Let’s Talk About Torpor In Honeybees

What is torpor in general?

Torpor, is generally scientifically defined as follows;

Torpor, a state of lowered body temperature and metabolic activity assumed by many animals in response to adverse environmental conditions, especially cold and heat. The torpid state may last overnight, as in temperate-zone hummingbirds and some insects and reptiles; or it may last for months, in the case of true hibernation and the winter torpor of many cold-blooded vertebrates.

"Torpor". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2018. Web. 05 Jan. 2018
<https://www.britannica.com/science/torpor>

Basically “torpor” is a physical response to changes in temperature in a number of animals.

We’ve talked about torpor before in a previous article but not quite in as much detail.  Here I’d like to get a bit more specific.

What is torpor in regards to honeybees?

Torpor is not effected identically across the board between mammals, lizards, birds and insects  Unfortunately, all too many times, people will try to apply the understanding of torpor to honey bees as it applies to mammals.  That is to our disadvantage.

In regard to bees, torpor is a point in which the temperature has the effect of causing bees to be unable to sustain an inner temperature that allows bees to stay mobile and active.

I’d like to quote directly from the well respected book, “Honey Bee Democracy” by Dr. Tom Seeley in the description of bee swarm/cluster temperature regulation.  He cites Dr. Bernd Heinrich research in about 1980.

Heinrich discovered many marvelous things about temperature regulation in honeybee swarms, all of which are key to understanding how a swarm prepares to fly to its new home. First, he found that a swarm does indeed precisely control the temperature of the cluster’s core so that it stays at 34– 36 ° C (93– 97 ° F) regardless of the ambient temperature. He also found that a swarm allows the temperature of the cluster’s mantle (outer layer) to vary with the ambient temperature, but that it keeps the mantle temperature above 17 ° C (63 ° F) even if the ambient temperature falls to freezing (0 ° C or 32 ° F). This means that the outermost bees, which are the coolest, keep themselves warm enough to stay active on the swarm. If they were to cool below 15 ° C (59 ° F) they would enter “chill torpor” and easily fall from the swarm. They would also be too cold to warm themselves back up by shivering.

Seeley, Thomas D.. Honeybee Democracy (Kindle Locations 2025-2032). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

I highlighted some pertinent information as to the effect of torpor on honey bees above on the effect of torpor on bees in a cluster.

Bees resist Torpor

In effect, torpor is something honey bee colonies actively work to prevent.  Bees in the cluster work to generate heat that warms not only themselves but is trapped within the cluster by the outermost layer of bees (the “mantle”.  Those bees in the mantle don’t just take it as a given that being exposed to the cold, they must enter torpor.  They will work to retain their own effective body temperature and move to the inside of the cluster to preserve that temperature if possible.  Honey bees actively resist torpor.

…when the ambient temperature falls below 17 ° C, and the mantle bees start to feel too cool, they crowd inward, causing the swarm cluster to shrink, its porosity to decrease, and its heat loss to diminish (figs. 7.2 and 7.3). In this way the mantle bees skillfully trap inside the swarm cluster the metabolic heat generated by the thousands of resting, immobile bees, and they also keep themselves sufficiently warm. It is only when the air temperature falls below about 10 ° C (50 ° F) that the mantle bees must take the extra step of raising their metabolic rate by shivering.

Seeley, Thomas D.. Honeybee Democracy (Kindle Locations 2037-2041). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Honey bees have figured out how to maintain over the Winter

 

Thus Heinrich discovered that the bees in a honeybee swarm have an effective means of conserving their energy reserves. The mantle bees, those most exposed to low temperatures, minimize their need for active metabolism by doing two things when the air becomes cool: (1) letting their body temperatures drop to just above the chill-torpor temperature rather than working to maintain a higher body temperature, and (2) keeping their body temperatures above the chill-torpor temperature mainly by huddling rather than shivering. Of course, these energy conservation measures mean that most of the time the outermost bees in a swarm are too cold to fly, something that is easily demonstrated by skimming a spoonful of mantle bees from a swarm and shaking them into the air. The bees tumble to the ground rather than fly away. So before a swarm can take off to fly to its new home, the cool bees in the mantle must warm their flight muscles to the flight-ready temperature of 35 ° C. And not just in theory! When Heinrich made continuous recordings of the temperatures at various locations in a swarm cluster from when the bees settled to when they departed, he found that during the last hour or so before takeoff, the temperature in the mantle did indeed rise to match the 35 ° C of the core.

Seeley, Thomas D.. Honeybee Democracy (Kindle Locations 2045-2050). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Again, I’ve highlighted pertinent text that affirms that honey bees avoid or resist torpor because for honey bees, it does not have the same effect as it does in mammals.  Topor in mammals is beneficial to their survival for short term temperature changes in conserving heat and energy.  For mammals. It’s a short term solution whereas hibernation is for long term survival in extreme changes of temperature.

Not so for bees.  For bees, torpor is a state that can lead to death due to failure to maintain just enough self generated heat.

How is torpor important in honey bee colony management?

For many apiculturists, Winter is a nervous time.  We try to send bees into Winter with plenty of stores to sustain energy specifically so that they can continue to generate enough heat to prevent torpor.

We also use mechanical, environmental and other methods to make the hive more efficient in heat retention.  By making hives more heat efficient, we allow bees to expend less energy to maintain sustainable temperatures in the cluster.  Conserving energy also helps the colony to retain their food stores for a longer period of time, preventing starvation.

Causes for concern in beekeepers

In recent years, we have seen an increase in concern and interest in methods being used to check the conditions of over-wintering colonies.  Unfortunately in many articles and videos torpor and it’s effect on bee colonies is not accurately explained or understood.  Sometimes it is even suggested to be a normal or “good” thing that bees enter a state of torpor in cold weather.  These misunderstandings have caused colonies to be lost unnecessarily.

  • We can use efficient hives that are insulated naturally, or if necessary, adding extra insulation.
  • Ensure that hives are well ventilated.  Keeping hives dry can’t be overstated.
  • Use effective pest presence restrictors.  Entrance guards or different sized bottom boards perhaps.  When we try to do whatever keeps predators and scavengers from getting into hives. Colonies can be depleted or have their resources consumed before they can access them.

 

Apiculture isn’t “just” beekeeping but a trade with adventure

What’s in a word?

Apiculture and beekeeping.  Two words that are synonymous of each other and yet not exactly the same.  Many words often refer to something similar  yet every word also retains it’s own special definition.  Each word isn’t exactly the same as other synonymous words.

Words have meaning.  Apiculture refers to beekeeping, yet it means something more distinct.  Yes, apiculture and beekeeping both refer to the practice of maintaining honey bee hives.  Yet, while one term, “beekeeping”, is obviously more generic, “apiculture” suggests something more refined.

Apiculture as a trade

I know that I am not the only one who looks upon and goes about my efforts with bees as a hobby or even in a “commercial” approach.  Apiculture as a trade exists in a place somewhere in between the two.

One one hand, it is a specialized, professional endeavor.  A process through which a person has undergone formal and informal education.  Apprenticeship and working with and alongside a person who has made a living with bees and all they provide.

It is, in part, setting goals and objectives for productivity and profitability.  We establish and follow objective measures and a course of action to be planned and followed.

As a trade there are technical issues and aspects we must identify and practice.  We develop a mastery of skills and knowledge and never cease to build upon it.

Apiculture is also a passion

This path also requires a philosophical approach, if not an artistic one.   Apiarists are guided by a sense of design and purpose.  There is purpose from the initial stages of preparing the grounds and putting together hives to selecting the type of bees and the management methods to achieve the goals of the apiary.

As an Apiarist (or Apiculturist) there is a connection we feel not just to the bees but to the apiary and to the work as a whole.  It is in it’s own way a Holistic enterprise.  We are always trying to achieve this balance.  We want to work toward a symmetry of sorts between the immediate environment, the bees and our purpose.

Apiculture is equal parts practicality and ideology

If we bring all the parts together, we get a grand purpose.   It’s both a career and a passion.  For so many, it becomes a part of their essential identity.  It’s a part of who and what we are.  The term, “Labor of love” is heard from apiarists fairly often.

This in no way slights either hobbyists or commercial operators.  The interactions they pursue in those avenues are admirable in their own ways as well.  Still, there is indeed a difference.  There is a difference economically and philosophically.

The Bee Smart beekeeping project

Bee Smart beekeeping project is to provide information and insight for anyone and everyone who wants to know more about bees and beekeeping.  You could say it is an enterprise of apiculture passion.  I want to share with people not just knowledge and information about bees.  It’s also about sharing the experience, the enthusiasm, and the opportunity that bees and beekeeping presents.

Everything posted here is an effort to share all of those things and have fun and keep people interested while doing so.  From the puzzles and article posts to the podcasts and occasional videos.  It’s all about sharing the experience of apiculture.

Let me share with you the world of bees and beekeeping that I and other apiarists I am lucky enough to call my friends can show you.  See you in the forums.

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.