Drone Comb

Because drones are some of the least appreciated honeybees among beekeepers, it follows that the frames of honeycomb that are set up to breed them would be equally under-appreciated.  A colony of bees will build honeycomb cells in two sizes, regular-size or drone-size.  Most natural honeycomb, and just about all “foundation” for sale by beekeeping supply companies is regular-sized, meaning that the brood that is raised will become worker bees.  After all, nearly all beekeepers prefer worker bees that make honey over so-called “worthless” drone bees that mainly consume honey.

Regardless of the efforts of the beekeeper, however, all beehives have a strong instinct to raise a certain percentage of drone honeybees, especially during the swarm season in the spring.  To rear new drones, the hive requires that some of the cells in the honeycomb be of the larger drone-sized variety.

Since it creates all of its own comb, a feral or top bar hive has no problem creating some drone-sized comb of it own, and adding it to the existing worker-sized comb that it already has.  A managed Langstroth beehive, however, often does not have an easy way to build drone-sized cells.  In this type of hive, the beekeeper provides all of the frames of honeycomb, which are nearly universally worker-sized.  As a result, the bees themselves have to improvise where and how they can construct drone comb given the limited space to do so.  Often the bees construct some makeshift drone comb between the boxes.  Or, if some old honeycomb is damaged or has a hole in it, the bees eagerly replace the damaged area with drone-sized comb.

Once in a while, a beekeeper runs into an old frame, which as a result of being heavily damaged and re-repaired by the bees, consists nearly entirely of this rebuilt drone comb.  These types of frames, one of which is pictured above, show up often in commercial beekeeping operations where frames are apt to be damaged by regular handling.  As a rule, commercial beekeepers dislike these frames and often discard and replace them as soon as they are discovered.

On the other hand, queen rearing outfits, such as Wildflower Meadows, love drone comb!  The more drone honeycomb, the more drones available, and the better the mating chances and better quality of the resulting queens.  At Wildflower Meadows, we like to make sure that our best colonies have at least two frames of drone comb to produce the maximum quantity of drones.  The frame pictured above, worthless to many beekeepers, is “drone gold” to us!

 

Pollen Baskets

Bees need both protein and carbohydrates.  The bees’ carbohydrates mainly come from nectar.  Protein comes from pollen.  Pollen originates from the male parts of flowers, known as anthers.  The bees collect pollen and store them in pellets in sacks on their legs, known as “pollen baskets.”

The photo above shows a bee carrying a full load of pollen.  When the bees enter the hive they carry their pollen to the brood nest, and typically offload it into honeycomb cells directly over the brood nest.

Pollen is a key ingredient in the “worker jelly” that the nurse bees feed to the developing larvae.  It is also a key ingredient in royal jelly, which is the essential food of a developing queen.  Abundant pollen means abundant royal jelly, which means quality queen honey bees.  It is no surprise that the healthiest queen honeybees are raised in locations where there are abundant pollen flows.

Sometimes when inspecting a hive, you will see bees walking around with pollen still in their baskets.  Are they headed to offload it, or are they just showing off their excellent “pollen pants” to their sisters?

Waiting For Nightfall

One of the unusual aspects of working in commercial beekeeping is the keeping of inconsistent and irregular work hours.  Especially when moving bees, large amounts of work takes place at night.  Commercial beekeepers often need to move bees to take advantage of upcoming honey flows, evade upcoming pesticide spraying, or to establish new colonies in a new location.

It is much easier – and safer – to move bee colonies at night while the bees are dormant and inside their hives, than to move them while they are active during the height of day.  The procedure usually goes something like this:  Colonies are loaded onto flatbed trucks at sunset right after the last of the field workers have returned to their colonies from foraging.  Then, depending on the length of the move, they are either trucked to their new location right away during the night, or they are parked temporarily while the beekeepers catch some sleep, and then installed into their new location early the next morning before the sun rises.

At Wildflower Meadows, we occasionally move colonies throughout the year for all of the reasons mentioned above.  Plus, we are also constantly building and moving in mating nucs to new and existing locations for our queen rearing operation.  Although much of our regular beekeeping work takes place during the day, most of our bee moving activities take place at night and during the early morning hours.  The work can be hard and tiring, but the peace and natural beauty of working outside during quiet hours can make it all worthwhile.

Above, a flatbed truck sits parked with the bees, waiting for nightfall, until the moment arrives when the beekeeper can begin loading…

Late Summer Robbing: Bees Behaving Badly

There comes a day, usually in mid or late summer, when the flowers dry up and stop producing nectar.  This is a terrible state of affairs for honeybees, because late summer is usually when the average beehive is at its strongest.  The foragers at this time of year have probably never known any conditions in their lifetime other than excellent conditions.  Nothing has prepared them in their short lives to experience so much failure on their foraging flights; coming back empty time and again.  They are miserable and discouraged.  All of sudden, the honey that is stored and tucked away in the colony next door begins to look attractive.

Occasionally, the bees get the notion to forage for honey that is stored inside other colonies.  They fight their way past the guard bees, steal some honey, return to their colony, and signal their success to their fellow workers.  This is called “robbing.”  When robbing starts, things can turn ugly quickly.  The strongest colonies pick on the weakest ones, which can become quickly overrun by the pillaging bees.  The robbers steal all the honey and leave the weak colony to perish.  During the course of all of this, the bees turn frenzied and aggressive – both towards each other as well as to any nearby people.  Stinging increases.

The worst part about robbing, besides the loss of colonies and overall bad behavior, is that disease can spread amidst the pandemonium.  Often there is a reason why a colony may be weak and subject to being robbed:  it is sick.  Having healthy bees fighting with sick bees is a sure way to spread diseases and mites across an entire apiary.  All beekeepers agree:  although beekeepers may not be able to stop robbing completely, they should do everything in their power to keep it from getting started.

Bee Training Flights

If you have been keeping bees for any length of time, you will almost undoubtedly notice certain days, and especially certain times of days, where a whirlwind of activity bursts forth around the colony’s entrance.  Especially on sunny, windless afternoons, you often will find scores of young fuzzy bees, pitter-pattering around the entrance, seemingly flying in aimless circles, back and forth. This excited flight lasts around an hour then dies down and completely stops! What is going on?

You have just paid a visit to baby bee flight training school.

Up until around three weeks of age, young honeybees mainly stay inside the hive, tending to their in-hive tasks, such as cleaning, nursing larva, attending to the queen, etc.  Around three weeks of age, however, young honeybees begin their transition to new roles as foragers.  This transition is not immediate.  First the young bees must learn how to fly and orient themselves so they do not get lost once they leave the hive.  Three week old bees leave the hives in groups, flying in ever expanding arcs back and forth around the front of the hive, learning the look and location of it so they can find their way home at a later time.  These first flights are for orientation only, and not for foraging.

Inexperienced beekeepers sometimes confuse orientation flights with robbing.  The two types of activity look somewhat similar to a novice, but there are key differences.  Robbing bees fly aggressively and are often seen around the lid of the colony, rather than only around the entrance.  Fighting often accompanies robbing.  Orienting bees, on the other hand, have a lightness and playfulness about their flight that is anything but aggressive.  Also, robbing bees are older adults, whereas orienting bees are young, often lighter and fuzzy.

Scientists are unclear why these training flights appear to take place simultaneously, rather than throughout the day.  Why do so many bees decide to practice flying at exactly the same time?  Is it because of the quality of the weather conditions, the time of day, or are these flights somehow coordinated by the hive?  Are there instructors or guides to this process?  This uncertainty only adds to the mysteriousness and beauty of the magical, frenzied training flights.

Summer Shade

A common question among beginning beekeepers is whether it is more advantageous to place a bee colony in the sun or in the shade.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but all things being equal, bee colonies will usually do better in the sun rather than the shade.  There are a number of reasons for this.  For some reason, small hive beetles and tracheal mites seem to prosper in the shade.  Also, bees tend to forage more when they are exposed to sunlight, bringing in more food and nutrition for the hive.  But the strongest reason for keeping bees in a sunny location is to take advantage of the solar heating that becomes essential to the bees well being during the cold, dark days of winter.

Think of your own house. What if you had to choose between giving up heat in the winter versus giving up air conditioning in the summer?  Heat is more important.  Without air conditioning, you would be uncomfortable in August, but you would survive.  Without heating in January, however, you could find yourself in really big trouble!  Solar heat is also important to bees, especially because they are cold blooded and must keep their brood nests at or about 93 degrees.

That said, in many warmer and desert climates, some summer shade is a nice benefit to the bees.  In some part of the US Southwest, especially during the summer, shade becomes more critical than sun.  In temperatures over 110 degrees, which are often reached during the summer in Nevada, Arizona and parts of California, shade is actually a necessity – a matter of life or death.  Bees can die at 110 degrees if kept in the sun and without shade.

Here at Wildflower Meadows, our seasons are pretty moderate.  For the most part, summers are not too hot, and winters are not too cold.  Most of our colonies are situated in the sun, but a few are slightly shaded.  The colonies pictured here, several of our champion breeders, are sitting below the light shade of a palo verde tree.  On this hot August day, they’ve got bragging rights over their sunny neighbors who are not too far away, but in the full sun baking.  Today, these shaded colonies have it made: they’ve got a feeder full of cool syrup, some pleasant shade, and a nice breeze to make for a perfect summer day!

Festooning Bees

Once in a while, when examining a bee colony, you might notice bees hanging together in a kind of chain.  This is called festooning.  Festooning is seen most often when bees are constructing new comb or repairing old comb.  The bees hang together between the frames that they are building, connected to each other by their legs.  In a festoon the bees hang together in a single line, only one level deep – which is different than a typical “clump” of bees, which is many layers of bees deep.  It appears that festooning bees are creating some sort of scaffolding from which to do their construction work.

Scientists do not really have a consensus as to the purpose of the festoon.  Festooning behavior is clearly associated with wax production and comb building, yet why?  Some believe that the purpose is mainly to scaffold, others believe that the festoon is a method of measuring distance between combs.  (Precise distance between combs is very important to honeybees.)  Others believe that it somehow is responsible for starting or increasing the flow of beeswax.  Whatever the reason, the festoon is fun to watch, and is a sure sign that the bees are now in “construction mode.”

Honeybees And Gardening

While commercially managed bee colonies largely feed on managed crops and wildflowers, the backyard beehives rely on flowering trees and local gardens for food.

Garden Flowers

Local gardens are an especially valuable resource for urban and suburban beehives.  Unlike agricultural crops, which feature acres of the same flowers over large geographic areas, local gardens provide bees exactly the opposite:  a diverse source of nutrients over a small geographic footprint.  Private gardens benefit bees because the vast variety of flowers produces a diverse diet.  The variation of flowers also results in an extended flowering period.  When one type of plant finishes flowering, typically another takes over.

If you are a gardener, consider yourself an ally of the bees. They love you!

If you would really like to help the bees in your neighborhood, think about planting some of their favorite flowers:

  • Daisies
  • Lavender
  • Marigolds
  • Mint
  • Poppies
  • Rosemary
  • Snapdragon
  • Sunflowers
  • Thyme
  • Verbena

Drone Honeybees With White Eyes

Here is something you don’t see too often: otherwise healthy drone honeybees that have white eyes!  Recently we ran into a colony that was full of white-eyed drones.  One of our staff beekeepers, caught off guard, declared that he had discovered “zombie drones!”  Actually, no, it does happen from time to time that healthy drone bees can be seen with the mutation of white eyes.

Why is it that only drones show the white-eyed mutation, but not the workers bees?  The answer lies in how recessive genes work.

Among bees in a hive, drone bees are more apt to express mutations from recessive genes than other bees.  A drone bee is unique and different from the two types of female bees (workers and queen bees) in that it is developed from an unfertilized egg.  As a result, a drone bee has only one set of chromosomes – effectively only one parent.  Therefore, with only one set of chromosomes, recessive genes can be expressed more readily without being overridden by a corresponding dominant gene.

These white-eyed drones appear perfectly normal; they move around the hive like other bees, eat honey, relax, and live an apparently normal drone bees’ life.  Don’t be fooled, however.  Their life is not normal.  For them, there will never be any mating; no flights, no lying to drone congregation areas, nor looking for queens.  These drones are more or less stuck inside the hive; because, due to their white eyes, they are blind.

 

Mesquite Honey

During late April and early May, long after many desert wildflowers have run their course, desert mesquite blooms.  Mesquite flowers form a long pod of yellow blossoms.  One of the most common desert mesquite trees is called the “honey mesquite.” (As a beekeeper, you know you are on the right track when a plant has the word “honey” in its title!)  Honey mesquite is found throughout the Southern United States, especially in the deserts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

At Wildflower Meadows, we are fortunate to have several giant mesquite trees right along side our queen rearing apiary.  Because we are not exactly located in a desert, our mesquite trees bloom later in the season, usually in early June.  The mesquite nectar and pollen provide a timely boost to our summer queen rearing efforts.

Mequite 2

Mesquite honey is a light, mild-tasting honey, and very delicious.  This honey crystalizes more quickly than perhaps any other, at times seeming to crystalize virtually overnight.  This is why if you look for raw mesquite honey on the Internet, nearly all of the pictures show it in crystalized form.  Commercial beekeepers have to pay extra attention to not let mesquite honey cool when extracting it.  Mesquite honey has been known to actually crystalize during the middle of extracting, leaving the beekeeper with solid honey stuck inside the piping and tanks!  When it is in its liquid form – which is almost never – raw mesquite honey has a thick, almost chewy texture.