The Swarm Lure

Wildflower Meadows is not in the business of rescuing or catching swarms, and it is generally not something that we spend a lot of time doing.  When it comes to swarm catching, we let other beekeepers have all the fun!

However, once in a while we run into swarms that demand our attention.  Sometimes a mating nuc has swarmed into a tree outside the apiary and needs to be brought back into place.  At other times, one of our colonies has swarmed near a neighbor’s house and the neighbor is panicked and calling for assistance.  Occasionally, we may find that a giant swarm has arrived right next to our breeders.  We strive to keep swarms away from our breeders lest they even think about entering a breeder colony and possibly usurping a champion breeder queen.  In all these cases, we need to take action and give our best efforts to corral the swarm into a better place.

This is when the swarm lure proves to be an invaluable tool.  The swarm lure is a bait of essential oils that is highly attractive to a traveling swarm.  The mixture of oils is designed to either smell like an appealing beehive, or to mimic the smell of the Nasonov gland.  The Nasonov gland is the gland in a honeybee that emits the pheromones that call bees together.  Ideally, a good swarm lure immediately catches the swarm’s attention and directs the flight path in the direction of the lure.

There are many different recipes for swarm lures, many of which can be discovered with an Internet search.  Other commercial swarm lures come pre-formulated, and are sold by nearly all of the beekeeping supply companies.  Our personal favorite is the Swarm Commander, which is a proprietary mix of essential oils that reliably directs swarms into our waiting equipment.

When working with a powerful swarm lure like the Swarm Commander, our beekeepers need to be careful not to spill any! Wherever the lure goes, the bees follow. Even an accidental drop on top of the head is enough to cause problems for an entire day!

 

Spring Beekeeping

Spring arrives at different times in different parts of the United States.  Here, at Wildflower Meadows, our spring begins in early February.  For some of our customers, whose apiaries are in the north of the country or are in the mountains, spring can arrive as late as the middle of May or early June.  Regardless of the timing, however, spring beekeeping activities are the same for all beekeepers.

Spring is a time when the population of a beehive is about to grow rapidly.  The queen has begun to lay new frames of brood in earnest.  Often in the early spring a beehive may appear to contain more frames of brood than bees!  Accordingly, most spring beekeeping is focused on managing the expansion of the bee population and gearing up for an oncoming spring honey flow.

Honeybees’ swarming instinct is strongest in the spring, so the beekeeper needs to be especially aware of warning signs of swarming.  Having a young queen inside the hive, and making sure that there is enough extra space (supers) for a growing colony are the two best actions a beekeeper can take to control swarming.  Most colonies will need increased space as the season hits its stride of one or two weeks after the onset of spring.  Spring is also a good time to:

  • Clean off bottom boards
  • Remove entrance reducers (robbing usually is not a problem in the spring)
  • Replace old or destroyed honeycomb
  • Make sure that the bees have a clean and reliable nearby water source
  • Evaluate the quality of the overwintered queen

Although it is important for a beekeeper to ensure that bees have enough space heading into spring, a good beekeeper does not want to get too carried away by adding too many supers, or adding supers too early in the season.  Sometimes early an spring will bring unexpected frosts or chilly weather.  Too much space inside a beehive can make it difficult for the bees to keep the nighttime cluster warm and could result in the brood being chilled.

The Forager

An adult worker honeybee typically progresses through a series of roles during her short life span.  During her first two weeks of life she assumes the role of nurse bee, staying inside of the colony, tending to the larvae and to the many needs of the queen bee.  By the start of her third week, still inside the colony she takes on a slightly different role of  an “intermediate” bee; a worker bee who has not quite graduated to foraging status yet.  Her work at this point mostly consists of receiving and storing nectar from the forager bees, producing wax, and building comb.

By the start of the third week, however, a worker bee “graduates” her housekeeping duties and finally becomes a forager.  She will begin by taking a series of training flights to get oriented, and then ultimately heads out into the open world to forage for nectar, pollen, water, and propolis.  The transition to foraging is more or less a death sentence for a worker bee.  The risks to a foraging bee’s life are vastly higher than to a young bee that stays safely inside a well-secured colony.  Not only does a foraging bee have to deal with predators such as swallows and other bee-eating birds, a forager faces a multitude of environmental dangers such as cold, heat, drowning, spider webs, car windshields, etc.  Of course, a forager also can get lost or exhausted in her many daily trips to and from the colony.

A foraging bee makes an average ten to fifteen foraging trips per day!  With this heavy workload, even the strongest and luckiest forager bee only will live about another three weeks while foraging.  Assuming an intrepid foraging bee makes it through the gauntlet of dangers during her daily foraging, sadly her little wings will eventually wear out from all the hard work.  By her third week of foraging she reaches the end of her short lifespan.

An Ideal Queen Mating Yard

Central to all queen-rearing activities is the queen mating yard, where the queens make their home between the time that they are hatched from a queen cell, until the time that they are ready for sale.  A typical commercial queen mating yard contains hundreds of mating nuclei, each with at least a pound of worker bees, a small frame or two of brood, sufficient honey stores or feed, and a queen cell.

Not all mating yards are of the same quality. When we evaluate locations for establishing a mating yard, we always consider the following very important factors:

  1. First and most importantly, all mating yards need to be within optimal flying distance (approximately one half mile, give or take) to our drone-rearing colonies.  There has to be an abundance of quality drones in the area; otherwise, what’s the point?
  2. The mating yard should also be near rich pollen sources.  Young, growing queens need proper nutrition during their formative days, and nearby pollen enables the queens to be well nourished as they prepare for and take their multiple mating flights.
  3. An ideal queen-mating yard must also have landmarks, such as trees or bushes interspersed throughout the yard.  That way the queens do not get lost when returning home from their mating flights.
  4. A clean water source nearby is also important, so that the bees stay clear of swimming pools or other dangers
  5. And, the mating yard should be free from ants or other small pests that can overrun the small and relatively defenseless mating nucs.

The above photo is one of our favorite mating yards, and has all the key elements to make it a success.  It also features an additional benefit that we didn’t mention above: beautiful tall pine trees that provide plenty of shade for a relaxing lunch break after a morning of selecting and caging queen bees!

 

Guard Bees

Just like human security guards watching over and protecting an important home, guard bees have the same responsibilities for their colony.  Their mission: keep the colony’s inhabitants safe from intruders.

There are several different kinds of intruders that guard bees must protect against.  They include:

  • Honey bees from other colonies, specifically “robber bees
  • Other kinds of predatory insects, such as ants, moths and yellow jackets
  • Small critters seeking to take refuge inside a beehive for warmth, such as mice
  • Medium sized critters looking to eat bees or honey, such as skunks, raccoons and even some bird species
  • Large sized predators such as bears
  • And, of course, humans, who the bees likely assume intend to rob the colony of its honey

The obvious weapon that a guard bee utilizes, of course, is its powerful sting.  There is more, however, to being a guard bee than stinging.  Like a human security guard, a guard bee must also be attentive, be able to distinguish between normal activity and real threats, and also be able to quickly call for assistance, if needed.

Honeybees are not born as guard bees.  In fact, the youngest bees in a hive make poor guard bees because their stinging capabilities are underdeveloped.  It is the oldest bees that have the most developed stings, and the most potent venom.  Given older bees’ stinging capabilities, plus the fact that they are old and have the least to lose by dying, it is obvious why the oldest bees in a colony typically take on the role of “guard bee.”

A typical strong colony usually has about ten to twenty guard bees at a time patrolling the entrance of the hive.  This number can change depending on the size of the entrance, the season, nearby pressure from robbing, or presence of other threats.  Obviously, if a large-sized predator such as a bear approaches a beehive, ten guard bees is not going to be enough to deter an attack.  In that case, the guard bees quickly call for reinforcements, using an alarm pheromone.  In such an attack, the entire colony is placed on alert, and all worker bees temporarily become guard bees, sacrificing their lives to protect the colony.

Mini Mating Frame

 

Given that the bees inside of a colony will generally only tolerate one queen, and that queen bees themselves fight amongst each other if they are in the same colony, it is obvious that when raising queen bees, each queen needs to be provided its own separate colony.  It is impossible to raise more than one queen inside of a single colony, as queen bees do not tolerate “roommates.”  Each queen needs her own castle to call home!

This issue quickly becomes a challenge when raising thousands of queens at a time.  If each queen needs her own colony, and the queen producer needs to set up a separate colony for every queen being raised, then this can quickly become a logistical and costly endeavor.  This process could be considered similar to trying to run an army where every soldier needs a separate apartment, and cannot tolerate living with another soldier.

The only reasonable and cost-effective solution to this problem is to set up small-sized and inexpensive colonies, one for each queen that is being raised.

The majority of beekeepers who raise bees in standard Langstroth colonies are familiar with the three sizes of frames available to them, full size (deep), medium size and small size.  These three frame sizes correspond to the three sizes of hive bodies that beekeepers traditionally use, deep hive bodies, medium supers, and shallow supers, respectively.  Nearly all beekeepers who use standard beekeeping equipment use one or more of these sized frames.

The majority of queen producers, however, utilize a fourth size of frame, which is known as a mini-mating frame.  The mini-mating frame is roughly half the size of a shallow frame.  Three of these small mini-mating frames are just large enough to provide a comfortable living space for a small colony, and most importantly, enough space for a queen to lay a good pattern of brood and prove the quality of her mating and genetics.

Given the small size of the frame, a high-quality queen can easily fill a mini-mating frame, such as the frame above, in less than a day.  The mini-mating frame shown above, filled with brood, is proof that this queen bee is ready for sale.  To us, she is “showing off” her talents.  She is more than ready to visit a “real” and full-sized colony and continue her fine brood laying talents for one of Wildflower Meadows’ customers.

Cold Weather Beekeeping

No one could ever say that the weather here in Southern California is particularly cold, but there are times of the year when the daytime temperatures regularly dip into the 50-degree range.  The cooler weather usually arrives in January, just as we are beginning to build up our mating nucs for the upcoming season’s queen honeybee production.  Temperatures below 60-degrees are not ideal for opening bee colonies, but in January we have to begin preparations for the season in anticipation of the early spring.

Honeybees keep the interior of their colonies around 93-degrees.  While honeybees can manage cooler temperatures for short periods, long exposure to the cold can chill and damage brood.

As we are building up our mating nucs, our beekeepers have to be sensitive to the cooler temperatures and work accordingly.  Colonies and brood cannot be allowed to be open and exposed for extended periods of time.  Our beekeepers need to work with a purpose and stay organized.  Fortunately, the bees usually assist the process by clustering around any open brood and covering exposed areas.

In the cooler temperatures, bees do not fly very well so they usually hang around the apiary while we are working.  They fly around a little and then come right back to the hive.  Many will land on us and cover us as well!  Are they trying to keep us warm too?

Hybrid Vigor

Our customers often ask us if the VSH (varroa sensitive hygiene) trait is so desirable then why doesn’t Wildflower Meadows sell pure VSH queens?  Or, why are Wildflower Meadows’ queen bees VSH-Italian hybrids instead of pure VSH queens?  After all, if it takes a great deal of selective breeding to produce a high level of VSH behavior in bee stock and VSH behavior is so valuable, why dilute the pure VSH stock by crossing it with Italian stock that is not purely VSH?  The answer to this question is in the concept of “hybrid vigor,” otherwise known by its scientific name, heterosis.

Hybrid vigor is a scientifically proven concept that states when two relatively inbred populations are crossed, the performance of the hybrid offspring – in terms of size, fitness, growth rate, fertility, etc. – is improved over the two parental groups when taken individually.  For this reason, hybridization has long been practiced in agriculture.  Plant and animal breeders often take advantage of this concept by crossing two pure bred lines, each with desirable traits, to create offspring that maintain those traits, but in turn is stronger than the parents.  As proof, today over 90% of seeds planted in the United States are hybrids, and not pure strains.  Cattle ranchers commonly cross breeds of cattle creating hybrids such as Angus x Hereford or Angus x Brahman, as well as many other combinations to create more robust offspring.  For the same reason, most broiler chickens that are raised for meat production are also hybrids.  And so on . . .

Hybrid vigor is usually best noted in the first generation of purebred offspring, which is known as an F1 Hybrid.  Later generations of hybrids, which are crosses of the hybrids themselves, known as F2 Hybrids, F3 Hybrids, etc., can vary greatly from one another, and usually express less hybrid vigor than the first generation.  Therefore, the majority of hybrids that are utilized in agriculture are F1 Hybrids, or first generation hybrids.

At Wildflower Meadows, our queen bees for sale are the first generation of offspring of pure VSH stock (which contains the genetic advantage of mite resistance) crossed with Italian stock (which contains the genetic advantage of gentleness and robust brood production).  This gives Wildflower Meadows’ queens, when compared to other queen breeders’ queens (many who specialize in only purebred lines) the proven benefit and advantages of F1 Hybrid vigor.

The Winter Cluster

Any time the temperature drops to around 57 degrees Fahrenheit, bees in a hive collapse into a cluster.  The cluster is a well-defined ball of bees inside the hive.  The bees form their cluster around the brood, tightening together to generate and preserve heat.  As the temperature warms, the cluster expands; as the temperature cools, the cluster contracts.

Inside the cluster, the bees generate heat for the brood and interior bees.  They do this by a sort of shivering alongside the brood.  The bees repeatedly contract their powerful wing muscles, which generates warmth.  Further inside the cluster, bees continue to attend to their regular activities of eating, rearing brood, feeding the queen and the larvae, and moving about.

As the outside temperature drops, the bees remain in their cluster.  Eventually, in the heart of winter the bees inside the cluster will cease rearing brood.  While formed in a cluster, bees have little ability to move about the hive freely.  They have to stay close to the cluster to stay warm.  This is why it is nearly impossible to effectively feed bees with syrup when temperatures drop into the 50’s or below, as the bees cannot break free from the cluster to access the syrup.

This is also why, during times of prolonged cold temperatures, the bees need to have honey stored close to where they are clustering.  Colonies have been known to die of starvation even when honey is in their hive, because the honey that was available was located too far away from the clustering bees.

Wildflower Meadows would like to thank all of our friends and customers for a successful 2017.

We wish you all a happy and joyous holiday season!

What Are VSH (Varroa Sensitive Hygiene) Bees?

VSH (Varroa Sensitive Hygiene) is a trait in honeybees that enables a colony to survive without mite controls.  The VSH trait causes VSH hygienic behavior, which is the removal of mite-infested cells from the brood nest.  This VSH behavior serves as a natural and physical check on the varroa mites’ ability to reproduce and expand their population inside of a beehive.  VSH is not a unique race of bee, rather it is a behavioral trait that can be bred into any stock.  Wildflower Meadows produces VSH-Italian queen bees for sale, but any race of honeybee can express the varroa sensitive hygiene trait, such as Carniolan, Russian, Caucasian, etc.

The VSH trait is not necessarily linked with the overall performance of a beehive, rather it is only a measurement of mite resistance.  Bees that are 100% VSH can be very good colonies or very poor colonies, as other aspects of a colony’s performance, such as brood production, honey production or even temperament, are all independent of the VSH trait.

The VSH trait is an additive trait.  This means that varroa sensitive hygiene queens that are naturally mated to unselected drones will still produce the VSH trait in their offspring.  Even though the offspring may not have all of the VSH alleles (an allele is a variation of a given gene), a percentage of the VSH trait is passed on to the next generation, thus resulting in an improved level of mite resistance, which can sometimes even be equal to bees that have 100% of the VSH alleles.

VSH hygienic behavior is expressed on cells that have been capped for four to six days; in other words, young capped brood.  VSH bees will either pull or eat mite-infested pupae from the young brood cells, resulting in the death of the immature varroa mites that are present in the cells.

At Wildflower Meadows, our breeder queens contain 100% of the VSH alleles, which we insure through instrumental insemination by crossing 100% VSH queens with 100% VSH drones.  The offspring of these breeders naturally mate with our most desirable and productive VSH-Italian drones, resulting in Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen bees.