Well, perhaps I spoke too soon. In the last edition I remarked how it felt like things were returning to some sense of normalcy. Chock it up to wishful thinking or sheer naivety, but that feeling has since exited, stage door left. Knowing what I know of airborne respiratory viruses, I quietly expected virus numbers to rise after a summer of “normalcy,” but what is surprising is how rapidly COVID positive cases have risen even with more than half of the population vaccinated. This suggests that the vaccinations may reduce hospitalizations but are doing little to slow the spread of the virus.
Thus is the challenge of the world in which we live. We know so little but have to make decisions that affect the wellbeing of our colleagues and neighbors. Most folks error on the side of caution, but for a program such as the Clemson Apiculture and Pollinator program which is a public education program, planning trainings and outreach in the current environment is challenging to say the least.
Clemson has modified its operations to ensure the safety of our clients and staff. Thankfully county offices remain open, and we are still offering in-person trainings and programs. We have postponed some of our larger events such as the fall field days that occur at the research stations across the state. That is unfortunate because I was looking forward to giving a field presentation on what to consider when setting up an apiary, especially in an agricultural setting and discussing the pollinator test plots. We were planning to use the demonstration apiary at Pee Dee REC to show hundreds of farmers and landowners what beekeepers must consider when setting up apiaries and migrating to new locations and what to consider when planning conservation pollinator plots.
All Clemson employees are now required to get tested for COVID every 14 days regardless of vaccination status. Perhaps this is a better and more tolerable approach than mandating vaccinations. Hopefully, this will keep us open and able to continue with in-person trainings.
We are moving forward with programming this fall. We are working with the SC Master Beekeeper Program to offer a journeyman level course in Conway towards the end of October. Check the “Events” section for more details. We also are working with the Master Beekeeping Program committee to update the certified level teaching materials. Stay tuned for the new presentations and content that should be available for your trainings next year.
I also am excited to be breaking ground on the pollinator habitat test plots at Pee Dee REC. The plots are marked, and the farm crews will begin site preparations in the next couple of weeks. I look forward to documenting the process with photos and videos. Keep an eye on the Clemson Apiculture Facebook page for updates.
Of course we will continue working on the website and publications, but there is another project that I hope to roll-out next year that will require your assistance. We would like to begin documenting honey bee forage bloom periods across South Carolina. Using a digital platform called iNaturalist, we will ask beekeepers, gardeners, and conservationists to use their mobile devices to capture pictures of plants in bloom to track the bloom periods of critical honey bee forages and other important pollinator plants across the various ecoregions of South Carolina. This will be a simple citizen science project where you, SC beekeepers, can help us collect critical data to ascertain when honey bee forages become available. This also will help us track the effects of land use changes across the state. We are planning trainings and presentations for anyone interested in participating in the project, so stay tuned.
Last, much thanks to the SC Beekeepers Association for including the Clemson Apiculture and Pollinator Program in the summer meeting. Attendance was good, all things considered, and we were so pleased to be able to offer bee yard activities as part of the conference program. Brad Cavin, Apiary Inspection Program, and I look forward to supporting the Association with bee yards and other trainings in the future.
The Dearth Days of Summer
After a very productive spring, our demonstration apiaries located in the Pee Dee region experienced a very severe dearth that started in June and persisted through July. Weights of most hives declined through that time as did the number of drones. Honey stores were depleted, and the amount of incoming pollen was just enough to supply brood production. To ensure that the colonies would survive the trip to the bee yard at the SC Beekeepers Association summer meeting at the end of July, I chose to feed them. Thankfully, they quickly found pollen sources in the urban environment around Trident Tech, and the bees returned home with surplus bee bread as a result of the trip, although honey stores remained critically low. Both the southern magnolias and crape myrtles planted around campus were the likely sources of pollen, but these plants also produce little nectar.
I share this information because it illustrates two important principles of beekeeping in South Carolina. First, most of the southern states experience a summer dearth which can be very intense depending on rainfall and local plant communities. Beekeepers must consider how to overcome the gap between the spring nectar flow and the onset of blooming crops and fall forages. Second, beekeepers should not be afraid either to feed bees or move them to better food sources to overcome the lean months of summer, especially if honey was harvested. The good news is that there are forages available to bees almost all year long in South Carolina if the beekeeper is willing to move colonies.
During this critical time, upstate beekeepers may enjoy a continued nectar flow containing sourwood, devils walking stick, and sumac which usually bloom in the June through July timeframe. In the low country Chinese tallow begins blooming in June, and around the ACE Basin saw palmettos and cabbage palms will bloom through the middle of the summer. In the middle section of the state, perennial white clovers will continue to bloom into the summer, but it is usually closer to the end of July before nectar comes in from crops such as cotton or soybeans. Many of South Carolina’s experienced beekeepers have learned to move bees to these regions to take advantage of these various nectar sources.
Many beekeepers find the prospect of migrating hives to better food to be unreasonable. Who can blame them? Travelling further distances to check on outyards takes away from the pleasure of beekeeping, and finding landowners willing to allow access is yet another challenge. For these and other reasons, many beekeepers are reluctant to migrate bee colonies to better food. Many are also unwilling to feed bees, and there are arguments that can be made both for feeding and not feeding. The reality of beekeeping in the south is that there are periods during the growing season when food is limited, exacerbated by drought or excessive rain, which requires the beekeeper to intervene either by providing alternative food sources or by moving bees towhere the food is.
While honey bees have naturalized in South Carolina and feral colonies do persist, the practice of beekeeping is as much a livestock practice as it is cultivating a wild animal. We as beekeepers choose where the bee colonies reside, not the bees. We select the traits and genetics to use and augment, not the bees, and we set the management goals for each colony, not the bees. This is why I usually recommend to approach beekeeping with a similar mindset as a cattleman tending to his herd. To maintain a productive operation, buy and cultivate the best genetics you can for your goals. Provide adequate shelter. Move the herd to the most productive pastures for the season. Plant better forages and supplementally feed when necessary. Last, protect your investment by controlling diseases and parasites.
Which leads me to my next point of discussion, pest management and preparing for winter. We are about to enter a critical time of the year for beekeeping in South Carolina. Depending on where you live, the fall nectar flow is either underway or soon to get started. Goldenrods and asters have begun blooming, and their brilliant yellow flowers will intensify over the next month. This final flush of food is critical for supplying the nutrition that colonies will need to sustain the winter. Sure, bees will be busy packing away nectar and bee bread, but the nutrition they gain now also is important for raising “the right kind of bees” to last through the winter.
Winter bees are different from summer bees. Living for only 30-40 days on average, spring and summer workers are short lived compared to their winter sisters, which may live for up to six months. We refer to these long-lived winter bees as “diutinus” bees, and they have several critical characteristics that make them different from their summer sisters. First, diutinus bees live longer. Second, winter bees can withstand stress factors and toxins better than summer bees, and they express better cellular immunity to pathogens, presumably a primary reason they are able to live longer than summer bees. Anatomically speaking, diutinus bees tend to have larger fat bodies and weigh slightly more than summer bees. They also behave differently, expressing a lower tendency to forage and greater tendency to perform house bee activities (cleaning cells, building comb, tending to brood, etc.).
So, how is it that workers produced in the fall of the year can be so remarkably different from their sisters produced in the spring and summer. After all, workers contain essentially the same genetics regardless of season. The difference comes from how their genes are expressed, especially as it relates to the production of a critical protein called vitellogenin.
I’m not going to go into a tremendous amount of detail about vitellogenin except to say that it is present at much higher levels in winter bees than in summer foraging bees and has been proven to be critical to increasing the length of life of winter bees and ensuring their survival.
“But Ben, I thought you were segueing into discussing pest management and preparing for winter. What does vitellogenin have to do with honey bee pests?” To answer this question, I’d like to first ask the readers a question. What tissues in the honey bee body produce vitellogenin? Answer: the fat bodies. Let me also ask this, “What part of the honey bee body do varroa mites target?” Answer: the fat bodies.
Hopefully you can now infer why pest management is a critical component of preparing for winter. The generations of workers that will be produced later this fall will be the winter bees that need well developed fat bodies to produce the vitellogenin necessary to sustain them through the winter. If your varroa mite numbers are high during this critical period of worker development then it is likely that your winter bees will have damaged or depleted fat bodies insufficient to last them through the winter. Also, the pollen that bees bring in over the next month will supply the critical amino acids needed to develop vitellogenin and well developed fat bodies.
In short, preparing your bees for winter starts now by lowering mite counts to below 2% before your colonies begin raising winter bees. Also, check your colonies for brood production and incoming pollen. We want to see strong brood production last into October with ample pollen stores. If brood production is weak, then consider replacing the queen as soon as possible or combining colonies and eliminating the weaker queen. Enhancing brood production will stimulate the bees to forage more intensely for pollen, which should support well developed winter bees in the coming months.
Do you know where your honey originates?
Conserving honey bees has as much to do with beekeeping as it does with learning to manage their natural foods. I have yet to meet a good cattleman that does not understand how to grow a pasture. In fact managing cows is as much about managing the plants they eat as it is about managing the animals themselves. While we cannot confine honey bees into fenced feed lots or pastures, I would argue that a good beekeeper not only knows what plants the bees are using for food but also studies and intentionally manages plant communities to feed honey bees.
Principle investigator and master beekeeper, David MacFawn has proposed a project to help beekeepers learn more about the plants that honey bees in South Carolina are using for nectar. His honey pollen analysis endeavors to identify the nectar sources by identifying the pollen contained in the honey samples. To make the project relevant statewide, David is seeking assistance from beekeepers across South Carolina. Beekeepers will submit honey samples weekly to palynology (study of pollen) labs for pollen identification, a well-established method for identifying nectar sources. Samples will be taken through the entire 2022 growing season starting in January when the red maples begin blooming. The project design includes 20 sampling sites distributed across the state which will be very informative not only for local beekeepers but also across the state’s four distinct ecoregions. We expect this information also will be useful for beekeepers in our neighboring states which share the same ecoregions and plant communities as South Carolina. Be sure to attend your local association meetings this fall to learn more about the project, especially if you are interested in participating and learning more about the nectar sources your honey bees are using.
To complement this investigation, the Clemson Apiculture and Pollinator program would like to enlist beekeepers and citizen scientists in collecting data about plants that are in bloom through the year. We will use a platform called iNaturalist to develop a project for participants to submit images of plants in bloom. This project will automatically collect date and location information which will help us develop a data set of when and where critical nectar plants are blooming, and we will be able to compare this data with the information David is collecting in the Honey Pollen Analysis. Participants will not need to be able to identify plants or be technologically savvy. The application largely does that for the user. Participants simply need to be able to open the app and take a picture. I will be visiting with local beekeeper associations this fall to introduce the project and recruit participants. We also will host a training later this fall for anyone interested in being a part of this citizen science project.
The Clemson Apiculture and Pollinator Program also will be breaking ground on pollinator habitat test plots at the Pee Dee Research Station this month. Programs supported by the USDA and the South Carolina Solar Habitat Project as well as various conservation projects such as utility and highway pollinator habitat projects are seeking to increase the amount of habitat available to pollinators and other flower visiting insects. There remain lingering questions about how to make these habitats successful and productive; after all, they are not a well investigated agricultural practice. What equipment and methods are best for planting? How should they be maintained to maximize diversity and productivity? How do we conduct weed control in a plant community that includes species that are traditionally thought of as weeds in other land uses? What is the real impact to the pollinator community after habitat is installed, and who is actually visiting the plots? How do honey bees and native pollinators interact in these habitats? These are just a few of the questions we plan to investigate by the establishment of these plots.
Speaking of USDA, the Natural Resources Conservation Service just put out a quick guide to the programs they offer to help beekeepers and pollinator habitat. If you are a beekeeper, especially a honey producer, or a farm or forest landowner interested in pollinator conservation, you should visit https://www.farmers.gov/sites/default/files/documents/usda-honeybeebrochure-august2021.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3VEQaJvk3K5ETjx9Yt8y7iUPkTC60ZdJJp7q5eadAzC9OzFqaQImjR7dY
Asterology… sorry Pisces. This section isn’t about you.
In just a few short weeks every ditch line, powerline right-of-way, field edge and pond bank in South Carolina will burst forth in a flash of color largely due to one family of plants, the Asteraceae. In ancient Greek “aster” means star, and it is easy to see how this family of plants earned their name. All Asteraceae flowers are composite flowers containing a group of small disc flowers outlined by a row of ray flowers with petals that extend out like the rays of the sun. Probably the most recognizable Asteraceae are the sunflowers, (Helianthus spp.).
The composite flowers of the Asteraceae are perfect for bees. If you take the time to look closely at a sunflower as it matures, you will find that it is not actually a single flower, hence why they are sometimes called “composites.” It is a cluster of small flowers that continuously mature over time. When an asteraceae first opens, the outer ray flowers are the first to be exposed, and over the next few days or weeks the inner disc flowers open gradually. This means that a single flower head continues to produce pollen and nectar over a long period of time and can be revisited by numerous pollinators. Also, by clustering flowers into a large inflorescence (flower head), Asteraceae flowers are visually striking and difficult to miss because of their sheer size, making them very efficient at attracting pollinators, and the broad flowerhead provides a very stable landing platform for pollinators.
The flower design and other adaptations of the Asteraceae have been very successful. With over 2,500 species, the Asteraceae is the largest family of plants in North America and tends to be the most speciose group of plants in temperate parts of the globe. In South Carolina, there are both obscure and easily recognizable species. While there are many Asteraceae that bloom in spring and early summer, like dandelions (Taraxacum spp.) and wild lettuce (Lactuca spp.), it is the fall when most of the most recognizable species flower. In the coastal plain, the swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolia) will erupt from just about every ditch and wetland edge this month. Likewise, various tickseeds (Bidensspp.) and goldenrods (Solidago spp.) will riddle forest edges, roadsides and utility rights-of-way. In gardens, the white and purple flowers of bonesets (Eupatorium spp.), ironweeds (Vernonia spp.), asters (Symphiotrichum spp.), mist flowers (Conoclinum spp.) will add a bit of diversity to the fall color palette. And for those of us near the coast, the dazzling display of the groundsel tree (Baccharis halimifolia), one of the only Asteraceae that is a tree, will be impossible to ignore because of the droning hum of insects visiting it while it is in bloom.
The Asteraceae is an important family of plants for beekeepers to learn, but it also can be daunting considering the number of species in the family. There are a number of very important nectar and pollen plants in the group, and the diversity of the family is important for pollinator conservation in general. I suggest looking through a copy of “Garden Plants for Honey Bees” by Peter Lindtner or “American Honey Plants” by Frank Pellen as a starting point for learning about this amazing group of productive pollinator plants.
Have you ever noticed bees foraging on something unexpected, like corn grain dust? Investigators determined that corn dust supplies adequate nutrition to sustain bees under dearth conditions.
Kathryn Thompson & Bryan T. Drew (2021) Supplemental feeds and foraged corn grain dust: a comparison of the number of days survived in vitro by young adult honey bees (Apis mellifera), Journal of Apicultural Research, DOI: 10.1080/00218839.2021.1962113
Has a once calm colony become more defensive over time? Perhaps increasing mite loads are to blame.
Alvaro De la Mora, Nuria Morfin, Laura G. Espinosa-Montaño, Carlos Aurelio Medina-Flores & Ernesto Guzman-Novoa (2021) The mite Varroa destructor lowers the stinging response threshold of honey bees (Apis mellifera), Journal of Apicultural Research, DOI: 10.1080/00218839.2021.1959754
It is generally thought that nightshade plants such as tomatoes are pollenated best by bees that perform “buzz” pollination and that honey bees provide little pollination service to this crop. An investigation in open field tests showed that western honey bees increase seed production in tomatoes by 20% over flowers where pollinators were excluded. The investigators explain this by the observation of a “licking” behavior displayed by honey bees when visiting tomato flowers.
Bruno Ferreira Bartelli, Bárbara Matos da Cunha Guimarães, Nicole Cristina Machado Borges & Fernanda Helena Nogueira-Ferreira (2021) Not all about the buzz: licking, a new foraging behavior of bees in tomato flowers, Journal of Apicultural Research, DOI: 10.1080/00218839.2021.1954810
Oct. 22,23 SC Master Beekeeper Program – fall Journeyman Course Conway, SC
Information and registration at https://scstatebeekeepers.com/fall-2021-journeyman-course-registration-now-open/
Check the SC Master Beekeeper Program website for a certified course near you
6 Nov. Annual Field Day at the USDA Honey Bee Lab in Baton Rouge, LA
November (tba) iNaturalist training webinar for honey plant phenology project
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