What are bees doing? Making Honey

Honey, the golden flow.  The nectar of the Gods (or is that Mead?)  For us bees, it is the stuff of life.  Whatever you might think of honey, it’s not nearly as what it is to honey bees.

First of all, what is honey?  Honey is nectar, a sugary sap-like substance produced by flowers that is mostly water with varying amounts of sugars in it.  Actually honey is nectar that has been changed and dehydrated by the mixing of special enzymes found in every worker bees “Crop” also known as the honey gut.  We’ll gut more into that later.

First of all, flowers aren’t as nice as you think they are.  Oh sure, they want you look at them and say how pretty they are and how great they smell.  You don’t understand though, it’s all a plot.  Plants are conniving things that are manipulating us bees into helping them to multiply and take over the world.

It’s true.  See, for millions of years now, plants have been adding this addictive and tasty substance you call nectar to trick honey bees and some other insects into pollinating them and help them to reproduce, multiply and spread out.  With bee pollination, some flowering plants can take over entire landscapes and no-one bats an eye except to look at the pretty sight.

Puh-leeze.

They lure us in with this tantalizing nectar.  We brush past all the pollen, covering ourselves in it, drink up the nectar and store it to take home and share with the colony.  On the way, bees stop at other, similar flowers and as we go in for the nectar again, the pollen we picked up from the previous schemer is brushed off onto the next one helping it to reproduce more efficiently.

Meanwhile, we take the nectar home, mix in a variety of enzymes from our Crop and as we pass it to the next bee or into a stores cell, we mix even more of the “special enzyme mixture” into the nectar which, among other things, converts the sugars and helps to dehydrate the nectar until it’s only about 18% water.  When you consider that nectar starts out as maybe 80% water or more, that’s one heck of a transformation we put it through.

So it get’s converted, dehydrated, stored and then we save it and make more.  It gets eaten, eventually.  depending on the time of year or the season.  This is the primary food of all adult bees.  We do collect some of the pollen also to feed the brood but for adult bees, we get the good stuff.

However, we have to live with the knowledge that we are willing accomplices to plants’ diabolical plot to take over the world.  Really, when it all comes down to it, we don’t mind.  The plants and bees were here long before you people and we’ll pretty much bee here long after you are gone.  Not that I’m wishing anything bad on anyone, just, well, you know, that whole “Survival of the Fittest” thing.

A single honey bee colony in a beekeeper’s hive is capable of relatively easily producing anywhere from 50 to 300 pounds of honey depending on the resources, environment and weather.  Of course, it also depends on the bees.  I have got some cousins that, well, let’s just say if they don’t get motivated, they will be “Naturally Selected” before you can say “Honey”.

I have sisters who will spend their whole lives as a forager collecting about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey.  Don’t worry too much about it though, I have more sisters than most cities have people.  This is what they are made for.  True story.

My Momma, the Queen bee, she told me once, “Bubba Bee, when you’re sisters give you food, you’d better eat all they give you beecause that stuff took a whole lotta effort to make and we’re all counting on you to go make some future Queen bee mighty successful at laying eggs.  So you eat that honey and become healthy and strong.”

Truth bee told, my Momma didn’t call me “Bubba”.  She just said, “Boy”  beecause when she’s laying that many eggs to beecome drones, it’s hard to come up with that many different names.  One of my sisters did tell me once that one colony in a hive can fly a total (combining all the flights of all the foragers) of about 55,000 miles, getting nectar from approximately 2 million flowers just to make one pound of honey.

Did you realize that honey bees are considered to be the only insect that make food edible by humans?

You’re welcome.

What Are Beekeepers Doing? Using A Smoker

Perhaps one of the most commonly associated pieces of beekeeping equipment used is the Smoker.  It is also one of the most misunderstood pieces of equipment that beekeepers use that non-beekeepers have questions about.

Beekeeping smoker

Most people want to know why is it that beekeepers blow smoke into bee hives on on bees.  Short answer; Beekeepers don’t want to get stung.

The long answer takes multiple things into consideration:

  • Smoke “hides” a pheromone that serves as a combines warning system and “Call in the reserves!” alarm.  Fewer bees to fend off.
  • Smoke is thought to turn bees into “preppers” who stop everything and go gorge on honey in case there’s a forest fire or something.
  • Smoke can be used to “herd” bees into directions away from the direction the smoke is blown at them.  Useful to clear spaces of lots of bodies so as to inspect.

Beekeepers don’t particularly want to stress the bees out.  TO reduce stress, beekeepers usually use things that produce a “cool” smoke that isn’t so hot as to harm the hive or bees.

Nixon lights a smoker.jpg
By StubbsguyOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Beekeepers also usually prefer to use natural things to burn so as not to send poisonous fume into the hives.  Pine needles are a major favorite among beekeepers as it is non-toxic and tends to keep the smoke cool and “thick”.  Thick because then “less is more”.

When using beekeeping smokers properly, beekeepers are better able to inspect hives to keep them free of diseases and pests.  At the same time, the beekeeper is also keeping themselves and others in the surrounding area safe by not agitating bees.  Lastly, By properly using a smoker, beekeepers are keeping bee colonies less stressed and keep aggressiveness down.  Bees that get fired up to defend aggressively can experience high death rates due to many bees going out to defend and sting.  Beekeepers don’t want that.

File:Imkerarbeit.jpg
Working bees low stress. Avenarius at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

There are some other ways to work with bee hives that don’t involve a smoker, but it is tried and true, relatively easy for beginners to use and bee successful and serves as a constant reminder to the beekeeper that going into a hive is not something to do just for fun.  It’s a serious tool meant for doing serious deeds, like keeping bees healthy and alive.

What Are Bees Doing? Winter Warming

The honey bee colony forms a cluster or “ball” of bees crowding in together once temperatures get to about 59° F or lower.  The warmer it is, the bees hang out in a looser, less tightly crowded condition.  The colder it gets however, the more tightly they pack in next to each other.

Each bee is a walking thermometer and there are “outer bees” in the cluster and there are “inner bees” in the cluster.  The bees take turns being inner and outer bees over time.  All of the bees in the cluster generate heat by using “micro-vibration” in the thorax of the flight muscles.  To watch them, you can’t even tell that they are making any movements of that sort.

“Inner” bees are packed together less tightly than bees on the outside of the cluster.  That’s beecause their jobs, even while clustered, generate heat as well as care for the queen and any brood depending on the time of year.  When there is brood to care for honey bee clusters can and will maintain temperatures of up to 95° F and maintain it as long as there is enough food to keep burning the energy.

winter cluster “zones”

“Outer bees”, those that make up the variably one to thee inches of the cluster “shell” as it were, cluster much more tightly together in order to “insulate” the inside of the cluster through increasing bee density and minimizing the amount of surface area that gets cold.  When there is no brood to care for, bee clusters will “chill out” just a bit working enough to hold temps at about 55-ish ° F.  Enough to keep bees alive and able to move their muscles.

Bees typically “hold it” and wait to empty the waste in their bodies for times when the weather allows them to fly out and away from the hive to do so.  Unless they are ill or otherwise affected, bees won’t make a mess inside the hive.  At least, that kind of mess.

When the temperatures are warmer, the cluster loosens up and sometimes breaks into smaller clusters allowing bees to travel across the combs and even to move the whole cluster ball upwards towards the area where honey or food is still stored.  As the temperatures drop, the cluster re-forms and tightens up again.  Those bees that don’t make it back to the cluster often die.  Clusters that break up into smaller clusters spread apart in the hive that get caught unable to reform the larger cluster are also at risk of killing off the whole colony because there just aren’t enough bodies to keep each “mini-cluster” warm enough.

Bees that get too cold experience something called “torpor” which leads to dead bees.  It’s not the typical behavior of bees to put themselves in such a situation to experience torpor, but it can and does happen far more than any beekeeper would like to see.  Otherwise, honey bees cluster up and stay active and awake inside the hive all Winter long.

And that is what they are doing in there.

Bee A Supporter

There are so many people I get to talk with who want to know how they can do something to help bees.  Anything except be a beekeeper that is.

I understand.  Beekeeping isn’t something for everyone.  It takes just the right amount of agricultural interest combined with various degrees of insanity to want to be a beekeeper.

But still, the next best to help bees is to help beekeepers and bee-friendly gardeners and people who use hive products is to help them to bee more successful.

Help them to learn to bee better at what they do.  Help them have access to the resources that can help them bee more successful.  What better, more rewarding, and more fun way to do that than to bee a Bee Smart Patron?

A Bee Smart Patron is part making a donation and part being a subscriber to the “Bee Smart beekeeping project”.  When you go to our Patreon page and click the button to become a Patron, you can choose to support us at the $2.50, $5.00 pr $10.00 per month levels.  By supporting our ongoing efforts to inform, educate and entertain on all things bees and beekeeping, you help those beekeepers and people using hive products to make things and people who grow gardens using bee pollination to have those tools, information and resources and bee better.

At the same time, you become a subscriber to the Patron only Bee Smart Monthly Newsletter.  You get access to Patron only areas of the member forums at the Bee Smart website.  You even get discounts and special content just for being a Patron.

Helping bees and having access to the inside, down-low beehind the scenes activity of some of the coolest, most publicly interactive beekeepers in the country.  That’s what you are getting for such a small amount per month.

How awesome can you bee?

Don’t forget to share the link to the Bee Smart website and all the awesome stuff like podcasts, videos, downloads and bee article posts we add to daily.  the more visitors we have, the more people we bee useful too.

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Swarming And Varroa Infestation

In an interview on a German podcast about a year ago, Dr.Tom Seeley made some interesting points during the interview that I, as a self-proclaimed “Organic” beekeeper find very interesting and supporting of some of the points I often make in my own presentations and classes.

This isn’t to say that Dr. Seeley is an Organic beekeeper or that he claims to be, but from a research point of view he has made certain observations which to my mind, certainly seem to support some Organic beekeeping ideas.

One of the points Organic beekeepers make is that when at all possible, we want to mimic or emulate successful practices and behaviors of honey bee colonies that are feral or wild as opposed to doing things that might work contrary to “bee nature”.

Honey bee swarm in a tree. Image by Tony Sandoval

In this particular discussion, Dr. Seeley makes the point that swarming in a honey bee colony can actually have a positive effect on reducing Varroa mite populations in the nest.  This is accomplished primarily due to the exit of the large number of adult bees during the Primary swarm.  It is further impacted by the consequent lack of eggs being laid and there being a period of being brood-less in the hive in between the exit of the prior mature Queen and the beginning of the new mature queen beginning to lay eggs.

All in all, Dr. Seeley says that when a colony is allowed to swarm naturally, approximately 60 to 70% of all the adult bees in the hive depart with the prime swarm.  That number is a result of the facts that about 50% of mites are phoretic, meaning that they are parasitize adult bees instead of being in cells parasitizing larvae and capped pupae.  Of all those approximately 35% of all mites are removed from the nest because of the departing swarm.

File:Varroa destructor on the head of an emerging bee (5048710240).jpg
Varroa destructor on the head of an emerging bee By Gilles San Martin from Namur, Belgium [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
There can be a further reduction in mite population after a prime swarm departure due to the exit of after swarms, grooming behavior of remaining bees and lack of bees to parasitize due to not enough bees remaining to sustain a population of mites.

In terms of Organic hive management, this supports the practice of preferring to do splits in the Spring and Fall to reduce mite populations as opposed to using chemical treatments be they toxic or non-toxic chemicals.

Another interesting comment he made was that the practice of beekeeping by humans is contrary to the natural evolution of honey bee colonies which have evolved to excel in two areas due to Natural Selection.  Those two things being survival and reproduction which obviously go hand in hand.Beekeeping by people, by and large according to Dr. Seeley actively works to inhibit reproduction and suppress swarming.

Beekeepers tend to try to control reproduction and inhibit it by controlling drone populations (one of the common methods of controlling Varroa) and by inserting already fertilized, inseminated queens.  In regards to suppressing swarming, it is a common practice among beekeepers to manipulate hive boxes, especially in the Spring, to try to minimize or eliminate the chances of colonies swarming out so as to keep the hive population large for obtaining a larger honey harvest over the season.

Suppressing swarming is also a method used by many beekeepers as a way to try to keep larger populations inside the hives, thereby keeping more bees present to “work” the nest and keep pest populations down through the bees own nest behaviors.

It’s certainly some interesting information from a very well-respected and trusted bee researcher.  Even if one doesn’t consider themselves an Organic beekeeper, the knowing how swarms affect Varroa populations in the hive can certainly bee good to know about.

Listen to the “Radio Milkwood”podcast for more of the roughly 12 minute interview with Dr. Tom Seeley.

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Bringing You The Best Of The Buzz On Bees, Beekeepers and Beekeeping

Here at the Bee Smart beekeeping project, we want to bee the best we can bee.  A large part of that is working to bring you interesting, useful and entertain original content.

Beeginning today, Bee Smart beegins the next phase of bringing forth the buzz by doing a bit of news aggregation.  Meaning, we scour the world wide web every morning looking for noteworthy news and put it all together here in one place for you.   Beecause of that, we’ve also added a new category area to search in our posts, “Bee Newsworthy”

You will notice that we have already posted some interesting tidbits pulled from various news sources that we think you will find fits our description of “useful, interesting and entertaining”.

Later today, you will still get some of our original content as you are becoming used to seeing as well.  I hope you enjoy the news and notes here.  I know I like them.

 

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Bee Smart, Bee Informed Video Series. Episode 1 John Winkler

John Winkler from the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources was on the Bee Smart weekly podcast recently.  While we had a full audio episode, we thought you might like to see some video excerpts that focus on some of what John had to say about NRD land management practices and being bee friendly.

 

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Seeing is bee-lieving

Honey bees are extra-ordinary creatures.  There are so many interesting things to know about them that set them apart from every other creature in the world you could write every day in a lifetime and still not cover it all.

One of the fascinating things about bees is their vision.  The anatomy and physiology of what they eyes are and how they work to help bees do what the do is phenomenal!

First of all, bees have two sets of eyes.  There are the “simple eyes” technically called “ocelli” and there are the “complex” eyes which are the “Compound” eyes.  Except for bee larvae, they don’t have any eyes at that stage.

Bees live in a world of almost complete and total darkness when they are inside a hive.  Just like you and I, they need to find their way around in the dark.  The bigger eyes, the compound eyes, aren’t the best for that.  The ocelli are their answer to how to “see” in the dark.

There are three (3) small spots on the top of a honey bee’s head, between their antennae in a triangular layout.  Those are the ocelli.  Ocelli are only able to observe changes in light intensity, but that ability helps them do so much.

Apis mellifera, F, face, Maryland, Beltsville 2013-04-25-16.35.09 ZS PMax (8682047014)
By Sam Droege from Beltsville, USA [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Honey bees have two (2) large compound eyes.  These are the eyes we can see on the bees head on either side.  The compound eyes have multiple tiny facets with lenses (ommatidia) covering each eye.  Each of the three castes of bees has a different number of ommatidia.  For example, Queens have about 4,000, Workers have about 5,000 and Drones have around 8,000 of them.

The compound eyes do more than just “see things” for the bees.  Compound eyes are capable of forming images (seeing things), seeing in color (except red) including the ultra-violet spectrum, detecting movement, identify shapes and patterns, initiate head turning response, and seeing polarized light.

Not only that, but there are little hairs growing from the surface of the compound eyes and the bees use those hairs to detect air motion.  That is how we figure bees to be such interesting pilots because it allows them to gauge airflow speed and direction.

Whew! Those are some kind of eyes.

This is what some researchers tell us bee see things as…

image from http://www.neurobiologie.fu-berlin.de/Gumbert-Kunze.html

The biology of honey bees is a thing of technological wonder and artistic wonder.  The more we learn about these incredible little critters, the more we realize we have so much more to learn.

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