Saturday, October 23, 2010

Georgia man killed by swarm of Africanized bees.

Africanized Honeybees Found In Georgia
Courtesy: Georgia Department of Agriculture
Tommy Irvin, Commissioner

Entomological tests have confirmed that Africanized honeybees were responsible for the death of an elderly man in Dougherty County last week. News reports say the man accidentally disturbed a feral colony of bees with his bulldozer and that he received more than 100 stings.

“This is the first record of Africanized honeybees in Georgia,” said Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin.

Africanized honeybees are a hybrid of African and European honeybees. Because of their extremely defensive nature regarding their nest (also referred to as a colony or hive), they are sometimes called “killer bees.” Large numbers of them sometimes sting people or livestock with little provocation.

The Africanized honeybee and the familiar European honeybee (Georgia’s state insect) look the same and their behavior is similar in some respects. Each bee can sting only once, and there is no difference between Africanized honeybee venom and that of a European honeybee. However, Africanized honeybees are less predictable and more defensive than European honeybees. They are more likely to defend a wider area around their nest and respond faster and in greater numbers than European honeybees.

Africanized honeybees first appeared in the U.S. in Texas in 1990. Since then they have spread to New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida and now Georgia. Entomologists and beekeepers have been expecting the arrival of these bees in Georgia for several years. There has been an established breeding population in Florida since 2005.

Because Africanized honeybees look almost identical to European honeybees, the bees from the Dougherty County incident had to be tested to accurately ascertain they were the Africanized strain. The Georgia Department of Agriculture sent samples of the bees to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services which has the capability to do FABIS (fast African bee identification system) testing and the U.S. Department of Agriculture identification test (the complete morphometrics test) to confirm the bees’ identity.

Africanized honeybees are the result of an experiment that went awry in Brazil in the 1950s. Researchers were trying to create a honeybee better suited to tropic conditions. A few of the African bees escaped and began hybridizing with European honeybees. The hybrid “Africanized” honeybees (so named because they get their extremely defensive nature from the African honeybee) began colonizing South America and Central America, then Mexico and the U.S.

“Georgia beekeepers are our first and best line of defense against these invaders. They are the ones who will be able to monitor and detect any changes in bee activity,” said Commissioner Irvin.

“The Georgia Department of Agriculture is going to continue its trapping and monitoring of bee swarms to try to find where any Africanized honeybees are,” said Commissioner Irvin. “We also want to educate people about what to do in case they encounter a colony of Africanized honeybees. Georgians can visit our website for more information. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service has a publication on Africanized honeybees that is available online ( or at Extension offices.”

Monday, October 11, 2010

Has science really solved the mysteries of Colony Collapse Disorder?

(Mark's Note: While this is promising news that there may be a breakthrough in Colony Collapse Disorder research, the news comes with a bit of controversy. Since the news broke in the last few days, there has been finger-pointing and eye-rolling in the scientific community already. I present this to you as what is being reported by the American media outlets. Whether the findings are accurate or not, I believe that the media focus on the endangered honey bee and the plight of beekeepers is extremely important to this cause.)

Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery
Kirk Johnson
The New York Times
October 6, 2010

It has been one of the great murder mysteries of the garden: what is killing off the honeybees?

Since 2006, 20 to 40 percent of the bee colonies in the United States alone have suffered “colony collapse.” Suspected culprits ranged from pesticides to genetically modified food.

Now, a unique partnership — of military scientists and entomologists — appears to have achieved a major breakthrough: identifying a new suspect, or two.

A fungus tag-teaming with a virus have apparently interacted to cause the problem, according to a paper by Army scientists in Maryland and bee experts in Montana in the online science journal PLoS One.

Exactly how that combination kills bees remains uncertain, the scientists said — a subject for the next round of research. But there are solid clues: both the virus and the fungus proliferate in cool, damp weather, and both do their dirty work in the bee gut, suggesting that insect nutrition is somehow compromised.

Liaisons between the military and academia are nothing new, of course. World War II, perhaps the most profound example, ended in an atomic strike on Japan in 1945 largely on the shoulders of scientist-soldiers in the Manhattan Project. And a group of scientists led by Jerry Bromenshenk of the University of Montana in Missoula has researched bee-related applications for the military in the past — developing, for example, a way to use honeybees in detecting land mines.

But researchers on both sides say that colony collapse may be the first time that the defense machinery of the post-Sept. 11 Homeland Security Department and academia have teamed up to address a problem that both sides say they might never have solved on their own.

“Together we could look at things nobody else was looking at,” said Colin Henderson, an associate professor at the University of Montana’s College of Technology and a member of Dr. Bromenshenk’s “Bee Alert” team.

Human nature and bee nature were interconnected in how the puzzle pieces came together. Two brothers helped foster communication across disciplines. A chance meeting and a saved business card proved pivotal. Even learning how to mash dead bees for analysis — a skill not taught at West Point — became a factor.

One perverse twist of colony collapse that has compounded the difficulty of solving it is that the bees do not just die — they fly off in every direction from the hive, then die alone and dispersed. That makes large numbers of bee autopsies — and yes, entomologists actually do those — problematic.

Dr. Bromenshenk’s team at the University of Montana and Montana State University in Bozeman, working with the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center northeast of Baltimore, said in their jointly written paper that the virus-fungus one-two punch was found in every killed colony the group studied. Neither agent alone seems able to devastate; together, the research suggests, they are 100 percent fatal.

“It’s chicken and egg in a sense — we don’t know which came first,” Dr. Bromenshenk said of the virus-fungus combo — nor is it clear, he added, whether one malady weakens the bees enough to be finished off by the second, or whether they somehow compound the other’s destructive power. “They’re co-factors, that’s all we can say at the moment,” he said. “They’re both present in all these collapsed colonies.”

Research at the University of California, San Francisco, had already identified the fungus as part of the problem. And several RNA-based viruses had been detected as well. But the Army/Montana team, using a new software system developed by the military for analyzing proteins, uncovered a new DNA-based virus, and established a linkage to the fungus, called N. ceranae.

“Our mission is to have detection capability to protect the people in the field from anything biological,” said Charles H. Wick, a microbiologist at Edgewood. Bees, Dr. Wick said, proved to be a perfect opportunity to see what the Army’s analytic software tool could do. “We brought it to bear on this bee question, which is how we field-tested it,” he said.

The Army software system — an advance itself in the growing field of protein research, or proteomics — is designed to test and identify biological agents in circumstances where commanders might have no idea what sort of threat they face. The system searches out the unique proteins in a sample, then identifies a virus or other microscopic life form based on the proteins it is known to contain. The power of that idea in military or bee defense is immense, researchers say, in that it allows them to use what they already know to find something they did not even know they were looking for.

But it took a family connection — through David Wick, Charles’s brother — to really connect the dots. When colony collapse became news a few years ago, Mr. Wick, a tech entrepreneur who moved to Montana in the 1990s for the outdoor lifestyle, saw a television interview with Dr. Bromenshenk about bees.

Mr. Wick knew of his brother’s work in Maryland, and remembered meeting Dr. Bromenshenk at a business conference. A retained business card and a telephone call put the Army and the Bee Alert team buzzing around the same blossom.

The first steps were awkward, partly because the Army lab was not used to testing bees, or more specifically, to extracting bee proteins. “I’m guessing it was January 2007, a meeting in Bethesda, we got a bag of bees and just started smashing them on the desk,” Charles Wick said. “It was very complicated.”

The process eventually was refined. A mortar and pestle worked better than the desktop, and a coffee grinder worked best of all for making good bee paste.

Scientists in the project emphasize that their conclusions are not the final word. The pattern, they say, seems clear, but more research is needed to determine, for example, how further outbreaks might be prevented, and how much environmental factors like heat, cold or drought might play a role.

They said that combination attacks in nature, like the virus and fungus involved in bee deaths, are quite common, and that one answer in protecting bee colonies might be to focus on the fungus — controllable with antifungal agents — especially when the virus is detected.

Still unsolved is what makes the bees fly off into the wild yonder at the point of death. One theory, Dr. Bromenshenk said, is that the viral-fungal combination disrupts memory or navigating skills and the bees simply get lost. Another possibility, he said, is a kind of insect insanity.

In any event, the university’s bee operation itself proved vulnerable just last year, when nearly every bee disappeared over the course of the winter.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fall feeding frenzy! My bees are definitely preparing for winter!

Fall is here again and the girls are busy trying to get their houses in order before winter sets in. Spring and early summer was really nice with lots of flowers and rain and so the bees kept busy. But the latter part of the summer turned hot and dry and there was a definite lack of supplies for the girls to work with. One day I found at least twenty of my honey bees trying to get the food out of the hummingbird feeder And later during an inspection, I found the bright red fluid in the cells of my hives.

While fall is here by the calendar, the daytime temperatures are still in the 80s while a few nights the temperatures dipped into the upper 40s. But I know that it won't be long before the weather will turn cold and my colonies will cluster to survive the winter. But in order to survive, they need enough food to get them through the frigid season, so now the frenzy begins to make enough honey to store. 

This is the frenzy time for more than the honey bees. I noticed a dead bumblebee at the entrance to the orange hive. I'm guessing it tried to sneak in the hive to get some honey but it was met with guards that went on the attack to protect their home. The end result wasn't least for the bumblebee. So to stop future events, I placed the entrance guards on to keep intruders out. Same thing with the lime green hive, and once I take the Boardman feeder off the yellow hive, I'll reduce the entrance there too. I've noticed some daring yellow jackets trying to get in the hives, but the bees usually chase them away.

While I'm using hive-top feeders on two of the hives, I'm also experimenting with open feeding. Here you can see a bowl of sugar syrup placed near the hives and the bees taking it. While I did notice some fighting near the bowl, I didn't notice any bees fighting in the bowl. They just simply rested on the rim or the floating pine bark nuggets and drank the syrup. The next day I used a two gallon pail with wine corks floating in it for the bees to sit on. I have to admit that while it may be an effective way of feeding the bees, it causes quite a stir and looks rather ominous for all those bees to be flying around. 

I've always heard that even the worst of enemies can sit down and have a good meal together. It may be true. Take a look at the picture to the left. At the four o'clock and six o'clock positions, check out the yellow jackets having a meal with my honey bees. They all seemed to get along fine while at the dinner bowl. But let a yellow jacket land near the entrance to the hives...and the story changed dramatically. 

Based on what I observed, the open feeding doesn't seem to cause any real problems, but I can see where the stronger colonies would benefit from it while the weaker ones would get shoved out. But it may have to suffice for now since anytime I open the tops to my hives, the girls get defensive and hard to manage. But that's fall behavior and nothing new to me, but I'd rather not disturb them anymore than I have to so they can get their stores made for winter.