Thursday, December 29, 2011

Social Creatures

While delivering honey on Madison Avenue in colorful mid-town Memphis, we notice a brick wall covered with striking, artistic graffiti. A small portion of the wall is particularly catching. Red hearts reflected by recent rains lead to a man in business attire with a distorted face and surrounded by symbols of love and wealth. Disturbing figures loom nearby. Words exclaim, “Enough!” and “Unite.” The simple cartoon rallies protesters in the Occupy Memphis movement to unite. The graffiti artists recognize that they can communicate a need to correct a problem, recruit allies, strengthen bonds within their group, and, together, effect a social change. As a group they can accomplish more than as individuals. Vivid images of monopolies, robber barons, and other protest movements are reflected in rain puddles.

People and honey bees are social creatures. Both accomplish much through their group efforts, though the creatures and their behaviors are completely unalike. People often communicate in symbolic language; honey bees communicate in language silent to us. People communicate by voice, hand signs, expressions, body language, and writing, as on the Madison Avenue wall. Bees communicate by dances, vibrations, odors, and pheromones. Bees communicate among the colony threats to the hive and sources of nectar and pollen. Bees also convey the need to perform age-related hive duties, produce and store honey, replace the queen, swarm, and find new nest areas. Bees somehow learn to do things that none of the bees in the hive have done before. Amazingly, drones that have never visited a drone concentration area know where they are located; they create them in the same location year to year. Also, bees that have never seen a winter know to stockpile food for the next one, storing food for future generations of bees. Bees communicate the need for work to be done inside and outside the hive. They share in the building of the nest and the care and feeding of the brood. Only people communicate with paint on city walls.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Controlling Varroa Mites

The Varroa mite remains the most deadly parasite of honey bees, and the control of Varroa is the most important issue in honey bee colony health. Tracheal mites pose a decreasing threat, but the Varroa mite continues to kill honey bee colonies. Varroa mites develop inside the capped brood cell with the developing honey bee pupa. During the honey bee’s development and after it emerges as an adult, the Varroa mite sucks nutrients from the bee. To access the bee’s blood, or hemolymph, the Varroa mite penetrates the honey bee’s exoskeleton with its mouth parts. The resulting wound is an entry point for numerous viruses. The viruses cause a number of honey bee diseases, and their combined effect is known as “Parasitic Mite Syndrome.” While Varroa mites can be found in all honey bee hives, colonies can withstand a low level of mites. Varroa reproduce at a relatively steady rate, unlike some other honey bee pests. Small hive beetles, for instance, reproduce in massive bursts to rapidly overwhelm a bee colony.

All attempts at controlling Varroa mites should begin with seeking lines of honey bees that have a natural resistance to mites. A heritable behavior trait of resistant honey bees is described as “Varroa Sensitive Hygiene.” Bees with this trait can detect reproducing Varroa mites and remove them along with the infected bee brood. Resistant bees also preen mites from the bodies of adult bees. These mites fall through the screens of bee hives equipped with screened bottom boards, preventing reinfestation of the hive. Beekeepers can dust the bees with powdered sugar to encourage preening. If Varroa mite levels in the hive are too high, “soft” treatments using essential oils or organic acids can be used to reduce the mite levels. Each of these measures can be used together as part of an Integrated Pest Management program. While parasitic mites have killed most feral honey bee colonies, some exist, like these bees clustered for winter in a hollow tree.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Parasitic Mites

Before parasitic mites entered the United States, a person could purchase a colony of honey bees and expect it to live for a number of years providing pollination service and producing honey. However, the arrival of parasitic mites in the mid-1980s dramatically changed beekeeping in the US. The first mite to be detected, the microscopic tracheal mite, quickly decimated honey bee populations. It was shortly followed by the Varroa mite, a somewhat larger parasite visible to humans. Click on today’s photo of a Varroa mite on a honey bee pupa.

Today, the Varroa is the most deadly parasite of honey bees. As it sucks the bees’ blood, called hemolymph, it vectors at least 15 honey bee viruses to the weakened bees. With the arrival of parasitic mites, the public noticed the absence of bees from locations normally covered with bees; clover fields were often completely devoid of honey bees. Left untreated, most honey bee colonies dwindled and died. Many beekeepers simply quit, abandoning empty hives. Others treated their hives with the miticides, Fluvalinate and Coumaphos. These harsh chemicals killed mites for a period of time, and then they became less effective. New strains of mites, resistant to the chemical miticides, replaced the original pests. Larger doses of miticides brought less control over the mites. Honey bees also experience unfavorable side-effects of miticides. The chemicals accumulate in beeswax honeycomb, contaminating the brood nest. Exposure to the miticides causes sterility of queens and drones which leads to early supersedure of queens and sometimes loss of colonies. These miticides also become highly toxic to bees when exposed to certain common agricultural chemicals. New attempts at controlling Varroa stress an Integrated Pest Management approach based largely on breeding bees that can live in the presence of parasitic mites. To manage bees without using harsh chemical miticides, the beekeeper needs to monitor hives for mites. Symptoms of mite problems include bees with deformed wings or multiple numbers of mites in a drone pupa cell.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Pax Vobiscum

It’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and it is a season of holidays around the world. Cold temperatures keep the bees clustered inside the hive and the beekeepers out. Winter is the slowest time of the beekeeping year, and it provides an opportunity for reflection and for spending time with friends and family. The holidays are also a time of sharing. Today, Rita pours beeswax Christmas tree ornaments to give to friends.

Many people say they never see bees; however, the honey bee shares a close relationship with humans and other creatures in the environment. We rely upon the bees to provide the pollination necessary to produe much of the food we eat. Without the bees, our diet would be extremely bland and starchy. Through pollination, the bees also help feed wildlife and livestock that complete our diet. Other networks of relationships exist: Beekeepers rely upon researchers to identify complex relationships between bees, pests, pathogens, nutrition, and the weather; researchers rely upon beekeepers to gather data necessary to reveal these relationships. Honey bees are resilient, and beekeepers are as well. Bees adapt to their environment, and beekeepers adapt their management practices in accordance with the developing scientific understanding of bee biology. Beekeepers around the world rely upon each other for sharing information related to honey bee health. An important benefit results: sharing information provides a basis for understanding among people of different backgrounds. I am pleased that portions of these blog writings are in use in beekeeping training. I have a great appreciation for the friendships that I have formed in beekeeping and the related communities. These include beekeepers, honey customers, chefs, gardeners, horticulturists, farmers, researchers, extension agents, media reporters, writers, photographers, and “electronic” friends around the country and around the world with whom I communicate. The Underhill family that operates Peace Bee Farm offers to all of these friends and to each who follow the world’s great religions, philosophies, and traditions a joyous holiday season: Peace be with you.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Honey Bee New Year

Our calendar declares the New Year starts on January 1. We also declare that today, December 21, is the first day of winter. Taking the earth one year to circle the sun, our planet spins on an axis that is slightly tilted. The tilt of the earth’s axis causes the days to lengthen and shorten throughout the year as the sun strikes larger portions of the Southern, and then, Northern Hemispheres. These changes throughout the year give us our seasons. A number of species, including the honey bee, are sensitive to the changes in the length of days. They time life activities, including reproduction, according to changes in daylight. Our seasons change on days we call the solstices and equinoxes. The honey bee colony’s year seems to begin on the winter solstice, the day that marks the shortest amount of daylight and the longest night.

Here in the Mid-South, honey bees are clustered together in their hives for warmth. Worker bees forced their queens to stop laying eggs a number of weeks ago by restricting her food. The winter interruption in reproduction is a survival strategy that allows honey bees to conserve precious food stores over prolonged winters. Honey bee colonies maintain an internal hive temperature around 95 degrees Fahrenheit whenever there is brood in the hive. However, the bees conserve energy by allowing the hive to cool to around 70 degrees if there is no brood present. Just as we can conserve energy required to warm our homes in the winter by turning down the thermostat, bees conserve honey stores by lowering their hive temperature. Queen bees often begin laying a few eggs after the winter solstice. Though winter is just beginning, for the bees, this is the New Year. People throughout history have observed the relative movements of the earth, sun, moon, stars, and planets. Earlier this month, the moon aligned with the earth and sun to provide a colorful lunar eclipse with the moon setting at dawn.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Products of the Bee Hive

Honey bees are managed for pollination service and for production of honey. The honey bee hive also produces a number of other valuable products. The Tennessee Beekeepers Association conducts a series of workshops across the state to train beekeepers in techniques for harvesting other bee hive resources and for making useful products from them. The beekeepers examine various pollen traps used to collect pollen. The traps work by brushing some of the pollen pellets from the pollen baskets on the legs of worker pollen-foraging bees. The collected bee pollen is a complete protein containing all of the necessary amino acids as well as all known vitamins and 25 trace elements necessary for mammals. In North America, the majority of collected bee pollen is fed to livestock. Some trainers feed large quantities of pollen to race horses. The beekeepers also discuss various methods of collecting propolis, the antiseptic, antimicrobial, and detoxifying bee glue that has been used for at least 2000 years. Propolis, the material that honey bees use to varnish their hive to inhibit wood-rotting fungi, disinfect cells before the queen lays eggs, and reduce the growth of numerous strains of pathogenic bacteria, is collected and sold for use in the production of medications.

The text that the beekeepers use in the sessions on producing value-added bee hive products, Health and Healing with Bee Products by C. Leigh Broadhurst, also lists health benefits of honey. The author, a USDA research scientist, explains that honey is a broad-spectrum antibiotic; it is antifungal and antimicrobial; and it is sometimes mixed with propolis for wound treatments. Broadhurst also reveals that the vitamins, minerals, and enzymes present in honey aid in metabolism. The beekeepers also use beeswax to make candles and skin-care products. In today’s picture beekeepers pour beeswax into candle molds. The training sessions are funded by a grant from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture which recognizes the importance of increasing beekeeper income to ensure continued honey bee availability for crop pollination.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Survival Strategies

Six inches of rain fell during two days of steady showers leaving considerable surface flooding across the flat Arkansas Delta. Broad fields, harvested recently, became shallow lakes. The North wind blew crop debris of twigs, stems, and leaves to form long bands of floating vegetative matter. Numerous dinner plate sized masses of fire ants floated on these rafts of ground-up soybean plants shown in today’s photo. Fire ant colonies, which live underground, were being transported to dry ground on floating crop debris. Not only were the fire ants being saved from drowning by their huddling on floating matter, they were also expanding their range across open fields.

Honey bees expand their range through swarming, usually in the spring but to a lesser extent in the summer and fall. When the bees swarm, the colony divides; half of the bees stay behind, and half of the bees fly away. Sometimes all of the bees in a colony abandon their hive and fly away in a move called “absconding.” Bees will abandon their hive if the nest gets badly damaged, as when flooded or overrun and “slimed” by small hive beetles. At times, bees abscond during times of extreme dearth. Honey bees in the tropics tend to abscond more often than bees in more temperate areas. Tropical bees don’t have the need to store great amounts of honey to survive the winter. Seasonal changes in tropical nectar and pollen flows vary with rain and drought. During a dearth of nectar, tropical bees will abscond and move to areas where flowers are blooming. Honey bees in temperate areas survive by hoarding honey to provide food and energy for the winter. Each of these behaviors by ants or bees illustrates a heritable survival strategy which allows the insects to survive in a changing environment. Two studies hint at the mechanisms for the inheritance of survival traits: looks at methods of fighting viruses, and reveals how lizards learn to avoid fire ants.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Ultrafiltration of Honey

Honey bees use enzymes that they produce in their bodies to convert the sugars from the nectar of flowers into a concentrated, high-energy food that we know as honey. Along with sugars, honey contains enzymes and pollen from flowers growing in the area. That pollen can be used to identify the source of the honey. A recent report concerning the removal of pollen from honey brought considerable public discussion about the deliberate removal of pollen from honey by unscrupulous importers of foreign honey. The report by investigative journalist Andrew Schneider appeared in Food Safety News at Schneider reported that independent testing of samples of honey found that three fourths of the honey on grocery store shelves could not even be called honey because pollen, a component of natural honey, had been removed. To hide the country of origin, some honey is highly processed by ultrafiltration to remove all pollen.

Responding to the discussion brought about by Schneider’s report, Dan Charles writes in NPR’s food blog,, in defense of honey on the grocery store shelf. Many in the public understand the deceptive practices of a few, but a number of citizens are confused about what real honey truly is. Many seek out a local beekeeper and purchase honey produced in their area. However, at almost every farmers market or honey sales event that we attend, we have individuals ask for sugar-free honey. Hearing that there is no such thing as a sugar-free honey, one lady exclaimed that she knew that there was because she had seen it on the grocery shelf. I assured her that the product did not come from a bee hive. Adulterated products are sometimes labeled to appear to be honey. Some contain high fructose corn sweetener and are labeled as “honey sauce.” Many processed food items boast on the label to contain honey while it is only a minor component. For information about honey, see the National Honey Board’s web site, Enjoy real honey.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Fall Nectar and Pollen

Honey bees and native pollinators rely upon flowers to produce food for over-winter survival. The Arkansas Delta has a dependable fall nectar flow in most years from goldenrod, fall asters, and Pennsylvania smartweed. All wildflowers vary somewhat from year to year depending upon the weather. This year saw an abundance of fall asters but fewer stands of goldenrod and smartweed. Today’s photo shows a honey bee and a bumblebee sharing the exposed goldenrod blossoms for pollen, which can be seen in the pollen baskets on the hind legs of both female bees. Both insects collect pollen for its protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals. However, the two bees use a different strategy to survive the dearth of flower food in the winter. The honey bee stays active throughout the winter and lives in a colony that is large enough to generate warmth. The bumble bee, which lives in much smaller colonies, produces a number of male reproductive bees late in the summer. The majority of the bumble bees die before winter; a reproductive queen survives the winter by hibernating in a protected area to start a new colony the next spring. Both bees mix nectar, a source of carbohydrate, with pollen to produce a complete food. The honey bees store the resulting “bee bread” in hive cells to feed to their brood. Honey bees store fat in body tissues to use to produce food for the next year’s first brood. Bumble bee queens feed heavily to store fat to nourish the queen during her winter hibernation. Fall asters and goldenrod are members of the important family of bee plants, the composites or sunflowers. The composite flowers are prolific producers of nectar and pollen. Pennsylvania smartweed is a member of the buckwheat family.

As beekeepers use blogs to share ideas around the world, Tonmoy Roy, invites us to view his agricultural blog,, and see farming in Bangladesh. Along with poultry, fish, dairy cattle, sheep, and goats, they even tend to crocodiles!

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Thanksgiving is a seasonal holiday principally observed in the United States and Canada. The tradition of recognizing the bounty of harvested crops and reflecting on family, friendships, and bonds between neighbors is traced to gatherings of Native Americans and Colonists that took place in New England in the early 1600s. With European farmland becoming less capable of feeding the expanding population, colonists crossed the Atlantic Ocean, largely, to settle the New World’s ample farmland. However, many colonists encountered extreme hardships in their first years in the new land. For many, survival depended upon the assistance Native Americans provided in teaching the colonists how to hunt, plant crops, and harvest native foods. Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest with a feast at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621, and Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony held their first Thanksgiving celebration in 1630. Large amounts of game, fish, and harvested crops were served. The Europeans especially enjoyed the wild turkeys of the New World, and they introduced them to Europe. Today, domesticated turkeys are the foundation of most Thanksgiving Day dinners. European colonists impacted the New World environment and agriculture when they brought in Old World plants, cattle, hogs, earthworms, and honey bees.

Thanksgiving is a reminder to us of how important, and sometimes fragile, is our food supply. In the 1600s, people left Europe to seek new, fertile lands to produce food. Today, we feed the world, in large part, by industrial agriculture. Hopefully, we can balance the need to produce large volumes of food while protecting the soil, air, and water. People today have the same needs as our colonial ancestors: protection from the elements, food, and an environment free of toxins. Our bees, likewise, have the same requirements. We met many people at farmers markets this week gathering food for a traditional Thanksgiving feast. Among them was our friend, beekeeper and urban farmer, Mary Phillips. This Thanksgiving Day I am enriched by beekeeping friends from across the country and around the world.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Storing Honey Supers

Some beekeepers say that their greatest beekeeping asset is their frames of drawn comb. It takes considerable time and resources of carbohydrates for the bees to produce honeycomb. The comb is produced by young bees that secrete beeswax from glands on the lower side of their abdomen. To produce beeswax, the bees must consume a large volume of honey. To make an ounce of beeswax, the bees eat about a pound of honey. Teams of worker bees take the flakes of fresh beeswax and build honeycomb while forming bridges with their bodies across open spaces in the hive, an act called festooning. Using their mouthparts, the bees shape the flakes of beeswax into sheets of six-sided, back-to-back cells. Beekeepers typically place foundation, either formed from beeswax or plastic, in frames to serve as the mid-rib for the bees to build their honeycomb. Depending upon the population of bees and the strength of the nectar flow, it may take the bees an entire year to draw out their honeycombs. The beekeeper may aid the bees by feeding syrup as a supplementary carbohydrate. Once the bees have drawn the beeswax into honeycomb, they are ready to fill it with honey.

After the beekeeper harvests the surplus honey, the frames need to be cleaned of any residue of honey and then stored over winter so that the bees can fill the comb with honey the following year. If the supers of “wet” frames are stacked outdoors, honey bees in the area will remove all traces of honey and take it back to their hives. The supers can then be stored over winter. Stacking clean supers so that air flows through them usually prevents wax moth damage if the frames never held brood. If frames that held brood need to be stored, they need to be protected from wax moths by stacking tightly and covering. Use PDB moth crystals to kill wax moths. Today’s photo: supers stored to allow air to flow through the frames.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fall Farmers Markets

Farmers markets change throughout the year. As the Mid-South’s seasons change from the often oppressive hot and humid summer to a cool and crisp fall, area farmers converge on parking lots and convert them into tent-covered markets. Farmers markets attract large crowds of citizens browsing fresh fruit, vegetables, baked goods, canned foods, jams, jellies, nuts, mushrooms, fresh meats, cheeses, eggs, locally roasted coffees, potted plants, cut flowers, and handmade items. Peace bee farm sells honey and bee hive products at farmers markets. The markets provide a variety of goods not often found in a single location. For many, the freshness and quality of items produced on local farms makes farmers markets attractive. Fresh fruit and vegetables are usually harvested the afternoon before the market. Farmers often bring to market produce varieties that are not regularly found in grocery stores. Cool season greens are in abundance at the farmers market. At this week’s market, I counted a dozen varieties of greens and eight varieties of lettuce being offered. In today’s photo, Hattie displays the proper way to wear Yukina Savoy, an Asian green, while her mother, Lori, sells beets, turnips, onions, radishes, sweet potatoes, yams, potatoes, peppers, cabbage, bok choy, mustard, Swiss chard, lettuce, and mixed greens from Downing Hollow Farms.

Memphis’ Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market,, invites area farmers to bring their produce; and they also provide a place for urban farms and non-profit groups to sell produce grown on vacant city lots and goods produced by groups like the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis. The club’s young culinary students prepare local sweet potato pecan cheesecake, pumpkin ginger walnut cheesecake, red velvet cookies, and pumpkin cookies. The market uses grants to help double the spending power for citizens eligible to participate in nutritional assistance programs. We look forward to the interaction between farmers and the public all year long. The public notices the market’s seasonal change from tomatoes and sweet corn to greens and sweet potatoes.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Reusing Bee Hive Frames

The honey bees’ nest is built of beeswax honeycomb that the bees secrete and shape themselves. It is light in weight and durable. However, honeycomb can easily be damaged by hive intruders, like mice or small hive beetle larvae. The beeswax comb also absorbs and holds environmental chemicals, like miticides, insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Honeycomb also holds reproductive spores of a number of honey bee pathogens, namely American foulbrood, chalkbrood, and Nosema, a honey bee gut disease. Honeycomb should be replaced periodically to remove toxic chemicals and disease spores from the hive. Frames of comb should also be replaced when they are damaged, like when the comb has been devoured by small hive beetle larvae.

Bee hive frames are equipped with a foundation of either natural beeswax or plastic that forms the centerline of the honeycomb. If beeswax foundation is used, new foundation must be installed when the comb is replaced; however, if plastic foundation is used, it may be reused when the comb is replaced. The old comb is simply scraped away revealing the plastic foundation as in today’s photo of frames scraped to the foundation. These frames from the hive of a dead bee colony were “slimed” by small hive beetle larvae and covered by a mass of webbing of wax moths. After scraping the debris from the foundation, the frames were rinsed in water and dried in the sun. The wooden frames show the telltale markings of wax moths: dents in the wood where the pupae develop, giving the frame a hammered appearance. Actually, the wax moths helped remove the majority of the old comb from the frames. To make the bare plastic foundation attractive to the bees when these frames are reused, I will paint the surface with melted, chemical-free beeswax that I collected from our hives while harvesting surplus honey. Replacing old comb is an important piece of Peace Bee Farm’s integrated pest management plan. It removes disease spores and toxic chemicals from the hive.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Slimed Bee Hive

The small hive beetle is a hive scavenger that can cause severe damage to the bee hive and even drive the bees away from their nest. The greatest damage is caused by the larval stage of development of small hive beetles. The larvae consume great amounts of the bee hive to support their rapid growth. They are particularly attracted to sources of protein in the form of stored pollen, bee bread, brood, and drowned bees in hive feeders. Adult small hive beetles do little harm to the hive, but the colony employs guard bees to corral beetles freely moving about the hive. These bees occupied harnessing adult small hive beetles are taken away from other important duties, like foraging for nectar and pollen.

Small hive beetles may be found in any hive. Adult beetles often congregate in a strong hive. Though the beetles are harassed by guard bees, the well-populated hive offers a favorable environment with warmth and plenty of food. Small hive beetles are keenly sensitive to honey bee alarm pheromones released by a colony in stress. The stress may be caused by queenlessness, attack by predators, or careless beekeeper activity. Once the beetles detect a bee colony is in trouble, they fly to its hive and immediately begin laying eggs. In just a few days, small hive beetle larvae can virtually explode in the weakened hive. That is the case with today’s photo of small hive beetle larvae in a “slimed” bee hive. As the beetle larvae crawl through the hive, they consume everything—beeswax, comb, honey, pollen, bee bread, and brood. The ravenous larvae leave behind a liquid waste that supports the growth of yeast. Slimed frames have a strong odor of fermenting oranges. The odor attracts other small hive beetles from great distances while it repels the hive’s bees. Often the first indications of a small hive beetle infestation are liquid drooling from the hive, a sticky landing board, and the odor of fermenting oranges.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Fall Bee Hive Inspection

If a colony is queenless in the fall, it will be dead by the following spring. As beekeepers prepare their hives for winter, they need to determine which colonies stand a chance of surviving the winter. Each hive should be inspected to see if its colony has enough bees to generate heat to stay alive throughout the winter. Any hive that is extremely weak needs to be combined with a strong hive. You can usually combine a weak hive with a stronger hive by simply smoking both hives to cover the bees' scents. If you are combining two fairly strong hives, you need to separate them with a sheet of newspaper to slow the mixing of bees to keep from fighting. If each hive being combined has a queen, the weaker queen can be removed. If you don’t remove one, the queens will fight and only one will survive.

To survive the winter, the bees need to have two things: adequate hive ventilation and enough food stored in a location where the winter cluster of bees can access it. This usually means that the honey stores need to be above the brood nest. I like to rearrange the boxes so that the brood nest is at the bottom of the hive and the honey is above it. The winter cluster of bees will eat the honey above it and move up slowly throughout the winter. The cluster of bees will occupy the honeycomb emptied of stored honey. If a hive doesn’t have adequate honey stores, it is necessary to feed the bees. Fumagillin added to the sugar syrup feed helps control Nosema disease. Ventilation at the top of the hive prevents condensation and moisture build-up. Today’s photo: Judith Rutschman and Richard Underhill. Judith hosts the Memphis television program, Nature of Conservation. Judith interviewed me on the air about honey bee health matters, the effect of chemicals in the environment on bees, and the role of bees in human food production.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Honey Contains Pollen

Honey is harvested as the bees make it, one drop at a time. To make a tablespoon of honey to pour over a hot buttered biscuit requires the full life’s work of 32 honey bees. Producing a jar of honey is the result of considerable effort by both the bees and their keeper. Unfortunately, there are those who take advantage of the appeal, reputation, and health benefits of honey to unscrupulously produce a lesser product and sell it as honey. They do this by adulterating the product by mixing in cheaper sweeteners or by altering the honey to hide its true origin.

In Andrew Schneider’s Food Safety News report, “Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey: Ultra-filtering Removes Pollen, Hides Honey Origins,” the investigator writes that pollen is being removed from honey to hide whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources. Honey is being produced in distant lands, shipped to intermediate countries, repackaged, and stripped of pollen to hide the true origin. According to Schneider, “Food scientists and honey specialists say pollen is the only foolproof fingerprint to a honey’s source.” Schneider explains that in the US the Food and Drug Administration says that a product that has been ultra-filtered and contains no pollen is not honey. One major honey packer describes ultra-filtration as “a deceptive, illegal, unethical practice.” Unfortunately, the FDA isn’t checking honey to see if it contains pollen. Food Safety News purchased honey and had it tested for pollen. They found that three fourths of honey purchased at groceries or big box stores and all honey purchased at drug stores contained no pollen. All honey purchased at farmers markets and “natural” stores, however, contained the expected pollen. Read this informative report at In today’s photo, honey from late summer wildflowers and Arkansas Delta cotton flows in the Peace Bee Farm honey house. We appreciate those loyal customers who support the beekeeping tradition of producing real honey as the bees made it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Glimmer of Hope

At the time of the year when most beekeepers have completed their honey harvest and migratory bee hives are stationed for the winter, many state beekeeping associations hold their annual conferences. Rita and I attended the state-wide meetings for Arkansas and Tennessee, two states where we maintain bees. The meetings always afford an opportunity to renew acquaintances with beekeeping friends and to keep abreast of matters involving the beekeeping industry. But most importantly, conferences provide educational programs that put beekeepers in touch with beekeeping experts and researchers studying today’s honey bee health issues. Often I leave these meetings armed with more information but overwhelmed by the growing number of pests and pathogens attacking honey bees. However, I left this year’s events encouraged by details of recent studies and by reports of the resiliency of honey bees. Analysis of stored bee hive pollen and beeswax reveal the bees live in an environment filled with chemicals. Peace Bee Farm participated in several of these studies by sampling bees and comb.

Honey bees in the US are exposed to numerous bee diseases. Honey bees in South Africa, by contrast, are exposed to more predators; however, they are affected by fewer diseases. When parasitic mites decimated honey bee colonies in the US, beekeepers responded by treating the hives with miticides. The mites rapidly became resistant to the chemicals. Varroa mites were identified in South Africa in 1997. Chemical controls were not employed, and within seven years the mites were reduced to an incidental pest. Many beekeepers in the US are moving toward reduced reliance on chemical treatments. The analysis of chemicals in honeycombs reveals that legal miticides become highly toxic to honey bees when they are present with other commonly used chemicals. For example, fluvalinate becomes 1000 times more toxic to honey bees exposed to fungicides regularly used on cropland, orchards, and home gardens. Beekeepers are learning to avoid the harsh miticides. We must use chemicals sparingly. Today’s photo: bitterweed, a common fall wildflower.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ground Nesting Bees

Bees need the same basic things that humans need: a place to live, food, and an environment free of poisons. Many of the important native pollinators nest underground. Among these are bumblebees and numerous solitary bees. These bees prefer to enter the soil in bare areas not covered by grass, foliage, or mulch. One reason many native pollinators are declining is that favorable habitat is becoming increasingly scarce. Modern large-scale agricultural fields are plowed leaving little undisturbed margin for ground nesting bees. Golf courses and home lawns likewise afford little bare ground when they are covered by a turf of grass. To improve the habitat for ground nesting bees which add much to the effectiveness of pollination of many crops some farms are incorporating strips of ground between crop plantings to accommodate the bees. Homeowners may provide habitat by clearing a portion of a garden or landscape planting of mulch and then leaving the ground bare and undisturbed. Bumblebees, like the one in today’s picture flying from her underground nest, often build dwellings in abandoned mouse holes. With a long tongue, bumblebees are effective pollinators of many crops, especially tomatoes and eggplants.

While the decline in honey bee populations since the mid-1980s has been carefully tracked, the status of native bees and other pollinators has not been documented as closely. One large-scale effort to identify the location and population of native bees enlists thousands of citizens to become data-collecting scientists. The program, The Great Sunflower Project, involves observing bees that are attracted to a single variety of sunflower. People, young and old, plant Lemon Queen seeds; and when the plants grow and flower, they identify and count the bees that come to forage. To sign up to participate in the project or view this year’s results, go to The participating citizen scientists found a bee every 2.6 minutes, but 20 percent of gardens had no bees at all. The count is important for identifying areas having shortages of native pollinators.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Meadow Buzzes

A year ago we planted the plowed ground in hardwood trees spaced in 10-foot rows. The area, slightly over an acre, has become a meadow of wildflowers. It will be several years before the trees shade the ground and change the nature of the understory. For now, wildflowers grow in the full sun on the gentle slope of the natural bank of a Mississippi River tributary. A visit to the field on a warm and sunny fall day finds numerous species of insects feeding on fall asters. The remote meadow actually buzzes from the number of bees in flight. There are many honey bees collecting nectar and pollen from white heath asters as well as several species of bumblebees and numerous species of solitary bees. Many sweat bees and other extremely small bees are present in the bright composite flowers. Flies that mimic the appearance of a bee or wasp are common in the meadow. They are protected from many predators by their yellow and brown stripes and transparent wings. Only their bulging fly eyes give away their true identity. The wildflowers, mostly fall asters, attract many species of butterflies. Songbirds dart through the three-foot-tall tangle of wildflowers.

The one-acre plot, providing food and habitat, is obviously an oasis for honey bees and many species of native pollinators. In the years that the ground is exposed to the sun, it will provide a sequence of blooming flowers as well as protective cover and nesting material for pollinators. Such pollinator meadows, or pastures, are seen as important spaces providing for a diverse population of pollinator species in agricultural areas. The large fields planted in modern industrial agriculture are often too wide for the smaller bees to fly across. To increase crop yield, some farms are incorporating pollinator meadows along field margins or between plantings to accommodate important native pollinators. Click on today’s photo of a honey bee collecting nectar from white heath asters, important plants for winter survival honey stores.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Soybeans and Honey

The soybean is an important honey plant, but not all soybean varieties produce enough nectar to produce a surplus of honey. A beekeeper asked me which varieties of soybeans are the best sources of nectar for making honey. I wish that I could answer this clearly, but I can’t. To try to get some answers, I visited an agricultural research facility where soybean varieties are being developed and tested. Discussing soybean variety characteristics with a researcher, I learned that the amount of nectar offered by a soybean variety is of importance to beekeepers; but it is not a trait that is selected in developing soybeans. The traits that are important to soybean growers include yield, nutrition, and tolerance to pests, disease, and drought. Seed producers also divide soybean varieties according to planting, bloom, and harvest times. Soybeans in any location often include both early and late season varieties. Planting different fields with different varieties helps the farmer spread out the harvest. This benefits honey producers with bee hives near the soybean fields by extending the bloom period, often by several weeks.

I also spoke with several Arkansas beekeepers this week. We discussed honey production around soybean fields. Their thoughts regarding soybeans as important honey plants involved the location and soil type of the fields. For example, beekeepers on the west side of Arkansas’ White River make little honey from soybeans, while beekeepers on the east side of the river make a considerable amount of soybean honey. Soybeans grown on land close to the Mississippi River generally produce considerable amounts of nectar. New soybean varieties are being developed, like one being grown this year for use with new herbicides. Repeated use of a single herbicide led to resistance in crop weeds. Regardless which varieties are planted, honey bees can usually fly far enough to find one that is attractive, even if they have to fly over soybeans offering less reward. Beekeepers can’t simply list good soybean varieties. Today’s photo: harvesting soybeans.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bumblebees are Active

Bumblebees are foraging on early fall flowering plants. They can be found in abundance on the open flowers of vitex trees and goldenrod. Other bumblebees are pollinating late-blooming tomato plants, like the one in today’s photo. Click on the photo to see the bumblebee’s pollen baskets filled with light-colored pollen. Bumblebees carry pollen on their hind legs similar to honey bees. The bumblebee vibrates the flower using its flight muscles to dislodge pollen in action similar to the honey bee’s use of flight muscles to generate heat to warm the cluster of bees in the wintertime. The bumblebee’s long tongue and buzz pollination capability make it an effective pollinator of many vegetables.

The warm, sunny early fall days reveal numerous species of bees, wasps, and other insects. Honey bees are dragging drones from the hives. Worker bees returning to the hive with hind leg baskets full of pollen are passing workers stinging and dragging drones. The workers’ stings, though barbed, penetrate the soft exoskeleton of other bees without tearing from the bees’ abdomen as when they sting a human. Red wasps seek shelter and warmth on cool nights under the edge of bee hive covers. Large numbers of red wasps gather around vegetable plants looking for caterpillars. While red wasps are quite defensive of their nest, they ignore my bare hands around the tomato plants as they hunt for caterpillars. I watch a solitary wasp drag a tomato hornworm much larger than its body a great distance through the grass. Some wasps are parasites of caterpillars, laying eggs inside the caterpillar’s body. Mud dauber wasps collect orb spiders to use to nourish their offspring. These paralyzing insects place sting-immobilized spiders inside their mud nests to feed the developing mud dauber wasps. Carnivorous throughout most of the year, yellow jackets seek carbohydrate in the fall and try to enter bee hives for the honey. Numerous species of butterflies visit sunflowers, and single monarch butterflies pass overhead in their fall migration.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Magevney House

Keeping honey bee colonies in urban areas presents certain challenges not faced in rural areas. Beekeepers must be even more careful in protecting people and pets when bees are kept in public spaces within cities. We should make considerations to avoid contacts between bees and humans as much as possible. Bee hives need to be placed so that the bees won’t regularly fly through pathways or areas used by people. Since honey bees take in large amounts of water, they can be expected to frequent any water source in a nearby sunny area. A water supply should be maintained near the bee hives to prevent encounters with people at swimming pools or fountains. Measures should be taken to reduce swarming, and colonies should be monitored for gentleness. Excessively defensive colonies should be re-queened. Care should be taken to avoid bee encounters with young children or the elderly. If public areas hold outdoor social or recreational events, the open areas may prove unsuitable for bee hives.

Kjeld Petersen maintains the bee hives at the Magevney House in downtown Memphis. The bee hives are part of the 1850 kitchen garden. Along with food for the family, the garden supplied medicinal, dye, aromatic, and pollinator plants. Home gardens were of great importance for everyday life. I assisted Kjeld temporarily move a bee hive to allow for maintenance in the garden. Access to bee hives in public spaces should be carefully planned to allow for the beekeeper to work in the bee hives and provide for lawn, garden, and building space maintenance. Kjeld and I moved the bees before dawn. As we finished the move, the sun illuminated St. Peter’s Catholic Church above the Magevney House. Catholic services were held in the Magevney House in the 1830s. The owner, Eugene Magevney, a pioneer teacher and civic leader, immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1828. He died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1875. Honey bees help preserve the nature of these historic gardens.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Are Beetles Vulnerable?

Small hive beetles are invasive bee hive scavengers. For the past decade, small hive beetles have been an aggravation at times and a serious problem at other times since their introduction into the US. Beetle populations explode in weakened or queenless hives. Adult small hive beetles, which alone seem to do little harm, live among the bees. The hard wing coverings of the adult beetles protect them from honey bee stings. Since the bees can’t kill the intruding beetles, the worker bees in strong hives drive the adult beetles to the outer edges of the brood nest and honey supers. They also capture adult beetles and trap them in “jails” made of propolis, or bee glue. The narrow space between the ends of frame top bars and the edge of the hive boxes make convenient small hive beetle jails. Since some worker bees are deployed as beetle guards, an additional portion of the worker bee population is occupied. The real problem with small hive beetles is the damage done by their larval stage. The beetle larvae eat everything in the hive: comb, brood, honey, and pollen. The beetles are particularly attracted to the protein in pollen. As the beetle larvae eat their way through a hive, they leave a trail of waste similar to the trail left behind a garden slug. The waste hosts yeast that ferments the honey and gives the hive the odor of rotting oranges. The odor attracts adult beetles that fly in from great distances. The odor also causes honey bees to abandon the hive.

Researchers from the University of Arkansas are searching for natural biological agents that may be exploited to help control small hive beetles. Natasha Wright and Jon Zawislak are at Peace Bee Farm capturing adult beetles and sampling the soil around bee hives searching for nematodes, bacteria, or other microscopic agents that might attack small hive beetles. The beetles are particularly vulnerable when they leave the hive to pupate in the soil.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Treating for Mites

It is harvest time for beekeepers and other farmers in the Arkansas Delta. One of our important nectar sources for honey is cotton. Bolls of cotton fibers are open and ready for harvesting. During the heat of summer, cotton supplied large quantities of nectar for honey bees. Cotton honey is light in color and mild in flavor. A new beekeeper successfully completed his first honey harvest. With his honey sealed in containers, he asked me what he should do next for his bee hives. I congratulated him on his harvest and told him that his harvest of a surplus of honey indicates that he managed his hives properly. For a beekeeper to collect any surplus honey at all, the colonies must be healthy and have strong populations. The colonies’ population build-up must be timed so that there is a large population of bees at the start of the major nectar flows. If the colonies are expanding during major nectar flows, like that of cotton, there will be little surplus honey for the beekeeper to harvest.

Hive treatments to reduce parasitic mites can only be applied when there are no honey supers in place. I told the novice beekeeper that if he detected a number of Varroa mites, now is the time to reduce their numbers. The decision of whether to treat depends upon the bees’ mite loads. If the mite load is low, treatments are not needed. I suggest using a "soft" treatment like ones produced from essential oils or organic acids. The "hard" chemicals are miticides that tend to build up in the beeswax comb, lead to chemical-resistant mites, and cause sterility in drones and queens. The soft treatments are often applied inside the bee hive in a gel form that evaporates. Vapors, which are contained in the hive by covering screened bottom boards, kill exposed Varroa and tracheal mites. Treatments need to be made fairly early in the fall because cold temperatures may prevent the gel from evaporating.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Robbing Behavior

A honey bee colony seeks out sources of carbohydrate to make honey anytime that conditions are acceptable for the bees to fly, and bees fly during daylight hours whenever the temperature is above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Foraging worker bees collect most of their carbohydrate from flower nectar, a thin solution of sugar water. Bees also take unguarded honey from the hive of another bee colony that is too weak to protect its honey stores. This behavior is called “robbing.” For strong colonies, robbing is an efficient method of rapidly gaining additional honey stores, a definite survival strategy. Weak colonies are likely to starve after their honey stores are robbed out. This likely exerts selective pressure to remove weaker colonies or those prone to disease. Two honey bee colonies, even those sitting side-by-side in the same bee yard, do not share stored food resources. Every worker bee is a selfless contributor devoted to the care and protection of its own colony, but not to other colonies. While guard bees protect the hive from all intruders, their main duty involves protecting the colony from robbing by bees from other colonies. For the beekeeper, robbing is not a serious problem as long as there are numerous flowers in bloom. However, during times of dearth, like during the end of summer and early fall, robbing intensifies.

The harvesting of honey by humans has traditionally been called “robbing.” When bees are drawn to the smell of honey, harvesting becomes more difficult. If honey supers or frames of honey are left exposed in an opened hive or outside the hive, they readily induce robbing. The bees’ robbing tendency can be used by the beekeeper, as in today’s photo, to effectively clean honey supers after the harvest. Stack “wet” supers several hundred yards away from the bee yard, and bees will remove any traces of honey in a day’s time. To prevent robbing always reduce hive entrances whenever feeding, making colony divisions, and during the winter.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Caution with Insecticides

Some insects are annoying pest that eat crops, contaminate food, and spread disease. Other insects are considered beneficial. These insects pollinate our crops, producing food and seed. Others help control pest insects. If insecticides are used to kill insect pests, they often kill beneficial insects as well. Insecticides described as “broad spectrum” kill all insects in the area regardless of whether they are considered pest or beneficial. This year’s late-summer spraying of insecticides killed honey bee colonies when other insect pests were the target. Annoying mosquitoes and flies were targeted in urban lawns, but honey bee colonies were killed as well. A Memphis beekeeper found thousands of bees dead on the ground around her hive with dozens of other bees crawling and twitching on the ground. They likely encountered a neighbor’s broad spectrum insecticide spraying arrangement.

An article in The New York Times describes efforts being made to develop methods of delivering poison to mosquitoes. Mosquitoes which spread malaria are a major killer of humans, especially young children, in parts of the world. Diseases, like malaria and dengue, are spread by mosquitoes when they bite humans to suck blood. Female mosquitoes, the only ones that bite humans, need the blood for its iron and protein to lay eggs. The insects can live, however, on nectar from flowers or from ripe or rotting fruit. The Times article,, describes how researchers are making nectar poisons known as Attractive Toxic Sugar Baits. While the initial trials are proving effective in killing large numbers of mosquitoes, the use of poisoned nectars is particularly troubling to beekeepers. We will be keenly watching the development of poisoned nectars. Many beekeepers feel that the systemic neonicotinoid insecticides now in widespread use affect honey bee immune systems and have a negative effect on honey bee health. Today’s photo shows tree frogs sharing the bee hive; bees seem to completely ignore the vulnerable frogs. Frogs and other amphibians are considered indicators of the health of the environment.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Where is Tod?

A number of Peace Bee Farm’s friends and customers have been asking Rita and me, “Where is Tod?” Our son, Tod Underhill, who regularly mans our booth selling honey and bee hive products at farmers markets, is actively working on a PhD degree in Heritage Studies at Arkansas State University. His degree program involves researching and developing historic sites across the Arkansas Delta. The wide-open agricultural region encompassing 15 counties along the Mississippi River is the flattest area on the planet. Carved from bottom land hardwood forests to create cotton plantations in the 1800s, Arkansas’s Delta was the last agricultural region formed adjacent the Mississippi River. The rich alluvial land is now cultivated in row crops including cotton, soybeans, rice, wheat, corn, and grain sorghum. Today, Delta towns are largely in decline with decreased populations due to the reduced labor needs of mechanized industrial farming.

Tod may be found on ASU’s main campus at Jonesboro, Arkansas or working at ASU’s museum located in the former Southern Tenant Farmers Union building at Tyronza, Arkansas. The union was established in 1934 by black and white farmers and Tyronza businessmen. The men and women of the union demanded fair compensation for farm labor through strikes, marches, and rallies. Their non-violent protests led the way toward labor and civil rights efforts in later decades. This museum is only one of several projects the ASU program is developing to uncover and save the region’s cultural heritage. Other Arkansas Delta heritage sites include Ernest Hemingway’s writing studio, the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Home at Piggott; the historic Dyess Colony and Johnny Cash’s childhood home at Dyess; and the 1859 Lakeport Plantation at Lake Village, the only remaining antebellum plantation home in the Delta. Arkansas Delta Byways includes tourism routes through the Delta which are extended through the Great River Road linking 10 states along both sides of the Mississippi River from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Today’s photo: Tod and Rita at a farmers market.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Invasive Insects

Invasive species often spread rapidly, and they are likely to be more damaging in their new environment than in their original location. One such invasive insect species that is considered North America’s most destructive insect is the emerald ash borer, a beetle thought to have entered this continent from Asia in wooden pallets from China. In less than a decade, the emerald ash borer has killed tens of millions of ash trees and threatens to eliminate all North American ash species. The efforts to identify and control this invasive insect are detailed in a New York Times piece, Often, invasive species have their populations held in check in their native environment by pests, pathogens, or competing species. Without these limiting factors, the populations of an invasive species may explode across its new range. That seems to be happening with the emerald ash borer following its discovery near Detroit in 2002. To follow the spread of the beetles, now in 15 states and adjacent Canadian provinces, the Forest Service developed a purple-colored, scented beetle trap to locate the invasive insects. Control of the beetles using insecticides is considered too costly for North America’s more than seven billion ash trees. While biological controls are being investigated, a control strategy using “sink trees” is being used. A few ash trees are intentionally killed and used to attract emerald beetles. These trees are then cut in the winter killing the beetle larvae. In today’s photo, rows of green ash and oak trees stretch for sunlight above annual grasses in Peace Farm’s Wetland Reforestation Project. The trees will protect a tributary of the Mississippi River from erosion.

The spread of emerald ash borers has occurred at the same time as small hive beetles spread through bee yards across the states. Effective methods of control of the rapidly spreading small hive beetle will rely upon cultural, biological, and mechanical methods. It is too dangerous to the bees to use insecticides inside bee hives.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Late Summer Hive Inspection

Bee hive inspections of the brood nest are less frequently made on bee hives during the major nectar flows. The beekeeper can usually tell if the colony is queen-right by observing the bees from outside the hive. Hives should have considerable flight activity during daytime hours. Seeing bees returning to the hive with full pollen baskets usually indicates the bees are feeding brood. Lifting the weight of heavy honey supers in the heat of the summer to expose the brood nest is a real task. However, once the beekeeper removes the honey supers and harvests the honey, it is a good time to carefully examine the brood nest. In late summer, beekeepers should be making the same checks as they make at other times of the year. We need to see evidence that the colony has a laying queen, and check for signs of disease or parasites. If Varroa mite loads are excessive, now is a good time to treat the hive with “soft” treatments, like thymol products. Since nectar flows may not be strong in late summer, we need to know if the hive has enough honey to sustain the bees until fall flowers bloom. Finally, we need to see plenty of bees in the hive. It is not uncommon to see a number of dead bees on the ground in front of the hive. One hundred dead bees is probably normal; one thousand dead bees probably indicates a hive problem. Especially during a late summer nectar dearth, the bees may kill their drones. Uncapped, liquid honey may fill the cells most recently used to produce the colony’s last brood.

 Today’s photo shows a late summer queen starting to lay eggs. Like many new queens, her egg-laying pattern contains some skipped cells. Mixed stages of brood reveal eggs and larvae of different ages. Healthy larvae are pearly white in color. Cells containing pupae are capped with light brown colored, recycled beeswax. Honey is capped with freshly secreted, snow-white beeswax.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Chemicals in Beekeeping

A new beekeeper attending an introductory course in beekeeping was surprised by the number of chemical treatments available for the beehive. She asked, “Can beekeepers avoid using antibiotics and miticides and still have healthy bees?” The answer is not simple, for there are several approaches to keeping honey bees. Some beekeepers rely upon chemical treatments for parasitic mites and honey bee diseases. However, over time, the honey bee pests and pathogens develop resistance to the chemical agents. Other beekeepers attempt to tend to bees without the use of treatments. In most cases their colonies dwindle and die within a couple of years. A third approach at beekeeping, which we adhere to at Peace Bee Farm, relies upon a series of integrated pest management steps designed to strengthen the bee colony while lessening the colony’s pests and pathogens.

An IPM approach to beekeeping employs a number of cultural, biological, and mechanical measures. Purchasing resistant-stock queen bees that are bred for hygienic behavior is the first biological measure for controlling parasitic Varroa mites. The hive design affects colony health. Screened bottom boards increase ventilation and reduce the hive’s Varroa mites. Ventilation is important for controlling chalkbrood and Nosema disease. Encouraging bees to preen Varroa mites by dusting the bees with powdered sugar is a cultural control. When the mites fall through the screen, ants eat them, a biological control. Varroa prefer to reproduce on drone brood. Removing and freezing frames of drone brood is biological control of these vectors of honey bee viruses. Parasitic tracheal mites seek very young bees as hosts, but they can be confused by vegetable oil patties placed in the hive, a biological control. Worker bees chase small hive beetles into traps, a mechanical control. These and more IPM measures, when used together, help protect the honey bee colony. Finally, when mite control is necessary, beekeepers should choose the “soft” treatments, such as those derived from essential oils. Today’s photo: partridge pea, a legume. A grasshopper consumes the foliage.