C. F. Koehnen & Sons
by: Kim Flottum
Today, Robert and his brother Bill, and Robert's sons, Kamron and Kalin, and Bill's son, Mike, are partners in the business, each responsible for certain aspects of this sprawling business, but each crossing over when necessary. They have over 40 full tim e employees.
Almond and walnut orchards, multi-crop pollination contracts, package and queen production, equipment manufacturing and wholesale supplier ñ C.F. Koehnen and Sons is a California agribusiness personified.
Selling thousands of queens and packages each spring is only a part of C.F. Koehnen's business every year but it is an important part ñ and one not always so evident. For years Koehnen's, like many other California queen and package producers, exclusively supplied their products to Canadian beekeepers. They had no domestic market, nor needed one.
When the Canadian border closed that changed, and they turned to the U.S. package and queen market, hoping to maintain their production. Though slow at first, they gradually gained market share with efficient production and competitive pricing. Sheer size allows for slimmer margins on queen and package pricing.
In November, 1996 Kamron Koehnen hosted Bee Culture readers to a guided tour of the Koehnen queen and package facility just outside Glenn, California, about an hour and a half north of Sacramento.
Koehnen's started in 1907 when Carl Fredrick (C.F.) Koehnen, then a commercial catfisherman along with his brother Albert, acquired their first colonies in Tracy, California. One thing led to another, and soon he left his brother, Albert, and moved to Gle nn County and eventually to the present location just outside Glenn.
The area then was primarily undeveloped, and honey production was easy due to open land and the huge grain fields that turned yellow with star thistle.
Today, Robert and his brother Bill, and Robert's sons, Kamron and Kalin, and Bill's son, Mike, are partners in the business, each responsible for certain aspects of this sprawling business, but each crossing over when necessary. They have over 40 full tim e employees. The family has a good mix of skills and interests. Robert has a knack for equipment design and shop work. But he also oversees the queen rearing operation. Bill, the President of the company oversees the nuc making process, shakes packages when needed and trucks almonds and walnuts in the Fall. Mike is the company's controller, keeping an eye on the financial side of the business, while Kalin deals primarily with orchard management. Kamron oversees the huge beekeeping operation.
At season maximum, the company has about 15,000 colonies, and all are kept within a 30-mile radius of the farm. They don't move bees to other states for honey production, and they don't even own an extractor. This operation is strictly feed-lot beekeeping.
The busy season starts in January when colonies are fed the California version of a pollen substitute to get things moving. To make these patties, 7 - 8 gallons high fructose corn syrup is mixed with 50 pounds brewer's yeast in a commercial-sized mixer. T he blend is left overnight while it 'sets up' to a jello-like consistency in a specially made box. The next day this mix is 'sliced' and each patty is placed between the two supers of the brood nest. This much mix feeds roughly 90-100 colonies.
Towards the end of the month each colony is 'graded,' evened up, and about 12,500 are moved to almonds for pollination. From there about 5-7,000 are moved to prunes, then to clover, then to sunflowers and finally vine crops ñ all for pollination.
After almond and prune pollination the remaining colonies are returned to their permanent locations and used for package production. Since January they've been fed, and have gathered good supplies of pollen from almonds and nectar from prunes so these col onies are very populous and ready to be shaken. Except they don't 'shake' packages. Rather, they use a 'smoke up' system that works like this.
The colony to be worked has its lid removed, and an excluder is placed on top. A deep super, equipped with vertical boards (placed at about normal frame location) and a screened top is placed above the excluder. Then, the crew of 3-5 people smoke each col ony entrance four or five times at five or so minute intervals. This drives the bees up into the special super, where they cluster on those vertical boards. Then, each box is removed and slammed down on top of another screened box, and the package bees are collected. The first time a colony will yield about five pounds of bees, but six to seven isn't uncommon. When the screened box is full, 10-15 pounds, the bees are transferred into two or three pound packages and a queen and feeder can are added. A crew can produce 500 two-pound packages from 224 colonies (two yards) in an average day.
Colonies are 'shaken' twice for packages and no more. Usually, a colony that has a good queen and is well supplied with food can produce 10 pounds of bees for the season with this method. The second round is all done by hand shaking. That enables them to requeen the entire outfit at this time, before being moved into Summer pollination.
They focus on larger deliveries, of course, and can and will ship truckloads of packages if arrangements are made. They will also put bees in a customer's equipment, saving costs all around.
These colonies are requeened with stock raised by Koehnen's, who produce, depending on the year, between 70-100,000 queens each season. Robert selects breeders from the many thousands of colonies they run during the previous season by the crews, who mark exceptional colonies. Breeders are selected that show good honey production, gentleness and superior brood production and good overwintering characteristics. Sixty to seventy breeders are chosen each year. They produce Italian Cordovans primarily, and som e New World Carniolan stock.
Breeders are set up in the queen yard, and frames of eggs are grafted into wax cups on bars set on frames, and the frames are then placed in queenless cell building colonies to raise. Three frames, each with four bars containing 15 cells each are placed i n a colony, with about an 85% 'take.' The frames are rotated into and out of the colonies on a set schedule. They can produce about 2500 queen cells per day. On the 10th day after grafting the cell bars, the finished queen cells are removed from the cell building colonies and placed in an incubator to even-out the process. An elaborate record keeping process is used, so if there is a problem with a queen, she can be traced to determine what the weather was like during all critical stages of development, most importantly mating.
Meanwhile, another crew is busy preparing the 50,000 or so mating nucs used. To get them ready an assembly line is set up. The mating nucs are essentially small colonies. To start, the nuc has two frames and a feeder inside. First, the internal feeder is filled with syrup, complete with Fumidil-BÆ. Then the nuc moves down the assembly line to a person who has a hot implement that softens a spot on the comb and a ready-to-emerge queen cell is pushed into the frame at the soft spot. Moving on, four ounces o f bees are poured in (taken from package colonies) and left to settle in. As the nuc moves down the line another frame is added and the lid is put on and secured with a large rubber band.
The nuc is then left in the warehouse for a day and a half or so, to get things 'settled' inside and hatch the cell. Then they're moved to one of several mating yards and the nuc is opened. After about eight days the virgin queen is mated. Eighteen to 19 days later, during the early part of the season, the queen is caged. Later, only 16 day's wait is required. Koehnen's have queens ready about April first, so you can see that the process begins at least by the first of March.
To expedite this process ñ queen and package production ñ Koehnen's have capitalized on Robert's skills in equipment design. They have a queen cage making machine that can produce about 6,000 cages/day. The California mini queen cage has proven successful and is used by many breeders. It is sold in 1,250 count boxes.
They also have a machine for putting lids on package feeder cans, and a machine that fills the cans. They can produce these so efficiently that many package producers find it's easier, and less expensive to purchase the cans than to do it themselves.
They have devised a queen shipping box for sending bulk queen orders that comes in a variety of sizes, and are also used by many other queen shippers. The whole operation works out of several buildings, some for work, some for storage.
Transportation and colony movement is handled by a fleet of 2-ton flatbed trucks and several homemade forklifts. The forklifts can carry 16 hives (four pallets) at a time, and the truck can haul 112 (7 groups of 16) hives per load. Speed and efficiency ar e important when moving colonies in and out of orchards and their equipment is first rate.
The forklifts were designed specifically with the pollination business in mind. 'Drops' in orchards are preset at 16, 32 or 48 colonies per site, depending on the grower and the crop. Of course the more colonies in one spot the better because crews spend less time moving them in and out. Also, those crews who check colonies after dropping spend less time driving between sites.
Efficient, aggressive and skilled, C.F. Koehnen and Sons carved out a market in the U.S. when the Canadian border closed, and today are a major player in the honey bee industry. But, when all is said and done, with the modern equipment, large scale size a nd lots of help, something Kamron said during our visit probably plays more of a role in their success than anything else. He said, while showing us the operation, 'Everything we do, we work for the next time around.' That philosophy will spell success in any beekeeping operation ñ no matter the size.
You can contact C.F. Koehnen & Sons at 3131 Hwy. 45, Glenn, CA 95943, (916) 891-5216.