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!

A Simple, Inexpensive Robbing Screen

A while back, we discussed robbing behavior and how robbing can be a problem for beekeepers during times of drought or lack of nectar.  During robbing, honeybees invade neighboring colonies seeking to steal their honey stores.  Weak or small colonies are the most vulnerable to robbing because they often lack the population of guard bees necessary to defend their entrances against invasion.

As a beekeeper, it is certainly important to identify robbing behavior, as well as the causes of robbing.  But even more important than identifying the robbing behavior is to be able to prevent robbing from happening in the first place!

At Wildflower Meadows, our two best tools to prevent robbing are the time-honored entrance reducer and a small robbing screen.

The entrance reducer is a simple stick of wood that cuts down the size of the entrance by blocking off a large percentage of the area where bees can enter and leave a colony.  When a colony has a smaller area to defend against other thieving bees, it always has a better chance of fighting them off, much in the same way that a soccer goalie can better defend a small-sized goal than a larger-sized one.  Entrance reducers can be purchased at most beekeeping supply companies.  However, a customized small piece of wood can easily accomplish the same purpose for a lower cost.

The robbing screen is a piece of screen or mesh that sits in front of the entrance and serves to block and deflect the incoming flight path of robbing bees.  Because robbing bees are nearly always worked up into a frenzy, they easily get confused by the screen blocking the entrance.  They tend to fly directly into the path of the screen without taking the time to figure out a way around it.  The defending colony’s bees, however, have already quickly learned how to maneuver their way around the screen and rapidly figure out how to use it as a shield against incoming robbers.

At Wildflower Meadows, our robbing screen is a simple piece of vent screening material attached over the reduced entrance with a push pin.  The cost of this robbing screen is just a few cents per colony, but the payoff is huge!  Small colonies that otherwise might be vulnerable to robbing are able to hold their own if robbing gets started.

How and Where to Sell Your Honey

As you gain experience in beekeeping, success will almost certainly follow.  Before long you will likely have more honey in hand than you know what to do with!  This typically brings about the next question, “What am I going to do with all of this honey?”  Fortunately for you, while you are asking yourself this very question, someone else is also asking the question, “Where do you suppose I could find some local honey?”.

So, where do you sell your honey?  It might seem obvious to try to sell to a local market, gift store, or fruit stand.  Although these are tried and true avenues for selling honey, these obvious solutions are not always the best option for a small-scale or sideline beekeeper.  First, these outlets demand wholesale pricing, which means that unless you urgently need to unload a lot of honey fast, this option may not be financially worth your while.  You are not going to get a top price for your prized honey.  Besides, to sell to a retailer, especially a gift store, you will need to invest in fancy jars and labels, which also cuts into your profits.  Lastly, retail markets prefer steady and reliable suppliers.  No one is saying that as a beekeeper you can’t be trusted to keep your word, but honey flows and seasons are irregular.  Sometimes you can run into lengthy periods of drought where you have no honey crop to sell, which might irritate your new customers, who have a year-round stream of customers and want your product to be readily available.

The amount of surplus honey that you have on hand should dictate your strategy.  If you do not have much to sell, your best option may simply be word of mouth with your friends and neighbors.  At Wildflower Meadows, we have a customer who is a full-time commercial beekeeper who successfully sells his entire honey crop on a word of mouth basis.  Another customer sells cases of honey at a time simply to his many neighbors!   This is the most cost-effective option since it costs next to nothing in the way of marketing and exacts the highest retail price.

Other selling options include:

  • Placing a “Local Honey for Sale” sign in front of your house
  • Reaching out to local health food stores, many of which sell bulk honey
  • Renting space at a farmer’s market
  • Selling to church groups or fund raisers
  • Selling directly on the internet or on e-Bay

If you decide to sell honey via the internet, it would be wise to bottle your honey with plastic bottles.  At Wildflower Meadows, there was a time when we would occasionally ship honey to friends and family in glass bottles.  Big mistake!  Not only does glass add more weight, but it was not uncommon for jars to break in transit with gooey honey leaking from the shipping box!  Take it from us, for shipping, plastic is the way to go.

The Solar Wax Melter

Over the course of a beekeeping season, you may find yourself collecting scraps of beeswax and not knowing what to do with them.  For example, when you scrape away burr comb or lids, or when you scrape away honey cappings during your honey harvest, you will collect perfectly good beeswax.  For a small-scale beekeeper this is not going to be a huge amount of wax and hardly worth the time.  Let’s face it, you probably are not going to be able to start a Fortune 500 candle company with your meager wax scrapings.  However, if you save up enough wax, little by little, over the course of a year you should have eventually gathered enough wax by the end of the year for a few wonderfully scented beeswax candles.

How do you transform your messy wax scrapings into usable beeswax?  Enter the solar wax melter.  The solar wax melter sounds like a high-tech piece of equipment, but is actually hardly more than a sturdy box with a glass lid.  When placed in the sun, the glass lid enables the box to heat up to the melting point of beeswax (145 degrees Fahrenheit).  The wax then neatly collects and organizes itself at the bottom of the box.  At that point, you have nice amount of quality beeswax, free of charge!

From there, it is just a simple matter of purchasing a candle mold or two.  Add some wicks and you are well on your way.

Nearly all beekeeping supply companies sell ready-made solar wax melters.  However, the design of these is so simple that it often is just as easy and economical for a beekeeper to construct their own.  For a handy beekeeper, a simple internet search will come up with more than enough plans for constructing a basic solar wax melter that works perfectly fine.

Photo of solar wax melter used with permission, courtesy of Dancing Bee Equipment.

Anticipating vs. Reacting

When we were just getting started here at Wildflower Meadows, an old-time beekeeper was retiring and eagerly sold us some of his equipment.  As we were getting ready to drive away with our truckload of beekeeping gear, and our dreams for the future, he offered us a piece of immeasurable parting advice.  He insisted that we understand that a skilled beekeeper always anticipates the upcoming, and never just reacts to what is happening in the now.  In beekeeping, he said, reacting to the present conditions is always too late.  He explained that his advice especially applied to the honey supers that we were purchasing.  He wanted us to make sure that the supers were on the hives, in place, and ready to go before the honey flow so as not to miss the action.  And then, he insisted that we should take them off right before the honey flow ends, well before the robbing starts so as to be less stressful on the bees.

Actually, his wise and priceless advice applies to almost all of beekeeping.  It is true that the best beekeepers stay ahead of the conditions, and not just react to them.  There is much to anticipate in beekeeping, and reacting is almost always too late.  For example, when a colony is in danger of overcrowding, some sort of swarm control needs to be done before it is too late.  When a queen is failing, she needs to be replaced before the hive declines precipitously.  If there are neighbors nearby with swimming pools, the bees should be given a clean and reliable water source before trouble ensues, and so on . . .

Sadly, many of the supers that we purchased from this gentleman burned up in one of the too-many-to-count California wildfires that seem to strike every year.  Yet, sometimes we still run into a few pieces of surviving equipment here and there, which always brings a smile.  More importantly, however, this beekeeper’s sage advice – far more valuable – lives on.  In our company, we take this advice to heart and always try our best to anticipate, and act, on what lies ahead.

Family Ties

Sometimes, here at Wildflower Meadows, we run across a colony that appears superior in all respects.  As a queen breeder, finding a special colony is always a promising affair.  So, of course, we wonder, perhaps we have discovered some sort of “super colony”; the honeybee equivalent to a superhero, like Wonder Woman.  Maybe if we could breed from this colony we could create a “Super Bee” or some other sort of legendary strain of bee.

However, not so fast . . .

It is tempting to think that the daughter of a superstar will be a superstar herself, but this is an oversimplification.  First of all, we have no idea what made the original colony perform so well.  Might it have been environmental factors rather than genetics?  Perhaps the bees found a pollen source that no other colony in the apiary found.  Or, what if they are situated in such a spot in the apiary that they are the recipient of drifting bees?  Maybe the reason that they are mite-free is not that they are resistant, but simply lucky enough to never have encountered them in large numbers.  In short, what if it is simply good luck that is making this colony appear so special?

Far more importantly, we need first consider whether the superstar colony itself is one of Wildflower Meadows’ pure and known bee lines, or instead a first-or-second-generation hybrid.  If the queen is a hybrid, her offspring are almost certainly going to be unpredictable.  The queen could be carrying many different latent or recessive genes that are not now visible, but could become apparent in next generations.  In general, it is best to breed from pure and known bee lines so that the offspring has a predictability in the immediate generation to follow.  As we described in a previous post, Hybrid Vigor, the most vigorous queens are the result of F1 (first-generation) hybrid bees.  The only way to create this vigor is by starting with pure lines, not with existing hybrids.  Therefore, it is important to remember that one beehive is not a proven line of bees!

This is why when Wildflower Meadows evaluates colonies for breeding potential, we need to consider more than one colony.  We really need to look at the queen’s entire family, and her family ties.  Ideally, we attempt to examine at least six of the sisters of the queen we are considering.  Are they too performing as well?  Are they too uniform?  In any breeding effort, the goal is consistency, and the only way to ensure consistency is to prove that the breeder herself is producing steady results.  The daughters should perform at least as well as the mothers, and should do so time and time again.

The Best and Worst Seasons for Raising Queen Honeybees

At Wildflower Meadows, we raise queen honeybees for a relatively long season, which begins in March and carries on through September.  Our mild weather is typically accommodating for such a long season.  However, the conditions for raising queen honeybees throughout this lengthy season vary, and are not always ideal.  As a result, we have to compensate for fluctuations throughout the year.

In raising queens, the most important factor in determining both the quantity and quality of queens is the condition of the cell building colonies.  A cell building colony is where the grafted queen cells are fed royal jelly and are developed into virgin queen bees.  The condition of the cell building colonies naturally varies throughout the season, and these variations directly affect queen rearing.  Sometimes conditions are good, and sometimes they are not.

The basic requirements of a cell building colony are that it needs to be well-stocked with nurse bees, well-fed with plenty of pollen for producing royal jelly, and consistently strong and healthy.  Most importantly, a cell building colony needs to be well-motivated to produce queen cells.  There is generally one period of the season when all of these conditions come together most perfectly, and this is the ideal season for rearing queens.

Typically, this ideal season is during the mid-to-late spring, which also, not coincidentally, is peak swarming season.  The swarming season is also typically when the most favorable nutrition conditions are available for the cell-building colonies, with plenty of high-quality pollen coming in.  It is when the bees are most naturally motivated to produce queen cells for swarming.  The bees know that the conditions are good and they are motivated to get to business!  In short, the best time of the year to rear queens is generally the same time of year when the bees are most apt to swarm.  The longer that conditions are favorable for swarming, the longer the queen producer has to raise abundant and well-nourished queens.

Some of the worst times of the year to produce queens are during the very early season, during the very late season, and during times of drought.  During the very early season, the ratio of older bees to nurse bees is at its worst, with a high percentage of older bees that overwintered and a much smaller percentage of vital nurse bees.  This is because in the early spring, the cell building colonies have not yet had enough time to begin brood rearing in earnest.  The small number of nurse bees means that less bees are available to properly feed queen cells.  During the early season, a conscientious queen producer needs to limit the production of queen cells to a smaller number; since even though a cell building colony may look strong, it is filled with only a small percentage of nurse bees.

During the later season, a cell building colony is more motivated to shut down for winter than it is to produce swarm cells.  At this point in the season, a cell building colony may still be receiving proper nutrition, but its motivation to produce queen cells is instinctively low.  The queen producer has no way of changing this.  Therefore, once again, the beekeeper needs to limit the production of queen cells to a smaller number towards the end of the season.

Drought poses two different problems:  During drought, the bees are less likely to want to expand or swarm, so their motivation to produce queen cells is reduced, and during drought, nutrition becomes a factor.  The nurse bees have less access to quality pollen sources, which limits their ability to produce nutritious royal jelly.  Queen production can suffer.  Therefore, any conscientious queen producer who desires to continue to rear queens during a period of drought needs to aggressively feed the cell building colony both syrup and a pollen substitute in order to offset the effects of the drought, thereby limiting the ability of the cell building colony to feel the drought’s effects.