Tuesday, February 26, 2019

An Unexpected Beekeeper

One hundred people quite deliberately headed toward Savannah, Tennessee in spite of extreme rainfall, flooding, and violent weather. They were drawn to the Savannah Area Beekeepers Association’s sixth annual Short Course in Beekeeping. One person, however, a businessman, Paul Durr, braved the weather to attend the meeting by accident. Mr. Durr misread the announcement in the local newspaper. Interested in furthering his business skills, he thought that he would be attending a bookkeeping course—not a beekeeping course. Once he arrived, Mr. Durr decided to stay for the day. He did, after all, have a long-time interest in honey bees, having shared his home with colonies of bees that have lived in the space above his ceiling for 40 years. Mr. Durr sat in on beekeeping sessions throughout the day.

I had the honor of giving the keynote presentation, introducing the new beekeepers to the history of the beekeeping craft by tracing the tradition of beekeeping from its honey-hunting roots with our cave-dwelling ancestors. Training sessions were conducted by invited speakers and talented Savannah beekeepers. Dr. Jeff Harris from Mississippi State University, renowned for identifying honey bees with the Varroa Sensitive Hygiene trait, spoke on developments in breeding parasitic mite tolerant bees. EAS Master Beekeeper Kent Williams described measures for increasing honey production, and Trevor Qualls taught the new beekeepers how to install packages of bees into their hives. Other speakers described the bee hive equipment, methods of feeding bees, catching swarms, and what to expect in the first two years of beekeeping. Conducting a random drawing, “Coach” Lynn Wood, the Tennessee Beekeepers Association’s Regional Vice President, awarded three bee hives to new beekeepers. Mr. Durr was drawn as a hive winner. He was surprised to end his day becoming an unexpected beekeeper. His greater surprise came in learning that “Coach” Wood remembered teaching him years earlier in high school. Today’s photo: TVA releasing two million gallons of Tennessee River floodwater per second at Wilson Dam, Florence, Alabama.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Can Plants Hear Bees?

Whenever I encounter evening primrose plants in bloom, I watch them for a while. These native plants attract a variety of bees and other pollinators. At night, evening primrose is highly attractive to large moths. In the early hours of the morning, fast flying blue orchard bees visit the yellow flowers. Later in the day, butterflies, honey bees, flies, and other insects actively forage evening primrose. In today’s photo a honey bee collects nectar from evening primrose.

Honey bees can detect differences in nectar sugar concentrations of one to three percent, and foraging worker bees seek those nectar sources with the greatest concentrations of sugars. Lilach Hadany, a researcher at Tel Aviv University, questioned whether plants could hear sounds similarly to animals, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/01/flowers-can-hear-bees-and-make-their-nectar-sweeter/. Hadany’s findings reveal that at least one plant, evening primrose, responds to the vibrations of pollinators’ wings. Within minutes of exposure to vibrations in the range of honey bee wing beats (0.2 to 0.5 kilohertz), evening primrose increased the concentration of sugars in its nectar. Hadany’s lab found that within three minutes of exposure to honey bee wing-beat-frequency vibrations the plants increased the nectar sugar concentrations from between 12 and 17 percent to 20 percent. In field observations, her researchers found pollinators around evening primrose plants nine times more frequently after the plants were visited within the past six minutes. The resulting sweeter nectar is naturally more attractive to bees and other pollinators. Since flowering plants, such as evening primrose, depend upon insect pollination for reproduction, any plant that attracts more pollinators has a reproductive advantage. Evening primrose flower petals are shaped like an open bowl. Such shapes concentrate and increase vibrations. The researchers at the Tel Aviv lab found that evening primrose flowers concentrated vibrations of the frequency range of honey bees. The ability of a flowering plant to increase its nectar’s sugar concentration would make it more attractive to pollinators and more likely to be pollinated, the first step in the plant’s reproduction.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Pax Vobiscum

A beekeeper friend who is an avid outdoorsman proclaims, “I’d rather catch a swarm of bees than a five-pound bass!” Beekeepers manage colonies of honey bees for various purposes: honey production, crop pollination, to improve fruit orchards and vegetable garden production. However, many beekeepers tend to hives simply for enjoyment. Friendships develop between beekeepers who work hives together. Beekeeping tasks vary throughout the year with some months considerably busier than others. Winter months require little work inside the hives where the bees are alive and active, but clustered together for warmth and not flying. At this time of year, beekeepers can construct and repair hive equipment, plan for the next year’s activities, and devote some leisure time to reading. I like to reread some of my favorite beekeeper authors, such as Richard Taylor. He offers thoughtful views of beekeeping in The Joys of Beekeeping, 1984. Taylor writes of the relationship between bees, beekeepers, and nature. He explains, “When I see a bee tree I know its inhabitants are the evolutionary product of millions of years, and that what I call ‘my own’ bees are but the smallest step from the bee tree. The forests lure them back and always will.” Regarding the swarms that my friend loves to catch, Taylor says, “Swarming is of course essential not only to the survival of the species but also to nature itself, for without bees the many plants—both wild and cultivated—that depend upon them for the viability of their seed would also be threatened with extinction.”

While setting-up my backyard hives for winter, I noticed a downy woodpecker that has learned to use a twig as a tool to gather food from a suet feeder. Taylor writes, “We need the whole of nature, and we need to be reminded that we are a part of it.” The Underhill family of Peace Bee Farm wishes you good health, and cheer, healthy bees, and enjoyment of nature. May peace be with you.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Winter Solstice

The sun rose this morning as far south along the horizon as it will appear anytime through the year. We call this day the winter solstice. This is also the year’s shortest day. Starting tomorrow, the sun will appear to rise slightly farther to the north daily until the summer solstice, June 21, when the sun rises in its northern-most position. These apparent movements of the sun along the horizon have been observed since ancient times. They allowed early peoples to develop calendars, vitally necessary for telling farmers when to plant precious seeds needed to feed increasing populations. The life cycles of many species are tied to the seasonal changes associated with the length of days. Among those species is the honey bee. For the honey bee, the winter solstice is the beginning of the new year. Queen bees start laying eggs on the winter solstice.

Here, in the temperate zone, the blooming of most flowering plants follows the length of days as well, blooming spring, summer, and fall. Few flowers are found in the winter, and the life cycle of the honey bee follows the availability of flowers. The bees gather nectar from flowers, convert it into honey, and survive on it through the winter. The honey bee is unique, being the only insect in the temperate zone that stays alive and active throughout the winter. Honey bees eat the high-energy honey that they produce and generate heat by vibrating their flight muscles. They are thus able to survive in cold weather, clustered tightly together to retain warmth. Other insects, like lady bug beetles, hibernate in cold weather, protected under tree bark or leaves. Wasps, hornets, and yellowjackets die off annually, leaving a mated queen to start the next year’s colony. I communicated today with my friend, EAS Certified Master Beekeeper Wubishet Adugna, in Ethiopia, shown here with coffee that he exports. Wubishet’s tropical honey bees follow seasonal changes based upon annual rainfall patterns instead of the length of days.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Propolis for Bee Health

Propolis is one of four substances, along with nectar pollen, and water, that foraging honey bees bring into their hive. The collection of propolis is an important colony protection behavior. Bees collect propolis from the sap, gums, and resins of trees, often evergreens. The sticky substance is used to seal cracks and small openings in the honey bee colony’s hive. It is the “bee glue” that attaches beeswax combs to the hive. When a swarm of bees moves into a hollow tree cavity, or when a beekeeper hives a colony in a new hive, the bees varnish the inside walls of their new home with propolis. Not only does the propolis provide a protective barrier against drafts and moisture, it also provides antimicrobial protections. Foraging bees returning to their hive walk across an antibacterial and antifungal “door mat” of propolis deposited at the hive entrance. Honey bees use propolis to help protect the colony from invaders. Bees entomb with propolis dead mice or intruding insects too large to drag from the hive, preventing the spread through the hive of bacteria from decaying pests. Bees also trap Small Hive Beetles in propolis “jails” within the hive.

The behavior of collecting propolis is a heritable trait. Some beekeepers in the past considered manipulating heavily propolized hives unnecessarily messy, and therefore selected for bees that collected little propolis. However, colony health benefits of having plenty of propolis in the hives makes it advantageous to encourage propolis collection. An article published in the Journal of Economic Entomology, https://entomologytoday.org/2018/11/28/propolis-how-beekeepers-encourage-better-hive-health/, describes how researchers tested several means of roughening the interior of bee hives to encourage bees to fill small openings with propolis. I regularly roughen new hive boxes with a steel brush and a jagged flint rock from Arkansas’ Boston Mountains. Researcher Dr. Keith Delaplane, entomology professor at the University of Georgia, describes encouraging bees to deposit extra propolis as partnering with biology. In today’s photo bees eagerly gather and reuse propolis from a recently opened hive.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Fall Bee Hive Set-Up

Fall bee hive management tasks prepare the hives for the bees’ winter survival. When the beekeeper sets up the hives for winter on a warm fall day, he or she will make a number of observations and hive adjustments. First, the hives must be queen-right. We don’t need to actually locate the queen, just see evidence that the hives have a healthy queen. Finding eggs or larvae tell us that a queen has been laying eggs recently. Queen bees reduce their egg laying in the fall and usually stop laying eggs completely as winter approaches. If a colony is weak, we should combine it with a strong colony. It is best to take our winter losses in the fall and not risk losing valuable honeycombs to wax moths. It is extremely important for beekeepers to manage parasitic Varroa mite levels in the hives. We should sample the bees and measure the mites using an alcohol wash or powdered sugar roll test. If Varroa levels exceed a three percent threshold, then a mite treatment of the hives is needed. Bees in colonies with high mite levels have a shortened life expectancy, and these colonies often perish during cold weather due to a lack of sufficient bees to provide winter cluster warmth.

To successfully over-wintering bees, the hives must have sufficient winter stores of honey, properly placed so that the bees can access it; and the hives must have adequate ventilation, particularly at the top. Arkansas hives require approximately 60 pounds of honey stores. Frames of honey should be on the edges of the fall cluster of bees, and the majority of the honey should be above the bees’ cluster. The beekeeper will likely need to rearrange hive boxes or frames to place the fall cluster low in the hive. As the winter progresses, the bee cluster will slowly move upward, eating through the stored honey. Remove all queen excluders, and reduce hive entrances as in today’s photo.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

September Beekeeping

September brings changes for the bees. Summer flowers, yielding light colored and mild flavored honeys for the kitchen table, are replaced by fall flowers, producing robust flavored honeys, which beekeepers usually leave in the hives for the bees to consume over winter. Adrian Higgins describes how homeowners can plant flowering plants to provide a continuum of blooms providing nectar and pollen for honey bees throughout the spring, summer, and fall: https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2018/sep/08/a-boon-to-bees-20180908/. As well as listing numerous species available for horticultural plantings, Higgins reminds us to provide bees water and avoid using pesticides. Another recent publication, About You Digital Magazine, http://aymag.com/all-the-buzz-arkansas-beekeepers-keep-hope-alive/, features Arkansas beekeeping friends, Jon Zawislak of the University of Arkansas Extension and John and Corinne Smith of Central Beekeepers Supply of Russellville, Arkansas. Apiary instructor, Jon Zawislak, explains the plight of honey bees that are stressed by parasites, pathogens, and loss of habitat. He explains that public awareness of the importance of honey bees in the production of our food has brought in many new beekeepers. John and Corinne Smith supply these beekeepers with bees, hives, and equipment at their Russellville business. John Smith explains the importance of bees, “Any non-wind-blown crop has to be pollinated by insects. And the honey bee is the world’s most efficient pollinator.” Zawislak is quite the promoter of Arkansas honey: “Fresh raw honey is so different and superior to what sits on most supermarket shelves that there is really no comparison. If you have ever eaten a true Arkansas homegrown tomato in the middle of the summer, you understand how different it is from those tough pink things labeled as a tomato in the supermarket in the winter. The difference in honey is like that.”

Elsewhere in Arkansas, a black bear was removed from the city of Conway near the University of Central Arkansas campus (UCA mascot is a bear). Several members of the Ozark Foothills Beekeepers Association, based in Conway, have experienced bears visiting their bee hives. Today’s photo: September goldenrod.