Monday, April 23, 2007

Animal of the Week -- April 23, 2007

Happy Saint George's Day Ani-freaks!

What did you have for breakfast this morning? Perhaps you had some muesli with dried raspberries and strawberries in it, perhaps you had some wholewheat cereal with soy milk, perhaps you had some toast and honey, you might also have popped some bee pollen to take on it's putative benefits, or have you moisturised with a royal jelly face cream, or maybe you even did a little polishing with beeswax (don't you ever say that I don't know my audience). Well, if so, you should spare a thought for this week's animal of the week and cherish the experience, because, it is a tough time to bee Apis mellifera (western honey bee).

Having been ravaged by the vampire mite Varroa for the past 20 years or so, the primary pollinators of apples, soft fruit, beans, and many wild flowers are now facing new threats. Across the USA and Europe, beekeepers have anticipated the waking of their hives, but up to 60% have remained silent, and under investigation have turned out to be ghost hives, food in the cells, young bees abandoned, but no sign of the adults. No one knows the cause of this Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), although pesticides, GM crops, global warming, and even electromagnetic radiation have been proposed as possible causes. To test the last of these theories a US scientist placed base units for cordless phones in beehives and found that the radiation from them stopped bees navigating home. He also found answering the phone a painful experience and that there was a terrible buzz on the line. Although he never forgot where he left the handset.

And as CCD sweeps the USA and Europe, Europe's bees face another new threat, Vespa velutina, the Asian hornet. At 4 and a half centimetres long and with a wingspan of 6 centimetres, this hornet has swept across France since being introduced a couple of years ago. A group of 30 hornets can kill 30 000 bees in a few hours, biting them in half and stinging them with their powerful toxins. They leave a pile of bisected bees at the hive entrance and plunder the honey bee larvae to take back to their own for dinner.

Our western bees could learn a thing or two from their Asian cousins, Apis cerana. Threatened by a hornet, a group of bees cluster around the giant hornets creating a ball and start to vibrate. The vibrations which they normally use to regulate temperature in the brood chambers can raise the temperature of the bee ball to 46 degrees centigrade and cook the hornet at the centre. Neat, eh?

So, it's not good news for western honey bees right now. Stockpile honey and don't expect bumper crops of many of your favourite summer fruits.

See this video for the outcomes of hornet attacks on European bees and Asian bees (Bees 1, Hornets 1):

It bee mighty entertaining.

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