Beekeeping Posts

Urban Beekeeping

Most people consider beekeeping to be a rural pastime, but plenty of beekeepers successfully keep bees in cities or suburbs.  These brave individuals, known as urban beekeepers, face their own sets of challenges and rewards.

There are unique payoffs to urban beekeeping that traditional rural beekeepers simply can not obtain.  First, cities and suburbs feature abundant flower sources from multiple types of trees, shrubs and gardens.  Urban flower sources also tend to be largely impervious to drought or lack of rainfall, because homeowners and city governments rarely stop watering landscapes and gardens.

Let’s face it, almost every home or business has a flowering garden of some sort.  Plus, cities and suburbs are abundant with trees, many of which are well known to be excellent honey sources – elms, maples, and sourwood in the eastern US, tupelos and magnolias in the south, eucalyptus and willow in the west, mesquite in the desert, and an abundance of fruit trees nearly everywhere.  It only takes a few blooming trees to deliver an excellent source of nectar to an urban colony of bees.

Furthermore, in many urban areas, only a limited number of honeybees compete for those bountiful nectar sources.  Unlike in the countryside, cities and suburbs rarely feature giant apiaries of honeybees that compete for all of this excellent forage.  As a result, urban bees generally have a better ratio of honeybees to flowers than in the countryside.  That is why urban beekeepers almost always produce larger and more consistent honey crops than their rural counterparts; massive 200+ pound honey crops per colony are not uncommon in urban beekeeping.

The challenges of urban beekeeping, however, are obvious.  Close neighbors, strict zoning, and high liability immediately come to mind.

Of course, there are ways to mitigate these concerns.  If you are an urban beekeeper or plan on becoming one, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Out of sight, out of mind:

Stealth and secrecy is probably the most important consideration for an urban beekeeper.  In general, the less people who have any idea about your hobby, the better off you will be.  It only takes one overreacting neighbor to potentially shut down your entire endeavor.  Your beehives and your bees’ flight paths are best kept out of the sight (and minds) of the public.

Keeping your beehives surrounded by tall shrubs, fences or walls will assist you by not only hiding your colonies, but by also forcing your bees to fly high overhead rather than at ground level. This will keep their flight paths clear of people and out of the line of sight.  Keeping beehives on a rooftop also accomplishes the same.

Keep gentle bees:

Always keep known gentle races of bees and requeen them regularly so that the bees are of a known, gentle origin.

Watch out for powerful night lighting:

Bees, of course being insects that they are, can’t help but to fly into lights.  Nearby powerful night lighting can agitate beehives during the evening and keep individual foraging bees from properly orienting at dusk and dawn.

Think about your neighbors, and choose the best times to work your bees:

Obviously, it is best not to work your colonies when neighbors, children and pets are outside and nearby.  Extreme caution is always best.

Keep zoning in mind:

Always adhere to your county and city zoning requirements.

Don’t forget about water:

Bees need plenty of water.  Maintaining a nearby clean water source for the bees will keep your bees out of your neighbors’ swimming pools and fountains.

And, finally, share the love:

If nearby neighbors do know about your bees, a few jars of honey each year is a small price to pay toward keeping them on board with your hobby.  Sweeten the deal, and you will make some new friends in the process!

Migratory Beekeeping

Some of our largest customers at Wildflower Meadows are migratory beekeepers.  Migratory beekeepers in the United States begin each new year in California pollinating almonds.  After that their paths diverge.  Some move their bees to orange groves to produce orange blossom honey.  Other beekeepers continue on to Oregon and Washington to pollinate cherries, cranberries, and apples.  By summer, many of these same beekeepers can be found in the Great Plains producing clover honey.  In the fall and winter, most of these very same beekeepers move their bees to warmer climates, like these here in Southern California, for over-wintering.

What makes all this possible is the existence of the vast United States interstate highway system, the availability of large flatbed trucks, and forklifts.  Migratory beekeepers keep their bees on pallets, usually four to a pallet – most usually known as “four-ways.”  The pallet doubles as a bottom board for the colonies, each of which are held in place by clips.  When it comes time to move the bees, the beekeeper can easily pick up a pallet of four colonies at a single time with a forklift.  Giant 18-wheel flatbed trucks are loaded with upwards of 400 colonies each.  Depending on the distance of the move, the load is netted down, and the truckers head on their way to more abundant pastures.

While migratory beekeeping benefits the bees in certain ways – the bees always find themselves in the midst of flowering crops or fields – it is hard on them in other ways.  The constant moving can lead to stress, which can result in queen losses.  And, keeping bees on pallets and in close quarters is not necessarily ideal because it can lead to the spread of mites and diseases.

Migratory beekeeping can also be hard on the beekeepers, who spend large amounts of the year away from home and family.  The life of a migratory beekeeper features many days on the road, staying in cheap hotels, eating fast food, and almost all of the of time worrying about planning and logistics.

Despite all this hardship, not enough praise can be offered to these brave beekeepers, and the contributions that they make to our food supply.  Without migratory beekeepers and their invaluable pollination services, our crops would suffer greatly – and we would too.  Migratory beekeepers are among the true heroes of beekeeping!

Photo courtesy of Allen’s Honey Company, Brawley, California, pollinators of almonds, melons, alfalfa and countless vegetable seed crops.

Winter Bees

As winter approaches, bringing shorter days and cooler weather, the activity inside a beehive changes.  The hive recognizes the coming onset of winter and the queen slows her brood production, eventually bringing it to a complete halt.  Drone production completely stops, and any remaining drones are often kicked out of the colony and left to die.

By the time winter arrives, all that will be left inside the hive is a cluster of bees consisting of a queen and worker bees.  These overwintering worker bees are actually physiologically different from the typical mid-season honeybees; they are known as “winter bees.”

Winter bees are different from typical worker bees in that they have a lifespan of about six months, whereas typical worker bees only live about six weeks.  Winter bees need to live this long, because with no new brood in the pipeline during winter, the colony would completely die if none of the worker bees lasted more than six weeks.  To increase their longevity, winter bees maintain larger intrinsic protein stores.  In other words, they store extra protein inside their bodies.  They also have higher body fat and vitellogenin than worker bees (vitellogenin is a source of nutrients that honeybees use to produce feed for larvae).

Winter bees are typically raised during September or October, give or take, depending on the particular climate of the area.  They are usually last of the brood that a colony produces in the autumn.  This is why it is important that a conscientious beekeeper needs to make sure that a colony is well fed with pollen or pollen substitute heading into the autumn and winter.  Not only do the winter bees themselves need to be healthy and strong, but the last set of regular worker bees also needs to be healthy and strong, because they are the ones who will feed the winter bees when they are still larvae.

Interestingly, once the winter bees make it through the winter and the colony heads into the new season, some of the old winter bees need to temporarily take on the role of nurse bees to the first round of brood in the spring.  Why?  By the end of winter there are no young bees remaining in the colony!  This is the only time in a colony’s life where six-month old bees have to assume the responsibility of what is normally handled by six-day old bees.

Wildflower Meadows would like to thank all of our friends and customers for a successful 2018.

We wish you all a happy and joyous holiday season!

Commercial Beekeeping And Winter Losses

For commercial beekeepers, probably their single greatest concern is managing their winter losses and keeping them to a minimum.  Winter losses cut into profits in several ways.  First, losing colonies in the winter results in fewer colonies being available in February to rent out at the height of pollination season.  Also, replacing losses requires that the beekeeper split strong colonies to make new colonies just when honey-making season gets underway in April.  This cuts into spring honey production, because it is the strongest colonies that make the most honey.

A certain amount of winter losses are normal.  In general 10% is more than reasonable, and would be considered a good outcome.  Twenty-percent losses, although not ideal, is what many beekeepers consider the “new normal,” and is also reasonable.  When losses grow beyond these levels, they can become damaging, and at higher levels potentially catastrophic.

Knowing that a certain percentage of losses are normal and to be expected, commercial beekeepers try to head into winter with a surplus of bees – an extra 20% give or take – to absorb the losses and come out even, more or less, in the spring.  Many astute commercial beekeepers begin building a cushion in the late summer or fall, creating extra colonies to boost numbers heading into the winter.

Hobby and small-scale beekeepers can learn something from this strategy.  Building a few extra surplus colonies heading into the winter covers the inevitable losses that occur every season, and enable the beekeeper to get off to a strong start once the new spring gets underway.

Pesticides

One of the most horrifying sites a beekeeper can face is to find a once thriving colony debilitated or killed by exposure to pesticides.  The telltale sign of a pesticide kill is what looks like a “carpet” of dead bees in front of the entrance.  Sometimes, in the worst kills, the affected bees die off so quickly that the hive cannot even deal with the die-off, and a pile of dead bees accumulates at the bottom of the hive or right at the entrance.

Pesticide kills are not unique to any specific kind of beekeeper.  Hobbyist and backyard beekeepers can suffer from kills when nearby neighbors apply insecticides to their flower or vegetable gardens.  Commercial beekeepers suffer when pesticides are applied to nearby crops.  Even commercial beekeepers that keep their bees in organic farms or groves or away from spray zones can still be affected when a nearby commercial farm sprays crops that are close enough for the bees to reach by their normal foraging.  And, all beekeepers can be affected if toxins enter a water source from which the bees are drinking.

When foragers carry pesticide-laden pollen or nectar back to the hive, disaster ensues.  Depending on the dosage, bees become sick or die.  If the exposure is severe enough, not only is the colony of bees lost, but also the honeycomb becomes contaminated and needs to be disposed of.

It is never a wise decision to reuse contaminated equipment.  After such a kill, a conscientious beekeeper should eliminate any affected honeycomb, lest it be accidentally transferred to a healthy colony and cause more unnecessary damage.  The beekeeper also needs to consider whether he or she can prevent this from happening again.  If not, then the apiary may not be worth keeping, and it may be necessary to move on to another safer location.

The Beekeepers’ Convention

November is a fine time of the year to step back from the daily rigors of beekeeping and get a glimpse of the big picture.

Whether meeting in small clubs or large state or national organizations, it is easy to see that beekeepers are a naturally friendly group; they like to arrange get-togethers to share notes, learn new ideas, get a feel for what’s new, and socialize with their like-minded cohorts.

Annual conventions are run by all the major beekeeping associations, such as the American Beekeeping Federation, The American Honey Producers’ Association, and, here in California, The California Beekeepers’ Association.  Pictured above is a scene from last year’s California convention in Lake Tahoe, which featured over 1,000 guests and countless exhibitors.

The convention usually includes several days of industry-leading speakers, typically from the large agriculturally-minded universities, such as University of California – Davis, Washington State University and others, as well as break-out groups, special research luncheons, raffles, door prizes and of course, exhibitors.

It is always enjoyable to walk through the maze of exhibitors, which typically consist of the usual mix of beekeeping supply companies, nutrition supplement companies, “save the bees” organizations, and even insurance salespeople.  All of these groups, however, are critical to the success of the beekeeping industry, and nearly all have valuable offerings.

The best part of the state and national conventions is for beekeepers like us to have the opportunity to meet many of our customers face-to-face, and to spend some very rare leisure time catching up with our beekeeping friends!

Quit Badgering Our Bees!

Badgers and Honeybees

At Wildflower Meadows, we are fortunate that we do not experience many predators of our beehives.  Bears do not roam in our part of California.  Our worst nuisances are usually ants, which harass weak colonies.  Varroa mites are not much of an issue for us either due to the strong VSH trait in our bees.  Occasionally we sometimes find roadrunners hanging around the entrances of our colonies, picking off bees as they come in and out of the entrances, but otherwise they too are harmless.  Compared to other beekeepers, in general, we do not have much to worry about in the way of predators.

This week, however, we were surprised to find one of our queen bee mating yards in disarray.

 

When our crew arrived for routine feeding they immediately saw that several of our mating nucs had been tossed about like they were Frisbees.  Lids and frames were torn off, and the mini mating frames were completely ripped out of the hives.  The bees were gone, either having been eaten or absconded.  It was obviously the work of a strong animal with a taste for bees and honeycomb.

After a little investigative work, it wasn’t hard to come to the conclusion that a hungry badger had attacked our colonies!  The footprints and size of the claw marks on the boxes were a give-away.  We noticed that dirt had been sprayed around the destroyed boxes, offering a clue that a ground animal was involved.  Finally, a phone call to the land manager revealed that badgers had been spotted in the area.

The American Badger is commonly found in the rural areas of Southern California, particularly near water sources.  They are nocturnal and carnivorous with a taste for bees and honey.  Although this sounds completely bad from a beekeeper’s point of view, they do provide benefits to the ecosystem around an apiary.  First, along with the roadrunners, they eat rattlesnakes!  We can’t complain about that.  And, since they are ground animals, badgers also dig up wasp nests, which provides a natural control on another bee predator.

Nevertheless, with this attack we are facing a real problem.  The only natural deterrent we have are the bees themselves.  Our bees are known to be gentle, but in this case they really need to stop being such little angels!  If they can’t sting the badger enough to deter it, and the badger returns for another feast, we are going to have to get involved and help our bees.  Our first step will be to erect fencing around the apiary.  Hopefully, we will not have to electrify it.  But, we beekeepers well know that when it comes to both bears and hungry humans, once something (or someone) gets a taste for fresh honey, it is hard to break the habit!

Ants

Because varroa mites, and to a lesser degree, tracheal mites, are such a steady danger to honeybee health, they garner much of the attention of the beekeeping world.

Beekeepers seems to rarely mention ants, but the presence of ants can sometimes be a huge nuisance – especially here in Southern California.  During the late summer and early fall when ant populations are at their peak and bee populations are beginning to decline, relentless rows and rows of ants march through apiaries on their way towards vulnerable beehives, seeking prized honey and pollen.

Fortunately, for the most part, bees are able to fight off the onslaught.  Guard bees frantically patrol the openings to the hive, chasing ants away one at a time.  Most of the time, the bees are able to hold their own and keep the ants at bay.  One of the best ways that a beekeeper can provide support to a colony that is struggling with ants is to place the colony on a hive stand.  The legs of the stand can then be placed in cups of vegetable oil, providing a natural and effective barrier against ant invasions.

Without protection, sometimes the ants can get the upper hand on a weak colonies.  Unchecked, ants can force even a strong colony to abscond – a sad and tragic sight for any beekeeper.

 

 

Variety In Beekeeping

Most new beekeepers will quickly discover that there seem to be as many ways to keep bees as there are beekeepers that keep them!  In terms of equipment, beekeepers can choose from using Langstroth hives, top bar hives, Flow Hives, big hives, small hives, deep honey supers, small honey supers, and not to mention the various systems for making comb honey, etc.

Even beekeeping methodology differs from beekeeper to beekeeper.  Some beekeepers requeen in the spring, others requeen in the late summer or fall, and some not at all.  Some beekeepers keep Italian stock, and others prefer Russian or Carniolan stock.  The list of these kinds of variables runs deep and seems to never end.  Perhaps it is the possibility of all these options that creates some of the joy in beekeeping.  Beekeeping is a rather freewheeling affair.  In beekeeping, experimentation is the rule and not the exception!

It is the availability of all these options that creates the opportunity for learning.  Once a beekeeper gains experience in the basics of beekeeping, a whole world of learning opportunities open up. We beekeeping adventurers encourage all beekeepers to step away from the routine from time to time; try new systems, try new methods, and see where their discoveries lead them.

Fire Season

August typically falls in the center of the summer “fire season” in California.  After months of dry weather and relentless heat, chaparral turns to tinder.  And as we have seen in the news, it doesn’t take much to turn acres of dry brush into an unstoppable inferno.

Fire recently overtook one of Wildflower Meadows’ apiaries.  Fortunately, our loss was minimal, with all but one colony surviving.  Thanks to the encouragement of our local county bee inspectors, who had instructed us to maintain good weed control around our apiaries, we had previously trimmed away all of the brush and weeds, and created natural firebreaks around all of our apiaries.  That, plus the determined efforts of Cal Fire, enabled the fire to pass directly over and around the apiary without causing significant damage.

 

When we arrived at the apiary, the entire area nearby was still smoldering.  The fire destroyed the surrounding avocado grove, with ash everywhere.  We really couldn’t even access our colonies because the firefighters had sprayed so much water onto the colonies that the ground beneath them had turned into a swamp of mud and ash!

When a fire approaches an apiary, the heavy smoke causes the bees to retreat into their colonies and load their bellies with honey in preparation to abscond.  This is the same effect that a beekeeper simulates by smoking a colony in a normal hive inspection.  (This behavior is somewhat analogous to humans, who when facing an impending fire, run into their homes to gather their precious belongings before evacuating.)

In a normal fire situation, the bees might have absconded as the flames and heat rapidly overtook the area.  However, due to the deluge of water from the firefighters, the bees really had no choice but to stay put inside the hives.  The water kept them cool and safe, and somewhat locked in.

The bees themselves seemed to survive without any problems.  When we later inspected the colonies the bees were both calm and strong.  The firefighters reported that the bees were “well behaved” and gentle, never harassing any of the firefighting crews as they made repeated return visits to the area.  Perhaps they were appreciative, like us, of the brave efforts of the firefighters to save them.  We rewarded each colony with a gallon of syrup and a pollen substitute patty.

Unfortunately, however, one colony did not survive.

When a colony catches fire, it quickly becomes an inferno of wax and wood.  The air space between the frames doesn’t help either, as it enables the fire to gain a steady flow of oxygen.  By the time a fire finishes its work on a colony, typically all that remains is a pile of ash and nails.  If you look closely at the above photo, you can see the remnants of our screened bottom board.

We would like to take this opportunity to issue a special thank you to the firefighters of Cal Fire, particularly to the bee-loving crew who saved our apiary!