bees, honey and other sticky subjects

Friday, August 19, 2005

Gone for some good craic

It's that time of year again. I'm taking a break and am off to dodge the Irish rain by seeking out dark drinks in shady bars.

I'll be back in early September -- with some news of Apimondia 2005.

Agony ant column

There's an amusing and educational creepy-crawly site (spotted by Rufus) that reads like a problem page in a women's (or men's!) magazine:
Sir Bugman
Here is what we have researched to be a species of Wolf spider. This superspider went scurrying across our living room floor, pursued by our three insectivore cats. We got to it before the felines could snack on him. We though he was a mouse at first! This spider was enormous! ...

Hi David,
Gorgeous image of a Rabid Wolf Spider, Lycosa rabida. This beautiful spider is harmless, but greatly feared, hence the name rabid. According to a legend, the only way to cure the bite of its close European relative is to dance the tarentella, a wild Italian dance.
There's even a special Carnage section and a disappointingly unpornographic bug love section.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Bees don't really make hexagons

Honeycomb cells have an hexagonal shape not because the bees set out to make hexagons, says Adams Hart-Davies (he with the new triangle beard) in the UK's Daily Telegraph today. They build tubes to fit into and
...six tubes fit neatly round one tube, and because the party walls deform slightly from the pressure of the neighbours, the shape of each cell looks hexagonal.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Beekeeping sheds its veil to become trendy

Yet more from those Telegraph articles (see today's other posts).

There's a new breed of beekeeper in Britain, claims Tessa Boase. Younger, richer and trendier:
There are moments when a mood takes hold of society, led not by the media or by marketing men, but by a collective impulse -- a hive instinct if you like. In the Noughties, we yearn for simpler, gentler activities. We want to get in touch with nature. First allotments were rediscovered, then it was urban chicken-keeping. Now people are turning to bees.
Apparently the BBKA reports an all-time high in new recruits, there are waiting lists for beekeeping courses especially in urban areas and large bee suppliers can't keep up with demand.

Journalistic licence? I'll check it out with some local anecdotal evidence and report back.

Beekeeping sexism

More from those (UK) Daily Telegraph articles. Long-renowned for its Tory outlook, its usual pro-male sexism has taken an unabashed turn. And I quote:
”Women are gaining recognition as talented beekeepers,” says Tessa Boase. “Bees don't like rough or jerky movement; women have a lighter touch. Bees tend to pick up on their keeper's mood; women tend to be calmer. They are also more tenacious.”
Humpf! (And she's pictured beekeeping wearing leather gloves! Light touch? My foot!)

Celebrity beekeepers 3-5

Sting keeps bees at his Tuscan hideaway, according to the Daily Telegraph Magazine's Lucie Muir last Saturday (no web reference). Allegedly, Sting got his nickname because he used to wear a gold and black striped soccer sweater which made him look like a bee.

And from another part of Saturday's Daily Telegraph source come two more celebeekeepers:

Mick Jagger
Martha Carney (Radio 4 presenter)
Hat-tip to Gordon.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Surviving 400 stings

An 83 year-old woman (in Evansville, Kentucky, I think) is reported to be recovering from 400 stings. That is four times the dose that killed an 89 year-old last year.

Bumbles prefer Van Gogh

Researchers at Queen Mary, University of London, asked three colonies of bumble bees that had never seen real flowers what they think is the most realistic flower picture. They showed them reproductions of four paintings:

  • Van Gogh's Sunflowers
  • Paul Gauguin’s A Vase of Flowers
and two colourful works without blooms --

  • Patrick Caulfield’s Pottery
  • Fernand Leger’s Still Life with a Beer Mug.
They preferred Van Gogh's Sunflowers. The bees were attracted by vibrant colours in all the paintings, but chose those with flowers much more often.

And the lesson to be learned?

Professor Lars Chittka, of Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, who led the study, said the attraction to flower paintings was easy to explain in evolutionary terms. He believes that human preferences for certain colours have an evolutionary origin -- scientists have shown that colour vision evolved in our primate ancestors alongside a fruit diet.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Flickr pix

Val has directed me in the direction of Flickr where there are some nice bee pictures: she liked these of Pennsylvanian bees and I especially liked this piece of broodcomb found in someone's house wall.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Vanilla, the one-bee wonder?

Vanilla, too often a pseudonym for bland, is anything but. It's a highly complex spice (with a mysterious pollination story) that is often replaced in mass food production by its decidedly poorer (but cheaper) relative, vanillin.

It's often claimed that an indigenous Mexico (of the genus Melipona) bee did the pollination duties, but it is now hand-pollinated in different parts of the globe.
The orchid that produces the pods is something of a diva, making vanilla one of the world's most labor-intensive crops. The finicky plant likes damp heat, steady rainfall, and a delicate balance of sunshine and shade. It takes its time—around two to three years—to produce an odorless, pale yellow flower that, unless pollinated, dies within hours. Pollination requires artificial insemination, a manual transfer of pollen from the male anther to the female stigma. (In Mexico, where vanilla originated, an indigenous bee pollinated the flowers; vanilla could not be grown elsewhere until a slave boy on the island of Reunion discovered how to pollinate the orchid in 1841.) The seed pods, like human children, take nine months to develop. But the green, string-beanlike pods become dark brown and fragrant only after a curing process that takes several months, a kind of spa treatment for vanilla beans.
You can read more of the fascinating article from Slate here.

However, another source says of the pollinators:

The reference occurs repeatedly in the literature that in its native Mexico the flowers of vanilla are pollinated by small bees of the genus Melipona and also by hummingbirds (Ridley 1912*) ... but there is no experimental proof that they are actually effective pollinators. Mention is made by Childers et al. (1959 p. 477), that “The first effort made toward solving the (pollination) problem was to introduce bees of the genus Melipona from Mexico, but they did not thrive. After this failure a mechanical means of pollination was tried.” Then Albius, in 1841, discovered the practical method (Childers et al. 1959) of using a small splinter of wood or a grass stem to lift the rostellum or flap out of the way so that the overhanging anther can be pressed against the stigma to effect self-pollination.

Now, practically all vanilla is produced by hand pollination, which accounts for 40 percent of the total labor cost in vanilla production (Gregory et al. 1967).

... It would appear logical that if nectar is secreted, as indicated by Correll (1953), honey bee colonies could be amassed in the area when desired, and the workers could be “forced” to visit the flowers. The relative cost of a high concentration of honey bee colonies as compared to the cost of human labor, would make such exploitation of honey bees highly worthwhile investigating. The reference by DeVarigny (1894) that Cuban bees, whether indigenous or naturalized European bees, were pollinating vanilla in Cuba indicates that bees could be used satisfactorily.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Racer can't outrun bees

Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner AJ Foyt failed to outrun bees when his bulldozer stirred up a nest of bees. As he fled on foot, he tripped and had multiple stings to the face and head before scrambling into a stream. Ahem, slip-streaming again?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Springwatch has come and gone in the UK and already we are into Autumnwatch. Blackberries, hawthorn berries, swifts, conkers, ivy and oak are key indicator species.

Bees have been a particular issue:
We have had a number of postings on the UKPN's online forum from people concerned that they had seen fewer bees this year. Mike Edwards, our bee expert, commented that the combination of warm then cold and wet weather that we had last year, followed by the prolonged bouts of wet weather this year, plus the temperature extremes, have not been good for many insect species.

“However, insects are resilient and must have met these conditions before. It will mean local extinctions, but this is normal. What is important is the overall geographic spread of species, so that there are remaining populations to colonise areas again. Extinction and colonisation are facts of insect life, these processes also happen as areas lose the conditions which suited the insects in the first place.”

Monday, August 08, 2005

Bee stubble

A bee-beard competition in California yesterday was won by Rick Styve whose beard had 15,000 bees weighing 1.3 kg. The bees were attracted to the beard by hanging a queen in a cage around his neck. There were three other contestants.

But the statistics that really matter: he was stung three times and his helper four times.

I don't suggest you try this at home. And certainly don't use cotton wool to protect the nostrils and ears -- I hear that the bees can get tangled and frustrated in the cotton wool with predictable consequences.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Bees re-united

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Uniting bees at the end of the nectar flow. A little confusion, but nothing a good read of today's paper won't clarify.

Note to non-beekeepers: one colony is placed above the other and separated by a sheet of newspaper so that they instead of mixing and fighting, they mingle gradually, exchange scents and set up home together. One queen is of course removed prior to uniting.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Bees find landmines, lidar finds the bees

The bees identifying landmines story is back again with a few more details this time. 97.5% accuracy is claimed after bees have been trained to associate the scent of landmines with a foodsource.

The extra details this time revolve around the use of lidar -- a detection and ranging technique similar to radar that uses laser light instead of radio waves -- to locate the position of honeybees that have been trained to find explosives. The researcher behind this development is Joseph Shaw of Montana State University.

Friday, August 05, 2005

That 102nd use of beeswax

Here's another unusual use for beeswax, but those easily offended should not go here (paragraph 4).

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Wot no bees?

As Rufus pointed out to me recently, why do photos and film of beekeepers in action feature pathetically sparse combs? There was a gem last week (now gone from the web) and here's another plus a rather overdressed beekeeper for good measure.

The best question

Here's the best question I've heard about bees in a very long time. A child recently asked a local beekeeper:

“How often does a queen bee die?”
Brilliant! That kid “gets it”. The local beekeeper appeared not to think much of the query, but to me it crystallized the notion that with honeybees the colony is the individual. Or to put it another way -- how often does a colony's queen die?

Bee branding

The preview pictures of Microsoft's forthcoming operating system, Windows Vista, are very sweet. There are even bee-related motifs on one of them.

Baton Rouge AHBs

Louisiana joins the ranks of habitats for Africanized Honeybees. The bees are now all across the southern states of the USA from Florida to California.

The Russians are coming

Fifteen metric tons of Russian honey is on its way to the USA -- with more to follow if it's popular. The honey from Bashkortostan (a Russian republic in the south Urals) is generally known as Bashkir honey and is said to be sold in Europe as a luxury product in some expensive restaurants.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

That white honey again

Reading my village magazine I notice that the nature column talks of two large fields of borage in the area. So perhaps my white honey is from borage -- though I still have doubts because the bees would have to fly quite some distance to work it.

Incidentally, I now hear that the borage I saw growing at the weekend may not have been set-aside or for green manure. It may have been for the pharmaceutical industry to process into borage oil, a health supplement.

Light or dark?

The New York Times -- of all publications -- gives details about Hanna Instruments' C221 Honey Color Analyzer.

It also makes an interesting statement about honey connoisseurs'' preference for lighter coloured honeys because of their more subtle flavours. I'm not so sure that applies to British palates where light honey all to often means oil seed rape or wishy-washy blackberry nectar.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Today's word

I'm not at all sure about this story from New Zealand, but it has introduced me to a new word, allegedly: mellifaralsation referring to when bees with an African origin (not Africanized bees) begin to dominate genetically.

The story also talks of developing “pure strains” of honeybees in South Island, New Zealand. Oh yeah?