and then return to the hive to lay eggs--as many as 2000 a day during the peak season.
The queen will never leave the hive again...
Unless, on a warm spring day...
The story was not about a red light district or "Ladies of the Night" or even linked to humans.
It was about honey bee queens. "Ladies of the Day," if you will.
The story that raised a few eyebrows involved research titled "Characterization of the Active Microbiotas Associated with Honey Bees Reveals Healthier and Broader Communities when Colonies are Genetically Diverse," published March 12 in the PLOs One Journal.
A team headed by researchers at Wellesley (Mass.) College found that "Colonies with genetically diverse populations of workers, a result of the highly promiscuous mating behavior of queens, benefited from greater microbial diversity, reduced pathogen loads, and increased abundance of putatively helpful bacteria, particularly species from the potentially probiotic genus Bifidobacterium."
Scientists and beekeepers know that a virgin queen, on her maiden flight, will mate with 12 to 25 or more drones gathered in the drone congregration area. It's not immoral; it's just what happens.
The drones mate and then they die. All of them. Or as Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology tells bee associations: "They die happy, with a smile on their face."
The queen returns to her hive and begins laying eggs, up to 2000 a day in peak season. She'll have enough sperm for the rest of her life, which is usually around two to three years.
This scientific research in the PLoS One Journal is important in that it has led to increased interest in microbial communities and hope for the declining bee population.
Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of UC Davis and Washington State University has advocated genetic bee diversity for years.
"The primary perceived problem for beekeepers is a diminished quality of queens, and recent survey results from beekeeping operations in the U.S confirm this view," she and her colleagues write in a chapter of the newly published Honey Bee Colony Health: Challenges and Sustainable Solutions.
Beekeepers have long complained of "poor queens."
Cobey and co-chapter authors Walter "Steve" Sheppard of WSU and Dave Tarpy of North Carolina State University write: "The poor queens category encompasses many different problems but most of these reports document premature supersedure (queen replacement), inconsistent brood patterns, early drone laying (indicative of sperm depletion), and failed requeening as indicative of low queen quality."
So the next time you see a headline screaming "immoral" honey bee queens, it was probably written by someone who has no clue about honey bee reproduction.
Or someone trying to be funny...