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ASU buzzes with bee activity

ASU's reputation as a bee campus: alerts, research and more.
Honeybees are on the decline, but spring is ripe for Africanized swarms.
May 9, 2017

From cellphone warnings about potentially dangerous swarms to world-class research, bees are a big part of Sun Devil community

Bees. Again.

When they’re buzzing at Arizona State University’s four Phoenix-area campuses, your phone buzzes too. Even if you’re in another state or abroad, you’ll get the advisories if you’re entered into the university’s directory. 

“ASU Advisory — A message from ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY ASU Advisory-Polytechnic: Swarm of bees reported near Peralta stairwell. Please use caution in the area.”

The inevitable collision of bee advisories, the Internet and college humor has birthed ASU bee-focused social media pages: It’s been suggested that ASU should consider changing its mascot from Sparky the Sun Devil to a Swarm of Bees. It’s also been suggested that ASU change its name to BSU.

But are there really that many swarms? Has anyone been stung? And aren’t bees on the decline?

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ASU bee advisory

ASU students have fun with the bee advisories, which help direct Sun Devils away from potentially dangerous swarms. Photo by Steve Des Georges/ASU

“If I get one more email about bees at ASU I'm going to hire a personal exterminator to follow me around,” one student posted to Facebook.

“Got stung by one of the ASU bees yesterday,” another Twitter user posted. “Now this ... is personal. Keep those text alerts coming, ASU Advisory.”

“It’s how you know spring has arrived at ASU,” a Reddit user pointed out on one of the dozens of ASU bee threads.

Finally, another tweeter said: “ASU might as well change the damn mascot to killer bees since they overrun EVERY SINGLE one of our CAMPUSES!”

                                                            . . . .

Well, not every campus. Thunderbird and West seem to bee free.

There have been no injuries from bees this year, ASU Police spokeswoman Katy Harris said. The department does not keep track of the number of bee advisories, but a review of their Twitter feed reveals there have been 13 this calendar year. (Before February the last advisory was in July 2016.) The Polytechnic campus had six, Tempe six, and Downtown Phoenix one.

That’s a normal year, said associate director of facilities management Ellen Newell. 

“Our department just puts caution tape up around a swarm to keep people away and then removes the tape when they have moved on,” Newell said. “This is the busiest time of year for swarms, and we have had a lot, but really not more than normal. The swarms will usually move within 24 hours and most often quicker than that, so they are really only a slight inconvenience.

The real concern are aggressive hives that are in areas where people frequent or where the bees nest in building walls, and the honey starts causing problems.”

The university actually has a bee sightings Web page, most notable for its admonition to not aggravate the bees, even though they are aggravating you. 

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Bee lab

Osman Kaftanoglu pulls up a hive while looking for the queen and talking about the bee life cycle at the Bee Lab at ASU's Polytechnic campus.

Managed honey bee populations are declining. There were 5.5 million colonies in the U.S. in the 1950s, down to about 2.5 million now, according to Osman Kaftanoglu, lab project manager at ASU’s Honey Bee Research Lab — the largest bee research program in North America, outside of the USDA Bee Lab.

Pesticides, habitat destruction, pollution, honey bee diseases, parasites and combinations of all those factors are wiping out bees, but ASU researchers are looking for solutions.

ASU School of Life Sciences Professor Gro Amdam, a biologist who studies behavior and aging in honey bees, is working toward creating bee vaccines.

Jon Harrison, an environmental physiologist who studies how insects function, interact with their environment and evolve, is partnering with other ASU scientists to study the effects two widely used fungicides have on bees. Research has shown that when bees are fed pollen containing these fungicides, they lose appetite and have difficulty digesting protein.

Robert Page, provost emeritus, foundation chair of life sciences at ASU and a prominent honey bee geneticist, has been studying and selecting bees that are superior pollinators. Page has found that some bees collect more pollen (a protein) and less nectar (a carbohydrate), and enjoy superior nutrition as a result. Selectively breeding this higher-protein-consuming population can lead to healthier bee colonies.

But if bee numbers are down, where are the swarms coming from?

Swarms come from Africanized feral colonies, Kaftanoglu said. Such bees were first introduced to Brazil in the 1950s. They arrived in North America in 1985 and have invaded all the Southern states. 

“The number of Africanized colonies are increasing every year,” Kaftanoglu said. “Since they develop faster, swarm much more than the European colonies and are resistant to most bee diseases and parasites, they are expanding their territory and becoming more populous. That is why we are getting more swarm warnings and calls every year.” 

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Bees might not overrun every campus, but at ASU they have a home — just stay away from it unless you're helping with research.

Top photo: Worker bees at ASU's Honeybee Research Lab on the Polytechnic campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Polytechnic campus is all abuzz

ASU bee lab at the Polytechnic campus is one of the biggest in the U.S.
February 27, 2017

ASU bee lab attracts researchers from around the world — and you can win a tour through the free Sun Devil Rewards app

It’s a silent, sunny day on the farthest corner of Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus. There are only two people at the Honey Bee Research Lab, and not a peep can be heard in its two metal buildings.

But inside the observation hive in a classroom, it’s anything but quiet. Bees fly in from an outside door, stride across a plexiglass-covered walkway into the hive, and then climb up the comb to deposit yellowish globs of pollen (two each on their backs) into the honeycomb cells.

The bees are, well, busy. They bustle up the crowded comb — darting around oncoming bees, and knots of bees, and dancing bees — drop their pollen packs and hurry back down. It resembles nothing so much as rush hour in Grand Central Station, without the Oyster Bar.

In all, there are about 50,000 bees in this observation hive, said School of Life Sciences Bee Lab project manager Osman Kaftanoglu. Studies underway at the many research hives at the Bee Lab include work on colony collapse disorder, artificial insemination of queen bees, long-term storage of bee semen and territorial pattern observation. The facility holds two-day workshops for beekeepers and hosts international scientists in the spring. 

Kaftanoglu has been getting ready to show the lab off to the public Friday (details below), allowing everyday people to see bees perform interpretive dance and learn about raids from rival colonies and insect counterterrorism efforts. The life of bees is intense. Peace is not a given in the garden.

“This is one of the biggest (bee) laboratories, and the most efficient laboratory in the United States,” said Kaftanoglu, a research technologist. “We have a really good season here.”

Back in the observation hive, there’s a huge cluster of bees around the queen, who is in a hurry herself laying about 1,500 to 2,000 eggs per day. The eggs are tiny white grains; an estimate of 1/20th the size of a grain of rice would be overly generous.

Bees who have found pollen dance their findings to the rest of the hive. They wiggle like crazed puppies, turning right, then left. She (all workers are sterile females) is letting the others know she has found pollen.

She’s not vague about giving directions. If she dances up the hive, the pollen is in the direction of the sun. If she dances down the hive, the food is in the opposite direction from the sun. If she dances quickly, the food is closer. Slow dancing, the food is farther. They can travel 3 miles for pollen.

“They get so excited,” Kaftanoglu said. “The closer, the better.”

The lab was founded in 2006. There are labs, offices, meeting spaces and storage areas. Out back, the hives sit widely spaced apart. There’s a water trough full of rocks at one end of the yard, covered in thirsty bees. A mesmerizing buzz fills the air. It’s a warm, sunny day, so the bees are all out and about. If it was cold, they would cluster together in a clump inside the hive and eat honey, much like you would do the same with popcorn and Netflix on a damp, chilly day.

“These are very nice bees,” Kaftanoglu said. “Gentle bees. ... There’s nothing to worry about with bees, unless they are Africanized.”

The lab doesn’t produce a lot of honey.

“Our aim is to do research here, not produce honey,” Kaftanoglu said.

ASU’s Bee Lab attracts researchers from around the world. A cohort from Germany is due next month.

“We have the expertise here, and we have the colonies here,” Kaftanoglu said.

Beekeepers nationwide also show up for two-day seminars to learn hands-on instruction and things like how to keep European bees from becoming Africanized.

“There’s a group of scientists here, and they’re all working on different aspects of bee physiology and bee behavior,” Kaftanoglu said.

He is working on the nutrition of bees and incubating bees, as well as a new USDA project studying the effect of pesticides on larvae and bee behavior. Another project is working on storage of honey bee semen in liquid nitrogen to preserve genetic stocks.

Jonathan Jackson is working on his biology doctorate. He is studying how honey bees guard against other rivals. They face a lot of threats — wasps, moths, humans, etc. — but there’s a lot of difference in what they pay attention to from their perspective. 

“Honey bees will rob each other to death,” Jackson said. “They will beat up a weaker colony and steal all of its honey. It’s kind of important that the bees fine-tune their guarding, so to speak.”

They have to protect their nest from other honey bees, Jackson said.

“That presents some interesting challenges, given that a honey bee is a honey bee,” he said. “How do you distinguish between friend or foe when they look very much like you? When they even smell very much like you? I look at a recognition problem.”

They might compare the stranger to an internal template they have. The bee thinks, “Do you match what I think of as a nestmate?”

At certain times of the year and under certain conditions, bees are more or less accepting. They might accept strangers or reject nestmates.

“It’s a balancing act of how accepting they should be, trying to balance the costs and benefits,” Jackson said. “That’s what I’m looking at; what causes a shift in the general acceptance?”

If there’s a lot of food in their environment, they don’t have to be such diligent guardians. It’s easier for bees to go get food, rather than raid a rival hive and risk being killed by a guard bee.

Jackson is studying factors that might cause a shift in acceptance like food availability levels and the familiarity of one colony to another.

If you put hives close to each other, foragers will occasionally drift into the wrong colony.

“It’s not a small problem, actually,” Jackson said. In the wild, they would be miles apart from each other. For apiary purposes, hives are often placed beside each other. “We’ve been keeping bees for thousands of years, and we like to put them in a place where we can work with them. ... That’s a perfect scenario for the bees from one colony to drift into another colony.

“One of my hypotheses is that the bees may learn to be more accepting of these drifting bees because they’re not robbers; they’re not a threat. They’re there by accident, and they could be bringing in food. If they do the waggle-dance thing to communicate where food is, they could even be telling you where food is.”

A neighboring drifter could just have wandered into the wrong hive. A faraway drifter could be there to rob you. It’s like throwing a rowdy party where your neighbors wander in, which is fine — you recognize them — but you don’t recognize the three guys stealing CDs and all the rum.

“As much as we do know," Jackson said, "there’s still a lot we don’t know.”

Sun Devil Rewards is a free app that connects users to everything ASU. Earn "Pitchforks" for reading ASU news stories, checking in at events, taking polls, playing trivia games and more — and earn prizes that money can't buy (only Pitchforks can!). Win ASU gear, VIP tickets to games, backstage passes to ASU Gammage performances and tours of unique ASU spaces such as the bee lab and the School of Earth and Space Exploration's "clean labs" — even win a free month of working space at ASU SkySong. Download it from the App Store or Google Play


Top photo: School of Life Sciences Bee Lab project manager Osman Kaftanoglu isn't worried about stingers at the research facility at the Polytechnic campus in Mesa on Feb. 21. Some of the work being done at the Bee Lab includes work on colony collapse disorder, artificial insemination of queen bees, long-term storage of bee semen and territorial patterns of bees. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now