Laura Avery, Mirror contributing writer
Right now is either a very good or a very bad time to be a California beekeeper. Almond growers in the San Joaquin Valley need bees and lots of them for orchard pollination and they are paying top price to rent hives for the bloom period. The trouble is, there is a shortage of bee hives — those white boxes you see stacked in fields along the sides of roads and highways. Bees and their keepers have been having a hard time of it over the past several years. Parasitic mites, a prolonged drought and the presence of aggressive African bees that would rather swarm and fight than make honey have all contributed to weaker bees and fewer hives.
Ken Harris, a beekeeper from Whittier, was able to answer the almond growers’ call by working around the clock to build and populate beehives for several Central Valley orchards. Harris lost two thirds of his inventory and equipment in the devastating Saugus wildfire three years ago and has been working hard to rebuild his business ever since. Drought conditions in the wildflower areas where his bees live year round has resulted in less flower nectar, the primary ingredient of his main source of honey. Bees also eat honey and use it to feed their young, so there is less honey to extract for commercial uses during dry times. Also two types of mites, the Varroa and the tracheal, have proven difficult to control. Harris has been experimenting with mite control by fogging his hives with eucalyptus oil, a well-known flea repellent, and is actively looking for other substances that might be unpleasant for mites, including peppermint and tea tree oil.
“Killer bees” is the term widely used to describe aggressive African bees, bees that are prone to swarm rather than settle down to produce honey like their docile European counterparts. These are not invading armies of bees; rather, they can interbreed with European bees and transfer their aggressive characteristics to existing hives. Some beekeepers who find their productive bees exhibiting irrational behavior will suspect that the hive has been “Africanized,” and will locate and remove the queen bee. Although African and European queens are practically identical, some beekeepers mark their European queens with a tiny dot of paint.
Interloping queens without the identification are removed, and the hive is “re-queened” with a gentler bee. A hive can go two or three days without a queen; but after that the bees will leave the hive in a swarm to seek out a new queen. There is a critical period of time, then, once the beekeepers remove the undesirable queen, to fog the hive to remove the old queen’s scent and introduce the new queen. Bees are avidly devoted to their queen, and they will readily accept a new queen after just a few days of being without one.
Bees are very sensitive to their environment and are one of nature’s most remarkable creatures. Not only do they produce honey from flower nectar, they also produce the miraculous royal jelly that turns ordinary worker bee larvae into the all powerful queen bee. Royal jelly is produced from nectar by worker bees, female bees that come from fertilized eggs, with the addition of a special substance secreted by glands located in their heads. Queen bee cells are located under the brood chamber in the center of a bee hive. They are bigger than the normal cells that house drones, the larger male bees from unfertilized eggs and the smaller female workers, and store honey. The queen bee mates only a few times in her life before retiring to the hive to lay thousands of eggs. When pollen and nectar are plentiful, she lays more eggs. If the queen dies, a female worker bee will lay several eggs in the queen cells and they will be fed royal jelly to produce several queens. However, the first queen to emerge will kill the other emerging queens to achieve single primacy, and carry on the complex life cycle of the hive.
Bees gather nectar from flowers within a half mile from their hives. Common types of honey are wildflower, buckwheat and eucalyptus since these plants are abundant even within city limits. Urban neighbors do not like having bee hives nearby in spite of the efforts of beekeepers to assure them that bees are too busy making honey to bother them. Many urban habitats also contain pesticides. Beekeepers are constantly on the lookout for desirable sites to place their hives. During pollination time in the crop-growing regions of the state, growers do not spray for pest control to allow the bees to do their work unimpeded. March, April and May are prime times for working bee hives, although the majority of their work is carrying pollen from flower to flower. Most of the honey they collect is used for their personal consumption, which is why we consumers are not treated to almond flower honey. Fragrant citrus groves produce an abundance of nectar since they flower year round, so bees are able to produce popular orange blossom honey while they pollinate. However, some prime citrus growing areas do not result in honey. Valley Center in San Diego, for example, while home to many citrus groves, has not produced honey for Ken Harris. Many variables may be at work there including temperature and altitude.Honey has an indefinite shelf life and never requires refrigeration. Honey sold at the farmers’ market is not heated, and may crystallize after some months. It can be easily returned to a clear liquid state by gently warming the jar in warm water. Hard working bees and their human keepers are a remarkable resource for us consumers. Let’s be sure to visit them soon at our local farmers’ market.