Thursday, December 24, 2020

Pax Vobiscum

The year 2020 has been dominated by the Covid-19 virus. Viruses are infectious agents, smaller than bacteria, that infect all types of life forms, from animals and plants, even microorganisms. Millions of viruses exist; some infect a narrow group of hosts, and others infect a wide group of hosts. Viruses are carried, or vectored, from one host to another by a number of means. For example, viruses are passed between plants by chewing insects, and viruses causing the common cold are passed airborne between humans when infected people cough or sneeze. Humans and honey bees are affected by a number of viral diseases. Beekeepers fight the ill-effects of viral diseases of honey bees to maintain healthy colonies, aware of sacbrood disease and bee paralysis, caused by viruses, as well as Kashmir virus, black queen cell virus, and deformed wing virus. At least 50 viruses vectored by parasitic Varroa mites have been identified.

Humans are affected by a number of viral diseases including chicken pox and the common cold. A number of viruses exist in both honey bees and humans without doing harm to their host. However, a new virus, known as Covid-19, entered the human population and spread rapidly around the world this year. The highly contagious virus killed 300,000 people in the U.S. and sickened many more. Persons are susceptible to becoming ill after exposure to the Covid-19 virus unless they have developed an immunity either by having the disease and recovering or by receiving a vaccine. Vaccines for Covid-19 are being developed and distributed. Currently there are no vaccines to protect honey bees from the many viruses that are vectored by Varroa mites. The only effective means of protecting either humans or bees from viruses is to maintain a distance from the vector. With humans, that means wearing masks, maintaining separation, and isolation. With bees, it means controlling Varroa populations. Mindful and saddened by our losses to Covid-19, the Underhills of Peace Bee Farm wish peace be with you.


Saturday, November 21, 2020

Bees are Foraging Propolis

Honey bees and beekeepers are preparing hives for winter. One of the bees’ hive preparations involves collecting propolis. Bees gather resins and gums from trees to produce propolis, the antimicrobial “bee glue” that they use to varnish their hives. The bees seal all unwanted openings in the hive with propolis to block entrance of unwanted insect intruders. Cracks inside the hive, smaller than a bee space of three eights of an inch, are filled with propolis. This includes the seams between the several boxes that make up a modern bee hive as well as the space along the edges of hive frames. A sturdy beekeeper’s hive tool is required to break the propolis bonds of individual boxes and frames. Propolis is sticky in warm weather and brittle when cold. The bees in today’s photo are foraging propolis warmed by the sun. Bees use the propolis to control unwanted drafts inside their hive, even building propolis plenums in the hive to block chilling winter air flows. Guard bees drive small hive beetles into sticky propolis “jails” to help control these hive pests. The antibacterial and antifungal propolis is an important element in the honey bee colony’s health. If a hive invader, such as a mouse, cannot be removed by the bees, they will encapsulate the dead body in propolis to prevent the spread of bacteria in the hive.


Inside the hive, worker bees are concentrating the honey from cells high in the hive to cells closer to the brood nest. While the bees continue to forage for fall nectar, beekeepers need to ensure that every hive has adequate honey stored for the winter. The essence of beekeeping is to tend to healthy colonies and not get too greedy when robbing the hives. If a beekeeper takes too much honey from a hive, the colony will starve over winter. How much honey should one leave on the hives? The answer comes from the shared experience of beekeepers in the local area.


Monday, October 19, 2020

Bees Identify Nest Mates


Drones are the male reproductive members of the honey bee hive. Drones perform no work in the hive and have but one duty: They mate with queen bees. In the Mid-South, colonies produce queens from April through August, and these queens mate a few days after queens emerge as adults. Since drones serve no purpose to the bees during the winter, colonies drive all drones from the hive in the fall. Removing non-working drones from the hive helps conserve winter food stores and ensure colony survival. There is one instance, though, when drones are not removed from the hive. Queenless colonies often retain their drones through the winter. While making a recent inspection of my hives, I found that most of the drones had been driven from the hives. However, one hive held a number of drones, a situation that calls for further investigation. Normally, beekeepers don’t need to find a queen, only evidence that the colony has one and that she is laying eggs. In today’s photo, we see the queen, a healthy, young queen, marked in blue. This queen was introduced into the hive in late summer, and she is laying plenty of eggs. A number of drones, bees larger than the workers, are visible in the photo.


An important part of our fall hive set-up for winter involves determining that every hive has enough honey to sustain the colony through the winter. With decreasing forage available for the bees to make honey, bees will readily rob honey from any hive if its colony is too weak to defend itself. Every hive is protected by guard bees that check bees attempting to enter. Bees not belonging to the colony are rejected by the guards. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found a mechanism for bees identifying hive mates. See They found that bacteria in the bees’ gut affects the odor of the bees’ exoskeletons. Guard bees identify bees belonging in their hive by their distinct odor.


Saturday, September 19, 2020

Donkey Days of Summer

I met Elvis Opris, the owner of Brothers Honey Company,, in his bee yard, and we started our day early with a breakfast of coffee and graham crackers on the tailgate of my truck. As I lit the smoker, a pair of donkeys, guardians of the farm’s livestock, invited themselves to join in on eating our graham crackers. After the harvest of the summer’s honey, it was time to perform a thorough inspection of the bee hives and start any needed treatments for parasitic mites. As with all hive inspections, we checked for obvious hive diseases and evidence that each hive had a prolific egg-laying queen. In the late summer and early fall seasons, queens lay fewer eggs, and bee populations begin a slight decline. Parasitic varroa mite populations, however, reach their annual maximum. It is important that beekeepers determine the number of mites in the hives and treat the hives if their mite loads exceed recommended thresholds. Information on testing methods, treatment thresholds, and appropriate mite treatments are found on the Honey Bee Health Coalition’s website, Many of the available mite treatments have restrictions on their use. For example, to prevent contamination of honey by chemical treatments, most cannot be used when honey supers are on the hives. Some treatments have temperature restrictions, and need to be applied in the fall with cooler temperatures.


We measured the mite loads on hives that had stayed on the farm throughout the year using an alcohol-wash test and found varroa at close to the treatment threshold. Other hives that had been moved to another location for honey production returned in weakened conditions with a large percentage of colonies dead. We measured these surviving hives and found mite loads above the treatment thresholds, so we applied a treatment to all hives. We will measure the mite loads again during the fall to see if the treatments brought the mites below recommended thresholds. I suspect that the donkeys will expect graham crackers.


Saturday, August 22, 2020

Dog Days of Summer

The hot, droughty mid-summer period is often called the Dog Days of Summer, and a significant dearth of nectar often exists from July through September. At this time, locations that produce spring honey see a dramatic reduction in honey production. Bee hives located near agricultural crops continue to produce honey, especially if the crops are irrigated. Summer’s dearth is a time for harvesting spring and summer honey before fall wildflowers come into bloom. Typically, honey produced from flowers early in the year are mild in flavor and aroma, while honey produced in the fall is          quite more pronounced. Honey bees do not bring into the hives as much nectar and pollen during the summer’s dearth, however, they forage a considerable amount of water. In today’s photo, honey bees are foraging water from moss-covered rocks and duckweed in the bee yard’s water source. A short high speed video shows how the honey bee uses its tongue to take in water either by lapping or by sucking: Beekeepers should make sure that their hives have a reliable source of water throughout the year, and this is especially important in the heat of summer when bees use water to help cool their hives.

The Dog Days of Summer are a good time to take care of other bee hive issues. Small hive beetle populations often expand during the heat of summer. If unchecked, the beetles can overwhelm bee colonies. Integrated pest management approaches to beetle control include hive placement in the sun, beetle trapping, and minimal hive manipulations. Beekeepers should try to prevent multiple generations of beetles from existing in the hives before wintertime. Late summer is a good time to provide pollen substitute feeding to stimulate the queens to continue to lay eggs. It’s important that beekeepers plan for controlling varroa mites as soon as the honey is harvested and temperatures cool to within treatment limits. Consult the Honey Bee Health Coalition’s Varroa Management Decision Tool:

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Clover Honey

Throughout the spring, bees have been visiting flowering trees and plants to collect nectar and pollen to gather food for their colonies. Nectar from spring flowers makes for delightful, mild-flavored honey. Bees, like the one in today’s photo, make a surplus of honey from clover if there is a large population of forager-aged bees in the hive. Clover, the world’s greatest source of nectar for honey, is a legume which secretes nectar freely when temperatures are between 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Beekeepers maximize their honey production by encouraging the build-up of the colonies to a maximum six weeks prior to the major nectar flows. Beekeepers are challenged to maintain their hives at such large populations, which are often on the verge of swarming. Once a hive has swarmed, it holds too few bees to make a harvestable surplus of honey. Beekeepers enjoy taking advantage of springtime swarming to add colonies to their bee yards. Captured swarms make up for winter colony losses as well as increasing one’s hive count. This year saw plenty of seasonal springtime swarming; we shook a number of swarms from tree limbs, and we captured several colonies of bees in swarm traps. Swarms captured in Arkansas before the Fourth of July have enough time to build honeycombs in their new hives for the queen to have cells to lay eggs and for the bees to store honey for the upcoming winter if the beekeeper provides the hive with supplemental feeding. However, swarms hived after the Fourth of July do not have enough time to build combs in their hive, and usually perish over winter. It is, therefore, better to combine these late-season swarms with existing colonies.

The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing everyone to make significant changes in their daily activities to protect each other as the virus spreads. The local library is providing online entertainment and information for young children through their Family Nature Club. You may watch Mary Spears Polk interview me at

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Toad Suck Daze

Toad Suck Daze is a social gathering held every spring in Conway, Arkansas, a state that has its share of towns with names reflecting a rich pioneer history. There’s Oil Trough, Fifty-Six, and Greasy Corner. Conway has its Toad Suck, a landing on the Arkansas River where the river makes a sharp bend from west to south. There are several speculations as to the origin of the region’s name, but a favorite involves rugged rivermen stopping at area taverns and sucking tankards of ale till their bellies swelled up like toads. Typically, crowds gather at Conway for Toad Suck Daze, a festival with live toad races, music and singing on the old court house grounds, and street vendors selling foods and crafts. Local beekeepers have tables filled with honey. This year’s Toad Suck event was interrupted by the world-wide spread of the deadly Corvid-19 virus with its necessary social distancing requirement which rendered the public event impossible. In response, aviators from the Lollie Bottoms Pilots Association conducted an airplane parade over the city for people to share an event while remaining personally separated. Today’s photo is the Bulldog Flight Formation Group passing over the city. When a virus enters a vulnerable population, it is likely to spread unchecked. With humans having no natural immunity to the virus, or vaccine, the virus spread exponentially.

Honey bee colonies experienced massive losses since the introduction of parasitic mites in the mid-1980s. The Varroa mite is especially harmful to bees because it vectors numerous viruses. One way that Varroa mites are spread between honey bee colonies is by having hives in close proximity. Separating hives, like separating people, helps reduce the spread of viruses. An interesting study of Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus describes a mechanism that the virus employs giving it a reproductive advantage, Jon Zawislak states, “There’s a fascinating and frightening arms race between bees and viruses. The biologist in me thinks “Wow!” but the beekeeper in me cringes.”

Friday, April 17, 2020

A Swarm Moves In

The queen bee doesn’t have any royal duties. Thousands of bees in her hive don’t even pay her much attention; a dozen workers attend to her. The rest of the workers go about tending to the hive, feeding the brood, and producing their future food supply. The queen just lays eggs and secretes pheromones, and her pheromones organize the colony. It’s quickly apparent to the bees if she’s gone. The queen, drones, and workers produce many pheromones as their principal means of communication. Most are aromatic scents that the bees detect and react upon. One pheromone the queen produces, that we call “queen substance,” is conveyed to the workers by touch rather than by scent. The queen secretes queen substance pheromone, and her retinue of attendants collect it by stroking her body. They pass the pheromone to other bees in the vicinity, and then it is passed from bee to bee throughout the hive. As long as queen substance is detected by the bees, the colony is content. If the queen dies, or the beekeeper removes her from the hive, the bees will know within one hour that she is gone by the loss of queen substance.

The amount of queen substance pheromone in the hive diminishes as it is divided among an increasing number of bees as the colony’s population grows in the spring. Reduced queen pheromone stimulates the workers to start building queen cells, one of the first steps involved in swarming. The queen lays eggs in these, and the workers feed the developing queens a high-energy brood food, called royal jelly. A queen will emerge from one cell to take over the egg-laying duties of the hive when the colony divides through swarming. Half of the hive’s bees and the older queen fly from the hive and gather nearby. Scouts, seen here, visit my swarm trap. They explore the cavity and find it suitable. In a day the swarm moves in, and I transfer it to a hive.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Move the Bee Hives an Inch

Beekeepers have a centuries-old tradition of moving their hives an inch to notify the bees of the death of a family member. Today three beekeeping families are moving hives due to the death of 19-year-old Ashlyn McGehee. The sudden, accidental loss of Ashlyn stuns and saddens the McGehee, Anderson, and Underhill families. The beautiful, athletic, and talented Ashlyn, a student of Western Kentucky University, could often be found with her cousins, Ethan and Erin Underhill. Pax Vobiscum: Peace Be With You, Ashlyn Marie McGehee, 2000-2020.
Ethan, Ashlyn, Erin
Erin, Ethan, Ashlyn

Thursday, March 5, 2020

A Community of Beekeepers

We don’t keep bees alone; our bees don’t live alone. Beekeepers belong to a social community. We share the environment with other beekeepers and all of the bees from miles around. In recent years it has become apparent that our managed bees and our beekeeping practices affect all of the bee colonies in our area. Healthy bees from our hives may rob the honey from the hives of collapsing colonies and return with parasitic Varroa mites. Likewise, if we are not controlling the mites in our hives, we are spreading them to hives for miles around. Bees from mite-infested hives in the area may abandon their hives and move into our hives, bringing mites with them. Mite-infested hives can reasonably be called “Varroa bombs.”

Beekeepers, farmers, gardeners, and homeowners make up communities of individuals whose activities affect each other, sometimes benefiting and at other times adversely affecting others. There are specific groups within the community of beekeepers: those who manage their hives in different manners, those who manage their hives for different purposes, those who treat their hives with different products or measures to control parasitic mites, and those who keep their hives in different forage areas. There are urban beekeepers who may contend with city ordinances or neighborhood association rules, forest beekeepers, and farmland beekeepers. There are beekeepers with stationary hives and others with migratory operations. While there are many ways that we manage bees, we all belong to a community of bee stewards.

Perhaps, the most important communities that beekeepers belong to are the local, state, and regional beekeeping associations. These groups are effective in sharing useful information on managing bees in today’s environment. One of these active groups in Tennessee is the Savannah Area Beekeepers Association. I was honored to be invited to speak at the association’s annual Short Course in Beekeeping along with EAS Master Beekeeper Kent Williams, shown here giving a presentation on new developments in controlling Varroa mites.

Friday, February 14, 2020

A Bee Colony Starves

On a warm mid-winter day, a beekeeper observes numerous dead bees on the ground outside one of his hives. Inside the hive, he finds a small cluster of dead bees with many of the dead facing head-first into empty cells. A dead queen bee is located in the center of the cluster of bees. There is an empty supersedure queen cell adjacent to the cluster of bees with a trap door still attached, a tell-tale indication that a virgin queen has recently emerged. A queen that emerges in the winter is of no use to the colony because she will not be able to successfully mate with drones. There is no honey in the vicinity of the cluster of dead bees. A few capped cells indicate that the bees had been attending brood before the bees died. It appears that the bees died of starvation. With a relatively mild winter, the bees had been able to fly from their hive on a number of days; however, on their foraging flights, the bees hadn’t brought in enough food to meet the needs of their expanding colony.

Starvation is the greatest killer of honey bee colonies. They die because they don’t have food available to the cluster of bees. This often occurs even when there are ample stores of honey in the hive, but it is beyond the reach of the winter cluster. The cluster remains on the combs containing brood to feed and protect the fragile, developing bees. They eat the food nearby, as they did in today’s photo by George Bujarski. On prolonged periods of cold, the bees will not move throughout the hive to gather stored honey. Because honey bees share their food, they starve together. Since this colony exhibited no signs of disease, like American foulbrood, it will be safe for the beekeeper to reuse the hive and frames of drawn combs. He will protect the combs from hive scavengers till replacement bee colonies are available in the spring.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Mid-Winter Hive Check

Local beekeepers took advantage of above-average January temperatures to check their hives. One found his hives full of bees and brood and, fearing swarming, asked me if he should split the colonies. I recommended that he wait while making sure that they have plenty of stored food and hive capacity. February is too early to divide colonies in central Arkansas. The bees, which are now protecting brood, need to have strong winter colonies to provide cluster warmth. Also, commercially produced queens are not available in the winter, and it’s a long time till colonies will be able to make their own queens. I suggested to the beekeeper that if he wants to increase his hive count, he should wait until there are plenty of drones walking on the combs before making splits. I like to see large numbers of adult drones on the combs to tell me when it is time to produce queens. With brood production increasing, colonies will continue to expand, experiencing an increased demand on their dwindling supply of stored honey. The maximum stressful situation will occur in March. As we approach March, colonies have large populations of bees, little natural forage, and no queens available.

With the beekeeper’s concern that his bees were crowding their hives, I suggested that he should try to suppress the bees’ urge to swarm by making sure that the colonies have plenty of hive capacity. He could, on a fairly warm day, add another box of drawn comb atop the existing hive bodies. Frames of capped honey should be placed directly above the brood nest. Since bees move upward in their hives over winter, when spring approaches, he can reverse the hive bodies to expand the available brood area. Warm weather in winter affords bees the opportunity to forage red maple, as in today’s photo. Red maple is a good source of pollen and nectar; however, in many years, cold or rainy weather prohibits bees from foraging this early-blooming tree.