A few weeks ago, I was invited to the Honey Bee Discovery Center Kick-off and Exhibit Preview in Orland, California. This event was followed by the Queen Bee Festival the day after. The Honey Bee Discovery Center is ‘the first interactive exhibit and museum of its kind’. It highlights the history of beekeeping from hobbyists, sideliners and commercial operators’ perspectives, and features the evolution and breakthroughs in equipment, pollination and art inspired by bees.
Inside the center, one can find multiple showcases of vintage bee equipment related to all apicultural activities, complete with an observation hive near the center of the room. All around the new center, visitors can find many bee related pictures and education opportunities.
Similar to many museums, the Honey Bee Discovery Center will have a permanent collection and special exhibits. The different glass enclosed displays will be changed frequently with different beekeeping related collections, so it is just like an art exhibit, but all about bees! This will make each visit to the discovery center unique as some items on display will be from personal collections and only appear once while other donated items could be displayed several times. The discovery centers collection is quite large.
Overall it was a great experience to see the exhibit first hand and to see the work that went into the preparation of this center. I feel the center will only improve over time as more displays and events occur there, increasing its popularity in the beekeeping community it is closely tied to. I highly encourage a visit to the Honey Bee Discovery Center, there is something for all ages and it is a sight to see!
Forward: For my first blog post I was asked to write about my perspective of joining BIP as a tech transfer team member. I have been in the field so much that I am just now getting around to it. I hope this blog accurately captures both the factual and emotional aspects of becoming a BIP tech team member.
So here it goes…
It’s About The Bees!
As one of the rookies on the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) tech transfer team, I feel incredibly lucky to have joined BIP at such an interesting time for the organization, and for the beekeeping industry itself. On the first day of my new job, however, I was a bit worried that maybe I had made a mistake. When I showed up at the E. L. Niño Bee Lab everyone was outside in the UC Davis Bee Haven garden preparing for the outreach event happening that day. Wanting to make a good impression I volunteered to help out in any way possible. I was given the job of working the live honey bee tent. I had no idea what that meant. Turns out the job entailed showing live bees to a swarm of 100 third graders while trapped inside a tent that was baking in full sun. 24 hours earlier I was walking through snow in cool Colorado but now was in sunny California wondering about symptoms of heat stroke. I made it through the day without any permanent health issues and was assured this was not a typical day for BIP Tech Team members.
During the next two months on the job, I gained a great amount of respect and was extremely impressed by the knowledge of the veteran tech team members: Ben Sallmann, Dan Aurell, Dan Wyns and Rob Snyder. In addition, the entire BIP organization appeared to be blossoming into a finely tuned, well-managed, mature organization. The potential to provide even more value to the industry grows with each piece of scientific data collected. The data BIP collects and analyzes increasingly informs more efficient and effective beekeeping practices, promoting honey bee health while considering the needs of beekeepers.
I have seen BIP successfully bring together the academic side of honey bee health with the commercial side. Using input from scientists, researchers, statisticians and software developers combined with the “real world” experience from commercial beekeepers, sideliners, growers and applicators, effective best practices are developed and continually refined. BIP deploys in-the-field tech teams to collect field data and samples often working side by side with commercial beekeepers. Those samples get sent to the BIP lab who analyze them to generate more data. Samples can include live, sick or dead honey bees, brood, wax, pollen, bee
bread or syrup and can be analyzed for Varroa mites, Nosema, viruses, foulbrood, pesticides and more. The BIP scientists and software developers provide reports to evaluate the data and give beekeepers valuable feedback on the health of their colonies. Every step in the process is constantly being refined and improved upon. At BIP inception, tech teams were tracking data with handwritten notes. Today, tech teams are using tablets in the field which synchronize with the cloud in a single click. Reports can be automatically generated with just one more click. Even these BIP reports are being refined and improved upon on a continuous basis. On an individual level I am taking the best processes learned from my training and other tech team members, then refining them to fit my own style and become more efficient in the field (including becoming more efficient at changing out a flat tire!). Most recently I have seen hazard quotient calculations added to the BIP pesticide report to objectively gauge the risk of each pesticide found in a particular sample. I know of no other organization that provides beekeepers with this breadth of data driven evidence.
I never dreamed that my thirst for knowledge about all things honey bees could ever be satisfied and maybe that is a good thing because it drives my scientific inquiry. Poet Chinonye Chidolue said “The river of knowledge knows no depth.” In the past 2 months, I have just started to learn and am still discovering how to swim in BIP’s river of knowledge. Not only are the teams at BIP incredibly educated but they are a pleasure to work with. Experiencing the synergy of the intelligent people at BIP working towards common goals has been a great experience. The goals are always built on evidence based practices and are focused on honey bee health and beekeepers. Often I hear hobby level beekeepers applying a human centric perspective to their beekeeping practices, for example, not wanting to take small bee samples to obtain accurate data on colony health or believing that “natural” beekeeping practices dictate not feeding or treating bees. Best practices should be based on scientific data. BIP is all about the data which is why BIP is the place for me. It’s not about the human ethos. It’s not about you. It’s about the bees!
Many California beekeepers reported that the start of this year was the worst in 20+ years. Several factors contributed to this year’s issues, starting with the numerous fires last year causing nearly 3 months of smoke in the area.
Once the days got longer, queens started laying but the temperatures dropped again and egg laying stopped once more resulting in smaller colonies after almonds. In fact, most colonies were 2-3 weeks or even a month behind, which delayed the start of queen production. Many producers had to source bulk bees from beekeepers further south to begin starters, builders and nucs.
Once queen producers started generating nucs, the weather conditions were still challenging enough that the windows of opportunities for queens to mate were narrow at best. However, many queen producers found the first round of catching queens resulted in better than expected mating percentages, allowing them to somewhat catch up on orders and start replacing their own queens. Around this time beekeepers were treating with terramycin to combat European foulbrood (EFB). Some beekeepers believe as I do, that fungicides play a roll in colonies being more susceptible to brood diseases especially EFB. I do think that some of the EFB outbreaks we see are due to the way commercial beekeepers and queen producers manipulate colonies to shake bulk bees.
Currently queen producers are re-queening and treating their colonies before shipping off to summer honey and pollination locations. The late spring has provided more rain than the past 8 years and many beekeepers say that rain in May increases the star thistle crop. We are hopeful this year will be a great star thistle honey crop, helping to restore lost colonies and recover some of the income lost due to the late start on queen production.
I don’t know what the groundhog did or saw this year, but according to the calendar it’s still winter. The first day of spring is still a month away. If you’re a pollinator or grower of almonds, you’re hoping weather conditions up and down the central valley of California become more favorable for flight activity than they have been. I recently returned from 2 weeks of inspecting and sampling colonies where conditions were cold, wet, and windy. These conditions delayed onset and slowed progression of the almond bloom and are forecast to continue. Frequent updates on the progression of bloom and conditions for flight are available from Blue Diamond.
In addition to the revenue from pollination fees, beekeepers also count on floral resources provided by the 1,000,000+ acres of almond trees that stretch roughly from Chico in the north to Bakersfield in the south. Many colonies get stimulated with feed prior to bloom to boost brood production and size. If there is not a smooth transition from supplemental feed to forage, because of inclement weather, colony growth can be hindered. If cool and wet conditions persist, many beekeepers may need to resume supplemental feeding to avoid starvation. The persistent wet conditions can also be problematic for growers and lead to increased application of fungicides which may be perilous to bee health.
Aside from the biotic implications for the bees, there are also practical difficulties for beekeepers. In the last few days there have been an abundance of photos and videos online of colonies submerged in orchards or swept away by flooding rivers. Some beekeepers have had truckloads of colonies get snowed in on mountain passes into the valley where wintery conditions have closed highways. At the very least, getting in and out of orchards to deliver or work colonies has been a muddy mess. With so much of the national herd sitting in one location, the implications of the current and near future conditions in the region may ripple across the country this season as colonies are dispersed post-pollination.
More and more US beekeepers are starting to place their bees in sheds for the fall, for indoor wintering. While beekeepers in Canada have done this for decades, the popularity of the practice in the US is more recent. Beekeepers began by using structures already built for onion and potato storage in Idaho to house their bees in the fall. These beekeepers then remove the bees in January, and bring them to California for almond tree pollination. Many beekeepers are still using old potato and onion sheds in Idaho, but as the popularity of this practice has increased, some beekeepers have built sheds just for the purpose of overwintering bees. These sheds are far from the dirt floor, onion and potato sheds of Idaho. They are clean, new structures with air filtration and ventilation systems, vacuums, Carbon Dioxide and Oxygen monitors, temperature monitors, and cooling systems. Why are more beekeepers choosing to use cold storage and winter their bees indoors?
I surveyed beekeepers on the Midwest Tech-Transfer Team, asking them why they put their bees in sheds. While the most candid beekeepers admitted they want a vacation for themselves after a long, hard year (they can take some time off instead of working to keep their bees fed and healthy in California), all the beekeepers storing bees in sheds believe the practice is good for the health of their bees.
Here are some of the reasons beekeepers gave:
Bees in sheds are dormant, so beekeepers don’t need to buy sugar or spend time feeding and working colonies. This can save beekeepers money, since the California landscape in Nov/Dec cannot support colonies without supplemental feeding. The bees in sheds are not flying, foraging, or rearing brood (activities that require a lot of energy), so they can conserve energy and build up body fat.
Wintering sheds stay cold and dark, so colonies are broodless. Some beekeepers consider this broodless period to be a mite treatment, because Varroa mites are not able to reproduce without brood. This means that mite numbers will not increase, and mites in the colony may die or get too old to successfully reproduce. Therefore, colonies could potentially begin almond pollination with low mite loads.
Since the colony goes through a “winter,” and is dormant, the queen does not lay for a period of time. This gives the queen a break from laying eggs. Some beekeepers said that this break increases queen longevity.
When the colonies are put on the ground in California, they experience a dramatic change in temperature. The queen starts laying again very quickly, which some beekeepers said leads to a population boom. If the colonies spend the winter in California, the temperature is variable, and increases slowly in February and March, causing the bees to ramp up their brood production through a slow process. Some beekeepers said their shed bees look healthier and bigger during almond pollination, and said this is likely due to the quick jump these colonies make to rearing brood again.
Bees build up Carbon Dioxide within their colonies when they are in a confined space where ventilation is restricted. Letting CO2 levels build up too much can kill bees, but since mites are smaller, it takes less CO2 to harm them than it takes to harm a bee. Some scientists are working to find a “sweet spot,” meaning a CO2 level that is not harmful to bees but is to mites. While beekeepers are not relying on sheds as their main mite treatment right now, many beekeepers have hope that with further research, it could be the key to starting the year with healthy bees.
Thank you to all the beekeepers who answered my questions, and for Steppler Honey Farms for allowing me to use their photos!
I have been working in Texas for the Bee Informed Partnership since May, 2017. Many US commercial honey bee colonies are part of migratory beekeeping operations, so I have been on the road a great deal of the last 5 months helping beekeepers monitor the health of their colonies. I have been in a lot of bee yards in the Dakotas this past summer, and I’ll be going to California when the hives are trucked there to pollinate the almond orchards in the spring. Some of the beekeepers I work with keep their bees in Texas all year. Some beekeepers only bring their bees out of state for almond pollination or for honey production. But most follow an extensive migration route that includes Texas, the Dakotas and California (and for some beekeepers, indoor wintering sheds in Idaho).
After five months here in Texas, I still get surprised by the accuracy of the saying “everything is bigger in Texas.” First of all, it is bigger in terms of beekeeping. In spring, early pollen sources provide the protein for each colony to build up bee numbers early in the season, which allows beekeepers here to divide their colonies more aggressively and still make good honey crops. After spring splitting, the number of colonies in Texas is likely to top 300,000.
Here, as in a lot of places, human-induced changes have a huge influence on beekeeping. The Chinese Tallow Tree (introduced as an ornamental in the 1700s and widespread on the Gulf Coast by the 1900s) provides an intense early-summer honey flow, especially in East Texas near the Gulf of Mexico. Resource extraction is also a prominent feature of the landscape here. I think a lot of West Texas would be a pretty inhospitable environment for honey bees if it weren’t for the center-pivot irrigation systems that provide water for growing cotton and watermelons. In some bee yards out in West Texas, the smell of sour gas from oil wells is heavy in the air, but the honey from cotton fields nearby is sweet, and now and then you can spot an airplane flying low to apply agrochemicals to a crop on the horizon.
With a long warm season when the bees are raising brood, Texas also has a very long “mite season,” during which parasitic Varroa destructor mites can reproduce in a honey bee colony. That is a primary concern for beekeepers outside of Asia, Australia, and parts of the tropics. It is especially important to keep an eye on the levels of mite infestation when the mite season extends to include nearly the whole year. That’s different than Canada! As a Canadian I have, of course, found it warm here too.
Unlike a lot of people in the bee business, I did not grow up breathing bee venom from a young age; however, there is a history of beekeeping in my family. My great-grandfather in Sweden kept bees, and his father Karl kept bees in the apple orchard and really loved them. There is a family myth that on the day Karl died, one of his hives swarmed, and that the swarm settled in front of his window before flying off to find a suitable nest cavity. The beekeeping trade has skipped a couple generations, but I have definitely “caught the bug” for beekeeping.
I grew up in Sweden and Atlantic Canada, and eventually worked growing crops and combating weeds on a couple of vegetable operations in Canada. The desire to better understand causal relationships in agricultural systems is what spurred me to complete a degree in biology. Partway through university in Nova Scotia, I was hired to work on a 2,000-colony bee farm, and I found it really exciting to raise bees. That start also gave me the opportunity to spend a beekeeping season in New Zealand. Beekeeping is at an intersection of ecology, agriculture, and other human changes to the environment. I think you can learn a lot about our natural world and our modern world by looking at it from the standpoint of pollinators and the people who make their living from them.
I have been enjoying the chance to help with problem solving on bee farms. The biggest part of my job with Bee Informed is to be an extra set of eyes on colony health, with the aim of recognizing challenges as early as possible when they emerge in an operation. I am learning a lot from talking to beekeepers about their observations and management strategies. By following their colonies through the season, I also get to see some of the results of different management practices. Many of the beekeepers I’m working with have a lifetime of experience working with bees, and I appreciate their long-term perspective. When someone says, “Well, this is the worst spring we’ve had with chalkbrood disease since the 1970s,” you know they’ve been in it for the long haul.
I have my office in the lab of Dr. Juliana Rangel at Texas A & M in College Station, Texas. It is a cool vantage point, with one foot in bee research and the other in beekeeping. I am also keeping a hobby apiary on the side, so I can run small tests, for example, on mite control products I don’t already have personal experience with. I’m about to apply Apiguard to a few hives that are carrying higher mite loads. I’d like to have a first-hand look at Apiguard’s effect on the colony during warm weather: I’m curious how much brood kill there will be from the thymol-based gel. Beekeepers seem especially interested in first-hand experience. That may be partly because there is a lot of nuance to interventions in bee colonies: the outcome may be very different depending on factors including weather, location, and the timing in relation to the annual cycle of colony growth and decline. It is exciting to be part of a project that is gathering data to tease apart the factors that contribute to colony health and survival. As well, I’m looking forward to seeing all the changes in the apiary that happen in a full year here, and to meeting more of the beekeepers whose bees are in Texas each spring, Finally, I want to extend a big thank-you to those beekeepers I have been working with so far. I have been struck by the warm reception from Texans, and especially from the commercial beekeepers who I have the privilege of working with.
In northern California, after a wet winter and spring it has been a really dry and hot summer. In the spring I saw a lot more chalkbrood than normal, something that was noted nationwide by our other teams. Below are a few images of some of the worst cases photographed. It has been the hottest summer in the 6 years I have lived in northern California, with many weeks above 100F. I was able to document how dry it has been this summer as I traveled around and sampled honey bee colonies for BIP.
Other than the heat, beekeepers in northern California have been dealing with bears, varroa mites, feeding and supplying water to apiaries. Most beekeepers here have treated for varroa mites or are just finishing. Mite levels have not been really high here this summer but I am sure as fall approaches, there will be colonies with higher mite loads. Some beekeepers are experimenting with Oxalic acid and glycerin on shop towels with hopes to have a soft treatment to use. I have taken a picture below of what one of these towels looks like after several days inside of a colony. This colony propolized more than removed the towel. A lot of colonies remove this towel in small pieces that they chew and tear off from the main towel. This contact with the towel with oxalic acid is supposed to suppress the mites for several days. We will need more sampling to see if these towels are working; however I have heard that the towels are not to be relied on with a high infestation and other treatment options should be considered.
Pollen sources have been drying up here so beekeepers are starting to feed artificial pollen. This assists in keeping colony populations elevated and helps colonies deal with the excess oak dew that is coming in and prevents them from plugging out (becoming honey bound). There are a few plants still lingering around, a cool one I like is pictured below called Croton setigerus or commonly named ‘Turkey mullein’ or ‘Dove weed.’ There are a few more plants blooming now but forage is limited. It will be nice to transition into cooler days as the daylight decreases. I look forward to seeing colonies come back from out of state over the next few months to see how they are doing. In the next few months beekeepers will see if their management strategy throughout the year has been successful at keeping mite and virus levels down before we move into the critical fall period.
This is my second post on the Carolina jessamine plant. The first post covered the effects of Carolina jessamine pollen on Honey bee colonies. The adult bees can become less active and die, and brood can die as well. But the Carolina jessamine plant is native to the Southeast United States. Honey bees are not. They were brought to the Americas by humans. This means that honey bees have not co-evolved with Carolina jessamine the way that native bees have. Do the chemicals in the plant affect native bees as well?
I did a literature search to look for answers to this question. I was able to find studies looking at the effects of a Carolina jessamine alkaloid, gelsemine, on two different native bees: the bumblebee Bombus impatiens and the solitary Megachilid bee Osmia lignaria.
One paper showed that gelsemine generally decreased the proportion of flowers probed and time spent per flower for most floral visitors, including the solitary bee Osmia lignaria (Adler & Irwin 2005). This means they probably don’t like gelsemine very much. Does that mean it is bad for them? Not necessarily. Sometimes we don’t like things that are good for us, and sometimes we like things that are bad for us.
Another paper showed that feeding Osmia lignaria large amounts of gelsemine did not affect their offspring performance. This means that when adult bees were fed a lot of the alkaloid gelsemine, their eggs/young still took the same amount of time to develop and weighed the same amount as the eggs/young of bees that were not fed gelsemine (Elliot et al. 2008). Does this mean that gelsemine does not harm Osmia lignaria? Well, not necessarily. But all of those measures are important indicators of fitness. It shows that, immediately after eating the chemical, the bees are able to have seemingly normal, healthy offspring. I find it interesting that these bees avoid food containing the gelsemine alkaloid even though it does not affect their offspring performance.
So what about bumblebees? A study from the Manson lab at the University of Toronto found that feeding bumblebees gelsemine reduced the size of their eggs, but only for the subordinate bumble bees. It did not significantly affect dominant (queen) bees (Manson et al. 2009). Why? It might just be because the subordinates are smaller, so the chemical could affect them more than it would a larger, dominant bee.
In another study from the Manson lab, researchers fed gelsemine-laced nectar to the same species of bumblebee, but these bumblebees had had been infected with a common bumblebee gut parasite, the protozoan Crithidia bombi. They found that the gelsemine actually reduced the intensity of the infection in the bumblebees after 7 days. This difference was not as dramatic (i.e. was not statistically significant) after 10 days, so we don’t know how much this could realistically help infected bumbles living in the wild, but the researchers think that infected bees could potentially seek out Carolina jessamine for medicinal purposes (Manson et al. 2010). Do they? We don’t know.
At this point, you may be wondering, what does this all mean? Does Carolina jessamine harm native bees?
Mostly, we don’t know.
But here is what we do know:
One main chemical found in Carolina jasmine pollen does not seem to affect offspring performance of Osmia lignaria, but it does have some negative effects on Bombus impatiens. (We don’t have information on how it affects other native bees.)
The same chemical seems to reduce the intensity of Crithidia bombi, a common pathogen of bumblebees, in the bumblebee gut. It is possible that eating some of the chemical could help a bee infected with this pathogen survive.
Native bees are less likely to be negatively affected by Carolina jessamine than honey bees, because native bees and Caroline jessamine are both native to the US, and have had time to co-evolve.
Am I suggesting we eradicate Carolina jessamine?
Nope! I just thought these studies were interesting.
Adler, Lynn S., and Rebecca E. Irwin. “Ecological costs and benefits of defenses in nectar.” Ecology 86.11 (2005): 2968-2978.
Elliott, Susan E., et al. “The nectar alkaloid, gelsemine, does not affect offspring performance of a native solitary bee, Osmia lignaria (Megachilidae).” Ecological Entomology 33.2 (2008): 298-304.
Manson, Jessamyn S., Michael C. Otterstatter, and James D. Thomson. “Consumption of a nectar alkaloid reduces pathogen load in bumble bees.” Oecologia 162.1 (2010): 81-89.
Manson, Jessamyn S., and James D. Thomson. “Post‐ingestive effects of nectar alkaloids depend on dominance status of bumblebees.” Ecological Entomology 34.4 (2009): 421-426.
Hi! I’m a new member of the Midwest Tech Team, and am looking forward to meeting many of you in the future. Here is a little bit about my honey bee background and my motivation for getting involved in the Bee Informed Partnership:
I first became interested in honey bees when I was taking an animal behavior class as a college undergraduate. It fascinated me that so many individuals help the queen reproduce, sacrificing their own reproduction. I wanted to learn the theories underlying this phenomenon, and found that the more I learned, the more my interest in bees was cultivated. I wanted to learn to keep bees, and applied for a field assistant position in Tom Seeley’s lab at Cornell University. I really enjoy hands-on work, and found beekeeping really fun and rewarding. I liked all parts of the job, from the smell of a burning smoker, the inspecting of hives, and assembling equipment, to talking through experiments and running them. I returned the following summer to do my own experiment, looking at how induced brood breaks affect mite levels throughout the season. After graduating with a B.S. in entomology, I moved to Minneapolis to work in Marla Spivak’s lab, helping to manage the lab colonies.
I was really excited when a position opened up on the Bee Informed Partnership Tech Team. I really value the bridge that BIP forms between the community of scientists, conducting bee research, and the beekeepers that are providing fundamental pollination services and producing honey. I’m excited to be a part of this organization, and to dedicate time to working with both of these communities. And on a more basic level, I’m looking forward to spending more time in the country and every sunny moment outside.
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HOW DO BEE TECH TEAMS HELP?
The best beekeepers keep the best bees. Declining honey bee health does not always have a single cause or a single solution, but putting the best tools, techniques, and technologies in the hands of the people on the front lines – the beekeepers – has made a huge impact.
Bee Tech Teams are made up of trained experts who work directly with commercial beekeepers to provide them with these tools, techniques, and technologies. Commercial beekeepers that work with Tech Teams lose significantly fewer colonies than those who do not. Participation in Tech Teams can reduce losses by as much as 30%. Check out the video above to learn more.
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