The Humble Bee

by Elizabeth Pennisi
for the American Association for the Advancement of Science

For years, cognitive scientist Lars Chittka felt a bit eclipsed by his colleagues at Queen Mary University of London. Their studies of apes, crows, and parrots were constantly revealing how smart these animals were. He worked on bees, and at the time, almost everyone assumed that the insects acted on instinct, not intelligence.
Chittka’s team has shown that bumble bees can not only learn to pull a string to retrieve a reward, but they can also learn this trick from other bees, even though they have no experience with such a task in nature. The study “successfully challenges the notion that ‘big brains’ are necessary” for new skills to spread, says Christian Rutz, an evolutionary ecologist who studies bird cognition at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom.
Many researchers have used string-pulling to assess animals, particularly birds and apes. So Chittka and his colleagues set up a low clear plastic table barely tall enough to lay three flat artificial blue flowers underneath. Each flower contained a well of sugar water in the center and had a string attached that extended beyond the table’s boundaries. The only way the bumble bee could get the sugar water was to pull the flower out from under the table by tugging on the string.
The team put 110 bumble bees, one at a time, next to the table to see what they would do. Some tugged at the strings and gave up, but two actually kept at it until they retrieved the sugar water. In another series of experiments, the researchers trained the bees by first placing the flower next to the bee and then moving it ever farther under the table. More than half of the 40 bees tested learned what to do.

Next, the researchers placed untrained bees behind a clear plastic wall so they could see the other bees retrieving the sugar water. More than 60% of the insects that watched knew to pull the string when it was their turn. In another experiment, scientists put bees that knew how to pull the string back into their colony and a majority of the colony’s workers picked up string pulling by watching one trained bee do it when it left the colony in search of food. The bees usually learned this trick after watching the trained bee five times, and sometimes even after one observation. Even after the trained bee died, string pulling continued to spread among the colony’s younger workers.
But pulling a string does not quite qualify as tool use, because a tool would have to be an independent object that wasn’t attached to the flower in the first place. And other invertebrates have shown they can use tools: Digger wasps pick up small stones and use them to pack down their burrow entrances, for example. But that two bees figured out how to pull the string with no help while other bees picked up on that ability, was impressive, says Ivo Jacobs, a cognitive zoologist at Lund University in Sweden who was not involved with the work. “This shows unexpected behavioral flexibility.”
Rutz is impressed, too, because the work involved almost 300 bees and clearly documented how string pulling spread from bee to bee in multiple colonies.
With additional experiments, Chittka hopes to figure out the neural basis of these abilities.
The findings hint at a form of culture in bees, Jacobs says. With their ability to learn where others are, find out what they are doing, and experiment on their own, the insects demonstrated that they can pass on knowledge—a key requirement of culture, considered to be a complex phenomena.

No One Immune

insectsMatthäus Merian der Ältere  (1593 – 1650)


Our Bees, Ourselves
by Mark Winston, Op-ed contributor, The New York Times

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — AROUND the world, honeybee colonies are dying in huge numbers: About one-third of hives collapse each year, a pattern going back a decade.

Honeybee collapse has been particularly vexing because there is no one cause. The main elements include the compounding impact of pesticides applied to fields, as well as pesticides applied directly into hives to control mites; fungal, bacterial and viral pests and diseases; nutritional deficiencies caused by vast acreages of single-crop fields that lack diverse flowering plants; and, in the United States, commercial beekeeping itself, which disrupts colonies by moving most bees around the country multiple times each year to pollinate crops.

The real issue, though, is not the volume of problems, but the interactions among them. Here we find a core lesson from the bees that we ignore at our peril: the concept of synergy. A typical honeybee colony contains residue from more than 120 pesticides; together they form a toxic soup of chemicals whose interplay can substantially reduce the effectiveness of bees’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to diseases.

These findings provide the most sophisticated data set available for any species about synergies among pesticides, and between pesticides and disease. The only human equivalent is research into pharmaceutical interactions, with many prescription drugs showing harmful or fatal side effects when used together, particularly in patients who already are disease-compromised. Pesticides have medical impacts as potent as pharmaceuticals do, yet we know virtually nothing about their synergistic impacts on our health, or their interplay with human diseases.

Observing the tumultuous demise of honeybees should alert us that our own well-being might be similarly threatened. The honeybee is a remarkably resilient species that has thrived for 40 million years, and the widespread collapse of so many colonies presents a clear message: We must demand that our regulatory authorities require studies on how exposure to low dosages of combined chemicals may affect human health before approving compounds.

Bees also provide some clues to how we may build a more collaborative relationship with the services that ecosystems can provide. Beyond honeybees, there are thousands of wild bee species that could offer some of the pollination service needed for agriculture. Yet feral bees — that is, bees not kept by beekeepers — also are threatened by factors similar to those afflicting honeybees: heavy pesticide use, destruction of nesting sites by overly intensive agriculture and a lack of diverse nectar and pollen sources thanks to highly effective weed killers, which decimate the unmanaged plants that bees depend on for nutrition.

Recently, my laboratory at Simon Fraser University conducted a study on farms that produce canola oil that illustrated the profound value of wild bees. We discovered that crop yields, and thus profits, are maximized if considerable acreages of cropland are left uncultivated to support wild pollinators.

Such logic goes against conventional wisdom that fields and bees alike can be uniformly micromanaged. The current challenges faced by managed honeybees and wild bees remind us that we can manage too much. Excessive cultivation, chemical use and habitat destruction eventually destroy the very organisms that could be our partners.

And this insight goes beyond mere agricultural economics. There is a lesson in the decline of bees about how to respond to the most fundamental challenges facing contemporary human societies. We can best meet our own needs if we maintain a balance with nature — a balance that is as important to our health and prosperity as it is to the bees.

The Honeycomb Thief

cranach elder cupid honeyCupid Complaining to Venus
Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1472 – 1553)


Pale gold and crumbling with crust
mottled dark, almost bronze,
pieces of honeycomb lie on a plate.
Flecked with the pale paper
of hive, their hexagonal cells
leak into the deepening pool
of amber. On your lips,
against palate, tooth and tongue,
the viscous sugar squeezes
from its chambers, sears sweetness
into your throat until you chew
pulp and wax from a blue city
of bees. Between your teeth
is the blown flower and the flower’s
seed. Passport pages stamped
and turning. Death’s officious hum.
Both the candle and its anther
of flame. Your own yellow hunger.
Never say you can’t take
this world into your mouth

Paulann Petersen

For Midsummer candles and mead

Lost Colony

FLYING FISH  John White (c. 1540 – c. 1593)

FLYING FISH John White (c. 1540 – c. 1593)
by George Monbiot

Neonicotinoids are already known as a major cause of the decline of bees and other pollinators.
These pesticides can be applied to the seeds of crops, and they remain in the plant as it grows, killing the insects which eat it.
The quantities required to destroy insect life are astonishingly small: by volume these poisons are 10,000 times as powerful as DDT.
When honeybees are exposed to just 5 nanogrammes of neonicotinoids, half of them will die.

It is only now, when neonicotinoids are already the world’s most widely deployed insecticides, that we are beginning to understand how extensive their impacts are.

Only a tiny proportion of the neonicotinoids that farmers use enter the pollen or nectar of the flower.
Some of the residue blows off as dust, which is likely to wreak havoc among the populations of many species of insects in hedgerows and surrounding habitats.
But the great majority – Prof Dave Goulson says “typically more than 90%” – of the pesticide applied to the seeds enters the soil.

Neonicotinoids are highly persistent chemicals, lasting (according to the few studies published so far) for up to 19 years in the soil. Because they are persistent, they are likely to accumulate: with every year of application the soil will become more toxic.

Of course, not all the neonicotinoids entering the soil stay there. Some are washed out, whereupon they end up in groundwater or in the rivers. What happens there? Who knows?
Neonicotinoids are not even listed among the substances that must be monitored under the EU’s water framework directive.

One study shows that at concentrations no greater than the limits set by the EU, the neonicotinoids entering river systems wipe out half the invertebrate species you would expect to find in the water. That’s another way of saying erasing much of the foodweb.

The people who should be defending the natural world have conspired with the manufacturers of wide-spectrum biocides to permit levels of destruction which we can only guess. In doing so they appear to be engineering another silent spring.
Prof Dave Goulson’s review of the impacts of these pesticides

Tuft of Cowslips

primula_durer2Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528)

The primrose, as every one knows, flowers a little earlier in the spring than the cowslip, and inhabits slightly different stations and districts. The primrose generally grows on banks or in woods, whilst the cowslip is found in more open places.
The cowslip is habitually visited during the day by the larger humble-bees (namely Bombus muscorum and hortorum), and at night by moths, as I have seen in the case of Cucullia. The primrose is never visited (and I speak after many years’ observation) by the larger humble-bees, and only rarely by the smaller kinds; hence its fertilisation must depend almost exclusively on moths.
Charles Darwin

Gardens “a balance of poetry and practicalities”

Thomas Bewick 1753 – 1828

A Little History of British Gardening
by Jenny Uglow

‘… a prosperous farmer’s wife was in charge of “ordering the kitchen garden; and keeping the fruits, herbs, roots and seeds; and moreover watching and attending to the bees”. There was art and invention in the garden too, and Uglow delights in telling us how the housewife worked “like a scientist with glasses and alembics, distilling purges and cough medicines as well as conserves and pickles”. They made perfumed oils for scents and soaps. Marigolds and violets were candied for sweets; elderflowers, irises and mallows made into lotions for softening wrinkles and rhubarb in white wine was used for dying hair blonde.

By the 1700s gardening had become a topic for coffee-house chat, with fashions provoking strong reactions from commentators. Alexander Pope, writing in a new periodical called the Guardian, decided that “persons of genius preferred nature”, whereas “people of the common level of understanding are principally delighted with the little niceties and fantastical operations of art”.’

Jill Sinclair

Why Flowers Have Lost Their Scent

Canarina canariensis
Sydenham Edwards (1799)

Pollution is dulling the scent of flowers and impeding some of the most basic processes of nature, disrupting insect life and imperilling food supplies, a new study suggests.
A vicious cycle is set up where insects struggle to get enough food and the plants do not get pollinated enough to proliferate.

butterflies, moths, bumblebees & mayflies have been disappearing for a long time


A new generation of pesticides is making honeybees far more susceptible to disease, even at tiny doses, and may be a clue to the mysterious colony collapse disorder that has devastated bees across the world, the US government’s leading bee researcher has found. Yet the discovery has remained unpublished for nearly two years since it was made by the US Department of Agriculture’s Bee Research Laboratory.

In fact, insects such as butterflies, moths, bumblebees and mayflies have been disappearing for a long time, although hardly anyone except specialists has noticed or cared . . .

In the middle of nowhere

Genetically modified seeds, scattered during harvest, or fallen off a truck during transport, lead to transgenic plants cross-pollinating in the wild.