Pulling frames of fresh capped honey from a few of our bee colonies yesterday never felt more rewarding. This year has been a challenge for our bees and our honey operation. The nectar flow never happened here this Spring. We lost colonies of bees and the ones that remained were in decline.
Usually Spring is a time of year when the bees are building up their stores of pollen and nectar; in response the queens pick up their laying of eggs and the colonies explode with young worker bees that are eager to bring in the Spring nectar. This year got off to a very bad start. Instead of harvesting honey we were having to supply feed and pollen patties to our bees to allow them to build back up after their decline. Instead of selling honey we invested thousands of dollars in purchasing 20 new colonies to get our colony numbers back up. These new colonies came in small 5 frame boxes (called nucleus colonies) that needed to be fed and built up until they could be transferred into full size 10 frame boxes. We kept most of these an hour away at our expansion beeyard in north Hernando County. All this to say, we put a lot of time and resources into our bees this year! Now that our colonies are finally building up and producing honey, it never tasted so sweet!
We have had a late Summer nectar flow kick in that has been a welcome surprise. I’ve been having a tough time keeping up with some of our strongest colonies, as it seems they are bringing in nectar as fast as I can stack honey supers on top of them! Some of those 5 frame nucleus colonies we bought back in May are now 4 boxes high, that’s 40 frames of bees and honey!
We recently went through our colonies and pulled 5 boxes of the first honey to be ripened to share with our customers who have waited so patiently. For now we have 1 and 2 lb. jars available. If all goes well we will have gallons available after the Fall honey comes in which is usually late Oct. One of our strongest colonies is also working on drawing out and filling a box of comb honey for those who enjoy biting into fresh honey comb in our jars of chunk honey. Things are finally looking up this season for Harris Honey and we invite you to celebrate our harvest with some fresh, local raw honey drizzled over a hot biscuit with butter.
A colony of honeybees is a fascinating thing. Tens of thousands of individual bees working together as a single unit. At the center of this unit is the queen bee. She is the mother of every bee in the hive and without a strong queen bee the structure of the colony will break down and eventually die out.
A queen bee can lay up to 2,000 eggs in a single day. The majority of these eggs will hatch into worker bees 21 days after they are laid. Some will be drone, or male bees, who live for the single purpose of mating once with a queen from a different colony, and a few will be new queen bees, raised to either produce a swarm or to takeover the colony when the old queen leaves with a swarm or is growing weak.
While worker bees live an average of 3-6 weeks, a queen bee lives an average of 2-3 years and some have even been known to live up to 9 years in rare instances. Since every bee in a colony takes on the characteristics of it’s mother, the queen bee, it is very important to have good strong queens that display the characteristics the beekeeper wants. The characteristic of an entire colony of honeybees can be changed in just a few weeks time by simply replacing the queen bee.
The characteristics I want in my colonies are these:
1. Gentle – I don’t want bees that are overly aggressive for a few obvious reasons: I don’t enjoy getting stung. I keep most of my bees in my back yard where my five young children play. I have neighbors in close proximity to my house.
2. Resistance to pests and diseases – In case you haven’t heard, honeybees are having a tough time surviving the onslaught of pests and diseases that are coming against them these days. Mites that spread viruses, harmful bacteria that attack the young bee larvae and small hive beetles that can take over hive space in a weak colony. These are just a few of the challenges bees face these days. Mix in the many harmful chemicals and pesticides that bees encounter in fields, lawns and landscaping and you have the recipe for disaster. But bees are hardy creatures that are adapting to the challenges they face. Some bees do better than others at surviving adversity. The colonies that display the most hygienic behavior in cleaning their hives, survive the best. I look for colonies that have survived adversity in choosing which queen stocks to raise. Many commercially raised bees have become so dependent on miticides and antibiotics that they quickly die without them. My hardiest and most productive colonies are those I have raised from feral survivor bees that still have a gentle disposition.
3. Not too prone to swarm. – While all colonies are programmed to swarm occasionally, there are some colonies that are just too swarmy. As soon as they get strong they swarm and your back to a weak hive. These hives are never very productive.
4. Good honey producers. – Some colonies of bees are just better at bringing in the sweet golden nectar that is the icing on the cake for beekeepers.
When I am ready to raise more queen bees I look for the hives that display the above characteristics. These are the hives I want to reproduce and the key to doing this is in reproducing their queens.
I currently have a few hives that are weak because they have queens that aren’t very impressive. I want to replace these weak queens with new ones. Yesterday I began the process of raising new queens by grafting queen cells. Here’s a little explanation of the process of grafting queen bees.
When grafting queen bees I first I choose a strong starter hive with plenty of honey, pollen and young nurse bees to raise queen cells. This is a hive that does not have a queen and the absence of her pheromone triggers the worker bees to raise new queen cells with any available larvae.
Next I choose a queen stock I want to reproduce. From this colony I pull a frame of new eggs and larvae. I then carefully pick out one day old larvae with a small grafting tool and carefully place them in plastic queen cups lined up on a wooden frame bar. These plastic queen cups mimic queen cells that bees naturally make to raise queens. Grafting one day old larvae like this requires a sharp eye and a very steady hand.
I then place the modified frame with the queen cups in the starter colony. The bees immediately begin feeding the larvae royal jelly as they draw out the queen cells with wax. After about four days the workers cap the queen cells which now look like waxy peanuts. Ten days after grafting, I place the finished queen cells in the colonies that I want them to lead, after first removing the original queens in those colonies the day before.
On the 14th day the new queens will emerge from their cells. After becoming acquainted with their new colony they will go on afternoon mating flights a few days in a row. During these flights they will mate with up to 20 different drones that will provide the fertilization for them to lay eggs for the rest of their life. About a week after mating they will begin laying eggs and repopulating the colony, that is if all goes well.
There you have it. Grafting queen bees. Simple, right?