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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Powell

Bees Don't Make Honey - Teams Do

These thoughts were inspired by Prof Scott Gilbert’s talk given to the Arboreal Apiculture Salon #20 and, on the same day, a visit to the free-living bees at Blenheim Palace.

One of the first pictures inside a Blenheim tree nest . Photo (c) F Salbany

What do we know about the alchemy of honey making? Do the bees make honey? The conventional view is that collected nectar is first stored in the bees’ honey crop - a sort of stomach. Here the invertase enzymes cleave the nectar's sucrose molecules into simple sugars, glucose and fructose, and this is the beginning of the ripening process that makes honey. However a more nuanced view is that these processes are assisted by many specialist gut microbes that have co-evolved with the bee. The few bacteria you find in the honey bee crop are specialists, able to survive the extremely acid and fructose rich environment. Without these honey crop microbes, and many others found in the bee, the bees could not function - they are vital for pathogen protection, digestion and even neural development that help bees find nectar. So in a sense bees do not make honey, but rather it is a team effort.

Since the advent of low cost DNA sequencing around 2000, biology has seen a revolution in our understanding of what a living creature is. No longer can we view animals as individuals, protected against the harsh world of pathogens, bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses by an immune system. Instead we now know that living organisms comprise a team of players that are both protected and supported by the immune systems.

Of all the trillions of cells in the human body over half are not human, they are other organisms working together with the human cells to help us function. Without them we could not exist as we rely on them to complete tasks that our body cannot do - for example digest food, and support our immune system.

We can call these non-human microbes symbionts. Symbionts come as a gift from our mother’s body, from the environment and social interaction. We often think the job of our immune system is to defend, but it also needs to support and protect the team of symbionts who in turn help us live a healthy life. Symbionts not only help us, they can actually shape us by changing our gene expression, they are part of our physical and neurological development.

The ways in which organisms can work together is vast and constantly changing, and so we can say that creativity in nature comes from the extraordinary way in which these teams of players organise and work together. Many functions that we attribute to an animal might actually be the result of a mutual relationship between the animal and a symbiont. For example, the bobtail squid (Euprymna Scolopes) creates a specialist scaffold in its body for Vibrio fischeri bacteria to create light for hunting and camouflage, cows depend on specialist bacteria to break down grass, koala bears need them to digest eucalyptus leaves, and in the kingdom of fungi, in addition to their symbiotic relationships with roots, truffles appear to use bacteria to create the enticing aromas that lead to their discovery and consumption by other animals that eventually leads to the dispersal of reproductive spores.

Truffle aroma is vital for discovery and reproduction, but it is the

truffle bacteria that might be the most important contributor to the aroma.

Photo by Andrea Cairone - Unsplash.

We don't have to think of teams as just the cells inside an organism. For bees we can consider the yeasts in pollen that ferments it into digestible bee bread. Flowers are part of the team. The trees that the bees have so finely tuned their lives to inhabit are also part of the team. Not only do they provide a protective cavity, they also host a cast of other team players such as fungi, resins, oils and small invertebrates all working together in a complex network of relationships. Does the tree host bees or is the tree part of the bee? Or are they just one? One team, or one being as some bee people like to say.

Understanding that living organisms are made up from supporting teams is very important. By focusing too closely on the organism, or the genetic codes of an organism, we can be blind to the collaborations at play. In 2018 researchers [1] showed that glyphosate perturbs the gut microbiota of honey bees at levels currently found in our environment. These are the very microbes that are so vital to the health of the honey bee. Prior to that research the manufacturer said that glyphosate was harmless to insects and other animals because it affects an enzyme that only plants and microbes use. This is a very narrow view of what an animal is.

Having understood the importance of teams, we can see how it might change our views on natural selection. In the past we might have thought of natural selection solely as a competitive force. However, what if we think of natural selection as a constantly vigilant curator of teams, with creativity not coming from competitive forces but instead coming from the relationships and processes between teams. If we ignore the creativity of teams in evolution, we risk overlooking one of the most important driving forces of life on earth. Viewing it this way we may be able to see the world with new eyes, and open ourselves to the possibilities of new ways of thinking. Perhaps when we see an animal failing in the environment, it might be that one of it’s microscopic team players is struggling, and when we ‘treat’ the bee for mites, we should consider the effect not on just the bee, but the whole team. When a new hive design is proposed - is it the best design for all team players?

Having set this scene of teams and relationships and selection forces, let us look at the recent media attention regarding the Apis Mellifera Mellifera (AMM) colonies at Blenheim Palace. Here we find strong genetic lines of mostly pure native honey bees living freely in tree cavities without human intervention in the palace forests. They appear to be completely free of pests and diseases that affect many bee colonies kept in apiaries.

Blenheim Cedar of Lebanon Bee Trees. The leaves and the wood are antiseptic and expectorant - It is interesting that the bees choose these tree species as they are not common on the estate.

It is a truly great discovery, but perhaps not as unique a discovery as the article suggested. However, where the media took this discovery was concerning. The article talked about "taking the genetics" of these bees for breeding purposes. This desire to take the genetics is driven by a romantic attachment to a bee that used to be prevalent in the British Isles over a hundred years ago. As ‘heritage’ bees, dark bee breeding projects have attracted a lot of lottery funded research and hobbyist interest. However, the environment and the team players that both created and supported those dark bees has changed beyond recognition in the last 100 years. It would be fair to say that a farmer from 1500 would recognise the functions and practices of a farm in 1900, but that same farmer would be totally lost on a farm from 2020.

Blenheim Bees - Entrance comb gilded with protective propolis, a blend unique to the area.

This idea of ‘taking genetics’ is bound to unwind and fail. The bee genetics at Blenheim cannot be separated from the other team players there. This includes the ancient Oak trees and Cedars of Lebanon that provide the cavities, the medicinal compounds in the trees, the fungi and bacteria in the trees they select, the Lime trees and other sources of food, the geography of the land and the location of the forests. The list is endless, as you may well imagine, and there will be many relationships we do not know of.

The father of modern genetics, William Bateson, observed: “We commonly think of animals and plants as matter but they are really systems through which matter passes”. I like to think that this observation shows that even the father of modern genetics agrees that you cannot simply ‘take’ the genetics of bees at Blenheim, they are part of the complex relationships between the environment and the teams.

In recognition of these teams and close ties to place, a better name for the bees at Blenheim is not the black bee or dark bee but the “Blenheim Bee”. A geographic naming system that was used well before the simplification into names of single race lines. Not long ago we had the North Lincolnshire (Boston) bees and the North Yorkshire high moor (Cleveland) and East Midland strain to name a few. Beekeepers would delight in observing the dozens of tiny differences between them - the colour and wetness of the wax cappings, their colourings, hairiness, brood patterns, wing type and their behaviours (a genetic code of sorts we all understand!). The bees were named after the land and team players local to that land.

Of the 50 nests, many are in the old oak trees and have small round entrances located high up. But a different forest is likely to different characteristics.

More important than which genetic strain the Blenheim bee might be is the fact that they are survivors. They have not been destroyed by the Acarapis woodi parasite, which allegedly wiped out the dark bee, they have also survived the varroa mite that has devastated managed bee colonies. They have adapted to the changing crops and land use surrounding the estate.

The Blenheim bee has also been favoured in that they are free from certain influences that are proven to 'play against' the teams described above:

  • Beekeepers who routinely replace the honey harvested from the bees with sugar syrup, an artificial, sterile feed that entirely lacks a host of vital 'team players' that are passed between bees as they feed and interact socially

  • Beekeeping practices that work against the natural biology of the bee, including: swarm suppression, killing of drone bees, and killing the queen bees annually to replace them with younger and often imported bees of different sub species

  • The bees are free from beekeeping chemicals used to control mites and diseases, but which harm the symbionts.

Rather than exposure to the inimical factors that threaten the general health and wellbeing of the honeybee, the Blenheim bee enjoys an estate of relatively clean forage largely uncontaminated by the chemicals and pesticides prevalent in our agricultural landscapes that attack both bees and their team players. Notably, the Blenheim bees have at their disposal not only forage from groves of limes and ancient forests, but also a choice of bee-appropriate nesting sites and are able to live in accordance with their species-appropriate needs. Nest sizes are typically small, going down to as low as 8 ltrs. They have a very different lifestyle from managed bees living on uniform frames and large hive sizes.

We appear to have been concerned for the wellbeing of honey bees and other pollinators for a considerable time now, and such concern is surely called for. The Blenheim bees really show us the way towards establishing and safeguarding regions where our insect populations are able to exist and thrive in balance with one another. Free-living honey bees are never a threat to other pollinators as they lead modest lives only gathering enough food to survive in their relatively small nests. Whereas beekeeper-managed bees in artificially massed placements of large hives that are managed for maximum honey production are highly likely to upset the delicate balance established in the absence of human intervention.

There are many thousands of free-living honey bee colonies in the UK. While many may not be as singular as the Blenheim bee, they are survivors and they are very healthy. Rather than seeing these bees as a threat to managed honey bees or other bees, we can consider them as a true national treasure. They should be protected by law just like other bees. It amazes me that the only protection we have for the Blenheim bee are the trustees and staff of that estate. My hope is that their discovery will ensure that they are not damaged by thoughtless placement of commercial hives, and they will be an inspiration for deeper understanding.

For those who want to support free-living honey bees we can:

  • Provide agency for honey bees by providing low density, small, bee appropriate tree nests in forests where the trees are too young to create suitable cavities

  • Support producers of organically grown biodiverse crops

  • Support efforts to protect free-living bees by law or otherwise by raising awareness of the true nature of the honey bee, and their role as a team player

  • Support all team players by ensuring the environment is good for them also. This would include seeing the value of and protecting ancient, veteran and fallen trees.

As we are now getting a glimpse of the scale of this new world of team players and their roles, it behoves us more than ever to approach nature with a sense of awe. While modern DNA sequencing is fascinating (yet still in its infancy), it is not necessary that we fully understand or know all of these newly discovered relationships between bees, their symbionts and their environment. Indigenous cultures have sensed and have respected these connections without the benefit of modern scientific analysis and data. It is ironic that we know so much more than these ancient cultures, and yet this knowledge does not appear to come with the wisdom to live in balance with nature. Therefore it is very clear that wisdom does not come from scientific knowledge - it can only come from our collective endeavours to be aware and connected to nature; sensitive to all the team players - seen and unseen.

Glyphosate perturbs the gut microbiota of honey bees

V. S. Motta, Kasie Raymann, Nancy A. Moran


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