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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.

The Hive Tool

It is hard to imagine a tool that is so simple and elegant in design, yet so effective for so many tasks.  Whether a beekeeper works in their backyard with one or two colonies, or inside an orchard with hundreds of colonies on pallets, the humble hive tool is the indispensable and loyal friend of every beekeeper, beginner or advanced.

The main functions of the hive tool are to provide leverage in opening colonies, to scrape, and to hook.  Using a hive tool as a lever is obvious.  A beekeeper regularly needs to pry apart heavy boxes that often are glued together with sticky wax and propolis.  A sturdy hive tool fits between the boxes while the beekeeper pushes down on the other end, thus opening even the heaviest of boxes with surprisingly little effort.

Scraping is another task that a beekeeper seems to perform all of the time.  Lids need to be scraped free of wax, and tops of frames need to be cleared of burr comb.  Bottom boards often need to be scraped of debris.  Also, smokers need to be scraped of carbon.  Who knew that beekeeping involves so much scraping?  Thank goodness for the trusty hive tool.

Each hive tool also features a hole near the top that can be used to pry loose nails.  At Wildflower Meadows, we’ve also used our hive tools as makeshift hammers when real hammers cannot be found.

Hive tools usually come in bright colors, so that they be found easily.  When a beekeeper misplaces his hive tool, it feels like misplacing a phone or set of keys.  Anxiety sets in right away.  A best practice for a beekeeper is to learn to work with a hive tool always in hand or in pocket, so that it is never set down to be misplaced.  There is no worse feeling then just beginning to work a bee yard and misplacing your trusty and hardworking hive tool!

The Hive Stand

Keeping a colony of bees on a hive stand is a real back saver!  Lets face it, nearly everything about the mechanics of beekeeping – the awkward shaped boxes, the heaviness of the honey, the repetitive tasks of bending over time and again – creates a certain recipe for back pain.  Given all of these back straining tasks, it is not uncommon that beekeepers will eventually develop back soreness.  Therefore, one of the ways to reduce back strain is to place a bee colony on a stand.

Besides saving backs, a hive stand offers other advantages too.  By keeping the colony and woodenware off the ground, the wood is less apt to rot from ground moisture.  A hive stand also keeps ground critters, such as skunks, raccoons and even rattlesnakes away from the hives.  In the early mornings, after a cold night the temperature a few feet off the ground is almost always slightly warmer than the temperature directly on the ground.

Another advantage of a hive stand is that if ants are harassing the colony, a conscientious beekeeper can place the legs of the hive stand in cups of vegetable or cooking oil, thereby building a barrier to keep the ants at bay.  This is a nice organic method of ant control that avoids the use of pesticides.

Most commercial beekeepers do not use hive stands.  Given that the larger commercial beekeepers usually manage their bees on pallets – either four or six colonies to a pallet – a hive stand simply will not work for them.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, although we do not use pallets, we also generally do not use hive stands either.  We simply have too many mating nucs and too many pollination colonies that need to be moved throughout the year to be able to efficiently take advantage of the benefits of hive stands.

At our breeding apiary, however, we make an exception and place our breeding colonies on stands.  It makes perfect sense, as the breeder colonies do not move from place to place.  And, since we work with these colonies nearly every day, it is a relief to all of us not to have to bend at the waist while working within the breeding apiary!

The Wildflower Meadows hive stand design, pictured above, is a double stand, which holds two colonies side by side.  Usually we place the entrances in opposing directions, so as not to confuse the bees as to which hive to return.

Although Wildflower Meadows’ hive stands are hand-made in our wood workshop, Mann Lake makes a similar hive stand with adjustable legs!

The Fume Board

There are a number of ways of separating bees from their honey – some beekeepers use a simple brush, others use a bee blower – but the most efficient, at least in our opinion, is a fume board.  More often than not, the fume board is the tool of choice for commercial and larger scale beekeepers when it comes time to harvest honey.

Over the course of the honey flow honeybees pack the top boxes of their hives – called “supers” or “honey supers” – with fresh nectar.  They dry the nectar and convert it into honey.  With any luck, by the end of the honey flow, the super is full of honey.  A full sized or “deep super” can contain up to 80 lbs. of honey when full.

When it comes time to harvest the honey, a beekeeper needs to clear the bees from the super, so that the super of honey can be brought back to the shop for extraction and processing.  This is where the fume board enters the scene.  The bottom of the fume board is typically made of a sort of felt material.  The beekeeper sprays this material with a fumigant.  At Wildflower Meadows we use a natural spray made of almond oil extract, known commercially as “Bee Quick”.

 

Even though this spray smells great to us – something like almond marzipan – for some reason the bees can’t stand it.  Especially when the sun hits the board and begins to accelerate the fumes, the bees begin a rapid downward exit from the honey super, and thus leaving it free of bees.

Large commercial beekeeping outfits sometimes use up to thirty of these boards at a time to harvest a large-sized apiary.  With a crew of three or four beekeepers, each managing six or seven fume boards at a time, a commercial beekeeping company can harvest honey from an entire apiary of fifty or more colonies in about an hour!

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.