Four Frame Nucs – The Easy Way

Spring is an excellent time to divide beehives.  At this time of year, bees are instinctively building their populations, and the bees themselves have a natural inclination to swarm (which is their own method of dividing).  By dividing a colony when the population is on the upswing, you as a thoughtful beekeeper are working with the natural flow of nature and the bees, rather than against them.  It is at this time of year that dividing a colony has the most natural and the least stressful impact on a beehive.

When it comes to dividing bee colonies, there are probably as many methods as there are beekeepers!  Some beekeepers split colonies into two, others into three or four. Some make four-frame nucs, some make smaller or larger nucs – or even full-size colony divides.  Some shake bees out of strong colonies and make their own packages. Some beekeepers look for the queen up front, others wait until after they make the divide.  No one way is right or wrong.  It is up to each beekeeper to uncover the method that works best both for the individual beekeeper, as well as, of course, the bees.

One of the most tried-and-true ways of dividing a strong colony is to prepare a four-frame nuc.  A typical four-frame nuc consists of one frame of honey, two frames of brood, one frame of pollen, and a new queen bee.  In our video, “Preparing a Four-Frame Nuc,” the beekeepers at Wildflower Meadows will show you one of our own favorite methods of preparing a high-quality four-frame nuc – one that enables a beekeeper to divide a colony without even having to look for the queen!

Queen Spotting

We are pleased to announce the release of a new book about our favorite subject, queen honeybees!  The book, titled “QueenSpotting”, is authored by our friend and fellow beekeeper, Hilary Kearney of Girl Next Door Honey.

Queen spotting, in fact, is what this book is all about.  Hilary challenges readers to “spot the queen” with 48 fold-out visual puzzles — vivid up-close photos of the queen hidden among her many subjects — as well as queen bee chronicles of royal hive happenings such as The Virgin Death Match, The Nuptual Flight (when the queen mates with a cloud of male drones high in the air), and the dramatic Exodus of the Swarm from the hive.

As we all know, whether in a live situation or in a photo, it is not always easy to spot the queen bee.  If you have difficulty spotting queen bees in your colonies, then this book is an enjoyable way to gain some practice and confidence with your queen spotting skills, all while being entertained in what Hilary hopes is a more relaxing environment than with impatient bees buzzing around your head!

“QueenSpotting” also features a section on Wildflower Meadows, entitled “The Experts”, which includes an account of our team members in action, finding and marking Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen bees.

For further information about “QueenSpotting,” please visit Girl Next Door Honey.

How Much Honey Can A Beehive Produce?

Every bee season eventually reaches a peak when honey production hits its stride and the bees are bringing in the maximum amount of nectar each day.  This is referred to as the honey flow, and it is what most beekeepers live for.

When things are going right, a beehive’s worker bees are putting in long hours foraging, and the house bees are drying nectar as fast as the foragers can bring it in.  A single worker bee can visit over a thousand flowers a day.  Multiply that by thousands of workers, and we are talking about a lot of nectar!

What does it take to reach this kind of honey production?  Well, more than a few variables have to fall into place.  To reach peak honey production a beehive typically needs:

–       A high concentration of honey-producing flowers nearby, such as clover, buckwheat or alfalfa

–       Above average rainfall in the rainy season prior to the bloom (this makes the flowers rich with nectar)

–       A strong, healthy hive, booming with healthy bees and a large population

–       Plenty of space to store all the surplus honey

–       Sunny and warm weather (this enables the flowers to secrete nectar at a maximum), and

–       Plenty of daylight for the bees to fly; from sunup to sundown

A typical beehive in the United States can produce anywhere from 10 to 200 pounds of honey in a year.  That is an unbelievably large range, which indicates just how critical these variables are in order for a beehive to reach peak honey production.

If all is going well, how much honey can a beehive produce in a single day?  At Wildflower Meadows, we have seen beehives fill an entire deep super of buckwheat honey in less than a week.  That’s about 10 pounds of honey per day!  Of course, this happens only once in a while, when all of the above conditions fall into place.  More often than not, here in Southern California, we run into years of drought that greatly distress our native honey-producing plants.  However, when everything is going just right, producing honey can feel a lot like hitting the lottery!

Starting A Beehive Without Buying Bees

In a world where everything costs money, it is difficult to believe that one of the simplest ways that a beekeeper can start a new colony is completely free.  During the swarming season, which takes place every spring, complete beehives literally fall out of the sky!  Why not make them yours, and in the process start a new beehive without buying bees?

Catching a swarm is not as difficult as one would think.  Beekeepers have been starting beehives in this manner as a time-honored tradition for centuries.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, we catch our fair share of swarms and obtain new beehives for free too.  (Of course, we lose a few swarms each year, but that is another story . . . )

To catch a swarm, a beekeeper needs to think like the swarm.  A swarm of bees has one main objective, which is to find and settle into a desirable new home.  When a swarm is on the loose it can be found in either of two states – settled (usually resting on a branch) and looking for a home, or flying (moving from one location to another) and looking for a home.  Either type of swarm can be captured by an opportunistic beekeeper.

Settled swarms require the beekeeper to go out, suit up, and retrieve the bees from their resting area.  The beekeeper usually shows up to the swarm site with a collection box or empty hive body.  More often than not, it is not particularly difficult to shake or brush the bees into the collection box.  If the swarm is clustered on a branch, oftentimes a beekeeper will simply cut the branch and remove both the bees and the branch at the same time.  (Sometimes, however, the swarm is out of reach and cannot be safely be retrieved.)  How can you as a beekeeper locate these types of swarms?  The best way to find swarms is to get the word out that you are available to collect them.  Some cities and counties maintain lists of beekeepers who are available to collect swarms.  A beekeeper that is looking for swarms can also contact nearby apartment managers or housing complexes, many of which run into unwanted swarms of bees, especially during the spring.

Believe it or not, swarms that are flying can also be lured, but this requires a more passive approach.  In this case, the goal is to attract a flying swarm to the beekeeper’s equipment by using chemical lures, which are designed to mimic the pheromone that honeybees produce when they are calling their fellow bees to a location.  To catch flying swarms, a beekeeper uses either bait hives or swarm traps.  Bait hives are standard empty beekeeping hive bodies that have been scented with swarm lures.  Swarm traps are containers specifically designed to lure and catch flying swarms (both swarm lures and swarm traps are sold by beekeeping supply companies).

The good news about swarms is that they are easy to handle.  As long as a swarm is not well established in its new location, it has no young brood or honey to defend, so the bees normally behave very gently.  Even a swarm from an aggressive African honeybee colony will act gently after it has been separated from its main colony.

Once you have collected your swarm, it is critical that you soon replace the queen that came with the swarm.  Why?  Because, the queen that arrived with the swarm is of unknown origin.  It could have poor genetics that could lead the colony to be undesirable in many ways, such as having a bad temperament or being prone to disease.  The only thing you know about a swarm is that the genetic line is likely to swarm.  After all, it already has!  With a new queen, especially one from Wildflower Meadows, you will be obtaining quality, healthy, and known genetic stock that is well suited for your new colony.

How Far Does A Queen Bee Fly To Mate?

Even though a queen bee is obviously different from the average worker bee, she maintains all the flying and navigational ability of a worker bee.  This is important because virgin queen bees need to fly to be able to mate outside of the hive.  A virgin queen bee will never mate inside of her own hive as she needs to take flight to mate.  By mating during flight, a queen bee is able to increase the odds that she will mate with drones that did not originate from her own colony, and thereby minimize the chances of inbreeding appearing in the next generation.

After a series of orientation flights, a virgin queen bee sets out for mating somewhere between the 5th and 14th day after her emergence from her queen cell.  From our experience, most of our Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queens usually mate on the 7th or 8th day after emergence.

A virgin queen does not necessarily take just one mating flight.  Since she typically mates with up to 15 drones, sometimes she requires more than one mating flight to mate with the right number of drones.  A queen bee’s individual mating flight lasts approximately five to thirty minutes, depending on how quickly she encounters drones, and on the weather.  Warmer weather usually means that more drones are flying, so the queen may stay out flying longer if the conditions are favorable.

During a mating flight, a queen bee can fly a considerable distance depending on whether she is able to find drones with which to mate.  Also, the drones themselves are flying between one to three miles from their hives to nearby drone congregation areas where they too are looking for queens.  The queens can also theoretically fly about the same distance when looking for drones.  In theory, that means that a drone can potentially mate with a queen that is 6 miles away!  In actuality, however, on average, most mating flights occur within a mile of the virgin queen’s home colony.  If a queen encounters a drone congregation area right away, the mating can take place very close to the queen’s home colony.  If she cannot find drones, the queen can fly up to the maximum distance while out looking for drones.

Herein lies the answer to our question:  How far does a queen bee fly to mate?  It depends on how quickly she finds drones, or how quickly the drones find her!

At Wildflower Meadows, our number one focus is producing the highest quality VSH-Italian queen bees for sale.  Accordingly, we think a lot about how to create the most ideal mating conditions for our virgin queens.  That includes flooding mating areas with as many drones as possible.  Our drone production colonies are usually spread about a mile apart in various directions from our mating yards.  Our goal is to create a radius of drones around the virgin queens, so that they do not have to fly too far for mating.  Our positioning strategy also ensures that our queens are most likely to mate with our own Wildflower Meadows’ drones of known optimum genetics.

Wild Mustard

After the winter and early spring rains, wild mustard bursts on the scene with its brilliant yellow blossoms.  If there is one plant that symbolizes the heart of the queen rearing season, it is wild mustard.  Wild mustard is arguably the richest source of bee pollen that the bees see all year.  It is loaded with nutrients, and is a key ingredient for the bees’ production of royal jelly during the height of the queen rearing season.  Nutritious royal jelly leads to healthy queen cells, which leads to healthy young mated queen bees.

Although not a native plant, in many ways wild mustard forms the backbone of the food source not only for honeybees, but for much of the wild California ecosystem.  If mustard is plentiful, rabbits and other herbivores have plenty of nutritious greens to eat.  This results in a higher number of coyotes and other predators.

It all starts with mustard.

An old-time beekeeper once told us that he could predict the success of the upcoming honey crop simply by observing the height of the mustard plants in early spring.  He stood about 6 feet tall and measured how high the mustard plants grew relative to his body.  He confidently declared that shoulder-high mustard indicated that the ground was plenty wet and the season would be good.  Head-high mustard indicated a spectacular season ahead, and if the mustard could only reach waist-high, that meant trouble for the bees.

From our experience he has been proven correct!  Ever since he shared that bit of wise lore, we have always kept our eyes on the growth of the season’s mustard and found his rule of thumb to be accurate.

It is too early yet to tell how high the mustard will grow this year, but we won’t complain if it reaches our heads!

Urban Beekeeping

Most people consider beekeeping to be a rural pastime, but plenty of beekeepers successfully keep bees in cities or suburbs.  These brave individuals, known as urban beekeepers, face their own sets of challenges and rewards.

There are unique payoffs to urban beekeeping that traditional rural beekeepers simply can not obtain.  First, cities and suburbs feature abundant flower sources from multiple types of trees, shrubs and gardens.  Urban flower sources also tend to be largely impervious to drought or lack of rainfall, because homeowners and city governments rarely stop watering landscapes and gardens.

Let’s face it, almost every home or business has a flowering garden of some sort.  Plus, cities and suburbs are abundant with trees, many of which are well known to be excellent honey sources – elms, maples, and sourwood in the eastern US, tupelos and magnolias in the south, eucalyptus and willow in the west, mesquite in the desert, and an abundance of fruit trees nearly everywhere.  It only takes a few blooming trees to deliver an excellent source of nectar to an urban colony of bees.

Furthermore, in many urban areas, only a limited number of honeybees compete for those bountiful nectar sources.  Unlike in the countryside, cities and suburbs rarely feature giant apiaries of honeybees that compete for all of this excellent forage.  As a result, urban bees generally have a better ratio of honeybees to flowers than in the countryside.  That is why urban beekeepers almost always produce larger and more consistent honey crops than their rural counterparts; massive 200+ pound honey crops per colony are not uncommon in urban beekeeping.

The challenges of urban beekeeping, however, are obvious.  Close neighbors, strict zoning, and high liability immediately come to mind.

Of course, there are ways to mitigate these concerns.  If you are an urban beekeeper or plan on becoming one, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Out of sight, out of mind:

Stealth and secrecy is probably the most important consideration for an urban beekeeper.  In general, the less people who have any idea about your hobby, the better off you will be.  It only takes one overreacting neighbor to potentially shut down your entire endeavor.  Your beehives and your bees’ flight paths are best kept out of the sight (and minds) of the public.

Keeping your beehives surrounded by tall shrubs, fences or walls will assist you by not only hiding your colonies, but by also forcing your bees to fly high overhead rather than at ground level. This will keep their flight paths clear of people and out of the line of sight.  Keeping beehives on a rooftop also accomplishes the same.

Keep gentle bees:

Always keep known gentle races of bees and requeen them regularly so that the bees are of a known, gentle origin.

Watch out for powerful night lighting:

Bees, of course being insects that they are, can’t help but to fly into lights.  Nearby powerful night lighting can agitate beehives during the evening and keep individual foraging bees from properly orienting at dusk and dawn.

Think about your neighbors, and choose the best times to work your bees:

Obviously, it is best not to work your colonies when neighbors, children and pets are outside and nearby.  Extreme caution is always best.

Keep zoning in mind:

Always adhere to your county and city zoning requirements.

Don’t forget about water:

Bees need plenty of water.  Maintaining a nearby clean water source for the bees will keep your bees out of your neighbors’ swimming pools and fountains.

And, finally, share the love:

If nearby neighbors do know about your bees, a few jars of honey each year is a small price to pay toward keeping them on board with your hobby.  Sweeten the deal, and you will make some new friends in the process!

 

Our friends at Redfin have recently prepared an excellent guide for urban beekeepers.  If you would like to learn more about this subject, please visit 5 Steps to Becoming a Backyard Beekeeper.

 

Migratory Beekeeping

Some of our largest customers at Wildflower Meadows are migratory beekeepers.  Migratory beekeepers in the United States begin each new year in California pollinating almonds.  After that their paths diverge.  Some move their bees to orange groves to produce orange blossom honey.  Other beekeepers continue on to Oregon and Washington to pollinate cherries, cranberries, and apples.  By summer, many of these same beekeepers can be found in the Great Plains producing clover honey.  In the fall and winter, most of these very same beekeepers move their bees to warmer climates, like these here in Southern California, for over-wintering.

What makes all this possible is the existence of the vast United States interstate highway system, the availability of large flatbed trucks, and forklifts.  Migratory beekeepers keep their bees on pallets, usually four to a pallet – most usually known as “four-ways.”  The pallet doubles as a bottom board for the colonies, each of which are held in place by clips.  When it comes time to move the bees, the beekeeper can easily pick up a pallet of four colonies at a single time with a forklift.  Giant 18-wheel flatbed trucks are loaded with upwards of 400 colonies each.  Depending on the distance of the move, the load is netted down, and the truckers head on their way to more abundant pastures.

While migratory beekeeping benefits the bees in certain ways – the bees always find themselves in the midst of flowering crops or fields – it is hard on them in other ways.  The constant moving can lead to stress, which can result in queen losses.  And, keeping bees on pallets and in close quarters is not necessarily ideal because it can lead to the spread of mites and diseases.

Migratory beekeeping can also be hard on the beekeepers, who spend large amounts of the year away from home and family.  The life of a migratory beekeeper features many days on the road, staying in cheap hotels, eating fast food, and almost all of the of time worrying about planning and logistics.

Despite all this hardship, not enough praise can be offered to these brave beekeepers, and the contributions that they make to our food supply.  Without migratory beekeepers and their invaluable pollination services, our crops would suffer greatly – and we would too.  Migratory beekeepers are among the true heroes of beekeeping!

Photo courtesy of Allen’s Honey Company, Brawley, California, pollinators of almonds, melons, alfalfa and countless vegetable seed crops.

Optimum genetics

Italian Queen Bees

Italian queen bees make up the heart of the American beekeeping industry.  They are well known for their gentle disposition, abundant brood production, and the excellent foraging abilities of their workers.

Originating in the Apennine Peninsula of (obviously) Italy, Italian queen bees were originally introduced into the United States in the late 1850’s.  As they say, “the rest is history.”  Up until the introduction of Italian queen bees, American beekeepers favored the German honeybee, which was darker, less resistant to disease, and aggressive.  Who wouldn’t prefer the pleasant qualities of the Italian honeybees to that?  Sure enough, given their genetic advantages of solid brood production, excellent foraging, and gentleness, Italian queen honeybees and their respective Italian bees, have been a staple of American beekeeping ever since.

While by far the most popular race of bees in US beekeeping, Italian queen bees are not perfect.  Some of their strengths are also the root of their weaknesses.  Their continuous brood production can sometimes result in the overshooting of their optimal population, especially once a honey flow comes to an end.  Sometimes, Italian queens may overproduce brood during times of dearth and cold weather, which can lead to a greater need for supplemental feeding of the colony.  If ignored by the beekeeper during these times of dearth, Italian honeybees can overshoot their optimal population and then become susceptible to starvation.

In recent years, with the ever-increasing demands of the California almond pollination, Italian queen bees have become even more vital to the United States beekeeping industry.  Pollination of almonds takes place in early to mid-February each year, and requires upwards of two thirds of the entire US bee population to successfully pollinate a single year’s almond crop.  Obviously, February is an especially early time of year for a typical honeybee colony to be up to the level of strength of field force necessary to pollinate a commercial crop.  Thus, enter the Italian queen bee!

The Italian queen bee doesn’t care what time of year it is, as she is always ready to lay more brood.  It is no wonder that the vast majority of commercial beekeepers who pollinate almonds select Italian queen bees for their operations.

At Wildflower Meadows, we too have come to love and respect the venerable Italian queen bee and her wonderful traits.  All of our VSH queen bees are crossed with Italian stock to create our Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen bees.

Artificial Insemination Of VSH Queen Honeybees

It is surprising to us that the majority of queen breeders do not take advantage of the well-known and long-established tool of artificial insemination.  Even more surprising is that most queen breeders choose to ignore the proven advantages of directly adding the VSH trait to their breeder stock.  By ignoring the valuable tool of artificial insemination and the VSH trait, many queen breeders select stock relatively haphazardly with little or no knowledge of the source of the drones that influence not only the behavior of the breeder queens themselves, but also of the daughter queens that end up being sold to the public throughout the season.

Artificial insemination has been utilized by livestock breeders of farm animals for nearly 70 years, and has been available to queen honeybee breeders for nearly as long.  Its advantages are obvious and many, especially when it comes to honeybees, which naturally mate with multiple unknown drones in an uncontrolled environment (the sky).  Artificial insemination allows a conscientious queen breeder to control mating and to mate specific drones to specific queens.  This enables the breeder to directly select the desired genetic traits in the offspring, such as the VSH trait, gentleness traits, honey production, disease resistance and color.  Without artificial insemination, a queen breeder has no first-hand knowledge of the genetics in the breeder queen that are being passed along to the next several generations.

At Wildflower Meadows, all of our breeder queens are artificially inseminated with hand-selected VSH drones from proven, gentle and highly productive colonies.  This provides the core genetic footprint of our operation and allows us to continue to build and improve the Wildflower Meadows brand of VSH-Italian queen bees with each successive generation.

In the above photo Tom Glenn, legendary VSH queen breeder, artificially inseminates a Wildflower Meadows’ champion breeder queen.