Buckwheat Honey & Christmas Cookies

At Wildflower Meadows, our friends and customers often ask us if we have any extra buckwheat honey for Christmas cookies.  Many honey connoisseurs insist that dark, rich, buckwheat honey is perfect for baking.

Buckwheat has a strong, distinctive flavor that is often described as malty or earthy.  It is dark and is often considered a “baking honey.”  Bakers use buckwheat honey for Christmas cookies, but here are some other tips for using buckwheat honey:

    • Add it to tea or coffee for a sweet and flavorful boost.
    • Spread it on toast or pancakes for a healthy and delicious breakfast.
    • Add it to smoothies or yogurt for a nutrient-rich snack.
    • Use it as a natural cough suppressant.

There are two main types of buckwheat plants: common buckwheat and tartary buckwheat.  Common buckwheat is the most prevalent type of buckwheat plant grown in the United States. It is a tall, erect plant with heart-shaped leaves and white, pink, or purple flowers. Common buckwheat is grown for its seeds, which are used to make buckwheat groats, noodles, and other foods. It is also grown as a cover crop, which means that it is planted to improve the soil and suppress weeds. Common buckwheat can be found in many parts of the United States, but it is most typically found in the Midwest and Northeast.

Tartary buckwheat flowers are white or pink, while common buckwheat flowers are white, pink, or purple. This is the type of buckwheat that our bees visit at Wildflower Meadows.  Tartary buckwheat is a smaller type of buckwheat plant with narrower leaves and white or pink flowers. Tartary buckwheat is not as common as common buckwheat, but it is grown in some parts of the United States, especially the West. This is the type of buckwheat that our bees visit at Wildflower Meadows.  The nectar from both types of buckwheat flowers is used to make honey. However, buckwheat honey made from tartary buckwheat is typically darker and has a stronger flavor than buckwheat honey made from common buckwheat.

Tartary Buckwheat

Besides being delicious, Buckwheat honey is a good source of antioxidants, including flavonoids and phenolic acids. Antioxidants help protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage cells and contribute to the development of diseases such as cancer and heart disease.  Buckwheat honey is also a good source of minerals, including iron, magnesium, and potassium. Iron is important for red blood cell production, magnesium is important for muscle function, and potassium is important for heart health.

Beeswax Candles

One of the fringe benefits of beekeeping is that, as a beekeeper, you have the means of creating your own beeswax candles. Candle making is an especially enjoyable hobby for the winter months.  There are a variety of candle types that can be made from different molds, from votive candles to tealights and pillar candles. As with any process, however, there are some quirks when using beeswax to make your own candles.

While it is possible to use raw beeswax straight from the hive, beeswax generally requires filtration before being used for candle making.   If you are using your own wax, it will likely need to be cleaned, filtered and purified first.   This means that the wax will need to be melted, then run through a strainer.  Some small-scale beekeepers utilize a solar wax melter, in combination with various filtering techniques to clean their beeswax.

The easiest and fastest way to obtain filtered beeswax for candle making, of course, is to purchase beeswax that’s already been processed, which can come in a whole block to be grated, or pellets that are ready to melt. Because beeswax is slow to burn, you need a strong, thick wick that can stand the test of time. There are many nuances to candle making with beeswax, as there’s a balance to find between the type of beeswax, size of your jar or container, and the type of wick – but as with any hobby, practice makes perfect.

The payoff, however, is the final product – a genuine beeswax candle!

Lighting a beeswax candle doesn’t just provide a calming ambiance; it actually helps to pull toxins like dust, pollen, and odor from the air. When beeswax is burned it produces negative ions, which attach to positive ions like indoor toxins. Many people who have asthma or allergies can benefit from lighting beeswax candles, as they help eliminate allergens like dust and dander, creating a cleaner atmosphere in any home or office space.

The benefits of beeswax have been recognized for millennia, with prescriptions including beeswax found dated as far back as 1550 B.C. Beeswax candles were widely used throughout history as well, in Greece, Egypt, China, and Rome – where the Roman Catholic Church required the use of only 100% beeswax candles. In fact, many large churches kept their own apiaries in the monastery to supply their large demand for beeswax candles.

Beeswax candles have continued to grow in popularity as the advantages and benefits become more well known. For instance, it’s been found that other types of wax candles, such as paraffin, can contain carcinogens like benzene or toluene. Beeswax, however, is a pure substance that’s 100% eco-friendly and safe.  Beeswax candles burn clean, are soot-free, and burn longer overall when compared to other types of candles.

Queenlessness

For most of its life, a honeybee colony has an active and well-accepted queen bee, which the colony rallies around. The queen herself, with her unique pheromone signature, is a key component of binding a colony together.

There are times, however, when a colony finds itself without a queen bee. This is known as queenlessness.

A honeybee colony can lose a queen for several reasons. Like any living creature, a queen honeybee is vulnerable to sickness, injury, old age, etc. But queen honeybees, being insects, are also vulnerable to the peculiarities of the insect world. Sometimes a colony intentionally kills its queen due to a disruption in pheromone signatures or some other environmental stress. Sometimes another virgin queen will appear—perhaps the colony raised another queen bee. An eventual fight to the death is almost guaranteed if a virgin queen emerges.

From both the beehive’s and beekeeper’s perspectives, queenlessness is precarious. The colony’s days are numbered if it cannot get a queen going. Time is of the essence. The longer a colony remains queenless, the greater its odds of perishing become.

When a colony suddenly goes queenless, it has only four or five days to raise a new queen. A queenless colony needs young worker bee larvae to raise a new queen. Once a queen is lost, there remains only a four- or five-day period in which young worker larvae will be present in the hive. After this period, all the larvae will be too mature for queen-raising.

A honeybee colony detects queenlessness when the queen’s pheromone disappears. This happens amazingly quickly. It usually takes a colony only about four to five hours to discover that no pheromone is being shared and that the colony is now without a queen. This is when the colony begins an agitated buzzing sound known as a queenless roar. Likely, this roar is an additional and urgent signal that queen-rearing must start, and it must begin immediately.

An experienced beekeeper can use this telltale roar (or its absence) as an essential tool when conducting a hive inspection. Another telltale sign of queenlessness is the disorganization of the bees. The bees have little to rally around in a colony with no queen and, eventually, no larvae. The colony has no larvae to feed, so the nurse bees wander around aimlessly.

As part of any bee inspection, a beekeeper should always be on the lookout for queenlessness and its telltale signs. Here at Wildflower Meadows, our beekeepers know that anytime a colony is roaring, or the bees appear disorganized, a further inspection is in order.

How to Find the Queen Bee

Do you struggle with finding a queen bee?  Don’t be too hard on yourself.  Even here at Wildflower Meadows—with all our experience and years of beekeeping—we occasionally find ourselves scratching our heads, wondering why such a simple task can sometimes be so challenging.

Before you set out on your search, make sure you even need to find the queen. As a beekeeper, unless you are working for Wildflower Meadows or raising queens, you don’t have to look for a queen that often. The main reason for having to locate a queen is when you wish to requeen. In that case, you have no choice but to find the old queen to remove her.

Another possible reason to find a queen is when you want to divide a colony or transfer frames of bees from one colony to another. Surprisingly, even when dividing colonies and transferring frames, you don’t always have to find the queen. So, for example, look at this video, and you will discover a straightforward way of dividing a colony without even having to look for the queen.

Patience, persistence, focus, and relaxation are the key to finding a queen bee. When searching for a queen, the first tip we suggest is to be patient with yourself. Finding a queen is a skill that a beekeeper develops over time.

A helpful strategy is to play the odds. The queen will most likely be near the center of the brood nest, particularly on frames with open cells for her to lay in. That’s her preferred area because, after all, she’s the one laying the brood. However, always keep in mind that queens do move around. Sometimes you will be surprised to discover your queen bee in the strangest place – on the lid, walking on the honey, or cruising around inside the box. She can wander anywhere. However, more often than not, odds are she’s hard at work laying eggs in the general brood area. Why not start there?

Nevertheless, before diving into this promising brood area, it’s best to remove and inspect a frame or two at the ends of the hive. Start with a quick check of the end frames (not to mention the lid) and set those aside. Why? By doing this, you will free up some working space and gain space to comfortably separate the remaining frames in the hive. Now you can focus on the high-probability areas.

You want to relax your vision. A soft and relaxed vision will enable you to spot something that looks just a little different. Also, remember that sometimes, your eyes will pick up the unusual pattern of the queen’s retinue, which will naturally direct you to the right spot. If you’re a beginner, after checking each side of a frame, pause, take a quick break, then give both sides of the frame a second look. This saves time in the long run because missing a queen right in front of you will waste time when you fruitlessly look through all the remaining frames.

Keep a routine going. Have a systematic approach to each frame, so you don’t overlook areas. For example, you can begin at the top of the frame, scanning down the frame from left to right. Or you can start at the left of the frame and scan up and down across the frame. Just be thorough and consistent.

Be mindful of the conditions around you. This is crucial since you will hold the frames outside the hive for some time. If there is robbing in the apiary, use a robbing cloth. If the weather is chilly, you must work relatively quickly to keep the brood from chilling. If conditions are sunny, be mindful of keeping the frames exposed to direct sunlight for too long, as prolonged sunlight can dry out the larva and damage the brood. Also, queen bees tend to avoid the sun, so holding a frame up to the sunlight can encourage a queen to run to the other side of the frame, and you can miss her altogether.

Understand that there will be times when you just can’t find the queen bee and strike out. This is normal and happens even to experienced beekeepers. We would advise that you probably don’t want to disturb the colony after two rounds of searching. It is best to call it quits, put everything back together, and come back another time.

A Honey-Bound Colony

Who isn’t overjoyed with a beehive that’s filled with honey? Sometimes, however, there can be too much of a good thing. When a hive fills up with honey, and the bees continue to forage and plug all the extra space with even more honey, the bees face a real problem. So where will they store all this new honey if the hive is already full or near full capacity? Even worse, what if a honey flow is still in the works and fresh nectar continues to pour in rapidly?

Bees naturally like to store honey on the edges of their hive, as the sides and the top are their favorite places for honey. They also like to leave the central portion of the hive free from honey so that they have open space for brood rearing. The honey on the outside provides a natural layer of insulation. It leaves the center region of the hive available for egg-laying and brood-rearing. If all is going well, there typically is an equal balance of honey and brood in a beehive, with the insulating honey on the outside and warm brood on the inside.

When bees in a hive run out of open space to pack in new nectar, they really have no place else to turn other than to creep into the brood area. As the foraging bees in the colony begin to use the only available open space for offloading nectar—the central brood chamber—the beehive becomes out of order. This means that over time the queen’s area to lay eggs keeps reducing to the point where she finds less and less space to do her thing.

Honeybees never stop foraging. Even when their hive is full of honey, the bees can’t help themselves! They keep going, bringing in more and more honey. This means that unless the honey flow slows down or the bees somehow have more space, they will quickly encroach their brood area. In most cases, to resolve this problem, the bees’ instinct will be to swarm.

As a beekeeper, allowing a colony to become honey-bound and wanting to swarm is bad beekeeping. There is no reason for this to happen. As soon as a beekeeper becomes aware of a strong honey flow or the beginning stages of a honey flow, the beekeeper should provide sufficient space for the bees to store the honey. They can do so by removing honey frames or by adding an empty super.

Did you know that a beekeeper can even create honey-bound conditions by over-feeding? Sometimes, we have seen beekeepers go overboard with supplemental syrup feeding during a dry spell. This leads to the same effect, even without a natural honey flow! The bees store this abundance of syrup, so the entire brood area gets clogged. If this happens during the late summer or fall, when the bees might not be tempted to swarm, the bees shut down brood rearing due to the lack of space. The result is a colony that naturally shrinks its population for no other reason than being honey-bound and having no brood space.

What Is a Drone Laying Queen?

Sometimes you may inspect a hive and be caught off guard by an excess of drone brood. Why is your queen laying so many drones? If you’ve stumbled on a drone-laying queen, you need to be concerned. Drones are very important to a hive and play a vital role. However, finding several layers of drone brood in your hive is neither normal nor healthy for a colony.

A healthy queen will lay a relatively small percentage of (male) drone honeybees. This happens mostly during the spring and swarm seasons—but, as a rule, not year-round.

Drone brood is unfertilized brood. Queen bees lay both fertilized eggs (female) and unfertilized eggs (male). In order for eggs to develop into regular female worker bees, they must be fertilized with sperm. When eggs are left unfertilized, they develop into drones (male). This balancing act should be a controlled and well-planned process to ensure that drones do not overrun the hive. After all, drones do not produce honey nor defend the hive.

It’s not difficult to tell if there’s a drone-laying queen in one of your hives. When a drone layer is present, all the eggs will be left unfertilized, creating far more drone brood than normal. The difference between worker brood and drone brood is easy to observe. Drone brood appears bumpy and lumpy, whereas female worker brood appears flat. This bumpy, dome-like appearance takes shape as large male drone bees grow and extend past the cell. A hive with too many drones is a liability. Beehives need a balance of worker and drone honeybees to be successful and thrive. Worker bees keep the colony running and sustainable, and drones do not.

Drone-laying queens are often caused by one of two reasons: either the queen has been poorly mated, or the old queen has run out of sperm. The core cause in both cases is that the queen’s eggs are not being fertilized.

At Wildflower Meadows, we have a responsibility to ensure the queens we sell are never poorly mated, reducing the likelihood of drone layers. We work to prevent this by allowing an extra week of testing before any queen is selected for sale. By giving the queens this additional time to prove themselves, we can assess the quality of brood laying, identifying any drone layers in the process.

Luckily, remedying a drone-laying queen is not difficult—although it’s not a happy ending for the queen. Even if the queen is young, there’s no chance she will successfully mate again in the future, meaning she must be removed immediately. Requeening the hive may give the bees a second chance, provided there are enough workers left in the colony to justify investing in a new queen.

If the colony is too small or weak, you may have a lost cause. You may just need to fold up the hive, merge the bees and brood into an existing healthy hive, and restart a new colony from scratch. Sometimes a hive as a whole can’t be saved, but the bees themselves can be salvaged.

The Relationship Between the Beekeeper and the Bees

The history of beekeeping is closely tied with humanity’s love of honey and people’s desire to produce as much of this delicious food as possible. People have been keeping bees since ancient times, almost always with the purpose of harvesting honey or other bee products for human consumption.

The relationship between the beekeeper and the bees, throughout history, has been largely an exploitative one, sadly often leading to the demise of the beehive. For example, before the invention of the Langstroth hive in 1851 with its removable frames, harvesting honey meant destroying the entire hive of bees.

The invention of the Langstroth hive in many ways led to birth of modern beekeeping. By utilizing this new equipment, which allowed for removal of the frames of honey without destroying the beehive, beekeepers became incentivized to learn how to manage a colony of honeybees over the long term. Instead of providing a single honey harvest, a managed colony could provide multiple harvests of honey over years—theoretically indefinitely.

This led to a focus on how to keep bees healthy and strong for the long run, which to this day continues. It has also led to a closer relationship between the beekeeper and the bees. Beekeepers in the twenty-first century, as opposed to early generations of beekeepers, are less abusive toward the bees and act more like attentive stewards, carefully managing and caring for their bees.

Today, this level of care is critical for the well-being of honeybees. With current-day adversities such as mites, parasites, pesticides, climate change, etc., honeybees face a world that is much more challenging than in the past. They need help.

This dynamic has led to relationship now where the beekeeper is almost a key part of the colony itself. A beehive greatly benefits from a caring beekeeper that provides it with timely feeding, nourishment, supplements, medications, protection against robbing, ants, beetles, etc., and other adversities.

At Wildflower Meadows, we like to think of our beekeepers as liaisons or concierges between the bee world and the human world. Most people in the outside world have no idea how to relate to bees, and the bees have little or no way to relate to people. The beekeeper bridges this gap by taking care of the bees so that they can live in a human-dominated world—and, by doing so, enables bees to deliver the benefits of pollination and food production that humans so greatly need.

Autumn Wildflowers

While we typically associate wildflowers with springtime, there are many types of wildflowers that blossom in the fall. In fact, autumn flowers serve a vital purpose for honeybees.  They provide a reliable source of hearty nutrition before the harsh winter comes. During the colder months, bees cluster together in their hives to stay warm, and they rely on their food stores from these autumn flowers to give them the energy to make it through the winter season.

            Many parts of the US receive plenty of rainfall starting in the middle of the summer that allows for a bounty of fall flowers, though the specific types of flowers that bloom will depend on the region and climate. In California, for example, where Wildflower Meadows operates, the summers are quite dry. Meanwhile, the southern US typically enjoys an abundance of fall flowers, especially areas affected by hurricane season. These flowers might include asters, blue sage, and sunflowers, among others. In the western US, monsoon season in the desert can lead to a variety of fall desert blooms, including verbena, buckwheat, and rabbit brush, the latter of which is a prized wildflower for beekeepers.

            The most invaluable fall blossom for beekeepers and their hives, however, is goldenrod. Named for its bright golden flowers, this wildflower is especially abundant in the northeastern US and begins blooming in late August. Goldenrod is unique in that its pollen produces a stronger-tasting honey compared to honey from other wildflowers; and many beekeepers actually make sizeable honey crops from fall goldenrod blooms. However, it is also risky to harvest honey so late in the season, because this can leave the bees light on food stores and possibly stress the hives going into winter.

Apiaries situated near fall wildflowers are highly sought after by commercial beekeepers, as when the pollen starts to flow, the bees naturally increase in population. The bees also get a burst of healthy nutrients right when they need them most just before winter. Not only does this save commercial beekeepers on feeding costs, but it also bolsters hive population in advance of the critical February almond pollination season in which beekeepers are compensated based on the strength of their hives. Strong colonies going into winter generally lead to strong colonies coming out of winter.

Laying Workers

A funny thing can happen to a beehive when it remains without a queen for too long.  The colony becomes so desperate for a queen that some of the workers take on the role of the queen and begin to lay eggs.  This is what is called “laying” workers.”

Normally when a colony loses a queen bee, it immediately sets out to raise emergency supercedure queen cells from its larvae.  If all goes well, the queenless colony will have raised a new queen within less than two weeks.  Within three or four weeks, the new queen will have mated and will be up and running, and the colony will have recovered and be back to normal.

However, any number of things can go wrong in this process.  The original colony may not have had any viable larvae for the colony to use to raise queen cells.  Or the queen cells might get a virus or disease and not survive.  Or a queen could die while on a mating flight, or not mate at all.  In short, there are no guarantees that a colony can always successfully requeen itself.

Usually after about four weeks of not having a queen the colony becomes stressed and desperate.  So, the colony’s emergency “solution” is that some of the worker bees take it upon themselves to “become” a queen.  This doesn’t really work because the workers who now think that they are queens never actually mated.  These laying workers are infertile, and are only capable of laying unfertilized eggs, which, unfortunately, only mature into drones.

As a beekeeper, when you inspect a colony with laying workers, you may, at first glance, think that all is well.  You see eggs and larvae, and it can appear that a healthy queen is in place.  There are, however, a few ways of determining if your colony has laying workers.  Here’s what to look for:

The signs that you might have laying workers are that you may notice a disproportionate quantity of drone bees.  A typical strong colony can have up to a few hundred drones.  But if you are seeing more than a normal number of drones – especially in a weak colony – this is a red flag that you have laying workers.

Another telltale sign is noticing more than one egg or larvae inside a single cell.  Laying workers are not experts in laying eggs like regular queens.  So, laying workers make plenty of mistakes and will often lay two or more eggs in a single cell.  Also, laying workers do not usually center their eggs in a cell.  They sometimes miss the mark and leave eggs on the side of the cell, or off center rather than positioning them in the center of the cell like a regular queen would.

Your first thought of a solution to your laying worker problem might be to requeen the colony.  Don’t even think about this; a colony with laying workers will almost never will accept a new queen.  For better or for worse (mostly for the worse) a colony with laying workers already believes that it has a queen.  Therefore, when a new queen is introduced, since the colony sees itself as already having a queen, it will see the new queen as an intruder and will kill it.

The best solution for a colony that has laying workers is to combine the entire colony into a strong, queen-right colony.  The pheromone of the existing queen will quickly overpower the meager pheromones of the laying workers, so that the colony will soon forget about their laying worker “queens”.  Let the two colonies work as one for a while.  In short order, the bees from the colony of laying workers will completely combine with the strong colony, and become one with the original queen, long forgetting about the laying worker situation.

Later, you can make a new divide out of the strong colony, purchase a new queen for the divide, and start over fresh again.

Keeping Honeybees is About More Than Just Honey

Beekeeping is more than just about honey (although it’s a fantastic perk). People who keep honeybees—if they are humane and respectful to their bees—are serving nature and humanity by building the number and strength of pollinators available.

Honeybees are essential for the reproduction of many plant species and food crops. From the ecosystem perspective, bees are more valuable as pollinators than honey producers. This is because pollination sustains the reproduction of countless plants. In contrast, honey production is generally only valuable to the bees themselves (as well as any other species that eats their stores, such as bears and humans).

It is estimated that one out of every three bites of food we eat is made possible by pollinators. This percentage is even greater when focusing exclusively on fruits and vegetables, as honeybees make up 80-90 percent of global fruit and vegetable pollination!

Without honeybees, our world would look very different. The loss of bees would likely have a ripple effect on the entire ecosystem, as plants and animals that depend on each other would no longer be able to thrive. Many plants simply would not be able to reproduce. As a result, humans would lose a massive amount of the fruit, vegetables, and nuts we rely on for food.

This is not to deny that bees also produce honey and beeswax, which are valuable commodities in their own right. Before the European discovery of the new world, honey was practically the only sweetener available to people in medieval times. This changed, however, with the European discovery and colonization of the Americas. Vast sugar cane plantations gave rise to a global sugar trade, along with cheap and abundant sugar supplies. As a result, sugar has crowded out honey as the world’s primary sweetener.

Similarly, the development of the petrochemical industry in the twentieth century gave rise to paraffin, which has almost completely replaced beeswax as the preferred wax for candles. As a result, honey and beeswax have become specialty and niche products these days. This leaves pollination as the most valuable service of honeybees by far.

As beekeepers, it is our job to ensure that honeybees continue to play a vital role in our world. The decline of pollinators is an ongoing worldwide crisis. Pollinator populations have been taking a nosedive in recent years due to various factors, including habitat loss and pesticide use. This is a serious dilemma, as pollinators are crucial for the health of our planet.

The modern agriculture industry needs to feed 8 billion people—this number continues to grow each year. Keeping honeybees is primarily about helping to ensure the health of our ecosystems. One of the most important things you can do as a beekeeper is to take care of your bees healthily and humanely. You can also do your part by planting native flowers and trees and avoiding pesticides.