Happy February 2023 everyone! I hope you are enjoying this new year and are excited about the upcoming beekeeping season.
I try to answer ten questions for each month’s The Classroom. However, I only had two questions asked of me this month. I have been answering questions for this column just over three years. This allowed me to go back and look at my records regarding when I receive questions. It would appear that I struggle to get questions every year for the February issue. This is because the article is due to the editor by 20 December, meaning that the questions for the article would arrive to me between Thanksgiving and Christmas of that year. When I thought about that, it actually made me quite happy because that means beekeepers are taking a good break during the holiday season, likely to catch up with family and friends. I do not mind having fewer questions for the February issue, and I even came up with an idea on how to address it this year!☺
In honor of Valentine’s Day being in February, I went through all the articles I wrote my first three years of leading this column and picked eight questions I really loved. [See what I did there? Which questions I “loved” best — Valentine’s Day — do you get it?] So, I did just that. I answered the two questions I received from readers and then included eight questions from my first three years of writing the column.
I loved these questions for different reasons. Some represented the first time someone ever asked me a given question. Others required me to do a lot of research to answer the question, causing me to learn a lot in the process. The remaining questions are ones that generated a lot of feedback from readers. I hope you enjoy this flashback and, please, keep those questions coming!
Q Two or three castes?
I noticed in one of the University of Florida online publications you indicate that there are three honey bee castes: workers, drones, and queens. In Dr. Dewey Caron’s latest Honey Bee Biology book (pgs. 63 and 441), queens and workers are two distinct castes. A drone is not. I originally learned there were three castes. What is the resolution? What changed? The genetics are still the same.
South Carolina, December
Well, the answer to this question is not so straightforward. You are correct. Most authors list three castes in a honey bee colony: queen, worker, drone. However, if you want to be very technical, that is not the correct way to think about castes. A caste (in the entomological sense) is a group of individuals whose members are anatomically and behaviorally similar within an insect society. The sex of the individual also plays a role in its designation as a caste, because castes occur within a sex. When asked about this, Dr. Caron stated:
We use the convention three castes; but properly, male is a sex and workers, soldiers (in ants) and queen(s) (ant colonies may have more than one) are different female caste members. Nothing changed, just like our discontinuing use of “phoretic,” a better and stricter use of biological terminology.
At the end of the day, it is most correct to say that honey bees come in the form of two sexes (male/female), with the female sex having two castes (queen/worker). The drone cannot be a caste because it is the only member of its sex. There are no worker drones, king drones, soldier drones, etc. There are only drones. Thus, they are not a caste because there are no other groups of males that are anatomically and behaviorally different from the drones.
Q Crystallizing honey
Why does our honey crystallize much quicker once the container’s lid is removed? Others in my bee club and I have noticed this event occurring on a regular basis. Is it due to oxidation, temperature gradient, or some other reason? Please explain this process. Thank you.
What a tough question! I have never been asked this before, neither have I ever experienced it. I searched the internet for the answer and could not find anyone mention something similar. I honestly have no idea why this would happen. However, I do have a few guesses.
First things first: Honey is a super-saturated sugar solution, meaning that it is a little bit of water (roughly 20%) holding a lot of sugar (70-80%). In fact, it is holding more sugar than is common for this amount of water. The sugars in honey, then, “like” to come out of solution and granulate. Certain conditions can speed this process. First, the drier the honey at extraction (e.g., water ≤ 15.5%), the more likely it is to granulate. The lower the water content, the more likely it is to granulate.
Second, the temperature at which it is stored impacts the process of granulation. Honey stored above ~77°F (25°C) and below ~50°F (10°C) granulates more slowly than honey stored within that range. Granulation can be rapid in the 50-60°F (~10-16°C) temperature range.
Third, the presence of seeding agents can speed granulation. A seeding agent is a solid already present in the honey. This can be other sugar crystals, pollen, pieces of wax, etc. These items can cause the sugars in honey to come out of solution, thus granulating quickly.
Fourth, how the honey was processed can impact it. Was it slightly heated during processing (to melt any crystals in the honey)? Was it filtered well (to remove any seeding agents)?
Finally, the ratio of glucose to fructose in the honey can impact the speed at which it granulates. High glucose:fructose ratios speed granulation. This is why some honeys (e.g., canola) granulate more quickly than do other honeys (e.g., sourwood).
Put all of this together and you may begin to chip away at your answer. My guess is that your honey is prone to granulation anyway. Perhaps you moved it out of one type of storage when you opened the lid (maybe out of a cooler area?) and into a slightly warmer area when it was being used. This could have sped granulation after opening the jar. I would be interested in hearing from any food chemists reading this article to see if there are additional explanations for what you are seeing.
The good news is that this process is completely reversible. I will explain how if I ever get that question in the future.
Q Disappearing Bees
My son and I are novice beekeepers, just started keeping bees a few years ago. We both live in Ohio and now have seven hives between us, mostly from swarms collected last two years.
Most recently my son had a hive just disappear. There were no signs of dead bees just an empty hive. The hive was a very strong size hive three years old and this year he took some honey off in September for the first time.
What might be the reason for the disappearing of his bees?
Dan and Dave Freyhof
Honestly, there are quite a few reasons that can explain why this happened to your bees. First, I always begin answering questions like yours by first asking a couple of questions of my own. (1) What were your most recent Varroa counts? (2) What did you use to treat for Varroa the last time you treated? (3) When did you last treat for Varroa? I guess you can tell by these comments that Varroa are a possible cause of what you are seeing (perhaps my suggested leading cause). Most beekeepers I know do not sample for Varroa so they have no idea what their Varroa numbers are. Without this information, it is hard to make informed management decisions for this pest. Also, if you last treated months ago, it is possible that their populations rebounded since the last treatment. Finally, if you did not use an effective treatment, your Varroa populations may not have decreased at all. So, Varroa may have caused this. Google “honey bee health coalition Varroa” and you will find a lot of information about this mite.
Second, various pathogens can cause these signs of disease. These include some viruses (mostly in conjunction with Varroa) and a few other pathogens. Did you see any evidence of pathogens?
Third, did the bees have enough food resources prior to their disappearance? Did they have enough stored honey?
Fourth (less likely), pesticide exposure can produce the conditions you saw.
It is a bit hard to do a post-mortem on honey bee colonies, especially when no bees are present. However, you often can guess what happened to the affected colony by looking at the ones that are still alive. What are their Varroa numbers? How are their food resources? Do you see evidence of viruses or other pathogens in the nest? I think looking at the ones that lived might give you some good insight on the one that died.
A last note: People often mention “no dead bees” as part of a condition in an effort to express that this just looks odd. However, a colony does not have to be dead long before various pests and predators swoop in to consume the bee carcasses. Consequently, that condition in-and-of-itself is not particularly alarming to me. It is equally possible that the colony lost its queen and the bees drifted away from it to a nearby hive as their colony slowly dwindled.
Q The Crud
What is the best course of action for crud as far as treating the colony and re-using the comb?
Florida, December 2019
First, let me define the “crud” briefly for the reader. The crud is a general name given to a condition associated with bee brood. Colonies showing signs of the crud often have spotty patterns, uncapped brood cells that should be capped, dead or dying larvae and/or pupae, brood “melting” in their cells (I will call this “melty larvae”), etc. Some people also call this …