Sunday, May 31, 2009

Native Dogwoods in Bloom

We are attracted to flowering plants by the same things that attract honey bees to them. We see the color of the blossoms and their shape. The honey bees pay particular attention to the interruptions in the pattern of the petals. We smell the fragrance of the flowers. The honey bee’s antennae can sense the faintest of odors. They can detect the smell of flowers even when flying over the plants. The bees can discriminate between different nectars offered to them by scout bees. This attraction of the honey bees has the result of accomplishing pollination of the flowering plant. The honey bee is rewarded for its work in pollinating the plant by receiving a small ration of pollen or nectar. Thus, the flowering plants and the bees share a most important beneficial relationship. Click on the picture and you can see a honey bee approaching a native dogwood. In preparation for collecting nectar, the bee’s tongue, or proboscis, can be seen being brought forward from the area where it normally rests under the head.

Native dogwoods are in bloom in the woodlots thinly scattered across the Arkansas Delta. These low trees of the hardwood understory have tiny flowers unlike those of the well-known flowering dogwoods. The native dogwoods are quite fragrant and attract honey bees as well as a number of native pollinators. I think that the dogwoods smell soapy; Rita says they smell like a bouquet of flowers. After the dogwoods are pollinated by the bees, they produce their fruit, a berry. The berries are eaten by numerous birds which scatter the seeds. Deer browse the dogwood, a favored food, clearing the ground for the growth of wildflowers and more dogwoods. The honey bee is a partner in a number of beneficial relationships.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Spring Showers in the Delta

There is a lot happening at Peace Bee Farm. The month of May brings the most pleasant weather. Daytime temperatures in the 80s and regular rainfalls make for a good white clover nectar flow. This spring’s newly mated queen bees are expanding their colonies to the point that they may soon be moved into regular honey production bee yards. These bee yards are scattered about the area to cover greater amounts of forage area and to lessen the potential for loss due to an outbreak of a honey bee disease or pests. The effects of windstorms, fires, and insecticide poisonings can also be lessened by separating the bee yards. We maintain several bee yards spaced a few miles apart surrounding our queen mating yard for the purpose of saturating the area with drones of our preferred genetic make-up. This helps assure that our queens will be mated with a number of high quality drones.

While checking the outlying bee yards, I caught this rainbow over some bee hives. The springtime weather made enjoyable working conditions and for a beautiful sight. Rain showers drifted across the wide-open, table-top flat Arkansas Delta, encouraging spring wildflowers. The honey bees interrupted their foraging for an hour’s break during the brief rainfalls. I finished checking the honey supers and feeding expanding bee colony divisions then headed to another bee yard located close to the base of the rainbow.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Queen's Retinue

Honey bees, being social insects, require extensive communications to conduct the life of the colony. Most of the communication is accomplished by chemical odors that the bees detect. These chemicals which control the behavior of the bees are known as pheromones. Most of the pheromones are volatile odors which pass through the air and are detected by the bees. At least one of the most important pheromones for controlling the colony is passed among the bees of the hive by touch. This pheromone is called “queen substance.” This pheromone stimulates brood rearing and foraging by the honey bees. It is a sex attractant, and it determines when replacement queens are produced. Queen substance helps stabilize swarms of honey bees, and it affects the behavior of the queen’s attendant bees.

The queen bee’s attendants, known as her retinue, surround her at all times. These worker bees feed her, groom her, and remove her waste. One thing that can readily be observed is that the bees of the retinue regularly stroke the queen’s body, usually along the abdomen, with their legs and antennae. What they are doing is collecting the queen substance pheromone that the queen secretes and passing it along to the other bees in the hive. If the queen is dies or is removed from the hive, the colony will know of her loss within an hour by the lack of queen substance. They will begin queen replacement within four hours. If you click on the photo you can see a young queen, marked with green, being surrounded by a retinue of at least 22 worker bees. The retinue can be identified because the attendant bees usually face the queen in a circle. They pose like football players in a huddle.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fire Ants: An Invasive Pest

While examining a bee hive, I dropped a frame of bees and brood. Actually, I didn’t drop the frame; I really threw it back into the hive. A good beekeeper knows to always maintain a good grip on everything associated with a bee hive. Both embarrassed with myself and maddened, I looked to see why I did this. I saw that both of my hands were covered with stinging fire ants. These invasive fire ants are moving through the Arkansas Delta. I found the first two fire ant hills on Peace Farm three years ago. The following year, I found a dozen. By the next year there were hundreds of the over foot-tall ant hills. Now I am finding the fire ants living in our bee hives. The fire ants are establishing colonies between the outer and inner covers of the bee hives. In the photo, you can see the red and dark brown fire ants carrying their larvae past the half-inch tall letters left on our equipment by our branding iron. Two fire ants, social creatures, share the task of carrying one larva.

It is always difficult to control an invasive species. Plants or animals that are introduced into a new ecosystem often lack the creatures that helped regulate their populations in their original location. The fire ants may be replacing native ant species, which we try to protect and use as part of our integrated pest management program. There are insecticides available for use against fire ants. These may be effective; however, there is always the possibility of pests becoming resistant to chemical agents. Mechanical or biological control measures often prove to be better over time. There are few ways to mechanically control fire ants, which live deep in the soil. An educational partnership of universities in the United States, called eXtension, reports on a biological control being tested using a natural predator of the fire ant, the phorid fly. You can get more information about fire ants and see some of the research approaches being used at their web site, I know that I will be doing some more research. Right now, the fire ants seem to have the upper hand.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Nectar Flows in the Garden

In the honey bee’s natural hive, pollen and honey are stored in close proximity to the brood nest. This allows the bees to feed the larvae the large amounts of food that the developing bees require. The bees store surplus honey above the brood nest. The modern bee hive, developed by Philadelphia pastor L. L. Langstroth in 1851, is designed to match the honey bee’s natural tendencies in nest building. The Langstroth hive has a brood nest at the bottom and storage space above for the bees to store surplus amounts of honey. The honey storage boxes are called “supers,” because they are superimposed one on top of another. Inside the supers are frames which hold the beeswax combs that the honey bees make. Langstroth’s design, which he copied from natural honey bee nests, has removable frames. These removable frames can be examined to check for bee health. They also allow for the beekeeper to remove frames of honey

The bees take in as much nectar as the colony can collect whenever plants are in bloom. The one thing that honey bees don’t do is stop foraging just because they have stored enough honey to carry the colony through the next winter. The bees’ eagerness and ability to produce a surplus of honey makes beekeeping for honey production possible. One of the ways that the beekeeper can tell how much nectar is being brought into the hive and how much storage space is needed is to look in the honey supers. When there is a considerable amount of nectar coming in, the bees are building large amounts of beeswax comb to store the honey. The bees produce the beeswax in glands on the underside of their abdomen. To produce beeswax, the bees must eat honey. White beeswax being added to the sides of the top bars of the frames tells the beekeeper to add another super. That is the case with this colony of Peace Bee Farm bees in the Memphis Botanic Garden's urban orchard.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Drone Laying Queen

For a queen bee to be worthwhile to the colony, at least three things must have come into play: She must have come from good genetic stock; she must have received adequate nutrition throughout her development, and she must have been mated with a number of healthy drones. If a queen does not lay a large number of eggs, she will not be able to sustain the colony’s population. If the colony recognizes that the queen is weak, it will replace her in a procedure called supersedure. In supersedure, the colony raises a new queen which takes over the egg laying after killing the old queen. If the colony does not recognize that their queen is not laying enough eggs, the colony may weaken and die. Generally, queens that lay a large number of eggs each day produce large amounts of pheromones which provide the organization of the colony.

As we examine the nucleus hives containing the new queens, we are constantly looking for indications of the quality of the queens. In the picture we see a queen who looks large and healthy; however, her brood pattern is very poor. There is a random, spotty pattern of brood with drone cells surrounded by empty cells. The queen is the bee in the lower center with a wasp-like abdomen and a dark, shiny thorax. I suspect that this queen reached the point following its emergence as an adult at which it would normally make mating flights only to find the daily rains prohibiting flight. Queens which don’t make the mating flights lack sperm and cannot lay the fertile eggs necessary to produce workers or queens. They produce drones from infertile eggs. Drones alone cannot sustain a colony. This queen will have to be replaced.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Wildflowers Color the Delta

Throughout the Arkansas Delta, wildflowers are abundant in the spring along any undisturbed stretch of sunny ground. This may be any unplowed agricultural field, roadside, or margin along waterways. This spring, which saw regular rainfalls, has been particularly conducive to wildflower growth. Wildflowers provide considerable amounts of nectar and a diverse assortment of pollens necessary for the nutrition of developing honey bees. Good nutrition is of special importance for the development of healthy and effective queen bees. Those stretches of ground that produce the wildflowers are often good habitats for the other important native pollinators. We are finding that the protection of these wild areas helps keep agricultural areas healthy and productive.

In the picture, we see a honey bee foraging on vetch growing along an un-mowed margin of Peace Bee Farm. In the background we see the white blossoms of spring asters and yellow buttercups in bloom. Honey bees exhibit flower constancy. They return to the same species of flower as long as it is producing pollen or nectar. This bee will continue to work vetch flowers. Another group of bees will work the asters, and a third group will forage the buttercups. The mixture of nectars being brought into the hive makes for subtle differences in the color and flavor of the honey produced throughout the year. Spring wildflowers in the Arkansas Delta produce light colored, mild tasting, flavorful honeys.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Young Queens Expand Colonies

The young queen bees that were successfully mated in the queen mating yard are expanding their colonies. After the queens completed their mating flights, they continued to grow and develop for several days. After about a week, most of the queens had begun to lay eggs. Some started by laying several eggs in the same cell. Some wandered around the comb and placed an egg in a cell in a random pattern. Other queens started their egg laying by only laying infertile eggs which become drones. Most of the queens that had successfully mated with between 12 and 20 drones settled down to laying eggs in a continuous pattern within a couple more days. These queens were finally laying eggs across the frames in the brood nest in a large and continuous pattern. The queens will be held in the nucleus hives for several weeks. During this time, the brood pattern will be observed to help evaluate the effectiveness of the queen’s egg laying. A good queen may produce over 1500 eggs per day. If the queen does not lay a large number of eggs, she will not be able to grow the colony to overcome the losses caused by the worker bees’ relatively short life span of 42 days. Weak nucleus colonies will not be moved into full-size hives for production.

These queen bees were raised in nucleus hives, which are small hives. As the populations of these colonies rise, additional space must be made available. This is accomplished in these hives by adding a second story. The nucleus hives are scattered about the queen mating yard to assist the queens in finding their own hive when returning from mating flights. Here we see several nucleus hives that have been placed under a wing of an old barn. The two-story hives will soon be transferred to full-size hives.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Bees are Making Honey

There has been a series of plants coming into bloom in the vicinity of our urban bee yard. As a result, for honey production these bees are ahead of their country cousins in the Arkansas Delta. The urban bees have collected enough nectar from spring flowers to draw out the beeswax comb and start filling it with honey. The nectar that the bees gather is a thin liquid with sugars dissolved in it. As the bees are bringing the nectar back to the hive it is mixed with enzymes in the bees’ bodies. The enzymes start the transformation of the nectar sugars to honey.

If you click on the photo, you can see the honey in the cells. The honey contains a large amount of water at this time. The bees will complete the process of making honey out of the nectar by manipulating it with their mouth parts and blowing bubbles to further mix in enzymes. Next, they fan the honey with their wings to evaporate the water. The bee standing alone in the upper, right side of the picture is fanning her wings to evaporate water from the honey. Once the liquid is concentrated to a point where the moisture content is about 18 percent, the bees will cover the comb with a beeswax capping. At this point the honey will last indefinitely. It is the bees’ intention to feed the honey to future generations of bees over winter. The beekeeper can remove a portion of the finished honey from the hive.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Clover in Bloom

White clover is considered the most important honey plant in North America. White clover honey is also the honey by which all other honeys are compared. Clover is found in pastures as a major forage crop. Clover grows in abundance in lawns and along roadsides due to its strong vegetative vigor. This vigor is brought about by a strong root system, the presence of nitrogen-fixing bacteria on the roots, and the production of a large quantity of viable seeds. White clover secretes nectar in relation to the temperature. The greatest amount of white clover honey is produced on days when the temperature is between 80 and 90 degrees. As a result of variations in temperature, the plants don’t have to produce a profusion of blooms if the temperature is favorable. Likewise, a field white in blooms won’t produce much honey if the temperature is too cool or too hot. An improved strain of white clover popular with beekeepers is Ladino clover, a giant form that originated in Northern Italy. Beekeepers sew clover seed in any available plots in the fall when nighttime temperatures approach 60 degrees. Having clover in bloom helps assure success of queen rearing in the spring. There is nothing more conducive to queen rearing than a good nectar flow.

Clover belongs to the important family of bee plants, the legumes. This is the same family that includes soybeans and peanuts. A greater quantity of honey is obtained from white clover than from any other plant in the world. White clover honey is light in color; it has a delicate flavor and aroma; and it is slow to granulate.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Installing a Nucleus Colony

There are several ways for a person to start a hive of honey bees. The simplest way is for one person to purchase an established colony from another beekeeper. Another method of starting a colony is to capture a swarm of bees. This can be done when the bees naturally swarm to propagate on a colony-wide basis. These bees can be removed from a tree limb or a structure, such as a mail box. A feral colony of bees can be removed, usually with great effort, from a hollow tree or from within the walls of a house or building. Beekeepers can divide a colony and add a second queen in a method that is similar to swarming. Honey bees are often purchased from a bee breeder in a packaged form. With a package, a caged queen bee is delivered in a ventilated box along with about three pounds of bees, roughly 12,000 bees. Another method of establishing a bee hive is for one to purchase a nucleus colony. A nucleus colony consists of several frames of bees taken from the brood area of an established honey bee nest. The frames will contain brood and an egg-laying queen bee. A nucleus colony is already established as a colony organized around the queen bee’s pheromones. It is ready to rapidly expand the colony size for honey production or pollination service.

Here we see beekeeper Dallas Holland setting up a new hive with frames of brood and bees from a nucleus colony. The five-frame nucleus colony that she purchased was delivered in the white box. She is placing the frames into a ten-frame hive body along with five empty frames. The bees will rapidly expand to fill each of the ten frames with brood and bees. You can see in the bottom of Dallas’ hive the screened bottom board that is used as part of an Integrated Pest Management program. Dallas has chosen bees bred for resistance to several known pests. Her efforts are in keeping with a growing trend toward returning to more natural, largely chemical-free beekeeping techniques.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Honey Bees and Beekeepers

This has been a wet spring, a lot like last year’s spring. Regular rains for the past several weeks have brought a number of plants into heavy bloom. One of those is privet, an ornamental hedge of home sites which escapes into the forest. The privet bloom has contributed to a fairly significant nectar flow in parts of the Mid-South. I am serving as president of Tennessee’s state-wide beekeeping organization. Let me share words I am posting today in the Tennessee Beekeepers Association’s newsletter, The Hive Tool:

Honey bees and beekeepers are resilient social creatures. We are revealing this in greater detail every day. We know from the fossil record that honey bees have occupied an ever changing environment for millions of years. Today they are facing an environment changing at a much faster pace than ever before. World trade in the past few decades has transported pests around the globe. The 1980s brought parasitic mites. The 1990s brought small hive beetles. Recent years have brought new viruses and fungal diseases. We now have Colony Collapse Disorder. Chemical use in the environment has increased dramatically, often causing stress and death of the bees. For the past three winters, America’s beekeepers have experienced colony losses averaging 30 to 40 percent. However, the bees are not all gone. With the careful observation of conditions, analysis of the problems, sharing of ideas, and plenty of hard work, beekeepers have kept the honey bee colony count numbers at close to recent levels. The beekeepers have proven to be resilient in that they have adjusted their methods to be more in tune with the honey bee’s biology. Many beekeepers are returning to more natural beekeeping techniques. Mentoring programs are teaching these less chemically-dependent methods to new beekeepers. The bees have likewise proven to be durable if given a chance. To the beekeepers, I offer my appreciation and congratulations; to the honey bees, I offer my thanks.
--Richard Underhill, President
Tennessee Beekeepers Association

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Catalpa in Bloom

The Catalpa is a large, spreading tree with large round, heart-shaped leaves that is often recognized by its long seed pods. The seed pods, over a foot in length, remain on the tree for a long time. The catalpa is in bloom now with large, white flowers with purple or brown stripes. The nectary from which the honey bees collect nectar to produce honey is located both inside the flower and on the underside of the leaves. Pollination by insects is a necessary step in the production of the seeds. The catalpa and the honey bee share a mutually beneficial relationship. The catalpa helps feed the honey bee, and the honey bee helps ensure reproduction of the catalpa. The catalpa is well known throughout the Mid-South as a source of fish bait. Catalpa worms, brightly colored caterpillars that can be found on the leaves of catalpas in the summertime, are collected as highly effective catfish bait.

The catalpa tree is a member of the trumpet creeper family. The trumpet creeper is a vine with large orange flowers that is very attractive to hummingbirds. Many of the plants with deep flowers cannot be worked by honey bees, because their tongues won’t reach the nectar. In these cases, the honey bees rely on leaf cutting bees to make a hole in the base of the flower, exposing the nectar. On this day the catalpa was visited by soldier beetles, solitary bees, carpenter bees, and honey bees. All of the insects appeared to be working the nectary inside the flower.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Not All Queens are Good

We evaluate the queen bees in the queen mating nucleus hives. This allows us to know what the condition of a queen is before placing her into a full-size hive for pollination service or honey production. It is important that the queen is laying a large number of eggs and placing them in a tight, continuous pattern on the frames. A good queen will lay in excess of 1500 eggs per day. This level of egg laying is necessary to produce a large enough population of bees to produce some surplus honey. It is the beekeeper’s job to ensure that each colony has an acceptable queen.

While checking new queen bees in the mating nucleus hives, I found this one. The colony was gentle and still well populated with bees that I had placed in the hive when I established this nucleus colony. However, there was no evidence that the queen was laying worker brood. Only drone brood was found. Capped drone cells stand taller than worker cells and look like bullets on the frames. Click on the photo, and you can see the queen in the lower center. While she looks healthy, she was probably not properly mated in the days following her emergence as an adult. Rain falling on a number of consecutive days could have prevented her from making her mating flights. Without sperm, the queen could only lay infertile eggs which produce drones. If left in place, this colony would be doomed to dwindle away. I will replace this queen.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Evaluating New Queen Bees

As social insects, honey bees share the responsibility for the reproduction of the entire colony with two types of bees, queens and drones. Each colony has one queen, and she lays all of the eggs for the entire colony. The success and condition of the entire colony is largely dependent upon the condition of the queen. Reproduction in honey bees is accomplished by the queen, a female, mating with a number of male bees, drones. Typically, the queen will mate a few days after she emerges as an adult bee. The event is a series of flights in which she mates in the air with between 12 and 20 drones.

There are a number of factors that determine the quality of the queen. The success of the mating flight is one. The genetic make-up of the queen is another. A third is the nutrition that the queen received throughout her development and after her emergence as an adult. Each of these factors combines to determine the condition of the brood that the queen produces. Another factor affecting the brood production is the genetics of the several drones that mated with the queen. Whenever we examine the nucleus hives housing the new queens, we are evaluating her condition. We look for behavioral conditions like gentleness, how rapidly the queen produces brood, and the bees’ resistance to diseases and pests. Much can be told about the condition of the queen by examining the brood pattern. Click on the photo to see an excellent brood pattern of capped brood. This is a large area of continuous brood with very few empty cells. The capped cells contain the third stage of the developing honey bees, the pupa.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wisteria in Bloom

The image of wisteria blooming with its fragrant blossoms takes our memory back to earlier times. Actually, finding wisteria vines entwined with the trees along the margin of woods is good evidence that this location was a home site in the past. Wisteria, daffodils, and yucca remain long after a site has been abandoned and all wooden structures have rotted away. This wisteria as well as shards of broken glass tell of past usage of what is now woods. Wisteria is a vine in the important bee plant family of legumes, the pea family. This is the same family that includes soybeans, peanuts, clover, and vetch. The legume family is important to the bees in that many of the family’s plants provide large quantities of nectar and pollen. Many of the legumes also enrich the soil be capturing nitrogen in the air and putting it into the soil in a useful form for plant growth.

Wisteria is most fragrant. At times the blossoms abound with honey bees. However, in this rainy period I didn’t find bees working the wisteria during its relatively short blooming period. With daily rains, the bees were unable to fly while the plant was in bloom. This year’s rainy conditions in the Arkansas delta seem to have contributed to an increase in the number of queens that didn’t get properly mated. It also seems that confinement in the hives during stretches of rainy days has also increased the amount of swarming as well.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Young Geese and Queen Bees

Just as fresh strawberries in the farmers market are a sign that spring has arrived, life abounds on the farm. Today, while I was checking queen mating nucleus hives, located close to one of the Peace Farm lakes, a pair of wild Canada geese swam in close for a look. They were accompanied by their two new offspring. Today was the first day that the birds brought their young out into open water. Geese produce their young in March and April. They seem to ensure their survival by overwhelming the predators by having their offspring at the same time. The springtime births also ensure that there will be strong birds capable of migrating in the fall. We try to accomplish the same tactic in the bee yard that the Canada geese take on naturally. We encourage the bees to increase their numbers in the spring. We raise as many queens as we can in the spring while conditions in the hives are most conducive for the bees to produce queens. Hopefully, we can overcome predators, parasites, pesticides, and other maladies to be able to produce enough healthy bees to make a surplus of honey to feed the bees throughout next winter.

The small hives in the foreground are queen mating nucleus hives. The entrances of each hive face in opposite directions. This orientation helps queen bees returning from mating flights to enter the proper hive. If a returning queen enters the wrong hive, it will be detected as an intruder and killed. The bricks on the tops of the hives hold the covers in place during wind storms and nighttime visits by raccoons. The bricks also provide the beekeeper a hive condition code at a glance. The alignment of these bricks tells me that these hives each hold an egg-laying queen.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Fresh Strawberries

For many it just wouldn’t be springtime without fresh strawberries. Most producers at farmers markets sell out quickly, as folks arrive early when strawberries come in. Every family has a favorite recipe for strawberry short cake. There are so many ways to easily prepare and enjoy strawberries. Maybe the best way is to just eat fresh strawberries all by themselves. Paul Williams of Jones Orchard of Millington, Tennessee had fresh strawberries Saturday at Memphis Farmers Market. I saw him again today at their Pick Your Own strawberry field at Agricenter International. This field of strawberries is located close the Memphis Area Beekeepers Association’s apiary. You can’t have strawberries without bees for pollination.

Produce growers and beekeepers are keenly aware of the need for effective pollination of many crops. We regularly hear of difficulties experienced by growers who don’t have enough bees to pollinate their crops: beans that didn’t set fruit, misshapen cucumbers, watermelons, or strawberries, the complete failure of a pumpkin crop. For many there is now a greater awareness of the role of bees, especially honey bees, in the production of our food. To protect the environment and the bees we need to increase habitat available for insect pollinators, increase plant diversity, and avoid the overuse chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. We don’t want a spring without fresh strawberries. Be sure to visit Jones Orchard’s web site, Honey bees help them produce some mighty fine fruit. They make some great jams, jellies, relishes, and cakes as well.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Queen Bee Makes a Mating Flight

The queen bee is responsible for producing all of the eggs for the honey bee colony. Unlike organisms that mate again and again for the production of each offspring, the queen honey bee mates but once for a lifetime of egg laying. This occurs in a series of mating flights which typically occur over a day or two about five or six days after the queen’s emergence as an adult. During these flights, the queen bee will mate in the air with between twelve and twenty drone bees. She will store the sperm from these flights in an internal organ for the length of her life. This sperm will be used to produce fertile eggs to produce either workers or queen bees. She also lays non-fertile eggs to produce drones. By mating with a number of drones, the queen is assured of bringing genetic diversity to the colony’s offspring. Some of those diverse genes may be just the ones needed for the colony to survive in a changing environment.

I happened to be checking the queen mating nucleus hives on the day that a number of young queens were making mating flights. It appeared that the queen from this colony was outside the hive at the time I was checking it. I found no queen in the hive. The bees on every frame appeared to be fanning air with their wings across their raised abdomens. This is done to blow a plume of pheromones out through the air to guide bees to the hive. In this case all of the bees were involved in guiding their queen back home. Click on the photo and see the bees at the top of the hive’s frames posed to fan pheromones. While the bees look disturbed and disorganized, they were actually quite calm. The fanning by the bees shows the importance to the entire colony for the success of the mating flight. I feel like this is the most unique photo that I have taken inside a bee hive.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

We Meet Friends at the Farmers Market

While farmers markets have been around as long as there has been agriculture and civilization, we are seeing a great resurgence in these markets throughout the country today. The markets are seen as much as a civic meeting place as a place to buy fresh farm produce. The markets are designed to bring people together, to provide fresh and healthful food, to provide a market for local farmers and artisans, to encourage community awareness, and to make educational opportunities. The Memphis Farmers Market is doing all of those things every Saturday in downtown Memphis. Hundreds of people visit the market in a revitalized neighborhood encompassing Main Street, Front Street, and residences near the Mississippi River. They find fresh vegetables, friends, a hot cup of coffee, and live music.

We meet many of our friends regularly at the farmers market. Here, on the left, is Carolyn Dodson-King of Dodson Farms of Forrest City, Arkansas. Carolyn is an artisan; her parents are produce farmers. Today they brought in Arkansas sweet potatoes. In the center is Melissa Peterson, the editor of Edible Memphis magazine. She is carrying a bag of fresh green vegetables that she gathered at the market. Melissa is an enthusiastic friend who has done much to bring together farmers, artisans, chefs, restaurants, and citizens who appreciate good food. You can find her carefully designed quarterly magazine about harvest in the Mid-South at On the right is Rita Underhill, co-owner of Peace Bee Farm. A light rain held no chance of dampening spirits this day.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Multiflora Rose in Bloom

One of the great plants for attracting wildlife in the countryside is multiflora rose. At one of our bee yards that is surrounded by thickets of multiflora rose, we can regularly hear quail make their “bob-white” call. The small flowers of this rose are open and easily accessed by honey bees. As they enter the flower to collect nectar or pollen, they inadvertently carry grains of pollen from the anther to the stigma of flowers, accomplishing pollination. Once the rose flower has been pollinated, its reproductive parts in the center rapidly change color from yellow to brown. Seed is produced to reproduce the plant as well as to feed wildlife.

Of course, the multiflora rose is a member of the rose family which includes many fruiting trees: apples, plums, and pears. The almond tree is a rose, as are vines like raspberry and blackberry. The members of the rose family are considered to be important bee plants, as they produce considerable amounts of nectar and pollen. This photo of a honey bee foraging in multiflora rose was taken by photographer and beekeeper, Brandon Dill. It’s always a pleasure to have Brandon along when working with the bees. On a day threatening spring thunderstorms, we gathered a swarm, checked on some new queens, and got in some photography. You can view more of Brandon’s work at

Thursday, May 7, 2009

New Queen Bees Emerge

We raise new queen bees in small hives called queen mating nucleus hives. These hives house the bees necessary to care for a new queen bee until she is able to lay enough eggs to sustain an entire colony. The bees in this hive maintain a temperature in the brood area where the queen cell is located at about 95 degrees. Once the queen has emerged from her queen cell, the nurse bees and attendant bees will continuously feed and tend to her. After a few days the new queen will make her mating flights from this hive. A significant step in the raising of new queen bees is checking to see if the queen successfully emerged from her queen cell. In the photo we can see two queen cells in which the queen successfully chewed her way out of the end of the cells. The cells were started with a larva grafted into the plastic queen cell cups. The bees in a starter colony drew out the beeswax cells in the shape of peanuts. The peanut-shaped cells were held in the queen mating nucleus hive in the orange-colored protectors.

The generally shy and reclusive queen will remain in the hive for about five days after emerging as an adult bee from the queen cell. During this time she will seek out any other queens or queen cells and kill them. Next, she will make one or more mating flights in which she breeds with a number of drone bees. The queen must then find her way back to the correct hive. She should be ready to start laying eggs after a few days. Once the queen is laying eggs, this nucleus hive will become the start of a new colony of honey bees.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Vetch in Bloom

From March through August many roadsides, unplowed fields, and open idle lands are covered by a fast-growing, thick, knee-high vine covered with reddish-purple flowers. The vine is vetch, a member of one of the important bee plant families, the legumes. Other legumes include the clovers, beans, peas, peanuts, soybeans, locust trees, redbud, and mimosa. The long tassels of Vetch flowers are worked readily by honeybees. With such a long blossom it is not uncommon for honey bees to reach the nectar from the back or side of the flower. For such flowers with long blossoms, the honey bees often rely on leaf cutter bees to chew a hole in the base of the flower to expose the nectar. Vetch also has a well-developed nectary outside the flower that becomes functional about two weeks before the flowers open. Vetch honey is similar in color to clover honey, but it has a somewhat stronger flavor.

While Vetch may be a true friend to the beekeeper, here in the Arkansas Delta it is often considered a weed to grain farmers and to those who tend to the highways. The seed of Vetch is a pea the same size as a grain of wheat. This makes vetch seed very difficult to mechanically remove from wheat. Vetch grows so rapidly and makes such a thick mass of vegetation that it is difficult to mow from highway shoulders. Like many legumes, vetch helps return nitrogen to the soil. In this capacity it makes a useful cover crop for idle lands.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Moving Bees at Night

Honey bees have senses that are capable of detecting their surroundings very accurately. They can detect sights, colors, odors, vibrations, and even magnetism. They also have a mechanism for telling time. They use this time sense for navigating back to the hive and for foraging for plants that bloom only during part of the day. Their eyesight helps them find the flowers that they forage upon by detecting landmarks in the terrain and the colors and shapes of flowers. They can particularly determine the pattern of interruptions created by the shapes of flower petals. Honey bees can see most of the colors that humans can see with the exception of the color red. However, the honey bee can see ultraviolet, a color that humans cannot detect. The honey bee can use ultraviolet light to navigate while flying on an overcast day. They follow ultraviolet “nectar guides,” patterns in flowers directing the bees to the nectar. Bees don’t seem to have any problem in adjusting from the dark interior of their hive to the bright sunlight of a mid-day foraging flight.

Honey bees do not fly at night; they conduct their flight activities during the daylight. Beekeepers usually move bees at night, as this is the time when most of the bees are in the hive. I moved one of our bee yards, a few hives at a time over a number of evenings. In the picture, you can see one of the open hives. The picture is illuminated by a red flashlight. When working with bees at night, we use a red-colored flashlight. This color of light does not excite the bees like a white light. They seem to not even notice the red light. Oh, by the way, honey bees have five eyes, two compound eyes and three small eyes on the top of their heads.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Raising Queen Bees

Every honey bee colony has a queen bee. For the beekeeper to expand the bee yard or to have extra queens for requeening colonies, new queens must be raised. We can assist the bees in the production of queens, but only the bees can produce a queen. They do it by feeding a special food, called royal jelly, to the developing brood on the fourth day of development. This is the day that the egg becomes a larva. Fertile eggs will develop into worker bees if fed a normal diet, but they will develop into queens if continually fed royal jelly. Beekeepers start this process of queen development into motion by moving these young larvae into hives of bees set-up to feed and care for the larvae. The method of moving the larvae is called grafting. The bees build queen cells around the developing queen larvae.

The queen cells are next moved to queen mating nucleus hives like the one in the picture. Here, the queen cell is cared for by the bees. They will also feed and tend to the new queen once she emerges as an adult. She will make her mating flight from this hive. To help her find her own hive, we paint each mating nucleus hive a different color. A screen barrier outside the hive’s entrance helps prevent robber bees from entering. This process of setting up queen cells in mating nucleus hives mimics the procedures that bees regularly perform in nature.