Thursday, May 5, 2011

Chapel Hill Bees

Catherine, a 2008 Carolina grad, showed a few of us around her beekeeping operation a few weekends ago. It was a blast, and I learned all about sustainable beekeeping (which is what Chapel Hill Bees is all about). It was nasty, pre-tornado-y weather, so the bees were not happy and wouldn't let us chill with them in their custom designed and built hives, but we did get to check out a hive that Catherine keeps with plexiglass on the side so that the bees can be observed in action without being disturbed. COOL. If someone has ever told you that bees are industrious, hard-workin' little things, they were not lying.

We went inside and checked out some cool beekeeping gear, including a bee suit made especially for warm climates that Diana later refused to take off. To her credit, it did fit like a dream. The weave of the fabric doesn't allow the stinger to attach to the elastic human skin. She also showed us a beautiful smoker that was passed down to her.

About sustainable beekeeping - since Catherine's main objective in keeping bees is not honey production, she is able to use practices that are more sustainable and healthy for the bees. For instance, she doesn't need to give the bees very much sugar syrup to supplement their diets since she is not taking their honey away from them. Also, this is the last year that she wil be getting bees delivered in the spring to start hives. In the future, she will simply be able to split big hives to create two smaller ones. Catherine doesn't harvest beeswax either, so she the bees are able to use their comb for much longer. Catherine also uses plain frames in her hives so the bees can build their own comb, which makes them happier. There are a ton more ways that Chapel Hill Bees is a role model for sustainable beekeeping, but I can't remember them all! She also told us some really neat things about varroa and experimental techniques she is using to keep them off her bees. I'll have to go back sometime to ask more questions.

Also, on a related side note, every time you walk through the Coker Arboretum and you see/hear/smell/touch a bee, it may be(e) one of Catherine's! They can travel far for the goods, and we all know the goods are in the Arb.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Out of the approximately 20,000 bee species worldwide, about 4,000 are native to the United States. Nevertheless, non-native European bees are the most important crop pollinators in the US. Native bees are becoming more important as the number of managed bee hives decreases and the crop acreage increases.
Native bees offer a free pollination service and are very good at their job. About three billion dollars annually of crop production can be attributed to the pollination work of native bees. They are also more effective pollinators than honey bees. For example, 250 blue orchard bees (native) can pollinate an acre of apples. It would take 1-2 honeybee hives, each with 15,000 to 20,000 individuals, to pollinate this same acre of apples. Native bees are also heartier, with a greater tolerance for cold and wet weather than managed hives. Native bees are also efficient crop pollinators because of crop specialization (which I will talk about in greater detail at the end of this post because it is my FAVORITE thing about native bees) and buzz pollination. Bumblebees are particularly good at getting pollen from flower anthers because of buzz pollination, where they vigorously vibrate their flight muscles to shake the pollen out of the flower anthers. Buzz pollination is especially important for some plants, such as blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, and bell peppers, which all have pollen released from pores in the anthers (like salt from a salt shaker) and require the help of buzz pollination to fertilize.
Now for some basic native bee biology: native bees come in many sizes, from the tiny sweat bees (< ¼ inch) to bumblebees (> 1 inch). The also vary greatly in color – they can be black and yellow, brown, solid black, or even metallic green and blue. Over 70% of native bees excavate and live in underground nests. Most do not sting – in case you needed yet another reason that we should be friends with the natives.
Now for the coolest native bee stunt: plant-specific pollination. Native bees often forage for particular flowers, often squash, berries, and orchids. These plants, when pollinated by native bees, experience increased efficiency in pollination as well as larger and more abundant fruit. Now I know who to thank for my favorite alpine Maine blueberries!
The pollination of the vanilla plant is an interesting case study of native bee pollination, namely because humans are the primary pollinators of vanilla today. Vanilla is a variety of orchid. A healthy vine produces 50-100 beans per year. It takes 5-6 weeks for fruit to develop and 9 moths for the bean to mature – basically, the growing process is intensive and necessitates constant monitoring. There is only one insect capable of pollinating the vanilla blossom – the Melipona, a bee native only to Mexico. Without pollination, the blossom wilts and falls to the ground, which means no vanilla bean grows (duh). So, when the vast majority of vanilla growing moved from Mexico, home of the Melipona, to Madagascar, not home of the Melipona, humans started pollinating each vanilla blossom by hand. This is done with a twig (or, I don’t know, a Q-tip?) to lift the flap so the overhanging anther can tough the stigma to self-pollinate. Obviously, this is a labor-intensive and inefficient process. Growers can only pollinate 5 or 6 flowers form the 20 growing on one stem at one time in order to avoid disease and ensure that the beans mature at the same time. Oh, how life would be easier for the vanilla growers if the Melipona lived in Madagascar!
Check out nativebee.html for more information (this is also the source for this blog post).

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Before the Summer

Before the summer begins and we all find that free time we have been looking for all year, I would like to share with you some fun bee-related activities.

A few bee movies:

Watch bee youtube videos:

Make a 100% bee wax candle:

Google image a trip to Florence:


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Winnie the Pooh

We can't have a honey bee class and not talk about Pooh Bear! Who loves honey more than Pooh!?

Winnie was actually the name of a real black bear that British World War I troops brought back with them from the town of Winnipeg in Canada. Winnie was put in the London Zoo in 1919 and was the favorite animal of Christopher Robin, the son of A.A. Milne. Christopher Robin then named his stuffed toy bear Winnie the Pooh.

A.A. Milne, an author, was then inspired to write a series of stories about Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh. The names of the other characters, Pooh's friends, were also the names of Christopher Robin's other stuffed animal toys. Winnie-the-Pooh, the first in the series, was published in 1926. Over the decades, as we know, the books have remained very popular and become the favorite stories of many children, including Walt Disney's daughters.

In 1977, Disney released the first feature-length film, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. By 1993, Pooh Bear was only second to Mickey Mouse as Disney's most recognized character, and by 1996, he had become the most popular.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Honeycomb (not the cereal)

Some facts about honeycomb:
  • made of beeswax
  • made of hexagonal cells that slope slightly upwards towards the open ends
  • theory on why it's hexagonal: uses the least material to create most amount of volume
  • ends of the cells are trihedral (they have 3 planes) sections of a rhombic dodecahedra with the angle between the planes measuring 120 degrees; this angle minimizes surface area for a given volume
  • Euclid, the ancient Greek geometrician, also found that the hexagonal shape increased efficiency
  • when different sized cells are made (drones have bigger cells than workers), the shape can bee distorted
  • bees use the comb to store honey, larvae,'s their home!
  • the first man-made honeycomb was mentioned by Homer and thought to bee made 3000 years ago out of GOLD by Daedalus, a Greek craftsman and artisan
  • 2000 years ago, the Chinese started making paper honeycomb decorations
  • Galileo studied structures of hollow solids, such as bird bones, honeycombs, and stems in plants, and found that they're very light yet resistant to bending and breaking

“The comb of the hive-bee, as far as we can see, is absolutely perfect in economizing labour and wax.”-Charles Darwin

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

So for everyone not fortunate enough to be in bee class, I have an alternative: Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis by Rowan Jacobsen.

The book is basically a condensed version of the class. Jacobsen does a great job covering bees in every aspect--he discusses biology of the honey bee and the insect's importance in the agricultural world. Fruitless Fall almost has the suspense of a mystery novel, the juiciness of a romance novel, and the facts of a textbook. Jacobsen gives a historical view of colony collapse disorder and comments on the status of the disorder and current bee research.

Jacobsen uses analogies to write in language that anyone can understand (even if you haven't been taught by Jesalyn!!!) without seeming like he's presenting dumbed-down science which is truly the worst. Here's an example which talks about the evolution of flowers to attract pollinators:

"Once you start a giveaway, it's hard to stop. Today, most flowers offer nectar, and nectar is the main draw for most pollinators. It's a good deal for the flowers, because carbohydrates are cheap to manufacture, while protein is expensive. Stuff your diners with unlimited bread rolls, then skimp on the steak.
But with so many different pollinators looking for the same stuff, and so many flowers offering it, problems arose. The whole point had been to mail a package directly from one individual to another of the same species. But if everybody is using the same postal service, and packages are unloaded at random at each stop, then very few packages are being delivered to the right address.
What would you do in such a situation? Well, you'd get a private courier service [...]"

If that doesn't make you want to pee your pants (in a good way), I honestly don't know what will. Reading Fruitless Fall is basically a less-fun version of being in bee class, and though that may sound like an insult to the book, it's not because nothing can compare to bee class. So read the book. You can get it from the UNC biology/chemistry library (once I return it).

Monday, April 4, 2011

Mind your own beeswax!

The things you need to know about beeswax.

Our idea of the purpose of beeswax is very different from that of the bees. Worker bees use beeswax to build honeycomb, which stores honey and is also where larval bees are housed.

Beeswax is composed of fatty acid esters and long-chain alcohols (for all of you orgo nerds out there). And it’s not easy to make – 10 pounds of honey yield a single pound of wax. Worker bees have 8 wax production glands on their sternites (abdominal segments 4-7), which atrophy with age and number of flights. Wax scales are clear, and become white as the bees chew it up to transform it into honeycomb. The wax yellows with the addition of pollen, nectar, and propolis. The color of beeswax can range from nearly white to brownish, depending on the purity of the wax. Wax from brood comb tends to be darker, having accumulated impurities.

Beekeepers cut off the wax caps of honeycomb with a hot wax knife (or some similar instrument) when harvesting honey. The darker wax requires rendering before further use to remove impurities. The leftover wax is, according to Wikipedia (uh oh), called “slumgum.”

Humans’ uses for beeswax are varied and some are quite ancient. When purified, beeswax is used both as a food additive and in cosmetic pharmaceuticals. Wax as a food additive or preserving agent is known as “E901 glazing agent,” and is most familiar as the wax coating around some cheeses. Beeswax is also an ingredient in many skin protectants and hair pomades. Beeswax is also used as an ingredient in surgical bone wax – go figure!

Beeswax is also frequently used to make candles. In fact, beeswax are the liturgical candles of the Roman Catholic Church. Beeswax candles are ideal because they burn cleanly, with little or no dripping and very little smoke. Beeswax also burns much longer than other common candle materials, such as paraffin. And most importantly, beeswax candles smell FANTASTIC.

Beeswax has many other niche uses, including as shoe polish, in Eastern European egg decoration, and early phonograph cylinders. Historically, beeswax was used in writing tablets, was “man’s first plastic,” and was even found in Egyptian mummies!

The uses of beeswax are many, and I will not enumerate each and every one, but I hope you have learned more about this sweet-smelling, multi-purpose gift from the bees! Go out and get yourself some on-the-comb honey and a storm candle in celebration!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Homebrews, History and Honey!

Continuing Michelle Obama's push for local, organic foods the White House added a hive to their garden in 2009 that produced 183 pounds of honey last year! Michelle has been making good use of the liquid gold by giving jars of White House honey as gifts to all sorts of important people and donating a significant amount to Miriam's Kitchen, an organization that serves Washington D.C.'s homeless.

After all that sharing there's still some to go around for the first family. They've been using their honey in a bunch of delicious sounding recipes for cookies, gingerbread, honey cupcakes, and more made by Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosse. Speaking of delicious honey creations everyone should check out this honey cake recipe; I'll let you know how it turns out.

Guess what else they're using the honey for... beer! Next on Obama's agenda is turing the White House into a microbrewery. Well not really, but he has started (and by he I mean the White House chefs) to make his own Honey Ale. He served it at his Super Bowl party and on St. Patrick's day. He's going down in history as the first president to ever brew beer in the White House.

Click here to for a short vid about the Secret Life of White House Bees

I also came across this article that I thought was worth sharing. It covers some of the medicinal properties of honey we talked about in class. The video has a neat little segment on baking lemon-blueberry muffins with honey instead of processed sugar. And the recipe is at the bottom of the page! (If you haven't picked up on it yet I really love food)

Additional sources

Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Abbreviated History of Honey (and Medicine)

2600 BC -- Egyptian Medical Records list over 900 uses for honey, the majority of them medical.

2000 BC—One of the oldest written documents describing the medicinal uses of honey: a Sumerian written prescription for a honeyed healing agent to treat surgical incisions: includes honey, hot cedar oil, river dust to give the mixture a firmness

1500 – 500 BC – Vedas, Hindu Sacred Books, suggest taking honey to ease the ailments of the body

1600 – The Egyptian Ebers Papyrus: 147 of 700 medical treatment formulas use honey as the prime healing agent

1550 BC – The Egyptian Edwin Smith Papyrus (it was named after the man who bought it) lists 48 separate uses of honey as a healing agent.

1500(ish) BC – Shen Nong’s Herbal Materia Medica, one of the written bases of Chinese traditional medicine, centers honey as one of the main medicinal sources

400 BC – Hippocrates, known as the Father of Modern Medicine, recorded the many therapeutic properties of Honey

4 BC – Democritus, “the laughing philosopher”, 109 years old, credited honey for his health and happiness

5 AD – Marcellus Empiricus, of what is now Modern Day France, records that honey eases the dullness of eyesight and treats white eye spots

23-79 AD – Pliny the Elder, a Roman Pharmacist, writes of Honey cured maladies of throat, mouth, and body.

Same – Dioscorides, in De Materia Medica (Roman Medical Book), mentions the use of Honey for the aid of sunburns, ulcers, cough, lice, tonsil infection, and more.

Same—Roman centenarian Pollio Rumilius tells Julius Caesar that his secret for health is “Exterius Melle, Exterius Olio” – Inside, Honey. Outside, oil.

Bible – Honey is mentioned throughout, including a mention that Jesus was to be fed honey.

Qur’an – Muhammad says that Honey is a remedy for every illness of the body and the Qur’an is a remedy for every illness of the mind, and recommends both remedies for a wholly healthy life

Alexander the Great – embalmed in liquid honey (a method frequently used, since the antibacterial properties of honey cause it to suck out the bacteria that causes the decay of human flesh

[Hiatus of records after the fall of the Roman Empire]

924 – Leech Book of Bald by the English Monk Bald highlights honey as a salve and wound treatment

1446 – With the renaissance came a revival of the interest in medicine, and honey as such (as well as an interest in all things good –dance, art, music, you name it)

1623 – Rev. Charles Butler writes the Feminine Monarchie, a treatise on honey bee ways, mentioning many medicinal uses of honey.

1759 – Dr. John Hill writes, “The Virtues of Honey in Preventing Many of the World’s Worst Disorders”

In the 19th century, the world entered a craving for modern synthetic medicine, and the treatments of thousands of years fell by the wayside, except for in the beekeeping circles and folktale remedies. Honey became used as a sweetener more than as a medicinal product.

In the late 20th and early 21st century, a revival of interest in honey’s medicinal properties occurred.

1991 – New Zealand Biochemist Dr. Peter Molan of the University of Waikato, interested in naturally antibacterial products, hears of rumors of Manuka Honey’s exceptionally good antibacterial properties, and his laboratory research shows unmistakable proof. Manuka Honey, from New Zealand’s native Manuka plant, has been researched extensively ever since.

1995- At the University of Waikato, an entire branch of the Biochemistry department is designated as the “Honey Research Unit”, and set aside to study many different aspects and properties of Honey, and nothing else. Manuka Honey is one of the main focuses, but other honeys are studied as well.

From the mid 1990s to today, Manuka Honey has taken the international spotlight. The Honey Research Unit has grown into a thriving research center, and Manuka honey has gone from a regular table honey--not even a very popular table honey due to its very strong flavor -- to a value-added commodity. People still eat it, of course, and not all Manuka Honey is "active" -- that is, displaying the extraordinary antibacterial properties (among other properties) that have come to be known as the "Unique Manuka Factor" or UMF. A standard measure of activity is being established, but for now, the UMF is labeled in basic levels of activity. Research is being conducted to understand why some Manuka Honey is active and some is not, what affects the activity level, and the extent to which the activity level increases in storage (which it does). Even though it has been nearly two decades since the first published Manuka Honey research, we are still only at the beginning. **

Continuing evidence of this honey’s properties has piqued international interest, and jumpstarted the therapeutic honey industry—not only in New Zealand, but worldwide.

This is a patchy history, and by no means contains all mentions of Honey’s medicinal properties. I think that one could devote their entire lifetime to making that timeline, and still not find everything! Every library I wander into has different books on bees or beekeeping or honey or traditional medicines, and each reveals a different secret—or two – or hundreds – about these incredible properties of what we take to be such a simple substance, sitting in our little plastic bear.

And of course, this account does not even take into consideration the properties of beeswax, royal jelly, bee bread, bee venom, propolis, or bee pollen, all of which have been used for equally as long, through as many different cultures, in thousands of different ways to accomplish as many different goals.