Editor’s Note: Mike Dorsey sat down with Susan Cobey, a bee breeder and geneticist who manages the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Biology Research Facility, to discuss her research on honey bees.
Q: What sparked your fascination with honey bees?
A: Well my background is mostly commercial beekeeping – I worked for two different commercial outfits before coming to UCD. I have a Bachelor’s in Entomology, but I actually got in to bees pretty much after school, and with a degree in Entomology I wanted to do something working with live animals outside. Somehow I just got in to bees. I took a student exchange to Oregon State and did a couple of bee classes there. Through a professor I got a job in Northern California, and then went to Louisiana and Florida to work with bees commercially or for different entities like USDA in Baton Rouge. So my bee education is certainly more of an applied education.
Q: What is a sustainable honey bee?
A: A healthy bee, which has to have good nutrition and have some resistance to pests and diseases. You judge bee health by their colony, because a single bee just can’t survive, so you look at the colony which is a really complex social unit. It’s the intra-colony genetic diversity that makes it strong because you have different levels of resistance to pests and diseases between colonies.
Q. It was reported last year that the honey bee population was decreasing. Has there been any progress in restoring their population since then? Is it back to normal?
A: I wouldn’t call it normal: it’s been a slow progressive decline. Maybe in 2005 was when we started to see these big numbers of bees not surviving. It’s a little better this year because we’re starting to identify some of these pathogens and beekeepers are taking better care to deal with these things. They’re microscopic, so we didn’t have as much technology to identify them easily, but we’ve learned much more about what the issues are and we’re trying to deal with them better.
I think what’s going on with this colony collapse is partially the environment; there are a lot of chemicals in the environment. Also there are a lot of products we’re putting in the colonies that are having lethal effects and knocking down the immune system of the bee, which is weakened due to poor nutrition.
Q: What’s the most interesting fact about the queen bee?
A: Well, she’s basically an egg factory, and is constantly attended to by the worker bees. Her longevity is also impressive; while the workers live a matter of weeks, a queen may live seven years. The control she has over the colony, which is all done by pheromone communication, is a pretty amazing thing.
Q. Is there any truth to the rumor that eating local honey can cure allergies?
A: Somewhat, if you’re allergic to the pollens that they collect and deposit in their honey than yes. But it’s a slight difference, if there is one at all.
Q. What other benefits do bees bring to society?
A: Without bees you wouldn’t have any fruits or vegetables. Pollination is huge; there is something like 90 different crops that they pollinate, and they’re of huge value to agriculture. The ability to move in a large number of pollinators very quickly, we can just move boxes in and then back out. Bumblebees or others may be more efficient in their pollination, but they can’t be moved in and get to work as quickly as honey bees.
Q: If you get stung by a bee are you more understanding than most people probably are? How do you justify the sting?
A: Well, bees have a gentle temperament, but if I’m getting stung more than average I pretty much assume it’s my fault. I’m out there on a day that I shouldn’t be, like on a rainy day, or if I accidentally drop something in one of the hives. It’s a warning sign, that’s all. But when people ask me if I get stung, that’s like asking a mechanic if they get grease on them.
Q. What is your favorite part about your studies?
A: They’re just amazing animals to work with. It’s like the first time you go scuba diving, and it’s just a whole different world. The way they sense, move, smell, it’s different than any other group animal. I get the privilege of entering that world, and working outside in nature you see so much. You’re so aware of everything; plants, weather, interactions of the flora/fauna, changing of the seasons. I like being a part of that.
MIKE DORSEY can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.