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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.

Queen Cups vs. Queen Cells

Honeybees are natural comb builders and always seem to be working on some sort of construction or renovation within their hive.  When bees are working on frames of honeycomb, they construct two sizes of honeycomb cells: worker-sized (or regular) honeycomb, or drone-sized (larger) honeycomb. These two sizes accommodate the size difference between worker bees and drone bees.  Drone honeybees are larger than workers, and can’t really fit into a regular honeycomb cell.

Most of the honeycomb that bees build is regular size, which the bees utilize for raising worker bees.  This makes sense since the vast majority of bees in any beehive consist of regular worker honeybees.  A smaller percentage of honeycomb, however, is larger sized, which the hive uses to raise drone honeybees.  In a healthy beehive, there are always more worker bees than drone bees so it is understandable that there would be more worker-sized comb cells than drone-sized comb cells.

What about the queen though?

Amid all this comb construction, the bees will occasionally decide to build a placeholder for a future queen cell – this is a queen cup.  A queen cup looks like an upside-down teacup.  It is more or less the foundation of a queen cell, without actually being a queen cell.  It is as if the bees have done the math – about 90% of a hive consists of worker bees, about 10% consists of drones, and there is a tiny, minuscule less-than-1% percent consisting of the one and only queen.  As a percentage basis, queens are a negligible percent of the hive’s population.  Therefore, the amount of comb dedicated to raising queens needs to be equally negligible.  The queen cup is a tiny acknowledgment that once in a while a beehive needs to raise a new queen.

Most of the time queen cups are unused and can linger around for years at a time.  If a beekeeper discovers a queen cup in a colony it is no cause for concern, unlike finding a queen cell.  The queen cup is merely a placeholder, for potential use at a later date if the hive decides for whatever reason to raise a new queen.  Having the queen cups in place makes building future queen cells just a little bit easier for the bees.

However, when a beekeeper discovers an actual live queen cell inside a colony, it is almost always a cause for concern.  Honeybees do not build queen cells unless they have an immediate and specific reason – unlike queen cups which bees will build just for their own sake. If honeybees are constructing queen cells it is likely due to one of several reasons.  From the beekeeper’s perspective, none of these reasons are good.

A few of the most common reasons bees that bees construct queen cells include:

  1. The hive is preparing to swarm
  2. The colony is without a queen and is in the process of raising an emergency replacement.
  3. The colony has decided that the current queen is of poor quality and needs to be replaced.

Absconding Bees

The fall season of beekeeping is arguably the worst time of year to be a beekeeper.  All of the typical adversities of beekeeping are intensified in the fall:  Lack of forage, drought, heat and fire risk (especially in the western states), varroa mites, food shortages, yellow jackets, etc.  With all of these adverse conditions, sometimes it seems like it’s a miracle that the bees can survive at all at this time of the year.  At Wildflower Meadows, we typically experience our largest colony losses in the autumn months of September and October.  It is not surprising, as the bees have so much conspiring against them in the fall.

Because of this, once our queen production comes to an end in September, our beekeepers rapidly switch gears and aggressively focus on helping our bees survive these meager months – especially the more vulnerable smaller colonies and mating nucs that were just part of our recent queen production.

We feed our bees aggressively, and protect them to the best of our ability against these harsh elements.  We feed pollen patties and other nutritional supplements; we expand the fire breaks around each apiary; we put out ant baits and yellow jacket baits to keep these aggressive pests (somewhat) under control; we make sure that every yard has continued access to reliable fresh water; and we sometimes place additional lids on top of our colonies for additional shade and heat protection.

In spite of all of these efforts, sometimes it is simply not enough.  When a colony of bees becomes overly stressed for any or all of the above reasons, it may get to the point where the bees themselves decide “enough is enough.”  They’ve had it, and they want out.   And so, they leave . . .

Sometimes in the fall we find that there is an uptick in “swarming.”  Our beekeepers find what appear to be giant swarms of bees hanging around the edge of our apiaries.  Other giant swarms seem to arrive out of nowhere.   These swarms are unusual, as that unlike spring swarms, they often seem reluctant to want to settle into hive bodies.  Of course, these fall swarms are not like the standard spring swarms; they are actually entire colonies of bees that are on the run.  And, of course they don’t want to go back into boxes.  They just escaped one, and the conditions were terrible!

In the beekeeping world, this is called absconding.  Absconding almost always takes place in the fall.  Sadly, these absconding bees have almost no chance of surviving the winter.  Like desperate refugees leaving a war zone with few options, they have scarce resources and limited realistic possibilities for survival.  The best they can hope for is that a conscientious beekeeper can rescue them, give them a new and safe home, feed and treat them well, and offer them a fighting chance to survive into the next season.

Personal Hygiene And Honeybees

At the risk of offending, it’s time to get honest.  As crazy as this may sound, as a beekeeper, you should consider your hygiene around your bees.  The bees themselves value hygiene and are very sensitive to odors.  That is why a conscientious beekeeper does the same.

If you approach your colonies with strong body odors, strong breath, or strong perfumes, you will often pay the price with angry bees.  Bees do not appreciate anything that makes you smell like a wild animal, or alternatively, excessively perfumed and unnatural.  Strong odors typically cause honeybees to behave more aggressively.  They make you more conspicuous and seem like more of a threat.  At times, here at Wildflower Meadows, we have noticed this pattern where a clean, hygienic employee can go a whole day without a single sting, while his or her partner with a messy bee suit and poor hygiene is harassed by the very same bees, all along while doing the same work and working right next to the clean employee!

This brings up an important point about bee suits.  They need to be washed and kept clean.  Especially if you were stung on a previous bee inspection, as your bee suit will retain the pheromone of the last sting or stings.  It is specifically that particular alarm pheromone that is the worst possible odor to have when approaching a bee colony.  It alerts the guard bees that you have already been stung at least once, and are therefore are likely a threat.  The venom odor, which you may not be able to smell, but that bees certainly can, is not a good way to win your bees’ favor with you!

Another point to consider is that leather watch bands can also be a problem around the bees.  Besides the fact that leather has the odor of an animal, a dark color can also aggravate bees, especially when it is moving rapidly back and forth in front of your bees’ eyes.  Honeybees don’t care about the time and don’t see a watch; what they do see is a piece of dark animal skin flashing in front of them.  What’s worse, is that if the watch band gets stung, then the pheromone will be embedded in the watch band, making it even more disturbing to the hive.

One of the golden rules of beekeeping is that when working with a hive, you want to approach the bees in a calm and respectful manner.  In many ways, when you are working with a colony of bees, you become their guest, or perhaps even an extension of their very collective – their connection to the human world.  You are their caretaker and become a part of the hive.  Considering that the bees place such a high importance on odors and pheromones – much more than we do – it is in your best interest that you show the bees this respect and do the same.  Your bees will be more likely to welcome you into their world with open wings!

A Queen’s Unique Scent

Those of us who live closely with others know that each individual person carries his or her own distinctive scent.  An attentive partner can often pick up their partner’s scent in their clothes, their bedding, or even in their living space.  If you are living closely with someone, you very quickly get to know that person’s unique scent.  It becomes a part of your world, and you grow comfortable with it.

The same is true for a colony of honeybees and their queen.  Most beekeepers are aware that all queens carry a special “queen pheromone” that distinguishes the scent of a queen bee from a worker bee.  It is obvious simply from watching basic honeybee behavior that the worker bees are quickly able to identify the queen bee, and it seems equally obvious that a pheromone is driving the behavior.  What is less well known, however, is that beyond this general queen pheromone, each individual queen has her own unique pheromone or scent, which is distinctly individual to her, and her alone.

When a swarm is presented with two queens at a distance, one of which is their own and the other an imposter, the swarm will always select its own queen and will attack the imposter.  It instantly recognizes the unique pheromone of its own queen even though both, obviously, smell like queens.  One smells like their queen and the other does not.

One might think that a queen’s unique pheromone signature might be driven by the fragrance of the blossoms that the colony is foraging in.  While this is somewhat true, it is only part of the picture.  For example, if a colony has been foraging on sage blossoms, the colony and the queen might begin to take on the aroma of sage.  This effect, however, is only an enhancement to the underlying scent, which remains unique and inherent in each individual queen.  Scientists have proven this by removing a colony’s queen, exposing her to a strong but different scent, and then reintroducing her to her colony.  The bees still recognized their queen’s underlying pheromone, even though it appeared to have been overwhelmed with a different scent.

What does this mean for a beekeeper?  A conscientious beekeeper must be aware that any new queen is always going to smell differently than a previous queen, and the bees will know this immediately.  Don’t be fooled, they are going to recognize this each and every time.  This is why we beekeepers use queen cages and sugar candy to slow a queen’s introduction, to allow time for the colony to grow accustomed to their new queen’s unique pheromone signature.  It is also why it is often good advice to not disturb a colony shortly after a queen introduction.  When a new queen is becoming established in a colony, the hive requires a certain amount of time to become intimate with that queen’s unique pheromone, and to claim that queen and her pheromone as their own.  Any disturbance that disrupts the transmission of this new pheromone can potentially create confusion inside the colony, possibly resulting in the colony mistakenly identifying the new queen as an imposter, and thus attacking her.

Swarming vs. Supercedure Queen Cells

An unmanaged colony of honeybees in nature has only two ways of reproducing itself for the next generation:  Either it divides itself by swarming, or it stays put as a single colony and supercedes its queen.  In both cases, the original queen is replaced.  In the case of swarming, the original queen leaves with the swarm, leaving a set of queen cells that are called “swarm cells.”  In the case of when a colony supercedes, the original queen either dies of natural causes or is killed, and is then replaced by the colony.  In this case, the colony will raise a set of “supercedure cells.”  Both types of queen cells are raised by the colony to hatch out the next generation queen.

An experienced and astute beekeeper will notice that swarm cells are usually formed at the bottom of frames, whereas supercedure cells are formed in the middle of frames.  Swarm cells are nearly always of higher quality than supercedure cells.  This is because swarm cells, by definition, are constructed during the peak swarming season, which is the ideal time of year for raising well-fed and high-quality queen cells.  During the swarming season, pollen is typically readily available, and the colony is able to take advantage of prime conditions for raising the highest-quality queen cells.

Supercedure cells, on the other hand, may be constructed throughout the year.  The timing of supercedure cells is not dictated by the season, but rather by the condition of the existing queen.  This means that supercedure cells could be formed when conditions are downright poor for raising queens, such as during drought.  Sometimes supercedure cells are constructed on an emergency basis (for example, when a queen is accidentally killed by a beekeeper or otherwise dies unexpectedly for other reasons).  In its stress and urgency to raise a new queen, a colony may or may not select ideally aged larvae for raising the next generation queen, also possibly resulting in the production of a sub-par queen.

Thus, based on all of the above, it would seem that swarm cells are superior to supercedure cells.  But wait . . . not so fast!

While it is true that swarm cells, and therefore the subsequent queens, are often of high quality, however, from the point of view of a beekeeper this is all backwards.  From the point of view of the beekeeper, swarming is always an undesirable behavior.  No beekeeper would ever be enthusiastic about a queen that was produced as the result of a swarming episode.  The queen from a swarm cell, by definition, is a queen from a genetic line that has already proven itself eager to swarm.  And no beekeeper wants swarming genetics in their stock.

Actually, for a beekeeper who is managing a domestic colony of bees, neither of the naturally produced queen replacement options that the beehives themselves offer are particularly attractive.  The swarm cell contains the wrong kind of genetics, and the supercedure cell can be of lower quality.  This perhaps explains why commercial queen production is a necessary and valuable service to beekeepers around the world.

The commercial queen breeder takes the best of both worlds and produces a superior queen.  The selection of the stock is taken from colonies that have little or no interest in swarming, thus minimizing the genetic swarming tendency in future generations.  The queen producer then raises the carefully selected queen cells in conditions that are designed to mimic the swarming season, thus ensuring the highest quality of the production of the queen herself.  Even though a commercial queen is raised in a simulated swarm setting, the genetics of the queen are first carefully selected from a breeding regimen that specifically selects for many desirable characteristics, of which swarming is not one of them!

Races of Honeybees

Beekeeping is one of those endeavors where we beekeepers commonly distinguish the different races that make up the world of honeybees.  As human beings, we are quite familiar with the concept of race.  However, it is not often that we consider race as a component of other species.

Race is typically defined as a grouping of similar physical traits and ancestry.  Honeybees, being social creatures from around the globe, have evolved into various races, each of which contain their own distinct physical and ancestral characteristics.  Often, these races show apparent behavioral characteristics as well.  For example, the Italian honeybees are known for their light color and generally docile behavior; whereas Russian honeybees are known for their dark color and their ability to winter in cold climates.

The most familiar races of honeybees, along with their common characteristics are:

– Italian:  known for light color, gentle behavior, rapid buildup and high brood production
– Carniolan:  known for dark color, gentle behavior, and ability to conserve their food stores
– African:  known for their aggressive temperament and high propensity to swarm
– Caucasian:  known for their grey color, low propensity to swarm, and high propolis production
– Russian:  known for their black color, natural mite resistance, and overwintering prowess

Lucky for us beekeepers, honeybees are seemingly unaffected by having multiple races within a hive.  For example, when an Carniolan colony is requeened with an Italian queen bee, the beehive will gradually become lighter and more golden as more of the Italian bees take the place of their Carniolan sisters.  The colony never seems to mind the disparity of the races within it, and temporarily becomes a mixed-race bee society.  The Italian honeybees work right alongside their Carniolan sisters, yellow and black together in harmony, seemingly with no strife or even the slightest concern over racial differences.  It just goes to show that, once again, perhaps humans could learn a thing or two from honeybees and Mother Nature!

Overwintering Honeybees In California

A common debate among beekeepers in California and other temperate regions is whether a beehive overwinters better if it continues foraging and raising brood during the mild California winter, or if the colony is better off completely shutting down as it would do in a cold weather climate.  There are good arguments for, and against, both.

Most southern climate beekeepers instinctively appreciate the idea of a colony that keeps its momentum going by continuing to forage and raise brood year-round.  Foraging bees bring in new pollen and nutrition.  This enables the colony to keep rearing new brood, which gives a boost to the population during the off-season.  In theory, this year-round population boost seems like a great idea.  When weather conditions are right, the extra brood typically makes a positive contribution to the overall size and robustness of the colony as it enters the early spring season.

The flip side, however, is that foraging behavior during the cooler and more volatile California weather in December can be perilous for bees if the weather does not cooperate.  Foraging bees always face a certain level of risk every time they head out of the colony.  With every flight, a foraging bee risks getting eaten by birds, drowning in unsafe water, getting lost, being caught in a spider web, getting hit by a car, etc.  One of a foraging bee’s biggest risks, however, is being caught away from the hive during a sudden change of weather.  For instance, a foraging bee may leave the hive when the weather is pleasant, only to encounter a sudden drop in temperature or the start of a rain storm.  This leaves the individual bee in a precarious situation.  As a coldblooded creature, it cannot warm itself.  If the foraging bee becomes too cold or wet, it could lose its ability to fly home, causing it to perish and never return.  This scenario happens fairly frequently in otherwise temperate parts of California.  Sometimes, during December, we see perfectly healthy colonies dropping population, especially when the eucalyptus is blooming but the weather is volatile.  Southern California beekeepers even have a name for this phenomenon: “Winter dwindle.”

A few years ago, the USDA conducted a test of a local California beekeeper’s bees, comparing the colonies that he placed in the cold mountainous areas (which forced the bees to completely shut down), to those that he placed in the temperate coastal areas (where the bees kept foraging and raising brood throughout the winter).  The USDA concluded that due to the “winter dwindling” effect, the bees in the mountains that completely shut down actually ended the winter with a higher overall population than the bees that kept raising brood and foraging.

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!