Monday, March 31, 2014

Changing Seasons

We have endured a colder than normal winter in much of the United States. Beekeeping friends in Minnesota, Michigan, and Maine reported to me that their hives were in deep snow during much of the winter. Arkansas saw little snow, but received several significant ice storms. Speaking at a business luncheon today, I was questioned by many in the audience about how the honey bees fared over our colder than normal winter. I explained to the business leaders, who are truly concerned about the condition of bees, that it appears that our Arkansas Delta bees survived quite well. The cold weather kept the bees clustered in the hives, expending only enough energy to warm the cluster. Warmer winter weather often allows the bees more flying opportunities. Foragers searching in the winter for blooming flowers expend energy and consume greater amounts of stored honey. Fortunately, I set up my hives for the winter with plenty of honey stores. Still, they consumed large amounts of dry sugar that I placed atop the hives’ inner covers as a precaution against starvation.

March is the harshest month of the year for honey bees. After surviving a cold winter honey bee colonies often starve during the month of March. At this time of the year, colony populations are growing rapidly with nurse bees feeding large amounts of brood. Warming days allow bees to fly and forage, however, flowering plants are not yet blooming in abundance. When checking on the bees in March, even on cool, blustery days when it is not safe to open the hives, it is a good idea to gently lift the rear of the hives and estimate their weight. Light hives may be depleted of honey stores. Since honey bees share their food, starvation of the colony occurs at once. Some emergency feeding may save a strong colony from starvation. Today’s photo shows bees eagerly dusting in pollen substitute offered to the bees in a bucket for protection from the weather.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Milkweed for Monarchs

In earlier times, coal miners took canaries into the mines to tell the condition of the mine’s atmosphere. They knew that if the fragile birds could live, the air would support human life. If the birds fell dead, it was time for the miners to rapidly climb to the surface. The honey bee has been described as our present-day canary in the coal mine. Its decline and death means that the environment is becoming less safe for humans.  The monarch butterfly is another species that is an indicator of the health of the environment. The beautiful monarch is well known for its 3000 mile annual migration across North America to Mexico. Alarmingly, the migrating butterflies have been reduced to a severe minimum with monarchs declining in numbers by 90 percent in recent years. Many of the suspected causes of the monarch butterfly’s decline are the same as those involved in the decline in honey bees: the loss of habitat and food, the effects of climate destabilization, and heavy use of pesticides and herbicides. The developing monarch butterfly caterpillar relies on a single food source, native milkweed. Adult monarchs consume nectar from flowers for energy for their migration.

Much of the land that supported the monarch butterflies has been converted to agricultural usage, primarily to grow soybeans and corn. A New York Times article,, relates efforts to provide necessary food for the monarchs. Individuals, businesses, and government agencies are being encouraged to plant milkweed and create monarch waystations for the butterflies. Fortunately, creating habitats and feeding areas is quite simple, and the benefits extend to honey bees and other important pollinators. Information on habitat restoration is available through the Pollinator Partnership,, and Monarch Watch,  The prospects for restoring monarch populations are promising. According to Monarch Watch’s director, Dr. Chip Taylor, butterfly populations can vary wildly from year to year as habitat and weather change. In today’s photo a monarch butterfly forages on milkweed at Peace Bee Farm.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Pax Vobiscum

This year brought me the opportunity to once again travel to Africa to share ideas with the beekeeper farmers of Ethiopia. I am thankful for the hospitality of the Ethiopian people and of the support of my family who took care of Peace Bee Farm in my absence. I want to acknowledge some of the others who are working to train beekeepers in Africa. Megan Wannarka is a Peace Corps volunteer working daily with beekeepers in Senegal. Stephen Petersen, Cesar Flores, and Ed Levi are Winrock International volunteers working in diverse regions of Ethiopia. Their expertise helped identify bee colony problems which should lead to healthier bees and increased incomes for the Ethiopian farmers. Daniel Kocha and Gemechis Jaleta are thorough in making training arrangements in Ethiopia, and they are both extremely knowledgeable of the needs and resources of the Ethiopian farmers. Johnnie Frueauff handled my travel arrangements with great care. My driver in Addis Ababa, Kassahun Wegayehu, was always friendly and ready to travel, night or day. My host in Ethiopia’s Amhara Region, Behailu Alemayehu, effectively handled the translation from English to Amharic. Driver Daniel safely negotiated the Blue Nile Gorge. I offer my best wishes to Selamawit Abebe, Demke, Teshome, Abeba, Fantahun, Abisu, Sefinew, Haimanot, Getenet Yitayew, Ketemau Melkamu, Tarekegn Wondimagegn, Melkamu Bezabih, Haile Dembosa, and Firewu. I offer my great thanks to Ato Gebeyehu who graciously took me into his home and shared his beekeeping experience with me. In my beekeeping training assignment I was treated with kindness by the people of Debre Markos, Embulie, Yewbush, Amanuel Town, the Machakel District, and Dembecha, West Gonder.

 In today’s photo, I am dwarfed, literally, by the statue of Nelson Mandela at the gallery of renowned Ethiopian artist Lemma Guya. Nelson Mandela passed away December 5 of this year. On behalf of the Underhill family that operates Peace Bee Farm, I offer to all who observe the great religions, traditions, and philosophies of the world: Peace be with you.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Delta Crossings

Cold, dry air from the north crosses warm, damp air from the south over the United States’ mid section, an area known as “Tornado Alley.” This is the only area in the world that regularly sees tornados. These storms occur in greatest frequency as seasons change in the spring and fall. A tornado struck the Arkansas Delta town of Caraway tearing down trees, utility poles, and power lines. A number of homes were heavily damaged. A beekeeper friend’s home sat in the storm’s path; it sustained minor damage. The beekeeper and his wife ducked safely into their storm shelter as the storm struck.  Large trees fell around them. The beekeeper checked on family, friends, and bee hives; all survived the storm. Beekeepers often divide their bee hives among several bee yards to lessen the losses from catastrophic events like fires, floods, or wind storms.

Caraway sits between the Mississippi River and the St. Francis Sunken Lands, a depression formed during one of North America’s most powerful series of earthquakes. In the winter of 1811 through 1812, earthquakes shook the area, transforming the surface of the land. The soil liquefied, and sand blew high into the air. The Mississippi River flowed backwards to fill large depressed areas which became lakes. Today, flooding in the St. Francis Sunken Lands area is controlled by a series of earthen levees, natural rivers, and man-made canals. South of Caraway where opposing winds crossed, two rivers cross in an amazing engineering feat. At Rivervale, Arkansas one river, a channelized canal, flows in a concrete tube under the St. Francis River. The rivers’ crossing can be seen in today’s photo. The concrete tube is visible horizontally under the surface of the St. Francis’ waters. Nearby, the Marked Tree Lock and Siphons are unique water control designs; the Siphons are the only structures in the United States where tubes are used to lift a river over a levee. The St. Francis River is lifted out of the Sunken Lands.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A Day in the Oahees

Idaho’s Treasure Valley is an irrigated desert surrounded by mountains. The valley is the home to bees and beekeepers. Abundant flowering plants in urban and suburban landscapes plus a diversity of flowering agricultural crops supply bees with nectar and pollen in exchange for pollination. The result is fruit and seed. Warm fall days in the valley find large numbers of insects—both beneficial and pest. Flowering plants are heavily visited by honey bees, sweat bees, and numerous other small native bees. Yellow jackets, those dangerous and easily irritated ground-dwelling wasps, are in great abundance. Unlike honey bees which sting only to defend their nest, yellow jackets sting unprovoked. Flies are in such abundance that local stores can’t keep swatters in stock. Their numbers can probably be attributed to recent rainfalls moistening the waste from the area’s livestock.

A day’s trip into the Oahee Mountains adjacent to the valley finds mule deer grazing on annual grasses greening the draughty mountain slopes. Here, along the old Oregon Trail we find abandoned gold and silver mines and the remains of miners’ cabins. As we climb in altitude, fall flowers, scattered among the sage brush and junipers, do not reveal their pollinators—likely night-flying moths and bats. Willow and aspen trees grow below mountain springs. Beavers turn spring-fed streams into lush marshes, even at altitude in these volcanic mountains, named “Oahee” for “Hawaii” by their Hawaiian settlers. A trip into the Oahees reveals the delicate balance and interrelationship between the plants, mammals, insects, and other pollinators in this ecosystem of thin soil and scarce rainfall. The pollinators help produce the seed for plants which provide food for wildlife—deer, mountain sheep and goats, and wild horses—as well as herds of open-range cattle. The waste from the mammals carries nutrients high into the mountains to fertilize the plant life. Northern harriers soar across mountain slopes searching for small mammals gathering seeds. Unknowingly, through pollination, bees, bats, and moths feed hawks, cattle, and deer.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Beekeeping, Night or Day?

Ethiopia has a rich tradition of beekeeping, and it seems to me that the country is like a patchwork quilt of beekeeping traditions. There is a mixture of beekeeping practices that follow the country’s diverse nectar sources and differences in geography. The local beekeeping techniques also follow the differences in beekeeping experiences of the farmers. Many rely upon the handed down techniques of traditional beekeepers. Some have been exposed to trainers from outside the region who introduced them to modern beekeeping methods. My experiences in Ethiopia found me working in some areas with beekeepers who had been exposed to training based upon bee biology. These individuals were comfortable with handling bees and were anxious to hear of new ideas that they could apply. I suggested that they should build Kenyan Top Bar Hives with standardized dimensions, like the one in today’s photo that I borrowed from the local agricultural extension agent to use in my training sessions in Amanuel. This top bar hive is built according to measurements adopted by the Peace Corps. By using standardized top bars and hive dimensions, the beekeepers can move combs from hive to hive. I explained to them that they can remove the queen from an exceptionally defensive hive and bring over a comb of very young brood selected from their best hive. With this resource, the bees can produce a new queen with different genetic traits. The farmers, well versed in selective cattle breeding, understood the concept of selectively improving their bees.

I also worked in one area where the farmers had received inaccurate information about bee biology and agriculture in general. These farmers were fearful of the bees and highly reluctant to try my suggestions, especially opening the hives in the daytime. They gave many excuses for not doing this. Some said that they were too busy tending their cattle or plowing in the daytime. I suggested that they train other family members—women and children—to join in the beekeeping.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Protecting Quality Honey

Many of the farmers of Ethiopia rely upon harvesting honey and beeswax as part of their mixed agricultural income. The vast majority of their beekeeping experience involves placing traditional bee hives in trees or high places where they can attract swarms of bees. Once the bees have filled the traditional hives with comb and filled some combs with honey, the farmers drive the bees out of the hives with smoke and cut out the combs. The farmers then crush the combs to separate the honey from the beeswax comb. This technique often yields a low-quality honey. Today's photo shows an Ethiopian beekeeper proudly displaying a comb of honey that she cut from a traditional bee hive. The lower half of the comb contains high-quality, fully ripened honey, capped with beeswax. The upper half of the comb, however, contains brood along with pollen, bee bread, and unripened honey. If the entire comb is crushed together, the honey will be of very low quality, useful only for mead production. Throughout the world, much of the honey harvested in developing countries is used to produce mead honey wine.  Uncapped honey that is not fully ripened and honey containing the protein of brood is suitable for fermenting into mead, however it is not acceptable as honey for storage and consumption. Fully ripened honey lasts virtually forever. By simply cutting apart this comb, this beekeeper can separate the high-quality honey from the lower-quality honey. Each can be sold separately.

It is important that the beekeeper protects the quality of the bees' product. Heavy use of smoke used to drive the bees from traditional hives can alter the delicate flavor of honey. Storage in improper containers can impart flavors as well. Care should be taken to prevent overheating honey in storage, as this can change the honey's flavor and color. Most honey sold to consumers in Ethiopia is packaged as crystallized honey in wide-mouth plastic jars. The farmers deserve a good income for their beekeeping efforts.