Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is dead. A great and sad loss for the British monarchy. But it’s not only the people who mourn. Hardly anyone knows that many bee colonies also belong to the royal family. The beehives that are located on the grounds surrounding Buckingham Palace and Clarence House were the reigning monarch’s personal bees.
The royal bees were now informed of the death of their mistress with an archaic ritual. This was the job of John Chapple, guardian of the royal bees, who has been looking after the Queen’s bees for a good 15 years. The reason for this odd act is an old superstition known as “Telling the bees” which is still living folklore in English-speaking countries. According to this, bee colonies have to be informed about the death of their master or mistress through a special ritual and dressed in black cloths. If one does not do this, one fears that the bee colonies would follow the deceased into the realm of the dead and die themselves. In the worst case, this could even result in the death of the new master of the bees.
With the saying “The mistress is dead, but don’t you go. Your master will be a good master to you”, the beekeeper told the queen’s bee colonies the sad news after gently tapping on their hives to get the bees‘ attention. He then informed the bee colonies who now is the new master of the bees. In this case, that is the new reigning king, King Charles III. Finally, long black cloths are tied around the beehives. Of course, noble black ribbons, which are tied together with stylish little bows, were used for this royal occasion. These ribbons remain on the hives as long as the funeral ceremonies for the deceased regent continue. This procedure is intended to give the bees an opportunity to mourn the loss of their mistress. John Chapple also asked the bees to be kind to their new master, King Chalres III.
The message must be conveyed to each bee colony personally and individually. In this case, this was a manageable undertaking: The royal bee population consists only of 7 beehives. Two hives are located at Clarence House and five hives at Buckingham Palace.
John Chapple’s path to becoming the royal beekeeper was more of an unplanned accident. One day, the palace gardener unexpectedly invited him by e-mail to talk about bees, the 79-year-old recalls. Chapple initially thought it was a bee problem on the royal estates. It is not uncommon for beekeepers to be contacted about swarms of bees. But the palace had other plans: it was not a question of catching bees, but of acquiring and caring for new bee colonies. The Queen should start to keep royal bees. And without further ado, beekeeper John Chapple was henceforth declared royal beekeeper, who was to take care of Her Majesty’s bees from then on. However, whether he continues to be the guardian of the royal bees under the reign of King Charles III is currently uncertain.
In addition to the delicious honey, other products from the beehive are also very popular. As a natural remedy or natural food supplement: propolis, pollen and the like have long been used in traditional applications. Another less-known product from the bee world is the legendary royal jelly.
Not only is it used in high-priced cosmetics, but also in alternative medicine. Many people swear by this special substance from the bees. Countless healing effects are attributed to the miracle substance. It is said to be a fountain of youth for the skin and body and to bring new vitality to weakened and burned-out bodies. In fact, it’s even occasionally touted as a cure for cancer. However, it is often questionable which effects can be empirically proven and which stem more from wishful thinking in alternative medicine. Nevertheless, as a beekeeper, I am often asked if I also sell royal jelly. The demand for the supposed miracle substance from the hive is great.
The answer to this question is a resounding no, though. I do not harvest royal jelly from my own apiary, nor do I sell this bee product. And that I do with conviction. The whole thing however has nothing to do with the fact that harvesting and processing royal jelly is very time-consuming and expensive, rather there are ethical reasons that prevent me from doing so. In my opinion, the harvest of royal jelly is a massacre of the bees and does not fit in with a natural way of beekeeping. It is an act of animal cruelty and contempt for life.
Royal jelly is a nutritious jelly that worker bees produce themselves in special glands. The larvae of the young queens are fed this juice. It’s this substance that makes the difference whether a barren, simple worker bee or a majestic queen bee arises from a larva. Only the larvae that receive sufficient royal jelly develop into young queens, the only fully developed females in the hive. The larvae of the young queens are fed with the special substance up until they metamorphose into adult animals. In the sealed cells, they swim, so to speak, in a supply of royal jelly. Worker larvae, on the other hand, are only fed the precious commodity for a short time at the beginning of their development. They will then only receive a mixture of perga (fermented pollen) and honey for their further diet.
Royal jelly is therefore a natural substance that is able to turn simple workers into true queens. No wonder it’s so popular. Who doesn’t want a piece of that? The name is also important. The name Royal jelly or Gelee royal, as the French call it, sells well because it sounds sublime and high-quality. Even if hardly anyone knows what royal jelly actually is, the name leaves no doubt that it is something that is intended for queens and kings. And that surely must be good.
But how does the special feed intended for the growing offspring of bees get into the hands of human consumers? The answer to this is simple: abortion. In order to be able to harvest the royal jelly, the baby bees (larvae) must be removed from the cells. They are torn from their protective cell, which is very similar to a uterus, and die within a very short time because outside the protective cell and without the nutritious food supply, the larvae undercool and starve basically instantly. A loss that doesn’t matter to the beekeeper, because the larvae have already done their job. The desired royal jelly is now in the cells and can be harvested.
But in such a cell there is not very much of the desired jelly. Only a few milliliters of royal jelly can be harvested per aborted queen. In addition, royal jelly can only be harvested with expensive, specialized equipment and must be refrigerated or freeze-dried after harvesting. The harvest of this substance is therefore associated with high costs and a lot of work for the beekeeper. And how can the whole thing be profitable, if you can only harvest the tiniest amounts per abortion? The solution is quite simple: mass abortion.
The beekeepers artificially stimulate the bee colonies to raise an unnatural amount of young queens. After the old queen bee has been removed from the hive (usually killed, which causes immense stress on the bees), frames of artificial queen cells are placed in the hive. The beekeeper places a larva in each of these cells beforehand, which he can take from the cells in the brood nest of the colony. The worker bees from the colony now begin an emergency program (the loss of the queen means the death of the entire colony in the worst case) to care for and raise the new young queens in the artificial cells so that they can have a new queen in the colony as quickly as possible. Normally, the bees only do this with a handful of cells when there is a natural loss of their queen. With this artificial method, however, hundreds of queen larvae per colony can be raised at the same time.
Once the cells have reached the peak of their filling level, they are harvested. „Harvest“ in this case is a euphemism for mass murder or mass abortion. Hundreds of young queens are now being aborted in laborious manual work. Meanwhile, the cells freed from the unnecessary baby bees can be emptied with a special vacuum cleaner. However, even with this method of mass abortion, only about 500 g of the coveted substance can be harvested per colony per year. This explains the high price of the popular product.
The royal jelly must then be stored in a cool place so that it does not spoil. It is often freeze-dried to preserve it. The poor victims of this mass abortion, on the other hand, are ignored. They can simply be thrown on the ground next to the beehives to die. Fortunately, the larvae are so tiny that it is difficult to see them with the naked eye. And they don’t have the cute little round eyes common in mammals, either. So, it is easy to forget about the true nature of this questionable execution.
The result of this mass abortion can now be bottled and marketed at high prices. There are enough customers. Because when it comes to (supposed) healing powers, it doesn’t matter if a mass abortion has to be carried out for it. So the next time you want to buy a cosmetic product with royal jelly, think about how many abortions beautiful skin is worth to you.
Even people who don’t have a degree in biology know that flying insects that live on land have very little in common with fish. Bees are insects and fish are fish. In the wide variety of life, these are two areas that are anything but closely related. In this case, no one would think of claiming that bees are even remotely related to fish or even fish themselves, right?
Well, as absurd as it may sound, a California court has now ruled exactly that: bees can now legally be considered fish. At least according to California law. How this strange ruling came about and why it even makes sense requires some explanation.
In this particular case, it is actually not about bees, but about bumblebees. Why the headlines are all about bees is explained as follows: bumble bees and bees are often lumped together in English-speaking countries. Both bumblebees and bees are colloquially referred to as bees. For many English speakers, bumblebees are a type of bee. However, since the court ruling is a landmark decision, the new case law not only affects bumblebees but also bees (and many other species as well). So in this case we sure can talk about bees.
The said ruling, which was released on May 31, 2022, overturned an earlier ruling that found bumblebees were not considered a protected species under the California Endangered Species Act. The background is that the wording of this regulation only provides for the protection of „native species or subspecies of a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant.“. Insects and other invertebrates (which also includes bees and bumblebees) are not included in this list and have therefore not been included in the list of species protected under this regulation. At least up to now.
The California court however has now ruled that bumblebees fall within the definition of „fish“ under that regulation and can therefore be included in the list of protected species. The Court argued as follows: The regulation itself defines the term “fish” as
„a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals“
Since insects (and thus also our bees and bumblebees) are also invertebrates, they clearly fall under the definition of fish described in the regulation itself, according to the court in its reasoning.
With that decision, the California court overturned a previous ruling by the Sacramento District Court from 2020 that had ruled that this definition in the regulation only applied to marine creatures. Invertebrates could therefore only be considered fish for the purposes of this regulation if they lived in water.
While the 2020 decision clearly makes more sense from a logical point of view, the ruling however is definitely the more sensible one ecologically. The background to all the legal confusion and the somewhat strange ruling was a petition from 2018 that demanded that 4 endangered bumblebee species in California shall be included in the list of protected species in order to obtain special legal protection. The decision of the previous court back than meant that the local authorities lacked the legal basis to enforce this special protection. Their hands were tied.
With the new ruling from California, the endangered bumblebee species can now get the protection they need on a solid legal basis. Furthermore, this ruling also opens up the possibility that further species of terrestrial invertebrates can be included in the future if necessary. For it is clear after this ruling: All invertebrates are fish enough to be legally considered fish, even if they live on land and are actually not fish but insects.
In fact, it is amazing enough that bees have populated the entire world with the exception of Antarctica (and the parts of China where they were successfully exterminated). No matter how warm or cold it is, wherever there are flowers, there are specialized bee species that ensure the local pollination of the plants. There are even bees in areas in the icy Arctic and the hostile Sahara.
But a place where you would definitely not expect the bees is space. And yet the little insects made it there too. Not on their own, of course, they owe their space voyages to curious scientists. But in purely quantitative terms, the bees are superior to man when it comes to space travel: 6815 of them have made it into space (or rather, into orbit). So far there have been more bees in space than people.
But what reason is there to send the hard-working little pollinators so far away from their natural environment with all the blooming plants? And what do the bees actually say about it?
So far there have been 3 space missions in which bees have been sent into space. The first of them was in 1982. On this first mission, 14 individual bees were put into orbit to study how weightlessness affects their ability to fly and their behavior. Such experiments have already been tested with other insects. The result: After a few uncontrolled flights due to the weightlessness, the insects gave up their flight attempts completely and from then on only moved crawling through their dwellings. With the very intelligent bees, one hoped for a different result. Unfortunately, the 14 individual bees, detached from their natural way of life as a colony, were not really capable of surviving and the experiment did not produce any new results.
As a result, two new bee experiments were brought to the space station in 1984 with the Challenger. Here, two special space-suitable beehives (bee enclosure modules, BEM for short) including honeycombs, and each with 3400 bees (including a queen bee) were sent into space. These were actually viable mini bee colonies. The planned experiments could now be carried out with real bee colonies. In addition to the flight behavior in weightlessness, one wanted to study the honeycomb construction behavior in weightlessness.
These bees, too, initially only made very uncontrolled flights in weightlessness and at the beginning constantly bumped against the walls of their bee space travel modules. However, because honey bees are extremely adaptive, they quickly developed new strategies for locomotion in the new environment. After just seven days, the bees were able to fly without problems even in weightlessness. This distinguishes them from all other insects that were tested in weightlessness. The queen bee also normally laid eggs in the cells of the comb. What is even more astonishing: The bees were even able to build their honeycomb structure without any problems despite the lack of gravity. This is a particularly astonishing result since the common doctrine is that the bees orient the alignment of their honeycomb structure on the basis of gravity. The honeycombs always hang vertically facing the ground. Even in zero gravity, all honeycombs were built in a uniform “downwards” direction.
Overall, this research shows that bees hold many more secrets than we previously believed and that they are extraordinarily adaptable.
I wonder what the astronauts thought of these experiments. I can imagine that floating through space in a confined space together with possibly 6,800 bees in an isolated capsule is not pleasant for everyone. But I’m sure NASA has done everything possible here to develop escape-proof space beehives. After all, this was the most expensive bee experiment in history to date.
Anyone who has now done the math in their head will say: “But that was only 6814 bees. There’s still one missing.” And that’s exactly right. The last bee was a lone fighter and was recently sent into space. However, it is not an involuntary passenger who accidentally sat in the space capsule when taking off, but an art project of the Federal Art Hall in Germany. There are bess living in several beehives on the roof of the Federal Art Hall. For a special exhibition called “Outerspace”, one of these bees was enclosed in synthetic resin and shot into space on May 28, 2014, together with the astronaut Alexander Gerst. After this poor bee, degraded to an art object, had completed its excursion into space, it was brought back to earth again and has since been admired in the exhibition. So you could say that she is the most famous of the space bees, although, unlike the other 6814 bees, she was not even there alive.
Did the bees also produce cosmic honey?
Of course, the space bees had no way of collecting nectar, and therefore producing a special space honey on the space station was not a possible outcome. They instead were fed with regular sugar solution. However, there is an interesting anecdote to report from the episode “The Sting”, Episode 12, Season 4 of the animated series “Futurama”. In this fictional story, the crew of the space courier Planet Express is supposed to collect space honey from gigantic bees living in space. As appropriate for such extraordinary honey, this honey has very special properties: 1 spoon has a calming effect, 2 spoons cause deep sleep. However, a warning is given against consuming more than 2 spoons. 3 spoons are supposed to induce sleep that is so deep that you never wake up from it again. So it is clearly a psychoactive honey. Fittingly, the whole plot revolves around experiences that the protagonist Leela experiences in a delirium induced by the space bees. The whole thing may be a purely fictional story, but when it comes to cool psychoactive honey, an intoxicating space honey clearly takes the forefront.
Astrobees: The autonomous bee robots on the ISS
But the futuristic story continues in a no less exciting way in our real world: under the name Astrobees, 3 autonomous, intelligent, flying robots have been operating on the ISS for some time. These square cubes are intended to support the astronauts in their daily tasks. They owe their name to the humming noise they make when they float through weightlessness. To prevent collisions between humans and machines in tight spaces, the small robots are equipped with flashing lights that indicate their destination during flight. Since intelligent, humming space bee robots that fly independently through the space station seems a bit spooky not only to me, the models were later equipped with an animated pair of eyes, which is shown on the display on the front. A facial expression is now simulated in a comic manner, which is intended to loosen up the situation between humans and robots. Since another task of these little robots is to research the interactions between humans and robots in space, this is a suitable feature. The three small boxes look like flying construction site radios, but they are state-of-the-art, super expensive devices that could also come straight from a science fiction film. By the way, they go by the names Bumble, Honey, and Queen. After the docking station, which the robots fly to independently for charging purposes, was brought to the space station and installed there, the first two robots Bumble & Honey reached their place of use on April 17, 2019. On July 25, 2019, the third robot, which goes by the name of Queen, followed with another cargo mission.
These three futuristic space robots are now also available for free research. Anyone with the necessary amounts of cash can now book a research slot directly from NASA and carry out their own research with the space bee robots on the ISS. The future is now. I think it’s great that the first autonomous space robots, which are in no way inferior to the models from science fiction films, are named after the bees.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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 orMasarinae), 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.
Topic introduction: what I’ll post in this category.
Did you know that some of our modern words have their roots in beekeeping? In this topic, I give you information about the secret role of the bees in our everyday life. Also, I share fascinating facts of the normal modern beekeeping and all the stuff that doesn’t quite fit any other of the topics. Worthwhile historic bee stories are also in this category.