Save The Bees This Christmas

FYI, the wildly popular “Save the Bees” poster is available for purchase from Etsy. (
plant poster

My UK beekeeping friend Emily Heath let me know that another popular bee poster is available for purchase from Friends of the Earth ( as a tea towel and and an apron. Just in time for Christmas giving!!

bee plant poster


Beautiful Beekeeping – Observation Hives

An observation hive is one with glass or clear plastic sides so the bees can be observed. These hives are both educational and beautiful.

Observation Hive

Observation Hive

Having one, in addition to your hives, gives you an idea what is happening outside in the other hives. You can see if pollen is coming in, if nectar is coming in, and if robbing is happening. You can watch them raise a queen. Watch how the hive acts while the queen is mating, watch them swarm. You can count days or hours on capping times. You will get to see waggle dances, and “get it off me” dances. You get to hear what the bees sound like when they are queenless, when they are being robbed, and when the queen is emerging.

Recently, beautiful observation hives were featured on the US television show Elementary about a modern day Sherlock Holmes. The Arthur Conan Doyle character of Sherlock Holmes was in fact a Victorian beekeeper, which makes the show all the more entertaining!


The Other Side Of The Bee/Pesticide Controversy, Part 2


Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Bees Help Feed America, had this to say about Jon Entine’s article:

Okay, I am feeling compelled to weigh in on this. Great piece, Jon. CCD, as a diagnosis was first identified in 2006, but there have been mysterious disappearances of bees periodically since the nineteenth century (and well before, I’m sure–there’s a list of past die-offs in my book, The Beekeeper’s Lament, and Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the scientist who first discovered CCD, also produced a paper on the subject). Some occurrences did sound similar to CCD, though CCD is such a vague and difficult diagnosis (every time a bee dies these days someone calls it CCD) that it’s impossible to know. Nonetheless, it is true that there have been mass disappearances well before neonics ever appeared on the scene. Bees die from all sorts of things, and especially from varroa mites.

As for the Harvard study Bill cites, it is, of all the studies on neonics and bee deaths that have come out, arguably the worst–”embarrassing” was the word I heard from scientists I interviewed about it. Peer reviewed, I suppose, but in a journal no one in the entomology world had ever heard of when it came out. I wrote a piece last year for about that study and three others that came out at the same time. All had problems with dosing and design, though the scientists I spoke with felt the one linking neonics to bumblebee queen reproductive issues was better designed and more persuasive than the others. Here’s the boingboing article:

It makes sense to me that neonics, as persistent and systemic as they are, could very well hurt bees and other pollinators at sub-lethal levels, but the science just isn’t convincing yet, to me anyway, and as Jon points out, there are places where they use neonics where the bees are doing fine (though I have gotten some feedback from people about the Australian situation — they claim beekeepers there are losing bees but simply aren’t reporting it, and that most beekeepers there are in the bush, not located near farm crops that could be treated with neonics).

Hannah Nordhaus

The Other Side Of The Bee/Pesticide Controversy…

I firmly believe in presenting both sides of every controversy, even controversies concerning my beloved bees. This is an excellent article presenting the other side.

Disclosure -The author Jon Entine is a friend of mine. (He didn’t think it was funny when I suggested he dress up as an ear of Genetically Modified Corn for Halloween. I still think that’s funny…)

I still think this would have made a great Halloween costume...

I still think this would have made a great Halloween costume…

But that doesn’t necessarily mean I think he’s right. He is thoughtful though, and not afraid to take the unpopular side of a hot issue.

This is reprinted from Forbes.

4/11/2013 @ 8:52PM |8,686 views

Science Collapse Disorder — The Real Story Behind Neonics And Mass Bee Deaths

Colony Collapse Disorder—it sounds catastrophic and frightening. The Genetic Literacy Project’Jon Entine separates fact from fiction.

It’s estimated that over the past five years, some 30 percent of bees in the United States have either disappeared or failed to survive to pollinate blossoms in the spring. That’s about 50% more than the rate expected. The problem is direr in some other countries. InSpain, recent data indicate a loss close to 80% of beehives. On the other hand, in Canada and Australia, there is no sign of Colony Collapse Disorder.

What may be causing the die-offs and why the dramatic disparities from one region to another? Scientists have a number of hypotheses but the activist community has coalesced around one explanation: They blame it on neonicotinoids, also known as neonics, which are the widest used class of insecticide ever.

“It’s time to ban dangerous neonicotinoid pesticides,” declares Mother Earth News. “Bees need help now! Time to up the ante,” declares the Pesticide Action Network announcing its suit against the Environmental Protection Agency. “EPA should cancel all uses of neonics where they can lead to harm for bees and other beneficial insects, and chemical manufacturers like Bayer and Syngenta that make neonics should use their resources to develop less harmful alternatives instead of defending the neonics,” writes Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Birds, bats and insects all pollinate flowering plants, but the most celebrated pollinator is the honeybee, and for good reason. United States commercial beekeepers take millions of bee hives on the road each year to pollinate blueberries and papaya, almonds and apples, and a cornucopia of other fruits, vegetables and nuts. Close to one third of our food supply is linked to pollination. Without the bee our diet would be less nutritious and less tasty. Bee die offs are a serious issue and need to be evaluated. But the question remains: are neonicotinoids the culprit?

Fingering neonics

Neonics are a new class of systemic pesticide popular in the US, Australia, Europe and elsewhere to help corn, soy, cotton and canola farmers. They were adopted over the past 20 years as a less toxic replacement of organophosphate pesticides, which are known to kill bees and wildlife, and have been linked to health problems in workers. By universal agreement, neonicotinoids are extremely effective. Applied to the soil, sprayed on the crop or used as a seed treatment, they eventually reach the pollen and nectar, which is ingested by insects, discouraging pests from wrecking havoc on crops. The seed treatment lowers the amount used 10 to 20 fold, decreasing the need for open spraying of the plant, a genuine sustainability benefit.

Neonics were phased in without incident in the 1990s. But an age-old problem in the bee world—a periodic and unpredictable dramatic rise in bee deaths in one region or another—reemerged in 2004. Bee death rates approached 60% in California Beekeepers called it the vampire mite scare because of its likely link to varroa mites—parasites that feed on the bodily fluids of bees.

The explanatory narrative began to change in 2006, when new waves of bee deaths were reported around the world. Anti-biotechnology activists blamed GMOs.  “There are many reasons given to the decline in Bees, but one argument that matters most is the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) and “Terminator Seeds” that are presently being endorsed by governments and forcefully utilized as our primary agricultural needs of survival,” argued the anti-globalization group Global Research, in what amounted to a rhetorical and circumstantial argument. But as GMOs have gained favor with the science community, the focus of activist groups shifted and a new culprit was identified: neonicotinoids.

Over the past few months, CBS NewsNPR and Dan Rather have run powerful segments and the popular media in general has cheerleaded a recent lawsuit spearheaded by the Center for Food Safety and other anti-chemical groups demanding that the Environmental Protection Agency ban the insecticide. In less than a month, the New York Times ran a front-page article and editorialized twice on the subject, dismissing what it called “manufacturers’ bland assurances” about its safety and all but calling for a ban.

History raises questions about the almost exclusive focus on neonics to explain the regional bee crisis. Periodic occurrences resembling what has come to be known as bee Colony Collapse Disorder have been documented as far back as 1869. In the last half century, the domesticated honeybee population has declined by about 50 percent, with incidents common well before the introduction of neonics, which was hailed by environmentalists because of their comparatively modest environmental footprint. The term CCD was originally used to describe the phenomenon when worker bees suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. The term, with its alarmist ring, was co-opted by activists in the mid 2000s to describe a new development—mass bee deaths.

The research on bee colony deaths is dicey—and often political. The science based view of this issue took a sharp turn in January when the European Food Safety Authority issued three studies raising questions about the potential role of neonics in this latest wave of bee deaths. The studies did not link the pesticides to the collapse of whole bee colonies, but did raise enough issues to lead to a vote last month for a 2-year precautionary ban by the European Commission. The ban was blocked, temporarily, by Germany, Britain and seven other countries, citing evidence that neonics were not the sole or likely the primary culprit, their impact still unclear. The EC plans an appeal.

Last year, one study showed that bumblebees exposed to high doses of the neonic imidacloprid in the lab, then released to forage in the field,had sharply reduced colony growth rates and produced 85 percent fewer queens to found new colonies. In another study, more than 30 percent of free-ranging honeybees whosebrains were doused with the neonic thiamethoxam—which is not the way bees encounter the chemical in the real world— got confused, failing to return to the hive.

Real world contradictions

The results were so dramatic—and so contradictory of real life experience of some beekeepers in Canada, Europe and Australia who use neonics and where many bee colonies are thriving—that the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) decided to reevaluate existing research. The agency pointed to the problem with much of the lab based data—it measures doses and application methods that farmers don’t use. “The risk to bee populations from neonics, as they are currently used, is low.” DEFRA concluded in March. “Laboratory-based studies demonstrating sub-lethal effects on bees from neonics did not replicate realistic conditions, but extreme scenarios.. … While this assessment cannot exclude rare effects of neonicotinoids on bees in the field, it suggests that effects on bees do not occur under normal circumstances. Consequently, it supports the view that the risk to bee populations from neonicotinoids, as they are currently used, is low,” the study concluded.

Farmers are almost universally opposed to even a temporary ban absent definitive real world research, calling it reckless. As they note, because of the ban on organophosphates, there are no real alternatives to neonics, which everyone agrees have been extremely effective. Insecticides are used for a reason: to kill pests and make our food safer to eat. Without neonics or a suitable replacement, farmers could face losses estimated by one industry study as $5.78 billion per year in Europe alone—and many multiples of that if a ban is instituted in the United States and other major agricultural economies, with the costs passed on to consumers.

Understandably alarmed at the economic implications to consumers and to their bottom lines, Syngenta and Bayer, the two primary manufacturers of the chemicals, have proposed a plan to accelerate bee health research. They’ve also proposed adding new flowering margins around fields to provide pesticide-free bee habitats and monitoring for the presence of neonics in crops.

Industry is concerned as to what they see as a ‘rush to judgment’—and should a “temporary” ban is instituted it will be difficult to unring the precautionary bell regardless of what new evidence might show. They point to real world contradictions that suggest that pathogens, parasites and habitat loss, which has been the driver of CCD for more than a century before the introduction of insecticides, are the likely prime cause this time as well.

Canada, the UK and Australia all provide provocative real world case studies. Canola is grown commercially mostly on the prairies in Canada, the largest single producer of canola in the world with more than 50,000 canola producers and 16 million acres. It’s a nutritionally rich crop for bees. Some 80% of Canada’s honey crop is from canola, amounting to 50 million pounds per year of Grade No 1 white honey. Approximately 300,000 colonies harvest open pollinated canola.

Despite the fact that neonicotinoids are widely used in Canada to protect canola from pests, Canadian bee populations have been largely unaffected and produce around 50 million pounds of canola honey. A large-scale Ontario field study funded by Bayer appears to back up the real life evidence challenging the activist doomsday scenario. It found no difference in colony health between hives exposed to neonics and those that weren’t, in real life conditions. “The doses the bees are exposed to [in lab studies] are far above what a realistic field dose exposure would be,” says Dr. Cynthia Scott-Dupree, head of the Ontario study. Canadian  canola farmers say they have had 10 years of large scale use of neonics on canola with no observed ill effect.

Britain’s rapeseed crop, which is similar to canola but has a high acid content and is generally produced for animal feed, has not experienced serious bee losses either. The DEFRA study noted that oilseed rape (OSR) “requires insect pollinators to support its productivity. The fact that OSR treated with neonicotinoids has been a productive crop for over a decade in the UK is itself evidence that pollinator populations, including bees, are not being reduced by the presence of neonicotinoids.”

Varroa mites: The real culprit?

Australia presents the most striking dilemma for those isolating their attacks on neonics. On a per crop basis, it is one of the world’s heaviest users of the pesticide—and has among the healthiest bee colonies in the world. Government records indicate there has not been even oneadverse experience report from either the public or beekeepers concerning the use of neonics. The other thing they don’t see in Australia—but we do see everywhere else in the world where CCD is claimed—is the Varroa mite, the culprit in the 2005/06 bee death march.

While not deadly in themselves, these parasites act as a vector, attaching to honeybees and appearing to be “both a disseminator and activator of a number of bee viruses,” according to a report on honeybee disease in Europe by the Food and Environment Research Agency.  In countries experiencing bee decline, varroa is a feared and growing presence among beekeepers—even or especially if neonicotinoids are absent. For example, in upland areas of Switzerland where the pesticide is not used, bee colony populations are under significant pressure from the mites; and in France, declines in the bee population in mountainous areas (where neonics are uncommon) are similar to those in agricultural areas (where neonics are widely used).

At one point in Dan Rather’s report, the President of the California Beekeepers Association, John Miller, opens a hive and picks out a bee with a red dot on its back. “That’s a varroa mite,” he explains. “That is Satan incarnate. That is the central challenge of beekeeping globally.” The spreading problem of disease itself is compounded by the desperate efforts of beekeepers to extinguish the mites and other pests by dousing their hives with miticides and antibiotics, which would increase if there were no approved and effective pesticides. As Miller says, “You can imagine how hard it is to kill a bug on a bug. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

Bee deaths are not to be taken lightly. But the technology-intensive agricultural industry certainly provides an easy target for those who want to “do something yesterday,” without any regard to balancing costs and benefits and regardless of the long-term consequences. As the British Bee Keeper Association recently warned, rushing to ban neonics, when the evidence remains contradictory, could well do more damage than good, as other pesticides, some known to be more harmful to bees, would of necessity be reintroduced. The EPA is now addressing the issue, sending a research team to California where more than 1.6 million hives are needed every spring. Let science—and scientists—do their work.

More on genetics and science literacy at the Genetic Literacy Project

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Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communicationand STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

“Bees And Beekeepers – A Sweet Life”

Carl White, Executive Producer and Host of the award-winning syndicated TV show Life in the Carolinas, was kind enough to send me the video of his recent show on North Carolina bees and beekeepers.

I really enjoyed it!  Did you know that North Carolina has more beekeepers than any other state? Or that North Carolina beekeepers like to compete to see who can light his or her smoker the fastest?  I was impressed!

Speaking of North Carolina, I’ll be conducting “Cooking with Honey” workshops at the North Carolina State Beekeepers Association Summer Meeting on July 11-13 in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Come by and visit me if you’re in the area!

Best Beekeeping Practices – Replacing Your Old Combs

Many US beekeepers do not routinely replace their old combs. Older beekeeping books suggest that combs be reused to save money and energy that bees could use to make honey instead of wax. It is not unusual to find beekeepers who have combs that are over thirty years old.

In the wake of Colony Collapse Disorder, bee experts are recommending that combs be replaced more frequently. Dr. Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota Department of Entomology recommends that comb should be replaced every 5-7 years. In Europe, it is recommended that combs be replaced every three years. In the UK, my beekeeping friends Emily Heath and Emma Sarah Tennant replace their combs annually.

Why the change? We now know that bees wax absorbs pesticides, both those used for treatment within the hive and those used in agriculture. Old combs may also retain disease spores, such as foulbrood and Nosema. American Foulbrood spores can remain viable in combs for as long as thirty-five years. Replacing combs may also be helpful in managing varroa mites.

Old Bee Comb

It is easy to tell when comb needs replacing. It appears dark brown or even black in color. A good rule of thumb is to hold the frame up to the light. It should be replaced if light cannot be seen through it. The comb above looks very old.

There are three major ways to replace old comb: the Rotation Method, the Bailey Method and the Shook Swarm Technique.

The Rotation Method is the simplest, and the one I use.  At the beginning of spring, when it is warm enough to separate the brood nest, remove the two outer frames from the box, which should be empty. Insert two new frames into the center of the box and move the frames left of center to the left and the frames right of center to the right. This will give you a full rotation every five years in a ten frame box.

In my next post, I will describe the Bailey Method and the Shook Swarm Technique.

Six Reasons to Love Bees. ~ Will Curley

Six Reasons to Love Bees. ~ Will Curley.

Let’s consider a half-dozen reasons why honey bees might just be our best friends.

Reason 1: One of the first things people think of when they consider bees is honey.  Everyone knowshoney is really sweet and is good to spread on toast, but here are some facts not as many people know. Honey is the one food substance that never goes bad.  Pots of honey have been found in Egyptian tombs that are still as edible now as they were over four thousand years ago.

Reason 2:  Honey has antibacterial, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties. In addition to toast, it is good to put on cuts, scrapes, and burns. Honey is also good for your skin, working to both exfoliate and moisturize. If you have allergies, try eating bee pollen that has been harvested locally. It contains minute traces of the pollens that are responsible for your itchy eyes and runny nose. Eating local bee pollen can help boost your immunity to these irritants.

Reason 3: Honey and pollen are not the only products bees make that are good for you. Propolis is a spackly substance that bees create from tree sap. They use it to block small holes or tears in the hive, but humans can use it as a home remedy during cold and flu season. It can be taken in tincture form or swallowed, but be careful! Do not chew propolis. It will spackle your teeth together just as effectively as it joins a crack in the hive.

Reason 4:  Do you enjoy food? Imagine a delicious meal on your dinner plate. Now scrape off almost half the food. That’s how much bees contribute to your meal. They are responsible for pollinating a full 40% of the food we eat.  Bees pollinate everything from cabbage to watermelon, onions to broccoli and much more.  Unfortunately, the current agricultural practice of monoculture is hostile to bees. They cannot survive when the blooming season of a large region is a single week or two.

Big Agriculture’s answer? To use commercial beekeepers that ship their bees on big flatbed trucks across country in order to follow the blooms of different crops. This is not good for the bees, and is one of the contributing factors to Colony Collapse Disorder. Bees, like humans, stay healthy with a varied diet, so farming a variety of crops and flowers is an excellent way to encourage the survival of bees. And we need bees!

Reason 5:  Bees have a unique and fascinating societal model. Most animals maintain a 50/50 gender distribution. Queen bees maintain a 95% female to 5% male ratio in every hive. The female worker bees earn their name by doing all the work: caring for the eggs and newborns; cleaning the hive; looking after the queen; defending the hive; and foraging for pollen and nectar. The male drones have only one mission in life – to impregnate a newly created queen.  However, this is very rare, because the drone only lives for about 3 weeks, while a queen can live as long as 5 years and only mates once during that time.  Being a drone is nice work if you can get it.

(Will is pointing out the queen.)

If you caught that I said “a newly created queen” in the last paragraph, then you were paying attention.  Queens are not simply born, they are made.  The youngest adolescent females (known as nurse bees) decide when to create a queen.  If they detect a problem with the current queen–if she’s not producing enough eggs, if her pheromones are weakening, or if she sustains a serious injury–the nurse bees launch into action.

They sneak down into the brood chamber (where the eggs are laid) and build a special cell called a “queen cup.”  Next, they herd the current queen down to the queen cup and have her lay a female egg. Once the egg is in place, they scrape together all the royal jelly they can (secreted from glands in their heads), pack it in with the egg and seal it. The queen is the only bee who eats royal jelly throughout her life. Everyone else in the hive lives on a diet of pollen, nectar and water. When the new queen matures, she breaks out of the queen cup.

Assuming that the new queen was made to replace an ailing queen, and not to swarm off with some of the hive to deal with overpopulation, there are now two queens in the same hive. This means war. The newly-born queen will demonstrate how fearsome she is by shouting her battle cry. Known as “piping,” the new queen will sound the note G sharp for two seconds, and then again in quarter-second toots.  After she has announced her presence, she must find the current queen. Once they meet, they fight to the death.

Reason 6: Bees are accomplished mapmakers and dancers. When bees go foraging, they are able to provide other bees with a map showing where the best resources are. When the bees return to the hive, they are greeted by guard-bees who smell them to make sure they aren’t spies from another hive. Once they are allowed in, other bees confront the foragers. These bees will lick and head-butt them to determine what they are carrying. If they have found something good, they will then tell the other bees where it is by doing the “waggle dance.”

The waggle dance is a circle walked by the bee, and then bisected in a wiggly line through the center of the circle by the bee as she shimmies and shakes, pointing in the direction of the location she is referring to.  The length of the waggle phase denotes how far away the location is (1 second of waggling equals roughly 1km), while the intensity of the waggle tells the other bees the quantity of flowers. Here’s where the bee dance gets really interesting. Bees not only have a built-in solar compass to tell them where they have been in relation to the sun, but they also understand that the sun moves. Their dance takes into account where the sun was versus where it will be when other bees make the same journey.

Next time you come across a bee, take a moment to appreciate all that she does. Bees are more than our friends: they are vital players in the ongoing health of the planet

Edited by Kate Bartolotta.

Will Curley was born and raised in New York City.  After spending 4 wonderful years in Boulder attending Naropa University, he has returned home to New York and is preparing to apply to the FDNY to work as an EMT.  He was trained in the art of beekeeping by Andrew Cote, founder of Bees Without Borders.  When Will is not busy with work or the bees, he can usually be found making vegan soap, or missing the mountain sun. You can connect with Will on Facebook.

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