Beekeeping Posts

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 flight and mating.  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.

Yellowjackets And Honeybees

Although non-beekeepers sometimes confuse yellowjackets with honeybees, a beekeeper knows the difference between the two very well.  The honeybee is loved by the beekeeper, and the yellowjacket?  Well, maybe not so much . . .

Yellowjackets are predatory wasps that feed on many of the same nectar sources as honeybees.  However, yellowjackets are carnivorous as well, and feed on other insects – yes, including honeybees!  Yellowjackets also eat other sources of sugar, such as fruits and tree sap.

Unlike honeybees, yellowjackets do not overwinter as a hive.  Only the queen yellowjacket overwinters.  Therefore, a yellowjacket colony starts from nearly zero in the spring, to its full size of nearly 5,000, which appears in late summer.

At Wildflower Meadows, in late summer we begin to see the presence of yellow jackets, especially around our mating nucs, which because of their small size, are most vulnerable to yellowjacket attacks.  Yellowjackets seek out the small mating nucs to both kill and eat bees, as well as to rob honey and sugar syrup.

A Simple Organic Varroa Mite Treatment

As a queen producer, our goal at Wildflower Meadows is to constantly raise the level of natural varroa mite resistance in our stock with each new generation.  For varroa mite control, we rely on the VSH trait that we continuously breed into our stock.  The VSH trait enables the bees themselves to interfere with the varroa mites’ reproduction cycle, thus lowering the spread of varroa mites in the colony.  The VSH trait controls varroa mites naturally, and we rarely see problems with high mite counts.

From time to time, however, beekeepers ask us if we know of any organic varroa mite treatments that complement the VSH trait in Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queens.  Our answer is simple:  With Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queens, you do not need to treat your honeybees for varroa mites.  But, if your goal is to obtain the maximum level of varroa control, we recommend that you consider our simple organic varroa mite treatment.

Wildflower Meadows’ Simple Organic Varroa Mite Treatment *

To understand how this varroa treatment works, it is important to first understand that varroa mites must reproduce inside of a capped brood cell.  They can live inside a colony on the bodies of honeybees, but they cannot reproduce unless they settle inside a capped brood cell for the duration of the brood cell’s life.  When varroa mites are ready to reproduce, they seek out the cells of uncapped larvae that are just about to be capped.  They then enter and hide inside the cells, where they begin their reproductive process once the cells are capped.

Here is the key to controlling varroa reproduction:  If there are no larvae about to be capped, then there is no mite reproduction.  Without larvae being capped, varroa mites have nowhere to go to reproduce.  This is how African honeybees have been able to survive varroa mites so effectively.  Because African honeybees frequently swarm, they regularly create new swarms that often take at least a week or two to get established.  During this swarming period, there is no brood production.  As a result, the varroa mite population in the swarm naturally declines, and the mites have no way of reproducing and gaining a foothold.  The swarm basically starts its new life relatively free of varroa mites.

As beekeepers, we can easily recreate the same broodless conditions inside of our colonies.  The event of requeening is the perfect time to do this.  This simple organic varroa treatment works best during the summer when varroa mite populations are naturally on the rise, and it is an excellent accompaniment to summer or fall requeening.

The simple varroa treatment is to remove the old queen two to three weeks before adding a new Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen.  About five days after removing the old queen, seek out and remove any natural queen cells.  Then check again a few days later to make sure that you did not miss any.  This colony can safely stay queenless for two to three weeks and still have a small amount of brood remaining for introducing the new queen two to three weeks later.  While the colony is queenless, new varroa mite reproduction will be impossible.  Many of the adult varroa mite will die of natural causes, while others will be removed by the bees’ normal grooming.  By the time that the new queen begins laying and her larvae reaches the stage of capping, several weeks will have passed.  During this period, the varroa mite population inside the colony will have been greatly reduced.

If you can recreate this two to three weeks’ window of no mite reproduction within your colony, then the varroa mite population will naturally decline, just as it does in a wild swarm, resulting in a relatively “fresh start” for the bees inside the colony.  Then, if after this period of varroa decline, you add a Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen, the varroa mite population will continue to stay in check.

* This method is only advised for strong and robust colonies that can afford to be queenless for two to three weeks.  We do not advise this method for weak or dwindling colonies.

half sisters

Half-Sisters

When we look at a colony of bees, we tend to think of the hive as a family.  It is, in fact, more or less very much like a typical single-parent family, with a mother – the queen bee – and her sons and daughters.  What is unusual about a hive of honeybees, however, is that not all the bees in the hive share the same father.  Some bees don’t even have fathers!  This leads to some unusual relationships between the bees themselves.

The bees that do not have fathers are the drone bees.  They originate from unfertilized eggs, and have only one set of chromosomes, the queen’s.  Drones in a hive are true genetic brothers, each carrying only the queen’s genetics.  Drone bees, however, are not entirely related to their sisters – the worker bees – who in fact do have fathers.

The worker bees originated from fertilized eggs that carry the genetics of both the queen mother and various drone fathers.  This makes many of the worker bees half-sisters to each other.  Because their mother, the queen, mated with upwards of 15 drones, many of the worker bees within a colony have different fathers.  This explains why sometimes worker bees within a hive can look differently from each other.  Many of the worker bees are not sisters, but are actually half-sisters.

Missing from every beehive is any evidence of the fathers of the worker bees.  One will never find the father of a bee actually in the same hive as the daughters.  You might say that the fathers are “deadbeat dads,” but this would not be completely true.  The fathers are actually “hero dads.”  All drones die during mating, so that no honeybee ever gets to know her father and no drone honey bee father ever gets to know his daughters, as they gave up their lives in the very act of mating and furthering the welfare of not only the colony, but the entire species!

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

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!

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.