Monthly Archives: April 2010

The Five Takeaways of Bees: Dennis VanEngelsdorp

Bees have an aura of mystery and beauty to them.  The way that they work as a collective.  The reported health benefits of royal jelly and bee pollen, yet the harsh prick of a bee stinger.  The delectable sweetener known as honey that has been used for centuries, appearing in hieroglyphics and French cave drawings.  The strange phenomenon of colony collapse disorder.  The odd looking beekeeping outfits, and even the beautiful hexagonal honeycombs.

This brought me to Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a leading apiarist at Penn State University.

vanEngelsdorp stumbled upon beekeeping by accident during his undergraduate studies at the University of Guelph.

“I took a beekeeping course while I studied horticulture… and I bought some hives and did possibly everything wrong with them,” he laughs, remembering.

“So I went to go see the professor for help, ended up getting better at working with hives, and that’s when I became really interested in the work.  So much so that I ended up doing a Masters with that professor,”   says vanEngelsdorp.

The rest is history.

“Once you get stung, it’s in your blood, and you’re a beekeeper forever,” laughs vanEngelsdorp. Below, vanEngelsdorp provides his five takeaways of bees.

1. Be(e) relaxed and gentle with bees, because they know if you’re not.

“I can actually think of nothing more relaxing than working with bees – when you work with them you get into ‘the zone’.  Actually, when you use the smoker and open the hive you absolutely have to be calm – they always know if you’re not calm,” says vanEngelsdorp wisely.

“For awhile I worked in the Caribbean with boys who were in reform school, who were extremely troubled and had anger management issues.  Working with bees seemed to have a calming effect on them,” he explains.

2.  Hives are a female run affair – and not necessarily by the queen.

“It’s interesting to see how our understanding of the queen changed.  When Aristotle started looking at queens, he thought that the leader must be male.  During the French Revolution, the lead bee was called the ‘General Bee’ – probably because of the Napoleon connection.  It took scientists a long time to find out that the queen bee was in fact female.  In addition, people thought of the queen bee as a dictator, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The queen bee is essentially an egg laying machine.  She releases pheromones that controls the behaviour of workers, but otherwise is fed and pushed around by her worker bees.  They also choose whether or not to abort her young,” he explains.

“Also, all the worker bees are female.  Males play very little role in the hive. Drones, or male honey bees, are only produced at certain times of the year.  Their only role is to mate.  They fly out of the colony around noon, fly around 40 feet high into the ‘drone congregation area’, where they mate with the queen bees.  After they mate, they die, with their reproductive organs ripped out.  The ones that don’t mate are driven out of the hive in the fall,” says vanEngelsdorp.

Bees seem to take emasculation to a whole new level.

3. Bee beards can be a thoroughly uncomfortable situation.

Seeing someone with a bee beard is enough to make anyone shudder in fright.  This is when someone “wears” hundreds or thousands of bees on their face and neck, and sometimes other parts of the body, depending on their level of daring.  I asked vanEngelsdorp if he’d ever done it, and if so, how it worked.

“I did this while I was still at Guelph pursuing my Masters degree.  It was July, and I rented a Santa Claus outfit for fun.  They made me stuff cotton balls up my nose to protect it from any bees going in – actually what was disappointing was that they didn’t tell me that there was a cotton ball hanging out of my nose when the photograph was taken!” he laughs.

“How you do it though, is that you have to catch a queen and put her in a cage and tie her around your neck.  Then, you put the worker bees in a plastic sheet.  The queen bee releases her pheromones and attracts the rest of the hive.  It’s the weirdest sensation ever – can you imagine, these thousands of feet grabbing at you, with three to four pounds of bees on your face?  It gets very hot very fast,” explains vanEngelsdorp.

4.  Many honeybee species have gone extinct without us even knowing it.

“In Pennsylvania, there are approximately 400 species of native bees.  The ones that have been studied most are the honeybees that were brought over from Europe, which we need for New World crops such as apples.  Farmers like to use honeybees because they are efficient pollinators – typically they will be moved in for two weeks and then they are moved to another farm.  A study done at UCDavis said that the most successful farms, measured by the quality of the fruit set, have been those that have the presence of both native and European honey bees,” he explains.

“That being said, the most important thing is that we don’t know much about these other 399 species of bees and the many others in the world – and they are disappearing.  Three species of bumble bee have gone extinct in the last three years.  For instance, in Pennsylvania, 17% of bees that we have a record of, we haven’t seen them since 1940,” says vanEngelsdorp chillingly.

5.  There have been many conspiracy theories about colony collapse disorder but very few verifiable answers.

vanEngelsdorp is renowned for his research in the area of colony collapse disorder (CCD), which is a phenomenon where worker bees disappear suddenly from a hive.

“It’s really important to realize that honeybees have been in trouble in the US for a long time – since the 1940s, a number of colonies have been in steep decline, but there has been a recent loss because of parasitic mites.  These were introduced in the 1980s, and have spread viruses and other things.  Colonies that die in America die from known causes.  Yet there are others that are dying away from the hive, leaving large sheets of brood, or baby bees.  This symptoms based condition kills a minority of bees every year.  Altogether, CCD and all the other things killing bees adds up to about 1 in every 3 colonies dying every winter for the last 3 winters.  That’s a lot of bees!  However, why it is so significant is that it poses a huge risk to large scale beekeepers, who are responsible for a lot of agriculture in the US.  They move bees from state to state, and we are highly dependent on them,” says vanEngelsdorp.

I ask Van Engelsdorp what he thinks the cause is for CCD.

“The past three years when all this information broke about CCD – there were a lot of suggestions why this was happening.  Alien abduction, The Rapture, imported Russian bees with a gene that Russian spies could beam satellites through….. another one that caught on was cell phones.  German scientists did a study on cordless phones and it somehow got translated into cell phones – we don’t think it’s that.  We have to concentrate efforts into known areas.  Unfortunately, we can’t test the hypothesis that CCD is caused because aliens are coming back in 2012.  Our hypotheses need to be things we can test, so we have concentrated on three basic areas – first, new or newly mutated pathogens, potentially an introduction of a virus.  The second area is pesticides, and the third are environmental factors – things such as the genetic diversity in bees, changing weather patterns, whether or not bees are getting enough food.  Some of our findings were not what we expected,” says Van Engelsdorp.

“What is interesting about this is that maybe 4 years ago, I would’ve thought that there was only one cause and one solution – but it’s more complicated than that.  There’s a lot of things killing bees, and it’s a complicated network that we are still trying to understand,” explains vanEngelsdorp.

For more information on Dennis vanEngelsdorp’s research at


Filed under Environment, Science

The Five Takeaways of LEGO: Nathan Sawaya

Nathan Sawaya has the job that every kid dreams of having.  He’s a LEGO Artist, a Certified LEGO Professional.  What does that mean exactly?  It means he spends his days in his New York studio building awesome things out of LEGO.  A casual scroll through his website reveals things like a LEGO replica of Stephen Colbert; a scale model of a Blackberry with a working screen, a giant set of LEGO milk and cookies, an anatomical heart, a life sized cello, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, Han Solo encased in carbonite.  Pop art, but in LEGO format.

How does one exactly do this sort of thing?

“I started doing large scale sculptures out of LEGO bricks about ten years ago.  I had sculpted with more traditional media, but I wanted to explore using a toy from my childhood as an art medium.  The sculptures got a pretty good response from friends and family, so I put photos of them up on my website.  Soon after, I was getting commissions from folks around the world.  Within a few years, I was a full time LEGO artist.”

Below, Sawaya provides his five takeaways of LEGO.

1.  LEGO can take you anywhere.

“Since becoming a Lego artist, I have put together museum exhibitions and gallery shows all over the globe.  I have been asked to send sculptures to Hong Kong, Dubai, Paris, London, Singapore, even Kansas City.  I never dreamed that creating with LEGO would take me to places like Hawaii, Stockholm or Appleton, Wisconsin, or even as a guest on the The Colbert Report and Mythbusters.  I got to design a LEGO room on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.  And weirdest of all, my LEGO artwork actually became a category on Jeopardy!” he exclaims.

2.  There is no such thing as cheating in LEGO.

“I don’t know how many times folks have come up to me and said ‘Are you gluing your bricks?  Well that’s cheating!’  And I wonder to myself, ‘Are you the LEGO referee?’ he laments.

“The thing is LEGO bricks hold together remarkably well.  They are an amazing construction tool.  But my sculptures are shipped around the world.  And the shipping process can take a toll on any artwork.  I find that museums get kind of grumpy when I ship them a sculpture and they receive a box of loose LEGO bricks, sometimes with a note reading ‘some assembly required’.  So to make sure my sculptures arrive in one piece, I glue them together.  This is not cheating.  Anything one does creatively with LEGO cannot be considered cheating.  In fact, the only way there might be cheating in LEGO is if one was to use only Lincoln Logs,” he says of the building toy made with wood that comes with instructions.

3.  There is nothing that cannot be built out of LEGO.

Sawaya sees infinite possibilities with Lego.

“When I was a child and wanted to get a dog, my folks didn’t let me, so I built myself a dog.  It was multi-colored, and of course being built out of those rectangular bricks, it was a bit boxy in places.  I called it a boxer,” he jokes.

“LEGO is a versatile medium.  As a toy, it lets your imagination rule the day.  Growing up, if I wanted to pretend to be a rock star, I could build myself a guitar.  If I wanted to pretend to be an astronaut, I could build myself a rocket,” he explains.

“As an artist LEGO is a great medium for creating anything I can imagine.  I still use those same rectangular plastic bricks that I had as a child, but now I try and use them in a way that hasn’t been seen before.  I have an entire museum exhibit touring North America that is very popular with both kids and adults, who are attracted to the idea that there is artwork that is created solely out of LEGO,”  Sawaya says.

4.  Having 1.5 million LEGO bricks is not enough.

At any given time, Sawaya’s New York studio has 1.5 million bricks stored in it.

“The LEGO company says that there are 62 LEGO bricks for every person on the planet.  That means there is a pretty big group of people who are missing some bricks all because of me.  As an artist, I want to make sure I have enough bricks on hand that I can build whatever I can think of, at any time.  That means I have to keep an art studio full of bricks in all shapes and colors.  They are all arranged by size, and are in clear plastic bins lined up on shelves based on color.  Walking into my studio is a little like walking into a rainbow.  I need all those bricks because who knows what I might be creating next:  a life-size human form, a dinosaur skeleton, maybe even a full size boat?  As I use the bricks up, I have to keep that inventory up to date, so I am ordering new bricks monthly.  I don’t know if that means there are less or more bricks for everyone on the planet,” he ponders.

5.  The LEGO art movement has begun.

“One of the most common questions people ask me is ‘How can I get your job?’  I tell them just to go do it.  I am an independent artist, and I use LEGO bricks as my art medium.  It can take weeks to create a LEGO sculpture, but I’m so passionate I fall into a near-trance while I’m working and creating.  Many of my works centre on the phenomena of how everyday life, people and raw emotion are intertwined.  Often my art is a reenactment of my personal feelings.  I am inspired by my own experiences, emotions and the journeys I am taking,” he explains.

But being an artist, why did Sawaya choose LEGO as his medium?

“I like using LEGO as a medium because I enjoy seeing people’s reactions to artwork created from something with which they are familiar.  Everyone can relate to it since it is a toy that many children have at home.  I want to elevate this simple plaything to a place it has never been before.  I also appreciate the cleanliness of the medium – the right angles, the distinct lines.  As so often in life, it is a matter of perspective.  Up close, the shape of the brick is distinctive.  But from a distance, those right angles and distinct lines change to curves.”

If pointillists worked with round dots and it looked like curves from afar, then the LEGO must be a cubed, three dimensional version.

Sawaya is optimistic about the future of LEGO art.

“Many people write to me and tell me they are going to become LEGO artists themselves.  They send me photos of their sculptures and creations.  It looks to me like a new art movement has begun.  I call it the LEGO art movement, and don’t be surprised if five or ten years from now they will be teaching it in art classes.”

More of Nathan Sawaya’s work can be found at his website, Brick Artist.


Filed under Curiosities, Hobbies