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What Happens When a Honeybee Stings?

One of the anxieties for almost all new beekeepers is being stung, and while it’s a valid concern, it’s one that experienced beekeepers hardly think about. When it comes down to it, getting stung is inevitable. If you participate in beekeeping, you will eventually experience a bee sting – probably more than once. The sooner that you embrace and accept this inevitability, the more comfortable you will become.

So what exactly happens when a honeybee stings?

A honeybee stinger is hollow and barbed in shape, meaning once the stinger goes in, it doesn’t come out – it’s stuck and embedded into the skin. The real damage happens when the honeybee attempts to remove its stinger. When the bee pulls away, it leaves its stinger behind, along with its venom sack, and other internal structures – ripping them violently from the bee’s body and ultimately killing the honeybee.

There’s a method to this madness believe it or not – and it’s not so great for the person, or animal, on the receiving end. The muscles attached to the bees’ venom-filled sac continue to work the stinger in deeper, increasing the amount of venom being released with each passing minute. If you’ve been stung, you’ll want to remove the stinger as quickly as possible, but be sure to scrape the stinger away – don’t pull it out.  Pulling the stinger out requires you to squeeze the venom-filled sac, which ends up pumping even more venom into your body.

A sting will cause immediate pain at the site that will last for several minutes while becoming red and flush. The site may begin to swell, however, the rate and severity of swelling will vary case by case. Luckily, there are many ways to help minimize the effects of a sting. To help reduce pain and itching, apply ice to the area. You can also take an antihistamine like Benadryl to help with itching and suppress the overall reaction.

Each person reacts differently to being stung, and while most people have little to no reaction at all, occasionally the effects can be serious.  There are two kinds of reactions to bee stings – normal and anaphylactic.  Normal reactions, while often painful and uncomfortable, are of far less concern than the other type of reaction – anaphylactic. The majority of people, fortunately, experience normal reactions to bee stings.

Unfortunately, a small group of individuals may experience anaphylactic reactions to bee stings.  Anaphylactic reactions are systemic reactions, meaning that areas of the body far removed from the actual sting respond adversely.  For example, a person experiencing an anaphylactic response to a sting will sometimes experience difficulty breathing and speaking due to swelling of the tongue or throat, itchy, red hives, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting, or even loss of consciousness. An anaphylactic reaction is an extremely dangerous situation that can potentially lead to death.  People experiencing an anaphylactic reaction need to seek immediate medical attention.

Protecting Beehives From Extreme Heat

Bees are surprisingly adaptable to most weather events.  They know how to stay dry during rainstorms, stay cool during summer heat, and even survive the most brutal of winters, such as those in Russia and Canada.  However, when the weather becomes dangerously extreme, bees – like all living creatures – can be challenged to survive.

Recently, Wildflower Meadows’ experienced a powerful heatwave that affected most of our apiaries.  The temperatures in many of our apiaries surpassed 105 degrees.  Yet our bees survived.  How were they able to do this?

The answer is simple: shade and nearby water.  Our beekeepers were concerned about the safety of the colonies heading into the weekend, because bees can’t really survive extended periods of extreme heat without the benefits of shade and close water.  The bees need shade during times of extreme heat, because the sun beating down on the lid of a hive can heat the upper portion of a beehive to dangerous and possibly lethal levels – in some cases even above the melting point of beeswax!  We all know that bees also need a reliable water source; but more importantly during extreme heat, they need their water source to be nearby.  When the temperatures reach near 110 degrees, bees generally stop flying.  Only a few brave foragers will dare to head out for water in that kind of heat, and they won’t be able to fly far.  If the water supply is too far away from the hive, the bees will not be able to access the water that they so desperately need in order to survive.

Fortunately, our bees were able to survive the heat because we took precautions to protect them before heading into the weekend.  As the majority of our apiaries are out in the open and have no shade, we provided makeshift shade to each and every colony by placing a second lid over the first.  This setup not only provided shade, but also produced relatively cooler airspace over the colony, significantly reducing the risk of overheating.  And, it worked!

If you are trying to shade your bees and don’t have extra lids, any piece of plywood will do.  Some of our commercial beekeeper friends whose bees are on pallets often place empty pallets over their bees to provide the same effect.

The second precaution is for you to be sure – absolutely sure – that your bees have access to plenty of fresh water, as close to the apiary as possible.  You also need to keep your eye on the water level, because when the temperatures rise, the bees will consume a lot of water.  The colonies in our queen rearing yard went through nearly 70 gallons of water in just two days!  That is a lot of water for bees, but it saved their lives.

And finally, if you are fortunate enough to have running water and a hose nearby, the bees always appreciate a cool shower or two.  The benefits are twofold, because the water not only cools the hive, but then the bees can later drink up the drips without having to fly far.

Small Hive Beetles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why Honeybees Are Essential to Humankind

Are honeybees a fundamental part of our earth’s ecosystem?   The answer is a resounding “YES”, to say the least!  Not only are they one of the world’s largest pollinators, but they also contribute generously to our lives and well-being in many ways.

Before countless species of plant, flower, vegetable, or fruit can exist, pollination must first take place – it is the key factor for most things that grow. Pollination is a vital process where pollen from a male or female plant is introduced to a plant of the opposite sex to facilitate reproduction. The transfer of pollen initiates fertilization and the production of seeds, allowing plants to procreate.

Cross-pollination occurs in nature with the help of the wind and insects including honeybees – some hobbyists even pollinate manually, by hand, in certain situations. Honeybees, however, are not only one of the principal pollinators around the world, they’re also the most vital to our ecosystem.  For instance, a study by Nature Communications discovered that only 2% of the global bee species contributes to 80% of all bee visits to agricultural crops!

To put it simply – bees are powerhouse pollinators.  Without their participation in this vital process, trees wouldn’t flower, fruit, or produce nuts, many wildflowers wouldn’t bloom, and our farms’ crops would quickly diminish.  Much of the food we eat relies on preserving a healthy bee population to promote pollination and farming efforts, and our ever-growing population as human beings on this planet. In fact, bees are responsible for pollinating 70 of the 100 species of crops that we farm, which feeds 90% of our world’s population.

In addition to being a key source of prosperity for our agricultural crops, bees also produce a gooey, golden nectar that offers sustenance as well as several medicinal purposes – that’s right honey!  Of course, its inherently sweet flavor is perfect for toast, desserts, and a multitude of recipes, but we aren’t the only ones who think it’s delicious.  Many species of insects and animals also thrive on honey in the wild, which furthers the strength of the surrounding ecosystem and helps our planet thrive.

Honey isn’t just a delicious source of food though – it’s actually quite nutritious and is used widely used in holistic medicine as well as the beauty industry. Bees’ honey provides antioxidants, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory effects, and can be used topically as well.  Who would have thought that a multi-purpose, all-natural medicine could be produced by bees?!

While we understand that the value honeybees offer our planet is immeasurable, many people like to view things from a monetary value standpoint. It is a difficult concept to investigate, but wild bee populations contribute approximately $3,250 per hectare to crop production annually. Roughly that would equate to around $4.2 trillion provided to the global economy by busy little bees. It’s really no surprise that the “Save the Bee” movement has become a global effort, as it’s quite apparent that our planet and the existence of living plants, birds, animals, and human beings depend greatly on their survival.

When to Harvest Honey

Although there is no exact rule as to when to harvest honey, there are some general guidelines to consider that can help you maximize your honey harvest while also minimizing your impact on the bees.  In today’s day and age of declining bee populations, it is important to not only consider your immediate goal of collecting honey, but also the long-term effect on the colony.  Afterall, what good is a large honey harvest if the colony ends up in a stressed position that jeopardizes its ability to survive for the long haul going forward?

Based on our years of experience at Wildflower Meadows, we have found that it is generally ideal to harvest honey a little before the actual end of the honey flow – when the honey flow is approximately 80-90% complete.  By this point, most of the honey has been capped and is ready for harvest, but the bees are still actively foraging.  While the nectar flow is still on, the bees tend to be generally calm and focused on foraging rather than on the loss of their honey.  While the honey flow is still in effect, the bees still have an attitude of abundance and are less apt to rob.  Having that last bit of nectar still coming in during the honey harvest enables our beekeepers to work freely without much fear of robbing, while the bees themselves stay in a relatively peaceful state.

Another consideration is that during a honeyflow, honeybees typically build up their populations rapidly.  This rapid increase in population can also, unfortunately, lead to a similar rapid growth in the varroa mite population.  For beekeepers who monitor and treat their colonies for varroa, it is especially critical to monitor varroa populations during a strong honeyflow.  In certain colonies, the varroa levels can often get so excessive during a honeyflow that the beekeeper needs to intervene and treat before the actual end of the honeyflow.  Since many of the common varroa treatments require the absence of honey supers, sometimes the need for initiating a varroa treatment can in itself dictate the time for the honey harvest.  In this situation, the beekeeper has no choice but to remove the honey supers to begin addressing the varroa mite issue.

Finally, beekeepers should always look ahead to assess the prospects for the remainder of the season when deciding on the timing of the honey harvest.  If the major honey flow takes place early in the season, with a long stretch of dry, limited foraging ahead through the late summer and autumn (as is the case in much of California), it often can make sense to harvest honey earlier in the spring honeyflow – perhaps at the 60-70% mark.  This leaves a sizable percentage of honey available for the bees themselves, enabling them to pack their colony with a generous amount of their own future food.  This gives the bees a cushion of extra stores for any foraging scarcity that they may face later in the season.

How Often Should a Beekeeper Requeen?

While queen honeybees can theoretically live for up to five years, they rarely do. As queen bees age, their productivity declines. A three-year-old queen is generally less prolific than a two-year-old queen. Even a two-year-old queen can sometimes be less prolific than a queen who’s only one year old – which is why many beekeepers prefer to requeen annually.

Many beekeeping authorities recommend requeening colonies after a certain point in the queen’s life, usually after one year. The theory is that by replacing an older queen, a colony will be more robust and successful, due to a younger queen’s greater productivity. A younger queen creates a higher volume of bees than an older queen, which results in more bees for pollination and greater honey production, and also more bees for expanding colony counts.

Young queen bees also tend to have a stronger pheromone signature. When a young queen’s powerful pheromones are present, a beehive knows it has a quality, vigorous queen in hand. As a result, the colony sees little need to replace her. Likely for the same reason, colonies with younger queens are less likely to swarm than colonies with older queens. A young queen seems to set a beehive at ease and enable the bees in the hive to relax and focus on the business at hand.

Even though requeening annually has its benefits, there are equally strong arguments against this practice. The policy of requeening every colony, every year fails to consider the very real possibility that an existing queen may be a superstar with several years of performance left. What’s the benefit of replacing a proven winner with a new queen, that may or may not match the existing queen’s excellent performance?

Regular requeening can also become costly – in terms of both the cost of the new queen itself, as well as the time it takes to find and introduce a new queen each year. Plus, there is always the risk that the introduction of a new queen may not even be successful, leaving the colony without any queen at all!

At Wildflower Meadows, we believe it makes the most sense to consider each colony on a case-by-case basis. When deciding whether to requeen, it’s important to assess whether the existing queen is still laying a quality brood pattern. A queen on the decline in her later years will typically begin to show a “spotty” brood pattern, rather than the tight, circular brood pattern of a young, vigorous queen. Any queen with a consistently spotty brood pattern is always a candidate for requeening. Most queens that are more than two or three years old are also excellent candidates for requeening. Queens of that age are not far away from an almost certain drop-off in productivity, making requeening the best decision for maintaining a strong, productive hive.

How Far Should Beehives Be Placed from Your Home?

Whether you’re an avid beekeeper or a “newbee,” you’ve probably wondered where is the best spot to place your hive. If you’re planning to keep your beehive in your backyard and accessible from your home, there are definitely a few things you should consider. But just how close to your house can you put your hive?

The general rule is there should be a minimum of 4-feet behind and on either side of the hive, with a minimum of 25-feet of clearance at the entrance – but there’s really no cut-and-dry answer for this. In the end, most beekeepers – including us here at Wildflower Meadows – will say to use common sense and consider your personal situation.  Each home, property, and neighborhood are unique, and each will offer its own hurdles.   However, there are a few additional and critical aspects to consider when choosing where to place a beehive on your property.

Before you start searching for the perfect spot on your property, you should first make sure beekeeping is allowed where you live. Some cities and states may have zoning restrictions on beekeeping, or on the number of hives that are permitted on a property. Some homeowners’ associations and private neighborhoods may also have policies that pertain to beekeeping, so be sure to ask around before getting too far ahead in the process.

When choosing a hive site, it’s important to remember that while most honeybees are docile, some colonies can be more defensive than others. Even if you keep gentle bee stock, there are certain times of the year or situations where the temperament of the hive can be affected – adverse weather, excessive disturbances, or a pest infestation for example.  Keeping the entrance of your hive away from high traffic areas of your yard, or too close to the entrances of your home is best to avoid annoyances or stings.

Even though you’re a fan of bees, your friends, family members, or neighbors may not be as keen. A curious child or pet that wanders too close to the hive could alert worker bees – a situation you’d likely prefer to avoid.  To help keep the peace between your household and your beehive, it is best to keep the hive in an area away from children and high traffic areas of your outdoor space.

Foot traffic isn’t the only issue with residential beekeeping, vehicle traffic can pose problems to your colony too.  Windshields are unfortunately a popular bee graveyard.  While honeybees are known to fly miles away from their home to forage for nectar, they do need some space to reach a high altitude. Without any nearby obstacles, bees will generally require about 6 feet of linear space to gain 6 feet of altitude – similar to when a plane takes off on a runway.

Providing this amount of “runway” may not be ideal or available for you, so you might want to encourage your bees to gain altitude more rapidly by keeping your beehives surrounded by tall shrubs, fences or walls.   This will force your bees to reach altitude more rapidly, keeping them away from the ground level right from the start.  (Nevertheless, there are limitations to this strategy, and one must use common sense.  For example, if your home is more than two stories tall and your beehive’s entrance is placed too close to your home, one of two things can happen. Your bees will either need to expend more energy to fly up and over your home, or the bees will avoid flying in that direction altogether, limiting their foraging options.)   Of course, some beekeepers choose to place beehives on their rooftops, as it’s the easiest way to get bees flying at a higher altitude and away from human hazards.

Finally, no matter where you choose to place your hive, you will always also want to make sure that bees have access to a reliable and clean water source.

Grading Bees For Almond Pollination

January in the United States should be a quiet time for beekeeping.  Most colonies are in winter survival mode, doing their very best to stay alive to make it to another season.

In California, however, beehives are anything but dormant.   They are busy taking in the full-service treatment of their beekeepers, with regular examinations and ongoing feeding regimens.  The reason?  Almond pollination is right around the corner.  By the first week of February, beekeepers will be moving beehives into the 1.3 million acres of almond groves in the Central Valley of California.  Given that most almond growers employ roughly two bee colonies per acre, it is a fair assumption that at least 2 million bee colonies are required to pollinate the annual almond crop.  That amounts to over 80% of the entire United States commercial beekeeping supply!

Because demand for pollination keeps rising while the supply of healthy bee colonies declines, almond growers, understandably, grow anxious each season around this time.  These growers repeatedly contact their beekeepers or brokers and demand to know how many healthy colonies that they can expect.  This in turn transfers the stress to commercial beekeepers.  The commercial beekeeper always faces a difficult decision in response to this question.  How many colonies should he commit to deliver to the grower?  If he commits too high of a number, he risks damaging his reputation, with the risk that he could be considered as someone who does not keep his word.  On the other hand, if he plays his hand too conservatively, offering a low number of colonies, he may risk leaving precious income on the table.

In order to answer this challenging question, commercial beekeepers begin to carefully grade their colonies as soon as the January weather permits.  The beekeeper needs to know right away not only how his colonies survived the winter, but also in many cases, how the colonies survived the often very lengthy and arduous trip across the United States into California.

Most almond growers demand healthy honeybee colonies that contain, on average, eight frames of bees.  That means that when a colony is opened, the inspector can clearly see that the bees not only are present on the frames, but that their population covers eight frames nearly completely.

There is a little bit of prediction involved in early grading.  Sometimes in early January a colony, especially one from the Southern portion of the state, may only show up with five or six frames of bees.  However, if this same colony is filled with brood, it is almost a certain bet that within a few weeks, the brood will hatch and the colony will expand into the requisite eight frames.  If a colony does not emerge at the beginning of January with at least five to six frames of bees present, however, there is usually little hope that it will be of sufficient strength to reach eight-frames by February.  In this case, the beekeeper must decide if he needs to combine these bees with another colony in order to salvage some income from the bees.  Or, alternatively, if the beekeeper has a large number of colonies that are well above eight frames, he can supplement the weaker colony by borrowing strength from the stronger ones.

(Please note that we use the gender “he” in this post for commercial beekeepers for simplicity.  However, there are also many female commercial beekeepers. )

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.