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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!

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.

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.

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

Variety In Beekeeping

Most new beekeepers will quickly discover that there seem to be as many ways to keep bees as there are beekeepers that keep them!  In terms of equipment, beekeepers can choose from using Langstroth hives, top bar hives, Flow Hives, big hives, small hives, deep honey supers, small honey supers, and not to mention the various systems for making comb honey, etc.

Even beekeeping methodology differs from beekeeper to beekeeper.  Some beekeepers requeen in the spring, others requeen in the late summer or fall, and some not at all.  Some beekeepers keep Italian stock, and others prefer Russian or Carniolan stock.  The list of these kinds of variables runs deep and seems to never end.  Perhaps it is the possibility of all these options that creates some of the joy in beekeeping.  Beekeeping is a rather freewheeling affair.  In beekeeping, experimentation is the rule and not the exception!

It is the availability of all these options that creates the opportunity for learning.  Once a beekeeper gains experience in the basics of beekeeping, a whole world of learning opportunities open up. We beekeeping adventurers encourage all beekeepers to step away from the routine from time to time; try new systems, try new methods, and see where their discoveries lead them.

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!



 

Spring Beekeeping

Spring arrives at different times in different parts of the United States.  Here, at Wildflower Meadows, our spring begins in early February.  For some of our customers, whose apiaries are in the north of the country or are in the mountains, spring can arrive as late as the middle of May or early June.  Regardless of the timing, however, spring beekeeping activities are the same for all beekeepers.

Spring is a time when the population of a beehive is about to grow rapidly.  The queen has begun to lay new frames of brood in earnest.  Often in the early spring a beehive may appear to contain more frames of brood than bees!  Accordingly, most spring beekeeping is focused on managing the expansion of the bee population and gearing up for an oncoming spring honey flow.

Honeybees’ swarming instinct is strongest in the spring, so the beekeeper needs to be especially aware of warning signs of swarming.  Having a young queen inside the hive, and making sure that there is enough extra space (supers) for a growing colony are the two best actions a beekeeper can take to control swarming.  Most colonies will need increased space as the season hits its stride of one or two weeks after the onset of spring.  Spring is also a good time to:

  • Clean off bottom boards
  • Remove entrance reducers (robbing usually is not a problem in the spring)
  • Replace old or destroyed honeycomb
  • Make sure that the bees have a clean and reliable nearby water source
  • Evaluate the quality of the overwintered queen

Although it is important for a beekeeper to ensure that bees have enough space heading into spring, a good beekeeper does not want to get too carried away by adding too many supers, or adding supers too early in the season.  Sometimes early an spring will bring unexpected frosts or chilly weather.  Too much space inside a beehive can make it difficult for the bees to keep the nighttime cluster warm and could result in the brood being chilled.

Mini Mating Frame

 

Given that the bees inside of a colony will generally only tolerate one queen, and that queen bees themselves fight amongst each other if they are in the same colony, it is obvious that when raising queen bees, each queen needs to be provided its own separate colony.  It is impossible to raise more than one queen inside of a single colony, as queen bees do not tolerate “roommates.”  Each queen needs her own castle to call home!

This issue quickly becomes a challenge when raising thousands of queens at a time.  If each queen needs her own colony, and the queen producer needs to set up a separate colony for every queen being raised, then this can quickly become a logistical and costly endeavor.  This process could be considered similar to trying to run an army where every soldier needs a separate apartment, and cannot tolerate living with another soldier.

The only reasonable and cost-effective solution to this problem is to set up small-sized and inexpensive colonies, one for each queen that is being raised.

The majority of beekeepers who raise bees in standard Langstroth colonies are familiar with the three sizes of frames available to them, full size (deep), medium size and small size.  These three frame sizes correspond to the three sizes of hive bodies that beekeepers traditionally use, deep hive bodies, medium supers, and shallow supers, respectively.  Nearly all beekeepers who use standard beekeeping equipment use one or more of these sized frames.

The majority of queen producers, however, utilize a fourth size of frame, which is known as a mini-mating frame.  The mini-mating frame is roughly half the size of a shallow frame.  Three of these small mini-mating frames are just large enough to provide a comfortable living space for a small colony, and most importantly, enough space for a queen to lay a good pattern of brood and prove the quality of her mating and genetics.

Given the small size of the frame, a high-quality queen can easily fill a mini-mating frame, such as the frame above, in less than a day.  The mini-mating frame shown above, filled with brood, is proof that this queen bee is ready for sale.  To us, she is “showing off” her talents.  She is more than ready to visit a “real” and full-sized colony and continue her fine brood laying talents for one of Wildflower Meadows’ customers.