Do Honeybees Fly at Night?

Honeybees can, and do, fly at night provided there is light.  If one shines a bright light upon a colony, the bees, both young and old, will wake up and fly out to investigate the disturbance.  Bees, like all insects, instinctively fly into bright lights at night.  However, in a normal, typical dark night, honeybees struggle to navigate and instinctively desire to instead “hang out” at the hive.

Most of us know that honeybees return to the hive at nightfall.  The usual nighttime bee activities include keeping the hive warm, cleaning up debris, processing the day’s nectar, pollen, and/or syrup collection, and of course, sleeping.  Yes, honeybees do sleep at night!  The foragers, tired out from their long day seeking nectar and pollen, tend to sleep for longer spells, whereas the younger bees sleep for shorter periods.  This enables the youngest bees to be active for portions of the night, when they take care of the necessary housekeeping activities that keep the hive healthy and productive.  On the other hand, the foraging bees need to work all day, so they take much of the nighttime to sleep.

Sometimes a foraging bee will get caught up in all of its exciting daytime work and lose track of time.  The poor bee may look up and face the harsh reality that it is now too late to make it home before nightfall.  When there is not enough light to safely fly, the bee will have to land someplace comfortable and try to endure the night alone.  In the summer months, this is usually not a problem.  In late autumn, however, a situation like this can be fatal.

Believe it or not, certain species of bees, primarily in tropical areas, do the majority of their flying at night!  These special kinds of bees have evolved to take advantage of species of flowers that bloom only at night.  They are night pollinators.  For us beekeepers, however, it is a good thing that our honeybees don’t like to fly at night.  Otherwise, it would be nearly impossible to find a good time to move the bees or to find any downtime for us humans!

Small Hive Beetles

In the world of beekeeping, there seems to be no end to pests and adversity for both bees and beekeepers alike. Here at Wildflower Meadows, it seems to us that exotic pests and parasites really took hold in American beekeeping sometime during the late 1990s and early 2000s.  First came tracheal mites, then varroa mites, then African Bees.  Subsequently, at some point came colony collapse and along with it a multitude of exotic viruses that practically no one had heard of before – and virtually few still understand today.

In the midst of all this, it can be easy to forget about the small hive beetle, which arrived roughly around the same time. The small hive beetle, also known as the Aethina tumida, was first found in South Carolina in 1996 – though, it’s thought to originate from Southern Africa. A few years later, scientists discovered this new pest in Florida, where the beetles are believed to be responsible for killing thousands of honey bee colonies. Although it’s unclear exactly how the beetle made it to the United States (though public transport may be to blame), we do know that it has wreaked havoc ever since.

Beekeepers often see adult small hive beetles around the lid or bottom boards of colonies.  The adult hive beetles themselves are not much of a problem to beehives – they are really more of a nuisance.  While adult small hive beetles can be easily spotted by beekeepers and controlled by strong beehives, their disgusting larvae are actually much more dangerous and troublesome.

Adult beetles lay their eggs in the small cracks and gaps of a beehive.  When the subsequent larvae emerge, they track through the hive, eating honey, pollen, and pollen substitutes. As they burrow through the comb they defecate in the hive, which destroys and ferments honey.  This fermented honey becomes foamy and takes on the odor of rotten citrus fruit, often leaking from the comb and creating a horrible mess.

Many commercial beekeepers have come to refer to this revolting damage simply as “slime.” This mess can happen inside the hive or in the beekeeper’s stored equipment.  The potential damage of the small hive beetle larvae to the beekeeper is three-fold – loss of comb, loss of honey, and potentially loss of bees.

Not all beehives suffer from the presence of small hive beetles however.  Much of the time, strong colonies can control and corral the adult small hive beetles and limit their population inside the hive, thus limiting their egg-laying and subsequent larvae damage.  It is the weaker and less populous colonies that generally suffer from the small hive beetle.

Since these weaker colonies don’t have the strength of numbers to control the adult beetle population, they suffer the effects of too many larvae.  Conditions inside these hives can sometimes deteriorate past the point of no return, creating too much damage and fermented honey.  This can cause the bees in the hive to abscond, leaving nothing but a slimy mess inside the equipment.

At Wildflower Meadows, we first started noticing the occasional small hive beetle around 2012.  However, small hive beetles have never really gained a foothold in most areas of California, including ours – thankfully.   Around here, small hive beetles sometimes appear for a month or two during the wet season, never causing damage, then disappear for months, or sometimes years at a time.  If the small hive beetle has a vulnerability, it is that the larvae eventually must leave the hive to burrow in the ground and pupate. Here in California our ground is generally dry and hard for a long portion of the year, and the hive beetle larvae can’t flourish under these conditions. Thank goodness for our long, hot, and dry spells – no one here is complaining!

 

Why Honeybees Are Essential to Humankind

Are honeybees a fundamental part of our earth’s ecosystem?   The answer is a resounding “YES”, to say the least!  Not only are they one of the world’s largest pollinators, but they also contribute generously to our lives and well-being in many ways.

Before countless species of plant, flower, vegetable, or fruit can exist, pollination must first take place – it is the key factor for most things that grow. Pollination is a vital process where pollen from a male or female plant is introduced to a plant of the opposite sex to facilitate reproduction. The transfer of pollen initiates fertilization and the production of seeds, allowing plants to procreate.

Cross-pollination occurs in nature with the help of the wind and insects including honeybees – some hobbyists even pollinate manually, by hand, in certain situations. Honeybees, however, are not only one of the principal pollinators around the world, they’re also the most vital to our ecosystem.  For instance, a study by Nature Communications discovered that only 2% of the global bee species contributes to 80% of all bee visits to agricultural crops!

To put it simply – bees are powerhouse pollinators.  Without their participation in this vital process, trees wouldn’t flower, fruit, or produce nuts, many wildflowers wouldn’t bloom, and our farms’ crops would quickly diminish.  Much of the food we eat relies on preserving a healthy bee population to promote pollination and farming efforts, and our ever-growing population as human beings on this planet. In fact, bees are responsible for pollinating 70 of the 100 species of crops that we farm, which feeds 90% of our world’s population.

In addition to being a key source of prosperity for our agricultural crops, bees also produce a gooey, golden nectar that offers sustenance as well as several medicinal purposes – that’s right honey!  Of course, its inherently sweet flavor is perfect for toast, desserts, and a multitude of recipes, but we aren’t the only ones who think it’s delicious.  Many species of insects and animals also thrive on honey in the wild, which furthers the strength of the surrounding ecosystem and helps our planet thrive.

Honey isn’t just a delicious source of food though – it’s actually quite nutritious and is used widely used in holistic medicine as well as the beauty industry. Bees’ honey provides antioxidants, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory effects, and can be used topically as well.  Who would have thought that a multi-purpose, all-natural medicine could be produced by bees?!

While we understand that the value honeybees offer our planet is immeasurable, many people like to view things from a monetary value standpoint. It is a difficult concept to investigate, but wild bee populations contribute approximately $3,250 per hectare to crop production annually. Roughly that would equate to around $4.2 trillion provided to the global economy by busy little bees. It’s really no surprise that the “Save the Bee” movement has become a global effort, as it’s quite apparent that our planet and the existence of living plants, birds, animals, and human beings depend greatly on their survival.

When to Harvest Honey

Although there is no exact rule as to when to harvest honey, there are some general guidelines to consider that can help you maximize your honey harvest while also minimizing your impact on the bees.  In today’s day and age of declining bee populations, it is important to not only consider your immediate goal of collecting honey, but also the long-term effect on the colony.  Afterall, what good is a large honey harvest if the colony ends up in a stressed position that jeopardizes its ability to survive for the long haul going forward?

Based on our years of experience at Wildflower Meadows, we have found that it is generally ideal to harvest honey a little before the actual end of the honey flow – when the honey flow is approximately 80-90% complete.  By this point, most of the honey has been capped and is ready for harvest, but the bees are still actively foraging.  While the nectar flow is still on, the bees tend to be generally calm and focused on foraging rather than on the loss of their honey.  While the honey flow is still in effect, the bees still have an attitude of abundance and are less apt to rob.  Having that last bit of nectar still coming in during the honey harvest enables our beekeepers to work freely without much fear of robbing, while the bees themselves stay in a relatively peaceful state.

Another consideration is that during a honeyflow, honeybees typically build up their populations rapidly.  This rapid increase in population can also, unfortunately, lead to a similar rapid growth in the varroa mite population.  For beekeepers who monitor and treat their colonies for varroa, it is especially critical to monitor varroa populations during a strong honeyflow.  In certain colonies, the varroa levels can often get so excessive during a honeyflow that the beekeeper needs to intervene and treat before the actual end of the honeyflow.  Since many of the common varroa treatments require the absence of honey supers, sometimes the need for initiating a varroa treatment can in itself dictate the time for the honey harvest.  In this situation, the beekeeper has no choice but to remove the honey supers to begin addressing the varroa mite issue.

Finally, beekeepers should always look ahead to assess the prospects for the remainder of the season when deciding on the timing of the honey harvest.  If the major honey flow takes place early in the season, with a long stretch of dry, limited foraging ahead through the late summer and autumn (as is the case in much of California), it often can make sense to harvest honey earlier in the spring honeyflow – perhaps at the 60-70% mark.  This leaves a sizable percentage of honey available for the bees themselves, enabling them to pack their colony with a generous amount of their own future food.  This gives the bees a cushion of extra stores for any foraging scarcity that they may face later in the season.

How Often Should a Beekeeper Requeen?

While queen honeybees can theoretically live for up to five years, they rarely do. As queen bees age, their productivity declines. A three-year-old queen is generally less prolific than a two-year-old queen. Even a two-year-old queen can sometimes be less prolific than a queen who’s only one year old – which is why many beekeepers prefer to requeen annually.

Many beekeeping authorities recommend requeening colonies after a certain point in the queen’s life, usually after one year. The theory is that by replacing an older queen, a colony will be more robust and successful, due to a younger queen’s greater productivity. A younger queen creates a higher volume of bees than an older queen, which results in more bees for pollination and greater honey production, and also more bees for expanding colony counts.

Young queen bees also tend to have a stronger pheromone signature. When a young queen’s powerful pheromones are present, a beehive knows it has a quality, vigorous queen in hand. As a result, the colony sees little need to replace her. Likely for the same reason, colonies with younger queens are less likely to swarm than colonies with older queens. A young queen seems to set a beehive at ease and enable the bees in the hive to relax and focus on the business at hand.

Even though requeening annually has its benefits, there are equally strong arguments against this practice. The policy of requeening every colony, every year fails to consider the very real possibility that an existing queen may be a superstar with several years of performance left. What’s the benefit of replacing a proven winner with a new queen, that may or may not match the existing queen’s excellent performance?

Regular requeening can also become costly – in terms of both the cost of the new queen itself, as well as the time it takes to find and introduce a new queen each year. Plus, there is always the risk that the introduction of a new queen may not even be successful, leaving the colony without any queen at all!

At Wildflower Meadows, we believe it makes the most sense to consider each colony on a case-by-case basis. When deciding whether to requeen, it’s important to assess whether the existing queen is still laying a quality brood pattern. A queen on the decline in her later years will typically begin to show a “spotty” brood pattern, rather than the tight, circular brood pattern of a young, vigorous queen. Any queen with a consistently spotty brood pattern is always a candidate for requeening. Most queens that are more than two or three years old are also excellent candidates for requeening. Queens of that age are not far away from an almost certain drop-off in productivity, making requeening the best decision for maintaining a strong, productive hive.

Two Queens in a Hive

Most beekeepers know that a hive only contains a single queen. However, this isn’t necessarily always true. There are times when a colony may have two queens; and while it’s usually short-lived, the scenario probably happens more often than most beekeepers realize.

As we know, a queen bee releases pheromones to make the worker bees aware of her presence, and that she’s actively laying fertile eggs. As the queen ages, these pheromones naturally weaken, which lets the worker bees know it’s time to start the process of raising a new queen. Worker bees may plan to supersede an older queen when they notice a decline in her productivity as well.

An instance where a hive has multiple queens may occur when a new queen hatches while the old queen is still living. After a daughter hatches, one of the following scenarios will likely transpire – either the worker bees will kill the old queen, the two queens will fight to the death, or the hive will swarm. Unfortunately, there is no way for beekeepers to know how their hive will handle this situation, as there are a lot of factors in play.

More often than not, an old queen will not live long after a new queen has hatched. If the newly hatched queen doesn’t kill her, the worker bees themselves may do so. Worker bees will kill their old queen when they notice she’s consistently laying infertile eggs, and they’re comfortable that the new queen is mated and producing well.  A colony will typically prefer the newer and younger queen who, of the two, more often than not will have the stronger performance and pheromone signature.

However, if the older queen is still performing well, the worker bees may alternatively decide to separate the queens into different areas of the hive. This prevents the queens from killing one another and allows the hive to be temporarily more productive – at least until nature inevitably takes its course.

Many times, beekeepers fail to realize they are dealing with multiple queens.  Typically, when a beekeeper is requeening a colony, he or she will stop looking for a queen as soon as the old queen is spotted, not realizing there may actually be yet another queen in the colony.  This can be a challenge when beekeepers are actively trying to introduce a new high-quality queen they have purchased. If a beekeeper attempts to introduce a new queen, thinking the hive is queenless when it’s not, the colony will, unfortunately, almost certainly not accept the new queen – which will likely end in a failed queen installation.

How Far Should Beehives Be Placed from Your Home?

Whether you’re an avid beekeeper or a “newbee,” you’ve probably wondered where is the best spot to place your hive. If you’re planning to keep your beehive in your backyard and accessible from your home, there are definitely a few things you should consider. But just how close to your house can you put your hive?

The general rule is there should be a minimum of 4-feet behind and on either side of the hive, with a minimum of 25-feet of clearance at the entrance – but there’s really no cut-and-dry answer for this. In the end, most beekeepers – including us here at Wildflower Meadows – will say to use common sense and consider your personal situation.  Each home, property, and neighborhood are unique, and each will offer its own hurdles.   However, there are a few additional and critical aspects to consider when choosing where to place a beehive on your property.

Before you start searching for the perfect spot on your property, you should first make sure beekeeping is allowed where you live. Some cities and states may have zoning restrictions on beekeeping, or on the number of hives that are permitted on a property. Some homeowners’ associations and private neighborhoods may also have policies that pertain to beekeeping, so be sure to ask around before getting too far ahead in the process.

When choosing a hive site, it’s important to remember that while most honeybees are docile, some colonies can be more defensive than others. Even if you keep gentle bee stock, there are certain times of the year or situations where the temperament of the hive can be affected – adverse weather, excessive disturbances, or a pest infestation for example.  Keeping the entrance of your hive away from high traffic areas of your yard, or too close to the entrances of your home is best to avoid annoyances or stings.

Even though you’re a fan of bees, your friends, family members, or neighbors may not be as keen. A curious child or pet that wanders too close to the hive could alert worker bees – a situation you’d likely prefer to avoid.  To help keep the peace between your household and your beehive, it is best to keep the hive in an area away from children and high traffic areas of your outdoor space.

Foot traffic isn’t the only issue with residential beekeeping, vehicle traffic can pose problems to your colony too.  Windshields are unfortunately a popular bee graveyard.  While honeybees are known to fly miles away from their home to forage for nectar, they do need some space to reach a high altitude. Without any nearby obstacles, bees will generally require about 6 feet of linear space to gain 6 feet of altitude – similar to when a plane takes off on a runway.

Providing this amount of “runway” may not be ideal or available for you, so you might want to encourage your bees to gain altitude more rapidly by keeping your beehives surrounded by tall shrubs, fences or walls.   This will force your bees to reach altitude more rapidly, keeping them away from the ground level right from the start.  (Nevertheless, there are limitations to this strategy, and one must use common sense.  For example, if your home is more than two stories tall and your beehive’s entrance is placed too close to your home, one of two things can happen. Your bees will either need to expend more energy to fly up and over your home, or the bees will avoid flying in that direction altogether, limiting their foraging options.)   Of course, some beekeepers choose to place beehives on their rooftops, as it’s the easiest way to get bees flying at a higher altitude and away from human hazards.

Finally, no matter where you choose to place your hive, you will always also want to make sure that bees have access to a reliable and clean water source.

Avocado Blossom Honey

It may surprise you to know that there are over 300 types of honey produced by bees around the world, many of which are considered ‘specialty honey’ due to their rarity. Avocado blossom honey is specialty honey that not many people have heard of – but those that have love it!

There’s a very valid reason why avocado blossom honey is difficult to find; and it all comes down to avocado production. Since avocados must be grown in tropical or semi-tropical climates, they are found in only a few places worldwide, including Mexico, Australia, and parts of Central America and California. Southern California has become of the most popular states for avocado production in the US with the increased popularity of avocados. While this increase has been excellent news for avocado farmers over the last few years, keeping up with demand can be a challenge.

Avocado blossoms flower sometime between April and May, which is a very busy time for bees. There are plenty of delicious foraging options during the spring months in California – everything from wildflowers to macadamia, orange blossoms, and other sweet-smelling fruit. Unfortunately for avocado farmers, mature honeybees sometimes tend to steer clear of avocado blossoms due to the blossoms’ high potassium and phosphorus contents. Farmers have adapted by placing hives strategically within their crop grounds – but still, it’s difficult to harvest pure avocado honey, as bees are likely to venture to nearby orchards.

Surprisingly to many, the taste of this honey doesn’t resemble an avocado at all – though, some do say the texture is similar. Avocado honey is quite sweet, with a thick, creamy, almost buttery texture. It can be easily distinguished from other honey by its rich, dark amber color, similar to that of buckwheat honey.  Although the flavor is more intense than common wildflower honey, it is not at all bitter like some of the other darker honey varietals.

Many people compare the consistency of avocado blossom honey to molasses or cane syrup, and it’s actually the perfect substitute for either. As with most other types of honey, it can be used as a healthy alternative to white sugar in baked goods, or any other recipe for that matter – just keep in mind that color may be affected if that’s a concern! The creamy texture of avocado honey makes it the perfect topping for bread or toast, or an interesting addition to any sauce, dressing, or marinade. The possibilities are endless with a little creativity.

What Makes a Quality Queen Honeybee?

Of all the bees in the hive, the queen is by far the most important member of the colony.  Without her, the colony is certain to perish. The colony will likely thrive with a well-mated queen, but the extent of her success is partially dependent on the quality of the genetics of the queen bee herself.

What makes a quality queen bee? The answer to this question is actually two-fold. Unlike a worker bee, a queen honeybee must be graded on two scales – her own performance, as well as the performance of her offspring. She is graded on these two entirely separate criteria.

The queen bee’s performance is measured by her brood production. A quality queen honeybee needs to lay the right amount of brood at the right time of year, all in a consistent and tight brood pattern. By consistently laying eggs in a tight pattern, a well-performing queen efficiently utilizes her brood space and keeps a good, healthy, and uniform production of new worker bees. Her egg laying should be prolific when it matters and lighten up during the offseason, or during times of drought. She should be well-mated, healthy, and long-lived, giving off plenty of quality queen pheromone, to let bees in the hive know that she is present and getting the job done.

What’s unique about queen honeybees, however, is that their worth is not only measured in their own performance, but also in the performance of their offspring. While a queen needs to be healthy and productive, it is perhaps more important that she produce offspring who perform well. What good is a queen that demonstrates excellent performance, but produces offspring that is ill-tempered, or of poor quality in their own right?

A quality queen bee must carry and deliver quality genetics to her offspring. It is her offspring that will achieve a successful beehive after all. If the worker bees are not of quality stock, the entire colony will suffer – which is why the right genetics are so critical in queen honeybee breeding.  A quality queen will pass along desired genetic traits known as “phenotypes” to her worker bee daughters, such as disease resistance, temperament, honey production, early season buildup, low swarming tendencies, color, etc.

At Wildflower Meadows our focus also needs to be two-fold. We take every step possible to make sure the queens we sell are well-mated and excellent performers. Of course, equally important, we constantly strive to breed and select queens that carry the optimum genetics. We want each of the worker bees in the hive to perform at their best possible level, meeting the standards of excellence that both we and our customers demand.

How Does a Bee Become a Queen Bee?

When we raise queens here at Wildflower Meadows, we start the process by grafting worker larvae from our breeder queens.  This procedure transfers the genetic material from our champion breeder queens to our cell building colonies, that will raise the queens which we sell year-round.

Did you happen to catch the words “worker larvae?” Isn’t it strange that the same larvae that were once destined to become worker bees, can be redirected into becoming queen bees? An individual fertilized larva contains the genetic material to become either a worker bee or a queen bee. What happens is that the bees themselves do a sort of genetic modification to the larva, depending on their desired outcome.

When we place these worker larvae into one of our powerful cell-building colonies, the colonies are already strong and queenless. They have a high motivation to develop queens. So, how does a beehive change the course of development of worker larvae to become queen larvae when all the larvae originates from the same source?

Scientists and beekeepers have been asking this question for ages. An obvious clue to the answer lies in the different diets of these two types of honeybees. Queen bee larvae are fed royal jelly, whereas worker bee larvae are fed worker jelly.  There seems to be no other variable to explain the change in development. Yet, how does diet trigger certain genes to be activated?

For many years, scientists and beekeepers have assumed that because a queen larva is fed royal jelly, the trigger to queen development must lie within the royal jelly itself. In fact, most scientists always assumed that there was some magical ingredient within royal jelly that initiates the genetic modification, triggering fertility, and queueing the development of ovaries, etc.

We now know that this is not entirely true.

While it is certainly diet that determines a larva’s development, scientists have discovered there’s no magical ingredient in royal jelly which triggers queen development. It’s actually the diet of the workers that is suppressing queen development!

Worker bee jelly, unlike royal jelly, contains pollen and honey. Pollen and honey, being directly derived from plants, contain plant materials known as phenolic acids, or flavonoids. These phenolic acids deactivate the genes responsible for developing ovaries and reproductive systems. In other words, these phenolic acids suppress queen development in workers.

Royal jelly, on the other hand, is entirely a secretion of bees.  It is a pure bee product that does not contain any plant product – it is completely, 100%, devoid of phenolic acids. The absence of phenolic acids allows a queen bee to fully activate her reproductive genes and completely develop her robust reproductive system.

How efficient is it that honeybees have developed such an amazing way of raising two very different types of bees from the same source? Think of how much more complicated a beehive would be if the bees required different genetic larvae for both workers and queens. By performing this genetic modification on the same source, honeybees have developed an elegant solution for raising queen bees on demand!