A Bee’s Perspective

We human beings love to anthropomorphize our beloved honeybees.  A Google image search for “speedy” bee, “busy” bee, “happy” bee, and even “queen” bee – more often than not comes up with a human-like cartoon caricature rather than an actual insect.

While we like to think of honeybees as human-like, it can be rather difficult to wrap our heads around how very different honeybees actually are from us human beings.  We appear to be alike in the way that we cohabitate our planet – mostly harmoniously, and working well together in nature.  But our actual manner of living, however, is in fact vastly different.  Bees live in an insect realm of dark, vertical, and mysterious spaces.  So, let’s be honest, we are not even remotely close to being the same species!  Therefore, the notion that we have a similar life experience, along with a similar perspective of the world, is a huge stretch.

It is easy to forget these differences, though.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, we do it all the time, especially when it comes time to ship our queen bees.  We lovingly prepare our weekly shipments, and wish our bees well as they travel into the very human world of trucks, highways and airports.  Then, off they go, to their remote destinations to meet their new colonies and human caretakers.  It’s as if we are sending a friend or family member off for a business trip or vacation:

  • Food? Check.
  • Water? Check.
  • Travel companions? Check.
  • Destination notified? Check.
  • Flight schedule? Check.
  • Check-In Time?  Check.
  • Okay, let’s go before we miss our flight!

Then, after all the preparations, Wildflower Meadows’ queens embark on a completely human-like journey.

 

But wait, the passengers are not human.  They are insects!

This distinction becomes particularly obvious if a queen shipment incurs a travel delay.  Just like when we humans travel across the country, unexpected delays and holdups do happen, whether we like it or not.  UPS Next Day Air shipments of queen bees, while almost always reliable, can, on the rare occasion be delayed.  At times, shipments can be disrupted by delayed flights or missed connections, or simply by the weather.  Sometimes, the volume is especially heavy in the overall UPS network, thus slowing down the system’s ability to process rapidly-moving night time loads.  When this happens, a queen shipment can, unfortunately, be delayed – typically by a single day.  More often than not, the delayed shipment gets temporarily parked for 24-hours, usually in one of two UPS regional processing centers:  Ontario, CA for the West Coast, and Louisville, KY for the remainder of the United States.

If we think of our traveling bees as human beings, this hold up can be highly disturbing.  Who among us would want to be trapped in a pitch-black box inside a mechanized industrial processing center for an entire day, with no way to leave and no way to know what is going on?  If this happened to a friend or a relative, we would be terrified for their well-being and almost certainly would lose sleep worrying about their plight.

From a bees’ perspective, however, a situation like this is really no big deal.  First, as insects, the honeybees are used to the dark, and actually prefer it.  Second, they are well-contained at room temperature with other attending bees in their shipping containers for care and company.  Confined spaces actually make insects feel more comfortable and at home, not less so.  The shipping packages have plenty of ventilation; and the bees themselves have more than enough food.  And, they were also watered right before shipment.  In short, the queens and their attendant bees are just fine!  This explains why in all of our years of shipping, except in the rarest of cases, neither we nor our customers have experienced losses with bees that are delayed overnight, or for a day in a UPS Customer Center.  Yes, it is inconvenient, annoying, and scary for us and our customers; but it’s not a problem for the bees themselves.

In fact, in exceptionally rare cases, we have seen instances where queen shipments were accidentally misrouted or redirected for days at a time, and still the queen and her attendant bees were no worse for the wear.  Our famous queen, “Wheels,” comes to mind.

Of course, we all worry.  But from a bee’s perspective, what’s the big deal?

What Is Pollination?

As beekeepers, we know that honeybees are instrumental in pollinating the majority of the foods that we humans need and value, such as our many fruits, vegetables, and legumes.  In fact, according to Google, bees and other pollinators affect 35 percent of global agricultural land, supporting the production of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide!  Wikipedia’s list of crop plants pollinated by bees is extensively long.

Honeybees also pollinate many other types of trees and plants throughout the natural world.  In fact, honeybees are one of the most industrious pollinators on the planet, and critical to the success of much of human agriculture.

But what exactly is pollination, and what is actually going on when honeybees pollinate flowers?

When we humans admire the beauty of flowers, we rarely stop to consider that flowers are the sexual organs of plants.  There are male flowers, and there are female flowers.  The goal of nature is to move the genetic material from the male to the female.  Pollination is the transfer of male microspores from a male flower to the ovule of a female flower.  This is the sexual reproduction of a plant, ultimately resulting in the creation of a seed.

A male flower features what is called a stamen.  This is the part of the male flower that produces pollen.  A female flower features what is called the pistil.  The tip of the pistil, called the stigma, receives the pollen and transfers the pollen down the pistil to the flower’s ovule, fertilizing it and enabling the formation of a fruit or some other carrier of the plant’s seed, such as a pod, a vegetable, or just a seed itself.

The honeybee’s role in all of this is to transfer the pollen from male flower to female flower.  Some plants and trees have both male and female flowers on the same tree (monoecious) or male flowers on one tree and female flowers on another (dioecious).  Either way, a honeybee doesn’t seem to care much.  She just goes from flower to flower, plant to plant, looking for nectar, and in the process inadvertently transfers tiny pieces of pollen from male flowers to female flowers without that even being her goal.

It is most likely that the main reason that flowers look so appealing, and feature such sweet nectar, is to attract animals to pollinate them.  The sweeter the nectar that a plant produces, the bigger the lure for honeybees and other insect pollinators, such as bumblebees, orchard bees, squash bees and solitary bees, to visit.

Honeybees are not the only animal pollinators of plants.  Any animal that visits flowers contributes to pollination – hummingbirds, bats, butterflies, ladybugs, beetles and other insects – also pollinate.  Sadly, like honeybees, many of these beneficial pollinators are under environmental stress, and face ongoing population decline.

There are some plants, however, that do not rely on animals for pollination, but rather are wind pollinated, such as the grasses of corn, wheat, and rice.  It is noteworthy, that unlike animal-pollinated blossoms, which are almost always colorful and sweet, these wind-pollinated blossoms look exceedingly dull and contain no nectar.  This is because they have no incentive to attract pollinating animals, such as honeybees.  Instead, the goal of wind pollinated plants is simply to produce as much pollen as possible and throw the pollen into the wind, hoping that it hits its target.

As beekeepers, we may be a bit biased, but we much prefer flower pollination by bees, as just thinking about windward grass pollen make us want to sneeze!

Races of Honeybees

Beekeeping is one of those endeavors where we beekeepers commonly distinguish the different races that make up the world of honeybees.  As human beings, we are quite familiar with the concept of race.  However, it is not often that we consider race as a component of other species.

Race is typically defined as a grouping of similar physical traits and ancestry.  Honeybees, being social creatures from around the globe, have evolved into various races, each of which contain their own distinct physical and ancestral characteristics.  Often, these races show apparent behavioral characteristics as well.  For example, the Italian honeybees are known for their light color and generally docile behavior; whereas Russian honeybees are known for their dark color and their ability to winter in cold climates.

The most familiar races of honeybees, along with their common characteristics are:

– Italian:  known for light color, gentle behavior, rapid buildup and high brood production
– Carniolan:  known for dark color, gentle behavior, and ability to conserve their food stores
– African:  known for their aggressive temperament and high propensity to swarm
– Caucasian:  known for their grey color, low propensity to swarm, and high propolis production
– Russian:  known for their black color, natural mite resistance, and overwintering prowess

Lucky for us beekeepers, honeybees are seemingly unaffected by having multiple races within a hive.  For example, when an Carniolan colony is requeened with an Italian queen bee, the beehive will gradually become lighter and more golden as more of the Italian bees take the place of their Carniolan sisters.  The colony never seems to mind the disparity of the races within it, and temporarily becomes a mixed-race bee society.  The Italian honeybees work right alongside their Carniolan sisters, yellow and black together in harmony, seemingly with no strife or even the slightest concern over racial differences.  It just goes to show that, once again, perhaps humans could learn a thing or two from honeybees and Mother Nature!

Frame Strength For Almond Pollination

When it comes to readying for almond pollination, the most important considerations for beekeepers and growers alike are the number of honeybee colonies available to be delivered, and their frame strength.  Frame strength is what determines the payday for beekeepers, and it is measured exactly as it sounds.  It is the number of frames inside the hive that are covered with bees.  Most almond growers demand an average of at least eight frames of bees, although some will accept six, and some will even accept four frames, but will of course pay significantly less for these weaker colonies.

It is not easy for a commercial beekeeper – or any beekeeper for that matter – to be able to produce such strong colonies during what is still considered the latter part of winter in the northern hemisphere.  In order to deliver an eight-frame average bee colony in early February, a beekeeper needs to begin preparing his or her colonies well in advance.  In fact, preparations for almond pollination typically begin many months earlier.  The key to having strong and healthy colonies coming out of the winter is by having strong and healthy colonies going into the winter.  If a colony heads into winter at below average strength, then there is no possible way that it will emerge out of winter with eight frames of bees.

As the old adage goes, “it costs money to make money”, and the time to invest in your colonies begins at the end of summer.  Usually starting around late August, California commercial beekeepers begin aggressively attending to their colonies – much more than normal, both with syrup and pollen substitutes, and, if necessary, medications.  It is at this time that many commercial beekeepers requeen their under-performing colonies with late summer or early fall queens.  The ideal queens for this kind of situation are queens like those from Wildflower Meadows, which are known for their robust brood production and early season buildup.

The point of this vigorous late season activity is to stimulate brood production throughout the late summer and early fall so that plenty of healthy and well-nourished brood hatches right at the onset of winter.  These will be the eight frames of bees that emerge from winter and, hopefully – if all goes according to plan – deliver a nice payday for the beekeeper come February.  Having a population of very young bees at the start of winter, means that there will be less mortality during the short, but relatively cold California winter.

Selecting Colonies For Early Season Buildup

During the first week of January, most beekeepers are recovering from the holiday season, watching football, and making plans and resolutions for the new year.  However, the majority of beehives throughout the northern hemisphere are doing far much less.  At this time of year, most bees remain huddled in their winter clusters, preserving heat and waiting out the remainder of the harsh winter.

At Wildflower Meadows, the majority of our bee colonies have their lowest populations at this time of year.  Even in our relatively temperate setting, bees go through their normal annual cycle, albeit with a milder winter shutdown than in most colder climates.  Throughout November and December, our queens typically lay a much lower than normal amount of eggs than in the remainder of the year because of the shorter days, long and colder nights, and general lack of forage.  As a result, bee populations decline throughout the fall and winter, reaching their lowest point at the beginning of January.  This is normal and healthy, as a smaller winter population is more efficient for a typical beehive, with less mouths to feed and less brood to manage.

Here in California, something changes, however, around the first week of January.  By some means, the bees get a sense that the winter solstice has passed.  Somehow, they get the idea that the January acacia bloom is right around the corner.  And, somehow or other, the bees get wind that the almond bloom is now only a month away, with mustard bloom soon to follow.  It’s time to get busy!

We notice that it is right around the first week of the new year that many of the Wildflower Meadows’ queens wake up from their winter slumber and launch headstrong into egg laying.  All of a sudden, the queens begin laying frames of brood – sometimes entire frames at a time, and as much brood as the population will allow.  This is a sign to us that a queen is serious about early season buildup.

Early season buildup is an important and valuable behavioral trait in honeybees.  It is important not only for commercial beekeepers who need strong colonies to pollinate early season crops such as almonds and cherries, but also for smaller scale beekeepers who are typically more focused on honey production.

High honey production almost always correlates with early season buildup for two reasons:  First, early buildup means that the colony will be strong and lively enough to take advantage of the very earliest portion of the honey flow.  This is in comparison to a slow-developing colony that needs to wait for the population to build up before it can fully exploit the earliest blossoms.  A slow-building colony might miss the entire early season flow.  Secondly, a rapid early season buildup will typically correlate to a larger and more mature foraging population during the later peak portion of spring.  A larger population during a honey flow is almost always a key factor in the overall honey totals of a given season.

Most importantly, an early season buildup indicates that the queen is lively.  At Wildflower Meadows, this is what we like to see.  So, beginning around the first week of January, we head out to our apiaries with pens and pencils, our queen records, and our trusty clipboards to begin taking notes.  We grade each and every colony on bee and brood strength.  The purpose of this first grade is to establish a baseline of overwintering quality, as well as to detect the first signs of early brood laying.  Then we come back a few weeks later and grade the same colonies again to see how seriously the individual queens are taking early season buildup.  We take note of the colonies that scored well on both accounts, particularly noting the colonies that rapidly gained in population.  These colonies then become candidates for breeding and drone rearing colonies.  Of course, these colonies still need to pass other important criteria, such as testing for temperament and mite resistance, but their display of early season buildup is duly noted.  Thus, these colonies are leading candidates for continued Wildflower Meadows’ breeding.

Land Rent

There are not many professions that enable a person to experience the joy of someone else’s property without having to pay for the privilege.  Gardeners, pet-sitters, house-sitters, and baby-sitters all have the opportunity to visit and experience the pleasures of others’ homes or ranches without the obligation of paying hefty mortgages and property taxes.  But, perhaps of all professions, beekeepers have it the best.  Most beekeepers who maintain outside apiaries (outside apiaries are apiaries that are not situated on the owner’s personal property) gain permission from land owners to not only place bees on their private property, but to also access that property on an as-needed basis to maintain and care for the beekeepers’ colonies.  And, most often, these beekeeping locations are peaceful and soothing to the soul.

This gives the beekeeper a particularly unique vantage point from which to experience often-picturesque and tranquil settings in the countryside to which the average person has no access.  This access comes with responsibilities, and as well as a different set of “costs.”

The beekeeper’s responsibilities involve being respectful and courteous, all the while understanding that he or she is always a guest and not an owner.  That means keeping the apiary clean, well maintained, and free from litter.  It means keeping the bees healthy and calm, and not working with them when people or pets are nearby.  And, it also means cooperating with the landowner to not interfere in any way with the enjoyment of his or her own land.

It may seem like the land owner gives up too much in this exchange, but actually the exchange is a fair trade for the land owner.  If he has crops, the landowner receives free pollination for his fruits and vegetables, and best of all, this individual, usually once per year, cashes in on some “liquid gold” from the beekeeper.

It is a longstanding tradition of beekeepers to share honey with those who host apiaries.  This is considered “land rent.”  The amount of honey that the beekeeper and landowner agree upon can be as little as a few jars, and as much as several full cases.  Much depends on the size and nature of the apiary, and the value of the land to the beekeeper, in terms of honey production and overall access.  Land owners are usually overjoyed to receive a share of the bounty of their land.

At Wildflower Meadows, although we are not specialized in producing honey, we always work hard to deliver the appropriate land rent to the owners of our various apiaries.  Each December, near the beginning of the month, we begin bottling the honey production of the year.  We prepare cases of honey, most usually packed into one-pound glass honey jars.  Liquid gold is soon on the way, and the “land rent” is paid for another year!

Overwintering Honeybees In California

A common debate among beekeepers in California and other temperate regions is whether a beehive overwinters better if it continues foraging and raising brood during the mild California winter, or if the colony is better off completely shutting down as it would do in a cold weather climate.  There are good arguments for, and against, both.

Most southern climate beekeepers instinctively appreciate the idea of a colony that keeps its momentum going by continuing to forage and raise brood year-round.  Foraging bees bring in new pollen and nutrition.  This enables the colony to keep rearing new brood, which gives a boost to the population during the off-season.  In theory, this year-round population boost seems like a great idea.  When weather conditions are right, the extra brood typically makes a positive contribution to the overall size and robustness of the colony as it enters the early spring season.

The flip side, however, is that foraging behavior during the cooler and more volatile California weather in December can be perilous for bees if the weather does not cooperate.  Foraging bees always face a certain level of risk every time they head out of the colony.  With every flight, a foraging bee risks getting eaten by birds, drowning in unsafe water, getting lost, being caught in a spider web, getting hit by a car, etc.  One of a foraging bee’s biggest risks, however, is being caught away from the hive during a sudden change of weather.  For instance, a foraging bee may leave the hive when the weather is pleasant, only to encounter a sudden drop in temperature or the start of a rain storm.  This leaves the individual bee in a precarious situation.  As a coldblooded creature, it cannot warm itself.  If the foraging bee becomes too cold or wet, it could lose its ability to fly home, causing it to perish and never return.  This scenario happens fairly frequently in otherwise temperate parts of California.  Sometimes, during December, we see perfectly healthy colonies dropping population, especially when the eucalyptus is blooming but the weather is volatile.  Southern California beekeepers even have a name for this phenomenon: “Winter dwindle.”

A few years ago, the USDA conducted a test of a local California beekeeper’s bees, comparing the colonies that he placed in the cold mountainous areas (which forced the bees to completely shut down), to those that he placed in the temperate coastal areas (where the bees kept foraging and raising brood throughout the winter).  The USDA concluded that due to the “winter dwindling” effect, the bees in the mountains that completely shut down actually ended the winter with a higher overall population than the bees that kept raising brood and foraging.

Bee Space

Honeybees are curious creatures that live in world of standardized precision.  No matter the race of honeybee, or location in which they reside, their individual honeycomb cells are all constructed in a standard hexagonal shape, an approximate 5.2mm dimension, that is the same the world over.  Their dance and communication methods are also universal across the entire species.  What’s even more astonishing, is that the space that they inhabit between their honeycombs is universally standardized and completely precise, regardless of any other characteristics of the hive or of the bees themselves.

This space between honeycombs is called bee space.  Bee space needs to be larger than 4.5mm and less than 9.0mm – no matter what!  Honeybees, being creatures of precision, will not tolerate any space outside of this range.  If the space between combs gets too close (less than 4.5mm) the bees will close the gap, usually sealing it with propolis.  But if the gap becomes too wide (greater than 9mm), the bees will build additional honeycomb to bring the gap back to the acceptable and precise space that they desire.

As experienced beekeepers, this concept of bee space seems obvious and intuitive to us.  We know that if we leave too much of a gap between the frames of our hives, our bees will quickly fill this gap with beeswax, a mess of what we call “burr comb.”  This burr comb is actually just the bees’ natural drive to bring their bee space back to precision.

While this concept of bee space seems so obvious to us today, it is hard to believe that this was not always the case.  It was L.L. Langstroth, the “Father of American Beekeeping,” who, back in 1852, intuited this hypothesis.  After he realized this concept, he took his thinking one step further with the question, “what if he could design a beehive that had the perfect bee space in all directions?”  This led to the standardized, square hive body that has become the backbone to America’s – and the world’s – beekeeping profession.  We call our hive bodies “Langstroth hives,” because they were invented by Langstroth to take into account the perfect bee space.

Every space in a modern hive is more or less standardized to accommodate bee space.  We may not realize it, but what keeps our bees from connecting the tops of the frames to the lid of the beehive is the bee space that is built into the construction of the hive body.  All modern hive body boxes are also designed so that the frames hang about 8mm short of the bottom of the box.  This bee space gap is the perfect bee space that enables us beekeepers to remove or pry open a hive box with few consequences; such as easily removing lids, bottoms, and frames, all without disrupting the construction of the hive.  In addition, the edges of the side combs always sit about 8mm from the inside of the wooden box, and the tops of each frame hang about 8mm from the top of the box.  In fact, our Langstroth bee boxes are a marvel of precision, with bee space taken into account in all aspects of the construction.

Of course, it really is the bees themselves that drive us humans to this level of precision, as they will not tolerate inconsistency and imprecision.  They are world-class engineers, and demand the very same from us beekeepers!

Propolis

Of all the substances that bees collect, such as water, nectar and pollen, it is propolis whose role is most mysterious and perhaps least understood.

Actually, bees do not collect propolis, they collect plant gums and resins that they convert into propolis.  In the United States, most of these resins and gums come from cottonwood or other poplar blossoms.  North American honeybees also commonly collect plant gums from pine resins.

Trees themselves use their resins as a protection against bacteria, fungi or other pathogens, and the bees’ use is not much different.  Bees collect resins and convert them into propolis, which they use to coat and seal their hives, providing a shell of antimicrobial protection to the hive.  In a natural beehive, such as one that is inside of a tree hollow, the bees often coat the entire casing of the interior of the hollow with a sheet of propolis.

This propolis coating not only provides the colony with a layer of bacterial and fungal protections, but it also is a valuable substance that the bees can use to seal up small spaces and cracks inside of a colony. This helps keep the hive secure from small predators, such as ants.  It also helps to secure or close alternative entrances to keep the colony well defended.

Propolis is a sticky gum at room temperature, but a hard, brittle material when chilled.  Its antimicrobial properties have made it a medicinal substance for human cultures throughout the years.  Even today, many health food supplements, particularly those for coughs and throat irritation, contain propolis from the bees.

Unwelcome Guest

As the beekeeping year winds down and the nights become long and cold, honeybees tend to huddle into winter clusters, hunkering down for the icy cold months ahead.  These winter bees gather into a tight unit, preserving their heat and honey.  They become less active, as their goal is not to expand or make honey, but rather simply to survive.  They are perfectly happy to stay inside their comfortable home, keep warm, and ride out the winter.

Sometimes this warm and comfortable home, however, attracts unwanted guests.  The life of a mouse during winter is not particularly easy either, as a mouse is always on the lookout for both shelter and warmth.  And nothing quite beats the comfort of hanging out inside of a beehive while the bees are hard at work keeping it warm.  Not only is a beehive sheltered and warm, but it also contains free food in the form of pollen and honey.  Believe it or not, usually during winter, a mouse can actually take up residence in a live beehive and live perfectly well alongside the bees!

During most of the season it would be impossible for a mouse to coexist within a live bee colony.  The population of bees is simply too high and too active in the peak of the season for a mouse to survive for too long without being stung.  A summer colony is booming with activity and plenty of guard beesWinter colonies, however, are small and inactive, thus making them perfect targets for opportunistic mice.

Once inside a colony, a mouse can not only chew through valuable food stores, but also cause damage to the honeycomb, and contaminate the combs and woodenware with urine.  From both the bees’ and the beekeepers’ perspective, mice really are unwanted guests.

Lets be honest though, the little guy in the above picture looks perfectly innocent.  You might even think that he deserves a nice home.  But sorry, Mr. Mouse, the bees and the beekeeper tend to disagree.