Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Pax Vobiscum

The year 2012 brought Tod Underhill and me three opportunities to travel to Ethiopia to train beekeepers. The USAID-funded projects were conducted by Little Rock, Arkansas based Winrock International. I want to recognize and thank those who shared in my experience and helped make my training sessions meaningful. Thank you, Winrock International staff who made arrangements for my travel: Johnnie Frueauff (USA), Daniel Kocha, Gemechis Jaleta, Kassahoun (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), Bonface Kaberia (Nairobi, Kenya), and Winrock International volunteers, Damon Szymanski, and Jennifer Bowman (USA) who provided friendship and assisted in communications. I give my special thanks to my Ethiopian hosts, Wubishet Adugna, managing director of Apinec AgroIndustry, and Guta Abdi, founder and managing director of Education For Development Association, for their hospitality, generosity, and friendship. While making sure that their people received the training that they requested, my hosts showed me their beautiful country and shared with me their food, and traditions. Among those who helped me in my planning for training in Ethiopia: Pam Gregory (Wales, UK), Kushal Chandak (India), Nita (Bangkok, Thailand), Hafeez Anwar (Pakistan), and Wondimu Teferi and Lemma Tamiru (Ethiopia)

I fondly remember those I encountered during the dry season in southwestern Ethiopia:, Abraham Tesfaye, Wondimagegn Tadesse, Tsegaiye Haile, Fasika Habtemariam, Johannes Bekele, Atrise Abebe, Ademe Abebe, Tigist Wildemichael, Abeba Rausha, Johannes Abebe, Gezahgn Tadesse, Hemlem Tesfaye, Eyob Assefa, Silishe Katama, Misaurets, Achi, Aklil Cnewn, Hadella, and Michael. During the rainy season in western Ethiopia I had the pleasure of meeting: Jotte Hailu, Tucho Enkossa, Gedefa, Mengistu, Gobena, Debisa, Buze, Melaku, Teshome, Tolera, Gurmesa, Lemma Goya, Mekonnen Egziabher, Tewelde, and an additional 50 seasoned beekeepers. These are but a few of those who I encountered in my travels. They were friendly toward me and interested in helping Ethiopia’s people. I had the opportunity to observe in Ethiopia Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Evangelical Protestant Christians, and naturalistic believers living harmoniously and setting an example of tolerance. The Underhills who operate Peace Bee Farm offer: Peace be with you.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Honey Bees in the Winter

The honey bee is well adapted to live in diverse environments. Honey bees are found from the hottest equatorial regions to extremely cold temperate regions. In the temperate zone, bees are able to regulate the atmosphere of their hive from the heat of summer to the cold of winter. Honey bees have adapted behaviors to accommodate abundances of food as well as dearth. When flowers are in bloom, bees make honey; when no flowers are blooming, bees eat that honey. Bees regulate the temperature of the brood nest at 95 degrees Fahrenheit. In the summer they often need to cool the hive; in the winter the workers generate heat to keep the bees warm. To stay warm, the bees form a round cluster, a three-dimensional ball of bees divided by sheets of honeycomb. Tightly packed bees on the outside of the cluster insulate those inside. Bees on the inside eat honey, a high-energy food, and generate heat in their flight muscles. Honey bees don’t waste energy warming their entire hive, only the brood and bees. It would be wasteful to warm unoccupied corners of the hive.

Certain honey bee races, particularly those that evolved in the colder regions of northern Europe and Asia, exhibit behaviors that further conserve precious honey reserves needed to warm and feed bees over lengthy and severe winters. Since adult bees can survive at lower temperatures than brood, these cold-hearty bees force their queen to stop laying eggs in the winter. Without brood in the hive, bees only warm the cluster to about 70 degrees.  The longer that the hive remains without brood, the less food is consumed. However, the queen may begin laying eggs anytime after the winter solstice. Egg laying is stimulated by workers bringing in pollen. On warm days, like today, workers seek pollen. Here they are mistakenly collecting dust from cracked corn and grain sorghum that I am feeding to ducks. Many people find honey bees in their bird feeders in the winter.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Winter Solstice

Human societies throughout the world have measured their calendars according to the changes in seasons. Today is the winter solstice, the day with the shortest sunlight and longest night. Peoples around the world have studied the change through the year in the length of the day and the angle of the sun. Early agrarian societies observed the movement of the sun and learned to time the planting of their crops with changes in seasons. This timing was important for maximizing the reproduction of precious crop seeds for feeding expanding human populations. Just as plant reproduction is associated with the seasons, so is the reproduction of many animal species. Today, on the winter solstice, honey bee queens start reproducing the first young for the next year. Most colonies interrupted their queen from laying eggs in the fall by restricting the food they feed her.

Successful reproduction is so important that it leads the activity of most species. The process is not always accurate, though. A report in The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/27/science/in-nature-fatal-attractions-can-be-part-of-life.html, describes attempts in nature for reproduction between members of different species. Antarctic fur seals occasionally attempt to mate with king penguins, birds that the seals normally hunt and eat. It is unknown whether such acts, known as “misdirected mating,” are simply a matter of mistaken identity or if there is another cause. The Times piece also describes misdirected mating involving California sea otters and Pacific harbor seals. In the Bahamas, bottlenose dolphins regularly attack smaller spotted dolphins in acts of sexual violence. Similar occurrences of misdirected mating occur in a number of other animal species. At Peace Bee Farm, we regularly observe drone honey bees chasing purple martins as if they were following a queen bee. Today’s photo, taken in July, shows three drones in pursuit of a purple martin. Today, the winter solstice, the migratory martins are in their winter home in South America. Two bald eagles circle the bee farm; the bees remain clustered in their hives.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Replacing Old Honeycombs

Beekeepers build hives for bees, and the bees build their nest inside the hives from beeswax, a substance that the bees produce. Young bees secrete beeswax from glands on the lower side of their abdomen. Beeswax makes a strong and lightweight nest to hold the developing bee brood as well as a storage area for bee food. The individual cells of the bee nest are used repeatedly to house bees developing from egg to larva to pupa to adult. As the bee brood changes from larva to pupa, the workers cap each cell with reused beeswax from the hive. However, workers use freshly secreted beeswax to cover the cells of ripened honey. Honey bees are attracted to the odor of old honeycombs, but old comb is a potential problem for bee health. Beeswax absorbs chemical toxins from the environment, making the hive increasingly toxic. Old honeycombs also hold the reproductive spores of a number of pathogens, namely American foulbrood, chalkbrood, and Nosema disease.

Periodically replacing old beeswax combs is a key element in Peace Bee Farm’s integrated pest management plan. Honeycomb replacement has a similar effect as changing the engine oil in a beekeeper’s truck; the impurities are removed. In today’s photo, I am using a high-pressure power washer to remove the old beeswax comb and hive materials from frames of plastic foundation. The stream of water removes pollen deposits, old bee larvae cocoons, wax moth webbing and cocoons, and small hive beetle “slime,” the waste deposits of the larvae of these hive scavengers. Once the old comb is removed from the frames, I will coat the plastic foundation with fresh beeswax, capping wax saved from harvesting honey. The bees will rapidly form this beeswax with their mouthparts into smooth sheets of comb. During a strong nectar flow, young worker bees will secrete additional beeswax to complete the honeycombs. The colonies will rear brood in clean, chemical-free beeswax cells. Providing a clean brood nest helps ensure a healthy bee colony.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Restoring Three Forests

I follow with interest the growth of replacement forests in three areas, the mountains of Appalachia, the highlands of Ethiopia, and the flat bottomland of the Arkansas Delta. Efforts are being made to correct man-made removal of natural forests from each of these areas. The work in the mountains of Appalachia is centered on areas exploited for a surface coal mining technique known as “mountain-top removal.” Our friend, beekeeper and author Tammy Horn, is instrumental in bringing people and resources together to change coal mining reclamation sites from hard packed gravel beds into forests designed to increase forage for honey bees and native pollinators. Writing in the newsletter of The American Chestnut Foundation, http://www.acf.org/newsletter11.21.12honeybees.php, Tammy describes the work of her Coal Country Beeworks. While establishing a beekeeping cottage industry, the group is planting the mountains of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia in native trees including sourwood, a famous source for premium honey. The mountain-top restoration efforts also include the planting of American chestnut trees from blight-resistant seedlings. The American Chestnut Foundation and the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative are working to replace the native chestnut, which once accounted for one third of the trees in the southeastern forests. The tree was valuable for its lumber and important as a food source of wildlife.

Beekeepers of Ethiopia rely upon forest nectar sources to produce honey as a staple of their agriculture. They are planting highly erodible volcanic slopes of the Bonebunga Area of western Ethiopia in trees to restore land previously cleared for planting crops. They protect the forests from poaching for firewood and building materials by “social fences,” imaginary protective fences built in the minds of those served by the forest. The third replacement forest is a Wetland Reforestation Project on Peace Farm on a tributary of the Mississippi River. We planted native hardwood trees to prevent soil erosion. Today’s picture shows native oaks, hand planted from seed, competing for sunlight. Bayou ridges include nectar source plantings to support honey bees.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Moisture in Honey

A Memphis beekeeper is concerned that his honey may not store safely. If honey is fully ripened, the bees have completely converted flower nectar sugars and evaporated the moisture to about 18 percent. At this point, the worker bees cap the cells with fresh beeswax; and the honey will last forever. This honey may be harvested and stored safely. The surest way to determine that honey is ready to harvest is to examine the honeycombs and only harvest frames that are almost completely capped. It is important for beekeepers to remember that honey is “hygroscopic,” which means that it readily takes on moisture. Harvested frames of honey may take on moisture from the air after they are removed from the hive. The beeswax cappings are somewhat porous, so even fully capped frames of honey may absorb moisture from the air. Honey house dehumidifiers protect honey before it is sealed in air-tight containers.

All honey contains yeast spores from the atmosphere and from environmental surfaces. Honey with a moisture content above 19.5 percent will likely ferment. To prevent fermentation, most commercially handled honey is heated to pasteurization temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit and held at this temperature for 30 minutes to kill the yeast spores. Beekeepers test the honey with a refractometer, a simple device that measures the bending of light passing through the honey. If high moisture honey is stored, it has a tendency to ferment. Fermentation readily occurs as honey naturally crystallizes. Crystallization reaches a maximum as honey cools to 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Crystals start forming at the bottom of the honey container, and lock-up the sugar solids. Honey with excess liquid at the top of the container ferments. Honey with 16 to 18 percent moisture content will last indefinitely in sealed honey pails or drums. Beekeepers who want to bottle highly sought-after raw honey that has not been overly heated carefully measure moisture content and only bottle honey with moisture of 18.5 percent or less. Today’s photo: capping honey.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

What Happened to the Hive?

A beekeeper asks for my thoughts about the loss of a colony of bees. He explains, “I had a good sized colony, three boxes high, bottom and part of second were a mix of brood and honey, and top was all honey. Earlier in the summer I had another six inch super on top which was filled.” In late August, finding his hive empty, he explains, “There was no sound, in fact there was not one bee, and there was not one dead bee either. Every bee was gone.” However, on the day before, the hive showed much bee activity. Attempting to understand colony losses is curious and worthwhile.

The complete abandoning of a bee hive, called “absconding,” is not common in the temperate zone unless conditions make the hive completely undesirable. Colony Collapse Disorder has drawn much attention in recent years, but the conditions here don’t fit its definition. With CCD, there is a loss of older adult bees, but the hive is left with a queen, nurse bees, and brood. A very common cause of the loss of a colony of honey bees, however, is colony collapse due to Varroa mite infestation. This is particularly common in the time period of late summer, as in this late August case. Honey bee colonies grow rapidly in the spring to produce large populations of foragers to harvest nectar and pollen while flowers are in bloom. The queen slows her egg laying in the summer and the colony population gently declines. Parasitic Varroa mite populations follow a different pattern. Mites in a bee hive increase in number gradually throughout the year. By late summer bee numbers are declining while mites are increasing. As the Varroa mites bite bees, they spread bacterial, fungal, and viral infections throughout the colony, eventually killing it. Why was there plenty of hive activity the day before? Robber bees were removing honey stores. Today’s photo shows guard bees challenging incoming foragers. Guards are absent from dead hives.