Rescuing a Hive of Bees

The Huntington By Usha Lee McFarling July 17, 2019

One early morning, while The Huntington was closed to visitors, beekeeper Kevin Heydman extracted a hive of bees from a cycad near the Huntington Art Gallery. Photo by Andrew Mitchell.

One early morning, while The Huntington was closed to visitors, beekeeper Kevin Heydman extracted a hive of bees from a cycad near the Huntington Art Gallery. Photo by Andrew Mitchell.

Bees are no strangers to The Huntington. There are numerous hives in trees on the property that cause few problems and allow bees to do their valuable work of pollinating plants. But when a hive gets too close to areas frequented by visitors, the bees need to be relocated.

Earlier this spring, gardeners noticed that bees were swarming near the circular drive in front of the Huntington Art Gallery, a busy thoroughfare for visitors. Further investigation revealed that the bees had settled into a particularly special cycad: a tall, beefy specimen of Encephalartos whitelockii, a cycad that was given to The Huntington by the noted cycad expert and collector Loran Whitelock. The cycad is native to only one place: the area around Mpanga River Falls in Uganda. The species was named after Whitelock nearly 20 years ago in recognition of his contributions to cycad exploration and science.

The hive’s honeycomb is visible through a hole in the cycad’s trunk. Photo by Andrew Mitchell.

The hive’s honeycomb is visible through a hole in the cycad’s trunk. Photo by Andrew Mitchell.

“This plant held a special place in Loran’s garden before it came to The Huntington,” said Gary Roberson, lead project gardener for the palm and cycad collection. “Loran had chairs around it, and he loved to sit by it,” recalls Roberson, who was in charge when Whitelock’s massive cycad collection was moved to The Huntington in 2015 from Whitelock’s home in Eagle Rock. Roberson had noticed then that this particular cycad had a rotted area in its trunk. But cycads are hardy. The plant had sealed itself off from the rotting area and grown new roots. Roberson cleaned and cauterized the rotted area and packed the hole full of pumice. Over time, that pumice was removed, probably by ground squirrels or other rodents. And the cavity that remained in the cycad trunk? It made an ideal home for bees.

When bees cause problems at The Huntington, the employee who gets the call is Andrew Mitchell, the curator for material objects in the Botanical Division and a veteran beekeeper. “We don’t mind a swarm high up in a tree, but if it could potentially interact with people, we need to do something,” he said. Sometimes a branch or limb must be removed in order to relocate a hive. Mitchell knew this beloved cycad could not be treated like a common species. “This is a very, very special tree,” he said. So, he called in an expert.

Heydman fires up a smoker that he uses to encourage bees to leave their established hive. Photo by Andrew Mitchell.

Heydman fires up a smoker that he uses to encourage bees to leave their established hive. Photo by Andrew Mitchell.

Kevin Heydman works for an extermination business, but he has been a beekeeper for nearly 20 years. He teaches classes on beekeeping, sells raw honey, rents out bees for pollinating crops, and runs the Bee Booth at the Los Angeles County Fair each year. “Kevin’s got pest control on his truck, but he’s really a beekeeper,” Mitchell said. “He’s a secret agent.”

Heydman’s first step in the relocation was to remove the bees. He met Mitchell one morning at 6 a.m., while the gardens were closed to visitors, the weather was cool, and the bees would not yet be active. Since it was too early for the bees to fly, Heydman would not know until he opened the hive how feisty the bees inside might be. “The bees can fight back,” he said. “They don’t just all jump into the bee box.”

Heydman holds up a large piece of honeycomb. Photo by Andrew Mitchell.

Heydman holds up a large piece of honeycomb. Photo by Andrew Mitchell.

He started by firing up his smoker with old rags, leaves, and pieces of honeycomb; he believes the scent of burning honeycomb makes bees more likely to leave because they think their hive is on fire.

Peering into the hole in the trunk, the two men caught glimpses of layers of white honeycomb inside. “It’s beautiful,” Mitchell said. “They’ve been in there a while,” Heydman added.

Heydman secures pieces of honeycomb in a frame and then    slides    them into a bee box. Photo by Andrew Mitchell.

Heydman secures pieces of honeycomb in a frame and then slides them into a bee box. Photo by Andrew Mitchell.

Heydman, clad in a bee suit, sat by the cycad and carefully removed large pieces of comb. “They’re waking up,” he said, as the confused bees started to leave their hive. Heydman carefully strapped the comb onto wooden frames that he then inserted, one by one, into a bee box. Wearing thick, blue rubber gloves, Heydman then gently scooped the bees out of the hole and placed them on top of the box. He needed to get the queen out so her workers would not return to the cycad and get enough bees out in general to keep the brood colony warm. “If we can get another 100 bees, it’ll be better for the colony,” Heydman said, gently scooping out handful after handful.

There was not a dead bee in sight. “The bee loss from Kevin’s process is absolutely minimal,” Mitchell said. The bees, European and not Africanized, stayed calm throughout the transfer. “These are good girls,” said Mitchell, who noted that European honeybees can attack when relocated or provoked.

Bees and a piece of honeycomb on a bee box. Photo by Andrew Mitchell.

Bees and a piece of honeycomb on a bee box. Photo by Andrew Mitchell.

The two men then placed the bee box near the opening in the cycad while Heydman left the smoker under the hole, hoping to flush out any holdouts. The box would later be taken off Huntington grounds, far enough away so that the bees would not return “home” to the cycad. After a few weeks of adjusting to their box hive, the bees will be permanently relocated to a new home, Mitchell said.

Bees in the gardens tend to keep Mitchell busy. Bees move when they run out of space, he said. In a crowded hive, bees will make a new queen, and the old queen will then take off with part of the colony. The bees will rove around—settling temporarily onto trees, into roofs, and even underground, Mitchell said, until they can find a good location for a new hive. “Swarms are basically pioneering bees,” Mitchell said. “They travel.”

After extracting handfuls of bees and the honeycomb, Heydman uses his smoker to drive any remaining bees into the bee box for transport. Photo by Andrew Mitchell.

After extracting handfuls of bees and the honeycomb, Heydman uses his smoker to drive any remaining bees into the bee box for transport. Photo by Andrew Mitchell.

Often hives will exist for years without causing problems. That was the case in the Japanese Garden, where a massive beehive thrived within the roof of the historic Japanese House for years, Mitchell said. But the bees had to be relocated last summer after temperatures spiked to more than 115 degrees, causing the honeycombs to melt and honey to drip down the iconic structure. It was a very mature hive. “The combs were more than two feet long,” Mitchell said.

The bees were relocated, honey was given to garden staff, and it took months for ants, robber bees, and other insects to clean remaining honey from the roof. Once the honey was gone, Mitchell was able to restore the roof and its sculptural elements. Today, there is no sign of any damage.

An air plant fills the hole in the cycad’s trunk; gravel and steel mesh underneath keep out bees and other creatures. Photo by Deborah Miller.

An air plant fills the hole in the cycad’s trunk; gravel and steel mesh underneath keep out bees and other creatures. Photo by Deborah Miller.

The same is true of Loran Whitelock’s favorite cycad. After the bees were removed, Roberson stuffed the hole with clean pumice and attached some stainless-steel mesh so that squirrels could not get inside. He then camouflaged the hole with a beautiful reddish Tillandsia, or air plant, which looks right at home on the cycad trunk. Said Mitchell: “That was a textbook relocation.”

Usha Lee McFarling is the senior writer and editor in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.

https://www.huntington.org/verso/2019/07/rescuing-hive-bees

(Note: Kevin Heydman is the Vice President of the Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association.)

This Bug Can Eat Plastic. But Can It Clean Up Our Mess?

National Geographic    By Carrie Arnold    April 24, 2017

Scientists have discovered that wax worms can eat plastic bags. Could that help us reduce plastic pollution?

BY CARRIE ARNOLD

PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN PLANT, ALAMY

Wax worms are common insects that evolved to live in bee hives. Now we know they can eat plastic. PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN PLANT, ALAMY

Each year, the world produces 300 million tons of plastic, much of which resists degradation and ends up polluting every corner of the globe. But a team of European scientists may have found a unique solution to the plastic problem. They discovered that a common insect can chew sizable holes in a plastic shopping bag within 40 minutes.

“This study is another milestone discovery for the research on biodegradation of plastics,” says Wei-Min Wu, an environmental engineer at Stanford University.

The discovery was led by Federica Bertocchini, a developmental biologist at the University of Cantabria in Spain. She first noticed the possibility as she cleaned out her backyard bee hives two years ago.

She removed some wax worms (Galleria mellonella) living in the hive and placed them in an old plastic bag. When she checked the bag an hour later, however, she discovered small holes in the part of the bag with the larvae. Although Bertocchini wasn’t an entomologist, she guessed immediately what was happening.

The worms live in honeycombs, where they feed on wax. PHOTOGRAPH BY AGENCJA FOTOGRAFICZNA CARO, ALAMY

The larval form of a small moth, wax worms get their names because they live on the wax in bee hives. Like plastic, wax is a polymer, which consists of a long string of carbon atoms held together, with other atoms branching off the sides of the chain. Both wax and the polyethylene in Bertocchini’s plastic bag had a similar carbon backbone.

“Since they eat wax, they may have evolved a molecule to break it down, and that molecule might also work on plastic,” Bertocchini said.

SOLVING THE MYSTERY

Bertocchini teamed up with fellow scientists Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe to figure out how the wax worms were pigging out on plastic.

When they placed the worms on polyethylene plastic, they found that each worm created an average of 2.2 holes per hour. Overnight, 100 wax worms degraded 92 milligrams of a plastic shopping bag. At this rate, it would take these same 100 worms nearly a month to completely break down an average, 5.5 gram plastic bag.

WHICH INSECT EATS AND RECYCLES PLASTIC?

To rule out munching action from their jaws as the source of degradation, the team applied a soupy blend of recently deceased worms to the plastic and waited. Sure enough, they found the liquid larvae could also eat holes in plastic. This told Bertocchini and colleagues that an enzyme in the worms or the bacteria living in and on their bodies was dissolving the plastic.

That enzyme converted polyethylene into ethylene glycol, a chemical commonly used in antifreeze. Bertocchini hopes to identify the precise enzymes that break down polyethylene in future work.

SEARCHING FOR A SOLUTION

Scientists have searched for a way to biodegrade plastics for decades, says Uwe Bornscheuer, a biochemist at the University of Greifswald in Germany.

“Plastic pollution is a big global problem,” Bornscheuer said.

In 2014, Wu and colleagues at Stanford University found that a gut bacterium in another species of wax worm could break down polyethylene, although it had different byproducts. A 2016 study identified the enzymes in a species of bacteria that could break down a type of plastic called poly(ethylene terephthalate).

“There are probably lots of other worm species out there that can degrade plastics,” he said.

 

Wax worms are the larval stage of a type of moth. They are commonly fed to pet lizards. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID LIITTSCHWAGER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVETo marine biologist Tracy Mincer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the solution to plastic pollution needs to focus on producing less and recycling more.

“Polyethylene is a high-quality resin that can be up-cycled in many ways and can fetch up to $500 per tonne,” he said in an email. “In my opinion, although this is an amazing natural history story and wonderful academic exercise, it is not a solution for disposing of polyethylene as this is throwing away money.”

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/04/wax-worms-eat-plastic-polyethylene-trash-pollution-cleanup/

The Miraculous Space Efficiency of Hexagons

Slate/Science   July 22, 2016

Hexagons and the Science of Packing

By Marc Chamberland

Excerpted from Single Digits: In Praise of Small Numbers by Marc Chamberland. Out now from Princeton University Press.

What do grocers and honeybees have in common? The obvious answer is that they are both adept at providing food for others. But there is a richer, more technical answer to this question: These two groups know how to efficiently pack their resources.

Honeycombs, made from the wax secreted by bees, are used to store honey, pollen, and larvae. For thousands of years, the honeycomb’s hexagonal structure has been noted and admired. It is wondered whether this entomological architecture inspired the interior ribbing and hidden chambers in the dome of the Pantheon in Rome. Today honeycomb structures have numerous engineering and scientific applications, including in the aerospace industry.

Why do honeycombs have a hexagonal structure? Pappus of Alexandria declared that bees “possessed a divine sense of symmetry,” and Charles Darwin described the honeycomb as a masterpiece of engineering that is “absolutely perfect in economizing labor and wax.” A mathematical rationale was given by the Polish polymath Jan Brożek (1585–1652): The hexagon tiles the plane with minimal boundary. Stated another way, Brożek conjectured that the optimal way to cover a large region with shapes of the same area while minimizing the boundary is to use the hexagonal structure. This problem resisted a solution for centuries but was finally positively settled by Thomas Hales in 1998.

Read more... http://goo.gl/IrOkil

 

Cleaning Honeycombs with Ozone

ARS: News & Events   March 2014

Sometimes, even honey bees need help with “housekeeping”—especially when it comes to tidying up their combs once the honey’s been removed. Research by Agricultural Research Service scientists has shown that fumigating combs with ozone gas can eliminate pests and pathogens that threaten honey bee health and productivity. Recent results suggest that ozone fumigation may also help reduce pesticide levels in combs.

The findings stem from a two-part study led by Rosalind James, an entomologist in ARS’s Pollinating Insect—Biology, Management, and Systematics Research Unit in Logan, Utah. Results from the first part of her team’s study, published in 2011 in the Journal of Economic Entomology, demonstrated that fumigating combs with ozone gas...

Read more... 
http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/mar14/honeycombs0314.htm

Secret of Bees' Honeycomb Revealed

The Nation   7/23/13

PARIS, France: For thousands of years, thinkers have marvelled at the feat of engineering that is the honeycomb.Each waxy cell is a perfect hexagon, its six wafer-thin sides providing not only strength to the honeycomb structure but also the smartest way to store honey.

“By virtue of a certain geometrical forethought... (bees) know that the hexagon is greater than the square and the triangle and will hold more honey for the same expenditure of material in constructing each,” wrote a 4th-century Greek geometer, Pappus of Alexandria.

For Charles Darwin, the honeycomb was “absolutely perfect in economising labour and wax.”
But how do bees do it?

The answer, according to a new study, is that the cells do not start out as hexagons but as circles.
They gradually form into hexagons by a subtle flow of the wax, which is turned semi-molten by the heat from a special class of worker bee.

The solution is proposed by a trio of scientists in Britain and China, led by Bhushan Karihaloo of Cardiff University.–AFP