Thursday, March 21, 2013

Outside My Comfort Zone

Perhaps the autumn die-off of nearly half of the United Nectar hives was a gift in disguise. How so, you ask?

WomenVenture is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting women-owned businesses by providing microloans, working capital, education and ongoing consultation through all stages of business.

In early March I began a WomenVenture small business class through the generosity of a grant from the Kingfield Neighborhood Association.  The 'Be Strategic' class is aimed at people who have been in business but want to take a more professional approach to growing that business.

I have spent the last seven years learning how to tend hives; every visit to the apiary teaches me something new.  That said, I have not succeeded as well at splitting my time and energy between my family, my apiary and my full-time job.  

I am reaching outside my comfort zone being so planful. United Nectar was born out of my love of beekeeping and I have been following my bliss, as they say.  With a job and two kids, pets and all that entails, I have not taken the time to sit down and look at the iniative long-term.  Also, subjecting my ideas to the scrutiny of others does not come naturally, so the class is certainly a stretch for me. 

Because of the class workload, I have decided not to replace any of the colonies that failed last fall.  I will split the remaining colonies and tend them throughout the summer and the lighter workload will allow me to finish the class and come up with a sustainable business and financing plan for United Nectar.  My goal is to tend hives seasonally and work part-time in the winter.

So far the class has been fruitful.  United Nectar now has a Mission Statement:

In support of honey bees and a balanced environment, United Nectar tends healthy, sustainable hives producing high-quality minimally-processed raw honey and beeswax for sale and resale.

My goal is to create a business where I can keep bees, mentor new beekeepers, teach beekeeping and honey education classes and sell honey, beeswax and value-added apiary products both wholesale and retail.

The trick will be to hammer out the numbers for a financially feasible business model and find some funding.  I have no doubt, given the current environment, that the business, planned-well, will be successful.

Onward & Upward!

Neonicotinoid Lawsuit Filed!

With the bad news today that the Monsanto rider was approved in the Senate today, this lawsuit comes at a good time.  The use of neonicotinoids has to be stopped one way or another.


EPA Slapped With Lawsuit Over Ongoing Bee Deaths

Uncle Sam is blamed for not doing enough to stop harmful pesticides from decimating bee populations and threatening our food supply.
EPA Slapped With Lawsuit Over Ongoing Bee Deaths
Can the government do more to protect honey bees from dying? (Photo: Getty Images)A group of beekeepers and environmentalists announced today that they are suing the Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to curb the use of insecticides they say are decimating bee populations and putting our nation’s food supply in jeopardy.
The four beekeepers and five environmental and consumer groups involved in the lawsuit, including the Pesticide Action Network, Center for Food Safety and Beyond Pesticides, say the link between neonicotinoids—a nicotine-like class of pesticides that include clothianidin and thiamethoxam—and bee die offs is crystal clear. And they claim the EPA acted outside the law when it allowed for “conditional registration” of their use. Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science are the primary manufacturers of clothianidin and thiamethoxam.
“We are taking the EPA to court for its failure to protect bees from pesticides,” Paul Towers, spokesperson for the Pesticide Action Network, tells TakePart. “Despite our best efforts to warn the agency about the problems posed by neonicotinoids, the EPA continued to ignore the clear warning signs of an ag system in trouble.”

Towers says the bee shortage for this year’s California almond crop, a story we told you about a few weeks ago, was proof enough that the EPA needs to act now, and must reconsider this class of pesticides.

Unlike older classes of pesticides, says Towers, neonicotinoids are applied before planting to coat seeds. The pesticide is then taken up through the vascular system of the plant and expressed through the pollen and nectar, which bees rely on for food. Their introduction onto farms in the mid-2000s, also coincides with more widespread bee colony collapses than had been seen before.
“These are persistent pesticides,” he says. “They remain in the soil and persist into the next generation of plants.”
This isn’t just a California problem. The finger pointing has been active across the country, including Ohio, where bees are needed to pollinate more than 70 crops, including apples, pumpkins and berries. Bee die offs there were rampant last spring. (Bayer, by the way, sponsored seminars for beekeepers in Ohio—a move that stung critics. Doh!) And the story is repeated from Illinois to the Carolinas. The Europeans are alarmed at bee population crashes as well, and tried to limit a trio of pesticides, but failed.
On Tuesday, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) called for a ban on their use, because, they say, the pesticides have moved up the food chain and are now impacting song birds.
“A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird,” said Cynthia Palmer, pesticides program manager for ABC, one of the nation’s leading bird conservation organizations. “Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid—called imidacloprid—can fatally poison a bird. And as little as 1/10th of a neonicotinoid-coated corn seed per day during egg-laying season is all that is needed to affect reproduction.”
University of California-Davis apiculturist Eric Mussen tells TakePart that the disappearance of bees is extraordinarily complicated. Pesticides, nutrition, disease and mites can all play a role in colony collapse disorder, and that scientists simply don’t know what’s causing bees to vanish at a 30 percent rate.
“It’s a combination of all these things. I certainly wouldn’t let the neonicotinoids off the hook. They are negatively impacting honeybees and other insects that we don’t know anything about, but if the neonicotinoids were yanked from the market, I don’t anticipate seeing a rapid return to the ‘good old days’ of pre-mite 5-10 percent losses,” he says.
When you go into thriving hives versus collapsed hives, the chemical soup scientists measure is still the same, says Mussen.
“But there is something different between the two. We still haven’t determined what that is.”

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Welcome, Spring!

It's been a snowy winter and, since this week is the Vernal Equinox, I am looking forward to Spring. I wound up the fall with a lot of colony losses and was pretty dispirited about what that was going to mean for the apiary both in population and in financial terms.

The biggest stress factor last summer was some unseasonable hive moves that had to be made mid-summer. 
  • One hive, of a long-standing hive host family with three children very interested in the bees, had to be moved because of a the discovery of a sting allergy on the part of the new family dog. Sorry, Maggie!
  • One hive, of a long standing hive host family with chickens and a killer garden, because of my ineptitude with the Saint Paul licensure process.
  • Two other hives in Saint Paul for the same reason.
  • A new hive had to be moved because of an insistent neighbor who refused to sign the license.
Though my long-suffering assistant and I started out early each morning, we needed to move too many hives too close in succession and the moving ran into mid-day twice, which was really bad for the bees and very exhausting both physically and mentally.

Because of the large number of colonies lost at the end of the summer, I had a lot of equipment to get back into the garage.  Consequently, I didn't get my honey extracted while it was still warm.  Feeling pretty demoralized, I didn't heat up the garage to extract, so I'm looking forward to getting that done this spring.  Fear not, hive hosts, the honey is coming!

I learned a lot last summer about organization and realized how thin I'd spread myself. I learned a lot about moving hives.  I learned a lot about what NOT TO DO.

Monday, June 18, 2012

UCD worker wins award for rare photo of bee sting in action

By Andrea Gallo
Published: Thursday, Jun. 14, 2012


A rare photograph of a honeybee stinging a man, with its abdominal tissue trailing behind, was more than 100 years in the making.

UC Davis communications specialist Kathy Keatley Garvey in the Department of Entomology said she has taken at least 1 million photos of honeybees in her lifetime, but this snapshot won the first-place gold feature photo award in an Association for Communication Excellence competition. The international organization includes communicators, educators and information technologists.

Garvey has bees in her blood: As dairy farmers, her father and grandfather kept bees to pollinate their orchards. She said bees have been in her family since around 1850.

Garvey recognized an opportune time to capture this photo when she was walking with a friend. A bee came close to him and started buzzing at a high pitch. She said that's normally a telltale sign that a bee is about to sting, so she readied her camera and snapped four photos.

The images showed the progression of the sting, but the most interesting part was that the bee's abdominal tissue lingered behind, she said.

"As far as I know, nobody's been able to record anything like this," Garvey said. She said the only time she's seen it illustrated was in a textbook.

She said her love of bees led her to create a garden in her backyard so she can constantly observe and photograph them.

"I always see something different in every bee," she said.

Friday, June 15, 2012

How Your Plants Pollinate

From the fabulous folks down at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, IA, a great article explaining plant pollination:

How your plants pollinate

Our teaching garden at Seed Savers Exchange demonstrates important seed saving concepts. Throughout the season, I’ll take you on a tour to discuss some of these concepts. The first stop on our tour is the Pollination bed. It is important that seed savers understand how their plants pollinate in order to prevent varieties in the same species from cross-pollinating. In this bed we are growing tomatillos, spinach, amaranth and cucumbers to demonstrate different flower types.
Flowers exist to facilitate pollination, which occurs when pollen is transferred from the male anther to the female stigma. In some plants, this occurs before the flower even opens. In other plants, pollinators such as humans, insects, or wind are required to transfer the pollen.
Tomatillos have perfect flowers. These flowers have both male and female organs, allowing for self-pollination. Tomatillos are “selfers” that can pollinate before their flower even opens.
Selfers are good plants to choose if you are a beginning seed saver. Selfers include tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, and lettuce. And remember, in nature there are always exceptions to the rule—just because a plant can self-pollinate doesn’t mean that it can’t cross pollinate.

Female spinach plant

Male spinach plant

Spinach and cucumber have imperfect flowers. These flowers have either male or female organs. If male and female flowers are on different plants, the species isdioecious. In order to produce seed, pollen must travel from male plants to the female plants. Spinach is dioecious, and requires the wind to pollinate. Asparagus is also dioecious, and relies on insects for pollination.

Female cucumber flower

Male cucumber flower

Cucumber flowers are imperfect as well. However, cucumbers—as well as squash, melons, watermelons, and gourds—are monoecious, with male and female flowers on the same plant. Notice the immature fruit at the base of the female flower pictured above. In the Cucurbitaceae family, insects are required to transfer pollen from male flowers to female flowers for pollination to occur. Corn is also a monoecious plant with imperfect flowers (the tassels represent the male flowers, and the developing ears represent the female flowers), though corn relies on wind for pollination.
Take a few minutes to identify male and female flowers in your home garden. Congratulations you are officially one step closer to becoming a seed saver!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

From today's New York Times:

Posh Hotels Are Buzzing With Tiny New Guests: Bees

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hive Division

Since I got lucky this year and my hives didn't all die over the winter, I get to do hive divisions this year!  Since I've never done them before I decided to start at home in case I made a real disaster of the procedure.

Hive division is the beekeeper's method of controlling colony growth and preventing swarming, which happens when a hive becomes too small for the number of bees. Throughout the year, but especially in the spring, a beekeeper looks for signs of the hive getting too crowded.

 In nature, when the colony becomes too big for the cavity in which it lives, the colony will communicate that swarming -more commonly called supersedure in beekeeping- is imminent and several queen cells will be made and the eggs laid in them will be tended as "queen cells".  This is done in order to raise a new queen for the colony that stays behind.

Though the eggs in the queen cells is the same as every other egg in the brood nest, these larvae will be fed differently than the others.  The difference in the quantity and quality of the food fed to the larvae is what determines the caste of the bee, as the increased frequency and greater nutrition leads to hormone system functionality in queen larvae that does not develop in the larvae of worker bees.

Specifically, the food provided to the queen cells -often called "royal jelly"- contains a much higher rate of mandibular gland secretions of the attendant nurse bees than do worker larvae, it also contains more sugars.  Additionally, the queen larvae are fed much more frequently than the workers.  According to the wonderful book 'Biology of the Honey Bee' by Mark L. Winston (currently the definitive book on honey bee biology), "...queens literally swim in a sea of brood food."

Queen larvae surrounded by royal jelly in their cells

This quantitative and qualitative difference in nutrition stimulates the stretch receptors of the mid-gut of the larva, which leads to an increased release of "juvenile hormone" by the larva's corpora allata, a large organ located in the esophagus.  The juvenile hormone in turn influences the production of other hormones active in the development of the bees cardio system, the brain and the nervous system.  All of this happens quite quickly, as the caste of a larva is decided by the fourth day of development.

Back to the topic of divisions...

Once a queen has laid eggs in queen cells and the colony knows that supersedure is underway, the queen will leave the hive and take the older half of the worker bees with her.  The colony will leave behind enough food and enough nurse bees to continue tending the brood in the hive.  As these nurse bees age, they will become foragers for the colony left behind.

When the queen larvae become pupae, their cells are capped and they continue to develop within the cells, out of sight.  Because the queen is substantially larger than a worker bee, the queen cells are built out on the face of the frame, hang slightly downward and are readily identifiable.  Supersedure cells are built on the bottom of the frame.

Supersedure (queen) cells hanging from the bottom of the frame
(Leominster Beeman)

The first of the queens to hatch will then kill the other queens in their cells, makes her "virgin flight" and then begin laying eggs for the colony. 

Meanwhile, the swarm of bees -the departing queen and workers that have left the hive with her- will cluster on a tree branch.  While they are huddled, scout bees are going out to look for a new cavity in which to establish their nest.

A swarm of honey bees
(Leominster Beeman)

A swarm of bees is very vulnerable and since the bees have neither a nest nor brood to defend, they are very docile.  Once a scout has found a good spot for the new nest, the swarm will move  to that location and begin to build honey and brood comb and the queen will begin laying eggs. A new hive established.