Art, Biology and Ethics in the integrated media work, “Resonating Bodies – Bumble Domicile”

[world premier at new Gallery, Toronto, July, 2008] Sarah Peebles (project lead and audio)

August, 2010:

Our bumble bee colony queen died a mysterious death on the final day of the “Bumble Domicile” exhibit in 2008 at new gallery in Toronto.

We had a scientist from James Thomson’s lab at the University of Toronto, which was generously providing expertise and assistance with our colony, inspect the hive at the end of the exhibit. Michael Otterstatter, the  world expert in pathogen transmission among Bombus (as of 2008), reported the following in July, 2008: “Your colony carried a heavy parasite (Crithidia bombi) infection, and this may have been the cause of the queen’s death. This is typical of commercially reared bumble bee colonies.”

Our bumble bee colony was not reared from a wild, local queen caught and reared by ourselves, due to lack of staff.  We opted instead to order a commercially reared colony, which was generously donated to the exhibit by a local company. We had been planning all along to give our colony ‘an early winter’ by killing it in the deep freeze of the Thomson Lab, for reasons demonstrated by the above pathogen report.

This was not an ideal way to treat our bumble bees, whom we respected, had grown to further appreciate, and who had become both neighborhood mascots and starlets. But there were serious reasons, which are somewhat involved (as biology always is!), to take this approach. Read on!

At the Thomson lab, no commercial bumble bee hives are allowed to progress to the advanced stage of their lifecycle wherein they produce queens*. These colonies are all killed because they frequently contain concentrations of pathogens which exceed the levels found in wild colonies of Bombus in North America (this includes pathogens not generally found in N. American Bombus but found in Europe). The biology of pathogen transmission among bumble bees is complex, and it involves pathogens transmitted through Bombus feces, picked up on their feet and inadvertently deposited on flowers and plants during foraging. Whether to even allow our bumbles to free-forage outside was debated; 1 out of 4 experts we consulted – our collaborating scientists – felt strongly against it, and the other 3 felt the potential risk to local bumbles would be minimal and acceptable.

However, all 4 scientists felt strongly that we should not allow males or new queens to enter the environment, and that it would be an imperative to destroy the colony when it progressed to point in its cycle (or at the end of the exhibit, whichever came first).

In response to my querying our collaborating scientists, I received the following feedback (July, 2010).

James Thomson comments: “Commercial colonies are infected frequently. This is kind of a tricky point, but I don’t think that we actually know for sure what the infection rates are for commercial colonies being shipped to growers… It’s best to characterize disease as a probable hazard that accompanies the use of commercial bees but not quite an inevitability.”

Michael Otterstatter further comments that the following quote from a 2008 research paper he co-authored with James Thomson sums up his thoughts: “Although we cannot prove that the commercial bees we observed escaping from Exeter and Leamington greenhouses during summer 2005 were from infected hives, 89% of the colonies (n=65) that we received from their supplier during 2004–2006 contained the pathogen C. bombi, and 73% +/- 26% (mean +/- SD) of nestmates were infected within hives that tested positive for this pathogen. The commercial rearing facility selected these hives from stock destined for industrial greenhouses; hence, these colonies were representative of those used by the greenhouses in our study area.”

from: Otterstatter MC, Thomson JD, 2008
Does Pathogen Spillover from Commercially Reared Bumble Bees Threaten Wild Pollinators?

PloS ONE 3(7): e2771.

Laurence Packer states: “Bumble bee colonies that are infected with a microsporidian parasite did not produce reproductive brood [see below].” He also added that he and his colleagues do not approve of moving colonies around over more than small distances – as a way to reduce disease spread.

Otti and Schmid-Hempel, 2008;
A field experiment on the effect of Nosema bombi in colonies of the bumblebee (Abstract, registration required to view full text.)

Stephen Buchmann agreed on all points.
In fact, commercial bumble bee colonies and their potential effect on wild Bombus is a complex and very political topic, which includes several factors. Here are a few:

the biology of pathogen transmission among bumble bees;

the current levels of regulation of commercial bumble bee colony rearing in Canada and the U.S. – considered inadequate by our collaborating scientists and many of their colleagues (Laurence Packer, Michael Otterstatter, James Thomson and Stephen Buchmann, who are internationally recognized wild bee specialists, pollination ecologists, and entomologists).

The effects of commercially-reared bumble bees on the health and stability of local, wild bumble bee populations in North America, which are not yet fully understood, given current data on commercial Bombus which escape from hot houses and commercial Bombus colonies applied to outdoor crops in Ontario and perhaps elsewhere.

Well, as I mentioned, giving our favorite neighborhood bumble bee colony an early death was not ideal, but setting it free certainly was morally problematic. This was a dilemma! What do we tell the kids when they ask, “so are you going to let them go after the show?”?? Admittedly, we were somewhat vague (but not dishonest) with very young people, and strait-up with adults and older youth.  To be honest, I felt really sad when I took the colony to be frozen. Sure, in nature only the new queens would survive the Winter anyhow, but still…

Finally, though, the thought which resonated in my mind — and still does — is this:  Do I feel guilt over having literally ordered the creation of life and then killing it (for art, albeit art which expands awareness), or, do I step up to the plate, as it were, and take responsibility for participating in this process every time I buy a hot house tomato or other food made more cheaply available to me via the ‘pollination services’ provided by commercial bumble bee colonies which are also destroyed in that process – by the tens of thousands (see footnote below) — and, which are possibly posing a very real threat to our local wild bumble bees and (by extension) to the ecosystems they maintain?

When do we as a society step up to the plate and take responsibility for the agricultural choices we economically participate in and legislate?

• Note that in nature only new, mated queens survive the winter; the rest die with the frost, which is quite different than the life cycle of honey bees. You can see a life cycle illustration at this site for clarification, and learn more about Bombus life cycles from the book,“Bumble Bee Economics”, from which it was taken (at ‘resources’ section). For an update on the pathogen situation in commercial bumbles, I suggest the new book by Laurence Packer, “Keeping the Bees”.

Footnote:  I have heard that hot-house growers and other farmers are also instructed by commercial bumble bee rearing companies to destroy their (commercial) colonies when they begin producing queens, though I’m not certain on this point, as it was second or third-hand information.  I don’t know the reason farmers are instructed to put their managed colonies to death towards the end of their cycles (if in fact this is the case, which is unclear) in cases where farmers either rent or buy bumble bee colonies from commercial operations which rear bumble bees. This might have to do with how the hive cycle progresses in relation to the workings of a hot house or outdoor field, such as strawberries or blueberries, which in Ontario and perhaps elsewhere do indeed use commercial Bombus colonies for pollination services.

Laurence Packer further reflects, “maybe the companies realize it’s not a good idea to let potentially diseased bees out into the wild….”

Needless to say, I would not use a commercial bumble bee hive in the future, and I strongly recommend that others interested in using Bombus observation hives for art or education raise their own local wild colony rather than purchase a commercial hive.