Q: As the state apiarist which bees do you inspect?
Simmonds: All registered bees in the state of Nebraska.
Q: And to keep bees in Nebraska one must register them?
Simmonds: Yes, one should, but a lot of hobbyist beekeepers are not aware of the registration laws.
Q: How frequently to you inspect the registered hives?
Simmonds: I try to get around to them once a year unless the apiary has no history of disease or mite infestation, in which case I might not inspect those bees for maybe three years so I can concentrate on the more problematic areas throughout the state.
Q: Are you the only individual in Nebraska who conducts these inspections.
Simmonds: Yes. That’s correct.
Q: That must entail a lot of driving.
Simmonds: Yes it does. I can’t get every one every year.
Q: For what are you inspecting the bees?
Simmonds: For diseases and pests.
Q: What are some of the pestilence, diseases that affect the bees in Nebraska?
Simmonds: When I get in there I look for the American Foul Brood disease and Varroa mites, which are the two most threatening problems.
Q: Are there any others?
Simmonds: Yes. There’s the European Foul Brood and Chalk Brood, which is quite prevalent with beekeepers coming from the south and southwestern states.
Q: So, ideally, by inspecting the hives one prevents the introduction and dissemination of these pests and diseases?
Q: And do these diseases pose dangers to any other insects or animals?
Simmonds: No, they only affect the bee population.
Q: Before you approach the hives for inspection do you put on a bee suit?
Simmonds: Yes… well… no. No. When I approach an apiary with the pick-up that I’m driving I’ll stop the vehicle a few yards into the apiary and then get out and walk through that apiary with just my cap and short sleeves.
Q: So even as you get up close to the hive and inspect it you don’t need to wear a suit?
Simmonds: No. Most of the bees that are brought into Nebraska or that are raised here in Nebraska are the Italians and Caucasians and they’re just not that aggressive.
Q: Which are the aggressive ones?
Simmonds: The ones that have the Africanized strain.
Q: Walking through the apiary how do begin to inspect the bees?
Simmonds: When I go in wearing just my short-sleeved shirt I’m just visually observing the bees’ entrance into the hive and am counting how many colonies are in the apiary. Then I’ll go back to the truck and light my smoker, put on my —
Q: Your smoker?
Simmonds: Yes, I have a honeybee smoker. The best way to describe it is to say that it’s like a tin can with a bellows attached to the side of it. I put burning material inside of it: a burlap bag, grass or anything that will burn slowly and give off a cool smoke. Setting off the smoke at the entrance to the apiary causes the bees to go back into the cells and suck up honey in an attempt to salvage honey from their colony, which they fear is about to be burned. This smoke not only occupies the bees so that they’re on the frame and ready for inspection, but also diffuses and makes impossible to detect the defense pheromone they emit when I open up the hive. Without the smoker to dampen the effects of the pheromone, the bees immediately identify the odor and ready their stingers prepared to defend their hive. The smoker is really an essential piece of equipment for inspecting bees. Without that you might as well forget about inspecting.
So then I light my smoker and put my veil on and then proceed to the hive where I use my hive tool to pry open the supers and pull out the frames and view those frames of brood and determine whether they have a disease problem or a mite problem.
Q: Could you speak a bit about the parasites themselves?
Simmonds: They were first introduced in Nebraska in 1987 and were at that point killing a lot of bee colonies due to the high level of infestation. Varroa mites are just a bit over a millimeter in size — about the size of a large pinhead — and have eight legs. The mites first attach themselves to the bodies of adult honeybees and feed on haemolymph. The mites are then carried from one area to another, or transmitted, by the honeybees. The beekeepers themselves sometimes take a frame of infected brood out of one colony and transfer them to another area, and in that way the varroa mites are moved around the country.
Q: So the bees from one apiary can infect the bees from another apiary located miles away?
Simmonds: Yes, that’s right. If they come in contact with another bee from another apiary and are, say working on the same flower or if two colonies from different locations are working in the same apiary and one of the colonies becomes weak, the stronger and ostensibly mite-infected will rob that colony out. And of course they are then mingling with these other bees and the mites will transfer from one bee to another.
Q: What would you then do to check to see if the brood was infected with Varroa mites?
Simmonds: So when I get into that colony of bees I bend down and find frames of brood — young bees that are hatching out — and sealed brood. I then pull the frame out and look at the brood pattern to see whether the cappings are solid and healthy or spotted, which indicates that the colony is infested. When I have that frame pulled out and see bees with deformed wings, then I realize that there is a mite problem. The deformity occurs because the bees are sucking the haemolymph, or the blood from the honeybees, and the bee larvae is not receiving proper nourishment and so the wings aren’t developing fully. So oftentimes I can identify the mite problem just by observing the bees on this frame.
Q: How about the method using starter fluid?
Simmonds: That is one of the “quick methods.” After I have seen the frame I will then take a pint jar and will scrape into it about three hundred bees (out of the 60,000- 80,000 bees in the colony) off of those frames that don’t contain the queen and put a canning lid on it. I then take the jar a short distance away from the colony and spray ether fluid (automobile starter fluid) into it. The ether kills both the bees and the mites that are attached to them. I shake that jar several times and the bees, because they have honey in their systems, regurgitate this honey when they die as a result of the ether. This honey sticks to the inside of the jar. So when I shake the jar the dead mites release from the bees and stick to the side it.
Q: What do you do with the mites at that point?
Simmonds: Then I start counting them. If I find that there are five or more mites within this jar I conclude that the colony has a serious Varoa mite problem and make the beekeeper aware it.
If the beekeeper requests that I not use ether to inspect for the Varroa mite as it kills three hundred of his bees, I use another “quick method” called the “powdered sugar method.” It is very similar to the “ether method” and also involves a pint jar but with a screen over the top of it. I put a couple of tablespoons of powdered sugar down through the screen and shake the jar over a pan of water and the mites will again release from the bees and fall into the water.
Q: What is it about the sugar or the shaking that causes the mites to detach themselves from the bees?
Simmonds: These mites are similar to flies in the way they attach themselves to the bees. They have a sticky pad on their feet and loose their grip when the powdered sugar is on them. Both the bees and the mites are simultaneously trying to groom themselves with the sugar and eventually the mites just fall off.
Also for detecting the Varroa mite, if I want a more accurate count of the number of mites in the colony, I will then put a sticky board on the bottom board of the hive and then insert Coumaphos (a miticide of sorts) impregnated strips and leave them in there for a day and then check the sticky board to see how many mites have fallen out of the colony.
Q: You mentioned earlier that Varoa mites cause young bees to be visibly disfigured, so I wonder if the beekeepers themselves are able to inspect for this parasite and whether it easily goes undetected.
Simmonds: Yes. I’ve had a lot of hobbyist beekeepers say that they just have a small colony of bees to pollinate their gardens and fruit trees and have never been down into the brood area where the young bees are hatching so they don’t know what’s going on down there. Many times I’ve inspected hives of this sort to find serious mite or disease problems of which the beekeepers were not at all aware. This however, does not pertain to the migratory beekeepers. This is their business and their livelihood so they must be above everything and know what’s going on inside all of their hives.
Q: After discovering that a hive is infested with Varroa mites would you immediately apply a miticide or attempt to get rid of the infestation?
Simmonds: No. Being a state inspector I have no jurisdiction over the remedying of the problem. I notify the beekeeper by phone or leave a report attached to the side of the hive to inform him of the problem.
Q: If no measures are taken to eradicate the Varoa mites from the colony or if the parasites go undetected, what are the possible effects on the bees and is their honey production also affected?
Simmonds: If, for example, I detected the problem during the spring, the mites will progressively increase in population throughout the summer and usually by late summer or early fall the colony will die out. The quality of the honey remains the same however, the quantity the bees are able to produce is drastically reduced; the young bees are not developed and the other are dying, so after a while there are no bees left to produce the honey.
Q: What treatments are used combat the mites?
Simmonds: The beekeeper, after I’ve notified him of the existing problem, will then apply an Apistan strip (a fluvalinate impregnated strip, a miticide strip) between the frames. This method does not comfortably work in Nebraska, though it may in some other areas, as the mites have built up a resistance to the miticide. So now beekeepers throughout Nebraska use a Coumaphos impregnated strip, to which the mites have not yet built up a resistance.
Q: What would happen if one day the bees became resistant to Coumaphos?
Simmonds: Just as researchers developed Coumaphos in response to the mites’ resistance to fluvalinate, they are now working on alternative products to control Varroa mites.
Q: Is it ever necessary to burn or quarantine the hives as a result of disease?
Simmonds: No. Not for Varroa mites at least.
Q: How did you become interested in bees and bee inspecting?
Simmonds: Of course. I became interested in honeybees when a beekeeping friend put some bees on our place in the country. I then purchased some bees. Later went to work for a beekeeper who had four thousand colonies of bees, and then for a beekeeper who had twelve hundred colonies. A state apiary inspector retired and the State Apiarist asked me to be one of his inspectors, and that’s basically it.
Q: So, are you going out to inspect hives later today?
Simmonds: No. I’m trying to finalize things up here because, well… right now I’m in my final hours before retirement.
Q: Well, congratulations.
Simmonds: Oh yes! I’ve been waiting this for some time, but those times just haven’t been going by fast enough.
Q: Do you plan to continue working with bees after your retirement?
Simmonds: I’ll still be going out and working with bees. After retirement I will continue to consult with the beekeepers in the area and advise them what to do and help keep them in business.
Q: Congratulations again and thank you.
Simmonds: Yes. Sure. Bees are an interesting insect. The amount of work they do in producing honey from nectar is tremendous. The nectar bees gather from the flowers one sees in alfalfa fields and in gardens is really only a drop. A bee will visit hundreds and sometimes thousands of flowers before achieving its nectar-storing capacity. The amount of nectar required to reach this capacity weighs nearly as much as the bee itself and then they carry it all back to the hive where it spread throughout the comb where they fan it with their wings. This fanning is done to reduce the high moisture content of the nectar so that it thickens. And a bee’s lifespan is only about three to four weeks. They work themselves to death bringing that nectar back into the hive.