Animals

The Beekeepers: How Humans Changed the World of Bumble Bees

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My first book, The Beekeepers: How Humans Changed the World of Bumble Bees, has been released into the world. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we couldn’t have a huge book release party, but I did manage to have a very fun little party at home with my family.

My kids helped make decorations. I ordered a fancy cake from Q’s Cakes, a local bakery.

Our dining room table was all fancied-up for our party.

We wore silly hats, danced around, and had a great time. We eventually dug into the cake, which was almost too pretty to eat! Even our dog, Spirit, joined the festivities.

Me having fun at our Beekeepers party.
The cake was SO GOOD. Om-nom-nom…
Oh, Spirit, you are such a good dog.

Huge thanks to my incredible agent, Stacey Kondla, and the wonderful team at Scholastic (Lisa Sandell, Amanda Shih, Keirsten Geise, and many others) for helping to create such a beautiful book.

Interested in reading it? Check it out here.

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My Review of World Without Fish

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I was at my local library the other day, slowly making my way down the aisles of the children’s nonfiction section, looking for my next read. I came across World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky, illustrated by Frank Stockton. The title caught my attention. I don’t know much about fish, and I never thought of a world without fish before.

Mark Kurlansky is a former commercial fisherman, and he tells the story of how humans are overfishing and decimating fish populations in the world’s oceans. What effect is this having on ocean ecosystems? What if fish were to actually disappear? And maybe not all fish, but even a species or two? Mark explores the answers to these questions as well as possible solutions. He shows that addressing the problem of overfishing is not as simple as stopping all fishing and quitting eating fish. Pollution and climate change are also harming the fish populations. So what can we do about it? Mark introduces a number of existing organizations that readers can become involved with, and he also outlines steps you can take to start your own movement for change.

I learned a lot about the fishing industry, ocean ecosystems, and how sometimes scientists can draw the wrong conclusions. Mark often refers back to Darwin’s theory and it’s cool to show how older ideas like Darwin’s are still extremely useful. World Without Fish was hard for me to put down. Mark has a very engaging voice and it certainly felt like he was writing from passion and experience. I also really appreciated the visuals in the book. The text was periodically broken up by a larger, coloured font that drew your attention to important points, like this:

Also, each chapter ended with a comic that had its own story that unfolded throughout the book:

I tend to find graphic novels a bit too visually overwhelming. The balance of text and comics and playful fonts in this book was just right for me. And Frank Stockton’s artwork is fantastic.

I highly recommend this book for middle grade (ages 8-12) readers and adults, too. It really made me stop to think about the fish I eat and the fish I’ve seen on restaurant menus. It made me appreciate even more the delicate balance of life in the oceans, and that if there is unbalance, nature has a way of evening the score. It also reminded me that extinction is forever. We lose sight of this often. This book reminded me that it’s time to take a hard look at how we can do things better, before it’s too late. Mark and Frank’s book provides us with an excellent starting point and reference.

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One of My Favourite Places in the World

By Posted on 4 min read 691 views

There is a hidden gem about a twenty minute drive from my home. It’s the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory, and I love it to bits. I missed it so much during the COVID-19 lockdown. But now it is open to the public again–hooray!–with timed tickets and mandatory masks. The kids are away at the cottage today so I decided to go by myself and take my time. A rare indulgence.

(Whenever I bring my kids, my 10-year-old son gets bored after five minutes and my 7-year-old daughter is afraid of butterflies. She tries her very hardest to be brave. But with those two factors combined, it makes for short visits. Too short for my liking!)

So this morning I bought my ticket bright and early so I could visit as soon as it opened. I donned my special butterfly mask (thank you to my sister- and mother-in-law for making it for me!), and I was all set to go.

Me being a colossal nerd with my butterfly mask.
I made it!

The outdoor sign says it is still booking weddings. Funny enough, as soon as I pulled into a parking spot I saw a bride and groom leaving the conservatory looking so lovely. I called, “You look beautiful!” and they managed to hear me despite me being muffled by my mask. Seeing them as soon as I arrived made me think that this was going to be a good visit. (I didn’t take a picture of them. I thought that would be weird.)

Once inside I bypassed all the displays and headed straight to see the real, live butterflies. And oh man, they did not disappoint! They were flittering and fluttering everywhere, occasionally landing for a photo op.

Hello! You are beautiful.
Hanging out together.
Look at my proboscis (tongue) rolled up in a circle.
So bright and orangey!

There were a lot of butterflies chowing down on rotten fruit and syrup-soaked sponges.

A Blue Morpho and friends enjoying bananas and oranges.
Mmmm, rotten banana…
I like to show off while I eat.
Mmmm, love me a sponge soaked in sugary water!

However, the first sign that this was an out-of-the-ordinary visit was seeing an Atlas moth perched on a leaf. Atlas moths are one of the largest moths in the world, and they are apparently quite shy. But this one was out in the open, soaking up the rays. I had never seen one before. Absolutely gorgeous.

An atlas moth. It was way bigger than my hand.

Next stop was the butterfly nursery, where the chrysalises hang and new butterflies are born. After emerging, the butterflies hang out a while to let their wings dry out and to pump fluid through their wings to make them rigid.

Brand new butterflies!

The second sign this was a special visit: not one, but three new Atlas moths emerged!

Welcome to the world!

Close to the nursery was another feeding station where a bunch of Blue Morpho butterflies were fluttering about. Sign number three: one landed on me! A staff member who happened to pass by said that after feeding on fermented fruit, the butterflies are a little drunk and they fly around rather erratically, and tend to land on people.

Hello, you sweet little drunkard, you!

In behind the nursery was a staff workstation, and sign number four was that I saw an employee trying to give the resident parrot, Cheecho, a bath! Unfortunately, Cheecho was having none of it.

Cheecho did NOT want to have a bath. He stayed perched on the plastic container that the staff member is holding.
Cheecho, after refusing a bath, looking rather pleased with himself.

There are other birds at the conservatory…

Snack time!
Well aren’t you the little rainbow.

…as well as a turtle.

Peekaboo!

All of the tropical flowers are quite lovely, too.

I think this is a Frangipani…

It pays to keep your eyes wide open and look in inconspicuous spots. This little guy was hanging out under a leaf. Look at how different its wings are on the top and underneath.

Hello! I almost didn’t see you there.

And finally, to top it all off, a Muppet Tree!

This isn’t actually called a Muppet Tree. I have no idea what it is. But it’s pretty darn cool.

But wait! The final sign that it was a special trip was that after I left the butterflies and shut the door behind me, I saw a big Blue Morpho butterfly that had escaped. It was bumping up against a window. Bump, bump, bump. The poor thing. I reached up and caught its wings in between two of my fingers (I saw a staff member do this to an escapee butterfly on a previous trip.) I opened the doors and released it back inside, where it flew off as though nothing happened. Phew!

Gotcha! And now I’ll save ya. The escaped butterfly in mid-flutter.

That was quite an action-packed visit. Well, as far as butterflies go. See you again soon, my lovelies!

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Bird Nest Update: And Then They Were Gone

By Posted on 2 min read 559 views

Back at the end of May, two house finches decided to make one of our porch lights their home. They built a little nest but were so shy they only showed their butts whenever I tried to snap a photo.

A little while later, there were eggs! Five little beautiful eggs that hatched into four little pink babies (unfortunately, one didn’t make it). They grew bigger and bigger, and we saw both Momma and Daddy bird tending to them. I couldn’t wait to see the babies learn to fly!

One of my most recent photos of the baby finches.

But then one morning, to my horror, I looked up at the nest through our front window and saw that the lightbulb in the porch light had fallen down near the nest!

Oh no! The lightbulb fell down!

Originally when I saw Momma and Daddy bird building the nest, I unscrewed the bulb. But I couldn’t get it out of the light fixture, so I just left it balanced on top of the socket. At the time it seemed pretty stable to me.

I went outside to investigate. All the birds were gone! Babies, Mom and Dad, everyone. The nest was completely empty.

Oh dear…an empty nest, thanks to the fallen lightbulb.

And it stayed empty. All day. And the next day, and the day after that.

What happened? How did the lightbulb fall? Maybe Mom or Dad bumped into it. I didn’t think the babies were ready to fly yet, but maybe they were? They were definitely too big for Mom and Dad to carry them to safety. There was no evidence of baby finches anywhere around our front lawn, so I guess the whole family flew away.

It is interesting, because if the fallen lightbulb was the reason they all fled, the lightbulb had been there the whole time. It just fell close to the nest. Although the birds might have been “used to it,” was it now just too close for comfort? Or did they never really notice the lightbulb in the first place and suddenly this big white thing tumbled down? Or maybe the babies were ready to fly away anyway, and during their mass exodus, they dislodged the lightbulb. Maybe the lightbulb wasn’t the reason they’re gone after all.

I guess what really happened will remain a mystery. I just hope they are all okay.

It was such a sweet surprise to share our spring with a little bird family. I learned so much. And my kids got to see the birds start a family and witnessed our excitement and respect for nature. For all of that I am grateful.

A male and female house finch. Maybe we’ll host another family next year? Photo source: iNaturalist.

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Pollinator Week Special Edition: Honey Bee Personalities and a Q&A with a Bee Scientist

By Posted on 11 min read 1093 views

This week is Pollinator Week! To celebrate I thought I’d feature a really cool research study on personality in honey bees. I’ve also added a Q&A with one of the scientists behind the research. Let’s dive in!

The word “personality” in the title of the research paper caught my eye. It’s not a word often associated with bees, because it may seem like honey bees are just little robots doing their chores. After all, there are tens of thousands of honey bees in a honey bee hive, and lots of work needs to be done to keep the hive clean, to feed everyone, and to make sure all of the baby bees grow into strong adults. The bees split up the labour: younger bees feed the larvae (baby bees) and do “housekeeping” chores, whereas older bees tend to guard the nest and go outside to collect food (pollen and nectar). The entire colony is a well-oiled machine, with every bee doing her part. Could there be any room for honey bees to show individual differences?

A honey bee. Does she have her own personality? Photo source: iNaturalist.

Bumble bee colonies are quite similar, in that there are housekeeping bees and food-gatherers and even undertaker bees. During my many hours of watching bumble bees when I was in university, I could often tell bees apart based on what I liked to think of as their “personality.” Each bee had a numbered, coloured, plastic disc that I had glued to their back so I could tell them apart. But each bee behaved a little differently. For instance, Green#6 was always hopping at the door to get out and start foraging (yes, she actually jumped up and down). Yellow#2 was always a little slow to start but once she began foraging she was a little workhorse. And Red#10 always flew around our flight cage for a little while before landing on a flower, instead of just flying straight to a blossom like the other foragers. I wondered whether bees actually did have their own little personalities. And how would we determine that scientifically? Turns out I wasn’t the only scientist who wondered about this.

I am also excited to feature this particular research article because one of the authors is Dr. Amy Toth, who I feature in my upcoming book, The Beekeepers. She does amazing research on honey bees, bumble bees, and wasps. The other author is Dr. Alexander Walton, who very kindly chatted with me about their experiments and what it was like working with the bees (more on this soon).

So, first off, what do Drs. Walton and Toth mean when they talk about “personality”? They think of personality as having three parts. One is consistency over time: a bee acts in a specific way throughout its life. Another is that no matter what situation the bee finds herself in, she behaves in a similar way. This is called consistency over contexts. And finally, the individual shows consistent, related clusters of behaviours. Somehow Drs. Walton and Toth had to test for these three things in honeybees. How did they do it?

Drs. Walton and Toth designed two experiments. In the first experiment, they placed small groups of newly-hatched honey bees into small Plexiglas cages. This allowed them to watch their behaviour much more easily (remember: there are thousands of honey bees in a hive!). On each bee they glued a coloured, numbered plastic tag to the thorax (the bee’s back or middle section).

Small cages with groups of labelled honey bees that Drs. Walton and Toth used in their first experiment. Photo source: Dr. Alex Walton.
Some labelled honey bees in a plastic tub before the experiments began. Photo source: Dr. Alex Walton.

In their first experiment, Drs. Walton and Toth presented the bees with three different situations and watched how the bees reacted. These situations were based on natural events that the honey bees would experience in their hive. One situation was presenting the bees a microscope slide that had queen mandibular pheromone smeared on it. Queen mandibular pheromone is a chemical that the queen bee gives off when she wants to be fed, and it causes worker bees to touch the queen with their antennae and feed her with their proboscis (tongue). (You can buy synthetic queen mandibular pheromone. I had no idea!)

Another situation was presenting the bees a microscope slide with honey bee alarm pheromone smeared on it. They got alarm pheromone from crushed bee stingers and venom sacs. Alarm pheromone is a chemical that guard bees give off when the hive is being attacked, and it causes worker bees to assemble and help defend the hive.

Finally, Drs. Walton and Toth presented the caged bees with an intruder bee from another colony. They actually tied a piece of fishing line around the middle of a honey bee, placed her in the cage, and then after the caged bees reacted, they pulled the harnessed bee out. Pretty clever! (They chilled the intruder bees a bit to slow them down so that they could tie the fishing line around them. The bee then woke up after they were tied. They did the same thing when labelling the bees: they chilled them for a bit first so they would be still during the labelling process. They bees eventually woke up and went back to normal.)

Several intruder honey bees tied to fishing line before being presented to the caged bees. Photo source: Dr. Alex Walton.

So, in each of the small cages, newly-hatched honey bees were presented with three things to react to: (1) a chemical signal that said, The queen is hungry! Feed her! (2) a chemical signal that said, The hive is under attack! and (3) an actual stranger honey bee invading the cage. Remember that to show personality, the caged bees would have to react similarly over time and across all three situations. Drs. Walton and Toth presented these three situations to the caged bees multiple times over 17 days. (That was how long the bees lived for before they died. Honey bee works have relatively short lives!) What kinds of behaviours did Drs. Walton and Toth look for? They wrote down whether the caged bees did any of the following: trophallaxing with a cage-mate (exchanging food tongue-to-tongue); attacking a cage-mate; using their antennae to touch the microscope slide with queen mandibular pheromone; using their antennae to touch the microscope slide with alarm pheromone; attacking the intruder bee. In all, they had 35 small cages with 171 honey bees to watch. What did they find?

For the first dimension of personality, that bees needed to show similar behaviour over time, they found that yes, honey bees tended to repeat their behaviour over the 17 days of the experiment. Hooray! The first requirement of personality was met!

For the second dimension of personality, that bees needed to show similar behaviours across different situations, they found evidence for this, too! Caged honey bees that were aggressive toward a cage mate when presented with a microscope slide with alarm pheromone were more likely to be aggressive toward cage mates when in the presence of queen mandibular pheromone as well. In other words, some caged honey bees seemed to have a more aggressive personality compared to other caged bees. Also, caged bees that showed trophallaxis as a reaction to queen mandibular pheromone were more likely to show trophallaxis in the other two contexts as well (that is, alarm pheromone and intruder). Trophallaxis is thought to be used not only to feed other bees, but also to exchange queen and forager pheromones, to inform other bees about the food needs of the colony, and to exchange information about the quality of nectar a forager collected. So maybe bees that show trophallaxis across situations have a “communicator” personality?

Now for the second experiment. For this one, Drs. Walton and Toth focused on the third part of personality: behaviours that tend to cluster together. After they noticed that some caged bees showed trophallaxis across situations, they wondered whether some honey bees are more “interactive” with other bees. So, they figured out a list of behaviours that bees would need to show to be considered “interactive bees”:

  • Grooming other bees
  • Caring for baby bees
  • Waggle dancing
  • Following another bee who is waggle dancing
  • Guarding the hive
  • Feeding the queen or touching her with their antennae
  • Trophallaxis

They distinguished interactive bees from “non-interactive” bees. Non-interactive bees were bees that spent most of their time:

  • Cleaning cells in the hive
  • Fanning their wings to help keep the temperature steady in the hive
  • Going outside of the hive to forage for nectar
  • Going outside of the hive to forage for pollen
  • Processing pollen
  • Processing nectar
  • Grooming themselves
  • Washboarding: scraping her legs and mouthparts across wooden surfaces of the hive (we’re not sure why they do this…)
  • Working the wax in the hive

This time, instead of watching small groups of honey bees in tiny cages, Drs. Walton and Toth watched bees in a full colony, so they could look for all of the behaviours that are listed above. They had special hives built that had Plexiglas walls so they could watch the bees without disturbing them. They labelled and watched over 1000 honey bees in 4 Plexiglas hives. That’s a lot of bees to watch! This experiment was a biggie.

Dr. Alex Walton watching honey bees in a specially-made observation hive. Photo source: Dr. Alex Walton.

After many, many hours of watching the bees, was there evidence of clustering of interactive and non-interactive behaviours? Although honey bees did not show a perfect distinction between interactive and non-interactive behaviours (that is, individual bees sometimes showed both), non-interactive behaviours tended to cluster together. The strongest relationship was between washboarding and wax work: honey bees that performed one of these behaviours tended to perform the other as well. Even though Drs. Walton and Toth spent oodles of time watching over a thousand bees, more experiments will need to be done to give us a clearer idea about whether some bees are more interactive than others.

So, after all this work, did honey bees show evidence of personality? Yes, they did! Individual bees tended to show individual differences in their behaviour across time and different situations, and some honey bees were more non-interactive than others.

What I find so cool about this research is the clever methods used to investigate whether or not honey bees show evidence of personality. It is amazing to think that even though honey bees are “programmed” to switch tasks as they age, moving from inside-hive chores to more outside-hive chores, we now have evidence that they can still show individual differences as well. Like all good experiments, the ones featured here lead to more questions: What causes honey bees to differ in personality, as it is defined here? Why are some bees different from others? What benefit would different personalities be to bees and their survival? Do other insects show signs of personality?

I also had questions about what it was like to carry out these experiments, and Dr. Walton very kindly gave me answers!

Q&A with Dr. Alex Walton

Dana: What did you like doing most in this research study?

Alex: It is really rewarding to just sit and watch the inner workings of a hive of bees. There are so many individuals doing so many things, and so many bizarre behaviours. You constantly find yourself thinking, “Why is she doing that? What does that signal to that other bee?”

Dana: Were there any challenges in doing this research?

Alex: The study was very challenging because it required keeping track of hundreds of bees. I would slowly scan the observation hives from the top left to the bottom right, looking for marked bees and then writing down what behaviour they were performing. It was extremely tedious!

Dana: Can you talk a bit more about tying honey bees to fishing line? That must have been difficult!

Alex: The reason I tied them to the fishing line was so that I could easily retrieve them once the observation period was over. Trying to get a loose bee out of the cage (as she is being chased and attacked by other bees ) without accidentally letting any of the other bees out would not have been an easy task! I know from experience, as one of my tied bees did manage to wriggle free of her binding once in the cage and retrieving her was no easy task. However, tying a fishing line to a bee is no easy task either, as it really requires 2 hands (one to hold the bee down with forceps, and two to place the line around the bee and tighten). As I was not blessed with 3 hands, I would first chill the bee in the fridge to slow her down, then gently place a loop of fishing line around her waist.

Dana: Did anything about your results surprise you?

Alex: One of the main findings of the study is that honey bee workers have consistent behavioural differences throughout their lives. This was surprising because we know that honey bees have stereotyped behavioural transitions as they get older. They will switch from nursing tasks (feeding larvae, or baby bees) to outside tasks (foraging), and pretty much all of them do this. So, the fact that they still have distinct behavioural differences even as they shift behavioural repertoires was very surprising!

Dana: What advice do you have for kids who want to study bees or other animals?

Alex: Take some time (or a lot of time) to sit and watch animals: at a bird feeder or bird bath, follow a trail of ants to their anthill, watch the squirrels at the park interact with each other. Then, start asking yourself questions about what you observe, and write those questions in a notebook (it isn’t real science unless you write it down!): Why is that bird splashing around in the water? Why are those ants attacking that other ant? Are those squirrels playing or fighting? Try to come up with your own explanations for your questions, and then fact-check them by looking online or in a book. The first skills a scientist needs to develop are a keen eye for observing nature and an inquisitive mind that is always asking questions. For kids who want to study bees in particular: 1) go to a flower patch and watch the bees visiting flowers. See if you can follow one bee’s path: how many flowers does she visit? Are they all the same kind?  2) Visit with a beekeeper who will open up a hive and show you what the bee home life is like, and 3) Don’t be afraid to get stung! Yes, getting stung is not fun but it’s not the most painful thing in the world. For every bee scientist, the first thing they had to do was get confident around bees.

Dana: What are you studying now?

Alex: Currently, I am studying the evolution of cooperative behaviour in paper wasps.

That sounds like a great topic for a future blog post! Happy Pollinator Week!

Reference

Walton, A., & Toth, A. L. (2016). Variation in individual worker honey bee behavior shows hallmarks of personality. Behavioral Ecology & Sociobiology, 70, 999-1010. DOI: 10.1007/s00265-016-2084-4

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Bird Nest Update: Father’s Day for a Daddy Bird

By Posted on 2 min read 822 views

Time for an update on the bird family that is living in the light fixture on our front porch!

Last week (around June 14) I took a peek into the nest and the chicks were certainly bigger and were starting to sprout feathers:

Baby birds with feathers starting to grow!

I also saw something I find super interesting: The father bird came back to the nest! Admittedly I don’t know much about birds (but I’m learning!) and I assumed just the mother bird looked after the chicks. But the father came back and saw me and started chirping at me. Was he telling me off in his own way?

The father bird perched on our string of Christmas lights near the nest. (I guess it’s a good thing we were too lazy to take down the lights so that Mom & Dad bird have a place to stand guard…)

Watching both the Momma and Daddy bird go to and from the nest, I’ve been able to get a better look at them, and I’m pretty certain they are house finches. Super Interesting Observation #2: I’ve seen the Daddy bird feed the chicks! He’s a real hands-on dad.

Now, another week later, I looked through our front window at the nest and I saw baby bird faces! They’ve grown so big. So far I’ve been able to count four chicks. There were originally five eggs so I guess one of them unfortunately didn’t make it.

Three little opened beaks waiting for their next meal.
A close-up of one of the sweet chicky-faces.
A view of the nest from above. The chicks certainly look more like birds now.

It is amazing how much the chicks have grown in just two weeks. Mom and Dad keep going back and forth, feeding the little mouths.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy Bird! What a sweet little family you have. Thank you for letting me watch and learn.

Mom and Dad house finch keeping watch on their chicks. Dad is on the left, Mom is on the right.

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