Hey everybody. Kim and Jeff are taking the week off and will be back next week with a new episode. For this week's Holiday Reply, we bring you our talk with Dr. Sam Ramsey from April, 2021. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do! Thank you for...
Hey everybody. Kim and Jeff are taking the week off and will be back next week with a new episode.
For this week's Holiday Reply, we bring you our talk with Dr. Sam Ramsey from April, 2021. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do!
Thank you for listening and Happy New Year!
Dr. Samuel Ramsey is back with us again, looking at all sorts of questions than bother beekeepers, and working with smart kids and science!
Sammy hasn’t not let any grass grow under his feet since he was forced to return home from his research in Thailand studying Tropilaelaps mites (Tropilaelaps clareae and T. mercedesae) so we are ready if and when they arrive in the US. It turns out there is a very clever way to identify which species of Tropi-mite, as they call them in Thailand, is infesting a hive. Believe it or not, they actually “melt” the DNA of the creature and can ID them from what’s left. That’s a big step in the right direction for these nasties.
While in Thailand, he also observed the Giant Asian Hornet, the “murder hornet” we now have poking into in Pacific Northwest. He worked with local beekeepers looking for nests, watching them destroy honey bee colonies and then harvesting the larvae of a destroyed hornet nest for a delicacy food. He also found out why some bees spread water buffalo dung on their hives to keep the hornets away. This is really a mind blower.
Sammy’s work on varroa and fat bodies didn’t slow down one bit this year. They’ve uncovered that the female mite harvests certain proteins from the fat body and then funnels them directly into the developing egg without first digesting the protein rich meal. These whole, complete proteins are needed by the embryo to complete development. Now, how can that process be interrupted? That’s the million-dollar question. Just imagine if the discovery leads to a control which doesn’t involve putting poison into the hive…
When Sammy was here last, he talked about forming his Ramsey Research Foundation, to replace the original “GoFundMe” site. Through the Foundation you can help support the work he’s involved in - heading back to Thailand in the fall, working more with Giant Hornets, and finding out how to quit putting poison in our beehives. Check out the Foundation, and see if you, or better your beekeeping group, can help make this a better world for us, our bees, and beekeepers everywhere.
Links and websites mentioned in this podcast:
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This episode is brought to you by Global Patties! Global Patties is a family business that manufactures protein supplement patties for honey bees. Feeding your hives protein supplement patties will help ensure that they produce strong and health colonies by increasing brood production and overall honey flow. Global offers a variety of standard patties, as well as custom patties to meet your specific needs. Visit them today at http://globalpatties.com and let them know you appreciate them sponsoring this episode!
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Beekeeping Today Podcast is an audio production of Growing Planet Media, LLC
Jeff Ott: Hey, everybody. We hope you're having a great holiday week. Kim and I are taking some time off to be with family and friends. We will be back next week with a brand new and exciting episode with the return of Washington State entomologist, Sven-Erik Spichiger, and an update on the Asian Giant Hornets, and Washington State this past summer. We've had many great guests on the podcast, and one of our most entertaining is always Dr. Samuel Ramsey.
As you're setting up your new podcast listening device Santa just brought you, we thought you might enjoy our talk with Sammy from last April, where we talked about Varroa, and Tropilaelaps mites, and much, much more. Happy New Year from all of us at Growing Planet Media and Beekeeping Today Podcast, let's start the show.
Jeff: Welcome to Beekeeping Today Podcast presented by Bee Culture. Beekeeping Today Podcast is your source for beekeeping news, information, and entertainment. I'm Jeff Ott.
Kim Flottum: I'm Kim Flottum.
Sponsor: Hey, Jeff, and Kim. Today's sponsor is Global Patties. They're a family-operated business that manufactures protein supplement patties for honeybees. It's a good time to think about honeybee nutrition. Feeding your hives protein supplement patties will ensure that they produce strong and healthy colonies by increasing brood production and overall honey flow. Now is a great time to consider what type of patty is right for your area and your honeybees.
Global offers a variety of standard patties as well as custom patties to meet your needs. No matter where you are, Global is ready to serve you out of their manufacturing plants in Airdrie, Alberta, and in Butte, Montana, or from distribution depots across the continent. Visit them today at www.globalpatties.com.
Jeff: Hey, everybody. Thanks for joining us. Each week we get to talk about how much we appreciate our sponsor support. They help make all of this happen and provide us the ability to bring you each episode. With that, thanks to Bee Culture Magazine for continuing their presenting sponsorship of this podcast. Bee Culturehas been the magazine for American beekeeping since 1873. Subscribe to Bee Culture today.
We also want to thank 2 Million Blossoms to sponsored this episode. 2 Million Blossoms is a quarterly magazine dedicated to protecting all pollinators. Learn more on our Season 2, Episode 9 podcast with editor and our guest co-host, Kirsten Traynor from visiting www.2millionblossoms.com, and that is with the number two.
Hey, everybody. Thanks again for joining us. We have a great episode all set for you. Today is return of a friend of the podcast, Dr. Samuel Ramsey, who's here to give us a quick update on the current research on Varroa, and the Tropilaelaps, and a few other things, but more than that in a few minutes. Hey, Kim, how's spring there in Ohio? Has it sprung yet?
Kim: Well, yesterday, it did. Today, it sprung back. It was 65 degrees, 70 last weekend. Today, it's barely 50 and it's trying to rain, and the wind's blowing.
Jeff: Oh, springtime.
Kim: It's a typical April in Ohio, which is ugly most of the time.
Jeff: We're supposed to get up to 80 this weekend and it's in the middle of April and everyone's going to be complaining about the heat in Washington State at 80. Then June will come, and they call June around here "June-tember" because it gets cold, and drizzly, and gray again. After this nice weather, then it gets cold and drizzly again until about the 4th of July, and then summer returns, so it's pretty amazing.
Kim: There's some justice after all for all your beautiful April weather, eh? [chuckles]
Jeff: I'd rather move it, swap it around, but it'll be good. I'm looking forward to getting into bees this weekend.
Kim: Everything here is early. Everything is early. All the plants are early. We've got things blooming. I'm about two weeks early on a lot of the bulbs and some of the trees. They'll be ready, and hopefully, they won't be gone by the time the bees get enough bees to do some foraging.
Jeff: Yes, I keep watching the flowers and the fruit trees and everything, and there's not a whole lot of bees out there, so they're mostly back tending the brew.
Kim: Today, they're staying home, keeping warm.
Jeff: [laughs] Dry there in Ohio. Coming up, I was going through the email and WAS as our April mini-conference on April 28th. That'll be coming up. That program is focused on soldiers, veterans, and honeybees. They have a couple of speakers on- like the Heroes to Hives we had with Adam a couple of episodes ago, and a psychologist talking about bees and agriculture, and therapeutic settings. That'll be a good session for anybody for WAS. Honey Bee Obscura is really picking up. You guys are doing a great job there.
Kim: Like I said, last time, we found this old book that's 150 answers for questions. We're going over those, and we're also looking at-- we're going to look at pollen traps. Then we'll go back to the old one and we're going to talk about tanging and drumming. The pollen trap thing was fun. I've been an advocate of pollen traps forever. It's free food, and it's the best food you can give to bees, so why more people don't trap pollen has always amazed me.
I'll tell you a quick story, Jeff. I talk about this a lot when I'm out giving talks, and I'm pretty good at convincing people that they should be trapping pollen. When I'm done, everybody makes a bolt for the door, they go to the nearest vendor, they buy all the pollen traps in the place in 10 minutes, and then all the vendors come and beat me up because "Why didn't you tell me? I would have brought more." There's something to this. I've had a good number of people contact me after that and say, "Why didn't you talk to me 20 years ago?" Jim and I are going to talk about pollen traps, and pollen, and all those good things. Yes, Obscura is doing well, we're having fun.
Jeff: Very good. Yes, it sounds really, really good. One of the things about pollen traps that I think often gets missed or not communicated well is that the traps don't stay on the hives 24 hours a day. You turn them on and off. Isn't that correct? Isn't that the best way?
Kim: That's correct. What you can do, you can get clever with these things. If you're hanging around, some things bloom in the morning and they're done by afternoon, some things bloom in the afternoon, don't start until the afternoon. You can flip that switch and catch all the morning pollen and turn it off because you don't want the corn pollen in this coming in later on or whatever.
Basically, what I do is I have it on for two days and then I have it off for a week, then on for two days and off for a week. That gives me more than I need for that colony for next spring.
Jeff: Fantastic. Good, that's an episode that's out there now and available in honeybeeobscura.com. I encourage our listeners to go out there and listen to it if you haven't already and encourage your friends, the more the merrier. Hey, Kim, each week we ask our listeners to send us questions and emails. This week, we received one from Joel Dawson. He was talking about his splits he made, and he was finding drones, and he was excited because he had drones in with all the queen cells.
He was excited thinking that the drones and the- because the drones were there with the queens, he thought that that was going to be a great thing for his splits. He said he talked to his beekeeper, a master beekeeper friend, and she told him that the drones in the hive do not inseminate the new virgin queens. He hadn't heard that, and he was just questioning us on that logic.
Kim: Oh, his friend had it exactly right. The drones from the hive don't mate with the queens from the same hive generally. I think she spelled it out, and you also had something in the answer that you said, spelled it out that drones fly a lot farther than the queens from the same hive. Then they're going to head out for different drone congregation areas. Queen is going to one, and the drones from that hive is going to the other. Of course, what that does is stop drones and queens from the same mothers breeding, it gets rid of that opportunity, and it increases the variability and the diversity of the queens that do get mated. They're going to have drones from several- maybe many colonies, and they're going to mate with more than one drone, of course, up to 20 sometimes. Given that, then when they finally start laying eggs, they're going to have a very diverse population drawing on the strengths of each of the drone's genetics.
Jeff: Yes, very good. Joel, thanks for your email and your question. Very good question and timely too for this time of year. Coming up on our interview today, we have Dr. Samuel Ramsey. I'm looking forward to this. He's a good guest.
Kim: Yes, he's got to be getting anxious to get back to Thailand where he was to finish up his work on the mite over there. It'll be good to see what he's planning.
Jeff: Oh, definitely. It really will be, and I'm looking forward to it. Let's have a quick word from our friends at Strong Microbials.
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Jeff: Welcome back and sitting right across the virtual desk from me right now is Dr. Samuel Ramsey. Sammy, welcome back to Beekeeping Today Podcast.
Dr. Samuel Ramsey: [chuckles] I'm always glad to be here.
Jeff: Thank you. Thank you.
Samuel: How many times has it been?
Jeff: Not enough. This is probably third or fourth-- Third.
Samuel: I thought so. I think it's the third time.
Jeff: Yes, that's about right.
Samuel: It's one of the biggest compliments you can get when somebody invites you back twice.
Jeff: There you go. A third time it's like, "Woo-hoo." [laughs]
Kim: Actually, Jeff, I like your answer better. Not enough. That was good. It's good to see you again, Sammy, and I hope we catch up on-
Samuel: Great to be here.
Kim: -what you've been doing and what you're going to be doing. Sounds like you have not let grass grow under your feet.
Samuel: [laughs] When I first came back from the pan-- I was in Thailand when they declared this a pandemic and then had to return in a hurry. I really did think that grass was going to grow under my feet, but yes, a rolling stone gathers no moss.
Kim: Something like that. Yes.
Jeff: There you go. [laughs]
Kim: You've been here before and you were talking about fat bodies and then you were talking about Tropilaelaps. I'd like to catch up- we'd like to catch up on what's happened since we talked to you about Varroa, and fat bodies, and bees.
Samuel: Okay. Things have been really, let's say, eventful in the lab since then. I've been very interested in how we can translate this whole Varroa of feeding on fat body thing from being the intrigue that it can be, to something that can actually be a functional method of us managing Varroa destructor. It turns out that the mites need a few different proteins from the fat body of the bees in order to actually produce the eggs that they create. These are the same eggs, of course, that are driving their population numbers.
If we can manage their ability to extract these proteins from the honeybee's fat body, then we can manage the populations of the mites by managing their reproductive processes. I've been working through this back and forth, trying to figure out how we can figure out what these proteins are. It's been an exciting process of actually looking at the biochemical processes available here. Yes, I've been in the lab working with individuals who know a lot more than I do about biochemistry, learning from them, and seeing how we can apply all of it.
Jeff: Would that be something along the lines of some chemical or drug to alter the protein that affects the Varroa or removing the protein? How would that work?
Samuel: The mites have carriers, their carriers in their saliva, and their biochemical carriers in their body that are actually moving these proteins from the fat body of the bees that's being broken down. It's protecting these proteins because they need them intact, and then moving them to a special organ inside of the Varroa mites body called the lyrate organ.
The lyrate organ is really important because it's this strange sort of- it's this weird oddly shaped organ that develops a weird tube with the egg, and it pumps nutrients into the egg and inflates it to a gigantic size. These eggs end up being far larger than you would expect for an organism. It seems like there's somewhere between 30% and 40% of the mite's body volume, and they make an egg this large every 30 hours.
In order to do that, obviously, they're extracting a large volume of nutrition, but they're also keeping it from being broken down, which is remarkable. When we eat things, our digestive enzymes and our stomach break everything down into its tiny little constituent parts, and then sometimes we reassemble them into other things that we may need. The mites aren't wasting their energy going through that process of breaking things down and reassembling it. They're just taking stuff and throwing it into their eggs. It's crazy to watch, but we've been able to image this in the lab. We've been able to use fluorescence microscopy in addition to micro-CT to actually image the development to the egg, the connection of the tube there, and show these eggs swelling up over time. We've actually been able to trace the proteins that are moving through this process as well.
I'm really, really excited to start actually reaching the point where we try to disrupt the carriers that are moving these proteins because the carriers are the big deal. If we can stop the carrier from carrying the protein, then we have mites that are trying to feed but can't get the nutrition to where it needs to be.
Jeff: Wow. That's very cool.
Kim: I can only wish my chickens were that productive.
Samuel: Oh, that would be frightening to see an egg that large every day from a chicken. [laughs] I tell you, I always lose people here because everyone that I talk to-- I'm talking to beekeepers and we all love our bees, but there is a section of biology where scientists get to, and we just have to pause and admire the parasites because they've worked really, really, really hard to reach this level of proficiency where they can do this crazy stuff. Varroa is one of those parasites. They have reached a remarkable level of proficiency and I have to sit there and say, "You know what? You've impressed me with how resourceful you can be. I still want you dead, but you have impressed me."
Kim: It does sound like they are quite productive. From where I sit, I- what's the word I want, I admire the discovery of this. I'm just now hoping somebody can come up, "Oh, if we just feed bees this, that'll fix it." I'm sure it's not going to be that simple, but I admire the discovery of this. I'm impressed.
Samuel: Yes. I am a biologist through and through. Entomology has been my thing. I absolutely love looking at how biological systems work. When you get to the next step in this process, when you get to the part where you're trying to disrupt how proteins work on a molecular level and disrupt how molecular carriers work, this is where things branch into a section of biochemistry where you're outside of my wheelhouse, and I am asking more questions than I can answer.
I'm really delighted to get to work with the incredible team that we have at the USDA Bee Research Lab because we've got people with all kinds of skills in different areas. We have a couple of individuals with biochemistry degrees that can really help with this. What they've told me is this is the part that takes a while because you're not only screening a chemical for its impact on a carrier inside of the mite, you also screen this chemical to make sure that there are no cross-reactions with the host.
You don't want it to be-- There are all kinds of chemicals we could easily put into this system that would disrupt the carrier, that would kill the Varroa, but they would also have impacts on the honeybees. We're looking for that diamond in the rough; that scenario where we find the one that impacts the carrier and stops the mite from being able to transfer their nutrition to their eggs but doesn't actually hurt the bees.
Jeff: Or the honey.
Samuel: Oh, yes, or the honey.
Jeff: It doesn't sound like it's going to be as easy as crushing herbal tea leaves and sprinkling across the hive. Does it? [chuckles]
Samuel: I wish, but science is something that will constantly push you to be patient. I'm learning that as excited as I get in these moments of, "Oh, wow, look at these things that we're finding," it can take a while for them to actually be translated into the functional system where they're being used inside of a colony.
Jeff: Yes, that's exciting.
Kim: The process and the direction that you're going sound like it beats the heck out of putting poison in a hive.
Samuel: Yes, that's the goal. The goal is to get us off the pesticide treadmill. I talk to people all the time. I've been speaking to a lot of groups. One of the things I've been doing with a lot of my time in isolation has been speaking to different beekeeping groups and trade groups from all kinds of areas. When I'm talking to beekeeping groups, I've been in more than a few scenarios where they've told me, "We're going to get a pretty good turnout today. We're going to get maybe 120 members."
We used to have a much bigger group than this though and then we had a split. We had a Varroa treatment people split and a non-treatment split, and we just can't seem to go eye to eye on that. Those two groups, they just keep butting heads and we had to separate into two totally different groups." I don't think that's necessary because at the end of the day we both got the same goal. All of us, whether you're in the non-treatment category or the treatment category, we want to see a day where we never have to put chemicals into a colony again. We just have different ideas about how to reach that goal. If we can start collaborating and talking through what that means, then we can much more easily reach a point where we are understanding each other there.
Kim: I wonder, Sammy, does this biochemistry translate to Tropilaelaps?
Samuel: Now, we're digging into things. Kim's asking about Tropilaelaps mercedesae, which is one of four species from the genus Tropilaelaps. It is a mouthful to attempt to say that. It is even more of a mouthful when you try to say this in other countries where they don't even have some of these letters in their language. It doesn't work for them. When I was in Thailand, I learned that getting people to say Tropilaelaps usually doesn't work, but Tropi mites works really well. I found that that translates well in the US as well. People trying to say Tropilaelaps mercedesae oftentimes will fail at that, but Tropi mite works.
These Tropi mites, they are just running around destroying honey bee colonies and expanding their geographic range every year. That makes somebody like me nervous because I've spent a lot of time looking at what Varroa did a good 30 years ago when it was on its way, when it was moving through the different areas of the world until it could reach the US more than three decades ago.
Tropilaelaps is doing something very similar. The Tropi mites are going from country to country to country now. They're now found in Oceania. They're found in the Middle East. As they move through the Middle East, they can easily reach the west and more broadly become distributed around the world. What are we going to do about these Tropi mites? I would love it if the work that we are doing now to try to disrupt the biochemical processes of Varroa destructor actually works on the Tropi mite.
We don't know that yet because one of the things that we still don't know about the Tropi mite is what do they eat. Now, I have some hypotheses in this process, but I don't want to bias the system. They are also organisms that generate gigantic eggs, and it leads me to believe that they must be siphoning off a really neutrally dense tissue in order to meet that biochemical demand. It's very possible that these mites are feeding on the same tissue that Varroa is.
It's very possible that they're using a related system of carriers to get those molecules to where they need to be eventually, but we don't know the answers to that yet. The work that I've conducted so far in Thailand has spanned a little more than six months, and it was a 12-month project. I've got a lot more to do, and I'm very excited to get back to it after this brief musical interlude called COVID-19.
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Kim: How are you going to make getting back there happen?
Samuel: We've got one step of that out of the way or technically two if you think about it. I am actually coming back from getting my second shot, the Pfizer Vaccine actually. That's one thing out of the way. I need to get vaccinated. The process of getting a visa now is going to take substantially longer because of the backlog that is accumulated during the pandemic, but I'm working on that months in advance of when I'll need it. I'm expecting that I'll be leaving for Thailand in the fall.
I'm working through the elements of that process now. I've already drafted a budget. I'm working on the fundraising process, which is going to be exciting again. I'm sure and looking at different grants that might be available. There's multiple granting agencies that are not providing grants now because of the revenue that they lost during the pandemic.
Kim: The last time you were here, you were talking about getting outside help funding and not grants. Tell me what you were thinking.
Samuel: The last time that I was here, one of the things that I was considering, was actually starting a foundation because if you have a nonprofit, the collection of funds through fundraising processes is a lot easier to work with. It can be a bit unwieldy at first, working with the lengthy process that can be in the lengthy forms that it takes, but when you get everything in place, it can be a really great thing.
I started working on developing the Ramsey Research Foundation last year, a little while after talking to you guys last time we talked. I'm happy to say that it's up and running now. The donate page is live. If any of your viewers or your listeners are interested, they can actually donate directly to not just the Tropi project, but I'm also working on a project on Asian giant hornets. I'll have the opportunity to collect multiple hornet species while I'm in Thailand and look at their genetics for this project as well.
Jeff: Very nice. We will have links to your foundation in the show notes.
Samuel: Sweet. I really appreciate you guys.
Kim: When you get back to Thailand, now are you going to be looking at Tropi mites and giant Asian hornets at the same time?
Kim: Are you going to get to sleep at all?
Samuel: [laughs] The primary focus is going to be the Tropi mites, but the USDA in partnership with the Washington State Department of Agriculture, so the WSDA, we have been trying to get really solid samples of Asian giant hornets that we can look at the genetics of these organisms. One of the things that we would like to determine is where did the hornets that ended up in the Pacific Northwest come from.
If we can figure out where in the broad geographic range of that organism, where did ours come from, we can better understand how we can mitigate those sorts of scenarios from happening in the future. Right now, we have no real solid idea of where exactly they came from. Actually, collecting some Asian giant hornet specimens from different areas of Asia and looking at their genetics, and comparing them to the ones that we have in the US, that will be great stuff, but I'm going to be doing the collection part.
The genetics, I'll be leaving up to some experts in genetics. I am not one.
Kim: I'm thinking, collecting, wouldn't you want to be an expert in that either?
Jeff: I was just going to say I'd rather stay in the lab than work on genetics, let someone else do the collection on the Asian giant hornets. Thank you.
Samuel: It's funny that you say that because it's the other way around with me. The genetics part is really exciting, but the part that really gets my blood pumping is thinking about getting the chance to see these colonies again. When I was in Thailand, I was constantly dealing with hornets of multiple different species. They were showing up in my colonies and cleaning them out.
It's rough. When you purchase-- I ended up buying 96 colonies when all was said and done, and these hornets have just ripped through them. They can do so much in such a small amount of time because their populations within an entire nest, they need a lot of protein. They want to go into a colony and clean out all the brood. In order to do that, they also have to kill all of the adult bees. You just end up with just a mess when you open up that colony later.
I think it's crazy, but when I was there, I was so focused on the Tropi mites that I didn't spend much of any time taking pictures of the giant hornets, looking at their behavior. All I was doing was-- I don't want to encourage such a thing, but knowing about the behavior of the scouts and how easily distracted they are at the front entrance of the colony, I was hitting them with the lid of the colony and knocking them on the ground and stepping on them. Not recommended at home, but I actually wish that I had collected some of those to take back. It would've been really helpful for our genetic work.
Kim: You've watched these hornets decimate your colonies over there. We've talked to the people from Washington that have done some of this, and some have been over there looking at- but with this much firsthand experience, how long does it take for a colony to get destroyed by these hornets? Are they taking days or hours or minutes?
Samuel: Unfortunately, it's a matter of hours for the actual process of killing all of the adult bees. What happens first is you get a scout. The scout flies over, and it finds a colony. It's going to try to identify whether that colony is worth their time, is there a lot of brood present in this colony, are there a lot of bees here. If they are able to identify that, first, they'll mark the colony. They'll mark it with some pheromones so that they know how to get back to it next time. Then they'll fly back to their nest, recruit their sisters, and a squadron of giant hornets. A few dozen of them will show up at the colony and destroy everything. They go into what we call the slaughter phase, where they exhibit no other behavior but to turn around and chop the heads off of any moving bee.
After they've decapitated every moving bee in the colony, then they go through and they scrape all of the brood out of the wax, and they form it into a squishy meatball, and then start flying those back to the colony. This stage, what we call the occupation phase, how long that takes depends on how large the colony is. If it happens to be a really big colony, maybe three or four boxes, that can take a couple of days. They will occupy that colony, they'll even sleep inside of that colony, and they'll use it as an extension of their own nest, and they will defend it with their lives.
If a beekeeper shows up and tries to open that, that colony thinking that their bees are still inside, the hornets will go off. That is the time where the beekeeper is most likely to be hurt by these organisms. After they've cleaned the place out, they have no further interest in it. They leave that colony, they fly back home, and they use all of that extra protein to make a bunch of really huge queens.
Jeff: You want to come out and open my hives, Kim?
Samuel: Ah, Jeff.
Jeff: Now I'm a little nervous to open them up.
Kim: I guess that's the most dynamic description I've ever heard of these things. Since you've been there and you know how bad they are, what kind of protective gear were you wearing?
Samuel: I don't want to alarm you too much, but-
Kim: You're way past that.
Samuel: In China, I've seen these really cool suits. They look like spacesuits, they're made of really thick foam, and they are thick enough such that the hornets can't sting through it. I thought, when I was talking to other people in Thailand, the primary reason why they weren't using those suits was because they are expensive. That is a big reason for it, but they told me that even if I bought them one, they said, "It's just too hot here. It's too hot here in Thailand for us to put on something like that. We're just not going to do it."
The hornet hunters that I know of, that I've seen actually take down these colonies, they choose to just wear a veil. They're not too concerned about the stings to the rest of their body, and the goal is to just keep the number of stings below 36 because there's a threshold. If you get more than a few dozen stings, then the actual impact that the venom has on your body transitions quite substantially and you start seeing necrotizing effects where each sting can leave this whole section of flesh that doesn't heal anymore and just turns into a viscous blob. That's gross. Maybe I shouldn't have said that. No one wants to hear that. [laughs]
If you keep things under a few dozen stings, it hurts like heck. I haven't been stung yet, so I don't know this from experience, but I've seen people who have been stung by them, I've seen people be stung by them. It hurts quite a bit, but you will survive the experience.
Jeff: I wonder how they rate on Justin Schmidt's sting scale.
Samuel: Yes, the Sting Index. That's a great question, I wonder as well.
Kim: Report back to us, would you?
Samuel: [laughs] I do not plan to be stung by these organisms. I will only do a hornet hunt at night. There are some people who are bold enough to try this kind of thing during the day, but I will only do a hornet hunt at night. The way that they do them in Thailand is absolutely fascinating. You go and do this hornet hunt in the dead of night, and they take with them some fuel and a rag. They'll soak that rag in fuel and then they'll put it on a long stick, light it on fire, and hold it on that very long stick under the nest itself. These are the aboveground nests where this works best.
Because the nests are made out of paper, it's just chewed up plant pulp, it burns really quickly. There's this flash as the colony goes up in flames, but it just mostly burns off the paper shell, and a little bit of the inside of the colony is charred. That big flash kills a bunch of the adults, but there are still several of them that are still alive. I've seen people dispatch the rest of them with an electrified tennis racket. If you want to see someone look like a total boss, you want to see a gentleman with an electrified tennis racket just swiping hornets out of the air. It is incredible.
You don't want to damage the brood, that's the most important part because the brood is something that you can sell for a ridiculous amount of money in Asia. People like to eat the brood, and the brood also makes this gooey amino acid mixture that's been shown in a few studies to actually have some benefit to athletes. Supposedly, it can allow for more efficient functioning of their muscles. People will take this and use it as a pharmacological substance, and they can sell it to different agencies. No one wants to hurt the brood. People will protect that brood with their lives.
Jeff: Isn't that part of- the thought is the Asian giant hornets that are in North America might have come across as brood for that reason?
Samuel: Oh Lord, Lord, Lord.
Jeff: I don't know, there's a lot of speculation.
Samuel: [laughs] Jeff, before all of this started, you told me, "There would be no gotcha questions, sir." These questions you're asking me, I tell you. It is true that it has been the case before that people have intentionally brought hornet colonies into the US from different countries. We think it was with the intent to start a business marketing this amino acid mixture in the US. We are very much hoping that that's not how the hornets that have currently arrived got here, but we cannot say for sure.
Jeff: I do ride with a lot of cyclists from the Pacific Northwest, and no one's mentioning bee juice, just officially on record.
Samuel: You can keep your ear to the ground on that one, and let me know specifically if you hear anyone mentioning that they're on hornet juice.
Jeff: Yes, I'm juicing. [laughs]
Kim: I can see the bee supply catalogs next year with electric tennis rackets and bee juice.
Samuel: Oh my goodness. [laughs]
Kim: Something else that's come out of people looking at this hornet over there was, I think it was folks in Canada discovered that some of the honeybees spread some kind of fecal material on the landing board to scare away the hornets. How does that work, and does that work?
Samuel: This part, it does work. It works very well. This is really, really exciting research. In Vietnam, they noticed this really odd behavior of Apis cerana bees, the most closely related species to the Apis mellifera bees that we have in the West. These Apis cerana bees were flying over to very large deposits of water buffalo dung and just collecting it. At first, it can seem like maybe they're just collecting some fluid from it, maybe they're thirsty. We've noticed bees, even when we give them pristine water, for some reason, they want the gunkiest, saddest, weirdest-looking water possible. All of us have noticed this once in a while.
That's probably what I would have thought was going on there at first, but if you watch them more closely, they're taking solid matter back to the nest and then smearing it on the front of the entrance of the colony, and they're doing it in earnest. A bunch of bees going back and forth, doing this over and over and over in a very small amount of time. The reason is because they've detected that a hornet has arrived at the nest and has wiped the end of its abdomen across the front of their colony. That is the kiss of death for the honeybees because there is not a lot that bees can do when an entire squadron of hornets alights on them.
Apis cerana have a couple of behaviors that can be very effective, but unfortunately, they can really tax the colony itself. If you don't work with that first shot, if you happen to allow for that scout to get in the colony and recognize how large it is and then leave, the next thing that you can do in that process is keep them from coming back. The very pungent fecal matter that they smear on the front of the colony, that's really important because it can mask the smell, the pheromone that the hornets are going to use to navigate back to that nest. If the hornets can't smell where the nest is, they'll get really confused and eventually give up and head back home. It's one of the only examples that we have of insects using tools, and it's amazing.
Kim: That's exactly what I was going to say.
Jeff: It's amazing.
Kim: There's a third product you'll see in bee supply catalogs next season because if you live in town and you don't own a dog, fighting some of that may be a problem.
Samuel: It's a good point. You need some water buffalo dung.
[laughter] Just add water. I mentioned this to a group of beekeepers just last week, or two weeks ago actually, and they asked me if it would work to spray this preemptively on the front of their colonies. I saw the wheels turning behind their eyes like, "No, no, no. That's not how it works." You have to spray it over top of the hornet's pheromone that they spread on the colony. It doesn't help for you to just spray all of your colonies down with dung and hope that that means that hornets won't arrive there. If they can then arrive to that colony and spread their pheromone on top of that smell, then they can still find that colony.
Jeff: Wow. That's really amazing. We're coming up close to the end of our time here. What else have you been looking at and would like to share with us today?
Samuel: Oh my goodness. Well then, a couple of things that I'd like to address.
Samuel: One, we've got a new system now that can be used to actually determine which species of Tropi mite you're looking at. These mites, a lot like Varroa destructor, can be really difficult for you to distinguish between. For a while, we thought that Varroa destructor and Varroa jacobsoni were the same species. There are all kinds of papers written about Varroa jacobsoni in the US killing colonies. It turned out, all that time, we were looking at a totally different species, but we couldn't tell because they look so similar.
Unfortunately, we found that that is a trend in honeybee mites because the four species of Tropi mites look very similar to each other. It's really hard to distinguish between them unless you get really good samples and a very, very, very well-trained researcher specialized in that group. Well, what a set of researchers has determined is that by using a system called high-resolution melting where you take a sample of the mite's DNA and then you melt it, [chuckles] you can look at the melting point of this DNA, which is so cool. You can look at the point where the double-stranded DNA separates into two strands, when it pretty much melts into its two constituent parts. Based on the connections between all of those nucleotides, you can determine based on when it finally splits what species you're looking at because each species will have a unique profile. I know that that's mind-blowing and awesome.
Jeff: That's crazy. That is crazy.
Samuel: They've used this as a system. They found out that it has enough resolution to actually distinguish between each species of Tropi mite. That's really great because now, we can determine which species people are seeing without having to invest in a very specialized individual looking at a very specialized organism and trying to figure out if he can see a difference between them.
Kim: Well, that's the next question, is if people notice a difference between the species. The last time you were here, you spelled out their life cycle pretty good and the controls that they were using were mostly "Go queenless, so you don't have a brood". Do all four react about the same way if you got them go queenless?
Samuel: Most of the research that we have on Tropi mites is related to Tropilaelaps mercedesae. That's unfortunate because that leaves a really substantial knowledge gap for the other three species. There's simply not much that we know about Tropilaelaps koenigerum, Tropilaelaps thaii, or Tropilaelaps clareae. What we're looking at here is the potential to do a parasitological survey of Southeast Asia. That way, when we can catalog all of the different parasites, the way that all of these parasites look, such that they'll be easier to identify, and their genetic material, it'll allow us to not be caught off-guard if one of them should end up in the West. We'll know what the organism looks like, we'll know its life cycle, we'll know what damage it can potentially cause, and we'll know what can control it.
That information to my mind is desperately needed because every time something shows up, we're like, "What do we do about this one?" "I don't know." It's going to take us a while to figure it out. In that period of time, that organism can become established and wreak havoc. That's what I'm up to, but it's going to take a bit. Right now, I haven't been able to work with the other three species of Tropi mites yet. Unfortunately, I can't answer your question about that, Kim.
Kim: Well, catch you next time then. [laughs]
Samuel: That's the goal.
Jeff: You'll first have to figure out which one of those three you have actually at your research station in Thailand.
Samuel: Exactly. That's what's so great about this HRM system, the high-resolution melting system, is that you can just do a PCR test to amplify the region that you're looking at and then put it through this system for high-resolution melting, and you can determine which of the species you got.
Jeff: How many mites does it take to do that?
Samuel: Well, in the study that they were working with, they were able to show that you can do this- if you're comparing two different mites, you can run these two against each other with just one of each, which is really, really cool.
Jeff: That is really cool because those are so small.
Samuel: They're really tiny, but you got plenty of DNA in there.
Jeff: Oh my gosh. Hey, running out of time, I've seen some things on social media I want to run by you real quick, if you don't mind.
Samuel: Sweet. This is the lightning round, right?
Samuel: Let's do this thing.
Jeff: This is the big money round. I did see that you have out there with scholastic teachers, Earth Day. Do you want to talk about this? It's non-bee-specific, but it's projects that you're involved in, so I'd give you a chance to talk about Earth Day and scholastic teachers.
Samuel: Well, thanks for that plug. I've been trying to figure out how best I can advance science education, STEM in general, and just generally, science literacy because in a lot of areas of the country, we have seen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, that a lot of people just weren't comfortable trusting the science that was coming out about COVID-19, about how it spreads, about ways that we can protect ourselves and each other and all of this.
It's important to me to see that people understand science because it's one thing to say, "You should listen to us because we're researchers. Trust me, I'm a doctor." It's another thing to say, "Well, this is how scientific research works," because when individuals can actually see inside of the black box, when they know how the system works, they're much more inclined to trust it.
I'm really excited to be a part of different initiatives that are working to increase science literacy. I love this one with Scholastic for Earth Day because it targets individuals who are younger. If we can help people understand science when they're growing up, you can pull them in. Some of those students are going to become scientists, but all those students are going to understand science better than they would have if not otherwise. I'll be talking about the research that I conducted, I'll be talking about science in general, and about the environment. I'm looking forward to doing this with Scholastic.
Jeff: Just last thing here because I know our time is short, I saw something you responded to and it showed a video of the golden tortoise beetle. I had never seen this before and it's absolutely phenomenal insect. What is that?
Samuel: Anybody who is listening to this podcast right now, if you're not driving, now is a wonderful time for you to pause it and Google "golden tortoise beetle". It is a beautiful insect. It is in the family chrysomelidae. These are called leaf beetles. They're beetles that, of course, are very closely associated with leaves. This particular group of Chrysomelids has this really odd element of their exoskeleton where their shell is transparent. It's arrayed on the edges as transparent and then there's this gold extending from the middle off to the sides where it looks like a turtle shell in the middle with the legs of the turtle sticking out, these four legs sticking out. It's beautiful. The way that they walk, they just bumble around. They look like little turtles with golden embedded in their shells. It's breathtaking.
Jeff: The video I saw, they would fly off and they looked like the little sparkles in a Disney movie. It was just phenomenal. It was just phenomenal. I know that this is bug-geeky, but I'm sure many beekeepers can appreciate the fascination with all things crawling.
Samuel: I love that beekeepers have the opportunity to interact so consistently with insects that they can understand me when I geek out about bugs because I've been fascinated with insects since I was seven. I've come across so many fascinating groups of insects. The honeybees are not the only ones. There are so many cool insects in this world that do incredible things. They have inspired all kinds of works of fiction and nonfiction and it's great stuff.
Kim: We're going to have some cicadas here this summer. Sammy, would you like--
Samuel: For any of you who have just moved to the area, any of you who have moved to a region of the country where Brood- 10 will be emerging, I'm so excited for you because this is going to be an experience for you. First of all, you're going to hear some noises that you've never heard before in your life. Second of all, you're going to see some creatures that look different from anything that you've ever seen.
The cicadas are these weird, generally large insects for a bug. They are true bugs. Their mouthparts are a straw. They've spent more time in isolation than you have, so they can really identify with you in that. They've spent time underground, 17 years in isolation, not seeing another cicada in all of that time. The moment they emerge from underground, all they can think of is, "I want to party. I want to see every other cicada that I can see. I want to lay eggs." They get all of this living into just a few weeks of their lives. After 17 years underground, now that they've emerged as adults, they spend all this time enjoying each other.
Kim: They do.
Samuel: I think that we can identify with that because there are a lot of people who are about to leave isolation and all they want to do is see their friends and their family and party it up.
Kim: The only piece of advice, this is the second one that I've seen, I was here 17 years ago, the only thing that got in the way was, don't let your cat eat one.
Samuel: Oh, gosh, guys, you're going to have to keep an eye on your pets. Pets can choke on these things. Their eyes are bigger than their stomachs. Cicadas, they are just not the brightest bugs in the world. For lack of a better word, they're derpy. They do not have a method of defending themselves from predators, aside from the fact that there are just so many of them. They walk around and bump into things; and dogs and cats and raccoons and birds, everything is going to see them as an easy meal. Unfortunately, cats don't always chew their food particularly well. Keep an eye on your dogs and cats.
Jeff: All right. Well, Dr. Samuel Ramsey, Sammy, we definitely appreciate having you here with us again. You're welcome back anytime. We look forward to talking to you again, and fans of Dr. Ramsey, you can find him out on Twitter. Are you on Instagram too?
Jeff: You're on Instagram and we'll have the link to the foundation in our show notes.
Jeff: We can find you in Short Wave on the NPR podcast. Well, we look forward to having you back. Thanks for joining us today.
Samuel: Definitely. Always delighted to be with you guys.
Jeff: Hey, Kim, it was really good as always to have Sammy on our show. I know I've said that about six times in the last hour here of the episode. He is energetic and just a great spokesperson for the beekeeping industry and research in the area.
Kim: God, I get worn out just listening to him, all the stuff that he's up to, and going this direction with the Tropi mite, in this direction with the hornet, and raising funds for his trip. I don't know how he does it.
Jeff: It's full speed for Sammy, but that's good. He's accomplished a lot and it's fun. It's really, really fun.
Kim: I'm excited to hear about his work with Varroa. That, to me- all this other stuff is exciting, but the work with Varroa, I can see the day when we don't have to put poison in a hive.
Jeff: I would like that too. The poisons and the chemicals and the hives, we have to do it, or we choose to do it, those beekeepers who want to, but it'd be nice to have the option not to use any chemicals or poison in a hive or on the bees. I'm all for that. Any of the research he's doing, beforehand on the Tropi mites, hopefully, we'll never need to use that here in the United States, but hope the work he's doing will help benefit those beekeepers in Southeast Asia as well. That'd be good.
Kim: Can you imagine being stung 36 times by one of those things?
Jeff: Then saying, "Hey guys, I got to stop. I just did 36."
Kim: [laughs] Just a veil. That's amazing.
Jeff: No. Thank you. I've been bitten by spiders and started having the skin- just the pocket of skin just start dying. That yucky middle part that happens when it starts dying and that's not fun. I can't imagine having 36 of those welts melting on your body.
Kim: Wish him luck that he doesn't have to go through that.
Jeff: Well, I look forward to hearing from him as he travels. Well, that about wraps it up for this episode. Before we go, I want to encourage our listeners to rate us five stars in Apple Podcasts, wherever you download and stream the show. Your vote helps other beekeepers find us quicker. Even better, write a review and let other beekeepers looking for a new podcast know what you like. You can get there directly on our website by clicking Reviews along the top of any webpage.
As always, we thank Bee Culture, the magazine for American beekeeping for their continued support of Beekeeping Today Podcast. We want to thank our regular episode sponsor Global Patties. Check them firstname.lastname@example.org. We also want to thank Veer and Slav at Strong Microbials for their support of their podcast. Check out their probiotic line at www.strongmicrobials.com. We want to thank Better Bee for joining us as our latest supporter. Check out all their great beekeeping supplies at www.betterb.com, and finally, and most importantly, we want to thank you, the Beekeeping Today Podcast listener for joining us on this show. Feel free to send us questions and comments at questions at beekeepingtodaypodcast.com. We'd love to hear from you. Anything else, Kim?
Kim: I think that about wraps it up. I need to rest.
Jeff: Yes, I hear you. Take care.
Samuel Ramsey, Ph.D. Marvin Caruthers Endowed Professor of Entomology *National Geographic* Explorer BioFrontiers Institute
Dr. Ramsey received his B.S. in entomology from Cornell University and his Ph.D. in entomology from the University of Maryland College Park. He completed his post-doctoral training with Dr. Jay Evans, Steve Cook, and Daniel Sonenshine at USDA-ARS Bee Research Laboratory and now serves as Endowed Professor of Entomology at CU Boulder’s BioFrontiers Institute and the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department.
Featured on Hulu’s Docuseries: Your Attention Please as well as in the Washington Post, on NPR, CNN, Wired, CBS This Morning, Khan Academy, Seeker, The Today Show and several local news segments, Ramsey is celebrated as an engaging science communicator. He uses this talent to make science more accessible to a broad audience.
His nonprofit, The Ramsey Research Foundation, works to remove barriers that slow the progress of and decrease access to science by developing novel pathways for scientific funding and by removing paywalls that keep the public from engaging with published scientific work.