Sunday, February 22, 2015

They're Alive!

Winter has been crazy cold this year.  For the most part, daytime temps have been in the teens. The other day, we actually got up to the low 20's, and it felt like a heat wave. The coldest night we've had so far was -8 deg F, though with the windchill, it was something like -30 deg F. Today, though, we got a freakishly balmy day. The high was 41 -- can you believe it? I feel that number should have fireworks or something around it!

Last night, we got enough snow to cover the entrances on Peach (the nuc on the table), but most of it melted today.
In fact, I'd say about half the snow on these hives is gone. Could spring be around the corner for real?

Between the cold and snow, I haven't checked my hives in about a month. However, with this glorious reprieve in the weather, I had to have a look-see.

The snow is so deep in my yard that it comes almost up to my hips in places, and last night, we got another 6 inches or so. Trekking out to the hives in boots is impossible, so I strapped on some snowshoes to get out there. Imagine my delight when I saw that the freshly fallen snow all around my beeyard was covered in yellow splotches. Poop has never looked more lovely to me!

Don't eat the yellow snow!

Both Austeja and Persephone had bees flying at their entrances. A few even came over to check me out. Maybe, in my white jacket, they thought I was an enormous snowdrop. In any case, we had a lovely time saying howdy.

Hello, Friend!
I didn't see much activity around Peach or Bubblegum, but a quick listen with my DH's stethoscope revealed that they were very much alive. I've been so fretful over my girls these last few weeks. Having confirmation of their well-being is just wonderful.
Finding a heartbeat
Tomorrow night is supposed to get down to -11 degrees, and another foot of snow is predicted for Wednesday. I'm feeling much better about my colonies' cold hardiness, though. Fingers crossed that they make it through this last run-up to spring. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Saints Preserve Us!

St. Valentine of Terni

Beekeepers who don't get into the candy hearts and flowers still have a reason to celebrate Valentine's Day as he is the patron saint of beekeepers! It's a distinction he shares with a few other saints, including:

St. Ambrose of Milan

  • Saint Ambrose. As an infant, his father discovered him with his face covered with bees, which was interpreted as a sign of his future eloquence. In fact, he was described as having a "honeyed tongue," and his symbols are bees and skeps.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

  • Saint Bernard, who bears the epithet "The Mellifluous Doctor." Spiritual sweetness and religious eloquence seem to be a running theme with these saints.
St. Gobnait

But back to St. Valentine, since today is his day. His symbols include roses and birds. (Birds are known for pairing up, often monogamously. In medieval England, Feb 14 was the day that birds selected their mates. Roses symbolize the beauty and fullness of love, but they are also connected with Aphrodite who stepped on one, cut her foot, and dyed them red with her blood.) What's this saint's connection to bees, though? Honestly, I can't tell. Perhaps it has to do with the sweetness of the love that is celebrated on his day. Maybe, his symbolism has absorbed bees since Cupid, who has a strong connection to our little girls, is also so strongly identified with Valentine's Day.

Cupid and bees
According to mythology, the infant cupid stole some honeycomb and was stung. He ran crying to his mother, Venus, who chastised him saying, "My infant, if so much thou feel the little wild-bee's touch, how must the heart, ah, Cupid! be, the hapless heart that's stung by thee!" (quote from Myths of Old Greece By William Adams, 1900.)

The Greek poet Theocritus, tells a version in which Aphrodite laughs and says "Are you not just like the bee - so little yet able to inflict such painful wounds?"

As Eros/Cupid (the god of love) lay fast asleep once, "tawny bees were sprinkling on his dainty lips honey dripping from the comb."1 (Tawny bees, eh? Must have been Italians.)

He was also said to have dipped his arrows in honey to sweeten the sting.

So... Valentine's day... the birds and the bees... It all starts to come together now.

In any case, it's fun knowing that beekeepers have a quite a few saints watching over them especially as there have been a few times when I've felt I could really use some supernatural assistance. Usually after dropping a comb. LOL!

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!


1 This quote comes from a book called The Sacred Bee and is linked to a free online copy. I actually have a hard copy of this book (quite cheap on Amazon), and I love it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

To Warre or Not to Warre?

To bee, or not to bee- that is the question: 
Whether 'tis better in the Warre to install
The bees and queens of Southern packages 
Or to resist the waves and tides of haste, 
And by opposing make a better choice. 

I had thought to write this entire post as a parody of Hamlet's famous speech, but I figured that poor dead Shakespeare has suffered enough.

I've been very interested in The People's Hive for awhile, and I had planned to start a couple of them this year. However, I'm now reconsidering that decision.

Looking at this after uploading and thinking that the "Pros" should probably be in the lower end of the scale.
Maybe I was subconsciously thinking of Anubis weighing hearts against a feather.
When a heart was worthy, the feather dropped. Unworthy hearts would sink and be eaten.
I suppose that's not a very promising way to think of a beehive.

The reasons I'm interested in starting Warres are:

  • Footprint. They have a smaller footprint than KTBHs, and my backyard is getting kind of full now.
  • Low maintenance. They require less maintenance than KTBHs. As a mother of three with pets, house, and a consulting business, I've got more than enough on my plate. I like the idea of having less work. Also, Warres would be better for outyards, if/when I get to that point.
  • Honey. Last year, Sam Comfort, who has Langs, Warres, and KTBHs, told me that Warres make less honey than Langs, but much more than KTBHs. While I'm not in beekeeping strictly for honey, honey is nice.
  • Overwintering. Sam also mentioned his KTBHs overwinter better than Langs. However, the real star when it comes to overwintering, he said, were Warres.
The reasons I'm shying away from Warres are:
  • Storage. They require more storage space than KTBHs. The beauty of KTBHs is that everything is self-contained. Like Langs, Warres require space for storing boxes and bars that aren't in use. Clutter is not my friend.
  • Harder to inspect/manage. The People's Hive has bars that are nailed into place, which makes them hard to inspect or manage. Some people but the bars into grooves or use spacers to keep the bars movable, but my understanding is that the bees have a tendency to propolize them into place anyway.  Of course, according to Warre's description of his hive, ideally one is supposed to open the hive only twice a year, during spring and harvest. So this "design flaw" isn't really an issue if you're working Warre-style. However, after last year's swarming fiasco, I'm a bit gun-shy about not checking, particularly since I live in a suburban neighborhood that might not appreciate bees taking up residence in houses.
  • Harder to requeen. This is related to the reason above, but it's also my primary reason for holding off this year. Ideally, I'd like local, treatment-free, small-cell bees, but I missed out this year. As a result, I've been thinking about how to requeen a southern package with a local queen. No matter what option I consider, it seems like a hassle. 
So... that's the current plan anyway. I'll probably be having this same debate with myself, though, next year.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Ordering Packages

I've been considering starting some Warre hives next year (though I'm now waffling on that decision), and so I ordered two packages of bees. Although I would have preferred getting bees from Sam Comfort again, I missed my window. However, Sam suggested Wolf Creek Apiary (located in Tennessee and Georgia) instead. John and Ruth Seaborn, the owners of this apiary, breed small-cell bees. Although they're not treatment-free, they stick to natural, soft-treatments -- no toxic chemical miticides, pesticides, fungicides, etc. in their hives. (If you're interested, you can hear John give a talk about small cell bees on YouTube.) They're also a supplier for GoldStar Honeybees.

I had a number of questions for Ruth about their packages, so I called her up, and we had a delightful chit-chat. It's funny how bee people (henceforth known as "beeople") get together, and they immediately begin swapping stories and sharing as if they'd known each other forever. Ruth, though... she's in a class by herself. I would've have loved her even if we didn't have bees in common. She's wonderful! Helpful, well-informed, great customer service, amazing sense of humor, warm... I can't say enough good things about her. (Of course, there will have to be a second part to this story when I get my bees, but so far, so good.)

After the conversation, I remembered my first experience ordering bees. Back then, I really didn't know that much. I knew I wanted treatment-free, small-cell local bees, but that was all. So I found some guy who sold them, and ordered on the spot. If I'd known then what I know now, I might have asked more/different questions. So for the benefit of new beeks, here are some things I now ask when ordering packages. Of course, some of these issues may/may not be important to you, and you'll have to take any opinions with a grain of salt.  

  • Where are the bees from? Of course, I prefer overwintered local bees to bees that are not. Personally, I feel better knowing that they are adapted to my local climate. Also, if they're local, you can pick them up instead of having them shipped, which is less stressful for the girls.
    Sometimes, you can't get local bees (like me this year), so you might consider ordering a package and requeening with a local treatment-free queen. By the time winter arrives, you'll basically have local bees.
  • Treatments? I prefer treatment-free bees. Soft treatments (sugar dusting, essential oils) would be my second choice. Personally, I wouldn't order treated bees without plans to requeen.
  • Small cell? There is some talk that suggests small-cell bees are physically stronger than bees raised on foundation. They seem to be more resistant to varroa as well.
  • Bee type? Before ordering, you'll probably want to research what kind of bee you want. The most common types in packages are Italians, Carniolans/Russians, or some kind of mutt.
  • Reputation? I cannot stress this enough. Buy bees from someone who comes with a good recommendation in two categories.
    Bees -- Do they sell bees that have desirable qualities like fecundity, gentleness, honey production, hygiene...?
    Customer service -- Are they honest and responsive? Do they provide good customer service?
  • Package size? Suppliers usually sell 3# packages, but some offer 2# packages as well. If you have a Lang or a TBH, you'll need a 3# package. However, if you have a Warre, you'll need 4-5 lbs of bees. If your supplier sells 2# packages, you might be able to save a little by ordering either a 3#- & 2#-package or 2 2#-packages. Of course, one package should have a queen, the other should not.
  • Costs?  Of course, there will be questions about how much does the package cost. Usually, you have to pay a deposit to reserve your package. Then you need to pay your balance by a particular date. You'll want to know those details. Also, be sure to find out if there are any additional shipping or insurance costs. Sometimes, package/shipping costs are reduced if you buy multiple packages. Btw, make sure the package is insured so that if if arrives with a dead queen or a lot of dead bees, you can get your money back or a replacement.

    Some suppliers will also take a deposit on the actual package box. If you return the box within a certain number of days, you may get a refund for that.
  • Cancellations? Sometimes, ordering packages is so frustrating because you have to place your order in winter. However, if you already have colonies, you can't be sure whether you're going to need a package in the spring or not. In this case, I think it's better to err on the side of caution. Order a package or two, but make sure that the supplier has a cancellation policy. Make sure you know whether you'll get your deposit back. Find out how much notice you need to provide when cancelling.
  • Ship or pickup? You'll want to know if the bees are shipped. If so, do you get a tracking number? When will they ship? Some suppliers will even allow you to pick your own ship date.

    If you're buying locally, you may need (and will probably prefer) to pick up bees personally. If you have pickup, find out how much notice you'll get before a pick-up date. I've heard of people who got a notice a day or two beforehand, and they had to drop all their plans to get their bees. Also, if you have to pick up, find out if the supplier can be flexible in case you can't make that date. Again, I've heard horror stories about people who had emergencies come up last minute, and they had a hard time getting their bees (or a refund) afterward. (Again, choose a reputable supplier.)
  • Mating? Some people want to know whether their bees are open-mated or instrumentally inseminated (II). Mostly, these seem to be people buying packages from areas where Africanized bees are an issue (i.e., pretty much all the areas where you're going to find packaged bees).

    Personally, I'm kind of squeamish about instrumental insemination and prefer open-mated queens. Perhaps I'm anthropomorphizing, but it feels like a violation, and I wonder whether we might be losing genetic diversity this way. That's a different story, though. Despite not liking it, I can see why someone might prefer II queens. Many packages are produced before there are sufficient drone populations to fertilize the queens. As a result, open-mated queens can be hit-or-miss in terms of being properly mated. II queens can take longer to start laying, but they catch up, and you have a known quantity in terms of their fertility. Even knowing this, I prefer a more "romantic" approach to mating, but I guess this is a personal choice.
  • Timing of the spring flow -- on both ends? This kind of goes back to the mating issue. Some suppliers in warmer regions will start shipping bees as early as March (can you believe it?) When I ordered with Wolf Creek, they asked me when I wanted my bees delivered, which shocked me really. Having dealt with 2 local suppliers for bees in the past, I've always had to sit around and wait until they were ready. To pick a date? Unreal!

    Anyway, as I was thinking about a date, Ruth mentioned that she has a CT client who has bees delivered around the 1st of April every year. That person was closer to the coast where it's warmer. I wasn't so sure of the bloom in my area at that time, so I picked a date when I knew the flow would be on.

    I also made sure that her spring flow would be in full swing then, too. Why? Because with an open-mated queen, I wanted to make sure she'd have access to lots and lots of drones. For a queen, I want a real hootchie-cootchie girl girl who has had access to oodles of suitors.
  • Queen options? I don't know why, but I see some suppliers selling packages with virgin queens. As a buyer, I want a mated queen, and I wonder why some people wouldn't. Maybe they want the queen to mate locally, but I'd be worried. Lots of queens don't come back from mating flights. If that happened to a person with a virgin queen, they'd be stuck with a package of bees and no queen. Plus, a mated queen puts your colony just that much further ahead.
Hmmm... I feel like I've left out some important questions. If there are any considerations that you take into account, please, share your thoughts!