Say Hello To “Wheels”

We imagine that some beekeepers fall in love with certain queens and even go so far as to name them.  At Wildflower Meadows, this is completely out of the question since we keep far too many colonies to be able to name individual queens!  Plus, queens are constantly coming and going as we prepare our weekly shipments of queen bees for sale.

Once in a while, however, a queen stands apart from the rest.  We once had an artificially inseminated breeder queen who was missing an antenna, but in fact turned out to be Wildflower Meadows’ best breeder queen of 2011.  Naturally, she was named “Antoinette,” and became a legend for several years.

This year, another legend was born.  Her name is “Wheels.”

Wheels originally had no name.  At first she was just one of nearly a thousand queens that we shipped during the last week of May.  A customer purchased her, and the queen’s destination was a remote UPS Customer Center in Eastern New Mexico.  The customer was planning to pick up the queen early in the week.  But by Friday, the UPS tracking number showed that the queen was still waiting at the customer center.  UPS had been calling the customer several times a day throughout the week to ask her to come and retrieve her queen, but with no success.  It seems the customer was nowhere to be found and the queen had been completely abandoned, an orphan of sorts.

We didn’t have the heart to let her die such a pointless death, so we arranged with UPS to ship her back to Wildflower Meadows.  But by then, however, UPS was shutting down for the Memorial Day weekend.  UPS thought that they might be able to get her back to us by Saturday, so she was expressed back to the airport in Albuquerque, and then overnighted to California.  We then sent an employee 40 miles into San Diego on Saturday to retrieve her!

Unfortunately, she never arrived.

Then Memorial Day came. Would she survive such a lengthy delay?  A week is a long time for a queen to last without water.  She urgently needed to be placed inside of a colony that could take care of her and attend to her every need.

However, after what seemed like a long Memorial Day holiday, and another 40 miles into San Diego, on Tuesday she arrived!  Tired and thirsty, she required several drops of water at the UPS Customer Center just to revive her strength.  She was then driven back to Wildflower Meadows and installed into a queenless colony.  And then, we all just hoped for the best.

It turns out she’s just fine.  With all the traveling, she was naturally named Wheels.  She is a great Wildflower Meadows’ queen: an abundant brood layer, her offspring are golden and gentle, and Varroa mites are nowhere to be found in her colony.  Naturally, Wheels is now one of our favorite queens, and also one of this year’s top performers!

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 . . .

An Ideal Queen Mating Yard

Central to all queen-rearing activities is the queen mating yard, where the queens make their home between the time that they are hatched from a queen cell, until the time that they are ready for sale.  A typical commercial queen mating yard contains hundreds of mating nuclei, each with at least a pound of worker bees, a small frame or two of brood, sufficient honey stores or feed, and a queen cell.

Not all mating yards are of the same quality. When we evaluate locations for establishing a mating yard, we always consider the following very important factors:

  1. First and most importantly, all mating yards need to be within optimal flying distance (approximately one half mile, give or take) to our drone-rearing colonies.  There has to be an abundance of quality drones in the area; otherwise, what’s the point?
  2. The mating yard should also be near rich pollen sources.  Young, growing queens need proper nutrition during their formative days, and nearby pollen enables the queens to be well nourished as they prepare for and take their multiple mating flights.
  3. An ideal queen-mating yard must also have landmarks, such as trees or bushes interspersed throughout the yard.  That way the queens do not get lost when returning home from their mating flights.
  4. A clean water source nearby is also important, so that the bees stay clear of swimming pools or other dangers
  5. And, the mating yard should be free from ants or other small pests that can overrun the small and relatively defenseless mating nucs.

The above photo is one of our favorite mating yards, and has all the key elements to make it a success.  It also features an additional benefit that we didn’t mention above: beautiful tall pine trees that provide plenty of shade for a relaxing lunch break after a morning of selecting and caging queen bees!

 

Mini Mating Frame

 

Given that the bees inside of a colony will generally only tolerate one queen, and that queen bees themselves fight amongst each other if they are in the same colony, it is obvious that when raising queen bees, each queen needs to be provided its own separate colony.  It is impossible to raise more than one queen inside of a single colony, as queen bees do not tolerate “roommates.”  Each queen needs her own castle to call home!

This issue quickly becomes a challenge when raising thousands of queens at a time.  If each queen needs her own colony, and the queen producer needs to set up a separate colony for every queen being raised, then this can quickly become a logistical and costly endeavor.  This process could be considered similar to trying to run an army where every soldier needs a separate apartment, and cannot tolerate living with another soldier.

The only reasonable and cost-effective solution to this problem is to set up small-sized and inexpensive colonies, one for each queen that is being raised.

The majority of beekeepers who raise bees in standard Langstroth colonies are familiar with the three sizes of frames available to them, full size (deep), medium size and small size.  These three frame sizes correspond to the three sizes of hive bodies that beekeepers traditionally use, deep hive bodies, medium supers, and shallow supers, respectively.  Nearly all beekeepers who use standard beekeeping equipment use one or more of these sized frames.

The majority of queen producers, however, utilize a fourth size of frame, which is known as a mini-mating frame.  The mini-mating frame is roughly half the size of a shallow frame.  Three of these small mini-mating frames are just large enough to provide a comfortable living space for a small colony, and most importantly, enough space for a queen to lay a good pattern of brood and prove the quality of her mating and genetics.

Given the small size of the frame, a high-quality queen can easily fill a mini-mating frame, such as the frame above, in less than a day.  The mini-mating frame shown above, filled with brood, is proof that this queen bee is ready for sale.  To us, she is “showing off” her talents.  She is more than ready to visit a “real” and full-sized colony and continue her fine brood laying talents for one of Wildflower Meadows’ customers.

Hybrid Vigor

Our customers often ask us if the VSH (varroa sensitive hygiene) trait is so desirable then why doesn’t Wildflower Meadows sell pure VSH queens?  Or, why are Wildflower Meadows’ queen bees VSH-Italian hybrids instead of pure VSH queens?  After all, if it takes a great deal of selective breeding to produce a high level of VSH behavior in bee stock and VSH behavior is so valuable, why dilute the pure VSH stock by crossing it with Italian stock that is not purely VSH?  The answer to this question is in the concept of “hybrid vigor,” otherwise known by its scientific name, heterosis.

Hybrid vigor is a scientifically proven concept that states when two relatively inbred populations are crossed, the performance of the hybrid offspring – in terms of size, fitness, growth rate, fertility, etc. – is improved over the two parental groups when taken individually.  For this reason, hybridization has long been practiced in agriculture.  Plant and animal breeders often take advantage of this concept by crossing two pure bred lines, each with desirable traits, to create offspring that maintain those traits, but in turn is stronger than the parents.  As proof, today over 90% of seeds planted in the United States are hybrids, and not pure strains.  Cattle ranchers commonly cross breeds of cattle creating hybrids such as Angus x Hereford or Angus x Brahman, as well as many other combinations to create more robust offspring.  For the same reason, most broiler chickens that are raised for meat production are also hybrids.  And so on . . .

Hybrid vigor is usually best noted in the first generation of purebred offspring, which is known as an F1 Hybrid.  Later generations of hybrids, which are crosses of the hybrids themselves, known as F2 Hybrids, F3 Hybrids, etc., can vary greatly from one another, and usually express less hybrid vigor than the first generation.  Therefore, the majority of hybrids that are utilized in agriculture are F1 Hybrids, or first generation hybrids.

At Wildflower Meadows, our queen bees for sale are the first generation of offspring of pure VSH stock (which contains the genetic advantage of mite resistance) crossed with Italian stock (which contains the genetic advantage of gentleness and robust brood production).  This gives Wildflower Meadows’ queens, when compared to other queen breeders’ queens (many who specialize in only purebred lines) the proven benefit and advantages of F1 Hybrid vigor.

Production Of Drone Honeybees

Over the course of her mating flights, each queen bee will mate with up to 15 drone bees.  Most queen producers aim to create a scenario where at least 20 drone honeybees, and ideally many, many more, are readily available for each virgin queen bee when she heads out on her mating flights.  When producing queen bees for sale in large quantities, it quickly becomes obvious that the queen producer is also in the business of rearing drone honeybees.

At the height of the swarming season, especially when nectar is abundant, nearly all bee colonies instinctually produce large amounts of drones. Bee colonies will go out of their way to produce drone comb for the queens to lay drone eggs into, ensuring a steady output of drone honeybees. During these times of abundant drones, queen producers have it easy, with plenty of drones available to get the job done!

However, what about when drones are not abundant? It doesn’t always rain here in Southern California. Our summers are dry. Under these conditions, bees are not always inclined to produce drones on their own. When this happens, the queen producer must intervene, and supplement queen mating with additional drone stock. Much like our local ski areas in Southern California that often need to make up for a shortage of natural snow by blanketing their resorts with “snow making machines”, Wildflower Meadows has a similar ability to supplement the natural supply of drones by blanketing our mating areas with “drone rearing machines.”

Our drone production yards, like the one pictured above, are maintained in strategically placed locations surrounding the various queen mating yards. These drone production colonies, stocked with strong and excellent stock, are fed weekly throughout the entire season, both with syrup and pollen supplement – regardless of weather or environmental conditions. These colonies never know anything but abundance, and probably have no idea that they are in the midst of a drought. Life for them is good! The queens inside these colonies are confined to the lower box, along with easily accessible frames of drone comb and more than enough food. With this irresistible enticement, they effortlessly produce massive amounts of drones. The result? An entire apiary full of “drone rearing machines” and thousands of drones taking to the sky every day.

Fall Requeening

Fall requeening offers many advantages.  In the late season, queens are less in demand than in the early spring.  There are typically no long waits or sold out periods to contend with.  Another advantage of late season requeening is that by fall, many colonies are often not as strong and booming as they are in the height of honey production, and therefore, the requeening activity doesn’t interfere with honey making.  Also, the somewhat lower fall populations can make it easier to find queens.

After a nearly full season of beekeeping, it is easy to determine which colonies are underperforming, versus which are proven champions.  The latter probably do not need new queens, and these existing and proven queens can be “overwintered” and carried forward into the next season.  The former, however – the underperforming colonies – can be given a fresh queen, offering them a brand new start and new hope for the next season.

With the impending winter, these new queens will not lay many eggs for the remainder of the current season, so that by the time next spring gets underway the new queen will still be relatively young with “low mileage.”  Hopefully, by next spring, she will be well established as an integral part of the colony, less apt to swarm, and about to hit the prime of her life just when Mother Nature’s timing is perfect.

Queen Pheromone

What is it about queen bees that are so attractive to worker bees?  When we took the photo shown above, we had just prepared six queens from the day’s harvest for introduction into our own colonies.  Note how the workers can’t seem to show enough love to the queens.  These attendants were so fixated on the queens that they traveled inside our truck like this without us even needing to put a lid on the box!  The workers simply had no desire to fly away nor to stop attending to the queens.

When we prepare shipments of bulk boxes, it is never a problem getting attendant bees motivated to stay and care for the queens.  A quick shake of a frame of bees into the box produces more than enough workers willing to stay with, and attend to, the queens the whole time they are in transit.

The queen pheromone is so powerful that bees will even drop out of the sky to investigate a box of queens!  When we deliver queens to UPS, we have been cautioned by the office staff not to arrive prior to 4:30pm, as any earlier causes curious bees to fly into their customer service center, potentially frightening UPS customers.

Inside the hive is no different.  Worker bees can immediately identify the presence of a queen, as well as the lack of a queen.  The method of this attraction is through a pheromone known as the “queen pheromone”.  The purpose of the queen pheromone is to signal to a hive that a queen is present and that she is recognizable.

A pheromone is a chemical that is secreted by a member of a species that can be used to control the behavior of another member of the same species.  Imagine how much love we could receive if we humans had a pheromone as powerful as the “queen pheromone”!

Queen pheromone is secreted near the head of the queen in an area above her jaw known as the mandibular.  Her secretions make her identifiable to all bees inside the hive; workers, drones, and possibly other queens.  The workers spread this pheromone throughout the hive using their antennae.  If this pheromone is absent, the colony will soon recognize its absence and will know that they are queenless.  They will then begin to construct emergency queen cells to raise a new queen.

Not only can a hive measure the presence, or absence, of queen pheromone, but it also able to measure the level of it.  A dip in the level of queen pheromone indicates that the queen could be beginning to fail.  This will often cause a colony to begin raising replacement queens for supercedure of the current queen.

It is well known that overcrowded bees are more likely to swarm than bees with ample space.  However, some beekeepers believe that the overcrowding of bees itself inhibits the transfer of queen pheromone throughout the colony, therefore causing the colony to raise replacement queen cells in anticipation of a swarming event.

The Queen Bee Mating Yard

The apiary pictured above is where a queen bee’s home resides, amidst hundreds of other similarly looking mating nucs; sort of like a monotonous development of tract homes that all look the same. Each queen lives inside her own mating nuc, where she begins her journey into the world with her emergence from a queen cell.  A week or so later she takes flight from her mating nuc into the sky.  If all goes well, after another week or so, she will begin to lay eggs and have the opportunity to prove herself as a quality mated queen bee for sale.

One of the challenges for a queen producer is properly setting up the layout of the mating nucs within the apiary.  One would think that rows of mating nucs, neatly organized in perfect crisp lines, would be the most efficient use of space, and easiest for the beekeeper to manage.  Unfortunately, while this straightforward organization might make perfect sense for the beekeeper, it is not ideal for queen bee rearing.

The problem with long, straight rows is that a queen bee returning from a mating flight needs to easily be able to return to the correct mating nuc when she arrives home from her flight.  If all the nucs are lined up in neat rows, and there are otherwise no distinguishing landmarks to distinguish one part of a row from another, a returning queen can get confused.  Which is the right box?  A mated queen bee that returns to the wrong nuc box could possibly find disaster waiting, with another queen bee already established and ready to fight.  This confusion of queens and foraging bees returning to the wrong home is called “drifting.”  To the conscientious queen breeder, drifting should be avoided.

At Wildflower Meadows, to prevent drifting, we vary the patterns of the mating nucs in a queen bee mating yard (as do most all queen producers).  Sometimes we arrange the mating nucs in curving rows, other times in circles, and other times in various geometric patterns.  This makes it easier for returning queens to quickly get a “read” on the yard from the air, and hopefully find their way home, to the right home, each and every time.

 

Above is a satellite photo of one of our mating yards.  If you were a queen returning home, could you find your way back?

The First Mated Queen Bee Of The Season

Behold, the first mated queen bee of the season!

Around the middle of March, Wildflower Meadows begins harvesting its first mated queen bees of the season.  These early-season queens hatched and took flight in February to mate with the some of the first drones of the season.  A lucky customer will surely be excited to receive this beauty.

Let’s keep in mind, however, that in agriculture, being the first does not always equate to being the best.  For example, the first peach of the year is typically not quite as sweet and juicy as mid-season peaches.  For that matter, the last peach on the tree is generally not that good either.  The best peaches are usually those that are harvested right in the heart of the season, when there are a million other peaches to choose from.  Similarly, the best queen honeybees are usually mated at the peak of the season, when the queen raising conditions, the weather conditions, the drone saturation, and the mating are all optimal, and everything is coming up “peachy”.

That said, this early season queen has some unique characteristics that set her apart from the others.  First, she’s the first!  You can’t deny that.  There aren’t that many of her kind right now, and everybody wants her.

Secondly – and much more importantly – she’s holding onto some unique genetics.  The drones that mated with her are by definition the earliest drones of the season.  They come from colonies that are the first to buildup, and are showing unusual strength in the early spring season.  These drones also originate from winter survivor stock, unlike some of the season’s later drones, which will originate from same season stock.  In other words, the colonies that produced these drones are real go-getters!

It is most likely that the offspring of this queen, because she now carries the genetics of these early season drones, will exhibit the prized quality of early season vigor and rapid buildup at the start of seasons to come.