Notorious Beekeepers: Warwick Kerr

You may not know Warwick Kerr by name, but he is the much maligned researcher whose work unfortunately brought us the media scare-fest, the “Killer” Honey bee.

First of all, Warwick Kerr is a Brazilian Entomologist and Geneticist whose work in studying honey bee genetics, particularly genetic sex selection goes back to the early 1950’s.

In fact, in the mid 1950’s he was contracted to try to help Brazilian farmer’s improve pollination seeing as western honey bees weren’t showing the same degree of successful adaptation to the tropical/sub-tropical environment in South America.  What did they opt to do?   Why they brought in a known successful sub-tropical adapted honey bee from Africa to inter-breed with the historically well managed western European honey bees.

Things were actually going well in the research until a day in 1957 when some of the African honey bee Queens being worked with escaped the confinement area and began to occupy and breed with European bees out in the un-managed open areas of Brazil.

African bees, due to their nature and adaptation to a tropical environment, breed rapidly and aggressively to take over other established colonies in a region.  This led to a new mix breed of honey bee we now know as the Africanized Honey bee.

I refer to Dr. Kerr as “notorious” because he has been treated rather poorly in the media and through history being in charge of the experiment gone awry.  The man has since continued to contribute a great amount of research and study to the study of bees and is somewhat a victim of the politicization of science.  He has published well over 600 various research articles on various related topics over the years since then.

Warwick Kerr, due to his bee genetics research and his historic blunder, if you will, of the introduction of the Africanized Honey Bee, is undoubtedly one of the most significant beekeepers of the 20th century.

What’s in a Genus name?

Yes, it’s still honey bee taxonomy week here at the Bee Smart beekeeping project.  Just a cool FYI  for those following along.

Did you know that in the taxonomy of the honey bee the name “Apis” is not the complete name?  That’s right, there’s more to it.

Technically speaking, though we only ever really refer to honey bees as Apis mellifera (Genus Apis, Species mellifera), the full Genus is “Apis Linnaeus”.  Carl Linnaeus is the distinguished gentleman in the picture accompanying this post.

There’s a very cool PDF on updated taxonomy of the honey bee called “The Taxonomy of Recent and Fossil Honey Bees” by  Michael S. Engel, on our Download page that you can download and read, courtesy of KU ScholarWorks

Currently used scientific name was given to honey bee by Linnaeus (also known as: Carl von Linné) in 1758

(Tofilski A. (2012) Honey bee. Available from http://www.honeybee.drawwing.org.)

Ooh, They’re talking about the taxonomy of africanized honey bees

This is honey bee taxonomy week.  As an interesting sideroad for All Hallow’s Eve I thought we’d visit the Smithsonian Institute taxonomy page on the “Killer Bees”.  (Click on the photo to visit their page and read the very interesting article.)

A.m. scutellata Queen and attendants

Africanized honeybees are descended from stocks that evolved in the tropics and, as such, are ill-equipped to withstand prolonged cold winters. They are believed to be limited to tropical and subtropical habitats.

Honey Bee Taxonomy

This week, our general topic will center on the taxonomy of honey bees.  what is taxonomy you ask?  No, it’s not having to pay a fine to the government for having bees.

Taxonomy is the scientific classification of living things in order to identify and organize where they fit in related to other creatures.

Why is taxonomy important to those involved in apicultural pursuits?  Beecause we are often very concerned about genealogical traits of colonies that will have the most success in the places we keep them.

Knowing where bees are originally from, the traits and genetic lines they descend from and how any and all of that relates to their success in various other locations is important to everything from pollination traits, defensive traits foraging and honey production traits and the types of pests and illnesses they have been adapted to as they evolved in the place they originate.  Queen rearing is very much affected by knowing what bees are and from whence they came.

Scientific research that is always ongoing makes great use of taxonomy to locate and identify new species and sub-species of bees all the time.

It’s always a good thing to learn and know about taxonomy where bees and beekeeping are involved.  Check out the new puzzles coming up this week that focus on honey bee taxonomy.  The Crossword puzzle will post on Wednesday and will have the downloadable PDF with a wordlist on it.  The answer sheet to the Crossword and the Wordsearch versions are already available for our supporters on our Patreon supporter webpage  

The next episode of the Bee Smart beekeeping podcast featuring those Beehooligans will also talk some about taxonomy and how it is useful for beekeepers of all levels of experience.

Of course, we’ll bee sure to get some posts up with even more useful information along this line as well as we get through the week.  The objective here is always to help folks Bee Smart.

Let’s get this party started!

The Bee Smart beekeeping project has had a forums page for awhile now.  It is…slow…would not be an overstatement.

However, the whole point of the Bee Smart beekeeping project is to inform, educate and provide a interesting, even entertaining place to do those things.

The forum area is open to anyone with an interest in bees, beekeeping, the things bees produce and more.

We’ve just added a new sub-forum to discuss the more scientific areas of bees and beekeeping.  Feel free to ask questions, offer topics for discussion, maybe answer some questions you think are important for people to know but often get left unanswered.

Please read the notes and pinned post there before posting, it’s important.

Looking forward to seeing you there.

This Week at Bee Smart…Pests

Trying out some topical changes here at the Bee Smart beekeeping project.  You may have noticed the new weekly puzzle on Wednesdays.  It has a theme.  That’s due to the idea that each week here will loosely focus on a particular subject.

This week’s subject is pests of beekeeping.  Notice that we’re just talking about pests, not diseases or poison.

Nasty little critters like Varroa mites and Small Hive Beetles (SHB).  Wax moths, ants, skunks, even dragonflies.

There are many pests that seem intent on taking down bees.  We’ll spend this week talking about some of them in these posts, in the puzzles and maybe a video.

Some pests are persistent threats nearly all year long.  Others are seasonal or unique to certain conditions.  I won’t try to cover everything in this post, way too much ground to cover in a year let alone one week or one post.

However, we’ll spend this week getting to know a bit more about some of the troublemakers that keep making bees lives harder than they should be.  They can make beekeepers jobs harder too.

Thanks for stopping by to see what we’re up to and please come back often.  We’ll try to make sure we have something fresh ready every day.

They are honey bees, They are Legion.

One…is the loneliest number….

Unless, of course, you’re talking about bees.  Bees throw things on their side sometimes.  Take the honey bee colony for example.

There is “A” honey bee colony.  One.  Singular.  “It” is what we beekeepers are interacting with when we tend to a hive.  “A” colony is made up of many tens of thousands of individual bees that fall into one of three castes.  So now we have one colony, three castes and thousands of bees.  Yet and still, we are talking about the same thing.

Of the three castes within a colony (reproductive female, reproductive males, and non-reproductive females), none of them can sustain a colony on it’s own.  They are all three interdependent upon each other.  A colony cannot and will not survive long without all three castes represented.

Each individual bee carries out tasks determined in part part instinct, age, and interaction with other bees.  All of the tasks carried out by all of the bees are carried out not with their own individual interests in mind, but to fulfill the needs of the colony as a whole, single, unified entity.

This important to understand as we tend to our hives.  As I work with a hive, I am working with “A” honey bee colony, not just a bunch of bees in a box.  There is no indication that the bees possess a sense of individuality on a one-by-one basis.

I like to name my hives to reflect the singularity of the “many in one” colony.  Just for fun, I once had a hive named “Borg” and another named “Legion”.    It was all fun and games until Legion picked up some REALLY “hot” traits and made the trope a bit too close for comfort.

Actually, Legion is quite an accurate trope to describe the honey bee colony.  It brings to mind the concept of the “hive mind”  (gee, I wonder where that concept came from😮) in which, there is no individual identity of the members of the whole, they are one mind,  they share a singular identity.

So, as you go out and tend the hives, consider seeing them not a simply a box of a bunch of bees but as “A” Bee colony instead.  It may very well affect how you interact with them and how you go about your beekeeping.

 

Meet a Miner Bee-Andrena astragali

There are more than 4,500 species of bees in the world commonly referred to as “Miner” bees.  This one in particular, the Andrena astragali, is a specialist that likes to forage on a plant called the “Death Cama” AKA Toxicoscordion.

Toxicoscordion venenosum (Death Camas) - Flickr - brewbooks
By brewbooks from near Seattle, USA (Toxicoscordion venenosum (Death Camas)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Death Cama is known for being poisonous as it contains a type of neurotoxin that is harmful to just about everything in every part of it, even the nectar.  Everything except Andrena astragali that is.

 

Kamikaze Bees

Pretty much all bees have stingers on them or “stings” in general.  Also, pretty much all bees sting to defend themselves and their nests.  This is pretty well established.

However, what most people don’t realize is that not all bees lose the sting once they have used it to sting something else.  As a matter of fact, pretty much only Honey bees, Apis mellifera, lose their sting due to having it literally ripped from their body along with the venom sac after having stung something else.

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A honey bee stinging
Through different studies, we’re pretty much convinced that honey bees actually know they are going to die when they sting.  They know it and they do it anyway.  In Japanese, “Kamikaze” means, “Divine Winds”  referring usually to hurricanes an such.  I’ve heard it they looked on Kamikaze airplane fighter pilots as being a special attack wreaking terrible destruction.  This, I think, is a pretty interesting description of what damage can be done to an opponent when you are willing to go to such dramatic feats to not just defeat the enemy but utterly eliminate them.  Think of the devastation a hurricane can do.

A honey bee, knowing it gives it’s life in it’s sting to defend nest and self is essentially going all out, literally giving it’s everything to overcome the perceived enemy at any cost.  I think the concept of a swarm of bees taking to the air in order to not just defend the colony from attack but to make that enemy entirely go away is true to the concept of Kamikaze.  Just about everything that has taken to raiding a honey bee hive, from wild bears to human beekeepers and everything in between,  has learned to regret that decision as it runs as far away as fast as it can.

Not all bees lose their stings, oh no, pretty much all the rest can keep going back to give a gift that keeps on giving until the threat removes itself.  Bumblebees are known as exceedingly docile and calm out in the flowers.  There’s a time though when those bumblebees can attack ferociously if you are interfering with their nest.  Not only will they come out to sting in defense, they retain the sting and just coming in again and again and again, etc…

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A bumblebee dealing out a sting.

Honey bees don’t always lose their sting though.  It depends on what they are stinging.  If they sting another honey bee for example or something of similar size and makeup, they will mostly keep the sing instead of having it pulled out and dying.  In larger, thicker skinned creatures though, the tiny barbs that are on the sting will catch and not only stick in to be yanked out of the bee, they continue the attack after the bee has detached.

Oh yes, the honey bee stinger is actually a more complicated thing than a simple barbed needle.  In fact, it is two needles working together in a piston-like motion so that once inserted into the body of a victim, they continue to dig themselves in even deeper giving more direct access to the venom in the connected venom sac that came off with the sting.  A good reason to never pinch the sting to remove it is because by doing so, often more venom is injected by squeezing the ven0m sac along with the sting.  Scrape that sting out with a knife, plastic card, even a fingernail instead.

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Getting down to the business end of the stinger.
That isn’t the end to the mischief the honey bee has wrought in stinging though.  Oh no!  It’s not done done with us yet.  Not only does it’s stinger get physically, forcibly removed from it’s body, leaving it in our body.  Not only does the sting continue to dig deeper into the skin to deliver its venom more effectively.  While she has indeed gone off to die, the little worker bee who has wounded us so, she has also left a chemical marker scent upon us.  A pheromone that acts as a beacon to other honey bee workers flying to the defense.  We are now not only wounded, we are now tagged so that the other bees have a persistent pheromonal version of GPS straight to us.  That’s right, running will avail us little safety, we are marked and they will come to finish the job.  Sounds ominous doesn’t it?  It’s a good thing they aren’t overly persistent.

Most of the time, if we can get anywhere from 20 to 100 yards away (depending on the breed of bee) they will consider having done their job sufficiently and removed the immediate threat and call the forces back home.  Whew!  This is actually true of pretty much all stinging bees.  They really don’t intend to utterly eliminate us, just remove the immediate threat.  Once the perpetrator clears out of the immediate area, most bees are fine with calling a cease fire and returning to battle stations.

In fact, there are times, again depending on the breed of honey bee, where instead of stinging immediately, they give us a warning instead.  A simple little bump, a head butt if you will.  Simply just to let us know, ” Hey pal, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll high-tail it out of here cuz playtime’s over.  Don’t make me have to tell you again.”  yes, I am anthropomorphizing but it’s more fun that way.

So now you know a little more about the stinging activity of bees.  It’s a good thing to know.  Just remember, bees don’t “attack”  they aren’t going out looking for a fight.  That would be the wasps and hornets.  No, bees just want to do their thing and be left alone.

Think of it as bees are all about, “Don’t start none, won’t bee none.”

Meet The Bumble Bee

Ah, our fuzzy friend the Bumble bee. It is actually part of the Order of bees called Hymenoptera and in the Family known as Apis or “Apidae”. Yes, that makes it related to the honey bee which is where most people recognize the word “Apis” from.  It is specifically in the Genus “Bombus” and from there we can tell them apart by a sub-genus, species, then sub-species. For most common discussion, we start with and use the genus, etc…

For example, the bumble bee that was recently added to the U.S. Endangered species list is “Bombus affinis”.  Most people know it as the “Rusty Patch” bumble bee.

Appalachian Bumble Bee (180992746).jpg
By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World – Appalachian Bumble Bee, CC BY 2.0

Actually, there are 8 sub-genus and 46 different species of bumble bees in North America alone.

Bumble bees are some of the fuzziest bees of them all.  That makes them incredibly effective pollinators.  All that fuzz helps them bee one of the best in another way as well.  They are the first to emerge in the spring and the last to settle down in the Autumn due to their special adaptation to dealing with cooler temperatures than other bees might tolerate.

Just here in the Omaha, Nebraska area where the Bee Smart beekeeping project is based, we can expect to see at least 6 to 10 different bumble bee species the Northern states and especially the Western states have an even greater diversity which can see 11 species or so on the low side up to as many as 24 different species in an area on the higher end.  What’s more is that due to the fact that not all of the continental U.S. have been thoroughly surveyed, there could very likely be even more than we realize.

Bumble bees are semi-social bees that don’t build huge nests like honey bees but small nests either at ground level or below ground most of the time.  In most cases, Queen bumble bees lay eggs that are intended to be reproductive and able to mate and start their own new nests the following Spring.

Once a new queen has emerged and mated in the Spring, she typically flies off to a new location, abandoning the nest site where she was born.  Once she finds a new site to her satisfaction, she begins building a new nest and, collecting food up and then laying several eggs.  When those bees emerge, they generally aren’t mated but work to help build the nest and allow the queen to focus on laying more eggs, building the colony while the others handle the foraging and defenses.

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Bumble bee at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. By Paul Stein.

Bumble bees are some of the largest bees around and to match that size, they have some of the biggest stingers for defending the nest.  Despite their weaponry and in some cases aggressive tendencies to defend the immediate nest site, bumble bees are also well known to be some of the most docile and least aggressive of all the bees out and about when they are foraging.  You are least likely to be stung by a bumble bee away from their nest while they are bobbing around your flower garden.

Bumble bees are affected by pesticides and have a number of predators and parasitic pests that spread disease among them like honey bees and other types of bees have to deal with.  It is ALWAYS highly recommended to leave a bumble bee nest alone if you find one somewhere as they typically won’t cause harm unless their nest entrance is located somewhere human and animal traffic will be very near and cause disturbance.