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.

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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.

The Queen Cell Builder

The workhorses of any queen rearing operation are the cell building colonies.  These are special bee colonies that are established with the specific purpose of raising queen cells.  Queen cells are larvae that are grafted from high quality breeder stock, and developed by the cell building colony to become queen bees.

How does the queen cell builder know to raise a queen bee, rather than a worker bee?  First, the cell building colony typically is queenless from the outset, so it has a natural desire to raise new queens.  The positioning of the queen cells is also important.  Rows of grafted larvae are placed in the center of the colony, hanging upside down in the same manner that a colony would naturally hang its own queen cells.  This makes the larvae recognizable to the colony as potential queen stock rather than worker stock.  Secondly, a cell building colony is packed full of young nurse bees, almost to the point of being overcrowded.  Young nurse bees are the best producers of royal jelly – the larvae’s food – and a good queen cell building colony should never be lacking for royal jelly production.  The beekeeper continuously feeds the cell building colonies, so that the nurse bees are never lacking for food themselves.  Lastly, the slight overcrowding of the colony tends to produce a swarming instinct, which in itself causes the colony to want to produce extra queens in anticipation of a possible swarming event.

The queenlessness, the larvae hanging upside down, the heavy population of nurse bees, the feeding, and the slight overcrowding – all create a potent brew of incentives for the cell building colony to produce a quality set of queen cells.  At Wildflower Meadows, when constructing our queen cell building colonies, we strive to create all of the these conditions.

Wildflowers Versus Weeds

Once April and May come around, the effects of the winter and early season rains begin to take hold.  Wildflowers, and weeds, sprout up everywhere, sometimes completely engulfing beehives!  What is the difference between a wildflower and a weed?  Society’s judgment, that is all.  From the bees’ perspective it is all the same.  Flowering weeds are equally as attractive to bees as any wildflower.  Often certain flowers that our society considers weeds, such as dandelion and mustard, are especially rich sources of highly nutritious pollen to honeybees.

Whatever you choose to call these flowering plants, the idea of cutting them down can be downright painful to a conscientious beekeeper.  No beekeeper wants to remove beneficial pollen sources from their bees – especially when the food is right outside their front door!

Even though our company has the words “Wildflower Meadows” for its name, sometimes things get too out of control, even for us.  Although foraging bees can make their way back home through the maze of stalks and flowers that obstruct their entrances, life is obviously easier for the bees if they have a clear pathway in and out.  At some point, honeybees need a break from the blocking foliage surrounding them, and it makes sense for us to give them a hand and break out the weed trimmer.

Bee Bread

Like all animals, bees need protein to survive.  While nectar is an excellent source of carbohydrates for bees, it is lacking in protein.  Bee pollen, besides containing other minerals and enzymes, is the primary source of protein in a beehive.  In optimal conditions, foraging bees obtain protein for the hive by gathering pollen from flowers and bringing the pollen back to the hive in their pollen baskets.  Once these flower pollen pellets are gathered by foraging bees, the pollen is then referred to as bee pollen.

If you’ve ever bought or collected bee pollen to use as a nutritional supplement, you quickly learn that bee pollen needs to be frozen, or at least refrigerated, so that it does not spoil.  How then are bees able to store bee pollen in an environment that is 93 degrees on average?

The bees’ secret to storing and preserving pollen is that they convert the pollen pellets that they gather into “bee bread,” which is a combination of pollen, honey and enzymes.  The honey and enzymes combine to form a natural preservative that keeps the pollen from spoiling, and preserves its nutritional value almost indefinitely.  This bee bread is stored inside the honey combs, typically alongside the brood nest, where it is consumed by nurse bees who convert it to royal jelly or worker jelly to feed larvae.

One of the more satisfying sights to a conscientious beekeeper when inspecting a hive is finding a giant colorful frame of beebread.  The colors give away the sources from where the bees have been collecting pollen.  In Southern California, yellow bee bread in the spring typically means that the bees have been working golden mustard, while yellow bee bread in the fall generally originates from goldenrod.  Sometimes – especially in areas where the bees are located near residential homes and exotic gardens – we notice the strangest assortment of colors.  Bright blue or near florescent red can make a beekeeper scratch his head, and wonder, “Where in the world did that pollen come from!”

Orange Blossom Honey

California has many well-documented problems: wildfires, traffic jams, and earthquakes immediately come to mind.  On the other hand, however, California has orange blossom honey!

Beginning around the middle of March and lasting until about the middle of April, citrus trees – including orange, tangerine, lemons, limes, and grapefruit – all blossom in full force, emitting the sweet aroma of citrus bloom.  A walk inside a blossoming citrus grove is a sensory experience to behold:  beautiful spring weather, bright green leaves, spectacular aroma, and happy honeybees buzzing everywhere.

During springtime in California, with many types of wildflowers blooming, honeybees have countless options of where to forage.  Typically, however, one of their first choices are the orange trees, and who can blame them?

In Southern California, a downside of orange blossoms flowering in March, if there can be one, is that a strong nectar flow of citrus trees can draw bees away from nearby blooming avocado trees.  This dual blooming has the potential to impair nearby avocado pollination.  Avocado farmers who neighbor flowering citrus trees need to be aware of the competition for their bees, and compensate by keeping extra colonies of honeybees in their avocado groves to pollinate their trees.

The First Mated Queen Bee Of The Season

Behold, the first mated queen bee of the season!

Around the middle of March, Wildflower Meadows begins harvesting its first mated queen bees of the season.  These early-season queens hatched and took flight in February to mate with the some of the first drones of the season.  A lucky customer will surely be excited to receive this beauty.

Let’s keep in mind, however, that in agriculture, being the first does not always equate to being the best.  For example, the first peach of the year is typically not quite as sweet and juicy as mid-season peaches.  For that matter, the last peach on the tree is generally not that good either.  The best peaches are usually those that are harvested right in the heart of the season, when there are a million other peaches to choose from.  Similarly, the best queen honeybees are usually mated at the peak of the season, when the queen raising conditions, the weather conditions, the drone saturation, and the mating are all optimal, and everything is coming up “peachy”.

That said, this early season queen has some unique characteristics that set her apart from the others.  First, she’s the first!  You can’t deny that.  There aren’t that many of her kind right now, and everybody wants her.

Secondly – and much more importantly – she’s holding onto some unique genetics.  The drones that mated with her are by definition the earliest drones of the season.  They come from colonies that are the first to buildup, and are showing unusual strength in the early spring season.  These drones also originate from winter survivor stock, unlike some of the season’s later drones, which will originate from same season stock.  In other words, the colonies that produced these drones are real go-getters!

It is most likely that the offspring of this queen, because she now carries the genetics of these early season drones, will exhibit the prized quality of early season vigor and rapid buildup at the start of seasons to come.

Eighty Years Later: A Tribute To O.W. Park

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Today we take for granted the idea that beekeepers can prevent American Foulbrood and other infectious diseases with antibiotics.  Back in the early 20’th century, however, there existed no effective way to control infections.  Penicillin had not even been discovered until 1928, and it was a number of years later before the first antibiotics became commercially available.

With the absence of antibiotics, beekeepers of the time struggled mightily with American Foulbrood, an infectious disease that routinely killed beehives (and still does today).  The only way that beekeepers of the time could control this deadly disease was to burn infected hives and equipment to keep the disease from spreading.  Even to this day, a sizable percentage of beekeeping books still speak of the need to burn equipment that is infected with American Foulbrood.  That this message of burning infected equipment carries forward all the way into 2016 is a testimony as to how severe this rampant and deadly disease was – and especially with the advent of resistant antibiotics – still is.

It is easy today for all of us to take for granted the concepts of “resistant bees,” “hygienic behavior,” “treatment free beekeeping,” etc.  These are commonly used terms, and relatively well-known concepts in today’s beekeeping world – especially when it comes to queen rearing.   It is hard to imagine that eighty years ago, in the mid 1930’s, these concepts did not exist.  Beekeepers weren’t even aware that bees could be selectively bred to establish these desirable traits in honeybees.

In 1935, a visionary beekeeper, O.W. Park, noticed that certain colonies seemed to be resistant or immune to American Foulbrood.  He had an idea:  What if honeybees could be bred to be resistant to American Foulbrood, and the disease could be controlled with the genetics of the bees themselves?  Starting with 25 strong and apparently resistant colonies, along with six control colonies, Mr. Park, along with his associates, set out to test this theory.  He then purposely exposed and infected all 31 colonies with infected American Foulbrood larvae!

What then happened?  All of the six control colonies, and many of the 25 resistant colonies died.  But, amazingly, seven of the resistant colonies survived.   In 1936 Mr. Park then bred a second generation of colonies from this “survivor stock,” which proved to show an even greater level of resistance in the next generation.  In the process, Mr. Park pioneered the concept of identifying resistant bees, and selectively breeding bees for disease resistance.  He also proved that this concept works, and can yield real and positive results.

2016 marks the eightieth anniversary of this landmark study on disease resistance in honeybees.  A full eighty years later, beekeepers continue to carry on in the shadows of the visionary, O. W. Park.

 

Grafting Queen Bees

The act of transferring young larvae from breeder queens into cell building colonies is called “grafting.”  Queen producers do a lot of grafting.  Every future queen bee for sale begins with the simple act of grafting; the transferring of larvae from a breeder queen into a cell cup, and then into a queen cell building colony.  It is with this method that the entire commercial queen rearing industry produces queen cells, which hatch into future queen bees.

Grafting is one of the more technically challenging parts of raising queens.  The grafter should have excellent eyesight, and a sure hand to be able to pick up tiny larvae that are about the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen.  The grafter uses a special tool (known as a grafting tool), which slips underneath a larva and scoops it up along with some of the surrounding jelly.  The larva is then carefully placed in the center of the receiving cell cup.  Ideally, there should be no impact on the larva whatsoever; as the act of grafting needs to be a smooth and gentle process.  Larvae are extremely fragile, and grafting needs to be done in a warm, well-lit, and relatively humid environment.  Speed is also important, as the larvae should not spend too much time outside of the colony and run the risk of drying out.

We have found that our best grafting sessions take place when we are calm and relaxed.  Too much sugar or caffeine can lead to a shaky hand!  Calm and steady is the key, one larva at a time.

Photo is courtesy of Glenn Apiaries, with permission.

Which Direction Should Beehives Face For Best Pollination?

Many experienced beekeepers suggest that the entrance of a beehive ideally should face towards the south or to the east.  The southern exposure makes sense.  During the winter months – at least in the northern hemisphere – the sun sits low on the southern horizon.  The direct rays of sunshine on the entrance during the late fall and early spring enable a beehive to potentially gain some sunlight and extra flying hours.  An eastern exposure is also valuable because when facing east, the bees tend to get an earlier start on foraging throughout the season regardless of the angle of the sun.

Most of the time, however, it doesn’t matter all that much.  Many backyard and urban beekeepers are limited in their options on how and where to place their bees.  The truth is, bees are flexible, and most of the time they adjust well to the environment they are in.  When it comes to almond pollination – which is about to take place this month – almond orchard owners take no chances on the placement of the beehives that pollinate their groves.  Each year, a staggering 1.6 million colonies are rented for almond pollination.  Almond growers pay a small fortune to rent these bees, and they usually have specific requests on how they would like them placed.

One of the issues affecting bee pollination of almonds is weather.  Almonds are pollinated in February, a typical month of adverse weather not only in California, but most everywhere in the United States.  Honeybees do not fly until daytime temperatures exceeds 55º F.  Obviously, a grower cannot control the weather, but he or she can control the way that the rented colonies are placed in the grove so that the bees obtain as much sunshine as possible.  Growers typically request that beehives should face the sun, and the boxes should not be shaded by the trees or by other beehives.

To give an almond grower good value, the beekeeper should strive to place most beehive entrances facing due east or southeast, so that the bees catch the early morning sun and get off to an early start.  Also, a certain percentage of the colonies should face west.  The west-facing colonies will often fly right up to the evening hours, usually after the east-facing colonies have shut down.  Plus, on a day where rainy weather clears up later in the afternoon, the west-facing bees might still have time to venture out, while the east-facing colonies remain shut down.