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Today’s news was filled with bluster and foolishness to such an extent that I am just going to disregard it all for the moment and write a throw-away humor post about consumer goods.  Presumably we can work on restoring science, democracy, and art to humankind at some later point when I am less tired from work.

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It has been widely noted that honeybees have been disappearing from the world.  Although this problem was exacerbated by climate change, invasive varroa mites, and disease, the main problem is the overuse of neonicotinoid pesticides, which take a terrible toll on hymenopterans in general and are especially hard on eusocial bees (which extensively rely on elaborate organization, communication, and teamwork).

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This past week, General Mills, the maker of Cheerios decided to cash in on this tragedy, with a marketing campaign in which “BuzzBee” the cartoon bee who is the mascot of HoneyNut Cheerios has likewise gone missing.  The firm is distributing packets of “wildflowers” with their cereal so that children can help out our beleaguered insect friends by planting bee friendly gardens.   It is a bit unclear how wisely or carefully the flowers in the packets were chosen, but I am generally a fan of flower gardening and this sounds like a potentially fun promotion (although I have a suspicion there will be a lot of people who end up disappointed by the “Diving Dolphin” nature of cereal box seeds).

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Although he comes from a rogues’ gallery filled with monsters, addicts, and leprechauns, the Honey Nut Cheerios bee was a fairly amiable cereal mascot: he was sort of good-natured and slightly anxious bee who wanted you to experience “one honey of an O” with his delicious sugary cereal (which really is pretty good).

Yet I tend to regard BuzzBee not as a victim of colony collapse disorder as of poorly thought-out branding.  He seems like he was created by a room full of MBAs without a particularly good grasp of hymenopteran life cycles.  Notably, the honey nut bee was clearly male—even though male honey bees are stingless drones of limited utility to the hive. It seems unlikely that he would ever obtain reproductive success hanging around human kitchens (fertile queens tend to be found and courted in harrowing aerial circumstances), however people also do not tend to use agricultural pesticides in their kitchen, so Buzz most likely did not die of neonicotinoids:  more likely he was a victim of starvation, winter, or possibly a bee-eating predator such as a lizard or a bear.

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And if Buzz did manage to get his act together and find an unfertilized queen, then we will certainly never see him again!  Reproductive consummation proves fatal to drones.

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No doubt, General Mills is hoping to bring Buzz back in the style of Coke Classic with much fanfare and, um, marketing buzz, however, I hope that when they do so, they stop and think about actual bees.  To my mind, a honeybee mascot would be much more powerful if it was a formidable queen bee or, even better, a group of terrifying clone sisters who all speak the same thoughts in the same hive voice.  That would truly be an appropriate image for the group-think world of brand marketing.  Also it would leave an indelible impression on the mind of today’s youth, the same way “Crazy Cravings” scarred a group of children with his disturbing need for Honeycomb.  Crazy Craving taught all of us how giant corporations would like us to be, maybe the fact that GM is so willing to disappear the friendly face of its sugar cereal for a bit of tawdry publicity will remind us afresh of the world they are trying to build.

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The high Himalayas  seen above the village of Ghandruk, Nepal (photo from http://holeintheclouds.net)

The high Himalayas seen above the village of Ghandruk, Nepal (photo from http://holeintheclouds.net)

The world’s largest honeybee, the controversial Himalayan cliff honey bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa) lives high in the Himalaya Mountains among the craggy peaks of Bhutan, Yunnan, Nepal, and the Himalayan provinces of India.  The large honeybees are renowned for building large nests/hives within the inaccessible overhangs of huge cliffs. These nests tend to be found at altitudes between 2,500 and 3,000 m (8,000 and 10,000 feet) built into cliffs which face to the southwest.

Honey-huntingAlthough Himalayan cliff honey bees have complicated lives within a densely layered hierarchical colony, they are not controversial because of their social complexity, but rather because of taxonomical quibbles. Before 1980, Apis dorsata laboriosa was classified as a subspecies of Apis dorsata (the giant honeybee of Soth Asia), but during the eighties and nineties, the Himalayan cliff honey bee was thought to be a unique species (Apis laboriosa). In 1999, the species was demoted back to a subspecies of Apis dorsata (although some genetics-minded entomologists argue that it is a distinct species). Hopefully you followed all of that—it sounds like more vertiginous twists of naming might still lie in the near future.

Himalayan Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), photo by L. Shyamal

Himalayan Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), photo by L. Shyamal

Perhaps some of this confusion comes from how inaccessible the bees are.  Only gifted mountaineers and free-climbers could ever hope to reach the lofty hives where the bees deposit their precious honey and larvae.   From their towering homes, the bees are able to forage nectar and pollen from upland meadows of the Himalayas (which burst into extravagant fields of flowers during the brief seasons of spring and summer).

A Nepalese Honey Hunter Risking his Life for Cliff Honey (photo by Eric Valli)

A Nepalese Honey Hunter Risking his Life for Cliff Honey (photo by Eric Valli)

Sadly for the bees, there is a terrible catch—the spring honey which they harvest from the high mountains comes partially from the nectar of white rhododendrons (which contain a grayanotoxin).  The spring honey from rhododendrons is red in color and, when fresh, reputedly has a narcotic effect on humans.  Honey hunters risk life and limb to climb high up the mountains.  They then use long poles to rob the bee hives–all while teetering hundreds or thousands of feet above a sheer precipice and being attacked by angry giant bees! The honey fetches a huge premium among the rich of Japan, Singapore, and China even though grayanotoxins are, you know, toxins, and can cause cardiac problems in addition to the soothing intoxicating effects.

Photo credit: Andrew Newey

Photo credit: Andrew Newey

A “Zombee” tattoo (by Josh Herrera of Skin Factory in Las Vegas)

More bad news for honeybees: not only do our hard-working black-and-yellow friends have to contend with blood sucking varroa mites, neonicotinoid insecticides, and giant hungry bears, but a new plague has been spreading from the west coast, claiming the life of domestic honey bees.  The Zombie fly (Apocephalus borealis) is a disgusting little hunchbacked phorid fly which has traditionally preyed on native wasps and bumblebees.  Phorid flies, coincidentally, are a successful family of over 400 species of tiny flies which tend to run very rapidly (although they are capable of flight).  The most famous phorid fly (insomuch as that’s a thing) is probably the coffin fly—although the zombie fly is working its way into the limelight too.  Charming!

The parasitic fly Apocephalus borealis on the back of a bumble bee (photo by Kimberly G. O’Harrow)

Like the horrifying parasitoid wasps, the zombie fly uses its syringe-like ovipositor to inject its eggs inside of its victims.  As the larvae hatch they attack the bee’s brain and cause it to behave in bizarre manners—such as lurching around in a random fashion or flying at night (which gets the bee away from the hive and ensures that the fly lavae are not destroyed by the bee’s concerned colleagues).  Bees so affected are mordantly known as “zombees” for obvious reasons.  Eventually the zombie fly larvae pupate into hard little cocoons which resemble grains of rice.  When they hatch they rip through the bee’s body at the juncture of the head and thorax, frequently decapitating the bee.  Sometimes it is difficult to enjoy the beauty of nature.

Adult female Apocephalus borealis fly (image from Core A, Runckel C, Ivers J, Quock C, Siapno T, et al. (2012). “A new threat to honey bees, the parasitic phorid fly Apocephalus borealis”. PLoS ONE 7 (1))

It is unclear to what extent zombie flies are contributing to the decline of honeybees at large–since the flies have not traditionally attacked domestic bees.  Perhaps the death and decline of other native bees has pushed the zombie flies into this new behavior (or maybe they were getting around to it anyway—they sound like thoroughly repulsive customers).  At any rate, beekeepers have a new problem to worry about, and are tracking confirmed instances of “zombees” online at www.zombeewatch.org.

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