Keeping the queen warm, Nevada beekeepers prepare for spring

by Brian Bahouth

Jim Russell shows the inside of a beehive he uses for demonstrations - image - Brian Bahouth

Reno – Bees are integrally connected to the environment, and though there are thousands of pollinator species around the planet, bees are the leading pollinator of plants.  In the US there are as many as 3,500 species of bees, and according to several estimates, about 1/3 of what we eat relies on bee pollination, but in recent years, bee colonies have been failing at an alarming rate for a variety of reasons.  In Nevada there is a robust community of beekeepers, so in an effort to better understand Nevada’s natural environment through these bellwether insects, we spoke with Jim Russell, vice president of the Northern Nevada Beekeepers Association for an update on where we are in the annual cycle of honey production.

Listen to an interview with Jim Russell …

When hives are laid up for the winter, the hive space is reduced, and bees are effectively sealed inside.  The worker bees cluster around the queen.  We asked Jim Russell about the status of bees in the winter and what he does to check up on them.

“In northern Nevada, we’re just seeing that the hives have enough weight left in them, so we don’t actually get into them at this time of year just because there is still snow on the ground, and winds out there are 45 miles an hour, and bees are not coming out at all, so we don’t want to break the seal of the hive boxes because that would let moisture wick through a broken seal or even wind, so we want to keep them as warm as we can, so our inspection at this time of year really involves lifting the back of the boxes, the whole hive, maybe two, maybe even three boxes at this time of year and making sure we still have enough weight in it.  I’m looking for twenty to thirty pounds of honey, so I kind of know what the boxes weigh when they’ve got the frames full of wax drawn out comb and bees and have an idea of how much they weighed at the beginning of fall/winter, so I’m judging to see that they still have enough food in there,” Russell said.

If the bees do not collect enough honey for the winter, they die of starvation.

“The nectar that they bring in and turn into honey, that’s their carbohydrate source, and the pollen they bring in and store is their protein source, so they need both of those, just like we do, a carbohydrate and a protein, and luckily the pollens also have the lipids in there because they need a fat source.”

Jim Russell shows the inside of one of his a bee hives – image – Brian Bahouth

The bees that work in service to the queen need balanced food energy for keeping the hive warm during winter.

“Right now, the bees are inside the hive. It’s totally dark, and hopefully it’s nice and warm in there because the queen has to be kept about 94 degrees in the center of that cluster, even when it’s 19 degrees outside and blowing snow, inside the middle of that cluster, it should be about 94 degrees.”

Do beekeepers have to artificially heat the hives during winter?

“The bees take care of that by burning through the honey.  They have the ability to disassociate their wings from their muscles, and they will basically shiver using those muscles, just like we do.  We shiver to stay warm.”

Super-organism

A single honey bee cannot live on its own.  Russell described a colony as a distinct organism.

“The colony is basically a super-organism, so just like our body is a super-organism, made up of muscles and cells and blood cells and nerve cells and all those different cells that work together to make an organism.”

Russell needs to pay close attention to the bees and their behavior to know when to best split the colony before they swarm.  

“So swarming is the natural process of forming a new colony, just like a cell has mitosis and it splits and it goes into two cells.  Same with a bee colony. The bees are so in tune with nature that they can sense when the days start getting longer right after winter solstice, and queen will start laying eggs again.  Really at a slow rate, but she is laying eggs that will hatch and become the nurse bees for the spring build-up. Because in spring, she can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day. Bees don’t sleep, they don’t hibernate .  They are working all the time doing something.”

As the weather warms, space becomes tight in the winter hive.

“In the spring, this queen starts laying just massive quantities of eggs, and once those eggs hatch, they take five times to amount of room than when they were just a little pupa larvae in that cell.  They come out. They spread their wings. They need more room.

“So all of a sudden in this hive box, which I haven’t opened yet is just expanding like crazy, and they’re eating more food, and it gets so crowded that the queen’s pheromone can’t circulate through the hive like it did before, so the queen puts out a pheromone that all is good, all is well.  We’re a great, happy family here. When that pheromone can’t circulate, the worker bees say, ‘oh no. Our queen is failing. We can’t smell her pheromone like we used to. We have to make a new queen.

“So they will take five or six of the cells where the queen has just laid an egg, and they will just stuff that with Royal Jelly, nothing but Royal Jelly going into these cells.”

A frame filled with honeycomb – image – Brian Bahouth.

Royal jelly is a translucent milky worker bee secretion that is fed exclusively to larvae that will become queen bees.  Worker bee larvae eat honey and pollen by contrast.

“And then they will build a special wax cell that comes out, and it almost looks like a peanut hanging on the outside of the regular frames, just because the queen is going to be so much larger.  Queen food makes he a bigger bee. It makes all of her reproductive organs actually develop.”

The decision to open and split the hive can be difficult.  If the beekeeper opens the colony too soon, moisture and harsh weather could kill the bees, and if the bee manager opens the hives too late, they risk the chance the bees will flee for a better place to live.

“If I don’t divide them up, before they decide to make a queen cell, once that queen cell is in there, the instinctive urge to go ahead and divide and swarm just takes over.  They will leave, and I will have to track ‘em down and catch them or somebody will have to call in to our swarm list and say ‘please come catch these bees.’ Then it become bee rescue.”

Untended bees tend not to survive.

“Because about 80 percent of the swarms that take off, if they’re left to their own in nature, they will succumb to the elements.  They won’t make it, just because we’ve cut down all the trees that have hollows in ‘em,” Russell said.  “We have basically sterilized our environment to the point there aren’t a lot of places where bees can find a home.”

So how does the beekeeper decide when to open and split the hive?

“It’s something called the orienting flight, so after all these bees are hatching, for the first three weeks of their life, they’re all inside the hive.  They’re doing hive maintenance. They’re moving stores around, rearranging it. They’re cleaning cells so the queen can lay new eggs. They’re feeding the queen.  They’re feeding the new brood, the young. They’re making new wax. They’re filling in any of the frames that I just put in that I put in blank, so they can start expanding.

“And then after about three weeks, they will come out on an orienting flight, and then after about that three weeks, they will come out on an orienting flight, and you’ll see this massive group kind of hovering in front of the hive.  They’ll be going up and down. They’ll be going kind of sideways, expanding out a little further.

“They’ve come out and they’re orienting the sight, the sun, the neighborhood, the trees, so that when they actually do fly out, they know where to come back to, so even if you have two or three hives right next to each other, they come out and orient to their hive.  Not the one next door, but just to theirs.

“So when I see this orienting flight with a bunch of bees out there, I know that they’re starting to get crowded.  I know that they are just about ready to start collecting nectar to bring in to start feeding the young. They’ve pretty much burned off all of their winter stores. They need the new nectar and they need the new pollen coming in to feed all these new bees, and so I know that that’s the time to go into the box, pull out two or three frames that have brood on ‘em, already sealed brood, and some that are not sealed that just have eggs, so the new eggs are what they will turn into a queen cell.”

The balancing act continues when Russell adds the frames to a new hive.

“The brood that comes out will be nurse bees and need to make sure that there is enough nurse bees on the outside of this brood that they can keep it warm for that first couple weeks when they have been isolated off into their own new box.”

Bees are a bellwether for the environment, and in recent years, beekeepers have seen rising rates of colony collapse.  Why bee colonies die can be attributed to many factors, but for Jim Russell, the leading factor is a system of monocrop agriculture.

“You go to Iowa or Illinois, it’s just miles and miles of corn that is bred by Monsanto with the Roundup resistant stuff in it,” Russell said.  “The farmers then go out and spray the Roundup all around the edge to control the weeds so they don’t suck up the water that their corn needs, so you end up with not only an herbicide in the plant itself, but you end up with just a single crop.”

Russell emphasized that humans and bees are alike in that bees require a varied diet.

“They need different things coming in, and also because they are collecting this from nature, some flowers like an apple tree, it’s only gonna flower for about two weeks, and then the flowers are gone, and you’ve got the little buds.  You’re apples are set. Then there’s no more nectar, no more pollen coming off that tree, so you’ve got to have a variety of things that will give them a continuous food source.

“So I’m real lucky being in town here in Reno.  I’m actually up close to Rancho San Rafael Park, which is also home to the Wilbur May Arboretum, trees and plants, many things.  Then of course being in town you’ve got all the people with their Russian Sage and their Lavender, and their Hyssop, and their mints and all of their herb gardens, their basil and rosemary, all of those things are just wonderful for bees.”

But now is the time for northern Nevada beekeepers to organize and clean equipment in preparation for expanding the number of hives in the spring.  When Russell handles the bees, he dons protective clothing to include a net over his head, but in recent years, he’s stopped wearing gloves.

“By not wearing gloves, I am much more aware of my actions.  I’m much more deliberate, make sure that I bring it straight up and I don’t bang the sides because if you bang the sides you probably squish a bee, and then the attack pheromone goes off.  The whole hive gets upset, and then I have to use a little smoke to mask that pheromone. That’s what smoke is for, just to mask that pheromone.”

For more from Jim Russell listen to the audio interview embedded above …