Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pesticide Exposure

Beekeepers gather to share experiences with others who tend to bees, and they attend educational programs to learn from experts in the field of honey bee health. The Arkansas Beekeepers Association will meet in October for its Annual Conference in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. The beekeepers will meet fellow beekeepers and honey bee experts and listen to presentations from researchers exploring bee health matters. Among the experts who will be present is Dr. Yu Cheng Zhu of the USDA Agricultural Research Service laboratory in Stoneville, Mississippi. Peace Bee Farm produced bees for Dr. Zhu to use in a study of the effects of exposure to agricultural pesticides on foraging honey bees. To simulate bees’ being sprayed by an aerosol application of various pesticide products, Dr. Zhu, shown here in his Stoneville laboratory, places bees in a chamber and sprays them with controlled concentrations of pesticides. The bees die within a few days, and researchers analyze proteins in the bees’ bodies. They examine enzymes the honey bees use to detoxify the chemical agents. Some pesticides kill the bees quickly; some kill more slowly; some combinations of chemical agents are toxic; and some pesticide break-down products are highly toxic. Dr. Zhu will present “What you should know about pesticides: Which one is toxic and which one is safe to your honey bees?” at the Arkansas Beekeepers Association’s conference. See arbeekeepers.org for program details.

To produce bees of known age, I gathered frames of capped brood from Peace Bee Farm hives. These frames hold pupae, the third stage of developing brood. I held the capped brood in a hive set up as an incubator. This is an arrangement similar to a queen-right queen cell finisher used in queen rearing. The queen is confined in the lowest brood chamber below a queen excluder. The frames of gathered capped brood are placed above the queen excluder. Hive temperature and humidity maintain the larvae in brood nest conditions until needed for the testing.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Producing Queens

The health and productivity of any bee colony is dependent upon the condition of its queen. A productive queen that lays a large number of eggs per day usually produces a large population of bees capable of maintaining a healthy hive environment while managing many bee hive pests. Managing queen bees has always been at the center of beekeeping. To maintain honey bee colonies, beekeepers must be able to produce queen bees as needed. However, only honey bees can produce queen bees. For beekeepers to encourage bees to produce queens, they have to simulate the conditions in which bees naturally produce queens on their own. Honey bees will produce queens when the colony has lost its queen or when they are replacing a failing queen through supersedure or when they are preparing to swarm. The beekeeper can produce some queens by simulating the hive conditions that lead the bees toward producing queens. One commonly used method uses a starter and a finisher hive to produce a number of queen bees.

Bees produce new queens in the spring when the colony is crowded with young bees, queenless, and well fed. These are the conditions used in a starter hive to accept grafted larvae. Queens can be produced by grafting very young larvae during the first 12 hours of the larval stage. The queen cells in today’s photo have been cared for by the bees in a queenless starter hive for one day. During this time, the bees have begun drawing down the beeswax cell to house the developing queen, and they have begun feeding the larvae large amounts of royal jelly which will cause the larvae to develop into queen bees. After this first day’s development, the queen cells are moved to a queenright finisher hive to continue their development. Nurse bees in the finisher hive continue to feed the developing queen royal jelly while other workers extend the queen cell downward. Twelve days after grafting, a virgin queen emerges.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Caution and Optimism

From Vancouver, British Columbia Mark Winston writes of the precarious condition of the honey bee, and he cautions that the same conditions that have so seriously affected the bees could likewise endanger humans as well. Writing in the New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/15/opinion/bees-and-colony-collapse.html, Winston explains that about a third of the managed honey bee hives worldwide collapse and die each year. Winston is optimistic that by observing the bees we can avoid a similar fate in humankind. The loss of honey bee colonies does not have a singular cause, but instead the deaths result from the complicated relationships between many elements. Winston lists some of these including pesticides applied to agricultural fields and pesticides used in bee hives by beekeepers to control parasitic mites; fungal, bacterial, and viral diseases; nutritional deficiencies caused by monocultural crop planting practices; and commercial beekeeping activities. He explains that the problem arises from the interactions among the many elements which sometimes result in a synergy or multiplying of the harmful effects, resulting in the compromise of the honey bees’ immune systems.

Winston explains that the pharmaceuticals that humans use often react in similar synergies as the pesticides injuring bees. He also cautioned that excessive cultivation, chemical use, and habitat destruction threaten the honey bees, pollinators so important for our food production. A Simon Fraser University study conducted on Canadian canola fields illustrates the value of feral bees. Farmers who planted a field earned $27,000 in profit using standard, modern agricultural practices while farmers who left one third of their equivalently sized farm unplanted to provide food and habitat for bees earned $65,000 per year. Modern industrial agriculture designed to optimize crop yields is often stressful on bees and beneficial insects. Beekeepers also may stress their bees through severe honey harvesting or excessive pollination travel. Meanwhile, signs of recovery of species weakened by environmental chemicals and habitat loss exist. Today’s photo reveals a bald eagle, once rare in the Mid-South, surveying Peace Farm from its lofty perch.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Federal Strategy for Bees

The President signed a Memorandum Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/06/20/presidential-memorandum-creating-federal-strategy-promote-health-honey-b. The memorandum directs several departments of the federal government to immediately address issues leading to the loss of honey bees and native pollinators. The memorandum speaks clearly of the need for action: “Pollinators contribute substantially to the economy of the United States and are vital to keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets. Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States. Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators, including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies, from the environment. The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.” Honey bee losses have been clearly recorded, but the losses of other pollinators are more difficult to assess. Bumble bees live underground, and many native bees nest in foliage, often unseen. Monarch butterflies, often viewed as indicators of the health of the environment, reached their lowest recorded population level this year, and their migration is considered to be in danger of failing.

Among the action plans presented in the memorandum are the development of affordable seed mixes of native pollinator-friendly plants for honey bees and other pollinators, finding best management practices for reducing pollinator exposure to pesticides, restoring and enhancing pollinator habitat along road, power line, pipeline, and utility rights-of-way and federal lands. In one example of the efforts described in the memorandum the Departments of Agriculture and Interior will establish a reserve of native seed mixes for habitat rehabilitation after fires. The memorandum moves us closer to seeing our cities connected by flowering pollinator corridors along the interstate highways. Today’s photo: native Blue Orchard Bees find a nest in a package of staples in Peace Bee Farm’s woodshop.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Neonicotinoids and CCD

Beekeepers have long suspected the role of the neonicotinoid insecticides in the great upsurge of honey bee colony die-offs that have continued since 2006. Named Colony Collapse Disorder, the loss of honey bee colonies has persisted for eight years in spite of efforts by researchers to identify a cause and by beekeepers to replenish their hive numbers. According to the Bee Informed Partnership’s recently released report, http://beeinformed.org/2014/05/colony-loss-2013-2014/, annual losses have averaged an unsustainable level of nearly 30 percent. A relatively small-scale study by Harvard School of Public Health, http://www.bulletinofinsectology.org/pdfarticles/vol67-2014-125-130lu.pdf, reveals interesting findings. Honey bee colonies exposed to either of two low levels of neonicotinoid insecticides, imidacloprid or clothianidin, abandoned their hives during the winter, defining symptoms of Colony Collapse Disorder. This report contrasts somewhat from the results of a previous study on the effect of pesticides that lead to susceptibility to the honey bee gut pathogen, Nosema ceranae. The larger study, reported in PLOS ONE, http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0070182#authcontrib, finds large numbers and high levels of pesticides in honey bee hives. The researchers found 35 different pesticides in sampled honey bee pollen and high levels of fungicides.

Until recently, fungicides, chemicals designed to fight fungal infections, were considered safe for honey bees. Recent studies are finding fungicides to have an adverse effect on honey bee health, often making insecticides and miticides more toxic to bees. In the PLOS ONE study, fungicides were found to lead to Nosema infection. Needless to say, the search for the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder has revealed the complexity of the problem. There are many factors contributing to honey bee health, including nutrition, parasitic mites, pest insects, viral, fungal, and bacterial diseases, and environmental chemicals. Studies are finding insecticides, miticides, fungicides, and herbicides in the bee hives. Combinations of chemicals and breakdown products of chemicals are often highly toxic to bees. Peace Bee Farm has participated in a number of the studies. Today, catalpa trees secrete nectar from the flowers and nectaries on the leaves.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Changing Seasons

We have endured a colder than normal winter in much of the United States. Beekeeping friends in Minnesota, Michigan, and Maine reported to me that their hives were in deep snow during much of the winter. Arkansas saw little snow, but received several significant ice storms. Speaking at a business luncheon today, I was questioned by many in the audience about how the honey bees fared over our colder than normal winter. I explained to the business leaders, who are truly concerned about the condition of bees, that it appears that our Arkansas Delta bees survived quite well. The cold weather kept the bees clustered in the hives, expending only enough energy to warm the cluster. Warmer winter weather often allows the bees more flying opportunities. Foragers searching in the winter for blooming flowers expend energy and consume greater amounts of stored honey. Fortunately, I set up my hives for the winter with plenty of honey stores. Still, they consumed large amounts of dry sugar that I placed atop the hives’ inner covers as a precaution against starvation.

March is the harshest month of the year for honey bees. After surviving a cold winter honey bee colonies often starve during the month of March. At this time of the year, colony populations are growing rapidly with nurse bees feeding large amounts of brood. Warming days allow bees to fly and forage, however, flowering plants are not yet blooming in abundance. When checking on the bees in March, even on cool, blustery days when it is not safe to open the hives, it is a good idea to gently lift the rear of the hives and estimate their weight. Light hives may be depleted of honey stores. Since honey bees share their food, starvation of the colony occurs at once. Some emergency feeding may save a strong colony from starvation. Today’s photo shows bees eagerly dusting in pollen substitute offered to the bees in a bucket for protection from the weather.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Milkweed for Monarchs

In earlier times, coal miners took canaries into the mines to tell the condition of the mine’s atmosphere. They knew that if the fragile birds could live, the air would support human life. If the birds fell dead, it was time for the miners to rapidly climb to the surface. The honey bee has been described as our present-day canary in the coal mine. Its decline and death means that the environment is becoming less safe for humans.  The monarch butterfly is another species that is an indicator of the health of the environment. The beautiful monarch is well known for its 3000 mile annual migration across North America to Mexico. Alarmingly, the migrating butterflies have been reduced to a severe minimum with monarchs declining in numbers by 90 percent in recent years. Many of the suspected causes of the monarch butterfly’s decline are the same as those involved in the decline in honey bees: the loss of habitat and food, the effects of climate destabilization, and heavy use of pesticides and herbicides. The developing monarch butterfly caterpillar relies on a single food source, native milkweed. Adult monarchs consume nectar from flowers for energy for their migration.

Much of the land that supported the monarch butterflies has been converted to agricultural usage, primarily to grow soybeans and corn. A New York Times article, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/21/us/setting-the-table-for-a-fluttering-comeback-with-milkweed.html, relates efforts to provide necessary food for the monarchs. Individuals, businesses, and government agencies are being encouraged to plant milkweed and create monarch waystations for the butterflies. Fortunately, creating habitats and feeding areas is quite simple, and the benefits extend to honey bees and other important pollinators. Information on habitat restoration is available through the Pollinator Partnership, http://www.pollinator.org/monarchs.htm, and Monarch Watch, http://www.monarchwatch.org/.  The prospects for restoring monarch populations are promising. According to Monarch Watch’s director, Dr. Chip Taylor, butterfly populations can vary wildly from year to year as habitat and weather change. In today’s photo a monarch butterfly forages on milkweed at Peace Bee Farm.