Thursday, March 19, 2020

Move the Bee Hives an Inch

Beekeepers have a centuries-old tradition of moving their hives an inch to notify the bees of the death of a family member. Today three beekeeping families are moving hives due to the death of 19-year-old Ashlyn McGehee. The sudden, accidental loss of Ashlyn stuns and saddens the McGehee, Anderson, and Underhill families. The beautiful, athletic, and talented Ashlyn, a student of Western Kentucky University, could often be found with her cousins, Ethan and Erin Underhill. Pax Vobiscum: Peace Be With You, Ashlyn Marie McGehee, 2000-2020.
Ethan, Ashlyn, Erin
Erin, Ethan, Ashlyn

Thursday, March 5, 2020

A Community of Beekeepers

We don’t keep bees alone; our bees don’t live alone. Beekeepers belong to a social community. We share the environment with other beekeepers and all of the bees from miles around. In recent years it has become apparent that our managed bees and our beekeeping practices affect all of the bee colonies in our area. Healthy bees from our hives may rob the honey from the hives of collapsing colonies and return with parasitic Varroa mites. Likewise, if we are not controlling the mites in our hives, we are spreading them to hives for miles around. Bees from mite-infested hives in the area may abandon their hives and move into our hives, bringing mites with them. Mite-infested hives can reasonably be called “Varroa bombs.”

Beekeepers, farmers, gardeners, and homeowners make up communities of individuals whose activities affect each other, sometimes benefiting and at other times adversely affecting others. There are specific groups within the community of beekeepers: those who manage their hives in different manners, those who manage their hives for different purposes, those who treat their hives with different products or measures to control parasitic mites, and those who keep their hives in different forage areas. There are urban beekeepers who may contend with city ordinances or neighborhood association rules, forest beekeepers, and farmland beekeepers. There are beekeepers with stationary hives and others with migratory operations. While there are many ways that we manage bees, we all belong to a community of bee stewards.

Perhaps, the most important communities that beekeepers belong to are the local, state, and regional beekeeping associations. These groups are effective in sharing useful information on managing bees in today’s environment. One of these active groups in Tennessee is the Savannah Area Beekeepers Association. I was honored to be invited to speak at the association’s annual Short Course in Beekeeping along with EAS Master Beekeeper Kent Williams, shown here giving a presentation on new developments in controlling Varroa mites.

Friday, February 14, 2020

A Bee Colony Starves

On a warm mid-winter day, a beekeeper observes numerous dead bees on the ground outside one of his hives. Inside the hive, he finds a small cluster of dead bees with many of the dead facing head-first into empty cells. A dead queen bee is located in the center of the cluster of bees. There is an empty supersedure queen cell adjacent to the cluster of bees with a trap door still attached, a tell-tale indication that a virgin queen has recently emerged. A queen that emerges in the winter is of no use to the colony because she will not be able to successfully mate with drones. There is no honey in the vicinity of the cluster of dead bees. A few capped cells indicate that the bees had been attending brood before the bees died. It appears that the bees died of starvation. With a relatively mild winter, the bees had been able to fly from their hive on a number of days; however, on their foraging flights, the bees hadn’t brought in enough food to meet the needs of their expanding colony.

Starvation is the greatest killer of honey bee colonies. They die because they don’t have food available to the cluster of bees. This often occurs even when there are ample stores of honey in the hive, but it is beyond the reach of the winter cluster. The cluster remains on the combs containing brood to feed and protect the fragile, developing bees. They eat the food nearby, as they did in today’s photo by George Bujarski. On prolonged periods of cold, the bees will not move throughout the hive to gather stored honey. Because honey bees share their food, they starve together. Since this colony exhibited no signs of disease, like American foulbrood, it will be safe for the beekeeper to reuse the hive and frames of drawn combs. He will protect the combs from hive scavengers till replacement bee colonies are available in the spring.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Mid-Winter Hive Check

Local beekeepers took advantage of above-average January temperatures to check their hives. One found his hives full of bees and brood and, fearing swarming, asked me if he should split the colonies. I recommended that he wait while making sure that they have plenty of stored food and hive capacity. February is too early to divide colonies in central Arkansas. The bees, which are now protecting brood, need to have strong winter colonies to provide cluster warmth. Also, commercially produced queens are not available in the winter, and it’s a long time till colonies will be able to make their own queens. I suggested to the beekeeper that if he wants to increase his hive count, he should wait until there are plenty of drones walking on the combs before making splits. I like to see large numbers of adult drones on the combs to tell me when it is time to produce queens. With brood production increasing, colonies will continue to expand, experiencing an increased demand on their dwindling supply of stored honey. The maximum stressful situation will occur in March. As we approach March, colonies have large populations of bees, little natural forage, and no queens available.

With the beekeeper’s concern that his bees were crowding their hives, I suggested that he should try to suppress the bees’ urge to swarm by making sure that the colonies have plenty of hive capacity. He could, on a fairly warm day, add another box of drawn comb atop the existing hive bodies. Frames of capped honey should be placed directly above the brood nest. Since bees move upward in their hives over winter, when spring approaches, he can reverse the hive bodies to expand the available brood area. Warm weather in winter affords bees the opportunity to forage red maple, as in today’s photo. Red maple is a good source of pollen and nectar; however, in many years, cold or rainy weather prohibits bees from foraging this early-blooming tree.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Pax Vobiscum

The environmentally conscious group meets between services at their Conway, Arkansas, church. The recently formed group’s enthusiastic members are committed to making a positive impact on the neighborhoods where they live. They invite guest speakers of varying backgrounds to discuss matters in which the members can have an impact. I was honored to be invited to share with the group some ideas for protecting pollinators and providing habitat. One of their first efforts will be to establish pollinator gardens. The enthusiasm, efforts, and examples of the group’s members will surely spread to their neighbors and lead to networks of pollinator gardens, pollinator pastures, and pollinator corridors.

As a beekeeper, I was also privileged to speak to the group with the approach of Christmas. I explained that there was a well-established tradition of Bronze Age, Mid-East beekeeping in the fourteenth century B.C.; and bees and honey were mentioned in the writings of many of the great religions: the Hebrew and Christian Bible, the Talmud, and the Quran. Honey bees were managed throughout the Mid-East, Africa, and Europe. I related the way that the church in Europe supported bees for centuries. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D., libraries were burned, and education was discouraged. Few people outside the monasteries could read and write. European abbeys and monasteries had apiaries, and their monks managed bees for honey, mead, and beeswax for candles and lost wax molding of religious items. The religious orders were the repository of knowledge of worldly matters and beekeeping for a thousand years. When Europeans voyaged to the Americas in the early 1600s, they viewed the New World in biblical terms as a “land of milk and honey.” However, since the Americas lacked the necessary cattle or honey bees, the Pilgrims brought them with them. Today’s photo: Ethiopian Orthodox church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Underhill family of Peace Bee Farm offers to the people of the great religions, philosophies, and naturalistic traditions that peace be with you.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Ejecting the Drones

Honey bee colonies are made up of large numbers of bees, but they rely upon only a few bees for reproduction. Each colony has one female reproductive member, the queen, and a few hundred male reproductive members, the drones. The remainder of the colony’s bees, numbering in the thousands, are workers, female bees that do not have complete reproductive systems. Each of these three castes of bees has specific roles in the life of the colony. The queen lays all of the eggs; the workers perform all of the tasks involved in collecting food and feeding the developing bees. However, the drones have a sole purpose: They provide sperm for the reproduction of new queens and workers. Drones don’t do any of the work in the hive; they don’t gather food; they consume the food produced by the workers. Drones are solely available to mate with newly emerged queen bees. At the times of the year when honey bees are producing new queens, drones meet these queen bees and mate in flight in aerial spaces known as drone concentration areas.

The time that queen production and mating occurs is spring through fall. Honey bees don’t produce queens in the winter, so there is no need at that time for drones. Keeping drones in the hive during cold weather drains precious winter food resources. As winter approaches, workers forcefully eject the drones from their hives. Some drones are drug out of the hive by workers, pulling the larger drones by their legs and wings as in today’s photo. Some drones are stung to death by their sister workers. It is common to find dead drones on the ground as cold weather approaches. The number of drones that beekeepers find in their hives depends upon whether the colonies are producing queens. Newly established colonies will have few drones, and there will be few drones during late summer nectar dearths. One exception exists: queenless colonies will often retain their drones through the winter.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The First Frost

The first frost of the year came two weeks earlier than normal, but the cold night didn’t bother the honey bees in their warm, dry hives. Their hives are already set-up for winter with the brood nests centered low in the hives and plenty of frames of honey above and to the sides. Ventilation ports are open to draw off damp air from the top of the hives to prevent a build-up of condensation. Screened bottom boards are open. Ensuring that the hives have enough stored honey located where the bees can access it and providing ventilation are the only requirements for wintering bees in Arkansas. Whenever the temperature drops to 57 degrees Fahrenheit, the bees draw into a cluster for warmth. They consume their stored honey and generate heat in their flight muscles to warm the cluster. The hives have plenty of food in storage.

With clear skies, the afternoon sun brought the temperature up rapidly. As the air temperature rose above 50, the bees poured out of their hives for cleansing flights and foraging. Many bees were bringing in pollen from bitterweed, goldenrod, and fall asters. The sight of bees foraging for pollen usually indicates that the queens are still laying eggs and the nurse bees are feeding larvae. Other workers were bringing in fall nectar, producing strong flavored honey for the winter. A few bees could be found on lily pads foraging for water, and a some were gathering wood sap and gums for propolis. The bee in today’s photo is struggling to forage some propolis. She will use this bee glue to seal off any hive cracks. The bees will even build barriers of propolis inside their hives to reduce entrances or to block cold drafts. Only a few drones were seen at the hive entrance. Most have been excluded from the hives. Only queen-less hives will keep their drones into the winter. It is too late in the year for the mating of queens.