It was quite a week in the bee world, and it’s getting harder and harder to keep up. Here are links to a few stories that caught my attention.
Down in Palm Desert, California, a 71-year-old woman was stung over 1000 times by Africanized honey bees. Apparently she and six other people, including five firefighters, are recovering. The bees were living inside a metal Verizon box containing fiber optic equipment.
An Italian apiary near Pisa was attacked with insecticide in what is now believed to be a mob hit. The beekeeper lost about two million of his prize-winning honey bees. Reporters are calling it a mob sting.
More honey bees in California are being fed sugar syrup to make up for the lack of wildflowers in the dry California landscape. What the article doesn’t mention is the impact this will have on wild bees that won’t be getting any supplemental feed.
The story of plastic-recycling bees (Megachile campanulae and M. rotundata) continue to circulate. Many of the stories, like this one, start off by showing hives of honey bees.
Members of the Somerset Beekeepers Association (UK) continue to rescue bees from the flood waters. Using canoes and waders, beekeepers are checking on their hives and saving those they can. Others are making plans to raise queens and help beekeepers recover their losses.
And a finally a reminder of the pollinator challenge: Adopt a pollinator this year and learn everything you can about her. If you get a good photo, send it to me for posting. The following photo of a bee on wisteria is from beekeeper Jonathan Sterling. He calls this “swat team bee” because it is all dressed in black. I believe it is a male carpenter bee. Let me know if you think otherwise.
Gwen of the Bug Girl’s Blog has written a neat little story in Wired Science about the native Mexican stingless bee, Melipona beecheii.
“Women Work to Save Native Bees of Mexico” is about a group of women intent upon resurrecting the ancient art of stingless beekeeping in Central America. Their work is helping to save the bees and, at the same time, is supplementing the family income.
Once upon a time, stingless bees were common in Central America and average families kept them for their honey.
But stingless bees produce only a fraction of the honey that European honey bees produce. So with the introduction of Apis mellifera, stingless bees were abandoned in favor of greater honey returns.
Since that time, the stingless natives have encountered trouble. Pesticides, loss of their favorite forest habitats, and competition for pollen and nectar with European and Africanized honey bees have hurt the native bee population.
But now they are getting a boost. I urge you to read the article. It includes great photos and a short video of the women tending their bees.
I’ve heard many times that the honey of stingless bees tastes like nothing else on Earth. Whenever I read about them, I want to pack my bags and head south in search of just one little taste.
We beekeepers are often blind-sided by our love of honey bees. We, and especially the press, tend to equate the word “bee” with “honey bee.”
Last evening, as I watched the much-touted film, More than Honey, I was dismayed to hear that, “Unlike bumble bees and butterflies, bees remain true to one type of flower.” While it is true that honey bees practice floral fidelity, and bumble bees not so much, the statement makes no sense. Are they saying a bumble bee isn’t a bee? Or are they saying, “Unlike bees, bees remain true . . .”
The same movie explained that honey bees were brought to the New World by the settlers because they needed a way to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. What? Indeed, the settlers brought honey bees across the Atlantic on ships and introduced them to the Virginia plantations in 1622. But it was definitely not because they wanted to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. In fact, the discovery that flowers are pollinated by insects was made by a fellow named Arthur Dobbs, who presented his revolutionary discovery to the Royal Society of London in 1750.
Do the math: the settlers brought their honey bees to North America 128 years before anyone had a clue that insects played a part in pollination. And it was many, many years later before the discovery became common knowledge. So why did the settlers bring honey bees to America? For the honey, of course.
Furthermore, the narrative implies that there were no bees in North America. “The colonists wanted to cultivate the prairie and grow fruits and vegetables. To pollinate them, they needed bees.” In reality, there were at least 4000 species of bees in North America and an untold number in South America. The plants on both continents were readily pollinated. Given that the colonists didn’t raise vast monocultures, there were more than enough pollinators to go around.
Yes, honey bees have amazing attributes and there is no substitute for them on Earth. But they are not the only game in town. In fact, there are many plants that are not pollinated by honey bees and must be pollinated by other bees or non-bee pollinators. Why is this so hard to understand?
Last week I read an article that explained how we wouldn’t have chocolate if it weren’t for honey bees. The next day, another publication ran the same article. Now, you don’t have to be a genius to google “chocolate pollination” and discover that chocolate is pollinated by a small fly called a midge. The unusual flower of the plant requires this tiny, tiny insect to get the job done. What kind of journalist can’t spend 30 seconds to look this up?
Then I received an upsetting e-mail. A beekeeper wrote that he refused to speak to a gathering of master gardeners who wanted to learn how to attract wild pollinators. Instead he will speak about how we need a million more beekeepers in this country. Okay, maybe he doesn’t know how to attract pollinators and would rather speak about honey bees—I get that. But the idea that a million more beekeepers will solve our problem is naïve.
Flooding the landscape with honey bees will not negate our pollination problem. In fact, it will only make it worse. A monoculture of anything—a feedlot of pigs, a farm of fish, an Iowa of corn—spreads disease, reduces genetic variability, and requires chemical input. A monoculture of honey bees is the antithesis of sustainable.
The best thing we can do for honey bees, or any other pollinator, is to care for the environment and enhance the living condition of all species. Terminology for the sustainable soup of living things changes over time; it was once called “the balance of nature” then “the web of life” then “the natural community.” But whatever you call it, it goes off-kilter when you selectively cut the species you don’t like and paste the ones you do.
We humans are so smart we designed poisons to kill the species we don’t like. Trouble is, the good bugs went with the bad. So instead of relying on natural pollinators, we inundate the poisoned monoculture crops with inbred, poorly fed, and stressed out honey bees. Then we scratch our heads and wonder why they get sick. Our answer? Raise more and more inbred, poorly fed, and stressed out honey bees and prop them up with a few chemicals. That should work, right?
In addition to honey bees, my mission statement for Honey Bee Suite includes a commitment to “wild bees, other pollinators, and pollination ecology.” It’s all part of the “suite” idea—a closely aligned and interconnected whole. To raise healthy honey bees, we need a healthy environment, one that includes all the pollinators, each of which has an important role in the web of life.
If I could get my readers to do one thing of my choosing, I would ask each one to select a new pollinator every year and study it. Pick one you know nothing about and make it your project. Find out where it lives, what it pollinates, when it’s active. Put a portrait on your desktop. Send me a photo and tell me why you picked it. A new pollinator in your life will make you a better beekeeper, a more astute gardener, a better steward of the land, a more informed citizen. Think of it as a challenge . . . you may even find the little twerp makes you happy.
What looks like an hourglass-shaped paint splotch on the thorax of some bees is actually pollen. In the past I often saw these stripes—usually in yellow—and wondered what they were. The bees look like they squeezed through someone’s freshly painted woodenware.
But according to Roxanna Mattingly in her fascinating book, Honey-Maker, the design occurs when pollen-covered bees groom. The honey bee uses her two midlegs to clean pollen from her forelegs and the back of her thorax. However, there’s a place she can’t quite reach, right down the middle of her back.
She swipes each side of her thorax and the pollen in removed in an arc, much like the sweep of a wiper blade on a car. The hourglass design remains after she’s reached as far as she can on each side.
The glass jar comb honey super shown below is a refinement of the one made by beekeeper Morris Ostrofsky of southwestern Oregon. A detailed description of Morris’ equipment and process can be found here: Glass Jar Beekeeping—Creating Edible Art.
After reading his account, I decided to make several tweaks to fit my own situation. The first has to do with the lay of the land. Although I adore Oregon—it is my favorite state—the Willamette Valley is as flat as a bowling alley. In fact, if that crazy river weren’t in the way, I’m sure a ball released in Eugene wouldn’t stop rolling until it reached Salem, some 70 miles away.
In contrast, my hives are perched on a hillside. To get there I have to climb a steep path crisscrossed by streams, mossy stumps, viney things with spines, and downed trees. It would never work for me to have glass jars sitting loosely on top of holes. No, my jars need to be anchored in place—virtually earthquake proof.
The second tweak has to do with being a tightwad. I have hundreds of narrow-mouth mason jars and very few wide-mouth jars, but using a smaller opening meant I needed an easier way of mounting starter strips inside the jars.
Because I am not a woodworker, I started with Mann Lake’s wintering inner cover. The thing I most like about it is the rim on the bottom (about 1/4-inch deep) which provides bee space under the jar rims. I also like the thickness of the board. The small entrance below the board is great for honey collection, but the entrance above the board must be blocked. The board comes with a pre-drilled hole in the center for a jar feeder, which I thought would be helpful, but it is in the wrong place and ended up costing me one jar space.
I designed the jar spacing around the pre-drilled center hole and settled on a 4-3-4 pattern. Without the pre-drilled hole, 4-4-4 would have been better. I could have fit even more jars in the super if I had spaced them differently, but I wanted to maintain the strength of the board. Eleven jars—even when they are empty—is quite a load, so I decided to stop there.
I let my husband do a bunch of math to find the exact location of each hole. The hole that was pre-drilled is actually slightly too big. A mason jar lid fits into it, but it is loosey-goosey. So I purchased a 2-3/4″ (70mm) hole saw that turned out to be perfect. The lid of a mason jar fits tightly in the hole with no play at all. The jars won’t fall out even if I hold the board vertically—something I do not recommend.
As Morris explains in his paper, keeping the jar rims covered with mason rings keeps the threads free of propolis. The sticky rings can be removed and replaced with clean ones when you market the honey, and you can re-use the sticky rings in the hive.
Next, I wanted to put starter strips in the jars. Morris’ method works with wide-mouth jars, but it’s a bit finicky with the narrow ones. What I did instead was cut two pieces of foundation and then slit each one halfway up the middle. The two pieces can then slide into each other to form an “x” (a picture is worth a thousand words here, so have a look).
When the foundation is warm you can bend it enough to fit into the jar and then open it up once it’s inside. I used a square stick to open the foundation once it was in the jar.
I have not yet tried this foundation method, nor have I discussed it with the lucky colony that will receive this contraption. I believe it will work. Bees normally attach any bits of foundation firmly in place, and I think they will start this project by doing just that. It doesn’t have to be perfectly square or symmetrical or even. In fact, one of the charming aspects of comb built in a jar is the shape of it.
If it doesn’t work as is, my next step will be to put a drop of molten wax in the center bottom of the jar, right where the x is, just to hold in it place. Some people have succeeded using glass jars with no foundation or starter strips at all, so that is always an option, especially if your bees are properly crowded.
Once the jars are ready, the entire super can be put on the comb honey hive. Many people put a queen excluder under the super, but I don’t think it is necessary or wise. A queen in her right mind will not put eggs in the jars. If she’s not in her right mind, she may leave a few up there, but she won’t persist. It is hard to get bees to fill odd-shaped spaces, even without an excluder, so I never use one.
An empty super is needed to cover the jars, and a telescoping lid is placed over that. Here are some additional considerations:
—Remember that the jars will get very hot because there is no ventilation through them. It is best to place this type of super on a hive that is not receiving direct sunlight.
—Do not allow bees into the area surrounding the jars. If bees get between the jars, they will build a mess for you to clean up, and they may decide it is easier to construct comb between the jars rather than in the jars.
—You can use the center hole for a jar feeder, if you wish. Give the bees 1:1 sugar syrup to stimulate wax production but remove it before the nectar flow begins.
—A small upper entrance just below the super will aid in nectar storage since the bees won’t have to travel so far. It will also give the hive a little extra ventilation.
—When you are ready to remove the super, use a one-way bee escape below the super to remove the bees. Smoke should not be used because smoke odor and/or ash can persist in the jars.