Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Drone Questions

Swiss reader, Alexandra, writes a number of pertinent questions about drone bees and their role in honey bee reproduction. She asks, “How does a queen find drones for mating? Will they hang out near her hive until she comes out on her mating flight? Is the mating going on while in the air? Are these drones from various hives, or just from one? Does any mating occur with her own drones, who genetically would be her own children? Do drones die after mating? What are the drones doing all day before it’s time for mating flights? Why are drone eggs infertile? Why do workers need to be fertile? And, lastly, what happens if the bees have to stay home a few days, like in stormy weather?”

I’ll try to answer: Drones from many hives fly to spaces called drone concentration areas, DCAs, where they mate with queen bees in flight. Young queen bees fly to DCAs, usually more distant than ones occupied by drones from her own hive, making it unlikely for queens to mate with genetically similar hive mates. This helps prevent inbreeding, which results in inferior offspring. In the DCAs, drones seek flying queens by sight and pheromones. Drones die in the act of mating; usually more than a dozen mate with a queen. Alexandra questions the drones’ activity outside of their mating flights. Drones conduct no work; they eat honey and rest inside the hive. Workers and queens develop from fertile eggs, and drones develop from infertile eggs in a scheme, common among stinging insects, known as parthenogenesis. When queens make their mating flights, over a day or two, they collect a life-time’s supply of sperm from drones. The queens then self-fertilize each egg that they lay that is to become a worker or queen. If the queen lays an egg without fertilizing, it becomes a drone. Inclement weather can delay mating flights. Long delays result in sterile queens, like the drone-layer shown in today’s photo.
--Richard

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Questions from Switzerland

Alexandra, an interested reader of The Peace Bee Farmer, writes several questions from her home in Switzerland. Here are some of her questions and my attempts at answering: “Foremost, how can a bee colony survive when humans steal their honey?” Alexandra, this question is at the crux of beekeeping. The bees will starve if the beekeeper robs too much of the colony’s stored honey. We can’t judge how severe a winter will be; so, when harvesting, we have to rely on the shared experience of those who have kept bees in this local area. And, most importantly, we must not be too greedy! Next, “I suppose the quality of honey varies. Does this show?” Honey varies throughout the year, and it varies from year to year. The product that we harvest changes according to the flowers that come into bloom. Different times of the year and different weather conditions will dictate which flowers are available for the bees to forage for nectar to make into honey. Typically, spring and summer flowers produce light-colored honeys with mild fragrance and taste. Honey derived from trees are generally darker in color and more robust in flavor. In the Mid-South of the US, fall honeys are much stronger in flavor and aroma.

Alexandra asks how nutrition affects honey bee immune systems. This is a topic of intense study. Honey bee nutrition greatly affects the health of the bees. This topic was discussed by Dr. Dewey Caron at the Arkansas Beekeepers Association’s conference in Little Rock. Dr. Caron explained that optimal nutrition boosts the bees’ immune system and boosts their detoxifying enzymes. Optimal nutrition often results from the bees having access to a great diversity of flowering plants that bloom throughout the spring, summer, and fall months. One of the ways that we can help the bees and the other native pollinators is to provide plants that bloom throughout the seasons. Today’s photo shows a honey bee foraging a late-season rose in Idaho’s Treasure Valley.
--Richard

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Arkansas Honey Festival

One thousand people gathered in Little Rock on a delightful early fall day for the third annual Arkansas Honey Festival. Pleasant weather made for enjoyable events both indoors and out. The event, held at Bemis Honey Bee Farm, featured a full day of classroom, honey house, and bee yard presentations. I was invited to make a classroom presentation on the control of parasitic Varroa mites. I took the group of interested beekeepers into the bee yard where we sampled hives for Varroa mites. We used two methods of sampling, a powdered sugar roll and an alcohol wash. The group noted that the alcohol wash was the more accurate method of determining the bees’ mite load when both methods were used on the same hive. Other presenters described how to properly label honey, how to build bee-friendly gardens, the production of bee hive products other than honey, and marketing of bee hive products. The new Veterinary Feed Directive was described to beekeepers and veterinarians present. In the honey house, eager groups attended sessions on making mead, extracting honey, making creamed honey, and cooking with honey. Bee yard events involved demonstrations on handling bee hive pests and diseases, fall bee hive management, and checks made by the state’s apiary inspectors. I gave a presentation on top bar hive beekeeping. In today’s photo, I demonstrate handling a Kenyan top bar hive brood comb.

The Arkansas Honey Festival was an enjoyable social event on top of being an educational opportunity. Beekeepers and folks simply interested in bees enjoyed themselves at the bee farm. Live music played while people shopped with vendors and at the bee equipment store. I dined at the food truck. Children jumped in a bounce house and visited farm animals in a petting area. Some got their faces painted, and many enjoyed riding about the farm on a tractor-pulled hay wagon. The people’s choice honey show allowed the public to taste honey entries from diverse nectar sources from throughout the state.
--Richard

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Resistance to Antibiotics

For decades, beekeepers have used antibiotics in the control of certain honey bee diseases, particularly European foulbrood and Nosema disease. While antibiotics can be effective drugs, their misuse can lead to the development of strains of disease that are resistant to the medications. Resistance has occurred as well in diseases of humans and livestock. American foulbrood, AFB, a honey bee brood bacterial infection, is often resistant to antibiotics. The use of antibiotics is not effective for controlling AFB, as they only suppress the disease-causing bacterium; they don’t kill it. To limit the use of antibiotics administered to animals, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has recently enacted a Veterinary Food Directive. This action will greatly restrict the use of antibiotics administered to bee hives. Unfortunately, the unavailability to obtain the antibiotic, Terramycin, will likely lead to the spread of European foulbrood, the fastest spreading honey bee brood disease.

A report the Idaho Statesman, http://www.idahostatesman.com/news/nation-world/health-and-medicine/article172080432.html, describes research being conducted at the University of Idaho. Researchers are trying to determine the mechanisms of bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics. Such a resistance is a problem for treating disease anytime antibiotics are used in humans, livestock, and even in honey bee colonies. The results, published in Nature, focus on plasmids, tiny pieces of DNA that can be transferred between bacteria cells. Plasmids transfer traits, such as resistance to antibiotic drugs, from one bacterium to another. Surprisingly, this can occur in as little as a few minutes. Resistance to antibiotics also occurs when bacteria chromosomes mutate. Interestingly, plasmids can produce resistance to multiple antibiotics at once. Research team leader, Dr. Eva Top, describes how we are affecting bacteria: “They’re picking up a lot of antibiotic resistance genes and spreading them because of our habits of using so many antibiotics.” Today’s photo: migratory hives in Idaho’s Treasure Valley, an area of diverse agricultural crops. Many crops are in bloom, and honey bee colonies are collecting nectar and building up honey stores after travelling for pollination service.
--Richard

Sunday, September 3, 2017

New Findings on Queen Bees

Queen bees and worker bees develop from fertilized eggs, and drone bees develop from nonfertilized eggs. Queens develop from eggs laid in downward facing queen cell cups similar to the one on the side of a top bar hive comb (photo by Melissa Bridgman). A New York Times piece, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/31/science/honeybees-queens.html?,  describes recently published research from PLOS Genetics identifying a newly-identified mechanism involved in the development of queen bees. It has long been known that queen bee development is associated with diet. Worker bees feed developing queen bees and worker bees a different diet even though they both develop from the same fertilized eggs. The larvae of both queens and workers are fed an enriched food, royal jelly, in the first day of larval development. Worker larvae are then fed secretions workers produce from “bee bread,” a food consisting of fermenting pollen and honey. Queen larvae, however, continue to receive royal jelly through their larval development and throughout their life.

The new research finds that caste development, the differentiation of queens, which have a complete reproductive system, from workers, that are sterile, uses plant-based small molecules called microRNA. The study’s co-author, Dr. Chen-Yu Zhang explains, “The royal jelly and plant microRNA work together to affect caste formation.” It now appears that the plant-based molecules suppress the workers’ ovary development. This research expands our understanding of queen bee caste differentiation. It also reflects the interdependence of plants and honey bees. Flowering plants and bees have been co-evolving for the past 100 million years. Plants and bees share microRNA, a plant substance that affects bee development and a bee substance that is important in the development of certain flowers. Dr. Zhang explains that microRNA from bees can make flowers larger and more colorful. The authors relate that these microRNA molecules affect species in different kingdoms, such as plants and insects or plants and humans. Other experts reacting to the report expect that microRNA will emerge as a major area of research in human medicine.
--Richard

Friday, September 1, 2017

Sampling Varroa Mites

Varroa mites are the greatest pest killer of honey bees. If left unchecked, these parasites will kill a colony of bees in about 18 months. It is, therefore, necessary for beekeepers to be aware of the mite load that a hive carries and to take corrective action when mite numbers exceed critical levels. Varroa mites live in bee hives, and they reproduce in the sealed brood cells of the pupal stage of honey bee brood. Mite levels typically peak in late summer at the time that queen bees slow their rate of egg laying. Excessive numbers of Varroa mites in the hive often lead to colony death. Mites weaken individual bees by sucking the bee’s blood, known as hemolymph. When a mite pierces the exoskeleton of a honey bee, it passes numerous viruses to the bee. At least 15 Varroa-vectored viruses have been identified. Varroa mites and the viruses that they transmit lessen the life span of the bees, leading to smaller winter colony clusters. These smaller clusters are often unable to generate enough heat to survive the winter.

Some individuals ignore the threat of parasitic mites and lose their bee. Others attempt to kill the mites with harsh chemical treatments. They are usually successful in reducing the colony mite loads, however, repeated use of harsh chemicals leads to populations of mites that are resistant to the chemicals. Beekeepers who take a judicious approach to controlling parasitic mites develop their own Integrated Pest Management program that involves mite sampling and treatments as necessary. The Honey Bee Health Coalition offers Tools for Varroa Management: A Guide to Effective Varroa Sampling & Control as a free document. The guide and video demonstrations of Varroa control techniques may be downloaded from http://honeybeehealthcoalition.org/varroa/. There are several methods of sampling a bee hive’s mite levels, including powdered sugar rolls and alcohol rolls. In today’s photo, Rita is counting the number of Varroa mites on 300 bees using a simple alcohol roll test.
--Richard

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Sun's Corona

Photographer, Mike Worthy, captured this picture of the sun at total eclipse showing the sun’s corona, the atmosphere of the sun. See NASA’s website: https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/sun. The photo was taken August 21, 2017 at Marshall County, Kentucky. Thank you, Mike!
--Richard

Beekeepers Observe an Eclipse

An eclipse of the sun is a rare event. A total eclipse passed across the entire United States on August 21, 2017, the first such occurrence in nearly 100 years. Rita and I travelled to Marshall County, Kentucky to meet beekeeping friends, Shirley Murphy and Mike Worthy along the path of the moon’s totally shadowing the earth. The trip was worthwhile. The experience of observing a total eclipse is significantly different from witnessing the same event a short distance away in the much wider area of partial eclipse. The 70-mile-wide area of total coverage of the moon’s shadow affords researchers and photographers an opportunity to observe the sun’s structure in rare detail. It also provides a rare and awe-inspiring spectacle of nature for anyone in place. Mike Worthy, an accomplished photographer and amateur astronomer, photographed the eclipse. Here is Mike’s photo of the sun at total eclipse, showing solar prominences, red streams of hot gasses looping hundreds of thousands of miles out into the sun’s outer atmosphere. See NASA’s website for a description of solar prominences: https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/what-is-a-solar-prominence.

As the moon crossed in front of the sun, the sky slowly darkened. Within a few minutes of total eclipse the air cooled and colors shifted. August lawns turned a brighter green; Mike’s white car turned silvery gray. When the moon finally covered the sun, the sky abruptly darkened. The only light showing was an orange glow in the horizons. Planets and mosquitoes appeared. Song birds called, and crickets chirped. Beekeepers questioned how honey bees would react to light conditions darkening to nighttime at mid-day. Alert beekeeper, Brent Ferguson, along with three others in his bee yard in central Arkansas in the area of partial eclipse, watched the bee hives for any change in the bees’ behavior. There was no observed change in behavior. Did the foraging bees change their navigation from solar guidance to ultraviolet, magnetic, or odors? Eclipses are rare; honey bees are resilient and capable of operating in rapidly changing conditions.
--Richard

Friday, July 28, 2017

Water for the Bee Hive

Honey bee workers forage for four things that they bring into the bee hive: nectar, pollen, propolis, and water. Nectar is the sugary secretion of flowers that bees convert into honey. Pollen, also a product of flowers, is a necessary component of bee food that contains protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Propolis is a sticky substance that bees gather from the saps and gums of trees. It is the “bee glue” that honey bees use to seal cracks and openings in the bee hive, and, due to its antimicrobial properties, protect the hive from pathogens. Water is an important part of the life of a honey bee colony. Bees require water for metabolic processes; they use water to dilute stored honey for consumption in the hive; and they use water to help cool the hive. Honey bees are quite adept at regulating the environment inside the bee hive. Whenever there is brood in the hive, which is most of the year, the bees regulate the hive temperature to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Bees must cool the hive in the summer. They do this in part by fanning their wings across droplets of water. With July temperatures above 95 degrees, the bees are foraging heavily for water.

A bee hive consumes lots of water. It is important for the beekeeper to ensure a reliable source of water for all bee yards. Unless an apiary is located near a natural body of water, like a lake or stream, artificial water sources should be provided. Because scout bees share the flavor of water that they find, bees prefer water with a taste. Bees will readily forage from pet or livestock watering containers.  Bees also like to collect water from swimming pools; and, for this reason, beekeepers need to provide an attractive water source close to urban hives as part of their Good Neighbor efforts. In today’s photo, honey bees float on duckweed and water lilies in my goldfish ponds to collect water.
--Richard

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

GMO Crops and Bees

New technologies are, rightfully, viewed with skepticism. One of our blog readers asks, “Is there any effect of transgenic crops on bees?” The use of genetic engineering involves transgenic material, a portion of one plant or animal, being inserted into another organism. The resulting plant or animal is described as being a “genetically modified organism,” or GMO. In the case of crops, the purpose of the transfer of genetic material is to produce a new crop with desired traits. A number of crops are regularly produced using transgenic technologies include corn, rice, soybean, cotton, and rapeseed. Some GMO crops, especially soybean, cotton, and canola (rapeseed), are regularly foraged by honey bees. Careful study continues to determine any effect that the planting of GMO crops that are food sources for honey bees will have on the health of the bees and the safety of the honey that the bees produce.

Currently, there are two principal uses of GMO technology used to produce agricultural crops. The first employs Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) genes to produce a toxin in crop plants as a means of controlling insect pests. The second GMO technology in common usage is designed to control crop weeds. The herbicide glyphosate, known as Roundup, is in widespread use to control broad-leaf weeds and grasses. Genetically modified corn, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, and cotton are resistant to glyphosate. The herbicide can be sprayed over the genetically modified, glyphosate-resistant crop plants and weeds, killing only the weeds. Neither Bt toxin nor glyphosate-resistant GMO technologies appear to be harmful to honey bees and other pollinators, nor do they contaminate honey. The use of glyphosate-resistant technology does have a negative effect on bees and insect pollinators when it destroys the weedy field margins that previously provided food and habitat for these insects. Today’s photo shows a GMO soybean field. Glyphosate herbicide killed the weeds and grass in the crop area and along the field margin, leaving soybean plants growing without competition.
--Richard

Friday, May 19, 2017

Reversing the Bee Hive

Throughout the spring, healthy honey bee colonies rapidly increase in population. This occurs as flowering plants are making nectar and pollen significantly more abundant. Both are collected by foraging worker bees and welcomed into the hive. The pollen is stored in close proximity to the brood nest where the queen is laying eggs and the workers are feeding and tending to the developing brood. The nectar, which will be converted into honey, is stored in the hive area outside the brood nest beyond the surrounding pollen. However, if there is not enough free honeycomb cells available, the bees will store the nectar in the brood nest. When this happens, beekeepers describe the hive as being “honey bound.” A serious hive problem results because the queen is left with no place to lay eggs. Prolific queens need at least 1500 empty cells per day to lay the eqqs necessary to sustain the colony’s population. As the brood nest becomes congested with nectar and honey, the colony starts making preparations for swarming. It is important for beekeepers to check for brood nest congestion and to take corrective action.

Honey bees cluster together and generate heat during cold weather. It is common for the cluster of bees to gradually move upward in the hive over the winter months. In the spring, beekeepers need to determine the position of the brood nest and the cluster of bees. Some colonies will move back down into the lower portion of the hive during the spring, but it is common for bees to remain in the upper half of the hive. This has the effect of the bees living in a hive of one-half its normal volume. Reversing the position of the hive bodies gives the colony greater capacity in the brood nest, providing cells for the queen to lay eggs. This is an important beekeeping measure in swarm suppression. Today’s photo: a queen bee on a honey-bound frame with capped honey, liquid honey, and pupa-stage brood.
--Richard

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Swarm Season

Healthy honey bee colonies swarm. Swarming is the honey bee’s way of reproducing on a colony-wide basis. Honey bees typically swarm in the spring, and this season has been exceptionally “swarmy.” The Mid-South experienced a warm winter, and springtime weather arrived early. Warm weather and frequent rains brought plenty of wildflowers into bloom. Mild weather allowed the bees to take advantage of red maple and other early-blooming plants. Early-season pollen flows stimulated the queens to rapidly increase egg-laying in late winter and spring. Unless beekeepers expand the capacity of their hives in the spring by rearranging hive bodies and adding extra boxes of frames, hives tend to get congested with honey. Brood nest congestion, where the queen doesn’t have adequate numbers of cells to lay eggs, leads to swarming.

Beekeepers don’t like for their hives to swarm. The smaller resulting colonies don’t have enough bees to produce a surplus of honey. The effect of a hive’s swarming is that this year’s honey crop just flew away! However, beekeepers are often able to capture swarms of bees where they rest, often on a tree limb or structure like the wall of a house, before they fly away to a permanent nesting location. These captured bee colonies make for good replacements of winter hive losses. Captured swarms are particularly useful because the bees are especially capable of drawing out beeswax honeycombs. If the beekeeper feeds sugar syrup to a newly hived swarm, it will rapidly fill the hive with honeycombs. Captured bee swarms are a source of genetic diversity, and they may bring in desirable traits. Beekeepers should evaluate their swarm colonies and replace the queen if the bees show undesirable traits, such as excessive defensiveness. Today’s photo: young workers make orientation flights at the entrance to a hive of swarming bees captured in early April. Swarm catching can be quite exciting. A beekeeping friend, an avid outdoorsman, proclaims that he would rather catch a swarm of bees than a five-pound bass!
--Richard

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