Posts

Sage Honey

One of the more delightful times of the year for a beekeeper is during the heart of spring.  The daylight is growing longer each day, and the bees have plenty of foraging work to attend to.  This is the time of year when so many flowers are blooming that you begin to wonder how the bees can even figure out where to go when they leave the hive.  With so many flowers to choose from, where do they begin?

Here at Wildflower Meadows, it seems to us that in times like this, wild sage blossoms are the bees’ favorites.  We know this by two tell-tale signs.  First, about mid-April, the incoming nectar switches from the deep reddish brown color of avocado nectar to the light and almost clear color of wild sage nectar.  Second, and more tellingly, we begin seeing foraging bees returning to the hive with purple heads!

Here in Southern California, the purple heads can only come from one source, black button sage.  Black button sage, also known as black sage or salvia mellifera, is a coastal chaparral plant that blooms with delicate purple blossoms primarily in April and May.  Although its flowers are purple, the plant is nevertheless called black sage.  This is because later in the season the flowers dry up and the flower pods turn to black caps, or black “buttons”, giving it its well-known name of black button sage.

The sage nectar that the bees enjoy so much resides at the base of a purple tube.  Eager bees dive right into this tube, and in the process, get a face full of purple pollen dust.  This can easily be noticed by an observant beekeeper watching the returning foragers with purple faces.  Their faces don’t stay purple for long, however.  Once inside the hive, the other bees clean the faces of their sisters so that by the time the foraging bees exit for their next flight, they are wiped clean and ready for a new round.

Sage honey is known for its very light, almost transparent color and its well-renowned ability to resist crystallizing.  It is one the most prized California honeys, with a delicate flavor that has a distinct “bubble gum” flavor – delicious through and through!

Filaree and The Winning Formula

For Southern California beekeepers the formula of November and December rains, followed by January sunshine, is the holy grail winning combination.

This past November was one of the wettest in recent memory, with nearly five inches of rain falling before Thanksgiving!  The benefit, of course, is that with early rain, the earliest flowers sprout much sooner than normal, giving the bees an exciting start to the new season.

The first bloom of the year in the Southern California chaparral is filaree.  Filaree is a low-growing, small plant, common throughout the southwest United States, particularly in the desert areas.  Around our apiaries, filaree rarely seems to grow more than three inches tall.  Perhaps because it is such a petite plant, it seems to take very little time between the moment of rain until the moment that it blooms.  That means that the November rains will usually cause filaree to blossom in early January, provided that there have been at least a few warm and sunny days in the interim.

If you were to walk through the countryside you could be forgiven for mistaking filaree for some sort of weed that would likely appear on a poorly weeded lawn.  The tiny filaree flower is a five-petaled, purplish pink blossom that is hardly noticeable to the average person.  But the bees are not average people, and they are not one to miss the opportunity of some early season action.  When filaree is in play, the bees in our apiaries can be found cruising about around our feet, basically at ground level.  They are not looking to sting our ankles, but rather to find the next filaree blossom and grab some fresh pollen.  According to Wikipedia, filaree is also a honey producing plant, though it is not likely to produce a crop.  Afterall, in early January, bee populations are relatively small and the days are still short, both of which are not optimal conditions for producing a January honey crop.

How Much Honey Can A Beehive Produce?

Every bee season eventually reaches a peak when honey production hits its stride and the bees are bringing in the maximum amount of nectar each day.  This is referred to as the honey flow, and it is what most beekeepers live for.

When things are going right, a beehive’s worker bees are putting in long hours foraging, and the house bees are drying nectar as fast as the foragers can bring it in.  A single worker bee can visit over a thousand flowers a day.  Multiply that by thousands of workers, and we are talking about a lot of nectar!

What does it take to reach this kind of honey production?  Well, more than a few variables have to fall into place.  To reach peak honey production a beehive typically needs:

–       A high concentration of honey-producing flowers nearby, such as clover, buckwheat or alfalfa

–       Above average rainfall in the rainy season prior to the bloom (this makes the flowers rich with nectar)

–       A strong, healthy hive, booming with healthy bees and a large population

–       Plenty of space to store all the surplus honey

–       Sunny and warm weather (this enables the flowers to secrete nectar at a maximum), and

–       Plenty of daylight for the bees to fly; from sunup to sundown

A typical beehive in the United States can produce anywhere from 10 to 200 pounds of honey in a year.  That is an unbelievably large range, which indicates just how critical these variables are in order for a beehive to reach peak honey production.

If all is going well, how much honey can a beehive produce in a single day?  At Wildflower Meadows, we have seen beehives fill an entire deep super of buckwheat honey in less than a week.  That’s about 10 pounds of honey per day!  Of course, this happens only once in a while, when all of the above conditions fall into place.  More often than not, here in Southern California, we run into years of drought that greatly distress our native honey-producing plants.  However, when everything is going just right, producing honey can feel a lot like hitting the lottery!

Wild Mustard

After the winter and early spring rains, wild mustard bursts on the scene with its brilliant yellow blossoms.  If there is one plant that symbolizes the heart of the queen rearing season, it is wild mustard.  Wild mustard is arguably the richest source of bee pollen that the bees see all year.  It is loaded with nutrients, and is a key ingredient for the bees’ production of royal jelly during the height of the queen rearing season.  Nutritious royal jelly leads to healthy queen cells, which leads to healthy young mated queen bees.

Although not a native plant, in many ways wild mustard forms the backbone of the food source not only for honeybees, but for much of the wild California ecosystem.  If mustard is plentiful, rabbits and other herbivores have plenty of nutritious greens to eat.  This results in a higher number of coyotes and other predators.

It all starts with mustard.

An old-time beekeeper once told us that he could predict the success of the upcoming honey crop simply by observing the height of the mustard plants in early spring.  He stood about 6 feet tall and measured how high the mustard plants grew relative to his body.  He confidently declared that shoulder-high mustard indicated that the ground was plenty wet and the season would be good.  Head-high mustard indicated a spectacular season ahead, and if the mustard could only reach waist-high, that meant trouble for the bees.

From our experience he has been proven correct!  Ever since he shared that bit of wise lore, we have always kept our eyes on the growth of the season’s mustard and found his rule of thumb to be accurate.

It is too early yet to tell how high the mustard will grow this year, but we won’t complain if it reaches our heads!

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!

 

forager

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.