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.
--Richard

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.
--Richard

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Searcy: Bee City USA

Speaking to one of Arkansas’s garden clubs, I became keenly aware of the environmental stresses our honey bees face. I mentioned to the group that gardeners and beekeepers share a close relationship just as flowers and bees share a close relationship. Flowering plants depend upon bees for reproduction; bees depend on flowers for food. The mere existence of each is dependent upon the other. Bees and native pollinators are important to us, and they have the same requirements as humans: a dry house, food, water, and an environment free of toxins. An agricultural state, much of Arkansas is depicted by miles and miles of monocultural plantings of a few agricultural crops: cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and sorghum. Today’s industrial agriculture involving the complete destruction of weedy forage plants and heavy usage of pesticides make these row crop areas a harsh environment for bees and pollinators. Eastern Arkansas, one of the nation’s principal honey producing regions, is now one of the most threatened for honey bees. Of particular concern to beekeepers is the heavy use of insecticides and fungicides applied to soybeans, cotton, corn, and sorghum.

Beekeepers play an important role of protecting both the honey bees and native pollinators. While most of the pollinators are bees and other insects—fragile creatures with no voice—they are important to us as they play an essential role in providing one third of our human food supply. They rely upon environmentally aware and concerned gardeners, farmers, extension agents, golf course managers, and beekeepers. The gardeners were eager to design their plantings as pollinator gardens. Beekeeper Alan Isom and 45 enthusiastic citizens have been instrumental in getting the City of Searcy and White County, Arkansas designated as a Pollinator Friendly Community. See http://m.thedailycitizen.com/community/image_948687a5-66c3-5e88-af43-77239cfe832f.html?mode=jqm. The city celebrated their first-in-the-state effort at Searcy’s City Hall. Congratulations to our friends in White County! Other communities can explore how to protect pollinators and receive recognition for the effort at http://www.beecityusa.org/. These Arkansas strawberries require healthy pollinators.
--Richard

Monday, May 2, 2016

Honey Bee Secondary Swarms

A Little Rock beekeeper captured a swarm and hived it in his Kenyan Top Bar Hive. Ten days later he checked on the bees and found the sizeable colony building combs and filling them with pollen and honey. The bees were gentle and their behavior was normal. Carefully inspecting the combs, the beekeeper found no eggs or larvae, however, he located a small queen in the hive. It is likely that the beekeeper captured a secondary or “after swarm,” a swarm emitted after a primary swarm. Beekeepers across the Mid-South have seen many primary and secondary swarms this year. The above normal number of swarms may largely result from this spring’s wet weather that encouraged profuse blooming of plants like the invasive privet shown being visited by a carpenter bee in today’s photo. Privet nectar fills brood nest cells needed for egg laying; this congestion leads to swarming.

As a honey bee colony prepares to swarm, it typically produces a number of queen cells. Then, when the colony divides and swarms, the old queen leaves with roughly half of the bees. The original hive is usually left with a sealed queen cell for a queen to emerge, mate, and remain in the hive. If the hive emits one or more secondary swarms, they will contain virgin queens. All virgin queens need five or six days to mature after emerging as adults before their mating flights and another five or six days of further ovary development afterward before they begin laying eggs. A secondary swarm’s virgin queen will not be able to lay eggs as quickly as a primary swarm’s queen. After a secondary swarm moves into its new hive, its virgin queen must make mating flights before she can begin laying eggs. Thus, there will be a couple of weeks delay before egg laying begins in the new hive. Throughout this time the virgin queen emits pheromones that organize the colony in a similar fashion to mature, mated queens.
--Richard

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Swarm Season

Honey bees and beekeepers are at cross purposes when it comes to swarming. Bees readily swarm when conditions are right. For them, swarming is reproduction on a colony-wide basis. It means expanding their range, increasing their number of colonies, finding suitable new nesting sites, and eventually abandoning old nests and combs in decaying tree cavities. Swarming also breaks the brood cycle, helping to reduce the growth of Varroa mites in both old and new colonies. Beekeepers, on the other hand, usually try to reduce swarming, which often means the loss of a year’s honey production or pollination service. Honey bee colonies in the temperate zone typically expand their population in the spring and then divide their colony to form a second colony which flies away as a swarm. The act of swarming is risky for the bees; only a few swarms, maybe one in five, find a suitable permanent nest and survive for several years after leaving the parent colony’s nest cavity. Also, since the old colony must produce a new queen, there is the possibility that the requeening of the original hive may not succeed. If the old colony is not successful in requeening, it will rapidly die.

Collecting honey bee swarms is an exciting activity for many beekeepers. I assisted beekeeper Claranne Farris capture and hive a swarm that she encountered on an afternoon walk. The swarm hung on a pecan tree limb 10 feet in the air. Spraying a little sugar water on the swarm calmed the bees while I snipped the branch upon which they clung. After moving the swarm to a new hive, we noticed fanning by half a dozen workers, a good indication that the hive held the queen. Blocking the hive entrance with grass to slow the bees’ escape and adding one frame of open brood borrowed from another managed hive helps hold the swarm in place until they accept their new hive. Today’s photo: Claranne’s swarm resting on a pecan tree limb.
--Richard

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Looking Ahead

Good beekeepers are always thinking six months in advance. When we make our first brief hive inspection in late winter, we check to see if the bees survived the winter. At the same time, we are also checking to see if the colony has the potential to expand into a strong summer colony. If the bees didn’t survive the winter, we protect the combs so that we can fill the hive with a new colony in the spring. When we feed our bees pollen and sugar syrup in the spring, we stimulate the queen to lay eggs and produce a large population of bees to gather an abundance of summer honey or pollinate crops. In the spring, when we reverse our hive bodies and expand the brood nest by rearranging brood frames, not only are we providing space for our queens to lay eggs now, we are also reducing the bees’ desire to swarm later on.

Our bees rely upon us to build their hives. We must plan ahead and build enough hive bodies to accommodate a large colony and enough supers to hold next summer’s honey. Effective beekeepers learn when major nectar flows occur so that they can place the supers on their hives in time to gather a surplus of honey. When we harvest and extract honey, we are also preparing the combs for next year’s honey crop. When we treat our hives for Varroa mites in the fall, we are killing mites at the time and ensuring that we will have a larger population of bees to maintain a warm cluster in the winter. When we provide supplemental feedings in the fall, we are encouraging our queens to extend their egg laying, ensuring that we will have plenty of longer-lived worker bees to produce the brood food for next year’s first brood. Likewise, when we set up our hives for winter, we are actually setting the conditions for finding a healthy colony in the spring.
--Richard

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Warm Winter

We are continuously reminded that the climate is in change. Measurements made by NASA and NOAA revealed that the earth warmed to record levels this past year (www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/01/20/its-official-2015-smashed-2014s-global-temperature-record-it-wasnt-even-close/?wpisrc=nl_rainbow). Following this warm year, our Mid-South winter has been so mild that it seems more like an extended fall season. While warm winter weather makes for comfortable days for humans, it potentially leads to starvation of honey bee colonies. Normally, in the winter honey bees remain clustered together for warmth inside their hive and only fly when the outside temperature rises above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This year’s warm temperatures have been the trend through this mild winter. Flying bees search for flowers in bloom to forage for nectar and pollen. Unfortunately, few blooms are available at this time of the year. Flying expends more energy than the bees would require if they remained clustered inside their hives. The result is the bees consume their honey stores faster than in cooler winters. Several area beekeepers have already experienced losing colonies to starvation, which usually peaks in March in the Mid-South. It is a good idea for beekeepers to supply some emergency feeding of sugar to hives that are light in weight at this time.

Today’s photo reveals a colony of bees that died of starvation. You can see that the queen has been laying eggs by the fact that the cluster of bees is gathered around capped cells of pupae. The bees must maintain a 95 degree temperature in the brood area. The bees consume plenty of honey to generate the heat to warm the brood. The fact that the colony died of starvation is readily revealed by the dead bees with their heads downward in the cells. Due to the honey bees’ food-sharing behavior, the entire colony dies at one time as the honey stores in the hive are depleted. Beekeepers need to watch their hives carefully for a few more weeks until flowers spring into bloom.
--Richard