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Combining Beehives

In today’s beekeeping environment of heavy bee colony losses, many beekeepers place a premium on having high colony counts to buffer against the inevitable losses.  But often lost in this way of thinking is the notion that having a lesser number of strong beehives is often better than having a higher number of relatively weak ones.

Strong colonies produce more honey, command higher rental revenues for pollination, are naturally better protected against robbing and pests, and usually have better chances of successfully overwintering than weak colonies.  Especially when it comes to honey production, one strong beehive will nearly always outproduce the combined effort of two weaker beehives.

This is why beekeepers often decide to combine two weak beehives into one.

When combining beehives, the most important consideration is which of the two queens that the beekeeper wants to keep.  It is rarely a good idea to keep both queens with the idea of “letting them fight it out.”  This can result in the surviving queen becoming injured, or – worse – losing both queens.  Ideally, one colony should be queenless, and the remaining queen should be the higher quality of the two.

Another consideration is to be wary of combining a sick or contaminated hive into a strong healthy hive.  It is better to attend to the sick hive separately rather than risk spreading a disease any further.

The tried and true method of combining colonies is what is commonly called “the newspaper method.”  This involves stacking one colony on top of the other with a sheet of newspaper separating the two boxes.  The idea is that the newspaper presents a barrier between the two colonies that slowly disappears over time as the bees chew away and remove the newspaper.  It is this shared removal of the newspaper that allows the two colonies to mingle together and get to know each other while they work together on the same project.  As the newspaper disappears, the pheromone of the queen slowly makes its way throughout the combined colony.  Before long, the bees lose track of which colony is which, and they all begin to share the pheromone of the queen.  They soon rally behind her, thus uniting the colony.

In today’s age of digital newspapers, newsprint is not as readily available as it once was.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, we have been known to substitute big sheets of blank newsprint paper, packing paper, art paper, etc.  It doesn’t matter, as long as the paper is non-toxic.  The bees will remove it soon enough!

Some beekeepers prefer to place a slit in the paper to help the bees gain an easier start to the process.  This may be helpful to the bees, but it is often not necessary.  Many beekeepers ignore the slit and still have equally successful results.

The Hive Inspection – The Sniff Test

We have posted before about the importance of regular hive inspections.  Consistent and thorough hive inspections are what separate the quality beekeepers from the average ones.  Most of the features of an effective hive inspection are visual.  For example, the beekeeper is looking at brood patterns, honey stores, population size, etc.  Part of a thorough colony inspection, however, also involves the nose.

Beehives have telltale smells that can offer the beekeeper important clues as to the activities and wellbeing of a bee colony.  If you pay close attention to your beehive, you can typically pick up subtle changes in the aroma of the hive as they work different flower sources.  In our area of California, buckwheat and eucalyptus nectar have distinct smells.  This lets us know when these honey flows are in play.

Healthy brood also has a unique smell.  In the earliest part of the season, when hives are rapidly building up, most colonies contain a high percentage of brood compared to bees and honey stores.  When this happens, the brood smell is especially noticeable.  During almond pollination for example, which takes place in early February, a truckload of bees arriving from Southern California contains practically more brood than bees, and smells strongly of healthy brood, waiting to hatch out.

If the brood smell has an unpleasant or nasty aroma, then that is definitely cause for concern.  Foulbrood or other viruses may be infecting the brood.  A conscientious beekeeper needs to trust his, or her nose, and respond right away.

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.

Frame Strength For Almond Pollination

When it comes to readying for almond pollination, the most important considerations for beekeepers and growers alike are the number of honeybee colonies available to be delivered, and their frame strength.  Frame strength is what determines the payday for beekeepers, and it is measured exactly as it sounds.  It is the number of frames inside the hive that are covered with bees.  Most almond growers demand an average of at least eight frames of bees, although some will accept six, and some will even accept four frames, but will of course pay significantly less for these weaker colonies.

It is not easy for a commercial beekeeper – or any beekeeper for that matter – to be able to produce such strong colonies during what is still considered the latter part of winter in the northern hemisphere.  In order to deliver an eight-frame average bee colony in early February, a beekeeper needs to begin preparing his or her colonies well in advance.  In fact, preparations for almond pollination typically begin many months earlier.  The key to having strong and healthy colonies coming out of the winter is by having strong and healthy colonies going into the winter.  If a colony heads into winter at below average strength, then there is no possible way that it will emerge out of winter with eight frames of bees.

As the old adage goes, “it costs money to make money”, and the time to invest in your colonies begins at the end of summer.  Usually starting around late August, California commercial beekeepers begin aggressively attending to their colonies – much more than normal, both with syrup and pollen substitutes, and, if necessary, medications.  It is at this time that many commercial beekeepers requeen their under-performing colonies with late summer or early fall queens.  The ideal queens for this kind of situation are queens like those from Wildflower Meadows, which are known for their robust brood production and early season buildup.

The point of this vigorous late season activity is to stimulate brood production throughout the late summer and early fall so that plenty of healthy and well-nourished brood hatches right at the onset of winter.  These will be the eight frames of bees that emerge from winter and, hopefully – if all goes according to plan – deliver a nice payday for the beekeeper come February.  Having a population of very young bees at the start of winter, means that there will be less mortality during the short, but relatively cold California winter.

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.