Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Mid-Winter Hive Check

Whenever the winter weather conditions are suitable, beekeepers examine their hives. An extremely mild Mid-South winter brought several warm days with temperatures rising above 50 degrees, allowing bees to fly from their hives and beekeepers to check them. If the temperature is barely above 50 and conditions are windy, one can only open the hives briefly. Extensive exposure can chill and kill brood. If somewhat warmer conditions exist, a more in-depth examination of hives is possible. We experienced several suitable beekeeping days in February. Any hive check involves looking for evidence of an egg-laying queen, ample stores of food, and signs of bee disease. A mid-winter check of hives revealed colonies with rapidly expanding populations. Queens were laying eggs in all hives; and while warm weather allowed the bees to fly and consume lots of honey, all of the hives held adequate food stores.

Hives with lesser populations of bees require particular attention. Examining one weak hive revealed a small population with no worker brood. I found the queen shown in today’s photo surrounded by a retinue of attendant workers constantly stroking her abdomen. However, the queen was damaged; her wings were incomplete. The queen appeared to be afflicted with Deformed Wing Virus, one of more than a dozen viral diseases commonly vectored by parasitic Varroa mites. A queen with deformed wings would have been unable to make her mating flights as a young adult. An unmated queen cannot lay the fertilized eggs needed to produce worker bees or queens. Without these bees, the colony is doomed to collapse. This deformed queen evidently emerged the previous fall. The workers in the hive were long-lived bees produced by this queen’s mother. Deformed Wing Virus affects drones and workers more frequently than queens. It is likely that a female Varroa mite entered the queen cell before it was capped, and then the parasitic mite transferred the virus to the developing queen pupa. Varroa-vectored viral diseases cause the loss of many honey bee colonies.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Pollen Bees

Our managed hives are home to honey bees, but some people think that these industrious creatures should be called “pollen bees.” Of course, honey bees produce honey; but they also spend their lives deeply involved in handling pollen. While bees are collecting pollen from flowers and bringing it back to their hive for food, they are also moving pollen among flowers. Pollen is the male reproductive cells of flowering plants. As honey bees fly, their bodies pick up an electrostatic charge. When the foraging workers encounter flowers, fine grains of pollen adhere to their hairy bodies. As bees move around within a flower and as they move from flower to flower, they unknowingly transfer grains of pollen to the sticky female flower organs, the stamens. This begins the reproduction of the flowering plant. Pollen that the bees carry to the hive provides protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals for the bees’ diet. Once pollen has been combined with honey, a carbohydrate, the bees have a complete diet. The mixture of pollen and honey ferments with microorganisms supplied by the bees to become “bee bread,” the source of bee brood food.

Arkansas’s warm weather in January allowed bees to leave their hives to forage for pollen. Several central Arkansas beekeepers noticed bees returning to the hives with green-colored pollen. Pollen occurs in colors from white to black. Much is yellow or orange in color. Dandelion, like the wildflower being foraged for pollen in today’s photo, is the first reliable source of pollen in mid-winter. Skunk cabbage, a plant that sometimes sprouts through snow-covered ground, is another plant to bloom early in the year. The availability of foraged pollen stimulates the queens to lay eggs. Since queens resumed their egg laying on the winter solstice, December 21, many hives now have considerable brood to feed and protect from chilling. Make sure that your bees have plenty of stored honey. There’s still a long time before nectar and pollen are abundant in April.

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: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00218839.2015.1106777. 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 https://www.arkansasstateparks.com/parkinarcheological/.

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.