Queen Pheromone

What is it about queen bees that are so attractive to worker bees?  When we took the photo shown above, we had just prepared six queens from the day’s harvest for introduction into our own colonies.  Note how the workers can’t seem to show enough love to the queens.  These attendants were so fixated on the queens that they traveled inside our truck like this without us even needing to put a lid on the box!  The workers simply had no desire to fly away nor to stop attending to the queens.

When we prepare shipments of bulk boxes, it is never a problem getting attendant bees motivated to stay and care for the queens.  A quick shake of a frame of bees into the box produces more than enough workers willing to stay with, and attend to the queens the whole time they are in transit.

The queen pheromone is so powerful that bees will even drop out of the sky to investigate a box of queens!  When we deliver queens to UPS, we have been cautioned by the office staff not to arrive prior to 4:30pm, as any earlier causes curious bees to fly into their customer service center, potentially frightening customers.

Inside the hive is no different.  Worker bees can immediately identify the presence of a queen, as well as the lack of a queen.  The method of this attraction is through a pheromone known as the “queen pheromone”.  The purpose of the queen pheromone is to signal to a hive that a queen is present and that she is recognizable.

A pheromone is a chemical that is secreted by a member of a species that can be used to control the behavior of another member of the same species.  Imagine how much love we could receive if we humans had a pheromone as powerful as the “queen pheromone”!

Queen pheromone is secreted near the head of the queen in an area above her jaw known as the mandibular.  Her secretions make her identifiable to all bees inside the hive; workers, drones, and possibly other queens.  The workers spread this pheromone throughout the hive using their antennae.  If this pheromone is absent, the colony will soon recognize its absence and will know that they are queenless.  They will then begin to construct emergency queen cells to raise a new queen.

Not only can a hive measure the presence, or absence, of queen pheromone, but it also able to measure the level of it.  A dip in the level of queen pheromone indicates that the queen could be beginning to fail.  This will often cause a colony to begin raising replacement queens for supercedure of the current queen.

It is well known that overcrowded bees are more likely to swarm than bees with ample space.  However, some beekeepers believe that the overcrowding of bees itself inhibits the transfer of queen pheromone throughout the colony, therefore causing the colony to raise replacement queen cells in anticipation of a swarming event.

The Fume Board

There are a number of ways of separating bees from their honey – some beekeepers use a simple brush, others use a bee blower – but the most efficient, at least in our opinion, is a fume board.  More often than not, the fume board is the tool of choice for commercial and larger scale beekeepers when it comes time to harvest honey.

Over the course of the honey flow honeybees pack the top boxes of their hives – called “supers” or “honey supers” – with fresh nectar.  They dry the nectar and convert it into honey.  With any luck, by the end of the honey flow, the super is full of honey.  A full sized or “deep super” can contain up to 80 lbs. of honey when full.

When it comes time to harvest the honey, a beekeeper needs to clear the bees from the super, so that the super of honey can be brought back to the shop for extraction and processing.  This is where the fume board enters the scene.  The bottom of the fume board is typically made of a sort of felt material.  The beekeeper sprays this material with a fumigant.  At Wildflower Meadows we use a natural spray made of almond oil extract, known commercially as “Bee Quick”.

 

Even though this spray smells great to us – something like almond marzipan – for some reason the bees can’t stand it.  Especially when the sun hits the board and begins to accelerate the fumes, the bees begin a rapid downward exit from the honey super, and thus leaving it free of bees.

Large commercial beekeeping outfits sometimes use up to thirty of these boards at a time to harvest a large-sized apiary.  With a crew of three or four beekeepers, each managing six or seven fume boards at a time, a commercial beekeeping company can harvest honey from an entire apiary of fifty or more colonies in about an hour!

Calling All Bees!

Once in a while, some of the bees in a hive need a little directional guidance from their sisters.  Individual bees can get lost or confused as to where the entrance of the hive is or where they should be.  No problem, that’s when some of the more alert bees take charge and put out the call to round up the hive and bring the group back together again.

When we humans want to round up friends from a distance we typically use sight or sound (or more frequently phone calls or text messages.)  When bees call each other from a distance, they use none of these.  The bees’ method of communication is a method that we would never think to use; they release a pheromone that signals the other bees to come together via the bees’ powerful sense of smell.

This pheromone is called the Nasonov pheromone.  Bees produce this from the tip of their abdomens.  When they wish to release the pheromone, they raise their abdomens and fan their wings vigorously, broadcasting the scent as far as they can.  It is not uncommon for a beekeeper working with a beehive to see some bees around the edge of the hive releasing this pheromone.

Often, the very act of the beekeeper opening the colony can disorient some of the bees, especially the foragers who are returning with nectar and pollen.  Fortunately, the Nasonov pheromone is a powerful call that brings the bees back home.

Beekeepers will also notice this activity when watching a swarm that has decided to settle in a particular spot.  At the edge of most swarms, a few bees can always be seen frantically calling their sisters to the chosen spot, and gathering the hive together once again.

Bees Hanging Out During Summer

When summer kicks into high gear and both the days and nights become unpleasantly hot, bees begin to feel the heat too.  One of the signs that summer has arrived is the sight of bees hanging out in front of their hive entrances, especially at nightfall.

Bees implement a sophisticated system of climate control inside the hive.  They maintain their brood nest roughly between 80 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit, with about 93 degrees being the ideal.  They also generally maintain at least 50% relative humidity within the beehive.  Any lengthy fluctuation outside of these temperature and humidity zones is dangerous for the health of the brood and the overall well-being of the hive.

During summer, the challenge of the bees is to keep the hive from overheating.  At this time of year they have two powerful factors working against them.  First, obviously, is the relentless and potent summer sun that bears down and heats everything up.  Bees overcome hot days by fanning water inside their hive, thus using water as sort of a swamp cooler.   (This is why it is critical to maintain a reliable water source for bees near the hive.)

The second, and less obvious factor that can overheat a hive is that beehives’ populations are often at their peak during June, July and August, with upwards of 40,000 bees in a single hive!  The sheer numbers of bees living so closely together can create heat of its own, further raising the temperature near the brood nest.

During the daytime, overcrowding is less of a factor because many of the forager bees and drones are outside of the colony.  At nightfall, however, when all the bees have returned, the hive can become populous again, and overcrowding and overheating becomes possible.

The bees’ answer to this overcrowding is a good one.  Why not sleep outside?  In the summer months, most healthy hives have a good percentage of bees hanging out in front of their hive’s entrance, especially in the evening.  These bees will spend most of the night outside, keeping themselves cool with a peaceful night’s rest under the soft moonlight.  More importantly, this also keeps the brood nest from overheating by limiting the number of bees inside the colony.  If the nighttime temperature chills, then the bees can head back inside to warm up.  If not, then they spend the entire night outside, just hanging out and being cool.

Laurel Sumac

Around mid-June in coastal California – earlier in some years, and later in others – laurel sumac begins to blossom.  A favorite flower source of honeybees, laurel sumac produces large pods of creamy white flowers, which the bees eagerly work for both pollen and nectar.  Unlike most nectar sources, which result in the bees producing fresh white wax, laurel sumac produces a unique yellow-tinted wax.  The honey is also a yellowish light honey, which is especially mild and delicious.

The honey from laurel sumac is a uniquely flavored honey, somewhat comparable to wild sage honey.  In fact, much of California sage honey probably contains laurel sumac honey as well, since the two plants coexist in the coastal chaparral together and often bloom simultaneously.  Honey producers prefer to label the honey from laurel sumac as “sage honey”, however, since sage reads a lot better on a honey label than sumac.  In many people’s minds, sumac is associated with poison ivy, which is the notoriously toxic, and perhaps best-known member of the sumac family.

Young Larvae

When you look at a healthy young queen bee, it is sometimes hard to imagine that only a month or so earlier, she was actually not recognizable as a bee, but rather existed as a larva.  For the first four to five days after emerging from an egg, a future queen bee is a larva, which is helpless and must be cared for and fed by other bees.  For these four or five critical days, the worker (nurse) bees feed the larva generous servings of royal jelly.  The size and health of the future queen is directly dependent on both the quality and quantity of the royal jelly that the larva receives during this brief and critical time window.

Each larva has a life span of only about four and half days between the time that it hatches from an egg to the time that the surrounding bees seal it and it begins its transformation into a pupa, eventually becoming a queen bee.  Therefore, a conscientious queen producer needs to take as many steps as possible to ensure that each and every queen larva is well cared for during this vital metamorphosis period.  Well-fed and well-nourished larvae result in high quality queen bees.

In order that each larva receive the maximum amount of royal jelly during its brief life, a good queen producer will graft larvae that are young – as close to egg emergence as possible.  Older larvae are already too far into their four-day window to receive the maximum quantity of royal jelly needed during their short lifespan as a larva.  A young grafted larva will receive a full four days of royal jelly feeding before it is sealed, whereas a two day old larva has already missed out on up to two days of royal jelly and has only two days left to be fed before it is sealed.

Once the young larvae are grafted, they are placed into cell building colonies that are packed with healthy and well-fed nurse bees.  Having a strong cell building colony ensures that the larvae will be well-attended and abundantly fed from the time that they are placed into the cell builder cups until the time they are sealed shut.

California Diamondback

One of the most enjoyable parts of working with bees is having the opportunity to work outside within the beauty of nature.  In the semi-rural areas of Southern California, where our apiaries are located, we regularly run across all sorts of animals.  In the course of a typical day, we are almost always greeted by chirping birds – finches, mockingbirds, jays, woodpeckers – and even wild peacocks and turkeys.  Occasionally we meet up with a coyote or two, and sometimes even catch a glimpse of a roadrunner scurrying through the bee yard.

Not as enjoyable, however, is when we encounter rattlesnakes.  You might think that bees and rattlesnakes would keep their distance from one another, and that a beekeeper would not be at much risk of running into rattlesnakes.  Unfortunately, you would be wrong.  Rattlesnakes love burrowing under beehives.  The bees don’t bother them, nor do they bother the bees.  It is a perfect arrangement for the rattlesnake; the beehives provide shade in the summer and naturally warm temperatures at night.  Being cold-blooded, rattlesnakes are pleased to discover that relaxing below a buzzing beehive provides a temperature-controlled canopy year-round.  Not only that, the beehives offer excellent cover from birds of prey and other nuisances, such as humans.

Although not an everyday occurrence, several times a year we find ourselves face to face with a rattlesnake.  While harvesting queen bees, and taking equipment back to the shop, we have to pick-up our queen mating nucs off the ground.  When a colony comes off the ground and we discover a coiled rattler underneath, our hearts skip a beat, or two.  That look, with the flat head, diamonds across the back, and a rattle at the end of its tail is unmistakable.  And, just in case there is any mistaking the look, a small shake of the rattle leaves little doubt of what’s at hand!

So far, no one here at Wildflower Meadows has ever been bitten, as each of our beekeepers have learned and practice what we call the beehive “two-step”:  lift the colony, take two steps back.  More often than not, the rattlesnake will move away on its own, far out of the bee yard and into another crawl place.  Other times, we will very carefully relocate the snake with a stick.  We haven’t had to kill one yet, and really don’t want to.  The rattlesnakes, frightful as they may be, are a natural part of our ecosystem, our apiaries, and a big plus to us beekeepers in helping to keep the rodents away.

Swarm Control

All creatures possess a deep-seated instinct to reproduce and expand, and bees are no exception.  At the height of spring, when nearly every flower is in bloom, when the days are noticeably warmer and longer, beehives can’t help but to grow rapidly.  During the peak of spring, hive activity bustles and pollen and nectar flow into the hive in abundance.  With the wealth of favorable conditions, populations explode.  Before long, bees become increasingly prone to swarm.  They can’t help themselves; as all of the stimuli they are receiving – the lengthening days, the abundance of food, and especially the overcrowding – rouse every instinct within them to swarm.

As much as the bees are motivated to swarm, a beekeeper is equally motivated to keep the bees at home!  When half the population of the hive simply flies away – for good – and with a thirty-dollar queen no less, it is not an especially happy day for the beekeeper.  Losing a hive to swarming means less bees, less honey, and less overall production.  Swarms can also lead to problems with neighbors.  From the beekeeper’s perspective, none of this is welcome.

As a result, a conscientious beekeeper needs to take precautions to prevent swarming.  This is known as “swarm control.”  Swarm control needs to take place well before the bees begin to think about swarming.  Once a hive has begun to fill in every cell of comb with eggs, larvae and food, and is about to swarm, it is far too late for the beekeeper to intervene.  Swarm control, like many aspects of best practices in beekeeping, needs to take place in advance.

Simply the best way to control swarming is to try to prevent it from happening in the first place.  During the peak of spring, the colony needs to have plenty of surplus space and room to expand. Beekeepers need to stay ahead of their bees and provide ample extra space for the colony to grow into.  An extra box of empty comb, along with a few frames of empty foundation to work will keep the bees occupied and less apt to swarm.  Younger queens are also less prone to swarming, so frequent requeening can prevent swarming to some extent.

Once a colony has made up its mind to swarm, however, as evidenced by it developing queen swarm cells, the beekeeper needs to take more serious action.  About the only thing a beekeeper can do at this point is to simulate an artificial swarm, and split the colony into two, or sometimes three, colonies on his own.  This managed splitting of the colony forces the bees to reset into small-sized colonies, which are not overpopulated and less apt to swarm on their own.

The April Honey Flow

In Southern California, we usually receive our strongest flow of incoming honey during the month of April.  Winter rains bring early spring flowers, followed, of course, by nectar for the bees.  During early April, a fine assortment of honey producing flowers blossom – the most impressive of which include avocado, citrus, eucalyptus, and sage.  Before a beekeeper knows it, honey supers have begun to fill, and more space is urgently needed.

For a queen producer, however, a strong honey flow can be a bit of a liability.  The mating nucs that a queen producer uses are not designed with honey production in mind, but rather for efficient queen production.  Their main features are that they are easy to set up, easy to work with, and easy to find queens.  They typically only contain a few small combs and practically no extra space for the bees to store surplus honey.

When the honey flow begins, the foragers within these mating nucs naturally grow as excited as any other foraging bees.  They can’t but help themselves, and spend every available minute collecting more high-quality honey than they have space with which to store it!  The result is a mating nuc with huge sticky combs and lots of gooey honey.

This slows things down somewhat for our queen harvesting crews.  We have to be extra careful when removing combs so that we do not squish the queen inside a mess of honey.  The good news is that these early season queens are most certainly well fed; basically they are honey connoisseurs, feasting on the best varieties of honey that Southern California has to offer!

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The Queen Bee Grafting Tool

Imagine a tool that is designed to be as flimsy as possible.  If you went to The Home Depot and asked their staff for their flimsiest tools, they would laugh at you.  Who wants flimsy tools?  The answer is the queen producer, that’s who.

Although, historically, beekeepers have utilized a number of different kinds of tools for grafting (grafting is the act of transferring larvae from breeder colonies to queen cell production cups), most beekeepers nowadays have settled on the “Chinese grafting tool” (shown above), as their preferred queen bee grafting tool of choice.

The Chinese grafting tool is a simple pencil-like object made of plastic that contains a thin plastic reed, or spatula, at the end.  The reed is what picks up the delicate larvae.  The grafting tool also features a spring-loaded plunger that the beekeeper uses to gently push the larva off of the reed and into the cup, thus allowing the beekeeper to precisely transfer an individual bee larva to a queen cell cup.

As soon as someone begins to graft larvae in quantity and as a serious endeavor, it immediately becomes obvious that the reed tip needs to be as flimsy as possible.  A stiff reed does not give easily, making grafting more of a challenge than it needs to be.

Eventually a beekeeper will break in his or her favorite grafting tool and get used to the flimsy feel of that particular tool, to the point where it becomes like an old friend, something similar to the way a well broken-in baseball mitt feels to a nimble shortstop, or the way a priceless violin feels to a concert violinist.  The main difference, of course, is that a grafting tool only costs about $3, and an unassuming beekeeper performs not in front of a cheering crowd, but alone and in peace among the humble bee larvae and future queens.