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What Happens When a Honeybee Stings?

One of the anxieties for almost all new beekeepers is being stung, and while it’s a valid concern, it’s one that experienced beekeepers hardly think about. When it comes down to it, getting stung is inevitable. If you participate in beekeeping, you will eventually experience a bee sting – probably more than once. The sooner that you embrace and accept this inevitability, the more comfortable you will become.

So what exactly happens when a honeybee stings?

A honeybee stinger is hollow and barbed in shape, meaning once the stinger goes in, it doesn’t come out – it’s stuck and embedded into the skin. The real damage happens when the honeybee attempts to remove its stinger. When the bee pulls away, it leaves its stinger behind, along with its venom sack, and other internal structures – ripping them violently from the bee’s body and ultimately killing the honeybee.

There’s a method to this madness believe it or not – and it’s not so great for the person, or animal, on the receiving end. The muscles attached to the bees’ venom-filled sac continue to work the stinger in deeper, increasing the amount of venom being released with each passing minute. If you’ve been stung, you’ll want to remove the stinger as quickly as possible, but be sure to scrape the stinger away – don’t pull it out.  Pulling the stinger out requires you to squeeze the venom-filled sac, which ends up pumping even more venom into your body.

A sting will cause immediate pain at the site that will last for several minutes while becoming red and flush. The site may begin to swell, however, the rate and severity of swelling will vary case by case. Luckily, there are many ways to help minimize the effects of a sting. To help reduce pain and itching, apply ice to the area. You can also take an antihistamine like Benadryl to help with itching and suppress the overall reaction.

Each person reacts differently to being stung, and while most people have little to no reaction at all, occasionally the effects can be serious.  There are two kinds of reactions to bee stings – normal and anaphylactic.  Normal reactions, while often painful and uncomfortable, are of far less concern than the other type of reaction – anaphylactic. The majority of people, fortunately, experience normal reactions to bee stings.

Unfortunately, a small group of individuals may experience anaphylactic reactions to bee stings.  Anaphylactic reactions are systemic reactions, meaning that areas of the body far removed from the actual sting respond adversely.  For example, a person experiencing an anaphylactic response to a sting will sometimes experience difficulty breathing and speaking due to swelling of the tongue or throat, itchy, red hives, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting, or even loss of consciousness. An anaphylactic reaction is an extremely dangerous situation that can potentially lead to death.  People experiencing an anaphylactic reaction need to seek immediate medical attention.

Queen Introduction – Balling the Queen Bee

Beekeepers have struggled with how best to introduce a new queen into a beehive for ages – whether they’re wanting to requeen an existing colony of honeybees or place a new queen into a newly created colony. When a colony of honeybees is presented with a new queen, the bees’ first instinct is to act aggressively towards her. Since her pheromones do not match the hive, the bees see the new queen as an intruder and will instinctively come after her.

If a newly introduced queen is not protected during the introduction period, it is almost guaranteed that the colony will kill her. The worker bees will approach her aggressively –quickly grabbing onto her and not letting go. First, one bee starts this behavior, then another, and another – before long, honeybees will surround the queen, grabbing on and not letting go.  This is known as balling.

When a newly introduced queen is being balled, she is in trouble. The worker bees will grab at her body parts, and very possibly, sting her to death. This is why queen honeybees are almost always introduced to a new colony while inside some sort of cage. The cage protects the queen from an almost certain onslaught and gives her a safe place to hide.

Even with a cage, the bees will still attempt to ball the queen. However, with a cage in the way, the most that the bees can do is grab onto the cage and attack it, sparing the queen inside. Over time, the worker bees gradually cease balling the cage – one by one giving up and allowing the queen a little reprieve, while she is still safely protected inside of the cage.

While this is all happening, the colony’s worker bees are eating through the candy release tube in the cage. Well before the bees have worked their way through the candy, the balling bees have given up and have gone back to their usual work within the hive.

Even once the queen has been released from her cage, she still is somewhat at risk for renewed balling, until she actually starts laying eggs. This is why most experienced beekeepers, including us at Wildflower Meadows, always advise leaving a colony alone for a full week after the introduction of a new queen. Only when she is laying eggs can a newly introduced queen be truly considered as accepted by the colony, and relatively free from the risk of being balled.

Protecting Beehives From Extreme Heat

Bees are surprisingly adaptable to most weather events.  They know how to stay dry during rainstorms, stay cool during summer heat, and even survive the most brutal of winters, such as those in Russia and Canada.  However, when the weather becomes dangerously extreme, bees – like all living creatures – can be challenged to survive.

Recently, Wildflower Meadows’ experienced a powerful heatwave that affected most of our apiaries.  The temperatures in many of our apiaries surpassed 105 degrees.  Yet our bees survived.  How were they able to do this?

The answer is simple: shade and nearby water.  Our beekeepers were concerned about the safety of the colonies heading into the weekend, because bees can’t really survive extended periods of extreme heat without the benefits of shade and close water.  The bees need shade during times of extreme heat, because the sun beating down on the lid of a hive can heat the upper portion of a beehive to dangerous and possibly lethal levels – in some cases even above the melting point of beeswax!  We all know that bees also need a reliable water source; but more importantly during extreme heat, they need their water source to be nearby.  When the temperatures reach near 110 degrees, bees generally stop flying.  Only a few brave foragers will dare to head out for water in that kind of heat, and they won’t be able to fly far.  If the water supply is too far away from the hive, the bees will not be able to access the water that they so desperately need in order to survive.

Fortunately, our bees were able to survive the heat because we took precautions to protect them before heading into the weekend.  As the majority of our apiaries are out in the open and have no shade, we provided makeshift shade to each and every colony by placing a second lid over the first.  This setup not only provided shade, but also produced relatively cooler airspace over the colony, significantly reducing the risk of overheating.  And, it worked!

If you are trying to shade your bees and don’t have extra lids, any piece of plywood will do.  Some of our commercial beekeeper friends whose bees are on pallets often place empty pallets over their bees to provide the same effect.

The second precaution is for you to be sure – absolutely sure – that your bees have access to plenty of fresh water, as close to the apiary as possible.  You also need to keep your eye on the water level, because when the temperatures rise, the bees will consume a lot of water.  The colonies in our queen rearing yard went through nearly 70 gallons of water in just two days!  That is a lot of water for bees, but it saved their lives.

And finally, if you are fortunate enough to have running water and a hose nearby, the bees always appreciate a cool shower or two.  The benefits are twofold, because the water not only cools the hive, but then the bees can later drink up the drips without having to fly far.

Do Honeybees Fly at Night?

Honeybees can, and do, fly at night provided there is light.  If one shines a bright light upon a colony, the bees, both young and old, will wake up and fly out to investigate the disturbance.  Bees, like all insects, instinctively fly into bright lights at night.  However, in a normal, typical dark night, honeybees struggle to navigate and instinctively desire to instead “hang out” at the hive.

Most of us know that honeybees return to the hive at nightfall.  The usual nighttime bee activities include keeping the hive warm, cleaning up debris, processing the day’s nectar, pollen, and/or syrup collection, and of course, sleeping.  Yes, honeybees do sleep at night!  The foragers, tired out from their long day seeking nectar and pollen, tend to sleep for longer spells, whereas the younger bees sleep for shorter periods.  This enables the youngest bees to be active for portions of the night, when they take care of the necessary housekeeping activities that keep the hive healthy and productive.  On the other hand, the foraging bees need to work all day, so they take much of the nighttime to sleep.

Sometimes a foraging bee will get caught up in all of its exciting daytime work and lose track of time.  The poor bee may look up and face the harsh reality that it is now too late to make it home before nightfall.  When there is not enough light to safely fly, the bee will have to land someplace comfortable and try to endure the night alone.  In the summer months, this is usually not a problem.  In late autumn, however, a situation like this can be fatal.

Believe it or not, certain species of bees, primarily in tropical areas, do the majority of their flying at night!  These special kinds of bees have evolved to take advantage of species of flowers that bloom only at night.  They are night pollinators.  For us beekeepers, however, it is a good thing that our honeybees don’t like to fly at night.  Otherwise, it would be nearly impossible to find a good time to move the bees or to find any downtime for us humans!

Two Queens in a Hive

Most beekeepers know that a hive only contains a single queen. However, this isn’t necessarily always true. There are times when a colony may have two queens; and while it’s usually short-lived, the scenario probably happens more often than most beekeepers realize.

As we know, a queen bee releases pheromones to make the worker bees aware of her presence, and that she’s actively laying fertile eggs. As the queen ages, these pheromones naturally weaken, which lets the worker bees know it’s time to start the process of raising a new queen. Worker bees may plan to supersede an older queen when they notice a decline in her productivity as well.

An instance where a hive has multiple queens may occur when a new queen hatches while the old queen is still living. After a daughter hatches, one of the following scenarios will likely transpire – either the worker bees will kill the old queen, the two queens will fight to the death, or the hive will swarm. Unfortunately, there is no way for beekeepers to know how their hive will handle this situation, as there are a lot of factors in play.

More often than not, an old queen will not live long after a new queen has hatched. If the newly hatched queen doesn’t kill her, the worker bees themselves may do so. Worker bees will kill their old queen when they notice she’s consistently laying infertile eggs, and they’re comfortable that the new queen is mated and producing well.  A colony will typically prefer the newer and younger queen who, of the two, more often than not will have the stronger performance and pheromone signature.

However, if the older queen is still performing well, the worker bees may alternatively decide to separate the queens into different areas of the hive. This prevents the queens from killing one another and allows the hive to be temporarily more productive – at least until nature inevitably takes its course.

Many times, beekeepers fail to realize they are dealing with multiple queens.  Typically, when a beekeeper is requeening a colony, he or she will stop looking for a queen as soon as the old queen is spotted, not realizing there may actually be yet another queen in the colony.  This can be a challenge when beekeepers are actively trying to introduce a new high-quality queen they have purchased. If a beekeeper attempts to introduce a new queen, thinking the hive is queenless when it’s not, the colony will, unfortunately, almost certainly not accept the new queen – which will likely end in a failed queen installation.

How Far Should Beehives Be Placed from Your Home?

Whether you’re an avid beekeeper or a “newbee,” you’ve probably wondered where is the best spot to place your hive. If you’re planning to keep your beehive in your backyard and accessible from your home, there are definitely a few things you should consider. But just how close to your house can you put your hive?

The general rule is there should be a minimum of 4-feet behind and on either side of the hive, with a minimum of 25-feet of clearance at the entrance – but there’s really no cut-and-dry answer for this. In the end, most beekeepers – including us here at Wildflower Meadows – will say to use common sense and consider your personal situation.  Each home, property, and neighborhood are unique, and each will offer its own hurdles.   However, there are a few additional and critical aspects to consider when choosing where to place a beehive on your property.

Before you start searching for the perfect spot on your property, you should first make sure beekeeping is allowed where you live. Some cities and states may have zoning restrictions on beekeeping, or on the number of hives that are permitted on a property. Some homeowners’ associations and private neighborhoods may also have policies that pertain to beekeeping, so be sure to ask around before getting too far ahead in the process.

When choosing a hive site, it’s important to remember that while most honeybees are docile, some colonies can be more defensive than others. Even if you keep gentle bee stock, there are certain times of the year or situations where the temperament of the hive can be affected – adverse weather, excessive disturbances, or a pest infestation for example.  Keeping the entrance of your hive away from high traffic areas of your yard, or too close to the entrances of your home is best to avoid annoyances or stings.

Even though you’re a fan of bees, your friends, family members, or neighbors may not be as keen. A curious child or pet that wanders too close to the hive could alert worker bees – a situation you’d likely prefer to avoid.  To help keep the peace between your household and your beehive, it is best to keep the hive in an area away from children and high traffic areas of your outdoor space.

Foot traffic isn’t the only issue with residential beekeeping, vehicle traffic can pose problems to your colony too.  Windshields are unfortunately a popular bee graveyard.  While honeybees are known to fly miles away from their home to forage for nectar, they do need some space to reach a high altitude. Without any nearby obstacles, bees will generally require about 6 feet of linear space to gain 6 feet of altitude – similar to when a plane takes off on a runway.

Providing this amount of “runway” may not be ideal or available for you, so you might want to encourage your bees to gain altitude more rapidly by keeping your beehives surrounded by tall shrubs, fences or walls.   This will force your bees to reach altitude more rapidly, keeping them away from the ground level right from the start.  (Nevertheless, there are limitations to this strategy, and one must use common sense.  For example, if your home is more than two stories tall and your beehive’s entrance is placed too close to your home, one of two things can happen. Your bees will either need to expend more energy to fly up and over your home, or the bees will avoid flying in that direction altogether, limiting their foraging options.)   Of course, some beekeepers choose to place beehives on their rooftops, as it’s the easiest way to get bees flying at a higher altitude and away from human hazards.

Finally, no matter where you choose to place your hive, you will always also want to make sure that bees have access to a reliable and clean water source.

How Does a Bee Become a Queen Bee?

When we raise queens here at Wildflower Meadows, we start the process by grafting worker larvae from our breeder queens.  This procedure transfers the genetic material from our champion breeder queens to our cell building colonies, that will raise the queens which we sell year-round.

Did you happen to catch the words “worker larvae?” Isn’t it strange that the same larvae that were once destined to become worker bees, can be redirected into becoming queen bees? An individual fertilized larva contains the genetic material to become either a worker bee or a queen bee. What happens is that the bees themselves do a sort of genetic modification to the larva, depending on their desired outcome.

When we place these worker larvae into one of our powerful cell-building colonies, the colonies are already strong and queenless. They have a high motivation to develop queens. So, how does a beehive change the course of development of worker larvae to become queen larvae when all the larvae originates from the same source?

Scientists and beekeepers have been asking this question for ages. An obvious clue to the answer lies in the different diets of these two types of honeybees. Queen bee larvae are fed royal jelly, whereas worker bee larvae are fed worker jelly.  There seems to be no other variable to explain the change in development. Yet, how does diet trigger certain genes to be activated?

For many years, scientists and beekeepers have assumed that because a queen larva is fed royal jelly, the trigger to queen development must lie within the royal jelly itself. In fact, most scientists always assumed that there was some magical ingredient within royal jelly that initiates the genetic modification, triggering fertility, and queueing the development of ovaries, etc.

We now know that this is not entirely true.

While it is certainly diet that determines a larva’s development, scientists have discovered there’s no magical ingredient in royal jelly which triggers queen development. It’s actually the diet of the workers that is suppressing queen development!

Worker bee jelly, unlike royal jelly, contains pollen and honey. Pollen and honey, being directly derived from plants, contain plant materials known as phenolic acids, or flavonoids. These phenolic acids deactivate the genes responsible for developing ovaries and reproductive systems. In other words, these phenolic acids suppress queen development in workers.

Royal jelly, on the other hand, is entirely a secretion of bees.  It is a pure bee product that does not contain any plant product – it is completely, 100%, devoid of phenolic acids. The absence of phenolic acids allows a queen bee to fully activate her reproductive genes and completely develop her robust reproductive system.

How efficient is it that honeybees have developed such an amazing way of raising two very different types of bees from the same source? Think of how much more complicated a beehive would be if the bees required different genetic larvae for both workers and queens. By performing this genetic modification on the same source, honeybees have developed an elegant solution for raising queen bees on demand!

Fertilized vs. Unfertilized Eggs – A Queen Bee’s Gender Reveal Party

Some of us enjoy celebrating “gender reveal parties” – because the truth is, no one really knows whether a human infant will be male or female until birth (or close to birth in the case of an ultrasound.) Before this technology, however, it was anyone’s guess whether a child would be born as a boy or a girl. During the early stages of pregnancy, the odds of a child developing as one or the other are random, and more or less equal to a coin toss.

Imagine, however, if we humans could determine the sex of our offspring – not when the child was born, nor earlier with an ultrasound scan, but rather at the time of conception! How different and crazy would our world be if there were such a scenario?

Believe it or not, this is the way honeybees determine the sex of their offspring. It’s actually the queen who dictates the sex of her offspring – literally at the time of egg-laying. When a queen lays an egg, she has her own method of laying either a fertilized or unfertilized egg.  As the egg passes through her oviduct, the queen can choose to fertilize the egg by releasing a tiny amount of her stored sperm from her spermatheca. This will fertilize the egg. Conversely, the queen can also choose to not fertilize the egg.

A fertilized egg will become a female honeybee – either a worker bee or a queen bee. An unfertilized egg will develop into a male honeybee – destined to be a drone. In a healthy colony with a healthy queen, most eggs are fertilized. This makes sense since the vast majority of honeybee colonies consist of worker bees, which are always female.

It is astonishing that a single insect, the queen, has this powerful ability to dictate the sex of her offspring right at the time of conception. It is equally astonishing that somehow, she can determine the right quantity of drones and the right seasonality for laying drones at any given time. All of this is within her power, and somehow, she knows exactly what to do.

How much of this decision-making lies within the queen herself versus within the colony is not entirely clear. Is the colony acting in the same way that a baseball catcher acts with a pitcher, calling the type of pitch to throw? Or is the pitcher herself calling the shots in this case? Scientists believe that both are happening, although the queen clearly dictates the final decision.

The colony itself has some influence in determining the number of drones by the way they choose to allocate the honeycomb when building. If the worker bees construct a large amount of drone-sized comb and point the queen towards it then the queen will lay more unfertilized eggs (drones). If the colony does not build any drone-sized honeycomb, then the queen will only lay worker brood. With no appropriately sized comb, what choice does the queen have after all? It is also possible for worker bees to use pheromone signals to help influence the overall frequency of drone laying.

Overwintering Honeybees In A Single Deep Super

In the height of winter, beehives shut down to varying degrees.  In Southern California, however, many of our beehives remain active, though to a much lesser extent than during the spring or summer months.  During winter, the bees wait for the relatively mild weather, which reliably comes along from time to time.  When a pleasant day does arrive, the bees can be found out on the go, foraging on the many winter blossoms such as jade and eucalyptus.

Most North American beekeepers overwinter their colonies in a “double deep” configuration, meaning that the colony heads into winter with two deep supers.  The colder and longer the winter, the more stores of honey are needed for the colony to ensure survival.  In the northern parts of the United States, most beekeepers like to have the top box solidly filled with honey to minimize the risk of starvation.  This top box, heavy with honey, also provides a layer of insulation from the cold.

Here in Southern California, however, the wintering conditions are much milder.  Because our bees have the year-round opportunity to forage, and we have the availability to feed our bees, if necessary, during winter, we often prefer to overwinter our colonies in a “single deep” configuration – compressing the bees into one deep super.  California bees seem to overwinter well in a single hive body.  This tight configuration minimizes empty air space and condensation, allowing the bees to control their brood temperatures when stormy weather and cooler nights prevail.  In a single box, they keep their cluster tight, and have plenty of population packed around the winter brood nest.  This tight space also keeps the bees relatively compressed around the entrance, affording them better protection against robber bees and other pests.

As humans, we might find such crowded conditions completely unacceptable.  As insects, however, honeybees generally have no problem with these slightly crowded conditions – especially in winter.  When the weather is cold, bees actually seem to enjoy the company of their sisters and thrive in their tight living spaces!

Honeybees And Bears

Of all the natural predators of honeybees, such as birds, skunks, raccoons, and badgers, probably none are as fearsome and notorious to bees and beekeepers alike, as bears.  Bears love to eat bee larva, bee brood, and to a lesser extent, honey.  With this appetite for bee products, they seem to be more interested in beehives than even the most dedicated beekeeper!  It is no coincidence that many honey containers are shaped like bears.  Keep in mind that even Winnie the Pooh loves “hunny.”

The problem, for both the bees and their beekeepers, is that when bears visit an apiary, the damage they cause is almost always devastating.  Bears do not carefully harvest honey like we beekeepers do.  No, they pick up entire colonies and strew them about the ground; destroying the equipment and creating havoc in the apiary.  If you have ever visited an apiary after a bear visit, your first impression will be is that it looks like a war zone, with no survivors.  Damaged and destroyed equipment will be strewn everywhere.

You would think that a colony’s guard bees would be able to scare a bear away with their stings, but the bears’ fur coats are so thick that the bees’ stingers can not really penetrate well enough to get to a bear’s skin.  The only vulnerable spot on a bear is its face.  This is perhaps why bees have evolved over the years to focus on stinging the head and face of an intruder.  Most beekeepers know that angry bees typically aim for the head.  This is likely an evolutionary and instinctive response against bear attacks.  It is also why the beekeeping veil is the most important piece of personal protection for a beekeeper.

The best and probably only practical defense against bears is to encircle vulnerable apiaries with electric fencing.  As a beekeeper, this is an expensive solution, however, much less expensive than losing an entire apiary of bees and equipment with every bear attack.  Fortunately, most beekeeping supply companies sell these fences, many of which are solar powered.

If only bears could realize how dependent they are on honeybees, just like the rest of us, they might show a little more compassion to the colonies that they attack.  It is estimated that about 15 percent of a bear’s diet consists of berries, all of which require pollination, much of which is done by honeybees.  Many researchers suspect that bears are already being adversely affected by the decline in wild bee populations.  Fewer pollinators mean fewer berries, which in turn affects the bears’ nutrition and foraging behavior.