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Nocturnal Beekeeping

Most beekeeping activities are best handled during the day.  Hive inspections, queen replacement, honey harvesting, etc., all require good lighting and a relaxed daytime environment to be enjoyable and effective.  After all, working with the bees on a pleasant, relaxing day is what beekeeping is all about.

On the other hand, certain activities, such as moving beehives, are best approached at night when the bees are dormant inside their colonies.  Commercial beekeepers who frequently need to move their bees are well acquainted with putting in long nights of loading and unloading bees in the dark of the night.

Recently, however, here at Wildflower Meadows, we are experimenting with adding another evening activity to our beekeeping repertoire: syrup feeding.  The reason for this late-day approach to feeding is to slow down the likelihood of robbing behavior in the apiary.  When robbing pressure is high, feeding a large apiary early in the day can turn into the most unpleasant of experiences.  As the bees in the apiary become aware of the presence of fresh syrup, they can quickly become whipped up into a feeding frenzy.  Before long, the strong colonies begin to test the defenses of the weaker colonies, sometimes breaking through and inciting further robbing.  And once robbing starts, there is no stopping it.  It will continue all day long, with the results being absolutely damaging.  Weak colonies are overrun.  Diseases can spread, and colonies will be lost.

However, we have a new strategy, which we learned from one of our larger commercial queen customers.  We begin our feeding at sunset and end at nightfall.  When the bees can’t fly, they can’t rob.  By feeding in the evening, the colonies have little ability to fly for very long and begin robbing.  Then, after the feeding ends at nightfall, each colony has the benefit of the entire night to work through their syrup and ready their guard bees without actually having to defend against robber bees.  For us, and especially the bees, this new feeding strategy is really making a difference.  When the sun gets low, our beekeepers turn on their red headlamps (bees are not able to see red light and won’t fly into it) and get to work – nocturnal beekeeping in action!

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!

How and Where to Sell Your Honey

As you gain experience in beekeeping, success will almost certainly follow.  Before long you will likely have more honey in hand than you know what to do with!  This typically brings about the next question, “What am I going to do with all of this honey?”  Fortunately for you, while you are asking yourself this very question, someone else is also asking the question, “Where do you suppose I could find some local honey?”.

So, where do you sell your honey?  It might seem obvious to try to sell to a local market, gift store, or fruit stand.  Although these are tried and true avenues for selling honey, these obvious solutions are not always the best option for a small-scale or sideline beekeeper.  First, these outlets demand wholesale pricing, which means that unless you urgently need to unload a lot of honey fast, this option may not be financially worth your while.  You are not going to get a top price for your prized honey.  Besides, to sell to a retailer, especially a gift store, you will need to invest in fancy jars and labels, which also cuts into your profits.  Lastly, retail markets prefer steady and reliable suppliers.  No one is saying that as a beekeeper you can’t be trusted to keep your word, but honey flows and seasons are irregular.  Sometimes you can run into lengthy periods of drought where you have no honey crop to sell, which might irritate your new customers, who have a year-round stream of customers and want your product to be readily available.

The amount of surplus honey that you have on hand should dictate your strategy.  If you do not have much to sell, your best option may simply be word of mouth with your friends and neighbors.  At Wildflower Meadows, we have a customer who is a full-time commercial beekeeper who successfully sells his entire honey crop on a word of mouth basis.  Another customer sells cases of honey at a time simply to his many neighbors!   This is the most cost-effective option since it costs next to nothing in the way of marketing and exacts the highest retail price.

Other selling options include:

  • Placing a “Local Honey for Sale” sign in front of your house
  • Reaching out to local health food stores, many of which sell bulk honey
  • Renting space at a farmer’s market
  • Selling to church groups or fund raisers
  • Selling directly on the internet or on e-Bay

If you decide to sell honey via the internet, it would be wise to bottle your honey with plastic bottles.  At Wildflower Meadows, there was a time when we would occasionally ship honey to friends and family in glass bottles.  Big mistake!  Not only does glass add more weight, but it was not uncommon for jars to break in transit with gooey honey leaking from the shipping box!  Take it from us, for shipping, plastic is the way to go.

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 Importance of Dividing Beehives

In the wild, a healthy colony of bees passes through an ongoing cycle.  A wandering swarm becomes established in a secure location and becomes an established beehive.  This new beehive builds out honeycomb, and the queen, which arrived with the swarm, begins laying new brood.  Over time, the beehive grows and the hive fills with honey stores and bee population.  Then, when conditions are favorable, the colony prepares to swarm.  The colony raises a new queen for itself, and the old queen leaves with a good percentage of the population to start the swarming process again.

Beehives are used to dividing themselves.  It is how they reproduce to ensure the survival of their species.  If honeybees didn’t swarm, the entire species would be vulnerable to adversity.  By swarming and dividing itself in half, a beehive reduces its risk to adversity in half. If the original colony perishes, the swarm is still available to carry on, and vice-versa.  If the swarm does not make it, the original colony can grow back to size and swarm again later.

As a beekeeper with managed hives, you should be thinking about the same concept of dividing your beehives for managing risk and adversity.  If you have only one hive and something adverse were to happen to it, you would be completely wiped out.  If, however, when conditions are favorable, you decide to divide your colony into two beehives, you would greatly reduce your risk towards losing your entire endeavor.  It is a common rule of thumb that approximately 30% of beehives die each year.  Therefore, just by dividing your colony into two, you reduce the risk of being completely wiped out from 30% to 9%.  (30% x 30%).  And if you were to divide your colony into three hives, you would reduce your risk all the way down a mere 2.7% (30% x 30% x 30%).

This is the same risk-avoidance principal that wild hives follow in nature by swarming.  As a conscientious beekeeper of managed colonies, it is essential that you learn good techniques of dividing your colonies so that you can also stay around for the long-haul.  (For a relatively easy technique of dividing your colony without having to look for the queen, please check out our video entitled “Prepare a Four Frame Nuc.”)

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.

First Day on the Job

The first day at any job is usually a day of excitement, and perhaps a little anxiety.  What will the work be like?  Who will be my co-workers?  Will we all get along?

When you start as a new employee at Wildflower Meadows, the work is going to be outside.  You are expected to be conscientious and hardworking.  And, as for co-workers?  You are going to have several million of them, nearly all of them insects and nearly all of them with stingers!

The best thing about having bees as co-workers is that if they are unhappy with you, they will be honest and straightforward with you and let you know their feelings directly.  Therefore, we always give our new beekeepers the advice to be respectful of the bees; treat them with respect and they will do the same in return.

New employees, like most new beekeepers, are usually most concerned about one thing:  getting stung.  Of course, it is bound to happen that you are going to get stung, especially if nearly your entire workday is going to be spent with your hands in and around beehives.

It takes time to learn how to move and act around honeybees.  Honeybees – like dogs, horses and other domesticated animals – seem to have a sense of when their handler is comfortable.  They often react according to the way the beekeeper moves.  Bees respond accordingly to calm, smooth and Zen-like movements.  But they can also respond adversely if the beekeeper is moving in a jerky or unpredictable manner.  Bees, like everyone, do not appreciate rough handling.  Therefore, the problem with being a new beekeeping employee – or new beekeeper for that matter – is that it takes time to learn the little things that keep the bees at ease.  Eventually, everyone does.  But the Zen-like, smooth, experienced movement comes later – typically not on the first day of work.

It also takes time to learn how to move one’s hands in and out of the hive.  For most us here at Wildflower Meadows, the vast majority of our stings are not the result of angry or defensive bees, but rather the result of us clumsily putting our hands or fingers on the wrong spot.  These are accidental stings and are no fault of the bees, but rather the fault of a heavy-handed beekeeping movement.  New beekeepers are more prone to make this kind of mistake, such as not looking carefully, or not feeling for individual bees before picking up a frame.  New beekeepers receive accidental stings far more frequently than experienced beekeepers.  Moving with light Zen-like hands comes later, as new employees have yet to learn the “beekeeping touch” on their very first day.

Almond Pollination and Honeybees: Past and Future

Back around the turn of the 21st Century, when we started Wildflower Meadows, the almond pollination season, believe it or not, was not that big of a deal.  Sure, California beekeepers, as well as commercial beekeepers from many of the other neighboring states, routinely moved their bees into the California almond groves in early February.  Back then, however, the prices received for almond pollination weren’t all that high, and the pressure that both almond growers and beekeepers felt towards this annual event was relatively low.  After all, the almond acreage wasn’t nearly the immense size that it is today, and the health of honeybee population was much healthier then when compared to today.

The economics of that time reflect this state clearly.  The rental price per colony was below $50 per colony in 2000 (compared to around $200 per colony today).  Some beekeepers thought that they were receiving a great deal when the price eventually reached $50 per colony in the early 2000’s, and were excited about the “easy money;” whereas others were not particularly motivated by even that relatively generous price.  In any case, there seemed to always be plenty of bees and commercial beekeepers to get the job done.

However, when we fast-forward to today, we see a completely different picture.  Between the turn of the century and today, immense changes have taken place, both with almonds and with honeybees.  Almond consumption has exploded in the last two decades.  Today, most grocery stores feature entire coolers filled with half-gallon containers of almond milk, almond yogurt and almond ice cream, with grocery store shelves full of granola and energy bars packed with almonds, not to mention the many varieties of the nut itself.  Almond consumption in the United States alone has risen to an unbelievable two pounds per person, with California producing 80% of the world’s supply of almonds!  Of course, almond acreage has reflected this upsurge in demand with now more than 1.4 million acres of almonds planted in California; with that number increasing every year.

At the same time, as we all know, the plight of the honeybees has grown more woeful every year.  Colony collapse wasn’t even a term in 2000, varroa mites were a relatively new phenomenon, and pesticide losses, though certainly a factor, were nothing like today.  Annual honeybee losses are currently approaching 40% per year, with this trajectory appearing to grow worse every season.

As a result, the stress that almond growers face in obtaining sufficient bees grows greater and greater.  Whereas, in the past, the bees in California and neighboring states could pretty much pollinate the entire crop with relative ease; today, bees need to be trucked into California from as far away as Florida and New York to cover the rising need of pollination services.  What’s more, whereas in the past, the pollination could be covered by commercial beekeepers alone, now even small-scale beekeepers with relatively fewer colonies are entering into the picture, simply because there are not enough commercially managed bee colonies to get the job done.  Keep in mind that each acre of almonds requires approximately two colonies of honeybees to pollinate the crop.  In 2020, these 1.4 million acres will require approximately 2.8 million colonies of honeybees – or about 80% of the entire US population of honeybees.  Yes, really, 80% of the entire population of honeybees here in the United States!

With almond growers continuing to plant more and more acres of trees every year, and honeybee losses continuing to climb at the same time, we appear to be not too far from reaching a tipping point of sorts.  At some point, it appears that there may not be enough honeybees to pollinate the entirety of the annual US almond crop, and unfortunately, that tipping point may be coming soon!

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 Future of Beekeeping

At last year’s California State Beekeeping Convention there was a scheduled panel discussion concerning the “Future of Beekeeping”.  Most attendees anticipated a presentation covering the usual list of depressing topics in the world of beekeeping:  Pesticides, dwindling natural forage, mites, viruses, high costs, etc.  However, this conversation never happened.  In fact, there was never any conversation at all.  Due to extreme fire danger and the ferocious Santa Ana winds hammering the convention site, the local power company imposed a blackout.  This effectively shut down the discussion and the convention.

So, what about the future of beekeeping?  The underlying message of the shutdown could not have been more clear:  The future of beekeeping – at least in California – no doubt includes fire and imposed blackouts.

Today as we post this entry, at least four major wildfires are still burning in California, all of them uncontained.  Besides the loss of property and lives, these fires bring considerable collateral damage to beekeepers and their bees.  We cannot think of a year in recent memory when California beekeepers – including several of our customers – have not lost a significant number of colonies due to fire.

Besides the actual burning of colonies, bees also perish in fires due to smoke inhalation.  Bees, of course, can tolerate a certain amount of smoke, as any beekeeper using a smoker knows.  However, it is the quality of smoke that can be especially damaging to bees.  Smoke from a beekeeper’s smoker is a lot different than smoke from a burning house.  Urban smoke contains chemicals from burnt plastic, PVC, carpeting, appliances, vehicles, as well as many other toxic sources.  For example, in last year’s Paradise Fire, which destroyed the community of Paradise, CA, the smoke from the burning structures killed many nearby beehives, even though the actual fire never touched them.

Beekeepers themselves are also affected by this new reality of ongoing fire danger.  We know of some commercial beekeepers who no longer use their smoker in fire-prone areas, and have switched to sprayers filled with liquid smoke or other essential oil mixtures and water.  At Wildflower Meadows, when the fire danger becomes too high, we too put away our smokers and either work the bees without smoke, or sometimes even take the day off.  On high-risk fire days, we instead focus our efforts on filling the water tubs in our yards to keep them from evaporating up in the dry Santa Ana winds.

The future of beekeeping, for the most part however, is largely beyond our control as individual beekeepers.  When the power goes off, as it did last fall at the convention, another “future of beekeeping” also became clear.  Beekeepers at the disrupted convention, instead of griping, got together for a modest lunch (sandwiches – no power) and instead spoke about some more pleasant topics; family, friends, time off, keeping bees, and various adventures.  In this way, the future of beekeeping looked a lot like the present – beekeepers getting together, helping each other, not running from adversity, and doing the best they can . . . as always.