Thursday, March 15, 2012

Baskets full of pollen!

I did a double-take last Sunday when I was working in the bee yards; bees were returning to the hive with huge amounts of pale yellow pollen packed onto their hind legs.  Turning my eyes skyward I searched for exploding buds, since I figured this early blooming must be a tree, but I didn't identify anything.

 These bees are packing pollen in their corbiculae, a divot on their 
back legs also familiarly called a pollen basket 
(Zimmerpeople Hive)

Later that evening I looked up Jim Kloek's excellent website to see if he was seeing pollen in his hives.  He had posted the following:
A couple beekeepers told me they saw their bees bringing in pollen. There isn't pollen quite yet. The bees are going to bird feeders or deer feeders and picking up dust off of the feed. They will get this seed or corn dust and bring it back to the hive as pollen. Bees will also collect fine sawdust in the very early spring. I knew a beekeeper that someone was building a treated lumber deck across the street from his hive. The bees went over and brought back the treated lumber sawdust. The treated lumber had an insecticide in it. The colony died as the result of this. Pollen may start coming in as the frost leaves the ground.  If there are pussy willows in your area watch them for bees working for available pollen.
I like and respect Jim, especially as a beekeeper, but this post made it seem as if he were living in a different reality than I was.  The first four inches of the soil in my bee yards is defrosted and the possibility that eight hives out of ten were finding that much saw dust or bird seed to pack on, let alone the likelihood that they would, seemed doubtful to me. 

Honey bees feeding on over-wintered honey
(Konar-Steenburg Hive)

In fact, the bird seed/saw dust story sounds apocryphal to me.  What would attract a bee to a bird feeder or a construction site?  More to come on this as research time allows.  ;)

Just because the bees are finding pollen doesn't mean that they're finding much nectar, though.  Not knowing what kind of pollen the bees are bringing back means I can't tell how much nectar that tree produces in its blossoms.

This morning the Saint Paul Pioneer Press ran an article on the early spring and included a segment on the bee hive at Woodlake Nature Center in Richfield.  
The latest early sign of spring at Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield happened Tuesday afternoon, March 13, when naturalist Scott Ramsay was watching the center's honeybees carry their dead from the hive - honeybee spring cleaning. 
A closer look revealed that some of the bees had what are called pollen baskets on their legs."I've never seen them collect pollen this early," Ramsay said. "Tree pollen usually is not out until the first week The of April." 
Honey bees were out collecting tree pollen earlier than usual at Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield. The yellow balls seen on this bee's hind leg is pollen packed into a depression on the leg called the corbicula.  
 The bees were gathering the pollen from the center's silver maples, several of which sported swollen buds. Some elderberry shrubs at the nature center had also begun to bud, and a few plants were poking their tops out of the thawing ground. 
By the solar measure, the first day of spring this year is March 20. But in phenology - the examination of plant and animal cycles and how they relate to climate - a number of signs in nature can mark the beginning of spring. One of the first in Minnesota is the return of the male red-winged blackbird, which winters in the South.  They arrived at Wood Lake on Saturday, 10 March, a full ten-days early.
Welcome spring. 

Honeybee Deaths Linked to Corn Insecticides

As a beekeeper that made the decision early-on to tend my bees without the use of any kind of chemicals introduced into the hive environment, the conclusion of this research comes as no surprise.  
However, it is good to know that progress is being made to provide activists with solid scientific evidence of the effects of agricultural chemicals on the very pollinators that agriculture relies on for product.
If you've ever watched a colony of bees, you know better than to introduce chemicals into the mix.
From ABC News:
New research shows a link between an increase in the death of bees and insecticides, specifically the chemicals used to coat corn seeds.
The study, titled “Assessment of the Environmental Exposure of Honeybees to Particulate Matter Containing Neonicotinoid Insecticides Coming from Corn Coated Seeds,” was published in the American Chemical Society’sEnvironmental Science & Technology journal, and provides insight into colony collapse disorder.
Colony collapse disorder, or the mass die-off of honeybees, has stumped researchers up to now. This new research may provide information that  could lead to even more answers.
According to the new study, neonicotinoid insecticides “are among the most widely used in the world, popular because they kill insects by paralyzing nerves but have lower toxicity for other animals.”
Beekeepers immediately observed an increase in die-offs right around the time of corn planting using this particular kind of insecticide.
Pneumatic drilling machines suck the seeds in and spray them with the insecticide to create a coating before they are planted in the ground. Researchers suspected the mass die-offs could have been caused by the particles of insecticide that were released into the air by the machines when the chemicals are sprayed.
The researchers tested several methods to make the drilling machines safer for bees. However, they found that all variations that used the neonicotinoid insecticides continued to cause mass die-offs of bees.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Second Colony Loss- RIP Davnie Hive

I had posted excitedly on Saturday that only one of United Nectar's urban apiaries had not survived the winter.  After partially-disassembling most of the hives on Saturday, I can now report that the Davnie Hive is also dead.

Unlike the Hilty Hive, which had recently perished, the Davnie colony seems to have been long dead; the odor of decomposing bees alone told me that. Though both the Hive Host and I had witnessed loud buzzing and many bees coming and going as recently as the day before, I now believe that these bees were robbing any honey that might have been left in the defunct hive, of which I found a small amount.

The Davnie Hive was a late installation due to the tornadoes in Spring 2011 that delayed the arrival of the Buckfast Carniolan bees that I had ordered through Cannon Bee.  I can only think that this colony didn't get well-enough established to make it through the winter.
Feeding Honey Bees

Late Winter/Early Spring:

It's 10 AM CDT and sunny, 60 F in the shade and lots of activity in all three hives within walking distance with a cup of coffee in my hand.  I'm off to the bee yards to feed sugar syrup and pollen patties. Let the bee season begin!

It may be counter-intuitive to feed bees something to eat in order to have them make honey for you to eat, but feeding is only done at specific times during the year and for very specific reasons.

There is often a period in the late winter/early spring where the bees become active, come out for their euphemistic "cleansing flight" and begin to build comb again.  During this period there is usually nothing blooming yet hence there is no natural source of forage for the honey bees.

In my experience (2006-2012) the bees come out for their cleansing flight between 15 and 25 February.  This year, of course, I had bees out on Christmas Day, in January and multiple days in February, so I was doubly worried that this increased activity would lead to decreased stores of honey and pollen.  This was true in about one third of the hives; the rest still had plenty of honey in their top boxes, so I didn't open the hives any further.

This is also the time of year -in Minnesota- when the queen starts to lay eggs for the spring brood since a worker bee takes about 21 days to develop from an egg to a hatched bee ready to take up work in the hive.

In order to supply enough carbohydrates to keep the colony going until the first bloom when nectar will be available, especially if there is a shortage of honey in the hive, the beekeeper feeds a 1:1 ration sugar syrup to the bees.  To get the over-wintered bees nutritionally up to snuff for feeding larvae, beekeepers often feed a protein patty, or pollen-replacement patty, to increase the amount of protein in their diet.

Spring Sugar Syrup:

There are three types of sugar syrup that can be used to augment the honey bee diet, each with a special formulation and a specific seasonal purpose:

1:2 ratio
This ratio of sugar to water makes a very light syrup that is most frequently used in late winter and early spring to stimulate egg laying.  Mix 1 cup sugar to 2 cups water and heat to dissolve.  Cool entirely before feeding.

1:1 ratio
This ratio of sugar to water makes a medium weight syrup that is used most frequently to feed brood larvae in spring or summer, or to enhance the drawing of comb.  Mix 1 cup sugar to 1 cup water and heat to dissolve.  Cool entirely before feeding.

2:1 ratio
This ratio of sugar to water makes a heavy syrup that is used most frequently to increase honey stores in fall or early winter.  Mix 2 cups sugar to 1 cup water and heat to dissolve.  Cool entirely before feeding.

Pollen Patty:
Before the advent of commercial pollen replacement, beekeepers would mix their own recipe of dry ingredients with honey or sugar syrup to feed their bees.  Now that buckets of pollen replacement powder are readily available the recipe is in the hands of the manufacturer, so it is important to find out what is in the different mixes and which you prefer.

This recipe is from the Southeastern Michigan Beekeepers Association web site

Pollen Patty Recipe for stimulating brood production:
(Makes a 1.5 pound patty)

Dry Part
1.5 cups (8oz.) fat-free soy flour
.5 cup (1oz.) Brewer’s yeast

Sugar Syrup
1.5 cups (12oz.) granulated sugar
.75 cup (6oz.) Hot water
Mix dry ingredients and add slowly to syrup until mixture is like stiff bread dough. Press between wax paper. Place patty over cluster with wax paper up.

Some beekeepers mix a bit of natural pollen into the patty in place of the soy flour, but this quickly gets expensive.  This year I don't believe I will have to feed much pollen replacement as already yesterday I saw bees coming back to the hive in three different neighborhoods laden with a pale yellow pollen.  Unbelievably, something out there is blooming on 11 March.

There is more chemistry to feeding than I am able to wrap my head around right now,  I find myself more concerned with the survival of the colonies than in maximizing their production because I don't know enough about it yet; this is sometimes frustrating and I get a creeping feeling that I am not doing the best by my bees.

For now I am doing the best that I can do.  This salient piece of advice from the sadly now-defunct Hirschbach Apiary site captures the effort to keep colonies going until local fauna blooms:

"To properly manage your hives you need to be an expert on the local flora and fauna.  Know what is blooming and when.  What are significant nectar sources?  What are the flows and how long do they last?  All these factors are what drive the hive. 

When the temps hit the 50s and the last frost has come, you want to make that first inspection you have been dying to make since you saw the first bee emerge.  During this inspection you want to assess the condition of the colony.  Make sure there are eggs and make sure there are enough bees to cover the entire brood nest.  

If there are not enough bees or the hive seems weak, they may need a feeding jump start.  Honey from a trusted source, preferably their own, is the best bet but if you don't have that, sugar syrup is the next best bet."

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Genetic Differentiation found in Honey Bees

Though I think that anyone who has watched a hive would agree, this just in from the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois:

Honeybees may have personality

Honeybees may have personality

Bees have different “personalities”, with some showing a stronger willingness or desire to seek adventure than others, according to a study by entomologists at the University of Illinois.
The researchers found that thrill-seeking is not limited to humans and other vertebrates. The brains of honeybees that were more likely than others to seek adventure exhibited distinct patterns of gene activity in molecular pathways known to be associated with thrill-seeking in humans.
The findings present a new perspective on honeybee communities, which were thought to be highly regimented and comprised of a colony of interchangeable workers taking on a few specific roles to serve their queen.
It now seems as though individual honeybees differ in their desire to perform particular tasks and these differences could be down to variability in bees’ personalities. This supports a 2011 study at Newcastle University which found that honeybees exhibit pessimism, suggesting that the insects might have feelings.
Gene Robinson, entomology professor and director of the Institute for Genomic Biology, said: “In humans, differences in novelty-seeking are a component of personality. Could insects also have personalities?”
Robinson and his team studied two behaviors that looked like novelty seeking: scouting for new nest sites and scouting for food. When a colony outgrows its living quarters, the swarm must hunt for a new home. Around five percent of the swarm goes hunting for new lodgings. These “nest scouts” are around 3.4 times more likely than their peers to also become food scouts, researchers discovered.
“There is a gold standard for personality research and that is if you show the same tendency in different contexts, then that can be called a personality trait,” Robinson said.
In order to understand the molecular basis for these differences, Robinson and his colleagues used whole-genome microarray analysis to look for differences in the activity of thousands of genes in the brains the thrill-seeking and non thrill-seeking bees. They found thousands of differences in gene activity.
In humans and animals, thrill-seeking behavior is thought to be linked to how the brain’s reward system responds. In bees, researchers found lots of differently expressed genes that were connected to proteins and hormones that imply novelty-seeking in vertebrates.
In order to test whether the changes in brain signalling caused the novelty-seeking, researchers gave bees extra glutamate and octapamine which increased scouting in bees that had not scouted before. Blocking dopamine signalling decreased scouting behavior. “Our results say that novelty-seeking in humans and other vertebrates has parallels in an insect. One can see the same sort of consistent behavioral differences and molecular underpinnings,” said Robinson.
Robinson believes that insects, humans and other animals have made use of the same genetic “toolkit” in the evolution of behavior, which each species has adapted. “It looks like the same molecular pathways have been engaged repeatedly in evolution to give rise to individual differences in novelty-seeking,” he concluded.
Thanks to Alison G. for the tip!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Spring Inventory

I was out touring the bee yards today in the warm sunshine. It was 68 F in Minneapolis today, quite remarkable weather for 10 March.
There were people out everywhere: riding and walking around the lakes and along the river, sweeping sidewalks, just sitting in lawn chairs fetched from the garage to absorb the rays.  Any excuse and no excuse at all were good enough to be out today.

The bees were taking great advantage of the weather, too. I'm not sure if all of the colonies had been out previously for a "cleansing flight" -honey bees don't poop all winter in the hive and on the first nice day in late winter will leave the comfort of the cluster to go out and poop en masse.  

I do know this was not the first day for the white colony in our yard, which was out on Christmas Day, on Boxing Day and was out again a couple of weeks ago, but it was the first day out for the yellow colony for which I have been anxious since they were not out with the others.

I believe that the difference between the extra-apiary activity between the hives is that the white hive in in full sun and the yellow hive is in the sun for only a short part of the morning. Clearly the white hive is warmer and the bees are more active.

The great news for Spring 2012 is that all but one of the urban colonies made it through the winter! This is in stark contrast to 2011, when every last urban colony died. Frankly, this comes as an enormous relief to me, since it was emotionally ruinous to lose that many colonies last year. I was actually dragging my feet getting out to the bee yards this spring because I really didn't want to face that kind of devastation again.

The one hive that I lost, the Hilty hive, starved to death. This hive is in partial sun all day long, under a large Silver Maple tree.  Many of the bees were dead on the comb still in good enough shape that they seemed to be frozen in place, but handfuls here and there were in the classic starvation pose, head-down in a cell trying to get the very last bit of honey out.  

I can't be certain when these bees died; the bodies were not in any way decomposed, and the strange thing was that there were small pools of thin honey on the tops of several frames, but still. I should have checked on these bees a month ago.  I am not surprised that finding a lost colony doesn't get any easier for me even with experience.  

One of the things that this winter has shown me is that beekeeping is a fickle science, if what I am doing can even be called a science.  In the fall I purposely wrapped some hives, placed entrance reducers and moisture boards and all, as advised.  Other hives I left unwrapped and put in mouse barriers, which reduced the amount of wind that could get in the hive, but didn't block the entrance like a reducer does.  Some hives were in full sun, some in partial sun, some in majority shade.  All hives had what I hoped would be adequate stores of honey.

I worried during the winter, especially after seeing my white colony out numerous times, that the bees would be more active than usual due to the warmer-than-normal temperatures and the lack of snow.  I was anxious that this greater activity might lead to the bees going through their stores of honey faster than usual.  Perhaps this was the case with the Hilty hive?

Consequently, tomorrow all of the hives will be given pollen patties (to build up the protein in the bees to prepare them for brood care) and a bucket of sugar syrup to get them through until the first bloom, which in Minnesota is usually early April. We know, however, that there is NOTHING USUAL about this winter, so it might be earlier.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

What's in pollen?

When it comes to replacing pollen in the bees' diet, consider the chemical analysis of the real thing:

Provitamin A 
B-1 Thiamine 
B-2 Riboflavin 
B-3 Niacin 
B-6 Pyridoxine 
Panthothenic acid 
B-12 (cyanocobalamin) 
Folic acid 
Vitamin C 
Vitamin D 
Vitamin E 
Vitamin K 

Enzymes Proteins - Amino Acids 
Cytochrome systems 
Lactic dehyrogenase 
Succinic dehydrogenase 
Aspartic Acid 
Glutamic acid 

Nucleic acids 
Phenolic acid 
Alpha-amino-butyric acid