Painting Beehives

The offseason is a welcome time to get caught up on many projects and repair work.  As the summer wears on, we begin to notice certain boxes that are looking out of shape, and not up to our best standards here at Wildflower Meadows.  Usually, around mid November, we begin to gather these weathered looking boxes, and switch the bees that are still in them into higher quality equipment.

These old four-way queen rearing boxes come back to our shop for refurbishment.  First, they are sanded down, re-squared up, and given a new set of staples for reinforcement.  After this, they are brought out back behind our wood working shop for painting.

Many commercial beekeepers use paint sprayers to paint their hives.  We have always, however, enjoyed the peacefullness and simplicity of painting with a simple roller.  Here, one of our beekeepers is enjoying a relaxing afternoon painting a set of four-way queen rearing boxes.

Painting four-way queen rearing boxes is somewhat more challenging than painting regular bee boxes, as each side of each mating box is painted a different color.  Although adding to the tediousness of the painting, distinct colors for each side will assist the queen bees in finding the correct entrances when they return from their mating flights.  Queen bees can identify colors, and the colored sides help guide them back to their correct home.  We usually choose light pastel colors, avoiding darker colors, which can contribute to overheating of these relatively small colonies on hot summer days.

If it looks like our boxes have too many holes in them, it is because each box contains four holes – one on each side.  Each serves as a separate entrance to house a small colony for raising queens.  Some of the boxes even have two holes on each side, the second hole being a ventilation hole!

Pollen Supplement Patties

In times when flowers are in short supply, bee colonies can fall short on the protein and nutrition that they require from bee pollen.  Bee pollen is critical inside a colony because it provides many of the main ingredients in royal jelly and worker jelly that is used to feed developing larvae.  Especially towards the end of summer when flowers are in short supply, the bees can rapidly work down their stores of pollen.  Once the pollen has run out, unless brood rearing has completely shut down, bees still need to feed larvae.  The next source of nutrients that they use to produce feed for larvae is called vitellogenin. It is the very food storage reservoir within worker bees that workers selflessly share with larvae, depleting their own life force in the process.

As a conscientious beekeeper, you do not want your bees to be in a situation where they are cannibalizing their own strength in order to continue as a hive.  Long before bees completely run out of pollen stores, a good beekeeper begins feeding some sort of pollen supplement.

As a queen producer, our colonies have an even greater need for abundant pollen than normal colonies.  The royal jelly that is fed to all queen cells requires massive amounts of pollen to produce.  As a result, we need to be assured that our queen cell building colonies are overflowing with protein sources as well as all the ingredients necessary to produce well fed, quality queen cells.  At Wildflower Meadows, we make our own pollen supplement patties, which we feed to our queen rearing colonies year round.  The patties are placed between the bee boxes, right under or over the brood nest so that the bees can consume the patties easily and rapidly.

Many commercial beekeepers have their own proprietary blends of pollen substitutes that they use to make pollen substitute patties.  Typical ingredients are brewers yeast, soy flour, freeze dried pollen or sometimes pea protein.  Most beekeeping supply outfits also sell bags of prepackaged pollen supplements, some of which are secret formulas, but nearly all of which are various combinations of more or less the same ingredients.

patties

 

Lately at Wildflower Meadows we have been making our pollen supplement patties (shown above) using UltraBee dry mix from Mann Lake, which is a well known high quality supplement.

The bottom line, however, is that when a colony is starving, any supplement is far better than no supplement, and brand preference is much less important than making sure that the bees have the basic nutrition that they need to thrive.

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