Monday, November 25, 2013

The New Worker Bees

I already new that honeybees were being trained to detect landmines. However, today, a friend of mine sent me a link to an article about how honeybees can be trained to detect cancer in addition to tuberculosis, diabetes, and any other disease that creates an odorous biochemical biomarker.

Yet another reason why bees are so freakin' cool!

Image from:

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Disaster Strikes Again

If you read yesterday's post, you'll know all about the bear attack on my hive. Unfortunately, that was not the end of yesterday's misery. Shortly after I'd uploaded that post, there was a horrible rumbling crashing noise that turned out to be a tree falling on our house. I'm ok, but it scared the pants off me as several branches hit the window I was sitting near. Thank God that the tree hadn't broken a foot or so lower to the ground -- I might not be writing this today.

As it was, my guardian angel did an awesome job directing the fall of that tree. It kind of grazed our roof, but it missed the kids' trampoline, our patio furniture, and outdoor lights.

Thank goodness for minimal damage.

Unfortunately, when we went outdoors to inspect the damage last night, we also discovered that the blasted bear had come back. There wasn't much I could do about it in the dark and the wind. Plus, shortly after the tree fell, the power company came by to turn off our neighborhood's electricity in order to work on the lines. Without light or water, there was no way I was even going to attempt doing anything with the bees. My husband turned the hive upside down over the comb to keep them warm.

This morning, though, I found that the !@#$% bear had come back a third time. A few clusters of bees were still alive, and it just wasn't in me to abandon them. I salvaged the few combs that I could and put them into a nuc. It was really hard, though. First of all, if you remember, I'd rubber banded the combs onto the bars, so I had to deal with those first. After I cut them off, I found that because the bands had sliced into the comb, the comb had a tendency to fall apart. Also, the weather was bitterly cold last night/this morning (in the teens), so the honey was super thick, gooey, and sticky. I could barely pry the combs apart, and my popsicle fingers didn't really want to move either.

Instead of rubber bands, today, I used wire stapled onto wooden bars.
I just kind of shoved that wire into the comb to hold it up.

When I consider how beautifully the bees constructed and organized the comb this summer, I'm appalled by the Frankenhive I've cobbled together. How I hope that bear chokes on the rubber bands I used yesterday!

I have no idea if I have a queen. Even if I do, I doubt that the bees will make it. There is so much empty space in that nuc that even in the garage (where I've stored them for now), I don't see how they'll be able to keep it warm. I suppose this is where I made my mistake. I probably should have put them into the nuc and into the garage yesterday.

If I can't come up with some kind of workable solution to the bear issue, I'm considering giving up the bees. I just can't lose all my bees again. After all the time, energy, and love I've poured into them, yesterday broke my heart.

I've just learned that my part of the state is one of the most heavily bear-infested areas there is. However, I also live in suburbia, and I'm reluctant to install an electric fence. Firstly, I have lots of kids in my yard, and I can only imagine how pissed off some parents would be if their kid got shocked. Secondly, my neighborhood is the kind where I don't think the neighbors would appreciate the aesthetics of an electric fence. There is a guy down the road who has chickens, and I've heard rumblings from some people about "The Beverly Hillbillies" down the road.

So now, I'm looking for advice. Do you have any ideas for how to deter/manage bear attacks? For example, I'm considering much smaller hives. Although swarming would be more of an issue, I could possibly store them in an outdoor shed area in the winter. I don't know. What do you think?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Very Unhappy Hour at the Top Bar

At 6:30 this morning, my husband roused me out of bed with these words:

"Julie, a bear got your hive.

I rushed out in a bathrobe to find this mess.

So many combs destroyed. So many bees dead. I didn't know what to do but try to put it all back together again.

The first thing I did was put some sugar in the bottom of the hive and moisten it. If by some miracle the queen survived in good shape, I wanted to make sure they didn't die of starvation. Then I started to address the broken combs.

Some bees still huddling in the hive.
Though I hope they were huddled around the queen, I'm not very hopeful.

I didn't have any hairclips to clip the comb on, and it was so cold I didn't feel like taking additional time to cut wire mesh to make holders for the comb. String turned out to be too unwieldy, so I settled on rubber bands.

Actually, the rubber bands weren't such a great choice either. They cut into the comb that was already so brittle from the cold, and because of their elasticity, they didn't keep the comb attached to the bars either. Definitely, this was one occasion on which I really would've liked to have frames.

Speaking of like-to-haves, I also wished I had a full-length bee suit. During the summer, I usually wore a long-sleeve shirt and veil for inspections. However, the bees were furious this morning, so I donned a jacket. Even with two shirts and a jacket, I still got stung multiple times. In fact, I discovered that my jacket with zippered veil is not entirely bee-proof as several enterprising ladies found their way through a tiny gap in front right where the two zippers meet.

One thing I noticed was that most of the bars that were left were honey bars. I didn't see any larvae at all. I guess the bear preferred whatever brood the colony had.

By accident, I noticed that if I put a piece of styrofoam next to the bees, they all started climbing aboard. That made shaking them back into the hive a bit easier.

In the end, I managed to get about 11 bars back into the hive. The rest of it got sorted out into groups.
  • Empty comb that was in bad shape, so I put it aside to melt
  • Empty comb that I kept in order to put into next year's hives for any new bees I order
  • Comb that was mostly capped syrup, which I'll feed back to the bees -- either this year or in the spring
  • Comb that was mostly honey, which I'll probably keep for myself.

Right to left:
1) comb that will be sorted for me or the bees,
2) empty comb
3) honey I scraped out of the roof that will be strained and given to bees

Some live bees that I picked out of the bowls.
I let them groom the honey off before taking them outside again.

I wish I could say I was pleased with this morning's work. The rubber bands prevent a tight fit between bars. I don't even know if I have a queen, so probably all that work trying to save them was for nothing after all. To top it all off, we discovered my husband is allergic to bee stings.

Ugh. My heart feels sick.

See part 2 of this story.

Friday, November 22, 2013

High-Tech Top Bar Hive

I know, I know -- the idea of a high-tech top bar hive is sort of an oxymoron. However, here's a wicked cool video of a top bar hive made using a CNC router, which is computer controlled. It also appears to be assembled without any nails or screws.


Did you watch it? I told you it was wicked cool! :-)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Does Size Matter?

Yesterday, I had the a delightful conversation with a bee buddy, and the issue of smokers arose. He wanted to know what kind of smoker I was using because he was considering purchasing one for himself. Since there isn't much going on for me in my bee life right now, I thought the question would make a good blog entry.

This past spring I got a large smoker (4"x10") with a pointed top and guard. I chose this larger size/shape based on some comments I'd read. Basically, the consensus seemed to be that smaller smokers (4"x7" and smaller) are harder to keep lit. Also, someone mentioned that smaller dome-top smokers go out more frequently due to condensation that forms inside the smoker. Nobody commented on taller smokers with domed tops.

BTW, here is my favorite comment from that online discussion:
There simply is no comparison between the amount of smoke you can lay down with the larger smokers. The smaller ones can't compare, in that they just don't put out enough smoke, are more difficult to keep lit, run out of fuel more quickly, etc. 
Here's a quick test - can you, in less than 30 seconds, put out enough smoke that the entire top of the hive can no longer be seen? If not, you needed a bigger smoker. There's times when you want to lay down that much smoke. Situations like a "dropped box". Yes, it will happen.
Wow! That guy is talking about making some serious smoke! I haven't tried that test yet, but I think I'm going to have to because it will totally impress my boys.

Since I have only one smoker, I can't provide any useful comparisons. However, based on my experiences this past summer, I'm glad that I got a big one because if it's not very tightly packed, it does have a tendency to burn out too quickly. (Though if it's properly packed, it will smoke all day.) I can only imagine how much more quickly a smaller one would die out.

There are several types of smokers available, though most of them seem to be variations on a theme. Probably the coolest one I've seen is the imker pfeife, aka German bee pipe, which is a mouth-held smoker. The video above shows a bee pipe. Apparently, those German bees are quite docile!

For those who want smoke without a smoker, some companies like Brushy Mountain sell Liquid Bee Smoke (though I've heard of people simply using liquid smoke from the grocery store), which can be mixed with water and applied with a spray bottle. When I see this product, it kind of makes me go "Hmmmm....," but since I have no personal experience, I'll refrain from any other comments. If you've tried this stuff, what do you think of it?

Of course, Sam Comfort doesn't use a smoker either. He just puffs a couple of times across a smoldering leaf. (BTW, I have been accused a number of times of "having a thing" for Sam. I would like to set the record straight -- the rumor is kind of true. LOL! ;-)  

If you're reading this, I hope you'll weigh in on the question of what makes a good smoker. What kind of smoker do you use? Are there any features you think are important to have? Have you ever hacked a smoker? I'd love to hear what you think!


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Drone Lovesong

Now that the bees aren't flying much, I'm back to watching bees and beekeepers on YouTube until spring. (sigh)

Today, I found this video of Sam Comfort of Anarchy Apiaries on YouTube. In addition to bucking every established beekeeping practice known to man, he's also known for his bee songs and ukulele playing. Anyway, this tune tickled my fancy, so I thought I'd share.

Monday, November 4, 2013

"Newbee" Notes

My first summer is over, and I'm heading into winter. Overall, this first season has been a very good experience, and nothing catastrophic happened (no absconding, no wonky cross-combing, no dead queens). However, I've learned a lot (i.e., screwed up a lot), so I figured I'd pass on some things I've learned from my mistakes. Hopefully, others can benefit from my headaches.

Order bees early.

If one orders packages of southern-raised bees, one can probably place orders well into February or even March. Getting bees from my area of the country is a bit trickier because they're in short supply and high demand.

I had very specific requirements for the kind of bees I wanted. They had to be northern-bred because they'd have a better chance of surviving winter than packages from the South. They needed to be treatment-free and hygienic -- again, I was looking for survivor bees. I also wanted bees raised on natural comb.

This left me with about 3 or 4 beekeepers meeting my requirements. I started calling around the first week of February, and most of them were already sold out. Lesson learned: Plan ahead and order early.

Get recommendations before buying.  

This past winter, I got so excited about finding top bar nucs that met all my requirements -- and were available for order -- that I impulsively purchased them without finding out more about the apiary. Afterward, I read a number of negative reviews about them on a forum I belong to -- real horror stories about poorly laying queens, no queens, no bees, no refunds, etc. Let me tell you, I was sweating bullets until the minute I picked them up.

As it turned out, I was one of the blessed few who got really great bees and had a refund processed quickly, but I did agree with many others that the customer service could've been much better. So I have some mixed feelings about whether I would order from him again. Fortunately, I don't have to make that choice because the website of the apiary I purchased from is down, and their domain is up for sale.

I know my complaints sound petty when the worst thing that happened was me fretting all winter, wondering if I'd get my bees or be out a few hundred dollars. Still... I would've preferred to avoid the worry (and possibly worse) by ordering from someone with a good reputation. 

Have a backup hive.

Originally, I ordered 2 nucs so that I'd have backup resources if I needed them. Unfortunately, the week before I picked them up, the apiary I purchased from had a bear attack, and one of the nucs I'd ordered was destroyed. The other nuc was very strong and made lots of bees and comb. I let it grow as big as it could thinking that it would be better to have a huge, strong hive for next year's nectar flow and that I could make splits from swarm cells next year.

In hindsight, I wish I had split my colony this year -- maybe even two or three times -- because they could easily have handled it. I would've had smaller hives, but I'd have had plenty of backup resources if needed. I would've also had 3 or 4 hives instead of just one for the flow next year.

Now that I'm going into winter, I really, really wish I had more than one hive in the off-chance this one doesn't make it. And this is the super inconvenient part of beekeeping -- one has no idea if one will need bees until about late February or March. However, bees go on sale during the winter, and usually by the time you know if you need them, they're sold out -- especially if you want northern-bred, treatment-free, natural cell-sized bees like I do. So I'll probably order a package or nuc this winter just in case, but it would have been nice to not need to.

Always bring a smoker to inspections.

I try to use smoke sparingly because it bothers my eyes and I don't enjoy smelling like a wood fire. Plus, I've heard that smoke alters the flavor of the honey. Usually, I use a spray bottle containing water mixed with peppermint oil or sugar syrup to keep the bees calm. However, I've discovered that there are times when you absolutely need a smoker, and it's better to have one ready than to stop everything to light it.

Plus, I started positioning my smoker on top of the bars so that the smoke wafts over the hive during the inspection. Kind of keeps everyone calm without having to pump too much.

BTW, if I need to keep the smoker lit for a while, it helps to pack it tight. They burn out too quickly if they're not jammed full of fuel.

Sometimes, feeding really is ok.

I want the bees to take care of themselves. I want to interfere as little as possible. With that said, sometimes it's just not possible when building that first-year colony.

This spring, my little nuc was born in New York state, where it spent the season building the colony rather than putting away honey. By the time I got it, the spring flow in my area was pretty much over. We had two, maybe three, good weeks of clover and then a dearth. I didn't start feeding until about the end of July/early August, and by that time, they had eaten what few stores they had put away (we're talking about even uncapping the little honey there was) and stopped building.

Since I had no plans to take honey this year anyway, it really didn't matter if there was sugar mixed with honey. So I was kind of kicking myself in the pants that I didn't take someone's advice to feed until they had built out about 20 bars. Then by the time the fall flow came, I think they would have filled the hive. As it is, I still have about 12-15 empty bars.

Move drone comb to the end of the brood nest.

I followed a well-known TBH beekeeper's instructions to always keep comb in the exact order that the bees build it. I found that this led to a somewhat disorganized hive (IMHO) that didn't have a proper honey barrier. This meant that the queen was laying all over the place.

I took some different advice from another well-known apiarist to move drone comb to the end of the brood nest so that it could be filled with honey after the drones had emerged. After I did, my hive got much more organized.

Periodically, flip bars around.

The same respected beekeeper who said to keep bars in order, also recommended putting bars back into the hive the same way they came out. This means that whatever side is facing the front of the hive when you take it out should face the front when you put it back in. The reason for this is that natural comb isn't perfectly straight. It curves a bit, and the curves on one bar will follow the curves on the bar before it. So if you put things back the way they came out, you'll keep all the curves in line.

I was quite neurotic about following this advice. I even drew a line in black magic marker along the ends of my bars. That way, when I put the bars back, I knew they were in "right" if the black marks were all on the same end.

Recently, someone on a forum I follow recommended just the opposite. He said that when he sees the comb starting to curve, he puts it in the hive backward. This creates a less-than-ideal bee space between the combs, forcing the bees to "fix it." As a result, this beekeeper says he gets straighter, more uniform comb that can be easily swapped between his hives if necessary.

I don't know if this qualifies as a real "mistake" on my part, but I will definitely try flipping bars around periodically next year and see what happens.

Keep some really big salad tongs in my hive kit.

Super big tongs are the perfect tool for cleaning up collapse comb. I only had one comb collapse on me, but cleaning up sure would've been easier if I'd had the tongs in the kit with me. You can read about how I learned this lesson if you like.

Take better notes about what's happening in nature.

All the people I've met and all the books I've read say things like, "Do XYZ by such-and-such a date." In watching the bees, I don't think they really pay attention to the calendar at all. Next year, I plan to take better notes about what is going on in nature (temperatures, weather patterns, what's blooming, animals that are migrating/hibernating/waking up) and see if I can correlate all that info to what is happening in the hive.

I think I need to come up with an app. Anyone want to help program???

Trap wasps in the spring.

I neglected to set out any yellow jacket or paper wasp traps this spring and am now inundated with wasps. As soon as the weather started cooling off and forage began to disappear, they came nosing around the bee feeder and hive. While they have been unsuccessful in their attempt to rob my bees (who guard the hive ferociously), I don't want them around my kids. Seriously, there are hundreds of them in the yard swarming around the playset. I'm constantly removing wasp nests, and we've had three wasp-related incidents this summer. I don't need wasps stinging the neighbors' children or mine.

I'm sure that traps in the spring won't eradicate the wasps entirely, but I'm hoping to cut down on the number of wasp colonies in the area if I continue to place a bunch of traps every year when they are establishing their nests.

Stop panicking over every little thing.

Bees don't read the same books I do, and when they don't do things "the right way" I wig out. In every instance that I've panicked, they've been following their own schedule and needs. In every instance, they've been right, and things have worked out beautifully.


Maybe after the spring swarm season, I'll update this post. By then I'll have a full year of beekeeping under my belt.