The fascinating world of bees

Pim Kemasingki talks to Swiss ecologist, Paul Page and becomes fascinated about how bees affect our world.

By | Mon 1 Apr 2019

While sipping an after work gin and tonic at a small bar down Nimmanhaemin one evening a couple of years back, I was introduced to Paul Page. We chatted politely, as one does, and he told me that he was a Swiss biologist with a PhD in pollination ecology who has since become fascinated with bees. He was here working on a research project at Chiang Mai University conducting experiments on our semi-domesticated Asian bee, Apis cerana. Knowing next to nothing about bees, I bemoaned the imminent death of bees, quoting numerous articles I had read over the years predicting the end of crops, and even civilisation, as the world’s bee population declines. “Nonsense” he told me, and it wasn’t long, and admittedly a couple of gin and tonics later, that he was regaling me with the most extraordinary stories about bees that had my jaws drop and head reel.

I couldn’t get these stories out of my mind, so a few months later, I hunted him down online, begging for an interview. He was back in Switzerland, so it took nearly two years, but I finally got to sit down one evening recently to listen to a man whose passion for bees simply hums from his every fibre.

“Honey bees are eusocial insects which live in true societies, unlike most insects,” began Page, as I sat back in a Japanese restaurant picking sushi with my chopsticks and simply let him talk. “Ten thousand years ago in Mesopotamia and in Africa, their honey was already sought and hunted by humans, both for food and for medicinal purposes. These Western bees were then gradually domesticated and their hives were kept in pottery vessels, woven baskets and finally in boxes, to simplify the harvesting of their honey. Discovering that wherever they put the boxes of bees, a five mile radius of fruits and vegetables were successfully pollinated, beekeeping and agriculture developed into interdependent human activities. Bees in the West, Apis mellifera, have been fully domesticated for thousands of years now. What I’m fascinated by now are Apis cerana bees, which are only found in South-East Asia. These bees are migratory in nature and have a different life cycle from their Western cousins. Of the ten known Apis honey bee species known in the world, nine of them originate and live in Asia, and out of these nine, only this one is semi-domesticated, the rest are fully wild and live in natural conditions. There are still vast areas of research to be done with Asian honey bees, as the majority of scientific research to date has been performed on the Western honey bee. That is why I come to Thailand and China so often, it’s a goldmine for the unknown.”

I interrupt him to ask him about all the fear mongering about the death of world bees, continuing our conversation from a few years back. “The Western honey bee was slowly carried to Asia via Russia about a century ago,” he explained. “When two closely related species are brought together, problems usually happen. In Asia, Apis cerana bees had evolved with a nasty parasite called Varroa destructor, a mite that is like a tick of honey bees. But the damage was manageable, as worker bees can kill the mite and control its populations, the bees even grooming each other to remove the mite as well as hygienically cleaning them from their hives. But when the Western honey bees became exposed to the mite, they simply couldn’t handle them. Like vampires, these mites feed on their body fluids, weakening the bees, then the colonies, transmitting diseases and viruses. The parasite finally arrived in Europe some 40 years ago and by 2000 it became a worldwide serious concern, killing up to 30% of all bee colonies each year. Fortunately, beekeepers can split hives, once they have grown strong, and they can also rear new queens to be added to them, so that one colony can multiply into two. But it has become a constant rat race between beekeepers and the Varroa parasite, that requires increased time and effort to efficiently manage honey bee colonies, to treat them and to keep them alive, year after year.

Now that the end of the world was no longer nigh, I asked Page to tell me why he was so fascinated by bees. “Everything about them is extraordinary. First of all you have the worker bees, which are all sterile females, they make up the 99% of the colony. The queen herself is selected when still a larva by the worker bees who then feed her royal jelly, until she become sexually mature and produces ovaries, the development of which is inhibited in the workers. This is why the queen bee is so big, her belly is filled with ovaries, in turn filled with eggs. Most of the time the queen stays in her hive, but once at the beginning of her lifetime, she flies out and we don’t exactly know how or why, but hundreds of male bees, or what we call drones, from up to 200 colonies will swarm around her in the sky — the DCA or drone congregation area — and will attempt to insert their genetalia inside her, exploding mid-air during sex. Even after death, the drone leaves a sperm cork, which is basically a chunk of his abdomen, in the queen and that will stay there for a while pumping the sperm into her and blocking the access to other suitors. The queen can do this about a dozen times over a few days and the world record found one queen’s ovaries containing 45 different male sperms. It’s all about genetic diversity. She then stocks all the sperm in her ovaries, laying eggs as she fertilises them for the rest of her life, which is about three to four years. This ensures the social integrity of the hive as worker eggs will always have 50% of genes in common inherited from their mother, the queen, and be another 0-50% akin through their drone father, each sister therefore being at least half related to the next, a mechanism that helps to stabilise the bee society.” I put down my chopsticks, feeling slightly queasy.

Apis dorsata or Phung luang

I then ask him what happens to the drones who don’t manage to have sex with the queen, he shrugs and sanguinely says that they just hang around the hive and eventually die.

He had me hooked; I was all agog, abuzz for more stories, and Page, who talks of bees as though they were his friends, obliged.

“When the worker bees realise, through a complicated signaling of chemicals and pheromones, that the queen is getting old, they will select a new larva and make her into a queen. Now, if the colony is big enough and the old queen knows that she can stay, the new queen will take half the workers and swarm off to start a new colony elsewhere. Like splitting a cell. In natural conditions, all the real decisions are actually made by the worker bees as if an entity of their own, the swarm. In beekeeping however, the production of new queens can be artificially induced and beekeepers can then create new colonies from old ones.”

“The queen can lay up to 2000 eggs a day and a colony can be as large as 80,000 bees at its peak. In the wild there is a natural balance of the colony, but in beekeeping, colonies are pushed to their limits, changing queen bees every year for instance to keep the hive active and the honey production high. A honey bee colony is quite amazing, it has some sort of a super power. If you take every individual it’s like every neuron interacting together to make a brain, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, but no one knows exactly how it works. A honey bee hive is like a big bath of volatile chemicals. Once a queen bee is getting old or weak, the intensity of her pheromones will diminish and her workers will sense this, kill her and replace her with a new queen, this is called supersedure. One of my favourite social spectacles is when you approach a hive of the Giant Asian honey bee, the workers create a wave on its single comb, a bit like an ‘hola’ running through a football stadium, although much more terrifying. This is like a warning signal that benefits the bees and the worriless wanderer, so that we retreat and the bees don’t have to die stinging us. Another brilliant thing they do is when hornets attack (one hornet can kill thousands of bees) bees swarm them and heat-ball them to death. You see, bees know about climate control. Hornets can’t survive at temperatures higher than 46 °C, while for bees its 48. So when a hornet comes to a colony, they will surround it and increase their internal metabolism, creating so much heat the hornet dies. All bee hives also have a median temperature of 34.5 °C, so when it’s cold they shake their wings furiously, generating heat to keep warm and when it’s hot they use their wings to ventilate the colony, like an air-con. Sometimes even bringing in water to vaporise and catch heat inside the hive. On a hot day you will see hundreds of bees at the entrance of a hive flapping their wings for airflow. Asian bees will bring the air inside out while the European bees will reverse the process.”

While I could’ve listened to Page tell his beloved bee stories all night — and fill this magazine with all of them — it was time to look at what was going on in the bee scene of Northern Thailand.

“I initially came here to conduct laboratory experiments between parasites and different honey bees to see how they build resistance,” explained Page. “Right now beekeeping is expanding rapidly in Thailand and is becoming big business. This means that there is hopefully funding for researchers such as myself. It is an exciting time as there is so much still to explore.”

Page explains that Chiang Mai is fertile ground for Apis mellifera, mainly due to the lamyai and lychee trees which are in season right now. “Beekeeping in Thailand was primarily developed by Taiwanese settlers and investors, and Thai honey is now mainly sold in Taiwan and China,” he explains. “Unfortunately the practices such as adding sugar water in the off-season to feed the bees to produce non-floral honey, the use of chemicals and pesticides, and the widespread fermentation of honey which you see, for instance, on the Chiang Mai-Lampang Road (tip: if there is foam at the neck of the bottle, it has probably started to ferment), means that Thai honey isn’t approved for export to Europe or the US, with few exceptions. This is why honey and honey bee research needs to be supported by government funding right now. Chulalongkorn University, for instance, is setting up a study on extracting DNA from honey, so you can trace its provenance and botanical origin. This would typically be reassuring to the European market. Producing honey bee colonies that are fully adapted to the local climate and environment, through adequate queen rearing for instance, is another way to go in order to develop the international market of Thai honey.”

Page has been studying standards of honey in Thailand and is concerned over the multitude of ways people are ‘faking honey’, mostly with underhand techniques introduced by Chinese buyers. While he says that there are some great local organic bee farms in Northern Thailand using solid practices and producing top-notch honey, it is hard for the consumer to know what they are buying unless they have personal knowledge or a national standard for Thai honey that can be trusted.

As we finished our last bite of sushi, he told me that I had to meet a man called Michael Burgett, Professor Emeritus of Entomology at Oregon State University, of whom Page speaks almost reverently. Burgett, I was told, has been conducting research with Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Agriculture for 37 years, after having studied bees since 1969. He is also, I later found out, the man who first alerted the Western world to the dangers of the virulent varroa mite in the 1980s, causing widespread panic and misinformation by a media which was rather footloose and carefree with its facts.

Serendipitously, as it often happens in Chiang Mai, not five minutes after being told about Burgett, he happened to stroll past our restaurant and happily accepted a meeting with me the following week.

I met him, and his star researcher and colleague Dr. Bajaree Chuttong in her lab at the faculty where he began by confirming what Page had said about the impending bee apocalypse, “Sure the honey bee mortality rate has increased, but the bee industry is able to recover those loses. It just takes time and management. The media exaggerated the threat, there is no imminent threat to mankind or to bees themselves,” he said reassuringly.

Burgett, whose (fun side note here ) honours class, ‘Far Side in Entomology’, was named by Playboy Magazine as ‘Best College Course in the Country’, is just as gleeful as Page when discussing his bees, many of which he keeps in hives behind his office on campus. Thailand has the greatest diversity of honey bees in the world, most of which have had little research into them, and that is why he has been to Chiang Mai 65 times in the past four decades, looking into issues from diseases to control, hive construction to management of pests and predators.

“In the 1980s the Royal Project began to import European bees into Thailand,” said Burgett, “but the highlanders wouldn’t take to beekeeping. Fortunately the lowlanders did and the industry has since grown through investment from Taiwan. The imported bees did extremely well here, mainly because of lamyai whose trees all bloom at the same time, a rarity in tropical climes. Suddenly Thailand became a major exporter and producer of both lamyai and lamyai honey. Thailand has about the same sized honey bee industry as California, which has around 250,000 colonies. Good honey here can be of superb quality,” he explained, handing me a spoon to taste some wild honey produced by stingless bees he had in a jar next to his desk. It was oddly tart, an unfamiliar taste and not one I am sure I am enamoured by.

“The production of honey far surpasses the needs of Thailand. One big buyer has been Nestlé, they even fund a lab here on campus for quality testing. So while Thailand isn’t huge, it is a significant producer.”

Today Burgett is working with Bajaree on stingless bees, another family of honey-producing bees which are only found in tropical climates, of which there are 34 species in Thailand out of 500 worldwide, many yet, he suspects, to be identified. Bajaree has discovered that stingless bee honey, which I can still feel as a sour aftertaste on my tongue, is extra resistant to bacteria, which is causing some excitement in the medical word, as possibilities abound.

“My daughter asked me when I would finish my work, I told her, ‘never darling’. There is so much joy in discovery. Just yesterday one of Bajaree’s graduate students found a hive full of beetles, which we have sent to a taxonomy specialist, no one had ever seen it before. How many scientists can claim to enjoy so many Eureka days?”

While Burgett’s work will never be done, he still has massively ambitious milestones he hopes to reach, from coming up with an ecologically sensible way to control bee mites, perhaps transferring what works for our Asian bees to the European bees to understanding how they communicate.

“That would be something,” he beams.