Beekeeping – Pollination


Move ’em on, head ’em up,

Head ’em up, move ’em out, 

Move ’em on, head ’em out Rawhide! 

Set ’em out, ride ’em in 

Ride ’em in, let ’em out, 

Cut ’em out, ride ’em in Rawhide. 

Rounding up bees to move from Northern California to Northern Montana isn’t quite like rounding up cows.  But we still like to sing Rawhide! when we’re doing it.

On Friday evening, Honeydew, Travis, and Neil went out to one of the holding yards to “round up” some of our hives, twirling their custom miniature ropes as they approached.

I kid.

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It’s best to load bees in the darkness, after they’ve all come home for the day and are gathered around the Queen, answering her questions about the day’s activities.

How did the manzanita nectar taste today, Sally?  Did you pick up any blue pollen, Lita?  Is the peach bloom on track, Dolly?

Perhaps my imagination is too active at times.

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At any rate, the crew used the forklift to place the first load of bees on the beds of the flatbed pickups, opened up a vein swiped the VISA for two last tanks of California diesel, and headed north and east at dawn.

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They stopped for the night in Jackpot, Nevada, essentially the halfway point between Palo Cedro, California and Babb, Montana, and apparently had a fun evening.  I didn’t ask too many questions about that part of their journey — the name “Jackpot” should tell you all you need to know about this little Nevada border town.

Sunday, they crossed the Montana line with joy, but knew they were driving into a fairly significant spring blizzard.

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I ran the winter storm intelligence operation from my laptop, scrutizining weather and road maps and asking our Facebook fans to weigh in on the road conditions the heavily loaded trucks and trailers would soon encounter.  Thank you to everyone who provided intelligence!

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They arrived in Browning about 6:30pm, reunited Neil with Pseudo Sista, unloaded the hives onto a foot or so of fresh snow, and arrived near Babb as darkness fell.

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I bet those hives are wondering what in the heck happened in the last 48 hours.  It was about 9F near Babb this morning.

Welcome home, girls!

2013.  Glacier County Honey Co..  All Rights Reserved.

As modern beekeepers with employees and mortgages to pay and babies and dogs to feed, we can’t just manage our bees to make a decent honey crop and call it good.  Under that scenario, we’d be writing this from debtors’ prison!  Instead, we seize opportunities that sometimes present themselves over the course of the year to make a few extra bucks.  In years that our hives are strong and healthy enough to handle what is called “shaking,” we shake extra bees from our colonies and sell them by the pound to other beekeepers who are trying to build up the strength of their own hives.

This is one of those years, and so Honeydew, Darling-Brother-in-Law, Keith, and Neil are as busy as, well … you get the idea … down in springy California, shaking bees for sale.  Here’s a few shots of the process that DBIL sent to keep me in the loop near Babb, Montana, where snows still blanket the ground and the wind was howling in a tortured fashion last night.

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Neil, smoking bees.  Did you know that the reason smoke calms the bees is that the bees are gluttons?  When they smell the smoke and think that their hives are on fire, they don’t evacuate.  Instead, they stuff their bellies so full with honey that they become lethargic, as though they’d just eaten Thanksgiving dinner at Big Mama’s house, and they loll about on their smoky couches.  There’s your fun fact for the day.

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When a beekeepers orders bees-by-the-pound, he or she generally provides his own “bulk bee boxes.”  We fill them with “shake bees” – this picture is the screened top of such a box.

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Here’s a panoramic view of such bulk bee boxes.

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It’s warm in California, and our colonies are strong and healthy enough to be hanging out in front of the entrances to their hives – we are feeling very grateful, as the current state of commercial beekeeping is not so rosy for many for our colleagues.

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Honeydew and Keith, discussing the next course of action for shaking bees in a holding yard.

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Honeydew.

I miss him.

Has any beekeeper ever looked more handsome in Wranglers and collared shirts?

Too much information, you say?  Or was that, “Steve Park” I heard instead?

Huh.

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Good work, Honeydew and crew.  Shake-shake-shake!

2013.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All photo credits to Travis Looney.  All rights reserved.

And just like that, almond pollination season has come to a close. The crew started moving our bees out of the almond orchards over the weekend, and Darling Brother-in-Law sent me a few beautiful pictures of the task:

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Almonds in peak bloom last for just a few days, and then drop their blossoms. Harvest won’t come until fall.

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Now that the bees are on their way back to the holding yards, requeening, splitting, and shaking season takes off in earnest. This coming Sunday, the first queen cells will go out! About wo months later, all 1500ish colonies will be as ready as they’re going to be for honey production in Montana, and all critters great and small will come back to Montana.

Maggie Rose and I are counting down the days.

2013. Glacier County Honey Co. All photo credits to Travis Looney. All Rights Reserved.

Honeydew and the crew are breaking strong, healthy hives into queen nucs today, in preparation for requeening season. The first graft will be tomorrow, with endless gratitude to Steve Park and Jim Libbee for so facilitating.

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If you’re curious about all this talk of requeening, grafting, and what not, check out these posts I did last year: Requeening, Part I and Requeening, Part II.

That’s Keith, Darling-Brother-in-Law, and my father-in-law, Bob Fullerton of Chief Mountain Honey fame. He’s been beekeeping for about 40 years now, and I think he knows a thing or two. Honeydew is enjoying having a full crew, plus Neil, not pictured, this year. I am not enjoying not being part of the crew, but am grateful for the chance to gestate another beekeeper. We could never have too much skilled labor around here!

2013. Glacier County Honey Co. All Rights Reserved.

Almost every year we’ve been a pair, Honeydew and I have spent most of January, February, March, and April apart. Commercial beekeeping, for us, without other employment, is possible in large part because of spring almond pollination in California.

But even if pollination were not such an important part of our income stream, there would still be compelling reasons to hit the road to the Redding area every year – in a nutshell, honeybee reproduction requires the thermometer to hit 70F, and that lovely temperature just doesn’t occur near Babb this time of year.

So, for the sake of selecting our own genetics, in addition to pollination income, to California we must go.

Most years, like this year, I’ve stayed in Montana, watching over the dawgs, the retail business, the Warehome, and now, that pesky toddler. Last year, Maggie Rose and I accompanied Honeydew and rented a tiny house with a yard charmed by orange trees, buttercups, and hyacinths. We journeyed from bee yard to bee yard, and from trailhead to trailhead, filling our time with learning and play.

This year, I am tethered to my weekly infusions of IVIG at our local hospital and cannot join Honeydew in sunny California. So he came home for the first three of my treatments, and it’s been such a treat to have him around. For me, Maggie Rose’s various antics are far more entertaining when I have her daddy to discuss them with at the end of the day.

But this morning, I rose in the snowy pre-dawn to fry up sausage patties, chop fruit, and bake a cheese Danish for Honeydew, Neil, and Darling Brother -in-Law, then sat quietly with my second cup of coffee and watched the bee truck’s taillights blur against the fluffy flakes and a tear or two.

Safe travels, Honeydew. Take better care than ever before.

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2013. Glacier County Honey Co. All Rights Reserved.

For those of you who read this Honey Company’s blog for the love of beekeeping, and not babies, hospitals, and Glacier National Park, you’re in luck – Keith, our California Summer Help who morphed into a full time beekeeper with us, had a few moments to e-mail me a few shots of what the bees are up to right now.

A quick recap: we shipped the bees, via flat bed semis, to California in late October. They’ve been hanging out, munching on manzanita and nectar margaritas, ever since. Keith followed them in November to supervise their activities. Honeydew and Neil arrived in January to work through them all and determine which hives were strong enough to provide almond pollination services. The first week of February, most of the hives were moved into the almonds, just before their bloom.

In the last few days, that bloom has turned about a million acres north of Sacramento, California, the prettiest shade of pink, to an almond grower and to a beekeeper:

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Isn’t it lovely?

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Hi girls. Good work.

Around the first of March, Honeydew, Neil, Keith, and Darling Brother-in-Law, who is joining our crew as of today, will remove the bees from the almonds, and put them back into the fields of manzanita and nectar. Then, the processes of requeening, splitting, shaking, and the like will take place.

More on those later.

Welcome, Spring!

2013. Glacier County Honey Co. All Rights Reserved.

On Easter Sunday, the rains finally lifted and Maggie Rose and I were able to accompany Honeydew and Keith on a queen cell mission.  I’ve written before that our 4 month adventure in California is two fold: first, we pollinate almonds with our bees.  After the bees are done pollinating, we remove them to our holding yards near Red Bluff and begin to requeen each hive.

Without interference, a hive of bees will raise a new queen every few years.  We think it’s best to give the bees a new queen every spring, and that’s what we’ve been up to for the last month or so.  Requeening takes time.

As I wrote in my last post on this topic, when requeening most beekeepers purchase queens from queen breeders.  With a little help from our friends in California, we’re able to raise our own queens from our best stock, and we’re grateful for the kind assistance!

In a nutshell, requeening goes a little like this: Honeydew takes a frame of freshly hatched larvae. Using a dental implement looking tool, he gently scoops the larvae out of the cell and transplants it into a queen cup.  This is called grafting.

This new cell is placed on a row with 20 other grafted queen cups and given to a hive of bees to tend.  These bees feed the larvae the royal jelly that will turn a regular ole bee into The Queen.   All of this process is very regimented and on a specific day, at a specific time, Honeydew will take remove the queen cups from the hive and place them into a incubator.

The incubator in this picture was once used for chickens, but you know how we folks in agriculture can repurpose anything.  Ta da!  A Queen Incubator is born.

Another certain amount of time passes, and then Honeydew returns to the incubator to withdraw the queen cups, now filled with queens on the cusp of  hatching.

This particular incubator is filled with many, many of these rows of 20 grafted queen cups.  Honeydew withdraws the ones that are his and holds each row to a bright light, visually inspecting each to determine if there is a viable queen within it.  This process is called candling, as it used to be done by candlelight, and not by halogen bulb.

Honeydew then takes a hot knife and cuts the viable cups off of the wooden slat, placing them gently into an insulated queen basket – very apropros on Easter morning.

Honeydew then selects the number of cells he needs – about 250 on this particular day – tucks the basket gently between Maggie’s car seat and the truck bench, and heads for the holding yards!

There, queenless hives wait patiently for their new queen, and he gently parts the frames with his hive tool to insert the queen cell, which should hatch that same day, or the next.

Assuming the bees accept their new ruler, and do not kill her (as sometimes happens), the new Queen will wait patiently for a day of nice weather – about 70 degrees or higher will generally do the trick – and then leave the hive for her mating flight.

I’ll get to those details next time.

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

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