Thursday, December 31, 2009

Honey in Storage

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

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Preparing Pollinator Habitat

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

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

Monday, December 28, 2009

Priming Foundation

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

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

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Winter Bee Yard Checks

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

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

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Storing Brood Comb

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

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

Friday, December 25, 2009

Pax Vobiscum

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

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

Thursday, December 24, 2009

1884 and Today

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

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Honey Supers in Storage

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

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Winter Solstice

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

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

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Smoker

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

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

Friday, December 18, 2009

Dandelion in Bloom

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mary Phillips

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Blue Orchard Bee Nests

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

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Preparing Frames

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bees Make Cleansing Flights

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

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

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Winter Feeding

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

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

Friday, December 11, 2009

Honey Forms Crystals

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

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

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Burning Bee Hives

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

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

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Honey Bees Cluster

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

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

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Cold Weather Markets

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

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

Friday, December 4, 2009

Removing Old Comb

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

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

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Magnolia Family

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

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