Beekeeping Tips—From Bees!
For the hobby beekeeper, there’s much to consider when housing your first domestic honey bee colonies—what kind of hive to get, where to put them, where to get your bees, and how to help them survive the winter.
But when left to their own devices, what do the bees themselves prefer? From smaller nests to higher openings, wild honey bees seem to prefer very different conditions from the closely clustered square boxes of traditional beekeeping, according to Cornell University biology professor Thomas Seeley, who details the behavior of wild honey bees in a new book called The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild.
But there are ways to adapt! Seeley joins Ira to explain his theory of “Darwinian beekeeping” as a way to keep bees healthy even in the age of varroa mites and colony collapse.
Plus, apiculturalist Elina L. Niño of the University of California Davis talks about the microbial world of bees, such as whether probiotics could benefit bee health, and how honey bees and bumblebees could be used to distribute beneficial microbes to plants, an idea called ‘apivectoring.’
We’ve also been asking our beekeeping listeners to share their comments, like this one from Ari Benjaminson in Maryland:
I’ve been keeping bees for five years now, and really love it as a hobby. In life, I work in information technology, and working with the bees give me a chance to be outside among living things. It’s very challenging in this climate of known and emerging threats to bee-kind, but Maryland has great beekeeper communities and we help each other out.
We also received this audio dispatch from Kevin Koboldt in St. Louis, Missouri:
Transcript: My name is Kevin Koboldt and I’m from St. Louis Missouri. I started my first beehive last spring. Later in the summer, I did a hive inspection and put my gear away and went back to the house and changed my clothes. While slipping off my pants, I felt something under my shirt. I pulled my shirt up and saw a bee crawling across my stomach. I quickly flicked the bee off and it fell to the carpet. Then, I looked at the bee more closely. Holy cow, it was the queen! Holding my pants up with one hand, I ran downstairs and got a plastic cup. On my return, I brushed the queen into the cup and dashed down the stairs one more time. I ran all the way to the beehive, about a hundred yards, holding the cup in one hand and my pants in the other. I dumped the queen at the entrance and she crawled in. A hive inspection a couple of weeks later showed she and the hive were fine. And that’s my bee story.
Speaking of bee stories, Science Friday host Ira Flatow shares a video he took of a large swarm of bees that invaded 5th Avenue and Times Square in New York City on August 21 last year.
Who corrals swarms like that when they hit the city? For that, we turn to Officer Darren Mays, the department beekeeper for the NYPD. We’ll talk about what it means to be on the bee beat—and about his hives on the roof of the 104th precinct in Queens.
Want to start keeping your own bees and making honey? These tips, adapted from Thomas Seeley’s book The Lives of Bees, include some basic information to get you started. This is by no means a complete guide to starting your own bee colony. Beekeeping is a complex craft, so it’s best learned by working as an apprentice with an expert. To learn more, you can pick up Seeley’s book or check out this guide to get more detailed information.
Work with bees that are adapted to your location.
For example, if you live in the northeastern United States, then either rear queens from your hardiest survivor colonies or buy queens (or nucleus colonies) produced from stock that has proven itself by thriving in this region despite its long, harsh winters. If you do not want to rear your own queens or you do not have a local queen producer, but you do have wild colonies living in your area, then you can easily get locally adapted stock by capturing swarms produced by the wild colonies. The most efficient way to do so is to set out bait hives. This approach will work best if you live in a place that is not crowded with fellow beekeepers, some of who might be purchasing queens shipped in from far away.
Space your hives as widely as possible.
Wild colonies in forests benefit from wide separation (0.5 miles apart), but of course, such a wide spacing of colonies is impossible for most beekeepers. Fortunately, spacing colonies just 100 – 160 feet apart greatly reduces the likelihood of drifting of drone bees—and probably also worker bees—among colonies and thus, limits the spread of disease.
Minimize the moving of colonies.
Move colonies as rarely as possible, because doing so disrupts many aspects of a colony’s functioning, including brood care, nest thermoregulation, and food collection. Besides the stress of the move itself, there is the need for the foragers to memorize the new landmarks around their hive so each bee can find her way home, and the need for them to learn from scratch the locations of good food sources and handy water sources.
Locate your colonies as far as possible from flowers that are contaminated with insecticides and fungicides.
The greater the separation of colonies from these sources of harmful chemicals, the less often the foragers from your colonies will be exposed to them and will bring them home in the nectar, pollen, and water they collect.
Locate your colonies in places that are surrounded as much as possible by natural areas: wetlands, forests, abandoned fields, moorlands, and the like.
This will help ensure that your colonies have access to diverse sources of pollen and nectar that are not contaminated with insecticides and fungicides, as well as good sources of clean water and propolis.
Thomas Seeley is a professor of biology at Cornell University, and is author of Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
Elina L. Niño is an apiculturalist and extension specialist in the Agricultural and Natural Resourced Division at the University of California, Davis in Davis, California.
Officer Darren Mays is the department beekeeper for the New York Police Department in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. I have been waiting months to open a discussion about our next topic. You know they say timing is everything? Well, it’s spring and finally time to talk about one of my favorite subjects, bees. Perhaps you’ve seen them swarming. Now, you may think you know about bees, but you would be surprised by what you don’t know.
Certainly, I was and I am. And if you have any beekeeping questions or you want to know anything about bees, our number is 844-724-8255, 844-SCITALK, or tweet us @scifri. And we will begin our discussion with a scientist who has spent 40 years following wild honey bees to their trees and intricately noting how they live their lives unfettered by human beekeepers, not living in confined and neatly stacked white boxes. And he has some ideas about how understanding the wild bees better could help us cultivate the domestic ones so they survive the threats that seem to be imperiling their survival today.
Dr. Thomas Seeley, professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University, author of the new book The Lives of Bees– The Untold Story of the Honeybee in the Wild. You can read an excerpt on our website, sciencefriday.com/wildbees. Dr. Seeley joins us from Ithaca, New York, where he has spent most of his career learning about honeybees. Welcome back, Tom.
THOMAS SEELEY: Thank you back, Ira. Thank you for having me back.
IRA FLATOW: It’s very happy to have you. What got you interested 40 years ago in the lives of wild honeybees?
THOMAS SEELEY: Oh, my goodness. I think it has something to do with admiring these bees that normally we think of as having to live under our supervision but seeing that, oh, no, they actually can live in the wild. And of course, that makes sense. That’s where they started out and that’s where they are still, to a large extent, today.
IRA FLATOW: We talk a lot about the plight of bees and pollinators right now, the Varroa mites and other causes of colony collapse. Are wild bees having as tough a time as the kinds that we have in our hives?
THOMAS SEELEY: The answer is no. They’re not. They’re not receiving any treatments against the mites that you mentioned, these parasitic mites, and yet their mortality rates today in the 2010s are what they were back in the 1970s and 1980s when I first started studying the wild colonies.
IRA FLATOW: It’s interesting because you talk about in your book that you did notice that the bees in Ithaca did go through a population crash, though they were able to survive and come back without having to use a pesticide against the mite. How did they do that?
THOMAS SEELEY: They accomplished that through the process of natural selection. We know from genetic analysis that just as you said, the population went through a bottleneck. Probably only 10% or 20% of the colonies survived. But those have what it takes and they have repopulated the forests around Ithaca.
IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s talk about in specifics, what makes wild honeybees so resilient and how different are they from the kinds that we see in the white box bee hives?
THOMAS SEELEY: Well, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart at a glance, but they’re a little bit smaller than the managed bees. But more importantly, they have some behavioral traits that are not good for the mites. For example, they’re very good at chewing the legs of the mites, and mites die when that happens. They’re also very good at opening up the brood cells, their own brood cells, in which these parasitic mites are reproducing. So that hinders the reproduction of the mites. So they get them it both ways, by reducing their survival and toning down their reproduction.
IRA FLATOW: Do they have other habits that can’t be accomplished inside the managed bee hives?
THOMAS SEELEY: Well, there’s a number of things that bees living in the wild do that that is different from bees living in managed hives, and a lot of them have to do with the difference between living in a tree cavity and a managed hive, a beekeeper’s hive. A beekeeper’s hive is actually quite large, compared to the tree cavity of a wild colony’s home. And that’s intentional. It’s because a beekeeper wants to give a colony lots of space to store up honey. But it also means that colonies under a beekeeper’s supervision don’t go through the process that we call swarming, and that helps the bees also resist the mites.
IRA FLATOW: Are you saying that we are too self-centered about the honey production versus the general health of the bee population?
THOMAS SEELEY: Yes, we are. Most beekeepers are focused on honey production and crop pollination. And that’s fair enough, it’s their bees. But it does make life harder for the honeybees themselves, and I think every beekeeper would probably acknowledge that. It’s a management situation. I like to draw an analogy between beekeeping is a bit– compared to living in the wild, beekeepers’ hives live a life that’s kind of like the chickens on a poultry farmer versus the birds that are living out in the woods. And so they’re living close together, they’re large numbers, and they’re very prone to diseases under management in both situations.
IRA FLATOW: There’s also something wild bees do to their nests with the anti-microbial tree sap, right? Tell us about that.
THOMAS SEELEY: Yes. That’s a good point. That’s another thing that they do. They collect tree resins, and the trees are producing these resins to seal off wounds of them of their own and those resins are filled with antimicrobial materials. And the bees collect them, can bring home little loads of them. They smear those loads, they coat the walls of the insides of their nests in that. Experiments have been done that shows that if bees live in a hive that has that on the walls, the level of activity of the immunity genes of the bees is lower than it is if the bees are living in a hive whose walls do not have these resins on them.
IRA FLATOW: Now, they–
THOMAS SEELEY: So they really– sorry.
IRA FLATOW: No. Go ahead. Finish, please.
THOMAS SEELEY: So we know that these resins not only work in the laboratory, but they also work in the hive in terms of fighting infections.
IRA FLATOW: Give us more of an idea also about what’s the difference in structure and function from a little hole in a tree where the wild bees leave to the big white box that we have?
THOMAS SEELEY: Well, we’ve talked a little bit about that the most conspicuous difference, the difference in the size. But there are quite a number of other differences, I’ll just mention a few. One is insulation. A beekeeper’s hive is only 3/4 of an inch thick wood, whereas a tree cavity, the home of a wild colony, can be five, eight, 10, 12, 20 inches thick. And so there’s a huge difference in insulation and thus, the thermal stability of the cavity homes between beekeepers’ colonies and wild colonies.
Another difference is the height of the entrances. That might seem like a small fact, but it’s actually really important to the bees, especially in the winter. Beekeepers’ hives are close to the ground and that’s, of course, sensible. You want your bees down where you can work on them easily. Bees in the woods, their nest entrances are typically 20 or more feet off the ground. And that makes a difference in the winter, when bees have to fly out in the cold. When they come out of a tree cavity home, they’re not right next to the snow so if they’re a little shaky in their flight, they don’t crash into the snow and get killed, whereas beekeepers see a lot of that. And I’m a beekeeper. I see a lot of that in the winter.
IRA FLATOW: Interesting. We know that there are really no native honeybees in the United States, correct, they all have come in from Europe or other places.
THOMAS SEELEY: Yes. That is correct. There used to be. A scientist found about 10 years ago a fossil honeybee in Nevada, so 30 million, 40 million years ago there were honeybees in North America. But they went extinct when we went through a cooling period. So all of the colonies we have in North America now are introduced from Europe.
IRA FLATOW: Can we say that even domesticated bees are truly domesticated?
THOMAS SEELEY: Good question. Not in the full sense. When we say we domesticate a species, that means usually that we not only change where they live, bring them close to where we’re living, but that we’ve also changed them dramatically in terms of their genetics by controlling their breeding. If you think about the difference between a wild pony and a racehorse, you see that. We haven’t done that with honeybees, and that is because we do not have the ability to easily control the matings of honeybees.
IRA FLATOW: Hm. And do some people want to do that?
THOMAS SEELEY: Yes. There are breeding programs of honeybees, and people have done that. A number of times, they’ve bred for resistance to a disease called American foul brood. They’ve also bred for pollination ability on particular crops. But it’s really hard to maintain those lines because as soon as one queen dies and a replacement queen comes along, that replacement queen goes out on her mating flights and she will mate with whatever drones she encounters. And so the control of the breeding is quickly lost.
IRA FLATOW: Give me a quick rundown on how you find wild honeybee nests. It’s fascinating how you set up traps for them and you mark the bees and you basically watch them come for food and they fly back and forth to their nests in the wild.
THOMAS SEELEY: Yes. That’s right. I use it a craft called bee hunting or bee lining, which has been done for hundreds of years in North America, probably thousands or tens of thousands of years in the Old World, where yes, you find bees on flowers or by a way by a spring of water and you entice them with a little bit of honey on a comb or sugar syrup on the comb. And the bees like that very much. It’s a much richer food source than they would find naturally. And they go home, they bring their sisters, and they provide you with an aerial trail back to their nest.
IRA FLATOW: That’s fascinating.
THOMAS SEELEY: And if you have good eyesight and you’re patient, you can step by step work your way back down that trail by moving your little feeding station towards their home.
IRA FLATOW: That’s great. Tom Seeley is author of The Lives of Bees– The Untold Story of Honey Bees in the Wild. Stay with us. We’re going to take a break and come back with Tom and talk more about how you can be a beekeeper, everything you want to know about bees. Maybe you would like to be a beekeeper yourself. We’ll give you some tips on how to do that. Our number, 844-724-8255. Also a little bit later, my adventure with finding a swarm of bees in midtown Manhattan and how the NYPD has its own beekeepers to take care of things like that. It’s quite fascinating. We hope you’ll stay with us right after this break.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about honeybees living in the wild and in hives. We want to know from you, do you have a beekeeping question or do you want to know anything else about bees? Our number, 844-724-8255. Also, you can tweet us @scifri. My guest is Dr. Tom Seeley, professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University. He’s sort of the beekeeper’s beekeeper he’s been doing this so long. He’s got a new book out a great new book called The Lives of Bees.
Well, I want to bring on another guest now who’s interested in all kinds of things, from honeybee health to whether probiotics might give bees a boost. Elina L. Nino is an apiculturalist and extension specialist at the US Agriculture and Natural Resources Division at UC Davis. Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Nino.
ELINA L. NINO: Thank you Ira. It’s great to be with you.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Your interest is what makes a healthy queen bee. Have you figured it out yet?
ELINA L. NINO: I wish I could say I have, but not yet. We’re working on it. That’s sort of my lifelong passion, I would say. And it’s going to probably make a career, I hope, for me. But we’re working on it. We definitely are finding some very interesting things about queens. As Tom said, we still don’t know everything about bees, which is what makes this field of study great and fun.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking of fun, I understand that you’re looking into giving bees probiotics. Tell us about that.
ELINA L. NINO: I have. This is a new adventure for us in the lab as well. We connected with researchers at the University of Western Ontario London, Dr. Gregory Reid and Dr. Brendan Daisley, and we’ve been working with them. We just started this spring, and we’re feeding them probiotics and protein patties and sugar water. And we’re hoping that it will actually boost their immune response and help them fight off some of the diseases and issues that they have.
IRA FLATOW: And Tom, what are some of the things that we can practically change to make our domestic bees more comfortable?
THOMAS SEELEY: Well, there’s two parts to that answer, Ira. I’d say we can work with their genetics and we can work with their living conditions. And with respect to the genetics, we could breed from colonies lines of bees that are living out in the wild because they have the right genetics. We know that their genetics is different and in ways that give them behaviors to fight them mites. And in terms of the living conditions, I think if we can adopt beekeeping methods that allow the bees to live closer to the way they do in the wild, and I think that is actually realistic for hobby beekeepers, then changing their living conditions or lifestyle would also be helpful to the bees.
IRA FLATOW: Are they are they scrunched up in those little boxes? I mean, they look so many– how many, 20,000 bees in a box or in a hive, Tom? I mean, it seems like such close quarters in there.
THOMAS SEELEY: It is close quarters. That aspect of their closeness is, however, not unhealthy. I mean, that’s healthy for the bees. What’s unhealthy is the scrunching up of the hives in apiaries. In the wild, they live about 1,000 meters apart, whereas in a beekeepers apiary, they’re less than one meter apart. And that gets the bees into trouble because if one colony gets sick, diseases can spread easily to the adjacent colonies. Very different in the wild.
IRA FLATOW: Elina, did you want to say something?
ELINA L. NINO: So yes. Well, obviously, I’ve followed Tom’s work for a long time now and it’s really, really interesting. And he’s absolutely right, the beekeepers that we think about when we think about beekeeping do definitely keep their colonies very close and that definitely can cause issues with pathogen and pest transfer as well. And especially if you’re bringing in the pollinating colonies, colonies they will pollinate many, many, for example almond orchards. I like to say that’s the biggest pollination event in the world in February, where almost 80% of the country’s colonies come into California to pollinate almonds. So it definitely can cause potential issues with disease and pest transfer.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to St. Augustine, with Sydney. Hi.
IRA FLATOW: Hi there.
SYDNEY: I have a question. I’ve heard that when these pollinate almonds, actually the byproducts they use for almonds harm bees. Is that true?
IRA FLATOW: Tom, Elina?
THOMAS SEELEY: I’m going to defer to Elina on this one.
ELINA L. NINO: So when you say byproducts, what exactly do you mean? Do you mean like perhaps pesticides, fungicides that they’re using to fight off the diseases of almonds?
IRA FLATOW: She’s dropped off the line so we’ll have to assume. Tell us what your point is.
ELINA L. NINO: We will assume, yes. So yes, there’s definitely some research showing that some of these pesticides can be harmful to bees. And I think the Almond Board of California has done a wonderful job of coming out with best management practices for pollination in almonds when the bees are present. So they’re definitely promoting not using pesticides when the almonds are in bloom, definitely not during the day when the bees are out foraging.
And in fact, I just took a really interesting workshop on a apivectoring, where the idea is to use honeybees to deliver biocontrol agents, so for lack of a better word, good microorganisms to plants and flowers that they’re pollinating to actually fight off the pathogens and in some cases even pest insects. So that could be something that could potentially replace these potentially harmful pesticides that are being used in various crops, and I’m really excited about it.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Some of them are being banned now in Europe, even here, some of these pesticides, are they not?
ELINA L. NINO: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We called up our friend, Hollis Woodard, this week, assistant professor of entomology at UC Riverside, who studies wild bees, and she had this comment about honeybees.
HOLLIS WOODARD: There are no truly wild honeybees here in the US. They’re a part of life here in the US, but in the context of agriculture, they’re really livestock. So they’re feral honeybees, but these are bees that have escaped at some point or swarmed from managed hives. So this matters because if your focus is on wildlife conservation in North America, then honeybees simply aren’t a factor in that equation. And in fact, there’s growing evidence that honeybees might actually be threatening our native bees in some ways.
So we know, for example, that wild bees and honeybees, they visit some of the same flowering plants for food. So they might be competing for food resources. And then there’s also increasing evidence that managed bees, like honeybees, are even spreading diseases to our wild native bee populations. And this includes some diseases that we think or know are important drivers of native bee declines. So honeybees are super fascinating and they’re part of our agricultural system, but when it comes to pollinator conservation, for example, in the US, then we really need to keep the focus on our wild native species and not detract from that by supporting honeybees under the guise of conservation.
IRA FLATOW: Tom Seeley, how do you feel about that? She’s making a difference between honeybees, which are not native to North America, as you say, and wild bees. People do not realize how many wild bees are other than honeybees are out there. Is she making a good point about being competitive detrimentally with those other bees?
THOMAS SEELEY: I don’t know. I’m sure she’s correct, she knows that literature better than I do. But I do want to make a comment that there’s different ways of defining wildness. Now, Dr. Hollis’ definition emphasizes the history, whether the bee is introduced or is native, and she’s equating native to wild. I’m not sure that’s quite right. I think most biologists would say that an animal is wild if it’s not being managed by human beings. And by that definition, there certainly are wild honeybee colonies.
In fact, in New York state, there are living out in the woods by my estimates, based on my knowledge of the density, more wild honeybee colonies than ones under supervision by humans. So it comes down to how you want to define wildness.
IRA FLATOW: Any comment, Elina?
ELINA L. NINO: So this is something, obviously, that has been on the back of people’s minds when they’re thinking about pollinator conservation. But it really would but I guess unfair to not point out that the honeybees are still used as the primary managed pollinator. And that is because of their ability to actually be moved around the country, whether that’s good or bad. Of course, we use them for honey production as well, to use as sweetener. And some of the native bee species are not necessarily present at times when we are needing them to pollinate crops.
Of course, one of the biggest ones, again, going back to almond pollination. So I think that it’s probably fair to say that when we’re thinking about probably native bee conservation, we should be still thinking about honeybees and how to incorporate them within this larger agricultural system, especially here in California. Because again, not to be cliche, but we do have to feed the country and the world. So from those sort of pragmatic perspective, I would argue that we should think about both.
IRA FLATOW: Tom Seeley, if people are trying to rule out pesticides, how else would you combat the deadly Varroa mite that attacks the bees?
THOMAS SEELEY: Thank you, Ira, for asking that question. I would let natural selection solve the problem, and that’s been done in several places in the world. It’s happened in Cornell’s Arnot Research Forest, where there’s been nobody treating those colonies but that population exists. An even better example is on an island on Gotland, in the Baltic Sea, where Swedish beekeepers took out 150 colonies and just let them go with the mites. The population dwindled to eight colonies but is now rebuilding itself with the resistant the resistant stock.
But the best example are those countries where the beekeepers were too poor to afford the mitocide, the chemicals, and these are in Africa. And you can go to a country like Ethiopia and the colonies have lots of have Varroa mites in them, but nobody’s treated them in those colonies are doing just fine. I think it may be unrealistic, but if beekeepers in a location can get together and decide not to treat them, they will within, I would guess, two or three years have bees that they would be delighted in. And there are certainly a few commercial beekeepers that have taken that route. I’m thinking of Kirk Webster in Vermont.
IRA FLATOW: You mean that you allow bee Darwinism, the survival of the fittest? You let the bees that are susceptible to Varroa die out and then you have surviving stronger bees take over?
THOMAS SEELEY: Precisely. Precisely. And we know that that has happened in many, many, many places. It is the only long-term solution. Beekeepers are probably going to run out of mitocides and then that will be it for actually being able to control Varroa. But maybe Dr. Nino has comments on that, too. She’s a little closer to the technology and the treatments than I am.
IRA FLATOW: Dr. Nino?
ELINA L. NINO: Yeah. So I think thinking about this in terms of natural selection, I think I was reading on your website, Tom, talking about sort of depending on the area where you are. Here in California, for example, we have a really high concentration of beekeepers, whether that’s backyard beekeepers or commercial beekeepers. And I’ve noticed this in my own hives, our laboratory hives, that if we do treat, but what happens is if other people don’t treat or do something about their mites, there’s a lot of drift that happens and the mites come in and they do kill off colonies.
So relying on pesticides as a short-term solution or [INAUDIBLE] as a short-term solution might be, again, a short-term answer. But I do agree, and this is something that we’ve been thinking about for a long time now, that working towards breeding or letting a little bit of natural selection do its work carefully and slowly is definitely something that there are beekeepers here in California who are taking that on, breeding for local bees and breeding for bees that are able to withstand some of the issues that are in their local area. So just be careful.
THOMAS SEELEY: Can I add a little something to that?
IRA FLATOW: Just give me one second to jump in and say, this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios and you can jump in now.
THOMAS SEELEY: OK. What Dr. Nino said about it requiring a community of beekeepers working together is precisely right. And there’s a wonderful example of that I want to share with you. It’s from Wales. On one of the peninsulas in Wales, the beekeepers– well, first of all, I should explain there’s a law in the UK, the United Kingdom, that you have to treat your colonies. But these Welsh beekeepers, well, they see themselves as Welsh, not as English, so the law may not apply to them, they feel.
Anyhow, they got together and decided, let’s not treat our bees for Varroa. And now they don’t have to treat. But it’s a good example of how it took an agreement among the community of beekeepers in an area to proceed along that course for it to work well.
IRA FLATOW: Let me see if I go to a quick question, a phone call before we go. Deborah in Converse, Texas. Hi, Deborah.
DEBORAH: Hi. How are you today?
IRA FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead.
DEBORAH: With the influx of the Africanized bees that are soon to be migrating up into our area, how is that affecting your wild or even our hives in a box?
IRA FLATOW: Tom? Good question.
THOMAS SEELEY: I don’t have firsthand experience with that because those Africanized bees don’t survive winters in the Northeast. But those Africanized bees went through natural selection. They picked up Varroa in Central America, South America. They went through selection for resistance to Varroa, and that’s why they have it. So in that sense, they’re bringing relief as they come along.
IRA FLATOW: Do we have they been quote unquote tamed any by mixing in with other populations of bees?
THOMAS SEELEY: I think that happens initially. But they’re so successful, they’re so hardy that unless there’s a lot of commercial queens are brought into an area, the population genetics switches over to African bees. And we’ve seen that in the mountains of Arizona, for example.
IRA FLATOW: They switch over?
THOMAS SEELEY: The African genes become the genes of the population of honeybees in the area.
IRA FLATOW: Elina, any reaction to that before our break?
ELINA L. NINO: Oh, no. I think I completely agree with the comment. And that is something that I’m probably a little bit more familiar with here in California because we do have quite a healthy population of Africanized bees, especially further down south. And thinking about human health and safety, we don’t recommend folks who want to keep bees to collect swarms. We do recommend them to re-queen with a gentle stock just because you want to keep in mind human safety first.
IRA FLATOW: OK. We’re going to take a break and come back. More with Tom Seeley and with Elina L. Nino. And we’ll also talk about the local bees here and what happened in New York City last summer and some interesting NYPD beekeepers. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break. This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
If you’re just joining us, we’re talking about honeybees in hives and feral honeybees, bees out in the forests. My guests, Thomas Seeley, professor of neurobiology behavior at Cornell University, author of really great new book, The Lives of Bees– The Untold Story of the Honeybee in the Wild, and Elina L. Nino, an apiculturist– bees, apiculturist– and extension specialist at UC Davis. And we’re taking your questions and comments, your bee stories like this one from our listener.
CATHERINE: This is Catherine in South Orange, New Jersey. And I keep honeybees in my backyard with my young kids. I got interested in bees as a child in Ireland, where my father also kept honeybees. But now we’ve also learned about native bees. Through honeybees, we’re learning about native bees and about how we can garden organically and plant lots of native plants to support all the bees and bugs in our yard.
IRA FLATOW: Mm. That’s interesting. Tom, Elina, any response to that?
ELINA L. NINO: I think that’s great, I really do. We have a California master beekeeper program that we started, and we do have classes that are specifically for that program and others interested in our community. We teach about native bees as well and how to plant for bees.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking of bees stories, I have my own un-bee-lievable one. Sorry. I had to get one of them in there. And it’s a true story. Last summer I was walking down Fifth Avenue and I noticed a crowd of people gathered looking at something. Nothing unusual but crowds of tourists in New York, but this one was gazing at a swarm of bees that had camped out on a street vendor’s cart, a literal carpet of bees covering the sunglasses that the vendor was selling. I took a video of this oddity.
I was marveling at the uniqueness of it in Manhattan until about a week later, I was watching a local news reporting the sighting of another swarm a few blocks over in Times Square, where the bees had settled on a hot dog stand. And I bring all of this up now because it’s my next guest’s job to corral swarms like that all over New York City. He’s a beekeeper right here in New York with a unique job. Police officer Darren Mays is the department beekeeper at the NYPD. Welcome to Science Friday, officer.
DARREN MAYS: Hi. Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: You have some hives of your own for the NYPD.
DARREN MAYS: I do. I have two registered hives on the roof of my command in Queens, it’s the 104 Precinct in Richwood.
IRA FLATOW: And tell us about that swarm that was very famous over in Times Square. What happened to it?
DARREN MAYS: Unfortunately, I wasn’t the responding officer at that time. I have another partner, the officer’s name is Mike Laureano. He worked downtown in the first precinct so he was able to get there much quicker than I was. But I handled these questions via Twitter, so any question people were having I was answering a Twitter questions but he was the one responding and vacuuming them up.
IRA FLATOW: How did you get into beekeeping?
DARREN MAYS: Funny story. I had made fun of a friend of mine named Rich. He was the type of guy– he lived in Massachusetts– who would start hobbies and never would follow through with it. So one day my wife came home and said, Darren, guess what Rich is doing now. And I said, some crazy hobby and I know he’s not going to follow through with it. She said, he’s taking beekeeping classes. So I started laughing. And I was like, what kind of hobby is that, who would really want to take beekeeping classes?
I immediately called him and he said, Darren, I know you called to make fun of me. I said, absolutely, Rich. What kind of dumb idea are you into now? But he said, don’t make fun of me. Just wait until you see what’s going on and come see my hives and taste the honey I harvest. And I never liked honey growing up. I remember as a child in South Carolina, my brother and I, we went through a farm, actually an apiary, on our bicycles and we kicked over some hives. And thinking about it now, I would love to apologize to that couple.
So long story short, I went up to visit Rich’s hive in Massachusetts. He said, come outside. And I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I went out took a look at the hive and watched the bees come and go. I stayed about 30 yards away. He said, come closer. I manned up and got a little closer, and the next thing you know, I was kneeling like two feet away watching them come and go with the pollen on their legs. And he got up and walked away, went in the house, and left me outside. And I didn’t realize he was gone for an hour.
I looked up, embarrassed, and he and his wife and my wife, they were looking out the kitchen window laughing at me, how I was just fixated on those bees. And then I got up and my wife said, oh, you’re very attracted to it, right? I said, no, it’s not my thing. Honeybees are just going to sting. And she surprised me with a kit for Christmas. She did all the research, found a local beekeeper to sell me the bees, signed me up for some classes, bought me a bunch of reading materials, and that was it.
IRA FLATOW: You were hooked, so to speak.
DARREN MAYS: I was hooked.
IRA FLATOW: You were stung.
DARREN MAYS: I was stung.
IRA FLATOW: It is addictive, isn’t it?
DARREN MAYS: Very.
IRA FLATOW: My brother, Carl, has a couple of dozen hives out on Long Island and he he’s addicted to this. And everybody you talk to who comes in contact. Ariel [INAUDIBLE], our education director, also keeps bees in her backyard. And I’m going to go to the phones, because that brings up two of the biggest questions all of our listeners have been calling in, and I’m going to go to those two questions right now. First let’s go to Iowa. Jamie in Iowa, hi. Welcome to Science Friday.
JAMIE: Hi. Hi there.
IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.
JAMIE: So we recently were cleaning out our garage, and in our frame we realized that we had wild bees coming in and out. And bees are a protected species in Iowa, and we were just wondering, these were not bees that we want in our garage so what resources can we do relocate these bees?
IRA FLATOW: Officer, how do you get bees out of a space like that?
DARREN MAYS: If, in fact, they’re honeybees, call your local beekeeper. A local beekeeper will be happy to respond and remove them, no charge.
IRA FLATOW: And how do they do that usually?
DARREN MAYS: Usually, they get a heat-seeking device where they can find out exactly where the bees is pretty much centered to. And they would have to cut into the wall or your sheet rock and gain access to them.
IRA FLATOW: And Tom, is there a way to attract the bees just to come out on their own?
THOMAS SEELEY: No. They’re very heavily invested in that home site with their cones and things. So the process is just as Officer Mays explained. They have to do what we call a cutout.
IRA FLATOW: And what if you bring them a hive, will they fly themselves into the hive if they see it?
THOMAS SEELEY: No. They’re all set up in there. They’ve got their food and their brood and their combs. It would be foolish for them to jump ship into an empty box or even a hive that has combs in it because it doesn’t have the honey in the brood.
IRA FLATOW: So Officer Mays, you’re the guy people call. Who are you going to call? You’re the guy that people call to take the bees out.
DARREN MAYS: Yes. Only if it’s public danger or a public nuisance. Because New Yorkers are very clueless and they can walk into a swarm without paying attention to anything. So yes.
IRA FLATOW: That’s the least thing they do. Here’s a tweet. All right. So here’s the other end of this story. What do you do if you have them and you want to humanely take them away? Jake tweets, what advice to you give someone who’s wanting to start beekeeping?
DARREN MAYS: My best advice is, like I said before I did it, was do your research. Find out we can join a local beekeeping association or club where you can learn from others. And I did that and I learned from old gentleman who were eager and happy to teach me to craft. So research and read before you start.
THOMAS SEELEY: I really want to second that. Beekeeping is a craft, and you learn it primarily by observing what an experienced beekeeper does. You can see how they handle the bees, what they do, what their equipment is like, all that stuff.
IRA FLATOW: Elina, what about the fear of getting stung, how do you overcome that?
ELINA L. NINO: Well, you just go in for it. That’s probably the best thing. We’ve definitely had folks who have come into the class and were hesitant to go into the bees. But I think much like Officer Mays, they probably got mesmerized by bees and how amazing and cool these creatures are. And usually, that’s enough to get them brave enough to handle those frames of bees like pros. And I would just also like to add that one good way of learning is by doing.
So looking for a mentor, again, is definitely something that would be beneficial to new beekeepers, somebody who they can only not watch, but also who can observe them and help them out.
DARREN MAYS: That’s what happened with me when I joined the association. There was a gentleman who had been doing it for years, I mean years. And there was two gentlemen that I kind of went under their wings and they were eager to show me, and I learned a lot from them.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Dick in Tucson, Arizona. Hi, Dick.
IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.
DICK: I was a beekeeper for about 45 years, a hobby beekeeper. I had about 20 hives and I did what I called urban beekeeping. I had two or three hives scattered around city parks and my backyard and the neighborhood. And then our Africanized bees started coming in. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, there were probably 200 hobby beekeepers. I bet there are not 20 anymore. It’s just too dangerous for a hobby beekeeper to keep bees in their backyard here because of the way the queens reproduce.
Now, there are still wild honeybees around, but often they’re just in an attic or a garage or a wall partition. And every now and then, somebody bumps into them and gets attacked. And the word that I keep hearing around here that I just absolutely don’t like is killer bees, the killer bees are at it again. But they are a problem and it’s really put the hobby beekeeper out of business.
IRA FLATOW: Elina, what do you think of that?
ELINA L. NINO: Well, definitely, as I mentioned before, it is a problem in Southern California. And again, pragmatically, people’s safety is the most important. It is unfortunate. We do get beekeepers who are new to the craft and they try to keep bees that end up being Africanized and unfortunately, they themselves then are not able to actually handle and check the bees so they have to call somebody to take care of them. So it is a problem. But we always, again, recommend if you collect a swarm in an area that has Africanized bees, try and re-queen it first.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I have a tweet for a shout-out to the Savannah College of Art and Design SCAD Bees. I have a spot in my heart for that because it’s my daughter’s Alma mater. We are in the finals and like the real bees could use support. And if you go to Savannah, they have a wonderful bee store there.
DARREN MAYS: Oh, yeah?
IRA FLATOW: Oh, everything you need to take care of bees is right downtown. I can’t remember the exact street. Tom, Elina, you know about that place? It’s great.
THOMAS SEELEY: No.
ELINA L. NINO: No. Me neither.
IRA FLATOW: One of the interesting things, and you mentioned this a little bit, Darren, about your first taste of raw honey, how different. I didn’t like the taste of honey, either, the store-bought kind, until I got some from my brother, who’s a beekeeper, and it is such a different taste.
DARREN MAYS: It is. What I’d been eating prior to that and I’ve never really liked it, and it’s probably because I was eaten probably corn syrup stuff, not the real deal. But when I tasted my first batch of honey, the raw stuff, it was so good, so pure. It tingled your lips and your tongue when you ate it.
IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. You can’t describe it.
THOMAS SEELEY: Tom, you keep both kinds of bees. You keep bees and you follow the wild ones. Do you have any advice for ways to appreciate bees without actually, like we’re doing, keeping your own colonies?
THOMAS SEELEY: Yeah. The bee hunting process is a really good way to do it. This is what we talked about earlier, where you capture some bees off flowers and you work your way back to their hive. And the reason that that’s a good way to appreciate bees is that you’re not dealing and you’re not disturbing a whole colony. You’re just following a little group of bees, you’ve labeled them as individuals. You can really watch them.
You can put your nose right up to those bees and they’re not defensive. They’re just doing their job of collecting food. It’s a great way to watch the bees and see just really the precise movements, what these little bees do.
IRA FLATOW: Let me go to our last call from Blue Springs, Missouri. Tamara, hi. Welcome to Science Friday.
TAMARA: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
IRA FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead.
TAMARA: I recently moved to a city that doesn’t allow beekeeping, so I was wondering what advice do you have to work with city officials to change the regulations so people can keep bees?
IRA FLATOW: Officer Mays, New York didn’t allow beekeeping for many years.
DARREN MAYS: For many years. They brought it back in 2010. Well, the thing is you can kind of plead your case and a few of you can get together and just tell them the importance of pollination, having pollinators. And honeybees are a great pollinator for that area and what have you.
IRA FLATOW: All right. We have to stop there. So many calls about it. I want to thank all of my guests. Officer Darren Mays is a department beekeeper at the New York Police Department. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.
DARREN MAYS: Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Elina L. Nino is an apiculturist and extension specialist at UC Davis. Tom Seeley, professor of neurobiology behavior at Cornell, author of the new book, The Lives of Bees. And we have an excerpt of the book, along with pictures of the NYPD hives.
DARREN MAYS: Cool.
IRA FLATOW: Beekeeping tips, lots more up on our website. It’s sciencefriday.com/bees. Thank you all.
ELINA L. NINO: Thank you.
THOMAS SEELEY: Say hi to Carl for me.
IRA FLATOW: I will.
Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.
Christopher Intagliata was Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.
D Peterschmidt is a producer, host of the podcast Universe of Art, and composes music for Science Friday’s podcasts. Their D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.