Monday, August 13, 2012

Breeding a better bee

With colony collapse still making headlines, I was a bit taken aback yesterday to learn that some beekeepers are in the position of destroying their colonies each year. Because the blooming season in Alaska lasts only into late July, they are forced to choose whether to maintain them through the winter (during which hives are weakened and many bees still die), give them away, or euthanize them. Anchorage beekeeper Brian Thompson describes, "Oh, it's just horrible. It's always an awful day, and we know when it's coming. We just try to make it as swift and as quick as possible. ... You have to do it quickly and try to keep your emotions out of it. It's difficult." To kill the bees humanely, they pour them out of the hive into soapy water, since the dish soap breaks the surface tension and the bees drown quickly. Thompson's partner Ross Mason explains, It’s very hard to do that, and it sounds cruel and silly to kill such an important animal in the cycle of life. But, up here in Alaska, if you don’t tend to them and make that commitment to tend to them, they starve to death or freeze to death. And that’s even more cruel.” Each April, Thompson and Mason import 2 3lb boxes of bees in the mail from California to supply their hives and face the same decision because it's hard to keep them alive and healthy through the long winter for many reasons:
  • Bees can't digest honey below 40° and will starve to death even though they can, as a group, regulate the temperature inside of the hive.
  • Bees can't fly below about 44° and are unable to excrete their waste products except inside the hive, which leads to the spread of disease. If a bee did make it out on a warm winter day, reflection of sunlight on snow affects the bee’s sense of direction and may prevent it from returning to the hive.
  • Bees are preyed on by varroa mites, which kill and cause disease.
  • Even if the bees have enough stored food, they may not leave the area of the hive in which they are clustered to access it.

  • Bees naturally die off during the long winter when they aren’t producing as many young and many do so inside the hive. In the spring, the worker bees have to use up their energy and resources to remove them and build up the comb again.
In an effort to help honeybees survive winters in Alaska, Keith Malone is working to breed small-cell bees. Training them to build comb cells that are about 1/2 mm smaller, results in bees that can more easily fight off disease and have fewer mites to contend with. There are more bees with a better division of labor. Though the bees are smaller, their wings and wing muscles are not reduced. Though the breeding of small-cell bees is controversial, bees that can over-winter are healthier (twice as strong as newly arrived Californian bees), more economical (imported bees cost $140/pkg), and - best of all - don't need to be destroyed after the season is over. But many are wary, because breeding bees (to produce more honey) is what unleashed Africanized bees on the world.
The Cabinet is abuzz:


  1. Why not ship the bees to another, somewhat warmer, location instead of killing them?


  2. thanks for sharing.


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