About Katie Lee

I'm a part of the Midwest Bee Team based out of the University of Minnesota. I work with commercial migratory beekeepers in North Dakota and Minnesota to help them monitor pest and disease levels. Before I was on the Midwest Team, I was on the CA Bee Team working for the Northern California bee breeders. I was introduced to honey bees during my last semester as an undergrad when I took a class on social insects with Dr. Marla Spivak. Marla asked me to work in the U of MN Bee Lab over the summer, and have been enthralled with bees ever since. My main interests are bee breeding, Varroa, disease ecology, and extension work. I received both a BS in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior and a MS in Entomology from the University of Minnesota.

New Cell Cultures Advance Honey Bee Science

Cell cultures are cells that are removed from an organism and grown apart from the body in a controlled environment. Put another way, cells in a cell culture are living and reproducing, but are grown in a lab instead of as a part of a body. Cell lines are cell cultures that come from the same genetic background, meaning all cells grown from a cell line are from the same set of original cells. Cell cultures are grown in a controlled environment, allowing researchers to conduct highly controlled studies where cells can be exposed to different factors and the response of the cells is measured. Cell cultures have been instrumental to advances in medicine, including better understanding the effects cancer, viruses, toxins, genes, radiation, nutrition, and developing vaccines.

Until recently, there was no cell line for honey bees. Michael Goblirsch, a PhD student at the University of Minnesota bee lab, was the first person able to establish a growing line of honey bee cells, which he named AME – 711, an acronym for “Apis melliferea Embryos” and 711 refers to July 11, 2013 when the cell line was started. To get cells to start a line, Mike removed eggs from honey bee colonies, washed and sterilized the eggs, mashed them up to beak up the eggs, and then put the egg-mash into a small plastic bottle with a medium that provided the cells with food and a place to grow. Cells in one of the 100 or so cultures he started actually started reproducing and has continued to grow.

Mike has had many requests for his AME-711 honey bee cell line from researchers interested in investigating effects of pathogens or pesticides on honey bee cells. Mike himself has infected cells from his line with Nosema to look at what happens to the cells and the Nosema organism.

In humans, the oldest and most commonly used cell line is the HeLa line, named after Henrietta Lacks. Researchers were unsuccessful in finding a line of human cells that would survive and reproduce outside the body before they took a sample of cells from Ms. Lack’s cervical cancer. Her cells were taken in 1951; around the time there was a race to come up with a vaccine for Polio. Scientists infected HeLa cells with the Poliovirus to replicate the virus into large enough numbers to test different vaccines, which allowed Jonas Salk to come up with a Polio vaccine. HeLa cells have been used in many, many research studies. Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, estimated that in 2009 the number of published papers about research done on HeLa cells was over 60,000.

With access to a cell line, a new door into honey bee research has been opened and there is huge potential for developments that can help us better understand why bees are dying.

You can read Mike’s published article HERE. If you are interested in hearing more about the HeLa line, you can read Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or listen to a recent Radiolab podcast (the HeLa story starts about 35:30).

Honey bee cell line

Mike Goblirsch holing his cell cultures.

The cell cultures are kept in an incubator in small plastic containers.

The cell cultures are kept in an incubator in small plastic containers.

Why your drones are getting the boot

Drones, male bees, are not physically capable of doing work around the hive. They can’t sting, can’t collect pollen or nectar, can’t take care of the larvae, etc. They pretty much do only two things: eat and mate. Queens are produced when the weather is nice enough for them to mate, preferably over 70 and not windy. When the weather turns cold, drones are unable to perform their sole function. If there are no queens around to mate with, then drones are a suck on resources and worker bees stop rearing drones. Any drones left get booted out of the hive.

In fall, it is common to see drones being pulled out by worker bees or drones lying dead in the grass. By winter, there should be few to no drones left in the colony.  Once the days become warmer and flowers start to bloom again, worker bees start to raise drones. The height of summer is the height of the drone population, as there are plenty of flowers for the bees and good weather.

Drones take quite a bit of resources to raise, so the hive only tends to raise drones if they have ample pollen and nectar. When I look for healthy colonies in summer, I look for a queen-right colony producing lots of drones. Having lots of drones is an indicator that the colony is flush with food. If the worker bees kick-out drones in the summer can indicate that something is wrong, like they don’t have enough to eat.

If you are seeing drones in front of your own colonies this fall, don’t worry!  This is a natural occurrence before winter.

Have you seen drones in front of the colony, drones being pulled out by the workers, or drones congregating on the bottom board?

Drones in front of colony in autumn.

Kicked out adult drones and drone brood in front of a hive in the fall. The drones are more noticeable if the colony is on concrete compared to in grass.

 

BIP Survey Winner: Scott Jaynes

This year and last, the commercial scale beekeepers that fill out the annual Winter Loss Survey had a chance at winning a sampling session with one of the Tech-Transfer Teams. Last year’s winner was Bob Miller in California. The year’s winner was Scott Jaynes.

Jaynes Honey Co signScott, his brother, and his father all run bees out of the same location in North Dakota and California. The are migratory beekeepers that produce honey in North Dakota and pollinate almonds in California. We met Scott, his brother, and some of his crew at the warehouse in Tioga, North Dakota. Liz and I went out to meet Scott and sample his colonies this August. The Jaynes crew was all busy taking honey supers off colonies and extracting the honey.

We went out to the first yard with Scott, where we talked about how we go through colonies, what we look for, the samples we take and what data we record. We took 40 samples total for Nosema and Varroa, 8 samples from each of 5 yards. We also took 10 samples to be processed for virus levels. Whenever we go out an sample, we also take one pollen sample from each yard to keep records on pesticide levels.

Scott’s samples are being processed, but he will soon receive a report that contains the following data for each of the colonies sampled: Varroa and Nosema levels, frames of bees, and brood pattern. In a couple months, he will receive a report showing the virus levels in the 10 colonies sampled and how those levels compare to other beekeepers in the US.

All in all, Liz and I had a great trip out! One of the best parts of this job is meeting different beekeepers and seeing how they run their colonies. Thank you for your participation, Scott!!

Scott Jaynes taking notes.

Scott Jaynes taking notes.

The warehouse was in the western part of North Dakota where an oil boom is going on. You couldn’t find a road without an oil truck. The fire in the background is natural gas being burned off.

The warehouse was in the western part of North Dakota where an oil boom is going on. You couldn’t find a road without an oil truck. The fire in the background is natural gas being burned off.

Hive Assessments and Taking Notes

The purpose of a hive assessment is give you a idea of what is going on in the colony and to see if you need to do any type of management. Taking notes on the results of the hive assessments helps you remember what the colony looked like on a specific date.

I gave a talk at the Eastern Apiculture Society last week where I talked about performing hive assessments and taking notes. I showed a general checklist that people expressed interest in, so I am posting it here. Here is the checklist of what I look for and record.

Yard information:

  • Date
  • Name of location and GPS coordinates
  • Layout of colonies: where they are placed)
  • Weather

Colony information:

  • Colony name: name your colonies to help you keep track of them.
  • Colony configuration: how many boxes and the size of boxes, eg. 2 deep boxes and 3 honey supers.

    Three colonies with different configurations: 1 deep, 3 deeps, and 2 deeps and 4 supers (left to right).

    Three colonies with different configurations: 1 deep, 3 deeps, and 2 deeps and 4 supers (left to right).

  • Colony strength:  How many frames are completely covered by bees? How many frames have brood?
  • Queen status: Did you see the queen? Eggs? Young larvae? You do not need to see the queen if you see eggs. To look for eggs, have your back against the sun to get the best light in the cell. Do you see any queen cells and do they have an egg, larva, or pupa inside?
  • Brood pattern: Look at the older sealed brood. Is the pattern solid or spotty? Spotty brood can indicate disease, poor nutrition, a failing queen, or sometimes there is simply pollen or nectar in the brood nest that makes the pattern look spotty. We rate brood pattern on a 1-5 scale (with 1 being poor and 5 being excellent). Rating on a good, fair, poor system works as well – the key is to distinguish the outliers.
    Good brood patter = 5

    Good brood patter = 5

    Poor brood patter = 1

    Poor brood patter = 1

  • Brood amount: how much open compared to sealed brood is there? Be aware if you see much higher quantities of sealed or open brood. The ideal in summer is about 55% sealed brood and 45% open brood. Lots of young brood and not much sealed could indicate that you have a new queen. Do the bees cover the brood? Too few bees could indicate that the adult bee population declined (due to death, swarming, etc.) or that they are building and vulnerable, especially to cold.
  • Nutrition: Are the larvae well fed? Are the young larvae swimming in a pool of brood food? If not, it could be an indication of poor nutrition in the colony.

    Larvae that are well fed and swimming in a pool of brood food (the whitish, shiny liquid at the bottom of the cells).

    Larvae that are well fed and swimming in a pool of brood food (the whitish, shiny liquid at the bottom of the cells).

  • Pollen stores: Do the bees have multi-colored pollen stored in the cells around the brood nest? Lots of multi-colored pollen indicates that they have good pollen stores and a variety of colors indicates a diverse and healthy diet.

    Multicolored Pollen in cells.

    Multicolored Pollen in cells.

  • Nectar/honey stores: Do the bees have nectar or honey around the brood nest? On the outside frames? Nectar or honey around the brood area tends to indicate that the bees have okay nectar stores.

    Frame with rainbow of honey (outside), nectar (middle), and brood (inside).

    Frame with rainbow of honey (outside), nectar (middle), and brood (inside).

  • Diseased larvae: Are the larvae pearly white, shiny, and regular C-shaped (healthy)? Or are they discolored or sunken into the cell (un-healthy)? We look for European Foulbrood.
  • Sealed brood disease: If there is a spotty brood pattern, can you tell why? Are the bees removing pupae, or are there cells with dead brood? Can you tell what the symptoms are (like the color and shape, any smell, the age of the affected brood)? We look for Parasitic Mite Syndrome, American Foulbrood, Chalkbrood, and Sacbrood Virus.
  • Varroa signs: Do you see any adult bees with wrinkled, ropey wings? This is a sign of Deformed Wing Virus and may indicate you have a high mite level. Do you see any mites on the backs of bees or in the drone brood as you separate boxes and crack the brood open? These can also indicate high mite levels, however be sure to sample to quantify the mite level.
  • Other pests: Do you see any other organisms in the colony? Moths, beetles, larvae? If you don’t know what it is, take a sample in alcohol or on ice to identify later.

It always helps to have a camera on hand to document anything you have questions about or to document the health of a hive.

Keep in mind that bees don’t always do what they are supposed to do. The above are guidelines. Many factors contribute to what we see in a hive inspection, including pesticides, viruses, Varroa, poor nutrition, and time of year. Bees are complex and many things can go on in the hive that we don’t see.

 

Bee kill in St. Paul, Minnesota UPDATE

UPDATE from this blog.

With help from Lucinda Swanson that commented below, we figured out what actually happened to the swarm of bees. There were two swarms that were spotted in Downtown St. Paul at almost midnight on sunday night. Lucinda estimated that both were about the size of her 6 foot tall son’s torso. Because it was so late and the night before the Monday morning rush hour, the St. Paul City Police requested that St. Paul Fire remove the bees from the trees. The bees were killed by the fire crew with flame retardent foam. The whole incident was unfortunate, but the city did what they felt they had to to keep the public safe. To hopefully prevent a similar kill in the future, the city has been provided with a list of people who catch swarms, as provided by the MN Hobby Beekeepers Association.

The incident in summarized in a Star Tribune article.

One of the swarms in downtown St. Paul. Taken about 11:30pm by Lucinda Swenson.
One of the swarms in downtown St. Paul. Taken about 11:30pm by Lucinda Swenson.

 

Bee kill in St. Paul, Minnesota

UPDATE for this blog here.

Yesterday morning, a woman and her friend were walking around downtown St. Paul. Next to a couple of small trees they noticed “snowdrifts of dead bees.” The woman contacted Dr. Marla Spivak and sent a couple of pictures showing thousands of dead bees. With the huge bee kill that went on in Oregon (read Liz’s blog here), we were all really worried something similar was going on. Marla went to investigate early this morning, as did the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Unluckily, there was a downpour of rain and they weren’t able to get a soil sample, but they did get a dead bee and leaf sample for pesticide analysis.

The bees were on two small oak trees, and were dead all over the ground. However, compared to the pictures from yesterday it did look like quite a few were cleaned up. What had probably happened was someone sprayed a swarm of bees that had landed in one of the small oaks. I don’t really know how they happened to get to the other tree, expect maybe they started to fly or go to the other tree as they were being sprayed.

It was a pretty terrible way to start a day. At least it looks like this was an isolated incident and not something more insidious like what happend in Oregon where many blooming trees were sprayed.

Location of bee kill in downtown St. Paul, MN.

Location of bee kill in downtown St. Paul, MN.

Dead bees under the first tree.

Dead bees under the first tree.

Dead bees under the second tree.

Dead bees under the second tree.

Close up of dead bees on ground.

Close up of dead bees on ground.

Bee Deaths in Minnesota

On May 7, a beekeeper in Minnesota noticed his bees were dying. I went to the beekeeper’s location a few days later and saw all the below symptoms and took samples for the beekeeper. There were bees on the ground with their legs up and twitching. There were bees that, when placed on their backs, couldn’t right themselves. There were bees on willow blossoms (the first blooming plant of the year) that should have been actively collecting pollen, but would barely lift a leg when poked or were dead. There were dead bees all over one of the few remaining snow patches and in front of the colonies. Inside the hive, the colonies looked a bit depopulated for the amount of brood and stores. There was some fresh pollen being brought in from the willows, but I didn’t see any conclusive evidence that the brood was affected.

One of the many twitching bees.

So what caused this?  It is unlikely that it was a disease or pest since colonies show symptoms at different times depending on factors such as the initial inoculation or degree of susceptibility to the specific disease, and it looked like the colonies were all affected at the same time. Plus, I don’t know of any disease or pest that would cause this aggregate and severity of symptoms. Something was affecting the bee’s movement and killing them. With the number of dead and affected bees, and from my field experience, it looked like an acute pesticide kill.

The beekeeper’s theory on why the bees were dying was that when the corn fields right next to the bee yard were being planted with corn seed coated with a neonicotinoid pesticide, the high winds blew the dust onto the willow blossoms and the bees. It is possible the bees then became exposed to the pesticide through eating the dust on the willow blossoms or by trying to groom the dust off. This theory is not unique: beekeepers in Ontario experienced losses of bees during corn planting last year, researchers documented bee losses in Indiana in 2010 and 2011, and Bayer CropScience is working on reducing the dust exposure to bees during planting.

About a week later, a second beekeeper in Minnesota reported similar issues with his bees in a yard located near cornfields that were recently planted.

In both cases, representatives from both the MN Department of Agriculture and Bayer visited the beekeepers and took pesticide samples. I went to the first case as an impartial BIP bee person, and a coworker went to the second case. At both beekeepers, we colony assessments and took samples for Varroa, Nosema, and viruses. The cause of the bee deaths at the two beekeeper operations is not yet officially confirmed. We are waiting to hear the results of the sampling. Stay tuned.

Dead bee on willow blossom.

Dead bee on willow blossom.

Corn field next to bee yard.

Corn field next to bee yard.

Dead bees on snow. There was still a patch of snow despite temperatures being in the 50-60s.

Dead bees on snow. There was still a patch of snow despite temperatures being in the 50-60s.

Potent Pollen

Pollen bees

Bees taking a rest before bring pollen back to the hive.

Dr. Zachary Huang out of Michigan State University recently wrote a review titled “Pollen nutrition affects honey bee stress resistance.” Frustratingly, it is one of those papers where you need to either pay $35 to get access to it or have access via a University library. Since it is hard to get ahold of, I am going to review it since I think the content is really interesting and important.

Dr. Huang first talks about what makes a good pollen. There are two components that bees need: crude protein and 10 essential amino acids. The best pollens have over 25% protein and the complete set of the 10 amino acids. There are few types of pollen with all the amino acids, so bees tend to do best when they have access to a variety of pollens.

pollen frame

Frame with a diversity of pollen. Different colors indicate that the pollens came from different plants.

Dr. Huang’s paper showed that when bees have a better diet they are more resistant to many different stressors. If bees have good pollen diet, they have a lifespan almost twice as long as bees without and pollen affects genes for antimicrobial peptides. Bees exposed to Nosema apis or Nosema ceranae have a longer lifespan if they had a pollen diet verses infected bees without the pollen diet. Bees feed a pollen supplement had lower Deformed Wing Virus titers that those fed only sugar syrup. A pollen diet also had a positive effect on colony populations in the presence of Varroa mites, although the mites had a larger effect.

In cage trials, bees exposed to different pesticides were less sensitive if they had a quality pollen diet versed a poor pollen diet. However, this research was done in 1983 (by Walh and Ulm) and the pesticides they used aren’t common anymore. As Dr. Huang points out, it would be really interesting to see a study done with pesticides that are commonly used today.

Overall, Dr. Huang’s paper showed pretty conclusively that a better pollen diet leads to more robust bee colonies. Not necessarily groundbreaking, but it provides a really good argument for why plant diversity is important to help our bees be healthier.

Prairie

This is my mom’s prairie. It has a wide diversity of flowers and, consequently, it is alive in the summer with insects and birds.

Sampling in the Deep South

Hives next to a swamp with a 6' alligator.

Hives next to a swamp with a 6′ alligator.

Jody Gerdts and a nice frame of brood.

Jody Gerdts and a nice frame of brood.

After spending about a month in California, I flew south to meet Jody Gerdts and travel around East Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi for three weeks. While most of the bees in the country are in California for almond pollination, there are a few beekeepers that have or bring bees down to the South for producing the next generation of bees to sell.  A number of the beekeepers the Midwest Bee Tech-Team works with migrate to the south for the winter, so we follow them. We visited nine beekeepers and did hygienic testing, and took samples for Nosema and Varroa for them. (Jody works on the Bee Squad at the University of Minnesota, helping hobby beekeepers keep bees or keeps bees for people or corporations that want bees, but don’t want to manage them.  She volunteered to get out of the cold and help me for a few weeks.)

Cottonmouth snake sunning itself in the Big Thicket National Forest.

Cottonmouth snake sunning itself in the Big Thicket National Forest.

The South is kind of a magical place for a girl from the North. The weather is drastically different from the North, and because of the heat you get all sort of living things like alligators, snakes, armadillos, and such a gorgeous variety of fungi. The South also has really good weather for raising queens – starting to get really nice out in Late February and March. Beekeepers that migrate to the south really get going at the end of February, but some travel down earlier. One of the beekeeper’s daughters calls North Dakota her primary home, but she had never seen a Midwest winter until she went to college at the U of MN. When we were there, the weather averaged probably around 55 – 60 as a high and the bees were bringing in pollen.

Gelsemium sempervirens

Yellow Jasmine blossom.

One obstacle for the southern beekeepers is the plant yellow jasmine, Gelsemium sempervirens. It is poisonous to both honey bees and humans. It causes death of the developing bee brood, and, consequently, queen cells that are being made by the beekeepers.  This year, it was fairly cold and rainy during much of the yellow jasmine bloom, so beekeepers are hopeful the bees didn’t bring back and store too much of the pollen.

Bearded tooth fungus. It is supposed to taste like lobster.

Bearded tooth fungus. It is supposed to taste like lobster.

Southern hospitality was a real thing for us down in the Deep South. People were very polite, kind, and welcoming. But people are people wherever you go, and there were a few bad eggs in the south. The craziest was one beekeeper was having issues with a guy spraying his hive entrances with an insecticide. This is still unresolved, but moving hives may be more difficult than keeping the yard due to land availability.

Overall, It was great to spend some time in the beautiful southern US and even better to see healthy hives with all the terrible reports of losses coming out of California.

Grafted queen cells.

Grafted queen cells.

 

 

How are your bees?

Most of the commercial beekeepers in the Midwest move their colonies to southern locations for the winter, primarily to California for the pollination of almonds. I get to go where the bees go.  I spent the last couple of weeks sampling beekeeper sin the San Joaquin valley in California. Beekeepers from across the nation truck bees to California to place them in the almond orchards. Just driving around, you can see all sorts of bee trucks. Most often, the truck drivers will unload in holding yards or staging yards where the colonies will wait until placement in the almond orchards.

This hive is on the upper scale for strength. You can tell it is booming because the  bees cover the bottom of the frames.

This hive is on the upper scale for strength. You can tell it is booming because the bees cover the bottom of the frames.

I attended meetings held by the South Valley Bee Club and the Dale Bee Club and talked to beekeepers about how their bees were doing, listened to the talks, and heard them talk to each other.  One of the most common questions beekeepers ask other beekeepers is ‘how are your bees?’ This year, the answer for many beekeepers has been not so great. Many beekeepers have been talking about losses in their own operations or in the operations of beekeepers they know., or how there is a shortage for colonies for pollination of the almond trees. Some talk about a 90% loss or more. It is heartbreaking. It will be a couple weeks yet before we really hear the full scale of what colony loses will be this year, but it is definitely going to be higher than last year.

This a a holding yard where a beekeeper stores colonies before moving them into almonds.

This a a holding yard where a beekeeper stores colonies before moving them into almonds.