Telling the Bees

We have learned plenty about Queen Elizabeth II and her long and illustrious life since her recent passing, perhaps more than we care to know. For instance, who knew that The Queen kept bees? Believe it or not, the royal palace maintains five colonies and employs their own “royal beekeeper.”

Apparently, these royal colonies not only had queen bees of their own, but a human queen as well!

One of the many royal traditions that occurred in the wake of The Queen’s death, was the practice of “telling the bees.” In this time-honored tradition, someone who is close to the deceased approaches the beehives to notify the bees that their beekeeper has passed away.  Surprisingly, this practice has been documented in many old-world customs. Telling the bees about their beekeepers’ deaths has been a traditional practice for centuries, especially in European countries.

Which begs the question – do bees know their beekeeper well enough to care about their passing?  Bees – and insects in general – are used to death and seem to be indifferent when their cohorts die, which happens all the time. When an individual honeybee in a hive dies, the bees don’t seem to mourn in any way. They move on instantaneously and seem to go about their business as if nothing has happened. One must wonder whether their behavior would be any different if their beekeeper dies.

While the rational and scientific answer appears to be that bees don’t care about their beekeeper, the notion also remains that bees maintain an acute sense of their surroundings. They also seem to be aware of the overall energy of what takes place around them. For example, bees tend to get agitated during inclement weather, or when there is a lot of activity or disturbances near them.

It’s well-known that experienced beekeepers are stung less than those who are inexperienced.  This is because experienced beekeepers know how to move smoothly and calmly around bees. Inexperienced beekeepers tend to move erratically and nervously around bees, which causes bees to get stressed and sting. This is an indication that the bees have some perception of the unique qualities of different beekeepers that work with them.

Is the idea that far-fetched? Surely racehorses know when a new jockey is in the reigns.  We know that nearly all pets become attached to their owners and would become aware of their absence.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, it seems to us that the bees have developed a certain comfort level with the beekeepers that work with them regularly. Perhaps they can recognize the mannerisms and overall energy of the beekeeper that has genuinely cared for them throughout the years.

In many ways pets are family – and for some, bees are their pet of choice. If they are a part of the family, then they deserve to know about changes that are taking place within the family. Perhaps it is only a matter of simple respect for the bees, to at least attempt to let them know that a significant and permanent change is in the wind. They will be getting a new beekeeper, with a new face, smell, and a new way of doing things.  Perhaps they should know that.

“The Widow,” by Charles Napier, 1895.  Is she “telling the bees?”

Queen Introduction – Balling the Queen Bee

Beekeepers have struggled with how best to introduce a new queen into a beehive for ages – whether they’re wanting to requeen an existing colony of honeybees or place a new queen into a newly created colony. When a colony of honeybees is presented with a new queen, the bees’ first instinct is to act aggressively towards her. Since her pheromones do not match the hive, the bees see the new queen as an intruder and will instinctively come after her.

If a newly introduced queen is not protected during the introduction period, it is almost guaranteed that the colony will kill her. The worker bees will approach her aggressively –quickly grabbing onto her and not letting go. First, one bee starts this behavior, then another, and another – before long, honeybees will surround the queen, grabbing on and not letting go.  This is known as balling.

When a newly introduced queen is being balled, she is in trouble. The worker bees will grab at her body parts, and very possibly, sting her to death. This is why queen honeybees are almost always introduced to a new colony while inside some sort of cage. The cage protects the queen from an almost certain onslaught and gives her a safe place to hide.

Even with a cage, the bees will still attempt to ball the queen. However, with a cage in the way, the most that the bees can do is grab onto the cage and attack it, sparing the queen inside. Over time, the worker bees gradually cease balling the cage – one by one giving up and allowing the queen a little reprieve, while she is still safely protected inside of the cage.

While this is all happening, the colony’s worker bees are eating through the candy release tube in the cage. Well before the bees have worked their way through the candy, the balling bees have given up and have gone back to their usual work within the hive.

Even once the queen has been released from her cage, she still is somewhat at risk for renewed balling, until she actually starts laying eggs. This is why most experienced beekeepers, including us at Wildflower Meadows, always advise leaving a colony alone for a full week after the introduction of a new queen. Only when she is laying eggs can a newly introduced queen be truly considered as accepted by the colony, and relatively free from the risk of being balled.

Protecting Beehives From Extreme Heat

Bees are surprisingly adaptable to most weather events.  They know how to stay dry during rainstorms, stay cool during summer heat, and even survive the most brutal of winters, such as those in Russia and Canada.  However, when the weather becomes dangerously extreme, bees – like all living creatures – can be challenged to survive.

Recently, Wildflower Meadows’ experienced a powerful heatwave that affected most of our apiaries.  The temperatures in many of our apiaries surpassed 105 degrees.  Yet our bees survived.  How were they able to do this?

The answer is simple: shade and nearby water.  Our beekeepers were concerned about the safety of the colonies heading into the weekend, because bees can’t really survive extended periods of extreme heat without the benefits of shade and close water.  The bees need shade during times of extreme heat, because the sun beating down on the lid of a hive can heat the upper portion of a beehive to dangerous and possibly lethal levels – in some cases even above the melting point of beeswax!  We all know that bees also need a reliable water source; but more importantly during extreme heat, they need their water source to be nearby.  When the temperatures reach near 110 degrees, bees generally stop flying.  Only a few brave foragers will dare to head out for water in that kind of heat, and they won’t be able to fly far.  If the water supply is too far away from the hive, the bees will not be able to access the water that they so desperately need in order to survive.

Fortunately, our bees were able to survive the heat because we took precautions to protect them before heading into the weekend.  As the majority of our apiaries are out in the open and have no shade, we provided makeshift shade to each and every colony by placing a second lid over the first.  This setup not only provided shade, but also produced relatively cooler airspace over the colony, significantly reducing the risk of overheating.  And, it worked!

If you are trying to shade your bees and don’t have extra lids, any piece of plywood will do.  Some of our commercial beekeeper friends whose bees are on pallets often place empty pallets over their bees to provide the same effect.

The second precaution is for you to be sure – absolutely sure – that your bees have access to plenty of fresh water, as close to the apiary as possible.  You also need to keep your eye on the water level, because when the temperatures rise, the bees will consume a lot of water.  The colonies in our queen rearing yard went through nearly 70 gallons of water in just two days!  That is a lot of water for bees, but it saved their lives.

And finally, if you are fortunate enough to have running water and a hose nearby, the bees always appreciate a cool shower or two.  The benefits are twofold, because the water not only cools the hive, but then the bees can later drink up the drips without having to fly far.

The Health Benefits of Honey

Honey is notorious for being a delicious addition to recipes, it’s also well-known for being a versatile ingredient with many uses. In addition to being a natural sweetener, honey contains antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiseptic, antimicrobial, and antibacterial properties – making it one of the most popular ingredients used in health and beauty. In fact, alternative uses for honey have been recorded throughout history by many cultures, as far back as 2000 BC!

The medicinal and nutritional value of honey can differ between varieties, as the nectars origin plant helps determine many of the honey’s unique properties. It’s also believed that raw honey contains more of these properties when compared to regular pasteurized honey, often found in grocery stores. Raw honey is often cloudier with a thicker consistency and contains beneficial ingredients such as bee pollen, bee propolis, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants.  Unfortunately, the high heat used in pasteurization can destroy some of these properties, however, it does produce a clearer, more aesthetically pleasing product, which some prefer.

Numerous scientific studies support the beneficial properties of honey, confirming over 200 substances, from vitamins C, B1, B2, and B6 to potassium, calcium, and, of course, sugar. This wide range of components is what makes honey so versatile in its benefits and uses. For instance, natural sugars glucose and fructose account for 95-99% of honey’s contents. Glucose and fructose don’t just taste delicious, they contain enzymes and other components which make honey great for wound dressing and a safer sweetener for people with type I or II diabetes.

Although many of us eat honey simply for its delicious taste, there are many other reasons to consume it. Whether you add it to your hot or cold beverage or your favorite meal, the benefits are endless. Not only is it famous for alleviating cough and cold symptoms, but it’s also been shown that honey helps reduce acid reflux, aka heartburn, treat ulcers, helps relieve allergies and hay fever, and reduces nausea – some people even use it as a natural pre-workout energy boost!

The uses for honey are far from limited. It can also be applied topically on the skin to treat a variety of ailments, such as psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis, dandruff, and acne. This natural moisturizer is a perfect ingredient for lotions, lip balm, shampoos, soaps, and aftershaves – you can even add it to your bath to help soothe dry skin! The healing properties of honey can also be applied to burns or scrapes of the skin to help fight infection and reduce healing time – essentially honey is nature’s all-purpose healing salve.

It’s no surprise that raw honey has been used widely throughout history, from Ancient Greece and Egypt to traditional Chinese Medicine. Whether it is consumed or applied topically, the health benefits are considerable and hard to ignore. Whether you’re in search of all-natural skincare and moisturizer, need to relieve cold symptoms, treat a burn, or just want a little something sweet on your toast, honey is a staple ingredient to keep in any home pantry!

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.