Anticipating vs. Reacting

When we were just getting started here at Wildflower Meadows, an old-time beekeeper was retiring and eagerly sold us some of his equipment.  As we were getting ready to drive away with our truckload of beekeeping gear, and our dreams for the future, he offered us a piece of immeasurable parting advice.  He insisted that we understand that a skilled beekeeper always anticipates the upcoming, and never just reacts to what is happening in the now.  In beekeeping, he said, reacting to the present conditions is always too late.  He explained that his advice especially applied to the honey supers that we were purchasing.  He wanted us to make sure that the supers were on the hives, in place, and ready to go before the honey flow so as not to miss the action.  And then, he insisted that we should take them off right before the honey flow ends, well before the robbing starts so as to be less stressful on the bees.

Actually, his wise and priceless advice applies to almost all of beekeeping.  It is true that the best beekeepers stay ahead of the conditions, and not just react to them.  There is much to anticipate in beekeeping, and reacting is almost always too late.  For example, when a colony is in danger of overcrowding, some sort of swarm control needs to be done before it is too late.  When a queen is failing, she needs to be replaced before the hive declines precipitously.  If there are neighbors nearby with swimming pools, the bees should be given a clean and reliable water source before trouble ensues, and so on . . .

Sadly, many of the supers that we purchased from this gentleman burned up in one of the too-many-to-count California wildfires that seem to strike every year.  Yet, sometimes we still run into a few pieces of surviving equipment here and there, which always brings a smile.  More importantly, however, this beekeeper’s sage advice – far more valuable – lives on.  In our company, we take this advice to heart and always try our best to anticipate, and act, on what lies ahead.

Family Ties

Sometimes, here at Wildflower Meadows, we run across a colony that appears superior in all respects.  As a queen breeder, finding a special colony is always a promising affair.  So, of course, we wonder, perhaps we have discovered some sort of “super colony”; the honeybee equivalent to a superhero, like Wonder Woman.  Maybe if we could breed from this colony we could create a “Super Bee” or some other sort of legendary strain of bee.

However, not so fast . . .

It is tempting to think that the daughter of a superstar will be a superstar herself, but this is an oversimplification.  First of all, we have no idea what made the original colony perform so well.  Might it have been environmental factors rather than genetics?  Perhaps the bees found a pollen source that no other colony in the apiary found.  Or, what if they are situated in such a spot in the apiary that they are the recipient of drifting bees?  Maybe the reason that they are mite-free is not that they are resistant, but simply lucky enough to never have encountered them in large numbers.  In short, what if it is simply good luck that is making this colony appear so special?

Far more importantly, we need first consider whether the superstar colony itself is one of Wildflower Meadows’ pure and known bee lines, or instead a first-or-second-generation hybrid.  If the queen is a hybrid, her offspring are almost certainly going to be unpredictable.  The queen could be carrying many different latent or recessive genes that are not now visible, but could become apparent in next generations.  In general, it is best to breed from pure and known bee lines so that the offspring has a predictability in the immediate generation to follow.  As we described in a previous post, Hybrid Vigor, the most vigorous queens are the result of F1 (first-generation) hybrid bees.  The only way to create this vigor is by starting with pure lines, not with existing hybrids.  Therefore, it is important to remember that one beehive is not a proven line of bees!

This is why when Wildflower Meadows evaluates colonies for breeding potential, we need to consider more than one colony.  We really need to look at the queen’s entire family, and her family ties.  Ideally, we attempt to examine at least six of the sisters of the queen we are considering.  Are they too performing as well?  Are they too uniform?  In any breeding effort, the goal is consistency, and the only way to ensure consistency is to prove that the breeder herself is producing steady results.  The daughters should perform at least as well as the mothers, and should do so time and time again.

The Best and Worst Seasons for Raising Queen Honeybees

At Wildflower Meadows, we raise queen honeybees for a relatively long season, which begins in March and carries on through September.  Our mild weather is typically accommodating for such a long season.  However, the conditions for raising queen honeybees throughout this lengthy season vary, and are not always ideal.  As a result, we have to compensate for fluctuations throughout the year.

In raising queens, the most important factor in determining both the quantity and quality of queens is the condition of the cell building colonies.  A cell building colony is where the grafted queen cells are fed royal jelly and are developed into virgin queen bees.  The condition of the cell building colonies naturally varies throughout the season, and these variations directly affect queen rearing.  Sometimes conditions are good, and sometimes they are not.

The basic requirements of a cell building colony are that it needs to be well-stocked with nurse bees, well-fed with plenty of pollen for producing royal jelly, and consistently strong and healthy.  Most importantly, a cell building colony needs to be well-motivated to produce queen cells.  There is generally one period of the season when all of these conditions come together most perfectly, and this is the ideal season for rearing queens.

Typically, this ideal season is during the mid-to-late spring, which also, not coincidentally, is peak swarming season.  The swarming season is also typically when the most favorable nutrition conditions are available for the cell-building colonies, with plenty of high-quality pollen coming in.  It is when the bees are most naturally motivated to produce queen cells for swarming.  The bees know that the conditions are good and they are motivated to get to business!  In short, the best time of the year to rear queens is generally the same time of year when the bees are most apt to swarm.  The longer that conditions are favorable for swarming, the longer the queen producer has to raise abundant and well-nourished queens.

Some of the worst times of the year to produce queens are during the very early season, during the very late season, and during times of drought.  During the very early season, the ratio of older bees to nurse bees is at its worst, with a high percentage of older bees that overwintered and a much smaller percentage of vital nurse bees.  This is because in the early spring, the cell building colonies have not yet had enough time to begin brood rearing in earnest.  The small number of nurse bees means that less bees are available to properly feed queen cells.  During the early season, a conscientious queen producer needs to limit the production of queen cells to a smaller number; since even though a cell building colony may look strong, it is filled with only a small percentage of nurse bees.

During the later season, a cell building colony is more motivated to shut down for winter than it is to produce swarm cells.  At this point in the season, a cell building colony may still be receiving proper nutrition, but its motivation to produce queen cells is instinctively low.  The queen producer has no way of changing this.  Therefore, once again, the beekeeper needs to limit the production of queen cells to a smaller number towards the end of the season.

Drought poses two different problems:  During drought, the bees are less likely to want to expand or swarm, so their motivation to produce queen cells is reduced, and during drought, nutrition becomes a factor.  The nurse bees have less access to quality pollen sources, which limits their ability to produce nutritious royal jelly.  Queen production can suffer.  Therefore, any conscientious queen producer who desires to continue to rear queens during a period of drought needs to aggressively feed the cell building colony both syrup and a pollen substitute in order to offset the effects of the drought, thereby limiting the ability of the cell building colony to feel the drought’s effects.

The Importance of Dividing Beehives

In the wild, a healthy colony of bees passes through an ongoing cycle.  A wandering swarm becomes established in a secure location and becomes an established beehive.  This new beehive builds out honeycomb, and the queen, which arrived with the swarm, begins laying new brood.  Over time, the beehive grows and the hive fills with honey stores and bee population.  Then, when conditions are favorable, the colony prepares to swarm.  The colony raises a new queen for itself, and the old queen leaves with a good percentage of the population to start the swarming process again.

Beehives are used to dividing themselves.  It is how they reproduce to ensure the survival of their species.  If honeybees didn’t swarm, the entire species would be vulnerable to adversity.  By swarming and dividing itself in half, a beehive reduces its risk to adversity in half. If the original colony perishes, the swarm is still available to carry on, and vice-versa.  If the swarm does not make it, the original colony can grow back to size and swarm again later.

As a beekeeper with managed hives, you should be thinking about the same concept of dividing your beehives for managing risk and adversity.  If you have only one hive and something adverse were to happen to it, you would be completely wiped out.  If, however, when conditions are favorable, you decide to divide your colony into two beehives, you would greatly reduce your risk towards losing your entire endeavor.  It is a common rule of thumb that approximately 30% of beehives die each year.  Therefore, just by dividing your colony into two, you reduce the risk of being completely wiped out from 30% to 9%.  (30% x 30%).  And if you were to divide your colony into three hives, you would reduce your risk all the way down a mere 2.7% (30% x 30% x 30%).

This is the same risk-avoidance principal that wild hives follow in nature by swarming.  As a conscientious beekeeper of managed colonies, it is essential that you learn good techniques of dividing your colonies so that you can also stay around for the long-haul.  (For a relatively easy technique of dividing your colony without having to look for the queen, please check out our video entitled “Prepare a Four Frame Nuc.”)

Sage Honey

One of the more delightful times of the year for a beekeeper is during the heart of spring.  The daylight is growing longer each day, and the bees have plenty of foraging work to attend to.  This is the time of year when so many flowers are blooming that you begin to wonder how the bees can even figure out where to go when they leave the hive.  With so many flowers to choose from, where do they begin?

Here at Wildflower Meadows, it seems to us that in times like this, wild sage blossoms are the bees’ favorites.  We know this by two tell-tale signs.  First, about mid-April, the incoming nectar switches from the deep reddish brown color of avocado nectar to the light and almost clear color of wild sage nectar.  Second, and more tellingly, we begin seeing foraging bees returning to the hive with purple heads!

Here in Southern California, the purple heads can only come from one source, black button sage.  Black button sage, also known as black sage or salvia mellifera, is a coastal chaparral plant that blooms with delicate purple blossoms primarily in April and May.  Although its flowers are purple, the plant is nevertheless called black sage.  This is because later in the season the flowers dry up and the flower pods turn to black caps, or black “buttons”, giving it its well-known name of black button sage.

The sage nectar that the bees enjoy so much resides at the base of a purple tube.  Eager bees dive right into this tube, and in the process, get a face full of purple pollen dust.  This can easily be noticed by an observant beekeeper watching the returning foragers with purple faces.  Their faces don’t stay purple for long, however.  Once inside the hive, the other bees clean the faces of their sisters so that by the time the foraging bees exit for their next flight, they are wiped clean and ready for a new round.

Sage honey is known for its very light, almost transparent color and its well-renowned ability to resist crystallizing.  It is one the most prized California honeys, with a delicate flavor that has a distinct “bubble gum” flavor – delicious through and through!

The Queen Excluder

Most beginning beekeeping kits come with a queen excluder, and most beekeepers will want to try utilizing a queen excluder at some point during their beekeeping experience.  It is a handy piece of equipment; and as its name suggests, it keeps a queen from entering an area of the hive while allowing the smaller worker bees to pass through.

The most common use of a queen excluder is during a honey flow, when it is placed directly under a newly added honey super.  By preventing the queen from entering the area where honey is to be collected, it keeps brood out of the honey super.  By eliminating brood from the honey area, it also discourages the bees from storing pollen near the honey, which can flavor and reduce the purity of the honey.

Believe it or not, to this day generations of beekeepers still argue over whether or not to use queen excluders.  Many – perhaps most – commercial beekeepers do not use queen excluders, believing that by restricting the movement of the honeybees, the queen excluder inhibits the maximum production of honey.  Old-timer beekeepers laughingly refer to queen excluders as “honey excluders”.

At Wildflower Meadows, when it comes to using queen excluders for honey production, we take a more balanced approach.  We generally do not utilize queen excluders when we place honey supers on our colonies, as this allows the bees and the queen to move freely throughout the colony.  Sometimes, however, we do place excluders at the end of the honey flow.  If a queen has gotten too comfortable in the honey super and is still laying brood up there during the honey flow, we will drive the queen down into one of the lower boxes and then add a queen excluder after the fact to keep her from returning.  Within a few weeks, all the brood will have hatched.  Typically, the bees replace the areas where the brood has hatched with fresh nectar, resulting in a clean honey super for harvest.

Getting Bees to Draw Out Foundation

One of the more frustrating aspects of starting out as a new beekeeper is that unless you have purchased an existing hive with existing equipment, you must start your new beehive with foundation.  Foundation is sold by beekeeping supply companies and is the building block of honeycomb; but it is not in itself honeycomb.  The most unfortunate feature of foundation is that bees simply can’t use it for any purpose at all until they have added their own beeswax to it and turned it into honeycomb.  This process is called drawing out foundation.  Unless the bees draw out the foundation, the foundation itself is worthless to the beehive for either storing honey or raising brood because it simply is not deep enough.

Many beekeepers, especially new ones, struggle because they cannot seem to get their bees to draw out foundation fast enough for the hive to properly develop.  “Why aren’t my bees drawing out foundation?” is a common complaint of the new beekeeper.  It would be easy if we could just ask the bees?  But since they cannot communicate with us, we have to do some detective work.

The most important component for the bees to draw out foundation is the quality of the honey flow.  In a very strong honey flow, the bees will draw out foundation without any difficulty at all.  It is the presence of nectar that enables bees to produce the large supply of wax necessary to build out foundation with honeycomb.  But if the honey flow is less than perfect – which turns out to be about 90% of the year – the bees are going to need some additional help.  A dedicated beekeeper should always provide a generous supply of syrup to a beehive that is building out foundation.  The syrup will help to supplement the natural nectar and will turbocharge wax production.

Next to consider is the actual placement of the foundation.  Bees in a colony work from the inside out, and will always draw out the foundation that is placed towards the center of the hive first.  If you find that the bees are ignoring the outside frames in favor of those on the inside, you can try repositioning one outside frame of foundation towards the middle, and sliding the other frames towards the edge.  Be sure to keep all of the other frames in the same sequence so as not to disturb the hive and brood nest too greatly.

Also, a queen excluder may be part of the problem.  If you are trying to draw out an entire honey super of foundation, by all means you should not use a queen excluder.  Although useful for many purposes, queen excluders inhibit bees from drawing out foundation because they restrict the natural flow of bees in and out of the super.  Add the queen excluder after the foundation has been drawn out, not before.

The quality of the foundation itself should not be ignored.  When working with plastic foundation, the quality of the wax coating on the foundation is critical.  The waxier the foundation, the more likely the bees will be attracted to it.  Many beekeeping supply companies sell “double waxed” and even “triple waxed” foundation.  Although this foundation sells at a premium, it is often worth the extra costs because it typically results in greater and faster acceptance by the bees.

Sometimes, however, building out foundation is just not a possibility.  For example, the season could be completely off the table.  Bees do not have any urge to expand in the late fall and winter, and are unlikely to draw out foundation at that time of year regardless of all other factors.  Or it could be that the colony simply is not strong enough to build out more than a single frame, or even a half of frame at a time.  Sometimes a beekeeper just needs to have a little bit of understanding and sympathy toward the bees!

Photo of foundation by permission of Pierco Beekeeping Equipment.

Raising Queens vs. Breeding Queens

Being a provider of queen honeybees carries with it several responsibilities.  First, and always foremost, is to raise quality queens.  Anyone who is raising queens has an obligation to focus on quality in all facets of the queen raising process.  This means paying attention to details and not cutting corners.  From selecting a breeder queen, to grafting larvae, to raising queen cells, to optimizing mating conditions, and all the way to caging and shipping queens, any failure to maintain a high standard of quality can, and likely will, result in the raising of sub-standard queens.

Raising queens, however, is only half of the formula for developing a quality queen.  What is equally important is the breeding of queens.  The queen producer wants queens, but the queen breeder wants more.  The queen breeder wants an improvement in the queen stock.  Therefore, breeding cannot be overlooked as a key component of the queen rearing process.  Most every queen producer, large or small, will start with a good breeder queen.  But this is a long way from selecting heritable properties in the bees from generation to generation.

Breeding queens involves reproducing genetic lines of bees from generation to generation by selecting for specific traits that the beekeeper desires.  It requires both promoting positive traits and removing undesirable traits.  It also requires generational focus on combining the very best of genetic material.  While some queen producers may overlook this part of the formula, fortunately, many conscientious queen producers throughout the years – and continuing through today – have understood the entire breadth and responsibility of raising queens.  These individuals are much more than producers of queens; they are true breeders of quality honeybees.

First Day on the Job

The first day at any job is usually a day of excitement, and perhaps a little anxiety.  What will the work be like?  Who will be my co-workers?  Will we all get along?

When you start as a new employee at Wildflower Meadows, the work is going to be outside.  You are expected to be conscientious and hardworking.  And, as for co-workers?  You are going to have several million of them, nearly all of them insects and nearly all of them with stingers!

The best thing about having bees as co-workers is that if they are unhappy with you, they will be honest and straightforward with you and let you know their feelings directly.  Therefore, we always give our new beekeepers the advice to be respectful of the bees; treat them with respect and they will do the same in return.

New employees, like most new beekeepers, are usually most concerned about one thing:  getting stung.  Of course, it is bound to happen that you are going to get stung, especially if nearly your entire workday is going to be spent with your hands in and around beehives.

It takes time to learn how to move and act around honeybees.  Honeybees – like dogs, horses and other domesticated animals – seem to have a sense of when their handler is comfortable.  They often react according to the way the beekeeper moves.  Bees respond accordingly to calm, smooth and Zen-like movements.  But they can also respond adversely if the beekeeper is moving in a jerky or unpredictable manner.  Bees, like everyone, do not appreciate rough handling.  Therefore, the problem with being a new beekeeping employee – or new beekeeper for that matter – is that it takes time to learn the little things that keep the bees at ease.  Eventually, everyone does.  But the Zen-like, smooth, experienced movement comes later – typically not on the first day of work.

It also takes time to learn how to move one’s hands in and out of the hive.  For most us here at Wildflower Meadows, the vast majority of our stings are not the result of angry or defensive bees, but rather the result of us clumsily putting our hands or fingers on the wrong spot.  These are accidental stings and are no fault of the bees, but rather the fault of a heavy-handed beekeeping movement.  New beekeepers are more prone to make this kind of mistake, such as not looking carefully, or not feeling for individual bees before picking up a frame.  New beekeepers receive accidental stings far more frequently than experienced beekeepers.  Moving with light Zen-like hands comes later, as new employees have yet to learn the “beekeeping touch” on their very first day.

The Warré Hive

Most of the beekeepers that we work with – and the majority of beekeepers in the United States – utilize the standard type of beehive known as a Langstroth hive.  This type of hive, with removable and standardized rectangular frames, is the most well-known and well-recognized type of beehive.  It is typically the main type of hive that is featured and sold in most of the major beekeeping supply companies.

As we have mentioned in many previous posts, however, bees are flexible in their choice of home.  They can be found in the inside of tree hollows, owl boxes, the sidings of buildings, and even abandoned furniture.  Clearly, there are many types of possible configurations of beehives.  There is no universal law that says that bees have to be kept in Langstroth hives – and certainly not one honeybees themselves ever plan on following!

Back around the turn of the 20th Century, a creative and independent thinking French beekeeper named Abbé Émile Warré, gave some thought to the type of hive that he believed would be ideal for both the beekeeper and the bees themselves.  This thoughtful beekeeper considered some 350 different types of configurations, eventually settling on what he called “The People’s Hive.”  Today, we call this style of beehive a Warré Hive.  It was designed by Émile Warré to be easy to construct, economical, natural, and as comfortable as possible for the bees.

The Warré Hive is comparable to many of today’s top bar hives, but it has a number of unique and stylistic features.  The roof, like that of a well-designed human house, is gabled to allow for water runoff.  A Warré hive almost always features a ventilated loft directly under the roof.  And, add to that, it has a typically stylish entrance at the bottom.  These hives really look sharp.  The most distinctive structural feature of the Warre hive – at least in our opinion – is the quilt box that is placed directly under the roof.  Within the quilt box, the beekeeper places straw or shaved cedar chips to absorb excess moisture and provide insulation for the colony below.

Besides being a work of art for the beekeeper, the Warré hive is relatively inexpensive and easy to construct for a practical-minded beekeeper.  The materials mostly consist of inexpensive natural wood.  Since the hive itself is also a top bar hive, it does not require the purchase of enclosed frames or foundation.  The bees are free to build natural comb much in the same way that they would naturally do in the wild.  There is no plastic anywhere in or around the hive.

Unlike most conventional hives, Warré hives are designed to be worked from the top down.  This means that Warré hives are typically supered from the bottom rather than from the top.  When the first box becomes full of bees and brood the beekeeper will then add an additional box underneath, enabling the bees to expand downward.  This is a natural movement for the bees.  Eventually, when the bees have naturally expanded their brood rearing into the lower boxes, the upper box will end up remaining mostly filled with honey.  The beekeeper then harvests this top box – usually only once per year.

Émil Warré envisioned a system whereby the beekeeper would generally leave the bees alone, providing for their maximum comfort.  In his judgment, the bees did best with minimal beekeeper intrusion.  He ideally envisioned only one visit per year simply to remove the top box.  There is something to be said for this hands-off approach.  It is very respectful to the bees.  On the other hand, however, in today’s adverse environment, where bees are subject to all sorts of maladies and dangers, the bees can – and usually do – benefit from a supportive relationship with a responsible beekeeper.  To this point, the Warré design can be somewhat cumbersome for a beekeeper who wants to regularly inspect and manage their hive.

If you are interested in exploring the Warré hive further, we recommend taking a look at The Bee Space website, which features a link to Émil Warré’s famous book, “Beekeeping for All,” as well as detailed instructions on how to build your own Warré Hive.

Photo of Warré Hive used by permission, courtesy of Nick Winters; The Bee Space