Posts

Bee Space

Honeybees are curious creatures that live in world of standardized precision.  No matter the race of honeybee, or location in which they reside, their individual honeycomb cells are all constructed in a standard hexagonal shape, an approximate 5.2mm dimension, that is the same the world over.  Their dance and communication methods are also universal across the entire species.  What’s even more astonishing, is that the space that they inhabit between their honeycombs is universally standardized and completely precise, regardless of any other characteristics of the hive or of the bees themselves.

This space between honeycombs is called bee space.  Bee space needs to be larger than 4.5mm and less than 9.0mm – no matter what!  Honeybees, being creatures of precision, will not tolerate any space outside of this range.  If the space between combs gets too close (less than 4.5mm) the bees will close the gap, usually sealing it with propolis.  But if the gap becomes too wide (greater than 9mm), the bees will build additional honeycomb to bring the gap back to the acceptable and precise space that they desire.

As experienced beekeepers, this concept of bee space seems obvious and intuitive to us.  We know that if we leave too much of a gap between the frames of our hives, our bees will quickly fill this gap with beeswax, a mess of what we call “burr comb.”  This burr comb is actually just the bees’ natural drive to bring their bee space back to precision.

While this concept of bee space seems so obvious to us today, it is hard to believe that this was not always the case.  It was L.L. Langstroth, the “Father of American Beekeeping,” who, back in 1852, intuited this hypothesis.  After he realized this concept, he took his thinking one step further with the question, “what if he could design a beehive that had the perfect bee space in all directions?”  This led to the standardized, square hive body that has become the backbone to America’s – and the world’s – beekeeping profession.  We call our hive bodies “Langstroth hives,” because they were invented by Langstroth to take into account the perfect bee space.

Every space in a modern hive is more or less standardized to accommodate bee space.  We may not realize it, but what keeps our bees from connecting the tops of the frames to the lid of the beehive is the bee space that is built into the construction of the hive body.  All modern hive body boxes are also designed so that the frames hang about 8mm short of the bottom of the box.  This bee space gap is the perfect bee space that enables us beekeepers to remove or pry open a hive box with few consequences; such as easily removing lids, bottoms, and frames, all without disrupting the construction of the hive.  In addition, the edges of the side combs always sit about 8mm from the inside of the wooden box, and the tops of each frame hang about 8mm from the top of the box.  In fact, our Langstroth bee boxes are a marvel of precision, with bee space taken into account in all aspects of the construction.

Of course, it really is the bees themselves that drive us humans to this level of precision, as they will not tolerate inconsistency and imprecision.  They are world-class engineers, and demand the very same from us beekeepers!

Nocturnal Beekeeping

Most beekeeping activities are best handled during the day.  Hive inspections, queen replacement, honey harvesting, etc., all require good lighting and a relaxed daytime environment to be enjoyable and effective.  After all, working with the bees on a pleasant, relaxing day is what beekeeping is all about.

On the other hand, certain activities, such as moving beehives, are best approached at night when the bees are dormant inside their colonies.  Commercial beekeepers who frequently need to move their bees are well acquainted with putting in long nights of loading and unloading bees in the dark of the night.

Recently, however, here at Wildflower Meadows, we are experimenting with adding another evening activity to our beekeeping repertoire: syrup feeding.  The reason for this late-day approach to feeding is to slow down the likelihood of robbing behavior in the apiary.  When robbing pressure is high, feeding a large apiary early in the day can turn into the most unpleasant of experiences.  As the bees in the apiary become aware of the presence of fresh syrup, they can quickly become whipped up into a feeding frenzy.  Before long, the strong colonies begin to test the defenses of the weaker colonies, sometimes breaking through and inciting further robbing.  And once robbing starts, there is no stopping it.  It will continue all day long, with the results being absolutely damaging.  Weak colonies are overrun.  Diseases can spread, and colonies will be lost.

However, we have a new strategy, which we learned from one of our larger commercial queen customers.  We begin our feeding at sunset and end at nightfall.  When the bees can’t fly, they can’t rob.  By feeding in the evening, the colonies have little ability to fly for very long and begin robbing.  Then, after the feeding ends at nightfall, each colony has the benefit of the entire night to work through their syrup and ready their guard bees without actually having to defend against robber bees.  For us, and especially the bees, this new feeding strategy is really making a difference.  When the sun gets low, our beekeepers turn on their red headlamps (bees are not able to see red light and won’t fly into it) and get to work – nocturnal beekeeping in action!

Dark Hollow

The ideal location for a honeybee hive, and the favorite natural resting place of a swarm is inside the dark hollow of a tree.   The tree hollow provides shelter from the elements.  Besides being off the ground, it enables the bees a natural protection against ground predators, such as skunks.  Honeybees seem to select tree hollows that are at least a few feet off the ground, and that are sized around one to two cubic feet on the inside.  Anything smaller does not provide enough space to grow.  If the cavity is too large, the bees may also reject it, likely because it is more difficult to manage the temperature of a larger space during winter.

Bees are used to living in the dark, whether in a managed Langstroth or top-bar hive, or natural dark hollow, so the inside of a tree fits the bill perfectly.  No light is needed.  A small entrance that limits the light works just fine for them.  Plus a small entrance is easy to defend.

Once inside the hollow, bees will usually smooth and coat the interior surfaces with propolis  They then hang their combs from the top of the cavity, much in the same way that they hang comb in a managed top bar hive.  Honey is stored in the top portion of the frames, with pollen and brood below.

Once a tree hollow has successfully housed a honeybee hive, it becomes an ongoing magnet for bees.  Should the initial colony perish, the familiar bee scent of the hollow, and any remaining comb fixtures will make the hollow an attractive home for the next wandering swarm.

A Simple, Inexpensive Robbing Screen

A while back, we discussed robbing behavior and how robbing can be a problem for beekeepers during times of drought or lack of nectar.  During robbing, honeybees invade neighboring colonies seeking to steal their honey stores.  Weak or small colonies are the most vulnerable to robbing because they often lack the population of guard bees necessary to defend their entrances against invasion.

As a beekeeper, it is certainly important to identify robbing behavior, as well as the causes of robbing.  But even more important than identifying the robbing behavior is to be able to prevent robbing from happening in the first place!

At Wildflower Meadows, our two best tools to prevent robbing are the time-honored entrance reducer and a small robbing screen.

The entrance reducer is a simple stick of wood that cuts down the size of the entrance by blocking off a large percentage of the area where bees can enter and leave a colony.  When a colony has a smaller area to defend against other thieving bees, it always has a better chance of fighting them off, much in the same way that a soccer goalie can better defend a small-sized goal than a larger-sized one.  Entrance reducers can be purchased at most beekeeping supply companies.  However, a customized small piece of wood can easily accomplish the same purpose for a lower cost.

The robbing screen is a piece of screen or mesh that sits in front of the entrance and serves to block and deflect the incoming flight path of robbing bees.  Because robbing bees are nearly always worked up into a frenzy, they easily get confused by the screen blocking the entrance.  They tend to fly directly into the path of the screen without taking the time to figure out a way around it.  The defending colony’s bees, however, have already quickly learned how to maneuver their way around the screen and rapidly figure out how to use it as a shield against incoming robbers.

At Wildflower Meadows, our robbing screen is a simple piece of vent screening material attached over the reduced entrance with a push pin.  The cost of this robbing screen is just a few cents per colony, but the payoff is huge!  Small colonies that otherwise might be vulnerable to robbing are able to hold their own if robbing gets started.

The Importance of Dividing Beehives

In the wild, a healthy colony of bees passes through an ongoing cycle.  A wandering swarm becomes established in a secure location and becomes an established beehive.  This new beehive builds out honeycomb, and the queen, which arrived with the swarm, begins laying new brood.  Over time, the beehive grows and the hive fills with honey stores and bee population.  Then, when conditions are favorable, the colony prepares to swarm.  The colony raises a new queen for itself, and the old queen leaves with a good percentage of the population to start the swarming process again.

Beehives are used to dividing themselves.  It is how they reproduce to ensure the survival of their species.  If honeybees didn’t swarm, the entire species would be vulnerable to adversity.  By swarming and dividing itself in half, a beehive reduces its risk to adversity in half. If the original colony perishes, the swarm is still available to carry on, and vice-versa.  If the swarm does not make it, the original colony can grow back to size and swarm again later.

As a beekeeper with managed hives, you should be thinking about the same concept of dividing your beehives for managing risk and adversity.  If you have only one hive and something adverse were to happen to it, you would be completely wiped out.  If, however, when conditions are favorable, you decide to divide your colony into two beehives, you would greatly reduce your risk towards losing your entire endeavor.  It is a common rule of thumb that approximately 30% of beehives die each year.  Therefore, just by dividing your colony into two, you reduce the risk of being completely wiped out from 30% to 9%.  (30% x 30%).  And if you were to divide your colony into three hives, you would reduce your risk all the way down a mere 2.7% (30% x 30% x 30%).

This is the same risk-avoidance principal that wild hives follow in nature by swarming.  As a conscientious beekeeper of managed colonies, it is essential that you learn good techniques of dividing your colonies so that you can also stay around for the long-haul.  (For a relatively easy technique of dividing your colony without having to look for the queen, please check out our video entitled “Prepare a Four Frame Nuc.”)

The Queen Excluder

Most beginning beekeeping kits come with a queen excluder, and most beekeepers will want to try utilizing a queen excluder at some point during their beekeeping experience.  It is a handy piece of equipment; and as its name suggests, it keeps a queen from entering an area of the hive while allowing the smaller worker bees to pass through.

The most common use of a queen excluder is during a honey flow, when it is placed directly under a newly added honey super.  By preventing the queen from entering the area where honey is to be collected, it keeps brood out of the honey super.  By eliminating brood from the honey area, it also discourages the bees from storing pollen near the honey, which can flavor and reduce the purity of the honey.

Believe it or not, to this day generations of beekeepers still argue over whether or not to use queen excluders.  Many – perhaps most – commercial beekeepers do not use queen excluders, believing that by restricting the movement of the honeybees, the queen excluder inhibits the maximum production of honey.  Old-timer beekeepers laughingly refer to queen excluders as “honey excluders”.

At Wildflower Meadows, when it comes to using queen excluders for honey production, we take a more balanced approach.  We generally do not utilize queen excluders when we place honey supers on our colonies, as this allows the bees and the queen to move freely throughout the colony.  Sometimes, however, we do place excluders at the end of the honey flow.  If a queen has gotten too comfortable in the honey super and is still laying brood up there during the honey flow, we will drive the queen down into one of the lower boxes and then add a queen excluder after the fact to keep her from returning.  Within a few weeks, all the brood will have hatched.  Typically, the bees replace the areas where the brood has hatched with fresh nectar, resulting in a clean honey super for harvest.

Getting Bees to Draw Out Foundation

One of the more frustrating aspects of starting out as a new beekeeper is that unless you have purchased an existing hive with existing equipment, you must start your new beehive with foundation.  Foundation is sold by beekeeping supply companies and is the building block of honeycomb; but it is not in itself honeycomb.  The most unfortunate feature of foundation is that bees simply can’t use it for any purpose at all until they have added their own beeswax to it and turned it into honeycomb.  This process is called drawing out foundation.  Unless the bees draw out the foundation, the foundation itself is worthless to the beehive for either storing honey or raising brood because it simply is not deep enough.

Many beekeepers, especially new ones, struggle because they cannot seem to get their bees to draw out foundation fast enough for the hive to properly develop.  “Why aren’t my bees drawing out foundation?” is a common complaint of the new beekeeper.  It would be easy if we could just ask the bees?  But since they cannot communicate with us, we have to do some detective work.

The most important component for the bees to draw out foundation is the quality of the honey flow.  In a very strong honey flow, the bees will draw out foundation without any difficulty at all.  It is the presence of nectar that enables bees to produce the large supply of wax necessary to build out foundation with honeycomb.  But if the honey flow is less than perfect – which turns out to be about 90% of the year – the bees are going to need some additional help.  A dedicated beekeeper should always provide a generous supply of syrup to a beehive that is building out foundation.  The syrup will help to supplement the natural nectar and will turbocharge wax production.

Next to consider is the actual placement of the foundation.  Bees in a colony work from the inside out, and will always draw out the foundation that is placed towards the center of the hive first.  If you find that the bees are ignoring the outside frames in favor of those on the inside, you can try repositioning one outside frame of foundation towards the middle, and sliding the other frames towards the edge.  Be sure to keep all of the other frames in the same sequence so as not to disturb the hive and brood nest too greatly.

Also, a queen excluder may be part of the problem.  If you are trying to draw out an entire honey super of foundation, by all means you should not use a queen excluder.  Although useful for many purposes, queen excluders inhibit bees from drawing out foundation because they restrict the natural flow of bees in and out of the super.  Add the queen excluder after the foundation has been drawn out, not before.

The quality of the foundation itself should not be ignored.  When working with plastic foundation, the quality of the wax coating on the foundation is critical.  The waxier the foundation, the more likely the bees will be attracted to it.  Many beekeeping supply companies sell “double waxed” and even “triple waxed” foundation.  Although this foundation sells at a premium, it is often worth the extra costs because it typically results in greater and faster acceptance by the bees.

Sometimes, however, building out foundation is just not a possibility.  For example, the season could be completely off the table.  Bees do not have any urge to expand in the late fall and winter, and are unlikely to draw out foundation at that time of year regardless of all other factors.  Or it could be that the colony simply is not strong enough to build out more than a single frame, or even a half of frame at a time.  Sometimes a beekeeper just needs to have a little bit of understanding and sympathy toward the bees!

Photo of foundation by permission of Pierco Beekeeping Equipment.

First Day on the Job

The first day at any job is usually a day of excitement, and perhaps a little anxiety.  What will the work be like?  Who will be my co-workers?  Will we all get along?

When you start as a new employee at Wildflower Meadows, the work is going to be outside.  You are expected to be conscientious and hardworking.  And, as for co-workers?  You are going to have several million of them, nearly all of them insects and nearly all of them with stingers!

The best thing about having bees as co-workers is that if they are unhappy with you, they will be honest and straightforward with you and let you know their feelings directly.  Therefore, we always give our new beekeepers the advice to be respectful of the bees; treat them with respect and they will do the same in return.

New employees, like most new beekeepers, are usually most concerned about one thing:  getting stung.  Of course, it is bound to happen that you are going to get stung, especially if nearly your entire workday is going to be spent with your hands in and around beehives.

It takes time to learn how to move and act around honeybees.  Honeybees – like dogs, horses and other domesticated animals – seem to have a sense of when their handler is comfortable.  They often react according to the way the beekeeper moves.  Bees respond accordingly to calm, smooth and Zen-like movements.  But they can also respond adversely if the beekeeper is moving in a jerky or unpredictable manner.  Bees, like everyone, do not appreciate rough handling.  Therefore, the problem with being a new beekeeping employee – or new beekeeper for that matter – is that it takes time to learn the little things that keep the bees at ease.  Eventually, everyone does.  But the Zen-like, smooth, experienced movement comes later – typically not on the first day of work.

It also takes time to learn how to move one’s hands in and out of the hive.  For most us here at Wildflower Meadows, the vast majority of our stings are not the result of angry or defensive bees, but rather the result of us clumsily putting our hands or fingers on the wrong spot.  These are accidental stings and are no fault of the bees, but rather the fault of a heavy-handed beekeeping movement.  New beekeepers are more prone to make this kind of mistake, such as not looking carefully, or not feeling for individual bees before picking up a frame.  New beekeepers receive accidental stings far more frequently than experienced beekeepers.  Moving with light Zen-like hands comes later, as new employees have yet to learn the “beekeeping touch” on their very first day.

Filaree and The Winning Formula

For Southern California beekeepers the formula of November and December rains, followed by January sunshine, is the holy grail winning combination.

This past November was one of the wettest in recent memory, with nearly five inches of rain falling before Thanksgiving!  The benefit, of course, is that with early rain, the earliest flowers sprout much sooner than normal, giving the bees an exciting start to the new season.

The first bloom of the year in the Southern California chaparral is filaree.  Filaree is a low-growing, small plant, common throughout the southwest United States, particularly in the desert areas.  Around our apiaries, filaree rarely seems to grow more than three inches tall.  Perhaps because it is such a petite plant, it seems to take very little time between the moment of rain until the moment that it blooms.  That means that the November rains will usually cause filaree to blossom in early January, provided that there have been at least a few warm and sunny days in the interim.

If you were to walk through the countryside you could be forgiven for mistaking filaree for some sort of weed that would likely appear on a poorly weeded lawn.  The tiny filaree flower is a five-petaled, purplish pink blossom that is hardly noticeable to the average person.  But the bees are not average people, and they are not one to miss the opportunity of some early season action.  When filaree is in play, the bees in our apiaries can be found cruising about around our feet, basically at ground level.  They are not looking to sting our ankles, but rather to find the next filaree blossom and grab some fresh pollen.  According to Wikipedia, filaree is also a honey producing plant, though it is not likely to produce a crop.  Afterall, in early January, bee populations are relatively small and the days are still short, both of which are not optimal conditions for producing a January honey crop.

How a Swarm Finds a New Home

Besides the many obvious reasons not to leave your dresser sitting outdoors is one that you may not have considered:  Bees like dressers too!

A friend of Wildflower Meadows’ manages a nature reserve, which happens to include some lightly used houses.  One day our friend found a swarm in one of the drawers of a dresser that, for some unknown reason, had been left outside.  A swarm of bees had entered the third drawer through the rear of the dresser and began constructing comb right inside the drawer.  This is something like a natural top bar hive, only with a bit more creativity on the bees’ part.

When a swarm of bees begins its journey from the original hive, it typically first travels a relatively short distance before stopping to perch in a temporary resting area, such as a tree branch.  From this staging area, the swarm sends out scouts to evaluate new possibilities for a more permanent home.  The scouts, who are the hive’s experienced foragers, travel approximately a mile or so from the resting area.  They explore their surroundings both near and far, much in the same way as they have done in the past when scouting for nectar and pollen.  In a swarming situation, however, the scouts are not searching for food for the collective, but rather shelter for the collective.

This scouting needs to be executed as quickly and efficiently has possible.  Afterall, the swarm is vulnerable when sitting out in the open.  The bees cannot transport food with them for their swarming journey; they can only carry whatever food stores they can in their bellies, and that food won’t last for long.  Plus, when sitting on a tree branch or the side of a building, the bees have no decent shelter from the elements.   And, although their precious queen is sheltered in the middle of the swarm, she is completely unable to perform her egg laying duties without any honeycomb available.

This all means that the scouts need to spring into action right away.  They survey their surroundings looking for shelter, and return to the swarm with their findings.  Much in the same way that foragers communicate the location of desirable nectar sources, the swarm scouts communicate the location of favorable housing locations to the other bees by performing the “waggle dance.”  The better the housing prospect, the more intensely the bees will perform the dance.  The scout bees then recruit other bees to check out the prospective new homes.  Once approximately 80% of the bees in the swarm have concurred that a location is suitable, a consensus is reached.  The swarm then makes its move and will begin to populate their new home.

It’s fairly easy to see why an abandoned dresser might make an attractive home for a swarm.  A dresser is stable, cavernous, and made of natural wood.  Plus, the drawers are reasonably well-protected from the elements.  For the human (former) owner of this dresser, however, not so good.  Good luck to this poor person reaching for a pair of socks, particularly in the third drawer!