Beekeeping Posts

How To Bank Queens

When you have more queens on hand than you know what to do with, then it’s probably time to think about banking them.  Banking queens is a way to keep queens healthy over the long-term before they are placed inside their actual colonies.  Although at Wildflower Meadows we typically sell our queens quickly after pulling them, we still nevertheless need to maintain queen banks throughout the season.  As in any queen rearing operation, there are always queen bees coming and going.  When a Wildflower Meadows’ queen is standing by for shipment, she sometimes needs a comfortable ‘bed and breakfast’ to temporarily be housed safely and professionally.  Afterall, she is royalty!

Whether you are banking a hundred or more queens at a time, or just one or two, the principals of successful queen banking are always the same.  The key to your success, and by far the most important component of your banking system, is that you maintain a strong, healthy banking colony that is both well-fed and queenless throughout the period of banking.

Traditional beekeeping advice often says that you can bank queens in a colony that has its own queen as long as you keep the queen bank over a queen excluder.  However, at Wildflower Meadows, we do not subscribe to this view.  This approach often results in worker bees attacking the banked queens, which can unnecessarily cause stress or losses to the queens in the bank.  We have found that it is best that the banking colony has no queen of its own, as this makes it very receptive towards caring for and properly attending to the banked queens.

Your banking colony should always be well fed.  At Wildflower Meadows we never stop feeding our banking colonies.  The syrup flows from March through September and it never stops.  This ensures that the attending bees inside of the banks always have more than enough resources to take excellent care of the queens.  If you are banking queens for more than a week or two, you also will need to maintain your queen bank by removing any natural queen cells inside the bank, and by continually adding brood.  You always want a good supply of young nurse bees on hand in your bank, because these are the bees that focus on taking care of your precious queens.  When you are banking queens, nurse bees are your friends.  If you don’t keep adding brood, you will quickly run out of nurse bees, and your queens will suffer the consequences.

Once your banking colony is well fed, strong and queenless, it is ready to receive the banked queens.  You will want to have some system for storing the queens inside the colony.  The first thing is to make sure that the banked bees have no access to releasing the queens!  If you are banking just a few queens, the easiest approach is to place a piece of heavy-duty tape around the bottom of the cage, blocking any access to the candy or cork.

There are different methods for placing the queens inside of the banking colony.  At Wildflower Meadows, we use what is known as a “banking frame,” which is a specialized beekeeping frame that is designed to hold 132 queens at a time.  This frame takes up the space of two normal Langstroth frames inside a deep hive body.

You don’t necessarily need a banking frame, however, to successfully bank queens.  If you are banking for a relatively short amount of time and don’t mind cleaning up a little extra burr comb, you can simply remove two frames from your banking colony, and creatively place your queens inside the gap you’ve created, making sure to leave enough space for the bees to attend to the queens.   If you have wooden cages, you could assemble “groups” of ten queens or so with a rubber band, and stack them inside the gap.  Always keep in mind that your nurse bees need to have easy access to the queens.  If possible, you should also place the queens towards the center of the colony, well below the lid, as excessive heat may cause damage.

Best practices call for banking queens without any attendants inside the cages.  Theoretically, this is to keep the bees in the bank focused on the queens directly rather than on the attendants in the cages, which may have different pheromones and repel or fight with the banking colony.  In our experience, however, this is rarely the case.  Usually, the attendants inside of the cages combine forces in a friendly manner with the attendants in the bank and work together harmoniously to take care of the queens.  Nevertheless, to be safe, especially when banking over the long term, it is always better to bank queens without attendants inside the individual cages.

Promoting Drone Honeybee Production

For a queen breeder or anyone interested in raising a large number of queens, producing drone honeybees on a large scale requires some planning and foresight.  The first consideration – and, perhaps of the highest importance – is having the most desirable breeding stock near and surrounding the apiary at exactly the right time.  If you are going to need drones, you obviously want to be raising the highest quality drones from the very best colonies that you have.  There is no sense in promoting drone honeybee production in undesirable colonies.  But how do you get your best colonies to produce the highest number of drones?

There are several key factors toward encouraging a colony to raise an abundance of drones.  Here are the top three in order of importance:

  • Pollen and Food Abundance
  • Seasonality
  • Drone-Laying Space Availability

The most significant factor for abundant drone production is having a plentiful source of pollen.  Natural pollen is far and away more superior.  And, a substantial quantity of that natural pollen is even better.  When an area is naturally rich in pollen, beehives can’t help but to produce drones, regardless of many of the other factors.  This is the reason that you will find the majority of California queen producers located in more or less the same area of California – an area that is known to consistently produce enormous amounts of pollen – hence drones, during the critical queen rearing months of April and May.

If you are trying to produce drones in an area that has poor or inconsistent pollen availability, then you either need to aggressively feed these colonies with pollen substitute, or consider moving the colonies – at least temporarily – to a richer area, so that the bees begin to raise drones.

Moving bees to rich pollen areas is often another advantage of California queen breeders.  Well before the pollen becomes abundant in their queen rearing apiaries, most California queen breeders move their strongest colonies into almond pollination.  The explosion of almond blossom pollen that occurs over the relatively short period of almond bloom turbocharges drone production.  In this way, most queen breeders enjoy an abundance of drones and quality drone brood well in advance of queen rearing.

The second key to promoting drone production is the season.  April and May – the spring – is the ideal season for drone production.  Bees are instinctively aware of the position of the sun and the timing of the seasons.  This is why they naturally ramp up worker brood production during the spring, even during times of drought, and then cut back on brood production later in the fall, regardless of the conditions.  As the days lengthen in spring, the bees begin to instinctively raise drone brood.  This means that if you are trying to promote drone production in a less-than-ideal season such as late summer or fall, you need to compensate by aggressively feeding pollen or a pollen substitute.  An abundance of pollen becomes even more important during the less-than-optimal months of the year.

Finally, anytime that you are aiming to promote drone production, you have to provide the queen ample space to lay drone brood.  Ideally, providing a frame or two of drone comb during a time of high pollen availability, and during the right season, will almost guarantee having more than enough high quality drones.

When To Add A Super To A Beehive

For both new beekeepers and experienced beekeepers alike, it can often be difficult to know when it is the right time to add an additional box (known as a super) to a growing colony of bees.  Unfortunately, there is often no perfect answer to this question.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, with all the combined years of experience of our team, we still find ourselves at certain times wondering and debating whether it is the right decision to add supers to our colonies or not.

It might seem at first that a beehive is always better off with more space.  Afterall, more space means more room for surplus honey, more room for a colony to expand, more room for the bees to avoid crowding, and more room to reduce swarming pressure.  So, why not just add a super or two and solve all these problems at once?  Beginning beekeepers typically follow this perfectly logical train of thought.  The results, however, are often not what they had in mind.  Too much space for a beehive can often lead to unintended consequences.

There are several downsides to providing too much space to a colony, the main one being that rather than promoting growth, adding overly excessive space to a beehive, or adding space at the wrong time can often set a colony backward.  In fact, adding a super at the wrong time of year can sometimes result in a smaller or more stressed out colony than if the colony had simply been left alone.  This is a counterintuitive concept, and it is what causes experienced beekeepers to pause and think twice before supering their colonies, especially relatively weak ones.

Anytime a super is added to a colony, it affects the bees’ ability to regulate the temperature and humidity balance of the colony.  It gives them more space to attend to, clean up, maintain, and defend, all potentially straining their resources.  During cold weather, cavernous space in a beehive is especially a liability, causing detrimental heat loss.  Even in very hot weather, excess space can interfere with a colony’s ability to cool the all-important colony core and brood nest.

Also, bees naturally like to move upward.  When a super is added prematurely, the bees will tend to move upward first, rather than outward.  This sometimes results in a long and narrow shape to the colony, which is less than ideal both for the efficient use of the equipment, and for maximizing colony growth and honey production.

So, when is the best time to add a super to a colony of honeybees?  The ideal time to add a super is during periods of natural population growth (typically, the spring), before or during a honey flow (spring or summer), or during periods of swarming (again, typically the spring).  Before adding a super, beekeepers often use a standard rule of thumb, which is known as the 7/10 rule.  This rule says that the proper time to add a super to a beehive is when the bees have already covered 7 of the 10 frames in the existing box or boxes.  If the colony is growing and the timing is right (as noted above) then the 7/10 rule comes into play.  If the colony is strong enough to have 7 of the 10 frames full of bees, then is has the necessary ingredients for a natural and seamless expansion into a new empty super.

What Is Pollination?

As beekeepers, we know that honeybees are instrumental in pollinating the majority of the foods that we humans need and value, such as our many fruits, vegetables, and legumes.  In fact, according to Google, bees and other pollinators affect 35 percent of global agricultural land, supporting the production of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide!  Wikipedia’s list of crop plants pollinated by bees is extensively long.

Honeybees also pollinate many other types of trees and plants throughout the natural world.  In fact, honeybees are one of the most industrious pollinators on the planet, and critical to the success of much of human agriculture.

But what exactly is pollination, and what is actually going on when honeybees pollinate flowers?

When we humans admire the beauty of flowers, we rarely stop to consider that flowers are the sexual organs of plants.  There are male flowers, and there are female flowers.  The goal of nature is to move the genetic material from the male to the female.  Pollination is the transfer of male microspores from a male flower to the ovule of a female flower.  This is the sexual reproduction of a plant, ultimately resulting in the creation of a seed.

A male flower features what is called a stamen.  This is the part of the male flower that produces pollen.  A female flower features what is called the pistil.  The tip of the pistil, called the stigma, receives the pollen and transfers the pollen down the pistil to the flower’s ovule, fertilizing it and enabling the formation of a fruit or some other carrier of the plant’s seed, such as a pod, a vegetable, or just a seed itself.

The honeybee’s role in all of this is to transfer the pollen from male flower to female flower.  Some plants and trees have both male and female flowers on the same tree (monoecious) or male flowers on one tree and female flowers on another (dioecious).  Either way, a honeybee doesn’t seem to care much.  She just goes from flower to flower, plant to plant, looking for nectar, and in the process inadvertently transfers tiny pieces of pollen from male flowers to female flowers without that even being her goal.

It is most likely that the main reason that flowers look so appealing, and feature such sweet nectar, is to attract animals to pollinate them.  The sweeter the nectar that a plant produces, the bigger the lure for honeybees and other insect pollinators, such as bumblebees, orchard bees, squash bees and solitary bees, to visit.

Honeybees are not the only animal pollinators of plants.  Any animal that visits flowers contributes to pollination – hummingbirds, bats, butterflies, ladybugs, beetles and other insects – also pollinate.  Sadly, like honeybees, many of these beneficial pollinators are under environmental stress, and face ongoing population decline.

There are some plants, however, that do not rely on animals for pollination, but rather are wind pollinated, such as the grasses of corn, wheat, and rice.  It is noteworthy, that unlike animal-pollinated blossoms, which are almost always colorful and sweet, these wind-pollinated blossoms look exceedingly dull and contain no nectar.  This is because they have no incentive to attract pollinating animals, such as honeybees.  Instead, the goal of wind pollinated plants is simply to produce as much pollen as possible and throw the pollen into the wind, hoping that it hits its target.

As beekeepers, we may be a bit biased, but we much prefer flower pollination by bees, as just thinking about windward grass pollen make us want to sneeze!

Frame Strength For Almond Pollination

When it comes to readying for almond pollination, the most important considerations for beekeepers and growers alike are the number of honeybee colonies available to be delivered, and their frame strength.  Frame strength is what determines the payday for beekeepers, and it is measured exactly as it sounds.  It is the number of frames inside the hive that are covered with bees.  Most almond growers demand an average of at least eight frames of bees, although some will accept six, and some will even accept four frames, but will of course pay significantly less for these weaker colonies.

It is not easy for a commercial beekeeper – or any beekeeper for that matter – to be able to produce such strong colonies during what is still considered the latter part of winter in the northern hemisphere.  In order to deliver an eight-frame average bee colony in early February, a beekeeper needs to begin preparing his or her colonies well in advance.  In fact, preparations for almond pollination typically begin many months earlier.  The key to having strong and healthy colonies coming out of the winter is by having strong and healthy colonies going into the winter.  If a colony heads into winter at below average strength, then there is no possible way that it will emerge out of winter with eight frames of bees.

As the old adage goes, “it costs money to make money”, and the time to invest in your colonies begins at the end of summer.  Usually starting around late August, California commercial beekeepers begin aggressively attending to their colonies – much more than normal, both with syrup and pollen substitutes, and, if necessary, medications.  It is at this time that many commercial beekeepers requeen their under-performing colonies with late summer or early fall queens.  The ideal queens for this kind of situation are queens like those from Wildflower Meadows, which are known for their robust brood production and early season buildup.

The point of this vigorous late season activity is to stimulate brood production throughout the late summer and early fall so that plenty of healthy and well-nourished brood hatches right at the onset of winter.  These will be the eight frames of bees that emerge from winter and, hopefully – if all goes according to plan – deliver a nice payday for the beekeeper come February.  Having a population of very young bees at the start of winter, means that there will be less mortality during the short, but relatively cold California winter.

Land Rent

There are not many professions that enable a person to experience the joy of someone else’s property without having to pay for the privilege.  Gardeners, pet-sitters, house-sitters, and baby-sitters all have the opportunity to visit and experience the pleasures of others’ homes or ranches without the obligation of paying hefty mortgages and property taxes.  But, perhaps of all professions, beekeepers have it the best.  Most beekeepers who maintain outside apiaries (outside apiaries are apiaries that are not situated on the owner’s personal property) gain permission from land owners to not only place bees on their private property, but to also access that property on an as-needed basis to maintain and care for the beekeepers’ colonies.  And, most often, these beekeeping locations are peaceful and soothing to the soul.

This gives the beekeeper a particularly unique vantage point from which to experience often-picturesque and tranquil settings in the countryside to which the average person has no access.  This access comes with responsibilities, and as well as a different set of “costs.”

The beekeeper’s responsibilities involve being respectful and courteous, all the while understanding that he or she is always a guest and not an owner.  That means keeping the apiary clean, well maintained, and free from litter.  It means keeping the bees healthy and calm, and not working with them when people or pets are nearby.  And, it also means cooperating with the landowner to not interfere in any way with the enjoyment of his or her own land.

It may seem like the land owner gives up too much in this exchange, but actually the exchange is a fair trade for the land owner.  If he has crops, the landowner receives free pollination for his fruits and vegetables, and best of all, this individual, usually once per year, cashes in on some “liquid gold” from the beekeeper.

It is a longstanding tradition of beekeepers to share honey with those who host apiaries.  This is considered “land rent.”  The amount of honey that the beekeeper and landowner agree upon can be as little as a few jars, and as much as several full cases.  Much depends on the size and nature of the apiary, and the value of the land to the beekeeper, in terms of honey production and overall access.  Land owners are usually overjoyed to receive a share of the bounty of their land.

At Wildflower Meadows, although we are not specialized in producing honey, we always work hard to deliver the appropriate land rent to the owners of our various apiaries.  Each December, near the beginning of the month, we begin bottling the honey production of the year.  We prepare cases of honey, most usually packed into one-pound glass honey jars.  Liquid gold is soon on the way, and the “land rent” is paid for another year!

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.