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.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January Thaw

Honey bees in the temperate region spend the majority of the winter inside the hive, clustered together for warmth. The colder the temperature, the tighter the bees cluster together. On warmer days, the bees expand their cluster and move around inside the hive. On these warm days, the bees uncap cells of stored honey and share the honey among the clustered colony. When the hive cools at night, the bees constrict to a tight cluster, pulling away from the available stored honey. The cluster always covers hive frames that contain brood, warming and protecting the fragile developing bees. If the temperature remains cold for an extended period of time, the tightly clustered bees are left at a distance from their stored honey. This can easily lead to starvation; the bees run out of food while there may be ample food merely inches away.

It is common in the Mid-South to have a brief period of warm weather in the middle of the winter. During this “January thaw,” the bees are able to fly from the hive to make cleansing flights in which they defecate. Bees eliminate their body waste in flights outside the hive. This winter has seen somewhat erratic weather. This warm weather has given beekeepers an opportunity to make brief examinations of their hives. Quite a few beekeepers are finding larger than normal numbers of colonies have died as a result of starvation. Bee hive starvation is easily identified by finding a considerable number of dead bees with their bodies located inside the cells, head first as in today’s photo. The queen can be seen in the center. A number of Mid-South beekeepers found similar starvation situations. Each beekeeper distributed the surplus honey from the dead hives to living hives. There is still a considerable amount of winter awaiting the bees before spring flowers supply the bees with food. In the meantime, beekeepers can supply emergency feeding by pouring dry sugar onto the hives’ inner covers.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Integrated Stress Management

When Colony Collapse Disorder was first detected in the U.S. in 2007, many factors were investigated as possible causes. No single cause arose, but colony stress was found to be a common denominator in all losses. Stress appears to come from three broad areas: increasingly virulent honey bee pathogens, neonicotinoid insecticides, and nutritional issues. The combined effect of these stressors weakens the bees’ immune system and leads to colony collapse. Honey bee pathogens are spread by parasitic Varroa mites. Tracheal mites still afflict bees, along with Nosema disease and Small Hive Beetles. Neonicotinoid insecticides are in wide-spread use throughout agriculture and lawns. Nutritional problems for bees often result from monocultural crop plantings and the loss of weedy flowering plants after the conversion of natural areas for industrial agriculture, pavement, and lawns

European researchers, writing in the journal Trends in Parasitology,, call for beekeepers to employ new schemes of “Integrated Stress Management” to help combat the effects of external stresses on bee immune systems. The researchers explain that honey bees “evolved unique mechanisms for interacting with pathogens.” Reducing stress may help the resilient bees survive. Often, this simply means examining our beekeeping practices. As we plan an integrated stress management plan, we may consider: Ensure that winter hives are dry and well ventilated. Every hive should have adequate stores of food—both honey and pollen—throughout the year. Don’t excessively rob the hives of their honey stores expecting to replace honey with sugar syrup or high fructose corn syrup, sources of carbohydrate lacking honey’s other nutrients. Don’t excessively split hives or shake bees to produce packages. Small colony size leads to problems like diminished foraging capacity, difficulty regulating hive temperature, either warming the winter cluster or cooling the hive in summer. Small colonies have difficulty defending the hive from intruders. Control parasites—especially Varroa mites—using the least toxic measures available. Breed bees for mite resistance. Avoid moving bees excessively for pollination service. Ask yourself, “Are we stressing our bees?”

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Pax Vobiscum

Our family has operated Peace Farm since 1950. Rita and I introduced honey bee colonies in 2003, and family members produced honey and bee hive products. As we gained knowledge of bees and beekeeping, all members of the family participated in various aspects of tending to bees and producing and selling hive products and bee colonies. Along the way, several of us, trained as educators, became increasingly involved in beekeeping education. Tod Underhill helped me set up the Peace Bee Farmer blog, suggesting that I write down my ideas from time to time. That’s Tod in today’s photo, pictured in Ethiopia with farmers he instructed in beekeeping.

The Peace Bee Farmer blog resulted from my effort to document the bee forage plants on Peace Bee Farm as they came into bloom throughout the year. I had no idea that the writings would become so widely read or that they would put me into contact with so many individuals around the world. The simple writings and photos followed requests to give others a view of honey bees, their life inside the hive, our beekeeping efforts, and people we encounter. I have posted writings on the internet about beekeeping and matters of agriculture and the environment for six years. The Peace Bee Farmer pieces have been accessed at least one million times from two hundred countries. The resulting interactions lead to many valued contacts and friendships in many parts of the US and around the world. With today’s internet, people, anywhere on earth, may find the blog by typing a key word, such as “varroa,” or “beeswax,” or “peace.” In recent years, I noticed that increasingly often individuals accessing the blog from locations in the world’s least peaceful locations. While many find the writings by searching for beekeeping or environmental issues, some happen upon the website while searching for peace efforts. Regardless of how you came in contact with the Underhill family that operates Peace Bee Farm, we sincerely wish peace be with you.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Roadside Bee Habitat

Wildlife thrive in habitat or cover that includes food, water, places to reproduce, hide from predators, and plenty of space. Much of the habitat for bees and insect pollinators has been altered for use in industrial agriculture, urban and suburban lawns, and paved parking areas and roads. Dr. Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota Bee Lab and Eric Mader of the Xerces Society spoke recently about pollinator reversing habitat loss. See They explained that loss of habitat is one of the three important drivers of Colony Collapse Disorder that continues to reduce managed honey bee colonies. The other two are the widespread use of neonicotinoid insecticides and increased virulence of some honey bee parasites, including the Varroa mite, and some fungal infections. Dr. Spivak explained that there has been much discussion involving banning the neonicotinoid insecticides to help the insects, however, she explained that they need “not just habitat but clean, uncontaminated habitat.” To maintain a robust agriculture she stated that “we need to try for a world with both pesticides and pollinators.” Industrial agriculture, involving vast acreage of cropland, offers little food for bees, poisons insects indiscriminately, and destroys their ground nests. Planting borders and untillable farm acreage in flowering, low-maintenance, native perennial plants were given as sources of food for bees and game birds. Planting milkweed can help monarch butterflies, and nitrogen-fixing clover cover crops improve soil fertility. Dr. Spivak’s University of Minnesota Bee Lab will be studying the effects of planting “bee lawns.”

 Dr. Spivak and Mr. Mader suggested that a solution to the loss of bee habitat could be conversion of mowed and sprayed areas along the nation’s highways into bee corridors. Corridors connect our pollinator gardens and pastures, making them much more effective habitats. Planted with native wildflowers, these right-of-ways could well serve our honey bees, native pollinators, birds, and small mammals. The future will see an interest in moving to roadside vegetation management plans to support our pollinators while beautifying our roadways.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Bee Hive in Fall

The success of the colony to survive the winter is largely dependent upon the health of the bees in the fall and the beekeeper’s efforts in setting up the hive for winter. Fall is a time of transition in the bee hive. The bee colony’s population is changing from the short-lived bees of summer to the longer-lived bees that live through the winter. Bees born in the early fall are the ones that will produce the brood food for the first bees the colony rears the following year. Food stores are important. Bees must be able to sustain themselves until flowers bloom again in the spring. The bees store food of both honey and pollen in cells in the bee hive. Other necessary nutrients for the colony’s survival are stored in fat bodies in the individual bees’ abdomens. The more food that bees have available in the fall, the more nutrients they store in these fat bodies. These bees with well-filled fat bodies are best able to produce brood food for bees reared before flowers start blooming in the spring.

The health of the bees is important for the survival of the colony through the winter. If a large number of the colony’s bees are afflicted by viruses spread by parasitic mites or by Nosema disease, many bees will likely die over winter. Hives losing excessive bees often do not have enough bees to maintain a warm environment in the winter cluster. In preparing the hive in the fall, the beekeeper needs to check for the presence of bee parasites. If Varroa mite loads are high, the colony will not survive for very long. Reducing Small Hive Beetle levels to a minimum in the fall helps control these pests in the following year. The winter bee hive must also be provided with adequate ventilation to prevent the warm, moist air from condensing inside the hive and dripping water on the clustered bees. Today’s photo: Jeremy Bemis prepares hives for winter.