Beekeeping Posts

Pepper Trees And Bees

Anyone who lives in California, Florida or Hawaii is likely well familiar with pepper trees.  They seem to be found both far and wide, and probably for a good reason.  They are extremely hardy, drought resistant, heat resistant, and sprout up like weeds along highways and roads everywhere.  Sun or shade, these trees don’t care.  Poor soil?  No problem.  The pepper tree is perfectly at home in a world where record-breaking heat and adverse weather conditions seem to be the norm.

Officially called “schinus mole,” pepper trees originated in Peru, but like many other invasive plants, were brought to other parts of the world with good intentions.  The original Spanish settlers of the American west cultivated these trees because they appreciated the hard bark, which they used for making saddles.  Also, the pepper tree, true to its name, was a source of genuine culinary pepper spice for the early settlers.

The pepper comes from crushing the little pink berries that these trees produce, which are the direct result of bee pollination.  The dried pink berries taste like pepper, and are basically pink peppercorns.  Though, let’s be honest, the peppercorns that we are most familiar with are black.  Yet, the pepper tree’s pink peppercorns are still a culinary favorite today.

From a beekeeper’s perspective, pepper trees are a gold mine, as they seem to blossom practically non-stop, with several major blooming episodes per season.  And, most importantly, the bees love them!  The first blossoms start in the spring, with the latest occurring well into October, when practically nothing else is available for the bees.  The heaviest honey flow takes place in summer when the temperatures are high, usually in July.  As you can imagine, the honey has a somewhat spicy flavor and is rather dark.  As humans, we may easily overlook this rather ubiquitous and weedy-looking tree, but the bees see these trees completely differently.  They are a never-ending source of foraging excitement!

Combining Beehives

In today’s beekeeping environment of heavy bee colony losses, many beekeepers place a premium on having high colony counts to buffer against the inevitable losses.  But often lost in this way of thinking is the notion that having a lesser number of strong beehives is often better than having a higher number of relatively weak ones.

Strong colonies produce more honey, command higher rental revenues for pollination, are naturally better protected against robbing and pests, and usually have better chances of successfully overwintering than weak colonies.  Especially when it comes to honey production, one strong beehive will nearly always outproduce the combined effort of two weaker beehives.

This is why beekeepers often decide to combine two weak beehives into one.

When combining beehives, the most important consideration is which of the two queens that the beekeeper wants to keep.  It is rarely a good idea to keep both queens with the idea of “letting them fight it out.”  This can result in the surviving queen becoming injured, or – worse – losing both queens.  Ideally, one colony should be queenless, and the remaining queen should be the higher quality of the two.

Another consideration is to be wary of combining a sick or contaminated hive into a strong healthy hive.  It is better to attend to the sick hive separately rather than risk spreading a disease any further.

The tried and true method of combining colonies is what is commonly called “the newspaper method.”  This involves stacking one colony on top of the other with a sheet of newspaper separating the two boxes.  The idea is that the newspaper presents a barrier between the two colonies that slowly disappears over time as the bees chew away and remove the newspaper.  It is this shared removal of the newspaper that allows the two colonies to mingle together and get to know each other while they work together on the same project.  As the newspaper disappears, the pheromone of the queen slowly makes its way throughout the combined colony.  Before long, the bees lose track of which colony is which, and they all begin to share the pheromone of the queen.  They soon rally behind her, thus uniting the colony.

In today’s age of digital newspapers, newsprint is not as readily available as it once was.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, we have been known to substitute big sheets of blank newsprint paper, packing paper, art paper, etc.  It doesn’t matter, as long as the paper is non-toxic.  The bees will remove it soon enough!

Some beekeepers prefer to place a slit in the paper to help the bees gain an easier start to the process.  This may be helpful to the bees, but it is often not necessary.  Many beekeepers ignore the slit and still have equally successful results.

The Father Of American Practical Beekeeping

As Father’s Day approaches, we are inclined to stop and give credit to our fathers for all that they have provided before us.  As beekeepers, we too have “fathers” that came before us, and paved the way for our world today as 21st century beekeepers.  The most notable father figure in beekeeping is almost certainly, L.L. Langstroth, who, as the discoverer of both the principal of bee space and the Langstroth hive, is literally called “The Father of American Beekeeping.”

Less well known, however, but possibly even greater a legend in American beekeeping, is Moses Quinby, another beekeeping giant commonly referred to as “The Father of Practical American Beekeeping.”  It may sound like these two were in competition for ultimate legendary beekeeper status, but they were in fact contemporaries of each other, and as the story goes, were both good friends and colleagues.

Moses Quinby started his career as a woodworker, but became interested in beekeeping at a young age.  This was a good thing for the beekeeping industry, because here is what he accomplished in his beekeeping career, which spanned the 1800’s:

  • He invented the smoker
  • He pioneered the concept of supering
  • He invented the centrifuge honey extractor
  • He became America’s first commercial beekeeper, pioneering beekeeping as a profession
  • He built his hive numbers to 1,200 (before the invention of the automobile)
  • He was one of the first beekeepers to commercially raise queens
  • He was largely responsible for promoting Italian queen stock in the United States
  • He pioneered the earliest treatments for American Foul Brood

This was Moses Quinby’s beekeeping career.  Wow!

Of course, these accomplishments in and of themselves surely entitle Quinby to his legendary status.  But what really made Quinby a father, and “The Father of Practical Beekeeping”, was not only his stunning list of inventions and achievements, but his willingness to truly be a mentor to others and to share his knowledge and expertise so freely to all aspiring beekeepers.

Moses Quinby did not believe in patents or copyrights; he believed in sharing.  What he invented, he wanted to share freely with his fellow beekeepers.  He was not a selfish man, as none of his inventions were patented, nor his writings copyrighted.  Later in his life, in the 1870’s, Quinby communicated his, by then, substantial knowledge by writing articles for the American Bee Journal and other outdoor magazines.  He also wrote books, which he never copyrighted, just so that he could impart his extensive knowledge.  He would then also volunteer regular demonstrations to aspiring beekeepers, freely explaining principals and answering questions.  He thus became a father figure to all beekeepers, offering his free and expansive advice whenever and wherever needed.  Beekeepers looked up to him, and he did not hesitate to counsel them in return.

This is a worthy father, and worthy role model; one who more than lived up the high ideals that we seek in our paths as modern day beekeepers.  Happy Father’s Day!

The Hive Inspection – The Sniff Test

We have posted before about the importance of regular hive inspections.  Consistent and thorough hive inspections are what separate the quality beekeepers from the average ones.  Most of the features of an effective hive inspection are visual.  For example, the beekeeper is looking at brood patterns, honey stores, population size, etc.  Part of a thorough colony inspection, however, also involves the nose.

Beehives have telltale smells that can offer the beekeeper important clues as to the activities and wellbeing of a bee colony.  If you pay close attention to your beehive, you can typically pick up subtle changes in the aroma of the hive as they work different flower sources.  In our area of California, buckwheat and eucalyptus nectar have distinct smells.  This lets us know when these honey flows are in play.

Healthy brood also has a unique smell.  In the earliest part of the season, when hives are rapidly building up, most colonies contain a high percentage of brood compared to bees and honey stores.  When this happens, the brood smell is especially noticeable.  During almond pollination for example, which takes place in early February, a truckload of bees arriving from Southern California contains practically more brood than bees, and smells strongly of healthy brood, waiting to hatch out.

If the brood smell has an unpleasant or nasty aroma, then that is definitely cause for concern.  Foulbrood or other viruses may be infecting the brood.  A conscientious beekeeper needs to trust his, or her nose, and respond right away.

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!