July 9, 2016

Feeding Bees in Late Winter / Early Spring

early spring honeybee feeding As a beekeeper it is all to easy to relax once the first spring flowers begin to show and your bees are beginning to venture out and assume that your bees can fend for themselves again. This is the time when bees may need the most help. As the bees become more active they will need more food, which they may not readily be able to replenish yet from external resources. In addition a few good spring days maybe followed by days of cold and wet weather at this time of year. In fact early spring / late winter is the time when honeybee colonies can be most at risk.

Having got your colonies through winter  it important for beekeepers to correctly manage hives that have survived as this is the time of the year when bees start running out of stored honey if they haven’t already, especially if they are starting to become active for some parts of the day. To help them not to die from starvation, it’s important that you feed your bees. If you find dead bees with their heads stuck in cells, this is a sign that they have starved to death.

It is too early to feed your bees sugar-water as they will not be able to get rid of the excess moisture. A quick method of getting food to them is to pure some sugar into a bowl and add just enough water so that you can form the sugar into a firm but moist ball. This ball can then easily be added to the hive either over the hole on the crown board or onto the frames above where there are most active bees present.

Alternatively you can tear a paper bag of sugar add a small amount of water enough to moisten but not soak the bag and place this into the hive.

Pollen patties are a good source of protein for the bees, which is essential for any new brood that maybe developing. These can be purchased or made from a dry powder mix.

More about Colony Management

Icing or Powdered Sugar for Varroa Control

The use of powdered sugar dusting is a popular non-chemical approach to the control of varroa mite in honey bee colonies and is seen as an effective integrated pest management control (that is, one that does not rely on chemical intervention but good management practices.)

The method has proved to be an effective means of reducing varroa mites in honey bee colonies, having a significant impact on mite reproduction. When the bees are covered with powdered sugar their bodies become slippery causing the varroa to lose their ability to cling to the bees, the granules of sugar interfere with the gripping surfaces of the varroas’ feet and they fall to the floor of the hive.

The powdered sugar also causes the bees to groom themselves more frequently causing more mites to be dislodged. This technique does not appear to have any adverse effect on adult bees or brood.  Unlike chemical methods this technique can be used at any time, even during a honey flow, as it does not contaminate the honey and as frequently as needed to control the mite. It can also be used as a method for detecting and assessing varroa mite infestation, within a colony.

How to apply powdered sugar to your honey bee colony

Take a sugar (or cocoa) shaker like the one pictured and use approximately 125 grams (1 cup) of sugar per single hive box. You should either have an open mesh floor or a sticky board in place, as the sugar does not kill the varroa but merely dislodges them. If not caught or dropped through a mesh floor the varroa will simply climb up into the frames again.

Smoke the colony as usual and put the sticky board in place on the hive floor if you are using one. Smoke the bees down from the top boxes. Remove the boxes and apply the sugar to the bottom box first, working up through the boxes. There is no need to remove the frames from the hive. Sift or dust the powdered sugar over the top bars of the frames and into the bees in the seams. Using a bee brush carefully brush the powdered sugar from the tops of the frames to between them.

The frequency with which you will need to apply this treatment will depend upon the level of varroa mite infestation.

The only down side to the use of powdered sugar for varroa control is if not used carefully it could potentially increase the chances of robbing by other bee colonies, during a nectar dearth and may also encourage ants. Even if you have an open mesh floor it is a good idea to apply a sticky board underneath to catch the sugar, this will also enable you to monitor the level of infestation in your hive.

Sticky boards can be purchased or made from cardboard or thick paper thinly smeared with a sticky substance such as vegetable oil or Vaseline.

More About Colony Management

How to Avoid Honey Crystallisation

Although honey crystallisation is a natural process (see also … Why does honey crystallise? ) as  a beekeeper you do not want to help initiate this process before you have had the chance to bottle and sell your honey. Therefore it is important to know how to store your extracted combs and honey.

Honey should be stored at room temperature in airtight containers and the optimum temperature for storing honey is 21 to 27 ºC (70-80 ºF). Temperatures between 11 to 18 ºC (52- 64ºF), are ideal for crystallisation and therefore should be avoided. Refrigerators also aid the process of crystallisation and should again be avoided.

Filter your honey if you want to avoid crystallisation through a 80 micro filter or pass it through several sheets of fine nylon or mesh cloth. This will remove small particles such as pollen, propolis, beeswax, sugar crystals and air bubbles all of which will aid crystallisation by providing a seed or nuclei for the process to start and develop.

Honey can be heated in hot air up to to 40ºC or 104 ºF which will melt any sugar crystals and prevent crystallisation. You must check carefully with an accurate candy thermometer that the temperature does not exceed 40ºC  otherwise it will be overheated. Overheated honey loses a lot of its natural goodness and flavour and is no longer a premium product.

Commercial honey suppliers heat honey to over 63ºC (145 ºF) for as long as thirty minutes or even higher for shorter periods, then cool it quickly. This ensures that the honey will not crystallise and keeps it runny for longer in response to the mass market demand for squeezable honey.  This product is far from the natural nutrient rich product that the bees worked so hard to produce, as the heat treatment removes and kills most of the goodness such as anti-oxidants, enzymes and vitamins from the original product.

As beekeepers we should be aiming to provide our family, friends and customers with a natural healthy product and therefore care should be taken, with regard to temperature.

Finally we would recommend that you put your supers full of empty combs  back into the hives for the bees to clean after you have extracted the honey. Not only will you be giving the bees back something but it will also reduce the likelihood of any residue honey crystallising over winter and getting into next years honey and causing it to crystallise too quickly.

More Honey Facts

More About Honey Extraction and Care

Why does Honey Granulate or Crystallise?

Many people when their runny golden honey turns thick, semi-solid and opaque become concerned that the product has gone off or in some way it is past its use by date. However this granulation or crystallisation is a natural process and all honey has a tendency to some degree to crystallise. Beekeepers call this ‘set honey’ and some honey eaters prefer it as it is easier to spread and is less messy.

Honey crystallisation does not affect the flavour or nutritional content of the honey, though it does affect the colour and texture.

The rate at which crystallisation occurs depends upon storage temperature, availability of ‘seed’ crystals, such as pollen grains and the specific mix of sugars and trace compounds in the honey. Honey is a highly concentrated sugar solution, containing over 70% sugars and less than 20% water. The resultant solution is very unstable as the available water has a very high degree of sugar content making it more prone to crystallise.

The two main sugars in honey are fructose and glucose and the relative percentage of each varies from one type of honey to another. The general percentage range of the two types of sugars are fructose from 30- 44 % and glucose from 25- 40 %. It is the glucose in honey which crystallises as it has  a lower water solubility, unlike fructose which is more soluble in water and therefore will remain fluid for longer.

Honey which is made from nectar that is higher in fructose content such as Tupelo Honey and Sage Honey are very slow to crystallise. While honey made from plants such as oilseed rape and ivy are lower in fructose and crystallise very rapidly, doing so on the comb in the hive. These latter types of honey need careful management by the beekeeper and even the bees can have problems managing this type of honey crop.

What happens when crystallisation occurs is the glucose has separated from the water and turned into small crystals, which eventually spreads throughout the honey. Most honey will crystallise uniformly but some just form a crystallised layer on the bottom of the container with the top remaining liquid. The quicker the crystallisation process occurs the finer the texture will be.

Crystallized honey usually sets to a much lighter colour than in its original runny form. This is caused by the glucose crystals which have separated and dried out and which are naturally white in colour, although dark honey will still be a brownish colour in appearance.

Apart from the relative sugar content of the honey, storage temperature and the amount of impurities in the honey also affects the rate of crystallisation. Honey crystallization is most rapid around 10-15 ºC (50- 59 ºF) and is slowed down or prevented at temperature below 10 ºC (52 ºF).  Honey resists crystallization best at temperatures of more than 25 ºC (77 ºF). When the temperature reaches 40 ºC (104 ºF) crystals will dissolve. However temperature above 40 ºC (104 ºF) will damage the natural properties of honey.

The presence of harmless impurities in honey such as pollen grains and beeswax also speed up crystallisation as they act as seeds or nuclei for the crystals. These are perfectly natural and are part of what makes honey so nutritious and healthy and those seeking a more natural product should always look out for honey labelled as ‘raw honey’.

Commercially produced honey responding to public demand for a honey that does not tend to crystallise but remains runny or ‘squeezable’ tends to be filtered to remove any natural impurities. In addition it is often heated to temperatures above  40 ºC (104 ºF), which will remove sugar crystals and along with the filtering will keep the product runny for longer. But the taste and the natural goodness and nutritional value of the honey is much diminished.

More Honey Facts

Honey Bee Brain and Nervous System

Honey bees like most insects not only have a brain in their head but several sub brains or ganglia (7 of these) spread throughout their bodies. There are 2 ganglia in the thorax and 5 in the abdomen. Ganglia function independently but can be controlled or over written by instructions from the main brain. They also send feedback to the main brain about the state of the environment in their particular area.

Most locomotion is controlled by the ganglia, not the brain and in fact a beheaded bee can move it’s legs and wings vigorously. A bee will be able to walk and sting for a while when decapitated, but not fly as its balance will be out without a head.

An adult honey bee is one of the most advanced insects and is capable of  a huge range of different complex behaviour. Honey bees are capable of learning and have short-term memory.

The actual main brain of a an adult honey bee is proportionately very large in comparison with its size. In the worker bee the brain consists mainly of the optic lobes, with the central part acting as a coordinating centre and this central part is larger than in most other insects. Nerve fibres connect the brain to the 2 ganglia in the thorax and the 5 in tha abdomen.

Each ganglion has nerve fibres which connect it to sensory receptors on the outside of the body, to bring information back from the outside environment. The antennae are of course the main sites for sensory reception in the bee.

The ganglia also each have fibres which bring information about the condition of the internal organs of the bee and those which send back regulatory information. Fibres also carry information to the muscles to control their actions.

Much is still to be learned about why the bee is capable of displaying such complex behaviour in particular its amazing ability to navigate to and from its hive, remembering and passing on detailed information about the position of  food sources.

More about Honey Bee Anatomy and Physiology

How Bees Make Honey

Everyone knows that honey bees make honey, but most are unaware of exactly how they produce this liquid gold. This article will give you an insight into the work of the honey bee.

For honey bees building honey stores to ensure the survival of the colony through seasons of little or no nectar is what their life is about. From about three weeks old, when a bee becomes a forager (name for a worker bee over three weeks old who works outside the hive), to the day she literally drops dead from exhaustion at about six weeks old, a worker bee collects nectar, pollen, propolis or water depending upon the needs of her colony at any one time. Note, it is only female bees that are workers and foragers within a honey bee colony.

It is nectar that is used to produce honey and it is calculated that a honey bee needs to visit several hundred flowers on one foraging flight to fill up with nectar She sucks the nectar from the flowers using her proboscis and then stores it in a special honey stomach, for transport back to the hive. Here enzymes will begin work on the nectar.

Once back at the hive the forager bee passes her nectar load to a house bee, this is a worker bee below the age of three weeks, the age at which she will also will begin foraging duties. The forager bee adds an enzyme to the nectar as it passes through its mouth. This enzyme is invertase and it is produced by the hypopharangeal glands which have two outlets just inside the bee’s mouth. Nectar is mainly composed of  sucrose (a disaccharide) and water. The enzyme invertase turns the sucrose into glucose and fructose (monosaccharides).

Other enzymes are added as the house bee carries the nectar to where it is to be stored. The nectar is then spread around a comb cell and the bees then work on reducing the moisture content. The bees do this by fanning their wings over the comb to evaporate the water.

Once the moisture level is reduced to 17% then it can be called honey and the bees will seal off each cell with a cap of wax. By reducing the moisture level of the honey the bees have ensured that it will not go off, as no living organisms can survive in so little moisture. The wax cap on the honey prevents moisture entering and it is at this stage that the beekeeper knows that they can harvest the honey.

More about Honey

What makes Tupelo Honey Special?

Tupelo honey is highly sought after and is considered to be a premium honey due to its purity and relative scarcity. Pure Tupelo honey is only produced in the Southeastern United States, in the Apalachicola River basin, the Chipola River (a tributary of the Apalachicola) and the  The Ochlocknee and Choctahatchee Rivers in Northwest Florida and Southern Georgia.  These areas are the only places in the world where certified Tupelo honey is produced.  As it is the only place where the white tupelo tree, Nyssa Ogeche , that produces pure Tupelo honey, grows in any abundance.

There are other types of  tupelo, for example black tupelo, but this does not produce the high quality honey that the white tupelo does. When buying Tupelo honey you should ensure that it is the pure certified variety from the white tupelo and preferably raw honey straight from the comb.

The white tupelo blooms from early April to early May, depending on the  weather conditions.  This means that beekeepers have a small window of opportunity to ensure that their bees produce the maximum amount of pure Tupelo honey.

Black Tupelo, Nyssa Biflora , actually blooms in advance of white tupelo and is used to build up bee colony strength. However as soon as the white tupelo are ready to bloom beekeepers empty the hives of all stores and replace them with empty drawn comb ready for the bees to fill them up with pure white tupelo nectar and turn it into this much sought after honey crop.

The hives usually need to be transported to the river banks, often by barge, where the tupelo trees grow in time for the bees to start the harvest. As soon as the white tupelo trees look as if they are going out of bloom the beekeepers have to remove the frames of honey to prevent the bees mixing it with nectar from other types of plants or flowers and therefore ruining its purity. Timing is everything and it is easy to see why this is an expensive and time-consuming operation for the beekeepers.

It is estimated that it takes the nectar from over two million white tupelo flowers to produce just one pound of honey. Add that to the fact that one honey bee during her life will make 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey only and you will begin to  see just how much effort is required to produce this amazing crop.

Tupelo Honey

Pure Tupelo honey is a light amber gold colour with a distinctive greenish tint.  It has a distinctive and delicious flavour, with buttery undertones. Honey produced solely from the white tupelo is the only honey that will not granulate, this is due to its high fructose (levulose) (44.3%), low glucose (dextrose) (29.98%) ratio. This combination of sugars has also meant that it is the only honey that some diabetics can consume.

More Honey Facts

What to Look for When Inspecting a Hive

When inspecting a hive there are several things that you should be looking out for and these are summarised below.

Evidence that the hive is ‘queen right’

Queen right is the term given to describe a colony of honey bees where the queen bee is present and laying eggs. When inspecting your hive  look out for the queen, but if you cannot find her don’t worry. It is not always easy to find the queen especially if the hive has many boxes and large numbers of bees. Ideally you should have your queen marked, which will help you to find her and also to confirm that the queen you have found is your original one and not a replacement.

If you cannot find your queen, look for eggs. If you find eggs you know that your queen was at least in your hive a couple of days ago. If you cannot find your queen and you see no eggs, then you have a problem as either the queen is dead or she has stopped laying or is defective in some way and cannot lay.

As you remove a frame for inspection, be sure to hold it over the hive, in case the queen is on it and falls off. If you are holding it over the hive then she will fall back into the hive. If the queen was to fall onto the ground outside the hive there is no guarantee she will be able to find her way back in.
Presence of all stages of brood
It is important for the colonies survival that there is plenty of brood at all stages of development and in particular plenty capped or sealed brood. You should also as the season progresses see a marked increase in the bee population, which is essential if the bees are to gather enough to produce the honey that you and they need.
Check for any abnormalities
This gets easier with experience and after a while an experienced beekeeper can tell at a quick glance whether there are any real problems or not. You should be looking in particular for any sign of disease (e.g malformed larvae) or pests, such as varroa or wax moth (refer to our pests and diseases section).
Check for sufficient honey and pollen stores
The amount of honey stores will depend upon the time of year, but if you feel that there is insufficient stores then you should feed your bees. The bees will usually store pollen near the brood areas as this is where it is most needed.
Check that there is enough space
Again this depends upon the time of year. In spring and early summer it is important that the queen has plenty space to lay if not you increase the likelihood of losing most of your bees and honey as the colony will swarm. Always add supers in plenty time for the main nectar flow if you are to maximise your honey crop.
You should also  ideally keep a written record of what you have seen in each hive as it is not as easy to remember from inspection to inspection as you might imagine.

Honey Bee Glands

The worker honey bee has several important glands situated in her head, thorax and abdomen. Starting  just inside the bee’s mouth  are the opening points of two very large glands, these are called the hypopharyngeal glands. The  hypopharyngeal glands are crucial to the honey bee and to the survival of the colony.

These glands are made up of a number of secretory cells clustered around a central canal. When the honey bee is young, in the first few weeks of its life, these cells are round and plump and produce brood food, a form of bee milk which is used to feed bee larvae. As the bee gets older and becomes a forager at about three weeks old, these cells become smaller and much reduced in size. The hypopharyngeal glands have now switched from producing brood food to producing invertase, which as the name suggests inverts sugars. However if necessary for the needs of the colony the worker bee can switch back to producing bee food from these glands.

In addition a pair of glands in the mandibles secrete a type of preservative which is mixed with the brood food as it is secreted from the hypopharyngeal glands, this has anti bacterial qualities which prevents the food from deteriorating.

The mandibular glands also produce an alarm scent called heptanone which is used to  alert other bees to danger. This is one of the reasons that beekeepers use a smoker as the smoke masks this scent and reduces the likelihood of the bees orchestrating an attack. The mandibular glands in the queen bee produce a type of fatty acid which is called ‘queen substance’ which is used to ensure the workers are aware of her presence.

Moving down the body there are two salivary glands in the head and thorax, with openings on either side of the bee’s tongue. Their liquid secretion is used to dilute honey and dissolve sugar crystals.

On the upper side of the abdomen of the bee on the last visible segment is the Nasanov gland.  This releases a pheromone which is used to attract members of the colony who might have lost the location of their hive. Often you will notice bees at the entrance of a hive fanning with their wings to propel the airborne scent to the bees flying around, especially when the hive has been disturbed.

Worker bees also have four pairs of wax glands on the underside of the last five segments of their abdomens. Wax is secreted into pockets underneath each gland and quickly solidifies into translucent white blobs which are then removed by mouth and worked on to use to build comb as required (see How and why bees produce wax ).

Finally there are two glands associated with the bee’s stinging mechanism. There is  a long thin venom gland which produces the acidic venom which is contained in the venom sac. The second sting gland produces an alkaline solution which is thought to act as a lubricant for the stinging mechanism.

More Bee Anatomy and Physiology

Honey Bee Larvae Digestive System – Alimentary Canal

The alimentary canal of a bee larvae is not as complex and developed as that of  a fully grown bee (see Honey Bee Alimentary System ), but still has to function efficiently to ensure nutrients are absorbed quickly to aid the larvae’s rapid growth and ensure that it has sufficient body stores to last it through the sealed pupal stage and onto its emergence as an adult honey bee. Bee larvae have voracious appetites and are fed first larvae royal jelly, then are quickly weaned onto a mixture of honey and pollen (bee bread) by adult worker (nurse) bees. Of course if the larva is to become a  queen, royal jelly will continue to be fed to it.

The bee larva has a very short fore-gut which carries the food from its mouth to its mid-gut, in which the food is digested. Up until the end of its larval period, that is until it has finished feeding and before it is sealed up to pupate, the mid-gut has no exit to the hindgut and digested food residue remains there. This is believed to be to prevent it from fouling its food.

Once the larva is fully fed the hind-gut breaks through into the mid-gut. At the same time the Malpighian tubules which act like kidneys and have being removing nitrogenous waste from the body cavity also break through and discharge their contents, thereby adding uric acid to the feacal matter. This waste is then expelled from the larva and spread over the walls of the brood cell. It is then covered with the silken cocoon that the larva is now spinning.

On emerging from her cell as an adult, one of the first things the bee does even before eating is clean out her birth cell. Ensuring that all her waste matter is removed and the cell is ready to be reused.

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