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!

Beekeeping And Cosmetics

When most beekeepers think about the joys of beekeeping they immediately think of the benefits of having their own supply of honey.  But homemade honey is just one of the many bee products readily available to a beekeeper.  Bees are the producers not only of honey, but beeswax, bee pollen, royal jelly, and bee venom; all ingredients for natural cosmetics.

As a beekeeper you may not realize that you have first-hand access to some of the key ingredients of many popular and trendy cosmetics, such as lip balms, hand balms, soaps, lotions and face masks.  What’s more, some of these basic cosmetics are surprisingly easy to make.  For example, basic lip balm consists of little more than melted beeswax, coconut or olive oil (or sometimes shea butter) and essential oils (also optional).  Lotions and soaps are basically made from the same formula, but often also include honey, another product which a beekeeper has no problem obtaining.  Many basic recipes for beeswax lip balms, lotions and soaps can be found on the Internet.

The use of beeswax in cosmetics dates all the way back to Ancient Egypt, where Egyptologists have uncovered evidence of beekeeping activity as long as 8 thousand years ago!  Ancient Egyptians used beeswax-based setting lotion.  In Ancient China, beeswax was a key component of fingernail polish as long ago as 3,000 B.C.E.

Wildflower Meadows would like to thank all of our friends and customers for a successful 2019.

We wish you all a happy and joyous holiday season!

How a Swarm Finds a New Home

Besides the many obvious reasons not to leave your dresser sitting outdoors is one that you may not have considered:  Bees like dressers too!

A friend of Wildflower Meadows’ manages a nature reserve, which happens to include some lightly used houses.  One day our friend found a swarm in one of the drawers of a dresser that, for some unknown reason, had been left outside.  A swarm of bees had entered the third drawer through the rear of the dresser and began constructing comb right inside the drawer.  This is something like a natural top bar hive, only with a bit more creativity on the bees’ part.

When a swarm of bees begins its journey from the original hive, it typically first travels a relatively short distance before stopping to perch in a temporary resting area, such as a tree branch.  From this staging area, the swarm sends out scouts to evaluate new possibilities for a more permanent home.  The scouts, who are the hive’s experienced foragers, travel approximately a mile or so from the resting area.  They explore their surroundings both near and far, much in the same way as they have done in the past when scouting for nectar and pollen.  In a swarming situation, however, the scouts are not searching for food for the collective, but rather shelter for the collective.

This scouting needs to be executed as quickly and efficiently has possible.  Afterall, the swarm is vulnerable when sitting out in the open.  The bees cannot transport food with them for their swarming journey; they can only carry whatever food stores they can in their bellies, and that food won’t last for long.  Plus, when sitting on a tree branch or the side of a building, the bees have no decent shelter from the elements.   And, although their precious queen is sheltered in the middle of the swarm, she is completely unable to perform her egg laying duties without any honeycomb available.

This all means that the scouts need to spring into action right away.  They survey their surroundings looking for shelter, and return to the swarm with their findings.  Much in the same way that foragers communicate the location of desirable nectar sources, the swarm scouts communicate the location of favorable housing locations to the other bees by performing the “waggle dance.”  The better the housing prospect, the more intensely the bees will perform the dance.  The scout bees then recruit other bees to check out the prospective new homes.  Once approximately 80% of the bees in the swarm have concurred that a location is suitable, a consensus is reached.  The swarm then makes its move and will begin to populate their new home.

It’s fairly easy to see why an abandoned dresser might make an attractive home for a swarm.  A dresser is stable, cavernous, and made of natural wood.  Plus, the drawers are reasonably well-protected from the elements.  For the human (former) owner of this dresser, however, not so good.  Good luck to this poor person reaching for a pair of socks, particularly in the third drawer!

Beekeeping And Estate Planning

At Wildflower Meadows we are not estate planning experts.  There are more than enough qualified individuals available to assist you with the important questions of how to draft a will, and how to prepare one’s estate for the inevitable.

But when it comes time for estate planning, what about your bees?  As a beekeeper, are you thinking about what will happen to your colonies when you are no longer around to take care of them?  Do you have a plan for them?  Before you assume that these are silly questions, keep in mind that anything can happen.

At Wildflower Meadows, we recently received a call from a distressed customer.  Her father, a long-time beekeeper, had recently passed away, leaving her the sole beneficiary of 200 colonies.  Aside from the fact that she had little beekeeping experience, her biggest challenge was that out of the 200 colonies, she had only been able to uncover the location of approximately 30 of them.  The remaining 170 colonies were missing, located in other apiaries, of which she had no idea of where they were.

While this customer had ordered 30 Wildflower Meadows’ queens to requeen the colonies that she had found, she had no idea how to find the other 170 missing colonies.  Neither the county bee inspector, nor her father’s friends, knew of their locations.  They were missing, and possibly lost forever.  If only her father had left instructions in his will, these colonies could have been saved. Now they will need to depend on pure luck to be returned to their rightful beekeeper, or be abandoned.

Over the course of the years, here at Wildflower Meadows, we have “inherited” our fair share of abandoned bees and beekeeping equipment.  From time to time, we receive calls from frustrated real estate agents asking us to pick up long-abandoned apiaries that have no signs, markings, or any other identifying features on the boxes or frames.  More often than not, it is assumed that a beekeeper died somewhere along the way, leaving colonies behind, completely forgotten and abandoned.  This is bittersweet for us.  While we appreciate picking up some additional equipment and perhaps even some bees, we feel sad for the beekeeper and his or her bees that became permanently separated and left abandoned without proper care.

So here is our decidedly “un-expert” estate planning advice:  Don’t forget about your bees!  Register your apiaries with your county bee inspector so that there will be a record of ownership in case someone needs to find them.  And, why not leave instructions for the care of your bees along with your will?  Both your beneficiaries and your bees will be thankful that you were a conscientious beekeeper . . . all the way to the very end.

The Future of Beekeeping

At last year’s California State Beekeeping Convention there was a scheduled panel discussion concerning the “Future of Beekeeping”.  Most attendees anticipated a presentation covering the usual list of depressing topics in the world of beekeeping:  Pesticides, dwindling natural forage, mites, viruses, high costs, etc.  However, this conversation never happened.  In fact, there was never any conversation at all.  Due to extreme fire danger and the ferocious Santa Ana winds hammering the convention site, the local power company imposed a blackout.  This effectively shut down the discussion and the convention.

So, what about the future of beekeeping?  The underlying message of the shutdown could not have been more clear:  The future of beekeeping – at least in California – no doubt includes fire and imposed blackouts.

Today as we post this entry, at least four major wildfires are still burning in California, all of them uncontained.  Besides the loss of property and lives, these fires bring considerable collateral damage to beekeepers and their bees.  We cannot think of a year in recent memory when California beekeepers – including several of our customers – have not lost a significant number of colonies due to fire.

Besides the actual burning of colonies, bees also perish in fires due to smoke inhalation.  Bees, of course, can tolerate a certain amount of smoke, as any beekeeper using a smoker knows.  However, it is the quality of smoke that can be especially damaging to bees.  Smoke from a beekeeper’s smoker is a lot different than smoke from a burning house.  Urban smoke contains chemicals from burnt plastic, PVC, carpeting, appliances, vehicles, as well as many other toxic sources.  For example, in last year’s Paradise Fire, which destroyed the community of Paradise, CA, the smoke from the burning structures killed many nearby beehives, even though the actual fire never touched them.

Beekeepers themselves are also affected by this new reality of ongoing fire danger.  We know of some commercial beekeepers who no longer use their smoker in fire-prone areas, and have switched to sprayers filled with liquid smoke or other essential oil mixtures and water.  At Wildflower Meadows, when the fire danger becomes too high, we too put away our smokers and either work the bees without smoke, or sometimes even take the day off.  On high-risk fire days, we instead focus our efforts on filling the water tubs in our yards to keep them from evaporating up in the dry Santa Ana winds.

The future of beekeeping, for the most part however, is largely beyond our control as individual beekeepers.  When the power goes off, as it did last fall at the convention, another “future of beekeeping” also became clear.  Beekeepers at the disrupted convention, instead of griping, got together for a modest lunch (sandwiches – no power) and instead spoke about some more pleasant topics; family, friends, time off, keeping bees, and various adventures.  In this way, the future of beekeeping looked a lot like the present – beekeepers getting together, helping each other, not running from adversity, and doing the best they can . . . as always.

Drifting

Looking at a large apiary, it is difficult to believe that an individual forager bee is able to find its way back into the correct colony each time.  How do bees not get confused and enter the wrong colony?  Well, sometimes bees do, and any individual one colony will collect extra bees from its neighboring colonies.

Over time, bees can be so redistributed in an apiary that certain colonies grow progressively weaker as they lose population, and other colonies grow progressively stronger with larger populations gained from the other colonies.  This is known as “drifting.”  Beekeepers try to avoid creating situations that cause drifting, because drifting creates population imbalances in an apiary, and can also spread disease.

There are two main ways to prevent bees from drifting into other colonies.  The first is by controlling the placement of beehives within an apiary.  Long straight lines, which can look clean and attractive to a beekeeper, are definitely not ideal for honeybees.  The bees that belong to colonies that are situated in the interior of a long line often have a difficult time finding their way home, since the colonies in the interior look similar; and the only way to distinguish one interior colony from another is to count from the end of the line.  Although honeybees have rudimentary counting skills (it has been proven that they can count up to four and five), a long line does not work well for them.  Over time, foraging bees in the middle of the line generally will drift towards the hives at ends of the lines, which are easier for them to identify.

The best way to avoid the problem of long straight lines is to set up the apiary with short lines or clusters of colonies that makes it easier for the returning bees to identify their hives.  Long lines can generally only work if there are plenty of landmarks in the middle of the line such as unique trees or bushes, which the foraging bees can use as markers to place their hives.

Another way to prevent drifting is to paint the hives different colors.  Bees can identify most colors, and this assists the foragers in being able to distinguish one colony from another.

At Wildflower Meadows, preventing drifting is especially important to us, not so much with regard to foraging worker bees, but especially for queen bees that are out on mating flights.  Individual queens need to find their way home to the correct colony, or they risk entering a colony that already has a queen.  This can lead to a fight and the possible loss of a queen.  To prevent drifting, we arrange our mating nucs in distinct patterns.  We also paint our colonies different colors to assist returning bees and queens in finding their correct home.

The Intelligence Of The Collective

A bee colony has an overall intelligence that is obvious to a beekeeper that pays close attention.  This intelligence is more than just the sum of the individual bees; it is intrinsic to the colony as a whole.  Although the roles of individual bees within a hive are different, the hive itself operates as a single unit, which appears to have a single mind.  There is no one bee or group of bees that is “in charge.”  Even the queen, who is the most important individual bee within the hive, is not the leader, but rather just a unique part of the whole.  The intelligence of the hive is not something that can be defined by breaking down the whole into pieces, but is rather a collective intelligence that exists within the group, as opposed to the sum of the individuals.

This intelligence is apparent during a number of events that the hive conducts with no apparent leadership or organization that we humans understand.  For example, in the spring, the colony will build drone comb and the queen will begin laying drones seemingly all at once, without any understood level of coordination or communication.  Another example is when young bees take their training flights.  This is always a group exercise that begins and ends with no apparent leadership or trigger to both the start or the finish.

The most obvious example of collective intelligence is during swarming.  Anyone who has watched a swarm travel cannot help to wonder how the bees manage to fly as a group and make instantaneous collective decisions as to flight plans, direction, resting place, etc., without any apparent leaders or individual decision makers.  The bees themselves appear to be of “one mind”, and possess a group intelligence that is not easily understood by a species that is dominated by individual behavior such as ours.

Feeding the Queen Bee

A queen bee, being the queen that she is, is familiar to getting the royal treatment.  Even when it comes to eating, a queen bee is accustomed to being fed by her many attendants.

If you open a beehive and happen to find the queen bee, you will usually notice the queen surrounded by her attendants.  If you continue to look closely, you may even see one of the attending bees step forward and feed the queen mouth-to-mouth.  This is the way that a queen bee normally eats.  A queen honey bee typically eats a predigested blend of nectar or honey fed to her by her loyal court of attendants.

With this kind of care and attention, why would the queen bee need to eat on her own?  She usually does not.  This does not mean, however, that she cannot do so.  Sometimes if a queen bee is hungry enough, she will have no problem dropping her giant head into a honeycomb cell and taking a big drink of nectar.

When we prepare our queen bees for sale, we notice that one of the first things a queen will do when she is placed into a shipping cage is to immediately move to the sugar tube and start eating.  Perhaps this is because the sugar is so tasty and energizing to her.  In this case, she has no problem eating on her own.  Before long, however, we provide the queen with countless attendants in preparation for her shipment.  These attendant bees are always very eager to help.  Once the queen has attendants, she will stop eating on her own and let her attendant bees do all of the work.

In the photo above, a random honeybee dropped from the sky just to have the pleasure of feeding the queen bee!