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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Vindication!!!

I'm a big proponent of learning through reading and listening to experts. On the other hand, I also believe that you have to trust what you see with your own eyes. To quote Syrio Forel, the fencing teacher from The Game of Thrones, "My words lied. My eyes and my arm shouted out the truth, but you were not seeing."




That's why my #1 lesson learned from 2016 was pull old comb. Be ruthless. Forget what you've heard about reusing for three years and stop worry about the energy spent on drawing wax. After watching my bees for a couple of years, I could see the ones who'd been given a "jumpstart" with old comb constantly struggling. (BTW, by "old comb" I mean comb that was built during the previous season and contained brood at some point.) The ones that drew fresh comb outperformed "the cheaters" every time.

Finally, I came to the conclusion that I didn't need to keep old comb around because even during a horrible flow, my bees could still fill up their hives and start swarming. It made more sense to let them build fresh, clean comb. By doing so, I could kill two birds with one stone. 1) The bees would have a more healthful environment. 2) Swarming could be delayed (hopefully), or at least better managed.

Well, that was my personal conclusion, but now I've been vindicated! I read an article by Jennifer Berry and Keith Delaplane on the effects of comb age on honey bee colony growth and brood survivorship. Their research, conducted at the University of Georgia, compared colony growth and brood survivorship in hives with old comb vs. hives with new comb over a three-year period. It's a fascinating article, so I highly recommend reading it. However, if you decide not to, here's a summary. Colonies with fresh comb produced a greater area of brood, a greater area of sealed brood, and heavier individual bees. Interestingly, colonies on old comb had a higher survivorship of brood, but as the study pointed out, that really is not a reason to keep old comb around. To quote the authors, "it is possible that the economic savings of using long-lasting comb may be offset by deleterious effects of old comb acting as a biological sink for toxins and pathogens or as a physical constraint on larval development."

Well, that's it in a nutshell, but here are a few more tidbits from the article that I found especially interesting.

On Age of Comb

The article indicated that the combs used in the experiment were of unknown age, but they "were dark and heavy as typical of combs one or more years old." [Bold face is mine.] OK, so maybe some  or most of the comb involved in the experiment was really old, but some could have been only a year-old. So I feel like my decision to cull 1-year-old comb isn't so crazy (or wasteful) after all.

On Brood Production

  • Old comb harbors numerous toxins and disease-causing contaminants such as nosema and foulbrood, which are spread from colony to colony by infectious wax. The queen may avoid laying in these cells.
  • Old comb may also be permeated with brood pheromones that can inhibit egg-laying because the queen perceives the cells to be occupied.
  • "Bees prefer to store honey and pollen in cells that have been previously used for brood rear-ing. In the wild, as a colony grows and continues to add new comb, brood rearing gradually shifts into this new comb and the honey is stored in the old brood comb." Actually, I thought this was interesting because all the books say that you should add empty bars between the brood and honey areas to keep the bees by the entrance and honey in the back. I've never found this to work for me. My bees just keep moving the brood further and further toward the back and storing honey in the emptied nest. Now I know why!
On Brood Weight
  • The cells in old comb are smaller than in new comb. As a result, the bees that are produced in old comb don't grow as much as bees in new comb. In fact, "Diminishing space may force larvae to moult to the non-feeding prepupal phase prematurely, causing nurse bees to cap the cells before larvae have developed maximally."
  • In this study, bees raised in old comb averaged 8.3% lighter than bees raised on new comb. However, other studies have shown that bees raised on new comb can be up to 19% heavier than those raised on old comb. It may not sound like much, but put it into human terms. Let's say an average woman weighs 140 lbs. A difference of 8.3% - 19% is 11.6 - 26.6 lbs. If a normal, healthy 140-lb woman lost 20 lbs, she'd be pretty unhealthy.
On Brood Survivorship

  • This is the one area in which old comb sort of outperformed new comb. Because comb absorbs and retains pheromones, the authors hypothesized that nurse bees may have been more stimulated to care for brood in old comb.
  • However, this performance was qualified because although brood in old comb was more likely to survive, colonies with new comb produced far more adult bees. This is probably due to the sheer volume of brood produced in colonies with new comb. More eggs are laid and more brood is sealed in colonies with new comb. (See table before.)
  • Although more brood survives in colonies with old comb, the number of adults in colonies with old comb was still lower. At least 35 different contaminants in wax have been documented. These contaminants may cause a high mortality rate in adult bees. Additionally, it's possible that returning foragers have a more difficult time locating their colony as contaminants may mask the hive's signature scent.



What do you think? How long do you wait to cull comb? Have you observed any differences in colonies with a preponderance of old or new comb?


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Little Buggers

As I was working by the kitchen window this morning, a black shadow caught my attention. It was a big black bear with three cubs.

Mama and a couple of her babies by the chicken coop

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One of the things that I like about my bear fence is that the "rails" are made of a plastic tape that has metal woven through it. So if you accidentally brush it, you won't get a shock. You have to clamp on to it with your hands (or mouth if you're a critter) to move it. But then it really does deliver a powerful shock. It's a great feature when you have lots of little ones in the yard.

However, it looks like I'll have to rethink this design since Boo Boo can slip right under the rails.

Look at that rapscallion! He sneaked in and out twice this morning!


I predict a trip to Tractor Supply in the very near future. I'm swapping those tapes out for the kind of wire my grandpa used for his cattle pen. Instantaneous zap. Sorry kids.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Latest Notes

It's been a wet, wet spring, which is wonderful! The rain has everything growing so beautifully this year. However, it's been a bit tricky timing inspections. I also have a sick hen on my hands (a separate long story for another day), and nursing her has been time consuming to say the least. But I found a quick window of opportunity, and I took it.

The nucs
Overall, I was really pleased with the nucs.

Celestia and Bubblegum. These two ladies were chockfull of brood and honey. Since they were out of space, I actually had to donate some of the honey bars Hippolyte for to cure. I left each of them with 3-4 empty bars. Hopefully, they can build/start filling them before the clover ends (typically the first couple of weeks in July).

Peach has shattered all my expectations of her. She did so-so hive last year, and didn't come out of winter all that well. However, she boomed this spring. I chalk her growth up to a donation of capped brood and the removal of a bunch of old comb.

About three weeks ago, I made a shook swarm with her old queen for my neighbor. He stopped by last week to tell me what an amazing queen she was and how spectacular her brood pattern was. Not to toot my own horn, but while he thought she was one of his best queens ever, I considered her just ok.  So this is where I'm going to make a plug for treatment-free beekeeping. Dr. Seeley's studies show that treated queens and drones are nowhere near as fertile and vigorous as feral bees that are untreated. In fact, studies show that using chemicals in the hive actually decreases fertility.

Anyway, yesterday, I noticed that she had successfully requeened, and the bees -- oh, the bees were spilling out of the nuc. Like Celestia and Bubblegum, she had also filled up all her bars, so I donated 2-3 bars of brood to Buttercup.

Peach's bars and the underside of her roof were covered in bees.

Buttercup was a second split made from Celestia three weeks ago when I could tell that one split wasn't going to be enough. As far as splits go, she was pretty weak -- just 2-3 bars of brood & stores. But even she had managed to fill out about half of the nuc (about 7-8 bars). Hopefully, the donation from Peach will give her a good jumpstart.

The Big Girls

Austeja was the only disappointment of the day. I'd expected lots of progress; instead, there were very few bees and no new comb or brood. I suspect they absconded. The stragglers left behind appeared to have tried raising emergency queens but failed. Looking at the comb that I'd moved over to this hive with her split, I realized that all the combs were kind of old. Maybe that's why they took off.

To keep her moving in the right direction, I donated 5 bars of bees and brood on fresh white comb from Elsa because I wanted to keep Elsa from swarming. In hindsight, though, I wish I'd simply combined her with one of the nucs.

Aborted attempts to make queens in Austeja

Elsa is like Old Faithful, making honey and bees. Got no complaints. However, as I mentioned before, I do wish that I'd either combined Austeja with one of the nucs. A good alternative would have been moving Elsa's queen over to Austeja instead of just brood. Now I have this huge colony that still hasn't had a brood break this year. Perhaps, I'll ask around to see if someone wants a queen in a couple of weeks.

Hippolyte is humming along. Nothing exceptionally good or bad to report.

Persephone remains my problem child. When I requeened Persephone with a swarm cell from one of the nucs this year, I finally gotten rid of all the "bee-tches" from the psycho packages I bought 3 years ago. But she continues to be a menace. She's the sole reason I wear protective gear. At times, I've thought of burning her to the ground, but she's just incredibly productive and healthy.

Of course, I have to put things in perspective. 3 years ago, she was un-inspectable. My entire body would be covered in stings within seconds of opening the cover. Nowadays, she mostly issues a black cloud around my head, and my gloves take the brunt of her attacks. Compared to the old days, she practically treats me like a lover. I suppose this is what happens though when you name a hive after an underworld goddess -- you get bees from Hell.

Anyway, I could tell that she was starting to think about swarming -- nearly out of space, lots of queen cups and drones in the making... Ideally, it would be nice to wait for swarm cells before splitting her, but the truth is that I simply don't want to handle her any more than I have to. Waiting for swarm cells means having to crack her open a few more times, and she scares me a little! My neighbor doesn't mind uppity bees since he suits up completely for every inspection, so I gave him a preemptive shook swarm from Persephone, which he will take miles down the road.

In an emergency situation like this, it takes about 14 days for a new queen to emerge (July 4th -- Independence Day!). Then another 3-10 days to lay eggs. So we're looking at eggs somewhere around July 7th-14th. To be honest, though, I haven't decided yet if I even want to look at her again until harvest. Quite frankly, it would be a relief if she died out and left me lots of honey.

Don't remember which hive this was from, but it's so nice to see honey in the hives!!!

So that's it for the bees. The catalpa and clover are blooming, but they should be on their way out soon. So far this year, though, reminds me a lot of 2015 when we had exceptional spring and fall harvests and bees continued find nectar over the summer. Fingers crossed that the resemblance continues.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Full Beeyard Again

Last fall, an acquaintance of mine expressed an interest in seeing the bees since she'd like to take up the insanity that is beekeeping. Given the dearth we experienced most of last year and the onset of winter, my bees were super cranky. Not wanting to provide a bad first experience, I advised her to wait until spring.

During my previous full inspection, I'd made a 50/50 split with Celestia. However, I had no idea which hive Her Royal Highness was in, so I asked D to check with me.

D finally gets to see the bees. 

It turned out that Celestia was still overflowing with bees and queen cells, so I made a second split from her into Buttercup. However, she was indeed queenless. The queen had gone to Hippolyte, and the bees were busy filling that hive with comb.

We also took a quick peek at the nucs Bubblegum and Peach. Bubblegum was starting to make queen cups. Peach was completely un-inspectable. Have no idea why she was so angry, but it wasn't worth it. I closed the nuc up immediately, but the bees were all the way at the back, so she looked fairly full, too. (BTW, the other hives were beautifully behaved. Didn't even need gloves or jacket for them.)

That was on May 19. Fast forward to May 31. I knew Bubblegum was getting close to swarming, but I just never got back to her. Then yesterday, while listening to my daughter practice her guitar, a distinctive buzzing started up during This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land. I turned to find a small collection of bees gathering in my fireplace. Say what?!?!? After lighting a fire to smoke out any bees that were considering setting up shop in my chimney, I resolved to make another full inspection the very next day.

Silly bees. Chimneys are for fires.

Persephone: I don't know what the deal is with this colony, but they've abandoned the front entrance and have made their own entrance along the side of the hive. So their brood is toward the middle back, and all the honey is at the front. It's kind of inconvenient for me, but they've never expressed any consideration for me anyway.

The queen cells that I'd donated from Celestia were all open, and eggs were present - yay! I was planning to give the new queen and some bars to my friend J, but as soon as I found the new queen, I lost her again. Anyway, since all was well and good, I closed up.

Bubblegum: Bubblegum had a quite a few capped queen cells. My guess is that she's the one that swarmed and sent scouts down my chimney. Using the swarm cells, I was able to make a split for J. He may appreciate her offspring better anyway since Bubblegum is way mellower than Persephone.

Peach: I had promised a split to my neighbor, and Peach looked like she was starting swarm prep (backfilling, etc.), though no queen cells yet. Made up a shook swarm with her queen, and A will take her to his beeyard in a neighboring town this evening. Also, to speed up the requeening process, Peach got a bar of queen cells from Celestia.

Can you find Peach's queen? She's about halfway down the photo on the left.

Celestia: Celestia is one of the splits I made during the last inspection. The piping of a new queen indicated her presence, though, I didn't find her. 3 queen cells were about to emerge, and rather than let them be eliminated, I moved them to Peach. I also gave Celestia a bar of eggs from Hippolyte in case I had screwed up and moved the queen. Fingers crossed.

With no babies to care for, Celestia is making honey

Buttercup: Made this split from Celestia on the 19th with swarm cells. The queen has emerged, but no eggs yet. Just in case, she also got a donation of eggs from Hippolyte.

Hippolyte: Looks beautiful. Gave her lots of space and will try not to pester her for at least a couple of weeks.

Elsa: She had 3 empty bars left, and it looked like she was thinking about swarm prep, but she hadn't made any queen cells yet. Although, I'd prefer to use swarm cells for a split, I decided to split her preemptively since I'm trying to space out my inspections more this year. Moved some bars into Austeja so that about 1/3 of the hive is now open. Again, I don't know where the queen is, so will check in a few days.

Elsa is starting to cap honey, too.

Austeja: She's got bees again thanks to Elsa. However, I did learn a lesson. I had left her entrance open while she was empty in case some scouts decided to check her out. But I neglected to check the hive weekly, and the very first bar I pulled out had a small wasp nest attached. Fortunately, it was really tiny, and I only needed to rip it off and stomp it.

Surprise! Surprise!

Unfortunately, I never did get around to retrofitting Hippolyte and Austeja with insulation while they were empty, but oh well. All the hives are full again.

I have no idea which queen this is, but she's purty.

According to the US Drought Monitor, my area has finally been downgraded all the way from Severe Drought a few months ago to just Abnormally Dry. The forecast predicts a week of rain starting tomorrow, so maybe we'll be back to normal soon.

No room at the beeyard
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