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.

 

 

Variety in Beekeeping

Most new beekeepers will quickly discover that there seem to be as many ways to keep bees as there are beekeepers that keep them!  In terms of equipment, beekeepers can choose from using Langstroth hives, top bar hives, Flow Hives, big hives, small hives, deep honey supers, small honey supers, and not to mention the various systems for making comb honey, etc.

Even beekeeping methodology differs from beekeeper to beekeeper.  Some beekeepers requeen in the spring, others requeen in the late summer or fall, and some not at all.  Some beekeepers keep Italian stock, and others prefer Russian or Carniolan stock.  The list of these kinds of variables runs deep and seems to never end.  Perhaps it is the possibility of all these options that creates some of the joy in beekeeping.  Beekeeping is a rather freewheeling affair.  In beekeeping, experimentation is the rule and not the exception!

It is the availability of all these options that creates the opportunity for learning.  Once a beekeeper gains experience in the basics of beekeeping, a whole world of learning opportunities open up. We beekeeping adventurers encourage all beekeepers to step away from the routine from time to time; try new systems, try new methods, and see where their discoveries lead them.

Say Hello To “Wheels”

We imagine that some beekeepers fall in love with certain queens and even go so far as to name them.  At Wildflower Meadows, this is completely out of the question since we keep far too many colonies to be able to name individual queens!  Plus, queens are constantly coming and going as we prepare our weekly shipments of queen bees for sale.

Once in a while, however, a queen stands apart from the rest.  We once had an artificially inseminated breeder queen who was missing an antenna, but in fact turned out to be Wildflower Meadows’ best breeder queen of 2011.  Naturally, she was named “Antoinette,” and became a legend for several years.

This year, another legend was born.  Her name is “Wheels.”

Wheels originally had no name.  At first she was just one of nearly a thousand queens that we shipped during the last week of May.  A customer purchased her, and the queen’s destination was a remote UPS Customer Center in Eastern New Mexico.  The customer was planning to pick up the queen early in the week.  But by Friday, the UPS tracking number showed that the queen was still waiting at the customer center.  UPS had been calling the customer several times a day throughout the week to ask her to come and retrieve her queen, but with no success.  It seems the customer was nowhere to be found and the queen had been completely abandoned, an orphan of sorts.

We didn’t have the heart to let her die such a pointless death, so we arranged with UPS to ship her back to Wildflower Meadows.  But by then, however, UPS was shutting down for the Memorial Day weekend.  UPS thought that they might be able to get her back to us by Saturday, so she was expressed back to the airport in Albuquerque, and then overnighted to California.  We then sent an employee 40 miles into San Diego on Saturday to retrieve her!

Unfortunately, she never arrived.

Then Memorial Day came. Would she survive such a lengthy delay?  A week is a long time for a queen to last without water.  She urgently needed to be placed inside of a colony that could take care of her and attend to her every need.

However, after what seemed like a long Memorial Day holiday, and another 40 miles into San Diego, on Tuesday she arrived!  Tired and thirsty, she required several drops of water at the UPS Customer Center just to revive her strength.  She was then driven back to Wildflower Meadows and installed into a queenless colony.  And then, we all just hoped for the best.

It turns out she’s just fine.  With all the traveling, she was naturally named Wheels.  She is a great Wildflower Meadows’ queen: an abundant brood layer, her offspring are golden and gentle, and Varroa mites are nowhere to be found in her colony.  Naturally, Wheels is now one of our favorite queens, and also one of this year’s top performers!

Fire Season

August typically falls in the center of the summer “fire season” in California.  After months of dry weather and relentless heat, chaparral turns to tinder.  And as we have seen in the news, it doesn’t take much to turn acres of dry brush into an unstoppable inferno.

Fire recently overtook one of Wildflower Meadows’ apiaries.  Fortunately, our loss was minimal, with all but one colony surviving.  Thanks to the encouragement of our local county bee inspectors, who had instructed us to maintain good weed control around our apiaries, we had previously trimmed away all of the brush and weeds, and created natural firebreaks around all of our apiaries.  That, plus the determined efforts of Cal Fire, enabled the fire to pass directly over and around the apiary without causing significant damage.

 

When we arrived at the apiary, the entire area nearby was still smoldering.  The fire destroyed the surrounding avocado grove, with ash everywhere.  We really couldn’t even access our colonies because the firefighters had sprayed so much water onto the colonies that the ground beneath them had turned into a swamp of mud and ash!

When a fire approaches an apiary, the heavy smoke causes the bees to retreat into their colonies and load their bellies with honey in preparation to abscond.  This is the same effect that a beekeeper simulates by smoking a colony in a normal hive inspection.  (This behavior is somewhat analogous to humans, who when facing an impending fire, run into their homes to gather their precious belongings before evacuating.)

In a normal fire situation, the bees might have absconded as the flames and heat rapidly overtook the area.  However, due to the deluge of water from the firefighters, the bees really had no choice but to stay put inside the hives.  The water kept them cool and safe, and somewhat locked in.

The bees themselves seemed to survive without any problems.  When we later inspected the colonies the bees were both calm and strong.  The firefighters reported that the bees were “well behaved” and gentle, never harassing any of the firefighting crews as they made repeated return visits to the area.  Perhaps they were appreciative, like us, of the brave efforts of the firefighters to save them.  We rewarded each colony with a gallon of syrup and a pollen substitute patty.

Unfortunately, however, one colony did not survive.

When a colony catches fire, it quickly becomes an inferno of wax and wood.  The air space between the frames doesn’t help either, as it enables the fire to gain a steady flow of oxygen.  By the time a fire finishes its work on a colony, typically all that remains is a pile of ash and nails.  If you look closely at the above photo, you can see the remnants of our screened bottom board.

We would like to take this opportunity to issue a special thank you to the firefighters of Cal Fire, particularly to the bee-loving crew who saved our apiary!



 

The Summer Dearth

Nearly all regions in the United States reach a point, usually in late summer, where a nectar dearth occurs.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, our dearth typically begins in early August, after the last sumac flowers dry up.  The dearth period can vary from year to year, but at some point it is guaranteed to happen.

At the beginning of a dearth, bee colonies are susceptible to a number of health risks, chief of which is nutrition.  Honeybees, in general, do a poor job in preparing for dearth.  When times are good, the queen lays as much brood as possible.  However, most queen bees rarely anticipate that the good times will end.  It is only after the nectar dries up that the queen slows or ceases her abundant egg laying.  As a result, bee colonies nearly always overshoot their populations during times of abundance.  At the onset of dearth, the colony population is typically huge, with even more brood in the pipeline.  This creates immediate nutrition stress.

If a beekeeper fails to support the colony at the onset of dearth with supplemental feeding, particularly of pollen supplement patties, this nutrition stress can lead to poor quality bees not only in the current generation of bees, but in the next generation.  Poorly nourished nurse bees can lead to poorly nourished larvae, and so on.

Another danger to the colony at the onset of dearth is a potential drop in queen pheromone.  Researchers who measure queen pheromone in colonies note that the presence of this pheromone is not consistent over the course of a year, but rather fluctuates, often rising with the presence of abundant conditions, and declining during dearth.  As a result, queen supercedure is more apt to occur during dearth than abundance.

As a conscientious beekeeper, you should always have an idea as to when the dearth periods occur in your region, and prepare your colonies for them.

 

The Zen of Beekeeping

For a beginning beekeeper, opening a hive for the first few times can be somewhat overwhelming – and downright scary!  There are all those bees in there.  They have stingers.  What if they get angry???  Then there is all of the unfamiliar gear: a veil or suit, big gloves, and a new hive tool.  It can all be a bit overwhelming and cause a beginning beekeeper to feel quite anxious.

This nervousness almost certainly makes matters worse.  While it is hard to say for certain whether bees can intrinsically sense this unease, they most certainly do sense unsteady and jerky movements.  Bees do not like these kinds of rapid or rushed actions.  They especially do not like any kind of rough treatment.  For an experienced beekeeper, swatting at bees, darting about, dropping things, and banging things are all completely out of the question.

Beekeepers need to be relaxed and calm around their bees.  If you are nervous as a beginner, you need do your best to pretend that you are calm.  (“Fake it until you make it!”).  Bees are sensitive creatures.  If you move carefully and calmly, treating them with peace and respect, they will return the favor.  One of the joys of keeping bees is the opportunity to get in touch with and to give respect to the magnificent sense of peace and purpose that is in the heart of every beehive.

When things are going right, and you are moving comfortably in a relaxed manner around the hive, the bees will appear to welcome you as an honorary member of their world.  That’s when you know you have entered the The Zen of Beekeeping.

A Giant Colony of Honeybees

Once in a while, when everything is going right a beehive can grow to ridiculous proportions.  If the colony has a young, strong-laying queen, lots of space, a perfect flow of honey and pollen, and little competition from other colonies, there is no telling how large a colony can grow!  We have seen and heard stories of some of our customers’ colonies growing up to five and six stories high with honey throughout.

While exciting to behold, a giant colony is not always desirable and can sometimes be too much of a good thing, especially for small-scale beekeepers.  Why?  First, such a large colony, even if completely gentle, can be damaging for one’s relations with neighbors!  What makes a large colony so successful in honey production is that its high overall population leads to a large number of bees coming and going to forage.  While a few bees coming and going out of someone’s back yard can seem like part of the natural environment, unfortunately, clouds of bees in one’s backyard has the potential to become a public relations disaster.  Large foraging populations inevitably lead to bees landing in swimming pools, fecal droppings on neighbors’ cars, greater risks of accidental stings, and of course the possibility of giant swarming events.  The conscientious beekeeper should always minimize these concerns as much as possible.

Smaller colonies, while still able to produce honey, have several advantages over larger colonies.  First, they can be kept more discreetly.  Second, they make for easier management because they weigh less and take up less equipment.  Also, for routine inspections and finding the queen, a small colony will always be easier to inspect.

 

 

Summer Solstice

As the sun reaches its most northerly position relative to the earth, the bees also reach their maximum strength.  The summer solstice, which occurs on June 21st, brings the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  It also marks a delineation between the two broad seasons in the year of a beehive:  the season of expansion and the season of contraction.

During the period prior to the summer solstice, honeybees are generally expanding their population, growing in anticipation of the longer days and the late spring and summer nectar flows.  Bees are highly sensitive to the patterns of the sun.  Not only is their navigation system based on the daily position of the sun, but they also respond to the lengthening and shortening of days by adjusting their populations accordingly.  Their proclivity to expand their populations is, to a large degree, based on the length of daylight.

Within several weeks after the sun reaches its maximum strength, honeybees begin to sense the shortening days.  This change roughly marks the transition from the season of expansion to the season of contraction.  By mid to late summer, due to the shortening days, most queen bees will have cut back on their brood laying, which will result in the beginning of the seasonal decline in bee populations.

The Inspectors

As June arrives and the beekeeping season reaches its peak, we begin to think about our annual county beekeeping inspection, which is right around the corner.  Above is a photo that we took from last year’s inspection.

Our county beekeeping inspectors arrive in mid-summer in full force; armed with the latest beekeeping technology, multi-layered beekeeping suits, range-finding binoculars, foulbrood inspection kits, and carrying checklists that seem to be miles long.  They ask questions such as, “Where is the water source in this apiary?  How many colonies do you have here?  How close is the nearest residence?  What fire prevention steps are you taking, etc.?  These questions can go on and on, lasting the better part of a morning.

Of course, the inspectors have to live up to their title, and also inspect actual bee colonies for evidence of foul brood, varroa mites, viruses, diseases, colony temperament, and so on.  At Wildflower Meadows, we have few concerns with third-party colony inspections, since as queen breeders, we regularly do the same inspections, and are hyper-vigilant in guarding against diseases.  It is our job to regularly monitor the health and temperament of our own colonies, and we take this responsibility seriously.

Sometimes, however, the thoroughness and breadth of the inspectors’ checklists catches us off guard.  We were written up last year for not sufficiently trimming the weeds in an access road leading up to one of our apiaries.  We wrote about weed trimming last year, when we mentioned how beekeepers are sometimes hesitant to remove pollen sources from around the bees.  We are no different:  flowering weeds are precious pollen sources, and like many beekeepers, it breaks our heart to be forced to remove them!  The inspectors, however, in their quest for fire prevention (which obviously is very important in California) had no patience for our arguments.  We are now required to get more serious about our weed trimming responsibilities, oftentimes trimming in places that we never even thought about before . . .

Who knows what the inspectors will come up with this year?  Nevertheless, we are feeling confident.  Our colonies are looking great, our water sources are full, and our apiaries are weed-free.  And, at least for now, we are ready for the next round of inspections!