Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Nature of Conservation

Judith Rutschman interviewed me on a segment of her TV program, Nature of Conservation. The recent interview was my second filming of the program. Our first interview in 2008 discussed Peace Bee Farm’s activities, mostly producing honey and beeswax products. At that time, a mysterious condition in which the adult worker bees disappeared from their hives was in its second year. We discussed the researchers’ efforts being undertaken to identify the causes of the resulting massive honey bee die-off, called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD.

With the passing of seven years, Judith and I revisited Peace Bee Farm’s operations and the condition of honey bees across America and around the world. The continuing die-off of bees brought about ample media coverage, resulting in considerable public interest. Media attention helped bring about a number of university studies seeking the cause of CCD. Peace Bee Farm participated in several of these studies. Many concerned individuals responded by purchasing bees and hives. These new beekeepers eagerly sought beekeeping training and guidance. My role shifted over the next years to more involvement in beekeeping training and mentoring. After a few years of training beekeepers in the Mid-South, I was given the opportunity to travel to Africa to train beekeepers in Ethiopia. In some of my African assignments, I taught experienced beekeepers how to transition from traditional hives placed high in tree tops to modern bee hives. Sometimes I trained seasoned African beekeepers in new skills to share with others when they returned to their local villages. At other times I gave farmers their first lessons in beekeeping. These men and women built Kenyan Top Bar Hives at no cost using materials that they gathered locally: wood scraps, sticks, mud, and cow dung. It was always heartwarming to know that the products of the bee hives, honey and beeswax, helped increase the farmers’ incomes and ultimate survivability. Today’s photo: Judith Rutschman and Richard Underhill. See Nature of Conservation on WYPL, Memphis Channel 24, in December.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Bee-Lining in the Ozarks

The Arkansas Beekeepers Association hosted Dr. Tom Seeley of Cornell University at its fall conference in Mountain View, Arkansas. Dr. Seeley shared his research findings based upon years of observation and carefully designed experiments that revealed much about the behavior of honey bee colonies. Much of Dr. Seeley’s research was conducted in Cornell’s Ithaca, New York Arnot Forest, a 4500 acre old-growth forest with ample mature, storm-damaged trees providing natural nesting cavities for feral honey bees. Dr. Seeley employed a technique used by honey hunters of earlier times to locate bee trees holding active honey bee colonies: bee-lining. Dr. Seeley brought a bee-lining box, the small wooden, two-compartment box shown in today’s photo. Between speaking presentations, Dr. Seeley and other interested beekeepers used the bee-lining box to capture foraging worker bees at the Ozark Folk Center’s native plant pollinator garden. At the box, foraging worker bees were fed honey or sugar syrup placed on a small piece of honeycomb. When a bee’s honey crop was full, she was released from the box to fly. The beekeepers watched the bee circle, orienting on the sun, and then fly away in a “bee line” to its hive, likely a hollow tree. Watching the bee silhouetted against the sky provided an accurate direction to the bee tree.

University of Arkansas Extension Apiary Specialist Jon Zawislak painted a red dot on the thorax of a forager as she engorged on honey at the bee-line box. She flew away, and then she returned eight minutes later. Timing the bee’s two-way flight plus the time involved in her dancing and passing off her gathered honey provides an insight into the distance to the bee tree. Employing bee-lining, Dr. Seeley determined that honey bees choose natural hives that are at least 10 feet above the ground, highly visible, well shaded, and with an entrance facing south. Dr. Seeley, by the way, has a bee species named after him: Neocorynurella seeleyiHow cool is that!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Feral Bees and Swarms

Speaking at the Arkansas Beekeepers Association’s fall conference in Mountain View, Arkansas, Dr. Tom Seeley, author of Honeybee Democracy, described his genetics study of feral honeybees collected at Cornell University’s Arnot Forest in 1977 and 2010, The study analyzed honey bees before and after the arrival of parasitic Varroa mites. Surprisingly, colony densities in the forest remained the same after the introduction of the mites. Bees collected in 2010 were, however, the offspring of only a few surviving colonies that repopulated the forest. Finding feral survivor colonies is encouraging news for beekeepers.

Other work by Dr. Seeley defined the mechanisms honeybees employ in swarming. To determine honey bees’ preferences for choosing a nesting site Dr. Seeley used numerous swarm catcher hives. He questioned: How large a cavity? How large an entrance hole? Hive in the sun or shade? Direction hive should face? Can the hive be drafty? Can the hive be damp? Answering these questions help us design effective swarm catcher hives. Bees choose hives according to their ability to correct hive deficiencies. For example, if a hive is drafty, bees will often accept it because they can easily fill drafty cracks with propolis. On the other hand, bees will often reject a hive in the full sun because it is more difficult to cool in the summer. Pixar Studios filmed honey bee swarms moving from their swarm resting site to their permanent hive. Observing individual bees in flight lead to an understanding of how workers guide the swarm. Of great interest was Dr. Seeley’s finding of feral honey bee colonies surviving in the forest while carrying parasitic Varroa mites. Two significant factors seem to support the feral colonies’ survival. First, there is little drifting of forest bees. Next, honey bees in nature prefer a nest cavity of approximately 40 liters, close to that of a single Langstroth hive body. Small cavity hives develop brood nest congestion, leading to swarming. Swarming interrupts Varroa mite reproduction. Today’s photo: Ozark Mountain maples.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Savannah, Tennessee

I spent a few most interesting fall days at Savannah, Tennessee with friends who, like me, devote much time studying history and honey bees. We combined our interests while visiting historic areas in the Tennessee River Valley. Jerry Hayes, Shirley Murphy, and I walked the fields and woods of Shiloh National Military Park,, the site of the horrific 1862 Civil War battle. Here, on the battlefield grounds we retraced the steps of ancestors who fought on both sides of the conflict. Shown in today’s photo are some of the 62 Confederate artillery pieces concentrated in Duncan Field, bearing down on the Sunken Road and Hornet’s Nest. We also visited other historic sites in the surrounding area, including the city of Savannah, where General U. S. Grant maintained his headquarters at the Cherry Mansion. Close by on Savannah’s Main Street the Tennessee River Museum,, offers detailed views of the area’s Native American Mississipian culture, the U. S. Army’s forced removal of the Cherokee Nation in a march through Savannah known as the Trail of Tears. The museum also depicts pioneer life in the Tennessee River Valley.

Jerry and I visited Shirley’s well-tended bee hives before Jerry’s presentation at a meeting of the Savannah Area Beekeepers Association. Jerry, who has made a career of honey bee health issues, discussed current research into controlling Varroa mites and the viruses that they vector. He explained that some basic research that Monsanto is conducting with RNA interference technology, RNAi, offers promise. Jerry writes the popular “Classroom” section of the American Bee Journal. He conducted a live version of The Classroom for the Arkansas Beekeepers Association. Shirley is the charter president of the Savannah Area Beekeepers Association, an active group of Tennessee River Valley beekeepers. Shirley and I worked together, sharing our best honey bee genetic stock to breed locally adapted queens. Honey bee health improvement involves the efforts of devoted beekeepers in bee yards and researchers in labs. History surrounds us.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Bee Hive Cut-out

Beekeepers Jim Metrailer, Jeremy Bemis, and I removed a colony of honey bees from the wall of a building and transferred the combs and bees into a Kenyan Top Bar Hive. Bees often find the empty space between the inner and outer walls of buildings as suitable cavities for nesting. Indeed, wall spaces are quite similar to cavities in hollow trees, the natural home of honey bees. We exposed the combs of the colony’s nest by removing the building’s weather boards as shown in today’s photo. The entrance into the bees’ hive, a small opening between the removed boards and the remaining boards on the right, was coated with propolis. This sticky substance, with antibacterial and antifungal properties, helps protect the hive from harmful pathogens. One can often identify a bee tree, a damaged tree with a hollow cavity housing a feral honey bee colony, by a dark, shiny propolis stain surrounding a knot hole where the bees enter the tree. The same shiny stain can also be found where bees enter the walls of a building. Honey bees varnish their hive with propolis, a substance that they gather from the gums and saps of trees. The layer of propolis is particularly evident on the rough-hewn weather boards. When we build bee hives, rough interior surfaces encourage the bees to build-up propolis on the wood to protect the hive. The somewhat pungent odor of propolis surely adds to each hive’s distinct odor.

When we cut the combs out of the wall of the building, we sorted the combs according to their use by the bees. Some held brood; some pollen and bee bread; some held stores of honey. Using strings, we tied the combs onto hive top bars and placed them in the new hive. The Top Bar Hives was arranged as a natural bee hive with the brood near the entrance surrounded by pollen and bee bread. Combs of stored honey were placed in the rear of the hive.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Honey Harvest

Harvesting honey has always been known as “robbing.” Bees make honey and people take it from them. Honey bees are unique creatures. They are the only insects in the temperate zone that stay alive and active throughout the year. They do this by making and storing a high-energy food for the winter: honey. The industrious honey bee makes honey from the nectar of flowering plants through the spring, summer, and fall. They continue to collect nectar as long as flowers are blooming. Then, during the dead of winter, bees cluster inside their hive and eat their stored honey for nutrition and to generate heat. A healthy bee hive produces about 500 pounds of honey per year, and it eats at least 90 percent of that honey. Prudent beekeepers can rob the excess 10 percent. However, if they get too greedy, the colony will die from starvation. Beekeepers share the experience of those who have kept bees in the past to learn how much honey they can safely rob. The honey harvest is a rewarding time for the beekeeper. Harvesting a surplus of honey means that the beekeeper has been successful in managing a large colony for the year. Some individuals have been tempted by the promise of a bee hive that automatically serves honey without the work of beekeeping. However, much of the joy of beekeeping results from actually opening the hive and interacting with the bees on their terms. Further, a bee hive with an automatic honey harvesting feature would likely rob too much of the colony’s necessary winter food, leading to colony starvation.

In today’s photo, taken in Larry Kichler’s honey house, a freshly harvested frame of honey sits in the mechanical uncapper that will make a series of thin slices through the beeswax cappings to expose the honey for extraction. Larry expresses the joy of managing hives, handling bees, and harvesting honey. He has 50 years of experience keeping bees and producing honey in Kansas and Arkansas.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wrangling Movie Bees

When honey bees swarm, it is truly a fascinating and memorable event. Thousands of bees suddenly exit their hive and fly, circling in what appears to be complete disorder. After a few minutes, the bees converge in a loose ball of bees hanging from a nearby structure, often a tree limb. Honey bees festoon, or “hold hands,” with each other in the swarm; each bee’s six limbs is equipped with two hooks, well suited to grasp a tree limb or another bee’s hooks. The swarm remains in this unsupported state for a few hours or, sometimes, for a few days while scout worker bees search for a suitable cavity to serve as a permanent home for bees. Once a desirable cavity is found, the bees fly in mass to their new nest.

I had the pleasure of assisting Jeremy and Emily Bemis set-up a scene involving swarming honey bees for filming on a movie set. Jeremy and I opened a strong hive, and Emily spotted the queen. We placed the queen inside a small queen cage and carried it along with the hive and bees to the movie set, leaving behind one hive body to accept returning foragers. We wired the caged queen onto a cedar tree limb selected for the appropriate camera shot. Next, we shook and brushed all of the bees onto the queen cage. Natural swarms are held together by the pheromones of the queen and some of the workers. Soon, the bees festooned into a typical swarm shape around the caged queen. To keep the bees hydrated and lessen their flying, we periodically sprayed the man-made swarm with sugar water syrup. The bees performed their part in the movie as directed. Afterward, we returned the bees to their hive by placing the caged queen inside the hive and brushing in a large number of workers as well. Workers fanned their Nasanov gland pheromones to call the remaining bees. The photogenic bees returned home after dark.