Friday, July 31, 2009

Wettest July Ever

Honey bees make the most honey when the weather is hot and dry. Well, that has not been the case this year. This appears to have been the wettest month of July recorded in this area. July is the time of the year when the greatest nectar flow is expected in the Arkansas Delta. Some rain is of course necessary for plants to remain healthy and secrete nectar. However, an excessively rainy period greatly affects the amount of honey that is produced by a bee hive. The honey bee does not forage in the rain. Heavy or steady rains keep the bees in the hive, eating honey instead of making honey. The plants don’t secrete as much nectar on cloudy days. Also, rain can wash away the nectar in unprotected flowers or dilute the nectar. Nectar brought into the hive during rainy days generally contains more water and less sugar.

Soybean fields in the area are holding standing water from record-level rains. Fields that should have honey bees foraging for nectar find herons and egrets foraging for crawfish. If conditions keep the bees from being able to forage at the time of the major nectar flows, there will not be a surplus of honey produced. This week found the Arkansas Delta wet and unseasonably cool, while the Pacific Northwest experienced record high temperatures. This is what is to be expected from climate change. The weather does not gently warm a couple of degrees; the weather moves to the extremes. Global warming and its associated weather related effects on plant growth may adversely affect honey bee nutrition. Nutritional issues are considered a contributing factor in the decline in honey bees and native pollinators. Fortunately, these factors are being recognized; and we can move toward correcting our actions which affect the weather and the bees. Today’s photo shows great egrets foraging in a wet soybean field.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bee Hive Products

The honey bee hive produces a number of products that are useful to man. The first is, of course, honey. We know from cave paintings that men have been taking honey from bees for at least seven thousand years. Rita gave a presentation on the products of the bee hive to an interested group at the Collierville, Tennessee library. The next product of the bee hive is beeswax, which is the material from which the comb is made. Beeswax is secreted by glands on the underside of the young bees’ abdomens. Beeswax has been used extensively by man. High quality beeswax candles have always been a church tradition. Beeswax strengthens thread for sewing and bowstrings for archery. Beeswax was used extensively aboard ships, especially as a lubricant. Mixed with other waxes and oils, beeswax can be converted into many products from furniture polish, to boot and saddle conditioner, to lip gloss and hand lotions. Bee pollen is a high-protein hive product eaten as a food that contains vitamins and minerals. Propolis is the antibacterial and antifungal bee glue that honey bees make from the saps and gums of trees. It is harvested from the bee hive to produce medicines for man. Antonio Stradivari used propolis in the late 1600s when he built violins. Royal jelly is collected from the queen bee cells and is eaten by humans. This food of the queen bee is collected in tiny amounts, mostly in China. Almost none is collected in the United States. The products of the bee hive are sources of hundreds of items used by man.

Today’s picture is button bush, a shrub which thrives in the Arkansas Delta at the water’s edge. Button bush has an open, unprotected flower, which attracts a number of insect species. Click on the picture to see a honey bee sharing a button bush flower with a butterfly. A tiny solitary bee rests nearby.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Curing Honey

As Shirley Murphy and I examined her new hive of bees, we looked over the various patterns of hive structures, all based upon the honey bee’s six-sided cells of beeswax. Each structure in the hive has a slightly different appearance. The brood area has open cells that are empty or that have eggs or larvae. There are capped cells in the brood area with a brown, slightly gritty texture. There are capped drone brood cells shaped like the nose of bullets. These rise above the surface of worker brood cells. There are free-form shapes called brace comb and burr comb that don’t lie in flat sheets. Vertical queen cell cups and queen cells hang from the bottoms of frames. In the honey supers, the bees make frames of comb to hold the liquid honey. Wet, uncured honey is held in open cells. Cured honey, which is chemically altered by the enzymes in the honey bee’s body and then evaporated, is capped with beeswax. The freshly secreted capping wax ranges in color from white to yellow. The surface of the beeswax cappings contains curved linear markings, giving the appearance of hieroglyphic writings.

Shirley noticed that all of the bees along the top edge of a frame of capped honey had their heads inside cells. These bees were curing the remaining cells of honey. The bees suck the honey into their honey gut, mixing it with enzymes. They then blow bubbles with the honey, expanding its surface area and promoting evaporation. Evaporation is increased by the bees’ fanning their wings. They cap the honey with freshly secreted beeswax once its moisture content is reduced to 18 percent water. In the picture you can see the bees actively involved in curing the honey. The yellow, textured structure is cured honey capped with beeswax and patterned like hieroglyphics.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tennessee Adds New Beekeepers

Facing a decline in the number of pollinators, the Tennessee Beekeepers Association is attempting to help individuals enter beekeeping across the state of Tennessee. The state-wide organization provided bee hives and start-up equipment for 72 Tennessee beekeepers. An integral part of the program to help first-time beekeepers is the matching of all new beekeepers with an experienced mentor. Training courses, books, and literature go a long way toward explaining the science of beekeeping. An experienced mentor can explain the art of beekeeping. It takes experienced eyes to detect the subtle differences between hives. It takes a good teacher to explain to the new beekeeper what is occurring in the bee hive and why. A mentor can help detect and correct hive problems and turn the early efforts into a rewarding experience.

I had the opportunity to visit Shirley Murphy, one of the new beekeepers, at her Tennessee River home. Shirley and her partner, Mike, an avid nature photographer, have added honey bees to the fruit and nut trees, vegetables, and flowers that they grow in clearings in the hardwood forest. Deer and wild turkey abound as well as small game and song birds. The honey bee plays an instrumental part in providing food for wildlife by pollinating plants which provide fruit and seeds. Shirley and I inspected her new colony of honey bees located near her vineyard. The prolific colony had recently superseded its queen, and we found the new queen in the brood nest. In the photo, Shirley examines a deep frame of brood, covered with nurse bees. We started our inspection in gloves, and then removed them as we got a feel for the gentleness of the hive. Shirley and Mike are true stewards of the environment. I enjoyed their hospitality, a wonderful lunch, shared stories, and a very nice bottle of home-made wine. Shirley’s bees are in good hands.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Martins and Drones

At Peace Bee Farm, we enjoy the purple martins for half of the year. These largest of the swallows arrive in February, nest in artificial gourds that we provide for them, rear young birds, and then leave without fanfare in July. During the six months that they occupy the farm, they entertain us daily with their song, which is almost speech, and their flight, which some describe as aerial acrobatics. Anyone who has observed these popular birds knows their ability to climb, dive, and soar can’t be matched by other birds. They can regularly be seen sweeping along the surface of lakes or soaring hundreds of feet in the air, catching insects in flight. When they approach their nest, they dive at great speed. It is not uncommon for us to see drone honey bees chasing the martins as the birds circle their nesting gourds or sweep in for a landing. Sometimes a single drone follows a martin; at times half a dozen drones will be in close pursuit. The drones, which normally pursue queen bees in their mating flights, have no trouble keeping up with the rapid, turning flight of the martins. Click on the photo and you can see a number of drones that followed the martin all the way back to the perch above their nesting gourds.

The purple martin is an insect eater and a very efficient gatherer of flying insects. It is obvious that our martins frequent the drone concentration areas and bring back drones visually focused on the zooming birds. I don’t know how many drones and queen bees are eaten by these birds along the way, but I do feel that the birds are doing their part to eliminate weak drones and queens from the mating areas. If this is the case, the martins are helping select for stronger honey bees. The martins will spend the next six months in the Amazon River basin. I wonder if their other home is a similar bee farm in the Southern Hemisphere.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Corn Produces Pollen

Honey bees are attracted to the flowering plants, and they collect nectar and pollen from them. The attraction of the bees is part of a mutually beneficial relationship that the flowering plants and the bees share. The bees gain food, and the flowering plants are pollinated, a necessary step in their reproduction. The bees are generally not attracted to the grasses, though. The grasses reproduce by wind pollination and do not need insects to carry the pollen. One grass does attract honey bees at times, and the plant is corn. Honey bees may be seen flying down rows of corn. As the bees fly, their hairy bodies take on an electrostatic charge. Flying among the tassels of corn plants, the pollen jumps onto the hairs of the bees’ bodies. Back at the hive, the corn pollen, along with other pollens, is mixed with honey to make bee bread to be feed to the brood. A diverse diet of pollens makes for good nutrition for the developing bees. Pollen contains protein, vitamins, minerals, and fats, or lipids. While the honey bees bring some corn pollen into the hive, corn produces no nectar; so there is no honey made from corn.

In the photo we can see broom corn being grown as produce at Whitton Farms in the foreground. In the distance, beyond the Peace Bee Farm bee hives that pollinate the Whitton produce and flowers, you can see a large field of corn. This variety of corn seen in the distance is most likely to produce grain to be converted into ethanol for fuel. To see more about the activity at Whitton Farms, visit their web site,

Thursday, July 23, 2009

4-H Trains Leaders

Tennessee 4-H is designed to develop citizenship, leadership, and life skills. The Tennessee Beekeepers Association is sponsoring the 4-H beekeeping and entomology program. As I am serving as president of the state-wide beekeeping organization, I was invited to participate in the 4-H Roundup as a judge of high school students who participated in beekeeping and entomology projects. The students made oral presentations before a group of judges at the University of Tennessee-Martin campus. Tod Underhill also served as a judge. As well as being active at Peace Bee Farm, Tod is an instructor at The University of Memphis. We both spent an enjoyable day meeting with students who had definitely gained specific skills in the study of beekeeping and the broader study of entomology. They also demonstrated that they were developing communications skills, poise in making presentations, and self confidence. Each of the students was quite impressive in his or her presentation. Jonathan Belcher of Rockvale, Tennessee and Phillip Adams of Burns, Tennessee were the winners. Jonathan received a college scholarship, and Phillip won a trip to the National 4-H Congress. I congratulate each of those who participated

Today’s photo is swamp mallow, which is now in bloom. Swamp mallow can be seen in the damp ground along drainage ditches and bodies of water in the Arkansas Delta. The large, bell-shaped flowers are particularly attractive to bumble bees as seen in the photo. The bumble bees climb deep into the flower, stay for a considerable amount of time, and then emerge covered in pollen. Click on the photo to see the bumble emerging from the flower. The swamp mallow is in the same family as hollyhock, hibiscus, rose of Sharon, and cotton.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

From Bird House to Bee Hive

Honey bees expand their territory and numbers of colonies by dividing the hive and swarming. This colony-wide method of reproduction typically occurs in the spring, but some swarming is done in the summer and fall. When the swarming bees leave their old hive, they take their old queen along with them. They leave behind a new queen or capped queen cell, which is ready to emerge as a queen. The swarm flies around then stops for a while, searching for a cavity to use as a permanent nest. The cavity is often an object that was not intended for housing honey bees. In the photo you may see honey bees that occupied a large, decorative bird house in a suburban garden. After the bees filled the cavity with comb and honey, the weight caused the bird house to fall to the ground. At the request of the homeowner, I removed the bird house and the bees.

I carried the bird house to a distant bee yard where I take swarms with their unknown genetics. I placed the bird house on a screened hive bottom and enclosed it in two medium-depth hive bodies. Above the bird house, I placed another hive body filled with drawn comb. In the center of this upper box, I placed a frame of open brood, borrowed from another colony. Nurse bees were attracted to the pheromones of the open brood, and they moved up immediately. Over time, more and more bees moved up into the frames of comb. It is a natural tendency for honey bees to move their brood nest upward. Once the queen moved into the upper box, I was able to hold her there by placing a queen excluder under this box. After a brood cycle of 21 days, all of the honey bee eggs laid in the bird house had emerged as adults. I was then able to remove the bird house and the empty lower hive body boxes. This transition from a bird house to a modern Langstroth bee hive was successful. It is now a productive hive. Much of the enjoyment of beekeeping comes from the challenges of continually solving situations such as this colony transfer.

Arkansas Rice

Honey bees in the Arkansas Delta are surrounded by open agricultural fields in a variety of crops. One of the most beautiful sights is a flooded rice field. The lush plants grow in several inches of water held in place by levees which trace the contour of the land. Some of these crops, notably cotton and soybeans, produce an abundance of nectar for the honey bees to use to make honey. Other crops produce no nectar and are virtually worthless to the honey bees. The crops that produce nectar are flowering plants; the crops that don’t produce nectar are grasses. Rice is a grass, as are corn, wheat, and grain sorghum, which is often called milo. The rice fields do, however, provide a convenient source of water for the honey bee colonies. The bees find favorable watering places along the rice field levees. The bees like to collect water in sunlit spaces in the open. The Delta is wide-open flat land. A line of trees marks a drainage canal. In the summertime, water may be scarce; and a close-by rice field may quite welcome. Bees collect a considerable amount of water to cool the hive.

Arkansas produces about 45 percent of the United States’ rice crop with about 1.3 million acres planted in eastern Arkansas. Other states producing rice are Texas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri. Rice is shipped from Arkansas around the world.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Combining Bee Hives

Honey bees have remarkable mouth parts. Since their natural home is a hollow tree, they have the ability to shape wood with their mandibles. When a swarm of honey bees moves into a cavity in a hollow tree, the worker bees clean up the inside of the tree. They chew away any loose particles of wood. Beekeepers can take advantage of this wood chewing ability in a technique for combining two colonies of bees into one hive. If the beekeeper simply combines two colonies, the bees are likely to fight. The result is the death of many bees. The fighting can be avoided, and the bees can be united to become a single colony occupying the hive by separating the two original colonies with a sheet of newspaper. As newspaper is made of particles of wood, the bees can chew through the paper over a period of several days. While the bees are chewing the paper, they begin to get accustomed to the odor of the other colony. By the time that the paper is perforated, the colony odors are blended into one.

In the photo, you can see where I am combining a colony having a young, laying queen with a colony which has lost its queen. The queen-less colony is under the newspaper; the queen-right colony is on the top. While moving the strong queen-right colony, I used a double screen board as a temporary cover to provide plenty of ventilation for the bees. This screen arrangement at the top will be replaced with normal covers. Care must be taken to ensure that all of the bees have adequate ventilation until they have had time to chew through the newspaper. Here at Peace Bee Farm, this method of re-queening colonies is almost always successful.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Food Crops Need Honey Bees

At least 90 of our food crops require insects to pollinate the plants in order to produce their fruits, nuts, or seeds. These crops make up about one third of our human diet. From farms pollinated by honey bees we get apples, pears, plums, almonds, watermelons, pumpkins, cucumbers, blueberries, and many other foods. Honey bees also pollinate the alfalfa and clover fields to produce forage for beef and dairy cattle. The major foods that we eat that do not require insect pollination are corn, wheat, oats, and rice. These are each grasses, which are pollinated by the wind and don’t require insects for pollination.

The honey bee is the preferred pollinator of most food crops. There are several reasons why the honey bee accomplishes at least 85 percent of our food pollination. The honey bee lives in large, social colonies which can be housed in durable wooden hives and transported from place to place on trucks. The bees don’t naturally die off annually, instead they maintain permanent colonies. Also, as Charles Darwin observed, the honey bees continue foraging on a single species of plant. This behavior, called flower constancy, makes the honey bee an effective crop pollinator. Foraging in the same species of plants distributes the appropriate pollen to the stigma of the receiving flower, thus accomplishing pollination. In the photo, we see field peas in bloom and producing the protein-rich seeds which we eat. The peas, like beans and peanuts, are members of the important family of bee plants, the legumes. These staples in our diet rely upon honey bees for pollination. For information about how we can help protect the pollinators that we rely on to produce our food, visit the web site of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign at:

Friday, July 17, 2009

Trapping Honey Bee Pollen

A beekeeper must always be planning well in advance. Beekeeping involves a continuously changing series of tasks based upon honey bee biology. In temperate regions, like the Arkansas Delta, the bees are continuously changing their activities based broadly upon a schedule of collecting nectar and making honey in the spring, summer, and fall to be eaten in the winter. Queens lay eggs throughout the year, stopping only in the middle of winter. Colonies expand rapidly in the spring, often swarming to propagate new colonies. To stimulate drone production next spring in advance of raising new queens, we will feed the bees pollen. We collect bee pollen in the summer in traps located at the entrance to some of the bee hives. The summer pollen, collected from diverse sources, will be quite valuable late next winter for honey bee nutrition. Nutrition is a key factor in the production of high quality queen bees as well. We will feed the colonies producing next year’s queens pollen throughout the queen's development.

The pollen trap brushes the pollen off the pollen baskets of foraging worker bees as they enter the hive. The pollen falls into a screen basket and is removed daily. The pollen is immediately frozen and remains in the freezer until used. Pollen traps are designed to not be completely efficient. If they captured all of the pollen being brought into the hive, the colony’s brood would starve. When the pollen trap is set to collect, the bees compensate for their loss of pollen by recruiting extra pollen foragers. Many people like to eat honey bee pollen, as it contains protein, vitamins, minerals, and lipids, or fats. One of my favorite breakfast meals is a cup of McCarter's chicory coffee and a banana sprinkled with honey bee pollen.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cotton in Bloom

Cotton is in bloom in Arkansas’ Mississippi River Delta. Cotton and soybeans are the two most important nectar producing plants in the region. Both crops are planted in broad expanses throughout the Delta. Cotton is a member of the mallow family, which includes the hibiscus and swamp mallows. Cotton is a good example of a plant which contains both floral and extra-floral nectaries. The nectaries are the part of the plant which secrete nectar. Cotton produces nectar inside the pale yellow flowers on the first day of the bloom. By the second day, the flowers change color, becoming dark pink. At this time, the nectar stops flowing inside the bloom; and honey bees stop visiting the flowers. Cotton also contains nectaries on the green bracts at the base of the flower. A third nectary exists along the underside of the leaves. All three nectaries produce large amounts of nectar to attract the honey bee.

Cotton honey is light in color and flavor. Like all flower honeys, cotton honey has a tendency to crystallize fairly rapidly. Tree honeys generally granulate more slowly. Some of the sugars that comprise honey are stable as a crystal, not as a liquid. Of course, the granulation of honey does not affect its quality or taste; and the honey may be easily re-liquefied by gently warming. Hot, buttered biscuits call out for cotton honey.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Soybeans in Bloom

Nectar is flowing in the Arkansas Delta. The principal two honey plants in the region are soybeans and cotton. The soybeans are now in bloom in many of the expansive fields across the Delta. There is a continuous period of bloom for over a month due to the number of varieties of soybeans planted. Farmers plant varieties that mature at different times to stagger the harvest as well as take advantage of drought-resistant qualities of certain varieties. The result is a nectar producing season lasting several weeks for the honey bees in the Delta. The large acreage of soybeans accounts for the majority of honey produced in the region. Since it takes two million flower visits to produce one pound of honey, it takes many plants to produce a significant nectar flow. Those plants can be found in abundance in the Arkansas Delta. Soybean honey is mildly flavored and light amber in color. It is definitely one of my favorite honeys.

The soybean is a legume, an important family of nectar-producing plants. The legumes include a number of flowering trees including black locus, mimosa, redbud, and Kentucky coffee tree. Other legumes which are smaller plants and vines include the clovers, vetch, lespedeza, wisteria, kudzu vine, the peas and beans, and peanuts. The legumes are especially useful in the environment because many of them have bacteria growing on their roots that take atmospheric nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil. The legumes thus enrich the soil in which they grow. To produce their seeds, the legumes must be pollinated by the bees.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

In the Honey House

Whenever flowering plants are in bloom, the honey bees gather nectar and convert it into honey. They place the honey close to the brood, so that it may be conveniently mixed with pollen to make bee bread to feed to the larvae. If there is a significant nectar flow, the bees can store a surplus of honey. The surplus honey is stored in the frames in the upper portion of the bee hive. These frames are contained in boxes called supers. The supers are separated from the hive’s brood nest by a queen excluder, which is a sheet of plastic or metal with holes that are too small for a queen or drone to pass through. Worker bees, being slightly smaller, can pass through the queen excluder and enter the honey supers. In the supers, the workers draw out cells of beeswax, fill them with nectar, and mix the nectar with enzymes that they produce to chemically change the flower sugars to honey. Next, the worker bees fan the honey with their wings to evaporate the excess moisture. Once the honey is concentrated to 18 percent water content, the bees cap the cells with beeswax. This fully ripened honey is 82 percent sugar, and at such a concentration the honey will last indefinitely.

In the honey house, the beekeeper’s task is to remove the beeswax cappings to expose the honey. The honey can then be removed from the frames by spinning the frames in a machine called an extractor. This releases the honey which only needs straining to remove particles of beeswax from the uncapping procedure. There are numerous ways for beekeepers to handle the honey. At Peace Bee Farm, we prefer to uncap the frames with a sharp, cold knife. Rita is holding a frame of honey with the cappings removed, the frame ready for extraction. After the honey is removed, the frame is available for reuse in the bee hives. The frames can be returned to the bees this year, or they may be stored for use next spring.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Buckwheat Vine in Bloom

Buckwheat vine grows in low, damp soil. The vine can be found throughout the Arkansas Delta covering low trees, fences, and utility poles in a thick, tangled mass of light green foliage. The vine is in bloom now and is covered with honey bees, many species of solitary bees, and other insects. When you look at the number of different insects visiting the exposed flowers of buckwheat vine on a sunny day, it is obvious that this is an important nectar-producing plant. The honey bees work the flowers of the vine heavily, gathering large quantities of nectar. Following pollination of the flowers the fruit appears which gives the buckwheat vine its other common name, ladies’ eardrops. The fruits are elongated pods that hang in great clusters throughout the rest of summer and fall. Click on the photo to see a honey bee foraging for nectar from the open flowers of buckwheat vine. At the top, you can see the fruit beginning to form into teardrop shapes.

While buckwheat vine is a prolific producer of nectar for the bees to gather and turn into honey, the vine is not appreciated by many other than beekeepers. Farmers tire of pulling the thick clumps of tough vines and leaves from their equipment. If the vines are left entangled in a cultivator, the mass of foliage will pull the crop out of the ground. For the beekeeper, buckwheat vine is one of the many flowering plants that add to the complexity of the tastes of honey.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Honey Bees in the Wild

The natural home for the honey bee is a cavity. Usually this natural cavity is a hollow tree. Around people, the bees may find a hollow cavity in the walls of a house, a hollow porch column, a bird house, mail box, or barbecue pit as an acceptable substitute. The modern bee hive is actually designed to be like a hollow tree. In areas where they are available, honey bees also build their nests in natural cavities in rock structures, like crevices in rock facings. You won’t find any such natural structures in the table-top flat Mississippi River Delta of Arkansas. Rocks are not even to be found in the alluvial soil of the flood plain. Returning from one of our outlying bee yards, I did spot a natural honey bee nest in a concrete drain under Interstate Highway 55. The concrete structure made a cave to attract a swarm of honey bees.

I ventured down into the ditch for a closer look. If you click on the picture you can see that there are no bees in this natural nest, just sheets of empty comb. The bees have died or abandoned the nest. The lower sheets of honey comb are black in color, the result of earlier flooding in the ditch. The lighter colored sheets of honey comb are more recently built. They are broken by flash flooding from recent thunderstorms. Wax moth larvae have just started to mine their way through the combs. It won’t take long for them to destroy the entire nest. The cells are all empty, robbed of stored honey by robber honey bees from distant colonies. A queen cell hangs in the upper left corner of the nest. This location proved to be an unsatisfactory site for a honey bee nest. Only about 20 percent of honey bee swarms survive. Many build their nests in poorly protected locations. If they do survive their initial move, swarm colonies often live for a number of years.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Foraging for Water

Honey bees have the ability to accomplish a remarkable feat for a cold-bloodied animal: They regulate the temperature of their nest throughout the year. Whenever the honey bees have brood in the hive, they maintain the temperature of the brood nest at around 95 degrees. The brood is the developing stages of the bees: eggs, larvae, and pupae. In this region, there is brood present over most of the year. Only during a short period in the winter do the bees completely stop producing brood. In the summer here in the Arkansas Delta, the honey bees have to cool the hive down to an internal temperature of 95 degrees. To cool the hive, foraging worker bees seek sources of water; and they carry the water back to the hive in their honey gut. Inside the hive, the water is used to cool the hive by worker bees fanning their wings to evaporate water and circulate cooled air. The returning foragers pass off the water to bees waiting to fan the hive. The foragers will continue to forage for water as long as workers accept their water. When the water is no longer needed, the foragers hold the water in their honey gut. The honey bees themselves act as a storage device, as the bees don’t store water in the hive.

The honey bees will bring water back to the bee hive from any available source. They prefer a source located in the sun. Water with a flavor is preferred by the bees over clean, flavorless water. For this reason, honey bees are attracted to suburban swimming pools treated with chemicals. Bird baths and pet watering bowls are also favored watering places for honey bees. Beekeepers provide water for the bees and often position bee yards on the east side of trees to provide afternoon shade to help cool the hives in the summer. By the way, I was on my hands and knees yesterday taking this picture of honey bees foraging in one of the poultry watering bowls when a bobcat grabbed a chicken close behind my back. The bees were too busy to notice the commotion.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Predators and Prey

Over time, nature reaches a balance between numbers of predators and prey. In the short run, however, the predators may cause quite a bit of damage to their host population. That has been the situation here at Peace Farm. Predators have killed at least 40 domestic birds this year. The predators, including coyotes, feral dogs, and bobcats have taken pea fowl, guinea fowl, chukar partridges, geese, and chickens. On occasion, while working in a close-by bee yard, I would see an animal run through the bee hives carrying a chicken in its mouth. One bobcat became so emboldened that it ambushed a chicken yesterday at noon just 20 feet behind my back. Killing five birds a day, the bobcat freely ventured into the lawn of our home stalking prey. Its reign ended today when we spotted it stalking rabbits in a pollinator garden in our front lawn. Ethan, our nine-year-old beekeeper grandson, holds the dead bobcat.

Arriving in the United States in 1984 and 1987, parasitic mites attacked the honey bees in America with the same deadly effect as the predators attacking our domestic birds. Serious die-offs were experienced. Now, beekeepers are finding ways to help their honey bees live with the parasitic mites. I believe that genetically resistant strains of bees, integrated pest management programs, and time will shift the balance back in favor of the honey bee. Oh, a dozen or more chickens were born today in the incubator, the offspring of the silky rooster and hen that the bobcat killed yesterday afternoon.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sunflowers in Bloom

Sunflowers in bloom are a sure sign of summer. The sunflowers are a member of the important family of bee plants, the composites. The composite family, also called the sunflower family, is among the largest families of flowering plants. Worldwide, composites make up one tenth of the 250 thousand flowering plants. They exist on all continents except Antarctica. We recognize many of the composites: coneflower, dandelion, coreopsis, marigold, asters, and zinnias. Many composites are placed in landscape plantings and in parks for the beauty of their flowers. Composites are producers of nectar and pollen, making them excellent bee plants.

In the photo, you can see sunflowers growing near our bee yard at Whitton Flowers and Produce in Whitton, Arkansas. Jill and Keith Forrester grow cut flowers and fresh produce on their family farm. At this time of the year, Jill’s sunflowers are prized for their bright appearance in flower arrangements. Once the sunflower has been pollinated by a honey bee, the plant produces the distinctive black seeds in the center of the flower. The sunflowers are of particular value to the honey bee for their pollen. Many of the sunflowers, however, produce so much pollen that they were not in demand for table arrangements. The flowers simply spill their abundant pollen onto the table cloth. Horticulturists have developed sunflowers in recent years specifically for floral use that produce little pollen. One variety of sunflowers often grown for bird seed, the black oil sunflower, is not favored by the honey bee. There are many other varieties of sunflower which are very attractive to honey bees and native pollinators. Visit the Forresters’ web site at

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Feral Honey Bees Found

Researchers at the University of Arkansas’s Insect Genetics Laboratory have been conducting a study of genetic variation of honey bees in southern and central states by DNA sequencing a portion of the mitochondrial DNA genome. Mitochondrial DNA is maternally inherited and is ideal for tracing honey bee genealogy. Sampling both feral and managed colonies, the researchers sequenced samples from 13 states and found all four honey bee lineages known to exist in the United States: Eastern European, Western European, Middle Eastern, and African. There were two findings of the study which I found most encouraging. First, they found the old German dark bee still existing in eight percent of feral colonies even though this subspecies has not been preferred by beekeepers for over 100 years. I caught a swarm of German dark bees a few years ago and released them in the woods. I know that they survived, because I find their black offspring in my hives from time to time. The other finding that struck me was that the subspecies of honey bee from the Mediterranean East Coast still exists in 11 percent of feral colonies even though this bee has not been imported into the United States since the 1880s. What does this mean? To me, it says that the feral bees have not all died out. They exist and possibly provide the necessary genes for our honey bees to survive in the changing environment that has been so harsh to our managed hives.

Today’s photo shows Debra McCarter of McCarter Coffee Company of Millington, Tennessee with her roasted coffees at the Memphis Farmers Market. Look closely and you can see their monkey logo on the table. Jim McCarter explains that coffee, which is grown at altitude in a band of 10 degrees latitude either side of the equator, is one of the most lucrative agricultural exports for developing countries around the world. The coffee industry employs many individuals in the remote coffee-growing regions. For example, even families not growing coffee may hand sew the cotton coffee sacks for shipping the beans. We see Debra and Jim regularly at farmers markets. You may visit their web site at We enjoy their coffee every morning.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Harvesting Honey

In the wild, honey bees build a nest of beeswax honey comb in a shape to accommodate a tree cavity, a crevice, or the walls of a house. Many of these natural honey bee nests have similar structures. The entrance is usually low. Above the entrance is the brood area surrounded by a thin layer of pollen and a thicker layer of honey. The pollen and honey are kept close to the brood for ease of feeding the developing larvae. If a strong nectar flow occurs and there is surplus of honey to be stored in the hive, the bees usually place it above the brood nest. As the bees make more honey, they expand the storage area upward. Modern bee hives borrow this natural honey bee nest design. The entrance is at the bottom of the hive. Above the entrance is the brood nest area, and above that the honey storage area. The honey is stored in boxes which can be superimposed one on top of another. The boxes are thus called “supers.”

There are numerous ways to remove the honey from the bee hive. Some beekeepers wait until all of the surplus honey is ready and then remove it at one time. Here at Peace Bee Farm, we prefer to continuously remove frames of honey as they become fully ripened by the bees. We can tell that the honey is ready to be removed from the hive because the bees cap the cells of honey once they have evaporated the honey until there is only an 18 percent water content. At this concentration of sugars in the honey, the liquid honey can be extracted mechanically; and the honey will last forever. In the photo, Rita gently brushes the bees from a frame of honey ready to extract. Handled in this manner, the bees hardly recognize that they have been robbed of their honey.