Mussen (1944-2022) was an institution. He was a global authority of honey bees. He was family to everyone. He joined our UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology in 1976, and although he retired in 2014, he continued his work.
So, every year since 2010 I've posted the "Thirteen Bugs of Christmas," and it seems right that I do so again.
Here's the story: Back in 2010, Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen (now emeritus) and yours truly of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology decided that "The 12 Days of Christmas" ought to be replaced with insects.
Why not? "Entomology" means "insect science," and it's the holiday season so why not change "five gold rings" to "five golden bees?" And add some other insects and pests, as well.
Note that the original "Twelve Days of Christmas," published in 1780, features no insects. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Just a partridge in a pear tree, 2 turtle doves, 3 French hens, 4 calling birds, 5 gold rings, 6 geese-a-laying, 7 swans-a-swimming, 8 maids a'milking, 9 ladies dancing, 10 lords-a-leaping, and 11 pipers piping.
Didn't seem fair.
So "five gold rings" became "five golden bees." Mussen sang the innovative song at the department's holiday party. The lyrics went viral when U.S. News picked it up:
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a psyllid in a pear tree.
On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, 2 tortoises beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, 3 French flies, 2 tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, 4 calling cicadas, 3 French flies, 2 tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 5 golden bees, 4 calling cicadas, 3 French flies, 2 tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 6 lice a'laying, 5 golden bees, 4 calling cicadas, 3 French flies, 2 tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 7 boatmen swimming, 6 lice a'laying, 5 golden bees, 4 calling cicadas, 3 French flies, 2 tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 8 ants a'milking aphids, 7 boatmen swimming, 6 lice a'laying, 5 golden bees, 4 calling cicadas, 3 French flies, 2 tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 9 mayflies dancing, 8 ants a'milking aphids, 7 boatmen swimming, 6 lice a'laying, 5 golden bees, 4 calling cicadas, 3 French flies, 2 tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 10 locusts leaping, 9 mayflies dancing, 8 ants a'milking aphids, 7 boatmen swimming, 6 lice a'laying, 5 golden bees, 4 calling cicadas, 3 French flies, 2 tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the 11th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 11 queen bees piping, 10 locusts leaping, 9 mayflies dancing, 8 ants a'milking aphids, 7 boatmen swimming, 6 lice a'laying, 5 golden bees, 4 calling cicadas, 3 French flies, 2 tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 12 deathwatch beetles drumming, 11 queen bees piping, 10 locusts leaping, 9 mayflies dancing, 8 ants a'milking aphids, 7 boatmen swimming, 6 lice a'laying, 5 golden bees, 4 calling cicadas, 3 French flies, 2 tortoise beetles and a psyllid in a pear tree
"On the 13th day of Christmas, Californians woke to see:?? 13 Kaphra beetles, ?12 Diaprepes weevils, ?11 citrus psyllids, ?10 Tropilaelaps clareae, ?9 melon fruit flies, 8 Aedes aegypti, 7 ash tree borers, 6 six spotted-wing Drosophila, 5 ?five gypsy moths, 4 Japanese beetles, 3 imported fire ants, 2 brown apple moths, and a medfly in a pear tree."
Today the song is still making the rounds, but with some different pests--pests that challenge the entomologists in the California Department of Food and Agriculture:
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a psyllid in a pear tree.
One the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, two peach fruit flies
On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, three false codling moths
On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, four peach fruit flies
On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, five gypsy moths
On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, six white striped fruit flies
On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, seven imported fire ants
On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, eight longhorn beetles
On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, nine melon fruit flies
On the 10th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, ten brown apple moths
On the 11th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, eleven citrus psyllids
On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, twelve guava fruit flies.
On the 13th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, thirteen Japanese beetles
And, then, of course, there's that dratted pest, the Varroa destructor (varroa mite) from Asia, which arrived in the United States in 1987. Known as the No. 1 enemy of beekeepers, this external parasitic mite not only sucks a bee's lifeblood, but can transmit debilitating viruses. This is not what you want for Christmas--or any other time.
Rest in peace, Eric. We miss you.
Dr. Mussen, known as "Eric," died Friday, June 3 of liver cancer at age 78.
Family, friends, colleagues and associates are RSVP'ing at https://
Eric joined the UC Davis entomology department on July 1, 1976. Although he retired in 2014, he continued his many activities until a few weeks prior to his death. For nearly four decades, he drew praise as “the honey bee guru,” “the pulse of the bee industry" and as "the go-to person" when consumers, scientists, researchers, students, and the news media sought answers about honey bees.
Born May 12, 1944 in Schenectady, N.Y., Eric received his bachelor's degree in entomology from the University of Massachusetts (after declining an offer to play football at Harvard) and then obtained his master's degree and doctorate in entomology from the University of Minnesota in 1969 and 1975, respectively. Mussen credits his grandfather with sparking his interest in insects. His grandfather, a self-taught naturalist, would take his young grandson to the woods to point out flora and fauna.
Bees became his life, and Eric thoroughly enjoyed his career. For nearly four decades, he wrote and published the bimonthly newsletter, from the UC Apiaries, and short, topical articles called Bee Briefs, providing beekeepers with practical information on all aspects of beekeeping. His research focused on managing honey bees and wild bees for maximum field production, while minimizing pesticide damage to pollinator populations.
Gene Brandi, the 2018 president of the American Beekeeping Federation, remembers presenting him with the prestigious Founders' Award from the Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees at the 75th annual American Beekeeping Federation conference in Reno in 2018. "Eric received a well-deserved rousing standing ovation!” said Brandi, extolling him as "an outstanding liaison between the academic world of apiculture and real-world beekeeping and crop pollination."
"Eric was a legend in the beekeeping world who was always willing to go the extra mile to help beekeepers and bee industry organizations deal with issues pertaining to honey bee health, regulations, and various threats to the industry," Brandi said. "He also helped agricultural organizations, government officials, and the general public better understand the value of honey bees to the world. Eric was a great advocate for the honey bee and beekeepers. He was truly a national treasure.
"Eric served on the California State Beekeepers Association Board of Directors for 39 years as apiculturist, but he also was the parliamentarian for many years, and due to his long tenure, was quite the historian as well," Brandi added. "He co-founded the Western Apicultural Society and served as president for six terms. He founded the American Association of Professional Apiculturists and was either president of secretary/treasurer for the first ten years."
"In addition to his work with the aforementioned organizations, Eric was the UC Honey Bee Liaison to California Department of Food and Agriculture, California Department of Pesticide Regulation, EPA, California Farm Bureau Federation, Almond Board of California, National Honey Board, California Bee Breeders' Association, and others. Eric was always willing to help the beekeeping industry by testifying at hearings or writing letters to support the bee industry on various issues. He received many awards from a number of organizations, but the ones with which I am most familiar are the California State Beekeepers Association Distinguished Service Award as well as the Beekeeper of the Year Award. The Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees honored Eric in 2018 with the coveted Founders; Award.
Brandi related that "Eric also conducted a number of research projects over the years including research on sacbrood virus, effects of medfly sprays on honey bees, effects of antibiotics of honey bee brood, potential of Neem as a varroa control, effects of selected fungicides on honey bee brood, effects of antibiotics, and effects of high-fructose corn syrup on packaged bee development. Eric's "From the UC Apiaries" newsletter was a renowned publication which contained valuable information about current events in the beekeeping world which beekeepers needed to know. There is so much more that can be said about Eric and his many contributions to the beekeeping world."
When Mussen was nominated (and received) the 2013-14 Distinguished Service Award for Outstanding Extension from the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), MacArthur Genus Awardee Professor Marla Spivak, Distinguished McKnight University Professor Apiculture/Social Insects at the University of Minnesota, wrote: "Without question, Eric is the No. 1 Extension person dealing with honey bees in the nation, if not the world. Research colleagues, beekeepers and the public are all very lucky to have him.”
Tomorrow (Saturday, Aug. 18) is National Honey Bee Day.
A small group of beekeepers originated the observance back in 2009 to spotlight bees and beekeeping. They petitioned and obtained a proclamation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which set aside the fourth Saturday of August to mark the occasion.
It's important to educate the public--especially children, our next generation--about the importance of honey bees and other pollinators.
And that's just what the UC Davis Pollination Education Program is doing, thanks to California State Extension apiculturist and faculty member Elina Lastro Niño of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
“This program was developed to ensure that our young scientists and future voters are aware of the importance of pollinators to our food production and ecosystems," Niño related. "We are also very excited to partner with programs across the university to recruit and support UC Davis students in becoming interns and mentors for the program. This program has already generated so much excitement with the kids and we want to provide this opportunity to as many schools as possible.”
We recently watched a group of third graders from Amador County learn about honey bees and other pollinators when Nino and her colleagues hosted the youngsters in the Department of Entomology and Nematology's bee garden, the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven. A half-acre public garden installed in 2009 on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus, it provided the perfect place for the five interactive learning stations.
Postdoctoral scholar Laura Brutscher of the Niño lab kneels by an educational beekeeping display: a beehive, a smoker, a hive tool and beekeeper protective gear. She discusses the residents of the hive: the queen, worker bees (females) and drones (males). The third-graders, sitting, standing or kneeling in the garden, listen to her wide-eyed.
“Who knows what the job of a drone is?” Brutscher asks.
A hand shoots up. “The drones protect the queen!” a boy declares.
The students learn that the honey bee colony is a matriarchal society. The females do all the work, performing specific tasks with job titles such as nurse maids, nannies, royal attendants, builders, architects, foragers, dancers, honey tenders, pollen packers, propolis or "glue" specialists, air conditioning and heating technicians, guards, and undertakers. The queen can lay up to 2000 eggs a day during peak season.
The third graders then suit up, donning assorted beekeeper protective gear. They pose gleefully in oversized suits while adults on the tour--teachers, parents and mentors--photograph them.
Elina Lastro Niño
Niño, who also directs the highly successful California Master Beekeeper Program, explains pollination and how honey bees differ from such generalists as bumble bees and such specialists as squash bees. She invites the students to build their own bee, using pipe cleaners of various lengths to mimic how they are able to pollinate flowers. The youngsters also taste apples, blueberries and almonds. Honey bees, she tells them, pollinate one third of the food we eat.
Charley Nye, beekeeper and manager of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, zeroes in on the products of the hive. “When we see bees flying around, what are they doing there?” he asks.
“They're out gathering nectar and pollen,” responds one youngster.
“That's right,” Nye says. He then introduces them to five varietals of honey: almond, coffee, cotton, blackberry, meadowfoam.
The students and adults like the meadowfoam the best. “It tastes like cotton candy!” one girl says, slowly savoring the flavor she found reminiscent of a county fair.
Wendy Mather, California Master Beekeeper Program manager, shows the youngsters a bee vacuum device and how to catch and release bees. They examine them close-up. Others at her interactive learning station craft seed cookies, decorated pots, and planted seeds for pollinators. They also view the bee and syrphid (hover) fly specimens loaned by pollination ecologist Neal Williams, UC Davis professor of entomology. The hover fly, sometimes called a flower fly, is a major pollinator.
Another station focuses on solitary bees: leafcutter bees and blue orchard bees. The students paint nest boxes and learn how the native bees differ from honey bees. Honey bees are not natives of America; European colonists brought them to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1622. Honey bees did not arrive in California until 1853, the year a beekeeper installed colonies near San Jose.
Marcel Ramos, lab assistant in the Elina Niño lab, opens a hive inside a netted enclosure and showed the students the queen bee, workers and drones and pulled out frames of honey.
It was indeed, a honey of a day, and the youngsters learned a lot about bees.
The event received financial support from the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Programmatic Initiative Grant, the Scott and Liberty Munson Family, and matching funds from Microsoft.
Ron Antone, chair of the Farms of Amador and an Amador County Master Gardener, coordinated the Amador County visit, which drew third-graders from four schools: 67 from Plymouth and Sutter Creek elementary and "about the same number" from Pioneer and Pine Grove elementary. “The tour was coordinated and funded by Farms of Amador,” he said. “We are also associated with the Amador County Farmers Market Association."
“The program presented by Elina and the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven team was an incredible experience for all involved: students, parents, teachers and mentors from Farms of Amador and Amador County Master Gardeners," Antone said. “I could not have imagined a more successful trip."
UC Davis Resources:
Celebrate bees on Saturday, Aug. 18: The UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology's bee garden, the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, has scheduled an open house from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 18. Saturday is National Honey Bee Day. The event is free and family friendly. The garden is located on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus.
Activities, according to academic program manager Christine Casey, will include:
- Learn about how to grow healthy fruits and vegetables at home and how to encourage pollinators in the garden for best yield
- See the bees in action in our demonstration garden
- Cooking demonstration and recipe ideas
- Bee and plant experts to answer your questions
That incongruous belief that “Honey is bee vomit” is resurfacing on a number of YouTube channels, opinion pieces and other Internet posts. It's usually said with great glee: “Honey is bee vomit! It's bee puke! It's bee barf!”
Is it #FakeNews?
We asked noted honey bee guru Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist emeritus at the University of California, Davis, whose career in bee education spans four decades, to settle the issue. Although he retired in 2014, he keeps active. Last year he completed a term--his sixth--as president of the Western Apicultural Society. He maintains an office in Briggs Hall.
And he continues to answer questions about bees and honey.
“As for the bees and vomit issue, the explanation requires quite a bit of knowledge,” Mussen says. It's about an "expandable pouch called 'the honey stomach' (which we humans do not have) and a valve called the "proventriculus" (which we humans do not have)."
“As most people know, honey begins as a dilute sugar solution secreted by ‘nectaries,' sugar syrup-secreting glands which are located in flowers or in extra-floral nectaries,” Mussen explains. “Pollen is not a natural constituent of nectar. The nectar is sucked up by honey bees and it passes into an expandable pouch called the ‘honey stomach.' This is the pre-digestive part of the part of the digestive tract that honey bees use to bring water and nectar to the hive. In honey bees and other insects, this ‘crop' precedes the portions of the digestive tract used for digesting food. There is a unique valve between the crop and the ventriculus (midgut), called the ‘proventriculus,' that has rake-like projections that constantly pull particulates, like pollen grains, from the crop contents and push them along for digestion.”
“Then the film is again exposed to the air. That process repeats itself until the moisture content of the syrup falls below 20 percent. Evaporation is influenced significantly by the relative humidity. Since honey will ferment at moisture contents above 20 percent, it is important to leave the honey with the bees until it can be immediately processed in locations with high humidity. That honey will seem to be thin. During the summer in California, the ambient relative humidity is quite low--15 percent or less. In that case, honey produced in the Central Valley can have a moisture content of 13 to 13.5 percent. That honey is quite thick.”
As an aside, “pollen grains are likely to be found in honey,” Mussen says. “Wind-blown pollens can fall into flowers that are open faced. Pollen grains are collected by hairs on the bees' bodies. They can get onto the mouthparts and become consumed with the nectar. Nectar-processing bees may have eaten some pollen in the hive before processing the honey. This is how the pollen grains get into honey. They do not necessarily get consumed with the fresh nectar. Physical contaminants of honey have to be quite small, like pollen grains, since the bees ingest all their food by drinking it through a straw-like proboscis with a very small opening at the tip. Most of the physical contaminants are removed by the proventriculus.”
And here's the point: “Since honey never is mixed with digesting food in the intestinal tract, it is inaccurate to refer to honey as ‘bee vomit.' A dictionary definition of vomit includes ‘disgorging the stomach contents through the mouth.' Since a human does not have a crop, the stomach is in direct contact with the esophagus and mouth. In a bee, the proventriculus and crop are in direct contact with the mouth. The digestion of solid foods in bees begins in the ventriculus and there is no way that a honey bee can bring that food back through the proventriculus, or ‘vomit.'
Which begs the question: Why can't we enjoy honey for what it is, not for what it isn't?
We can. Mark your calendar to attend these two events: the second annual California Honey Festival on May 5 in downtown Woodland (it's held in partnership with the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center) and the fourth annual UC Davis Bee Symposium: Keeping Bees Healthy (hosted by the Honey and Pollination Center and the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology) on March 3 in the UC Davis Conference Center. The Bee Symposium will feature keynote speaker Thomas Seeley, the Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell University, New York.
Interested in beekeeping? UC Davis Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño and her lab will teach a number of classes this spring, beginning March 24, at the Harry H.Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, UC Davis campus.
The schedule and links to the capsule information:
- Planning Ahead for Your First Hives: Saturday, March 24
- Working Your Colonies: Sunday, March 25
- Queen-Rearing Techniques Short Course: Saturday and Sunday, April 21-22 course; Saturday and Sunday, April 28-29 course
- Bee-Breeding Basics: Saturday, June 9
- Varroa Management Strategies: Saturday, June 16
The cherry laurel, Prunus caroliniana, a member of the rose family, draws honey bees as if there's no tomorrow. Native to the southeastern United States, it can double as a 15-to-36-feet-tall hedge, screening neighbors from neighbors, as well as providing ample food for birds when the tiny black cherrylike fruit develops.
But the bees...the bees...if you've ever seen bees work the spring blossoms, gathering the cream-colored pollen and the nectar to take back to their colonies, you know how frenetic they can be.
Back at the hive, the nectar turns into cherry-laurel honey....hmmm.
Speaking of honey, the so-called "nectar of the gods," how much honey does an average California colony produce?
California Extension apiculturist (emeritus) Eric Mussen, whose career spanned 38 years, was recently asked that question. When he joined the faculty at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology--that was during the 1976-77 drought--he was told that the average honey production per hive was around 29 to 35 pounds. Today the figure often quoted is 60 pounds.
But that depends.
"Later I learned that the 'average' honey production--years with "normal" rain--is not average across all our beekeepers," Mussen related. "The queen and bulk bee producers in northern California have never made much of any honey, especially after yellow starthistle fell victim to the USDA biocontrol program.
"The San Joaquin Valley beekeepers were more likely to approach the state average. They could obtain some honey from the crops they were pollinating and some from the wildflowers, especially in the hills surrounding the valley. It was the Southern California beekeepers who made up the difference. Production of 100-plus pounds could be common."
What about honey production today, in the throes of the California drought? "For the last few years, we have been having 1976-77-type crops," Mussen said. "The northern beekeepers basically have no honey unless they take their colonies out of state. The San Joaquin Valley beekeepers probably are averaging around 30 pounds or so, and the southern beekeepers would be lucky to be getting around 60."
The few years when California experienced high rain and floods--back in the 1980s and 1990s--beekeepers throughout the state reported an average of 90-plus pounds per colony. "Even the northern beekeepers produced a little," Mussen said. "However, even if we have a horrendous El Niño event, it probably won't make a huge difference in honey production this coming year. The seed bank has been terribly diminished by so many consecutive years of drought."
"While we can never predict exactly who is going to get the honey and how much, this is the way things generally tend to go in California," Mussen noted. "Our bees, and our beekeepers, are really hurting for nectar and honey right now."
There's not much blooming right now. But for those "lucky" honey bees with access to a 30-foot-high hedge of luxuriant cherry laurel, as in our yard, life is good.
That's when life is just a bowl of cherries (cherry laurels).