Monday, March 28, 2016

Springing Forward

The swarm that started it all!
With the hope of ending 2016 a bit stronger than this last year (hopefully by tripling our hive count), this is the time of year when we have to do some planning. Of course, we plan the best way to split hives – there are a couple ways to do that. We plan the best strategy for watching out for and dealing with swarm cells, when the hives get too big and decide they want to make a new queen that will then take most of the young, strong bees to a new hive. Swarms are also a means for us to grow our yard, though, because when a swarm, either feral or from another bee yard does a surprise landing in some stranger’s back yard, we can go out and gather it up. It was a stray swarm landing in our yard four years ago that made us start this journey in the first place. We will be trying some ‘split hives’ where we put a divider right into the hive, like a bee condominium, with queens in each side. This allows them to keep the hive warm yet, and gives them a chance to get established without having to start completely from scratch. We will do a blog on this as we get into actually doing it.

Early hive activity 2016.
We have to plan on what purpose our bees will fulfill. They could strictly produce honey for us and this usually involves putting them into orchards and crops for the purpose of pollinating those crops. This is a very important part of having honey bees, and some would even argue that it is the only reason for having them. We could put pollen traps on the hives and gather the pollen for sale, because of the medicinal values. We could do likewise for propolis, which can be used in natural therapies. Some people raise bees simply in order to create more bees, breaking up the hives frequently and allowing those fragments to grow into full hives for sale, or for their own use. Queen rearing is a big business, and takes a special skill, because the queen cells are grafted into several dedicated frames, and are then caged and sold. There are even some apiasts who gather bee venom. Just about everything about bees can be used, so the options are many. Thankfully we don’t have to commit to just one thing, and can try our hand at several of them.

Another issue to make decisions on is where to put the primary bee yard. Right now, we have a small yard near the house, but if we are going to grow the number of hives, we also have to grow the area, then make sure it will be safe from any rather unwelcome guests, including (but not limited to) skunks, racoons, and bears. Since we have been spending the last few days refencing the property, we have been able to give this problem a bit more consideration, and believe we finally have a spot picked out for it. The next step will be to get it fenced and set up for moving the bees. Of course, not all of them will go to one spot in our yard. Hopefully we can find several other locations to set them out, allowing them to access more sources of pollen, and also to ensure that if something happens to one yard, we still have some bees to carry on with.

While it might be right that these plants are
protected from unwanted pests, they fail to
mention how deadly they are to pollinators.
Being avid gardeners at heart, we also need to consider what plants we want, and where we want them, to offer the best advantage to both the gardens and the bees. Some plants are just not what the bees want, while others can attract bees from miles away. Finding out which is which is a much more challenging undertaking than we thought it would be, because opinions differ greatly for many plants. Ideally we will avoid double-flowering plants – the ones that originally had just one layer of petals but now have been hybrid to the point of having two or even three layers of petals, making the flowers much fuller. By making them fluffier, it also makes them harder for the bees to find the pollen. We also must avoid any plants containing neonicotinoids. ‘Neonics’ are absolutely NOT bee friendly.

We also need to consider the flavors our plants will add to the honey. Some plants, like sunflowers, add no noticeable change to flavor but are an excellent source of pollen for bees (and the birds love the seeds all through the fall and winter). Others, like the blooms on the locust trees, add a wonderful flavor to the honey that is easily detected, and in some areas will add value to the finished product. We have a lot of locust trees on our property, and will soon have more, but we are also leaning toward planting more lavender. Alyssum, cosmos, and of course, dandelions are all plants that bees love, and that are vital to them. Planting some of these near the vegetable garden will ensure that all our plants are well pollinated and produce as much as possible – well, not the dandelions; the wind will take care of planting them all over the yard. It already looks like we are in for a bumper crop this year.

One of our bees on an apple blossom. 
The final consideration in choosing plants is blooming season. We want our bees to eat for as long as possible, but sometimes there are dry spells in a season where not much is happening, at least as far as flowers are concerned. Living in a rural community, we can count on the alfalfa and clover to provide for them throughout the summer and fall. We know that corn crops will do nothing, but berry crops will be wonderful in the spring. Of course, the orchards need bees, and our bees need fruit trees, so we have that one covered, at least for this year. We need to find plants, like primula, that will bloom early in the year, and some, like goldenrod, that bloom late. The value of the plants to the bees also will vary because of geographic location and anomalies, so it’s all a learning curve, but we’re more than happy to experiment to see what we like, and what our bees like.

It goes without saying that there are many more things to think about and plan for, like keeping the bees healthy, and the need for water, but at this time of year, these are the priorities in our bee yard.
BooBoo Bear was just a little guy last year, but even when little
these guys can do a lot of damage to a hive. 

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