Beekeeping Posts

How a Swarm Finds a New Home

Besides the many obvious reasons not to leave your dresser sitting outdoors is one that you may not have considered:  Bees like dressers too!

A friend of Wildflower Meadows’ manages a nature reserve, which happens to include some lightly used houses.  One day our friend found a swarm in one of the drawers of a dresser that, for some unknown reason, had been left outside.  A swarm of bees had entered the third drawer through the rear of the dresser and began constructing comb right inside the drawer.  This is something like a natural top bar hive, only with a bit more creativity on the bees’ part.

When a swarm of bees begins its journey from the original hive, it typically first travels a relatively short distance before stopping to perch in a temporary resting area, such as a tree branch.  From this staging area, the swarm sends out scouts to evaluate new possibilities for a more permanent home.  The scouts, who are the hive’s experienced foragers, travel approximately a mile or so from the resting area.  They explore their surroundings both near and far, much in the same way as they have done in the past when scouting for nectar and pollen.  In a swarming situation, however, the scouts are not searching for food for the collective, but rather shelter for the collective.

This scouting needs to be executed as quickly and efficiently has possible.  Afterall, the swarm is vulnerable when sitting out in the open.  The bees cannot transport food with them for their swarming journey; they can only carry whatever food stores they can in their bellies, and that food won’t last for long.  Plus, when sitting on a tree branch or the side of a building, the bees have no decent shelter from the elements.   And, although their precious queen is sheltered in the middle of the swarm, she is completely unable to perform her egg laying duties without any honeycomb available.

This all means that the scouts need to spring into action right away.  They survey their surroundings looking for shelter, and return to the swarm with their findings.  Much in the same way that foragers communicate the location of desirable nectar sources, the swarm scouts communicate the location of favorable housing locations to the other bees by performing the “waggle dance.”  The better the housing prospect, the more intensely the bees will perform the dance.  The scout bees then recruit other bees to check out the prospective new homes.  Once approximately 80% of the bees in the swarm have concurred that a location is suitable, a consensus is reached.  The swarm then makes its move and will begin to populate their new home.

It’s fairly easy to see why an abandoned dresser might make an attractive home for a swarm.  A dresser is stable, cavernous, and made of natural wood.  Plus, the drawers are reasonably well-protected from the elements.  For the human (former) owner of this dresser, however, not so good.  Good luck to this poor person reaching for a pair of socks, particularly in the third drawer!

Beekeeping And Estate Planning

At Wildflower Meadows we are not estate planning experts.  There are more than enough qualified individuals available to assist you with the important questions of how to draft a will, and how to prepare one’s estate for the inevitable.

But when it comes time for estate planning, what about your bees?  As a beekeeper, are you thinking about what will happen to your colonies when you are no longer around to take care of them?  Do you have a plan for them?  Before you assume that these are silly questions, keep in mind that anything can happen.

At Wildflower Meadows, we recently received a call from a distressed customer.  Her father, a long-time beekeeper, had recently passed away, leaving her the sole beneficiary of 200 colonies.  Aside from the fact that she had little beekeeping experience, her biggest challenge was that out of the 200 colonies, she had only been able to uncover the location of approximately 30 of them.  The remaining 170 colonies were missing, located in other apiaries, of which she had no idea of where they were.

While this customer had ordered 30 Wildflower Meadows’ queens to requeen the colonies that she had found, she had no idea how to find the other 170 missing colonies.  Neither the county bee inspector, nor her father’s friends, knew of their locations.  They were missing, and possibly lost forever.  If only her father had left instructions in his will, these colonies could have been saved. Now they will need to depend on pure luck to be returned to their rightful beekeeper, or be abandoned.

Over the course of the years, here at Wildflower Meadows, we have “inherited” our fair share of abandoned bees and beekeeping equipment.  From time to time, we receive calls from frustrated real estate agents asking us to pick up long-abandoned apiaries that have no signs, markings, or any other identifying features on the boxes or frames.  More often than not, it is assumed that a beekeeper died somewhere along the way, leaving colonies behind, completely forgotten and abandoned.  This is bittersweet for us.  While we appreciate picking up some additional equipment and perhaps even some bees, we feel sad for the beekeeper and his or her bees that became permanently separated and left abandoned without proper care.

So here is our decidedly “un-expert” estate planning advice:  Don’t forget about your bees!  Register your apiaries with your county bee inspector so that there will be a record of ownership in case someone needs to find them.  And, why not leave instructions for the care of your bees along with your will?  Both your beneficiaries and your bees will be thankful that you were a conscientious beekeeper . . . all the way to the very end.

The Future of Beekeeping

At last year’s California State Beekeeping Convention there was a scheduled panel discussion concerning the “Future of Beekeeping”.  Most attendees anticipated a presentation covering the usual list of depressing topics in the world of beekeeping:  Pesticides, dwindling natural forage, mites, viruses, high costs, etc.  However, this conversation never happened.  In fact, there was never any conversation at all.  Due to extreme fire danger and the ferocious Santa Ana winds hammering the convention site, the local power company imposed a blackout.  This effectively shut down the discussion and the convention.

So, what about the future of beekeeping?  The underlying message of the shutdown could not have been more clear:  The future of beekeeping – at least in California – no doubt includes fire and imposed blackouts.

Today as we post this entry, at least four major wildfires are still burning in California, all of them uncontained.  Besides the loss of property and lives, these fires bring considerable collateral damage to beekeepers and their bees.  We cannot think of a year in recent memory when California beekeepers – including several of our customers – have not lost a significant number of colonies due to fire.

Besides the actual burning of colonies, bees also perish in fires due to smoke inhalation.  Bees, of course, can tolerate a certain amount of smoke, as any beekeeper using a smoker knows.  However, it is the quality of smoke that can be especially damaging to bees.  Smoke from a beekeeper’s smoker is a lot different than smoke from a burning house.  Urban smoke contains chemicals from burnt plastic, PVC, carpeting, appliances, vehicles, as well as many other toxic sources.  For example, in last year’s Paradise Fire, which destroyed the community of Paradise, CA, the smoke from the burning structures killed many nearby beehives, even though the actual fire never touched them.

Beekeepers themselves are also affected by this new reality of ongoing fire danger.  We know of some commercial beekeepers who no longer use their smoker in fire-prone areas, and have switched to sprayers filled with liquid smoke or other essential oil mixtures and water.  At Wildflower Meadows, when the fire danger becomes too high, we too put away our smokers and either work the bees without smoke, or sometimes even take the day off.  On high-risk fire days, we instead focus our efforts on filling the water tubs in our yards to keep them from evaporating up in the dry Santa Ana winds.

The future of beekeeping, for the most part however, is largely beyond our control as individual beekeepers.  When the power goes off, as it did last fall at the convention, another “future of beekeeping” also became clear.  Beekeepers at the disrupted convention, instead of griping, got together for a modest lunch (sandwiches – no power) and instead spoke about some more pleasant topics; family, friends, time off, keeping bees, and various adventures.  In this way, the future of beekeeping looked a lot like the present – beekeepers getting together, helping each other, not running from adversity, and doing the best they can . . . as always.

Drifting

Looking at a large apiary, it is difficult to believe that an individual forager bee is able to find its way back into the correct colony each time.  How do bees not get confused and enter the wrong colony?  Well, sometimes bees do, and any individual one colony will collect extra bees from its neighboring colonies.

Over time, bees can be so redistributed in an apiary that certain colonies grow progressively weaker as they lose population, and other colonies grow progressively stronger with larger populations gained from the other colonies.  This is known as “drifting.”  Beekeepers try to avoid creating situations that cause drifting, because drifting creates population imbalances in an apiary, and can also spread disease.

There are two main ways to prevent bees from drifting into other colonies.  The first is by controlling the placement of beehives within an apiary.  Long straight lines, which can look clean and attractive to a beekeeper, are definitely not ideal for honeybees.  The bees that belong to colonies that are situated in the interior of a long line often have a difficult time finding their way home, since the colonies in the interior look similar; and the only way to distinguish one interior colony from another is to count from the end of the line.  Although honeybees have rudimentary counting skills (it has been proven that they can count up to four and five), a long line does not work well for them.  Over time, foraging bees in the middle of the line generally will drift towards the hives at ends of the lines, which are easier for them to identify.

The best way to avoid the problem of long straight lines is to set up the apiary with short lines or clusters of colonies that makes it easier for the returning bees to identify their hives.  Long lines can generally only work if there are plenty of landmarks in the middle of the line such as unique trees or bushes, which the foraging bees can use as markers to place their hives.

Another way to prevent drifting is to paint the hives different colors.  Bees can identify most colors, and this assists the foragers in being able to distinguish one colony from another.

At Wildflower Meadows, preventing drifting is especially important to us, not so much with regard to foraging worker bees, but especially for queen bees that are out on mating flights.  Individual queens need to find their way home to the correct colony, or they risk entering a colony that already has a queen.  This can lead to a fight and the possible loss of a queen.  To prevent drifting, we arrange our mating nucs in distinct patterns.  We also paint our colonies different colors to assist returning bees and queens in finding their correct home.

The Intelligence Of The Collective

A bee colony has an overall intelligence that is obvious to a beekeeper that pays close attention.  This intelligence is more than just the sum of the individual bees; it is intrinsic to the colony as a whole.  Although the roles of individual bees within a hive are different, the hive itself operates as a single unit, which appears to have a single mind.  There is no one bee or group of bees that is “in charge.”  Even the queen, who is the most important individual bee within the hive, is not the leader, but rather just a unique part of the whole.  The intelligence of the hive is not something that can be defined by breaking down the whole into pieces, but is rather a collective intelligence that exists within the group, as opposed to the sum of the individuals.

This intelligence is apparent during a number of events that the hive conducts with no apparent leadership or organization that we humans understand.  For example, in the spring, the colony will build drone comb and the queen will begin laying drones seemingly all at once without any understood level of coordination or communication.  Another example is when young bees take their training flights.  This is always a group exercise that begins and ends with no apparent leadership or trigger to both the start or the finish.

The most obvious example of collective intelligence is during swarming.  Anyone who has watched a swarm travel cannot help to wonder how the bees manage to fly as a group and make instantaneous collective decisions as to flight plans, direction, resting place, etc., without any apparent leaders or individual decision makers.  The bees themselves appear to be of “one mind”, and possess a group intelligence that is not easily understood by a species that is dominated by individual behavior such as ours.

Yellowjackets And Honeybees

Although non-beekeepers sometimes confuse yellowjackets with honeybees, a beekeeper knows the difference between the two very well.  The honeybee is loved by the beekeeper, and the yellowjacket?  Well, maybe not so much . . .

Yellowjackets are predatory wasps that feed on many of the same nectar sources as honeybees.  However, yellowjackets are carnivorous as well, and feed on other insects – yes, including honeybees!  Yellowjackets also eat other sources of sugar, such as fruits and tree sap.

Unlike honeybees, yellowjackets do not overwinter as a hive.  Only the queen yellowjacket overwinters.  Therefore, a yellowjacket colony starts from nearly zero in the spring, to its full size of nearly 5,000, which appears in late summer.

At Wildflower Meadows, in late summer we begin to see the presence of yellow jackets, especially around our mating nucs, which because of their small size, are most vulnerable to yellowjacket attacks.  Yellowjackets seek out the small mating nucs to both kill and eat bees, as well as to rob honey and sugar syrup.

A Simple Organic Varroa Mite Treatment

As a queen producer, our goal at Wildflower Meadows is to constantly raise the level of natural varroa mite resistance in our stock with each new generation.  For varroa mite control, we rely on the VSH trait that we continuously breed into our stock.  The VSH trait enables the bees themselves to interfere with the varroa mites’ reproduction cycle, thus lowering the spread of varroa mites in the colony.  The VSH trait controls varroa mites naturally, and we rarely see problems with high mite counts.

From time to time, however, beekeepers ask us if we know of any organic varroa mite treatments that complement the VSH trait in Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queens.  Our answer is simple:  With Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queens, you do not need to treat your honeybees for varroa mites.  But, if your goal is to obtain the maximum level of varroa control, we recommend that you consider our simple organic varroa mite treatment.

Wildflower Meadows’ Simple Organic Varroa Mite Treatment *

To understand how this varroa treatment works, it is important to first understand that varroa mites must reproduce inside of a capped brood cell.  They can live inside a colony on the bodies of honeybees, but they cannot reproduce unless they settle inside a capped brood cell for the duration of the brood cell’s life.  When varroa mites are ready to reproduce, they seek out the cells of uncapped larvae that are just about to be capped.  They then enter and hide inside the cells, where they begin their reproductive process once the cells are capped.

Here is the key to controlling varroa reproduction:  If there are no larvae about to be capped, then there is no mite reproduction.  Without larvae being capped, varroa mites have nowhere to go to reproduce.  This is how African honeybees have been able to survive varroa mites so effectively.  Because African honeybees frequently swarm, they regularly create new swarms that often take at least a week or two to get established.  During this swarming period, there is no brood production.  As a result, the varroa mite population in the swarm naturally declines, and the mites have no way of reproducing and gaining a foothold.  The swarm basically starts its new life relatively free of varroa mites.

As beekeepers, we can easily recreate the same broodless conditions inside of our colonies.  The event of requeening is the perfect time to do this.  This simple organic varroa treatment works best during the summer when varroa mite populations are naturally on the rise, and it is an excellent accompaniment to summer or fall requeening.

The simple varroa treatment is to remove the old queen two to three weeks before adding a new Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen.  About five days after removing the old queen, seek out and remove any natural queen cells.  Then check again a few days later to make sure that you did not miss any.  This colony can safely stay queenless for two to three weeks and still have a small amount of brood remaining for introducing the new queen two to three weeks later.  While the colony is queenless, new varroa mite reproduction will be impossible.  Many of the adult varroa mite will die of natural causes, while others will be removed by the bees’ normal grooming.  By the time that the new queen begins laying and her larvae reaches the stage of capping, several weeks will have passed.  During this period, the varroa mite population inside the colony will have been greatly reduced.

If you can recreate this two to three weeks’ window of no mite reproduction within your colony, then the varroa mite population will naturally decline, just as it does in a wild swarm, resulting in a relatively “fresh start” for the bees inside the colony.  Then, if after this period of varroa decline, you add a Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen, the varroa mite population will continue to stay in check.

* This method is only advised for strong and robust colonies that can afford to be queenless for two to three weeks.  We do not advise this method for weak or dwindling colonies.

half sisters

Half-Sisters

When we look at a colony of bees, we tend to think of the hive as a family.  It is, in fact, more or less very much like a typical single-parent family, with a mother – the queen bee – and her sons and daughters.  What is unusual about a hive of honeybees, however, is that not all the bees in the hive share the same father.  Some bees don’t even have fathers!  This leads to some unusual relationships between the bees themselves.

The bees that do not have fathers are the drone bees.  They originate from unfertilized eggs, and have only one set of chromosomes, the queen’s.  Drones in a hive are true genetic brothers, each carrying only the queen’s genetics.  Drone bees, however, are not entirely related to their sisters – the worker bees – who in fact do have fathers.

The worker bees originated from fertilized eggs that carry the genetics of both the queen mother and various drone fathers.  This makes many of the worker bees half-sisters to each other.  Because their mother, the queen, mated with upwards of 15 drones, many of the worker bees within a colony have different fathers.  This explains why sometimes worker bees within a hive can look differently from each other.  Many of the worker bees are not sisters, but are actually half-sisters.

Missing from every beehive is any evidence of the fathers of the worker bees.  One will never find the father of a bee actually in the same hive as the daughters.  You might say that the fathers are “deadbeat dads,” but this would not be completely true.  The fathers are actually “hero dads.”  All drones die during mating, so that no honeybee ever gets to know her father and no drone honey bee father ever gets to know his daughters, as they gave up their lives in the very act of mating and furthering the welfare of not only the colony, but the entire species!

Powdered Sugar Roll

The VSH trait is one of the best-known ways of naturally controlling varroa mite growth without the use of chemicals or miticides.  But how does a beekeeper know whether a given colony is expressing high VSH levels?  The best way to determine this is to test the colony for varroa mites, and then compare the results of the test against colonies that are susceptible to mites.

At Wildflower Meadows we take pride in our mite-resistant VSH-Italian queen bees.  We perform mite counting tests on our bees throughout the year, and test multiple colonies within individual apiaries.  Although the most reliable way of testing for varroa mites is called the alcohol wash, we don’t always utilize the alcohol wash because it kills upwards of 300 bees per colony, per test!  So, because we are not big fans of intentionally killing our bees, more often than not, we prefer to use the powdered sugar roll to gain insight into varroa mite levels.

To perform the powdered sugar roll, we take approximately 300 bees (from the brood nest, where varroa mites are typically most active) and shake them into a jar that contains a small amount of powdered sugar. The powdered sugar, along with vigorous shaking, dislodges the varroa mites off of the bees.  Before long, the mites become loose and become mixed in with the powdered sugar.  By then pouring the mixture of powdered sugar and bees over a screen and onto a piece of white cardboard (see the photo above), the bees stay on top of the screen, but the sugar and mites fall through to the cardboard.  Against the background of the white cardboard it is easy to see and count any varroa mites from the sample.

Mite counts are usually estimated as varroa mites per 100 bees.  In general, three or less mites per 100 bees is considered an acceptable threshold – although this threshold is not a hard and fast rule, and much depends on the goals and tolerance of an individual beekeeper.

The downside of the powdered sugar roll is that it is rather difficult to know exactly how many bees were in the sample in the first place.  It is only with time and practice that a beekeeper can learn to accurately estimate the number of bees in each sample.

The best part about the powdered sugar roll, besides the information that it imparts, is that none of the bees have to die.  After only a half hour or so of testing, our apiaries become alive with “ghost bees” – worker bees that are perfectly healthy, but are covered from head to foot in sugar.  They look strange, but are happily welcomed by their sisters, who eagerly lick them clean!

In no time at all, everything returns back to normal; the bees clean up the sugar, we gain valuable information, and no bees die in the process.

The below link, courtesy of the University of Minnesota Department of Entomology, contains further detailed instructions on how to perform a powdered sugar roll (link opens as .pdf).

How to Do a Powdered Sugar Roll

Pesticide Spraying

Every spring, around late May, more or less, comes the dreaded phone call: “Hi, we just wanted to let you know that we will be spraying the grove at . . . ____ .  We know that you have bees in the area and want to give you a chance to move them out before we begin pesticide spraying.”

While perfectly courteous and respectful, this call and those like them are particularly bothersome here at Wildflower Meadows.  Oftentimes, the yard in question has a group of emerging virgin queens that are just getting oriented to the area.  Other times, the colonies in the yard just received a batch of sensitive queen cells.  At these critical points, it can be detrimental to have to move a colony of bees to a new location.  Yet, they have to be moved.  And, typically, we lose the queens when this happens.

The other challenge of receiving late May spray calls is the unfortunate timing.  Late May is usually the end of our busiest season.  Our crews are growing tired from working long hours since late March, and now have a new, unexpected project to tackle.  Of course the days are long at this time of year, so we have to wait until the sun finally sets to begin the moving process.

The final blow often takes place after we ultimately move the bees to what we think is a safe location, then receive a new incoming call of: “Hi, we see that you just moved bees into the area.  We plan on spraying there next week  . . . ”