A Giant Colony Of Honeybees

Once in a while, when everything is going right a beehive can grow to ridiculous proportions.  If the colony has a young, strong-laying queen, lots of space, a perfect flow of honey and pollen, and little competition from other colonies, there is no telling how large a colony can grow!  We have seen and heard stories of some of our customers’ colonies growing up to five and six stories high with honey throughout.

While exciting to behold, a giant colony is not always desirable and can sometimes be too much of a good thing, especially for small-scale beekeepers.  Why?  First, such a large colony, even if completely gentle, can be damaging for one’s relations with neighbors!  What makes a large colony so successful in honey production is that its high overall population leads to a large number of bees coming and going to forage.  While a few bees coming and going out of someone’s back yard can seem like part of the natural environment, unfortunately, clouds of bees in one’s backyard has the potential to become a public relations disaster.  Large foraging populations inevitably lead to bees landing in swimming pools, fecal droppings on neighbors’ cars, greater risks of accidental stings, and of course the possibility of giant swarming events.  The conscientious beekeeper should always minimize these concerns as much as possible.

Smaller colonies, while still able to produce honey, have several advantages over larger colonies.  First, they can be kept more discreetly.  Second, they make for easier management because they weigh less and take up less equipment.  Also, for routine inspections and finding the queen, a small colony will always be easier to inspect.

 

 

Summer Solstice

As the sun reaches its most northerly position relative to the earth, the bees also reach their maximum strength.  The summer solstice, which occurs on June 21st, brings the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  It also marks a delineation between the two broad seasons in the year of a beehive:  the season of expansion and the season of contraction.

During the period prior to the summer solstice, honeybees are generally expanding their population, growing in anticipation of the longer days and the late spring and summer nectar flows.  Bees are highly sensitive to the patterns of the sun.  Not only is their navigation system based on the daily position of the sun, but they also respond to the lengthening and shortening of days by adjusting their populations accordingly.  Their proclivity to expand their populations is, to a large degree, based on the length of daylight.

Within several weeks after the sun reaches its maximum strength, honeybees begin to sense the shortening days.  This change roughly marks the transition from the season of expansion to the season of contraction.  By mid to late summer, due to the shortening days, most queen bees will have cut back on their brood laying, which will result in the beginning of the seasonal decline in bee populations.

The Inspectors

As June arrives and the beekeeping season reaches its peak, we begin to think about our annual county beekeeping inspection, which is right around the corner.  Above is a photo that we took from last year’s inspection.

Our county beekeeping inspectors arrive in mid-summer in full force; armed with the latest beekeeping technology, multi-layered beekeeping suits, range-finding binoculars, foulbrood inspection kits, and carrying checklists that seem to be miles long.  They ask questions such as, “Where is the water source in this apiary?  How many colonies do you have here?  How close is the nearest residence?  What fire prevention steps are you taking, etc.?  These questions can go on and on, lasting the better part of a morning.

Of course, the inspectors have to live up to their title, and also inspect actual bee colonies for evidence of foul brood, varroa mites, viruses, diseases, colony temperament, and so on.  At Wildflower Meadows, we have few concerns with third-party colony inspections, since as queen breeders, we regularly do the same inspections, and are hyper-vigilant in guarding against diseases.  It is our job to regularly monitor the health and temperament of our own colonies, and we take this responsibility seriously.

Sometimes, however, the thoroughness and breadth of the inspectors’ checklists catches us off guard.  We were written up last year for not sufficiently trimming the weeds in an access road leading up to one of our apiaries.  We wrote about weed trimming last year, when we mentioned how beekeepers are sometimes hesitant to remove pollen sources from around the bees.  We are no different:  flowering weeds are precious pollen sources, and like many beekeepers, it breaks our heart to be forced to remove them!  The inspectors, however, in their quest for fire prevention (which obviously is very important in California) had no patience for our arguments.  We are now required to get more serious about our weed trimming responsibilities, oftentimes trimming in places that we never even thought about before . . .

Who knows what the inspectors will come up with this year?  Nevertheless, we are feeling confident.  Our colonies are looking great, our water sources are full, and our apiaries are weed-free.  And, at least for now, we are ready for the next round of inspections!

 

The Boys’ Club

When a beekeeper looks inside a hive it is a very rare occurrence to find drone honeybees inside of the brood nest.  Either the worker bees do not tolerate drones near the brood, or the drones themselves have little desire to visit the center of the colony.  More often than not, drones can be found on the outskirts of the brood, usually on a frame or two at the very edge of the colony, hanging out together with lots of other drones – the classic boys’ club of sorts.

Many things about the drones are different from the worker bees.  Besides the obvious differences of sex, honey production (drones do not produce honey), stinging (drones do not sting), and their large body sizes and ridiculously large eyes, drones mature and live at their own, more leisurely pace.

Whereas worker bees emerge from their brood cells in 21 days, drones take an unhurried 24 days.  When worker bees emerge they “hit the ground running”; before long they are attending to the many tasks inside the hive.  Drones, on the other hand, mature slowly.  They are not capable of mating until they are at least 6 days old.  During this time, they appear to have not much to do other than to eat and relax.

Even eating itself is relaxing, because young drones do not even feed themselves!  When drones are born they quickly learn how to solicit workers for food – especially nurse bees, which will feed them a mixture of honey, pollen and brood food.  Then, after feeding, it’s back to another stress free day in their own little man cave . . .

What To Look For In A Beehive Inspection

A successful beehive inspection begins even before a beekeeper opens the colony.  Sometimes, if the weather is too cold or otherwise unpleasant, an outside inspection may be all that a conscientious beekeeper will want to do for the day.  Not every day is ideal for opening a beehive.

No matter what the conditions, however, an astute beekeeper can learn much about a colony’s health simply by carefully observing the bees outside of the colony and considering . . .

  • Given the conditions of weather and bloom, is the level of activity taking place on the entrance greater or lower than what would be expected?
  • Are the bees bringing in pollen?
  • Are there signs of robbing or defensive behavior?
  • Are the bees fighting off invading insects such as wasps or ants?
  • Are there dead bees lying in front of the entrance?

Once a beekeeper decides to open a colony, the beekeeper will next want to consider . . .

  • What does the colony sound like when opened? (A healthy colony will have a contented and relaxed “hum”, whereas a queenless or otherwise stressed colony will often have an uncomfortable roaring sound.)
  • Are the bees in a cluster? This will indicate the location and size of the brood nest.
  • Does the colony feel heavy with honey? Or, does it have enough food?
  • What does the inside of the brood nest look like?  Is there a good mix of eggs, larva and capped brood?  No eggs may indicate that the hive is without a queen.
  • Does the larva look healthy, bright and white?
  • Does the larva look “wet” and well fed?  Dry larva may indicate that the colony is starved for pollen and could benefit from pollen supplement patties.
  • Does the capped brood look healthy, compact and well shaped?  Spotty brood may indicate disease or a failing queen.
  • Given the bee population and conditions of the season, do the bees have the right amount of space?
  • Are there swarm cells or signs that the colony may be planning to swarm?

A careful beekeeper always considers the well-being of the colony during the inspection.  The goal of the inspection is for the beekeeper to help the colony, if necessary, and not to overly stress the colony with too much invasiveness or rough handling.  At the end of the inspection, the beekeeper should replace the combs in the same order, and close up the hive as securely as it was before the inspection.

 

The Swarm Lure

Wildflower Meadows is not in the business of rescuing or catching swarms, and it is generally not something that we spend a lot of time doing.  When it comes to swarm catching, we let other beekeepers have all the fun!

However, once in a while we run into swarms that demand our attention.  Sometimes a mating nuc has swarmed into a tree outside the apiary and needs to be brought back into place.  At other times, one of our colonies has swarmed near a neighbor’s house and the neighbor is panicked and calling for assistance.  Occasionally, we may find that a giant swarm has arrived right next to our breeders.  We strive to keep swarms away from our breeders lest they even think about entering a breeder colony and possibly usurping a champion breeder queen.  In all these cases, we need to take action and give our best efforts to corral the swarm into a better place.

This is when the swarm lure proves to be an invaluable tool.  The swarm lure is a bait of essential oils that is highly attractive to a traveling swarm.  The mixture of oils is designed to either smell like an appealing beehive, or to mimic the smell of the Nasonov gland.  The Nasonov gland is the gland in a honeybee that emits the pheromones that call bees together.  Ideally, a good swarm lure immediately catches the swarm’s attention and directs the flight path in the direction of the lure.

There are many different recipes for swarm lures, many of which can be discovered with an Internet search.  Other commercial swarm lures come pre-formulated, and are sold by nearly all of the beekeeping supply companies.  Our personal favorite is the Swarm Commander, which is a proprietary mix of essential oils that reliably directs swarms into our waiting equipment.

When working with a powerful swarm lure like the Swarm Commander, our beekeepers need to be careful not to spill any! Wherever the lure goes, the bees follow. Even an accidental drop on top of the head is enough to cause problems for an entire day!

 

Spring Beekeeping

Spring arrives at different times in different parts of the United States.  Here, at Wildflower Meadows, our spring begins in early February.  For some of our customers, whose apiaries are in the north of the country or are in the mountains, spring can arrive as late as the middle of May or early June.  Regardless of the timing, however, spring beekeeping activities are the same for all beekeepers.

Spring is a time when the population of a beehive is about to grow rapidly.  The queen has begun to lay new frames of brood in earnest.  Often in the early spring a beehive may appear to contain more frames of brood than bees!  Accordingly, most spring beekeeping is focused on managing the expansion of the bee population and gearing up for an oncoming spring honey flow.

Honeybees’ swarming instinct is strongest in the spring, so the beekeeper needs to be especially aware of warning signs of swarming.  Having a young queen inside the hive, and making sure that there is enough extra space (supers) for a growing colony are the two best actions a beekeeper can take to control swarming.  Most colonies will need increased space as the season hits its stride of one or two weeks after the onset of spring.  Spring is also a good time to:

  • Clean off bottom boards
  • Remove entrance reducers (robbing usually is not a problem in the spring)
  • Replace old or destroyed honeycomb
  • Make sure that the bees have a clean and reliable nearby water source
  • Evaluate the quality of the overwintered queen

Although it is important for a beekeeper to ensure that bees have enough space heading into spring, a good beekeeper does not want to get too carried away by adding too many supers, or adding supers too early in the season.  Sometimes early an spring will bring unexpected frosts or chilly weather.  Too much space inside a beehive can make it difficult for the bees to keep the nighttime cluster warm and could result in the brood being chilled.

The Forager

An adult worker honeybee typically progresses through a series of roles during her short life span.  During her first two weeks of life she assumes the role of nurse bee, staying inside of the colony, tending to the larvae and to the many needs of the queen bee.  By the start of her third week, still inside the colony she takes on a slightly different role of  an “intermediate” bee; a worker bee who has not quite graduated to foraging status yet.  Her work at this point mostly consists of receiving and storing nectar from the forager bees, producing wax, and building comb.

By the start of the third week, however, a worker bee “graduates” her housekeeping duties and finally becomes a forager.  She will begin by taking a series of training flights to get oriented, and then ultimately heads out into the open world to forage for nectar, pollen, water, and propolis.  The transition to foraging is more or less a death sentence for a worker bee.  The risks to a foraging bee’s life are vastly higher than to a young bee that stays safely inside a well-secured colony.  Not only does a foraging bee have to deal with predators such as swallows and other bee-eating birds, a forager faces a multitude of environmental dangers such as cold, heat, drowning, spider webs, car windshields, etc.  Of course, a forager also can get lost or exhausted in her many daily trips to and from the colony.

A foraging bee makes an average ten to fifteen foraging trips per day!  With this heavy workload, even the strongest and luckiest forager bee only will live about another three weeks while foraging.  Assuming an intrepid foraging bee makes it through the gauntlet of dangers during her daily foraging, sadly her little wings will eventually wear out from all the hard work.  By her third week of foraging she reaches the end of her short lifespan.

An Ideal Queen Mating Yard

Central to all queen-rearing activities is the queen mating yard, where the queens make their home between the time that they are hatched from a queen cell, until the time that they are ready for sale.  A typical commercial queen mating yard contains hundreds of mating nuclei, each with at least a pound of worker bees, a small frame or two of brood, sufficient honey stores or feed, and a queen cell.

Not all mating yards are of the same quality. When we evaluate locations for establishing a mating yard, we always consider the following very important factors:

  1. First and most importantly, all mating yards need to be within optimal flying distance (approximately one half mile, give or take) to our drone-rearing colonies.  There has to be an abundance of quality drones in the area; otherwise, what’s the point?
  2. The mating yard should also be near rich pollen sources.  Young, growing queens need proper nutrition during their formative days, and nearby pollen enables the queens to be well nourished as they prepare for and take their multiple mating flights.
  3. An ideal queen-mating yard must also have landmarks, such as trees or bushes interspersed throughout the yard.  That way the queens do not get lost when returning home from their mating flights.
  4. A clean water source nearby is also important, so that the bees stay clear of swimming pools or other dangers
  5. And, the mating yard should be free from ants or other small pests that can overrun the small and relatively defenseless mating nucs.

The above photo is one of our favorite mating yards, and has all the key elements to make it a success.  It also features an additional benefit that we didn’t mention above: beautiful tall pine trees that provide plenty of shade for a relaxing lunch break after a morning of selecting and caging queen bees!

 

Guard Bees

Just like human security guards watching over and protecting an important home, guard bees have the same responsibilities for their colony.  Their mission: keep the colony’s inhabitants safe from intruders.

There are several different kinds of intruders that guard bees must protect against.  They include:

  • Honey bees from other colonies, specifically “robber bees
  • Other kinds of predatory insects, such as ants, moths and yellow jackets
  • Small critters seeking to take refuge inside a beehive for warmth, such as mice
  • Medium sized critters looking to eat bees or honey, such as skunks, raccoons and even some bird species
  • Large sized predators such as bears
  • And, of course, humans, who the bees likely assume intend to rob the colony of its honey

The obvious weapon that a guard bee utilizes, of course, is its powerful sting.  There is more, however, to being a guard bee than stinging.  Like a human security guard, a guard bee must also be attentive, be able to distinguish between normal activity and real threats, and also be able to quickly call for assistance, if needed.

Honeybees are not born as guard bees.  In fact, the youngest bees in a hive make poor guard bees because their stinging capabilities are underdeveloped.  It is the oldest bees that have the most developed stings, and the most potent venom.  Given older bees’ stinging capabilities, plus the fact that they are old and have the least to lose by dying, it is obvious why the oldest bees in a colony typically take on the role of “guard bee.”

A typical strong colony usually has about ten to twenty guard bees at a time patrolling the entrance of the hive.  This number can change depending on the size of the entrance, the season, nearby pressure from robbing, or presence of other threats.  Obviously, if a large-sized predator such as a bear approaches a beehive, ten guard bees is not going to be enough to deter an attack.  In that case, the guard bees quickly call for reinforcements, using an alarm pheromone.  In such an attack, the entire colony is placed on alert, and all worker bees temporarily become guard bees, sacrificing their lives to protect the colony.