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Ross’s Bee Journal, #9: Bomb sniffing bees,
flaky queens, tempered expectations

August 6, 2007

Sixty-two years ago today we dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. That has nothing to do with this journal entry, it’s just a factoid that lodged itself in my brain today. I guess I could use it to seque into the bomb sniffing bees part of my story. I wanted to write about it as soon as we came home from the Midwest Beekeeping Symposium and ISBA Annual Spring Meeting that was held June 9 at McHenry County College. But other obligations prevented me from updating the journal until now. Take a deep breath, there’s lots to tell.

The Illinois State Beekeeping Association holds a meeting and conference each year in a different part of the state, co-hosted by local beekeeping associations. Our Stateline Beekeepers Association was one of the co-hosts this year and the venue was only an hour away, so we knew we couldn’t miss it. And with a headliner who is not only doing major research into Colony Collapse Disorder, but also training bees to find land mines, it was too fascinating to pass up.

Dr. Jerry Bromenshank is a former cattleman and a bee researcher at University of Montana. What he had to say about CCD was not ground-breaking, since there is yet no explanation for the malady. He did dispute any connection to neonicotinoid pesticides (the cause I was ready to embrace when I last wrote this journal). The finger has tended to point to a combination of bad beekeeping practices, although a very recent article in The New Yorker hints that a new, unnamed virus or other pathogen may be to blame. Something akin to HIV, call it Apian Immunodeficiency Virus or AIV, may be causing the bee to lose its resistance to diseases that would not necessarily have been fatal previously.

What was most interesting was Dr. Bromenshank’s work training bees to sniff out land mines. Field trials have been completed in a number of settings and before long, his bees will likely be contracted to map locations of land mines in various parts of the world. Bees have a great advantage over mine-sniffing dogs in that one need not enter the mine field as one must with a dog, putting life and limb at risk for dog and handler.

How in the world can a bunch of tiny bees not only find land mines, but tell us where they are, precisely, in a field? Well, I’ll tell you. First item: bees have an acute sense of smell, and with a reward method of training (like giving a dog a bone after a trick) they can be taught to identify a specific odor with a nectar source. Second item: as land mines age and break down, specific chemicals in the explosive material create an odor plume above the buried mine.

So, train the bees to the smell of one of those mine-specific chemicals and then turn them loose next to a mine field and watch them as they sniff out those odor plumes looking for nectar. Of course, there is no nectar to be found in a land mine, so after hovering over the spot for a bit, each bee will move on, seek out, and find the next odor plume.

If you can observe the pattern of bees and where they pause in the field over a time period, you can plot the concentrations of bees on a grid to determine land mine locations. Bromenshank uses a low-powered pulsing, scanning laser (LIDAR) to track the bees. As the laser reflects off of the beating wings of a honey bee, software confirms by the unique wingbeats-per-minute that the target is indeed a honey bee. Reflections off the wings of other insects are thus ignored.

The pulse and measured reflection provides a distance reading, and the scanning left and right across the field provides the cross coordinate needed to plot a specific location on a grid. In 15 or 20 minutes you get enough bees pausing over each odor plume to see patterns of bee density. And there’s your map of the land mines in the field.

Controlled tests have shown the bees are able to detect trace odors from explosives with 97% accuracy. They’ll pass over a mine without noticing it less than one percent of the time. Pretty cool, huh? With more than 100 million land mines deployed in more than 100 countries, the world needs safer solutions to de-mining. Using current methods it would take 450 years to de-mine all of the affected areas. So, I say to Dr. Bromenshank’s bees “you go, girls.”

Our bees had a slow start this year, and a bumpy spring. In the last journal I proudly announced that all four of our colonies had made it through the winter. A bit premature with that assessment, it turns out. One died out in April, and two of the remaining three dropped precipitously in numbers. We had a really sucky spring, with temperature extremes and late snowfall.

On April 3 our two “safety” packages arrived. It was 60 degrees that day, and moist. We installed the packages differently this time, on a suggestion from Phil, our local association president (and vp of the state association). But I completely misinterpreted his instructions and instead of making it a safer, gentler installation I set up both hives for failure as the temperature dropped 30 degrees that night and high winds howled until morning. The next afternoon we checked the new colonies and in each we found the queen comatose in her cage, with many frozen workers around it, having tried desperately to keep her warm.

We brought the queen cages inside with the apparently dead queens in them and glumly went on with other business. An hour or so later I happened to pick up one of the cages, just to further wallow in my despair, and saw the queen moving slightly. Cautiously excited, we put some honey on the screen for her to eat. Then I opened up the other queen cage and took the still queen out. I breathed on her and gently pushed on her back, hoping I might revive her as well. No luck. Newly hopeful, we put the queens back in the hives, freed from their cages. Each one dropped like dead weight into the cluster.

We didn’t get back into the hives for several days. At this point we found that one of our four from last year had died, some new brood already capped but never to hatch. Both of the packages were queenless. It was pretty desperate, putting those limp queens back in, so we hadn’t expected much. Later Phil stopped by and we put a frame of eggs and larvae from our strongest hive into each of the packages, hoping the workers would raise a queen. Then we left them alone for 13 days.

It takes 14 days to raise a queen, and then she must go out on mating flights to mate with 12 to 14 drones. That takes a few more days. So when we next inspected the packages I was quite surprised to find a big fat queen in one of them. It was not the first, nor the last of many blunders this year, as I realized I had moved the queen from the strong hive. We naturally had eyeballed each frame for the queen when we transferred them, but must have missed her. The other hive had what appeared to be a virgin queen. She was quite small for a queen, but definitely bigger than the workers.

It was possible for this colony to have a queen 13 days later, since an egg takes 3 days to hatch. Up until the egg hatches, all new bees are floated in royal jelly. After the egg hatches the workers feed the larvae “bee bread” made from pollen and nectar. Only a queen larva continues to be fed royal jelly throughout her development. This is what makes her a queen instead of a worker. An interesting twist on the usual explanation appeared in an issue of American Bee Journal earlier this year. That is, a queen is not a bee larva that has been bolstered by a special diet. Instead, all of the other bees have been raised on a restricted diet that deliberately stunts their development and turns them into workers. And it’s the workers who decide. But I digress.

During this inspection, we almost lost the queen from another colony. After looking at frames in both brood boxes, and seeing the queen, we put the hive back together and covered it up. Then I noticed a very large bee on the leg of the spare hive stand we had used as a temporary support. It was the queen. One worker was with her, feeding her. I picked her up by her wings and set her on the front porch of the hive. She went right in. She had apparently fallen through the open bottom of the brood box while it was sitting on the spare hive stand.

Other flaky queen behavior was observed during some of our spring inspections, like the queen we saw wandering around on the exposed top bars of the brood frames. Queens usually try to stay out of sight. They have an uncanny knack for walking to the opposite side of the frame you happen to be looking at. Turn the frame over and she’ll go back to the side you aren’t looking at. That’s probably how Phil and I missed the queen on one of the frames we moved.

So, our strongest hive (#4) now had no queen, since she had been moved to one of the packages. What else can we screw up? Plenty. Jeff took pity on us and gave us a frame with a new, mated queen and some worker bees. We intended to use this to re-queen #4. But when we next open #4 we find new larvae and capped brood. They’ve re-queened themselves, and she has mated successfully. So we put Jeff’s frame in the deadout. Stupidly, we don’t add any bees from other hives. Next inspection this box is empty. Not even enough dead bees to account for those that were on the frame, and no dead queen. They’re just...gone.

It goes like this throughout the spring. One day Phil calls to say he is checking some of his hives down the road at Severson Dells, and he has an extra queen for us. I had told him that I thought the second package, the one where I had seen (I thought) a virgin queen, was queenless. Phil stops by and we open up the hive and find larvae and capped brood. Not queenless. She just took a while to get mated, I guess. We use the empty deadout box to start a new colony, with three frames of brood from three hives and Phil’s queen. This one finally takes and is doing pretty well now. We don’t expect much honey from it, though.

On another inspection we find one of last year’s colonies (#2) is full of queen cells. We figure the bees know what they are doing, so we leave them alone. Either their queen is dead or they know she needs to be replaced and they are doing it themselves, a process called supercedure. Later inspection finds #2 queenless. All those queen cells and not one managed to mate successfully. We give them a frame of eggs and larva from another hive, so they can try again. They never manage it, and just last week we split the remaining workers up and added them to two other hives.

So where are we now? Let’s assess: #1 (from last year’s packages) and #6 (this year’s package with a bee-raised queen from a split done last year) are doing great. We took a very heavy super of honey off of each of them last week. There are two more supers on each that are mostly full, but have brood mixed in. We didn’t have the queen excluders on any of the hives, and all of the queens laid eggs in the honey supers. All now have queen excluders on them, so it’s just a matter of waiting for all the brood to hatch out so their cells can be cleaned and used for honey production.

#3 was the deadout that Jeff’s queen and her consorts fled, and that we restarted with Phil’s queen. It is doing well, and received an extra brood box full of workers from #2, a package from last year that failed to replace its queen. #4 was a split we did in the middle of last summer, that raised their own queen which I moved accidentally (now resident in #6). They raised a new queen and were given the other brood box from #2. So #2 is no more.

And #5, the other package of this year, well, they’re still on two brood boxes, no supers added, some frames never even drawn out into comb. That is the punky queen, the one that never amounted to much. She’s still laying eggs, but the colony never got much bigger than a large package and will be unlikely to survive the winter. Too few bees and too little honey. We’ll have to combine those bees with another colony come fall. Don’t ask what happens to their queen.

But, so as not to end on a downer, I’ll happily predict a good honey yield this year, perhaps better than last year, from the same number of hives, as it turns out. I think we’ll try to keep these four alive and strong and save expansion for our retirement.

Ross Thompson

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