What's The Buzz On Beekeeping This Year?
IRA FLATOW, host:
You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.
The crocuses are blooming, the days are getting longer, spring is in the air. What about the bees? What's the health of the bees? This hour, we're going to talk about bees, everything you wanted to know about bees and bugs. It's sort of our roundup of bees, bugs and all sorts of creepy-crawly things.
A recent study has found that honeybee hives are loaded with systemic pesticides. Are we look at a silent spring redux? We'll get the latest on colony collapse disorder and hear what it's like on the frontlines from a New York beekeeper.
This year also marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the man who invented the modern beehive, Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth. And we're going to talk a little bit about why that invention changed beekeeping.
So give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and you can go to our Web site at sciencefriday.com, where you'll find links to our topics. You can also leave some comments there about what you're hearing today.
Let me introduce my guests. Jeff Pettis is the lead researcher at the USDA Bee Research Laboratory in Maryland. He joins us by phone from Chincoteague Island in Virginia. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Mr. JEFF PETTIS (Lead Researcher, USDA Bee Research Lab): Thank you very much.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Also here in the studio with me is Richard Blohm. He's a master beekeeper. He cares for 50 beehives - that 5-0 beehives - on High Meadow Honey Farm in Huntington, Long Island. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Richard.
Mr. RICHARD BLOHM (Master Beekeeper, High Meadow Honey Farm): Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Jeff, how have the bees fared this winter? We heard that it's been a tough winter, and a tough winter for bees.
Mr. PETTIS: Well, early indications are this is going to be a really bad winter. We actually are in the midst of doing a survey, a national survey, and so we'll have firm numbers by the end of April. But all indications are that it's not going to be a particularly good winter for bees this year.
FLATOW: What about your 50 beehives? How do they look? Did they survive the winter okay?
Mr. BLOHM: Yeah, my hives survived very well. I had normal losses. Each winter, we expect to lose approximately 10 percent under normal circumstances. And my hives - I keep my hives in - it's more of a non-agricultural area. So it's more residential, suburban area, and they're not exposed to as many pesticides.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Jeff, how many species, or what is the state, in your view, of colony collapse that we've been hearing about? Has it leveled out? Is it on the increase? Do we know anything more about it?
Mr. PETTIS: I think it's still out there. We've been doing surveys across the nation, and particularly in California, in advance of almond bloom out there. And this year, for the first time in about a year in a half, I saw some increased levels of colonies that were dying from colony collapse, where there's excess young bees left behind in the colony, and those symptoms are kind of unusual.
So I hadn't seen that for about a year and a half, and I did see it this past fall and winter.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And what do you think, Rich, colony collapse is due to? You've been keeping bees, what, how many, 50 years, 30 years?
Mr. BLOHM: No, 35 years.
FLATOW: Thirty-five years. Have you ever seen anything like it?
Mr. BLOHM: No, I haven't. I've seen where bees were affected by pesticides many years ago from tree-spraying, when they used to spray Seven, but that was quite different. A direct pesticide kill of the hive would leave a pile of dead bees out in front of the hive, and you knew right away that it was pesticides.
What Jeff is talking about is the bees just seem to abscond. They just leave the hive, and they leave behind young larva and brood, which is not typical of honeybees. Normally, they would stay home and take care of those.
FLATOW: Jeff, you have a new study out on pesticides. Tell us what you found.
Mr. PETTIS: Right. We surveyed some colonies that were dying, CCD colonies and others and also healthy colonies, as well as some in various agricultural settings. And we were just looking at pesticide residues in beeswax, and particularly in pollen, the food - the protein food of bees.
And we weren't that surprised, but there was just a wide range of pesticides that literally are coming in through the front door in the pollen, in the food the bees eat. Some of those, though, are the ones that we've been using to control parasitic mites. We have two parasitic mites that have come into the country, and so some of those pesticide levels in the hives are due to our own efforts to control another problem in beekeeping.
FLATOW: So do you suspect that this might be, the amount of pesticide that you're finding might be affecting the health of the bees?
Mr. PETTIS: Well, it certainly can't be good for bees, but we don't know - I mean, I wouldn't point to pesticides alone as being - certainly it's a primary suspect, but it's not something that we think, you know, is, in and of itself, the cause of CCD. And I say that based on the fact that we were comparing healthy colonies with CCD colonies, and both of them had fairly elevated levels of pesticides in the pollen. So we can't point to just pesticides, but it's certainly on our list of suspects.
FLATOW: Rich, how do you tell when bees are sick? What goes on in the hive that tells you that there's an illness going on?
Mr. BLOHM: Well, there's a number of different diseases and pathogens that can affect the beehive. When we look at it, we look - like coming out of the winter now, we want to see how strong the colony is, how the brood looks and how much food they have and if the queen is laying, and if - we can tell. After years of experience, you just know when there's harmony in the hive and everything is going well, and if not, there's things you can do in bee management to take care of that.
FLATOW: Do you open up the hive and just look inside and pull stuff out? What do you look for?
Mr. BLOHM: Absolutely, yeah. Well, we open up the hive, and the comb is in movable frames - and you mentioned Lorenzo Langstroth, who was the inventor of those movable frames and was the father of modern beekeeping. And we're able to take out each comb separately and take a look at it, and take a look at where the honey is stored and how much honey they have left to feed on.
And then we look at the same comb in another section of the hive, which we call the brood. It's where the queen lays her eggs, and we check that, and we can tell the health of that, also.
FLATOW: When do the bees decide it's time to get active again? Because they've sort of been hibernating.
Mr. BLOHM: Well, as long as the temperature outside is over about 48 degrees, the bees will go out flying.
FLATOW: Have you seen them out? Are they out there already?
Mr. BLOHM: Yeah, they'll be out. A day like today in New York, they're out, you know, foraging. On my way in here, I just saw the first dandelions blooming as I came down the Long Island Expressway in Queens.
FLATOW: Only a beekeeper would love to see dandelions.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BLOHM: Absolutely.
FLATOW: Do you agree, Jeff?
Mr. PETTIS: I agree with that. Yeah, and actually, it's the - any of the spring pollens, as soon as the bees get out and the temperature warms a bit and the spring pollen starts coming in, they begin brood-rearing. So, yeah, it's -yeah, and dandelions are one of our great things that bees utilize.
FLATOW: So what happens now that the season has started? What goes on inside the colony, Rich? What - give us a sequence of order.
Mr. BLOHM: Well, first of all, as the weather warms up, they can break the cluster in the hive. They - when it's cold out, they cluster tight together, and in the center of that cluster all winter long, it's about 92 degrees.
FLATOW: They can keep it at 92 in the middle of below-zero temperature?
Mr. BLOHM: Absolutely. If they don't do that, they're going to perish. So going into the winter, we need a good, strong colony. Lots of bees that are able to do that and lots of nectar to consume - or honey, over the winter. And by metabolizing that honey, they can warm the hive.
And what they do is they vibrate their wing muscles. They don't actually fan their wings, but they vibrate their wing muscles, and that produces heat. And they can maintain that 92-degree temperature.
FLATOW: Wow. Let's go to the phones - Scott in Athens, Ohio. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT (Caller): Hey, how's it going?
FLATOW: Hey, there.
SCOTT: I - this is kind of fortuitous. I've been considering, for the past couple weeks, getting a hive. And I live in a rural area, and there's two fields near me, where farmers grow corn for feed. And I spoke to one today, and he's actually converted the field to clover and alfalfa, which I thought was very fortuitous.
But the other one is still growing corn, and, of course, they use some pesticides. And I was wondering if either one of your guests could comment on pesticide that's found in honey.
FLATOW: Rich, any idea?
Mr. BLOHM: Well, normally, you will find very - no real pesticide in honey, because the bees are consuming that, and if there were even trace amounts, they would perish and wouldn't be able to bring it back to the hive.
So you really - tests have been done. Samples of commercial honey off of shelves have been sent to Germany, where they do very sophisticated testing for pesticides, and pesticides really haven't been found in honey.
FLATOW: Jeff Pettis, did you look for that in your study?
Mr. PETTIS: Well, actually I have a follow-up to that, following what Richard said. Part of the USDA agricultural - agricultural market. Yeah, it -Agricultural Marketing Service does food-shelf testing of apples and grapes and all kinds of products that we eat, and they did a honey survey just in the past two years. And honey, by and large, is safe. There's very little in the way of residues there.
Obviously, there could be something there. But we did look at honey briefly in our survey, but most pesticides are lipophilic. They love wax. So they'll go into wax. They won't go into the liquid, water-base, which is honey. So there's a natural barrier there.
FLATOW: Thanks for the call, Scott. Now, he wanted to go into beekeeping. What steps should a novice beekeeper do to start?
Mr. BLOHM: Well, it's very interesting that he mentions that now because going back about three, four years ago, beekeepers, we were worried that there were only beekeepers like me, getting older, and new people weren't coming into the field. And just over the last two years, I would say, there's been a real resurgence of young people wanting to keep bees.
FLATOW: People have been keeping them illegally, haven't they? I mean, the city of New York just allowed it, even though there are beekeepers all over the place there.
Mr. BLOHM: Yes, yeah. But there was no good reason to have that on the books. They just did that for - there was no incidents at all. But just talking about getting started in beekeeping, you find some local beekeepers. It's easy today. You look on the Internet. You can find a local bee club and some classes that might be given, and that would get him started in beekeeping.
Mr. PETTIS: Can I just follow up on that?
FLATOW: Sure, Jeff, please.
Mr. PETTIS: Our local bee clubs in the Washington, D.C. area, every one of them in the past three to four years has been maxed out. They used to hold about 30 people. They're having 100 and 200 people in those classes. I mean, it really has been a resurgence recently. That's good to see.
FLATOW: Yeah, and if you ask people, what do they say? I mean, why are they so interested now?
Mr. PETTIS: I just think a lot of - you're hearing about the plight of pollinators, you know, all the different pollinators are in trouble. And this also - it connects with things like community gardens and grow-your-own-food movement, you know, that kind of thing. So it's a way of connecting back with nature a bit.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Judd in Glenwood. Hi, Judd.
JUDD (Caller): Hi, I'm so glad you took my call. Now, my beautiful blonde wife, Trista grew up weaving dandelion tiaras and crowns for herself. I have pictures of her when she was a child, absolutely breathtaking.
And I eat them. My brother eats dandelions. I'm a big fan of dandelions. Nothing appears more sinister to me than some old codger walking across this green expanse with a bottle of poison, eh, eh, squirting the beautiful dandelions. And I think - I want an answer from the experts if they believe that the use of pesticides in that manner has been responsible for colony collapse. And if not, is it detrimental for bees in any other way?
FLATOW: All right, we have to take a break, but I'm going let our guests think about that, Rich Blohm and Jeff Pettis, think about - well, they just -spraying the dandelions might hurt the bees.
1-800-989-8255 is our number. We are talking about bees this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY. Also, you can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. And you can get into the conversation on our Web site at sciencefriday.com. So lots of ways to participate. We'll be right back after this break. Don't go away.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.
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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about insects and bees this hour with my guests, Jeff Pettis, lead researcher at the USDA Bee Research Lab, and Richard Blohm. He's a master beekeeper and cares for 50 hives on High Meadow Honey Farm in Huntington, Long Island.
Jeff, we had a question from a listener before we left. The spraying of dandelions on your lawn, is that going to affect the bees?
Mr. PETTIS: Well, certainly it could. I guess in all the ads, you always see the dandelion is the evil coming up through the cracks in the sidewalks. In our survey, we did see some herbicides, things that kill plants, but we were more concerned about the insecticides that were coming in on pollen and fungicides, things that control fungal diseases.
But I will say in the caller's concern, home lawn and garden use, the insecticide use in home lawn and gardens is much higher than it is in agriculture, per acre, on a per acre basis. Homeowners tend to use a lot of product, and they tend to use it at higher rates than is used in agriculture. So certainly there's concern there, and we could probably modify that use somewhat.
FLATOW: We have a tweet coming in from Shiny(ph), who says: What about the agricultural monocultures? How do they affect bees?
Mr. PETTIS: Well, they're certainly in agriculture, as it gets larger and larger, you have large fields of the same crop, which is monoculture, and there's a couple of ways that that can affect bees or other pollinators. One is that it's a single crop. It only produces a certain amount of nectar or pollen. And it may or may not be particularly nutritious for bees or other pollinators.
So if that crop is widespread in an area, it doesn't offer as much diversity in the diet for bees and especially for native pollinators that may be in that area.
At least honeybees, we can move them. In a monoculture area, we can then move them later in the season and perhaps build them up on a more diverse diet.
FLATOW: Richard, we heard so many for so many years the Africanized honeybee and how dangerous it is. What is the state of them? What's happened with them? Do you see them around? How far north can they come? They're supposedly coming up through Texas, remember?
Mr. BLOHM: Yes, well, they're in most of Texas. They're in New Mexico, Arizona, Southern California and now, just over the last, I think, two years, they have them in Florida. So it is a concern. They're trying to capture swarms in Florida and eradicate them, keep them under control as much as they can.
I don't think it's going to be eventually, they're going to be moving further north, but from everything I've read, they won't get north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The Africanized bee doesn't do what what I mentioned before, our bees cluster to stay warm in the winter, and Africanized bees don't have that genetic trait. So what happens is when it gets cold, they just see that as an extreme stress, and they'll abscond. They'll just all just fly out of the hive, and if they do that in the cold, they're going to succumb to the cold.
FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Melanie(ph) in San Antonio. Hi, Melanie.
MELANIE (Caller): Hey, Ira. Good afternoon to you and your guest.
FLATOW: Hey there.
MELANIE: I have a question. I have some beautiful trees in my front yard, mountain laurels and red buds, and by this time of the year, they are usually covered in honeybees. And this year, we have had zero.
I've noticed about 10 miles north of us, bees are very busy doing their thing, but in our suburban area, we have absolutely no bees this year at all.
FLATOW: Wow. Rich, any idea there?
Mr. BLOHM: Other than the fact that if you had them recently, in the last few years, there must have been a local beekeeper, and it could be that they might have moved out of the area.
We've had trouble years ago, when we first got these parasitic mites, that all the wild colonies were killed off by the mites, and only the beekeepers who were treating their hives and controlling those mites who had bees that were surviving. So...
MELANIE: I see. Is there any way to find out if we have, like, a colony-collapse problem?
Mr. BLOHM: I forgot I didn't hear what you said. Where are you from?
Mr. BLOHM: San Antonio. San Antonio, Texas.
Mr. BLOHM: Jeff, you want to answer that?
Mr. PETTIS: Well, it's probably, probably as Richard said, probably just a case of either it was a local hive that maybe died out due to parasitic mites, or it could be a beekeeper, and he or she moved their hives.
Not to rule out the fact that you could have bees dying in that area, you know, due to CCD.
MELANIE: Okay, in a situation like this, could we introduce hives into a suburban area to sort of boost our local population?
Mr. BLOHM: Oh, definitely. Just check on your local ordinances, and also look what you can do is do a little research on the Internet about native pollinators. Just Google native pollinators, and you could probably encourage bumblebees to move in and also orchard bees and that sort of thing, and make nests, you know, in your yard for them, and they'll pollinate pretty well.
MELANIE: Excellent. All right. Thank you very much.
FLATOW: Good luck, 1-800-989-8255. I didn't know there was so much interest in bees, but you knew that, Rich.
Mr. BLOHM: Oh yeah.
FLATOW: Mary in Harvard, Mass. Hi, Mary.
MARY (Caller): Hi there. Thanks for taking my call. My father raised bees for a number of years, although he never involved his children in them, and then when I moved back to the homestead, after he passed on, I took over in using his equipment. So I've been a beekeeper for 10 years, and I have noticed that I think there's a great Ph.D. dissertation here for either a biologist or a psychology student in the difference between male and female beekeepers.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARY: I think females nurture, and I go in, and yes, I move the furniture around. I move those frames around. I don't practice matricide. You know, I hate killing a healthy queen just to bring in a new one for genetic diversity, and I cry when I lose my hives.
FLATOW: Rich, do you think there is a difference?
Mr. BLOHM: Well, actually, the feeling is mutual. I feel the same way about my bees.
FLATOW: There you go. We're getting all touchy-feely.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BLOHM: Yes, but over the years, I'm probably a little less sensitive than I used to be, but I too, if I re-queen a hive, I don't destroy the queen. I'll put her in a nuke.
FLATOW: In a what?
Mr. BLOHM: Well, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BLOHM: Yeah, that's beekeeping terminology for a nucleus hive. It's a small hive that we'll save a queen that way, and until we know the new queen is viable and doing well, and then we can always re-use that queen again.
FLATOW: Mary, when you got back into it, was it expensive? What did you have to learn? What equipment did you need? How did you learn all about it to get back...
MARY: I did take a bee course with a lovely master beekeeper, a lovely man, not such a great teacher. So he finally well, not so organized. He finally just said, you know, order your package of bees.
Back then, 10 years ago, they came through the U.S. Post Office. So that morning that they came, the postmaster started calling me at six in the morning to say my bees were there. I had a hive that was the two wood boxes, the deep...
FLATOW: The Lanstroth boxes, yeah.
MARY: Yeah, they I bought those brand new and my net brand new, but other stuff I had secondhand that I felt had come from clean bees and clean beekeepers. And yeah, I got 10 pounds of honey that first year, and I gave it to my sibs, and I said: I don't want you to think I'm being cheap. This honey comes in about 60 bucks a pound.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARY: But since then, it's gone down considerably, and I love doing it. I have seven hives, but I lost six of them this winter.
FLATOW: Ooh, it's been a rough winter.
MARY: But definitely taking a bee course - and just remember, for new beekeepers, if you five experienced beekeepers the same question, you will get at least six answers.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: All right. Good luck to you, Mary.
MARY: Thank you so much.
FLATOW: Do you agree, Richard?
Mr. BLOHM: I agree. You will...
Mr. PETTIS: I've got a comment simply on Mary: I don't see the difference in the sexes so much as just in general. Really good beekeepers are definitely in tune with their bees. I mean, they definitely you definitely, you know what they're doing. You're respectful of them and that kind of thing, and also just it's really rewarding to see new, young beekeepers because, as Richard pointed out, it was a graying industry. And so it's great to see young people coming back to beekeeping.
FLATOW: And how do they keep how do they keep the populations healthy? Do they have to keep them healthy? Or do the bees take care of themselves?
Mr. PETTIS: Beekeeping is more difficult than it was 20 years ago, before we had parasitic mites. It's definitely more work, and there's more involvement.
FLATOW: And Richard, how long does a colony stay alive on its own?
Mr. BLOHM: Well...
FLATOW: What's the normal lifetime of a colony?
Mr. BLOHM: If everything goes well, it could stay alive indefinitely because the bees over time will, as the queen ages, they could either swarm and then make new queens or do something, what we call...
Mr. PETTIS: Supersedure.
Mr. BLOHM: Supersedure. Thank you, Jeff - where they'll just replace the queen and continue on. It's when the queen gets older, she produces less pheromones, which are an odor the queen gives off that the rest of hive senses that odor, and it creates harmony in the hive. As soon as that odor goes down, as the queen is aging - and she's also laying less eggs. So the population is going to be affected.
So they want a young queen, just a beekeeper does, and they'll replace her. And by the way, the ones that make the decision in the hive to replace the queen are all females. They're the worker bees, so - just to go out to that young lady that called in.
FLATOW: So even though there are all these people lining up to become beekeepers, and they're overflowing in the schools, you still encourage people, go out there and start a colony, start a hive of your own.
Mr. BLOHM: Absolutely, I mean..
FLATOW: It's not that hard. What about getting stung? People are always worried about I'm going to get stung so much.
Mr. BLOHM: Well, I mean, I've gotten used to getting stung, after 35 years, but initially, I wore gloves, I wore a suit, I wore a veil, and I avoided stinging as much as I could. But over time, as I learned more about bees, I learned that actually bee venom is healthy. It's used therapeutically, so and there's been lots of shows on that.
FLATOW: And you keep stinging yourself to keep your immunity up?
Mr. BLOHM: Well, I'll go out in the middle of the winter and give myself a sting or two just so I maintain my immunity. I don't want to turn around and become allergic.
FLATOW: You mean to the venom.
Mr. BLOHM: To the venom.
FLATOW: To the venom out there.
Mr. BLOHM: Yes.
FLATOW: Wow. Fascinating. Gentlemen, we've run out of time. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today. Stay with us because we're going to bring on another guest.
Mr. BLOHM: Okay. Very good.
FLATOW: And I want to bring on Hugh Raffles.
For bees, you take us to Austria, Hugh Raffles, and you have written an interesting book called "Insectopedia."
Dr. HUGH RAFFLES (Author, "Insectopedia;" Professor of Anthropology, The New School): Mm-hmm. That's right.
FLATOW: It's like encyclopedia, but it's an insectopedia. Tell us about why you wrote this book and the section in particular about bees in there.
Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah. There is a section about bees.
Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah. There's a section about Karl von Frisch. And (unintelligible)...
FLATOW: And who was he?
Dr. RAFFLES: Karl von Frisch was - he won the Nobel Prize in 1973, I think, along with Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen. They were early ethologists, and, you know, people who study animal behavior. And - but he was a Austrian -an Austrian zoologist. He didn't actually start off studying insects. He started off studying fish. But he pretty soon became very interested in bees. And in the - from the 1920s to the 1950s, with his assistant (unintelligible). He was the person who worked out that bees communicated through dances.
FLATOW: He's the one who discovered...
Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah. He figured that out.
FLATOW: And that was very important, of course.
Dr. RAFFLES: Extremely important. And before that, people didn't know that bees communicated somehow, that there was some way in which bees went out. They found where - they found patches of flowers. They found nectar. And somehow, there was a way that they came back to their home, came back to their nest and communicated the other bees, and the other bees then would go out and nobody actually knew exactly what the mechanism was.
FLATOW: And then he won the Nobel Prize.
Dr. RAFFLES: He won the Nobel Prize quite a long time later, at a time when...
Dr. RAFFLES: ...you know, animal behavior already came back into fashion.
FLATOW: And von Frisch talked about bees in an anthropomorphic way. Do you think he would've been able to make these discoveries without describing human qualities to them?
Dr. RAFFLES: No. I think von Frisch is a really, very, very interesting person. And he was one of those biologists who was very much in love with the animals that he studied, I think. So he worked from the presumption that animals had capacities and that there are things that they were doing that he didn't understand, rather than working from the, you know, the initial point of view that they didn't know things. He was testing for what they did - what they could do, rather more than they couldn't. So...
Dr. RAFFLES: ...he assumed, for instance, that - he assumed that certain animals could see in color, that they could hear. All these - that they have these capacities that other people just assumed they didn't.
So with bees, he was looking for these abilities. And, you know, this is very human. He talked about humanizing. He talked about them as his little friends, as his comrades, all this kind of thing. But on the other hand, he wasn't avert, you know, to chopping them up.
FLATOW: To study them.
Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah. To mutilating them in all kinds of ways. But there's all this kind of tension, I suppose, between him...
Dr. RAFFLES: ...you know, this affection and intimacy and also his - yeah.
FLATOW: Right. We're talking about bees this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
I'm Ira Flatow.
Rich Blohm, do you look at your bees as people? Do you, anthropomorphize them? Are they - they're part of your family?
Mr. BLOHM: I probably - probably, absolutely. It's like, to me, they're my pets.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BLOHM: So, you know, I care for them and I'm very careful to see that they're well-fed and they're doing well. And it brings joy when I see a hive do well and survive.
And it's so interesting that they - that these little insects - they have such a high level of communication. They send out specific scout bees. This is what Karl von Frisch discovered. And those scout bees come back and can communicate to the bees and the hive that they've found a new source of nectar. They can tell the bees how far they have to fly, the other bees, and which direction to fly in. And they also somehow communicate, and I'm not sure if we even know this yet, but they'll actually communicate how many bees to send out. If it's a big source of nectar, then they should send lots of bees.
FLATOW: Hugh, you're shaking your head.
Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah. Yeah. It's pretty amazing.
FLATOW: Jeff Pettis, you all - you think of your bees as family?
Dr. PETTIS: Well, I certainly. We get attached to them, almost all of beekeepers. If they really - if they're true beekeepers, they - it's really something that you're fascinated by. They have figured out a lot better than we do, I think. They're just big, super organism, the hive, all these individuals working together, bringing in food, you know, caring for the young, and they do it in a really nice way. So...
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What would you like - last question to both Jeff and Rich. What would you like to know about bees that you don't yet? If I give you the blank check and you say you could study anything, what you would to like to do?
Mr. BLOHM: What I would like to - I would really like to know, and Jeff would agree with me, I'm sure, is what's causing this colony collapse disorder. This is a crisis. If we can't solve this and get those - all those crops pollinated, it's 30 percent of our diet.
Like out in California, the almonds they produce out there, it supplies the world with 85 percent of their almonds. And an almond tree without honey bees is a nice shade tree.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Jeff, what would you like?
Dr. PETTIS: Good point. I guess I have to follow up on that just currently. In reality, I'd love to understand a little bit more about queen biology how the queen and the workers work together.
But in the short-term, yes, we desperately need to find out what's killing honeybees, as well as other pollinators, a lot of other native bees and things. So I think - we think it's some complex interaction between factors, and trying to tease that apart is not very easy, and I'd love to know the answer.
FLATOW: While we're talking about bugs, I have mentioned - asked this of Rich before about ladybugs. Why do we see these arms of ladybugs only to see red ladybugs? I know you're sort of an expert on ladybugs too.
Mr. BLOHM: Well, you know, when I was a kid, ladybugs were very red. And then -and now we have this explosion in the population of ladybugs. And what they are - they are Asian ladybugs that were brought in by garden supply catalog people to sell ladybugs for people to use in their gardens. And what they found is that this Asian species of ladybug is very prolific. So if you're raising ladybugs to sell, you would want a prolific variety of ladybug. But to a certain degree, it's become sort of a pest where they migrate and they hibernate in cracks and crevices in houses...
FLATOW: Yeah. They're all over my house.
Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah. And then when the spring breaks or when we got some warm weather in the winter, they'll wind up inside the house where somebody like me who's used to insects - you know, a couple of bugs in my house doesn't bother me at all - but a lot of average people are skeeved(ph) out about one bug in their house.
FLATOW: No. I try to get them all over my orchids that I'm growing (unintelligible).
Dr. RAFFLES: Oh, wonderful.
FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So - I want - we've run out of time for you. We're going to say goodbye to a couple of guests and talk more with Hugh Raffles. But I want to thank Jeff Pettis who's a researcher at the USDAB Research Lab in Maryland, and also Richard Blohm, who's a master beekeeper and cares for 50 hives in High Meadow Honey Farm in Huntington, Long Island. Hope your honey is flowing soon or whatever you say to a beekeeper.
Mr. BLOHM: Thank you, Ira. It's been a pleasure.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
Mr. PETTIS: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Stay with us. We're going to take a short break and talk more with Hugh Raffles, author of "Insectopedia," answer your questions about insects. We'll be right back after this short break. I'm Ira Flatow, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.