Thursday, April 16, 2009

Win Some, Lose Some

GP took away my strongest hive last week. I have missed it. I still have four hives in the home beeyard and one across town, but there's something sad about saying goodbye to the first colony of bees I ever had.
Of course, that ONE swarm has given me four swarms this year, (unfortunately I haven't caught all of them) so I have the next generation of the original colony in at least two of my five current hives. My problem comes with the condition I let the original colony leave in.
This colony was established in a Langstroth hive, with two deep hive bodies, 9 or 10 frames in each one. Comb was drawn out on every frame, and there was a shallow honey super on top that the bees were just beginning to draw out comb into. When GP and I opened the hive, we found a number of queen cells that we unwisely left intact. Once GP got the hives home, those queen cells opened and the colony swarmed and swarmed and swarmed until now there is very little left to the original colony. GP is a busy man and did not have time to catch every swarm, so he's down to two weak colonies, although he should have quite a bit of brood going in the main hive. I feel bad for not preventing the swarms. It's still early in bee season here, so he has plenty of time to let the colony rebuild, but it may be a weak honey year for him because what was once 70,000 bees is now maybe 10,000. Bummer.
Back on the home front, I plan on opening the top bar hives in my own beeyard early next week and looking for capped brood. I want them to be well underway before I send them to George's orchard, Beeyard #3. Every morning I see a flurry of activity at the entrance to all of them, so the bees have stayed and seem to be doing what they do best. Now I just have to encourage them to build straight comb along the topbars.
One last remark. I continue to get calls about swarms, but lately they are from people in TN. That's too far for me to travel to catch them. I'd love to do it, but I still have responsibilities to fulfill at home and work.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Expanding the Operation

The end of the last post mentioned two more swarms I had to collect. CJ called the office looking for me while I was in a department meeting, she was headed out to catch them herself because my department meetings usually last longer than most of my marathon times, but I digress. Several months ago, some friends of ours bought a house that came complete with a resident bee colony. I am not big on cutting colonies out of houses, especially colonies between the second floor and the attic, so I told them to watch the colony and let me know when it swarmed and I would do my best to get the swarm. The established colony is going to have to remain feral. So today it swarmed, at the same time my Langstroth hive cast yet another swarm. The swarm at my house was about ten feet up on a small sapling. Retrieving this swarm was far easier than collecting them from off the fences. Just watch...

Of course, it's never that easy. I didn't have a hive to put the swarm in. CJ had loaded the extra hive into the car to take over to the new bee yard (our friends' back yard.) I had to build a new hive from leftover lumber, so I took a 2' by 4' piece of plywood and made a 1/2 size top bar hive. I have been wanting to do this to use them for splits and nucs in the future. I was able to build this new, smaller hive and paint it in just over an hour.
When the paint was dry, I painted the inside with sugar syrup to encourage the swarm to stay in their new home. So far, it seems to have worked.
The real reason for this post is to introduce my new beekeeping companion. CJ led the charge on the swarm retrieval from our friends' house.

Yes, that is CJ in the bee suit, wielding the bee vac and catching a swarm! I'm quite proud of her. She says she earned dinner out tonight and the right to be added as a team member on the blog. She got dinner out, and I'll most likely make her a team member here very soon.
The final bit of information, GP came and took away the Langstroth hive and the swarm we caught this morning, thus reducing the number of hives in my bee yard to four. There will be no more swarms to come home to, so I may now actually be able to get back to my real work.

Swarm Season

Swarm season is upon us.

I have bees coming out of my ears.

I have caught 6 swarms in the past three weeks, lost two, and currently have five hives sitting in my beeyard.

Unfortunately, my beeyard is also my backyard. UPDATE: The picture above actually shows SIX hives in my back yard, all with bees in them. Can you spot them all?

CJ is evicting the bees. (More on this in the next post.)

As I got home last night from the university, I noticed yet another swarm on the fence behind my house. I had an unfinished top bar hive in the garage, but decided to call my friend GP and see if he wanted this swarm as well as the Langstroth hive colony, which, it turns out, is responsible for all of the swarms in my yard.
He was still in the field, so I left a message for him to call me back and quickly went to work finishing the last top bar hive in case he were unable to collect the swarm. Fortunately, he called me back. He got to my house this morning at about 9:30 and I had just completed vacuuming up the swarm. (I will have to write an ode to my bee vac. I love it that much.)

We got the swarm transplanted into a new hive body that he had brought with him, then proceeded to open the four other hives scattered about my property. Each one has a different and unique story, and I guess this post is to catalog those stories.

The Langstroth hive is by far the strongest of all of my colonies. We opened it up and found about 10 closed queen cells and an equal number of open queen cells.

I actually cut one of the closed queen cells open and out popped a beautiful virgin queen, ready to go to work. I caught her and was about to throw her into one of the hives that we believe to be queenless (this is not a good idea), and she flew away from me. She'll likely die, but there's little I can do about that now.

I just got a call that I have two more swarms to catch, one in my yard and one at another friend's house. I'll have to finish this post later tonight...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

New Season, New Challenges

I have let the bees winter and yesterday opened the hives for a little spring cleaning and examination. What I found was consistent with current beekeeping challenges around the country.
In the Langstroth hive, the colony is bursting at the seams. Both of the hive bodies (10 frame, deep) are completely full of bees. They have a little honey and pollen left, but the queen is busy doing her job and building up the population. I didn't see any queen cells on the frames, but I didn't get to do as thorough an examination as I would have liked. Still, I am almost certain that a swarm from this hive is inevitable in the next couple of weeks. I did super the hive with a 10 frame short (6 inch) honey super to encourage the bees to draw out some comb and maybe even expand into there rather than swarm. If they will move up into the short super, I will most likely try and split the colony into two before they swarm. It's not a guarantee, but as long as I remember that these bees are experimental and I am not all that interested in maximum honey production, I have no problems experimenting with the different beekeeping techniques that are out there. I have offered this hive to the man who originally loaned me the beekeeping equipment just because two hives on my lot has encroached too much on CJs and the kids' play space. The smaller top bar hive will be adequate for my own trees and garden needs. He'll probably be collecting them from me some evening this or next week.
One problem with this colony is that I saw varroa in the drone cells of the Langstroth hive, so that needs to be remedied. A bottom screen and the appropriate medication should help remedy the problem. This is an issue with Langstroth hives that most beekeepers experience.
Now on to the top bar hive. Yesterday's nice weather had the girls from the Langstroth colony going gangbusters, but there was no movement at the entrance to the top bar hive. This hive needed a complete open and spring cleaning. Last year, when I put the colony in there, I tried to fasten as much of the old comb from the cutout into the hive, and the weight of the honey, the heat, and my own lack of experience resulted in an M.C. Escher-like configuration of comb. The top bars were largely ignored as the bees continued to build on and around the comb I provided them with from their home in the column. Sadly, there is no queen in this colony, and she's been gone for a while. There are about 1,000 bees living out their lives, but the colony is most likely doomed. There was no brood, the old comb had green mold growing on it, and the bees were sluggish and generally unwell. It's amazing how not having a queen affects a colony. They don't have any drive to work, they have no purpose, and without brood, they cannot make themselves queenright. I took advantage of the dwindling population to take out all the old comb, scrape out the propolis, and prepare the hive for a swarm. The proximity of the two hives may lead the scout bees to determine that the top bar hive is a suitable home for a swarm. We'll see.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bee Quiet

I have been practicing a hands-off approach to beekeeping this past month, letting the girls work in peace. The heat and humidity have been a natural deterrent to getting into the hives because like humans, bees can be a little ornery when they are uncomfortably warm. They are all doing well as of last inspection, so I have had little to report here. I will get into the hives this week and make sure they are filling out their comb and growing like they should be. We've finally had a little rain, so maybe we can have a bit of a nectar flow, although I doubt there will be much if drought conditions resume.

The other day I received a phone call from a local Alabamian who has a problem with bees visiting his hummingbird feeder. Apparently, with the drought conditions, the bees have found the sweet nectar that this kind gentleman has put out for the local hummingbirds and have commandeered the feeder, actually driving away the hummingbirds. I have minimal experience removing colonies and swarms and am happy to do so, but unfortunately this is a case that I cannot assist with.
Foraging bees number in the several thousands for a single colony and as long as there is a good quality source of nectar, the lucky lady who discovered the source (and all of her sisters whom she convinces to accompany her to the source through her bee dance) will continue to visit that source until it is exhausted. Therefore, if this kind man continues to put out nectar for the hummingbirds, the bees will continue to come in ever-greater numbers to harvest the nectar and turn it into honey for themselves and their colony.
My only counsel to this gentleman was to stop feeding the hummingbirds for a few weeks and let the bees find something else to eat. Unless he knows the location of the colony (or colonies) that is/are dining at his feeder, my collecting a couple of hundred worker bees from around his hummingbird feeder will do nothing to stop them from eating at his buffet. I am terribly sorry I can't do more than that. These girls have to continue with their own colony and unfortunately they are far more persistent and numerous than the hummingbirds.
Bee populations will begin waning in the next four to eight weeks, and the girls who are currently visiting his feeder will not likely be alive much past the end of August, so he may be able to set out the hummingbird feeder again in about three weeks and have a couple of weeks without too many bees visiting. It just depends on the proximity of his feeder to the hive. Bees are efficient workers and will exploit every source of nectar and pollen closest to their hive before moving further on.

Good luck.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bee check-up

A hot, humid afternoon is never a good time to open the hive, but with the schedule I have been keeping, this was the only time I had a chance to see what the girls were up to.
After a ten minute battle with the smoker, I was finally ready to make my trip into the hive. The majority of the girls were home when I came to call and they were not happy to be disturbed.
Everything seemed rather unchanged from three weeks ago when I was in there last. The upper hive body has four and a half frames drawn out and one of them was full of honey, the others have brood and honey stores in them. These three are the brood frames I moved up when I added the second hive body in an effort to encourage the bees to draw out the comb. It looks like the only thing they have been doing is propolizing everything together. I scraped about an ounce off of the three frames I pulled out, the inner and outer covers, and the hive body.
The way they look now doesn't lead me to believe that they will be producing any extra honey for me this year, but that's fine. I have no problem with letting them have everything they produce this winter. I just hope both of the colonies survive the winter.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Bee space is not to be taken for granted

Okay, this picture doesn't show what Langstroth meant by bee space (3/8 of an inch: anything less will be propolized closed and anything more the bees will fill with comb.)
I didn't have 1/8 inch hardware cloth for my bee vacuum, so I thought 1/4 inch folded over on itself would do the same...Boy, was I wrong.
This is what I drove home from Huntsville with in the back of the van. The bees are Shakespeare's girls and are doing very well now, but as you can see, there was a mess for a few hours.

The Bee Storm

CJ called me at work the other day to tell me that there was a bee tornado in the bee yard. She videoed it. I was afraid it might be a swarm and told her to watch if they swarmed and landed somewhere nearby. Bees generally don't swarm this late in the season, especially if they have not filled their hive space to capacity. The Shakespeare hive is considerably smaller than a regular hive would be, so swarming will definitely occur. I have to decide if I want them to get away and reestablish the feral bee population in north Alabama or if I want to catch all swarms and use them to strengthen my colonies and/or increase them. I don't think this is a swarm, but it may be a preamble to one...All the same, it's easy to understand why CJ and the kids don't feel like playing in the garden.

Pollinate, Bay-bee!

Here are some photos of the bees doing what they do the best. It's amazing how well suited they are to their job.
Contrary to popular belief, bees are necessarily single-minded and the girl in the photo has been focusing on collecting pollen from the cornstalks in our garden since she decided it was worth her time. She has not been collecting nectar, nor has she visited any other plants since beginning work on this corn. Bees don't go from corn to sunflowers to marigolds on the same trip, and they won't collect nectar and pollen on the same trip.
Posted by Picasa

Note the pollen packed onto her back legs. Bees have "pouches" that they pack the pollen onto. This all goes back to the hive to be stored as food. Bees mix pollen with honey to make "bee bread" to feed to larvae after their third day. For the first three days they eat royal jelly.
Sadly, if this bee were to lose her pollen between the corn and the hive, she would still go through the motion of unpacking it into a cell. This shows that bees don't have the higher thought processes that we so willingly ascribe to them. They are purely instinctual, which is why they are so successful, but that instinct can also lead to their destruction. For example, if a bee brings home toxins in nectar and pollen, the rest of the hive is in danger, often bees will collect nectar from fields of weeds that when evaporated turns to near cement texture. This makes it impossible for them to eat and therefore worthless when they need it to winter and feed the larvae. All they see is pollen and nectar. They don't realize it's bad for them.
Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hot weather and touchy bees

I have decided to give some honey back to the bees. I haven't taken any from them, but had a couple of quarts from the cut out back in June and finally decided that it is better to give to the bees than let sit around in my kitchen. I want to encourage the girls in Machado to draw out all the comb in the upper hive body and get strong enough to survive the winter. I haven't been real involved in their feeding and storing, preferring to leave them to their own devices rather than give them syrup and pollen to stimulate them into action. They won't take pollen at this point, and there is plenty around in the garden, so I will leave them to that, but I thought I might give them a few pounds of honey to keep them from repurposing the wax foundation on the outer frames. They take it eagerly, so I'll keep giving it until it has run out. Now I feel bad for having thrown away as much of it as I did (upwards of 10-15 pounds.)
A couple of days ago CJ was in the garden and got a bee in her bonnet. She called me as I was on my way to work to inform me that she was stung on the top of the head. I had to go home and remove the stinger because EJ was too scared and CJ couldn't see it. It was right on the crown of her head. I got the stinger out and applied some Denver's Sting Stop that a friend gave me after the last sting. For the record, I didn't have it until 36 hours after I was stung, so it was useless for me, but I applied it to CJ's head. Her reaction wasn't as great as mine, but neither was her reaction when she got stung between the eyes. She still felt the pain from the sting for several hours, so I don't know if the stuff works. I'd rather not coax a bee into stinging me just to find out, but we have it on hand now just in case.
It's hot these days, with temperatures in the mid 90s and humidity is higher as well. The girls in both colonies are working hard on their own AC and the higher temps and humidity make them a little more touchy. I was able to open the top cover of Machado yesterday afternoon and pour some honey on the inner cover without feeling threatened at all, but the flurry of activity right in and around the garden combined with the recent sting on CJ's head has chased her and the kids all into the house. I may be forced to relocate the bees if they continue to monopolize the yard.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Let the bees work

Last Tuesday I realized that I needed to flip the inner cover in Machado and thought, "what a perfect opportunity to test my relationship with the bees." How tough can it be? Remove the outer cover, flip the inner cover, replace the outer cover. Even with propolis, it's a 30 second chore, max.
Machado's girls are working on drawing out comb in the upper hive body and there were about 20 of them on or around the inner cover. I calmly and boldly removed the inner cover and was in the process of flipping it when I inadvertently swatted at a couple of the girls inspecting my left hand (which was holding the inner cover) and immediately felt their wrath. Two stings, one just where my wedding ring sits and one on the inside of my forearm, about 2 inches up from the wrist. I felt several other girls getting ready to sting and beat a hasty retreat to remove the stingers, don the gloves, and re-cover the hive. I got it closed up and for the first six hours or so after the stings had no problem. Then about 2am, I woke with my arm on fire. The delayed reaction began and it was pretty fierce (considering this is my first "real" sting in years.)
My entire left arm swelled and itched and burned for three days. No anaphylaxis, so that was good, but the localized reaction shows me that I have a ways to go before I become immune to bee venom. CJ wanted me to take pictures of my arm and post it here, but my pride barely lets me post the story of being stung. I guess we live and learn.
So I left the girls alone for a week. Yesterday I thought I would check on their progress at drawing out comb in the upper hive body and AFTER putting on all the protective gear and lighting my smoker, got into the hive to see what they've been up to. I noticed that they are eating the wax from the foundation on the outside frames, so I need to feed them in order to encourage them to make their own wax. Population is still high and they are working well. I wanted to be minimally invasive so I didn't pull any brood frames. I gave them some of the honey that I pulled from the colony removal when I got Shakespeare and will continue to feed them the honey in hopes that they will speed up their comb-making.
Shakespeare is a different story, probably because I have an observation window in the side of the hive. It certainly makes checking on them much easier. Although I have not seen Portia yet, she is definitely present and laying because yesterday I saw capped brood in new comb. These girls are doing exactly what bees do best. I only wish my own ineptitude hadn't set them back so much at the start. This colony was way too big for the top bar hive I had built for them and they sacrificed many of their drones (as well as several workers) because they had no space. They are working well and drawing out comb all over in the hive, so I'll definitely have a mess in the spring, but unless I come across a better idea, I'll let them build up and get ready for winter. If the colony makes it through my first year as a beekeeper, I'll improve their home for my benefit (and hopefully theirs.)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The photographer deserves hazard pay...

Sometimes I should be content to leave well enough alone, but that's just not part of my nature.
I got home from work this evening at about 5 and thought for some reason that it would be good to get into the hives and inspect them. Of course, beekeeping guidelines recommend you get into the hive in the middle of the day when most of the foragers are out of the hive, but I had to work today and figured 5 pm is still light enough for the majority of the bees to be out on their errands.
I also wanted a few pictures of the bees to examine them a little closer and make the blog a little more interesting, so I enlisted CJ's help. I was the lucky one because I got to wear the suit and veil.
After getting Machado open and finding Capitolina, CJ got closer to get video of new bees emerging from their cells when a bee got into her face/hair/personal space and...#!$*#&$! She got stung between the eyes.
Can you believe she actually stopped to photograph herself with the stinger still in her skin? She tweezed the stinger out (she swears she didn't hear me tell her to scrape it out) and then photographed the offending stinger.

I didn't immediately rush to her aid because I was still holding the frame with Capitolina on it and didn't particularly want to endanger her more than I did my dear wife, so I left CJ to fend for herself. (It's a good thing she loves me like she does.)
I did find some great things, though. Here's a closeup of worker brood. It looks pretty good, it's all brand new comb as you can tell by the white wax.
I am happy to see good brood pattern on this frame. They all look like this. At first I was intrigued by the lines of empty cells, but realized that those cells are where the wire runs down the middle of the foundation. The other side of the frames are identical. Not surprisingly, the wire is crimped and where it protrudes into the foundation, the queen has determined that it is unacceptable for her precious eggs. I don't suppose I'd leave my children in an unsuitable nursery, so she must be a good mother...
Capitolina is on this frame, can you find her? There are also brand new bees emerging from their cells on this frame. (This is what CJ was trying to video when she got stung.)
I was also into Shakespeare and the girls in that colony are quite a bit more aggressive. They have propolized all of the top bars together and have done a fine job drawing out several top bars of crooked comb and several bars of straight comb. Hmm. I am still not sure what I'll do about them. I still haven't seen Portia, but I can see larvae through the observation window, so I am assuming she's in there and laying. It is on old comb, though, so those eggs may have come with the colony from the cut out. Only time will tell.
Here are some pictures of the girls from the different hives.
These are the girls from Shakespeare.
These are Machado's girls.
Can you tell any difference? It's difficult to see them this way, especially because you can't compare size, but I swear I can see the difference when I am working with them. Maybe I am just crazy...

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Tale of Two Colonies

With two colonies in the back yard, I don't want to be as prosaic as referring to them as the Langstroth and Top Bar colonies, so I am going to take a page from city bees and name them after literary greats.
Colony One, housed in a Langstroth hive, caught as a swarm between Killen and Florence, AL will from here on be known as Machado in honor of the father of Brazilian letters, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. Naturally, the queen of this colony will be Capitolina, or Capitu for short. A tragic female character from _Dom Casmurro_, arguably Machado's greatest novel.
Colony Two, housed in a homemade top bar hive, removed from a porch column in Huntsville, AL will from here on be known as Shakespeare for William Shakespeare, the great English playwright. The queen of this colony will be Portia, the strongest heroine in all of Shakespeare's works, and more particularly from _The Merchant of Venice_.
Of course, I have never seen Portia and it has been weeks since I have seen Capitu, but at least I now have something creative to call them.

Don't fear the stinger

Nobody likes to get stung. Let's face it, it's just not fun. Sure, there are people who swear by bee venom and say that it cures everything from arthritis to high blood pressure. Having been stung three times in the last month, I know enough to say that I am not ready to just let bees sting me at will, nor am I desirous to encourage such bee-havior. I am still seeking for that symbiotic relationship between myself and the bees that will result in all of us living our lives and helping each other out.
I feel I have done a noble deed with both colonies, recovering a swarm and removing a feral colony, both in danger (perhaps not imminent) of being destroyed by the humans whose property they were occupying. I have given them a place to live and am encouraging them to do what they do best, so I expect the bees to recognize this peace offering on my part and respond accordingly...
Now that the top bar hive (I have to come up with a better name for these colonies) is established, I can approach it during the day and not have the sentry bees buzzing me and attempting to run me out of their territory. I still struggle with the proximity of workers at times. I let the kids hold drones that have been booted from their hives and I have coaxed a worker onto my hand, but I am still not comfortable doing that. I know that worker bees will not sting unless they are threatened, but to retrain myself to NOT duck and cover when a bee gets close enough to my head when I am in the bee yard is still a bit of a challenge.
I read someone's theory that bees can sense fear and may be enticed to sting preemptively. I'm not sure of that, but it seems to make sense. As I get more comfortable around the bees, they are more comfortable around me and I can take more liberties with them without worrying about getting stung.
It's going to happen. I know I will have other stings, but I really want to get over the gut reflex to wave (or even thrash) at the curious or well meaning worker bee who happens to get too close to my personal space.

A worm update

Although they are not nearly so exciting to watch as the bees, the worms are also performing a very important task in our home. We started out with 3 lbs of worms in the vermicomposter and every morning for a week we would get up and find that another 50-100 had "wandered" out of their carefully constructed bedding and onto the garage floor where they dried up and died. We initially thought that 3000 worms in one little bin was too many, so we quickly put another bin on the top, but that didn't help too much. Soon we had worms crawling out of two bins instead of just one.
I had to do a little extra research on suicidal worms and found that in the initial days of starting a vermicomposter, unless you have a well established bed of compost, worms get stressed and tend to vacate the premises rather than adjust to their new home. I had to go out to the garden and grab a couple of shovelfuls of composted topsoil to mix into their bedding. Once that was in there, the worms have been quite content to stay in the bin. I also left them under a fluorescent spotlight for about 48 hours to deter them from seeking greener pastures outside of the bin. Red Wigglers hate the light, so the spotlight was like my very own anti worm-wander security system.
I am sure it was a combination of the topsoil and the nightlight that got them to stay, but now they are eating the kitchen scraps and making castings. We have been stockpiling kitchen scraps for several days and the worms have their work cut out for them for a while. Hopefully we can get caught up and achieve some sort of balance between the waste we generate and what the worms can process.