Brood Laying

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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.

Selecting Colonies For Early Season Buildup

During the first week of January, most beekeepers are recovering from the holiday season, watching football, and making plans and resolutions for the new year.  However, the majority of beehives throughout the northern hemisphere are doing far much less.  At this time of year, most bees remain huddled in their winter clusters, preserving heat and waiting out the remainder of the harsh winter.

At Wildflower Meadows, the majority of our bee colonies have their lowest populations at this time of year.  Even in our relatively temperate setting, bees go through their normal annual cycle, albeit with a milder winter shutdown than in most colder climates.  Throughout November and December, our queens typically lay a much lower than normal amount of eggs than in the remainder of the year because of the shorter days, long and colder nights, and general lack of forage.  As a result, bee populations decline throughout the fall and winter, reaching their lowest point at the beginning of January.  This is normal and healthy, as a smaller winter population is more efficient for a typical beehive, with less mouths to feed and less brood to manage.

Here in California, something changes, however, around the first week of January.  By some means, the bees get a sense that the winter solstice has passed.  Somehow, they get the idea that the January acacia bloom is right around the corner.  And, somehow or other, the bees get wind that the almond bloom is now only a month away, with mustard bloom soon to follow.  It’s time to get busy!

We notice that it is right around the first week of the new year that many of the Wildflower Meadows’ queens wake up from their winter slumber and launch headstrong into egg laying.  All of a sudden, the queens begin laying frames of brood – sometimes entire frames at a time, and as much brood as the population will allow.  This is a sign to us that a queen is serious about early season buildup.

Early season buildup is an important and valuable behavioral trait in honeybees.  It is important not only for commercial beekeepers who need strong colonies to pollinate early season crops such as almonds and cherries, but also for smaller scale beekeepers who are typically more focused on honey production.

High honey production almost always correlates with early season buildup for two reasons:  First, early buildup means that the colony will be strong and lively enough to take advantage of the very earliest portion of the honey flow.  This is in comparison to a slow-developing colony that needs to wait for the population to build up before it can fully exploit the earliest blossoms.  A slow-building colony might miss the entire early season flow.  Secondly, a rapid early season buildup will typically correlate to a larger and more mature foraging population during the later peak portion of spring.  A larger population during a honey flow is almost always a key factor in the overall honey totals of a given season.

Most importantly, an early season buildup indicates that the queen is lively.  At Wildflower Meadows, this is what we like to see.  So, beginning around the first week of January, we head out to our apiaries with pens and pencils, our queen records, and our trusty clipboards to begin taking notes.  We grade each and every colony on bee and brood strength.  The purpose of this first grade is to establish a baseline of overwintering quality, as well as to detect the first signs of early brood laying.  Then we come back a few weeks later and grade the same colonies again to see how seriously the individual queens are taking early season buildup.  We take note of the colonies that scored well on both accounts, particularly noting the colonies that rapidly gained in population.  These colonies then become candidates for breeding and drone rearing colonies.  Of course, these colonies still need to pass other important criteria, such as testing for temperament and mite resistance, but their display of early season buildup is duly noted.  Thus, these colonies are leading candidates for continued Wildflower Meadows’ breeding.

Optimum genetics

Italian Queen Bees

Italian queen bees make up the heart of the American beekeeping industry.  They are well known for their gentle disposition, abundant brood production, and the excellent foraging abilities of their workers.

Originating in the Apennine Peninsula of (obviously) Italy, Italian queen bees were originally introduced into the United States in the late 1850’s.  As they say, “the rest is history.”  Up until the introduction of Italian queen bees, American beekeepers favored the German honeybee, which was darker, less resistant to disease, and aggressive.  Who wouldn’t prefer the pleasant qualities of the Italian honeybees to that?  Sure enough, given their genetic advantages of solid brood production, excellent foraging, and gentleness, Italian queen honeybees and their respective Italian bees, have been a staple of American beekeeping ever since.

While by far the most popular race of bees in US beekeeping, Italian queen bees are not perfect.  Some of their strengths are also the root of their weaknesses.  Their continuous brood production can sometimes result in the overshooting of their optimal population, especially once a honey flow comes to an end.  Sometimes, Italian queens may overproduce brood during times of dearth and cold weather, which can lead to a greater need for supplemental feeding of the colony.  If ignored by the beekeeper during these times of dearth, Italian honeybees can overshoot their optimal population and then become susceptible to starvation.

In recent years, with the ever-increasing demands of the California almond pollination, Italian queen bees have become even more vital to the United States beekeeping industry.  Pollination of almonds takes place in early to mid-February each year, and requires upwards of two thirds of the entire US bee population to successfully pollinate a single year’s almond crop.  Obviously, February is an especially early time of year for a typical honeybee colony to be up to the level of strength of field force necessary to pollinate a commercial crop.  Thus, enter the Italian queen bee!

The Italian queen bee doesn’t care what time of year it is, as she is always ready to lay more brood.  It is no wonder that the vast majority of commercial beekeepers who pollinate almonds select Italian queen bees for their operations.

At Wildflower Meadows, we too have come to love and respect the venerable Italian queen bee and her wonderful traits.  All of our VSH queen bees are crossed with Italian stock to create our Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen bees.

A Good Frame Of Brood

To produce optimally mated queen bees, it is the queen breeders’ responsibility to select for the highest quality genetic stock possible.  In evaluating a colony, we like to keep in mind that any given colony consists of not one, but two generations of bees:  the queen bee, who is the mother of the colony, and her offspring, the second generation.  One of the components of evaluating the first generation, the queen bee, is to examine the quantity and consistency of her brood laying.

A quality queen honeybee lays her brood in a tight circular pattern leaving not too many holes within the brood pattern.  At a minimum there should not be less than 15 empty cells per hundred (or 85% viable brood).  Ideally, in the best displays of brood laying, a top quality queen bee will not miss more than 5 cells per hundred (95% viable brood).  Sometimes, you find a frame that is corner-to-corner or wall-to-wall with brood.  This is what is affectionately known as an “egg-laying machine!”