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In the New Year, Stop & Watch the Bees

Watching bees is something that most beekeepers do on a regular basis. This sweet story is a reminder that sometimes watching the bees is as important as smelling the roses...

Thirty years ago, I was rushing to get my son and daughter, who were then eight and ten, out of the house and into the car to go to school. All parents know the drill: children passing each other in a blur of activity, looking for sports jerseys and musical instruments that should have been put out the night before. Kids and adults become whirring satellites, each on a different orbit.

It was spring, which is lovely in my part of Australia—sunny and warm.

But I wasn’t enjoying the weather. My only concern was getting my kids and their things on their way, and my son, Stephen, was nowhere to be seen.

“Where are you, Stephen?” I called out from the kitchen, in the vague direction of the stairs. “Are you dressed?”

I climbed the stairs to look for him, and peered into the bedroom my husband and I shared.

That’s when I found him, sitting on our bed in his undies, staring at the tulipwood tree outside our large bedroom window. It was covered in yellow spring blossoms.

“What are you doing? Hurry up!” I pleaded.

“I’m just watching the bees,” he said, not moving his gaze.

I watched him, completely calm, lost in his own little world.

My husband, who was passing by in the hallway, stopped to look at our son, too. Stephen was in a really nice, peaceful place, and there was something uncomfortable about the moment, like my husband and I had intruded on something private.

Not just that, but the stillness and beauty of that moment made us feel kind of silly, like we had done something wrong. There we were, ready to lecture our son on the importance of being ready, and there he was teaching us something far more important.

Life isn’t about rushing out the door. In conducting the symphony of children and lost shoes and instruments and jerseys, I had forgotten that.

Watching him, I was transported back to my own forgotten memory of being ten years old. As a kid, my family went on holiday to North Stradbroke Island, just off the coast of Brisbane. Though the island was close by, it had wild horses and only one dirt road. On this particular holiday, my brother and I had prowled the sands of a subtropical shoreline looking for a fish for Mum to cook. We presented her with a washed-

up puffer fish, which she politely disposed of while telling us never to touch one again.

My father died the following year. That was the last time we went to Stradbroke as a family.

Watching my son look at the bees brought me back to that precious time. I felt once more the sun on my neck and the softness of the sand, so bright I had to shade my eyes. At midday the beach was almost deserted, just the sky, the water, an occasional fisherman, and children chasing gulls.

Now my son is 41. I wonder if he even remembers the wisdom of his eight-year-old self. At 74, I know I do.

The natural world has been an important part of my getting older. It’s been helped by the availability of time, which allows me to slow down, to be in the moment without needing to check my watch.

My daughter has a five-year-old son who loves watching ants. He gardens with me and notices each new flower that blossoms on a bush or a tree. He loves the weather; he tells me when the sky is dark and it’s going to rain, and when there’s going to be lightning. Now that I’m older, I can move at his pace.

It’s a privilege to have reached the last third of my life. So many don’t. The natural world is a great source of solace when the inevitable aches and pains, the slowness, and the unforeseen aspects of old age rear their head. Knowing the cycle of my garden, the unexpected delight of the smell from my flowering lemon tree, the daisies that crop up each year like old friends after seemingly being lost to the ground forever, and the crows that send out their raucous challenges from the clothesline whenever I step outside, are a constant delight. Their companionship refreshes me and their appearance each year reassures that I’m part of a larger life cycle. And whenever I forget that, the image of my son, perched on my bed, is there to remind me.

When a child tells you they’re watching the bees, leave them to it. They’re using their time well. And perhaps sit down next to them and watch the bees with them, too.


Not only are sprayed pesticides detrimental to the bees health, researchers have found that it inhibits their communication as well.

Honey bees live in dynamic communities and constantly communicate with each other using chemicals that serve as social cues. For example, nurse bees—that are responsible for taking care of larvae that ultimately become queens and worker bees—constantly monitor the larvae using in the dark using pheromones. The larvae emit brood pheromones to indicate that they need food. There are also alarm pheromones that workers produce to warn the other bees of danger. If these cues are dampened or not perceived properly, the colony may fail to thrive.

Since 2007, scientists have known that honey bees have been in trouble. One of the stressors that have raised concerns are insecticides, which affect honey bee health. Because these are usually used in combination with other chemicals, the resulting mixture can become unexpectedly toxic to bees.

“For many years, it was assumed that fungicides do not have an adverse impact on insects because they are designed for fungal targets,” said May Berenbaum (GEGC/IGOH), a professor of entomology. “Surprisingly, in addition to insecticides, fungicides also have an adverse effect on bees and combining the two can disrupt colony function.”

For more than a decade, reports originating from almond orchards, where two-thirds of the U.S. honey bees are transported every year when the flowers are in bloom, implicated pesticide spray mixtures. In particular, the problem lies in the use of supposedly inactive chemicals called adjuvants, which increases the “stickiness” of the insecticide so it stays on the plants.

Because adjuvants have long been considered to be biologically benign, they are not subject to the same level of safety testing as other insecticidal agents. “Recently, researchers have shown that adjuvants alone or when used in combination with fungicides and insecticides are toxic to bees,” Berenbaum said.

Nurse bees are especially vulnerable to these combinations. “The health of the queens is paramount,” Berenbaum said. “If healthy queens are not produced, the colony can suffer.”

To understand how combinations affect nurse bees, the researchers tested their effect on the olfactory system of honey bees using the adjuvant Dyne-Amic, the fungicide Tilt, and the insecticide Altacor.

The researchers divided bees into four groups of ten bees and for a week exposed them to either untreated commercial pollen or to pollen that had been treated with either Dyne-Amic, or Tilt and Altacor, or all three together. The bees were then anesthetized on ice and one antenna was carefully removed from each bee. The researchers then exposed the antenna to chemical mimics of brood and alarm pheromones and recorded the antenna’s response using a technique called electroantennography. With this method, Ling-Hsiu Liao, a research scientist, and Wen-Yen Wu, a graduate student, in the Berenbaum lab, found that when nurse bees had consumed pollen contaminated by the three chemicals, their antennal responses to some brood pheromones and alarm pheromones were altered. Their finding suggests that these commonly-used pesticides can interfere with honey bee communication.

How these chemicals interact and influence the bees is still unclear. “There are many possible explanations for how consuming these chemicals can affect the sensory responses of bees,” Liao said. “The antenna detects and triggers the response to olfactory signals. In this study we did not look at what other changes are triggered, particularly changes in behavior.”

In addition to parsing out the underlying molecular pathways that are affected, the researchers are also interested in testing other mixtures of commonly used pesticides as well as looking at the response of bees in other populations. They hope that their work can help beekeepers rethink how they manage and protect their colonies.

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