Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hiving a Swarm of Bees

Mark Childrey successfully caught a large swarm of honey bees and carefully moved them to a nice bee hive. He was disappointed, however, when the bees flew away an hour later. This cannot always be avoided, because honey bees are wild animals. There are some techniques that can help encourage a swarm of bees to accept a hive. In areas where Africanized honey bees are not established, it is usually safe to use swarms to replace winter losses of colonies and to expand the bee yard. If the swarm is caught early in the day, wait until late afternoon to place it in a hive. The swarm can be held in a vented cardboard box in a cool, dark, place until time to place the bees in their new hive. Since the bees don’t fly in the dark, they will settle down quickly in the evening. Before introducing the bees, spray the inside of the hive and the frames with sugar water. Placing a frame of open brood from another colony inside the new hive will usually ensure the bees will accept their new hive. The brood gives off pheromones that are quite attractive to the bees. If one frame of drawn comb is available, the queen will be able to begin laying eggs immediately; and the colony will expand rapidly. Honey bees, at the time of swarming, are physiologically geared-up to produce beeswax. If the beekeeper will supply the newly hived swarm with a feeder of syrup, they will rapidly fill the frames with comb. As a means of preventing the spread of American foulbrood, swarms should be hived on foundation so that they will consume all of their honey, which may hold AFB spores.

Today’s picture shows a hive holding a swarm that I collected this week. The bees are hived in a single hive body with a hive-top feeder. Grass blocks the hive entrance, holding the bees until they can chew their way out.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How Much Smoke?

Cave and rock wall paintings from around the world depict our ancestors working with honey bees for thousands of years. The pictures show these earliest honey robbers using smoke as they approach bees in cavities along rock cliffs. While cliff climbers burned smoking torches to control the bees, modern beekeepers use the smoker invented in the mid-1800s. Our smoker is a metal firebox with a bellows similar to that used in blacksmith shops at the time of its development. Beekeepers build a smoldering fire inside the firebox to produce a cool smoke to calm the bees. An explanation of how the smoke works is often told like this: Honey bees, living in cavities in hollow trees, smell the smoke and sense the forest is on fire. Anticipating the need to flee their home, the bees gorge themselves with honey to be able to take it with them. The bees, bloated with honey, don’t have much fight left in them. It’s an imaginative story, but it probably does not happen. Worker bees do drink up stored honey when beekeepers smoke the hive, but the more likely hive-calming effect probably comes from blocking the bees’ pheromone communications within the hive. A little smoke masks alarm pheromone distributed by guard bees and calms the hive. Too much smoke excites the colony. Beekeepers can tell if they are applying smoke appropriately by watching the bees and listening to the hum of the hive. Applying too much smoke brings an immediate buzz from the bees.

Beekeeper Crystal Anderson builds a smoky fire of pine needles in her smoker prior to working her Tennessee bees. She lights a fire in the bottom of the smoker, then smothers the flame by adding pine needles to produce a heavy smoke from the smoldering fire. Slowly packing in large amounts of fuel, her smoker will stay lit for a long time. Learning how much smoke to apply is a lesson often taught by the bees themselves.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day

April 22 is designated as Earth Day. For forty years concerned citizens of the world have stopped to consider our effect upon the planet. Once a year we look at how we are affecting our environment. We see areas where the environment is damaged and consider ways to take corrective action. We also see areas in which we have made considerable progress in improving the environment and protecting the creatures that share the earth with us. We ponder the effect on the world-wide environment from natural occurrences like the volcano in Iceland spewing gasses and dust into the atmosphere. We also consider the effect of one hundred years of internal combustion automobile engines spewing exhaust gasses and particles into the atmosphere. Our soil, air, streams, rivers, and oceans need protection. We need to be thoughtful in our energy production and use. We should continue to Reduce the number of items that we use, Reuse them after their first use, and Recycle the materials when items are no longer useful. The excessive clearing of forests affects the environment of the entire world. We need to plant trees wherever we can. Grasslands and prairies need to be restored. Those interested in land restoration at mining and landfill sites as well as those working with forage, biofuels, landscaping, and wildlife management can gain information from The Center for Native Grasslands Management, which will be holding a symposium in Knoxville, Tennessee in October. Visit for details.

The decline in the numbers of honey bees and native pollinators gives us reason to carefully consider our actions. Many beekeepers feel that the loss of bees is associated with our over-use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals in the environment among other issues. The spread of honey bee pests and pathogens around the world is troubling, but we are also spreading knowledge worldwide on ways to keep the bees healthy. Today’s picture shows a honey bee foraging in buttercups, composite wildflowers which paint the Arkansas Delta bright yellow.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Honey Bee Parasitic Mites

Since the mid-1980s parasitic mites have been the number one killer of honey bees in North America. Even now in the fourth year of the large-scale die-off being called Colony Collapse Disorder it is suspected that many of the bee health problems are associated with viruses vectored by parasitic mites. Mites kill honey bees in two ways. They suck the bees’ blood and weaken the insects resulting in shorter lives for the bees. They also pass viruses to the honey bees when they puncture the bees’ exoskeleton. While parasitic mites have devastated honey bee populations in recent years, there is some promising news. Selective breeding is producing bees that can live in the presence of of mites. The first mite detected in North America, the tracheal mite, a microscopic parasite of the bees’ breathing tubes, is not the total killer of bees that it was when first detected in 1984. Selection of resistant honey bee stock and Integrated Pest Management techniques, like applying vegetable oil and sugar patties to the hive have greatly lessened hive losses from tracheal mites.

Varroa mites, visible to the eye, are parasites that breed and raise their offspring inside the honey bees’ brood cells. Fortunately, their populations grow at a relatively slow rate. It is possible to control their numbers by employing resistant honey bee stock and Integrated Pest Management techniques. The greatest defense against overwhelming populations of Varroa mites is a heritable genetic trait called hygienic behavior. Honey bees with this trait detect Varroa mites breeding in the capped brood cells and remove the affected pupa along with the mites. Monitoring of Varroa levels in the hives allows beekeepers to control the mites. Since chemical treatments cannot be used while the bees are making honey, non-chemical IPM measures are employed. Click on the picture to see a Varroa mite on a honey bee pupa that has been removed from its cell. Workers return the nutrients from the pupa to the colony.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Handling Queen Cells

Honey bees produce queens in a cell that is the size, shape, color, and texture of a peanut. Queen cells are generally described as swarm cells, which occur along the base of the frame, or supersedure cells, which are found on the sides of the frames. There is no difference in the queens that the two kinds of queen cells produce. I look at them as a gift of the hive: queens that you can use to make a colony division or create a nucleus hive to hold a spare queen for emergency replacement. If you find a frame with a single queen cell on it, simply move the entire frame to a nucleus hive along with enough frames of brood, bees, honey, and pollen to support the queen. If you find a number of queen cells on a frame, you can carefully cut the extra cells off with a pocket knife. Cut wide around the queen cell. You will probably be cutting through worker brood cells. Place a queen cell inside a plastic queen cell protector and push the protector into the side of a frame of brood in a new hive. The queen cell must be oriented vertically, just as the bees produced it. At times, when you find queen cells, it is often after you have torn them open removing the frame. You can often gently replace the beeswax and the bees will repair the cell and save the developing queen.

The quality of any queen is determined by her genetic make-up, the nutrition she receives throughout her development, how successfully she is mated, and the genetics of the drones with which she mated. To ensure that our queens receive good nutrition during queen rearing, we plant a diversity of flowers near our bee yards where queens are raised and mated. Click on the photo to see a bee collecting pollen from turnips, mustard family plants that have been grown to bloom and produce seed.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Queen Cells Appear

The first sign of a colony preparing to swarm is often the appearance of queen cells in the hive. By the time that these appear, the colony is about a month into preparations for swarming. Once the swarming process is started, it is difficult to stop. A number of techniques for reducing swarming have been developed. Some of the methods that we find to be effective are based upon measures to prevent the brood nest from becoming so filled that the queen does not have enough cells available for her to lay eggs. At Peace Bee Farm our swarm prevention methods involve carefully examining every hive in the spring and rearranging the hive bodies to move the brood nest low in the hive. This usually means moving the lowest brood box to the top. If the brood is high in the brood area, the bees seldom move down to use available space for brood production. Adding extra hive bodies for the brood nest and honey supers also helps insure that the hive is not crowded.

Honey bee colonies do not swarm until they have capped a queen cell, and thus provided a new queen to leave behind as a mother for the existing hive. Some beekeepers attempt to stop swarming by removing the queen cells. However, this is usually not effective. They may not find all of the cells, and removing them only delays the swarming by about four days, the time it takes for the bees to create and cap a new queen cell. Expanding the brood nest to free-up empty cells for the queen to use for laying eggs may help. Making a colony division, an artificial swarming process, is the most effective method of preventing swarming. The division can be made by moving a cell to a new hive body along with enough bees, brood, pollen, and nectar to support the new queen. Unlike worker and drone cells, which are oriented horizontally, peanut-shaped queen cells hang vertically.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Preparing for Swarming

Redbuds bloom, and beekeeping activity increases dramatically in April. The honey bee colony’s tendency is to reproduce itself each year by swarming, the honey bee’s colony-wide means of reproduction. Through swarming, they increase the numbers of bees and colonies in the area and spread their territory. We can’t stop swarming, but beekeepers can take some actions to decrease the amount of swarming that occurs. For the honey producer, a colony’s swarming means there will be no surplus of honey to be harvested for the year’s investment in maintaining the hive. When honey bees swarm, they divide the colony and roughly half of the colony flies away from the hive to build a new nest. A new queen is produced to continue the old colony, and the old queen flies off with enough bees to establish a new colony. While the act of swarming may only take a few minutes, the event occurs after about a month of preparation.

There are a number of factors which influence the bees to begin making preparations to swarm. Among these are the age of the queen, the number of eggs that she lays, and the strength of the pheromones that she secretes. Crowding of the brood nest is probably the most important factor in starting a colony to swarm. The beekeeper’s choice of the number of boxes used in the brood nest and how the hive is managed are important contributing factors affecting swarming. Honey bee colonies regularly replace their queen through a process called supersedure. When colonies in small hives supersede their queen, they often swarm. Colonies in large hives frequently supersede their queen without swarming. To me, reducing swarming is a great advantage of housing bees in large hives. Either two deep hive bodies or three medium hive bodies house a large brood nest. Click on today’s picture of a honey bee collecting bright, golden pollen from a redbud flower. The redbud tree is a member of the important bee plant family, the legumes.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Spring Build-Up

For the beekeeper to produce a surplus of honey that can be harvested, it is important to encourage the honey bee colony to rapidly increase in population. Honey bees live in large colonies, and it takes a population of about 25 thousand bees to produce enough honey to sustain the colony. To produce a substantial surplus of honey, a population of 50 thousand or more bees is required. Building this large a population is the work of the queen bee. A productive queen may produce 1500 or more eggs per day. The number of eggs that she lays varies from one queen to the next. The quality of the queen is determined by her genetic make-up, the nutrition she received during her development, and the effectiveness of her mating with multiple drones. A disease-free colony with a productive queen is likely to make a good honey crop if it is located in a good forage area and the weather is favorable. If the queen is not productive in egg-laying, the hive will not produce a surplus of honey. The colony may even dwindle in size till it cannot defend itself from intruders.

The spring population build-up is the second measure we make when evaluating colonies. This follows measuring the success of surviving the winter. Over-winter success depends largely upon how the beekeeper prepares the hive in the fall. It also measures the resistance of the bees to certain conditions, like tracheal mites and Nosema disease. Spring build-up is the result of the beekeeper's early-season supplemental feeding of pollen and sugar as well as the quality of the queen bee. Click on today’s picture to see freshly-laid eggs. Fresh honey bee eggs stand upright in the cell. Their pearly-white color contrasts with the black foundation that we use at Peace Bee Farm. The nurse bees are adding a thin layer of milky-white royal jelly to the cells containing the eggs. Honey bees always store the protein-rich pollen close to the brood.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Cherries in Bloom

The cherry trees are in bloom along Cherry Road leading into the Memphis Botanic Garden. The flowering trees lining the road make this one of the most beautiful areas in a city of trees. The blossoms are attractive to honey bees, carpenter bees, and numerous other bees. The cherries are members of the rose family which includes many plants which are important sources of nectar and pollen for the bees. The Memphis Botanic Garden is a true haven for honey bees. The bees find a continuous series of flowering plants coming into bloom throughout the spring, summer, and fall. These urban bees produce honey considerably earlier in the year than their country cousins in the Arkansas Delta. There is a considerable difference in the available nectar sources separated by a few miles by the Mississippi River. The bees in Memphis find an array of flowering plants and clover on lawns that were not treated by chemical insecticides and herbicides. They also find a diversity of food in attended flower beds, overgrown vacant lots, parks, school yards, and public gardens, like the Memphis Botanic Garden. The honey bees in the Arkansas Delta, a region of industrial agriculture, find considerably less diversity of flowering plants. Unless plants have been specifically planted to support the bees, there is little food available in the open fields until the row crops bloom in the summer. Then there is an abundance of monoculture plants in bloom for a short period of time. Peace Bee Farm plants to provide a continuous supply of food beyond the agricultural crop blooming period. This is most important for providing good nutrition to the bees while we are producing our queen bees.

In today’s picture you can see some of the impressive cherry trees lining Cherry Road at the entrance to the garden. When we open bee hives, they have a pleasant odor of beeswax and honey. Our hives at the Memphis Botanic Garden have a definite fragrance of flowers.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Fruit Trees in Bloom

The spring of the year sees a continuous series of fruit trees coming into bloom. The blooming season begins in California with almond trees. Almonds are one of the nation’s major agricultural export crops, and the nuts can only be produced after the trees are pollinated by honey bees. It is said that an almond tree without bees is merely a shade tree. In the Mid-South we will see plums, pears, peaches, cherries, apples, and crabapples in bloom. Each of these trees, even the almonds, is a member of the roses, an important family of bee plants. The rose family, which also includes the flowering roses, hawthorns, blackberries, and bramble vines, provides large amounts of nectar and pollen for honey bees. The fruit trees provide food for the bees in the form of nectar and pollen, and the bees serve the trees by pollinating their flowers. As the bees move about the flower blossoms, they inadvertently carry pollen from flower to flower and tree to tree. This is a necessary step in the production of fruit and seed.

Click on today’s photo to see a honey bee collecting pollen from a pear tree blossom. Bright yellow pollen from the flower’s anthers adheres to the hairy body of the honey bee. When she touches the sticky stigma of a pear flower, the tree produces fruit and seeds. Honey bees are the greatest pollinator of agricultural food crops because they live in large colonies which can be transported to the crops needing pollination. Honey bees also exhibit a behavior known as flower constancy, which means that bees foraging on a species of plant will continue to visit that same plant as long as it stays in bloom and produces an attractive reward to the bees. Beekeepers pollinating pears coordinate their efforts with the orchard owners because the pear nectar is relatively weak in sugar content and may not be as attractive to the honey bees as other nearby plants in bloom.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Early Spring Hive Inspection

When the calendar turns to April, conditions change rapidly in the bee hive. Scout bees are finding a variety of sources of nectar and pollen, and foraging activity picks up considerably. Warmer weather allows beekeepers the opportunity to check on the bees and count winter losses. A number of colonies can be expected to not survive through February and March when starvation frequently occurs. In the early spring, hive inspections reveal the potential for expanding the honey bee colony and planning corrective actions to be taken if the colony is not strong and healthy. In the photo, Shirley Murphy lights her smoker while Mike Worthy and I prepare to look inside the hive. Shirley is participating in the Tennessee Beekeepers Association’s program that pairs new beekeepers with experienced mentors. Shirley’s colony of bees survived the winter, but the hive may need some attention. While the hive was full of bees, the brood was not as we expected. There was an abundance of drone cells throughout the hive and a number of drones walking about the frames. We could not find any worker brood, however. It appeared that the queen had run out of sperm and was only producing infertile eggs that become drones. Such a condition leaves the colony hopelessly doomed to dwindle away, as it results in no work force of foragers to gather food. I suggested that Shirley should purchase a new queen. She is adding new hives this spring as well. Having extra hives will give her the means of correcting many hive problems. She will be able to borrow brood and bees from one hive to add to another.

The Apiary Inspectors of America, the USDA, and Penn State University are conducting a survey of beekeepers in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, and Europe to measure the over-winter losses. Beekeepers can participate by logging onto Widespread participation will help them determine the size of the losses and their locations.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Parasites Spread Viruses

Social creatures rely heavily upon communications to maintain organization, perform work, gather and distribute food, and protect the social group. Humans and honey bees are both social creatures; and both employ complex, but different, forms of communications. For humans, sharing a world-wide community, much of the communications is of electronic form. The internet allows beekeepers and other people interested in bees and the environment to share their acquired knowledge and experience rapidly with people around the world. We can communicate easily with people who, until recent years, would have been separated from us by miles and travel costs. Available translation programs even allow us to communicate with others who speak different languages. Today we highly value our communications. I have been out of touch with the distant world due to a malicious computer virus that was deliberately designed to interrupt electronic communications. Yes, it was effective in stopping my computer for a while. I hope that the individuals who seek to block our communications will re-direct their skill toward broadening our world, not limiting it.

If we click on today’s photo, we can see a drone bee carrying a honey bee virus. Shirley Murphy and I found the bee suffering from Deformed Wing Virus while examining her Tennessee River bees. Deformed Wing Virus is spread by parasitic mites. While these parasites are sucking nutrients from honey bees, they are also exposing them to a number of pathogens, namely more than a dozen viruses. Some of these viruses are suspected to be involved in Colony Collapse Disorder. Unlike complex computer viruses designed to do harm, honey bee viruses are simple microbes which reproduce themselves. Colonies heavily infected by viruses are described as having Parasitic Mite Syndrome. They often dwindle and die. This drone bee with deformed wings will be removed from the hive by the colony and will live less than one day. Beekeepers are selecting and breeding honey bees that can detect and remove parasites from the hive