I feel like I am in the scene where Dorothy first opens the door to see the land of Oz in all its technicolor splendor. A golden ball is coursing the sky, the fields and forests are dappled with vivid colors, and little things are awake and zooming about me. AH, SPRING!
After what seems like ages of gloom and despair, trapped in a place I would normally call home, I see a glimmer of hope. COVID virus cases are declining in most SC counties, and nearly half have entered the “green” phase which has allowed Extension offices to begin reopening. Professors and agents alike are returning to their offices and trying to resume standard services, cautiously. Our return-to-work plan still requires modifications to our operations and limits public access, but at least we are moving in a positive direction. In January, administration instated a 90-day modified work directive which restricts in-person programming, and we remain in that operational mode. We are nearing the end of the period, at which time administration will re-evaluate our procedures. While the world around us appears to be emerging from the gloom, our operational plan remains cautious for the protection of our staff and clients. Hopefully, the trends will continue, and we will be able to resume traditional programming this summer. **Fingers crossed**
I am planning toward that end. I have submitted a request to conduct an in-service training to build beekeeping knowledge within the extension service. This training will commence in May, and I am hopeful we will be able to hold field days in June. Also in the works is a basic entomology training for Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists in May. It will still be virtual, but it will be the first step in building volunteers that can assist with the annual bee census and floral phenology systems that we hope to begin next year.
I am also excited to hear that the SC Beekeepers Association is working diligently to return to an in-person summer meeting in July. Let’s hope that planning for the meeting runs smoothly, and that the meeting will be a triumphant return to some sense of normalcy.
As with most of you, I have been busy in the bee yard. I have established a demonstration apiary at the Pee Dee Rec in Florence and checked on the apiary in Clemson which Dr. Hood is still tending. Both will be expanded this spring. I just completed queen mating nucs and am about ready to begin making increases. I’ll share the plans later in this edition.
I also have permission to establish pollinator habitats in several locations. These will be used for teaching and testing to help inform the installation and maintenance practices that are most successful for producing productive pollinator habitat. Installation of pollinator habitat takes time, and I hope to begin later this summer in preparation for the fall.
We also are developing a basic entomology course for Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists to help them learn about the amazing diversity of arthropods we have in South Carolina.
I am excited for what this spring and summer will bring.
This winter was as wet and gloomy as any I can remember. Rivers across the state remained in flood stage through January and February, and the skies stayed overcast for most of the season. Add to it that most of us were largely bound to our homes as COVID cases spiked following the new year, and it was difficult to remain optimistic. I suspect that each of you was just like me when I heard that Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter… “Nooooo!”
Finally, spring is here, and there is no shortage of work to do in the bee yard. Of course, now is “go time” for honey bees, and hopefully the preparations you made last fall and through the winter have your colonies healthy and building. The most important pollen sources have begun blooming (such as willows, wild plum, dewberry/blackberry, etc.),
and I can report that coastal bees are packing pollen in as fast as they can, which means that brood production is at its peak. Most of the Clemson colonies are adding weight now too as nectar sources become more available this month. The spring nectar flow is now under way.
The rapid influx of food is the final trigger that leads to honey bee swarming behavior, and, according to reports by beekeepers all across the state, swarm season has begun. All of the Clemson hives have been filled rapidly with pollen in the last two weeks and new queen cups have been built, indicating the first preparations for swarming. If your intention is to delay or prevent swarming you should provide additional boxes/frames to allow for more space as the boxes are filled with brood
and food. Queens are filling cells with eggs rapidly, and large volumes of food are coming into the hives, two conditions that encourage queens to lay eggs in the queen cups. It is critical to monitor hives weekly for swarm cells. The honey producers in the audience may choose to destroy queen cells during weekly inspections to prevent the initiation of swarming while maintaining a large workforce that encourages nectar hoarding and greater honey production. If you opt to use queen excluders to prevent brood production in your honey supers, now is the time to install them.
For the beekeepers looking to grow their apiaries, conditions are now perfect for making increases. Remember, there are important reasons why bee colonies swarm and divide this time of year and why spring swarms are more successful than summer or fall swarms. As with most other organisms, bee colonies time reproduction for when food is readily available and easy to gather, so biologically speaking, bees are “in the mood” to increase their colony numbers. As you perform your inspections, you may consider removing frames with developing swarm cells or cutting out swarm cells to transfer them to finishing nucs, which not only controls swarming in the parent colony but also provides a method for developing new colonies similar to walk-away splits. Because swarm cells are formed under ideal conditions, queens born of swarm cells tend to be better fed and more vigorous than queens born of emergency or supercedure cells. Be careful with swarm cells if you intend to use them to raise new queens. Shaking, jarring, or simply laying them on their sides can roll or dislodge the developing queen larva, effectively killing it by drowning it in royal jelly. Swarm cells or the frames they are on should be handled carefully and upright to prevent damage to the developing queen larvae. They also need to remain warm. If your intent is to make increases this year, then there are a number of publications that I have found to be helpful. “Increase Essentials, 2nd Edition (Connor 2006)” provides a thorough and stepwise approach to explaining how to increase the number of colonies. Although it is geared more specifically to raising queen honey bees, “Rearing Queen Honey Bees, 2nd Edition (Morse 1994)” gives a comprehensive discussion of the bees’ natural methods for colony reproduction and techniques beekeepers can use to enhance queen production. Both books are very informative for beekeepers seeking to grow their apiaries, which, in my opinion, should be every beekeeper because if you are not growing, then you likely are not overcoming losses due to pests and diseases. Mated queens will become more available this month and next, so if you are planning to split with purchased queens, now is the time to place your orders.
For the larger scale beekeepers in the crowd, now is an excellent time to begin grafting queens or initiating whichever alternate queen rearing method you prefer (Miller, Alley, Nicot, etc.). There are large volumes of capped brood and freshly emerged nurse bees for creating your starter colony(ies), and 1st day larvae should be abundant. You also can assess the success of the overwintered colonies at this time and select from productive lineages. I often refer back to Dr. Morse’s “Rearing Queen Honey Bees, 2nd Edition” as an excellent publication for learning grafting and other queen rearing techniques. For anyone looking to learn grafting, Penn State provides a nice fact sheet (https://extension.psu.edu/queen-cell-production-grafting-and-graft-free-methods) which provides a quick overview of the subject and links to other resources, one of which is an article for Bee Culture that Dr. Grozinger (PSU) wrote about a method for making grafting faster and easier for beginning grafters. This method requires plastic foundation, and basically involves cutting away the walls of the comb cells to expose the 1st day larvae laying in the depression of the plastic foundation. You can read more about this method here (https://www.beeculture.com/grafting/). Please don’t think that I am saying this is the best method, but perhaps this method will help folks learn to graft by making the larvae easier to see and access. One thing I learned about this method – it is much easier to apply to freshly drawn comb than to older brood comb. Once bees have constructed a cocoon in the cell, it is much more difficult to cut the cell walls away without rolling or damaging the larvae.
One critical component of raising queens is to have enough nucs to use for mating the freshly emerged queens. I endeavored to design mating nucs for this year, but quickly got sticker shock when I went to purchase wood. If you haven’t been to the hardware store recently, you need to know that wood has skyrocketed in price. Plywood is sporting a price tag that is nearly three times what it was this time last year. This got me rethinking my design, so I am beginning an experiment. I developed a design using 3/8” plywood, which allows me to construct 6 three-frame mating nucs from a single 4’ x 8’ sheet. In case you are interested, here are the specifications.
Each nuc is constructed with…
The ends, bottom and sides are glued (wood glue) and stapled (1/4” x 1 ¼” crown staples) flush to the edges. The rails are glued and stapled inside the ends at 5/8” from the top of the end. The lid is made by gluing and stapling the end caps to the ends of the top, allowing for 3/8” overhang above the top. If you have scraps, it helps to glue the scrap pieces to the center of the top to raise the feeder so that it fits snuggly into the top. Drill a 1” hole for an entrance in one end and a 2 ¾” hole in the top for the feeder. Paint the entire outside of the nuc and top. Do not paint underside of top or inside of nuc. Also, do not use pressure treated wood. If this design works, I will produce a more formal publication later. I am concerned that the thin plywood will warp in the humidity and not seal well, but that remains to be determined. One advantage to this design is that two pieces of plywood can be cut at the same time, allowing for quick preparation for 12 mating nucs.
Otherwise, now is a time of plenty, and I hope that you can enjoy being outside with your bees.
Chinese Tallow: Boon or Bane?
There has been much buzz about the Chinese tallow tree (Triadica sebifera) in the beekeeping community recently because of a USDA program that is investigating insects that may be released to control it. It has become such a stir that the American Honey Producers Association has developed a petition for beekeepers to sign in an attempt to halt the USDA’s program.
An exotic tree from southeast Asia, the Chinese tallow has naturalized and spread across the southeastern states and is especially common in the gulf states (TX, LA, MS, AL, FL). Also known as the Popcorn tree because it produces a fleshy white coating over its developing seeds, this tree was introduced to the colonial south in an attempt to develop a seed oil industry. The fatty seed coating was used by Asian cultures to produce soaps and candles, but the industry never took-off in the US, although the plant most definitely made itself at home.
Beekeepers have long valued the tallow as an important nectar plant that flowers in late spring when the nectar flow is winding down. A prolific nectar producer, the Chinese tallow attracts many species of native pollinators and honey bees. Its nectar produces a highly valued monocultural honey, and it provides a much-needed source of nutrition at a time when many commercial beekeepers are splitting colonies, raising queens, and recovering from migrating to pollination contracts. It has been rumored that beekeepers played a significant role in establishing Chinese tallow in Texas and beyond.
Tallow has a dark side, though. It is rated as a tier one invasive plant, with the likes of kudzu, hydrilla, and Chinese privet. As with all top tier invasive plants it is capable of reproducing itself at alarming rates and displacing native species. Chinese tallow is a type-r adapted plant which is characterized as having a fast growth rate, compact size, and high fecundity (reproductive success), which are all adaptations for thriving in unstable or frequently disturbed ecosystems. Each mature tree (approx. 20 years old) produces up to 100,000 seeds annually, and the seeds remain viable for up to seven years. Tallow thrives where forests are disturbed and uses its adaptations to out-compete native trees and understory plants. In forestry operations, germinating tallow greatly impedes reforestation after thinnings and harvests. It also dominates areas where forests have been destroyed by wildfire and wind storms. For example, while tallow is common across much of Louisiana, it was often a background tree in established forests. It occurred as an understory tree along with hornbeam and American holly. When Hurricane Katrina decimated forests in eastern LA, it released the seed bank that tallow had built over many years. Once released the tallow became the dominant tree over thousands of acres of forest land, and its density (stems per acre) is so great that the diversity of native plants was decreased dramatically and recruitment of native trees back into the disturbed area was stopped or delayed (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305824534_Delayed_tree_mortality_and_Chinese_tallow_Triadica_sebifera_population_explosion_in_a_Louisiana_bottomland_hardwood_forest_following_Hurricane_Katrina). This characteristic can make its invasiveness deceiving. It can occur for long periods in mixed forests with seemingly benign affects, but disturbance of the established overstory allows this tree to demonstrate its sinister traits.
Due to its invasiveness, most states where it exists have control programs, South Carolina included. Florida has one of the most comprehensive management plans (https://www.fleppc.org/Manage_Plans/Tallow_Plan.pdf). These management plans usually address control of this plant in the horticulture industry, forestry operations, and on public lands such as state and federal lands, all in an attempt to limit its expansion. Many plans identify herbicides and mechanical control measures, but these methods are expensive, difficult to implement at large scales, and temporary at best. In an attempt to achieve widespread suppression and reduce control costs, various researchers and the USDA have explored developing biological control programs to slow the expansion of Chinese tallow.
Two insects, a flea beetle (Bikasha collaris) and a moth (Gadirtha fusca), have passed testing in quarantine to determine that they control tallow and that they feed specifically on tallow and not on native plants. The flea beetle attacks both the roots and leaves of Chinese tallow, and the moth attacks leaves. In laboratory settings, these insects reduce growth of tallow. Now the USDA is considering releasing these insects to aid in suppressing Chinese tallow across the entire range in the US.
I have been called by several beekeepers in SC asking my thoughts on this program and the control of Chinese tallow, especially the proposal to release these two biological control insects, so I thought I should share my response with the whole beekeeping community. While Chinese tallow is not as prolific in SC as in the other southern states, it has definitely demonstrated its invasiveness in isolated areas (https://www.srs.fs.fed.us/pubs/ja/2017/ja_2017_walker_001.pdf)
In SC it is limited to the coastal plain, and it has really only a dominant tree in isolated parts of the lowcountry (lower third of the state around the ACE Basin). In that part of the state, it is used by migratory and resident beekeepers as an important nectar source and honey producing plant. Although I don’t have exact numbers, it is safe to say that hundreds, possibly a few thousand hives are moved into the lowcountry each May-June to capture the tallow flow. While tallow is not as prolific in SC as our neighbors to the west, I fear that we are one major hurricane away from seeing a rapid and widespread expansion of this invasive tree.
Will the release of biological control insects decimate the populations of tallow in SC? Well, that remains to be determined, but I suggest we look at other biological control programs for insight. Biological control programs almost never eliminate the target species. If you think about it, that makes sense, because if these insects completely remove their only host plant, then they will not survive. In most cases, biological control agents only slow the expansion of the target species and do very little to eliminate targets that are already established. A good example to illustrate this would be the waterhyacinth weevils I investigated for my master’s degree research. These weevils, like the tallow flea beetle feed both on the leaves as adults and on the roots and stems as larvae. They were released long ago and are present in almost every single raft of waterhyacinth plants present in SC, yet they provide minimal control, and the state still has to spray herbicides to prevent waterhyacinth from clogging rivers and lakes. One other piece of evidence is that the tallow leaf roller (Caloptilia triadicae), a caterpillar that feeds specifically on the leaves of chinese tallow, was unknowingly introduced from Asia in 2013. It has spread but does not appear to have any significant impact on tallow expansion.
Should beekeepers be in support of tallow control efforts? While tallow is helpful for migratory honey producers and resident beekeepers, expansion of tallow and displacement of other forage plants could create nutritional problems for bees. Many of the plants that tallow displaces are also critical sources of honey bee nutrition, and it is well established that honey bees are generalists and need a variety of food sources to remain healthy and productive. Trees such as red maples, black willows, American hollies, and gallberries are some of the critical forage plants that compete directly with tallow, and these plants provide nutrition over a long period of time starting in January and running through June.Tallow also overshadows understory plants that provide critical summertime nutrition. I am concerned that proliferation of tallow will result in reducing diversity of season-long forages and replace them with a species that provides nutrition for only a few weeks.
If the biological control program for tallow progresses the same way other biological control programs have, then perhaps it will allow for the best scenario: slowing but not eliminating tallow in the landscape while preserving floral biodiversity by reducing tallow’s competitive edge over native plants.
Dig-dug, its time for mining bees
I have received several calls this week about honey bees coming out of the ground. Of course, that claim is cause for investigation, because honey bees do not normally nest underground. Thankfully, all of the calls have turned out to be mining bees!
It is easy to see how folks might confuse mining bees with honey bees. Most mining bees we see this time of year are about the same size as honey bees, they both are fuzzy with golden setae, and both seem driven to work as hard as possible, taking very little time to rest long enough to get a good look at them. That, however, is where the similarities stop.
Mining bees are actually not just a single species but are a whole family of native bees. In the southeast there are a couple hundred species representing at least five genera, but the greatest diversity occurs in the arid southwest, which makes sense for an insect that prefers to nest in ground with little vegetative cover. Each species has its own preferred nest site conditions and forage plants. About half of the species (Andreninae) are generalists (oligolectic), feeding on a large number of plant species in multiple families. The other half (Panurginae) are specialists on plants from just a single genus or just a few closely related species. For this reason, mining bees are not distributed evenly across the landscape. The activity of specialist species is closely tied to the bloom period of their host plants. You will not find mining bees everywhere, but when you find them, you often find lots of them working vigorously.
Mining bees are solitary bees, which means that each individual female takes care of all of the daily tasks. She digs the burrow and nuptial chambers, collects the larval food, and lays the egg. She does not tend to the larvae, rather she provisions enough bee bread (pollen and nectar) for the larva to eat through its entire development. Once enough food is provided, she caps the chamber then moves on to create another nuptial chamber. Although all mining bees are solitary, some species display communal behavior. They will aggregate together in the same area for nesting and even use the same burrow entrances as other mining bees. Still, they construct separate nuptial chambers and do not divide tasks like social bees do.
People who encounter active mining bees often are alarmed at the large numbers of bees in the area. They even describe the activity as “swarming,” but close examination will show that the bees stay relatively low to the ground and never come together as a cluster. They also are not defensive, and people describe walking through active mining bees without being stung. Typically, defensive behavior near the nesting site is reserved to social bees and wasps, and solitary bees rarely sting unless they are injured or trapped.
As with many native bees, mining bees suffer severely from land disturbances. Tillage of farm fields, development and impervious surfaces, soil compaction, turf insecticides, flooding and drought, and elimination of their host plants all contribute to restricting where they can survive. The fact that each species has particular requirements for its nest sites makes conservation projects exceedingly difficult. The best I can recommend is that if you find a site where mining bees are active, inform the property owner that they are not a threat and protect the site from disturbance, because there may not be many other suitable nest sites in the area. Also, maintain plant diversity, especially native plants to which the bees have adapted, is critical for conserving pollinator diversity, especially for specialist bees such as the panurgine mining bees.
Have you ever thought of producing “powdered” honey? Perhaps it will provide a unique market, but processing might alter the quality of the final product.
Mauricio Donders, Belen Labra, Jorge Chávez, Jorge Tapia-Merino & Orlando Muñoz (2021) Spray-Dried Honey Powder as a Sweetener: Sensory Characterization, Bee World, DOI: 10.1080/0005772X.2021.1892998
An investigation into the influence brood ester pheromone has on colony structure determined that it plays a significant role in acceptance of new queens and the rate of supersedure.
David R. Tarpy, Eric Talley & Bradley N. Metz (2021) Influence of brood pheromone on honey bee colony establishment and queen replacement, Journal of Apicultural Research, 60:2, 220-228, DOI: 10.1080/00218839.2020.1867336
It has been determined that multiple factors have contributed to declines of wild honey bee colonies both in their native range and outside of it. Some investigations have observed that feral colonies in the US do not survive more than a few seasons. A study of wild colonies in Ireland has determined that native colonies of Apis mellifera mellifera are widely established in the region and that they are genetically distinct from domesticated stocks of honey bees, which consist mostly of hybridized subspecies. This shows promise that wild bees can overcome challenges and remain distinct from domesticated stocks.
Keith A. Browne, Jack Hassett, Michael Geary, Elizabeth Moore, Dora Henriques, Gabriele Soland-Reckeweg, Roberto Ferrari, Eoin Mac Loughlin, Elizabeth O’Brien, Saoirse O’Driscoll, Philip Young, M. Alice Pinto & Grace P McCormack (2021) Investigation of free-living honey bee colonies in Ireland, Journal of Apicultural Research,60:2, 229-240, DOI: 10.1080/00218839.2020.1837530
Master Beekeeping Program Testing at various locations around the state – April 2021
South Carolina Beekeepers Association Summer Meeting – 22-24 July. 2021
Save the date!!! More details TBA
Eastern Apiculture Society Annual Conference 11-13 Aug. 2021 https://www.easternapiculture.org
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