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28 July 2014

The Short Answer (TSA)

The “Dog Bee” (Tirgona spinipes) is a species of “stingless” bee and a member of the Trigona bee genus – one of two – composed completely of stingless bees. The “Trigona” genus includes about 150 different species.

Dog Bee

Dog Bee

Although many “stingless” bees are being studied for potential domestication and use in commercial beekeeping, the “dog bee” isn’t one of them. Why? Well, every family has a few relatives that are . . . unusual. And Brazil’s dog bee may be one of the oddest species of bees on earth.

The “dog bee” not only builds its nest on “human structures,” but builds its nest out of mud, resin, wax and . . . dung. Needless to say, no one really wants to eat this bee’s honey.

The “dog bee” may be stingless, but it has developed street-fighting techniques that allow it to more than defend itself. It doesn’t exactly find its own sources of food. Instead, this stingless bee terrorizes other bee species by picking-up their odor trails. What does it do when it finds the other bees’ trails? The dog bee kills or drives other bees away and steals their food sources.

Oh, and as a human being, you never want to make these “stingless” bees mad. But if you do, these bees won’t sting you. And, by the way, these bees don’t bite either. The first mode of attack will be to land on your head and crawl into you hair. Once “caught” or slightly “tangled” in you hair, they will begin to buzz as loudly as they can. Then, they get really serious.

When dog bees swarm a human being or animal, these bees intentionally fly into the potential victim’s mouth, nose and ears. It works too. People who live around these bees make “a wide circle” around their nests.

The dog bee stays in character when it comes to pollination. While most all species of bees are valued as pollinators, the dog bee is a notorious agricultural pest. Not only do dog bees not pollinate crops, but the dog bee actually goes out of its way to stop pollination by other varieties of bees. The bee does this by boring holes in the side of flowers and draining the nectar. This assures that the particular flower receives no pollen from the dog bee. Then, left without nectar, the drained blossom will be neglected by other pollinating insects.

After sabotaging the pollination of fruit crops, however, the dog bee does its one positive job. It pollinates onions. (Gee, thanks!)

Somehow, I get the feeling that if you mentioned the dog bee to other members of the bee family, they’d lie and try to tell you that the dog bee was a “wasp” or the member of “some other insect family.”

 

 

 

On the good side, if you can call it that, these bees do pollinate one crop: onions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Defensive” is the word used to describe the “touchiness” or “nervousness” of a group of bees with the close approach of humans or animals. Beekeeper are experienced with honeybees and experts at avoiding provocative behavior. But even beekeepers wear protective gear because a society or colony of the honeybees is not so different from a society of human beings. Occasionally, though rarely, a colony can get riled-up over just about anything.

So, wouldn’t it be nice if we could find a variety of bee that could produce honey and pollinate crops, but couldn’t sting? The “stingless” bees of the Melipona genus are being studied right now as a potential “stingless” candidate for commercial bee keeping. Unfortunately, Melipona’s are not good honey-producers in terms of volume. Melipona’s also pollinate a relatively small number of cash crops. Logically, the low honey production gave Melipona’s little to defend from potential honey robbers. So, these bees never developed the ability to sting because they didn’t need to.

But every family has some members that, well, are a bit on the odd side. The family of stingless bees is no exception. The trigona bee genus contains some of the strangest species of stingless bee.

What’s so important about “stingless bees?” Nothing . . . unless you are a beekeeper or the neighbor of a beekeeper. You may have seen one of those photos showing a beekeeper wearing a kind of screened suit and covered with thousands of bees. Well, together, those bees have enough venom to permanently “take out” a large group of people, not just the guy or gal wearing the screened suit.

Beekeeping is dangerous because bees sting.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to raise bees that don’t sting?

The many species of the genus Melipona don’t. You’ll find large populations of these stingless bees in the wild in Mexico and South America, most often Brazil and Argentina. These bees are, also, domesticated and “kept” in by commercial beekeepers.   Since the bee’s tendency to sting is such a problem, why not import these stingless bees into the United States, Canada, and Europe?

Because . . . there are some other problems.

None of the Melipona species pollinate with the efficiency of the honey bees commonly kept in the North America and Northern Europe. Also, none of the Melipona species produce enough honey to be commercially valuable.

Bees can be quite sensitive to climate, and the colder winters of the Northern part of North America and Northern Europe have eliminated many otherwise extremely productive species from gaining any popularity among American and European commercial beekeepers.

Also, bees sting for a reason — defense. More dangerous and aggressive varieties of bees tend to produce more honey. Why? Because tough bees can defend their honey stores against tough honey robbers. Honey is quite popular and not just with human beings. Honey bears are quite real consumers of honey. So, how do these stingless bees defend themselves? They probably don’t have much defending to do. Stingless bees survived in their habitat just because they don’t produce enough honey to make their hives worth raiding.

Still a lot of work is being done to make commercial honey production with Melipona species more efficient and, so, more profitable. Also, bee breeders are studying the individual species of Meliponas with an eye to breed more efficient and specialized strains that, again, may be more commercially profitable as pollinators and honey producers.

 

 

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28 July 2014

The Short Answer (TSA)

            The Melipona Bee is a genus – one of two — of stingless bees. What’s a genus? Well, it’s the general division just above “species.” Honeybees are part of the genus “Apis.” Bumblebees are members of the genus, “Bombus.” The “Melipona” genus includes about 40 different species and all are “stingless bees.” But, let’s not get buried in classification names.

MELIPONA STINGLESS BEE

MELIPONA STINGLESS BEE

What’s so important about “stingless bees?” Nothing . . . unless you are a beekeeper or the neighbor of a beekeeper. You may have seen one of those photos showing a beekeeper wearing a kind of screened suit and covered with thousands of bees. Well, together, those bees have enough venom to permanently “take out” a large group of people, not just the guy or gal wearing the screened suit.

Beekeeping is dangerous because bees sting.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to raise bees that don’t sting?

The many species of the genus Melipona don’t. You’ll find large populations of these stingless bees in the wild in Mexico and South America, most often Brazil and Argentina. These bees are, also, domesticated and “kept” by commercial beekeepers.   Since the bee’s tendency to sting is such a problem, why not import these stingless bees into the United States, Canada, and Europe?

Because . . . there are some other problems.

None of the Melipona species pollinate with the efficiency of the honeybees commonly kept in North America and Northern Europe. Also, none of the Melipona species produce enough honey to be commercially valuable.

Bees can be quite sensitive to climate, and the colder winters of the Northern part of North America and Northern Europe have eliminated many otherwise extremely productive varieties from gaining any popularity among American and European commercial beekeepers.

Also, bees sting for a reason — defense. More dangerous and aggressive varieties of bees tend to produce more honey. Why? Because tough bees can defend their honey stores against tough honey robbers. Honey is quite popular and not just with human beings. Honey bears are quite real consumers of honey. So, how do these stingless bees defend themselves? They probably don’t have much defending to do. Stingless bees survived in their habitat just because they don’t produce enough honey to make their hives worth raiding.

Still a lot of work is being done to make commercial honey production with the Melipona species more efficient and, so, more profitable. Also, bee breeders are studying the individual species of Meliponas with an eye to breed more efficient and specialized strains that, again, may be more commercially profitable as pollinators and honey producers.

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24 July 2014

The Short Answer (TSA)

Bee Bread

Bee Bread

Bee Bread, produced by worker honeybees, is a “ball of pollen.” But pollen is only one of the ingredients of the honeybee’s “pollen ball.” To make bee bread, the worker bees mix powdery flower pollen with honey/nectar and their own saliva. The result is pellets or small balls of one of the most nutritious foods on earth. Bee bread contains every known nutrient required by bees and human beings as well as most of the rest of the animal kingdom.

Bee Bread -- Pollen Balls

Bee Bread — Pollen Balls

Bee bread is actually a good name for the honeybee’s pollen balls. Historically, in the human diet, bread was the most basic and necessary “food.” So, the honeybee’s pollen balls are their “bread” – the basic food that sustains the bees of the colony.

Bee Bread

Bee Bread

But, if “bee bread” is a good name, “pollen ball” isn’t quite so good. Why? Because the bees’ pollen ball contains a lot more than just pollen. In the past, when “bee pollen” was sold as a nutritional supplement for human beings.  “Bee pollen” meant “bee bread” – not just pollen but, also, the other ingredients added by worker bees.

The problem?

Today, plain old pollen, the dust right off the plants and flowers, is often sold as a nutritional dietary supplement.  This, alone, isn’t a problem because pollen is quite nutritious.   But pollen, alone, has nothing like the nutritional value of those pellets of bee bread.

Unfortunately, that plain old pollen is often labeled “bee pollen” even though its never been near a bee.  Pollen that’s never been touched by a bee isn’t properly “bee pollen” or “bee bread.” So, read the ingredients on those supplement containers very carefully before buying “bee pollen” as a nutritional supplement. There is a huge difference, in terms of basic nutrients, between “bee bread” and just plain “pollen.”

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21 July 2014

The Short Answer (TSA)

            Some of you made have heard of the proverbial “horse of a different color.” Well, the “Cordovan” honey bee is the bee of a different color. Cordovan actually refers to the color, rather than, any other characteristic of the bee. Every cordovan bee that has been observed is, in fact, what is called an Italian bee – formally know as “Apis mellifera ligustica” or ”A. m. ligustica” for short.

How common is the Italian bee? Well, it’s the most common breed of honeybee found in the western world — Europe and the Americas. If you live in the west, when you think of a honeybee, you’re thinking of an Italian bee.

So, what’s so special about Cordovan (Italian) bees?

The same thing that’s special about cordovan leather – the color.

Cordovan Bee

Cordovan Bee

The cordovan bee is of a noticeably different color than both its sister Italians and all other breeds of honey bees. Sometimes, cordovan bees are called blonde honey bees because of their golden color. If you look at a picture of one of these bees, you might wonder why cordovan honey bees weren’t named golden bees. But this brings up another question.

For those of you who are up on your leathers, you might be scratching your head because blonde and gold have nothing to do with cordovan leather. Cordovan leather has an attractive color — a shade close to burgundy.  So, where’s the cordovan on the cordovan bee?

Well, it’s nearly in the same place you’d find it on people – the feet and head. Italian bees have plain old black legs and heads – sort of like people who stick to black shoes and hats. Your cordovan bee, on the other hand, flies out and about town sporting a burgundy colored head and legs.

I’ll stop here. “Style” must speak for itself . . . .

Cordovan Bee

Cordovan Bee

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17 July 2014

The Short Answer (TSA)

Honey bees use beeswax to build brood combs in their hives.  Bees build these combs both in their natural hives in the wild and in commercial hives maintained by beekeepers.  The brood comb looks a lot like the well known honeycomb.

Brood Comb

Brood Comb

The brood comb is made up of six sided cells. But, just as the honeycomb is used only to store honey, so the brood comb is used only for raising the colony’s young bees. “Brood” is the name given to young honey bees of all types and at all stages of development from egg through larva.

A honey bee colony has a single queen bee who lays all the eggs. The queen is the mother all the hive’s bees.  The queen lays 1,000 to 2,000 eggs a day during the summer season.  She lays all these eggs in the six-sided cells of the brood comb.

The worker bees protect and nurture the queen’s eggs and larvae.  When the eggs hatch, the worker bees feed the young bees. The workers select a few from among the larvae to be queens.  Queen bees “are made and not born” in the sense that whether a larva grows to be a worker bee or a reproductive queen bee depends on diet.

The future queens selected by the worker bees are fed a diet of royal jelly – an extremely nutrient rich food produced by the worker bees.  The rest of the larvae are also fed royal jelly, but only for the first three days of life outside the egg.  Then, these future worker bees are switched to diet of pollen and honey.

A short time after the bee larvae hatch from the queen’s eggs, the brood comb’s cells become almost a “second egg” to the developing bees.  The larvae are sealed (“capped”) in the brood comb cells with an abundant supply of food. At maturity, they will emerge from the cells as full grown bees.

New Brood Comb

New Brood Comb

Brood combs are double-sided with cells on both sides. The brood combs are reused year after year.  The combs start out as a white wax color.  But, as years pass, the older brood combs develop a yellow, then, amber and, finally, an almost black color.

Brood Comb Blackened with Age

Brood Comb Blackened with Age

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12 June 2014

The Short Answer (TSA)

            The “Eastern honey bee” is also called the “Asiatic honey bee,” but is formally named “Apis cerana.”  The Eastern honey bee is to Asia what the Western honey bee, “Apis mellifera,” is to Europe and America.

The Eastern honey bee is found throughout Asia including China, Pakistan, India, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, and Bangladesh. This bee flourishes in the wild, but is also kept commercially for honey production. The Eastern Honey bee lives in smaller colonies than its Western cousin and produces slightly less honey per colony.

Of the eight breeds of Eastern honey bees, two, A. c. cerana and A. c. indica are commercially kept by bee keepers for the production of honey. Both types differ a bit in appearance from the Western honey bee.

A. c. cerana has yellow stripes on its abdomen.

A. c. cerana (Apis cerana cerana)

A. c. cerana (Apis cerana cerana)

A. c. indica has black stripes on its abdomen.

A. c. indica (Apis cerana indica)

A. c. indica (Apis cerana indica)

 

HIVE: What is a “Buckfast bee”?

12 June 2014

The Short Answer (TSA)

The Buckfast Bee

The Buckfast Bee

Born in Germany, Karl Kehrle became a monk and took the name “Brother Adam.”  He was in charge beekeeping at the Buckfast Abbey in 1916.  The Abbey’s few remaining colonies of “Italian” honey bees were endangered by what was, then, called Isle of Wight disease.  The spread of the disease produced a major crisis because, then and now, the “Italian” strain of honey bee was the most favored and productive among commercial bee keepers in Europe and North America.  The “disease” was actually the work of the acarine parasitic mite which inhibits the ability of a bee to breathe and eventually results in the bee’s death.

Brother Adam

Brother Adam

By 1916, Isle of Wight “disease” had wiped out most of the honey bee colonies in the British Isles.  Brother Adam, used his few remaining colonies of Italian bees as part of a crossbreeding project that he hoped would produce a honey bee resistant to the disease.   He knew that his Italian bees had been crossbred with what were, then, called “English” bees.  (Now, also, known by the names “Black bees” and “German bees”).   He, also, knew that his Italian bees had proved to be unusually resistant to the disease.

Buckfast Abbey

Buckfast Abbey

Brother Adam believed that more crossbreeding with different strains of honey bees might produce a hearty bee that would be resistant to Isle of Wight disease.  He traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Africa gathering different types of bees including French, Turkish, Greek and even “docile” strains of African bees.  Each type of bee was, then, crossbred with his Buckfast bee.

Buckfast Bee

Buckfast Bee

The Abbey was located in an area near a large relatively bee-free valley.  Just the location needed for controlled crossbreeding of different strains of bees.  A single crossbreed could take almost a decade to develop, so Brother Adam’s project spanned 70 years.  The Italian bee survived Isle of Wight disease and continues to be the most popular honeybee with commercial beekeepers in both Europe and North America.

Brother Adam with Hives

Brother Adam with Hives

But the Buckfast bee has its own “slice of the market” remaining consistently popular with a significant number of beekeepers.  The Buckfast is a strong, healthy and productive pollinator, but tends to produce fewer offspring and less honey than its Italian competitor.

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Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri

12 June 2014

HIVE: What is a “Beeskepmaker”?

12 June 2014

The Short Answer (TSA)

“Beeskepmaker” is an archaic term describing a maker of beehives.  But that’s not quite the whole “answer.”  Today, when you talk about beehives, people think of the almost universally popular Langstroth Hive or the major challenger to the Langstroth, the Top Bar Hive.

But a “beeskep” isn’t just an old fashioned word for a beehive.  The beeskep is distinct style of behive.  To make beeskeps, the artisan must also have the skills of a basket weaver.

Bees Skep

Bee Skep

A beeskep is made of straw woven into a sort of a cord, something like a rope, and, then coiled to form a basket of a special type – a basket that was designed and used as a beehive by early commercial beekeepers.

bee-skep-image-full-size

            The skep was kept open-end-down on a stone slab.  And, these skeps were built to last.  One might remain in its place on the beekeeper’s stone slab for a century.  English skeps were often made out of wheat straw. German immigrants brought bee skeps and skep making to the New World.  In America, rye straw was used to weave the coiling material used to build the skeps.

4skeps

If the traditional skep was used as a container instead of a beehive, it would have held a half a bushel of grain.  In fact, the skep is believed to have got its name from the Norse word skeppa, which describes a half bushel container used to measure-out grain.

Beeskep makers are very rare today.  But the few that still survive are kept quite busy.  Skeps are popular among amateur beekeepers, who do not keep bees for profit or even a private honey supply.  That was the big problem with skeps and why these hives are no longer used by commercial beekeepers.

The skep, the outer shell of the beekeeper’s hive, could last for decades.  But to harvest honey or beeswax from the skep, the beekeeper had to destroy the internal combs of the hives – the parts built by the colony of bees.  Then, the colony had to begin again from scratch.

This old way of beekeeping wasn’t very efficient after the introduction of modern commercial beehives.  The modern hives have “drawers” or “top bars” that allow bee keepers to unobtrusively remove honey combs and harvest the honey.  Only one of several combs is disturbed.   The other combs of the hive, particularly the brood comb in which the colony nurtures young bees, remains undisturbed.

Unoccupied skeps are also quite popular as decorative pieces for lawns and gardens.  So, the few beeskep makers of the 21st century aren’t suffering for business.

Video: A “must watch” — “Skep Making” – a video conversion from one of those charming black and white films from an earlier era showing a skep maker at work.

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HIVE: What is a “Top Bar Hive”?

12 June 2014

The Short Answer (TSA)

In nature, a colony of honey bees will build a structure, a shelter, called a beehive.  But all honey bees are not “in nature.”  Bees are “kept” by “beekeepers” for commercial purposes.

Until about 40 years ago, bees were kept for honey production.  Now, beekeepers rent the services of their honey bees as pollinators.  That is, honey bees pollinate flowers so that the blossoms will produce seed.  These seeds, in turn, will produce the next year’s crop.

Commercial beekeepers have long used special hives built for their bees.  These hives, like the extremely popular Langstroth hive, are designed for honey production.  But the Langstroth hives are also mobile.  So, these hives serve when beekeepers are selling their bees’ services for pollination.

But some “commercial” beekeepers still limit their “commerce” to honey production.   Also, amateurs, and there are many, keep bees and harvest the honey for personal use.  Few, if any, amateurs would ever take on the task of transporting their bees for pollination services – a difficult task.

The Top Bar Hive isn’t mobile.  So, this hive is of little interest to commercial beekeepers renting out their bees for pollination.  However, the Top Bar hive is an extremely popular design among commercial bee keepers exclusively engaged in honey production as well as with amateur beekeepers interested in honey for their own personal use.

top-bar-hive

Top Bar Hive

The Top Bar hive is basically a wooden box.  But, unlike commercial hives, which use frames that slide in and out like drawers, the Top Bar hive uses bars.   Wooden bars are inserted so that they extend across the top of the box.  Honeybees will use the bars to build honeycombs (and brood combs in which they raise their young).

The bees begin building from one of the cross-bars at the top of the box and, using beeswax, build combs composed of six-sided cells.   The bees build the combs downward hanging from each individual bar.

Soon, when the bees have built a full comb and stocked it with honey, the bar holding that comb will be removed and the honey harvested.  Then, the empty bar is replaced, and the bees will begin building another comb and, if the next comb is also a honeycomb, the bees will restock it with honey, again.

Early versions of the Top Bar hive date back to ancient Greece where bars were laid across the top of baskets which served as artificial hives.  Then, as now, the bees would build combs hanging from the individual bars.

But the modern Top Bar hive was developed in the mid-1960’s.   As the use of these hives spread, they were often referred to as “Grecian” hives.  Since that time, several new names have been given to different types of Top Bar hives.   Sometimes, the names don’t exactly match the “history” of the hive’s development.  The “Kenyan” Top Bar hive, for example, was actually developed in Canada.

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HIVE: What is a “Langstroth Hive”?

12 June 2014

The Short Answer (TSA)

Honey bees build their own hives in the wild, but “beekeepers” keep their bees in specially constructed “hives” designed for that purpose.  The most popular artificial beehive in world is the Langstroth bee hive, which was patented, in 1852, by Lorenzo Langstroth.

What’s so special about the Langstroth hive?  Well, it’s easiest to just tell the story.  Recently, honey bees have come to be valued for their work as pollinators — producing the next generation of seed for the next year’s crop.  But through most of history, the beekeeping industry was all about the production of honey.

If beekeeper allowed honeybees to build their own hives, harvesting honey would be impractical because the only way the beekeeper could get the honey would be to destroy the bee colony’s hive.  And with the hive, the beekeeper might also destroy the productive colony.

So, boxes came to be used as artificial hives.  But bees would build honeycombs wherever they pleased in the box — often attaching the comb to the walls of the hive box.  So, the beekeeper, still, had to tear the honeycomb out of the box hive — substantially damaging the hive’s internal structure, which was built by the bees.

In 1789, François (fran-swa) Huber designed a box hive that was movable and had slide-in frames.  The frames were designed so that bees would use them build honeycombs.  It was hoped that the beekeeper would be able to just slide out the frame in which the bees had built the honeycomb, harvest the honey, and replace the frame.  The bees would, then, rebuild the honeycomb and restock it with honey, which would be harvested, again, later.

Unfortunately, the bees tended to use “propolis,” the honey bee version of caulk and duct tape, to seal the edges of the drawers to the hive wall.  Or the bees would over-build their honeycombs attaching a single comb to the both the frame/drawer and the wall of the hive.  So, the beekeeper, often, still had to tear the honeycomb out of the hive box.  These frame hives allowed harvesting with less damage, but still the hives were badly disrupted by the harvest.

In the late 1840’s, Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania made an amazing discovery – though, at first, he didn’t realize the importance of what he discovered – “bee space.”

What makes “bee space” so important is what bees won’t do with it.  If a honey bee has 3/8 of an inch or less in which to move around, it will not seal the space with “propolis.”  Neither will the bees build a comb of any kind in a space that small.

Again, it took Langstroth a short while to realize that he could make a big difference by using “bee space” in the construction of what was then the standard box hive with slide out frames.  What he did was to build a standard hive box with frames that slid in and out like drawers, but made the distance between the frame edges and the walls of the hive 3/8 of an inch or less.  As expected, the bees would do nothing in that small a space.

So, the bees stopped binding the sliding frames to the walls of the hive and, also, stopped building honeycombs between the sliding frames and walls.  So, for the first time, beekeeper could, reliably, just slide out the frames containing the honeycombs without tearing or damaging any part of the inside of the hive.  The honey could be harvested and the frame replaced for reuse by the honeybees.

Langstroth patented his bee hive in 1852, and it remains the most popular hive among beekeepers throughout the world.   Although the basic Langstroth bee hive is still the standard, there are many, many variations in the use of the sliding partitions, which allow beekeepers to manipulate where and what type of combs the bees build in particular frames.

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