Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

For the Love of Bees: Pollinators in a Connected World

For the Love of Bees: Pollinators in a Connected World

Aired May 2, 2023

Ashley Peery:

Hey everyone, I'm Ashley Peery and I'm an educator at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. I'm a Caucasian woman wearing a purple shirt, and in my background is a wall with some framed images as well as an image of a large pink flower. On your screen, you see an image of a honeybee along with a parasitic Varroa mite, as well as the date, time, and title of today's program. Today's webinar is For the Love of Bees: Pollinators in a Connected World. So today's program is part of a series called "Shared Planet, Shared Health." This is a monthly series that we do that explores the connections between the health of humans, the health of animals, and the health of the environment, which is also known as One Health. And whether this is your first time joining us or you've attended a natural history webinar before, I'm so glad that you're here.

And before we dig into the program, I do have a few housekeeping notes. So first, this discussion does offer closed captioning. You can turn closed captions on or off using the CC button, which should be located at the bottom of your Zoom interface. Second, as you think of questions, go ahead and drop those into the Q and A box. We will take your questions later in today's program and the time for questions always goes really quickly. So as you think of questions, go ahead and pop them into the Q and A. The Q and A box is also where the Smithsonian team is going to be sharing relevant links with you during the program. So keep an eye out there and you'll see a few things come through during today's show. So lastly, we just have a note about format. So we're going to start with a presentation by our speaker, Dr. Sammy Ramsey. And after Sammy concludes, I'm going to join Sammy on screen to take your questions. So let's go ahead and introduce today's speaker.

Dr. Ramsey received his BS in entomology from Cornell University and a Ph.D. also in entomology from the University of Maryland College Park. He completed his postdoctoral training at the USDA ARS Bee Research Lab, and Sammy now serves as an endowed professor of entomology at University Colorado Boulder's BioFrontiers Institute, and the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department. Dr. Sammy has been featured on numerous media outlets, including the Washington Post, NPR, CNN, Wired, CBS this morning, Khan Academy, Seeker, the Today Show, and also on a Hulu docu-series, "Your Attention Please." Dr. Ramsey also founded the Ramsey Research Foundation, which works to increase access to science by developing novel pathways for scientific funding and by removing paywalls that prevent the public from engaging with published scientific work. Welcome, Sammy.

Samuel Ramsey:

I am super glad to be here and thank you for that wonderful introduction. So it seems like there isn't much for me to say about myself that you haven't already heard. So aside from what Ashley has already said, I'm Dr. Sammy, your friendly neighborhood entomologist, and today we are going to talk about pollinators. And I really want to get up close and personal with them because I'm sure that you've already heard a fair amount about pollinators. Some of you may be aware that pollinators aren't doing great. Some of you may be aware that pollinators are very important for global food security, but let's really dig down into what's happening with them. And my hope is that when you leave this webinar today, you will have some really cool water cooler facts to tell your friends at work, but you'll also have a deeper, more integrated knowledge of how pollinators work and what kind of help they actually need from us.

So let's start with the bad news and work our way towards the good news. Honeybees and pollinators in general have not been doing great. There has been this global pollinator health decline that we have seen across so many species, and the ones that we have focused on the most closely have been the honeybees, which is not surprising because they are so interconnected with our economy and provide so much money and ecosystem services that we have really attached to these little guys. But populations have been seeing a decline in their health that has been really problematic for them. Now, their numbers don't always decline with their health declining because the way that we survey for honeybees to main, to understand how many of them are present in the US, we tend to do those surveys after the winter. And so we can tell that we have lost a certain number of colonies, but then what beekeepers do after the winter is they split those colonies in half.

And so the numbers look stable even though the bees are dying at a much higher rate than they used to. And eventually, they will reach a point where we cannot recoup our losses by splitting colonies in half. And we are moving in that direction, which is really, really concerning. Now, this decline has been observed across multiple species, and it is something that we have to pay attention to. And when people talk about what's killing the bees, the thing that they tend to hear the most about is pesticides. Normally, the conversation centers on this one element of a very interconnected set of issues that they are all dealing with. Honeybees are dealing with poor nutrition, habitat destruction, human conflict, climate change, pathogens, and parasites in addition to pesticides. But you might think with the amount that you've heard about pesticides, that that is the biggest threat that they face, and that's not actually what's born out by the data.

The data say that these parasites are causing dramatic issues for the bees and that one of these parasites even seems to be impacting their vulnerability to the pesticides themselves. So why exactly are parasites such a big deal? Well, I want you to consider for a moment that there are quite a few of them. On the right side of your screen with the gray bullet points, you'll see that there are nine species of honeybees, just nine described species. But then when we look into the parasites that live with them and generally the organisms that exist inside of these colonies, we've got quite a few from the wax moths, the fungus beetles, histerid beetles, the small hive beetles, the bee lice, the giant bee lice, as well as the small bee lice. We've got Varroa mites, Euvarroa mites, Tropilaelaps mites, pollen mites, Suidasia mites, Leptus mites, predatory mites.

There are even other species of bees that'll try to make their way into honeybee colonies. There's a lot going on, and I think one of the biggest questions here is why is there so much going on. Why are there so many parasites, so many organisms trying to make their way into honeybee colonies? Well, I think that requires you to understand what is so great about honeybee nests, honeybee colonies. And some of you are probably aware that a bee nest is one of the best places ever to live. You may not know it yet, but you want to live inside of a honeybees hive because these nests are truly the perfect home. They are perfectly climate and humidity controlled every moment of every day. The bees are actually working really hard on very hot days to make sure that the temperature doesn't get too high because all of their babies are in there.

And so they've created a system of air conditioning where they will fly to a source of water. All of you who have pools, and you have a neighbor who has bees, and you're like, "Why are your bees so thirsty all the time? They're always drinking from my pool." They're not thirsty. On really hot days, they are collecting water, but they're not drinking it. It's actually being kept in a little pouch in their throat called a honey stomach. They fly it back to the colony, deposit it on top of the frames in the colony, and then fan their wings, and it creates this evaporative cooling effect that actually cools the colony. So they have created a system of air conditioning to keep their babies nice and cool when it's too hot. They can also warm up the colony by vibrating their flight muscles when it's too cold.

They are great at keeping the humidity at just the right place, but there's also always a great source of food. Honey is an incredible food source because it does not spoil. There are very few options on this planet where you can grab a food source, store it in huge amounts, and it will not spoil. There has been honey found in ancient tombs from Ancient Egypt that was still edible when it was found, and that's because the sugar concentration is so high that bacteria and fungi and other things just simply cannot grow in it and corrupt its nutritive content. So they've got a great source of food, wonderful temperature, perfect humidity. And then in addition to all of that, if you're not down for sugar, because that's pretty much all that's in honey, these larvae and pupae that you see on screen, they are a great source of all of the other nutrients that an organism could possibly need.

All the fats and proteins, all of the carbohydrates, all the complexities of a nutritive system are present inside of that colony. So you would expect that a lot of creatures are trying to get in, but it's not easy to get in there because these bees will defend that colony with their lives. But ever so often, a creature will figure out how to get inside and trick the landlord, trick the honey bees themselves into believing that they were always supposed to be there. And that's when things really get interesting. These creatures are able to become parasites within this colony and they can just freeload off of all of these wonderful resources, and it allows them to have almost these perfect lives where they're pampered and protected. So everything wants to get into these colonies, and that is how the pollinator pandemic that we are in the middle of right now got started.

A lot of people don't even know that there is a pandemic in pollinators that has happened right alongside the pandemic in humans. And even the word pandemic is one that we, many of us have just grown accustomed to over the last three years. But the European honeybee that you see on the side of your screen has been accosted by this parasitic mite called Varroa destructor. Just like COVID-19, the Varroa mite jumped to a naive species of bee. It was originally a parasite of another type of bee that, a bee that was able to actually regulate and manage these parasites. And when they jumped species, they ended up with our bees, the European honey bees that just don't have much of a capacity to manage parasites very well. And as a result of that, these creatures have been able to spread around the world and these kinds of host shifts are happening more and more frequently.

What you see here, Varroa destructor, this allows you to really get an up close and personal look at these parasites. They are the agent of primary concern in the trend of honeybee losses that we have seen consistently over the last several decade, well, several, the last, several years in the last couple of decades. This invasive species was actually found for the first time in the US in 1987, and they actually came from Southeast Asia. Now when they arrived within 10 years of their arrival, they had wiped out nearly all of the wild honeybee colonies. More than 99% of our wild honeybee colonies were wiped out by this one parasite in just 10 years. That should give you a very clear indication of the type of dramatic concern that we are dealing with in just this organism. It's from Southeast Asia, so it was first discovered in 1904 in Indonesia, and it was localized to just this tropical region of the world, so you could only find it really in the Malay Archipelago, Thailand, Burma.

And then it started moving out of those areas after it moved to a new host. The European honeybee is the only honeybee that's distributed around the world. And so it was a really smart move on behalf of that parasite to jump onto the European honeybee because now that parasite is present everywhere that the honeybees are or that the European honeybee is present. And one of the things that makes it so remarkably successful is that it takes only one to start a new population. They don't reproduce asexually as you might be thinking now, but when they emerge out of this tiny little cell where they have been developing, inside of those honeybee colonies, they're these little brood cells where the honeybees raise their developing young. And when the mites get into that cell, they feed on the developing bee that's totally defenseless. They lay eggs and they reproduce and eventually turn into adults.

They mate inside of that cell. So the moment that they emerge, they are already ready to start a new population. Every single one of those female mites that walks out of a cell, if it's transported to a new location, it can start a new population of mites. Just like what happened on Reunion Island just a few years ago, this was one of the few regions of the world where there were no Varroa mites, just a tiny little area of the world where you could raise bees and not have to deal with this parasite. And we think a very small number, potentially even one of them was introduced. And as a result of that, they spread all over the island in less than half a year, they were present in most of the colonies on the island. That is the power of a parasite that has figured out how to get around the normal defenses that would keep it out from its host.

So these parasites are really special. They're special because they've found a way to get into the colonies of pollinators, and these pollinators tend to be really good at normally keeping these organisms out. But now that they've gotten inside, what happens from this point forward is that they get a new title. They are now called melittophiles that comes from the Greek word "meli," meaning honey, and "phile," meaning lover of. And so these creatures, the honey lovers or the honey bee lovers are a special group of organisms that have developed such a close association with the honey bees themselves that they've basically taken over. And we need to know more about these melittophiles because very little is known about them. And if we want our pollinators to be healthier, we absolutely have to understand how these creatures of great concern get inside of the colonies and basically trick the landlord into believing that they should be there all alone without ever paying rent.

They are the causative agents of all of our pollinator pandemics, and it's our lack of knowledge about them that has a really substantial cost to us. See, we are, my group, so the Ramsey Research Foundation and my lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, we have a mandate in place. We want to make sure that we can compile a list of all of these different melittophiles. We're calling them the melitto-files. Sorry, I really like puns. But these organisms, these melittophiles as we would have it, are absolutely the sorts of creatures that we have to pay closer attention to. And if you just hold on one moment, I'm going to shut my window.

Ashley Peery:

Dr. Sammy is dealing with some background noise, so he is going to close his window and he'll be right back on screen.

Samuel Ramsey:

Sorry, lawnmower outside was driving me crazy. Okay, so our goal is to make sure that as we research these organisms, we can compile all of the information germane to understanding how these creatures impact their host, how they are killing our honeybees, and how they have made it inside of these colonies, to begin with. Because if we could teach our pollinators to recognize what should be in their colonies and what shouldn't be in their colonies, we can actually manage one of the biggest threats that they deal with, the biggest threat that is driving their losses currently. Now, this data, as you've heard, the Ramsey Research Foundation, my nonprofit works to make sure that access to science is something that's not just available to people with a lot of money. It's not just available to scientists themselves. We think that the general public should be able to understand all of this work that's occurring.

And so we make all of our work available, open access. You don't have to go through a paywall to access any of this data, and we will make it available around the world. Now, these melittophiles, as you would have it, in order for us to actually compile all of this information, it's going to require a fair amount of travel because the region of the world where there is the greatest number of parasites, and generally melittophiles is the region of the world with the greatest diversity in honeybees. And where would that be? Well, it's actually Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is the only area of the world where every single species of honeybee is present. And because of that, the parasite diversity is out of control. There's just so many of them and they're really, really, really interesting creatures, and many of them are also present in other areas of Asia as well.

But Southeast Asia is the real, the place where we're going to concentrate a lot of our attention. And so these are some of the locations that we are looking to go to in the next three years. We have already started this work. It's going to be a five-year initiative to get to all of these locations. When we get to those locations, the work isn't over. And you may have seen the picture at the very start, the very beginning of my slides, and it's this image of me with these really concentrated, weird-looking spectacles on, I'm looking through the frames with my students, with my postdocs, now with the people from my lab. We're looking through the different sections of the honeybee colony. We're looking at all of the different organisms that could potentially cause disease or some of the creatures that have a mutualistic relationship with the bees themselves, some of the creatures that are actually helping the bees be healthier.

And we're trying to learn as much as we possibly can about them to make sure that we can have the healthiest be as possible and that we are ready to counteract any new pollinator pandemics that show up. If you can imagine for a moment, the pandemic that we have all been through together, it would've been a lot easier to manage if we had been studying the causative agent of this issue before it actually arrived on our shores, before it became a huge problem. But there is a tendency to think that when a pathogen or a disease or an issue is in one area of the world, that it's those people's problem. But we no longer live in a system where we have localized ecosystems, the African ecosystem, the Asian ecosystem, the North American ecosystem, because of all of the international travel, because of consistent movement of people and products and plants and animals, we now have a global ecosystem.

And as a result of that, something that shows up as a problem in one area is likely to be a problem for the rest of the world. And so it is unwise to think of it as something that is their problem. Even if you want to go from a purely selfish point of view, helping other people with their issues is rewarding in that way. It's also rewarding because it's just, well, it's the right thing to do. I can't prove that as a scientist, but I feel it. Okay, so a lot of the work that we are doing in this process involves us going through the frames because this is the area where you'll find the greatest number of parasites. So what I'm doing here is I'm actually removing the juvenile form, or which is called brood, the young honeybees, and looking at the parasites there, and you can actually see, let me back that up.

You can actually see that tan-looking parasitic mite on the pearlescent body of the brood itself. And when I remove the brood from the cell, my hand's a little shaky because I'm also holding a light at the same time. This is before I got my fancy headlamp going. But we remove these larvae, we check their health, we actually document how many parasites are found in each cell. This is all from a single cell, if you can believe it, two different species of parasites, and they're young inside of these cells. A lot of this information had to also be written in Thai. And so I've been flexing some muscles here because when this project first started, we focused on Thailand, a region of the world that has half, just that small region of the world has half the existing honeybee species, more than half of the existing honeybee species.

We collect all of these samples and are able to identify through full genome sequencing, new viruses and bacteria that these creatures have with them, and new species of parasites that have yet to be documented by science. Now, I was originally focusing all of this work in just one region of the world, and a lot has changed in that time. National Geographic has become a partner, and because of that, I no longer have to just focus on Thailand. But Thailand was a really great start because I was able to find quite a few really helpful people there who were eager, I mean, you can see them smiling here. We have 60 colonies to move all in one day, and all I could talk about was how are we going to move all of these colonies in a single day. It just doesn't seem like it's possible.

How's it going to happen? And they showed up with this counterbalance that they cobbled together overnight, and it was the coolest thing that I'd ever seen in my life. I just felt really blessed to have such a cool team of people who were excited about protecting bee health and wanted to make sure that they could do everything they could to ensure [inaudible 00:23:48] happy. And the part of it that was really interesting was that some of them knew me before I got there. Something that people told me pretty frequently was because you want to work in these rural areas of Thailand, it can be very difficult to converse with people. Not a lot of people speak English in those rural areas. And what was funny, someone said this to my advisor while I was still a graduate student and he sent them this video, which made everybody laugh a bit, but this is a video of me.

(Singing and music in English and Thai)

It's my jam right there. Look, so oddly enough, I had some free time. There was a point in my graduate career where I was actually transitioning between labs and just felt like I need to do something with this time in between and decided I kind of want to learn another language and I want to learn a tonal language because there's something about tones. They just sound really pretty and I like to sing. And tones just feel like even when you're speaking a language that you're singing a song. And so I started learning Thai, having no idea that it would ever become useful in any context. And later on, after joining a new lab, years later, I, or two years later, had the opportunity to actually go to Thailand and start working with people there. And because I was posting these videos online while I was learning Thai, some of them knew who I was already.

My moniker was Black Thai, and I find that hilarious now looking back years later, but that's allowed me to conduct a lot of work in Southeast Asia and get quite a few things done that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise. So while I'm out there testing new forms of treating these parasites, new ways of keeping our bees healthy, this is one system that's very cost-effective where you soak pieces of wood in an organic acid, the acid aerosolizes, the bees get really cranky and start leaving, but it actually penetrates that area of the colony where the brood is and can actually kill the different parasites that are there. And we found that it was very effective and we're really excited because it is so cost-effective that it won't just be something that people with a lot of money are able to afford and even heat. What we have here are commercially available heating pads that heat the colony to 160 degrees for 160 minutes and is actually capable of killing parasites not quite as effectively as the liquid formic acid that I showed you earlier, but still pretty effectively.

So while I'm working on that kind of stuff, I'm also keeping in mind that we focus pretty heavily on the honeybees, the nine species of honeybees, Apis mellifera, cerana, nuluensis, koschevnikovi, nigrocincta, dorsata, laboriosa, florea, and andreniformis and most of the time we focus on just the European honeybee because that's the one that's distributed around the world and contributes more than 200 million to the economies around the world. But there are other bees, many, many, many other bees. In just North America, we have 4,000 other bee species, and we can't continue to only focus on Apis mellifera because what about the rest of our pollinator crew? They are understaffed and underappreciated and we've got to do something about that. Consider for a moment, and maybe part of the reason why people don't pay a lot of attention to these other bees is because they tend to be fairly anonymous.

Apis mellifera, they're conspicuous. There are 20 to 60,000 individuals in a single colony. They're all flying around. They're a pretty hard-to-miss element of the ecosystem, but some of these other bees are hiding underground, covering their entire little home and leaves so that you can't see them. They are the humble-bees, as I call them, the humble-bees of our ecosystems. But maybe if you get a chance to just look at a few of them, see them up close and personal, you'll connect with them the way that I have because this Megachile had, the pale leaf cutting bee is just, I mean, just adorable. The little plume of hair right on its forehead is just, it's so cute. I can't deal. The golden sweat bee that you see here, that bright green with flashes of gold embedded in all the different areas of it, that metallic look to it is absolutely incredible.

And they're so small, they're really, really, really tiny and easy to miss. So we really have to thank Sam Droege and the USGS for making all of these images available so that we can see these really small bees. This one's the ligated furrow bee, and I show you this one because they have this adorable way of collecting pollen. They jump into a flower that has a bunch of anthers, the part of it that bears the pollen and they just swim through the anthers, just not like a backstroke, but they're just going for it through all of these anthers and all the pollen just get stuck to them, and then they comb it around and squeeze it down and bring it back so that they can feed their young. They're super fuzzy ones. I mean, this one is, it's just, it's so fuzzy, that just the unbelievable fuzziness of this bee.

This is type of flower bee. It is also a leaf cutter, a type of sunflower bee, but it is also a leaf cutter. And check this one out, just when you thought they couldn't get fuzzier. Look at the fluffy little leg warmers that we've got going here. The bees that exist in our ecosystem, they are incredible at sort of the upkeep of what keeps an ecosystem healthy. All of these plants that you see growing, many of them, many of them have a close association with bees for which they would not be able to produce the fruit and vegetables and things that feed many organisms that aren't just humans. But we tend to give the vast majority of our attention to the honey bees, and there are reasons for that. The proportional attention kind of sidelines the humble-bees, but it's because, oh, I said million earlier, billion, $216 billion of our worldwide economy is based on what honeybees provide, primarily their pollination services.

By pollinating more than two-thirds of the global crop commodities, the foods that maintain global food security, these creatures have become the third most valuable cattle worldwide, which is really, really, really remarkable that we even, a lot of people don't even think of bees as cattle, but they're important the same way that pigs and cows and chickens are. So what can you do to help the bees? Well, actually you can do plenty. Consider if you want to help the honey bees themselves, you can do a lot more harm than good by just deciding I'm going to be a beekeeper. I hear a lot of people say all the time, "I want to help the honey bees, I'm going to be a beekeeper." Great, awesome. Maybe not because if you choose to just be a beekeeper and you don't pay attention to the health of your bees, you are creating a problem for all the bees, not just the honeybee species.

We have one species of honeybee distributed around the rest of the world, just one honeybee species. And that honeybee species, because its colonies are so large and it's so broadly distributed everywhere, its health is connected to the health of the thousands of other pollinators out there. The 20,000 other bee species out there are connected to the health of that one species of honeybee. When they are doing well, a lot of the other pollinators are able to do well in addition to that. But when they are doing poorly, there are ways that they can drag the rest of the pollinators down with them. When bees are sick when they have viruses and bacteria that are making them really sick when they land on a flower and they feed from that flower, oftentimes they also defecate and some of the viruses and bacteria that have made them sick get into the nectar of that flower such that when another bee comes in visits, it can also become sick.

Now, one of the concerns that we have is that when honeybees become sick, there are potentially 20 to 60,000 other individuals inside of that colony that can take on the work that they no longer can, but most of the rest of the bees are solitary. There are not that many species of social bees that do what the honey bees do. The vast majority of bees are solitary. They live by themselves. They're single mothers working to raise an entire family. And if they don't come back, if they're not able to work, if they're not able to feed their family, their entire line dies out. All of those babies that they were rearing underground or in a reed from a plant, all of them can't make it.

So if you truly want to help the bees and you don't have time to actually tend to a colony of honeybees, it's better for you not to become a beekeeper because if you allow those honeybees to become sick, if you allow the populations of Varroa mites inside of that colony to take over and transmit all kinds of viruses to those bees, you are impacting the rest of the ecosystem. If you really want to help be a good beekeeper, that's what we need in this world. The majority of beekeepers who have responded to the Bee Informed partnerships survey as they have had the opportunity to really take a look at what are the typical practices within beekeeping.

And what we've found is that a lot of backyard beekeepers, a lot of people with just a few colonies that they're maintaining on their property, a lot of people aren't actually treating for the Varroa mites. So you can see here that, ooh, close to half of the beekeepers, close to half these individuals keeping bees aren't doing anything to reduce the size of the Varroa mites in the colony, the size of the population of Varroa mites in the colony. And when those population numbers climb and go out of control, it affects everything around.

And so it's very important that people actually treat. We need to get these numbers down, and part of that is through education and letting people know how bad these parasites that you see right here, just overtaking this honeybee. It's got four parasites on its body all at once. We have to make sure that people understand that this is cattle. And the same way that you wouldn't allow mangy cattle to roam free in a field, you shouldn't allow your bees to just be overwhelmed and overtaken by these parasitic mites that are liquefying the liver of your bees and sucking it out of their bodies because that's what's happening. It's crazy.

Other things that you can do, when you see a pollinator let it be. I mean, come on guys, I understand that a lot of people have seen these large carpenter bees that are drilling holes into the wood of colonies and, er wood of colonies, into the wood of oftentimes the deck that people have outside of their homes. I don't want you to think of these guys like they're termites. They don't want to damage the actual structure of the wood itself because their babies are living in there and if the wood were to collapse, everything that they've worked for has been lost. So actually the way that they actually drill into the wood, they are very cognizant of the structural integrity of it. They're not going to corrupt the structural integrity of it. They're just here to do their thing. I think they're really cool.

I understand that I'm not going to convince everyone to leave them alone, but if you have to do something, please like don't buy these bee traps that trap like dozens if not hundreds of carpenter bees and just let them sit there and die and starve and rot. It's a horrible, horrible thing to do. If you really feel like you have to get rid of them, then you can paint over that wood. Unfortunately, their babies will be sealed inside and stuck. They won't be able to get out, but the be itself will be able to fly off and start a new family somewhere else. But these bee traps are not the way to go. Just let them be. There will be an answer. There is an answer. Let them be and give a bee a home. Foxes have holes and birds have nests, a very wise man once said that. Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but not a lot of people are housing a homeless bee.

But you can be one of those people. I have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, I have six bee hotels right outside of my window that I'm looking at right now. And each one of them can house dozens, sometimes hundreds of bees. And your ability to keep all of these native bees happy and healthy, give them a home, it allows them to not be as stressed out as they would be otherwise, when they're not as stressed, they're not as vulnerable to viruses and disease. You can have a quite dramatic impact on the population, the ecosystem around you by housing homeless bees. And it can be a really rewarding experience because some of these houses even allow you to look at the work that's going on inside of them. You can open it up. There's a little pane of transparent plastic that can show you the bees going in and out and feeding their offspring, and it's quite a remarkable system.

And then you can support pollinator research. There will be a link being put into the chat that can direct you to the Ramsey Research Foundation's donate page. If you want to support the research that we are doing around the world and the research that other researchers are doing around the world, oftentimes a huge limiting factor in the type of pollinator research that can be done is how much funding different individuals have and you can actually invest in and become a part of the system of keeping our pollinators safe. You can also support by watching our documentaries. This is a documentary through PBS Nature that I was a part of.

Speaker 3:

Discovering the secret life of bees took me on a journey I was not expecting.

Samuel Ramsey:

It's called "My Garden of a Thousand Bees." You can access it for free on PBS Nature and show your entire family and it'll help you get really excited about all the ways that you can support an entire ecosystem of pollinators right in your own backyard. So what can you do? Quite a lot! And I am excited for the opportunity to inform you guys of what you can do and get you excited about how you can join and help us save the pollinators. So if there are any questions, I would love to answer them. I am here for it. Let me know what's on your mind. It looks like we've got a lot going on in the Q and A.

Ashley Peery:

We do. Thank you so much for that presentation. I learned so many things, but as you've noted, there are quite a lot of questions that have come in. So let's dig in if you're ready.

Samuel Ramsey:

Oh, I'm here for it.

Ashley Peery:

Perfect. Our first question comes from Karen. Karen says "I'm a licensed veterinarian working on my certification in veterinary bee medicine. Any advice and assistance is appreciated. I am also a candidate for my MPH with a focus on One Health transboundary zoonosis and population health." Wow, I want to be Karen when I grow up.

Samuel Ramsey:

Right? So first of all, Karen, that is awesome. That seems like the kind of thing that you have to go into out of a passion to be a part of it, not because you were sort of pushed in that direction. It really sounds like a great set of studies to embark on because there are a lot of interesting zoonotic diseases in this world that end up crossing over to people, but understanding them in the organisms that they originally existed in is so integral to understanding the impact that they have on the rest of the world. And as someone working in veterinary work in veterinary research, bees have become a part of that system fairly recently. For a long time, bees were kind of their own thing. Now they've been brought into the fold and if people want to get antibiotics for their bees, they have to go through a vet.

Well, it's important now that vets understand the health of bees, what impacts them, all of their stress factors. And that's an entirely new system for a lot of vets. The great thing is that there are things like the Bee Veterinary Consortium, a group that has spent a lot of time making sure that these vets who have never worked with bees before or never had to connect with bees as a part of their professional work, have the ability to be trained by beekeepers, by bee researchers, by individuals who know the ropes to help you identify disease and learn all about them. So if you want to look them up, I've done some work with them. I've even published an article about parasites with them. And so all of that I think will be a really great resource for you.

Ashley Peery:

Thanks for that. Ronan asks, "Was it determined how the Varroa mite arrived at Reunion Island in 2017? Do we know how it happened?"

Samuel Ramsey:

Oh, no. So Reunion Island is a small place and everybody knows everybody. There has been quite a bit of speculation as to exactly who brought those Varroa mites over because they appear to have been imported with a shipment of queens. And people have been told on numerous occasions by their bee inspector, "Don't import queens, just use the queen stock that we already have here. Because you could bring parasites." And sometimes people have the impression, "There are no parasites that go after queens, I'll be fine." But queens don't travel alone. They travel with attendants in those, and sometimes in containers, you'll have the queen and her attendants, and sometimes those attendants have some parasites that they can bring with them too. So it's very possible that in some queens that were imported from the mainland, that's how it got there.

Ashley Peery:

That was a great question, Ronan. Next we have a question from Elizabeth. Elizabeth asks, "What is your view on European honeybees and competition for floral resources with native bees in North America?"

Samuel Ramsey:

So I had to actually shorten my presentation and I would've actually, I wanted to make sure that there was plenty of time for questions, but I was really hoping that a question like this would come up because there was just this lengthy section of all the things that you could do to help the bees, and I couldn't talk about everything. One of the things that you can do is plant more floral resources. There doesn't have to be competition for floral resources if there is enough to go around. Now, yes, under context where there is not enough to go around, the bees are in heavy competition with each other and the colony that has 60,000 individuals is probably going to win out under some circumstances. But you also have to remember that honeybees are generalists.

And so while they are good at collecting, like fairly good at collecting nectar and pollen from a lot of different kinds of flowers, they're not able to be specialists like squash bees, which are incredible at pollinating squash where bees tend to flounder. There are a lot of flowers that have actually developed specifically to be pollinated by many of these solitary bees that I've talked about earlier. And so if you can make sure that you are planting flowers, even just one square foot of flowers in the property that you may have available to you, a little box that you have sitting outside of your window in your apartment, all of that can make it a lot better for the pollinators because they won't have to compete so much.

Ashley Peery:

Awesome. So our next question comes from Dominic. Dominic says, "I recently saw an article on how pseudo scorpions," which for folks who don't know are they're tiny little arachnoids. They got adorable little scorpion-like pinchers. Occasionally you'll find a pseudo-scorpion even in your own home. But he says he found an article about how pseudo scorpions living in hives ate Varroa mites.

Samuel Ramsey:

They did. It's really cool.

Ashley Peery:

So he says, "Do you have any knowledge of this and is there a way beekeepers can encourage this symbiotic relationship?"

Samuel Ramsey:

Yeah, I like the way you think. Every time I get to one of these big problems in entomology, I'm always thinking, how can we solve this in a fairly natural way? Is there a natural element to this system? Evolution is this weird balancing act that's constantly going on whereas swords get sharper, shields get thicker and all of that to say, when creatures are faced with a set of problems by biological organisms, they often develop a set of ways to defend themselves. And in some of these ecosystems, the balance is maintained by natural enemies. Natural enemies show up and they attack creatures. And when the population of natural enemies is large enough, then oftentimes the parasites can't get out of control. The big problem being the pseudo-scorpions inside of those colonies were able to consume Varroa mites that had fallen out of the main sections of the colony.

But the bees don't tolerate pseudo-scorpions walking around the areas where the brood is present, where there's like honey and pollen, like bees are very, very, very against letting new creatures into their colonies. And it takes a long time for organisms to figure out how to sneak their way in. So the Varroa mites are miles ahead. They figured out how to get into the colony and how to stay in the colony. The pseudo-scorpion doesn't have those kinds of privileges. Right now, no natural enemies that we know of have the sort of privileges that allow them to go after Varroa.

So Varroa is fully protected from the entire suite of natural enemies that normally would attack them because those pseudo-scorpions can't go into the brood cells with the baby bees and grab the mites and eat them. They can only eat the mites that naturally fall out of the colonies. They're only going to have access to a group of mites that has naturally fallen, mites that typically aren't very healthy, to begin with. And the impact on protecting the colony itself is fairly low unless we can find a way to make those pseudo-scorpions smell and behave like they should be in a honeybee colony, the way that a Varroa mite does.

Ashley Peery:

That was a really great question.

Samuel Ramsey:

Yeah, right?

Ashley Peery:

Yeah. So our next question comes from Lori. Lori asks, will a bee hotel or a bee house that she puts in her yard also attract wasps and hornets, which might sting her? Fair question.

Samuel Ramsey:

So wasps specifically, the sorts of wasps that I think you would be concerned about are social wasps, things like paper wasps, yellow jackets, and things that will nest in the ground or make those little umbrella-shaped colonies right outside of your door or hornets, which make even larger colonies. Those bee hotels will attract some wasps, but not the kinds of wasps that you would be concerned about, not the sorts of wasps that go after people. Most species of wasps are solitary and they're parasites. And so they try to find a caterpillar or a spider, they'll grab it, they'll sting it, and they'll lay an egg inside of it.

And then sometimes they'll take those paralyzed spiders and caterpillars into the little bee hotel that you have, and they'll try to raise their baby inside of one of those tubes. And that's okay. You are also housing some other organisms there. But remember that those wasps are also pollinators. They're solitary and they don't sting people. There are a few species that are capable of doing it and really, really, really don't want to, and you would have to grab one and crush it or something for you to even get stung, and they're simply not dangerous. So yes, there would be some wasps likely, but no, they are not the kinds that you need to be concerned about.

Ashley Peery:

And side note, if you do have one of those bee hotels, sometimes you can catch those solitary wasps in the act of flying that paralyzed caterpillar into the tube-

Samuel Ramsey:


Ashley Peery:

... and it's pretty cool to see.

Samuel Ramsey:

It's incredible to see.

Ashley Peery:

So our next question jumps back to evolution. Let's see. Sophie asks, how did the original host, Sophie says, of the parasite, I'm going to interpret that she means Varroa. How did the original host of Varroa deal with them before they were introduced to European bees?

Samuel Ramsey:

Once again, wonderful question. The original host of the parasitic mites is called Apis cerana. We refer to it as the Asiatic honeybee or the Eastern honeybee. They are very broadly distributed throughout much of Southeast, South, and East Asia, and they are incredible at controlling parasites. I have every honeybee species that I have had the pleasure to actually observe myself, and I've seen five of the nine species now up close and personal. They are absolutely incredible at controlling populations of parasites in their colonies. Now, part of it is because they have a lot of parasite suppression genes in their genetics. We can see substantial differences between them and Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, the one species that's distributed around the rest of the world. Why is there such a pronounced difference? Well, as I told you before, Southeast Asia is the region of the world with all the honeybee species, and we think of it as the cradle of civilization for honeybees. It's the region of the world where their common ancestor diversified into all of the different species of honeybees that we see today.

And because they all lived in this small corner of the world, there was a lot of competition and there was a lot of sharing of parasites. And so they all had to have a robust ability to manage parasites inside of their colonies. But one day, a very enterprising bee decided, "I'm tired of this. I want to see the worlds, and I can't constantly do that if all of these other bees are around and they're making everything so difficult." So this one species moved into Europe, it became the European honeybee. And because it moved into a region where there were no other honeybee species, it didn't have all the parasites that it had before, it didn't have all the competition that it had before. So it was able to lose a bunch of those parasite suppression genes. If you don't use them, you lose them.

That's just how evolution works. But then a lot of that energy that was dedicated to parasite suppression could then be dedicated to amassing huge amounts of honey and food in their colonies. They make larger colonies than any other species of honeybee. They store more food than any other species by an order of magnitude. They'll sometimes have 10 times more honey than you'd expect from a Apis cerana, which is a bee that's spinning all of its energy, managing parasites. Now, one of the ways that they manage parasites is that they can smell them reproducing. There is something that's produced by the Varroa mites as what we call a semiochemical. And some of these chemicals are just things that naturally happen as these creatures are reproducing. The bees are able to smell that to the Apis cerana bees and they open a cell where these creatures are reproducing and kill them.

And because of that, so they are terrifying landlords if they determine that you are not supposed to be there, the consequence is death. But the ways that these parasites were able to survive is that they recognized that the honey bees don't care very much about the boys. It's kind of sad to say, but they don't police the male brood, only the female brood because the female bees are the workers in the colony. They're constantly walking around collecting nectar and making honey and feeding the babies and repairing the colony and the drones. The males do none of that. And so it doesn't pay to constantly spend your energy trying to police the drones, and that allows the parasites to reproduce only in that area of the colony. So they've achieved a small truce. You can stay in our colony, but only if you eat the boys. If you ever come near one of these ladies, I will bite you in half. And that is how.

Ashley Peery:

Wow. Neils asks the perfect follow-up question. So you already answered the first part of his question, which was about how or what the defenses are that those Southeast Asian bees have. But the next part of his question says, "Can other bee populations be adapted to share those defenses? Let's teach other bees to bite them in half."

Samuel Ramsey:

This is amazing. I just, I'm loving this Q and A session. Keep it coming guys. Keep it coming. So that is one of the things that I am trying to figure out by compiling the melittophiles. By going over to all of these countries, one of my biggest questions to answer after we've learned all of these different things about how the parasites work and how the bees themselves work, can we teach our bees distributed in the rest of the world how to utilize these same systems that are used to suppress parasite populations. Because if we can, we reduce our dependence on pesticides, we can reduce the amount of toxins that we are putting into the environment, and that would be absolutely incredible.

We don't know quite yet. It certainly won't be easy because certain elements of this, they're not going to be things that are just maybe one or two genes usually. It's oftentimes a suite of genes in all kinds of different sections of the organism's genome that contribute to them being really effective at parasite suppression. And so we may have to do some pretty fancy genetics work on these bees, but I still think it's possible and I think it's an endeavor that's certainly worth studying.

Ashley Peery:

Our next question is from Alice, and it's a different direction.

Samuel Ramsey:


Ashley Peery:

She asks, why is every kind of honey honeybee found in Southeast Asia? Is it climate? Is it available food? What's the deal there?

Samuel Ramsey:

Wonderful question, Alice, and one that I haven't been asked before, and I'm kind of surprised I haven't been asked before. So Southeast Asia is a wonderful place for organisms that do really well with constant availability of food because it's so warm there because there's so much rainfall. It is lush. There are tons of flowers year-round. It's not easy to be a flower, especially I live in Colorado now. It is dry here y'all, like extra dry, all the time. And that makes it really difficult for flowers to produce a lot of nectar because nectar requires a ton of water. Oftentimes the water content in flowers is close to 80%. And so when they don't have a lot of water, they only make one burst of nectar. But in areas where there's tons of water, oftentimes flowers can constantly replenish their nectar. And so the same flower that's already been sucked dry by one bee overnight can replenish that nectar and has a new store of it.

This allows for the different bees in this region to produce large colonies and to just thrive. The temperature, the heat allows them to raise offspring year-round. It's just a beautiful place to be a bee. Now, Apis mellifera had to generate a number of changes to the typical bee structure in order for it to survive outside of this context. So existing in these large colonies allows it to then thermoregulate. It has this capacity to keep the colony warm all winter, but that requires a huge amount of honey because all the energy it takes to vibrate those flight muscles requires them to eat a lot of sugar. And so their ability to store hundreds of pounds of honey in a single colony is what allows them to do something that the other bees in Southeast Asia never have to do because there's no winter there.

Ashley Peery:

All right. So we have time for, I think maybe one more question.

Samuel Ramsey:

All right. No pressure guys. No pressure. One more.

Ashley Peery:

Oh, there's more in the box that we've, unfortunately we just won't get to today.

Samuel Ramsey:


Ashley Peery:

Yeah. You guys have been so wonderful sharing your questions. So our final question is from, apologies if I don't get your name correct, I'm going to say Ano and they ask, "Do you have a good resource and guide for beekeepers so they can be good beekeepers instead of just beekeepers?"

Samuel Ramsey:

Absolutely. And thank you for asking that because there may be other people who are also thinking that, like how do I be a good beekeeper? It takes a village. You cannot do this by yourself. Beekeeping is a team sport. And for that reason, every area of our country has multiple beekeeper groups that are local to different areas. So right now, I am in Colorado, there's a state group, the Colorado State Beekeepers, but then there are local groups. So I'm in Boulder. There's the Boulder County Beekeepers Association, and those people get together, they talk about the wonders of beekeeping, but they also help each other. They tell people like, "Hey, there is just a massive amount of nectar coming into my colonies. You should put your honey supers on right now because if you are not going to miss this huge influx of nectar into your colonies, and your bees won't be able to build up quite as strong."

They'll remind you, "we're getting close to the fall. This is the time of year where in our area, Varroa mite populations go through the roof. It's a really good idea for you to check on your colonies." And part of that is because you are your brother's beekeeper. If their population goes out of control, it impacts yours. If your population goes out of control, it impacts theirs because these are communicable illnesses. There is also a great resource that you can access if you don't happen to be in an area with a bunch of local beekeeper groups.

There is the opportunity for you to utilize a resource that is available for free online, it is called Tools for Varroa Management. It is a PDF that you can take with you at any time, and it will tell you all the ins and outs of treating for Varroa, what temperatures you can use, certain chemicals, what means of managing Varroa work, and which ones tend not to work. And you can also do things like you're doing now and come to these kinds of presentations and lectures. I give quite a few of them over the course of a year, and you can learn a lot from those as well.

Ashley Peery:

I love to end on a practical note. Thank you so, so much for that answer, but also for everything that you've shared today.

Samuel Ramsey:

Of course.

Ashley Peery:

So join me in giving a quick round of applause to Dr. Sammy. So wonderful to have you on.

Samuel Ramsey:

Thank you.

Ashley Peery:

And that is all the time that we have for questions today. So in addition to thanking our speaker, I thank all of you for sharing your many wonderful questions, and I also need to give a special thanks to those who made today's program possible. So those are our donors, our volunteers, and viewers, all of you guys that are here in the show-up month to month for this series. You do see some of our upcoming Natural History Museum programs displayed on the screen now, definitely give those a look if you're a lifelong learner as I am.

I also need to do a thanks for our behind-the-scenes team. There are lots of people that you never see on the screen that work really hard to make these webinars happen, so thank you, team. Lastly, you're going to see a link to a survey that's going to pop up in the Q and A. Sometimes it also pops up like when you go to close the Zoom box, please take a minute to complete that survey. It informs the work that we do and it also helps to make sure that you get the kind of programming that you want to see when you attend these webinars. So thanks so much. I hope to see you again next time. Take care, everyone.

Samuel Ramsey:

See you, everyone. Thanks for coming.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar aired May 2, 2023, as part of the "Shared Planet, Shared Health" series.


Bees are nature’s pollinating superheroes responsible for pollinating at least one third of the fruits and vegetables we eat. Bees are essential for maintaining our food supply and these critical creatures face the interacting threats of habitat loss, pesticide use, and the spread of parasitic disease. 

In this video, entomologist Samuel Ramsey discusses his work to understand how parasitic mites feed on developing bees. He also shares what he has learned about the spread of the Tropilaelaps mite, and what that means for bees the world over.

Moderator: Ashley Peery, educator for the exhibition, Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World

Webinar Series: Shared Planet, Shared Health

Our virtual "Shared Planet, Shared Health" programs spotlight leading research on the interconnection between humans, nonhuman animals, plants, and their shared environment. These programs feature a presentation by an expert followed by an audience Q&A session moderated by Ashley Peery, educator for the Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

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