Deep Dive: Bees on a Boat

As described in our last blog post, we’d been anchored in Puerto Real for several days awaiting our upcoming weather window to make the 925 mile, 6-day passage from southwest Puerto Rico to Key West, Florida. We’d been preparing for this passage for some time, and we had our window – several days of agreeable weather for the long journey. But then, on the eve of our journey, a swarm of bees decided Galatea would make a fit new home. But we weren’t prepared for stowaways. We couldn’t do enough for that swarm of bees, who in hindsight were a docile bunch of ladies and gents, and so this blog post is dedicated to their memory, and offers our perspective on the importance of pollinators and how to handle a situation like ours.

Why is everyone on about bees?

We hear people talk about bees all the time but what gives? As you surely know, bees are important pollinators of wild plants and crops on the planet. All bees belong to the insect super-family Apoidea but from there are divided into 7 recognized bee families worldwide, with over 4,000 genera or types of bees and roughly 25,000 individual recorded species, and probably more unrecorded! But, it’s not just about bees, all insects contribute and perform vital ecological functions. For example, hoverflies, beetles, butterflies, and wasps (gulp) also contribute to pollination. In certain environments, researchers even identified a wasp they found to be more effective at pollination than bees. But these insects, their roles (beyond pollinating our crops, but also include regulating pests and vectors of disease, decomposing organic matter and tilling soils) and values, all contribute to our wellbeing and the delicate balance of life on the planet.

Unfortunately, insect populations are quickly declining. For example, some studies suggest that bee populations have declined as much as 75% over the past few decades (often attributable to colony collapse disorder (CCD), a catch-all term used to describe mass bee deaths caused by unsustainable human agricultural practices (monoculture and pesticides), parasitic mites and increased viral levels impacting immune function), and that wasp populations may be declining at a similar rate. The reason for this decline largely includes unfavorable land-use changes causing habitat loss, fragmentation and impairment of habitat quality (most notably for agricultural uses; approximately 38% of the earth’s surface is being used for agriculture and intensive farming); invasive and emergent species (plants, other animals, parasites or pathogens that harm bee populations in surviving habitats, for example varroa mites causing colony collapse and weakened immune system in bees); and climate change, all of which interact and coalesce to decrease population figures and impact survival. Of course, let’s not overlook that these anthropogenic activities adversely affect nearly all species on the planet and biodiversity in general, so what’s harming bees is also harming other animals and plants at alarming rates (which is why some scientists opine that we’ve begun a sixth mass extinction whereby species are lost much faster than they’re replaced).

The bees on Cat Island, Bahamas were loving this flower. You can barely see one of the bees in middle on the right edge of the image.
The varroa mite, as seen on this dead bee, is a frequent contributor to bee colony collapse. Image source: USDA

Even with the increased attention on bees today, there’s still much more we need to learn to implement meaningful conservation strategies, and even more so for other species. Another discussion for another day perhaps, but what’s clear is that bees (and other insects) are deserving of our attention and care because of their roles in the health and sustainability of our planet. According to many beekeepers, Albert Einstein is attributed with stating that, ‘if the bees disappear from the earth, within four years humanity will surely follow’ (despite the doubt that Einstein did in fact make this statement, it nevertheless conveys the urgency of protecting pollinators for our own ecological and economic benefit). The disappearance of bees would have devastating effects on the human food supply and may ultimately lead to collapse of our ecosystem as we know it currently.

Back to the (Be)encounter on Galatea

On the day in question, Rollo and I made a last market run for groceries. But on our return, as we approached Galatea by dinghy we knew something was amiss. We’d left Frank aboard to prep the boat for passage, but what we found when we returned was the cockpit in disarray, and Frank waving madly from inside the saloon trying to signal a message to us. The message became clear as we tied off the tender: “SO. MANY. BEES!

As we tied off the tender, they curiously inspected us. Admittedly, I’m not unfriendly with bees but like most the stingers put me off a bit; I do find them cute at a distance. But the haze of bees swarming in our cockpit was enough to make even the biggest beenthusiast’s heart race. We hastily passed our groceries assembly line style into the saloon, and scurried inside sliding the doors closed behind us just in time before too many gained entry. They were swarming the door, curious about our groceries and what we were withholding from them inside. Gathering our wits, stuffing kitchen towels into the small openings between the doors to keep the more savvy bees out, and collecting our cool – we regrouped.

Fearing that it was only a matter of time before they settled and with the degree of curiousity they showed for gaining entry inside, we played bee repellant audio (the wonders of YouTube) through the exterior speakers in a vain effort to expunge our uninvited guests, or at least make them feel unwelcome to establish long-term residency aboard. Once calmed enough to process, Frank explained that the swarm of hundreds of bees came upon the boat suddenly, and had been exploring the exterior of our boat for ten minutes or so before Rollo and I pulled up. It was already late afternoon, and we were set to weigh anchor in the pre-dawn hours of the next day; setting out for a long journey back to the mainland. This was not a scenario we anticipated tackling as we had many more preparation chores to tackle before we set sail.

The bee deterrent sound we played over the speakers. Can you hear anything???

Ultimately we set sail and although the bees did not bother us, we certainly felt terrible for them

After an hour or so, the bees seemed to settle in our stack pack, the large, blue canvas pack that houses the mainsail on top of the boom when the sail is not in use. Great. We have literally hundreds of bees taking up residence in our stack pack. What the actual **** to do now? Unfortunately, feeling the pressure of impending passage, the favorable and safe weather window slipping through our grasp if we didn’t take the leap to leave when we’d so carefully planned, didn’t leave much room for effectively resolving this beedicament.

The Puerto Rican Bees Crisis

The swarm relocated to our vessel for a reason, their previous locale threatened or imperiled in some way as to force them to seek refuge with us. Bees in Puerto Rico have had a rough go of it lately. Hurricane Maria striped the island of 80% of its agricultural crops and up to 90% of the island’s vegetation leaving bees and other pollinators in dire straits searching for sufficient food to survive. The Puerto Rican beekeeping industry estimates that Hurricane Maria wiped out 80% of the Island’s bee population, but that the population is rebounding thanks to their work to educate and rebuild. The rebounding of the bee population today may be influenced by these bees’ unique characteristics. Puerto Rican bees are descendants of Africanized honey bees, aka “killer bees” who are known for their aggressive pursuit of an intruder in defense of the hive. Although Africanized honey bees are productive and less susceptible to disease and parasites, and in fact are highly resistant to the varroa mite, a likely source of colony collapse disorder, their aggression makes them less inviting to beekeepers. However, while Puerto Rican bees share the productive and healthy qualities of Africanized honey bees, they’re gentle! So, this strong genetic and physical constitution, coupled with a more affable demeanor, has made them the subject of study and research into whether these bees might be part of the solution to colony collapse disorder on the mainland. Needless to say, prior events in Puerto Rico severely impacting its environment may have contributed to our particular swarm’s search for refuge. I was not without empathy, particularly considering our basic knowledge of the importance of bees, especially in today’s climate.

That said, with the sun setting on our final day in PR, we had few options. Also, a quick look at a dead specimen on deck confirmed that these bees may have been Africanized, and thus amplified my fear in unnecessary handling. I did some quick research for nearby apiaries and melittologist (from the Greek work melitta meaning bees, melittology is the study of all bees, melissaphobia is the fear of bees with which Cap’n Frank and I are mildly afflicted) in the area and was unable to locate any nearby that could safely relocate the swarm before sunup the following day. My heart broke for them but the safety of our two-legged crew was my primary concern at that time. Ultimately, we made it back to Florida without need to deploy life-saving epinephrine interventions, and miraculously with only a few dozen beebuds still aboard. For the first day or two we tiptoed lightly around the stack pack, keeping close watch on the swarm inside that remained steadfast in their insistence on going the distance with us despite our warnings. Throughout the journey we noticed some gaining courage to depart their safe haven and fly off in search of the nearest coastline. Luckily, we had good enough wind for sailing with just the spinnaker or the head sail, so we had no real need to disturb the swarm resting in the mainsail stack pack to get an extra boost from the mainsail. More than a few must have jumped ship when we weren’t looking, however, because when we arrived in Key West, dropping the anchor for the first time in seven days since leaving PR, only a handful remained. Some had perished on deck, and presumably any that had survived the duration of the passage (There and Back Again, A Bee’s Tale, no doubt) flew off at the nearest point to land in sunny Florida in search of a new home.

A member of the swarm that came to Galatea
Another fallen bee right by the helm

The point of this tale is thus, I hope you never have to travel hundreds of miles with hundreds of bees on your boat. However, there is a decent chance you may face a similar – albeit hopefully less daunting – scenario at your home or on your property and if so, there are a few better ways to handle it that keeps both your family and the bees out of harm’s way.

What to do if this happens to you (on land or at sea)?

That’s the easy part (if you’re on land): identify and call the bee-experts. Search for a swarm hotline number in your area to identify an expert who can come to your home/property, safely collect the bees and relocate them. If you’re feeling more companionable with your housemates, if they’re creating a hive in your yard or nearby tree, you can learn about how to safely support the hive and keep them on your property. If you’re on a vessel and not under any particular time crunch, research for experts on the Island who may be able to travel to you, collect the bees and relocate them to a safe place on shore. The challenge of our situation was the timing and my inability to identify an expert able to help us out quickly. Looking back, I wonder if we may have been able to delay or otherwise incentivize the bees to relocate from our boat. But life is never that simple, and unfortunately neither is conservation.

A Monarch butterfly at the Key West Martello tower garden

There remain many unanswered questions of bee abundance and surviving habitat that impede the implementation of effective conservation plans for bees. Moreover, some conservation biologists fear that our focus on honey bees in particular may be negatively impacting native pollinators and plant communities. This issue appears to be centered around competition for resources. Honey bees are not native to the U.S., but were imported from Europe to use as honey producers. Native pollinators (including native bees in North America such as the blue orchard mason bee) may actually be more effective pollinators than honey bees. With more public focus on honey bees than native pollinators, these habitat generalists receive more financial contributions in comparison with native pollinators, and other insects for that matter. Also, reports suggest that honey bees, particularly the high density of honey bee colonies in the U.S., tend to monopolize forage resources resulting in “exploitative competition” where one species takes more of a resource and there isn’t enough left to go around. The impact of these dynamics on the natural ecosystem differs from place to place, but some conservation biologists suggest that beekeeping negatively impacts biodiversity. This extends beyond just impacts to native pollinators, but also native plant ecosystems as honey bees efficacy at pollinating invasive weedy species can disrupt these plant communities. This speaks to our earlier discussion that other insects are also deserving of attention, research, and meaningful conservation. However, the take away should be that even without all the answers, we can still take steps to protect and restore our planet’s ecosystems and biodiversity, and in turn continue to grow and explore the most effective means to achieve the best outcomes.

It doesn’t take knowing all the answers to understand that protecting and preserving insect populations where possible is a reasonable and favorable course of action. If you encounter bees in your home, or on your property, there are steps you can take to ensure their safe removal and relocation or protection – whichever best suits the bees! Plant your pollinator garden (check the seed labels to make sure they haven’t been pre-treated with pesticides!), make safe space on your property for insects (think compost pile on the ground safe for habitat and nesting), and keep learning how your individual actions can create big impacts without a big investment! Above all, don’t be afraid of bees, be thankful for them and what they do for us (I mean, be a little afraid though).

The garden on Galatea attracts a lot of attention from the local pollinators anywhere we go!

Equipped with what we know now, we’re working to restore our friendship with the bees, starting with my mini-pollinator garden on board. Just now, we have bees buzzing around our basil, mint, rosemary, lavender and lettuce plants, and rather than running scared and playing bee repellant sounds over the speakers, we invite these friends aboard when they need a quick rest, some sustenance and shade in the strong Caribbean sun. When in doubt, just do your best to bee kind.

Interested to learn more? Check out these resources:

Swarm Removal List in Alabama – https://www.alabamabeekeepers.com/swarm
A solid “conservation of bees 101” study taking a hard look at bee decline, what we know and need to find out. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1051/apido/2009019.

This study looks at the role of different insects and how science and research can influence and be influenced by public perception, with a specific analysis of “why we love bees and hate wasps” despite both providing critical services to our ecosystem. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/een.12676.

“The Problem with Honey Bees” article. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-problem-with-honey-bees/.

Here’s a few articles about bees in Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and the nature of Africanized Puerto Rican Bees: https://www.vice.com/en/article/ned4y7/puerto-ricos-honeybees-are-scrounging-for-food-after-hurricane-maria
https://www.puertoricoreport.com/tthe-uniqueness-of-puerto-ricos-bees/#.YdxfPSxOnOR
https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2018/12/bees-puerto-rico-varroa-mite-colony-collapse-disorder-africanized-honeybee/?fbclid=IwAR2db4QIF98aaKAtAhzg86biL2zyvSHOxMMXc-nVS9NON-7KwPAorydCbcY

Curious about the sixth mass extinction? Check out this article from The Natural History Museum in London. https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/what-is-mass-extinction-and-are-we-facing-a-sixth-one.html

Learn how extracts of polypore mushroom mycelia may help honey bee health, and how you can join the list to get a “BeeMushroomed Feeder” for your yard. https://fungi.com/pages/bees

Check out some cool bee products that may improve your immunity. https://beekeepersnaturals.com/

Not into extracurricular bee reads? Here’s a podcast episode on the Ologies podcast, “Melittology (BEES) with Amanda Shaw” discussing all things cute fuzzy bees, https://www.alieward.com/ologies/melittology?rq=bees. Into podcasts? Check out the Beekeeper Confidential podcast and the Pollination Podcast.

Organizations working in this pollinator space,
Xerces Society – https://www.xerces.org/
Pollinator Partnership – https://www.pollinator.org/