Single Source Honey

The above photo of bees in a lavender field was taken in France, where lavender is grown commercially.  Lavender is also grown in Spain and other parts of the European Union.

The honey from lavender blossoms is arguably one of the most prized single-source varietal honeys in the world.  It is almost exclusively imported from Europe.  This honey is magnificently delicious with a delicate flavor and slight purple hue.  Lavender honey is expensive, but if you are a honey connoisseur, it is highly worth a try.

Single sourced honey originates from a single flower type and, as a result, takes on the unique flavor and characteristics of that blossom.  In order to capture a single source of nectar and to produce single source varietal, the beekeeper needs to strategically place colonies of honeybees on or alongside a vast area of the exact same blossoms, such as clover, acacia, alfalfa, or in the above case, lavender.  There should be at least a square mile of the same kind of blossoms in the area blossoming at about the same time.  The blossoms need to be attractive to the bees, and there should not be any competing flowers nearby that could dilute the flavor of the honey – especially other kinds of flowers that are equally or more attractive to the bees.

For most backyard beekeepers, producing single source honey is entirely out of the question.  With houses nearby and all sorts of flowering gardens, the honey produced is nearly always a blend of “wildflowers”, or more accurately, garden blossoms.

At Wildflower Meadows, we have seen our bees working lavender blossoms from time to time.  Occasionally, a nearby enterprising gardener will plant a garden of lavender, usually for some sort of aromatherapy or essential oil project that they have in mind.  Our bees are most pleased to do their part and pay a visit. Unfortunately, however, there is never even close to enough lavender to consider the resulting honey single source.  Obtaining a particular honey varietal is an art unto itself, and takes a knowledgeable beekeeper that is dedicated to this singular pursuit.

The Queen Bee Mating Yard

The apiary pictured above is where a queen bee’s home resides, amidst hundreds of other similarly looking mating nucs; sort of like a monotonous development of tract homes that all look the same. Each queen lives inside her own mating nuc, where she begins her journey into the world with her emergence from a queen cell.  A week or so later she takes flight from her mating nuc into the sky.  If all goes well, after another week or so, she will begin to lay eggs and have the opportunity to prove herself as a quality mated queen bee for sale.

One of the challenges for a queen producer is properly setting up the layout of the mating nucs within the apiary.  One would think that rows of mating nucs, neatly organized in perfect crisp lines, would be the most efficient use of space, and easiest for the beekeeper to manage.  Unfortunately, while this straightforward organization might make perfect sense for the beekeeper, it is not ideal for queen bee rearing.

The problem with long, straight rows is that a queen bee returning from a mating flight needs to easily be able to return to the correct mating nuc when she arrives home from her flight.  If all the nucs are lined up in neat rows, and there are otherwise no distinguishing landmarks to distinguish one part of a row from another, a returning queen can get confused.  Which is the right box?  A mated queen bee that returns to the wrong nuc box could possibly find disaster waiting, with another queen bee already established and ready to fight.  This confusion of queens and foraging bees returning to the wrong home is called “drifting.”  To the conscientious queen breeder, drifting should be avoided.

At Wildflower Meadows, to prevent drifting, we vary the patterns of the mating nucs in a queen bee mating yard (as do most all queen producers).  Sometimes we arrange the mating nucs in curving rows, other times in circles, and other times in various geometric patterns.  This makes it easier for returning queens to quickly get a “read” on the yard from the air, and hopefully find their way home, to the right home, each and every time.

 

Above is a satellite photo of one of our mating yards.  If you were a queen returning home, could you find your way back?

What Attracts Honeybees To Flowers?

 

When flying about, honeybees’ two most powerful senses are their eyesight and sense of smell.  When at full bloom, flowers’ most attractive features are their beauty to the eyes, as well as their fragrance to the nose.  Is this a coincidence?  No.  Honeybees are designed to find flowers, and flowers are designed to find honeybees.

Did you ever wonder why flowers are almost never the same color as the plant itself?  The flower on any plant needs to stand out, and be as beautiful and fragrant as it can be to attract the bees that it needs for the next generation of plants to survive.

As humans we also appreciate the beauty and fragrance of a perfect flower.  But compared to what a bee experiences, our visual perception of a flower is downright drab.  It is as though we are looking at an old scratched computer screen while the bees are watching a 3D movie in IMAX!  Not only is a bee’s sense of smell keenly more acute than ours, a bee’s eyesight is perfectly optimized for identifying flowers.

You may not know this, but flowers display a richness that largely escapes our range of vision.  Bees see in a different range of frequencies, or spectrum, than humans.  Whereas a human’s eyesight ranges from red to violet on the color spectrum (the colors of the rainbow), the bees’ vision ranges from orange to ultraviolet.  Bees cannot see red, but they can see well into the ultraviolet spectrum.  In the ultraviolet spectrum, many flowers have an iridescent quality, in which they appear to change color or flicker from one color to another.  While we humans fail to see this beauty, the bees identify it immediately.

A bees eye view of the same photo

If humans could see into the ultraviolet spectrum, we would see iridescent colors in a flower, along with patterns on the petals of flowers that seem to almost point the way to the nectar source.  A dandelion, when seen in the UV spectrum, is not completely yellow but has a rich and darker looking center that immediately draws attention.  That center, not coincidentally, is where the nectar lies.

Bees’ vision is also vastly faster than ours, which means that they can identify changes in colors while on the move. In fact, honeybees can actually identify individual flowers while traveling at high speed!  Is it any wonder why scout bees never fail to “stop and smell the flowers” along the way?

Everything is Just Right

Wildflower Meadows’ employees have been out and about lately moving bees in anticipation of the upcoming queen-rearing season.  Raising queens waits for no one, and the work generally continues rain or shine.  At this time of year, we spend our mornings grading our bee stock, then shuffling individual colonies to the proper yards.  Breeders go to the queen rearing yards, strong drone rearing colonies get consolidated near our mating areas, colonies are re-graded, and so on . . .

On the surface, this photo looks like a miserable situation.  Here, one of our employees is moving a few breeder colonies to our queen-rearing area.  It is pouring rain, and around the apiaries there is mud absolutely everywhere.  One might think that all is wrong, but truly, everything is just right.

First of all, we are finally experiencing rain here in Southern California!  This means that the drought conditions are subsiding, and the bees will have an abundance of foraging opportunities later in the season.  Second, the breeders that we are selecting look great!  They have overwintered exceptionally well and are now being handpicked for the upcoming season.  Third, our Columbia rain gear comes from the Pacific Northwest, where they know a thing or two about rain and keeping a person dry.  And finally, because we just installed new mud tires on this pickup truck – we are just in time to have a little fun and sling some mud!

Mud Slinging

The “Citation” Of Wildflower Meadows

We recently had a conversation with a friend, and were explaining how we have been blessed with a three-year-old breeder queen who seems to be perfect in all respects.  She is one of the best examples of a successful queen we have ever seen.  Not only is she a champion breeder in her own right, but many of the next generations of our breeder queens also trace their lineage back to her in one way or another.  Our friend was quick to respond, “Why, she is the Citation of Wildflower Meadows.”

Unless you are a fan of horse racing, you may not be familiar with Citation.  While not as famous as Seabiscuit or Secretariat, Citation is routinely ranked by experts as one of the greatest racehorses of all time.  Citation won the Triple Crown in 1948 and went on to have a spectacular career, almost never losing.  He was one of those rare race horses that had no apparent weakness of any kind.  Sprints, distance races, fast tracks, muddy tracks, large fields, small fields; none of it mattered.  The horse simply won every time he left the gate, no matter what.

Our Number 43, pictured above, has similar qualities.  She lays perfect frames of brood, one after another.  In three years, her colony has never shown any weakness.  The bees in her hive build up each year to excellent populations; making honey, surviving droughts, successfully overwintering, succumbing to no diseases, nor harboring any mites (treatment free).  Like Citation, they are pretty to look at, and very friendly to all.  And, they always seem to outperform every other colony, no matter what the conditions.

True to her legend, Number 43 has lived a long and productive life, both as a performer and as a breeder of other breeder queens.  Normally, due to the technical challenges of artificial insemination, instrumentally inseminated breeder queens do not last as long as naturally mated queens.  Of course, that is not the case with Number 43.  As we head into 2017, her green dot (now mostly faded) marks her as a 2014 breeder queen heading into her fourth year.

Number 43 is retired now, and she and her colony are living a pleasant life among the greener pastures of other retired breeders.

Citation – 1948 Triple Crown Winner

Numbering Bee Colonies

Unlike most commercial beekeepers, at Wildflower Meadows we number all of our bee colonies and keep track of each colony individually.  Numbering bee colonies is not an original idea, and it adds a significant amount of record keeping and tediousness to each day’s work.  However, in our opinion, the information gained is more than worth the extra effort.

Once bee colonies have numbers, a whole world of knowledge opens up.  At Wildflower Meadows, we use colony numbers to track the individual queens inside each colony.  We can then compare queens of different ages, races, gene lines, histories, and therefore determine what the best performing queens have in common.  This information helps us to determine what is working, or not working, and enables us to develop an edge on queen selection and breeding.

Numbering colonies is not only useful for queen producers; beginning and small-scale beekeepers can also greatly benefit from keeping records on each colony.  With numbers and records, learning speeds up.  Beekeepers can test different practices on different colonies, test new ideas, keep track of the results, and begin to understand what works best for the health and well-being of their bees.

Winter Shut Down

In mid to late summer, a bee colony size is at its peak.  Later in summer, and leading into autumn, bee populations naturally decline, which follows the general decline of Mother Nature’s available nectar and pollen.  By the time winter arrives, a beehive has reduced its population to a minimum cluster of bees, whose main goal is survival to the next season.  By December, a typical bee colony, even if perfectly healthy, will have only about four to six frames of so-called “winter bees” and no new brood, as queens shut down brood rearing in the winter due to the cold and lack of forage.  The colony stays in this sort of semi-hibernation until spring comes along, bringing warmer days and new blossoms.

In California, the winter shut down is less pronounced, as bees continue to forage in many coastal areas year-round.  Eucalyptus and jade flowers bloom during the winter, providing coastal bees a reliable late season nectar source.  Nevertheless, even in California, a typical hive of bees begins reducing its population, so that by the middle of December a bee colony’s population may be about half of what it was only a few short months ago.

Wildflower Meadows would like to thank all of you for a successful 2016.  We wish you all a joyous holiday season, and best wishes for a prosperous New Year!

The Queenless Roar

When a queen bee is removed from a colony of bees it does not take long before the colony becomes aware of her absence.  Usually within about five hours, a noticeable buzz begins to develop inside the hive.  This buzz continues while the colony remains queenless.  Experienced beekeepers are sensitive to this sound and sometimes can successfully identify a queenless hive just by this unique colony-wide buzzing.  Many beekeepers call this the “Queenless Roar.”

How can the honey bees know so quickly that they are without a queen bee?  Each healthy queen bee produces a substance called “queen pheromone” that enables the bees to sense her presence inside the colony.  When the pheromone disappears, or when an old and weak queen stops producing it sufficiently, the bees take notice.  Without the queen pheromone in the hive, the bees become distressed, and they will shortly begin constructing emergency queen cells from young larva and begin to raise a new replacement queen.

Painting Beehives

The offseason is a welcome time to get caught up on many projects and repair work.  As the summer wears on, we begin to notice certain boxes that are looking out of shape, and not up to our best standards here at Wildflower Meadows.  Usually, around mid November, we begin to gather these weathered looking boxes, and switch the bees that are still in them into higher quality equipment.

These old four-way queen rearing boxes come back to our shop for refurbishment.  First, they are sanded down, re-squared up, and given a new set of staples for reinforcement.  After this, they are brought out back behind our wood working shop for painting.

Many commercial beekeepers use paint sprayers to paint their hives.  We have always, however, enjoyed the peacefullness and simplicity of painting with a simple roller.  Here, one of our beekeepers is enjoying a relaxing afternoon painting a set of four-way queen rearing boxes.

Painting four-way queen rearing boxes is somewhat more challenging than painting regular bee boxes, as each side of each mating box is painted a different color.  Although adding to the tediousness of the painting, distinct colors for each side will assist the queen bees in finding the correct entrances when they return from their mating flights.  Queen bees can identify colors, and the colored sides help guide them back to their correct home.  We usually choose light pastel colors, avoiding darker colors, which can contribute to overheating of these relatively small colonies on hot summer days.

If it looks like our boxes have too many holes in them, it is because each box contains four holes – one on each side.  Each serves as a separate entrance to house a small colony for raising queens.  Some of the boxes even have two holes on each side, the second hole being a ventilation hole!

Pollen Supplement Patties

In times when flowers are in short supply, bee colonies can fall short on the protein and nutrition that they require from bee pollen.  Bee pollen is critical inside a colony because it provides many of the main ingredients in royal jelly and worker jelly that is used to feed developing larvae.  Especially towards the end of summer when flowers are in short supply, the bees can rapidly work down their stores of pollen.  Once the pollen has run out, unless brood rearing has completely shut down, bees still need to feed larvae.  The next source of nutrients that they use to produce feed for larvae is called vitellogenin. It is the very food storage reservoir within worker bees that workers selflessly share with larvae, depleting their own life force in the process.

As a conscientious beekeeper, you do not want your bees to be in a situation where they are cannibalizing their own strength in order to continue as a hive.  Long before bees completely run out of pollen stores, a good beekeeper begins feeding some sort of pollen supplement.

As a queen producer, our colonies have an even greater need for abundant pollen than normal colonies.  The royal jelly that is fed to all queen cells requires massive amounts of pollen to produce.  As a result, we need to be assured that our queen cell building colonies are overflowing with protein sources as well as all the ingredients necessary to produce well fed, quality queen cells.  At Wildflower Meadows, we make our own pollen supplement patties, which we feed to our queen rearing colonies year round.  The patties are placed between the bee boxes, right under or over the brood nest so that the bees can consume the patties easily and rapidly.

Many commercial beekeepers have their own proprietary blends of pollen substitutes that they use to make pollen substitute patties.  Typical ingredients are brewers yeast, soy flour, freeze dried pollen or sometimes pea protein.  Most beekeeping supply outfits also sell bags of prepackaged pollen supplements, some of which are secret formulas, but nearly all of which are various combinations of more or less the same ingredients.

patties

 

Lately at Wildflower Meadows we have been making our pollen supplement patties (shown above) using UltraBee dry mix from Mann Lake, which is a well known high quality supplement.

The bottom line, however, is that when a colony is starving, any supplement is far better than no supplement, and brand preference is much less important than making sure that the bees have the basic nutrition that they need to thrive.