Beekeeping Posts

Overwintering Honeybees In California

A common debate among beekeepers in California and other temperate regions is whether a beehive overwinters better if it continues foraging and raising brood during the mild California winter, or if the colony is better off completely shutting down as it would do in a cold weather climate.  There are good arguments for, and against, both.

Most southern climate beekeepers instinctively appreciate the idea of a colony that keeps its momentum going by continuing to forage and raise brood year-round.  Foraging bees bring in new pollen and nutrition.  This enables the colony to keep rearing new brood, which gives a boost to the population during the off-season.  In theory, this year-round population boost seems like a great idea.  When weather conditions are right, the extra brood typically makes a positive contribution to the overall size and robustness of the colony as it enters the early spring season.

The flip side, however, is that foraging behavior during the cooler and more volatile California weather in December can be perilous for bees if the weather does not cooperate.  Foraging bees always face a certain level of risk every time they head out of the colony.  With every flight, a foraging bee risks getting eaten by birds, drowning in unsafe water, getting lost, being caught in a spider web, getting hit by a car, etc.  One of a foraging bee’s biggest risks, however, is being caught away from the hive during a sudden change of weather.  For instance, a foraging bee may leave the hive when the weather is pleasant, only to encounter a sudden drop in temperature or the start of a rain storm.  This leaves the individual bee in a precarious situation.  As a coldblooded creature, it cannot warm itself.  If the foraging bee becomes too cold or wet, it could lose its ability to fly home, causing it to perish and never return.  This scenario happens fairly frequently in otherwise temperate parts of California.  Sometimes, during December, we see perfectly healthy colonies dropping population, especially when the eucalyptus is blooming but the weather is volatile.  Southern California beekeepers even have a name for this phenomenon: “Winter dwindle.”

A few years ago, the USDA conducted a test of a local California beekeeper’s bees, comparing the colonies that he placed in the cold mountainous areas (which forced the bees to completely shut down), to those that he placed in the temperate coastal areas (where the bees kept foraging and raising brood throughout the winter).  The USDA concluded that due to the “winter dwindling” effect, the bees in the mountains that completely shut down actually ended the winter with a higher overall population than the bees that kept raising brood and foraging.

Bee Space

Honeybees are curious creatures that live in world of standardized precision.  No matter the race of honeybee, or location in which they reside, their individual honeycomb cells are all constructed in a standard hexagonal shape, an approximate 5.2mm dimension, that is the same the world over.  Their dance and communication methods are also universal across the entire species.  What’s even more astonishing, is that the space that they inhabit between their honeycombs is universally standardized and completely precise, regardless of any other characteristics of the hive or of the bees themselves.

This space between honeycombs is called bee space.  Bee space needs to be larger than 4.5mm and less than 9.0mm – no matter what!  Honeybees, being creatures of precision, will not tolerate any space outside of this range.  If the space between combs gets too close (less than 4.5mm) the bees will close the gap, usually sealing it with propolis.  But if the gap becomes too wide (greater than 9mm), the bees will build additional honeycomb to bring the gap back to the acceptable and precise space that they desire.

As experienced beekeepers, this concept of bee space seems obvious and intuitive to us.  We know that if we leave too much of a gap between the frames of our hives, our bees will quickly fill this gap with beeswax, a mess of what we call “burr comb.”  This burr comb is actually just the bees’ natural drive to bring their bee space back to precision.

While this concept of bee space seems so obvious to us today, it is hard to believe that this was not always the case.  It was L.L. Langstroth, the “Father of American Beekeeping,” who, back in 1852, intuited this hypothesis.  After he realized this concept, he took his thinking one step further with the question, “what if he could design a beehive that had the perfect bee space in all directions?”  This led to the standardized, square hive body that has become the backbone to America’s – and the world’s – beekeeping profession.  We call our hive bodies “Langstroth hives,” because they were invented by Langstroth to take into account the perfect bee space.

Every space in a modern hive is more or less standardized to accommodate bee space.  We may not realize it, but what keeps our bees from connecting the tops of the frames to the lid of the beehive is the bee space that is built into the construction of the hive body.  All modern hive body boxes are also designed so that the frames hang about 8mm short of the bottom of the box.  This bee space gap is the perfect bee space that enables us beekeepers to remove or pry open a hive box with few consequences; such as easily removing lids, bottoms, and frames, all without disrupting the construction of the hive.  In addition, the edges of the side combs always sit about 8mm from the inside of the wooden box, and the tops of each frame hang about 8mm from the top of the box.  In fact, our Langstroth bee boxes are a marvel of precision, with bee space taken into account in all aspects of the construction.

Of course, it really is the bees themselves that drive us humans to this level of precision, as they will not tolerate inconsistency and imprecision.  They are world-class engineers, and demand the very same from us beekeepers!

Propolis

Of all the substances that bees collect, such as water, nectar and pollen, it is propolis whose role is most mysterious and perhaps least understood.

Actually, bees do not collect propolis, they collect plant gums and resins that they convert into propolis.  In the United States, most of these resins and gums come from cottonwood or other poplar blossoms.  North American honeybees also commonly collect plant gums from pine resins.

Trees themselves use their resins as a protection against bacteria, fungi or other pathogens, and the bees’ use is not much different.  Bees collect resins and convert them into propolis, which they use to coat and seal their hives, providing a shell of antimicrobial protection to the hive.  In a natural beehive, such as one that is inside of a tree hollow, the bees often coat the entire casing of the interior of the hollow with a sheet of propolis.

This propolis coating not only provides the colony with a layer of bacterial and fungal protections, but it also is a valuable substance that the bees can use to seal up small spaces and cracks inside of a colony. This helps keep the hive secure from small predators, such as ants.  It also helps to secure or close alternative entrances to keep the colony well defended.

Propolis is a sticky gum at room temperature, but a hard, brittle material when chilled.  Its antimicrobial properties have made it a medicinal substance for human cultures throughout the years.  Even today, many health food supplements, particularly those for coughs and throat irritation, contain propolis from the bees.

Unwelcome Guest

As the beekeeping year winds down and the nights become long and cold, honeybees tend to huddle into winter clusters, hunkering down for the icy cold months ahead.  These winter bees gather into a tight unit, preserving their heat and honey.  They become less active, as their goal is not to expand or make honey, but rather simply to survive.  They are perfectly happy to stay inside their comfortable home, keep warm, and ride out the winter.

Sometimes this warm and comfortable home, however, attracts unwanted guests.  The life of a mouse during winter is not particularly easy either, as a mouse is always on the lookout for both shelter and warmth.  And nothing quite beats the comfort of hanging out inside of a beehive while the bees are hard at work keeping it warm.  Not only is a beehive sheltered and warm, but it also contains free food in the form of pollen and honey.  Believe it or not, usually during winter, a mouse can actually take up residence in a live beehive and live perfectly well alongside the bees!

During most of the season it would be impossible for a mouse to coexist within a live bee colony.  The population of bees is simply too high and too active in the peak of the season for a mouse to survive for too long without being stung.  A summer colony is booming with activity and plenty of guard beesWinter colonies, however, are small and inactive, thus making them perfect targets for opportunistic mice.

Once inside a colony, a mouse can not only chew through valuable food stores, but also cause damage to the honeycomb, and contaminate the combs and woodenware with urine.  From both the bees’ and the beekeepers’ perspective, mice really are unwanted guests.

Lets be honest though, the little guy in the above picture looks perfectly innocent.  You might even think that he deserves a nice home.  But sorry, Mr. Mouse, the bees and the beekeeper tend to disagree.

Nocturnal Beekeeping

Most beekeeping activities are best handled during the day.  Hive inspections, queen replacement, honey harvesting, etc., all require good lighting and a relaxed daytime environment to be enjoyable and effective.  After all, working with the bees on a pleasant, relaxing day is what beekeeping is all about.

On the other hand, certain activities, such as moving beehives, are best approached at night when the bees are dormant inside their colonies.  Commercial beekeepers who frequently need to move their bees are well acquainted with putting in long nights of loading and unloading bees in the dark of the night.

Recently, however, here at Wildflower Meadows, we are experimenting with adding another evening activity to our beekeeping repertoire: syrup feeding.  The reason for this late-day approach to feeding is to slow down the likelihood of robbing behavior in the apiary.  When robbing pressure is high, feeding a large apiary early in the day can turn into the most unpleasant of experiences.  As the bees in the apiary become aware of the presence of fresh syrup, they can quickly become whipped up into a feeding frenzy.  Before long, the strong colonies begin to test the defenses of the weaker colonies, sometimes breaking through and inciting further robbing.  And once robbing starts, there is no stopping it.  It will continue all day long, with the results being absolutely damaging.  Weak colonies are overrun.  Diseases can spread, and colonies will be lost.

However, we have a new strategy, which we learned from one of our larger commercial queen customers.  We begin our feeding at sunset and end at nightfall.  When the bees can’t fly, they can’t rob.  By feeding in the evening, the colonies have little ability to fly for very long and begin robbing.  Then, after the feeding ends at nightfall, each colony has the benefit of the entire night to work through their syrup and ready their guard bees without actually having to defend against robber bees.  For us, and especially the bees, this new feeding strategy is really making a difference.  When the sun gets low, our beekeepers turn on their red headlamps (bees are not able to see red light and won’t fly into it) and get to work – nocturnal beekeeping in action!

Dark Hollow

The ideal location for a honeybee hive, and the favorite natural resting place of a swarm is inside the dark hollow of a tree.   The tree hollow provides shelter from the elements.  Besides being off the ground, it enables the bees a natural protection against ground predators, such as skunks.  Honeybees seem to select tree hollows that are at least a few feet off the ground, and that are sized around one to two cubic feet on the inside.  Anything smaller does not provide enough space to grow.  If the cavity is too large, the bees may also reject it, likely because it is more difficult to manage the temperature of a larger space during winter.

Bees are used to living in the dark, whether in a managed Langstroth or top-bar hive, or natural dark hollow, so the inside of a tree fits the bill perfectly.  No light is needed.  A small entrance that limits the light works just fine for them.  Plus a small entrance is easy to defend.

Once inside the hollow, bees will usually smooth and coat the interior surfaces with propolis  They then hang their combs from the top of the cavity, much in the same way that they hang comb in a managed top bar hive.  Honey is stored in the top portion of the frames, with pollen and brood below.

Once a tree hollow has successfully housed a honeybee hive, it becomes an ongoing magnet for bees.  Should the initial colony perish, the familiar bee scent of the hollow, and any remaining comb fixtures will make the hollow an attractive home for the next wandering swarm.

Our Smallest Domestic Animal

Humans seem to have always been motivated by honey.  The first recorded use of honey dates all the way back to around 25,000 years ago.  But this timeframe only refers to when humans began documenting the collection of honey – in cave art.  Considering that many other animals, such as bears, collect honey without drawing pictures of it, it is likely that humans were collecting honey well before they began recording their feats in artwork.  The first humans to begin consuming honey no doubt sought out wild hives and robbed their honey in the same way that many people still do today – mainly by smoking the hives, and perhaps by wearing protective gear to grab the juicy honeycombs that bees use to store honey.

If you were someone who had to search out wild hives in order to obtain honey, the advantages of domesticating honeybees would quickly become obvious.  Having your own domestic honeybee hive would mean that you would not have to go searching for honey, and you could gain some control over the timing and availability of the honey harvest.

The earliest records of domesticated beekeeping date back to around 7000 BC.  The first beekeepers appear to have kept hives of bees in clay pots.  We know this because traces of beeswax have been found in certain pots from this era in the Middle East.  As we currently know, bees do not have to be kept in any specific kind of container.  Beekeepers can establish bees in all sorts of shelter – hollowed out logs, trees, boxes, baskets, etc.  Many early beekeepers soon switched to what we call “skeps” to house their bees.  Skeps are beehives that are more or less baskets of bees.

For the most part, compared to many other domesticated animals, bees have fared mostly well in their relationship with their human caretakers.  Unlike nearly all domestic animals, individual bees are not corralled, and are free to leave and return at will.  Today, with the invention of the Langstroth hive, with its removable and replaceable frames, if a beekeeper is responsible and conscientious, the bees can live indefinitely.

Once honeybees became domesticated, the practice of beekeeping began.  Bee breeding also began, with the selection criteria of gentleness and honey production generally taking the forefront.  With domestication, humans began their close relationship and husbandry of the smallest domestic animal to date – the tiny and intrepid honeybee!

A Simple, Inexpensive Robbing Screen

A while back, we discussed robbing behavior and how robbing can be a problem for beekeepers during times of drought or lack of nectar.  During robbing, honeybees invade neighboring colonies seeking to steal their honey stores.  Weak or small colonies are the most vulnerable to robbing because they often lack the population of guard bees necessary to defend their entrances against invasion.

As a beekeeper, it is certainly important to identify robbing behavior, as well as the causes of robbing.  But even more important than identifying the robbing behavior is to be able to prevent robbing from happening in the first place!

At Wildflower Meadows, our two best tools to prevent robbing are the time-honored entrance reducer and a small robbing screen.

The entrance reducer is a simple stick of wood that cuts down the size of the entrance by blocking off a large percentage of the area where bees can enter and leave a colony.  When a colony has a smaller area to defend against other thieving bees, it always has a better chance of fighting them off, much in the same way that a soccer goalie can better defend a small-sized goal than a larger-sized one.  Entrance reducers can be purchased at most beekeeping supply companies.  However, a customized small piece of wood can easily accomplish the same purpose for a lower cost.

The robbing screen is a piece of screen or mesh that sits in front of the entrance and serves to block and deflect the incoming flight path of robbing bees.  Because robbing bees are nearly always worked up into a frenzy, they easily get confused by the screen blocking the entrance.  They tend to fly directly into the path of the screen without taking the time to figure out a way around it.  The defending colony’s bees, however, have already quickly learned how to maneuver their way around the screen and rapidly figure out how to use it as a shield against incoming robbers.

At Wildflower Meadows, our robbing screen is a simple piece of vent screening material attached over the reduced entrance with a push pin.  The cost of this robbing screen is just a few cents per colony, but the payoff is huge!  Small colonies that otherwise might be vulnerable to robbing are able to hold their own if robbing gets started.

How and Where to Sell Your Honey

As you gain experience in beekeeping, success will almost certainly follow.  Before long you will likely have more honey in hand than you know what to do with!  This typically brings about the next question, “What am I going to do with all of this honey?”  Fortunately for you, while you are asking yourself this very question, someone else is also asking the question, “Where do you suppose I could find some local honey?”.

So, where do you sell your honey?  It might seem obvious to try to sell to a local market, gift store, or fruit stand.  Although these are tried and true avenues for selling honey, these obvious solutions are not always the best option for a small-scale or sideline beekeeper.  First, these outlets demand wholesale pricing, which means that unless you urgently need to unload a lot of honey fast, this option may not be financially worth your while.  You are not going to get a top price for your prized honey.  Besides, to sell to a retailer, especially a gift store, you will need to invest in fancy jars and labels, which also cuts into your profits.  Lastly, retail markets prefer steady and reliable suppliers.  No one is saying that as a beekeeper you can’t be trusted to keep your word, but honey flows and seasons are irregular.  Sometimes you can run into lengthy periods of drought where you have no honey crop to sell, which might irritate your new customers, who have a year-round stream of customers and want your product to be readily available.

The amount of surplus honey that you have on hand should dictate your strategy.  If you do not have much to sell, your best option may simply be word of mouth with your friends and neighbors.  At Wildflower Meadows, we have a customer who is a full-time commercial beekeeper who successfully sells his entire honey crop on a word of mouth basis.  Another customer sells cases of honey at a time simply to his many neighbors!   This is the most cost-effective option since it costs next to nothing in the way of marketing and exacts the highest retail price.

Other selling options include:

  • Placing a “Local Honey for Sale” sign in front of your house
  • Reaching out to local health food stores, many of which sell bulk honey
  • Renting space at a farmer’s market
  • Selling to church groups or fund raisers
  • Selling directly on the internet or on e-Bay

If you decide to sell honey via the internet, it would be wise to bottle your honey with plastic bottles.  At Wildflower Meadows, there was a time when we would occasionally ship honey to friends and family in glass bottles.  Big mistake!  Not only does glass add more weight, but it was not uncommon for jars to break in transit with gooey honey leaking from the shipping box!  Take it from us, for shipping, plastic is the way to go.

The Solar Wax Melter

Over the course of a beekeeping season, you may find yourself collecting scraps of beeswax and not knowing what to do with them.  For example, when you scrape away burr comb or lids, or when you scrape away honey cappings during your honey harvest, you will collect perfectly good beeswax.  For a small-scale beekeeper this is not going to be a huge amount of wax and hardly worth the time.  Let’s face it, you probably are not going to be able to start a Fortune 500 candle company with your meager wax scrapings.  However, if you save up enough wax, little by little, over the course of a year you should have eventually gathered enough wax by the end of the year for a few wonderfully scented beeswax candles.

How do you transform your messy wax scrapings into usable beeswax?  Enter the solar wax melter.  The solar wax melter sounds like a high-tech piece of equipment, but is actually hardly more than a sturdy box with a glass lid.  When placed in the sun, the glass lid enables the box to heat up to the melting point of beeswax (145 degrees Fahrenheit).  The wax then neatly collects and organizes itself at the bottom of the box.  At that point, you have nice amount of quality beeswax, free of charge!

From there, it is just a simple matter of purchasing a candle mold or two.  Add some wicks and you are well on your way.

Nearly all beekeeping supply companies sell ready-made solar wax melters.  However, the design of these is so simple that it often is just as easy and economical for a beekeeper to construct their own.  For a handy beekeeper, a simple internet search will come up with more than enough plans for constructing a basic solar wax melter that works perfectly fine.

Photo of solar wax melter used with permission, courtesy of Dancing Bee Equipment.