Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lessons Learned: Another Year in Review

I've not written much or even visited my bees at all since November. This year has been especially crazy since, in addition to the normal nuttiness of daily life and holidays, we've thrown two simultaneous bathroom renovations into the mix. In fact, I've started working on this post several times only to be sidetracked by other matters.

However, before 2016 slips out the door as we leave the old year behind and welcome the new, I wanted to perform my annual review of screw-ups and lessons learned.

Pull old comb
If I've learned anything this year, it's get rid of old comb! Les Crowder recommends moving it to the back of the hive so that the bees can fill it with honey before you remove it. In the past, I've always removed old empty comb both when winterizing and during the spring before the bees started filling it up again. This year, though, I tried it Les' way, and it caused me no end of misery. My bees largely ignored it, absconded from hives with lots of old comb, or did not build up well in those hives. I also found that in at least one nuc, the old comb attracted hive beetles and wax moths. From now on, I will be ruthless in pulling old comb. In any case, the bees always build new comb, and having extra space to build slows them down in spring, delaying swarming.

Freeze old combs before bringing them in the house
Sometimes I save combs in the house to show kids. I usually keep them in a nuc with lots of space between each bar and leave them exposed to sunlight. It's never been a problem before, but this year, I had a terrible wax moth infestation -- in my house. So from now on, they'll get frozen first.

Remove rings
Fortunately, I haven't had to learn this the hard way. In fact, I never really thought about it before Don at Buddha and the Bees mentioned this tip. However, it makes total sense. If you get stung in the hands and your fingers swell up, a ring could easily cut off your circulation. Definitely following Don's advice to remove any rings before checking the hives.

Wait as long as possible to harvest honey
Over the past four summers, I've had an opportunity to see what great, horrible, and average years look like in terms of honey production. This year, was an absolutely miserable year. The spring flow was late, and the autumn flow was just barely enough to keep the girls alive. This situation was not helped by at least two large construction projects in a 2-3 mile radius from my house. Huge fields of goldenrod were razed to make way for luxury apartments and a strip mall. I'm pissed.

So anyway, I'd harvested some honey at the end of the spring flow, expecting the bees to store some in autumn. Well, they didn't, and I ended up feeding honey and sugar back to them. I'm going to wait as long as possible from now on before harvesting honey. So when is that?

  • Whenever the hives are bursting with honey so that they need room
  • In late October/early November, when I'm winterizing. Harvesting honey is sooooo much easier this time of year because the bees are clustered, and I prefer fall honey anyway.

Reduce entrances in the fall -- even if not ready to winterize
I didn't get around to winterizing until quite late, and I'd forgotten to close Hippolyte's top entrance during the fall. As a result, she suffered from opportunistic wasps, and I feel terrible about that. I didn't see a mouse when I closed her up, but that was pure luck on my part. (Update: Wrote this in mid-December. Dec 27, Hippolyte was a literal hive of activity, so I didn't kill her -- not quite yet anyway.)

Stop procrastinating, and just get things done already
Originally, I'd made a roof for Celestia, but it didn't fit, so I ended up putting some temporary Coroplast board on top. Well, temporary turned into 6-months. Toward the end of that time, the roof shifted during a period of rain, and the girls got a soaking. Not cool on my part.

If you're having a crappy spring/summer,  feed
Feeding is a pain, so I usually just don't do it. But this summer was so dry the flowers didn't provide nectar. I kept hoping that the bees could make it up in autumn. They didn't. They'd either lost too many bees or didn't make enough bees during summer that they had trouble building up in the fall. So instead of storing nectar from the autumn flow, they used it to make bees, and I ended up fall feeding. It would have been better to feed earlier so they could keep their population up and take advantage of the fall flow.

So for the future, I still maintain that if the bees are still bringing in some nectar all summer and their numbers aren't plummeting, it's better to avoid feeding them sugar. (I expect and rely on some dwindling over the summer to keep varroa in check. I just don't want them to get to a point where they'll have trouble overwintering.) My lesson learned is really about feeding during a severe summer dearth that's forcing the bees to eat up their spring honey and dwindle too much.

Top bars may not be the best hive design for me
Given some of my beekeeping parameters, I'm seriously starting to rethink whether I want to continue making TBHs. While there are many things that I love about them, I'm considering going to a Lazutin-style horizontal hive or an extra-long Layens. Basically, as I mentioned before, my spring flow is incredible. Even during a horrible year, it provides enough honey that a colony could go through winter on it. However, TBHs are so small that they just don't allow my bees to store an entire season of honey before harvesting. A volumetrically larger hive like a Lazutin or Layens hive would allow the bees to store all the nectar they gather and let me harvest in the fall.

Last Tuesday (Dec 27), we had a 50 deg F. day, so I seized the opportunity to visit the girls. Despite my screw-ups over the past year, all 8 colonies are alive and well. Peach had a bit less activity going on than the others, but she wasn't doing as well to begin with. Also, she has a top entrance under the roof which also makes it harder to see what's happening. The others were bustling, though. Even Persephone, who didn't get much in terms of winter prep (just stuffed the back with straw and added mouse guard), was bustling. Of course, the coldest days are still ahead of us, but their condition has me hopeful. Fingers crossed, they'll all still be thriving in spring.

Wishing you all the best in the upcoming year. Happy New Year everyone!

Friday, November 25, 2016

All I want for Christmas is...

Hope you all had a fantastic Thanksgiving! But now that it's over, it's time to think about Christmas, and I'm putting in my wish list early.  So what would I like?

Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives by George de Layens

Dr. Sharashkin, editor/translator of Lazutin's Keeping Bees with a Smile, has finished translating George de Layens work, Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives. de Layens was the inspiration and source for much of Lazutin's approach to beekeeping.

According to the HorizontalHive's website, this book covers:

  • Time-tested methods boasting over 100 years of successful use
  • Horizontal hives: advantages and use
  • An honest overview of all hive systems
  • Keys to success, based on decades of experience
  • Extra-deep frames: advantages, design, and use
  • Detailed practical advice with 200+ illustrations 

Although this translation will not be released until January 2017, it can be pre-ordered for $29.95, which is a $20 discount off the post-publication price.

Advanced Top Bar Beekeeping by Christy Hemenway

Christy has a new book that is written for beekeepers who have survived their first winter.

The description on her website reads:
"The sequel to the original "The Thinking Beekeeper" book - this volume will take you into Year 2 and beyond. Splits, Swarm prevention, moving hives - all the things you're ready to learn in Year 2."
This book is priced at $29.00 and is expected to ship around Dec 22.

So that's it for me. My gotta-have list this year is pretty modest. However, if you're shopping for your favorite beekeeper, there is no end of things you can give to support his/her habit -- books, a Flir, new jackets or gloves, kits for making lip balms, lotions, mead, candles...

If you're a beekeeper, what would you like to see in your stocking this year? 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Winter is coming

Unfortunately, I have no new photos today since I accidentally dropped my phone in the dog's water dish. Poopie.

Anyway, work and other things have eaten up my time, so I decided it was time to close the hives up so I could stop worrying about them. Besides, winter, as evidenced by our first snowfall on Monday, is coming.

Different people have different strategies for wintering. For me, I pull any empty combs out of the hive. If needed, I add some sugar behind the last comb. Then I fill the back of the hive with straw. Mouse guards get slapped on, and insulation gets added above the bars along the sides of the hive. I strap everything together, and I'm done. (BTW, I love the insulated hives so much more every year. After removing any empty comb, I pop the mouse guards on and fill behind the divider board with straw. Boom. I'm done. It takes 5 minutes or less. No straps required because the roof & hive are so heavy. In the winter, that makes it really easy to feed if I have to.)

One of my major concerns for most of the hives this year is that they're underweight. I like to see at least 15 bars of capped comb. The hives were barely at 15, and most of the nucs were around 10-12 bars. However, even though the weather has been warm enough, it looks like most of the colonies had stopped taking syrup.

Even more problematic is that two of the hives (Hippolyte & Celestia) looked as though rain had seeped in -- they were flooded with about 1.5" of water. Celestia is my own fault since I never got around to building her a proper roof. Hippolyte, on the other hand, is a mystery. I couldn't find any cracks, and didn't have time to take the roof apart. Besides, I'd like to convert her roof to a hinged one in the spring, so it doesn't make sense to work on it now. As a stopgap, I wrapped the bars in tar paper before putting the roof back on. Will get some waterproof plastic or a tarp to make sure they don't leak during the winter. There were plenty of dead bees in both hives as a result of the water, but I don't know how the clusters are faring overall since it didn't seem like a good idea to break their winter seal. If anything, that would only stress them out more for no reason other than satisfying my curiosity.

One of my disappointments this fall was trying to bring Elsa up to weight. I'd given her several large jars of honey, but she barely ate any of it. The honey sat in the hive virtually untouched for weeks. I couldn't figure out why -- maybe because it was crystallized, maybe they just figured it was already stored in some oddly shaped cells. Who knows what goes through their little bee brains? Finally, I mixed the honey with some water to dissolve it, and the bees guzzled it up. Wish I'd thought to do that a couple months ago.

In the process of winterizing, I discovered that Hippolyte has been under attack. Wasps or hornets would be my guess. Decapitated bees littered the bottom of the hive and the tops of the bars. Again, this is my fault. I'd opened a top entrance during the summer to keep the hive cool, but I neglected to close it when the weather started to turn. The opening is just too big to patrol in the fall. Mice are another possibility, but I didn't see any evidence of a mouse nest or mouse poo inside -- of course, I stayed toward the back of the hive, not wanting to disturb the cluster, so maybe a more thorough check is needed. If there are mice, the entrance is closed up now, so they're not getting out until spring.

In the past, I've tried feeding over winter in various ways:

  • Fondant, which got soft and melted into a puddle in the bottom of the hive
  • Sugar piled on paper or cardboard in the bottom of the hive, which became messy and sticky as the sugar absorbed moisture in the hives and melted
  • Sugar bricks hung between bars in mesh bags, but lots of bees climbed through the holes and couldn't get out
  • Empty combs filled with sugar. That worked out amazingly well actually. The combs held the sugar beautifully in a place where the bees could reach them. The sugar also absorbed moisture in the hive. The downside was that I had to refill the combs periodically, and I didn't like having the hives open in the dead of winter. 

This year, I'm experimenting with something new. I picked up some disposable aluminum baking pans at the grocery store. I don't remember the exact dimensions, but in terms of width and height, they fit very well standing up in my hives. (Just a little bit of space around the edges.) The containers are deep enough to hold about 6 lbs of sugar in the form of sugar bricks.* Also, because the sides of the pans are sloped (so that it's trapezoidal), when I stand them up on end, they tilt backward a little bit, sort of like a cell in a honey comb. Since white sugar is hygroscopic, my fingers are crossed that it will absorb moisture in the hive. However, as the sugar bricks Hopefully, if the sugar bricks start to soften up, that bit of slope will keep them in the container rather than falling out into the bottom of the hive. (Dang, I really wish my phone hadn't fallen into a bowl of water because I had photos.)

Crude illustration of how the tilted pan will hopefully keep sugar inside
Also, added a cover to the bottom fourth of the pan to help keep sugar inside.

So here is the quick and dirty on each colony. Blue = Hopeful they'll pull through. Orange = I think they have a 50/50 chance. Red = Not holding my breath.

  • Elsa -- Has at least 15 bars, but only about 1/2 full. Will need to keep an eye on her over winter to make sure she doesn't starve.
  • Austeja -- Donated 2 bars from this hive to Peach. Currently has 15/16 bars. Looks good
  • Hippolyte -- Decapitated, drowned bees. Had stopped taking syrup. Fed her, but not feeling good about this situation.
  • Persephone -- I rated this one orange only because I couldn't check her. Crikey, she's a mean one. Stuffed her with straw, but she was attacking me so viciously I forgot to give her a sugar brick or even check on her stores. She's so contrary, I expect her to survive, but if she doesn't make it through winter, that's fine with me. I can't figure her out. She was perfectly nice before I transferred her to this hive. Maybe residual pheromones from the previous colony have made her so bitter.
  • Peach -- Received 2 bars from Austeja, but I don't think she ever really recovered from the robbing this fall. Added a sugar brick, but I don't think she's going to pull through.
  • Buttercup -- 12 bars fully capped. Looking good. Added some sugar for insurance.
  • Bubblegum -- Bees very busy in the back of the hive even on a 35-ish degree day. Popped in a sugar brick, but they look good.
  • Celestia -- Makeshift cover had shifted, and there were lots of drowned bees. Not hopeful, but I mopped up the water and added a sugar brick. Fingers crossed because I really liked this colony.

Looking at this color-coding, I'd be happy if just half of the colonies survive winter. I'd like to do some work on the hive bodies next year, and it would be nice to do that while they're empty. Plus, it would give me space to split. But who knows. Maybe the winter will be mild, and the bees will surprise me. Last fall, there were 3 colonies that I felt sort of iffy about, but 2 of them still survived. For such small creatures, they're much hardier than they appear.


*Sugar bricks -- Basically, 6 lbs sugar mixed with 1 to 1.25 cups of water/bee tea -- just enough liquid to hold the sugar together. Sugar is packed into a mold and allowed to harden up overnight.