Monday, November 30, 2009

L. L. Langstroth

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

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

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fighting at the Hive Entrance

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

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

Saturday, November 28, 2009

First Frost

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

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

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Mustard Family

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

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

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Harvest

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Storing Honey for Winter

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2009


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

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

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Soybean Harvest

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Composite Family

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Honey Bee Tracheal Mites

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Communication and Navigation

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Rose Family

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

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

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Marking a Queen Bee

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

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

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Mint Family

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Legume Family

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

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

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Beekeeper Mentoring Program

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

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

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Bee Hive Set-Up for Winter

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

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

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Snapdragon Family

There are several families of plants that are considered to be important to the honey bees and other pollinators because they are good sources of nectar and pollen. With the pollinators in decline, many are attempting to help restore the food and habitat that the pollinators require. One way of doing this is by creating pollinator gardens. These are gardens of various sorts: flower beds, kitchen gardens, herb gardens, landscape plantings, vegetable gardens, even planters and window boxes. A key element in making a pollinator garden is to prudently avoid the use of chemical pesticides that will harm the pollinators. Having some undisturbed soil around the plantings helps provide habitat for underground nesting insects, like the bumble bees. One should choose plants for the pollinator garden that will provide food in the form of nectar and pollen or food for developing larvae.

One way to choose plants that will be effective attractors to the various species of pollinators is to select members of the important bee plant families. One of those families is the snapdragon or figwort family, Scrophulariaceae. This family is made of a number of colorful plants which make for beautiful natural plantings. Among the snapdragons are Gerardia, false foxglove, Indian paintbrush, blue toadflax, red penstemon, woolly mullein, and speedwell. This family also includes the foxgloves and snapdragons from which Digitalis is produced. The honey bee, through pollination of flowering plants, helps produce some of our important medicines. There is one woody member of the snapdragon family which can be found in old homesteads around the Arkansas Delta. It is the Empress tree shown in today’s photo: a large, spreading tree and a native of China, which was planted in the past and later escaped. Empress tree flowers in April and May. The flower buds are rusty tan husks that remain on the tree through the fall and winter.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pheromones Protect the Bee Hive

Since honey bees are social insects living in large colonies, communication among the individual bees is important. Honey bees communicate by detecting vibrations, tastes, and odors with their acute senses. The use of chemical odors seems to be the honey bees’ greatest means of communications. Odors that are secreted by glands and sensed by members of the same species are called pheromones. There are two times when you can find bees standing with their abdomens raised and fanning their wings. One time is when the bees are fanning across glands located in the abdomen to release pheromones to guide bees to the hive. The other time that bees fan their wings across their raised tails is when they are alarmed. Alarmed guard bees can be found on the inner covers of hives when the outer covers are removed. In cool weather, like we are currently experiencing, the hive covers often open with a loud pop, as the propolis bee glue on them is brittle. The bees in the hive detect the vibration through sensors in their legs and are alerted. Alerted bees differ in appearance from bees fanning to guide bees to the hive in that alerted bees extend the sting.

Click on today’s photo to see guard worker bees posed on the inner cover of a bee hive with their abdomens in the air and their stings exposed. With the sting exposed, the bees fan air across a small drip of alarm pheromone. Other bees in the hive detect the pheromone odor and immediately prepare to defend the hive. When the beekeeper sees the guard bees with their stings exposed, he or she should be aware that the colony is unsettled and defensive. Usually, the bees can be calmed with a little smoke, which interferes with the detection of the alarm pheromone. At other times it is advisable to close the hive and wait till another day to open the bee hive.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fighting Mites in New Ways

The Varroa mite is the greatest killer of honey bees. These pin-head sized mites attach to the developing brood and adult bees and suck their blood, which is called hemolymph. Of course, the blood sucking by these parasitic mites weakens the bees. The mites also vector in a number of honey bee diseases as well. At least 15 honey bee viruses have been identified in the bees in the United States. One of the viruses associated with Varroa mites is Deformed Wing Virus. When a beekeeper finds bees with short, curled wings as well as weak, crawling bees, it is a sign of Parasitic Mite Syndrome, a Varroa-vectored virus. Colonies in this condition are often leading to a rapid collapse.

Researchers are attempting to develop methods of reducing Varroa mites without the use of chemical miticides. The continuous use of pesticides, like the insecticides and miticides, often lead to chemical-resistant strains of the pests being treated. Researchers with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service are developing a scent which attracts the Varroa mites and leads them to a sticky trap. See The use of the scent is a biological control, and the use of the sticky trap is a mechanical control. Both biological and mechanical controls are favorable approaches to reducing mites, as they do not lead to the evolution of resistant strains of Varroa. This occurred with the use of Fluvalinate and Coumaphos miticides over only a few years since the introduction of parasitic mites into the United States in the late 1980s. Click on today’s picture to see a close-up view of a Varroa mite, which has penetrated the surface of a honey bee drone pupa with its mouth parts. The puncture wound on the pupa is a good point of entry for viruses. Shirley Murphy took this photo of the mite we found while examining drone brood foundation. Varroa prefer to reproduce in drone brood, which has the longest development time.