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Numbering Bee Colonies

Unlike most commercial beekeepers, at Wildflower Meadows we number all of our bee colonies and keep track of each colony individually.  Numbering bee colonies is not an original idea, and it adds a significant amount of record keeping and tediousness to each day’s work.  However, in our opinion, the information gained is more than worth the extra effort.

Once bee colonies have numbers, a whole world of knowledge opens up.  At Wildflower Meadows, we use colony numbers to track the individual queens inside each colony.  We can then compare queens of different ages, races, gene lines, histories, and therefore determine what the best performing queens have in common.  This information helps us to determine what is working, or not working, and enables us to develop an edge on queen selection and breeding.

Numbering colonies is not only useful for queen producers; beginning and small-scale beekeepers can also greatly benefit from keeping records on each colony.  With numbers and records, learning speeds up.  Beekeepers can test different practices on different colonies, test new ideas, keep track of the results, and begin to understand what works best for the health and well-being of their bees.

Painting Beehives

The offseason is a welcome time to get caught up on many projects and repair work.  As the summer wears on, we begin to notice certain boxes that are looking out of shape, and not up to our best standards here at Wildflower Meadows.  Usually, around mid November, we begin to gather these weathered looking boxes, and switch the bees that are still in them into higher quality equipment.

These old four-way queen rearing boxes come back to our shop for refurbishment.  First, they are sanded down, re-squared up, and given a new set of staples for reinforcement.  After this, they are brought out back behind our wood working shop for painting.

Many commercial beekeepers use paint sprayers to paint their hives.  We have always, however, enjoyed the peacefullness and simplicity of painting with a simple roller.  Here, one of our beekeepers is enjoying a relaxing afternoon painting a set of four-way queen rearing boxes.

Painting four-way queen rearing boxes is somewhat more challenging than painting regular bee boxes, as each side of each mating box is painted a different color.  Although adding to the tediousness of the painting, distinct colors for each side will assist the queen bees in finding the correct entrances when they return from their mating flights.  Queen bees can identify colors, and the colored sides help guide them back to their correct home.  We usually choose light pastel colors, avoiding darker colors, which can contribute to overheating of these relatively small colonies on hot summer days.

If it looks like our boxes have too many holes in them, it is because each box contains four holes – one on each side.  Each serves as a separate entrance to house a small colony for raising queens.  Some of the boxes even have two holes on each side, the second hole being a ventilation hole!

Drone Comb

Because drones are some of the least appreciated honeybees among beekeepers, it follows that the frames of honeycomb that are set up to breed them would be equally under-appreciated.  A colony of bees will build honeycomb cells in two sizes, regular-size or drone-size.  Most natural honeycomb, and just about all “foundation” for sale by beekeeping supply companies is regular-sized, meaning that the brood that is raised will become worker bees.  After all, nearly all beekeepers prefer worker bees that make honey over so-called “worthless” drone bees that mainly consume honey.

Regardless of the efforts of the beekeeper, however, all beehives have a strong instinct to raise a certain percentage of drone honeybees, especially during the swarm season in the spring.  To rear new drones, the hive requires that some of the cells in the honeycomb be of the larger drone-sized variety.

Since it creates all of its own comb, a feral or top bar hive has no problem creating some drone-sized comb of it own, and adding it to the existing worker-sized comb that it already has.  A managed Langstroth beehive, however, often does not have an easy way to build drone-sized cells.  In this type of hive, the beekeeper provides all of the frames of honeycomb, which are nearly universally worker-sized.  As a result, the bees themselves have to improvise where and how they can construct drone comb given the limited space to do so.  Often the bees construct some makeshift drone comb between the boxes.  Or, if some old honeycomb is damaged or has a hole in it, the bees eagerly replace the damaged area with drone-sized comb.

Once in a while, a beekeeper runs into an old frame, which as a result of being heavily damaged and re-repaired by the bees, consists nearly entirely of this rebuilt drone comb.  These types of frames, one of which is pictured above, show up often in commercial beekeeping operations where frames are apt to be damaged by regular handling.  As a rule, commercial beekeepers dislike these frames and often discard and replace them as soon as they are discovered.

On the other hand, queen rearing outfits, such as Wildflower Meadows, love drone comb!  The more drone honeycomb, the more drones available, and the better the mating chances and better quality of the resulting queens.  At Wildflower Meadows, we like to make sure that our best colonies have at least two frames of drone comb to produce the maximum quantity of drones.  The frame pictured above, worthless to many beekeepers, is “drone gold” to us!

 

Screened Bottom Board

The Screened Bottom Board

When varroa mites first came on the scene in the United States during the late 1990’s, screened bottom boards followed shortly thereafter.  The concept of screened bottom boards appears to be sound:  varroa mites often fall off of bees to the bottom of the hive.  If the mites are regularly falling off the bees, then why not use a screened bottom so that the varroa mites continue their fall right out the bottom of the beehive?  Mathematically, any reduction in the growth of varroa is bound to help the colony of honeybees.

The main problem with the screened bottom board, is that over many years, no one has ever definitively proven that it works.  One question that remains to be answered satisfactorily, is that if the beehive is placed on the ground then what is to prevent the mites from simply crawling back up into the colony?

Nevertheless, at Wildflower Meadows we committed to using screened bottom boards a number of years ago, and currently run the majority of our colonies over screened bottoms.  In any case, screened bottom boards provide excellent added ventilation.  The screened bottoms also allow the debris from the beehive to fall away from the bees creating a hygienic environment, much in the same way that a feral beehive generally has no bottom.

Smoker

The Smoker

Other than perhaps owning a hive tool, nothing says, “I’m a beekeeper” more than carrying around a billowing bee smoker and leaving a cloud of smoke behind you.  Smokers usually come in two sizes, 4- inches and 7-inches.  A 4-inch smoker is pictured here.

Fuel for the bee smoker comes in many shapes and sizes.  Our favorite smoker fuels at Wildflower Meadows are eucalyptus bark, pine needles, and alfalfa pellets.  Some other popular smoker fuels are:

  • Burlap pieces
  • Cotton rolls (unbleached)
  • Small wood chips
  • Peanut shells
  • Rice husks
  • Small branches

Smoke calms the bees in two ways.  First, upon encountering smoke and anticipating an oncoming fire, the bees retreat to the hive and fill their bodies with honey.  (By filling their bodies with honey, the bees are “grabbing the essentials” before potentially heading out for an emergency evacuation.)  This process of filling up with honey distracts the bees from the oncoming human intrusion.  Second, the odor of the smoke disrupts and masks the alarm pheromones that the guard bees give off.  If the alarm pheromones cannot spread effectively, fewer bees are aware that there is any reason to become defensive.