About Michael Wilson

I work in Extension for the University of Tennessee providing technical support for beeinformed.org and eXtension.org/bee_health. This includes website design / programming, and developing educational content in the subject of bees. I have been beekeeping since 1999 and earned a master’s degree in entomology in 2011 with the intent to apply my computing experience to bee research and education.

Blueberry Pollination in Maine Video

Here is a video I helped produce introducing commercial lowbush blueberry pollination in Maine. As part of a Specialty Crops Research Initiative (SCRI) project, this video series comes from the project titled ‘Pollination Security in the Northeast‘ . We interviewed blueberry growers, beekeepers, and the researchers involved in this project to get to the bottom of, how blueberries are pollinated, the challenges, and some of the work this SCRI group is doing to improve pollination security of lowbush blueberry.

Native bees are real important in bringing in the lowbush blueberry crop, overall, but commercial honey bees are real important, especially on the large commercial fields. This is the first installment  in a 7 part series covering lowbush blueberry pollination in Maine. All the video for this series was recorded in spring 2013. It is being edited and additional installments can be found at eXtension.org. Future video recording will cover Cranberry, Squash, and other crops the SCRI group are researching.


Examining Bacteria From Colonies with Foulbrood Symptoms

Microscopy is a useful tool to diagnose honey bee problems. While working on some content for eXtension.org, I helped record the following video. These bacterial spores where found in a comb showing symptoms of American foulbrood disease.

Paenibacillus larvae With Brownian Motion From a Honey Bee Colony

Video description: Spores of the causative agent of American foulbrood disease in honey bee colonies are shown here. Paenibacillus larvae spores (seen here at 1000x) display brownian motion when the microscope slide is prepared with the hanging drop method. Acknowledgements: Organized, prepared slide: Michael E Wilson, University of Tennessee; videography & microscopy: Ernest Bernard, University of Tennessee; Video review: Bart Smith, USDA-ARS Beltsville Bee Research Lab.

American foulbrood and European foulbrood are two separate diseases. American foulbrood is caused by the bacteria, Paenibacillus larvae. I posted a picture of a comb with American foulbrood symptoms here, however only observing the symptoms should probably NOT be a complete diagnosis. Severe cases of European foulbrood can easily be mistaken for American foulbrood. A diagnostic test kit or a microscopic examination should accompany the observation of symptoms. The USDA-ARS ‘Diagnosis of Honey Bee Diseases’ handbook gives instructions on preparing a microscope slide using the ‘modified hanging drop’ method, (page 43 of the attached handbook.) Drawings of spores associated with the two foulbrood diseases are also provided.

As seen in the video above, Paenibacillus larvae.spores exhibit ‘Brownian motion’ when preparing the slide with the modified hanging drop method. I’m not an expert at identifying honey bee bacteria, so I asked Bart Smith (USDA-ARS Beltsville Bee Research Lab), to confirm the identification. Brownian motion is a good indicator, however, the handbook also points out that the bacteria Enterococcus faecalis, may also exhibit Brownian motion, so you still need to pay attention to the shape of the bacteria and symptoms found in the colony. Enterococcus faecalis is a bacteria associated with European foulbrood, although it is not considered the causative agent of European foulbrood (Melissococcus pluton is the causative bacteria. for a detailed explanation see: European Foulbrood: A Bacterial Disease Affecting Honey Bee Brood.

Brownian motion can also be effected by how the slide was prepared. Out of 5 slides I prepared from the comb, 2 of those did not have apparent Brownian motion, possibly because I used less water on those two. The American Heritage Scientific Dictionary defines Brownian motion as, “The random movement of microscopic particles suspended in a liquid or gas, caused by collisions between these particles and the molecules of the liquid or gas. This movement is named for its identifier, Scottish botanist Robert Brown (1773-1858).”

If you don’t have access to a microscope, or would otherwise like help determining what kind of bacterial infection you may have, the USDA-ARS has a free, Bee Disease Diagnosis lab where you can send samples, see this link..

Beekeepers are becoming more microscope savvy with the need for microscopy to determine infection of Nosema spores. I have found microscopy for examining bacterial infections useful as well. Sometimes the test kits don’t work (usually after they have expired), or we simply run out and they can sometimes be hard to get. This past year, we had a particularly nasty outbreak of European foulbrood in our University apiaries, along with a few American foulbrood cases that made diagnosis complicated. Microscopic examination was helpful in this case. However, sometimes looking brings up more questions than answers. In the picture below, I found this apparent bacteria in plentiful amounts from a colony that had European foulbrood symptoms. The colony also tested positive for European foulbrood with a test kit. However, I was not able to clearly find any of the bacteria associated with European foulbrood (although it could have easily been missed), and instead found mostly the unidentified bacteria below. If you can identify this bacteria, please enter it in the comments section. Close up here.

An unidentified bacteria from a honey bee colony

An unidentified bacteria (mixed with other things)  from a honey bee colony expressing symptoms of European foulbrood. Slide viewed at 1000x, prepared with the modified hanging drop technique.


Web-design for Beekeepers: Beeinformed.org Has A New Look

Beeinformed.org has a brand new look! I’ve been working on Version 3.0 of beeinformed.org (a.k.a the supersedure release) off and on for about 6 months and I am happy to be able to release the new look of our website to the public.

Beekeepers, like anyone else, often have the need for a website of their own and I’ll give some advice on managing your own website with WordPress, but first, what’s new in Version 3.0?

Here are some highlights.

  • Improved identification of blog authors. We have at least 8 active blog authors and now when you search or browse, their happy faces identify their posts. On their individual blog pages (see list right side bar), they can now manage their own blog.
  • Feature images for posts.
  • Official result releases of this project, like journal articles and management survey reports are branded with the BIP logo and organized in the menu above.
  • The homepage provides a constantly updated stream of results and blog posts all searchable or you can browse by tags (list in footer).
  • Using your phone or ipad? The new design responds to different screen sizes for improved readability and is ‘light weight’ to work quickly on mobile devices.

Web-design for beekeepers: Using WordPress

The bottom dollar

Beeinformed.org is built on WordPress, the open source, freely available content management system. We host it ourselves on leased server space which can be had for less than $8 per month. What is not free or cheap however is the ability to re-program the system to suit your own unique needs. So, two routes are normally taken when making a new website with WordPress. One is to use the default installation (or something close to it), and two is to create a new theme and functions (or highly modify the default theme and add new functions which is what we did). A good estimate on cost to design a site similar to this one is about $10,000, or at least that was a realistic quote we received. That is for the website design, NOT the content. However, we (The Bee Informed Team) were able to do this in-house for considerable savings. Unless you want to edit the code in Figure 1, either use the default theme or increase your budget. Or, if its just a personal site for you to blog, you might try the completely free blog hosting service at wordpress.com, but your site may not have the search engine visibility or flexibility needed to market your business.

Figure 1. Some computer code from the back end of the site. To make a great deal of changes to the design of a WordPress site, you need someone that can program in PHP, CSS, and has basic knowledge of MySQL databases. To make smaller changes to the default WordPress site, programming is not necessary.

Using your WordPress site

Figure 2. Back end of beeinformed.org, showing the content editor window built in to WordPress.

WordPress gives yourself and co-workers a way to update the content (text, photos, documents and embeds) with relatively little understanding about web design. The back-end has a built in editor to publish content easier than typing a Word document. CONTENT and the ability for the content AUTHORS to be able to express their message is the most important thing. WordPress helps this excellent TEAM create a website. The design is only its container.

Its just as easy to manage comments on your site and filter out the spam, if you get the spam filter from akismet.com for a small and very fair fee.

With thousands and thousands of web-site designers able to re-program WordPress sites, your site is portable to different designers if you need a new one. WordPress is built by a huge community of web-designers that make their living designing WordPress sites.

I could go on and on, but there’s plenty of other pages that do that, so…

Examples of Beekeeping WordPress Sites

Here is a look at some other beekeeping related web-sites built on WordPress.

Or, here is a bunch of examples not about beekeeping.

American Foulbrood and the National Management Survey

Between editing videos for this website, I’ve been checking out my University colonies to see how they are doing. Not good. We (Dr. John Skinner, Philip Moore, and I) found American Foulbrood in all UTK apiaries and are currently attempting to eradicate it, or our bees, whichever comes first. This bacterial disease is rare in Tennessee with only a few cases reported each year.

Figure 1 and 2 are some pictures from the clean up effort. Click here for the large version of Figure 1.

Figure 1: American Foulbrood Symptoms: Ropey Dead Larvae and Black Scale. In this picture, you can see how a match stick is used to probe capped brood. Pick a cell with sunken, perforated cappings. When pulling the stick out from infected brood, a brown, ropey slime can be seen. Also pictured here are many cells with black, bacterial spore laden scales on the bottom of the cells, a condition unique to American Fouldbrood. Hold the frame in good light looking at an angle from the top bar towards the bottom bar of the frame. The inset picture shows a closeup of two cells with black scale in the bottom. PLEASE NOTE: in American foulbrood the scale remains stuck to the bottom of the cell. Melted larvae from European foulbrood can also produce a scale, but this scale will be rubbery and can be easily removed. Photo credit: Michael E Wilson


Figure 2: Burning an American Foulbrood Infected Hive. Cleaning bacterial spores from wax combs is not practically possible. Photo credit: John Skinner

One reason this is rare in Tennessee may be explained by a well organized state inspection program conducted by Michael Studer. He inspects every single colony owned by anyone producing bees in our state to ensure bees being sold or moved are free of this regulated disease. This is the first AFB occurrence in Tennessee this year. The control method is pictured in Figure 2.

Some beekeepers treat their colonies with prophylactic (preventative) antibiotics twice per year to prevent American Foulbrood symptoms from occurring. If the use of antibiotics improved these beekeeper’s overall success we might predict beekeepers using antibiotics might loose fewer bees than beekeepers whom did not use antibiotics. Results from the 2011 National Management Survey suggest otherwise. In the vlog below, Dennis vanEnglesdorp explains how beekeepers that used antibotics did not loose fewer colonies in winter than those who did not use antibiotics.

BUT, what about summer time losses? Its now spring and this disease is challenging our bees now, not in the fall. This year’s National Management Survey also includes questions about summer losses. So take this survey and we may be able to ask, “Do beekeepers that use antibiotics loose fewer colonies in the summer than beekeepers that do not use antibiotics?” Click the Participate Now button upper right to help.

Beekeeping Video Game to Identify Brood Stages

OK, so maybe its not technically a video game, but Reed Johnson at Ohio State has developed an online program called Broodmapper.com  to inspect brood frames. Citizen science is a term used describe similar projects, where the general public participates in the collection and analysis of data. Often the tasks include an educational component. In Broodmapper.com, you can learn or hone your skills in identifying eggs, brood age, diseased larvae, and other states you are likely to need to know when inspecting honey bee colonies.

Broodmapper screen shot

Here is a screen capture of the broodmapper.com 'game'. You can see many cells marked as containing eggs, some marked as containg young larvae, and some marked as containing nectar.

Once you complete a tutorial that shows you how to do these things, you can then apply your skills to help in an actual research project investigating Miticide and Fungicide Interactions. It is now understood that many miticides and fungicides may have sub-lethal effects on honey bee colonies. Colonies may not die suddenly from these interactions, but may dwindle in comparison to unexposed colonies.  Studying this requires frequent and long term inspections of colonies. Dr. Johnson determined that to inspect colonies quickly in the field he needed to photograph the brood frames and determine their states later on. This is where you can participate and help in the effort.

To learn more see this page Broodmapper: Honey Bee Development and CitizenScience, or go straight to Broodmapper.com, create an account, and take the tutorial.

Certified Production in Honey Bees


Certified Naturally Grown Woods

I was recently invited to a small valley in Townsend, TN at the foot of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park to inspect an apiary for Certified Naturally Grown production.

Product certification is a process designed to give some level of assurance to consumers that a product is produced under certain guidelines. In honey bees, we tend to most often think about USDA Organic certification of honey. However, there are other certification programs in honey bees including Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) and queens produced by the Russian Honeybee Breeders Association.

I was recently asked to inspect a new Certified Naturally Grown apiary to provide confirmation that the beekeeper was following their definition of a “natural” product, defined mostly by the absence of “any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms”. The guidelines include more than that, but you get the idea. This got me thinking about certified production in general (an intriguing subject to me), so I agreed to participate and help Aaron and Kellie Burns of the Burns and the Bees Apiary get started with CNG.

Why certify a product?

As difficult as agriculture is as an industry, why would any producer want to apply more constraints to their operation, especially in beekeeping? I think the reason is communication. If you want to quickly communicate to a consumer some information about how your products are produced, certified production might be for you. Its kind of like reputation building. People more and more want to know where their food comes from and how it is produced. By certifying a product, you might build a consumers confidence that you do what they want.

Confidence in certification programs

The Burns and the Bees Apiary

Pictured is Aaron Burns of The Burns and the Bees Apiary holding his book of records utilized as part of the Certified Naturally Grown inspection procedure.

Although a product is certified, there are no guarantees that rules where genuinely followed to the letter of their intent. However, in a good certification program, a process should be established that gives an average person confidence in the certified label. Certified Naturally Grown includes in their system, inspection by other beekeepers that can verify that the beekeeper appears to be following the guidelines. Record keeping is another common, important theme in certified programs. As part of the inspection, I reviewed the paper trail Aaron has created from management notes like monitoring for varroa mites. There is also a process of networking and long term communication that increases my ability to confidently say that the Burns are clearly following Certified Naturally Grown guidelines.

Conveying a clear message

In my opinion, Certified Naturally Grown has done an excellent job in making their definition of naturally grown honey clear and easily understandable by both producers and consumers. All the rules, forms, and procedures are easy to navigate to on the CNG website. The same thing can’t be said for USDA Organic honey. USDA Organic honey certification relies more on the certifying agencies application of recommendations made by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) (updated in 2010). One could argue that this flexibility is a good thing, since this may allow the certifying agent to consider the specifics of the producer or the honey processor or trader. However, I think the obscurity of the definition of organic honey is one reason we see so few organic honey labels on store shelves. Within CNG, you might argue if specific rules really lend themselves to natural production, like the amount of sun a colony receives, however one thing that would be difficult to argue is the clarity of what they define as “naturally grown”.

Hygienic certification for honey bees?

There is some interest in the idea of queen producers being able to certify their stock as expressing hygienic behavior and therefore being more resistant to varroa mites and American foulbrood. Along the same lines, some queen producers that utilize the Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) line from the USDA-ARS Baton Rouge lab have expressed similar interests. The conversation related to that is over at the VSHBreeders.org web forum. However, that conversation has moved more toward stock trading, dissemination, and stock improvement rather than a formal process of verifying VSH stock. This process, too, communicates something about what the product is, how it is produced, and provides some definition of each  producer’s stock. For hygienic behavior defined by the freeze killed brood method, a less formal approach may also be advantageous to communicate confidence that selection for mite resistance is included. If the route of a more formal certification program for hygienic behavior is approached by bee breeders, looking at the pros and cons of existing certified production programs in honey bees would be time well spent.

Colony, a Beekeeping Documentary out on DVD


Get out your popcorn. Film directors Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell’s bee movie “Colony” is out on DVD. Avoiding the quirky approach of “Vanishing of the Bees”, Carter and Ross allow you to experience the reality of California beekeepers facing threats of Colony Collapse Disorder and the declining US economy in 2008-2009. Certainly not a downer, the film also captures the excitement of life challenges, nature, agriculture, and successes hard fought.

I had the opportunity to meet Carter and Ross over dinner at the 2007 Heartland Apiculture Society conference in Kentucky. They were just about to set out on their cinematic journey West after setting up connections with beekeepers and soaking up bee culture every minute they could. It’s inspiring to see this project so well completed and now available for the masses. Featuring Bee Informed Stakeholder Advisory Board member David Mendes and beekeeping newcomers Lance and Victor Seppi, this film focuses our attention on their reality. The agenda is the beekeepers’ story, not the agenda of the story tellers, which is refreshing within this globally impassioned subject. Still full of artistic representation, the balance between the story and the film is near perfection. Capturing complexities instead of placing simplistic explanations on ‘what’s wrong with the bees?’, this film does a better job at explaining modern beekeeping problems then much of what I’ve seen.

The film is a couple of years old now and some of the open ended questions left in the film have surely been answered since then. Such as, is Bayer co-operating with the beekeeping groups featured in the film? Were the Seppi’s able to continue to grow their beekeeping business? But these stories are for another time; until then check out this film today.

Trailer: http://www.colonymovie.com/

Lance and Victor Seppi, Pixley, CA

Lance and Victor Seppi, Pixley, CA