SEPTEMBER
2000

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

9-28-00

Honey Bees Become Beasts of Burden

We have long lauded the honey bee as one of the most useful insects to humans. After all, these hard-working arthropods provide all kinds of products. Honey for our biscuits. Wax for our candles and fine furniture. Pollen for our health food diets. And royal jelly for anything that ails us! Honey bees also carry pollen from plant to plant—a process that ensures the availability of an abundance of fruits and vegetables to tempt our pallet.

But now researchers at Cornell University have come up with yet another way that bees can work for us. Joseph Kovach, associate professor of entomology at Ohio State University, reported that bees can carry a biological fungicide to flowers of strawberry plants. Kovach and his associates have made the honey bees into miniature spray planes.

Here's how it works. The researchers put pans of a biological fungicide, a microorganism that controls gray mold, in front of hives. The field bees headed out for a load of pollen or nectar walked through the material and picked it up on their feet. When the bees got to the flowers, hopefully strawberry flowers, some of the biological fungicide wiped off on the blossom. The fungicide then prevented the disease gray mold on the strawberries.

The system worked so well that the bee-borne treatment resulted in more than 25 percent heavier berries than comparative treatments applied with a sprayer. This was achieved with 50 percent less fungicide.

The willing worker bees seemed not to mind that they were toting stuff from the hive. They are accustomed to carrying material. But field bees generally carry things into the hive.

This is not the first time that honey bees have carried things in the name of science. Researchers have glued microtransmitters to honey bee backs in efforts to determine whether or not these insects fly in bee lines. They, as it turns out, do not!

Honey bees have been loaded down with weights to determine just how much they can carry while on the wing. It turns out a lot—at least by airplane standards. A honey bee has been shown to carry as much as 70 mg of nectar. That is 85 percent of the average weight of a bee. A typical load of nectar for a bee is 40 mg. No airplanes can come close to carrying such a payload.

You can imagine that the fertile minds of scientists have conjured up all kinds of ideas about things that honey bees might carry, for instance miniature TV cameras. Just think of all of the places that a honey bee is capable of visiting with a camera on its back.

CIA types have, no doubt, given some serious thought to using this insect beast of burden in some clandestine camera work. But there is a problem. Honey bees are independent sorts and go where they please, normally in search of something useful to the hive. So, unless there is a flower garden in the area under surveillance, it is unlikely that a bee will visit.

Bees aren't homing pigeons. In fact, they aren't homing anything. They go on a mission and then fly back to where they started their trip. You can't carry a honey bee away and expect it to come home.

And that is just fine with most people. As long as the bees keep bringing nectar home to their hive, it's a sweeter world for all of us.

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox