Thor Hanson: Buzz—The Nature and Necessity of Bees

Jini Palmer: (00:08) Welcome to Town Hall Seattle Science series. In this episode, award winning author and biologist, Dr. Thor Hanson told the story of how bees have long been central to our harvests and warned us of the ramification of their disappearance. He stated that while we may overlook them, bees lie at the heart of relationships that bind the human and natural world Hanson spoke about this critical understanding and his recent book Buzz, The Nature and Necessity of Bees.

Thor Hanson: (00:43) Thank you, Candace, and everyone at town hall for inviting me to join you this evening, I was sitting in the back and I was going to be reading the New Yorker. So I’m going to exchange this for my notes and I think we’ll be in better shape on bees. I also want to thank Third Place Books for being here. Of course, really appreciate that. And all of you for coming out to spend this evening to devote this evening to a lively discussion of all things buzzing. Now, I’m often asked at these events how I got into this line of work, this sort of peculiar combination of science and storytelling. And I would love to be able to stand here in front of you tonight and tell you that it was all part of my master plan and that I have a degree from scientific storytelling school, but that’s not the case.

(01:37) This is not the sort of career that you hear about from the guidance counselor. So I’ve thought long and hard about this, how it all came together. And I think it boils down to one thing, curiosity. If you’ve ever spent any time at all around a four year old, you will know that the word “why” makes up a large portion of their active vocabulary. Now, there may be many things about my personality that are stuck at four years old, but that is certainly one of them. I can’t seem to stop asking questions. And that habit led me naturally to a career in science, where questions are the coin of the realm. And then on into writing books where I get to indulge myself, really, by diving deeply into the topics that fascinate me. And at the end of one of those long projects, if I’m really lucky, I end up in a room like this filled with people who are fascinated by the very same things that interest me. So I know that you must all be curious people too, or you wouldn’t be here tonight. And that means you won’t mind if I start things off by asking one of those “why” questions. Why bees? Why write a book about bees? Well, my interest in bees dates back to graduate school, where I was studying populations of big trees down in the rain forests of Central America.

(03:06) And it was just as exciting as that. I felt the same way. And I was interested in how these trees functioned as a population. So I went out into the landscape and I genetically fingerprinted all of the adult trees of a particular species so that I could track through the genetic data, the movement of seeds and the movement of pollen and the impacts on genetic diversity of carving that forest up into patches, which was happening in that neck of the woods. So in that genetic data, I knew that something was moving pollen around up there in the rainforest canopy out of sight. Not just between neighboring trees, but among trees that were a mile and a half apart. And because that tree was in the pea family, it had these big purple pea flowers, just like the garden peas or sweet peas in your backyard, the big banner and keel flower there.

(04:11) And so I knew that whatever was up there had to be a bee. And I co-opted a friend of mine, who’s an entomologist, into joining me for a couple of weeks. And we hired a local field assistant who was handy with a crossbow. And we went out there day after day, firing lines way up into the rainforest canopy and hauling up all manner of insects, traps, and catching a grand total of zero bees. The only time we even saw bees was when we wanged into a nest with one of the traps and they all came flying out and attacked. So it was a bust, scientifically. We did not learn what the bees were that were moving pollen among those trees. But the experience sparked within me a fascination for bees that just wouldn’t rest. And I’ve been looking for ways to chase after them in my work and in daily life ever since.

(05:05) And like anyone interested in bees, I have been shocked really and alarmed by the headlines in recent years. The story is about a massive failure of honeybee colonies and declines in many native bees as well. But when I read those stories, I’ve also noticed a certain, shall we say “mushiness” about the subject matter? I mean, what do we really know about bees? Even the experts sometimes stumble over the details. I was driving my car once listening to National Public Radio, the source of all knowledge and they were interviewing a noted historian of science. And he said this. He said that when the settlers arrived to North America from Europe at Plymouth in Jamestown, they brought honeybees with them, which is true. The honeybee, the domestic honeybee, is a European and African species. That much was true. But then he went on to say that if they hadn’t, there would have been nothing here to pollinate their crops.

(06:14) And I almost drove off the road. What about the 4,000 species of native bees already buzzing happily around this continent? I couldn’t believe it. But that’s not the worst of it. Given my interest, it won’t surprise you to learn that in my office I keep a copy of the reference book Bees of the World. It’s a nice hardbound edition. Written by a couple of good entomologists and published by a good nonfiction press. And the cover features a lovely close up photograph of a fly. A fly on the cover of Bees of the World. So here in the 21st century, we find ourselves in a peculiar position. A position of knowing more about the plight of bees from reading the news than we know about the bees themselves. Which means that the place to start in any exploration of bees is right at the beginning.

(07:18) One of the most fundamental questions of all, what is a bee? And happily I can share with you tonight, an answer to that question that is short and memorable. And that really does sum up all the key steps in bee evolution. A bee is a hippie wasp. The first thing to remember about bees is that wasps came first and bees evolved from the wasps and they still look quite a lot like them, which is why the two groups are so often confused. But if you are being harassed at a picnic, like these poor folks here, and you find that your attackers are lingering around the steak and the fried chicken and stealing bits of bologna from the sandwiches, then don’t blame bees. Your attackers are certainly wasps because wasps are inherently carnivorous, they’re hunters and scavengers constantly searching the landscape for other insects to attack or for spiders or for scraps of meat that they can take back to the nest and feed to their larvae.

(08:31) But bees left that habit behind. They left that habit behind in favor of provisioning themselves and their offspring solely from the products of flowers. That switch set them apart and soon their behavior and their bodies began to change as a result, including the evolution of such things as long tube-like tongues for sipping nectar from flowers or feathery branched hairs, specifically adapted for transporting pollen from flowers back to the nest. Now, of course, there is nuance to the story. Some bees are parasitic and they don’t bother collecting pollen at all. And some wasps do indeed enjoy sipping a bit of nectar now and then to feed themselves. But if you want to remember the basics of bee evolution, you just remember that they are long-haired, flower-loving vegetarians. The hippie wasps.

(09:33) Now all of this evolutionary activity took place a long time ago. Bees have been with us for at least 120 million years since the middle of the Cretaceous Period, a period of time that was famously dominated by the dinosaurs. But if you can look past those lumbering beasts for an instant, you will see something truly interesting when you look at the vegetation. You will see that ferns and conifers abound in that landscape, but where are the flowers? In this picture, you have to look pretty hard to pick out a couple of measly looking shrubs that might be able to produce a flower or two. So it’s not exactly a promising landscape for the evolution of insects that rely exclusively upon pollen and nectar. But the artist in that picture was spot-on because in the mid Cretaceous, flowering plants were a rarity. Bit players. And a flora still dominated by cycads and gingkos and other early seed plants.

(10:39) In fact, the sudden rise of flowering plants during the latter part of the Cretaceous was long considered inexplicable. A strange and sudden transformation that was visible in the fossil record. Charles Darwin considered it an abominable mystery. Looking through the fossils, there are no flowering plants at all, none, and then suddenly they’re everywhere and diverse. He considered that a serious challenge to his concept of evolution as a slow process of incremental change. Rarely noted, however, is that in the same letter where Darwin made that famous comment about the abominable mystery, he noted his correspondence with a lesser known naturalist of the time, a Frenchman named Gaston de Saporta who theorized that flowering plants did indeed evolve rapidly and diversify because of their interactions with flower visiting insects like bees. Well, Darwin didn’t buy it. He preferred to think that the flowering plants must have evolved slowly someplace else, and then dispersed rapidly to the places where they became fossilized.

(11:55) And Darwin had the bigger reputation as well as the bigger beard and that counts for something in the Victorian era. Anyway, his ideas carried the day for decades until people realized that old Saporta had been right all along and that it was the co-evolution of flowering plants and insects, particularly bees that drove this sudden rise of diversity. And the results can be seen everywhere from mountain meadows to jungles to the nearest flower market. But what is less well known is how the rapid diversification of flowering plants led in turn to an incredible diversity of bees. More than 20,000 species of bees inhabit our planet, that’s more species than all of the birds and all of the mammals put together and then some. And they range from the familiar like this bumblebee, to the fantastic, like this iridescent sweat bee to the downright strange like this, a long tongued specimen known only from Chile’s Atacama desert.

(13:10) They can be minuscule like this tiny cuckoo bee glued to the shaft of a pin or massive like this bulky oil collecting bee from Puerto Rico. And their colors can range from simple, like the back of this leafcutter to outrageous like this bee or this blue-banded bee from Australia. Bright red or bright blue, they can even be iridescent like this wonderful euglossine bee from French Guiana. And while it’s true that many bees are fuzzy like this one, they can also be smooth like this blood bee. Or shimmering and iridescent like this smooth orchid bee from Central America. And while some bees may be alarming, or at least certain parts of them are alarming, it is also true that in spite of their faceted eyes and waving antennae, bees can be what can only be described as cute.

(14:21) This yet to be described, this is an unknown hairy eyed bee from Argentina. So the co-evolution of bees and flowering plants has led to great diversity on both sides of the equation. I’ve just shown you 16 different bees from various places around the globe. If we wanted to see all the world’s 20,000 species, we’d be here for a long time. Let’s say we kept going as we have been at 10 seconds per bee, which I think is fair, it would take us, I calculated this, two days, seven hours and 30 minutes to get through all the bees. Now to put that into binge watching perspective, it is oddly enough almost precisely the same amount of time that it would take us to watch every episode of Game of Thrones back to back. And like, Game of Thrones, even if we made it to the end, we would probably still have a lot of unanswered questions.

(15:25) And that’s because only a tiny fraction of the world’s bees have been studied in any detail. And perhaps thousands of species are yet to be discovered. It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that sitting here in Seattle and the Puget Sound lowlands, a well studied landscape by any measure, we might be within a few miles of a bee unknown to science. How thrilling. So the story of bees, or at least our understanding of that story, is still very much being written. Many people are surprised to learn that bees are so diverse because when we think of them, our minds turn immediately to the one species we know best, the wonderful honeybee. So social and prolific, massing by their tens of thousands around a single queen. But honeybees like this are the exception to the rule. The vast majority of bees are solitary creatures, diggers, miners, masons, wool carters, leaf cutters. Living alone in their hollow twigs or in their tunnels in the ground and bits of wood they’ll even nest in teapots or hose bibs brick walls, or even if they can find one, an empty snail shell.

(16:48) Now it’s true that many of these bees are tiny and hard to find so it’s not unusual for insights about them to come support us. Less through direct study of the bees then through an understanding of the dramatic impacts that they have had on the world around us. So I’d like to illustrate that point with a passage from chapter four of the book, which begins with an epigraph by the British poet, Norman Rowland Gale, who wrote, “You voluble velvety vehement fellows that play on your flying and musical cellos, come out of my foxglove, come out of my roses, you bees with the plushy and plausible noses.” When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called flowers “so blue and golden”, he probably wasn’t thinking about the visual receptors in the eyes of bees. But the prevalence of those shades in his much pondered bouquet was not a coincidence.

(17:50) They fall right in the middle of a bee’s visual spectrum and flowers adopt them specifically to woo bees as pollinators. The evolution of petal color often tracks closely with a plant’s strategy for getting its flowers, fertilized, and all the hues from mustard to cornflower to purple would be exceedingly scarce and might not exist in flowers at all. If there had been no need to advertise for the services of bees. Scent is also a common bee related trait and Walt Whitman made a fine, if unintended, biological observation, when he pined for a beautiful flower garden quote, “odorous at sunrise”. Many floral fragrances do indeed surge during the morning hours just as temperatures rise and hungry bees become active, seeking out flowers that have filled with nectar overnight. For plants, it is a perfect pollination opportunity and a ripe moment to advertise. If there were no bees in the equation, Whitman might have timed his walk for a moonlit night to get a good whiff of the cloying perfume given off by moth pollinated flowers. Or he might never have considered an amble through a garden in the first place since the majority of blossoms would reek of the musky turpines and rotten flesh smells that are attractive to wasps and to flies. The fact that bees prefer odors and colors, we find worthy of poetry counts as one of nature’s happier accidents.

(19:22) Beyond color and smell, the very shapes of many flowers can also be traced to bees. While round blossoms generally appeal to all sorts of pollen and nectar seekers, bees included, most of the more elaborate flowers evolved with specific visitors in mind. From an insect’s perspective, round blooms can be approached from any angle or direction with the same result. It’s a sort of come one, come all display, and it often attracts a crowd. If Claude Monet had included pollinators in his sunflower still lifes, he would have found himself busy adding in all manner of bees, as well as hoverflies, bee flies, butterflies, wasps even beetles, all attracted to those round blossoms. Flowers that diverge from round, however, can be more choosy and whom they invite and where they deposit their pollen. The wide banners of a pea flower or the lip tube of a snapdragon display what is called in the textbooks, “bilateral symmetry”. It is a concept that is also familiar from the shape of the human face. If you draw a line down the center from the top to the bottom one half is a mirror image of the other. For flowers, this design creates clearly defined sides, as well as a distinct sense of up and down requiring their visitors to enter in a specific way. And once that feat is accomplished, flower parts can develop all sorts of adaptations for dabbing pollen on particular places on insects of a particular shape and a particular size. But plants can really only afford such a focused approach if their pollen is likely to stick to their intended targets, which makes bees with their pollen-attracting fuzz by far the most common callers at such blooms. Compared to his sunflowers, Monet would have found painting pollinators on his yellow irises a cinch since bumblebees are virtually the only insects capable of getting the job done. With their deep tubes and upright orientation, irises force the bees to land on a designated platform and pass beneath a broad pollen-laden stamen. They’re placed as one expert charmingly described it quote, “to fit exactly the dorsal surface of the humble bee.” The female parts are there to ensuring that the bee will deposit its pollen load in just the right location on the next iris it comes to.

(21:54) So much of what we take for granted when we look at a flower boils down to the proclivities of bees. And flowers in turn have altered the bodies and abilities of their buzzing visitors from fuzziness and tongue length to distinctive bee habits of memory and navigation. And should anyone in the room doubt just how tight these relationships can be between bees and flowers look no further than the blossoms of the genus Ophrys, the bee orchids. Whose petals have taken on the very shape and texture of the insects they hope to attract and who go so far as to produce the particular pheromones associated with female bees. Tricking amorous males into mounting these alluring blossoms again and again. Like this poor fellow here. It is a pollination strategy that is defined by a technical botanical term that unlike most technical botanical terms requires no further explanation. It’s called pseudocopulation.

(23:09) It’s outrageous. The bee doesn’t even know he is visiting a flower. He thinks he is getting lucky. Thinks he’s at the pick up bar. So it’s an incredible situation, but also a very clever pollination strategy from the plant’s point of view because it ensures that the bees, the males of that particular species that the plant is imitating, will visit only other plants in that species and not waste time visiting other flowers and putting pollen in the wrong place. So it’s a very tight and marvelous relationship that also reveals that while we tend to think of these flower and bee relationships as win-win, there’s no small amount of exploitation going on at the same time. The trickery and exploitation and the next slide is blank. So we started off the evening with a question common to four year olds, “Why?” But it is also worth considering a question that is common to 14 year olds and my niece is here and maybe she can vouch for this because she is 14. And that question is, “Who cares?”

(24:23) Who cares? Why should we care about bees? Which is also a very valid and important question. Now people do care, but why do people care? It’s sort of fascinating. I hear from people all the time who are concerned about bee declines, which if you think about it is pretty unusual for an insect. Do you hear about flies in the news?Cockroaches? Earwigs? If so, then certainly not with fondness. I mean, let’s face it, by and large nobody trusts an exoskeleton. When science fiction authors or horror film directors need a terrifying go-to monster, there’s a reason that they don’t choose puppies or panda bears. Time and again, they find inspiration in the arthropods, the creepy crawlies, those invertebrates with soft goopy bodies encased in a hard kiteness exoskeleton. The mere sight of insects and spiders can trigger a measurable fear reaction in the human brain. Often, synapses associated with disgust also light up.

(25:33) Now, psychologists believe that these feelings are innate and evolutionary, that there is a deep sense of otherness about those brittle segmented bodies. It’s as if even from a safe distance, we know that such creatures would give a sickening crunch if stepped upon. Yet, throughout human history and all sorts of contexts, we have made a special exception for the bees. From soap and cereal to Saturday Night Live, the bees represented in advertising and culture with fondness and interest, affection. Now to be clear, bees have exoskeletons. They have waving antenna like all the other insects. Many also have venomous stingers and their babies look like maggots. They don’t exactly hide their otherness. Yet in cultures around the world, time and again, people have put aside their natural fears to bond with bees, watching them, tracking them, taming them, studying them, writing poems about them, stories. Even in some cases, worshipping them. No other group of insects has grown so close to us, none is more essential and none is more revered.

(26:55) Now you might say, well, of course we like bees. Think of all the crops they pollinate the fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. That depending on how you parse the numbers make up as much as a third of the food in the human diet. Well, fair enough. Fair enough. But that can’t be the only reason It can’t be the whole story because people didn’t even understand insect pollination until the middle of the 19th century. Yet our relationship and fondness for bees goes back for thousands of years. To the ancients, they were the world’s finest sources of sweetness as well as light from beeswax candles, in addition to medicines, and all sorts of industrial uses from metallurgy to waterproofing, to the world’s first erasable writing tablets made from beeswax. Even if that weren’t enough, they were one of the earliest and most reliable sources of intoxication through mead.

(27:57) So people kept bees and it’s no surprise, really, long before they tamed horses. Camels or ducks, not to mention familiar crops like apples, oats, peas, watermelons, onions, even coffee came to us far later than the bees. Beekeeping as a science, and an art really, dates back at least to the Middle Kingdom of Egypt where sophisticated clay hives were ferried up and down the Nile in time with seasonal wildflower blooms. And also to the pre-Classical Mayan period where the people there had the good sense to tame “royal ladies”, a rainforest bee with the agreeable trait of lacking a stinger.

(28:43) So bees show up again and again throughout recorded history. While traces of wax and honey show up everywhere from Neolithic pottery fragments to the world’s oldest dental filling. But by one school of thought, our connection to bees should not be measured in thousands of years. It should be measured in millions. A relationship with potential evolutionary consequences for our own species, as well as that of a peculiar African bird. This story comes from chapter six of the book, and it also begins with a quotation this time from the Dutch Renaissance scholar Erasmus who observed, “No bees, no honey.” I should say too, that we’re catching up with this narrative in South Africa where I was frankly skipping out on a biology conference that I was supposed to be attending to go and look for native honeybees in their native habitat, a shrubby sort of a dry arid habitat in South Africa called the Fynbos.

(29:50) If I were writing a novel, this is the moment where I would tell you that a brownish robin-sized bird landed on a nearby twig chattering excitedly to get my attention. I would then describe how I followed that bird as it hopped and fluttered from branch to branch through the Fynbos, leading me directly to the bees buzzing home. That didn’t happen. But the strange thing is that it could have. The greater honeyguide earned its name through exactly the behavior I just described. Ushering people to beehives with boisterous hopping, flapping, and an incessant cry that bird books described as, “kikikikikikikikiki”.

(30:32) The bird ranges widely across sub-Saharan Africa, and wherever it is found traditional honey hunters have learned to rely on it’s talents. In one study, following these honeyguides increased the rate of bee nest discovery by 560%. And the birds consistently led the hunters to colonies that were larger and more productive than the ones they discovered on their own. After a nest has been located and breached, the honeyguide benefits by feasting on leftovers and scraps, it’s specialized diet has resulted in an unusual ability to digest beeswax. As one early European observer noted, people customarily reward their avian helpers with a very calculated gift of honeycomb, quote, “The bee hunter has never failed to leave a small portion for their conductor, but commonly take care not to leave so much as would satisfy it’s hunger. The bird’s appetite being only wetted by this parsimony, it is obliged to commit a second to treason by discovering another bee’s nest in hopes of a better salary.”

(31:44) Although no honeyguide materialized to help me that day in the Fynbos, it’s habits are a commonplace. Well-known to ornithologists and immortalized in one of the greatest scientific names of all time, “Indicator indicator”. For over two centuries, common and scientific wisdom maintained that this guiding behavior evolved between the bird and another hive raider, the ratel or honey badger. And that people had simply come along and learn to exploit it. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a group of South African biologists pointed out what should have been obvious all along, honey badgers are nocturnal. They are also nearsighted and they don’t generally climb trees to the nests usually discovered by the birds. While their waking hours do overlap briefly with honeyguides at dusk, such opportunities hardly seemed like a good co-evolutionary starting point, particularly for such a complex interaction. That myth persists in some natural history articles and even a bestselling children’s book about finding the real story behind a honeyguide behavior required biologists to go knocking on doors in an entirely different department of science.

(33:03) So to track down the origin of the honeyguide story, I spoke with a nutritional anthropologist, Alyssa Crittenden, at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, who made a remarkable discovery about the Hadza people of Tanzania. A group still living a traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle in the very landscape where our species is thought to have evolved. The Hadza are honey hunters. That much is very well known and they do follow honeyguides. But Alyssa was the first person to ask a pretty basic question, ‘How much honey did the Hadza eat?” And the answer was surprising. Honey wasn’t just an occasional sweet treat. Men, women, and children all ranked it as their number one favorite food and they looked for it every single day. Raiding the nests not just of honeybees, but have at least six other honey making varieties. Over the course of a year, honey made up fully 15% of the Hadza diet, a figure that was far higher during certain seasons and higher still for the men who did most of the collecting and ate a good portion of the harvest before ever getting back to camp.

(34:17) Now that is interesting in and of itself, but the idea becomes truly powerful in an evolutionary context. Because Alyssa and her colleagues then posed another simple question, would our ancestors surviving in roughly the same way in the same landscape have behaved any differently? After all, we know that chimpanzees eat honey so why not Homo erectus, Homo habilis, or even Australopithecus? If we have been chasing after bees since the start, well that’s certainly explains the co-evolution of honeyguides. They evolved with us. Why would a bird bother trying to attract the attention of a nocturnal badger when there were big bipedal apes out there in plain sight, scouring the savannah for bee nests all day long? But for Alyssa and her colleagues, the bird is a side note. The real discovery has to do with us because the story of human evolution has always been a story about brain size and the brain is what physiologists like to call metabolically expensive tissue.

(35:25) It takes a lot of energy to run the brain. Up to 20% of our daily calories go to fuel something that takes up only 2% of our body weight. So if you want to evolve a bigger brain then you need more fuel. And when anthropologists look back over the history of our species, they have always tried to associate noticeable increases in brain size with some potential increase in calories. The advent of hunting, for example, giving access to meat. Or better tools and cooperation for better hunting and gathering practices. Or cooking, which frees up more calories and makes them available for our bodies. So many anthropologists now believe that honey deserves a seat at that table because not only is it full of calories, but those calories come, many of them in the form of glucose, which is exactly what we use to feed our brains. It is an obligate glucose consumer and honey is the richest form of glucose in nature.

(36:31) Another paragraph from the book, “Like hunting animals, finding honey provided our ancestors with a rich nutritional reward for completing a complex task. It would have created a similar impetus for the development of cooperation and sharing as well as tool use and the mastery of fire. Hand axes, flakes, and other stone implements did indeed lead to efficiencies and killing and butchering game. But, so to, would they have allowed access to the larger bee nests that are hidden in trees. And while fire may have given us a nutritional boost through cooking, it would also have allowed the pacification of honeybees with smoke. If our ancestors did indeed search for honey as regularly as the Hadza do today, that each of these advances would have been accompanied by a huge surge in sugary calories. And as Alyssa reminded me several times during our talk, bee nests also contain larvae and pollen, which provide even more calories as well as protein and important micronutrients. Taken together, these dietary contributions make a strong case that learning to follow bees and honeyguides influenced human evolution, helping our ancestors to bolster their growing brands and, in the language of anthropology, nutritionally out-compete other species. Now that is food for thought. Could it be that our primordial sweet tooth led us to bees? And led us to honey? Helping ultimately to make us who we are, what a tantalizing notion.”

(38:07) So if I were giving this presentation a hundred years ago, I would stop now. Even 50 or 25 years ago, I might not have needed to say another word. But in the 21st century, it is impossible to talk about bees without confronting the challenges that they face. Colony collapse disorder appeared on the scene in 2006 decimating honey beehives across North America and moving on into Europe and setting off a mad research scrambled to understand why. I spoke with a bee scientist named Diane Cox Foster, who has been studying colony collapse since the beginning, she helped coin the phrase and she told me something surprising. Over the past several years, colony collapse disorder has almost disappeared. It now accounts for less than 5% of lost hives, yet professional beekeepers continue to lose 30% to 40% of their stock every year. And studies of native wild bees have also shown steep declines for many species, including what was once the most common bumblebee right here in Seattle, the western bumblebee, now virtually extinct over 90% of its former range.

(39:23) So what began as an investigation of a particular malady affecting a single species has grown into a grave concern about what may be affecting all bees. And after more than a decade of research, only one thing is really certain, it’s more than one thing. There is no single factor, no smoking gun responsible for bee declines. They are suffering from what some specialists have begun calling multiple stress disorder. Diane summarizes the key stressors as the four p’s. Parasites, like the deadly varroa mite that attaches itself to adult bees and to larvae and feeds on their body fluids. Pesticides, including the notorious neonicotinoid class. Also, pathogens, which include a wide array of viruses, bacteria, and fungi. And finally, what they’ve referred to as poor nutrition, which is simply the scarcity of flowers in many of our landscapes where we are urbanizing the landscape and developing it, but also out in rural areas where traditional smaller farms have been replaced by extremely efficient, larger operations that tend to grow one crop at a massive scale from road edge to road edge, without the hedge rows and the variety of habitat that traditionally provided a lot more food for bees.

(40:56) So you might see a rural area that is wonderful bee habitat for three weeks while the crop is in bloom and then the rest of the year of virtual desert. So poor nutrition adds to the challenges faced by bees. You add climate change and invasive species to this mix and things get even more complicated, particularly since all of these factors have the potential to interact. A pesticide that passes bee safe tests in a laboratory can become deadly in a field that has also been sprayed with a fungicide. Or a virus that hardly impacts a healthy bee can kill one already stressed by parasites or a lack of nectar. British bumblebee expert, David Golson, told me the issue boils down to a crisis in bee health. As he put it, “bees are starving, diseased, and poisoned, small wonder they aren’t thriving.” But he went on to give me the good news. In spite of the complexity of the problems and the challenges of the research, we already know enough to take action and to take action in specific ways, by providing more flowers and nesting habitat. By reducing pesticide use and by avoiding the long distance transport of domestic bees and the pathogens that tend to travel with them. Putting these straightforward ideas into practice can be transformational and efforts are already underway on thousands of acres of farmland. I toured an almond orchard in California’s Central Valley, one of the most intensively farmed landscapes on earth. And even there with virtually all native habitat gone, a simple hedge row of wild flowers had brought back all kinds of local species to that orchard, tripling bee abundance and diversity in a single season. Including the most hopeful bee I encountered in all of my research for this book, this dear little sweat bee, a native species perched on a native gumweed. But perhaps the best news of all is that you don’t have to be a bee expert to help bees.

(43:04) Anyone can do it. You can do it. You can help bees with something as simple as a window box. You can help them in your backyard. You can help them on your garden or on your farm. It can be as simple as drilling holes in a block of wood to provide nesting habitat or as satisfying as choosing to plant flowers that don’t require any spray. And if you do this, you will experience something that can be pretty unusual in the world of species conservation, instant gratification. Not too long ago, I decided that I needed a little bit of catmint in the bee bed in front of my office. You’re familiar with catmint that lovely big mint with the purple flowers. So I went to the hardware store and I got some of this stuff. And before I could even get it out of the pot into my bee bed, there were three species of bumblebees on that cat mint, instant gratification. To borrow a catchphrase from one field and put it in another field, bees respond so quickly that you will quickly think of that old movie, “if you build it, they will come.” This happens again and again with bee conservation, they respond quickly and you can see it happen in a single season. You can see it happen in an afternoon. And anything that we can do to strengthen the health of bees through providing more food or reducing pesticides, the things that we have control over, anything we can do on that end makes them stronger and more resilient to some of the problems that we don’t have much control over like the pathogens or pesticides or parasites that are in their environment. Healthier bees are more resilient and we can help. Now in a moment, I will be happy to take your questions and I hope you have some burning bee questions. But first I want to conclude this portion of our time together with a short passage from the preface to the book.

(45:06) And I think it is appropriate to end at the start really at the beginning, because while we may have a long history with bees, we’re still just beginning to understand their biology. We’re still just beginning to understand our dependence upon them. And we’re still at the very start of doing what we can to help them. This then from the preface to the book, which begins with another epigraph, this time from Henry David Thoreau, who wrote “There are certain pursuits which, if not wholly poetic and true, do at least suggest a nobler and finer relation to nature than we know. The keeping of bees, for instance, is like directing the sunbeams.” Bees today, certainly need our help, but just as importantly, they need our curiosity. Exploring the history and biology of these essential creatures can transform anyone into an enthusiast. And that is the purpose of this book. But I hope you will do more than read it. I hope it makes you want to go straight outside on the next sunny day, find a bee on a flower and settle down to watch. If you do, you just might find yourself daring to reach out and catch that be the same way my young son has done since the age of three, bare-handed. Try this and you too can feel the tiny tickle of little feet and the whispery rustle of wings on your palm before you slowly part your fingers, hold the bee up and set it free. Thank you all very much. Happy to answer your questions.

Audience Member 1: (46:56) Quick question about bee behavior, the noted dance that they often do to alert coworkers to the next food source. How do they learn it and is their dance affected by these various syndromes that are causing their decline?

TH: Oh, it’s an excellent question about the waggle dance. The waggle dance don’t we all wish we could do it. The waggle dance, which is associated with a single or a few species of bees, the honey bees and their close relatives, and it is a mode of transportation where foraging bees will return to the hive and through a sort of ritualized set of motions. They will communicate important things to the other members of that hive. They can communicate direction from the hive to a good food source. They can communicate also the distance, roughly the distance. And also there seems to be some communication going on about the quality of that food source, because you might have several bees doing different waggle dances at the same time in a community of honeybees. And there there’s almost a competition going on to see who has the best stuff. So this goes on and it’s a surprisingly effective way to communicate and that researchers have studied this by decoding the waggle dance, observing it at a hive, and then going out into the landscape and looking for it themselves, learning the language in a sense, and by marking the bees from the hive, they can then go out, find it, “well, it must be this patch of heather here”, and sure enough, those marked bees are going to that patch.

(48:38) So the second part of your question in terms of how they are affected, there are a lot of things that can affect bee navigation. And this is one of the worries about neonicotinoid pesticides, at least in some laboratory settings, those pesticides and others, a lot of chemicals have the potential to diminish a bee’s ability to navigate. And that can screw up the whole waggle dance system because navigation is just an essential part of a bee’s life.

Audience Member 1: (49:11) And they learn this dance innately or do they learn it from each other?

TH: That’s a combination. It’s innate but they also copy apparently. Yeah, but there’s just an innate ability for bees of a certain age to have that technique down. Yeah. Yes, next question.

Audience Member 2: (49:28) Well, it’s a two part question. One is just the other day there was a report on the morning blend on KBCS about the effects of temperature rising on the ability of bees to both reproduce and survive. And just a few degrees change they’re not able to handle at least in this study that change, which puts them under greater stress. And the second question has to do with a local outfit that’s very involved with pollinator habitat, the Common Acre. I just went to an event they had down at the green line in South Seattle where they’re planting all these native plants and species to give them way stations and territory’s to do their thing.

TH: Wonderful. Yeah. Two great points. So the first about temperature and its effect on bees, and it does have an effect. Certainly in that when you get really hot temperatures and it all varies, there are so many species of bees, but let’s take some of the bees we’re most familiar with. Honeybees, for example. When the hive gets hot, the bees have to maintain the temperature in that hive. And one of the ways they do it, one, they can fan their wings en masse. And you can hear the hives humming when they’re turning on the air conditioning, if you will, but they go even farther. And when things get really hot, they’ll go out and slurp up water instead of nectar, come back to the hive and drop water on the outside of the hive. So this evaporative cooling will help cool the hot. And so these are ways that they try to deal with heat, but if they have temperature keeps going up, or if it stays hot for a long time, like some of the heat waves that have been hitting parts of the world and are expected to increase with climate change, it can stress out a colony of bees because they’re spending all of their time trying to keep the colony cool, and not foraging.

(51:34) And it can have a serious impact on the health of those large communities. And then of course there are many native small bees, the solitary bees, that also might have a limited temperature range in which they can survive and function. So it has the potential to impact a lot of these tiny nests where they may not have, you know 10-20,000 sisters to help them cool things down, they’re all on their own. And so that can have an impact as well. And the third aspect of temperature change that seems to be, or is expected to have an impact, particularly on many of these native bees and some that are specialists on particular flowers, it has to do with when they emerge in the spring time. So if you have, for example, a flower that blooms based on the length of the day, well, it’s schedule isn’t changing much at all because the day length is the same now as it always has been.

(52:31) But if it is paired in a pollinator relationship with a bee and emerges based on temperature, temperatures are increasing in the spring earlier and earlier, and bees emerge earlier. And if they’re dependent on a particular flower and vice versa, you end up potentially with what is known as a timing mismatch in nature. And this puts a particular worry on many of these specialist relationships for spring flowers and their pollinators. Great question. Oh, and a marvelous group. Yeah. And getting out there again with this idea of adding bee habitat and seeing an immediate return and abundance and diversity of bees. And if you do this in your backyard, all sorts of you can get the cat mint from the hardware store and the lavender and all of these other garden plants that are good for bees. And also if you add in some native species, regionally native, doesn’t have to be native to the westside of Seattle or something, but regionally native species you’ll increase bee diversity even more because you’ll get, start picking up some of those specialists bees in our neck of the woods here. So all sorts of ways to do that. Very thing. Yes?

Audience Member 3: (53:46) I need you to settle a dispute, please. I have a hornet nest in my yard and I cautioned people where it is, but I like it there because they’ve eaten so many aphids off of my plum trees, et cetera. Well, I have a neighbor who keeps putting up flypaper and traps. I didn’t tell him I actually have the nest and he’s trapping all these hornets. And he thinks he’s saving mankind because he claims that the hornets are replacing bee habitat. Well, since their resources do not overlap, that doesn’t make any sense to me. So I’d like to encourage him to leave my hornets alone.

TH: I’m happy to jump into that fray. That’s just my kind of argument. Yes. So you can point out to him that the dietary habits of these two creatures, the two groups of creatures are totally different. So the hornets, or if they’re yellow jackets, some kind of wasp that is a social wasp in your backyard is indeed, oftentimes out there picking up caterpillars, particularly early in the season when those little caterpillars, moth, larvae, and other things that can be real pests in your fruit trees, the yellow jackets and other social wasps will be out there cleaning them up. And it’s marvelous. and so you can tell them that they’re not in direct competition with bees, for most of their diet. They may overlap a little bit in their use of nectar because some wasps will drink nectar to feed themselves.

So you’re definitely in the right to point that out to him and to say that there are advantages even to these pesky stinging social wasps. I once went to a lecture by one of the leading social wasp experts in the country. He works at the American Museum of Natural History, and he even started out with the comment, “Nobody likes a social wasp.” It’s a lonely profession but they do all sorts of good things for us in terms of attacking many insect pests.

Audience Member 3: (55:50) So they’re not displacing the bees?

TH: They are certainly not displacing the bees. And you might see some competition for nectar around certain flowers, but that would be about it.

Audience Member 4: [Inaudible] they attack honeybee nests?

TH: (56:02) Well, there is that. Yes. Yeah, you’ll see wasps attacking, because this is, again, marvelous stuff for honeybees because they’ve amassed all of that energy in that nest, all that honey, and all of those larvae in there, it’s a huge boon for other species. For our species that wants to eat the honey. For a bear that wants to get in there, or for other insects including, as you point out wasps, that will attack and steal honey and also attack and take out larvae and eat them too. So there is competition potentially between your wasps and any local beekeepers. So they might have a bone to pick with you. [Inaudible] Yeah. For the other bee it’s less so. It’s more complicated than that. If we start getting into parasitic wasps, how much time do you have?

Audience Member 5: (57:00) I’d like you to say a bit more about honey, the nutritional value of honey, as distinct from just sucrose white refined sugar for human consumption and about the honeycomb. I’ve always been fascinated by the structure of the cells and that if it’s hexagonal or whatever it is, and is that universal for all bee species that honeycombs are formed are structured the same way?

TH: (57:25) Oh, great question. So the first one about nutrition, is that raw honey contains all sorts of other things. It has all those sugars in there and a bit of water, but then you have all of these additives that the bees have put in there, that help preserve it and that add to the nutritional value of that honey. And in some cases have even antibacterial and medicinal uses as well. So it’s more than just sugar. Unrefined honey has other uses, which is why it’s used in medicine so much and why people are paying so much for Manuka honey now at the grocery store, which is a honey that comes from a tree related to acacias that occurs in parts of Australia. And then out of New Zealand.

(58:12) And the tree itself has, is known to have antibacterial and medicinal uses. And those qualities come through the nectar into the honey and give potentially some of that benefit to people who use that honey for medicinal uses. I encountered someone at a bee lecture who swore by the stuff, he had suffered from low grade eye infections his whole life. Had had these sort of watery eyes, tried everything, been at all the doctors and just thought he’d have to live with it. And a friend of his said, “Well, why don’t you try some of this manuka, honey?” Why not? So every morning now he puts a dab of honey in each eye and it cured it. So I haven’t read definitive, peer reviewed studies yet on this stuff. But certainly there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence that honey is of various kinds, and they really vary a lot depending on what the bees have been consuming, have various medicinal quality. So there’s a lot more in there than just the sucrose and glucose and fructose and all of that stuff. Anyway. And the second half of your question?

Audience Member 5: (59:26) Honeycomb structure.

TH: (59:26) Honeycomb, oh, are there any mathematicians in the room? There was a fabulous challenge that someone finally did solve not too long ago. Vero was a Greek mathematician. I’m a little out of my league here, but I think this guy, Vero, who admired the structure of the honeycomb and came up with the theory that it was that hexagon, that series of linked hexagons was the most efficient way to use a limited supply of wax to get the maximum amount of honey into a comb. And that was a theory and someone finally proved it mathematically, but only within the last 20 years or so.

(01:00:10) He was finally proven right after all that time, someone figured out how to study that and prove it. So indeed it’s a very efficient way to store this precious resource, this honey. It’s not universal by any means. It’s there in the honeybees and those highly social honeybees and some of the stingless bees in the tropics that also store honey. But bumblebees which make honey, they put it in a little pot, not very efficient at all. So you only really see it having developed in bees that store a high volume of honey. And that is a limited number of bees, the very social bees that have long lifespans, the colony needs to store up honey to last itself through the winter or through the dry season or through a period of time when there are no flowers in the landscape.

(01:01:02) So you don’t see it developing in bees like bumblebees that are ephemeral. Every bumblebee that you see buzzing around in the summer, all those workers, even the drones, that you see in August are all doomed. They all die in the fall, and it’s only the pregnant female queens that fly forth at the end of the season. Find a little spot in the soil over winter and come out in the spring and start that whole cycle over again. So when they make honey, they’re just making enough for a rainy day. If they can’t leave the hive or the nest, because the weather is poor then they just stay and eat that honey. But they’re not making enough to last through a long season because their life span is short. So it’s a limited number of bees that do it, but it’s highly efficient.

Audience Member 6: (01:01:53)

You mentioned other pollinators, moths and beetles is there. I’d never heard of this before. Is there like a pollinator that surprised you? Can you talk about other, if you’ve bumped into some of that in your research?

TH: (01:02:08) Yeah. Also there are all sorts of pollinators out there. Moths and beetles, there are birds that are great pollinators, hummingbirds and sunbirds that visit flowers. And there are flowers specifically adapted to dabbing pollen on the foreheads of hummingbirds, how marvelous. Aloe vera. Who has aloe vera growing in their house? Every once in a while it does flower. And that is a flower that birds will pollinate. So at any rate, a whole range of things. There are small mammals, little marsupials that pollinate things. There are almost anything you can imagine. There are bats that are important pollinators. And one of my favorites, and this has never been studied, but I observed it years ago when I was working on a mountain gorilla project, is that these big mountain gorillas, there’s a certain, shrub in their environment that blooms very rarely, but they love the flowers. And so you will see these gorillas tipping down these shrubs and eating blossoms and having pollen all over their faces. And then they’ll go to another plant and they’re sloppy, right? They don’t eat all the flowers. So, you know, darn well that they are moving pollen among those plants in a very clumsy and unsophisticated way. And it may not have been the plant’s strategy, but they are certainly moving some pollen around. So all sorts of wonderful examples. Yes.

Audience Member 7: (01:03:37) Is it true that mason bees are faster pollinators or create more honey than honey bees?

TH: (01:03:47) Great question. So mason bees are these marvelous little black and iridescent blue sorts of bees, we have 20 or 30 species here that you might see in the Northwest. And they’re very efficient pollinators, particularly for orchard trees like apples and things. So we think of pollination and have to remind ourselves that not all bees are created equal. And that in some cases, the size of the bee really matters. And if you look at the size of one of these mason bees compared to the size of an apple blossom, you see that the bee is perfectly sized to be absolutely fossicking around in amongst the flower parts, right? To get the nectar or to gather pollen it’s right there. So anything that touches it’s body that gets stuck and move to the next flower is in the right place. Whereas bees like honeybees, which are also they’re good pollinators of apples, but not nearly as efficient because they’re larger and they stick their tongues in. Sometimes they come in from the side and just sneak the nectar out if you will. They’re less efficient at pollinating apples. So it’s true that certain bees are better at certain flowers and mason bees are wonderful fruit pollinators.

Audience Member 8: (01:05:09) I’m just wondering if you can address, is there out of 20,000 species, there’s probably some migration patterns reproduction. And how far do they go to reproduce or are they migrating south? You know, things like that for some of those sort of loner bees.

TH: Yeah. So migration in bees is very local. It’s very local. There’s no monarch butterfly of the bees. At least not that we know of. Their habits are very centered around a particular spot. We do see some indication of elevational migration in terms of ascending perhaps to an alpine meadow where the floral resources are great and then spending the winter in a forested area where the duff is good for nesting in or spending the winter in, that sort of thing. But I’m not aware of any long distance migrations of bees. Yeah.

Audience Member 9: (01:06:06) So I was wondering how you tracked the bees and how you captured them to study?

TH: Oh, and here comes this question. Yes. Tracking the bees. Oh, all of these failures. So my son and I who is now nine, we really wanted to follow some bees around, we were obsessed with finding bumblebee nests. And so we determined that we would track these bees because this is possible. You read about this and you hear about people tracking bees. And, in fact, when I worked in Africa, the Batwa Pygmies there in this forest were incredible bee trackers. We can learn to do this and how are we going to do it? So the first thing we tried was to attach a little bit of a feather to the back of a bumblebee thinking that’s going to make it easy to see, and then we’ll follow, I’ve read about this someplace. So you just stick a feather on this bee and the bee if you do this, what you will notice is that the beach simply reaches up with one of those limber legs, grabs the feather, and then wads it up with all six legs and stuffs it on the ground and flies off. No good. Then we thought, okay, well, a little bit of thread, you know, something we can see that this is gonna work great. So you tie a thread. Bees can untie knots. The thread gone. So we got a little blue chalk from the plum line. We put a little blue chalk on the rump of these bees and then you can really see it it’s bright and blue, right? So this is great. And we put it on the bee and the bee starts zipping off over the grass and then, it happened to be a clear day, and so blue bee up into a blue sky gone. Total failure. So we tried all sorts of ways to track the bees. And all I can say is that the habit of being obsessed with them really tuned us into what is probably a very old habit for our species and that is paying close attention to bees. So the way that we eventually located bumblebee nests was by looking for what Noah, my son, called “suspicious bees”. And those would be bees that we saw in a place that you don’t normally see bees. What is that bumblebee doing, coming out of the woodshed, for example. Or why are we seeing bees in this dense forested place where there really aren’t any flowers? And so it was by paying attention to bees in general, that helped lead us to the nest, but all of our various schemes for following them through the air failed. We needed a honeyguide or something to lead us there. Great question. Yeah.

Audience Member 10: (01:08:58) Thank you very much for being here and your enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. Appreciate it very much. I heard a factoid on the radio recently, which I wasn’t sure of the veracity of so I wanted to ask you this, that when a male bees, the drones, when they copulate, their gonads explode and it kills them, is this true? So when you brought up the pseudo copulation, it led me to wonder, is it one and done or ?

TH: Yeah. Really good question. Again, this is a honeybee habit, these poor suckers. Sorry, gents. But they’re all sorts of stories about drones. And I don’t know if anyone is familiar with the author P.G. Wodehouse and the Bertie and Jeeves books. Well, I don’t know if Wodehouse was a beekeeper, but I suspect he might’ve been because when he had this layabout rich fellow young man in Edwardian England, going to his social club, it was always the Drones Club. All these layabouts with nothing to do. And that is the story of male bees. So with solitary bees and with bees like bumblebees and some of those, they have a pretty good scene, really. They come out early, usually for the solitary bees or at the end of the season for bumblebees, really for the sole purpose of a mating flight.

(01:10:29) So they come out these solitary bees and they have sex. And then they just sort of lay about like the Drones Club. Because that’s all they really had to do. So they eat nectar and they sort of hang around until their lives are over. It’s not so bad. But it’s a little bit more extreme for those poor saps, the honeybees, in that they are programmed. There’s great competition in those flights, those mating flights, ’cause there are a lot of usually if the, if the hive is healthy, a lot of drones out there and they are have evolved this horrible habit of actually exploding during sex.

So it is a fatal wound. Having sex as a fatal wound for a drone. and in part it is, this explosive ejaculation, if you will. And it causes a rupture in the abdomen of the bee and that does become fatal. So you actually can observe this and even hear a little snapping popping sound during mating flights of honeybees. It’s tough stuff. I don’t know. It is tough. It’s really tough. I don’t know. It’s all I can do not to make some comment about the “Bee Too” movement at this moment. I won’t do it. Ooh, we could go there. No, we won’t. Yes, next question.

Audience Member 11: (01:11:55) I don’t know if I can follow up that question, but so, as I was reading Buzz, I caught a couple glimpses into references of feathers and seeds. And then, especially with the passage of time, especially with your kid growing up, you mentioning years, I started realizing that you were collecting and conducting research in all these disparate subjects, probably at the same time and in parallel. So I was wondering about your research methods and how you keep all this information, together and related. And then ultimately when you focus on one subject and create a book about that subject, how that comes about?

TH: I’m wondering the same thing and when you figure it out, you tell me what I’m doing. That’s a great question. So I have done a lot of different research at various times. So I have interest in a lot of things, and I try to keep up on the literature of certain subjects that really fascinate me. But when I actually get in dive into doing a book, then I really ignore the rest and focus on one topic for whatever period of time, a year or two years, two and a half, something like that. So there’s sort of a combination. Your answer is there’s sort of a wide net in general, many things that I’m interested in. And then when I’m actually focused in on a book project, I really do narrow it down and try the best I can to ignore the other things and focus. Yeah. At least that’s what I tell myself I’m doing it. We’ll how it all works out. Yes.

Audience Member 12: (01:13:28) Alright. So if you have roughly 20,000 or so species of bees and you have them pretty much all across the world, if you have some that are like the bumblebees, that pretty much won’t harm you unless you literally smack them and then you have other bees that might get provoked at the slightest thing, are those usually caused by factors of perhaps other predators in the area or what might cause that?

TH: (01:14:01) Oh, this is a really interesting question with all sorts of cool evolutionary aspects to it. But if you look at the behavior of bees, the defensive behavior, and also even in many cases, the strength of the sting, because not all string stings are created equal, there’s this great entomologist who’s gone out and gotten stung on purpose by all sorts of stinging insects and created this steam index, what hurts the most, so the ones that hurt the most generally speaking, the ones with the stronger stings are those that have a lot to defend. So if you’re talking about honeybees, they have one of the stronger stings in the bee world because they have those massive nests and full of honey and larvae and all their sisters and everything else.

(01:14:52) So that is, is one of the stronger standards. But if you get out to many of these solitary bees, it’s just a few little nest cells, you know, in a hole on the ground someplace. They’re much more likely to flee rather than defend it. And their stings, even if you do get stung, are very minor in many cases, and many groups of them have simply lost the ability to sting. They’re more likely to flee. And so you have real range of stings and sting behaviors often associated with defense. So if you do find more aggressive bees, they tend to be the social ones. And if they’re being quite aggressive, you’re probably close to a nest. That’s most likely what. And the same is true in wasps as well. If you get aggressive behavior from wasps, look around, there’s a hole in the ground, or there’s one of those hanging nests, you’re getting close to something. Because, generally speaking, unless you trap them in your armpit or something, if they’re out foraging, they’re generally not that aggressive. But if you’re close to a nest site, then they can be quite aggressive.

Audience Member 12: (01:15:54) Except for yellowjackets.

TH: Oh, the yellowjackets they get a bad rap. Well, they’re a little feisty, I’ll admit. But they are marvelous in their way too. The social wasps.

Audience Member 12: (01:16:11) I have one more question.

TH: Yes, please.

Audience Member 12: (01:16:13) So do honeybees and the other kinds of bees that live in hives, do they communicate chemically much like ants do? And if so, if a bee dies in a hive— know this is about ants, they have what’s called a graveyard because, after an ant dies, it releases a type of acid. It starts with an “O”, I forgot exactly what it called. That signifies the other ant, “Hey, I’m dead.” And they get taken to the graveyard. And I’m wondering if bees have a similar kind of procedure, if a bee dies in the hive.

TH: (01:16:58) Yeah. Wonderful question. And, yes, absolutely. You see great chemical communication amongst the bees. I had, one entomologist friend make a suggestion when there was, there was some kind of bee festival going on or be themed. It was at the County fair. I guess they were having a be themed County fair. And one of the booths was supposed to be, “What’s it like to be a bee”, right? And so they asked this guy and he said, He said, “Oh, that’s easy. Just turn off the lights, pack everyone in there real tight and have them bump into each other and they’ll get an idea of what it’s like inside a hive.” And we forget that a lot of times it’s pretty dark in there, right? And so if you’re going to be communicating, if you’re doing waggle dance, you better do it someplace where there’s maximum light, even indoors. So a lot of the communication has to be chemical because it’s so dark. And so, yes, there are all sorts of chemical cues and there are definitely be graveyards as well. There is a cast of workers in a hive that is responsible for cleanup the janitors, if you will. And they will be clean up all sorts of things, including any bees that parish as well.

Audience Member 13: (01:18:08) Yeah. I had no idea there were so many different species of bees right here in the Northwest. Other than being attracted to the steak and the salmon from the barbecue, what are the quick visual ways we can distinguish, that’s a bee, that’s a wasp.

TH: (01:18:31) Yeah. Great question. So how do you tell if these things look so similar? Well, one thing to look for, always for bees is fuzziness in that bees tend to be the polling gathering bees, and there’s, there are exceptions, but they’re fuzzy like a bumblebee or a honeybee with fuzz on it. So any bee, or bee-like thing, that looks really hairy is usually safe to assume that it is a bee and then for the other thing, of course, to look at is simply habits. Is it on a flower, right? A wasps will visit flowers, they’ll drink nectar from flowers. But most of the time when you see one of these creatures on a flower, or going from flower to flower you can pretty quickly convince yourself that it’s a bee. And if it’s got pollen on its body, any place, then that’s the dead giveaway cause wasps don’t collect pollen.

(01:19:23) So there are subtle cues about the body shape and fuzziness. And then also very important to look at behavior as well. What are they doing? Watch them for awhile. And if they’re just moving around, like they’re searching for something and you’re not seeing them go to flowers, they’re probably hunting and that would lead you to think it was a wasp, but it’s worth really looking closely ’cause there are some things out there that you probably would think at first glance are wasps, you know, bright iridescent looking things. And then you get down and watch and realize they’re gathering pollen and they are in fact, bees. We have hundreds of species of bees in the state of Washington. So keep your eyes peeled.

Candace Wilkinson: (01:20:05) Thank you so much, Thor.

TH: My pleasure. Thanks again.

Jini Palmer: (01:20:14)

Thank you for listening to our Town Hall, Seattle Science series. I’m Jini Palmer. A special thanks to our audio engineer, Dave Campbell. This song was recorded live and performed by Jack Quartet from our Town Music series. If you like our science series, look for our civics and arts and culture series as well. For more information, visit our website at

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