Wednesday, October 12, 2011

My Adventures in Honey Extraction, or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let Gravity Take Over"

October 9, 2011: Extraction Day! The time had finally come to harvest the honey I had been anticipating for the past year and a half. I left work in a hurry to get out to the apiary before it got too dark to open the hive. The honey frames were nice and heavy, and almost completely full, with the exception of the two on the ends - but even these had a very respectable amount of capped cells. Once the bees figured out what I had come for, they were less than cooperative, but patience and fortitude in the face of a very unhappy swarm prevailed, and I made off with four of the eight frames in the Blue Hive's honey super.

I had spent the previous week building a homemade drill-powered extractor, and while it worked beautifully during its test runs with two empty frames, it failed to meet expectations once the heavy, honey-laden frames were clamped in. But we needn't get into that. My design flaws were minor, and with some small modifications, I'm confident that it will work properly for the next harvest. I didn't feel the need to expend any further time or energy to fix the extractor when I had half my crop waiting there already, so instead, I resorted to the "crush & strain" method. It's less efficient and more time-consuming than using an extractor, but I didn't really have much of a choice.

A honey extractor is, essentially, a large centrifuge. Within a stainless steel barrel, an appropriate number of frames are secured to a central vertical rod, which spins them at high speed and forces the honey out of the comb and onto the inner walls of the cylinder. The honey is then allowed to collect at the bottom, and a valve (called a honey gate) is then opened to pour it out. There are several advantages to using an extractor: it's fast and clean, and manages to remove almost every drop of honey from the comb. Furthermore, the comb itself is left intact - though with the cells now empty - which means less wax to strain out, and also saves the bees the time and effort required to build it up again when the frames are restored to the hives. The crush & strain method, on the other hand, is slow and messy, it destroys the comb, and leaves a significant amount of honey unrecovered. However, it's cheap and easy to do, and provides a lot of wax to be collected by the beekeeper, if desired.

So, instead of using my newfangled contraption, I used the age-old method and set to work slicing all the comb off the frames into a strainer atop a 5-gallon bucket. Once I finished removing the comb from the four frames, all there was to do was wait for the honey to drip through, occasionally crushing and stirring the pile of wax in the strainer in an attempt to separate out as much of the sweet stuff as possible.

 I let the comb sit in the strainer overnight, and disposed of the wax the next morning. A couple of days later, I returned to the hive to remove the remaining four frames, and repeated the process. All told, I ended up with about 2.5 gallons (maybe 30 pounds) of honey from one medium 8-frame super. Not a bad bit of work for a single colony in a single season - and the honey is the best I've ever tasted. I couldn't be prouder of the girls of the Blue Hive. In the spring, I'll replace their super so they can start the process again, and the Yellow Hive, which will then be a year old, will receive a honey super of its own. I should hopefully have the kinks worked out of my extractor by then, and next year's harvest will yield twice as much.

But the saga doesn't end there! Here's a little bonus story for you:

I had planned to return to the apiary the following day to retrieve the remaining four honey frames, but as the morning was cloudy and chilly, I decided not to disturb my bees until the afternoon, when their mood would improve with the weather. In the meantime, I had left the freshly-extracted frames on Ginny's driveway. Sometime before the sun had come out, though, some nearby bees had discovered the frames, still slowly dripping with raw honey ripe for the taking, and had told all their friends. By the time I was aware of this development, the frames were covered with tens of thousands of bees. The air in Ginny's backyard was thick with them, and the sound was intense. It was quite a dramatic scene. There was nothing we could do but wait until dark, when the bees would have returned home with their spoils. I was happy; I felt good about having helped a local, likely wild colony prepare for winter, and my sticky frames got cleaned for free.

It wasn't until that evening, when the bees had left, that we saw the aftermath. There were hundreds still left on the driveway, most of them dead, and the rest staggering around, dying. At first we thought they had gorged themselves to death, but when we investigated, here and there we could see pairs of bees locked in combat - one riding another's back, stinging repeatedly. They had not eaten to bursting. This had been a war between at least two competing colonies. Had this taken place in the summer, the bees may not have fought over the honey, since food is so plentiful, and since both colonies were stealing it - but with the scarcity of available nectar in October, what probably started as a big honeybee party ended up as carnage. It was a sad sight, but now I know that we actually played a small part in helping two (or more) colonies survive the winter, despite their losses, which were minimal compared with the number of foragers that returned safely home with full loads of honey.

But now, a moment of silence for those sacrificed in the Battle of the Driveway.

Thanks for reading. More to come soon.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Bee Informed, Part 7: Breeds

The Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is one of four species of honeybees in the world, and the one that American beekeepers primarily work with. Like most other domesticated animals, the species has been tinkered with extensively, and many distinct breeds have been created by humans in order for their bees to possess certain desirable and predictable traits, regarding their behavior, swarming tendencies, honey production, etc. The following is an overview of the most common breeds found in American apiaries, beginning with the most common:

  • Italian (Apis mellifera ligustica):
Also called the "Golden Italian," this is by far the most popular breed. It is considered the best general-purpose honeybee, and as such is the "default" bee used by beekeepers. It is usually recommended to novices. These are what most people think of when they think of a honeybee: black head and legs, and black and orange/yellow bands on their abdomens.

Pros: Easy to work with and docile, Italians are a good "beginner" bee that builds comb quickly and are excellent foragers. The queens are a bit darker than the lightly-colored workers, which makes them easier to find in the hive. They have only moderate swarming tendencies and don't produce much propolis. They exhibit strong hive-cleaning behavior and are resistant to European foulbrood.

Cons: The Italians are a bit slow in their spring buildup, and brood rearing continues during the fall, after the honey flow has stopped. They also tend to build a lot of burr comb, which is a nuisance to beekeepers. Because their foraging area is quite small, they have a tendency to rob other hives, and to leave their own hive to join another (known as "drifting"). They are also susceptible to disease.

  • Carniolan (A. mellifera carnica):
The Carniolan originated in Slovenia, and is often used in eastern Europe and the Balkans. They are light brown to black in color.

Pros: They tolerate cold better than most breeds, foraging earlier in the morning and in cooler, wetter weather. Since they also overwinter well with less honey stores, because the queen stops laying eggs during the fall, they are ideal for higher latitudes. Brood production is also dependent on the availability of food. These have a rapid spring buildup and are excellent foragers. Like the Italians, they are resistant to brood disease and are very calm and easy to work with, but they build less burr comb.

Cons: Because brood rearing relies on food supply, their populations will fluctuate. Carniolans also tend to swarm quite readily.

  • Caucasian (A. mellifera caucasica):
As the name implies, these bees originated in the high valleys of the central Caucasus. They are a silvery-gray to dark brown.

Pros: With a longer tongue than most, these bees can take advantage of food sources inaccessible to other breeds. They create strong, populous colonies and overwinter well by stopping brood production in the fall. They also forage earlier and on cooler days, and are generally fairly calm.

Cons: Caucasians have a slow spring buildup and have a tendency to rob. They produce an abundance of propolis, making it difficult for beekeepers to work the hives. They also produce wet capped comb, which is undesirable for the sale of honeycomb. They are susceptible to disease, especially nosema, and if alarmed, they are difficult to calm again. They are quick to sting.

  • Russian (A. mellifera sp.):
Russian honeybees have only been available to the general public since 2000, and are a relatively new breed. Originating in the Primorsky region, they showed a strong resistance to mites, and have been bred for that purpose.

Pros: Resistant to Varroa and tracheal mites, with a good winter tolerance and good spring buildup. Fairly calm in the hive, and easy to work with.

Cons: They are expensive, and are a bit defensive. They tend to headbutt as a defense, as well as sting. Their productivity can be unpredictable, and they are prone to swarm annually.

  • Buckfast (A. mellifera, hybrid):
This breed was created by "Brother Adam" of Buckfast Abbey, by breeding Italians with native English bees in an attempt to produce a bee that was more resistant to parasitic mites, which were causing a lot of trouble for English apiaries during the early 20th century.

Pros: Highly resistant to tracheal mites, and resistant to chalkbrood. This is a very docile breed and unlikely to sting in England, but more defensive in the U.S. (The reason for this is that U.S. import regulations prohibit the importation of the pure Buckfast strain, forcing American apiaries to impregnate non-Buckfast queens with frozen Buckfast drone sperm.) They overwinter well, and are not prone to swarming.

Cons: They have a slow spring buildup and are not very productive foragers in the spring.

  • German Black or European Dark Bee (A. mellifera mellifera):
This was the first honeybee imported to the Americas by the earliest colonists (according to some sources, this breed was brought over on the Mayflower), but now are almost impossible to buy in the United States. It is a distinctive brown or black.
Pros: Native to England and Germany, this breed overwinters very well, and tolerates cold and wet climates.

Cons: These bees tend to be excitable and defensive, making them difficult to work with. Moreover, they have a slow spring buildup.

  • Africanized Honey Bees or "AHB" (A. mellifera, hybrid):
I include these on the list, not because they are "popular" (in fact, these are about the least desirable for any apiary), but because we tend to hear so much about them. AHBs are also known as "killer bees" for their high aggressiveness and sometimes lethal defensive tendencies. The Africanized bees are essentially a hybrid cross between Italians and an African species, A. mellifera scutelata, and are sometimes simply (and erroneously) referred to by that name. They were bred, successfully, by the USDA and in Brazil in an attempt to create a very productive, disease-resistant breed, but with the unpleasant side effect of being very easily alarmed and prone to stinging en masse, often for no discernible reason.

Pros: Extremely productive, producing large honey yields. Disease resistant.

Cons: Mean as hell, but indistinguishable from Italians.

There are many more breeds of honeybees, mainly hybrids, that are not included on this list, but these are the most common in use in the United States today. Both of my hives, incidentally, are non-Africanized Italians. I promise.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spring Forward

Winter is a boring time to be a beekeeper, I've discovered. It's nothing more than a four-month waiting game, and I'm happy it's over. And I'm sure that if I could ask them, my bees would agree with me. I had gone out to the hive a couple of times during the winter, on warmish days, to check on the colony and make sure there were no signs of catastrophe. These visits were very cursory, and I had very little to report, other than the hive was still standing and still inhabited. I did find some dead bees around the hive, though, and some even as far as thirty feet away, frozen on the snow. These casualties were most likely the result of cleansing flights that took too long, or maybe cabin fever. Bees become restless when there's nothing to do, and some may actually have taken flight in a desperate attempt to forage, despite the freezing temperatures and complete lack of flowers, like a shipwreck survivor swimming away from a tiny island because he could swear he sees a ship on the horizon. These fifty or so deaths didn't concern me, though, as a loss of fifty out of 30,000 is a good winter.

But spring has sprung now, and the plants are budding. Vinland Valley Nursery, right next door to my bee yard, is open for business again, and that means so is my hive. And for Christmas, Ginny bought me a new bee house, and on April 7, I received a new package of bees in the mail. I had been looking forward all winter to starting up a second hive, and the time had finally come. After a day at work that seemed longer than usual, I piled the newly painted hive and the shipping container of bees in my car and raced out to the site. It was also the day I could add a honey super to the existing hive. Finally, I can start collecting rent from my tenants!

When I got there, I saw that foraging was in full swing. The old hive was, if you'll excuse the expression, abuzz with activity. Foragers were set to their tasks with renewed energy, and younger bees were taking their orientation flights around the hive. It was as though winter had never happened. I decided to add the honey super to the old hive before setting up the new one. However, I made a couple of amateurish mistakes that day, which made that particular objective impossible. Firstly, I had neglected to take a shower after work, so I was sweaty and likely a bit more pungent than the bees were used to. Beekeeping manuals suggest a shower before interacting with bees, because any attempt to open (or even to approach) the hive is regarded as an invasion. Since bees have such a powerful sense of smell, a sweaty invader is even worse than a pleasant- or neutral-smelling one, and it also allows them to locate you more precisely. The second mistake that I made was to forget to bring my smoker. To be fair, I knew they were mistakes as I made them, but I continued anyway, partly due to impatience on my part (I had already gotten there, after all), and partly in a "what's the worst that could happen?" spirit of discovery. Perhaps you can guess where this is heading.

I suited up and lifted the cover off the hive. The bees inside were immediately annoyed by my presence, and the volume of their buzzing increased tremendously. As I began to pry off the inner cover, however, they declared war. Within half a second, there were dozens of bees flying directly at my face - and not in the inquisitive way that I was used to. I knew that opening the hive without smoking was sure to trigger an alarm, but I was under the impression that I could get the cover off, slip the queen excluder and the honey super on, and close the hive again in a relatively short amount of time. The fact is, I was completely unprepared, psychologically, for the bees' reaction. I was wearing my bee jacket and gloves, of course, but the sight and sound of so vicious a defense threw me into a near panic. I was forced to retreat several times, and each new move I made toward the hive again sent a new wave of defenders speeding toward my head. And I hadn't even gotten the inner cover off!

When I felt a tiny "zap" on my hand, I felt I was beaten. I retreated farther away, a good 25 feet, to allow the bees to calm down again. The new plan was to regroup and approach the hive one last time - this time to just replace the outer cover on and leave them alone until I could return with the smoker. As I was removing the stinger from the leather glove, I felt something else, a soft tickle on my stomach, under my bee jacket and under my shirt. I don't think I have ever removed an article of clothing so quickly in my life. Sure enough, one of the defenders had managed to defeat my armor and was crawling on my bare stomach. Thankfully, though, it was one that had already stung my clothes somewhere else, and was harmless. I brushed her off and caught my breath for about a minute before putting the bee jacket back on (after carefully checking the inside for others, of course). I then summoned some courage and walked through the thick cloud of very angry bees to replace the roof of their home.

The sting that I had felt through the glove was surprising, but it did not actually penetrate my skin. I'm certain that I was stung many times during those ten minutes or so, but the protective gear did its job. Next time, I think I'll let the smoker do its job too.

I next turned my attention to hiving the new colony. The best spot I could find, as far as level ground was concerned, was about two feet away from the original hive. I decided to work fast. When hiving a new colony, a smoker is not necessary, as the bees in the shipping container don't have a home to defend. They're tired, hungry and confused after their ordeal, but they aren't aggressive. So I got the new hive body set up on its cinderblocks, removed a couple of frames, set the queen cage inside, and poured the approximately 10,000 bees in. The next step was to set the feeder on top and fill it, and finally to place the cover on top. Everything went smoothly, and I set the shipping container in front of the entrance so the remaining bees could find their own way to their sisters. When everything was done, I gave both hives their space and observed the activity from a safe distance. As I watched, the aggressiveness of the original hive subsided and turned into curiosity before my eyes. The colony was clearly investigating its new neighbors while the new arrivals oriented themselves to their surroundings.

...And then there were two. I now have a proper apiary, rather than just a hive, and I will return next week to check on the newbies' (see what I did there?) progress. The first hive will also receive a honey super, whether they like it or not. And they really will like it, they just don't know it yet. Moreover, I will enter a new dimension in my experience as a beekeeper: the management of two hives, and the collection of honey. The hives also have names now, according to the colored squares I painted on the front: last year's hive is the Blue hive, and the new one is the Yellow hive (despite its base color being a light blue). Seeing the two situated next to each other is a beautiful sight, and I couldn't be happier. I'll have more to share in the coming weeks and months of this new season, so stay tuned.

Buzz, baby.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Beehavior: The Swarm

Spring is almost here, and that means some colonies are soon to be warmin' to some swarmin'. Usually when people think of a "swarm of bees," they think of a noisy, sting-y cloud of angry bees turning a picnic into a panic by chasing everyone in sight, and the only remedy is to reach the safety of the nearest building or body of water. But while it is true that any large group of bees can rightly be called a swarm, I'm referring to the spring swarm phenomenon. (By the way, if you have annoyed a colony of bees enough to make them chase you en masse, it is not recommended that you look for a lake to jump into. Bees may have a brain the size of a sesame seed, but they aren't stupid. If you jump into neck-deep water, you not only slow down your escape, but you also effectively present your head as a convenient target for them. The obvious result of that tactic is being stung and wet. It is much better to run straight for the nearest building or vehicle.)

The other, less dramatic kind of swarm is the spring swarm, a behavior that honeybees exhibit in late spring. Once the weather has warmed and enough rain has fallen to provide good foraging for a colony, it may decide to divide and relocate. This is a natural way that bees propagate the species, and can happen for several reasons: starvation, a disease or other problem in the hive, or more often than not, overpopulation. Colonies don't always swarm, and beekeepers take certain steps to prevent it, mainly by adding empty honey supers to an existing hive, thus keeping the bees interested in filling it rather than searching for more preferable locations. Some beekeepers will also clip the wings of their queens, preventing her from flying, thus ensuring that the colony stays where it is - although in my opinion, that practice is both barbarous and unnecessary.

In preparation for a swarm, the workers will rear a new queen, and before she emerges from her cell, up to 2/3 of the colony, along with the present queen, will suck up as much honey as they can before simultaneously leaving the hive. They then will roost in a large group on a nearby tree, fence, building, car, or anything at all, really, while scout workers search the area for a good place to start a new hive. This can sometimes cause an inconvenience and a bit of anxiety to people if the bees happen to decide to choose a house, a car or a lamppost to rest on, but these swarms are not dangerous. Although a group of several thousand bees congregating on your front door is a disconcerting sight, they typically will spend one or two days at most in that location before moving on to their new chosen hive.

How do they choose a new hive to inhabit? Several hundred scouts, which are necessarily experienced foragers, will fly up to several miles in their search for a promising home. According to Thomas Seeley, chairman of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell, an ideal nest site is a tree or other natural cavity with a volume greater than 20 liters, with a south-facing entrance smaller than 30 centimeters a few feet off the ground. Presumably, there must also be an abundance of available flowers nearby, as well. Once a scout has discovered one to her liking, she will return to the swarm and announce her discovery with the familiar "waggle dance," the same language she uses to report the location of a plentiful source of nectar when foraging. Several scouts will find suitable locations, and will each return to the swarm with their report. Scouts will dance more energetically if the site they found is very promising, and the discoverers of less-than-ideal locations will dance less energetically. Scouts that encounter more energetic dancers on the swarm cluster will eventually decide that their location isn't worth arguing for, and stop dancing altogether. Some have even been seen changing their vote to support the more suitable location found by a different worker. In this way, a consensus is finally reached, and the scout with the most excited dance will have her way, and she will then lead the entire swarm to the new hive that she has found. Once the swarm has arrived at their new home, the queen gets settled inside and the workers begin their orientation flights, memorizing nearby landmarks so that they can begin foraging again. The bees must return to work building comb quickly, as the new hive is usually an empty one.

Whether swarms are considered a nuisance or an object of interest (or even terror) to most people, to beekeepers, they are often considered an opportunity. A hive cluster, often comprised of tens of thousands of bees, plus a queen, is a free colony for a beekeeper with an empty hive in their apiary. If a swarm has congregated on a tree limb or other easy-to-reach spot, all a beekeeper needs to do is to suit up and shake or brush the swarm into an empty box, then transport it back to their hive. Everybody wins. The only risk that a beekeeper takes in doing so is that because the swarm is "wild," there is no way of knowing if the bees are diseased. Still, it's a risk that most are willing to take. So if you see a swarm this spring, don't call Pest Control. Try a local beekeeper first. They, and the bees, will be grateful for it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bee Informed, Part 6: The EPA and Neonicotinoids (The Dance Continues)

There has been a lot of talk lately in the news and, I can only assume, around the proverbial water cooler, about “leaked” government documents and their embarrassing political effects on the federal departments concerned. Many of these have made headlines, and some have not.

Well, a couple of days ago, the Pesticide Action Network of North America got their hands on an internal memo from the Environmental Protection Agency (you know, those folks whose job it is to protect the environment) which shows that the EPA has ignored and even intentionally suppressed the findings of its own scientists regarding neonicotinoid pesticides and their harmful effect on honeybees and other so-called “non-target” pollinators. (Non-target pollinators include bees, wasps and butterflies, which, although not the intended target of an insecticide, are affected by it nonetheless.)

You may recall a previous article of mine entitled Bee Informed, Part 3: The “Mystery” of Colony Collapse Disorder in which I make the case that neonics are largely responsible for CCD, and that countries that have banned the use of these systemic nicotine-based pesticides have seen a reverse in their honeybee population decline. To briefly summarize, this type of pesticide is a toxic chemical containing synthesized nicotine in liquid form that is sprayed on crop seeds (such as corn, canola, sugar beets, soy and wheat) and spreads throughout the vascular system to every part of the mature plant, including nectar and pollen, after the seed has germinated. In theory, this saves farmers the time, money and effort required to spray pesticides on their plants. The type most widely in use in the United States is Clothianidin, manufactured by Bayer Corp, sold under the trade name “Poncho.” It is classified by the EPA as a Category III toxic substance, and a “not likely” human carcinogen. The "Summary Science Statements" published in an EPA Pesticide Fact Sheet on Clothianidin from 2003, submitted to the EPA by Bayer as part of the registration process, state:

“Based upon a battery of acute toxicity studies, Poncho 600 is classified as Toxicity Category III. Clothianidin is classified as a “not likely” human carcinogen. There are no to low concerns and no residual uncertainties with regard to pre- and/or postnatal toxicity from clothianidin, and the FQPA 10X Safety Factor has been removed. However, due to evidence of effects on the rat immune system and that juvenile rats appear to be more susceptible to these effects, and due to the lack of a developmental immunotoxicity study, a 10X database uncertainty factor is applied to all dietary exposure endpoints.
Available data indicate that clothianidin on corn and canola should result in minimal acute toxic risk to birds. However, assessments show that exposure to treated seeds through ingestion may result in chronic toxic risk to non-endangered and endangered small birds (e.g., songbirds) and acute/chronic toxicity risk to non-endangered and endangered mammals. Clothianidin has the potential for toxic chronic exposure to honey bees, as well as other nontarget pollinators, through the translocation of clothianidin residues in nectar and pollen. Clothianidin should not present a direct acute or chronic risk to freshwater and estuarine/marine fish, or a risk to terrestrial or aquatic vascular and nonvascular plants.
The fate and disposition of clothianidin in the environment suggest a compound that is a systemic insecticide that is persistent and mobile, stable to hydrolysis, and has potential to leach to ground water, as well as runoff to surface waters.”

This was back in 2003, when Bayer first registered clothianidin for sale in the U.S., and neonicotinoid pesticides were still a fairly recent development (as was CCD). The damage to birds, rats and other mammals, and honeybees, was postulated but uncertain, and, in a transparently industry-friendly decision, it was still considered an acceptable risk - since it was considered unlikely to have chronic effects on humans. Plus, you know, there was money to be made. Of course, the EPA didn't run any tests themselves - they accepted the results of tests conducted by Bayer Corp's paid scientists. Later in this same report, this paragraph is found:

“Chemical-specific data for assessing human exposures during pesticide handling activities were not submitted to the Agency in support of the registration of clothianidin. Instead, the registrant (Bayer) submitted surrogate studies using the chemicals Oftanol (isofenphos) and Baytan (triadimenol). Bayer Corp. also submitted two exposure assessments which used these seed treatment exposure studies as surrogates for exposure to clothianidin.”

That was apparently good enough for the Environmental Protection Agency. Bayer, the very company that sought to profit from the sale of a toxic substance to be used on food crops, was allowed to perform its own testing to determine health risk to humans, with no oversight or even independent study to confirm or refute its results. Indeed, when strong concerns over mounting evidence of ecological damage done by neonicotinoids was voiced by its own experts, the EPA ignored them completely. Moreover, the EPA felt the company had sufficiently demonstrated the safety of its product by using the results of testing with a completely different chemical in place of the one they intended to sell. The Agency green-lighted its registration without a second thought; birds, bees and endangered mammals be damned. Our environmental watchdog would clearly prefer the life of a corporate lapdog.

Since 2003, scientists at the EPA have conducted some tests in response to the insistent nagging of reality, and what they found contrasted sharply with Bayer Corp's spurious and profit-driven reporting. The EPA scientists essentially rejected these findings, and reiterated their concern about the risk to the North American honeybee population of widespread use of clothianidin and other neonics.

Let's jump forward to the document in question, though, dated November 2, 2010. I won't bore you with the sordid history of the attempts to halt Bayer's sale of neonics since 2003, thwarted largely by the EPA, and justified by ridiculously unscientific field studies such as this one, published in 2007. (This study, written by the Department of Environmental Biology at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada - and funded by Bayer - claims that colonies of honeybees showed no detrimental effects from long-term exposure to clothianidin. The failing of this study lies in the fact that the pesticide was only applied on 2.5 acre plots - a tiny sliver of bees' actual foraging range, as opposed to the enormous, unbroken swaths of farmland planted with neonics in the U.S. In his assessment of this particular study, Colorado beekeeper Tom Theobald aptly noted, “Imagine you're a rancher trying to figure out if a noxious weed is harming your cows. If you plant the weed on two acres and let your cows roam free over 50 acres of lush Montana grass, you're not going to learn much about that weed.”)

In response to Bayer's efforts to expand the use of neonics to mustard and cotton, this most recent memo was written by two scientists at the EPA's Environmental Fate and Effects Division (EFED), ecologist Joseph DeCant and chemist Michael Barrett, and expresses their serious concerns about clothianidin's lethal effects on honeybees. They wrote:

“Clothianidin’s major risk concern is to nontarget insects (that is, honey bees). Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid insecticide that is both persistent and systemic. Acute toxicity studies to honeybees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis. Although EFED does not conduct RQ based risk assessments on non-target insects, information from standard tests and field studies, as well as incident reports involving other neonicotinoids insecticides (e.g., imidacloprid) suggest the potential for long term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects. An incident in Germany already illustrated the toxicity of clothianidin to honeybees when allowed to drift off-site from treated seed during planting.
A previous field study (MRID 46907801/46907802) investigated the effects of clothianidin on whole hive parameters and was classified as acceptable. However, after another review of this field study in light of additional information, deficiencies were identified that render the study supplemental. It does not satisfy the guideline 850.3040, and another field study is needed to evaluate the effects of clothianidin on bees through contaminated pollen and nectar. Exposure through contaminated pollen and nectar and potential toxic effects therefore remain an uncertainty for pollinators.
EFED expects adverse effects to bees if clothianidin is allowed to drift from seed planting equipment. Because of this and the uncertainty surrounding the exposure and potential toxicity through contaminated pollen and nectar, EFED is recommending bee precautionary labeling.”

The deficient “previous field study” cited by DeCant and Barrett was, of course, that same Guelph report from 2007, funded by Bayer Corp and used to downplay the risks involved in order to justify the continued use and sale of neonics, specifically on corn. The authors of the memo go on to say:

“Honey Bee Toxicity of Residues on Foliage (850.3030): This study is required for chemicals that have outdoor terrestrial uses in which honeybees will be exposed and exhibit an LD50 <11μg>
Field Test for Pollinators (850.3040): The possibility of toxic exposure to nontarget pollinators through the translocation of clothianidin residues that result from seed treatments has prompted EFED to require field testing (850.3040) that can evaluate the possible chronic exposure to honey bee larvae and queen. In order to fully evaluate the possibility of this toxic effect, a field study should be conducted and the protocol submitted for review by the Agency prior to initiation. Another study had been submitted to satisfy this guideline requirement. While it had originally been classified as acceptable, after recent reevaluation it is classified as supplemental, and a field study is still being needed for a more refined risk assessment.”

Downgrading a study from “acceptable” to “supplemental,” however, doesn't alter the final status of neonicotinoids as safe to use on a huge scale, according to EPA rules. And in the very probable case that the previous statements were too obtuse for whomever the memo was intended, DeCant and Barrett summarize their opinion thusly, as their recommendation for language to be included on the chemical's label:

“This product is toxic to aquatic invertebrates. Do not apply directly to water or to areas where surface water is present or to intertidal areas below the mean high-water mark. Do not contaminate water when cleaning equipment or disposing of equipment washwaters. Do not apply where runoff is likely to occur. Runoff from treated areas may be hazardous to aquatic organisms in neighboring areas. Apply this product only as specified on the label.
This chemical has properties and characteristics associated with chemicals detected in ground water. The use of this chemical in areas where soils are permeable, particularly where the water table is shallow, may result in ground water contamination.
This compound is toxic to birds and mammals. Treated clothianidin seeds exposed on soil surface may be hazardous to birds and mammals. Cover or collect clothianidin seeds spilled during loading.
This compound is toxic to honey bees. The persistence of residues and potential residual toxicity of Clothianidin in nectar and pollen suggests the possibility of chronic toxic risk to honey bee larvae and the eventual instability of the hive.”

It couldn't be clearer than that. And all of the paragraphs that I have quoted are found in the introduction of the memo, before the report even begins. The following 100 pages of the complete document specify risk assessment and set the parameters for field studies that the authors have determined must be conducted in order to determine actual effects, during which time the sale and use of neonics must be suspended.

This is only the latest example of the EPA ignoring and burying the concerns of its own scientists who are in the honest business of trying to fulfill the mandate set out for them, i.e., environmental protection. Which brings us to the obvious question - why would the Environmental Protection Agency continue to allow the use of chemicals which cause such irreparable harm to the environment, favoring pseudo-scientific studies that support the claims of its manufacturer while suppressing reports written by its own scientists warning of environmental damage? Since 2003, corn has been the largest crop in the United States by a huge margin (88 million acres), and in 2009 alone, Bayer made about $262 million from its sale of Clothianidin, the insecticide used to treat corn seeds in the U.S. It doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to understand this relationship. And when asked if the revelation of this document might finally convince the EPA to remove Clothianidin from the market, at least until proper field studies to determine its impact can be conducted, an EPA spokesman authorized to speak on behalf of the Agency replied that the pesticide will retain its registration status and be available again for spring planting. So that's good news... for Bayer Corp.


2010 EPA Memo:
DeCant and Barrett, Clothianidin Registration of Prosper T400 Seed Treatment on Mustard Seed (Oilseed and Condiment) and Poncho/Votivo Seed Treatment on Cotton

2007 Bayer-funded Guelph Report:
Cutler and Scott-DuPree, Exposure to Clothianidin Seed-Treated Canola Has No Long-Term Impact on Honey Bees

2003 EPA Clothianidin Pesticide Fact Sheet:
Clothianidin Conditional Registration

(Links to the document files to come.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pre-Winter Hive Inspection, or: "We'll Meet Again..."

November, 2010 - Winter is on its way, and thanks to some extra-long autumnal weather, we were able to take one more trip out to the hive to check on its progress and estimate the bees' chances of surviving winter before the real cold arrives.

We had a relatively mild summer here in eastern Kansas, and winter seems to be reluctant to show itself (so far), and there was still foraging activity even into early November, amazingly enough. Around mid-November, though, nighttime temperatures dropped below freezing, so that was the end of that. The bees have packed it in for the winter now, turning the page on my first season as a beekeeper. Now begins the waiting game.

As I noted in a recent post, a colony of honeybees, depending on its size, needs about 60 pounds of honey stored in the hive if they hope to survive during the cold months. Foraging is simply out of the question during the winter, since plants are no longer flowering, and even brief exposure to freezing temperatures is fatal to bees.

So the question is, do my bees have enough honey to feed them for the next three months (or more)? The short answer is that I don't know. However, I'm cautiously optimistic. The lower super is likely completely full, and the upper super is about half full. I estimate that the colony has stocked between 50 and 60 lbs. in the hive. Considering that these bees were installed in their home (which was completely empty) on June 1st, their numbers are probably fairly modest: I estimate about 30,000 bees in the colony at the present time, maybe less. If my novice guesswork is accurate, my girls should have enough to last throughout the winter, with even a possible surplus once spring arrives.

The inspection on November 8, my last until the spring, was a cursory one. Upon our arrival, it was obvious that the bees were no longer in foraging mode. The activity around the hive entrance can only be described as "subdued." It appears that without flowers to visit and inventory to stock, the colony is a little lethargic. Or maybe that's the wrong word. Perhaps they're just enjoying the brief downtime before the cold hits us like a ton of frozen bricks. Either way, it was a marked contrast to what we had seen during prior visits:

As far as fulfilling my beekeeperly obligations went, I opened the hive, removed some burr comb and propolis joining the frames to the inner cover, and peeked at the frames in the upper super. I didn't pull any frames or inspect the lower super at all. A couple of weeks later I returned to add the entrance reducer, which will help keep out the cold, as well as any critters who might see the hive as a convenient winter hideout. Those are all the steps I'm going to take. From here on out, it's up to the bees. If, sometime in midwinter, there is an anomalous warm day, I'd like to check up on them, and hopefully witness some cleansing flights. In that event, I most likely won't open the hive at all, so as to avoid allowing cold air inside or otherwise disturbing the colony. Winter is stressful enough for them as it is.

What does the spring of 2011 have in store for me and my bees? In a word, honey. Assuming that the colony survives the winter with a surplus, I'm going to add a honey super to the hive as soon as possible. A honey super is like the other supers, but smaller, intended for the collection of honey by a beekeeper rather than that to be used by the bees. The addition of a queen excluder ensures that there will be no eggs or larvae in it - just the sweet stuff.

And I'll be expanding my operation, as well. During the winter I'm going to acquire some new hive equipment and place an order for a new shipment of bees. That's right, I'm completely addicted. You might say I've been bitten by the bee bug. I wouldn't say that, but you might.

So anyway, let's keep our fingers crossed all winter for the little colony that could.
Buzz, baby.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Bees and the "Travelling Salesman" Problem


    Researchers found that bees could solve the 'travelling salesman's' shortest route problem, despite having a brain the size of a grass seed. Photograph: Rex Features

    Bees can solve complex mathematical problems which keep computers busy for days, research has shown.

    The insects learn to fly the shortest route between flowers discovered in random order, effectively solving the "travelling salesman problem" , said scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London.

    The conundrum involves finding the shortest route that allows a travelling salesman to call at all the locations he has to visit. Computers solve the problem by comparing the length of all possible routes and choosing the one that is shortest.

    Bees manage to reach the same solution using a brain the size of a grass seed.

    Dr Nigel Raine, from Royal Holloway's school of biological sciences, said: "Foraging bees solve travelling salesman problems every day. They visit flowers at multiple locations and, because bees use lots of energy to fly, they find a route which keeps flying to a minimum."

    Using computer-controlled artificial flowers to test bee behaviour, his wanted to know whether the insects would follow a simple route defined by the order in which they found the flowers, or look for the shortest route.

    After exploring the location of the flowers, the bees quickly learned to fly the best route for saving time and energy.

    The research, due to appear this week in the journal The American Naturalist, has implications for the human world. Modern living depends on networks such as traffic flows, internet information and business supply chains.

    "Despite their tiny brains bees are capable of extraordinary feats of behaviour," said Raine. "We need to understand how they can solve the travelling salesman problem without a computer."


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Autumn Hive Inspection

September 30 - took a trip out to the hive today, as it's been two months since my last inspection. When we got there, the bees were coming and going from the hive in huge numbers. They know fall is here, and winter's going to come roaring around the corner, and there isn't too much time left for foraging. They're all working overtime to provision themselves for the long, cold months they'll spend cooped up inside with nothing to do. Winter must be a nerve-wracking time for them.

Back in July, There had been some comb built on the central frames in the upper super, but very little - it was more of a light coating of wax than proper comb. I had hoped that by now, the lower super would be full of honey and the bees would have started turning their attention to the uppers, where there were eight empty frames waiting to be filled as well, allowing them to double their storage capacity.

Well, I wasn't disappointed. Even before I removed the center upper frame, the thousands of little faces staring up at me was a testimony to the fact that they had indeed been putting in a lot of hours to get the upper super in shape:

And once I got the center upper frame out (burr comb attaching it to the frame below made it difficult again), I was relieved to find that their progress was actually better than I had expected. There was lots of nectar, pollen and capped brood. The queen is present and laying eggs in the upper chamber, and the workers are preparing it for more.

These girls make me proud. This is what I had hoped for. This means that the lower super is full -- or at least full enough that the bees have begun to focus their efforts on the upper frames -- and that the lower super is now considered by the bees to be almost exclusively "storage." The next time I inspect the hive (in about a month), this frame will more than likely be completely full, and the others around it may look like this one does now.

In case you are wondering why I usually emphasize the center frames in my inspection reports, it's because honeybees work upward from below and outward from the center. In a brand new, empty hive, such as this one was back in May, the bees have the entire space to work on. Being such an organized society, they maximize efficiency by concentrating on the bottom of the center frame, building comb upwards, simultaneously on both sides, to cover the frame. When both sides of the center frame have been filled, they start at the bottoms of the frames on either side of the center, and so on outward toward the walls of the wooden super. Once the downstairs is full of honey, they move upstairs and begin all over again with the bottom of the center frame. When I installed this colony into the empty hive, there was only one super (which is now the lower super), but even if there had been two supers, a lower and an upper, the bees still would have begun working from the bottom of the lower frames first. Therefore, I use the center frames as a yardstick to measure their progress. Once I saw that there was nectar, pollen and brood in the center upper frame, I knew that everything is going well and the surrounding frames will receive their attention soon, and that the lower frames are, for all intents and purposes, full of ripening honey.

If there had not been progress on the upper frames by now, it would have been an indication that something was seriously wrong, and I would have placed their chances of surviving the winter at somewhere around 20-25% without supplemental feeding with syrup. There simply would not have been enough honey to feed the colony, and they would starve once the stores were depleted. Now that they have begun filling the cells in the upper super, though, their chances of survival are increasing, and that's an encouraging thought. One of the rules in beekeeping is to allow your bees about 60 lbs. of honey to get them through the winter, and anything over that is yours to steal. A single frame, when full, holds about 6 pounds of honey. Because I'm using 8-frame equipment (8 frames in the lower and 8 frames in the upper super), the lower super alone, when full, can hold about 48 pounds of honey -- and that's assuming that all 8 frames are completely full. Now that my bees have begun filling the upper frames, they just might hit that 60-pound mark before the freeze. They still have a lot of work to do.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bee Informed, Part 5: Bees and Alcohol

The psychology department at Oklahoma State University has finally answered a question that has plagued mankind since the dawn of time: What happens when bees get drunk?

Here are the results of the experiment:

The purpose of this experiment was to test the feasibility of creating an animal model of ethanol consumption using social insects. Honey bees were selected as the model social insect because much is known about their natural history, physiology, genetics, and behavior. They are also inexpensive to procure and maintain. Of special interest is their use of communication and social organization.

METHODS: Using both between- and within-experiment designs, studies were conducted with harnessed foragers to determine whether honey bees would consume ethanol mixed with sucrose (and, in some cases, water). Shuttle-box and running-wheel studies were conducted to examine the effect of ethanol on locomotion. The effect of ethanol on stinging behavior in harnessed foragers was investigated. The effect of ethanol on Pavlovian conditioning of proboscis extension was also investigated. Finally, in a self-administration study, foraging honey bees were trained to fly to an artificial flower containing ethanol.

RESULTS: (1) Harnessed honey bees readily consume 1%, 5%, 10%, and 20% ethanol solutions; (2) 95% ethanol will also be consumed as long as the antennae do not make contact with the solution; (3) with the exception of 95% ethanol, consumption as measured by contact time or amount consumed does not differ in animals that consume 1%, 5%, 10%, and 20% ethanol solutions; (4) exposure to a lesser (or greater) concentration of ethanol does not influence consumption of a greater (or lesser) concentration; (5) consumption of 10% and 20% ethanol solutions decreases locomotion when tested in both a shuttle-box and running-wheel situation; (6) consumption of 1%, 5%, 10%, and 20% ethanol does not influence stinging behavior in harnessed foragers; (7) ethanol solutions greater than 5% significantly impair Pavlovian conditioning of proboscis extension; and (8) free-flying honey bee foragers will readily drink from an artificial flower containing 5% ethanol.

CONCLUSIONS: The experiments on consumption, locomotion, and learning suggest that exposure to ethanol influences behavior of honey bees similar to that observed in experiments with analogous vertebrates. The honey bee model presents unique research opportunities regarding the influence of ethanol in the areas of language, social interaction, development, and learning. Although the behavioral results are interesting, similarity between the physiologic effects of ethanol on honey bees and vertebrates has not yet been determined.


Of course, less scientific studies have been done as well:

(Found on YouTube.)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Beehavior: The Drones

Among all the frenzied activity in a hive, there are some bees that just don't really do much at all. While the workers are busy cleaning house, foraging for nectar and pollen, guarding the hive, raising young, controlling temperature, collecting water, building comb and attending to the queen, the drones, the males in the colony, live in luxury, without a care in the world. They benefit from their sisters' tireless industry and contribute nothing to the colony on which their survival depends. They eat all they want, sleep when and where they want, and bully the smaller workers. Since a stinger is a modified ovipositor, honeybee drones are stingless, so they can defend neither themselves nor the honey they jealously love and which they did nothing to produce. It's a wonder that their presence is tolerated (though perhaps grudgingly) in such a goal-oriented society at all.

Drones are expected to do only one job in their lives: to mate with a virgin queen. When not availing themselves of the colony's stored food, they spend their lives lazily hanging out with the boys away from the hive in places called drone congregation areas. There they spend hours each day playing poker and shooting pool, and talking about how their women are always nagging them to take out the garbage (or the bee equivalent) as they wait for a queen to fly by. Yes, they've got it tough, those drones.
It's still unknown how drone congregation areas are designated, but they are agreed-upon locations that are known by both the drones and the queens from all the hives in the general vicinity. Because a queen's nuptial flight is fraught with danger, and she risks her life by leaving the safety of the hive to mate (usually only once in her life), it makes sense that there should be a specific place for her to go in order to mate quickly and return to the hive. Congregation areas are also convenient for providing a genetic variety and preventing inbreeding. These areas are usually found in the same place year after year, which raises some interesting questions. How do the drones, who have never been to the congregation area before, know where it is? For that matter, how do the queens know where to find them? What are the criteria for an acceptable location for a congregation? Geographical features such as hills and valleys or water sources? And for that matter, what if the criteria are not met some year? Is there an alternative system for designating one? For now, these are among the secrets that the bees see fit to keep from us.

When the weather is good and a virgin queen takes off from her hive on her nuptial flight, she will fly to a local drone congregation area, exuding pheromones and flashing her best come-hither looks. The drones will fly after her and chase her down, mating with her while in flight. The mating itself takes place at relatively high altitude, out of sight of observers on the ground, and so is rarely witnessed by beekeepers. Unlike many other species, there is no competition between drones for the opportunity to mate with the queen - no battles to the death or chasing each other off, with the victor earning the right to mate. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, since drones don't have stingers, they lack the necessary evolutionary weapons for such battles, and secondly, because the queen flies through the area and does not stop, any drones who engaged in such contests would simply find the queen gone after taking the time to vanquish their rivals. So the drones who can fly fast enough to catch up to the queen get to mate with her, thus achieving their purpose in life. But here's where cruel irony steps in: the act of mating itself is fatal to the drones. Upon the release of sperm, the drone's reproductive organ (the endophallus) tears off, along with part of his abdomen, and remains attached to the queen, forming a plug that prevents the loss of sperm after copulation. (This is known as eversion, and it's said that there is actually an audible pop when the endophallus breaks off.) The mortally-wounded drone then falls to the ground and dies soon after. This plug also provides visible evidence of her successful mating flight, to be removed by the workers, when she returns to the hive.

Maybe it's because of this agonizing sexual suicide that the workers in a colony tolerate the presence of the boorish drones who treat them so cavalierly. It's possible that the girls feel some measure of pity for them. If that is the case, though, that pity and tolerance doesn't last. When the weather becomes colder and the colony prepares for winter, the workers turn on their brothers and physically eject them from the hive. Since mating season is over and the drones have big appetites, they are forced out in order to conserve the winter stores. Some drones will attempt to re-enter the hive and are killed. Others are resigned to their fate and remain close to the entrance, where they succumb to the cold or to starvation. It's tragic, in a way: these are the drones that were not fast enough fliers to earn the right to mate with a queen and die, and it almost seems to be a punishment for their physical shortcomings and inability to pass on their genes. If their life's purpose is not served during the warm season, then their contract with the colony, their own family, is voided and they are replaced in the spring.

Here's one last bit of information about drones that I find worth mentioning. Because the female workers are produced from fertilized (diploid) eggs and the male drones from unfertilized (haploid) eggs, honeybee drones do not have fathers. Their nearest male relative is a grandfather on their mother's side. Interesting stuff, no?

See you again soon. Maybe you should give your brother a call. Or better yet, why not send him a t-shirt?