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In October of 2012, Beekeepers in Ribeauville (a town in the Alsace region of France) were shocked to find that bees were producing vivid green and blue honey. The hard-working insects were not mutants or abstract expressionists. They had apparently found a source of colorful sugars which they pragmatically incorporated into their preparations for winter.
Shocked by the unnatural shades of the sweet honey, the town’s apiarists combed the local countryside until they found the apparent source—M&M candy fragments. A local biogas plant (a sort of industrial recycling plant) was processing candy fragments from a nearby Mars Candy plant. The adaptable bees discovered barrels filled with the sugary waste and began converting it to honey and stocking up their honeycomb. French law however is stern concerning what constitutes saleable honey (honey must be transparent to brown & produced from plant products) so the wacky carnival honey will never see market. Additionally workers at the biogas plant have enclosed all the candy dust so that the industrious insects don’t take over their jobs.
Since 2006, beekeepers in Europe and North America have been reporting mysterious mass die-offs of honeybees. Although this has been a problem which has sometimes affected beekeepers in the past, the worldwide scale of beehive failures subsequent after 2006 was unprecedented. Worldwide bee populations crashed. Since bees are directly responsible for pollinating a huge variety of domestic crops–particularly fruits and nuts—the threat to our food supply and agricultural base extended far beyond the honey production which people associate with bees. An entire community of free-wheeling apiarists came into the limelight. For generations these mavericks would load up their trucks with hives of bees and drive to orchards in bloom. For the right…honorarium…they would release the bees to pollinate the almonds, broccoli, onions, apples, cherries, avocados, citrus, melons, etcetera etcetera which form the non-cereal base of the produce aisle (as an aside, I find it fascinating that there is a cadre of people paid to help plants reproduce by means of huge clouds of social insects—if you tried to explain all this to an extraterrestrial, they would shake their heads and mutter about what perverts earthlings are).
As bees have declined, honey has naturally become more expensive, but so too have a great many other agricultural staples. Not only has the great dying hurt farmers and food shoppers it has also affected entire ecosystems—perhaps altering them for many years to come. “Pollinator Conservation” (an article from the Renewable Resources Journal) opines that “Cross-pollination helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive.”
Scientists have been rushing to get to the bottom of this worldwide problem, pointing fingers at varroa mites (invasive parasitic vampire mites from China), pesticides, global warming, transgenic crops, cell phone towers, habitat destruction, and goodness knows what else. The lunatic fringe has leaped into the fray with theories about super bears, aliens, and Atlantis (although I could add that sentence to virtually any topic). So far no theory has proven conclusive: exasperated entomologists have been throwing up their hands and saying maybe it’s a combination of everything.
Yesterday (March 29th, 2012) two studies released in “Science” magazine made a more explicit link between colony collapse and neonicotinoid insecticides. The first study suggested that hives exposed to imidacloprid (one of the most widely used pesticides worldwide) produced 85% fewer queen bees than the control hives. The second study tracked individual bees with radio chips (!) to discover that bees dosed with thiamethoxam were twice as likely to suffer homing failure and not return to the hive. Suspicion has focused on neonicotinoid poisons as a culprit in hive collapse disorder for years (the compounds were hastened into use in the nineties because they were so benign to vertebrates), however the rigorously reviewed & carefully controlled studies in “Science” bring an entirely new level of evidence to the problem. Unfortunately this also brings a new variety of problems to the problem, since neonicotinoids are tremendously important to agriculture in their own right (sorry Mother Earth) and since they are such handy poisons for, you know, not killing us and our pets and farm animals.
Even though honey bees they mimic humans in some ways (for example with their rigidly hierarchical hive organization), they are alarmingly alien in many respects. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the lives of honeybee drones—the male bees which play a role in reproduction but are otherwise alarmingly superfluous to the workings of a bee hive.
Drones are born from unfertilized eggs either laid by queens or by laying worker bees (which can only lay drones). Because the drones develop from unfertilized eggs they have only one set of chromosomes (a reproductive process known as arrhenotokous parthenogenesis) and each drone produces genetically identical sperm. A fertilized queen can lay female worker bees which have two sets of chromosomes (diploid). Worker bees are extremely closely related as sisters since they share identical genetic information from the father (as opposed to most other animals where male sex cells are not all genetically identical).
Drones are different in appearance from female bees. They are slightly larger than worker bees but smaller than the queen. They have extremely large eyes, perhaps to help them find a queen while flying. Additionally, drones lack stingers (which are really modified ovipositors and thus unique to female bees). Drones from different hives congregate at certain locations not far from a given hive (it is unclear how they choose or mark these locations).
Drones do not engage in the useful toil so characteristic of the workers. Male bees do not gather nectar & pollen, take care of larvae, or build the hive. Lacking stingers, they do not act as soldiers. Their only purpose is to mate with a queen—though only one in thousands will fulfill this destiny. Mating is accomplished in midair and proves fatal to the drone. His reproductive organs break off inside the queen and the contusion proves mortal. Drones have no place in an austere winter beehive. As winter approaches in cold weather locations, worker bees cast all of the drones out of the hive to perish.
Out of all the hymenoterans, Ferrebeekeeper has been looking forward to writing about honey bees. Not only is honey delicious (and the striped workaholic insects strangely endearing), but honey bees have one of the most successful colony systems extant. As noted in a previous post, a hive of honey bees is a conundrum—is it 50,000 souls working together in a city state or is it one living organism? Unfortunately, as one reads through the writings by beekeepers, one realizes that it is not easy to answer this question—or even to write a short essay concerning honey bees. Their societies are too complex to be readily summarized. Writing about a hive of honey bees really is like writing about the myriad affairs of a city-state. The bees forage in different locations, store their produce in different forms, build structures, establish castes, fights wars, and undergo succession crises.
All of that is true during the warm part of the year. As temperatures drop to around 20° Celsius (50° Fahrenheit), things change a great deal within the hive. Honey bees do not hibernate like bears (or like bumblebees which also snuggle down in a little lined den) instead they use honey stores and teamwork to stay warm. Honey bees do not have internal warming mechanisms like mammals, but they have each other and they have powerful wing muscles. The bees cluster together into a ball with the queen at the middle. Worker bees close to the queen shiver their wing muscles and thereby generate heat. Workers at the outside of the ball act as insulation (and benefit from transferred heat). If the ball becomes too hot it expands outward and the space between bees allows heat to escape. If it becomes too cold the bees press inward. Tired workers move towards the outside of the ball where they can be inert whereas cold workers on the outside move towards the inside. You might notice I am only writing about female bees—the workers and the queen—this is because all of the male drone bees are regarded as expendable and are thrown out of the hive to die in the cold as soon as temperatures drop.
In the beginning of the cold season the queen is not laying eggs (broodless) and the temperature within the cluster is about 27 °C (81 °F), however as spring nears a new brood of workers is needed and the interior temperature of the cluster rises to 34 °C (93 °F) in order to make egg-laying possible. Hives with too few bees can not stay warm this way and they perish in cold winters, however adequately large hives with ample honey reserves can survive temperatures which dip deep deep below freezing. Even in large well-provisioned hives there are winter dangers though. Moisture can build up in heavily insulated hives and form icicles which subsequently drip down on the bees in non-freezing weather and chill them (or burden them with fungi). And prolonged deep cold can prove disastrous. The bees congregate around a single honey store when the temperatures are extremely cold and then they spread out and move to another honey deposit when the weather is better. If the weather stays too cold for too long they deplete all of the honey and freeze—inches from abundant supplies of life-giving honey.