Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January Thaw

Honey bees in the temperate region spend the majority of the winter inside the hive, clustered together for warmth. The colder the temperature, the tighter the bees cluster together. On warmer days, the bees expand their cluster and move around inside the hive. On these warm days, the bees uncap cells of stored honey and share the honey among the clustered colony. When the hive cools at night, the bees constrict to a tight cluster, pulling away from the available stored honey. The cluster always covers hive frames that contain brood, warming and protecting the fragile developing bees. If the temperature remains cold for an extended period of time, the tightly clustered bees are left at a distance from their stored honey. This can easily lead to starvation; the bees run out of food while there may be ample food merely inches away.

It is common in the Mid-South to have a brief period of warm weather in the middle of the winter. During this “January thaw,” the bees are able to fly from the hive to make cleansing flights in which they defecate. Bees eliminate their body waste in flights outside the hive. This winter has seen somewhat erratic weather. This warm weather has given beekeepers an opportunity to make brief examinations of their hives. Quite a few beekeepers are finding larger than normal numbers of colonies have died as a result of starvation. Bee hive starvation is easily identified by finding a considerable number of dead bees with their bodies located inside the cells, head first as in today’s photo. The queen can be seen in the center. A number of Mid-South beekeepers found similar starvation situations. Each beekeeper distributed the surplus honey from the dead hives to living hives. There is still a considerable amount of winter awaiting the bees before spring flowers supply the bees with food. In the meantime, beekeepers can supply emergency feeding by pouring dry sugar onto the hives’ inner covers.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Integrated Stress Management

When Colony Collapse Disorder was first detected in the U.S. in 2007, many factors were investigated as possible causes. No single cause arose, but colony stress was found to be a common denominator in all losses. Stress appears to come from three broad areas: increasingly virulent honey bee pathogens, neonicotinoid insecticides, and nutritional issues. The combined effect of these stressors weakens the bees’ immune system and leads to colony collapse. Honey bee pathogens are spread by parasitic Varroa mites. Tracheal mites still afflict bees, along with Nosema disease and Small Hive Beetles. Neonicotinoid insecticides are in wide-spread use throughout agriculture and lawns. Nutritional problems for bees often result from monocultural crop plantings and the loss of weedy flowering plants after the conversion of natural areas for industrial agriculture, pavement, and lawns

European researchers, writing in the journal Trends in Parasitology,, call for beekeepers to employ new schemes of “Integrated Stress Management” to help combat the effects of external stresses on bee immune systems. The researchers explain that honey bees “evolved unique mechanisms for interacting with pathogens.” Reducing stress may help the resilient bees survive. Often, this simply means examining our beekeeping practices. As we plan an integrated stress management plan, we may consider: Ensure that winter hives are dry and well ventilated. Every hive should have adequate stores of food—both honey and pollen—throughout the year. Don’t excessively rob the hives of their honey stores expecting to replace honey with sugar syrup or high fructose corn syrup, sources of carbohydrate lacking honey’s other nutrients. Don’t excessively split hives or shake bees to produce packages. Small colony size leads to problems like diminished foraging capacity, difficulty regulating hive temperature, either warming the winter cluster or cooling the hive in summer. Small colonies have difficulty defending the hive from intruders. Control parasites—especially Varroa mites—using the least toxic measures available. Breed bees for mite resistance. Avoid moving bees excessively for pollination service. Ask yourself, “Are we stressing our bees?”

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Pax Vobiscum

Our family has operated Peace Farm since 1950. Rita and I introduced honey bee colonies in 2003, and family members produced honey and bee hive products. As we gained knowledge of bees and beekeeping, all members of the family participated in various aspects of tending to bees and producing and selling hive products and bee colonies. Along the way, several of us, trained as educators, became increasingly involved in beekeeping education. Tod Underhill helped me set up the Peace Bee Farmer blog, suggesting that I write down my ideas from time to time. That’s Tod in today’s photo, pictured in Ethiopia with farmers he instructed in beekeeping.

The Peace Bee Farmer blog resulted from my effort to document the bee forage plants on Peace Bee Farm as they came into bloom throughout the year. I had no idea that the writings would become so widely read or that they would put me into contact with so many individuals around the world. The simple writings and photos followed requests to give others a view of honey bees, their life inside the hive, our beekeeping efforts, and people we encounter. I have posted writings on the internet about beekeeping and matters of agriculture and the environment for six years. The Peace Bee Farmer pieces have been accessed at least one million times from two hundred countries. The resulting interactions lead to many valued contacts and friendships in many parts of the US and around the world. With today’s internet, people, anywhere on earth, may find the blog by typing a key word, such as “varroa,” or “beeswax,” or “peace.” In recent years, I noticed that increasingly often individuals accessing the blog from locations in the world’s least peaceful locations. While many find the writings by searching for beekeeping or environmental issues, some happen upon the website while searching for peace efforts. Regardless of how you came in contact with the Underhill family that operates Peace Bee Farm, we sincerely wish peace be with you.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Roadside Bee Habitat

Wildlife thrive in habitat or cover that includes food, water, places to reproduce, hide from predators, and plenty of space. Much of the habitat for bees and insect pollinators has been altered for use in industrial agriculture, urban and suburban lawns, and paved parking areas and roads. Dr. Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota Bee Lab and Eric Mader of the Xerces Society spoke recently about pollinator reversing habitat loss. See They explained that loss of habitat is one of the three important drivers of Colony Collapse Disorder that continues to reduce managed honey bee colonies. The other two are the widespread use of neonicotinoid insecticides and increased virulence of some honey bee parasites, including the Varroa mite, and some fungal infections. Dr. Spivak explained that there has been much discussion involving banning the neonicotinoid insecticides to help the insects, however, she explained that they need “not just habitat but clean, uncontaminated habitat.” To maintain a robust agriculture she stated that “we need to try for a world with both pesticides and pollinators.” Industrial agriculture, involving vast acreage of cropland, offers little food for bees, poisons insects indiscriminately, and destroys their ground nests. Planting borders and untillable farm acreage in flowering, low-maintenance, native perennial plants were given as sources of food for bees and game birds. Planting milkweed can help monarch butterflies, and nitrogen-fixing clover cover crops improve soil fertility. Dr. Spivak’s University of Minnesota Bee Lab will be studying the effects of planting “bee lawns.”

 Dr. Spivak and Mr. Mader suggested that a solution to the loss of bee habitat could be conversion of mowed and sprayed areas along the nation’s highways into bee corridors. Corridors connect our pollinator gardens and pastures, making them much more effective habitats. Planted with native wildflowers, these right-of-ways could well serve our honey bees, native pollinators, birds, and small mammals. The future will see an interest in moving to roadside vegetation management plans to support our pollinators while beautifying our roadways.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Bee Hive in Fall

The success of the colony to survive the winter is largely dependent upon the health of the bees in the fall and the beekeeper’s efforts in setting up the hive for winter. Fall is a time of transition in the bee hive. The bee colony’s population is changing from the short-lived bees of summer to the longer-lived bees that live through the winter. Bees born in the early fall are the ones that will produce the brood food for the first bees the colony rears the following year. Food stores are important. Bees must be able to sustain themselves until flowers bloom again in the spring. The bees store food of both honey and pollen in cells in the bee hive. Other necessary nutrients for the colony’s survival are stored in fat bodies in the individual bees’ abdomens. The more food that bees have available in the fall, the more nutrients they store in these fat bodies. These bees with well-filled fat bodies are best able to produce brood food for bees reared before flowers start blooming in the spring.

The health of the bees is important for the survival of the colony through the winter. If a large number of the colony’s bees are afflicted by viruses spread by parasitic mites or by Nosema disease, many bees will likely die over winter. Hives losing excessive bees often do not have enough bees to maintain a warm environment in the winter cluster. In preparing the hive in the fall, the beekeeper needs to check for the presence of bee parasites. If Varroa mite loads are high, the colony will not survive for very long. Reducing Small Hive Beetle levels to a minimum in the fall helps control these pests in the following year. The winter bee hive must also be provided with adequate ventilation to prevent the warm, moist air from condensing inside the hive and dripping water on the clustered bees. Today’s photo: Jeremy Bemis prepares hives for winter.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Vanishing Monarchs

Animals that consume a narrow diet are much more vulnerable than those eat a varied diet. While the honey bee derives its nutrition from many flower sources, the larvae of another insect, the monarch butterfly, relies solely upon one, the milkweed plant. Recent years have seen dramatic declines in the number of monarch butterflies. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. writes in the Chicago Tribune,, that this past summer he saw no monarch butterflies in an area where he saw hundreds per day in previous years. Kennedy explains that scientists blame the loss of monarch butterflies in part on deforestation in Mexico, drought, climate change. However, the greatest cause of this migrating butterfly’s disappearance is the widespread use of the herbicide glyphosate, first marketed by Monsanto as Roundup. When Monsanto introduced “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans in the late 1990s, farmers started spraying agricultural fields with the herbicide to kill everything except the desired crop. As a result of this change in farming practice, milkweed has been largely eliminated from much of America’s crop lands. To combat the loss of the monarch’s food, Kennedy suggests that we plant milkweed to create a “butterfly highway” along the monarch’s migratory route from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico. These plantings fit in nicely with efforts to help save bees, butterflies, and other at-risk pollinators.

The monarch’s treacherous migration of 2500 miles involves several generations. Butterflies east of the Rockies fly to Mexico to spend the winter, and monarchs west of the Rockies winter in California. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette illustrates their migration route through Arkansas at Those wanting to provide milkweed for the passing butterflies can find sources of seed from the Xerces Society at  The monarch, considered by some as the most beautiful insect may respond to plantings of its required food in pollinator gardens. With flowers added, these gardens are important food plots for honey bees and native pollinators as well.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

In the Ozarks

The Arkansas Beekeepers Association will hold its Annual Conference at the Ozark Folk Center,, in October. The beautiful Ozark Mountains will be in full fall foliage color, and beekeepers will gather in the town of Mountain View. The beekeepers will hear the latest in honey bee health research. They will purchase bee hives and equipment and renew friendships with fellow beekeepers. They will also enjoy mountain folk music played on the town square during cool fall evenings. Rita and I have been travelling backroads through the Ozark Mountains exploring the countryside little changed since pioneer family members moved into the Territory of Arkansas in the early nineteenth century. We stopped for hamburgers at the Oark General Store, in continuous operation since 1890. From Oark we travelled to Boxley and Ponca, the elk range along the Buffalo River, Above the river we passed several small groups of bee hives. Bee pollination is important in providing food for wildlife like Arkansas’ elk. Pioneers often kept bees in hollow logs known as gums. They also hunted for feral colonies living in hollow trees, and robbing these trees for honey was an exciting cool-weather tradition. With honey being the only sweetener available, it was a prized commodity often collected in the winter when bee populations were at a minimum. Rita and I found our family cemetery hidden in the woods between Damascus and Center Ridge with its 32 family members’ graves. Only three headstones were engraved, each dated 1861. All other graves were marked by simple slabs of sandstone.

For program and information about the Arkansas Beekeepers Association’s meeting in Mountain View, see and In today’s photo we see the Ozarks in late summer foliage. When the beekeepers gather in Mountain View, the mountains will be colored with red and purple gums; yellow maples, hickories, and sycamores; green pines; and oaks in many shades of brown. You are welcome to join the Arkansas Beekeepers Association in the Ozarks.