Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ice Storms Affect Nectar Flows

The weather affects the many plants that the honey bees rely upon for nectar and pollen. One of the determining conditions for nectar and pollen production later in the year is winter storms. The Mid-South lies in the part of the country that neither receives great amounts of winter precipitation nor a complete lack of it. One hundred miles further north, you would see regular snows; one hundred miles south, you would rarely ever see snow. This middle region often receives a mixture of rain, sleet, and snow. The air temperature at the time of the winter storms determines how the precipitation affects the trees and plants. This week a slow-moving storm dropped a heavy covering of sleet, leaving the ground covered with several inches of hard ice. Trees like the native dogwood in the picture received a light coating of ice. Had the temperature been only slightly warmer, freezing rain would have covered the tree limbs with a much heavier coating of ice, causing considerable damage to the trees.

While major ice storms, which break limbs and topple entire trees, bring much attention for electrical power losses and safety hazards, they also affect the honey bees later in the year. Ice storms often damage the flower buds or the branches that produce flowers foraged by the bees. Last year’s severe ice storms in the Mid-South virtually eliminated the nectar from black locust and tuliptree that many beekeepers rely upon for honey production. While the failure of certain sources of nectar and pollen may disrupt the regular flow of bee foods, the scout bees can usually find alternative sources. This change in nectars leads to differences in the color and flavor of honeys from the same bee yard from year to year. I observed a thin coating of ice on dogwoods, willows, plums, maples and redbuds that the honey bees will be visiting in the coming months. The ice damage was slight.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Community Leaders Gather

Beekeepers frequently get invited to make public presentations about honey bees and beekeeping. Citizens are quite often interested and inquisitive about the life of the honey bee. Many are fascinated as a result of some well-produced documentary programs that aired following the advent of the Colony Collapse Disorder. A number of people have heard of the importance of the honey bee through its role in producing human and animal foods by pollinating flowering plants. They want to know just how much of an effect the loss of pollinators could have on us.

I spoke to a group of community leaders at a civic club luncheon. They were interested in the fact that the honey bee is the only insect in the temperate zone that remains alive and active throughout the year. I explained to them that with the weather quite cold now, the bees are huddled together in a cluster, using their own bodies to generate and hold heat. They accomplish this by eating the honey that they produced throughout the previous year. The high-energy food allows them to survive the lengthy period until flowering plants once again come into bloom. The honey that they produce is a unique item, the only food that can last virtually forever without refrigeration or treatment. We talked about the decline in honey bee and native pollinator populations that have occurred in recent years. I explained that the audience could help restore bees by creating a pollinator garden in their own home yards. I suggested that they could help by limiting the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides used on the lawn, golf courses, and farms. I asked them to use their influence to ask that their golf courses adopt turf maintenance practices that don’t harm the pollinators. Golf courses typically employ 14 times the amount of chemicals as agricultural crop fields. Today’s picture shows two Peace Bee Farm hives set-up for the winter with the hives tilted forward and top feeders in place.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The First Pollen Arrives

Honey bees break out of their winter cluster and fly when the temperatures rise to 50 degrees. A warm period brought the pollen foragers out in great numbers. The vast majority of the honey bees returning to the hives were carrying pollen. The presence of pollen being brought into the hive is a stimulus for the queen to lay eggs and produce brood. The brood production causes the worker bees to seek out more pollen. When I opened the hives, I found that the colonies have begun producing brood. Judging from the age of the brood it is evident that the queens were laying eggs even during early January when the temperatures were well below freezing for days on end. The beekeeper can tell the age of the brood by observing the different stages. Worker brood remains as an egg for three days. Next, the brood is a larva for six days. During this time, the larva will expand from a tiny c-shaped, worm-like creature to a large worm that fills the honeycomb cell. On the tenth day of brood development, the workers cap the larva with beeswax; and the bee develops for 12 days as a pupa.

The health and life expectancy of the young bees developing early in the year is largely dependent upon the quality of the pollen that they bring into the hive at this time. Pollen quality also affects worker bee gland development and helps determine the ability of the young workers to produce food for the next generation of bees. The bees do not have a mechanism for determining the pollen quality, and they often gather substitutes before flowers bloom in abundance. We can help our bees by feeding protein supplements in the form of pollen substitutes. We can also help ensure good bee health by encouraging weedy growth to provide a diversity of pollen sources. Most of today’s bees were returning to the hive with light gray colored pollen; others carried yellow pollen.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mother and Daughter Queens

It is always nice to get a few breaks in the winter weather to check on the honey bees. Our success in helping the bees survive the winter can depend upon our opportunities to check on the winter stores of the bees and give them some emergency feeding as needed. The depth of these winter checks depends largely upon the weather. If it is cold and windy, opening the hive may prove deadly to the bees. On cool days we may open the hive briefly without removing frames, as the brood is vulnerable to chilling. However, we have enjoyed a few days of unseasonably warm weather, allowing good access to the bee hives for January. Today, with warm temperatures and still air, I was able to remove some frames for a more in-depth view of the condition of one of my bee yards. I found the bees congregated in the uppermost hive body of most of the hives. Brood was present in most hives indicating that the queens had started their egg laying for the year.

While I was taking a picture of the queen in one hive, a queen bee that I raised last year and marked with green paint, I noticed a second queen on the same frame. Normally honey bee queens do not allow another queen to share the hive; but in the early part of the year, a mother and her daughter queen may coexist in the hive. Click on the photo to see the two queens. Last year’s queen is marked in green. Her unmarked, darker colored daughter queen is next to her. While queen bees are often shy and run when exposed to the sunlight, both queens were quite docile and allowed me to observe them for a while. The two queens each appeared to be depositing eggs. Showing no aggression toward each other, the queens moved about the frame in close proximity; a number of times they touched.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bees in the Chicken Yard

We are three weeks into our calendar year, and the honey bee is well into its year. It is still the middle of the winter, but the weather is unseasonably warm. Yesterday, with heavy rains and thunderstorms sweeping across the Delta, I held the chickens inside their house. The fuzzy little Silkies rolled about and dusted their feathers in the sand and hay covered floor. Today, with warm weather and breaks in the skies, I released the chickens. Shortly, I noticed dozens of honey bees inside the chicken house. The bees were wallowing in the dusty sand where the chickens had done the same the previous day. Other bees were landing in the chickens’ grain feeder. An equal number of bees were outside the chicken house wallowing on the ground in grains that we feed on the surface. The bees were digging through cracked corn, wheat berries, and grain sorghum that the poultry scratch through in their daily foraging. No, honey bees don’t feed on grains like chickens do; these bees were collecting dust.

Honey bee colonies may begin producing brood anytime after the winter solstice, December 21. Brood production requires a considerable amount of protein to feed the larvae. While honey bees derive their protein from pollen, very little is available early in the year. The bees often mistakenly gather dust from various sources while searching for pollen. The bees do not have the ability to tell the quality of the protein they collect. They may be collecting an incomplete protein from a flower or a completely different substance, like the chicken feed dust. It is common for people to find honey bees in bird feeders in the winter and early spring. These bees are collecting dust from the millet seeds. In response to the bees’ desire for pollen, I gave a supplemental feeding of pollen substitute, a fermented protein food based on soy flour and brewer’s yeast, to my bee yard which will be producing this year’s queens.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Emergency Feeding

Every honey bee colony is different from each other colony. Even if managed in a similar manner, each colony will perform differently. The performance of a colony is determined by a number of factors. Among the factors are the genetic make-up of the bees, the age of the queen, how well the queen was mated, the quality of drones in the area, the health of the bees, the physical condition of the hive, the location of the bee yard, the amount of forage available, the weather, the amount of honey that is harvested, pests that are attacking the colony, and other stresses that the beekeeper places upon the bees. To measure the performance of the different colonies, at Peace Bee Farm we continuously evaluate the bees. In great part, we are evaluating the quality of the queen; as her characteristics greatly affect the entire colony. We make this evaluation by carrying a clipboard into the bee yard and scoring each colony in a number of categories. The first of these is the colony’s success in surviving the winter.

Each measure of the colony is actually an after-the-fact evaluation of how the colony responds to a number of situations. Over-winter survival is determined in part on the genetic traits of the colony. Was the colony healthy the previous fall? Did the queen produce brood into the fall? Was the colony prone to tracheal mites? Does the colony exhibit hygienic behavior? Over-winter survival is also determined by at least as many factors that are the result of the beekeeper’s efforts. Did the beekeeper help control Varroa mites? Did he provide ventilation of the hive? Did he leave adequate stores of honey? Was the stored honey in the proper location within the hive? Did the beekeeper take steps to control Nosema disease? Did the beekeeper provide emergency feeding if necessary? Today’s picture shows Big Dan Newton’s bees breaking from their winter cluster to feed on dry sugar, used as an emergency feeding.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Warming Weather

Honey bees form a cluster for warmth as the temperature falls to 57 degrees. They remain in the cluster until the temperature outside rises to about 50. At this point, the bees fly from the hive to make cleansing flights; as they never defecate inside the hive. The bees also make scouting flights, checking for any flowers that may be in bloom. These warm breaks in the weather are good for the bees’ health; the cleansing flights help prevent dysentery. However, when the bees fly in the winter, they expend extra energy and consume more of their precious honey stores. Warm weather in winter can lead to starvation. A honey bee colony requires a considerable amount of honey to fuel the heat to warm the winter cluster. The colony does not waste energy warming its entire hive, though; it only warms the cluster of bees. Even greater demand for food will occur as the colony begins to produce brood. To conserve stores of honey, the bees allow the winter cluster to cool to about 70 degrees if there is no brood present. When the queen begins laying eggs again, the bees will raise the cluster temperature to 95 degrees. This means a greater consumption of honey stores. Both increased flight activity and greater warming of the winter cluster put the colony at increased risk of starvation during the late winter and early spring.

Near one of my bee yards adjacent to a lake, I rescued a large water snake from the still-frozen surface. The warm temperatures brought the non-venomous snake from its winter home near the water. When the snake ventured onto the frozen lake, it chilled and quit moving. After a while in the sun, the snake was moving again. Come spring, it will be ready to resume its job of holding down the rodent population along the lake bank. At Peace Bee Farm we work with nature. Black rat snakes and speckled king snakes help protect the hives.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Honey Bees Regulate the Hive

Honey bees, like all insects, are cold-bloodied animals. The bodies of cold-bloodied animals take on the temperature of the animal’s surroundings. A fish’s body is the same temperature as the water surrounding it. Cold-bloodedness provides a survival advantage in that these creatures can exist in a habitat without a continuous supply of food. Warm-blooded animals, like birds, cats, and humans, maintain a constant body temperature throughout the year. In the winter, their bodies are considerably warmer than their surroundings. To maintain a regulated body temperature, warm-blooded animals must consume a regular supply of food. Warm-bloodedness offers a survival advantage in mobility. Warm-blooded animals are often better equipped to hunt or gather food resources.

The honey bee is unique, however. It is the only insect that has a mechanism for regulating its body temperature as well as the temperature of the entire colony. The honey bee is also the only insect in the temperate region that remains alive and active during cold weather. The bees survive by huddling together in a cluster of bees. Eating its high-energy food of honey, the honey bee is able to generate heat of about 104 degrees in its flight muscles. A number of honey bees in the less tightly packed center of the winter cluster generate heat by vibrating their flight muscles. A tightly packed crust of bees holds the heat inside the winter cluster. When the bees in the crust chill to the point that they cannot move, they are allowed to enter the warm cluster. Bees from the center move to the outside. Our flocks of domestic waterfowl and wild birds that have taken our farm as home developed their own strategy for winter survival. With the lakes covered in ice, the birds took turns keeping a small area of water open while the other birds fed. Here some mallards, a Canada goose, and an American Buff goose keep moving to prevent their open water from freezing over.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The January Thaw

It is typical in the winter for the winds to change directions and bring warm air from the South. After several weeks of quite cold weather, the temperatures rose today to pleasant flying conditions for the bees. Honey bees remain in a cluster and don’t fly until the temperatures reach 50 degrees. I ventured into one of my bee yards today and found bees flying from each hive, a most reassuring sight. The bees have been confined for at least two weeks. During this time, the bees huddled together creating warmth by vibrating their flight muscles and eating their high-energy food, honey. Temperatures had been well below freezing for days, and I leave the hives’ screened bottom boards open for ventilation. With the bees flying, I was able to briefly open the covers of a number of bee hives today. It was too cold to remove any frames or make an extensive examination of the hives; however, I was able to observe bees in each hive in the yard.

Many of the hives appeared as the one in the photo. I found a large number of bees in the upper box of the hive. Here the cluster is seen spread across a large number of frames. The cluster expands with warm temperatures, like today, and contracts with cold temperatures. The cluster of bees had moved upward through the hive as the winter progressed, eating its way through the honey stored in the comb. With the cluster at the top of the hive, the bees are vulnerable to starvation. They have eaten all of the honey surrounding the cluster, and there are not any available flowering plants in bloom. When the temperatures fall, the bees will retract their cluster into a tight ball. With the cluster in this constricted configuration, the bees often starve even while there may be honey stored only inches away. It will be necessary to feed the bees to sustain them through the months of February and March.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Art and Science of Beekeeping

Man has kept honey bees for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptian artwork depicts honey bees housed in clay cylinders similar to those used into recent times. Beekeeping was highly developed during the classic Greek and Roman periods. European settlers brought the honey bee, an Old World insect, to the Americas. Honey bees were reported as being well established in America by the mid-1600s. The craft has been passed along from one generation to the next. Many learned how to gently manipulate honey bees from their grandparents. Beekeeping today is based upon honey bee biology and scientific observations and studies. To effectively manage honey bees today requires both the old-time skills demonstrated by experienced beekeepers and the scientific understanding of honey bee biology. Most beekeepers get their start in beekeeping and continue to gain skills in local beekeeping associations. Many of these associations conduct introductory beekeeping classes. The Memphis Area Beekeepers Association will be conducting its annual Short Course in Beekeeping on February 20, 2010. Paul Mallory, who has been keeping bees for 63 years, will help people answer, “Why would you want to keep honey bees?” I will be conducting a portion of the training. My topic will be honey bee health.

On December 26, 2009, I showed a simple method of storing brood comb using PDB (paradichlorobenzene) moth crystals to protect the frames from wax moth damage. I stated that the frames need to be exposed to the air for several days before using these frames in bee hives to allow any remaining moth treatment to evaporate. Chris, a beekeeper from North Carolina, posed a pertinent question. He asked if the untreated frames would be vulnerable to attack by wax moths during this period. This is really not a problem. Wax moths prefer to lay their eggs in dark, enclosed spaces. We can make the frames unattractive to the moths while airing the equipment by stacking the frames upright as shown with the boxes exposed to light and air circulation.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The First Flower

I found the first flower of the year this morning when I went out to feed and water our domestic fowl. Each morning I have been finding their water bowls frozen solid. The lakes are covered with a thick layer of ice. The temperature this morning was seven degrees Fahrenheit, and it has been well below freezing for more than a week. Still, a dandelion broke from the hard, frozen, snow-crusted ground and proclaimed, “It’s time to bloom!” I was delighted to see some bright yellow, the first color of the year; and I was not surprised that this first flower was a dandelion. It seems that dandelion is always the first flower to bloom in January and the last to bloom in December. This hearty composite wildflower can be found in bloom during any month. Dandelion survives with a deep tap root and flowers that produce abundant wind-blown seeds. Of course, there were no bees flying today. In the hives, they’re huddled tightly in their winter cluster, consuming stored honey to generate heat.

The dandelion is a member of the important bee plant family, the composites. The composite or sunflower family is one of the largest families of flowering plants. Comprising about 10 percent of all flowering plants, many of the composites are abundant producers of nectar and pollen. The dandelion is one of the most dependable food sources for honey bees. Hearty and abundant, it blooms at times when nothing else does. We can almost count on the honey bees being able to find some dandelion nectar and pollen on the first day that temperatures climb enough for the bees to fly. In the early months of the year, honey bees often forage for dandelion pollen. As this protein source is brought into the hive, the queen bee is stimulated to begin brood production. On the bee farm and many areas of the world, the dandelion is appreciated as a colorful wildflower, welcomed in lawns and open spaces.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Natural Habitats

While making a mid-winter walk-through of one of my bee yards, I stopped to check on some blue orchard bee nesting holes that I had drilled in a dead tree. Some of the holes were sealed off indicating that these native pollinators had used them as nesting areas to raise another generation of bees. High in the tree a downy woodpecker was actively pitching chips of wood out of a small entrance hole as it enlarged a cavity in the dead tree. Downy woodpeckers roost in cavities; and with temperatures well below freezing for a number of days, cavities are important wildlife habitats. While visiting our nature trails, our friend Cissy Stone explained that if dead trees are not endangering people or property they serve nature well if left standing. They also continue to serve even after they eventually fall and decay. This standing tree trunk is now providing habitat for the reproduction of important native pollinators and song birds. Woodpeckers and chickadees create cavities in dead trees, and termites help open the cavities ever further. Swarming honey bees will likely move into the cavities. Squirrels have much greater success raising their young in tree cavities than in exposed nests constructed of leaves and twigs. Once the dead tree finally falls, it will support a number of insects, salamanders, lizards, snakes, and small burrowing mammals until it finally turns into cellulose mulch. Squirrels will plant the seeds of new trees in the enriched soil. Nature gets a lot of use from a dead tree.

Two groups actively fighting to protect honey bees and pollinators, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Xerces Society, have been successful in having a pesticide potentially dangerous to honey bees removed from store shelves. The product carrying the trade names Movento and Ultor had been approved for use by the EPA without considering the consequences of its use on bees. The NRDC can be followed at The Xerces Society can be followed at

Friday, January 8, 2010

Cold Weather Bee Hive Move

One of the things that keeps beekeeping a lively craft is the fact that it is always changing. Beekeeping is not a task that is learned and repeated. It is more a series of events that require planning a course of action that will accomplish the task and still fit with the honey bee’s nature. Big Dan Newton and I found it necessary to move some hives of bees today, the coldest day of the year. We had planned to move the hives in warmer weather, but found with little advanced warning that we would have to make the move today. As we began the task with the temperature at 10 degrees Fahrenheit, a light snow on the ground, and a strong and steady wind out of the northwest, we knew that opening the hive or breaking the bees’ winter cluster would be fatal. In the summer, I often break a hive into individual boxes and move them from the hive stand to the waiting truck one at a time and then reassemble them.

For today’s cold-weather move we began the task by blocking the entrance of each hive with foam rubber. As each hive was equipped with screened bottom boards, providing ventilation was not a problem; there was plenty of air circulation. Next, we tightly secured all of the hive bodies, bottom boards, and covers of each hive with cargo straps. This allowed us to lift each hive as a unit. When lifting a hive, it is mighty helpful to have machinist and blacksmith Big Dan Newton with you. Lifting the hives, they seemed rather light. We decided some emergency feeding might help the bees through the winter. Frozen ground helped us move one hive across a plowed field. For emergency feeding, we placed granulated sugar atop the inner covers of the hives for the bees to access through the center hole. After the move, Dan was pleased to see live bees come to the surface of each hive.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

An Old Time Favorite

Honey eaten with the comb is a fond memory for many people who remember that this is the way that they enjoyed honey in their childhood. In earlier times there existed a tradition of honey hunting, particularly in rural areas. For many, honey was eaten with the comb after the honey was collected by robbing a bee tree. Throughout the year people would observe the flight of foraging honey bees returning to their natural nests in hollow trees in the forest. Teams of adventurous individuals would return to rob the bee tree, often in the winter when the colony’s population was small and the bees were not flying about. Robbing usually involved killing the colony by the burning of sulfur or by smoking heavily. Once the bees were killed, the tree would be felled and cut open. All of the honeycomb would be removed. If the honey hunters were experienced and employed a gentler hand, they could cut an opening into the tree and remove some of the comb by hand without killing the colony. In either case, the honey would be divided among the honey hunters. I often hear customers at farmers markets relating stories from their childhood of parents bringing in honey collected in the comb.

Honey in the jar with the comb is usually called chunk honey. It is produced in specially prepared frames using thin surplus foundation of pure beeswax. During a strong nectar flow, the bees will draw out the cells from the foundation and fill them with honey. The beekeeper needs to watch the progress of the bees’ work and remove the frames as soon as they are completely filled with honey and capped with beeswax. The comb is cut from the frame with a sharp knife and placed in a wide-mouth honey jar. A light colored extracted honey is poured over the comb to fill the jar. Chunk honey like that in the photo is a most popular item at market.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Honey Bee Nutrition

Nutrition is increasingly being seen as an important issue in honey bee health. Issues of nutrition came to light with the start of Colony Collapse Disorder in the spring of 2007. Many of those who were affected had large-scale migratory operations that had been located in areas affected by drought the previous year. Honey bees are placed under greater stress from poor nutrition if there is a weather-related failure of forage crops. Bees used for migratory pollination service also are likely to experience nutritional problems while placed in mono-culture settings. The targeted agricultural crop for pollination may not provide the bees adequate amounts or nectar and pollen. A diversity of pollens is also likely to be missing in today’s large farms. Some individual pollen sources are lacking in all of the amino acids required to make a complete diet. Honey bees need an adequate amount of nectar, which is carbohydrate, to produce honey. They also need a diversity of pollen, which is protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals. When they combine the honey and pollen, they have a complete diet necessary for producing healthy brood. Good nutrition is especially important when the colony begins producing new queens. The quality of queens is determined by the genetics, mating, and nutrition.

To address the nutrition needs of honey bees, some beekeepers are adopting more frequent supplemental feeding. Traditional patterns of feeding bees involved fall feeding of a heavy sugar syrup to build up winter stores and spring feeding of a thinner sugar syrup to stimulate nectar gathering. To meet nutritional requirements, some beekeepers are adding feedings of pollen substitutes and sugar syrup at various times of the year. Feeding during periods of dearth is sometimes required to keep queen bees of certain stocks from stopping brood production. This occurs with Russian bees and some of the other stocks of eastern European origin. Stopping brood production evolved as a reproductive strategy for survival in harsh climates. Today’s picture shows honey bees chewing pollen substitute.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A New Nosema

Along with chemicals found in the honeycomb and honey bee viruses, Nosema disease appears to be a contributing factor in the large-scale die-off of honey bees that has been occurring since the spring of 2007. Extensive studies of the bees are being undertaken to look at any possible sources of this die-off which is being called Colony Collapse Disorder. Nosema apis is a fungal infection found anywhere in the world that our honeybees of European descent are managed. Nosema is a spore-forming microbe that causes dysentery in honey bees. Honey bees don’t defecate inside the hive, and dysentery occurs when infected colonies are confined to the hive unable to make cleansing flights during extended periods of cold weather. Bees with dysentery leave feces on the outside of the hive. Nosema disease occurs in adult bees and is readily spread as bees consume the spores while cleaning out infected hive cells or by sharing food. Nosema apis is generally only a problem in regions with extremely cold winters. In the southern United States and throughout the tropics, Nosema disease is rarely a problem

Researchers studying honey bee health found that Nosema apis has been largely replaced by a more virulent strain of the disease, Nosema ceranae. This replacement of diseases is itself an unusual occurrence. Nosema ceranae is a disease of the Asian honey bee, a different species from our European honey bee. While the original Nosema was known as a rarely deadly, winter-time condition, the new strain is an around-the-year disease that is suspected as being associated with Colony Collapse Disorder. Fortunately, for the beekeeper there is good news; Nosema can be controlled by feeding sugar water treated with Fumagillin in either the fall or early spring. Placing bee hives facing the south where the sun warms the hive entrance encourages flying. Considerable advantage in fighting Nosema disease can be gained by regularly changing out old honeycomb, thus removing the disease-causing spores. Today’s photo shows hive-top feeders in use.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Varroa Vector Viruses

The parasitic Varroa mite, detected in the United States in 1987, is the number one killer of honey bees. Parasitic mites devastated the honey bee population, greatly reducing the number of managed hives and killing most of the feral colonies. Varroa mites enter honey bee brood cells at the larva stage before the cells are capped with beeswax. As the bees continue their development as pupae, the Varroa reproduce and the mites suck the nutrients from the pupae. The mites remain on the adult bees after they emerge from the cells and continue to suck nutrients from the bees. While this parasitism kills bees and weakens the colony, the greater effect may result from viral diseases that the Varroa help spread. When the mites puncture the exoskeleton of the honey bee, they introduce more than a dozen identified viruses, some quite deadly. One recently identified, Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, is being found regularly in colonies being lost to Colony Collapse Disorder. Beekeepers often find bees with missing or curly wings suffering from Varroa-vectored Deformed Wing Virus. These bees, which usually live for one day, are an indicator of heavy Varroa mite loads in the colony.

While parasitic mites present a true health problem for the beekeeper, choosing a method of treating the mites is quite challenging. In less than two decades of aggressive treatment with “harsh” chemical miticides, the Varroa became largely resistant to the chemicals. Left untreated, honey bee colonies often weaken and die in a year or two. Breeding in genetically-passed behaviors is proving successful. Honey bees that can detect Varroa reproducing and growing inside capped brood cells remove the bee pupae along with the mites. Using a series of integrated pest management practices may reduce the number of Varroa in the colony. The use of “softer” mite treatments is proving promising. Viruses remain a strong suspect in the deadly mix of factors leading to Colony Collapse Disorder. Beekeepers need to periodically check colonies and measure Varroa levels.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Chemicals in the Environment

Researchers looking for the causes of honey bee Colony Collapse Disorder have found dozens of chemical agents in the beeswax honeycomb of affected bee hives. Beeswax readily absorbs and holds chemicals. The chemicals found include miticides used by the beekeepers to combat the parasitic mites that have devastated honey bee populations since they were discovered in the United States in the 1980s. The mites changed beekeeping from a craft in which chemicals were rarely used to one in which chemicals were used routinely. As could be expected, the chemicals found in the greatest concentrations are the common miticides, Fluvalinate and Coumaphos, both considered to be “harsh” pesticides. Other chemicals found in honeycomb included dozens of insecticides and pesticides. One insecticide being found in honeycomb is Imidacloprid, suspected by many beekeepers as affecting honey bee health. Imidacloprid, a member of a class of insecticides designed to be more environmentally safe than earlier products is often used to kill gnawing and chewing insects in lawns and crops. These insecticides are widely used in crop seed treatments, flea collars for pets, and home termite controls. In crops, Imidacloprid has a systemic action; it is carried through the vascular system of the plant, poisoning insects that chew the foliage. It is also brought back to the bee hive by bees foraging for nectar and pollen. Researchers are questioning the sub-lethal effects of this insecticide on honey bees.

There is considerable dependence today upon chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides for producing crops, growing lawns, and controlling termites. Genetically modified crops use herbicides to control weed growth, resulting in high-yield crop production at lower cost from reduced soil tillage. Concerned beekeepers, like us at Peace Bee Farm, are moving toward reduced chemical usage, avoiding “harsh” miticides in favor of “softer” agents, like those based on essential oils. In today’s photo, an agricultural applicator passes low over one of my bee yards then negotiates power lines and a passing chemical tanker to spray an adjacent field.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Healthy Honey Bees in 2010

Large-scale die-offs of honey bees have persisted in various parts of the United States since the spring of 2007. While die-offs of honey bees have been periodically recorded for more than a hundred years, this occurrence is larger and exhibits some characteristics that have not been seen before. The beekeepers find their hives virtually empty of adult bees. There is brood present, a puzzling situation; for bees rarely abandon their brood. There is food present, but the bees are not eating it. After the death of the colony, hive scavengers avoid the hive for a number of weeks. This situation with its unique attributes has been given the name Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. After three years of investigation, there is not a clear answer as to the cause of the die-offs. Carefully designed scientific studies, which involve collecting samples from healthy and sick hives, are being conducted.

While the results of the studies have not been published, the main factors that seem to be combining to form a lethal mix are being identified. First, there are numerous chemicals in the beeswax comb of the hive. The principal miticides used to control parasitic mites are highly soluble in beeswax, and they remain for a long period of time. There are also other insecticides and chemicals used in abundance in agriculture, lawn care, and beekeeping being found in the honey bee’s nest. Second, it is known that Varroa mites vector numerous viral diseases of honey bees; and some new viruses have been identified. Third, a new strain of the fungal disease, Nosema, seems to have replaced the previous, seldom deadly strain. It appears that when these three factors, certain chemicals, viruses, and Nosema are combined, they overtake the highly vulnerable immune system of the bees. A background item in the die-offs seems to be nutrition issues. Beekeepers in 2010 will need to address each of these factors to maintain healthy bees. There’s a healthy bee on granddaughter, Erin Underhill’s, cheek.