Claire Preston isn't a beekeeper but she's written an informative book titled Bee.
Published in 2006 by Reaktion Books,
Her 10 chapters tantalize us with such headings as "The Reason for Bees," "Biological Bee," "Kept Bee," "Political Bee," "Pious/Corrupt Bee," "Utile Bee," Aesthetic Bee," "Folkloric Bee," "Playful Bee," "Bee Movie" and the last, "Retired Bee."
But back to Bee.
Preston traces the history of bees (Apis mellifera) to southern Asia: bees probably originated in Afghanistan, she says. They were imported to South America in the 1530s and to what is now the United States (Virginia) in 1621. Native Americans called them "The Englishman's fly."
Preston calls the bee "Nature's workaholic" and borrowing a comment from Sue Monk Kidd's superb novel, The Secret Life of Bees, remarks: "You could not stop a bee from working if you tried."
"The most talented specialists (in the bee colony) are the workers," Preston writes. "They are the builders, brood-nurses, honey-makers, pollen-stampers, guards, porters, and foragers, and those tasks are related to their developmental age."
"All worker bees, in other words, take up these functions in succession as they mature, with the newest workers undertaking nursing, cleaning, building and repair in the nest, somewhat older workers making honey and standing guard, and the oldest bees foraging for pollen and nectar."
Frankly, bees are social insects in a highly social organization. They don't waver from their duties. The queen's job is to mate and then lay eggs for the rest of her life. The drone's job is to mate and then die. If the drones make it to autumn, the worker bees drive them from the hives "to die of starvation," Preston writes. "This exclusion of some hundreds of drones each autumn is one of the most remarkable sights in the animal kingdom. The workers are pitiless: drones do no work in the maintenance of the colony and cannot even feed themselves, so they cannot be allowed to overwinter and consume precious resources."
It's a sad time, to be sure. Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, manager of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, tells us she feels sorry for the drones. "They're cold and hungry and get pushed out of the hive."
And, as UC Davis apiculturist Eric Mussen says: "First the workers quit feeding them (drones) so they're light enough to push out."
But as winter ebbs away and spring beckons, soon each hive will be teeming with some 50,000 to 60,000 bees. And all those worker bees--which Preston calls "agricultural workers"--will be turning into Nature's workaholics.
They'll never be promoted to CEO, though.
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UC Davis bee specialists were well represented in a recent edition of The IPM Practitioner, which landed on our desk last week.
The edition, devoted to “Pesticides and Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder,” includes four photos from the UC Davis Department of Entomology. They show bee specialist Michael “Kim” Fondryk tending his bees in the Roy Gill almond orchard,
As mentioned in the publication, “The exact cause of CCD has not been determined. A CCD task force has been established and a number of possibilities are being investigated.”
Bees continue to die in alarming numbers. Some of the nation's beekeepers report losing from one-third to 100 percent of their bees due to the mysterious phenomenon known as CCD, in which all the adult bees abandon the hive, leaving behind the queen, brood and stored food.
As managing editor William Quarles says in The IPM Practitioner: "Despite our dependence on honey bees, we have lost about 45 percent of them over the past 65 years. According to the USDA, there were 5.9 million colonies in 1947 and about 2.4 million today."
Quarles, an IPM specialist who is executive director of the Bio-Integral Resource Center, suggests a nationwide monitoring program to confirm or deny the role of pesticides in CCD.
Quarle concludes: "If we do not take better care of our bees, there could be a significant impact on crop production. Some foods could become scarce and expensive. We should also treat our bees better because they are our friends, they enrich our planet, and it is the right thing to do."
Well said. Well said, indeed.
Plain as day. And they’re not going away.
The estimated ratio of insects to humans is 200 million to one, say Iowa State University entomologists Larry Pedigo and Marlin Rice in their newly published (sixth edition) textbook, Entomology and Pest Management. Rice is the 2009 president of the Entomological Society of America.
Rice is the 2009 president of the Entomological Society of America.
There's an average of 400 million insects per acre of land, they say.
“The fact is, today’s human population is adrift in a sea of insects,” they write in their introduction.
Well, what about biomass? Surely we outweigh these critters?
No, we don't. The
There you go. The insects are the land owners; we are the tenants. “They are the chief consumers of plants; they are the major predators of plant eaters; they play a major role in decay of organic matter; and they serve as food for other kinds of animals,” Pedigo and Rice write.
Insects represent the good, the bad and the ugly.
Insects represent the good, the bad and the ugly.
The good: they give us honey and pollinate our crops. They spin our silk. They serve as natural enemies of pests. They provide food for wildlife (not to mention food for some of us humans). They are scavengers. They provide us with ideas for our art work. They are fodder for our horror movies.
And what scientist hasn't benefitted from the inheritance studies of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogasta? What ecologist hasn't studied water pollution by examining the mayfly population? Mayflies are the counterpart of canaries in the coal mine.
The bad: they eat our food crops, forests and ornamental plants. They devour or spoil our stored grain. They chew holes in our clothing. They pester us. They annoy our animals, too.
The ugly: They can—and do—kill us. Think mosquitoes. Think malaria,
But wait, there's more! Many more. Scientists have described more than 900,000 species of insects but there could be seven times as many out there, the authors point out.
Ironically, despite the huge numbers of insects, many people don't know the meaning of the word, entomology, the science of insects. They should. Insects outnumber us and always will. They've lived on the earth longer than us (400 million years) and adapt to changes better than we do. Most are tiny. Most can fly. And most reproduce like there's no tomorrow.
"Based solely on numbers and biomass, insects are the most successful animals on earth," the authors claim.
You can't argue with that.
Those dratted mites.
UC Davis entomologist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor and a native bee pollinator specialist, sent us a BBC report linking a varroa mite infestation to a devastating honey production loss in the UK. It's the worst honey crisis ever to hit the UK.
In short: beekeepers are concerned that by Christmas, there may be no more domestically produced honey left on the supermarket shelves.
The mite infestation has already killed off an estimated quarter of the UK's honey bees, according to BBC correspondent Jeremy Cooke, who said about "one in three colonies has been wiped out."
The varroa mite, or the Varroa destructor, is a nasty pest. Now found in most countries (Australia is an exception), it's an external parasite initially discovered on the Asian honey bee, Apis cerana. Over the last few decades, however, it has spread to the Western honey bee (also known as the European honey bee), Apis mellifera.
The varroa mite entered the UK in 1992, reports show. It has since spread throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The blood-sucking parasite feeds on both adults and the brood (immature larvae). It weakens the bees, opening them up to all sorts of diseases. And eventually, if not controlled, it will destroy the colonies.
The bad news is that the varroa mite cannot be completely eradicated, but with proper control methods, the mite population can be kept at a low level.
When California State Secretary of Agriculture A. G. Kawamura visited the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis last month, bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey showed him dead mites on a hive floor. (See story on UC Davis Department of Entomology site.)
Kawamura is no stranger to bees or bee pests. As a youth, he reared bees--until the infectious bee disease, American foulbrood, upset his plans.
To control the mite, beekeepers usually use a combination of management methods. They use biotechnical methods and chemical controls. Unfortunately, in some areas, the varroa mite is developing resistance to miticides--another worry for beekeepers.
Said Cobey: "You need to reduce mite levels in colonies by late summer--August/September--to have healthy bees in spring."
Cooperative Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of UC Davis says that in California, the Department of Pesticide Regulation "is close to approving another chemical treatment" to help control the mite problem.
It may be ready by next spring.
The mites will be waiting.
If you were a queen bee, you'd be laying about 1500 to 2000 eggs today. It's your busy season.
"She's an egg-laying machine," said bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis. "And she's the mother of all the bees in the hive." During the peak season, that amounts to about 50,000 to 80,000 workers (sterile females) and 1000 to 2000 drones (males).
Worker bees take care of her every need. They feed her, groom her and protect her, Cobey said, "and then they have the additional tasks of rearing and feeding her young."
The queen bee is easy to spot in the hive; she's the biggest bee. And wherever she goes, you'll see her court (workers) surrounding her.
Beekeepers mark her with a colored dot on her thorax so she's easily visible. (School children, when asked to single out the queen bee, say "She's the one with the dot!")
On her maiden flight, the queen bee mates with some 12 to 25 drones and then she heads back to the hive to lay eggs for the rest of her life, "usually two or three years," said Cobey, who is internationally renowned for her classes on "The Art of Queen Rearing" and "Instrumental Insemination and Bee Breeding."
The queen bee destroys any and all competitors for her "throne" by stinging and killing them. Unlike worker bees, she does not die after she stings.
Interestingly enough, only female bees can sting. Drones, or male bees, have no stingers (despite what Jerry Seinfeld's character said in The Bee Movie). Their only purpose is to mate with the queen. Then they die.
It's a matriarchal society. The girls (worker bees) do all the work; they serve as nurses, guards, grocers, housekeepers, construction workers, royal attendants and undertakers. It's not surprising, then, that during the summer, their life span is only four to six weeks.
Meanwhile, if you're the queen bee, there's no reproductive rest for you! You have about 1,999 more eggs to lay today.