Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Drone Questions

Swiss reader, Alexandra, writes a number of pertinent questions about drone bees and their role in honey bee reproduction. She asks, “How does a queen find drones for mating? Will they hang out near her hive until she comes out on her mating flight? Is the mating going on while in the air? Are these drones from various hives, or just from one? Does any mating occur with her own drones, who genetically would be her own children? Do drones die after mating? What are the drones doing all day before it’s time for mating flights? Why are drone eggs infertile? Why do workers need to be fertile? And, lastly, what happens if the bees have to stay home a few days, like in stormy weather?”

I’ll try to answer: Drones from many hives fly to spaces called drone concentration areas, DCAs, where they mate with queen bees in flight. Young queen bees fly to DCAs, usually more distant than ones occupied by drones from her own hive, making it unlikely for queens to mate with genetically similar hive mates. This helps prevent inbreeding, which results in inferior offspring. In the DCAs, drones seek flying queens by sight and pheromones. Drones die in the act of mating; usually more than a dozen mate with a queen. Alexandra questions the drones’ activity outside of their mating flights. Drones conduct no work; they eat honey and rest inside the hive. Workers and queens develop from fertile eggs, and drones develop from infertile eggs in a scheme, common among stinging insects, known as parthenogenesis. When queens make their mating flights, over a day or two, they collect a life-time’s supply of sperm from drones. The queens then self-fertilize each egg that they lay that is to become a worker or queen. If the queen lays an egg without fertilizing, it becomes a drone. Inclement weather can delay mating flights. Long delays result in sterile queens, like the drone-layer shown in today’s photo.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Questions from Switzerland

Alexandra, an interested reader of The Peace Bee Farmer, writes several questions from her home in Switzerland. Here are some of her questions and my attempts at answering: “Foremost, how can a bee colony survive when humans steal their honey?” Alexandra, this question is at the crux of beekeeping. The bees will starve if the beekeeper robs too much of the colony’s stored honey. We can’t judge how severe a winter will be; so, when harvesting, we have to rely on the shared experience of those who have kept bees in this local area. And, most importantly, we must not be too greedy! Next, “I suppose the quality of honey varies. Does this show?” Honey varies throughout the year, and it varies from year to year. The product that we harvest changes according to the flowers that come into bloom. Different times of the year and different weather conditions will dictate which flowers are available for the bees to forage for nectar to make into honey. Typically, spring and summer flowers produce light-colored honeys with mild fragrance and taste. Honey derived from trees are generally darker in color and more robust in flavor. In the Mid-South of the US, fall honeys are much stronger in flavor and aroma.

Alexandra asks how nutrition affects honey bee immune systems. This is a topic of intense study. Honey bee nutrition greatly affects the health of the bees. This topic was discussed by Dr. Dewey Caron at the Arkansas Beekeepers Association’s conference in Little Rock. Dr. Caron explained that optimal nutrition boosts the bees’ immune system and boosts their detoxifying enzymes. Optimal nutrition often results from the bees having access to a great diversity of flowering plants that bloom throughout the spring, summer, and fall months. One of the ways that we can help the bees and the other native pollinators is to provide plants that bloom throughout the seasons. Today’s photo shows a honey bee foraging a late-season rose in Idaho’s Treasure Valley.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Arkansas Honey Festival

One thousand people gathered in Little Rock on a delightful early fall day for the third annual Arkansas Honey Festival. Pleasant weather made for enjoyable events both indoors and out. The event, held at Bemis Honey Bee Farm, featured a full day of classroom, honey house, and bee yard presentations. I was invited to make a classroom presentation on the control of parasitic Varroa mites. I took the group of interested beekeepers into the bee yard where we sampled hives for Varroa mites. We used two methods of sampling, a powdered sugar roll and an alcohol wash. The group noted that the alcohol wash was the more accurate method of determining the bees’ mite load when both methods were used on the same hive. Other presenters described how to properly label honey, how to build bee-friendly gardens, the production of bee hive products other than honey, and marketing of bee hive products. The new Veterinary Feed Directive was described to beekeepers and veterinarians present. In the honey house, eager groups attended sessions on making mead, extracting honey, making creamed honey, and cooking with honey. Bee yard events involved demonstrations on handling bee hive pests and diseases, fall bee hive management, and checks made by the state’s apiary inspectors. I gave a presentation on top bar hive beekeeping. In today’s photo, I demonstrate handling a Kenyan top bar hive brood comb.

The Arkansas Honey Festival was an enjoyable social event on top of being an educational opportunity. Beekeepers and folks simply interested in bees enjoyed themselves at the bee farm. Live music played while people shopped with vendors and at the bee equipment store. I dined at the food truck. Children jumped in a bounce house and visited farm animals in a petting area. Some got their faces painted, and many enjoyed riding about the farm on a tractor-pulled hay wagon. The people’s choice honey show allowed the public to taste honey entries from diverse nectar sources from throughout the state.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Resistance to Antibiotics

For decades, beekeepers have used antibiotics in the control of certain honey bee diseases, particularly European foulbrood and Nosema disease. While antibiotics can be effective drugs, their misuse can lead to the development of strains of disease that are resistant to the medications. Resistance has occurred as well in diseases of humans and livestock. American foulbrood, AFB, a honey bee brood bacterial infection, is often resistant to antibiotics. The use of antibiotics is not effective for controlling AFB, as they only suppress the disease-causing bacterium; they don’t kill it. To limit the use of antibiotics administered to animals, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has recently enacted a Veterinary Food Directive. This action will greatly restrict the use of antibiotics administered to bee hives. Unfortunately, the unavailability to obtain the antibiotic, Terramycin, will likely lead to the spread of European foulbrood, the fastest spreading honey bee brood disease.

A report the Idaho Statesman, http://www.idahostatesman.com/news/nation-world/health-and-medicine/article172080432.html, describes research being conducted at the University of Idaho. Researchers are trying to determine the mechanisms of bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics. Such a resistance is a problem for treating disease anytime antibiotics are used in humans, livestock, and even in honey bee colonies. The results, published in Nature, focus on plasmids, tiny pieces of DNA that can be transferred between bacteria cells. Plasmids transfer traits, such as resistance to antibiotic drugs, from one bacterium to another. Surprisingly, this can occur in as little as a few minutes. Resistance to antibiotics also occurs when bacteria chromosomes mutate. Interestingly, plasmids can produce resistance to multiple antibiotics at once. Research team leader, Dr. Eva Top, describes how we are affecting bacteria: “They’re picking up a lot of antibiotic resistance genes and spreading them because of our habits of using so many antibiotics.” Today’s photo: migratory hives in Idaho’s Treasure Valley, an area of diverse agricultural crops. Many crops are in bloom, and honey bee colonies are collecting nectar and building up honey stores after travelling for pollination service.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

New Findings on Queen Bees

Queen bees and worker bees develop from fertilized eggs, and drone bees develop from nonfertilized eggs. Queens develop from eggs laid in downward facing queen cell cups similar to the one on the side of a top bar hive comb (photo by Melissa Bridgman). A New York Times piece, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/31/science/honeybees-queens.html?,  describes recently published research from PLOS Genetics identifying a newly-identified mechanism involved in the development of queen bees. It has long been known that queen bee development is associated with diet. Worker bees feed developing queen bees and worker bees a different diet even though they both develop from the same fertilized eggs. The larvae of both queens and workers are fed an enriched food, royal jelly, in the first day of larval development. Worker larvae are then fed secretions workers produce from “bee bread,” a food consisting of fermenting pollen and honey. Queen larvae, however, continue to receive royal jelly through their larval development and throughout their life.

The new research finds that caste development, the differentiation of queens, which have a complete reproductive system, from workers, that are sterile, uses plant-based small molecules called microRNA. The study’s co-author, Dr. Chen-Yu Zhang explains, “The royal jelly and plant microRNA work together to affect caste formation.” It now appears that the plant-based molecules suppress the workers’ ovary development. This research expands our understanding of queen bee caste differentiation. It also reflects the interdependence of plants and honey bees. Flowering plants and bees have been co-evolving for the past 100 million years. Plants and bees share microRNA, a plant substance that affects bee development and a bee substance that is important in the development of certain flowers. Dr. Zhang explains that microRNA from bees can make flowers larger and more colorful. The authors relate that these microRNA molecules affect species in different kingdoms, such as plants and insects or plants and humans. Other experts reacting to the report expect that microRNA will emerge as a major area of research in human medicine.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Sampling Varroa Mites

Varroa mites are the greatest pest killer of honey bees. If left unchecked, these parasites will kill a colony of bees in about 18 months. It is, therefore, necessary for beekeepers to be aware of the mite load that a hive carries and to take corrective action when mite numbers exceed critical levels. Varroa mites live in bee hives, and they reproduce in the sealed brood cells of the pupal stage of honey bee brood. Mite levels typically peak in late summer at the time that queen bees slow their rate of egg laying. Excessive numbers of Varroa mites in the hive often lead to colony death. Mites weaken individual bees by sucking the bee’s blood, known as hemolymph. When a mite pierces the exoskeleton of a honey bee, it passes numerous viruses to the bee. At least 15 Varroa-vectored viruses have been identified. Varroa mites and the viruses that they transmit lessen the life span of the bees, leading to smaller winter colony clusters. These smaller clusters are often unable to generate enough heat to survive the winter.

Some individuals ignore the threat of parasitic mites and lose their bee. Others attempt to kill the mites with harsh chemical treatments. They are usually successful in reducing the colony mite loads, however, repeated use of harsh chemicals leads to populations of mites that are resistant to the chemicals. Beekeepers who take a judicious approach to controlling parasitic mites develop their own Integrated Pest Management program that involves mite sampling and treatments as necessary. The Honey Bee Health Coalition offers Tools for Varroa Management: A Guide to Effective Varroa Sampling & Control as a free document. The guide and video demonstrations of Varroa control techniques may be downloaded from http://honeybeehealthcoalition.org/varroa/. There are several methods of sampling a bee hive’s mite levels, including powdered sugar rolls and alcohol rolls. In today’s photo, Rita is counting the number of Varroa mites on 300 bees using a simple alcohol roll test.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Sun's Corona

Photographer, Mike Worthy, captured this picture of the sun at total eclipse showing the sun’s corona, the atmosphere of the sun. See NASA’s website: https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/sun. The photo was taken August 21, 2017 at Marshall County, Kentucky. Thank you, Mike!