bees, honey and other sticky subjects

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Alabama shows monarchist tendencies

The Alabama House passed a bill yesterday to make the queen honey bee the official state insect. The voting was 90-0 and the only other contender discussed seems to have been the mosquito (because there are so many of them). The Bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

International Gift Ark

An imaginative project to give a US school an opportunity to help others and an educational opportunity to learn about different cultures and the importance of food security throughout the world has been organized by Heifer International. The children contributed towards a $5000 donation which is being used to buy the “Heifer International Gift Ark” for 30 families around the world:
two flocks of chicks to a Honduran family to improve nutrition and replenish their land
two sheep to a United States families to produce wool
two trios of rabbits to provide food and income to families in Uganda
two beehives to help families in Mexico earn money through the sale of honey and beeswax
two trios of Guinea pigs to help Peruvian families add protein to their diets and earn income
two Llamas to improve livestock bloodlines and produce wool for Bolivian families
two camels to help families in Tanzania earn income by transporting materials
two donkeys to supply animal draft power for farmers in Zimbabwe
two goats to help two Romanian families provide milk for their children and earn extra income
two oxen to pull plows and carts in Cameroon
two pigs to enable families in Thailand to attain greater self-reliance
two trios of ducks to help families in Ecuador generate income through the sale of eggs and birds
two Water Buffalo to help Filipino families increase rice production through animal draft power
two flocks of geese to help two families in China improve their protein nutrition and income
two cows to bring milk and income to a village in India.

Managers to think like insects

Now, I could be being led astray here, but a German-speaking friend tells me that a course is being offered in Germany called “Manager Meets Nature” [in German], in which corporate types are taught how to run large organizations by learning from social insects, specifically bees and ants. The web page translation alone is worth your ISP fee.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Beekeepers join Estonia's sugar shopping spree

Beekeepers are joining the sugar and salt buying binge prevalent in Estonia in advance of its joining the expanded EU on 1 May. The panic buying is reminiscent of the reaction when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 and has been encouraged by media reports of panic buying in neighbouring Latvia. Sugar is expected to double in price next week as sugar export subsidies are removed.
“Of course I have bought two to three times more sugar than in a usual year as sugar prices will increase, but the price for honey will probably stay the same, as people have less money,” one central Estonian beekeeper, who has 20 50-kilo sacks of sugar in her storehouse, told AFP.
It reminds me of tense times in Belfast when two things would disappear off shop shelves — sugar and toilet rolls. Don't ask!

Propolis v HIV

Propolis, the bee glue with anti-bacterial properties, is being studied by University of Minnesota researchers for its inhibiting effects upon the HIV virus.
But because propolis comes from the existing trees and plants in the area, it could have hundreds of chemical compounds that differ in each region around the world.

Gardner said part of the grant money will help researchers identify the chemical fraction of propolis that makes it effective against HIV. He said they hope to get the first data within the next couple weeks.

... Preliminary results show that propolis inhibited viral activity in the [HIV-infected brain cell] samples and did not inhibit the effectiveness of two classes of HIV drugs, as other botanical supplements can do.
They hope that a few more tests will enable the multi-disciplinary team to get federal funding.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

British BeeFest excels again

British beekeepers were treated to a great BeeFest yesterday at the Stoneleigh Spring Convention run by the BBKA. The sales stands and exhibitions are enough to attract beekeepers from all over the country, but there was also a terrific lecture programme [slow-loading pdf file].

I managed to hear Professor John Bryant of Exeter University explain how genetically modified crops are simply the latest manifestation of crop breeding and that the method should hold no particular fears — he suggested that society should perhaps be trying to regulate the sought-after traits, rather than the method.

All very convincing, except perhaps that it ignores the relative speed of producing GM crops and the attitudes of some of the commercial enterprises pursuing their profits. The word Monsanto is probably a sufficient call to arms for anyone concerned about the potential negative impacts of GMs.

Celia Davis gave a wonderful overview of swarming including lots of recent research data. Can we expect to see synthesized pheromones to help in swarm control? Israeli researchers have identified two queen pheromone components that are crucial in inhibiting swarming.

Professor Francis Ratnieks of Sheffield University spoke about conflict in the beehive and worker policing. He showed some marvellous video footage of workers gobbling up eggs just laid by fellow workers.

The 2005 Stoneleigh Spring Convention will be on Saturday 16th April. You'll sting yourself if you don't go.

Beekeepers need to get out more

In a campaign to highlight the plight of the honeybee in North America, Ann Harman put some of the blame of the decline in honeybee numbers on beekeepers:
“Beekeepers think bees are so ‘cute’, ” Harman said derisively of her colleagues.

“Well, the public doesn't think they're so cute,” she went on. “Beekeepers are old stick-in-the-muds. They need to get out more.”
The Washington Post
Amongst the problems familiar to beekeepers everywhere, mid-Atlantic states of the US face a bear problem. Virginia beekeepers have failed in their lobbying for the right to shoot bears that destroy their hives, but a vaguely worded bill ordering state government to help beekeepers was passed and another dealing with compensation was continued until next year.

Following a lobby by Maryland beekeepers ten years ago, the state now pays for an electric fence for beekeepers who can prove they suffered a bear attack.

New Zealand board of varroa

A vet, an epidemiological and a politico were this week appointed to the New Zealand Varroa Board of Enquiry. Throughout May and June they will be hosting public meetings and submissions will be posted on the the New Zealand Government's very substantial website devoted to varroa. (See earlier stories about setting up the Board and some of the issues.)

Incidentally, that website has an interesting animated map showing the global spread of varroa up until the year 2000.


Thursday, April 22, 2004

The Secret Life of Bees

You'll either love it or detest its sickly sweetness say Amazon reviews. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kid is a new bestseller telling the story of a 14-year old girl brought up by three beekeeping sisters. The novel contains many analogies to bees.
It is the story of a young girl's search for redemption, for the mother she lost, and the love she needs. Set in the south, just after the passage of the Civil Rights Amendment, and in the midst of the racial conflict of that era, Lily's issues become even more essential to understand. As a young white girl surrounded by the love and care of African-American women, Lily's confusion over racism and its impact on the lives of those she loves is heartbreaking: “and for the very life of me, I couldn't understand how it had turned out this way, how colored women had become the lowest ones on the totem pole. You only had to look at them to see how special they were, like hidden royalty among us.”

Bees cause confusion in EU

This week, Members of the European Parliament (MEP) voted that foods containing more than 0.9% Genetically Modified (GM) products would have to be labelled as such. That may be fairly simple for most foods, but virtually impossible for honey unless every single jar of honey could be tested since bees will unpredictably mix nectar from GM and non GM crops. One MEP suggested that honey might have to be labelled ‘May contain GM’.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Bee killer sets fire to his own house

A man in Texas poured petrol on bees near his window sill, set fire to them — and, yes you guessed it — watched his house go up in flames.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Altruism becomes sexy

Cloning makes creatures nastier say researchers at Sussex University. And the stinging bee is held up as an altruistic example resulting from sexual reproduction rather than asexual reproduction.
As Dr Peck explains: "In many species adults help each other, even though this may cause harm to themselves. An example is when a honeybee 'commits suicide' by stinging someone attacking its hive. The stinger is left in the attacker and the defending bee dies. My theory predicts that, if a species becomes asexual, then it will also become progressively nastier so that helpful behaviour almost never occurs. Eventually, this sort of social degeneration can lead to the extinction of the species."

"In sexual organisms, when the going gets tough, the nice get going - they spread out throughout the environment. These nice sorts of individuals then hang around, even after environmental conditions improve. However, under asexuality, niceness doesn't have a chance. The most selfish types seem to take over in an evolutionary blink of an eye."
Peck thinks that if humans became an asexual population, we would probably quickly wipe ourselves out through sheer antagonism.

So next time someone threatens to punch your lights out, just tell them they're not sexy.

Kiwi B road chaos

A honey slick caused minor havoc on a road in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty. One car careered into a field after hitting the sticky 50 metre stretch. Mystery hives at the side of the road suggested that the problem started when they fell off the back of a lorry on Sunday night giving motorists a Monday morning surprise. Two tanker loads of water and a lot of grit were needed to clear the mess.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Anthropomorphism in reverse

In a story from the Philippines about making a special vinegar and drinks using honey from native bees (Apis cerana) in preference to honey from imported bees, comes this:
Basil said their study of the native laywan or Apis cerana bees proved that the Philippines' native bees are better than the imported ones.

"This is the difference: the native bees clean themselves of the mites [presumably varroa] that infest them. They are so much like us, Filipinos, who always like to clean ourselves. They are so much different from the imported bees that don't clean the mites and die," he said.
I'm glad he didn't go any further.

But the good news is that their activities are encouraging attempts to save Apis cerana which they say has suffered from traditional honey harvesting techniques that kill the bees.

Varroa is thought to have originated on Apis cerana, which manage their varroa populations by grooming and other genetic traits.


Saturday, April 17, 2004

Bug cuisine

As Washington DC moves into spring, David George Gordon, a biologist and author of the “Eat-a-Bug Cookbook”, has been discussing bug cuisine online in the Washington Post. He is a particular advocate of cicadas — “the other, other white meat” — but in discussion he warns of overdosing on honeybee larvae:
Overdose [on cicadas]? Not that I know of. However, you CAN overdose on honeybee larvae One study confirmed that these critters may contain 15 times the recommended daily allowance of vitamins A and D! Taken over an extended period, 2 1/2 tablespoons of honeybee larvae can induce symptoms of vitamin D toxicity — which can include hardening of the soft tissues of the heart.
You have been warned!

Friday, April 16, 2004

Swarm diagnostics

I have great fun not being able to spot a queen bee amongst tens of thousands of workers when I really need to. Maybe I should call upon the observational skills of this Japanese environmental health officer who explained the cause of a large swarm of bees over a building site in central Hiroshima:
Two queen bees appeared at one beehive in the area during the winter and one of the queen bees, accompanied by many other bees, decided to leave on Thursday, Yoshida said.
He's one ace of an observer! Or maybe it was just a bad translation.

(For non beekeeping readers: It is extremely unusual to see one let alone two queen bees “appearing at one beehive”. A queen leaves the hive only a few times in her lifetime — a few times to mate and once to swarm. To see two queens “at” a beehive would be extraordinary. He probably meant to say that the workers raised a replacement queen thereby forcing the first queen to leave with a swarm since two queens will rarely co-exist in a colony.)

Canadian honey row turns local

Canada's honey contamination problems seem to be getting closer to home. Having pointed the finger at some Argentinian, Australian and Turkish honey containing nitrofurans, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency now says that two brands of British Columbian buckwheat honey have been found to contain the antibiotic chloramphenicol.

No sniggering in the back stalls!

“Fiddler’s neck”, “cello chest”, “cellist’s knee” and “guitar nipple” are all ... conditions suffered by some musicians according to The Times. Prolonged contact with chemicals used to make instruments can cause allergic reactions and conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. Propolis is noted as a possible allergen when used as a string instrument varnish.

Filling a bee space

If ever there was a gratuitous picture of a bee beard, here it is. The story is about a study by Professor Michael Stacey of the University of Western Australia in which some patients at Freemantle hospital are having their wounds treated with a special mixture of honey and sandalwood oil.

I'm trying to spot whether these honey dressings for wounds stories are a reflection of increasing activity in the field or increasing coordinated or uncoordinated media interest.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

UK hospital trials with Australian honey

The UK's NHS “superbug” problems are attracting the interest of Australian as well as New Zealand bee commerce. Medihoney of Australia says that recent clinical trials show that antibacterial honey inhibits the growth of a range of organisms in both slow-healing chronic wounds and post-surgery acute wounds, stimulating the healing process. Australia's unique floral diversity is thought to be the key.

A new New World wine

A Kiwi businesswoman has spotted the potential of mead. Apparently, commercial brewing of mead is new to New Zealand, but Louise Rosson has already produced 12,000 bottles of the honey wine made from nectar from New Zealand's kamahi, rata and manuka forests. British beekeepers usually use more delicately flavoured honeys, but mead made out of manuka honey is reported to have a rich, dark colour. So far, her produce has been sold by mail order, via the Internet, and from wine and specialty shops, but she says she has her eye on global markets.

Cliff-hanger in Nepal

National Geographic (every geography pupil's introduction to soft porn) has featured the difficulties faced by the honey hunters of Nepal. The local cliff-nesting bee, Apis laboriosa (possibly identical to Apis dorsata), faces competition from the newly introduced European bee (Apis mellifera), the arrival of European Foulbrood, deforestation, the change in ownership of its cliffs from traditional honey hunters to the Nepalese Government, and non-sustainable honey harvesting techniques. Bee tourism may be their best way forward.

For anyone interested in honey hunting, there is a great coffee table book (if that's not a contradiction in terms): Honey Hunters of Nepal by photo journalists, Eric Valli and Diane Summers. And from the UK, Claire Waring, now General Secretary of BBKA, has run well-regarded tours.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Chipping away at theft

Some Californian beekeepers are taking micro-chipping their hives and equipment very seriously. According to one Californian beekeeper, chips can be obtianed for between 75 cents and a dollar each if bought by the thousand, or as low as 20 to 30 cents each for a 100 million order. Chip readers currently cost just under $500 so those might be put out on loan. The chips can be read at between 8-20 feet, and can be embedded in wood and plastic or glued or stapled to a surface.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Bees provide computing metaphor

Computing jargonistas often try to soften their approach by choosing suitable metaphors — and one of the latest seems to be “hive computing”.

While “grid computing” is in vogue to describe lots of different computers networked to tackle huge computational problems, hive computing designates something more subtle. It reflects the idea that any bee in the hive can be called on to do any job.
Tsunami's flagship toolset, HiveCreator, lets developers write applications that are self-organizing, self- maintaining, and self-healing, according to the company. That means software gets the hardware to work together, keeps the [application] up and running, and recovers it when crashes occur. Tsunami says hive computing is more scalable and can recover from crashes more easily than other cluster-computing approaches.
Unlike grid computing, hive computing is meant for business-style applications, such as transaction processing and database access says Tsunami Research which seems to be taking a lead in commercialising the idea.

Pennsylvania beekeepers’ day

Pennsylvania beekeepers seem to be doing a great PR job in celebrating their centenary. In recognition of beekeeping's contribution to the State's agricultural economy, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has designated today as Pennsylvania Beekeepers’ Day. Tomorrow about 100 beekeepers, decked out in beekeeping attire, will converge on the Capitol in Harrisburg to greet legislators and visitors and pass out jars of honey and pieces of Beekeepers Association birthday cake.

Bee colonies in Pennsylvania have decreased from 80,000 in 1982 to just 30,000 in 2000 — a reduction that not only has led to a drop in honey production, but also poses a serious threat to the state's bee-pollinated crops.

Manuka to soothe in the NHS

A manuka honey wound care product is to be used by the UK's National Health Service (NHS). The product, from Comvita the bee products company planning a listing on the main New Zealand Stock Exchange, is its first export for medical grade honey. Comvita recently acquired Api-Med Medical Honey which, in conjunction with its UK manufacturing partner Brightwake, last year achieved marketing approval for its manuka honey dressings in hospitals and clinics. Comvita sees the export as a major milestone in its extension from the “wellness” market into the medical market.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Miracle cure

The St Louis Post-Dispatch thinks that someone is breeding varroa-resistant bees. And the queens cost only $12 each.
Spivak developed the new strain using Italian bees selected for their ability to clean their hives of mite infestations. Jansen's new bees also contain a genetic trait, developed by government scientists in Baton Rouge, La., that allows them to halt the mites' reproduction after the tiny invaders move into their hives. It's unclear how the trait works.
Oh that it were true! Certainly work has been going on at Baton Rouge, but the claims they make are quite modest.


Miracle bees in Nepal

Never noted as one of the world's big honey producers, Nepal exported 1,128 thousand tonnes of honey into India in 2000/01. Fears were triggered that India was being used as a dumping ground for sub-standard Chinese honey with which was being rejected in the West because of antibiotic residues. Nepal imports then subsided slightly only to be mirrored by rises from China and the USA — often sold at surprisingly cheap prices. Adulteration by corn syrup was also suspected. Indian importers were then trying to export the dumped honey but were rejected in the international market for poor standards.

The Economic Times of India reports that Indian agro-industry watchers have now petitioned their government to tighten rules for food quality standards to make antibiotic and pesticide testing in honey mandatory both domestically and internationally.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Canadian beekeepers breaking cover

Net reports suggest that Canadian beekeepers are beginning to talk publicly about the ongoing honey recalls (more were added to the list on Thursday). Here's an example of the issue being talked up as a "foreign" problem.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Truck, cow and bees close Californian highway

An accident involving a truck of bees has closed a Highway 190 in California for 12 hours. The delays will continue for the next three or four days as repairs are made to a bridge. A truck loaded with 300 beehives hit a black cow and then severely damaged Pleasant Oaks Bridge. The bees took flight causing visibility problems and the road was closed. The truck driver suffered severe injuries.

Dan Andrews, who owns A to Z Bee Removal Service in Laton, decided to exterminate the bees. “There was no way I could save them,” Andrews said. “It was just impossible. There were people needing to work out there, and it's close to a golf course. ... It was quite a shame. Those were some of the best-looking hives I've ever seen in my life.”

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

The short history of “apitherapy” as a word

How long has the word “apitherapy” been in use? Certainly the concept of bee products and bee stings being used to promote health has been around for a very long time, but I was amazed to read that the earliest citations may be as late as 1986:
The Beekeepers of Western Connecticut, an association formed in 1984, will offer a free lecture by Charles Mraz, a beekeeper from Middlebury, Vt., at its meeting Thursday At 8 P.M. Mr. Mraz, who suffered from arthritis, will relate his experience with bee-venom therapy, a controversial method of treating the disease. The founder of the North American Apitherapy Society, Mr. Mraz has worked with Dr. Bodog Beck, an early researcher in the therapy, and with Dr. Joseph Brodman, an advocate.
—Eleanor Charles, “Connecticut guide,” The New York Times, January 12, 1986
Can this really be true? Can anyone find an earlier reference? Even my 1993 New Shorter Oxford Dictionary does not include the word.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Beehive smuggling brings Kurdish beekeeping back from the brink

Beekeeping by Kurds in Northern Iraq suffered severe setbacks after the the Baathist campaigns of 1976 and 1988 reports the UN. Farmers had done their best to start up again, but after Saddam's onslaught in 1991, with the Kurdish region on the brink of starvation, they had more pressing concerns.

In the Dahuk area, a small American non-governmental organisation, Concern4Kids (C4K), whose country director Robert Anderson had been brought up on a hive-filled farm in Georgia, USA, tried to help rebuild the industry. Anderson immediately sensed the income-generating possibilities in honey production. He had heard of the concept of “pass on the gift”, where farmers give other families a small percentage of lambs or calves born to their stock. He thought the same would be very successful with stocks of bees.
C4K began by importing queens from Europe, but the going was painfully slow. Then, one day in 1993, the news broke that a Turkish Kurdish smuggler had come to town.

“The man had a mule with two hives full of bees slung over the saddle-bags,” remembers Anderson. “He was very poor, and wanted me to buy them for US $15. We offered a lot more.”

The smuggler then said he had 48 more hives back home in Turkey. Two by two, he brought them all, braving minefields along the border.

... C4K was forced to leave Dahuk for a year in 1996 when Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani invited the Iraqi army in to fight off forces from the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. They returned to find many of their hives had been stolen and sold by a former local employee. Despite such setbacks, honey production is once again widespread throughout the region.
Now honey seems to be making an important contribution to the economy and thoughts are turning to exports to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

(Regular readers will spot the parallels of parts of this story with Palestine today.)

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Microchips — too close for comfort

Those microchips inserted in Californian hives to counter theft aren’t that practical — yet. Costing $1 to $2 each, the chips can only be read from within a few inches. That’s a lot of close inspections. Worse still, early adopters have inserted them in frames — and then can’t quite remember which frames ...

Mexico pays a price for its honey production

One man, one pig, two turkeys and 11 hens died from bee stings in Mexico one day in February when a bee colony in a tree was disturbed by high winds, reports the Washington Post (free web subscription service — but it is an article full of interesting statistics).

Last year, 17 Mexicans were killed by bee stings (the biggest recorded annual total is 60) — mostly in early spring and mostly in the Yucatan, the centre of Mexico's thriving beekeeping industry.
... the attacks and deaths are seen as nothing more than an occupational hazard, the way miners or fishermen are accustomed to losing friends to the perils of their business.

...In response to the threat from bees, every Mexican state has a team of paramedics, firefighters and health officials who are trained to respond to bee attacks. Fire departments across the country are flooded with bee-related calls this time of year. In Mexico City, a metropolitan area of 20 million people, some fire stations spend at least half their time destroying beehives, often located in streetlights in busy neighborhoods.
The Washington Post
Mexico currently ranks as the fourth largest honey producer in the world with two million commercial hives contributing to a $125 million a year industry. Most of Mexico's bees are of the Africanized variety.

What land of milk and honey?

According to the Palestinian National Information Centre (PNIC), during the past 42 months of the Intifada the Israelis have targeted the Palestinian agricultural economy including beekeeping.
The area of Palestinian lands bulldozed by the IOF [Israeli Occupying Forces] was 62,044 dunums, as 991,581 trees have been uprooted, while 457 agricultural stores and 472 pens were destroyed, as 12,892 live stocks were killed as well as 840 cows and 9,738 beehives.

Also, IOF demolished 262 wells completely and destroyed 207 agricultural stores including devastation of 171,589 pens, as 22,013 dunums of lands have been bulldozed, 1,014 water wells and 288,985 meters of farms fences, and 714,719 others of water lines have been destroyed.

The Israeli aggressions on the Palestinian agricultural sector resulted in damages to 10,323 farmers, bulldozing of six greenhouses and 12 tractors, as the lands expropriated for the Apartheid Wall in West Bank amounted to 201,696 dunums.
Palestinian National Authority State Information Service
The PNIC also claims that the Palestinian death toll now exceeds 3,000 with more than 38,000 casualties.

Canada extends recall to more honey brands

The recall of certain brands of honey in Canada has just been extended by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Seven brands were listed yesterday in addition to the three earlier brands. The recalled brands include some Argentinian, Argentinian-Australian blends, Argentinian-Canadian blends and a Turkish product.

The brands may contain nitrofurans, antimicrobial drugs which are banned for use in Canada in
food producing animals. Consumption of foods contaminated with nitrofurans may pose a human health risk and have the potential to cause allergies. There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of the brands.

UPDATE: A comment on Bee_L suggests that the Canadians may have only recently been able to test for Nitrofan.

Slow spring, fast ladies

It’s a slow spring in Southern England this year. I opened up my hives for the first time today — about two weeks later than usual and in weather that was really too cold to be disturbing their home. But of course the bees had coped and somehow, in the miserable March we’ve just had, they managed to bring in quite a bit of fresh nectar.

My main objective was to remove a queen whose genes I didn’t want perpetuated this year. The colony had been very stroppy last autumn and even during winter external inspections. Today of course they were as good as gold. But I'm afraid I wasn't going to give the queen a reprieve. I didn’t want her drones around this year (and thankfully she hadn’t produced any yet). So out she came. I’ll wait until the colony makes queen cells — remove those and then give it a fresh frame of eggs from different progeny to make its new — more sociable — monarch.

Killer buzz

Just as I was thinking that Africfanised bees were losing their sting for the US media, here comes Killer Buzz, a new DVD about killer bees on a plane. Says the reviewer:
“There's no gore, no nudity ... little explicit language, and hardly any blood. There really aren't even that many bees.”
“So what's the point, then?”, do I hear you ask?

Friday, April 02, 2004

Why Turlough?

Turlough is not my real name. Turlough O'Bryen is the name of one of my favourite characters in the bee world. Born in 1853, he became interested in the natural world and fascinated — some say obsessed —by bees, and combined this passion with another — cycling. There are some very colourful descriptions of him in James K Watson's book, Bee-keeping in Ireland: A History.

In the 1890s Turlough cycled up and down the west of Ireland from Cork to Donegal promoting beekeeping as an agricultural diversification for hard-pressed agricultural communities still suffering after the Potato Famine of the 1840s. Employed by The Congested Districts Board, he was held in very high esteem: “He combined the enthusiasm of a missionary with the sagacity and endurance of a commercial traveller. ... He was utterly unofficial, but most businesslike and successful in his work.”

On a bike (28" front wheel and 26" rear wheel) that was almost as well-known as himself, he pedalled in all sorts of weather and somehow managed to transport frames and all manner of equipment to far-flung places where there might be clover or heather for bees to work. In later years, he took to a motor cycle — apparently another bizarre machine. Beekeeping statistics of the time are hard to come by, but it seems he made quite an impact. He retired, with no pension, to farm ten acres in his beloved Burren in County Clare and died in 1928.

Swarm intelligence inspires computer experts

Now, if you like a bit of jargon with your honey, you'll love this link about swarm intelligence. It's about how ideas of bee (and ant) activity — “societies of co-operating agents” — is helping the management of computer networks. Essentially, by decentralising decision-making, the problem solving improves, becomes more robust and still works well with different sizes of problems. These researchers implicitly understand that the Queen does not lead a swarm of bees — instead the decision-making is spread throughout the colony.

The idea of learning from swarms has been around for some time. As part of my work, I bought a book Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines in 1994 and found to my surprise that the author (Kevin Kelly) had a beehive beneath his office window and that the second chapter was entitled “The Hive Mind”.

Blogger me!

Many thanks to Bee Craft for mentioning Propolis in its Around the Colony section — see page 44 in the April print edition. Just one thing, Claire, “blog” only has one “g”.

For those of you new to blogging, it's one of the fast-growing phenomena on the web. A blog — or weblog — is an online diary about any subject — it could be personal, professional, technical, sporting or political — just about anything in fact.

Propolis, as if you haven't already guessed, is about the bee world. It aims to bring together some of the more interesting stories that I come across (mostly on the web). As the season here in the UK gets underway, doubtless a few tales of my own attempts at beekeeping will crop up. I'm investigating how to let readers make comments directly to the blog, but meantime you can email me and we'll do it the long way round. Do let me know what you think by emailing

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Fear dawns after two years

There's a good picture of a very big colony that has set up home next door to a Floridian and right across the road from a small park for children. After two years it is about to be removed because as the Floridian said “it dawned on me if the bees start swarming and get out here, they could sting the kids and kill them”. I think beekeepers have a lot to explain to the general public about swarming. Maybe we all overact when we do a public performance of swarm removal.