Moving Beehives

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Pesticide Spraying

Every spring, around late May, more or less, comes the dreaded phone call: “Hi, we just wanted to let you know that we will be spraying the grove at . . . ____ .  We know that you have bees in the area and want to give you a chance to move them out before we begin pesticide spraying.”

While perfectly courteous and respectful, this call and those like them are particularly bothersome here at Wildflower Meadows.  Oftentimes, the yard in question has a group of emerging virgin queens that are just getting oriented to the area.  Other times, the colonies in the yard just received a batch of sensitive queen cells.  At these critical points, it can be detrimental to have to move a colony of bees to a new location.  Yet, they have to be moved.  And, typically, we lose the queens when this happens.

The other challenge of receiving late May spray calls is the unfortunate timing.  Late May is usually the end of our busiest season.  Our crews are growing tired from working long hours since late March, and now have a new, unexpected project to tackle.  Of course the days are long at this time of year, so we have to wait until the sun finally sets to begin the moving process.

The final blow often takes place after we ultimately move the bees to what we think is a safe location, then receive a new incoming call of: “Hi, we see that you just moved bees into the area.  We plan on spraying there next week  . . . ”

 

 

Migratory Beekeeping

Some of our largest customers at Wildflower Meadows are migratory beekeepers.  Migratory beekeepers in the United States begin each new year in California pollinating almonds.  After that their paths diverge.  Some move their bees to orange groves to produce orange blossom honey.  Other beekeepers continue on to Oregon and Washington to pollinate cherries, cranberries, and apples.  By summer, many of these same beekeepers can be found in the Great Plains producing clover honey.  In the fall and winter, most of these very same beekeepers move their bees to warmer climates, like these here in Southern California, for over-wintering.

What makes all this possible is the existence of the vast United States interstate highway system, the availability of large flatbed trucks, and forklifts.  Migratory beekeepers keep their bees on pallets, usually four to a pallet – most usually known as “four-ways.”  The pallet doubles as a bottom board for the colonies, each of which are held in place by clips.  When it comes time to move the bees, the beekeeper can easily pick up a pallet of four colonies at a single time with a forklift.  Giant 18-wheel flatbed trucks are loaded with upwards of 400 colonies each.  Depending on the distance of the move, the load is netted down, and the truckers head on their way to more abundant pastures.

While migratory beekeeping benefits the bees in certain ways – the bees always find themselves in the midst of flowering crops or fields – it is hard on them in other ways.  The constant moving can lead to stress, which can result in queen losses.  And, keeping bees on pallets and in close quarters is not necessarily ideal because it can lead to the spread of mites and diseases.

Migratory beekeeping can also be hard on the beekeepers, who spend large amounts of the year away from home and family.  The life of a migratory beekeeper features many days on the road, staying in cheap hotels, eating fast food, and almost all of the of time worrying about planning and logistics.

Despite all this hardship, not enough praise can be offered to these brave beekeepers, and the contributions that they make to our food supply.  Without migratory beekeepers and their invaluable pollination services, our crops would suffer greatly – and we would too.  Migratory beekeepers are among the true heroes of beekeeping!

Photo courtesy of Allen’s Honey Company, Brawley, California, pollinators of almonds, melons, alfalfa and countless vegetable seed crops.

California Diamondback

One of the most enjoyable parts of working with bees is having the opportunity to work outside within the beauty of nature.  In the semi-rural areas of Southern California, where our apiaries are located, we regularly run across all sorts of animals.  In the course of a typical day, we are almost always greeted by chirping birds – finches, mockingbirds, jays, woodpeckers – and even wild peacocks and turkeys.  Occasionally we meet up with a coyote or two, and sometimes even catch a glimpse of a roadrunner scurrying through the bee yard.

Not as enjoyable, however, is when we encounter rattlesnakes.  You might think that bees and rattlesnakes would keep their distance from one another, and that a beekeeper would not be at much risk of running into rattlesnakes.  Unfortunately, you would be wrong.  Rattlesnakes love burrowing under beehives.  The bees don’t bother them, nor do they bother the bees.  It is a perfect arrangement for the rattlesnake; the beehives provide shade in the summer and naturally warm temperatures at night.  Being cold-blooded, rattlesnakes are pleased to discover that relaxing below a buzzing beehive provides a temperature-controlled canopy year-round.  Not only that, the beehives offer excellent cover from birds of prey and other nuisances . . . such as humans.

Although not an everyday occurrence, several times a year we find ourselves face to face with a rattlesnake.  While harvesting queen bees for sale, and taking equipment back to the shop, we have to pick-up our queen mating nucs off the ground.  When a colony comes off the ground and we discover a coiled rattler underneath, our hearts skip a beat, or two.  That look, with the flat head, diamonds across the back, and a rattle at the end of its tail is unmistakable.  And, just in case there is any mistaking the look, a small shake of the rattle leaves little doubt of what’s at hand!

So far, no one here at Wildflower Meadows has ever been bitten, as each of our beekeepers have learned and practice what we call the beehive “two-step”:  lift the colony, take two steps back.  More often than not, the rattlesnake will move away on its own, far out of the bee yard and into another crawl place.  Other times, we will very carefully relocate the snake with a stick.  We haven’t had to kill one yet, and really don’t want to.  The rattlesnakes, frightful as they may be, are a natural part of our ecosystem, our apiaries, and a big plus to us beekeepers in helping to keep the rodents away.

Everything Is Just Right

Wildflower Meadows’ employees have been out and about lately moving bees in anticipation of the upcoming queen-rearing season.  Raising queens waits for no one, and the work generally continues rain or shine.  At this time of year, we spend our mornings grading our bee stock, then shuffling individual colonies to the proper yards.  Breeders go to the queen rearing yards, strong drone rearing colonies get consolidated near our mating areas, colonies are re-graded, and so on . . .

On the surface, this photo looks like a miserable situation.  Here, one of our employees is moving a few breeder colonies to our queen-rearing area.  It is pouring rain, and around the apiaries there is mud absolutely everywhere.  One might think that all is wrong, but truly, everything is just right.

First of all, we are finally experiencing rain here in Southern California!  This means that the drought conditions are subsiding, and the bees will have an abundance of foraging opportunities later in the season.  Second, the breeders that we are selecting look great!  They have overwintered exceptionally well and are now being handpicked for the upcoming season.  Third, our Columbia rain gear comes from the Pacific Northwest, where they know a thing or two about rain and keeping a person dry.  And finally, because we just installed new mud tires on this pickup truck – we are just in time to have a little fun and sling some mud!

Mud Slinging

Waiting For Nightfall

One of the unusual aspects of working in commercial beekeeping is the keeping of inconsistent and irregular work hours.  Especially when moving bees, large amounts of work takes place at night.  Commercial beekeepers often need to move bees to take advantage of upcoming honey flows, evade upcoming pesticide spraying, or to establish new colonies in a new location.

It is much easier – and safer – to move bee colonies at night while the bees are dormant and inside their hives, than to move them while they are active during the height of day.  The procedure usually goes something like this:  Colonies are loaded onto flatbed trucks at sunset right after the last of the field workers have returned to their colonies from foraging.  Then, depending on the length of the move, they are either trucked to their new location right away during the night, or they are parked temporarily while the beekeepers catch some sleep, and then installed into their new location early the next morning before the sun rises.

At Wildflower Meadows, we occasionally move colonies throughout the year for all of the reasons mentioned above.  Plus, we are also constantly building and moving in mating nucs to new and existing locations for our queen rearing operation.  Although much of our regular beekeeping work takes place during the day, most of our bee moving activities take place at night and during the early morning hours.  The work can be hard and tiring, but the peace and natural beauty of working outside during quiet hours can make it all worthwhile.

Above, a flatbed truck sits parked with the bees, waiting for nightfall, until the moment arrives when the beekeeper can begin loading…

Relocating Beehives

Relocating Beehives

Unlike many insects – and many other animals for that matter – bees are able to relocate fairly easily.  Likely, because they are naturally predisposed to swarm, honeybees can quickly adjust to a new location.

This year, because of the California drought, Wildflower Meadows’ bees were having a difficult time finding nectar and pollen to feed on in their usual locations.  The plants had all turned brown and flowers were nowhere to be found.  We decided to help some of our strong and hungry colonies by moving them a couple of hundred miles to an area with irrigated fields of alfalfa.  While not the most nutritious bloom – alfalfa flowers are high in nectar, but low in pollen – alfalfa nectar is still far superior to no nectar.  Surely enough, with the addition of pollen supplement patties, the bee colonies remained strong and added additional weight rapidly.  Last week, it was time to move the colonies back to their original home, and prepare them for a new season of queen bee rearing.

Relocating beehives is a challenging operation.  Beehives are heavy.  Bee colonies need to be moved at night; and safety on the roads is a critical concern.  It usually takes two strong individuals to lift a heavy double deep colony of bees.  However, for moving this set of bees, we used a hydraulic boom loader, which allowed a single person to handle the job.  The loader grabs the beehives by two cleats that are attached to the bottom deep hive body of the colony.  Stacks of two beehives at a time are hoisted up on to a flatbed truck.  The entrances are placed facing forward so that the bees receive ventilation while traveling.  Finally, two heavy ropes secure each row.  Before long, it was time to hit the road with a quarter of a million “ride sharing” insects!