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

Almond Pollination and Honeybees: Past and Future

Back around the turn of the 21st Century, when we started Wildflower Meadows, the almond pollination season, believe it or not, was not that big of a deal.  Sure, California beekeepers, as well as commercial beekeepers from many of the other neighboring states, routinely moved their bees into the California almond groves in early February.  Back then, however, the prices received for almond pollination weren’t all that high, and the pressure that both almond growers and beekeepers felt towards this annual event was relatively low.  After all, the almond acreage wasn’t nearly the immense size that it is today, and the health of honeybee population was much healthier then when compared to today.

The economics of that time reflect this state clearly.  The rental price per colony was below $50 per colony in 2000 (compared to around $200 per colony today).  Some beekeepers thought that they were receiving a great deal when the price eventually reached $50 per colony in the early 2000’s, and were excited about the “easy money;” whereas others were not particularly motivated by even that relatively generous price.  In any case, there seemed to always be plenty of bees and commercial beekeepers to get the job done.

However, when we fast-forward to today, we see a completely different picture.  Between the turn of the century and today, immense changes have taken place, both with almonds and with honeybees.  Almond consumption has exploded in the last two decades.  Today, most grocery stores feature entire coolers filled with half-gallon containers of almond milk, almond yogurt and almond ice cream, with grocery store shelves full of granola and energy bars packed with almonds, not to mention the many varieties of the nut itself.  Almond consumption in the United States alone has risen to an unbelievable two pounds per person, with California producing 80% of the world’s supply of almonds!  Of course, almond acreage has reflected this upsurge in demand with now more than 1.4 million acres of almonds planted in California; with that number increasing every year.

At the same time, as we all know, the plight of the honeybees has grown more woeful every year.  Colony collapse wasn’t even a term in 2000, varroa mites were a relatively new phenomenon, and pesticide losses, though certainly a factor, were nothing like today.  Annual honeybee losses are currently approaching 40% per year, with this trajectory appearing to grow worse every season.

As a result, the stress that almond growers face in obtaining sufficient bees grows greater and greater.  Whereas, in the past, the bees in California and neighboring states could pretty much pollinate the entire crop with relative ease; today, bees need to be trucked into California from as far away as Florida and New York to cover the rising need of pollination services.  What’s more, whereas in the past, the pollination could be covered by commercial beekeepers alone, now even small-scale beekeepers with relatively fewer colonies are entering into the picture, simply because there are not enough commercially managed bee colonies to get the job done.  Keep in mind that each acre of almonds requires approximately two colonies of honeybees to pollinate the crop.  In 2020, these 1.4 million acres will require approximately 2.8 million colonies of honeybees – or about 80% of the entire US population of honeybees.  Yes, really, 80% of the entire population of honeybees here in the United States!

With almond growers continuing to plant more and more acres of trees every year, and honeybee losses continuing to climb at the same time, we appear to be not too far from reaching a tipping point of sorts.  At some point, it appears that there may not be enough honeybees to pollinate the entirety of the annual US almond crop, and unfortunately, that tipping point may be coming soon!

Filaree and The Winning Formula

For Southern California beekeepers the formula of November and December rains, followed by January sunshine, is the holy grail winning combination.

This past November was one of the wettest in recent memory, with nearly five inches of rain falling before Thanksgiving!  The benefit, of course, is that with early rain, the earliest flowers sprout much sooner than normal, giving the bees an exciting start to the new season.

The first bloom of the year in the Southern California chaparral is filaree.  Filaree is a low-growing, small plant, common throughout the southwest United States, particularly in the desert areas.  Around our apiaries, filaree rarely seems to grow more than three inches tall.  Perhaps because it is such a petite plant, it seems to take very little time between the moment of rain until the moment that it blooms.  That means that the November rains will usually cause filaree to blossom in early January, provided that there have been at least a few warm and sunny days in the interim.

If you were to walk through the countryside you could be forgiven for mistaking filaree for some sort of weed that would likely appear on a poorly weeded lawn.  The tiny filaree flower is a five-petaled, purplish pink blossom that is hardly noticeable to the average person.  But the bees are not average people, and they are not one to miss the opportunity of some early season action.  When filaree is in play, the bees in our apiaries can be found cruising about around our feet, basically at ground level.  They are not looking to sting our ankles, but rather to find the next filaree blossom and grab some fresh pollen.  According to Wikipedia, filaree is also a honey producing plant, though it is not likely to produce a crop.  Afterall, in early January, bee populations are relatively small and the days are still short, both of which are not optimal conditions for producing a January honey crop.

Can Queen Bees Sting?

Every queen bee has a stinger, and is fully capable of using it.  Queen bees, however, almost never sting people; they reserve their stinging for other queen bees.

At Wildflower Meadows, we hold, mark and cage tens of thousands of queens each year.  As uncomfortable as it must be for the queens to endure this, they never take it out on our team by stinging us.  Instead, our queens seem to maintain a peaceful and graceful quality.  They don’t even try to sting us.  Our colleagues and friends from other queen producing companies report the same; queens, whatever their genetics, simply don’t sting humans.  In the miniscule times where it has been reported that a queen actually has stung a person, we have heard that the sting is not as painful to a person as that of a worker bee.

This could be that because, unlike a worker bee, a queen bee’s stinger is smooth and not barbed.  Given that a queen bee’s stinger is smooth, this means that she can theoretically sting multiple times without losing her stinger and dying in the process.  This is unlike what happens to a worker bee, which loses her stinger and dies in the process of stinging.

So, what is the point of the queen bee’s stinger?  Her stinger is reserved as a weapon to use against other queens.  Because queen honeybees rarely tolerate other queen bees within their midst, they need a way to attack them with force.  When a queen encounters another queen, the result is often a fight-to-the-death.  In such a fight, a queen’s stinger serves as her primary weapon.  When a queen bee attacks another queen, it is her stinger that delivers the deathblow.

Queens not only sting other active queens, but they also – believe it or not – sting the developing queen pupae inside of queen cells!  Queens are so hostile towards each other that a mature queen will poke her stinger right through the outside casing of a mature queen cell in order to kill the undeveloped future queen inside the cell.  Thank goodness that we beekeepers are not the recipients of this kind of wrath!