Thursday, April 28, 2016

Quality of Commercial Queens -- Dr. David Tarpy

Lately, I keep having that feeling that my bread is getting bigger, but I'm not getting anymore butter. It's a shame really because I've been wanting to look up some of Dr. Tarpy's work, and just haven't had the chance. However, while washing dishes last night, I did get to watch some of this talk on YouTube. It's about his research trying to figure out what makes a good queen and why commercial queens fail so often.

Anyway, I found it extremely interesting. One point that caught my interest is a note around 22:00 where he says that if you're grafting, bees won't even use larvae more than 3.5 days old. (He can force the bees to use them because he's in a lab, but the resulting specimen is an intercaste creature that is neither queen nor worker.) However, inferring from other remarks in the presentation, the bees preference seems to be for larvae no more than 2 days old. 

It's common knowledge that the best queens are made from 0-day old larvae. The older the larvae, the lower the quality queen. Swarm queens are raised from 0-day old larvae that are swimming in royal jelly from the moment of birth. Emergency queens are usually made from older larvae. However, I love this passage from Jay Smith's book Better Queens that explains how important that early feeding is:

The importance of food for the young applies especially to the queen larva as it grow at such an amazing speed. It grows as much in proportion to its size in one day as a calf does in a year. At this rate if we keep the young larva away from food while grafting for 20 minutes it is the equivalent to keeping a calf away from its mother for a week.

Although this passage is about the interruption of food supply caused by the grafting process, the same can be applied to 1-2 day old larvae that are used for queens. Though they might never leave the hive, they don't get the same amount of royal jelly, so in that sense, their food supply is interrupted as well. I like Jay's analogy because it really helps me envision just how much food a developing queen needs.

Anyway, I found the talk extremely interesting, particularly the section on the practical application of his research. Hope you enjoy it, too.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

First Split of the Season

We had a bit of fine weather last Thursday (4/21), lots of drones are out now, and people are starting to report swarms, so it seemed a good time to start making splits.


With that purpose in mind, a quick look at Elsa revealed that she certainly had enough bees, so I popped a few bars over to a nuc built by my friend John. Happily, although the interior size of his hive is larger than mine, his bars are the same length, so it was a really easy split to make. Unhappily, Elsa's black queen is super hard to see, so hopefully I didn't move her over as well.

So here's what I'm hoping to see by the following dates:

  • May 7 -- The new queen should have emerged
  • May 17 (+/- 5 days) -- The new queen should be mated and laying

John's nuc

I'd like to split this one to make another nuc for someone else, but the dimensions of his nuc are much smaller than mine. Because most of my bars are wedged, I can't simply trim them and move them over to his nuc. Instead, I've ended up retrofitting some bars that I'm phasing out of my hives. But I have to wait for bees to build the right kind of comb on them (i.e., worker comb in the right shape and size) before I can move them over. If that doesn't happen, I'll probably end up doing a chop and crop and attaching the combs with ribbon to his bars. Ugh. This is turning out to be a pain in the rear, and I will never agree to start a nuc in a smaller hive again.

Anyway, of the various retrofitted bars that I was hoping to transfer, she made one full of drones, one with workers, and one wasn't started. But she had plenty of stores, so I removed some of them to encourage her to make more workers. Of course, I had to give her a few more of those retrofitted bars, too.

Austeja, Buttercup, Persephone

These are the colonies that just seemed to be lagging a little, so I'd given them 1-2 bars of brood each in the past couple of weeks just to jump start them.

Buttercup and Persephone got a bar of brood only a week ago, so it's a bit early to see much of a difference. However, Austeja got 2 bars of brood 2 or 3 weeks ago, and it's made an enormous difference to her. I'm seeing lots of new eggs & larvae, capped brood, and the beginnings of some honey stores.

Austeja has quite a nice pattern, so I'm glad that she's pulled out of her funk.

Some queen spotting practice

Austeja finally has enough workers to start storing excess honey.
Not much yet, but it's a start.

Watching bees emerge never gets old

Last week, this one got about 5 empty bars in and around the brood nest. Within 6 days, they'd filled them all, so I gave them a few more bars for brood and added empty bars between all the honey combs. Right now, they brood nest occupies about 1/2 to 2/3 of the hive. The checkered bars of honey and empties extends pretty much all the way to the end of the hive. I even removed the divider board just to get a smidge more room.

Of course, the one hive that I had no plans to sell splits from (because of her temperament) is the one that's booming. Urgh. Bees!

Hippolyte with divider removed

So the bees are looking to be on track for this time of year. The dandelions, magnolias and crabapples are all blooming. I saw some white clover in Hartford a few days ago, which means that ours won't be too far behind.

One thing, though, that has been quite different from years past is the testiness of my bees this spring.  During early spring, when the weather is still cold and there aren't too many things blooming, I expect some ill-tempered behavior. But we're starting to get some lovely, sunny days. Wednesday - Friday last week were in the mid-70s F to 80 F.

When I'm out and about in the yard, not even terribly close to the hives, these women warriors buzz around my head, which isn't terribly fun for me, but they actually force my kids inside, which doesn't work at all. Most of the hives are fairly laid-back since I can inspect them without gloves. Instead, I suspect Hippolyte's furies are behind these attacks, and I'm hoping that being split will produce some calmer daughters. If not, they'll have to be requeened. As much as I try to make allowances for her, the kids have to go outside so they can't make a mess inside. Yep, that's practical beekeeping at its finest.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Scout Bees

Confession: The title is misleading because this post has absolutely nothing to do with scout bees. I was just looking for something snappy.

This evening, I was invited to talk to the local STEM scouts about bees/beekeeping. (Hey, Bee Scouts would have been a totally "punny," title, too, but since the STEM scouts are co-ed, my literal brain just couldn't process that). It was a blast! If you're a beekeeper and ever have a chance to talk about bees with kids, I highly recommend jumping at the chance. Kids are so much fun, and they have the best questions. Besides, if you can get a kid interested in bees or the environment, you'll have improved the world because they will become adults who plant flowers and help things grow.

Anyhow, they asked questions a mile a minute, which was awesome because it meant that they were engaged and thinking, and in the end, exploratory learning tends to be much more effective than having an agenda pushed on you. The only downside of the interruptions was that I went way over my allotted time and had to rush through most of the activities I had planned. However, the kids still got a chance to learn some basic beekeeping vocab, handle actual comb, learn about the life cycle of bees/processes in the hive, do two activities that demonstrate the importance of all pollinators (not just bees), learn about harvesting honey & wax, and taste some honey. Whew! That was a lot!

Inspecting some brood comb
Judging from my audience's enthusiasm about the honey, that was probably their favorite part of the night. BTW, if I may toot my own horn a bit, I gave them borage honey, neem honey, and my own honey to compare flavors. The universal favorite was my honey -- at least nobody dared disagree, hee hee. ;-) Seriously, though, people laugh when I tell them that even though my DH has brought me gourmet honey from all over the world including from hoity-toity Fortnum & Mason, mine is still the best. Now I can tell them that 12 out of 12 10-year olds back me up. LOL! Probably the sweetest part of the evening (no pun intended) was when a little girl asked me if I sold honey, and how much did it cost because she had $5. Too precious!

Anyway, as much as I love talking about how cool honey bees are, the real message I want to get across is how important bees and other pollinators are, so running over time was useful in the sense that it has got me thinking about how to make it better for kids. Adults tend to save their questions until the end, which keeps things running smoothly. I'll have to figure out how to control the wildy wonderful chaos that children wreak on my agenda, which will probably mean paring the honey bee info down so that there is more time for the main message of "Protect our pollinators!"

Aren't they the cutest?

In any case, I have an advantage pulling together informational talks since my background is in instructional design (basically I design training for organizations). My personal approach to training  tends to be highly interactive because to me nothing is worse than a page turner or a straight-up lecture with some head honking "wah wah wah" like in the Peanuts cartoons. Instead, I encourage activities that get people (young or old) thinking about the information being presented. In a lecture, that might translate into a lot of dialogue or posing questions so the audience can figure things out for themselves. I'm keen on activities, too, and I thought I'd share a couple that I used tonight in case you wanted to incorporate them into your own presentations.
[Author's note: Please, don't judge the looks of my materials too harshly. For the past month, I've been really pressed between work, vacation (oh the irony!), bees, garden, house, sickness, helping my kids with their projects, etc. that I didn't have as much time as I'd like to work on "packaging" my presentation materials. Also, my printer conked out on me at the last minute. I mean, I felt like the activities were solid, but visually, my materials looked pretty rough. Fortunately, good activities trump ugly boards. Next time, though, they'll look better.]
The first activity was pretty simple. For 30 seconds, the kids shouted out their favorite plant foods as I wrote them down. (Ideally, I would've like 90 seconds, but we were out of time, and desperate times call for desperate measures.) Afterwards, we went through the list, and I crossed off every single one that needed a pollinator (any pollinator, not just honey bees). As you can see, there wasn't much left. If you look at the photo, alfalfa is a different color because I added it after we finished crossing-out everything else. I wanted to point out that alfalfa is big business as a bee-pollinated crop that is used to feed dairy cows. No alfalfa = no dairy. Those whip-smart kids quickly made the jump on their own to realizing that no milk meant no ice cream, no yogurt, no chocolate bars, no cheesy pizza... Hopefully, this will provide them with personal motivation for keeping pollinators healthy.

Here's our 30-second list of favorite foods

We also quickly studied and discussed a food web showing the connections between various pollinators, types of plants, and animals. (Push pins & and string show connections between the photos.) One bright girl said, "All those animals need plants and fruit, and without pollinators there aren't any!" At that moment, I knew it was time to pull the pollinator push pin/strings out and let them see how all the other strings started coming off, too.

Food web. For simplicity, I put a bunch of insect pollinators under one pin at the bottom of the chart.
Bird and bat pollinators have been left out because the chart would have become too crazy.

I used a lot of animals as representatives of groups. E.g., Coyotes represent all the apex carnivores like wolves, foxes, mountain lions, etc. Squirrels represent all the rodents. Etc.

We did some other stuff, too, but those were my two favorite activities. If you do general talks like this, do you have a favorite activity or presentation method that you'd like to share?