Beekeeping Posts

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  . . . ”

 

 

Four Frame Nucs – The Easy Way

Spring is an excellent time to divide beehives.  At this time of year, bees are instinctively building their populations, and the bees themselves have a natural inclination to swarm (which is their own method of dividing).  By dividing a colony when the population is on the upswing, you as a thoughtful beekeeper are working with the natural flow of nature and the bees, rather than against them.  It is at this time of year that dividing a colony has the most natural and the least stressful impact on a beehive.

When it comes to dividing bee colonies, there are probably as many methods as there are beekeepers!  Some beekeepers split colonies into two, others into three or four. Some make four-frame nucs, some make smaller or larger nucs – or even full-size colony divides.  Some shake bees out of strong colonies and make their own packages. Some beekeepers look for the queen up front, others wait until after they make the divide.  No one way is right or wrong.  It is up to each beekeeper to uncover the method that works best both for the individual beekeeper, as well as, of course, the bees.

One of the most tried-and-true ways of dividing a strong colony is to prepare a four-frame nuc.  A typical four-frame nuc consists of one frame of honey, two frames of brood, one frame of pollen, and a new queen bee.  In our video, “Preparing a Four-Frame Nuc,” the beekeepers at Wildflower Meadows will show you one of our own favorite methods of preparing a high-quality four-frame nuc – one that enables a beekeeper to divide a colony without even having to look for the queen!

How Much Honey Can A Beehive Produce?

Every bee season eventually reaches a peak when honey production hits its stride and the bees are bringing in the maximum amount of nectar each day.  This is referred to as the honey flow, and it is what most beekeepers live for.

When things are going right, a beehive’s worker bees are putting in long hours foraging, and the house bees are drying nectar as fast as the foragers can bring it in.  A single worker bee can visit over a thousand flowers a day.  Multiply that by thousands of workers, and we are talking about a lot of nectar!

What does it take to reach this kind of honey production?  Well, more than a few variables have to fall into place.  To reach peak honey production a beehive typically needs:

–       A high concentration of honey-producing flowers nearby, such as clover, buckwheat or alfalfa

–       Above average rainfall in the rainy season prior to the bloom (this makes the flowers rich with nectar)

–       A strong, healthy hive, booming with healthy bees and a large population

–       Plenty of space to store all the surplus honey

–       Sunny and warm weather (this enables the flowers to secrete nectar at a maximum), and

–       Plenty of daylight for the bees to fly; from sunup to sundown

A typical beehive in the United States can produce anywhere from 10 to 200 pounds of honey in a year.  That is an unbelievably large range, which indicates just how critical these variables are in order for a beehive to reach peak honey production.

If all is going well, how much honey can a beehive produce in a single day?  At Wildflower Meadows, we have seen beehives fill an entire deep super of buckwheat honey in less than a week.  That’s about 10 pounds of honey per day!  Of course, this happens only once in a while, when all of the above conditions fall into place.  More often than not, here in Southern California, we run into years of drought that greatly distress our native honey-producing plants.  However, when everything is going just right, producing honey can feel a lot like hitting the lottery!

Starting A Beehive Without Buying Bees

In a world where everything costs money, it is difficult to believe that one of the simplest ways that a beekeeper can start a new colony is completely free.  During the swarming season, which takes place every spring, complete beehives literally fall out of the sky!  Why not make them yours, and in the process start a new beehive without buying bees?

Catching a swarm is not as difficult as one would think.  Beekeepers have been starting beehives in this manner as a time-honored tradition for centuries.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, we catch our fair share of swarms and obtain new beehives for free too.  (Of course, we lose a few swarms each year, but that is another story . . . )

To catch a swarm, a beekeeper needs to think like the swarm.  A swarm of bees has one main objective, which is to find and settle into a desirable new home.  When a swarm is on the loose it can be found in either of two states – settled (usually resting on a branch) and looking for a home, or flying (moving from one location to another) and looking for a home.  Either type of swarm can be captured by an opportunistic beekeeper.

Settled swarms require the beekeeper to go out, suit up, and retrieve the bees from their resting area.  The beekeeper usually shows up to the swarm site with a collection box or empty hive body.  More often than not, it is not particularly difficult to shake or brush the bees into the collection box.  If the swarm is clustered on a branch, oftentimes a beekeeper will simply cut the branch and remove both the bees and the branch at the same time.  (Sometimes, however, the swarm is out of reach and cannot be safely be retrieved.)  How can you as a beekeeper locate these types of swarms?  The best way to find swarms is to get the word out that you are available to collect them.  Some cities and counties maintain lists of beekeepers who are available to collect swarms.  A beekeeper that is looking for swarms can also contact nearby apartment managers or housing complexes, many of which run into unwanted swarms of bees, especially during the spring.

Believe it or not, swarms that are flying can also be lured, but this requires a more passive approach.  In this case, the goal is to attract a flying swarm to the beekeeper’s equipment by using chemical lures, which are designed to mimic the pheromone that honeybees produce when they are calling their fellow bees to a location.  To catch flying swarms, a beekeeper uses either bait hives or swarm traps.  Bait hives are standard empty beekeeping hive bodies that have been scented with swarm lures.  Swarm traps are containers specifically designed to lure and catch flying swarms (both swarm lures and swarm traps are sold by beekeeping supply companies).

The good news about swarms is that they are easy to handle.  As long as a swarm is not well established in its new location, it has no young brood or honey to defend, so the bees normally behave very gently.  Even a swarm from an aggressive African honeybee colony will act gently after it has been separated from its main colony.

Once you have collected your swarm, it is critical that you soon replace the queen that came with the swarm.  Why?  Because, the queen that arrived with the swarm is of unknown origin.  It could have poor genetics that could lead the colony to be undesirable in many ways, such as having a bad temperament or being prone to disease.  The only thing you know about a swarm is that the genetic line is likely to swarm.  After all, it already has!  With a new queen, especially one from Wildflower Meadows, you will be obtaining quality, healthy, and known genetic stock that is well suited for your new colony.

Wild Mustard

After the winter and early spring rains, wild mustard bursts on the scene with its brilliant yellow blossoms.  If there is one plant that symbolizes the heart of the queen rearing season, it is wild mustard.  Wild mustard is arguably the richest source of bee pollen that the bees see all year.  It is loaded with nutrients, and is a key ingredient for the bees’ production of royal jelly during the height of the queen rearing season.  Nutritious royal jelly leads to healthy queen cells, which leads to healthy young mated queen bees.

Although not a native plant, in many ways wild mustard forms the backbone of the food source not only for honeybees, but for much of the wild California ecosystem.  If mustard is plentiful, rabbits and other herbivores have plenty of nutritious greens to eat.  This results in a higher number of coyotes and other predators.

It all starts with mustard.

An old-time beekeeper once told us that he could predict the success of the upcoming honey crop simply by observing the height of the mustard plants in early spring.  He stood about 6 feet tall and measured how high the mustard plants grew relative to his body.  He confidently declared that shoulder-high mustard indicated that the ground was plenty wet and the season would be good.  Head-high mustard indicated a spectacular season ahead, and if the mustard could only reach waist-high, that meant trouble for the bees.

From our experience he has been proven correct!  Ever since he shared that bit of wise lore, we have always kept our eyes on the growth of the season’s mustard and found his rule of thumb to be accurate.

It is too early yet to tell how high the mustard will grow this year, but we won’t complain if it reaches our heads!

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!

 

Our friends at Redfin have recently prepared an excellent guide for urban beekeepers.  If you would like to learn more about this subject, please visit 5 Steps to Becoming a Backyard Beekeeper.

 

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.