Sunday, June 9, 2013

Late Spring 2013

It's been a very busy spring here at Pondview Farm!  Calving and lambing are finally finished (our largest crop of lambs ever), and the greenhouses are nearly empty, now that the shipping season is coming to a close.  It's been a busy year so far in the bee yard as well.  We started the spring with a burgeoning Langstroth hive, and a new package in the top bar hive.  Within four weeks, the new queen in the top bar hive had produced an abundant crop of new brood, and the first orientation flights took place on May 24th.

Orientation flights occur when bees graduate from being house bees to foragers.  They emerge from the hive in a huge cloud and fly in ever expanding figure eight patterns in front of the hive until they have their bearings, then they take off and start foraging.

At the end of May I did a full inspection of the top bar hive, and was somewhat alarmed at the number of drones that were in the hive.  Almost every frame seemed to be dominated by drones, and there were two fully drawn out combs packed from top to bottom with capped drone brood.  (Drone brood is larger and has a more pronounced dome cap on it than does worker brood.)  I didn't see the queen, and although there was some larvae and worker brood, I was concerned that I had laying workers in the hive.  Laying workers are a sign of a queenless colony.  When a colony loses it's queen, worker bees sometimes will develop reproductive parts and start laying.  But since workers are sterile, their larvae are always drones.  I was also concerned because there didn't appear to be very much in the way of food stores in the hive, and I figured the drones were eating them out of house and home!   However, upon checking the hive again briefly, last week, I found that much of the drone brood had hatched, and most of them were gone from the hive.  And I also spotted the queen, so I assumed that they knew what they were doing!  After thinking about the situation, and doing some more reading, I realized that the queen had laid the drone brood in the comb that the previous colony had drawn out for honey storage.  Honey comb has larger cells, and larger cells induce the queen to lay drone eggs.  

As I said earlier, the Langstroth hive was doing very well.  It came through the winter easily, and has been busting at the seams with bees.  

So we decided to do a "split" or an "artificial swarm" to try to prevent it from swarming on it's own.  By doing a split, we are able to create a new colony, relieve the overpopulation of the hive, and we also hopefully eliminate the possibility of losing a swarm.  When a hive is preparing to swarm, the workers select a handful of larvae to become potential new queens.  They build out the cells that those larvae are in, and start feeding them royal jelly to create the new queen.  To do a split, we checked the hive a couple of times, and when we saw the queen cups that had eggs or larvae in them, we knew it was time.  

Then, we set up a "nuc box", which is just a small hive box with five frames in it.

Then we find the queen in the original colony, and take the frame that she is on, along with two other frames that contain brood and honey, and place them all in the nuc box.

The queen is on this frame, you'll have to take my word for it!

Queen frame in the nuc box.

Completed nuc box.

With the split done, we now had two and a half hives!  That is, until last week, when the original Langstroth hive swarmed, despite having done the split!  Thankfully, we were home and were able to capture the swarm.  And, thankfully, we had another nuc box that we could put the swarm into.

Here's a picture of the swarm, about eight feet up in a pine tree right next to the bee yard.

We donned our gear, gathered our tools, and collected the swarm.  First, I shook as many bees off the branch as I could into a five gallon bucket, and dumped them into the second nuc box.

This swarm wasn't as docile as the one I captured last year, and they didn't appreciate being shaken out of their cluster!  I didn't use any smoke or sugar water to calm them, and all of that shaking made for some angry bees!  As such, I received my first sting as a beekeeper!  It was bound to happen sometime, but I had been pretty proud of the fact that I had not been stung, with a year of beekeeping under my belt!  
It's hard to see, but that red dot right between my fingers is my first battle scar.

In the end, I had to cut the branch out of the pine tree and shake the remaining bees into the box.  Once I felt confident I had the new queen in the box, I was able to put the cover on and let the swarm settle into it's new home.

Now we've got two hives and two half hives!  That sounds pretty good, right?  Well.....

Last week, Sue was checking all the Langstroth boxes, just to make sure they were all queen right, which they were, and she found that the split we did was going gang busters, building comb all over the place, and once again, chock full of bees!  

So, we decided to move the split to a full sized Langstroth hive.  Sue went and purchased new woodenware and this morning we moved the bees into their new home.  

New hive box set up and ready to receive the frames from the "split".

Scraping off excess wax after the frames are placed in the new hive.

The newly completed Langstroth hive and the now empty nuc box.

We had to shake the bees from the twisted honeycomb they had built on the inside of the nuc box cover several times to get them all off, and into the new hive.  

It's fascinating to me how, when left to their own devices in an open space, the bees will build comb in all sorts of shapes and in many different directions.  But when we give them frames and foundation, or top bars, they build comb that is straight and plumb, and to our minds, perfect.  Makes me wonder if the methods we have "introduced" to the bees contribute to or hinder their survival.

So, now the hive count in the bee yard is three and a half!  Hopefully, we'll have a good nectar flow this year and we'll be able to pull a good amount of honey off all these hives this year!  100 pounds sure would be nice!

Until next time...

Saturday, April 27, 2013

First Spring Hive Check

Well, it's a beautiful spring day, and time to open up the hive after the winter and see how everything looks.
I know my bees have been doing well, as I have checked the hive a few time through the winter, but it's only been an open the top cover and peer in, kind of thing. Today I did a thorough inspection of both deep boxes, and could not be happier with my girls. 
In the top box, I found the queen, looking great and very healthy.  I also found lots of capped brood, which means everyone has been busy! The bottom box was also jammed full of bees, with 6 frames of capped honey on the outsides, and 4 frames of capped brood in the middle. I saw only a very small amount of drone cells and possibly the beginning of a swarm cell in the top box.
So, in order to give them some more room, I reversed the deep boxes, so the honey frames were on the top of the hive. I also added a medium super to the top with foundation in 10 frames, and 4 of those frames contained some honey I had taken off last fall, and I froze the frames over the winter.
Mark and I have just taken a class about swarm management and how to control it by making splits. The bees natural instinct is to swarm in the spring, and the only way to head them off is to recognize the signs that they are preparing for a swarm, and split the hive, creating an "artificial" swarm for them. They are not upset with that because they were planning to do it anyway, and we just save them the trouble of glomming onto a tree somewhere and scouting a new place to live. It's a win win for all, because  I get a whole new colony of bees and more bees equals more honey!  We have a swarm trap which we will mount in a nearby tree, just in case we miss the warning signs and they swarm before we have a chance to make the split. This way, we catch them either way. 
Spring is an exciting time to be a beekeeper! Stay tuned!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Early Spring 2013

Mid April is an in between season here in Maine.  Winter's pretty much over, but it's not quite spring-like.  However, with daytime temps approaching 50 degrees, the bees have started to venture out.  Silver and Red Maple buds are swollen, and the bees are able to collect some sap from them, and there must be some willows blooming because the few bees that have gone foraging are coming back with little tiny pollen packets.

Back in January, we had a couple of days where the temperatures got up into the 50's, and that gave us a chance to check the hives for strength and for food stores.  The bees in the Langstroth hive were out in force, but the Top Bar Hive was silent.  So I decided to see what was going on inside.  To my dismay, I found that most of the bees in the TBH had left, when I'm not sure.  But when I put the hive to bed in early November, there were plenty of bees, and I even saw them flying on a warm day in December.  But this is what it looked like when I opened it up:

There were just a couple of hundred dead bees at the bottom of the hive.  My first thought was that they didn't have enough food, but there were full combs of honey, as well as lots of bee bread (processed pollen).

 Full combs of honey (above), and Bee Bread (below)

In speaking with other beekeepers over the past couple of months, I've heard of at least two other hives that absconded in the late fall for no apparent reason.  Some have suggested varroa mites, but I monitored the mite population closely last year, and it was what would be considered "very low".  I wouldn't consider this "Colony Collapse Disorder", since the overwhelming majority of the bees simply flew away.  There's no sign of Nosema or European Foul Brood.  So, I think this is just going into the books as one of those unexplained bee phenomena.

Today, I cleaned out the dead bees and got the hive ready to receive a new package next week.  The new bees will have a head start with all of the drawn comb and honey that is left in the hive, so I expect to be able to harvest at least a little bit of honey this summer!

Cleaned up and ready to receive a new package of bees.

The Langstroth hive continues to thrive, a fact which Sue takes great pleasure in needling me about!  We're expecting to be able to harvest about 60lb of honey from it this year.  And, assuming we're able to capture a swarm, or maybe do a split utilizing our recently acquired nuc boxes, we plan to start another Langstroth hive.

Two new nuc boxes

So stay tuned... as the bee season commences, we'll be posting more entrys to the Bee log!  

Monday, January 7, 2013

Winter hive check

 Today was bright and sunny and we are expecting a January thaw in the next few days. It is a perfect time to do a quick check on the bee colony and see where they are in the hive. Taking off the outer cover, and then the homosote board reveals the inner cover and the cluster of happy bees at the top of the hive! I was so glad to see them! I had worried and wondered since I tucked them in, in late November, and now I can see they are fine! They went into winter with a full, 10 frame deep box of honey for food, and since they are sitting at the top of it, I know it's time to give them some extra food to go into the next few months.  

I took some plain white, dry sugar and sprinkled it around the inner cover hole, where the bees have easy access to it if they need it. This should be a sufficient source of food if they run out of the honey in the hive. I will check again in another month to see if it has been used,or if more is needed. In the next few days we should see them out taking a cleansing flight in the warm temperatures, and cleaning out the hive!  So far, so good for my bee colony's first winter!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Winter Preparations

Temperatures in the 50's today created a great opportunity to get the top bar hive ready for winter.  It's widely accepted (albeit mostly by naysayers who've never managed one) that Kenyan Top Bar Hives don't overwinter in northern climates.  Michael Bush, noted beekeeper and author, has kept top bar hives in Nebraska for years, and brought them through winters with no problems.  Our philosophy is to do what we can to help our bees survive.

The sun warmed the hive so much today that the the bees have ventured out for the afternoon.  This will probably be one of their last flights before they enter their winter cluster.

Last month, I gave the bees some extra food in the form of 2:1 sugar syrup.  So, the first order of business is to remove the feeder from the hive.

This quart size feeder was filled once a week for three weeks in October, and the bees consumed all of the syrup each time.

Next, I need to reduce the size of the open space within the hive, so that the bees don't have as much area to keep warm.  Last month, I consolidated the hive by moving the brood nest and honey comb, which will be used by the bees for winter food, to one end of the TBH.  Now I can put the follower board back in the hive to close off the unused portion of the hive, just as we close off unused rooms in our house in the winter, so we don't have to heat them.  As I noted in earlier posts, the bees had built comb on the follower board early in the season, which they'd filled with brood and honey.  This fall, they'd cleaned out all the honey, the brood had hatched and the queen didn't lay subsequent generations of brood in this comb, so I was able to remove it before putting the follower board back into the hive.

This follower board will stay in the hive until later this winter when I'll replace it with one that I've built to hold sugar candy.  It's possible that my bees will use up most of their winter stores before winter is over, so I may need to supplement their feed.  Sugar syrup isn't an option during the winter, because it will freeze, and because the bees won't take syrup in temperatures below +/-35 degrees. So a solid form of feed is needed.  There are several options to do this; I could feed granulated sugar by just pouring it inside the hive, but that could create a mess later on.  Fondant is another option, but that's typically used in Langstroth hives on top of the frames.  That's not an option in the TBH because there is no space between the bars for the bees to move up and eat the fondant.  In the TBH, the bees move laterally to get food.  So I designed this follower board...

It has a 1 1/2" recess into which I'll pour hot liquid sugar candy, fortified with pollen substitute.  Once it hardens, I'll be able to pull out the regular follower board from the hive and replace it with this one, filled with bee food!

Now onto the exterior of the hive...  My original plan was to stack bales of straw around the sides and back of the TBH to provide extra insulation and block any wind.  However, the risk of rodents taking up residence in the straw, and possibly invading our hives put the kibosh on that plan.  Instead, I decided to cut pieces of 2 inch rigid styrofoam insulation and attach them to the outside of the hive.  I painted the foam board maroon so that it would absorb heat from the sun, then I cut it to size and attached it to the outside of the hive walls on both ends, and the back side with 2 1/2" deck screws and fender washers.

Then I cut two pieces to fit on top of the top bars.  In the winter, the bees will keep their cluster between 85 and 93 degrees, which will create condensation.  Condensation can freeze, and kill the bees, so the foam board is notched in the center to allow condensation to escape.

Finally, I'll put the corks back into the center entrances, staple some hardware cloth over the remaining entrance to keep rodents out, put the roof back on and strap it down with a ratchet strap.

So that's it!  The top bar hive is all buttoned up and ready for the worst old man winter can dish out.  Next week we'll wrap the Langstroth hive with tar paper, and put homasote board under the outer cover to absorb condensation.  Then the bee yard will be left alone until late winter.  We look forward to next season and our first honey crop!  Our plan is to do traditional, liquid honey from the Langstroth hive, and cut comb honey from the top bar hive.  Yum!

Until then, we hope you have a warm, wonderful winter.  Bee well!


Monday, October 15, 2012

Fall hive inspections

An update on winter preparation for our first year beehives:
 In September I did a varroa mite count, and on advice of other beekeepers, I decided to treat the hive for mites. The treatment I used consisted of a couple of chemical strips laid in between my hive bodies, and left for 7 days, them removed. I also treated for a virus called Nosema, and that treatment was a powder mixed in with the sugar syrup mix that the bees drink from a feeder. After all treatments were complete, I gave them back a super of honey that I had removed before treating them, and they should spend these last days before winter moving that honey out of the comb, and bringing it back down into the hive body, to eat this winter.
My goal today was to take one good last look at the strength of the colony, and see exactly what they had in the frames before closing them up for the winter, and doing any moving of frames that might need to be done to help them out. The other thing I needed to do was switch out one of my deep hive boxes for another one that had a hole drilled in the top front, for a higher entrance. It will help them this winter with extra ventilation, and give them an escape if the snow is deep around the bottom entrance.The top photo shows the box with the hole (it has a piece of tape over it) on the left. I needed to move all the frames (and bees) from the box on the hive over to that one, and move that one back to the top spot on the hive.

This photo shows a frame full of capped honey.

My discoveries  were these: My bee colony on the whole seem extremely strong. Both deep boxes had a lot of bees on the majority of frames, so out of 20 frames total, there were a large amount of bees on 15, and a smaller groups of bees on the other 5,   One of the hive bodies had mostly honey in it, with some pollen and nectar as well. The other had a mix of brood, pollen and honey. 
 We made the switch into the new box, and put the box with brood and honey on the bottom, put the box with mostly honey on top of it, and then added a smaller size super with 2-3 frames of honey that they will continue to work on, bringing it down into the lower box to eat this winter.

 The end result of the beehive shuffle

I did not harvest any honey this fall, being my first year with the hive, I want them to have plenty of their own food to keep them healthy through the winter, and it looks like they do!  Many beekeepers feed their bees during winter and spring, and that works fine, but it's always the best option if they can eat honey instead of sugar, so the more honey they have the better.
I am really happy with the strength of my bees and feel hopeful that they should come through the winter with no problems!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fall Preparation 2012

There's been a nip in the air here at Pondview Farm for the past few mornings, and that means winter survival is on the mind of most of God's creatures; Homo sapien and Apis mellifera included.  In the bee yard, fall is a time of preparation.  In our last Bee-log entry, our Langstroth hive had us a little nervous because it appeared to be queenless.  But on a subsequent hive check we found eggs, larvae and capped brood, and so we were relieved to find that there was indeed, a new queen in the hive.  The top bar hive has done quite well all year.  A couple of weeks ago I moved the follower board all the way to the end of the hive, opening up lots of new space for the bees to draw comb, which they can fill with honey, nectar and pollen stores to be consumed this winter.  And since the new queen has been in the Langstroth hive, she has been diligently producing new brood, so as of this entry, both hives have lots of bees are nice and strong going into the fall.

View inside the top bar hive.

 A frame from the Langstroth hive.

We're doing several things to prepare the hives for winter.  In moving the follower board in the top bar hive all the way to the end, we're hoping that the bees will draw more comb and fill it with food.  To facilitate that, we're now feeding the bees a 1.5 parts sugar / 1 part water syrup.  Supposedly this is a ratio that encourages the bees to draw comb.  But the temperatures also have to stay in the 70's and 80's during the day.  Below that, no comb will be drawn.  I'd love to see them draw out at least two more combs and fill them with winter stores!  Upon opening the hive to put the feeder in, I discovered that the bees had completely emptied the comb they had attached to the follower board.  All of the brood was hatched or removed, and all of the pollen, nectar and honey was moved to the main part of the colony.  This was a great relief, because I've been unsure all season about what to do with the comb that they had built there!

 The converted chick feeder with 1.5:1 sugar syrup

The follower board with empty comb.

Fall is also a time to check the hives for Varroa mite, a destructive pest that can severely weaken hives and is said to contribute to Sudden Colony Collapse Disorder.  We've made the decision to manage Varroa using Integrated Pest Management strategies.  We will monitor the hives, checking for the mites two or three times each year, and treat when the mite population exceeds recommended levels.  Our method of monitoring involves counting the daily mite drop.  The way we do this is by installing a grid board below the nest.  The board is coated with a thin film of petroleum jelly prior to installing it below the hive.  The mites that fall off the bees drop through the screen bottom board of the hive, and get stuck on the grid.

The grid board being coated with petroleum jelly

 The grid board placed beneath the screened bottom board.  

The grid is left in place for three days, then removed, so that the mites can be counted.  Although it would be wonderful if Varroa were not a problem at all, one good thing is that they're easily spotted with the naked eye.  So we remove the grid, and count all of the mites, then divide by the number of days the grid was in place to determine how many mites drop each day.  If there are fewer than 40 - 50 mites dropping per day, there's no need for treatment.  The mite count from this past weekend was 11!  So we're in good shape!

The grid board after removal.  
We use dry beans to keep track of mites that were found,
and make it easy to count them.

The dark oval to the right of the bean is a Varroa mite.

 Along with the mites, there are dropped pollen packets, bee poop, 
dead bee parts, wax flakes, and more on the grid.

Despite the fact that it has been quite dry, and there haven't been a lot of flowers around lately, the bees are still hard at work, bringing in pollen and nectar.  They've been busy driving out drones, (no drones are allowed in the hive in the winter) and making and curing honey stores.  Hopefully, the fall will provide lots more nectar and pollen with goldenrod, asters and other fall flowers!

Workers returning this weekend with full pollen baskets!
(Look for the orange stuff on their hind legs.)

Later this fall, we'll do the final winter preparations like wrapping and insulating.  That will be in the next post!