Sunday, May 3, 2020

Toad Suck Daze

Toad Suck Daze is a social gathering held every spring in Conway, Arkansas, a state that has its share of towns with names reflecting a rich pioneer history. There’s Oil Trough, Fifty-Six, and Greasy Corner. Conway has its Toad Suck, a landing on the Arkansas River where the river makes a sharp bend from west to south. There are several speculations as to the origin of the region’s name, but a favorite involves rugged rivermen stopping at area taverns and sucking tankards of ale till their bellies swelled up like toads. Typically, crowds gather at Conway for Toad Suck Daze, a festival with live toad races, music and singing on the old court house grounds, and street vendors selling foods and crafts. Local beekeepers have tables filled with honey. This year’s Toad Suck event was interrupted by the world-wide spread of the deadly Corvid-19 virus with its necessary social distancing requirement which rendered the public event impossible. In response, aviators from the Lollie Bottoms Pilots Association conducted an airplane parade over the city for people to share an event while remaining personally separated. Today’s photo is the Bulldog Flight Formation Group passing over the city. When a virus enters a vulnerable population, it is likely to spread unchecked. With humans having no natural immunity to the virus, or vaccine, the virus spread exponentially.

Honey bee colonies experienced massive losses since the introduction of parasitic mites in the mid-1980s. The Varroa mite is especially harmful to bees because it vectors numerous viruses. One way that Varroa mites are spread between honey bee colonies is by having hives in close proximity. Separating hives, like separating people, helps reduce the spread of viruses. An interesting study of Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus describes a mechanism that the virus employs giving it a reproductive advantage, Jon Zawislak states, “There’s a fascinating and frightening arms race between bees and viruses. The biologist in me thinks “Wow!” but the beekeeper in me cringes.”

Friday, April 17, 2020

A Swarm Moves In

The queen bee doesn’t have any royal duties. Thousands of bees in her hive don’t even pay her much attention; a dozen workers attend to her. The rest of the workers go about tending to the hive, feeding the brood, and producing their future food supply. The queen just lays eggs and secretes pheromones, and her pheromones organize the colony. It’s quickly apparent to the bees if she’s gone. The queen, drones, and workers produce many pheromones as their principal means of communication. Most are aromatic scents that the bees detect and react upon. One pheromone the queen produces, that we call “queen substance,” is conveyed to the workers by touch rather than by scent. The queen secretes queen substance pheromone, and her retinue of attendants collect it by stroking her body. They pass the pheromone to other bees in the vicinity, and then it is passed from bee to bee throughout the hive. As long as queen substance is detected by the bees, the colony is content. If the queen dies, or the beekeeper removes her from the hive, the bees will know within one hour that she is gone by the loss of queen substance.

The amount of queen substance pheromone in the hive diminishes as it is divided among an increasing number of bees as the colony’s population grows in the spring. Reduced queen pheromone stimulates the workers to start building queen cells, one of the first steps involved in swarming. The queen lays eggs in these, and the workers feed the developing queens a high-energy brood food, called royal jelly. A queen will emerge from one cell to take over the egg-laying duties of the hive when the colony divides through swarming. Half of the hive’s bees and the older queen fly from the hive and gather nearby. Scouts, seen here, visit my swarm trap. They explore the cavity and find it suitable. In a day the swarm moves in, and I transfer it to a hive.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Move the Bee Hives an Inch

Beekeepers have a centuries-old tradition of moving their hives an inch to notify the bees of the death of a family member. Today three beekeeping families are moving hives due to the death of 19-year-old Ashlyn McGehee. The sudden, accidental loss of Ashlyn stuns and saddens the McGehee, Anderson, and Underhill families. The beautiful, athletic, and talented Ashlyn, a student of Western Kentucky University, could often be found with her cousins, Ethan and Erin Underhill. Pax Vobiscum: Peace Be With You, Ashlyn Marie McGehee, 2000-2020.
Ethan, Ashlyn, Erin
Erin, Ethan, Ashlyn

Thursday, March 5, 2020

A Community of Beekeepers

We don’t keep bees alone; our bees don’t live alone. Beekeepers belong to a social community. We share the environment with other beekeepers and all of the bees from miles around. In recent years it has become apparent that our managed bees and our beekeeping practices affect all of the bee colonies in our area. Healthy bees from our hives may rob the honey from the hives of collapsing colonies and return with parasitic Varroa mites. Likewise, if we are not controlling the mites in our hives, we are spreading them to hives for miles around. Bees from mite-infested hives in the area may abandon their hives and move into our hives, bringing mites with them. Mite-infested hives can reasonably be called “Varroa bombs.”

Beekeepers, farmers, gardeners, and homeowners make up communities of individuals whose activities affect each other, sometimes benefiting and at other times adversely affecting others. There are specific groups within the community of beekeepers: those who manage their hives in different manners, those who manage their hives for different purposes, those who treat their hives with different products or measures to control parasitic mites, and those who keep their hives in different forage areas. There are urban beekeepers who may contend with city ordinances or neighborhood association rules, forest beekeepers, and farmland beekeepers. There are beekeepers with stationary hives and others with migratory operations. While there are many ways that we manage bees, we all belong to a community of bee stewards.

Perhaps, the most important communities that beekeepers belong to are the local, state, and regional beekeeping associations. These groups are effective in sharing useful information on managing bees in today’s environment. One of these active groups in Tennessee is the Savannah Area Beekeepers Association. I was honored to be invited to speak at the association’s annual Short Course in Beekeeping along with EAS Master Beekeeper Kent Williams, shown here giving a presentation on new developments in controlling Varroa mites.

Friday, February 14, 2020

A Bee Colony Starves

On a warm mid-winter day, a beekeeper observes numerous dead bees on the ground outside one of his hives. Inside the hive, he finds a small cluster of dead bees with many of the dead facing head-first into empty cells. A dead queen bee is located in the center of the cluster of bees. There is an empty supersedure queen cell adjacent to the cluster of bees with a trap door still attached, a tell-tale indication that a virgin queen has recently emerged. A queen that emerges in the winter is of no use to the colony because she will not be able to successfully mate with drones. There is no honey in the vicinity of the cluster of dead bees. A few capped cells indicate that the bees had been attending brood before the bees died. It appears that the bees died of starvation. With a relatively mild winter, the bees had been able to fly from their hive on a number of days; however, on their foraging flights, the bees hadn’t brought in enough food to meet the needs of their expanding colony.

Starvation is the greatest killer of honey bee colonies. They die because they don’t have food available to the cluster of bees. This often occurs even when there are ample stores of honey in the hive, but it is beyond the reach of the winter cluster. The cluster remains on the combs containing brood to feed and protect the fragile, developing bees. They eat the food nearby, as they did in today’s photo by George Bujarski. On prolonged periods of cold, the bees will not move throughout the hive to gather stored honey. Because honey bees share their food, they starve together. Since this colony exhibited no signs of disease, like American foulbrood, it will be safe for the beekeeper to reuse the hive and frames of drawn combs. He will protect the combs from hive scavengers till replacement bee colonies are available in the spring.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Mid-Winter Hive Check

Local beekeepers took advantage of above-average January temperatures to check their hives. One found his hives full of bees and brood and, fearing swarming, asked me if he should split the colonies. I recommended that he wait while making sure that they have plenty of stored food and hive capacity. February is too early to divide colonies in central Arkansas. The bees, which are now protecting brood, need to have strong winter colonies to provide cluster warmth. Also, commercially produced queens are not available in the winter, and it’s a long time till colonies will be able to make their own queens. I suggested to the beekeeper that if he wants to increase his hive count, he should wait until there are plenty of drones walking on the combs before making splits. I like to see large numbers of adult drones on the combs to tell me when it is time to produce queens. With brood production increasing, colonies will continue to expand, experiencing an increased demand on their dwindling supply of stored honey. The maximum stressful situation will occur in March. As we approach March, colonies have large populations of bees, little natural forage, and no queens available.

With the beekeeper’s concern that his bees were crowding their hives, I suggested that he should try to suppress the bees’ urge to swarm by making sure that the colonies have plenty of hive capacity. He could, on a fairly warm day, add another box of drawn comb atop the existing hive bodies. Frames of capped honey should be placed directly above the brood nest. Since bees move upward in their hives over winter, when spring approaches, he can reverse the hive bodies to expand the available brood area. Warm weather in winter affords bees the opportunity to forage red maple, as in today’s photo. Red maple is a good source of pollen and nectar; however, in many years, cold or rainy weather prohibits bees from foraging this early-blooming tree.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Pax Vobiscum

The environmentally conscious group meets between services at their Conway, Arkansas, church. The recently formed group’s enthusiastic members are committed to making a positive impact on the neighborhoods where they live. They invite guest speakers of varying backgrounds to discuss matters in which the members can have an impact. I was honored to be invited to share with the group some ideas for protecting pollinators and providing habitat. One of their first efforts will be to establish pollinator gardens. The enthusiasm, efforts, and examples of the group’s members will surely spread to their neighbors and lead to networks of pollinator gardens, pollinator pastures, and pollinator corridors.

As a beekeeper, I was also privileged to speak to the group with the approach of Christmas. I explained that there was a well-established tradition of Bronze Age, Mid-East beekeeping in the fourteenth century B.C.; and bees and honey were mentioned in the writings of many of the great religions: the Hebrew and Christian Bible, the Talmud, and the Quran. Honey bees were managed throughout the Mid-East, Africa, and Europe. I related the way that the church in Europe supported bees for centuries. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D., libraries were burned, and education was discouraged. Few people outside the monasteries could read and write. European abbeys and monasteries had apiaries, and their monks managed bees for honey, mead, and beeswax for candles and lost wax molding of religious items. The religious orders were the repository of knowledge of worldly matters and beekeeping for a thousand years. When Europeans voyaged to the Americas in the early 1600s, they viewed the New World in biblical terms as a “land of milk and honey.” However, since the Americas lacked the necessary cattle or honey bees, the Pilgrims brought them with them. Today’s photo: Ethiopian Orthodox church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Underhill family of Peace Bee Farm offers to the people of the great religions, philosophies, and naturalistic traditions that peace be with you.