Honey Bee Biology archive

Honey Bee Biology  - January 2016

Thermal Beekeeping: Observation Hives as Seen with Heat

In the previous article, I described the Flir thermal camera technology. Unlike a regular thermal camera, which records only heat, the Flir camera uses heat and visible light. The software in the camera uses visible light to sketch in a picture and match it to the heat pattern. The resulting picture appears sharper. Last time we observed the heat from the flight muscles of individual bees. Now we observe the heat patterns from small colonies in observation hives.

For several consecutive cool summer mornings, the low temperature dropped near the upper 50’sºF (10ºC), which triggered the bees to begin cluster formation for warmth. Bees cluster at 57ºF (14ºC). That was the strategic time to look at the observation hive colonies, not in visible light, the usual way, but in their radiated heat signatures, where I worked almost in complete darkness. The thermal camera separated the hotter and cooler places in the hive and color-coded those regions.

My bee house, which holds 30 single-comb top-bar observation hives, is the perfect place for viewing the small colonies and the heat they produce. For example, the bee house has no windows, which can let in sunlight (heat) and could distort the thermal photographs. For reference, Figure 1 shows a typical observation hive in normal visible light with its opaque panels removed. Figure 2 shows a thermal photograph of one end of the bee house. An active observation colony is in the lower right hive. Its heat glows in rings through the opaque panel meant to keep the bees in the dark. That is, the panels blocked the visible light, but they were transparent to heat (because the panels were not insulated). The lamp above radiated considerable heat. Yellow was the hottest. The cool green room was at the ambient temperature of 63.6ºF (17.6ºC), a bit high. Typically the mornings had been cooler. The hive at the lower left with the opaque panels was empty, appearing all green, and was equal to the ambient temperature. (With no bees inside it, as a heat source, the hive was in thermal equilibrium with its microenvironment, the same color green.)

The two hives on the upper row of Figure 2 are also empty, except their glass panes are showing. In a low level of warmth (the reddish pink), heat from the lamp reflects in the glass of these two hives, a fact that will become important later on. As we truly explore these new thermal images with bees, it is critical to keep in mind this is color-coded heat, which the camera represents in different color scales. For a particular situation, I pick the best color scale to distinguish details and avoid distortions. The camera has nine color scales, and while I use all of them, I try to publish in only a couple of color scales to avoid confusion.

Figure 3 shows another observation hive radiating heat through its panel at a closer view. In this color scale, the central blue is warmer than the ring of pure red followed out to the cold violet background. The camera’s thermometer reported 71.5ºF (21.9ºC) on the outside blue surface of the panel. This morning right beside the hive, the ambient temperature was about 60ºF (15.6ºC). That approximate 10ºF (6.3ºC) temperature difference represented considerable heat loss, probably a larger difference in the winter. While not detrimental to the colony in the summer, it reminded me why ...


Honey Bee Biology  - December 2015

We see bees in visible light, comprising the colors of the rainbow. As we will see, there is another way to observe bees using heat. Bees as small creatures have a lot of surface area for heat loss or gain, relative to the volume of their bodies. In flight, a bee produces a considerable amount of heat in its thorax. Flight muscles occupy approximately 75% of the thorax, and the wings beat almost 250 beats per second to generate sufficient lift to get the bee airborne. These flight muscles have an “operating temperature,” a concept something like a car engine except if they become too cold, besides losing efficiency, their muscles do not function.

On a cool Spring day sometimes bees forage when they could chill. Occasionally, I see them just standing around on the ground. Then in a few minutes, they are gone. Provided they do not get too cold, bees can microvibrate their flight muscles. That is a kind of shivering, to heat their flight muscles up again, at least to fly for a short ways before cooling too much again, to return to their hive. But they could chill and die if they get too cold while on the ground.

The bees thermoregulate the core of the brood nest at a little under 95ºF (35ºC), which is near the core temperature of a person 98.6ºF (37ºC). Different strains of bees, in diverse environments, and using various measuring techniques, gave slightly different temperatures. The one below is a little lower than the one above. Bernd Heinrich, a famous insect physiologist, measured the thoracic temperatures of bees leaving, foraging, and returning to the hive (He also compared European and African bees. I am just using the European bee data.) With this kind of temperature measurements, two starting ones are important, the environmental (surrounding) temperature, called the ambient temperature, and the brood nest temperature, which Heinrich reports as a hive temperature. The ambient temperature was 46.4 - 73.4ºF (8 - 23ºC). The hive temperature was 89.6ºF (32ºC).

Bees leaving the hive were caught for thoracic temperature measurements as they cleaned their antennae, a behavior occurring as the bee stands on the alighting board, a moment before launch (easily observed by the way). Bees leaving the hive had ...


Honey Bee Biology  - November 2015


No article this month


Honey Bee Biology  - October 2015


Pages from The American Beekeeper, a Journal Published by

the W. T. Falconer Manufacturing Company

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


In the previous article, we examined the W. T. Falconer Manufacturing Company. In 1890 the factory was in Falconer, New York and shown in their catalog (see Figure 1). The picture of the factory had several features indicating a thriving production of beehives. The buildings had active smoke stacks implying busy production. In the foreground, the lumber reserves suggested plenty of wood for production, no back orders.

Not perhaps prominent to the modern eye, but important for beekeepers, more than a century ago, suffering from unreliable shipping, and considering whether to order supplies with the Falconer Company, were the two railroads in the scene. Steam engines pulled both trains, sending up smoke trails, again a mark of industrial activity (not then generally seen as pollution). Both trains made the railroads seem more alive. One train is across the river, running to the left, far off. The other is behind the big building, apparently stopped at the direct factory loading dock. Then the track runs straight back, across the river, and crosses the other track in the background, suggesting the railroads have junctions for interchanging shipments. That was important because in the late 1800’s most railroads existed as numerous short lines, some only several miles long, where interchanging shipments at junctions was a necessity (done today by the entire railroad car).

In the 1892 introduction section of the Falconer Company catalog, the proprietors of the company gave important announcements as done in today’s catalogs. They proudly listed their five railroad connections (by initials), up from three railroads listed just two years before in 1890. The proprietors claimed more railroad completion would lower shipping rates for the beekeepers, sensitive as others in business to excessive rates. The subtext also said, the Falconer Company is connected to the modern shipping world to send your bee supplies safely and reliably. New York and regional beekeepers back in those days would have known the list of railroad initials strung out across the catalog page, railroads now long extinct, sunk in bankruptcy or most subsumed in mergers. Today we might guess some of now archaic initial codes, like the N. Y. L. E. & W. R.R., which meant the New York Lake Erie and Western railroad, serving local beekeepers near the Falconer Company. The D. A. V. & P. R.R. would be more cryptic, which stood for the Dunkirk, Allegheny Valley & Pittsburgh railroad. For the Falconer Company, D. A. V. & P. R.R. reached south serving Pennsylvania beekeepers. Quite strangely, one of those old long-gone railroads serving the Falconer Company was very familiar to me. I had seen the N. Y. C. & H. R. R. R. initials in metal, which meant the New York Central and Hudson River railroad. I have a pair of railroad lamps marked with those initials, which hung on the front of the steam engine, their function to give the classification of the train according to the old rules.

By 1896, the Falconer Company had grown to the scene shown in Figure 2, showing the complicated railroad connections and a switch track even into the lumberyard, suggesting they moved wood by the larger railroad cars for more beehive production, not just by horse-drawn wagons. The prodigious Falconer Company also published the monthly journal titled, The American Beekeeper, with a wide variety of articles. February 1896 was a Special Issue. The journal (see Figure 3) had their catalog attached, which apparently they did rarely (see Figure 4).

Looking through my issues of The American Beekeeper (which are incomplete), here is a smattering of subjects that caught my eye, which still ....


Honey Bee Biology  - September 2015


Beekeeping History from the Pages of the W.T. Falconer

Bee Supply Company

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


In the history of apiculture in the United States, numerous bee supply factories appeared, beginning in the 1860’s to supply a growing honey industry. Most of these companies are out of business today, gone extinct, leaving as their fossil records mostly their bee supply catalogs and rarely special equipment they produced.

One supplier, high on my hunting list for most anything they made, was the W. T. Falconer Manufacturing Company of Jamestown, New York. Figure 1 shows the cover of their 1888 catalog. While the decorative artwork was modest with just a border and no pictures, the text of the banner, like newspaper headlines, told beekeepers 127 years ago the modern must-have bee equipment: Simplicity hives and one-piece sections. Both designs survive.

The Simplicity hive was originally called the Langstroth hive because the frame dimensions were close to the size the Reverend L. L. Langstroth had used, as the inventor in 1851 of the movable frame based on the bee space. By the late 1880’s, beekeepers used several different size hives with frames of varying dimensions, which complicated matters somewhat (see Figures 2 and 3). (For example, when ordering a honey extractor the beekeepers had to give the correct size frame. Eventually A. I. Root introduced ordering extractors by numbers that corresponded to different frame sizes. So a number painted over the honey gate told the frame size it took, or a size range. Other manufacturers adopted the practice including the Falconer Company.)

The one-piece section was the next banner on the 1888 cover (see Figure 4). Today we take it for granted, and just fold the section box and lock the finger joints. Even now the name section-box has shed the “one-piece “ part of the name when, long ago, it faded, because of the labor of nailing four pieces together to make – just one section box. The one-piece section must have been more than a four-fold reduction in the work of assembling sections, a blessing for beekeepers producing comb honey sections in the thousands.

In producing comb honey sections, the Simplicity hive looked like the modern hive, as was shown in Figure 2. Note again the cover, which resembled a telescoping cover of today in that the rim fits around the lower hive bodies, which were comb honey supers, as shown. Originally, the sides of the cover enclosed up to two comb honey supers. Generally, as best as I can tell, Figure 2 being an example, the wide sides of the cover may have evolved to the narrow rim we see today on the telescoping cover. Apparently a very “early” comb honey “super,” sometimes called a “case,” could not be exposed to the outside. No substantial hive body surrounded the section boxes to protect them from the elements. So the case needed the extra deep cover. In Figure 2, that honey super probably does not need to be covered. The extra deep cover was still needed to house the chaff over the bees for winter (see below). (From any bee supplier, finding that cover with the extra wide sides in good condition has been difficult. The sides were only one-eighth inch thick and subject to breakage and warping.)

Now let’s look at the “Falcon” Chaff hive, a special hive made by the W. T. Falconer Mfg. Co. (see Figure 5). This hive revealed some important beekeeping history and relevant confusions still prevalent today. Unlike so many complicated beehives of those times, the Falcon Chaff hive used only Simplicity frames in a permanent one-story hive, basically a standard ten-frame hive – familiar to modern beekeepers.

The beekeepers usually managed the Falcon hive for section comb honey, but extracted honey production was certainly possible. However, I would advise against imagining supers piled up high on this hive because the outer wall that fits around the hive could only accommodate what we would call a double deep hive (or equivalently two honey supers over a permanent brood chamber). Being able to step away from modern beekeeping mindsets is extremely important in studying historical bee management, and reveals techniques one might still encounter today. For extracted honey with a Falcon hive, beekeepers would probably need to conduct multiple harvests during the nectar flow, extract combs quickly, and replace the empty supers. That would be similar to some tropical bee management operations, which can be to the extreme like what I worked with in India: a hive with only one brood chamber, no supers, extracting from the edge combs, and from an apiary with some 100’s of hives – and no supers.

Section comb honey flourished in the late 1800’s, far more than extracted honey, the liquid thought adulterated with other cheap or dubious sugars. Not so with pristine honey in the comb – put there by the bees – a signature of purity. The Falcon Chaff hive was meant for comb honey and helping bees survive brutal winters. At the right time, a comb honey case went over the brood chamber (see Figure 6).

The outer wall held chaff around and against the lower hive body. The chaff was some kind of material meant to insulate the hive. Straw could be used for chaff. Once I found double-wall hives where the beekeeper filled the internal space with wheat husks. In the summer, the beekeeper may have left some chaff around the Falcon hive as a temperature buffer. (I do not know how common that was, but it is mentioned in the catalog. The double-walled hive filled with wheat chaff, a brood chamber, just mentioned, was like a modern one, and stayed on the bees all year. In Figure 2, that Simplicity hive looks like a double-walled chaff hive.)

However, the main use of chaff was for ...


Honey Bee Biology  - August 2015


A Comprehensive Indian Beekeeping Book

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


For North American beekeeping, two comprehensive texts have evolved and stood the test of time, namely well known The Hive and the Honey Bee and the ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture. Both bindings have grown thick with new information since their beginnings in the 1800’s.

In India, with different honey bee species and vastly different ecosystems over its subcontinent, one wonders if any such single text could begin to capture all of its apiculture and honey bee biology. The text, Beekeeping: A Comprehensive Guide to Bees and Beekeeping1 by D. P. Abrol, has made a herculean stride in doing that (see Figure 1). For the North American beekeeper, the chapter structure has roughly the feel of The Hive and the Honey Bee, starting with essentially beekeeping history with a concentration on the subject in India. After reviewing the evolution and biodiversity of bees, one comes to a description of the other honey bee species, besides our western honey bee Apis mellifera. Even though the core of the book is on Apis mellifera beekeeping aimed for India (that bee species was imported into India), the other main honey bee species are given plenty of description because they are indigenous to India.

For example, the Dwarf honey bee, Apis florea, is a small bee living on a single comb built in the open, but typically with some vegetation shelter overhead (see Figure 2). I have seen the nests in banana groves and in crowded cities too, up in tree branches. (The little foragers can find nectar and pollen even in cut flowers for sale by street vendors. The bees are quite adaptable.) The biology of these bees is very interesting. They elongate the honey cells at the top of the comb. The honey cells bulge out to form a crest that completely surrounds the supporting branch. The top of the resulting honey crest is flat (see Figure 3). On this flat surface, the bees perform dances, horizontally (not on their vertical comb), where the straight run part of the waggle dance points directly to the food source. While Apis florea is important to Indian beekeeping, here is one concern for a beekeeper there with Apis mellifera (essentially a very gentle Italian bee). Apis florea has a “sister species,” recently determined, called Apis andreniformis. Both of these honey bee species have their “matching” species of varroa mites parasitizing them, which are different from the varroa mite here in North America, known as Varroa destructor. These mites are in the genus Euvarroa, and have a life cycle similar to Varroa destructor. Euvarroa wongsirii parasitizes Apis andreniformis. Euvarroa sinhai parasitizes Apis florea and also A. mellifera, the imported bee, which apparently became in contact with that little known mite.

While Euvarroa sinhai parasitizing Apis mellifera remains a concern, by far the more problematic mite for Indian beekeepers (with A. mellifera) is Tropilaelaps clareae. The book gives a detailed account of its biology, including the complications concerning a closely related mite Tropilaelaps koenigerum. Tropilaelaps mites parasitize brood similar to Varroa destructor, but the adult mites do not feed on adult bees. (The chronic concern is that Tropilaelaps clareae will arrive in the Americas.) The Apis mellifera colonies that I worked with in many parts of India would eventually perish from Tropilaelaps mites if not treated with miticides. Even in colonies recently treated with miticides, I could still find Tropilaelaps mites just by carefully inspecting individual brood cells.

The natural host for Tropilaelaps clareae is another honey bee indigenous to India, the Giant or Rock honey bee Apis dorsata (see Figure 4). These bees build a large single comb, about half the size of a door, in the open, which could be under a big tree branch or under a water tower in the city. (Apis dorsata is larger than Apis mellifera, hence the name Giant. The bee also nests up under rock cliffs, hence the name Rock.) While “varroa” in India so far is not the primary concern, at least in the Apis mellifera I saw in India, an Apis mellifera beekeeper knows a natural reservoir of Tropilaelaps mites resides in nearby Apis dorsata colonies. For example, when those bees naturally abscond, migrating to better forage, one should expect Apis mellifera to “inspect” their old combs and bring back to their hives a surge of immigrating Tropilaelaps mites. Here is one of numerous beekeeping conditions that are inherently more complicated in India with the coexistence of more than one honey bee species. Consequently, the book’s information on the Rock bees and Tropilaelaps mites is intensely relevant for a beekeeper managing an Apis mellifera beekeeping operation in India.

The chapter on beekeeping equipment has the ...


Honey Bee Biology  - July 2015


How Adult Small Hive Beetles Can Destroy

Honey Bee Colonies by Themselves

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


In the previous article, we covered basic small hive beetle biology. This article concentrates more on protecting colonies from small hive beetles and showing how just the adult beetles can destroy small-sized colonies.

Keeping colonies strong is the general recommendation for protecting them from small hive beetle invasion of their brood combs. However in the current complicated world of bee management, plagued with miticide-resistant varroa mites, hindered by failing queens, fraught with bee diseases and pesticides, keeping colonies strong is not always possible. Beetle populations may flare up at the worst possible times when the colonies are weak and vulnerable – hence my recommendation for routine colony inspections, at least once a month.Those inspections should continue all through the summer dearth.

A colony inspection should go down to seeing the trash, if any, on the bottom boards. Just look on the hive floor when a couple of frames are out of the brood chamber because beetle larvae hide in the trash. Make sure the brood nest size is adequate for the recent past and present nectar flow conditions, figured from past seasonal experience and observing the currently healthy brood nests of other colonies. Let-a-lone, “lazy,” and let-nature-take-its course so-called “beekeeping” methods are not appropriate in times of small hive beetles, varroa mites, etc. Beekeepers should inspect their colonies. These inspections need not be massively disruptive. With learned skill, one can open a hive, quickly inspect the colony, and close the hive, before disturbing the bees too much or arousing robber bees.

When colonies become weak in the summer, expect the appearance of beetle larvae, particularly in areas where this pest is present. In Figure 1 we see one of my colonies that became weak in summer heat. Small hive beetle larvae invaded quickly. Those larvae congregate on the hive floor and invade other combs. Thousands of beetle larvae amass in the back corners of the hive away from the light (see Figure 2). The material that appears slick and shiny is the slime the beetle larvae produce. This slime is also found on the combs contaminated by the larvae. Between the wax moths and small hive beetles, the combs decay to eventually a thick black layer of detritus covering the hive floor.

My rule is not to keep colonies in the summer that are weak. I unite weak colonies with other weak colonies or to strong colonies, depending on the original cause of the colony becoming weak. Typically these are colonies whose populations are decreasing and cannot cover all of their combs. The original cause of the colony becoming weak could be a failing old queen or colonies being destroyed by too many varroa mites, or even colonies greatly weakened by excessive after swarming from the spring. These conditions can be corrected if detected early on by a routine colony inspection. Particularly in out-apiaries, located away from the house, not watched frequently, such weak colonies can die, and turn into beetle factories, rearing many thousands of them. Understand however, even with the best beekeeper management, colonies will likely experience small hive beetle immigration from outside of the apiary. The beetles can originate from neighboring feral (unmanaged) colonies expiring in the summer.

One summer, I was called to a wood processing facility where large logging trucks bring cut trees for processing. Somehow they cut and loaded a “bee” tree on one of the many in-coming trucks. When the truck hauling the hot one stopped on the scales before unloading, some bees came out and apparently made a mess of their paper work. The work crew managed to unload the bee tree by itself, away from the hundreds of other trees. Eventually my phone rang. Arriving on site, I saw the bee tree lying on its side after a brutal truck ride. It was after the spring nectar flow. Typically the heavy honeycombs would have scattered, drowning the bees. I figured the colony was probably dead. The few dozen bees circling the tree were merely lucky survivors, their fate delayed. So I did not mind going up to the tree with only a smoker, the other protections a hindrance (not recommended), but I did approach the tree from downwind. (The tree crew thought I was crazy.) When the top of the tree was cut off, the blade cut into the upper part of the hollow, but not into the combs, which began lower down. As I shined my flashlight into the hollow, I did not see bees or comb, the usual sight since I was a kid hunting bee trees. Rather I saw the new reality – a slimy brown glob of thousands and thousands of beetle maggots, white and seething, in constant motion. This was not a bee tree. It was a – beetle tree. Of course, we surmised that was happening out in the woods, but seeing it was a visceral experience. (Also similar to varroa mite immigration increasing in a summer dearth, I would expect small hive beetle immigration to follow a similar pattern, both of them increasing when times are difficult for bees.)

A stunning version of adult small hive beetle immigration occurred in the summer of 2014. I had planned some queen introduction experiments in my bee house, which can hold 30 single-comb observation hives. Usually I have 20 – 30 full size colonies around the bee house, which I use for queen rearing and other projects. Last summer my out-apiaries had all the full size colonies, leaving only about eight observation hive colonies in the bee house to endure adult small hive beetle immigration. July is good time to conduct queen introduction experiments. The dearth occurring at that time makes queen introduction more difficult, which provides a worst-case scenario to overcome.

By that time, my best observation colonies were queen right and covering their combs with normal brood nests and old enough from the spring to be in a “stable” age distribution. In many respects, these observation colonies function like a miniature version of a large colony. In addition, given their small size, think of these observation colonies as mating nucs for rearing queens or possibly very small splits for eventually growing new larger colonies.
The first big symptom of a problem came with too many ...


Honey Bee Biology  - June 2015

Small Hive Beetle Behavior with Movie Clips

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


With summer approaching, the hotter temperatures bring on the beetles, small hive beetles. Beekeepers need to be aware of small hive beetles, especially if the pests are endemic in their local areas. In my location of Piedmont Virginia, I regard small hive beetles as more of a problem than the greater wax moths. Quite often the beetles will out compete the wax moths for unprotected comb in weak colonies.

Let’s begin by reviewing how to identify adult small hive beetles. Usually the adult beetles are black in color. Typically with a strong colony covering its combs, small hive beetles are found in the upper corners of the hive. The worker bees keep the adult beetles corralled off the comb (see Figure 1) or restricted to the edges of the comb in empty cells, well away from the brood nest unless something is wrong. The adult beetles can be found corralled into other places like corners of the bottom board (assuming an all wood floor). In these situations, usually the adult beetles can manage only a very low rate of reproduction.

However, once the beekeeper disturbs the colony, the bees restricting the small hive beetle movement leave their post and the beetles escape. Small hive beetles flee from the light and hide in open cells and recesses as shown in Figure 2. After the hive inspection, a strong colony can corral its beetles again.

The adult beetles vary slightly in size, which probably depends on the food availability when they were larvae. Roughly, their small size is less than one-third the size of a worker bee. That beetle size makes them small enough to pass through the screen of a package-bee shipping crate. Furthermore, small hive beetles easily pass through the wire of a screen-floor hive (bottom board), which is eight mesh holes per inch. Understand that screen floor hives opening directly to the ground are completely open to small hive beetles.

Upon finding beetles for the first time, the beekeeper might need to collect specimens to confirm their identification. Picking up small hive beetles is not as easy as one might think. Even when dry (no slime), the back of the beetle’s shell seems slippery. Sometimes when I hold a beetle between my fingers, it still manages to slip out. Not only does their small size make them awkward to pick up, their curved body shape makes them difficult to grasp. The beetle’s body shape is almost like an upside-down dish. In addition, the beetle can withdraw its legs under its body for protection, not leaving much for even a bee to grasp. When observed from this close-up perspective, it is no wonder why bees have such difficulty evicting these pests, hence the corralling behavior, a sort of stalemate (see Figure 3).
The beetle’s antennae are typically retracted under its head, protecting them from damage, particularly from biting bees. If the beetle extends its antennae, one can see small knobs on their ends. These are called “clubbed” antennae. (More specifically, small hive beetle antennae are called capitate because the terminal segments enlarge abruptly.) This clubbed antennal structure is considerably different from the honey bee antennae, which are straight, lacking any hint of a terminal enlargement. (Honey bee antennae are called geniculate, meaning with a long first segment, an elbow turn, followed by several small segments as a cylindrical shaft.)

The two different antennal structures, along with the beetles apparently restricted in their corrals for days, make the answer to this next question quite astounding: How do the small hive beetles feed when corralled? The beetles are not in contact with any stored food, no cells of nectar or honey. They do not need it – because the bees are feeding the small hive beetles. Yes, that is right. The bees feed the beetles.

In my bee house that holds 30 glass observation hives,...


Honey Bee Biology  - May 2015

Bees: A Rare Bee Journal

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


From collecting and studying beekeeping literature and antiques since the 1970’s, I mostly see things already encountered. So when I came across a stack of journals titled just Bees, from the late 1940’s to the early 1950’s, I was surprised. Happily surprised. Something new. I had never heard of that journal before. According to Bees, it formerly was the Southern Beekeeper, a rare journal I had read about. Beekeeping journals from the South are rare regional windows into that industry. While many of the articles are on industry news of past time and political matters, others relate to current interest.

In a time when color pictures were rare and expensive, technically accurate biological drawings were immensely important to understanding subjects like anatomy. And still, these pictures have the power to illustrate key points. In the September 1949 issue of Bees, an article from a series explained front leg anatomy, and was written and illustrated by Todor M. Dobrovsky from Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Figure 1 shows the entire front leg. Figure 2 shows a close up of the main point of the article, the antenna cleaner, a small circular notch in the fore leg. In the notch are small spines like the teeth of a comb. When a bee needs to clean an antenna, presumably to remove tiny particles clinging to it, she draws it through the notch. An appendage closes around the antenna (listed fi in Figure 2) to hold the other side of the antenna in the notch.

From plenty of bee watching, seeing bees clean their antennae is not difficult, although it happens quickly. If a worker bee pauses on the alighting board, just before launching, she might clean her antennae. One antenna at a time gets hooked in the antenna cleaners. If the drones are flying – watch them. Virtually all will pause and clean their antennae. In the drone congregation area, and perhaps in the flyway between them, drones locate from a far distance, out of sight, a flying queen by odor. So it makes sense; they should start with clean antennae. One wonders if they could clean antennae in flight, but I would doubt it, given most likely the odor and visual disruption. In addition, I have never seen them do it flying near me, but I suppose it is an open question.

As a bee journal covering the South in the mid 1900’s, one would expect queen bee and package bee themes in Bees. Sure enough, the cover of Bees has some illuminating photographs of those times. The August 1949 cover of Bees shows a queen-mating apiary (Figure 3). The small mating nucs are at a comfortable working height. Each row of hives is not too long, to reduce queens entering the wrong mating nuc and being killed. Also within a row, the queen producer alternated the hive entrances, again to reduce queens drifting from their mating flights. In queen bee production, quite often queen cell production is not the problem because the beekeeper can control most of those variables. Queen mating can be the problem.

Once the beekeeper sees fresh eggs in the small mating nuc, the new queen is ready for shipment. The March 1950 cover of Bees shows a queen bee being put in a three-hole shipping cage (Figure 4). To pluck a laying queen off a comb, slip her in the cage hole, unharmed, all in a few seconds, takes practice. After doing it a thousand times, one gets good at it. The February 1950 cover of Bees shows the inspection of a mating nuc to look for eggs or a queen (Figure 5). This picture gives a good view of the small frame. One can work through these small colonies fast and efficiently. It is very enjoyable work, caging queens and putting out queen cells, when ...


Honey Bee Biology  - April 2015

Tree-Climbing for Swarms: Doing It Carefully and Correctly

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


Climbing trees to retrieve swarms with a ladder is not for everybody. It requires comfort with heights, a keen sense of balance, concentration on every movement, and planning every maneuver well ahead. And above all else – always expect the unexpected. I started climbing trees for swarms when only a kid, learning to use ladders, saws, and rope wisely, little by little, accumulating a swarm-catching wisdom that comes mostly from experience. To be sure that was hard-won experience.

Some swarms land in trees too high up or out on branches too far out to retrieve. And what is my catching limit? It’s not defined. But I know it when I see it.

In other situations, catching the swarm up in the tree can become complicated and time consuming. In Figure 1, I was working up in a pine tree. My bow saw and branch cutters were hung in the ladder, for easy access. I had the branch with the swarm cut off, which shook most of the bees off. Now with the branch wedged in others, I was waiting for the bees to cluster back on the limb. With the bees back on the branch, I finally retrieved the swarm, taking the branch down the ladder, but it took most of the morning. Still, it was a big swarm, worth saving.

This next swarm landed in a difficult place. It was about 30 feet high, surpassing the reach of my extension ladder. The trunk of the oak tree was only a medium size, which made the ladder unstable when leaning against it. Why? Because the top rung leans against the tree trunk, letting the top of the ladder wobble. Or worse still, the ladder might slide across the trunk while I am on it. A creepy feeling to be sure. (On a larger tree the upper sides of the ladder lean against the trunk, keeping it more stable.) Adding to the swarm-catching difficulties, the branch with the bees was slender and would not support much extra weight. And to make matters worse, the swarm had landed near the end of the branch, well out of reach even if one could climb that high up the tree. No matter, I still felt I could catch this wayward swarm by cutting the limb with the bees and carrying it down the ladder.

First, I needed to remove some branches under the swarm. They might interfere with bringing down the bees. I planned to bend down the swarm branch. The bees would roughly follow the red arrow in Figure 2, when I partly cut the branch at the orange arrow. As I extended the ladder at intermediate lengths, I placed it against the tree and removed more lower limbs. I repeated the process until the ladder was at its full extension. In this position, I lashed the top rung to the tree. Tying the top rung to the tree made the ladder very stable because the supporting rung could not slip across the tree. The base of the ladder was pushed into the ground so it could not kick out. Now the ladder was stable.

Even standing on the highest rung, definitely not recommended, I still could not reach the swarm. Nevertheless, I could reach where the swarm branch joined the trunk. With a slender branch, and with me standing too high on the ladder, getting to the base of the branch was actually better than getting to the swarm. I could make a partial cut near the base of the branch and bend it so the swarm swept out an arc towards the ladder, moving like the hour-hand of a clock from the three o’clock position to the six o’clock position (see Figure 3). The trick is to know exactly where to make the partial cut near the base of the swarm branch. It sometimes helps to bend the branch a little to see where most of the stress will occur, that is, where I think the breaking-point will occur, then make the cut there.

With my large long-handled pruners, I slowly started to cut the branch (see Figure 4). As I pulled the handles together, I watched the jaws slice into the wood, being careful not to ...


Honey Bee Biology  - March 2015

U.S. Queen Rearing History

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


We think of the modern queen rearing industry in America as a southern enterprise with important western and Hawaiian contributions. In the 1800’s queen rearing was done mostly in the northeast before its southern shift.

Back then to increase queen production, beekeepers needed new methods besides simply dequeening colonies and harvesting the resulting emergency queen cells. In 1883, before grafting larvae became an accepted practice, Henry Alley of Wenham, Massachusetts wrote The Bee-Keeper’s Handy Book: Or Twenty-Two Years of Queen Rearing Experience (see Figure 1). This was a queen rearing technical book, although many new beekeepers bought it. In about 18 months 2,000 copies of the first edition sold, considered “gratifying” by Alley as related in the third edition (1885) of his book.

To start the queen cells, Alley used a non-grafting technique. Using new comb taken from a breeder queen colony, containing eggs or newly hatched larvae, he sliced the comb into rows of single cells (Figure 2, above). Next, he cut down the cell walls leaving only one quarter of an inch of the cell wall, thinking the shorter worker cells would be easier to turn into queen cells. To keep the bees from joining two queen cells together, he squashed every other egg in the cells with a wooden match. Using melted wax, he attached the comb strips to the lower edge of combs, which had been cut back, leaving plenty of space below for the mature queen cells over the bottom bar of the frame. The prepared combs were given to a swarm box.

Alley’s early version of a swarm box was a strong colony confined with only some of its honey and pollen, no brood or queen. (His swarm box resembled a modern five-frame nuc box.) With a screen top and bottom for ventilation, the swarm box stayed in a cool cellar waiting for at least 10 hours. Alley said he would make up the swarm in the morning and put in the prepared frames at night, probably one or two, usually getting about 20 - 25 queen cells (Figure 2, below). However, he warned about letting the colony complete too many queen cells. Depending on the rearing conditions, finishing a dozen queen cells or fewer was better, saying those queen cells were equal to or superior to natural queen cells built for swarming.
When Alley put prepared combs in the swarm box, it went on the old hive stand with the entrance open for bee flight. When conducted properly, even today it is a clever way to rear some extra queens. (A version of the swarm box still exists in modern queen rearing to help start numerous grafted queen cell cups.)

Alley’s book described a comprehensive queen rearing system that could be implemented on a small commercial scale. He had a swarm box to start and finish his queen cells, mating nucs to mate the queens, and his book had valuable information on queen introduction. For a time, Alley’s system of queen rearing became popular, and he was well known.

I have used Alley’s queen rearing system, growing the queen cells in my observation hives so I could take photographs. The brood comb I used had grafting age larvae (less than 48 hours old) and eggs. I did not squash every other larvae to demonstrate the frequent problem of the queen cells becoming connected together that vexed Alley for some time. The brood comb I used had virtually no cocoons. It was built mainly from recycled wax, which had a light brown color, rather than newly secreted wax, which would have been white. The piece of comb for the strips originated as a straight piece of burr comb found between two main combs. I sliced it up with a single edge razor blade, trying to leave a ...


Honey Bee Biology  - February 2015

The Rise, Flourish, and Fall of Spring Nectar Flows

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


Knowing your local nectar flows is an essential part of beekeeping. They tell you when to put on honey supers or if supplemental feeding is necessary. The nectar flows occur roughly by the calendar dates, but that formula approach is not sufficient. The plants respond to the weather. The weather is quite variable, so the beginning blooming dates of the plants become a variable too.

I watch the nectar and pollen plants for their coming blooms. Ultimately though, I watch the bees for what they are bringing in. Below is an account of nectar flows in my area of Eastern Virginia, mid Atlantic region, as an example. My methods can be applied to other locations further west.

Starting in early spring, bee flight begins on warm afternoons in late February. The returning foragers collect water desperately needed for brood rearing. Initially, no bees return with greenish pollen, the first pollen of the spring. That is because out in the woods, surrounding my rural apiaries, none of the maple trees have yet bloomed. Their buds have been swelling with each warm day. Soon the bees will find the early blooming maples somewhere out in the woods (see Figure 1). And the greenish pollen pellets come pouring in the hives. Occasionally, the maple trees I am watching for the blooms are still in bud stage. Having a maple tree to watch is good to know when the bloom will come, but that particular tree could be a late bloomer, an early bloomer, or one near the middle. I figure on the average, a tree in the city will probably bloom before a tree out in the woods because cities are typically warmer.

In the spring, numerous nectar and pollen plants each make minor contributions to the overall forage of a colony. For example, Mustard Greens, planted the previous summer for their leaves, remain in the field for the winter. In the spring, up grows a stalk and numerous yellow blooms appear (see Figure 2). Yellow Mustard fields hum with bees. Then the grower plows them, sending the plants underground, turning the fields from yellow treasures to dirt deserts, worthless for the bees, who move on. Red Bud is a small tree that blooms in the still leafless woods, a bright beacon of purple flowers, easily to spot (see Figure 3). It attracts all kinds of bees from the woods including honey bees. Sometimes I see my bees working wild Blueberries near my apiary, but mostly native bees pollinate that plant.

While the bees are building up on these minor nectar plants, I inspect the colonies to make sure they have enough food stores. At this time, colonies have large amounts of brood, which can deplete the food stores, especially if it rains for a week or so, preventing flight for much needed nectar and pollen. Conditions in a colony change quickly at this time of the spring. This build up time goes through March into roughly mid April.

Around late April, the plant bloom I am watching now is for  ...


Honey Bee Biology  - January 2015

Crystals in Honey As Seen Through a Polariscope: In Pictures Videos

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


Honey crystallization is a concern to beekeepers who want to produce a pretty liquid product with a bright clarity, particularly for the lighter honeys. Crystallization is sometimes called honey spoilage, which is completely wrong. Crystallization might precede fermentation, a honey spoilage by sugar-tolerant yeast, which may be already present in the honey. On the other hand, as the crystals grow, the moisture content of the remaining liquid part of the honey increases, which can lead to fermentation. Often however, for minor crystallization I rarely see fermentation.

Honey is a mixture of two main sugars: glucose (dextrose) and fructose (laevulose). At room temperature honey is supersaturated with glucose. That means the honey solution has more glucose dissolved in the liquid form than can remain in that state. (It is unstable.) Consequently, some of the sugar crystallizes out in a solid form until the honey solution reaches equilibrium where the remaining glucose stays in the dissolved solution. Storage conditions influence the crystals of honey where 57 °F (14 °C) is the best temperature for growing crystals, while some early scientific research determined 41 – 45 °F (5 – 7 °C) was most effective for starting crystallization. Lower temperatures 0 °F (-18 °C ), or lower, greatly slowed but did not completely prevent crystallization (according to White in the 1975 printing of the Hive and the Honey Bee, published by Dadant and Sons). I have put generic wild flower honey in a deep freezer and still had it crystallize, although my result may not be the same for other honeys since they differ so much.

Honeys crystallize at different rates. Some honeys crystallize quickly, right in the jar after a month or so. Other honeys crystallize even in the comb. On the other hand with sage and tupelo honey, crystallization is virtually absent. The crystallization could depend on the glucose content relative to the honey’s water content or to its fructose content, given what bits of research I have seen. Still the crystallization can be a big problem for beekeepers.
Heating honey will melt the sugar crystals back into a solution. Some crystals, usually the soft finer ones, melt away with just a little heating, say putting the jar in a bath of hot water. Other crystals, more coarse and hard ones, melt with difficulty. Heating honey must be done with care so as not to damage its flavor and color, which is another subject.

On the other hand, some beekeepers produce creamed honey where very fine crystals grow in honey (see Figure 1). They usually put in fine seed crystals in batches of liquid honey to start the crystallization. Eventually the entire container of honey has the consistency of peanut butter. In that stiff semisolid form, the consumer can use a knife to spread the creamed honey on, for example, bread. Sometimes creamed honey is called honey butter.
For seeing crystals in a jar of honey, especially the fine ones, a polariscope shows them against a dark background, which filters away the glare. I think when beekeepers are serious about honey production, they should have or have easy access to a polariscope. One really cannot appreciate what could be in a jar of honey, until seeing it in a polariscope, providing the polarizing filters have been installed correctly (see Figures 2, 3, and 4). Definitely, beekeepers should use a polariscope when entering honey in a honey show, because the honey judge usually has one to see inside the lighter color honeys. Furthermore, for showing honey, one should search through many empty jars to find some that do not look weird in the polariscope and would distract from the honey. Those are your special show jars.

Perhaps the local beekeeping club could maintain a polariscope since it is a good learning tool, especially for new beekeepers. Besides detecting fine crystals, even in freshly poured honey, including unheated honey, the polariscope detects ...


Honey Bee Biology  - December 2014

Honey Bee Pollination with Movie Clips: Following Individual Foragers

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


Beekeepers need to have a clear understanding of pollination, its value to the general public, and the role of native bees in pollination. Along with honey bees, promoting the diversity of all kinds of bees is another way to promote a healthier environment because the number of pollinators are decreasing, while the need for pollination is increasing.

Pollination is the movement of pollen grains from the male flower parts (the anthers) to a special structure typically in the center of the flower with a sticky surface (the stigma) to receive incoming pollen as shown in Figure 1. The two flower parts could be housed in the same flower or separated on different flowers. Pollination is different from fertilization, which is the union of the genetic material from the maternal and paternal plants. After pollination and before fertilization occurs, a pollen tube grows from the pollen grain embedded in the stigma down to the ovary in the base of the flower. The pollen tube provides a passageway for the male plant’s genetic material, released from the pollen grain at the sigma surface, to move down to one of the ovules, a future seed, in the ovary. Within the ovule, male and female genetic material unite, so in the ovule is where fertilization occurs. The fruit we eat grows in response to fertilized seeds from pollination. Notice if pollen tube growth fails, pollination still occurred (the bees did their job), yet fertilization for that particular seed would not occur nor would the corresponding fruit growth resulting from that fertilized seed. Failed fertilization is why other factors, besides poor pollination, can produce lopsided apples and crooked cucumbers. On the other hand, if bees were lacking, a quiet field or orchard, no hum with plants in bloom, and the plants had proper irrigation, fertilizer applications etc., then poor pollination would obviously be the most likely culprit (See Figures 2 and 3).

While most people associate bees with honey, in United States agriculture bees are most valuable as pollinators. In these various crop systems, called agro-ecosystems, honey bee pollination was estimated as $14.6 billion based on an estimate in 2000 (Morse and Calderone, 2000). While that is an old estimate, it is huge compared to U. S. honey production valued on the order of $200 million. That old pollination estimate did not include a new factor, shelf life, which for strawberries was shown to increase substantially with better pollination, adding to its value of the product. It was reported to have a longer shelf life reducing fruit loss by at least 11% accounting for about one-third of a billion dollars ($.32 Billion) when selling U.S. strawberries to the European Union (overseas shipping). Moreover, the strawberry physiology showed that proper pollination helps to preserve the fruit on a chemical level. Therefore on that fundamental chemical level, since pollination helps increase shelf life, then it is reasonable to think similar effects would occur with other insect pollinated crops. So overall from a shelf life consideration, pollination has been undervalued (Klatt et al., 2014). By how much remains unknown. Nevertheless 75% or 87 of 115 of the leading crop plants worldwide depend on, or at least benefit from animal pollination. The remaining 28 crops depend on the wind or are self-pollinated (Klein et al., 2007). Turning from the number of plants to their production amounts, 35% of global crop production is dependent on animal pollination (Klein et al., 2007). (This estimate is very inclusive. So they use “animal” to include all pollinators. A large part of that figure would presumably be honey bees including the Asian honey bee Apis cerana.)

I have seen numerous articles in the popular press stating that one-third of our food or diet depends on honey bee pollination (before we see it in Klein et al., 2007). I also see the statement interpreted as one in three bites of food depend on honey bee pollination. Most likely it is stated in that fashion, to make the fraction, one third, seem less abstract in the popular press, which is reasonable. However, few can find the original source of the one-third pollination statement, meaning the original book and page, where the statement first appeared before later modifications. Well-informed beekeepers should know from where the one-third pollination statement originates since so many people have heard it, and because of its frequency in the press. It has a strong citation history, not like other dubious things said about bees on the web, which need to go away.

For decades, I have had the reference stamped in my mind as “S. E. McGregor 76.” It was in the first book devoted to pollination that I bought: Insect Pollination of Cultivated Crop Plants, Agriculture Handbook Number 496 by S. E. McGregor published in 1976 (McGregor, 1976). The book is 411 pages in a large format with beautiful detailed diagrams of the crop flowers showing the anthers and stigmas. The one-third reference is on page one at the top of the second column. In the estimate, McGregor is also including the plant-based oils and fats (oils like canola, sunflower, etc.) dependent on insect pollination, and other insect-pollinated plants used in animal production:

When these sources, the animal and plant products, are considered, it appears that perhaps one-third of our total diet is dependent, directly or indirectly, upon insect pollinated plants.

Notice, no mention of honey bees in the original quote, although they would probably have been the majority pollinator. Nevertheless, McGregor’s original statement appears much different from something like one in three bites of food depend on honey bee pollination (or bee pollination meaning honey bees). While it conveys a targeted message, that overly simplified allusion excludes the other pollinating bee species, not to mention other such insects. In the original, McGregor did not exclude them. (McGregor, 1976 is inclusive like Klein et al., 2007).

For example bumble bees are valuable pollinators. Their importance has grown since the original one-third statement in 1976. Bumble bee colonies are rented out for greenhouse pollination, and wild colonies are extremely valuable pollinators. I have been telling farmers for years to leave bumble bees uncut places for them to nest and forage. I make it clear to the farmer that the wild flowers are probably too meager for my honey bees to accept. That way my advice is not seen as self-serving, which is it not.

After helping to pollinate a farmer’s crop, or being the sole pollinator for plots typically too small for honey bee rental, some wild bees, particularly bumble bees, need a chain of other flowers, blooming sequentially, for a food supply. Mowing all the “waste” places might look golf-course neat, but for these other bees, it sterilizes their food sources causing them starvation, reducing the population of pollinators for next season, and their beneficial effects. Excessive mowing is one form of habitat destruction in my opinion, and a preventable one. I would advise mowing fields in the fall after the wild flowers have bloomed and their seeds are floating away on the wind.

Fast-flying squash bees (most likely Peponapis pruinosa) flit and dart among the flowers of squash and other gourd plants in zillions of gardens. These bees specialize for pollinating squash flowers, ignoring other blooming plants. They only forage in the morning when squash flowers are open, under conditions when honey bees would not touch them. When I ask gardeners about their squash bees, I typically get the speak-English look. Clueless. While their forage is in the garden, provided by the squash flowers, these bees need a place to nest, in undisturbed ground.

Recent research is showing the importance of native bees (non-Apis bees) in commercial pollination. Here is an example of the new behavior being found. California almond production is the major crop requiring honey bee pollination in the U. S. Remarkably, having the solitary bee, the Blue Orchard bee (Osmia lignaria) pollinate along with the dominant pollinator, the honey bee, resulted in more fruit set. Apparently, the Blue Orchard bee changed the honey bee flight making them cross more to different tree rows, and they cross pollinated more instead of just working down the same row of the same variety of tree that cannot self pollinate. The pollen needs to move to a different row, which is a different variety of tree (Brittain et al., 2012).

Now let’s try something brand new – looking at pollination from the honey bee’s point of view. To acquire a firsthand, more intimate, appreciation of honey bee pollination, try watching my movie clips of individual bees foraging from ...


Honey Bee Biology  - November 2014


Homemade Bee Smokers: Insights into Past Apiculture and a Few Surprises

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


In the history of apiculture, beekeepers sometimes had more time than cash. Consequently, they made their own beehives, provided they had woodworking skills. Other beekeepers with clever metal-working skills made bee smokers. Possibly a beekeeper could get a tinsmith to fabricate a bee smoker in exchange for goods or services, getting a bee smoker on the barter system, still sans the cash.

Old homemade bee smokers are by nature unique, each like a snowflake, different. They are nowhere near the identical mass-produced smokers so necessary to today’s apiculture. Homemade bee smokers tell subtle things about their makers even after all the years gone by. What they knew, perhaps understood, and the occasional telling mistakes. Since collecting bee smokers from the 1970’s, I have acquired several homemade versions. Below are a few of them.

The first smoker shown in Figure 1 is a style dating into the mid-1870’s just past the time when Moses Quinby invented the bee smoker in 1873. He attached a fire pot and funnel to a bellows, and created a practical smoker, a huge innovation for the times. The fire pot, which resembles a tube in this smoker, was stuffed with smoldering cloths, either by removing the funnel or the bottom cap. The bellows, huge compared to the fire pot (tube), would definitely fire up the smoldering fabrics to a more stable flame. However, the connection between the fire pot tube and the bellows is a solid connection. On this smoker a metal pipe from the fire fit tightly inside a carved wooden pipe on the bellows board, a considerable construction effort to keep an airtight connection (see Figure 2). Even Moses Quinby used a solid pipe connection between the fire pot and the bellows on his original smoker design. That solid connection created a problem. When the smoker was put down as the beekeeper handled the bees, the fire died, leaving the beekeeper helpless. Some bee strains in Quinby‘s time were prone to sting, so a smoker failure was a particularly debilitating problem. Quinby probably would have corrected the flaw, but he died suddenly, soon after his bee smoker appeared.

In 1878, T. F. Bingham patented what he called a “direct draft” smoker where he left an air gap between the fire pot and bellows. That allowed a small airflow to continue through the smoker, keeping the coals alive, for their next use. Now modern smokers, worldwide, still have that gap, although through apicultural history the solid pipe connection reappears, apparently since this mistake in a homemade smoker seems so seductive and necessary.

Consider a homemade smoker with a fire pot made from a “Top Cigarette Tobacco” can (see Figure 3). Apparently, the can held tobacco and papers for rolling cigarettes purchased in one tight-closing can. As a smoker, it was reloaded by opening the can, prying up the lid, as in its former tobacco-can life. The smoker’s short funnel was formed from the tin of another Top Tobacco can as indicated from part of the advertising letters curling over the funnel. Rolling a funnel and obtaining a reasonable size to match the size of the fire pot and bellows was not an easy task. The funnel appears a bit small, but the soldering bead connecting it to the can looks like an expert job. The brackets connecting the fire pot to the bellows were also made from a Top Tobacco can, soldered to the metal fire pot and nailed to the wooden board of the bellows.

Two things are telling to me about the air connection between the fire pot and the bellows. First, the height of the connection is not low, like on a modern smoker forcing the air through the fire (see Figure 4). The design, where the air surge from the bellows goes through the fire, then out as smoke is called a hot-blast smoker. When the air surge gets directed around the fire and draws out the smoke more passively, that design is called a cold blast smoker. The cold blast bee smoker design, once popular in the late 1800’s, was dying out by the middle 1920’s. (By then, it was getting difficult to buy a Clark cold-blast smoker offered in the bee supply catalogs.) This homemade smoker probably dates sometime later, the 1930’s, perhaps later, missing the cold blast era. The high placement of the connection could be due to the lack of space at the bottom, given the lower bracket as a possible obstruction. Nonetheless, the smoker would function more as a cold blast than a hot blast.

The air connection being a solid connection is the second ...


Honey Bee Biology  - October 2014

Bee Larvae: Busier than You Think

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


Healthy brood should not be taken for granted. During colony inspections, I always check to make sure the colony has plenty of glistening white worker larvae, at all ages, which tend to catch my eye.

Healthy larvae are white, and the older ones, covering the bases of the cells, glisten in sunlight, when held there briefly (see Figure 1). Larvae appearing off white, especially brownish, indicate various problems from chilled brood or different diseases or perhaps indirectly a connection with varroa infestations.

The honey bee larva is a specialized development stage for feeding, little else, except for pheromone production. However, larvae do move in their cells. The larva, curled in a “C” shape, can move slowly in a circle. The larva needs no external limbs for such moment, which can bring it to food placed in the cell by nurse bees. Notice in Figure 1 the larvae are in different rotational positions. Those positions would change in the next hour or so. The folds of the body surface on their sides and back are thought to provide the movement.

Observations from older research report the folds in a larva contract and then expand in an advanced position, which apparently pull the larva forward, in somewhat of a crawling movement. For example, three-day-old worker larvae can turn (rotate) twice in their cells every one and three quarter hours. Larvae move forward (head first) in their cells, although backwards-moving larvae have been reported. When moving in reverse, the larva pushes against the cell with its mouthparts (Jay, 1963). I have seen older larvae, near capping age, crawl out of their brood cells when the bee coverage was removed, and the comb kept warm. That may be due to a lack of food as brief comments in older research suggest. Anyway, those larvae being sedentary and immobile are an illusion – nurse bee magic. I have seen a similar behavior in older hornet larvae leaving their cells when I removed the comb from the nurse hornets. Out wiggle the older larvae. Going nowhere.

For feeding, larvae are essentially little eating machines made to grow quickly. Insects have their skeletal structure on the outside of their bodies, called an exoskeleton. In contrast mammals, reptiles and birds have internal skeletons supporting their bodies, called an endoskeleton. Given the rapid growth, an external skeleton, no matter how thin around a larva, cannot contain its expanding body. In terms of size, the old exoskeleton becomes out of date and must be shed, or molted. A developing bee has six molts. Five of them occur during the fast-growing larval stage. For queens and workers the first four molts occur approximately once a day allowing rapid growth by shedding old exoskeletons.

For digestion, internally larvae are mostly a mid gut and a hind gut, which comes to a dead end inside them while feeding. So the larvae do not defecate while the nurse bees feed the larvae. In addition, the nurse bees help digest the food before they give it to the larvae. Once larvae finish feeding with the cells open, nurse bees provision the cells with a little more food for worker larvae and probably drone larvae. Then bees cap their cells (see Figure 2).

Queen larvae are much different. Nurse bees put massive quantities of royal jelly in their cells. The entire base of the cell becomes coated in a thick layer of white material, which under optimum feeding conditions, cannot all be consumed by a larva. Some will be left over. Later on during pupation and right after the queen leaves her cell, the once white jelly-like consistency turns to a tough thick brown resin-like material. Even after the queen has emerged from a cell, the presence of the brown gooey material tells me the nurse bees gave the developing queen a proper feeding. I cut open the empty queen cell and look for the old royal jelly at the base of the cell. When letting a nuc rear its own queen, rearing under stressful conditions, sometimes the emergency queen cells do not have any extra old royal jelly or there is a little bit that perhaps the larva could not reach. Then I would expect the new queens to be under-fed and that would damage their development and the colony’s honey production.

The weight gains are incredible from ...


Honey Bee Biology  - September 2014

The Exotic Equipment of Comb Honey Production

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


Before the pure food laws, back in the 1880’s, consumers did not trust liquid honey, what today we call extracted honey. Like other things back then, for example beeswax, consumers assumed liquid honey was adulterated. Adulteration increased the volume of honey with cheap sugars, but sold at a higher honey price. And a larger profit. Building consumer confidence in liquid honey took years. Today that trust should be held in high esteem by beekeepers, lest we get catapulted back to the bad old days because of honey contaminated with modern chemicals.

So how did consumers buy honey, well over a hundred years ago, without eating cheap syrup that somebody scrounged up and poured into the mixing tank? They bought honey in the comb. Honey in the comb was the signature of purity. Early on, honeycombs may have also been a practicable way to distribute honey since small inexpensive liquid containers were not readily available.

Various size wooden boxes held the honeycomb, starting out weighing about 2 - 5 pounds. The boxes had glass windows to help beekeepers see when they were full. The customer purchased the entire box full of honeycombs. The size evolved to become smaller from a box to what was once called a “comb honey section box,” a little wide frame holding a single comb. Now we drop from the name “box” and call it a “comb honey section” or sometimes just “comb honey.” It depends on how old-school you are. But beware if you are used to calling them comb honey section boxes, you ain’t no young whipper-snapper ‘cause you grew up in the late 1880’s (unless you are an apicultural historian).

J. S. Harbison is credited with inventing the comb honey section in 1857. For some years the section boxes were made of four separate wood pieces nailed together. This was an immense amount of work for say building 5,000 sections taking 20,000 pieces of wood. These four-piece sections must be very rare because I cannot find any surviving examples. As a “consumed” item, easily burned up in a stove after the honey was gone, and not being pretty like an old honey jar, all my hunting since the 1970’s has not netted even one four-piece section box.

Skipping ahead to the one-piece section box, in the mid 1870’s, Figure 1 shows one-piece sections in the flat, similar to the way beekeepers get their sections today. Three “V” cuts partway through the flexible wood grain allow folding, without breaking, to form three corners. Letting the wood grain of sections absorb moisture before folding the corners helped make them flexible so the corners would not break. The last corner locked in place with its little finger joints pressed together. The folded section box formed a four and a quarter inch square, the most common size. A bloom of creative beekeeping inventions followed close after the one-piece section box as shown in the equipment below.
Folding sections and locking the finger-joint corner was a repetitive job. It needed to be done quickly, using an efficient machine, considering a beekeeper could have 5,000 or more sections to start preparing during the winter to be ready for spring. A section folder or section press locked together the finger joints of the last corner of the section box. Numerous designs appeared on the market, usually worked with the hands, sometimes the feet, freeing the hands to handle sections.

Figure 2 shows the Hubbard section press, in three versions from the 1890’s on the left to the 1920’s on the right. Figure 3 shows a close up of the presses. A Hubbard press was a fast machine. From the flat, the operator put the partly formed section in the square form, lined up the finger-jointed corner under the upside down “V” and merely pushed the section forward a little. The two long pieces, holding the section below, and the “V” piece above, pressed the finger joints into one tight square corner. Springs behind the lower piece pushed the press back open for the next section. The 1890’s version had an all-wood square form as Hubbard originally made it. After A. I. Root bought the rights to the machine, the form became metal, more durable, and the machine became sleeker.

Figure 4 shows a roller press, another fast machine with a close up in Figure 5. Again the partly folded section went into the form and the finger-jointed corner lined up to the groove in the roller. The operator pushed the section forward. The finger joints went together so the section could fit under the roller groove. A spring behind the lower board quickly pushed the press back open for the next section. I knew a comb honey producer who made crops by the ton, that is, tons of comb honey sections. This was the style of press he used, and he claimed it was the fastest.

Figure 6 shows a foot-operated press, mostly I think for beekeepers not needing thousands of sections, maybe a few hundred. With foot lever action the operator opened and closed the press on the section in the form. The upside down “V” came straight down and pushed the finger joints together.

Figures 7 and 8 show the rarest and a most mesmerizing section press to watch, with all the cast iron gearing. The section started flat, not partly folded, like the other presses above. The section laid horizontally in the press. When the operator lifted the handle, the press itself ...


Honey Bee Biology  - August 2014

Late Summer:  When Beekeepers get Questions on

Yellow Jackets and Hornets

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


As beekeepers we get questions from the public on various stinging insects, not just honey bees. Typical concerns include bumblebees, carpenter bees, and ground nesting bees. Then, there are the paper wasps building exposed horizontal nests under the corners of windows, doors and other sheltered places. Yellow jackets and hornets cause much anxiety too. With the arrival of late summer, when yellow jacket and hornet populations peak, this article concentrates on their biology, giving beekeepers, especially new beekeepers, some information to help answer questions they might get from people who typically begin by telling their stinging stories.

Most laypeople, which can include news reporters, confuse the terms bees and wasps, using the words as if the insects were the same. They are not. Without going into the strict taxonomy, which involves numerous technical terms, here are working definitions of the two: most bees live on nectar, honey and pollen. Most wasps feed (chewed) meat, usually other insects, to their larvae. I say most for each group because nature has made notable and fascinating exceptions.

In the tropics, some stingless bees (in the genus Trigona) consume the flesh of dead animals, usually small frogs and lizards, although larger dead animals are welcomed treats on their necrophagic menu. It is thought these bees deposit digestive enzymes on the flesh of the dead. Then, bees consume the resulting liquid slurry of protein, holding it in their crops like nectar, while flying back to their colony. Necrophagic Trigona from different colonies even fight over the dead, upon meeting on a rotting animal, a competition for food (Roubik, 1989). While these bees have a wasp-like diet, what about the other way around? Wasps with a bee diet.

Scattered across some locations in the hotter and drier regions of the world, a group of wasps, the pollen wasps (in the subfamily Masarinae) feed their larvae nectar and pollen, not flesh. Pollen wasps do not hunt insects like carnivorous wasps, thus showing a behavioral change in the adults in addition to their different larval diet. For a nest, typically a pollen wasp digs a tunnel in the ground (apparently similar to other ground-nesting bees and wasps). The mother wasp provisions her nest by carrying a nectar and pollen mixture in her crop – internally instead of externally in pollen “baskets.” That transport method is not surprising. In the general study of all bees (Melittology), some 20,000 species of bees, the two main ways to carry pollen are internally and externally. Beekeepers focus on the latter since honey bees carry pollen externally on their hind legs. Pollen wasps have evolved to the former – an internal pollen transport, the same method used by some bees. Typically, these solitary bees are almost hairless, far from fuzzy, like wasps including pollen wasps. Being virtually hairless and carrying pollen internally is well within the realm of the bee world, even when done by a wasp, a pollen wasp.

Another key difference between bees and wasps is that wasps and hornets use paper for nest construction. For honey bees, they use wax. (Other bees use a variety of materials, bits of leaves, tree resin, etc. But they are rarely involved in a stinging incident and are essentially harmless.) In many situations, the nest is not visible and the material is unknown. So one needs to listen for other evidence as a person tells of a stinging incident, usually seeking the culprit. One is the sudden appearance of the insects late in summer.
Late summer stinging incidents with yellow jackets, or others with hidden nests, provoke dismay that the nest appeared there suddenly, say yellow jackets coming out of the grass in a spot mowed all season. Why now? Unlike honey bees that winter intact as a family unit, a colony of yellow jackets (also hornets and wasps) all perish except for the mated females, the “queens,” which hibernate (at least in my area, and might not be true further south). A queen yellow jacket, specifically one individual, starts the nest in the spring. She rears a small clutch of workers, which in turn rear more. With a small number of worker yellow jackets, they do not tend to launch a big stinging defense of their nest earlier in the season. But here is the key point – they are there, just not noticeable.

Early in the spring, I see queen yellow jackets hunting for nest sites. I watch them flying a few inches from the ground. Their slow flight, large size, and yellow and black stripes make them easy to spot against the drab ground. Usually a queen yellow jacket selects a nest site in a protected place, for example, a small underground burrow initially dug by a mouse or other small animal. On the other hand, I have also seen them nest in walls. Figure 1 shows a small nest started by a queen, a rare find. Including the paper envelope, the nest is about the size of a quarter. Inside is a small bit of paper comb of just a few cells. Unlike queen honey bees, specialized for egg laying, a queen yellow jacket can forage, defend the nest, feed larvae, and chew wood fibers to make paper for a nest.

While the queen picks a small burrow, the yellow jacket nest can grow as large as a basketball. The yellow jacket workers enlarge the underground cavity by removing small pieces of dirt. If you look closely at a large colony with numerous workers flying out, some of them carry bits of dirt in their mandibles (jaws). By late in the summer the colony population is large enough so the wasps can aggressively defend their nest. Now the colony will not tolerate the vibration of the lawnmower. Conditions are ripe for a stinging incident.
To see the extent of a yellow jacket nest, I dug one using only ...


Honey Bee Biology  - July 2014

Bee Hives in the Walls of Houses, a Little-Known Beekeeping

Method with the Asiatic Hive Bee, Apis cerana

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


In the previous article, we learned about Asiatic Hive Bee, Apis cerana, the far eastern version of the western honey bee, Apis mellifera, the species of honey bee here in the United States. I described some of my travels into the rugged foothills of the Himalayan Mountains of northern India to see these exotic bees. Just getting there was an ordeal. After a long train trip from the south, the tracks ended. Then we rode by jeep up long winding dirt roads clinging to the sides of cliffs (see Figures 1 and 2).

The roads pierce into these remote places only so far. The one we traveled on abruptly ended at a pile of rocks (see Figure 3). Undeterred, we hiked up narrow well-worn paths, passing all kinds of walking travelers who carried almost everything up to mountain houses and villages (see Figure 4). Most memorable: a frail looking elderly lady calmly toting a heavy five-gallon container of diesel fuel up a steep mountain grade. A lifetime up here works wonders for fitness.

While some Indian beekeepers use a small-size frame hive for Apis cerana, movable-frame beekeeping is a more recently introduced method here. Their frame hives resembled the ones shown in the previous article from southern India. More problematic though is the high cost of frame hives compared to the income of local people in this area of northern India. Expensive frame hives are partly why traditional beekeeping continues.

Traditional beekeeping in this remote region incorporates the beehive as part of the house, a design called a wall-hive. Rarely do western bee scientists or beekeepers witness this unique beekeeping system. During house construction, builders make 1 - 3 cavities in the walls of the house that open from the inside of the house as a wall hive (although not all houses have wall-hive cavities. The walls of mountain houses, made mostly of large fitted stones, wood and mortar, are quite thick, about two feet, providing enough thickness to accommodate a hive. The cavity volumes of the hives vary quite a bit, with no standard at all, as shown in the photographs. Inside a wall-hive cavity, the bees build a set of combs without any guidance from foundation or frames (see Figure 5). Hence a wall hive is a fixed-comb hive, a design that limits bee management. Although, during my wall-hive inspections, I showed beekeepers how to save colonies as shown in the example below.

A wall-hive cavity could be built in the wall of a bedroom, kitchen or perhaps in a storage room in a house (see Figure 6). Consequently, these hives could be in the intimate personal living spaces of the house, in contrast to the typical hive located outdoors in an apiary. For colony inspections, wall hives call for some diplomacy. I need to open the hives from the inside of the house and require access to those personal spaces of the beekeeper or family. Typically, the interior of a room is finished in a layer of smooth mud (analogous to plaster). To open the hive, the beekeeper removes a small board, embedded into this layer of finishing mud. Behind the board is the cavity with combs and bees. A small entrance is on the opposite side (through the exterior wall). Hiking past houses, I looked for the entrances in the walls to indicate the houses with wall hives. Bees flying back and forth, aimed at the side of a house, were good indicators of finding a wall hive colony there, unless a cool morning stopped the bee flight. With one small entrance and the colony behind a fortress wall of rock, the bees were safe from theft and predatory animals.

In North America with our western honey bee, Apis mellifera, some aspects of its biology may get taken for granted because they seem so obvious that we might never wonder about them. For example, ....


Honey Bee Biology  - June 2014

Meet Another Honey Bee:

The Asiatic Hive Bee, Apis cerana

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


Most beekeepers in North America probably know Apis cerana, the Asiatic Hive Bee of the far east, as the original host of the varroa mite (Varroa destructor) that transferred to the western honey bee Apis mellifera. Then comes the history we all know too well. Varroa mites subsequently spread to most parts of the world including the United States. Typically not much more is said about Apis cerana. That ignores, however, a diverse and fascinating bee. Just to begin with, Apis cerana inhabits vast regions of Asia in its tropical, subtropical, and temperate zones including the countries of China, Japan, Malaysia, and Nepal, to name a few. Most of my extensive experience with Apis cerana originates in northern and southern India, seeing quite different variations of the bee across a long continental transect. I also worked with Apis cerana in Bangladesh, and my initial exposure to them was in Thailand.

Apis cerana is generally a little smaller than the honey bee we have in North America (Apis mellifera). However globally, the sizes of both bee species vary across their vast ranges. So it is possible to find Apis mellifera subspecies (races) that are smaller than the larger size of Apis cerana subspecies (races). Nevertheless, where I worked with Apis cerana, the hive equipment was smaller than standard-size Langstroth hive dimensions, which is typical. Frames, supers, and even the extractors are all smaller (see Figures 1 - 5).

Besides being smaller, the variation in body size introduces complications that thankfully we need not contend with here in the United States with our bees (because they have very uniform body size). For example, ponder this incident. Once I was attending an international bee meeting, the Asian Apicultural Association, in Bangalore, India. The convention was a huge lavish meeting with hundreds of beekeepers attending mostly from numerous Asian countries. I carefully looked through all the commercial displays in the large vendor exhibition room, always hoping to find new and interesting ideas and beekeeping equipment. As I examined a queen excluder from an Apis cerana hive equipment dealer, a beekeeper beside me remarked, “my queens will go right through that.” Because of the body size variation in Apis cerana, which of course translates to the queen’s thorax size (its width), that queen excluder worked locally, most reliably in the place of its construction. In some other locations, like where this beekeeper’s local Apis cerana strain was smaller, his little queens could slip between the bars, which were spaced a bit too wide apart, resulting in the queen excluder being worthless in his apiary. For Apis cerana queen excluders, one size does not fit all – like here in the United States. Rather, that beekeeper implied that when buying a queen excluder for Apis cerana, one needed to make sure the bar spacing, the “fit” so to speak, would be correct. That is more like buying shoes where you cannot just assume they will fit correctly. On the other hand, at least on a local level everything should work, that is, a locally made queen excluder should have the correct bar spacing for the body size of the local Apis cerana strain.

In India, I saw this body size variation of Apis cerana. Down in the southern part of the continent, in the state of Tamil Nadu, near the equator, the bees were a bit smaller than ones in the north in the state of Uttar Pradesh. From an ecological perspective, this kind of change in body size can occur for other organisms too. It is known as Bergman’s rule (which is usually applied to animals): an organism’s body size tends to increase in northern locations or at higher altitudes relative to southern locations or lower altitudes. (My work in northern India was also at higher altitudes in an area known as the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, the beginning of those mountains as one goes north in India. Ironically though, those so-called “hills” looked much larger, and the terrain more rugged, than the Appalachian mountains of the eastern United States. In rural India up in the mountains, pothole cratered dirt roads routinely edged around cliffs thousands of feet high, dropping off into valleys far below. No guardrails separated the edge of the winding road from sheer drops to oblivion. Nothing. Finally the sliver of dirt we called a road ran out, ending at a pile of rocks – the “official” road ended. For the rest of the way, we hiked to mountain villages far from road access, supplies only from a network of paths. People carried in everything up those steep trails, including beehives, unless they were made in the remote villages.)

The Apis cerana at higher elevations are . . .


Honey Bee Biology  - May 2014

Bee Hunting Boxes:

Implements of the Old Hunters

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


Honey bees came to the New World with the colonists. And here the new arrivals must have found a wonderland: ecologies similar to their homelands, apparently plenty of nectar and pollen plants with low levels of competition from other insects, and vast old forests full of hollows for a grand bee colonization.

To help the pioneering bee populations grow in the New World, here is a perplexing bonus, quite unexpected. Take a problem-causing pest and somehow – leave it at home. Bees started arriving in America in the 1600’s. Our first catastrophic “varroa-like plague,” that inflicted deadly hardship on colonies and beekeepers, evolving to a scourge we still endure today was none other than the greater wax moth. Remarkably, the greater wax moth did not arrive until right around – 1800 (starting in Boston, suspiciously a port city). Incredibly for over a century, America had plenty of bees, yet was free of wax moths!

Can we add anything else to this potent list fueling feral bee population growth, in the once Shangri-La land of the early American bee world, a bountiful land of nectar, pollen, nest sites, and moths stalled an ocean galaxy away? Oh yes. The colonists pioneering into the lands were “helping” too. They brought their old European form of skep beekeeping (which changed to box-hive beekeeping with the plentiful wood). With either hive, at its simplistic management core, the practice was to encourage swarming, required to replace colonies killed when taking their honey. Skep swarming must have sent many lucky swarms to the woods, adding to the number of feral colonies already reproducing there on their own from swarming.

As the pioneers moved west, so did the feral bees. From an unlikely source, we get a glimpse into this time when bees were expanding their range along with the expanding frontier. Washington Irving, the father of American literature, who wrote such immortal classics as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip van Winkle, also wrote extensively about his travels to different parts of the world. In his book, A Tour of the Prairies, written as a result of touring the Pawnee hunting grounds in 1832, Irving wrote about feral bees:

The beautiful forest in which we were encamped abounded in bee-trees; that is to say, trees in the decayed trunks of which wild bees had established their hives. It is surprising in what countless swarms the bees have overspread the Far West, within but a moderate number of years.1

As the feral bees inhabited more of the continent, they acquired different symbolic meanings in vastly conflicting cultures. To the European descendants in America, wild bees meant nation-building, as Irving wrote, “They have been the heralds of civilization, steadfastly preceding it as it advances from the Atlantic borders....” In dire contrast, Native Americans saw wild bees as the agents of cultural destruction, again from Irving, “The Indians consider them the harbinger of the white man, as the buffalo is of the red man; and say that, in proportion as the bee advances, the Indian and the buffalo retire.” Wild bees had other effects on people. Many feared them, others admired them – an exotic few even hunted them, the so called – bee hunters.

While many bee hunters became beekeepers by starting hives from colonies found in trees, in their purist form, bee hunters did not keep or care for bees as a beekeeper does. Rather, the bee hunter’s strategy was utilitarian, simplistic, and deadly – locate bee trees and plunder the honey. Bee hunters were a colorful lot and easily captured the imagination of initiates, especially younger minds, as recollected by George Edgell in his book The Bee Hunter:

The writer’s interest in the sport began at the age of ten when he was initiated by an old Adirondacker.... George Smith, as I shall call him, was a character, to the youngster as fabulous as Paul Bunyan. He took his whiskey neat. He smoked and chewed at the same time and could spit without removing the pipe from his mouth. His profanity could take the bluing off a gun barrel. Withal, he was one of the kindest and most generous of men and a mighty bee hunter....2

Bee hunters located bee trees using simple tools and a rudimentary knowledge of the honey bee’s foraging behavior. Of central importance was the bee hunting box used to catch bees from flowers, to provide them with sweet food to simulate a lucrative nectar location, and to quietly release them. Bee hunting boxes were small homemade wooden boxes (see Figure 1). Although their individual styles differed, bee hunters began their hunt by using the same basic technique: make the bees forage from the bee hunting box, which establishes a direction to the tree. Knowing that some bees would be lost, the bee hunter began by catching about a dozen foraging bees in the bee hunting box. Bee hunting boxes with complicated multiple chambers allowed the hunter to catch and hold many bees at a time.

Here is a typical loading procedure: catch a bee in one chamber of the box and then close ...

Honey Bee Biology  - April 2014

Protecting Your Bees with the High Cost of Packages

and Swarm Catching

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


The cost of a three-pound bee package broke the three-digit price barrier, now blasting past $100. I didn’t hear a sonic BOOM, like breaking the sound barrier, unless you count the collective screams of beekeepers, especially the ones who remember the price of their first package, some decades ago. Mine was a wee eight bucks back in the 1960’s.

As beekeepers we have always known the value of bees. Fortunately, many other people now are beginning to understand the importance of bees. On the other hand, making that “bees are valuable” message clear to non-beekeepers, some still stuck in archaic thinking, is not always easy: the simple-minded “bees are just bugs,” which easily strays to the deadly “just kill them all.” Even though we must endure the package cost, here is a quick, clear way to relay at least the monetary part of the value message: a typical spring swarm, or starting colony, is worth about $100 (for a swarm the size a little less than a basketball). In my negotiations with people who could hurt my bees, I use this $100 imagery to help protect them.

When I rent bees for pollination and I want to impress upon busy farmers that my bees are valuable – so be careful with pesticides – I tell them that times have changed. The replacement costs of bees are high. Figure at least $100 for just the bees. Moreover, farmers have seen swarms. Mentally connecting a swarm with $100 hopefully will stop bees from being thought of as mere expendable bugs.

Anyone applying pesticides should see bees as valuable, and now use their easy-to-remember price tag – $100. For example a neighbor has a large garden across the field from one of my apiaries. Before I moved bees to that location, he told me that most of his garden production was poor, no matter how much fertilizer and water he applied in recent years. I did not find that surprising for a rural area after varroa mites eliminated most of the local feral bees. At one time those bees pollinated his plants for free like invisible magic elves. Who really cared about them? If they got in the way, it was convenient to spray and “just kill them all.” Right? Wrong! Pamper those plants, like melons and cucumbers, all you want, but without pollination, it is a lot of work and expense for nearly nothing, except a harvest of disappointment. Having seen the before and after, without and with bees, my neighbor knows their pollination value – crystal clear.

Now upon seeing me, say at our local country store, my neighbor raves about the wonderful bees in his loud rich booming voice, reminiscent of a radio announcer. Curious ears, shoppers pausing nearby, can eavesdrop without a bit of strain, and listen in on his pollination message, ironically while I listen too. In the garden, the bees work right beside him, each doing their jobs. Now he looks for the bees coming to his various flowers. He definitely becomes concerned when they are absent, say on cool mornings. Far from being invisible, the bees have ascended to their rightful place as welcomed companions. He enjoys his garden, which stems back to a family farming history. All his hard work pays off, bringing pride and satisfaction, part of a heavy harvest. And that is fine with me.

Monetarily though, the true value of the bees, through their pollination, has missed its mark. There are costs for the other production inputs: the fertilizer, seeds, and even a small cost for the well water (the electricity to pump it and the cost for buying and maintaining the pipes and well pump, spread over the decades). These costs are all readily recognized when figuring the expense of the food production from the garden. How much did my neighbor pay for the pollination, for my bees clearly coming to his garden, turning a depressing wasteland money pit into a place of produce wealth? Was it $60 per colony like I charge farmers growing their crops, when I haul hives to their fields? No. Since the bees flew to his garden on their own, his (direct) cost for the pollination was a whopping big – Zero. This is called spillover pollination. For pollination that occurs from managed colonies, however, for some reason, there is no fee.

With my out-apiaries scattered in rural areas, other nearby neighbors have told me about harvest rebounds in their gardens too. I have made a point of telling them my colony rental fee of $60, to indicate the value of bee pollination, and indirectly the value of my nearby bees. Of course, now I also use the concept of a swarm being worth $100. Since these neighbors are close to my apiaries, I want them to understand I have no problems with them getting valuable pollination for free. That is just the way nature works. Unexpectedly, a complication has arisen calling for diplomatic flexibility that other beekeepers may encounter.
During the season, I move numerous colonies for pollination at distant farms and for scientific research. For apiaries near these large gardens, where families rely on produce as part of their food income (for canning too, providing food into the winter, not just the warm months), people become concerned when seeing hives leave the apiaries. To calm those anxieties, I tell these families that I will leave some hives at their nearby apiary locations, and not to worry when the hive numbers decrease. Sometimes this restriction becomes a problem when I need many hives, but I just need to plan on it. Even with some hives restricted to their out-apiaries, I never ask these families for any produce in trade for what would have been spillover pollination. I just figure they are trying to provide healthy food on tight budgets. From the value of bees, through their spillover pollination, I (the beekeeper) seem to have “acquired” some responsibility. If they offer to let me pick some produce from their gardens, I diplomatically thank them, but I never, never, do that. It just looks bad to pick produce when the owner is not around, and besides fundamentally, it is their property. Especially now with readily available motion-triggered cameras shooting pictures easily taken out of context, such a kind offer could lead to trouble. If they hand me produce or put it in my truck, then I accept it, but I do not ask for it. (I started this policy when I began renting 200 hives for crop pollination in the 1980’s, long before such cameras, and cucumber yields were 12 tons per truck load.)


Honey Bee Biology  - March 2014

From Box-Hive Obscurity to Sailing the Sea with 150 Tons

of Honey: The True Bee-Dreams of R. Wilkin


In the 1850’s, J. S. Harbison began taking bees from Pennsylvania to California. Numerous hives were specially packed for the long trip. They were shipped first to the east coast, then loaded on a steamship and sent south to Panama. Across Panama, the hives rode the rails, the railroad being the great achievement back then, breaking through the jungle connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; a great canal would have been a far off dream at that time. On the west side, the hives had to be loaded on yet another steamship sailing north to the California coast. In all, the hives traveled west via a huge loop to the southern tropics. For his daring, Harbison became a famous California beekeeper accumulating several thousand hives, and he stunned the beekeeping community by shipping to eastern markets section comb honey by the boxcar loads, ushering in a new huge honey unit, honey by the “carload” (usually a 20 ton boxcar load).

With such a large job, Harbison had others helping him to prepare the bees for their long westward trip. R. Wilkin was one of Harbison’s helpers. He first started working with bees at this critical time in beekeeping history, helping Harbison ready his hives in Pennsylvania for shipment to California. This early beekeeping exposure would have a life-changing effect on Wilkin. He would become a lifelong beekeeper, author, and famous California beekeeper too. Wilkin began keeping his bees at Westminster College, Pennsylvania. Later on Wilkin gained notoriety at fairs in Northern Ohio publicly displaying what we would now call bee beards1. Back then such demonstrations, thousands of bees clustered under one’s chin and hat brim, were truly novel and mindboggling, the supposed craft of a “bee charmer.” The public probably did not know of the queen cage tucked under the chin among the bees to quiet them.

With all the notoriety and beekeeping questions, in 1871 while living in Cadiz, Ohio, Wilkin published his book Hand-Book in Bee-Culture (see Figures 1 and 2). Although I knew about Wilkin’s book for decades, it is a rare little book of just 96 pages. Moreover, the book is quite unusual in several respects as old beekeeping books go, which may reflect something about its author. A style of old beekeeping books begins with some basic bee biology then follows with promotion of a particular hive design or management system. Wilkin’s book does not really promote any hive design. Quite the reverse, much of it is on box-hive beekeeping. Moreover, given the book’s publication date (1871), that is indeed strange. Why?

Before the movable frame hive, based on the bee space, the common old technology in its simplistic form was a box hive. The hive was just four wide boards nailed together forming the sides. The top of the hive could be solid or it could have slits or holes for a wooden “cap,” where the bees stored the surplus honey. The bottom of the hive was left open since it sat upon another wide board. Notches cut in the bottom edge of the hive, on one side, served as small entrances. From a modern perspective, the combs of a box hive, attached to the top and sides, could not be easily examined for brood diseases, to find a queen, or numerous other colony conditions (see Figure 3).

The Reverend L. L. Langstroth discovered the bee space in the fall of 1851. Enclosing a comb in a wooden frame, not a new idea even then, but leaving that crucial gap between frame and hive body, the bee space, was the key. The bees use the gap as a passageway. The beekeeper could remove frames and combs with remarkable ease. No more messy comb cutting, destroying the brood nest just to examine it. In 1852, the Rev. Langstroth patented a hive based on the bee space. In 1853 his book Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey Bee appeared. (The three events in the 1850’s are easy to remember. Look at the years: 1, 2, and 3.) Therefore, in the 1850’s the movable frame beehive, a revolutionary new technology, began to spread among the beekeeping community.

In contrast here came a book published 20 years after the conception of the movable frame recognizing the continued entrenchment of the common box hive. Or as Wilkin wrote in the beginning of his book, “As the greater proportion of bee-keepers yet use the common open bottom bee-hive, when I speak of any operation with the hive, reference is always had to this kind of hive, except where other kinds are expressly named.” Nevertheless, Wilkin does show a frame with comb (see Figure 4) and a hive with movable frames, although not fully based on the bee space (see Figure 5).

In those historical times, box-hive beekeeping was a matter of luck. After all, virtually all of the inner workings of the colony was effectively invisible. Think of it today as “black box” hive beekeeping. (Indeed, some box-hive beekeepers thought there was little need to see each comb, so movable frames were not worth the expense, and besides their ancestors got along well without them.) And as an extension, in stark times with no social safety nets, who in their sane minds would try to eke out a living to feed a family of dependent children from beekeeping, a luck-burdened endeavor fraught with eventual doom.

Moreover, America in the 1870’s was becoming an industrial power, and behind that movement was clear analytical thought and reason. To begin a book mostly on box-hive beekeeping, the first point to dispatch to oblivion was any notion of luck, chance, or other hocus-pocus like things. Reminding readers how far their collective intellect had progressed, Wilkin began the introduction of his book with

As the printing press has had the desirable effect of exterminating witches, fairies, and ghosts, so is it fast exterminating the idea of luck, and substituting … [the] true idea that every effect is produced by some cause.

The two pivotal words in this quote are: “luck” and “cause.” Because of its common association with box hives, “luck” is the old way of thinking. The new way of thinking, the “cause,” is where the beekeeper manages the bees, however limited with box hives, to achieve better results.
Before leaving Wilkin’s .....

February 2014

The Colony in Early Spring


Early spring in a bee colony, even with plenty of cold days remaining, finds the bees engaged in a small amount of brood rearing, which began back in December or January. This early brood rearing gives the colony a head start on building up their population before the weather breaks to consistently warmer temperatures. By that time, the colony will have more bees ready to forage on nectar and pollen flowers, whose bloom is typically brief. This brood rearing relies on last season’s honey and pollen supplies, both of which may be getting low.

In my area of Piedmont Virginia, usually in February, some afternoon temperatures are warm enough to give the bees an opportunity to fly. In those beginning warm days, a careful inspection of the returning foragers shows, however, they are not returning with any pollen. The red maple trees are one of our early pollen and nectar sources. Driving around looking at the still leafless forest, canopies of bare branches, nowhere is seen the dash of red, the tell-tale sign of the red maple flowers, where the bees would surely find pollen once they just begin to bloom (see Figures 1 and 2).

With the early brood rearing straining the pollen reserves stored from last fall, the bees are apt to search for most any dust-like material that to them resembles pollen. Just a few weeks ago a person who lives near one of my apiaries said bees were in his pig barn early last spring (of 2013), apparently in the livestock feed. He was not complaining, just thought it was strange. I think the bees may have been collecting the feed dust as a substitute for pollen, which would be consistent with the environmental The Colony in Early Spring conditions. This spring I plan to see if the bees return there, camera in hand. However, the conditions need to be correct, as they do not always occur: having pollen-deprived bees with little or no pollen from the field during brief flight times in early spring.

The birdfeeder is the far more likely place to find bees collecting seed dust, with a behavior similar to collecting pollen grains adhering to their bodies (see Figure 3). A bee first wallows around in the seeds and dust, and the dust sticks to her hairs. Similar to pollen grains, she grooms the dust particles off, moistens them with dilute honey from her crop (honey stomach), and packs them on her pollen baskets, the material accumulating there like a pollen load.

When people refill the feeders, invariably on a warm afternoon, they may find the bees collecting dust along with a host of birds feeding on the seeds. With the rise of urban beekeeping, perhaps this encounter of bees and people may become a bit more common. While ownership of the bees in the birdfeeder is usually uncertain (they could be feral bees or a mix of bees from different colonies), my advice is to make sure the homeowner knows that the bees should quit the birdfeeder soon; foraging bees are not aggressive, and the homeowner can refill the feeder when it is too cool for the bees to fly (in the morning or evening). Still a complication occurs when bees get trapped inside the birdfeeder as shown in Figure 4. Once the foragers bring in plenty of pollen, the bees focus their foraging on these far more attractive flower sources and vanish from the birdfeeders. Even when I offer chick corn near the apiary, a ground corn (for feeding baby chicks and other small birds) with plenty of fine dust, the bees stop collecting the dust after a few good days of maple foraging (see Figure 5). (Like the feed dust and the birdseed dust, chick corn has no nutritional value for bees.)

Colonies low on pollen usually do not preoccupy beekeepers in early spring since that deprivation seems to pass fairly quickly (but I feel more research is needed here). In contrast, low honey reserves are a critical problem. That depletion can lead to colony starvation. Given the honey consumption from the winter and now with the growing brood nest in early spring, the double strain comes at an unfortunate time. When the cold returns, or later in the spring with a long  period of rain, the confined bees can run out of honey and starve – spring starvation. When I do my early spring inspections, one of the first things I check for is enough honey. At least ten pounds of honey to up to roughly one half of the recommended winter stores should be present at this time of your early spring inspection, depending on your location. Ask your local veteran beekeepers


January 2014

Shipping “Live Bees by the Pound,” an Idea from 1879 to 2014

In this article I give a brief history of the package bee industry, enhanced with the unique inclusion of my old shipping packages collected over the decades. With so much else to write or talk about, I have not yet written articles about these old shipping packages. Nevertheless, I have been hunting them constantly. And old bee shipping packages are difficult to find. Disposable, fairly fragile, a bit bulky (for decades of storage), virtually all the old package designs have been destroyed, a lost record of how our beekeeper predecessors innovated ways of providing bees in transit with plenty of ventilation, sugar energy, and water without leaking any of those – or the bees – especially on an express train, which carried fast freight in times past.
In May of 1879, driven by circumstance, the always-innovative A. I. Root proposed a revolutionary idea, put forth as a challenge in the Bee Culture (then called Gleanings in Bee Culture). Root was the founder of the A. I. Root Company and Bee Culture, both located in Medina, Ohio. Root had nearly a ton of capped honey in frames that could quickly start many colonies. At that time, queens from the South could be bought early in the season and reliably shipped to the North. And, of course, Root had plenty of hive equipment since his factory made bee supplies. Missing was one crucial piece to starting spring colonies – the bees.
At that time, Root correctly saw the three revenue streams from beekeeping and proposed another, “The apiary, at present, furnishes only three commodities: honey, wax, and queens. Why not a fourth by selling bees?” After dismissing shipping bees in bulky hives or bees on combs in heavy wooden boxes, Root proposed to his readers a kind of experiment by sending him bees in a lightweight cage. He gave directions on the construction of a cage, including how to provision it with water from a little bottle and stiff candy for feed (a method I surmise from shipping smaller queen cages). His cage design was made from a screen dome used to keep flies off of a serving dish on a dinner table, a common device in those days. In place of a dish, a thick circular wooden base attached to the screen and was scalloped in the middle to hold a slab of stiff candy. Over the candy, a water bottle with a wick was mounted on a bracket. The wick let the bees have small amounts of water during their trip. The dome-shaped screen let in plenty of ventilation and made it difficult for the “express men” to tip over the cage or place other things on it (see Figure 1). Root advised weighing the cage before and after loading the cage with bees, so the weight of the bees would be known. He offered to pay for the bees if they arrived alive, one dollar per pound before the spring nectar season. Otherwise, the loss would go the beekeeper. Everyone knew clearly the losses and gains of the new venture.
Next month in the June issue, Root reported two beekeepers sent in bees. The package from Nebraska did not have a water bottle, and all the bees died after extracting the moisture from an extra-large slab of candy. The other cage, shipped from Louisiana by P. L. Viallon, had problems with the water bottle being nearly as full from the start, since none of the water could seep out the wick. Most of the bees died, their bodies covering the candy so the rest, barely surviving, could not reach the food. Although not a successful start, these shipments were probably the first instances of bees by the pound shipped by express to distant locations (Pellett, 1938) (apparently the regular mail was too slow).
In June 1881, Bee Culture ran the article “The Great Call for Bees by the Pound,” after severe winter losses in the North. The article had pictures of screen shipping boxes, which look similar to modern ones except they were smaller, holding one pound, a half or even one eighth of a pound of bees, and they still had water bottles and candy. The candy was loaded at the end of the cage (see Figure 2). Apparently, Viallon was still active in shipping bees and gave his recipe for making candy. In the article, Root also showed a sketch of a funnel for shaking bees in a package. With that image, almost unchanged to the present, some practice, and a scale, most anyone could shake what we would come to call package bees. In addition, several advertisements in this issue were for “Bees by the Pound,” one of the old ways of saying package bees. This industry was trying to take hold. Regrettably though, much of the package-bee shipping history in the 1880’s, as literature and equipment, is still scattered, but hopefully not completely lost. Here is an example.
Probably one of the oldest shipping package designs in my collection is shaped like a peaked roof, likely following the idea of not letting other items get stacked upon it during shipment (Figure 3). The package provided stiff candy for the bees, typical of the late 1880’s. On one end of the package is a hole. A piece of a comb honey section box partly covers the hole across its middle leaving two slits on either side large enough for bees to pass. On the outside of the package, around the hole, is a faint circular outline as if a shallow tin pan were once nailed on the outside of the package. And nail holes are present within the image of the shadow of the disk. The tin pan probably held a supply of stiff candy for the bees (Figure 4). The bees got to the candy through the slits around the sides of the section box. The piece of the section covered most of the middle of the hole and would have kept the bulk of the candy from oozing through the hole and into the package. The bees could be installed in the cage through another hole at the other end of the package. (The package may have provided water, but I cannot tell that from what remains.)
Problems with the candy in the shipping package and a lack consistent demand, except when winter losses were severe, seemed to curtail the development of a package bee industry (Pellett, 1938). Consistent demand for package bees was fueled from an unexpected source – the spread of sweet clover in the farming region of the West (Pellett, 1938). That was largely due to the persistence of Frank Cloverdale (Figure 5), who showed farmers that their cattle could gain weight on sweet clover, a soil-building plant, and it should not be thought of as a noxious weed. Farmers began planting sweet clover, and beekeepers eventually had a new and huge honey crop that continues to the present.
In the teens of the 1900’s, beekeepers returned to the problem of shipping bees by express, namely how to package and feed them in transit. In April 1913, A. B. Marchant of Apalachicola, Florida and D. D. Stover of Mississippi began advertising in the American Bee Journal for “pound bees.” By 1917 at least a dozen businesses were shipping packages in large numbers (Pellett, 1938). In the years to come, Stover apiaries would ship package bees and queens by the thousands all over the country (see Figures 6, 7, and 8).
To the west from Mississippi in January 1918, The Beekeepers Item (in its newspaper form with very brittle and delicate brown paper), then published in New Braunfels, Texas, had that issue devoted to what we call package bees, although their terminology still sought a standard name along with a standard shipping package design. Three article titles (starting as columns) splashed across the front page: “VENTILATION MOST NECESSARY,” “A YEAR OF SHIPPING POUND BEES,” and “A COMBLESS PACKAGE SYMPOSIUM.” The last article featured a symposium of beekeepers with pictures and cage dimensions below the fold of the front page. One cage was a modification of another cage that Root had been using on a limited basis for shipping small quantities of bees (Figures 9 and 10). The general design of most of the other cages was to have more ventilation for the bees to survive the heat of the South while still letting the cluster cling to something inside. Moreover, among the Texas shippers, we find early evidence of discarding the old way of using candy and water and a switch to sugar syrup, combining sugar and water, in a tin can with very small holes. On the other hand, the Grant Anderson cage retained the old way of supplying candy (one pound for one pound of bees, no water) for shipping bees short distances. He claimed the bees did not use the water unless the “weather was hot and sultry.” He kept the “cone” cage shape to help keep express personnel from their occasional practice of piling “everything possible on the cages” (see Figure 11).
By the 1930’s and 1940’s the package bee industry was well established with the four-sided screen packages (see Figure 6). Two-sided screens were also used and eventually became the standard. Figure 12 shows a two-sided screen package, most likely an early version of that design (different from the Texas designs). By the 1960’s, in addition to two-pound and three-pound packages, four-pound and even five-pound packages were offered for sale. Figure 13 shows a double size three-pound shipping package, which I figure was for shipping five pounds of bees.
From A. I. Root’s beginning idea with numerous beekeepers offering their ideas on package designs, all given a steady life by package-bee demand from sweet clover, we now have a package bee industry that has surpassed that early start. Amazingly, some 100 years later with a mere phone call and credit card, one can place an order for package bees in the winter for their arrival in the spring. And now the sage advice is: get that order in early before the best shipping dates are gone.

The author thanks Suzanne Sumner for her comments on the manuscript.

Pellett, F. C. (1938). History of American Beekeeping. Collegiate Press. Ames, Iowa.