Thursday, May 26, 2011

Cleanup/Fixup day!

Last Saturday was a gorgeous day. The weather was very mild, and the sun actually came out!
Over the winter I had accumulated beekeeping equipment and parts in my garage, since three of the 5 hives died. I needed to do some cleaning, arranging, organizing, fixing, etc. to make things fit better.

Two of the supers were destined for the Sutton hive (which I put on today; see last post). But I still had another hive's worth of parts (and more) to deal with. I also had some repairs to make to various pieces of equipment.

I took all of the equipment out of the garage and stacked it along my front walkway while I checked out what needed cleaning, fixing, etc. Here's part of the stash:

Over a year ago, while I was inspecting one of the backyard hives, a piece of one of the frames split off. It was the piece which assures proper spacing between each of the frames. Without that extra piece jutting out, the frame would get too close to the adjacent one and squish bees (when working in the hive, you often use your frame tool to pry the groups of frames and squeeze them together). I was able to move the frame to the outside of the group of frames, but needed to wait until the bees emptied the frame before I could fix it.

Well this spring I noticed that the bees had eaten all of the honey out of the frame, so I removed it to fix it. Below is my gluing a replacement piece of wood to the frame:

You may ask, why bother? Well, that was a beautiful frame of drawn comb, which is like gold! So I wanted to salvage the frame if possible.

I also had some unpainted bodies I made late last year, and took advantage of the good weather to paint them:

So now everything sits nicely stacked in the corner of my garage (after I gave away a broken push lawnmower that was previously taking up that space).

Sutton Hi-Rise...

I've been in some training classes for work for the past three days, and today (the final day) the class ended a little early. I thought it might, so this morning I put the two upper brood chambers for the Sutton hives in my pickup truck to take to work; I was planning on stopping over to the Sutton hives if there were time.

Well, there was time, so off I go. As I was driving there after work, I realized I left my smoker at home!! But I knew I was going to simply give the hives a quick glance, and put on the super, so a lack of smoke wouldn't be too bad.

The temperature was in the mid 70's so the bees were out and about:

I popped off the outer and inner cover, and saw good numbers of bees on the tops of the frames:

When adding an upper chamber, I always pull one frame of bees and larvae from the bottom box and put it in the upper chamber, to give the bees a clue that they should use this chamber too. The frames I added to both hives were fully drawn, so the bees can occupy them immediately. Here's a good example of one of the frames:

This frame shows a good brood pattern (center), surrounded by pollen, then surrounded by what would normally be honey, but it looks like the bees had eaten it (maybe due to the rain). Another frame had a lot of nectar in it, so I am not worried about their food condition.

I also tilted up each of the bottom boxes checking for queen cells or cups; I saw neither on either hive, so that is good. With these new brood chambers the bees will be able to expand all they want!

When I got back home, I went out by the backyard hives. When the weather is this nice, I like to go out back and just watch all the industrious activity. Today the bees were very busy! Take a look:

Saturday, May 21, 2011

If you build it, they will come...

(this is a long blog post with many pictures, so enjoy!)

One of the things that I really like about the hobby of beekeeping is that you can be personally involved in as much or as little of the creation of the hive components as you want. If you don't want to (or can't) deal with any woodworking, you can purchase everything fully assembled, and even painted, ready to use. But you pay a premium for that. Or you can go half way, getting the items pre-cut, but unassembled. You assemble the parts; nail, glue, and paint; then you are set. This is what most people do (myself included). But you still have to pay for shipping costs (wood is heavy). Then there are those who cut and build everything from scratch.

Some items just don't make sense to create from scratch - like the frames. There are many intricate cuts needed to build a frame, and they are not that expensive (a little over $1.00 in quantity), so the time/value isn't there. But then there are the simple items, such as a hive body. It's basically 4 pieces of wood nailed/glued into a topless and bottomless box. I have made these (although I can't do the fancy box joints; mine are just rabbet joints or simpler) with good success.

As I've mentioned previously, I am not a woodworker. I don't have a shop, and have the basic tools. Every time I want to do anything, I have to pull out my wife's van and take over the garage for a while (and my wife is very patient with me on this).

But as I contemplated raising queens this year, I was reading about queen castles. A queen castle is a special hive body which is divided into 3 (or 4) sections, each with their own entrances. Basically it's equivalent to 3 or 4 nuc boxes attached together. Sure, I could buy one on-line, but I wanted to try something different.

Beekeepers tend to like to experiment, and that includes making modifications to standard equipment. So I wanted to try to "improve" the queen castle in the following ways:
  • More space below the frames - one complaint I have with a couple of the all-in-one nuc boxes I have is that there isn't a lot of space below the frame. If I have a frame with a queen cell hanging off the bottom (as is often the case for swarm cells), it can be damaged when I put it in the nuc.
  • Adjustable space above the frames - when you make a nuc, you often have to feed pollen patties to help the nurse bees along. A pollen patty won't fit in the regular bee space (3/8") on the top of a standard nuc, so I wanted more
  • Able to easily feed syrup - I want to be able to put a jar of feed above each of the sections.
So I decided to take what is basically a 10-frame deep body design and make it into three 3-frame nucs for a queen castle. The dividers I will put between the sections don't add up to an entire frame width, so there is plenty of room in each section for the 3 frames (or 2 frames + a frame feeder).

I started by measuring the inner dimensions of one of my deep hive bodies, and added 1/2" on the bottom (for the extra space for queen cells hanging down) and 3/4" above the bars (for the pollen patty). I decided to use 3/8" plywood for most of the box, which is why I focused on the inner dimensions of the brood chamber (normal wood used for hive bodies is 3/4" thick). I also decided to not have to rabbet any of the plywood; but instead I would overlap pieces of plywood for the frame rests (a technique currently being used for plywood-based nuc boxes on Beesource).

I started off with my big sheet of plywood, and transferred my measurements to it. You can't see it, but the plywood is sitting on a couple of garbage cans in my driveway (since I have no shop):

The other week I had an old broken down dresser I demolished (and burned a lot of it in my firepit - Mmmm s'mores!). I saved parts of it for re-use, like the drawer bottoms. The bottoms were made out of the same material as pegboard boards, and it was thin and stiff. I had an idea those pieces would work great for the dividers in the queen castle.

Here you can see the slots I cut for the dividers:

You can also see that the front and back ends (where the frames rest) were cut lower, and then I attached another piece of plywood on the outside to complete the box:

You can also see above that the plywood was very "knotty" on the non-good side. I decided to give the bees the smooth side, and left the crappy side on the outside. I'm just going to paint it anyway, and we aren't going for looks (plus, the bees don't care).

Another modification I made to the standard queen castle design was to add some mini landing boards for each entrance. You can see them here on the bottom board:

Here is the queen castle with the bottom board and side pieces attached. You can see that the frame rests are extra deep. My modified top covers (below) will account for that space:

Vent holes are drilled, and they will be covered with 8-count metal mesh inside:

Here is a shot of the dividers. They go all the way to the bottom of the box, and also block on the frame rest:

Here is a shot of one of the modified inner covers. You can see it's a piece of 1" board (which is really 3/4" in thickness) attached to the plywood piece. The 1" board fits inside the rim of the castle:

With the inner covers in this position, there is proper bee space on top of the frames:

With the inner covers in this position (flipped over), there is an extra 3/4" on top of the frames, perfect for a pollen patty:

Here's the top cover I made:

I painted the castle with some white outdoor paint I bought on sale. I learned that bees orient by position of the hive, but also by color and patterns. So I painted a different color/pattern on each of the 3 sides:

So now I have a queen castle ready if/when I decide to raise some queens!

Since I had the tools out already for the queen castle, I decided to make another useful piece of beekeeping equipment: a Snelgrove board. This is basically a hive divider with a screen on each side (so the heat can be shared). Then on each of the 4 edges (on both sides) you build closeable bee doors. Here are the plans I followed (the link is to a PDF file), and it was very easy.

I'm not going to go into detail as to how the board is used - you can read about it in this very detailed slide presentation.

So here's the final item:

No Honey, Sonny...

The past week+ we have had a lot of cold drizzly rain - definitely note "bee" weather. My wife reported the last couple of days when the weather was nice, the bees were falling all over themselves to get out and go foraging. So I (silly me) was getting my hopes up to see some good nectar/honey collection in the upper super(s).

Today before lunch it was nice and sunny and around 72, so I decided to do a little inspection of the backyard hive. I also wanted to make sure nobody was poised to swarm (you'll recall a couple of years ago about this time, after a protracted period of rain, the brown hive swarmed).

The Brown Hive

Like a kid on Christmas morning, I anxiously cracked open the top cover of the Brown hive, and peeked into the honey super, to find... nothing. No nectar, no honey - just bees. They had not put anything up above for storage.

Continuing the inspection, I saw some brood in the lower chamber, but it wasn't covering the frame well like you'd like to see:

Is this a queen who isn't doing well in her job?

But when I got to the upper chamber, I saw good things:

And I saw the queen herself. Look for the white dot:

I was satisfied with what I saw - lots of brood, and even some young larvae (look closely at the bottom left portion of the first picture above). I did see a few queen cups along the bottom of some of the frames, but they were bone dry, and sometimes bees just do that.

The Pink Hive

Moving on to the pink hive, I was wondering if the honey super would be any different. Nope, exactly the same. Plenty of bees, but bone dry...

In both hives I started inspecting with the bottom brood box. This hive had a better amount of brood present in the bottom. Take a look:

There was a frame with a good example of young larvae, and eggs. The second and third pictures are closeups, and you can see the eggs (thanks to the black foundation):

And this is all in the lower box. Moving on to the upper chamber, I was amused at the row of bee faces looking up at me in between the frames:

The queen was busy in the upper chamber as well:


I saw something on that frame (above) which bothered me. Here's a (somewhat fuzzy - sorry) closeup of one of the bees:

You'll notice that the bee has some deformed wings. This is called "deformed wing virus" and is a sign of a Varroa Mite problem. I'll do a mite check next time to see how bad it is. But some of those frames of brood are just pretty!

So I was thinking of why the bees aren't bring in on honey. Bees are girls, and girls like to have color coordinated things, and I realized the hives didn't have matching colors. I fixed that!

So now girls, get to work! :-)

I'll probably go out to Sutton to check those hives later today...

Monday, May 9, 2011

Super Up!

Things are really blooming, so I decided to add supers to my backyard hives. Not exactly the most exciting of operations:
  1. Give 'em a little smoke
  2. Remove the inner cover
  3. Add a queen excluder
  4. Add the medium super
I sprayed some of the frames of the super with sugar water, which in theory encourages the bees to use the super (I have a mix of drawn comb and undrawn foundation).

I also did a quick "tilt check" - this is where you tilt up the upper brood chamber and look in between them, looking for swarm cells. You do a tilt check when you can't do a full inspection - at least you will be able to see swarm preparations. In my hives, I didn't see any swarm cells - I saw a queen cup on one of the frames on the brown hive. But it was empty. But I did notice the upper chamber of the pink hive is very heavy - probably lots of nectar/honey. If it gets too full, I may have to spin out a frame or two (with my new extractor! yay!) to give the queen some more room.

So here's how we look now:

(Oops! I just noticed that I put the brown super on the pink hive, and vice versa! Good thing bees aren't too picky!)

There's still an empty spot on my stand; we'll see if the bees decide I need to create a new hive (if they want to swarm); or I can make one myself.

Sutton Check

Last Sunday I hived two packages in Sutton. On Saturday I went out to make sure the queen was released. Every once in a while a package will abscond (just up and leave) after hiving, and while it is rare, I didn't want to discover that in Sutton.

When I got to the hives, I saw some good activity at both hives - good news; they are still there! I needed to take out the queen cages and put in the 10th frame (check here last week to see the queen cage in between two frames).

Bees, especially new hives from a package, are geared up to build comb (that's what a swarm would do first thing upon finding a new home, and a package is not much more than an artificial swarm). So like has happened before, the bees built comb in the gap left by the queen cage.

Here's what I pulled out of hive #1:

They had built two lobes of comb off of the queen cage! The queen had been released (in both hives), by the way - the main thing I was checking for.

You can also see here they added some comb in the gap, attached to the side of the frame:

All in all, this is what I removed from the hives:

I checked some frames to see if the queen was laying. The frames had a lot of bee activity on them:

They were bringing in a lot of pollen and nectar, but I didn't see any eggs, in either hive. It's not too much a cause for concern, for often after she is released, the queen takes a few days to start laying (after all, she had been confined many days in the queen cage).

I'll check next week or so to make sure she is doing her job.

By the way, I am calling the left hive Sutton Hive #1, and the right on Sutton Hive #2 (I know, not as imaginative as some peoples' naming, but it suits me).

Sunday, May 8, 2011

I bought an extractor!

For the most part, being a beekeeper doesn't involved a lot of complicated or expensive equipment. The wood hive parts can be built from scratch, and put together piecemeal (i.e. not a large up front expense). One exception to this is the extractor. It's a simple concept, but extractors cost hundreds of dollars, and even more depending on if you want a motorized one. Extractors hold their value, and used ones are hard to find.

I am lucky that near me is Maxant Industries, a company that makes honey extraction equipment (check out their website to see all that they make). They are running a sale on a 9-frame hand crank extractor at a very good price. So after work last week I drove up to Ayer, MA (1/2 hour from where I work), and happened to get Jacob, the Vice President of Maxant, to give me a nickel tour of their factory.

It was very interesting - they actually fabricate all of their equipment there in the factory. They form the stainless steel into the hive bodies, and weld up the extractor cages. It was a very good tour.

So I came out with a new extractor (and extractor stand)! I am excited to have one of my very own, as I can now do those little adjustments that I need to do. There is also a condition where the hive can get "honey bound" which means that you can have too much honey in the lower part of the hive. The way to deal with it is to spin out some frames, and give the bees back the honey later. I can now do this.

I haven't opened the extractor up yet, so I don't have any pictures. But when I do, I'll put up some photos.

Home Remodeling...

Last weekend was the bee-full weekend. On Sunday I did some reworking of one of my home hives.

Going into the winter, I created a hive with a combine of some medium frames (of brood - from a nuc), and had a shallow honey super that they never finished off. So I left it on the hive over the winter. Here's the configuration going into winter:

The hive came through winter OK, and in spring the bees were in the shallow and medium super, and had started laying eggs.

When this happens, the easiest thing to do (and what I did) was to put a queen excluder under the medium super (making sure the queen was in the deep box). Then the babies would be born in the top two boxes, but the queen wouldn't repopulate it with brood. I also left an upper entrance since any drones born needed to be able to get out (they can't fit through the queen excluder).

Where I went wrong was that in March I started feeding sugar syrup (to stimulate brood rearing). The problem was that as the bees were born in the upper boxes, the bees started putting away the sugar syrup in the supers. I didn't want that, since I want to use those supers for honey collection.

So I asked some of my bee friends who have more experience what I could do. Most suggested I take off the supers and spin out the sugar syrup with an extractor, and let the bees put honey in the supers. The problem is that I don't have an extractor, and it's a hassle to borrow an extractor.

So I decided to take off the two supers, and set them outside and let the bees do the extracting! They will clean out the sugar syrup, and put it back in their hive.

So the fun began where I needed to take each of the frames of the 2 supers out, and brush off the bees back into the hive (I added an empty deep super first). Let me tell you, the bees were NOT happy being brushed from the supers back into their hives! Good thing I had my bees suit on. But I did it, and after a day or so they had calmed back down.

Here's what things looked like after I got done (the one on the left):

I'll let the bees clear out the sugar super, and then I'll put on some supers and hopefully catch some honey!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Package Installation

With 20,000 bees sitting on the kitchen table for a day, it was time to get them into their home(s). These poor bees were shaken out of their hives in GA probably mid week last week; put on a truck and trucked up to RI; sat overnight in a garage in RI; driven to my house in MA; and sat overnight on my table.

Sunday late afternoon was when I decided to hive the bees. It's good to do it in the late afternoon / evening, so the bees will stay in the hive and get used to it. If you install bees in a hive in the morning / early day, there's a chance they might abscond.

I took a video (embedded at the end), but since I was the cameraman and beekeeper, I didn't get a video of the actual shaking of the bees (since it required two hands to do). Here are some pictures of the event:

Here's one of the packages sitting on it's new home. I sprayed the package with some sugar water, to give them something to do to keep them from getting too agitated.

I took out some frames to leave room to dump the bees

The queen is in the cage, along with a few attendant bees. Note the candy on the left side that the bees slowly eat through to release her.

Bees dumped in!

It's got to be a little traumatic to be dumped this way. But they weren't aggressive at all!

I wedged the queen cage in between two frames, screen down (I left out a frame to leave room). Some people embed the queen cage into the comb, but I prefer to do it this way.

The bees are on the queen cage.

The second package was installed just like the first.

Here's the final result. I left the packages in front of the hives since there are always some stragglers. The syrup cans are left in the middle for them to be emptied later.

And finally, here's the video of the event:

I'll go back in about 5 days to check and make sure the queen was released, and to put in the missing frame.
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