Friday, August 17, 2018

Jon Zawislak


His name is Jon Zawislak; it rhymes with “Zah-FISH-Lock,” but everyone knows him simply as “Jon Z.” Jon’s known by beekeepers across the state of Arkansas and beyond for his engaging beekeeping training regularly accentuated with humor. Jon is an Eastern Apicultural Society Master Beekeeper and Arkansas’ State Extension Apiculturist. In this position, Jon trains beekeepers and conducts research on honey bee health issues. I have encountered numerous beekeeper students of Jon’s classes. They are enthusiastic, and they always feel like they are well-prepared by Jon’s instruction to start their beekeeping adventure. I have participated in some of his research. In one study, Jon searched for parasites that might be preying upon the invasive Small Hive Beetle. Sampling bees, combs, and soil surrounding the bee hives, Jon found on my farm and several other Arkansas sites a parasite attacking these pest beetles. The parasite has the potential of being a biological control of Small Hive Beetles, https://peacebeefarm.blogspot.com/2011/10/are-beetles-vulnerable.html. Jon also participated in a study of the effect of neonicotinoid insecticides on honey bees, https://peacebeefarm.blogspot.com/2015/02/neonics-questioned_12.html. While many wanted to blame the widely-used class of insecticides for causing excessive bee colony losses, Jon made measurements to get an accurate assessment of the effect of the insecticides. It now appears that the neonicotinoids are not the sole cause of the losses, but instead one of several contributing factors. Jon is always available to answer a technical question. When a reader of this blog questioned the mechanism for honey bees’ passing along genetic information, I asked Jon to explain for me, https://peacebeefarm.blogspot.com/2012/09/honey-bee-super-sisters.html. I am particularly grateful for Jon’s participation with the Arkansas Beekeepers Association as an active member of our leadership, https://peacebeefarm.blogspot.com/2015/11/bee-lining-in-ozarks.html.

Jon Zawislak received the prestigious 2018 Roger A. Morse Outstanding Teaching/Extension Service/Regulatory Award at the Eastern Apicultural Society’s conference at Hampton, Virginia. Dr. Morse developed the EAS Master Beekeeper program at Cornell University. Jon provided me the encouragement to complete my EAS Master Beekeeper certification. He is truly an inspiration. Congratulations, Jon Z.
--Richard

Friday, August 10, 2018

Build-Up, Behavior, Brood

After evaluating a honey bee colony’s over-winter survival success, the beekeeper can observe other desirable traits for continuous stock improvement. The speed of a bee colony’s springtime population build-up is determined by the queen’s genetic make-up. It is also affected by the age of the queen and the queen’s successful mating with a large number of drones. Conditions in the environment also affect spring build-up. Favorable weather, producing ample pollen from flowers stimulates the queen to lay eggs. The beekeeper can stimulate the queen in the same manner by feeding pollen substitute in late winter and early spring. A honey bee colony’s behavior is largely dependent upon the queen’s genetics. Excessively defensive behavior can result from inbreeding or Africanized Honey Bee genetics. Drones in the hive’s surrounding area can influence a hive’s behavior if the drones impart defensive genes during queen mating flights. Environmental conditions also affect a honey bee colony’s behavior. A normally gentle colony is likely to become highly defensive if the hive is attacked by skunks at night. The beekeeper’s actions in manipulating the hive greatly affect the bees’ defensive behavior.

A bee hive’s brood pattern should contain large areas of continuous capped cells of pupae with few empty cells. Today’s photo is an example of an excellent brood pattern produced by a prolific queen. However, genetic conditions can negatively affect the brood pattern. Inbreeding results in brood with many empty cells. The bacterial infections, European foulbrood and American foulbrood, also leave brood with many empty cells. An environmental factor affecting brood pattern is the presence of Varroa mite-infested hives in the surrounding area which may spread these parasitic mites, often by workers robbing weak or collapsing hives. In the early spring, it is common for bees to fill brood nest cells needed by the queen for egg laying with nectar. The beekeeper can significantly affect a hive’s brood pattern by rearranging frames to help prevent brood nest congestion during a strong nectar flow.
--Richard

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Evaluating Queen Bees

Striving for continuous stock improvement, beekeepers evaluate the genetic traits of their queen bees to select their best queens as breeding stock. Observing the behavioral characteristics of the bees in a hive reveals its queen’s genetic traits. However, the queen’s genetic make-up is not the only factor involved in what we observe. Environmental conditions and the beekeeper’s actions also affect the honey bee colony. We can observe the bees’ behavioral traits and select for those traits in offspring as long as they are genetically heritable traits. For example, a honey bee’s hoarding instinct is a heritable trait that determines the bee’s intensity of foraging for nectar to make honey. The color, aroma, and flavor of the honey that the bees produce, however, is not genetically controlled by the bees. A bee hive’s honey production does have a genetic basis related to hoarding instinct. Environmental factors, like hours of sunlight, drought, and dearth of flowering plants greatly affect honey production. The beekeeper’s hive management actions greatly affect honey production. Since it takes a large population of bees to produce a surplus of honey, swarm prevention is important. Equally important for honey production is the beekeeper’s timely placement on the hive of honey supers prior to the nectar flow.

When we measure a colony’s over-winter survival success, we see the results of bees not having a genetic propensity for failing due to Nosema disease or tracheal mites. However, environmental factors like mild weather in the winter lead to excessive consumption of stored food. Likewise, old, dark combs left in the bee hive potentially hold environmental toxins and disease spores that adversely affect colony health by shortening the bees’ lifespans. The success or failure of a bee colony to survive the winter depends largely upon how the beekeeper set up the hive in the fall. Did he or she leave plenty of stored honey and provide sufficient hive ventilation? In today’s photo, an attendant worker passes royal jelly to her queen.
--Richard

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Producing Honey Bee Queens

Twenty-four beekeepers attended my queen rearing class at Bemis Honey Bee Farm as part of our continuing beekeeping educational program. The beekeepers expanded their understanding of honey bee biology and bee colony reproduction. They learned the conditions under which bee colonies produce queens, including preparation for swarming. Before a bee colony divides itself and swarms, it produces a new queen to continue reproducing bees in the original hive. The hive conditions that lead to swarming are the same as beekeepers create to encourage bees to produce queens. The beekeepers learned the importance of record keeping and colony evaluation in producing high quality queens. By carefully observing a bee hive’s characteristics, beekeepers evaluate the queen’s traits. They then select hives with desirable traits to become “drone mother hives” which produce high-quality drones to mate with virgin queens. Hives that the beekeeper determines to be the best-of-the-best are designated as “queen mother hives” producing larvae to develop into high-quality queen bees. The beekeepers learned that to produce these high-quality queens three conditions are necessary: First, we must select from parent queens with good genetic traits; next, the queens must have good nutrition throughout their development; and finally, the virgin queen must successfully mate with a large number of high-quality drones. The beekeepers learned the actions to take to develop a queen-rearing program for continuous stock improvement.

The beekeepers followed the procedures involved in producing queen bees using the Doolittle Method of Queen Production, the method most widely used for producing queens throughout the beekeeping industry. G. M. Doolittle developed the techniques over one hundred years ago. Two beekeeper students employ the Doolittle Method in today’s photo. They are grafting tiny day-old larvae into queen cell cups that they will place into hives filled with workers selected for their ability to produce queens. The beekeepers move the grafted cells from a “cell starter hive” and then to a “cell finisher hive” and finally to a “queen mating nucleus hive.”
--Richard

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Bumblebees' Nest

Suitable nesting places are in great demand for small creatures. A birdhouse, built by a friend using old bee hive lumber, hangs on the porch railing of our home. Each year there is considerable competition between finches, wrens, bluebirds, and sparrows for the use of this nesting box. This spring, sparrows won the battle and reared a clutch of baby birds. After the fledgling birds left the nest, bumblebees moved in. Typically, bumblebees live underground in abandoned mouse nests. Unlike honey bees, which have colonies containing thousands of members, bumblebees establish small colonies of several dozen bees. Bumblebees collect nectar and pollen from flowers, and inside the bumblebees’ nest they build small honey pots to hold their food stores. Bumblebees, like honey bees, are gentle insects; however, they both defend their nests from intruders by stinging. When gray squirrels started gnawing at the entrance to the bumblebee colony’s birdhouse home, the bees came out in force. Bumblebees attacked and chased all squirrels and songbirds in the vicinity. They also chased humans from the area. Protected by my beekeeper’s protective veil and gloves, I removed the bumblebee nest from the birdhouse. The disturbed bumblebees persisted in continuing their attempt to drive me away. While bumblebees ignore the touch of a bare hand while they are foraging on flowers, one would surely not want to handle their nest without protective gear!

A trap-door arrangement on the birdhouse allowed me to remove the sparrows’ nest intact. The bumblebee nest filled a vacancy in the center of the soft bird nest material. Today’s photo shows the neat wax honey pots and pollen stores. Bumblebees have longer tongues than honey bees; thus they are able to forage on flowers with deeper, bell-shaped coronas. They carry pollen in pollen baskets on their hind legs. They have a stinger without barbs. Bumblebees are important pollinators of crops and wildflowers, but they don’t produce a surplus of harvestable honey. They are used to pollinate tomatoes grown in greenhouses.
--Richard

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Defensive Honey Bees

Honey bees are typically gentle in nature. Unless a bee is mashed, as if stepped upon by bare feet, she will not sting. Honey bees do, however, sting to protect their hive. Beekeepers consider the honey bee’s behavior as “defensive.” Honey bees are not aggressive in nature. Honey bees do not attack or seek people to sting. However, any bee colony can be defensive at times. Defensiveness can result from the bees’ genetics or from environmental factors. Africanized honey bees are typically more defensive than European races of bees. Bees may pick up defensive genes from the various drones that virgin queens mate with when colonies replace their queen through supersedure, swarming, or emergency queen production.

Environmental conditions can make any colony defensive. Any time that a hive is under attack, guard bees spread alarm pheromone through the hive, making the bees considerably more defensive. Hive attacks can come from large mammals, like bears that destroy the hive, or from small mammals, like raccoons or skunks. Skunks particularly affect the behavior of the bees because the nocturnal mammals may attack bee hives for hours on end. Skunks eat bees, and they scratch at the hive entrance with their claws to entice the guard bees out of the hive. With a skunk attack, the bee hive is filled with alarm pheromone, and the bees are highly disturbed. Signs of skunk attacks on bee hives include hive scratch marks, like on this blue-colored landing board, or pellets of chewed bee exoskeletons on the ground near bee hives. Another sign that a skunk is attacking bee hives is an unprovoked sting by a guard bee at a distance from the hives as soon as one approaches the bee yard. Other attacks on honey bees can come from humans throwing rocks at bee hives. Often, though, the greatest threat of attacks upon bee hives comes from other honey bees when robber bees attack a weak or physically damaged hive to take its honey.
--Richard

Monday, April 16, 2018

Black Willow in Bloom

The beekeeping seasons change rapidly in the Mid-South, and the sight of black willow trees in bloom along sandbars of Arkansas’s Buffalo National River is a milestone in the beekeeper’s year. Willow trees bloom in Arkansas between February and April. Throughout March, the honey bees’ harshest month, beekeeping efforts are largely devoted to trying to keep colonies alive. Rapidly expanding colonies are eating the remainder of last fall’s stored honey. This honey consumption is largely occurring ahead of the spring nectar flow. If the beekeeper was too greedy in robbing the hives last year, starvation during March is likely.  However, April sees a massive increase in available flowering plants, and many of these important bee plants are trees along waterways. Willow trees are an abundant source of both nectar and pollen, and they are highly attractive to honey bees. On warm spring days, large numbers of honey bees may be found foraging willow’s colorful yellow catkins.

Increases in pollen being brought into the hive stimulate queens to increase egg laying. Honey bee colonies never turn away excess nectar being brought into the hive by foragers. As the honey bee foragers bring in greater amounts of nectar, many colonies experience brood nest congestion when the bees store nectar in the brood nest. If there are not enough empty honeycombs outside the brood nest to hold the nectar, the bees will place it in the cells needed for the queen’s egg laying. Brood nest congestion often leads to swarming. Mid-South beekeepers experience many occurrences of swarming in early April. Some see their own hives swarming. If the beekeeper is able to capture his or her own swarm, the bee yard merely receives an unscheduled colony division. Many beekeepers capture swarms to replace colonies lost over winter. In areas where Africanized honey bees are not present, swarms are welcomed as a source of honey bee genetic diversity. Willow honey is light in color and described as having a pleasant aromatic flavor.
--Richard

Friday, January 26, 2018

The January Thaw

In the middle of the winter we often experience a short period of warm weather, a “January thaw.” During such a warm spell, bees will break out of their winter cluster to move about the hive and collect stored honey. If outside temperatures are above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, bees will be seen flying from the hive. Some are gathering nectar from skunk cabbage and dandelions; some are collecting water to liquify stored honey; and some are making cleansing flights to eliminate stored body waste. The January thaw is a good time for the beekeeper to make his or her first quick check of the bee hives. Since there is likely to be brood in the hives, they cannot be opened for a thorough inspection. We don’t want to break apart the brood nest or leave the hive open except for a very short time else risk chilling and killing the brood. However, we can determine whether a particular hive is running out of stored food by gently lifting the back of the hive and comparing its weight to other hives. Any light-weight hives likely need some emergency feeding to carry the bees through the winter. Also, any hives that show large numbers of bees located in the upper-most portion of the hive likely need emergency feeding. The bees in these hives have likely consumed the stored honey above their brood nest, or their stored honey is located in a portion of the hive that the bees will not access. In either case, the colonies risk starvation, the greatest killer of honey bees.

Mid-winter feeding of bees is emergency feeding. It can be accomplished by feeding full frames of honey taken from other hives or from the beekeeper’s storage. Gently scratch the capping to expose the honey, and place the frames directly above the brood nest. Dry sugar can be fed above the hive’s inner cover as in today’s photo. A wooden shim lifts the outer cover to accommodate extra sugar.
--Richard

Monday, January 1, 2018

Honey Bee New Year

Honey bees are the only insect in the temperate zone that remain alive and active throughout the year. They are well-adapted to survive cold winters in which there is no food available outside the hive. Though insects are normally cold-blooded creatures, honey bees are able to regulate the temperature of their hive by generating heat themselves. They eat their stored honey, a high-energy food that they produced; and then they shiver their flight muscles to generate heat. The bees generating heat are loosely clustered together while a shell of tightly-packed bees surrounds their winter cluster, using their bodies to hold the heat. Whenever there is brood in the hive, the bees maintain a brood-nest temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The honey bees are able to conserve the precious honey reserves needed to warm the winter cluster by not making an effort to warm the entire hive. Distant corners of a bee hive may be quite cold. Further, the colony reduces its cluster heating requirement by forcing the queen to stop laying eggs in the late fall. With no brood to protect, the winter cluster will reduce its temperature to around 70 degrees, the equivalent of our turning down our home thermostats by 25 degrees!

While our calendar year begins on January 1, the honey bees’ year is well underway. The queen begins laying eggs, a few at a time, on the winter solstice, usually December 21. These first bees of the season will be available to start foraging dandelion nectar and pollen on warm days in February. However, the early start-up of brood rearing has its draw-backs. With brood in the hive, the bees must maintain a 95-degree temperature in the brood area. Also, the bees must cover the brood with their bodies instead of moving about the hive to feed on stored honey. Since honey bees never defecate inside the hive, on warm winter days, bees leave the hive, as in today’s photo, to make cleansing flights. Happy New Year!
--Richard