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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Inspection Notes: A few brief notes and lots of rambling

I felt a bit guilty opening the hives today. They were sealed so tightly with propolis that it felt like breaking into Ft. Knox. However, the day was perfect, and all the guards were off-duty.

The propolis looks a bit like caramel to me. Way stickier and not nearly as tasty, though.

Bee carrying propolis

During the last inspection, the hives were overflowing with nectar. In the past nine days, though, a lot of that lovely honey has been eaten up. Conclusion: our summer dearth has begun. There was one exception, though: Princess Peach has proven to be a real peach. She alone is still packed full of nectar that positively drips out of the combs when I lift them. I don't know why she's able to bring in so much more nectar than the others, but I hope she survives the winter because I want more bees from her. 
As far as brood goes:
  • Peach's colony has exploded. There were tons of new bees. Lots of capped brood, larvae and eggs, too. 
  • Hippolyte and Bubblegum also had all stages of brood whereas they didn't last week. 
  • Austeja had no capped brood, but there were eggs and larvae. 
  • Persephone. I saw neither eggs nor brood in Persephone, but I did see Her Royal Highness again. Also, the bees are busy building comb, so I figure she simply needs another week. I probably just missed the eggs.

Persephone -- My Black Beauty, over on the right side of the photo.
She's super fast and camera-shy.

My real dilemma is deciding whether to continue feeding the splits. (Peach, Bubblegum, and Persephone have all been getting about a pint a week as a sort of insurance policy against starving while waiting for their queens to emerge.) If you'd asked me two months ago whether I should feed. I would've answered with an unqualified "yes" because these are new splits going through a dearth. However, the headache of trying to control swarming over the last two months has caused me to reevaluate my feelings about feeding. 

Frequently, I've heard people advising to feed during certain times, including:
  1. Settling in a new package.
  2. Supplementing a split that doesn't have many foragers
  3. During the fall to bring a hive up to winter weight
  4. During the winter to avoid starvation
  5. Stimulate brood production in late winter/early spring to take advantage of the main nectar flow
  6. During a dearth to maintain brood production
  7. Stimulate swarming in order to make packages/nucs/queens

Obviously, Reasons 1 & 7 don't apply to me. I don't have a package, and I don't want to stimulate swarming. In fact, a combination of feeding my packages during a strong nectar flow and not having time to manage them proactively is what got me into my current situation (lots of splits) to begin with. Reason 2 is a hard one to ignore. My hives are not yet as strong as I'd like; however, they are foraging. The remaining reasons all seem to revolve around manipulating the colony to achieve a particular size or weight. There is a certain sort of logic in those strategies, too. It stands to reason that if one has more bees that are the right age for foraging at the beginning of a flow, then one will collect more honey. If one has a certain amount of honey & bees, then the bees will have more to eat and stay warmer during winter. I get it.

On the other hand, I've been thinking a lot lately about how bee colonies expand and contract based on the amount of available resources. That's why nucs are able to survive the winter. No one has ever seen a 55-lb nuc (which is the recommended winter weight for my area). The bees simply know how much honey they need and how big the colony should be to get through the winter. Then they contract (or expand) to that size. A Swedish blogger that I follow frequently mentions how a fellow local beek of his overwinters colonies on 2 frames. Did I mention that he was Swedish? To me that's dumbfounding. I've been to Scandinavia -- they have some seriously cold weather up there!

Princess Peach's queen with capped brood and larvae

So, the main question I've been grappling with is how to balance my desires and goals for my hives. One doesn't get much honey off of two frames, and quite selfishly, I want honey. However, my primary goal is to have healthy bees. For me, "healthy" and "productive" are not necessarily synonymous. Obviously, I want my colonies to produce honey and to produce new bees, but not at the risk of their health. And that's my quandary -- Will my colonies fail to thrive (or worse, starve) if I don't feed them during this dearth? Is it healthy to stimulate bees by feeding them sugar? If I feed, will they swarm during this poor time of year?

Another issue compounding my dilemma is the fact that I'm not going to be around much for the next three weeks. I have a couple who will be house/dog-sitting for me, but they're not beeks, and I don't want to create a situation (because of feeding) that they'll have to deal with.

It's so easy doling advice out to others, but deciding on a course of action for myself is much harder.

Despite the dearth, I still see some nectar and pollen coming into the hives, and all of the hives have foragers, so I'm making the call to not feed. Wild bees don't get syrup -- it's do or die for them. I'm counting on that instinct in my own girls to see them through my absence. (It's still hard for me to admit that I need them far more than they need me.) However, if it turns out that I've made the wrong decision and things go pear-shaped, I should still have enough time before fall to rectify the situation before winter arrives.

Fingers crossed.

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