Saturday, June 24, 2017

Swarm Chasers!

Swarm Chasers!

Swarm on a flower pot
It’s that time of year again… the beehives are bursting out all over the place, and we are out catching swarms. It’s a good time to remind people to please not panic if you see a swarm of bees. You know what I mean – the pictures of vehicles covered with bees, or a school bus fender hiding behind a massive beard of our little lovelies. When bees swarm, they are very docile – probably the most docile they will be in their lives – because they have a queen with them, and they have no brood or food stores or home to protect.

Craig called us to gather his swarm
A swarm is really just nature’s way of allowing a colony to reproduce. The bees, when they land in your yard and hang off a branch or fence, or as they were today, a plant pot, they are only there temporarily (unless the queen gets stuck somewhere, like in the back seat of a car). Their original home will be usually less than a quarter mile away, and they have stopped to re-orientate themselves as they head to their new home. Whether they have already decided where it will be and are sending scout bees out to it, or if they are there while scout bees hunt out a new viable home for them to move to, is still under discussion. What we do know is that they will move from their first landing point to their permanent home, usually in a couple hours.

Greg gathering a swarm in a juniper bush. 
If you watch them once they have landed and are bearded around their queen, you will see many of them shaking their abdomens (which could be considered their tails, in this case). That is their way of communicating with each other, but it also is how they send out pheromones to let other bees know where they are and where the queen is. This helps those scout bees find their way back to the swarm. They will move on, so please, if you can’t contact a beekeeper to gather them up, leave them alone for a few hours and they will eventually fly away. Don’t spray them with insecticide, or spray your plants around them. Instead, pour yourself a cup of coffee and watch; they are truly fascinating.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Planting for Bees

Bee on dandelion
It’s time to take advantage of these winter doldrums, especially as we look out at fresh snow (again) in February. While the bees are busy rubbing their wings for heat and (hopefully) tending the new brood that will be spring bees, we can curl up by the fire and dream of warmer days. What better way to do that than with the seed catalogs? We’ve been stock-piling them since Christmas, so time to jump in and start planning our plantings.

Bee on hyacinth 
For us, there are two things at the top of the list to consider – the first is to find plants that feed either the family or the bees, or both. Because we have locust trees, which create an amazing flavor in honey, we want to compliment that taste. Raspberries work well, and we have a lot of them; it’s a good thing because both the bees and the boys love them. We will be planting some lavender this year, adding to what we already have, and I am hoping to add more herbs around the new apiary. Crocuses and hyacinth which bloom in the spring are always good additions (but those are planted in the fall. We have our crocuses planted in the lawn so they come up and are finished before the grass needs mowed). Bee balm (monarda), cosmos, Echinacea, foxgloves, and all blooming trees are a great addition. Asters and zinnia in the fall are also nice, and goldenrod is another important plant here, providing nectar and pollen when most plants are shutting down in the heat of the summer.

Bee on Cherry Blossom
The idea of tilling up some of our field to plant it to clover and wildflowers also has some appeal. It would be a good three-season food source for the bees, and would cut down on our need to mow the field as much, reducing our carbon footprint. We will also be experimenting with cover crops – planting buckwheat on a part of the old pasture to help choke out invasive weeds and to feed the bees – they love buckwheat (but it does make a darker honey). We can leave the cuttings on the field at the end of the season, and that will help improve our soil. We have begun introducing white clover to our lawns. This is primarily to feed our bees – nothing quite like clover honey – but also to help keep the areas green in the hot temperatures when lawn just doesn’t do it without copious amounts of watering, and cuts down the need for mowing.

Bee on Apple Blossoms
This takes us to the second most important consideration; to choose plants that are hardy and that will not require or come with any chemical contamination. Along with this, we need plants that can withstand the hot summers without a lot of water. We have been leaning more toward heirloom seeds, loving the varieties but also the nostalgia of them. We lean toward West Coast Seeds from Canada and Johnny’s Seeds in the US, simply because of the variety and quality – we know what we are getting and that it will be safe for our bees. We want to grow plants that complement each other, creating a symbiotic relationship wherever possible to fight diseases and pests. Sometimes compromises have to be made – marigolds are wonderful for keeping pests away, but don’t make the nicest honey. Fortunately a little marigold goes a long way in protecting the garden, and if there are other sources of pollen available (like raspberries!) the bees will choose those first.

Bee on buckwheat
We would be remiss to not mention the vital role dandelions fill for the bees. In the spring, when there are not a lot of other plants blooming, dandelions are a godsend. They are a wonderful source of pollen and a first source of nectar for the bees, keeping them going in a time when the bees are trying to build hive strength with only a few resources. Please do not spray your dandelions – they are really only determined but misplaced flowers.

If you find you do have to spray your plants, please avoid doing it mid-day when the bees are their busiest. In the mornings, when it is still too cool, or in the evenings, when they are returning home for the day would be a much better time, if you must. This isn’t just about our bees; it’s about all the bees and other pollinators depending on these plants for sustenance.

As an added note from our last blog, we finally have a ‘cleansing flight’ day for our bees! It’s still colder than what it should be for them to venture out, but when nature calls… 

FLOWERS FOR BEES: Calendula, Butterfly Bush, Cleome, Clarkia, Columbine, Cornflower, Cosmos, Forget-me-not, Delphinium, Dianthus, Digitalis, Echinacea, Blanketflower, Hollyhock, Candytuft (Iberis), Linum, Lavatera, Lobelia, Lunara, Lupins, Morning Glory, Nasturtiums, Purple Tansy, Poppies, Scabiosa, Snapdragons, Statice, Strawflowers, Sunflowers, Veronica, Yarrow, Zinnea

HERBS FOR BEES: Bergamot, Borage, Chamomile, Chives, Lavender, Oregano, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Keeping the Hive Alive

The hives in their new apiary. The snow is up to the top
of the benches they sit on (18" high) and the weatherman
is today calling for about another 12" to fall tonight and
tomorrow morning.
As we brace for yet another blast of snow (really, Mother Nature, enough is enough) it might be a good time to think about spring, from a bee’s perspective. We spend a lot of time making sure that our bees have the best preparation possible for winter, but in Canada, that season comes with a lot of variables, so in many ways, it can be a bit of a nail-biter. For us, it is very rare to still have these cold temperatures and snow falling. That is where we’re at right now – wondering if we gave them enough food, wondering if the weight of the hives was high enough to give them good odds of survival, etc. The one thing we do know is that when the temperatures are this cold, we cannot open up the hives to check on them. That blast of cold would definitely hurt them.

February last year, we were able to get into the hives.
In the fall, we closed the screens at the bottom of the hive, to help keep them warm. We treated the hives to make sure there were no mites in them – we want to make the viruses that come in on the mites do not get a chance to impact the brood that will carry the hive through the winter. We have made sure they have food in the hives. They also have stored honey and pollen which will become vital to them once the days start getting longer. That last brood of bees in the fall are ‘winter bees’. During the rest of the year, a worker bee lives about 6 weeks. Winter bees will carry the hive for up to 6 months. They have to be as strong as possible.

The worker bees from one of our hives forcing out a drone
last fall. The drones are much bigger, have much bigger eyes
and have no stinger.
Our bees should have already started laying new brood. They need pollen for protein primarily for the brood, so those stores are already being depleted. In the spring, once we can open the hives, we will be able to give them additional pollen, but right now, they are on their own. In the coldest months, they will be frugal in their use of stores, but once the queen starts laying brood again, the demand rises sharply. Remember that through those winter months, the worker bees keep the hive at a constant temperature (or as close to it as they possibly can) by rubbing their wings, or vibrating them, to create friction. They do this all day, every day, to protect the Queen.

An evicted drone. Notice the size of the eyes. 

Our queens now should be making worker bees. They will not create any drones until they are needed – in a bee’s world, men serve one purpose, and one purpose only; if it is not breeding season, the drones aren’t necessary, and come fall, the worker bees will make sure that every drone is kicked out of the hive. They are not feeding someone who does nothing to keep them all alive.

Making bee boxes... again. 
So, our bees are in their boxes, rubbing their wings, creating friction, eating very little. The brood is starting to be laid, so the queen is doing her thing. They cannot get out of the hive to forage. They also cannot get out of the hive to relieve themselves; there is no indoor plumbing in a bee’s world. On days when it warms up enough, they will leave the hive if for no other reason than to do that which they cannot do inside. Our bees have not had a possible ‘cleaning flight’ day for over three months, and this is definitely a concern to us. As winter drags on, they are thinking about one thing – providing for the hive the minute the temperatures are right. They need to have brood ready to take over, because those winter bees are getting tired. They need to have bees ready to forage, and they need more to take care of brood as the queen keeps producing. It’s all about keeping the hive alive. While some animals hibernate during the winter months, and other (like the wiener dogs) are sleeping in front of a warm fire, our bees are working like crazy in those little boxes.

Of course, they aren’t the only ones working in preparation for spring. We’re once again making bee boxes, making honey supers, putting together frames, and planning what to do with our bees and our honey this year. We’ll keep you posted on that. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Looking Ahead to 2017

Our hives in the new apiary, covered with snow but sitting
in the sunshine. 
It was a very busy fall for us. Our first priority for the fall was to move the bees to the new apiary. It has lots of room for growth, and we can park a trailer in there as well, which is the long term plan – then we can keep some bees on the trailer, and move them from orchard to orchard, getting that wonderful fruit pollen. It makes amazing honey. For the move, the hives were loaded up on the back of the truck, the tables were hauled over (we don’t like to have the hives directly on the ground because then they are just too inviting to bugs and critters who might have a hankering for some bees – yes, we mean skunks. They don’t care about the honey but they sure do love bees… and not in the good way.)

Taking the honey from the FlowHive
We also extracted our honey… lots of honey. When all was said and done, we ended up with about 1100 pounds of honey. If that sounds like a lot, you want to try to store it all in your kitchen pantry! Like all things, there was still some learning this year in the extraction department. We harvested our FlowHive for the first time, with mixed results – it was a very messy process! We also harvested 32 pucks of honey in the comb, and were very happy with that. With a little bit of that extracted honey, we did all our preserves and especially our jellies, using less than a cup of honey per batch instead of the many cups of sugar normally used, and it turned out wonderfully.

Moving the hives to the new apiary.
So, what about 2017? The hives are topped with snow, the bees are inside making sure the hive stays at the right temperature, and we are pondering the next honey season. As always, it seems, there are hive boxes and honey supers to be made. That is a never-ending task, it seems, as we grow. Since we hadn’t anticipated the growth we had last year, we used up every available box and frame, so there is work to be done there. We need to make our ‘shopping list’ of necessities – like queen excluders, calculating as best we can how many hives we will aim for next year. It’s hard to anticipate because so much depends on the winter. This winter has been very cold, unusually cold, with a lot of wind, so we could find that the hives are not as strong in the spring as we hoped. We also had a long fall, so they could have depleted a lot of their stores before the cold weather came. We also are over-wintering with single hives, instead of doubles, so there will be less stores for them to rely on inside.

Our honey in the comb, ready for sale. 
Without knowing what we have when we start the year, we almost require a couple of contingency plans. If the bees do well, and they are up and running strong early in the spring, we will have to decide if the focus will be on creating more hives, or creating honey, and if we go with creating honey, do we do more liquid honey or honey in the comb? We can also focus a bit more on gathering propolis and pollen instead of just honey, or we can decide to create hives to sell for other beekeepers, spreading diversity and helping new beekeepers get established. Regardless of what route we take, we know we have to re-queen the hives which raises the question of ‘growing’ our own queens or purchasing queens. We learned from last year that to purchase queen cells are much cheaper, but much more of a gamble. The growing of queen cells is an involved and intricate art, requiring a careful hand at the start when the harvest the day-old larvae, and absolute vigilance in monitoring and timing their growth to be able to move them appropriately at the right time. Being off even one day has dire consequences, so we need to be sure of what we’re doing and when we’re doing it. The learning curve on this task is, honestly, a bit intimidating, but the benefits, especially for our own hives, would be substantial.

University of Purdue -- growing queen cells. 
We have to look beyond these issues though, and consider what we do with what our bees produce. Selling hive nucs and queens are one way to make this gig pay, but are those enough or do they deplete our own ability to produce honey? We have been selling our honey, by the jar, by the puck and by the bucket, but is there more we can be doing? We have gathered a lot of beeswax over the last few years, so perhaps it’s time to find a use for that, something that will help to make this more than just an interesting hobby.

When you have angry bees because you have
just taken away all their honey, you have
to get creative when working outside.
Greg is geared up to do some welding,
while wearing a bee suit! 
So while we sit and ponder, and dream of sunshine and flowers for our bees, we will have more than enough to keep us busy (besides just making new hive boxes). We will pull out the aprons and the pots, and do some experimenting with the many wonderful by-products of bees, integrating the wax and hopefully the pollen and propolis, so more people can reap the benefits. At this point, at least for a few more weeks, the evenings will be spent reading and researching. The days inside the house will be spent testing and sampling. We’ll try to share some of the results as we go. It could be an interesting (and messy) journey. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Live From The Honey House!

Deep boxes and frames ready for creating new hives

Well, okay, the honey house is in our dreams, but one day...!

It’s been a busy week with the bees. On Saturday, we had to prepare the hives for re-queening. This year, we are trying to requeen with queen cells, rather than using proven queens. It just stretches our ability a bit further, and since we have a wonderful source for queen cells right now, we will use it.

Unloading full honey supers from the second bee yard.

Preparation meant cleaning out the queen castles that we had prepared in the spring, moving those hives to the large deep boxes so they can have a regular hive, and getting some new frames from some of the other hives, including the Hawaiians, to use as a foundation for the queen castles again. Doing this will add to the number of hives we have once more – essentially creating splits. When we clean out the queen castles, we open one nuc at a time. These nucs consist of three frames each. We check them to see that there is new brood on the frames; this means there is an active queen in that nuc. We check the pattern she is using for laying her eggs – we want to see almost every cell filled with larvae, with the odd open spot. Too many open spots or random clumps means that she is not as strong as she should be.

One-way screens allow the bees to get out of the honey super,
but not back in.

We take those three frames and move them into a separate deep box, add some more empty frames (preferably ones that have already got some built up comb on them, though) and those hives are ready to go. The three-frame area is just not big enough, so now they will have room to grow.

With the queen castles empty, we then went to the other hives that were already established. They need to be checked regularly anyway, so now was the time (despite the bees being especially peeved at us, and letting us know! It was a 9-sting week!). Hives that were especially strong donated one or two frames to restock the queen castles. We added queen cells to those queen castle nucs the next day and will check them in about a week. Hives that were not as strong donated more frames to the castles and were marked to get a new queen as well. We had three of those, and the queen cells were put in on Sunday.

Hot days and crowded hives lead to
a lot of bearding on the outside.

While we were out there getting stung anyway, we decided to put in the one-way screens between the honey supers and the hives. This would allow the bees in the super to get out, but no more would be able to go back in, leaving them empty (or almost empty) for us to extract the honey. We pulled the supers and set them in the shop to warm up, making extraction easier. We also pulled and extracted the Ross Rounds; our bees did a beautiful job of these, and we are very excited to have more next year.

Extraction was earlier this year than last, (mostly because we ran out of honey supers so had to empty what we could so they can go back on the hives) and the end product is incredible. The honey has a wonderful dark color and a rich taste with locust and floral undertones. It runs nicely, and is nowhere near as thick as last year – thankfully – because of the less arid conditions this year. The bees and Mother Nature were smiling on us in 2016.

We will have one more extraction to do later in the year, hopefully, so our honey buckets are full again! Woo hoo! 

Here comes the honey. The white flecks are wax from the comb
totally harmless (actually, very healthy) so we filter it out. 

I don't always put honey in my tea, but when
I do, it is fresh from the hive! 

Full Ross Round frames!!

This is the honey in the comb, a delicious delicacy. (Ross Rounds)

This is a very full frame of honey, the first of many!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Waxing Poetic

It’s been a busy summer so far, with very weird weather, but we finally found a few minutes to do a bee update!
Removing the partition from a Queen Castle to turn it into
one standard hive.
We have some results on our queen castles – the hives where we put three small nucs into one box. Two weeks ago we cracked them open to see how everyone was doing. On three of the castles, only one nuc per hive survived. On one of these nucs, we could see the queen had not hatched. On others, there were bees working but no queen laying eggs. Fortunately though, one nuc in each hive was thriving, so we just removed the partitions and turned them into regular hives with 10 frames each. This weekend, we checked those hives again and all but one are doing marvelously. We have even added a honey super to a one of them! Another of the castles, when we opened it, had all three nucs thriving. The bees are laying brood and bringing in honey, so next week we will be splitting them up into their own boxes.

Examining the brood pattern from one of our Kona Queen
Hives. Lots of bees and lots of capped brood!
We also have been seeing amazing results from our Kona Queens from Hawaii. The hives are bursting with bees, and are they producing honey! The three hives have produced more already this year than we had from all our hives the first year with the apiary. All of the ones in our yard now have 3 honey supers on them! For one of them, we have added a special honey super. Instead of giving them frames to store the honey, this one has round openings, about the size of hockey pucks, for them to fill with wax and honey. When we harvest, we simply pop the pucks out and put them in containers, selling the honey in the wax. It’s even healthier that way and a popular treat for many people. We’re excited to see them doing such a good job filling in the ‘Ross Rounds’ and will be looking at doing much more of this next year.

Building lots of burr comb on the lid of their hive.
Although it’s late in the year, with all the rainy and cool weather it seems the bees have gotten a bit discombobulated. We received a call this weekend about a swarm in someone’s yard. This is our fourth swarm to pick up this year – this one was big and about 20 feet up a pine tree. We managed to gather them though, and two days later these bees are doing orientation flights at the door of their hive already. The bees in this colony are very distinctive – they are much more yellow than ours, and have a lot more attitude.

Two of the other swarm hives are doing well, and in fact one of them now also has a super on them for honey. The last one unfortunately didn’t work out. We’re still very happy with the three new hives; they were a welcome bonus addition.

Inside the Flow Hives. Social media loves this hive.
Sadly, our bees don't. :(
The Flow Hive. *sigh* For some reason, our bees do not like the Flow Hive. We had it on a strong hive for over a month and that hive swarmed twice rather than go up into the Flow Hive. We moved it to another strong hive that had some partially full honey supers on it, but the bees would rather fill anything else, and are avoiding it completely. Next week, we will put it onto one of the hives with the Hawaiian queens, removing the full honey supers and giving them just this and a partially full super, and hopefully they will start to put something into it. It was easier getting them to do the work in the empty Ross Rounds with no frames at all than it is to go into the Flow Hive.

Checking a frame of brood. The bees were very active
this day, but the sun was shining so everyone was happy.
Our inspections have been rather spotty over the last month, because the weather has not been cooperating. They do not like to be opened when it’s cloudy – most of the bees are in there instead of out gathering pollen, so it’s full and they get a bit crabby. We cannot inspect hives when it’s windy or, obviously, when it’s raining, so it has limited us quite a bit on when we can see what they’re up to. The hives in the second yard are definitely in need of some TLC. That will happen next week. Also next week, 12 hives will be re-queened with new, local queen cells. Hopefully we will have nice weather, because they clearly did not like being checked today.

Messy, messy, messy! This is what happens when we forget
to give them something to build on!

We also pulled a frame from one of the hives two weeks ago. It was a mess! We had miscounted the frames when we closed it up, giving them 9 instead of 10. The result was that the bees decided to be creative, filling in the extra space themselves. One of the Queen Castles, as well, was missing a frame. They built their own, attaching it to the roof of the hive and filling it with honey and brood. I suppose, in the bee world, it’s a work of art, but I would rather see them putting that sort of energy into filling more Ross Rounds.

Another example of the bees taking initiative! They didn't have
a frame so they just created the frame themselves, building
it out of wax and filling it with honey.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

There’s Another and Another and Another...

Our 'Swarmy' Hive.. doing very well, thank you!

When we talk bees, we tend to talk in big numbers. There can be anywhere from 10,000 to 60,000 bees in a hive (they typically start at 10,000 when you purchase a ‘package’ of bees). We can go through 100 pounds of sugar in no time, and we get several hundred pounds of honey... and that’s just with a few hives. Hives, however? Now that is something we can count, and our numbers are growing.

A queen castle with three separate nuc chambers.

After the excitement of the swarm earlier this week (yes, all our bees are back home, in a new hive box, and doing swimmingly!) we decided we needed to be a bit more proactive in what we are doing. As we said last time, we ended up with the swarmed hive back as a new hive, we used some of the other swarm cells in that same Mellow Yellow hive to create two new nucs, and we had already split one hive because it was getting too full and we had a spare queen. That put us four ahead.

A Queen cell without the protector.

Today, we added 10 new queen cells, to create 10 more new hives! That would mean we went from 7 to 21 in two months (if they all work). We definitely can’t complain about that! We had hoped to be able to just add some new queens, but there is a shortage of queens. They are definitely a hot ticket item (and one that we will have to research more so we can start to create our own queen cells). The advantage of adding a queen, as opposed to a queen cell, is that when you purchase a queen, she is ‘proven’, meaning she has taken her maiden flight, and has already started to produce eggs. We could also purchase ‘virgin’ queens, which have been hatched and are alive, but still have
The Queen cell with the protective cover in place.
to leave the hive to do a maiden flight, so could fall prey to a bird or other hazard. When you get a cell, although much less expensive, there is no guarantee of what will come out of there when she finally emerges. The supplier for our queen cells, however, is local, and has a very good success rate with his queens, so we are fairly comfortable trying this route.

While some beekeepers are comfortable just dropping a queen cell into an established hive, we didn’t want to do that, especially since we have just added some new queens to the hives. Instead, we went a different route, taking some capped brood from some hives, some honey from others, and, of course, a smattering of bees to attend the queen, the honey supply and the eggs. They are the elongated cells just like you would see on the frames of brood, but they are alone. We put them into little cages that allow the queen to emerge, but that will prevent anyone else from hurting her, should a queen somehow have slipped past us.

Putting the Queen cell into the Queen Castle nuc.
For practicality purposes, we do not want to use one of the big hive boxes (’10 frame deeps’) for this, because it would give them way too much room to be rattling around in. That much space is hard to keep warm if the temperatures drop, and has too much space inside to cool if the temperatures outside spike. Temperature is very important in the production of bee cells, but fortunately the bees know what to do to maintain it where it should be – we just want to make it as easy as possible for them so they are able to do other things, like make honey and tend to brood. For this reason, we need to start with smaller hives and/or smaller frames. Our compromise to that is to use the same sized frames, but to use only three of them per nuc and to separate the box into three equal pieces (called ‘queen castles’). This means we can put three frames into each nuc. One frame will have food on it – syrup, pollen, honey. This is important because we have to lock all the bees in for five days, ensuring that the foraging bees will not just return to their old hive. One frame will have some capped brood, so that the new brood will hatch and strengthen the hive. We will also include all the bees that were on the frame of brood. This will give them plenty of time and potential to establish a strong hive. 

Closing the lid on one of the three Queen Castle chambers.
Once we open the doors again, the foragers will re-orient to their new hive, returning to it with their provisions. The queen should have hatched by then, and will go on her maiden flight, and within two weeks from today, we should have hives that are abuzz with activity and life. That’s the plan, anyway.

We’ll know in two weeks if it worked. An 80% success rate (meaning hopefully for us 8 new hives) would be a huge win. 

Always have the smoker handy!