Frame Strength For Almond Pollination

When it comes to readying for almond pollination, the most important considerations for beekeepers and growers alike are the number of honeybee colonies available to be delivered, and their frame strength.  Frame strength is what determines the payday for beekeepers, and it is measured exactly as it sounds.  It is the number of frames inside the hive that are covered with bees.  Most almond growers demand an average of at least eight frames of bees, although some will accept six, and some will even accept four frames, but will of course pay significantly less for these weaker colonies.

It is not easy for a commercial beekeeper – or any beekeeper for that matter – to be able to produce such strong colonies during what is still considered the latter part of winter in the northern hemisphere.  In order to deliver an eight-frame average bee colony in early February, a beekeeper needs to begin preparing his or her colonies well in advance.  In fact, preparations for almond pollination typically begin many months earlier.  The key to having strong and healthy colonies coming out of the winter is by having strong and healthy colonies going into the winter.  If a colony heads into winter at below average strength, then there is no possible way that it will emerge out of winter with eight frames of bees.

As the old adage goes, “it costs money to make money”, and the time to invest in your colonies begins at the end of summer.  Usually starting around late August, California commercial beekeepers begin aggressively attending to their colonies – much more than normal, both with syrup and pollen substitutes, and, if necessary, medications.  It is at this time that many commercial beekeepers requeen their under-performing colonies with late summer or early fall queens.  The ideal queens for this kind of situation are queens like those from Wildflower Meadows, which are known for their robust brood production and early season buildup.

The point of this vigorous late season activity is to stimulate brood production throughout the late summer and early fall so that plenty of healthy and well-nourished brood hatches right at the onset of winter.  These will be the eight frames of bees that emerge from winter and, hopefully – if all goes according to plan – deliver a nice payday for the beekeeper come February.  Having a population of very young bees at the start of winter, means that there will be less mortality during the short, but relatively cold California winter.

Selecting Colonies For Early Season Buildup

During the first week of January, most beekeepers are recovering from the holiday season, watching football, and making plans and resolutions for the new year.  However, the majority of beehives throughout the northern hemisphere are doing far much less.  At this time of year, most bees remain huddled in their winter clusters, preserving heat and waiting out the remainder of the harsh winter.

At Wildflower Meadows, the majority of our bee colonies have their lowest populations at this time of year.  Even in our relatively temperate setting, bees go through their normal annual cycle, albeit with a milder winter shutdown than in most colder climates.  Throughout November and December, our queens typically lay a much lower than normal amount of eggs than in the remainder of the year because of the shorter days, long and colder nights, and general lack of forage.  As a result, bee populations decline throughout the fall and winter, reaching their lowest point at the beginning of January.  This is normal and healthy, as a smaller winter population is more efficient for a typical beehive, with less mouths to feed and less brood to manage.

Here in California, something changes, however, around the first week of January.  By some means, the bees get a sense that the winter solstice has passed.  Somehow, they get the idea that the January acacia bloom is right around the corner.  And, somehow or other, the bees get wind that the almond bloom is now only a month away, with mustard bloom soon to follow.  It’s time to get busy!

We notice that it is right around the first week of the new year that many of the Wildflower Meadows’ queens wake up from their winter slumber and launch headstrong into egg laying.  All of a sudden, the queens begin laying frames of brood – sometimes entire frames at a time, and as much brood as the population will allow.  This is a sign to us that a queen is serious about early season buildup.

Early season buildup is an important and valuable behavioral trait in honeybees.  It is important not only for commercial beekeepers who need strong colonies to pollinate early season crops such as almonds and cherries, but also for smaller scale beekeepers who are typically more focused on honey production.

High honey production almost always correlates with early season buildup for two reasons:  First, early buildup means that the colony will be strong and lively enough to take advantage of the very earliest portion of the honey flow.  This is in comparison to a slow-developing colony that needs to wait for the population to build up before it can fully exploit the earliest blossoms.  A slow-building colony might miss the entire early season flow.  Secondly, a rapid early season buildup will typically correlate to a larger and more mature foraging population during the later peak portion of spring.  A larger population during a honey flow is almost always a key factor in the overall honey totals of a given season.

Most importantly, an early season buildup indicates that the queen is lively.  At Wildflower Meadows, this is what we like to see.  So, beginning around the first week of January, we head out to our apiaries with pens and pencils, our queen records, and our trusty clipboards to begin taking notes.  We grade each and every colony on bee and brood strength.  The purpose of this first grade is to establish a baseline of overwintering quality, as well as to detect the first signs of early brood laying.  Then we come back a few weeks later and grade the same colonies again to see how seriously the individual queens are taking early season buildup.  We take note of the colonies that scored well on both accounts, particularly noting the colonies that rapidly gained in population.  These colonies then become candidates for breeding and drone rearing colonies.  Of course, these colonies still need to pass other important criteria, such as testing for temperament and mite resistance, but their display of early season buildup is duly noted.  Thus, these colonies are leading candidates for continued Wildflower Meadows’ breeding.

Land Rent

There are not many professions that enable a person to experience the joy of someone else’s property without having to pay for the privilege.  Gardeners, pet-sitters, house-sitters, and baby-sitters all have the opportunity to visit and experience the pleasures of others’ homes or ranches without the obligation of paying hefty mortgages and property taxes.  But, perhaps of all professions, beekeepers have it the best.  Most beekeepers who maintain outside apiaries (outside apiaries are apiaries that are not situated on the owner’s personal property) gain permission from land owners to not only place bees on their private property, but to also access that property on an as-needed basis to maintain and care for the beekeepers’ colonies.  And, most often, these beekeeping locations are peaceful and soothing to the soul.

This gives the beekeeper a particularly unique vantage point from which to experience often-picturesque and tranquil settings in the countryside to which the average person has no access.  This access comes with responsibilities, and as well as a different set of “costs.”

The beekeeper’s responsibilities involve being respectful and courteous, all the while understanding that he or she is always a guest and not an owner.  That means keeping the apiary clean, well maintained, and free from litter.  It means keeping the bees healthy and calm, and not working with them when people or pets are nearby.  And, it also means cooperating with the landowner to not interfere in any way with the enjoyment of his or her own land.

It may seem like the land owner gives up too much in this exchange, but actually the exchange is a fair trade for the land owner.  If he has crops, the landowner receives free pollination for his fruits and vegetables, and best of all, this individual, usually once per year, cashes in on some “liquid gold” from the beekeeper.

It is a longstanding tradition of beekeepers to share honey with those who host apiaries.  This is considered “land rent.”  The amount of honey that the beekeeper and landowner agree upon can be as little as a few jars, and as much as several full cases.  Much depends on the size and nature of the apiary, and the value of the land to the beekeeper, in terms of honey production and overall access.  Land owners are usually overjoyed to receive a share of the bounty of their land.

At Wildflower Meadows, although we are not specialized in producing honey, we always work hard to deliver the appropriate land rent to the owners of our various apiaries.  Each December, near the beginning of the month, we begin bottling the honey production of the year.  We prepare cases of honey, most usually packed into one-pound glass honey jars.  Liquid gold is soon on the way, and the “land rent” is paid for another year!

Overwintering Honeybees In California

A common debate among beekeepers in California and other temperate regions is whether a beehive overwinters better if it continues foraging and raising brood during the mild California winter, or if the colony is better off completely shutting down as it would do in a cold weather climate.  There are good arguments for, and against, both.

Most southern climate beekeepers instinctively appreciate the idea of a colony that keeps its momentum going by continuing to forage and raise brood year-round.  Foraging bees bring in new pollen and nutrition.  This enables the colony to keep rearing new brood, which gives a boost to the population during the off-season.  In theory, this year-round population boost seems like a great idea.  When weather conditions are right, the extra brood typically makes a positive contribution to the overall size and robustness of the colony as it enters the early spring season.

The flip side, however, is that foraging behavior during the cooler and more volatile California weather in December can be perilous for bees if the weather does not cooperate.  Foraging bees always face a certain level of risk every time they head out of the colony.  With every flight, a foraging bee risks getting eaten by birds, drowning in unsafe water, getting lost, being caught in a spider web, getting hit by a car, etc.  One of a foraging bee’s biggest risks, however, is being caught away from the hive during a sudden change of weather.  For instance, a foraging bee may leave the hive when the weather is pleasant, only to encounter a sudden drop in temperature or the start of a rain storm.  This leaves the individual bee in a precarious situation.  As a coldblooded creature, it cannot warm itself.  If the foraging bee becomes too cold or wet, it could lose its ability to fly home, causing it to perish and never return.  This scenario happens fairly frequently in otherwise temperate parts of California.  Sometimes, during December, we see perfectly healthy colonies dropping population, especially when the eucalyptus is blooming but the weather is volatile.  Southern California beekeepers even have a name for this phenomenon: “Winter dwindle.”

A few years ago, the USDA conducted a test of a local California beekeeper’s bees, comparing the colonies that he placed in the cold mountainous areas (which forced the bees to completely shut down), to those that he placed in the temperate coastal areas (where the bees kept foraging and raising brood throughout the winter).  The USDA concluded that due to the “winter dwindling” effect, the bees in the mountains that completely shut down actually ended the winter with a higher overall population than the bees that kept raising brood and foraging.

Bee Space

Honeybees are curious creatures that live in world of standardized precision.  No matter the race of honeybee, or location in which they reside, their individual honeycomb cells are all constructed in a standard hexagonal shape, an approximate 5.2mm dimension, that is the same the world over.  Their dance and communication methods are also universal across the entire species.  What’s even more astonishing, is that the space that they inhabit between their honeycombs is universally standardized and completely precise, regardless of any other characteristics of the hive or of the bees themselves.

This space between honeycombs is called bee space.  Bee space needs to be larger than 4.5mm and less than 9.0mm – no matter what!  Honeybees, being creatures of precision, will not tolerate any space outside of this range.  If the space between combs gets too close (less than 4.5mm) the bees will close the gap, usually sealing it with propolis.  But if the gap becomes too wide (greater than 9mm), the bees will build additional honeycomb to bring the gap back to the acceptable and precise space that they desire.

As experienced beekeepers, this concept of bee space seems obvious and intuitive to us.  We know that if we leave too much of a gap between the frames of our hives, our bees will quickly fill this gap with beeswax, a mess of what we call “burr comb.”  This burr comb is actually just the bees’ natural drive to bring their bee space back to precision.

While this concept of bee space seems so obvious to us today, it is hard to believe that this was not always the case.  It was L.L. Langstroth, the “Father of American Beekeeping,” who, back in 1852, intuited this hypothesis.  After he realized this concept, he took his thinking one step further with the question, “what if he could design a beehive that had the perfect bee space in all directions?”  This led to the standardized, square hive body that has become the backbone to America’s – and the world’s – beekeeping profession.  We call our hive bodies “Langstroth hives,” because they were invented by Langstroth to take into account the perfect bee space.

Every space in a modern hive is more or less standardized to accommodate bee space.  We may not realize it, but what keeps our bees from connecting the tops of the frames to the lid of the beehive is the bee space that is built into the construction of the hive body.  All modern hive body boxes are also designed so that the frames hang about 8mm short of the bottom of the box.  This bee space gap is the perfect bee space that enables us beekeepers to remove or pry open a hive box with few consequences; such as easily removing lids, bottoms, and frames, all without disrupting the construction of the hive.  In addition, the edges of the side combs always sit about 8mm from the inside of the wooden box, and the tops of each frame hang about 8mm from the top of the box.  In fact, our Langstroth bee boxes are a marvel of precision, with bee space taken into account in all aspects of the construction.

Of course, it really is the bees themselves that drive us humans to this level of precision, as they will not tolerate inconsistency and imprecision.  They are world-class engineers, and demand the very same from us beekeepers!

Propolis

Of all the substances that bees collect, such as water, nectar and pollen, it is propolis whose role is most mysterious and perhaps least understood.

Actually, bees do not collect propolis, they collect plant gums and resins that they convert into propolis.  In the United States, most of these resins and gums come from cottonwood or other poplar blossoms.  North American honeybees also commonly collect plant gums from pine resins.

Trees themselves use their resins as a protection against bacteria, fungi or other pathogens, and the bees’ use is not much different.  Bees collect resins and convert them into propolis, which they use to coat and seal their hives, providing a shell of antimicrobial protection to the hive.  In a natural beehive, such as one that is inside of a tree hollow, the bees often coat the entire casing of the interior of the hollow with a sheet of propolis.

This propolis coating not only provides the colony with a layer of bacterial and fungal protections, but it also is a valuable substance that the bees can use to seal up small spaces and cracks inside of a colony. This helps keep the hive secure from small predators, such as ants.  It also helps to secure or close alternative entrances to keep the colony well defended.

Propolis is a sticky gum at room temperature, but a hard, brittle material when chilled.  Its antimicrobial properties have made it a medicinal substance for human cultures throughout the years.  Even today, many health food supplements, particularly those for coughs and throat irritation, contain propolis from the bees.

Unwelcome Guest

As the beekeeping year winds down and the nights become long and cold, honeybees tend to huddle into winter clusters, hunkering down for the icy cold months ahead.  These winter bees gather into a tight unit, preserving their heat and honey.  They become less active, as their goal is not to expand or make honey, but rather simply to survive.  They are perfectly happy to stay inside their comfortable home, keep warm, and ride out the winter.

Sometimes this warm and comfortable home, however, attracts unwanted guests.  The life of a mouse during winter is not particularly easy either, as a mouse is always on the lookout for both shelter and warmth.  And nothing quite beats the comfort of hanging out inside of a beehive while the bees are hard at work keeping it warm.  Not only is a beehive sheltered and warm, but it also contains free food in the form of pollen and honey.  Believe it or not, usually during winter, a mouse can actually take up residence in a live beehive and live perfectly well alongside the bees!

During most of the season it would be impossible for a mouse to coexist within a live bee colony.  The population of bees is simply too high and too active in the peak of the season for a mouse to survive for too long without being stung.  A summer colony is booming with activity and plenty of guard beesWinter colonies, however, are small and inactive, thus making them perfect targets for opportunistic mice.

Once inside a colony, a mouse can not only chew through valuable food stores, but also cause damage to the honeycomb, and contaminate the combs and woodenware with urine.  From both the bees’ and the beekeepers’ perspective, mice really are unwanted guests.

Lets be honest though, the little guy in the above picture looks perfectly innocent.  You might even think that he deserves a nice home.  But sorry, Mr. Mouse, the bees and the beekeeper tend to disagree.

Nocturnal Beekeeping

Most beekeeping activities are best handled during the day.  Hive inspections, queen replacement, honey harvesting, etc., all require good lighting and a relaxed daytime environment to be enjoyable and effective.  After all, working with the bees on a pleasant, relaxing day is what beekeeping is all about.

On the other hand, certain activities, such as moving beehives, are best approached at night when the bees are dormant inside their colonies.  Commercial beekeepers who frequently need to move their bees are well acquainted with putting in long nights of loading and unloading bees in the dark of the night.

Recently, however, here at Wildflower Meadows, we are experimenting with adding another evening activity to our beekeeping repertoire: syrup feeding.  The reason for this late-day approach to feeding is to slow down the likelihood of robbing behavior in the apiary.  When robbing pressure is high, feeding a large apiary early in the day can turn into the most unpleasant of experiences.  As the bees in the apiary become aware of the presence of fresh syrup, they can quickly become whipped up into a feeding frenzy.  Before long, the strong colonies begin to test the defenses of the weaker colonies, sometimes breaking through and inciting further robbing.  And once robbing starts, there is no stopping it.  It will continue all day long, with the results being absolutely damaging.  Weak colonies are overrun.  Diseases can spread, and colonies will be lost.

However, we have a new strategy, which we learned from one of our larger commercial queen customers.  We begin our feeding at sunset and end at nightfall.  When the bees can’t fly, they can’t rob.  By feeding in the evening, the colonies have little ability to fly for very long and begin robbing.  Then, after the feeding ends at nightfall, each colony has the benefit of the entire night to work through their syrup and ready their guard bees without actually having to defend against robber bees.  For us, and especially the bees, this new feeding strategy is really making a difference.  When the sun gets low, our beekeepers turn on their red headlamps (bees are not able to see red light and won’t fly into it) and get to work – nocturnal beekeeping in action!

Dark Hollow

The ideal location for a honeybee hive, and the favorite natural resting place of a swarm is inside the dark hollow of a tree.   The tree hollow provides shelter from the elements.  Besides being off the ground, it enables the bees a natural protection against ground predators, such as skunks.  Honeybees seem to select tree hollows that are at least a few feet off the ground, and that are sized around one to two cubic feet on the inside.  Anything smaller does not provide enough space to grow.  If the cavity is too large, the bees may also reject it, likely because it is more difficult to manage the temperature of a larger space during winter.

Bees are used to living in the dark, whether in a managed Langstroth or top-bar hive, or natural dark hollow, so the inside of a tree fits the bill perfectly.  No light is needed.  A small entrance that limits the light works just fine for them.  Plus a small entrance is easy to defend.

Once inside the hollow, bees will usually smooth and coat the interior surfaces with propolis  They then hang their combs from the top of the cavity, much in the same way that they hang comb in a managed top bar hive.  Honey is stored in the top portion of the frames, with pollen and brood below.

Once a tree hollow has successfully housed a honeybee hive, it becomes an ongoing magnet for bees.  Should the initial colony perish, the familiar bee scent of the hollow, and any remaining comb fixtures will make the hollow an attractive home for the next wandering swarm.

Our Smallest Domestic Animal

Humans seem to have always been motivated by honey.  The first recorded use of honey dates all the way back to around 25,000 years ago.  But this timeframe only refers to when humans began documenting the collection of honey – in cave art.  Considering that many other animals, such as bears, collect honey without drawing pictures of it, it is likely that humans were collecting honey well before they began recording their feats in artwork.  The first humans to begin consuming honey no doubt sought out wild hives and robbed their honey in the same way that many people still do today – mainly by smoking the hives, and perhaps by wearing protective gear to grab the juicy honeycombs that bees use to store honey.

If you were someone who had to search out wild hives in order to obtain honey, the advantages of domesticating honeybees would quickly become obvious.  Having your own domestic honeybee hive would mean that you would not have to go searching for honey, and you could gain some control over the timing and availability of the honey harvest.

The earliest records of domesticated beekeeping date back to around 7000 BC.  The first beekeepers appear to have kept hives of bees in clay pots.  We know this because traces of beeswax have been found in certain pots from this era in the Middle East.  As we currently know, bees do not have to be kept in any specific kind of container.  Beekeepers can establish bees in all sorts of shelter – hollowed out logs, trees, boxes, baskets, etc.  Many early beekeepers soon switched to what we call “skeps” to house their bees.  Skeps are beehives that are more or less baskets of bees.

For the most part, compared to many other domesticated animals, bees have fared mostly well in their relationship with their human caretakers.  Unlike nearly all domestic animals, individual bees are not corralled, and are free to leave and return at will.  Today, with the invention of the Langstroth hive, with its removable and replaceable frames, if a beekeeper is responsible and conscientious, the bees can live indefinitely.

Once honeybees became domesticated, the practice of beekeeping began.  Bee breeding also began, with the selection criteria of gentleness and honey production generally taking the forefront.  With domestication, humans began their close relationship and husbandry of the smallest domestic animal to date – the tiny and intrepid honeybee!