Long live the queen

Getting a new hive of honeybees established is exciting but sometimes exasperating.  Lately it has been more exasperating.  Last year was so exasperating that not one of our new hives managed to survive even the summer.  We strongly suspect the problem was the queens.  When they arrived last year, the queens were so small we could barely distinguish them from their attendants. (Yes, queen bees have attendants.) In hindsight, we question the regal stature of those “queens.”  So this year, we ordered three new bee packages from a different supplier.

Two months after installation of this year’s packages, two hives are ready for second hive body boxes.  The third hive shows very little activity.  Mr. Beekeeper inspects the hive and finds very little brood and a dwindling number of bees. Exasperating.

But lo and behold! A queen cell!  How exciting!

The hive has recognized its problem and has chosen to raise a new queen. Why last year’s hives did not do the same is a question worth pondering. Why this hive needs to re-queen is another question.  Did the queen die?  Was she ill? Was she…gasp…old? Was she just a poor lay-er?  (This reminds me of my sister and her poor laying hens.  She shrieked death threats at them and the very next day, they resumed laying.)

Queens cells take eight days to hatch from the time the cell is capped.  About ten days after spotting the capped queen cell, we take a peek inside.  The queen cell is now empty.  We look for the queen.  This is sort of like Where’s Waldo–find the one bee that is longer than the hundreds of other bees.  Fortunately, the bees are only on a couple of frames, one of those frames is exclusively capped honey, and the other frame is where the queen cell was.  And we find her!

Now we wait.  The new queen needs two weeks to get established.  She must exit the hive for mating flights with drones.  There are drones visible in the hive and a few drone cells waiting to hatch.  There are also plenty of drones buzzing around the other two hives.  Our queen will not lack opportunity. And then she must get busy laying eggs.  In about three weeks we will peek inside again, hoping to see lots of new brood cells.

Here’s hoping we will still be excited in three weeks.

Spring SnowBees

There are 58,000 bees in the basement.

58,000 bees

58,000 bees

Snowy Chives in March

Snowy Chives in March

It’s the end of March. We turned the clocks to “summer time” two weeks ago.  Last week the vernal equinox made it officially spring.  Today we took delivery of four new packages of bees.

And it’s snowing.

At 9 a.m.  we head to Snyder’s Apiary in Whitehall, windshield wipers brushing snow from the glass. The car thermometer reads the outside temperature as 28 degrees.  Out at the apiary, the countryside is dusted white and snow “flurries” blow sideways in the wind, whipping our faces.  Beekeepers in winter coats greet one another with snide remarks about the great weather.

Why, you ask, are we getting bees when it is so cold outside?  Because one orders bees weeks in advance and the Snyders drive down to Georgia on a scheduled day to pick up the orders in a truck.   The bees have arrived.  We have already paid for them.  We must take them home.

snowbees 2 w beeguys

BeeMan and Junior BeeMan carry 16 lbs of bees to the car.

Junior Beekeeper comes with us this morning.  He helps carry the bees to the car.  They take up the entire back seat.  A few Klingons (“cling-ons”) try to hitch a ride too, but without the advantage of the warm group hug in the bee boxes, they won’t last long.  Sure enough, back home, when the boxes are removed from the car, a few motionless bees remain on the back seat.

No, we don't buckle them in.

No, we don’t buckle them in.

Alas, it is too cold to put the new bees in their hives.  Tomorrow will be better and the rest of the week will be perfect, with temps in the 50’s and sunshine.  So for now, 58,000 girls (and a very few guys) will have a little sleepover in the mancave.

Today's conditions for the snowbees.

Today’s conditions for the snowbees.

Conditions downstairs are almost ideal.  The mancave is heated  only  by a woodstove.  With no fire going, the temp is 55.  And the only light is from the door.  With the overhead lights off, it is both cool and fairly dark.  A few bees buzz at the screens of the boxes but, for the most part, the bees quietly huddle around the caged queen and a can of sugar water.

They can’t get out.  Really.

4 pounds of bees

4 pounds of bees

The bees can stay in the package boxes for up to five days.  That includes the time they spent traveling from Georgia. Today is probably day three.  If this cold weather were to last all week, we would have a dilemma on our hands.  Fortunately, it won’t, so we don’t.  BeeMan has enough to do prepping the hives for the new residents. Cleaning out the Room of Outer Darkness to install a temporary apiary is not on the Honey Do List.

Tomorrow the bees will be installed in their new homes–outside in the bee yard where they belong.  Maybe then we can pronounce the beginning of spring.

The daffodils are trying to bring Spring.

The daffodils are trying to bring Spring.

 

 

Bees in the mancave? How cool is that?

It started as a joke at choir rehearsal.  The bitter winter killed off all the bees and some wise guy suggested that we bring them inside for the winter.

Roars of laughter as we all contemplated John and the bees watching football in his mancave.

More laughter at the death glare I shot at my husband because I know the wheels are spinning in his brain.  He has already been scouring the internet.  How do bees survive the winter in places like Idaho?  They bring the bees inside to potato cellars, which are dark (so the bees sleep) and a constant temperature (cool but not cold).

Alas, people are  researching this.  Granted, they are not researching it for the backyard beekeeper, but the information is out there…

Research is currently being conducted on controlled environment wintering. A temperature somewhere in the mid- or low-40° F (5° C) range, total darkness, ventilation to reduce excess moisture and humidity, and fall feeding of Fumidil B to suppress nosema disease are some of the major considerations. Provision for refrigeration should be considered also because sudden warming spells in late winter or early spring could result in undue restlessness and activity within the controlled-environment room. Colonies on flat-bed trailers that can be rolled outdoors or back into the room during warm or cold trends also would be desirable.

http://www.beesource.com/resources/usda/overwintering-of-honey-bee-colonies/

It looks so innocent from this side of the door.

It looks so innocent from this side of the door.

Unfortunately, we have such a space.  It is the room of outer darkness.  The entry is through the death trap known as “Dad’s Workshop.”  Well, that’s what the sign over the door reads.  It’s more like a holding bin for every man-toy needed to do any man task, a conglomeration of total disorganization amidst whiffs and piles of sawdust.

The room of outer darkness is a full cinderblock basement room under the side porch.  In an earlier vision of our house, the side porch was going to be a library-sunroom but we eliminated it to save a few thousand dollars and because it was over-the-top not needed.  However, by the time the room was cut from the project, the basement was already in place.  (Don’t even ask.)

The room of outer darkness is underground with–duh–no windows, so it is dark.  Being below ground, it maintains a constant cool temperature.  It is ventilated, so air circulates.  It could  be a good wine cellar, except that we can’t keep wine in the house long enough to bother storing it way back there.  And there is very real danger involved with walking through “Dad’s Workshop.”

So, is the outer darkness the right kind of “cool” for the bees?  The main mancave, when the woodstove is not on, stays in the 50’s, which is  great for using the treadmill but too warm for hibernating bees.  Mr. Beeman would have to monitor the temp in the outer darkness to see how cool it really is. The last thing we would want is bees waking up to take a cleansing flight in the mancave while we are watching TV.

That raises another question.  Can bees last an entire winter in a cool, dark room without occasional bathroom breaks?  This winter was difficult, not just because of the bitter temperatures, but because of the extended stretch of days that never went above 50.  Bees take advantage of balmy winter days to relieve themselves.

Would the bees be better off outside with better winter protection? Rusty, at Honey Bee Suite, successfully overwintered by using a quilt board and wood chips.  Moisture in the hive is a bad as cold, and the woodchips successfully insulate and absorb moisture.  Mr. Beeman might want to check out the following link:

http://www.honeybeesuite.com/how-i-overwintered-ten-out-of-ten/

Fortunately, Winter 2015 appears to be over.  New bees arrive (we hope!) the end of this month.  That gives Mr. Beeman an entire season to research the dilemma of Winter 2016 and to maybe clean out his shop and the room of outer darkness.  Hmmm…if overwintering the bees inside gets him to clean out the basement, it just might be worth it.

Ha!

September Bees–and Moths for the Freezer

Happy healthy Hive A

Happy healthy Hive A

The honey bees are busy with the last burst of blooming weeds that cause humans so much distress, so bee season has not quite ended here.  However, we have not inspected the bees in awhile.  A gorgeous summery weekend in early fall was a great opportunity.  (Especially since the next two weekends will find us on the road.)

 

Lots of brood in Hive A.

Lots of brood in Hive A.

The good news from the bee yard is that Hive A is strong and healthy.  No honey from them, but we did not really expect any this first year.  Hive D, the provider of our July harvest, has several frames of capped honey in the second honey  box.  Mr. Beekeeper decided to leave the honey box on a bit longer because the goldenrod is still blooming and (the real reason), because he did not bring the fume board with him to enable us to take the honey.  So there’s some fun to look forward to…a little fall harvest.  To those of you who are weeping desperate little tears hoping for honey, I’ll let you know what we have when we get it all into jars.

A peek at the fall harvest.

A peek at the fall harvest.

And now for the beekeeper worries…

Small hive beetles can ruin a hive and its harvest by breeding in the bee's brood cells.

Small hive beetles can ruin a hive and its harvest by breeding in the bee’s brood cells.

Small hive beetles were seen in Hive B.  This is not ok.  There are a variety of ways to eliminate them, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.  On the chemical side, Checkmite+ is  a varroa mite control that will also deal with beetles.  It is authorized for use in Maryland.  However, Mr. Beekeeper already bought Apistan for fall application against varroa this season, so we won’t be buying Checkmite+.  It also is a heavy duty chemical attack and the beetles do not seem to be that prolific.

There are non-chemical options for physically trapping the beetles.   Traps vary in design and placement in the hive.  What they have in common is a physical trap for the beetles to fall into and something for them to drown in, like mineral oil, vegetable oil, or vinegar.  One calls for a mixture of water, apple cider vinegar, sugar, and ripe banana peel.   That sounds like too much work.   I’m looking at getting a type that hangs between the frames, with a simple oil bath to drown them.  I am fully aware that the bees may seal the thing with propolis, because they like to seal things with propolis.  But these traps are cheap and disposable.

Propolis is the sticky stuff bees make to seal the hive.  It's a real pain to get off countertops.

Propolis is the sticky stuff bees make to seal the hive. It’s a real pain to get off countertops.

The hive is dead and full of wax moths.  They can do serious damage to the hive structure.

The hive is dead and full of wax moths. They can do serious damage to the hive structure.

Hive C is, alas and indeed, dead.  And completely ruined by wax  moths.  Mr. Beekeeper stopped up the entrance to prevent stray bees from going in and, more importantly, moths from coming out.  There were many cocoons in the hive. He will be removing the hive and putting the frames (wrapped in plastic bags) in the freezer to kill off the moths before cleaning the frames and storing them in plastic for the winter.

What killed off Hive C?  Was it the wax moths? Or was it a weak queen?  This is a hive that survived last winter but has been (along with Hive B which has the beetles) slow to build all season.  Did the queen die and the hive fail to produce its own queen?  Did the moths get established in a weak hive or did they seize the opportunity to take over a dead one?

A puddle in the hive, most likely from condensation.

A puddle in the hive, most likely from condensation.

Hive D continues to thrive but opening the lid revealed a puddle of water, presumably from condensation from inside the hive.  Some online  searching offered many solutions for winterizing the hives to avoid condensation, but it is not winter yet.  I do not have any ideas at the moment, but do know that condensation in the winter freezes, and cold, wet bees die. (Beekeepers, your suggestions are most welcome!)  Aside from water on the lid, the bees were busy in the honey box and several frames have capped honey for us!

So many questions.  Here’s one I know some of you are thinking: What else does she have in her freezer?  And oh, the tales we could tell.  But that’s another post!

Group work.  What are they doing?  Probably guessing what I've got in my freezer.

Group work. What are they doing? Probably guessing what I’ve got in my freezer.

How Much Honey?

Honey box filled with honey

Honey box filled with honey

It’s the big question everyone has when we harvest a honey box. How much honey is in there?
Family wants to know, “Will we get some for Christmas?”
Colleagues ask, “Will you have any to sell this year?
Mr. Beekeeper asks, “How many pounds did I carry up from the bee yard?”
Mrs. Beekeeper asks, “How many jars do I need?”

One day this week found Mr. Beekeeper and Junior Beekeeper at home together. With the Star Beekeepers aligned, it was surely the day to harvest honey.

Removing the honey box

Removing the honey box

A peek through the queen excluder at the bees.

A peek through the queen excluder at the bees.

Hive D.  We took the lower brown box and kept the  top box on for a potential fall harvest.

Hive D. We took the lower brown box and kept the top box on for a potential fall harvest.

Only one honey box was harvested this time. Hive D had clearly finished filling one honey box but was still working on their second one. We leave that to them to continue to fill. Hive A, new this year and thriving, already filling two hive body boxes, received a honey box just a couple of weeks ago. We leave them to their work.
Hives B and C, who had come through winter with one hive box, have struggled to fill a second hive box. They currently have no honey boxes on them at all. Hive C had a honey box, but it was removed and given to Hive A.

Junior beekeeper examines the honey box

Junior beekeeper examines the honey box

So we harvested one honey box. In the fall we will see if we can harvest some more.

Junior Beekeeper spins the honey while his sister watches

Junior Beekeeper spins the honey while his sister watches

This was Junior Beekeeper’s first experience with spinning honey. Grandma Beekeeper has been working her arms lifting grandbabies and willingly handed the privilege of honey spinning to the Oldest Grandchild.

He also learned a physics lesson about centrifugal force. As he turns the crank, a basket containing two frames spins round and round, faster and faster the harder he cranks. The honey is pulled out of the frames to the side of the container. When he stops spinning, the honey slides to the bottom of the container. We open the valve and pour honey into the bucket. It’s just like that ride at the fair that he dislikes so much…the one where you spin and stick to the side walls while the floor drops out from beneath you. (Junior Beekeeper is more of a Tower of Terror guy.)

Straggler bee in the wax cappings a day later...right before his water ride

Straggler bee in the wax cappings a day later…right before his water ride

And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened to a lone bee who got processed with the honey. He got spun and dripped out onto the filter. Another lone bee got stuck in the cappings which were also placed on the filter to drain. He was still barely moving the next day when it was time to process the wax. Alas, he went down the drain on a “water ride.” Some people think raw honey should not be filtered, but I personally prefer my honey without dead bees in it.

Spinning the honey is a lot easier than scooping 48,000 cells with a little spoon

Spinning the honey is a lot easier than scooping 43,000 cells with a little spoon

So, how much honey is in a honey box? Time for some math.
There are 9 frames in each honey box.
Each side of each frame contains about 80 x 30 honey comb cells. That’s 2400 little cells per side…or 4800 per frame times 9 frames. That comes to 43,000 little cells filled by busy bees.

 

 

Frame filled with capped honey

Frame filled with capped honey

Or about 3 gallons.
One pound of honey equals 1 1/4 cups. We have about 48 cups. So maybe we’ll get 38 one pound jars of honey.

Maywood Honey 2014

Maywood Honey 2014: a delicate fruity blend of black locust, wild  grape, and wildflowers.

Which means Christmas gifts of honey will be liquid gold and jars for sale will have to wait until we see what we get in the fall. Or if one of the weak hives fails to make it, then we get all their honey. But who wants a hive to fail?

The Newbees Have Arrived

20140425-150027.jpg

 

It’s a brisk morning, but delightful on the porch, where I am swaddled in a blanket, sipping hot coffee. From the comfort of my porch swing and the warmth of a sunbeam, I watch as BeeMan comes and goes from the bee yard. He is getting the hive ready for the new bees.

 

More bees than you want to count!

More bees than you want to count!

Yesterday we drove out to Whitehall to pick them up. Out the lane past the horse farm, along the road past the freshly manured field–so odoriferous the farmer had to post a “sorry for the stink” sign. (He should also have offered free car de-odorizers!) North we go, past the winery, the alpaca farm, a dairy farm, a sheep farm, a cattle farm. Finally, we come to a barn by a non-descript little rancher. Beyond the barn are dozens of beehives. In the barn are hundreds of boxes of bees.

Mr. Beekeeper ordered four pounds of Russians bees. He is given four pounds of Italian bees. It was too cold down in Georgia. No Russians are ready. Are you kidding me? They’re Russian. Do they need little balaclavas to keep them warm? The BeeMan thinks the Italian bees are more aggressive and prone to robbing other hives. Still, we accept the bees and bring them home to join all the Russian bees in the yard.  Let’s hope they can peacefully co-exist.

How does one bring home four pounds of bees? In the back seat of the car. We probably should have buckled them in. The box fell over on sharp turns, so I had to hold it straight for most of the ride home.

Shoulda buckled them in!

Shoulda buckled them in!

Back home, the bees were placed in the mud room. Mr. Beekeeper was feeling under the weather, so the bees would spend the night inside rather than going straight into their hive. We checked on them before going to bed ourselves. They huddled all together, quiet in one big four pound clump. Awwww. How often do you get to see a hive of bees sleeping?

(This is sign of experienced bee keepers. The first time we had a package of bees in the house I was freaked out. Those bees had arrived via U.S. Postal Service. The post office had called at 6 a.m. to tell us to come get the bees. I spent the day at work thinking, “There are thousands of bees in my basement!” Now I watch them and say, “Awwww! Aren’t they cute?”

As the sun rides high in the sky, we don our bee gear and take the Newbees to their new home, Hive A. It doesn’t take long to dump them in and set up the sugar water feeder to get them started.

First, BeeMan sprays them with sugar water to keep them too busy snacking to bother with him.

First, BeeMan sprays them with sugar water to keep them too busy snacking to bother with him.

Next, remove the queen and put her in the hive.

Next, remove the queen and put her in the hive.

The queen and her attendants arrive in their own little box.  The other bees will eat through a sugar plug to release her into the hive.

The queen and her attendants arrive in their own little box. The other bees will eat through a sugar plug to release her into the hive.

The queen box is installed in the hive.  This will be removed once the queen is no longer in it.

The queen box is installed in the hive. This will be removed once the queen is no longer in it.

The rest of the bees are unceremoniously dumped in.

The rest of the bees are unceremoniously dumped in.

The sugar water feeder is set up to help the hive get started.  Straggler bees still in the shipping box will join the rest soon.

The sugar water feeder is set up to help the hive get started. Straggler bees still in the shipping box will join the rest soon.

A peek in the other hives...

A peek in the other hives…

We peek in the other hives. Hive D already has a honey box on and is filling the comb with nectar. Nothing capped yet. Hive C is busy building up into the second brood box. Hive B has a second brood box but is not making much progress. BeeMan has doubts about the queen. The joy of beekeeping…there is always something for him to worry about.

Hive A settles in. Mr. Beekeeper will pop down often to keep an eye on them. They arrived at a good time. The red maples have finished flowering, but today honey bees were all over the black cherry blossoms. That bodes well for a cherry harvest as well as for yummy honey!

Honey frame or brood frame?

Honey frame being filled

Happy to have 4 hives full!

Happy to have 4 hives full!

Bees alive as glaciers recede at Maywood

Let It Bee Spring--Beekeeper starts the season

Let It Bee Spring–Beekeeper starts the season

It’s sunny and positively balmy with temps in the 50’s as we trudge through the snow to get to the bees.  Some parts of the yard still measure six inches of snow.  This snow is not uniformly melting so much as it is receding, like a slow moving glacier.  Or, to think more positively towards warm beach days, like the tide going out.  Winter tide.

Down in the  bee yard, we are delighted to see three hives busy, with bees coming and going and buzzing and sunning and enjoying the day.  We have exited winter with more  bees than ever before. Red maples are budding and these bees are ready to charge into spring.

Hive D is thriving

Hive D is thriving

Tar paper comes off.  After all, tonight begins daylight savings!

Tar paper comes off. After all, tonight begins daylight savings!

Sugar water feeders go on each hive.

Sugar water feeders go on each hive.

Today’s task is to unwrap the hives from their winter protection of roofer’s tar paper.  Mr. Beekeeper also wants to set up the hive feeders.  The bees are ready to go, but there is not much for them to get to yet.  Red maples are the first flowering tree for the bees.  Fortunately, in spite of the semi-glacial look around here, the maples are waking up right on schedule. Why are humans so desperate for spring to arrive and then so surprised that it actually does?

Red maples are budding right on schedule.

Red maples are budding right on schedule.

Lids come off the hives to remove the tar paper.  We get to peek in at the bees.  They look so happy.  They buzz around us, landing on our jackets and hanging out on my camera.  Are they as happy to see us as we are to see them?

The bees don't know that they can't take selfies through the viewfinder.

The bees don’t know that they can’t take selfies through the viewfinder.

They are happy to bee with me.

They are happy to bee with me.

Little bee, don't freeze on the snow!

Little bee, don’t freeze on the snow!

The golden burr comb is a delightful contrast to the snowy ground and the emerging mucky mud of March.  Yet, here and there, single bees lie frozen on the snow.  I wonder, do they die because they landed on the snow?  Or did they land on the snow to die?  I watch one crawling slowly across its frozen landscape, slower and slower, and finally not advancing.  I lift her off the snow.  She warms up and takes flight.

Switching the top box to bottom.

Switching the top box to bottom.

Hive D, which went through winter with two boxes, is going gangbusters.  Mr. Beekeeper decides to go ahead and switch the boxes.  The top box–where the bees have been clustered all winter–gets moved to the bottom.  The bottom box gets put on top.  This will encourage the bees to build up.  Literally.  Soon, Hive D will get a honey box.  Maybe next week.

Back in the house, Beekeeper Man orders another package of bees to replace the hive we lost over the winter.

And another season of beekeeping begins.

Yay!

Golden honeycomb...a beautiful contrast to still barren looking March.

Golden honeycomb…a beautiful contrast to still barren looking March.

Bee-ing hopeful in the dead of winter

The bees are still alive!  I saw them yesterday.

Today a boatload of snow is falling… to be followed by frigid temperatures and a sub-zero wind chill.  Already, with hours of snow yet to fall, gusts of wind whip clouds of snow off the roof and swirl it around the yard.  The bees and sensible humans are tucked inside where it is warm. Yesterday, however, when the temperature soared into the low 50’s, we were all out and about.

Look closely--bees coming and going at the entrance and at the lid.  Hive A.

Click to look closely–bees coming and going at the entrance and at the lid of Hive A.  There’s a lot of bee poop in this picture too.

In Maryland, humans spent the warm day before a snowstorm stocking up on bread, milk, and toilet paper.  Quite a few also took advantage of the warmth for some exercise along the NCR bike trail.  It was a good day to be outside.  The bees also found it agreeable.  Bees don’t emerge from their hives unless the temperature is about 50.  When I stopped by for a look, the reading here was 45.  They are on a protected hill and wrapped in tarpaper, so they clearly felt safe to emerge.

Boy, did they need it!  Recent weather has been so bizarre that one day my French III class reviewed most of their weather vocabulary just by discussing local conditions in the preceding 48 hours.  We’ve had sub-zero temperatures with howling winds followed by snow and ice, sleet, and freezing rain.  We’ve had temperatures pushing 50 degrees with rain and flood warnings.  Throw in some fog and a chance of thunder.  We’ve had pretty much anything winter can throw at us. These are challenging conditions for the honeybees at Maywood.

Sunday a week ago was our first chance to venture to the bee yard since Christmas.  It’s not just the extreme cold that is worrisome, but the drastic changes in temperatures.  How well do bees handle a plunge to  minus 2 and then up to 50?  We slogged through the muddy yard to see.  The temperature was still in the 40’s so we were not expecting too much.  To our delight, Hive D was showing activity!  There were a few bees on the entrance porch of their hive and another cluster of bees up near the top of the hive, entering by the lid entrance.  We were very encouraged to see them moving about.  Hives A and B each had one bee on them.  Hive C showed no signs of activity.

Hive B.

Hive B.  Click to see the bee flying back to the hive.

Yesterday, there were bees at each hive.  Coming and going. Doing a little basking on the hive lids.  I was so encouraged by the activity at the hives that I sent Mr. Beekeeper photos at work to warm his little heart.

So what do bees do to recover from one extended stay indoors before the next one hits?  They take cleansing flights.  In other words, they go outside for a good poop.  Bees, being a clean society, do not pee or poop inside their hives.  An extended cold spell means they just have to hold it.  (Some of my students could learn a lesson from them.) Needless to say, bees like a warm winter day as much or more than we do!

Hive C.  Bees coming in for a landing after their cleansing flights.

Hive C. Bees coming in for a landing after their cleansing flights.

Today is a different story.  The recently relieved bees are huddled together to maintain a 92 degree warmth.  Mr. Beekeeper and I, wrapped in new chenille sofa throws, will snuggle by a toasty fire, secure in the knowledge that the bees are still ok and we are well-stocked with toilet paper.

(Correction:  forget the toasty fire.  We seem to be out of cut wood.  I guess we’ll snuggle to the glow of our Ipads.)

At least we have bread, milk and toilet paper.

At least we have bread, milk and toilet paper.

First frost and fingers crossed: winterizing the hive

Sunlight sparkling on the bees...a bee-utiful sight.

Sunlight sparkling on the bees…a bee-utiful sight.

The temperature has dipped low enough to zap the basil, which I did not snatch in time.  So much for making pesto.  A  more pressing issue is getting the bees ready for winter.  Saturday was a delightful day with crisp sunny weather and crunchy leaves underfoot, but it was still warm enough for the bees to be out and about.  Mr. Beekeeper had three tasks in mind:

  • put sugar patties in each hive for food and for mite control
  • put bottom boards on the hives to reduce drafts
  • insulate the hives with tar paper to keep the bees from getting too cold

We have had a 50% success rate in getting bees through the winter.  One year they were too cold and would not leave the warmth of their cluster to eat honey elsewhere in the hive and so they starved to death.  Last year, they were unable to maintain critical mass to stay warm, due most likely to a mite infestation.

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Crisco and sugar. Bees eat the sugar. Crisco masks their scent so mites have trouble finding them.

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The wax paper helps keep the patties on the frames instead of falling in them.

The mason jar is the sugar water feeder.  Giving them sugar did not make them lazy...they were busy little bees but get to store their honey for winter.

The mason jar is the sugar water feeder. Giving them sugar did not make them lazy…they were busy little bees but get to store their honey for winter.

This year we replaced all four hives.  Due to a lengthy winter in Georgia, the bees did not arrive in Maryland until the first day of summer.  They missed the abundant spring blooming season, so Beekeeper Man has been feeding them sugar water all season long.  He also started them off with sugar patties.  Sugar patties are a simple mixture of Crisco and sugar.  The bees eat the sugar but, in the process, get Crisco on them.  This supposedly masks their scent so the mites can’t find them.  As we head into winter, the sugar patties are a better way to feed than glass jars of sugar water which would freeze.

Sliding the plywood in sure beats lifting the entire hive.

Sliding the plywood in sure beats lifting the entire hive.

To help the bees stay warm, Mr. Beekeeper slides a bottom board onto the bottom of the hive which is just open screen.  This minimizes cold air rushing in.  Bee Man also wraps tar paper (the kind used for roofing) around the hive and on the top lid.  We’ve had bees survive without the tar paper and we’ve lost them from pests with the tar paper.  If nothing else, it keeps a certain beekeeper’s worry level low.  He will still fret over his “girls” all winter, but at least I won’t be hearing him moan every time it snows, “I should have wrapped the hives.”

The black tar paper will help with solar heat in the cold winter.

The black tar paper will help with solar heat in the cold winter.

A primary but unlisted task when opening the hives is always to assess how the bees are doing and to enjoy them.

Opening one hive broke open some burr comb that was attached to the lid.  And it gave me a chance to peek at the bees on some honey.

Burr comb...the bees don't always keep their honeycombs in the frames.

Burr comb…the bees don’t always keep their honeycombs in the frames.

CIMG7960

Assassin bugGoing in the hive also means checking for pests.  One was found outside of a hive–an assassin bug.  Assassin bugs are considered a beneficial bug in the garden and they don’t thrive in numbers to make them a danger to the hive, but this hapless bee sure did not benefit from the bug at her doorstep.  The assassin bug inserts a paralyzing enzyme into the victim and then sucks the “juice” out of it.  The assassin bug normally hangs around flowering plants where nectar loving insects hang out.  With the first frost killing off the flowers but warm weather keeping the bugs alive, this guy was running out of places to hang out.

A more nefarious pest was found in the third hive–small hive beetles.  But that will require some research and another post.

Small hive beetles can ruin a colony.  We'll have to get on this.  Stay tuned.

Small hive beetles can ruin a colony. We’ll have to get on this. Stay tuned.

BSI: Bee Scene Investigator

(Note and disclaimer:  The following post might actually contain factual information relevant to beekeepers.)

The bee scene to be investigated

The bee scene to be investigated

All the bees are dead and I want to know why.  I want to autopsy the bees.  Technically, since they are not human  beings, I want to dissect the bees.  But Mr. Beekeeper husband is feeling really sad about these bees.  He feels like he failed to take care of his girls.  We, therefore, are treating his loss with all due respect.  Autopsies are in order.

I  personally can’t wait to dissect…I mean, autopsy…the bees.  It takes me back to the dissection unit of my 10th grade biology class.  I had really squeamish lab partners, so I ended up pretty good at dissecting by the end of the unit.   By the time we got to the pithed frog I felt like I was doing surgery.  It was cool, even though the frog died.

John doesn’t quite share my enthusiasm.  While I set up my equipment, he gets out the build-your-own-volcano kit that Harper got for Christmas.  And he and Harper later go feed a pinkie mouse to the snake.  That apparently is more interestsing than cutting open honeybees.   Nevertheless, John brings a frame containing dead bees up from the basement.

Kathy Harp, BSI

Kathy Harp, BSI

Although the bright flourescent light in the basement is better for microscope work than the warm cozy sleep-inducing glow in the log-framed kitchen, it’s cold in the basement.  So, once again, the kitchen becomes the staging area.  I gather my supplies:

microscope (We need 20x-50x.   The one we have says 1x-2x but John swears it’s 100-200 because he researched the model number when he bought it–at work–from General Electric.)

cork (Plenty of those at our house!  We have a whole jar of wine bottle corks saved for what?  My sister-in-law uses hers to anchor pillar candles in sconces.  I am using mine to anchor honeybees with pins.)

pins (Jos A Bank still pins men’s dress shirts, so I have a bunch of pins.  It’s not like I ever use them for sewing.)

razor blade (No, I do not take apart a safety razor.  John actually has blades in his shop.)

The Beekeeper's Bible (Richard Jones)

The Beekeeper’s Bible (Richard Jones & Sharon Sweeny-Lynch)

Now it is time to actually dissect the bee.  Umm…what am I supposed to do exactly?  It was Richard Jones & Sharon Sweeney-Lynch’s The Beekeeper’s Bible (Stewart, Tabori & Chang,  2011) that put this idea in my head in the first place.  It tells me to pin the bee onto the cork at an angle for better viewing and then cut off the bee’s head and thoracic collar.  This requires a little more research because The Beekeeper’s Bible does not provide me with critical information, like how the heck one finds the thoracic collar of a bee.

Dave Cushman’s instructions provide some clarity.                                        (http://www.dave-cushman.net/bee/acarine_diagnosis.html)

This technique can also be used for interrogating the bees.  The flashlight is particularly effective.

This technique can also be used for interrogating the bees. The flashlight is particularly effective.

Oh, the cork is cut at an angle.  The bee is pinned to the cork.  The cut is made between the first and second sets of legs.  The thoracic collar, which is to be pealed off with tweezers, is nicely highlighted in red.

This is where French teaching and beekeeping intersect--the guillotine.

This is where French teaching and beekeeping intersect–the guillotine.

Minor problem.  The thoracic collars of my bees are not highlighted in red.  And, second minor problem, the tweezers are not official dissecting forceps and are a little clumsy to work with.  So, even if I think I know where the thoracic collar is, trying to remove it to get a better look at trachea pretty much rips the bee apart.  Not that I have any lack of bees to experiment with.  I decide, for the sake of my own sanity, to forego the removal of the thoracic collar and just see what I can see.

And just what am I supposed to see?  I  have no idea.  Dave Cushman has some great pictures, but they are black and white illustrations.   I end up at youtube.  Jamie Ellis’ video is very helpful. http://entnemdept.ifas.ufl.edu/afbee/resources/Trachaelmites.shtml

I really have no idea what I'm showing you here.

I really have no idea what I’m showing you here.

Here I actually see video images of what healthy bee insides look like.  Our bees don’t look anything Dr. Ellis’ bees.  I’m thinking maybe our bees have been dead just a little too long.  Either the autopsies are strongly conclusive of mite destruction or they are completely inconclusive of anything.  I lean toward the latter.

Do stale bee bodies mean the end of our investigation?  Not at all.  The presentation of bees in the hive tells us something.  The bees are not as clumped together as we would have expected.  That could be symptomatic of erratic behavior induced  by tracheal mites.  More importantly, we think back to the behaviors of the hives since last spring.

Hive D never did get off to a good start.  It never thrived and was the first hive to die in the fall.  John had thought that it was a problem with weak queens and so he requeened some of the hives.  He didn’t realize that the weakness of the hive in the spring could also have been due to tracheal mites.   Requeening was not a bad idea.  However, according to Dr. Ellis’ report, it would have been more successful with queens who were resistant to tracheal mites.  This supports our current thinking of buying Minnesota Hygienics in the spring.

Do these wings look weird to you?

Do these wings look weird to you?

There is one really obvious symptom of tracheal mites that we have observed but were clueless as to its significance:  bees walking around the beeyard.  More specifically, bees with odd wings walking around the beeyard.  Bees don’t walk places.  They fly.  Walking bees, particularly if they walk up a blade of grass and are unable to take off in flight, are not normal.  We found this phenomenon fascinating.  In hindsight, those are the bees I should have been dissecting.  Those were the bees afflicted with tracheal mites.  Instead, we watched doomed bees wander around on the ground while we sipped chardonnay and beer, oblivious to the knowledge that the doomed bees’ sisters were infected as well.

Oh, how callous we were!  Oh, how expensive a lesson we learned.   We’re like detectives who went out for a drink with the prime suspect and let him get away. And now there are bee bodies everywhere.  Really.  John dropped a few coming and going to the basement.  He thinks he picked them all up, but he didn’t.  The evidence speaks for itself.

Evidence

Evidence