Pity the poor worker bee.
In the spring/summer months, she lives only four to six weeks and then she dies. Bee scientists say she basically works herself to death.
For the first half of her short life, she works inside the hive, tending to the brood, feeding the queen and drones, processing the food, building and repairing the nest, and completing other responsibilities, all in total darkness. In the second half of her life, she leaves the hive, emerging from the total darkness to the bright light. Weather permitting, she'll forage every day for food, propolis or water for the colony.
You've probably noticed these older foragers, with tattered wings, scarred bodies and hairless thoraxes, foraging among the flowers. Those tattered wings could be the result of predators that missed: spiders, dragonflies, grasshoppers, dogs, birds and the like.
Worker bees do not fly well with flawed wings and they're even more susceptible to those crafty jumping spiders lurking in the flowers.
So it's interesting to read the recently published research by scientists at the Arizona State University and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, research that shows that older honey bees experience reverse brain aging when they return to working inside the hive.
Writing in the journal, Experimental Gerontology, the researchers related that they tricked the older, foraging bees into returning to the hive to perform the social tasks of the younger bees.
In an ASU news release: Gro Amdam, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, said: “We knew from previous research that when bees stay in the nest and take care of larvae--the bee babies--they remain mentally competent for as long as we observe them. However, after a period of nursing, bees fly out gathering food and begin aging very quickly. After just two weeks, foraging bees have worn wings, hairless bodies, and more importantly, lose brain function--basically measured as the ability to learn new things. We wanted to find out if there was plasticity in this aging pattern so we asked the question, What would happen if we asked the foraging bees to take care of larval babies again?"
Well, they found that the older bees that returned to the hive seemed to recover their ability to learn, and that the protein in the bee brains changed for the better.
"When comparing the brains of the bees that improved relative to those that did not, two proteins noticeably changed," the news release said. "They found Prx6, a protein also found in humans that can help protect against dementia--including diseases such as Alzheimer’s--and they discovered a second and documented 'chaperone' protein that protects other proteins from being damaged when brain or other tissues are exposed to cell-level stress."
In some respects, you could almost say that stay-at-home moms are better off than the work-outside-the-home moms, but (1) worker bees are not moms, and (2) both are working. The queen lays the eggs, as many as 2000 eggs a day during peak season. The worker bees are females, but their ovaries are tiny and normally non-functional, says Norm Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis in his book, Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees.
Still, we can imagine that this fascinating bee science research could lead to another tool to investigate dementia in elderly humans.
Sometimes you see honey bees "making a beeline."
Such was the case when this honey bee (below) encountered a native wildflower, blue lupine (Lupinus).
Lupines are known more as pollen plants than nectar plants, according to Frank Pellett's book, American Honey Plants, a Dadant publication. Lupines, native to North America, belong to the legume family (Fabaceae).
"There are many species of lupines which are common, especially in the plains region and west to the Pacific coast," Pellett wrote. "Some are of no value to the bees, or yield pollen only." However, beekeepers in Colorado and Texas, he acknowledged, tout it for the nectar, too.
Authors C. E. Sanborn and E. E. Scholl, in their book, Texas Honey Plants, published in 1908, considered the blue lupine or bluebonnet (Lupinus subcarnosus, the state flower of Texas), as a good source of honey and of pollen. They described the pollen as "very bright" and "orange."
No matter what it's considered--a good pollen plant or a good nectar plant, depending on the locale, species and point of view--it's very attractive to honey bees.
They'll make a beeline for it.
A team of scientists from UC Davis and Washington State University will be heading for Italy tomorrow (June 19) to gather germplasm (sperm) of Old World/Italian honey bee stock. They'll bring it back to the United States to inseminate bee queens.
Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, who has a joint appointment at UC Davis and WSU, will be in Italy with colleagues Walter "Steve" Sheppard, professor and chair of the WSU Department of Entomology, and Ph.D. student Brandon Hopkins of WSU. They're scheduled to return June 27.
Increasing the overall genetic diversity of honey bees may lead to healthier and hardier bees that can better fight off parasites, pathogens and pests, says Cobey, director of the Honey Bee Stock Improvement Program. Just as stock improvement has served the poultry, dairy and swine industries well, the beekeeping industry needs access “to stocks of origin or standardized evaluation and stock improvement programs.”
So, which honey bee did the European colonists introduce to America in 1622? It wasn't the Italian (blond) subspecies, now the most prevalent here. It was the dark subspecies (Apis mellifera mellifera), that made its way to the Jamestown colony (present-day Virginia) from England.
The Italian bees were not introduced into our country until 1859, records show.
"The American beekeeping pubic was enamored with the newly available yellow and relatively gentle bees," authors Cobey, Sheppard and David Tarpy wrote in a chapter of the newly published book, Honey Bee Colony Health: Challenges and Sustainable Solutions. "As a result, Italian-type honey bees form the basis for most present-day commercial beekeeping stocks in the U.S."
However, a genetic bottleneck resulted from the U.S. Honey Bee Act of 1922, which restricted further importation of Old World honey bees to prevent the introduction of the tracheal mite, Acarapis woodi.
The importation of germplasm from the Old World stock of the Italian subspecies could very well result in a better bee.
That's the plan. That's the hope. The trio wants to make it happen.
The UC Davis/WSU team will fan out to bee labs and to commercial beekeepers' apiaries and then deliver the germplasm to the WSU lab in Pullman, Wash., where they'll inseminate queen bees.
Cobey talked about the Stock Improvement Program at her May 2nd seminar presented to the UC Davis Department of Entomology. Based at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility since 2007, she was trained by Laidlaw (1907-2003) himself. He's known as "the father of honey bee genetics."
If you access this web page, then click on the link at the top of the page below the headline, you can listen to Cobey's seminar.
Ever seen honey bees engaging in washboarding?
It's a behavior so named because they look as if they're scrubbing clothes on a washboard or scrubbing their home.
It occurs near the entrance of the hive and only with worker bees. They go back and forth, back and forth, a kind of rocking movement. No one knows why they do it. It's one of those unexplained behaviors they've probably been doing for millions of years.
Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of the University of California, Davis and Washington State University, has witnessed washboarding scores of times. Last week the unusual behavior occurred on two of her hives at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis. She hypothesizes that these bees are in the "unemployment line." It's a time when foraging isn't so good, so these bees are "sweeping the porch" for something to do, she speculates.
Emeritus professor Norman Gary of UC Davis Department of Entomology writes about it in his chapter, Activities and Behavior of Honey Bees, in the Dadant publication The Hive and the Honey Bee.
"They stand on the second and third pairs of legs and face the entrance. Their heads are bent down and the front legs are also bent," wrote Gary, who has kept bees for more than six decades. "They make 'rocking' or 'washboard' movements, thrusting their bodies forward and backward. At the same time they scrape the surface of the hive with their mandibles with a rapid shearing movement, sliding over the surface as if cleaning it."
They pick up some material and then clean their mandibles.
Gary thinks that "these rocking movements probably serve as a cleaning process by which the bees scrape and polish the surface of the hive."
Like most people, professor/biologist/bee researcher James Nieh of UC San Diego has never seen this behavior. Nieh, who recently presented at seminar at UC Davis, later commented "It is an interesting behavior that would be particularly fascinating to observe in natural colonies in trees. It does seem to involve some cleaning behavior, although it is possible that bees are depositing some olfactory compound while they are rubbing the surface with their mandibles. We are currently conducting research in my lab on the effects of bee mandibular gland secretions on foraging orientation behavior. A new set of experiments will involve examining the effect of mandibular gland secretions on bee behaviors at the nest. I will definitely consider looking at how this potential pheromone affects washboarding."
We managed to capture the behavior with our Iphone and posted it on YouTube.
It's interesting that of the some 25 research hives at the Laidlaw facility, occupants of two of Cobey's hives exhibited washboarding last week.
So, what are washboarding bees doing? Cleaning their home where pathogenic organisms might congregate, per a theory by Katie Bohrer and Jeffrey Pettis of the USDA-ARS Bee Research Lab?
Or are they just creating "busy work"--"sweeping the porch" for something to do?
It would be interesting to find out!
If you want to take photos of honey bees in flight, do so early in the morning. They don't move as fast and the lighting is to die for.
This morning we stepped out in our yard, steaming coffee in hand, and watched the honey bees foraging among the lavender blossoms. Against the backdrop of red pomegranate blossoms and spring green leaves, they crawled up and down the lavender and then took off for the next blossom.
So smoothly. So effortlessly. So tirelessly.
You don't always have to stop the action with a flash. We took this with a Nikon D700 with a 105mm macro lens. No flash. We set the aperture (f-stop) at 8, the shutter speed at 1/800th of a second, and the ISO at 800.
The blurring of the wings added to the feeling of speed.
Indeed, the honey bees seem a little more frantic now as they rush to bring back nectar, pollen, propolis and water to the hive. With the queen bee laying about 2000 eggs a day now, everyone has to pitch in.
Just call this "The Lavender Blossom Special."