Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Honey Harvest

Harvesting honey has always been known as “robbing.” Bees make honey and people take it from them. Honey bees are unique creatures. They are the only insects in the temperate zone that stay alive and active throughout the year. They do this by making and storing a high-energy food for the winter: honey. The industrious honey bee makes honey from the nectar of flowering plants through the spring, summer, and fall. They continue to collect nectar as long as flowers are blooming. Then, during the dead of winter, bees cluster inside their hive and eat their stored honey for nutrition and to generate heat. A healthy bee hive produces about 500 pounds of honey per year, and it eats at least 90 percent of that honey. Prudent beekeepers can rob the excess 10 percent. However, if they get too greedy, the colony will die from starvation. Beekeepers share the experience of those who have kept bees in the past to learn how much honey they can safely rob. The honey harvest is a rewarding time for the beekeeper. Harvesting a surplus of honey means that the beekeeper has been successful in managing a large colony for the year. Some individuals have been tempted by the promise of a bee hive that automatically serves honey without the work of beekeeping. However, much of the joy of beekeeping results from actually opening the hive and interacting with the bees on their terms. Further, a bee hive with an automatic honey harvesting feature would likely rob too much of the colony’s necessary winter food, leading to colony starvation.

In today’s photo, taken in Larry Kichler’s honey house, a freshly harvested frame of honey sits in the mechanical uncapper that will make a series of thin slices through the beeswax cappings to expose the honey for extraction. Larry expresses the joy of managing hives, handling bees, and harvesting honey. He has 50 years of experience keeping bees and producing honey in Kansas and Arkansas.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wrangling Movie Bees

When honey bees swarm, it is truly a fascinating and memorable event. Thousands of bees suddenly exit their hive and fly, circling in what appears to be complete disorder. After a few minutes, the bees converge in a loose ball of bees hanging from a nearby structure, often a tree limb. Honey bees festoon, or “hold hands,” with each other in the swarm; each bee’s six limbs is equipped with two hooks, well suited to grasp a tree limb or another bee’s hooks. The swarm remains in this unsupported state for a few hours or, sometimes, for a few days while scout worker bees search for a suitable cavity to serve as a permanent home for bees. Once a desirable cavity is found, the bees fly in mass to their new nest.

I had the pleasure of assisting Jeremy and Emily Bemis set-up a scene involving swarming honey bees for filming on a movie set. Jeremy and I opened a strong hive, and Emily spotted the queen. We placed the queen inside a small queen cage and carried it along with the hive and bees to the movie set, leaving behind one hive body to accept returning foragers. We wired the caged queen onto a cedar tree limb selected for the appropriate camera shot. Next, we shook and brushed all of the bees onto the queen cage. Natural swarms are held together by the pheromones of the queen and some of the workers. Soon, the bees festooned into a typical swarm shape around the caged queen. To keep the bees hydrated and lessen their flying, we periodically sprayed the man-made swarm with sugar water syrup. The bees performed their part in the movie as directed. Afterward, we returned the bees to their hive by placing the caged queen inside the hive and brushing in a large number of workers as well. Workers fanned their Nasanov gland pheromones to call the remaining bees. The photogenic bees returned home after dark.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Sustaining Wild Bees

Mark Bittman appears in a four-minute video segment titled “What’s the Buzz About Wild Bees?” with University of California, Berkley conservation biologist Claire Kremen, The author and professor discuss honey bees and native bees and other pollinators. They also talk about the state of modern agriculture as they visit Full Belly Farm in Gwenda, California, a model for sustainable agriculture, where crops are grown to attract and support pollinators. Bittman explains, “Without bees our grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and dinner tables would be pretty barren.” Kremen defines pollinators as any animals that visit a flower and transfer the pollen from the male parts to the female parts of the flower or from flower to flower. Fertilization allows plants to produce seeds and fruit. Kremen states that California imports 1.5 million colonies of honey bees to pollinate the state’s biggest export, almonds. She mentions that California farmers import honey bees when while there are 100 to 150 species of native bees that also pollinate crops. Bittman says that just as we have become dependent upon monoculture crops we have become dependent upon a “monopollinator,” the honey bee. Colony Collapse Disorder has adversely affected honey bees in agricultural areas where bees are exposed to pesticides in crop fields. Bees imported for pollination service live on a restricted diet. Full Belly Farm is designed to supply plants to provide blooms for bees throughout the growing season.

Claire Kremen, a McArthur Fellow,, received the prestigious award in 2007 when she was recognized for her studies of the behavior of bees and other natural pollinators and their critical role in the global human food supply. Kremen’s studies reveal that the ability of native bees to adequately pollinate farm crops is dependent upon their access to natural habitats. She points out the importance of restoring and protecting natural habitats on farms, a departure from the monocultural agriculture found on many large farms. Today’s photo: butterflies and sweat bees forage basil in my garden.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Suspicious Bee Hives

Honey bees don’t care what their hive looks like. They don’t mind what color it is painted or whether it is painted at all. Their only concern is that the hive is of sufficient size, dry, and ventilated. I helped a beekeeper assess the bee hives shown in today’s photo. The owner of the hives, wanting to make a sale, said that the hives held plenty of bees. At a distance, it appeared that indeed was the case. With afternoon temperatures around 100 degrees, bees covered the face of many of the 31 hives we inspected. This is quite normal behavior; when it’s hot, bees regulate the hive temperature by extending the distance between bees, moving bees outside the hive, bringing in water for evaporative cooling while fanning a breeze through the hive with their wings. These hives, however, were choked by honey stored in all available cells, poor ventilation, and too little capacity. Bee hives need the equivalent of two deep brood boxes, or three medium boxes, for adequate brood nest expansion and food stores for the brood. These hives had less volume and no honey supers to accommodate the ample nectar available. It appeared that all of the colonies had swarmed, leaving behind a small remnant of the original bee population.

Strong, healthy honey bee colonies in full-size managed bee hives often contain 60,000 or more bees during the summer. Most of these hives held many fewer bees. Many of the hives’ brood nest boxes contained only three frames with bees and seven new frames of undrawn comb. Were these empty frames recent replacements for diseased frames? The available drawn comb frames were completely honey bound with no place for the queens to lay eggs. While the worn, ill-fitting hive equipment could easily be replaced, the condition of the hives made one question if the colonies carried American foulbrood, a highly contagious, spore-forming bacterial infection. Questionable hives pose too great a risk to bring into a healthy bee yard.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Global Warming and Bumblebees

When Colony Collapse Disorder was detected in 2007, researchers immediately started searching for causes of the massive honey bee die-offs. They also looked at other species of bees to see if they were being affected as well, and they found that several species of bumblebees are also declining. We now know that honey bee and native bee populations are declining as a result of a combination of factors including habitat loss, nutritional problems, pesticides in the environment, and increasingly virulent pathogens. A large-scale study of bumblebees in Europe and North America concludes the effects of global warming as also being significant contributors to bee losses. The study described in The New York Times,, traces 420,000 observations of 67 species of bumblebees over 110 years. The researchers analyzed bumblebee observations for every year from 1900 through 2010, recording the geographic range of each species. They found that bumblebee ranges declined at “continental scales” in the years following 1974 when human-caused climate change increased at a significant rate. With temperatures rising by two degrees Celsius since 1974, the southern limits of bumblebee ranges retreated toward the north at a rate of about three miles per year. One species of bumblebee once found in North Carolina and the Mid-Atlantic is now found in Maine, New Hampshire, Ontario, and Quebec. Another bumblebee once found in Georgia is now found in small numbers in Illinois, Maine, and Wisconsin. The researchers were surprised to find that bumblebee ranges didn’t merely move northward; the areas shrunk. The northern borders of the bumblebees’ ranges didn’t move into new territories.

As climate changes occur in temperate regions, like Europe and North America, species relationships are changed. Timings of flower blooming may result in a dearth of food for bees at critical times. Some species can’t tolerate changes in climate heat. In today’s photo, we see bumblebees foraging pickerelweed flowers along an Arkansas waterway. The native pickerelweed is an efficient biological filter of polluted water.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Counting Bee Hives

A person managing a number of bee hives often finds the total number of hives holding live bees varies throughout the year. Typically, beekeepers combine colonies into fewer hives in the fall in preparation for winter. Then, in the spring, they make colony divisions from strong surviving colonies to occupy a greater number of hives. Throughout the year, hive numbers may increase or decrease as the beekeeper purchases colonies, captures swarms, or colonies die. There are occasions during the year when it is very useful for the beekeeper to record the number of active hives in the various bee yards. Counting the number of hives in the fall that are prepared for winter and later, in the spring, counting the number of hives surviving the winter gives the beekeeper a measure of over-winter losses. An important measure of honey yield involves counting the number of full-size hives in place during the major nectar flows. To calculate the honey yield per hive, the beekeeper simply divides the number of pounds of harvested honey by the number of full-size hives at nectar-flow time. In the Arkansas Delta, Independence Day, July 4, is a good time to count hives, as this date falls within a major nectar flow of the region’s two major nectar sources, soybeans and cotton.

By measuring the honey yield per hive of different bee yards, the beekeeper can determine which areas are the better producing ones. Yields will often vary widely from year to year as crop plantings are rotated. Bee yards in proximity to soybeans and cotton may produce an abundance of honey in one year; however, if the near-by fields are planted the next year with corn, wheat, rice, or sorghum—crops that produce no nectar—honey yields may be greatly reduced. Bee yards with a history of poor honey production may need to be abandoned for more productive sites. In today’s photo, Arkansas Delta farmers prepare a grain combine equipped with a Honey Bee model header.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Planting for Pollinators

Honey bees and native pollinators thrive in weedy areas around farms, fields, and areas surrounding urban and suburban homes. These natural areas that provide food and habitat have been greatly reduced by agricultural and lawn-care practices that control weeds with tilling, mowing, and the use of herbicides. This loss of habitat can be quickly relieved by planting pollinator gardens, simple plots managed without chemical pesticides. Pollinator gardens may be small window boxes, patio container gardens, flower, herb, or vegetable gardens, or landscape plantings around homes or businesses. Larger plots of one quarter acre or more, such as unmowed and unsprayed expressway interchanges, make pollinator pastures. These gardens and pastures will be connected along interstate highway, pipeline, and transmission line rights of way. One such corridor is planned along Interstate 35 from Texas to Minnesota will provide a 200-mile-wide path for the migration of monarch butterflies from Mexico to the Upper Mid-West, This ambitious plan will require the planting of millions of milkweed plants, the only food eaten by monarch larvae. While the I-35 corridor is being built to aid the monarch butterfly, many species of pollinators—bees, butterflies, moths, and bats—will benefit.

I conducted workshop sessions with Larry Kichler, a beekeeper with 50 years of experience, at P. Allen Smith’s Moss Mountain Farm, We talked about honey bees and pollinator gardens. I encouraged everyone to register their gardens in the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, We encouraged the beekeepers and gardeners to build pollination gardens in sunny locations with wind breaks, provide sources of nectar and pollen, provide a source of water, use large plantings of native and non-native plants, include larval host plants like milkweed, provide continuous bloom throughout the growing season, and eliminate or minimize the use of pesticides. While many pollinator gardens are simple, random plantings of herbs, vegetables, and flowers, like my garden; others are more formal, like Smith’s Moss Mountain Farm plantings overlooking the Arkansas River Valley shown in today’s photo.