Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Visit to Rhode Island

As mentioned before, I am managing a couple of hives for a fellow in Sutton, MA. I've been trying to come up with a name for the hives so I can properly distinguish them when discussing them. He has an existing hive, and we are going to put in a new hive. So I've decided to call them Sutton Hive 1 (the existing hive) and Sutton Hive 2 (the new one). I know, not creative, but oh well (when growing up we had a cat who had kitten, and 3 of them were beige. We named them Beige 1, Beige 2, and Beige 3).

Since one of the Sutton hives was a dead-out from last year, we wanted to get a replacement. The quickest way is to get a package of bees. I found a guy in Rhode Island who had a spare package, so on Saturday Michael and I went on a road trip to Warwick, RI. We also took Flat Stanley (for a school project of a friend of ours). Here is a picture of the packages waiting for pickup:

At roughly 10,000 bees per package, he must have had about a million bees here. Mind-boggling!

Here's Michael (and Flat Stanley) with my one package back home:

Jacob also spent some time contemplating that box of buzzing:

You can see the buzzing bees in this video:

Installing the bees later in the afternoon went without a hitch. The owner was around when I did the hiving, and he was very fascinated. There is a part of the process where you shake out the 10,000 bees. Another beekeeper likened it to shaking out Coco-Puffs (I don't know why, but that gave me a chuckle):

We added some sugar syrup on top to feed the bees. After putting everything back together, here's what the bee yard looks like with the new Hive 2:

Hive 1 is doing strong as well:

I went through but didn't see any young eggs where I could tell if the queen is below or above the excluder. I'll check it later. I am terrible at finding the queen, unless she is marked!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Resourceful Bees!

As mentioned previously, I brought back the parts of a dead-out hive on Saturday. The top honey super had a bunch of black ants in it, so instead of putting it in my garage with the rest of the equipment (where the ants could get into the house - yuck!) I set it outside the garage door at the front of the house.

Well, Monday at work I get a call from my wife telling me that there were a bunch of bees coming and going from that super like it was a smorgasbord! It turns out that my bees from the backyard discovered that super, and it still had honey in it (and crystallized honey). When I got home I watched, and the bees would take off out of the buffet and zip around the side of the house back to the hives!

This is my first experience with any kind of surplus beekeeping equipment, so all of you experienced beekeepers are probably grinning knowingly at my mishap. You can't leave any old equipment laying around if it has any honey in it. The bees will find it!

That evening after the bees had gone in, I moved the super out to the backyard for them to feast on. But for the next 3 or 4 days there were always a few bees sniffing around the old location.

I took a video of the bees and their buffet:

Since I had the other brood boxes (with lots of frames of honey!) in the garage, I had to warn my wife not to open the door or the bees would "find" that. I don't mind bees dining in the outdoors, but I draw the line when it is in my garage.

In fact, when time came to take the deeps over to the other location (where I let those bees clean them out), by the time I had them loaded in my pickup truck, there were a few bees who had already found them!

Here's a picture of the bees and the supers for clean out:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Double Trouble

I often cruise Craigslist looking for beekeeping items (really!), and saw this post: "Honey Bee Keeper for two hives - $1"

It turns out a guy a couple of towns over has 2 beehives for his large garden. A beekeeper was managing them for him, but last fall the beekeeper passed away (he was a member of my bee club), and the hives went all fall/winter/early spring unattended. One hive was active, and the other was dead.

So I agreed to help him out by managing his hives. He will pay for any equipment, etc. needed. This arrangement also provides me a secondary site and source of bees to help my bees along (for splits, etc).

I went over to his house last week and brought back the dead hive. Since it hadn't been managed, the frames were very much coated with propolis:

and the comb on the frames was very tough and black:

That in and of itself is not a problem, but as comb ages, it get smaller (layers and layers of bee cocoons) and may accumulate pesticides. So it's good to swap it out. This comb needs to be swapped out. I spent an hour or so this weekend scraping and inspecting.

Anyway, inside the top super of the dead hive was classic evidence of starvation:

You see the (dead) cluster with a few head-first bees in the comb.

It's a shame - this hive didn't have to die. In the lower brood boxes I found a ton of honey (and uncapped nectar):

The honey super also had a couple of frames of honey. With a little bit of care and manipulation, this hive could have survived.

On Tuesday I went out and inspected the single good hive. It is located on a slight ridge - here's a picture (note the empty space to the left where the other hive was):

You can see that the hive consists of 2 deep supers, and 2 honey supers. There is not a queen excluder between the deeps and the honey supers (which is normal for the winter configuration), but since the hive hasn't been maintained, the queen had surely gotten up in the top and laid eggs (which is not what you want).

Boy, that hive was packed with bees! The bees had built a lot of brace comb in between the vertical frames (mostly for drone comb), and unfortunately I had to separate it when I did my inspection. Here's what the lower super looked like:

There are quite a few bees on top, and that was after I smoked them and a bunch went down. They were quite upset at being inspected, head-butting me and I had to use a bit more smoke to keep them calm.

I didn't see the queen (she probably is not marked), so I don't know if she was in the honey supers or in the lower boxes. I want her down so I can put the queen excluder in between, so that I can clear out the honey supers of babies and make it ready for honey (with the queen below, the brood in the top boxes will be born and she can't lay any eggs up there any more). I went ahead and put in the excluder anyway. I'll check back in a week or two, and if I am lucky, I'll see eggs in the lower boxes (which means she was down below). If there are eggs on top, I only have a couple of boxes to look through to find her.

Note that there are drones in the upper box. If I slap on the excluder, they can't get through either and that is a problem. One solution is to provide an upper entrance to the hive by sliding offset the upper supers (which I did). I also added one of my honey supers just in case the bees need it. Here's the way I left the hive:

Note the bees hanging out at the edge of the entrance - they were still mad at me for disturbing them!

Regarding the second hive, it looks like I'm going to have to get a package to get that hive up and running. It's the quickest and easiest way. Now finding someone who has packages may be a challenge - usually you place your order in January.

Inspection 4-20-10

Before I get to the inspection, I wanted to show something I saw back on the 17th. It was a rainy day, and the bees weren't out, but I saw this on their front porch:

I have seen dead bees before, but they are usually shriveled up corpses that the undertaker bees remove. These look like bees that just died.

I asked about this on BeeSource and a couple of people said it looked like the bees got poisoned by some pesticide. That's possible - there has been a lot of yard work going on in the neighborhood, and wouldn't put it past that something was used that could harm the bees. I lifted up the lid on top and saw plenty of bees, so I don't think anything too drastic happened to the hive. In fact, the next evening the porch was perfectly clean, as if nothing happened.

Anyway, on to the inspection... Tuesday I took a day off to get some of my chores done, and since it was in the mid to upper 60's it was a perfect day to inspect the hive.

Green Hive

When the weather is warm, this hive sees a lot of activity. The queen was doing her thing, as evidenced by this frame:

I don't know if you can tell, but there are a good number of drone bees on this frame (look for bees with squat square butts, and big eyes that wrap around the top of their heads). Also note along the bottom the extra brace comb which is being used for drone cells.

I also got lucky and saw the queen:

She's standing on the wooden edge in the middle of the picture.

On the 11th I added a honey super in the off chance a nectar flow would occur, and I could catch some honey. All I have are plastic frames which are not drawn out into comb yet. Last year the bees did nothing with those frames. I heard that if you "prime" the super by putting a couple of drawn-out frames in it, the bees will figure out what to do. So I purchased a couple of frames from a fellow beekeeper. One of those frames had crystallized honey still in it. He said, just slap it on the hives - the bees will clean it out. Well, sure enough, when I checked it Tuesday I couldn't tell it apart from the other frame which was empty. Unfortunately, they haven't even begun to fill any honey in the super. A quick e-mail to another beekeeping friend tell me that the main nectar flow occurred last year at the end of May / beginning of June, so I may be a little premature. I had such a bad honey experience last year I don't want to miss it this year!

Brown Hive

The brown hive continues to struggle. Here's what it looked like when I popped the top:

There are bees in the hive, but not many. And not a single capped cell any more (they were all born). There was a queen cell a few weeks ago, but no sign today. I brought over a frame of eggs and larvae from the Green hive; we'll see if this hive makes a queen from it. I'll check it in a week or so. I may end up buying a queen.

So, one hive doing well, and one struggling.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Happy One Year Bee-versary!!!

It was a year ago today that I hived my first package of bees. Happy bee-versary to me (and the bees!).
A lot has happened during my beekeeping adventures. I thought it would be fun to have a retrospective post of some of those experiences.

In addition to all of the activity at the hives, I have been to a bunch of Worcester County Beekeeper Association club meetings, seminars, inspections etc. and have met wonderful people who have been very helpful.

This blog has over 90 posts documenting my many adventures, and has generated many comments and questions, and I learn a lot from each of you who comments (and hopefully I have been able to share information to those of you who don't comment, but who read). The Internet forums at BeeSource have also been an invaluable source of information and advice, as have the various Facebook groups and friends.

From the bottom of my heart I want to thank you for helping me in this little adventure. It has been a fun learning experience, and in our conversations if I come across as overly enthusiastic, you have my apologies (but not too much!).

I'll leave you with the final Calvin and Hobbes comic strip for my final thought:

I know I will have more fun to come, and together it will be an adventure. Here's to a prosperous 2nd beekeeping year!!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Are You Smarter Than A ...

One of the shows we like to watch at home is "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" We marvel at how people can be stumped by such simple questions.

Well, at the hives, apparently I am a contestant in:

Are You Smarter Than A Queen Bee?

I went out this afternoon to visit the "queenless" green hive, to make double-dog sure and see how it was doing. Last week I would have given away one of my kids (only the cranky one, though) on a sure bet that the hive had no queen. Well, I looked in the lower box, and saw some uncapped brood, and hey, it actually looked younger than it did on Wednesday. What?!?

I then pulled some frames on the top box, and saw even younger larvae, at about 4 days old. I looked on a few more frames, and lo and behold, I saw Her Majesty on a frame! It was the same marked (with a green dot) queen. Boy, has she been sneaky! She must be very good at hiding from me, as on Wednesday I went frame by frame looking for her. I guess she decided to stop laying for a while, but now it looks like she is back at it. I didn't go frame by frame today, but she is back in the top box and laying like a son-of-a-gun. Keep going, baby!

Since that hive looks to be doing well, I decided to put on a honey super. Hope springs eternal, so they say!!

I also checked out the brown hive, and that one is still queenless. I saw the queen cell, and it looked like it may have hatched, but I didn't want to go poking around too much. I'll give the brown hive some more time to see if she makes her own queen. If not, at least the green hive is a source of eggs I could move over if I need to.

It's a good thing I am not really in charge with these hives - I'd make a bungle of it for sure!!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Drinking Bees...

Bees like all creatures need water to survive. Water is consumed as part of their eating process, and also used to cool the hive in the summer (they regurgitate water and then evaporate it with their wings, thus cooling the hive).

As a beekeeper, you need to make sure there is a steady source of water for the bees. Putting hives near a natural source of water like a creek is best. I know a beekeeper who put a little decorative fountain right near his hives for the bees to drink. If you don't provide water, the bees will find it whether it's where you want them to or not. Many a beekeeper has been upset that the bees found water in their neighbor's swimming pool (much to the dismay of the neighbor).

So to prevent problems, I put up a bucket of water near the hive. You can see it here on the right of the picture:

In the bucket I put a lot of wood and sticks, as the bees need something to stand on in order to drink (bees have drowned in just a plain open water source). Last year I had a problem where my bees liked my neighbor's wood bucket and air conditioner condensation better!

Today the temperature was about 60, and I went out back to look at the hive. I was surprised at all the activity at my water bucket - there were dozens of bees drinking, and many coming and going. With the recent rains, the water is nice and "natural" (meaning kind of gross) - just like the bees like. Here's a video of the activity:

I also took some pictures, some closeups of the bees. Click them to see closer!

I Don't Think I Like Plastic...

One of the recurring themes of discussion / contention among beekeepers is not "paper vs. plastic" but instead "plastic vs. wax."

In the "olden days" the only option for a bee hive frame was to have a beeswax foundation upon which the bees build out their comb. In order to give some strength to the foundation, there are wires embedded in the wax (the wax comes with vertical wires, and beekeepers themselves have to add the horizontal wires). Here's a picture of wax foundation with the embedded vertical wires:

(picture from Saul Creek Apiary webpage)

While this is what is the most similar to the bee's natural environment, it is very labor intensive to put together a frame. It involves a 12V transformer to embed the horizontal wires in the wax. See an example of the steps you have to follow here and here (you have to do both sets of steps).

As a labor (and therefore cost) savings measure, people have come up with a plastic sheet, embossed with the necessary honeycomb pattern, that they then coat with a layer of wax. This sheet is stiff enough that you don't need any wires - you just snap it in the slots of the frame. They've even gone one farther - made a one piece frame/foundation combination out of plastic, and coated it with wax. One benefit of the plastic foundation is that it can come in black, which makes it easy to see the white eggs. Another benefit is when you spin frames, you have less to worry about the frame coming apart ("blowing out") due to the stresses of the extraction (since the foundation is plastic and not fragile wax).

Here's where the controversy comes in. There are beekeepers that swear up and down that the bees don't take to the plastic foundation as well as the wax. Others say they have no problems.

When I bought my hives, they came with wooden frames and plastic foundation., My experiences have been not so positive. I feel that last year I had a problem where the bees stripped off the wax from the plastic frame and used it elsewhere. After the wax is gone, the bees won't build on the bare plastic. Here's a picture of one of my frames from last year - I have a few like this, and others are completely bare:

The bees wouldn't build any more comb than you see here.

To try to salvage these frames, last week I bought a brick of beeswax. I melted some (and boy did the kitchen smell yummy!) and used a foam paint brush to brush on some more wax onto the plastic foundation. Here are the results:

I also bought some new frames with wired wax foundation. It'll take some work to assemble them, but I want to try them out in the hive to do some scientific comparisons as to how well the bees draw out the comb.

It's important to note that after the bees have drawn out the comb, there isn't any difference between the plastic and wax foundation. The bees work both just the same.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Dilemma: 2 Hives Queenless; 1 with 2 Queen Cells...

It's just the beginning of the 2010 beekeeping season, and already I've come upon my first problem.

Last Saturday during the inspection I did not see a queen in either hive, nor did I see any eggs. I was not sure I eyeballed every frame, so I wanted to do a specific check for the queen. I did that, and to my chagrin, there was no evidence of a queen, either in person or by seeing eggs. I know that a little over two weeks ago, I saw the queen in the green hive. I have no idea where she could have gone. The brown hive could have been queenless 2 weeks ago; I wasn't sure.

When I inspected the brown hive, the top box had a good deal of honey and pollen, and this is what I saw on the bottom box:

The brown and white thing is part of a pollen patty that they haven't touched in over a month, so I removed it and the one from the green hive as well. Anyway, you can get an idea for how many bees you have by looking at the cluster of bees on the top of the bars. They will be located over the frames with the brood. So you can assume there are about 3 frames with brood on them.

Well, that is what I found. I only saw about 4 sides of frames with brood in them. It was all mature brood, capped. Here's a picture:

You can see that there isn't much capped brood left - it makes sense given that there hasn't been a queen there to re-fill the empty comb with new eggs.

However, I was able to discover something a little encouraging: two queen cells! These are located in the middle of the frame, so they are called "supercedure" or emergency cells. They would build queen cells there if they had an unexpected need to do so (as compared to swarm cells, which are located along the bottom of the frames). Here are the pictures of the cells:

The queen cell is obvious in the first picture - it's right in the center (looks like a shell peanut texture). On the second picture it's a little harder to see - it's actually about 3 holes down right below the top bar in the center. This queen cell isn't as large as the other one, and doesn't hang down as much. I question whether or not it is a good one. But the first cell looks good.

The green hive showed a lot more activity at the hive entrance than the brown hive. Here's a shot of the bottom box (again, the top box had mostly pollen and honey):

You can see the larger "footprint" (or would it be "beeprint") of the cluster - there are a lot more bees here. But I only saw about 6 sides of frames with brood, like this:

One difference between this frame and the ones from the brown hive is that this frame has some brood which are uncapped - not old enough to be capped yet. The brown frame had brood all capped. That tells me that this hive had a queen no earlier than 8 days ago, but not later than 3 days (due to the lack of eggs).

I saw the queen on March 21st, but didn't see her or any eggs on April 3rd. So somewhere between March 31st and April 3rd she went missing.

So here's my dilemma: what to do? Here's what I see are my options:

For the brown hive:
  1. Let the queen in the brown hive hatch, mate, and start laying. According to Michael Bush's excellent website, the queen should start laying eggs in no more than 20 days from today.
  2. Get a mated queen and install her (removing the queen cells)
The problem here is that it is way too early in the season to get a mated queen locally. If I ordered one, chances are the queen cell(s) would have hatched by then and I may have problems finding her, etc. So I am pretty much resigned to letting this queen hatch. Twenty days isn't too bad.

For the green hive:
  1. Try to transplant one of the queen cells from the brown hive, and let these bees raise the queen. Again, you would have the 20 day wait for new eggs.
  2. Get a mated queen.
  3. Wait for the brown hive to start laying well, and transplant a frame of newly laid eggs to the green hive, and let them make a queen. This will take longer - the 20 days for the brown hive queen; plus a couple of weeks of laying to get some good patterns; plus another 28 days (+/- 5) to make and hatch and mate a new queen. We are looking at over a month.
I have pretty much convinced myself out of #1 - the top queen cell looks kind of stunted, so it may not be good. Plus, that frame is a plastic foundation, so I can't just cut through the comb to get the cell. I'd have to carefully scrape it up and I'd be afraid of damaging it. Getting a new queen is still too early. So I'm resigned to being queenless for a while...

If anyone has any suggestions, please feel free to let me know.

In other hive maintenance news, I took off all of the feeding jars. The brown hive had stopped taking syrup, and there are plenty of flowers blooming (plus both hives had ample stores already). I saw some dandelions blooming today, so I'll probably throw on a honey super to give them more room to place honey (in the off chance there will be some for me).

Here are the hives today:

Life sure isn't dull!!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

More Bees? Sort of...

I frequent an on-line forum for beekeepers, and have learned a ton of information. There is a section of the forum dedicated to "alternate polinators" and one of the insects they discuss often is the Mason Bee.

The Mason Bee is a solitary bee, and you can't really keep a beehive of mason bees, but you can set out nesting boxes and maybe a female mason bee will take up residence.

There is a website called Dave's Bees where Dave discusses mason bees, and shows how to make a mason bee nest block. Here is the video he put together:

That looks like the level of complexity that I can handle! I had the 2x6 that I needed. Unfortunately, I didn't have the long drill bits. Lowes and Home Depot wanted around $16 for a single bit the size I needed. So I went to the place where I go when I want a deal - eBay! I found on eBay a set of 7 long drill bits for less than the single bit at Lowes. They came Friday, so I spent some time drilling the wood.

Here are the 2 pieces of wood I drilled for the nest box:

I deviated from Dave's plans a little, by staggering the holes so I can fit more in. I judged this to be OK, since other mason bee nests have tubes a lot closer together.

I needed to make some kind of a roof to keep the rain off, so I pulled out a scrap 1x4 and whipped this up:

Here's the mason bee nesting blocks in the enclosure:

I am told that all I need to do is put up the block with the holes facing south, so here it is attached to my back deck:

We'll see in the fall if any mason bees find it a good place to nest!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Lethargic Bees?

The weather is a nice 65 degrees. At noon I took a look outside and saw lots of activity on the green hive, but very little activity on the brown hive. The bees looked very lethargic. Here's a video that I took:

Can anyone shed some insight as to why the bees are acting this way?
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