Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Mid-Winter Hive Check

Whenever the winter weather conditions are suitable, beekeepers examine their hives. An extremely mild Mid-South winter brought several warm days with temperatures rising above 50 degrees, allowing bees to fly from their hives and beekeepers to check them. If the temperature is barely above 50 and conditions are windy, one can only open the hives briefly. Extensive exposure can chill and kill brood. If somewhat warmer conditions exist, a more in-depth examination of hives is possible. We experienced several suitable beekeeping days in February. Any hive check involves looking for evidence of an egg-laying queen, ample stores of food, and signs of bee disease. A mid-winter check of hives revealed colonies with rapidly expanding populations. Queens were laying eggs in all hives; and while warm weather allowed the bees to fly and consume lots of honey, all of the hives held adequate food stores.

Hives with lesser populations of bees require particular attention. Examining one weak hive revealed a small population with no worker brood. I found the queen shown in today’s photo surrounded by a retinue of attendant workers constantly stroking her abdomen. However, the queen was damaged; her wings were incomplete. The queen appeared to be afflicted with Deformed Wing Virus, one of more than a dozen viral diseases commonly vectored by parasitic Varroa mites. A queen with deformed wings would have been unable to make her mating flights as a young adult. An unmated queen cannot lay the fertilized eggs needed to produce worker bees or queens. Without these bees, the colony is doomed to collapse. This deformed queen evidently emerged the previous fall. The workers in the hive were long-lived bees produced by this queen’s mother. Deformed Wing Virus affects drones and workers more frequently than queens. It is likely that a female Varroa mite entered the queen cell before it was capped, and then the parasitic mite transferred the virus to the developing queen pupa. Varroa-vectored viral diseases cause the loss of many honey bee colonies.
--Richard

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Pollen Bees

Our managed hives are home to honey bees, but some people think that these industrious creatures should be called “pollen bees.” Of course, honey bees produce honey; but they also spend their lives deeply involved in handling pollen. While bees are collecting pollen from flowers and bringing it back to their hive for food, they are also moving pollen among flowers. Pollen is the male reproductive cells of flowering plants. As honey bees fly, their bodies pick up an electrostatic charge. When the foraging workers encounter flowers, fine grains of pollen adhere to their hairy bodies. As bees move around within a flower and as they move from flower to flower, they unknowingly transfer grains of pollen to the sticky female flower organs, the stamens. This begins the reproduction of the flowering plant. Pollen that the bees carry to the hive provides protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals for the bees’ diet. Once pollen has been combined with honey, a carbohydrate, the bees have a complete diet. The mixture of pollen and honey ferments with microorganisms supplied by the bees to become “bee bread,” the source of bee brood food.

Arkansas’s warm weather in January allowed bees to leave their hives to forage for pollen. Several central Arkansas beekeepers noticed bees returning to the hives with green-colored pollen. Pollen occurs in colors from white to black. Much is yellow or orange in color. Dandelion, like the wildflower being foraged for pollen in today’s photo, is the first reliable source of pollen in mid-winter. Skunk cabbage, a plant that sometimes sprouts through snow-covered ground, is another plant to bloom early in the year. The availability of foraged pollen stimulates the queens to lay eggs. Since queens resumed their egg laying on the winter solstice, December 21, many hives now have considerable brood to feed and protect from chilling. Make sure that your bees have plenty of stored honey. There’s still a long time before nectar and pollen are abundant in April.
--Richard

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Bee Stings

First, honey bees are stinging insects. They have stingers, and their sting is painful. However, honey bees are relatively gentle creatures, and they only sting to protect their hive. The craft of beekeeping involves employing techniques passed down over hundreds, even thousands, of years for handling bees. For example, we know from cave paintings that people have used smoke in ancient times to help control the behavior of bees when we “rob” them of their honey. We consider honey bees as being defensive rather than aggressive in nature. Bees will defend their hive, where they protect their food stores and brood, by stinging intruders, whether they are foreign bees, attacking wasps, hornets, skunks, bears, or humans. The honey bee’s sting is barbed. When we are stung by a honey bee, the barbs hold the sting firmly in our skin. As the bee pulls away, her abdomen is torn apart, a fatal injury for the individual bee. The bee’s sting and death, however, have a concentrating effect in protecting the hive. Left behind on the skin are the sting, venom sac, muscles pumping venom, and glands emitting alarm pheromone. Alerted hive bees readily follow the intruder and add more stings.

Honey bees from other hives are the most common attacker of hives. Guard bees at the hive entrance check bees attempting to enter the hive. Since the bees from each hive have a distinct odor, the guards turn away intruders. If a guard stings an intruding bee, her sting usually pulls out of the victim’s soft exoskeleton without fatally injuring the guard bee. Gentleness in honey bees is an inherited trait, and beekeepers select for bees that are gentle. Helping control the behavior of bees is one of the ways beekeepers serve their communities. Even though beekeepers learn how to safely handle bees, it is important for them to always protect their eyes from stings. Beekeeper Mary Phillips Riddle wears a protective veil while working with the bees.
--Richard