Thursday, April 30, 2015

Making Space

(Note: Meant to post this yesterday, but forgot. Oh, the distractions of motherhood!)

Due to some out of town travel, I had to postpone shipment of my packages from April 15 to April 30. In preparation for that, I did a quick check on Austeja on Sunday to see if/what I could pull from it for the packages. At the same time, I made a bit more space for her by adding some empty bars at the front of the hive and after the drone comb. Post-inspection, the comb was arranged a bit like this:
End entrance is to the left of this diagram.
Diagram is not to scale. The brood nest is much wider than it would appear.

I figured that would give them enough space for another week. That's why I was so surprised to open the observation window this morning and see quite a few queen cups (maybe 6-10) on the side of a couple combs. It's always hard to know if the queen cups are just for practice or if they're a sign of getting ready to swarm. However, just in case, I performed a quick inspection this morning.

A couple of queen cups
I didn't see any eggs or larvae in the queen cups, but I'll admit that it's sometimes difficult for my middle-aged eyes to spot them when they're super tiny. All the previously empty bars up to the capped honey were built out already, and the bees were were making more drone comb. Also, it appears that the third bar from the entrance was being filled with honey. I haven't decided if they're backfilling or just backward, but I'm not taking chances. It's always amazing to me, though, just how much work the bees can do in 3 days if they have resources.

Mostly drone comb with some worker brood to the right.

I added a couple more empty bars before and after the brood nest. I also opened the brood nest with a couple of empty bars between bars brood. Hopefully, I've done this in time to suppress swarming. The forecast is predicting that we're going to skip right over spring and rush into summer with temps in the 80's next week, so that helps ease concerns about the brood chilling.

Dandelions are starting to open now. Magnolia in full bloom.

As it turns out, I received a call on Monday to say that due to weather issues in the south, my shipment has been delayed until May 6. I'll be checking the observation window daily over the next few days for any sign that the bees are frosting those queen cups. However, if they do get capped, I suppose that could work out to my favor, too. I've been planning to requeen the packages in June or July. However, if I end up with swarm cells, I could install them with the packages at the outset and wouldn't need to bother ordering any queens. Hey, that gives me an idea...

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Double-Walled Insulated Horizontal Hives with Extra Deep Frames

For a long time now, I've been curious about the traditional hives horizontal hives used in Eastern Europe, but I haven't really found much info on them. Most likely, that's my fault since I haven't done much looking. However, I hit a jackpot at my last local beekeeping meeting when a fellow club member, David Leidlich, gave a talk on his newest experiment -- the Russian long hive!

This is going to be an unusual post in that it's going to present the highlights from a talk that featured the highlights of a different talk, but it's all good, right?

For Christmas 2013, David Leidlich mentioned that he gave his wife a copy of the book Keeping Bees with a Smile by Fedor Lazutin. The book, as you may have guessed from the author's name, is by a Russian beekeeper who uses traditional horizontal Russian hives. Originally published in Russian in 2009, it was translated into English in 2013. After reading the book, Leidlich and his wife became fascinated by Lazutin's ideas and traveled to the Ozarks to hear him give a presentation last fall. (Note: Although Lazutin speaks some English, the talk was in Russian, and translated by his editor, Leo Sharashkin.) The presentation Leidlich gave to our club is based on the talk he heard last year.

Traditional Russian hive

About Fedor Lazutin
Sadly, Lazutin passed away this past February from a brain tumor. However, prior to that, he and his artist wife, Lena, kept approximately 100 hives in the Kaluga region of Russia (approximately 150 miles outside of Moscow.) The conditions in this region are quite similar in terms of temperature and forage time to Zone 4 in the US (e.g., New Hampshire and Vermont).

Red shows the Kaluga region.

Fedor began his beekeeping career with Caucasian bees in Dadant hives. However, he suffered so many losses that he decided there had to be a better way. As a result, he began researching historical beekeeping to see how things were done in the past. This led him to beekeeping in traditional Russian hives.

He says that he never uses any kind of treatments for diseases or pests. Rather, he relies on good forage away from farms that use pesticides, not feeding, and vigorous bees as well as his extra-deep hives for success.

The Bees
Lazutin's book describes how, prior to the Soviet era, Russian beekeepers used European black bees. However, these bees were known for being highly defensive, so when beekeeping became a government-regulated activity, gentle grey Caucasian bees were shipped to apiaries all over Russia. In fact, this is the bee that he started with as well. However, over time, Lazutin began to feel that the Caucasian bee is not as well adapted to the colder climates and shorter foraging seasons outside of the Caucasus. As a result, he switched to the native European black bee. I failed to make a note of where the Russian black bee originates, but I think it might be the Primorksy Krai region.

Lazutin's spring starts around March, and his bees can build up from a population low of about 15,000 in spring to about 80,000 during the peak of his summer in late June/early July. The colony's peak population corresponds with the maximum bloom for his area.

According to Lazutin, beekeepers should maintain and improve their local strains of bees. If one can't obtain local stock, then he says beeks should improve what stock they have by installing swarms.

Historical Perspective on Hives
Observing hives in their natural environment can provide beekeepers with insight. However, local conditions should also be factored into the observations. For example, we know that bees live in hollows. However, the further south one goes (i.e., the warmer the climate), the less important a hollow is to the bees. For example, bees like Apis dorsata and Apis cerana make their nests directly on tree branches.

In the 19th century, books started making recommendations for hive size based on observation of feral hives. Hollows with a 10" diameter were recommended. However, Lazutin purports that this conclusion was faulty. Observations were skewed by logging activities that had destroyed trees with larger hollows. In other words, bees were simply making the best of what was available. According to Lazutin, modern beekeepers are continuing to use hives that are too small based on erroneous centuries-old conclusions.

Horizontal hives vs. Vertical hives
It's rare to find live tree hives, log hives, gum hives, or skeps anymore. For reasons related to convenience and practicality, these have been replaced by moveable frame hives. Commercial beekeepers that need to move hives around frequently will certainly want vertical hives. Horizontal hives with extra deep frames are extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible, to move, so they are well-suited for hobbyists and stationary apiaries.

A horizontal hive with 25 extra deep frames (each frame is the size of 2 Lang deeps) has the equivalent volume of 5 Lang deeps. The enormous volume of this hive reduces swarming and provides enough space to store all of the honey produced in a single season.

Horizontal hives with deep frames in various cultures
Horizontal hives are not a new invention. Records of them go back to the 1500's, though they were comprised of bars on tubs. In the 1800's, Georges de Layens designed a popular deep horizontal hive with movable frames. Variations of this design have been used in a number of European countries, including:
  • Spain's colmena Layens hive
  • France's ruche de Layens
  • Trough hives in Sweden (tragupka) and Denmark (trugstade) (Note: traditional Danish hives are available for purchase from Swienty.)
  • Poland
  • Ukraine (Note: the Ukrainian hive is taller than wide. It holds 36 frames in 2 18-frame rows. Although it winters well and can be used with standard extractors, Lazutin says that it tends to encourage more swarms.
Constructing a horizontal hive with extra deep frames
Lazutin recommends building the hive with double walls. For the inner lining, he says solid wood is best, though plywood is adequate. An interesting sidenote is that L.L. Langstroth also recommended double-walled hives to provide insulation, but he correctly predicted that "Such is the passion of the American people for cheapness in the first cost of an article, even at the evident expense of dearness in the end, that many, I doubt not, will continue to lodge their bees in thin hives in spite of their conviction of the folly of doing..."

A layer of insulation should go between the inner and outer walls. Lazutin recommends 1 1/2" to 2" of foam polystyrene. He says 2" is equivalent to 5"-6" of wood. However one could also use natural materials like flax fiber mats.

The entrance, which is positioned about 14"-16" down from the tops of the frames, should be 1/2" high to allow bees to come and go without getting blocking the entrance. The entrance is nearly the entire length of the hive, but it can be reduced to whatever length is needed at the time. 

A division board is used much like in a KTBH. However, rather than fitting snugly against the sides of the hive, Lazutin recommends that there be a gap at the bottom of the division board. This allows bees to travel the entire length of the hive and see how much available space they have.

One can use a flat roof, but Lazutin recommends an insulated peaked roof, particularly for snowy climates and a steel hive stand about 16" high.

The hive uses extra deep frames that sit tightly together just like in a TBH. The frames are equal in depth to 2 Lang deeps. The frames can be built as a single frame (though it's difficult & expensive to find an extractor that will accept the frames), or two deep frames can be bracketed together. Note, if using commercially available frames, which have a bit of space between them, a burlap cloth should be laid over the frames to close them off. A bit of extra space is left beneath the frames. Unlike with a TBH, Lazutin recommends using foundation, though he makes his own from treatment-free wax. However, he also recommends that the foundation size match the size that is natural for one's particular strain of bee.

Leidlich modified some standard Lang frames to sit side by side and make a "ceiling" for the bees.
Interior view of Leidlich's hive. Instead of using large frames, he's bracketed two Langs together.
Note: the bottom of the hive has not yet been added.
Clustering in the hive
In his book, Lazutin discusses how a cluster moves upward at a pace of approximately 1 mm every 24 hours during the winter. After doing a bit of math, he concludes that the cluster needs a certain amount of space overhead in the frame so that it can move unhindered to new honey. (I can't recall exactly, but I think it translates to a minimum of 16" tall frames for his climate For other climates, the required number of inches will vary. For example, in France, where the Dadant hive was developed for a much shorter, warmer winter, 12" is just enough, though it's pushing it, too.)

Page from the book comparing clusters in various hive designs

Harvesting honey
Just as with a TBH, honey is harvested from the edges of the hive. One interesting note is that Lazutin recommends harvesting just once per year, about 3 weeks after the last brood has been capped. He says this makes harvesting easier. Also, the bees will be done rearranging their stores by that time. Of course, not all honeys have the same nutritional/medicinal value to the bees. By taking only surplus honey from the edges of the nest after the stores have been rearranged, beekeepers ensure that they are leaving the bees what they need to stay healthy through winter.

Advantages of a horizontal hive with extra deep frames
For all you TBH beeks, these advantages are going to sound really familiar, but I'll list them anyway.

  • Minimal interference with the brood nest since it doesn't get exposed during inspections
  • Easy inspections since the brood nest remains largely undisturbed
  • Easy to expand/decrease the hive size without disrupting the brood nest's microclimate. This is in stark contrast to vertical hives, especially in cold climates where adding supers too early can chill brood or removing supers can cause swarming if done too late.
  • Lazutin is very much against feeding sugar, so the colony prepares for winter on it's own. It also overwinters without any human assistance.
  • Honey is harvested at a time when the bees are beginning to cluster, so they are not as defensive.
  • The colony can winter outdoors instead of in sheds, which is common in Lazutin's climate.
  • Easy to strengthen weak colonies by combining them with stronger ones. The long entrance allows beeks to create entrances where needed.
  • The long entrance also allows for making easy splits.
  • No heavy lifting of supers or brood chambers. (Note: 1 extra deep frame of honey can weigh up to 20 pounds.)
  • Bees consume less honey in winter in an insulated hive because they aren't working as hard to stay warm.
Disadvantages of a horizontal hive with extra deep frames
  • One has to either modify an extractor to take the extra deep frames. Or if one is using two frames bracketed together, they have to be separated before inserting them into an extractor.
  • Difficult to move the hive. Virtually impossible to move in the summer when full of honey. Even an empty hive requires more than one person to move it.
Tweaking the hive
  • Since writing his book, Lazutin has stopped making a raised screened-off chamber under the frames.
  • He also doesn't leave screened bottoms open during the winter because the bees were using more honey.
Lazutin's Observations
When inspecting, Lazutin insists that disturbances be kept at a minimum. Beeks should look for brood and not queens. He believes that constant disturbances lead to more swarming. He also says his hives rarely swarm. He credits this to the hive's large volume and to his practice of removing surplus honey and old comb from the brood nest. His queens stay productive 2-3 years, and he actually has to induce swarming. 

He hives primary and secondary swarms individually, but weak afterswarms are combined. Feeding weak swarms seems to be his one exception when it comes to feeding. Initially, he didn't feed them either, but in the end, he relented. He felt that he was losing a lot of perfectly good bees who would have survived and done well if they'd had just a little boost in the beginning.

He's also had good results by combining weak swarms with weak, older colonies. If he has a shortage of swarms, he'll also fix a weak colony with queen cells from a colony preparing to swarm. 

Wintering and moisture control
Lazutin recommends a couple of options for wintering. One method uses a special frame containing 10 lbs of silica gel dessicant placed behind the divider. No top vents are used. The other method requires a 5" thick pillow of peat moss below a top vent.

More Info
I took a number of notes on Lazutin's beekeeping year. However, I'll never finish this post if I don't stop somewhere. Maybe, if I get enough interest in the comments, I'll write up a Part 2. In any case, I highly recommend reading his book, which has detailed notes on his yearly maintenance activities. If you're unsure whether you want it, you can check out the contents of the book and see some sample pages online. One last thing I wanted to mention -- you can get plans for a Russian horizontal hive on Sharashkin's site, Horizontal Hives. The plans have lots of measurements and photos, so they look pretty easy to follow.

If you happen to speak Russian, Lazutin also has a number of talks on YouTube. I minored in Russian and even lived in Moscow for about 6 months, but I've forgotten way too much. This may give me the motivation to brush up on old skills so that I can listen in. :-)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Drone Comb & Wax

Austeja was not a particularly strong hive going into winter, and although it made it through, it's pretty small still. That's why I was surprised today to see it starting to make swarm preparations. I guess it feels good because it has a lot of capped stores left over from winter, and it had already drawn the empty bars I'd inserted last week. It also had a nearly full bar of pollen and a bar of drone comb. The other bars were full of capped worker brood. No queen cups yet, though.

I decided to add an empty bar to both ends of the brood nest. I also opened the brood nest with a couple of empty bars. Hopefully, that will suppress their urge to swarm, but I'll definitely check them again soon.

Plenty of things are starting to bloom now, though. Crocuses are still available, though I think the swamp cabbage bloom is about over since I can see their green leaves from the road. However, bulbs like squill and daffodils are in full bloom now (not that the bees like the daffodils much). Magnolia and forsythia are starting to bloom, too, so I'll need to be diligent about making sure the brood nest stays open.

There were way too many combs left from my dead-outs to store in the freezer, so I moved them all to the nucs. My thinking was to install the packages that are coming in the full-size hives, and I'd rather let Austeja rob the nucs than train her to rob the other hives. Today, I noticed that there weren't any more robbers coming and going, which was a good indication that the honey was gone.

I won't go into all the details of why, but I now have two sizes of bars -- 18 1/2" and 20". Unfortunately, the sides of the observation hive have bowed outward, which means that the smaller bars are really hard to fit into that hive. They keep wanting to fall inside. As a result, I've made the decision to phase the short bars out. As Austeja empties out the old honey or fills them with brood, I'm moving the shorter bars to the back of the hive so they can be filled with honey and harvested.

I'm tired of messing with these short bars, though, so my younger son and I harvested the wax from the short bars in the nucs today. We kept the wax on the longer bars for the packages, though.

My packages were originally scheduled to ship April 15, but due to some unexpected complications, I postponed shipment until the 30th. Things are getting very exciting around here very quickly.