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Protecting Beehives from Extreme Heat

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

Last week, Wildflower Meadows’ experienced arguably the hottest weekend ever in our apiaries.  Records for extreme heat were set nearly everywhere in Southern California, with some areas reporting temperatures near or above 120 degrees.  The temperatures in many of our apiaries surpassed 115 degrees.  Yet our bees survived.  How were they able to do this?

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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.