Survivor honey bees

Who we are:

Jaime (left) and Carlos (right) holding honey frames

Estrada Farms is a joint partnership between my brother Jaime and me (Carlos). I must credit my brother Jaime with introducing me to bees and beekeeping in general. He is ten years older than me and was fortunate enough to learn beekeeping from a local beekeeper while I was still a toddler. He later took beekeeping classes while in high school and was collecting swarms and keeping bees as a teenager. In other words, he was well into his beekeeping trajectory while I was still watching the Power Rangers on television. Fast forward 20 years and we can now say that we have been hobbyist beekeepers for many years, have had a small stint as a (tiny) “commercial” operation, and are now keeping bees the most natural way possible without the use of chemicals or anything artificial.

We are at the point now where we can offer honey for sale as well nucleus hives (mini starter hives) and anything else a starting beekeeper could want. Starting in beekeeping does not come with a guarantee of success, so having a local helping hand to guide you along the way can be a life saver (for your bees).

Either someone said something funny or we ate too much honey

We can honestly say that beekeeping is a passion for us. I am an engineer by trade and my brother works in construction. We both make a decent living with our “day jobs” and don’t need beekeeping as an additional income source. As a matter of fact, we can’t even imagine how someone could make a living out of natural beekeeping. If we could ever get the hobby to pay for itself, then we would consider ourselves successful! But at the end of the day, we keep bees because we love the feeling of harvesting our own honey. We love to see the honey end up on our children’s pancakes, cereal, and everything else it ends up on!  We love the feeling of accomplishment when you see the first eggs of a new queen you produced yourself. We love to glimpse into a hive and see tens of thousands of insects all working in harmony amongst each other and with nature to create a thriving environment and a natural “superfood”. We also love to share our knowledge with others, especially aspiring beekeepers.

Our Philosophy

Raw unadulterated honey

Honey is one of the most nutritional things you can eat, assuming it’s 100% natural. So how do we get 100% natural honey? Well, for starters we do not treat our hives with any chemicals. Mostly because we consume our own honey and honey products, so why would we want to eat chemicals? Also, we do not feed our hives artificial food (syrup or pollen “substitute”) because again, why would we want that to end up in our honey? This sounds easy enough to do, but it really presents “natural” beekeepers with some serious challenges. For example, if disease or mites break out in your colonies, it means they either survive on their own or die out (in order to be replaced by a survivor colony the next season). After all, survival of the fittest is Mother Nature’s way of improving populations.

Estrada Farms comb honey

Not supplementing feed also means you can only keep the amount of hives that your local ecosystem can sustain (its carrying capacity). For this reason natural beekeepers cannot keep too many hives in only one location. But I’ll be honest; no beekeeper likes to see a starving hive in late winter that just needs a little “boost” to get it to the spring nectar flow, so at times we will bend the supplemental feeding rule. But this is definitely reserved for emergencies.

To sum up, our beekeeping philosophy is simple. We keep bees as natural as possible by not treating with chemicals, by keeping hives as stationary as possible, and by propagating bees that survive and thrive on their own without constant human assistance. After that, it is our honest belief that everything can be sweetened by using honey!

Survivor Bees

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It seems like the new buzz word in beekeeping is “survivor bees”. The term is rather self-explanatory, obviously the bees apply to be on a reality show where they all go to a remote deserted island and then slowly vote out one bee at a time until only the winner remains…OK that was a joke.

Let’s get serious. One is said to have “survivor” bees when they propagate their bees only from other bees that have survived at least one winter. Most of the time, the term survivor also describes a beehive that has survived without any chemical treatments. At this point, a beginner may ask, “well doesn’t everyone propagate their bees using only survivors as you cannot propagate using the dead ones?” that would be a good question. The answer is that many beekeepers re-queen their beehives every year (more or less) regardless of whether the queen was good or bad. They simply want a younger more vigorous queen. The problem is that they will not re-queen from their own stock, instead they will purchase queens from a queen breeder. So the characteristics of the bees are determined by the queen breeder and not the beekeeper. Most of the time, honey production and rapid spring buildup are given more importance over survivability.  On the upside, this is how beekeepers have ended up with such productive and docile bees. On the downside, it’s how beekeepers have ended up with such fragile bees that cannot fend for themselves without human intervention (and chemical treatments).

Wolves and Pomeranians are biologically related, yet everyone would agree that they are very different animals.

Most people don’t understand that modern domesticated bees are no different than cattle, chickens, dogs, or any other animal that has been bred with a particular purpose in mind. When we domesticate animals, we remove the wild from them so that they can no longer live in the wild and their existence depends on humans. Think about it, how did we start with a wolf and end up with a Pomeranian? Obviously we were not selecting with survivability in mind. In the same manner, modern honey bees have some significant differences from their wild counterparts. Keep in mind that the European honey bee is not native to North America (although we do have other native honey producing bees) and so every honey bee on this continent can trace back to a domesticated (or captured) beehive. We would have to go to Africa, Europe, and Asia if we wanted to get true wild honey bees.

So how do we start with a domesticated bee and end up with a survivor bee? Well, what would I have to do if I wanted to breed survivor Pomeranians?  If your first thought was to turn all of your Pomeranians loose and see which ones survive and then establish a breeding population from the survivors, you would be mostly wrong. It’s a great idea in theory and it might actually work, but it’s terrible and cruel in practice. Why? Because very likely, all of your Pomeranians would die before you could establish a breeding population. I don’t necessarily like Pomeranians, but I don’t think it’s nice to starve any animal to death. Yet this is what many beekeepers do. They decide that they are going “treatment free” and will now only breed their own “survivor” bees. It’s a novel idea, except that they are starting with “Pomeranian bees” that they purchased from their local beekeeper. This is why by next spring their hive is dead, sick, or overran by pests; not exactly the fate I wish upon any beehive, after all, it’s not their fault that they’re “Pomeranian bees”.

varroa on bee
A varroa mite sucking on a bee. If left untreated and if the hive cannot control the infestation, the hive will collapse. Survivor bees are better at dealing with varroa.

Back to the question, how would you breed a survivor Pomeranian? Well first you would probably have to realize that Pomeranians in their current configuration will probably never survive in the wild. If it was possible, perhaps you could breed a Pomeranian with a coyote, wolf, or a street dog which all have proven survivor instincts. Then you could select for animals that looked like Pomeranians but had a strong immune system and could hunt for food. Using this approach, perhaps you could end up with an animal that had the best of both worlds. The exact same principle applies to survivor bees.

If you really want treatment free/survivor bees, I suggest that you start with bees that have already proven that they have what it takes to survive treatment free. This can be as easy as looking for wild swarms or performing hive removals. It could be that these swarms or hives come from bees that have been surviving on their own, or it could be a recent swarm of “Pomeranian bees” from the beekeeper down the street. But eventually you’ll get lucky and run into some true survivor bees that have been surviving on their own for many seasons. You can also contact a reputable local beekeeper that has already established a stock of survivor bees.

The first swarm we caught in 2017. This swarm did not originate from our own apiary.

Here at Estrada Farms, all of our bees trace back to a swarm that we caught or an unwanted beehive that we removed (I particularly like doing hive removals because you get to evaluate how long the hive has been surviving on its own). For this reason, we have bees of all colors and behavioral characteristics. We try breeding out the bad traits (aggressiveness) and try to breed in the good traits such as hygienic behavior, mite resistance, and honey production. The best part is that regardless of whether they’re golden or black in color or whether they go into winter with a small or large cluster, our bees usually make it to next spring. Like any other beekeeper, we do lose hives for various reasons, especially over winter. But since our hive count keeps increasing every year, we must be doing something right!

A large hive removed from an old building. These turned out to be excellent “survivor” bees.

If you are in the central or southern California area and are interested in acquiring queens or nucleus colonies from us, feel free to send us an email through the contact us section of our website. Happy beekeeping!