Bee swarms are absolutely fascinating.
Several years ago, when bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey was teaching a queen- rearing class at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, her students received an extra bonus: they witnessed a bee swarm.
Right in front of them, as if on cue, the bees left the entrance of a hive and clustered on a nearby tree branch. That was Lesson No. 1. Cobey and crew quickly captured them and moved the swarm to a vacant hive. That was Lesson No. 2.
Actually, bee swarms aren't that rare on the UC Davis campus. They're just difficult to see because we're usually looking down instead of up.
This week UC Davis employee Suzan Carson alerted us to a bee swarm in the North Hall/Dutton Hall complex. She pointed to a tree branch, about 30 feet off the ground, where, in the deepening shadows, a cluster hung like grapes. "Good eye!" we said.
Today, toting my telephoto lens, I returned to capture an image of the cluster. They were still there, but probably won't be for long. The pending rainstorm may drive them from their temporary home, observed Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology.
Norman Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, explains the ins and outs of swarms in his newly published book, Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees.
"The act of swarming is perhaps the most dramatic event in the lives of honey bees," Gary writes. "Here's how it happens: Egg production increases dramatically in response to warming spring weather as well as an abundance of pollen and nectar from spring flowers. Within a few weeks, the colony population essentially doubles. Multiple queen cells--usually at least six--are constructed in the brood nest. A few days prior to the emergence of a virgin queen, the old queen's ovaries begin to shrink. Egg-laying essentially stops, and she loses enough weight to permit flight for the first time since her mating flight."
So basically there's "no room in the inn" for the burgeoning population. The colony divides. The swarm usually heads for a nearby tree to cluster on a branch while the scouts search for a new--and appropriate--home.
Meanwhile, back at the old hive, new queens are emerging and what happens next isn't pretty. "Rival queens engage in fierce stinging attacks until only one virgin queen remains," Gary writes.
About a week later, the victorious queen will depart on her mating flight to a drone congregation area, mate with 12 to 25 or so drones, and then return to the hive to lay eggs--as many as 2000 a day during the peak season.
The queen will never leave the hive again...
Unless, on a warm spring day...
The story was not about a red light district or "Ladies of the Night" or even linked to humans.
It was about honey bee queens. "Ladies of the Day," if you will.
The story that raised a few eyebrows involved research titled "Characterization of the Active Microbiotas Associated with Honey Bees Reveals Healthier and Broader Communities when Colonies are Genetically Diverse," published March 12 in the PLOs One Journal.
A team headed by researchers at Wellesley (Mass.) College found that "Colonies with genetically diverse populations of workers, a result of the highly promiscuous mating behavior of queens, benefited from greater microbial diversity, reduced pathogen loads, and increased abundance of putatively helpful bacteria, particularly species from the potentially probiotic genus Bifidobacterium."
Scientists and beekeepers know that a virgin queen, on her maiden flight, will mate with 12 to 25 or more drones gathered in the drone congregration area. It's not immoral; it's just what happens.
The drones mate and then they die. All of them. Or as Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology tells bee associations: "They die happy, with a smile on their face."
The queen returns to her hive and begins laying eggs, up to 2000 a day in peak season. She'll have enough sperm for the rest of her life, which is usually around two to three years.
This scientific research in the PLoS One Journal is important in that it has led to increased interest in microbial communities and hope for the declining bee population.
Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of UC Davis and Washington State University has advocated genetic bee diversity for years.
"The primary perceived problem for beekeepers is a diminished quality of queens, and recent survey results from beekeeping operations in the U.S confirm this view," she and her colleagues write in a chapter of the newly published Honey Bee Colony Health: Challenges and Sustainable Solutions.
Beekeepers have long complained of "poor queens."
Cobey and co-chapter authors Walter "Steve" Sheppard of WSU and Dave Tarpy of North Carolina State University write: "The poor queens category encompasses many different problems but most of these reports document premature supersedure (queen replacement), inconsistent brood patterns, early drone laying (indicative of sperm depletion), and failed requeening as indicative of low queen quality."
So the next time you see a headline screaming "immoral" honey bee queens, it was probably written by someone who has no clue about honey bee reproduction.
Or someone trying to be funny...
Cobey is the lead author of a chapter in the newly published Honey Bee Colony Health: Challenges and Sustainable Solutions, a 21-chapter book edited by research entomologist Diana Sammataro of the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center, Tucson, Ariz., and professor Jay Yoder of Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio.
Just as stock improvement has served the poultry, dairy and swine industries well, the beekeeping industry needs access “to stocks of origin or standardized evaluation and stock improvement programs,” said Cobey, who has a dual appointment at the University of California, Davis and Washington State University (WSU).
“The many problems that currently face the U.S. honey bee population have underscored the need for sufficient genetic diversity at the colony, breeding, and population levels,” wrote Cobey and colleagues Walter “Steve” Sheppard, professor and chair, WSU Department of Entomology, and David Tarpy, associate professor and Extension apiculturist North Carolina State University.
“Genetic diversity has been reduced by three distinct bottleneck events, namely the limited historical importation of a small subset sampling of a few honey bee subspecies, the selection pressure of parasites and pathogens (particularly parasitic mites) and the consolidated commercial queen-production practices that use a small number of queen mothers in the breeding population,” Cobey pointed out.
The honey bee, Apis mellifera, originated in the Old World where it diverged into more than two dozen recognized subspecies, they related. However, only nine of the more than two dozen Old World subspecies ever made it to the United States and only two of these are recognizable today.
What with colony collapse disorder (CCD) and the declining bee population, there's definitely a crying need for genetic diversity in honey bees. Read more about what Susan Cobey has to say, and what this important book is all about, on the UC Davis Department of Entomology website.
There's a waiting list for Susan Cobey's specialized bee classes at the University of California,Davis.
That says a lot about the demand for bee stock improvement and for Cobey's teachings.
Cobey, bee breeder-geneticist at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis and at Washington State University, draws researchers and beekeepers from all over the world to her workshops.
Her March and April classes on queen bee rearing and instrument insemination--advanced classes that promote stock improvement--are all filled, but the good news is that she's offering more classes in Washington state in June.
So, folks can get on the waiting list for the UC Davis spring classes and/or register for the Washington state summer classes.
Cobey is highly sought as a speaker. Her latest presentation--Jan. 7--was at the 43rd annual American Honey Producers’ Association Convention in Phoenix where she discussed “The Introduction of Honey Bee Germplasm and Re-Establishment of Apis Mellifera Caucasica.”
Last November, Cobey addressed the California State Beekeeping Association at its conference in Rohnert Park. Her topic, "How to Raise Queens." Last September she delivered the keynote address at the beekeeping symposium on Production of Live Material at the 42nd annual Apimondia International Beeekeeping Congress in Buenos Aires. Her topic: “Changes and Developments in the Queen and Package Bee Industry.”
Cobey, who has taught the specialized classes since the early 1980s, draws researchers and beekeepers from throughout the world, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Costa Rico, England, Egypt, France, Spain India, Indonesia, Israel, Jamaica, Korea, Kuwait, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Peru, Puerto Rico, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay and Venezuela, Columbia.
By invitation, she’s also taught several classes in the host countries of Argentina, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica Egypt, Jamaica, Mexico, Turkey and South Africa.
For more information on her classes, check the UC Davis Department of Entomology website.
You won't find anyone more passionate about building a better bee than bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, who holds dual appointments at the University of California, Davis and Washington State University.
For one thing, her spring workshops on queen bee rearing and instrumental insemination at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis are already filled and there's a waiting list. Those on the waiting list--or at least some of them--are expected to register for her Washington state summer classes.
Those should fill up fast, too.
Cobey and her work are mentioned today in a Washington Post article, "In search of a better bee."
A key enemy of honey bees is the varroa mite, a parasitic critter that feeds on bee brood. Sometimes you'll even see it clinging to a foraging adult.
Cobey seeks to improve her stock. This includes building a better hygienic bee that can remove the varroa mites from the cells and the brood.
It's not an easy task.
"As vital as the hygienic bee is, the breeder must preserve desirable traits--a reluctance to sting or swarm, for example, as well as genetic diversity in a hedge against future diseases or pests," wrote Washington Post reporter Adrian Higgins.
"That's why gains are so slow," Cobey told her in the news story. "I would say we are just in the infancy of bee breeding."
Higgins wrote that Cobey is one of only a handful in the country skilled at artificially inseminating "virgin queens from known drone stock."
Why artificial insemination? When a virgin queen bee mates with drones in the drone congregation area (she mates in flight with a 12 to 20 drones or more), the breeding stock can't be controlled.
With queen bee insemination, it can be.
That's one of the reasons why Cobey's workshops draw students from throughout the world, and why they fill up fast.