Thursday, May 30, 2013

Toxic or Mad honey?! Honey as a tool of war.

Can unadulterated honey be toxic?  Isn't honey supposedly the perfect food?!
I'm not referring to honey from nectar where flowers have been treated with pesticides, although this can occur.  (I personally choose to use no pesticides in or near my beeyard.)  Here, instead, I refer to the nectar from the flower itself.

I mentioned in my last posting of the special cases of azaleas and rhododendrons as bee flowers.

(Consider the following,... parts of which were excerpted but originally posted in Today's Zaman: Mad Honey of the Black Sea, by Kathy Hamilton)

In parts of the Black Sea region known as Pontus, the honey produced from the flowers of rhododendrons contains a high concentration of a chemical called grayanotoxin. Even though the honey has been used for centuries, it was not until 1891 that the actual toxic compound within it was identified as grayanotoxin, found in the rhododendrons and azaleas of the Black Sea region. The  toxicity level of rhododendrons vary by species, and some  are highly toxic, while others are inactive. Symptoms  caused by eating the mad honey include dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure, heart irregularities, and in severe cases, convulsions and even death. Most victims however, recover within a few hours as the symptoms dissipate. It is very rare for anyone to become poisoned by ingesting the honey, but it does happen, and it seems that this local honey was also used at one time in warfare as part of the arsenal.

In the 5th century BC, Xenophon wrote about the effects of the mad honey in his chronicle, Anabasis. In 401 BC, Xenophon and his Greek army were in retreat from Babylon. When they arrived near Trabzon, they were enchanted by the area with its fresh fish,  as well as the woods that were filled with beehives. All was not as tranquil as at first seemed.

Xenophon recounted, “All the soldiers who ate of the honeycombs lost their senses, seized with vomiting and purging, none of them being able to stand on their legs. Those who ate but a little were like men very drunk, and those who ate much like madmen, and some like dying persons. In this condition, great numbers lay on the ground, as if there had been a defeat. The next day, none of them died, but recovered their senses about the same hour as they were seized; and the third and fourth day, they go up as if they had taken a strong potion.”

 A little over 300 years later, Xenophon's report was noticed by Kateuas, the chief advisor of King Mithridates. In 67 BC, Roman general Pompey and his troops were at war with King Mithridates of Pontus. With superior forces, Pompey seemed to have the upper edge, and Mithridates and his troops began retreating. As the opposing forces prepared to face off near Trabzon, Kateuas, perhaps remembering Xenophon's experience in the same area, made sure that their army did not eat the honey. However, Pompey's men feasted on the mad honey and went into drunken convulsions. Mithridates' army took advantage of the situation, and massacred their opponents.

 Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) mentioned the mad honey in his book, Natural History. He warns of the danger of eating toxic honey from the area of the Black Sea.
“At Heraclia in Pontus, the honey is extremely pernicious in certain years, though it is the same bees that make it at other times. There is a certain plant, which, from the circumstance that it proves fatal to beasts of burden, and to goats in particular, has obtained the name of goat death, and the blossoms of which, steeped in the rains of a wet spring, contract most noxious properties. Hence it is not every year that these dangerous results are experienced. Persons, when they have eaten of it, throw themselves on the ground to cool the body, which is bathed in profuse perspiration.”

 Natives of the area are familiar with the honey and its potential side effects. For generations, mad honey has been added to local alcoholic drinks in order to intensify the effects. Known as ‘deli bal' in Turkey, it was actually a major export to the European markets in the 18th century. Known as 'miel fou' in Europe, during its heyday, 25 tons a year of the honey was sent and used in taverns across the continent.

Mad honey is not limited to Turkey. Cases show up occasionally in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, as well as other areas of the world. Used in small doses, the honey can induce a light hallucinogenic state. However, overindulgence can bring on much more severe symptoms.

It should be noted that not all honey from the Black Sea region is mad honey. On the contrary, most of the honey produced in the area is of an excellent quality and taste. The mad honey is a very rare occurrence, but one that appears to have turned the tide in wartime. Who knew that something so sweet and delicious could have the ability to be a tool of war?

In most cases, Deli Bal is not fatal, so “Death by honey” should not be a concern.
The symptoms are however real: slight hallucinations, light-headedness, loss of balance, more-than-usual giddiness, and faintly blurred vision.  Symptoms usually last about two hours, followed by a long comfortable nap. 

Fortunately for us beekeepers, the dose is the poison.  So, if your bees have happened to have visited nearby blooming azaleas or rhododendrons, when you extract at the end of June or beginning of July, all the honey from all the flowers visited will be in the same extracter and any toxin present will be greatly diluted.  The dose, if it should exist at all, will be negligible, and therefore not toxic.  Do not be concerned.

I personally and highly recommend to beekeepers that they not plant azaleas and rhododendrons in their beeyards, and if they are near to neighbors that do, try to place the hives such that those are not the first encountered flowers by your foraging bees.    But, keep in mind that azaleas and rhododendrons only bloom for a short while anyway.  And, these flowers are just one of the many in the smorgasbord of bee flowers visited out there.  And short bloom times mean fewer flowers visited and if you throw in a nice cold snap as we recently had, you've removed all possibility of tainting.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bee flowers on parade! The Locust tree reigns!

The previous post spoke on the progression and parade of flowers that appear for bees to visit in the mid-Atlantic US area in the spring and early summer months.  I've included photos for you to identify them.  As you go through these flowers, think about whether the honey bee uses this flower for pollen or nectar.  A general theme is earlier appearing flowers are pollen resources (note Maple and Dandelion below.)  The queen uses the pollen as protein to stimulate yolk production of her eggs.  Later appearing flowers maay be about either pollen or nectar or both.  The flower's shape and anthers (pollen stalks) or nectaries (nectar reservoirs) may hint at this.  Then, there are some flowers that are not really suitable for either pollen or nectar as resources for honey bees.  Those are listed at the bottom as non- significant bee flowers.

The following are what I term "bee flowers" with the month in which they typically appear, if weather, temperature and rainfall all cooperate in the mid Atlantic where I and my bees reside.

Red and Sugar Maples-end of January/beginning of February


and Dandelions-end of February/beginning of March and throughout summer

Pears, and the stone fruits-Plums, Cherries, Peaches-March/beginning of April

Yellow mustard-April

Crab Apples and Hawthornes-beginning of April


Autumn Olive and Holly bushes-end of April/May

And, a drum roll please.........the flowers we beekeepers live for around here! Because these have the nectar that makes the best tasting honey in the mid-Atlantic (in my and my customer's) opinions!

Honey and Black Locust trees-May and early June 

These trees grow wild on river banks and forest edges here.  But, they are increasingly domesticated and grow in perimeter landscaping of new town homes.  They are fast growing trees and attractive.  The blossoms hang down in clusters like white grapes.  They are very fragrant, and are likely the "fresh clean flower" scent you associate with spring.  If you look high in the trees where the sun hits first, you will see more developed flowers than down low below.  So, you see an opening progression from top to bottom of the tree.  And, with this comes the various bee and wasp visitors.  The locusts now blooming in my neighborhood are full of bumble bees, carpenter bees, honey bees, mason bees, sweat bees, leaf cutter bees, and paper wasps of several species.  They are all buzzing happily within the flowers and non-chalantly "bumping" into one another.  In fact, they are somewhat drunk with their happy finds.  I was able to gently rub the abdomen of a very contented bumble bee.  She was so intoxicated, she could not move or did not notice.

Locust honey makes for a very light in color, almost white or clear honey.  It has a lighter taste than the more familiar store bought clover varietals.  My customers love to put it in their morning teas and coffees.  It also thus demands a higher price than clover!  So, beekeepers, get those honey supers on your hives! The nectar flow is on and honey is in the making!  And, it's the good stuff!

Other flowers soon to bloom that also contribute to the ongoing nectar flow through June here:

Roses (and related Rosacea-Wild Blackberries, Wild Raspberries)-May/June
Wild and Domesticated Strawberries-May/June
Other wildflowers-summer months-Torch lilies, Coneflowers, etc.

Break in nectar flow in July and August-normally a hot drought month

Fall nectar flow-Asters and Goldenrod-September until the first frost in October or November.

The following are not considered significant bee flowers:

Pansies, Daffodils, Violets, Tulips, Forsythia, Forget me nots, Magnolias, Bleeding hearts, Lily of the valleys, Dogwoods, Redbuds, Lilacs, Irises

Special Cases:
Rhododendrons and Azaleas-more on these interesting flowers to come in a future post.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Bee Waggle Dancing

Two Sunday nights ago, I got a panicked text from my godaughter Ashley who lives nearby.  "Ant Kathy, help!" ("Ant" is how I'm referenced by relatives/godchildren of the next generation; it's a slang Southern corruption of "Aunt" for an aunt who happens to be an entomologist and beekeeper, thus "Ant").

Anyway,  Ashley proclaimed in texted abbreviated language that she had to do a freshman highschool science project that involved serious research.  Help! What to do?!  Could I assist?  (She stressed that I was not to do the project, but to provide ideas for her to do it.)  This is a trial project, although graded, for next year's real science fair project for the county.  It was to introduce her and her classmates to the steps involved in scientific research; such as the creation of a hypothesis, design methods for testing such, the testing and observation process and materials involved to collect the data points, and the summarizing and synthesizing of the collected data to draw general conclusions from the experimental study to then accept or throw out the hypothesis. 

"When is this project due, Ashley?" I return texted.  "Next Monday," came the answer.  "Oh," I texted back; (fortunately emotion is not obvious in texts)! "How long have you known about this?" my reply. "All semester," she typed.  "Oh," I offered. "Science projects generally cannot be done in one day or even one week.  They typically require replicated testings over a period of time. But, tell me about what you want to test."  (I tried to avoid any judgement from my post-Ph.D. frame of mind, and recall that I, too, would have (and in fact did wait) until the last minute in highschool.  It is such a busy time in one's life.  Hard not to!  And, in fact, this is part of the learning process.  Besides, this does not need to be publishable, it's a high school project for goodness sake, take a deep breath and relax, Doctor Kathy!

"I want to measure something with pollination and flowers and your bees." "Ok.  So, can you come to my house after work a couple of times this week to watch the bees and their behavior around the flowers?"  "Well, no, I have tennis practice every evening."  "Oh. OK. Can you come Saturday to sit by the hives most of the day?"  "Yes, if I can get a ride, but mom is working and my grandparents are going to a wedding."  "OK.  Well, why don't I pick you up Friday night and you spend the night with me and then we will start early Saturday morning with collecting data."  "AWESOME!!!!" came the texted reply.  (Who talks on phones anymore, anyway?! So, yesterday's news!)  "Oh, and I need a total of ten references, five of them by Wednesday."  "Ok." I gave her three and had her use those to research the others on her own. 

I started looking through my own resources, and pulled out my BeeCulture magazines from the last year.  The most recent one had a nice pictogram of the bee's waggle dance; the last century animal behavior Austrian scientist Karl von Frisch discovered this phenomenon.  It's quite amazing really.

A scout bee returning from a flower will communicate to her sisters where the flowers are located based upon the angle of the sun and it's relationship to the hive.  (In other words, the bees, with only a small neuroganglion for a brain, are doing sophisticated trigonometry to locate food resources and to recruit fellow foragers to go there and then return to the hive.)  The returning worker scout will waggle her abdomen on the frame in the hive; the angular degree to which she waggles from the center line of her body is the same angle as what the sun to the hive is in relation to the flowers at that moment.  Go figure! Literally!  "Ashley has to use this pictogram in her study!," I thought.

So over the next few days we texted and emailed and discussed possible questions she could ask.  We landed on counting resource (nectar/pollen) foraging flights to and from the hive as temperature changed or sun rose (ie. time of day).

Her research question (or null Hypothesis) became: Does temperature affect the number of foraging flights made by honeybee workers from a hive?

She came out Friday night and we got up early Saturday morning.  She sat by the hive from 7 am until 2pm.  I brought her water and food.

Over the course of the day, Ashley saw that temperature does indeed affect the number of foraging flights made by honeybee workers from a hive. At 7am and a temperature of 42F,  no one was flying. The first flight occurred at 8:47 am when the sun was higher and the temperature was 52F.   After the temperature reached this level and continued to climb (as did the sun), the number of foraging flights were seen the entire research period and correlated directly with the rise in temperature. In addition, more bees were seen returning to the hive with the rise in temperature. She observed them bringing in pollen of different colors. Bright red, yellow and orange were all represented.

For her project, she plans to summarize this information and discuss the waggle dance recruitment of workers.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

European Union bans 3 pesticides that may affect bees

This is my reposting of Kim Flottum's article this week.

EU Votes To Ban Neonics, but Barely
Alan Harman
 A deeply divided European Union will go ahead with a ban on the use of three neonicotinoid insecticides – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam (sic) – blamed by critics for the decline in honey bee numbers (sic).
   The EU Commission will proceed with the suspension of their use from next Dec, 1 after 15 EU countries supported the restriction, eight voted against and 4 abstained.
   The halt will be for at least two years.
   “Although a majority of Member States now supports our proposal, the necessary qualified majority was not reached,” Health and Consumer Commissioner Tonio Borg said in a statement. “The decision now lies with the Commission. Since our proposal is based on a number of risks to bee health identified by the European Food Safety Authority, the Commission will go ahead with its text in the coming weeks.
   “I pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over €22 billion (US$28.8 billion) annually to European agriculture, are protected.”
    The plan restricts the use of the three neonicotinoids for seed treatment, soil application (granules) and foliar treatment on bee attractive plants and flowering crops such as corn, oil seed rape and sunflower.
   Any other authorized uses must be carried out by professionals.
   Exceptions will be limited to treating bee-attractive crops in greenhouses, in open-air fields only after flowering.
  An EU statement says that as soon as new information is available, and at the latest within two years, the Commission will review the conditions of approval of the three neonicotinoids to take into account relevant scientific and technical developments.
   Experts representing the 27 EU countries had met March 15 as the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health and failed to reach a qualified majority to on the proposal to ban the three neonicotinoids.
   Then the vote was 13 for a ban, nine against with five abstentions. The proposal was then referred to the appeal committee which also failed to reach the required majority, allowing the Commission to step in and impose the two-year ban.
   The decision is seen as a victory for campaigners concerned about dramatic declines in bees, but a defeat for the chemical companies who make the products and the UK government which said a ban will harm food production.
   The UK’s Soil Association Head of Policy Emma Hockridge called the decision a victory not only for the bees and other pollinators, but for independent science against the political, pro-pesticide position adopted by UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and the pesticide industry.
  “There is strong evidence that a ban on neonicotinoids would work,” Hockridge says. “In Italy, where the government has taken decisive action and banned certain neonicotinoids pesticides, deaths of honey bees in winter subsequently fell by more than 50% in three years.”

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