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Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

I’ve been slightly obsessed about bee food lately, especially as I have chosen not to use pollen patties and to feed Themyscira real honey instead of sugar syrup. In the course of my musings, I have asked questions of all the beekeepers I know, read books and searched the internet for more information. Here are some of the things I have learned:

  • A hive under stress is more susceptible to disease. The stress of not having enough food, or of having to forage really hard for food, process it and care for the brood, would make bees very vulnerable to disease.
  • The hive itself has flora much like the digestive tract of the human body. If proper balance is not maintained, disease can flourish. This is a case for feeding them honey instead of sugar, so that they won’t risk a potential over growth of yeast.
  • Protein is especially important to bees in the spring when they are rearing brood. The brood needs protein (found in pollen) in order to grow. If the bees don’t have enough, they will feed the brood protein from their own bodies, which weakens them considerably.
  • City bees may have an advantage over rural bees. Bees need a diversity of pollen to supply them with all of the protein, vitamins and minerals that they need. They can’t get those things exclusively from one type of plant. So, bees that live near large mono-culture farms or bees that are used to pollinate a single crop (like almonds) for a long period of time may be weakened. Some apiarists supplement bees in these situations with pollen patties even though the bees are technically getting enough pollen. My city bees have the advantage of having many types of flowering plants and trees available within flying range of our home. Flowers bloom fairly continuously from April through August.
  • In response to my question, “Assuming we are trying to beekeep naturally, why do we even feed bees?” a wise and more experienced beekeeper reminded me that in the wild, only 20% of swarms survive. So, even if I were to assume that my new package of bees had the same characteristics as a swarm [which it doesn’t since package bees are all very young and haven’t been honey-loading], it would only have a one in five chance of making it.
  • Much of what we think we know about bee nutrition comes from commercial beekeepers, particularly beekeepers that are using their hives to pollinate crops. Commercial beekeepers have vastly different priorities than backyard beekeepers like me. I do not need my hives to be ready to pollinate the almond crops starting February 1.

I am planning to examine honey bee nutrition more in depth. I would like to compare what is known about honey bee nutrition with what is commonly used to supplement bees. My early research leads me to conclude that supplemental feeding has developed with the goals of creating enough brood for creating packaged bees and enough bees to pollinate early crops. I am curious what best practices would look like for urban backyard bees, particularly if one cares more about building a strong bee population than about harvesting much honey.

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…when it hits your windshield? It’s stinger!

Bad bee humor aside, bee brains (and insect brains in general) have been fascinating me recently, as you may have noticed from previous posts about insect emotions, thrill-seeking and the like.

Today I had the joy of discovering this new study done on the Japanese honeybee, bees that show increased neural activity in the face of danger which allows them to act cooperatively. Given the mythos of Japan, and how its people also seem able to activate some part of their brain to act cooperatively and live in hive-like cities, I am completely fascinated by this research and the evolutionary differences between the Japanese honeybee and the European honeybee.

Here’s the story: Japanese bees have an evil nemesis called the Asian Giant Hornet (which also has several more poetic names like the “tiger head bee,” the “giant sparrow bee” and the “commander bee”). This hornet is a fearsome creature with a wingspan of 3 inches and a non-barbed stringer of ¼ inch. Yes, non-barbed, meaning that it can and will sting you repeatedly. With venom that contains an enzyme capable of digesting flesh and bone. Did I mention this hornet is also called the “Yak Killer?” I think you can see why.

Giant Asian Hornet
Photo by Gary Alpert

No matter the strength of your exoskeleton, if you are a honeybee you live in fear of the AGH. The AGH is capable of killing 40 honeybees per minute by decapitating them with its killer mandibles. Three or four of these hornets can wipe out a honeybee hive of 30,000 bees in a few hours. They will then carry off the honeybee larvae as a food source for their own young. Nature can really be a bitch.

European honeybees are defenseless against these monsters, whose exoskeletons are impenetrable to honeybee stings. Thus, beekeepers in Asia no longer import European honeybees despite their higher honey production. The only way to fend off a potential AGH attack is to kill the scout hornet so that subsequent hornets will not follow its trail o’pheromones to your lovely beehive.

And this is where the Japanese honeybees’ highly evolved brains spring into action. As the first scent of Asian Giant Hornet pheromone, the brains of Japanese honeybees spring into “thermal mode.” Five hundred bees form a dense ball around the invading hornet and start flapping their wings like crazy. Vibrating their flight muscles raises the core temperature of the bee ball to 115 degrees. The bees keep it at that temperature for 20 minutes while the hornet cooks to death. A few honeybees may die in the struggle, but the elevated temperature does not seem to affect them the way it clearly disables the enemy.

The research released today found that the pheromone secreted by the hornet seemed to directly trigger a response in the bees. There’s not a “leader bee” and a bunch of “follower bees” in this situation. They all just spring into action. The researchers found this to be an interesting sign of collective hive intelligence. I suspect beekeepers all around the world have known about hive intelligence for eons. Still, it’s interesting when the science starts to catch up.

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"And the next time I come for my inspection, I expect your hive to be tidy!"

As I scrolled through a bee-related email in my inbox yesterday, I discovered at the bottom of the message this little tidbit:

King County 21A.30.020 of K.C.C. 11.04

All colonies shall be registered with the County Extension agent prior to April 1st of each year, on a state registration form acceptable to the county.

This gave me pause as I had no idea that I was supposed to register my hives and wondered what the purpose and benefits of registering would be. I have to admit that given the difficulty of the struggle to legalize city chickens and other urban livestock, I initially felt reluctant to register my hives. I immediately imagined clandestine visits from be-suited gentlemen ready to dismantle my freshly crafted rooftop system.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture website is woefully lacking in reasons for registering your bees and a description of what bee inspectors can offer to the apiarist. However, looking across different states and their apiary registration requirements (Tennessee and Illinois particularly have it figured out), it seems that three solid reasons exist for registering bees:

  1. Collecting data and samples for learning more about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and other bee-related maladies;
  2. Getting alerts as to disease outbreaks, particularly foulbrood; and
  3. Protecting bees from pesticide exposure.

Of course, protecting bees from pesticide exposure is more of a hazard in rural areas where large farms might use crop dusters, and pesticide drift must be planned for. However, should there be a potential exposure to something hazardous for my bees, I would want to be alerted. Likewise if there is a disease outbreak.

Collecting data and samples is something that I voluntarily want to be part of. So, I downloaded the registration form and am sending in my $5 to become a registered apiarist in the State of Washington.  I have to admit that I rather like the official title. And the ironic deliciousness of it as my first bee packages haven’t even arrived!

Because the code also states that bees must be kept in moveable frames, if I had decided to experiment with Warre or top bar hives (which ha

ve fixed frames) I might opt not to register. Which seems a pity from a research perspective. If we want to collect data on incidence of disease, CCD and other bee maladies, it would be useful to be able to compare types of hives. Some beekeepers postulate that foundationless beekeeping, which allows bees to revert to a more natural, smaller size, helps strengthen bees against Varroa mites and other ills. If all types of hives were registered, that data could more easily be compared.

And if I decide to experiment with Warre in the future, I will have to sacrifice my official title in the name of science. Such are the trials of the backyard beekeeper!

For your own research: Puget Sound Beekeepers maintains a page of links to local and state beekeping regulations. And here is a direct link to the Washington State Code.

Update: For a quick link to the WA State apiary registration form, click here.

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