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.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Sustaining Wild Bees

Mark Bittman appears in a four-minute video segment titled “What’s the Buzz About Wild Bees?” with University of California, Berkley conservation biologist Claire Kremen, http://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000003822292/whats-the-buzz-about-wild-bees.html?i. The author and professor discuss honey bees and native bees and other pollinators. They also talk about the state of modern agriculture as they visit Full Belly Farm in Gwenda, California, a model for sustainable agriculture, where crops are grown to attract and support pollinators. Bittman explains, “Without bees our grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and dinner tables would be pretty barren.” Kremen defines pollinators as any animals that visit a flower and transfer the pollen from the male parts to the female parts of the flower or from flower to flower. Fertilization allows plants to produce seeds and fruit. Kremen states that California imports 1.5 million colonies of honey bees to pollinate the state’s biggest export, almonds. She mentions that California farmers import honey bees when while there are 100 to 150 species of native bees that also pollinate crops. Bittman says that just as we have become dependent upon monoculture crops we have become dependent upon a “monopollinator,” the honey bee. Colony Collapse Disorder has adversely affected honey bees in agricultural areas where bees are exposed to pesticides in crop fields. Bees imported for pollination service live on a restricted diet. Full Belly Farm is designed to supply plants to provide blooms for bees throughout the growing season.

Claire Kremen, a McArthur Fellow, https://www.macfound.org/fellows/830/, received the prestigious award in 2007 when she was recognized for her studies of the behavior of bees and other natural pollinators and their critical role in the global human food supply. Kremen’s studies reveal that the ability of native bees to adequately pollinate farm crops is dependent upon their access to natural habitats. She points out the importance of restoring and protecting natural habitats on farms, a departure from the monocultural agriculture found on many large farms. Today’s photo: butterflies and sweat bees forage basil in my garden.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Suspicious Bee Hives

Honey bees don’t care what their hive looks like. They don’t mind what color it is painted or whether it is painted at all. Their only concern is that the hive is of sufficient size, dry, and ventilated. I helped a beekeeper assess the bee hives shown in today’s photo. The owner of the hives, wanting to make a sale, said that the hives held plenty of bees. At a distance, it appeared that indeed was the case. With afternoon temperatures around 100 degrees, bees covered the face of many of the 31 hives we inspected. This is quite normal behavior; when it’s hot, bees regulate the hive temperature by extending the distance between bees, moving bees outside the hive, bringing in water for evaporative cooling while fanning a breeze through the hive with their wings. These hives, however, were choked by honey stored in all available cells, poor ventilation, and too little capacity. Bee hives need the equivalent of two deep brood boxes, or three medium boxes, for adequate brood nest expansion and food stores for the brood. These hives had less volume and no honey supers to accommodate the ample nectar available. It appeared that all of the colonies had swarmed, leaving behind a small remnant of the original bee population.

Strong, healthy honey bee colonies in full-size managed bee hives often contain 60,000 or more bees during the summer. Most of these hives held many fewer bees. Many of the hives’ brood nest boxes contained only three frames with bees and seven new frames of undrawn comb. Were these empty frames recent replacements for diseased frames? The available drawn comb frames were completely honey bound with no place for the queens to lay eggs. While the worn, ill-fitting hive equipment could easily be replaced, the condition of the hives made one question if the colonies carried American foulbrood, a highly contagious, spore-forming bacterial infection. Questionable hives pose too great a risk to bring into a healthy bee yard.