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Our Smallest Domestic Animal

Humans seem to have always been motivated by honey.  The first recorded use of honey dates all the way back to around 25,000 years ago.  But this timeframe only refers to when humans began documenting the collection of honey – in cave art.  Considering that many other animals, such as bears, collect honey without drawing pictures of it, it is likely that humans were collecting honey well before they began recording their feats in artwork.  The first humans to begin consuming honey no doubt sought out wild hives and robbed their honey in the same way that many people still do today – mainly by smoking the hives, and perhaps by wearing protective gear to grab the juicy honeycombs that bees use to store honey.

If you were someone who had to search out wild hives in order to obtain honey, the advantages of domesticating honeybees would quickly become obvious.  Having your own domestic honeybee hive would mean that you would not have to go searching for honey, and you could gain some control over the timing and availability of the honey harvest.

The earliest records of domesticated beekeeping date back to around 7000 BC.  The first beekeepers appear to have kept hives of bees in clay pots.  We know this because traces of beeswax have been found in certain pots from this era in the Middle East.  As we currently know, bees do not have to be kept in any specific kind of container.  Beekeepers can establish bees in all sorts of shelter – hollowed out logs, trees, boxes, baskets, etc.  Many early beekeepers soon switched to what we call “skeps” to house their bees.  Skeps are beehives that are more or less baskets of bees.

For the most part, compared to many other domesticated animals, bees have fared mostly well in their relationship with their human caretakers.  Unlike nearly all domestic animals, individual bees are not corralled, and are free to leave and return at will.  Today, with the invention of the Langstroth hive, with its removable and replaceable frames, if a beekeeper is responsible and conscientious, the bees can live indefinitely.

Once honeybees became domesticated, the practice of beekeeping began.  Bee breeding also began, with the selection criteria of gentleness and honey production generally taking the forefront.  With domestication, humans began their close relationship and husbandry of the smallest domestic animal to date – the tiny and intrepid honeybee!

Anticipating Vs. Reacting

When we were just getting started here at Wildflower Meadows, an old-time beekeeper was retiring and eagerly sold us some of his equipment.  As we were getting ready to drive away with our truckload of beekeeping gear, and our dreams for the future, he offered us a piece of immeasurable parting advice.  He insisted that we understand that a skilled beekeeper always anticipates the upcoming, and never just reacts to what is happening in the now.  In beekeeping, he said, reacting to the present conditions is always too late.  He explained that his advice especially applied to the honey supers that we were purchasing.  He wanted us to make sure that the supers were on the hives, in place, and ready to go before the honey flow so as not to miss the action.  And then, he insisted that we should take them off right before the honey flow ends, well before the robbing starts so as to be less stressful on the bees.

Actually, his wise and priceless advice applies to almost all of beekeeping.  It is true that the best beekeepers stay ahead of the conditions, and not just react to them.  There is much to anticipate in beekeeping, and reacting is almost always too late.  For example, when a colony is in danger of overcrowding, some sort of swarm control needs to be done before it is too late.  When a queen is failing, she needs to be replaced before the hive declines precipitously.  If there are neighbors nearby with swimming pools, the bees should be given a clean and reliable water source before trouble ensues, and so on . . .

Sadly, many of the supers that we purchased from this gentleman burned up in one of the too-many-to-count California wildfires that seem to strike every year.  Yet, sometimes we still run into a few pieces of surviving equipment here and there, which always brings a smile.  More importantly, however, this beekeeper’s sage advice – far more valuable – lives on.  In our company, we take this advice to heart and always try our best to anticipate, and act, on what lies ahead.

The Warré Hive

Most of the beekeepers that we work with – and the majority of beekeepers in the United States – utilize the standard type of beehive known as a Langstroth hive.  This type of hive, with removable and standardized rectangular frames, is the most well-known and well-recognized type of beehive.  It is typically the main type of hive that is featured and sold in most of the major beekeeping supply companies.

As we have mentioned in many previous posts, however, bees are flexible in their choice of home.  They can be found in the inside of tree hollows, owl boxes, the sidings of buildings, and even abandoned furniture.  Clearly, there are many types of possible configurations of beehives.  There is no universal law that says that bees have to be kept in Langstroth hives – and certainly not one honeybees themselves ever plan on following!

Back around the turn of the 20th Century, a creative and independent thinking French beekeeper named Abbé Émile Warré, gave some thought to the type of hive that he believed would be ideal for both the beekeeper and the bees themselves.  This thoughtful beekeeper considered some 350 different types of configurations, eventually settling on what he called “The People’s Hive.”  Today, we call this style of beehive a Warré Hive.  It was designed by Émile Warré to be easy to construct, economical, natural, and as comfortable as possible for the bees.

The Warré Hive is comparable to many of today’s top bar hives, but it has a number of unique and stylistic features.  The roof, like that of a well-designed human house, is gabled to allow for water runoff.  A Warré hive almost always features a ventilated loft directly under the roof.  And, add to that, it has a typically stylish entrance at the bottom.  These hives really look sharp.  The most distinctive structural feature of the Warre hive – at least in our opinion – is the quilt box that is placed directly under the roof.  Within the quilt box, the beekeeper places straw or shaved cedar chips to absorb excess moisture and provide insulation for the colony below.

Besides being a work of art for the beekeeper, the Warré hive is relatively inexpensive and easy to construct for a practical-minded beekeeper.  The materials mostly consist of inexpensive natural wood.  Since the hive itself is also a top bar hive, it does not require the purchase of enclosed frames or foundation.  The bees are free to build natural comb much in the same way that they would naturally do in the wild.  There is no plastic anywhere in or around the hive.

Unlike most conventional hives, Warré hives are designed to be worked from the top down.  This means that Warré hives are typically supered from the bottom rather than from the top.  When the first box becomes full of bees and brood the beekeeper will then add an additional box underneath, enabling the bees to expand downward.  This is a natural movement for the bees.  Eventually, when the bees have naturally expanded their brood rearing into the lower boxes, the upper box will end up remaining mostly filled with honey.  The beekeeper then harvests this top box – usually only once per year.

Émil Warré envisioned a system whereby the beekeeper would generally leave the bees alone, providing for their maximum comfort.  In his judgment, the bees did best with minimal beekeeper intrusion.  He ideally envisioned only one visit per year simply to remove the top box.  There is something to be said for this hands-off approach.  It is very respectful to the bees.  On the other hand, however, in today’s adverse environment, where bees are subject to all sorts of maladies and dangers, the bees can – and usually do – benefit from a supportive relationship with a responsible beekeeper.  To this point, the Warré design can be somewhat cumbersome for a beekeeper who wants to regularly inspect and manage their hive.

If you are interested in exploring the Warré hive further, we recommend taking a look at The Bee Space website, which features a link to Émil Warré’s famous book, “Beekeeping for All,” as well as detailed instructions on how to build your own Warré Hive.

Photo of Warré Hive used by permission, courtesy of Nick Winters; The Bee Space

Beekeeping And Estate Planning

At Wildflower Meadows we are not estate planning experts.  There are more than enough qualified individuals available to assist you with the important questions of how to draft a will, and how to prepare one’s estate for the inevitable.

But when it comes time for estate planning, what about your bees?  As a beekeeper, are you thinking about what will happen to your colonies when you are no longer around to take care of them?  Do you have a plan for them?  Before you assume that these are silly questions, keep in mind that anything can happen.

At Wildflower Meadows, we recently received a call from a distressed customer.  Her father, a long-time beekeeper, had recently passed away, leaving her the sole beneficiary of 200 colonies.  Aside from the fact that she had little beekeeping experience, her biggest challenge was that out of the 200 colonies, she had only been able to uncover the location of approximately 30 of them.  The remaining 170 colonies were missing, located in other apiaries, of which she had no idea of where they were.

While this customer had ordered 30 Wildflower Meadows’ queens to requeen the colonies that she had found, she had no idea how to find the other 170 missing colonies.  Neither the county bee inspector, nor her father’s friends, knew of their locations.  They were missing, and possibly lost forever.  If only her father had left instructions in his will, these colonies could have been saved. Now they will need to depend on pure luck to be returned to their rightful beekeeper, or be abandoned.

Over the course of the years, here at Wildflower Meadows, we have “inherited” our fair share of abandoned bees and beekeeping equipment.  From time to time, we receive calls from frustrated real estate agents asking us to pick up long-abandoned apiaries that have no signs, markings, or any other identifying features on the boxes or frames.  More often than not, it is assumed that a beekeeper died somewhere along the way, leaving colonies behind, completely forgotten and abandoned.  This is bittersweet for us.  While we appreciate picking up some additional equipment and perhaps even some bees, we feel sad for the beekeeper and his or her bees that became permanently separated and left abandoned without proper care.

So here is our decidedly “un-expert” estate planning advice:  Don’t forget about your bees!  Register your apiaries with your county bee inspector so that there will be a record of ownership in case someone needs to find them.  And, why not leave instructions for the care of your bees along with your will?  Both your beneficiaries and your bees will be thankful that you were a conscientious beekeeper . . . all the way to the very end.

The Beekeepers’ Convention

November is a fine time of the year to step back from the daily rigors of beekeeping and get a glimpse of the big picture.

Whether meeting in small clubs or large state or national organizations, it is easy to see that beekeepers are a naturally friendly group; they like to arrange get-togethers to share notes, learn new ideas, get a feel for what’s new, and socialize with their like-minded cohorts.

Annual conventions are run by all the major beekeeping associations, such as the American Beekeeping Federation, The American Honey Producers’ Association, and, here in California, The California Beekeepers’ Association.  Pictured above is a scene from last year’s California convention in Lake Tahoe, which featured over 1,000 guests and countless exhibitors.

The convention usually includes several days of industry-leading speakers, typically from the large agriculturally-minded universities, such as University of California – Davis, Washington State University and others, as well as break-out groups, special research luncheons, raffles, door prizes and of course, exhibitors.

It is always enjoyable to walk through the maze of exhibitors, which typically consist of the usual mix of beekeeping supply companies, nutrition supplement companies, “save the bees” organizations, and even insurance salespeople.  All of these groups, however, are critical to the success of the beekeeping industry, and nearly all have valuable offerings.

The best part of the state and national conventions is for beekeepers like us to have the opportunity to meet many of our customers face-to-face, and to spend some very rare leisure time catching up with our beekeeping friends!

The Inspectors

As June arrives and the beekeeping season reaches its peak, we begin to think about our annual county beekeeping inspection, which is right around the corner.  Above is a photo that we took from last year’s inspection.

Our county beekeeping inspectors arrive in mid-summer in full force; armed with the latest beekeeping technology, multi-layered beekeeping suits, range-finding binoculars, foulbrood inspection kits, and carrying checklists that seem to be miles long.  They ask questions such as, “Where is the water source in this apiary?  How many colonies do you have here?  How close is the nearest residence?  What fire prevention steps are you taking, etc.?  These questions can go on and on, lasting the better part of a morning.

Of course, the inspectors have to live up to their title, and also inspect actual bee colonies for evidence of foul brood, varroa mites, viruses, diseases, colony temperament, and so on.  At Wildflower Meadows, we have few concerns with third-party colony inspections, since as queen breeders, we regularly do the same inspections, and are hyper-vigilant in guarding against diseases.  It is our job to regularly monitor the health and temperament of our own colonies, and we take this responsibility seriously.

Sometimes, however, the thoroughness and breadth of the inspectors’ checklists catches us off guard.  We were written up last year for not sufficiently trimming the weeds in an access road leading up to one of our apiaries.  We wrote about weed trimming last year, when we mentioned how beekeepers are sometimes hesitant to remove pollen sources from around the bees.  We are no different:  flowering weeds are precious pollen sources, and like many beekeepers, it breaks our heart to be forced to remove them!  The inspectors, however, in their quest for fire prevention (which obviously is very important in California) had no patience for our arguments.  We are now required to get more serious about our weed trimming responsibilities, oftentimes trimming in places that we never even thought about before . . .

Who knows what the inspectors will come up with this year?  Nevertheless, we are feeling confident.  Our colonies are looking great, our water sources are full, and our apiaries are weed-free.  And, at least for now, we are ready for the next round of inspections!