Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Our beekeeping trip to Vietnam

Suki and I took a fascinating trip to Vietnam last October as part of a beekeeping development project funded by the Canadian government. Headed by professor Gard Otis of Guelph University in Ontario, this was the last year of a seven year effort. One goal of the project was to help pull households out of poverty by teaching them how keep a few hives of bees, mostly the Asian honeybee Apis cerana. The average per capita income in Vietnam is around $1,000. Extra income from the bees can make a huge difference in the standard of living of a rural family. Vietnam is a very favorable environment for bees, so the potential for helping the poor is enormous. The native Apis cerana bees are wonderfully adapted to this environment. Being the natural host of Varroa mites, they are naturally resistant to them. The mites only invade drone brood, so little damage is done to the colony, and mite populations are kept in check.

Beekeeping in Vietnam is divided between the small beekeepers keeping a few hives of Apis cerana, and commercial beekeepers who keep large numbers of imported European honeybees, Apis mellifera. European bees are more productive than the native Apis cerana but require much more care and the necessity to move the bees to better forage several times a year, just as in the United States. The commercial beekeepers in Vietnam are highly skilled. Most of these beekeepers know how to raise their own queens.

Our role in this project was to participate in three workshops on bee breeding, held in various parts of the country. We focused on sharing how to select bees for hygienic behavior, brood viability, and temperament. Gentle temperament was the norm for the European bees in Vietnam, no aggressive bees were ever seen while we were there.

One handy tip we learned was that when the beekeepers needed just a little smoke to inspect the bees, a stick of incense worked just fine. It lights in seconds and smells so much better than a smoker.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Honeybee Democracy

The more we learn about bees, the more we find that they have already made many of the great advances that were once thought only to belong to mankind. Things like air conditioning, the benefits of hygiene, and a language based on dancing have been used by honeybees for millions of years. Now it turns out that they even have been practicing democracy, and compared to our own imperfect electoral process, they do it much better.

A new book out, "Honeybee Democracy" by Thomas Seeley, beautifully describes one of nature's most mysterious and intelligent processes, how tens of thousands of bees collectively decide the best site for their new home for their reproductive swarm. The stakes are high, as a bad choice can mean doom for them when winter comes. Choosing a tree hollow which doesn't have enough room to store a winter's worth of honey, or one with a large vulnerable entrance is a mistake which must not be made. The instinct of bees has been honed for countless generations to make sure they do whatever it takes to survive, and for a bee colony that means good collective decision making.

Dr. Seeley has spent most of his career at Cornell University studying the intricacies of how bees communicate and make the collective decisions which allows them to be so efficient and productive. And fortunately for us he is one of those rare scientists whose gift for writing and sharing what he has learned matches his outstanding scientific skills. In this book he not only describes in a very readable fashion what the bees are up to, but also how he figured out clever ways to decipher the inner workings of the hive. So as well as a fascinating story of bee biology, we also get to see how the mind of a great scientist works.

Dr. Seeley is Chairman of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell, and it is interesting to note that while his research may seem far removed from practical application, that is not the case. By exploring the principles governing collection decision making, he is showing us what we can learn from millions of years of evolution of insect societies. Read his recent article in Harvard Business Review, The Five Habits of Highly Effective Hives, for how we might apply these principles.

"Honeybee Democracy" is Seeley's third book, and together with the other two, "Honeybee Ecology", and "The Wisdom of the Hive" they are all among the very favorites in my library.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Avocado Pollination by Honeybees

This is the season for avocado pollination in our little town of Fallbrook, known as the avocado capitol of the world. Avocado trees come from Mexico where a native stingless bee provides the pollination. Since that pollinator doesn't live here, honeybees have taken over the job. Every fruit produced depends on pollen being transferred from one flower to another, so honeybees become the most valuable citizens in town during the few weeks when the trees are in bloom.

Avocados have an odd system of pollination to insure cross pollinization. Each of the inconspicuous green/yellow flowers has both male and female parts, but only one sex is open at a time to prevent self fertilization. There are two kinds of trees, A and B types. The A type trees have their flowers open in the mornings as females. The flowers close by afternoon, and remain closed until the following afternoon, when they reopen with the male parts now producing pollen. The B type trees open their flowers as female in the first afternoon, they close and reopen as males the following morning. Each flower only opens twice. If a grove is properly planted with both types of trees, and if pollinators are present then a good set of fruit is likely. Honeybees do the vast majority of the pollination here, but wild bees, flies, wasps and even hummingbirds are also seen working the flowers.

Fallbrook was founded by the Reche family in the late 1800's, and they just happened to have been beekeepers. Back then the landscape was dominated by the native chaparral plants which are superb honey producers. At one time San Diego County was the number one honey producing county in America. Today, with only about 10% of the chaparral left, this is no longer the case. Urbanization has forced those beekeepers that are left to flock to areas like Fallbrook where bees are still welcome. So a symbiotic relationship has formed between growers and beekeepers; we both need each other.

Read more about avocados and bees here or Wikepedia

Friday, February 13, 2009

The bees thank you Mr. Lincoln

Few people in history have changed the course of the world more than Abraham Lincoln. Besides holding the union of the states together and ending slavery, one other lesser known decision proved to be just as monumental. It was way back in 1862 that Lincoln decided that the country needed a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help the farmers of the nation use the latest knowledge and technology to produce the food necessary for a growing country. After saying that farmers were neither better nor worse than other people, Lincoln continued: "But farmers, being the most numerous class, it follows that their interest is the largest interest. It also follows that that interest is most worthy of all to be cherished and cultivated -- that if there be inevitable conflict between that interest and any other, that other should yield." The world has certainly changed since then. Today less than 2% of the U.S. population is involved in agriculture, but the mission of the USDA remains the same. In fact, the USDA has been perhaps the most successful institution in the world for diffusing scientific knowledge and practices to the people that can put them to use. The USDA has been a prime reason that so few can feed so many.

Honeybees have not been left behind in what Mr. Lincoln called the "people's department". The USDA Bee Breeding Lab in Baton Rouge, Louisiana is a good example of scientists putting the results of their research into the hands of beekeepers who desperately need help to keep their bees healthy. Two successful programs have been the importation of Russian bees and the development of Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) bees. Both of these lines of bees have been proven to be effective against the worst of the honeybee pests, Varroa mites. If Abe came back today I think he would be proud.

Read more about the USDA Bee Breeding Lab in Baton Rouge and the dedicated scientist who work there.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Bee hunting

We recently went out to one of our favorite camping spots, Coyote Canyon in the Anza-Borrego desert. This is a unique spot because it is one of the few places in this vast desert that has a year round water source, Coyote Creek, which is actually the longest creek in San Diego county.

Because of the reliable source of water and the abundant spring wildflowers, it also supports a good number of feral honeybee colonies, now mostly Africanized. Finding a wild colony in this sort of landscape though is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. But using some knowledge of bee behavior, a little logic and a keen eye and ear, it's possible to let the bees tell you exactly where their hive is located.

Here is a picture of a feral colony we first located back in 1997. We return every winter to check on it, and it has been occupied every year. In the summer the hot sun shines into the rock crevice and melts a good part of the hive away, the floor is covered with melted wax. We'll return in a couple months to see the desert carpeted in wildflowers. At that time we'll put up a little thatched sun shade to help them through the summer heat.
Many years ago I spent a week on Santa Cruz Island off the central California coast, learning how to hunt wild honeybees from a real expert. Dr. Adrian Wenner, Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara, was working with the Nature Conservancy to bring the island back to a more natural state by trying to eliminate non-native species. One real problem were the European honeybees pollinating imported European plants such as fennel, which was taking over the island. In the 1870's a few hives were taken to the island where they prospered, swarmed, and soon filled every niche on the island. Dr. Wenner's plan was to locate all the colonies so that he and his team of graduate students could systematically eliminate them. As a bee breeder I was interested in obtaining some of these survivors as breeding stock before they were eliminated, that's how I ended up spending a fascinating week learning the long lost art of bee hunting.

Dr. Wenner is perhaps best known for his challenge to the validity of Karl von Frisch's theory of honeybee dance language, for which von Frisch was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1973. Dr. Wenner's contention that odor cues alone were enough to explain the remarkable nectar finding skills of honeybee colonies sparked a heated controversy which continues to this day nearly four decades later. Dr. Wenner used his own theory to develop a technique of bee hunting to locate more than 160 colonies on Santa Cruz Island over the years. But as hard as they tried to eliminate the colonies, they never could keep ahead of the reproducing colonies. In the end they decided to introduce Varroa mites which wiped out the island bees in a few years. Although the last time I talked to Adrian he thought there was perhaps one colony still hanging on. As a beekeeper I'm rooting for their comeback,this time as mite resistant bees. The island has now become a part of the Channel Islands National Park.

View Larger Map
Explore the island by zooming in with the plus button on the map controls, or just double click where you'd like to see. Zoom way out with the minus button to see our favorite camping spot in Coyote Canyon.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A great new book

I just finished one of the best books about bees that I've read over the last 40 years. This book was recently translated from German into English, and thank goodness it was. I had many "aha" moments while reading it, hearing about much recent European research which I had never known before. Especially astounding were some of the details of the communication system and feedback loops that are taking place in every colony of bees. Honeybee colonies have evolved to the very pinnacle of living matter, the superorganism, they are truly one of the wonders of the natural world. Jurgen Tautz's presentation of his understanding of the nature of bees brings to mind Karl von Frisch's comment that "the honeybee is like a magic well; the more you draw from it the more there is to draw". This easy to read book has some of the best close up photos of bees and their behavior ever taken. The paper and binding is of superb quality and at a price of about $39 from Amazon it is well worth your time and money. You can also preview it at Google Book Search.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Washington beehives in the snow

Mark Adams up in Arlington, Washington writes in.
"I was checking out your new blog and saw the picture showing pollen starting to come in. I just had to run outside and take a picture. This winter has been much colder than usual. It takes pretty tough bees to survive this damp cold climate."

Thanks Mark, this reminds us just how adaptable honeybees are, able to live anywhere from the tropics to near the arctic circle. I hope Spring comes soon and the bees do well this year.

If anyone else has pictures or news of how their bees are doing, please send them in, we'd love to hear from you.