Saturday, July 9, 2016

Searcy: Bee City USA

Speaking to one of Arkansas’s garden clubs, I became keenly aware of the environmental stresses our honey bees face. I mentioned to the group that gardeners and beekeepers share a close relationship just as flowers and bees share a close relationship. Flowering plants depend upon bees for reproduction; bees depend on flowers for food. The mere existence of each is dependent upon the other. Bees and native pollinators are important to us, and they have the same requirements as humans: a dry house, food, water, and an environment free of toxins. An agricultural state, much of Arkansas is depicted by miles and miles of monocultural plantings of a few agricultural crops: cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and sorghum. Today’s industrial agriculture involving the complete destruction of weedy forage plants and heavy usage of pesticides make these row crop areas a harsh environment for bees and pollinators. Eastern Arkansas, one of the nation’s principal honey producing regions, is now one of the most threatened for honey bees. Of particular concern to beekeepers is the heavy use of insecticides and fungicides applied to soybeans, cotton, corn, and sorghum.

Beekeepers play an important role of protecting both the honey bees and native pollinators. While most of the pollinators are bees and other insects—fragile creatures with no voice—they are important to us as they play an essential role in providing one third of our human food supply. They rely upon environmentally aware and concerned gardeners, farmers, extension agents, golf course managers, and beekeepers. The gardeners were eager to design their plantings as pollinator gardens. Beekeeper Alan Isom and 45 enthusiastic citizens have been instrumental in getting the City of Searcy and White County, Arkansas designated as a Pollinator Friendly Community. See The city celebrated their first-in-the-state effort at Searcy’s City Hall. Congratulations to our friends in White County! Other communities can explore how to protect pollinators and receive recognition for the effort at These Arkansas strawberries require healthy pollinators.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Honey Bee Secondary Swarms

A Little Rock beekeeper captured a swarm and hived it in his Kenyan Top Bar Hive. Ten days later he checked on the bees and found the sizeable colony building combs and filling them with pollen and honey. The bees were gentle and their behavior was normal. Carefully inspecting the combs, the beekeeper found no eggs or larvae, however, he located a small queen in the hive. It is likely that the beekeeper captured a secondary or “after swarm,” a swarm emitted after a primary swarm. Beekeepers across the Mid-South have seen many primary and secondary swarms this year. The above normal number of swarms may largely result from this spring’s wet weather that encouraged profuse blooming of plants like the invasive privet shown being visited by a carpenter bee in today’s photo. Privet nectar fills brood nest cells needed for egg laying; this congestion leads to swarming.

As a honey bee colony prepares to swarm, it typically produces a number of queen cells. Then, when the colony divides and swarms, the old queen leaves with roughly half of the bees. The original hive is usually left with a sealed queen cell for a queen to emerge, mate, and remain in the hive. If the hive emits one or more secondary swarms, they will contain virgin queens. All virgin queens need five or six days to mature after emerging as adults before their mating flights and another five or six days of further ovary development afterward before they begin laying eggs. A secondary swarm’s virgin queen will not be able to lay eggs as quickly as a primary swarm’s queen. After a secondary swarm moves into its new hive, its virgin queen must make mating flights before she can begin laying eggs. Thus, there will be a couple of weeks delay before egg laying begins in the new hive. Throughout this time the virgin queen emits pheromones that organize the colony in a similar fashion to mature, mated queens.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Swarm Season

Honey bees and beekeepers are at cross purposes when it comes to swarming. Bees readily swarm when conditions are right. For them, swarming is reproduction on a colony-wide basis. It means expanding their range, increasing their number of colonies, finding suitable new nesting sites, and eventually abandoning old nests and combs in decaying tree cavities. Swarming also breaks the brood cycle, helping to reduce the growth of Varroa mites in both old and new colonies. Beekeepers, on the other hand, usually try to reduce swarming, which often means the loss of a year’s honey production or pollination service. Honey bee colonies in the temperate zone typically expand their population in the spring and then divide their colony to form a second colony which flies away as a swarm. The act of swarming is risky for the bees; only a few swarms, maybe one in five, find a suitable permanent nest and survive for several years after leaving the parent colony’s nest cavity. Also, since the old colony must produce a new queen, there is the possibility that the requeening of the original hive may not succeed. If the old colony is not successful in requeening, it will rapidly die.

Collecting honey bee swarms is an exciting activity for many beekeepers. I assisted beekeeper Claranne Farris capture and hive a swarm that she encountered on an afternoon walk. The swarm hung on a pecan tree limb 10 feet in the air. Spraying a little sugar water on the swarm calmed the bees while I snipped the branch upon which they clung. After moving the swarm to a new hive, we noticed fanning by half a dozen workers, a good indication that the hive held the queen. Blocking the hive entrance with grass to slow the bees’ escape and adding one frame of open brood borrowed from another managed hive helps hold the swarm in place until they accept their new hive. Today’s photo: Claranne’s swarm resting on a pecan tree limb.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Looking Ahead

Good beekeepers are always thinking six months in advance. When we make our first brief hive inspection in late winter, we check to see if the bees survived the winter. At the same time, we are also checking to see if the colony has the potential to expand into a strong summer colony. If the bees didn’t survive the winter, we protect the combs so that we can fill the hive with a new colony in the spring. When we feed our bees pollen and sugar syrup in the spring, we stimulate the queen to lay eggs and produce a large population of bees to gather an abundance of summer honey or pollinate crops. In the spring, when we reverse our hive bodies and expand the brood nest by rearranging brood frames, not only are we providing space for our queens to lay eggs now, we are also reducing the bees’ desire to swarm later on.

Our bees rely upon us to build their hives. We must plan ahead and build enough hive bodies to accommodate a large colony and enough supers to hold next summer’s honey. Effective beekeepers learn when major nectar flows occur so that they can place the supers on their hives in time to gather a surplus of honey. When we harvest and extract honey, we are also preparing the combs for next year’s honey crop. When we treat our hives for Varroa mites in the fall, we are killing mites at the time and ensuring that we will have a larger population of bees to maintain a warm cluster in the winter. When we provide supplemental feedings in the fall, we are encouraging our queens to extend their egg laying, ensuring that we will have plenty of longer-lived worker bees to produce the brood food for next year’s first brood. Likewise, when we set up our hives for winter, we are actually setting the conditions for finding a healthy colony in the spring.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Warm Winter

We are continuously reminded that the climate is in change. Measurements made by NASA and NOAA revealed that the earth warmed to record levels this past year ( Following this warm year, our Mid-South winter has been so mild that it seems more like an extended fall season. While warm winter weather makes for comfortable days for humans, it potentially leads to starvation of honey bee colonies. Normally, in the winter honey bees remain clustered together for warmth inside their hive and only fly when the outside temperature rises above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This year’s warm temperatures have been the trend through this mild winter. Flying bees search for flowers in bloom to forage for nectar and pollen. Unfortunately, few blooms are available at this time of the year. Flying expends more energy than the bees would require if they remained clustered inside their hives. The result is the bees consume their honey stores faster than in cooler winters. Several area beekeepers have already experienced losing colonies to starvation, which usually peaks in March in the Mid-South. It is a good idea for beekeepers to supply some emergency feeding of sugar to hives that are light in weight at this time.

Today’s photo reveals a colony of bees that died of starvation. You can see that the queen has been laying eggs by the fact that the cluster of bees is gathered around capped cells of pupae. The bees must maintain a 95 degree temperature in the brood area. The bees consume plenty of honey to generate the heat to warm the brood. The fact that the colony died of starvation is readily revealed by the dead bees with their heads downward in the cells. Due to the honey bees’ food-sharing behavior, the entire colony dies at one time as the honey stores in the hive are depleted. Beekeepers need to watch their hives carefully for a few more weeks until flowers spring into bloom.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Pax Vobiscum

I recently completed my tenure presiding over the Arkansas Beekeepers Association. It was a true honor to be entrusted with the leadership of the state’s beekeeping trade association. In this role I had great help. A capable team of committed volunteer leaders from all areas of the state played an important role in planning and conducting the association’s tasks. These leaders, the Officers and Regional Directors of the ABA’s Executive Committee, included James Rhein, Larry Kichler, Britt Bailey, Linda Rhein, Alan Isom, Howard Waddell, Steve Cline, Patrick Edwards, Jeremy Bemis, Howard Hawthorn, Richard Coy, Melissa Mencer, and Jon Zawislak. Each of these individuals assisted in conducting our educational conferences and bee equipment trade shows and assisted roughly 30 local beekeeping associations representing 2000 beekeepers.

Recent years have found me increasingly involved in training and mentoring of beekeepers. I have been conducting beekeeping training classes with Jeremy Bemis at Bemis Honey Bee Farm in Little Rock, Arkansas. We are finding great interest in beekeeping training, especially among the expanding number of new beekeepers. Further, I was honored to be asked to participate in the development of a new beekeeping college located in one of the villages where I trained beekeepers in Africa. My host, Wubishet Adunga, is building the college located at Bonga in the highlands of southwestern Ethiopia. For this project I edited the curriculum for the Apinec Apiculture Technical Vocational and Education Training College. Beekeeping and production of hive products are important for food security in the developing world. The worldwide communications between beekeepers and the efforts being taken to provide training and protect bees and the beekeeping industry is visible in today’s photo. At a meeting of the Eastern Apicultural Society, I noticed a picture of myself inspecting brood in one of my Arkansas bee yards. The picture is on the cover of training manuals published in England by Bee Craft. The Underhills of Peace Bee Farm wish beekeepers and peace-loving people worldwide that peace be with you.

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.