Making New Colonies & Queens – Part 1

Spring is here in the Atlanta area and the honey bee colonies are expanding exponentially with the workers bringing in pollen and nectar from the blooming trees and flowers and the queens laying eggs to make new bees 24/7.

The colonies overwintered in small tight clusters the size of a football – and some as small as a grapefruit. Now with the abundance of food, most all of my colonies here in the Alpharetta area are filling the better part of two hive bodies with adult bees, nectar, pollen and brood. Left on their own, the bees would soon start to think about swarming as the hive becomes too congested. When the instinct tells them that the hive is getting too full they will create a new queen and the existing queen will fly off with about 60% of the workers – leaving the new queen to take over the colony with the remaining workers.

Worker bees also can sense when a queen has either died or is failing to be productive by an absence of her normal pheromones. When that happens, the workers will take a larva that is 24 hours old or less and feed it royal jelly during its entire larval period transforming it morphologically into a queen.

These instincts, an abundance of food and a growing population of bees afford the beekeeper an opportunity to create new colonies by mimicking what the bees do in these conditions. I’ll cover a couple of methods that I am using to expand my colonies in the next installments.

Swarming – Not Now

It’s been nine days now since I reinstalled the frame with the three Queen cells into the observation hive and re-united it with the Queen.  The colony has obviously called off their plans to swarm as the cells have not been drawn out or expanded as can be seen in the photo above, taken today, and compared with the photo below taken on March 10th. The workers have a strong interest in the Queen cells as they are constantly working them, chewing and polishing the wax both inside and outside the Queen cell. You can see them doing this live on the beehive webcam.

Since I reinstalled the frame into the viewing area the Queen has  filled it completely with eggs and larvae – in fact it’s been full for several days. Each frame contains approximately 7,000 cells, which means she is laying almost 1,000 eggs per day. Rather than change this frame out, I have relocated the Queen to the lower portion of the observation hive where she will have access to some empty cells in frames down  below in which to lay eggs. These frames were previously located up above in the viewing area and had been filled with eggs but now are empty as the adult bees have emerged from the cells. With spring now definitely here, the population of the hive is exploding and it will be a challenge to keep up with the growth, constantly changing out empty frames with filled ones to try to keep the swarming instinct under control. The frames that the Queen fills with eggs are either rotated within the observation hive or given to one of my other colonies that need a population boost.

Swarm Preparations?

Well, new developments in the observation hive! On Saturday, March 7th, I had given the queen a new, empty frame of drawn comb on which to lay eggs as she had filled the previous frame. I noticed that she just did not seem to like this new frame as she refused to lay eggs and just stood around on the top bar of the frame. So today, the 10th, I decided to swap out the frame with the original frame since many of the capped cells (pupa) had hatched out. When installing the frame and the queen, I notice three queen cells are starting to be drawn out. This means that the colony is making preparations to swarm, which is the honeybee colony’s means of reproduction.

The queen may have stopped laying in order to slim down to be able to fly off  with the swarm. Normally a laying queen is too heavy to fly – at least not very far. When a colony decides to swarm, they raise a new queen and the reigning queen flys off to a new location, taking about 60% of the workers with her to establish a new colony.  The first new queen to emerge from her cell will kill her potential rival queens, by stinging them before they emerge from their cells. If two queens emerge at the same time they will fight to the death leaving the victor to take over the hive. I will monitor the growth of these queen cells and harvest them before the queens emerge and will place the cells in a queenless colonies that I will create from some of my existing hives.

Spring Has Sprung

Today is March 7, 2009. The hives here in Alpharetta  are  bursting with pollen, nectar and bees. The Queens have been busily laying eggs for some time now, and the Workers are bringing in baskets full of pollen from the maple trees and nectar as well. In the observation hive they  have completely filled the six brood frames, so I have had to rotate in some empty frames into the observation hive from another hive in the beeyard in order to give the Queen room to continue to lay eggs. The beehive webcam is now focused on an empty frame of drawn foundation. That means that the bees had previously secreted the beeswax and formed it into the hexagonal shaped cells that is both the nursery and pantry shelves for the colony.

Amazingly, in a matter of just a couple of hours they moved nectar up into the empty frame in the top that we are viewing live on the webcam from the frames below in order to provide food close by for the Queen and the brood. This is the shiny substance visible in some of the cells.

In the attached picture the Queen is being attended to by some workers. I had to physically pick her up and move her to this new frame and the whole process was obviously a little upsetting to her and it is taking her a little while to settle down and resume her normal activities. We will continue to watch the Queen as she  lays  eggs and the Workers move nectar and pollen into the cells. I suspect that it will not take long for them to fill this frame up as well.

The Bees Become TV Stars

KHQ-TV in Spokane, Washington has what they refer to as a “pretty off the wall morning show” featuring live streaming video from all over the world. On Friday February 20th they featured our webcam on their live KHQ-TV Today Show and a phone interview with me. The bees were building comb on the side of the glass and could be seen working the wax and expanding the cells.

So now the ladies are stars. Next they will want red carpet on the landing board and their own private dressing rooms.

How Safe Is Any of Our Food?

With all the recent press concerning the Salmonella outbreak that has been linked to peanut butter from a Georgia plant, it is understandable that the stories concerning the “Honey Laundering” scam hasn’t garnered national attention. At least no one has died from eating the tainted honey – yet. As I mentioned in my earlier articles, honey from China that has been found to contain everything from high fructose corn syrup, pesticides and antibiotics, is being transshipped from China to a third country and then smuggled into the US. The honey is then re-labeled as a product of that third country rather than a product of China to avoid the tariffs and the closer scrutiny it would be subject to as a product of China.

As reported in the recent Seattle PI series of newspaper articles, the US honey packers are currently using imported honey for more than one-half the honey consumed in the country and much of it is coming from countries that raise few bees and have no record of producing honey for export. One of the largest packers in the country is Silverbow whose customers include Costco, Walmart and Safeway. Gary Grigg, its owner, is quoted in one of the articles as saying “The FDA is on top of it and they pull samples and check containers before they release them to us to buy – They’re the watchdogs.” I don’t think so. The FDA even states that the agency only tests about a hundred honey samples a year and relies heavily on tips from industry whistle-blowers. It sounds to me like the fox is in charge of watching the hen house.

Another problem is the fact that there is no legal definition of what honey is in the US. There is nothing that says high fructose corn syrup or sugar water added to honey cannot be called honey. The USDA has stated that they don’t have the resources to enforce a standard if one existed – so why try. And for the organic consumers, the USDA has said “you can certify any product as organic as long as you comply with the existing regulation, but there are no regulations for honey”. That means that the green USDA organic sticker on honey is meaningless”. In fact, the USDA has never levied a fine for violation of organic rules for honey or any other product. In this vacuum the State of Florida has recently passed a standard definition for honey with teeth that allow for civil penalties against abusers of the statute. Hopefully other states will follow in adopting similar laws. So how many of you serve your children honey nut cheerios for breakfast, or honey graham crackers for an afternoon snack or your honey wheat berry bread for lunch? Read the ingredients and you will see honey listed, but what is the percent of it compared to the high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners that are listed along with it, and what assurance do you even have that the honey listed is really honey?

So the bottom line for now is for the buyer to beware. Ask questions and don’t assume. And if you are buying honey – buy it from someone you know and even then ask questions.

Honey Laundering

In late December 2008 there were numerous articles appearing in newspapers around the county describing a “honey laundering” scam. As I mentioned in the previous article, honey traced to China has been found to contain antibiotics, pesticides and diluted with sugar water or corn syrup. In an effort to circumvent inspections, tariffs and import fees on the Chinese honey the honey is imported to another country that is not as closely scrutinized and then re-label with that country listed as the source of the honey rather than listing its true source as being China. Health officials say that unless something is done, the problem could result in a repeat of the tainted baby milk and pet food scandals of 2008 – but this time with honey.

On January 1, 2009 it was reported that drums of honey labeled “Polish Light Amber Honey” were imported into the US from Australia. The honey actually originated in China. As a result honey now imported from Australia is on a list of 13 countries whose honey is supposed to be carefully checked on entry to the US. The Melbourne operators have been charged and fined $489,000 for importing and rebadging 125 containers holding 1.7 million liters of Chinese honey sold into the US. It was reported in Bee Culture Magazine that the life of a senior figure in the Australia honey industry was threatened when he tried to expose the scam of importing the Chinese honey, rebadging it and then selling it in the US. In fact the brakes on his car mysteriously failed a few weeks after the threat with his wife and children in the car. The Seattle Post Intelligencer conducted a five month investigation into “honey laundering” and has written a detailed series of articles “Following the Honey Trail” for those who wish to learn more.

The articles report further that The National Honey Board that has close ties to the United States Department of Agriculture may be part of the problem. The Board consists of many large producers, packers and distributors who claim that it is not their responsibility to police the honey that their members buy and sell. In some instances tainted honey is found, but rather than informing the authorities, it is just returned to the broker from who they bought it from, only to be resold to another packer who did not check as thoroughly or did not care.

Do You know Where Your Honey Comes From and How Safe It Is?

As a serious hobbyist beekeeper who sells his honey at the local farmers market, I pride myself in producing a deliciously healthful, quality product that is enjoyed by my friends, family and customers. Everyone constantly expresses amazement at the diverse, intense flavors of the honey that they have never experienced before and a growing number of them are seeking locally produced, raw, Wildflower honey for relief of their allergies. I am absolutely appalled by recent reports from the news media and honeybee periodicals warning of tainted honey and “Honey laundering”. The general public and most consumers are uneducated as to what is happening.

The demand for honey in the United States is growing and far outstrips the supply of what can be produced here in part due to declining honeybee numbers, and as a result, two thirds of our honey is imported into the US. This mirrors what is happening to the US food supply as a whole. In fiscal year 2007, approximately 60 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables and 75 percent of seafood consumed in the US was imported. Approximately 239 million pounds of honey was imported from a number of countries – but mainly from Argentina, China, Canada and Vietnam. So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that beginning back in 2002 the US Customs Service began testing illegal transshipped Chinese honey and found it was contaminated with Chloramphenicol, which is an unapproved food additive and an antibiotic of last resort used to treat humans when no other options are available. For obvious reasons it is an illegal to use in human food products or animal feed here in the US. In 2006 the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) discovered honey from China adulterated with Ciprofloxacin and Enrofloxacin. You may remember that “cipro” was the drug that was used to treat the victims of the anthrax attacks from a few years ago. There have also been reports of finding pesticides in honey from China, as well honey diluted with sugar water or corn syrup.

So how did the antibiotics show up in their honey? In 1997 the Chinese had a widespread bacterial infection of their honeybees that nearly wiped out their bee hives and they used these antibiotic substances that are banned here in the US to treat their bees. These chemicals are still showing up in their honey imported into the US. As a result, there have been elaborate schemes devised to circumvent the health and safety checks, import fees and tariffs imposed by the US on Chinese food products.

More on “Honey Laundering” in the next article.