Monday, December 29, 2014

Integrated Stress Management

When Colony Collapse Disorder was first detected in the U.S. in 2007, many factors were investigated as possible causes. No single cause arose, but colony stress was found to be a common denominator in all losses. Stress appears to come from three broad areas: increasingly virulent honey bee pathogens, neonicotinoid insecticides, and nutritional issues. The combined effect of these stressors weakens the bees’ immune system and leads to colony collapse. Honey bee pathogens are spread by parasitic Varroa mites. Tracheal mites still afflict bees, along with Nosema disease and Small Hive Beetles. Neonicotinoid insecticides are in wide-spread use throughout agriculture and lawns. Nutritional problems for bees often result from monocultural crop plantings and the loss of weedy flowering plants after the conversion of natural areas for industrial agriculture, pavement, and lawns

European researchers, writing in the journal Trends in Parasitology,, call for beekeepers to employ new schemes of “Integrated Stress Management” to help combat the effects of external stresses on bee immune systems. The researchers explain that honey bees “evolved unique mechanisms for interacting with pathogens.” Reducing stress may help the resilient bees survive. Often, this simply means examining our beekeeping practices. As we plan an integrated stress management plan, we may consider: Ensure that winter hives are dry and well ventilated. Every hive should have adequate stores of food—both honey and pollen—throughout the year. Don’t excessively rob the hives of their honey stores expecting to replace honey with sugar syrup or high fructose corn syrup, sources of carbohydrate lacking honey’s other nutrients. Don’t excessively split hives or shake bees to produce packages. Small colony size leads to problems like diminished foraging capacity, difficulty regulating hive temperature, either warming the winter cluster or cooling the hive in summer. Small colonies have difficulty defending the hive from intruders. Control parasites—especially Varroa mites—using the least toxic measures available. Breed bees for mite resistance. Avoid moving bees excessively for pollination service. Ask yourself, “Are we stressing our bees?”

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Pax Vobiscum

Our family has operated Peace Farm since 1950. Rita and I introduced honey bee colonies in 2003, and family members produced honey and bee hive products. As we gained knowledge of bees and beekeeping, all members of the family participated in various aspects of tending to bees and producing and selling hive products and bee colonies. Along the way, several of us, trained as educators, became increasingly involved in beekeeping education. Tod Underhill helped me set up the Peace Bee Farmer blog, suggesting that I write down my ideas from time to time. That’s Tod in today’s photo, pictured in Ethiopia with farmers he instructed in beekeeping.

The Peace Bee Farmer blog resulted from my effort to document the bee forage plants on Peace Bee Farm as they came into bloom throughout the year. I had no idea that the writings would become so widely read or that they would put me into contact with so many individuals around the world. The simple writings and photos followed requests to give others a view of honey bees, their life inside the hive, our beekeeping efforts, and people we encounter. I have posted writings on the internet about beekeeping and matters of agriculture and the environment for six years. The Peace Bee Farmer pieces have been accessed at least one million times from two hundred countries. The resulting interactions lead to many valued contacts and friendships in many parts of the US and around the world. With today’s internet, people, anywhere on earth, may find the blog by typing a key word, such as “varroa,” or “beeswax,” or “peace.” In recent years, I noticed that increasingly often individuals accessing the blog from locations in the world’s least peaceful locations. While many find the writings by searching for beekeeping or environmental issues, some happen upon the website while searching for peace efforts. Regardless of how you came in contact with the Underhill family that operates Peace Bee Farm, we sincerely wish peace be with you.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Roadside Bee Habitat

Wildlife thrive in habitat or cover that includes food, water, places to reproduce, hide from predators, and plenty of space. Much of the habitat for bees and insect pollinators has been altered for use in industrial agriculture, urban and suburban lawns, and paved parking areas and roads. Dr. Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota Bee Lab and Eric Mader of the Xerces Society spoke recently about pollinator reversing habitat loss. See They explained that loss of habitat is one of the three important drivers of Colony Collapse Disorder that continues to reduce managed honey bee colonies. The other two are the widespread use of neonicotinoid insecticides and increased virulence of some honey bee parasites, including the Varroa mite, and some fungal infections. Dr. Spivak explained that there has been much discussion involving banning the neonicotinoid insecticides to help the insects, however, she explained that they need “not just habitat but clean, uncontaminated habitat.” To maintain a robust agriculture she stated that “we need to try for a world with both pesticides and pollinators.” Industrial agriculture, involving vast acreage of cropland, offers little food for bees, poisons insects indiscriminately, and destroys their ground nests. Planting borders and untillable farm acreage in flowering, low-maintenance, native perennial plants were given as sources of food for bees and game birds. Planting milkweed can help monarch butterflies, and nitrogen-fixing clover cover crops improve soil fertility. Dr. Spivak’s University of Minnesota Bee Lab will be studying the effects of planting “bee lawns.”

 Dr. Spivak and Mr. Mader suggested that a solution to the loss of bee habitat could be conversion of mowed and sprayed areas along the nation’s highways into bee corridors. Corridors connect our pollinator gardens and pastures, making them much more effective habitats. Planted with native wildflowers, these right-of-ways could well serve our honey bees, native pollinators, birds, and small mammals. The future will see an interest in moving to roadside vegetation management plans to support our pollinators while beautifying our roadways.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Bee Hive in Fall

The success of the colony to survive the winter is largely dependent upon the health of the bees in the fall and the beekeeper’s efforts in setting up the hive for winter. Fall is a time of transition in the bee hive. The bee colony’s population is changing from the short-lived bees of summer to the longer-lived bees that live through the winter. Bees born in the early fall are the ones that will produce the brood food for the first bees the colony rears the following year. Food stores are important. Bees must be able to sustain themselves until flowers bloom again in the spring. The bees store food of both honey and pollen in cells in the bee hive. Other necessary nutrients for the colony’s survival are stored in fat bodies in the individual bees’ abdomens. The more food that bees have available in the fall, the more nutrients they store in these fat bodies. These bees with well-filled fat bodies are best able to produce brood food for bees reared before flowers start blooming in the spring.

The health of the bees is important for the survival of the colony through the winter. If a large number of the colony’s bees are afflicted by viruses spread by parasitic mites or by Nosema disease, many bees will likely die over winter. Hives losing excessive bees often do not have enough bees to maintain a warm environment in the winter cluster. In preparing the hive in the fall, the beekeeper needs to check for the presence of bee parasites. If Varroa mite loads are high, the colony will not survive for very long. Reducing Small Hive Beetle levels to a minimum in the fall helps control these pests in the following year. The winter bee hive must also be provided with adequate ventilation to prevent the warm, moist air from condensing inside the hive and dripping water on the clustered bees. Today’s photo: Jeremy Bemis prepares hives for winter.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Vanishing Monarchs

Animals that consume a narrow diet are much more vulnerable than those eat a varied diet. While the honey bee derives its nutrition from many flower sources, the larvae of another insect, the monarch butterfly, relies solely upon one, the milkweed plant. Recent years have seen dramatic declines in the number of monarch butterflies. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. writes in the Chicago Tribune,, that this past summer he saw no monarch butterflies in an area where he saw hundreds per day in previous years. Kennedy explains that scientists blame the loss of monarch butterflies in part on deforestation in Mexico, drought, climate change. However, the greatest cause of this migrating butterfly’s disappearance is the widespread use of the herbicide glyphosate, first marketed by Monsanto as Roundup. When Monsanto introduced “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans in the late 1990s, farmers started spraying agricultural fields with the herbicide to kill everything except the desired crop. As a result of this change in farming practice, milkweed has been largely eliminated from much of America’s crop lands. To combat the loss of the monarch’s food, Kennedy suggests that we plant milkweed to create a “butterfly highway” along the monarch’s migratory route from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico. These plantings fit in nicely with efforts to help save bees, butterflies, and other at-risk pollinators.

The monarch’s treacherous migration of 2500 miles involves several generations. Butterflies east of the Rockies fly to Mexico to spend the winter, and monarchs west of the Rockies winter in California. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette illustrates their migration route through Arkansas at Those wanting to provide milkweed for the passing butterflies can find sources of seed from the Xerces Society at  The monarch, considered by some as the most beautiful insect may respond to plantings of its required food in pollinator gardens. With flowers added, these gardens are important food plots for honey bees and native pollinators as well.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

In the Ozarks

The Arkansas Beekeepers Association will hold its Annual Conference at the Ozark Folk Center,, in October. The beautiful Ozark Mountains will be in full fall foliage color, and beekeepers will gather in the town of Mountain View. The beekeepers will hear the latest in honey bee health research. They will purchase bee hives and equipment and renew friendships with fellow beekeepers. They will also enjoy mountain folk music played on the town square during cool fall evenings. Rita and I have been travelling backroads through the Ozark Mountains exploring the countryside little changed since pioneer family members moved into the Territory of Arkansas in the early nineteenth century. We stopped for hamburgers at the Oark General Store, in continuous operation since 1890. From Oark we travelled to Boxley and Ponca, the elk range along the Buffalo River, Above the river we passed several small groups of bee hives. Bee pollination is important in providing food for wildlife like Arkansas’ elk. Pioneers often kept bees in hollow logs known as gums. They also hunted for feral colonies living in hollow trees, and robbing these trees for honey was an exciting cool-weather tradition. With honey being the only sweetener available, it was a prized commodity often collected in the winter when bee populations were at a minimum. Rita and I found our family cemetery hidden in the woods between Damascus and Center Ridge with its 32 family members’ graves. Only three headstones were engraved, each dated 1861. All other graves were marked by simple slabs of sandstone.

For program and information about the Arkansas Beekeepers Association’s meeting in Mountain View, see and In today’s photo we see the Ozarks in late summer foliage. When the beekeepers gather in Mountain View, the mountains will be colored with red and purple gums; yellow maples, hickories, and sycamores; green pines; and oaks in many shades of brown. You are welcome to join the Arkansas Beekeepers Association in the Ozarks.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pesticide Exposure

Beekeepers gather to share experiences with others who tend to bees, and they attend educational programs to learn from experts in the field of honey bee health. The Arkansas Beekeepers Association will meet in October for its Annual Conference in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. The beekeepers will meet fellow beekeepers and honey bee experts and listen to presentations from researchers exploring bee health matters. Among the experts who will be present is Dr. Yu Cheng Zhu of the USDA Agricultural Research Service laboratory in Stoneville, Mississippi. Peace Bee Farm produced bees for Dr. Zhu to use in a study of the effects of exposure to agricultural pesticides on foraging honey bees. To simulate bees’ being sprayed by an aerosol application of various pesticide products, Dr. Zhu, shown here in his Stoneville laboratory, places bees in a chamber and sprays them with controlled concentrations of pesticides. The bees die within a few days, and researchers analyze proteins in the bees’ bodies. They examine enzymes the honey bees use to detoxify the chemical agents. Some pesticides kill the bees quickly; some kill more slowly; some combinations of chemical agents are toxic; and some pesticide break-down products are highly toxic. Dr. Zhu will present “What you should know about pesticides: Which one is toxic and which one is safe to your honey bees?” at the Arkansas Beekeepers Association’s conference. See for program details.

To produce bees of known age, I gathered frames of capped brood from Peace Bee Farm hives. These frames hold pupae, the third stage of developing brood. I held the capped brood in a hive set up as an incubator. This is an arrangement similar to a queen-right queen cell finisher used in queen rearing. The queen is confined in the lowest brood chamber below a queen excluder. The frames of gathered capped brood are placed above the queen excluder. Hive temperature and humidity maintain the larvae in brood nest conditions until needed for the testing.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Producing Queens

The health and productivity of any bee colony is dependent upon the condition of its queen. A productive queen that lays a large number of eggs per day usually produces a large population of bees capable of maintaining a healthy hive environment while managing many bee hive pests. Managing queen bees has always been at the center of beekeeping. To maintain honey bee colonies, beekeepers must be able to produce queen bees as needed. However, only honey bees can produce queen bees. For beekeepers to encourage bees to produce queens, they have to simulate the conditions in which bees naturally produce queens on their own. Honey bees will produce queens when the colony has lost its queen or when they are replacing a failing queen through supersedure or when they are preparing to swarm. The beekeeper can produce some queens by simulating the hive conditions that lead the bees toward producing queens. One commonly used method uses a starter and a finisher hive to produce a number of queen bees.

Bees produce new queens in the spring when the colony is crowded with young bees, queenless, and well fed. These are the conditions used in a starter hive to accept grafted larvae. Queens can be produced by grafting very young larvae during the first 12 hours of the larval stage. The queen cells in today’s photo have been cared for by the bees in a queenless starter hive for one day. During this time, the bees have begun drawing down the beeswax cell to house the developing queen, and they have begun feeding the larvae large amounts of royal jelly which will cause the larvae to develop into queen bees. After this first day’s development, the queen cells are moved to a queenright finisher hive to continue their development. Nurse bees in the finisher hive continue to feed the developing queen royal jelly while other workers extend the queen cell downward. Twelve days after grafting, a virgin queen emerges.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Caution and Optimism

From Vancouver, British Columbia Mark Winston writes of the precarious condition of the honey bee, and he cautions that the same conditions that have so seriously affected the bees could likewise endanger humans as well. Writing in the New York Times,, Winston explains that about a third of the managed honey bee hives worldwide collapse and die each year. Winston is optimistic that by observing the bees we can avoid a similar fate in humankind. The loss of honey bee colonies does not have a singular cause, but instead the deaths result from the complicated relationships between many elements. Winston lists some of these including pesticides applied to agricultural fields and pesticides used in bee hives by beekeepers to control parasitic mites; fungal, bacterial, and viral diseases; nutritional deficiencies caused by monocultural crop planting practices; and commercial beekeeping activities. He explains that the problem arises from the interactions among the many elements which sometimes result in a synergy or multiplying of the harmful effects, resulting in the compromise of the honey bees’ immune systems.

Winston explains that the pharmaceuticals that humans use often react in similar synergies as the pesticides injuring bees. He also cautioned that excessive cultivation, chemical use, and habitat destruction threaten the honey bees, pollinators so important for our food production. A Simon Fraser University study conducted on Canadian canola fields illustrates the value of feral bees. Farmers who planted a field earned $27,000 in profit using standard, modern agricultural practices while farmers who left one third of their equivalently sized farm unplanted to provide food and habitat for bees earned $65,000 per year. Modern industrial agriculture designed to optimize crop yields is often stressful on bees and beneficial insects. Beekeepers also may stress their bees through severe honey harvesting or excessive pollination travel. Meanwhile, signs of recovery of species weakened by environmental chemicals and habitat loss exist. Today’s photo reveals a bald eagle, once rare in the Mid-South, surveying Peace Farm from its lofty perch.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Federal Strategy for Bees

The President signed a Memorandum Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, The memorandum directs several departments of the federal government to immediately address issues leading to the loss of honey bees and native pollinators. The memorandum speaks clearly of the need for action: “Pollinators contribute substantially to the economy of the United States and are vital to keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets. Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States. Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators, including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies, from the environment. The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.” Honey bee losses have been clearly recorded, but the losses of other pollinators are more difficult to assess. Bumble bees live underground, and many native bees nest in foliage, often unseen. Monarch butterflies, often viewed as indicators of the health of the environment, reached their lowest recorded population level this year, and their migration is considered to be in danger of failing.

Among the action plans presented in the memorandum are the development of affordable seed mixes of native pollinator-friendly plants for honey bees and other pollinators, finding best management practices for reducing pollinator exposure to pesticides, restoring and enhancing pollinator habitat along road, power line, pipeline, and utility rights-of-way and federal lands. In one example of the efforts described in the memorandum the Departments of Agriculture and Interior will establish a reserve of native seed mixes for habitat rehabilitation after fires. The memorandum moves us closer to seeing our cities connected by flowering pollinator corridors along the interstate highways. Today’s photo: native Blue Orchard Bees find a nest in a package of staples in Peace Bee Farm’s woodshop.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Neonicotinoids and CCD

Beekeepers have long suspected the role of the neonicotinoid insecticides in the great upsurge of honey bee colony die-offs that have continued since 2006. Named Colony Collapse Disorder, the loss of honey bee colonies has persisted for eight years in spite of efforts by researchers to identify a cause and by beekeepers to replenish their hive numbers. According to the Bee Informed Partnership’s recently released report,, annual losses have averaged an unsustainable level of nearly 30 percent. A relatively small-scale study by Harvard School of Public Health,, reveals interesting findings. Honey bee colonies exposed to either of two low levels of neonicotinoid insecticides, imidacloprid or clothianidin, abandoned their hives during the winter, defining symptoms of Colony Collapse Disorder. This report contrasts somewhat from the results of a previous study on the effect of pesticides that lead to susceptibility to the honey bee gut pathogen, Nosema ceranae. The larger study, reported in PLOS ONE,, finds large numbers and high levels of pesticides in honey bee hives. The researchers found 35 different pesticides in sampled honey bee pollen and high levels of fungicides.

Until recently, fungicides, chemicals designed to fight fungal infections, were considered safe for honey bees. Recent studies are finding fungicides to have an adverse effect on honey bee health, often making insecticides and miticides more toxic to bees. In the PLOS ONE study, fungicides were found to lead to Nosema infection. Needless to say, the search for the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder has revealed the complexity of the problem. There are many factors contributing to honey bee health, including nutrition, parasitic mites, pest insects, viral, fungal, and bacterial diseases, and environmental chemicals. Studies are finding insecticides, miticides, fungicides, and herbicides in the bee hives. Combinations of chemicals and breakdown products of chemicals are often highly toxic to bees. Peace Bee Farm has participated in a number of the studies. Today, catalpa trees secrete nectar from the flowers and nectaries on the leaves.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Changing Seasons

We have endured a colder than normal winter in much of the United States. Beekeeping friends in Minnesota, Michigan, and Maine reported to me that their hives were in deep snow during much of the winter. Arkansas saw little snow, but received several significant ice storms. Speaking at a business luncheon today, I was questioned by many in the audience about how the honey bees fared over our colder than normal winter. I explained to the business leaders, who are truly concerned about the condition of bees, that it appears that our Arkansas Delta bees survived quite well. The cold weather kept the bees clustered in the hives, expending only enough energy to warm the cluster. Warmer winter weather often allows the bees more flying opportunities. Foragers searching in the winter for blooming flowers expend energy and consume greater amounts of stored honey. Fortunately, I set up my hives for the winter with plenty of honey stores. Still, they consumed large amounts of dry sugar that I placed atop the hives’ inner covers as a precaution against starvation.

March is the harshest month of the year for honey bees. After surviving a cold winter honey bee colonies often starve during the month of March. At this time of the year, colony populations are growing rapidly with nurse bees feeding large amounts of brood. Warming days allow bees to fly and forage, however, flowering plants are not yet blooming in abundance. When checking on the bees in March, even on cool, blustery days when it is not safe to open the hives, it is a good idea to gently lift the rear of the hives and estimate their weight. Light hives may be depleted of honey stores. Since honey bees share their food, starvation of the colony occurs at once. Some emergency feeding may save a strong colony from starvation. Today’s photo shows bees eagerly dusting in pollen substitute offered to the bees in a bucket for protection from the weather.