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.

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!

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,, 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.

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.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Drone Questions

Swiss reader, Alexandra, writes a number of pertinent questions about drone bees and their role in honey bee reproduction. She asks, “How does a queen find drones for mating? Will they hang out near her hive until she comes out on her mating flight? Is the mating going on while in the air? Are these drones from various hives, or just from one? Does any mating occur with her own drones, who genetically would be her own children? Do drones die after mating? What are the drones doing all day before it’s time for mating flights? Why are drone eggs infertile? Why do workers need to be fertile? And, lastly, what happens if the bees have to stay home a few days, like in stormy weather?”

I’ll try to answer: Drones from many hives fly to spaces called drone concentration areas, DCAs, where they mate with queen bees in flight. Young queen bees fly to DCAs, usually more distant than ones occupied by drones from her own hive, making it unlikely for queens to mate with genetically similar hive mates. This helps prevent inbreeding, which results in inferior offspring. In the DCAs, drones seek flying queens by sight and pheromones. Drones die in the act of mating; usually more than a dozen mate with a queen. Alexandra questions the drones’ activity outside of their mating flights. Drones conduct no work; they eat honey and rest inside the hive. Workers and queens develop from fertile eggs, and drones develop from infertile eggs in a scheme, common among stinging insects, known as parthenogenesis. When queens make their mating flights, over a day or two, they collect a life-time’s supply of sperm from drones. The queens then self-fertilize each egg that they lay that is to become a worker or queen. If the queen lays an egg without fertilizing, it becomes a drone. Inclement weather can delay mating flights. Long delays result in sterile queens, like the drone-layer shown in today’s photo.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Questions from Switzerland

Alexandra, an interested reader of The Peace Bee Farmer, writes several questions from her home in Switzerland. Here are some of her questions and my attempts at answering: “Foremost, how can a bee colony survive when humans steal their honey?” Alexandra, this question is at the crux of beekeeping. The bees will starve if the beekeeper robs too much of the colony’s stored honey. We can’t judge how severe a winter will be; so, when harvesting, we have to rely on the shared experience of those who have kept bees in this local area. And, most importantly, we must not be too greedy! Next, “I suppose the quality of honey varies. Does this show?” Honey varies throughout the year, and it varies from year to year. The product that we harvest changes according to the flowers that come into bloom. Different times of the year and different weather conditions will dictate which flowers are available for the bees to forage for nectar to make into honey. Typically, spring and summer flowers produce light-colored honeys with mild fragrance and taste. Honey derived from trees are generally darker in color and more robust in flavor. In the Mid-South of the US, fall honeys are much stronger in flavor and aroma.

Alexandra asks how nutrition affects honey bee immune systems. This is a topic of intense study. Honey bee nutrition greatly affects the health of the bees. This topic was discussed by Dr. Dewey Caron at the Arkansas Beekeepers Association’s conference in Little Rock. Dr. Caron explained that optimal nutrition boosts the bees’ immune system and boosts their detoxifying enzymes. Optimal nutrition often results from the bees having access to a great diversity of flowering plants that bloom throughout the spring, summer, and fall months. One of the ways that we can help the bees and the other native pollinators is to provide plants that bloom throughout the seasons. Today’s photo shows a honey bee foraging a late-season rose in Idaho’s Treasure Valley.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Arkansas Honey Festival

One thousand people gathered in Little Rock on a delightful early fall day for the third annual Arkansas Honey Festival. Pleasant weather made for enjoyable events both indoors and out. The event, held at Bemis Honey Bee Farm, featured a full day of classroom, honey house, and bee yard presentations. I was invited to make a classroom presentation on the control of parasitic Varroa mites. I took the group of interested beekeepers into the bee yard where we sampled hives for Varroa mites. We used two methods of sampling, a powdered sugar roll and an alcohol wash. The group noted that the alcohol wash was the more accurate method of determining the bees’ mite load when both methods were used on the same hive. Other presenters described how to properly label honey, how to build bee-friendly gardens, the production of bee hive products other than honey, and marketing of bee hive products. The new Veterinary Feed Directive was described to beekeepers and veterinarians present. In the honey house, eager groups attended sessions on making mead, extracting honey, making creamed honey, and cooking with honey. Bee yard events involved demonstrations on handling bee hive pests and diseases, fall bee hive management, and checks made by the state’s apiary inspectors. I gave a presentation on top bar hive beekeeping. In today’s photo, I demonstrate handling a Kenyan top bar hive brood comb.

The Arkansas Honey Festival was an enjoyable social event on top of being an educational opportunity. Beekeepers and folks simply interested in bees enjoyed themselves at the bee farm. Live music played while people shopped with vendors and at the bee equipment store. I dined at the food truck. Children jumped in a bounce house and visited farm animals in a petting area. Some got their faces painted, and many enjoyed riding about the farm on a tractor-pulled hay wagon. The people’s choice honey show allowed the public to taste honey entries from diverse nectar sources from throughout the state.