Autor: Fabian Kalis

With the first warm spring days, thoughts of the beautiful things of the warm seasons come to mind: summer sun, beach, and outdoor fun. What of course should not be missing in such weather is cool ice cream. The classic ice cream in the ice cream cone made from dairy is particularly popular here. A sweet and delicious treat for young and old. What hardly anyone thinks about, however, is the long chain of production steps that precede this summer fun. And it doesn’t start with the cows that provide the milk for cream production, it is the bees. They ensure the pollination of the plants that serve the cows as a source of food and thus form the basis of all dairy products. And here the bees sometimes have a really bad job. The flowering meadows with buzzing bees in bright sunshine may give a romantic picture, but hidden from view, exciting processes take place here. And it’s not always fun and games for the bees.

One of the most important plants in the diet of dairy cows is alfalfa (Medicago sativa). This protein-rich plant is the basis for almost all feed for the dairy farm. The ingredients of the plant ensure an increased milk production and thus improve the milk yield. The cows love this plant both directly from the pasture and processed in the feed. The bees are also happy about the many purple flowers that keep their nectar ready in the alfalfa fields.

Honeybee on an alfalfa flower

But what exactly is the problem with the whole thing? The flowers of the alfalfa have a very special property: In order to ensure reproduction, they don’t rely on pollen getting stuck in the bees‘ bristle dress by chance. These flowers make sure that every bee that nibbles on the precious nectar also carries a large load of pollen to the next flower. For this purpose, the plant has developed a mechanism that hurls a concentrated load of pollen at the head of the bees with great momentum. The bees are literally hit in the face by the flower.

The Landing of a pollinating insect on the keel of the flower releases the stamens which are normally hidden under the wings of the flowers. They fold down and slap a load of pollen on the pollinator’s heads before they fold back again to their normal protected position, where they remain hidden until the next victim flies around.

The honeybees don’t seem to be particularly thrilled about this spectacle. They learn very quickly that there are other ways to get the nectar here. After a few painful learning experiences, they collect the nectar sideways from the inside of the flower and thus avoid triggering the mechanism. For the flowers, however, there is no successful pollination. As a result, only 1% of the flowers are pollinated by bees.

Different species of bumblebee seem to have fewer problems with this spectacle. They are the main pollinators of alfalfa and are not impressed by the punch on their heads. Solitary leafcutter bees (Megachile rotundata) are also effective pollinators. This type of bee is the most actively used solitary bee in the world in agriculture. In order to ensure successful pollination of the large alfalfa cultivation areas, areas are deliberately chosen in which a large number of wild bumblebee species occur or a large number of leafcutter bees are artificially settled.

So the next time you enjoy ice cream, think about how many bees had to take a slap in the face.

Text: Fabian Kalis

Image source: Ivar Leidus, CC-BY-SA 4.0, <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.de>, via Wikimedia Commons, no changes were made to the image.

In this new addition, I`ll share some of the interesting traditional and ancient tales, fables, and stories about bees that different cultures have to offer. Also, I’ll post bee poetry by myself and others.  

Within the tribe of the Melliponini, there are three species of stingless, state-forming bees in the genus Triguna, which have discovered a food source very special for bees. They are the species Trigona necrophaga, T. crassipes and T. hypogea. The species name necrophaga is made up of the Greek words “nekros” (death) and “phagein” (to eat). Like all other types of bees, these bees collect plant nectar in order to produce honey from them, but they do not cover their protein requirements by bringing in pollen. These bees collect the flesh of the decaying remains of dead animals. They are scavengers. They are also called Vulture Bees. These special species are found exclusively in South and Central America and the Caribbean.

The bees usually penetrate the carcass through the eyes and then collect the meat that is best for them inside. This is first salivated so that the bee’s own enzymes pre-digest the meat before it is gnawed, chewed, and chopped up, and stored in the special honey stomach that all bees have, which is normally used to transport large amounts of nectar. The meat is then brought home to the beehive. There the fleshy pulp, which has meanwhile been enriched with the body’s own enzymes from the collecting bee and traces of sweet plant nectars, which are always found in the honey stomachs, is passed on to the workers in the bee colony. Exactly as with the nectar, this pulp is now passed from bee to bee and in the process more and more thickened and more and more enriched with enzymes. In this process, nectar slowly turns into honey. The meat pulp, together with the small amounts of nectar from the honey stomachs, turns into a honey-like, sugar-rich, high-protein pulp. Like the finished honey, this meat honey pulp is now stored in storage containers made of wax. You could say that honey is produced here, which consists largely of rotten meat. This special pulp is the food for the young bees. The larvae need a high protein diet in order to grow up quickly and to build up enough reserves for their metamorphosis into adult bees.

Different insects feeding on a dead animal body

The finished meat honey has a dark gray-brown color and a sour taste with a slight sweetness. Some native residents of neotropical regions where these bees live also use this special meat honey for food purposes. It contains far less sugar than conventional honey, but the high content of animal protein still makes it a valuable source of food.

This honey is truly a curiosity among the special types of honey. I would love to have a taste. Unfortunately, this pleasure has so far been denied to me. With regard to the already difficult legal status of honey from alien (honey)bee species (see my article Honey Discrimination), this honey presents a particular difficulty.

The nests of the genus Trigona are usually built within burrows in the ground or hollow trunks. They build their nests out of beeswax, propolis, and plant resins. The honey and meat pulp are stored in large egg-shaped wax pots, around which the small brood combs are arranged. Pure honey made from plant nectar and honeydew and the special meat honey are not necessarily stored separately from each other. Mixtures of these two are therefore often created.

Text: Fabian Kalis

Image source: Luis Fernández García, CC BY-SA 2.5 ES <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/es/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

In the warm months of spring and summer, when nature buzzes and flourishes, when thousands of bees can be seen on the flowers and when there is a wonderful smell of summer and vitality, it is easy to imagine how a beekeeper with his own Bees works, how he catches swarms, how he equips beehives and baskets with new colonies, how he inspects the bee colonies, looks for full honeycombs and then looks for the precious honey to be ripe at the right time. And when the time comes and the baskets and boxes almost burst with full honeycombs, then it is harvested, hurled, pressed, sifted, and bottled. Yes, these are really busy times for a beekeeper.

Towards autumn the bees have to be fed with winter food and the last inspections are made before the cold season. And the last honey harvest of late summer is still stored in the shed, waiting to be stirred, filled, weighed, and labeled. The apiaries need to be winterized, tools and empty beehives and skeps stowed away, and the year brought to a good ending. Many people can still imagine that too.

A snow-covered modern beehive made of wood

But what about actual winter? In this cold and quiet time of the bee year, there is not much to see of the industrious insects. The snow-covered boxes and baskets appear calm and lifeless in the icy winter world. No flower lures the honey collectors out, no humming sounds are made at the entrance holes, and it is far too cold to look inside the beehive. It is very clear that the beekeeper does not have much to do with his bees themselves during this time. For many, the question arises: What does a beekeeper actually do in winter? The assumptions are mostly in the direction of lazing around in the warm home on long-term winter holidays. In short: the beekeeper must be unemployed in winter.

Of course, that’s not true. The bee year offers enough to do in the cold season to keep the beekeeper busy. In the traditional heather beekeeping, in which the bees were held in the typical skeps, called Lüneburger Stülper, winter was the time to repair old empty skeps so that they were ready for use again for the many swarms and young colonies in the next spring. The skeps, woven from rye straw, were tied together with ribbons made from blackberry tendrils or hazel bark and coated with a layer of Maibutter (the cattle’s first droppings when they come to pasture in spring), and many of these natural materials become brittle and loosen over time. It had to be repaired and renewed. Remnants of old combs and prpolis residues had to be scraped out of old skeps and the outer layer, which protects the straw baskets from the weather, was scrubbed off so that it could be freshly applied in spring. It was also necessary to replace the number of baskets that can no longer be repaired with new skeps that were woven from scratch. This monotonous work was carried out in the warm home by the blazing fireplace in winter meditation. In the warm bee months, there was no free hour for such very time-consuming work.

Braiding beehives (skeps) from long straw. Typical work in autumn and winter. Great Britain 1893

Winter was also the time when the beeswax, which was pressed into raw wax blocks with large wooden wax presses after the honey was harvested, was cleaned and melted down for further processing. The stoves and fireplaces, which were already burning in winter, were used for this purpose. Only a fool would have come up with the idea to light a fire that burns for hours on warm summer days to slowly melt down wax and thus waste the precious firewood. So winter was also the time to pour and draw candles. Drawing candles, like skep weaving, is a monotonous and meditative work that could be wonderfully carried out in the warm rooms of the home in the glow of candlelight.

Beehive with empty, old honeycombs

So the beekeepers, like the bees themselves, sat in the warm home in the winter months, well-protected from the winter temperatures until spring lures work outside again. And just like in the hives and skeps, which look lifeless from the outside, but which are full of busy bees inside the winter cluster,  which are already starting to incubate the new young bees for spring, the beekeepers themselves were not lazy in their solitude but busy preparing for the next bee year so that on the first warm sunny days in spring, life was full of strength again and ready to burst back into the world.

The times of traditional heather beekeeping are of course long gone and even if there are still a few idealists (e.g. myself) who continue to use old skeps, at least a lot has changed in people’s living conditions. Nevertheless, even for the modern beekeeper, winter is not so dissimilar to the old days. In modern beekeeping, too, it is now important to repair the old beehives and skeps, to build new beehives and skeps, and to free old empty hives from wax residues. In conventional beekeeping, which works with movable wooden frames into which panels made of beeswax are embedded, making these frames and soldering the honeycomb panels is a popular (or unpopular for many, because it is very time-consuming and monotonous) works. Even today, the beeswax that has accumulated over the year is often prepared in winter and then processed into beeswax candles, which are particularly popular during Christmas. Many beekeepers now produce almost all their candle supplies for the next year. And often there are still many full honey buckets in the warehouses, which now have to be filled and labeled after the first glasses of the last harvest have been sold and there is new space on the shelves for more.

And then of course there is also the marketing, which ideally does not rest all year round.

So there is enough for the beekeeper to do even in winter.

Text: Fabian Kalis

Image source: Fabian Kalis / Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons / Simon Speed, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Honey is a popular food and not only here in Germany, but worldwide. It is a delicacy and the many varieties from around the world are all popular. As a beekeeper, bee researcher, and honey lover, I am of course always looking for rare and special honey that I don’t know yet. In the meantime, it is often the western honeybee Apis mellifera that has become globalized livestock through humans, to which we owe the precious honey. Originally native to Europe, Apis mellifera has meanwhile largely displaced the honey bee species (Apis spp.) Originally native to other parts of the world from agriculture. Most honey, no matter where it comes from, now comes from this one western honey bee species. However, since each species has its own properties that are adapted to the respective region, the honey also differs slightly from species to species, even if it comes from the same region. Different species have different abilities to visit certain flowers or not. As a result of this globalization, a large part of the honey diversity is lost. So if you are looking for special honey, you should fall back on beekeepers who keep the original bees of their region.

Hive box containing a colony of Heterotrigona itama

But this is exactly where things get difficult. By that, I mean less the problems of locating such contacts and more the legal obstacles. What honey is and can be marketed as honey is clearly defined by law. In many (European) countries, only honey from the western honey bee Apis mellifera is allowed to be labeled and marketed as honey. This completely rules out the honey of all other honey bee species native to other parts of the world. In Germany, the wording is a little more revealing: According to the German Honey Ordinance, only honey from honey bees, i.e. bees of the Apis genus, may be referred to and marketed as honey. That includes at least the other honey bee species, but that’s not enough for real honey lovers either. There are other bees that produce honey: the meliponini. This tribe within the Apidea family (real bees) includes various genera of small, stingless bees that also form states and produce honey. They are prevalent pantropically in South and Central America as well as Australia. But there are also a few of these stingless bee species in Asia and Africa. Of course, the honey from these bee colonies has been traditionally used by local people for a long time. In modern times, stingless bees are even more and more used in small-scale farming. The small colonies can be kept in simple hives and therefore require little further equipment. As native species, they are much more robust and disease-resistant than the introduced honeybee species. Therefore, the Meliponini colonies are much more affordable for the often poor rural population than the expensive modern beehives with the western honeybees, which are overbred and often susceptible to diseases outside their endemic home. But in many countries, especially in the EU, this honey is not honey within the meaning of the respective honey regulations. It may not be marketed or put on the market as honey. So there is clearly enough of honey discrimination here. After all, it is honey that is also produced by bees and there is no reason to deny them their right to honey production just because they belong to a different species or genus. We should refrain from such ideas very quickly …

Trogina spinipes, a stingless bee native to South America

The question arises, of course, how broadly one can grasp the term honey. Some bumblebee species (Bombus spp.) that form the state also produce honey and even some wasp species (Vespidae or Masarinae), and this too has a long tradition of human use. In general, honey in biology is a sugar-containing substance made by insects from sugar-containing plant nectar or honeydew, the sugar-containing excretions of plant sap-sucking insects, by adding endogenous enzymes and then strongly thickened by removing the water content. At least according to this view, the stingless bees, the state-forming bumblebees, and honey wasps also produce honey. The restriction in food law means that these original and endemic honey producers (regardless of whether they are bees, honeybees, bumblebees, or wasps) are increasingly being displaced by globalized agriculture with uniform livestock species around the world. Some of these already endangered species have a high risk of dying out due to this exclusion and could soon be completely vanished from the earth. In terms of biodiversity and environmental protection, this is of course a disaster. Innovation in food law should therefore urgently be considered.

Text: Fabian Kalis

Image source: Mohamad Izham M.A, Ma Hzi Wong at Malay Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons unten: José Reynaldo da Fonseca, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever wondered how the bees reproduce? If you are not a beekeeper probably not. But let me tell you, it is one heck of a story.

It all starts in the swarm season, which here in Germany is in the spring, mostly in May, when the bee colonies start to produce a lot of male bees, the drones. These cute little creatures are much bigger than the female worker bees, even bigger than the queen herself, and are easily recognized by their huge eyes.

Unlike the female worker bees, the drones don’t have a stinger. And they also won’t work as the females do. They can’t even feed themselves and have to be fed by the worker bees. Their only use inside the hive is for heating purposes when it is really cold at night. Since they are bigger, they can produce a lot more heat than the smaller females by vibrating with their wings. The drones live as vagabonds and fly out to different hives in the area, enjoying their bachelor’s life.

A hatching drone

But this lazy lifestyle comes to an end when the young queens hatch and the swarming begins. When a bee colony wants to split, the worker bees start to build special cells, where new queens are produced. The larvae inside these cells are fed with the special gelee royale, which makes them become fertile females: queens. The worker bees are infertile females. These special cells are also bigger thane the ones for the worker bees since the queens are much bigger. Right before the new queens hatch, they make a loud noise inside their cell. This is the signal for the old queen to fly out with a big chunk of the worker bees to start a new colony. These bees are the beeswarms.

A male bee

The reaming bees greet their freshly hatched queen and continue their everyday business. The first queen that hatches in a hive immediately starts killing the queens in the other cells before they are able to hatch. There can only be one queen to reign.

In this stage, the young queen can’t lay eggs yet. She has to be impregnated by the male bees. And this is where it gets really interesting. The young queen of course isn’t impregnated by the drones inside the hive, these are her own brothers. In order to mate with drones from other hives, she has to meet up with them in a special place: the mating spot.

A drone resting on a leaf

Until now, we have no idea how the bees choose this location, because it changes every year. But all young queens and all the drones know instantly where to go at this moment. And the spot can be up to 20 km away from a single hive. Yet all the bees now exactly when and where to go, even although they never have been there themselves nor has there been another bee from the previous year mating, which could have told them where to go. How they know this is one of the many mysteries, the bees still have left until now.

When the queens enter the mating spot, they are immediately greeted by hundreds of drones. Now the mating begins. Males and females come together on the mating flight. The drone attaches himself to the queen and right when he finishes his penis explodes (you can even hear a little „bang“ if you are close enough, so know you know where the word „banging“ comes from…) and the male dies and falls off onto the ground. But the queen isn’t satisfied yet. She mates with up to 20 different drones. But the drones after the first one have a slightly more difficult job. In order to be able to mate with the queen, they have to pull out the remaining penis from the previous drone, which is still inside the queen.

When the queen has acquired enough semen to last her whole life (she stores them in a special organ and uses one sperm at a time to fertilize each egg), she flies back home to her own bee colony. During the mating flight, she is accompanied by a small number of worker bees, which protect her during the process. Back home one of those bees has to pull out the last drone’s penis. Now her ovaries evolve fully and she becomes unable to fly (remember the old queen wich flies out while swarming? She has to be put on a special diet a few days prior in order to be able to fly again). After a few days, the queen starts laying eggs and the cycle of life continues.

Fabian Kalis

 

Topic introduction: what I’ll post in this category.

In this topic, I explore some of the rarest honey of the world and give you an interesting inside look at how they are produced, harvested, and used by the people who know it. I give you background information about the plants from which the nectar or honeydew is collected and the nutritional, healing, and magical properties the honey has.

Topic introduction: what I’ll post in this category.

Ancient magical practices about the bees from all over the world, beefolkore of different cultures, and myths and beegods and goddesses are shared in this topic. Learn how the bees saved the whole world of gods and man more than one time or how man used a crazy loud noise for making sure to catch bee swarms in the medieval time.

Topic introduction: what I’ll post in this category.

In this topic, I share my adventures I have while traveling around and visit all kinds of different beekeepers and beekeeping cultures. Also, I give stories about beekeeping culture I learned about in my bee research.

Topic introduction: what I’ll post in this category.

Ever wondered how it goes with the bees and the flowers? Let me answer this and give you an inside look into the life of bees. Don’t worry, it won’t be like one of those boring educational films you know back from school. I’ll try to keep it fun and easy. So, if you want to find out about how bee vomit got a loved food and what it’s all about with the exploding penises in the mating process of the bees and other crazy stories, then this is the place for you.