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 http://ento.psu.edu/directory/duv2.