Symposium marks milestones in honey bee management, research

December 10, 2010

CHAMPAIGN, lll. -- In 1851, Lorenzo Langstroth, a Congregational minister and young ladies' school principal based in Philadelphia, revolutionized the practice of beekeeping. He had observed that honey bees will fill a large space in their hives with honeycomb and seal small cracks with propolis, a resinous "bee glue" made from tree sap and other sticky substances, but will leave any gap that is about 3/8 of an inch wide - just big enough for a bee to pass through. Langstroth was the first to incorporate this "bee space" into the design of his box-frame hive.

Building on other innovations of his day - the use of frames or slats to support the weight of honeycombs in the hive, for example - Langstroth devised the first "moveable frame hive," in which each comb-filled frame had a 3/8-inch space around it. This allowed beekeepers to extract the honey - frame by frame - without killing their most productive bees or destroying their combs, as other methods had done. His design made better use of the space inside the hive and increased the yield of a typical hive from about 20 pounds to more than 100 pounds per year. His hive is still in use today.

A symposium at the Entomology Society of America meeting in San Diego on Sunday (Dec. 12) commemorates this and other honey bee-related achievements and challenges 200 years after Langstroth's birth (on Christmas Day, 1810).

"Bee Space - The Final Frontier: the Bicentennial Celebration of Lorenzo Langstroth and Diverse Discoveries in Honey Bee Biology," will include presentations by entomologists with expertise in honey bee biology, reproduction, genomics, hygiene and history.

"Our hope is that this symposium will spur a lot of creative thinking within the scientific community to look at ways of improving apiculture," said Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, an expert on the history of beekeeping and an organizer of the event with University of Illinois entomology professor and department head May Berenbaum.

At the symposium, Kritsky, the author of "The Quest for the Perfect Hive: A History of Innovation in Bee Culture," will review Langstroth's work and legacy, including the process of experimentation and research that led to his hive design. Berenbaum, the author of "Honey, I'm Homemade: Sweet Treats From the Beehive Across the Centuries and Around the World," will give a brief history of honey.

(For more information about their books, see "Two Books Explore the History and Delights of Honey, Bees and Beehives.")

The symposium also will explore recent advances in honey bee science. For example, the completion of the bee genome, Kritsky said, "is giving us the opportunity to stand at the threshold of possibly another revolution in beekeeping."

University of Illinois entomology and neuroscience professor Gene Robinson, who led the honey bee genome sequencing effort, will discuss studies that use the genome to explore new challenges to the apiculture industry, such as colony collapse disorder, which has led to dramatic losses of honey bees in many parts of the world. Robinson will describe how the genome also allows researchers to peer into the honey bee brain to see which genes are activated in its responses to real-world stimuli. And he will describe how the genome informed a recent study from his lab that found that aggression in honey bees is associated with decreased brain metabolism.

Walter Sheppard, the chair of the department of entomology at Washington State University, will review his efforts to document the genetic diversity of honey bees in North America (most are descended from only a few hundred original bees, he found) and to increase those genetic resources by importing select honey bees from other parts of the world.

University of Minnesota entomology professor Marla Spivak, who this year received a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation, will describe her work to develop practical applications to protect honey bee populations from parasites and disease.

Diana Sammataro, of the USDA Carl Hayden Honey Bee Research Center in Tucson, Ariz., will offer insights into the bacterial life of the honey bee stomach.
-end-
Editor's note: To contact Gene Kritsky, e-mail gene_kritsky@mail.msj.edu. To reach May Berenbaum, e-mail maybe@illinois.edu.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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