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. 

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