Powdered Sugar Roll

The VSH trait is one of the best-known ways of naturally controlling varroa mite growth without the use of chemicals or miticides.  But how does a beekeeper know whether a given colony is expressing high VSH levels?  The best way to determine this is to test the colony for varroa mites, and then compare the results of the test against colonies that are susceptible to mites.

At Wildflower Meadows we take pride in our mite-resistant VSH-Italian queen bees.  We perform mite counting tests on our bees throughout the year, and test multiple colonies within individual apiaries.  Although the most reliable way of testing for varroa mites is called the alcohol wash, we don’t always utilize the alcohol wash because it kills upwards of 300 bees per colony, per test!  So, because we are not big fans of intentionally killing our bees, more often than not, we prefer to use the powdered sugar roll to gain insight into varroa mite levels.

To perform the powdered sugar roll, we take approximately 300 bees (from the brood nest, where varroa mites are typically most active) and shake them into a jar that contains a small amount of powdered sugar. The powdered sugar, along with vigorous shaking, dislodges the varroa mites off of the bees.  Before long, the mites become loose and become mixed in with the powdered sugar.  By then pouring the mixture of powdered sugar and bees over a screen and onto a piece of white cardboard (see the photo above), the bees stay on top of the screen, but the sugar and mites fall through to the cardboard.  Against the background of the white cardboard it is easy to see and count any varroa mites from the sample.

Mite counts are usually estimated as varroa mites per 100 bees.  In general, three or less mites per 100 bees is considered an acceptable threshold – although this threshold is not a hard and fast rule, and much depends on the goals and tolerance of an individual beekeeper.

The downside of the powdered sugar roll is that it is rather difficult to know exactly how many bees were in the sample in the first place.  It is only with time and practice that a beekeeper can learn to accurately estimate the number of bees in each sample.

The best part about the powdered sugar roll, besides the information that it imparts, is that none of the bees have to die.  After only a half hour or so of testing, our apiaries become alive with “ghost bees” – worker bees that are perfectly healthy, but are covered from head to foot in sugar.  They look strange, but are happily welcomed by their sisters, who eagerly lick them clean!

In no time at all, everything returns back to normal; the bees clean up the sugar, we gain valuable information, and no bees die in the process.

The below link, courtesy of the University of Minnesota Department of Entomology, contains further detailed instructions on how to perform a powdered sugar roll (link opens as .pdf).

How to Do a Powdered Sugar Roll

Should Attendants Be Removed From The Queen Cage?

Some beekeepers advise that before introducing a queen honeybee, the attendants that ship with the queen should be removed from the queen cage prior to introduction.  The theory behind this idea is that the colony that is receiving the new queen might perceive the queen’s attendants as belonging to a separate colony, and therefore start fighting among the bees and possibly injure the new queen along the way.

While this, of course, is theoretically possible, in actuality there is little to no evidence that this really happens.  Beekeepers around the world successfully introduce hundreds of thousands of queens with attendants inside of the queen cages every year, and have done so for countless years without difficulty.  The truth is that, when introduced, the queen pheromone spreads throughout the colony, both through the attendant bees and the colony’s existing bees.  In very short order all of the bees will smell the same.

The far greater risk lies with trying to remove the attendants from the queen cage, while at the same time ensuring that the new queen stays inside the cage.  Even for experienced beekeepers this is not always an easy task.  It is not uncommon for a well-intentioned beekeeper to accidentally injure a queen bee by inadvertently closing the door of the queen cage on one of her fragile legs and/or antennae, or otherwise mishandle her while trying to remove the attendants.  And, how many well-intentioned beekeepers have tried to remove the attendants from the queen cage, and accidentally allow the queen to fly out of the queen cage, to be lost forever?  It is simply much safer to leave the new queen in her queen cage with her attendants, who are already taking excellent care of her.

At Wildflower Meadows, we purposely select young nurse bees as the attendants that we include with our queen bees for sale.  We do this for the primary reason that we believe that young nurse bees are more instinctively inclined to attend to the new queen, and therefore make more conscientious attendants to the queen during shipment and queen introduction.

Attendant bees won’t hurt the queen, and they won’t hurt your colony’s bees, so why not let them be introduced with the new queen?

Optimum genetics

How Long Does A Queen Bee Live?

A queen honeybee can theoretically live up to five years, although the average queen bee lives for approximately two-to-three years.  Queen bees are usually at their most industrious and vigorous in years one and two.  This is one of the main reasons that many beekeepers replace the queens in their colonies after the first or second year of the queen’s life.

A young queen bee is generally more active than an older queen bee.  As a queen bee ages, her egg laying production steadily declines.  She will generally lay fewer eggs per day so that by her third year, her egg laying becomes noticeably less vigorous.  Eventually, a queen honeybee may stop laying eggs completely, or will begin to fill worker cells with unfertilized drone eggs.  This is the sign of a failing queen.  Normally the queen’s colony will notice this decline and begin raising supercedure queen cells to replace the failing queen.

By the time a queen bee reaches her second or third year, she may also look shinier than a younger queen.  This is because a queen’s attendant bees have been constantly grooming and rubbing against her for her entire lifetime!  Over time, this steady attention causes the queen bee’s hairs to fall off on her thorax and abdomen – it seems that queens, like many humans, lose their hair as they age too.

However, even though an older queen may not be as productive as a younger queen, this does not mean that she is not valuable.  At Wildflower Meadows, we prize many of our older queens – especially the highly productive ones.  An older and highly productive queen has demonstrated an inherent vitality that makes her an excellent source of quality drone bees, as well as a fine candidate to possibly become the mother of an artificially inseminated breeder queen for future generations to come.

Pesticide Spraying

Every spring, around late May, more or less, comes the dreaded phone call: “Hi, we just wanted to let you know that we will be spraying the grove at . . . ____ .  We know that you have bees in the area and want to give you a chance to move them out before we begin pesticide spraying.”

While perfectly courteous and respectful, this call and those like them are particularly bothersome here at Wildflower Meadows.  Oftentimes, the yard in question has a group of emerging virgin queens that are just getting oriented to the area.  Other times, the colonies in the yard just received a batch of sensitive queen cells.  At these critical points, it can be detrimental to have to move a colony of bees to a new location.  Yet, they have to be moved.  And, typically, we lose the queens when this happens.

The other challenge of receiving late May spray calls is the unfortunate timing.  Late May is usually the end of our busiest season.  Our crews are growing tired from working long hours since late March, and now have a new, unexpected project to tackle.  Of course the days are long at this time of year, so we have to wait until the sun finally sets to begin the moving process.

The final blow often takes place after we ultimately move the bees to what we think is a safe location, then receive a new incoming call of: “Hi, we see that you just moved bees into the area.  We plan on spraying there next week  . . . ”

 

 

Four Frame Nucs – The Easy Way

Spring is an excellent time to divide beehives.  At this time of year, bees are instinctively building their populations, and the bees themselves have a natural inclination to swarm (which is their own method of dividing).  By dividing a colony when the population is on the upswing, you as a thoughtful beekeeper are working with the natural flow of nature and the bees, rather than against them.  It is at this time of year that dividing a colony has the most natural and the least stressful impact on a beehive.

When it comes to dividing bee colonies, there are probably as many methods as there are beekeepers!  Some beekeepers split colonies into two, others into three or four. Some make four-frame nucs, some make smaller or larger nucs – or even full-size colony divides.  Some shake bees out of strong colonies and make their own packages. Some beekeepers look for the queen up front, others wait until after they make the divide.  No one way is right or wrong.  It is up to each beekeeper to uncover the method that works best both for the individual beekeeper, as well as, of course, the bees.

One of the most tried-and-true ways of dividing a strong colony is to prepare a four-frame nuc.  A typical four-frame nuc consists of one frame of honey, two frames of brood, one frame of pollen, and a new queen bee.  In our video, “Preparing a Four-Frame Nuc,” the beekeepers at Wildflower Meadows will show you one of our own favorite methods of preparing a high-quality four-frame nuc – one that enables a beekeeper to divide a colony without even having to look for the queen!

Queen Spotting

We are pleased to announce the release of a new book about our favorite subject, queen honeybees!  The book, titled “QueenSpotting”, is authored by our friend and fellow beekeeper, Hilary Kearney of Girl Next Door Honey.

Queen spotting, in fact, is what this book is all about.  Hilary challenges readers to “spot the queen” with 48 fold-out visual puzzles — vivid up-close photos of the queen hidden among her many subjects — as well as queen bee chronicles of royal hive happenings such as The Virgin Death Match, The Nuptual Flight (when the queen mates with a cloud of male drones high in the air), and the dramatic Exodus of the Swarm from the hive.

As we all know, whether in a live situation or in a photo, it is not always easy to spot the queen bee.  If you have difficulty spotting queen bees in your colonies, then this book is an enjoyable way to gain some practice and confidence with your queen spotting skills, all while being entertained in what Hilary hopes is a more relaxing environment than with impatient bees buzzing around your head!

“QueenSpotting” also features a section on Wildflower Meadows, entitled “The Experts”, which includes an account of our team members in action, finding and marking Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen bees.

For further information about “QueenSpotting,” please visit Girl Next Door Honey.

How Much Honey Can A Beehive Produce?

Every bee season eventually reaches a peak when honey production hits its stride and the bees are bringing in the maximum amount of nectar each day.  This is referred to as the honey flow, and it is what most beekeepers live for.

When things are going right, a beehive’s worker bees are putting in long hours foraging, and the house bees are drying nectar as fast as the foragers can bring it in.  A single worker bee can visit over a thousand flowers a day.  Multiply that by thousands of workers, and we are talking about a lot of nectar!

What does it take to reach this kind of honey production?  Well, more than a few variables have to fall into place.  To reach peak honey production a beehive typically needs:

–       A high concentration of honey-producing flowers nearby, such as clover, buckwheat or alfalfa

–       Above average rainfall in the rainy season prior to the bloom (this makes the flowers rich with nectar)

–       A strong, healthy hive, booming with healthy bees and a large population

–       Plenty of space to store all the surplus honey

–       Sunny and warm weather (this enables the flowers to secrete nectar at a maximum), and

–       Plenty of daylight for the bees to fly; from sunup to sundown

A typical beehive in the United States can produce anywhere from 10 to 200 pounds of honey in a year.  That is an unbelievably large range, which indicates just how critical these variables are in order for a beehive to reach peak honey production.

If all is going well, how much honey can a beehive produce in a single day?  At Wildflower Meadows, we have seen beehives fill an entire deep super of buckwheat honey in less than a week.  That’s about 10 pounds of honey per day!  Of course, this happens only once in a while, when all of the above conditions fall into place.  More often than not, here in Southern California, we run into years of drought that greatly distress our native honey-producing plants.  However, when everything is going just right, producing honey can feel a lot like hitting the lottery!

Starting A Beehive Without Buying Bees

In a world where everything costs money, it is difficult to believe that one of the simplest ways that a beekeeper can start a new colony is completely free.  During the swarming season, which takes place every spring, complete beehives literally fall out of the sky!  Why not make them yours, and in the process start a new beehive without buying bees?

Catching a swarm is not as difficult as one would think.  Beekeepers have been starting beehives in this manner as a time-honored tradition for centuries.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, we catch our fair share of swarms and obtain new beehives for free too.  (Of course, we lose a few swarms each year, but that is another story . . . )

To catch a swarm, a beekeeper needs to think like the swarm.  A swarm of bees has one main objective, which is to find and settle into a desirable new home.  When a swarm is on the loose it can be found in either of two states – settled (usually resting on a branch) and looking for a home, or flying (moving from one location to another) and looking for a home.  Either type of swarm can be captured by an opportunistic beekeeper.

Settled swarms require the beekeeper to go out, suit up, and retrieve the bees from their resting area.  The beekeeper usually shows up to the swarm site with a collection box or empty hive body.  More often than not, it is not particularly difficult to shake or brush the bees into the collection box.  If the swarm is clustered on a branch, oftentimes a beekeeper will simply cut the branch and remove both the bees and the branch at the same time.  (Sometimes, however, the swarm is out of reach and cannot be safely be retrieved.)  How can you as a beekeeper locate these types of swarms?  The best way to find swarms is to get the word out that you are available to collect them.  Some cities and counties maintain lists of beekeepers who are available to collect swarms.  A beekeeper that is looking for swarms can also contact nearby apartment managers or housing complexes, many of which run into unwanted swarms of bees, especially during the spring.

Believe it or not, swarms that are flying can also be lured, but this requires a more passive approach.  In this case, the goal is to attract a flying swarm to the beekeeper’s equipment by using chemical lures, which are designed to mimic the pheromone that honeybees produce when they are calling their fellow bees to a location.  To catch flying swarms, a beekeeper uses either bait hives or swarm traps.  Bait hives are standard empty beekeeping hive bodies that have been scented with swarm lures.  Swarm traps are containers specifically designed to lure and catch flying swarms (both swarm lures and swarm traps are sold by beekeeping supply companies).

The good news about swarms is that they are easy to handle.  As long as a swarm is not well established in its new location, it has no young brood or honey to defend, so the bees normally behave very gently.  Even a swarm from an aggressive African honeybee colony will act gently after it has been separated from its main colony.

Once you have collected your swarm, it is critical that you soon replace the queen that came with the swarm.  Why?  Because, the queen that arrived with the swarm is of unknown origin.  It could have poor genetics that could lead the colony to be undesirable in many ways, such as having a bad temperament or being prone to disease.  The only thing you know about a swarm is that the genetic line is likely to swarm.  After all, it already has!  With a new queen, especially one from Wildflower Meadows, you will be obtaining quality, healthy, and known genetic stock that is well suited for your new colony.

How Far Does A Queen Bee Fly To Mate?

Even though a queen bee is obviously different from the average worker bee, she maintains all the flying and navigational ability of a worker bee.  This is important because virgin queen bees need to fly to be able to mate outside of the hive.  A virgin queen bee will never mate inside of her own hive as she needs to take flight to mate.  By mating during flight, a queen bee is able to increase the odds that she will mate with drones that did not originate from her own colony, and thereby minimize the chances of inbreeding appearing in the next generation.

After a series of orientation flights, a virgin queen bee sets out for mating somewhere between the 5th and 14th day after her emergence from her queen cell.  From our experience, most of our Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queens usually mate on the 7th or 8th day after emergence.

A virgin queen does not necessarily take just one mating flight.  Since she typically mates with up to 15 drones, sometimes she requires more than one mating flight to mate with the right number of drones.  A queen bee’s individual mating flight lasts approximately five to thirty minutes, depending on how quickly she encounters drones, and on the weather.  Warmer weather usually means that more drones are flying, so the queen may stay out flying longer if the conditions are favorable.

During a mating flight, a queen bee can fly a considerable distance depending on whether she is able to find drones with which to mate.  Also, the drones themselves are flying between one to three miles from their hives to nearby drone congregation areas where they too are looking for queens.  The queens can also theoretically fly about the same distance when looking for drones.  In theory, that means that a drone can potentially mate with a queen that is 6 miles away!  In actuality, however, on average, most mating flights occur within a mile of the virgin queen’s home colony.  If a queen encounters a drone congregation area right away, the mating can take place very close to the queen’s home colony.  If she cannot find drones, the queen can fly up to the maximum distance while out looking for drones.

Herein lies the answer to our question:  How far does a queen bee fly to mate?  It depends on how quickly she finds drones, or how quickly the drones find her!

At Wildflower Meadows, our number one focus is producing the highest quality VSH-Italian queen bees for sale.  Accordingly, we think a lot about how to create the most ideal mating conditions for our virgin queens.  That includes flooding mating areas with as many drones as possible.  Our drone production colonies are usually spread about a mile apart in various directions from our mating yards.  Our goal is to create a radius of drones around the virgin queens, so that they do not have to fly too far for mating.  Our positioning strategy also ensures that our queens are most likely to mate with our own Wildflower Meadows’ drones of known optimum genetics.

Wild Mustard

After the winter and early spring rains, wild mustard bursts on the scene with its brilliant yellow blossoms.  If there is one plant that symbolizes the heart of the queen rearing season, it is wild mustard.  Wild mustard is arguably the richest source of bee pollen that the bees see all year.  It is loaded with nutrients, and is a key ingredient for the bees’ production of royal jelly during the height of the queen rearing season.  Nutritious royal jelly leads to healthy queen cells, which leads to healthy young mated queen bees.

Although not a native plant, in many ways wild mustard forms the backbone of the food source not only for honeybees, but for much of the wild California ecosystem.  If mustard is plentiful, rabbits and other herbivores have plenty of nutritious greens to eat.  This results in a higher number of coyotes and other predators.

It all starts with mustard.

An old-time beekeeper once told us that he could predict the success of the upcoming honey crop simply by observing the height of the mustard plants in early spring.  He stood about 6 feet tall and measured how high the mustard plants grew relative to his body.  He confidently declared that shoulder-high mustard indicated that the ground was plenty wet and the season would be good.  Head-high mustard indicated a spectacular season ahead, and if the mustard could only reach waist-high, that meant trouble for the bees.

From our experience he has been proven correct!  Ever since he shared that bit of wise lore, we have always kept our eyes on the growth of the season’s mustard and found his rule of thumb to be accurate.

It is too early yet to tell how high the mustard will grow this year, but we won’t complain if it reaches our heads!