Sunday, May 31, 2015

Why Use Local Queens?

Recently, on my blog and in a couple of forums, I've mentioned wanting to requeen my packages. Since requeening has the potential to introduce bunch of headaches, there is generally some curiosity as to why I'd want to take the risk of replacing a queen that is performing perfectly well.

This morning, I received a newsletter from my local beeclub that actually outlined some of the reasons why local queens are better. It seemed rather timely, so I thought I'd quote it here:
For years, beekeepers in Connecticut have been importing queens and packages from southern (or western) states. Queens from elsewhere are used to produce spring nucs. Mortality rates among imported packages can run as high as 70%. Mortality of nucs with non-native queens is around 50%. The mortality of overwintered nucs with locally raised queen drops to 15-20%. (Haskill, EAS 2012). While this creates a market with repeat business for the package sellers, it does not promote the long term health of bees in Connecticut. 
Another reason for producing locally raised queens is that many of the problems we face with our bees originate in the warmer states. Mites came from the south. Small hive beetle has been introduced in recent years with southern packages. Bees with Africanized genetics have not yet become established in Connecticut, but pose a potential threat for the future. Reducing the importation of southern bees may cut down the exposure of our bees to these problems. 
The possibility of introducing Africanized genetics, I think, should be a real concern for northern beeks. However, there are additional reasons why I want local queens that are not outlined in this article, but they include the following:
  • Due to the demand for bees as soon as winter breaks, package suppliers select for bees that brood up early. That's ok in the South where winters are mild and may never even deep below freezing temp. So package suppliers breed bees that start build up pretty much right after Christmas when the days begin to lengthen. Here in the frozen North, it's better to have bees that are more sensitive to nectar flows than sunlight.
  • A lot of package bees have mainly Italian genetics. Italians are known for being gentle and great honey producers. They also have a reputation for consuming a lot of honey during cold weather. In my climate, I feel it's better to have bees that are thriftier with their stores so they can get through the long winter. Case in point, this past year, my Russian/Carniolan mutts that made it through our brutal winter used about 3 bars. My neighbor (who keeps Italians) went into the winter with three boxes full of honey, but his bees had burned through most of it by the end of December. He was feeding fondant constantly every week or so, and they still died of starvation.
  • Many package queens are poorly mated. Many are superseded during the season. I've even heard numerous stories of queen being superseded within a week. In other words, as soon as she starts laying, she's overthrown.
  • My personal preference is for bees that are treatment-free and small-cell. Of course, even a local supplier might not meet those criteria, but it's just about impossible to find anyone who does. 
I feel like I'm forgetting a few considerations, but this is why I'm requeening.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Split for Peach

I'd already formulated a plan to requeen my package colonies. My daughter loves that Disney show Special Agent Oso in which all tasks are broken down into three special steps. It's a surprisingly helpful formula, so that's what I'd done, too.

  • Step 1: June 14, add some bars to Austeja and let her draw some fresh comb and lay eggs. 
  • Step 2: Move freshly drawn comb and eggs (along with bees, capped brood, and stores) over to a nuc to be turned into queen cells. 
  • Step 3. About 2 weeks later (to give me some wiggle-room timewise), pinch package queens and move capped queen cells over to package colonies. 

Easy peasy. Unfortunately, Austeja had other plans.

Today, all the comb near the entrance was backfilled with nectar and pollen. I suppose I wasn't really surprised because I could smell her honey all the way from my back door. I also found 4 bars with queen cups and stick eggs. Ah, here we go again... They must have been freshly laid today because they were still standing straight up. Guess they're queen cells now.

I'm not the only one who can smell honey in my yard.

I went through that whole hive bar by bar, but for the life of me, I couldn't find her queen. All the bars with queen cells got moved to Peach along with some capped brood and a few bars of honey. They (Peach's girls) were way madder than Austeja, so I'm hopeful the queen is still in the hive. In any case, I left her some eggs as well.

Backfilled comb. Classic sign of swarm prep.

As I started closing up Austeja, it began to rain, and at that point everyone got ticked off. I consider myself blessed to have been stung only twice. For the record, closing a hive in the rain with numb, swollen fingertips is not an experience I'd like to repeat.

Of course, now my plans are all screwy again. I could stick to the original plan, but that would give the packages only about 3 brood cycles before getting a virgin queen instead of the 5 or 6 I'd planned. I hate to set them back again so soon.

The alternative, I suppose is that I can split the queen cells up again and raise two nucs. The queens could emerge, mate, start laying, and then I could use them to replace the package queens at leisure. I could even combine the colonies to give them more of a jump.

Leave it to the bees to completely derail me.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Decision Has Been Made

Last night I was toying with the idea of forcing a swarm in order to obtain queen cells for my new packages. The idea was just not sitting well with me though. After sleeping on it, I had an infinitely better (and in retrospect, totally obvious) solution this morning -- just raise some queens.

After watching a queen-rearing demo last year, I've been leery of getting into that. It seems like a lot of steps, time, and equipment. However, maybe as a result of some REM, my brain retrieved some long-buried info from Mangum's book about grafting queen cells and a Mike Palmer video in which he discusses sustainable queen rearing for a small operation.

This afternoon, I plan to hit the books again to refresh my memory, but a new plan is emerging. Since I only need 2 or 3 cells, I'm thinking of making a small split to encourage some queen cells which I'll graft into the package colonies.

Has anyone ever done this? Any thoughts? Suggestions? I'm wading into uncharted territory (for me), so I'm looking for all the info I can get!!! Cheers!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Inspection Notes: My Scarlett O'Hara Queen

Today's temperature was 60 and sunny. Starting tomorrow, the weekly forecast predicts temps in the 80's and 90's with rain & thunderstorms. Even though today was cooler than I'd like for an inspection, I decided to go ahead in order to avoid checking my girls in sweltering heat or rain.


12 days post install, and she is doing quite well. I didn't go all the way through, but all the comb I gave them is full of eggs and brood. By the end of next week, they should have a nice population explosion.

Capped brood, eggs, and nectar in an old comb I had given them. 


I only looked at 3 bars because she was completely, totally, absolutely unhappy to see me. Two bars were crosscombed, but since they're mostly contained to those two bars, I put them between two nice straight combs to keep it from spreading.

Hippolyte was just nasty today, so I cut my visit short, but she appears to be laying plenty of eggs as well, even though there wasn't a whole lot of comb building. My guess is that she just doesn't have the population required to build a lot of comb right now, but hopefully, things will change by the end of next week.

Cross comb

Brood & nectar


Oh-em-gee! I could not be happier with this queen! Last year, I had combined her with Hippolyte thinking they hadn't built up enough to weather the winter. This spring, she has turned into the best queen I've ever had! My DH called her my "Scarlett O'Hara queen." When I gave him an odd questioning look, he explained, "She had a poor year last year, but she'll never go hungry again."
I guess there is a real lesson for me in this -- when making splits, coddle the new colonies until they get going. She probably would've done better if I'd been able to make more time for her last year.

Squeee! Look at that brood pattern!
Another gorgeous bar of brood
If I remove the divider board from the hive, Austeja will hold 32 bars. Currently, she is up to 27 bars. This includes about 3 or 4 partially built & empty bars tucked into the brood nest just to keep it open as well as 2 bars of uncapped nectar. I noticed a few queen cups, but there were no signs that she's thinking about swarming.

I love the funny shapes of natural comb.
Drone brood on left. Worker brood on right.

I've been thinking about requeening the two packages with purchased queens. However, after today's inspection, I'm toying with a new thought. What if I let Austeja run out of space and start building queen cells that I can move over to the other hives? Maybe even make a split or two? I haven't thought through the pros (like saving money and time, yeah!) and cons (like another year without honey, boo!) of this plan, so it's not a definite go yet. However, I'm loving Austeja's genes (overwintered, awesome layer) and would love to see her traits in more colonies.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

At a Crossroads and a Weird Reaction

It's been a week since the packages were installed, so I figured it was time to check. I'm not sure whether my blondes are simply taking advantage of the comb I gave them or if it's because of their Italian nature, but they are packing away syrup/nectar. Eggs are present, but not nearly as many as I'd like to see. It's weird to see the difference between them and my Russian/Carniolan mutts who make brood like crazy in the spring, but don't store nearly as much.

Ants were starting to make a few nests on top of Persephone's bars, so I chucked the feeders. She has enough syrup/nectar stored that I don't think she'll miss the feeders too much. I also used my tried-and-true remedy of applying orange oil on top of the bars.

Austeja, my 2nd-year hive, looks like she wants to swarm. A lot of the drone brood has emerged, and a lot of backfilling appears to be going on. I gave her 3-4 empty bars hoping to stave off any queen cell construction for a few days at least. So now, I'm at a crossroads. By Thursday, I hope to decide whether I'll try to keep her going without any breaks or if I'll split her. On the one hand, a brood break would reduce mite loads in the colony. I've only seen one or two, but that doesn't mean the mites aren't in there.  On the other, it would be really nice to get a real harvest.

Bloomwise, the dandelions are nearly over, which means that we can now mow our lawn. I've seen bees working henbit and ajuga, though. The honeysuckle looks like it will be on it's way out soon, too, but blueberries and viburnum are flowering. My raspberries and black cherries have buds, and so does the basswood. Tulip poplars have got to be coming into flower soon, too. Clover will start sometime in June. Fingers crossed for a bountiful flow and loads of honey.

Speaking of honey, I cut out a bit of cross-comb out of Austeja that was full of honey. My parents, children, and I thought it was delicious. My husband took one bite of the comb and had an allergic reaction. I can't figure it out. The comb and honey didn't have any venom in them, but his throat immediately began to itch and he started vomiting just as if he'd been stung. I'm pretty sure it can't be a reaction to the honey since I use honey all the time when I cook. However, my propolis toothpaste evokes a similar reaction from him. Could the wax have aggravated his allergies, too? Or might it have been the pollen in the honey? Bizarre.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


As I was tidying up the kitchen, I saw the slightest black shadow pass by the windows. 

And this is why I have an electric fence. Two different bears (that I know of) have visited my yard just this week.

Sorry for the poor quality images. All I had was my phone, and I wasn't getting any closer -- especially not after nearly avoiding a turf war with Chuckles over the compost pile earlier this week.

I think this is the same bear that was poking around last year. First it had one ear tag. Then another. Now some sort of collar. Poor thing.

I love this particular little guy/gal, though, so I'm not going to rat him/her out to the "wildlife fuzz."

But I'm not turning my fence off either.

Monday, May 11, 2015

New Packages!

8:15 on the dot this morning, I rang up the post office to find out if my two packages from Wolf Creek Apiaries had arrived. As soon as I'd introduced myself, the clerk on the other end of the line laughed, "You're the one with the bees. I was just picking up the phone to call you! Your package is here!"

"Great! Has it gone out with the mail carrier already, or can I pick it up?" I inquired.

"Oh no, it's here! You can pick it up any time. You can pick it up now."

He seemed just as desirous to have me pick up my bees as I was to do so, so my girl and I rushed over to the P.O. As we awaited our turn, my daughter impatiently asked, "Mom, are we ever going to get our bees?"

Immediately, the desk clerk, who was helping someone else, exclaimed, "You're the bee person? Linda [my carrier] is going to be soooooo happy to find out you're here!"

When it was our turn, the clerk rolled a cart with my packages out to the area behind the counter. They were wrapped in window screen mesh on top of the package mesh. "They are really making a lot of noise. You're going to have to come back here and get them. I'm just not picking them up!!!"

It's funny how a few seasons of beekeeing can change a person's perspective. My first year, I might have been a bit intimidated by a "box of maniacs" to quote Sylvia Plath. However, now that I have a bit of experience under my belt, I can tell angry buzzing apart from happy buzzing, and they sounded pretty mellow to me. Anyway, I thanked her and drove my babies home to await the late afternoon so I could hive them.

The USPS deserves major kudos because even if the bees got here later than promised, they arrived in excellent shape. There were extremely few dead bees lying at the bottom. However, I'm still glad that the packages arrived today because I'm not sure they would've made it in those tiny boxes another day. Christy Hemenway says packages can survive in the box for 10 days, but mine were nearly out of syrup.

Installing the first package was textbook perfect, which was nice since I had a couple of junior beeks helping me out. Because the packages had been with their queens for 5 days already and had obviously accepted them, I decided to direct release. We put a couple bars of empty comb in each hive and put the cage entrance right between the edge of a comb and the side wall so that she could walk right out and hide immediately. Direct releasing is a bit like playing with fire, but I'm pretty sure that between all the comb and the late-in-the-day install, the packages will decide to stay put.

Another generation playing with bees

I waited an hour before installing package #2. During that time, my helpers absconded, so I was on my own. The can was really hard to pry out, and I ended up pulling the strap that held up the queen cage out of the package. Urgh. Once I finally got the can out, I couldn't even find the queen cage because the bees had already begun building comb and storing syrup. I tried sticking my hand in, but came up empty. Finally, I ended up dumping the bees gently into the hive and fishing the queen cage out of the ensuing mass.

Queen cage strap came out. Doh!

There were three tiny combs that I mashed onto some bars. Another good-sized comb was too heavy with syrup to mash, so I used one of the emergency bars that I always keep on hand. It's just a piece of hardware fabric bent into boxy C and stapled onto a flat bar. I just shoved the comb right onto it. All the bees were busy fanning and making orientation flights when I left them today.

Comb with syrup

When I talked to Ruth Seaborn back in January, she repeated several times, "Our bees are real gentle. They're good girls." She was certainly right about that. The bees I got from Sam and from White Oak Apiary were not mean, but they're not super docile either. They're usually simply spicy. Sometimes, they're naughty. Sometimes, they're downright b*tches. Ruth's bees, though, are truly mellow yellow.

An emergency bar

They really do hold very well, and they're easy to use when you don't have any extra help.

Even better than not getting stung is that I think I got through it all without killing any bees. I almost never use gloves because I like to be able to feel what's going on. Even so, sometimes I accidentally drop a bar on one of the girls during an inspection and the resulting crunch is a real bummer. It just makes me feel terrible. No crunching, today, though. Hooray!

So I'm going to feed behind the follower board, but otherwise, I won't open up the hives again until Saturday or Sunday at the earliest. Fingers crossed that they stay put.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Brood & Beer

I got an email from USPS saying that my packages were scheduled to arrive on Saturday, so I anxiously waited around on pins and needles yesterday for my delivery carrier to arrive. When she did, I made a mad dash to the mailbox at the end of my drive to find that she didn't have them! Waaah! I called the post office, and nothing. Hopefully, they'll arrive by Monday, but I'm now very concerned about their condition.

Since I didn't have any new bees, I consoled myself with an inspection on Austeja. We seem to have gone straight from winter to summer here. The last two weeks have been in the 80s to 90s every day. Being a summer person, I'm completely ok with this change. The bees don't seem to mind at all, either, as they are still busy hauling pollen and nectar into the hive. However, although all of the bars I'd added last week had some comb on them, the bees are not building nearly as quickly as they did last year. The trees are not making nearly as much pollen either. I suspect the lack of rain we've experienced the last couple of weeks is behind this. A little rain would make things much better for everyone.

Last week, there were three bars full of curing nectar. Yesterday, only one of them was full. Guess they used the rest of the nectar for brood. Although I mourn the loss of the honey, they'll have a much larger population for the next round of blooms, which is a good thing. Horsechestnuts are beginning to bloom. Wild raspberries and blueberries are making buds. The tulip trees and basswood should start next month along with clover. It will be prime honey making time, so I'm glad their population is ramping up now.

Some brood and pollen. Looking good, eh?

Oh! Beer! I almost forgot. After I'd closed up the hive, my DH came out to check on me. He'd been enjoying a cold one and still had it in his hand. Although he was standing about 15 feet away, the girls were not happy. Quite a few went after him, and even though he kept retreating at a rapid pace, the "temperance movement" refused to let up. Tip of the day: Don't drink and hive.

Today, I decided not to worry too much about my packages since the post office assured me that they wouldn't get any more incoming deliveries until Monday. Instead, we visited the Litchfield daffodils. If you're ever in CT during April or May, I highly recommend a trip. In 1941, the Morosani family planted 10,000 daffodil bulbs. Every year since, the bulbs have doubled, been divided, and been replanted. It's a truly spectacular sight.

Tomorrow, though, is another day and I'll start fretting then. Fingers crossed that my girls arrive alive.

Litchfield daffodils -- they just go on and on and on

Monday, May 4, 2015

Treatment-free Bee Suppliers

This post is mainly for me so that I can find this info again if I need it. A couple of weeks ago, Solomon Parker, a podcaster who interviews treatment-free beeks,  started an interactive Google map of treatment-free bee-suppliers. Not all of these suppliers sell packages or TBH nucs. However, it's always nice to know where to get a queen or maybe work out a deal with someone who might try doing a nuc for you.

New suppliers are always being added, so don't be discouraged if you don't see one near you right now. Also, if you know of one not on this list, you could let him know. Solomon moderates the Treatment-Free Beekeeping group on FaceBook.