The Smoker

Other than perhaps owning a hive tool, nothing says, “I’m a beekeeper” more than carrying around a billowing bee smoker and leaving a cloud of smoke behind you.  Smokers usually come in two sizes, 4- inches and 7-inches.  A 4-inch smoker is pictured here.

Fuel for the bee smoker comes in many shapes and sizes.  Our favorite smoker fuels at Wildflower Meadows are eucalyptus bark, pine needles, and alfalfa pellets.  Some other popular smoker fuels are:

  • Burlap pieces
  • Cotton rolls (unbleached)
  • Small wood chips
  • Peanut shells
  • Rice husks
  • Small branches

Smoke calms the bees in two ways.  First, upon encountering smoke and anticipating an oncoming fire, the bees retreat to the hive and fill their bodies with honey.  (By filling their bodies with honey, the bees are “grabbing the essentials” before potentially heading out for an emergency evacuation.)  This process of filling up with honey distracts the bees from the oncoming human intrusion.  Second, the odor of the smoke disrupts and masks the alarm pheromones that the guard bees give off.  If the alarm pheromones cannot spread effectively, fewer bees are aware that there is any reason to become defensive.

Providing Water For Bees

When beekeepers get in trouble with their neighbors, more often than not it is due to water issues.  Honeybees need water, especially during hot and dry weather.  If the bees can’t find water close to their hives, they seek it out at the neighbor’s house, sometimes on the side of a swimming pool or hot tub, and sometimes in a pet’s water bowl.  A birdbath may become filled with bees.  Worse is when a neighbor finds his child’s “kiddie pool” crawling with honeybees.  If a child gets accidentally stung – look out!  When this happens, a beekeeper typically loses his or her ability to keep bees at home – and probably rightly so.

A responsible beekeeper always provides water for the bees.  Bees are constantly foraging for water.  The bees use water for hive cooling, for thinning the nectar that they feed to larva, as well as to keep the humidity inside the hive at sufficient levels during dry weather.  Bees consume tremendous quantities of water on hot days.  A single beehive can consume over a quart of water in a day.  At Wildflower Meadows, we have seen our apiary of queen bee building colonies and drone rearing colonies consume over 70 gallons of water per week, for several consecutive weeks in a row.

The best way to provide water for bees is to create a honeybee water garden.  This does not have to be anything especially fancy, although it certainly can be a work of art if you enjoy being creative.  The basic honeybee water garden begins with either an animal watering trough or a small garden pond.   Once you have filled the pond with water, you need to provide the honeybees with something to land on so that they do not drown.   Some beekeepers use a sheet of artificial lawn turf.   At Wildflower Meadows, however, we prefer the more natural approach.  We use water plants, such as water hyacinth.  Water plants not only provide footing for the bees, but they naturally filter the water and keep the pond water clean.

Marked Queen Bees

There are many reasons to mark a queen bee, but the most important reason is so that you know that the queen that you purchased is still running the show.  If the original mark is still there – good news – she hasn’t been replaced.  Many beginning beekeepers also like to order their queen bees marked so that they can find her more easily.  While true, this doesn’t always work, because sometimes a colony later replaces a queen.  Her daughter may be the beehive’s new queen.  But how are you going to find this new queen by looking for a mark that doesn’t exist?  This is why, when looking for a queen, it is always best to look for her distinctive shape rather than any mark.

Nevertheless, the best part about marked queen bees is the knowledge that this marking provides.  With the mark, you are certain the queen that you are looking at is the one that you purchased.  For better or worse, you can now judge her performance without any risk of “mistaken identity.”

You can also use the color of the mark to determine the queen’s age.  Queen breeders follow an International Color Code for determining which colors they use to mark queens in any given year.  There are five rotating colors: white for years ending in 1 or 6, yellow for years ending in 2 or 7; red for years ending in 3 or 8; green for years ending in 4 or 9; and blue for years ending in 5 or 0.  This young queen, with her pretty green mark, was born in 2014.

Queen Cage Candy

Queen cage candy is the primary food source for both the queen bees and the attendant bees when they are shipped through the USPS mail or UPS.  The candy is also a key element of the queen introduction.  Worker bees chew through the candy – typically over the course of a couple of days – while the colony becomes accustomed to the pheromones of the new queen, assuring her safe acceptance.

The history of shipping queen bees via mail goes all the way back to the 1860’s.   Queen producers knew that they needed to include some kind of food for the queen bees and attendants during shipment.  The natural and obvious choice was honey; and the first series of shipments included little pieces of comb honey in the containers.  You can imagine the messy scenes at the post office as a result of this approach.  Surely enough, in 1872, tired of leaky packages, the postal authorities banned shipment of queens through the mail.  The post office, however, never really enforced this ruling.  And beekeepers – being beekeepers – never really gave up trying new methods of shipping queen bees.

The pioneer of queen cage candy was a man named Good, who in the early 1880’s proposed using a mixture of cold honey and sugar to create a dripless honeybee food.  Shortly thereafter beekeepers fine-tuned the concept, eventually settled on a mixture of sugars for the candy.  To this day, some beekeeping books refer to queen cage candy as “Good” candy in honor of this visionary beekeeper.

Today’s queen cage candy typically calls for a mixture two types of sugar, a liquid inverted sugar called nulomoline, plus a dried sugar, which is either powdered sugar or another type of dried sugar called drivert.  The candy-making process itself is not too difficult. The liquid sugar is warmed, and the dried sugar is added until the consistency is just right.  The goal is to achieve the perfect balance of firmness and suppleness in the candy.  If the candy is too hard the bees cannot chew through it.  If the candy is too soft it can melt or drip onto the queen.  Here is where the queen producer becomes a professional candy maker, carefully crafting the ideal sugary food – not for average people, but instead for insect royalty.

Avocado Pollination

Avocado blossoms bloom in two stages.  In the first stage, flowers open as a female.  In other words they do not produce pollen, but receive pollen.   In the second stage, which takes place about three to four hours later (or the next day) the flower opens as a male.  The stigma of the male flower releases pollen.  Some tree varieties have flowers that start the day as a female, and other varieties have those that start the day as a male.  In both cases, the flowers switch over mid-day.  On cloudy or overcast days, however, neither type of flower will open in the morning, delaying the start of pollination.  When the sun finally does appear, some trees may have both male and female flowers blooming at the same time!

A mature avocado tree may bear a million flowers in a single season.  It is no secret that good pollination improves both the yield and quality of avocados.  Although avocados are partially self-pollinating, visits by honeybees have been proven beneficial because honeybees transfer large amounts of pollen from flower to flower, tree to tree.  It has been estimated that up to 90% of an avocado crop would be lost in the event there were no honeybees.  Many commercial avocado growers in California contract to rent thousands of beehives for improved pollination and yield.  An estimated 105,000 colonies per year are rented in the United States specifically to improve avocado pollination.

Four Frame Nucs

Sooner or later, a beekeeper may want to expand the number of beehives in the apiary, or simply replace lost colonies or rebuild back to original strength.

Nucs can be made up to any size between 2 to 8 frames of bees.  The advantage of a smaller two frame nuc is that it is quick and easy to make.   It also doesn’t tax too many resources from the donating beehive.  The disadvantage of such a small split is that it is going to take a while for it to build up to a full strength beehive.  In two months, it still may have less than 20,000 bees of strength.  Plus, being so weak it might be vulnerable to ant attacks and other calamities.

On the other hand, a large, 8-frame divide, starts out strong and build up rapidly, perhaps building up to 70,000 or more bees in two months.  Constructing this giant nuc, however, will significantly diminish the strength of the original colony.

Many beekeepers settle on the four frame nuc as the ideal size for a starter hives of bees.  A typical four frame nuc consists of one frame of honey, two frames of brood, one frame of pollen, and a new queen bee.  This is a full-sized colony in miniature that is well poised to take off.  A typical spring four-frame nuc starts with about 10,000 honeybees and may expand to over 40,000 or more bees in two months, enough to produce a honey crop under the right conditions.

Ideal Queen Bee Mating Conditions

Queen honeybees mate outside the hive in the open while flying, usually in the afternoon.  The mating takes place over the course of several consecutive days.  Mated queen bees typically mate with approximately 10 to 20 drones over the course of their mating flights.  Once the queen bee has mated she will never leave the colony again (unless the colony swarms and she leaves with the swarm.)

Because queen bee mating takes place outside in the open, the weather conditions are critical.  What makes for the best for ideal mating?

  • Temperatures of at least 69º Fahrenheit (but not exceeding 104º)
  • Not too much wind
  • No rain
  • Drones nearby, usually within a mile, so that the queen bee can find drone congregation areas

Poor weather will delay a queen’s mating, and delay her ability to start laying eggs.  If a virgin queen is confined to her hive for over three weeks due to adverse weather, or if she is unsuccessful in her mating efforts during this time, she eventually will begin to lay eggs anyway.  In this case, however, she will only have unfertilized eggs to lay, and will be a considered “drone layer.”

Almond Pollination

Anyone in the business of growing almonds appreciates the challenges of pollination.  First, unlike most other fruits and nuts, almonds are not self-pollinating; they require cross-pollination from both another almond tree and another almond variety.  Second, unlike other crops, the almond crop is not thinned.  Therefore, the degree of pollination activity required is extraordinarily greater than in other crops.  Finally, from the perspective of the pollinating insect (typically a honeybee), the timing of almond bloom – mid-February, which is the lowest point of colony strength – could not be worse.

The best way for almond growers to ensure an abundant crop is to have as many working honey bees flying out of each rented colony as possible.  Successful pollination requires not just bees, but – most critically – strong and healthy bees.  For maximum pollination effectiveness, a grower needs bee colonies that are ideally eight frames in strength.  Research has shown that the number of pollinating bees delivered by an eight-frame colony when compared to a four-frame colony is not twice as many (as one would think); but rather, is more like four times as many!  In a weaker four-frame colony, a higher percentage of bees need to stay at home inside the box to keep the colony warm.

In order to be able to deliver strong and healthy bees for almonds, beekeepers need to have colonies headed by high quality queen bees, and preferably young queen bees as well.  Beekeepers also need to extensively feed their colonies both syrup and pollen substitute patties beginning in late summer, and continuing all the way through to at least Thanksgiving.  Fall bees that are headed for almond pollination should be tested for varroa mites, and treated if necessary.  With a disciplined regimen of regular feeding, monitoring and TLC, beekeepers can – and do! – produce what is seemingly unthinkable – an eight frame strong and healthy colony in the middle of February.

As this is being posted, Wildflower Meadows is sending our best “eight frame and greater” colonies on a journey to the almond orchards of Bakersfield, CA to help contribute our share to the world’s largest annual pollination event…

Pol_Line Queen

Pol-Line Queens

Besides the usual techniques available to commercial beekeepers for building colony strength in time for almond pollination, such as extensive fall and winter feeding, another way to encourage early season colony buildup is for the bees themselves to have their own predisposition to do so.

During the late 2000’s, researchers at the USDA Breeding Lab in Baton Rouge, LA took their stock of VSH bees and open mated them with the surrounding bees of the area.  They then tested these colonies nationwide to see which performed best.  The grading criteria that they used included early spring build up for pollination, maintaining large populations, gentle temperament, and resistance to varroa and tracheal mites and other brood diseases.

The tests did not stop there.  The USDA, along with their commercial partners at VP Queen Bees, continue to test and release new Pol-Line stock each year to selected queen breeders in the United States.  Wildflower Meadows has access to this queen bee stock, and we often cross our best queen bee breeders with Pol-Line queens, so that they can readily exhibit this prized trait of early season build up.

The queen pictured above is a pure Pol-Line breeder queen.  Of all the traits that make an ideal Pol-Line breeder note that none of the criteria includes color.  Pol-Line queens range an exceptionally wide span of colors, ranging from nearly black to golden.  You hardly can tell a Pol-Line bee by her color alone.  The best way to appreciate a Pol-Line queen is to see her in action.  When the other queens are still thinking about winter, the Pol-Line queen is thinking about summer.  She takes “getting an early start” very seriously.


Photo of pol-line breeder queen is courtesy of Glenn Apiaries, with permission.


Acacia Tree Blossoms: The Start Of Queen Honeybee Rearing

When it comes to raising queen honeybees there is no more welcome sight than the first blossoms of the year.  After a long dearth of pollen and nectar, a fresh and abundant new pollen source dramatically raises the activity of the bees.  The queen bees begin to lay eggs in earnest and bee populations begin their spring explosion.  In Southern California, early signs of spring often appear near the end of January, punctuated by the spectacular yellow blossoms of acacia.

The honeybees in the queen-rearing yard come to life with the big fluffy yellow blossoms that are loaded with nutritious pollen.  Once the acacia pollen starts coming in, the breeder queen bees accelerate their brood rearing.  Shortly after the appearance of the first blossoms, the queen bees will begin to rear the first drones of the season.

There are over 800 species of acacia in the world, making it one of the world’s largest tree species.  Acacias are found in Australia, Africa, Hawaii, and Central America.  They are also well established in the United States, specifically in California, Arizona, and South Carolina.  The acacia tree blossoms are pea shaped and, at least in California, are a very bright and bold yellow. California acacias are not a particularly strong honey producer, but the bees thoroughly enjoy the flowers for pollen!

Although acacia honey is renowned and highly prized, believe it or not, most “acacia” honey actually does not originate from acacia trees – but rather from black locust trees!  Black locust is also called “false acacia.”  The black locust tree is found in Southern Europe as well as in the United States.  This “acacia” honey is some of the most delicious tasting honey in the world; pale and clear with exquisite flavor, and well worth a try if you can find it.