Friday, November 27, 2015

Mucking about on Thanksgiving

Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving with all of your loved ones! Now back to bee-siness. ;-)

Here's a true confession. A number of Thanksgivings ago, I realized I was putting myself into an ill-humor cooking and cleaning my entire day off work just so my kids could sit down, eat one roll, and declare they were full. That began a family tradition. When we didn't com have company, we had holiday dinners at Minado in Morris Plains, NJ. My DH could get his turkey, my kids loved it, and even though I'm generally not keen on buffets, even I was satisfied with the quality and cleanliness. Plus, I got to spend the best part of the day playing with my family, instead of cleaning dishes. However, there isn't a restaurant near our new house that even comes close to the glory of Minado, which is a frequent source of disappointment for my children who still have dreams and visions of that place.

So we've developed a new tradition. Each kid gets to request a dish, which I make, but my DH has taken over cooking the turkey & stuffing (which the rest of us vegetarians don't eat) and mashed potatoes (which we do eat, but his are better because he's not as shy with the butter and salt as I am). This year, the sides didn't take more than an hour tops to whip together, leaving me with an opportunity to abscond for a while and check on my bees.

In prep for winter, I had reduced my entrances to one hole, per Hemenway's recommendations. However, I've been uneasy about this because of my condensation issues last year, and because I'm not really sure that a 3/4" hole is sufficient. Without fact-checking, I believe that wild bees usually have entrances 4"-6" long. They propolize it to meet their needs, but it's still quite a gap. Lazutin says that this opening is large enough to provide oxygen, but not moisture control. In a wild colony, moisture is absorbed by debris at the bottom the hive. However, managed hives have to either have ventilation or moisture-absorbing materials added to the hive.

Last Saturday, something Mike Palmer said really struck me. He lives way the heck north in Vermont, but he doesn't reduce his hive entrances all all. He staples some screen over them to keep mice out, but that's all. A small vent hole at the top lets moisture out, but the bees get plenty of fresh air from the bottom of the hive. Since he has Langs, he's got some really wide entrances, too.

Mike Palmer's entrances in winter.
Image from his video Keeping Bees in Frozen North America

I've also been researching Russian blogs about horizontal hives this week. I saw quite few photos of vent bars and vented roofs. There was one site that I wish I had remembered to bookmark. It had an elaborate "chimney" system made of PVC pipe that vented to an insulated roof.

Vent bar from
Vented hive body from

These posts in conjunction with Mike's photos clinched my internal debate, so yesterday, I checked on the ventilation in the hives and made the following adjustments:
  • Opened an entrance near the bottom for Hippolyte, but did nothing else for The Beests. Even in mid-40 F weather, they're mean, so they're on their own until spring.
  • Opened up two entrances on Elsa to provide more airflow at the bottom of the hive. 
  • Austeja, which is sort of gappy anyway, overwintered successfully last year, so she just got straw in the back of the hive. 
  • My three nucs also got a quick check to make sure that the last bars in the hive weren't completely totally sealed. They now have 1/16"-1/8" of an inch between the last bar and the back of the hive -- not a huge gap, but enough so they aren't totally air-tight. 
I also took a minute to check on Buttercup, which had a couple bars of open nectar when I closed up. Because of the warm weather, she moved/used all that open nectar, so I added some sugar just in case. I simply poured sugar into empty comb and spritzed it lightly with water so that it would stick in place while I turned it over. After carefully flipping the comb (a cookie sheet on each side of the comb helped provide support), the process was repeated on the other side and the bar hung in place. (BTW, I found that each of my combs hold about 2-3 lbs of sugar.) If the bees eat the sugar -- fine. If they end up not using it, that's ok, too, since these combs were destined for melting anyway.

"Sugar comb"

There are a couple of reasons I chose to use comb for a "feeder." In addition to providing emergency stores, my fingers are crossed that "sugar combs" placed directly in the hive will absorb moisture. Also, when I added sugar to the hive floor in the past, it became a sticky deathtrap of a lake as it absorbed condensation. Because cells are built at an angle to keep nectar from pouring out, they should contain sugar to the cells where it will be easy (and non-lethal) for the bees to reach.

Actually, I replaced Austeja's fondant with sugar combs as well because wherever the netting didn't touch the fondant, bees were climbing through the holes and getting stuck. So fondant came out and "sugar combs" went in.

Sorry for the blurry photo. Not happy losing bees in the netting.

I kept thinking back to Fedor Lazutin and Michael Bush who both say that they wait for a cold spell in mid- to late October to harvest. Temps yesterday were in the mid 40's F.-- warm enough for my comfort, but chilly enough to force the bees into a cluster. Since there isn't any brood right now, the brief interruption shouldn't have any lasting negative effects on the bees, and they were sooooo easy to deal with. Will definitely remember this when/if I harvest next year.

Monday, November 23, 2015

SNEBA 2015

Spent a terrific day Saturday meeting up with old friends at the Southern New England Beekeepers Assembly. Just as delightful was meeting new friends with whom I've corresponded via FB and/or email as a result of this blog! Apis mellifera -- bringing folks together.

My dear friend, Kit, is a skilled woodworker and one of the most inventive problem-solvers I know. For instance, he has a fabulous comb-holder that I would love to re-create on my own if I can. It's sturdy; it folds up, so it's compact; and it even has a lazy Susan base so the comb can be spun around for optimal viewing.

Anyway, Kit brought in several of his inventions to share with us such as his feeder, which holds two jars of syrup, a wooden feather handle to extend the reach of the feather he uses to "brush" comb, and a wind block/entrance reducer for winter. My favorite, though, was his Hesbach Blocker (HB), named after local beek, Bill Hesbach, who teaches a TBH course. The HB fits over the hive entrance. Screen allows for air circulation, but blocks wasps. A narrow gap at the top of the HB allows bees to come and go.

Kit's feeder and feather with handle

The handle is just a wooden dowel with a hole drilled to hold the feather

Hesbach Blocker in foreground. Wind blocks/Reducers for entrance in background.
You can't really see it, but the reducers use nails to reduce the space.

I've been having some terrible arthritis in my thumb (long story) and have to wear a brace to keep it still for awhile. As a result, I took fewer notes than usual, and my notes here will be even sparser. However, most of the information was pretty basic, or it can be found online or in a book. So I'll just share some tidbits that I found particularly interesting.

Dr. Larry Connor: The Sustainable Apiary

  • Sustainable apiaries require abundant and diverse drones. The average DCA contains 10,000 drones, but another 5,000 are always coming and going, so a DCA requires at least 15,000 drones to maintain it. If a DCA does not have enough drones, it will shut down, and the drones will fly elsewhere -- like guys in a college bars.
  • During peak season, the average honeybee colony produces sexually mature 200-500 drones.
  • Healthy drones are needed as well. That means that during development, they must be well-fed, kept warm, and not be exposed to any miticides. I found this info on miticides interesting because research shows that drone development starts earlier and ends later than queen-rearing. I have to check my facts, but I believe that recommendations advise treating for mites during that time when drones are still being raised (because miticides require certain temperatures to be effective.)
  • In a survey of beeks that start with a single hive only, 60% of them lose their bees because they have no backup resources.
  • Studies conducted by Dr. Jim Haskell as well as others indicate that new beeks who get local nucs from a mentor have and 80% survival rate their first winter. The success rate for those with southern packages is 20% for the first winter.

Dr. Larry Connor: Queen Quality
  • We all know bees have different jobs in the hive. Wax producers are one of the hottest groups.
  • When evaluating queen cells, cell size is not necessarily an indicator of quality. Dr. Connor indicated that one should look at the base of the cell (where it is connected to the comb) to see how much royal jelly is there. More royal jelly is desirable. Another indicator of a good queen is a lot of sculpting of the wax.
  • When inserting queen cells into a hive, place the queen cell against the comb if the colony is weak. If it's a strong colony, the cell may be placed between frames.
  • Russians will often keep their queens "caged" in their cells. As the queen begins to emerge, the bees add a wax cap over the cell and feed the queen through the cell. They will often keep their queens in cells this way for days.
  • When introducing a queen, there are a number of ways & tools that one can use. Dr. Connor mentioned that even a pink hair curler would work. LOL! I never would've though of that, but heck, why not?!
  • Laying workers can lay only 10 eggs a day. So if a queenless colony has a lot of drones, it likely has multiple (lots and lots) of laying workers.
Pink Curlers

Mike Palmer: Keeping Bees in the Frozen North
Mike Palmer: Brood Factories and Bee Bombs

I won't post too many notes here since these talks are essentially the same as the following talks he gave at the National Honey Show in England:
One thing that you don't get from those recorded talks, though, is a sense of his personality. He's a bit dry there at the show. However, hearing him on Saturday, his wicked sense of humor really came across. One of my favorite lines was when he spoke about living so close to the Canadian border. He said, "I make Canadian honey. My bees go across the border and come back speaking French."

One interesting bit of info I learned from him is that bees hate duct tape. He has a tool he uses to separate queens from the other bees. It's basically a box with a queen excluder nailed to the bottom. At a certain level along the wall, he has a line of duct tape. Bees who start climbing up the wall of this tool won't go up the duct tape and instead go down into the hive. (BTW, Dr. Connor mentioned that 10-20% of spring hives have multiple queens. Palmer says that when separating his queens, he's found up to 30% of his spring colonies have more than one queen.)

This past spring, a friend recommended Caron's book on bee biology, but I haven't gotten around to reading that. Mike, however, inspired me to do that, though, when he showed a photo of a queen and asked us to evaluate her. One of the things he pointed out as a sign of her quality was the deep crease across her thorax. I wouldn't have thought to look at that, but this morning, you can bet I looked for photos of my own queens to see about that! (Yes, my girls have it.) In any case, it was a reminder that we can't be effective beekeepers if we don't understand basic biology and know what to look for!

Mike is adamant about every beek treating for mites every year. (If you know me, you know I disagree.) However, viewing things from his perspective, I can understand why he'd feel this way. A big theme running throughout his presentations is that he has production hives for making honey and he has nucs for boosting production hives or making queens. He says that he never wants to split production hives. He wants them to get massive colonies, and he never wants them to slow down. He's a professional beekeeper who makes his living that way, so he's going to want to harvest the most honey possible. When you have enormous hives that never get a break, you're going to have lots of mites, too. 

He mentioned that he harvests his honey in August. As soon as he stops smelling goldenrod, he weighs his hives and feeds any that are underweight. (His target weight is 160 lbs.) For every 10lbs underweight a hive is, he will feed 1 gallon of 2:1 syrup. He feeds all of the syrup that hive needs all at once.

Steve Repasky: Keeping Healthy Honey Bees and Varroa Management

Basically, this was a talk that centered on varroa  -- how to recognize it, the dangers of it, how to monitor for it, how to treat it, the pros & cons of each treatment and monitoring method, etc. One interesting point he made was that sugar dusting was an effective hive monitoring method. However, as a treatment, it was less effective than screened bottom boards, which he claims provide a 10%-15% reduction in mite load. Is that true? I don't know. I don't sugar dust anyway. So far, I've been relying on brood breaks.

One thing he did say that I wholeheartedly agreed with was, "Not every management style is correct for you as a beekeeper... Management of beehives is as local as your own backyard."

Usually at meetings and conferences, there is a treat-treat-treat mentality, so while his talk was very focused on treatment, I appreciated that he didn't seem to advocate prophylactic treatment or treatment without considering all of the consequences. To me, although he seemed very pro-treatment, it was more of rational attitude of "monitor your bees and see what's going on. Then decide if they need treatment and what the best method given the circumstances would be." It was a refreshing change.

Steve Repasky: Swarm Management

This ended up being my favorite talk of the day by far. It wasn't as thorough as the talk Dr. Gilley gave earlier this year, but he included scenarios for us to analyze and respond to. For example, he gave use details about various hives with photos and asked us to ascertain what was happening and what the correct response to the situation should be. As an instructional designer, I totally dig interactive exercises like this.

His book Swarm Essentials covers all the info from his talk and then some.  However, here are some interesting factoids from his talk:

  • In Pennsylvania, where Repasky lives, swarm season typically begins 4 weeks after the dandelion begins or when purple-eyed drones appear in the hive. So when you see dandelion, this is the time to get ready for swarms, including getting necessary equipment together.
  • Swarm cells are usually on the bottom third of the comb. Supercedure cells are along the top 1/3. I've heard this over and over, and it may be true in Langs because there is more space at the bottom of the hive.  However, from my own experience with TBHs, I haven't found this to be true. My bees make swarm cells all along the edges, and I think it's because of the sloped hive walls. From the bees perspective, the entire edge is the "bottom of the comb."
  • Swarms usually occur between 11 am and 1 pm. Orientation flights usually happen between 3 pm-5 pm.

There is a rumor that Tom Seeley may be speaking at next year's SNEBA. Fingers crossed!

Friday, November 20, 2015

What do conventional beekeeping and toilet cleaners have in common?

Walking through the supermarket, this label on a bottle of bathroom cleaner jumped out at me.

According to this label, the active ingredient thymol "Kills 99.99% of germs." Though it's unclear whether that number refers to % of germs total or % of germ strains, either way, that's a lot of sanitizing power. Also, it's amazing to me is how little thymol is needed to destroy 99.99% of these germs -- only a teeny fraction of a percent by volume in a 26 oz bottle that will get used over and over again.

But what does this have to do with beekeeping? Derived from thyme, thymol is the active ingredient in a few mite treatments. (Apiguard, Apilife Var, and Thymovar I believe.) Many beeks use it to knock down varroa mites because it's supposed to be less harmful/disruptive to the colony than other chemical treatments (e.g., fluvalinate & coumaphos).

From my perspective, though, here's where things get sticky. Bee colonies are superorganisms that rely on thousands of microbes, including bacteria, yeasts, and molds to maintain a healthy balance. Scientists, it seems, have only begun to uncover the tip of the iceberg regarding the role of microbes in honeybee colonies, but they do know that they're important. For instance, bees need various bacteria and yeasts to turn indigestible pollen into the nutritious beebread they feed to their young. Bacteria in the bees' guts allow digestion to occur. Bacteria help increase survivorship of larvae. Microbes prevent uncapped honey from spoiling. Certain bacteria and viruses are necessary to keep worse actors (think AFB, EFB, chalkbrood) in check. The list of benefits goes on.

Thymol, like the bathroom cleaner label clearly advertises, is an indiscriminate killer that doesn't limit its powers to varroa mites. It goes after a whole range of things. So while I like the idea of thymol in my toilet, I'm not so keen on it inside my hive. (BTW, did you know thymol is also used in Listerine -- which I also avoid -- and can cause honey to smell like Listerine?)

Now that fall is here and the bees are "in bed," you might feel like some winter reading. Here is a small list of articles on thymol and on beneficial microbes: