Honey Bee Biology archive
Honey Bee Biology - October 2013
Dr. Charles C. Miller
In the historical development of American apiculture, rare beekeepers arose to prominence and made important contributions. Some invented revolutionary new equipment like the Rev. L. L. Langstroth creating the movable frame hive or Moses Quinby devising a practical bee smoker. While one could gain historical glory with such inventions, others had no such inventions linked to their names, yet the beekeeping community showered them with respect, and cherished them nonetheless. One of these beekeepers was Dr. C. C. Miller of Marengo, Illinois (see Figure 1).
Particularly in the late 1800’s extending somewhat up to the 1920’s, a confusing menagerie of different equipment, all kinds of gizmos, beekeeping techniques based on various experiences, and numerous speculative ideas, some good, others so seductive and wrong, appeared in the pages of bee journals and were extolled at meetings. Someone with beekeeping knowledge and years of experience had to point out the flaws and strengths of these ideas, and furthermore to answer questions and offer beekeeping advice on numerous subjects. That would become one role for Dr. Miller.
From his keen wit and no-nonsense approach, beekeepers came to know Dr. Miller from his column “Dr. Miller’s Answers” in the American Bee Journal and his column “Stray Straws” in Bee Culture (then known as Gleanings in Bee Culture) that dealt with several topics each month (and twice a month when Bee Culture had 24 issues per year). All that copy banged out on his old mechanical typewriter. (In Dr. Miller’s time other bee journals were in publication, and surely he published articles in some of these periodicals too, adding to his workload.)
Today’s beekeeper may come to know Dr. Miller from his book Fifty Years Among the Bees, which is not too scarce in collecting circles even with its fairly old publication date of 1915 (and other printings near that time). This book describes his system of section comb honey production with eight-frame hives in addition to astute observations on bees still relevant today. His somewhat more rare book is Forty Years Among the Bees, appearing in 1902 on the same subject. Before internet book buying, it took me years of dedicated hunting to find this book. Then, going back in time even further is his really rare book A Year Among the Bees, a small text appearing in 1866, a bee management and advice book. (I have seen only two or three of these books.) This book comes from 25 years of experience with bees, eight of them exclusively in the honey production business.
We know the main points of Dr. Miller’s early life since he included these in his later books (the Forty and Fifty Years Among the Bees). Dr. Miller was trained as a physician, but fresh out of school, and with much regret, he gave up the practice due to his health and not being comfortable with the heavy responsibility of caring for others. From a horror of going into debt, Dr. Miller had survived on a self-imposed diet of boiled wheat in his college days. That austerity damaged his health, although working odd jobs through school, paying all costs, he graduated $50 richer compared to entering college, an enviable goal with today’s high cost of education. After leaving the medical practice, he became a school principal in Marengo for several years. For a year he became principal at a school 13 miles from Marengo, and as we would say, he commuted most of the time, presumably by horse and buggy on dirt and mud roads. Dr. Miller also taught music, an endeavor that took him further from Marengo.
In 1857 about the same time Dr. Miller left medicine, he married Helen M. White, the most crucial beekeeping move he ever made. For in July of 1861 while he was away in Chicago (I think working at an organ company), a swarm flew by the Marengo house and his remarkable wife caught the bees in a sugar barrel. The bees in the barrel sparked Dr. Miller’s interest, eventually altering quite dramatically the course of his life, returning him home to his family and a country life from a far-off city. At first he had a few colonies in frame hives and box hives, fixed comb hives common in those bee-culture times, later switching to all frame hives of standard dimensions and increasing his hive numbers to about 300.
In my decades of hunting apicultural antiques, one of Dr. Miller’s extremely rare box hives came my way including its property mark (Figure 2). (There were other connections of this hive to descendants of the Miller family.) Beekeepers constructed these box hives in various sizes and this one is a typical size. (From my reading, most likely Dr. Miller bought it early on when trying to increase hive numbers.) The hive has holes in the top with a wooden closure. Smaller wooden boxes under a protective “cap” went over the holes. The bees stored 6 to 10 pounds of surplus honey in these smaller boxes, and they typically had little glass windows so the beekeeper could see when they were full. (Without these honey boxes, the bees were killed or “taken up” in order to harvest the honey following the old skep tradition.) Playing a role similar to a jar, the wooden box, full of honey, was sold to the grocer.
Honey Bee Biology - September 2013
How Many “Cars” of Honey did You Produce this Season?
Old Bee Lingo Reveals Important History
A rare western bee periodical adorned with strangely attractive must-stare-at artwork is The Pacific Bee Journal (see Figure 1), “Devoted to the Apicultural interests of the Pacific Coast States and Territories” (established in 1896). Bears and beekeepers evoke an adversarial relationship (bears destroy entire apiaries for honey and brood). Against that, here is a bear on the cover holding a jar of California Sage honey, according to its label. The bear is looking over to an apiary (of standard hives) and appears almost to be bringing honey to the bees (in a world gone backwards). Or is the bear really gazing over to the world, set in the sky, centered on Africa from our view? Perhaps the bear is peering along the Pacific coast, out of our view, but along the emphasized region of the journal. Anyway, the perspective of the world is not typical (although all of them are arbitrary and this one is certainly distorted). Overall, it is a curious bee journal cover and not completely understood. In apicultural history, people thought differently about many aspects of beekeeping, a constantly recurring theme, and for me a very attractive feature about the subject. These different perspectives even extend to the units of measurements. With my physics background, I am always alert to the units of a problem, feet, inches, etc. Beekeepers even “invented” their own units, a perfectly reasonable way to proceed. Even better, the invented units explained below came from a sensational honey production event.
In July 1902, author B. B. Bees (yes, you read that correctly) collected important points of other articles, reporting the bits in his “Honey Drips” column. One report from J. F. McIntyre described the possibility of decreasing honey prices by overestimating its production (alleging too much honey coming to market could cause its current price to fall, making beekeeping less profitable). Curiously, McIntyre did not give the unit of honey production in pounds, barrels, or even in tons, a reasonable unit when reporting large amounts of production. Rather, McIntyre reported honey in units of “cars,” stating them as “Santa Barbara county has not over five cars, Ventura county ten cars ….” Continuing on, McIntyre regarded Orange County as “not much of a honey territory,” and said eight cars would be a high estimate. Why measure honey in cars? And specifically, what did he even mean by a car?
The modern beekeeper would typically stumble with puzzlement over reading honey in cars. Yet the easy manner in which McIntyre itemized the production in cars suggested a “car of honey” held obvious meaning among California beekeepers back then. In trying to figure out this honey car unit problem, first forget any connection to the modern car. This meaning overlap, though curious, occasionally occurs with some old bee lingo. After decades of disuse, topping a century in some cases, history has frozen bee lingo in silence, not letting the words change or adapt with the times. When rediscovered, some of this old bee lingo evokes thoughts of modern life, which could lead one astray when hunting down its meaning. A car of honey does that. (From older bee literature prune, as in to prune a hive, is another term evoking trimming a bush, more on that later.)
On a related point, old apicultural lingo like cars has an equalizing effect in learning beekeeping concepts. Today new beekeepers occasionally tell of becoming overwhelmed by all the modern apicultural “slang,” like nuc, Illinois super, stink board, after swarm, the list goes on. Those with years more experience in apiculture take this slang for granted, fluent and comfortable in our specialized language. Watch out though. Immersed in pages of historical apicultural literature, old bee lingo can kick an experienced beekeeper out of that comfortable complacency. To land where? At the basics. Reduced to merely figuring out what the old words mean. Putting the concepts together must come later, like learning beekeeping from the beginning. (Some of that old word usage can be quirky too, like the three meanings of a clamp.)
Reading a lot of apicultural history helps me understand the origin and meaning of particular bits of slang since their usage could evolve from one or more events. That is what I think happened with cars. Moreover, cars may have had a special meaning for beekeepers in the late 1800’s, and as we will see, perhaps California beekeepers regarded that bit of lingo with an extra affection. In addition, cars represented a revolutionary leap, shattering the restricted mindset of “small” honey crops. Its usage fit nicely as a word needed for measuring BIG honey crops – move over huge wheat and corn farms with your little bushel baskets as a measuring unit. Hear the whistle howling. Feel the ground trembling. Big beekeeping was coming.
Briefly, here is my take on the origin of cars as a unit to measure honey crops. In the late 1850’s after the Rev. L. L. Langstroth invented the movable-frame hive, letting apiculture flower forth into its modern incarnation, J. S. Harbison, a Pennsylvania beekeeper, began moving about 100 hives (in total) to California. From his home in Pennsylvania, the trip would be an epic odyssey, and not starting directly westward either. First Harbison shipped the hives east by railroad to New York City; then he loaded them on a steamship headed south to Panama; next he transported them on another railroad westward crossing Panama from the Atlantic side to the Pacific Ocean; and finally he shipped the hives northward on another steamship bound for California. Harbison and his bees endured a distance of about 6000 miles. What a risky endeavor, a gutsy and bold move by most any beekeeping standard – then or now. Not to mention expensive. Harbison, however, had been to California. He saw the lands there as a beekeeping paradise, instilling plenty of motivation. His pioneering perseverance could hardly be matched though. Huge honey crops were possible – if the colonies lived through the long confinement during the trip. Remarkably, most did.
Harbison built up a thriving honey operation, producing section comb honey with his distinctive once famous California hive (see Figure 2). The hive had a revolutionary new innovation: movable frames, yet Harbison designed the hive solely for sectioned comb honey. The California hive could not even be supered as we would stack supers vertically on a standard hive today. I must also mention that J. S. Harbison (not to be confused with his brother W. C.) was the inventor of the comb honey section box. His original sections held two pounds of honey, twice as heavy as the smaller standard section yet to evolve (see Figure 3). Oddly enough, after designing his own hive, Harbison made one that would not work for liquid honey production (what today we call extracted honey, except extractors were far less common back then). Why not produce liquid honey?
In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, consumers suspected liquid honey was adulterated by someone adding cheap sugars to it (until federal laws banned the practice). Adulterating honey increased the original amount of honey with fewer costs. However, trust in the product was virtually nonexistent, resulting in difficulty in selling liquid honey. (Even after the federal laws, the perception of liquid honey as impure seemed difficult to dislodge from the honey-buying public. Perhaps partly because of this difficult transition, a subculture may have evolved where today many beekeepers are the fierce guardians of extracted honey as a pure honey product and rightly so.) So how did a honey consumer buy pure honey without the worry of adulteration? Answer: Comb honey.
Honey capped in pristine fresh white comb, just as the bees built it, nature’s perfect signature of a pure product. Pure honey. In the eye of the beholder – the honey customer – comb honey ruled high as a King in its Golden Age of the late 1800’s. Liquid honey laid low in suspicion, concocted from various recipes of deception, tainted with unknown ingredients causing uncertainty, those unsavory additives put in just for making more money, showing little concern for the consumer.
Comb honey’s purity came with a price however, a real hardship on the beekeeper. Comb honey production required additional specialized equipment and a lot of extra labor. Most importantly, comb honey called for much more beekeeping skill (compared to producing liquid honey or extracted honey today). The beekeeper had to carefully crowd bees into the section boxes (fairly small working spaces). Instead of dealing with the crowding during an intense nectar flow, the bees would rather swarm, leaving the beekeeper with no surplus honey and plenty of weak colonies to rebuild before winter. Even after the bees built the new honeycomb and filled the cells with honey, their job was not done until they capped comb to all four corners of the section box. While aesthetically appealing to a store customer, a completely capped comb, fitting tightly to all the wooden corners, is not the natural working way of a colony. Yes, betting your livelihood on section comb honey production, especially supporting a family on it, was not for the faint of heart, rather for the beekeeping brave.
Against this diverse list of difficulties from navigating bee shipments “around” North America to managing hundreds of colonies so they would not swarm off to oblivion, Harbison produced an astronomically huge honey crop for the times (1876). Getting that honey crop from California to eastern markets was the real stunner for beekeepers across the country. Harbison shipped his massive honey crops east in ten railroad boxcars. The times had just changed, and Harbison had connected all the dots. California supplied the lush bee forage. The railroad made the connections to lucrative markets in Chicago and New York City. And the news was out. Watch out other beekeepers. Look down the tracks. See the distant headlight. Big honey was rolling by rail. Some beekeepers naturally copied Harbison’s plan. Boxcars, or cars as they called them, became an easy way to measure large honey crops, already packed for market. Harbison’s feat even ignited a “Gold Rush” of hives headed for California and cars hauling honey east. Boom times. Then arrived foulbrood and low honey prices. Harder times.
McIntyre totaled the production from all the honey-producing counties and regions in Southern California, calculating 72 cars for the crop. Near the end of the article, he said a carload of honey would weigh 12 tons. (Perhaps McIntyre included the clarification since 12 tons was not universal. I have also seen 10 tons used as a carload.) Boxcars around the turn of that century were much smaller than today, something like 36 feet in length and built from wood. (A modern boxcar is 60 feet long and takes 100 tons.) Nevertheless, from a historical perspective, old boxcars were still big things in the horse-and-wagon days, pretty much second only to a steam engine or a sailing ship. After giving the load in tons for a car, McIntyre switches the honey units immediately back to cars. For example, comparing the honey production in Southern California (72 cars) to the production from a nearby state, Arizona, McIntyre reports that crop as 25 cars. One senses he would rather conduct the accounting of large honey crops in cars rather than tons. Another article in the same journal has the similar car lingo.
Besides moving honey by rail, beekeepers even had active hives shipped by the carload. The number of hives loaded in a car had to vary (and the number of cars was invariably low since many hives went into a car). Another article was originally published in the San Diego Sun (a newspaper) and titled “From Lovelock, Nevada.” Two beekeepers rode with a carload of over 200 hives. The beekeepers and hives were bound for alfalfa fields near Lovelock, Nevada to produce a honey crop. Instead of comb honey carefully packed in a boxcar with solid sides, their car probably was a stock car with open spaces between the side boards providing livestock (or bees) with much needed ventilation on hot days.
In the usual practice, dedicated beekeepers rode in the stock cars with the bees, enduring the rough life in a moving freight train, caring for their bees in transit day and night. Who better than them to tend the hives stacked in stock cars? From the inside, a moving freight train constantly pitches back-and-forth. The noise is beyond loud. And going between stock cars is deadly for the untrained. If I were a railroad migratory beekeeper, none of that would bother me. Hives in motion have wind to cool them (like a truck). The opposite situation abounds with dread and destruction, a constant nagging worry for beekeepers on the rail. Stopped. Waiting, hot, humid and still. The agony would be almost explosive if the train halted for hours on a hot day, stuck on a passing track (a common situation) waiting for other trains, maybe running late, to go by. The colonies, entrances screened shut, could overheat and perish (not like a truck since the train scheduling was far beyond a beekeeper’s control). Not that they would have needed it, but having studied historical railroad operations, some of my advice for the two intrepid beekeepers, headed for big bloom times in alfalfa land, would be to load several barrels of cooling water, just for the bees, right in the stock car, a necessity on a hot day if the train goes “in the hole” (old railroad slang for a train stopping on a passing track).
Knowing old bee lingo is a requirement for appreciating the finer details of our apicultural history. Oh, and what about clamp and pruning? (I would not leave you hanging.) Here are the meanings, sans the historical context. Clamp can mean a small board “clamped” to another hive board, nothing too unusual there. Clamp can also mean an odd kind of super attached to the hive from the side, not from the top or even the bottom. Lastly in wintering bees, a clamp is sort of a cellar dug deep into the side of a hill so just a roof and door shows. The clamp protects the hives from a long cold winter. Moreover, some seasonal skep and box hive (both with fixed combs) “management” advised removing a portion of the combs, an operation called pruning. There were even special pruning tools.
The author thanks Suzanne Sumner for her comments on the manuscript.
Honey Bee Biology - August 2013
Chalkbrood: New Results
When I was a kid keeping bees in the 1960’s, chalkbrood was still an exotic disease compared to the far more familiar brood disease worries: European and American foulbrood. American foulbrood, by far the worst, could send your whole beekeeping operation up in smoke – literally. (Disease eradication by fire, burning infected hives and spare equipment.) While European and American foulbrood had been in the States for a long time, chalkbrood was a late arrival, thought to have come on the scene in the 1960’s on imported pollen, bees or queens, and it rapidly spread throughout North America (Gilliam and Vanderberg, 1997).
Now chalkbrood varies from a minor annoyance, disappearing on its own, to a troubling chronic problem, stalling the growth of colonies. I have had both extremes. One bad incident that hit a few years ago blasted numerous colonies with high levels of chalkbrood persisting from late spring into the summer, cutting down the bee populations in the colonies. Then for two seasons, I could not find any chalkbrood – it vanished. This past spring right after making splits (dividing colonies to make more of them, which can stress the bees), came cool and rainy weather, conditions favoring chalkbrood. I expected a big outbreak of this enigmatic disease. That mostly did not happen. Only one split (a new colony) showed a moderated level of chalkbrood. The rest of the splits were fine with plenty of healthy larvae from newly mated queens.
Over the decades numerous scientific studies have contributed to our understanding of the chalkbrood infection cycle and the variation in the occurrence of the disease. More recently with molecular genetic techniques applied to both the honey bee and the chalkbrood disease organism itself, we have gained a far more detailed view of this disease.
Aronstein and Murray (2010) reviewed the chalkbrood disease literature (which I used here including other sources cited below). Chalkbrood is an infection of only the honey bee larvae (not adults) caused by the fungus Ascosphaera apis (customarily abbreviated as A. apis after giving its full name). A. apis reproduces by producing spores, which the larvae ingest with contaminated food from the nurse bees. Older studies suggested the spores could begin germination by just being on the cuticle (skin) of the larvae, but now that does not appear to be the situation. Spore consumption initiates an infection. During the larval stage, the age when a larva is most susceptible to chalkbrood infection seems more difficult to determine. The age has been reported as 3 – 4 days. Other studies showed that 1 – 2-day-old larvae were highly susceptible to chalkbrood. Nevertheless, the spores, consumed by a larva, germinate in the gut, possibly activated by elevated CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) levels. Quite quickly, infected larvae reduce food intake and eventually stop eating.
While the infection begins in the gut of the larva, the beekeeper sees the final symptoms of the fungus on the outside of the larva. A. apis produces special proteins to break through the membrane (peritrophic membrane) lining the gut, allowing the fungus to grow and invade the body cavity. The fungal mycelium (a mass of fungal “fibers”) growing inside the larva breaks through first at the posterior (rear) end of the larva. The fungal mycelium continues growing from the posterior end to the anterior (head) end of the larva. This fungal growth occurs mostly after older larvae have been sealed in their cells, and before pupation (Gilliam and Vanderberg, 1997), which is why the larva shape occurs in the mummies, and the three segments (head, thorax, and abdomen) of a pupal bee are rarely seen. Gilliam et al. (1983) observed eight pupae mummified by A. apis in their extensive chalkbrood study.
The final larval position is stretched out in the cell (as a propupa), covered in the fungal mycelium. The cell may be uncapped if the bees removed the cap as part of the cleanup process. The larval cadaver may be partly removed, again depending on the cleanup activity of the bees (see Figure 1). The hive floor is a typical place to find the cadavers too (see Figures 2 and 3). The bees also drop them on the alighting board, sometimes seen as the first sign of a chalkbrood disease problem, a warning to inspect the brood cells before even opening the hive.
Initially the fungal mycelium covering a larva is white. The dark colors, commonly observed on the larval cadavers, result from the reproduction system of A. apis. It is well known (among people who study fungi) that A. apis has different mating types. When A. apis from two different mating types grow and come into contact, they produce structures (ascomata), which appear darker, and contain the spores (ascospores) (see Figure 4). The fungal spores are somewhat analogous to seeds in plants as a dispersal mechanism. After the dead larva dries out, it becomes hard, somewhat chalky, hence the common name chalkbrood. The dried out cadavers are called mummies and may even rattle in the capped brood cells.
Each black chalkbrood mummy produces from a hundred million (108) to a billion (109) spores. The spores become distributed throughout the hive and in various hive products: pollen, honey and even contaminating foundation wax. With the spores remaining viable for at least 15 years, they serve as long-lasting sources of infection. Although adult bees are not susceptible to the fungal infection, they do transmit the spores within and between hives. For example, forager bees can bring spores in the hive, and nurse bees can feed the spores to larvae with brood food, thus setting the stage for possible infections. Whether a chalkbrood infection occurs in a particular larva, or just how widespread a disease outbreak will be in the colony among its hundreds of larvae, is subject to other factors.
Chalkbrood typically occurs in the spring during cool wet (humid) conditions. Colony stress seems to favor chalkbrood infections too. In addition to these environmental conditions, variation in the virulence of the fungal “strains” and the susceptibility of the host bees contribute to the severity of an infection throughout the brood nest. Examining the variation in the fungal strains, one study showed that a particular strain caused 12 – 14% larval mortality, fairly low, while another strain caused 71 – 92% larval mortality, a much more deadly strain of A. apis. The same study showed some bee larvae were more susceptible to chalkbrood infections than other larvae, or genetic variation occurs at the larval level to chalkbrood infections (Vojvodic et al., 2011).
Honey Bee Biology - July 2013
Watch Out for the Three Vultures of Summer:
Varroa Mites, Wax Moths, and Small Hive Beetles
As the hot days of summer drag on, varroa mites, wax moths, and small hive beetles can become more of a problem. Particularly in areas with marginal summer nectar flows and places lacking abundant pollen resources during this time, colony sizes diminish while their pest populations increase – more mites, moths and beetles. A summer dearth, made worse by excessive drought, is especially hard on bees because there are even less nectar and pollen from stressed-out plants (see Figure 1). Even though the bees are not trying to swarm (requiring less attention) and the honey crop is off the hives, now is not the time to ignore the bees.
To keep watch over my bees, I try to inspect my colonies at least once a month during the long hot summer, making my rounds through the apiaries, trying to work in the cool mornings. The hive inspections are not long, to avoid robbing from the exposed honeycombs of the opened hives during dearth conditions. Rather, I mostly want to make sure the bees can cover their combs and the queen is laying enough eggs to maintain the colony. Combs not covered by bees are subject to invasion by wax moths and small hive beetles. I also sample for varroa if it seems their populations are growing (generally that has not been very common) or if mite immigration into an apiary seems elevated. My main sampling methods are a 48-hour natural drop through a screen floor (see Figure 2) or a sugar roll for my hives with wood floors. (The sugar roll is faster and easier, but the method is subject to more error compared to a 48-hour natural drop.)
Most importantly, just watching the bees from the hive entrances does not substitute for a brood nest inspection of the combs. Even if the foragers are flying and guard bees are present, the colony could be slowly dying. I encounter several of these situations every summer in my apiaries and have seen them when helping new beekeepers with their hives. Usually the queen is failing, or the colony is already queenless with laying workers, or the colony’s varroa population is too large (this latter situation is becoming more rare).
Not long ago a new beekeeper was rather surprised when we found laying workers in his once thriving hive. The colony’s forager traffic seemed normal. Even guard bees were present at the entrance. All of that “comforting” appearance was deceptive though. Still, we saved all the combs, 30 of them from falling “victim” to moths and beetles, which would have been an even larger loss when a beekeeper has only a couple of colonies. To extend this reasoning for a larger apiary with 25 colonies, I first scan all the entrances to see how the bees are flying for the current environmental conditions. Any colonies with reduced bee traffic from their entrances will definitely get a brood nest inspection. For the remaining colonies with the typical bee flight for that time, I realize some could still be slowly dying (or have other problems) with conditions not yet causing a reduction in their forager traffic. Typically (but not always) these are problem colonies still worth saving. That is why all colonies in the apiary should be inspected, even the ones appearing plenty strong, like the ones with “bee beards.”
For example, I have had strong colonies swarm near the end of the nectar flow (and without after swarming so the colony remains fairly strong). The colony depends on the daughter queen mating successfully, the mother queen having vacated with the swarm. Occasionally, that mating fails, leaving the colony without any possibility of rearing another queen. Now the colony is hopelessly queenless. At the end of the nectar flow, the colony’s numerical strength is still strong, fueled temporarily by the older worker brood from its late-spring brood nest. Adding to the illusion of a healthy colony, on hot afternoons a “bee beard” may form, which is just a hive-cooling mechanism where bees release their body heat to the outside of the hive instead of inside the cavity.
Nevertheless, this outward appearance of a strong colony masks a deadly problem within. Lacking a queen, the colony is slowly dying. As the bee population decreases from normal attrition, the combs will eventually become unprotected since no queen is producing young replacement bees. Particularly in the south, colonies are under an intense invasion pressure in the summer by the greater wax moths. The bees must patrol their combs and evict small larvae from them. For small hive beetle, a strong colony can usually keep the adult beetles confined to the corners and edges of the hive, either off the comb or confined in the upper corners of empty comb. In the summer, small hive beetles are fierce at putting pressure on colonies to succumb, especially in the southeast. As the colony loses its numerical strength, fewer and fewer bees help keep the beetles at bay. The wax moths or small hive beetles begin larval production in the combs of the queenless colony.
Without beekeeper intervention, eventually the colony will produce hordes (many thousands) of small hive beetles. The hive becomes “a big beetle bomb” (see Figure 3) or maybe a mega-moth factory, depending on which invader can “vulture” it up first. At some point, other colonies in the apiary (or ones nearby) might rob the honey from the weak one. In another scenario, small hive beetle larvae produce slime (see Figure 4), and when it covers the combs, it repels the remaining bees in the hive. The slime can also keep robber bees from the honey, effectively stopping the robbing process (so the beekeeper may not be alerted to the dying colony until thousands of beetle larvae erupt from the hive). Nevertheless, suburban and urban beekeepers should be very sensitive to avoid mass robbing in a summer dearth under any situation. Excited bees search for honey several dozen yards from the apiary. At such far distances, they might become a nuisance to neighbors or pets. In and close to the apiary, robber bees are more inclined to sting, again an unfavorable situation for suburban and urban beekeepers where keeping good relationships with neighbors is of core importance to tranquil beekeeping.
Earlier in the season, a brief inspection would have quickly revealed the lack of a brood nest and the need for a queen. That would have stopped all the beetles or moths from being unleashed on nearby beekeepers, or a massive robbing episode. An additional point of this example is that the first brood nest inspection of the summer is particularly important. This inspection confirms all colonies have reestablished laying queens following any swarming (which includes a change in queens) earlier in the spring. To make the work easier, this first summer inspection could be timed right after the beekeeper removes the surplus honey supers.
As the summer proceeds, I notice some colonies lose too much numerical strength (bees) compared to the other colonies. Two symptoms of this reduction are the brood nest becoming too small and the bees not covering some combs, typically the combs near the sides of the hives. (Those combs could be moved to stronger colonies for better protection.) Some reduction in colony size is natural and desirable during this time, but too much is a concern. Admittedly though, this does depend on the beekeeper’s preference, the pest invasion pressure, and the genetics of the bee as some strains lose a lot of population in lean times and balance it by rapid spring build up.
Seeing no other obvious problems with colonies becoming weaker in the summer, it may be the queen is becoming less productive, perhaps because of age. (Usually her sealed brood pattern is spotty, not solid, but that could indicate the queen has the genetic trait Varroa Sensitive Hygiene. Possibly the colony has a varroa problem too because the bees are removing the pupae, which makes the sealed brood pattern look spotty. From a genetic selection perspective, that queen might be valuable.) If the queen was just getting old, which diminished her egg production, obviously requeening would be the solution to protect the colony from becoming too weak and over run by moths and beetles.
On the other hand, feeding a pollen substitute will usually increase brood production across all colonies (except those with failing queens), confirming the decrease in bee numbers was likely due to poor nutrition from inadequate forage. Anticipating the coming summer dearth, my plan has been to feed pollen substitute to keep the reduction in my colony populations from becoming excessive, especially when our summers are dry. Under my local conditions, I do not feed too much pollen substitute at one time, about a third of a pound for a typical colony. Otherwise small hive beetles, the adults and the larvae, could infest the patty, sometimes even when the patty is put in the hive at a place with plenty of bee activity, which is thought to keep the beetles away. With patties, the beetle larvae are a big problem. They tunnel into the patty, feeding as they go, gaining protection from bees once inside. Ironically, the patty becomes a feeding refuge for the beetle larvae. To reduce the chances of this infestation from happening, a good place for the patty is on the top bars of the frames over the brood nest. (I am still working out how much pollen substitute to feed each colony over the summer since that depends on the amount of pollen they are collecting from the field.) The other important benefit of pollen substitute feeding in the summer (and also in early fall) when natural pollen is limited or not available is that this feeding encourages the production of the long-lived bees that are necessary for the colony’s winter survival. (With my colonies having plenty of honey in preparation for the winter, I rarely feed syrup in the summer. Since colonies do not store much pollen, the main deficiency in the summer in my area is protein, and hence feeding pollen substitute.)
While wax moths and varroa are painfully familiar to most beekeepers, small hive beetles are still relatively new to this part of the world as this most recently introduced pest continues its spread. I have known beekeepers who thought they did not have beetles in their hives when other beekeepers nearby had them – beetle denial. Inspecting an alleged miracle hive quickly revealed a few adult beetles hidden away in one of the usual places, like in between the bottom bars of the super frames. It takes a bit of training to spot the small quick-moving adults. With just a few adults in the hive, the bees can control them under most situations. Larval production in the comb is a great concern, indicating a breakdown in the colony’s defenses over the beetles. A subtler form of reproduction occurs when the larvae hide under a layer of trash on the bottom board and no larvae are in the combs of an otherwise strong colony (one way to have a chronic low level of beetle production) as shown in Figure 5. Looking through strong colonies on regular hive inspections, not down to the bottom boards, it may seem like the small hive beetle population consists only of adults. In reality, the colonies are producing some beetles, maintaining the local population (also beetles are immigrating into the apiary). It is important to overcome any beetle denial. Learn to identify small hive beetles, both adults and larvae, and be able to distinguish beetle larvae from greater wax moth larvae (see Figure 6).
A long hot summer is stressful on the bees. Varroa populations are a concern. Wax moths and small hive beetles thrive like demons in the heat. In places where the plants take a beating under a scorching sun, the bees lack proper nutrition – and winter is coming along with the spector of winter losses. In all, the forces of nature seem bent on tearing colonies down. Against this dreadful headwind though, I’m not deterred. My job is to take care of my bees: keep an eye on the varroa populations; conduct routine brood nest inspections, even down to the trash on the bottom board; find problems early on and save those colonies. Let the little vultures go hungry and hopefully my winter losses will be light come next spring.
The author thanks Suzanne Sumner for her comments on the manuscript.
Honey Bee Biology - June 2013
Propolis Protection: A New Perspective on Bee Glue
The summer heat and humidity finally rolled in with a vengeance. I had retreated under the shed to do my sweating in the shade while scraping propolis from stacks of empty hive bodies (see Figure 1). A couple of days of this monotonous mind-numbing work made my hands bone sore. A blister even formed in the palm of my right hand from clutching the hive tool as a scraper.
The nectar flow had stopped, freeing up thousands of forager bees. As I scraped another hive body, bored to oblivion, I imagined these idle bees would find another job – collecting tree resins, which bees use for propolis once the material is in the hive. And good fortune would favor these bees. Instead of wandering off into the woods on a resin quest, an uncertain and time-consuming task (I have seen them searching way up in tall trees because I climb them), an “instant” prize was close by – my pile of propolis scrapings. And true to their perceptive nature, dozens of bees found it. As expected, they showed a relentless single-minded zeal, chewing and pulling tiny bits of propolis from the pile, packing them on their pollen baskets, and flying the loads back to the hives. “Best of all,” they could come right back for more (see Figure 2).
So there we were, all the comedic players in some sort strange inadvertent competition: me scraping out that annoying junk, blister stung with every swipe of the hive tool, versus squadrons of bees, working like an aerial conveyer belt, hauling their treasure trove of tiny goo balls back to the hives – a propolis version of the circle of life.
While I try not to work against my bees, I actually do not mind quite a bit of propolis in the hives because I know they need it (and the new scientific research reported below shows this view in finer detail). Furthermore, for years, my policy has been if I need to scrape propolis from active hives (during colony inspections), I leave it in the apiaries for the bees to reclaim, not a typical beekeeping practice (although often the bees will ignore it). I leave the small pile of scrapings in partial sunlight and sheltered from rain, helping to warm it, which makes the material easier to manipulate, and to keep it dry. I leave the pile with a lot of edges as it was scraped (not compressed in a tight ball). From watching the bees, it helps them chew pieces of the material from edges. Sometimes bees will even chew and dismantle discarded combs and bring back bits of comb packed on their pollen baskets in a manner similar to packing propolis from the scraping pile (see Figure 3). These combs had a high propolis content, which probably stimulated the collection behavior (rather than recycling the wax the way Apis florea does since Apis mellifera does not display that behavior). Plus combs are easy for bees to dismantle with lots of edges to chew from. This intense collection suggests an interesting question with obvious and subtle answers: where are the bees putting the propolis?
It is well known that bees seal the interior of the hive cavity in a thin layer of propolis. Comb attachments to the substrate (the wood) have a high content of propolis too. In the origin of the name, propolis, from the Greek, has “pro” meaning “before” and “polis” meaning “city” to suggest an additional use of propolis. The bees sometimes restrict the size of the hive entrance (“before the city”) with walls and columns of propolis. Some subspecies of honey bees use propolis extensively to reduce the entrance size (see Figures 4 and 5). Furthermore, in lands where the Langstroth frame hive dominates the experience of most beekeepers, it may not be apparent that bees spread a layer of propolis several inches from the hive’s entrance. This behavior is much more apparent with hives made of wicker, as with skeps, or hives made of other woven material like cane (Mangum, 2012). Closer to home, a careful examination of the area around the entrance hole of a bee tree shows a similar layer of propolis. While these applications of propolis are commonly found in a hive, a more rare usage occurs when something dies inside of the hive, and is relatively large so that the bees cannot remove it. A dead mouse is the classic example, and having it decay in the hive would be a considerable problem. So the bees seal up the unfortunate creature in layers of propolis. Interestingly though, features of the mouse may remain visible: teeth, tiny ribs, and rarely even whiskers (see Figure 6).
Without the convenience of my propolis pile, bees collect tree resins for propolis. In the hive, the bees chew the resin, and in the process mix it with salivary secretions, incorporate it with beeswax and other substances (Langenheim, 2003). (That is why we call it propolis once the resin is in the hive.) For the particular trees, the literature reports poplar trees as a typical source, but others are pine, birch, elm, alder, beech, and horse-chestnut (Langenheim, 2003; Simone-Finstrom and Spivak, 2010). Near my apiaries in Piedmont, Virginia (where poplar trees abound), bees collect resin from injury sites on sweet gum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua), as Figure 7 shows. In the same foraging area, other resin sources are small branches of sumac. (It was not Staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, so perhaps Rhus Vervix, Poison sumac.) (See Figure 8.) In both cases, one way to find these resin collectors is to listen for the hum of only one to six bees under the foliage when out in the woods. (Anything that hums like a few bees gets my camera-ready attention.) The timing and the tree size (for the sumac) were in the summer, far past swarm season. So I knew the hum did not emanate from nest-site hunters of a reproductive swarm. And the sound was too faint for a summer usurpation swarm. (A new occurrence in Virginia beekeeping. Nevertheless, one that now needs consideration in this kind of reasoning.)
Honey Bee Biology - May 2013
The Origins of the Bee Smoker Surviving Today:
The Original Quinby and Bingham Smokers
In apicultural history, original equipment, like the originals of different hive designs, honey extractors, and bee smokers, often pass into oblivion by rot, fire, or rust, the destructive agents of neglect. Occasionally through the passages of time, a scattering of unknown heroes save some of these building blocks of our history and pass them on to later generations of beekeepers. After hunting old beekeeping equipment since the 1970’s, here is what I have tracked down on the origins of the modern bee smoker, one of the most important tools of beekeeping life today. But first, to appreciate our trusty smoker, here is a glimpse of beekeeping life without it.
Before the bee smoker, harvesting honey could be quite miserable. A reflection of that drama comes from just listening to some living history. I have had old beekeepers regale me with stories from their youth helping father harvest honey from box hives, a poor form of rural beekeeping, devoid of modern equipment, with deep historical roots into early America of the 1600’s. The kid’s job was to blow smoke on the bees from a small bucket of smoldering corn cobs, a little human smoker, while trying not to inhale the noxious fumes into tender lungs never enduring the evils of smoke – or dealing with the wrath of one’s body in revolt, turning green and losing lunch under a cloud of mad bees. A mental trauma branded deep, not forgotten in old age, and a miracle why anyone would ever become a life-long beekeeper after that. What was needed? A practical way to direct smoke upon the hive to keep the bees calm.
In 1873, Moses Quinby of St. Johnsville, New York invented the crucial device: the bee smoker. He attached a bellows to a cylindrical barrel, which held a smoldering fire at the bottom, called the fire box. The smoke exited from a straight funnel at the top of the smoker by working the bellows. (That date was according to his son-in-law, L. C. Root, who was not related to the Roots of Medina, Ohio.) In 1874, Quinby advertised his new smoker in a young bee journal then becoming known as Gleanings in Bee Culture, now known as Bee Culture. Back then Bee Culture was a fledgling bee paper having just started the year before in 1873. Also in 1874, Quinby advertised his smoker in the American Bee Journal, a more established periodical, having started in 1861, though it was not published during the Civil War. As for himself, Moses Quinby was already well known to the beekeeping community, having written Mysteries of Beekeeping Explained in 1853 and by producing honey on a large scale and sending it to markets in New York.
While Quinby’s smoker was a huge advancement, the old bee literature voiced a rather common complaint. The fire went out when the smoker was put aside while handling frames during a hive inspection. The problem originated with the lack of draft through the fire. From the original Quinby smoker in my collection, the one he sold briefly in about 1874 before his untimely death in 1875, I can see how the fire would go out prematurely (see Figure 1). (This smoker is the unpatented design that Quinby gave freely to the beekeeping community, not the one patented by L. C. Root that came later, which was also called a “Quinby” smoker. The Quinby smokers sold by L. C. Root are quite rare. In my collecting travels, I have seen maybe 10 since the 1970’s. As for an original Quinby smoker of the 1874 ilk, I know of only the one shown here, which took me years of negotiating to acquire.)
Quinby’s original smoker has a solid connecting pipe between the bellows and the fire box. While this connection provided a stronger blast of smoke when the bellows were pumped, it prevented a passive airflow through the fire when the bellows were not operated, leaving the fire at the bottom of a narrow can with no ventilation. The crucial improvement came by letting some air flow through the smoker in a simple way.
On January 29, 1878, Tracy F. Bingham of Abronia, Michigan patented what would become known as his Direct Draft bee smoker (patent number 199,611). Being so novel, Bingham’s “device” was put under the classification as a “Device for Destroying Insects by Fumigation,” apparently because no classification yet existed for a bee smoker. Instead of a solid connecting pipe between the firebox and bellows, as with the original Quinby design, Bingham left a small but critical gap between them. This arrangement allowed air to draft upwards from the bottom of the firebox, through the fire, and to flow out from the funnel, even when the bellows were not pumped. Figure 2 shows the Bingham smoker patent diagram with the normal view of the smoker (upper) and the internal view (lower). The air pipe from the bellows aims straight at an inward-projecting hole near the bottom of the fire box. A crucial gap, not a solid pipe connection, is between the bellows and fire box, which provides the Direct Draft.
Now for the stunning part of this story. In some years, the patent office required the patentee to submit a model of the design when applying for the original patent. Today people even collect these patent models, miniatures of all kinds of inventions from hand-crank washing machines, butter churns, and the list seems endless given the bounty of creative designs from America’s industrial revolution. I once conversed with a person who had collected a few thousand patent models, and I visited with another person whose entire house was full of patent models.
I was exceptionally lucky and managed to acquire Bingham’s original 1878 patent model of the Direct Draft smoker that he submitted to the patent office. This patent model smoker is in mint condition, except the funnel is missing, which I plan to restore (see Figure 3). The patent bee smoker model matches the patent description, which is a little different from the mass-produced Bingham smokers. For example, the heat shield on the patent model is much smaller (as shown in Figure 3), and there is a flange around the bottom of the smoker (see Figure 4). The fire grate on the patent model has five holes punched through a circular piece of sheet metal. The other Bingham smokers I have seen have grates made from perforated metal (see Figures 5 and 6). While Bingham followed his very recognizable design, he made different sizes of smokers. The patent model is a little smaller than his smallest production smoker (see Figure 7).
Attached to the patent smoker is identification, little hand-written tags that would have identified this device among all the other models in the patent office. One tag shows a diagram of the smoker including the main points of the patent and gives the date the patent was filed, December 12, 1877 (see Figure 8). Another tag, written in old ink, gives the patent number, the patentee name, T. F. Bingham, the classification “Device for Destroying Insects by Fumigation,” and the patent date January 29, 1878 (see Figure 9). While I cannot tell who filled out this tag, perhaps a patent clerk, the next tag was the one I hoped for. This tag had Bingham’s original signature, which matches his signature on the patent (see Figure 10). So here was not only Bingham’s original patent model smoker for the Direct Draft smoker, but the smoker also came with Bingham’s signature as he turned the model over to the patent office.
With Moses Quinby’s conception in 1873 of a practical smoker, documented in the bee journals for sale in 1874, and Tracy F. Bingham’s 1878 Direct Draft patent model bee smoker, the crucial originals of the modern smoker have been recovered.
The author thanks Suzanne Sumner for her comments on the manuscript.
Honey Bee Biology - April 2013
Mrs. Lizzie E. Cotton: Beehive Designer of the 1880’s
Long before the standard size Langstroth frame hive dominated the lands, other hive designs burgeoned forth from the creative minds of hundreds of beekeepers. Some of these hives made it through the patent office, documenting those designs. I have almost 1,000 of them in my files (up to about the year 1900). Other hives were never patented and little documentation on them survives now, maybe just a rare sales pamphlet or advertisements in old beekeeping journals. Among all these different hives, women designed only a few, not surprising in the male-dominated beekeeping world of those times. The rare exceptions, hives designed by women, have been extremely high on my hunting list for decades, ever since I starting collecting apicultural antiques in the 1970’s. (That has been true for any apicultural equipment made by women. They can give unique design perspectives from those historical times.)
Tracking down books or pamphlets from the 1800’s written by a male beekeeper and finding the actual hive described in that old literature – literature that survived for over a century, then bringing the literature and hive together – seem an almost impossible reunion. For a woman beekeeper and hive designer too, already a rarity from breaking the gender barriers of the 1800’s, finding any of her surviving literature and especially her hive, and then bringing them together, is incredibly more difficult. Yet in my historical exploration, this is one of my endeavors. Difficulty does not deter.
Before one can appreciate the hive design described below, understanding a couple of things about beekeeping in the 1800’s is necessary. First, liquid honey, what today we call extracted honey, was suspected of being adulterated with cheap sugar syrups. In the eye of the honey buyer, the signature of purity was honey still in the comb. Second, the traditional way to sell honey in the comb was in a wooden box, a little smaller than a shoe box, with a glass window on one end (supposedly so the beekeeper could tell when the box was full and it was time to remove it from the hive). While somewhat crude, this box honey, the old slang for it, was the old forerunner of the section comb honey.
Also rooted back in early American beekeeping, I suspect there was a lingering attraction, a holdover from pre-Langstroth beekeeping (the advent of movable frames), when beekeepers could not open and see into the hive without tearing apart the honeycombs. Back then the hive was off limits, a kind of mysterious living blackbox. One way to defy that old limitation was to watch bees work under glass like with combs built up into a big glass globe from a box hive below. A meager view by our standards, but in a box-hive beekeeping world, watching bees under glass, sans the smoke and stings, was a marvelous sight. Watching bees under glass even charmed Langstroth, helped to steer him to beekeeping, and from there to ultimately invent the movable frame hive. Even today, bees in a glass observation hive have the power to stop people, as they stare and wonder.
The wooden box for the honey became smaller from its typical size holding five pounds of honey down to about two to five pounds. And most importantly, beekeepers put glass on four sides of the box – aesthetically alluring for bee watching and perfect for knowing when to harvest full boxes (see Figure 1). When full of honey, the beekeeper sold the entire container (glass and wood box) to the grocer, rather than cut the honeycomb out of the box. The glass honey box played the same role as a honey jar today. Bee supply companies sold the glass and wooden parts to make the boxes. Stacked on a grocery counter, these glass honey boxes, full of bright white honeycomb, must have been the perfect seasonal eye candy, surprising customers out of a rutty drab mundane general store shopping experience. On top of all that, mere bugs built that comb in a box, like the mysterious ship built in a bottle. The charm just amplifies.
In this apicultural setting, Mrs. Lizzie E. Cotton of West Gorham, Maine designed her Controllable Hive (see Figure 2). In 1880, she published the companion book for the hive, Bee keeping for Profit, A New System of Bee Management, which showed her hive and explained how to manage bees in it. (I am working from the second edition published in 1883.)
Figure 3 shows two pictures of Cotton’s hive. The upper picture is the hive with the cover in place. In the lower picture, the hive has the cover removed. The glass honey boxes are on top, over the brood frames (not visible), where in a modern hive one would place a honey super. Cotton also put glass honey boxes on the sides of the hive, knowing that bees store honey on the periphery of the brood nest. Essentially she surrounded the brood nest, top and sides, with honey boxes.
Honey Bee Biology - March 2013
Honey Bees of Asia: A New Book
Honey bees evolved into more than one species, and they show quite diverse behaviors. That diversity may not be apparent from only a North American perspective where just one species, Apis mellifera, inhabits the land. In Asia, we find the other honey bee species, which are native to those vast regions. Apis mellifera, sometimes called the western honey bee, was introduced to Asia, that is, it was not native there (nor here in North America, being introduced into this continent starting in the 1600’s).
Over the decades, getting a grasp on the technical details of Asian honey bee biology has been somewhat daunting. The literature on Asian honey bees is mostly scattered in science journals and books, usually without wide circulations. I even tracked down a couple of obscure books from Asia on bees without ISBNs, not easy. The internet has helped to make finding information on Asian bees easier. Still, against that disarray comes a monumental work bringing a wealth of literature and references under one cover: Honeybees of Asia edited by Randall Hepburn and Sarah E. Radloff, a 20 chapter, 669 page text (published in 2011 by Springer, New York) shown in Figure 1. Because this is mainly a technical book, for university libraries with biology programs, particularly with apiculture, this book is a must. Moreover, for some beekeeping organizations that maintain extensive libraries, perhaps with members conducting developmental work in Asia, this book would provide valuable insight on topics such as the nesting biology, absconding, migration, swarming, pollination, diseases, mites, and colony defense of Asian honey bees. (However this is not a bee management book.) These kinds of specialty books are typically expensive. This one lists for $239 at Amazon.com for a hard copy (with some lower prices from other vendors around $180). The Kindle version lists for $191.20. For decades I have bought these high-priced bee books. Whether a beekeeper or honey bee scientist, knowledge and understanding should rank supreme. And like any high-quality education, it is not inexpensive. Especially since I travel to Asia working with their “exotic” bees, I bought the hard copy and took the hit to my finances. Considering all the time, effort, and cost it took to do the research described in the papers, then to compile all that work and write it up, the book’s price is really a bargain. The authors of the chapters and the editors should be commended.
Since most beekeepers may never experience the Honeybees of Asia (parts of are quite advanced while other sections are not), below I bring out a mere few of the compelling highlights, hopefully of interest to American Bee Journal readers. For graphics, I used some of my photographs from Asia (from trips to India, Bangladesh, and Thailand).
The opening chapter in the book wrestles with the complicated problem of discerning the number of honey bee species, which seems to be close to nine, although that number could change particularly with new genetic information. As an introduction to understanding these species, they separate into three broad body sizes, which are all grouped into the genus called Apis because these bees are very closely related (but not the same). (It is customary in taxonomy to abbreviate the genus name with only the first letter capitalized after first spelling out the genus once. Since I have defined Apis here for new readers, as the genus of honey bees, I will now follow this abbreviation rule.) The typical example of a medium-size Asian bee is A. cerana (see Figures 2 and 3). Most likely beekeepers have heard of this bee because A. cerana is the original host of the (genetic) type of varroa mite infesting our bee, A. mellifera, another medium-size bee (of Africa and Europe). Other less well-known Asian bee species in this size group are A. koschevnikovi, A. nigrocincta, and A. nuluensis.
All these bee species are cavity nesting, meaning they live in a protective enclosure, a hollow log or a frame hive. It would seem foolish not to do so. Right? When encountering different honey bee species, surviving in different environments no less, slide over the trashcan and prepare to toss in some cherished assumptions. That is one reason why I like to study Asian bees, they force you to unlearn what you have learned, old ways of thinking entrenched deep in ruts. Unlearning is sometimes a difficult endeavor, but it keeps your thinking about bees, and even beekeeping, mentally strong and nimble, and most important of all–open to new ideas (and not to fear them). Our familiar A. mellifera in a temperate environment is but a thin slice of what nature has created with honey bees.
The other two size groups, the Dwarf and the Giant honey bees, are both called open nesters. The comb of an open nester consists of a single comb (no multiple combs), built in the open, suspended for example from a branch. The bees cover the comb like a curtain, providing protection from the elements. For the Dwarf honey bees, the most well known is A. florea. It builds a small comb about the size of a dinner plate usually in a shaded somewhat hidden location (see Figures 4 and 5). Not as well known is A. andreniformis. One chapter in the book tells that A. andreniformis has been historically confused with A. florea partly because the workers of the two appear so similar. Eventually several factors helped to separate the two species: the drones’ genitalia, the timing of their mating flights, the nest structure, and other factors. To appreciate the problem of having unresolved species, consider reading the older literature on Dwarf bees. Sometimes it was not apparent whether the author was describing A. florea or A. andreniformis.
At the other end of the size spectrum are the Giant honey bees with A. dorsata as the best known, building a large single comb, roughly half the size of a door, sometimes larger (see Figures 6 and 7). At higher elevations in the Himalayan Mountains is the more elusive A. laboriosa, which typically builds its nest from rock cliffs.
When I give presentations at a beekeeping meeting on various bee behavior topics (for example, queen introduction), I like to have some time for questions. Occasionally the curiosity drifts off topic, which I do not mind, and out pops questions like these: Can I give my bees wax (bits of comb) so they can build new comb? Or do bees work (forage) at night? Both questions seem motivated for higher honey production, providing wax so the bees need not make it and doubling down on a brief nectar flow, wanting the bees to forage day and night. For A. mellifera in North America the answer is essentially “no” to both questions. Be careful though, that “no” is not universal.
The red dwarf bee (A. florea) salvages wax from an abandoned old comb taking the material to the new nest site, provided the old and new nest sites are not too far apart as described in the book with calculations. Otherwise the wax salvaging is not energetically cost effective. The bees remove the wax from the crown of the comb, where the comb bulges at the top. (Wax salvagers chew off the wax and pack the pieces on their pollen baskets.) This wax salvaging behavior opens the possibility for wax preference testing, that is, can these bees tell their wax from other A. florea nests or other bee species? It turns out, A. florea showed a preference for reusing wax from its natal (previously abandoned) nest compared other A. florea nests and rejected combs from the other honey bee species. The overall result, which is quite remarkable: A. florea can tell its combs from other Dwarf bees and from the other species of Asian bees.
Back in the States, I have seen my bees display a similar “wax” salvaging behavior, chewing up empty comb left near the hives, flying home with packed-full pollen baskets. That comb, however, contained a considerable amount of propolis. Therefore, the bees were apparently just behaving as propolis collectors (although the confirmation would be seeing how the material was unloaded and used. I leave propolis, scraped out of the hives, in the apiary, for the bees to bring back to their hives). In addition, the nectar flow had stopped, and colonies had quit comb construction, but not propolis collection.
Foraging at night, called nocturnal foraging, is done by the Giant honey bee A. dorsata. Part of one chapter summarizes (reviews) this behavior. Moonlight is required for the night flights. Apparently though, the bees ignore the moon itself for orienting their dances. The nocturnal foragers seek a nectar-bearing tree called Red Sandalwood, which blooms profusely in the dry season. The flowers, bright yellow in color, open at midnight. Even without moonlight, A. dorsata can still forage on the tree from dawn until 7:30 a.m. Nocturnal foraging is a strategy to avoid the excessively high temperatures coming later in the day.
Honeybees of Asia is a treasure trove of other fascinating bee behavior and biology showing the diversity of honey bees in Asia. Moreover, this book is an elegant companion to the very detailed text, Honey Bees of Africa, written by H. R. Hepburn and S. E. Radloff (published in 1998 by Springer, New York).
The author thanks Suzanne Sumner for her comments on the manuscript.
Honey Bee Biology - February 2013
Summer Swarms With Queen Balling
During this past summer, I found several swarms behaving in unusual ways. I have seen (or suspected) these behaviors from other summers. For the swarms reported here, I could not tell if they would have usurped (taken over) colonies, although I suspected it.
I found the first swarm, a small one, near one of my apiaries on August 29, 2012, a time when little nectar was available. Most of the bees had clustered along a dead weed stalk (see Figure 1). While this swarm looked like one found in the spring, the appearance was only superficial. (When I look at bees, here the swarm, I am also looking at the individual bees in the cluster. That’s a good beekeeping skill to develop.) Most striking to me–the bees were not heavily loaded with honey like a reproductive spring swarm. A spring swarm, coming from its parent colony takes a load of honey with it. The bees carry the honey in their crops, their honey stomachs, where they transport nectar. I have seen swarms leave observation hives. When the hive has comb built against the glass, so you can see inside the cells and the cells are full of honey–that comb gets emptied right before the swarm departs. This honey helps the bees begin comb construction at the new nest site. The lack of honey-loaded bees in the summer swarm suggests to me the situation in the summer is fundamentally different from the spring. On the verge of starvation, this summer swarm could have absconded from its old nest site. If so, they did not come from my apiary because no colonies were in such dire condition. Furthermore, while on the wing, the bees in the swarm must eat.
I have seen bees from these summer swarms return from foraging flights and feed other bees in the swarm. Up to three receiving bees may crowd around the head of the forager bee to receive the nectar, suggesting a strong demand for nectar. (I do not think the bees were passing water because conditions at the time did not suggest a demand for it.) These swarms may stay out of a shelter (combless) for a week or more, which is probably too long to survive on the food they carry.
From past experience with these summer swarms, particularly around my bee house with 30-observation hives, a gold mine for studying bee behavior, my rule is to look carefully on the ground under these summer swarms. Why? I’m looking for the queen or possibly queens. The queen should be buried in the swarm cluster, safe and protected. Right? Well, that’s old thinking for swarms in the summer. The bee biology situation is changing, and one needs to be mentally nimble to stay current. Don’t get stuck in the old textbooks past.
The queen will not be alone on the ground or even surrounded by a court of workers (like on the comb). Rather she will be in a small ball of bees, called a queen ball. Typically beekeepers encounter queen balling during requeening. In that situation, the bees may form a ball around a foreign queen, the one being introduced. If the queen is not removed from the ball, the bees will probably kill her. When the bees have not accepted the queen, the balling behavior can be seen on the screen of the introduction cage, which is usually the three-hole shipping cage. Without the protection of the cage, a ball of bees forms around the queen. The queen balling with these summer swarms seems to be more complicated (than just eliminating a foreign queen) and might involve the bees protecting their own queen. (I have not worked out all the details as to why this is happening, but it appears to involve colony usurpation, that is, colony takeover.)
Under the swarm in the dry leaf litter were two queen balls. Finding queen balls like these will not happen all the time, but they are something to look for, and be careful where you step under the swarm when first walking up to it. It is now possible to step on and crush the queen (in a ball) while wondering, and looking up, at the swarm in the summer–remember–new textbook. Figure 2 shows one of the queen balls right below the cluster. The other one was more hidden and suggests a careful search of the leaf litter to find it. Definitely, do not stop looking upon finding the first queen ball because there could be more. (Frequent swarms with multiple queens, like I am observing, suggest that these are not mere absconding swarms and that something else may be involved.)
In Figure 3, I am holding one of the queen balls. With the bees packed tightly around the queen, the ball can be easily picked up. I routinely handle queen balls (never with gloves) and rarely get stung from the bees in the ball. While bending down in the weeds searching for the queen balls, I put them on my leg for a picture (see Figure 4). Then, I carefully removed the queens and put them in my cages. These cages were hung in the cluster. Soon afterwards, the swarm tried to fly off, but could not leave because the queens were caged.
Honey Bee Biology - January 2013
Colony Takeovers (Usurpation) by Summer Swarms: They Chose Poorly
Starting in the December 2010 American Bee Journal, I wrote a detailed account of colony usurpation (a three-part series). Colony usurpation is when a summer swarm enters a colony, kills its queen, and replaces her with its swarm queen, called the usurpation queen.
Those articles also showed never-before-seen photographs of summer swarms actually invading an established colony. Additional photographs showed that initially the bees form small balls (queen balls) around both the mother queen of the colony and the usurpation queen. The origin of the bees in the balls, either from the colony or the swarm, is unknown. In less than a day, the colony can accept the usurpation queen, while the mother queen remains in a ball of bees until she dies. Remarkably one of my top-bar observation hive colonies (a single comb hive) was usurped allowing unprecedented observations of the takeover under glass. The bees accepted the usurpation queen in about 13 hours, a time much faster than the acceptance with a typical requeening time using a candy-release shipping cage. I even watched the usurpation queen lay eggs, establishing her brood nest, while the mother queen was being balled to death in the hive. That is an unprecedented behavior for bees of a European origin in a temperate climate of eastern Virginia. After the first three articles, beekeepers contacted me to report seeing colony usurpations. Reports came from nearby states like North Carolina to as far away as Michigan, suggesting usurpation behavior may be widespread.
To put this behavior in perspective, fall swarming has been known for a long time, documented particularly in a classic study from the late Dr. Roger Morse of Ithaca, New York in the 1970’s. In those times and up until the observed usurpations, fall swarms and colonies absconding in the summer perished since they could not build enough combs and produce sufficient honey stores before winter. Now at least some of those swarms can usurp a colony and survive the winter on provisions of honey made by the victimized colony.
The practical beekeeping implication is the unfortunate destruction of a queen stock that the beekeeper is trying to maintain in the hive. Traditionally, queen replacement was by a daughter queen from supersedure or by fall swarming, where at least the two queens were related. (The daughter queen would have half of the mother queen’s genes.) Adding to this concern is a rapid and stealthy takeover, but now the usurpation queen is probably not even related to the mother queen of the colony. Particularly in areas where usurpation has been reported (when it can be identified, a difficulty), bee producers should consider how to protect their breeder queens.
In the summer of 2012, I saw two more usurpation events at my bee house that holds 30 top-bar observation hives. Both usurpations failed. The first was an attempt to usurp a glass hive on August 8 at about 1:00 pm. Most of these hives are single comb hives, but this one had 10 top bars with completely glass walls on all four sides (see Figure 1). The most obvious symptom was dead bees under the entrance, appearing as a minor pesticide kill. Now with usurpation, one cannot just conclude a pesticide kill, particularly when other colonies do not show similar mortalities (dead bees under their entrances). These dead bees result from fighting during the invasion as the usurpation swarm enters the victimized colony. The invasion can happen fairly quickly and the beekeeper will probably not see it, perhaps only the dead bees unless ground foragers (skunks, opossums, ants) remove them or the wind blows the dead bees away (see Figure 2)
In this case, however, I found a dead queen, which turned out to be the usurpation queen. She must have gotten stung during the invasion. The problem for a usurpation swarm trying to take over this colony is the small alighting board on the vertical wall and entrance pipe. It is difficult for the swarm to land on the wall and then invade by going down the fairly long entrance pipe before reaching the brood nest. I do not think the bees ever balled the mother queen; the usurpation never progressed that far.
On August 16 at 3:30 pm, another usurpation swarm tried to take over the same observation hive, except this time I saw the swarm hovering beside the bee house (see Figure 3). At first I could not tell which hive the swarm would try to enter. Its bees flew along the house, circling around, in front of several hives. I have seen this hovering behavior before as a usurpation swarm comes in for a landing appearing to orient on a colony to usurp. Other colonies in hives with much easier landing places were present and were ignored.
Again the bees began fighting and numerous dead bees accumulated on the tops of the hives below. I looked for the queen, who must have flown directly into the entrance, which was above my head. I could not find her anywhere else among the bees that had landed and I did not see her flying by (with practice you can spot a flying queen and distinguish her from flying workers). Then, I saw the queen on a metal cover of a hive below the entrance, barely moving, partially paralyzed. Stung. She must been at the entrance above, trying to get in with the other bees, and gotten stung among the fighting bees. Now with the queen fallen away and dying, the usurpation would ultimately fail (see Figure 4). After carefully removing the glass hive from its mounting pipe, I opened the hive with the goal of finding the mother queen to see how the bees were treating her, an easy task in a top-bar hive (see Figure 5). There was no aggression towards her at all, no balling behavior, no bees biting her legs or wings, no abdominal arching as if to sting her–nothing. Like the first usurpation, the second one never progressed further than the initial fighting stage.
From these observations, entrance pipes and no landing place for a swarm might give some protection against usurpation on special hives with valuable breeder queens. Also some beekeepers emailing me with usurpation reports had screen floor hives, specifically the kind that lets varroa mites and detritus fall on the ground (without a wood floor below). In my experience, a usurpation swarm lands below the entrances and then walks into them for the invasion. I wonder if such an exposed screen floor would confuse them since bees trying to get in a hive tend to stay on such a screen. Apparently, that confusion can occur according to the testimonials I received from beekeepers, but I am not sure how long that confusion will last. (I have screen floor top-bar hives, but they are enclosed with wood below to catch varroa mites for data collection).
I will probably find out more on that question as I give my presentations on usurpation at beekeepers’ meetings where I show a detailed set of usurpation photographs. Typically a few beekeepers have seen usurpations and add their experiences. Before the usurpation talk, they did not know what they were observing in the bee yard since usurpation is so new and strange–until the pictures finally answered just what those bees were doing, finally bringing that perplexing day to a close. That’s a good thing because usurpation is here to stay, and beekeepers need to understand it.
The author thanks Suzanne Sumner for her comments on the manuscript.
Honey Bee Biology - December 2012
Catching Swarms with Bait Hives:
The Fun Way to Get a $1000 Worth of Free Bees
Bees have become expensive and valuable. A three-pound package can cost up to $100 with shipping. I figure the loss of a prime swarm is like a $100 bill flying out of my bee yard–not acceptable, even more so than ever. A clever way to catch swarms is with bait hives–even when the beekeeper is away from the apiary. This past spring, I put out 19 bait hives (down from my usual number since I was getting my book on top-bar hive beekeeping to press). Nevertheless, as photographed below, I caught plenty of strong swarms, 12 in all (63% bait hive occupancy), or about $1000 worth of recovered bees and swarms from feral sources.
In my opinion, bait hives should be a part of a modern up-to-date apiary during swarm season. In particular, suburban and urban beekeepers should use bait hives near their apiaries to help keep their swarms from occupying buildings and causing the owners expensive bee removal bills. (That is why I included a detailed section on bait hives in my top-bar hive beekeeping book because I felt the book would have had a bad omission without it.) For beekeepers in or near regions with Africanized Honey bees (AHB), including seaports where swarms could arrive on ships, be cautious about using bait hives because you could get an AHB swarm. Contact your state personnel with apicultural duties to see if bait hives would be appropriate or what extra measures would be needed, such as immediately requeening the swarm with a queen from a known stock.Furthermore, the science explaining how the scout bees from a swarm find, analyze, and choose a nest site is now well known. Dr. Martin Lindauer, a German bee scientist, conducted the early pioneering work and wrote the book Communication by Social Bees (1971), a text that I reread many times in high school. After many years of patient work, Dr. Tom Seeley and his students greatly extended and refined the understanding of nest site selection by scout bees. Those results and more are available in his illuminating book Honeybee Democracy (2010). This long tradition of scientific work on nest site selection can now benefit beekeepers by using bait hives and the general public by helping to keep swarms from occupying their dwellings. Below is my applied version for frame-hive beekeepers. The principles work the same for top-bar hive beekeepers. Other strategies based on their scientific work for catching swarms are certainly possible.
Honey Bee Biology - November 2012
Why Is There Dog Food in My Beehive?
(excerpt)This question has plagued beekeepers since the dawn of time. Well, maybe not quite that long. But still it’s pretty weird. Dry dog food in a beehive. Bees collect nectar, pollen, water, and propolis. Dog food pellets? Not on the list.
On my first spring inspection this year, I found a small pile of dog food pellets in the back of one of my top-bar hives. The combs of a top-bar hive are arranged like slices of bread in a loaf (see Figure 1). If the combs do not extend all the way to the end of the hive, an empty space remains between the last comb and the back wall, enough room for a little pile of dog food (see Figure 2).
So who put the dog food in the hive? Similar to frame hive beekeepers, I put mouse guards over my top-bar hive entrances in the fall (see Figure 3). On this hive, a small hole had formed in the side of the hive down near the floor. Other than the little hole, which formed from a patch of dry rot, the woodenware of the hive is in good condition (The hive is about 20 years old. I build all my bee equipment to last a long time.) The culprit was a mouse getting in the hive over the winter. Actually I think two mice were working together because my surveillance game cameras in that apiary showed them repeatedly as a pair scampering over the ground around the hives (see Figures 4 and 5). My elevated hive stands, which let a beekeeper work hives without bending over and stressing one’s back, do not provide mouse protection. Mice climb them like a squirrel zipping up a tree. Apparently, the mice were using the hive for food storage only, a high and dry location, since they did not damage any of the combs in the hive (a rarity).
When bees begin forming winter clusters in the fall, most of the comb becomes bare, unprotected and vulnerable to mice in the hive. Mice chew away the cell walls, feeding on pollen and honey, until they expose the cell floors, the foundation part of the comb (also called the midrib). Figure 6 shows a comb with moderate damage. The comb damage can be terrible in rural out-apiaries with large mouse populations. Once I had a remote out-apiary a long drive from the house. In a busy fall, I missed putting the mouse guards on those hives during the fall inspection. In the spring most of the brood combs were gouged across their pollen bands (the upper part of the comb).
Here is another way to get an appreciation for the comb damage done by mice. My bee house, which holds 30 observation hives, is next to a home apiary. Mice sometimes get into the building, so I set live traps inside to capture them. Typically, I release the mice way out in the woods, but to observe their comb destruction, I “took some prisoners” and put a few in an aquarium for a couple of weeks. (This is not recommended because wild deer mice carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans.) For the example shown here I had just one mouse in the aquarium.
Let’s name this one Little Buzzsaw, or Buzzsaw for short. To see if the name is well deserved, I took a piece of old brood comb with pollen (see Figure 7) and put it in the aquarium for just one night (with no other mouse food except for water (see Figure 8). A mouse would presumably have condensation as a water source in the hive). In the morning, Buzzsaw is sleeping in her nest box made from an old soda bottle. Apparently she had a busy night. She had gnawed about a quarter of the comb on one side and more on the other side. The plastic tray caught most of the chewed pieces, recording the damage, rather than letting the bits get lost in the wood chips (see Figure 9). Left in a hive for a winter, Buzzsaw could cause extensive comb damage and might even build a nest in the hive.
A mouse nest in a beehive usually requires additional comb damage to make room for it. The nest is about the size of a large grapefruit, too big to fit between the parallel combs. To form a round hollow space within the combs, the mouse just gnaws large holes in adjacent combs. For construction material, mice use whatever is nearby. Figure 10 shows some examples of nests. Whenever I see trash on the alighting board that looks like material from a mouse nest, that hive needs an inspection. If the weather is too cold to open the hive and remove frames, at least look in the entrance slot with a flashlight. Look for nest material and the fairly large pieces of chewed wax that would indicate a mouse.
Of course, a much better plan would be to put a mouse guard on the hive while the bees are still active in late summer or early fall as part of fall management (see Figure 11). From collecting data on 100 top-bar hives equipped with screen floors and sticky boards, I found that mice begin entering some hives just when the nights become cool in the fall. That would be when the bees just start to form a well-defined cluster leaving comb unprotected at night. When the warmth of the day returns, the bees reoccupy the combs and the nocturnal mice must leave the hive. They leave their signs though. Bits of chewed up comb on the sticky board and larger pieces on the screen floor above. The bees fixed the minor comb damage since the mouse visits seemed to be brief, at least initially. However the message was clear: Get the mouse guards on early.
On my spring inspection, when I first found the dog food in the hive, I decided to leave it alone and recheck the hive in a couple of weeks. I was expecting the pile to be smaller as the mice consumed their food reserve. Wrong. It was all gone. Every pellet and crumb. Maybe when the secret of their “Fort Knox” food reserve leaked out, the mice moved their dog-food treasure pile out of the hive to another cryptic location. I looked in the stored empty hives around the apiary, but could not find it.
Pondering the ghostlike appearance and disappearance of the dog food while at another apiary, I came upon another question that has plagued beekeepers since the dawn of time. Why is there corn in my beehive? (See Figure 12.)
(My book, Top-Bar Hive Beekeeping: Wisdom and Pleasure Combined, is a comprehensive description of top-bar hive beekeeping from over 25 years of experience. My apiary game cameras add a whole new level of night photography to the book. From some 40,000 game camera pictures at press time, I picked the best, most compelling, couple of dozen for the book. Besides the mice, also shown around the hives are skunks, opossums, a fascinating family of raccoons with their watchful mother, and a rare super-elusive family of foxes. See the web site tbhsbywam.com for more details on the book and for more information on top-bar hives.)
The author thanks Suzanne Sumner for her comments on the manuscript.