Here are the three progress reports that we wrote to clients this last year.  I am placing it here on the website for its educational value to let you know what goes into the production of packages of bees.  It can also serve as an example of just some of the challenges that our package bee supplier faces during the spring.  

February 25th:

Good Afternoon,

Possibly more information than you need....

I thought that I would take a few moments this afternoon and update you on the bees in California.  The Almonds are just reaching the main bloom.  The early blooming almonds are about 60% in full bloom and 40% in the popcorn stage.  Later blooming varieties are mostly in the pink bud and popcorn stage with the bloom yet to come.  This is significantly later than in previous years.  In the past month, California has been heavily hit with cold and wet weather.  This has retarded spring growth.  How this relates to us as Alaskan beekeepers is related to timing.

Delayed almond bloom holds hives in the orchards longer in the spring than normal.  This effects cell builders and mating nucs.  Beekeepers typically pull frames of bees from strong colonies loaded with brood to make up queenless hives.  These queenless hives are where the newly grafted larvae are placed to produce queen cells. A week later the cells are pulled from these cell builder hives and placed in an incubator for a few days.  Just before the cells hatch they are taken to the field and placed in mating nucleus boxes.  These mini hives are where the queen hatches out, goes on mating flights, and begins to lay eggs.  These boxes are previously made up by shaking bees from strong hives.  When the almond bloom is delayed the orchard owners will not release the hives (or the bees) until the almond bloom is finished thereby delaying the starting of the grafting of queens because there are no cell builder colonies.  There are also no Nucleus colonies for the same reason, but queens don't go into the nucs until a couple of weeks after the cell builder yard is established; so there is a bit of time there.

It is 18 days before they start grafting our queens.  Next week has a forecast of continued colder than normal temperatures as well as rain.  While that does not put us in crisis mode, it is something that Donna and I are watching very closely.

At this moment the orchards are a week behind schedule and the bees also behind schedule.

A couple of other factors come into play related to the almonds.

Many of the orchards had continuous wet conditions in the early spring, and a number of orchard areas were not able to get swept.  Yes, they do have the orchard version of street sweepers...  The purpose of sweeping the orchards is to pick up what they call the mummies.  Mummies are the almond nuts in their husks that did not get harvested when the tree shakers came by.  These nuts fall off the tree later.  They lay on the ground and dry up (mummies).  When the weather is very wet, the sweepers can't get into the orchards to sweep them up due to the soft wet ground.  These nuts in the husks then lay on the ground and begin to mold.  The fungus can then spread to the newly set nut-lets and have the potential to destroy the crop.

During normal perfect pollination, the bees visit the flower and it sets fruit.  As the fruit sets, the petals of the flower dry up and fall away.  During a rainy spring, the petals can be wet enough to stick to the newly pollinated nut much like a small wet piece of tissue paper.  This holds moisture on the developing nut and is a starting point for fungal development.  As soon as the rain quits, the nuts don't dry as quickly as they normally do.  If there are moldy mummies on the ground, the situation is worse. 

Orchard growers use fungicides to control the outbreak of mold (fungus) if the weather is rainy during or just after the nut set.  Fungicides contaminate pollen that is still left on the remaining flowers and can then taken back to the hives to be used for feed for the developing larvae.

To make matters even worse, there is a bug called a peach twig borer that attacks the trees when they leaf out.  This is addressed by the orchard owners with insecticides.

At the time of trees leafing out, the flowers are done and the beekeeper has removed the hives from the area.  If the ground is dry enough to get the trucks in there... 

While orchard owners are not supposed to mix insecticides with fungicides, there are cases where it has been done to try and combat both threats at the same time.  Beekeepers providing pollination services in the orchards have reported in past years brood that was malnourished and deformed - symptoms consistent with exposure to pesticides. Ohio State University just recently published a study on this ( ).

Fortunately, our supplier reported to us that prior to the bloom his hives were looking in even better shape than they were last year.  This means that the hives went into the orchards in strong shape, and even though they are having a tough time in there they should come out without significant setback.

As I said earlier, this is a situation that Donna and I are monitoring and should not be cause for alarm.  At this point we expect that our schedule laid out in early spring is one that we expect to keep and the bees will be delivered on time.  Much depends upon the weather and mating flights of the queens, and as we get closer to our delivery dates we will update you with the latest information.

While most of you have ordered your bees already, some have not.  We still have some available though dates will be becoming more limited soon.

Steve and Donna




March 5th:

Good evening,

This is an update on the situation in California:

Last time I wrote I expressed concern about the cold and wet weather and how it effected the predicted arrival date of our bee shipments.  At the time I expressed concern for the timing of the various stages of queen raising.  Those concerns are still quite valid.  Last week we began to hear reports of shipment delays as well as some situations where suppliers in California were canceling bee orders and predicting that they will be unable to meet the demand for package bee orders.  I know that several Alaska suppliers have delayed their bee distribution dates by a week or more.

I spoke with John on Monday about the current state of affairs in his yards and not a whole lot has changed but we are seeing some improvement.  Bloom is progressing, weather is slightly drier, and the temperatures have crept up slightly.  One positive note on the cooler temperatures is that fungal spread in the orchards is greatly inhibited and there has been little need for fungicide sprays.  On the down side, the orchards are still quite wet and access to the hives is difficult.  The bloom is still ongoing and pulling brood for the cell builders will be more labor intensive and likely done at the last minute leaving the hives in the orchards as long as possible.  Still John sounded optimistic that he could start grafting near the end of the week.  If that is so, and if we have good weather this week, and if the bloom finishes up in several orchards, (a lot of ifs in there,) we may very well be on schedule for our delivery dates.  There are still many things that could go wrong and delay the arrival of our bees.  We are watching this and will let you know as soon as we have any definitive answer.  The 10 day forecast looks promising.

There are two hurdles that we have to clear.  The first is the grafting of the queens.   In a practical sense that must be done within about a week from now in order for us to have viable queens.  As you know from previous letters it takes approximately 4 weeks to produce a mated queen.  This is the biggest challenge to our on-time shipment.  The second challenge will be mating flight weather the last week of March and in the first week of April.  Both of these events must be good in order to produce good queens for our first shipment.  John will not put queens in our packages unless he is confident that they are good queens.  If either of these events fails to favor us, we will likely be delaying our first shipment by a week.  This could have a cascading effect on the other two shipments.  Moving the bees from the 13th to the 20th will overcrowd the shipment on the 20th forcing some of those packages to be moved to the 27th. 

As always, Donna and I have contingency plans in place, and we believe that we can deliver all of the bees without having to go beyond our last delivery date on the 27th.  If there is a delay on the 13th, quite likely we will have two very full delivery days of the 20th and the 27th.  This is our first and most attractive plan but does have complications to it.

This will, of course, mean that your original package bee arrival date may change.  When we move the bees from the 13th to the 20th some of the bees that were scheduled to arrive on the 20th will have to move to the 27th because we cannot safely handle that many packages on one shipment.  As we have done in the past, we will send out an email to those on the 20th asking if they would volunteer to receive their packages on the 27th.  We will then move those people to the 27th.  If the 20th is still overcrowded, we will move some of the remaining packages to the 27th based on order date and time until we have achieved a safe number of packages to transport on the 20th. 

For those in the interior: we still intend to transport all of the bees to you on the 20th.

For those of you on the Kenai Peninsula: we still intend on transporting all of the bees to you on the 27th.

I would like to stress at this moment we are hopeful that our schedule will remain unchanged and for planning purposes figure that the bees will arrive on the date that you picked out when you ordered them.

If there is to be a change in our schedule, we will be alerting you to that next week to let you know how grafting went. 

The purpose of this letter is to help you prepare for your bee arrival date so that you, too, can develop a set of contingency plans.

For those who are interested this is Monday's Almond bloom report for John's area:

Variety Dormant Green Tip Pink Bud Popcorn Bloom Petal Fall Jacket Out Of Jacket
Sonora % % % % 9% 32% 59% %
Nonpareil % % % % 35% 34% 31% %
California % % % % 34% 36% 30% %
Carmel % % % 4% 51% 28% 17% %
Monterey % % % 4% 32% 31% 33% %
Butte % % % 18% 69% 13% % %
Padre % % 3% 25% 68% 4% % %


March 17th:


Good Evening,

I thought that I would take a few moments and send out the latest update on the bee progress in California.  The weather has turned around just in time.  Debbie (the head of John's queen breeding program) tells me that our queens have been grafted and put in the cell builders last week.  They are and progressing nicely.  At this point they have been grafting between 1600 and 2000 queens each day. 

For those who are interested, the one day old larvae are scooped out of the cells on a frame of brood from the breeder queen's hive.  These larvae are placed in queen cups on a special frame that has room for 36 cups.  The frame is placed in a cell builder hive, which is a queenless hive made up of frames of brood and bees taken from strong hives.  This frame of young larvae is then placed in the strong queenless hive.  It is added to the hive by placing it the third frame from the edge - frame #3.  Each day another frame of grafted cells is added to the hive.  This is done by removing frame 8 and sliding frames 3 through 7 sideways.  This makes a slot at position #3 for the new frame.  By repeating this process each day, at the end of the week the eighth frame that is removed has 36 mature, capped over queen cells that are then placed in an incubator and finish getting ready to hatch.  Debbie has 50 of these cell builder hives so that the total output is about 36 x 50 = 1800 queens per day.

Our cells for the shipment of April 13th are now in the incubator and will hatch on Tuesday. 

To be ready for them to hatch the queen, crews make up mating nucs.  These are small hives that are about 8 inches square.  At the moment, they are in John's shop building.  4 miniature frames and a feeder are in the hive, and there is about a quarter pound of bees added.  Entrances are closed up, and the bees are now busy cleaning the hive.  On Monday, the crew will take the hives out into the mating yards, set the nucs out, and they will be followed by a second crew who will add one of the mature queen cells carefully inserted between two frames.  The queen will hatch out the next day - Tuesday.

Debbie tells me that the weather is perfect for setting out the nucs and adding the queen cells.  Temperatures are expected to be in the 70's.

Our mating flights will occur in the next couple of weeks and the weather at the moment looks promising. 

Over the next couple of weeks the queen crew will be making up and placing in the field about 1800 mating nucs per day to receive new queen cells from the incubator.  This gives enough time for the first batch of queens to fly and mate.

After successful mating, our queens will be evaluated for egg laying in the mating nucs; and if successful, they will be captured, marked, and placed in our queen cages to be ready for our packages.  These queens in cages are stockpiled in queen banks (special hives made just for this purpose) as we await the day that they will fill our packages.  

Shortly after the queens are pulled from the mating nucs, a fresh batch of cells will be taken to the yards, and a new cell that is ready to hatch will be inserted once again between the frames.  By this point in time, the queen crew will have nearly 20,000 mating hives established and producing 1800 queens each day.  If the weather prevents a batch of queens from mating, there are more available in a few days' time.  The queens stockpiled in the queen banks allow flexibility if a batch of queens does not get mated due to storms or high winds.  If they have perfect weather this month, those extra queens will be used in John's operation to make splits of his existing hives.  If the weather is poor, John will make his splits later and use all the available queens for our packages.   

Grafting has been done on time, and we expect to keep our schedule for our delivery dates.  We do not expect delays.

Having said that, there is still the possibility that delays could happen, but that is becoming a smaller and smaller likelihood.

This letter is to keep you informed on the progress of our packages to help you plan out your spring.

At one point, we closed the website to package bee orders as we were cautious about the weather patterns.  That gave us the flexibility to adjust shipping schedules without having the possibility of delaying more than one shipment.   Now that we don't expect any delays, we have opened the order page once again.  If you need extra packages for a hive that didn't make it through winter or have a friend that needs one, I am sure that we can accommodate them. 

A link to our order page is here:

Steve and Donna