Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Help from Birds of Prey

The bee hive in the fall is full of bees, brood, and food. However, by mid-winter, the hive is partially empty. Short-lived summer bees are gone; drones have been ejected; the year’s last brood has emerged; and a significant amount of the food stores have been eaten. The cluster of bees is slowly moving upward in the hive. As the bees eat their honey stores, they leave empty cells. The hive may have half of its cells empty. The empty air-filled cells make excellent insulation from cold winter drafts. Actually, little wind blows through the parallel sheets of bee hive comb.

If they are able to enter, mice find bee hives a welcoming home in the winter. Mice are known to build nests in the lower corners of bee hives. They are actually a greater nuisance to beekeepers than to the bees. If worker bees find a mouse inside the hive, they often sting it to death. Since they can’t drag the mouse outside, they entomb it in propolis. This prevents the spread of odor and bacteria throughout the hive. Beekeepers reduce the size of hive entrances in the winter to help keep mice out of the hive. Rodent populations, like those of many insects, expand widely every few years. This year, large populations of field mice and rats were observed over a wide area. Hawks and owls, birds of prey, are effective natural predators of rodents. Red-tailed hawks are common hunters throughout North America. Easily identified by their bright white breast feathers, they often perch on a low tree limb or fence post while waiting for a rodent to move. Then, they swoop down and grab their prey with sharp talons. The red-tailed hawk in today’s photo is frequently seen hunting on the ground in one Peace Bee Farm bee yard. Today, I found four nesting boxes occupied by sleeping screech owls, highly efficient night-time mouse catchers. Year-around, birds of prey help to control bee yard rodent pests.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Regulating Hive Temperature

A beekeeper in Minnesota is carefully measuring the temperature inside his bee hives. He recorded a daytime temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit and a nighttime temperature of 38 degrees. He asks me what I think of the temperature differences, and he asks if I feel that there is a problem. While Minnesota experiences extremely cold winters, honey bees are very capable of regulating the atmosphere of their hive. They also employ measures to conserve energy and food reserves necessary to survive harsh northern winters. First, they do not attempt to warm their entire hive, only the bees and brood. The bees form a cluster to generate and conserve warmth. Loosely packed bees inside the cluster generate heat by eating their high-energy food, honey, and “shivering” their flight muscles. These bees can create about 104 degrees in their muscle tissue. Bees on the outside of the cluster form a tightly packed crust to hold in the generated heat. As bees on the outside chill, bees from the inside change places with them. The bees are not wasteful of honey stores needed to feed the workers generating heat. They do not attempt to warm the entire hive, just the cluster of bees.

The bees’ second honey conservation effort involves lowering the cluster temperature whenever there is no brood present. Brood must be kept warmer than adult bees. Brood is held at 95 degrees Fahrenheit. A number of races of bees, especially those originating in northern Europe and Asia, restrict the feeding of their queen to force her to stop laying eggs in the winter. When the colony is not tending brood, it lowers its colony cluster temperature to around 70 degrees, the daytime temperature measured in the Minnesota hive. The temperature of the hive outside the cluster drops at nighttime. In today’s photo, we see bees gathering granulated sugar that I placed for emergency feeding atop a hive’s inner cover. Bees access the sugar through the inner cover’s center hole.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Hello, Caller

First, for the person attempting to call me on the phone, I am not able to hear you over the international connection. I will gladly respond to an email message to Please use the subject line to help me identify you.

A friend writes asking about creamy white honey. I explain that the color of honey comes from the flowers that bees visit to collect nectar. Honey that is quite clear in color is described as “water white.” This is the lightest natural color of honey, which ranges from nearly clear through amber to dark brown colors that are almost black. If honey is white and opaque, it probably contains crystallized sugars and likely particles of beeswax, both quite acceptable in raw honey. Most of the delicious valonia honey that I ate in Africa was white in color, creamy in texture, and opaque. The color, clarity, and texture of honey don’t affect its quality. They just make for more variety in the honey we taste and enjoy.

Winter is a good time for enjoying the birds along North America’s central flyway. Migratory birds abound in the Arkansas Delta at this time of the year. Mile-long strings of snow geese pass overhead throughout the day. Harvested soybean and rice fields, impounded to hold water, attract pintail, northern shoveler, teal, and mallard ducks as well as white-fronted geese. Shown in today’s photo, the snow geese in the distance cover the ground. Along with their color phase, the blue goose, they appear as dirty snow. The gregarious snow geese congregate in flocks numbering in the thousands. Wintering waterfowl, fattening on spilled grain and aquatic invertebrates, help farmers by efficiently sifting weed seeds from the muddy soil. Bald eagles visit Peace Farm lakes, occasionally snagging a fish or duck. From dawn to dusk, red tailed hawks and northern harriers effectively thin the population of field mice and rats. Owls work the night shift, unseen.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

January Thaw

Winters in the temperate Mid-South are not continuous. There are cold periods interrupted every few weeks by mild days. Even though this region’s coldest months are January and February, it is not uncommon for winds to shift from north to south to bring a few warm days, a January thaw. These breaks in the weather give honey bees an opportunity to break out of their winter cluster to eat food stores in the hive, make cleansing flights, and even scout for food to forage. Today, I found the first wildflowers of the year in bloom, dandelions. Winter bees often forage dandelions for pollen.

Warm days also give beekeepers a chance to make a brief check of bee hives. With temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit and no strong breezes, it is safe to open the cover of the hives and peer inside. We don’t, however, want to make a deep inspection of the hives until the temperatures warm considerably.  Today, with warm temperatures and mild breezes, I lifted the hives a couple of inches from the rear to feel the weight of each hive. I then checked the food stores on light weight hives. Most hives held a full box of capped honey above the cluster of bees. In one hive I found the cluster had moved to the very top of the upper box. Bees located in this position during mid-winter are quite vulnerable to die from starvation. Even though the hive contained plenty of honey, colonies often do not move through the hive to access the food as they need it. Clusters of bees tend to move upward in the hive during winter months and not downward. Breaking apart a hive in cool weather may chill the bees and any brood. Rearranging a hive in mid-winter is also risky. Emergency feeding helps protect vulnerable colonies. Today, I poured several pounds of granulated sugar atop the inner cover of the hive for the bees to access from the center hole.