Friday, June 26, 2009

The intelligence of bees: Meet a beekeeper! Part 2

Michele working the bees
Today, we continue our interview with Michele Bennett Decoteau, beekeeper and author of Blue Hive Journals. (You can read part 1 of the interview here). Our topic today is bee intelligence.

Welcome back, Michele! I've heard that honeybees are intelligent creatures. Earlier this year, Allie Wilkinson at Oh, For the Love Of Science linked to this article, "Honey bees can count to four", describing research from the head of visual neuroscience at University of Queensland. What do you think? Are bees smart?

Bees are really good at being honeybees. Each bee does her job in response to her environment. When a bee [is born and] emerges from her cell, she will begin cleaning out dirty cells within few hours. She will have lots of jobs inside the hive like caring for the young, grooming the queen, and guarding the hive. When she’s reached a certain age, she becomes a forager. This is a really hard job. She needs to find flowers, gather nectar and pollen, and fly home. Then she has to tell her sisters how many flowers [she has located] and how to find them. Sounds simple, but bees are only about an inch long and can find flowers as far away as two miles! That is a tremendously long way to go for such a tiny bug.

Bees use both visual clues (using their eyes) and olfactory cues (smells) to find both flowers and then find home. I have three hives right next to each other and bees don’t go in the wrong one. They know that their home has its own smell that they can follow.

It doesn’t surprise me that bees can count. They use all sorts of clues to find home and to find food. They use the orientation of the sun, they can tell elapsed time (how long they’ve been gone), and they can even use the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate. Pretty amazing for a creature smaller than my thumb!

Humans have been using bees for a long time. We love their honey and their wax has special properties as well as a great smell!

I just read an article where bees are being employed in a new way: finding landmines! Just as in the University of Queensland study, scientists have trained bees to associate food (in both cases, sugar water) with other cues. In the Queensland study, they used landmarks. In the military case, they used chemical smells found in land mines. So bees can fly over a field and will hover over areas where a land mine is located.
Michele, that is just fascinating! Honeybees are truly amazing.

Join us next week as we continue our celebration of National Pollinator Week with a discussion with Michele about honeybees and colony collapse disorder (read the next part of this interview here).


If you liked this post, check out:

Meet a beekeeper! Part 1

Meet a beekeeper! Part 3: Colony Collapse Disorder

Meet a beekeeper! Part 4: Learning to keep bees

National Pollinator Week 2009

Photo credits: Michele Bennett Decoteau (top two photographs); bottom photograph: cygnus921, through a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license


[10/2/09: Updated to include links to complete interview.]

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sorry for the delay ...

We lost access to the internet for nearly 24 hours yesterday. I hope to be back up & posting soon!

Photo credit:

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Meet a beekeeper!

In honor of National Pollinator Week, let's meet a beekeeper!

Welcome to Mama Joules! Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Michele Bennett Decoteau and I am a beekeeper. I’m still a "newbee", having only had bees for about 14 months. I love beekeeping because I can learn new things all the time about bees, plants, science, history, carpentry, and business. I also love the smell of beeswax and honey.

The bee with the green dot is the queen.Michele says, "I name my queen bees and the bee with the green spot is Hope. Beekeepers use a standard color marking on queens - those born in years ending with 7 are yellow, years ending in 8 are red, years ending with 9 are green. Hope was born this year so her spot is green."

I love how much insects can tell us about our environment. As a citizen scientist, I’ve helped catalog the different species of butterflies and dragonflies in Massachusetts and Connecticut as well as participated in Firefly Watch. I am going to participate in a pollinator project next year to see which types of bees come to sunflowers across the United States.

I love bugs so much I used to work at a company called Bugman Educational Entoprises. I got to show kids and adults all sorts of cool bugs from millipedes to scorpions to preying mantids.

What's the difference between a honeybee and a bumblebee? What kind(s) of bees do you keep?
Honeybees and bumblebees are two of many bees found in the U.S. There are many native bees that range from tiny, metallic sweat bees to large, furry carpenter bees. Most bees are female. Male bees generally have one job – to mate with a female bee then die.

I keep honeybees. More specifically, I keep European or Italian Honeybees. Honeybees store honey to give them food to make it through the winter or other times without flowers. Bumblebees also make honey but they only store small amounts. They only need small amounts because only a few bumbles live through the winter – usually one or two fertilized females. Honeybees on the other hand, will have hundreds of bees that over winter with a single egg-laying queen.

Both are pollinators. Honeybees pollinate about 1 bite out of every 3 bites of food you eat. Bumblebees pollinate about 1 bite out of 9 bites of food.

Thanks so much for joining us, Michele! To learn more about Michele and her experiences as a beekeeper, please visit her blog, Blue Hive Journals. We'll continue our interview next time as we explore bee intelligence (read the next part of this interview here).


If you liked this post, check out:

Meet a beekeeper! Part 2: The intelligence of bees

Meet a beekeeper! Part 3: Colony Collapse Disorder

Meet a beekeeper! Part 4: Learning to keep bees

National Pollinator Week 2009

Photo credits: Michele Bennett Decoteau

[10/3/09: Updated to include links to the remainder of the interview.]

Monday, June 22, 2009

National Pollinator Week 2009

When I learned that June 22-28, 2009 was National Pollinator Week, I immediately thought of the plight of the honeybees (see clip below) and the beauty of butterflies. But hummingbirds, bumblebees, bats, ants, beetles, and even lemurs and skinks can also pollinate flowers. When they go from flower to flower, these critters transfer pollen. This fertilizes the plants and allows them to reproduce successfully.

The U.S. Forest Service Botany Program reports that every third bite of food you eat is possible because of a pollinator. "Pollinators play a key role in the production of more than 150 food crops in the U.S., such as apples, alfalfa, almonds, blueberries, cranberries, kiwis, melons, pears, plums, and squash," according to material provided by The Pollinator Partnership.

So, the next time you see a bumblebee visiting your vegetable garden, or a honeybee buzzing in your flowers, don't be afraid. Just admire them from a distance and let them continue to do their important job.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The intelligence of animals

Yesterday, reporter Jacques Kelly ran a story in The Baltimore Sun with this opener: "It took just 10 minutes for a dozen prairie dogs to outwit the creators of the Maryland Zoo's new $500,000 habitat." What can I say? I found myself rooting for the prairie dogs.

Zoos and other controlled habitats provide an interesting opportunity to watch human and animal intelligence pitted against each other. Animal escapes aren't rare, as shown by articles like "The Great Animal Escapes of 2009" in The Huffington Post. Unfortunately, wise animals seldom fare well in these situations.

Years ago, I heard a story from a reliable source about American bison at a state park. Apparently, when these animals were introduced, there was one wily fellow who taught the others how to step over the cow grate and escape. After several escapes, this particular bison was put to sleep. Later, upon visiting the park, we were offered buffalo meat. I always wondered if it came from this particular bison.

Conserving habitat is a tricky science. Nature has a way of adapting to situations that are outside of our plans. How we adapt to those changes is just as important as our intended goals.

Photo credit: Claire Dobert, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Monday, June 15, 2009

Professor Stephen Hawking and his friend George

Recently, Kerm and I went to the library and checked out George’s Secret Key to the Universe, written by Lucy & Stephen Hawking (with Christophe Galfard). Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist, is known for expanding our knowledge of astronomy despite suffering from ALS (a neurologic disease).

Hawking is one of my favorite scientists. I am in awe of the fact that his mind soars among the heavens despite having extremely severe physical limitations. Hawking writes on his website that at one point, he communicated by "spell[ing] out words letter by letter, by raising [his] eyebrows when someone pointed to the right letter on a spelling card." Fortunately, personal computing came to his rescue and we are all richer for the experience.

Hawking has written several books for adults, including A Brief History of Time, which, according to the BBC, sold more than nine million copies. Lucy Hawking is Stephen's daughter so I was curious about the book. Since Kerm likes astronomy, I thought he would like it.

A few days later, after seeing George’s Secret Key to the Universe open on Kerm's bed, I asked him what the book was about.

“It’s about the universe and the world’s most amazing computer called Cosmos,” said Kerm. “Cosmos can make ‘portal doorways’ so his owner Eric can go through these doorways and go anywhere in outer space.” Portal doorways aren’t real, Kerm told me. “They aren’t the same as black holes. [Portal doorways] actually bring you from your house into outer space.”

What is a black hole? As defined by Lucy and Stephen Hawking in their book, “To make a black hole you need to squash a very large amount of matter into a very small space.” The resulting gravitational pull is so strong that nothing can escape, not even light. And the more matter and light that enter a black hole, the larger it gets.

Here’s what Kerm learned about black holes. “A black hole is a giant place in space where everything gets sucked inside. It [occurs when] an exploding star ... got too big and exploded into a big area in space [while the center of the star got pushed in]. Anything can be sucked [into a black hole], even light. And light [travels at] the fastest speed in the universe that we know.” Kerm also learned that scientists now believe “that it’s possible to get out of a black hole.”

It’s hard for me to imagine this, but the Hawkings wrote that, “Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, has at its center a black hole several million times the mass of our Sun.” Can you imagine that? It’s like there's an invisible gigantic vacuum cleaner slurping stuff up at the center of our universe.

Kids that are interested in science and science fiction would like this book, according to Kerm. “It is a very cool book ... My favorite character was George because he was the main character and he was a hero."

You can visit George's website to take a quiz about astronomy, check out these facts and photos about outer space, and enter this competition to win a hardback copy of the sequel, George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt!

Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al.;
Submillimeter: MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al.; Optical: ESO/WFI

Monday, June 8, 2009

World Oceans Day (Part 2)

Today marks the first official World Oceans Day, as designated by the United Nations. According to the UN website, the Empire State Building will be lit in blue today to celebrate! (How cool is that? The Empire State Building even has its own lighting schedule!) This annual event was started as a result of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992; many countries have been celebrating ever since.

According to the UN, this year's theme is "Our Oceans, Our Responsibility."

Check out World Oceans Day (Part 1) to learn more!

Photo credits: Mike DelGaudio (top) and David Sifry (bottom), through a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Friday, June 5, 2009

National Doughnut Day!

June 5th is National Doughnut Day here in the United States. Krispy Kreme® and Dunkin' Donuts® are both offering free doughnuts today! Check this list of participating Krispy Kreme® stores (this is a .pdf file) or type in your zip code to find a Dunkin' Donuts® near you. (Don't delay! I read on Twitter that some places are already closing their doors because they've run out of doughnuts.)

Check this out! If this doesn't make you long for a hot jelly-filled doughnut, nothing will. This does start a bit slow, though, so I'd recommend viewing from 0:37 on. Enjoy!

The ABC's of Skin Cancer

Things are heating up here in the northern hemisphere, so I wanted to remind everyone to take a moment and check over your skin and that of your loved ones. It could save a life!

When you are examining a mole, remember your ABC's:

A - asymmetry. If you divided the mole in half, does each side look different?

B - border. Does the mole have a ragged or irregular border?

C - color. Is the mole one color in one spot and a different color someplace else?

D - diameter. Is the mole larger than the end of a pencil eraser?

E - evolving. Is the mole changing over time?

And I would add this letter to the mix:

F - funky. Is the mole unusual-looking?

If you've answered yes to any of these questions, it's better to be safe than sorry and have the mole checked out by a dermatologist. Stay safe this summer and remember to use your sun-block! The American Academy of Dermatology reminds us to Play Sun Smart(SM).

Photo credit: C. E. Price, through

Monday, June 1, 2009

World Oceans Day (Part 1)

On June 8, celebrate World Oceans Day! This year's theme is "one ocean, one climate, one future." Celebrate your connection to the sea with a trip to the beach, a visit to an aquarium, or a meal of sustainable seafood (using the Environmental Defense Fund's handy-dandy Seafood Selector). Visit The Ocean Project for other great celebration ideas, like Wear Blue and Tell Two -- wear blue clothing to celebrate and tell your friends two facts about the world's oceans. It's up to us to protect them.

Check out World Oceans Day (Part 2) to learn more!