Becoming a Commercial Beekeeper

For anybody who has followed our journey or been curious about where we’re headed. Justin’s ultimate goal is to become a commercial beekeeper. He will fulfill pollination contracts and provide pollination services for almond pollination in California and potentially other pollination contracts in and around Texas.

Each year, more almond trees are planted and this growth provides an increased demand for commercial beekeepers to bring bees to pollinate. Almonds provide excellent nutrition for bees, however, the bees can be exposed to a variety of diseases when in these monoculture orchards. If a hive is inundated, for example, with varroa mites, it is more likely that the surrounding hives can also be affected. This centralization of the North American bee population is risky for that reason.

Over the last several decades, beekeepers have had to turn to pollination in order to keep up their livelihood. While honey crops are great, pollination services can sustain a business in a much more predictable way. “California produces 82% of the globe’s almonds, harvesting about 800,000 acres of the tree nut across a 400-mile stretch from northern Tehama County to southern Kern County.” says David Pierson of the LA Times.

As someone who is focused on sustainability and nature, it’s important for me to understand the need behind the risk. Although monoculture is not likely the most sustainable or ideal way to go about farming, it is the way we are currently feeding the world. I’m interested to watch how things evolve over the next several decades as agriculture hopefully shifts to a more integrated and natural farming methods.

In reading Bee Culture magazine, Joe Traynor wrote about the perils of commercial beekeepers.

From Bee Culture magazine:

Almond Prices: Almond prices took a precipitous drop in March – from over $4/lb to the grower to below $2/lb. Prices have since rebounded to over $2 and growers can still make a profit with $2 almonds (unless they have super-expensive water). Due to increased acreage, the 2016 almond crop will be a record for California (but not a yield/acre record). Because much of our almond crop is sold to other countries, our strong dollar puts a damper on foreign sales.

2017 Almond Pollination: Increased almond acreage will increase the demand for bees somewhat but will be somewhat offset by the removal of older orchards with declining yields that were not pulled when almond prices were high. Some growers are cutting back on bees — we recommend that growers use no more than 1.5 colonies per acre. One large grower uses only ½ colony/acre on 600 acres because he likes your bees that we show him each year — he has been very happy with his almond crops. In May, we sent our growers a graph from a recent study showing that 1.5 colonies/acre of 8 to 10 frame colonies is equivalent to 2 cols./acre of 6-frame colonies (Giannini Foundation, ARE Update, March/April 2016). Insurance companies have been an impediment to getting growers to cut back on bees since some crop insurance companies insist on 2 cols/acre. We have one grower that wants to cut back to 1.5 on 1,000 acres but won’t let us know until October 1st if his insurance company will allow him to do so.

Rain During Bloom? Almonds bloom in February and historically, February in California is the wettest month of the year. Rainy weather during almond bloom can, and has depressed almond yields in past years due to a combination of less bee activity and increased bloom-time diseases. We’ve been spoiled for the past 10 years or so, including this year, by a run of relatively great weather during almond bloom. California prune growers weren’t so lucky this year. Prunes bloom in mid to late March when bloom-time rains are less likely. This year, untimely March rains had a severe impact on our prune crop. We’re overdue for a wet February – the upside being that it will increase our badly depleted water supply.

It’s one thing to read these articles in preparation, but we’re looking forward to the hands on experience that Spring will bring. As we help our commercial beekeeping friends get ready for the upcoming pollination season, split after returning from almonds, and load up for their next honey crop, we’ll have an amazing opportunity to learn about this fascinating industry.

This has been a roller coaster of an experience that went from “hobby” to “business” pretty rapidly. It’s a fun and amazing ride – I can’t wait to see where it leads!

Honeybee Hive Relocation & Bee Breeds

We love getting feral hives and swarms brought to our bee yard. Although there are varying philosophies on types of bees and breeds, we believe that a diversified bee population is our best bet to get healthy, survivor bees.

I’ve always been a fan of infographics and we stumbled upon this one that outlines common bee breeds in the US. Most of the bees we interact with on a daily basis in ours or other beekeepers yards are a mixture of these.

Most of our queens are Buckfast or Italian but because we live in Texas and there’s statistically feral hives (with drones) every mile or so, we probably have a healthy mixture of feral bee brood in there as well. We call them survivor bees or “prime bees”, because they’re out there on their own, reproducing and surviving year over year without the help of us. We love relocating swarms to our apiary and will continue to do so because we want the strongest and best performing bees in our yard.

Bee Breeds
Thanks Eversweet Apiaries for the infographic 🙂

Bee Behavior – Fanning

Bees fanning at the entrance of a hive is a behavior we watch often – it happens most often in the evenings when the foragers are heading back into the hive.

When the bees are fanning with their butts high up in the air, they’re releasing a pheromone called the Nasonov pheromone – this is used for guidance and direction.

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This video shows some of our girls fanning away at the entrance of their hive. We learn a bit more about bee behavior every day while we observe these interesting little creatures.

Fanning isn’t just used as a homing signal the forager bees back home, it is also used to regulate the temperature inside the hive by circulating air through the hive. It’s easy to recognize the difference in these two fanning behaviors. The homing signal is like that video and image above, while fanning for ventilation has them with their bums facing towards the hive. This behavior also helps to evaporate the water off the nectar stores and reduce the water content in the nectar to safely store it as honey. This fanning dehydrates the nectar stores to create honey that has 18% moisture content and is an extremely dry, liquid substance.

Wasps, Carpenter, Bumbles and Honey Bees

So this seems obvious, but we meet people all the time that can’t tell the difference between wasps, honeybees, bumble bees, and carpenter bees – we can’t totally blame them as they have just enough similarities to make it confusing. However, there are pretty major differences that make the honeybee stand out both physically and culturally.

Differences between the bees and the wasps

Bees and wasps have a few similarities including having a similar body structure and can be easily confused if you’re not careful to notice the differences. Below are some differences between wasps and bees:

  • Food- bees depend on pollen and nectar for their food. Pollen and nectar contribute to their ability to produce quality honey. Wasps on the other hand, they prey on other insects. This has made the wasps one of the most feared insect among the insect world. Although, we’ve found that a wasp will absolutely dine out at our sugar feeders with the bees so they do not exist solely on insects. We do, however, set up wasp traps to help protect our little ladies from the big bad wasp. 
  • Behavior- when confronted by threatening situations, we must do whatever it takes to survive. This rule is interpreted and well seen in the bees and wasps. Bees are less aggressive than wasps. Bees attack only when provoked. Bees like the honeybee, sting a human once and their entrails are left with the stinger – this causes the bee to die within minutes.  Wasps however, can sting multiple times. A sting from the wasps is more painful than that of bees.
  • Body shape- wasps have a long and thin body while bees have a shorter, fatter body shape. Wasps tend to have very symmetrical stripes down their body while bees have more various stripes depending on type. 

Honey bees

These types of bees are known for their honey. Most beekeepers keep these bees. They live in colonies of 50,000 and 60,000 worker bees. They are communal and divide chores among themselves based on a caste system that changes throughout the bees life. For example, worker bees throughout their lives are responsible for nursing the larvae, foraging, guarding the hive, and keeping the hive clean. The queen lays eggs while the drones have the sole purpose of mating.

Bumble bee

Bumble bees colonies are much smaller as compared to the honey bees. Their colonies consist of 50 to 400 worker bees. Their nests are a lot less structured and are typically found in dark corners of gardens, in the ground, or other dark/dry places. Bumble bees are important to our ecosystem and are struggling in numbers year over year. 

Carpenter bee

From their name, one can guess what they do. They bore holes into trees to build their nest and are hunted by woodpeckers and other birds. The tunnels they create provide a nursery for brood and storage for the pollen and nectar for the brood to develop. Carpenter bees are often mistaken for bumble bees and are larger than the average honey bee. The eggs are very large relative to the size of the female, and are some of the largest eggs among all insects. Carpenter bees are often helpful in pollination but are known for a type of “robbing” behavior that allows them to access the nectar without making contact with the anthers, bypassing pollination. In some plants, this reduces fruit and seed production, while others have developed defense mechanisms against nectar robbing. 

Apiary Lingo – Types of Beehives

Nowadays, beekeeping has become more common in many parts in the world. The benefits associated with beekeeping are countless, from health benefits, environmental and even financial benefits. Bees are efficient in all aspects of their lives – they have assigned tasks and jobs, they store all forage that they can benefit from, they create their own food from that forage, and they pollinate our plant life. They are responsible for most of the fruits, nuts and vegetables we all know and love. So, the next time you sit down for a meal, be sure to thank these small but busy insects. Beekeepers, both new and old, want to get the maximum profit from this practice. One of the ways to ensure success from beekeeping is to get the best hive for the bees. There are many types but they are categorized into two main categories, natural and man-made beehives. Natural hives occur naturally, example a hollowed out tree or concave rock may provide a good beehive. Man-made are mainly found in apiaries and backyard beehives.

Among the man-made hives, there are many types. Langstroth, Warre and top bar hive are the commonly used. Let us delve into the specifics of these hives.

  • Langstroth beehive

This type has been around the longest of today’s popular hive types – since 1852. The hive is easy to make since it is made of simple well crafted boxes stacked over each other. As the colony grows, the beekeeper can add more boxes. They have removable frames with wax foundation. The wax foundation is where the queen lays her eggs. Honey is extracted with the help of a special centrifuge. This type of hive allows more honey to be extracted and can easily grow when space is needed.

  • Warre beehive

Design in the 1900s, Warre, pronounced “wah-ray”, beehive was named after Abbe Emile Warre, a French beekeeper. The hive is similar to Langstroth hive, only that it has a slanted roof. The hives have bars at the top of the box where the bees build their comb. For insulation, the roof is fitted with a quilt. During inspection, the beekeeper has difficulties reaching the interior bars on this hive. In spite of this small disadvantage, the beehive requires less maintenance.

  • Top bar hive

For this type, they are horizontal in nature and they sit above the ground on wooden legs. Just like in the Warre hive, there are bar where bees can build their hives. The top bar hive is easy to maintain and it is light for easier relocation. This type also ensure that the bees are safe from honey predators

With their details outlined above, a beekeeper can choose the best and most suitable type of beehive to use for their home and garden. The Langstroth beehive is the most commonly used for both commercial and hobbyist beekeepers. That’s what we use at our bee yard, but I think we’ll play around with the others at some point so we can learn more about the trade and art of beekeeping.