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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!

Drifting

Looking at a large apiary, it is difficult to believe that an individual forager bee is able to find its way back into the correct colony each time.  How do bees not get confused and enter the wrong colony?  Well, sometimes bees do, and any individual one colony will collect extra bees from its neighboring colonies.

Over time, bees can be so redistributed in an apiary that certain colonies grow progressively weaker as they lose population, and other colonies grow progressively stronger with larger populations gained from the other colonies.  This is known as “drifting.”  Beekeepers try to avoid creating situations that cause drifting, because drifting creates population imbalances in an apiary, and can also spread disease.

There are two main ways to prevent bees from drifting into other colonies.  The first is by controlling the placement of beehives within an apiary.  Long straight lines, which can look clean and attractive to a beekeeper, are definitely not ideal for honeybees.  The bees that belong to colonies that are situated in the interior of a long line often have a difficult time finding their way home, since the colonies in the interior look similar; and the only way to distinguish one interior colony from another is to count from the end of the line.  Although honeybees have rudimentary counting skills (it has been proven that they can count up to four and five), a long line does not work well for them.  Over time, foraging bees in the middle of the line generally will drift towards the hives at ends of the lines, which are easier for them to identify.

The best way to avoid the problem of long straight lines is to set up the apiary with short lines or clusters of colonies that makes it easier for the returning bees to identify their hives.  Long lines can generally only work if there are plenty of landmarks in the middle of the line such as unique trees or bushes, which the foraging bees can use as markers to place their hives.

Another way to prevent drifting is to paint the hives different colors.  Bees can identify most colors, and this assists the foragers in being able to distinguish one colony from another.

At Wildflower Meadows, preventing drifting is especially important to us, not so much with regard to foraging worker bees, but especially for queen bees that are out on mating flights.  Individual queens need to find their way home to the correct colony, or they risk entering a colony that already has a queen.  This can lead to a fight and the possible loss of a queen.  To prevent drifting, we arrange our mating nucs in distinct patterns.  We also paint our colonies different colors to assist returning bees and queens in finding their correct home.

The Intelligence Of The Collective

A bee colony has an overall intelligence that is obvious to a beekeeper that pays close attention.  This intelligence is more than just the sum of the individual bees; it is intrinsic to the colony as a whole.  Although the roles of individual bees within a hive are different, the hive itself operates as a single unit, which appears to have a single mind.  There is no one bee or group of bees that is “in charge.”  Even the queen, who is the most important individual bee within the hive, is not the leader, but rather just a unique part of the whole.  The intelligence of the hive is not something that can be defined by breaking down the whole into pieces, but is rather a collective intelligence that exists within the group, as opposed to the sum of the individuals.

This intelligence is apparent during a number of events that the hive conducts with no apparent leadership or organization that we humans understand.  For example, in the spring, the colony will build drone comb and the queen will begin laying drones seemingly all at once without any understood level of coordination or communication.  Another example is when young bees take their training flights.  This is always a group exercise that begins and ends with no apparent leadership or trigger to both the start or the finish.

The most obvious example of collective intelligence is during swarming.  Anyone who has watched a swarm travel cannot help to wonder how the bees manage to fly as a group and make instantaneous collective decisions as to flight plans, direction, resting place, etc., without any apparent leaders or individual decision makers.  The bees themselves appear to be of “one mind”, and possess a group intelligence that is not easily understood by a species that is dominated by individual behavior such as ours.

How Much Honey Can A Beehive Produce?

Every bee season eventually reaches a peak when honey production hits its stride and the bees are bringing in the maximum amount of nectar each day.  This is referred to as the honey flow, and it is what most beekeepers live for.

When things are going right, a beehive’s worker bees are putting in long hours foraging, and the house bees are drying nectar as fast as the foragers can bring it in.  A single worker bee can visit over a thousand flowers a day.  Multiply that by thousands of workers, and we are talking about a lot of nectar!

What does it take to reach this kind of honey production?  Well, more than a few variables have to fall into place.  To reach peak honey production a beehive typically needs:

–       A high concentration of honey-producing flowers nearby, such as clover, buckwheat or alfalfa

–       Above average rainfall in the rainy season prior to the bloom (this makes the flowers rich with nectar)

–       A strong, healthy hive, booming with healthy bees and a large population

–       Plenty of space to store all the surplus honey

–       Sunny and warm weather (this enables the flowers to secrete nectar at a maximum), and

–       Plenty of daylight for the bees to fly; from sunup to sundown

A typical beehive in the United States can produce anywhere from 10 to 200 pounds of honey in a year.  That is an unbelievably large range, which indicates just how critical these variables are in order for a beehive to reach peak honey production.

If all is going well, how much honey can a beehive produce in a single day?  At Wildflower Meadows, we have seen beehives fill an entire deep super of buckwheat honey in less than a week.  That’s about 10 pounds of honey per day!  Of course, this happens only once in a while, when all of the above conditions fall into place.  More often than not, here in Southern California, we run into years of drought that greatly distress our native honey-producing plants.  However, when everything is going just right, producing honey can feel a lot like hitting the lottery!

Winter Bees

As winter approaches, bringing shorter days and cooler weather, the activity inside a beehive changes.  The hive recognizes the coming onset of winter and the queen slows her brood production, eventually bringing it to a complete halt.  Drone production completely stops, and any remaining drones are often kicked out of the colony and left to die.

By the time winter arrives, all that will be left inside the hive is a cluster of bees consisting of a queen and worker bees.  These overwintering worker bees are actually physiologically different from the typical mid-season honeybees; they are known as “winter bees.”

Winter bees are different from typical worker bees in that they have a lifespan of about six months, whereas typical worker bees only live about six weeks.  Winter bees need to live this long, because with no new brood in the pipeline during winter, the colony would completely die if none of the worker bees lasted more than six weeks.  To increase their longevity, winter bees maintain larger intrinsic protein stores.  In other words, they store extra protein inside their bodies.  They also have higher body fat and vitellogenin than worker bees (vitellogenin is a source of nutrients that honeybees use to produce feed for larvae).

Winter bees are typically raised during September or October, give or take, depending on the particular climate of the area.  They are usually last of the brood that a colony produces in the autumn.  This is why it is important that a conscientious beekeeper needs to make sure that a colony is well fed with pollen or pollen substitute heading into the autumn and winter.  Not only do the winter bees themselves need to be healthy and strong, but the last set of regular worker bees also needs to be healthy and strong, because they are the ones who will feed the winter bees when they are still larvae.

Interestingly, once the winter bees make it through the winter and the colony heads into the new season, some of the old winter bees need to temporarily take on the role of nurse bees to the first round of brood in the spring.  Why?  By the end of winter there are no young bees remaining in the colony!  This is the only time in a colony’s life where six-month old bees have to assume the responsibility of what is normally handled by six-day old bees.

Wildflower Meadows would like to thank all of our friends and customers for a successful 2018.

We wish you all a happy and joyous holiday season!

Commercial Beekeeping And Winter Losses

For commercial beekeepers, probably their single greatest concern is managing their winter losses and keeping them to a minimum.  Winter losses cut into profits in several ways.  First, losing colonies in the winter results in fewer colonies being available in February to rent out at the height of pollination season.  Also, replacing losses requires that the beekeeper split strong colonies to make new colonies just when honey-making season gets underway in April.  This cuts into spring honey production, because it is the strongest colonies that make the most honey.

A certain amount of winter losses are normal.  In general 10% is more than reasonable, and would be considered a good outcome.  Twenty-percent losses, although not ideal, is what many beekeepers consider the “new normal,” and is also reasonable.  When losses grow beyond these levels, they can become damaging, and at higher levels potentially catastrophic.

Knowing that a certain percentage of losses are normal and to be expected, commercial beekeepers try to head into winter with a surplus of bees – an extra 20% give or take – to absorb the losses and come out even, more or less, in the spring.  Many astute commercial beekeepers begin building a cushion in the late summer or fall, creating extra colonies to boost numbers heading into the winter.

Hobby and small-scale beekeepers can learn something from this strategy.  Building a few extra surplus colonies heading into the winter covers the inevitable losses that occur every season, and enable the beekeeper to get off to a strong start once the new spring gets underway.

Fire Season

August typically falls in the center of the summer “fire season” in California.  After months of dry weather and relentless heat, chaparral turns to tinder.  And as we have seen in the news, it doesn’t take much to turn acres of dry brush into an unstoppable inferno.

Fire recently overtook one of Wildflower Meadows’ apiaries.  Fortunately, our loss was minimal, with all but one colony surviving.  Thanks to the encouragement of our local county bee inspectors, who had instructed us to maintain good weed control around our apiaries, we had previously trimmed away all of the brush and weeds, and created natural firebreaks around all of our apiaries.  That, plus the determined efforts of Cal Fire, enabled the fire to pass directly over and around the apiary without causing significant damage.

 

When we arrived at the apiary, the entire area nearby was still smoldering.  The fire destroyed the surrounding avocado grove, with ash everywhere.  We really couldn’t even access our colonies because the firefighters had sprayed so much water onto the colonies that the ground beneath them had turned into a swamp of mud and ash!

When a fire approaches an apiary, the heavy smoke causes the bees to retreat into their colonies and load their bellies with honey in preparation to abscond.  This is the same effect that a beekeeper simulates by smoking a colony in a normal hive inspection.  (This behavior is somewhat analogous to humans, who when facing an impending fire, run into their homes to gather their precious belongings before evacuating.)

In a normal fire situation, the bees might have absconded as the flames and heat rapidly overtook the area.  However, due to the deluge of water from the firefighters, the bees really had no choice but to stay put inside the hives.  The water kept them cool and safe, and somewhat locked in.

The bees themselves seemed to survive without any problems.  When we later inspected the colonies the bees were both calm and strong.  The firefighters reported that the bees were “well behaved” and gentle, never harassing any of the firefighting crews as they made repeated return visits to the area.  Perhaps they were appreciative, like us, of the brave efforts of the firefighters to save them.  We rewarded each colony with a gallon of syrup and a pollen substitute patty.

Unfortunately, however, one colony did not survive.

When a colony catches fire, it quickly becomes an inferno of wax and wood.  The air space between the frames doesn’t help either, as it enables the fire to gain a steady flow of oxygen.  By the time a fire finishes its work on a colony, typically all that remains is a pile of ash and nails.  If you look closely at the above photo, you can see the remnants of our screened bottom board.

We would like to take this opportunity to issue a special thank you to the firefighters of Cal Fire, particularly to the bee-loving crew who saved our apiary!



 

The Zen Of Beekeeping

For a beginning beekeeper, opening a hive for the first few times can be somewhat overwhelming – and downright scary!  There are all those bees in there.  They have stingers.  What if they get angry???  Then there is all of the unfamiliar gear: a veil or suit, big gloves, and a new hive tool.  It can all be a bit overwhelming and cause a beginning beekeeper to feel quite anxious.

This nervousness almost certainly makes matters worse.  While it is hard to say for certain whether bees can intrinsically sense this unease, they most certainly do sense unsteady and jerky movements.  Bees do not like these kinds of rapid or rushed actions.  They especially do not like any kind of rough treatment.  For an experienced beekeeper, swatting at bees, darting about, dropping things, and banging things are all completely out of the question.

Beekeepers need to be relaxed and calm around their bees.  If you are nervous as a beginner, you need do your best to pretend that you are calm.  (“Fake it until you make it!”).  Bees are sensitive creatures.  If you move carefully and calmly, treating them with peace and respect, they will return the favor.  One of the joys of keeping bees is the opportunity to get in touch with and to give respect to the magnificent sense of peace and purpose that is in the heart of every beehive.

When things are going right, and you are moving comfortably in a relaxed manner around the hive, the bees will appear to welcome you as an honorary member of their world.  That’s when you know you have entered the The Zen of Beekeeping.