Mark Grossman: Bees Seek New Careers – Tired of Sweat-Shop Apiaries and CCD?

13 February 2014

The fate of bees, generally, is a matter of great concern these days.  Bee populations throughout the world, and particularly in the United States and Europe, are dropping rapidly and mysteriously.  Without the bees’ unique service as pollinators, the value of yearly agriculture output would drop by billions of dollars.  Without bees, our food supply would plummet and a good portion of the people on earth would begin to starve – quickly.

The problem has a name CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder, but no one is sure what it is.  The best guess is that bees are weakened by a variety of factors until their immune systems collapse.  Then, they contract, and are killed, by an unrelated disease, leaving researchers to trace back through the maze to the root cause or causes.

But let’s look at the world from the bee’s perspective.  What is it like to live a bee’s life?  Right now, a terrible plague, CCD, is hanging over bee populations all over the world.  And what would the surviving bees say, if asked about their daily life?

Well, I think it would go something like this.

Interviewer: What is it like to work as a pollinator, Ms. Bee?

Bee: Work!  We aren’t worker-bees anymore!  We’re slaves being worked to death.

Interviewer: I don’t understand.  Don’t you live out in nature.  Living and working as you have for thousands of years?

Bee: Natural bee’s life!  Not even close! First, we’re fed chemicals to make us more active during pollination season.  It’s like the stuff they give to athletes before competition.  We don’t recover until about 3 months after the pollination season is over.  And, during pollination season, we’re trucked hundreds of miles on bumpy roads 24-hours a day so we can’t sleep.  And we don’t get any food.  They’re afraid we won’t be aggressive enough pollinators unless were starving.

Interviewer: Yes, but when you get to the fields, you get to chow down . . . ?

Bee: What?!  They release twice as many bees into those fields as are needed to pollinate the available blossoms.  That’s so they can make sure every blossom gets pollinated.  So, most of us get hardly anything to eat.  And, we were starving already.

Interviewer: But, then, they feed you.

Bee: No.  Then, they starve us for another day — so we’ll be “aggressive” about gathering honey.  Remember?    No wonder we’re dropping like flies.  Like I said, it takes months for us to recover after the big pollination season.  The only time we get to eat is when we’re resting off-season.  After a few years of this . . .  Let’s just say I wouldn’t cry if I never saw a blossom again.

[Nervously, the interviewer pauses – afraid to bring up the next subject.]

Interviewer: [cautiously] I want to ask you about . . . pesticides.

Bee: Pesticides! Don’t even get me started about pesticides!

A bee’s life?  If I had these working conditions, I’d look for a new career.  I’m sure many honeybees fall victim to CCD yearly.  But the more I hear about the honeybees’ life in the hive, the more I wonder if some are sneaking away to alternative careers to escape the sweatshop conditions of employment as a “pollinator.”  Honeybee’s have something going for them.  After thousands of years of smelling flowers, they’ve got good noses . . . .



I can imagine honeybees buzzing around windows and ducking into homes and libraries to catch a look at the internet hoping to see one of those ads, “A Career in Health Care – Train in less than . . . 10 minutes?!”  Yes, learn advanced medical diagnostics, for bees, in less than 10 minutes. What can you expect to learn to diagnose?

Tuberculosis, lung, skin and pancreatic cancer.

However, there is one catch.  You must be a honeybee, Apis mellifera! Other species need not apply.  What’s so special about these bees?  They have an unbelievably acute sense of smell.  They can detect airborne molecules in the parts-per-trillion range.  What does that mean?  Well, let’s just say this puts “sniffer dogs” to shame.

But what does smell have to do with diagnosing diseases?  Do people with certain diseases smell?  No!  But their breath carries an odor that indicates the presence of certain diseases.  Technically called “biomarkers” these chemical odors are associated with specific diseases.  Odors that honeybees can detect.

A bee might ask, “What sort of working conditions?”

The bees work in a glass structure designed by Susana Soares of Portugal.  When the patient exhales into that same glass structure, the bees must fly into a smaller chamber (within the larger glass chamber) if they smell disease. [image]

The next question the bee might ask, “What about the training?”

The training takes about 10 minutes.  The bees are exposed to a biomarker odor associated with a particular disease.  With each exposure they are fed a solution of water and sugar until they associate the odor with the reward.

“Reward, huh?” muses the honeybee applicant.  “What sort of benefits can I expect?”  “Are these job secure?”

The answer.  The 10 minute training will last for life.  Of course, your employer has to keep your skills sharp by rewarding you with water and sugar repeatedly.

“So,” the bee muses, “I only have to train once, and I’ll get rewarded almost constantly with water and sugar?”  “Sweet!”

And everyone’s wondering why bees leave their hives and don’t come back.


Honey bees can be trained to detect cancer “in ten minutes”


The DEA may be planning to use bees for security-related activities. “Security-related activities?”  Yes, bees may be rapidly replacing those clumsy flea-bitten beasts on four legs — drug-sniffing dogs.  Remember a bee’s nose put’s the canine sniffer to shame. A small hive of honeybees is easier to carry and care for than those hounds with their endless vaccinations, flea powder, and licensing requirements.

What working conditions can the bees expect? The same cushy conditions as those in medical diagnostics: Job security with constant rewards in the form of food – water and sugar.  But, instead of a glass jar, these bees work in a box. What do they do in the box. The same thing they did in the jar. It’s all about the bee’s amazing sense of smell.

Again, remember those noses. The bees don’t even have to leave home, but live in a mobile home or, rather, a box.  When air is blown through their “buzz box,” their responsive behavior alerts officers to the presence of drugs.

The box works on the same principle as the glass jar in medical diagnostics. The bees are trained to recognize the smell of a particular drug through rewards. When the air blows through the box, if the smell of contraband is detected, the bees react. But the buzz box is an especially easy gig – the bees don’t even have to fly. All they have to do is stick their tongues out. The users will recognize this, not as a sign of disrespect, but as preparation for meal as the bees associate the smell of drugs with a reward.

As far back as 2006, researchers at the Rothamsted Research Centre in Hertfordshire, UK were testing the first prototype of the buzz box.  It is being manufactured and marketed by Inscentinel a related company. Inscentinel’s General Manager, Rachael Carson, says that this technology could be used to detect more than drugs and might even be used to monitor food quality.

Rothamsted Research Centre


But with research also emphasizing security-related applications, such as the detection of TNT, Semtex, gunpowder and other explosives, another related career will soon be open to our job-seeking honeybees.



Remember the sign that used to say, “We’re looking for a few good dogs.” Well, the word “dogs” has been crossed out and “bees” written-in above it.

The same buzz box in which bees detect the scent of drugs, works just as well with the scent of explosives. This opens a wide range of civilian and military careers to our career-switching bees. The “B Teams” (bee teams) in the buzz boxes are building an impressive test record detecting explosives hidden in shipments passing through busy cargo airports.

The big losers here are the “former drug-sniffing” dogs. There may be a canine unemployment issue as man’s best friend starts pounding the pavement looking for work after losing out to the new, cheaper, and less care-intensive honeybee.


American researchers have, and are, experimented with mine-searching bees as part of combat landmine clearance. However, landmines can remain hidden in the ground long after hostilities have ended. During the peace, after war, the job of finding and removing “abandoned” landmines is called “humanitarian demining.”


Croatian researchers heard about the honeybee’s amazing nose and are, now, training bees to find unexploded landmines. About 750 square kilometers (466 square miles) of Croatia and the Balkans may still be filled with mines from the Balkan wars in the 1990’s.

Nikola Kezic, a professor at Zagreb University and an expert on the behavior of honeybees, has proposed an experiment: Bees have an almost perfect sense of smell – one that can quickly detect the scent of explosives. Can the insect be trained through food rewards to detect the smell of TNT?  TNT is the most frequent explosive used in the landmines.

The problem is that the smell of TNT evaporates very quickly. Too quickly for dogs or rats to detect. (Yes, rats have been used in landmine detection.) However, neither of these animals have a nose anywhere near as sensitive as that of the honeybee.

For these experiments, the bees will be trained by mixing a small quantity of TNT in with food — water and sugar. After the bees learn to associate the smell of TNT with food, they will be released into a field in which small quantities of TNT have been placed in various locations. If they can locate the TNT in the field, the bees should be able to smell the traces of TNT from a buried land mine. The Croatian researchers are optimistic about the early test results.

And speaking of “humanitarian” applications, let’s not forget the welfare or our dogs (and, apparently, even our rats). This is one career that the dogs and rats will be happy to leave behind. Although dogs can, sometimes, sniff out land mines they are rather heavy animals. Weight on the surface of the ground — above a landmine — doesn’t promise anything good for the locating canine. If a particular dog is successful in locating landmines, it tends to enjoy a very short career.

In contrast the bees remain airborne, and can not only detect TNT, but live to sniff another day.


At least one bee researcher expressed dismay with all of these new careers for the honeybee. The fear is that putting honeybees in these unfamiliar boxes and jars could cause stress that would affect the insect’s performance.  However, when you review the “unnatural” life of the modern “pollinating” honeybee, nothing about any of these new careers could be remotely stressful. So far, the bees seem to thoroughly enjoy the light work schedule and frequent rewards.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, someday soon, the almond orchards of California will have a serious honeybee shortage. CCD? Sure. Bees are dying in record numbers. But, just maybe, more than a few are escaping to alternative careers with comfortable working conditions, generous benefits, and long term security. Maybe even bees know a “better deal” when they find it . . . or smell it.


Mark Grossman: Dance Talkin’ — How The Bees Say it

13 February 2014

Bees?  Are they dancing or are they talking?  Are they talking or are they dancing?  But wait!  They’re doing both! . . . at the same time!  It’s called the waggle dance.  It’s, at least, one of the ways bees talk to each other.  What is the dance like?  Well, it involves waggling.  And, before the dance was understood to be a kind of language, at least one person who saw it, Nicholas Unhoch, thought the bees’ danced just for a good time —  enjoying “jollity.”  Then, Karl von Frisch got the idea that the bees were talking with the waggle dance.  He was a patient man.  He spent years observing and cataloging the “language” of the dance.

The dance is called a “recruitment” dance because the dancing bee is trying to get other bees in the hive to travel to a particular location at which, the waggle-dancer promises, the bees will be rewarded with loads of honey.

The dance language goes like this.  Imagine one of those old dance-step charts, showing footprints, which would be put on the floor to train would-be dancers.  The bee-version would be tacked up on the wall of the hive — actually, attached to the front of the honeycomb.  With bees, dancing is more of an “up and down” affair – unlike the human “back and forth” dance movement.

On the chart, you’ll see one straight line up the center; then, two lines curve out to the right and left at the top and, then, bending down and back inward to reconnect to the bottom of the straight center line. The bee dancer may follow this circuit more than 100 times.

The dancing bee follows that straight center line upward from the bottom to the top waggling all the way. This is called the waggle phase.  Then, when the waggle-dancer reaches the top of the straight center line, it stops waggling and goes to the right and back down to the bottom of the center line.  Then, it waggles its way back up to the top and, turning left this time, stops waggling as it goes back down to the bottom and repeats its climb to the top waggling all the way.

The Waggle Dance

But what does the dance say?  Well, first, it’s about direction.  If the bee waggle-dances absolutely straight up from bottom to top, before turning left or right, it means that, when the recruited bees leave the hive, they will find the honey by going in the exact direction of the sun in the sky.  If the “waggler” dances upward at even the slightest angle to the right side or the left, that is the exact angle to the right or left of the sun in the sky that the other bees must fly to find the honey.

Not only are waggle-dancing bees really good with angles, but these bees know how the sun moves.  Even if the bees linger in the hive for a long time after seeing the dance, it won’t throw the waggle dance directions off a bit.  The bees will compensate for the sun’s change of position by making the precise corrective adjustment necessary to locate and, then, follow the correct direction.

But knowing the direction of the honey is only half of what the recruited bees need to know.  To find the honey, they also need to know how far they’ll have to travel in that direction..  The distance is just as precisely communicated by the waggle-dancer but, now, with the timing of the waggling performance.  The longer the waggle-dancer takes to dance up the straight path from bottom to top, the farther away the honey will be found.

There are many small variations in the waggle dancer’s moves and each one means something.  But the dancer isn’t a commander, but a recruiter.  So, the message in the waggle dance isn’t a command.  The waggler is just “selling” it’s find of honey to the other bees in the hive.  But if this is salesmanship, do the bees in the hive ever “pass” on whatever the waggle- dancer is “pitching?”

Yes, just because a bee waggles doesn’t mean that the other bees must follow.  The first and greatest challenge is competition.  When I first heard this description of what happens in the hive, it reminded me of a row of pitchmen at a circus or fair.  There may be several, or something like a row of, bees each doing its own waggle dance, at the same time.  Each hoping to recruit it’s fellows to the hoard of honey that particular dancer has discovered.

As long as were discussing sales, you might wonder if there’s an art to sales even among bees.  Do some pitches work better than others?  Do some wagglers not just offer the steak, but “sell the sizzle?  (Better: Do some bees not just offer the honey, but sell the sweetness?)  But, even with bees, enthusiasm sells.

The more excited the bee is about the honey source, the more rapidly it will waggle, communicating its excitement about its find to the recruit-able bees in the audience.

Somehow, I can’t help imagining that I’ve seen this excited waggle in other . . . creatures.  When my dog hears the jangle of its leash, he runs back and forth between where I’m standing and the door, excited to be going outside.  I think I’ve seen him definitely waggling.

But back to bees.

There are “Do Bees” and “Don’t Bees.”  Bad behavior isn’t restricted to humans.  Overly enthusiastic waggling bees occasionally get out hand when it comes to sales.  When competing with their fellow wagglers, the dancers will, sometimes, disrupt their competitor’s dance.  Their competitor, in turn, will fight off the disruptor.  I can imagine the whole hive dissolving into the bee version of a barroom brawl.

But what about the potential recruits?  Do they watch dutifully to determine the best source and carefully note the direction and distance to the honey.   Surprising, like children in school, a few do, but most don’t.  Whether day-dreaming or quietly buzzing with their friends about hive gossip, many miss the waggle message completely.

Then, what happens when these inattentive bees are jostled from their distraction by the need to search for honey?  Well, they may lag, just a little, until the swarm forms.  When it takes off to find the next meal, these less informed bees will just follow along behind the swarm to find the honey.

What happens if a bee lags even longer and misses the direction of the departing swarm?  Not to worry.  Some bees just fly out of the hive and look around on their own hoping to catch a lucky break and find some honey by chance.

In spite of the “Don’t Bee” slackers, the waggle dance is important to the survival of hives when honey is hard to find.  When supplies are short, the scouts who come back to the hive to waggle-dance are the chief sources of information about honey location and, often, the only available sources of honey for the hive.  Only in good times can some bees slack off and others go their own way when gathering honey.

After the swarm follows the waggler and gathers a lot of honey, the bees will return to the hive loaded down.  Then, the returning bees pass their honey to receiver bees.  The receivers, in turn, seal the honey in the comb for storage.

But what happens if a swarm comes back loaded with honey to find all the rest of the bees are leaving to gather yet more honey, themselves?  Well, the load-carrying bees have to stop the departing bees from leaving because they are needed as “receivers.”  How do the loaded bees get the message across?  Another dance.  The “tremble dance” is used to recruit receiver bees for unloading and storing the honey brought back to the hive by bees carrying a full load.

And there are more dances.  If a bee gets infested with mites, or just covered with dust, it can do the “grooming dance.”  That dance recruits other bees to help the mite-infested or dusty bee get rid of its mites or clean itself up.


Mark Grossman: Zombie Bees Again?! – Spreading to Vermont

13 February 2014

The New York Times broke the story in late 2012.  There are zombie bees.  Discovered in California in 2008 by John Hafernik, a professor of biology at San Francisco State University, zombie bees keep spreading.

Of course, if zombie bees were going to “appear” somewhere, I wasn’t surprised that it turned out to be California.  Then, they were reported in Washington state.  Why not Oregon?  Actually, they had spread stealthily into Oregon with reports only surfacing well after the “zom-bees” (I couldn’t resist) were an established fact to the north, in Washington state.

But the next appearance puzzled me.  North Dakota seemed like the last place I’d expect to meet a zombie, but that was the next state in which the “zom-bees” appeared. The zombie horror genre had conditioned me to imagine brain-eating zombies in California.  And the “real” zombie lore might suggest Louisiana.  But North Dakota just doesn’t have the “feel” of a hotspot for zombie anything.  But the “zom-bees” can fly where they will.  If, as “zom-bees,” they still have a “will.”

And their latest flight has taken them from South Dakota to Burlington, Vermont.  There, amateur beekeeper Anthony Cantrell began finding dead bees near his home.  One can only imagine his “horror” when he discovered a close match between the behavior of his dying bees and a description on, the website belonging Hafernik and his colleagues.  Dr. Van Helsing, er, ah, I mean, Professor Hafernik soon arrived to investigate and confirm that, indeed, Cantrell’s bees had been zombified!

The bee version of a zombie needs its own description.  They aren’t really much like the brain-eating zombies created by Hollywood.  And, then, there are the “real” zombies.  At least, the real belief in zombies that goes with a belief in Voodoo. But neither the “zombies” of Hollywood or Voodoo exactly match our zombie bees.  Still, when you hear how zombie bees behave, you’ll understand why “zombie” was picked as the best way to describe the fate of these poor insects.

The zombie bee falls victim to a parasitic fly, apocephalus borealis. The fly lays its eggs physically inside the bee’s body.  Then, the eggs actually affect the bee’s behavior.  However, the eggs and larvae of the apocephalus borealis fly control the bee’s “mind,” only briefly, before causing its death.

Under the influence of the developing fly larvae, the honeybee abandons its exclusively daytime routine and does something a bee doesn’t do  — flies at night.  Just before, and during, this “last flight” into the night, (what Hafernik calls “”the flight of the living dead,’”) the bee begins to move erratically.  It ends its last flight in death.  Only then, do the fly larvae eat their way out of the dead bee to continue their growth to maturity.

Cantrell reported that, at a recent meeting of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, Steve Parise, an agriculture production specialist with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, discussed the threat posed by zombie bees.  Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture is considering trapping bees to investigate the zombie bee threat.

The culprit fly was originally discovered in the 1920s, in Maine. Since that time, it has spread across the United States.  It was a known parasite of bumblebees and yellow jacket hornets — but it left honeybees alone.  At least, it did until 2008, when the fly changed.  Now, it’s a honeybee parasite.  Not only do the fly’s eggs and larvae feed off the honeybee, they turn the victim into a zombie.

The End?

Mark Grossman: Electric Bees

13 February 2014

Nature seems like magic.  For centuries we’ve marveled at natural mysteries.  How did the ants communicate and maintain their coordinated and orderly activities with such amazing precision?  And how did bees communicate with each other?  How did they identify different types of flowers?  Then, how did they select the flowers with honey?  It all seemed like magic.

But, so does a stage magician’s mind-reading act. The magician’s assistant mingles with members of the audience who tell the assistant secrets or show the assistant secret objects. Though too far away to see or hear the secret, the magician knows the secret or the object instantly. It seems like magic, but it isn’t. The magician’s assistant is wired for sound – “wearing a wire.”

Now, researchers suggest that honeybees, among themselves, and, together with the assistance and support of the flowers, have been fooling us for thousands of years.  They’ve been fooling us into thinking they had some kind of magical instinct.  But, all along, they’ve been “wearing a wire.”

Well, at least, we’ve learned this much.  Honeybees generate and pick up an electrical charge when they fly.  The charge is so strong that honeybees emit electrical fields.  The bee’s chief form communication is the waggle dance.  The waggle dancing bee informs its audience that it has found a rich area full of flowers loaded with honey.  The bee’s dance is intended to inform (and persuade) the rest of the bees in the hive.

At least that’s what we always thought was going on.  But, now, researchers have discovered that the dancing bee emits an electric field.  That field is so strong that it has been known to move the antenna of the bees “in the audience.”  The dancing bee’s electrical field becomes even stronger when combined with sound – a sound like buzzing.

All this time, scientists have been carefully observing the waggle dancers “steps” (choreography), while the dancing bee may just be talking to the audience electrically — sort of like the bee version of a walkie-talkie.  Maybe, bees don’t even need to waggle dance when they “talk.” Maybe, they just like to waggle when they talk on bee version of a cell phone.

As if that wasn’t enough of a “buzz-kill” for those of us who used to be wrapped up in the magic and mystery of bee communication, it turns out that flowers are in on the “act” as well.  Researchers at the University of Bristol discovered that, like bees, flowers also have electrical fields.  And guess what.  The flowers’ electrical fields seem to communicate with bumblebees.

Like some transportation and reconnaissance computers, a flower’s electrical field seems to tell the bee everything – flower type, volume of pollen, time of last bee visit, etc.  It’s sort of like a modern air traffic control computer.  It does everything for the operator.  No wonder bees are so well organized, what else do they have to do?

It may turn out that the bee’s elaborate dance and the flowers’ colors, shapes, and odor, may be just be so much “smoke and mirrors” to conceal their equivalent of “on board computers” handling everything.