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.