When to Harvest Honey

Although there is no exact rule as to when to harvest honey, there are some general guidelines to consider that can help you maximize your honey harvest while also minimizing your impact on the bees.  In today’s day and age of declining bee populations, it is important to not only consider your immediate goal of collecting honey, but also the long-term effect on the colony.  Afterall, what good is a large honey harvest if the colony ends up in a stressed position that jeopardizes its ability to survive for the long haul going forward?

Based on our years of experience at Wildflower Meadows, we have found that it is generally ideal to harvest honey a little before the actual end of the honey flow – when the honey flow is approximately 80-90% complete.  By this point, most of the honey has been capped and is ready for harvest, but the bees are still actively foraging.  While the nectar flow is still on, the bees tend to be generally calm and focused on foraging rather than on the loss of their honey.  While the honey flow is still in effect, the bees still have an attitude of abundance and are less apt to rob.  Having that last bit of nectar still coming in during the honey harvest enables our beekeepers to work freely without much fear of robbing, while the bees themselves stay in a relatively peaceful state.

Another consideration is that during a honeyflow, honeybees typically build up their populations rapidly.  This rapid increase in population can also, unfortunately, lead to a similar rapid growth in the varroa mite population.  For beekeepers who monitor and treat their colonies for varroa, it is especially critical to monitor varroa populations during a strong honeyflow.  In certain colonies, the varroa levels can often get so excessive during a honeyflow that the beekeeper needs to intervene and treat before the actual end of the honeyflow.  Since many of the common varroa treatments require the absence of honey supers, sometimes the need for initiating a varroa treatment can in itself dictate the time for the honey harvest.  In this situation, the beekeeper has no choice but to remove the honey supers to begin addressing the varroa mite issue.

Finally, beekeepers should always look ahead to assess the prospects for the remainder of the season when deciding on the timing of the honey harvest.  If the major honey flow takes place early in the season, with a long stretch of dry, limited foraging ahead through the late summer and autumn (as is the case in much of California), it often can make sense to harvest honey earlier in the spring honeyflow – perhaps at the 60-70% mark.  This leaves a sizable percentage of honey available for the bees themselves, enabling them to pack their colony with a generous amount of their own future food.  This gives the bees a cushion of extra stores for any foraging scarcity that they may face later in the season.

How Often Should a Beekeeper Requeen?

While queen honeybees can theoretically live for up to five years, they rarely do. As queen bees age, their productivity declines. A three-year-old queen is generally less prolific than a two-year-old queen. Even a two-year-old queen can sometimes be less prolific than a queen who’s only one year old – which is why many beekeepers prefer to requeen annually.

Many beekeeping authorities recommend requeening colonies after a certain point in the queen’s life, usually after one year. The theory is that by replacing an older queen, a colony will be more robust and successful, due to a younger queen’s greater productivity. A younger queen creates a higher volume of bees than an older queen, which results in more bees for pollination and greater honey production, and also more bees for expanding colony counts.

Young queen bees also tend to have a stronger pheromone signature. When a young queen’s powerful pheromones are present, a beehive knows it has a quality, vigorous queen in hand. As a result, the colony sees little need to replace her. Likely for the same reason, colonies with younger queens are less likely to swarm than colonies with older queens. A young queen seems to set a beehive at ease and enable the bees in the hive to relax and focus on the business at hand.

Even though requeening annually has its benefits, there are equally strong arguments against this practice. The policy of requeening every colony, every year fails to consider the very real possibility that an existing queen may be a superstar with several years of performance left. What’s the benefit of replacing a proven winner with a new queen, that may or may not match the existing queen’s excellent performance?

Regular requeening can also become costly – in terms of both the cost of the new queen itself, as well as the time it takes to find and introduce a new queen each year. Plus, there is always the risk that the introduction of a new queen may not even be successful, leaving the colony without any queen at all!

At Wildflower Meadows, we believe it makes the most sense to consider each colony on a case-by-case basis. When deciding whether to requeen, it’s important to assess whether the existing queen is still laying a quality brood pattern. A queen on the decline in her later years will typically begin to show a “spotty” brood pattern, rather than the tight, circular brood pattern of a young, vigorous queen. Any queen with a consistently spotty brood pattern is always a candidate for requeening. Most queens that are more than two or three years old are also excellent candidates for requeening. Queens of that age are not far away from an almost certain drop-off in productivity, making requeening the best decision for maintaining a strong, productive hive.

Two Queens in a Hive

Most beekeepers know that a hive only contains a single queen. However, this isn’t necessarily always true. There are times when a colony may have two queens; and while it’s usually short-lived, the scenario probably happens more often than most beekeepers realize.

As we know, a queen bee releases pheromones to make the worker bees aware of her presence, and that she’s actively laying fertile eggs. As the queen ages, these pheromones naturally weaken, which lets the worker bees know it’s time to start the process of raising a new queen. Worker bees may plan to supersede an older queen when they notice a decline in her productivity as well.

An instance where a hive has multiple queens may occur when a new queen hatches while the old queen is still living. After a daughter hatches, one of the following scenarios will likely transpire – either the worker bees will kill the old queen, the two queens will fight to the death, or the hive will swarm. Unfortunately, there is no way for beekeepers to know how their hive will handle this situation, as there are a lot of factors in play.

More often than not, an old queen will not live long after a new queen has hatched. If the newly hatched queen doesn’t kill her, the worker bees themselves may do so. Worker bees will kill their old queen when they notice she’s consistently laying infertile eggs, and they’re comfortable that the new queen is mated and producing well.  A colony will typically prefer the newer and younger queen who, of the two, more often than not will have the stronger performance and pheromone signature.

However, if the older queen is still performing well, the worker bees may alternatively decide to separate the queens into different areas of the hive. This prevents the queens from killing one another and allows the hive to be temporarily more productive – at least until nature inevitably takes its course.

Many times, beekeepers fail to realize they are dealing with multiple queens.  Typically, when a beekeeper is requeening a colony, he or she will stop looking for a queen as soon as the old queen is spotted, not realizing there may actually be yet another queen in the colony.  This can be a challenge when beekeepers are actively trying to introduce a new high-quality queen they have purchased. If a beekeeper attempts to introduce a new queen, thinking the hive is queenless when it’s not, the colony will, unfortunately, almost certainly not accept the new queen – which will likely end in a failed queen installation.

How Far Should Beehives Be Placed from Your Home?

Whether you’re an avid beekeeper or a “newbee,” you’ve probably wondered where is the best spot to place your hive. If you’re planning to keep your beehive in your backyard and accessible from your home, there are definitely a few things you should consider. But just how close to your house can you put your hive?

The general rule is there should be a minimum of 4-feet behind and on either side of the hive, with a minimum of 25-feet of clearance at the entrance – but there’s really no cut-and-dry answer for this. In the end, most beekeepers – including us here at Wildflower Meadows – will say to use common sense and consider your personal situation.  Each home, property, and neighborhood are unique, and each will offer its own hurdles.   However, there are a few additional and critical aspects to consider when choosing where to place a beehive on your property.

Before you start searching for the perfect spot on your property, you should first make sure beekeeping is allowed where you live. Some cities and states may have zoning restrictions on beekeeping, or on the number of hives that are permitted on a property. Some homeowners’ associations and private neighborhoods may also have policies that pertain to beekeeping, so be sure to ask around before getting too far ahead in the process.

When choosing a hive site, it’s important to remember that while most honeybees are docile, some colonies can be more defensive than others. Even if you keep gentle bee stock, there are certain times of the year or situations where the temperament of the hive can be affected – adverse weather, excessive disturbances, or a pest infestation for example.  Keeping the entrance of your hive away from high traffic areas of your yard, or too close to the entrances of your home is best to avoid annoyances or stings.

Even though you’re a fan of bees, your friends, family members, or neighbors may not be as keen. A curious child or pet that wanders too close to the hive could alert worker bees – a situation you’d likely prefer to avoid.  To help keep the peace between your household and your beehive, it is best to keep the hive in an area away from children and high traffic areas of your outdoor space.

Foot traffic isn’t the only issue with residential beekeeping, vehicle traffic can pose problems to your colony too.  Windshields are unfortunately a popular bee graveyard.  While honeybees are known to fly miles away from their home to forage for nectar, they do need some space to reach a high altitude. Without any nearby obstacles, bees will generally require about 6 feet of linear space to gain 6 feet of altitude – similar to when a plane takes off on a runway.

Providing this amount of “runway” may not be ideal or available for you, so you might want to encourage your bees to gain altitude more rapidly by keeping your beehives surrounded by tall shrubs, fences or walls.   This will force your bees to reach altitude more rapidly, keeping them away from the ground level right from the start.  (Nevertheless, there are limitations to this strategy, and one must use common sense.  For example, if your home is more than two stories tall and your beehive’s entrance is placed too close to your home, one of two things can happen. Your bees will either need to expend more energy to fly up and over your home, or the bees will avoid flying in that direction altogether, limiting their foraging options.)   Of course, some beekeepers choose to place beehives on their rooftops, as it’s the easiest way to get bees flying at a higher altitude and away from human hazards.

Finally, no matter where you choose to place your hive, you will always also want to make sure that bees have access to a reliable and clean water source.

Avocado Blossom Honey

It may surprise you to know that there are over 300 types of honey produced by bees around the world, many of which are considered ‘specialty honey’ due to their rarity. Avocado blossom honey is specialty honey that not many people have heard of – but those that have love it!

There’s a very valid reason why avocado blossom honey is difficult to find; and it all comes down to avocado production. Since avocados must be grown in tropical or semi-tropical climates, they are found in only a few places worldwide, including Mexico, Australia, and parts of Central America and California. Southern California has become of the most popular states for avocado production in the US with the increased popularity of avocados. While this increase has been excellent news for avocado farmers over the last few years, keeping up with demand can be a challenge.

Avocado blossoms flower sometime between April and May, which is a very busy time for bees. There are plenty of delicious foraging options during the spring months in California – everything from wildflowers to macadamia, orange blossoms, and other sweet-smelling fruit. Unfortunately for avocado farmers, mature honeybees sometimes tend to steer clear of avocado blossoms due to the blossoms’ high potassium and phosphorus contents. Farmers have adapted by placing hives strategically within their crop grounds – but still, it’s difficult to harvest pure avocado honey, as bees are likely to venture to nearby orchards.

Surprisingly to many, the taste of this honey doesn’t resemble an avocado at all – though, some do say the texture is similar. Avocado honey is quite sweet, with a thick, creamy, almost buttery texture. It can be easily distinguished from other honey by its rich, dark amber color, similar to that of buckwheat honey.  Although the flavor is more intense than common wildflower honey, it is not at all bitter like some of the other darker honey varietals.

Many people compare the consistency of avocado blossom honey to molasses or cane syrup, and it’s actually the perfect substitute for either. As with most other types of honey, it can be used as a healthy alternative to white sugar in baked goods, or any other recipe for that matter – just keep in mind that color may be affected if that’s a concern! The creamy texture of avocado honey makes it the perfect topping for bread or toast, or an interesting addition to any sauce, dressing, or marinade. The possibilities are endless with a little creativity.

What Makes a Quality Queen Honeybee?

Of all the bees in the hive, the queen is by far the most important member of the colony.  Without her, the colony is certain to perish. The colony will likely thrive with a well-mated queen, but the extent of her success is partially dependent on the quality of the genetics of the queen bee herself.

What makes a quality queen bee? The answer to this question is actually two-fold. Unlike a worker bee, a queen honeybee must be graded on two scales – her own performance, as well as the performance of her offspring. She is graded on these two entirely separate criteria.

The queen bee’s performance is measured by her brood production. A quality queen honeybee needs to lay the right amount of brood at the right time of year, all in a consistent and tight brood pattern. By consistently laying eggs in a tight pattern, a well-performing queen efficiently utilizes her brood space and keeps a good, healthy, and uniform production of new worker bees. Her egg laying should be prolific when it matters and lighten up during the offseason, or during times of drought. She should be well-mated, healthy, and long-lived, giving off plenty of quality queen pheromone, to let bees in the hive know that she is present and getting the job done.

What’s unique about queen honeybees, however, is that their worth is not only measured in their own performance, but also in the performance of their offspring. While a queen needs to be healthy and productive, it is perhaps more important that she produce offspring who perform well. What good is a queen that demonstrates excellent performance, but produces offspring that is ill-tempered, or of poor quality in their own right?

A quality queen bee must carry and deliver quality genetics to her offspring. It is her offspring that will achieve a successful beehive after all. If the worker bees are not of quality stock, the entire colony will suffer – which is why the right genetics are so critical in queen honeybee breeding.  A quality queen will pass along desired genetic traits known as “phenotypes” to her worker bee daughters, such as disease resistance, temperament, honey production, early season buildup, low swarming tendencies, color, etc.

At Wildflower Meadows our focus also needs to be two-fold. We take every step possible to make sure the queens we sell are well-mated and excellent performers. Of course, equally important, we constantly strive to breed and select queens that carry the optimum genetics. We want each of the worker bees in the hive to perform at their best possible level, meeting the standards of excellence that both we and our customers demand.

How Does a Bee Become a Queen Bee?

When we raise queens here at Wildflower Meadows, we start the process by grafting worker larvae from our breeder queens.  This procedure transfers the genetic material from our champion breeder queens to our cell building colonies, that will raise the queens which we sell year-round.

Did you happen to catch the words “worker larvae?” Isn’t it strange that the same larvae that were once destined to become worker bees, can be redirected into becoming queen bees? An individual fertilized larva contains the genetic material to become either a worker bee or a queen bee. What happens is that the bees themselves do a sort of genetic modification to the larva, depending on their desired outcome.

When we place these worker larvae into one of our powerful cell-building colonies, the colonies are already strong and queenless. They have a high motivation to develop queens. So, how does a beehive change the course of development of worker larvae to become queen larvae when all the larvae originates from the same source?

Scientists and beekeepers have been asking this question for ages. An obvious clue to the answer lies in the different diets of these two types of honeybees. Queen bee larvae are fed royal jelly, whereas worker bee larvae are fed worker jelly.  There seems to be no other variable to explain the change in development. Yet, how does diet trigger certain genes to be activated?

For many years, scientists and beekeepers have assumed that because a queen larva is fed royal jelly, the trigger to queen development must lie within the royal jelly itself. In fact, most scientists always assumed that there was some magical ingredient within royal jelly that initiates the genetic modification, triggering fertility, and queueing the development of ovaries, etc.

We now know that this is not entirely true.

While it is certainly diet that determines a larva’s development, scientists have discovered there’s no magical ingredient in royal jelly which triggers queen development. It’s actually the diet of the workers that is suppressing queen development!

Worker bee jelly, unlike royal jelly, contains pollen and honey. Pollen and honey, being directly derived from plants, contain plant materials known as phenolic acids, or flavonoids. These phenolic acids deactivate the genes responsible for developing ovaries and reproductive systems. In other words, these phenolic acids suppress queen development in workers.

Royal jelly, on the other hand, is entirely a secretion of bees.  It is a pure bee product that does not contain any plant product – it is completely, 100%, devoid of phenolic acids. The absence of phenolic acids allows a queen bee to fully activate her reproductive genes and completely develop her robust reproductive system.

How efficient is it that honeybees have developed such an amazing way of raising two very different types of bees from the same source? Think of how much more complicated a beehive would be if the bees required different genetic larvae for both workers and queens. By performing this genetic modification on the same source, honeybees have developed an elegant solution for raising queen bees on demand!

Superceding Queens vs. Breeding Queens

One of the easiest ways to produce a queen is to simply remove the original queen from the colony, and allow the colony to raise its own queen on an emergency basis.  Within a few hours of losing its queen, the pheromone levels inside the colony will change precipitously and the colony will soon realize that it is without a queen.

When a colony loses its queen, it begins raising supercedure queen cells.  To do this, it takes worker larvae of various ages and then selects a few cells to transform into queen cells.  The worker bees then begin feeding these selected worker larvae royal jelly instead of the usual worker jelly.  By reshaping the larvae cell downward, they have created an emergency queen cell, which will then eventually hatch into a virgin queen.

While this may seem like a relatively easy and straightforward method for a beekeeper to raise a queen – as the colony does all the work – this type of supercedure queen is unlikely to match the quality of a queen that is intentionally bred; either by the colony itself (as in the case of a swarm cell), by an individual beekeeper raising a few queens, or by a commercial queen breeder raising thousands of queens.

There are two reasons for this:  First, unlike a colony’s hasty procedure in raising supercedure queen cells, when a colony intentionally raises swarm cells to swarm, or when a queen producer intentionally raises queens for production, both have a high intent to create optimal conditions for the rearing of the queen cell.  This means that the larvae selected are young and of the perfect age, and the environmental conditions are ideal for raising a queen.  Thus, the colony is well stocked with plenty of the necessary raw ingredients, pollen and well-fed larvae, and the conditions are perfect for producing an ideal queen cell.  On the contrary, when a colony is forced to raise a supercedure cell under an emergency condition, these environmental conditions may or may not be in place.  The larvae selected may not be of the perfect age, the care of the queen cell may be less than ideal, and the queen cell and resulting queen may be below average.

Most importantly, however, is that a supercedure cell is a genetically unknown queen and may be sub-par genetically.  Unless the supercedure queen is from a known breeder, such as one that has been instrumentally inseminated from known stock, a supercedure queen is the daughter of a queen of mixed and unknown origin.  There could be undesirable and unknown genetics from the original queen that could be passed down and possibly amplified in the next generation.  This is why, as a rule, conscientious beekeepers are reluctant to breed or accept queens that are bred in this hasty manner.

Fertilized vs. Unfertilized Eggs – A Queen Bee’s Gender Reveal Party

Some of us enjoy celebrating “gender reveal parties” – because the truth is, no one really knows whether a human infant will be male or female until birth (or close to birth in the case of an ultrasound.) Before this technology, however, it was anyone’s guess whether a child would be born as a boy or a girl. During the early stages of pregnancy, the odds of a child developing as one or the other are random, and more or less equal to a coin toss.

Imagine, however, if we humans could determine the sex of our offspring – not when the child was born, nor earlier with an ultrasound scan, but rather at the time of conception! How different and crazy would our world be if there were such a scenario?

Believe it or not, this is the way honeybees determine the sex of their offspring. It’s actually the queen who dictates the sex of her offspring – literally at the time of egg-laying. When a queen lays an egg, she has her own method of laying either a fertilized or unfertilized egg.  As the egg passes through her oviduct, the queen can choose to fertilize the egg by releasing a tiny amount of her stored sperm from her spermatheca. This will fertilize the egg. Conversely, the queen can also choose to not fertilize the egg.

A fertilized egg will become a female honeybee – either a worker bee or a queen bee. An unfertilized egg will develop into a male honeybee – destined to be a drone. In a healthy colony with a healthy queen, most eggs are fertilized. This makes sense since the vast majority of honeybee colonies consist of worker bees, which are always female.

It is astonishing that a single insect, the queen, has this powerful ability to dictate the sex of her offspring right at the time of conception. It is equally astonishing that somehow, she can determine the right quantity of drones and the right seasonality for laying drones at any given time. All of this is within her power, and somehow, she knows exactly what to do.

How much of this decision-making lies within the queen herself versus within the colony is not entirely clear. Is the colony acting in the same way that a baseball catcher acts with a pitcher, calling the type of pitch to throw? Or is the pitcher herself calling the shots in this case? Scientists believe that both are happening, although the queen clearly dictates the final decision.

The colony itself has some influence in determining the number of drones by the way they choose to allocate the honeycomb when building. If the worker bees construct a large amount of drone-sized comb and point the queen towards it then the queen will lay more unfertilized eggs (drones). If the colony does not build any drone-sized honeycomb, then the queen will only lay worker brood. With no appropriately sized comb, what choice does the queen have after all? It is also possible for worker bees to use pheromone signals to help influence the overall frequency of drone laying.

The Five Eyes of the Honeybee

Did you know that bees have excellent eyesight?  This is because honeybees have five eyes!

This may be surprising, as we know that bees do not rely on any eyesight when they are inside the hive.  The inside of a typical beehive is completely dark. Since vision is impossible inside of a beehive, bees rely on their sense of smell to communicate, using natural chemicals called pheromones. They also navigate by using the feel of their antennae. Outside the hive, however, it’s a completely different story.

When bees are outside, they rely heavily on their sense of sight to find flowers, navigate, and survive – meaning their vision is very important. Luckily, bees have five eyes – including two large compound eyes and three simple eyes, also called ocelli. The compound eyes are located on either side of the bee’s head, while the ocelli are arranged in a triangular pattern on top of the bee’s head.

Compound eyes are what most people imagine when they think of insect eyes. They are made up of thousands of tiny lenses that all work together to make one single image for the bee – though we think they may see things more like a mosaic. Bees’ compound eyes help them see color, movement, and patterns, making their eyes most useful when it comes to visualizing and identifying flowers.

Honeybees need to be accurate at identifying colors to help them find the right flowers to pollinate.  Curiously, the way their compound eyes perceive color is much different than humans. For instance, bees can’t see red, they see more of the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum than humans. Their compound eyes help them see UV iridescence on flower petals, allowing them to easily identify flowers from one another.

The bees’ ocelli, on the other hand, are simpler eyes that only have one lens. They don’t allow bees to see an image but instead enable honeybees to detect the direction and intensity of sunlight. This helps bees follow the sun and navigate during flight. Clearly, bees don’t use maps or GPS technology to find their way back to the hive. Instead, they navigate by using the location of the sun to help them locate flowers, find their hive, and not get lost directionally. This means it’s imperative for bees to have excellent visual sensitivity to the sun, and can gain a fix on the sun’s location in the sky.

Drone honeybees and queen honeybees all have the same five-eye configuration. And while they navigate similarly to worker bees, they use their compound eyes for slightly different purposes. A drone bee’s role outside the hive relies on them looking for a small target – a queen bee to mate, versus flowers to pollinate. This is why their compound eyes are much bigger than that of the worker honeybee. Once drone honeybees arrive at a drone congregation area, they use these enormous compound eyes to help them find suitable virgin queens to mate with.

A queen bee’s eyes are not as big as a drones’ however. Queen honeybees also use their five eyes for navigation, mating, and finding their way home. Once a Wildflower Meadows queen returns home from her mating flight, she uses her compound eyes to find her mating nuc, where she begins her life inside the colony as an egg-laying machine.