Allergies! How bees can help and hurt

Recently, I asked my family and friends if they had questions about bees, insects, or anything generally related to my research, and I was flooded with excellent questions (Why haven't you been asking these all along?!)! I'll be writing up and posting responses to these questions. 

One of the reoccurring topics asked about was allergies. 

First, lets start by describing what "allergies" are. According to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), allergies, or allergic reactions occur when a person's immune system overreacts to the presence of a substance in a way that is abnormal compared with other people. Substance can be a tricky word, because a substance can enter the body in a lot of different ways. Allergic reactions can be caused by eating something, breathing something into your lungs or nasal passages, or absorbed through the skin. The difference between referring to something as an allergy compared with a toxic reaction is dependent on how the majority of the population experiences that substance. The example I will give is this: There is a subset of the human population that is allergic to Brazil nuts (myself included). Our bodies' reaction to eating these nuts could range from itchy rash, to difficulty breathing, to death. Without knowing what the substance was (in this case, nuts), and were I only to describe the reaction, it would be hard to distinguish this from a poison. To me, Brazil nuts are effectively a poison. But, here is where the nuance lies: for the general public, Brazil nuts do not pose a threat. My reaction to Brazil nuts is abnormal when compared with the majority of other individuals of my species (human, in case you weren't sure). A poison would thus refer to something that adversely affects most of the population of a species, for example, cyanide. The reaction that my immune system would have to cyanide exposure would not differ much from anyone else's, we would likely all suffer some pretty terrible consequences.

Now that we've cleared up what an allergy is, we can get to the questions. The first was this: What are good ways for people who are allergic to bees to deal with them? This is a great question, and one I spend a lot of time thinking about. First off, if you suspect you have an allergy to stinging insects, please get tested for confirmation. Your doctor can discuss options for treatment, including carrying an epinephrine injector or pursuing allergy immunotherapy treatments. Some allergies (such as my Brazil nut allergy) can cause very little disruption to your life as long as you pay attention (I just don't eat Brazil nuts). However, bees, wasps, and stinging ants (they're not all the same, we'll talk about it on a future post) are nearly impossible to avoid 100% of the time, and severe allergy to stings can result in anaphylaxis and death.

If medical treatment or consultation is not an option for you, the best way to avoid being stung is to stay out of a stinging insect's path, and avoid making dramatic movements if you notice you are near one. I repeat: flailing never helps! Stinging insects are not always aggressive, and if left alone, they'll leave you alone. However, they can be defensive of their nests, so keep your eyes and ears open when you are outdoors during insect season (early spring through late fall in the northern hemisphere). Pay attention to visual and sound cues, and if you see an insect or hear a buzzing sound, try to avoid whoever is making it. If being outdoors in areas that harbor stingers is unavoidable, wear long pants and sleeves, closed toed shoes, and keep long hair tied back. Many stinging insects are drawn to bright colors, particularly blue, white and yellow, so avoiding wearing those colors may also reduce potential interaction.  

If you notice a lot of stinging insects in an area where you spend a lot of time (work or home, for example), it might be worth reaching out to a professional. My first recommendation would be to try contacting either your county extension office or a local beekeeping society. If you have bees, they can help you remove them without damaging the colony. If it turns out you have wasps or ants, these specialists can help you contact someone else for removal. Many pest removal experts are able to remove nests and insects safely and alive. The insects are then sold to have venom removed for use in immunotherapy treatments. Ideally it won't be necessary to bring in a chemical treatment, but that option is always available if needed.

If you react to stings less acutely, for example if you get swelling or itchy, that may not be an allergy, but you should still pay close attention to your breathing, heart rate, and any swelling outside of the sting location. Local swelling and itching is relatively normal. In our lab, we follow this protocol: If you get stung, remove yourself from the area into a temperature controlled area, sit down, and take a selfie. I know, it seems weird, but I'll explain. Use a timer to take your heart rate, and record the number. Drink some water. Wait 10 minutes. Take another selfie, then take your heart rate again. If your heart rate is the same or lower, that is good. If it has gone up, seek medical help. If it is the same, check the selfies. Compare the first and second photos, and look for any swelling of the face, particularly around the eyes and throat. If there is any swelling, seek medical help. If your face isn't swelling (presuming the sting wasn't in the face or neck), and your heart rate is relatively normal, go ahead and resume whatever you were doing. These precautions are to help you monitor how you're reacting to a sting. Typical reactions include pain and swelling at the site of the sting, itching at the site of the sting, and maybe light bruising, depending on the location. Finally, if your doctor has prescribed an epinephrine injector as a treatment for severe allergic reaction, keep it with you whenever you go out.

The other question that was asked regarding allergies was this one: does eating local honey actually help with seasonal allergies? 

 This is another great question! Eating locally sourced honey can help only so far is it tastes delicious and may take your mind off the sneezing for a bit. Even honey that is raw and unfiltered, and contains pollen, probably does not contain much or any of the pollen that's causing your allergies. Again, according to the CDC, hay fever is one of the most common allergies affecting US people. Hay fever is caused by grass pollen floating around in the air, and then being breathed in by people. Grasses are wind pollinated, and don't offer nectar resources for bees, so bees are not collecting this pollen. Pollen is unique to plant species, so an allergy to one type of pollen doesn't mean you have an allergy to another. The pollen collected by bees is typically much heavier, with larger grains, because it relies on bees to carry it around, and is therefore unlikely to be floating around landing in your nose. The idea that eating locally sourced honey does make sense, and relies on the same principles as immunotherapy: increased rate of exposure causes your immune system to stop responding as dramatically to the allergen. The reason it doesn't work the same way for honey is that there is no guarantee that the honey you are eating contains the pollen that's making you sneeze.

Thank you so much to Rebecca and Kristine for these questions! 

If you have a question, please feel free to submit them to me by clicking the Contact Us! button on the top of the page (or the link in this text).

The Queens and the Dandies

Spring is right around the corner and that means the flowers are starting to bloom, and the queen bumble bees are starting to emerge from their overwintering sites. In bumble bees, only the queen survives the winter, surviving on fat stores from the previous summer. They commonly nest in abandoned rodent burrows, bird houses, and cavities below trees, stumps, and even houses. In the early spring, the queens emerge and begin searching for a new place to nest, build their colony, and most critically, for food. Here on the Palouse, there are not many flowers blooming yet (it snowed several inches just last weekend), but the bees are starting to fly. For these early working mamas, that means every flower available is a crucial food resource, both for her and her future offspring. Adult bumble bees feed on nectar, while their developing larvae (baby bees) eat pollen. Bumble bees can fly up to 20km distance from their nest to find food, but all that flying takes a toll. The energy required for flight must be fueled by more nectar, which may reduce the amount of time she can spend collecting pollen. Since the growth of the colony depends on available pollen stores, if she can't collect enough pollen, then she will not be able to produce many workers, and the overall growth of the colony will suffer throughout the growing season.

Bombus vosnesenskii worker on dandelion. Photo credit: Flickr creative commons, user born1945

Bombus vosnesenskii worker on dandelion. Photo credit: Flickr creative commons, user born1945

One of the most common questions I get asked is "how can I help the bees?" My best answer is to provide flowers for them. But in many cases, gardens aren't typically blooming (or even planted) at this point in the season, so what can you do to provide flowers? Answer: don't remove them. I'm sure you would never pick all the pretty flowers available, but what many people forget is that weeds are often flowers too. Dandelions are one of the most prolific, and hated yard and garden weed species, but for the early season bees, they are also one of the first food sources for bees. I know many people think dandelions make the garden look a bit unsightly but I think the bright yellow is lovely. However, if you must remove dandelions from your yard or garden, there is a prime time to remove them if you keep watch. When they are open and inviting and bright yellow, as shown above, this is when the flowers are useful for bees (and other flower visitors like the ladybird beetle shown at the bottom of this post. When the flowers get to the fluffy stage, then they are ready to spread seed, and this is too late to remove them (unless you want more dandelions).

The best stage in the dandelion development to remove them from your yard (please mow rather than spray an herbicide), is between the flowering and the seed stage, when the dandelions look like this:

This B. vosnesenskii stopped for a rest on a closed dandelion flower. The pollen and nectar aren't available any longer during this stage of the flowers' development, but they haven't set seed yet. This is the prime period for removing (by mowing or digging) these flowers from your yard. Photo by Rachel Olsson.

This B. vosnesenskii stopped for a rest on a closed dandelion flower. The pollen and nectar aren't available any longer during this stage of the flowers' development, but they haven't set seed yet. This is the prime period for removing (by mowing or digging) these flowers from your yard. Photo by Rachel Olsson.

  At the above closed stage, the flowers have been pollinated and the seeds are developing, but they are not yet ripe, so removing dandelions during this time will have given the bees the opportunity to access the nectar and pollen resources, but will give you the peace of mind of not seeing those fluffy little seeds flying around. 

Bees aren't the only beneficial insects to visit dandelions. Ladybird beetle visiting a dandelion. Photo by Rachel Olsson.

Bees aren't the only beneficial insects to visit dandelions. Ladybird beetle visiting a dandelion. Photo by Rachel Olsson.

Tickling Bumblebees: My new favorite pastime!

I've always been a morning person, but during the 2015 field season, I've discovered that my favorite time of day is early in the morning when the temperature is still cool enough that the bumblebees are cold and snoozy. Bumblebees are colony nesters, with one reproductive queen, lots of female workers, and just a few males. Oftentimes, males do not live in the colony, but spend their days drinking nectar and their nights outside. Females will sometimes get caught outdoors too, and if you're out early enough, you can catch them mid-slumber.

Bombus mixtus catching some Zs in a zinnia.

Bombus mixtus catching some Zs in a zinnia.

Bees, like other insects, are ectothermic, meaning they rely on ambient heat for their energy and produce very little or none of their own heat energy. This means that when bees are chilly, they move very slowly and don't fly readily. If you are very careful, you can pet or tickle the bees while they are sleepy without fear of being stung.

The best place to tickle a bumblebee is on its side when its wings are folded back over its abdomen. This will reduce contact with the wings, which is important because the wings are very delicate and can be easily damaged.

Bombus vosnesenskii waking up on a raspberry leaf.

Bombus vosnesenskii waking up on a raspberry leaf.

You can also pet them on the thorax between the wings if you are extra careful. Bumblebees are fuzzy like kittens, and when they are cold and sleepy, they won't fly away if you are very gentle.

Another Bombus vosnesenskii getting a tickle on prickly lettuce.

Another Bombus vosnesenskii getting a tickle on prickly lettuce.

Bombus melanopygus getting a snuggle on a cosmos.

Bombus melanopygus getting a snuggle on a cosmos.

If you are really lucky, the bumblebee will appreciate the warmth from your body and crawl onto your hand! While the bee is on your hand, I don't recommend tickling because they are in a prime position to sting if they don't like what you're doing. Just observe and appreciate your visitor! And of course, you are more than welcome to never tickle a bumblebee, and just watch their adorable, sleepy little selves on your flowers and leaves in the early morning hours.

Bombus melanopygus warming up on my finger!

Bombus melanopygus warming up on my finger!

Bumblebees are very docile. They would rather fly away than sting, and they don't seem to mind being tickled when they are snoozy and cold. If you are very gentle, you might make a new friend!

My dear friend Bombus melanopygus and me hanging out in the garden.

My dear friend Bombus melanopygus and me hanging out in the garden.


Hot and Dry- How will the climate affect the bees?

I can't believe I let over a month go without posting! We are finished with the second part of the three part field season. Since we split our field sites, this means that I have now personally visited all 35 of our farms and gardens, and I've stayed at some really beautiful campgrounds! The hot, dry summer has meant that a lot of farmers and gardeners in the Puget Sound region have seen accelerated plant growth and development through their reproductive cycles.

Knee-high by the 4th of July? This corn was eye-high by the 3rd!

Knee-high by the 4th of July? This corn was eye-high by the 3rd!

We've seen a lot of flowers that don't normally bloom in full until September getting their flowers out here in July! Many of the plants are also dropping their flowers early, which is resulting in reduced fruit set and less floral resources for the bees. The Stranger recently posted a great article about how the weather is affecting growers.  I've noticed bees congregating in wet areas, such as around hose connections where there are small leaks. Bees commonly fill their water requirements through the nectar they drink, but if the flowers aren't getting enough water to produce the nectar, the bees will get it where they can.

Honeybees drinking water from the soil. 

Honeybees drinking water from the soil. 

If the bees are unable to acquire their water from the nectar and must spend time drinking from the soil, they are spending less time visiting flowers. This will directly reduce the amount of pollination services they provide. I don't know yet if we are seeing reduced abundance or diversity due to the weather, but it is something we will continue to track.

What am I doing?

Now that part 1 (of 3) of the field season is done for 2015, I've been reviewing my photos and enjoying the memories of the wonderful farms I've visited. Some of you have asked what on earth I am doing, so I thought I would take some time to share that now. There are many goals of this project: To identify the pollinators of the Puget Sound region, to collect data on their pollination efficiency, and to share this knowledge with as many people as possible. In the field, a lot is happening. Each site gets one full day devoted by one of the researchers.

We arrive by 7am, and place out two types of traps: blue vane traps and small pan traps. These traps are attractive to the pollinators, and passively collect through the entire day.

A Blue Vane Trap- this will passively collect insects throughout the day.

A Blue Vane Trap- this will passively collect insects throughout the day.

As you can see, this pan trap is already doing its job.

As you can see, this pan trap is already doing its job.

 

Next, we make an inventory of all of the flowering plants at the site (yes, this is incredibly time consuming and painstaking work), by identifying and counting all of the flowering plants.

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Sometimes you do have to stop and smell the roses.

Sometimes you do have to stop and smell the roses.

After creating the floral inventory, we monitor plants for insect visitation. We keep track of insects based on morphological groups, and we keep track of the different types of flowers they are visiting. 

A sweat bee on poppy.

A sweat bee on poppy.

A ladybird beetle on common dandelion.

A ladybird beetle on common dandelion.

A female honeybee on chive.

A female honeybee on chive.

A female wool carder bee visiting thyme.

A female wool carder bee visiting thyme.

We then collect insects that we see on flowers (also known as floral visitors). We surmise that if an insect is visiting the reproductive structure of a flower, it is acting as a potential pollinator. We monitor visitation and do a collection in the morning and afternoon, and once the afternoon session is complete, it is typically around 4:30pm, and that is the time we start breaking down the traps.

Just a researcher and her net. And an audiobook- I think this day I was listening to The Complete Collection of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Just a researcher and her net. And an audiobook- I think this day I was listening to The Complete Collection of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

We collect all specimens from each method of sampling, take meticulous notes, and collect a lot of information. The field days usually last around 10.5 hours, and weather permitting, we sample 5 days a week. Some days, it gets really hot, and some sites don't have bathrooms. I'm making it sound really miserable, but I absolutely love every minute of it. 

Sometimes insects aren't the only exciting creatures we see!

Sometimes insects aren't the only exciting creatures we see!

On its face...

One of the reasons I started this blog was to share some of the ups and downs of the field work. Today will be a bunch of ups because I've been having a blast, and enjoying the critters I'm seeing. 

This adorable wasp mimic landed on my data sheet and hung out for about 15 minutes! 

This adorable wasp mimic landed on my data sheet and hung out for about 15 minutes! 

Look at that face. Some might say is the face only a mother could love, but I love it too. While I was counting floral visitors yesterday, this Conopidae, or thick-headed fly (no, I'm not being rude, that is really the common name) left her chive perch and took to my data sheet. If you think "bugs are icky," I implore you to consider this fly. Note the reddish hue, the tightened waist, and the slightly elongated antennae. All of these traits very closely resemble a wasp I've seen in the area (though I haven't caught a photo yet). This fly is harmless, but mimics it's wasp so well that even my trained eye required a second look. 

 

This little sleepyhead has bed head and was bumbling around very drowsily around 7:30am. Nectar: the coffee of the insect world.  

This little sleepyhead has bed head and was bumbling around very drowsily around 7:30am. Nectar: the coffee of the insect world.  

This tricolor bumblebee was having a hard time waking up. I know people say I shouldn't anthropomorphize insects, but she was clumsy and slow, the same way I feel before coffee. I'm sure most people in the Pacific Northwest can relate to this Seattle area bumblebee. Insects require external heat for their energy, and they also need nectar. Nectar is full of carbohydrates (the fancy word for sugar) which acts just like a great cup of joe. Pollen is the protein shake and provides the longer lasting energy that the bees require, and also use to stock in their nest to feed to their offspring. After all, you'd probably give your kid a plate of scrambled eggs before you'd give them coffee too, right? 

 

This hoverfly crawled out of her flower to pose for my camera. Say cheese! 

This hoverfly crawled out of her flower to pose for my camera. Say cheese! 

Hoverflies, or Syrphid flies, are another great example of mimicry. When my 4 year old niece saw a syrphid, she said "Auntie Rachel, why does that fly look like a bee?" First off, I was very impressed that this little gal could tell the difference between a fly and a bee (I must be doing something right), but I was also very impressed that she thought there might be a reason. My response was easily understood by her, so I explained it this way to a group of adults and they were also amazed. The language is a little different, but the message is the same. Mimicry is a common defense mechanism in the animal world. For example, if you were a bird, and you had eaten a bee and been stung, you would think twice about eating something that looked like a bee. You might also warn your chicks against eating things that look like bees. This fly has similar characteristics as a bee (primarily the bright yellow and black stripes) and is therefore left alone by the birds and other predators. The fly doesn't have to go through the pesky task of creating a stinger or venom, which require a significant amount of energy. The fly can benefit from the work of the bee. But don't think that syrphids are just a bunch of deadbeats that are taking advantage of the bees. Syrphids are great pollinators as adults, pollinating a wide range of flowers. As immatures (called larvae) syrphids are voracious predators, attacking such garden and farm pests as aphids and leaf hoppers. Syrphids are doing double duty and working hard for you all their lives. 

A female wool carder bee enjoying a morning bask on a thyme plant.  

A female wool carder bee enjoying a morning bask on a thyme plant.  

I spend a lot of time explaining to people that bees are generally not aggressive and if you leave them alone, you can work side by side for the greater good. In the wool carder bee's case though, I do have to scrape a bit of egg off my face. The wool carder is a native of Europe, and while not aggressive toward humans, can be very territorial and aggressive toward other bees. They are part of the Megachilidae family of leaf cutter bees, and their very large mandibles explain why. They use their huge chompers (in the photo above - yellow and black to the right of the eye) to cut leaves and use them to line their nests. They also use these tools to bite other bees (and wasps, flies, and any other insects) and tear off their wings if they get too close to the wool carder territory. It's a vicious world, and everyone has a stake in it. Luckily, these bees aren't super common (at least in the Pacific Northwest) and are therefore not doing too much harm to our other pollinators. Even though it's a little gruesome, you have to admit, it's pretty cool to see a bee defending her home so strongly. 

 

And of course, the face of the researcher. I shaved my head to support my niece after she had brain surgery!

And of course, the face of the researcher. I shaved my head to support my niece after she had brain surgery!

I am having an excellent time collecting information to share on the blog and podcast. I've got a great episode lined up for June, and I'm already collecting info for July as well! Thank you for joining me on this wonderful journey! 

Buzzing around

This will be a short post, because I'm finishing up finals for the semester! Over the past few weeks, I've been traveling around Washington talking to researchers and visiting conferences (I attended the Northwest Scientific Association annual meeting at the beginning of April, and even though I didn't attend the Pacific Branch meeting of the Entomological Society of America, I spoke with a lot of people who did) and interacting with other science-minded people about our work!

One of the things I've noticed about studying pollinators, is that if I'm talking to someone in a totally different field, they still get excited about my work. Perhaps it is my enthusiasm for the topic, or the positive light popular media has cast on bees, but I have yet to encounter someone who wasn't at least a little bit excited about the work I am doing. This might be different if I was studying spiders, snakes, or other "creepy crawlies." Even people who are afraid of insects and bees are still okay with the idea of pollinator conservation.

I've also enjoyed talking to pollinator researchers. I met with Mary Gardiner from Ohio State University last week, and we had an awesome conversation about urban pollinators and how important they can be. Don't worry, I recorded our talk and you will be able to hear it on the June episode of the podcast!

What's the deal with Colony Collapse Disorder?

Typically, when I tell people I study pollinators, this is one of the first questions I'm asked. I see CCD articles almost daily from high impact sources like The Washington Post and Time, and The New York Times seems to post a new CCD article every month. Colony Collapse Disorder is a catch-all term for the collapse of a honeybee colony. The queen bee will leave the colony, either due to death, parasitization, or sickness. The rest of the colony can not reproduce or sustain their population without her, and the colony either dies or leaves the hive. The news articles, magazine reviews, and outrageous reports have all treated CCD as a mystery, but a recent article in Science has elucidated the cause. For years, we have speculated and guessed, we've done investigated and wondered. Research in the past has shown various causes, but the new paper by Goulson et al. (2015) essentially says that the cause isn’t just one smoking gun- it’s three: pesticide use, parasite spread, and habitat loss (1) are all affecting honeybees, and in many cases, these issues are compounding. Based on this very recent publication, it becomes even clearer that we need to focus on what is causing the honeybee colonies to die, but more importantly, we need to focus on how other insects are affecting pollination.

I'm sorry to tell you, but I am not studying CCD. I know, It is an incredibly important topic, and luckily, there are many capable scientists working on it. My research focuses on alternative pollinators. Just like there are people trying to find alternative sources of fuel and energy, food and water, I am working to discover if there are alternative pollinators. Honeybees are incredibly efficient, easy to manage, and they're pretty cute, but they aren't the only pollinators out there! There are loads of different kinds of bees, but there are also flies, moths, butterflies, wasps, beetles, ants, and other insects crawling around in the pollen producing structures of flowers, and for some reason, researchers don't seem to be as interested. I like to think of myself as an advocate for all of the non-bee pollinators out there. I understand that colony collapse disorder is affecting our farms, crops, and overall ability to provide food to the growing population, but if we shouldn't continue to put all of our eggs in the honeybee basket. Native bees have been shown to provide significant pollination services to crops when provided adequate habitat (2). Non-bee insects will factor into pollination as well, and I am thrilled to share this information with you all in the months to come!

 1. D. Goulson, E. Nicholls, C. Botías, E. L. Rotheray, Bee declines driven by combined stress from parasites, pesticides, and lack of flowers. Science (80-. ). 10 (2015).

2. L. a Garibaldi et al., Wild pollinators enhance fruit set of crops regardless of honey bee abundance. Science. 339, 1608–11 (2013).

 

Photo of a t-shirt purchased from the University of Florida Entomology Graduate Student Organization. In honeybees, the Queen is the only member of the colony that produces eggs, while the workers either care for the young or provide food. Photo credit: Rachel Olsson.

Photo of a t-shirt purchased from the University of Florida Entomology Graduate Student Organization. In honeybees, the Queen is the only member of the colony that produces eggs, while the workers either care for the young or provide food. Photo credit: Rachel Olsson.