Tag Archives: pollination

Commercial bumblebee breeding in Norway

Abstract:
Norway was early in starting to produce bumblebees for use in tomato cultivation in commercial greenhouses. This niche production is relatively complicated and therefore requires good knowledge and precise work. The Department for Agriculture was concerned that importing bumblebees could lead to importing of sicknesses and to genetic pollution of native Norwegian bumblebees. This article describes the start of bumblebee production in Norway and gives a technical description of the process of bumblebee rearing.

Keywords:
bumblebee – breeding – Norway – beekeeping – pollination

In Norway there are 35 species of bumblebee, out of a total of around 250 species worldwide. Bumblebees belong to the family of bumblebees and other bees, called Apidae. It is the large earth bumblebee (or buff-tailed bumblebee), Bombus terrestris, which dominates in commercial bumblebee rearing, both in Norway and internationally.

It started in 1989

The idea and enthusiasm for starting up commercial rearing of Norwegian-produced bumblebees came from The Norwegian Beekeeping Society’s General Secretary, Trond Gjessing together with Rogaland County Council’s Chief Agronomist, Ketil Fuglestad. Due to their positions, the pair acted as coordinators, assistants and initiative takers, but they did not provide technical assistance; this was provided by biologist Atle Mjelde.

It started with a public body, The Bee Sickness Committee, of which Trond Gjessing was secretary. They received a request from The Department for Agriculture with respect to the importing of bumblebees to Norway. They were particularly concerned with the problem of taking insects over the border, and the effects this would have on the genetic heredity of Norway’s native population.

In 1991 The Norwegian Beekeeping Society arranged a meeting inviting key people to attend. They had arranged for a Dutch speaker to hold a presentation on this niche area of production: the commercial rearing of bumblebees. The speaker was Ard de Ruijter, Director of The Research Center for Insect Pollination and Beekeeping. Ketil Fuglestad, Rogaland County Council’s Chief Agronomist, took part in the meeting and says himself that he was excited by the possibility of Norwegian bumblebee production, and that Ruitjer was very inspiring. Ruitjer’s experience from Holland, was that it was beekeepers who were most successful at rearing queens. Some in the professional community believed that it was easier for beekeepers to take care of the bumblebees, because they understood how sensitive they are. One must learn the signals given by the bumblebees and be able to interpret their behaviour.

Pollinering Service Company

In 1991 beekeepers Karl Ivar Stangeland and Egil Fosse established the company “Pollinering Service ANS” and thereby started Norwegian bumblebee production. They were the only company in Norway engaged in bumblebee rearing up until the year 2000. At that time two new companies started up, and all three of them were based in Jæren in Rogland.

Pollination in Norwegian commercial greenhouses has gone from manual pollination to Norwegian production of bumblebee colonies. This change has meant that tomatoes have become a much better commodity. Tomatoes have many seeds, and if the tomatoes are to swell to be round and even, they must be pollinated evenly inside the flower – this is the job of the bees. Bumblebee production has meant that several different growers have been able to use bees for pollination, and this has lead til a reduction in the use of chemical spraying in fruit and berry production.

Ban on import of bumblebees to Norway.

Since as early as 1991 it has been forbidden to import bumblebees in to Norway. There were two important reasons given by professionals in the field, for not allowing the import of bumblebees. The first was the risk of importing disease and parasites and the second was the danger of genetic pollution. The latter problem was a particular concern for The Department for Agriculture. The initiative to start up rearing of bumblebees in Norway came from Rogaland County Council and The Norwegian Beekeeping Society.

How is the bumblebee colony produced?

To understand the challenges of rearing bumblebees, you need to have a good understanding of ecology and not least a good understanding of bumblebee biology.

The large earth bumblebee comes out of hibernation in the spring

After pairing, the large earth bumblebee queen goes in to hibernation for the winter. She digs a hole in the earth in autumn to protect her from the frost, but she makes sure that the hole will not be in full sunlight. That is to say, she finds a place where spring will not come too early.

After coming out of hibernation the bumblebee queen is alone at first and is therefore very busy. First she has to find a site for a nest. She builds herself up by gathering nectar. She makes circular honey pots from wax for storing nectar, pollen and eggs. When the store of nectar and pollen is big enough, she lays the first egg.

Bumblebees can’t eat dry pollen: they need extra nectar to moisten it. Unlike other bees, bumblebees do not have salivary glands. They therefore chew a mixture of pollen and nectar, swallow it and then regurgitate the mixture as food for the larvae. The queens, drones and workers all die before the winter; only the queens that have mated and that have dug themselves down under the earth, survive the winter.

How is this done in commercial rearing?

A new colony is started with a queen in a starting case, which is about 5 cm x 10 cm in size. To get the queen to lay eggs, live drone pupae are used. The drone pupae are taken from a larger bumblebee colony. The bumblebee queen will warm up and brood the pupae. When she has eaten enough pollen, she will start to lay eggs. The queen is given fresh pollen every third day, and it is the new pollen that stimulates her to lay eggs. After the first pupae have hatched, the worker bees start to feed the larvae and from there the colony usually develops quickly.

The best way that has been found to get the bumblebee queen to lay eggs, is to mate them in autumn and winter. Thereafter they are put in to hibernation for four months at a temperature of +4°C.

Starter case. The queen has laid eggs and is brooding them. The temperature rises to minimum + 30 °C. Bee feed is in the glass and pollen in the food bowls.

Bumblebee queens are cooled to + 4°C

When the case containing the queens is taken out of the cold room, following 4 months of hibernation, the queens are fed with pollen and a sugar solution, and they soon come back to life. Their ovaries start to grow and the queens must be separated within a couple of days. If not, they get angry and start to attack each other.

Breeding

To avoid in-breeding it is important to constantly renew the breeding stock. If there are several queens that are to be fertilised all from one nest, it is important to use drones from a nest that is not related. It is important to take the queens out from the cold room at exactly the right time, so that they can be mated with the right drones.

To make sure that the queens being used for breeding don’t start to stagnate, the newly born queens need to be taken out each day and fed with pollen and sugar solution, for a period of five days, before they are put together with the drones for mating.

Shelf 1: two cases with queens, ready to be put in to the mating case. Shelf 2: large cases that will later on be delivered to greenhouses. Shelves 3 and 4: small cases labelled with the queen’s number and life-history, such as the date the first egg was hatched and when the first worker bee appeared. The pink light in the room reduces the bumblebees’ sight, making them less active.

The picture shows mating in progress, with the queen over and the drone under. They hang together like this for about 30 minutes.

Life in the bumblebee colony is dynamic.

The queen uses pheromones to exercise full control over the worker bees in the first weeks. The more eggs the queen lays in this period, the stronger the colony will be. At a set point in the development of the colony, activity goes over to the production of gendered individuals, that is drones and queens. After this point the queens reduce the production of pheromones that hinder egg laying by the worker bees. Some of the workers start to lay eggs, but the queens eat most of the eggs laid by the workers. If the queen is strong enough to lay enough eggs to keep the worker bees occupied with feeding only larva hatched from them, the colony will last longer.

If the queen shows signs of weakness, which is to say she lays too few eggs, the workers can kill the queen and take over control of the nest. The dominant workers stress the others, fighting, killing and threatening. In this phase, before the ranking within the workers has been established, the nest should not be sold, as the workers will not be effective.

The nest is ready for the greenhouse.

When a nest is delivered to the greenhouse, it contains between 200 and 400 worker bees. Some greenhouses buy a new nest every month. Despite the fact that a nest can last from 7 to 8 weeks, they want to have a period of overlapping. This means that they have several nests simultaneously. It is important to make sure that the colonies are not too large in relation to the greenhouse, as the workers can be too hard on the pollen anther and style, causing them damage.

Nest ready for delivery. About 200 worker bees, 70 worker pupae, a cluster of drone pupae and a cluster of larve that will become either drones or queens.

Author:

Knut G. Austad
Jaermuseet
PB 250, 4367 Nærbø
kga@jaermuseet.no

Which came first, bees or crops? Why does it matter?

Abstracts:
Flying insects, particularly bees, transfer pollen to flowers to facilitate plant reproduction. The Western or European honeybee (Apis mellifera) may get the most attention because of the honey they produce, but other bees pollinate vegetables, berries, and other fruits on which we all depend. Adding the natural history of bees to the agricultural history of food production underscores the fragile relationships between pollinator, plants, and humans.

Les insectes volants, en particulier les abeilles, transfèrent le pollen aux fleurs pour faciliter la reproduction des plantes. L’abeille à miel occidentale ou européenne (Apis mellifera) attire souvent le plus d’attention en raison du miel qu’elle produit, mais d’autres abeilles pollinisent les légumes, les baies et les autres fruits dont nous dépendons tous. Ajouter l’histoire naturelle des abeilles à l’histoire agricole de la production alimentaire souligne les relations fragiles entre les pollinisateurs, les plantes et les humains. (Google Translation)

Fliegende Insekten, insbesondere Bienen, transportieren Pollen zu Blumen, um Pflanzenreproduktion zu ermöglichen. Die Westliche oder Europäische Honigbiene (Apis mellifera) mag am meisten Aufmerksamkeit genießen aufgrund des Honigs, den sie produzieren, aber auch andere Bienen bestäuben Gemüse, Beeren und andere Früchte von denen wir alle abhängig sind. Das Hinzunehmen der Naturgeschichte der Bienen zur Agrargeschichte der Nahrungsproduktion unterstreicht die fragilen Zusammenhänge zwischen Bestäubern, Pflanzen und Menschen.

Keywords:
bees – pollination – crops – beehive – agriculture – the environment

Flying insects, particularly bees, transfer pollen to flowers to facilitate plant reproduction. The Western or European honeybee (Apis mellifera), native to Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, often receives the most attention because of the honey that results from their pollen-storage system. Yet other bees bear the burden of pollinating vegetables, berries, and other fruits on which we all depend.

Stereograph of an apiary in the Foothills of San Gabriel (Mission San Gabriel Arcángel), Los Angeles County, California, circa 1878. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Plants and insects developed mutually beneficial relationships over millions of years. The plants depended on insects to reproduce through the transfer of pollen from pollen grain to flower stigma, as the insects ate the plants’ pollen and nectar. Bees, a flying insect, became distinct by gathering and storing pollen to feed themselves and their young. DNA research confirms that bees coexisted with flowering plants from the beginning of flowering plants 130 million years ago. Archaeologists find evidence of bees in fossilized resin (amber).

Baltic Amber with Fossil Inclusions. Size 5,5 cm. April 22, 2014. Wikipedia Commons.

All bee species (about 20,000) evolved along with plants in localized biospheres, but only those classified in the genus Apis are technically honeybees. Millenia before humans moved Apis mellifera around the globe, squash bees, bumble bees, and solitary bees, among many others, pollinated crops, including crops native to the Americas, i.e., squash, pumpkins, cranberries, tomatoes, avocados, and potatoes, to name a few. Native bees pollinate plants in their ecosystem more efficiently than does the popular Apis mellifera. In fact, the imported European or Western honeybee completes with the native species for pollen, and humans give Apis mellifera an advantage through special treatment to ensure honey production. This puts other bees more proficient in plant pollination at a disadvantage.

Stereograph of an apiary at Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire, circa 1875, with elder Henry Clay Blinn holding a frame. The individual beehives appear to be made of stackable boxes with removable frames in the style patented by Lorenzo L. Langstroth in 1852. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Do museums interpret the complexity of human intervention in the natural process of pollination?

Often interpretation focuses on honeybees, and the artifacts of the beekeeper who worked with them. In North America, colonists imported Avis mellifera to ensure access to honey and to sustain crops imported with the bees. When honeybees swarmed into hollow trees, the beekeepers sometimes cut out the tree and moved the pollinators closer to their gardens, orchards, and clover fields and moved the honey source closer to their kitchen table.

A hollow log-type beehive that likely began as a refuge for a swarm of honeybees in the “garden state” of New Jersey, U.S.A. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.


Humans intervened further in the lives of pollinators by designing different types of homes for bees. The most lasting example of innovation resulted from close and persistent observation of bee behavior. Lorenzo L. Langstroth’s 1852 U.S. Patent for an improved method of constructing beehives revolutionized beekeeping at the time. Langstroth established the concept others have called “bee space” and his basic removable-frame-in-hive design remains an industry standard.

At least one patent holder took inspiration from bees’ natural homes, but only the form, not the function. An 1869 U.S. Patent confirms that tree-hives captured the imagination of Charles E. Spaulding. He explained that his “honey-boxes of a round form…conform more nearly to the natural depositories of the wild bee” and that they “correspond to hollow limbs, which are sought out by the bees in their natural or wild state.” Spaulding, a cheese-box maker in Theresa, New York, thought in the round anyway (the common form of cheese boxes), but his improved hive suited human need more than that of bees. Security features to reduce the likelihood of theft and exterior artwork advertised his product while appealing to consumers. Bee behavior influenced his innovation little.

C. E. Spaulding, “Bee-Hive,” U.S. Patent 89,896 (May 11, 1869, antedated April 8, 1869). The top half contained the honey-boxes, the bottom half, the hives. The top could be rotated to close the passage between hive and honey. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Rarely do museums address the other side of the honeybee story.

Pollinators evolved with other native vegetables and fruits. Intimate relationships between native bees and native varieties developed over time, and native bees do not naturally pollinate invasive species. Neither do honeybees (technically an invasive species in parts of the globe) pollinate native species that they did not evolve in tandem with.

In fact, honeybees undermine the natural relationship of native species because honeybees compete for pollen to produce honey which can undermine the work of less numerous native pollinators in their natural habitat. Humans bear some responsibility for ensuring balance between the bees that exist to pollinate, and those that exist to produce honey. Exploring this reality increases opportunities for history museums to interpret the environment, and agriculture.

In museums that do not interpret agriculture as either their focus or as a topic relevant to their mission, staff can still link their collections to link natural history and the history of domestication. Specifically, advertisements or decorative arts featuring beehives provide a hook to discuss relationships between honeybees, domestication, natural and domesticated plant pollination, and human manipulation of the process. Discussion of foodways in historic houses may naturally lead to the topics of bees and pollination. Those discussions can provoke more thought by distinguishing between food on the table, between imported plants compared to native species, and between imported and native bees. Namely, crops such as grain (wheat, rye, oats) and maize (corn) remained dependent on the wind to move pollen. Humans cultivating these crops did not have to manage hives as market gardeners and truck farmers did (and still do). These comparisons beg for explanation of both natural history and the history of domestication.

Practice your powers of observation by identifying the fruits in this painting by a Mexican artist, and then explore the types of native species that cohabitated with them. Find a still life of foods from your museum’s home (or use your own well-researched foodways program as the basis). Then put the food on a plate in a historic house interpretation that prompts conversations about plant propagation through the natural act of pollination specific to your site (bee-specific about both the local and the imports). That paints the most comprehensive picture of bees and their direct relationships to food supplies historically and today.

Bodegón con frutas (con alacrán y rana) [Still life with fruit (with scorpion and frog)], 1874, by Hermenegildo Bustos (1832-1907), Guanajuato, Mexico.  WikiCommons.

In conclusion, most market-garden and truck-farm crops (i.e., cabbage, green beans, and black-eyed peas); berries (i.e., strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries); and orchard crops (i.e., apples, grapes, pears, peaches, and plums), depend on the mighty pollinator, the native bee, to survive and thrive. Bees also pollinate crops that livestock eat (buckwheat, clover), and crops that produce the fibers we wear (cotton and flax). Bees also pollinate the flowers of matured plants that then yield seeds for the next year’s crop. For these reasons, native species play a significant role worthy of consideration to enrich conversations that the honeybee otherwise dominates.

Sources

Goulson, Dave. A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees (2014); for an excerpt see Goulson, “The Beguiling History of Bees,” Scientific American (April 25, 2014),

Horn, Tammy. Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation (2005), 

Langstroth, Lorenzo L. “Improved Mode of Constructing Beehives.” Patent No. 9,300 (October 5, 1852),

_______. Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey Bee: A Bee-Keeper’s Manual (originally published in 1853),

Spaulding, C. E. “Improvement in Bee-Hive.” Patent No. 89,896, May 11, 1869, antedated April 8, 1896.

Debra A. Reid
Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan