Queen Bee Posts

Young Larvae

When you look at a healthy young queen bee, it is sometimes hard to imagine that only a month or so earlier, she was actually not recognizable as a bee, but rather existed as a larva.  For the first four to five days after emerging from an egg, a future queen bee is a larva, which is helpless and must be cared for and fed by other bees.  For these four or five critical days, the worker (nurse) bees feed the larva generous servings of royal jelly.  The size and health of the future queen is directly dependent on both the quality and quantity of the royal jelly that the larva receives during this brief and critical time window.

Each larva has a life span of only about four and half days between the time that it hatches from an egg to the time that the surrounding bees seal it and it begins its transformation into a pupa, eventually becoming a queen bee.  Therefore, a conscientious queen producer needs to take as many steps as possible to ensure that each and every queen larva is well cared for during this vital metamorphosis period.  Well-fed and well-nourished larvae result in high quality queen bees.

In order that each larva receive the maximum amount of royal jelly during its brief life, a good queen producer will graft larvae that are young – as close to egg emergence as possible.  Older larvae are already too far into their four-day window to receive the maximum quantity of royal jelly needed during their short lifespan as a larva.  A young grafted larva will receive a full four days of royal jelly feeding before it is sealed, whereas a two day old larva has already missed out on up to two days of royal jelly and has only two days left to be fed before it is sealed.

Once the young larvae are grafted, they are placed into cell building colonies that are packed with healthy and well-fed nurse bees.  Having a strong cell building colony ensures that the larvae will be well-attended and abundantly fed from the time that they are placed into the cell builder cups until the time they are sealed shut.

The Queen Bee Grafting Tool

Imagine a tool that is designed to be as flimsy as possible.  If you went to The Home Depot and asked their staff for their flimsiest tools, they would laugh at you.  Who wants flimsy tools?  The answer is the queen producer, that’s who.

Although, historically, beekeepers have utilized a number of different kinds of tools for grafting (grafting is the act of transferring larvae from breeder colonies to queen cell production cups), most beekeepers nowadays have settled on the “Chinese grafting tool” (shown above), as their preferred queen bee grafting tool of choice.

The Chinese grafting tool is a simple pencil-like object made of plastic that contains a thin plastic reed, or spatula, at the end.  The reed is what picks up the delicate larvae.  The grafting tool also features a spring-loaded plunger that the beekeeper uses to gently push the larva off of the reed and into the cup, thus allowing the beekeeper to precisely transfer an individual bee larva to a queen cell cup.

As soon as someone begins to graft larvae in quantity and as a serious endeavor, it immediately becomes obvious that the reed tip needs to be as flimsy as possible.  A stiff reed does not give easily, making grafting more of a challenge than it needs to be.

Eventually a beekeeper will break in his or her favorite grafting tool and get used to the flimsy feel of that particular tool, to the point where it becomes like an old friend, something similar to the way a well broken-in baseball mitt feels to a nimble shortstop, or the way a priceless violin feels to a concert violinist.  The main difference, of course, is that a grafting tool only costs about $3, and an unassuming beekeeper performs not in front of a cheering crowd, but alone and in peace among the humble bee larvae and future queens.

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?

Everything is Just Right

Wildflower Meadows’ employees have been out and about lately moving bees in anticipation of the upcoming queen-rearing season.  Raising queens waits for no one, and the work generally continues rain or shine.  At this time of year, we spend our mornings grading our bee stock, then shuffling individual colonies to the proper yards.  Breeders go to the queen rearing yards, strong drone rearing colonies get consolidated near our mating areas, colonies are re-graded, and so on . . .

On the surface, this photo looks like a miserable situation.  Here, one of our employees is moving a few breeder colonies to our queen-rearing area.  It is pouring rain, and around the apiaries there is mud absolutely everywhere.  One might think that all is wrong, but truly, everything is just right.

First of all, we are finally experiencing rain here in Southern California!  This means that the drought conditions are subsiding, and the bees will have an abundance of foraging opportunities later in the season.  Second, the breeders that we are selecting look great!  They have overwintered exceptionally well and are now being handpicked for the upcoming season.  Third, our Columbia rain gear comes from the Pacific Northwest, where they know a thing or two about rain and keeping a person dry.  And finally, because we just installed new mud tires on this pickup truck – we are just in time to have a little fun and sling some mud!

Mud Slinging

The “Citation” Of Wildflower Meadows

We recently had a conversation with a friend, and were explaining how we have been blessed with a three-year-old breeder queen who seems to be perfect in all respects.  She is one of the best examples of a successful queen we have ever seen.  Not only is she a champion breeder in her own right, but many of the next generations of our breeder queens also trace their lineage back to her in one way or another.  Our friend was quick to respond, “Why, she is the Citation of Wildflower Meadows.”

Unless you are a fan of horse racing, you may not be familiar with Citation.  While not as famous as Seabiscuit or Secretariat, Citation is routinely ranked by experts as one of the greatest racehorses of all time.  Citation won the Triple Crown in 1948 and went on to have a spectacular career, almost never losing.  He was one of those rare race horses that had no apparent weakness of any kind.  Sprints, distance races, fast tracks, muddy tracks, large fields, small fields; none of it mattered.  The horse simply won every time he left the gate, no matter what.

Our Number 43, pictured above, has similar qualities.  She lays perfect frames of brood, one after another.  In three years, her colony has never shown any weakness.  The bees in her hive build up each year to excellent populations; making honey, surviving droughts, successfully overwintering, succumbing to no diseases, nor harboring any mites (treatment free).  Like Citation, they are pretty to look at, and very friendly to all.  And, they always seem to outperform every other colony, no matter what the conditions.

True to her legend, Number 43 has lived a long and productive life, both as a performer and as a breeder of other breeder queens.  Normally, due to the technical challenges of artificial insemination, instrumentally inseminated breeder queens do not last as long as naturally mated queens.  Of course, that is not the case with Number 43.  As we head into 2017, her green dot (now mostly faded) marks her as a 2014 breeder queen heading into her fourth year.

Number 43 is retired now, and she and her colony are living a pleasant life among the greener pastures of other retired breeders.

Citation – 1948 Triple Crown Winner

Winter Shut Down

In mid to late summer, a bee colony size is at its peak.  Later in summer, and leading into autumn, bee populations naturally decline, which follows the general decline of Mother Nature’s available nectar and pollen.  By the time winter arrives, a beehive has reduced its population to a minimum cluster of bees, whose main goal is survival to the next season.  By December, a typical bee colony, even if perfectly healthy, will have only about four to six frames of so-called “winter bees” and no new brood, as queens shut down brood rearing in the winter due to the cold and lack of forage.  The colony stays in this sort of semi-hibernation until spring comes along, bringing warmer days and new blossoms.

In California, the winter shut down is less pronounced, as bees continue to forage in many coastal areas year-round.  Eucalyptus and jade flowers bloom during the winter, providing coastal bees a reliable late season nectar source.  Nevertheless, even in California, a typical hive of bees begins reducing its population, so that by the middle of December a bee colony’s population may be about half of what it was only a few short months ago.

Wildflower Meadows would like to thank all of you for a successful 2016.  We wish you all a joyous holiday season, and best wishes for a prosperous New Year!

The Queenless Roar

When a queen bee is removed from a colony of bees it does not take long before the colony becomes aware of her absence.  Usually within about five hours, a noticeable buzz begins to develop inside the hive.  This buzz continues while the colony remains queenless.  Experienced beekeepers are sensitive to this sound and sometimes can successfully identify a queenless hive just by this unique colony-wide buzzing.  Many beekeepers call this the “Queenless Roar.”

How can the honey bees know so quickly that they are without a queen bee?  Each healthy queen bee produces a substance called “queen pheromone” that enables the bees to sense her presence inside the colony.  When the pheromone disappears, or when an old and weak queen stops producing it sufficiently, the bees take notice.  Without the queen pheromone in the hive, the bees become distressed, and they will shortly begin constructing emergency queen cells from young larva and begin to raise a new replacement queen.

Painting Beehives

The offseason is a welcome time to get caught up on many projects and repair work.  As the summer wears on, we begin to notice certain boxes that are looking out of shape, and not up to our best standards here at Wildflower Meadows.  Usually, around mid November, we begin to gather these weathered looking boxes, and switch the bees that are still in them into higher quality equipment.

These old four-way queen rearing boxes come back to our shop for refurbishment.  First, they are sanded down, re-squared up, and given a new set of staples for reinforcement.  After this, they are brought out back behind our wood working shop for painting.

Many commercial beekeepers use paint sprayers to paint their hives.  We have always, however, enjoyed the peacefullness and simplicity of painting with a simple roller.  Here, one of our beekeepers is enjoying a relaxing afternoon painting a set of four-way queen rearing boxes.

Painting four-way queen rearing boxes is somewhat more challenging than painting regular bee boxes, as each side of each mating box is painted a different color.  Although adding to the tediousness of the painting, distinct colors for each side will assist the queen bees in finding the correct entrances when they return from their mating flights.  Queen bees can identify colors, and the colored sides help guide them back to their correct home.  We usually choose light pastel colors, avoiding darker colors, which can contribute to overheating of these relatively small colonies on hot summer days.

If it looks like our boxes have too many holes in them, it is because each box contains four holes – one on each side.  Each serves as a separate entrance to house a small colony for raising queens.  Some of the boxes even have two holes on each side, the second hole being a ventilation hole!

Drone Comb

Because drones are some of the least appreciated honeybees among beekeepers, it follows that the frames of honeycomb that are set up to breed them would be equally under-appreciated.  A colony of bees will build honeycomb cells in two sizes, regular-size or drone-size.  Most natural honeycomb, and just about all “foundation” for sale by beekeeping supply companies is regular-sized, meaning that the brood that is raised will become worker bees.  After all, nearly all beekeepers prefer worker bees that make honey over so-called “worthless” drone bees that mainly consume honey.

Regardless of the efforts of the beekeeper, however, all beehives have a strong instinct to raise a certain percentage of drone honeybees, especially during the swarm season in the spring.  To rear new drones, the hive requires that some of the cells in the honeycomb be of the larger drone-sized variety.

Since it creates all of its own comb, a feral or top bar hive has no problem creating some drone-sized comb of it own, and adding it to the existing worker-sized comb that it already has.  A managed Langstroth beehive, however, often does not have an easy way to build drone-sized cells.  In this type of hive, the beekeeper provides all of the frames of honeycomb, which are nearly universally worker-sized.  As a result, the bees themselves have to improvise where and how they can construct drone comb given the limited space to do so.  Often the bees construct some makeshift drone comb between the boxes.  Or, if some old honeycomb is damaged or has a hole in it, the bees eagerly replace the damaged area with drone-sized comb.

Once in a while, a beekeeper runs into an old frame, which as a result of being heavily damaged and re-repaired by the bees, consists nearly entirely of this rebuilt drone comb.  These types of frames, one of which is pictured above, show up often in commercial beekeeping operations where frames are apt to be damaged by regular handling.  As a rule, commercial beekeepers dislike these frames and often discard and replace them as soon as they are discovered.

On the other hand, queen rearing outfits, such as Wildflower Meadows, love drone comb!  The more drone honeycomb, the more drones available, and the better the mating chances and better quality of the resulting queens.  At Wildflower Meadows, we like to make sure that our best colonies have at least two frames of drone comb to produce the maximum quantity of drones.  The frame pictured above, worthless to many beekeepers, is “drone gold” to us!

 

Pollen Baskets

Bees need both protein and carbohydrates.  The bees’ carbohydrates mainly come from nectar.  Protein comes from pollen.  Pollen originates from the male parts of flowers, known as anthers.  The bees collect pollen and store them in pellets in sacks on their legs, known as “pollen baskets.”

The photo above shows a bee carrying a full load of pollen.  When the bees enter the hive they carry their pollen to the brood nest, and typically offload it into honeycomb cells directly over the brood nest.

Pollen is a key ingredient in the “worker jelly” that the nurse bees feed to the developing larvae.  It is also a key ingredient in royal jelly, which is the essential food of a developing queen.  Abundant pollen means abundant royal jelly, which means quality queen honey bees.  It is no surprise that the healthiest queen honeybees are raised in locations where there are abundant pollen flows.

Sometimes when inspecting a hive, you will see bees walking around with pollen still in their baskets.  Are they headed to offload it, or are they just showing off their excellent “pollen pants” to their sisters?