Wednesday, December 17, 2014

“In the depth of winter... within me there lay an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus

Sorry for the long silence. I've been distracted by a lot of things -- making Halloween costumes, Thanksgiving stuff, Christmas events and parties, gift shopping, company, etc. With back-to-back holidays from October through December, it's always a hectic time for me. However, things are well in hand now, so I can actually enjoy the last week before Christmas.

Ok, not exactly a bee photo, but it's proof that I
haven't been sitting idly by. ;-)
Here is the little one in her nearly finished costume.
(Elsa has to have sparkles, right?)
This one always picks out something fun. He has
to make up for his pragmatic older brother who
can't see the point of trick-or-treating when he can enjoy an
enormous bowl of candy in the comfort of his own home.
Before that, though, comes my favoritest day of the year -- the Winter Solstice! It's probably some vestigial streak of barbarian/pagan left in me that loves this day so much. Not because it's the darkest day of the year but because I know that from here on out the days are going to get longer and longer. Hooray! My annual plague of melancholy that lasts between Thanksgiving and Christmas is over. I can shake off the blahs and start looking forward to spring! Glorious spring!

Now that I have bees, the winter solstice is doubly special. The colony won't really explode in size until mid to late February, but that growth begins now. Shortly after the winter solstice (it could be the day after or within a couple of weeks after), the queen begins to lay eggs in preparation for spring. 

Of course, the next 6-8 weeks (until the maple and willows start blooming) will be kind of a tricky time for the bees in this northern climate. Up until now, the adults have been getting by keeping the hive temperature about 70 degrees F. With brood in the nest, though, they'll have to raise temps to 95 degrees F. This means an accelerated consumption of resources during the coldest part of the year when there is nothing coming into the hive.

Enjoying some sunshine

So far, my hives are all alive and, I hope, well. The electric fence has done its job keeping out all unwanted Pooh bears. However, I've been concerned over our unusually warm weather because the bees have been pretty active. I worry about them eating more honey than they would if they were huddled up in a mass. I dare not open the the hives, but this past week, we had weather in the mid 40's and all of the colonies were making cleansing flights. Persephone and Peach had the most activity. Not sure if that means they're the strongest or simply the most foolhardy. ;-) I also took a very quick peek through Austeja's observation window. The girls were clustered on the first couple of bars, and seemed to have ample honey. We'll see what they look like in a couple of months.

In any case, we're entering the homestretch. Fingers crossed. Spring is just ahead. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lessons Learned

Last autumn, I jotted down some beekeeping lessons that I learned (mostly the hard way) over the summer. I enjoyed the exercise because it really helped solidify what I did right/wrong (mostly wrong), so I figured I should repeat the exercise this year.

Lesson 1: Use a combination of narrower bars and spacers.
There are some things that I changed up this year, e.g., getting rid of observation windows and screened bottoms. Overall, I can't say whether these changes were good or bad. Mostly, they seem to be preferential decisions. However, one thing that I will definitely change next year is the width of my bars. When I first started researching top bars, I heard some people say to use 1 1/4" bars in the brood area with 1/4" spacers for the honey section. Other people said it was ok to just split the difference and use 1 3/8" bars for brood and honey. At that time, I had never seen the inside of a hive, I had no clue about how and when to use spacers, and I didn't really understand the finer points of hive management. I was generally worried that I'd screw things up, so I figured I'd play it safe and joined the 1 /3/8" camp.

However, now that my second season has ended, I feel like I get it now. I know how to recognize comb that will be used for drones or honey, and I'm getting the hang of management a bit more.  Going forward next year, I plan to use 1 1/4" bars with spacers. Having narrower bars, I've heard, encourages bees to build smaller cells. They also can fit more combs in the same amount of space. More comb = more brood. More brood = more honey. Having smaller, closer combs, I've heard, also improves overwintering because bees are in a tighter cluster.

Lesson 2: Forget any advice that doesn't instruct someone to just watch the bees.
I feel this should be a no-brainer, but it's something I learned the hard way.

Last year, I was told to feed a newly installed colony until it had drawn 20 bars. I didn't follow that advice, and things didn't work out like I'd hoped. This year, I thought to follow that advice, but it backfired again because my bees started swarming within a month of installation. I guess I had an amazing flow happening, and that extra syrup (plus a lack of attention) sent them into swarm mode.

So this is my new approach: Watch the bees. Let their activity rule any decisions I make.

Lesson 3: Hands-off does not mean hands-free.
I hear so many people say that they want TBHs because they want to leave their bees alone. Yes, TBHs are less intrusive, but that doesn't mean that they don't require management -- especially during a flow.

I installed my packages toward the end of May this year, and then I was horribly busy after that. I figured that since they were new packages, I'd be able to get away with neglecting them for awhile since they had to draw comb and fill it. Unfortunately, I couldn't have been more wrong. Within two weeks, each colony had drawn 8 combs. Within 3 or 4, they were ready to swarm.

Usually, top bar people will say that one should open a hive every 10-14 days during a flow. I've left my hives alone for several weeks at a time during a dearth, and I will probably still do that. However, during a flow, I've pretty much decided to make time for them at least once a week from now on.

Lesson 4: Clean up spills immediately. 
Urgh. I've learned so many lessons about feeding this year. For example, one day, I spilled some syrup on top of the bars of one of my hives. Since I didn't have any water with me, I figured I'd clean it up after topping up all of the feeders. Such a bad idea. It took less than a minute for a robbing frenzy to begin. I will never make that lazy mistake again.

Lesson 5: Read and reread.
The winter before my first beekeeping season, I researched TBHs non-stop for months. It was great preparation for keeping bees. However, this summer, I started rereading some books, and I picked up so much more than I did the first time.

Lesson 6: Don't be afraid to try something new.
Necessity has forced me to do so many new things this year. I've learned how to use a table saw, how to install a package (I ordered nucs last year), how to do splits, etc. I'm kind of terrible at some of these things. For instance, while I can piece together some pretty perfect quilt points, hive building is definitely not my forte. My Warre, in particular, resembles something constructed by The Cat in the Hat. However, overall, I'm pleased with my new skills, and the bees just keep doing their thing despite me.

As a side note, we had a lot of guys stopping by this spring/summer either to work on our house, deliver packages, give us quotes for stuff, etc. Anyway, they always express surprise when they see me at the table saw sporting hearing protectors, goggles, a flowy skirt and a cherry-printed apron with ruffles. LOL! Who says girls can't use shop tools? My husband's just delighted to have me on his side in case of a zombie apocalypse.

Anyhoo, these are the lessons that stick out for me right now. I'm sure there are more that I've already forgotten. Oh well, I guess I'll get to relearn them next year.

How about you? What lessons have you learned?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sweet Dreams

About a week ago, I read that honey is a common sleep remedy (or at least a component of sleep remedies) in a number of cultures. Some people, like retired pharmacist Mike McInness, author of The Hibernation Diet and The Honey Diet1, claim that honey causes the liver to create/store (I don't know, I keep using the wrong word and my husband very annoyingly corrects me every time) glycogen, which fuels the brain at night. I have no clue if this is true because I haven't read enough (or any) of the science behind these claims, but I figure if grandmas around the world have been using it for thousands of years, there might be something to it.

Being a rotten sleeper, I gave it a try. I took a tablespoon of raw honey2 before bed. Ugh. That much honey straight up and all at once bothered my stomach a little, but it completely knocked me out for the night. The next morning, I hit the snooze button and woke up an hour and a half later. I couldn't even get out of bed because I had that drowsy, groggy feeling I get after taking Benadryl. (BTW, I had a fleeting suspicion all that sugar might have induced some sort of diabetic coma, but I was wrong. Eventually, I fell out of bed.)

The next night, I tried a tablespoon of honey in some herbal tea about 45 minutes before bedtime. Again, I zonked out, but had to wake up in the middle of the night for the toilet. On the other hand, I fell straight to sleep again until morning. (Sorry if that was TMI.) Again, lots of issues waking up in the morning, too.

Since then, I've been experimenting with different amounts of honey and different delivery vehicles, like whole-wheat toast, cheese, fruit... but no liquids! A few times, I forgot to take any honey at all, and I was super restless those nights. Also, it seems if I had too little honey, I would sleep really well for a few hours, but then I'd be up again in the middle of the night.

My sweet spot (har, har) seems to be about 2 teaspoons -- enough to put me down for the count, but not enough that I can't yank myself out of bed in the morning.

My husband, the skeptical doctor, thinks I'm simply experiencing a placebo effect, but I've taken things like melatonin in the past, and they've had zero effect. So I wonder if any of you would be willing to try taking some honey before bedtime and share your results (if any). Just think of it as a contribution to science! :-)

1I haven't actually read either of these books, so I can't recommend them. If you've read them, though, please, let me know what you think!

2 I want to be clear that I used 100% raw honey. I don't know if it matters that it was raw. However, the stuff one finds in plastic bears the supermarkets isn't real honey, so if you use that, I doubt it will work.