Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Let's Talk About: The Stinger

It's the first thing that most people think of when you say the word "bee". They think Stinger.

I hope that will change and instead people will learn more about bees. Think of their soft buzzing, how much they care for their babies and family and how they work together to make the sweetest thing on earth: Honey.
[This is a honey bee stinging a person. Photo from Wikipedia.com].

Attached to the stinger is a tiny sac filled with venom (the white part is the sac). The sac also has a muscle attached that pumps the venom and helps to drive the stinger deeper into the skin--even after it's been torn away from the bee this muscle keeps pumping for about 20 minutes.

When the stinger pierces the skin of a human or an animal, like a skunk, bear or raccoon, it sticks because it has little barbs on it that catch and hold on flesh. When the bee flies away, her stinger is torn away, along with the end of her abdomen, and often some of their insides too.

It's not very pleasant for the person being stung, or for the bee, who will die.
[This is a much magnified drawing of the bee's stinger. Can you see the venom sac attached?]
Wasps and hornets don't have barbs on their stingers so they can sting multiple times without dying.

Honey bees can sting other insects many times without dying because the stinger's barbs won't stick in insect flesh because it's so pulpy.

Okay, that's the scientific part. But the human part is, "OUCH! That hurt!"

What to do if you've been stung:
If you've been stung, look at the spot where your skin was pierced. Is there a tiny black stinger in your skin? There might even be the venom sac attached. If it's there, immediately scrape it away. The longer the stinger sticks in your skin the more venom that little muscle will pump. The more venom you get, the more pain and swelling you will have.

The sting may be painful at first and there is often redness and swelling and then it'll become itchy. The swelling and itchiness will last a few days. Try your best not to scratch or it will become more itchy. I have learned this and I do my best not to scratch stings. I find they don't swell so much and the itchiness goes away faster that way. Cold compresses put on right away are helpful to reduce swelling too.

Bee Attitude
Honey bees knows they will die if they sting someone. Because of that they don't want to sting unless they feel threatened or that it's necessary to protect their hive. When bees are away from their hive foraging they don't feel so protective. In fact, they're too busy collecting food to be bothered with people. Even when beekeepers open the hive, most of the time the bees will be gentle.

When my Dad and I work on our hives, we very rarely get stung. Most of the time if we do, it'll be our fault because we accidentally squished a bee with our finger, and she stings to say, "Hey, get off me!"
Honey bees only eat nectar and pollen. If you're having a picnic or are eating a candy apple and a "bee" is bothering you, take a closer look. It won't be a bee. It'll be a wasp, most likely a yellow jacket. Wasps and hornets are omnivorous - that means they eat everything: Sugar, Meat, Nectar, etc., and yellow jackets really love tuna fish sandwiches and orange pop.
We all say "stung by a bee" but 99% of the time when people are stung it's by that yellow jacket when we're enjoying food outside.

Bees don't bite, so the term "bitten by a bee" or "bitten by a wasp" isn't true. Their mouth parts aren't big or strong enough to do much biting. When these stinging insects are going about their business flying around, their stingers are retracted inside their bodies.

Stung on Purpose? Are you Crazy?
Some people use a technique where they make honey bees sting them on certain spots on their body--on purpose. It's considered as a treatment for an illness or for pain. It's called Apitherapy. I have noticed that after I got stung on my arm, that the stiffness that I usually have in my hands every day went away for over a week. Dad noticed the arthritis in his hands was gone after he got stung. Opinions vary about this so if you're interested to know more you can do some research on the Internet.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bees - Frequently Asked Questions

What does it mean when a bee head butts someone?

Bees are not completely predictable but they can and do often warn a person or creature if they are feeling threatened. Head butting is a sure sign that you are too close and a sting is likely to follow. If you feel a bee, wasp or hornet give you a head butt you should immediately back away.

How do bees communicate?

Bees communicate with each other in various ways. They use different chemical signals to send messages to their hive mates. The Queen releases Queen pheromones (her own special perfume) which help to keep the bees working and organized. Her scent also lets them know she is in residence. Bees have a defensive posture that they can use when guarding the hive and they can also release attack pheromones. Bees also do several kinds of dances to communicate the exact location of a good source of nectar and pollen so that other bees can find it. Scientists are now discovering that bees communicate through vibrations in their honey comb too.

Where does beeswax come from?

Beeswax comes from the bees themselves. As a bee matures while working inside the hive they will begin to secrete wax. There are 8 glands or pockets on the bees' stomach. The wax leaks out into these pockets, at first as a liquid and then when it cools it turns into white wax. The wax sits in the stomach pockets until the bee uses its leg to pull a piece out. The worker will chew the wax and mold it with her mandibles to build the honeycombs.

Can all bees sting?

No, not all bees can sting. The male bee, called a drone, has no stinger at all. The worker bees are female and they can sting, but young bees who are working inside a hive may not have developed their venom glands yet so would be unable to sting. A worker bee can only sting a human or animal once and then will die. Their stinger has tiny barbs that catch in flesh and so when they sting their bottom gets torn off. The Queen can sting but it is rare for a Queen to sting a person. She can sting multiple times. [Pictured here is a honey bee drone. They enjoy visiting and having their pictures taken].

Note that hornets and wasps who have no barbs on their stinger and can sting multiple times.

What is a Killer Bee?

Killer Bee is a term that has been given to African Honey Bees. You may be wondering how African honey bees ended up in North America. Many years ago a scientist in South America was doing experimental breeding with African honey bees. African honey bees are well known for being fantastic honey producers. The only problem is that they are also very enthusiastic about protecting their honey--they're aggressive and don't hesitate to sting. The scientist was trying to breed African honey bees with South American bees to try to take advantage of the honey producing genetics, but create calmer and more placid bees by crossing them with South American bees.

But the scientist took a day off and a person who was taking care of the bee yard saw these little entrances on the front of the scientist's hives. These entrances were designed to prevent the African queen bees from leaving the hive to breed in the wild. But the person didn't know and removed the special entrances. The African queens did leave the hive and breed with wild bees. Very quickly this bee species spread through South America, into Mexico and from there the southern parts of the USA. So far this bee has not been seen in the northern and more colder parts of North America. The term now used to describe these hybrid bees (bees who have bred with domestic and wild North American bees) is "Africanized Bees".

Why does the honey in the store say "100% Canadian Honey" but in the small print it says it may be blended with honey from Brazil and Argentina?

Beekeepers have been working very hard for years to try to get the labelling changed to better reflect the reality. Often Canadian honey which is prized for its flavour around the world, is mixed with cheaper honeys from other countries. Beekeepers have had to lobby government for many years to win a labelling change and it hoped that soon this will be changed. That would mean that 100% Canadian Honey will be just that.

Do you have a question about honey bees? If you do, leave me a comment and I'll post a reply.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Vampire Mite Says: I Want to Suck Your Hymolyph

If you were a vampire and you wanted to drink a bees' blood, that's what you'd say.

There really are tiny vampires that want to suck the bees' blood. Maybe you have heard of them? They're little insects called Varroa Mites.

We say bees' blood, but in truth bees don't have red blood like we do.

Insect blood is called hymolpth and it's a white and yellow colour. If you've been in the car when a bug hits the windshield, that's their hymolpth splattered on the glass.
[Pictured above is a round brown Varroa Mite. It's like a bee flea. It's actual size is about the same as a pin head].

No matter the colour, bees' blood is just as important to the function of their healthy body as our blood is to us.
[This is a bee I photographed at my home. When I made the picture large (click to make it large) I can see a mite on the top of the bees abdomen. Can you see it too? It's riding on the bee.
The bee is busy working hard, trying to collect pollen and nectar to feed her family. Meanwhile, the mite rides along and sucks her blood.

The mites are shaped round and flat. They have little sucker feet that cling to the bees' fur.
Beekeepers are working very hard to raise bees that like to clean their bodies a lot. When a bee cleans frequently, they brush off the mites and they fall to the bottom of the hive.
The beekeeper puts a special board at the bottom of the hive, called a sticky board. I grease my board with Crisco Shortening to make it sticky.
When the mite falls off the bee, she wants to climb back up the hive to get on another bee. The sticky board holds the mite at the bottom of the hive so she can't.
[See the photo of my sticky board from the bottom of the hive. There's dropped bits of pollen, bits of wax, and the occasional wing or bee leg from bees that have died. I've circled 3 mites in red for you to see].
This magnified photo is of a bee larva that's been removed from its cell. Can you see several brown mites? There are 5 of them sucking the larva's blood.
The larva can't fight back because it has finished growing yet. It's not a fair fight is it?
When the bee hatches the mites will come out of the cell with the bee and ride on the bee, clinging to it's fur.
Mites were accidentally brought to the USA just over ten years ago. They have spread very quickly all over North America and also the world. They were able to spread quickly because they ride on bees that fly. (They don't need their own wings when they can hitch a ride on a bee).
The bees are also shipped by planes and trucks to help pollinate fruits and vegetables and the mites travelled with them. That help them spread across our country faster.
Beekeepers and bees are fighting together to find a way to stop the spread of Varroa mites from killing bee hives.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bees have Mummies Part II

Yuck! What are these?

(Click the photo to make it bigger so you can see).

This a mixture of stuff taken from the bottom of a bee hive in spring.
There's bits of pollen, dropped by the bees, bits of chewed up beeswax, the occasional wing or parts of dead bees and a pile of dried up mummified bee larvae.
The white and gray coloured bits are mummies made from dead bee larvae.

It's a sad but true fact that there is a fungus that can sometimes get in a bee hive. It's called Chalkbrood and it can infect a hive in spring if there's too much moisture inside the hive.
Beekeepers call baby bees that are at the larvae (worm) stage brood.
The Chalkbrood fungus eats away at these larvae brood while they're in their honeycomb cells.
Slowly it eats them up and turns them into hard white mummified corpses that look like pieces of chalk.
That's how Chalkbrood got its name.

A hive with the Chalkbrood fungus doesn't have to die. A beekeeper can ensure it gets more ventilation and that help to dry things up.

Did you know that bees can also have another kind of Mummy that is in a real tomb just like an Egyptian Pharaoh?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Honey Comb and Soap Bubbles

Did you know that honeycomb and soap bubbles have a lot in common?

Well, they do.

Can you see the photo of a single soap bubble on my hand? Do you see that the bubble is round?

When soap bubbles are on their own, they're round.

You can try this experiment yourself to see if it's correct.

All you need is some soap (and Mom will be very glad to know you've washed your hands).

Now watch what happens to the single bubble once it touches other bubbles.

Can you see what happened? It changed its shape.

The sides of the soap bubble become slanted and it changes to a honeycomb shape as soon as it touches other bubbles.

Did you know that honey bees make their honeycombs like a soap bubble?
But if I asked you to draw honeycomb you would draw it with six sides - in a shape called a hexagon.

Beeswax combs end up with six sides after the bees build them but they all start off round.

Yes, round. Like a single soap bubble.

Each honeycomb cell touches another cell.

Then the bees do something really neat. They warm up the wax combs, until they melt a bit.
They'll warm them up to between 37 and 40 degrees Celsius.
Once the combs are warmed, they'll shift into a six sided hexagon shape because of the tension created by the walls touching each other.

Here's some newly made round combs that you can see.
When you count the sides, you'll find there are six--a lovely hexagon.

Below are some more photos of frames I'm holding up.
Are you wondering why the combs in the photo below are brown coloured and why the combs in the photos at the top are white?
There is an answer.
New combs are clean and fresh and look white.
But after thousands of bees walk over the combs month after month, all their sticky little feet leave traffic stains on the comb which turns them brown.

Now you can look around and see all the different ways that humans have copied the honeycomb pattern in their designs and architecture.