Beekeeping Posts

Almond Pollination

Anyone in the business of growing almonds appreciates the challenges of pollination.  First, unlike most other fruits and nuts, almonds are not self-pollinating; they require cross-pollination from both another almond tree and another almond variety.  Second, unlike other crops, the almond crop is not thinned.  Therefore, the degree of pollination activity required is extraordinarily greater than in other crops.  Finally, from the perspective of the pollinating insect (typically a honeybee), the timing of almond bloom – mid-February, which is the lowest point of colony strength – could not be worse.

The best way for almond growers to ensure an abundant crop is to have as many working honey bees flying out of each rented colony as possible.  Successful pollination requires not just bees, but – most critically – strong and healthy bees.  For maximum pollination effectiveness, a grower needs bee colonies that are ideally eight frames in strength.  Research has shown that the number of pollinating bees delivered by an eight-frame colony when compared to a four-frame colony is not twice as many (as one would think); but rather, is more like four times as many!  In a weaker four-frame colony, a higher percentage of bees need to stay at home inside the box to keep the colony warm.

In order to be able to deliver strong and healthy bees for almonds, beekeepers need to have colonies headed by high quality queen bees, and preferably young queen bees as well.  Beekeepers also need to extensively feed their colonies both syrup and pollen substitute patties beginning in late summer, and continuing all the way through to at least Thanksgiving.  Fall bees that are headed for almond pollination should be tested for varroa mites, and treated if necessary.  With a disciplined regimen of regular feeding, monitoring and TLC, beekeepers can – and do! – produce what is seemingly unthinkable – an eight frame strong and healthy colony in the middle of February.

As this is being posted, Wildflower Meadows is sending our best “eight frame and greater” colonies on a journey to the almond orchards of Bakersfield, CA to help contribute our share to the world’s largest annual pollination event…

Pol_Line Queen

Pol-Line Queens

Besides the usual techniques available to commercial beekeepers for building colony strength in time for almond pollination, such as extensive fall and winter feeding, another way to encourage early season colony buildup is for the bees themselves to have their own predisposition to do so.

During the late 2000’s, researchers at the USDA Breeding Lab in Baton Rouge, LA took their stock of VSH bees and open mated them with the surrounding bees of the area.  They then tested these colonies nationwide to see which performed best.  The grading criteria that they used included early spring build up for pollination, maintaining large populations, gentle temperament, and resistance to varroa and tracheal mites and other brood diseases.

The tests did not stop there.  The USDA, along with their commercial partners at VP Queen Bees, continue to test and release new Pol-Line stock each year to selected queen breeders in the United States.  Wildflower Meadows has access to this queen bee stock, and we often cross our best queen bee breeders with Pol-Line queens, so that they can readily exhibit this prized trait of early season build up.

The queen pictured above is a pure Pol-Line breeder queen.  Of all the traits that make an ideal Pol-Line breeder note that none of the criteria includes color.  Pol-Line queens range an exceptionally wide span of colors, ranging from nearly black to golden.  You hardly can tell a Pol-Line bee by her color alone.  The best way to appreciate a Pol-Line queen is to see her in action.  When the other queens are still thinking about winter, the Pol-Line queen is thinking about summer.  She takes “getting an early start” very seriously.

 

Photo of pol-line breeder queen is courtesy of Glenn Apiaries, with permission.

 

Acacia Tree Blossoms: The Start Of Queen Honeybee Rearing

When it comes to raising queen honeybees there is no more welcome sight than the first blossoms of the year.  After a long dearth of pollen and nectar, a fresh and abundant new pollen source dramatically raises the activity of the bees.  The queen bees begin to lay eggs in earnest and bee populations begin their spring explosion.  In Southern California, early signs of spring often appear near the end of January, punctuated by the spectacular yellow blossoms of acacia.

The honeybees in the queen-rearing yard come to life with the big fluffy yellow blossoms that are loaded with nutritious pollen.  Once the acacia pollen starts coming in, the breeder queen bees accelerate their brood rearing.  Shortly after the appearance of the first blossoms, the queen bees will begin to rear the first drones of the season.

There are over 800 species of acacia in the world, making it one of the world’s largest tree species.  Acacias are found in Australia, Africa, Hawaii, and Central America.  They are also well established in the United States, specifically in California, Arizona, and South Carolina.  The acacia tree blossoms are pea shaped and, at least in California, are a very bright and bold yellow. California acacias are not a particularly strong honey producer, but the bees thoroughly enjoy the flowers for pollen!

Although acacia honey is renowned and highly prized, believe it or not, most “acacia” honey actually does not originate from acacia trees – but rather from black locust trees!  Black locust is also called “false acacia.”  The black locust tree is found in Southern Europe as well as in the United States.  This “acacia” honey is some of the most delicious tasting honey in the world; pale and clear with exquisite flavor, and well worth a try if you can find it.

Drone Bee

Meet Mr. Drone

Imagine a honeybee that doesn’t collect nectar, doesn’t produce beeswax, doesn’t take care of the larva, doesn’t nurse the young bees, doesn’t protect the colony, and can’t even sting.  The drone honeybee’s sole purpose in life is to mate with a queen.  Notice the enormous eyes.  They come in handy for finding a suitable mate.

Interestingly, the drone honey bee never mates inside of a colony.  The drone leaves the colony for mating approximately six days after hatching. Drones normally fly in the afternoon, provided the weather is warm and sunny, with little or no wind.  When it is time to mate, a drone loads his huge body with honey, like a tanker, and heads out for flights of a mile or longer.  His destination: special areas called “drone congregation areas.”  Drone congregation areas are specific geographic locations where groups of drones wait for the arrival of virgin queen bees by detecting their pheromones.  A virgin queen will mate with ten to twenty drones, but the drone has only one mating event, which is both his first and last.  Shortly after mating with a queen, the drone dies.

Relocating Beehives

Relocating Beehives

Unlike many insects – and many other animals for that matter – bees are able to relocate fairly easily.  Likely, because they are naturally predisposed to swarm, honeybees can quickly adjust to a new location.

This year, because of the California drought, Wildflower Meadows’ bees were having a difficult time finding nectar and pollen to feed on in their usual locations.  The plants had all turned brown and flowers were nowhere to be found.  We decided to help some of our strong and hungry colonies by moving them a couple of hundred miles to an area with irrigated fields of alfalfa.  While not the most nutritious bloom – alfalfa flowers are high in nectar, but low in pollen – alfalfa nectar is still far superior to no nectar.  Surely enough, with the addition of pollen supplement patties, the bee colonies remained strong and added additional weight rapidly.  Last week, it was time to move the colonies back to their original home, and prepare them for a new season of queen bee rearing.

Relocating beehives is a challenging operation.  Beehives are heavy.  Bee colonies need to be moved at night; and safety on the roads is a critical concern.  It usually takes two strong individuals to lift a heavy double deep colony of bees.  However, for moving this set of bees, we used a hydraulic boom loader, which allowed a single person to handle the job.  The loader grabs the beehives by two cleats that are attached to the bottom deep hive body of the colony.  Stacks of two beehives at a time are hoisted up on to a flatbed truck.  The entrances are placed facing forward so that the bees receive ventilation while traveling.  Finally, two heavy ropes secure each row.  Before long, it was time to hit the road with a quarter of a million “ride sharing” insects!

A Good Frame Of Brood

To produce optimally mated queen bees, it is the queen breeders’ responsibility to select for the highest quality genetic stock possible.  In evaluating a colony, we like to keep in mind that any given colony consists of not one, but two generations of bees:  the queen bee, who is the mother of the colony, and her offspring, the second generation.  One of the components of evaluating the first generation, the queen bee, is to examine the quantity and consistency of her brood laying.

A quality queen honeybee lays her brood in a tight circular pattern leaving not too many holes within the brood pattern.  At a minimum there should not be less than 15 empty cells per hundred (or 85% viable brood).  Ideally, in the best displays of brood laying, a top quality queen bee will not miss more than 5 cells per hundred (95% viable brood).  Sometimes, you find a frame that is corner-to-corner or wall-to-wall with brood.  This is what is affectionately known as an “egg-laying machine!”

Wildflower Meadows | Mated Queen Bees - Bee Eggs Photo

Eggs

If you look carefully you will see newly laid eggs inside the honeycomb cells.  A successfully mated queen bee can produce approximately 500,000 eggs over the course of her lifetime.

During the spring and summer, a queen bee lays an average of 1,200 to 1,500 eggs per day.  A real go-getter can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day!  (Some sources say that this number can even reach 3,000).  A young and newly mated queen bee, however, needs time to work up to this kind of production.  She may start with a smaller and perhaps irregular laying rate until she reaches her optimum.

The amount of eggs that a queen bee lays depends on the time of the season, the quality of the nectar flow, the kind of food being fed to her by the nurse bees, the strength of the colony, and the amount of empty space available.  The eggs pictured here are worker bee eggs.  However, the queen determines which kind of eggs to lay as she is laying them.  She can lay either worker eggs or drone eggs by fertilizing or not fertilizing them at the time of laying them.  Fertilized eggs become workers; unfertilized eggs become drones.

Wildflower Meadows - The Virgin Queen Bee

Virgin Queen Bees

When a virgin queen bee emerges from her cell, she quickly becomes active inside the colony.  However, her priorities are different from the average worker bee.  Upon emergence, she is hungry, and one of her very first acts is to eat honey to gain weight and energy.  Virgin queen bees have not yet fully developed their reproductive system and therefore are somewhat smaller than mated queen bees.  After hatching, a virgin queen spends approximately six days inside the colony eating honey, scurrying about, and gaining strength for her upcoming mating activities.

When you find a virgin queen bee in a colony, you will often see her running on a frame, sometimes acting like a bully and pushing other bees out of her way.  A honeybee colony normally only has one queen bee, and a virgin queen has a fierce instinct to seek out and kill any other queens.  A colony may start out with several virgin queen bees, but it won’t take long before it ends up with only one.  Even if the virgin queen finds another virgin queen still lodged, unhatched, within her cell the older virgin will sting her to death right through the cell.