Thursday, December 31, 2009

Honey in Storage

Honey is the only unprocessed food that will last indefinitely. It is made by the honey bee during times of plentiful food availability and stored until needed by the colony. Since a healthy, well-populated colony can produce more honey than is needed to sustain the colony, beekeepers can remove the surplus honey. Once the beekeepers have taken ownership of the honey, they have to do the same things as the honey bees to protect honey in storage. When the honey bees store honey, they ensure that it is fully ripened, meaning that the moisture content has been reduced to a point at which fermentation will not occur. This honey is 82 percent sugar solids and 18 percent water. The bees then seal the honey in clean honey comb cells with a capping of fresh beeswax. Beekeepers measure the moisture content honey using a device called a reflectometer. The purpose of this measurement is to ensure that the honey will not ferment. The beekeepers store honey in clean, food-grade containers. Common sizes for honey containers are five gallon honey pails holding 55 pounds or 55 gallon drums holding 600 pounds.

All honey crystallizes over time. The length of time required for honey to granulate is determined by the nectar source of the honey, particles of pollen or beeswax in the honey, and temperature. Honey crystallizes most rapidly at 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Honey held in the winter is likely to be highly crystallized when the containers are opened. This is not a problem, as crystallization does not alter the quality or flavor of honey. The honey can be returned to its liquid state by slowly warming it. Honey fully cured by the honey bee and carefully stored will not deteriorate; it will not even support the growth of bacteria or yeast. Honey is truly a unique food. There is a considerable amount of information available about honey including health benefits and recipes available through the National Honey Board at

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Preparing Pollinator Habitat

It is important to preserve both honey bees and native pollinators for us to continue to have abundant food, productive agriculture, healthy wildlife, and a diversity of plants and animals in the environment. While the honey bee performs the largest share of the pollination of commercial crops, the native pollinators also contribute by supplementing and filling in on the pollination requirements of flowers and crops. All of the vital pollinators need food and habitat to flourish. Urbanization that removes natural vegetation, the use of monoculture farming practices, and the widespread use of herbicides have removed much of the food supplies and habitat of the pollinators. The excessive use of insecticides and pesticides have reduced the numbers of insect pollinators and weakened many of the surviving insects.

We can help to provide for the pollinators by being aware that they need food, water, habitat, and places to breed and develop their offspring. Many of the pollinators have specific food and protected habitat requirements for their developing offspring. We can rapidly increase the pollinators in our lawns, gardens, orchards, and farms by leaving margins of “weedy,” un-mowed ground, water sources, plants, like milkweed, for larvae to feed upon, and nesting places. Blue orchard bees, or mason bees, are one of the easily attracted and highly effective native pollinators in North America. In the winter, when our honey bee activity is at a minimum, we prepare nesting areas for blue orchard bees, bumble bees, and other solitary bees. Blue orchard bees lay their eggs in holes in wood drilled by beetles or in the hollow stems of plants with pithy centers. Nesting tubes may be fashioned from bamboo canes or by drilling holes in untreated wood or dead trees. In the picture, Rita is drilling 5/16 inch holes in the trunk of a cottonwood tree that was struck by lightning. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has a new fact sheet for building and maintaining nest sites for tunnel nesting bees at

Monday, December 28, 2009

Priming Foundation

Honey bees build their own nest from beeswax that the young bees secrete from glands on the lower side of their abdomen. The beeswax is secreted in small flakes, and these are worked into six-sided cells of honeycomb by the worker bees using their mouthparts. The beeswax is produced by young worker bees when the bees eat honey. The bees must consume about one pound of honey to produce one ounce of beeswax. To produce this pound of honey, or an ounce of beeswax, the bees must visit about two million flowers and fly a combined distance of 55 thousand miles. That’s more than twice the distance around the earth at the equator. Building honey comb is, therefore, quite costly to the bee in time and resources consumed. The bees will readily build their comb on beeswax foundation. Foundation is the mid-rib of the honey comb, and it was one of the great beekeeping developments of the mid-1800s.

Beekeepers now have available foundation made of beeswax or of plastic. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The honey bees strictly prefer to build comb on natural beeswax foundation. If frames of both types are placed in a hive, the bees will use the beeswax and ignore the plastic. Some colonies build comb on plastic foundation in spotty, erratic patterns. This can be corrected by priming or painting the plastic foundation with melted beeswax. The beeswax can be melted in a double boiler and added to the plastic foundation with a paint brush or roller. The bees will use this layer of beeswax to start drawing out the honey comb cells. The beekeeper’s work doesn’t need to be too neat; the bees will correct it. At Peace Bee Farm we use our own chemical-free beeswax, saved from our honey harvest, as a major part of our integrated pest management program. We prefer the durable plastic foundation because, unlike beeswax foundation, it can easily be cleaned of old comb and reused.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Winter Bee Yard Checks

Beekeepers leave their colonies alone for most of the winter, as it is not safe to open the bee hives in cold weather and chill the tightly clustered bees. It is a good habit, though, to visit the bee yards from time to time in the winter. Much can be told about the bees without opening the hives. A quick glance will tell that all hives are standing upright. Vandalism sometimes occurs in bee yards when the bees are not seen flying. Armadillos can burrow large tunnels under hive stands and cause hives to topple. All hive covers and entrance reducers should be in place. There should not be too many dead bees on the ground. A few dead bees on the landing board usually means that the colony is healthy and the workers are removing the bees that routinely die inside the hive. Wild animals can be a problem in the bee yard. I find fish bones atop the hives in one of my bee yards where raccoons perch on the hives to dine. Fortunately, they have not removed any covers so far. Skunks are a true pest of the bee hive. They scratch at the hive with their claws and then eat the bees as they respond to the disturbance. Evidence of skunks in the bee yard is scratches on the front of the bee hive and balls of chewed-up honey bee exoskeletons on the ground. Raccoons, skunks, and opossums can easily be lured into a live trap using sardines as bait. They need to be transported a number of miles for release, else they will be back in the bee yard tomorrow night. We don’t have bears around our bee yards, but in some areas electric fences are a necessity.

The picture shows a large oak tree being removed from one of my bee yards. The two hundred year old tree fell earlier in the year during a storm; the massive trunk barely missed six hives.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Storing Brood Comb

The best way to protect honey comb is to keep it in a hive occupied by a large, healthy colony of honey bees. The worker bees will constantly clean the comb and remove the eggs, larvae, and adults of attacking pests. Wax moths lay eggs in the seams between the boxes that make up the bee hive. These are common flying moths that are present anytime except during extremely cold weather. Their larvae crawl through the seams and enter the hive. The bees in a strong colony will catch and eat the larvae. In a weak colony, the wax moth larvae may have the opportunity to find cells filled with protein-rich pollen to eat. Once these bee hive scavengers have a foot-hold, they can destroy the honey combs, leaving a tangle of woven webbing and feces.

At times it is necessary to store the frames of brood comb in a building away from the bee hives. The frames that have been used by bees to raise brood are particularly vulnerable to wax moth damage because they contain considerable food in the form of pollen, honey, bee bread, and silk cocoons spun by the pupae. The developing wax moth larvae need this food; they can’t live on beeswax comb alone. Without bees to protect the comb, it is quite vulnerable to damage from wax moths. Moth crystals made from PDB (paradichlorobenzene) kill larvae and adult wax moths. Never treat bee hive equipment with moth balls; they are another chemical which is not acceptable for bee hive use. The crystals may be placed on strips of newspaper, as in the photo, atop the frames in tightly stacked hive boxes. Place a cover above the boxes. The crystals evaporate, and the heavier than air vapors sink to the floor, killing all stages of wax moth except the eggs. After storage on moth crystals, it is necessary to air out the frames for several days before placing them in use in a bee hive.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Pax Vobiscum

Over millions of years of developing its social order, the honey bee gained the ability to communicate rapidly with all of the members of the colony. The bees communicate by means of sight, vibrations, tastes, odors, and pheromones, the chemical signals that the bees pass among the colony members as airborne odors or as scents passed by touch. Humans developed elaborate methods of communicating to further their social order as well. Our communications generally involve sight, sound, language, and written symbols. Electronic forms of communication broadened the size of our society. With the internet we can now rapidly reach a community as large as the world. It is a pleasure to communicate with so many citizens of the world through this simple beekeeping writing.

I share my observations of the world of the honey bee with over 10 thousand individuals in each of the 50 states of the U.S. as well over one hundred countries around the world. Many of the followers are beekeepers; many are just interested in the honey bee. My writings are six months out of season with readers in the Southern Hemisphere. Some of the readers tend to bees of other species than our bees of European origin. Many speak different languages. It is marvelous that there are translation programs that can allow us all to share our thoughts. My bees’ brood nest temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit may be 35 degrees Celsius in New Zealand. Though there are differences in approaches to beekeeping and styles of communications, I feel that there are many common areas of interest anywhere in the world. Beekeepers have a keen appreciation of the environment and an understanding of the relationship between the flowering plants, the bees, and mankind. Beekeepers recognize that the environment is fragile and damaged, but capable of being restored. From the Underhill family that operates Peace Bee Farm, I offer to all who observe the great religions, traditions, and philosophies of the world: Peace be with you.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

1884 and Today

Google has made available an old beekeeping book, found only on the shelves of a few libraries. From 1884, it is A Dictionary of Practical Apiculture, by John Phin. While the book cannot compete with current writings on beekeeping for science-based information, it does give an insight into the thinking of the late 1800s and the problems facing beekeepers 125 years ago. Just scanning through the dictionary reveals that some situations persist. Adulteration by unscrupulous individuals was a problem in 1884 as it is today. The 1884 definition of honey closely resembles the wording being established in state offices today. Phin described decoy hives dating back to 1610 that are similar to ones I use to catch swarms each year. The 1884 races of honey bees included ones well known today: black, brown, Carniolan, Caucasian, German, and Italian. It also listed races less widely known today: Albino, Cyprian, Dalmatian, Egyptian, Heath, Holyland, Palestine, and Syrian. Foulbrood was considered a serious problem in 1884, but its cause was unknown. Today we are well aware of the bacterium that causes the disease, and we know how to control its reproductive spores. Parasites of bees were not thought to be a problem for bees in 1884. World trade and transportation have spread parasites, and the Varroa mite is a well-known killer of bees. Phin quoted Pliny, the Roman naturalist who lived two thousand years ago, in describing honey comb as being constructed in three stages from commosin, pissoceros, and propolis. This is not the process of honey comb construction that we now understand. Phin’s description of spring dwindling is an example of recurring bee health problems that continue today. You may download Phin’s dictionary from:

Today’s photo shows that you can still find wild game for sale in the Arkansas Delta, just as you could in 1884. Raccoons and rabbits are available along with catfish and carp from the Mississippi River. In the summer, turtles and frogs are offered.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Honey Supers in Storage

The honey bee is the only insect in the temperate region that stays alive and active throughout the year. The honey bee evolved this survival strategy of using the colony’s work force to produce enough high-energy food during the warm seasons to feed the colony during cold weather. The honey bee’s winter-time food is, of course, honey. In nature, the honey is generally stored in honey comb in the upper portion of the colony’s nest. In modern bee hives, the honey is stored around the brood nest and in boxes called honey supers, which are stacked on the top of the brood nest boxes. The prudent beekeeper removes honey in excess of the colony’s needs by removing the honey supers. The honey, which is contained in frames of honey comb, is uncapped, extracted, strained, and bottled or stored. The empty supers and frames are cleaned and stored over winter to be returned to the bee hives in the spring. Protecting the delicate beeswax honey comb in the frames is of great importance to the beekeeping operation. It takes the bees considerable time and resources of honey to draw out the cells of beeswax honey comb to hold the year’s honey crop, often a year’s effort. Placing frames of empty, drawn honey comb above the brood nest in the spring stimulates the bees’ hording behavior and encourages them to gather nectar and produce honey. With drawn comb in place, the bees can rapidly fill the frames with honey.

While storing the supers of drawn honey comb over winter, the beekeeper must protect the frames from damage from wax moths, bee hive scavengers that eat protein in the combs from pollen, bee bread, and pupae cocoons. Since the wax moths do not eat pure beeswax alone, clean frames from honey supers can often be safely stored in an unheated area in a manner that allows air to circulate freely. These frames contain very little protein to attract the moths.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Winter Solstice

The earth rotates about its axis, and the axis is tilted in relationship with the sun. This tilting of the earth gives us our seasonal changes in weather, temperature, and rainfall. The winter solstice occurs when the earth’s axis is tilted the farthest away from the sun. The tilt of the earth’s axis places the noon-time sun at its lowest position in the sky for the year. In the northern hemisphere, this occurs on December 21. This is the day with the shortest amount of daylight and the longest night. For the next six months, the days progressively lengthen and the nights get shorter. These observations were well known by man in ancient times. The day of the winter solstice is also observed by honey bees. The queen bee may begin laying eggs to start the colony toward the next year’s growth anytime after the winter solstice. The queen is usually stimulated to start laying eggs when the foraging worker bees start bringing pollen into the hive. The beekeeper may encourage the bees to start their colony build-up early by feeding pollen or pollen substitute before spring flowers have begun blooming. This can be useful in preparation for making spring-time colony divisions or rearing new queens. At Peace Bee Farm we sometimes start pollen feeding of potential queen mother hives in January or February. These are hives with a history of good performance and favorable genetic traits that we can use to produce new queen bees. One draw-back of winter-time stimulation is the possible starvation of the colony, as the bees consume much more honey warming the brood nest to 95 degrees. Early stimulation can also lead to the colony swarming in the spring.

A familiar sight at Peace Bee Farm is our friend, Kate Logan, who comes over to fish during every month of the year. It is no surprise to see her bundled up with fishing rod in hand on the chilly winter solstice.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Smoker

Paintings in Spain dating back at least eight thousand years show men harvesting honey from bees living in cavities in cliffs. These honey hunters carried smoking torches to help control the honey bees. From the earliest recorded images it appears that man has used smoke while working with or robbing honey bees. A common explanation for the use of smoke proposes that the honey bee, whose natural home is a hollow tree, perceives the smoke as a warning that the woods is on fire and that evacuating the tree is imminent. A more likely occurrence is the smoke interferes with the bees being able to detect the odor of alarm pheromone spread through the hive by the guard bees. No matter what the reasoning behind the effectiveness of smoke in beekeeping, the result is the same. If properly applied, smoke tends to calm the honey bee colony. When bees have been smoked, many of them will immediately begin sucking up honey into their honey gut. It is this action that leads some to believe that the bees are preparing to move in advance of the fire.

The smoker used by most beekeepers today is virtually identical to the smokers built in the mid-1800s. The smoker was one of four inventions of the 1800s that led to the beekeeping industry that we know today. These were the removable frame bee hive, foundation for the bees to use to build honey comb, the extractor to remove honey from the comb, and the smoker. If you look at the smoker that I use daily, you can see that it is made of a metal firebox and a wood and leather bellows. The bellows is similar to the one used to fan the fire in blacksmith shops. A smoldering fire emits a cool smoke and calms the bees. If too much smoke is applied, it has the opposite effect; the bees are angered. I burn readily available pine needles for smoker fuel.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Dandelion in Bloom

Dandelion is often the first wildflower to bloom in January and the last to bloom in December. This prolific flower can be found blooming in lawns or open areas during any month of the year. A native of Europe, the dandelion is a member of the composite or sunflower family. The composites are important bee plants, as many of them produce significant amounts of nectar and pollen. Dandelion gets its name from “dent,” or tooth, of the lion due to the shape of the leaf with points and indentions resembling a lion’s teeth. The leaves can be eaten as a salad green. The roots can be eaten or fermented into wine. Deer browse the plant. Dandelion is a hearty perennial plant with a deep tap root, but it can be easily propagated by wind-blown seed after the flowers have been pollinated by bees. Dandelion is important to the honey bee, because it is often the only plant in bloom either early or late in the year. A colony of bees desperately low on honey stores may find some nectar from dandelion on a warm day. On any day that the temperature rises to 50 degrees to allow the bees to fly, there will likely be some dandelions in bloom. Weather conditions like we typically encounter in mid-December here in the Arkansas Delta with daytime temperatures allowing the bees to fly, lead to consumption of large amounts of stored honey. Flying in search of nectar often consumes more energy than the bees expend if held in the winter cluster.

In the winter and early spring when honey bee colonies start raising brood, dandelion pollen is an important source of protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. Dandelion pollen, like many other pollens, is not a complete protein, however. Dandelion pollen must be mixed with other pollens to ensure good honey bee nutrition. The dandelion helps the honey bee survive. We certainly owe both the plant and the insect many thanks.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mary Phillips

Mary Phillips just finished her class work and final exams to graduate from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. Warren Wilson is a unique college which emphasizes three approaches to developing students into environmentally conscious citizens. The students study liberal arts while participating in true work and engaging in service projects. Warren Wilson stresses environmental responsibility, and some of Mary’s studies involved sustainable agriculture. Much of the college’s food is supplied from the student-run college garden. While she studied, Mary worked on campus. Her assignment was in the college’s English department. Other students’ work ranged from landscape work on campus, where students learned to climb and prune trees, to the college farm, where students tended crops and livestock. We met Mary after she attended a beekeeping course in North Carolina. She also attended the Memphis Area Beekeepers short course in beekeeping. Mary came out to Peace Bee Farm to get experience working in the bee hives. She cheerfully endured some intense Arkansas Delta summer-time heat and humidity and a few bee stings along the way. Mary also helped sell honey and bee hive products at farmers markets and participated in environmental presentations. We discussed with the public the role of honey bees and native pollinators in the environment.

While Mary was completing her college studies, she also worked at an early childhood school. Here, she helped the children learn about the origin of our food by planting a garden and raising chickens. Mary also relieved parents by caring for their children with autism. Rita and I were delighted to learn that Mary will remain nearby in Memphis, Tennessee, where she will be teaching children in an elementary school. She has some chickens, and she asked me to assist her to establish a couple bee hives. I know that the children, chickens, and bees will be in caring and capable hands. We hope to continue to see her regularly at the bee farm.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Blue Orchard Bee Nests

With honey bees and many other pollinators declining in numbers, it is important to protect and expand their populations. By pollinating flowering plants, these creatures are quietly helping provide food for livestock, wildlife, and humans. The blue orchard bee, which is also known as the mason bee, is a native bee of North America. These gentle, solitary pollinators can be attracted by providing them with suitable nests. The natural nests of the blue orchard bee are abandoned tunnels bored in dead trees by beetles The blue orchard bee also nests in the hollow centers of pithy stemmed plants like swamp mallow. Both of these nesting habitats are often destroyed as humans clear dead trees and mow stands of weedy plants. Nesting tubes to accommodate the blue orchard bee can be easily built. Cut sections of bamboo cane at the joints and wire the pieces together in bundles with the open ends facing the same direction. These bundles of tubes, shown in the photo, can be placed in a protected place, such as under the eaves of a carport or building.

The blue orchard bee collects nectar and pollen from flowers and deposits it inside a tube. Next, she lays an egg in the tube and seals it with mud. The bee continues depositing eggs, each furnished with nectar and pollen for food, in the tubes. A six-inch tube will hold five or six eggs, each separated by a seal of mud. Like the honey bee, the blue orchard bee determines the sex of the offspring by laying a fertilized egg to become a female or by laying an infertile egg to become a male. The blue orchard bee is solitary; each female lays her own eggs. There is no sharing of egg-laying responsibility as there is in the honey bee colony where a queen lays all eggs. The blue orchard bees lay their eggs in the spring, and the offspring emerge in the spring of the following year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Preparing Frames

Beekeeping involves considerable planning and preparation. In order for us to exploit the honey bee’s industrious labor, we must plan on giving the colony the bee hive equipment as it is needed. This means that we must have ready the hive bodies, supers, and frames to place on the hive as they are needed. The honey bee knows to seek out and gather nectar and pollen whenever they are available. We can enjoy the benefit of their pollination if the hive is in the correct location. We can collect a surplus of honey if we have supers with frames and foundation in place atop the hives. If we do not have enough hive equipment in place when the queen is ready to increase brood production next spring, the colony is likely to swarm. This means that we must spend some time handling the hive equipment that is in winter storage in preparation for returning it to the bees in the spring. The frames that held last year’s honey crop were “wet” and sticky with traces of honey after the harvest. We placed these frames outdoors and allowed the bees to eat the traces of honey. This left them dry to the touch and completely cleaned of honey. At this point the frames were ready to be returned to the hives in the following year. It is convenient, however, to take the opportunity to clean the frames and supers of excess propolis and beeswax burr comb. Cleaning the frames makes working in the bee hive easier for the beekeeper. It reduces irregular places in the comb for small hive beetles to hide, and it reduces damage to comb caused by lifting frames from the hive.

At Peace Bee Farm we clean and store the frames during the off-season. Everybody gets recruited to scrape propolis and beeswax from frames. At age 91, my father, Luther Underhill, enjoys helping prepare frames. The frames of drawn comb will stimulate the bees to hoard honey.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bees Make Cleansing Flights

The winds changed directions today. A southerly wind brought warmer conditions, and the bees were able to break out of their cold-weather cluster and fly from their hives. As soon as the air warmed, bees poured from the hives for cleansing flights. Honey bees generally don’t fly until the air temperature rises to 50 degrees. Cold weather for the past few days has held the bees in their hives. After several days of confinement, the bees were ready to make a cleansing flight to eliminate their body wastes. Honey bees never defecate inside their hive. This is one of their behavioral traits that serve to help prevent disease from spreading through the colony. Honey bees maintain a clean nest as a healthy place to raise their brood and store honey. Worker bees varnish the hive and seal cracks and openings with a coating of antibacterial and antifungal propolis bee glue. Worker bees clean debris from the hive and guard bees attack and kill intruding wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and honey bees from foreign hives. Workers remove these dead insects as well as honey bees that die within the hive. Sick bees leave the hive to die, and diseased bees are turned away at the hive entrance by guards. Strong colonies remove the eggs and larvae of wax moths and small hive beetles from cells and out of the way corners of the hive. If a mouse finds its way inside the hive, guard bees sting and kill it; then, workers entomb the mouse in propolis.

One of the unexpected findings resulting from the analysis of the honey bee’s genome was the lack of complexity of the honey bee immune system. It was generally expected that an organism that has existed for millions of years would be protected by a complex immune system. It seems that the honey bee’s evolutionary path instead relied upon a number of behavioral traits to protect the colony from disease.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Winter Feeding

Honey bees gather nectar and pollen and make their own food. There are times, though, that the colonies need some extra food to ensure their health or to prevent starvation. Colonies of honey bees spend the spring, summer, and fall gathering food to feed the colony. They also store honey to feed the colony over winter when flowering plants are not blooming and no food is available. This hoarding behavior marks a difference between honey bees of temperate regions, like the Arkansas Delta, and honey bees of the tropics. The bees that live in tropical climates do not need to store honey for a winter’s dearth, since there is an abundance of food available throughout the year. The annual life cycle of tropical honey bees follows the changes in rainy seasons, while the annual life cycle of temperate honey bees follows the blooming of flowering plants. For these reasons, it is thought that Africanized Honey Bees, which originated in tropical climates, may not be able to thrive in cooler regions. The Africanized colonies would simply starve over winter, because they don’t put up large stores of honey.

In the early fall, we weighed all of our bee hives to check for the amount of honey available for the bees. This was done by simply lifting the back of the hive. If the hives seemed to be light in weight, we placed a feeder atop the hive and gave the bees some supplemental feeding of sugar syrup. For winter feeding, we use a heavy syrup of two parts sugar to one part water. The feeder is the varnished wood box. To be effective, the feeding must be accomplished early enough for the bees to have time to convert the sugar syrup into honey and place it in cells near the cluster of bees. Notice in the photo that the hives are tilted forward with a stick under the bottom board to prevent condensation from dripping onto the bee cluster.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Honey Forms Crystals

Early this morning I was listening to the radio while stirring pails of honey. Candice Ludlow, news director for WKNO FM Radio, NPR for the Mid-South, had travelled to a remote part of Tennessee to cover a story about a group of people who are helping to restore the endangered whooping crane, whose population was reduced to 15 birds in the 1940s. Candice was reporting on a project, Operation Migration, which is teaching whooping cranes the 12 hundred mile migratory route from Central Wisconsin to the West Coast of Florida. The team members are guiding the graceful whooping cranes, with their six-food wingspans, along the route by flying ultra light aircrafts. The huge birds form a v-formation with the aircraft. The pilot wears a costume fashioned somewhat like the birds to prevent them from imprinting on the image of a human. It is their intention to introduce “wild” birds into the wild. Beekeeper Shirley Murphy, who lives along the migratory route, offered the Operation Migration web site, You can follow the flight of the whooping cranes, which are now half-way through their migration.

Meanwhile, in the honey house, I stirred the pails of honey, which I have been gently warming in an insulated, temperature-controlled unit to remove the granules of sugar showing in the picture. All honey forms crystals of sugar over time, and this does not harm the honey in any way. The speed at which the crystals form is determined by the nectars that the honey bees collected to make the honey and the temperature at which the honey is stored. Generally, honey derived from flowering trees, such as the tuliptree, granulate slowly; honey derived from flowers granulate more rapidly. The principal sugars in honey are fructose and glucose. Glucose is more stable as a crystal than a liquid in the highly concentrated honey. The honey may be re-liquefied by heating between 104 to 108 degrees. High temperature will alter the color and flavor of honey.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Burning Bee Hives

Beekeepers must control the spread of diseases that affect honey bee colonies. American foulbrood is a bacterial disease of honey bees which can be easily spread among bee hives with devastating results. American foulbrood, a worldwide disease, is one of the spore-forming honey bee diseases, as are Nosema and chalkbrood. The reproductive spores of American foulbrood may remain dormant for years in the frames and hive bodies of used bee hive equipment. One of the easiest ways of bringing American foulbrood into the bee yard is by introducing hives from other bee yards, from other beekeepers, or from storage. American foulbrood exists in two states, a vegetative state and a spore-forming reproductive state. Antibiotic treatments can suppress the vegetative state, but the drugs do not destroy the highly durable reproductive spores, which can even resist high temperatures. In the past, antibiotics, such as Terramycin, were used in the bee hive as a preventative treatment for American foulbrood and other diseases. Strains of American foulbrood resistant to the antibiotics evolved from continued use. Resistance almost always follows continued use of medicinal treatments. Many consider the only effective method of destroying American foulbrood is by burning the affected hive including the bees and hive equipment.

Peace Bee Farm purchased some colonies of bees from a retiring beekeeper. In order to prevent bringing in spores of honey bee diseases as well as chemical contaminants, we burned the old equipment after moving the bees to new hives. The transition of the bees was accomplished by stacking new hive bodies and frames above the old hive bodies. Honey bee colonies tend to move upward in the hive into new equipment. The photo shows some of the frames being burned. American foulbrood exists in small numbers of bee yards. Its spread is checked by beekeepers carefully avoiding using old equipment. Wax moths also help prevent the spread of American foulbrood by consuming the nests of feral honey bee colonies after the bee colony dies.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Honey Bees Cluster

One of the reasons that honey bees have been so successful at occupying diverse territories is that they maintain the environment within their nest. Swarming bees begin by selecting a cavity of the appropriate size, about 40 liters. The bees varnish the new cavity with a thin coating of bee glue, called propolis, to seal cracks and make the nest somewhat waterproof. Next, the worker bees begin building sheets of beeswax comb in the cavity. The colony raises brood and stores food in the cells of the comb. The worker bees control the internal environment of the hive. Anytime during the year that brood is being produced, they maintain a hive temperature of about 95 degrees.

When outside temperatures drop in the fall, the bees form a cluster inside the hive to maintain heat. The cluster generally maintains a temperature of about 68 degrees. The queen bee stops laying eggs and rests in the center of the cluster. Clustered bees actually generate heat by eating their high-energy food, honey, and then vibrating their flight muscles to raise their body temperature, a unique feat for an insect. The cluster also adjusts its internal temperature by expanding or contracting as needed. However, if the outside air temperature is very cold, the bees must consume greater amounts of honey to warm the cluster. The bees are not wasteful; they don’t attempt to warm the hive space outside the cluster of bees. The structure of the honey bee nest is itself very favorable for winter survival. The sheets of comb make good insulation. As the honey is eaten from the cells, the cells of dead air become an exceptionally effective barrier from the cold. However, during very cold weather, honey bees often cannot break away from their tight cluster to feed. The colony may starve, even when honey is available nearby. Click the picture. Opening the hive on a cold morning, I disturbed a late fall cluster of bees.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Cold Weather Markets

Farmers markets are popular social meeting places. People gather not only for the fresh food, but also for renewing friendships. Most of the regular markets have closed for the year, but there are a number of seasonal markets throughout the month of December. Many of these markets bring in artists with a wide variety of creative products. Peace Bee Farm is participating in a number of these markets, selling our honey and bee hive products. Honey sells exceptionally well on cold days. Folks think of enjoying honey on hot buttered biscuits or pancakes. A cup of hot tea with honey and lemon first warms the hands and then the entire body. People purchase 100 percent beeswax candles and beeswax soaps, hand creams, body balms, and lip glosses either for themselves or as gifts for friends.

We ran into many of our friends at the Memphis Farmers Market’s one-day December market day. Large numbers of people passed among the booths of farmers and artisans. They were eagerly purchasing the cool-weather produce, which included a number of varieties of greens, turnips, and potatoes. Jams, jellies, and preserves were popular items as were many baked goods: pies, cakes, and breads of every description. I photographed Rita and Jill Forrester of Whitton Flowers and Produce on the frosty morning at the outdoor farmers market. That’s Jill wearing the blue and green knit hat. Peace Bee Farm maintains a bee yard at Whitton, Arkansas at Jill and Keith Forrester’s Whitton Farms. Our bees pollinate the Forrester’s crops and produce cotton, soybean, and wildflower honey from surrounding fields. You can visit their web site at Meanwhile, bee yard activity is reduced to a walk around inspection of the bee hives in cold weather, mainly checking that hive covers, weighted down by bricks, are in place. Hive entrances are reduced to a very small opening. It’s best to not open the hive and chill the bees when the temperature is below 50 degrees.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Removing Old Comb

Honey bees build their own nest from sheets of beeswax that they erect in the bee hive or cavity they choose for a nest. When the young bees secrete beeswax from wax glands on the bottom of their abdomens, it varies in color from white to yellow. New comb in the bee hive is light in color; but as time passes, the comb continues to darken. After a number of brood cycles in the brood nest, the comb will turn from yellow to brown to black. In many ways the honey bees like these old combs. Swarms of bees are attracted to the old nests of abandoned bee hives. The old comb is rich in odors of bees, beeswax, pollen, honey, bee bread, propolis, and honey bee pheromones. While old comb is attractive to honey bees, it is a source of bee health problems. Beeswax readily holds chemical contaminants in the hive. Recent studies performed in the search for causes of Colony Collapse Disorder have measured a great number of chemicals held in the comb. In most cases the contaminants are miticides used inside the hive to control parasitic mites. Other chemicals found in the comb include agricultural insecticides and pesticides. Old comb is also a reservoir for spores produced by certain honey bee diseases, namely American foulbrood, Nosema, and chalkbrood.

Removing old comb from the bee hive is a good method of eliminating chemical contaminants and disease spores. At Peace Bee Farm we try to aggressively replace old comb with clean foundation for the bees to build new comb. This is an important part of our integrated pest management program. Click on the photo to see a frame of brood comb that has been scraped down to the plastic foundation. At the bottom of the picture is a piece of black, greasy-looking comb that has been removed. Above the hive tool is a piece of removed comb turned upside down to reveal the woven silk cocoons of pupa-stage brood.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Magnolia Family

I ran into my beekeeping friend Randolph Richards at a honey bee conference. Randolph is a retired college professor who is quite an authority on bee plants, especially those that grow in Tennessee and Kentucky. He gives some of the most interesting presentations on bee plants. I mentioned to him that I had been reading that there are a half dozen families of important bee plants: legumes, roses, mints, snapdragons, composites, and mustards. Each family contains numerous plants that supply ample amounts of nectar and pollen to the honey bees. Randolph said there is one more quite important family of bee plants, the magnolias. The magnolia family, Magnoliaceae, includes one of the most important nectar-producing flowering plants, tuliptree. Tuliptree, also known as tulip poplar or yellow poplar tree, is an important source of honey across Tennessee, Kentucky, and much of the eastern United States. We don’t find tuliptree in any abundance here in the Arkansas Delta, though.

Other members of the magnolia family include several species of flowering magnolia trees. The beautiful flowering blossoms of these magnolias often produce large quantities of pollen. Pollen is important to the honey bees as a source of protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Tuliptree is a heavy producer of nectar, a carbohydrate and the source of honey. When the bees mix the pollen and nectar to produce bee bread, they make a complete diet for their brood. The towering tuliptree produces nectar from large, tulip-shaped blossoms. Each flower only produces nectar for about a day and a half. However, during its relatively short blooming period, one of these large trees may produce nine pounds of nectar. From this nectar, the bees may produce two to two and a half pounds of honey. Tuliptree honey, considered to be of good quality, is reddish amber in color and rather strong if flavor. I am sure that on a cold Kentucky morning Randolph enjoys a breakfast of fried rabbit and hot, buttered biscuits with tuliptree honey.

Monday, November 30, 2009

L. L. Langstroth

Lorenzo L. Langstroth is considered the “Father of American Beekeeping.” A careful observer of nature, Langstroth, made precise measurements in numerous bee nests. He observed a common characteristic in all bee hives: Honey bees maintain an open space of three eights of an inch between sheets of comb. This concept, known as bee space, became the foundation for his development of the modern bee hive. This space allows two bees to pass shoulder to shoulder anywhere in the hive. Langstroth noted that if an open area in the hive is greater than the three eights inch bee space, the bees will build a sheet of comb in it. If there is an opening smaller than the bee space, the bees will fill this narrow gap with bee glue, known as propolis. Today, the Langstroth bee hive, designed in 1851, with its removable frames is the only legal bee hive in all 50 states. The Langstroth bee hive replaced all other hives because it is the only one designed to allow for removal and inspection of hive frames to detect honey bee diseases. The Langstroth hive made the woven bee skep and the bee gum obsolete, as there was no way to remove the combs for inspection.

The non-profit group, Science Friday, is trying to convince the U. S. Postal Service to honor L. L. Langstroth on the two hundredth anniversary of his birth by issuing a commemorative postage stamp. For information on how you may lend your support in this effort, view: In today’s photo, I am inspecting a modern Langstroth bee hive. The hive, constructed of open wooden boxes stacked atop each other makes it very similar to a hollow tree, the honey bee’s natural home. Removable frames separated one bee space of three eights inch hold the combs. My granddaughter, Erin, watches me inspect a hive. I use a hive tool to break the propolis bond and remove a frame from the hive.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fighting at the Hive Entrance

With fall weather bringing cool nights and warm days, the honey bees are able to fly during the daytime when temperatures rise above 50 degrees. However, the bees are finding very few plants in bloom to forage for nectar and pollen. With the hives still holding large populations of foraging-age bees, they are ready to exploit any source of available food. Any unprotected honey is eagerly gathered by these foragers, which will rob the honey stores from any hive that they can overtake. Healthy hives that have been successful in building up winter stores are holding many pounds of honey.

With the conditions set for robbing of the hives, we need to reduce the size of the entrances to the hives. Reducing the entrance serves two purposes: It helps keep mice from entering the hive, and it gives the guard bees an advantage in their efforts to protect the hive. It is easier for the guard bees to protect a smaller entrance. Honey bee colonies, when they swarm, often select cavities with very small entrances. Click on the photo to see the hive entrance reduced by a notched stick. Notice that the opening is placed upward. This arrangement often fools mice, which scurry along the edge of the stick and don’t climb the one half inch distance to the entrance. On the hive’s landing board, guard bees with potent stings stand poised on their four hind legs with foreleg raised. They check any bees approaching the hive entrance with their antennae and mouthparts. Guards recognize bees of their own colony by odor, and any bees foreign to the hive are repulsed. On the lower-right corner of the entrance, three guard bees are stinging an intruder. A pair of robber bees with shiny, black abdomens can be seen; one is located on each side of the entrance. Robbers get this shiny appearance as they lose the hairs on their body while fighting with guard bees.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

First Frost

The temperature dropped below the freezing point last night for the first frost of the fall. With very normal seasonal weather, the air had warmed considerably by mid-morning; and the honey bees were flying. A number of the bees were eagerly foraging evening primrose plants that were slightly wilted by the overnight frost. This is the first day that I have noticed honey bees foraging evening primrose in any numbers. More often, I have found moths, butterflies, blue orchard bees, and other solitary bees foraging this hearty native plant. The evening primroses have been in continuous bloom for several months. During the summer I observed luna moths the size of small birds pollinating the evening primrose flowers at night. The change in the honey bees’ foraging behavior seems to have followed the change in the weather. The frost may have caused the plants that the bees were foraging the previous day to stop producing nectar. Honey bees will forage a species of plants as long as the nectar is reliable, then, they will scout for a different nectar source.

With the season’s first frost foretelling more cool and cold weather to come, the honey bees are reacting to a scarcity of available nectar. They are searching for new sources. Many bees are flying around the wood shop where I am cleaning hive frames. There is also much activity on the landing boards of bee hives where the guard bees are checking all returning bees to prevent robbers from entering. Each hive’s winter stores of honey are vulnerable to robbing bees. Evening primrose is a medicinal herb that was a staple food for many Native American tribes. The colorful and long-blooming evening primrose is often planted as a hearty summer flower along fencerows and in meadows.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Mustard Family

The mustard family, Cruciferae or Brassicaceae, is one of the important families of flowering bee plants. Many of the members of the mustard family are valuable to the honey bee as a source of nectar and pollen. The mustards provide food for both the honey bee and for man. A number of the mustards are garden vegetables. Cultivated members include cabbage, Chinese cabbage, broccoli, turnip, radish, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, cauliflower, horseradish, watercress, and Brussels sprouts. Rapeseed is a mustard which is often known by the name canola, which is derived from “Canada oil.” The cultivated members of the mustard family are usually grown as cool-season crops, producing vegetable greens in the fall and spring. One of the members of the mustard family, yellow rocket, often covers meadows with bright yellow blossoms in the spring. Yellow rocket is a significant source of nectar where it exists.

Today’s photo shows some purple top turnips that are growing in one of our clover fields. A benefit of growing cool-season crops like the mustards is that they require almost no care. Planted in the late summer or early fall, the small plants have very little competition from other plants. If turnip seed is planted in late August or early September, there is a good chance of the plants producing the turnips at the base of the greens in the fall before winter's freeze. Both greens and turnips are delicious table fare; many prefer them cooked together. Turnip greens, seasoned with salt and a piece of pork fat, are a staple and delicacy in the South. If the mustard family vegetable plants, like turnips, mustard, kale, or collards, are left undisturbed in the soil in the spring, the plants will bloom and then produce seed. The blooming mustards are most attractive to honey bees, and the blooms are quite valuable at the honey bee’s spring population build-up time.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Harvest

The United States and Canada celebrate the harvest with a day for giving thanks and for reflection. The Thanksgiving Day tradition dates to the English settlement, Plymouth Colony, in 1621 in what is now Massachusetts. Thanksgiving Day meals are shared with family and friends. As we prepare the meal, we see that the bounty of the harvest can be attributed in large part to the pollination of flowering food plants by honey bees. Apples would not exist without pollination by bees. Plump, well-shaped cucumbers and pie pumpkins are also the result of effective bee pollination of the cucumber and pumpkin blooms. Even the onions and garlic are produced by seed resulting from the bee’s work. As we reflect on what it took to bring a special meal to the table, we see that honey bees and other pollinators had a role in producing most of the foods. Without the bees, only breads made from wind-pollinated wheat or grasses like rice, oats, corn, and rye would be on the table today.

I am thankful that Peace Bee Farm is able to carry on our family farm tradition established in 1950. It could not be done without the skills, enthusiasm, and efforts of the entire family. I am most thankful that there exists a creature like the honey bee that fits into the natural world so well that it actually produces food for mankind, animals, and wildlife as well. I am especially thankful that my beekeeping experience brings me in contact with some wonderful people from around Arkansas, Tennessee, and around the world: Sherri, Barry, Rick, Kyle, Dallas, Joel, Agnes, Mary, Cissy, Dena, Bob, Ken, Robert, Big Dan, Shirley, Mike, Charles, Nick, Amy, Keith, Jill, Uele, Carolyn, Vickie, Karen, Jonathan, Brandon, Amanda, Ngaio, Lynn, Micah, Jerry, Candice, Tammy, Judith, Kevin, Pratima, Randolph, Jim, Ray, Dick, Danny, Petra, Ken, Shirley, John, Ed, Melissa, Kjeld, Joann, and Margie. I am also most grateful to have you readers around the world to share my observations.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Storing Honey for Winter

The honey bee is unique in the insect world. It is the only insect in the temperate zone that remains alive and active throughout the year. Some insects, like the wasp, hornet, and yellow jacket, die off in cold weather. Other insects, like the lady beetles, find an area protected from the weather and hibernate. The honey bee, on the other hand, has evolved a social behavior that allows the colony to exploit the energy-rich nectar of the flowering plants. By the workers’ dividing the daily tasks of maintaining the colony and the queen’s egg laying eliminating the need for every bee to take the time and effort of reproducing offspring, a large workforce of foraging honey bees is available to harvest ample stores of nectar and pollen when they are available. From the nectar and pollen of flowers the honey bees make the food that they feed the brood. They also make honey from nectar and store the honey to feed the colony over the winter when blooming flowers are not available.

As the bees are producing their honey throughout the spring, summer, and fall, they spread the honey throughout the hive, away from the brood nest. As fall approaches, the bees consolidate the honey to an area close to the brood nest. In the photo, you can see that the bees have filled the green-colored frame of drone brood comb with honey. Here, they are taking advantage of the drone brood comb as a storage area when needed. The colonies have not been producing drones for a number of weeks. The resourceful honey bees use the same comb for different purposes at different times of the year. The task for the beekeeper is to insure that there is adequate honey for the colony to consume over the winter and that it is placed where the bees can access it in cold weather. That means that the honey should be above the cluster of bees in the hive.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Beeswax is an important product of the bee hive. Considered to be man’s first plastic, beeswax has been used for many purposes for thousands of years. Beeswax was used 16 thousand years ago in Paleolithic paintings found in Lascaux cave in southwestern France. The Egyptians used beeswax in shipbuilding and preparing mummies. The Romans used beeswax as a waterproofing material for painted walls, and both the ancient Romans and the Greeks used beeswax to produce metal objects in a process known as lost wax molding. The process, which begins with a beeswax model being coated with plaster, is still used today. After the plaster hardens, the beeswax is melted out and the empty space in the plaster is filled with molten metal. The result is a metal copy of the beeswax model. The English longbow was made of wood which was protected by a coating of beeswax. Archers today strengthen their bowstrings with beeswax. Sewing threads are strengthened the same way. Beeswax was used for hundreds of years to lubricate and seal cap and ball firearms. Along with many home and industrial uses, beeswax has long been used for making candles and cosmetics. Artists color cloth using beeswax in a technique known as batik and use beeswax in encaustic painting.

For beekeepers, one of the most important uses of beeswax is the manufacture of foundation for the bee hive. The foundation is the mid rib of the honey comb which is made of beeswax secreted by the two to three week old worker bees. When beekeepers purchase beeswax foundation, it contains traces of chemicals, mostly pesticides used to fight parasitic mites. At Peace Bee Farm, we save our own chemical-free beeswax cappings from the honey harvest to paint onto our plastic foundation as part of our integrated pest management program. Removing old comb and allowing the bees to replace it with freshly secreted beeswax removes chemicals and spores of honey bee diseases, such as American foulbrood, chalkbrood, and Nosema.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Soybean Harvest

Soybeans are a major agricultural crop in the Arkansas Delta. Soybeans are an important source of protein and oil. Soybean protein is used as animal food for livestock and poultry. Soybean oil is used in food production as well as paints, plastics, inks, clothing, and biodiesel fuel. The soybean seeds that were drilled into the undisturbed stubble of harvested winter wheat produced a second crop on the same land this year in an example of double crop production and no-till farming. While the wheat, a grass, tends to deplete the soil of nitrogen, the soybean, a legume, acts to replace the nitrogen in the soil. The use of no-till farming practices reduces the losses of soil moisture caused by plowing, reduces fuel use, and lessens weed sprouting in disturbed ground. Weeds are largely controlled in soybean fields by the use of chemical herbicides. Mechanical field cultivation for weed control is rarely seen today.

The soybean, considered self-fertile, can be a significant source of nectar for honey production. However, there are quite a few varieties of soybeans being grown now; and some varieties produce enough nectar for honey bees to produce a surplus of honey, and some do not. The result for the beekeeper is that soybean may be an erratic nectar source, changing from year to year depending upon the varieties of soybeans grown in the area surrounding the bee yard. The variety of nectar rewards offered to the honey bee may explain the difference in results of studies of increases in soybean crop yield for soybeans pollinated by honey bees. Results have been measured from zero to 30 percent increases in soybean yield when honey bees are present for added pollination. A 16 percent increase is the most common finding. Soybean farmers and beekeepers both recognize the importance of the honey bee in helping to produce our food crops. Soybean honey, one of my favorites, is light amber in color and mild in aroma and flavor.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Composite Family

The composite family, Compositae or Asteraceae, also known as the sunflower family, is one of the largest in the plant kingdom with nearly 25 thousand species of composite flowers, worldwide. The composites have flower heads that resemble an individual flower, but the head is actually made up of numerous individual small flowers. The composite family is important to the honey bee because many of its members are prolific producers of nectar and pollen. I will list a number of composites; as well as being beautiful wildflowers, many have curious names: pussy’s toes, mayweed, or dog-fennel, Philadelphia fleabane, wooly ragwort. Other composites include the asters, sunflowers, common milfoil or yarrow, burdock, daisy, bur marigold, Indian plantain, common chicory or blue sailors, and thistles. One thistle, knapweed or star thistle, is known for making honey. A number of composites are recognized as common plantings in the flower garden: coneflower, cornflower or bachelor’s button, and ox-eye daisy. Many composites are wildflowers found in meadows and clearings in woodlots: tickseed coreopsis, daisy fleabane, American feverfew or wild quinine, mist flower, boneset, Indian blanket, rabbit tobacco, black-eyed Susan, groundsel, and Joe-Pye Weed. Some composites should be grouped according to their descriptive names: bitterweed, sneezeweed camphorweed, and stinkweed. Important late-season bee plants from the composite family include Canada goldenrod, the many asters, and dandelion. The over-winter food for many colonies is derived from these composites. The survival of many honey bee colonies is often dependent upon a composite wildflower, the dandelion, the last plant to bloom in the fall and the first to bloom in the spring.

Composites of economic significance include lettuce, chicory, chrysanthemum, artichoke, and sunflower. As I am visiting my bee yards at this time of the year, I am finding a few composite flowers in bloom. Whenever we see some bees bringing pollen into the hives at this time, it is usually from composites. Today’s photo shows a honey bee foraging in a perennial sunflower, the Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Honey Bee Tracheal Mites

A great die-off of honey bee colonies occurred in the U.S. in 1984. Beekeepers found their hives largely depleted of adult bees. A parasitic mite of microscopic size was found living in the breathing tubes of bees in the affected colonies. Honey bees breathe through breathing tubes, called trachea, located on the sides of their thorax. The thorax is the middle of the three segments of the bee’s body. These tracheal mites live almost all of their entire life within the breathing tubes of the adult bees. They weaken their host bee by puncturing the bee’s breathing tube and then sucking the bee’s blood. The puncture also leaves the bee exposed to a number of secondary infections. The life of the tracheal mite begins with a female mite entering a breathing tube of a very young honey bee, usually within the first 24 hours after the bee emerges as an adult. The tracheal mite lays eggs; they progress through a larval stage and develop into adults. Still within the breathing tubes, the tracheal mites mate with their siblings. The mated female mite leaves the breathing tube and moves to a newly emerged honey bee to begin the reproductive cycle again.

Beekeepers can interfere with the tracheal mite’s ability to reproduce by placing vegetable oil patties in the hive. These patties, made of solid vegetable oil and sugar, are taken up by the bees because of the sugar. The oil is distributed among the bees in the hive, thinly coating all of the bees. Tracheal mites are less successful in finding day-old bees when all of the bees are coated with oil. At Peace Bee Farm, we keep vegetable oil patties on the hives at all times. We add spearmint and lemon grass essential oils to the mix to make the patties more attractive to the bees. Vegetable oil patties are part of our integrated pest management plan. Resistant strains of honey bees have made the tracheal mite less of a killer today.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Communication and Navigation

Honey bees and humans are social creatures. We both live in proximity with others and share in daily activities. The benefit of sociality is that the colony of bees or the community of people can accomplish more as a group than the individuals could if acting alone. An important element in our social arrangement is our ability to communicate with others and to direct members to the location of remote places. For the honey bees, this often means distant blooming flowers. Both bees and humans also need to be able to find their home from miles away. The honey bees primarily communicate among themselves by means of odors. They detect odors, known as pheromones, from the glands of other honey bees. Bees fan air across their raised abdomens to direct flying bees to the hive or to a swarm. Other honey bee communication is accomplished by sight and by vibrations in the hive. By far, one of the most complex forms of communication observed in nature is the honey bee’s dance. By dancing, the honey bee conveys to other members of the colony the direction and distance to a distant food source. This is, by the way, the same information that we give to airplane pilots for navigation: direction and distance.

Humans communicate by voice, by vision, by written words and symbols, and now largely by electronic devices. Rita and I received an invitation from Candice Ludlow, News Director for WKNO FM Radio, NPR for the Mid-South, to visit their new digital media center. I headed out with a map that I downloaded from the internet. It gave me the direction and distance. I got turned around in route. At times I checked the direction against the sun. Bees do that. At other times, I checked it against the compass in my car. Bees can navigate by magnetism. We’ll see Candice another day. Here’s a picture of Candice interviewing me for an NPR report on Colony Collapse Disorder.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Rose Family

The rose family, Rosaceae, includes many shrubs, vines, and trees that are important bee plants. They are important to the honey bee, because they are sources of nectar and pollen. These plants are also dependent upon the honey bee and other pollinators to ensure the plants’ reproduction. Without the bees to move the grains of pollen about the flower parts, the plants would not produce fruit and seeds. The rose family makes for a large amount of our fruiting trees. The apple, pear, apricot, peach, cherry, crabapple, and plum trees are each members of the rose family. Each is attractive to the honey bee. Only the peach is able to reproduce itself without the assistance of bees. Most peach varieties are self-fruitful. The serviceberry tree, named for the bright white blossoms used in church services, and the many hawthorns are rose family members that produce berries that are important food for wildlife, especially songbirds. The chokeberry is a rose family shrub that also provides ample food for quail and other birds. Strawberries are roses, as are the brambles: blackberries, dewberries, and raspberries. While many of the flowering roses developed for their beautiful blossoms have petals that block bees from entering the flower, open flowers like the knockout roses and the prairie rose and the multiflora rose found growing along woodlot margins attract great numbers of honey bees.

The fruiting trees and berries, which rely on honey bees for commercial pollination service, are of significant economic importance. The almond, a nut from a tree in the rose family, is a major export of the Unites States. The almond crop is completely dependent upon the honey bee for pollination. It is said that an almond tree without honey bees is merely a shade tree. One half of the managed honey bee hives in America are employed in California each spring to pollinate almonds. Click on today’s picture to see a honey bee unknowingly pollinating a pear while collecting nectar.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Marking a Queen Bee

Being social insects, honey bees share in the duties of the hive. Each individual does not perform all of the daily tasks of the hive. The workers assume different roles and perform the needed colony tasks. The worker bees’ roles change as they age. As these bees age, their various glands develop; and they change in their ability to produce brood food, secrete beeswax, produce an effective sting, and perform various tasks. For this reason, the workers pass through a series of tasks throughout their life. Among the shared tasks performed by the bees are cleaning of the nest, feeding the brood, feeding and tending to the queen, guarding the hive, secreting beeswax, building honey comb, cooling the hive, moving honey and pollen about the hive, foraging for nectar and pollen, and curing honey.

While the honey bee colony shares in collecting, preparing, and storing food, tending to the hive, and feeding and caring for the brood, the colony also employs a common means of reproduction. A single queen bee produces all of the eggs that will become the population of the colony. The male bees, the drones, serve a single role. The drones mate with queen bees. Since the drones never mate with queens inside the hive, they add genetic diversity to surrounding colonies. The queen bee is more likely to be mating with drones from various distant colonies. Since the population of the colony and its success is dependent upon one bee, the queen, she is of utmost importance to the colony. Many beekeepers mark their queens to be able to match the colony’s traits to an individual queen. Honey bee colonies regularly replace their queens through a process called supersedure. If a queen bee is found in the hive without the appropriate marking, it is likely that the queen has been superseded. In the photo, Shirley, Mike, and I are marking a queen bee with a dot of paint on the bees’ thorax.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Mint Family

With the cool fall weather there are areas where the ground is covered with a number of species of mints. The mint family, Labiatae, is an important family of bee plants; and some of the mints are highly favored by the honey bees. The mints are mostly strongly aromatic herbs which can be identified by their square stems. Rubbing the leaves between the fingers releases the fragrance of the plants. Today’s photo shows henbit in bloom in the early spring. Henbit will be one of the year’s first plants covering the ground which will bring a sizable flow of nectar to the bee hive.

Many of the mints are of economic importance as ornamental plants, culinary herbs, and as sources of aromatic oils used in perfumes and other fragrances. The mints make excellent candidates for plants to be grown in pollinator gardens. Many can be found in culinary herb gardens at the kitchen door. Sage and thyme are quite drought hearty and can be grown in planter boxes or upturned concrete blocks. Spearmint is quite tolerant of wet soils and can be grown in either sunny or shady areas. Some common members of the mint family are spearmint, peppermint, sage, thyme, lavender, and the colorful coleus. Purple dead nettle is a close relative of henbit. The two plants are often found together covering lawns in the early spring. Other members of the mint family include motherwort, bee balm, or wild bergamot, horsemint, false dragonhead, or obedient plant, self-heal, or heal-all, and mountain mint. Other mints are the blue sage, cancer weed, or lyre-leaved sage, calamint, hairy skullcap, wood sage, or germander, forked blue curls, lemon balm, and catnip. Many of the mints make enjoyable flavorings for foods, and many are excellent sources of nectar and pollen for honey bees.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Legume Family

As we move into the middle of November, blooming flowers are becoming more and more scarce. I found some trailing lespedeza in bloom being foraged by honey bees. Lespedeza is a member of the important bee plant family, the legumes, Leguminosae or Fabaceae. The legumes, also known as the pea or bean family, include a large number of species of herbs, shrubs, and trees that produce nectar and pollen that is collected by honey bees and other pollinators. Among the legumes there are several species of wild indigo as well as false indigo, partridge peas, wild senna, butterfly pea, vetch, tick trefoil, or beggar’s lice, coral bean, everlasting pea, American wisteria, and kudzu vine. Lespedeza includes a number of species of bush clovers that are important wildlife foods. Other legumes include crimson clover, red clover, and white clover, probably the world’s greatest nectar source for honey. Trees in the legume family include mimosa, Kentucky coffeetree, the locusts, and redbud. Food and forage plants in the legume family include soybeans, peanuts, lespedeza, lentil, alfalfa, and cultivated peas and beans.

Aside from the food and forage value of the legumes, we derive dyes, gums, resins, and oils from the seeds. The legumes are a major food source for wildlife. Legumes also serve the environment by fixing nitrogen into the soil. Many of the legumes house bacteria living in nodules on the plant roots which convert atmospheric nitrogen to a usable state in the soil. In the Arkansas Delta, soybeans are the greatest nectar source for honey due to the immense acreage of plantings. Our Peace Bee Farm summertime honey is principally derived from a mixture of nectars from soybeans and wildflowers. This honey has a light amber color and a mild aroma and flavor. The legumes are truly important plants for the honey bees. With the help of the honey bee’s pollination, the legumes provide large amounts of food and forage for man, and domestic animals, and wildlife.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Beekeeper Mentoring Program

I traveled to Shirley Murphy’s Tennessee River home to help ensure that her bees were ready for winter. Shirley is beginning beekeeping through the Tennessee Beekeepers Association’s mentoring program which is matching 72 new beekeepers with seasoned beekeepers. While beekeeping literature, training sessions, and expert speakers available at beekeepers association meetings are valuable, a mentor can answer pertinent questions, identify what is being seen in the bee hive, and help plan the timing of beekeeping activities.

Shirley started her hive by installing a nucleus colony, a small colony of bees with a laying queen, brood, and workers covering a few frames of comb. She placed the bees in a hive that she built after attending the Memphis Area Beekeepers Association’s Forty-Fourth Annual Short Course in Beekeeping. She assisted the bees to draw out the comb on the frames of foundation by supplementing their foraging by feeding sugar water. Shirley is following many of the same procedures that I employ in attempting to care for the honey bees in a chemical-free manner. Her integrated pest management approach started with a queen bred from parasitic mite resistant stock. Her hive is placed above the ground for good air circulation and uses a screened bottom board for ventilation. Screens block robber bees from entering her top feeder while providing ventilation to the top of the hive. She traps small hive beetles inside the hive, removing the beetles without the use of any chemicals. We monitored the levels of the colony killing Varroa mites by removing drone brood pupae and counting developing Varroa. A frame of drone brood foundation is available for sampling mites and killing them by freezing. Shirley also tests for colony mite loads by counting mites on a sticky board. She has encouraged the reduction of mites by dusting the bees with powdered sugar. Her hive is now set-up for the winter with a prolific queen, a large population of young bees, and good stores of honey.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Bee Hive Set-Up for Winter

During the fall of the year, the beekeeper’s concern is to set up the hive for the approaching winter. If the hive is set up properly and the colony is relatively healthy, there is a good chance that the colony will survive the winter. For several months, the flowering plants that provide the honey bee’s food will not be blooming. The temperatures will be too cold for bees to survive outside a warm hive; indeed, honey bees don’t fly when temperatures are below 50 degrees.

There are two requirements for setting up the bee hive for the winter. First, there must be adequate stores of honey which are placed where the bees can access them in the coldest part of the winter. As the bees’ natural tendency is to eat the honey stored above them, the winter cluster of bees should be low in the hive with frames of honey above the cluster. The beekeeper may have to rearrange the position of hive body boxes or frames to get the bees and honey where they should be. The second requirement for wintering honey bees is that the hive must have adequate ventilation. A screened bottom board, opened at the bottom provides considerable ventilation. Further, the openings in inner covers used with telescoping covers provide a chimney to let moist air escape the top of the hive. Placing a stick under the hive to tilt it forward prevents droplets of condensed water from falling onto the bees during cold weather. The photo shows a hive with a full box of stored honey above the cluster of bees. The frame removed from the center of the upper box is full of honey which is fully ripened and capped with beeswax. The color of the cappings changes in a horse shoe pattern resulting from the bees’ filling the lower portion of the frame with honey after the young bees emerged from the last brood cycle of the year.