Notes from Dewey – April 2024

by Dewey M. Caron, Communications and Content Specialist for the Oregon Master Beekeeper Program

Why do bees have a queen?

Why do bees have queens? asks Rhylie, age 8, Rosburg, Washington.  [] Well beekeepers know most bees, the roughly 20,000 described species, do not have queens while our backyard colonies usually have one in resident throughout the year. Why do our honey bees have such a specialist female queen, or in the case of our bumble bees, a seasonal queen specialist And why is she so specialized as the only egg laying female? Have you pondered these same questions of Rhylee?

Once, long ago, the queen was thought of as a ruler of the nest. Now we understand that our colonies queen is merely part, albeit an important component, of the superorganism we recognize as a large social family. She is a specialist, the sole egg layer in a normal colony.

The social caste system of female inhabitants of a bee nest can be conceptualized as groups of somewhat specialized inhabitants doing their individual jobs. It adds up to be more than the sum of its parts. No one individual, not even the queen, can do all that needs be done to ensure family success. Dr Brian Johnson of UC Davis, identifies four temporal worker castes: newly emerged, nurse-aged bees, middle aged hive and foragers that leave home to return with necessary resources.

The hor­mone system of individual bees and the needs of the colony are the drivers of these changes, which we know occur roughly as workers age from newly eclosed adults to older foragers. All of this takes place in approxi­mately a 6-week period, their summers life expectancy. We also might label this the sequence of duties or division of labor of workers, using such labels as house cleaning bees, undertaker bees, heater bees, guard bees and even pollen foragers.

A delightful new book, designed for young adults but which beekeepers will also find interesting is the book  Do you Speak Bee. I has most unusual and interesting illustrations for each of the “work” that defines their hive and field activities.  I reviewed  it in April ABJ. Can you speak bee?

Is it time to super?

As colonies expand in April, our thoughts turn to the question ‘Is it time to super? Supering is adding boxes, we call them supers or honey supers, over the brood boxes of expanding spring colonies. Sometimes we might first add a queen excluder over the brood boxes then the super. It may make more sense to add more than one super to “challenge” the bees.

However,  sometimes we might have to hold off supering until next month if, for example, we are still doing mite control. For some weaker colonies or if producing honey is not our “thing,” we might  not super colonies at all or super just those we manage to produce honey for harvest later in the year.

Super boxes may be any size – standard or more likely smaller in height (super size). Commonly, shallow, medium or “Illinois” sized boxes are used as supers. Shallow supers and the smallest boxes are used for cut comb/comb section production. It is not the size – it is the placement – that defines a super – boxes superior to the brood boxes designed to capture surplus honey for harvest.

Adding supers using calendar date is not the best management practice; we should be monitoring colony development in association with flowering plants to determine the proper time to super. Adding supers in anticipation of incoming nectar is a BMP. We might add supers as a means to avoid bees from filling cells of the brood area with incoming nectar. Queens need those cells for egg laying. Avoiding having the bees fill brood area cells is wise swarm prevention.

Depending upon your location and potential availability of nectar, it is proactive management to “challenge” the bees and add more than a single super to strong colonies. And of course adding supers to colonies presupposes you are keeping bees for honey harvest – not all beekeepers keep bees to promote storage/harvest of honey.

Honey Bee Obscura Podcast #135, taped in January of this year by Jim Tew is a 21 minute discussion of his unique take on supering []. Jim emphasizes the importance of understanding and adhering to established best management practices for honey collection and super removal. He provides insights on the optimal timing for adding and removing honey supers, what he calls his key to successful beekeeping. If you can’t listen, the full transcript of his talk is available.

Beekeeping it cheap

Have you salivated over the latest Beekeeping catalogues? But do you really “need” everything you see or read about to be a successful beekeeper? Do you need to keep costs under control? OR MB Journey beekeeper Elaine Timm of Lebanon has published an interesting article Beekeeping it Cheap in April American Bee Journal, page 439-441. Elaine suggests a number of areas in which beekeeper’s might seek to save money in their beekeeping. A couple of areas she advises against in cost-cutting are not skipping joining and paying dues to local/state beekeeping clubs. Membership opens up opportunities to borrow equipment the club might own, visit a club apiary, borrow books and information from the club library and obtain good mentoring from local experts.  She also recommends you get a good basic beekeeping book and spend your hours reading it versus the newest beekeeping catalogues.

Backyard bee gardening

The February beekeeping newsletter from Backyard Beekeeping, a feature of Countryside Magazine’s Beekeeping 101 (filed under plants and pollination tab) has companion articles on Establishing a Backyard Bee Garden and  Best Wildflowers for Honeybees. [Countryside Magazine ] The information is excepted from a 2008 book  Keeping Bees and Making Honey” by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum (F&W Media, 2008). Although you will not likely be able to plant enough to sustain your backyard  bee colony (ies), the right flowers, fruit, and vegetables in your garden will attract some of your own bees, as well as welcoming other visitors such as the bumble and solitary bee species. You can help fill in the summer flowering plant drought your bees will experience. Above all, a garden or patch devoted to plants that are attractive to bees can be a source of great pleasure, a reward to yourself as well as your bees, with a colorful display of beauty to delight and entertain the senses.

Some important factors the report emphasizes that contribute to a successful bee garden: The flowers should be in full sunlight and should be planted in groups. Flowers grown singularly or in twos and threes may fail to attract bees. A decent-sized clump of a suitable plant, such as lavender, is much more valuable. Likewise, bees often overlook flowers grown in shade rowing on poor soil even though they may produce nectar and pollen. And they advise to not plant “too close to the hive thinking you are helping the bees by reducing the distance they have to travel to find food. Flowers very near a hive are in the firing line when the bees go on their toilet trips, so they sensibly avoid them as a food source.” The article gives lots of practical suggestions of flowering plants you might select for specific times of the year or garden sites. A listing of suggested bee garden flowering annuals, perennials, bulbs and trees is included.