Our Operation – March to August

March

200 bags of loose cell cocoons will be measured into 1,500 incubation trays and placed in our 5 incubation rooms set at 10C.

The incubation rooms have both heating and cooling.

The bees are chilled and kept at under 15C to keep the larvae in diapause.

When the time arrives for the bees to metamorphose into adult bees the heat is increased to 30C. After Day 7 of the incubation process (see below) the bees begin to create their own heat. At this time artificial heat is turned off.

The greatest threat to the bees at this stage is the bees getting too hot. The cooling system is turned on again and has a big job of keeping the bees from overheating. Back up power and an alarm system are a necessity in the event of a power outage. It is possible for an incubation room to reach 50C without artificial cooling.

The last of the 9,000 nesting blocks will be strapped together and stacked ready to transport to the field in the “bee truck” a 24 ft Freightliner.

Bags of loose cell cocoons

Bags of loose cell cocoons

Trays full of cocoons in the incubation room

Strapped nesting block units ready for the field.

Strapped nesting block units ready for the field.

April

The bees sit quiet at 10C in the incubation trays.  This is a busy month with the following tasks to complete:

  • Shift bee domes to new fields
  • Cultivate established alfalfa fields to kill weeds and insects and level out rodent mounds
  • Organize seeding inputs and service machinery for the seeding window in May
  • Hang bee nests in domes - 500 domes and 9,000 nests = 13 truck trips for 2 men
Shifting bee domes to a new field

Shifting bee domes to a new field

Close-up view of a Kelly Chain cultivating the alfalfa field

Photo by Gene Pavelich Photography
Close-up view of a Kelly Chain cultivating the alfalfa field

Jon Zdunich’s 80 foot seeding rig – May 2017

Photo by Gene Pavelich Photography
Jon Zdunich’s 80 foot seeding rig

May

Planting season arrives, wheat, lentils and new alfalfa fields will be seeded. The alfalfa gets planted with lentils but in a separate pass.

Ideally we finish seeding by the 25th of May.  Large equipment is used in Western Canada because our optimum planting window is so small.

Alfalfa plants growing in the spring

Alfalfa plants growing in the spring

June

Trays of Bees

Trays of Cocoons

Taking trays of hatched bees to the alfalfa fields

Taking trays of hatched bees to the alfalfa fields

The month of June causes both anxiety and excitement.

It is time to LIGHT UP MY BEES!  On June 1st the incubation room heaters are turned up to 30C.

Imagine knowing that 50 million babies will arrive in 4 weeks!

Incubation in detail:

  • Day 1 turn up heat to 30C
  • Day 7 turn down heat to 28C
  • Day 7 to 15 monitor parasites hatching
  • Day 15 turn down heat to 26C
  • Day 23 to 25 bees begin to emerge
  • Day 25-35 the weather, the alfalfa blossom and bee emergence are closely monitored.  These three variables determine the successful bee release into the fields.

24 hours before release the bees are cooled to 10C and then incubation tray lids are removed. The evening before release we load the truck with trays and blow cool night air into the truck to keep the bees calm in the open trays.

At 5 am we set sail to the fields and start placing trays of bees inside the domes.

For 5-8 weeks the bees fly, feed, mate and live happy lives.

A week after release of bees the trays are collected and empty cocoons discarded into the field. The incubation trays are washed and stacked ready for next year.

 

Female bee carefully building a cocoon

Photo by Mark Higgins 
Female bee carefully building a cocoon

July

This is a full-on month of pollination, bees fly every sunny day. The bees build cells, pack them with pollen and nectar paste and lay their eggs where this food is readily available for newly hatched larvae to eat upon hatching.  When the full-grown larvae have eaten its entire food source it spins a cocoon within the cell and commences diapause, the long sleep to next season.

 

Busy bees outside a bee hut

Busy bees outside a bee hut

 

 

To be pollinated alfalfa flowers need their keel opened to expose the stamen that is spring loaded and covered in pollen. The stamen mechanically trips, smacking the bee in the head allowing the bee to access the pollen. Other types of bees do not enjoy receiving this violent knock on the head by the stamen as it snaps. Leafcutter bees do not mind the discomfort and carry on pollinating.

 

Photo by Peggy Greb
Leafcutter bee pollinating an alfalfa flower

How an Alfalfa Flower is “Tripped” and Pollinated

August

Two very full nesting blocks

Two very full nesting blocks

Cluster of alfalfa flowers

 
In a short period of 5 to 8 weeks the flying female bees have flown their wings off and die.  The two generations of bees have a time overlap of only a few weeks.

As the bees fill the nesting tunnels with cells the full tunnels get capped off with multiple perfectly round pieces of leaf.  This is their way of keeping parasites from entering.

The alfalfa seed crop begins to set seed forming curly green seed pods which darken upon maturation and contain golden yellow seeds when dry and ripe.

In mid to late August the bee nesting material is brought home to the warehouse.

Nests are stacked to dry at 20C for 1 month then chilled with night air to under 15C until the warehouse work begins.

Alfalfa at the pod stage

Alfalfa at the pod stage

 

Leafcutter bee nesting blocks fresh from the field, stacked for drying

Leafcutter bee nesting blocks fresh from the field, stacked for drying

Alfalfa seed pod