Beekeeping Posts

Guard Bees

Just like human security guards watching over and protecting an important home, guard bees have the same responsibilities for their colony.  Their mission: keep the colony’s inhabitants safe from intruders.

There are several different kinds of intruders that guard bees must protect against.  They include:

  • Honey bees from other colonies, specifically “robber bees
  • Other kinds of predatory insects, such as ants, moths and yellow jackets
  • Small critters seeking to take refuge inside a beehive for warmth, such as mice
  • Medium sized critters looking to eat bees or honey, such as skunks, raccoons and even some bird species
  • Large sized predators such as bears
  • And, of course, humans, who the bees likely assume intend to rob the colony of its honey

The obvious weapon that a guard bee utilizes, of course, is its powerful sting.  There is more, however, to being a guard bee than stinging.  Like a human security guard, a guard bee must also be attentive, be able to distinguish between normal activity and real threats, and also be able to quickly call for assistance, if needed.

Honeybees are not born as guard bees.  In fact, the youngest bees in a hive make poor guard bees because their stinging capabilities are underdeveloped.  It is the oldest bees that have the most developed stings, and the most potent venom.  Given older bees’ stinging capabilities, plus the fact that they are old and have the least to lose by dying, it is obvious why the oldest bees in a colony typically take on the role of “guard bee.”

A typical strong colony usually has about ten to twenty guard bees at a time patrolling the entrance of the hive.  This number can change depending on the size of the entrance, the season, nearby pressure from robbing, or presence of other threats.  Obviously, if a large-sized predator such as a bear approaches a beehive, ten guard bees is not going to be enough to deter an attack.  In that case, the guard bees quickly call for reinforcements, using an alarm pheromone.  In such an attack, the entire colony is placed on alert, and all worker bees temporarily become guard bees, sacrificing their lives to protect the colony.

Cold Weather Beekeeping

No one could ever say that the weather here in Southern California is particularly cold, but there are times of the year when the daytime temperatures regularly dip into the 50-degree range.  The cooler weather usually arrives in January, just as we are beginning to build up our mating nucs for the upcoming season’s queen honeybee production.  Temperatures below 60-degrees are not ideal for opening bee colonies, but in January we have to begin preparations for the season in anticipation of the early spring.

Honeybees keep the interior of their colonies around 93-degrees.  While honeybees can manage cooler temperatures for short periods, long exposure to the cold can chill and damage brood.

As we are building up our mating nucs, our beekeepers have to be sensitive to the cooler temperatures and work accordingly.  Colonies and brood cannot be allowed to be open and exposed for extended periods of time.  Our beekeepers need to work with a purpose and stay organized.  Fortunately, the bees usually assist the process by clustering around any open brood and covering exposed areas.

In the cooler temperatures, bees do not fly very well so they usually hang around the apiary while we are working.  They fly around a little and then come right back to the hive.  Many will land on us and cover us as well!  Are they trying to keep us warm too?

The Winter Cluster

Any time the temperature drops to around 57 degrees Fahrenheit, bees in a hive collapse into a cluster.  The cluster is a well-defined ball of bees inside the hive.  The bees form their cluster around the brood, tightening together to generate and preserve heat.  As the temperature warms, the cluster expands; as the temperature cools, the cluster contracts.

Inside the cluster, the bees generate heat for the brood and interior bees.  They do this by a sort of shivering alongside the brood.  The bees repeatedly contract their powerful wing muscles, which generates warmth.  Further inside the cluster, bees continue to attend to their regular activities of eating, rearing brood, feeding the queen and the larvae, and moving about.

As the outside temperature drops, the bees remain in their cluster.  Eventually, in the heart of winter the bees inside the cluster will cease rearing brood.  While formed in a cluster, bees have little ability to move about the hive freely.  They have to stay close to the cluster to stay warm.  This is why it is nearly impossible to effectively feed bees with syrup when temperatures drop into the 50’s or below, as the bees cannot break free from the cluster to access the syrup.

This is also why, during times of prolonged cold temperatures, the bees need to have honey stored close to where they are clustering.  Colonies have been known to die of starvation even when honey is in their hive, because the honey that was available was located too far away from the clustering bees.

Wildflower Meadows would like to thank all of our friends and customers for a successful 2017.

We wish you all a happy and joyous holiday season!

Royal Jelly

While a larva is developing into a queen cell, nurse bees feed the larva with abundant amounts of a milky white gel, known as royal jelly.  Royal jelly is a high protein food (12% protein) that is also loaded with amino acids, B vitamins and trace minerals – a sort of superfood for insects!  Humans eat it too.  If you watch enough infomercials, eventually you can’t help but to run across one touting the many benefits of royal jelly:  “Royal jelly makes bees into royalty!  It’s magic. Try it.  You’ll have energy to burn!”

Is this true?  At Wildflower Meadows, we’ve eaten our share of royal jelly, cutting it out from unwanted queen cells and eating it fresh from the hive.  We have found that it doesn’t taste all that great, but it does seem to provide a nice jolt to the system.  We would rather not tell anyone, however.  The Federal Drug Administration has concluded that there is no human benefit to taking royal jelly.  Furthermore, they threaten legal action against any person or company making unfounded claims to its benefits.

Lets face it: royal jelly was meant to be more of an insect food rather than a human food, as its presence causes a larva to develop into a queen bee rather than a worker bee.

Scientists have recently identified the component of royal jelly that is responsible for this caste differentiation.  It is a protein called “royalactin”, which induces the differentiation of honeybee larvae into queens.  Royalactin increases body size and ovary development and shortens developmental time in honeybees.  We find it amazing that a single substance can initiate the development of such a truly magnificent and royal creature as the queen honeybee.

The Hive Tool

It is hard to imagine a tool that is so simple and elegant in design, yet so effective for so many tasks.  Whether a beekeeper works in their backyard with one or two colonies, or inside an orchard with hundreds of colonies on pallets, the humble hive tool is the indispensable and loyal friend of every beekeeper, beginner or advanced.

The main functions of the hive tool are to provide leverage in opening colonies, to scrape, and to hook.  Using a hive tool as a lever is obvious.  A beekeeper regularly needs to pry apart heavy boxes that often are glued together with sticky wax and propolis.  A sturdy hive tool fits between the boxes while the beekeeper pushes down on the other end, thus opening even the heaviest of boxes with surprisingly little effort.

Scraping is another task that a beekeeper seems to perform all of the time.  Lids need to be scraped free of wax, and tops of frames need to be cleared of burr comb.  Bottom boards often need to be scraped of debris.  Also, smokers need to be scraped of carbon.  Who knew that beekeeping involves so much scraping?  Thank goodness for the trusty hive tool.

Each hive tool also features a hole near the top that can be used to pry loose nails.  At Wildflower Meadows, we’ve also used our hive tools as makeshift hammers when real hammers cannot be found.

Hive tools usually come in bright colors, so that they be found easily.  When a beekeeper misplaces his hive tool, it feels like misplacing a phone or set of keys.  Anxiety sets in right away.  A best practice for a beekeeper is to learn to work with a hive tool always in hand or in pocket, so that it is never set down to be misplaced.  There is no worse feeling then just beginning to work a bee yard and misplacing your trusty and hardworking hive tool!

Honeybees and Hummingbirds

Here at Wildflower Meadows, it is not just honeybees that buzz overhead each day – our queen-rearing yard is also home to an astonishing number of hummingbirds.  One of our employees is a big fan of these amazing creatures.  She feeds our local hummingbirds daily, upwards of 36 cups of sugar syrup per day!

Hummingbirds migrate up and down the West Coast of the United States; and our queen apiary here in Southern California appears to be well within their migratory flight path.  Depending on the season, we see anywhere from fifty to over a hundred hummingbirds perched around our queen rearing yard daily.  They buzz by our beekeepers, sometimes within inches of their heads, while darting to and from their feeders.  Some days there can be a small number of hummingbirds passing through; and the next day there can be double, sometimes triple the number stopping by for a drink.

One might think that hummingbirds and honeybees would not be very compatible in the same area.  After all, they both drink nectar.  It would seem that they would compete with each other and that one might starve the other out.  This does not happen, however.  Although it is not uncommon to see hummingbirds and bees foraging peacefully together on the same plants, more often than not, the two species go their separate ways.  Hummingbirds mostly prefer long, red tubular flowers as their nectar source, while honeybees have little or no ability to access those flowers.  Not only can honeybees not identify the color red, but their tongues are not nearly as long as those of hummingbirds to reach the nectar.  This tends to keep the two nectar gatherers separate while foraging, each with different flower/nectar preferences.

Possibly the best benefit of having hummingbirds near the apiary is that they keep the mosquitoes and flies at bay.  Without the hummingbirds, our bee water gardens might attract mosquitoes.  With hummingbirds, however, no mosquitoes, no problem!

 

 

 

The Hive Stand

Keeping a colony of bees on a hive stand is a real back saver!  Lets face it, nearly everything about the mechanics of beekeeping – the awkward shaped boxes, the heaviness of the honey, the repetitive tasks of bending over time and again – creates a certain recipe for back pain.  Given all of these back straining tasks, it is not uncommon that beekeepers will eventually develop back soreness.  Therefore, one of the ways to reduce back strain is to place a bee colony on a stand.

Besides saving backs, a hive stand offers other advantages too.  By keeping the colony and woodenware off the ground, the wood is less apt to rot from ground moisture.  A hive stand also keeps ground critters, such as skunks, raccoons and even rattlesnakes away from the hives.  In the early mornings, after a cold night the temperature a few feet off the ground is almost always slightly warmer than the temperature directly on the ground.

Another advantage of a hive stand is that if ants are harassing the colony, a conscientious beekeeper can place the legs of the hive stand in cups of vegetable or cooking oil, thereby building a barrier to keep the ants at bay.  This is a nice organic method of ant control that avoids the use of pesticides.

Most commercial beekeepers do not use hive stands.  Given that the larger commercial beekeepers usually manage their bees on pallets – either four or six colonies to a pallet – a hive stand simply will not work for them.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, although we do not use pallets, we also generally do not use hive stands either.  We simply have too many mating nucs and too many pollination colonies that need to be moved throughout the year to be able to efficiently take advantage of the benefits of hive stands.

At our breeding apiary, however, we make an exception and place our breeding colonies on stands.  It makes perfect sense, as the breeder colonies do not move from place to place.  And, since we work with these colonies nearly every day, it is a relief to all of us not to have to bend at the waist while working within the breeding apiary!

The Wildflower Meadows hive stand design, pictured above, is a double stand, which holds two colonies side by side.  Usually we place the entrances in opposing directions, so as not to confuse the bees as to which hive to return.

Although Wildflower Meadows’ hive stands are hand-made in our wood workshop, Mann Lake makes a similar hive stand with adjustable legs!

Fall Requeening

Fall requeening offers many advantages.  In the late season, queens are less in demand than in the early spring.  There are typically no long waits or sold out periods to contend with.  Another advantage of late season requeening is that by fall, many colonies are often not as strong and booming as they are in the height of honey production, and therefore, the requeening activity doesn’t interfere with honey making.  Also, the somewhat lower fall populations can make it easier to find queens.

After a nearly full season of beekeeping, it is easy to determine which colonies are underperforming, versus which are proven champions.  The latter probably do not need new queens, and these existing and proven queens can be “overwintered” and carried forward into the next season.  The former, however – the underperforming colonies – can be given a fresh queen, offering them a brand new start and new hope for the next season.

With the impending winter, these new queens will not lay many eggs for the remainder of the current season, so that by the time next spring gets underway the new queen will still be relatively young with “low mileage.”  Hopefully, by next spring, she will be well established as an integral part of the colony, less apt to swarm, and about to hit the prime of her life just when Mother Nature’s timing is perfect.

The Fume Board

There are a number of ways of separating bees from their honey – some beekeepers use a simple brush, others use a bee blower – but the most efficient, at least in our opinion, is a fume board.  More often than not, the fume board is the tool of choice for commercial and larger scale beekeepers when it comes time to harvest honey.

Over the course of the honey flow honeybees pack the top boxes of their hives – called “supers” or “honey supers” – with fresh nectar.  They dry the nectar and convert it into honey.  With any luck, by the end of the honey flow, the super is full of honey.  A full sized or “deep super” can contain up to 80 lbs. of honey when full.

When it comes time to harvest the honey, a beekeeper needs to clear the bees from the super, so that the super of honey can be brought back to the shop for extraction and processing.  This is where the fume board enters the scene.  The bottom of the fume board is typically made of a sort of felt material.  The beekeeper sprays this material with a fumigant.  At Wildflower Meadows we use a natural spray made of almond oil extract, known commercially as “Bee Quick”.

 

Even though this spray smells great to us – something like almond marzipan – for some reason the bees can’t stand it.  Especially when the sun hits the board and begins to accelerate the fumes, the bees begin a rapid downward exit from the honey super, and thus leaving it free of bees.

Large commercial beekeeping outfits sometimes use up to thirty of these boards at a time to harvest a large-sized apiary.  With a crew of three or four beekeepers, each managing six or seven fume boards at a time, a commercial beekeeping company can harvest honey from an entire apiary of fifty or more colonies in about an hour!

Calling All Bees!

Once in a while, some of the bees in a hive need a little directional guidance from their sisters.  Individual bees can get lost or confused as to where the entrance of the hive is or where they should be.  No problem, that’s when some of the more alert bees take charge and put out the call to round up the hive and bring the group back together again.

When we humans want to round up friends from a distance we typically use sight or sound (or more frequently phone calls or text messages.)  When bees call each other from a distance, they use none of these.  The bees’ method of communication is a method that we would never think to use; they release a pheromone that signals the other bees to come together via the bees’ powerful sense of smell.

This pheromone is called the Nasonov pheromone.  Bees produce this from the tip of their abdomens.  When they wish to release the pheromone, they raise their abdomens and fan their wings vigorously, broadcasting the scent as far as they can.  It is not uncommon for a beekeeper working with a beehive to see some bees around the edge of the hive releasing this pheromone.

Often, the very act of the beekeeper opening the colony can disorient some of the bees, especially the foragers who are returning with nectar and pollen.  Fortunately, the Nasonov pheromone is a powerful call that brings the bees back home.

Beekeepers will also notice this activity when watching a swarm that has decided to settle in a particular spot.  At the edge of most swarms, a few bees can always be seen frantically calling their sisters to the chosen spot, and gathering the hive together once again.