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."
It's the taste of honey AND mead--coupled with a gourmet dinner on the UC Davis campus.
The UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center is sponsoring the Mid-Winter Beekeepers Feast: A Taste of Mead and Honey on Saturday, Feb. 8 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. in the foyer of the Sensory Building, Robert Mondavi Institute of Food and Science, 392 Old Davis Road.
It's like "Bee My Valentine."
"The air will be redolent with the sweet smells of roasting lamb and flavored honey," said executive director Amina Harris.
It's billed as a Valentine's Day event and a celebratory meal benefitting the Honey and Pollination Center.
The main course features roasted lamb shank with rosemary infused sage honey, polenta squares with mushroom ragout, oven-roasted brussel sprouts with thyme butter, and Musqee de Provence with walnuts and a lavender honey glaze
The guests will start with these appetizers: Cracked Dungeness crab on Belgian endive and shitake mushroom soup shots. And the drinks, of course, will feature mead from Heidrun Meadery, along with sparkling water and a wine selected for each course. Salad is next: navel and blood oranges over winter greens with a tupelo honey vinaigrette.
Following the main course, a cheese course with honey comb will be served. For dessert: Häagen-Dazs Honey vanilla ice cream with old-fashioned butter cookies.
And then, a mead flight with three meads.
Harris says the printed menu will be something folks will want to take home. Vicki Wojcik, a member of the Honey and Pollination Center Advisory Committee and the research director at Pollinator Partnership, will add pollinator notes to the printed menu--indicating which foods are pollinated by bees.
The dinner, designed by Ann Evans and Mani Niall, will be catered by the Buckhorn, Winters. Evans is the founder of the Yolo County Slow Food, the Davis Farmers' Market and the Davis Farm-to-School Program. Niall is the author of numerous cookbooks including "Covered in Honey" and "Sweet." He describes himself as the "chief cupcake froster" at his newly opened Sweet Bar Bakery in Oakland.
Darrell Corti, an international wind judge, will lead the mead flight tasting.
Also planned: music and a silent auction. "Prizes are still coming in," said Harris, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets for the one-of-a-kind event are $125 per person, or a table for eight for a $1250 sponsorship.
It sounds like a bee-utiful evening, made possible by the bees!
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."
Pansies aren't bee plants.
But don't tell that to the bees. True, bees are partial to the lavenders, the mints, the salvias, thyme, basil, borage, oregano, sunflowers and the like, but it's winter and their food sources are scarce.
Lately, as the temperatures stretch upward into the 50s for several hours a day, we've been seeing a few bees on our pansies.
The pansy, in some respects, is like the mail carrier...."Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet..." Despite the weather, the pansy manages to thrive. Its colorful, sunny face seems to define its personality.
On Christmas Day, we noticed a few pansies slouching, slumping and sagging.
But the bees didn't seem to mind.
Pansies are food.
After all, the name, pansy, means "thought" (pensée) in French.
Food for thought...