About Michael Andree

Based out of the Butte County Cooperative Extension in Oroville, CA I am a member of the “Bee Team” created by the Bee Informed Partnership as a tool to help bridge the gap between scientists and beekeepers. The team works directly with bee breeders in the field and has been coined as those with their “boots on the ground”. We assemble field and lab data through hive inspections, surveys, and sample collection. The data and samples we accumulate are processed by the Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, MD where reports for beekeepers are generated. Our most essential duty is to report results to beekeepers empowering them to make more informed management decisions.

Universal Hive

Universal hives making yellow star thistle honey in  Northern CA

Universal hives making yellow star thistle honey in Northern CA

The universal hive can be used to solve many everyday beekeeping challenges including how to maximize the potential and ultimately the production of a hive by means of increasing its worth through the diversification of its function. Beekeepers can be measured by their ability to act and react to an ever changing environment. They possess a working knowledge of bee biology and use experience, ingenuity, innovation, and common sense to manage their hives. Those that exercise the most applied and efficient management practices often reap the most benefits. Balancing practicality, efficiency, quantity, and quality is an art that can take a lifetime to master. An excellent example of this is the universal hive. It encompasses all of the things mentioned above and probably many that aren’t…

The universal hive has a simple design with a few minor modifications that can transform an 8 or 10 frame hive body, commonly used to house a single colony of bees, into a dual colony 2 queen system. The beauty is in the simplicity of its design and utility. For anyone with the know-how, construction seems rather straightforward and requires few extras in terms of materials and manufacturing. I am not a carpenter and do not have any experience building bee hives so I will let the pictures do the talking. Hopefully, there is enough there to get a person started if he or she so wishes.

The universal hive can be used as single or dual queen systems for pollination services and honey production but can also be used to make splits, increases or fill dead equipment. Furthermore, because the hive can be divided into two sections that houses separate colonies they make exceptional mating nucs. Just plop a couple of cells between brood on either or both sides of the division board, flood your mating yard with drones, hope for some good weather, and let nature do the rest.

A Wooten Golden Queen

A Wooten Golden Queen

When using the universal hive to make honey with the divider board engaged just add a queen excluder and start piling supers on top. If you’d rather not use the excluder, you could make a split/increase using one queen right side of the box, remove the division board allowing the remaining colony to expand and let the bees do their work. The same principle can be applied when the unit is to be used for pollination services. Splits/increases can be made in spring/summer/fall to boost hive numbers in preparation for almond pollination or the hives can be deployed as single or dual queen systems; both of which should keep you on track for that 8 frame average some almond growers’ desire. Replacing dead outs is a snap when you have a couple of universal hives in your yards. Use one side of the universal hive to replace the dead out and remove the division board from the universal hive allowing the remaining colony to take it over.

Clicking on the pictures embedded in this post will allow you to view descriptions that give examples of how the hives are constructed and what they can be used for.

Image Collection

As honey bee researcher’s photos are used to document everything from locations and landscapes to sampling events and equipment to the condition of colonies, honey bees and/or related pests and pathogens. Recently, our Northern California Tech Transfer Team used images taken in the field to help confirm the diagnosis of a European Foulbrood outbreak in an almond orchard. Some of the images I take are good; some are ok but most are bad. From my experience hundreds of pictures yield but a few images worthy of sharing.

We are currently in the process of putting together a collection of images that we hope to use for a manual that will be created to document the work we are doing as part of the Bee Informed Partnership. The manual will be produced for use as a training tool for future employees and as a guide for those looking to mimic what we do in the field and in the lab. Organizing, categorizing and assessing images is time consuming and often difficult. Many times what appears to be a terrible picture at first can sometimes end up telling a story about something completely different than what the photographer initially set out to capture. It is fun to peruse the images you have taken and imagine the picture coming to life. There have been a number of times where my images have both confirmed and denied initial interpretations and observations making them a powerful analytical instrument. Working toward the creation of our field and lab manual has forced me to go through many of the pictures I have collected but neglected to take a hard look at over the last six years.

One of the finest pictures I came across was from a dissection I did during an experiment in which we were testing the effects of different storage media on the tissues of honey bees. At the time I was really into Snodgrass’s The Anatomy of a Honey Bee. I would study his drawings and then dissect bees with the goal of matching up what I was seeing under the scope with what Snodgrass had drawn in his book. I was and still am amazed at the detail of his depictions and have a profound respect and admiration for his patience, skill, and brilliance…As I got better and better at performing the dissections I began to challenge myself with dissections that would produce the opportunity to capture and exemplify the level of skill I had myself acquired through the 10’s of thousands of dissections I had completed. One of the most stimulating of those challenges was capturing images of glands because of how delicate the tissues that comprise those organs are. Sometimes I would even try to match up things I observed in the field with things I had noticed under the scope and vice-versa. One such case was that of the Scent or Nasanov gland. This gland is easily recognizable by anyone who is or has been willing to spend time observing honey bees in the field and knows when and where to look for it.

Honey bee worker showing Nasanov gland

Honey bee worker showing Nasanov gland


There is not a lot of information out there about the exact purpose or function of the Nasanov gland and some of what is available is contradictory. However, most would agree that gland is employed for the purposes of organization, assimilation, and orientation especially in a swarming event. One of the more interesting pieces of information I ran across was from a study done by Jacobs (1924) where the conclusion was made that scent glands, “are also present in Apis dorsata, florea, indica, adamsoni, and unicolor showing a progressive development in this order from dorsata to mellifera”. Snodgrass provides solid references of early works in The Anatomy of the Honey Bee and a simple Google search of the Nasonov Gland will produce results reviewing literature published to date. When I captured the image below I was less concerned with its function then I was with being able to dissect a bee while keeping the gland intact enough to capture an image of it (which can be just as challenging as the dissection itself). The two images identify the gland from the outside and inside of a worker honey bee.
Ventral view of tergum VII of the worker

Ventral view of tergum VII of the worker

The Wyoming State Beekeepers Assoc. and the North Platte River

Last week I blogged about my trip to the University of Maryland to visit our diagnostic lab. This week I am writing about traveling to Wyoming for business and pleasure…

On December 7th I was given the opportunity to speak in front of the Wyoming State Beekeepers Association at their Annual Conference. Don Bryant was in charge of organizing the event held in Casper, Wyoming. Don runs between 5,000-7,000 colonies of bees for honey production and pollination with the help of his two sons Brandon and Brady. Don’s invitation to speak to the association was a chance for me to share the goals of our program with a new group of beekeepers who were eager to hear what we have done and hope to do with the bee breeders in Northern California. It also gave me a chance to do some fly-fishing on a stretch of blue ribbon trout water known as the Grey Reef section of the North Platte River…

I gave three presentations that Friday in Casper. The first of which was on some work I had done while at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and Penn State University from 2007-2011. During that time I was asked to autopsy bee’s that had been sampled out of commercial honey bee colonies chosen for numerous studies, experiments and disease and pest surveys. At the time scientists were (and still are) looking for causes of huge colony losses reported by beekeepers nationwide. The idea behind autopsying bees collected from both sick and healthy honey bee colonies was that perhaps we could find a symptom(s) that would lead to a single causative agent of colony losses (especially one associated with Colony Collapse Disorder). To date, no single causative agent has been linked to CCD. Autopsy work continues under the direction of Dennis vanEngelsdorp at the University of Maryland.

The second talk I gave was geared toward the studies, experiments and disease and pest surveys I took part in during my research stint in Pennsylvania. Those four years were an education made possible by the reputation our lab was able to build for conducting field and lab work. If the beekeeping industry is the bastard child of agriculture than our lab was the equivalent to the research community. We weren’t at the bench or under the hood doing the ‘sexy’ bee work that was taking place in genetic and molecular labs across the country; we were the team collecting the samples to be sent to those labs. We served as a hub where samples could be collected, imported, catalogued and processed then exported and processed further for things our lab didn’t have the means to accomplish like viral and pesticide analysis. Much of this work is what led us here to California and the formation of the Bee Informed Partnership.

So, why California? Beekeepers in California produce hundreds of thousands of honey bees that get sold to every corner of the nation reserving them a highly influential and powerful place in the industry. Northern California is a hot bed of talented, progressive and successful honey bee breeders and producers. If you were to create a program that’s biggest goal was to increase colony survivorship nation-wide then why not start with commercial queen breeders, after all they possess the power to have the greatest impact on honey bee stocks. Their best management practices have propelled them to the top of the beekeeping industry and capturing what they know about keeping bees has the potential to be extremely valuable to the industry.

We started with testing potential breeders for hygienic behavior, pests and pathogens then began longitudinally monitoring colonies over time for diseases and pests. What we hope to do is use management surveys to document beekeeping practices then pair them with the disease and pest data we are collecting. Currently, a database is being developed to organize that information so that it can be utilized by beekeepers looking to adopt best management practices from other beekeepers who share their same geography, purpose and/or management philosophies. Beekeepers are catching on to the things we are doing and the services our program can provide. There has been a lot of positive feedback. We are in our second year of a five year government funded project (National Institute of Food and Agriculture) and are working on developing economic models that will make our program sustainable once funding dries-up. In the meantime I will do my part to keep things moving forward. That means maintaining good rapport with the beekeepers participating in our program, evolving with the industry and scientific community and continuing to report fast and accurate results to our beekeepers. It’s not all work and no play for me though…

I love taking advantages of opportunities and during my stay in Casper I was able to do just that…Saturday morning after the conference I rented a car and headed 30 miles out of town on Highway 220 toward the Alcova Reservoir below the Grey Reef Dam to fish the famous Grey Reef stretch of the North Platte River. This stretch boasts active trout all year round thanks to the warm water release from the dam and special regulations limiting anglers to harvesting only one trout that must be over 20 inches and caught using artificial flies/lures with a single hook. When I arrived at the base of the dam and got out of the car I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to fish. It was cold and very windy; two conditions that are not conducive to fly fishing. I geared up anyway and was pleasantly surprised once I got down to the water.

The banks were high where I entered the stream giving me some relief from the strong winds howling over the plains. I really didn’t expect to catch much but was still happy to be out on the stream. I tied on my go to fly and favorite searching pattern the green wooly bugger. Five or six casts and a couple of well placed strips of the line landed me my first fish; a healthy 15” Rainbow Trout. I was ecstatic! I couldn’t believe it! The trout were hungry and I had the place to myself! I worked my way down stream catching two more trout within the next hour, each just a little bigger than the last. I didn’t hook any monsters but trout in the 15-18” range are a ton of fun to fight. Just as I landed my third trout I noticed that the thick, dark clouds that I had seen off in the distance earlier that morning were now on top of me.

Shortly after, it began to snow and there was a noticeable drop in the temperature. It was enough to take the fish off of my wooly bugger and I made the decision to switch flies. In the five minutes it took to change tackle my finger tips had become frozen in pain. I put my gloves back on but they had frozen as well and the rest of the day was a struggle to stay warm. It was hard to get more than two or three casts in without having to run my hand up the length of the rod to free the eyelets from ice. Once the line freezes inside the eyelets it becomes impossible to cast and if you’re not conscience of it you will end up with knots in your line. Untangling knots in below freezing temperatures is not fun even for the most seasoned angler. By 4 o’clock in the afternoon the Wyoming weather had gotten the best of me and I was anxious to crawl into the car and thaw out. I ended up landing three fish, not bad for a cold blustery December day on a Wyoming trout stream. I hope to get back to Wyoming next year and would love a chance to share its wildness in the company of friends and family.

Dissection Experiment

In December I was asked to visit our diagnostic lab at the University of Maryland to check on the status of a stereo-scope that will be utilized at the vanEngelsdorp Lab for a variety of applications related to honey bee research. The microscope was previously housed at our office in Oroville, CA (Butte County Cooperative Extension 2279B Del Oro Ave.) Because the scope was being under-utilized by members of our team the decision was made to ship it to the University of Maryland where it would be used for things like honey bee necropsies and tracheal mite testing by students and our diagnostic team.

One of the other requests I received was to introduce the basics of honey bee dissections to those working in the Maryland lab. It has been quite some time since I have done any dissections on bees and the training reminded me of a paper I had come across when first learning the internal anatomy of honey bees. There is too much information in the paper to summarize here and I won’t insult Dr. Bailey by making an attempt at doing so, but anyone interested in understanding more about honey bee physiology can do so by clicking the link below. The link will direct you to the Journal of Experimental Biology where you can view a free full text version of Bailey’s article; THE ACTION OF THE PROVENTRICULUS OF THE WORKER HONEYBEE, APIS MELLIFERA L.

http://jeb.biologists.org/content/29/2/310.full.pdf+html

Experimentation was done by Dr. Bailey in response to controversy surrounding the mode of action of the proventriculus. Bailey was investigating Nosema apis infections of the ventriculus and needed information on the passage of pollen grains through the intestine. The proventriculus is a very complex organ situated between the crop (honey stomach) and the ventriculus (functional stomach where food is processed). It functions for the purposes of regulating the entrance of food from the crop into the ventriculus, retaining nectar in the crop for feeding and the transportation of nectar from the field to the hive.

Bailey designed experiments that would observe the movement of food materials through the alimentary canal with particular emphasis on the modes of action and timing of the processes involved. The experiments were done around 1950 and at the time the technology to video record such a procedure was not available. That is not true in today’s day and age. I would love to see someone repeat this experiment and video record the processes involved. At the top of this page are some images I collected while doing my own dissections. Most of the dissections from the images above were from live bees collected in the field, frozen on dry ice, stored at -80 degrees, and then thawed and dissected in bee Ringers solution (155mM NaCl, 3mM KCl, 2mM CaCl2).

Bailey’s methods are summarized below:

-Hazel pollen and pollen taken from the pollen baskets of bees were stained bright red with magenta red, suspended in clear syrup and fed to starved individual worker bees from a capillary pipette.

-For observations on the passage of pollen down the midgut the whole gut was pulled out of the abdomen of the anaesthetized bee by cutting off the head and pulling out the last abdominal segment with forceps.

-To show the state of the pollen, slit the ventriculus with fine needles, or dehydration and clearing in cedar-wood oil

-For observations of the action of the proventriculus the starved bee was anaesthetized with chloroform or ether and secured ventral side uppermost to soft wax block.

-A window was carefully cut out of the sternites with a sharp razor. The film of the fat body was carefully pushed aside with blunt needles, and the proventriculus was then easily visible when illuminated directly with a focusing lamp.

-Care was taken not to injure the ventral nerve cord and ganglia

-Occasionally the window was moistened with a drop of saline (0.75% NaCl, 0.02% KCl, 0.02% CaCl2 buffered to pH 6.7 with Na2HPO4 and HCl). If the drop of saline was large enough, the illumination of the proventriculus was aided by its additional focusing effect

I was amazed and perplexed by the intricacies of such a procedure being performed on honey bees. I think what stunned me the most was that if the dissections were done with care (minimal damage to the nerve cord, trachea, air sacs, etc.) the action of the proventriculus could be observed through the window cut in the abdominal plates for up to an hour. I have never attempted the procedure but would like to try it sometime…

Toyon

Toyon at sunset

A lone toyon amidst an autumn sunset

I am continuously impressed with the seemingly endless wealth of knowledge beekeepers accumulate over the years. Whether that knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, a product of their own curiosity, or a combination of both; a successful beekeeper, more often than not, possesses a fundamental knowledge of the topography of the land on which they keep their bees. Topography and climate generally go hand in hand and studying the distinctive characteristics of both can help to determine the most ideal places to locate your bee yards. The location of bee yards strongly influences management strategies, techniques, and decisions. For this reason beekeepers are and forever will be tied to the earth in ways that ordinary people could never imagine.

As researchers, considerable emphasis is initially placed on learning the science behind beekeeping and not necessarily on the intricacies of what it is to be a beekeeper. What I am learning is that to understand one you have to understand the other. This helps to put the pieces together…

I was lucky enough to have some free time this summer to pursue two of my most immediate passions in life; exploration and fly-fishing, both of which, much like beekeeping, run concurrent with topography and climate. For example, although beautiful and overly populated with flowering plants, a beekeeper would likely not choose to keep honey bees in a place like the Mendocino coast because of the way the topography influences the climate. It’s often rainy, cool, and windy; all of which make Mendocino a less than ideal place for a commercial beekeeper to keep honey bees for any length of time. However, these conditions do create an environment very well suited for bumble bees who are stouter, hardier, and better equipped for cooler, wetter climates. Likewise, as an angler mostly interested in fishing for trout, I would choose a cool water fishery, fed by springs and ground water, like Baum Lake over a warm water fishery like Lake Oroville, a body of water known for holding some of the largest bass in the state of California. This is not to say that there aren’t places where honey and bumble bees (like trout and bass) can coexist, they are just rarer, more delicate, and harder to access.

Fish Smith

Me in the pursuit of happiness

I enjoy exploring and fishing for the same reasons I enjoy honey bees…The three fill me with a sense of wonder and curiosity that cannot truly be discovered unless you choose to submerge yourself in them. Sure you can watch a documentary that will take your mind to exotic places, or tune in to an instructional video on how to fly fish or keep bees but there is no substitute for living in the moment by experiencing them first-hand. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to chase my passions through the vastness of Northern California in the company of such respectable people.

Flumes in Paradise

The perfect place to let your mind run free

On a recent hike through the canyon that lines the West Branch of the Feather River off Dean Road in Paradise, CA, I picked up on something I had noticed earlier this year. I had heard some beekeepers talking about a native flowering shrub the bees yearn for (there’s a lot of room to think on that flume trail and the views are inspiring). Most beekeepers here in California refer to it by the common name toyon but I have heard beekeepers in Hawaii call it Christmas berry (a.k.a. California Holly or Hollywood). I didn’t put the two together until recently when I saw the fruit hanging from its branches that toyon and Christmas berry were the same plant and much easier to identify in the fall and winter because of its bright red berries. I did some research on toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) mostly because I was interested in its distribution (especially as it pertains to elevation) and ended up learning some cool stuff.

Toyon

A cluster of Christmas berries hangs from a sprig of toyon.

For instance, toyon occurs in chaparral, oak woodland, and mixed-evergreen forests at an elevation of less than 1300 meters {1}. Being from Pennsylvania I had no idea what a chaparral forest was, so I looked that up next. I learned that chaparral forests are shaped by a Mediterranean climate, wildfire, and characterized by drought adapted scrub plants {2}. That makes a lot of sense after living out here for a year and experiencing the extremely dry summers and mild, but wet winters. Since toyon is native to California I wanted to know who were the other animals utilizing this plant?

Toyon next to flume

Christmas berries hang from a canyon wall

It wasn’t surprising to find out that butterflies, birds, bears, deer, raccoons and coyotes also take advantage of the flowers and fruit {3}. On a side note I discovered that one of my favorite birds is often found in flocks feeding on toyon berries during their winter stays in California. The cedar waxwing specializes in eating fruit and can survive solely on it for several months {4}. Why is this one of my favorite birds you might be wondering? I am glad you asked… Cedar waxwings live year round in Pennsylvania and love to snack on aquatic insects. Where do you find aquatic insects? In the same places you find trout! There have been more than a handful of times where I have been on a trout stream and have seen these birds gather and wait. What were they waiting for I wondered? The same thing I was waiting for…The emergence of aquatic insects! It seems that the emergence of aquatic insects from a stream not only trigger a feeding frenzy for trout but also for birds who love to eat insects as well. Chances are if there are cedar waxwings working a stream there are also hungry trout doing the same.

An even more interesting piece of information was the fact that cedar waxwings are highly social birds working together to secure limited food resources. When fruit is scarce and only one bird at a time is able to reach a single cluster, the other birds in the flock will line up along a branch and pass berries to one another using their beaks to ensure each bird gets a chance to eat {5}. (Sounds like another creature in the animal kingdom I am partial too, honey bees!)

What was a bit surprising was that the berries are ok for humans to eat (normally, humans are taught to avoid things in nature that are brightly colored). Native Americans would make jam out of the berries and use the leaves to make tea as a stomach remedy {6}. I did read that the berries, if eaten before they are fully ripe (to be sure they are ripe wait until December when the berries have reached a deep orange or reddish color), will defend themselves by emitting a toxic cyanide gas. However, once the berries are ripe, the cyanide retracts back into its trunk rendering the fruit harmless for human consumption. The berries can be eaten raw but it sounds like they are tastier after being roasted {7}.

Another interesting fact that I came across was that one of the most famous places on the planet may have been indirectly named after toyon. Apparently, the hills outside the city of Los Angeles are lined with toyon and its red berries reminded early English settlers of their native holly berries influencing them to name their community Hollywood. In the past sprigs of toyon were used commercially as Christmas decorations in place of the English holly. In an ironic twist of fate, over-harvesting of toyon led to a California state law that now prohibits anyone from collecting the branches of wild toyon {8}.

Flumes

A flume that runs along the trail winding through the Feather River Canyon

I never would have guessed I’d run across so many fascinating facts when I started my research but whether you are a beekeeper, an English settler, an explorer, a fisherman, a bird, a bee or a beast, what lies just around the corner or at the edge of a canyon wall can bring unexpected joy, peace, and good fortune as long as you are open to what good things may come if you choose to take the time to listen and learn. Listening and learning facilitates understanding and understanding how and why things happen is a large part of science and life in general. I will strive to talk less and listen more…

For more information please visit the following:

{1)http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/get_JM_treatment.pl?Heteromeles%20arbutifolia

{2}http://www.calacademy.org/exhibits/california_hotspot/habitat_mediterranean_shrublands.htm

{3}http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/shrub/hetarb/all.html

{4}http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Cedar_Waxwing/lifehistory

{5}http://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/featured_birds/default.cfm?bird=Cedar_Waxwing

{6}USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center

{7}http://wildfoodplants.com/page/13

{8}http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/shrub/hetarb/all.html

Fall: Cycle of Northern California Bee Breeder

Summary of fall beekeeping in Northern California

This is the final installment of a 3 piece blog that summarized a year in the life of a Northern California Bee Breeder. We are quickly approaching the end of October and beekeepers in the area are closer and closer to giving their bees a much needed rest. October and November are the culmination of a year’s work. It’s make or break time for most and what you have is what you got and hopefully what you will end up with at the start of the new year. There is no time for re-queening, no hope for a miraculous turn around, and nothing more to do then asses what you’ve got and add a clean-up treatment and/or one more round of feed.

At this point, Varroa mite and Nosema levels are a reflection of how well you’ve managed your hives throughout the year. If all is well levels will be low enough to get bees through the winter and well into the spring without having to use medications on hives designated for breeding. Much of what we have been doing this fall is sampling operations for Varroa and Nosema levels pre and post-treatment. This helps the beekeepers in several ways: 1) Pre-treatment samples help beekeepers determine infestation levels which can regulate how aggressive they need to be with their treatments, 2) Post-treatment samples help beekeepers gauge the effectiveness of their treatments which can help determine if any further treatments need to be applied, and 3) A final round of sampling just before winter sets in adds an extra level of comfort and provides peace of mind (this is, of course, only true if mite and Nosema levels are low).

It is particularly important for commercial bee breeders to have Varroa and Nosema levels as low as possible going into winter because they don’t like having to use antibiotics or chemical miticides on hives used in their breeding operations. This is especially true for those colonies designated as breeders and drone mothers. Breeders consist of the best of the best in any beekeeping operation. They are the hives selected using the strictest criteria exhibiting the most desirable traits. They are always the biggest, strongest, healthiest, and most productive of all hives. Anything that was in the running to be a breeder but for one reason or the other did not meet the selection criteria for a breeder will be used as drone mothers, supplying drones for the daughters of the breeders to openly mate with. A good rule of thumb is to make one 2-story drone mother available for 20 mating nucs. Because of this, the size of a given operation usually dictates the amount of queens that operation can produce throughout the year.

In order to produce thousands of viable queens, breeders need to mate thousands of virgin queens. This is no small task given the variables, most of which are very hard to control (i.e. weather and predation). To mate thousands of virgin queens a breeder needs hundreds of impeccable drone mothers. There is both scientific and anecdotal evidence that suggests the use of certain medications (antibiotics and chemical miticides) can negatively impact the reproductive potential of honey bees. However, without the use of medications to treat things like Varroa mites and Nosema, infestations can become so severe that honey bees are unable to vigorously mate. Beekeepers are constantly weighing the costs and benefits of applying medications. Bee Breeders participating in our program are trying to ensure the quality of the queens they are producing over the quantity by making informed treatment and management decisions.

Summer: Cycle of Northern California Bee Breeder

Bee Breeder Cycle II

The graphic above illustrates the basic cycle of beekeeping during the summer season in northern California

The graphic above illustrates the basic cycle of beekeeping during the summer season in northern California. Things like applying treatments and feeding are management decisions based on what the bees are doing in response to the environment around them. Feeding and treating is operation specific and location dependent.

Think of treatment windows in terms of hive dynamics with bee population being one of the most important. Hive populations go in cycles, rising in times where forage is abundant and falling at times when available forage tapers off. It is much easier to effectively treat a hive for Varroa and Nosema when bee populations are low then when they are high. Treating hives when populations are lower may allow you to use fewer treatments at lower doses over a shorter period of time. To reinforce this idea take into consideration that as bee populations grow so do mite and pathogen levels (the more brood and bees the more likely you are to have mites and pathogens). So, applying a treatment before a population boom is a good way of getting the most out of your applications. It is also very important to make sure that you are setting your hives up for over-wintering success by making sure that pest and pathogen loads are low going into the winter. There is also a lot to be said about breaking the brood cycle both in terms of pests and pathogens and the longevity of queens.

Feeding is mainly done to supplement the lack of natural forage available in certain locations at different times of the year. Supplemental feeding is an excellent way to manipulate hives in to doing what is you want them to do. When done correctly supplemental feeding helps maintain balance within the hive. Beekeepers should choose a supplemental feeding regiment that will help them achieve their goals for their hives. Remember that supplemental feeding is exactly what it says it is, supplemental. There is no substitute for good, healthy, natural forage. The best way to have good healthy strong winter bees in places where available forage has tapered off in the fall is to feed both syrup and pollen to ensure that the last cycle of developing brood going into winter has everything they need in terms of nutrition to ensure that they will be strong enough to last 3 months in the hive with what they have been able to store up throughout the summer.

Applying treatments and or medications during the summer months is mainly done in May or June at the end of most bee breeders breeding season and just before the star thistle nectar flow begins in July. Beekeepers who are producing honey will often slap a mite treatment in hives immediately after pulling honey supers and just before moving them to fall/winter locations. Once at their fall/winter locations beekeepers can inspect hives and deliver a clean-up treatment if they feel it’s necessary.

Out here most beekeepers will medicate their bees again in late August and early September then begin supplemental feeding at the end of September through October to give the last cycle of brood that extra nutrition they will need to get through the winter. If you are able to treat your bees early enough for mites in a place where it’s cold enough to break the brood cycle you are doubling your chances of reducing mite loads. After which, you could, if possible bring them to a semi-warmer fall/winter location where you are able to feed supplements to stimulate the queen into pumping out another cycle or two of well-developed mite free bees. Nosema levels out here in the fall seem to naturally decline on their own and some beekeepers feel they are able to get away without a Nosema treatment heading into winter. It is hard to know if you’re wasting time and money treating for Nosema if you are not testing your bees. It’s a good idea for any beekeeper to learn how to take samples and test bees for both Varroa and Nosema.

BIP Survey Winner

The Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) was able to draw in 5,543 U.S. beekeepers to our latest 2011/2012 winter loss survey. This number of respondents represents an estimated 20% of beekeepers in the U.S. who manage over 14.6% of the country’s estimated 2.49 million colonies. We’re hoping to get even more next year and to do so, we’re open to suggestions for drawing in our larger beekeeping operations. This year, we raffled off a day with our CA Tech Team. The survey, conducted in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been performed every year now for 6 years and the results of the survey are available at http://beeinformed.org. What is shown on the website is a preliminary analysis, and a more detailed final report is being prepared for publication at a later date.

Conducting such surveys is always a challenge for a number of reasons and surveyors are constantly looking for ways to increase participation. Because beekeepers who manage >500 colonies were grossly under-represented in our management survey, architects of the survey and BIP stakeholders got together at the American Beekeeping Federation conference in Las Vegas to talk about ways to boost participation. Standard incentives like t-shirts and hats were offered up but quickly dismissed because they lacked the ability to draw in larger beekeepers for our survey. BIP stakeholders who were involved in the discussion are made up of commercial beekeepers and suggested raffling off a fork-lift to one management survey participant. No doubt the prospect of winning a fork-lift would have drawn in more commercial beekeepers but it was not a practical incentive for our program. Instead, the group decided on raffling off a day with the Bee Informed Partnerships’ Tech Team.

A day with the Tech Team meant that the winner of the lottery would receive a visit from members of the team who would collect Varroa, Nosema, virus, and pesticide samples from colonies kept by the lottery winner. This year’s winner was veteran commercial beekeeper Bob Miller from Watsonville, CA. Millers Honeybees is a family owned and operated commercial beekeeping outfit specializing in honey production and pollination services. Bob and his son Kevin run a tight ship managing approximately 1500 honey bee colonies in various locations in and around central California. Bob and Kevin purchase queens from some of the breeders participating in our program and was open to our Tech Team visit. More information on Millers Honeybees can be found at:

http://www.honeylocator.com/locator/profiles/display/millers-honeybees/

On August 14th Rob and I made our way down to Watsonville and spent the day collecting samples and conversing with Bob and Kevin about the successes and struggles of running a commercial beekeeping operation which included things like re-queening techniques, chasing the nectar flow, and who he buys his queens from and why? Varroa and Nosema samples collected that day were shipped to the University of Maryland where the BIP east coast lab has already processed them and generated a report which Bob received last week. Virus and pesticide analysis is underway and will be completed by the USDA Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, MD as part of APHIS’s National Honey Bee Survey. More information on the National Honey Bee Survey can be found at:

http://www.aphis.usda.gov/plant_health/plant_pest_info/honey_bees/survey.shtml

One of the great things about working with bees and beekeepers is that there is always the opportunity to learn something new from both the beekeeper and the bees. The landscape and climate in Santa Cruz County is much different than what we see here in the upper Sacramento Valley, so spending the day with Bob and Kevin provided an excellent opportunity to expand our knowledge of the industry. Management techniques and strategies vary from region to region, operation to operation, and year to year. I talked to Bob last week about the results of the report we sent containing his Varroa and Nosema levels. Bob had some questions about threshold levels for pests and pathogens. Those are hard questions to answer…

Generally, we tell beekeepers that when their mite levels are upwards of 3 mites per 100 bees (3% mite infestation) they need to make a management/treatment decision. The same would be said about Nosema spore levels exceeding 1 million spores per bee although this threshold level is more accurate for Nosema apis than N. ceranae. I remember hearing Judy Chen give a presentation at the USDA Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, MD a few years back where I believe she made the statement that 97% of the Nosema we now see in the United States is N. ceranae.

Because honey bees are subjected to so many different biotic and abiotic factors it is often difficult to understand their complex interactions. Nosema seems to affect different beekeepers differently at different times throughout the year. From what I have seen Nosema levels will rise and fall on their own but can also rise and fall depending on various stressors such as moving them, nutrition, mites, pesticide exposure, etc. Whatever is going on with Nosema ceranae, we still aren’t sure of but we do know that it is a detriment to the hive and needs to be dealt with.

Fumidil-B is the go-to medicine for the treatment of Nosema in the commercial beekeeping industry. Some beekeepers subscribe to its use and attribute increased hive quality to its ability to effectively lower spore counts. Others think the cost of using it outweighs the benefits. Instead, those that don’t use Fumidil-B have mentioned that there are pollen patties on the market that when coupled with good beekeeping can effectively help control Nosema levels. Nutrition plays a big role in an organisms ability to fight off pests and pathogens. A good quality pollen patty will do several things; they provide extra energy the bees need to fight off things like Varroa and Nosema and they increase the amount of brood being reared in the hive, which will eventually replace older bees that are more likely to carry heavier loads of Nosema. I believe keeping a balanced proportion of younger bees to older bees in the hive is key to controlling stress and Nosema levels. Look for a pollen patty that keeps young larvae floating high in the cells. Keith Jarret makes a good one.

By continuously monitoring levels of Varroa and Nosema, beekeepers can identify times of year when levels rise and fall picking and choosing the best time to deliver a treatment and manage the condition effectively. Timing is everything when it comes to medicating honey bees. Without proper timing the treatment may not be as effective in lowering mite and spore levels which in turn means that the beekeeper is not getting their money’s worth out of whatever treatment they decide to go with. Beekeepers always say it’s easier to keep a good hive going then it is to nurse a weak one back to strength.

With so much to do, it’s hard for a lot of commercial beekeepers to sample and monitor Varroa and Nosema on a regular basis. That’s where a program like ours can help. Beekeepers participating in our program receive reports throughout the year with their Varroa and Nosema levels. Pest and pathogen reports throughout the year combined with management surveys and hive scale data would give beekeepers a more comprehensive record of conditions within a beekeeping operation. We at BIP are already pumping out reports that include Varroa, Nosema, virus, pesticide, and hygienic data. This summer we set up two hive scales in two separate locations to start recording environmental data. We try to capture whatever information is most useful and beneficial to the beekeepers participating in our program.
For more information on the hive scales we are using please visit:

http://honeybeenet.gsfc.nasa.gov/About/ScaleHives.htm

Beekeeper Reports

It’s incredible how fast time can pass when you are enthralled in something new and exciting. I have been in California for more than a year and it seems like yesterday that I was standing in my parent’s driveway saying good bye to my mom, dad, and brothers as Rob and I loaded up his car for our move out west. A lot has happened in a year and making the move to the west coast has been one of the most eye opening experiences of my life. It’s been challenging, rewarding, frustrating, and fun but most importantly it’s given me the opportunity to grow as a person in ways I would have never imagined.

Last week the culmination of a year’s work was carefully packaged and mailed out to each of the sixteen bee breeders participating in the Bee Informed Partnership. The packets that were mailed out included individual historical reports for each beekeeper along with a summer sampling summary report and a data disc.

Fourteen of the sixteen beekeepers we work with received an individual historical report which contained data that reported Varroa and Nosema levels from samples collected during our summer sampling period between May and July. At this point, some of the hives tested from May to July had been inspected and sampled by our team up to 5 times between July 2011 and July 2012. The historical reports not only included data from our most recent sampling but also listed information from all previous hive inspections and samples taken. Having a history of hives listed in a report such as this is one of the highlights of our program and something the beekeepers participating in our project have gotten excited about.

The summary reports were created to help digest and put into context data collected from the summer sampling period. The summary reports give beekeepers participating in our program a chance to see where their Varroa and Nosema levels compare to other beekeepers in the group by anonymously sharing information. Since we were able to collect samples from almost all of the beekeepers before they treated for Varroa and Nosema in 2012 the levels reported in this report are very telling of how effective and timely treatments were in each operation in the fall of last year. It also helps to give beekeepers an idea of how and when they might began to treat in the fall of this year.

The data discs that were collated for each beekeeper included every report ever generated for them in the last year. There were 158 documents in all resulting from more than 9000 samples taken from May 2011 to May 2012 (Table 1). Although reports are always delivered to the beekeepers within two weeks of initial sample collection it is useful to have them all in one place that can easily be accessed. Hopefully the discs will make it easier for beekeepers to access any of their reports in a digital format that can be printed and reviewed at any time. Putting the reports together for each of the beekeepers was both challenging and rewarding. I have a new found respect for the time and effort that goes into analyzing data and creating reports that are as accurate and informative as possible. The goal is to summarize data after each sampling period to give beekeepers yet another tool to help them make more informed management decisions.

Number and types of samples taken from May 2011 to May 2012

State of Beekeeping in Northern CA:

Empty feed cans on hives

I have been living in Northern CA for just over a year now and from what I’ve been told the weather in the past year has been atypical. Last spring and early summer was late and unusually wet which led to one of the best star thistle crops in years. Because of the rain the star thistle was able to out compete the grasshoppers and produce more than enough flowers to keep the bees busy. Most beekeepers in the area were able to make a surplus of honey and I think the abundance of available forage during the summer months may have helped curb pests and pathogens like Varroa and Nosema. If the bees have the strength and energy provided by healthy natural forage then they are able to fight off things that might otherwise plague the hive. Most beekeepers out here were able to go into winter with full boxes of bees and plenty of food stores. Add a timely Varroa and Nosema treatment in late summer/early fall and the road to almond pollination becomes much less worrisome.

There was really only one month of winter here last year, December. In January and February 2012 there was very little rain with more than a few days where temperatures got up into the 60’s. This makes a few things possible, some of which help to get bees ready for almond pollination. If the weather cooperates beekeepers can get out and feed bees if necessary in order to boost hive populations of winter bees to meet the increasing demand of almond growers request for an 8 frame average of hives being rented for pollination services. Warm weather in January/February also means that the bees can take advantage of natural forage that may or may not be available depending on the location of yards and how many other beekeepers are nearby.

However, bees can sometimes get themselves into trouble if they have nothing to do during long stretches of nice weather in the winter. For example, bees in holding yards waiting to be moved into almond orchards might start to pick on weaker hives in a yard, robbing for food if no natural or supplemental source is available. Robbing can lead to a lot of different things like the spreading of pests and pathogens. In order to head off potential problems such as this most beekeepers will tell you that is why it’s so important to be in their hives at least every two weeks. If they know what is going on in the hives and in the environment around them they can intervene.

Most of the beekeepers we work with commented that their bees did so well during the almond bloom this year that keeping swarming to a minimum became an issue. I have even heard of some beekeepers drowning bees in soapy water to keep populations down as a way to control swarming. This is usually not a problem because by late February/early March most bee breeders in the area have started grafting and as a result shaking bees from field colonies to use in their breeding operations as starters and cell builders. March did not play out as well for the bee breeders as they had hoped. The rain came making queen mating nearly impossible and disrupting the strict schedule bee breeders usually keep which includes shaking excess bees from field colonies.

After a couple of weeks of bad mating weather things cleared up and bee breeders were able to get a handle on things, playing catch up and getting back on schedule. There was a relative dearth of available forage here in April but by May things seemed to turn around. No rain in May and June did help by allowing the bees to get out, store some food, and make brood but it did not help things here for the July and August months.

Because it’s been so dry here there is little to no star thistle in bloom (the grasshoppers got to most of them before they could start producing) and beekeepers are having to feed like crazy to keep their bees going. Some beekeepers have even started feeding pollen substitutes as early as last week, something they wouldn’t typically do until late August. Some have resorted to swapping bees from good locations with bees in not so good locations in attempt to rotate hives on to decent forage. I have heard that many beekeepers in the area are looking to break even this year.

So, from the feast of last year’s star thistle crop to the famine of this year’s, it will be interesting to see how the hives look this fall going into winter…