The news that flashed across the Internet today indicates there's a new threat to honey bees, a parasitic phorid fly.
UC San Francisco researchers, in an article published today in the Public Library of Science (PLoS One), wrote in their abstract: "Honey bee colonies are subject to numerous pathogens and parasites. Interaction among multiple pathogens and parasites is the proposed cause for Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a syndrome characterized by worker bees abandoning their hive. Here we provide the first documentation that the phorid fly Apocephalus borealis, previously known to parasitize bumble bees, also infects and eventually kills honey bees and may pose an emerging threat to North American apiculture. Parasitized honey bees show hive abandonment behavior, leaving their hives at night and dying shortly thereafter."
Should beekeepers be worried? Should they lose any sleep over this?
Noted honey bee expert, Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, says "no"--at least not on the level of fly parasitism actually causing CCD or great losses.
Mussen, who was not involved in the study, says that the scientific paper "explains why some infested, honey bee adults leave the colony at night and are not likely to come back. The percent infestation level is not high enough to cause a CCD loss by itself."
Mussen attributes CCD to a suppressed immune system, probably caused by a combination of factors such as pests, parasites, pesticides, diseases, malnutrition, and stress. The fly does not appear to be a dominant factor.
However, as Mussen told Erik Stokstad in today's Science article,"Parasitic Fly Dooms Bees to Death by Maggots: "Anything that further stresses the bee population and increases bee losses can contribute to CCD."
The key word is "contribute." The fly may be "contributing" to the loss of adult bees from colonies, but that is probably also happening in colonies that are NOT collapsing, Mussen points out.
"How likely is it that colonies will succumb to this new threat of fly infestations?" we asked Mussen today after a host of articles appeared on the Internet.
Indeed, some news reports describe the infected bee as a "zombie bee."
"If the colony is shrinking abnormally, the bees often can re-establish the normal size by rearing 'extra' brood," Mussen told us. "However, depending upon the inherent genetic abilities of a specific colony to tolerate fly parasitism, some colonies might be prone to developing parasite levels that are overwhelming, and actually succumb to the infestations."
Honey bees, Mussen said, have "an amazing ability to make up for" unanticipated losses--like exposures to bee-toxic agrichemicals in the fields--to the adult population by rearing more brood than would be expected at that time of the year to return to normal populations size.
Mussen will discuss threats to the honey bee when he delivers the keynote speech, "Never Expect 'Business as Usual'" at the 43rd annual American Honey Producers' Association Convention, set Jan. 4-8 in Phoenix, Ariz.
Bottom line: The current U.S. environment seems to be very stressful to honey bees, with or without the parasitic florid fly.
This fly appears to be another ointment in a bee's ill health.
When California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) bloom and honey bees battle over the blossoms, can spring be far behind?
No, it's just California's pleasant weather. The California poppy, the state flower, usually blooms from February to September, but sometimes in a warm, sheltered area, you'll find it blooming in the dead of winter--and honey bees foraging among the blossoms.
Such is the case over on Garrod Drive by the UC Davis Arboretum Teaching Nursery. The asphalt from the parking lot generates quite a big of heat--and coupled with the sun, that's plenty of warmth for golden poppies to flourish.
It's a sight to bee-hold when Apis mellifera and Eschscholzia californica meet in December.
You won't find anyone more passionate about building a better bee than bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, who holds dual appointments at the University of California, Davis and Washington State University.
For one thing, her spring workshops on queen bee rearing and instrumental insemination at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis are already filled and there's a waiting list. Those on the waiting list--or at least some of them--are expected to register for her Washington state summer classes.
Those should fill up fast, too.
Cobey and her work are mentioned today in a Washington Post article, "In search of a better bee."
A key enemy of honey bees is the varroa mite, a parasitic critter that feeds on bee brood. Sometimes you'll even see it clinging to a foraging adult.
Cobey seeks to improve her stock. This includes building a better hygienic bee that can remove the varroa mites from the cells and the brood.
It's not an easy task.
"As vital as the hygienic bee is, the breeder must preserve desirable traits--a reluctance to sting or swarm, for example, as well as genetic diversity in a hedge against future diseases or pests," wrote Washington Post reporter Adrian Higgins.
"That's why gains are so slow," Cobey told her in the news story. "I would say we are just in the infancy of bee breeding."
Higgins wrote that Cobey is one of only a handful in the country skilled at artificially inseminating "virgin queens from known drone stock."
Why artificial insemination? When a virgin queen bee mates with drones in the drone congregation area (she mates in flight with a 12 to 20 drones or more), the breeding stock can't be controlled.
With queen bee insemination, it can be.
That's one of the reasons why Cobey's workshops draw students from throughout the world, and why they fill up fast.
The temperature on the UC Davis campus stood solidly at 56 degrees this afternoon.
The less-than-ideal weather didn't seem to deter several Italian honey bees from foraging in a flower bed behind the Laboratory Sciences Building on the central campus.
They took a liking to a yellow Senecio, from the Asteraceae (daisy family), and went right to work, despite it being the dead of winter.
In somewhat slow motion (it was cold!) they foraged among the long-legged flowers, adding a burst of sunshine and a muted buzz to the winter scene.
It was 56 degrees and they were flying. Foragers usually begin flying around 50 to 55 degrees.
It won't be long until the almonds bloom. Well, mid-February is not that long!
What a remarkable project a biologist launched in Kenya involving honey bees.
It all began with farmers complaining that migratory elephants were raiding their crops and destroying their livelihood. What to do? How do you conserve the elephants and protect the crops at the same time?
Knowing that elephants dislike being around honey bees, biologist Lucy King came up with a clever idea: she installed bee hive fences around 17 farms in a two-year pilot project aimed at preventing the elephants' entry, according to an article in Discovery magazine. She placed the hives 10 meters apart and then connected them with wire.
When the elephants tried to push their way through the fence, the jostled bees, defending their hives, pushed back by stinging them. The elephant scattered and most--93 percent--never returned.
Can you say "Memory like an elephant?"
Now the farmers in Kenya cannot only protect their crops from the pachyderms but there's the added bonus of a second income: honey!
We wouldn't be surprised if this little experiment is tried elsewhere.
During Prohibition, bootleggers reportedly placed bee hives inside their liquor trucks to disguise their cargo and ward off inspection.
The bee fence could be the new "no trespassing" sign, the new "caution" tape, the new security guards.
Pomegranate growers could string a beehive fence around their fields to deter thieves. They could replace their signs, "No Trespassing; Violators Will Be Prosecuted" with "No Trespassing; Violators Will Be Stung." Banks owning foreclosed homes could fence off their yards with bee hives. Prisons could increase their security with a line of bee fences.
Problem is, though, one percent of the population is allergic to bees and if stung, they could go into anaphylactic shock.
And folks would perceive bees the wrong way--they'd forget about their pollination services and think only of insects that sting.
Then, too, some unethical folks would steal the hives, as they do during almond season.
But hey, it worked for the elephants!