Beekeeping Posts

Single Source Honey

The above photo of bees in a lavender field was taken in France, where lavender is grown commercially.  Lavender is also grown in Spain and other parts of the European Union.

The honey from lavender blossoms is arguably one of the most prized single-source varietal honeys in the world.  It is almost exclusively imported from Europe.  This honey is magnificently delicious with a delicate flavor and slight purple hue.  Lavender honey is expensive, but if you are a honey connoisseur, it is highly worth a try.

Single sourced honey originates from a single flower type and, as a result, takes on the unique flavor and characteristics of that blossom.  In order to capture a single source of nectar and to produce single source varietal, the beekeeper needs to strategically place colonies of honeybees on or alongside a vast area of the exact same blossoms, such as clover, acacia, alfalfa, or in the above case, lavender.  There should be at least a square mile of the same kind of blossoms in the area blossoming at about the same time.  The blossoms need to be attractive to the bees, and there should not be any competing flowers nearby that could dilute the flavor of the honey – especially other kinds of flowers that are equally or more attractive to the bees.

For most backyard beekeepers, producing single source honey is entirely out of the question.  With houses nearby and all sorts of flowering gardens, the honey produced is nearly always a blend of “wildflowers”, or more accurately, garden blossoms.

At Wildflower Meadows, we have seen our bees working lavender blossoms from time to time.  Occasionally, a nearby enterprising gardener will plant a garden of lavender, usually for some sort of aromatherapy or essential oil project that they have in mind.  Our bees are most pleased to do their part and pay a visit. Unfortunately, however, there is never even close to enough lavender to consider the resulting honey single source.  Obtaining a particular honey varietal is an art unto itself, and takes a knowledgeable beekeeper that is dedicated to this singular pursuit.

What Attracts Honeybees To Flowers?

 

When flying about, honeybees’ two most powerful senses are their eyesight and sense of smell.  When at full bloom, flowers’ most attractive features are their beauty to the eyes, as well as their fragrance to the nose.  Is this a coincidence?  No.  Honeybees are designed to find flowers, and flowers are designed to find honeybees.

Did you ever wonder why flowers are almost never the same color as the plant itself?  The flower on any plant needs to stand out, and be as beautiful and fragrant as it can be to attract the bees that it needs for the next generation of plants to survive.

As humans we also appreciate the beauty and fragrance of a perfect flower.  But compared to what a bee experiences, our visual perception of a flower is downright drab.  It is as though we are looking at an old scratched computer screen while the bees are watching a 3D movie in IMAX!  Not only is a bee’s sense of smell keenly more acute than ours, a bee’s eyesight is perfectly optimized for identifying flowers.

You may not know this, but flowers display a richness that largely escapes our range of vision.  Bees see in a different range of frequencies, or spectrum, than humans.  Whereas a human’s eyesight ranges from red to violet on the color spectrum (the colors of the rainbow), the bees’ vision ranges from orange to ultraviolet.  Bees cannot see red, but they can see well into the ultraviolet spectrum.  In the ultraviolet spectrum, many flowers have an iridescent quality, in which they appear to change color or flicker from one color to another.  While we humans fail to see this beauty, the bees identify it immediately.

A bees eye view of the same photo

If humans could see into the ultraviolet spectrum, we would see iridescent colors in a flower, along with patterns on the petals of flowers that seem to almost point the way to the nectar source.  A dandelion, when seen in the UV spectrum, is not completely yellow but has a rich and darker looking center that immediately draws attention.  That center, not coincidentally, is where the nectar lies.

Bees’ vision is also vastly faster than ours, which means that they can identify changes in colors while on the move. In fact, honeybees can actually identify individual flowers while traveling at high speed!  Is it any wonder why scout bees never fail to “stop and smell the flowers” along the way?

Everything is Just Right

Wildflower Meadows’ employees have been out and about lately moving bees in anticipation of the upcoming queen-rearing season.  Raising queens waits for no one, and the work generally continues rain or shine.  At this time of year, we spend our mornings grading our bee stock, then shuffling individual colonies to the proper yards.  Breeders go to the queen rearing yards, strong drone rearing colonies get consolidated near our mating areas, colonies are re-graded, and so on . . .

On the surface, this photo looks like a miserable situation.  Here, one of our employees is moving a few breeder colonies to our queen-rearing area.  It is pouring rain, and around the apiaries there is mud absolutely everywhere.  One might think that all is wrong, but truly, everything is just right.

First of all, we are finally experiencing rain here in Southern California!  This means that the drought conditions are subsiding, and the bees will have an abundance of foraging opportunities later in the season.  Second, the breeders that we are selecting look great!  They have overwintered exceptionally well and are now being handpicked for the upcoming season.  Third, our Columbia rain gear comes from the Pacific Northwest, where they know a thing or two about rain and keeping a person dry.  And finally, because we just installed new mud tires on this pickup truck – we are just in time to have a little fun and sling some mud!

Mud Slinging

Numbering Bee Colonies

Unlike most commercial beekeepers, at Wildflower Meadows we number all of our bee colonies and keep track of each colony individually.  Numbering bee colonies is not an original idea, and it adds a significant amount of record keeping and tediousness to each day’s work.  However, in our opinion, the information gained is more than worth the extra effort.

Once bee colonies have numbers, a whole world of knowledge opens up.  At Wildflower Meadows, we use colony numbers to track the individual queens inside each colony.  We can then compare queens of different ages, races, gene lines, histories, and therefore determine what the best performing queens have in common.  This information helps us to determine what is working, or not working, and enables us to develop an edge on queen selection and breeding.

Numbering colonies is not only useful for queen producers; beginning and small-scale beekeepers can also greatly benefit from keeping records on each colony.  With numbers and records, learning speeds up.  Beekeepers can test different practices on different colonies, test new ideas, keep track of the results, and begin to understand what works best for the health and well-being of their bees.

Winter Shut Down

In mid to late summer, a bee colony size is at its peak.  Later in summer, and leading into autumn, bee populations naturally decline, which follows the general decline of Mother Nature’s available nectar and pollen.  By the time winter arrives, a beehive has reduced its population to a minimum cluster of bees, whose main goal is survival to the next season.  By December, a typical bee colony, even if perfectly healthy, will have only about four to six frames of so-called “winter bees” and no new brood, as queens shut down brood rearing in the winter due to the cold and lack of forage.  The colony stays in this sort of semi-hibernation until spring comes along, bringing warmer days and new blossoms.

In California, the winter shut down is less pronounced, as bees continue to forage in many coastal areas year-round.  Eucalyptus and jade flowers bloom during the winter, providing coastal bees a reliable late season nectar source.  Nevertheless, even in California, a typical hive of bees begins reducing its population, so that by the middle of December a bee colony’s population may be about half of what it was only a few short months ago.

Wildflower Meadows would like to thank all of you for a successful 2016.  We wish you all a joyous holiday season, and best wishes for a prosperous New Year!

The Queenless Roar

When a queen bee is removed from a colony of bees it does not take long before the colony becomes aware of her absence.  Usually within about five hours, a noticeable buzz begins to develop inside the hive.  This buzz continues while the colony remains queenless.  Experienced beekeepers are sensitive to this sound and sometimes can successfully identify a queenless hive just by this unique colony-wide buzzing.  Many beekeepers call this the “Queenless Roar.”

How can the honey bees know so quickly that they are without a queen bee?  Each healthy queen bee produces a substance called “queen pheromone” that enables the bees to sense her presence inside the colony.  When the pheromone disappears, or when an old and weak queen stops producing it sufficiently, the bees take notice.  Without the queen pheromone in the hive, the bees become distressed, and they will shortly begin constructing emergency queen cells from young larva and begin to raise a new replacement queen.

Painting Beehives

The offseason is a welcome time to get caught up on many projects and repair work.  As the summer wears on, we begin to notice certain boxes that are looking out of shape, and not up to our best standards here at Wildflower Meadows.  Usually, around mid November, we begin to gather these weathered looking boxes, and switch the bees that are still in them into higher quality equipment.

These old four-way queen rearing boxes come back to our shop for refurbishment.  First, they are sanded down, re-squared up, and given a new set of staples for reinforcement.  After this, they are brought out back behind our wood working shop for painting.

Many commercial beekeepers use paint sprayers to paint their hives.  We have always, however, enjoyed the peacefullness and simplicity of painting with a simple roller.  Here, one of our beekeepers is enjoying a relaxing afternoon painting a set of four-way queen rearing boxes.

Painting four-way queen rearing boxes is somewhat more challenging than painting regular bee boxes, as each side of each mating box is painted a different color.  Although adding to the tediousness of the painting, distinct colors for each side will assist the queen bees in finding the correct entrances when they return from their mating flights.  Queen bees can identify colors, and the colored sides help guide them back to their correct home.  We usually choose light pastel colors, avoiding darker colors, which can contribute to overheating of these relatively small colonies on hot summer days.

If it looks like our boxes have too many holes in them, it is because each box contains four holes – one on each side.  Each serves as a separate entrance to house a small colony for raising queens.  Some of the boxes even have two holes on each side, the second hole being a ventilation hole!

Pollen Supplement Patties

In times when flowers are in short supply, bee colonies can fall short on the protein and nutrition that they require from bee pollen.  Bee pollen is critical inside a colony because it provides many of the main ingredients in royal jelly and worker jelly that is used to feed developing larvae.  Especially towards the end of summer when flowers are in short supply, the bees can rapidly work down their stores of pollen.  Once the pollen has run out, unless brood rearing has completely shut down, bees still need to feed larvae.  The next source of nutrients that they use to produce feed for larvae is called vitellogenin. It is the very food storage reservoir within worker bees that workers selflessly share with larvae, depleting their own life force in the process.

As a conscientious beekeeper, you do not want your bees to be in a situation where they are cannibalizing their own strength in order to continue as a hive.  Long before bees completely run out of pollen stores, a good beekeeper begins feeding some sort of pollen supplement.

As a queen producer, our colonies have an even greater need for abundant pollen than normal colonies.  The royal jelly that is fed to all queen cells requires massive amounts of pollen to produce.  As a result, we need to be assured that our queen cell building colonies are overflowing with protein sources as well as all the ingredients necessary to produce well fed, quality queen cells.  At Wildflower Meadows, we make our own pollen supplement patties, which we feed to our queen rearing colonies year round.  The patties are placed between the bee boxes, right under or over the brood nest so that the bees can consume the patties easily and rapidly.

Many commercial beekeepers have their own proprietary blends of pollen substitutes that they use to make pollen substitute patties.  Typical ingredients are brewers yeast, soy flour, freeze dried pollen or sometimes pea protein.  Most beekeeping supply outfits also sell bags of prepackaged pollen supplements, some of which are secret formulas, but nearly all of which are various combinations of more or less the same ingredients.

patties

 

Lately at Wildflower Meadows we have been making our pollen supplement patties (shown above) using UltraBee dry mix from Mann Lake, which is a well known high quality supplement.

The bottom line, however, is that when a colony is starving, any supplement is far better than no supplement, and brand preference is much less important than making sure that the bees have the basic nutrition that they need to thrive.

Drone Comb

Because drones are some of the least appreciated honeybees among beekeepers, it follows that the frames of honeycomb that are set up to breed them would be equally under-appreciated.  A colony of bees will build honeycomb cells in two sizes, regular-size or drone-size.  Most natural honeycomb, and just about all “foundation” for sale by beekeeping supply companies is regular-sized, meaning that the brood that is raised will become worker bees.  After all, nearly all beekeepers prefer worker bees that make honey over so-called “worthless” drone bees that mainly consume honey.

Regardless of the efforts of the beekeeper, however, all beehives have a strong instinct to raise a certain percentage of drone honeybees, especially during the swarm season in the spring.  To rear new drones, the hive requires that some of the cells in the honeycomb be of the larger drone-sized variety.

Since it creates all of its own comb, a feral or top bar hive has no problem creating some drone-sized comb of it own, and adding it to the existing worker-sized comb that it already has.  A managed Langstroth beehive, however, often does not have an easy way to build drone-sized cells.  In this type of hive, the beekeeper provides all of the frames of honeycomb, which are nearly universally worker-sized.  As a result, the bees themselves have to improvise where and how they can construct drone comb given the limited space to do so.  Often the bees construct some makeshift drone comb between the boxes.  Or, if some old honeycomb is damaged or has a hole in it, the bees eagerly replace the damaged area with drone-sized comb.

Once in a while, a beekeeper runs into an old frame, which as a result of being heavily damaged and re-repaired by the bees, consists nearly entirely of this rebuilt drone comb.  These types of frames, one of which is pictured above, show up often in commercial beekeeping operations where frames are apt to be damaged by regular handling.  As a rule, commercial beekeepers dislike these frames and often discard and replace them as soon as they are discovered.

On the other hand, queen rearing outfits, such as Wildflower Meadows, love drone comb!  The more drone honeycomb, the more drones available, and the better the mating chances and better quality of the resulting queens.  At Wildflower Meadows, we like to make sure that our best colonies have at least two frames of drone comb to produce the maximum quantity of drones.  The frame pictured above, worthless to many beekeepers, is “drone gold” to us!

 

Pollen Baskets

Bees need both protein and carbohydrates.  The bees’ carbohydrates mainly come from nectar.  Protein comes from pollen.  Pollen originates from the male parts of flowers, known as anthers.  The bees collect pollen and store them in pellets in sacks on their legs, known as “pollen baskets.”

The photo above shows a bee carrying a full load of pollen.  When the bees enter the hive they carry their pollen to the brood nest, and typically offload it into honeycomb cells directly over the brood nest.

Pollen is a key ingredient in the “worker jelly” that the nurse bees feed to the developing larvae.  It is also a key ingredient in royal jelly, which is the essential food of a developing queen.  Abundant pollen means abundant royal jelly, which means quality queen honey bees.  It is no surprise that the healthiest queen honeybees are raised in locations where there are abundant pollen flows.

Sometimes when inspecting a hive, you will see bees walking around with pollen still in their baskets.  Are they headed to offload it, or are they just showing off their excellent “pollen pants” to their sisters?