Urban Beekeeping

Most people consider beekeeping to be a rural pastime, but plenty of beekeepers successfully keep bees in cities or suburbs.  These brave individuals, known as urban beekeepers, face their own sets of challenges and rewards.

There are unique payoffs to urban beekeeping that traditional rural beekeepers simply can not obtain.  First, cities and suburbs feature abundant flower sources from multiple types of trees, shrubs and gardens.  Urban flower sources also tend to be largely impervious to drought or lack of rainfall, because homeowners and city governments rarely stop watering landscapes and gardens.

Let’s face it, almost every home or business has a flowering garden of some sort.  Plus, cities and suburbs are abundant with trees, many of which are well known to be excellent honey sources – elms, maples, and sourwood in the eastern US, tupelos and magnolias in the south, eucalyptus and willow in the west, mesquite in the desert, and an abundance of fruit trees nearly everywhere.  It only takes a few blooming trees to deliver an excellent source of nectar to an urban colony of bees.

Furthermore, in many urban areas, only a limited number of honeybees compete for those bountiful nectar sources.  Unlike in the countryside, cities and suburbs rarely feature giant apiaries of honeybees that compete for all of this excellent forage.  As a result, urban bees generally have a better ratio of honeybees to flowers than in the countryside.  That is why urban beekeepers almost always produce larger and more consistent honey crops than their rural counterparts; massive 200+ pound honey crops per colony are not uncommon in urban beekeeping.

The challenges of urban beekeeping, however, are obvious.  Close neighbors, strict zoning, and high liability immediately come to mind.

Of course, there are ways to mitigate these concerns.  If you are an urban beekeeper or plan on becoming one, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Out of sight, out of mind:

Stealth and secrecy is probably the most important consideration for an urban beekeeper.  In general, the less people who have any idea about your hobby, the better off you will be.  It only takes one overreacting neighbor to potentially shut down your entire endeavor.  Your beehives and your bees’ flight paths are best kept out of the sight (and minds) of the public.

Keeping your beehives surrounded by tall shrubs, fences or walls will assist you by not only hiding your colonies, but by also forcing your bees to fly high overhead rather than at ground level. This will keep their flight paths clear of people and out of the line of sight.  Keeping beehives on a rooftop also accomplishes the same.

Keep gentle bees:

Always keep known gentle races of bees and requeen them regularly so that the bees are of a known, gentle origin.

Watch out for powerful night lighting:

Bees, of course being insects that they are, can’t help but to fly into lights.  Nearby powerful night lighting can agitate beehives during the evening and keep individual foraging bees from properly orienting at dusk and dawn.

Think about your neighbors, and choose the best times to work your bees:

Obviously, it is best not to work your colonies when neighbors, children and pets are outside and nearby.  Extreme caution is always best.

Keep zoning in mind:

Always adhere to your county and city zoning requirements.

Don’t forget about water:

Bees need plenty of water.  Maintaining a nearby clean water source for the bees will keep your bees out of your neighbors’ swimming pools and fountains.

And, finally, share the love:

If nearby neighbors do know about your bees, a few jars of honey each year is a small price to pay toward keeping them on board with your hobby.  Sweeten the deal, and you will make some new friends in the process!

Migratory Beekeeping

Some of our largest customers at Wildflower Meadows are migratory beekeepers.  Migratory beekeepers in the United States begin each new year in California pollinating almonds.  After that their paths diverge.  Some move their bees to orange groves to produce orange blossom honey.  Other beekeepers continue on to Oregon and Washington to pollinate cherries, cranberries, and apples.  By summer, many of these same beekeepers can be found in the Great Plains producing clover honey.  In the fall and winter, most of these very same beekeepers move their bees to warmer climates, like these here in Southern California, for over-wintering.

What makes all this possible is the existence of the vast United States interstate highway system, the availability of large flatbed trucks, and forklifts.  Migratory beekeepers keep their bees on pallets, usually four to a pallet – most usually known as “four-ways.”  The pallet doubles as a bottom board for the colonies, each of which are held in place by clips.  When it comes time to move the bees, the beekeeper can easily pick up a pallet of four colonies at a single time with a forklift.  Giant 18-wheel flatbed trucks are loaded with upwards of 400 colonies each.  Depending on the distance of the move, the load is netted down, and the truckers head on their way to more abundant pastures.

While migratory beekeeping benefits the bees in certain ways – the bees always find themselves in the midst of flowering crops or fields – it is hard on them in other ways.  The constant moving can lead to stress, which can result in queen losses.  And, keeping bees on pallets and in close quarters is not necessarily ideal because it can lead to the spread of mites and diseases.

Migratory beekeeping can also be hard on the beekeepers, who spend large amounts of the year away from home and family.  The life of a migratory beekeeper features many days on the road, staying in cheap hotels, eating fast food, and almost all of the of time worrying about planning and logistics.

Despite all this hardship, not enough praise can be offered to these brave beekeepers, and the contributions that they make to our food supply.  Without migratory beekeepers and their invaluable pollination services, our crops would suffer greatly – and we would too.  Migratory beekeepers are among the true heroes of beekeeping!

Photo courtesy of Allen’s Honey Company, Brawley, California, pollinators of almonds, melons, alfalfa and countless vegetable seed crops.

Optimum genetics

Italian Queen Bees

Italian queen bees make up the heart of the American beekeeping industry.  They are well known for their gentle disposition, abundant brood production, and the excellent foraging abilities of their workers.

Originating in the Apennine Peninsula of (obviously) Italy, Italian queen bees were originally introduced into the United States in the late 1850’s.  As they say, “the rest is history.”  Up until the introduction of Italian queen bees, American beekeepers favored the German honeybee, which was darker, less resistant to disease, and aggressive.  Who wouldn’t prefer the pleasant qualities of the Italian honeybees to that?  Sure enough, given their genetic advantages of solid brood production, excellent foraging, and gentleness, Italian queen honeybees and their respective Italian bees, have been a staple of American beekeeping ever since.

While by far the most popular race of bees in US beekeeping, Italian queen bees are not perfect.  Some of their strengths are also the root of their weaknesses.  Their continuous brood production can sometimes result in the overshooting of their optimal population, especially once a honey flow comes to an end.  Sometimes, Italian queens may overproduce brood during times of dearth and cold weather, which can lead to a greater need for supplemental feeding of the colony.  If ignored by the beekeeper during these times of dearth, Italian honeybees can overshoot their optimal population and then become susceptible to starvation.

In recent years, with the ever-increasing demands of the California almond pollination, Italian queen bees have become even more vital to the United States beekeeping industry.  Pollination of almonds takes place in early to mid-February each year, and requires upwards of two thirds of the entire US bee population to successfully pollinate a single year’s almond crop!  Obviously, February is an especially early time of year for a typical honeybee colony to be up to the level of strength of field force necessary to pollinate a commercial crop.  Thus, enter the Italian queen bee!

The Italian queen bee doesn’t care what time of year it is, as she is always ready to lay more brood!  It is no wonder that the vast majority of commercial beekeepers who pollinate almonds select Italian queen bees for their operations.

At Wildflower Meadows, we too have come to love and respect the venerable Italian queen bee and her wonderful traits.  All of our VSH queen bees are crossed with Italian stock to create our Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen bees.

Artificial Insemination Of VSH Queen Honeybees

It is surprising to us that the majority of queen breeders do not take advantage of the well-known and long-established tool of artificial insemination.  Even more surprising is that most queen breeders choose to ignore the proven advantages of directly adding the VSH trait to their breeder stock.  By ignoring the valuable tool of artificial insemination and the VSH trait, many queen breeders select stock relatively haphazardly with little or no knowledge of the source of the drones that influence not only the behavior of the breeder queens themselves, but also of the daughter queens that end up being sold to the public throughout the season.

Artificial insemination has been utilized by livestock breeders of farm animals for nearly 70 years, and has been available to queen honeybee breeders for nearly as long.  Its advantages are obvious and many, especially when it comes to honeybees, which naturally mate with multiple unknown drones in an uncontrolled environment (the sky).  Artificial insemination allows a conscientious queen breeder to control mating and to mate specific drones to specific queens.  This enables the breeder to directly select the desired genetic traits in the offspring, such as the VSH trait, gentleness traits, honey production, disease resistance and color.  Without artificial insemination, a queen breeder has no first-hand knowledge of the genetics in the breeder queen that are being passed along to the next several generations.

At Wildflower Meadows, all of our breeder queens are artificially inseminated with hand-selected VSH drones from proven, gentle and highly productive colonies.  This provides the core genetic footprint of our operation and allows us to continue to build and improve the Wildflower Meadows brand of VSH-Italian queen bees with each successive generation.

In the above photo Tom Glenn, legendary VSH queen breeder, artificially inseminates a Wildflower Meadows’ champion breeder queen.

Winter Bees

As winter approaches, bringing shorter days and cooler weather, the activity inside a beehive changes.  The hive recognizes the coming onset of winter and the queen slows her brood production, eventually bringing it to a complete halt.  Drone production completely stops, and any remaining drones are often kicked out of the colony and left to die.

By the time winter arrives, all that will be left inside the hive is a cluster of bees consisting of a queen and worker bees.  These overwintering worker bees are actually physiologically different from the typical mid-season honeybees; they are known as “winter bees.”

Winter bees are different from typical worker bees in that they have a lifespan of about six months, whereas typical worker bees only live about six weeks.  Winter bees need to live this long, because with no new brood in the pipeline during winter, the colony would completely die if none of the worker bees lasted more than six weeks.  To increase their longevity, winter bees maintain larger intrinsic protein stores.  In other words, they store extra protein inside their bodies.  They also have higher body fat and vitellogenin than worker bees (vitellogenin is a source of nutrients that honeybees use to produce feed for larvae).

Winter bees are typically raised during September or October, give or take, depending on the particular climate of the area.  They are usually last of the brood that a colony produces in the autumn.  This is why it is important that a conscientious beekeeper needs to make sure that a colony is well fed with pollen or pollen substitute heading into the autumn and winter.  Not only do the winter bees themselves need to be healthy and strong, but the last set of regular worker bees also needs to be healthy and strong, because they are the ones who will feed the winter bees when they are still larvae.

Interestingly, once the winter bees make it through the winter and the colony heads into the new season, some of the old winter bees need to temporarily take on the role of nurse bees to the first round of brood in the spring.  Why?  By the end of winter there are no young bees remaining in the colony!  This is the only time in a colony’s life where six-month old bees have to assume the responsibility of what is normally handled by six-day old bees.

Wildflower Meadows would like to thank all of our friends and customers for a successful 2018.

We wish you all a happy and joyous holiday season!

Commercial Beekeeping And Winter Losses

For commercial beekeepers, probably their single greatest concern is managing their winter losses and keeping them to a minimum.  Winter losses cut into profits in several ways.  First, losing colonies in the winter results in fewer colonies being available in February to rent out at the height of pollination season.  Also, replacing losses requires that the beekeeper split strong colonies to make new colonies just when honey-making season gets underway in April.  This cuts into spring honey production, because it is the strongest colonies that make the most honey.

A certain amount of winter losses are normal.  In general 10% is more than reasonable, and would be considered a good outcome.  Twenty-percent losses, although not ideal, is what many beekeepers consider the “new normal,” and is also reasonable.  When losses grow beyond these levels, they can become damaging, and at higher levels potentially catastrophic.

Knowing that a certain percentage of losses are normal and to be expected, commercial beekeepers try to head into winter with a surplus of bees – an extra 20% give or take – to absorb the losses and come out even, more or less, in the spring.  Many astute commercial beekeepers begin building a cushion in the late summer or fall, creating extra colonies to boost numbers heading into the winter.

Hobby and small-scale beekeepers can learn something from this strategy.  Building a few extra surplus colonies heading into the winter covers the inevitable losses that occur every season, and enable the beekeeper to get off to a strong start once the new spring gets underway.

Pesticides

One of the most horrifying sites a beekeeper can face is to find a once thriving colony debilitated or killed by exposure to pesticides.  The telltale sign of a pesticide kill is what looks like a “carpet” of dead bees in front of the entrance.  Sometimes, in the worst kills, the affected bees die off so quickly that the hive cannot even deal with the die-off, and a pile of dead bees accumulates at the bottom of the hive or right at the entrance.

Pesticide kills are not unique to any specific kind of beekeeper.  Hobbyist and backyard beekeepers can suffer from kills when nearby neighbors apply insecticides to their flower or vegetable gardens.  Commercial beekeepers suffer when pesticides are applied to nearby crops.  Even commercial beekeepers that keep their bees in organic farms or groves or away from spray zones can still be affected when a nearby commercial farm sprays crops that are close enough for the bees to reach by their normal foraging.  And, all beekeepers can be affected if toxins enter a water source from which the bees are drinking.

When foragers carry pesticide-laden pollen or nectar back to the hive, disaster ensues.  Depending on the dosage, bees become sick or die.  If the exposure is severe enough, not only is the colony of bees lost, but also the honeycomb becomes contaminated and needs to be disposed of.

It is never a wise decision to reuse contaminated equipment.  After such a kill, a conscientious beekeeper should eliminate any affected honeycomb, lest it be accidentally transferred to a healthy colony and cause more unnecessary damage.  The beekeeper also needs to consider whether he or she can prevent this from happening again.  If not, then the apiary may not be worth keeping, and it may be necessary to move on to another safer location.

The Beekeepers’ Convention

November is a fine time of the year to step back from the daily rigors of beekeeping and get a glimpse of the big picture.

Whether meeting in small clubs or large state or national organizations, it is easy to see that beekeepers are a naturally friendly group; they like to arrange get-togethers to share notes, learn new ideas, get a feel for what’s new, and socialize with their like-minded cohorts.

Annual conventions are run by all the major beekeeping associations, such as the American Beekeeping Federation, The American Honey Producers’ Association, and, here in California, The California Beekeepers’ Association.  Pictured above is a scene from last year’s California convention in Lake Tahoe, which featured over 1,000 guests and countless exhibitors.

The convention usually includes several days of industry-leading speakers, typically from the large agriculturally-minded universities, such as University of California – Davis, Washington State University and others, as well as break-out groups, special research luncheons, raffles, door prizes and of course, exhibitors.

It is always enjoyable to walk through the maze of exhibitors, which typically consist of the usual mix of beekeeping supply companies, nutrition supplement companies, “save the bees” organizations, and even insurance salespeople.  All of these groups, however, are critical to the success of the beekeeping industry, and nearly all have valuable offerings.

The best part of the state and national conventions is for beekeepers like us to have the opportunity to meet many of our customers face-to-face, and to spend some very rare leisure time catching up with our beekeeping friends!

Quit Badgering Our Bees!

Badgers and Honeybees

At Wildflower Meadows, we are fortunate that we do not experience many predators of our beehives.  Bears do not roam in our part of California.  Our worst nuisances are usually ants, which harass weak colonies.  Varroa mites are not much of an issue for us either due to the strong VSH trait in our bees.  Occasionally we sometimes find roadrunners hanging around the entrances of our colonies, picking off bees as they come in and out of the entrances, but otherwise they too are harmless.  Compared to other beekeepers, in general, we do not have much to worry about in the way of predators.

This week, however, we were surprised to find one of our queen bee mating yards in disarray.

 

When our crew arrived for routine feeding they immediately saw that several of our mating nucs had been tossed about like they were Frisbees.  Lids and frames were torn off, and the mini mating frames were completely ripped out of the hives.  The bees were gone, either having been eaten or absconded.  It was obviously the work of a strong animal with a taste for bees and honeycomb.

After a little investigative work, it wasn’t hard to come to the conclusion that a hungry badger had attacked our colonies!  The footprints and size of the claw marks on the boxes were a give-away.  We noticed that dirt had been sprayed around the destroyed boxes, offering a clue that a ground animal was involved.  Finally, a phone call to the land manager revealed that badgers had been spotted in the area.

The American Badger is commonly found in the rural areas of Southern California, particularly near water sources.  They are nocturnal and carnivorous with a taste for bees and honey.  Although this sounds completely bad from a beekeeper’s point of view, they do provide benefits to the ecosystem around an apiary.  First, along with the roadrunners, they eat rattlesnakes!  We can’t complain about that.  And, since they are ground animals, badgers also dig up wasp nests, which provides a natural control on another bee predator.

Nevertheless, with this attack we are facing a real problem.  The only natural deterrent we have are the bees themselves.  Our bees are known to be gentle, but in this case they really need to stop being such little angels!  If they can’t sting the badger enough to deter it, and the badger returns for another feast, we are going to have to get involved and help our bees.  Our first step will be to erect fencing around the apiary.  Hopefully, we will not have to electrify it.  But, we beekeepers well know that when it comes to both bears and hungry humans, once something (or someone) gets a taste for fresh honey, it is hard to break the habit!

Ants

Because varroa mites, and to a lesser degree, tracheal mites, are such a steady danger to honeybee health, they garner much of the attention of the beekeeping world.

Beekeepers seems to rarely mention ants, but the presence of ants can sometimes be a huge nuisance – especially here in Southern California.  During the late summer and early fall when ant populations are at their peak and bee populations are beginning to decline, relentless rows and rows of ants march through apiaries on their way towards vulnerable beehives, seeking prized honey and pollen.

Fortunately, for the most part, bees are able to fight off the onslaught.  Guard bees frantically patrol the openings to the hive, chasing ants away one at a time.  Most of the time, the bees are able to hold their own and keep the ants at bay.  One of the best ways that a beekeeper can provide support to a colony that is struggling with ants is to place the colony on a hive stand.  The legs of the stand can then be placed in cups of vegetable oil, providing a natural and effective barrier against ant invasions.

Without protection, sometimes the ants can get the upper hand on a weak colonies.  Unchecked, ants can force even a strong colony to abscond – a sad and tragic sight for any beekeeper.