We know that honey bees work hard. They forage for food within a four-mile range of their hive. They can fly up to 15 miles per hour, and their wings can beat about 200 times per second, or 12,000 beats per minute. Sometimes they'll visit 50 to 100 flowers on a collection trip. No wonder worker bees live only four to six weeks during their peak season. They literally work themselves to death.
Matan Shelomi, doctoral candidate in entomology at the University of California, Davis, responded. He answers scores of questions on Quora. (He won a Shorty award for his answer to "If you injure a bug, should you kill it or let it live?”).
Shelomi took the bee question to heart.
"Nope," he wrote. "No blood vessels."
"A heart attack is when fatty deposits, clots, etc. block the coronary artery that leads to the heart muscle. Blood flow to the heart muscle itself (as opposed to the pumping chambers) stops, so the muscle dies and the heart stops beating. So to have a heart attack, you need a heart and arteries."
"Insects have a heart, sometimes, but no arteries or veins. They have an open circulatory system: all their organs just float in a goo called 'hemolymph' that is a combination of lymph and blood. Some insects, bees included, have a heart and an aorta (the vessel leading out of the heart) that pumps the blood and gives it some semblance of direction (from the back of the insect to the front), but beyond that there is no circulatory system. The heart floats in the hemolymph along with everything else. No way to stop it from receiving blood flow, because it's surrounded by it.
"Furthermore, unlike human blood, insect blood doesn't carry oxygen. They have a special network of tubes called trachea that provide oxygen: think of it having air vessels go from your lungs all throughout your body instead of blood vessels. Conceivably the trachea leading to an insect heart could all get blocked by something from the outside, which would be the closest thing to a 'heart attack' in an insect, but there's no record of that happening and its unlikely anyway. So, nope, no insect can have a heart attack. Scare them to your heart's content."
So, this month being "American Heart Month" and all, we don't have to worry about honey bees having heart attacks. All drones (male bees), however, pay the ultimate price when they mate with a queen. During the in-flight mating process, parts of the male anatomy are ripped out and they die.
Why is that in a honey bee colony, workers can carry pollen but not the queen?
Well, scientists from Michigan State University and Wayne State University have discovered the answer.
They've isolated the gene that's responsible for leg and wing development, according to a news brief in Entomology Today, published by the Entomological Society of America (ESA). The 7000-member ESA, by the way, is headed by president Frank Zalom, integrated pest management specialist and professor of entomology at UC Davis.
The scientists' bee research is published in the current edition of Biology Letters.
“This gene is critical in making the hind legs of workers distinct so they have the physical features necessary to carry pollen,” said MSU entomologist Zachary Huang. “Other studies have shed some light on this gene's role in this realm, but our team examined in great detail how the modifications take place.”
"The gene in question is Ultrabithorax, or Ubx. Specifically, the gene allows workers to develop a smooth spot on their hind legs that hosts their pollen baskets. On another part of their legs, the gene promotes the formation of 11 neatly spaced bristles, a section known as the 'pollen comb.' The gene also promotes the development of a pollen press, a protrusion also found on hind legs, that helps pack and transport pollen back to the hive."
What the research team did was to isolate and silence Ubx, the target gene. "This made the pollen baskets, specialized leg features used to collect and transport pollen, completely disappear," Entomology Today reported. "It also inhibited the growth of pollen combs and reduced the size of pollen presses."
The scientists acknowledge that this won't provide a solution to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). They think, however, that their research could lead to bees becoming better pollinators; they could carry larger pollen loads.
Speaking of loads, have you ever seen a bee so heavy with pollen that you wonder if she can lift off? It seems somewhat like a human being weighted down with a bowling ball.
The next time you observe a bee foraging, check out the pollen load. If you're lucky, you'll see the bee packing the pollen, adjusting the load before she buzzes off back to her colony.
The highly acclaimed research published in Current Biology that cracked the 200-year secret of complementary sex determination in honey bees is rooted right here, right here at UC Davis.
Arizona State University Provost Robert E. Page, Jr., emeritus professor and former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, and two other UC Davis-affiliated scientists are among the key members of the scientific team from the United States, Germany and France who published their work, “Gradual Molecular Evolution of a Sex Determination Switch in Honeybees through Incomplete Penetrance of Femaleness" in the prestigious journal.
The ground-breaking research shows that five amino acid differences separate males from females.
Lead author is Martin Beye, who was a Fyodor Lynen Fellow in Page's UC Davis lab from 1999 to 2000. He's now an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Duesseldorf, Germany. Another co-author is Michael "Kim" Fondrk, bee breeder-geneticist, who tends Page's research bees at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Davis. Fondrk provided the genetic material from crosses from Page's bees.
Page traces the bee puzzle "back to Johann Dzierson in the mid-1800s through Mendel, through Harry Laidlaw to me and to my former postdoc at Davis, Martin Beye."
“Much of the work was done at UC Davis beginning in 1990,” said Page. While at UC Davis, "Martin began the sequencing and characterization of the csd gene; the paper was eventually published as a cover article in Cell."
Said Fondrk: “This project was a long time in making; it began soon after our Cell paper was published in 2003. First we needed to assemble variation for alleles at the sex locus, by collecting drones from many different, presumably unrelated queens, and mating one drone each through an independently reared set of queens using instrumental insemination (which was Fondrk's task). "Then a second set of crosses was made to identify and isolate individual sex alleles. The progeny that resulted from this cross were taken to Germany where Martin Beye’s team began the monumental task of sequencing the sex determination region in the collected samples.”
Silesian monk Johann Dzierson began studying the first genetic mechanism for sex determination in the mid-1800s. Dzierson knew that royal jelly determines whether the females will be queen bees or honey bee colonies, but he wondered about the males.
Dzierson believed that the males or drones were haploid--possessing one set of chromosomes, a belief confirmed in the 1900s with the advent of the microscope. In other words, the males, unlike the females, came from unfertilized eggs.
“However, how this system of haplodiploid sex determination ultimately evolved at a molecular level has remained one of the most important questions in developmental genetics,” Coulombe pointed out.
Coulombe quoted Page: “There has to be some segment of that gene that is responsible in this allelic series, where if you have two different coding sequences in that part of the gene you end up producing a female. So we asked how different do two alleles have to be? Can you be off one or two base pairs or does it always have to be the same set of sequences? We came up with a strategy to go in and look at these 18-20 alleles and find out what regions of these genes are responsible among these variants.”
“What the authors found,” wrote Coulombe, “was that at least five amino acid differences can control allelic differences to create femaleness through the complementary sex determiner (csd) gene – the control switch.”
Page explained: “We discovered that different amounts of arginine, serine and proline affect protein binding sites on the csd gene, which in turn lead to different conformational states, which then lead to functional changes in the bees – the switch that determines the shift from female to not female.”
In addition to Beye, Page and Fondrk, other co-authors are Christine Seelmann and Tanja Gempe of the University of Duesseldorf; Martin Hasslemann, Institute of Genetics at the University of Cologne, Germany; and Xavier Bekmans with Université Lille, France
Page, recognized as one of the world’s foremost honey bee geneticists, is a highly cited entomologist who has authored more than 230 research papers and articles centered on Africanized bees, genetics and evolution of social organization, sex determination and division of labor in insect societies. His work on the self-organizing regulatory networks of honey bees is featured in his new book, The Spirit of the Hive: The Mechanisms of Social Evolution, published in June 2013 by Harvard University Press.
Page received his doctorate in entomology from UC Davis in 1980. He left his faculty position at Ohio State University in 1989 to join the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty. Page chaired the UC Davis department from 1999 to 2004 when ASU recruited him as the founding director and dean of the School of Life Sciences, an academic unit within College of Liberal Arts and Science (CLAS). Page was selected the university provost in December. He had earlier served as the vice provost.
The news story is gathering lots of interest, and rightfully so. It's a piece of a puzzle that went missing for 200 years.
Said Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, who was not involved in the research but knows many of the scientists and their work: "Once again, the studies by Dr. Rob Page and his colleagues have unraveled another mystery of honey bee development. It would be interesting if someone investigated the same type of sexual dimorphism in other hymenopterans to determine if they all use the same, ancient-based mechanism.”
You've heard of late bloomers.
How about early bloomers?
A trip to the Benica (Calif.) State Recreational Park on Sunday yielded quite a surprise: a solo blossom on a bare almond tree.
Almonds don't usually start blooming until around Valentine's Day.
Almonds are big business in California. "The 2013-14 crop is estimated at 1.85 billion pounds from 810,000 bearing acres," wrote Christine Souza in the Dec. 11 edition of Ag Alert.
Souza, who covered the 41st annual meeting of the Almond Board of California, wrote that "Near-record production, higher prices and room for increased export opportunities lead leaders in the almond business to forecast continued growth, with optimistic trends outweighing concerns about water supplies, increasing production costs and onerous government regulations." Read her full article.
Meanwhile, while buds turn to blossoms and blossoms turn into food for hungry honey bees, Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, keeps busy answering bee/almond questions. This year marks his 38th year as an Extension apiculturist. He will be retiring in June.
One of the questions recently posed to him: "Do most commercial beekeepers in California specialize in a certain area of beekeeping such as honey production, pollination services, queen bees, etc., or do most do a little of all of these things?"
"Most commercial beekeepers in California try to place as many of their colonies as they can in almond pollination," Mussen responded. "That $150 or so makes up a large portion of the total costs of keeping a colony alive for a year--about $220. After almonds, most of the commercial beekeepers (bee breeders) in the Sacramento Valley turn to raising queen bees and bulk adult bees for the most part, with some further pollination contracts to keep their 'spare' bees making some income. The northern California beekeepers will hardly ever produce an income-generating honey crop, unless they move their colonies out of state, which some do. Most of the bee breeders produce no reportable honey."
On the other hand, the San Joaquin Valley commercial beekeepers do attempt to earn their income after almonds from various honey sources and pollination contracts, Mussen says. "Before most crops are ready to be pollinated, the beekeepers swamp the San Joaquin citrus belt to make some honey and not have to feed their bees. There are so many resident and visiting colonies down there that the honey crop has become very small. Except for alfalfa seed pollination, most commercially pollinated crops do not produce honey. Beekeepers do place their colonies near cotton, sometimes, for a honey crop, but it is risky. The central valley beekeepers can attain the state average of 60 pounds of honey per colony, if the rains promote growth of the sage and buckwheat plants growing in the hills around the valley.
"The southern California beekeepers usually average the best honey crops--closer to 100 pounds per colony. There still is a significant amount of citrus down there, and quite a few wildflowers. Rainfall remains an extremely important factor."
And declining bee health? What about colony collapse disorder (CCD)?
"CCD seems to be a combination of stresses that, sometimes, becomes overwhelming to the bees," he says. "These are the contributing leading factors: malnutrition, parasitism by Varroa destructor, infections with Nosema ceranae, infections by one or more of the 22 known honey bee viruses, exposure to pesticides, and vagaries of weather, especially cold weather. Commonly, colonies that are collapsing are heavily infected by Nosema and one or more of the viruses."
Beekeeper Brian Fishback of Wilton is quick to answer that.
“Bees,” he says, “teach us core family values. Bees have to take care of each other and work together for the success of the colony, just as people do for the success of their families.”
Fishback, a past president of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers’ Association, a member of the California State Beekeepers' Association, and a former volunteer at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis, instills his love of bees and beekeeping to everyone around him.
He and his wife, Darla, are teaching those bee-driven core family values to their two daughters Emily, 3, and Jane, 18 months (a third daughter is due this month). The girls have been around bees since birth. The Fishbacks keep 89 hives on their Wilton ranch, the BD Ranch and Apiary. So committed are they to bees that their website is www.beesarelife.com.
Through community outreach programs, Brian Fishback eagerly takes every opportunity to educate the public about honey bees. He displays his bee observation hives at the California State Fair and Dixon May Fair; engages in classroom, farm and other educational presentations; and annually hosts the American Honey Bee Queen, sponsored by the American Beekeeping Federation.
In his spare time, Fishback teaches introductory and advanced beekeeping classes at the Soil Born Farms, located at 2140 Chase Drive, Rancho Cordova. His next class begins March 8 and will be a two-part class, covering both beginning beekeeping and a more advanced session (See registration information. Sign-ups are now underway.)
What’s different about his classes? For one: The students (who are primarily young adults) don’t just stand back and observe him opening a hive. “They’re going to work a hive that day,” he says.
Fishback remembers the joy he felt when he first opened a hive. “From the first moment I opened a hive and held a full frame of brood covered with bees, I was in utopia. Everything came together. In my hand I held the essence of core family values.”
That was in 2008.
It was also the year he and Darla purchased the Wilton ranch to pursue 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.
In the fall of 2010, he began volunteering at the Laidlaw facility. One of his goals was to gain more knowledge to share in his community outreach programs. He worked with bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, beekeeper/research associate Elizabeth Frost, and Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen, among others. He assisted Cobey with her classes on queen-rearing and instrumental insemination and her class field trips to Butte County to visit commercial queen bee breeders. Fishback also took on tasks that needed to be done around the Laidlaw facility, such as mowing the lawn around the apiary.
Another highlight: Fishback participated in a bee beard activity that Cobey coordinated for a small group of Laidlaw beekeeping staff and volunteers. (See top photo).
Fishback continues his outreach programs “to encourage interest in honey bees and to share the importance of the honey bee to our environment and our food supply.” When he visits school classrooms, he delights in asking students to single out the queen bee, workers and drones in his bee observation hive.
That's not all.
“I allow anyone or any group with an interest agriculture, small-scale farming and of course, beekeeping, to take a day tour of my ranch, get in a bee suit, and feel the joy that life has to offer."