Live to Bee 98


Bee Here Now

The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use;
the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance.
But the bee takes the middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own.
Not unlike this is the true business of philosophy (science); for it neither relies solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind,
nor does it take the matter which it gathers from natural history and mechanical experiments and lay up in the memory whole, as it finds it,
but lays it up in the understanding altered and digested.
Therefore, from a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational (such as has never been made), much may be hoped.

- Sir Francis Bacon

If an interest in life can keep you going, it certainly worked with Karl Kehrle

The achievement of Karl Kehrle, a Benedictine monk, was to breed a very decent British bee.  Wherever in the world apiarists meet they speak in awe of Mr Kehrle's sturdy bee, which produces lots of honey and is reluctant to sting.  Like the British themselves, it is a mongrel, combining the virtues of the native bee with those of worthy bees from elsewhere.  Mr Kehrle once heard of a promising bee said to be found only in central Africa.  Although in his 80s, in poor health and carried on the back of a friend, he tracked the bee down on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Selective breeding has been going on in a random way for thousands of years since animals and plants were first domesticated.  Gregor Mendel {1822 - 1884), like Mr Kehrle a monk, laid the foundations of what has come to be called genetics.  Mendel did clever things with garden peas, but had no success with bees, whose sexual practices remained a mystery to him.  Queen bees, it is now known, mate with a drone, or several drones, while on the wing.  Then, loaded with sperm, they return to the hive for several years, producing huge numbers of bees.  Mr Kehrle pioneered artificial insemination for bees, impregnating his queens with the sperm of immigrant bees.  "A very delicate operation," remarked a colleague of Mr Kehrle.

His Buckfast bee, named after the abbey in Devon where Mr Kehrle was a monk, became an unusual export, earning many thousands of pounds for the order.  Numerous Buckfast bees have been imported by commercial honey producers in the United States, where disease has caused widespread damage.  (The Benedictines, a fairly liberal order, have a talent for making money: their abbey in northern France makes a liqueur, much in demand despite being too sweet for some tastes.)  Mr Kehrle became a celebrity within the bee world, lecturing here, picking up an honorary doctorate there, written up in bee journals, made a vice-president of Britain's International Bee Research Association.  A species of bee was named after him.  It wasn't a bad career for someone who, as he occasionally remarked, had no formal education at all.

The Italian clue

Karl Kehrle was born in Germany.  His mother, a keen Roman Catholic, heard that the monks rebuilding their abbey at Buckfast, shut down in the reign of Henry VIII, needed workers.  So Karl, not quite 12, was sent to England.  He wasn't strong enough to lift stones, so he helped with the bees.  By 1919, aged 21 and now a monk named Brother Adam, he was the abbey's master beekeeper.  He set out to save the native British bee, which was being wiped out by a disease called acarine.  He crossbred Italian bees, which were free of acarine, with some of the abbey's bees that had eluded the disease.  The cross-breeding was a process that was continued under Mr Kehrle over subsequent years with the help of other foreign bees.

Some bee people, while admiring Mr Kehrle's skill as a beekeeper, note that his innovations owed much to the work of Ludwig Armbruster, a fellow German (later a victim of the Nazis), who, following up the work of Mendel, published research on bees and genetics.  Mr Kehrle was, by contrast, a hands-on, practical man.  But this was no bad thing.  Someone has to turn theory into practice.  He was unsurpassed as a breeder of bees.  He talked to them, he stroked them.  He brought to the hives a calmness that according to those who saw him at work, the sensitive bees responded to.  He was very upset when two of the abbey's queen bees were stolen, and remarked on the frailty of numans.  Bees, he said. would never behave like people.  "He loved the bees almost as much as he loved God," said a colleague.

A mischievous comment, perhaps.  Yet even in the brotherly community of an abbey little jealousies can arise over a colleague who seems to have got more than his fair share of attention.  In 1991 Mr Kehrle asked the abbey to provide him with a qualified assistant to help with research into the varroa parasite, which, like the acarine disease of the 1920s, is threatening British bees, and is at present controlled, although only partially, by chemicals.  The abbot turned down the request, and apparently felt that, after 80 years at the abbey, it was time for Brother Adam to part from his bees and spend the remainder of his life on monkish duties.  "I am sure that he would consider himself a monk first and a beekeeper second," said the abbot, not entirely convincingly.  Mr Kehrle handed over his hives to young monks, but was never unwilling to give advice.

He said he wanted to live to 100.  The astonishing thing is that he lived as long as he did.  Physically, he was not strong.  His journeys abroad in search of bees, often partly on foot or by donkey, were exhausting.  He suffered several heart attacks.  Doctors routinely told him he would never work again.  Several times he received the last rites of his religion, but clambered from his bed to see how his bees were managing without him.  If an interest in life can keep you going, it certainly worked with Karl Kehrle.

Source: The Economist 14 September 1996

Our Biological Clock

review of Rhythms of Life: The Biological Clocks that Control the Daily Lives of Every Living Thing

by Russell Foster and Leon Kreitzman


One of the truly remarkable aspects of these internal timing devices is that animals can not only keep 24-hour time, but short interval time as well.  This is beautifully illustrated by honey bee behaviour, made famous by the discoveries of Karl von Frisch.  If a foraging bee is caught on a trip between the hive and some flowers and kept in a dark box for a while before release, it will continue to fly in the original direction.  This is truly remarkable because a bee uses its angle to the sun for direction, and, while it is in the box, the sun continues to move.  The emerging bee, however, takes this into account and flies in the correct direction, because its internal timing device makes the appropriate correction for the sun’s movement.  Migrating birds do the same thing, as shown in the famous experiments of Gustav Kramer.

Source: The Tomes Literary Supplement

Bees Can Recognise Human Faces, Study Finds

Known by Bees: A honeybee inspects a photograph of a face in preparation for a landing.

Honeybees may look pretty much all alike to us.  But it seems we may not look all alike to them.  A study has found that they can learn to recognise human faces in photos, and remember them for at least two days.  The findings toss new uncertainty into a long-studied question that some scientists considered largely settled, the researchers say: how humans themselves recognise faces.  The results also may help lead to better face-recognition software, developed through study of the insect brain.

Many researchers traditionally believed facial recognition required a large brain, and possibly a specialised area of that organ dedicated to processing face information.  The bee finding casts doubt on that, said Adrian G Dyer, the lead researcher in the study.  He recalls that when he made the discovery, it startled him so much that he called out to a colleague, telling her to come quickly because "no one’s going to believe it - and bring a camera!"  Dyer said that to his knowledge, the finding is the first time an invertebrate has shown ability to recognise faces of other species.  But not all bees were up to the task: some flunked it, he said, although this seemed due more to a failure to grasp how the experiment worked than to poor facial recognition specifically.  In any case, some humans also can’t recognise faces, Dyer noted; the condition is called prosopagnosia.

In the bee study, reported in the 15 December issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology, Dyer and two colleagues presented honeybees with photos of human faces taken from a standard human psychology test.  The photos had similar lighting, background colours and sizes and included only the face and neck to avoid having the insects make judgments based on the clothing.  In some cases, the people in the pictures themselves looked similar.  The researchers, with Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, tried to train the bees to realise that a photo of one man had a drop of a sugary liquid next to it.  Different photos came with a drop of bitter liquid instead.

A few bees apparently failed to realise that they should pay attention to the photos at all.  But 5 bees learned to fly toward the photo horizontally in such a way that they could get a good look at it, Dyer reported.  In fact, these bees tended to hover a few centimetres in front of the image for a while before deciding where to land.

The bees learned to distinguish the correct face from the wrong one with better than 80% accuracy, even when the faces were similar, and regardless of where the photos were placed, the researchers found.  Also, just like humans, the bees performed worse when the faces were flipped upside-down.  "This is evidence that face recognition requires neither a specialised neuronal [brain] circuitry nor a fundamentally advanced nervous system," the researchers wrote, noting that the test they used was one for which even humans have some difficulty.  Moreover, "Two bees tested two days after the initial training retained the information in long-term memory," they wrote.  One scored about 94% on the first day and 79% two days later; the second bee’s score dropped from about 87% to 76% during the same time frame.

The researchers also checked whether bees performed better for faces that humans judged as being more different.  This seemed to be the case, they found, but the result didn’t reach statistical significance.  The bees probably don’t understand what a human face is, Dyer said.  "To the bees the faces were spatial patterns (or strange looking flowers)," he added.

Bees are famous for their pattern-recognition abilities, which scientists believe evolved in order to discriminate among flowers.  As social insects, they can also tell apart their hivemates.  But the new study shows that they can recognise human faces better than some humans can - with 1/10,000th of the brain cells.  This raises the question of how bees recognise faces, and if so, whether they do it differently from the way we do it, Dyer and colleagues wrote.  Studies suggest small children recognise faces by picking out specific features that are easy to recognise, whereas adults see the interrelationships among facial features.  Bees seem to show aspects of both strategies depending on the study, the researchers added.  The findings cast doubt on the belief among some researchers that the human brain has a specialised area for face recognition, Dyer and colleagues said.  Neuroscientists point to an area called the fusiform gyrus, which tends to show increased activity during face-viewing, as serving this purpose.  But the bee finding suggests "the human brain may not need to have a visual area specific for the recognition of faces," Dyer and colleagues wrote.  That may be helpful to researchers who develop face-recognition technologies to be used for security at airports and other locations, Dyer noted.  The US is investing heavily in such systems, but they still make many mistakes.

Already, the way that bees navigate is being used to design "autonomous aircraft that can fly in remote areas without the need for radio contact or satellite navigation," Dyer wrote.  "We show that the miniature brain can definitely recognise faces, and if in the future we can work out the mechanisms by which this is achieved," this might suggest ideas for improved face recognition technologies.  Dyer said that if bees can learn to recognise humans in photos, then they reasonably might also be able to recognise real-life faces.  On the other hand, he remarked, this probably isn’t the explanation for an adage popular in some parts of the world - that you shouldn’t kill a bee because its nestmates will remember and come after you.

Francis Ratnieks of Sheffield University in Sheffield, United Kingdom, says that apparent bee revenge attacks of this sort actually occur because a torn-off stinger releases chemicals that signal alarm to nearby hivemates.  Says Dyer, "bees don’t normally go around looking at faces."

Source: 9 December 2005 photo credit Journal of Experimental Biology

Bayer on Defensive in Bee Deaths

German Authorities Look into Allegation that Maker's Pesticide Harms Environment

by Sabine Vollmer

Bayer CropScience is facing scrutiny because of the effect one of its best-selling pesticides has had on honeybees.  A German prosecutor is investigating Werner Wenning, Bayer's chairman, and Friedrich Berschauer, the head of Bayer CropScience, after critics alleged that they knowingly polluted the environment.  The investigation was triggered by a 13 August complaint filed by German beekeepers and consumer protection advocates, a Coalition against Bayer Dangers spokesman, Philipp Mimkes, said Monday.  The complaint is part of efforts by groups on both sides of the Atlantic to determine how much Bayer CropScience knows about the part that clothianidin may have played in the death of millions of honeybees.

Bayer CropScience, which has its US headquarters in Research Triangle Park, said field studies have shown that bees' exposure to the pesticide is minimal or nonexistent if the chemical is used properly.  Clothianidin and related pesticides generated about $1 billion of Bayer CropScience's $8.6 billion in global sales last year.  The coalition is demanding that the company withdraw all of the pesticides.  "We're suspecting that Bayer submitted flawed studies to play down the risks of pesticide residues in treated plants," said Harro Schultze, the coalition's attorney.  "Bayer's ... management has to be called to account, since the risks ... have now been known for more than 10 years."

Under German law, a criminal investigation could lead to a search of Bayer offices, Mimkes said.  On the other side of the Atlantic, the Natural Resources Defense Council is pressing for research information on clothianidin.  The US Environmental Protection Agency approved the pesticide in 2003 under the condition that Bayer submit additional data.  A lawsuit, which the environmental group filed 19 August in federal court in Washington, accuses the EPA of hiding the honeybee data.  The group thinks the data might show what role chlothianidine played in the loss of millions of US honeybee colonies.

Researchers have been puzzled by what is causing the bees to disappear at what is considered an alarming rate.  The phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, threatens a $15 billion portion of the US food supply.  In the US diet, about 1 in 3 mouthfuls comes from crops that bees pollinate.  Scientists are looking at viruses, parasites and stresses that might compromise bees' immune system.  In the past two years, Congress has earmarked about $20 million to boost research.

Clothianidin, sold under the brand name Poncho, is used to coat corn, sugar beet and sorghum seeds and protect them from pests.  A nerve toxin that has the potential to be toxic for bees, it gets into all parts of the plant that grows from the coated seeds.  In 1999, French regulators banned an older relative of Poncho and subsequently declined approval for clothianidin.  French researchers found that bees were a lot more sensitive to the pesticides than Bayer CropScience studies had shown.  Three months ago, German regulators suspended sales of chlothianidine and related chemicals after the family of pesticides was blamed for the destruction of more than 11,000 bee colonies.

The Julius Kühn Institute, a state-run crop research institute in Germany, collected samples of dead honeybees and determined that clothianidin caused the deaths.  Bayer CropScience blamed defective seed corn batches.  The company said that the coating came off as the seeds were sown, which allowed unusually high amounts of toxic dust to spread to adjacent areas where bees collected pollen and nectar.  Bayer paid about $3 million in damages, Mimkes said.

Source: 26 August 2008

See also:

bulletThis Mite Bee a Problem - for information about bee mites in New Zealand and also for a spectacular photograph of a bee in flight.
bulletFour Obituaries - particularly the second one on South Carolina's now-deceased centenarian Senator, Strom Thurmond, "the only circuit court judge in South Carolina history to have had sex with a condemned murderess as she was being transferred from the women's prison to death row"...

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