More about those angry bees

Today’s online version of the San Francisco Chronicle published another follow-up article about last week’s rampage of bees in Concord, CA. The gist is that seven bees sent to the state Department of Food and Agriculture for testing, and the results showed that they did not possess Africanized alleles. This finding has led some to conclude that the bees that did the attacking were ordinary European honey bees. This, in turn, is a dangerous conclusion because the logical continuation of the thought process is that any hive of ordinary European honey bees kept in managed hives could suddenly and without warning become super aggressive. Let me address the study results as reported in the Chronicle, and then we can talk about the repercussions to beekeepers in California.

Thought #1:  First of all, only seven bees were examined for Africanization. Seven out of several tens of thousands of bees in the colony. So yeah, sampling error is a problem.

Thought #2:  Worker honey bees, all of which are female, are diploid. They inherit nuclear chromosomes from both parents. This is the same as happens for other diploid animals such as humans and most likely every other animal you would think of. The workers’ brothers, the drones, are haploid; they develop from unfertilized eggs and thus carry nuclear DNA only from their mother, the queen.

Thought #3:  The test used by the state looked for the presence of Africanized alleles in the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of the seven bees that were examined. In sexually reproducing animals, the female gamete (egg) is much larger than the male gamete (sperm). The sperm provides DNA to the zygote that results from fertilization, but little else. All of the other cellular components, including mitochondria, come from the egg. Mitochondria are nifty little bean-shaped organelles, evolutionarily derived from some sort of aerobic bacterium-type critter, that are the “powerhouses” of cells. They are the site of cellular respiration, where glucose molecules are broken down and the energy within the chemical bonds is released to fuel the cell’s activities. Mitochondria, as descendants of formerly free-living bacteria, possess their own DNA and are self-replicating units within eukaryotic cells. Because a diploid organism inherits mitochondria only from its mother, mtDNA can be used to trace maternal lineages through time.

Thought #3.5:  A hive of European honey bees contains a European queen and her progeny. Her daughters, the workers, obtained half of their DNA from her and half from their fathers. A virgin queen mates with 12-15 drones on her mating flight before returning to her hive to begin laying. If some of the drones she mates with have Africanized alleles, then some proportion of her daughters will as well.

Thought #4:  The results of the test used by the state cannot be correctly interpreted as indicating that there were no Africanized bees in the aggressive hive in Concord. Period. If the state wants to test for Africanized alleles, looking only in the mtDNA isn’t going to do the trick. They can examine every single damn bee in the hive, and all they will find is the same mtDNA that the European queen has. They are looking in the wrong damn place–they need to examine the nuclear DNA for Africanized alleles. Now, there could always be something unusual about the mitochondrial genome of honey bees that I’m not aware of, which would mess up my entire argument. However, I am not the only person who thinks that relying on mtDNA to determine Africanization tells the whole story. Eric Mussen, apiculturist emeritus at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, said more or less the same thing a week ago, right after the attack happened.

Repercussions for beekeepers: Well, any beekeeper knows that public hysteria about bees is a real thing. Many people are frightened of honey bees and don’t want them around. Responsible beekeepers take measures to ensure that their bees are not a nuisance or danger to the public. We really want to do the right thing for our neighbors as well as for our bees. Shoddy science reported as fact doesn’t help our cause.

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Accident report

Saturday, 21 May 2016 — We had spent two hours tootling around the bay on Murray’s boat and had a late (and for me, second) breakfast at Aldo’s at about 11:00. We came out of the upper harbor and turned right onto 7th Avenue. Murray was driving his car, I was in the front passenger seat, and Alex was in the back seat behind me.

We crossed Brommer Street and continued south on 7th Avenue, going maybe 25 mph. I saw a white blur out of the corner of my left eye, a split-second before a car swerved out of the opposing lane and plowed into the front left corner of Murray’s car. I heard two distinct bangs: one was the impact itself, which you’ve heard if you’ve ever been in or witnessed a fender-bender, and the other was the explosion of the air bags. There was no squeal of brakes and there were no skid marks on either side of the street. Air bags deployed, car got pushed into the curb. Car filled with smoke and dust. A few seconds after the air bags deployed there was a third crash into the windshield directly in front of me. I couldn’t see what caused it because of the air bags and smoke, and thought the car was going to blow up with us inside it. The sense of disorientation after a car accident is pretty fierce. What with the loud noises, a car full of smoke and propellant, and air bags blocking the view out, it is really hard to understand what happened.

Fortunately there were several witnesses and passersby who helped us out. The guy in the car behind us was an off-duty out-of-town cop visiting for the weekend with his wife and kids. The passersby got us out of the car and called 911. The guy who hit us was sitting on the sidewalk and the off-duty cop asked him questions. From what I overheard the guy said he was on medication for schizophrenia and thought he was going to the beach; after the collision he had gotten out of the car and run over Murray’s car, stumbling or falling onto the windshield which explained how the windshield had gotten broken. He didn’t get far before collapsing on the sidewalk, I think. I could see that he was bleeding.

We were in Murray's car, the orange Honda Fit on the left.

We were in Murray’s car, the orange Honda Fit on the left. See the inflated air bags and smashed windshield? The white powder is absorbent material that one of the fire fighters poured on the street to soak up all the fluids (mostly radiator fluid, I think) leaking out of the busted cars.

Emergency vehicles–2 fire trucks, 2 ambulances, 2 CHP officers on motorcycles–arrived on the scene after about 10 minutes and had the street blocked almost immediately. EMTs decided that the other guy needed help most; the lead EMT told one of the ambulance drivers that he would be a flyer (which we later learned meant he needed to be airlifted to a trauma center). The three of us were checked out by the EMTs (my blood pressure was 180/110, when it normally is in the 110/60 range–amazing what adrenaline will do) on the street and we decided to go to the ER on our own. The CHP officers asked us what happened and took our statements. One of them gave Murray a case number so he can follow up with his insurance company. Rogan came to pick us up. There wasn’t enough room in his car for all of us plus the stuff from Murray’s car so he and Alex took the stuff to Murray’s house while Murray and I waited for the tow trucks. Tow trucks arrived, smashed cars were hauled away, and Rogan came back to take us all to the ER.

Murray's car being loaded onto the tow truck.

Murray’s car being loaded onto the tow truck. Nice view of the side-curtain air bags.

What I don’t have a picture of is the passenger side of the car. The rear right wheel, which took the brunt of the force from colliding with the curb, was partially folded underneath the car.

Bottom line: We’re all okay, just bruised and battered. Alex and Murray both have nasty contusions from their seat belts. I have a stiff neck, muscle soreness around my ribs, a small abrasion/bruise on my right cheek, a bruised left knee, minor abrasions on my hip bones from the lap belt, and bruises on my right leg from knee to ankle (I think from hitting the dashboard?). The top of my head is starting to feel a bit abraded, nothing serious. We’ve been told to take it easy and that tomorrow we’ll feel worse than we do today. Ibuprofen + ice is the formula for the next several days. No strenuous exercise, either.

All the safety equipment in Murray’s car worked exactly as it was supposed to. Air bags kept us from being much more severely injured, and given that the other guy smashed into the windshield exactly where my head would have been, I’m feeling very grateful.

I was able to drive home, but confess to being leery driving on Mission Street. Passing within a few feet of cars going the opposite direction gave me the heebie-jeebies.

So, no working the tides this weekend for me. I’m glad it’s not one of the spring’s better low tide series.

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Warming, and bees (redux)

Five days ago the residents of a suburban neighborhood in Concord, CA, got to experience first-hand what happens when a colony of Africanized honey bees takes over a hive of European bees. According to the most recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the original colony had been managed by a beekeeper for 15 years without any problems. Beekeepers conclude that the Africanized bees invaded the colony, killed the European queen, and took up residence. They became agitated when the beekeeper tried to move the hive last Friday. Several people were stung multiple times and two small dogs were killed.

The reason I bring this up is to calm fears. As I wrote last fall, we already know that Africanized honey bees have been in the greater San Francisco Bay Area since 2014. I’m willing to bet that there are Africanized alleles in the honey bee gene pool around Santa Cruz, too. Let me explain why I’m not overly concerned about Africanized honey bees.

As a beekeeper myself I am growing less and less tolerant of bees that are in the least bit jumpy or overly defensive; they make working a hive more stressful than it needs to be, which means the hive is open for a longer period of time, which means the bees get more anxious, which means the beekeepers get more anxious, and so on and so forth. Life as a beekeeper, especially in a suburban area, is much more pleasant when the bees themselves are gentle and sweet. In our experience, the Italian and Russian strains of the European honey bees have a docile temperament and are easy to work with.

There’s no doubt that the Africanized alleles are here, and they’re here to stay. I touched upon this the other day when I wrote about the bees in our pantry. I also have no doubt about the impact that hobbyist beekeepers will have to control the spread of those alleles for extreme defensive behavior. You see, by re-queening aggressive colonies whose queen may have mated with Africanized drones, a beekeeper removes those alleles from the hive, effectively diluting them in the larger gene pool. Hobbyist beekeepers would be selecting against defensiveness and for docility. Now, I am not a honey bee population geneticist, nor am I an expert on the different strains of European honey bees. However, I do know that if we consistently cull queens whose daughters are too jumpy or quick to defend their colony, then eventually we should end up with less defensive behavior as the Africanized alleles become rarer in the population.

I should also say that those Africanized alleles are not going away. We, beekeepers and non-beekeepers alike, have to accept that Africanized bees have been established in California for decades now and are expanding their range northward. A warming climate may enable them to overwinter successfully in areas that were formerly too cold for them. So we have them, and have probably had them for a while now. Most people encounter only foraging bees; these, whether or European or African descent, tend to be focused on their work and can’t be bothered to notice the big lumbering mammal watching them (unless said mammal does something to provoke the bees, in which case all bets are off). It is only when they detect a threat to their colony that the bees become aggressive.

So, what should you do? Well, if you see a feral colony of bees, don’t mess with it. This is the same advice that I’d give someone who asks how not to get bitten by a rattlesnake. Pay attention to your surroundings, even if you’re just walking the dog around the block. Who knows, a swarm of bees may have taken residence in a tree that you’ve walked past a thousand times before. If you notice bees flying into and out of a hole in a tree, watch them from a safe distance (binoculars are great tools for spying on bees). If you are concerned that a colony may be in a bad location because of proximity to people or livestock, contact a beekeeper who can remove it safely. Above all, keep in mind that in your daily life you do many risky things. If you don’t believe me, check out these data from the National Safety Council in 2002 for chance of death due to:

  • car accident as an occupant of a car: 1 in 17,000 (yikes!)
  • falling from stairs or steps: 1 in 180,000
  • suffocation in bed: 1 in 565,000
  • drowning in a swimming pool: 1 in 450,000
  • contact with hornets, wasps, and bees: 1 in 5,000,000

So don’t worry, but do be aware. And don’t let the threat of Africanized honey bees keep you from enjoying the outdoors! And don’t forget to look both ways before you cross the street, either.

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The buzz in the pantry

I suspect that, for most people, opening the pantry and hearing the buzz of bees would be an alarming thing. For us, though, it’s just a reminder to see if the queen wants any food.

Why, you may well ask, do we have bees in the pantry? Because this year we have a few hives that are more aggressive than we’d like. This queen came from our Green hive, which we thought early in the spring had gone queenless. They were pissy at the time, which is the norm for hives that are not queen-right. We weren’t certain that the Green workers would be able to build themselves a new queen but when, after waiting three anxious weeks, we saw new brood in the hive we sighed in relief.

This new queen, however, happens to produce rather bitchy daughters. This has to do with her own genetics as well as those of the drones she mated with. The workers in this hive aren’t really mean, but are more easily riled up and less forgiving than we like to deal with. Fortunately there’s an easy solution to this problem: Re-queen the hive. More on that below.

This is a queen cage:

Bees in queen cage. 17 May 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Bees in queen cage.
17 May 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Queen cages come in a variety of forms but they are essentially all the same: A cylinder that has an openable hatch on one end and some mesh on the sides. The idea is that you put a queen inside the cage with some accompanying attendants. The mesh allows for air circulation, and you can offer food and honey to the attendants who will in turn feed it to the queen. There’s a smear of honey on the mesh in the photo above; I fed and watered the bees when I got home this afternoon.

Now, about re-queening a hive. The first step is to locate and remove the existing queen. If the hive is “boiling over with bees,” as one of our beekeeping mentors likes to say, then it can be a tough job. The queen is captured and placed into the cage with 4-5 attendants who will care for her for several days. Then you can place the new queen, hopefully of a more pleasant disposition, in her cage in the hive. Wait at least three days for the bees to get used to her scent–they’ll kill her as an intruder if you don’t–then open up the cage and let her go into the bowels of the hive. At this point the worst thing that can happen is that she decides to fly. This hasn’t happened to us (yet) but it has to one of our mentors, who admits that he should have known better than to show off by opening the queen cage outside the front door of the hive, only to watch her take off into the air and never come back.

The former queen of our Green hive (the one who has temporary residence in our pantry) will go to a friend of ours who likes bitchy bees. Tomorrow we’ll introduce Green’s new queen, a Taber Italian, to the workers in the hive. After a few days to let the new queen’s pheromones circulate throughout the colony, we’ll release the queen into the and she’ll start laying. Within a month or so, the temperament of the entire hive should have changed from moderately pissy to sweet and gentle.

Re-queening a hive can solve problems of overly defensive bees. Some beekeepers don’t tolerate any hint of unpleasantness in their bees and will remove any queen whose daughters aren’t easy to work with. I’m leaning in that direction, too. Having been chased by an overly competent guard bee and gotten a bad sting the second summer we had bees, I am more nervous around some of our colonies than I should be. In addition to making our hives easier to deal with, selecting for gentleness would also spread this desirable trait throughout feral colonies in the area. Sweet bees FTW!

In the meantime, until we can get our old queen to our friend, Ian, she and her attendant daughters are living in the pantry. The pantry is a dark place (remember, there’s no light inside a bee colony, so they are most comfortable in darkness) where the temperature remains fairly consistent. Plus, the nosy cats can’t get to the bees if I close them in the pantry. I have to admit that it’s a little startling to open the pantry door and be greeted by a loud buzz. But better us than just about anyone else, right?

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How can you eat sand?

Well, we can’t–at least, not very well. I suppose we can eat it in small amounts, but sand itself is one of the most nutrient-poor substances imaginable. Sand is, after all, ground up bits of rock. It would provide certain minerals, depending on the type of rock, but none of the essential macronutrients–carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids–that animals need to survive.

When I was a kid I thought that sand dollars were called sand dollars because I’d find their broken tests on sandy beaches. I knew they lived in sand, hence the name. As I started studying marine invertebrates in college I learned that sand dollars don’t just live in the sand; they also eat sand. In addition to organic matter, usually in the form of detritus, sand dollars eat sand to create ballast. This makes them heavy and keeps them from being picked up and carried away by waves. It is also why, if you come across an intact sand dollars test and break it open, sand will fall out of it.

I have a batch of recently settled Dendraster excentricus, the common sand dollar in northern California. They began metamorphosing only 30 days post-fertilization. As the larvae settled and transformed into tiny sand dollars, I decided to try to figure out what to feed them. These animals aren’t grown commercially and there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer on how to raise them. One of the suggestions I got was “Well, we know they eat sand, so feed them sand.”

Which is what I did. The first time I just sprinkled a bit of sand in the dish with the juvenile sand dollars. Then I looked under the microscope to see that the sand grains were about 10 times the size of the animals. Oops. But the sand dollars didn’t look unhappy so I let them be. I decided that they also needed something organic to eat so I ground up a small piece of Ulva and dropped some of the resulting slurry on them.

The second time I offered sand to the sand dollars I ground it up in a mortar and pestle that I scrounged from the lab next door. Let me tell you, grinding sand makes a sound that is every bit as horrible as you imagine. At least it produced smaller particles that the sand dollars might be able to eat. I continued to offer Ulva mush in addition to the fine sand. If they end up eating either sand or Ulva, I can provide that pretty easily. The question is, how do I know whether or not they’re eating?

Juvenile sand dollars (Dendraster excentricus). 13 May 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Juvenile sand dollars (Dendraster excentricus).
13 May 2016
© Allison J. Gong

How many sand dollars can you find in the above photo? They are exactly the same color as the sand. I don’t have real proof that these little guys are eating sand; even their poops would look like the sand. The animals do tend to clear the space in their immediate vicinity, but I think that might be due to the action of the tube feet and spines rather than consumption of either sand or Ulva. In this video clip you will see that the sand dollars are very active, even though all the motion doesn’t seem directed the way it does in urchins at this stage.

They do a lot of waving around, but don’t actually walk. They do, however, seem to like being tilted up a bit, similar to the way adult sand dollars position themselves when in calm water:

By Chan siuman at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Chan siuman at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I do have circumstantial evidence that my sand dollars are eating something. The first ones metamorphosed at 30 days post-fertilization. Today is day 51 post-fertilization, which means some of the animals have been post-larvae almost as long as they were larvae. I know it takes about a week for newly metamorphosed sea urchins to form their new guts and begin feeding, and I assume it’s the same for sand dollars. In fact, because these sand dollars raced through larval development so quickly I expected their juvenile mouths to break through quickly as well. If this were the case, then these animals should have had complete and functional guts for almost two weeks now. The fact that they’re not dead or dying makes me think that they have to be eating.

Call it a hunch, call it intuition, call it wishful thinking. I’m not sure how they’re doing it, but I think they’re fine. Next week I hope I can find time to measure them.

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