Sunday, December 27, 2015

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

I'm a little late in well-wishing, but it's only the third day of Christmas today. ;-) I hope that you have all been enjoying your mid-winter celebrations with friends and family and that you are looking forward to a happy, prosperous new year! I meant to compose a new ditty for you this year like I did last year, but I got sidetracked by our trip to Florida. (Sighs of relief all around.)

However, I thought you'd enjoy this video of some honeybees on a queen palm in my dad's backyard. I caught this three days before Christmas.

Speaking of my dad's backyard, I'm finding it very difficult to return to New England. Even with the unusually warm winter we've been having up North, I love the warm (my DH says hot) weather here in Florida. Even though I left the south years ago, I still can't do winter (or the lack of pastelitos de guayaba y queso for breakfast).

Also, I'm totally envious of the ability to have a garden (and bee-keep) year-round. Although my dad took out most of his garden a few years ago, he's still got a lot of interesting things going on.

This is my dad's definition of not having a garden anymore.
Nope, absolutely nothing growing here.
The best part about his garden are the trees. It's always at least 10 degrees cooler in their shade, and they're filled with the sounds of wildlife -- like the buzzing of bees.

It's hard to pick a favorite tree in his yard. For me it's probably a tie between the jaboticaba with its graceful branches, gorgeous bark, and luscious dark fruit and the coffee trees with their glossy leaves and colorful berries. Although I avoid drinking coffee because I get a paradoxical effect and crash instead of waking up, I do enjoy a nibble on coffee fruit, which is pleasantly sweet, though it tastes nothing like coffee.

Coffee fruit

Trees/wild gardens seem to attract children, too. My kids get lost in the backyard jungle looking for lizards and other critters, climbing, experimenting. They get a kick, too, out of picking things that they know like pineapples, papaya, citrus as well as the oddities (for them) like sapodilla.

Ginger flower
I like the "messiness" of my dad's garden, and I asked him if he had planned it that way. He told me he used the "Rolando" method. Rolando is a friend of ours who also has a backyard jungle. When my dad asked Rolando how he went about deciding where to put his trees, and the answer was, "Wherever there's an open spot."

I've been struggling so much with planning, which is a fundamental step in every permaculture book I've read, that I just stalled. I believe I'll have to adopt this more chaotic approach, which is much more in line with my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants personality. In any case, I'm feeling inspired again to work on a permacultured yard in the new year.

So anyway, since I'm always planting things that my bees like, a messy garden is my sort-of-beekeeping goal for the new year. How about you? What are your beekeeping resolutions?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Abracadabra, Presto Change-o!

My daytime temps are in the upper 40's to low 60's, so the girls are still flying just about every day. I don't see much of anything blooming, but somehow the bees are bringing in pollen. Watching them today, the ladies reminded me of a magician pulling flowers out of his hat -- they seemed to make pollen appear out of thin air. But then I remembered Hermione Granger saying that food was the first of the five Principle Exceptions to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration. Muggles in the know will understand.

Some gray pollen

Anyway, I noticed 5 different pollen colors:
  • Extremely pale yellow, nearly white
  • Light buttery yellow
  • Orangey yellow
  • Tan
  • Gray
Maybe a couple of those colors (thinking of the first two and maybe last two) could simply be variations on a theme, but even three distinct colors is a surprise. Witch hazel blooms about now. Given our warm temps, maybe some ivy is persisting, but I can't think of anything else. If you live in/are from New England, I'd love to know what you think it could be.

Around Thanksgiving, I was concerned that the bees didn't have enough ventilation, so I opened some entrances for Elsa, and made sure the last bars on Buttercup and Bubblegum weren't super tight. Today, I noticed that all three of them have reduced their entrances. Clearly, I know nothing and should trust them to do what's best. Additionally, Elsa was trying to dispose of the straw that I placed behind the divider board.

Austeja, my hive that swarmed in the fall, has an observation window, so I took a quick peek. She seems to appreciate the sugar combs that were added on Thanksgiving. If this warm weather persists, I may try to top her off before Christmas.

Tomorrow is supposed to be another 60 degree day, and I'm concerned the bees will eat up all their stores before the end of winter. As much as I enjoy the "warmth," fingers crossed that things cool off (15 degrees should be enough) soon.

Friday, December 11, 2015

A Sticky Question

Perhaps this is a side effect of beekeeping, but I've really begun to notice a proliferations of cheap and/or fake honey on the market. It's a bit annoying, but the general public has caught on that real local honey is something special that is worth paying for. So while cheap diluted garbage is annoying, it doesn't cause any philosophical dilemmas.

Though the image is from Amazon, I actually saw this product at my local supermarket recently.
For me, this is the probably the most egregious example I can think of regarding cheap/fake honey.

However, there is an issue that provokes me a little more. I've taken note of a new trend called "artisanal honey." Some of these are honeys that are unique monofloral honeys or high-quality local honeys. Most of them, though, are honeys that have been mixed with some sort of flavoring, either in the form of an extract, fruit, or syrup, or they're produced using a maceration process. This actually bugs me quite a lot because I frequently see these flavored honeys on shelves in my local groceries, wrapped in fancy packaging and sold for as much (if not more) than good quality honey.

This is on my mind because a friend of mine recently sent me a link to an article about a new shop in Mystic, CT called Sticky Situations. It looks like a fun shop that sells flavored honeys and maple syrup.

As you can see, they have quite a selection of flavors, about half of which you would never find in nature, which is a dead giveaway that they've been flavored. For example, although some of you might find bacon-flavored honey intriguing, I never saw a bee pollinate a pig. (That would be a spectacle, though!)

On the other hand, they also carry a number of honeys that are possible to produce naturally, but usually aren't here in the States -- for example lavender honey. When my DH went to Portugal last year, he brought me some fantastic mono floral honeys, including lavender and rosemary. These honeys are produced on farms that have fields and fields of just one herb. However, the "lavender" honey I've seen produced in the US and Canada has been local honey (a mild tasting honey, usually) flavored with lavender oil. (Note, I'm not saying all US lavender honey is flavored honey, only the ones I've seen. Maybe real lavender honey is available in California where there are big fields of it. Does anyone know?)

Lavender field in Portugal

In terms of Sticky Situations' cranberry-flavored offering, I find that an interesting flavor because monofloral cranberry honey can be produced right here in New England. Thanks to Marina Marchese's presentation last year (she's the owner of Red Bee and founder of the American Honey Tasting Society), I've had true monofloral cranberry honey. So looking at the photo of the cranberry honey being sold by Sticky Situations, it's immediately apparent that this stuff is not "real" honey. Without even assessing qualities like taste, texture, and viscosity, the color is just wrong. Cranberry honey is reddish, but it most certainly does not have the color of canned cherry pie filling.

This looks more like cranberry sauce than cranberry honey.
With consideration to these flavored honey products, here is my question -- How should they be compared to honey that is "just honey" -- no added flavors? In other words, is there (or should there be) a distinction between artisanal honey like the kind produced by Red Bee and the flavored kind sold by Sticky Situations?

Merriam-Webster defines artisansal as the adjectival form of artisan -- "one that produces something (as cheese or wine) in limited quantities often using traditional methods."

Applying this definition to honey, I suppose that there is no difference between honey that's allowed to stand on its own merits and flavored honey, but there is this part of me that works really hard out in the bee yard and has tasted the difference in nectars that are gathered throughout the year. It's this part of me wants to appreciate the unique flavor profile of each nectar source that comes in. This same part objects to this lack of distinction between honey produced only from flowers and honey that has been altered in some way.

BTW, it's not that I think flavored honeys have no culinary interest or that they're always inferior to the genuine article. I've had some creations that have carefully considered the flavor profile of the honey itself prior to altering it. In that case, I really do view them as artisanal products, and I appreciate the knowledge, time, and work taken to produce them. However, generally speaking, the beeks I know who create them make their buyers aware that the honey has been enhanced/mixed in some way. They don't try to pass it off as something the bees made all by themselves.

More often, though, the flavored honeys I've encountered use a neutrally flavored, cheap honey as the base. It makes sense because if you have great honey, why camouflage it? So in that case, are we really enjoying the honey, or the added flavoring? If it's all about the flavoring, is it really a special honey? Or is it more of a honey-based equivalent of a lollipop?

Flavored honey sticks

As a beekeeper, I've kind of developed a protectiveness for what my bees do and how honey is perceived. Ok, I'll admit that there are "baking honeys," but there are also honeys that you enjoy just as you would wine, olive oil, or any other luxury good. These special honeys, I feel, should not be lumped into the same category as honey that's mixed with flavorings, natural or artificial.

Of course, it's possible I'm just being snobby or close-minded or resistant to change. I do cook with honey, which means constantly mixing flavors up, so I'm not sure how that differs from selling a product that has been pre-mixed. Still, somehow it just feels wrong to not clearly label that the product has been altered. For instance, I love sangria and other wine-based drinks, but I would never consider adding a bunch of essential oils to wine and trying to pass it off as something that was grown and fermented that way.

I don't know... Are you a purist or a culinary explorer? If you sell your honey, what's your take? Do you view these flavored honeys as competition? Or do you simply see them as area to expand what you can offer (possibly at higher profit)? What do you think of all this? 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


Last year, I grew some calendula in the garden, and it was a huge hit with the girls. This spring it self-sowed and lost none of its popularity -- with the bees or with me. Actually, I liked it so much that  I did some sneaky bee-advocacy by giving out plant pots with soil & packets of bee-friendly seeds (including calendula) as party favors for my daughter's birthday.


Calendula is a hardy little plant. Not only has it begun popping up all over the yard, it's even sprung up in the front "garden" where everything else dies. Granted, our weather has been unseasonably mild, but it's still blooming even in December.

Blooming on Dec 8

Personally, I like calendula petals as garnishes, in salads, and on sandwiches. However, they also have medicinal uses as well. Some people steep them in oil to make salves or make tinctures with them. (Note: if using calendula for medicinal reasons, the more orange varieties are supposed to have greater potency.)

Anyway, I saved a few envelopes of seeds from them this year, which I plan to distribute freely in my yard and garden next spring. Who knows? Maybe even some "guerrilla gardening" will occur during my visits to various public parks and walks along the road. But don't tell anyone. It's a secret. Shhhh!

A favorite with the ladies

Friday, November 27, 2015

Mucking about on Thanksgiving

Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving with all of your loved ones! Now back to bee-siness. ;-)

Here's a true confession. A number of Thanksgivings ago, I realized I was putting myself into an ill-humor cooking and cleaning my entire day off work just so my kids could sit down, eat one roll, and declare they were full. That began a family tradition. When we didn't com have company, we had holiday dinners at Minado in Morris Plains, NJ. My DH could get his turkey, my kids loved it, and even though I'm generally not keen on buffets, even I was satisfied with the quality and cleanliness. Plus, I got to spend the best part of the day playing with my family, instead of cleaning dishes. However, there isn't a restaurant near our new house that even comes close to the glory of Minado, which is a frequent source of disappointment for my children who still have dreams and visions of that place.

So we've developed a new tradition. Each kid gets to request a dish, which I make, but my DH has taken over cooking the turkey & stuffing (which the rest of us vegetarians don't eat) and mashed potatoes (which we do eat, but his are better because he's not as shy with the butter and salt as I am). This year, the sides didn't take more than an hour tops to whip together, leaving me with an opportunity to abscond for a while and check on my bees.

In prep for winter, I had reduced my entrances to one hole, per Hemenway's recommendations. However, I've been uneasy about this because of my condensation issues last year, and because I'm not really sure that a 3/4" hole is sufficient. Without fact-checking, I believe that wild bees usually have entrances 4"-6" long. They propolize it to meet their needs, but it's still quite a gap. Lazutin says that this opening is large enough to provide oxygen, but not moisture control. In a wild colony, moisture is absorbed by debris at the bottom the hive. However, managed hives have to either have ventilation or moisture-absorbing materials added to the hive.

Last Saturday, something Mike Palmer said really struck me. He lives way the heck north in Vermont, but he doesn't reduce his hive entrances all all. He staples some screen over them to keep mice out, but that's all. A small vent hole at the top lets moisture out, but the bees get plenty of fresh air from the bottom of the hive. Since he has Langs, he's got some really wide entrances, too.

Mike Palmer's entrances in winter.
Image from his video Keeping Bees in Frozen North America

I've also been researching Russian blogs about horizontal hives this week. I saw quite few photos of vent bars and vented roofs. There was one site that I wish I had remembered to bookmark. It had an elaborate "chimney" system made of PVC pipe that vented to an insulated roof.

Vent bar from
Vented hive body from

These posts in conjunction with Mike's photos clinched my internal debate, so yesterday, I checked on the ventilation in the hives and made the following adjustments:
  • Opened an entrance near the bottom for Hippolyte, but did nothing else for The Beests. Even in mid-40 F weather, they're mean, so they're on their own until spring.
  • Opened up two entrances on Elsa to provide more airflow at the bottom of the hive. 
  • Austeja, which is sort of gappy anyway, overwintered successfully last year, so she just got straw in the back of the hive. 
  • My three nucs also got a quick check to make sure that the last bars in the hive weren't completely totally sealed. They now have 1/16"-1/8" of an inch between the last bar and the back of the hive -- not a huge gap, but enough so they aren't totally air-tight. 
I also took a minute to check on Buttercup, which had a couple bars of open nectar when I closed up. Because of the warm weather, she moved/used all that open nectar, so I added some sugar just in case. I simply poured sugar into empty comb and spritzed it lightly with water so that it would stick in place while I turned it over. After carefully flipping the comb (a cookie sheet on each side of the comb helped provide support), the process was repeated on the other side and the bar hung in place. (BTW, I found that each of my combs hold about 2-3 lbs of sugar.) If the bees eat the sugar -- fine. If they end up not using it, that's ok, too, since these combs were destined for melting anyway.

"Sugar comb"

There are a couple of reasons I chose to use comb for a "feeder." In addition to providing emergency stores, my fingers are crossed that "sugar combs" placed directly in the hive will absorb moisture. Also, when I added sugar to the hive floor in the past, it became a sticky deathtrap of a lake as it absorbed condensation. Because cells are built at an angle to keep nectar from pouring out, they should contain sugar to the cells where it will be easy (and non-lethal) for the bees to reach.

Actually, I replaced Austeja's fondant with sugar combs as well because wherever the netting didn't touch the fondant, bees were climbing through the holes and getting stuck. So fondant came out and "sugar combs" went in.

Sorry for the blurry photo. Not happy losing bees in the netting.

I kept thinking back to Fedor Lazutin and Michael Bush who both say that they wait for a cold spell in mid- to late October to harvest. Temps yesterday were in the mid 40's F.-- warm enough for my comfort, but chilly enough to force the bees into a cluster. Since there isn't any brood right now, the brief interruption shouldn't have any lasting negative effects on the bees, and they were sooooo easy to deal with. Will definitely remember this when/if I harvest next year.

Monday, November 23, 2015

SNEBA 2015

Spent a terrific day Saturday meeting up with old friends at the Southern New England Beekeepers Assembly. Just as delightful was meeting new friends with whom I've corresponded via FB and/or email as a result of this blog! Apis mellifera -- bringing folks together.

My dear friend, Kit, is a skilled woodworker and one of the most inventive problem-solvers I know. For instance, he has a fabulous comb-holder that I would love to re-create on my own if I can. It's sturdy; it folds up, so it's compact; and it even has a lazy Susan base so the comb can be spun around for optimal viewing.

Anyway, Kit brought in several of his inventions to share with us such as his feeder, which holds two jars of syrup, a wooden feather handle to extend the reach of the feather he uses to "brush" comb, and a wind block/entrance reducer for winter. My favorite, though, was his Hesbach Blocker (HB), named after local beek, Bill Hesbach, who teaches a TBH course. The HB fits over the hive entrance. Screen allows for air circulation, but blocks wasps. A narrow gap at the top of the HB allows bees to come and go.

Kit's feeder and feather with handle

The handle is just a wooden dowel with a hole drilled to hold the feather

Hesbach Blocker in foreground. Wind blocks/Reducers for entrance in background.
You can't really see it, but the reducers use nails to reduce the space.

I've been having some terrible arthritis in my thumb (long story) and have to wear a brace to keep it still for awhile. As a result, I took fewer notes than usual, and my notes here will be even sparser. However, most of the information was pretty basic, or it can be found online or in a book. So I'll just share some tidbits that I found particularly interesting.

Dr. Larry Connor: The Sustainable Apiary

  • Sustainable apiaries require abundant and diverse drones. The average DCA contains 10,000 drones, but another 5,000 are always coming and going, so a DCA requires at least 15,000 drones to maintain it. If a DCA does not have enough drones, it will shut down, and the drones will fly elsewhere -- like guys in a college bars.
  • During peak season, the average honeybee colony produces sexually mature 200-500 drones.
  • Healthy drones are needed as well. That means that during development, they must be well-fed, kept warm, and not be exposed to any miticides. I found this info on miticides interesting because research shows that drone development starts earlier and ends later than queen-rearing. I have to check my facts, but I believe that recommendations advise treating for mites during that time when drones are still being raised (because miticides require certain temperatures to be effective.)
  • In a survey of beeks that start with a single hive only, 60% of them lose their bees because they have no backup resources.
  • Studies conducted by Dr. Jim Haskell as well as others indicate that new beeks who get local nucs from a mentor have and 80% survival rate their first winter. The success rate for those with southern packages is 20% for the first winter.

Dr. Larry Connor: Queen Quality
  • We all know bees have different jobs in the hive. Wax producers are one of the hottest groups.
  • When evaluating queen cells, cell size is not necessarily an indicator of quality. Dr. Connor indicated that one should look at the base of the cell (where it is connected to the comb) to see how much royal jelly is there. More royal jelly is desirable. Another indicator of a good queen is a lot of sculpting of the wax.
  • When inserting queen cells into a hive, place the queen cell against the comb if the colony is weak. If it's a strong colony, the cell may be placed between frames.
  • Russians will often keep their queens "caged" in their cells. As the queen begins to emerge, the bees add a wax cap over the cell and feed the queen through the cell. They will often keep their queens in cells this way for days.
  • When introducing a queen, there are a number of ways & tools that one can use. Dr. Connor mentioned that even a pink hair curler would work. LOL! I never would've though of that, but heck, why not?!
  • Laying workers can lay only 10 eggs a day. So if a queenless colony has a lot of drones, it likely has multiple (lots and lots) of laying workers.
Pink Curlers

Mike Palmer: Keeping Bees in the Frozen North
Mike Palmer: Brood Factories and Bee Bombs

I won't post too many notes here since these talks are essentially the same as the following talks he gave at the National Honey Show in England:
One thing that you don't get from those recorded talks, though, is a sense of his personality. He's a bit dry there at the show. However, hearing him on Saturday, his wicked sense of humor really came across. One of my favorite lines was when he spoke about living so close to the Canadian border. He said, "I make Canadian honey. My bees go across the border and come back speaking French."

One interesting bit of info I learned from him is that bees hate duct tape. He has a tool he uses to separate queens from the other bees. It's basically a box with a queen excluder nailed to the bottom. At a certain level along the wall, he has a line of duct tape. Bees who start climbing up the wall of this tool won't go up the duct tape and instead go down into the hive. (BTW, Dr. Connor mentioned that 10-20% of spring hives have multiple queens. Palmer says that when separating his queens, he's found up to 30% of his spring colonies have more than one queen.)

This past spring, a friend recommended Caron's book on bee biology, but I haven't gotten around to reading that. Mike, however, inspired me to do that, though, when he showed a photo of a queen and asked us to evaluate her. One of the things he pointed out as a sign of her quality was the deep crease across her thorax. I wouldn't have thought to look at that, but this morning, you can bet I looked for photos of my own queens to see about that! (Yes, my girls have it.) In any case, it was a reminder that we can't be effective beekeepers if we don't understand basic biology and know what to look for!

Mike is adamant about every beek treating for mites every year. (If you know me, you know I disagree.) However, viewing things from his perspective, I can understand why he'd feel this way. A big theme running throughout his presentations is that he has production hives for making honey and he has nucs for boosting production hives or making queens. He says that he never wants to split production hives. He wants them to get massive colonies, and he never wants them to slow down. He's a professional beekeeper who makes his living that way, so he's going to want to harvest the most honey possible. When you have enormous hives that never get a break, you're going to have lots of mites, too. 

He mentioned that he harvests his honey in August. As soon as he stops smelling goldenrod, he weighs his hives and feeds any that are underweight. (His target weight is 160 lbs.) For every 10lbs underweight a hive is, he will feed 1 gallon of 2:1 syrup. He feeds all of the syrup that hive needs all at once.

Steve Repasky: Keeping Healthy Honey Bees and Varroa Management

Basically, this was a talk that centered on varroa  -- how to recognize it, the dangers of it, how to monitor for it, how to treat it, the pros & cons of each treatment and monitoring method, etc. One interesting point he made was that sugar dusting was an effective hive monitoring method. However, as a treatment, it was less effective than screened bottom boards, which he claims provide a 10%-15% reduction in mite load. Is that true? I don't know. I don't sugar dust anyway. So far, I've been relying on brood breaks.

One thing he did say that I wholeheartedly agreed with was, "Not every management style is correct for you as a beekeeper... Management of beehives is as local as your own backyard."

Usually at meetings and conferences, there is a treat-treat-treat mentality, so while his talk was very focused on treatment, I appreciated that he didn't seem to advocate prophylactic treatment or treatment without considering all of the consequences. To me, although he seemed very pro-treatment, it was more of rational attitude of "monitor your bees and see what's going on. Then decide if they need treatment and what the best method given the circumstances would be." It was a refreshing change.

Steve Repasky: Swarm Management

This ended up being my favorite talk of the day by far. It wasn't as thorough as the talk Dr. Gilley gave earlier this year, but he included scenarios for us to analyze and respond to. For example, he gave use details about various hives with photos and asked us to ascertain what was happening and what the correct response to the situation should be. As an instructional designer, I totally dig interactive exercises like this.

His book Swarm Essentials covers all the info from his talk and then some.  However, here are some interesting factoids from his talk:

  • In Pennsylvania, where Repasky lives, swarm season typically begins 4 weeks after the dandelion begins or when purple-eyed drones appear in the hive. So when you see dandelion, this is the time to get ready for swarms, including getting necessary equipment together.
  • Swarm cells are usually on the bottom third of the comb. Supercedure cells are along the top 1/3. I've heard this over and over, and it may be true in Langs because there is more space at the bottom of the hive.  However, from my own experience with TBHs, I haven't found this to be true. My bees make swarm cells all along the edges, and I think it's because of the sloped hive walls. From the bees perspective, the entire edge is the "bottom of the comb."
  • Swarms usually occur between 11 am and 1 pm. Orientation flights usually happen between 3 pm-5 pm.

There is a rumor that Tom Seeley may be speaking at next year's SNEBA. Fingers crossed!

Friday, November 20, 2015

What do conventional beekeeping and toilet cleaners have in common?

Walking through the supermarket, this label on a bottle of bathroom cleaner jumped out at me.

According to this label, the active ingredient thymol "Kills 99.99% of germs." Though it's unclear whether that number refers to % of germs total or % of germ strains, either way, that's a lot of sanitizing power. Also, it's amazing to me is how little thymol is needed to destroy 99.99% of these germs -- only a teeny fraction of a percent by volume in a 26 oz bottle that will get used over and over again.

But what does this have to do with beekeeping? Derived from thyme, thymol is the active ingredient in a few mite treatments. (Apiguard, Apilife Var, and Thymovar I believe.) Many beeks use it to knock down varroa mites because it's supposed to be less harmful/disruptive to the colony than other chemical treatments (e.g., fluvalinate & coumaphos).

From my perspective, though, here's where things get sticky. Bee colonies are superorganisms that rely on thousands of microbes, including bacteria, yeasts, and molds to maintain a healthy balance. Scientists, it seems, have only begun to uncover the tip of the iceberg regarding the role of microbes in honeybee colonies, but they do know that they're important. For instance, bees need various bacteria and yeasts to turn indigestible pollen into the nutritious beebread they feed to their young. Bacteria in the bees' guts allow digestion to occur. Bacteria help increase survivorship of larvae. Microbes prevent uncapped honey from spoiling. Certain bacteria and viruses are necessary to keep worse actors (think AFB, EFB, chalkbrood) in check. The list of benefits goes on.

Thymol, like the bathroom cleaner label clearly advertises, is an indiscriminate killer that doesn't limit its powers to varroa mites. It goes after a whole range of things. So while I like the idea of thymol in my toilet, I'm not so keen on it inside my hive. (BTW, did you know thymol is also used in Listerine -- which I also avoid -- and can cause honey to smell like Listerine?)

Now that fall is here and the bees are "in bed," you might feel like some winter reading. Here is a small list of articles on thymol and on beneficial microbes:

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


After Austeja swarmed this fall, I vowed to show her some tough love and not feed her at all, but I caved today.

If the weather had turned chilly a month ago and forced the bees to cluster, maybe I would've kept my promise. However, overall, it's been unseasonably warm (50s-60s F). As a result, the bees have been flying, but they're not bringing in much nectar or pollen. Meanwhile, they're eating up their stores. 

At her last checkup in October, Austeja didn't have a whole lot of honey -- maybe 11 bars total, but they weren't completely full. The last 3 or 4 bars weren't capped, but I left them in there because there was still a little bit of brood, and I thought the bees might want to move that uncapped nectar after those bees had emerged.

We finally got a few chilly days all in a row (mid-40s F), so I took this as an opportunity to hang fondant thinking the bees would be clustered and less inclined to defend their hive. How wrong I was!!! As soon as I opened the hive, the scent of banana Laffy Taffy came pouring out, and I could see a bunch of bees in the back of the hive shifting that uncapped nectar. Two of those combs were completely empty actually.

I didn't go too far into the hive -- just to the first bar that was mostly nectar -- and hung the fondant up beside it. Maybe I should have hung it next to the first capped bar instead, but the thought of a more invasive look held very little appeal. Anyway, if this warm weather holds out much longer, the bees may eat a lot of that sugar anyway.

In years past, I've had issue with fondant absorbing too much moisture and falling to the bottom of the hive. This year, I used a trick someone shared on FaceBook and used an avocado bag to hang it. Another option, I guess, would've been to just smoosh the fondant directly into the empty comb. What's done is done, though. I'm not really expecting those bees to survive anyway, so fingers crossed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Where do my bees go?

When out and about town, I've developed a habit of looking for honeybees, and I can't help but wonder if they're mine. Or a gorgeous patch of forage will catch my eye and make me think of the girls at home. Can the bees reach these gorgeous flowers, I wonder? Also, whenever the bees are making queens, I can't help but wonder where the queen might go to find her suitors.

Of course, I know that honey bees generally forage within a 2 -3 mile radius of their hive. However, I've heard they may fly even farther. Virgin queens are known to travel quite a distance from their homes to drone congregation areas. Here is a quote from Michael Bush's site:
According to Jay Smith, who tried an island for his mating yard, and he says the queens flew at least as far as two miles (3.2km). Some estimates I've seen are as much as four or five miles (6 to 8km). But I've also heard beekeepers who say they've seen matings (as evidenced by drone comets and the queen returning to the mating nuc) that occurred right in the beeyard.

The problem is that I'm not good at knowing how far exactly 2 or 3 miles might be from my hives. In the past, I've used Google Maps and Google Earth to estimate how far my bees might travel, but as I recall, the process hasn't been perfect. Awhile ago, someone shared an awesome tool on FB that is even easier to use. It's a map tool that allows you to draw a radius around a point.

As an instructional designer, my professional instincts cringe at the layout of the site and the instructions that are provided. However, once you figure it where everything is, it's quite simple. 
  1.  Navigate to
  2. Scroll down past the map & ads to find a sections called Options. This is where you enter your data. 
  3. Enter the distance of your radius
  4. Enter the address you want to use as the center point of your circle.
  5. Select  Draw Radius.
Once the circle is drawn on your map, you can use the zoom tools (+/-) to hone in on your area.

See what I mean? You really have to scroll way down before you can enter your info.
One cool feature of this map tool is the Colours and Line Thickness editor, which is located just beneath the Options section.

If you select the Colours and Line Thickness menu, it allows you to edit line thickness, line color, and fill color. This is a a neat option because you can draw several concentric circles all around the same point. For each circle, just change the radius distance (in the Options section) and the fill color before selecting Draw Radius. By drawing concentric circles, you can see what 1 mile, 2 miles, 3 miles, etc., looks like around your hives.
I've found that it helps to put darker colors in the center of the "bulls-eye."
You can also "create new colors" since the fills are transparent. E.g., you can overlay red on yellow and get an orange-ish color.

The tool also allows for various output methods, including static map and Google Earth KML output. However, I didn't really try this since I could find all the info I wanted on the map in this tool.

Anyway, this post is mostly for my benefit since I will no doubt continue to use it every now and then -- especially during the spring and summer when I see a nice stand of basswood trees or some lovely willows. However, if you're nutty like me, you might find it fun to see if a particular bit of forage is within flying distance of your hives, too.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Lessons Learned

Beekeeping Season 3 is over, and I realize that I know even less than I thought did when I first started keeping bees. However, the year hasn't been a total loss since it's taught me a lot, too. Here are the big takeaways for me from this year.

Last year was brutally cold, and condensation was a killer. This year, I'm adding heavier insulation above the bars. The colony that survived was in the draftiest hive, so I'm also going to experiment with ways to control moisture. As for what works, though, I'll wait until spring to make a report.

Top bar construction
In previous years, I made all my bars out of one piece of wood with a wedge for the bees to attach to. This year, I had to phase out a bunch of bars (long story), and so I made new ones that were flat. It was faster, easier, and cheaper to make them. Also, if I ever wanted to sell nucs, I figured the flat bars would be easier to deal with. I thought I could just insert them between drawn combs and the bees would draw them out fine. Well, the bees drew on them, but the bars were not fine since the girls drew multiple combs on the flat bars and made cross-combs. It wasn't a terrible mess, but it was enough to be a pain. From now on, I'm sticking with wedged bars.

Timing Splits
I've been thinking a lot about the best time to split this year. In other words, what is the best time to split in order to 1) prevent swarming and 2) maximize honey production. This year and last, I waited until the bees started making swarm cells (sometime around mid to late June). For a number of reasons that I've covered elsewhere, I'm thinking that this is too late in the season. Also, if I wait until they start swarming in June, I end up having to feed the splits, which is less than ideal. Next year, I'm going to start making splits when I see drones getting capped.

Hive Placement
If you live in an area with bears, install an electric fence. I learned that from Year 1. However, this year I learned that hives need to be at least 3' from the the fence. I had a nuc that was about 2 1/2' - 2 3/4' from the fence and it got knocked over by a paw that slipped between the electrified tapes in my fence. From now on -- at least 3'.

Every Flow is Different
Because of my experiences during previous years, I got complacent about managing my hives after the summer solstice. In previous years, my hives just would not build comb during that last half of the summer. However, this year, my fall flow gushed nectar, and the bees brought it in like there was no tomorrow. As a result, they began building comb again. One of them even swarmed. Basically, I have to remember that every year is different and to watch the hive. Seems like a no-brainer, but I'm thick-headed.

Insulation / Temperature Control
This summer, I experimented with an insulated hive. I have to wait until the end of winter before I can make any conclusions about the experiment, but so far, the results have been extremely promising. Recently, I communicated with a friend who built insulated Russian horizontal hives this year, and he's had optimistic results so far as well.

This year, I made 3 splits, Bubblegum, Peach, Buttercup, around June 3d-ish. Elsa, the insulated hive, was split on June 22. Bubblegum, the first with a laying queen, also has a fantastic queen (from my perspective anyway). They built up like mad; the bees are gentle; and they made loads of honey. So with an excellent queen and a great headstart over the others, her success was to be expected. However, of these four splits, Elsa may be the next strongest even though she was made last and at a less-than-ideal time. I'm not entirely sure how to explain her productivity, but one thing I noticed about her is the total absence of bearding during the worst heat of the year. My hypothesis is that stable hive temperatures allowed the bees to do more productive work in the hive when the other hives were busy trying to cool off.

Another benefit of making well-insulated hives is that they eliminate the need to scramble to winterize. Compared to many local beeks, I took my honey quite late in the year, for reasons of convenience, I didn't want to winterize before I'd taken it. However, that left me winterizing while it was actually snowing outside! (Just some flurries that didn't stick, but it was cold!) Now that I've figured out how to build them, going forward, I plan to build only insulated hives. It's just so convenient when the only thing I have to do is staple some mesh over the entrance. From my point of view, the added building cost is well-worth the time and energy savings of winterizing year after year.

Timing the Fall Harvest
Generally, in my state, conventional Lang beeks will tell you to harvest in late August or sometime in September. This ensures warm weather so that the honey flows easily out of the comb when it's spun. This also gives them time to treat their hives before closing up in mid/late October. However, I don't have Langs, don't treat, and have found that my fall honey is not capped by that time. I had to wait until October to see combs that were 80% capped.

This year, I harvested during the first half of October (sometime around the 8th). I chose that week because 1) the combs were 80% capped and 2) I was impatient 3) the weather was still fairly comfortable for me -- in the 60's F. Harvest went well enough, but the open hives attracted robbers. Also, because it was warm, there were a lot of bees on the honeycombs that had to be brushed off -- multiple times.

Recently, I watched a video of Michael Bush, who lives in Nebraska, and he mentioned that he holds off on harvesting until temps take a dip in October and the bees are in a cluster. He said this makes for a much easier harvest because he can quickly pull the supers off and doesn't have to deal with bees (e.g., brush them off or use an chemicals to drive them down into the brood boxes). This information correlated with Lazutin's comments in in his book. Lazutin's area of Russia equates with Zone 4 in the US. He talks about how he started pushing honey harvest off until late September and then even further into mid or late October. (BTW, Lazutin waits for 3 weeks until after the last brood has emerged.) He claims that:
  • Historically, this has been the traditional the time for harvesting honey in Russia before the advent of movable frame hives and modern beekeeping techniques.
  • The bees are in a cluster, making for an easier harvest.
  • The bees have positioned their stores exactly where they want them, so there is no danger of over-harvesting or taking honey/pollen that they need for medicinal purposes.
Considering these comments from Bush & Lazutin, I wish I'd waited another week before taking honey. Temperatures the following week dipped down into the 40's, and I agree that it would have been much easier to take honey at that time with the bees in a cluster. There wouldn't have been any robbing, either, and since I used a press, temperature was a non-issue.

So these are the main lessons I learned this year. How about you? Did you face any situations that gave you pause? Did anything work particularly well? What are your plans for next year?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Moving on up to the East Side

Last Tuesday, Sam Comfort gave a talk one of the bee clubs in my state. Though I'd love to join the club, I'm not a member because their meetings are always on school nights, which is tough when you have 3 kids. However, the beekeeping community in my state is a tightly-knit group, so the very next day a few people who attended emailed me about it. One person even kindly sent photos with his message:

What do you think of these pics, Julie?

The first two you obviously recognize - your sweetie-pie - but did you know that she is now famous and featured as an important part of Sam’s presentation … getting young people involved with honey bees? You were named as well!  ;-)

Look at that. My blog made it into an oft-requested speaker's presentation. Per my DH, I'm in the big leagues now! LOL!

(Actually, to be fair, it wasn't a total surprise. Last year, when Sam spoke at my bee club's summer picnic, he mentioned wanting to include these photos in his presentation. It's just kind of fun to see the updated slides.)

Buttoning Up for Winter

A few weeks ago, our temps dipped down into the 40's, and we were getting frosts at night. That's when I decided to close up the hives. There didn't seem to be any point in not winterizing them since I'd already taken my honey and had no plans to inspect, treat, or feed. Of course, I had to pick the absolute coldest day to do it. It actually snowed! Since then, the weather has warmed up by 15-20 degrees, but I'm comfortable knowing my hives are already buttoned up.

Had part of my house resided this summer. Used the leftover insulated siding on the sides of my hives.

Going into winter with 7 hives, I decided that at least 1 of them just had to survive, so why not run some experiments to see which winterizing method worked best? Of course, my "study" would never make it into a peer-reviewed journal since:

  • There is no control group.
  • I neglected to take any measurements at the outset.
  • Test groups are not large enough to provide sufficient data.
  • Each hive has so many variables that it's impossible to decide conclusively if/what impact the applied winterization method might have.
  • Et cetera
Nevertheless... I persist.

So here is a rundown of the various winterization techniques that were applied. (Note: All hives received mouseguards. With the exception of Austeja, all hives received insulation both on top of the bars and on the long sides of the hives. In all cases, insulation added on top of bars had a greater R-value than insulation applied to the sides.)

  • Top entrances. I created an entrance about 2"-3" between the end of the hive and the first bar. The hope is that as hot moist air rises, it automatically vents out of the hive. This is the method recommended by Michael Bush.
  • Vent bars. I made a flat bar (i.e., not wedged), drilled some small holes in it, and covered the holes with screen. These were placed behind the divider board. My dividers have gaps at the bottom so bees can crawl under them to reach feeders, if necessary. The idea is that the vent bars create some circulation in the hive.
  • "Sam's Winter Comfort Method." This approach is sort of a variation of using vent bars. If you've ever seen a talk by Sam, you'll know he doesn't do much in the way of winterizing. He throws a garbage bag full of leaves on top of the nest, and that's about it. Plus, his hives are not the gorgeous furniture-quality pieces most TBH hobbyists craft. If his hives were teeth, you'd recommend a trip to the dentist because they're so full of holes. However, there is a certain logic to this approach. The bees are cold, but they are not wet. Cold bees don't necessarily die, but wet bees do. So this approach, which I've dubbed after Sam, uses a vent bar and some insulation over the brood, but not the sides.
  • Lazutin method. This hive was built as an insulated hive. Straw fills the back of the hive to absorb excess moisture.
  • Completely insulated without moisture control. A long-time local beek who keeps both Langs and TBHs, said that in the winter, he insulates all four sides and tops of his TBH nucs. I asked him about moisture control, and he said he doesn't use any. He admitted to losing some nucs, but said most pull through just fine. Hmmm... Ok. Worth a shot.
Top entrance with insulation. The length of the entrance is about 2"-3" long. Entrance width is about 3/8". I stapled hardware fabric over the entrance.

Vent bar

Vent bar behind follower board with insulation over cluster (Sam's Winter Comfort Method)
Straw stuffed in behind divider board of my insulated hive.
I didn't have a piece of foam big enough for the entire front, so I just tried to cover most of it.
(Completely insulated w/o moisture control)

You know I'm table-obsessed, so here are some notes on the individual hives.

Note that Colony Strength is rated on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the best rating; 1 being the lowest. Colony Strength is not necessarily an indicator of the bees' quality or vigor. Instead it is a rating of how ready I think they are for winter. However, bees, being bees, can always surprise me. They sure did this year when the colony I thought was least likely to pull through was the only one to survive winter.

Winterization Method
Colony Strength
Successfully Wintered?
Peach (Nuc)
Top Entrance
This was my third split, and made a queen in July.
Top Entrance
These bees came were from Wolf Creek whose apiaries are in TN and GA.
Vent Bar
These bees came were from Wolf Creek whose apiaries are in TN and GA.

These bees failed to impress all year.
“Sam’s Winter Comfort Method”
This colony swarmed in late August, and I didn't do much to help it rebound.  As a result, I haven't much hope for it.

The only insulation added was between the observation window and wooden side panel. 

Should this hive fail to make it, the failure will not really indicate whether Sam's approach works. However, on the off-chance that it survives, I will seriously re-evaluate the amount of work I put into winterizing.
Lazutin Method
Last split made this year. She built up extremely rapidly out to about 20 combs. However, I've downgraded her rating down to 4 just because of the amount of capped brood still in the hive at the last inspection.

One of my concerns for this hive is the entrance; I'm not sure that it's large enough. Additionally, I don't know if the straw is close enough to the cluster to wick away moisture.

However, I really like the insulated hive. I feel like the colony, which was made as a split in July, developed at a much faster rate than the ones made before it.

Also, winterizing was a breeze. All I had to do was dump in straw and staple a hardware cloth over the entrance. No wrapping business.
Bubblegum (Nuc)
Completely Insulated w/o Moisture Control
The entrance is located on the end about 1/3rd from the top of the hive. The position concerns me since I feel cold air may enter too near the cluster.
Completely Insulated w/o Moisture Control
The entrance is located near the bottom of the  hive. This is the colony that got knocked over by a bear in late August.

In the spring, I plan to update this table.

Some hives, like Hippolyte, have developed their own preferred entrances -- like this crack. I did not seal those up.

Of course, if there is a chance the roof could blow off, be sure to strap it down.
(Btw, I didn't leave this hive completely sealed. This nuc has a top entrance. Bees can exit through a gap under the roof.)