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Small Hive Beetles

In the world of beekeeping, there seems to be no end to pests and adversity for both bees and beekeepers alike. Here at Wildflower Meadows, it seems to us that exotic pests and parasites really took hold in American beekeeping sometime during the late 1990s and early 2000s.  First came tracheal mites, then varroa mites, then African Bees.  Subsequently, at some point came colony collapse and along with it a multitude of exotic viruses that practically no one had heard of before – and virtually few still understand today.

In the midst of all this, it can be easy to forget about the small hive beetle, which arrived roughly around the same time. The small hive beetle, also known as the Aethina tumida, was first found in South Carolina in 1996 – though, it’s thought to originate from Southern Africa. A few years later, scientists discovered this new pest in Florida, where the beetles are believed to be responsible for killing thousands of honey bee colonies. Although it’s unclear exactly how the beetle made it to the United States (though public transport may be to blame), we do know that it has wreaked havoc ever since.

Beekeepers often see adult small hive beetles around the lid or bottom boards of colonies.  The adult hive beetles themselves are not much of a problem to beehives – they are really more of a nuisance.  While adult small hive beetles can be easily spotted by beekeepers and controlled by strong beehives, their disgusting larvae are actually much more dangerous and troublesome.

Adult beetles lay their eggs in the small cracks and gaps of a beehive.  When the subsequent larvae emerge, they track through the hive, eating honey, pollen, and pollen substitutes. As they burrow through the comb they defecate in the hive, which destroys and ferments honey.  This fermented honey becomes foamy and takes on the odor of rotten citrus fruit, often leaking from the comb and creating a horrible mess.

Many commercial beekeepers have come to refer to this revolting damage simply as “slime.” This mess can happen inside the hive or in the beekeeper’s stored equipment.  The potential damage of the small hive beetle larvae to the beekeeper is three-fold – loss of comb, loss of honey, and potentially loss of bees.

Not all beehives suffer from the presence of small hive beetles however.  Much of the time, strong colonies can control and corral the adult small hive beetles and limit their population inside the hive, thus limiting their egg-laying and subsequent larvae damage.  It is the weaker and less populous colonies that generally suffer from the small hive beetle.

Since these weaker colonies don’t have the strength of numbers to control the adult beetle population, they suffer the effects of too many larvae.  Conditions inside these hives can sometimes deteriorate past the point of no return, creating too much damage and fermented honey.  This can cause the bees in the hive to abscond, leaving nothing but a slimy mess inside the equipment.

At Wildflower Meadows, we first started noticing the occasional small hive beetle around 2012.  However, small hive beetles have never really gained a foothold in most areas of California, including ours – thankfully.   Around here, small hive beetles sometimes appear for a month or two during the wet season, never causing damage, then disappear for months, or sometimes years at a time.  If the small hive beetle has a vulnerability, it is that the larvae eventually must leave the hive to burrow in the ground and pupate. Here in California our ground is generally dry and hard for a long portion of the year, and the hive beetle larvae can’t flourish under these conditions. Thank goodness for our long, hot, and dry spells – no one here is complaining!

 

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!

How To Bank Queens

When you have more queens on hand than you know what to do with, then it’s probably time to think about banking them.  Banking queens is a way to keep queens healthy over the long-term before they are placed inside their actual colonies.  Although at Wildflower Meadows we typically sell our queens quickly after pulling them, we still nevertheless need to maintain queen banks throughout the season.  As in any queen rearing operation, there are always queen bees coming and going.  When a Wildflower Meadows’ queen is standing by for shipment, she sometimes needs a comfortable ‘bed and breakfast’ to temporarily be housed safely and professionally.  Afterall, she is royalty!

Whether you are banking a hundred or more queens at a time, or just one or two, the principals of successful queen banking are always the same.  The key to your success, and by far the most important component of your banking system, is that you maintain a strong, healthy banking colony that is both well-fed and queenless throughout the period of banking.

Traditional beekeeping advice often says that you can bank queens in a colony that has its own queen as long as you keep the queen bank over a queen excluder.  However, at Wildflower Meadows, we do not subscribe to this view.  This approach often results in worker bees attacking the banked queens, which can unnecessarily cause stress or losses to the queens in the bank.  We have found that it is best that the banking colony has no queen of its own, as this makes it very receptive towards caring for and properly attending to the banked queens.

Your banking colony should always be well fed.  At Wildflower Meadows we never stop feeding our banking colonies.  The syrup flows from March through September and it never stops.  This ensures that the attending bees inside of the banks always have more than enough resources to take excellent care of the queens.  If you are banking queens for more than a week or two, you also will need to maintain your queen bank by removing any natural queen cells inside the bank, and by continually adding brood.  You always want a good supply of young nurse bees on hand in your bank, because these are the bees that focus on taking care of your precious queens.  When you are banking queens, nurse bees are your friends.  If you don’t keep adding brood, you will quickly run out of nurse bees, and your queens will suffer the consequences.

Once your banking colony is well fed, strong and queenless, it is ready to receive the banked queens.  You will want to have some system for storing the queens inside the colony.  The first thing is to make sure that the banked bees have no access to releasing the queens!  If you are banking just a few queens, the easiest approach is to place a piece of heavy-duty tape around the bottom of the cage, blocking any access to the candy or cork.

There are different methods for placing the queens inside of the banking colony.  At Wildflower Meadows, we use what is known as a “banking frame,” which is a specialized beekeeping frame that is designed to hold 132 queens at a time.  This frame takes up the space of two normal Langstroth frames inside a deep hive body.

You don’t necessarily need a banking frame, however, to successfully bank queens.  If you are banking for a relatively short amount of time and don’t mind cleaning up a little extra burr comb, you can simply remove two frames from your banking colony, and creatively place your queens inside the gap you’ve created, making sure to leave enough space for the bees to attend to the queens.   If you have wooden cages, you could assemble “groups” of ten queens or so with a rubber band, and stack them inside the gap.  Always keep in mind that your nurse bees need to have easy access to the queens.  If possible, you should also place the queens towards the center of the colony, well below the lid, as excessive heat may cause damage.

Best practices call for banking queens without any attendants inside the cages.  Theoretically, this is to keep the bees in the bank focused on the queens directly rather than on the attendants in the cages, which may have different pheromones and repel or fight with the banking colony.  In our experience, however, this is rarely the case.  Usually, the attendants inside of the cages combine forces in a friendly manner with the attendants in the bank and work together harmoniously to take care of the queens.  Nevertheless, to be safe, especially when banking over the long term, it is always better to bank queens without attendants inside the individual cages.

When To Add A Super To A Beehive

For both new beekeepers and experienced beekeepers alike, it can often be difficult to know when it is the right time to add an additional box (known as a super) to a growing colony of bees.  Unfortunately, there is often no perfect answer to this question.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, with all the combined years of experience of our team, we still find ourselves at certain times wondering and debating whether it is the right decision to add supers to our colonies or not.

It might seem at first that a beehive is always better off with more space.  Afterall, more space means more room for surplus honey, more room for a colony to expand, more room for the bees to avoid crowding, and more room to reduce swarming pressure.  So, why not just add a super or two and solve all these problems at once?  Beginning beekeepers typically follow this perfectly logical train of thought.  The results, however, are often not what they had in mind.  Too much space for a beehive can often lead to unintended consequences.

There are several downsides to providing too much space to a colony, the main one being that rather than promoting growth, adding overly excessive space to a beehive, or adding space at the wrong time can often set a colony backward.  In fact, adding a super at the wrong time of year can sometimes result in a smaller or more stressed out colony than if the colony had simply been left alone.  This is a counterintuitive concept, and it is what causes experienced beekeepers to pause and think twice before supering their colonies, especially relatively weak ones.

Anytime a super is added to a colony, it affects the bees’ ability to regulate the temperature and humidity balance of the colony.  It gives them more space to attend to, clean up, maintain, and defend, all potentially straining their resources.  During cold weather, cavernous space in a beehive is especially a liability, causing detrimental heat loss.  Even in very hot weather, excess space can interfere with a colony’s ability to cool the all-important colony core and brood nest.

Also, bees naturally like to move upward.  When a super is added prematurely, the bees will tend to move upward first, rather than outward.  This sometimes results in a long and narrow shape to the colony, which is less than ideal both for the efficient use of the equipment, and for maximizing colony growth and honey production.

So, when is the best time to add a super to a colony of honeybees?  The ideal time to add a super is during periods of natural population growth (typically, the spring), before or during a honey flow (spring or summer), or during periods of swarming (again, typically the spring).  Before adding a super, beekeepers often use a standard rule of thumb, which is known as the 7/10 rule.  This rule says that the proper time to add a super to a beehive is when the bees have already covered 7 of the 10 frames in the existing box or boxes.  If the colony is growing and the timing is right (as noted above) then the 7/10 rule comes into play.  If the colony is strong enough to have 7 of the 10 frames full of bees, then is has the necessary ingredients for a natural and seamless expansion into a new empty super.

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!

Unwelcome Guest

As the beekeeping year winds down and the nights become long and cold, honeybees tend to huddle into winter clusters, hunkering down for the icy cold months ahead.  These winter bees gather into a tight unit, preserving their heat and honey.  They become less active, as their goal is not to expand or make honey, but rather simply to survive.  They are perfectly happy to stay inside their comfortable home, keep warm, and ride out the winter.

Sometimes this warm and comfortable home, however, attracts unwanted guests.  The life of a mouse during winter is not particularly easy either, as a mouse is always on the lookout for both shelter and warmth.  And nothing quite beats the comfort of hanging out inside of a beehive while the bees are hard at work keeping it warm.  Not only is a beehive sheltered and warm, but it also contains free food in the form of pollen and honey.  Believe it or not, usually during winter, a mouse can actually take up residence in a live beehive and live perfectly well alongside the bees!

During most of the season it would be impossible for a mouse to coexist within a live bee colony.  The population of bees is simply too high and too active in the peak of the season for a mouse to survive for too long without being stung.  A summer colony is booming with activity and plenty of guard beesWinter colonies, however, are small and inactive, thus making them perfect targets for opportunistic mice.

Once inside a colony, a mouse can not only chew through valuable food stores, but also cause damage to the honeycomb, and contaminate the combs and woodenware with urine.  From both the bees’ and the beekeepers’ perspective, mice really are unwanted guests.

Lets be honest though, the little guy in the above picture looks perfectly innocent.  You might even think that he deserves a nice home.  But sorry, Mr. Mouse, the bees and the beekeeper tend to disagree.

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!

The Solar Wax Melter

Over the course of a beekeeping season, you may find yourself collecting scraps of beeswax and not knowing what to do with them.  For example, when you scrape away burr comb or lids, or when you scrape away honey cappings during your honey harvest, you will collect perfectly good beeswax.  For a small-scale beekeeper this is not going to be a huge amount of wax and hardly worth the time.  Let’s face it, you probably are not going to be able to start a Fortune 500 candle company with your meager wax scrapings.  However, if you save up enough wax, little by little, over the course of a year you should have eventually gathered enough wax by the end of the year for a few wonderfully scented beeswax candles.

How do you transform your messy wax scrapings into usable beeswax?  Enter the solar wax melter.  The solar wax melter sounds like a high-tech piece of equipment, but is actually hardly more than a sturdy box with a glass lid.  When placed in the sun, the glass lid enables the box to heat up to the melting point of beeswax (145 degrees Fahrenheit).  The wax then neatly collects and organizes itself at the bottom of the box.  At that point, you have nice amount of quality beeswax, free of charge!

From there, it is just a simple matter of purchasing a candle mold or two.  Add some wicks and you are well on your way.

Nearly all beekeeping supply companies sell ready-made solar wax melters.  However, the design of these is so simple that it often is just as easy and economical for a beekeeper to construct their own.  For a handy beekeeper, a simple internet search will come up with more than enough plans for constructing a basic solar wax melter that works perfectly fine.

Photo of solar wax melter used with permission, courtesy of Dancing Bee Equipment.

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 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.