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The Summer Dearth

Nearly all regions in the United States reach a point, usually in late summer, where a nectar dearth occurs.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, our dearth typically begins in early August, after the last sumac flowers dry up.  The dearth period can vary from year to year, but at some point it is guaranteed to happen.

At the beginning of a dearth, bee colonies are susceptible to a number of health risks, chief of which is nutrition.  Honeybees, in general, do a poor job in preparing for dearth.  When times are good, the queen lays as much brood as possible.  However, most queen bees rarely anticipate that the good times will end.  It is only after the nectar dries up that the queen slows or ceases her abundant egg laying.  As a result, bee colonies nearly always overshoot their populations during times of abundance.  At the onset of dearth, the colony population is typically huge, with even more brood in the pipeline.  This creates immediate nutrition stress.

If a beekeeper fails to support the colony at the onset of dearth with supplemental feeding, particularly of pollen supplement patties, this nutrition stress can lead to poor quality bees not only in the current generation of bees, but in the next generation.  Poorly nourished nurse bees can lead to poorly nourished larvae, and so on.

Another danger to the colony at the onset of dearth is a potential drop in queen pheromone.  Researchers who measure queen pheromone in colonies note that the presence of this pheromone is not consistent over the course of a year, but rather fluctuates, often rising with the presence of abundant conditions, and declining during dearth.  As a result, queen supercedure is more apt to occur during dearth than abundance.

As a conscientious beekeeper, you should always have an idea as to when the dearth periods occur in your region, and prepare your colonies for them.

 

The Inspectors

As June arrives and the beekeeping season reaches its peak, we begin to think about our annual county beekeeping inspection, which is right around the corner.  Above is a photo that we took from last year’s inspection.

Our county beekeeping inspectors arrive in mid-summer in full force; armed with the latest beekeeping technology, multi-layered beekeeping suits, range-finding binoculars, foulbrood inspection kits, and carrying checklists that seem to be miles long.  They ask questions such as, “Where is the water source in this apiary?  How many colonies do you have here?  How close is the nearest residence?  What fire prevention steps are you taking, etc.?  These questions can go on and on, lasting the better part of a morning.

Of course, the inspectors have to live up to their title, and also inspect actual bee colonies for evidence of foul brood, varroa mites, viruses, diseases, colony temperament, and so on.  At Wildflower Meadows, we have few concerns with third-party colony inspections, since as queen breeders, we regularly do the same inspections, and are hyper-vigilant in guarding against diseases.  It is our job to regularly monitor the health and temperament of our own colonies, and we take this responsibility seriously.

Sometimes, however, the thoroughness and breadth of the inspectors’ checklists catches us off guard.  We were written up last year for not sufficiently trimming the weeds in an access road leading up to one of our apiaries.  We wrote about weed trimming last year, when we mentioned how beekeepers are sometimes hesitant to remove pollen sources from around the bees.  We are no different:  flowering weeds are precious pollen sources, and like many beekeepers, it breaks our heart to be forced to remove them!  The inspectors, however, in their quest for fire prevention (which obviously is very important in California) had no patience for our arguments.  We are now required to get more serious about our weed trimming responsibilities, oftentimes trimming in places that we never even thought about before . . .

Who knows what the inspectors will come up with this year?  Nevertheless, we are feeling confident.  Our colonies are looking great, our water sources are full, and our apiaries are weed-free.  And, at least for now, we are ready for the next round of inspections!

 

The Forager

An adult worker honeybee typically progresses through a series of roles during her short life span.  During her first two weeks of life she assumes the role of nurse bee, staying inside of the colony, tending to the larvae and to the many needs of the queen bee.  By the start of her third week, still inside the colony she takes on a slightly different role of  an “intermediate” bee; a worker bee who has not quite graduated to foraging status yet.  Her work at this point mostly consists of receiving and storing nectar from the forager bees, producing wax, and building comb.

By the start of the third week, however, a worker bee “graduates” her housekeeping duties and finally becomes a forager.  She will begin by taking a series of training flights to get oriented, and then ultimately heads out into the open world to forage for nectar, pollen, water, and propolis.  The transition to foraging is more or less a death sentence for a worker bee.  The risks to a foraging bee’s life are vastly higher than to a young bee that stays safely inside a well-secured colony.  Not only does a foraging bee have to deal with predators such as swallows and other bee-eating birds, a forager faces a multitude of environmental dangers such as cold, heat, drowning, spider webs, car windshields, etc.  Of course, a forager also can get lost or exhausted in her many daily trips to and from the colony.

A foraging bee makes an average ten to fifteen foraging trips per day!  With this heavy workload, even the strongest and luckiest forager bee only will live about another three weeks while foraging.  Assuming an intrepid foraging bee makes it through the gauntlet of dangers during her daily foraging, sadly her little wings will eventually wear out from all the hard work.  By her third week of foraging she reaches the end of her short lifespan.

Honeybees And Hummingbirds

Here at Wildflower Meadows, it is not just honeybees that buzz overhead each day – our queen-rearing yard is also home to an astonishing number of hummingbirds.  One of our employees is a big fan of these amazing creatures.  She feeds our local hummingbirds daily, upwards of 36 cups of sugar syrup per day!

Hummingbirds migrate up and down the West Coast of the United States; and our queen apiary here in Southern California appears to be well within their migratory flight path.  Depending on the season, we see anywhere from fifty to over a hundred hummingbirds perched around our queen rearing yard daily.  They buzz by our beekeepers, sometimes within inches of their heads, while darting to and from their feeders.  Some days there can be a small number of hummingbirds passing through; and the next day there can be double, sometimes triple the number stopping by for a drink.

One might think that hummingbirds and honeybees would not be very compatible in the same area.  After all, they both drink nectar.  It would seem that they would compete with each other and that one might starve the other out.  This does not happen, however.  Although it is not uncommon to see hummingbirds and bees foraging peacefully together on the same plants, more often than not, the two species go their separate ways.  Hummingbirds mostly prefer long, red tubular flowers as their nectar source, while honeybees have little or no ability to access those flowers.  Not only can honeybees not identify the color red, but their tongues are not nearly as long as those of hummingbirds to reach the nectar.  This tends to keep the two nectar gatherers separate while foraging, each with different flower/nectar preferences.

Possibly the best benefit of having hummingbirds near the apiary is that they keep the mosquitoes and flies at bay.  Without the hummingbirds, our bee water gardens might attract mosquitoes.  With hummingbirds, however, no mosquitoes, no problem!

 

 

 

Laurel Sumac

Around mid-June in coastal California – earlier in some years, and later in others – laurel sumac begins to blossom.  A favorite flower source of honeybees, laurel sumac produces large pods of creamy white flowers, which the bees eagerly work for both pollen and nectar.  Unlike most nectar sources, which result in the bees producing fresh white wax, laurel sumac produces a unique yellow-tinted wax.  The honey is also a yellowish light honey, which is especially mild and delicious.

The honey from laurel sumac is a uniquely flavored honey, somewhat comparable to wild sage honey.  In fact, much of California sage honey probably contains laurel sumac honey as well, since the two plants coexist in the coastal chaparral together and often bloom simultaneously.  Honey producers prefer to label the honey from laurel sumac as “sage honey”, however, since sage reads a lot better on a honey label than sumac.  In many people’s minds, sumac is associated with poison ivy, which is the notoriously toxic, and perhaps best-known member of the sumac family.

Single Source Honey

The above photo of bees in a lavender field was taken in France, where lavender is grown commercially.  Lavender is also grown in Spain and other parts of the European Union.

The honey from lavender blossoms is arguably one of the most prized single-source varietal honeys in the world.  It is almost exclusively imported from Europe.  This honey is magnificently delicious with a delicate flavor and slight purple hue.  Lavender honey is expensive, but if you are a honey connoisseur, it is highly worth a try.

Single sourced honey originates from a single flower type and, as a result, takes on the unique flavor and characteristics of that blossom.  In order to capture a single source of nectar and to produce single source varietal, the beekeeper needs to strategically place colonies of honeybees on or alongside a vast area of the exact same blossoms, such as clover, acacia, alfalfa, or in the above case, lavender.  There should be at least a square mile of the same kind of blossoms in the area blossoming at about the same time.  The blossoms need to be attractive to the bees, and there should not be any competing flowers nearby that could dilute the flavor of the honey – especially other kinds of flowers that are equally or more attractive to the bees.

For most backyard beekeepers, producing single source honey is entirely out of the question.  With houses nearby and all sorts of flowering gardens, the honey produced is nearly always a blend of “wildflowers”, or more accurately, garden blossoms.

At Wildflower Meadows, we have seen our bees working lavender blossoms from time to time.  Occasionally, a nearby enterprising gardener will plant a garden of lavender, usually for some sort of aromatherapy or essential oil project that they have in mind.  Our bees are most pleased to do their part and pay a visit. Unfortunately, however, there is never even close to enough lavender to consider the resulting honey single source.  Obtaining a particular honey varietal is an art unto itself, and takes a knowledgeable beekeeper that is dedicated to this singular pursuit.

What Attracts Honeybees To Flowers?

 

When flying about, honeybees’ two most powerful senses are their eyesight and sense of smell.  When at full bloom, flowers’ most attractive features are their beauty to the eyes, as well as their fragrance to the nose.  Is this a coincidence?  No.  Honeybees are designed to find flowers, and flowers are designed to find honeybees.

Did you ever wonder why flowers are almost never the same color as the plant itself?  The flower on any plant needs to stand out, and be as beautiful and fragrant as it can be to attract the bees that it needs for the next generation of plants to survive.

As humans we also appreciate the beauty and fragrance of a perfect flower.  But compared to what a bee experiences, our visual perception of a flower is downright drab.  It is as though we are looking at an old scratched computer screen while the bees are watching a 3D movie in IMAX!  Not only is a bee’s sense of smell keenly more acute than ours, a bee’s eyesight is perfectly optimized for identifying flowers.

You may not know this, but flowers display a richness that largely escapes our range of vision.  Bees see in a different range of frequencies, or spectrum, than humans.  Whereas a human’s eyesight ranges from red to violet on the color spectrum (the colors of the rainbow), the bees’ vision ranges from orange to ultraviolet.  Bees cannot see red, but they can see well into the ultraviolet spectrum.  In the ultraviolet spectrum, many flowers have an iridescent quality, in which they appear to change color or flicker from one color to another.  While we humans fail to see this beauty, the bees identify it immediately.

A bees eye view of the same photo

If humans could see into the ultraviolet spectrum, we would see iridescent colors in a flower, along with patterns on the petals of flowers that seem to almost point the way to the nectar source.  A dandelion, when seen in the UV spectrum, is not completely yellow but has a rich and darker looking center that immediately draws attention.  That center, not coincidentally, is where the nectar lies.

Bees’ vision is also vastly faster than ours, which means that they can identify changes in colors while on the move. In fact, honeybees can actually identify individual flowers while traveling at high speed!  Is it any wonder why scout bees never fail to “stop and smell the flowers” along the way?

Winter Shut Down

In mid to late summer, a bee colony size is at its peak.  Later in summer, and leading into autumn, bee populations naturally decline, which follows the general decline of Mother Nature’s available nectar and pollen.  By the time winter arrives, a beehive has reduced its population to a minimum cluster of bees, whose main goal is survival to the next season.  By December, a typical bee colony, even if perfectly healthy, will have only about four to six frames of so-called “winter bees” and no new brood, as queens shut down brood rearing in the winter due to the cold and lack of forage.  The colony stays in this sort of semi-hibernation until spring comes along, bringing warmer days and new blossoms.

In California, the winter shut down is less pronounced, as bees continue to forage in many coastal areas year-round.  Eucalyptus and jade flowers bloom during the winter, providing coastal bees a reliable late season nectar source.  Nevertheless, even in California, a typical hive of bees begins reducing its population, so that by the middle of December a bee colony’s population may be about half of what it was only a few short months ago.

Wildflower Meadows would like to thank all of you for a successful 2016.  We wish you all a joyous holiday season, and best wishes for a prosperous New Year!

Wildflowers Versus Weeds

Once April and May come around, the effects of the winter and early season rains begin to take hold.  Wildflowers, and weeds, sprout up everywhere, sometimes completely engulfing beehives!  What is the difference between a wildflower and a weed?  Society’s judgment, that is all.  From the bees’ perspective it is all the same.  Flowering weeds are equally as attractive to bees as any wildflower.  Often certain flowers that our society considers weeds, such as dandelion and mustard, are especially rich sources of highly nutritious pollen to honeybees.

Whatever you choose to call these flowering plants, the idea of cutting them down can be downright painful to a conscientious beekeeper.  No beekeeper wants to remove beneficial pollen sources from their bees – especially when the food is right outside their front door!

Even though our company has the words “Wildflower Meadows” for its name, sometimes things get too out of control, even for us.  Although foraging bees can make their way back home through the maze of stalks and flowers that obstruct their entrances, life is obviously easier for the bees if they have a clear pathway in and out.  At some point, honeybees need a break from the blocking foliage surrounding them, and it makes sense for us to give them a hand and break out the weed trimmer.

El Niño

After four years of drought and a general lack of rain, things are finally getting wet around Wildflower Meadows!

The first week of 2016 alone brought over three inches of rain to our queen rearing apiaries, giving the parched ground a nice soaking.  The spring rains of El Niño, assuming they continue, should provide a noticeable difference to the bees’ well-being later in the season.

Early season rains offer a welcome boost to the plants and crops that the bees rely on later for food.  In past drought years, even though honey-producing plants bloomed as usual, the flowers were often dry.  Our bees would visit their favorite flowers and would come home empty.  The plants, stressed by drought, were holding back the little water they had, and not giving up any surplus moisture to their flowers and the bees.

As a result, most California beekeepers, including Wildflower Meadows, were forced to feed their bees much more than normal over the past several years to make up for this ongoing deficit.  Hopefully, with higher ground saturation in 2016, the plants will have more moisture to spare.  Once the plants begin to flower, honey production should improve, and nectar should be more plentiful.

In the near term, however, the heavier rains mean less foraging time for the bees.  Bees are not at all interested in flying in the rain.  The steady rains and blustery weather force all but the bravest bees to stay inside their hives until the weather clears.  With less foraging time, bee colonies often need additional feeding while the rains keep them confined in their hives.

It’s too bad that we beekeepers can’t stay inside during the rain too!  For better or worse, our beekeepers have to head out and brave the rain to feed bees, move hives, gear up for queen rearing and so on.  So far, we haven’t gotten any of our trucks stuck in the mud, but it’s probably only a matter of time . . .