bees, honey and other sticky subjects

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The home as a hive

New designs of homes in the United States are focusing on the home as a hive:
Home buyers still seek safe, secure havens. But they also seek homes that enhance connectedness with family, friends and the surrounding neighborhood, says consumer research specialist J. Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich Inc. ... The Yankelovich research suggests that hiving is a response to anxiety people feel as a result of a weak economy, the war on terrorism, the war in Iraq and a number of corporate and institutional scandals. It plays out in home design in many ways.
Oh, if Mr Smith only knew about the domestic violence that sometimes occurs in bee hives. And let's not even mention the fact that no sex ever takes place inside a hive.

GM crop-growing stalled in the UK

Most British beekeepers will be delighted by the news that UK Genetically Modified (GM) crop trials seem to have ground to a halt. Following a succession of confusing UK Government messages, it appears that the growing of GM crops in the UK has effectively been shelved until 2008 after Bayer announced it was stopping its trials.

Bayer CropScience, the only company licensed to grow to grow herbicide-resistant maize in the UK, has decided to pull out of trials, blaming government constraints for making it “economically non-viable”. Bayer CropScience said government-imposed conditions would stall GM maize production for too long.

Andrew George MP, Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesman, accused biotech companies of wanting “the profit but not the problems from GM crops. Bayer admit that having vital systems to protect consumers, farmers and the environment, would mean GM crops simply aren't worth the trouble ... Bayer's decision now gives Ministers time to get it right on GMs, having so far got it wrong.”

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Canada's honey ban turns viscous

That row about banned honey in Canada is escalating and the focus is shifting from Argentina to Australia. The honey came from one of Australia's largest producers, Capilano. The Brisbane-based company says that it blended its own stocks with some Argentinian honey because of the shortages resulting from the Australian drought and that the honey came through tests in Australia and Argentina.

According to the Australian Herald Sun, Capilano is blaming the Canadian packers claiming that a competing Canadian packer threatened to do whatever it took — including making quality complaints to food inspectors — to keep out foreign competitors. Australia's High Commissioner in Canada has been briefed on the problem.

UPDATE: Capilano is rattling its sabres and not ruling out legal action. In an ABC report, Capilano says it once took legal action in a similar issue against a UK packer and received an apology.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Sweet protector

Honey may be even better for you than you thought. The American Association for the Advancement of Science reports reports that volunteers fed buckwheat honey daily for a month showed increased levels of level of polyphenolic antioxidants in their blood plasma. Anti-oxidants have been linked with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Generally, darker honeys are thought to have more anti-oxidants than lighter-coloured honeys. I wish they tested something other than buckwheat honey, though. I get about as much joy out of eating buckwheat honey as being stung by my bees.

Friday, March 26, 2004

A stick for a sting

The Now Show on BBC Radio had an interesting take on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's response to suicide bombers: well, if you get stung by a wasp, you go and find its home and whack it with a stick. And if you get stung again, you hit the wasps' home even harder.

Organic honey from Uganda

A lot of nonsense is spoken about organic honey in the UK — it's impossible to guarantee that British bees have not collected nectar from plants grown with the aid of artificial fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides.

But in Uganda, because of the nature of their agriculture and landuse, things are different. They expect to gain a certificate from the EU (whose standards are very strict) in October to verify that some of their honey is organic. Imports are expected to start later this year.

Tall tale of toads piggy-backing to eat bees

Queensland beekeepers are faced not only with the Australian drought, but also the cane toad. Introduced from Hawaii in the 1930s to control beetles in sugar cane fields, the cane toad (picture) is poisonous and is now declared a pest. One beekeeper even claims they piggy-back each other to raise themselves to the hive entrance to gobble up departing bees.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Bees sound the alarm on Regent

Regent, the pesticide blamed for decimating honeybees in France and which caused an outcry by French beekeepers, now seems to be proving even more sinister, according to a fascinating report by Julio Godoy.

When French organic farmers occupied French Ministry of Agriculture premises in protest against the decision to allow the continued utilization of the existing pesticide stock, they discovered confidential documents confirming Regent's toxicity to humans.
The documents included medical reports from a health insurance company on 182 cases of people who were poisoned from contact with Regent and other insecticides. The reports documented cardiac and respiratory complications, skin and eye problems, and digestive tract dysfunction.

The protesting farmers also found a report from the ministry's legal department detailing alternatives available to the government on the insecticide question.

According to that text, the immediate halt to Regent use would have cost 360 million dollars, while permitting the use of pesticide stocks “would have comparatively lower financial consequences.”
Inter Press Service News Agency
Regent, produced by BASF, is used mainly on sunflowers and maize.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Most northerly honeybees?

How far north do honeybees survive? Alaska is getting ready to import bees for the summer. The usual starter pack order is four pounds of bees — making 4-6000 bees in total. They can produce interesting honey in summer, but the winters are just a bit too much.

Canada turns its nose up at ear candling

Health Canada wants to snuff out ear candling: that curious practice of putting a narrow cone soaked in beeswax into an ear and lighting it. Adherents claim that the heat causes suction and removes the wax. Health Canada says there is no proven benefit but clear risks of setting your hair on fire and blocking your ear with hot wax. As my mother says: “never put anything in your ear smaller than your elbow”.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Coping with India's giant bee

Over 100 people have been trained by the Central Bee Research Institute near Pune in central India to extract honey from nests of the local dorsata wild bee “in a scientific manner” reports the Times of India. No longer need the colony be put at risk because so many bees are killed as part of the traditional extraction process. Instead the honey is extracted by cutting the side portion of the colony comb in such a way that bees are, at worst, scattered for a short period. The one-year training was completed in December 2003, and a honey processing plant opened at Melghat in mid-January.

Apis dorsata, also known as the giant bee (picture), has proved difficult for beekeepers to manage because it doesn't like enclosed hives, it migrates during the season to follow the nectar flows and it is quick to attack. Even though they can produce a large harvest (up to 50kg in a year says Eva Crane), honey collectors of dorsata bees have tended to be very poor and haven't marketed their honey in a way that attracts a good price.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

The chips are down for bee rustlers

Beekeepers in the almond orchards of California are starting to microchip their hives to try to avoid theft says the San Jose Mercury News, the local newspaper for Silicon Valley's technology companies. The microchips are similar to those used to track pets and advertising their presence may be a greater theft deterrent than traditional branding of hives.
“It's one of the toughest crimes to investigate,” said detective Jeff Reed of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department. Reed is one of four Stanislaus County officers who specialize in agricultural crime. The sheer size of orchards makes them difficult to police. And the crimes usually occur late at night, when bees are calm.
The thieves rent out the hives to growers desperate for almond pollinators. One beekeeper says that 64 of his hives were stolen last year. He recovered 56, but the colonies weren't in great condition.

With pollination contracts at about $60 per hive, relocating 50 of someone else's hives could fetch $3000. Night work, if you can get it.

Updates: I & II.

Kiwi beekeepers in a lather over semen

Varroa has certainly split New Zealand beekeepers. Just last week, I wrote about the arguments over how to delay the spread of varroa to South Island.

Now a new row has broken out after David Yanke of Northland says he has gained approval to import semen of carniolan bees from Germany. He wants to introduce hybrid vigour into the Italian-based Kiwi bee stock saying that no new stock has been imported into New Zealand for 50 years. He thinks that the new strain will have improved resistance to varroa.

The recently-formed New Zealand Bee Industry Group (BIG) is supporting the imports, but the longer standing National Beekeepers' Association of New Zealand objects saying that the new strain is likely to lead to an increase in swarming.

I think some British beekeepers would have something to say about that! There has long been a suspicion that mixing stocks in Britain — especially those involving Italian bees — often leads to increased bee defensiveness in subsequent generations.

I bet there are some interesting politics going on in the land of the long white cloud. The newly-formed BIG is a new industry sector of the Federated Farmers' Group. Mr Yanke, the would-be semen importer, happens to be an American who moved to New Zealand 23 years ago and has been trying to import semen for ten years. I suspect this story has some way to run.

In case you think artificial insemination of honeybees is a little far-fetched, here's a quick guide on how to collect the semen from drones and inseminate the queen. If you are sqeamish, don't go there!


Friday, March 19, 2004

Argentinian honey under a cloud

Following the Chinese honey scare and subsequent import bans by many countries, honey, possibly of Argentinian origin, is now under suspicion. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has recalled some no-name brand honeys from a chain store in Western Canada. The honey has been found to contain nitrofurans, an agricultural chemical that is banned in Canada and, according to a Canadian “bee specialist”, may have been used in Argentina in an attempt to control foulbrood, the disease that affects bee brood leading to the debilitation or death of colonies.

Canada produces 38.6 million kilograms of honey a year — more than enough to meet the average Canadian consumption of just under one kg per person, per year. Nonetheless, Canada exports about one-quarter (nine million kilograms) of its honey each year and therefore imports honey — often to use in blends with the home-produced product.

UPDATE: The banned honey is now being described as an Argentinian-Australian blend. The Australian Honey Bee Council insists that Australian producers do not use nitrofurans. See latest developments in story.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Bees & bites

Dusty Ricketts, reporter on the Hesperia Star in California, is obviously learning about bees. In Dusty's article about a swarm in a shopping centre there is some good information, but some not so good:
To avoid being bitten stay away from hives, ... and be prepared to run as far as a quarter mile if they start to sting.
Dusty also quotes a member of the public:
“I ran,” said [Naomi] Fransson, who is allergic to bee stings. “I don't want to get bit and go in the hospital. I got bit by a wasp once and my whole foot expanded and I couldn't even put my shoe on.”
For any readers new to bees, rest assured bees don't bite, but they do sting. And when they sting, they die — so they won't sting you without thinking they have good reason to do so.

A swollen foot is not necessarily a sign of having a serious allergy to bee stings — it could well be quite a normal reaction. Ankles are favourite places for bees to sting beekeepers — favourites with the bees that is. Beekeepers don't appreciate it. If you want to learn more about reactions to insect stings and bites, try this personal view from a non-medic, David Glaser.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Killer bees lose their sting in post 9/11 America

More than ten years after the arrival of killer bees in the USA, there are signs that mainstream media is treating the africanized bee as an annoyance rather than a lethal threat. The Los Angeles County Vector Control has closed its killer bee service. The spokeswoman almost sounded disappointed:
“We had to discontinue our Africanized honeybee service because ... they are not considered a significant public health risk,” said district spokeswoman Stephanie Miladin. “About 80 percent of our bees are now Africanized. They're here and they're here to stay and we have to learn how to live with them.”
Nonetheless, despite a serious lack of stinging incidents, some Santa Clarita residents are having holes cut in their houses to remove bee nests.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Beefarming and globalization

Making a business from beefarming in Britain seems like very hard work. Estimates of commercial beekeepers are about 100 — but it probably isn't a full-time occupation for any of them. One British beefarmer recently told a local audience that his four hundred hives can produce about 10 tonnes of honey plus additional income from pollination contracts in orchards. I'm not sure I could make the sums add up.

But in Thailand, beekeeping as a business seems to be on the up according to the Thai Nation newspaper. Somba and Supha Yawilert are one of 300 beekeeping enterprise in the three big honey producing provinces of Thailand. They have become one of the largest operations after Supha gave up government job to earn a better living as a beekeeper. From 1,200 colonies, she days she can harvest 60 tonnes of “concentrated” honey — it’s not clear exactly what concentrated honey is, but her 72 tonnes last year “were not as concentrated”.

Quality is the major price determinant and Nestle, as one of the big Thai buyers, sets the price. About 50% of the national 6,000 tonnes honey harvest is exported, and production is expected to rise by 15% this year.

Unless global warming takes a very dramatic turn, I wonder how much longer British beefarmers can make a reasonable living in our unpredictable climate. Will the last commercial British beekeeper please put the crown board back on the hive?

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Plum job

We all know that bees collect nectar from blossoms to make honey — well, not always. Here's a great pic of bees collecting juice from an over-ripe plum.

The sticky question of honey dribbles

Have you ever wondered why honey dribbles and rarely breaks into drops like water? Danish researchers are getting closer to the the answer to this sticky problem.

Water coming out of a tap breaks into drops because of gravity, surface tension and “wobbles” (spatial disturbances). But honey and other viscous liquids come out in long threads. For more than a century scientists haven't been able to explain the conundrum. They did, however, show that gravity and surface tension don't cause honey to form droplets. Honey forms long thin threads that are very stable. Wobbles have a tough job causing a drip because honey flows faster than the wobble — it has to be a very big wobble to outrun by the the drip. To break the honey drip, you have to shake (or wobble) it quite violently. You can try this one at home by drizzling honey from a spoon and seeing how big a shake is required to make the honey break and form droplets.

If you still don't quite understand the technicalities, don't worry — it seems the scientists don't quite either.

But next time you are extracting honey and the tap leaks and the honey runs gracefully and silently on to the floor, you'll have a better idea why you weren't warned by the sound of drips. And you can give a great explanation to other household members wading through the sticky mess. They are bound to be fascinated.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Apis viagra

You may have wondered who organises the advertisers on this site. It certainly isn't me. But my blog mentor, Martin Stabe, has pointed out a real gem: the Killer Bee Guy.

While half of America has been scared rigid by killer bees, there's always someone with an eye on the money. Describing himself as a “killer bee authority, removal expert and master killer bee keeper”, the Killer Bee Guy has a great line in marketing: “Watch out! Killer Bee honey is good for your stinger!!” What next? Killer bee spam?

Monday, March 08, 2004

The final frontier?

Beekeepers in South Island of New Zealand are at loggerheads about how to delay the spread of varroa. The parasite has not yet been found in South Island, but it exists in upper North Island and in pockets further south. And so the Government has called a Ministerial Board of Inquiry. Good luck! I propose King Canute as Chairman of the Board.


Sunday, March 07, 2004

Take a food writer — any food writer — and beat well

Like so many before her, Sue Lawrence, Glenfiddich Regional Food Writer of the Year, doesn't seem to get it. After writing about the variety of flavours of honey, she presents two recipes whose ingredients include “clear honey” — not “bell heather honey” or “sycamore and hawthorn honey” both of which she says she has tasted. As anyone with a palate will tell you the taste of these two honeys is as different as a vintage port and a Liebfraumilch. She wouldn't dared have said “a glass of wine” without specifying further, would she? The only food writer I can think of who sometimes recommends a particular honey is Nigel Slater. Even Van Morrison sings about “Tupelo Honey”!

Africanized honey bees' gene secrets uncovered

The genetic powerhouse of Africanized Honey Bees (AHB) that has enabled their rapid spread from Brazil in the 1950s to the USA in the 1990s is outlined in this month's US Agricultural Research magazine.

AHBs now occupy large parts of South West USA but their progress north has been much less than originally predicted. Rainfall, not temperature, seems to define theit current limits. AHBs are not spreading into areas where rainfall is more than 55 inches a year and spread throughout the year, but researchers are reluctant to claim that this is a causal relationship.

Not only do AHB colonies have faster growth rates but they also tend to replace European Honey Bee (EHB) colonies rather than hybridize with them. Several factors are thought to assist the genetic takeover — which takes about three years. EHB queens mate disproportionately with AFB drones, but even when there is an equal EHB/AHB semen mix, the AHB semen is used first. AHB queens are also more successful fighters which gives them a distinct advantage if they encounter EHB viirgins in their colony. Some AHB traits are also genetically dominant.

Curiously. AHB colonies also have a greater resistance to varroa, the parasite which is threatens Apis mellifera colonies across the western world. If AHB's resistance to varroa can be understood, it could have significant implications in the battle against varroa.

The success of AHB in the USA is also attracting the interest of a geneticist developing models of how Homo sapiens may have interacted with the European population of Neanderthals. Honeybee generations, unlike human's, are short enough to track invasion and gene flow with rapid results.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Government drone dismisses beekeeping

Has no-one ever told the UK Labour Party Chairman Ian McCartney about the birds and the bees? He doesn't seem to understand the importance of the contribution of bees to the UK economy. In criticising the Liberal Democrats on their spending plans he singled out beekeeping as something which is undeserving of support:
“From uncosted commitments on pensions to promises on bee-keeping, there is not an area where the Liberal Democrats have not called for more spending.”
The Labour Party even thinks this is a clever soundbite and has publicised his quote on their website.

Mr McCartney seems not to understand that bees contribute hugely to the British economy by pollinating agricultural crops. Without a healthy bee population, agricultural productivity would fall. A political party promoting beekeeping makes sound economic sense to me. I suggest Mr McCartney's beekeeping constituents in Makerfield put him right.

Don't leave us Tam Dalyell! New Labour clearly doesn't understand bees.

Incidentally, it's not the first time, Mr McCartney has spoken of senior citizens and bees in the same breath:
“Put simply, we older people are the bees knees — and this has been recognised by the Government,” he told an Age Concern conference on 2001.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Number munching

Statistics lovers will drool over the latest US honey production figures [small pdf file] from the USDA (the United States Department of Agriculture). The figures seem to include only producers with more than five productive colonies.

In 2003, USDA says there were:
  • 2.59 million colonies of bees (up 1% on 2002)

  • producing 181 million pounds of honey (up 5% on 2002)

  • with an average colony yield of almost 70lbs (up 5% on 2002)
  • selling at an average (mainly wholesale) price of $1.40 per pound (up 7.7% on 2002).
The biggest beekeeping state is California (480,000 colonies), followed by North Dakota (340,000), and Florida (210,000). I have no idea what the nectar sources are in North Dakota — but I'm going to find out ...

UPDATE: I'm still not quite sure but it seems that North Dakota and South Dakota are staging posts in the annual pollination runs of beefarmers [pdf - page 6]. They arrive from fruit pollination in Oregon and Washington and forage clover, sunflowers and basswood trees in the Dakotas. There is also a substantial amount of oil seed rape (canola) in North Dakota and it's difficult to imagine that they are ignoring that!

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Bee movements inspire computer programming

Movements of bees and other social insects are providing inspiration for researchers investigating the design of robots and computer programs at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Bees are highly successful creatures with “large-scale robust behaviour patterns forged from the interaction of many simple individuals”. By analyzing their behaviour, the researchers hope to be able to simulate it. These simulated models may yield better computing programming algorithms.

A new computer vision system that automates the analysis of animal movement is central to their work. Already it is 80% as accurate as human experts in identifying key bee movements. The bee dance whereby bees tell fellow bees the location of nectar sources is an early focus of their stiudies.

Monday, March 01, 2004

News values in Corpus Christi, Texas

In a rather gruesome “Around the Area” column in the Corpus Cristi Caller-Times about decomposed corpses, a road death and a suspected murder, comes a story about four adults and a child being stuing by bees. The City's “vector control” disposed of the bees which had been disturbed by road cleaners. Presumably, they were africanized bees. All the victims were treated at the site and made a full recovery. Phew! Oh yes, the fifth story was about four council members being at a Town Hall.

Big beesness

Comvita, a natural health products company focusing primarily on bee products, wants to list on the full New Zealand Stock Exchange (NZSX) and has announced a public offering of NZ$7.5 million. It is already listed on the New Zealand small company Stock Exchange (NZAX) and has 220 investors. With 500 investors it will qualify for NZSX. Comvita has just recorded record profits of over NZ$1 million, up 60% on the previous year, and as the New Zealand Herald reported:
[The Comvita Chairman] said the largest honey crop in New Zealand's history, the successful management of the varroa mite, huge exchange rate fluctuations, the introduction of new management practices and the launching of the NZAX all underscored the company's ability to cope with highs and lows without losing focus.
The new cash will enable the development of Comvita's warehouse and other facilities, develop its medical honey business and consider further acquisitions.