Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Bumblebees' Nest

Suitable nesting places are in great demand for small creatures. A birdhouse, built by a friend using old bee hive lumber, hangs on the porch railing of our home. Each year there is considerable competition between finches, wrens, bluebirds, and sparrows for the use of this nesting box. This spring, sparrows won the battle and reared a clutch of baby birds. After the fledgling birds left the nest, bumblebees moved in. Typically, bumblebees live underground in abandoned mouse nests. Unlike honey bees, which have colonies containing thousands of members, bumblebees establish small colonies of several dozen bees. Bumblebees collect nectar and pollen from flowers, and inside the bumblebees’ nest they build small honey pots to hold their food stores. Bumblebees, like honey bees, are gentle insects; however, they both defend their nests from intruders by stinging. When gray squirrels started gnawing at the entrance to the bumblebee colony’s birdhouse home, the bees came out in force. Bumblebees attacked and chased all squirrels and songbirds in the vicinity. They also chased humans from the area. Protected by my beekeeper’s protective veil and gloves, I removed the bumblebee nest from the birdhouse. The disturbed bumblebees persisted in continuing their attempt to drive me away. While bumblebees ignore the touch of a bare hand while they are foraging on flowers, one would surely not want to handle their nest without protective gear!

A trap-door arrangement on the birdhouse allowed me to remove the sparrows’ nest intact. The bumblebee nest filled a vacancy in the center of the soft bird nest material. Today’s photo shows the neat wax honey pots and pollen stores. Bumblebees have longer tongues than honey bees; thus they are able to forage on flowers with deeper, bell-shaped coronas. They carry pollen in pollen baskets on their hind legs. They have a stinger without barbs. Bumblebees are important pollinators of crops and wildflowers, but they don’t produce a surplus of harvestable honey. They are used to pollinate tomatoes grown in greenhouses.
--Richard

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Defensive Honey Bees

Honey bees are typically gentle in nature. Unless a bee is mashed, as if stepped upon by bare feet, she will not sting. Honey bees do, however, sting to protect their hive. Beekeepers consider the honey bee’s behavior as “defensive.” Honey bees are not aggressive in nature. Honey bees do not attack or seek people to sting. However, any bee colony can be defensive at times. Defensiveness can result from the bees’ genetics or from environmental factors. Africanized honey bees are typically more defensive than European races of bees. Bees may pick up defensive genes from the various drones that virgin queens mate with when colonies replace their queen through supersedure, swarming, or emergency queen production.

Environmental conditions can make any colony defensive. Any time that a hive is under attack, guard bees spread alarm pheromone through the hive, making the bees considerably more defensive. Hive attacks can come from large mammals, like bears that destroy the hive, or from small mammals, like raccoons or skunks. Skunks particularly affect the behavior of the bees because the nocturnal mammals may attack bee hives for hours on end. Skunks eat bees, and they scratch at the hive entrance with their claws to entice the guard bees out of the hive. With a skunk attack, the bee hive is filled with alarm pheromone, and the bees are highly disturbed. Signs of skunk attacks on bee hives include hive scratch marks, like on this blue-colored landing board, or pellets of chewed bee exoskeletons on the ground near bee hives. Another sign that a skunk is attacking bee hives is an unprovoked sting by a guard bee at a distance from the hives as soon as one approaches the bee yard. Other attacks on honey bees can come from humans throwing rocks at bee hives. Often, though, the greatest threat of attacks upon bee hives comes from other honey bees when robber bees attack a weak or physically damaged hive to take its honey.
--Richard

Monday, April 16, 2018

Black Willow in Bloom

The beekeeping seasons change rapidly in the Mid-South, and the sight of black willow trees in bloom along sandbars of Arkansas’s Buffalo National River is a milestone in the beekeeper’s year. Willow trees bloom in Arkansas between February and April. Throughout March, the honey bees’ harshest month, beekeeping efforts are largely devoted to trying to keep colonies alive. Rapidly expanding colonies are eating the remainder of last fall’s stored honey. This honey consumption is largely occurring ahead of the spring nectar flow. If the beekeeper was too greedy in robbing the hives last year, starvation during March is likely.  However, April sees a massive increase in available flowering plants, and many of these important bee plants are trees along waterways. Willow trees are an abundant source of both nectar and pollen, and they are highly attractive to honey bees. On warm spring days, large numbers of honey bees may be found foraging willow’s colorful yellow catkins.

Increases in pollen being brought into the hive stimulate queens to increase egg laying. Honey bee colonies never turn away excess nectar being brought into the hive by foragers. As the honey bee foragers bring in greater amounts of nectar, many colonies experience brood nest congestion when the bees store nectar in the brood nest. If there are not enough empty honeycombs outside the brood nest to hold the nectar, the bees will place it in the cells needed for the queen’s egg laying. Brood nest congestion often leads to swarming. Mid-South beekeepers experience many occurrences of swarming in early April. Some see their own hives swarming. If the beekeeper is able to capture his or her own swarm, the bee yard merely receives an unscheduled colony division. Many beekeepers capture swarms to replace colonies lost over winter. In areas where Africanized honey bees are not present, swarms are welcomed as a source of honey bee genetic diversity. Willow honey is light in color and described as having a pleasant aromatic flavor.
--Richard

Friday, January 26, 2018

The January Thaw

In the middle of the winter we often experience a short period of warm weather, a “January thaw.” During such a warm spell, bees will break out of their winter cluster to move about the hive and collect stored honey. If outside temperatures are above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, bees will be seen flying from the hive. Some are gathering nectar from skunk cabbage and dandelions; some are collecting water to liquify stored honey; and some are making cleansing flights to eliminate stored body waste. The January thaw is a good time for the beekeeper to make his or her first quick check of the bee hives. Since there is likely to be brood in the hives, they cannot be opened for a thorough inspection. We don’t want to break apart the brood nest or leave the hive open except for a very short time else risk chilling and killing the brood. However, we can determine whether a particular hive is running out of stored food by gently lifting the back of the hive and comparing its weight to other hives. Any light-weight hives likely need some emergency feeding to carry the bees through the winter. Also, any hives that show large numbers of bees located in the upper-most portion of the hive likely need emergency feeding. The bees in these hives have likely consumed the stored honey above their brood nest, or their stored honey is located in a portion of the hive that the bees will not access. In either case, the colonies risk starvation, the greatest killer of honey bees.

Mid-winter feeding of bees is emergency feeding. It can be accomplished by feeding full frames of honey taken from other hives or from the beekeeper’s storage. Gently scratch the capping to expose the honey, and place the frames directly above the brood nest. Dry sugar can be fed above the hive’s inner cover as in today’s photo. A wooden shim lifts the outer cover to accommodate extra sugar.
--Richard

Monday, January 1, 2018

Honey Bee New Year

Honey bees are the only insect in the temperate zone that remain alive and active throughout the year. They are well-adapted to survive cold winters in which there is no food available outside the hive. Though insects are normally cold-blooded creatures, honey bees are able to regulate the temperature of their hive by generating heat themselves. They eat their stored honey, a high-energy food that they produced; and then they shiver their flight muscles to generate heat. The bees generating heat are loosely clustered together while a shell of tightly-packed bees surrounds their winter cluster, using their bodies to hold the heat. Whenever there is brood in the hive, the bees maintain a brood-nest temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The honey bees are able to conserve the precious honey reserves needed to warm the winter cluster by not making an effort to warm the entire hive. Distant corners of a bee hive may be quite cold. Further, the colony reduces its cluster heating requirement by forcing the queen to stop laying eggs in the late fall. With no brood to protect, the winter cluster will reduce its temperature to around 70 degrees, the equivalent of our turning down our home thermostats by 25 degrees!

While our calendar year begins on January 1, the honey bees’ year is well underway. The queen begins laying eggs, a few at a time, on the winter solstice, usually December 21. These first bees of the season will be available to start foraging dandelion nectar and pollen on warm days in February. However, the early start-up of brood rearing has its draw-backs. With brood in the hive, the bees must maintain a 95-degree temperature in the brood area. Also, the bees must cover the brood with their bodies instead of moving about the hive to feed on stored honey. Since honey bees never defecate inside the hive, on warm winter days, bees leave the hive, as in today’s photo, to make cleansing flights. Happy New Year!
--Richard

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Puerto Rico's Bees

The island of Puerto Rico has a unique and extremely valuable population of honey bees that is capable of living with the parasitic Varroa mites. An article in Newsweek, http://www.newsweek.com/2017/12/29/puerto-rico-hurricane-destruction-doomed-honeybees-750213.html, describes Puerto Rico’s bees and their severe destruction as a result of the 2017 Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico’s bees are Africanized Honey Bees which, in the Americas, have a reputation for being excessively defensive. Puerto Rico’s AHBs are by contrast relatively gentle in nature. Africanized Honey Bees occurred as a result of African honey bees being brought to Brazil in an effort to improve the genetics of Brazil’s bees. Several colonies of African bees escaped in 1956, and they hybridized with the more-gentle bees of the Americas. The hybrid bees are more defensive than regular honey bees, which are the same species. The author calls Africanized Honey Bees “killer bees,” but beekeepers rarely use this term because honey bees typically only sting to defend their hive and don’t attack people. Puerto Rico’s Africanized Honey Bees tend to show aggression toward Varroa mites while not being excessively defensive.

The Newsweek article explains that Africanized Honey Bees crossed the Caribbean in 1994, likely by boat, and established colonies in Puerto Rico. These became gentle bees, not expressing excessive defensiveness to humans. A second important trait of these new bees is of most importance to beekeepers: They are highly resistant to Varroa mites. How the changes in behavior happened is unknown. Genetic mutations may have occurred, or beekeepers on the populous island may have selected for these desirable bees. Anyway, the bees were struck a terrible blow, along with the human population, by Hurricane Maria that killed 80 to 90 percent of the bee colonies and decimated their floral forage. Puerto Rican beekeepers do not want to import new colonies of bees; they would rather expand their gentle, locally adapted bee colonies. However, the fate of these bees is uncertain. Today’s photo: bees remove Varroa mites by uncapping and aborting mite-infected pupae.
--Richard

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Pax Vobiscum

Wubishet Adugna hosted me in his home country of Ethiopia when I travelled to Africa as a USAID-funded volunteer, charged with teaching modern beekeeping techniques. Together, we travelled extensively through the Ethiopian highlands visiting beekeepers, farmers who tend honey bees in apiaries and tree tops sites. The farmers manage bees and tend crops, gardens, and livestock. When I taught beekeeping classes in Wubishet’s training facility at Bonga, Ethiopia, I spoke in English, and Wubishet translated my words into Amharic. Travelling together, we had the opportunity to discuss beekeeping traditions in detail. I am sure that we each learned from each other. I certainly learned much about honey bees and beekeeping from Wubishet. In part, I learned that much of the western literature on beekeeping in the tropics did not accurately describe beekeeping in Ethiopia’s diverse semi-tropical geography. Together, Wubishet and I shared our understanding of the art and science of beekeeping. The combination of these traditions is to me the joy of beekeeping. In our classes, we demonstrated how to manage honey bees in modern Zander bee hives, harvest honey and beeswax, and produce candles, cosmetic products, and mead. Ethiopia’s traditional beverage is tej, a most-enjoyable mead wine.

It was my great honor to sponsor Wubishet when he travelled to the United States and successfully completed the tests to become an Eastern Apicultural Society Certified Master Beekeeper at the 2017 EAS conference at the University of Delaware. Wubishet is the first EAS Master Beekeeper from the African continent. Wubishet teaches the art and science of beekeeping to farmers as an important part of Ethiopia’s mixed agriculture. My son, Peace Bee Farm beekeeper, Tod Underhill, had the opportunity to work with Wubishet on separate occasions. Here, you can see Wubishet and Tod enjoying a liter of tej in Addis Ababa. I encountered Christians, Muslims, and Naturalistic Believers living in harmony in Ethiopia. For these people and others, the Underhills of Peace Bee Farm extend our wish that peace be with you.
--Richard