Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lessons Learned

Last autumn, I jotted down some beekeeping lessons that I learned (mostly the hard way) over the summer. I enjoyed the exercise because it really helped solidify what I did right/wrong (mostly wrong), so I figured I should repeat the exercise this year.

Lesson 1: Use a combination of narrower bars and spacers.
There are some things that I changed up this year, e.g., getting rid of observation windows and screened bottoms. Overall, I can't say whether these changes were good or bad. Mostly, they seem to be preferential decisions. However, one thing that I will definitely change next year is the width of my bars. When I first started researching top bars, I heard some people say to use 1 1/4" bars in the brood area with 1/4" spacers for the honey section. Other people said it was ok to just split the difference and use 1 3/8" bars for brood and honey. At that time, I had never seen the inside of a hive, I had no clue about how and when to use spacers, and I didn't really understand the finer points of hive management. I was generally worried that I'd screw things up, so I figured I'd play it safe and joined the 1 /3/8" camp.

However, now that my second season has ended, I feel like I get it now. I know how to recognize comb that will be used for drones or honey, and I'm getting the hang of management a bit more.  Going forward next year, I plan to use 1 1/4" bars with spacers. Having narrower bars, I've heard, encourages bees to build smaller cells. They also can fit more combs in the same amount of space. More comb = more brood. More brood = more honey. Having smaller, closer combs, I've heard, also improves overwintering because bees are in a tighter cluster.

Lesson 2: Forget any advice that doesn't instruct someone to just watch the bees.
I feel this should be a no-brainer, but it's something I learned the hard way.

Last year, I was told to feed a newly installed colony until it had drawn 20 bars. I didn't follow that advice, and things didn't work out like I'd hoped. This year, I thought to follow that advice, but it backfired again because my bees started swarming within a month of installation. I guess I had an amazing flow happening, and that extra syrup (plus a lack of attention) sent them into swarm mode.

So this is my new approach: Watch the bees. Let their activity rule any decisions I make.

Lesson 3: Hands-off does not mean hands-free.
I hear so many people say that they want TBHs because they want to leave their bees alone. Yes, TBHs are less intrusive, but that doesn't mean that they don't require management -- especially during a flow.

I installed my packages toward the end of May this year, and then I was horribly busy after that. I figured that since they were new packages, I'd be able to get away with neglecting them for awhile since they had to draw comb and fill it. Unfortunately, I couldn't have been more wrong. Within two weeks, each colony had drawn 8 combs. Within 3 or 4, they were ready to swarm.

Usually, top bar people will say that one should open a hive every 10-14 days during a flow. I've left my hives alone for several weeks at a time during a dearth, and I will probably still do that. However, during a flow, I've pretty much decided to make time for them at least once a week from now on.

Lesson 4: Clean up spills immediately. 
Urgh. I've learned so many lessons about feeding this year. For example, one day, I spilled some syrup on top of the bars of one of my hives. Since I didn't have any water with me, I figured I'd clean it up after topping up all of the feeders. Such a bad idea. It took less than a minute for a robbing frenzy to begin. I will never make that lazy mistake again.

Lesson 5: Read and reread.
The winter before my first beekeeping season, I researched TBHs non-stop for months. It was great preparation for keeping bees. However, this summer, I started rereading some books, and I picked up so much more than I did the first time.

Lesson 6: Don't be afraid to try something new.
Necessity has forced me to do so many new things this year. I've learned how to use a table saw, how to install a package (I ordered nucs last year), how to do splits, etc. I'm kind of terrible at some of these things. For instance, while I can piece together some pretty perfect quilt points, hive building is definitely not my forte. My Warre, in particular, resembles something constructed by The Cat in the Hat. However, overall, I'm pleased with my new skills, and the bees just keep doing their thing despite me.

As a side note, we had a lot of guys stopping by this spring/summer either to work on our house, deliver packages, give us quotes for stuff, etc. Anyway, they always express surprise when they see me at the table saw sporting hearing protectors, goggles, a flowy skirt and a cherry-printed apron with ruffles. LOL! Who says girls can't use shop tools? My husband's just delighted to have me on his side in case of a zombie apocalypse.

Anyhoo, these are the lessons that stick out for me right now. I'm sure there are more that I've already forgotten. Oh well, I guess I'll get to relearn them next year.

How about you? What lessons have you learned?