English for beekeepers

The vocabulary of beekeeping: phoretic

A pile of wooden Scrabble tiles: Using the right words like phoretic makes you a better beekeeper.

The right word allows us to communicate with clarity and brevity, but sloppy vocabulary leads to mushy thinking and confused beekeeping.

What is a phoretic mite? As many of you know, I am passionate about words. Words are meant to convey meaning, and the right word allows us to communicate with clarity and brevity. On the other hand, sloppy vocabulary leads to mushy thinking.

Part of the reason ten beekeepers give fifteen different answers to the same question is the lack of standardized vocabulary. The use of inaccurate terms makes the listener think he is hearing more answers than he actually is.

The vocabulary of beekeeping

I have written many posts about the vocabulary of beekeeping, and I try to remain consistent within my posts and in my answers to questions. Sometimes though, especially when I’m tired, I write bad things that need to be deleted. For example, when someone recently explained that their hive swarmed into a tree, I wrote, “That’s amazing! And what about the bees? Where did they go?” Delete.

Of course, I understood what she meant, but it was imprecise. Most bee books will tell you a hive is a man-made structure designed to house managed honey bees. It doesn’t fly away. It doesn’t starve. And if you like to verb your nouns, you can hive a colony or you can hive a swarm, but you can’t hive a hive. So why go there?

Are phoretic mites really phoretic?

By now you’re probably wondering what this tirade has to do with phoretic mites. Well, another beekeeper asked a great question. She said that the word “phoretic” implies a symbiotic relationship, but she has never heard of any benefit to bees from having mites. Hmm.

A phoretic mite is simply a mite that attaches itself to an adult bee. It is an easy way for the mite to move around on the inside of the hive, and it can jump off whenever it pleases. Likewise, a phoretic mite can ride to a place outside of the hive. It can land on a flower, for example, where it can wait for a connecting flight. Some lucky mites ride on a robbing bee or a drifting bee and end up in a completely different hive.

One of the books on my shelf, A Dictionary of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics (Cambridge University Press) defines phoresy as “a symbiosis in which one organism is merely transported on the body of an individual of a different species.” After reading that, I was pretty sure that phoretic was the wrong word because even if phoretic mites are simply riding on adult bees (and not feeding) they are still basically parasites. Furthermore, I didn’t know for sure whether the mites were feeding while they rode or not.

So I asked Katie Lee of Bee Informed Partnership, a mite specialist. She suspects phoretic mites do feed on their rides. Since adult mites can overwinter in a hive even when brood are not present, they must be feeding on something, and that something is most likely adult bees.

After hearing from Katie, I was ready to declare that phoresy was the wrong word because the mites are not merely being transported at that stage, they are probably getting fed.

Obsessing over the wrong word

But then I changed my mind again. An entry in Wikipedia tells us that “The definition of symbiosis has varied among scientists. Some believe symbiosis should only refer to persistent mutualisms, while others believe it should apply to any type of persistent biological interaction (in other words mutualistic, commensalistic, or parasitic).  After 130 years of debate, current biology and ecology textbooks now use the latter definition or an even broader definition (where symbiosis means all species interactions), with the restrictive definition (where symbiosis means mutualism only) no longer used.”

That is certainly different than the definition I learned in school, but if the standard definition has changed, then so must I. One more check sent me back to The Dictionary of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics. It defines symbiosis as, “The living together of two organisms; the relationship between two interacting organisms or populations, commonly used to describe all relationships between members of two different species, and also to include intraspecific associations, sometimes restricted to those associations that are mutually beneficial.”

The key phrase here is “sometimes restricted to those associations that are mutually beneficial.” In other words, sometimes it’s not.

Full circle back to the right word

So in just a few days I went full circle from thinking phoretic is the right word, to thinking it is the wrong word, and back to thinking it’s probably right. But during that journey, I developed a picture of current scientific thought on symbiotic relationships which helps me understand and explain science to others.

As scientific beekeepers, we must be sure of our vocabulary before we make statements that may confuse rather than illuminate. In this case, I was concentrating on the word “phoresy,” all the while assuming I knew the meaning of “symbiosis,” but it was the word “symbiosis” that had evolved while I wasn’t paying attention. Lesson learned.

Rusty Burlew
Honey Bee Suite

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  • Great post! I’ve been wondering if phoretic was the proper term for the relationship between mites and adult bees for a long time. This pretty much clears it up. Thanks!

  • Hi Rusty,
    I agree with your general observations about the precision of writing as opposed to speaking, but as you so aptly point out language changes too. The stick to it part, the precision in writing comes from our consideration and thought. When we speak, we can’t review, reconsider, re-check for grammar, accuracy, etc., but writing differs, it allows one to reflect, revise and correct. I find it a very different experience.

  • Rusty,

    Thought-provoking, as usual.. While I watch the goldenrod bloom coming along, I reflect on “parasitism,” and the example of the goldenrod gall fly, Eurosta solidaginis. Anyone would call it a parasite. The parent fly deposits an egg inside the developing green stem of Solidago altissima, just below the flower cluster-to-be. The stem swells into a hard, round gall the size of a quarter, the larva inside feeds on plant juice, the stalk dries out and the larva pupates over winter.

    However, here is what you notice if you spend a lot of time around in the fields: very often the main bud cluster above a gall dies back before flowering, and breaks off. When that happens, the side shoots below the gall develop into multiple flower heads, and the plant winds up producing more seed than if it had not been parasitized. A survival advantage, not only for the Goldenrod, but for future generations of gall flies.

    The old distinction we learned – “parasites bad, symbiotes good” – turns out more nuanced, as they say. All the more reason, of course, for you to keep insisting on precise terminology. For which, many thanks!

    Corinth, Kentucky

  • Rusty –
    I’m the type to delight in reading the dictionary. I have a list of a dozen terms I have encountered where writers name the food balls made by solitary bees to provision their young. There definately is a lack of agreement for much terminology. So sometimes I just choose — or reject — a word because of how it feels on my tongue.

    And I gotta say, phoresy is never going to float to the top of my list of words I need to use. It is easy to misunderstand it in a conversation. It is easy to misspell and mis-use. A frenetic mite? Brand me a heretic, but I’ll stick with hitchhiker.

    Frass — now there is a word worth elevating.


    p.s. THANKS FOR THE REDIRECT. I read your June 2011 article / comments for the first time (well, I BELIEVE it was for the first time — memory is a funny thing), about Apis Production Units, girls, workers, her-bees, and D.o.t.h. Tee Hee

    • Glen,

      That surprises me because I never took you for the word-loving type. I don’t know why not; you certainly can write.

  • I always thought ‘symbiotic relationship’ meant both parties get a benefit from the relationship. Please correct me if I am wrong. I like being wrong because then I am learning. That said, I don’t see any benefit to the bees. If the mites are wintering with the colony, they are eating something. What do the bees get?

    • Renaldo,

      That is exactly what I was trying to say. I was taught that symbiotic meant each organism benefited from the other, but now that definition has changed to mean that two organisms live together and their relationship can be one of mutualism (both receive benefits), commensalism (one benefits and one is unaffected), or parasitism (one benefits and one is harmed). Honey bees and varroa mites have a parasitic relationship.

  • Rusty,
    Very interesting, but being a simple guy I use the word phoretic to mean any varroa mite that is not under/inside the capped cell in one of my hives/or yours. I also know that they can arrive transported by other drifting/robbing/etc. bees. The rest I leave to the scientists and the wordsmiths.

  • I see where you’re going here but I reached the opposite conclusion. Phoresy is a type of commensalism, and commensalism is a type of symbiosis. Parasitism is also a type of symbiosis but it is not a type of commensalism. Therefore wouldn’t phoretic still be incorrect as the mites are not “simply transported” but are also feeding on adult bees?

    • Erik,

      Yes. But when this term came into use for Varroa mites (and when I wrote this post in 2016), it wasn’t known that the mites were feeding. Until very recently they were thought to be merely riding. Science evolves but the vocabulary is slower to change.

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