Beekeeping Posts

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!



 

The Summer Dearth

Nearly all regions in the United States reach a point, usually in late summer, where a nectar dearth occurs.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, our dearth typically begins in early August, after the last sumac flowers dry up.  The dearth period can vary from year to year, but at some point it is guaranteed to happen.

At the beginning of a dearth, bee colonies are susceptible to a number of health risks, chief of which is nutrition.  Honeybees, in general, do a poor job in preparing for dearth.  When times are good, the queen lays as much brood as possible.  However, most queen bees rarely anticipate that the good times will end.  It is only after the nectar dries up that the queen slows or ceases her abundant egg laying.  As a result, bee colonies nearly always overshoot their populations during times of abundance.  At the onset of dearth, the colony population is typically huge, with even more brood in the pipeline.  This creates immediate nutrition stress.

If a beekeeper fails to support the colony at the onset of dearth with supplemental feeding, particularly of pollen supplement patties, this nutrition stress can lead to poor quality bees not only in the current generation of bees, but in the next generation.  Poorly nourished nurse bees can lead to poorly nourished larvae, and so on.

Another danger to the colony at the onset of dearth is a potential drop in queen pheromone.  Researchers who measure queen pheromone in colonies note that the presence of this pheromone is not consistent over the course of a year, but rather fluctuates, often rising with the presence of abundant conditions, and declining during dearth.  As a result, queen supercedure is more apt to occur during dearth than abundance.

As a conscientious beekeeper, you should always have an idea as to when the dearth periods occur in your region, and prepare your colonies for them.

 

The Zen of Beekeeping

For a beginning beekeeper, opening a hive for the first few times can be somewhat overwhelming – and downright scary!  There are all those bees in there.  They have stingers.  What if they get angry???  Then there is all of the unfamiliar gear: a veil or suit, big gloves, and a new hive tool.  It can all be a bit overwhelming and cause a beginning beekeeper to feel quite anxious.

This nervousness almost certainly makes matters worse.  While it is hard to say for certain whether bees can intrinsically sense this unease, they most certainly do sense unsteady and jerky movements.  Bees do not like these kinds of rapid or rushed actions.  They especially do not like any kind of rough treatment.  For an experienced beekeeper, swatting at bees, darting about, dropping things, and banging things are all completely out of the question.

Beekeepers need to be relaxed and calm around their bees.  If you are nervous as a beginner, you need do your best to pretend that you are calm.  (“Fake it until you make it!”).  Bees are sensitive creatures.  If you move carefully and calmly, treating them with peace and respect, they will return the favor.  One of the joys of keeping bees is the opportunity to get in touch with and to give respect to the magnificent sense of peace and purpose that is in the heart of every beehive.

When things are going right, and you are moving comfortably in a relaxed manner around the hive, the bees will appear to welcome you as an honorary member of their world.  That’s when you know you have entered the The Zen of Beekeeping.

A Giant Colony of Honeybees

Once in a while, when everything is going right a beehive can grow to ridiculous proportions.  If the colony has a young, strong-laying queen, lots of space, a perfect flow of honey and pollen, and little competition from other colonies, there is no telling how large a colony can grow!  We have seen and heard stories of some of our customers’ colonies growing up to five and six stories high with honey throughout.

While exciting to behold, a giant colony is not always desirable and can sometimes be too much of a good thing, especially for small-scale beekeepers.  Why?  First, such a large colony, even if completely gentle, can be damaging for one’s relations with neighbors!  What makes a large colony so successful in honey production is that its high overall population leads to a large number of bees coming and going to forage.  While a few bees coming and going out of someone’s back yard can seem like part of the natural environment, unfortunately, clouds of bees in one’s backyard has the potential to become a public relations disaster.  Large foraging populations inevitably lead to bees landing in swimming pools, fecal droppings on neighbors’ cars, greater risks of accidental stings, and of course the possibility of giant swarming events.  The conscientious beekeeper should always minimize these concerns as much as possible.

Smaller colonies, while still able to produce honey, have several advantages over larger colonies.  First, they can be kept more discreetly.  Second, they make for easier management because they weigh less and take up less equipment.  Also, for routine inspections and finding the queen, a small colony will always be easier to inspect.

 

 

Summer Solstice

As the sun reaches its most northerly position relative to the earth, the bees also reach their maximum strength.  The summer solstice, which occurs on June 21st, brings the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  It also marks a delineation between the two broad seasons in the year of a beehive:  the season of expansion and the season of contraction.

During the period prior to the summer solstice, honeybees are generally expanding their population, growing in anticipation of the longer days and the late spring and summer nectar flows.  Bees are highly sensitive to the patterns of the sun.  Not only is their navigation system based on the daily position of the sun, but they also respond to the lengthening and shortening of days by adjusting their populations accordingly.  Their proclivity to expand their populations is, to a large degree, based on the length of daylight.

Within several weeks after the sun reaches its maximum strength, honeybees begin to sense the shortening days.  This change roughly marks the transition from the season of expansion to the season of contraction.  By mid to late summer, due to the shortening days, most queen bees will have cut back on their brood laying, which will result in the beginning of the seasonal decline in bee populations.

The Inspectors

As June arrives and the beekeeping season reaches its peak, we begin to think about our annual county beekeeping inspection, which is right around the corner.  Above is a photo that we took from last year’s inspection.

Our county beekeeping inspectors arrive in mid-summer in full force; armed with the latest beekeeping technology, multi-layered beekeeping suits, range-finding binoculars, foulbrood inspection kits, and carrying checklists that seem to be miles long.  They ask questions such as, “Where is the water source in this apiary?  How many colonies do you have here?  How close is the nearest residence?  What fire prevention steps are you taking, etc.?  These questions can go on and on, lasting the better part of a morning.

Of course, the inspectors have to live up to their title, and also inspect actual bee colonies for evidence of foul brood, varroa mites, viruses, diseases, colony temperament, and so on.  At Wildflower Meadows, we have few concerns with third-party colony inspections, since as queen breeders, we regularly do the same inspections, and are hyper-vigilant in guarding against diseases.  It is our job to regularly monitor the health and temperament of our own colonies, and we take this responsibility seriously.

Sometimes, however, the thoroughness and breadth of the inspectors’ checklists catches us off guard.  We were written up last year for not sufficiently trimming the weeds in an access road leading up to one of our apiaries.  We wrote about weed trimming last year, when we mentioned how beekeepers are sometimes hesitant to remove pollen sources from around the bees.  We are no different:  flowering weeds are precious pollen sources, and like many beekeepers, it breaks our heart to be forced to remove them!  The inspectors, however, in their quest for fire prevention (which obviously is very important in California) had no patience for our arguments.  We are now required to get more serious about our weed trimming responsibilities, oftentimes trimming in places that we never even thought about before . . .

Who knows what the inspectors will come up with this year?  Nevertheless, we are feeling confident.  Our colonies are looking great, our water sources are full, and our apiaries are weed-free.  And, at least for now, we are ready for the next round of inspections!

 

The Boys’ Club

When a beekeeper looks inside a hive it is a very rare occurrence to find drone honeybees inside of the brood nest.  Either the worker bees do not tolerate drones near the brood, or the drones themselves have little desire to visit the center of the colony.  More often than not, drones can be found on the outskirts of the brood, usually on a frame or two at the very edge of the colony, hanging out together with lots of other drones – the classic boys’ club of sorts.

Many things about the drones are different from the worker bees.  Besides the obvious differences of sex, honey production (drones do not produce honey), stinging (drones do not sting), and their large body sizes and ridiculously large eyes, drones mature and live at their own, more leisurely pace.

Whereas worker bees emerge from their brood cells in 21 days, drones take an unhurried 24 days.  When worker bees emerge they “hit the ground running”; before long they are attending to the many tasks inside the hive.  Drones, on the other hand, mature slowly.  They are not capable of mating until they are at least 6 days old.  During this time, they appear to have not much to do other than to eat and relax.

Even eating itself is relaxing, because young drones do not even feed themselves!  When drones are born they quickly learn how to solicit workers for food – especially nurse bees, which will feed them a mixture of honey, pollen and brood food.  Then, after feeding, it’s back to another stress free day in their own little man cave . . .

What to Look For In a Beehive Inspection

A successful beehive inspection begins even before a beekeeper opens the colony.  Sometimes, if the weather is too cold or otherwise unpleasant, an outside inspection may be all that a conscientious beekeeper will want to do for the day.  Not every day is ideal for opening a beehive.

No matter what the conditions, however, an astute beekeeper can learn much about a colony’s health simply by carefully observing the bees outside of the colony and considering . . .

  • Given the conditions of weather and bloom, is the level of activity taking place on the entrance greater or lower than what would be expected?
  • Are the bees bringing in pollen?
  • Are there signs of robbing or defensive behavior?
  • Are the bees fighting off invading insects such as wasps or ants?
  • Are there dead bees lying in front of the entrance?

Once a beekeeper decides to open a colony, the beekeeper will next want to consider . . .

  • What does the colony sound like when opened? (A healthy colony will have a contented and relaxed “hum”, whereas a queenless or otherwise stressed colony will often have an uncomfortable roaring sound.)
  • Are the bees in a cluster? This will indicate the location and size of the brood nest.
  • Does the colony feel heavy with honey? Or, does it have enough food?
  • What does the inside of the brood nest look like?  Is there a good mix of eggs, larva and capped brood?  No eggs may indicate that the hive is without a queen.
  • Does the larva look healthy, bright and white?
  • Does the larva look “wet” and well fed?  Dry larva may indicate that the colony is starved for pollen and could benefit from pollen supplement patties.
  • Does the capped brood look healthy, compact and well shaped?  Spotty brood may indicate disease or a failing queen.
  • Given the bee population and conditions of the season, do the bees have the right amount of space?
  • Are there swarm cells or signs that the colony may be planning to swarm?

A careful beekeeper always considers the well-being of the colony during the inspection.  The goal of the inspection is for the beekeeper to help the colony, if necessary, and not to overly stress the colony with too much invasiveness or rough handling.  At the end of the inspection, the beekeeper should replace the combs in the same order, and close up the hive as securely as it was before the inspection.

 

The Swarm Lure

Wildflower Meadows is not in the business of rescuing or catching swarms, and it is generally not something that we spend a lot of time doing.  When it comes to swarm catching, we let other beekeepers have all the fun!

However, once in a while we run into swarms that demand our attention.  Sometimes a mating nuc has swarmed into a tree outside the apiary and needs to be brought back into place.  At other times, one of our colonies has swarmed near a neighbor’s house and the neighbor is panicked and calling for assistance.  Occasionally, we may find that a giant swarm has arrived right next to our breeders.  We strive to keep swarms away from our breeders lest they even think about entering a breeder colony and possibly usurping a champion breeder queen.  In all these cases, we need to take action and give our best efforts to corral the swarm into a better place.

This is when the swarm lure proves to be an invaluable tool.  The swarm lure is a bait of essential oils that is highly attractive to a traveling swarm.  The mixture of oils is designed to either smell like an appealing beehive, or to mimic the smell of the Nasonov gland.  The Nasonov gland is the gland in a honeybee that emits the pheromones that call bees together.  Ideally, a good swarm lure immediately catches the swarm’s attention and directs the flight path in the direction of the lure.

There are many different recipes for swarm lures, many of which can be discovered with an Internet search.  Other commercial swarm lures come pre-formulated, and are sold by nearly all of the beekeeping supply companies.  Our personal favorite is the Swarm Commander, which is a proprietary mix of essential oils that reliably directs swarms into our waiting equipment.

When working with a powerful swarm lure like the Swarm Commander, our beekeepers need to be careful not to spill any! Wherever the lure goes, the bees follow. Even an accidental drop on top of the head is enough to cause problems for an entire day!