Friday, December 24, 2021

Pax Vobiscum

Beekeepers are science people. Everyday, they practice applied honey bee biology. Successful beekeepers apply both the craft of beekeeping passed down for generations by those who handled bees and the science of honey bee health. The science is our understanding of the life cycle and nature of honey bees and their pests and pathogens based upon observations and experiments. Our understanding of the science is not fixed; it changes as more observations are made and new experiments are designed, conducted, and repeated. Successful American beekeepers adjust their beekeeping practices to help their bees survive the adverse effects of viruses vectored by two invasive parasitic mite species that arrived in the mid-1980s and an invasive hive-scavenger beetle introduced in the late-1990s. Those who do not take measures to combat these invasive species see their bee colonies die. As colonies decline before dying, they spread pests and pathogens to other hives.


Beekeepers, and the public at large, are continuing to cope with Covid-19 virus, which continues to mutate into new variants. Now, within two years of Covid’s introduction into the human population, the U.S. has confirmed over 800,000 deaths. Individuals who do not take precautions to avoid the virus are likely to acquire a deadly disease. Fortunately, we have learned much about the nature of the novel Covid-19 virus and how it is passed between people via aerosol droplets. We have effective vaccinations, and we know that we can greatly limit the spread of Covid by wearing masks, sanitizing hands, and keeping a distance between people. Just as we can protect our bee colonies by controlling the parasitic mites and their vectored viruses, we can protect ourselves, our families, and our community by taking measures to prevent the spread of the Covid virus. Almost everyone knows someone who has been affected by the Covid virus. I look forward to meeting beekeepers at our training events in the coming year. The Underhill family of Peace Bee Farm wish everyone: Peace be with you.


Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Winter Solstice

People become beekeepers for a number of reasons. Some are interested in producing honey; some want to increase the number of pollinators available for their gardens; and some are simply interested in learning the craft of keeping such interesting social insects. Many new beekeepers are already aware of the environmental conditions affecting bees and people. Almost all beekeepers rapidly become environmentally conscious. They see that honey bees have the same requirements as those other social creatures—humans: food, water, a dry place to live, and an environment free of toxins. Until parasitic mites of honey bees arrived in the mid-1980s, a person could order a bee hive and a colony of live bees from a mail-order catalogue and expect that they would have live bees and honey for years to come. However, with invasive pest species, changing agricultural practices, and the ever-increasing use of pesticides, keeping honey bees alive has become much more challenging. Well-informed beekeepers have taken the challenge seriously. Individuals who keep a few hives in their backyards, those who keep dozens of hives as a part-time business, and commercial beekeepers each study the biology of the honey bee and the pests and the pathogens that affect bees. They learn the science of bee health and the behavior of honey bees from text books and training classes. They learn the craft of beekeeping from the generous sharing of knowledge by experienced beekeepers via local, state, and national organizations.


A number of urban beekeepers experienced the loss of colonies as the result of environmental poisoning in 2021. Since healthy colonies have enough bees to withstand the loss of a sizable number of worker bees, some colonies survived. Other colonies died. Some of the affected beekeepers were able to politely inform their neighbors of the importance of the bees and the need to handle pesticides prudently. Beekeepers are environmental stewards. Today, the winter solstice, marks the beginning of the honey bee year with queens starting to lay eggs again.


Sunday, November 21, 2021

Congratulations, Jon Z!


Beekeepers across Arkansas and beyond our borders know Jon Zawislak (rhymes with Zah-Fish-Lock) simply as Jon Z. Now, we are delighted to announce that Jon has successfully defended his dissertation for a PhD in Entomology from the University of Arkansas. Jon, an Apiculture Instructor with the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture is a valuable resource to beekeepers. An Eastern Apicultural Society Master Beekeeper himself, Jon often helps me analyze honey bee health issues. When I needed to respond to a beekeeper’s question about haplo-diploidy sex determination in bees, I called on Jon for an explanation ( Jon trains many beekeepers, and he is a tremendous asset to the Arkansas Beekeepers Association. Jon serves as an ex officio member of the ABA’s Executive Committee, its webmaster, guest speaker recruiter, and himself a frequent presenter. Jon’s research looks into serious problems associated with honey bee health. He participated in measurements of the effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on honey bees. In one of his research projects Jon identified pathogens retarding the growth of the invasive honey bee pest, the small hive beetle. Jon found some of these potential biological control pathogens in the soil of my Arkansas bee yards. Jon conducted research into the foraging behavior of honey bees by attaching tiny labels onto bees and photographing their movements as they flew out and back into their hives.


Jon Zawislak is a recognized leader in his profession, and he encourages others to excel. He challenged one of his sons to make good grades in school, and he rewarded him with a sky-diving experience. Jon encouraged me to complete the EAS Master Beekeeper certification program, and he recruited me to teach beekeeping in Africa. Jon’s PhD program did receive an interruption when he donated a kidney. Such generosity! I am deeply proud of Dr. Jon Zawislak, shown here at an ABA conference with Dr. Jeff Harris and Audrey Sheridan of Mississippi State University and EAS Master Beekeeper, David Burns.


Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Bee Hive in Fall


As the seasons change from summer to fall, conditions in the bee hive and tasks for the beekeeper change as well. Summer flowers that produce light flavored honeys become replaced by fall flowers that produce more robust honeys. Beekeepers typically finish their summer honey harvests and begin ensuring that hives have enough honey stores for entering the winter months when flowers are not blooming and bees rely upon stored food. Bee hive pests take an increased toll on hives in late summer and early fall. Small hive beetle populations often explode in weak or queenless hives. Small hive beetles begin laying eggs in great numbers when they detect a hive is under stress. Within a few days, thousands of ravenous small hive beetle larvae begin consuming a hive’s pollen stores, combs, and brood. Yeast, spread by the beetles, ferments honey in the hive; fermented honey is unacceptable to the bees and useless to the beekeeper. With the start of the fall season, queen bees naturally reduce their egg laying, and bee populations gradually decrease. At the same time, parasitic varroa mite populations typically reach their annual peak. As soon as the honey harvest is completed, hives need to be checked for varroa mite loads. The Honey Bee Health Coalition offers useful information for treating varroa mites at If mite populations exceed thresholds, treatments need to be applied. Harsh chemicals should be avoided. Persistent chemicals remain in the beeswax combs and lead to resistant strains of parasitic mites.


Honey bees that emerge as adults in the spring and summer typically live about six weeks. However, honey bees that emerge in the fall may live for six months. This is important because the long-lived fall bees that survive the winter feed the first bee brood of the following year. Beekeepers can extend their queens’ egg laying through October by feeding pollen substitute which stimulates queens to lay eggs. Today’s photo: bumblebees and native pollinators are attracted to houseleek in our pollinator garden.


Thursday, September 9, 2021

Small Hive Beetles


The worker bees in a strong colony protect the fragile beeswax combs that hold honey, pollen, bee bread, and brood required to sustain the colony. However, whenever a colony is weakened, either by becoming queenless or through disease, hive scavengers rapidly move in and destroy the combs. The principal hive scavengers are wax moths and small hive beetles, and it is the larval stage of both of these insects that destroys the combs of unprotected hives. Wax moths have been a part of American beekeeping since the bees were brought to the New World in colonial times. However, the small hive beetle is a much more recently introduced invasive pest, having arrived from Africa in 1998. It spread across the country in just four years.


Strong honey bee colonies have plenty of workers to drive adult beetles to the far edges of the hive where the bees build “jails” of propolis to trap and hold beetles. If a hive loses its queen or is stressed by disease or environmental damages, the opportunistic beetles rapidly expand their reproduction, and small hive beetle populations explode exponentially. Beetle reproduction is especially rapid in hot weather. Today’s photo shows beetle larvae in a hive that lost its queen in a late summer supersedure attempt. The voracious larvae are attracted to the protein of stored pollen. As beetle larvae devour the hive’s pollen, honey, brood, and beeswax combs, they leave behind a “slime” of their waste. Yeast grows on the slime which has the odor of fermenting oranges. The odor repels honey bees and attracts small hive beetles from great distances. The beetles’ highly sensitive antennae detect honey bee alarm pheromone from distressed colonies small hive beetle slime odor. It often takes the bees a full year to build their combs, and they can be destroyed quickly by small hive beetle larvae. Scavenging beetle larvae destroy natural beeswax hive foundation, but plastic foundation can be reused after washing away the slime with water.


Saturday, August 21, 2021

Insecticides Kill Bees


Honey bee foragers bring flower nectar and pollen into the hive as food. The nectar is carbohydrate that the bees convert into honey. Pollen is primarily protein; it also contains fats, vitamins, and minerals. When honey and pollen are combined in the hive, the food is called “bee bread.” Yeast and bacteria from the bees’ gut microflora cause fermentation of bee bread, breaking down the hard shell around pollen grains and exposing the proteins. Fermentation also preserves bee bread. Young worker bees consume bee bread, and glands in the workers’ head produce brood food that nurse bees feed to developing bee larvae. Bee bread is also used to produce royal jelly, a high-energy food fed to all brood in its first day and fed to the queen bee throughout her life.

When honey bee foragers visit flowers, pollen grains adhere to the bees’ hairy bodies. The bees groom the dusty pollen into pellets that they carry on “pollen baskets” on their hind legs. Honey bees at times pick up environmental dusts that adhere to their bodies similarly to pollen. Grain dust from poultry feed is commonly collected by honey bees. Chemical pesticides in dust form are also accidentally collected by bees and brought back to the hives. Carbaryl, an insecticide sold under the name “Sevin,” is particularly deadly to honey bees when applied to flowers in dust form. Insecticides may kill honey bees rapidly on contact or ingestion. However, they may kill bees more slowly if the poison is stored as pollen and later converted into bee bread. When the bees feed their brood secretions from poisoned bee bread, they kill the developing bees. Likewise, they can kill the queen by feeding her poisoned royal jelly. Beekeepers look for larger numbers of dead bees on the ground near the hive entrances, seen in today’s photo. I, and other area beekeepers, lost brood and queens in a number of hives. Those using insecticides should use caution and be prudent applying chemicals.


Monday, May 17, 2021

Nuc Hives and Packages

How can you get a colony of bees for your new bee hive? You may purchase a complete hive from a beekeeper along with its colony of bees, or you may purchase a nucleus hive, or nuc, which is a small colony taken from a full-size hive. A nuc is a bee colony in equilibrium; it contains an egg-laying queen, brood of all stages, and workers of all ages. A nuc may be a split, or colony division. A split is made by dividing a hive, moving frames of bees to a new hive and introducing a new queen. Alternately, you may purchase a package of bees: bees in a box and not on frames. A package of bees typically contains three pounds of bees, about 12,000 bees, and a mated queen held in a protective cage. The bees in a package are workers gathered from numerous hives, and the queen is reared separately. A package of bees only becomes a colony after a few days when the bees detect and then organize their behavior around the queen’s pheromones.


You can gather bees when colonies swarm. Swarming is a natural occurrence; it is reproduction of bees on a colony-wide basis. European honey bee colonies, like those we have in the U.S., typically swarm once a year. If you are able to capture a swarm, it can be moved into a hive. You can put swarm catcher hives, or bait hives, in trees to attract swarming bees. There are two methods of moving bee colonies that are already established in structures like hollow trees or walls of buildings. You can attempt a trap-out, where you build a funnel to allow bees to exit the structure and not reenter. A cut-out involves physically opening the structure and cutting out the combs containing the bees and brood. I’ve bought or sold bees using each of these methods. Today’s photo: nucleus hives awaiting beekeeper pick-up at Bemis Honey Bee Farm in Little Rock.


Friday, February 19, 2021

Winter Tests Bee Colonies


Winter weather tests honey bee colonies and the beekeepers who set up the hives last fall. This year’s cold temperatures and heavy snow contrasted with recent years which saw mild temperatures and very little snowfall. Winds that normally swirl around the arctic, known as the polar vortex, took a dip deep into the South. Southern states recorded the coldest temperatures in years, and Arkansas and much of the South was blanketed with snow. Honey bees have the same requirements as humans: a warm, dry house, food, water, and an environment free of toxins. When beekeepers set up their hives for the winter, they make sure that the bees have plenty of food, placed where the bees can access it. Especially in the winter, bee hives must have adequate ventilation; hives must be able to vent considerable amounts of water vapor. Honey bee respiration produces water vapor, and water from condensation dripping in the hive can kill bees. With air entering bee hives through screened bottom boards or hive entrances, a small vent in the inner cover allows moist air to escape. Snow covering the entrances is porous and should allow air to enter the hives; however, bees must wait for a snow melt or the beekeeper’s clearing of hive entrances to make cleansing flights.


Bee hives are by design resistant to winter weather. Cold winds are dampened by parallel sheets of honeycomb, and empty comb cells hold dead air, providing natural insulation. In the South, wrapping of hives and closing screened bottom boards is generally unnecessary. New beekeepers learn the necessary hive preparation techniques from seasoned beekeepers in their area. Regardless of the beekeeper’s care in setting up hives for winter, there are often some colony losses. The majority of these losses are due to starvation. Bees are capable at regulating temperatures in the hive, but starvation often results from small wintertime bee clusters not being able to move about the hive in extended cold weather to access stored honey.


Friday, February 5, 2021

Winter Hive Walk Around


Beekeeping involves observing hives from the outside as much as on the inside. Beekeepers can’t risk opening hives for a thorough examination during cold weather, but we should occasionally visit the hives during cold and inclement weather. Much can be told of the condition of the colonies inside the bee hives by observing from the outside. Bees do not venture outside the hives when temperatures are below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. They remain inside, clustered together to retain warmth. Honey bees eat their high-energy food, honey, and generate heat in their flight muscles. Only on warm days, bees venture from their hive to make cleansing flights to eliminate their body waste. You will see forager bees that are collecting water, nectar, and pollen. Observing foragers returning to a hive carrying pollen on their pollen baskets of their hind legs usually indicates that their queen is laying eggs. Finding some dead bees on the ground in front of the hives is normal, as a number of bees die inside the hive every day, and they are removed from the hive. A foul odor at a hive may indicate a dead colony with a large number of bees decaying on the hive’s bottom board. If the air temperature is close to 50 degrees, the beekeeper may briefly open a hive’s cover to see if the bees are alive. If the colony has died, the beekeeper needs to protect the combs so that they will not be destroyed by hive scavengers.


On my hive visit today, I observed bee pupae on the landing board at the entrance to one hive as seen here. Likely, the workers are aborting brood infested with parasitic Varroa mites. A genetic trait, called hygienic behavior, allows workers to detect Varroa developing with the bee pupae and abort the bee and mites. When the weather warms enough for me to open the hives, I will measure the mite loads and apply an appropriate treatment if the mites exceed prescribed thresholds.