Beekeeping Posts

Queen Cage Candy

Queen cage candy is the primary food source for both the queen bees and the attendant bees when they are shipped through the USPS mail or UPS.  The candy is also a key element of the queen introduction.  Worker bees chew through the candy – typically over the course of a couple of days – while the colony becomes accustomed to the pheromones of the new queen, assuring her safe acceptance.

The history of shipping queen bees via mail goes all the way back to the 1860’s.   Queen producers knew that they needed to include some kind of food for the queen bees and attendants during shipment.  The natural and obvious choice was honey; and the first series of shipments included little pieces of comb honey in the containers.  You can imagine the messy scenes at the post office as a result of this approach.  Surely enough, in 1872, tired of leaky packages, the postal authorities banned shipment of queens through the mail.  The post office, however, never really enforced this ruling.  And beekeepers – being beekeepers – never really gave up trying new methods of shipping queen bees.

The pioneer of queen cage candy was a man named Good, who in the early 1880’s proposed using a mixture of cold honey and sugar to create a dripless honeybee food.  Shortly thereafter beekeepers fine-tuned the concept, eventually settled on a mixture of sugars for the candy.  To this day, some beekeeping books refer to queen cage candy as “Good” candy in honor of this visionary beekeeper.

Today’s queen cage candy typically calls for a mixture two types of sugar, a liquid inverted sugar called nulomoline, plus a dried sugar, which is either powdered sugar or another type of dried sugar called drivert.  The candy-making process itself is not too difficult. The liquid sugar is warmed, and the dried sugar is added until the consistency is just right.  The goal is to achieve the perfect balance of firmness and suppleness in the candy.  If the candy is too hard the bees cannot chew through it.  If the candy is too soft it can melt or drip onto the queen.  Here is where the queen producer becomes a professional candy maker, carefully crafting the ideal sugary food – not for average people, but instead for insect royalty.

Avocado Pollination

Avocado blossoms bloom in two stages.  In the first stage, flowers open as a female.  In other words they do not produce pollen, but receive pollen.   In the second stage, which takes place about three to four hours later (or the next day) the flower opens as a male.  The stigma of the male flower releases pollen.  Some tree varieties have flowers that start the day as a female, and other varieties have those that start the day as a male.  In both cases, the flowers switch over mid-day.  On cloudy or overcast days, however, neither type of flower will open in the morning, delaying the start of pollination.  When the sun finally does appear, some trees may have both male and female flowers blooming at the same time!

A mature avocado tree may bear a million flowers in a single season.  It is no secret that good pollination improves both the yield and quality of avocados.  Although avocados are partially self-pollinating, visits by honeybees have been proven beneficial because honeybees transfer large amounts of pollen from flower to flower, tree to tree.  It has been estimated that up to 90% of an avocado crop would be lost in the event there were no honeybees.  Many commercial avocado growers in California contract to rent thousands of beehives for improved pollination and yield.  An estimated 105,000 colonies per year are rented in the United States specifically to improve avocado pollination.

Four Frame Nucs

Sooner or later, a beekeeper may want to expand the number of beehives in the apiary, or simply replace lost colonies or rebuild back to original strength.

Nucs can be made up to any size between 2 to 8 frames of bees.  The advantage of a smaller two frame nuc is that it is quick and easy to make.   It also doesn’t tax too many resources from the donating beehive.  The disadvantage of such a small split is that it is going to take a while for it to build up to a full strength beehive.  In two months, it still may have less than 20,000 bees of strength.  Plus, being so weak it might be vulnerable to ant attacks and other calamities.

On the other hand, a large, 8-frame divide, starts out strong and build up rapidly, perhaps building up to 70,000 or more bees in two months.  Constructing this giant nuc, however, will significantly diminish the strength of the original colony.

Many beekeepers settle on the four frame nuc as the ideal size for a starter hives of bees.  A typical four frame nuc consists of one frame of honey, two frames of brood, one frame of pollen, and a new queen bee.  This is a full-sized colony in miniature that is well poised to take off.  A typical spring four-frame nuc starts with about 10,000 honeybees and may expand to over 40,000 or more bees in two months, enough to produce a honey crop under the right conditions.

Ideal Queen Bee Mating Conditions

Queen honeybees mate outside the hive in the open while flying, usually in the afternoon.  The mating takes place over the course of several consecutive days.  Mated queen bees typically mate with approximately 10 to 20 drones over the course of their mating flights.  Once the queen bee has mated she will never leave the colony again (unless the colony swarms and she leaves with the swarm.)

Because queen bee mating takes place outside in the open, the weather conditions are critical.  What makes for the best for ideal mating?

  • Temperatures of at least 69º Fahrenheit (but not exceeding 104º)
  • Not too much wind
  • No rain
  • Drones nearby, usually within a mile, so that the queen bee can find drone congregation areas

Poor weather will delay a queen’s mating, and delay her ability to start laying eggs.  If a virgin queen is confined to her hive for over three weeks due to adverse weather, or if she is unsuccessful in her mating efforts during this time, she eventually will begin to lay eggs anyway.  In this case, however, she will only have unfertilized eggs to lay, and will be a considered “drone layer.”

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!”