Decline of the Honeybee; Starting Your Own Hive Honeybee populations in the United States are in decline, the victim of a tiny parasitic mite. We'll talk about efforts to protect bees against the mites, and talk about the health of other bee populations around the world. Plus, if you've ever thought about producing your own honey, our guests have some suggestions for getting started with beekeeping. Stephen Buchmann, author, Letters from the Hive; founder, The Bee Works in Tucson, Ariz. Keith Delaplane, senior editor, Journal of Apicultural Research; professor, Department of Entomology, University of Georgia
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Decline of the Honeybee; Starting Your Own Hive

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Decline of the Honeybee; Starting Your Own Hive

Decline of the Honeybee; Starting Your Own Hive

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

And for the rest of the hour, we're going to talk about bees. Now if I asked you to name a few types of bees, could you come up with any? Right--maybe two, three, honeybee, some other kind of bees. See, you run out--bumblebee. You come out--you run out of them real fast. Carpenter bees eating those holes in your--yeah, your mailbox, little stand over there. Yeah. But did you know that besides the common honeybee, there are a few thousand other species of bees in the US alone? And many of them are in trouble.

In recent years, populations of honeybees in America have been hit hard by a tiny parasitic mite. Half the bees--half the bees!--in some states have been wiped out, leaving some farmers wondering where to turn to pollinate their crops. And we need bees to pollinate crops. You know, California alone needs tens of thousands of hives to pollinate the almond crop. The almond crop in California serves about three-quarters of the world's supply of almonds. And the bees are in short supply out there.

So, for the rest of the hour, we're going to get an update on the mite situation. Are researchers any closer to finding a solution to the problem? We'll also talk about native bees, some of the species of bees that you may not have heard of. And if you're a beekeeper yourself--or, hey, I want to be a beekeeper; maybe this weekend I'll give it a shot--give us a call. We've got two experts here who can probably get you off on the right track, tell you where you might get a starter kit for bees. Everything you wanted to know about bees. And I don't know--for example, as I said before, I didn't know that it was the Europeans who brought honeybees to the Americas. So we'll talk about that. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.

Joining me now is Keith Delaplane. He's a professor of entomology at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. He's also a senior editor of the Journal of Apicultural Research.

Did I pronounce that right, Keith?

Professor KEITH DELAPLANE (University of Georgia): Yes, you did.

FLATOW: It's not apicultural (pronounced ap-ih-cultural), it's apicultural (ape-ih-cultural).

Prof. DELAPLANE: You got it.

FLATOW: Oh, thank you for--good.

Steve Buchmann is co-author of the new book "Letters From the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey and Humankind." And he's founder of The Bee Works. That's an environmental consulting firm in Tucson. He joins us from the studios of KUAT there in Arizona.

Thank you for being with us.

Mr. STEPHEN BUCHMANN (Co-author, "Letters From the Hive"; Founder, The Bee Works): Hi, Ira. My pleasure.

FLATOW: You know, I learned so much from reading these books, it's amazing. I didn't know, for example, Keith, how bad the bee mite problem is now. I was doing some research on it, and half the populations of some bees in some states are being wiped out, Keith?

Prof. DELAPLANE: I think that's a reasonable estimate, yes. The invasion of parasitic mites into North America has been one of the highlights in the history of honeybees in the New World.

FLATOW: And there's this mite that--what? How did the infestation start?

Prof. DELAPLANE: Well, there are two primary mites that we're concerned with nowadays. One is called the tracheal mite, which infests the tracheal tubes or the breathing tubes of honeybees. And the second is a little larger. It's called the varroa mite. It's a blood feeder. It stays on the outside of the bee. And both were introduced in the 1980s. And we've been learning how to deal with them ever since.

FLATOW: Is it true that there are in fact no more wild honeybees?

Prof. DELAPLANE: That's perhaps an overstatement.


Prof. DELAPLANE: But there's clear evidence that the wild honeybees that lived out there in the hollows of nature, whether in cliff faces or hollow trees, have certainly declined in the last couple decades.

FLATOW: And so there is no cure for wiping out the mites at this point?

Prof. DELAPLANE: There are ways to manage the mites in beekeeping. But the real question is what to do with the feral honeybee colonies out there in nature. There's no one who's treating them or managing them. And it's that background of honeybees that we're largely talking about that's been severely cut back.

FLATOW: So I was reading that farmers who get honeybees--it's hard to imagine that all these bees get shipped on trucks from farm to farm to pollinate the fields.

Prof. DELAPLANE: Yes, indeed. It's one of the most interesting stories in American agriculture--the annual migration of honeybee colonies primarily into California. During the months of February and March, the majority of the colonies in the United States are in the state of California for the almond crop.

FLATOW: So they ship the bees cross-country?

Prof. DELAPLANE: Yes, they do.

FLATOW: And I'd heard that because of the mite problem, they're actually shipping bees back and forth internationally. I think Australia was talking about supplying us with some bees.

Prof. DELAPLANE: Yes. Australia is a recent edition. For several decades, the borders to the United States had been closed to honeybees from other countries. But just this year, Australia was opened up.

FLATOW: Wow. Steve Buchmann, how much of our food depends on the pollination by these bees?

Mr. BUCHMANN: Well, it's really a mixed bag. And as you opened the show, you talked about honeybees. People only think about honeybees or maybe if they're backyard gardeners they may know the charismatic black-and-yellow bumblebees...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. BUCHMANN: ...or maybe they've been stung by a little sweat bee that goes after the perspiration. But really we need to rely upon not only honeybees but the myriad species of native bees because honeybees, although they're incredible pollinators and they're our most cost-effective and most manageable pollinator, they're not the only pollinator. In fact, there are some crops that honeybees are simply incapable of pollinating; crops that have to be buzz-pollinated, for example.

FLATOW: What does buzz-pollinated mean?

Mr. BUCHMANN: If you have plants in the deadly nightshade family, but some which are incredible, nutritious crops--things like tomatoes, eggplants, that sort of thing--these flowers have really hard stamens, the part of the flower that produces the pollen. And you can think of them as little tubes. And the pollen is hiding inside. So literally, the bees--bumblebees, a lot of other types of bees--give that flower kind of a bee hug, if you will, turning themselves into a tuning fork. And they sonicate the pollen out. So in just a fraction of a second, hundreds of thousands of pollen grains come blasting out of those flowers. We don't know the reason, but honeybees are incapable of performing that kind of buzzing, even though they use vibration in other forms of their life, like queen-piping, which is a form of communication between queens, or during the waggle dance.

FLATOW: So are there other bees that can do that?

Mr. BUCHMANN: Yes. There are a lot of bees that can buzz-pollinate. I just mentioned one. Bumblebees--a few hundred species of those around the world--and then some that I hope we talk about later, the stingless bees from the tropical regions. Those are also capable of sonicating flowers.

FLATOW: You brought them up; let's talk about them now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah, and I think that was--from reading your book, that was one of the fascinating aspects, is that how many bees, of different kinds of bees there are in the world that we haven't heard about--I mean, Americans haven't heard about--in other parts of the world there are. I remember--maybe you know about this bee. I remember reading research 25 years ago from the research station in Panama that said they had found a bee with molars that chewed, that was a carnivorous bee. You ever heard of that kind of bee?

Mr. BUCHMANN: Yes, that's the work of my colleague David Roubik from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. And I've worked with Dave on that bee. It is a flesh-eating bee. Actually, we joke--we call it the vulture bee. And it does have cusps on its mandibles, it has no little tool kit, no curriculum or pollen basket to carry pollen back to the nest. It has no need for that. So it literally flies out in the rain forests of Panama and down to the Amazon; finds roadkill or other carrion, whether those are animals with backbones or insects, chomps it up, brings it back to the nest. And don't get me wrong, it doesn't carry little Big Macs on the hind legs back to the nest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUCHMANN: But they do ingest this, they completely digest it. And what they churn out is something that we called vulture-bee goo. And this is something very akin to royal jelly. And it's a high-protein, low-pH substance, similar to what honeybees do.

FLATOW: What is the most fascinating bee to you? I know, it's hard to ask--you know, it's like asking a parent what their favorite child is. I know it's a tough question.

Mr. BUCHMANN: That's right. Four thousand species...


Mr. BUCHMANN: ...different kinds of native bees just in the continental US. Around the world, perhaps in excess of 30,000. I would have to say that some of my favorites recently, though, are ones that I've been working with Dave Roubik and Rogel Villanueva in the Yucatan Peninsula right on the border of Mexico with Belize. And there, there are about 16 kinds of stingless bees, bees that through their evolutionary history never had a stinger. Now that doesn't make them defenseless. They can fly in your ears and get in your hair and bite and buzz at you. So they get your attention those ways.

But these bees are being lost in these forests due to deforestation. It's also a cultural loss. And it's quite tragic because the ancient Mayan peoples were keeping these bees--they had this sort of bee craft where they were keeping bees in log hives or habones(ph) for at least 2,000 years, perhaps 4,000 years ago. And now as the younger, the sons and daughters of the beekeepers and Mayan farmers in Quintana Roo, for example, are leaving to go work in the tourist industry--cities of Cancun and other cities--these bees are being lost. And one of our goals is to bring back this bee craft, this technology that has been lost.

So, for example, we just printed and distributed 3,000 copies of a bilingual Spanish and Mayan brochure on Melipona culture. And this is a way to get the younger Mayans interested in their millennia-old technology. One of the most fascinating things to me is working with some archaeologists and linguists and anthropologists. And the Mayans produced only the fourth example of a written language and lots of glyphs. And they had thousands and thousands of books at the time of the Spanish conquest. Only four of those remain. Two of them--the Madrid Codex, now in a museum in Spain, and one other--talk about how the Mayans related to these bees. They knew about the queen bee, they know how to take a mother colony and divide it into one or more daughter colonies to increase their bees and increase their honey since these bees do not produce much honey.

And Keith will tell you that a honeybee colony can produce hundreds of pounds of honey per year, but these bees only make about two liters of honey per year. So we're in the middle of a multiyear study, and we're trying to do this environmental and educational outreach. We're hoping to enlist the aid of other US foundations to support the work. And the long-term goal of this is to raise hundreds of Melipona colonies. These are--the main bee I'm talking about is scientifically known as Melipona beecheii, but the Mayans have a much better name for it in their language--Yucatec Mayan--they call it (Mayan spoken), and literally this means `the royal lady.' Well...

FLATOW: Could you not import them to this country and its, you know, more temperate climate and try to keep them going?

Mr. BUCHMANN: No; they're truly tropical and subtropical beasts. So you really don't--we have plenty of bees up here to do the job, honeybees and those 4,000 other native bees. So we really need to keep the stingless bees where they belong, in the tropics.

FLATOW: Oh. Well, why do they have no stinger and the European bees have stingers?

Mr. BUCHMANN: Just a quirk of their evolution. They just, many millions of years ago, perhaps 30 or 40 million years ago, in those forests, took a different path. There are about 400 species of stingless bees around the world, both in the New World and Old World tropics, and none of them have a stinger. It's all vestigial. Some of them pack quite a punch, though. There's one in Costa Rica called the firebee which, in glands in its head, has concentrated formic acid, so if--this bee doesn't sting, but if it bites you, it can actually raise little welts or blisters.


Mr. BUCHMANN: But most of these--you know, I'm not trying to scare you--stingless bees--but stingless does not mean defenseless.

FLATOW: Right. Right.

Mr. BUCHMANN: And they're incredible pollinators.

FLATOW: We're talking this hour about bees on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News with my guests: Keith Delaplane, professor of entomology at the University of Georgia; Steve Buchmann, co-author of a new book, "Letters From the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey and Humankind." Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.

Ann in Cameron, South Carolina. Hi, Ann.

ANN (Caller): Hi. How are you?


ANN: The question I have is--we have had a honeybee colony in an old tree next to our house for about four or five years, and we've seen them swarm once. And I was wondering, is it possible to steal a bit of their honey without harming them or me?

FLATOW: Keith, any comment for her?

Prof. DELAPLANE: I can probably talk about that. Trapping bees out of a tree is a difficult thing to do. There's really no way, short of just opening up the void and just cutting out the honey.

ANN: Oh.

Prof. DELAPLANE: I think your prospects are pretty grim.

ANN: Well, I don't want to do that to them. They're--don't bother me at all. I like having them there. Also, I wanted to know: Is there any danger? Are they--like, I mow very close to this tree, and I'm always wondering, are they going to have enough of me and come after me?

Prof. DELAPLANE: Honeybees and lawn mowers are a bad combination.


FLATOW: Lawn mowers?

ANN: Yes.

FLATOW: Because of the sound, or is it...

ANN: The sound, I would think.

Prof. DELAPLANE: Well, the fumes and the vibrations...


Prof. DELAPLANE: ...are very irritable to them.

FLATOW: Would they get up and just move on their own if they get too big--the colony gets too big?

Prof. DELAPLANE: A colony normally will split, on average, about once a year. The colony will raise a new queen; the old queen will fly away with about half of the workers and start a new colony. But usually they will leave a residual behind, so you now have two where there was one.

ANN: Mm-hmm. Yeah, that's what I thought was happening. Well, you've answered my questions, then.

FLATOW: All right.

ANN: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Thank you.

ANN: Bye.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Speaking (clears throat) of swarming, Steve, you mention in your book an incredible experience where--you know, you talk about how these swarms form and how you got yourself inside of the swarm and ran along with the swarm of bees?

Mr. BUCHMANN: Right. It's...

FLATOW: Are you nuts? (Laughs)

Mr. BUCHMANN: Yes, actually. I'm a former cross-country runner, and I can't run as fast as I used to, but I try to keep up with honeybee swarms, and this is something many beekeepers, not just me, have experienced. But especially here in Arizona, now that we have the Africanized bees, we have swarms happening not just once or twice a year, like most European races, but every month of the year you can have swarms. And you pretty much know when a swarm is issuing forth, because the bees come roiling out of the entrance of the hive and start swirling around. And literally, there is a giant cloud--you almost think of it as kind of an ominous storm cloud, but it's quite safe because when honeybees are swarming--people, I think, tend to think of swarming as equal to attack, and nothing could be farther from the truth.

Swarming is the honeybees' way of reproduction, so that the old queen and about half of the kids, about half of her sterile daughters, the workers, go flying off. Scout bees have previously scouted out a new home, whether that's in a tree or a rock cavity or somebody's wall, and they take off. So flying in this giant, swirling mass with, really, no leader--the queen doesn't lead the way; there is no leader--they move at about 15 miles per hour. So one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done with honeybees is to jump into the middle of the swarm and run along. They leave me in the dust. I was never a sprinter; I was always kind of into the marathon thing with endurance. But the bees will outfly you. But it's quite, I think--I find it to be quite exhilarating, because they're--you know, where else, at what other time, can you be up close and personal with 20 or 30,000 bees swirling around you?

FLATOW: Wow. Well, that's interesting. We'll come back and talk lots more about bees with Keith Delaplane and Steve Buchmann and how he avoided sucking them in while he was in that swarm. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about bees, and my guests are: Keith Delaplane, professor of entomology at the University of Georgia in Athens, also is senior editor of the Journal of Apicultural Research; Steve Buchmann, co-author of the new book "Letters From the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey and Humankind." He's also the founder of The Bee Works, which is an environmental consulting firm in Tucson. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.

Steve, one of the things you talk about is how few--you know, and I think people are most afraid of being stung by honeybees or stung by bees, and you say that the honey--bees in their hives are basically not really interested in stinging you.

Mr. BUCHMANN: Well, honeybees, especially--and my frame of reference is now Africanized bees in Arizona, so it's not quite as nice as the situation that Keith has in Georgia. Honeybees, or any bees, when they're on a flower, if they're out foraging and collecting nectar and pollen, they're not a threat at all. But if, especially for Africanized bees now in the Southwest, if you're wearing dark clothing, if you're setting off ground vibrations--you talked about the lawn mowers--or if you're exhaling, the CO2 in breath will be a stimulus. And so the closer you are to a honeybee colony, the more likely you are to rile up the guard bees and be stung. But in most cases, bees are completely safe and easy to work, and we need to be thankful for them, for the bountiful food that they produce for us, the ecosystem services. But you...

FLATOW: Have--yeah. I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Mr. BUCHMANN: No, that's OK.

FLATOW: I was just going to ask, speaking of the Africanized honeybees, now that we've had experience with them for a number of years, are they as bad--you know, as aggressive and hostile--as we thought they would be?

Mr. BUCHMANN: They're--well, we've had them for a little over a decade now in southern Arizona. They're not aggressive at all, but they are highly defensive when you set them off with the right stimuli--like I said, rapid movement, dark clothing, exhaled CO2 in breath, vibrations. So you don't want to do that. We have had five human fatalities in Arizona from Africanized bees, but let's face it: My drive to work every morning on the freeway is far more dangerous. A lot more things to worry about--cancers and traffic...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. BUCHMANN: ...than being stung by a bee. But it seems that, in Western cultures especially, we have this not just fear of bees--I mean, it's called entomophobia. It's the opposite of what Ed Wilson of Harvard calls biophilia, which is the most important for us: the love of life and the recognition that these insects produce incredible benefits of recycling and pollination. But you see it all the time. Somebody is out on a hike or eating a sandwich on a picnic, and some small insect flies by their head and they duck instinctively, and they think every small insect is a bee or a wasp, and there's a great deal of confusion.

Most of the general public is confused between what is a bee, what is a wasp, what is a fly, and they literally think that they're going to be stung by this bee, and not only that, one sting is going to kill them. And that's simply not true. Far less than 1 percent of the human population in the United States is actually allergic and could potentially go in to anaphylactic shock if stung. Worst-case scenario: Even with Africanized bees, a healthy adult can be stung at least four or 500 times and still survive--not pleasant, but they'll survive.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. 1 (800) 989-8255. Patty in Connecticut. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PATTY (Caller): Hi. I was wondering, if you are being a successful parasite, wouldn't that dictate that you would not kill your host? And so therefore, why are the varroa and the tracheal mites then killing the honeybees? Or is it that they are simply compromising or destroying their immune system and then allowing opportunistic viruses and bacterias, then, to bring them down? Do you have...

FLATOW: Keith? Keith Delaplane?

Prof. DELAPLANE: Yes, I can address that. You're raising a good point, and part of the answer is the fact that the varroa mite is not a natural parasite of our Western honeybee. Its original host is yet another honeybee, the Eastern honeybee, Apis cerana, from Southeast Asia. And just through global movement, the varroa mite has been introduced into the New World and then, subsequently, North America as well. And so we have an unnatural parasite-host relationship in the case of varroa. And this partly explains why it has been so virulent to our Western honeybee.

And you also raised a valid point: the secondary illnesses that come along with it. A lot of research from Europe, principally, has shown that the varroa mites are also vectoring viruses. There's also some evidence for bacteria being vectored by these mites. And so it is no doubt a composite of many insults, not only the blood loss and the wounds, but these pathogens that are being spread.

In the case of tracheal mite, it's a bit more interesting. It is a natural parasite of the Western honeybee, Apis mellifera. It, however, has only been in North America since about 1984, and when it first came here we had a host population that had been separated from Europe for about 300 years, unexposed to this parasite, and when they got together in the early '80s in North America, there was a lot of loss of honeybee colonies. But pretty rapidly, our bees developed resistance against the tracheal mite. So today in much of the country, the tracheal mite's considered a relatively minor problem.

FLATOW: Mm. OK? Thanks for calling.

PATTY: Thank you. Thank you.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Carol in Oregon. Hi, Carol.

CAROL (Caller): Hi there. How are you?


CAROL: I just wanted to tell you that for about 10 years I've been a really enthusiastic helper of orchard mason bees. I first learned about them then. And so we make bee boxes and then we--kind of like sourdough starter, we give it to our friends every year and tell them about bees. And they're just really fascinating to watch. We, you know, think it's a great thing to do.

FLATOW: And then they take the bees, your friends, and create their own little colonies?

CAROL: Right. They can take a bee box, usually--we started out with six holes, 5/16ths of an inch, and maybe 6 inches deep or something, that I bought from this fellow up in Washington, and I got a book that went along with them. And then--so we have a bunch of little blocks. And then we give them away, and then the next spring, our friends, then, can start having their own bees in the back yard and making boxes.

FLATOW: Now--and you like this as a hobby?

CAROL: Yeah. Well, yeah, kind of a sideline, but it's just real fascinating.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me get a reaction from Steve.

Mr. BUCHMANN: Those are fantastic. Bees have worked with them. The caller is talking about the blue orchard bee or the mason bee, Osmia lignaria, as it's known to scientists. And we have Osmia species in Arizona, but not that species. That one is great in the Pacific Northwest, up there in the cold, cloudy climes. The person she was probably mentioning is Brian Griffin of Knox Cellars, who provides these and has written a book on them. But they make fantastic--I would call them sort of pollinator pets or watchable wildlife, because you can take recycled or scrap lumber, drill holes, not tunnels that go all the way through the wood, but about, oh, 5/8ths of an inch or so, 7 to 8 millimeters in diameter and about 3 to 5 inches deep in this lumber, and then put those securely--attach them up into the eaves of your house or under trees.

They are incredibly efficient pollinators of various crops, primarily things like sweet cherries and apples and that sort of thing. But even though they have a stinger, the only way you can be stung by these is to step on them barefoot or squeeze them, and I guess--kind of a last act of defiance--the female would sting. But by and large, these can be kept around kids and they're great around pets, so you can--it's not exactly...

FLATOW: You sound like you're talking about a species of dog or something.

Mr. BUCHMANN: Yeah. It's not...

FLATOW: Like are there bees that individual, that `This is a good colony for a family,' `This is not such a great one'?

Mr. BUCHMANN: Well, these, actually--this is part of the misconception about bees. The vast majority of bees in the world--30,000 species out there--are solitary. They're not social. They don't have a queen. They do their own thing. So these orchard mason bees live in these little tunnels. Each female is totipotent, so she goes out and forages for nectar and pollen, brings it back into the nest, which can be either the hole in the wood or into a soda straw that's inserted in the wood, and she makes a little loaf, kind of a little Play-Doh-like consistency, turns around, lays an egg on it, seals it up, and she makes one cell per day. She might have eight, 10 or 12 of those in a linear series. And these are very manageable pollinators, and because they're not social and because there's not a hundred or 200 pounds of honey and brood sitting in there, they're not defensive. So even though these bees like to live together, I would call them an aggregation or gregarious, but they're not living in a social unit, the colony, like honeybees, where you might have 40,000 bees in a nest, headed matriarchally by a queen.

FLATOW: That's interesting. So the--you know, I think most of us never heard of a colony of bees without a queen in it.

Mr. BUCHMANN: Yeah. The vast majority of the bees in the world are solitary, ground-nesting. They next in twigs or cavities, and most of them don't make honey. Most of them bring enough nectar and pollen home just to rear the new generation of bees.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Have--anybody figured out how they make those--the honeybees--how they make those perfectly shaped combs? You know, they just make this--the little cells. Keith, any--I mean, it's gorgeous stuff, but yet they don't have any, you know, material, no carpentry equipment. How do they make the honeycombs like that?

Prof. DELAPLANE: They do have sensory organs for detecting a true vertical, for instance, so they do come equipped with some engineering tools, so to speak, so that they are able to make combs that are truly vertical, which if you think about it's important. If you have a comb, each of which weighs about, say, 10 pounds of honey, just hanging in a hollow of a tree, it is important that it be truly plumb, truly vertical, and they do succeed in doing this. And just other innate capabilities provide them to make their accurate hexagons, which is, from an engineering perspective, an extremely efficient use of space to maximize the number of cells within a given area.

FLATOW: Hm. Nick in Phoenix, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

NICK (Caller): Hey, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: Hey. How are you?

NICK: I'm great. Hey, two questions. First one is: When I was a kid, my dad told me, `Bees sting, wasps bite.' And that's the only definition I've ever had of what a bee actually is, and I was hoping your guests could give us a definition. And the second thing is, I think I've seen a thing called a beeline, where there are just a bunch of them going in almost, like, a row, like a row of ants, from point A to point B. Is that where the phrase came from?

FLATOW: Keith, how do you identify--you know, what makes the difference between the two?

Prof. DELAPLANE: Right. There are technical, morphological features that only an entomologist would worry about. But for practical purposes, we generally call bees vegetarian wasps. For the most part, except for some exceptions, like Steve mentioned earlier, most bees are vegetarians. They do prefer a diet of floral nectar and floral pollen. As a consequence, their bodies also tend to be more hairy than wasps to pick up the pollen grains. Wasps in general have different morphology and restrict their diets to carnivorous diets.

I believe the caller also asked about biting vs. stinging?

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. DELAPLANE: Wasps and bees both are capable of stinging. They have a sting at the end of their abdomen. Wasps and bees both can also bite, and some of the stingless varieties of bees that Steve mentioned do that very thing. So that is not a reliable indicator of the two.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. We're talking about bees this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. My guests: Steve Buchmann, author of "Letters From the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey and Humankind"; also, Keith Delaplane, professor of entomology, University of Georgia in Athens.

Steve, if somebody wanted to start, you know, a colony, is that a good hobby to have, or does it take a lot of effort and a lot of time, patience, and, you know, if you're not willing to put that in don't even go there?

Mr. BUCHMANN: No, it doesn't. It's a wonderful pastime, and there are, as I understand it, 20 or 30 million backyard gardeners in the United States. There are far, far more people doing gardening than many other things. So you can start with going to a friend who's a beekeeper. You can buy so-called packages of bees, a 1-, 2- or 3-pound package from bee suppliers, mostly in the Southern states, especially Georgia and others. And so you can start out that way. You can go to various bee distributors online or in a catalog and get the equipment. So you can start out with honeybees very, very easily.

It's a little more challenging with the solitary bees, like the orchard mason bees, since there are very few people collecting them in the wild, growing up those populations and then selling them. But as I mentioned, I can't think of a single place in the United States where you couldn't put up a little bit of drilled lumber, and maybe varying the hole diameters from, let's say 3 millimeters up to 8, and set that out. And you'll get leafcutter bees, you'll get mason bees of the different types, which will be attracted to this bee condo, if you will, and then you'll have a great time watching them go in and out, bringing in little leaf pieces, resins, pebbles. And they do a great job of pollinating plants in your yard.

FLATOW: It's ea...

Mr. BUCHMANN: So it's easy...


Mr. BUCHMANN: get into the business of bees.

FLATOW: If you're just putting the pieces of wood out, what do they live in?

Mr. BUCHMANN: They live in the wood.

FLATOW: In the wood.

Mr. BUCHMANN: That's--you know, location, location, location. And it's your bee real estate. So I'm always amazed when I put new colonies--bee condos, sorry...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. BUCHMANN: ...out in my yard under my patio in the spring. You can put those things up and literally, within 15 minutes, you can have females that are checking out the new location, ready to move in.

FLATOW: And they--and that's the sport, is just sit and watch them, and they don't bother you.

Mr. BUCHMANN: No, they don't. You can have your nose right up to them. They just fly in and out. They're in the business of turning food--nectar and pollen, protein and carbohydrates in that food--into more of themselves, into their progeny.

FLATOW: Keith, do you believe that's a good way to begin?

Prof. DELAPLANE: I think it is. It's a minimal input of cost. I mean, put out a drilled stick of wood, and you're going to get bees moving in.

FLATOW: Wow. I'm going to try that this weekend. You just drill a hole in a stick of wood.

Prof. DELAPLANE: You know, Ira, another good point to make to our listeners is that bees are very responsible for the quality of diet that we enjoy in this country and other developed countries, because of their pollination. And simple things, like putting out blocks of wood with hole drilled in it, and putting out flowering plants that bloom during the time of year that is otherwise a dearth--these are excellent ways to boost your local bee population, and they are relatively cheap to do.

FLATOW: Well, gentlemen, I want to thank you for taking time to talk with us. We've got some backyard stuff to do this weekend. We'll have sites--we'll have the links on our site--Charles'll get them up--about how, you know, to search for bee information. Thank you again for taking time. Keith Delaplane, professor of entomology, University of Georgia; Steve Buchmann, co-author of the new book "Letters From the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey and Humankind," a terrific read, a great gift for Father's Day, too. It's really quite--any--everything you wanted to know about bees, and great storytelling there. Thank you, Steve.

Mr. BUCHMANN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: And thank you, Keith.

Prof. DELAPLANE: My pleasure.

FLATOW: And have a great Father's Day to both of you.

Prof. DELAPLANE: You, too.

Mr. BUCHMANN: Thank you.


FLATOW: Please surf over to our Web site at We will have the links up there to everything we talked about; also free curricula. Press on the Teachers button. We make free curricula from SCIENCE FRIDAY. You can also take SCIENCE FRIDAY on a Podcast with you, download it. If you missed back editions, you can do it that way. You can listen on RealAudio.

Have a great weekend. Have a great Father's Day. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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