Monday, December 24, 2018

Pax Vobiscum

A beekeeper friend who is an avid outdoorsman proclaims, “I’d rather catch a swarm of bees than a five-pound bass!” Beekeepers manage colonies of honey bees for various purposes: honey production, crop pollination, to improve fruit orchards and vegetable garden production. However, many beekeepers tend to hives simply for enjoyment. Friendships develop between beekeepers who work hives together. Beekeeping tasks vary throughout the year with some months considerably busier than others. Winter months require little work inside the hives where the bees are alive and active, but clustered together for warmth and not flying. At this time of year, beekeepers can construct and repair hive equipment, plan for the next year’s activities, and devote some leisure time to reading. I like to reread some of my favorite beekeeper authors, such as Richard Taylor. He offers thoughtful views of beekeeping in The Joys of Beekeeping, 1984. Taylor writes of the relationship between bees, beekeepers, and nature. He explains, “When I see a bee tree I know its inhabitants are the evolutionary product of millions of years, and that what I call ‘my own’ bees are but the smallest step from the bee tree. The forests lure them back and always will.” Regarding the swarms that my friend loves to catch, Taylor says, “Swarming is of course essential not only to the survival of the species but also to nature itself, for without bees the many plants—both wild and cultivated—that depend upon them for the viability of their seed would also be threatened with extinction.”

While setting-up my backyard hives for winter, I noticed a downy woodpecker that has learned to use a twig as a tool to gather food from a suet feeder. Taylor writes, “We need the whole of nature, and we need to be reminded that we are a part of it.” The Underhill family of Peace Bee Farm wishes you good health, and cheer, healthy bees, and enjoyment of nature. May peace be with you.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Winter Solstice

The sun rose this morning as far south along the horizon as it will appear anytime through the year. We call this day the winter solstice. This is also the year’s shortest day. Starting tomorrow, the sun will appear to rise slightly farther to the north daily until the summer solstice, June 21, when the sun rises in its northern-most position. These apparent movements of the sun along the horizon have been observed since ancient times. They allowed early peoples to develop calendars, vitally necessary for telling farmers when to plant precious seeds needed to feed increasing populations. The life cycles of many species are tied to the seasonal changes associated with the length of days. Among those species is the honey bee. For the honey bee, the winter solstice is the beginning of the new year. Queen bees start laying eggs on the winter solstice.

Here, in the temperate zone, the blooming of most flowering plants follows the length of days as well, blooming spring, summer, and fall. Few flowers are found in the winter, and the life cycle of the honey bee follows the availability of flowers. The bees gather nectar from flowers, convert it into honey, and survive on it through the winter. The honey bee is unique, being the only insect in the temperate zone that stays alive and active throughout the winter. Honey bees eat the high-energy honey that they produce and generate heat by vibrating their flight muscles. They are thus able to survive in cold weather, clustered tightly together to retain warmth. Other insects, like lady bug beetles, hibernate in cold weather, protected under tree bark or leaves. Wasps, hornets, and yellowjackets die off annually, leaving a mated queen to start the next year’s colony. I communicated today with my friend, EAS Certified Master Beekeeper Wubishet Adugna, in Ethiopia, shown here with coffee that he exports. Wubishet’s tropical honey bees follow seasonal changes based upon annual rainfall patterns instead of the length of days.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Propolis for Bee Health

Propolis is one of four substances, along with nectar pollen, and water, that foraging honey bees bring into their hive. The collection of propolis is an important colony protection behavior. Bees collect propolis from the sap, gums, and resins of trees, often evergreens. The sticky substance is used to seal cracks and small openings in the honey bee colony’s hive. It is the “bee glue” that attaches beeswax combs to the hive. When a swarm of bees moves into a hollow tree cavity, or when a beekeeper hives a colony in a new hive, the bees varnish the inside walls of their new home with propolis. Not only does the propolis provide a protective barrier against drafts and moisture, it also provides antimicrobial protections. Foraging bees returning to their hive walk across an antibacterial and antifungal “door mat” of propolis deposited at the hive entrance. Honey bees use propolis to help protect the colony from invaders. Bees entomb with propolis dead mice or intruding insects too large to drag from the hive, preventing the spread through the hive of bacteria from decaying pests. Bees also trap Small Hive Beetles in propolis “jails” within the hive.

The behavior of collecting propolis is a heritable trait. Some beekeepers in the past considered manipulating heavily propolized hives unnecessarily messy, and therefore selected for bees that collected little propolis. However, colony health benefits of having plenty of propolis in the hives makes it advantageous to encourage propolis collection. An article published in the Journal of Economic Entomology,, describes how researchers tested several means of roughening the interior of bee hives to encourage bees to fill small openings with propolis. I regularly roughen new hive boxes with a steel brush and a jagged flint rock from Arkansas’ Boston Mountains. Researcher Dr. Keith Delaplane, entomology professor at the University of Georgia, describes encouraging bees to deposit extra propolis as partnering with biology. In today’s photo bees eagerly gather and reuse propolis from a recently opened hive.