Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Scientific Side of Bees

Last Saturday was a special meeting of the Worcester County Beekeeper Association and the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association. A couple of prominent bee scientists came to town to give presentations on beekeeping topics. I'll give a synopsis of the day, with some pictures.

At the start of the meeting some danish was served for breakfast. Beekeepers like to eat!

The meeting was well attended - there were about 200 people according to a rough count.

Dr. Marla Spivak from the University of Minnesota was the first to speak. She spoke on "Propolis and Bee Health." Propolis is the gummy tree resin bees collect and bring in to the hive. In a natural hive, they basically encapsulate the inside of the hive. In Langstroth hives (which beekeepers use) the propolis gums up the frames something fierce, and beekeepers hate it. But it turns out propolis may have a health benefit for the hive's "social health." Her research is still ongoing. More Q&A with Dr. Spivak is here.

Then Dr. Heather Mattila from Wellesley College here in MA spoke on "Genetic Diversity, Dancing and Foraging of the Honey Bee." Queen Bees mate with multiple (6-20) males (called "polyandry") which gives the hive a diverse genetic makeup. She did some experiments with hives made up of a single genetic line (using artificial insemination from a single male) as well as multiple genetic lines (inseminated by 15 males). Her research shows that hives with a diverse genetic makeup are superior in many ways (foraging, etc.) so it's a benefit for the queen to be promiscuous (you can read a short article about her research on this here).

Ken Warchol then gave an update on the Worcester Bee Research Project. Beekeepers in the area have expressed concern about the USDA’s use of imidacloprid to kill the invasive, tree-killing Asian longhorned beetle first discovered in the Worcester area last year. Combined with infested tree removal, officials plan to inject the chemical into potential host trees over three-year cycles to kill off the beetle in the area.

Ken will be monitoring about 50 hives throughout the area to see the impact of the pesticide on bees. Obviously it's a bad thing if the bees are impacted by the pesticide. Here is an article from the Worcester Telegram on this issue.

(sorry for the blurry pictures - all I had was my point-and-shoot digital camera)

After lunch, Dr. Spivak again took the mic and gave a presentation on "A New Novel Way to Monitor Varroa Mites." She showed how to accurately sample your bees to see the mite level of the hive, so you can decide how and when to treat for the mites. The process is described here.

Then Dr. Mattila gave a presentation on "Life Inside a Swarm." She showed what happens when a beehive decides it needs to execute a swarming activity. It was an interesting study on the group dynamics of tens of thousands of bees, and how they decide what they decide.

Overall it was very enjoyable conference. Dr. Spivak is a highly sought-after speaker, due to her prominence with the Minnesota Hygienic bee line. It took 3 years of scheduling to get her here. The presentations weren't too scientific, and from my observations, didn't go over everyone's head. As an engineer myself, I am fascinated at how much of Beekeeping is "art" - people with opinions on what is works and what doesn't. There is a joke that if you ask 5 beekeepers a question, you'll get 10 answers. That's true in a lot of ways. But both of these women have done a good job of applying scientific methods to the bees. Bees aren't the easiest creatures to study, because they won't do exactly what you want. But there are tricks you can do to get the answers you want.

I had to laugh at the end, when as a thank-you gift Ken gave each of the presenters a jar of club Honey. I could imagine them thinking to themselves, "Gee, just what I need - another jar of honey!"

I had a followup e-mail conversation with Dr. Mattila and she mentioned that she feels like she has a foot in 2 different worlds, as a beekeeper and as a scientist.

By the way, you can also read about the meeting at my friend Michelle's Blog (she is a fellow beekeeper in the club).

1 comment:

  1. Your meetings sound very interesting. I think Marla is coming to our annual Canadian Beekeepers convention in Niagara Falls next month to talk about the same topic. I'm not sure if I can go this year ($$$). I went last year and it was very worthwhile.


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