Saturday, February 28, 2015

Building a Better Bee Hive

 We’ve had a lot of people talking to us and sharing with us information about the Flow Hive! Thanks so much for that. This hive claims that we would be able to get honey from the hive without disturbing the bees. We have been more than curious about it, and hopefully in a few weeks will have a chance to view one for ourselves. We thought, though, that we would share some of our thoughts leading up to this, and share some of the things we will be looking for when we finally see this hive that has seemingly turned beekeeping on its ear.

First, one of the big jobs in tending hives is being able to check them to see what is going on inside. That means we need to pull frames, see if there are eggs and larvae at every stage, so we know the Queen is alive and well and doing what she should be doing. It also allows us to see if there are any new queen cells being formed – a sign that the hive could be getting big enough that it needs to swarm and start a new colony, or a sign that the Queen is in distress (or is gone) and needs to be replaced. We also want to be sure that there are no mites, parasites or other problems in the hive; we need to watch for these regularly so that if a problem develops, we can deal with it quickly. The only way to check on these things is to pull the frames and inspect them. Even with windows, you will not get a good view of the activities in the comb or the activity taking place on the inner frames, which so far in our experience has been where most of the action happens. Taking apart the Flow Hive to inspect, with spigots and other equipment there, could become much more labor intensive.

Our understanding at this point of the Flow Hive is that the frames are plastic, and they split open when you turn on the tap, so that the honey drains down and out the spigot. We’re not totally sure, though, how the bees will know that, with the cells capped, their honey has been taken away. The cap will still be there, intact, so the bees will have to learn how to tell when they are empty, and will have to remove the cap so they can then refill the comb. This may take away from their actual production of honey. An additional concern is the plastic frames themselves. Plastic can absorb what is around it, including pollutants and poisons. They will need to be replaced more often than our current frames require.

Another thing that we need to understand is the hive structure. We have two large bee boxes that house the bees and larvae. Both boxes are used for that, to keep the hive healthy and to ensure you always have a steady supply of new bees. When they start producing honey in the summer, they store that near the top of the hive, in what we call honey supers. In the Flow Hive, there are only two large boxes. That would mean they are using the second box for honey production instead of bee production. How does that impact the hive overall? When we remove the honey, we just remove the honey super, leaving the rest of the hive untouched, so we’re not really sure what the benefit would be.

It will be interesting as well to see how they deal with ants and other pests. Having honey outside the hive will be an invitation to wasps, ants and other critters we do not want trying to get into the hive. It also means that the honey is more accessible/tantalizing to skunks, bears, raccoons, etc. Do we have to remove and clean the spigots every time and does that require taking the boxes apart? How do we keep it all clean without having to break down the hive, which is the thing this hive is supposed to circumvent?

When we first saw the information about this hive, we were skeptical, to say the least. Information on the internet shows that it’s been around since about 2008, but has only gotten legs now. It was the subject of a huge crowd-sourcing effort of late and we honestly wondered if it was nothing more than a scam. That said, several well-known and reputable beekeepers have said they’ve seen it, and were impressed, so we will absolutely go into this with open minds. We’re excited about going to learn more about the hive in a few weeks. Hopefully our questions will be answered. Then the next issue will be if the cost of a Flow Hive, for anything more than a promotional/education tool or as a novelty, will pay off.

Now for a quick update on our own hives. We checked them a few days ago and gave all of them (except The White Outs and the Moody Blues) pollen patties. None of the hives had touched the sprinkled sugar plates we put in with them. We didn’t give pollen patties to the Moody Blues because we thought we had lost that hive. There was no activity in it at all. The White Outs missed out because, well, they had a few attitude problems when one of us (who shall remain nameless) mistakenly grabbed at the hive to pry off the lid and in the process slammed his hand over the upper opening... and about 300 bees. They will get their patty this weekend. On a more positive note, in the last few days, with warmer temperatures, we are seeing some activity around the Moody Blues, so maybe they were just really hunkered down because of the cold. We’re hoping so anyway. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Taking Care of Beesness

We have talked about what bees do in winter in Canada, but what about the beekeepers? How do they spend the winter? While it’s not all work, there are still some critical things that need to be done.

First, because we need to be ready for spring, we build bee boxes for new hives. We have some new bees coming next year, but we also have to be ready for the hives that might want to split up, getting some into new hives before they swarm and we lose them. We will be adding 5 new hives in the spring, 3 packages from New Zealand, and 2 local nucs. We’ve done our homework, and have some of the best, oldest strain of bees coming – who knew bees had pedigrees? They aren’t as detailed as the American Kennel Club, but there is definitely some advantage to knowing a bit of the history of your bees.

Squaring up the boxes.
To make sure we have enough for this year – the five new ones and whatever splits we may get from the ones we already have – we created 24 boxes, so 12 new hives. We don’t expect that we will fill them all, but we can dream. It’s assembly line work to make them, but with all hands working, they’re stacked and ready to roll. We’ve decided that each year will be assigned a color, so we can keep track of when they arrived. This year, will be The Motley Blue. Each hive is a different shade, so hopefully we will be able to tell them apart.

Another thing we do in the winter is learn more about our bees. We want to start raising our own queens, so we have been studying that process. Next year we should have a lot more honey, so we need to figure out where we can sell it and how to promote it. To that end, we have spent the winter discussing (okay, arguing) about a name for our apiary. Suggestions are welcome!

While thinking about what to do with the honey, we have also done some product testing at home – we need to have some fun, right? We’ve made some mead, using our own honey, our very pure wonderful, natural water, and our own fruit. We spray nothing, and are far enough removed from spraying that we are very comfortable with all our produce being organic. We have made some plain honey mead, some raspberry honey mead, some blackberry honey mead, and some peach honey mead. This year was just small batches, so we can see how it tastes before we do anything more. It is already bottled, and needs to sit like that for several months before it will be ready. We’re also trying our hand at some honey lager beer. No kits or store bought shortcuts, though. We used hops, malted barley, and honey, sparged our wort, and soon it will be heading to the carboys to finish up. It should be wonderful for the summer.

The Motley Blue

We have been planning on something to do to help our bees as far as gardening. You may remember that we were originally avid gardeners. Now we want to have plants that will complement and accommodate the bees. We’re thinking lavender and clover. We won’t be putting in five acres of either, but we may start with a few hundred plants, just to see how it goes. We also will be looking at adding some monarda (bee balm) for the little ladies, and hopefully they’ll like the herbs we keep every year.

Plates of misted sugar.

We also still take care of the bees. This time of year can be tricky. They are starting to lay, starting to become active again, and their stored food could be growing sparse, so today we helped them out with plates of misted sugar – not sugar water, and not dry sugar, but misted so that it is sticky. If we had left it dry, they may think granules are dirt and set to work getting it out of there once the temperatures warm up some more. The sugar will also take on some of the humidity from the hive, and should hold them until temperatures are warm enough that we can put sugar water out for them. If course, once we reach summer, they don’t need us to give them anything in the hive; they want the entire inside for brood and honey. In a month from now, when we know that our temperatures are a bit more consistently warm, we will give them some protein patties, and let them get ready to bulk up and really get to work.

When we opened the hives today to put in the plates of misted sugar, we were able to see how our little bees were doing. They were very active today, flying around a lot. The Dregs, Gang Green and Pistachio were all doing well. There was some activity, and lots of bees taking flight. Moody Blue is a bit of a concern. We didn’t see any bees going in or out, and when we lifted it, there was very little activity. The White Outs, however, were crazy full and busy, creating comb and cleaning house. Because it is so full, the humidity is high and could be a problem. There was some mould around the edges, of the lid, so we cleaned out the doorways and hopefully they will get some air in there to dry it out a bit. Humidity is a much bigger problem than the cold is. Team Tangerine has been a concern for several months now, but it seems to be doing okay. It wasn’t nearly as full or active as the White Outs, but they are definitely holding their own. Mellow Yellow, as always, is going strong, lots of bees, lots of buzz, and hopefully this summer, lots of honey – barring issues again with humidity.
The White Outs! That's a LOT of bees! 

They're already going for the sugar. 

Mellow Yellow is also full to bursting. 

Giving sugar to the Gang Green.

Food for The Dregs. They're getting busy making honeycomb.
The Moody Blues. This one is a concern. We don't know where the bees have gone. 

Mellow Yellow has so many bees we had to push them aside to get the plate of sugar in there. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Hives of Activity

 Well, despite the fact that it’s January 25th, our hives are a-buzzing! We couldn’t be happier. We expected that we would have some loss – some of those hives weren’t particularly strong when we bundled them up for winter, we are noo-bees, and winter loss is just a fact of the business. We expected we may lose two or even three of our little apiary, but today, again, they are busy at work. We had to see what they were up to.
The first thing we noticed was that the bees jumped at the opportunity the warmer temperatures brought, and started their spring cleaning. As we have said before, they are incredibly clean animals, not wanting any dirt or debris in their hives. Over the course of the winter, for one reason or another, bees don’t survive, so the first job when cleaning is to push the dead bees out. It looks like a fairly big task, but after watching them kick the drones out – sometimes requiring three and four workers to force the male out of the hive – in the fall, the job is probably a bit easier. Then again, at this time of year, the bees are probably not as strong, being older, and being inside the hive for weeks at a time.

Pushing dead bees from the hive.
We’re thrilled that they are not just surviving the winter, but thriving through it. That doesn’t mean that we are out of the woods, though. We still have to get through February, which can be bitterly cold here, and we may even have to help them get through March, so we can’t party down quite yet.
The hives are alive and busy, which means the bees are eating. More than likely, the Queen has started to lay eggs again, putting more demand on food stores. Starvation at this time of year is always a concern. They’re working, and they could go through their food rather quickly. If we continue to have warm days, though, they could soon start to gather pollen. *waits a minute for the laughter to stop* Here in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, the bees have a ready supply of pollen they can collect any time of the year – pine trees. They are great pollen producers, and if our weather keeps warm like this, and we can make to 60F, our bees could easily slip into the tree belt and get a bit of a nosh to keep them going.

A return of the cold weather could also give another opportunity to mites and disease, as the bees gather tightly together in the middle of the hive. As mentioned in earlier blogs, humidity in the hives is also a concern if the temperatures drop. The cluster of bees can maintain a temperature of 92F, but as they work to maintain that temperature, they sweat. Just like humans, when we consume food to live, we also give off solid and liquid waste. For bees, that moisture – respiration – rises to the top of the hive. If the temperature is below freezing outside, and the moisture collects, and the hives are not properly insulated, ice will form and block the bees from getting to the food. Our special tops on the hives help to stop this by having extra ventilation to allow the moisture to escape, and by having materials that will soak up the moisture without dropping it back down on the bees. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen though, so we still must be vigilant to keep them protected.

Yes, today we opened a hive. It’s cold, and we don’t want to let that cold air in, but we believed the hive had not survived. It was a wonderful surprise to find them alive and happy, and very busy. There’s still more winter to get through, but we’re feeling very blessed today, and are looking forward to getting back into the groove with our 150,000ish little ladies. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

But BaBee It's Cold Outside

Bees in winter, you say? Why yes, on nice days, we do see our honey bees, even when there is snow on the ground.

Honey bees do not hibernate; even though they are, for the most part, out of sight tucked away warm and snug in their hives. Even here in cold, frozen Canada, honey bees do not hibernate. They don’t even take long naps like squirrels do. Bees work in winter. They work to stay warm, and that takes a lot of energy.

As we mentioned in our earlier blog, one of the things bees do to prepare for winter is to evict all the drones/males. Males don’t do anything in the hive. They don’t protect the hive, they don’t help with the production of honey. They are there for the sole purpose of breeding queens (but not the queen in their own hive). Queens only breed at one time in their lives but they will breed with as many as twenty different drones on that mating flight. She then returns to her hive and begins to lay her eggs. When there is a need, she will create some drone eggs, but otherwise all the eggs she lays will be females which will do the work to maintain the hive.

The eggs will progress to larvae which will be capped over by the workers. They then enter a pre-pupal and pupal stage before becoming a bee. This process will take 21 days for a worker bee, 16 days for a queen, and 24 days for a drone. For the first three weeks of their lives, worker bees will work in the hive. For the last three weeks of their lives, they are field bees, collecting pollen. (However, if you were to remove one class of bees – hive bees or field bees – completely from the hive, the other class moves in and takes over the work so that the hive survives).

All of this changes, though, come fall. The queen slows, then temporarily stops, laying eggs while the hive prepares for the winter months. They have put extra stores of honey and pollen away, and the hive uses these stores to survive throughout the winter and into spring until the temperatures are warm enough outside to start production again. Where summer bees generally live six weeks, winter bees have to survive throughout the winter, so they will live up to six months or even longer.

So what do these bees do during the winter? The sole goal of a bee is to help the hive survive. That’s what they do in the winter. They gather together, low in the center of the hive, and they generate heat to keep themselves warm. It’s amazing how much heat they can generate. As the winter progresses, and because heat moves up, the core of bees will move up the hive, consuming the food they put away. The stores at the top of the hive will be eaten last. The bigger problem in the hive, as opposed to heat, is humidity. It can, in essence, rain inside the hive, and that’s bad. For this purpose, we have special covers for the hive that include a layer of wood chips to help absorb the moisture, preventing it from condensing and falling onto the bees.

What they don’t do, though, is poop in their hives. Bees are fastidiously clean, so on those warm days, they leave the hive to take care of business. Even with the several feet of snow we have on the ground, the bees will come out. Unfortunately not all bees make it back to the hive. Inside the hive, though, because they are in confined spaces for long times, disease and mites can be a problem. Ordinarily bees can come and go and a sick bee is quickly replaced. In winter, the diseases and mites can get a better grip on them and can take a toll. In the fall, while preparing for winter, we help by doing treatments for these problems to help prevent or lessen the impact, but that doesn’t always work. The bees, the temperatures the length and intensity of the winter will all play a role, but seeing bee come out at this time of year gives us that much more hope that they were properly prepared, and will be more than ready to start production soon. There is nothing like the hum of a beehive in winter to remind you about how amazing these little critters are.