“You live 6 weeks and I live 6 months”

Says the winter bee to the summer bee

I suppose the Nobel prize winner Bob Dylan did not think of the honey bee, when he penned the lyrics to his song “Forever Young”, but when we compare the longevities between summer and winter honey bees, it almost seems as if the long-lived winter bees stay forever young: they stay around from about October until at least March while the short-lived summer bees are lucky to reach an age of 6 weeks. The reason is not that during the summer, bees are more susceptible to disease, preyed upon more heavily or work so much harder than the winter bees, for even though winter bees spend the entire winter in the hive, they too work hard. They shiver to create heat and make sure that the cluster of bees surviving the cold season with their queen does not become colder than 15°C. But how can they possibly stay active (and alive) for so many months longer than the summer bees?

First of all, the members of a bee hive need to sense that the cold season is approaching. This may involve the increasingly difficult task of finding pollen in August to feed the brood. It follows that brood rearing becomes reduced and eventually stops until it resumes in January. With no foraging summer bees needed, they all die in the autumn and are replaced by the morphologically identical winter bees. The latter begin to store large amounts of ‘vitellogenin’, (a glycolipoprotein known to be a zinc carrier) in their fat body, the equivalent of our liver. In the winter this substance also increases in the haemolymph, the equivalent of our blood.  At the same time, the so-called ‘juvenile hormone’, important during the nursing of the brood, decreases to almost undetectable levels. The amount of a neuromodulator molecule from the brain, known as octopamine, also falls when foraging is no more possible in winter.

The nutrients stored by the winter bees in the form of vitellogenin are not used by them for themselves, but are kept to be utilised when new bee brood is produced again by the queen bee in anticipation of the coming spring with its flowers and sources of protein-rich pollen. How the queen bee ‘knows’ that spring will approach when she starts to lay eggs anew in the middle of winter, the coldest and darkest season of the year, is still a mystery, but how the winter bees keep themselves and their queen warm is much better understood. In the ball-like cluster that the winter bees form, those at the periphery every now and then exchange places with bees from the warmer centre and then also to replenish their food intake. After all, to create heat by shivering, means that they are expending a lot of energy.

The ‘fuel’ the bees use to warm themselves and the hive up is sugar!  It’s the main or perhaps the only reason why they collected nectar and turned it into honey during the summer: the carbohydrates keep them alive throughout the winter, so that in spring they can feed the new brood with the vitellogenin they stored in their fat body. Actually, rearing new brood already starts in late winter when pollen are not yet available and the trigger for the transition from winter to short-lived summer bees is, therefore, not at all understood. Perhaps the decrease in vitellogenin, needed to feed the new brood, causes a concomitant rise in juvenile hormone and octopamine. The fact is that all winter bees, irrespective as to when they left their pupal cases, whether that was in October and the early months in winter or as late as January, they all die within a very short time. Forever young? Well maybe not forever, but applied to humans it would be a life of 400 years! And if that’s not long enough, how about the rotifer, a tiny wheel animalcule, an extreme “Rip Van Winkle” of the animal world? Dormant in a frozen state for 24,000 years, it was revived recently by the Russian soil scientists Lyubov Shmakova and colleagues of Pushchino in Russia, and it even multiplied (it did not need a male). A multicellular organism with a gut, a nervous system, sense organs, frozen stiff, for 24,000 years: what a life –  if you can call that a life at all.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2021.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Why are there honey bees on Heligoland

When there shouldn’t really be any?

The small 1.4 km2 large German North Sea rock island of “Heligoland” (in German “Helgoland” and in the local Frisian language “DeatLun”) is a fascinating place. By 1400 the island had been one of the hideouts of the pirate Klaus Störtebeker (meaning “emptying one mug of beer in one gulp”). In 1890 the island was given to Germany from England for the German colony of Zanzibar (which then became British), but before it became British in 1814, Helgoland had been claimed by Danish, Swedish and Dutch rulers. After World War II, when the island (after it had been made into a fortress by Hitler and ‘survived’ attempts by the British 1947 to bomb it into oblivion), it became a famous taxfree haven and tourist resort. I love this unique place and have followed its growth and recovery ever since I had first visited Heligoland in 1955.

When the sun shines and there is no wind (which is rare) this small island can be a magically beautiful place and when in the summer of 2019, I went there with my wife, we were in luck: fantastic weather the whole week. The sun was shining, blue skies, colourful flowers everywhere, bees humming from one inflorescence to the next….But, hey, honey bees? Real honey bees?  There shouldn’t be any, was my immediate thought. It was impossible they could have reached this oceanic island 60 km from the German mainland; bees do not fly across water  – even a small lake is an obstacle for them. I was puzzled. Besides the small area of the island and consequently limited pollen and nectar source would certainly have precluded any bee culture on the island. It annoyed my wife a bit that suddenly I seemed to be more interested in the island’s bees than her (at least until I had solved the puzzle).

The solution was this: successful beekeeping all over the world is associated with conserving the best possible genetic make-up of the queen with target characteristics such as the capacity of honey collection or disease resistance of her and her offspring. For the conservation and improvement of the genetic diversity of the bee, artificial insemination with selected drone bees or having a remote island mating location are the methods of choice. Heligoland is an ideal place to conduct controlled matings to produce honey bee queens with desired characteristics without genetic contamination or mix-up. That is why in one summer season between May and July approximately 80 virgin queens, each with about 600 worker bees, are taken to Heligoland from several locations in northern Germany by ship.

To ensure that high quality drones are present prior to the arrival of the virgin queens, drone hives are placed a fair distance away from the queen mating apiaries. A full frame of drone brood will produce around 700 mature drones, which may live up to 60 days but exhibit declines in fertility after 28 days. It’s been calculated that for 200 virgin queens one needs to have 8 drone mother colonies and for 80 virgin queens one would require perhaps 2,000 high quality drones. A single queen on her nuptial flight (or three or four flights) may mate with several drones and once successfully inseminated queens will be returned to its owner about 3 weeks after the excursion to the honey bee’s “Love Island”. Stray drones (other than the selected high quality ones) can simply not be present there and I learned that annually around 150 virgin queens are taken to Heligoland. One can imagine how happy the bachelor drones must be when the virgin queens arrive! Alas, all drones lose their genitals after mating once and die.

I also learned that not every virgin queen is equally attractive to drones and that queen bees that had already mated with several males were of particular interest to other males. That reminded me of what had been termed the “wedding ring effect” by researchers who had noticed the preference of young human females for men that were married, apparently because such men signified “quality”. But perhaps there was also some competitive element or maybe even ‘envy’ involved. Anyway, I didn’t share this snippet of information with my wife, lest she’d get worried about her husband.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2021.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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Advantages of Handicaps and Entertaining Parasites: such situations do exist

Situations in which it can be an advantage to possess a handicap do exist and not just for men who want to avoid having to serve in the army, or girls with big breasts who can’t run or jump well but may get a movie contract, or individuals who exaggerate a condition in order to be selected to participate in the Paralympics. When visiting the Apatani in Arunachal Pradesh (India), the explanation given to me why their women used to have large holes with a piece of wood in the alae of their noses (the wings of the nose), I was told that it was to make them look ugly, unattractive. That must have been a handicap, but whether true or not, women with such nose perforations would have been less likely to be stolen or kidnapped by marauding tribes than women with more beautiful noses. Nowadays younger women no longer follow that practice. —>—>