Thursday, June 18, 2015

Planting for Pollinators

Honey bees and native pollinators thrive in weedy areas around farms, fields, and areas surrounding urban and suburban homes. These natural areas that provide food and habitat have been greatly reduced by agricultural and lawn-care practices that control weeds with tilling, mowing, and the use of herbicides. This loss of habitat can be quickly relieved by planting pollinator gardens, simple plots managed without chemical pesticides. Pollinator gardens may be small window boxes, patio container gardens, flower, herb, or vegetable gardens, or landscape plantings around homes or businesses. Larger plots of one quarter acre or more, such as unmowed and unsprayed expressway interchanges, make pollinator pastures. These gardens and pastures will be connected along interstate highway, pipeline, and transmission line rights of way. One such corridor is planned along Interstate 35 from Texas to Minnesota will provide a 200-mile-wide path for the migration of monarch butterflies from Mexico to the Upper Mid-West, This ambitious plan will require the planting of millions of milkweed plants, the only food eaten by monarch larvae. While the I-35 corridor is being built to aid the monarch butterfly, many species of pollinators—bees, butterflies, moths, and bats—will benefit.

I conducted workshop sessions with Larry Kichler, a beekeeper with 50 years of experience, at P. Allen Smith’s Moss Mountain Farm, We talked about honey bees and pollinator gardens. I encouraged everyone to register their gardens in the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, We encouraged the beekeepers and gardeners to build pollination gardens in sunny locations with wind breaks, provide sources of nectar and pollen, provide a source of water, use large plantings of native and non-native plants, include larval host plants like milkweed, provide continuous bloom throughout the growing season, and eliminate or minimize the use of pesticides. While many pollinator gardens are simple, random plantings of herbs, vegetables, and flowers like my garden, others are more formal, like Smith’s Moss Mountain Farm plantings overlooking the Arkansas River Valley shown in today’s photo.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

White House Supports Bees

The White House announced that the Pollinator Health Task Force has established a National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, Involving numerous governmental agencies, the strategy is designed to address the marked declines in populations of honey bees and other pollinators, including North America’s 4000 species of native bees. It also addresses conditions affecting monarch butterflies; their populations have declined by 90 percent. Goals of the strategy include reducing honey bee colony winter losses to historic levels of no more than 15 percent, increasing monarch butterfly populations, and restoring seven million acres of land for pollinators. Some of the features of the strategy include developing affordable pollinator-friendly seed mixes and developing best management practices for minimizing pollinator exposure to pesticides. Public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management may be opened for honey bee forage. Wildflowers may be planted atop contaminated sites following clean-up by the Environmental Protection Agency. We should finally see expansion of pollinator habitat on highway rights-of-way and the development of a native seed reserve. A pollinator corridor for monarch butterflies is planned to extend along I-35 from the Texas border with Mexico northward to Minnesota. One feature of the strategy involves planting native plant species that bloom at different times to ensure continuous bee nutrition. A most important feature of the strategy involves protecting pollinators from exposure to pesticides. The neonicotinoid insecticides will be re-evaluated along with their use as seed treatments.

Today’s picture is taken from the poster announcing The White House Garden Lecture Series. I was honored to be invited to speak on bee-friendly gardens at this event in Collierville, Tennessee. The White House bee hive and pollinator garden build awareness of the importance of pollinators in the health of citizens and the environment. The White House is home to America’s oldest continuously landscaped gardens. This comprehensive bee protection strategy is welcomed by beekeepers. Thanks to all who worked toward its development.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Gathering the Swarm

Strong and healthy honey bee colonies divide to create new colonies, find new homes, and expand their range in a process that we call swarming. The spring of the year is the time when swarming occurs most often. When a swarm of bees leaves its hive, it is the result of about a month of preparation. The actual timing of the swarming event often follows a period of rainy days. Wet springs, like the Mid-South is experiencing this year, seem to produce more swarms than dryer seasons. One reason for the increase in swarming may be the abundance of available nectar from certain plants during rainy seasons. If the bees have plenty of nectar to forage, they may fill their hive’s brood nest with honey leaving the queen few cells to lay eggs. The resulting brood nest congestion is the principal trigger to swarm.

Typically, when a honey bee colony swarms, about half of the bees rapidly exit the hive along with the old queen. The individual bees fly in circles for a few minutes, and then they gather in a resting place on a tree limb or structure. The swarm remains in this location for a few hours or, sometimes, a few days. During this waiting period, scout bees leave the clustered swarm and search for a suitable cavity to serve as the colony’s new hive. The entire swarming event is controlled by the combined pheromones of the queen and worker bees. These pheromones are used to gather the swarm together at a resting point, and they also help the swarm of bees fly together to their new hive. Once the swarm arrives at their new hive, workers raise their abdomens and fan their wings to emit a plume of Nasanov gland pheromone to direct bees to their new home. In today’s photo, Jeremy Bemis and I capture a swarm. With the queen inside, workers are fanning Nasanov gland pheromone to call bees into the hive.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Bee Day

Following a week of rain, the sun broke out to provide perfect spring weather in Little Rock for Bee Day. Held at Bemis Honey Bee Farm and Supplies,, the day-long event brought beekeepers from around Arkansas and adjacent states. More than two hundred beekeepers gathered to pick up the bees that they had ordered and to attend an assortment of events, both indoors and out. Inside, Rita demonstrated how to make products from the bee hive using honey and beeswax. I gave presentations on queen bee management and top bar hive management. I was surprised at the number of people keeping bees in top bar hives. After I let each person handle top bar combs, they asked questions about methods of managing combs, feeding bees, harvesting honey, and managing hive pests. Top bar hives are favored in some cases by beekeepers in urban settings and by some who prefer to not lift heavy hive bodies and honey supers.

Outdoors, members of the Central Arkansas Beekeepers Association conducted demonstration sessions on how to light a beekeeper’s smoker and how to conduct hive inspections. Throughout the day, smoke drifted from the smoker completion. Bemis family members ferried people around the farm in hay ride fashion on a tractor-pulled wagon. Beekeepers shopped the bee supply store for hive equipment and bee suits. As the bee farm is located on Bemis Tree Farm, some purchased vitex trees and other bee plants. A food truck provided meals throughout the day, and the Central Arkansas Beekeepers brought a frozen honey dessert machine. With beekeepers picking up two hundred packages of bees and individual mated queens, demonstrations on installing packages of bees were well attended. In today’s photo, Jeremy Bemis helps a new beekeeper prepare a hive for a new package of bees. The group even got the opportunity to capture and hive a swarm of feral bees. Some questioned whether the swarm was conveniently planted. No. The swarm was a natural gift for Bee Day!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Springtime Build-up

Black locust trees in full bloom are a milestone in the beekeeping year. Flowering plants are in bloom in abundance, providing plenty of nectar and pollen for rapidly growing bee colonies. A mid-spring hive inspection of bee hives finds the colonies in full expansion with bees bringing in lots of nectar and pollen to feed the brood of developing workers and drones. Honey bees produce drones only when they are needed, and in the spring there are plenty of drones in the hives. When we find significant numbers of drones walking about the combs on the edge of the brood nest, it is time to raise queens and make colony divisions. Employing a technique called grafting, beekeepers can readily produce extra queens at this time of the year by carefully moving the youngest larvae to queen cell cups and then moving these to queen-less starter hives. Colony divisions to increase hive numbers are easily created by moving excess queen cells that the bees produce naturally. Making colony divisions by moving bees and brood from crowded hives to new hives also serves as a method of artificially swarming the parent colony. These divisions are an effective method of reducing the colonies’ tendency to swarm.

If during the spring hive inspection, the beekeeper finds a colony excessively crowded in its hive, the beekeeper may choose to reverse the hive bodies to relieve brood nest congestion. If the cells in the lowest brood nest hive body are empty, this hive body may be moved to the top of the brood nest to provide space for the queen to lay eggs. This action rapidly relieves brood nest congestion, the greatest cause of swarming. Today’s photo shows a healthy frame of capped worker brood holding pupae, the third stage of bee development. Continuous expanses of capped brood indicate a prolific queen. Excessive holes in the pattern may indicate brood nest congestion, brood disease, inbreeding, or hygienic behavior employed by the bees to remove parasitic mites.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Urban Beekeeping

Beekeepers are increasingly placing hives within urban areas. While honey bees make good city dwellers, beekeepers planning on keeping urban bees should consider several important issues. The first consideration is the safety of people and animals in the vicinity. While honey bees are usually gentle insects, they will defend their hive by stinging. Young children, elderly people, and confined pets are particularly vulnerable in the case of a stinging event. Bee hives should not be placed near a property line or an area where people walk or frequent. The next important consideration for locating bee hives is ease of access. Bee hive equipment and honey are heavy; try to minimize carrying distances. A group of dedicated individuals wanted to place bee hives on the roof of the urban church in today’s picture. I suggested that they consider the difficulty in carrying live bees, equipment, and bee feed through the church as well as returning with dripping supers of harvested honey. They chose to build a fenced enclosure next to the building to safely house the bee hives. A fence or hedge bee hive’s entrance forces the bees to fly up above the heads of people. While bee hives are placed on rooftops in many cities, these locations are often extremely hot and lacking in shade. Honey bees consume lots of water and need to have water available at all times.

Some in the public are fearful of stinging insects; urban beekeepers usually conceal their hives from view. Some municipalities place constraints on urban hive numbers. However, most communities realize the benefit of having trained beekeepers and managed bee hives. They serve as advocates for the role of pollinators and beneficial insects. Understanding the interconnectedness of pollinators and our food crops, informed citizens reduce their use of chemicals in the environment. Knowledgeable beekeepers are capable of handling Africanized honey bees, and maintaining a healthy population of managed honey bees prevents creating environmental niches for undesirable insects, like hornets and yellow jackets.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Neonics Questioned

Neonicotinoids are now the most widely used insect killers, and their safety to beneficial insects remains in question. “Neonics” are used to control pests in soybeans, cotton, and corn crops. The use of neonicotinoid insecticides coincides with the massive die-off of honey bees in Europe and North America. This means that the use of these new insect poisons and the deaths of bee colonies occurred at the same time. This timing alone does not mean that the insecticide killed the bees. However, nothing has cleared the neonicotinoids; Environmental Protection Agency scientists and others suspect that these insecticides are contributing to the colony losses. If they are contributing to the bee colony deaths, the situation will continue as long as these insecticides are being used. A number of studies are looking at neonicotinoids. The International Union for Conservation of Nature reviewed 800 peer-reviewed reports and prepared a Worldwide Integrated Assessment (WIA) of their findings, They concluded, “In reviewing all the available literature rather than simply comparing one report with another, the WIA has found that field-realistic concentrations of neonics adversely affect individual navigation, learning, food collection, longevity, resistance to disease and fecundity of bees.” Meanwhile, EPA scientists noted in a memorandum,, involving the neonicotinoid insecticide Clothianidin that its “major risk concern is to nontarget insects (that is, honey bees). Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid insecticide that is both persistent and systemic….Clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis.” The scientists site incident reports involving other neonicotinoid insecticides that “suggest the potential for long term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects.”

A promising study conducted in Arkansas found low levels of neonicotinoids in the reproductive parts of soybean and cotton plants—good news, since this is where honey bees gather nectar. Following the Arkansas study, Little Rock television reporter, Sarah Fortner, interviewed Jon Zawislak and me. View the “Science with Sarah” episode at That’s Sarah and me examining a honey bee hive.