Saturday, November 2, 2019

The First Frost

The first frost of the year came two weeks earlier than normal, but the cold night didn’t bother the honey bees in their warm, dry hives. Their hives are already set-up for winter with the brood nests centered low in the hives and plenty of frames of honey above and to the sides. Ventilation ports are open to draw off damp air from the top of the hives to prevent a build-up of condensation. Screened bottom boards are open. Ensuring that the hives have enough stored honey located where the bees can access it and providing ventilation are the only requirements for wintering bees in Arkansas. Whenever the temperature drops to 57 degrees Fahrenheit, the bees draw into a cluster for warmth. They consume their stored honey and generate heat in their flight muscles to warm the cluster. The hives have plenty of food in storage.

With clear skies, the afternoon sun brought the temperature up rapidly. As the air temperature rose above 50, the bees poured out of their hives for cleansing flights and foraging. Many bees were bringing in pollen from bitterweed, goldenrod, and fall asters. The sight of bees foraging for pollen usually indicates that the queens are still laying eggs and the nurse bees are feeding larvae. Other workers were bringing in fall nectar, producing strong flavored honey for the winter. A few bees could be found on lily pads foraging for water, and a some were gathering wood sap and gums for propolis. The bee in today’s photo is struggling to forage some propolis. She will use this bee glue to seal off any hive cracks. The bees will even build barriers of propolis inside their hives to reduce entrances or to block cold drafts. Only a few drones were seen at the hive entrance. Most have been excluded from the hives. Only queen-less hives will keep their drones into the winter. It is too late in the year for the mating of queens.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

UCA Entomology

I was honored to be invited to speak about bees and beekeeping to the entomology class at the University of Central Arkansas. We discussed the development of modern beekeeping from its early roots as a tradition of honey hunting. We looked at the evolution of bee hives from clay hives and woven skeps to hollow log “bee gums.” We observed the traditional tree-mounted cylindrical hives of Africa, the transitional Kenyan top bar hives, and finally the modern Langstroth hives. We also viewed the horizontal hives of eastern Europe and the vertical top bar hive, the Warre hive.

Following the classroom session, the students travelled to explore my nearby pollinator garden and bee hives. Pollinator gardens are any planting that provides flowering plants producing nectar and pollen. These gardens also include water, protective vegetative cover, and insect nesting spaces. Anyone planning a pollinator garden should restrict the use of pesticides. Flowering plants are chosen that bloom throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Bare ground provides nesting places for solitary bees, which largely nest underground. The entomology students collected insects from the pollinator garden, water garden, composters, and vitex trees. They observed orb spiders also gathering flying insects that ventured into their expansive webs. Students dug ant lion larvae from cone-shaped lairs in sandy soil. Compost barrels contained plenty of the efficient decomposers, black soldier fly larvae, and earwigs and various other insects were plentiful. Blue orchard bee nesting tubes showed evidence of usage by these and other native pollinators. Bare soil under oak trees revealed inch-wide holes where cicadas emerged as adults following years underground.

The students examined bee hives with colonies transitioning from summer to fall. Queen bees were laying eggs, and the students observed all stages of brood. Drones were few, as colony-wide reproduction by swarming has virtually ended for the year. Hives were heavy with ample stores of earthy fall honey. Today’s photo by UCA professor, Dr. David Dussourd: I examine bee hives with entomology students.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Changing Seasons

The beekeeping year can be divided into two extended management seasons: spring management and fall management. September sees changes in the bee yard which result in changes in beekeepers’ hive management. Honey bee colonies forage any flowers in bloom. Summer flowers that bees use to produce light colored and mild flavored honey are dying back. Beekeepers harvest delightful summer honey and sell it at a premium. Fall flowers are now coming into bloom. From the nectar of fall flowers, bees produce honey that is typically darker in color and more robust in flavor. The aroma of the honey is likewise changing from mild to more pronounced. Today, I noticed the more pungent odor of fall honey being ripened by the bees as I opened my hives for a regular seasonal inspection. Bitterweed and fall asters are coming into bloom in central Arkansas. They soon will be followed by the bloom of smartweed and goldenrod. These fall wildflowers produce ample amounts of nectar for the bees to convert into honey. Prudent beekeepers leave the resulting stronger-flavored fall honey in the hive, and bees use this honey for food throughout the winter.

Another change occurring at this time of the year involves the population of bees and their parasitic mite pests. Honey bee populations peak in late summer and then gradually decrease through the fall. Parasitic Varroa mite populations are reaching their maximum now. If left unchecked, the mites will weaken the honey bee colonies and spread viral diseases which will kill the bees. Beekeepers need to measure the number of Varroa mites in their hives and take corrective action if the mite load exceeds treatment thresholds calculated by the Honey Bee Health Coalition. Methods of sampling the mites and optional treatments are available in the pamphlet, “Tools for Varroa Management: A Guide to Effective Varroa Sampling and Control,” available at I assisted James Metrailer, shown in today’s photo, sample Varroa mites in his Kenyan Top Bar Hives.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Independence Day

Independence Day, the Fourth of July, is a day of celebration in the United States. It’s the day that the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776, marking the beginning of a new country. The Fourth of July has always been a significant day for Peace Bee Farm. Colonies started in the spring, from nucleus colonies, like the ones in today’s photo, packages, swarms, or colony divisions should now be well established. The memorable date is a good time to make some important bee hive record-keeping checks. We always counted the number of full-sized hives in place on the Fourth of July. When we harvested honey at the end of the summer, we divided the total weight of honey harvested by the number of hives in on the Fourth of July, giving a measure of the honey yield per hive. By keeping records of honey yield in each bee yard, the beekeeper can compare bee yards. While the yield of any bee yard may vary from year to year depending upon surrounding agricultural plantings, a measure of the honey yield over time can help the beekeeper determine which bee yards are low producers. These yards may need to be abandoned in favor of more productive yards. The Fourth of July is a day in which the bees are busy filling honey supers in the Arkansas Delta’s agricultural areas with soybean and cotton honey. In central Arkansas’ river valleys and Ozark Mountain foothills, early July marks the end of the spring honey nectar flow.

The Fourth of July is also a landmark in the beekeeping year. Swarms captured and hived before this date stand a good chance of building a large population of bees and accumulating enough honey to survive the following winter. Swarms captured after this date will likely starve over winter. These swarms need to be combined with existing colonies. After a quick count of your hives, enjoy the day devoted to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Making Queen Bees

Every honey bee hive has a queen, and only bees can produce honey bee queens. Queen production peaks in the spring when there are drone bees available to mate with the queens. Timing is critical in queen rearing. I assisted a group of Arkansas beekeepers who performed the steps required to produce a number of queens. Strong and healthy honey bee colonies reproduce on a colony-wide basis by swarming. Swarming is the culmination of a month-long process in which the colony divides and half of the bees fly away to find a new nest. One of the final steps in swarming involves the colony producing one or more queen bees. This natural process of producing queens was replicated by G. M. Doolittle more than one hundred years ago, and the Doolittle Method is used today to produce queens world-wide. This method requires beekeepers to establish a number of different hives for queen production with each hive set-up to accommodate a different step in the queens’ development. Typically, beekeepers establish queen-mother hives, queen-cell-starter hives, queen-cell-finisher hives, and queen-mating-nucleus hives with bees of the appropriate age and necessary food. This hive preparation is often a shared endeavor among cooperating beekeepers. Our early-April queen production effort involved six seasoned beekeepers.

On grafting day, we searched the queen-mother hives for one-day-old larvae to graft into queen cell cups. Worker bees tend to these young larvae and convert them into queen bees. We found that our first queen-mother hive had progressed in its natural manner toward swarming. The queen had stopped laying eggs, and day-old larvae were not available. We found four queen cells produced for swarming, like the one in today’s photo by Desmond Simmons. One queen was actually in the process of emerging as an adult. We used these queen cells to produce four additional colonies. Grafting continued successfully with larvae taken from other hives. At the end of the day we started the development of queens for two hundred new hives.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

An Unexpected Beekeeper

One hundred people quite deliberately headed toward Savannah, Tennessee in spite of extreme rainfall, flooding, and violent weather. They were drawn to the Savannah Area Beekeepers Association’s sixth annual Short Course in Beekeeping. One person, however, a businessman, Paul Durr, braved the weather to attend the meeting by accident. Mr. Durr misread the announcement in the local newspaper. Interested in furthering his business skills, he thought that he would be attending a bookkeeping course—not a beekeeping course. Once he arrived, Mr. Durr decided to stay for the day. He did, after all, have a long-time interest in honey bees, having shared his home with colonies of bees that have lived in the space above his ceiling for 40 years. Mr. Durr sat in on beekeeping sessions throughout the day.

I had the honor of giving the keynote presentation, introducing the new beekeepers to the history of the beekeeping craft by tracing the tradition of beekeeping from its honey-hunting roots with our cave-dwelling ancestors. Training sessions were conducted by invited speakers and talented Savannah beekeepers. Dr. Jeff Harris from Mississippi State University, renowned for identifying honey bees with the Varroa Sensitive Hygiene trait, spoke on developments in breeding parasitic mite tolerant bees. EAS Master Beekeeper Kent Williams described measures for increasing honey production, and Trevor Qualls taught the new beekeepers how to install packages of bees into their hives. Other speakers described the bee hive equipment, methods of feeding bees, catching swarms, and what to expect in the first two years of beekeeping. Conducting a random drawing, “Coach” Lynn Wood, the Tennessee Beekeepers Association’s Regional Vice President, awarded three bee hives to new beekeepers. Mr. Durr was drawn as a hive winner. He was surprised to end his day becoming an unexpected beekeeper. His greater surprise came in learning that “Coach” Wood remembered teaching him years earlier in high school. Today’s photo: TVA releasing two million gallons of Tennessee River floodwater per second at Wilson Dam, Florence, Alabama.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Can Plants Hear Bees?

Whenever I encounter evening primrose plants in bloom, I watch them for a while. These native plants attract a variety of bees and other pollinators. At night, evening primrose is highly attractive to large moths. In the early hours of the morning, fast flying blue orchard bees visit the yellow flowers. Later in the day, butterflies, honey bees, flies, and other insects actively forage evening primrose. In today’s photo a honey bee collects nectar from evening primrose.

Honey bees can detect differences in nectar sugar concentrations of one to three percent, and foraging worker bees seek those nectar sources with the greatest concentrations of sugars. Lilach Hadany, a researcher at Tel Aviv University, questioned whether plants could hear sounds similarly to animals, Hadany’s findings reveal that at least one plant, evening primrose, responds to the vibrations of pollinators’ wings. Within minutes of exposure to vibrations in the range of honey bee wing beats (0.2 to 0.5 kilohertz), evening primrose increased the concentration of sugars in its nectar. Hadany’s lab found that within three minutes of exposure to honey bee wing-beat-frequency vibrations the plants increased the nectar sugar concentrations from between 12 and 17 percent to 20 percent. In field observations, her researchers found pollinators around evening primrose plants nine times more frequently after the plants were visited within the past six minutes. The resulting sweeter nectar is naturally more attractive to bees and other pollinators. Since flowering plants, such as evening primrose, depend upon insect pollination for reproduction, any plant that attracts more pollinators has a reproductive advantage. Evening primrose flower petals are shaped like an open bowl. Such shapes concentrate and increase vibrations. The researchers at the Tel Aviv lab found that evening primrose flowers concentrated vibrations of the frequency range of honey bees. The ability of a flowering plant to increase its nectar’s sugar concentration would make it more attractive to pollinators and more likely to be pollinated, the first step in the plant’s reproduction.