Honey Bee Biology archive
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 .....
The Colony in Early Spring
(excerpt)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
Shipping “Live Bees by the Pound,” an Idea from 1879 to 2014
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.