He Has Explored Bees On Every Continent Where They Fly

by M.E.A. McNeil

Tigers and bears, an even worse mite, giant bees, and honey pirates – Michael Burgett has tales to tell about them all from his 40 year career as a teacher, researcher and extension apiarist at the University of Oregon and far beyond. Now, as an emeritus professor, he continues to teach, keep a unique historical apiary at OSU in Eugene and spend the cold months in Thailand at Chaing Mai University. Mike was also Bee Culture’s western columnist for several years in the 90s.

“You come to intersections in life,” he said of his plan, at graduation from a small Pennsylvania state college in 1966, to teach high school biology. Twelve days later, he was drafted into the army, and he soon found himself on the other side of the country, at Fort Baker in California, assigned to the Sixth Army Medical Laboratory Entomology Unit. The work proved fascinating, and when he finished his tour of duty, he applied to Cornell graduate school to continue studying entomology.

In a typical sibling slap-hug, his Cornell-trained veterinarian brother said, “They’ll never take you,” and promised to pay his matriculation fee if he got in. Burgett was admitted on the strength of his army recommendations. At another of the intersections in his life, he set aside his choice of forest entomology to take the only paid assistantship available; for that, he had to study bees.

It was 1969 when he found himself in the office of Professor Roger Morse, with no idea that this man would become a deep and cherished influence. “My brother had to pay up,” said Burgett. “It cost him 100 bucks. And Roger put me on a full ticket.” To his family, who’d had to pay for his brother’s education, he got an up in the sibling game by maintaining that apiculturists were much more important than veterinarians.

“Roger was a superb mentor. He had such an understanding of beekeeping, and a philosophy of, well I’ve got a grad student who’s going to work with honey bees, so first he needs to learn what a beehive is. He really drove you: first he made you a beekeeper, and then you did research. He got you involved in teaching, he got you involved in extension. We were all assigned an apiary. In the morning, when you came in, he’d sit at his typewriter, put in a yellow sheet of paper and write you up with a list of complaints about how you weren’t maintaining your apiary properly. His initials were R.A.M, so we called them Ramgrams.

Doc was the affectionate nickname given Morse, and Burgett calculated that his former students at one time made up 40% of the apiary experts in the country – among them John Harbo, Rick Fell, John Ambrose, Gene Robinson and Dewey Caron, who gave Burgett his first look inside a hive along with his first sting. Another, David de Jong, is at the University of Sao Paulo. Tom Seeley was the high school go-fer at the lab when Burgett was there, and they worked together on a pesticide project in Eastern Pennsylvania: “Tom never took a class at Cornell, but he considers himself one of Doc’s students because Doc was his mentor for years.”

Dewey Caron reminisced about that time: “Mike had by far the best imitation of Dr. Morse’s speech patterns and inflections. He would entertain the grad students at our gatherings with the latest Roger witticisms — in a caring and even affectionate way; we all adored Dr. Morse.

“Mike liked bees. He was a fast learner. We graduate students extracted honey in an ancient building in the arboretum, and it was Mike who would organize and do the majority of the work each year. Mike largely built the interior of the Dyce Lab – constructing the walls, painting, plastering etc.; he was skilled at those activities, and he still found time to do the lion’s share of the bee work.” Their honey sold for nine cents a pound.

In 1974, Burgett arrived at OSU on track to become a professor in an entomology program that dated from 1919. His appointment combined formal teaching, extension and research. He taught general beekeeping as well as courses for non-science majors designed to draw students to entomology, such as “Creepy Critters” and “Plagues, Pests and Politics”. The bait worked for Debbie Delaney, who took the latter class, then learned beekeeping from Burgett and is now an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Delaware. Sue Cobey, at Washington State University, took her first bee class from him and went on to learn instrumental insemination there. The exclusion of women from the Cornell program was remedied by many other of its graduates as well.

Playboy Magazine named Burgett’s honors class, “Far Side Entomology” as “Best College Course in the Country” – a fact that makes him chuckle. The selection was made, he discovered, by an assistant editor thumbing through university catalogs. All the same, OSU non-majors were drawn to the department to learn scientific inquiry from a cartoon. The course touched on a wide range of subjects, from phobias to insect design and scale. “Laughter, I encourage it as much as possible,” he said. He feels that he’s done his job if he can “bring them in laughing at Gary Larson and send them away thinking like Carl von Frisch. Someone asked von Frisch, why study a honey bee? He said, why study an elephant? Any species can reveal all, or nearly all the secrets of life.”

Burgett’s Summer class, Biology of the Honey Bee, dissected a colony for its “natural math”: comb, food, brood, workers. On the last day, a study of pheromones ended with bee beards, and the brood was made into a strained, scrambled Thai dish called bakuti – cures for the faint of heart.
Connections between bees and world religions were explored in Burgett’s baccalaureate core class in entomology. For it, he found a Buddhist story in which a monkey offers the Buddha a branch with the single honey comb of the dwarf bee, Apis florea. He had the scene carved in wood in Thailand and installed it in his teaching apiary.

Burgett has mentored 18 graduate entomology students and describes his teaching style as “the guide on the side” rather than “the sage on the stage.” His acronym for the values he teaches is “oic” – originality, independence, creativity. Teaching “highly motivated, bright kids slows down the arrow of time for me,” he said.

His extension publications, from OSU Extension Service, cover the range of pollination issues found in the Northwest. Over 25 years he surveyed Oregon and Washington beekeepers, gathering a database on pollination. Together with agricultural economist Randal Rucker, he has published a paper on the results in The American Journal of Agricultural Economics that was selected by the European Association of Agricultural Economists for the 2012 Quality of Research Discovery Award.

His numerous extension publications on practical beekeeping include disease identification and control, hive construction, swarm removal, mitigation of pesticide hazards, and management of pests and predators – from mites, wasps and wax moths to bears.

It is worth a brief digression to recount some of his practical observations. “Whatever architecture you choose, there are little tricks that make it easier for the bees.” He weighed bottom boards one March, and found that each contained a quart of water. “The bees have to get rid of that, so if you have two bottom boards for each hive, you can swap them out every year.”

In September, at a meeting of the Marin Beekeepers in California, he summarized some of his advice for backyard beekeepers, which he made clear would not work on a commercial scale. He recommended obtaining queens from local or feral sources, feeding no chemicals, and making splits from colonies that have survived two Winters.

In a study to evaluate optimum hive size, he had a dozen hives made – three each of six-frame, eight-frame, 10-frame and 12-frame boxes. He also had a Russian-style 20-frame unit made, according to what he saw used in Armenia. Following his usual practice, he placed seven frames in eight-frame hives and nine frames in 10-frame hives. Over two years, 2001-02, he stocked them. He gave the colonies 100 days to develop before euthanizing them and measuring their comparative success.

“You can get a lot more eight-frames on an 18-wheeler if you’re making your life from pollination than you can 10-frames.”

The 20-frame was consistently the worst. The first year, the eight frame was best, the second year, the 10 frame. But he observed that in the 10-frame the outside combs (one and nine) were devoid of any bee activity, whereas with eight-frame equipment, the outside combs (one and seven) were full of bees and brood. “I think that the bees like the narrower confinement,” he said. “You can get a lot more eight-frames on an 18 wheeler if you’re making your life from pollination than you can ten-frames.”

As for the 12-frame equipment, “You don’t ever move them.” He even found a New York beekeeper with four of them on a pallet and a common honey super. Burgett still keeps the 12-frame hive for demonstration “And the 20-frame for crazy,” he said.

The home to these hives, among many others, is a unique teaching apiary on the edge of campus, the Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture and Bees. When OSU Entomology was absorbed into other departments a decade ago, Burgett saved his apiary by joining it to the horticulture department, which now has extensive plantings on the property.

An inspiration for the apairy was a lithograph by Ward Nichols depicting traditional bee gums and Langstroths; “A lovely piece of art, a synopsis of the history of humans and honey bees. So I thought I’ll put that together out here”.

He gestures to a diverse collection of hives: “Here you have one of everything,” and points to his first bee tree. He engineered moving a 2000 pound bolt of cottonwood – cut from a campus deadout, lifted by a 120-ton crane into a dump truck and slid into place at the apiary with the colony intact.
“It’s a wonderful teaching aid. This is what this species [Apis mellifera] has lived in for five million years. We as a species are 40,000 years old, and they got along well without us. This is the natural nest. Everything else we do is built off that – multiple parallel combs in a cavity. Also in Apis cerana in Asia, multiple parallel combs in a cavity. Everything else we make.” To visiting groups, he points out that the bee trees are vertical, in contrast to the larger horizontal man-made hives. “Queens like to lay in an upward spiral pattern. If you are interested in optimizing the efficiency of the hive of bees, then go vertical.”

Following a description of ancient Greek ceramic hives in Bee World, Burgett commissioned a potter to make one, and he built top bars for it. “With this hive, every top bar has only one position because it’s circular. But the bees love it, and they build comb all the way to the bottom. Visitors love it too, but I tell them it will be a swarm producing machine, if it makes it through the cold season, and they’d be lucky to get 15 pounds of honey a year out of it.” Nonetheless, he made a second one out of a large flower pot.

Nearby is a historical plank hive with fixed comb. “You can’t open it without a sledgehammer,” he said. A skep and Warre hives are kept there as well.

Every hive in his apiary has a story. The Kenya top bar hive, he explained, was developed in the 1960s at the University of Guelph to improve sub-Saharan beekeeping – which was done in horizontal logs hung in trees. The Canadians designed it with wide top bars to hold in the African bees, and follower boards to move out as a swarm grows. For Kenya, he said, “It’s really smart.” He was less sanguine about its usefulness in the Northwest.

His apiary tour, which started with the bee tree, ends at a beautifully stained Langstroth hive. That, too, has a story. On his PhD student’s quest to discover whether juniper wood (Juniperus occidentalis) would repel tracheal mites, Burgett had hives made of it. As it turned out, there was “no benefit whatsoever as far as mite control. It did make for lovely hives, however” – too nice to paint. “I realized that staining is the way to go, you only have to apply stain about every four years. The advantage to the bees is solar gain; you want a darker color hive here [in Oregon]. And there is an aesthetic to an apiary; I think an apiary ought to look nice.

“I hope people walk away with the fact that it doesn’t make a difference what you put the bees in, they’ll live in it. It’s a matter of efficiency.”

Horticulture grad students have worked with him on the site. One helped build a water wall designed after one Burgett found in Thailand. Another helped construct boards for solitary bees, and Burgett decided, “let’s not just make it for mason bees and leaf cutter bees, let’s use every bit in the drill. So we have an absolute menagerie of different species of tunnel-nesting bees”. Similar “wild bee hotels” were built for a city park and the main campus. “We can open a honey bee hive any day of the year and see some activity, but here there are two months of frenetic activity, and ten months of looking at a board with holes in it. But it gets people thinking about non-Apis pollinators. They are an absolute fascination, I just love them.”

Starting in 1981, Burgett began international work. The University allows time to be dedicated to consultancy, and as much as he loves Oregon, he says, “Winter here, you never see the sun.” He has carried out extension or research programs in 12 countries – from Eastern Europe to an island in the South Pacific, but he settled on a concentration in Southeast Asia. “I love the climate. The food is fabulous. And the best time to be there is December or January. He remembers Morse advising him: “‘Burgett, someone is always willing to provide you an airplane ticket to see honey bees in other areas of the world. Take advantage of it.’ Thanks Roger, I have.”

Those trips may be more venture than vacation. Working with an international effort to conserve the largest delta in the world, the Sundarbans, which stretches across southern India and Bangladesh, Burgett accompanied native honey hunters deep into the mangrove forests. The area remains uninhabited because of its inhospitable terrain: The rise and fall of nine-foot tides creates shifting islands among the tangled mangrove roots that cannot support roads or structures. Foot travel is treacherous, and the hunters live on small wooden boats to avoid man-eating tigers, crocodiles and pythons.

The area, named by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 1997, attracted funding from The Asia Development Bank to bring scientists from around the world to assess forest resources and sustainable livelihoods for the desperately poor living on its edges. Burgett, who had expertise in the bees of Southeast Asia, was there to evaluate the health of the wild giant honey bee (Apis dorsata) and the traditional harvest of its honey.

Dorsata, the largest honey bee in the world, builds open nests that can measure five feet across, covered with a living curtain of aggressive bees. Burgett had already been baptized by them on an earlier trip to the Burmese-Thai border, where an absconding colony covered him with yellow rain.
Over three years, Burgett returned to join the honey hunters. Each season began with an elaborate ceremonial blessing for the dangerous undertaking. At the firing of a cannon, small crews departed in wooden, non-motorized boats that became home day and night, when they were not trekking through the mangroves in search of nests. He said, “They don’t dare camp on shore for fear of tigers,” which have been known even to swim out to moored boats to pull men off. “In every village I visited, there were stories about tiger attacks. Every year, honey hunters are killed. I met guys whose grandfathers were killed by tigers, and whose fathers were killed by tigers, and they continue to go into the forest to hunt honey.”

The bees they hunt are a threat as well. “These are ferocious bees,” said Burgett. “They have been known to kill an elephant.” The barefoot hunter, protected by only a head scarf, smokes the bees and quickly machetes a large chunk of comb into a basket and retreats. Deep in the forest, the group returns by the sound of a ram’s horn blown every five minutes by a companion in the boat. But should they encounter any of the other waiting terrors – saltwater crocodiles, poisonous snakes – there would be no easy way for them to be found. The homeward journey runs the danger of pirates that raid the boats for their honey.

Burgett could travel by motorboat with the Bangladeshi Ministry of Forestry to accompany the hunters into the forests on their searches, but he suffered some 20 stings at once as an observer.

By the time the hunters return home after weeks in the forest, the honey, which has been crushed from the comb by hand in the boat, has been subject to so much heat and humidity that it is partly fermented. “It’s awful stuff,” said Burgett. Nonetheless, it is in demand as a traditional food and medicine. Sales, some of it door-to-door, pay about a third of the hunters’ $280 average annual income over the two months of the harvest.

Burgett’s report concluded that honey hunting in the Sundarbans is sustainable. “Although data are scarce, there does not seem to be a decline in honey yield. The giant honey bee population seems to be stable. The forest is not damaged, and the bees are not injured. This is a traditional harvest that has been going on for thousands of years. Hunting wild honey in a dangerous forest is only for a very few. I would hate to see it stopped.”

Hive-based beekeeping was also part of Burgett’s evaluation of the area. He did not want to convert the hunters, who have passed down their skills for generations, into beekeepers. But, in one of the poorest nations on earth, he sees that beekeeping may serve some of the four million people who live within 20 kilometers of the forest’s northern border. “It may suit the hunter’s wife or his neighbor. Keeping bees may be a very good way to supplement income with a product that is familiar and marketable and that has very little impact on the forest ecosystem.”
To that end, Burgett produced a beekeeping manual in the native Bengali language as well as a booklet to help hunters increase yield and purity of wild honey. He left Bangladesh with mixed feelings: Deep frustration over the political system and appreciation for the accomplishments of the international project to conserve the Sundarbans. “Once you are in the forest or in the villages just north of the forest, life is very different. The traditions are strong, and so are the people. Wonderful and welcoming.”

It was an interest in pests and predators that led Burgett to turn his attention to the Varroa mite while it was still in Asia. He was attracted to work in Thailand, which has the greatest diversity of honey bees in the world and the best system of higher education in Asia. With an appointment at Chiang Mai University in the North, he studied the mite on its giant bee host, Apis dorsata. What he saw there made him the first to warn American beekeepers in the Pacific Northwest of the danger of Varroa, and now he is sounding the alarm about another, more virulent mite, Tropilaelaps. “When I first went to Thailand in 1982 and looked at a mellifera colony, I’d find both Varroa and Tropilaelaps in it. By 1988 it was rare to find Varroa. By 1996, it was tough to find Varroa at all. With a female Varroa and a female Tropilaelaps in the same cell, the Varroa never reproduced. On a micro scale and a macro scale Tropilaelaps outcompetes; it has a shorter lifecycle. If it ever gets over here, it is so much worse.”

He also studies other kinds of bees in Thailand, including a little-known night-flying carpenter bee and the dwarf honey bee, Apis floria. Stingless bees are a particular interest, and one of the PhD students he mentors is working on the biochemistry of stingless bee honey. He urges his students to get out of the lab to observe the bees, just as he did as a graduate student. “It’s a lot of fun working with these kids.”

He has hopes for the growth of entomology research in Thailand. Entomologists there are largely restricted to teaching. “They don’t send papers to peer-reviewed research journals or even subscribe to the journals.” His contribution to widening the world of Thai entomology is “to be a good bee person at Chaing Mai University. I love the joy of basic research in Thailand.”
When he became an emeritus professor at OSU, Burgett was invited to teach a class – “Anything you want.” He is currently working on the online version of his “Plagues, Pests and Politcs” course. He is heartened by the new national interest in honey bees. “In the world of entomology, bees were looked at as kind of a flying cow. It’s wonderful to see this reinvigoration.” But he is concerned for the new beekeepers and offers pro bono teaching. “If anyone in the local bee community thinks I can help them out, you bet. The best way to learn bees is mentoring.”

Among the recognitions for his work has been the Roger Morse Teaching Extension Award given at EAS and a Top Professor Award from students at OSU.

Burgett describes his career as “simply helping people raise bees and produce honey. It’s been a good path.” And he is still venturing up the trail.

Buawangpong, N., Khongphinitbunjong, K., Chantawannakul, P. and M. Burgett 2013 Tropilaelaps mercedesae: does this honeybee brood mite exhibit a sex preference when infesting brood of the adapted host Apis dorsata? Journal of Apicultural Research 52(3): 158-159.
Burgett, Michael 2002 Eastern Apiculture Society Profile
Burgett, Michael 2013 recording of apiary tour, Oregon State University July 30
Herring, Peg 2003 Dangerous Harvest, Oregon Progress, Winter, http://oregonprogress.oregonstate.edu/winter-2003/dangerous-harvest
Johansen, Carl A., Michael Burgett 1981 Honey Bee Diseases and Their Control, Washington State University Cooperative Extension, Oregon State University Extension Service, University of Idaho Cooperative Extension Service, and United States Department of Agriculture.
McNeil, M.E.A. 2014 interview with Michael Burgett, September 4
NPR, All Things Considered, Great Professors Series 2005 Anthony Brooks interview with Michael Burgett, January 4, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4258512
PBS 2009 “A short lesson on honey bees”, video interview of Michael Burgett showing pictures of Apis dorsata, June 1, http://video.pbs.org/video/1496302787/
Rucker, Randal, Walter N. Thurman and Michael Burgett 2012 Honey Bee Pollination Markets and the Internalization of Reciprocal Benefits, Amer J. Ag Econ, Vol 94, Issue 4, 956-977