bees, honey and other sticky subjects

Sunday, February 29, 2004

“There are no bad foods, just bad diets.” Discuss.

Until today, I really only really knew about veganism and vegetarianism, but an article in the Straits Times of Singapore tells me that there is a much fuller range: sproutarians, fruitarians, Buddhist vegetarian, vegan, Hindhu vegetarian, ovo-lacto vegetarian and eaters of creatures with faces. Several of these regimes exclude honey from the diet.

Apparently vegans believe that obtaining honey is cruel to bees. My Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines cruelty as “... disposition to inflict suffering, delight in or indifference to to another's pain, mercilessness, pitilessness, hardheartedness, esp as exhibited in action ...” I'm puzzled. In my part of the world, beekeepers have a vested interest in ensuring that their bees are healthy, well-fed and well-housed. Only healthy bees produce sufficient honey to harvest. Can anyone enlighten me about my supposed cruelty? On second thoughts, maybe not. There are more meaningful and constructive debates to engage in.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Now that reminds me ...

The efficiency of bees in finding nectar sources has long been a source of wonder. Now Australian researchers have found another trick they use. They have discovered that the scent of a familiar nectar can trigger honeybees' memory of a previous route to a food source. In a report in Nature the Canberra researchers tell how they trained bees to visit differently scented sugar feeders and discovered that, even when the feeders were removed, bees could be induced to fly to these old sites by wafting the scent into the front of the hive.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Bees ablaze

It's not just Australia's bees that have suffered from drought and bushfires. There are estimates that up to 15,000 hives were lost in the Californian wildfires last autumn.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Not enough bees for California's blooming almonds

There is a bee shortage in California where they are needed to pollinate more than three-quarters of the world's production of almonds. One grower reports the price of a pollinating hive to have risen to $54 from $44 last year.
More than 1 million honey bee hives are needed to pollinate the 530,000 acres of almond groves that line the Central Valley, making up California's $1.189 billion almond industry and producing 80 percent of the world's supply.
Varroa, resistant varroa, droughts and increased almond production have all combined to push up demand for pollinating bees. California has 444,000 resident bee hives, but needs nearly one million to satisfy demand for one of the state's most profitable agricultural exports. Beefarmers from North Dakota, Washington and Colorado make the trip to the Golden State for the blooming almonds in late February and early March each year. About two hives are needed per acre. Said one almond grower: “The beekeepers are in charge now.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

GM seed contamination warning following pilot

The genetically modified (GM) crops debate took a new twist yesterday: the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in the USA says that in a pilot study it found that genetically engineered DNA is contaminating traditional seeds of three major US crops: corn, oil seed rape and soy beans. Seeds from GM crops designed for industrial and pharmaceutical use, it says, could leak into the food chain and threaten human health. UCS is calling for better regulation from the US Government.
“Because growers and processors would not be aware of the contaminants, they would inadvertently sell them for food use — a back door to the food supply that must be closed,” said Dr Margaret Mellon, Director of the Food and Environment Program at UCS.
Source: UCS news release

Move over Miss World and Rose of Tralee, make way for the Honey Queen

The recently crowned Wisconsin Honey Queen, Angela Fisher, didn't proclaim that she wanted to bring peace to the world or look after elderly people as is the wont of too many competitive queens. She wants “to study the components of honey on a molecular level, so it can be used in commercial products”.

The 19 year-old was first asked to become Wisconsin's Honey Queen by two teenage beekeeping brothers. They wanted to continue the tradition of putting a young face on a greying industry. Now Queen Angela tours the state speaking about the virtues of honey at fairs, nursing homes, civic clubs and elementary schools. She has also received scholarship money to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is now a freshman studying food science.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Sticky vision

Honey apparently dripping from a laminated photograph of self-styled Indian godman Kalki Bhagwan at the home of a recent convert to the Kalki cult seems to have caused a sensation in southern India with people thronging the apartment to have a look and devotees lining up with religious fervour. At first the honey was reported to be dripping from the left elbow in the picture, then the right elbow and then the chest. The honey, we are told (and shown in the photograph on the south Indian News Today link should you have any doubts whatsover), has already formed a puddle in a silver dish placed below the photograph.

But before you get too excited: Kalki Bhagwan, alias V Vijayakumar, seems to be a rather rich and “controversial godman”. Recently a petition to investigate his “illegal” and “fraudulent” activities was dismissed by a Madras court.

UPDATE: This blog receives a lot of accesses looking from people looking for Kalki Bhagwan. Does anyone really believe his nonsense?

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Australian honey prices seep lower

Latest reports say that Australia's honey prices are already beginning to fall as the drought ebbs. Top quality honey has dropped 80c to $A4 a kilo (presumably wholesale prices), but that is still well above pre-drought prices. (See earlier post: Oz's busy bees idle.)

Stinging interlude in TV chat show

Winding down from work today, my mother (of no fixed web abode) rang to tell me about “this man stinging people on the Richard and Judy Show”. The man turned out to be Peter Dalby of Pebadale Apiaries with a jar of bees from which he selected a sacrificial worker to sting a woman with arthritic hands. After an hour she said she was in less pain. The studio discussion revolved around the scepticism, safety and efficacy of apitherapy. A “don't-try-this-at-home” doctor was on hand to caution over-enthusiastic viewers. On one thing they were all agreed — any treatment should be supervised in a controlled environment. Anaphylaxis is not a happy way to go.

The claims made by apitherapists are wide-ranging. From acne to wrinkles, Beelief Apitherapy claims that there is a honeybee product that may be able to help, but responsibly note:
“The benefits of Apitherapy are accepted by many (but not all) doctors and scientists, and like all complementary medicines are best used in conjunction with medical diagnosis and advice.”
And on the topic of apitherapy, I couldn't possibly pass up the opportunity to mention The First German Propolis Congress coming up later next month. It's not remotely related to this website of course!

Monday, February 16, 2004

Oil spill? Take beeswax capsules

Beeswax microcapsules designed to keep out water, but absorb oil have been designed by NASA and others to clean up oil spills. The capsules contain micro-organisms that “eat” oil when it seeps through the beeswax shell.

When the balls are full of digested oil, they explode, releasing enzymes, carbon dioxide and water — all environmentally safe and reportedly even good as fish food.

Forget viagra, Honey, I love you

The Times has been extolling the medical and sexual benefits of honey. In amongst some good science, there’s some decidedly iffy science and a nice bit of hype:

“Put a woman who’s struggling to conceive on bee pollen and you can pretty much guarantee a result within two to three months,” claims Susan Fletcher of Apitherapy Foods UK. She puts this down to the belief that “pollen increases the biological value of the egg, restores and rejuvenates natural hormonal substances and can increase sexual stamina”.

Even Dame Barbara Cartland was known to twitter the praises of royal jelly, a “completely pure and wonderful aid to beauty”.

Fraudster propolised

Reading this blog, you might think that the world of bees is full of fraudsters. On the other hand, the real thing might rise in your esteem when you realise the number of times someone is trying to pass something off as a genuine bee product. Here’s another fraud story, this time from Selangor, Malaysia.

The Selangor Health Department seized RM5mil worth of bee pollen-based health food, or propolis, which was believed to have been manufactured illegally.
I’m not sure how propolis is pollen-based, and I have visions of a new strain of confidence-trickster bees pretending to manufacture propolis illegally. Perhaps the journalist meant “processed” illegally.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Moscow's honey lovers should be taken to the fair

Speaking to the Moscow Times at the All-Russian Honey Fair, the president of the Russian Beekeepers' Union Arnold Butov claimed:
“Much of the honey available in Moscow stores has been artificially sweetened, diluted or in some way tampered with. It's gotten to the point where many people, especially those who have tasted the real thing, are afraid to buy honey.” In contrast honey at the Fair “is guaranteed to be pure, fresh and good for consumption and medicinal purposes”.
Russia certainly has a love affair with honey and can claim some illustrious beekeepers: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

Oz's busy bees idle

Droughts and fires have taken a toll on Australia's honey industry. Honey prices are at a record high, but production is down 40%. This is unlikely to be a simply a result of local honey supply and demand economics — global honey prices have increased significantly following the banning of Chinese honey imports by many countries.

The Sydney Daily Telegraph reports that it will be at least a year before Australia's native flowering plants fully recover from the droughts to ensure a staple supply of nectar. It is estimated that 70% of Australia's nectar sources are native plants.

Sounding a B flat

A trawl around the Net for bees brings up the oddest things. Here’s what appeared on Sean Bonner’s blog:

I was thinkin’ of getting an east coast apartment, maybe in NY so I could bounce back and forth between there and LA a lot easier, and found this ad, which looked pretty sweet...

“$500 / 0br — Large Manhattan Room (one catch)

“I have a large 15x10 room in a relatively large East Village apartment for rent. The apartment has one full bath and a half bath which is in my room. There is a large common area. It’s a great space. There is one catch you should be aware of. I am a professional bee keeper. I maintain a rather large hive of Africanized honey bees. Due to the economic downturn and the reduced demand for honey I was unable to maintain my work studio and therefore I now work from home. The hive is located in the living room. I have plenty of protective gear and they mostly keep to themselves and go about their business of collecting pollen and producing delicious and reasonably priced honey. However, occasionally something sets them off and hive becomes enraged and tends to swarm. Generally you should be ok if you just keep your door shut but this can be a hassle at times. If you have any allergies to bee stings or maintain a large collection of predatory insects this is probably not the place for you.”
Beekeepers, please note down all the deliberate mistakes ...

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Propolis v SARS

Propolis — as every beeleeper knows — is bee glue. It's what bees use to seal up cracks in the hive. If there is a space in a hive that is more than a “bee space”, they will want to fill it with brace comb. If it's smaller than a bee space, they'll tend to want to propolize it. Bees collect and make propolis from tree resins and the like. Propolis is usually brown and very, very sticky — it can stain a beekeeper's fingers in seconds making him look like a life-long nicotine addict. It's the devil to remove.

But propolis is reputed to have amazing qualities. There is a long history of claims for its anti-biotic and anti-oxidant properties. At the onset of the common cold, many beekeepers will suck some propolis — making sure to keep it well away from their teeth to avoid lockjaw and severely stained teeth. (I'm amazed to see that in Central Europe and Russia, one of Colgate's successful new products is propolis toothpaste!)

During last year's panic over Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in Japan, propolis and “other miracle cures” came to the fore. Read all about it in the Japan Times.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Paterson’s Curse strikes the Antipodes

Honey is good for you — well nearly always. A rare event occured in the bee world this week when an alert was issued in Australia and New Zealand advising consumers who eat more than two tablespoons of honey every day not to eat honey made exclusively from Paterson’s Curse or Salvation Jane. Apparently, the nectar of these plants contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which won't do your liver a great deal of good when eaten in quantity.

Paterson's Curse / Salvation Jane, native to the Mediterranean and North Africa, was introduced to Australia in the 1800s as an attractive addition to botanic gardens. It escaped into pasture and is now regarded as a noxious weed that can be dangerous to grazing animals.

Fortunately, toxic honey is very rare. In her wonderful paperback, A Book of Honey (not easy to obtain, but seems to be available from IBRA), Eva Crane explains that generally toxic honeys shouldn't concern consumers. Even if there are toxins in nectar they will usually disappear by the time the honey is “ripe” (processed by the bees and sealed under cappings in the comb). In any case the bees usually blend so many nectars together that any potential toxins are usually extremely diluted — and then the beekeeper blends even further as a natural part of the extraction process.

Allegro non troppo

A new highly-rated DVD sets cartoons to music. Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto, taking up where Disney's Fantasia left off, has produced animations for six classical pieces including the adventures of an industrious honeybee that runs afoul of an amorous couple set to the music of Vivaldi (the first movement of Concerto in C).

Monday, February 09, 2004

A truly sticky site

A honey vending machine has been installed at the Central Bee Research and Training Institute in Pune, India. Consumers can dispense from 200g to 5kg of honey into their own containers. I shudder to think about the spillages, and I don't somehow think this will catch in Britain where honey foraged from oil seed rape is likely to set rock hard in a matter of days. One lump or two?

I’m not bloody-minded, I’m sick!

Researchers at the University of Tokyo claim to have discovered a possible link between a new brain virus discovered in bees and their propensity to fly into fits of bee rage and attack other insects. If they can treat the bee virus successfully, they think this could support a theory that brain viruses cause human mental disorders.

The scientific abstract explains how they discovered a novel RNA sequence which they named Kakugo and which has similarities with the sacbrood virus that also affects honeybees. They have only found Kakugo in the brains of bees that displayed aggressive behaviour towards a decoy hornet.
“Kakugo RNA was detected in aggressive workers but not in nurse bees or foragers. In aggressive workers, Kakugo RNA was detected in the brain but not in the thorax or abdomen, indicating a close relation between viral infection in the brain and aggressive worker behaviors.”
Journal of Virology

Were vandals victims of a sting?

British bobbies in Norfolk are on the look-out for anyone with bee stings after six hives of honeybees belonging to bee farmer Don Cooper were vandalised in mid-winter. The Norwich Evening News reported that the bees were in “deep hibernation” — a common misconception amongst non-beekeepers. In winter, honeybees huddle for warmth, but in Britain will usually begin toilet and water-collection runs if the temperature gets above 8 degrees Celsius. And, of course, they may well be roused to action in colder temperatures if they perceive a threat to their colony.

Ivy League wannabe beekeepers

It’s that time of year when beekeeping courses are being advertised. One at Cornell University caught my eye. With fewer than 2,000 people in the USA making most of their money from bees, Cornell is running a Master Beekeeper Programme. The course organisers reckon that there are 90 crops in the USA totally or partially dependent upon the pollination of honeybees, thus emphasising the importance of the occupation to agriculture.

Fifteen million bees threatened with homelessness in Sweet Home

A truck with 480 colonies of bees on the annual pollination run to the almond orchards of California overturned near Sweet Home on Highway 20 in the Golden State. Local residents were relieved that most bees seemed to remain around the overturned vehicle, circling their former homes. The driver sustained serious leg injuries and has been charged with driving under the influence of intoxicants and careless driving. Local beekeepers came to help restore a semblance of order the following day.

Honey, I grew the economy!

Pakistan is now claiming to be self-sufficient in honey and now exports to the Gulf countries. There are nearly a quarter of a million known colonies and annual yields per colony are estimated to be 4kg to 21kg. They seem to be promoting beekeeping as a profession and encouraging women beekeepers.

Meanwhile Bulgaria plans to double its number of honeybee colonies by 2007 when it is due to enter the European Union.

Manuka hokus pokus

Manuka honey — famed for its curative powers especially for wounds — has come under scrutiny by the New Zealand Consumers’ Institute. Apparently, there is more Manuka honey sold than is actually produced. It seems that a dollop in a jar has miraculous effects on the label, if not the patient. And since Manuka honey sells at about four times the price of other honeys, it’s not that surprising.

Manuka is foraged from the blossom of the tea tree Leptospermum scoparium (the leaves of which Captain Cook and Co made themselves feel at home with a frequent cuppa).

While honey is generally regarded as having all sorts of healing effects, Manuka honey has long been regarded as having special anti-bacterial properties and has been studied at Waikato University for two decades.

Honey New Zealand has just signed a NZ$440 million deal to supply a Japanese health products company with Manuka and other bee products. I bet they will be getting the real thing!

Honeybees and RATs on Mars

Honeybees, the most studied insect on earth, are making their mark on Mars. NASA has sent built two robot geologists — Spirit and Opportunity — built by Honeybee Robotics to explore the surface of the red planet. Mind you, a RAT has gone with them, although the RAT is a nothing fiercer than a Rock Abrasion Tool.

The name of Honeybee Robotics, a New York-based company, is probably a reference to the inspiration that insect visual systems are giving to robotics.

Other companies such as Centeye are also improving robotic vision through biological influences:

“Relying on circuits and algorithms based upon insect visual systems, Barrows’ [CEO of Centeye] imaging chips fundamentally mimic an intelligent retina by partially ‘digesting’ the image before sending the data to a backend processor. Conventional vision systems are, by contrast, heavy data crunchers, needing to process megabytes of dumb data using power-hungry processors before extracting relevant information.”
Wired gives a useful overview of bug inspirations.

Politician retires to spend more time with his bees

Tam Dalyell, British MP for over 40 years, grand old dissenter within the Labour Party, and well-known for the bees in his bonnet, is retiring to look after bees at his ancestral Scottish home.

In an interview for The Sunday Times, he explained that it wasn’t long before his fellow MPs became aware of his apiarian pursuits:
Shortly after his election he missed a vote because “my bees swarmed”. What? “Well, you can hardly ask other people to deal with swarms. The chief whip called me in and said: ‘I’ve been in this post for nine years and over German rearmament I thought I heard every possible excuse for missing a vote, but never f****** bees’.”

Bees to star in flea pits

Jerry Seinfield of the eponymous sitcom is to write, produce and star in a bee movie being made by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks studios. Following on the success of Antz, Bee Movie will be an anthropomorphised vision of the world of bees. It’s likely to be quite a while before the film makes it to your local flea pit.