"I saw the swarm when I looked out the window," said Vacaville resident Lynn Starner. She watched dozens of bees buzzing toward the cluster.
Flowering plum branches sheltered and shadowed the swarm's temporary home, while the intrepid bee scouts searched for a permanent one.
A moving swarm is as fascinating as it is remarkable. "The casual observer sees chaos, but in reality it's organized, moving in circles with scouts flying through the swarm, directing it while it travels at about 11 kilometers per hour," writes renowned honey bee geneticist Robert E. Page Jr. of UC Davis and Arizona State University in his 256-page book The Art of the Bee: Shaping the Environment from Landscapes to Societies.
"They don't go far," he writes. "A few bees land on a nearby branch, expose their scent glands located near the tip of the abdomen, fan their wings and blow air over the sponge-like gland spreading a chemical scent through the air. The chemical smells like citrus and attracts the other bees flying in the swarm to land on the branch. The queen alights, and soon the swarm is hanging, locked together foot to foot to body in a football-shaped mass, the swarm cluster. This is an intermediate rendezvous point, a place for a temporary bivouac from which the scouts can operate and find a new, permanent home. Some bees initiate foraging, bringing back supplies to feed the masses, while the scouts branch out and scout the landscape looking for the perfect nest site. The scouts are part hunter, part surveyor and part engineer."
Honey bees are both artists and engineers, Page writes in his book. As environmental artists, bees are "responsible for the brilliantly colored flowers in our landscapes," and as environmental engineers, they engineer “the niches of multitudes of plants, animals and microbes."
But back to the bee swarm at the Starner home.
Starner contacted a Vacaville beekeeping family, Craig and Shelly Hunt and daughters Alyssa, 13 and Emma, 8. They arrived in the early evening, around 6, to collect the bees. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Craig taught 4-H'ers (including Alyssa and Emma) the art of beekeeping.
"It was a huge swarm," Shelly said. "We filled two boxes."
The bees are now thriving in the Hunt family's apiary on Meridian Road.
It's bees-ness as usual for the Hunts.
And home, sweet home for the bees.
When honey bees swarmed last week at the entrance to the Epiphany Episcopal Church in Vacaville, the site seemed quite fitting.
Biblical references to bees and honey, such as "the land of milk and honey," abound.
Blessed are the bees.
Bees, responsible for pollinating one-third of the food we eat and renowned for their intelligence and industriousness, figure prominently in religion, mythology and folklore. Roman Catholic Bishop St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) of Geneva viewed a bee's work as "pure," writing that “the bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them.” (The bishop, later honored as a saint, apparently did not know that worker bees are female, not male.)
So enter Epiphany Episocol Church congregation member and music director Carlyn Crystal of Vacaville, the "junior warden" or "people's warden" who helps coordinate issues with the facility and grounds. She heard the buzz, saw the small cluster (about the size of several baseballs) 12 feet above the church entrance, and on the third day, contacted the Craig Hunt family, a Vacaville family of beekeepers.
Swarming, mainly a spring phenomenon, is the colony's means of reproduction as scout bees search for a new, permanent home. The swarm usually moves within three days.
Craig, his wife Shelly and daughters Alyssa, 13 and Emma, 8, arrived in the early evening of March 22 with a ladder, a smoker and a bee box. The family keeps some 50 hives at their residence on Meridian Road and were active in 4-H beekeeping projects before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Craig has taught many a 4-H'er, including his daughters, about bees.
"The bees may have swarmed to a nearby location," Craig said.
But there they were, the social insects congregating at the entrance to Epiphany, forming their own choir and social center.
Yes, 4-H projects have long included beekeeping. The Solano County 4-H Program, comprised of 10 clubs (as well as the military 4-H programming at Travis Air Force base), currently has one beekeeping project, according to Valerie Williams, Solano County 4-H Program Representative. The beekeeping project, offered by the Suisun Valley 4-H Club, includes 11 youth and two adult volunteer project leaders. (News flash: James "LJ" George gave an illustrated talk on beekeeping at the Solano County 4-H Presentation Day, held March 13 on Zoom and won a gold award.)
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Solano County 4-H Office is temporarily closed and meetings, programs and workshops are under restrictions.
Bees, however, know neither boundaries nor borders as they go about their bees-ness.
Church grounds are just fine with them.
Blessed are the bees.
(Note: Beekeeper Craig Hunt can be reached at 707-637-7221)
Newly published research in the journal Toxicon indicates "No, they're not."
"A survey on 5115 beekeepers and 121 patients treated with bee venom by an apitherapy clinic in the Hubei province, the epicenter of COVID-19 in China, reported that none of the beekeepers developed symptoms associated with COVID-19, the new and devastating pandemic. The hypothesis that immunity to bee venom could have a preventive effect was expressed and the authors of the Chinese survey suggested that the next step should be animal experiments on monkeys."
That's the opening paragraph in the research article, "Beekeepers Who Tolerate Bee Stings are Not Protected against SARS-CoV-2 Infections," published last month in the open-access journal.
The authors, German scientists Heidrun Männle, Jutta Hübner, and Karsten Münstedt, set out to explore the hypothesis of beekeeper immunity to the deadly virus. They asked all German beekeepers to complete an assessment form "which would summarize their experiences with COVID-19."
They found that two beekeepers died from COVID, and 45 were affected. One had been a beekeeper for 10 years and had no underlying health issues. He had developed "a level of tolerance to the effects of bee stings," they wrote. Not much information was available on the second beekeeper.
"The study shows that beekeepers are not immune to infections caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2," they summarized. "Especially, our data do not support the hypothesis that beekeepers are not affected by SARS-CoV-2 due to their exposure to bee stings and the associated immunity. The severity of the disease was not influenced by various variables like how long they had been a beekeeper, total number of bee stings received, number of bee stings received in the year 2020 and potentially allergic reactions to bee stings. However, the reaction to a bee sting (none versus mild swelling versus strong swelling) influenced the severity of two of the symptoms of a SARS-CoV-2 infection, namely exhaustion and sore throat pain, all of which were more pronounced in beekeepers who reported being more sensitive to bee stings. Beekeepers with less or a minimal reaction to bee stings were less likely to suffer from severe symptoms."
So, bottom line, their results "did not confirm the findings of the Chinese study." But there's this....
"However," the authors added, "since the antiviral effects of bee venom have been found in several studies, we cannot exclude that there could be a direct preventive or alleviating effect when bee venom is administered during the infection."
"The question why 121 patients of apitherapy clinic treated with bee venom did not develop symptoms associated with COVID-19 cannot be answered by our study," the authors acknowledged. "There could be a direct preventive or alleviating effect when bee venom is administered during the infection. In retrospect it would have been interesting to assess the time intervals between string exposure, onset of disease symptoms or contact to infected people."
Note that many questions are neither answered nor explored, and that this study was published before the development and arrival of vaccines.
The day originated back in the 1800s as a way to recognize and thank farmers for all the work they do to feed our nation--and the world.
It's also time to thank a beekeeper.
When beekeeper Kim Flottum of northeast Ohio, the 30-year editor of Bee Culture, addressed the recent Western Apicultural Society's 40th annual conference at UC Davis, he predicted that the nation's 250,000 beekeepers (who manage around 4 million colonies) will turn into a million beekeepers in five years.
A million. We can only hope!
Flottum applauded "the incredible rise of new beekeepers in the last 10 years."
"The urban, surburban and country beekeepers are younger than the norm and we have more women beekeepers than ever," said Flottum, who launched the magazine, BEEKeeping, Your First Three Years, two years ago. "This isn't like the 1970s Green Movement--I'm old enough to remember that. It's got legs! But watch out for an ugly urban disaster like a major beespill or bad honey recall."
Beekeepers are becoming more and more diverse, specializing in honey production, pollination services and queen bee breeding. Pollination services and queen bee breeding are the most profitable, Flottum said. Honey, not so much.
"If I'm in beekeeping, pollination services is sure bet," he said. "Beekeepers now get 200 bucks a colony for almond pollination in California. Pollination is more profitable than honey. Bee breeding? Queens can sell for as much as $40 or $50."
"In the United States, we eat on the average 1.2 pounds a year, but in Canada, it's 2.5 or 2.4 pounds." He lamented that unsafe and/or questionable honey from China floods our nation's supermarkets and is being sold at undercut prices. (Some statistics indicate that a "third or more of all the honey consumed in the U.S. is likely to have been smuggled in from China and may be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals"--Food Safety News.)
It's important for American beekeepers to label their honey "Made in America" or localize it by city or state, he said.
Flottum also touched on such issues as honey bee health, nutrition, loss of habitat, poor quality forage, and pesticides.
The varroa mite/virus is the No. 1 problem for beekeepers, he said. "Other stresses include nutrition, nosema, pesticides...All of these can be fixed with money, increased diversity of bee stock, and a move way from both ag and in-hive legal and illegal chemicals."
Meanwhile, thankfully, the appreciation of honey bees seems to be growing. Brought here in 1622 by European colonists in Jamestown, Va., bees now pollinate about one-third of the food we eat.
Happy Farmers' Day. Happy Beekeepers' Day.
(Editor's Note: Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño and her colleagues at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Davis, teach beekeeping and bee health workshops. See the Niño lab at http://elninobeelab.ucdavis.edu/. The UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center is hosting a two-day course on honey, Nov. 10-11.)
And it's definitely not a good time to be a honey bee.
The wind-whipped storms that are ravaging California are wreaking havoc on the state's almond pollination season, says honey bee guru Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist emeritus, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, and president of the Western Apicultural Society.
The situation: California's million acres of almonds require two hives per acre for pollination. Without bees, no almonds.
Honey bees usually fly when temperatures reach around 55 degrees. During inclement weather, they hole up inside their hives. They're so unlike our postal workers who vow that “neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet” can stop mail delivery. Unfavorable weather for bees? Think "no-fly zone."
Mussen, California's Extension apiculturist for 38 years before retiring in 2014, continues to maintain an office in Briggs Hall, UC Davis, and respond to inquiries about honey bees. Not one to say "no," Mussen is serving a sixth term as president of the Western Apicultural Society (WAS), which was founded at UC Davis and gearing up for its 40th anniversary meeting Sept. 5-8 Davis.
And the steady rain we're having? How will that affect the pollination season?
“Rain," said Mussen, "is hard on the almond bloom for a few important reasons." He lists five reasons:
- Rain frequently is accompanied by cooler weather, which delays bloom. But, the delay can last only a short while, and then the flowers open and shed pollen, despite the weather. Honey bees usually neither forage on damp or wet blossoms, nor fly in the rain.
- If pollen grains come into contact with water, the water enters the openings in the pollen grains, through which the pollen tubes are supposed to emerge. The water is absorbed by the living protoplasm in the pollen grain and bursts its contents.
- Free water tends to transport spores of fungal, and sometimes bacterial, diseases to open flowers. Those microbes can invade the floral tissues, or in some cases, begin a journey through the flowers into the branches of the tree. When rain is imminent, growers usually will apply a fungicide to their trees to reduce the amount of infection. Frequent rains can promote multiple pesticide applications.
- By almond bloom time, honey bee colonies are collecting as much pollen as they can find, to feed an expanding brood nest. A prolonged period of inclement weather will interfere with nectar and pollen foraging, and leave little food to raise be brood. Lack of incoming pollens can reduce brood rearing, sometimes even to the point of the adult workers consuming most of the younger brood to save the nutrients for better times.
- Beekeepers who are used to seeing their colonies increase from 8-10 frames of bees to 10-12 frames during almond bloom may be disappointed this year due to a situation that is beyond their control. Providing supplemental feed can help their bees to a limited extent, but we have no supplemental feed that matches the nutritional value of mixed pollens.
Mussen says that native, solitary bee species, such as the blue orchard bee, also can be impacted negatively by continuous wet weather. “Foraging flight is curtailed, pollens and nectars are diluted or washed away, nesting sites can be flooded, and preferred or required floral sources may not be available that year,” he said. “This can have substantial negative impacts on the size of the following generation.”
Bottom line: it's not a good time for almond growers, beekeepers, and bees.