Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Bee Stings

First, honey bees are stinging insects. They have stingers, and their sting is painful. However, honey bees are relatively gentle creatures, and they only sting to protect their hive. The craft of beekeeping involves employing techniques passed down over hundreds, even thousands, of years for handling bees. For example, we know from cave paintings that people have used smoke in ancient times to help control the behavior of bees when we “rob” them of their honey. We consider honey bees as being defensive rather than aggressive in nature. Bees will defend their hive, where they protect their food stores and brood, by stinging intruders, whether they are foreign bees, attacking wasps, hornets, skunks, bears, or humans. The honey bee’s sting is barbed. When we are stung by a honey bee, the barbs hold the sting firmly in our skin. As the bee pulls away, her abdomen is torn apart, a fatal injury for the individual bee. The bee’s sting and death, however, have a concentrating effect in protecting the hive. Left behind on the skin are the sting, venom sac, muscles pumping venom, and glands emitting alarm pheromone. Alerted hive bees readily follow the intruder and add more stings.

Honey bees from other hives are the most common attacker of hives. Guard bees at the hive entrance check bees attempting to enter the hive. Since the bees from each hive have a distinct odor, the guards turn away intruders. If a guard stings an intruding bee, her sting usually pulls out of the victim’s soft exoskeleton without fatally injuring the guard bee. Gentleness in honey bees is an inherited trait, and beekeepers select for bees that are gentle. Helping control the behavior of bees is one of the ways beekeepers serve their communities. Even though beekeepers learn how to safely handle bees, it is important for them to always protect their eyes from stings. Beekeeper Mary Phillips Riddle wears a protective veil while working with the bees.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Pax Vobiscum

A scene in an upcoming motion picture depicts a young man’s chance encounter with a swarm of bees that results in life-changing awareness for himself. The movie, Dayveon, will be aired in Utah on the first day of the renowned Sundance Film Festival in late January 2017. Emily and Jeremy Bemis and I were the film’s bee wranglers, producing an artificial swarm for the camera. The film, directed by Amman Abbasi of Little Rock, tells the story of a 13-year-old who joins a gang in a rural Arkansas town. You can see the bees and read how we created a swarm on a tree limb on my August 18, 2015 posting, “Wrangling Movie Bees.” Throughout history, people have been intrigued by honey bees. Often it is such a chance encounter with swarming bees that excites people to learn how to handle bees.

In the United States, beekeeping is both an important part of our agriculture and an engaging hobby. In the highlands of Ethiopia, beekeeping is a major part of a mixed agriculture, adding significantly to insuring food stability. I am proud to have had the opportunity to train eager beekeepers in the art and science of managing honey bees in both countries. Beekeeping classes, taught by Jeremy Bemis and me, at Bemis Honey Bee Farm in Little Rock attract large numbers of beekeepers, some starting and others expanding their knowledge and skills. Individuals travel great distances to attend my beekeeping classes in Arkansas State University’s Community Education program at three campuses: Heber Springs, Searcy, and Beebe, Arkansas. Today’s photo is Sugar Loaf Mountain, which overlooks the ASU Heber Springs campus. Almost anyone can keep bees. All that is needed is an interest in observing and attending to marvelous, industrious little creatures living harmoniously in wooden boxes. Classes, books, and mentoring teach the art and science of keeping bees. Be forewarned: Beekeeping can become a life-changing endeavor. The Underhill family of Peace Bee Farm offers that peace be with you.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Be Careful Out There

Organic acids are among the chemical treatments available for controlling parasitic Varroa mites in honey bee hives. In March of 2015 the EPA approved oxalic acid for use in the U.S.; it has previously been used in Europe. Researchers at the Laboratory of Apiculture & Social Insects in Sussex, England report their findings on the use of oxalic acid: Varroa mites occur in the hive both inside the capped brood cells and on the bodies of adult bees. Oxalic acid only kills the phoretic mites, the ones on the adult bees. There are three methods for treating bee hives with oxalic acid: trickling or dribbling, spraying, and sublimation. The Sussex researchers found the sublimation method, which uses an electrical heating element to cause oxalic acid crystals to convert directly to a gas, the most effective killer of mites. Treatments should be applied when temperatures are between 39 and 61 degrees Fahrenheit and when no capped brood is present in the hive. The EPA states that oxalic acid should be used in late fall or early spring when little brood is present. The Sussex researchers explain that even a little brood can protect a lot of Varroa mites from oxalic acid. The Sussex researchers placed 2.5 ml of oxalic acid crystals (half a teaspoon) in a heating device and placed it inside the hives sealed with foam to confine vapors. After the crystals vaporized, they left the hives sealed for 10 to 15 minutes.

As a word of caution, the EPA states, “In addition to the standard beekeeping suit (veil, long-sleeved shirt, long pants and gloves) as personal protective equipment, a respirator and goggles are required.” While oxalic acid occurs naturally in foods, such as carrots, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, parsley, and rhubarb, the chemical can be extremely dangerous if it is breathed or if contacted with the skin or eyes. I highly recommend using other methods than oxalic acid to control Varroa mites. Photo: honey bee on early December sunflower.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Casqui Foods

Before Europeans brought the honey bee to the Americas, flowering plants were largely pollinated by native bees and insects. American Indians ate a diverse assortment of plants and animals. Anthropologist and beekeeper, Dr. Melissa Zabecki Harvey, the staff of Parkin Archeological State Park, and a number of devoted volunteers recreated a meal of the foods available at the Mississippian village of Casqui, the east Arkansas site visited by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1541. See

The bountiful meal served to the public at Parkin included the Three Sisters from the park’s Mississippian Garden: maize, squash, and beans. I sampled the following American Indian foods collected on the site and nearby: Roasted Custaw Seeds, Pumpkin Seeds, and Sunflower Seeds; Pecans; Black Walnuts; Hickory Nuts; Roasted Burr Oak Acorns; Popcorn; Persimmons; Pumpkin Bread with squash, persimmon paste, corn meal, duck eggs, and milk; Acorn Bread from burr oak acorn flour, sunflower oil, duck eggs, and milk; Dried Cushaw Squash; Dried Serviceberries; Persimmon Leather; Meat Pemmican of shredded venison jerky, elderberries, and butter; Cornmeal Pemmican of cornmeal, serviceberries, and butter; Venison Jerky; Raccoon; Duck; Rabbit; Smoked Venison; Buffalo Fish baked in Tyronza River clay in an open pit on the park grounds; Crawfish Stew of Jerusalem artichokes, corn, crawfish, sassafras leaf powder, sunflower oil, onion grass, and salt; Squirrel and Cornmeal Dumplings; Acorn Stew with venison, acorn flour, and hominy; Indian Stew of venison, pumpkin, sunflower oil, blackberries, beans, hominy, maple syrup, and salt; Pumpkin Soup with, maple syrup, spicebush berries, and animal fat; Kanuchi made from pecans and amaranth grain with salt and maple syrup; Roasted Sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes; Hominy; Bean Cakes of beans, cornmeal, water, duck eggs, salt, onion grass, and sunflower oil; Sunflower Seed Cakes with cornmeal, and maple syrup; Hoe Cakes of cornmeal, water, butter, and pawpaw paste; Poyha made from ground venison, oil, onion, duck eggs, cornmeal, and corn; Persimmon Paste; Hickory Butter; Salt; Wild Garlic; Pine Needle Tea; Prickly Pear Juice; and Sumac Tea.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Fall Hive Management

The roadsides are bright yellow with bitterweed; pink-flowered smartweed covers any damp ground; and field margins bloom with goldenrod and various colors of fall asters. It is time to start preparing the hives for winter. The queens have gradually reduced their egg laying through the end of summer. Now, we would like to extend their egg production throughout October so that the colonies will have plenty of longer-lived worker bees going into winter. Unlike the bees that emerge in spring and summer which have a short lifespan, late season bees can survive the winter. These workers will be the ones that produce the food for the first brood reared early next year. We can stimulate the queen to continue to lay eggs by feeding protein to the hives. An easy way to do this is to place pollen substitute inside a weather-protected container outside the hives.

Our bees must have plenty of honey in the hives to eat over winter. If the hives are short on honey stores now, reduce hive entrances and feed sugar syrup to help the bees build up adequate food stores. It is important that the honey is positioned in the hives so that the bees can access it during cold weather. There should be some honey on the sides of the brood nest and plenty of honey above the brood. If one hive has more frames of capped honey than will be needed, the beekeeper may move some of these frames to hives that are short on honey stores. If queen excluders were used, we must remove them from the hives in the fall. Since bee clusters move upward in the hive during the winter, it is possible for a queen to be left trapped below a queen excluder accidentally left in a hive. A final issue in fall hive preparation regards ventilation. We must make sure that there is adequate air flow, especially at the top of the hive. Today’s photo: fall asters.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Alfalfa Leafcutting Bees

Idaho’s Treasure Valley is an irrigated high desert, making it a diverse agricultural region producing crops for humans and animals. Many of these crops require pollination, so there are plenty of managed bee colonies in the area. Most of the crops are pollinated by the honey bee, Apis mellifera, that American beekeepers house in familiar Langstroth bee hives. However, one crop, alfalfa, an important animal food crop and the principal hay crop for dairy cattle, is largely pollinated by another bee species. When alfalfa is grown to produce seed, the alfalfa leafcutting bee, Megachile rotundaata, may be brought into the fields to ensure adequate pollination for the production of seed. The alfalfa plant, a member of the legume family, produces ample amounts of nectar and pollen and is attractive to honey bees. However, honey bees don’t like foraging alfalfa due to the physical structure of alfalfa flowers. When a honey bee forager attempts to access alfalfa nectar or pollen, the flower slaps the bee’s face with considerable mechanical force.

The reluctance of honey bees to forage alfalfa makes the alfalfa leafcutting bee a favorable choice especially for alfalfa seed production where ample insect visits are necessary for pollination. Alfalfa leafcutting bees are not social bees like honey bees; they are solitary. Honey bees live in large colonies housed in wooden hives. Gregarious alfalfa leafcutting bees are solitary bees; large numbers of beekeeper-managed solitary bees live in close proximity in tubes bored into wood or plastic boards. The alfalfa leafcutting bee nesting tubes shown in today’s photo are cut into blocks of polystyrene. Adult leafcutting bees are emerging from some blocks. Other blocks with empty tubes are available for leafcutting bees to occupy. After mating, a female leafcutting bee cuts leaf material and carries it to an available tube where she deposits an egg along with pollen and nectar to feed the developing offspring. A large amount of chewed leaf matter is visible under the leafcutting bee hive blocks.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Dry Swarm

Before honey bees swarm, the workers gorge on stored honey to have energy to survive from the time they leave their old hive until they can forage from their new hive. By gorging on honey they also build up the carbohydrate resources they will need to secrete the beeswax needed to build new combs. In the swarming process, bees usually stop to rest on a tree limb or other structure. Here, they are generally quite gentle because they don’t have a nest with brood and food to defend. However, if the swarm does not find a permanent nesting cavity within a couple of days and remains in its resting place, the bees will consume the honey that they are carrying in their honey guts. This is called a “dry swarm.” The swarm may even start to build comb on their temporary structure. Once they do this, they then have a hive to defend, and they defend their hive by stinging, adding excitement to gathering a swarm!

This year has been an exceptionally “swarmy” spring and summer in the Mid-South. Regular rains brought about good nectar flows which often contribute to brood nest congestion. Having the brood nest cells used by the queen for egg laying filled with nectar stimulates the colony to swarm. Today’s photo shows the comb built by a summertime swarm that settled underneath an urban bee hive. The colony built combs and even raised brood before abandoning the exposed combs. When the entire colony of bees flies away from its nest, accompanied by the queen, we call it “absconding.” The beekeeper was able to capture the absconding colony when it stopped nearby to rest, and he hived the bees in a modern Langstroth hive with plenty of sugar syrup to replenish the bees’ expended food stores. The colony has accepted its new home; and with the help of the beekeeper, who will be supplying supplemental feedings, the bees should be in good condition to survive the winter.