166 - Alison McAfee - Queens don’t like it too hot or cold


Andony Melathopoulos: [00:00:00] Spring is on the horizon folks, I can see it. It's just over there. And that's a sign that I need to get an order into my bee supply company so that I have some extra queens. Honey bee queens are the engine of a bee colony. If you have extra queens, you can divide colonies in half; they're super useful, everybody wants them. And when I get my queens, I'm always excited to get them. But my next guest said, there's something about those queens that you might not notice at first glance about their quality.

[00:00:30] Dr. Alison McAfee is a postdoctoral research scholar at North Carolina State University. She is no stranger to Oregon, she's come and spoken to us in Hood River at the State Bee Association in the past. She has done some really great research. She's working in a collaborative team in Canada, in the United States looking at queen quality, specifically temperature. Apparently honey bee queens don't experience a constant temperature when they're being shipped and that can [00:01:00] be really disastrous to the quality of that queen, her acceptance and her ability to do her job. So without further ado this week on PolliNation, I'm excited to invite Dr. Alison McAfee.

[00:01:20] Okay, welcome to PolliNation. I'm so glad to finally have you on the show.

[00:01:25] Alison McAfee: [00:01:25] Yeah, thanks very much for having me!

[00:01:27] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:01:27] Now if you pick up any beekeeping magazine it's there, in the last few pages, you can read about the genetics of the queen. There's all of these kinds of like super queens out there. But there seems to be a lot less fanfare about other qualities of the queens in those advertisements. So to begin with, can you explain some of the other non-genetic factors that make up a high quality high-performing queen?

[00:01:52] Alison McAfee: [00:01:52] Yeah, for sure. I would say ultimately her fertility is the most important factor. She could have all the [00:02:00] VSH genetics in the world, but if she hasn't acquired enough sperm during mating, and if those sperm have died off, then she can't lay enough eggs to support a strong colony. And the VSH genetics won't do you any good then. So she'll have a shorter lifespan if she doesn't have as many sperm. And we don't usually think about this, but queens are also susceptible to pathogens like viruses or nosema. And we don't know a whole lot about exactly what these pathogens are doing to affect queen quality, but I have a pretty strong suspicion that they're important.

[00:02:35] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:02:35] Well, I can just imagine that like you say, VSH these Varroa Sensitive Hygiene bred queens with these genetics that can deal with Varroa mites. But if they don't have enough sperm in them and clearly they're not going to last very long. But the other thing you said that was really notable is that queen's are a really long lived insect. And if she has a virus or something [00:03:00] at the beginning of her life, that might over time, show up in terms of like the colonies ability to grow and all of those things. So those are invisible to you when you pick up a queen and you look her in the snout, you have no sense of those things.

[00:03:17] Alison McAfee: [00:03:17] Yeah, that's right. That's actually a new direction that we'll be taking our research - is to look more into pathogens because part of this queen survey that I've been doing over the last couple of years in BC has shown us that failed queens usually have higher levels of viruses. So we don't know if there's a cause and effect relationship there, but it's, I think a good enough reason to me anyway, to look more into it. 

[00:03:44] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:03:44] Well. Okay, that's great. I guess first I want to pick up on that first thing that you mentioned is that, quality may have to do with her fertility and whether her spermatheca is full of high-quality sperm. For those of our listeners who are [00:04:00] unfamiliar with this fancy word, spermatheca, can you explain what it is and why it's important?

[00:04:07] Alison McAfee: [00:04:07] Yeah, absolutely. So if you don't know what a spermatheca is, don't worry. I did a whole PhD on bees and I knew what a spermatheca was, but I didn't know much more than the fact that, that is where queens store their sperm. So it's a highly specialized sperm storage organ and actually most insects and even some amphibians have spermatheca. But in queen honey bees, it's particularly well-developed. So what it actually looks like is just like a little pearl inside her abdomen. And it's about the size, maybe half the size of a pinhead.

[00:04:51] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:04:51] Wow.

[00:04:51]Alison McAfee: [00:04:51] Just over a millimeter wide. If you can imagine that. And when the queen mates, the sperm she acquires from the drones [00:05:00] will migrate into that spermatheca and fill it. It fills it up about halfway and the rest of the spermatheca is filled with this stuff called the spermathecal fluid. And that's kind of like a bath that creates the best environment to keep the sperm alive for a very, very long time.

[00:05:22] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:05:22] What do you mean? Very, very long time?

[00:05:25] Alison McAfee: [00:05:25] Well, the lifespan of the queen. So in the order of years, people throw around the number of "queens live up to five years" a lot. But I think most beekeepers these days would say, well typically actually more like two, if you're lucky.

[00:05:42] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:05:42] That's remarkable! I imagine anybody who goes to fertility clinic - like that stuff's fragile. Like you have to freeze it or handle it carefully. But that's in a living organ for years and it's still good. That's [00:06:00] pretty cool. That's amazing!

[00:06:03] Alison McAfee: [00:06:03] That is the main reason why I wanted to start doing research on queens actually is just because it is such an extreme feat of biology to be able to keep sperm alive for that long. It's really only rivaled by ants, which take it to the next level. They can store sperm for decades.

[00:06:23] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:06:23] Is that a right? Wow. Okay. So we're on the high level there in terms of living sperm preservation. And I can imagine one of the reasons that a queen doesn't have enough in there, she just poorly mated, which is one issue. I was going to point out that you're a lead author on a paper that came out last year - even if that spermatheca was full of really good quality sperm it may not survive if the queen is exposed to heat stress. So [00:07:00] how on earth does a queen get overheated? Isn't the colony temperature tightly maintained? Like, how is that even possible? How does a queen get overheated to the point her sperm may be impacted?

[00:07:12] Alison McAfee: [00:07:12] Yeah, that's a really good question. And you point out that usually we think about colonies as being these really highly thermoregulated environments and the workers do an excellent job of keeping the temperature pretty steady somewhere around 33 to 36 degrees. But there are two ways that queens could become temperature stressed. And the first one is because we like to take queens out of their colonies, put them in little cages, and then they ship them all over the world. And when they're in those little cages, there are only a few attendants and they're almost totally vulnerable to just whatever the temperature is outside whether they're in the cargo hold of a plane or [00:08:00] in the back of a UPS van or on the dash of your truck. They can't really thermoregulate because there are just so few bees in there.

[00:08:09] So that's one time when they may be quite vulnerable to both cold and hot both extremes. And we've tracked the temperatures in shipments quite a few times now and we see somewhere, it depends exactly like what kind of shipments we're looking at, but we usually see a temperature spike happen in one out of every 10 or so shipments that we send.

[00:08:40] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:08:40] Is it that frequent? That's really amazing and shocking actually.

[00:08:46] Alison McAfee: [00:08:46] Yeah. I think that we've just been pretty unaware of this as being a substantial risk for a long time. I mean, it shouldn't be all that surprising that heat [00:09:00] stress kills sperm for honey bees, because that is true for so many other animals as well, including people. But I think we just kind of didn't really think about what can happen during shipping.

[00:09:17]Andony Melathopoulos: [00:09:17] Absolutely. You did mention though, that you said there was two circumstances. What's the second one?

[00:09:23] Alison McAfee: [00:09:23] Yeah. So the second one is that, I'm starting to think that honey bee colonies are maybe not as good at thermoregulating as we think they are. And we have some data from colonies in California during a heat wave that showed that the temperature inside the colony, and this was a standard 10 frame deep like wooden box colony, the temperature three frames in from the outside was still getting to be above 38 degrees Celsius.

[00:10:00] [00:09:59] And like I said, it was a heat wave. So it was really, really hot outside. It was like 45 degrees outside. But the reason why this worries me is because with climate change happening, we should only expect more and more heat waves and for them to be more intense as well. So that'll cause an added problem for the colonies as time goes on. But also you know, we're not always dealing with 10 frame deep colonies. We're also keeping bees in five frame nukes in little mating nukes. So those we would expect to be even more challenged by extreme temperatures.

[00:10:47] And if you think about a five frame mating nuke, you can only get three frames in from the outside, right? You can't get any deeper in the brood nest than that. And in the bigger colonies, [00:11:00] the thermoregulating limit was that like really central core. So you just don't have that, you don't have enough space, you don't have enough bees in a five frame mating nuke and they get even smaller.

[00:11:13] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:11:13] Yeah. I can just imagine, there's just no capacity to buffer because the edge is so close. And with hot temperatures outside the queen's going to invariably be exposed. 

[00:11:30] Alison McAfee: [00:11:30] Yeah, there's nowhere to go in that smaller space.

[00:11:35] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:11:35] So, it does raise the question. So does temperature matter? Tell us what you found.

[00:11:41] Alison McAfee: [00:11:41] Yeah, temperature definitely matters. So probably the most useful information that we got from our data is that the temperature range between 15 and 38 degrees Celsius is like the safe range. [00:12:00] And that's actually quite a big range. We still need to be careful about how we keep our queens and what they might be exposed to in really extreme weather events.

[00:12:12] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:12:12] One more time, just repeat those temperatures again?

[00:12:16] Alison McAfee: [00:12:16] Yeah, it's between 15 degrees and 38 degrees. You can imagine the sort of tolerance range in terms of keeping sperm alive as being like a inverted bell curve, just like a bowl where there's a maximum somewhere in the middle. And that maximum is around the temperature of the brood nest. And then as you get farther and farther away from that, then the risk of damaging the sperm gets greater and greater.

[00:12:46] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:12:46] I'll just stop you for a second. I'm a Canadian as well and I, I know everybody's like, "what did you say?" So we're talking about like 60 Fahrenheit to, what was the Centigrade again? Was that safe [00:13:00] zone? That higher end?

[00:13:02] Alison McAfee: [00:13:02] It was 38 degrees.

[00:13:04] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:13:04] So we’re talking like 60 Fahrenheit to a 100 Fahrenheit. I still can't do it in my head Alison. I'm just, I'm pretty useless at this.

[00:13:14] Alison McAfee: [00:13:14] Honestly, I don't even try because I don't want to get it wrong.

[00:13:19] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:13:19] But like you said, it's bell curve. It's kind of like the optimal is in the middle. Those temperatures from a 100 to 60 are the extremes. And then when you get beyond that, that's where things seem to happen.

[00:13:34] Alison McAfee: [00:13:34] Yeah, that's right. And I should say also, the way that we came up with this range as being the cutoff is so just imagine again, that bell curve, and you start at some really high level of sperm viability. And as you get farther away from that optimal temperature, the viability will drop and drop and drop. And then you have a question of, okay, how much of a drop is [00:14:00] too much? Like how much can happen before I really need to worry. And so we set that threshold to be 11%. That's like an 11% drop in sperm viability, because that was the difference that we found when we compared sperm viability of failed queens and healthy queens. So that is an amount that we think is probably biologically relevant.

[00:14:26] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:14:26] Let me get this straight. So as soon as you drop below 11% viability, then you start to have queens go missing and there's all sorts of problems when you go above that threshold. So that's why you've set the bell curve the way that you did.

[00:14:40] Alison McAfee: [00:14:40] Yeah, exactly.

[00:14:41] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:14:41] Okay. The one thing I did want to ask, it goes in both directions, so too cool is a problem too.

[00:14:49] Alison McAfee: [00:14:49] That's right. Yeah. And our data actually suggests that cold temperature spikes are probably more frequent when the queens are [00:15:00] shipped. We don't often see the increases in temperature, which I guess makes sense when queens are shipped commercially, they're spending most of their time in a plane or in a warehouse and those tend to be very cold environments.

[00:15:17] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:15:17] With that bell curve in mind. I think earlier in the episode, you said, these extreme temperatures happen one in 10 shipments. This is what we're talking about. There's one in 10 shipments are going to be either below or above that bell curve.

[00:15:32] Alison McAfee: [00:15:32] Yeah, that's right. And for a couple hours or more, that's sort of the duration threshold that it takes to really cause damage to the sperm.

[00:15:43] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:15:43] Okay. Alright. Perfect. Well, that raises this question, I buy a queen and I have no idea when I see the queen and I pick it up from the supply place or get it in the mail. I can't tell what temperatures she was exposed to. And it sounds like [00:16:00] from the paper, you have extensive experience with molecular biology techniques, you're wizard, when it comes to these techniques. And you've been able to develop some tools using these techniques to screen. Can you tell us a little bit about what you did to develop these tools and how you envision, they may turn into something that beekeepers can use?

[00:16:22] Alison McAfee: [00:16:22] Yeah, absolutely. So my long-term vision is to be able to take a queen from a beekeeper, a failed queen and run a series of molecular tests on her tissues. And then look for different markers for different kinds of stress. So the idea is that I'd be able to look at this data and then tell the beekeeper what the most likely cause of her failure was. So kind of like a molecular autopsy. And to start to do that I took [00:17:00] queens into the laboratory and I stressed them in a very controlled way.

[00:17:05] So I had a group of queens that were cold shocked. So I essentially put them in the fridge, which is 4 degrees Celsius for two hours. I had queens that I heat shocked at 42 degrees Celsius for two hours. And I had queens that I applied a pesticide stress too. And that pesticide stress was actually, it wasn't just one pesticide, it was a mixture or a cocktail of the kinds of things that we tend to see in wax.

[00:17:36] And then I compared the proteins that become activated in those stressed queens to control queens that were just not stressed at all. And so what I was looking for was some kind of protein indicator that would show up in the stressed queens that wasn't in the control queens. [00:18:00] And it was very important that those proteins would be different for different stressors so that I could distinguish between them. So I came up with a panel of six different proteins. So two for each stressor that are all unique. And the idea is that now I can start looking for those in failed queens to get an idea of what's been happening to them.

[00:18:23] But this is maybe a cautionary tale because once I found these proteins, I thought, great I have a diagnostic channel, I can start to get an idea of what's happening to our queens. And then I looked for them in failed queens just to see how they compared to this group of healthy queens that I had and was surprised to see so many of them with the indicators of heat stress. And that really didn't make too much sense to me because I didn't expect these queens to be exposed [00:19:00] that frequently here in BC.

[00:19:02] You know, it was much more than one in 10. It was like 50% of the failed queens had these heat stress markers. So then I started wondering if they could be related to some other stressors that I just hadn't measured yet, or hadn't thought of. And a student in the lab actually did viral analysis on these queens. And what I found was that the exact same proteins that are linked to heat stress also actually are apparently an antiviral response.

[00:19:33] So now I need to go back to the drawing board and come up with new heat stress markers. But this is very much a work in progress. And it's super interesting actually, anyway, that these same proteins that can help mitigate heat stress are also linked to immunity against pathogens. I think there's some really interesting biology there.

[00:19:56] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:19:56] I am admittedly, so out of touch [00:20:00] with proteomic technology. I don't know what a stress protein is. If you were to describe to the listener? I know when I'm stressed, I like to squeeze a squeezy ball, there is an index of my stress. What is a stress protein? What are these proteins like? What do they regularly do in the organism?

[00:20:20] Alison McAfee: [00:20:20] Sure. So inside our cells, proteins are really the molecules that do most of the important jobs. So they'll do things like replicate our DNA when cells are dividing, antibodies are proteins that help us fight off disease. They're kind of like the little molecular machines in our cells. And when we say eat food, or get sick or have some kind of biological stimulus like that our bodies can respond by producing more or less of [00:21:00] certain proteins. So when you get sick with a pathogen, you will respond by producing more antibodies, which helps you fight off that disease for example.

[00:21:11] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:21:11] If they want it to see like, "oh, is this person infected?" They could measure the production of these antibodies. That's what people do you look at these antibodies and you can say, "Oh, this person has an infection or something."

[00:21:24] Alison McAfee: [00:21:24] Exactly. So a queen that has been heat stressed or exposed to pesticides will produce a set of proteins that just helps them deal with that stress. So for example, with the pesticides, they will often upregulate detoxification enzymes, so enzymes, that will help clear out that pesticide. With heat stress what that does at like a cellular level is it increases risk of this thing called oxidative stress.

[00:21:56] And that can be really bad for cells because it damages the [00:22:00] DNA. And a very kind of normal response is for the cells to produce these heat shock proteins, which will kind of like help mop up these reactive oxygen species that caused that damage. So those are just some examples of what a stress protein could be. It's just any protein that is produced in response to a stressful stimulus.

[00:22:26] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:22:26] That's great. That's very helpful. And that's why you had the hypothesis originally that there should be a protein that's very specific to this syndrome of queens getting overheated or cool down. But what you found was, unfortunately, was that you couldn't find something specific, I guess that's why the pesticide was in there - whatever you detect should be different from the ones that pop up in the presence of a pesticide exposure.

[00:22:59] Alison McAfee: [00:22:59] Yeah, [00:23:00] exactly. And I don't want my stress proteins to just be produced, no matter what the stress is. I want something that is produced specifically in response to one kind of stress or another. Because my whole goal is to be able to do molecular detective work and try to figure out what happened to the queens. And it's just not very useful if all I know is that she was stressed somehow, but I have no idea how.

[00:23:28] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:23:28] Okay. Great. So the vision is that you would have kind of fingerprint for each one of these maladies and a beekeeper can send a queen in and say, "what happened?" and you could say, "well, I can tell you it was X, Y, and Z." that's very cool.

[00:23:45] Alison McAfee: [00:23:45] Exactly, yeah.

[00:23:47] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:23:47] Let's take a quick break. We've got a set of questions we ask all our guests. I'm very excited to hear what your answers are. We'll be back in just a minute. Okay, we're back. I always love the [00:24:00] breaks. It gives us a chance to talk. And I realized I had sent you some questions in advance and I didn't quite follow the question. One of the questions I set up was in a queen’s development there's not a lot that can go wrong - you went back to Mark Winston's, “Biology of the Honey Bee” and you wanted to bring something up that I thought was cool.

[00:24:27] Alison McAfee: [00:24:27] Yeah. So I think it's maybe a bit of a misconception that the amount of sperm that a queen can acquire is really only influenced by her mating success. There's actually something else that can directly influence how much sperm she can acquire. And if you rear your own queens, then you might remember that when you were learning grafting techniques that you're supposed to graft really, really young larvae. Somebody, when I was [00:25:00] learning, they told me the best larvae to graft is one you can't see because they're so, so tiny when they're at that newly hatched stage.

[00:25:09] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:25:09] Can I just stop you for a second? Who taught you how to graft?

[00:25:14] Alison McAfee: [00:25:14] Oh, my goodness. Now this is going back in the memory banks. His name was John. His last name was... he ran a queen rearing course in Salmon Arm in grad school.

[00:25:34] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:25:34] Oh yeah. I remember him. Anyways, it'll come to me as we're going. The reason I asked is because we did have Heather Higo on an earlier episode. Heather was the one who taught me how to graft. And I know you've worked with Heather in the past, but anyways, so we know John, whatever his name is up in Salmon Arm, I know you're talking about. But so he told you to graft when you can barely see them, okay, [00:26:00] pick up the story.

[00:26:02] Alison McAfee: [00:26:02] Yeah. So the reason why we should graft young larvae is because the earlier that they are given that queen diet, so they're just fed explicitly the royal jelly. The earlier they start on that diet, the bigger the spermatheca they will later have as adults along with many other physiological differences. But you can imagine the bigger a spermatheca you have, the more sperm you can fit in there, theoretically. So that's maybe one of the first determinants of the amount and quality of the sperm that a queen can acquire. It starts way back when they're only one day old.

[00:26:40] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:26:40] That's awesome. You know, the other thing that we were talking about at the break was, wondered aloud, then I was like, "well if you take it all the way to the extreme, does a worker have a vestigial spermatheca?" And I think you said that you believe that there was?

[00:26:56] Alison McAfee: [00:26:56] Yeah, they do. They're very, very tiny. I've never seen [00:27:00] one with my naked eyes, but I have read about them. I've read that they exist.

[00:27:06] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:27:06] Fascinating. It wasn't John Gates. Was it?

[00:27:08] Alison McAfee: [00:27:08] Yeah!

[00:27:09] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:27:09] Alright. Well, listeners there is an episode with John Gates, the King of Southern British Columbia queen rearing. So check it out. Awesome!

[00:27:20] Alison McAfee: [00:27:20] I'm so glad you remembered.

[00:27:21] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:27:21] It was is bugging me. Okay. So I got three questions for you. The first one is, and I imagine you've got all sorts of ideas, but do you have a book recommendation? We just talked about a great book, “Biology of the Honey Bee”, but do you have a book recommendation for our listeners?

[00:27:35] Alison McAfee: [00:27:35] Yeah. So I actually, I don't often read honey bee books, just like I don't often listen to honey bee podcasts. I think because when you spend the majority of your day already thinking so much about honey bees at the end of the day, you kind of just want to focus on something else.

[00:27:56] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:27:56] You know, it took me until I really started [00:28:00] working with native bees to pick up a jar of honey again. I'm totally with you.

[00:28:04] Alison McAfee: [00:28:04] Yeah. Okay. I'm similar. So my book recommendation is not actually explicitly a honey bee book, but it's a book that I'm re-reading right now. It's called "Prodigal Summer" by Barbara Kingsolver. And it's one of my favorite books. It's a really interesting story of many different people, all from kind of all different walks of life. There's a farmer, there's a geneticist, there's a parks employee who are all living in this really small valley that's very close to nature, somewhere in the Southern Appalachian Mountains area. And so it's very ecology focused. So I think it's still appropriate to bring up here, but it's just a neat weaving of the different ways that these [00:29:00] different people all interact with the same nature that is around them.

[00:29:03] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:29:03] And they're all very different people.

[00:29:06] Alison McAfee: [00:29:06] Yeah, exactly. All with very different opinions.

[00:29:10] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:29:10] Wow. That's great, thank you so much. That's a great recommendation. I was trying to think, I remember visiting Tammy Horn in Kentucky, and I think I remember Barbara Kingsolver being from Kentucky or something like that?

[00:29:25]Alison McAfee: [00:29:25] I don't know, I can check.

[00:29:26] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:29:26] I've read one of her books, the one about Trotsky, which was good.

[00:29:30] Alison McAfee: [00:29:30] Yes. She grew up in Kentucky. You're correct.

[00:29:34] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:29:34] Well, okay, so that's a great recommendation. It hasn't been recommended before. Check it out. Our next question we have for you is, do you have a go-to tool? Like if you really had to choose what would be your go-to tool?

[00:29:50] Alison McAfee: [00:29:50] Yeah. Actually, wasn't hard for me to come up with this one because I don't really have much that's outside of just the [00:30:00] standard beekeeping gear. But my favorite tool I think is my little pocket torch, which is like a blow torch, but it's small enough that it can fit in your pocket. So it's super useful because it's just so small, but yet still just really easy to light your smoker with it or sterilize your hive tool. Which you can't really do with just a lighter and sometimes a blowtorch is just annoying to carry around with you.

[00:30:33] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:30:33] So it is like butane filled? Is that how it works?

[00:30:36] Alison McAfee: [00:30:36] Yeah.

[00:30:37]Andony Melathopoulos: [00:30:37] I remember when I was in the Winston labs so many years ago, it was like a book of matches. Like Mark was cheap back then and sort of like, and I was like lighting a smoker with a book of matches is like - well, maybe Mark, you know, in his wisdom was trying to teach us a life lesson, which wouldn't be beyond his character. But I was thinking as soon [00:31:00] as I was introduced to a torch, you could really get a smoker going well under all conditions. It really makes life so much simpler.

[00:31:07] Alison McAfee: [00:31:07] Yeah, agreed. I would curse myself when I would forget to bring it with me. And I had to lite the smoker with just a lighter, let alone a book of matches.

[00:31:19] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:31:19] How small is this thing? Can you can fit it in your bee suit pocket?

[00:31:23] Alison McAfee: [00:31:23] Yeah. Yeah, it goes in that pocket. No problem. It was actually Steve and Mike from Delta Honey Farms who gave those to me as a gift. So shout out to them for introducing me.

[00:31:36] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:31:36] I always love hanging out with beekeepers because it's like, "oh, you use that for that? That's so clever." Okay, well, that's great. I always remember, Liz Huxter was the one that taught me to keep those mini marshmallows in your truck for emergency queen cage plugging.

[00:31:56] Alison McAfee: [00:31:56] Oh, my goodness. That's such a good idea. And I hadn't heard [00:32:00] that before.

[00:32:00] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:32:00] They never go bad. You can have them there for 20 years. Don't eat them after twenty years. Okay. The last question I have for you is do you have a favorite pollinator species? And I'm always squeamish asking this question around people who work with honey bees, but I'm always surprised that people have all sorts of interests outside of honey bees.

[00:32:21] Alison McAfee: [00:32:21] Yeah, well you don't need to be squeamish asking me that . This was also very easy for me to answer. It's definitely any species of bumblebee, is my favorite. And the reason why is because I also really, really like to hike. So I spend like, almost all my free time that I have when the weather's nice outside trying to get up a mountain. And I love the alpine bumblebees. I don't even know what species there are up there, but I know there are many because you just see such big diversity between the different [00:33:00] sizes and colors of them.

[00:33:01] But they're my favorite because up there in the mountains, it can be really cold sometimes. And the bumblebees are so, determined that they are caught outside in the cold on these flowers. And they're so slow that you can just like interact with them in a really more intimate way than you could ever interact with a honey bee. So alpine bumblebees, specifically are my favorite.

[00:33:34]Andony Melathopoulos: [00:33:34] That's a great choice. And you know, my bedtime reading these days is I'm re-reading "Bumblebee Economics". And I realize that these unlike honey bees, these are bees that experience wide temperature fluctuations. I do wonder about how they deal with this problem of temperature extremes in their sperm. I mean, the queens have mated and they kind of go underground for the winter. I [00:34:00] wonder how that all works out.

[00:34:02] Alison McAfee: [00:34:02] Yeah. To bring it full circle. Right? Different bumblebee species are better or worse at dealing with heat stress too. It makes sense that they're more hardy to cold given the life cycle. But some of them, I think it's Bombus terrestris, I'm not a hundred percent sure, but there's one fairly common species of bumblebee that just seems to be resistant to heat stress.

[00:34:27] Andony Melathopoulos: [00:34:27] Isn't that cool? This has been our real delightful half hour talking with you. Good luck on pursuing down those leads. It's always a pleasure. Take care.

[00:34:37] Alison McAfee: [00:34:37] Thank you. Thanks for having me.


Honey bee queens are durable insects, but new research shows that the sperm they store can become quickly degraded by temperature extremes. 

Dr. McAfee is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar in the Department of Entomology & Plant Pathology at North Carolina State University, where she studies honey bee reproductive health. She is also a science writer, publishing a monthly column, Science Insider, for American Bee Journal as well as other articles for Scientific American and the Gairdner Foundation. In her spare time she enjoys steep hikes up snowy mountains, catching huge, ugly fish, and breaking speed limits on her bicycle.

Links Mentioned:

Book recommendation:

Kingsolver, B. (2001). Prodigal Summer. New York: Faber and Faber.


Pocket blowtorch

Favorite Pollinator:

 Bumblebees, specifically alpine bumblebees.

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