Terroir of the Bees

In the 1980’s I would take small groups of high school students to Lapalala, a 6000 acre game preserve in the north western reaches of South Africa, not far from the Limpopo River, erroneously characterized by Rudyard Kipling as “great, grey, green, greasy, all set about by fever trees”   Lapalala means ‘place of the leopard’  and, between lengthy bush walks with a ranger,  one of the activities was to provide each student with a net with which to find the  plants and creatures that existed in the rocky pools besides the Lephalale River.  The results were compiled as a chart on a blackboard to show the role of each living species in this microenvironment - for example, who brought oxygen to the water, who laid eggs, who preyed upon whom - and lines were drawn to connect the different species.  For example, the algae on the sides of the rocks provided food for some of the crustaceans, and were therefore linked; the smaller crustaceans  were eaten by some of the fish species, and were therefore linked …


The final step was to erase one of those links and track what happened.  Everything, in true ecological fashion, was interdependent.  Remove one component and each species was affected, often fatally.  


A more recent example.   The global auto industry has struggled with a shortage of computer chips that has shrunk production, slowed deliveries and sent prices for new and used cars soaring. And now a new factor. Critically important electrical wiring, manufactured in Ukraine, is currently unavailable.  According to a Detroit spokesman, “You only need to miss one part not to be able to make a car.” 


Honey bees too exist in an ecological microclimate, or to steal a word from the French vineyards, terroir, meaning an environment created by local particulars such as soil, climate and topography, which in turn gives a distinctive characteristic to the grapes and to the wine.  

The terroir of the bees is determined by temperature, rainfall and hours of sunlight, which, together with soil type, regulate what kind of plants can thrive in that locality.   Consider a tree adapted to that microclimate which offers not only nectar and the vital yeasts found in pollen which allow for its conversion to bee bread, but also provides a protective cavity and a whole cast of important fungi, resins, oils and invertebrates.  It is reasonable to assume that honey bees adjust their behaviors to accommodate their particular circumstance, even as such adaptation takes significant time. I doubt that it happens in one six week life cycle of a colony. 


All of this is self-evident.  New to me was the concept of an inner terroir, even if it is not labelled as such.  The insight came from an article by Jonathan Powell in the March, 2022, issue of The Beekeepers Quarterly, who in turn was inspired by a talk by Professor Scott Gilbert to the Arboreal Apiculture Salon in Scotland, followed by a visit to the feral bees at the Blenheim Estate in England.   Like those studied by Tom Seeley in the Arnott Forest in New York, the Blenheim bees  come from strong genetic lines, live in tree cavities without human intervention and appear to be free of the pests and diseases that decimate managed apiaries. 


All living animals comprise a complex system of organisms working together to enable them to function.  Of the trillions of cells in the human body, for example,  over half are not human and without them we could not digest food nor would our immune system be effective.  Recently this connectivity has been given its own name - the psychobiome. 


These non-human microbes are symbionts inherited  from our mother (or the queen bee) and are derived from social interaction and the environment.  Interestingly,  in her recent book,  The Extended Mind : The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, (2021) Annie Murphy Paul regiments volumes of research to show how we humans can work more productively and solve more problems by extending our minds through our bodies, our environment and our interactions with our peers.  I have highlighted these particular words to tree how non-human and human microbes flourish in similar conditions. Moreover, studies in Australia, Switzerland and Germany show a link between the composition of our gut microbiome and the activities of our central nervous system in functions such as mood, cognition and mental health. There also appears to be a connection in terms of neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Lou Gehrig’s disease. 


When honey bees are in synch with the immediate locality, as at Blenheim or the Arnott Forest, they do remarkably well. Equally they can become dysfunctional because of the choices made by a beekeeper who operates within an industrial, commercial model.  For example, the manufacturers of glyphosate claimed their product was harmless to insects because it effects an enzyme that only plants and microbes use.   First, what is the honey bee if not a complex organism including microbes which are constantly organizing and working together?  And secondly, research published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by V.S. Motta, Kasie Raymann and Nancy Moran in 2018 showed that glyphosate does indeed distress the gut microbiota of honey bees.  These are the very microbes that have evolved to survive the extremely acidic and fructose-rich environment of the honey crop and which are vital to breaking down the invertase enzymes of nectar into simple sugars - glucose and fructose - which is the beginning of the process that results in honey. Dr. Svjetlana Vojvodic Kruse, a researcher in Rowan University, New Jersey, is investigating the importance of gut bacteria on bee behavior and genetics. “With some experimental creativity,” she writes,  “my students and I have been able to show that gut microbial communities can impact individual learning and social interactions in honey bees.” Her research indicates that honey bees learn better if their guts contain a particular strain of bacteria.


If  it is true that honey bees are smart, complex social organisms not that different to humans - thousands of individuals living together, learning, communicating and working as a community to find food, care for their young and respond to diseases - then it follows that they are as detrimentally affected by disturbances in their psychobiome as are we. 


Just as we can influence the quality of our  microbiota via diet, Jonathan Powell lists beekeeper behaviors that can impact adversely gut microbes in honey bees :

  • Replacing honey with sugar syrup.  The latter is an artificial, sterile food that lacks entirely the symbionts that are passed between bees as they feed.
  • Management practices that work against the natural biology of the honey bee, including swarm suppression, killing of drone bees, and the annual replacement of queens with imported sub-species. 
  • The use of chemicals to control mites, parasites and viruses  which may not harm the bee but do affect the symbionts. 


I would add to that list

  • Massing hives together for honey production.  Compare this to the natural balance between feral hives, which seldom threaten other pollinators as they gather enough food to survive in their relatively small nests.
  • Moving colonies throughout the year from one climate to another.
  • Importing packages or nucs from environments different to where one expects them to survive. 


So what does this mean?   First, that when our bees fail the reason might involve more than genetics.  For example, a mite  treatment may not have visible impacts on the honey bee but what does it do to the microbiome?  Or the particular physical environment  - the medicinal compounds of the trees, the associated fungi and bacteria, and the location of the forest -  may be adverse to the genetic needs of the colony.    Secondly, honey bee species are classified in terms of single race names, eg. Apis mellifera liguistica.     Perhaps it is time to add a geographic component.  I think of my bees as mutts, developed from local survivor stock over years.  Perhaps more accurately they are Apis mellifera orientalum pensylvanica  (Uncle Google tells me the last two words are latin for eastern Pennsylvania.


“Indigenous cultures,” Jonathan Powell suggests, “have sensed and have respected these connections without the benefit of modern scientific analysis and data.  It is ironic that we know so much more than these ancient cultures, and yet this knowledge does not appear to come with the wisdom to live in balance with nature.” 



PS. Lapalala, which was real wilderness when I last visited thirty five years ago, is now besotted with commercial lodges and camps. 








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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

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