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.

 

 

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!