Saturday, May 24, 2008

Removing a Colony

Friday, May 23, 2008
Be careful the things you wish for, you just might get them...
My brief news spot last week landed me in something I am not sure I was ready for. I got a call a day after my big news story from a lady in Huntsville who had a colony of bees take up residence in the column on their front porch. This was my big chance to move into the beekeeping big leagues, so I had to take the chance. Besides, if I didn't get the bees out, they would have poisoned them. What's a self-respecting hobby beekeeper to do?
So I built a bee vacuum, did a lot of reading (props to Basic Beekeeping for the detailed description of how to) and thought the best way to learn is to do.
Friday morning at 0700 I cut into a column of bees. The ten foot column was about 8" diameter at the top and about 12" at the bottom. Comb ran from the top to about 3 feet from the bottom and there were bees everywhere. They told me that the swarm had only been there about a month, but they were a strong colony. I pulled a lot of brood comb out of that colony along with a bunch of honeycomb. The honey tastes great, but because it wasn't all capped, I will remove it from the comb, collect the wax, and put the honey back out for the bees. Waste not, want not, right?
I built a top bar beehive to house the new colony because I am interested in comparing both types of hives and right now I am not sure if they have accepted their new home or not. They are inside, outside and all over it, so I may have bitten off a bit more than I could chew. I did throw brood comb in both the top bar hive and the langstroth in the hopes that if I don't have a queen in either colony (I never saw the queen from the colony I removed from the column) I will hopefully be lucky and let the bees raise up a new one.
CJ is tired of bees right now. Preparing for the colony removal has consumed almost my entire week from Tuesday night until Saturday and she's just a little jealous of my attention to the 100,000 ladies I have brought home to roost. I think I will enter a hands-off beekeeping stage right now. I have an observation window built into the side of the top bar hive and I'll check it nightly, but beyond that, I think I'll give the bees a week or more to just settle in.
I will pray a little for their success. My ineptitude and lack of skill may just prove too much at this point, but I will certainly hope that the bees are more tenacious than that. I mean, they've survived far worse than this, right?
For the record, I got stung on the forehead after all of the major work was done. I was cleaning up the honey, comb, sawdust, bee, tool, etc. mess after the removal and one stray worker bee figured (rightly) that I was responsible for the destruction of her home and she exacted her revenge by stinging me. That makes three stings that I have felt: two on the day I collected my first swarm and one yesterday. None of them have been all that bad, but they certainly aren't pleasant. Hopefully I will gain some immunity to the venom and the swelling (which isn't bad right now) will be even less. What I really don't like is the itching for the days after...

Bad news (I think)

Thursday, May 22, 2008
I was into my hive for a little beeswax and a weekly examination and try as I might, I could not locate the queen. Now this is not usually a problem as long as there is evidence of her presence: brood cells in various stages of progress, etc. etc. I have eight frames of comb drawn out and filled with honey. No brood, no eggs, just several thousand worker bees doing the only thing they know what to do: draw out comb and store nectar.
I have photographic evidence of her presence one week ago, but she hadn't laid any eggs and I was worried only slightly then. Who knows why she's gone... Either she was an old queen on her last swarm or a virgin queen who had taken off on a mating flight and never made it back to the hive. Perhaps it was something in between, but any way I add it up, one colony minus one queen equals no colony or bees in a few short weeks.

I have to find a queen and fast, or I'm going to be quite upset at this failure.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Bees and now Worms!?!?!

Since we arrived in Alabama, I find that my outlook on life has changed dramatically. I am extremely concerned about the amount of waste that goes out of our house and into the garbage truck. Our city recycles, which is very nice, but there's still a bunch of garbage that we'd like to eliminate from the landfill, so we decided to build a couple of composters...
I found simple plans for a hot composter (for yard clippings and such) by fastening together five shipping pallets. It's free once you find the pallets and it will eventually turn your yard clippings into nutrient-rich compost. It's uninspiring and less than romantic, but it's clean and will boost the fertility of my Alabama red clay garden.
The problem with an open back-yard composting bin is that it cannot do kitchen scraps. Those attract pests and that's just not cool. But we eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and often have peelings and cores and other kitchen waste that we wanted to dispose of differently, so we bought a vermicomposter. Yes, that is fancy talk for worm farm.

Strange, yes, but necessary I think. CJ surprised me with this for our tenth wedding anniversary. (Who knew that the tenth anniversary was the worm anniversary?)
Regardless of what the occasion is, I am almost as excited about the worms as I am the bees. It's going to be nice to see the bees pollinate the garden that grows in my homemade worm-processed compost.

Monday, May 19, 2008

So, why bees?

In an earlier post, I stated how I got interested, but why? Here's the philosophy (which is bound to change somewhat) behind my decision to keep bees.

When I was a kid, there were honeybees everywhere. I would step on a bee and have a sting on the foot almost every summer. I hated that, but I also felt fascinated with the fuzzy little creatures. I knew that they didn't care about me as long as I wasn't stepping on them, so I got to the point where I would pet them as they went from flower to flower in my front yard.

Then they just weren't there any more.

Maybe I grew up and stopped looking for them, but when I wanted to see bees, I rarely did. I read about CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) and the imminent destruction of the world's honeybee population. I was concerned, sort of.

As I became more aware of the world around me, I realized that there's a lot happening out there that I am missing out on. There's so much to be learned if I am just willing to put in the time. Besides, if I can keep bees, there are sure to be great benefits from it, right?

I enjoy working outdoors. I have a small garden plot and keep dozens of houseplants. If I could live in a conservatory, I would. CJ is not ready for that yet. Bees perform 80% of the pollination on food plants consumed by the human race, so I figured, "If I am going to grow my own food, I may as well get the pollinators to help me." So I began looking into keeping bees.

I want to have my own honey too.

Right now, my modest bee colony is in a single, deep, 10-frame Langstroth hive that I will probably expand into a 2 deep hive body with 2 or 3 medium supers. I hope this colony will get strong enough to fill that baby right up. Still, I don't know how "hands-on" I want to be with these little marvels. I'd really rather give them a space to live and let them do their thing like they have for millennia. I'm not real excited yet about exploiting the girls for their honey and making a fortune selling bee products. I just want a garden that thrives, a few pounds of honey at the end of the year, and an opportunity to teach my children about life and nature.

I am looking at building a top-bar hive in case I decide to split or catch another swarm. It would be nice to compare the hives' success side by side.

So there it is in a nutshell. This may become an obsession after a while, or it may wane. I am not the type to neglect my bees even if this passion wanes, but I can be quite content with one or two colonies buzzing around my yard. If it grows, I already have offers of out-yards where I can keep colonies. Who knows, maybe it will turn into something more.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

My bees made the news!

It helps to have the local news reporter living in your apartment...
Click Here to Watch

My first Hive Examination

Saturday, May 17, 2008.

The bees have been working in their hive for 4 days and I just HAD to see what they were up to. I needed to see if the queen was alive and well and just what was going on inside that hive. So I donned the gear, lit the smoker and opened the hive. CJ took photos of my first foray into beekeeping, so I'll add them here and comment on them as I go.

Lighting the smoker

Examining a frame.

The bees are drawing out the comb and there's a QUEEN there!!! She's very beautiful. Can you find her?

I will let them work for another week and hopefully will have some brood in there. I think I saw some eggs, but it's way too early for brood and I don't really have experience identifying them at this early stage. I saw several bees carrying pollen on their back legs, saw several cells with pollen in them, several more with clear liquid (water? nectar?) and hopefully a few eggs, but it's too early for me to discern a pattern in the queen's laying (or if she's laying at all.) She definitely hasn't got any attending bees that I had hoped to see surrounding her, but they are a small colony and I don't expect them to be too established after only four days.

Ian gets stung.

Wednesday, 14 May, 2008.
I got home from work this afternoon and had to check on my new pets. The weather was nice, so I expected the bees to be out doing what they do best. As I approached the hive (from the back) I could see that there were several bees on the entrance board, several more taking flight and an equal number returning from their foraging adventures. It looked like all was right with the world.
My five-year old idolizes me and when I am home, he is not far from me. It's great to have a fan club, even if you have to raise them yourself... but I digress.
Ian and I were sitting on the lawn about 15 feet in front of the hive and down a slight slope, so we were at eye level with the entrance. I was watching the flurry of activity at the entrance and explaining the finer points of the action to my son when he reached up to swat a bee from his hair. This action resulted in a sting on his pinky-finger and the offending bee still floundering in his hair. It took no time before he was crying and cursing the bees, but only a couple of seconds before two or three other bees were responding to the sacrifice of their sister. Did you know that once a bee stings, the chemical they release with their dying sacrifice signals to the other bees that they need to sting as well? I waved them away, but realized that it was safest to pick up my son and run. We made it away without any further casualties, but I hadn't had the bees even 24 hours and already my son had been stung. It's fine if I get stung. I almost expect it to happen, but if my kids get stung, I begin to lose face at home.
One freezy-pop and some gentle explaining later and my five-year old had decided that bees weren't all that bad and he was willing to give them another chance. Now he wants me to buy him his own bee suit...

My First Swarm

Tuesday, May 13, 2008.

Kindergarten orientation for my five-year old from 8:30-9:30. CJ checked her email this morning and a friend in Killen had a swarm of bees in the tree in her front yard and had sent a bulk email to everyone she knew asking if they were interested in catching them. CJ was surprisingly excited about the prospect. I was ecstatic. We called three times to make sure the bees, that had settled on the tree the night before, were still there. I still had kindergarten orientation to attend and I didn't want to drive an hour round trip to look at a branch where a swarm of bees stopped for the night.

10:30 am. I arrived at my friend's house and the bees were still there: on a branch hanging over a ditch about 15 feet in the air. Now I had read several things about catching swarms and often the advice for a swarm high in the air is to wave goodbye and wait for another one. Not a chance. I couldn't bear to see another swarm get away from me. I NEEDED THESE BEES!!!! I was determined to catch this swarm no matter what.

After grabbing a cardboard box and a large ladder, I donned the bee gloves and the hat and veil, climbed the ladder, brushed the bees into the box and came down off the ladder. I brought the box with me and dumped the bees into the hive body, hoping I had the queen. Where the queen is, there go the bees, right? Oh, I got stung on the right upper arm through my shirt. I stayed calm and fortunately the stinger was stuck in my shirt and not my skin. No big deal.
I looked up and saw that the bees I didn't brush into the box were leaving the branch, so I felt pretty good about getting the queen. While I was reassembling my hive, my friend directed my attention to the branch and the rapid rate at which the bees were returning to it. Strike one. Bummer.
Okay, with a sting in my arm, a once again empty hive, and a swarm just itching to find a new home, I couldn't keep knocking them down and hoping to get the queen. I had to really think this through this time.
I got another ladder and put it next to the swarm on the low side of the branch. I stabilized my first ladder on several planks of plywood and assembled my hive on the top rung, top open, but saw that my hive was still two feet from the bottom of the swarm. I cut the top and bottom out of my cardboard box and made a chute into the hive, then went up the second ladder and began to brush bees off again. This time I used my hand instead of the bee brush and got stung through the glove. Ouch, but it could have been worse.
Thousands of bees fell into my open hive, thousands of bees remained on the branch. I climbed higher and continued my assault on the swarm, brushing as many bees as I could off the branch and into my chute. Once I was pretty certain that I had only about 100 bees left on the branch, I threw my outer cover on the top of the chute and climbed down the ladder. Three minutes later, the bees were all off the branch and nobody seemed to be heading back, so I went up the ladder for phase two.
My makeshift chute didn't close off the top of the hive, so if the queen had wanted to fly, she could have easily escaped, so I put the inner cover on the top of the hive, under the chute, so the bees that were still in the chute had to go down into the hive to escape. I had not closed off the regular hive entrance. I figured that was the best way for the bees to rejoin their queen. Ten minutes later, the branch remained bee-free and my chute was empty of bees, so I removed the chute and put the top cover on the hive. There were still thousands of bees flying around the hive, ladder, and tree that I wanted to catch, so I left the hive on top of the ladder and decided to come back at dusk and collect my bees...if they stayed in the hive.

8:00 pm. At dusk I returned to my hive. There were about half a dozen bees guarding the entrance to the hive and as I approached the hive, I could hear the contented buzzing of a swarm of bees in a new home. Now all I had to do was get them off the top of a 15 foot ladder without dropping them or falling and killing myself. I was alone and my friend was not interested in being stung, so I could count on no more help than moral support. I placed a rolled towel in the opening of the hive to contain the bees should I jostle them more than they were willing to tolerate comfortably and after a couple of shaky steps and a near fall, my 20# hive and I were safe on the ground. I loaded them into the back of my van, covered them with a quilt to minimize any vibration and trap any agitated bees from attacking me while I drove the 30 minutes back home. I gently placed the hive on the cinderblock base I had made earlier that afternoon and let them sleep.

Final score: Me- 15,000 bees, bees- 2 stings. At least I know now that I'm not allergic.

In the Bee-ginning

About a year and a half ago, I saw a UPS Next-day Air package full of bees slide down the belt at the UPS hub in Nashville, TN. This sparked my interest and so I began researching beekeeping. I told my wife that I wanted to keep bees once we moved to our new home in Alabama and she was surprisingly receptive to the idea...

Cut to April 2, 2008.

I was walking back to my office after a Spanish class at UNA and saw the most amazing sight: a swarm of bees. I had never seen a swarm in real life and I was strangely drawn to them. I approached the tree they were in, got within 3 feet of the swarm and just stood there, entranced. I spent the next two hours calling everyone I knew and asking if they had beekeeping equipment or knew where I could get some. I finally gave up and went back outside to watch the bees and a local beekeeper was already there "catching" the swarm. This catch was little more than brushing the bees off the tree they were on and into an apple box. He closed up the box and sat for a couple of hours while the stragglers found their way into the box with their queen. I missed the swarm, but had renewed my passion for the bees...

Jump ahead about two weeks.

Again, I was walking back to my office after my Spanish class and saw a ladder in/under a tree, a box on the ladder, and bees swarming around the box. I had missed another one. This box was unattended, though...
I didn't take it. I still didn't have any legitimate hive or other equipment to actually keep bees. I missed another one.

I began looking up to the colonies of bees in the building next to my own. As I circled the building, I counted no fewer than three colonies in the turrets of the building. There will certainly be more swarms. I just have to be ready. It just pays to look up once in a while.

Cut to May 5.

My wife stopped by the office to bring me lunch and informed me that one of my feral colonies was getting ready to swarm. It also just happened to be an afternoon in which we were anticipating a major thunderstorm with a possible tornado. I went out to see the colony and watched as they filed into the hive, not out of it. The swarm was imminent, I could feel it. I just didn't have any hive...

So I called a friend who had a dozen hives or so. He was interested in catching the swarm and if I couldn't have the bees, at least someone I knew could benefit from them. We made plans to meet at my office the next morning and see what we could do about catching the swarm.

Next morning, my friend was late, had to leave town, and I had another appointment to make. We missed the swarm, but he gave me a hive. I won't miss another one. NO WAY.