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Despite colony collapse the honey bee is still buzzing

by Tianna Grosch

Honey bees are in trouble, but why has this happened and what can be done about it? Dr. Anita Collins, a bee geneticist retired from the Agricultural Research Service, US Department of Agriculture, was the guest speaker for Doylestown Nature Club’s monthly meeting this April who attempted to answer these questions.

“Honey bees are not native to the Americas,” said Anita. “There were no honey bees…before the European colonists brought them and we know they started bringing them very early on – the pilgrims at Plymouth had them.”

Dr. Collins was the first scientist hired by USDA to work with an aggressive strain of honey bees called Africanized honey bees, a project that was done in Venezuela since they didn’t want to bring this variety of bees to the US to study.

Anita talked about measuring this feisty behavior, the genetics involved and some related research, plus killer bee impact in the US.  

“There’s approximately one stinging death per year since the Africanized honey bees arrived in 1990,” Anita said.

The first Africanized honey bees to cross the border were found in Southern Texas and can now be found in much of the Southern United States. Anita’s general advice: “If you get in the line of fire of a defensive colony, run like hell! You can outrun them. I’ve done it, laughing the whole way, running uphill.”

Bees are also oriented towards darker colors, so if you’re worried about attracting unwanted attention, it’s a good idea to wear white or lighter colors (why you often see beekeepers in a white suit).

Anita began a selective breeding program to see if they could breed for more gentle bees.

“If you produce enough desirable drones to mate with, you can manage or monitor genetics by controlling the mating of queens,” she said.

Much of this is often done through artificial insemination. Currently Anita is a collaborator in a US Geologic Survey project of native bees east of the Mississippi; she is President of the Board at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center and Adjunct Professor Entomology, Penn State University.

The fate of the honey bee is still in fragile balance due to Colony Collapse Disorder, when a majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees.

“The cause is more than just one thing,” said Anita.

She attributes CCD to numerous honey bee viruses and parasites as well as poor nutrition. Pollen is their protein source but not all pollens have the necessary amino acids for bees, and recent research shows the climate shift is reducing the quality of pollen.

“Lots of effort is going into planting native and other pollinators,” said Anita.

There are over 400 species of bees in Pennsylvania, from carpenter bees and bumble bees to teeny tiny sweat bees. Help keep the ecological balance by doing your part to keep honey bees buzzing and producing that ooey-gooey goodness.

“Be sure you plant native! Encourage farmers to put in hedgerows and bordering plants which offer good resources for bee forage,” Anita said.

The Doylestown Nature Club meets every second Monday, September through June at the Buckingham Township Building, 4613 Hughesian Drive, Buckingham at 1:00pm. Guests are welcome.

“We are always interested in well-versed speakers on a variety of different topics relating to ecology and nature,” said Doylestown Nature Club’s second vice president, Joyce Baral.

For more info, call 215-493-1254 or visit www.doylestownnatureclub.com.