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.
--Richard

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Ejecting the Drones


Honey bee colonies are made up of large numbers of bees, but they rely upon only a few bees for reproduction. Each colony has one female reproductive member, the queen, and a few hundred male reproductive members, the drones. The remainder of the colony’s bees, numbering in the thousands, are workers, female bees that do not have complete reproductive systems. Each of these three castes of bees has specific roles in the life of the colony. The queen lays all of the eggs; the workers perform all of the tasks involved in collecting food and feeding the developing bees. However, the drones have a sole purpose: They provide sperm for the reproduction of new queens and workers. Drones don’t do any of the work in the hive; they don’t gather food; they consume the food produced by the workers. Drones are solely available to mate with newly emerged queen bees. At the times of the year when honey bees are producing new queens, drones meet these queen bees and mate in flight in aerial spaces known as drone concentration areas.

The time that queen production and mating occurs is spring through fall. Honey bees don’t produce queens in the winter, so there is no need at that time for drones. Keeping drones in the hive during cold weather drains precious winter food resources. As winter approaches, workers forcefully eject the drones from their hives. Some drones are drug out of the hive by workers, pulling the larger drones by their legs and wings as in today’s photo. Some drones are stung to death by their sister workers. It is common to find dead drones on the ground as cold weather approaches. The number of drones that beekeepers find in their hives depends upon whether the colonies are producing queens. Newly established colonies will have few drones, and there will be few drones during late summer nectar dearths. One exception exists: queenless colonies will often retain their drones through the winter.
--Richard

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.
--Richard

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.
--Richard

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 honeybeehealthcoalition.org. I assisted James Metrailer, shown in today’s photo, sample Varroa mites in his Kenyan Top Bar Hives.
--Richard

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.
--Richard

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.
--Richard