Sunday, August 30, 2009

Milkweed in Bloom

Milkweed is an important bee plant that provides both nectar and pollen. It is also well known as being the sole source of larva food for the beautiful monarch butterfly. This common, climbing vine is attractive to a number of different species of insects. The plant that I encountered on the disturbed margin of a clover field was being visited by numerous monarchs as well as honey bees and native solitary bees. Click on the photo to see a foraging honey bee approaching a cluster of milkweed flowers. Pollination of milkweed is accomplished by insects, but the procedure is slightly different from that of most other flowering plants. Milkweed pollen is held in pollen sacs instead of individual grains. These are located in slits in the flower’s anthers. When an insect steps into a slit, a pair of pollen sacs is attached to the insect; and pollination occurs when the insect steps into the anther slit of another flower.

Milkweed is a plant of varied folk medicine and cultural uses. After being pollinated by an insect, the fertilized milkweed produces seed, covered in fine filaments and held in a pod. The seeds are distributed by the wind. The filaments provide greater insulation than down feathers. Native Americans collected milkweed nectar as a sweetener. The sticky, white sap of milkweed is used as a folk remedy for removal of warts. It is applied several times a day until the wart falls off. Milkweed sap is used in another folk remedy as an effective treatment of poison ivy rashes. The milkweed plant is toxic; animals eating one tenth their body weight in milkweed may die. Milkweed is an interesting plant that is often included in pollinator gardens. Many gardeners welcome milkweed to support the bees and the monarch butterflies.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Small Hive Beetle Invasion

The small hive beetle probably entered the United States like many invasive species as a stow-away in a cargo ship. The unintentional migration of this honey bee pest from Africa occurred about a decade ago. The beetle entered the Arkansas Delta about 2004. As the beetle is virtually unchecked by any natural predators, it spread rapidly to almost all parts of the country. This invader is thought to be capable of flying for miles, and it is moved with migratory bee hives on trucks.

The small hive beetle is an opportunistic invader of bee hives. The adult beetle, about a third the size of a lady beetle, can live inside the bee hive, protected from the bees by a hard covering. The beetles often occupy a healthy hive and wait to move to a weakened, stressed, or queen-less hive. The small hive beetles are attracted to a stressed hive by the alarm pheromone given off by honey bees. Inside the stressed hive, the small hive beetles lay eggs. The beetles develop through a full four-stage metamorphosis like the honey bee. It is the second stage of the small hive beetle’s development that damages the honey bee hive. The small hive beetle larvae eat everything in the hive: comb, brood, pollen, and honey. They turn the hive into their waste, a wet, brown slime with the odor of fermenting oranges. The odor attracts small hive beetles from miles around and repels honey bees. Bees will abandon the slimed hive, often in a manner of a few days. Click on the photo of small hive beetles starting to take over a queen-less hive. The first sign of trouble that I detected was bubbles developing in the fermenting honey in the supers above the brood nest. Fermenting honey is in the cells to the upper left. Caught early, before the combs are slimed, the beetles may be killed by freezing the frames.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Honey Bees are Survivors

Through the colony’s social structure, honey bees are highly adaptable. I am getting reports from across the Mid-South of bee colonies responding to the unseasonal cool and damp weather we encountered during this spring and summer. A number of beekeepers report honey production is far below that of past years. It appears that the honey bees are utilizing survival tactics as a result of the diminished nectar flow. I have observed some queens stopping their egg laying. The colony controls the queen’s egg laying by restricting the queen’s diet. I have also observed colonies killing off their drones earlier in the summer, an event that usually doesn’t occur until the frost of late November. Beekeeper Shirley Murphy reported robbing of her Tennessee River bees. She was able to control the robbing behavior by placing an entrance reducer in the hive. The reducer gives the colony’s guard bees the advantage over the robbers, because the guards have less area to defend. The colony that was being robbed also appears to have resorted to cannibalism of the drone brood. This behavior makes the colony more survivable by returning nutrients to the colony and reducing the feeding requirements for the brood. The honey bee’s social order is thus capable of adjusting the colony’s population and food requirements in response to the reduction in available food.

Today’s photo is of false indigo, a member of the important bee plant family, the legumes. If you click on the picture, you can see that it is being worked by one of the native pollinators, a bumblebee. Even though the false indigo grows in one of my bee yards, today I found it being worked by bumblebees and butterflies. Honey bees forage wherever there is an abundance of nectar and a concentration of sugars. They will choose to forage the strongest nectar sources or rob a weakened hive.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Summer Hive Inspection

In the summertime, hive inspections are made less frequently. Because the honey supers are placed atop the hive bodies, it may mean moving hundreds of pounds of equipment just to get to the brood nest. By August, the hives have between two and six medium-size honey supers in place. Each super may weigh up to sixty pounds. The heat and humidity in the Delta are true limiting factors in the beekeeping task. Still, there are times when it is necessary to look into the brood nest and evaluate the hive. If there are dead bees on the ground in front of the hive or a lower than normal population of bees inside the hive, a thorough inspection hive is made. This year’s excessive number of rainy days made for some sporadic nectar flows. Some nectar producing plants just didn’t produce nectar during their bloom period simply because the cloud cover reduced photosynthesis. During these times of dearth, some bees, particularly those of Eastern European lineage, revert to survival instincts and stop brood production. These cool-climate races of bees survive during long winters and nectar dearth by stopping brood production, which consumes large amounts of food.

Click on the photo, taken in the brood nest of a hive showing a low population of bees in the honey supers. There are plenty of bees in the brood nest area. All three castes of bees can be found: workers, drones, and the queen. A drone is in the upper, right quadrant; the queen, marked in green, is to the left of center. Capped brood, holding pupae, is present; but there are no eggs or open larvae to be found. It appears that the queen has not been laying eggs for at least nine days. This colony should survive. With a strong nectar flow from fall wildflowers, or my supplemental feeding of sugar syrup, the queen should start laying eggs again and replenish the colony population. This year’s honey crop will be diminished, though.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Grain Sorghum in the Delta

Grain sorghum, also called milo, is a cereal grain grown in the Arkansas Delta. In places, large tracts of the short, heavy-bodied plants grow. The plants are topped with large seed heads. Grain sorghum is used in the production of food, fodder, sorghum molasses, alcoholic beverages, and biofuels. Grain sorghum, like rice, wheat, and corn is a grass. The grasses are wind pollinated and don’t need insects like honey bees for pollination. They therefore don’t need to offer nectar or pollen to entice bees. The other two major crops of the Delta, soybeans and cotton, are flowering plants. They both offer the honey bees a reward of nectar and pollen to attract the insects for pollination, a necessary step for seed production and plant reproduction. Soybeans and cotton are major sources of nectar for honey production. The acreage planted in grain sorghum—or rice, wheat, or corn—is like a desert to the honey bee. A bee flying over a large grain sorghum field will find nothing to eat or bring back to the hive.

Farming in the Arkansas Delta is an example of modern industrial agriculture. It is highly efficient in producing large amounts of high value food and fiber crops. For the honey bees and other pollinators, the modern farm can be a harsh environment. Large tracts of a single plant offer little forage except during the short time that that particular crop is in bloom. If the crops are grasses, the crops offer no food to the pollinators. Modern farm fields are often designed without a weedy margin. The crops are planted to the very edge of the field and borders are maintained without weeds. This arrangement often results in a shortage of year-around food and habitat for the pollinators. Information on protecting the pollinators can be found on the National Academy of Sciences web site:

Monday, August 24, 2009

Evening Primrose in Bloom

The evening primrose is a nighttime blooming wildflower. While I have observed it being worked at dawn by honey bees foraging for pollen, it primarily attracts other pollinators. I have seen flies, moths, butterflies, and solitary bees working evening primrose early in the morning. Luna moths, the size of small birds, work the flowers at night. Click on the picture to see a blue orchard bee foraging for pollen in an evening primrose blossom. The fast flying and gentle blue orchard bee strikes the flower hard and then scrubs its body around inside of the blossom. Its active movement inside the flower makes the blue orchard bee an effective pollinator. The native blue orchard bee carries its load of pollen on hairs on the lower side of the bee’s abdomen.

The current research program that the USDA is funding to study bee health involves both honey bees and other pollinators. Bees that are not honey bees, called non-apis bees, are being established in managed arrangements at each of the seven bee yard locations in the nation-wide study. The purpose of this study of these non-apis bees is to determine if there are cross infections between the species. Bumble bees are being sampled to check for stress and, hopefully, increase efficiency of their use as pollinators. The investigators are also studying the effects of the neonicitinoid pesticides, like Imidacloprid, on the non-apis bees. They are looking into the sub-lethal effects of these pesticides and any effects caused by their residues. The non-apis bees, like the blue orchard bee, serve an important role in helping to pollinate flowering plants. They help the honey bee complete the pollination required to produce fruit and seeds for wildlife and humans.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bee Health Studies

Honey bees have been declining in numbers for the past three years. This year’s loss is slightly less than the previous two year’s losses of nearly a third of the nation’s bees each year. Yes, it’s been three years since the honey bees were first reported as leaving their hives in what is called Colony Collapse Disorder; and we still don’t have a known cause. The solution of the mystery has proven difficult, as there are numerous complex factors affecting honey bee health. The good news is that Colony Collapse Disorder brought enough attention that bee health is now receiving some long needed scrutiny. In the first year of a four year study headed by the University of Georgia, researchers have established seven apiaries across the country to study the genetics of the Varroa mite, honey bee viruses, Nosema parasites, miticides, and the effects of farm pesticides. They are also trying to encourage local production of queen bees to counter the effect of a lack of honey bee genetic diversity. The Environmental Protection Agency and the USDA have narrowed the potential causes of honey bee disease to six: new and re-emerging pathogens, pesticides, habitat loss, pests that infest bee hives, commercial bee management practices, and nutritional stress. Imidacloprid, a systemic insecticide in widespread use, has been suspected by beekeepers as being a possible cause of Colony Collapse Disorder. Its manufacturers claimed it was safe for bees. It may now be independently tested.

While examining my bee yard at the Memphis Botanic Garden, I walked over to the farmers market and ran into Marge and Joann. They come out each week, buy our honey, shop for fresh produce, and visit. They always ask about the bees. Hopefully, we will be able to start reporting some progress resulting from the studies in bee health. The University of Tennessee has placed extensive honey bee health information on the USDA web site Follow the path: Resource Areas-Farm-Bee Health.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Guard Bees Protect the Hive

From the time that honey bee workers emerge as adults, they progress through a series of hive jobs to help care for the colony. The bees have glands which enable the bees to perform various functions, and the bees’ jobs change as their glands develop. When the workers are about 21 days old, the venom in the sting is at its maximum potency, so they serve the hive as guards for a few days. Guard bees stand at the hive entrance on their back four legs with their front legs raised. The guard bees inspect every bee entering the hive. Bees entering the hive allow the guard bees to examine them with their front legs and antennae. The guard bees can determine if a bee belongs to its colony by the bee’s odor, as each hive has a distinct odor. Worker bees that belong to the colony are allowed to enter. Most any drone bee is allowed to enter as well. Also, almost any bee approaching the hive with a load of nectar or pollen is allowed to enter. The colony doesn’t mind accepting a free gift of food from a bee mistakenly entering the wrong hive.

The guard bees will sting and remove foreign intruders, such as bumble bees, wasps, and yellow jackets. They will also sting and attempt to drive away intruding skunks, raccoons, and beekeepers. The guard bees can extend their sting and release alarm pheromone to attract other guard bees if needed. Brandon Dill photographed three guard bees stinging an intruding honey bee at the entrance to one of our queen mating nucleus hives. The hive is equipped with a screen across the entrance to give the guard bees the advantage over robber bees. Guard bees play a most important role in protecting the colony. Other work by beekeeper and photographer Brandon Dill may be seen at

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Honey Bees Festoon

When honey bees build their comb, they work in teams. The teams of bees often festoon, or hang together to bridge open spaces in the hive. They are able to use their own bodies to bridge across areas by holding hands, of sorts, with other bees. The six legs of honey bees actually have pads and hooks. Each leg has a pair of hooks which they can use to hold onto another bee’s hooks. Using their bodies as a natural scaffolding arrangement, the bees build their nest out of beeswax which the young bees secrete from glands located on their lower abdomen. They take the secreted flakes of beeswax and make them into six sided cells using their mouth parts. Photographer and beekeeper Brandon Dill photographed these honey bees festooned across an opening in a bee hive. Click on the picture to see some real honey bee acrobatics. The hive opening resulted from my pulling out a frame of honey comb for inspection. Had I not returned the frame, the bees would have filled the area with a sheet of comb.

The honey bee uses its ability to hang together for a number of purposes. When bees swarm, they gather together in a mass of thousands of bees. As the swarm hangs onto a tree limb, they are festooned bee to bee by the hooks on the ends of their legs. Another time that bees festoon is when they hang out of the entrance of the hive in warm weather. Large numbers of bees can festoon outside of the hive to allow ventilation of the brood nest. You may see more of Brandon’s photographic work at

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Honey Extractor

The honey extractor was one of several great beekeeping inventions that came along in the Mid-1800s. The extractor made the collection of honey a non-destructive task. Previous methods of gathering honey always destroyed the honey comb. Some common methods of collecting honey killed the colony. It was common for groups of people to identify trees with bees living inside in a cavity. The tree would then be cut and the cavity exposed. The bees would be smoked and the comb removed. The comb would be pressed to release the honey. The honey would then be filtered through cheesecloth to remove debris and particles of beeswax. Pressing the honey out of the comb could liquefy proteins if there was any brood present. This altered the taste of the honey and made for a less than pure product.

The 1851 invention of the modern removable frame hive by Reverend L. L. Langstroth, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania pastor, made honey collection practical. With the new invention, frames of honey, capped in beeswax, could be removed from the bee hive. In the Langstroth hive, honey was stored separately from the brood, separated by a queen excluder. This arrangement eliminated the problem of proteins entering the honey. The cappings were removed by cutting or scratching. Next, the frames were placed in a honey extractor which Langstroth developed in 1867. The extractor spun the frames and removed the honey by centrifugal force. Early extractors were hand operated. Now many employ electric motors. The photo shows frames of honey glistening as the thick liquid honey is spun out. The pure honey is collected, and the frames and honey combs are saved for the bees to use again.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Controlling Varroa Mites

Varroa mites exist on almost every continent. Australia is probably the only location that does not have them yet. These mites are so damaging to the honey bee in the United States because the mite is not native to our bee. It is thought that Varroa jumped onto our honey bees, which are of European origin, from the Asian bee. Having lived together for a great length of time, the Asian bees and the Varroa parasites developed a working balance. If a parasite kills all of its hosts, it is doomed to die off as well. It is not practical to expect to be able to eradicate the Varroa mite. It is more reasonable to attempt to maintain honey bees that can live with the Varroa as the Asian bees do.

As beekeepers move away from using chemical miticides aimed at killing the Varroa mites, they are employing a number of integrated pest management techniques to reduce the numbers of mites in the colony. Some races of honey bees have been found to have behavioral traits that help them live with the mites. These honey bees can detect Varroa mites inside the capped brood cells. The bees open the cells and remove the developing pupa as well as the mites. Beekeepers can also dust the adult bees in the hive with powdered sugar to cause the bees to preen the mites off of each other. When the mites fall through screens at the bottom of the hive, they fall to the ground and are eaten by ants. Some essential oil-based mite treatments are being used in place of harsh chemicals to treat bees for mites. Beekeepers are adapting to the Varroa mites. Today’s photo is of a favorite shrub of the Mid-South, the crepe myrtle, which blooms throughout the summer and often attracts a great number of honey bees for nectar and pollen.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Varroa: Deadly to Bees

The Varroa mite is probably the greatest killer of honey bees. This parasite entered the United States in 1987, just three years after the tracheal mite was detected. Since then, the population of honey bees has declined steadily. The Varroa mite is a small creature, about the size of the head of a common sewing pin. It has eight legs and is related to other mites and ticks. Varroa are parasites of pupae and adult honey bees. The female Varroa mite enters the brood cell of a larva just before it is capped. It feeds on the larval food and then attaches to the pupa and sucks its bee blood for nutrition. The mites reproduce inside the cell, and then leave the cell attached to the adult honey bee when it emerges. The Varroa mite weakens its honey bee host and shortens its life by sucking its blood. However, it causes many more problems for the entire colony. The Varroa is thought to be responsible for vectoring at least 15 viruses affecting the honey bee. Colonies weakened by Varroa are subject to dying due to bacterial, fungal, or viral diseases.

The survival of colonies of honey bees is often the result of the beekeeper’s strategy to control Varroa mites. When parasitic mites first entered the United States, they decimated the honey bee populations. Chemical miticides were widely used, but the mites soon developed resistance to these agents. Now more natural methods of controlling the mites are being explored. All methods fit into carefully designed integrated pest management plans. At Peace Bee Farm, we start with genetically resistant honey bee stock, and then breed from the strongest survivor stock. Click on the picture to see a Varroa mite that Shirley Murphy located attached to a honey bee pupa.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Bees Build Burr Comb

Honey bees build their nest in an orderly fashion. The cavity space is occupied by honey comb built to fill the available space. Sometimes the comb is in straight, parallel sheets. At other times, the comb is placed in globs, or bumps, or in connecting sheets perpendicular to the main sheets. Honey bees will typically build 10 to 15 percent of their nest into these irregular structures, called burr comb. It is in the burr comb that the bees prefer to produce their drones. Worker brood comb and honey storage comb measures five cells per inch. Drone brood comb measures four cells per inch. Anytime that honey comb is damaged in the hive, the bees build new comb in the larger drone cell size. In the picture, Shirley Murphy photographed a piece of burr comb that was damaged during removal of a frame. The damage exposed drone pupae developing in the cells.

At Peace Bee Farm we place one frame of drone brood foundation in each hive body to give the bees a guide toward building 10 percent of their brood nest in drone comb. The drone brood comb is used in several functions as part of our integrated pest management program. Parasitic mites can be counted in the drone brood, and mites can be eliminated by freezing the frames of drone brood. Unwanted genetic behavioral traits, like excessive defensiveness, can be reduced as well by freezing the drone brood. Also, we can concentrate our best genes by using the frames of drone brood for drone bee saturation. A side benefit of using drone brood foundation is a cleaner hive. Since the bees have 10 percent of their drone need accomplished, they don’t build much burr comb in the hive. Burr comb does not always look good to us, but to the bees it is an important part of their nest.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Create Pollinator Habitat

The native pollinators are declining as well as the honey bees. Both are necessary for the health of the environment and for a large proportion of our food production. One of the major factors behind the decline in native pollinators is the increasing loss of pollinator habitat. Pollinators can usually find all that they need for survival when the natural environment is not disturbed. They require food, water, protective cover, and space, as do all animals. Pollinators also need a place to reproduce and nesting material. Modern agricultural practices often remove pollinator habitat from field margins. Our efforts to clean up the landscape of the cities and suburbs also tend to destroy pollinator habitats. The North American Pollinator Protection Campaign offers valuable information about how to help restore habitat for native pollinators in a curriculum posted at: A suitable habitat for pollinators may be a backyard vegetable garden, a kitchen herb garden, or a landscape planting in which chemicals are avoided.

Today’s photo is partridge pea, a bright yellow flowering plant in the legume family. The legumes, which include peas, beans, locust, mimosa, and redbud trees, and soybeans, are an important family of bee plants. When I found the partridge pea in bloom, it was being worked by several species of solitary bees and a few butterflies. In the photo you can see a solitary bee next to the bright yellow flower. No honey bees were visiting the partridge pea, but soybeans were in bloom in the area. Honey bees will work the plants that offer the greatest rewards in the amount of nectar and the concentration of sugars in the nectar. Partridge pea, once pollinated, produces fine seeds which are eaten by bob white quail. The partridge pea has been propagated to help restore quail habitat.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Slimed Bee Hive

International travel and trade regularly bring plants and animals into the country as accidental imports. Removed from their natural predators or controls, these plants or animals often grow rapidly in their new environment. The small hive beetle is an invasive species that entered the United States about 10 years ago. Aided by the transportation of migratory honey bee hives on trucks, the small hive beetle spread across the U.S. in short order. The small hive beetle was truly not a welcomed addition to American beekeeping, which was already in serious decline largely due to the effects of parasitic mites which entered the U.S. in the 1980s. The adult small hive beetle is an insect with a hard outer covering which protects it from the honey bees, allowing the beetle to live inside the bee hive. The beetles reproduce rapidly in a hive that is queenless or in stress. When the beetles reproduce, it is the larval stage of the small hive beetle that is extremely damaging to the honey bee hive. The larvae eat everything in the hive, leaving behind a “slimed” waste covering the badly damaged combs. The slime, which has the odor of rotting oranges, repels honey bees and attracts small hive beetles. The beetles can drive the honey bees from their hive in merely a few days.

To help control the beetles, it is important for the beekeeper to prevent the small hive beetle larvae from leaving the hive and entering the soil where they continue their life cycle as pupae. Whenever we find a slimed bee hive, we place all of the frames in heavy plastic bags to prevent the larvae from entering the soil. Lightly damaged frames can be frozen to kill the beetles and then washed in water and returned to the bees. Heavily slimed frames must be completely cleaned of all comb. In the photo you can see catfish helping take care of the hive residue. These scavengers eagerly eat the honey comb, fermented honey, protein-rich pollen, and worm-like beetle larvae.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Elderberry and Pigweed

The elderberry is a tall, common shrub of roadsides and forest margins. Throughout July, the plants were crowned with broad clusters of small, white, fragrant flowers. Now the flowers, pollinated by honey bees and other insect pollinators, are giving way to prolific bunches of berries. In the photo, the elder berry shows white flowers as well as green and dark purple berries. The ripe berries will darken and turn black in color. Elderberry is one of the flowering plants that go a long way toward supporting wildlife. The plant is browsed by deer. The berries are eaten by rabbits, fox, and squirrels. At least 25 species of birds including indigo bunting, bluebird, catbird, mockingbird, brown thrasher, phoebe, robin, dove, quail, turkey, and woodpeckers regularly eat the fruit of the elder berry plant. The elderberries are used to make pies, preserves, and wine.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported yesterday that hundreds of thousands of acres of soybean and cotton fields in the Mid-South have been infested by an herbicide-resistant strain of a common weed, Palmer pigweed. The pigweed is thriving in the presence of the most commonly used chemical herbicide, glyphosate, which is commonly sold under the trade name Roundup. Soybeans, cotton, and other plants have been genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate, allowing the weed killer to be sprayed directly on the crops. The herbicide-resistant pigweed can’t be controlled by glyphosate, so farmers are being required to return to labor-intensive hand chopping of the weed. We find in agriculture that chemical resistance commonly occurs. That has been the case with beekeeping, as strains of miticide-resistant mites replaced the first mites to enter this country. The beekeepers are having to adjust their mite control tactics; now the row-crop farmers will have to do the same.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Painted Queen Bees

At Peace Bee Farm the queen bees wear a dot of color for identification. Whenever I have the opportunity to locate the queen bee in a hive, I catch her and mark her thorax with a color to represent the current year. This year’s bees wear green. Whenever I find a queen that I have previously marked, I can immediately tell her age by the color of paint. The queen bee is the only long-lived bee in the colony. The dot of paint, of course, helps to make the queen bee stand out among the thousands of bees in the hive. Even though the queen bee is somewhat larger than the worker bees that comprise the majority of the colony, she is often overlooked. The queen’s abdomen is longer than a worker’s, and it is more wasp-like in shape. Other than the shape of the abdomen the queen and workers look quite alike. She is often not recognizable, even when one is looking directly at her. If the queen is laying an egg, her abdomen is hidden in a cell. Because she emits strong pheromones, the queen may be covered by worker bees, hiding her from sight. Possibly the most important reason that we feel like it is worth the effort to locate, catch, and paint our queen bees it to tell if they have been replaced by supersedure. If we find a queen that is not marked as our records indicate, we can assume that the colony has replaced her. Following a painted queen over a period of months or years allows us to continuously evaluate her as a potential mother of new queens to be raised in the future.

Brandon Dill photographed one of this year’s queens marked in green. The paint helped make the queen stand out among the hoard of nurse bees and queen attendant bees. Brandon’s work can be seen at

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Collapsing Honey Bee Colony

Accompanied by beekeeper and photographer Brandon Dill, I am checking the supers on some strong hives. Any hive with large population of bees and plenty of bees in the honey supers is considered normal. A large hive with few bees in the honey supers indicates a potentially collapsing colony. In those cases, we remove all of the honey supers and carefully examine the brood nest. Whenever we look into the brood nest, we are looking for evidence that we have a good, laying queen. The presence of eggs and young larvae indicates that there has been a queen in place in the past few days.

In the colony with the collapsing population of bees, we find eggs and larvae; but there is evidence that they are not the products of a good queen. Instead of the eggs being laid upright in the center of the cells, a number of eggs are laid on the sides of the cells. In a number of cells we find a number of eggs instead of a single egg. Click on Brandon’s photo to see cells with both a small c-shaped larva and extra eggs indicating multiple uses of the same cell over a number of days. Other cells show numbers of eggs laid in the same cell. This frame of brood appears to contain only non-fertile drone eggs and brood. There are two possible causes for drone laying. One is the presence of a worker bee with a fully developed reproductive system. The other potential cause is a queen bee that has depleted her supply of sperm and cannot fertilize eggs. In each case the colony is hopelessly doomed, as it cannot produce new workers or a new queen. A beekeeper must step in and take action or lose the colony. In each case the colony is unaware that it is collapsing because the laying worker and the sperm-depleted queen both secrete pheromones which stabilize the colony. See Brandon Dill’s powerful and imaginative work at:

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Spring Honey Flows

Light amber colored spring wildflower honey flows from the extractor. The honey is the result of an entire spring’s efforts by many a honey bee. It takes the full life’s efforts of 32 bees to make just one tablespoon of honey to pour over a hot buttered biscuit. To produce a one pound jar of honey, bees will have to visit 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.

This spring honey that Rita and I extract today is the small surplus that the always ambitious bees stored after they fed large volumes of honey to their developing young throughout the spring. To build up their population to large numbers, the bees started gathering nectar from dandelion flowers and red maple trees on any warm winter days. Throughout the winter and early spring the bees searched river bottoms for tupelo and black willow. The bees foraged each of the fruit trees in order: plum, pear, apple, and crabapple. The honey bees sought out the Delta’s wild flowers. Ample rains brought large stands of clover into bloom. Lawns not sprayed with herbicides became white carpets of clover blossoms. As the spring honey flows from the extractor, it is strained to remove flecks of beeswax and debris. The raw honey is ready to be bottled and eaten. It will not be heated or treated further. Over time, crystals of sugar will form in all honey. Crystallization of honey does not harm the food in any way; the crystallized honey retains all of its healthful qualities and flavor. Some of the sugars in honey are stable in the crystal form, not liquid. Also, honey is a highly concentrated sugar product, being about 82 percent sugars and 18 percent water. I’ll admit that I interrupted the writing of this piece for a bowl of ice cream topped with some spring honey from the Delta.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Extracting Honey

The recorded history of beekeeping tells us that man has managed honey bees for thousands of years. However, most of the advances in modern beekeeping occurred in the mid 1800s. In 1851, L. L. Langstroth developed the modern bee hive with removable frames to hold the honey combs. Shortly afterward, inventors went to work designing equipment to make the beeswax foundation upon which the bees build their honey combs. The foundation was embossed with the six-sided design of the honey bee cells. Other inventors designed the beekeeper’s smoker after the blacksmith’s forge bellows. Seven thousand year old cave paintings show Neanderthal Man calming bees with the smoke from a torch. The beekeeper’s smoker made the use of smoke convenient. With honey comb housed in removable frames, the beekeeper of the mid 1800s had options for handling the hive’s honey. While all previous methods of handling the honey were destructive of the comb, Langstroth’s removable frames of honey comb could be reused. Beeswax comb built by the bees this year can be used by the bees to hold next year’s honey crop.

The fourth major beekeeping invention of the mid 1800s was the extractor, a machine used to spin the honey out of the combs. After the beekeeper removes the beeswax capping over the cells of honey, the frames are placed in the extractor. As the extractor spins, centrifugal force removes the honey. Rita is loading frames of honey into the extractor in the Peace Bee Farm honey house. The output of the extractor is light amber spring wildflower honey.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Passion Flower in Bloom

The passion flower is truly one of the showiest of all of the wildflowers. A break in the rain found the flowers of this climbing vine being worked heavily by honey bees as well as a number of different species of solitary bees. The honey bees climbed into the pale purple bloom and collected pollen while hanging upside down from the large exposed anthers. As the bees groom the abundant pollen from their hairy bodies, they brush some onto the sticky surface of the flower’s stigma. This transfer of pollen is a necessary step in the reproduction of the passion flower. After pollination, it produces its fruit, a lemon-sized berry called a maypop. Inside the maypop are seeds which are favored by songbirds, particularly bobwhite quail. The honey bee helps provide food for wildlife by pollinating plants.

The passion flower is an herbal remedy used to treat sleep disorders and to relieve pain. Its aerial foliage is collected for this herbal use. Passion flower is a native of the southern United States as well as Central and South America. Click on the photo to see one honey bee grooming pollen onto its honey baskets while two others arrive to forage. The honey bee on the left already has a partial load of pollen in its pollen baskets located on the hind legs. This beautiful plant clearly illustrates how flowering plants attract bees and as a result get reproduced.