Honeybee Biology

More Than Just a Pretty Flower

Bees. Just try to say it without smiling. Pollinators, too. It’s in the long e and the long a – you just can’t help it. If you’re all practicing your poker face right now as you mouth these words, it might turn into a frown if you couldn’t buy avocados or blueberries, tomatoes or zucchini.

Which leads me to gardening. Because what are pollinators without something to pollinate? And where would the vast majority of fruits and vegetables be without pollinators?

There are at least 3 different species of pollinators here

Gardeners know the delight and hope that comes with pouring over a seed catalog, preferably while snuggled under a fleece throw with a cup of tea in the dead of winter. I turn down pages of my catalog, flowers and vegetables alike, and consider all the gardener’s aids offered – hoses that look like old fashioned phone cords on steroids, mini greenhouses, covers to protect my young blueberry bushes from the birds. Oh, and a new pair of pruning shears would be nice.

Photographs of glorious flowers send my imagination to my gardens in their summer prime, lush marigolds and bachelor buttons, marjoram and basil soaking up the sun. Maybe I’ll try amaranth this year, over by the butterfly weed. And Echinacea are drought tolerant; maybe I can finally get something to grow out by the den window. And the vegetable photos – oh, the vegetable photos! Zucchini, muskmelons, and all shapes and sizes of tomatoes. Perfection on the page. My eye wanders to the heirloom varieties of tomatoes, awakening that nostalgic thread in me that connects past to present, with names like Amish Paste, Arkansas Traveler, and Cherokee Purple. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a piece of Americana, equivalent to an old Model T, sitting in my garden.

Heirloom or modern-day, there’s a difference between planting for looks and planting for pollinators.

We love daffodils, lilies and tulips, the big showy flowers, their stamens bowing heavy in the center. But looks aren’t everything and if you’re a pollinator, these won’t do. The nectar and pollen from these modified blooms are generally less accessible to pollinators than the plants they’ve evolved with. Bumblebees and honeybees are specialized – their ability to collect nectar from certain flowers is dependent on their physiology and how it is matched to flower type. Honey bees have short tongues and generally stay at the surface of flowers. They prefer bee balm, sedum, and cosmos, among others. Watching them work my garlic chives is a treat. Bumblebees, on the other hand, are long-tongued and collect nectar and pollen on plants like peppers and tomatoes in a unique way. In 1985, a Belgian veterinarian named Dr. Roland DeJonghe found that placing bumblebee nests in a glasshouse (the very proper English term for our American greenhouse) increased tomato pollination remarkably. Fruits like tomatoes and peppers require buzz pollination, the rapid vibration of the flower, to release pollen onto the stamen. This is something that insects with ever-so-rapidly beating wings do well. Bumblebees are the Goldilocks of pollinators when it comes to tomatoes; everything – their size, their wingbeat frequency, the length of the hairs on their legs – is just right.

There are many, many other pollinators out there, from wasps to butterflies to sweat flies, and in the end, they mostly share, as far as their physiology will let them. My milkweed patch in bloom is an international convention of species. On sunny days it’s as busy as an airport on a holiday weekend.

Jewelweed

There’s another question looming, however. What’s all this about non-native plants? Kept in check, they’re not really all that bad (this is an entire post on its own). Bees and other pollinators are adapting to the melting pot of immigrants in their landscape. They love purple loosestrife and Japanese knotweed as much as they love dandelions and clover, buttonbush, goldenrod and jewelweed. On one hand, if it nourishes them, I’m happy. On the other, I also understand the dangers of non-natives turning invasive and crowding out native species. A monoculture of anything can’t be good. If it goes belly up, the pollinators are sunk. Of course, that’s the worst case scenario and unlikely to happen. But a proliferation of non-natives may outcompete the native species that have been around since before the first Europeans even stepped foot on North American shores.

Want to keep smiling when you say bees? Want to enjoy an abundance of fruits and vegetables?

• Plant flowers that pollinators can get to.
• Keep in mind variety. Though pollinators tend to be loyal to a particular flower type as it is blooming, they need variety so they can forage all the season on flowers with different bloom times. The Xerces Society, https://xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/plant-lists/ has comprehensive lists for different regions and climates.
• Advocate for open spaces where herbaceous plants and trees alike can grow over huge swaths of land. One of the first sources of nectar for honey bees in the spring is the red maple.
• Encourage dandelions, chickweed and clover in your lawn instead of perfection in the form of bluegrass or fescue. It keeps things interesting, nourished and healthy. And it’s all green anyway.

Red maple blossoms

 

Honey bees visit 2 million flowers to make a pound of honey, and one busy bee only collects just 1/12 of a teaspoon in its short lifetime. That’s a lot of flowers for a little honey. You may think your little garden patch isn’t much but think of it as a contribution to the Butterfly Effect . . . or the Pollinator Effect.

 

Oh, and one more thing. The title of this blog is Why Do Bees, right? As in why do bees do what they do? Or as in why do we keep bees? Either way, I love questions and thrive on assignments. Ask away. I’ll be happy to feature your question in a post along the way.

Honeybee Biology

Who’s The Boss?

Being your own boss is nice. You get to decide what you want to do, when and how. As an employee, I report to work when I’m scheduled, do the tasks I’m trained for, and stay until it’s all done. But as a writer for whydobees.com, I have the option of waiting for an idea to rise up, trusting that the right side of my brain is doing its thing as I go through my day. I can decide if this idea is worthwhile and take the time to let it percolate. Some days the words roll off my pencil onto the paper; other days the practical words concerning holidays or visitors or appointments and obligations nudge the creative ones aside. An idea is released only if and when I bless it as ready. Painter, writer, or musician . . . all artists know intuitively how to let the magic happen within the parameters of disciplined creativity.

Honey bees are diligent workers and skilled artists. But they are not their own boss. Even if we remove the beekeeper that manages the hives and reinforces their schedule, they’re still not the boss. They answer to universal cues. The tilt of the earth and its place in space relative to the sun drive the temperature and light cycles they answer to. The complex interactions of the ecosystem effect their health. Even earth’s geological features have an influence. It’s a balancing act with many variables. Though honey bees live in an autonomous colony and their activities determine the livelihood of the hive, they are also at the direction and sometimes the mercy of things beyond their control.

At no time in a bee-year is this more apparent than a warm sunny day in June. It’s like the tarp has been flung off a canvas, revealing the culmination of their efforts. Honey bees have been working hard all winter, when the sun still arcs low over the sky, the nights are long, and the deep, deep cold of January settles in.

Since late November, it’s been just the girls, one big slumber party in the darkness of the hive. Picture a mass of worker bees, heads facing inward with the queen in the middle, all vibrating their wing muscles to keep the temperature a toasty 80 degrees F. The queen stays warm in the center while the workers make trips to the pantry for honey (a healthy-sized hive will consume 30 pounds of the stuff in a winter), and very quick forays to the outside to eliminate waste on days when temperatures reach the mid-40s. This winter generation of workers is aging by now, and the queen keeps her pheromone pulse on things. If the pantry is well stocked with honey and pollen, she may be stimulated to lay eggs, even in these cold days of January and February. This maintains the population of winter bees and is also the precursor to spring egg-laying which explodes as temperatures drift upward, and more importantly, as light stays in the sky longer each day, waking flower blooms that will be their first source of new nectar.

 

And then they get creative. Honey bees create perfect hexagons out of beeswax that they meticulously clean and polish for their brood or for honey and pollen storage. They dance in the hive, weaving intricate patterns that tell other bees where the best flowers are. A new queen flies out to join in a mating dance with drones. Workers set up brood chambers with the eye of an interior designer – the nursery in the center of strategically placed honey- and pollen-filled hexagons. Honey itself is a culinary work of art with just the right blend of nectar, water, enzymes and secret ingredients.

What drives the creative urge? Whether it’s hexagons or dances, a musical score or a painting, or even dinner. We respond to basically the same cues honey bees respond to. It shows in our hunger and sleep patterns, the growth cycles of our nails and hair. There are the larger patterns of growth and senescence, coordinated on microscopic levels that change our features, how we think, and how we function over time. Our lifespan and lifestyle may be different but the DNA and the instructions inside are the same.

So, is the honey bees’ instinct to create perfectly ergonomic, space-saving, symmetrical, beautiful hexagons work or art? Is it any different from the human desire to string notes together to make music or blend a palette of colors to create a painting? Thousands of years ago, music and art were means of communication for survival, right alongside hunting and gathering, childrearing, and protecting one’s clan. It’s in our DNA and it’s in the cycles and patterns this unique universe weaves. Maybe the pull of creativity is like this too and we’re not really our own boss after all.

Honeybee Biology

A Bee’s Eye View

Pre-dawn. The dark lump at the bottom of the bed that is Wally and the red LED on the face of the clock announcing it is 5:27 am are about all I can see. Light is a relative thing. Though scientists, who measure light in precise angstroms and lumens, would argue this. Today is the Winter Solstice. The earth, tilted askew, is moving paradoxically closer to the sun even as longer nights are at their peak. An owl calls, breaking the silence, followed by another in the same cadence but a higher pitch. Sliding silently out from under the covers, feet finding slippers, I see the moon hanging in the sky, casting shadows of tree trunks and limbs across the grass.

Nothing is stirring.

At the bathroom sink, I turn on the tiny night light to brush my teeth, then pad softly to my desk to retrieve my notebook. My dog is at the top of the stairs by now, luxuriating in a down-dog stretch. I push my big toe forward until I find the top step then start down in near-darkness. The light on the coffee maker shines bright blue; I open the refrigerator to retrieve my coffee and a white light glares at me. Squinting, I know how bees must feel when I open their hive on a bright sunny day.

There’s a time when it seems to get darker before it gets lighter as the moon sinks below the tree line. This fringe of darkness lingers in the woods beyond the yard. Then, shades of rose and peach color the sky over the pond, and the sun winks above the horizon.

I think about how much light is a part of my life and how much light is not a part of a honey bee’s life. It’s dark inside the hive and it stays that way 24 hours a day. Though bees venture out daily in search of food and water most of the year, using the sun as their compass for foraging and finding home again and again, colder temperatures keep them clustered in darkness for weeks at a time. Under normal circumstances, the queen is destined to darkness always, traveling the honeycomb by feel and pheromone, as she deposits eggs and accepts the solicitations of her workers. Imagine living in darkness like this. Many years ago, I visited some old caverns. Deep down inside, the guide shut off his flashlight for a moment, sending us all into a velvety dark blackness. Zero angstroms, zero lumens. He told us that humans go blind in darkness like this in as little as 7 days, and most certainly would go mad as well. Since I have yet to see any blind, deranged bees stumbling around, I’m certain that their physiology is different from ours.

Humans see light within a specific spectrum, which is called the visible spectrum, measured in nanometers (nm). This is a misnomer, or at least rather humancentric, because the visible spectrum is different for many animals. Humans see in the range of about 700 nm to 400 nm. If you visualize the colors of the rainbow, red is at the 700 nm end and violet is at the 400 nm end. These numbers represent the length of a light wave. Red light has a longer wavelength; violet has a shorter wavelength. Remember the old fashioned phone cords? Picture one stretched out, its spirals elongated. That’s red. Now picture the cord dangling loosely from a phone on its cradle, a tight spiral. That’s violet.


There are longer and shorter wavelengths of light beyond each end of this human visible spectrum. Beyond the red end lie the longer wavelengths of infrared, microwave, and radio waves. Beyond the violet lie ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma rays, in even tighter curls of that phone cord. Bees don’t have x-ray vision, but they can see ultraviolet rays, so their visible spectrum lies in a different range than ours does. Everything is shifted towards the violet end of the spectrum and beyond into the ultraviolet. Bees actually have the hardest time seeing red, especially if it blends into the background. The blossoms of a Rudbeckia, what many of us know as a Brown-eyed Susan, with its happy yellow petals and suede-brown centers, are often visited by pollinators, honeybees included. But though we see yellow and brown, a honeybee sees them quite differently. To a honeybee the flower petals are a deep magenta at the edges with darker purple streaks leading into the center, almost like a runway. And if you’re a bee coming in for a landing, you’ll follow this runway to the center of the flower where the nectar and pollen are. Flower petals, for all their beauty, are merely directional signals.

Bees see ultraviolet as a separate color, something we cannot do without sophisticated instruments, and even then, it is only something we can approximate. But ultraviolet light is as important to them as being able to distinguish a red light from a green light on a traffic signal is to us. On overcast days, if you notice a decrease in foraging, chalk it up to the lack of ultraviolet light.

As humans, we depend on our sense of sight probably more than any of our other senses. We are the exception to the animal rule, along with most birds. Many other animals depend more on their sense of smell, hearing and touch. There are days when I let my dog have it his way on our walks and this means that he meanders in a serpentine, in fits and starts. He reads the ground and the air with his nose, and learns what animals have traversed our route the night before. Unless it is very strong, like skunk musk or a pile of fresh coyote scat, I am oblivious to these smells. Dogs can also sense emotions and a number of health conditions in the pheromones released by other animals, including humans. There have been accounts of dogs predicting an epileptic seizure or detecting a cancerous lump in a human and these have been attributed to specific pheromones released under those conditions.

Bees also depend on pheromones to guide them, especially inside the hive. The queen releases pheromones to establish her reign and health status. Worker bees release pheromones to coordinate activities at certain times of the year. Workers that have found a particularly abundant supply of pollen and nectar will enter the hive and perform a waggle dance, emitting pheromones as to where this place is. Touch is important in this dance too, since other foraging workers will touch the dancing bees to “get directions.” It’s dark in there; they certainly can’t see. It’s no wonder they’re agitated when I open the hive, especially when I dig down deep. Light floods the honeycomb, scents from outside waft in and around the frames, diluting the pheromones circulating in the hive that make it smell like home. They become disoriented, especially the queen, by this flood of light.

But even though light isn’t the primary sense they use, it is still important to them. They respond to the change of seasons as measured by the amount of daylight more than by temperatures. In these days of shorter daylight, today being the shortest of them all, honey bee colonies look quiet from the outside. There is activity inside, wings beating in that cluster to generate warmth, the queen cozy in the center. Pheromones, if not light, circulate, saying all is well.

Honeybee Biology

Partying, Naturally

“Did you hear there’s a new vaccination for foulbrood?” my husband called from his perch in the den, gaze fixed on his computer. “How do you vaccinate a bee?” I wondered. But I was almost out the door, a tote bag dangling off my left arm, its contents clanging together as it bumped my knee with each step. Thick mittens and a mug of tea in my right hand, I finagled the garage door knob open without spilling. “Bookmark it,” I called as the garage door closed behind me.

I was heading out to Connecticut College and in the tote bag were supplies for the Sprout Garden’s year-end meeting, held in December in the interlude between the end of classes and the beginning of finals. Part of the college’s Sustainability program, the Sprout Garden is a student-managed organic garden providing hands-on experience in small-scale sustainable farming techniques. Fruits and vegetables grow from raised beds while chickens mill about eating the insect pests that these plants attract. This is where they hope to have an apiary come April. They’d been learning beekeeping essentials all semester and preparing for their new colonies. A bee-based product was on the list of natural body products and snacks that was the focus of this meeting . . . pure fun and relaxation, celebrating gardens and pollinators. My bag was packed with supplies to make beeswax lip balms.

I found my way to the Steel House, once faculty housing with a small kitchen, where core Sprout Garden members Eric, Hannah and Margaret, were busy. Eric was peeling mangoes, a blender at the ready to render Orange-Mango smoothies. Margaret was whipping up guacamole with fresh avocados and tomatoes, rummaging in the cupboards for the odd salt and pepper shakers hidden there. Hannah was writing product instructions on the whiteboard at one end of the room. A card table held the ingredients she listed: coffee grounds, raw sugar, honey, essential oils, and Castile soap, alongside the guacamole and a mighty bowl of corn chips for dipping. The blender whirred. A jar of coconut oil was softening in simmering water on the stove. I set up the beeswax as its twin on the burner to the right and added shea butter, Vitamin E oil and lip balm containers to the cluster of supplies. Students arrived and searched the cupboards for mixing bowls and measuring cups. They concocted body washes and facial scrubs, ate guacamole and drank smoothies, and made a happy mess.

Also tucked inside my bag was an article by Evan Bush, a Seattle Times staff reporter that highlighted Paul Stamets and his work with mushrooms and bees. Mushrooms and bees? It seems that scientists are trying all angles to help them thrive and survive, from vaccines to mushrooms. A number of years ago, this mushroom farmer, beekeeper, and astute observer noticed that bees were attracted to mushroom mycelia, the branching fibers that look like a lacey cross between root hairs and cobwebs. Facing the near-epidemic virus attacks of many beekeepers, he wondered if there was something about mushroom mycelia that was beneficial. In controlled experiments, it was shown that bees fed sugar water and mycelia extract were more resistant to the viruses carried by mites than those fed sugar water alone. This mycelia extract with its antiviral properties could easily be added to food supplements and work is underway to make this type of antiviral therapy available to beekeepers. I’ll be keeping my eye out for this new product.

Esteban, one of the Sprout Garden managers had described this to me briefly at our last meeting so I wanted to share the article with him. And just as bees might benefit from mushrooms, it turns out that mushrooms can benefit from bees. I had brought beeswax not only to make lip balms but also for Esteban’s mushroom inoculation experiment. Esteban’s eyes widened at the chunk of beeswax I handed him. “Whoa, this is awesome,” he said, reaching for it. I showed him a bucket of raw beeswax too, the mixture of older brown beeswax and newer blond wax I had scraped from some frames, brimming with bug parts and sticky with nectar. Looking between the two, I could see he appreciated what he was holding.

“So tell me about this inoculation process,” I said.

His plan was to inoculate logs with the spores of different species of mushrooms, using the wax as protection for the growing fungus. He told me that beeswax is breathable, allowing gas exchange with the environment, yet is also a natural barrier to water and contaminants. He hopes to add mushrooms to the Sprout Garden’s bounty next season.

In the end, each student had created jars of body products, to give away as gifts or use themselves, working with natural products to make things we use every day without any additives or unpronounceable names in them. Esteban had his beeswax to naturally coat spores that would grow to mushrooms. I don’t know what scientists are using for foulbrood vaccinations (I haven’t gotten back to that bookmark yet), but finding ways to work with natural products seems like a good idea. Observing and experimenting, we just might find a way to help the bees, and people, and other organisms. I’d like to see the feathered mycelia protected under that coat of beeswax sprout tiny mushrooms in the spring, right alongside the new honey bee colonies.

Honeybee Biology

Pollinator Partnerships

“Now the first of December was covered in snow,
So was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston . . .”

There is only the spin of my tires on the road, an occasional squeak of wiper blades, and the whoosh of cars passing as I drive along the Mass Pike. Insistent flakes announce winter and these lyrics fill my head in the absence of any music, connecting moment to memory, even if it is a day shy of December 1st. Exiting south toward I-395 and through The Quiet Corner of northeastern Connecticut, the traffic dwindles and I let the song unwind in my brain, taking in the landscape that rolls by.

Two hawks pose on leafless branches, sitting tall and regal. I imagine them dressed in the saffron robes of Buddhist monks, meditative awareness turned inward, when in fact they are acutely aware of their surroundings and the possibility of a hapless rodent that might venture within striking distance.

In the tunnels created by the woods along the highway, it seems there is nothing for miles, just a ribbon of blacktop connecting one place to another. But at the crests of these undulating hills, I can look out past the highway signs and over the young trees to see the work of human hands on the land. Peering down exit ramps, there were convenience stores and gas stations; I imagine towns nestled further down the road, and sprawling commercial areas. Looking further out into the distant hills, the evidence of this fragmentation is softened by the veil of snow. Mostly leafless, the hardwoods stretch their limbs upward, golden spires of birch trees with leaves still hanging on reach through the gray. Evergreens lend a sense of life, though everything about these hills breathes at the slower pace of approaching winter.

In the same way that time expands and contracts on a long drive, I watch the road cuts rise up and fall away, playing with geologic time in my mind. Parts of the highway are carved into the earth, exposing the millennia in one sweep of the eye. The deep, deep past is at eye level and lifting my gaze to the top of the rock face, the present looms 60 feet up. This is topped by brave saplings, the dormant buds on the tips of their branches representing the future, when they will leaf out next spring. These rock layers are pages of geologic and biological history, to be read in order, bottom to top. When did the insects appear in these pages? Is there a glassine wing or a tiny fragment of an exoskeleton pressed between these layers of rock laid down in the Mesozoic Era?

Though insects first evolved 479 million years ago, along with the first land plants in the Paleozoic Era, most modern insect species originated about 345 million years ago. It wasn’t until the evolution of flowering plants 146 million years ago that plants and many insects, honeybees among them, formed a partnership that benefits both to this day. Flowers provide nectar and pollen for insects. In turn, insects help to ensure the next generation of so many of the flowering plants we know today by transferring pollen among flowers, allowing fertilization. That’s the simple story; interactions in the natural world are so much more intricately woven, with exceptions and variations galore. But the bottom line is we wouldn’t enjoy the diversity of plants we do today if it weren’t for pollinating insects.

 

Their visual world is full of runways, bulls-eyes, and landing strips, the intricate patterns of flower petals leading the way to the nectar and pollen. Since plants generally can’t move to find other plants when the call to make more of themselves arises, this is a definite advantage. They need pollinators.

A bee that lands and taxis down the runway to the nectar source brushes up against pollen-laden anthers, the male parts of the flower. Pollen is flower sperm, just sticky enough to cling to the legs of a roving insect. Once this insect has sipped its fill of nectar, it flies off in search of another flower which is more than likely the same species, given they are in the same area and that many flowers have specific bloom times. Taxiing down the runway again, it brushes up against more pollen and against the stigma, the female part of the flower. The stigma is sticky, grabbing pollen, which makes its way down through the stamen to the ovaries lying at its base.

The beauty of a flower gives way to the bounty of fruit, with seeds at its core to produce a new generation of plants. Going to seed, a term used by gardeners, is a direct result of pollination. Often a term associated with being spent, done, it is not at all. Plants that lie dormant this time of year, leafless and forlorn, are snapshots of the next generation. There is new life and energy in every seed. Not every plant is pollinated by insects; wind, water and other animals have their own plant partners. But some of our most beloved fruits, nuts and vegetables – almonds, apples, oranges, tomatoes, to name a few – are pollinated by honey bees and their relations. All these pollinators ask of a plant is a bit of nectar and pollen in return.

A gray pickup rumbles by, a Pest Control logo sprawled across its tailgate, with a bumblebee for embellishment. “Bees are not pests, they’re pollinators!” I grumble at its receding tailgate. “If anything, put a termite on your logo.” To be fair, even termites have their place in the grand scheme of things but it annoys me that so many people might get the wrong impression. Of course, wasps are also considered pests, but they’re pollinators as well. It’s all a matter of time and place. Out in an orchard, certain species of wasps work beside honey bees and bumblebees to move pollen from flower to flower so that the plant will bear the fruit that we eat. So do flesh flies. And butterflies. Even mosquitoes, beetles and hoverflies practice pollination. Some pollinators are more honored or at least better tolerated than others.

There are many accounts of how humans would be hard pressed to eat if it weren’t for pollinators. Mark L. Winston, author of Bee Time, points out that 65% of plant species currently inhabiting this planet require or benefit from bee pollination. “A world without bees would be almost impossible to contemplate and likely one in which we would never have evolved in the first place.” Imagine going back hundreds of millions of years to pre-flowering plant days – how dismal. No apples, no almonds, no blueberries, no zucchini. No tomatoes or basil to drizzle with olive oil; indeed, no olives. Not even leafy plants like lettuce which, if it has ever bolted in your garden patch, sends up flowers that seem especially attractive to bees. No clover, ryegrass, or fescue for beef or dairy cattle and therefore, no beef or dairy cattle. Oh, we could probably come up with a high-tech way to pollinate these plants but the cost of bringing fruits like avocados, apples and cherries to market would skyrocket. So would beef and dairy products.

Scientists are discovering that the decline in bee populations, both managed honeybees and wild bees, is due to many interacting causes and they’re pouring their efforts into these problems, on a grass-roots level and a national level. On this deserted stretch of highway when I look out into the stillness of snow falling on so many trees, it’s hard to believe that the earth is in such dire straits. But I don’t live in Beijing, or Antarctica, or amidst the wildfires of the west coast. One can’t get too cozy in one’s cocoon.

Turning into my driveway at the end of my trip, my apiary stands empty. The sad news is that I lost my last hive recently, the rain-soaked fall and probably other factors proving too much for the colony. An empty apiary looks disheartening. But it also begs to be filled come spring, so I’ll do my research and order 2 more hives. For starts.

As a hobby beekeeper, I know that even two small hives can make a difference. And that’s the unique thing about beekeepers. The vast majority of us think this way, whether we manage 2 hives or 200. We’re not willing to let pollinators languish. It’s not just for selfish reasons, because we like almonds or avocados. Or honey. It’s because these tiny creatures have found their way into our hearts and scientific minds, and they challenge us to help them overcome the diseases that plague them, and to be their advocate in finding ways to thrive on this human-dominated Earth.

By the way, I just read a very comprehensive article on beekeeping duties for the month of December posted by Beekeeping 365. https://sassafrasbeefarm.wordpress.com/2018/12/01/midlands-beekeeping-calendar-for-the-month-of-december-2
I especially like #10 and #14. Oh, and Happy Birthday, Lorenzo Langstroth!

Honeybee Biology

Crossing Bees Instead of Peas

When is a honey bee like a Greyhound? When it’s a Buckfast. Get it? I didn’t think so. It’s a dumb joke anyway. Besides, a Buckfast is more like a Labradoodle – both are recognized hybrids or crossbreeds. A Carniolan or an Italian honey bee is more like a Greyhound. Purebred. See, there are strains of bees just like there are breeds of dogs. It all comes down to genetics, as Gregor Mendel discovered in the 1800s.

The sunrise surrounds my hives these mornings with an artist’s palette of reds and yellows, nestled as they are in the recent snow. All is quiet. They’re in for the winter and I’m keeping my fingers crossed they make it through. I’m also already planning ahead. If beekeepers are adding to their apiaries in the spring, this is the time of year when they need to order bees. Which strain to bring into my apiary is one of my top considerations. The choice can be tricky because there are so many factors. Italians or Carniolans? Or a strain I haven’t tried yet? Maybe this year I’ll order a variety, giving me a bee yard of United Nations out back.

Honey bees are native to Eurasia and Africa, and were first brought to North America by colonists at Jamestown in 1622. Over the years, humans have tweaked these first honey bees to enhance certain characteristics. Today there are several strains of bees, akin to breeds of dogs. All dogs are of the genus and species Canis familiaris, originating from the first wolf-like canid in Europe more than 30,000 years ago. Poodles, labs, and greyhounds are breeds, their genes tweaked for specific purposes such as hunting, retrieving or racing. All honey bees are Apis mellifera. The most popular strains of honeybees are Italians, Carniolans, and Russians, as well as a few hybrids of these strains.
Which is best? Well, that depends. Here’s a brief summary of the different strains.

Italian honey bees

The most popular strain of honey bee in the U.S. is the golden colored Italian Apis mellifera ligustica. The Italian strain’s popularity is mostly due to its relatively gentle nature and high productivity, two characteristics that beekeepers appreciate. They begin brood rearing early and keep it up all season long, supplying the hive with a constant flow of new workers. Unfortunately, they are somewhat susceptible to the numerous pests that plague honey bees. They also have a tendency to rob weaker colonies of their honey stores, classifying them as kleptoparasites, stealing from the rich but not-so-hardy. It sounds like a mean-spirited word, but I suppose they were just doing what nature does best, practicing survival of the fittest.

The German strain, Apis mellifera mellifera, never really got a foothold in America, despite the fact that it was here first. It tends to be more aggressive and is prone to American foulbrood, the most serious of all the bee diseases. Beekeepers that encounter American foulbrood must burn all their equipment and start from scratch. It’s enough to sway many beekeepers from this susceptible strain.

Carniolan honey bees

The darker colored Carniolan strain, Apis mellifera carnica, was developed in the area of the Carniolan Alps. This makes them hardy stock, able to survive cold winters and fickle weather patterns; the latter seems to be more common these days. They are the gentlest of all the honey bees, a plus. But with a tendency to build up brood quickly, they also swarm more frequently, a definite minus.

Russian honey bees are growing in popularity in the U.S. because they’re resistant to the varroa mite, the pest that all beekeepers live with but would rather live without. They seem to also have the measured spring buildup of Italians that keeps swarming to a minimum. Considering that I’ve witnessed two swarms in two years, these Russians might make good additions to my apiary. And coming from eastern Russia, they must be winter hardy.

The gray-black Apis mellifera caucasia strain of honey bee originated between the Black and Caspian Seas and was first brought to North America in 1882. They are gentle and they are homebodies, meaning they don’t tend to swarm, two very desirable traits. But if honey production is high on a beekeeper’s list of priorities, Caucasians are usually passed over. They’re also heavy producers of propolis, that sticky resin that protects them from nest invaders and chemicals seeping in between cracks in their home. Beekeepers don’t like this so much but the bees certainly have good reason to produce it.

Can there be more than 2 strains in a honey bee colony? The equivalent of a Labradoodle? Sure, if you consider how queens mate and whose genes they bring home. When you buy a package of honey bees, the queen comes already mated to your order specifications. This first season of workers and drones will be what you expect. But, if the queen is replaced naturally by the workers the next season, the new queen will populate your colony with workers of all nationalities, depending on the neighboring colonies and the strain of the drones at the drone congregating areas where she flies to mate. Those DCA’s are like any all-American meeting place for people looking to find their mate – a melting pot of nationalities and ethnicities.

There are also intentionally crossed strains, developed by humans. The most well-known are the Africanized honey bee and the Buckfast bee.

Africanized honey bee

The Africanized honey bee, Apis mellifera scutellata, is the strain of honey bee NOT to get. It’s also known as the killer bee and it lives up to its name. Only experienced beekeepers in Brazil seem to be able to manage these hot headed little ladies.

Buckfast honey bee

The Buckfast bees are certainly tempting, though. They’re crosses not unlike my dog Wally who is a blend of black lab, pit bull terrier, maybe boxer and probably something else. These bees are a mix of the Italian and German strains, intentionally crossed by Brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey in the United Kingdom back in 1914. He’s the Gregor Mendel of beekeeping, crossing bees instead of peas. Over time, other strains were added to the cross, highlighting their desirable characteristics and diminishing the less desirable. These gentle bees have a high resistance to disease, overwinter well, and are great honey producers.

I play with possibilities in my brain. I could stick with Italians and I like Carniolans. Russians are hardier . . . but those Buckfast bees look more and more enticing as I research them, though they’re not as easy to find this side of the Atlantic. With the exception of the Africanized bees, I really could see a United Nations of honey bees in my backyard some year. Italians for their productivity, Russians for their resistance to varroa mites, Caucasians for their stay-at-home attitude, Carniolans for their gentle nature. And Buckfast bees.

A melting pot, because isn’t America one anyway?

Beekeeping

Finding Gold in a Dirty Pot

In my previous post, my basement was edging toward organized. We all cycle through rounds of order and messiness – bees, beekeeping chores, and even humans just living life. Where we arrive is, at best, better than where we began. The beekeeper in me is ready to unravel one neat area; this time to turn a pile of messy leftovers from a season of beekeeping into a golden disc of wax.

Alchemy was chemistry before the advent of the Periodic Table in the 1800s. Back in Medieval times, it was believed that the four basic properties of the universe – earth, fire, water and air – when combined in certain ratios could transform everyday compounds into gold, booze, even life itself.

Today we know otherwise. Mix ordinary ingredients like eggs, flour, chocolate, and oil together, each with their own unique chemical and physical properties, add energy in the form of heat, and soon the scent of brownies wafts from your oven. Bite into a warm square and chemistry starts all over again, as enzymes break down the molecules, enhancing the flavor. Craving chocolate yet?

Rendering a bucket of raw wax scraped from hive equipment is basically chemistry too, though the end result is magical enough to earn it the honorary title of alchemy. Raw beeswax starts out as a conglomeration of products from the hive: wax, pollen, honey, propolis, bee wings and other appendages. Toss it all in a pot, add heat, and soon a golden liquid rises to the top. Cooling, it becomes a disc of pure gold. To me, this process is magic. But just a bit more complicated than waving a magic wand.

Beekeeping books and the internet offer advice on rendering beeswax to its purest state. Feel free to peruse and combine methods. That’s what I did and this is what works for me. First, a trip to the Goodwill Store is in order. Among the plates and teacups, waffle irons and bric-a-brac (the very things you may have contributed from your messy basement), you need to find a misfit pot as the perfect melting vessel. It needs to be big enough (6-8 quarts), have enough dents to lend it some character, and a handle that a potholdered hand can fit through. A bargain at $2. Christen this one the “dirty pot.” Its insides will forever be smeared with the first renderings of beeswax – brown and lumpy with just a hint of gold shining through. Don’t ever think of cleaning it. You will also need a larger pan that can serve as a double boiler to this one.

Set up shop in your kitchen and watch the alchemy unfold. Cover counters and the floor with newspaper to make cleanup easier as beeswax is notoriously tenacious. Set your dirty pot inside your double boiler. A note of caution: Wax is flammable! Always use this double boiler method when melting wax. Keep the heat at a simmer, never stray too far, and practice patience. When silver bubbles rise along the outside edges of your dirty pot, the temperature is about right. Carefully lower a few fistfuls of raw honeycomb into its belly. The heat makes this fluffy mixture collapse on itself and you can easily add more before adding an equal volume of water. It will begin to look like an agitated mud puddle. With the gentle heat and an occasional stir, bonds soften their molecular grip, and liquid gold rises to the surface as pure molten beeswax. The chunks of detritus slowly descend into the water. Turn off the heat and walk away. Practice patience.

Within an hour or so, the sheen of melted wax is transformed to a soft translucent amber disc floating above the debris-laden water. This is only step one. Wax is less dense than water but so is much of the debris. This is caught on the underside of the disc as it hardens. Scrape off as much as you can without digging into the wax. Discard the dirty water, preferably outside – it’s good stuff to decomposers out there. Set the disc back into the pot for a second melting, this time without water. Keep a closer eye on it now, poking at the bees and debris to free them from the wax, which takes on a brown chunky appearance again, though not as murky as the first rendering. Once melted, pour it through a filter. Mine is not high-tech – I use a simple foil bread pan with a paper towel or tripled cheesecloth clothes-pinned to the top to make a sling for the melted wax. The wax drips through, leaving the brown debris behind on the paper towel. It sounds like a sweet summer rain on the skylights. Again, practice patience. But if you’re like me, you can’t help but lift the edge of the paper towel to reveal pure gold, not a bug leg in sight. When it has hardened it easily pops out of the pan.

Order from chaos. Transformation from messiness. Bees, basements and byproducts of the hive. Back in the height of the season, honeybees gathered bits and pieces of the natural world and transformed them into perfect honeycomb.  Used wisely to raise brood and store food, it takes on a characteristic messiness of its own. A cleaned basement can reveal treasures forgotten and spiders banished. A pile of hive scraps is transformed to a golden disc of pure beeswax. All these things take energy, but all are worth the effort. It’s not really alchemy, not always chemistry, but there’s always a hint of magic in what you might find.

Pure beeswax