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...
If you want to learn about what bees do, and how gardeners can support healthy pollinator populations through simple gardening practice, then this is for you: Your Sustainable Backyard: Pollinator Gardening.
Sponsored by the California Center for Urban Horticulture (CCUH), it's a workshop set from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, April 28 on the UC Davis campus. It's for all who love gardening, says coordinator Melissa "Missy" Gable, program manager of CCUH.
"This workshop is designed both to inspire gardeners and equip them with all the necessary tools to provision pollinating insects in their own landscape," Gable says. "Without the pollination services of European honey bees and native bees, what fruits and vegetables would be accessible to us?"
The first part will include talks by entomologists, horticulturists and design experts from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in Room 101 of Giedt Hall.
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, and Dave Fujino, executive director of CCHU, will welcome the crowd from 8:45 a.m. to 9 a.m.
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, will speak on "Bees 101: Species Diversity and Behavior" from 9 to 4:45 a.m. Then , pollination ecologist Neal Williams, assistant professor of entomology at UC Davis, will discuss "Importance of Pollinators and Conservation."
Ellen Zagory, director of horticulture at the UC Davis Arboretum will cover "Bee Plants" from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. The last workshop speaker, Vicki Wojcik, associate program manager of Pollinator Partnership will zero in on "Pollinator Gardening: Design and Maintenance" from12:30 to 1:15 p.m.
Following the formal presentations, participants are invited to (1) tour the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre bee friendly garden next to the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, and (2) visit the UC Davis Arboretum Teaching Nursery, where they can see the pollinator demonstration beds and have an opportunity to buy plants at a specially held sale inside the nursery. Members of the Friends of the Arboretum will receive a 10 percent discount.
Both the haven and the UC Davis Arboretum Teaching Nursery will be open from 1:30 to 4 p.m. Thorp and Gable will be at the haven to answer questions during the self-guided tours, and Zagory will be on hand in the teaching nursery's demonstration gardens to field questions.
The registration fee of $45 registration includes parking, morning coffee/tea, scones and a gourmet boxed lunch. See registration site.
This definitely is "the place to bee."
We've been watching the almonds budding and blossoming since late January.
They're in full bloom now, but a little ragged by the recent rain.
California has some 750,000 acres of almonds, and it takes two hives per acre to pollinate them.
Since California doesn't have that many bees, beekeepers from all over the country--from Florida to South Dakota to Washington state--truck in the little agricultural workers.
We asked Extension Apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, just how many California-based hives are in the state's almond orchards. That is, how many are "residents" and how many are "migratory."
Being a honey bee guru--after all, he's been with the department since 1976--Mussen knew the answer.
"About 500,000 hives of the 2.6 million hives now pollinating California's almond orchards live here," he said.
As we checked out a spectacular almond orchard on Pitt School Road, Dixon, we stopped to ponder the numbers: 750,000 acres of almonds (and increasing yearly) and 2.6 million hives for pollination services. The bees forage within four miles from their colony, or within a 50-mile radius, Mussen says.
In the almond orchards, they don't have far to go.
California is known as the "The Golden State," but this time of year, it's never been so true. The "gold" is the pollen that the bees are transferring from blossom to blossom in the almond orchards.
If you've ever watched honey bees work the blossoms, you'll probably see them packing pollen in their pollen baskets and cleaning their tongue as they buzz from flower to flower.
Pollen is protein, and nectar, carbohydrates. Worker bees collect both, plus water and propolis (plant resin) for their colony.
"Pollen in the plant world is the equivalent of sperm in the animal world," writes UC Davis emeritus professor Norm Gary in his book, Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees. "Fertilization and growth of seeds depend upon the transfer of pollen from the male flower parts (anthers) to the receptive female parts (stigmas). For many species, such as grains and nuts, pollination occurs by airborne pollen that is produced in great quantity and characterized by very small, lightweight pollen grains. Airborne pollen causes most human allergies."
That's what he calls "Pollen 101."
"Inexperienced foragers quickly learn the most efficient movements to dislodge pollen grains from the anthers," writes Gary, who spent 32 years in the academic world of teaching, research and public service and continues to be a professional bee wrangler. "This frequently involves the use of their tongues and mandibles in licking and scraping the anthers, which slightly moistens the pollen."
"After becoming coated in pollen grains, the bees meticulously brush pollen from the body hairs with the comblike hairs on their legs. This process gradually transfers the pollen to the hind legs, where it accumulates as two 'pellets,' adhering to the outer surface of the pollen baskets on their hind legs."
A pollen-collector can collect a full load in about 10 minutes, Gary says. Number of pollen-collecting trips a bee can make in a day? Ten is typical.
Gary, who has amassed more than six decades of beekeeping experience, marvels at how the bee transfers pollen from its body to its pollen basket. It's "choreography that almost defies description," he writes.