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.

 

 

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.