Friday, June 4, 2010

Bee's Good for Life

     A new box of Queen Honey Bees arrive with worker bees in order to keep the queen warm.

    The European or Western Honey Bee (Apis millifera) is not native to the Americas. They where brought to the Americas by settlers in the early 1800. Now, have you every stopped to wonder how life would be if the Honey Bee's where to disappear? Well think about this, each day farmers around the world have thousands of tiny winged workers pollinating the crops of the food that we eat and the plants we use.

    Why is that so important? Tree's and plants need to mate just like animals and humans and the offspring of the mating process are the fruits and vegetables we eat. Pollen is the male germ cells produced by all flowering plants for fertilization and plant embryo formation. The Honeybee uses pollen as a food. Flowers would also be at risk of decline if they are not pollinated. Bees are the main source of pollination and bees make up 80% of the insect world.

   Without the bees the farmers would have to find other way to pollinate which would be time consuming and costly to the farmers and to the consumers.

Dirk Olsen of Olsen Honey Farms of Albany prepares for the day as bee crews load the truck with feeder bottles to be distributed to the hives.

     The Beekeepers job is to help this process along and Commercial Beekeepers like Dirk Olsen of Olsen Honey Farms make a living working with honey bees. Dirk Olsen has two subspecies of western honey bees, the Italian and the Carniolan bee.

     Dirk and his beekeeping crews start early in the morning in order to check the hives, move the hives and feed the bees for more than 100 sites. Feeding the bees cost Olsen Honey Farms $2000 a day. Feeder jugs are filled with sugar water and placed on top of the hives. Without this food during the winter the bees would die. Olsen Honey Farms provides bees to almond orchards in central California as well as meadow foam fields in Oregon.

     Farmers pay $48 per hives at two hives an acre in order to have bees placed on their farms to pollinate crops such as kale, turnips, clover, pumpkin, cherry, almonds and much more.

Feeder bottles are filled full of sugar water and are lined up in boxes in the warehouse at Olsen Honey Farms. The feeders will be loaded onto a truck and taken out to the bee hives so that the bees can eat.

 Andy Gambardella fills a feeder bottle with sugar water.  

Andy Gambardella and Pablo Möller distribute feeder bottles to the hives as Dirk Olsen (seated) follows with a forklift carring a box of feeder bottles.
     A hive consists of two boxes which is where the Queen lays her eggs and up to seven supers which are used just for honey production. Boxes and supers are divided by a metal barrier that prevents the Queen from entering into the super and laying eggs but allows the workers to enter and fill the combs with honey. The honey is then extracted from the combs to be sold at the market. Dirk Olsen also sells the beeswax which is use to make candles, molds, and much more. The wax is also used in grafting grapes and beeswax can be used for cosmetics.

Diana Olsen of Olsen Honey Farms sells honey at the farmers market in downtown Albany.
    A colony of bees consist of one queen per hive, 200 to approximately 500 drones and thousands of workers. The drones are the only males in the hive and their only job is to mate with the queen. Drones are formed from an unfertilized egg from the queen and the female workers are formed from fertilized eggs. The queen mates only once in her life but she will mate with several drones and stores the sperm in a sac called the spermatheca. After the drone mates, his penis will break off and he will die. If drones remain during the winter months, they are removed from the hives and they will die.

Dirk Olsen of Olsen Honey Farms inspects a hives for the condition of the colony.

     Bee hives must be check regularly to determine if the queen is producing and to check on the condition of the colony. If a queen is not producing the she is destroyed and replaced with a new queen by the bee keeper. Hive population has suffered due to the cold and wet weather conditions. In the United States alone we have seen a decline in the bee population due to a syndrome called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) wherein the worker bees are disappearing.

    Although there is no definitive answer as to why this phenomenon is occurring, researchers and beekeepers have found some contributing causes. Dirk Olsen said that some of the causes are varroa mites, disease, and the lack of greater genetic diversity of the queens.

Greg Hansen of Olsen Honey Farms prepares a smoker for inspecting the bee hives. Burlap is burned in the smoker to calm the bees. Experts say that the bees, sensing the smoke, go into a survival stage rather then protecting the hive by gathering as much food as they can from the combs. 

The Queen Bee pictured just left of the center is the largest bee in the colony and the only bee that lays eggs. Seen here, the worker bees will make a pathway for the queen as she moves about the hive.

     Varroa mites are one of the largest contributor of CCD. Varroa mites can be seen with the naked eye as a small red or brown spot on the bee's thorax. Varroa mites feed off the bodily fluids of adult, pupal and larval honey bees. Varroa are carriers for a virus that is particularly damaging to the bees. Bees that are infected with this virus during their development will often have visibly deformed wings.

     The disease nosema lives in the stomach of the bee and is widespread among adult honey bees. The symptoms of the Nosema are relatively nonspecific. This makes it easy to confuse with other diseases of the honeybee. It arises mostly in the spring after periods of bad weather, although it may also be a winter disease that is only noticed in the spring when beekeepers first inspect their hives.

     The most notable symptom is dysentery. This appears as yellow stripes on the outside of the hive and in severe cases, inside the hive. Bees may also be unable to fly (“crawling”) due to disjointed wings. Further symptoms include increased girth of the abdomen, missing sting reflex and early supersedure of the queen. If the queen is infected, its ovaries degenerate and ovum production drops due to atrophy of the ova, after which it is likely to be superseded.

     Even though bee population has been down in the United States, beekeepers are building their hives back up. Ongoing research will determine the causes of CCD, but ultimately it will take the diligent efforts of the ever watchful beekeeper to ensure the successful restoration of the bee population.

A closeup of the Italian honey bee shows just how hairy the bee is. This hair is essential for gathering pollen dust. Once the bee gathers all she can carry she will return to the hive.