Passion: Bees

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Thanks to cmac2012 for pitching this show.

You’ve gotta love bees. They make honey. They dance. They inspired “Flight of the Bumblebee.”


Beekeeping: America’s pastime? [mattprice /Flickr]

Just one species of bee — the honey bee — pollinates billions of dollars of crops in the United States every year, enough so that bands of roving apiarists (the technical term for beekeeper) tow tractor trailers of bees to meet commercial demand. Hordes of aspiring beekeepers swap war stories on online forums like Beesource. The honey bee is Utah’s official insect. (Mormon settlers originally wanted to name the state “Deseret,” after the Mormon name for the honey bee.) And as we discovered during our story meeting, it’s dangerously easy to get hooked on

But honey bees are only the beginning. About a third of the human diet relies on pollinators to get to the table, and most of those pollinators are some kind of bee. (According to the UN, species of wild bees fertilize the majority of the food crops eaten by humans worldwide.) In the US, the most common bees are solitary sweat bees, which are attracted to human perspiration. Alfalfa farmers use the alfalfa leafcutter bee to pollinate their crop. The state of Maine has its very own bee, the Maine blueberry bee. All told, there are at least 16,000 different kinds of bees on the planet, ranging from social swarmers to solitary misanthropes that live underground or in hollow reeds. There are so many that it took Charles D. Michener, the E.O. Wilson of bees, almost a thousand pages to describe them all in Bees of the World.

Recently, beekeepers and scientists have noticed that a mysterious scourge, colony collapse disorder, is causing honey bees across the United States to disappear without a trace.

The bees are disappearing in an unusual manner, just apparently leaving the hive and not coming back — en masse — even though honey, pollen, and larvae are at the hive. One possible explanation is the use of new pesticides. Whatever the cause, this highlights the fragility of our natural systems and points to the need for greater care in how we treat them.

cmac2012, in a comment to Open Source, March 3, 2007.

Theories vary about why the honey bees are disappearing. Some guess that the bees have contracted a new contagious disease. Others argue that it’s the fault of electromagnetic waves. Some think it’s pesticides. One thing is clear: we don’t know much about an insect that’s vital to our everyday lives.


Who wouldn’t love that face? [Nigel Jones / Flickr]

The honey bee crisis might be a symptom of a much larger problem: many species of wild bees also seem to be disappearing. In October, the National Research Council sounded the alarm in a report called The Status of Pollinators in North America. The United Nations has set up an International Initiative for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Pollinators to study why pollinators like bees are vanishing, and there’s a North American Pollinator Protection Campaign. At least one scientist, Stephen L. Buchmann, is predicting an “impending pollination crisis” in his book, The Forgotten Pollinators.

Do you think that the disappearance of pollinators like the honeybee is an early warning sign of environmental end times? Will man-made pollinators someday replace bees in the production of our food? Has a nasty sting given you apiphobia? Have you tried your hand at beekeeping? And wouldn’t you like to meet the Shaggy Fuzzyfoot bee?

Dennis van Engelsdorp

Acting apiarist for the state of Pennsylvania

Researcher, Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group

David Graves

Rooftop Beekeeper

Co-owner, Berkshire Berries

Bernd Heinrich

Professor Emeritus of biology, University of Vermont

Author, Bumblebee Economics, The Snoring Bird

And thanks to Nick and Ben for originally suggesting Bernd Heinrich as a guest. He didn’t make it onto our new zoology show, but he’ll be our guest twice this week!

Extra Credit Reading

Cindi, Some nice memories, Cindi’s Blog, December 26, 2006: “Whether it was an orientation flight or her maiden mating flight, I probably will never know. I could not believe my eyes, such a beauty she was, so big, and so much a wonder of nature. I only saw her for a couple of seconds; she was in such a hurry to go home, to her beautiful girls in waiting. Ah, the life of the queen.”

Peter Dearman, Please Lord, not the bees, Guerrilla News Network, May 02, 2007: “Among the various mythologies of the apocalypse, fear of insect plagues has always loomed larger than fear of species loss. But this may change, as a strange new plague is wiping out our honey bees one hive at a time.”

Prague Twin, The Buzz (or lack of it), Prague Twin, April 24, 2007: “…seriously, it is time to panic. That, and that this type of event reminds us all that we live in an ecosytem that is interconnected. We can go on killing everything around us and destroying our environment, but some day, it is going to bite us back.”

Phang, I Believe in Living Sunlight, City Bees, April 17, 2007: “…bees actually make me confront some of the principles I hold for convenience and comfort, rather than for the sake of truth. It splits apart the relationship with truth and false faith, where you cleave to a belief for reasons other than thinking that the force of life within you really supports it…I cannot love the bees without accepting their brutality, I cannot understand the cruelty without the beauty. How else can a person understand themselves?”

Bug_girl, Bees, Disease, and BS, Bug Girl’s Blog, April 29, 2007: “In the words of a recent news release from a beekeepers conference, the colony deaths have been blamed on just about anything, including ‘power lines, cell phones, and Martians.’ My favorite explanation is that the bees have been raptured.”

Thanks to rahbuhbuh for suggesting Bug_girl.

Related Content

  • rahbuhbuh

    The mystery of the pollinator seems so grimly fitting, considering beekeeping became Sherlock Holmes’s past time in retirement.

  • I love bees! As with many other species that are in trouble, I observe the problems seen with honeybees with trepidation. Environmental endtimes? Maybe, maybe not, but it just goes to show that we are likely always going to be 10 steps behind when it comes to (possible) anthropogenic effects on the environment. We were in time with respect to DDTs – bald eagles and peregrines are recovering. I wonder if we will figure out what is ailing honeybees (and other pollinators) in time to act?

  • enhabit

    thank you for doing this one. bees never cease to fascinate. there is something spiritual about them, losing them would be catastrophic.

    i had an experience..i have serious arthritis in my knee. when it swells up it just sucks! one day in maine an extraordinary thing happened. in the midst of a major swell up, i was stung..twice! and on that leg! the next day, the arthritic swelling was gone.

    a doctor friend of mine explained that this is no mere myth. the body goes after the sting by producing a steroid. it so happens that this steroid works pretty well on joint swelling. a beekeeping friend of mine got me stung after that every few months or so.

    one afternoon much later i was (incredibly) stung again on that leg, this was no bee, i don’t know what it was but the bite was severe. it has been years since i have had a swell up. coincidence? karma? whatever! thanx bees! and thank you mystery stinger.

  • Lumière

    My grandfather raised bees on his farm.

    He showed me how to catch one in my hands. As long as you don’t squeeze it, a bee wont sting. The first bee I caught was a Yellowjacket, which stung me.

    I learned the hard way, Yellowjackets aren’t bees !!

  • hurley

    enhabit: I saw a program about a woman who runs a therapeutic bee sting clinic. I’ll let you know if I remember where. Bzz

  • Tom B

    A Hamlet moment: ‘To bee or not to bee, that is the question…” Perhaps the bees have decided to “take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them”? Is their fate simply “To die: to sleep…?” Are they to bee “no more; and by a sleep to say … end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that [their] flesh is heir to?”. In faith, that they have hied off to “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns puzzles the will.”

  • I first heard about this on the ScienceFriday podcast… very freaky. My wife’s grandpa is a bee keeper and I keep meaning to get his perspective on the issue since he’s you know… with bees.

  • galoot

    Shaggy Fuzzyfoot is the best name ever.

  • amandasblognews44

    Mitigator Rules!

    I can recommend a new “scrub” product called “Mitigator Sting & Bite Treatment”; to say that it is terrific is an understatement! It actually removes venom by exfoliating the top layer of skin, opening the pores and drawing out the toxins. I had instant relief from pain and itching and all traces of the sting disappeared within minutes. I found it on the web at which is their military website. I called and they sold me (6) ½ ounce packages for about $2.00/pack (each resealable pack treats about 20 stings or bites). The only thing that can create a problem is if you wait too long to apply it, it should be rubbed in vigorously within the first few minutes after the bite or sting – the longer you wait, the less effective it is. I’ve used it on bees, wasps, fire ants (no blisters even appeared), mosquitoes and chiggers. They say it works on jellyfish but I’m a long way from the ocean so I haven’t needed it for that problem. No smelly chemicals, works great and is even safe for kids (the scrubbing replaces scratching so – no secondary infections). I should make a commercial for them!

  • Albert Einstein predicted that onces Bees started to disappear we’d have 4 years before human kind was done for.

    The leading theory right now is that increased UV from the sun in the last few years is literally blinding the honey bees, and they can’t find their way back to the hives, as well as reduces their ability in finding and pollinating plants and flowers.

  • …less bee keepers, less bees, yet more crops to pollinate…*

    This is not somehow connected to the following is it:

    Less water, yet ever more people requiring more water for more homes, more agriculture , and more industry,

    Less coral reefs and thus less fish, yet more humans demanding more sea food,

    Levels of atmospheric CO2 soaring, yet ever less arctic ice and tropical forests to offset its warming effect, and

    Less and less ecosystem goods and services**, yet evermore people in need of the same.

    If we just continue to recycle and get smaller SUVs, everything will be OK, won’t it?

    Jon in Port Townsend, WA

    Connecting the dots: from human behaviors to ecosystem decline

    *Sarah Nordhaus, High Country News (

    **See Millennium Ecosystem Assessment at

  • What John Muir’s response might be to my above post:

    Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.

  • tbrucia

    If you haven’t heard the latest theory, it’s that cellphones have something to do with ‘the bees that bee not’…. Here’s a story (just one of many):

  • tbrucia

    Here’s a good article from the BBC about bees: . “Bee Fossil, DNA Generate A Buzz, Scientists have identified the oldest known bee, a 100 million-year-old specimen preserved in amber.” The lead sentence: “The discovery coincides with the publication of the genetic blueprint of the honeybee, which reveals surprising links with mammals, including humans.”

  • Lumiere’s memories of bees in childhood takes me back too. When I was a kid, a bee was something you waited until it landed on a dandelion, and then you smooshed it with your sneaker. And you better not miss or it might sting you.

    When I learned in elementary school about beekeepers, I couldn’t believe that people found bees useful. But those were just weird outer-space looking people in special danger suits, and honey wasn’t that important to me, Winnie the Pooh aside.

    In high school I learned that bees pollinate flowers, and were somehow useful.

    As an adult I’ve begun to understand how crucial bees are to our food supply and to environmental diversity. And that we are dependent on them. Who knew? I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords (

  • tbrucia

    As kids in the country, we at an early age the difference between paper wasps, yellow jackets, honeybees, bumble bees, and so on… These were as much a part of my environment as the variety of flowers and vegetables my mom introduced me to: sweet peas, dandelions, stringbeans, snapdragons, violets, flag irises, mums, daffodils, etc, etc, etc. It just occurred to me than my son has absolutely NO experience of any of these, and that all the critters that populated my childhood are as foreign to his as aardvarks, passenger pigeons, dodos, mammoths, or sabretooth tigers were to my childhood. — The times are (as always) a-changing….and each generation grows up in a ‘time coocoon’ as closed and mysterious as that those capsules in which catepillers lived. (Another thin my son missed: coocoons carefully captured in bottles, and kept in hopes that a butterfly — or moth — would emerge one sunny day….)

  • I don’t buy the cell phone theory. Many more scientists have acknowledged the increase in UV, solar flares and the like coming from the sun. I think the theory of increased UV light affecting bees makes the most sense.

    not only are they unable to find flowers, but they are unable to find their way back to the hives. Furthermore, if they do make it back to the hive, the quality of the pollen has been degraded due to this increase in UV.

  • Cameron Brown


    “Albert Einstein predicted that onces Bees started to disappear we’d have 4 years before human kind was done for.”

    I’ve heard this too, but apparently it’s a myth. There’s no credible source for this quotation. Which is a shame, because it has a neat, eerie vibe to it!

  • I was worried that I wouldn’t see any bees in my yard this year. When I saw one this morning, I was a bit relieved. I hope I see more.

  • rahbuhbuh

    An amateur beekeeper’s blog, just starting out (swiped from author Neil Gaiman’s blog, whose property is playing host to the hives):

  • Where did you hear that it was a myth, Cameron? I’ve read it several places (though I’m not the most credible, as I can’t remember my sources either)

  • Dacker

    Somehow the “Einstein quote” caught my interest: here’s an urban legend site’s take on its validity:

    Not terribly on topic, I know…

  • Here is the Einstein quote that has been posted in various articles recently, originally in 2005 by Walter Haefeker he contributed to the journal Der Kritischer Agrarbericht (Critical Agricultural Report)

    “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

    Though I haven’t been able to find the full article or essay by Einstein that the quote comes from.

  • Interestingly, I’ve also heard reports of people deathly allergic to bee stings who have recently been stung and have suffered no ill effects. I can only offer my own interpretation of that, but I would guess their inability to produce fully potent venom (do bees have venom? is it poison? I don’t know) would come from a reduction of potency in the pollen itself, that they are malnourished.

  • rhess210

    I am finally posting a comment- well, not a comment, but as this show is warming up still, a possible guest? Sorry this is very quick and dashed off- but in the NY Times Sunday magazine last week in the article about studying wisdom, the woman who had been behind a lot of the early work in the field now has beekeeping as her main hobby. . . The Wisdom of Bees? Perhaps a guest to the show coming to it from another side. . .

  • tbrucia

    Harvard’s E.O Wilson’s specialty is not bees, but ants… Nonetheless, I’m sure he could direct you to a good apiologist. Some possibles for telephone linkups (thank you wikipedia!) : Robert E. Page Jr. , Thomas D. Seeley , or Dr. Mark L. Winston .

  • rahbuhbuh
  • jazzman

    Bees and other social insects (ants, termites, wasps etc.) are sort of a gestalt consciousness manifestation and each colony (hive) would more properly be thought of as a meta-organism.

    The individuals perform in concert much as human organs and cells cooperate to create and maintain our physical structure. The individuals (females) are each genetically identical to the queen and the males have half the genetic makeup which results in a hermaphroditic meta-entity which is in effect homo-gene-ious.

    The interesting part is that this entity can divide itself into its component parts and scatter them far and wide then reassemble themselves back into the meta-organism (like sponges when broken down to the cellular level can reassemble themselves back to the original entity, although they don’t break apart voluntarily that I know of.)

    The problem with primarily flying social insects (bees, wasps, hornets) and as opposed to primarily walking ones (ants, termites) is that direction finding (homing) in bees and flyers is not pheromone based (it’s possibly electromagnetic) and for walkers a pheromone trail guides them home after foraging. Thus if when meta-organisms disassemble themselves to forage for resources and are unable (for whatever reason) to reassemble into the critical mass necessary for the organism to function (analogous to cellular necrosis rather then apoptosis in multi-cellular organisms), the entire gestalt will suffer, collapse and possibly die.

    Flyers are especially vulnerable in that regard as they range further and have more nebulous means of homing than do walkers. If the proliferation of electromagnetic radiation due to modern communication is responsible for the failure of bees to return to the hive, then perhaps under that pressure they will mutate into an organism that either is not disrupted by it or develop alternate means of survival. Since bees appeared in the fossil record ~100 Ma they have remained remarkably unchanged i.e., have not evolved except superficially (micro-evolution) presumably because they haven’t had to.

    Flowering plants and bees co-appeared presumably at the beginning of the cretaceous period because with few exceptions neither could survive without the other and according to demarconia’s Einstein quote neither can we. BTW I doubt that UV is the cause as it has fluctuated similarly (and supposedly far more intensely) many times in the last 100 million years.

    If Africanized honey bees (A.K.A. killer bees) are not affected by whatever has caused the current phenomenon then perhaps the some mutation has been effective and it would be wise to invest in the epinephrine industry (wait til big pharma figures this out and starts a killer bee fear campaign) but if this is true it would argue against the proffered theories to date.

  • chasbow

    “If you want to gather honey, don’t kick over the beehive.” (Abraham Lincoln)

    A little off the subject but I found it in an old honey book called “Honey and Health” (1938) by Bodog F. Beck who also wrote “Bee Venom Therapy” which arthritis suffers may want to look for.

    Also from “Honey and Health”

  • chasbow

    Apparently I tabbed when I should have spaced.

    Also from “Honey and Health” 1938, p45

    “What effect refined sugars have on the alarmingly increasing

    prevalence of arthritis is another important question to solve. The

    fact alone that arthritics, who suffer from delayed sugar removal,

    are legatees to all the scourges of this malady, while diabetics

    who cannot digest glucose and eliminate it from their systems are

    almost entirely free from symptons of arthritis, deserves con-

    sideration. The main complaint of diabetics is a lack of energy, a

    complication with which the arthritics, who are perfectly well

    otherwise, are not concerned. This prevailing contrast between the

    two groups could be rationally attributed to some unknown con-

    ditionality superinduced by two divergent functions of the re-

    spective organisms.”

    and at p.101 the following;

    “Many people, especially beekeepers, and a few physicians (this

    writer among them) claim that honey taken internally prevents

    and often cures arthritic and rheumatoid ailments.”

    It was happenstance that lead me to the bees and honey topic tonight and

    happenstance that I was sitting next to the bookcase that houses many of

    my late grandfathers books and then recalled the “Honey and Health” book so close at hand. Hope it has been illucidating for one and all.

    Originally I was going to leave the Einstein quote about mankinds disappearance happening within four years of the bees which I heard on Bill Maher. Now I’m loking for my Bartletts quotations…

  • Potter

    Saw some bees today and yesterday around my old rose bush… furry little things…cute and so busy.

  • Potter

    Sorry – I meant to say they were honey bees, though I did see bumble bees. I did look up the difference between yellow jackets and honey bees and it’s quite clear- although I instinctively know a yellow jacket. It’s the FUR!

  • orlox

    kuow did an hour on the bees today:

  • Potter

    Got bees! They are all ove the roses. Soooo cute and furry! And busy! C’mon- do a show!! Does this mean someone near me has hives? Do we have ANY wild bees here in central MA?

  • valkyrie607


    Monty Python with the “Eric the Half a Bee” Song!

    A one… two– A one… two… three… four…

    Half a bee, philosophically,

    Must, ipso facto, half not be.

    But half the bee has got to be

    Vis a vis, its entity. D’you see?

    But can a bee be said to be

    Or not to be an entire bee

    When half the bee is not a bee

    Due to some ancient injury?

    Lah dee dah, one two three

    Eric the Half a Bee

    Ho ho ho, tee hee hee,

    Eric the Half a Bee

    …It goes on but I’ll spare you.

  • How about the etymoligist blogger bug_girl for a guest? She writes and talks about bees very well – see e.g. …never associated bees with vibrators before…

  • billdjennings

    Until we get rid of the Free Trade concept we will not get rid of what is probably killing off our bee population, “Global Warming”. Container ships burn straight crude oil and cross the Atlantic in 2 days, the Pacific in 5 days. Once upon a time we ate our own food crops, as did everyone else. It seems to me we could still be making and consuming our own and import only those products we cannot produce ourselves while allowing foreign investors to build here and manufacture for our consumption as some now do. Do you really think grapes from Chile can be picked, trucked, loaded, shipped, unloaded, trucked again and then sold for a profit without oil being subsidized to ship them for zero costs? Wake up America! The biggest con ever is that after a century and a half we still burn fossil fuels for energy and transportation. If similiar strides had been made in communication and medical technology we would still be talking with drums and smoke signals and a cut on the finger would be fatal.

  • Ben

    On the above-mentioned KUOW program they spoke to Roy Nettlebeck of Tahuya River Apiaries on the Olympic Peninsula. He claimed that his apiaries haven’t experienced the colony collapse disorder and that most organic bee-keepers recently polled haven’t seen much of it either. He keeps his bees away from industrial megaculture / monoculture and uses genetic hygenic behavioral hive controls to accomplish things that other non organic keepers do with chemicals.

    Though they don’t make honey, I’d sure like to see more bumblebees on the job.

  • herbert browne

    I’ve been watching the little yellow-furred bumbles (I don’t know… there are about a dozen local bumble species) working over some non-native flowers here (hardy fuchsias and blue columbines). They don’t go near the pollen- just climb around on TOP of the flowers and chew little holes into where the nectar is- way up inside these species. I watch them come back to the same flowers and work on the same hole that they, or another of their tribe, chewed into the flower flesh (the holes are kind of brownish- oxidized- around their edges… makes them easier to see). I don’t think we have to worry too much about losing all the honeybees, which aren’t native to North America, anyway. A lot of pollinating goes on by other means- insects of all sorts are taking part- and the biggest of all is the wind (cereals & other grasses). I love honey, though… the fireweed honeylocally is really complex… and so is the early stuff- the tree honey- from maples & madrones… really dark, extra viscous, and… rich… chow ^..^

  • A friend was walking me through her garden the other day when we came to a bush of blue flowers that stood shimmering and vibrating with all different kinds of bees crawling into and out of every blossum. We just stood there for a while just grooving on the buzz.

  • so it looks like the consensus at this point is that it’s only the farmed bees that are suffering from colony collapse, and natural free-range bees and those who are cultivated naturally are doing ok.

    The technique used by bee farms (one that has been used for hundreds of years now) is to manufacture the hexagonal honeycombs for the bees in a strict grid. In addition to being more efficient, beekeepers discovered that the larger they made the hexagons the larger the bees become. What’s interesting is that naturally occuring honeycombs are not as evenly distributed hexagons as it would appear, and are actually all different sizes. This allows them to be extremely adaptable to changes in their environment, which could be why the farmed bees are the first to go. There is some change in the environment (Posssibly UV increase, heat, reduction of pollen quality etc.) and the rigid grid honeycomb bees aren’t as able to adapt as the free-form bees.

    This could serve as a metaphor for our disorganized grid sprawl, which also seems to be failing especially quickly.

  • herbert browne

    Thanks to demarconia for the potential dilemmas of a “one size fits all” world imposed on the honeybees. My neighbor, who keeps 2 hives, really burned my ear about the problems of bees that were too big (making them vulnerable to varroa mites), of the illegality associated with using any but the “standard” bee boxes, and of some hazards of using queen excluders and the “honey only” supers. Here’s a link to some history on beekeeping and to the construction of a “skep”- which my neighbor feels is unjustly maligned by the honeybee industry:

    The latest “High Country News” has an interesting feature that highlights both the plight of honeybees & the efficacy of the native bees as pollinators… ^..^

  • Potter

    Great guests! Thank you!

  • UtahOwl

    A friend of ours in northern Maryland kept bees for years, until the “attack of the two mites” made it too expensive and troublesome. He said he hadn’t seen a wild swarm in his area for over 10 years – before, he’d occasionally be called to pick up a wild swarm. So the mite problems have been going on for at least a decade out east.

    Here in Utah, a beekeeper at the Farmer’s Market said he lost nearly 2/3 of his hives – over a thousand, he does commercial pollinating as well as making honey – over a 2 year period & it nearly killed his business. Now he has some Russian hybrid bees recommended by the Dept of Agriculture that seem to be more resistant to the mites than the European honey bees. He’s also had some luck with some organic treatment methods.

    Here’s the link to the High Country News page – interesting info on native bees (“alkali bees”, etc) that are very good orchard pollinators. We have lots of orchards here in northern Utah…until the developers pave them all over…

    Check out

  • MThomas

    One place that tracks the latest news on the whole situation on a regular basis is Sometimes even funny.

  • jschwa

    I’ve got a rundown on the going theories on Colony Collapse Disorder on my blog at

    Also, if you’re interested, useful information on Love and Beekeeping, Bees as sculptors and a bit about bees as disease detectors:

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  • Potter

    The New Yorker was kind enough to put Elizabeth Kolbert’s article “Stung” online so here: