Friday, June 27, 2014

How/When Do I Insert New Bars?

Lately, I've encountered a lot of people asking:
  • I've added new bars to the hive. Why aren't my bees building on them?
  • How come my bees have stopped building comb?
  • When do I add new bars?
  • My bees have started building comb. Can I take out the divider board now?
Basically, all these questions come down to proper management of the hive. Les Crowder (who uses end entrances) and Christy Hemenway (who has side entrances) have both written in detail on this subject. I highly recommend checking out the detailed diagrams in their books, which clearly illustrate how to manage your TBH during Spring, Summer, and Autumn. I also recommend Wyatt Mangum's book available through his website. No diagrams, but lots and lots of notes on the subject.

Books by Les Crowder and Christy Hemenway

Wyatt Mangum's book

 I won't go into great detail on hive management in this post, but I will provide some basic info for people who just want to know if they should add a bar. Addtionally, I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but if you stick with me, I promise that we'll eventually cover the following issues:
  • How to add bars to your hive
  • When to add bars to your hive

Background Info

Before we dig into these bigger questions, though, let's skim over some basic stuff that we should all understand about TBHs and bees. 

The TBH is basically a horizontal box with lots of bars hanging across the top. The hive will either have end entrances or side entrances. The amount of space that the bees get is limited through the use of one or two boards called a divider board. Divider boards can be moved around to give the bees more or less space as needed.

When a package is installed, the bees are put into the hive closes to the entrance. If you have end entrances, your bees started off looking like this:

If you have side entrances, your bees looked more like this.

However, some time has passed, and your bees have built out some comb. They may have even filled up the space that you gave them. Right now, they're probably starting to look something like the diagrams below. Note:
  • Your bees probably have a thin band of honey at the top of each brood comb.  However, I didn't show this in my diagrams because I'm too lazy to draw them.
  • If you're lucky, you may have some dedicated honey bars. These form what is called a "honey barrier." Do not freak if you don't see any dedicated honey bars. Remember, you have a new package or nuc. Your bees are trying to build up their colony. You may not see honey bars until the fall. 

Obviously, it's time to add bars, but what's the right way to do that?
When you add bars, you want to do so in a way that manipulates the bees' natural tendencies, so you need to understand what it is they want to do.
  • Bees like to maintain proper "bee space" in their hives. This is about 3/8" between combs. If there is too much space between combs (which is what occurs when the beekeeper adds a bar), the bees will build comb to fill in the gap.
  • When foragers come home from their trips abroad, they bring home presents (in the form of pollen and nectar) for the hive. Like any weary traveler, they dump their luggage right inside the door with receiver bees. At night, the bees move the honey and pollen to where it needs to be. Some of it gets moved to the brood nest for easy access. Extra nectar and pollen get moved to dedicated combs for just honey at the back/edges of the nest. The division between the brood nest and the honey bars is called the honey barrier.
  • The queen and all her nurse bees believe in working smart and not hard. It's much easier for them if the brood nest stays consolidated in one area of the hive. Therefore, the queen does not like to cross the honey barrier.
  • Bees reproduce by casting swarms. However, bees are kind of like people in that they prefer to wait for just "the right time" to reproduce, when they have the resources for a "baby."
    So imagine this scenario: The bees are putting up honey and building a nice honey barrier. The queen won't cross the barrier, and there isn't any space in the nest to build new combs for her to lay in. This means that the hive is getting crowded, and the bees feel there are plenty of resources set aside to help a new queen get started. Once the bees become honey bound like this, their little bee brains think, "Hey, this is a great time to reproduce! Let's swarm!"
To stop your bees from swarming, you have to give them space. You have to add bars. Where should you put them, though?

How to Add Bars to Your Hive

These two diagrams show hives to which bars have been added. (I apologize for showing an end entrance, only, but I'll try to add notes that will help those with side entrances.) Hopefully, the expression on the faces clearly indicate which one is the correct way.

The Correct Way. An empty bar is been placed between the last bar of the nest and the first bar of the honey barrier. (Side Entrances: You can add a bar between the last two combs on both sides of the nest.) This gives the bees a choice. They can build brood comb, or they can build honey comb -- whichever they need.

When placing an empty bar into a hive, it needs to go between two bars that have been built out and have straight comb. This promotes the building of more straight comb on the empty bar. Any curves in the comb on adjoining bars will be repeated in the comb on the new bar, until eventually, the comb starts crossing bars and is a real mess for the beek. 

The Wrong Way. An empty bar is placed after the honey comb. This can cause a number of problems:
  • The bees are unlikely to build on it because it's not where they want to build. Remember, they like to keep their brood altogether and honey at the end. From their perspective, this new bar is too far from the nest, and their honey is already at the end of the nest.
  • Because the bees can't build brood comb on the new bar, the nest can become honey bound.
  • If one puts a number of empty bars after the honeycomb and the bees happen to build on them, the comb may become curved and messy because the bees don't have straight combs to guide their new construction.

In the diagrams above, I showed how to add a single empty bar, and the divider board is depicted up against the very last bar in the nest. In reality, I usually keep 2-3 empty bars between the last bar with comb and the divider. I don't expect them to build on the bars (and they generally don't), but when my colony is huge, I think it might give them a bit of air. However, I never give them the entire four feet of hive at once, though I know other folks who do. 

The diagrams also show how to add only one bar at a time. However, you can add multiple bars at once if you need to open up the brood nest. You can read more about opening the brood nest on Michael Bush's site. However, note that his page is geared toward Langs and also talks about checkerboarding, which is a related but slightly different conceptom. (Checkerboarding is a technique performed in Langstroth hives. It's done in the early spring before the maple blooms, I think, and encourages rapid comb building in advance of the main nectar flow.)

Also, note that when you add multiple bars, each empty bar needs to be inserted between two straight combs, and you shouldn't add more bars than the bees can cover. Remember that the bees need to cover their brood in order to maintain them at the proper temperature.

When to Add Bars to Your Hive

If your bees have built comb on all the bars up to the divider board, you need to add bars to give the bees room. 

If you see comb on all the bars up to/between the divider board(s) during spring or summer, then add an empty bar. In the autumn, the bees will be busy filling honeycomb and backfilling the nest (now empty of larvae) with honey, so you might not need to add any bars then. (Of course, if you have an amazing fall flow, you might need to add a bar. It depends on what's happening.)

If you're having an incredible spring flow, you will want to add bars -- frequently. Possibly multiple bars.

If you have a lot of bearding going on, that's a sign the bees are trying to cool off the hive. Consider opening up the brood nest with some bars so that it can cool off.

If you won't be able to check the hive for longer than 2 weeks, open up the brood nest with a few bars to make sure they don't get crowded while you're gone. 

Again, I want to reiterate, if you're adding multiple bars, be sure you have enough bees to cover them.

Hopefully, this post has answered basic questions about how/when to add an empty bar to your hive. If you need more details, please, check out the books listed above. They do a great job explaining how to manage your hive. Plus, they have diagrams and notes on special issues that come up for every season. If you have end entrances, try looking at Crowder's book. I recommend Hemenway's book for side entrances. Or get both. Books are always nice. ;-)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Inspection: My Fabulous Assistant, Drone Comb, and a Queen Cup

My pre-teen son has a lot on his mind these days. Most of it doesn't involve his mum, so I was delighted when he volunteered to inspect the bees with me yesterday. He'll be off to college in just a few more years, so I have to enjoy these moments when I get them.

My able assistant

We started with Hippolyte since there is a little more shade next to her. She looked to be doing quite well. In two days, her ravenous girls had consumed about a quart or so of syrup. In fact, she looked excellent overall. A lot of brood has emerged over the past week, and their recently vacated cells have been reoccupied by eggs/larvae.

8.5 bars with worker brood, 2.5 with drone brood, 1 with honey

We didn't inspect the entire hive, but I did want to see what the bees had done with the 3 empty bars I'd given them last week. One (placed between the brood nest and honey barrier) was still empty. I left that in place. The other two, which I'd inserted into the brood nest, contained drone comb. We moved these two bars with drone comb, as well as a third bar that contained both drone & worker brood, to the edge of the nest.

The entrance seemed crowded, so I opened an entrance. Within two seconds, bees were pouring out. After inspecting Austeja, the entrances still seemed crowded, so I opened a third.

By the time we closed up Austeja, my son was melting in his bee suit from the heat and absconded, so I went through Austeja alone.

She was starting to build some honeycomb at the edge of the nest, which was a welcome sight. She also had quite a lot of drone comb -- 3 1/2 bars have drone comb on them. I moved these to the end of the nest as well. However, the rest of the comb was just amazing. It was packed with worker brood.

Drone comb

Austeja also had one little queen cup. Sorry, it's a bit hard to see in this photo, but it's right there on the edge of the comb.

Comb with queen cup

It's funny because from the entrance, Austeja doesn't seem to have a lot happening. The entrance seems quiet and never has too many bees crowded around it. Of course, she started with fewer bees than Hippolyte. However, this queen is a laying machine! My husband thinks she kicked out all the layabouts and retained only the workaholics. Maybe he's onto something there.

10.5 bars with worker brood, 3.5 with drone comb, 1 with honey

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Day I Became a Beekeeper

For the record, today is the 9th of June, 2014. Normally, Blogger automatically throws dates on posts, so it's not something I generally note. However, today is different. I'm writing, but I don't know when -- or if -- I'll publish this post. However, Wordsworth wrote about, "emotions recollected in tranquility" to describe his poetic process. I like that description. It seems to me that certain events, thoughts, feelings have to be set down so that one can remember them, but it may take awhile for those memories to ripen before they're ready to be shared. I'm noting the date because this is one of those times.

Approximately two weeks from today will mark my first anniversary with bees. One should take time to acknowledge milestones, don't you think? It's hard to imagine that a year is already behind me, and a new one is starting.

My first summer, I bumbled my way through the hive. By turns, I reacted to situations in the beeyard with pleasure, curiosity, paranoia, elation, frustration, worry... I was a roller coaster of emotion. If the bees were booming, I was ecstatic, but then I fretted constantly they might swarm. Every queen cup was full of dread. I gloried in teeny bee feet tickling my skin. I wasted hours zooming in on photos of comb to see if I'd missed something significant during an inspection. I drove like a drunk while trying to note what was blooming in road ditches. Erractic behavior was not limited to myself alone. My poor husband was forced to mow crops circles around the clover, dandelions, and flowering weeds in our lawn. I admit all this without shame because if you're a new beek, or have been a new beek at one time, you understand this insanity.

My DH is indeed one of the most supportive men I know. All summer, he listened indulgently to non-stop obsessive prattle about bees and did an excellent job maintaining an appearance of attention. Most of my chatter was simple thinking out loud. Should I do this? Will I muck it up if I do that? Why are the bees doing this? Why won't they do that? Why won't the bees just read the book? Are they defective? It was autumn before I learned to give up any illusion of control and trust that the bees knew what they were doing. Then November and bears came, and I had no bees, so my new-found peace was for naught. 

Winter came and went. Early spring was spent preparing the hives for new bees. Passersby would express interest in the preparations going on in my garage and driveway. I'd talk to them about bees, but I balked at calling myself a "beekeeper." To take on the name of something implies that one possesses the qualities of that name. Was I really a "beekeeper"? I might have the jacket and veil, but I didn't have bees. I couldn't even get mine through to the end of autumn, much less the winter. So when people asked, I'd always say, "I kept bees" or "I had bees." The line was drawn though; I was not a beekeeper.

Real beekeepers (at least the ones I looked up to) not only had bees, they had decades of experience and loads of info tucked away in every nook and cranny of their brains. By contrast, I was a pretender. I knew enough about beekeeping to answer basic questions, but I also knew just enough to know the depths of my ignorance. It was with this uncertainty that I attended my local beekeeping club's meeting in May. When I signed in, I had to choose either a red name tag (for new beeks) or a blue one (for experienced beeks). Perplexed, I told them that I didn't know which one to choose. A lady asked me, "Well, do you have bees?" I answered that I did have them once upon a time, but that they'd been destroyed by my local wildlife. She laughed, "Well, that's definitely experience. Take a blue tag!" Excellent! I had graduated to the rank of PWABT --Pretender With A Blue Tag.

Two weeks ago, while picking up my packages, I had the most delightful conversation with Sam Comfort, who is a rock star in the natural beekeeping community. This impression is heightened by the fact that Anarchy Apiaries possesses a wonderfully rebellious name. Also, he's under 60 and has all his hair. I mean no disrespect to the silvery-haired crowd (especially since I'm rapidly becoming one of this number). It's simply unusual from what I've observed in the beekeeping world to see 1) someone his age and 2) someone his age with so much experience. (Note to self: Write a post comparing well-known beeks to famous rock stars. Sounds fun, right?) But I digress. We arranged to meet at a coffee shop. Of course, I recognized him immediately from online images. However, he'd never seen me before, so it was a surprise when he stepped through the door and picked me out immediately. His task was possibly made easier because I was the only one in the place hopping up and down like a kid on Christmas. Later, though, he mentioned reading my blog, so maybe that was it.

BTW, did I tell you he mentioned reading my blog? I played nonchalant as if I have a million readers, but I could feel the blush of simultaneous thrill and mortification. When someone mentions/comments on my blog, there is always the joy of discovering that I haven't been shouting into the void. On the other hand, we're talking about Sam Comfort reading my blog! This is a person with light years of experience ahead of me (and yes, I realize that is a measure of distance, not time, but he far surpasses me in both ways). I shudder to think what he read. Hopefully, it wasn't too silly. However, he had only the kindest of words and lots of encouragement, but my own insecurities continually peck through the shell of my bravado because that's just how we introverts roll.

This past Saturday, on the 7th of June, our beekeeping club had its annual picnic, and Sam was our guest speaker. Since I'm considering experimenting with Warres next year, I cornered him with some questions. Again, he mentioned my blog, but this time he referenced a new post, so through a Holmesian process of deduction, I knew he must've read it recently. (Really? Wow!) He also paid me the most generous compliment possible -- more than I deserve really. He voiced his concern that Warres weren't a good hive for beginners because they don't provide enough opportunity to learn from the bees, "but," he continued, "you should go for it. You've got a good handle on things." Did I hear that right? Did Sam just validate me?

On that same afternoon, a guy who runs a beekeeping program at a local community farm asked if I would be willing to consider doing TBH demos and classes there. Now, I don't consider myself an expert on TBH's -- quite the opposite, in fact. I think these sessions would probably go down as the blind being led by the vision impaired. But, gosh! I was just so flattered to be asked, and a total lack of qualifications could do nothing to damper my enthusiasm. So my natural response was, "Absolutely! When can I start?!"

That's when I realized that I'm not just someone who keeps bees anymore; I'm a beekeeper. That's right -- I'm bona fide. (When you read the italicized words, try to hear a sassy Southern twang or it won't mean the same thing.) It also occurred to me that the validation of others is not what makes that statement true. I've finally come to to the understanding (late, of course, because I'm not overly bright) that all the beekeepers I admire and respect have differing approaches, styles, and philosophies. However, they all have something in common, too. They possess a genuine love of bees and a concern for their well-being. When they talk about bees, their energy and excitement brims over and washes the rest of us, sweeping us up with them. It's not the clothes or smoker that makes a beekeeper. It's not the ability to catch a swarm, find a queen, or overwinter a hive. Instead, being a beek is all about heart.

For me, it's a privilege and an honor to rub elbows with the people at my local bee club, in online beekeeping forums, and through personal blogs. They are some of the most helpful, generous, passionate, opinionated people I've ever had the good fortune to meet. As cheesy and corny as this may sound, it's our commonly held enthusiasm for the endlessly fascinating creatures in our beeyards that pulls us together as a community. A community, I daresay, of beekeepers.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Ants, Begone!

Q. What did the Pink Panther say when he stepped on an ant?
A. Dead-ant, dead-ant, dead-ant, dead-ant, dead-ant, dead-ant, dead-ant

Ha! When I was in second grade, that joke just slayed me!

Speaking of slaying, today, I checked on the ant situation in the hives, and the ants are all gone! Hooray!

The thing about ants is that they can really wreak havoc in a hive to the point where the bees will just pick up and leave. (Sorry, I kept forgetting to take photos of the ants, but you can check out this post from Che Guebee Apiary to see a hive with a severe ant problem.) Plus, it's disgusting having ants climb up your sleeves as you do an inspection. So today, since ants are top of mind for me, I thought I'd do a quick post on how to deal with them.

Reduce ways for the ants to gain entrance
Hives have honey and sometimes feeders full of sugar syrup in them. Ants find them simply irresistible. The fewer places the ants can gain entry, the better. It's important that your top bars and any spacers you use form a nice tight seal over the hive. If you have a screened bottom, you might consider closing it up.

Personally, I don't have moats. However, these are probably the easiest/most proactive way to prevent an ant infestation.

To create a moat, put the legs of your hive into a container, like a coffee can, plastic bin, etc., and fill the container with a liquid like water, vegetable oil or automobile oil. Water works just fine, but oil takes longer to evaporate. Basically, the ants will climb up the can, but they won't be able to cross over to the hive leg.

Here is a basic moat:

Image from:
The downside of this type of moat is that putting the leg into liquid may cause it to deteriorate faster. A variation of this is to put a brick or something in the moat to elevate the leg above the level of the liquid. This way, the wooden leg is protected, but the ants still can't cross the liquid.

Petroleum Jelly
Another way to stop ants from crawling up is to smear petroleum jelly on the legs. You don't even have to do the entire length of each leg. Just make sure you have a nice thick barrier that goes all the way around the leg so that ants get stuck as they climb up.

Cinnamon & Used Coffee Grounds
Cinnamon and coffee grounds are both known to repel ants. You can sprinkle these liberally on the ground around your hive (try getting containers of cinnamon from a warehouse store like Costco, BJs or Sam's Club). I've had good success with these when I had ants on the ground but not in the hive. However, this year, I had ants making nests on the top bars, and I needed to use them in conjunction with another control method.

Orange Oil
This is what did the real trick for me. Ants were located on top of my bars as well as in crevices around the bars. They weren't making a nest in the hive itself which was good, so I brushed off the ants on top of the bars and doused the ones in crevices with orange oil. I simply let the orange oil fall in droplets, like nuclear bombs, right onto the ants. However, I suppose it would have been more efficient (and more cost effective) to put it in a bottle with a spritzer top. I probably could have mixed it with a little bit of vodka or grain alcohol, too, to help it spray better.

If you're looking for orange oil, try a health food store or a Whole Foods.

Caution: If you use orange oil, do NOT use it full strength inside the hive. Orange oil works by dissolving the wax in the ants' exoskeletons. You don't want to use it full strength on your bees or comb.

Feed the ants cornmeal. Feeding ants sounds counter-intuitive, but cornmeal is the TNT of natural ant poisons. Basically, ants eat it, and then they need some water. However, the cornmeal in their bellies absorbs the water and swells until the ants basically explode from the inside out.

If you use cornmeal, sprinkle it away from the hives. You want the ants to find the cornmeal -- not your hives.

So those are the things that I've found to work. If you have any tips for dealing with ants, please, feel free to share!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting

Image from
Love is not really the proper word to describe how I feel about books. I feel much the same toward them as I do toward air. They're essential for life.

Recently, I asked someone for a book recommendation, and I was told to read The World History of Bee Keeping and Honey Hunting by Eva Crane. "It's really expensive, though," I was warned, "About $100."

A search for the book revealed that it is indeed quite expensive, but closer to $200. Yikes! As profligate as this may sound, I would consider spending that amount for a really special book, but not without handling it first.

Fortunately for me and my pocketbook, I found a free digital copy of it.Of course, the free version is missing copyrighted images and one's bottom tires from sitting in front of the computer to read it, but all the text appears to be there.

With 720 pages, this book is really more of a textbook than a beach read. However, from my initial perusal, it appears really informative. If you feel like getting your bee-geek on, why not check it out and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Inspection Notes: They call me mellow yellow

Yesterday was sunny and hot (about 82 deg. F.), which must have suited the bees to a tee because they were incredibly laid back. I've never seen bees act like that. I mean, some days are good days, and some aren't, but yesterday was... wow! There wasn't anything I could to do to rile them (not that I was trying, of course). They were perfectly good girls and did everything I asked them to. Nobody got crushed or offended. We just got along just swimmingly.

In fact, they were so mellow and placid, that I thought of something I'd heard recently. If one follows a biodynamic farming calendar, bees are supposed to be unbelievably docile on certain days... root days, I believe. I don't have enough experience of knowledge of biodynamic farming to discount it entirely; however, based on what I do know, I admit to being skeptical of Rudolf Steiner's work. The girls were so quiet, though, that I started to wonder if maybe it was a root day and there wasn't something to biodynamics. Turns out that it wasn't (it was a flower day), so I'm not sure what made them so easy. Maybe something in the smoker. Sleepytime tea bags possibly?

I'm such a doofus. The last time I inspected, I saw some large comb cells, and I assumed they were building drone comb. Yesterday, I discovered that they'd been making a honeycomb. Of course, I felt silly when I realized that, but then, last year, my bees didn't start building honeycomb until the fall. It goes to show that we don't really see with our eyes but with the sum of our experience (in my case, very limited experience). It's amazing anyone ever makes new discoveries at all when we're constantly filtering present observations through the lens of the past.

All in all, they looked good. The first thing I noticed was that the ants were gone. Hooray for that!

Pretty decent brood pattern with honey band
That wonky comb is still wonky, but it doesn't seem to be hurting anything.
I've decided to leave it alone.
Next, I peeked at the feeders, and the girls appeared to be ravenous. Also a good thing. The comb is nicely built out. Lots of brood comb, and some thin honey bands at the tops of the bars. In both hives, I caught a lot of bees in the process of emerging. No matter how many times I've seen it, it never gets old, and I always feel like singing "Happy Birthday" to them. It's a lucky thing bees don't have ears.

Another fun thing that happened is that I actually witnessed Her Majesty in the process of laying eggs. I wish I'd been able to film it, but my bar holder is out of service at the moment. I didn't watch her too long, though. I remember being in the delivery room with my babies, and I didn't particularly want any gawkers hanging around.

Her Royal Highness is shy and trying to scoot out of the picture.

@#$%&* ants! As soon as I opened the roof, it was obvious that I hadn't gotten them all, and there was a small (but very small) nest still remaining. The orange oil does seem effective, though, and none of the bees have absconded, so I plan to pick up another bottle today.

The bees in this hive are not terribly interested in the feeder either. Don't know why.

Austeja has built on more bars (12) than Hippolyte (10), but the bars are not quite as fully developed. Also, it has a lot of brood, but no honey bands on top of the bars or honey bars. I didn't see the queen, but I'm unconcerned since there were plenty of good eggs -- a single egg right smack in the dead center of each cell.

I examined the eggs pretty carefully because I was surprised by a bar of drone comb in this hive. Given that this hive is just starting out and doesn't appear to have too many backup resources, I hadn't expected to see that. They're the experts on nest-building, though, so we'll let their judgement prevail.

In the end, I gave them each three empty bars. Now that new brood is emerging daily, I'm more confident they can cover the comb. Since I'm trying to encourage them to expand the brood nest (because I want to do splits), I put the bars right in the middle of the nest. My pattern looks like this: 2 full bars, empty bar, 2 full bars, empty, 2 full bars, empty, 2 full bars.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Guess who's coming to dinner?

Went outside this morning to sprinkle some coffee grounds by the beehives. (Yes, I'm one of those Luddites who refuses to get a Keurig.) Then I came back inside for some petroleum jelly.

Look who stopped by while I was in the house? And guess who didn't close the electric fence?

He really is a cutie pie, though, isn't he?
I just want to hug him and squeeze him and call him George.


Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Ants Go Marching One by One

This afternoon, while checking on the feeders, I noticed that none of the bees in Austeja were touching the feeder at all. Meanwhile, Hippolyte's bees were forming a mass around the feeder. Hmm... What's that all about? Why such a difference? No clue.

I also noticed that the ants... along with earwigs are back. The ants in particular bug me because they keep making nests on top of the bars in Hippolyte. Impulsively, I grabbed some orange oil from the house and doused their nest because, to rehash one of my favorite sayings from the 80's, Homey don't play that.

Orange oil, I've heard, dissolves the wax coating on ants' exoskeletons, and this may be true. Within minutes, there was a mass of dead ants on the hive. I also sprinkled cornmeal and cinnamon on top of the bars and stuffed any cracks with tansy leaves. Supposedly, cinnamon and tansy are repellents. Cornmeal is the TNT of ant poisons -- it kills them by exploding their tiny bodies. Between the orange oil and cinnamon, the hives smell like Turkish pastry now, but hopefully the bees won't mind. I read somewhere that they're attracted to the smell of orange oil... Then I read somewhere else that they're not. If they abscond, I guess we'll know which opinion is right.

I abstained from putting moats under the hive legs this year because ants weren't really a problem last year. Or were they? After thinking about this issue for a while, I remembered that initially, I did indeed experience a plague of ants. I got rid of them by sprinkling cinnamon (from a Costco-sized container), used coffee grounds, and ground up citrus peels all around the legs of the hive. Further away from the hive, I sprinkled cornmeal pretty liberally. Within a couple of weeks, my ant problems disappeared, and that's why I didn't need moats.

Today, I pulled out a ginormous container of cinnamon and gave the ground a good coating by the legs. Tomorrow, I'll start putting out coffee grounds and citrus peels. I'll also smear petroleum jelly over the legs. If the ants aren't gone in two weeks, I'll concede defeat and put moats under the hives. At this point, though, I'd rather not install them because it means closing up the hives and getting my bee-sting allergic husband to suit up like a bubble boy to help. I'd much rather that he stay out of the beeyard, though. Hearing him retch non-stop after a sting is nerve-wracking enough, but I always fear a worse reaction.

For now, fingers crossed that I get rid of them quickly.

P.S. My dear friend, K, if you are reading this, you may now gloat. You sent me photos of your lovely moats a couple of months ago and ribbed me a little when I said I wasn't planning to use any. You win. :-)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

What's the best remedy for a bee sting?

When people hear that I have bees, the first question, invariably, is, "Do you ever get stung?" No. Never. And if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn. LOL! (You can see my sting log for a running count if you like.)

Fortunately for me, I've been stung enough times that I've stopped reacting too much. A little pain and swelling for a short time, and then it's over. I don't even bother trying to treat the stings anymore. On the other hand, I know some less fortunate beeks whose reactions keep getting larger and larger with each sting.

Over the weekend, we traded sting stories and remedies. However, which one is the best? Turns out that I'm not the only person to ponder this question. 

Here is an article comparing various over-the-counter and home remedies for bee stings. Basically, this guy administered a bunch of stings and put a different remedy on each one. Then he charted the amount of relief each remedy provided. It's perhaps not the most scientific of studies, but it has a methodology.

His winners were ice and toothpaste. The runner-up was a mixture of baking soda, vinegar, and meat tenderizer. 

BTW, I keep a jar of baking soda mixed with meat tenderizer on hand so that all I have to do is add vinegar in the event of a sting. This weekend, a bee entered the house somehow and was resting in my son's shoe, unbeknownst to him. Well, he stuck his foot in there and got stung. After pulling out the stinger, I applied a mixture of baking soda/vinegar/tenderizer. Immediately, he sighed, "Oh, that feels great!" Within minutes, he claimed the pain was completely gone. The swelling was still there, though, so I suggested ice, which he refused.

I've never tried toothpaste, but perhaps, the next time I get stung, I will.

Monday, June 9, 2014

What's in my honey?

The other day, I was talking to some beeks who have one of the coolest marketing strategies for their honey ever. Apparently, they get a lot of requests for raw, local honey because people want the pollen for their allergies. So my friends got curious about what kind of pollen is actually in their own honey and consulted a palynologist.

For those of us who don't know (like I didn't until 5 minutes ago), palynology is a branch of science dealing with microscopic, decay-resistant remains of certain plants and animals -- like pollen in honey. (I mean, from all the mysteries I watch, I knew there were people who did that, I just didn't know what they were called.)

My friends happened to consult with Vaughn Bryant from A&M University. He's the man who discovered that something like 75% of commercially sold honey in the US has had its pollen removed.

I believe they said their analysis cost under $100, and they received a very thick, extensive report.

My friends only had a sample of their fall honey tested last year, but this year, they plan to have a spring sample tested as well. Then when people want honey with pollen, they can tell them exactly what kind of pollen is in there.

Because I'm a geek at heart, I also plan to get a spring and autumn sample tested. Then we can geek out together comparing our reports.

If you are curious, here is Vaughn Bryant's contact info:

Vaughn Bryant
Telephone: 409 845 5242

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sam Comfort & Queen Grafting

Saturday was absolutely glorious -- perfect for an outdoor meeting of the Connecticut Beekeepers Association!

I always look forward to our meet-ups. It's a great time to see old friends, and a wonderful opportunity to make new ones. Everyone gets to swap stories about swarms, stings, and experiments they're conducting with their hives. Plus, people bring the most amazing dishes for our potluck lunches -- we have some truly talented cooks in our bunch!

This month's meeting was especially awesome since beekeeper extraordinaire Sam Comfort of Anarchy Apiaries was our guest speaker! Whoo hoo! For the morning session, he began his talk with a song (hooray!)

I like how he gives his performance his all. Of course, one would expect no less from a person with the coolest skep and honeycomb tattoo that I've ever seen.

The tatt is kind of hard to see, but it really is pretty cool.
It may also explain why Sam doesn't seem bothered by bee stings.
Then he shared his story of how he got into beekeeping and how he got to where he is today -- running about 500 treatment-free, mostly top bar hives (KTBHs and Warres) in the Hudson Valley, though he also has hives in Florida.

I didn't take detailed notes because he has given similar talks, which can be viewed online, for other beekeeping groups. Even though I'd heard most of his talk before, I still enjoyed listening to him in person. He has an energy and vitality that doesn't come through fully in YouTube videos. Plus, he's got a wonderful sense of humor and great presentation skills. In fact, every other line would make a terrific soundbite. If he ever gets out of beekeeping, he should do something that requires lots of stage presence, I think.

If you'd like to hear a presentation similar to the one he gave for our club, you can watch the video below. (It's actually a two-parter. The second part includes Q&A.) Additionally, he gives a Beekeeping Bootcamp, and he said you can go to his website to find info on that. He also mentioned that he will be giving some classes through the Hudson Valley Bee Supply Company this summer.

I did take a lot of notes, but since you really can get most of what he said from the video link, I'll just share some of my favorite quotes/ideas of the day.

On stings
  • On recounting his first day working with hives, "I started picking the stingers out of my neck and waited to see if I was gonna die."
  • "Getting stung is one of my favorite parts of beekeeping. If you don't get stung, the honey doesn't taste as sweet."
On diversity
  • [In beekeeping,] "I don't see right or wrong, good or evil... I see diversity and monotony... Bees like diversity."
On bees dying out and PCD
  • "PCD is People Collapse Disorder. People Collapse Disorder is the rift between our society and its control and how bees work.
  • Bees are not like cows. They haven't been messed with until the last 150 years. Beneath their exoskeleton, bees are wild. "Bees don't need beekeepers."
  • He described how beeks feed pollen substitutes to their bees but many won't use soy because of GMOs. Instead, they use brewer's yeast or eggs. "Think about animal protein in a hive. That's so freaky... They're like Frankenbees."
On bees and DIY hives
  • "Bees are very forgiving of poor carpentry."
One of Sam's collapsible nucs. Notice that it's painted baby blue.
He also has pink nucs. :-)
Photo by K. Sumner

On the difference between packages and shook swarms
  • Packages have a bad rep because people buy bees from Georgia, and the queens are caged too young. Bees from Georgia are cheap and early, and you get what you pay for.
  • "A shook swarm is like a bunch of friends all going on a road trip together. Everyone has the same interests, the same goals. They get along. They all want to do the same thing. The decide to start a collective farm and grow their own food... A package is like a group of strangers on a bus that breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and they have to grow their own food by the side of the road."
  • In Europe, when there's a swarm, people have a party. They celebrate. In this country, people start freaking, fire trucks come out and shut down the road.."We have a long way to go."
On queens
  • "A queen you make in your backyard is the best you can get."
  • "The queen is everything. She affects temperament in the hive, honey production, winter survival, mite resistance... The queen is everything."
On Warres
  • He keeps Warres and digs Warre's philosophy. His one caveat was that he doesn't think Warres are a good choice for brand-new beeks because one is supposed to set up them up and then leave them alone. He recommends that new beeks get a hive that allows them to go in frequently and learn from the bees. 
  • He mentioned that he has modified his Warres so that they are shallower than Warre's design (6" deep) and get less comb attachment as a result.
  • To harvest, he takes off the top box and places it upside down in front of the hive. Then he gently drums the sides of the box to get the bees out. (An old practice that has been documented back to the 1800's.)
A modified Warre nuc
Photo by K.Sumner

On nucs
  • I believe he said that one should have lots of nucs -- 3 nucs to every full-sized hive.
On catching swarms
  • "Catching swarms is like fishing. You never know what you're going to get."
  • You'll get the best bees, "bees you can't possibly buy."
On the future of beekeeping
  • "For your own well-being, bring a young person the next time you go into a hive."
During the afternoon session, Gil (our association president) showed how to clip and mark a queen. (The idea behind clipping is that if a hive tries to swarm, the queen won't be able to fly far.) I have to be honest, though -- I've seen videos of queens being clipped, but I just couldn't bring myself to watch a live demo. People say it doesn't hurt because there aren't any nerves in the wings, but to me, it just looks like the mutilation of a beautiful, fascinating creature. And since none of us have ever experienced life as a queen bee, I can't see who is to say that it doesn't diminish her life in some way or that the other bees don't treat her differently as a result. It's possible I'm a granola-eating wuss, but I simply couldn't stomach it.

Everything you need for making queens,
though those scissors make me shudder.
Jumping off my soapbox now. Moving on, Gil and Sam also gave a demonstration of how to graft queen cells. It was a great learning experience for me. The idea of grafting queens has always seemed so daunting to me, but they explained it quite well. So now the idea is still daunting, but at least it doesn't seem impossible.

 The first thing we opened up are these adorable baby nucs. These are prepared several days in advance of putting queens in them. To prepare them, worker bees (no drones or queens) are shaken into a box and made queenless for about three days. Then a cupful of bees are put into these baby nucs. Capped queen cells are placed into the nucs until they are mated and laying. But how does one make those capped queen cells?
Baby nucs

Check out the comb from a baby nuc. It's so mini!

Sam and our Gil showed how to select a frame of brood with very young larvae. ("They're the right size when they're too small to see.") The larvae (not eggs) are scooped out of their cells with a grafting tool and placed into a bar with lots of cups on it. The bar is placed into a queenless hive to be capped.

Scooping up larvae with a Chinese grafting tool.
Frame with queen cells
After the bees have capped the queen cells, the cells are slipped into a queen cell protector to keep the bees from chewing them down. The cells are then placed into a frame of comb in the baby nucs to mature and mate.

Here is a video of Sam scooping out the larvae. Sorry for all the extraneous chit chat. I'm no videographer, and there was lots going on that day.

It was about 4:00 by the time I got home. By then, I was pretty tired, but also feeling very refreshed and excited. Naturally, the first thing I had to do was go play with my bees! :-) 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

I think I've made a huge mistake.

Ideally, I would've liked to postpone my inspection of the hives until Saturday, but I've a beekeeping meeting that day and tons of work tomorrow and the rest of the weekend. So after the rain finally stopped today, I opened them up.

They have really propolised the bars all the way up to the divider. Lots of eggs, larvae, and capped brood. Even had a bar of uncapped drone brood. I'm guessing it was drone brood anyway because of the size of the cells. Each bar has a nice band of capped honey at the top, and the first bar is chock full of pollen.

Looks like drone comb to me.

Lots of brood and a nice honey band at the top.

Probably one of the few times I'll be able to find the queen.
 Last week, I cut a bit of cross comb off of a bar. This week, the same bar had another piece of slightly cross comb. I debated cutting it off, but it looked like the bees were trying to connect it to the rest of the comb on that bar instead of to the next bar. I probably should've removed it, but it really looks more crooked than cross, so I took the lazy way out and just flipped the bar around. I'm hoping that simply narrowing the bee space between that bar and the one next to it will motivate the bees to fix it on their own.

I'd been keeping some extra bars under Austeja's roof, and when I picked them up to move them out of the way, I uncovered a huge ant nest. Yuck!!! I was so skeeved brushing off the ants and their grubs... Ugh! They were gross, and they kept running all over my arms while I was trying to inspect the bees. Maybe I've spent too much time around fire ants in Florida, but ants freak me out.

I think the bees picked up on my feelings toward the ants because they were soooo unhappy while I inspected them. The way they kept bumping me, I fully expected to get stung. I was pleasantly disappointed, though.

Not quite as much propolis as the other hive, but they have far fewer bees. On the other hand, they have more & bigger combs (on 8 bars compared to Hippolyte's 7). I think they also have more capped brood.

Lots of brood, though not quite as much honey as the other hive.

Austeja's queen

Ok, so what did I do wrong?
Because they're both building comb like gangbusters, I added several empty bars between combs. Of course, as soon as I closed them up, I realized that I've probably jumped the gun. Since I don't have any new bees emerging yet, I may not have enough population to cover the brood. In fact, I won't have any brood emerging until next Friday at the earliest. I hate to go back in, but I think I may remove all but one empty bar in each hive tomorrow.

Article on How Bees Heat the Hive

Did you know that bees are cold-blooded? I suppose I did know that, but I refused to believe it because they're so cute and fuzzy.

In any case, we all know that cold-blooded animals like lizards are dependent on external heat sources to warm up. So how does a cold-blooded animal like a bee heat up its home? This article gives a good explanation

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

How do I install a package into a TBH?

I wish I had photos of the package install I did last Saturday. Unfortunately, my husband is allergic to bees, so I packed him off as soon as I started opening boxes. However, lots of people have described this process (and everyone has a slightly different method), so I figured I'd just compile a few videos/links to instructions here and let you figure out what works for you.


Demonstration by Christy Hemenway

Christy Hemenway's video on how to install a package cracks me up because there are no bees in the demonstration. As a result, installation seems like a cake walk. In truth, although installations isn't difficult, it's just not traipse over cloud nine that she makes it seem. In reality, there is the uncontrolled and uncontrollable chaos of thousands of buzzing bees trying to to escape, whirring through the air, clambering up the sides of the hive... You get the picture. However, it's still a good demo, and she clearly describes the process.

One thing I might do differently from Christy is hanging the cage. Different folks have different preferences for which direction the candy plug should point. Some people hang it pointing up, some people hang it pointing down... I would go with horizontal. It seems to me that if someone should go wrong with the plug, it's easier for the queen to get out/not be drowned in dissolved candy, etc.

Demonstration by Wyatt Mangum

I love Wyatt Mangums book on TBHs, and he has detailed instructions in the book, I believe. However, if you don't want to purchase the book, he also has a video on YouTube demonstrating how he does it. Unfortunately, he doesn't show how to open the package, but he does show everything else.

You'll notice in Mangum's video that he uses flat bars. Each bar has a piece of foundation attached to it. These attachments serve as guides so that the bees build straight comb.

When I installed my packages, I didn't use any foundation since my bars are wedge-shaped. Instead, I rubbed beeswax on the wedges. I also had 1 flat bar. On it, I attached a piece of comb and hung the queen cage.

Alternative Method: Place Queen Cage on Floor of Hive

In these instructions, Dean the Beekeeper tells how you can avoid hanging the queen cage altogether. Why would a person want to do that? Some people feel that hanging the queen cage can encourage bees to build crooked comb. Dean's method involves poking a hole in the candy plug and placing the queen cage on the floor of the hive. Bees release her, and you don't have to worry about crooked comb.

The one concern of mine with this method is weather. If you live someplace warm (like Texas, which is where I think Dean resides), you don't have to worry about the queen freezing. However, if you are in New England, like me, the queen may freeze if nighttime temperatures dip below 50 degrees (which they did the weekend that I installed).

Alternative Method: Direct Release of the Queen

Some people, like Michael Bush, are big proponents of what's called a direct release. This means that when you install the package, instead of leaving the queen in her cage in the hive, you pull out the candy plug immediately. The rationale behind this method is that the bees have likely been in transit with the queen for about three days. This means that they have had plenty of time to accept her, so one doesn't need to fear them balling her in the hive. Also, this method means that 1) the bees will be less tempted to build crooked comb and 2) chances of the queen freezing on the floor of the hive are eliminated. (Sorry, I don't have instructions for this method.)

However, there are some caveats as well. This method is not recommended for packages that haven't had time to accept the queen. Also, one has to be very careful about releasing the queen to ensure that she goes into the hive and doesn't fly away. (Remember, she hasn't been laying for awhile, and she may have slimmed down.) It might also be a good idea to close all the entrances until after dark, too, to make sure they don't abscond. Just remember to open an entrance up, though, after the sun has set.

Some More Tips for Installation

Make your hive a home. If the hive smells lived-in, bees are less likely to abscond. Ways you can make your hive more homey include:
  • Adding a few (3-4) drops of lemongrass oil to the walls of the hive. This smells like queen pheromones to bees.
  • Attaching a piece of comb to a bar.
  • Rubbing beeswax on the bars.

Center the queen cage under the top bar. If you plan to hang the queen cage, try to center it under the top bar as much as possible. This will help reduce cross combing.

Give the bees some privacy for several days. Think about wild bees. Do they have people poking around in their hives all the time? Do they want constant visitors? Absolutely not! So leave them alone for several days while they release the queen, start building comb, and bringing in resources. The more they invest into their home, the less they'll want to leave it -- just like any normal woman would feel. If you start messing about in it, you increase the chances of them absconding. This includes observation windows, btw. Leave them closed until they've settled in. The bees want a hive -- not a disco.

Give the bees control over the hive atmosphere. I've encountered many well-meaning folks losing their bees because the weather got hot, and they tried to cool the hive of by opening a screened bottom or more entrances. In the wild, hives may have very slim cracks for openings, but bees are able to control the atmosphere of the hive just fine. Opening up a screened bottom provides too much ventilation and light for a new package. Likewise, if you have holes for entrances, keep only one of them open. If you have long slot for an entrance, you might want to reduce it.

Put feeders behind the follower board. If the feeder is behind the entrance board, you don't have to open the bees' area when refilling. I've seen lots of people use feeders that attach to the outside of the hive (like boardman entrance feeders). From what I've heard, a lot of those people have had issues with robbing bees, wasps, ants, etc. However, I've never personally tried this type of feeder, so I won't tell anyone not to try one.

Plastic queen cages. The videos above show wooden queen cages which have a little strap that they hang from. However, you might get a package (like I did) with a plastic queen cage. To attach my cage, I made a "fish hook" out of some thin wire. Then I slipped the "hook" through the mesh to attach it to a bar. If you do this, just be careful that you don't hook your queen!

Wear a veil/jacket if you need to. No doubt you'll see/hear many beekeepers who tell you that you don't need a veil or jacket when hiving a package. No doubt it's true. However, if you're a new beekeeper, the sight of so many bees at once -- especially flying up in the air near your face -- can be unnerving. There is  no shame wearing a veil or jacket (or both) if you feel more comfortable. You'll have enough to focus on without worrying about being stung in the eyeball.