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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.

A Giant Colony Of Honeybees

Once in a while, when everything is going right a beehive can grow to ridiculous proportions.  If the colony has a young, strong-laying queen, lots of space, a perfect flow of honey and pollen, and little competition from other colonies, there is no telling how large a colony can grow!  We have seen and heard stories of some of our customers’ colonies growing up to five and six stories high with honey throughout.

While exciting to behold, a giant colony is not always desirable and can sometimes be too much of a good thing, especially for small-scale beekeepers.  Why?  First, such a large colony, even if completely gentle, can be damaging for one’s relations with neighbors!  What makes a large colony so successful in honey production is that its high overall population leads to a large number of bees coming and going to forage.  While a few bees coming and going out of someone’s back yard can seem like part of the natural environment, unfortunately, clouds of bees in one’s backyard has the potential to become a public relations disaster.  Large foraging populations inevitably lead to bees landing in swimming pools, fecal droppings on neighbors’ cars, greater risks of accidental stings, and of course the possibility of giant swarming events.  The conscientious beekeeper should always minimize these concerns as much as possible.

Smaller colonies, while still able to produce honey, have several advantages over larger colonies.  First, they can be kept more discreetly.  Second, they make for easier management because they weigh less and take up less equipment.  Also, for routine inspections and finding the queen, a small colony will always be easier to inspect.

 

 

Summer Solstice

As the sun reaches its most northerly position relative to the earth, the bees also reach their maximum strength.  The summer solstice, which occurs on June 21st, brings the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  It also marks a delineation between the two broad seasons in the year of a beehive:  the season of expansion and the season of contraction.

During the period prior to the summer solstice, honeybees are generally expanding their population, growing in anticipation of the longer days and the late spring and summer nectar flows.  Bees are highly sensitive to the patterns of the sun.  Not only is their navigation system based on the daily position of the sun, but they also respond to the lengthening and shortening of days by adjusting their populations accordingly.  Their proclivity to expand their populations is, to a large degree, based on the length of daylight.

Within several weeks after the sun reaches its maximum strength, honeybees begin to sense the shortening days.  This change roughly marks the transition from the season of expansion to the season of contraction.  By mid to late summer, due to the shortening days, most queen bees will have cut back on their brood laying, which will result in the beginning of the seasonal decline in bee populations.

The Swarm Lure

Wildflower Meadows is not in the business of rescuing or catching swarms, and it is generally not something that we spend a lot of time doing.  When it comes to swarm catching, we let other beekeepers have all the fun!

However, once in a while we run into swarms that demand our attention.  Sometimes a mating nuc has swarmed into a tree outside the apiary and needs to be brought back into place.  At other times, one of our colonies has swarmed near a neighbor’s house and the neighbor is panicked and calling for assistance.  Occasionally, we may find that a giant swarm has arrived right next to our breeders.  We strive to keep swarms away from our breeders lest they even think about entering a breeder colony and possibly usurping a champion breeder queen.  In all these cases, we need to take action and give our best efforts to corral the swarm into a better place.

This is when the swarm lure proves to be an invaluable tool.  The swarm lure is a bait of essential oils that is highly attractive to a traveling swarm.  The mixture of oils is designed to either smell like an appealing beehive, or to mimic the smell of the Nasonov gland.  The Nasonov gland is the gland in a honeybee that emits the pheromones that call bees together.  Ideally, a good swarm lure immediately catches the swarm’s attention and directs the flight path in the direction of the lure.

There are many different recipes for swarm lures, many of which can be discovered with an Internet search.  Other commercial swarm lures come pre-formulated, and are sold by nearly all of the beekeeping supply companies.  Our personal favorite is the Swarm Commander, which is a proprietary mix of essential oils that reliably directs swarms into our waiting equipment.

When working with a powerful swarm lure like the Swarm Commander, our beekeepers need to be careful not to spill any! Wherever the lure goes, the bees follow. Even an accidental drop on top of the head is enough to cause problems for an entire day!

 

The Forager

An adult worker honeybee typically progresses through a series of roles during her short life span.  During her first two weeks of life she assumes the role of nurse bee, staying inside of the colony, tending to the larvae and to the many needs of the queen bee.  By the start of her third week, still inside the colony she takes on a slightly different role of  an “intermediate” bee; a worker bee who has not quite graduated to foraging status yet.  Her work at this point mostly consists of receiving and storing nectar from the forager bees, producing wax, and building comb.

By the start of the third week, however, a worker bee “graduates” her housekeeping duties and finally becomes a forager.  She will begin by taking a series of training flights to get oriented, and then ultimately heads out into the open world to forage for nectar, pollen, water, and propolis.  The transition to foraging is more or less a death sentence for a worker bee.  The risks to a foraging bee’s life are vastly higher than to a young bee that stays safely inside a well-secured colony.  Not only does a foraging bee have to deal with predators such as swallows and other bee-eating birds, a forager faces a multitude of environmental dangers such as cold, heat, drowning, spider webs, car windshields, etc.  Of course, a forager also can get lost or exhausted in her many daily trips to and from the colony.

A foraging bee makes an average ten to fifteen foraging trips per day!  With this heavy workload, even the strongest and luckiest forager bee only will live about another three weeks while foraging.  Assuming an intrepid foraging bee makes it through the gauntlet of dangers during her daily foraging, sadly her little wings will eventually wear out from all the hard work.  By her third week of foraging she reaches the end of her short lifespan.

Guard Bees

Just like human security guards watching over and protecting an important home, guard bees have the same responsibilities for their colony.  Their mission: keep the colony’s inhabitants safe from intruders.

There are several different kinds of intruders that guard bees must protect against.  They include:

  • Honey bees from other colonies, specifically “robber bees
  • Other kinds of predatory insects, such as ants, moths and yellow jackets
  • Small critters seeking to take refuge inside a beehive for warmth, such as mice
  • Medium sized critters looking to eat bees or honey, such as skunks, raccoons and even some bird species
  • Large sized predators such as bears
  • And, of course, humans, who the bees likely assume intend to rob the colony of its honey

The obvious weapon that a guard bee utilizes, of course, is its powerful sting.  There is more, however, to being a guard bee than stinging.  Like a human security guard, a guard bee must also be attentive, be able to distinguish between normal activity and real threats, and also be able to quickly call for assistance, if needed.

Honeybees are not born as guard bees.  In fact, the youngest bees in a hive make poor guard bees because their stinging capabilities are underdeveloped.  It is the oldest bees that have the most developed stings, and the most potent venom.  Given older bees’ stinging capabilities, plus the fact that they are old and have the least to lose by dying, it is obvious why the oldest bees in a colony typically take on the role of “guard bee.”

A typical strong colony usually has about ten to twenty guard bees at a time patrolling the entrance of the hive.  This number can change depending on the size of the entrance, the season, nearby pressure from robbing, or presence of other threats.  Obviously, if a large-sized predator such as a bear approaches a beehive, ten guard bees is not going to be enough to deter an attack.  In that case, the guard bees quickly call for reinforcements, using an alarm pheromone.  In such an attack, the entire colony is placed on alert, and all worker bees temporarily become guard bees, sacrificing their lives to protect the colony.

Cold Weather Beekeeping

No one could ever say that the weather here in Southern California is particularly cold, but there are times of the year when the daytime temperatures regularly dip into the 50-degree range.  The cooler weather usually arrives in January, just as we are beginning to build up our mating nucs for the upcoming season’s queen honeybee production.  Temperatures below 60-degrees are not ideal for opening bee colonies, but in January we have to begin preparations for the season in anticipation of the early spring.

Honeybees keep the interior of their colonies around 93-degrees.  While honeybees can manage cooler temperatures for short periods, long exposure to the cold can chill and damage brood.

As we are building up our mating nucs, our beekeepers have to be sensitive to the cooler temperatures and work accordingly.  Colonies and brood cannot be allowed to be open and exposed for extended periods of time.  Our beekeepers need to work with a purpose and stay organized.  Fortunately, the bees usually assist the process by clustering around any open brood and covering exposed areas.

In the cooler temperatures, bees do not fly very well so they usually hang around the apiary while we are working.  They fly around a little and then come right back to the hive.  Many will land on us and cover us as well!  Are they trying to keep us warm too?

The Winter Cluster

Any time the temperature drops to around 57 degrees Fahrenheit, bees in a hive collapse into a cluster.  The cluster is a well-defined ball of bees inside the hive.  The bees form their cluster around the brood, tightening together to generate and preserve heat.  As the temperature warms, the cluster expands; as the temperature cools, the cluster contracts.

Inside the cluster, the bees generate heat for the brood and interior bees.  They do this by a sort of shivering alongside the brood.  The bees repeatedly contract their powerful wing muscles, which generates warmth.  Further inside the cluster, bees continue to attend to their regular activities of eating, rearing brood, feeding the queen and the larvae, and moving about.

As the outside temperature drops, the bees remain in their cluster.  Eventually, in the heart of winter the bees inside the cluster will cease rearing brood.  While formed in a cluster, bees have little ability to move about the hive freely.  They have to stay close to the cluster to stay warm.  This is why it is nearly impossible to effectively feed bees with syrup when temperatures drop into the 50’s or below, as the bees cannot break free from the cluster to access the syrup.

This is also why, during times of prolonged cold temperatures, the bees need to have honey stored close to where they are clustering.  Colonies have been known to die of starvation even when honey is in their hive, because the honey that was available was located too far away from the clustering bees.

Wildflower Meadows would like to thank all of our friends and customers for a successful 2017.

We wish you all a happy and joyous holiday season!