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.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Use of Antibiotics

Prior to the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, infections were treated by medicinal folklore. For example, the colonial-era Native American folk healer Joe Pye used plants to treat diarrhea, typhus, kidney stones, and fevers. These plants in the composite flower family are now known as Joe-Pye weed. Today’s photo is Joe-Pye weed blooming in the damp, marshy ground surrounding Peace Farm lakes.

Antibiotics are substances produced by fungi, algae, and bacteria that inhibit the growth of bacteria. With their wide-spread introduction in the 1940s, they were described as “wonder drugs.” While antibiotics initially provided effective control of bacterial infections, their effectiveness is often short lived. Strains of bacteria quickly become resistant to antibiotics. A New York Times report with important implications for beekeepers may be viewed at The report describes an analysis of 30-thousand-year-old bacteria recovered from Canada’s Yukon permafrost. The bacteria proved to be resistant to antibiotics. The researchers find that antibiotic resistance is widespread, and it is a natural phenomenon that existed long before the modern medical use of antibiotics. They find that the ancient bacteria contained all of the major genes that enable today’s bacteria to resist antibiotics. The researchers describe the evolution of two classes of genes: ones that make antibiotics and ones that provide resistance to antibiotics. One researcher states, “Antibiotic resistance is part of the natural ecology of the planet….” Another describes the ease with which resistance can appear. They also warn of problems caused by the overuse of antibiotics in poor countries and by farmers who regularly feed antibiotics to farm animals to induce faster growth. The result is the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria in both animals and farm workers. Another concern is the communities of bacteria that live in the human gut. These bacteria passed from mother to child over thousands of generations may be degraded by antibiotics. The continued use of antibiotics by beekeepers attempting to prevent American foulbrood leads to resistant strains of this bacterial disease.