Kategorie: Tales of Honey, Bees & Man

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.

A „BEM“ (Bee enclosure module) onboard the ISS.
Photo: NASA

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.

An astronaut observes the bees in zewro gravity.
Photo: NASA

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

Astronaut Anne McLain with the Astrobee robot „Bumble“ on the ISS.
Photo: NASA

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.

Construction site radio or state-of-the-art robot? The three Astrobees Queen, Honey and Bumble (from left)
Photo: NASA

Text: Fabian Kalis

Image source: all images from the NASA image archive, http://www.nasa.gov

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

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.