Asian giant honey bees might seem a remote concern for someone in tiny Inez, a ranch community in Converse County almost too faint to register on maps.
But retired Casper College professor Will Robinson — an apiarist and researcher who tends hives of (smaller) bees in Inez — possesses what he believes are crucial findings about the larger form of the insect.
Though mostly gleaned from his observations of teeming “bivouacs” of giant bees hanging from trees in Thailand, Robinson said, his work was also informed by migration lessons learned half a world away in Wyoming.
He titled a recent scientific paper “Surfing the Sweet Wave,” a nod to the term “surfing the green wave” often used to depict western ungulate migrations. In the paper, Robinson described what he believes is the first Asian giant honey bee migration stopover site ever identified by researchers. The findings have enormous conservation implications, he said.
“I think it’s, you know, conserving known sites, the one in particular that I found, but also searching for other ones that are along migration pathways and protecting those as well,” he said. “So I think there’s a lot of future work to be done.”
Now, he’s on a mission to amplify his message. How it’s received, he said, could shape the fate of a bug that plays a pivotal role in life itself.
From sage sea to teak mango orchard
Robinson grew up in upstate New York. As a boy, he says, he spent a lot of time at the side of his mother, a “great nature lover,” digging up insects.
In college, he took a beekeeping class at Cornell University from the high-profile bee researcher Roger Morse, “and I kind of fell for the topic then.”
That led down a path of study into biology, entomology and specifically, honey bees. He studied bees in graduate school and later earned a Ph.D in apiculture — beekeeping. The career took him around the world.
Of all the thousands of species of winged, stinging, squirming insects, what was it about bees that appealed to Robinson? When he begins to answer that question, his voice takes on a reverent tone.
“They do so many amazing things, I have to tell you,” he said. They have a sophisticated dance language, he said, that communicates everything from new home sites to distances and food-finding. They vote, he added. “They are fascinating animals, they really are. And of course they make honey, which is nice.”
Eventually, his career took him to the high plains of Wyoming, to teach biology at Casper College. Around the time he had a sabbatical coming up, he said, he heard the college’s sister school was an agricultural research station in Thailand.
“And I just thought, Thailand is the cradle of evolution of honey bees,” he said. “It just seemed irresistible to me. So I immediately made plans to go there for a sabbatical.”
Research on a shoestring
One sabbatical turned into three trips, in 2009, 2010 and 2016. Robinson didn’t arrive with an exact research plan, but locals soon directed him to large clumps of honey bees hanging from trees in the vicinity of a mango orchard. These “bivouacs,” which he soon realized consisted not of wax combs, but purely of honey bees, ranged from grapefruit-sized to as large as Lebron James.
Given the notorious defense behavior of giant honey bees, most people would run away from teeming masses. Robinson, in contrast, would ride his bicycle on a slow transect through the research area twice a day, spending the rest of the hours observing them with binoculars, camera and notebook, not bothering with protective clothing. It was sweltering, after all. He calls it “research on a shoestring.”
“And slowly I started to realize oh, you know, these things are all over the place and they’re coming and going,” he said. “I was seeing moving masses of bees going through this orchard … staying for short periods of time and moving on.”
It dawned on Robinson that he was witnessing the insects mid-migration. And that just like the ungulates of the West, the honey bees travel the same route each year, following the wave of flowering food as it blossoms across the land. (European honey bees, which are found in North America, are not known to migrate — with the exception of one race found only in Africa, Robinson said.)
In November, Robinson published an article in the Journal of Insect Science. A culmination of his research, it demonstrates the northern Thailand population uses the same location as a migratory stopover site every year.
“I think, you know, people have to realize that these sites are important as part of the bee migration, as they are important for birds” or ungulates like pronghorn, he said. And just as Wyoming has learned the importance of preserving migratory routes, he hopes the same approach be applied to bees.
It seems likely these sites are commonly destroyed by agricultural development or other uses, he said, which could leave migrating bees exhausted, famished and without a place to rest.
Establishing the knowledge was just step one, he said. Now he is working to ensure something is done about it.
“That’s where my thinking is now as opposed to the research,” he said. “It’s about: ‘OK, these sites are out there. Let’s find them and let’s conserve them. Let’s protect them.’”
Broadcasting that message from Inez to the fields of Thailand and beyond is a daunting task. Robinson has trouble contacting the research station, let alone the scattered stakeholders who could make a difference.
“I’m hoping to just drum up some local support for this and get some people thinking about it,” he said. “So if I can just get this wave going … maybe it can go 8,000 miles and get people in Asia excited.”
Defense, dance, diaspora
The giant honey bee in question, apis dorsata, is about twice the size of North American honey bees, and ranges in color from creamy yellow to black and orange. The insects are found in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, and build exposed combs on high cliffs or under tree branches, rather than in cavities. The bees are capable of fierce defense behaviors — Robinson’s former Cornell instructor Morse called them “the most dangerous stinging insects on Earth,” he said.
As Robinson recounts, they have to be — the bees he observed had to regularly battle off hornets and ants. When they get defensive, they offer up an astounding warning, “with a mesmerizing, shimmering wave that spreads over the entire cluster as individual bees flick their abdomens in rapid succession.”
“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” he said. “When this happens, it’s also a warning and they’re saying you know, ‘I see you, we see you, we’re pretty potent defenders here. We can take care of ourselves so you best heed this,’ and then there’s this escalation if you don’t heed that.”
When he first arrived, he admits, he kept his distance. The more he studied, he said, he realized “they are pretty gentle in this stage.”
In his three, three-month stints, he said, “I didn’t get stung more than 20 times, which is hardly anything to a beekeeper. It’s not very much, and it was always because I was doing something a little too foolish.”
The payoff was worth it, he said.
Witnessing the social cohesion — even as the bivouacs grew in population from a few hundred individuals to several hundred thousand — was unforgettable. Especially in those huge clumps.
“We overuse the word awesome, but it is awesome,” Robinson said.
He was also able to watch the bees perform their famous “waggle dance,” which helps dictate where the swarm will move. That one entails a rapid vibration of a dancer’s abdomen, he said.
As he started to better understand their behavior, he said, he could even position himself to catch an unparalleled vantage point of bees in flight — from below.
“It’s absolutely incredible to have this entire group of 50,000 bees fly right over your head. The adrenaline rush is like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “It is soul stirring.”