Sunday, August 30, 2015

Not Much Going On

I haven't written a post about my bees in quite awhile now. The fact is that I really haven't done anything with them in a couple of weeks. 

Experience from previous years has taught me that, unless they're being fed, my bees don't do much building after the  summer solstice. Even if I insert empty bars, they don't really touch them. Instead, they seem to focus on maintaining population so that they can gather fall honey and make it through winter. So that's why I've been mostly leaving them alone... until today.

I cracked open the splits just to remove empty syrup jars. I don't think I'll feed Bubblegum anymore. Elsa and Buttercup could use some heavy feeding, though. Tomorrow, I'll make up some syrup for them.

The asters have just started to bloom. I especially love the pink and purple ones.

Asters and goldenrod

Japanese knotweed began blooming about 4 weeks ago, I think, and it's still going strong. Although it's an invasive non-native, I'm always happy to see it because it's an excellent source of nectar. So-called bamboo honey is actually from Japanese knotweed, which has a sort of bamboo-looking stalk.

Incidentally, several months ago, I was watching one of my British mystery shows, when the erudite Cambridge-educated Sergeant Hathaway questioned a suspect about the Japanese knotweed she was pruning. For the record, I don't know what kind of vine she was working on, but it wasn't knotweed, which is the feathery white stuff in the image below.

Japanese knotweed

Hopefully, you're enjoying the rest of your summer and looking forward to a fall harvest.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Plans for Sleeping with Bees

When sleeper hives were first brought to my attention a couple of years ago, I thought they were the coolest thing I'd ever heard of. This morning, I learned that Dr. Leo Sharashkin has posted plans for sleeper hives!!!

Since my shop skills leave much to be desired (i.e., I'm pretty sure I'd have bees in the sleeping area), I'll probably pass on this project. However, if any of you are up to it, I'd love to hear about it!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Favorite Autumn Garden Plant

There are lots of great nectar sources during the fall flow, but one of my all-time favorite garden plants this time of year is Autumn Joy sedum for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it's super easy to grow. The garden in front of my house is just terrible. The soil is hard, dry and depleted of nutrients and organic matter. We've only been in the house three summers, and every year I've added a layer of horse poo. That's helped perk things up a bit, but it's going to take a lot more work to turn that garbage dirt into fertile soil. The sedum doesn't care. We rarely take care of it, but it always looks lovely despite a lack of attention.

Secondly, sedum is extremely easy to propagate. I started off with 5 plants a couple of years ago. Last spring, my daughter broke off a number of stems. We just shoved them into the ground, and nearly all of them took root.

Thirdly, it appears to be fairly deer-resistant. Sometimes it gets munched when there's almost nothing else around, but for the most part, critters leave it alone.

Lastly, bees are bonkers for it. Every time I look, I can count at least a couple dozen bees on it. Actually, that's really all the reason I need.

Bees on Autumn Joy sedum

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Where's the Honey?

We got a ton of rain yesterday and all last night -- the first really heavy rain we've seen in about a month, I think. It knocked down a bunch of our tomato plants, corn stalks, and climbing beans, but I don't mind. All that moisture for the plants means more nectar for the bees. 

The bees are feverishly working summer/late summer flowers like echinacea, Russian sage, and goldenrod. It does my heart good watching them zip back and forth across the yard.

Bee on echinacea (purple coneflower)

A neighbor gave me some plants last fall which have also just begun to flower. He didn't know what they were called, but he promised me that "bees are all over them!" A couple people in a local gardening group identified them as perennial sunflowers. Apparently, they can be somewhat invasive as they spread by the roots, but the bees do seem very fond of them. I know I am!

Perennial sunflower
My splits, Elsa, Buttercup, and Peach, all seem to be doing well. Peach and Elsa both have about a dozen drawn combs and are storing syrup, so I gave them each an empty bar to encourage more building. 

Thanks to the bear attack about 2 weeks ago, Buttercup has only 6 drawn combs. However, she's got lots of brood and is storing quite a bit of syrup, so I'm not worried about her yet. My only concern is that she might not be able to get her population up enough in the next month or so before it starts getting chilly.

I hadn't planned to inspect the hives today, but I can really smell the honey when I'm outside, so I cracked them open just to see what was going on. Imagine my surprise to find hardly any honey in the honey areas at all!

Bubblegum has drawn comb on all but one bar, but only bar has any nectar in it. Instead, I found lots brood in all stages.

Larvae of various ages
Austeja had three bars of nectar in the honey area, but nothing capped. Lots of brood, though.

I opened Hippolyte and Persephone very briefly because they were super nasty again. However, from what I could tell, Hippolyte had no stores in the honey area. Again, there was lots of brood in the back of the hive.

Persephone is a mystery, but my guess is that she's exhibiting more of the same. As soon as I removed the first bar from Persephone, a great black cloud of bees thundered at my head. Within seconds, I'd received two stings, and they were boring a way inside my veil and clambering up my shorts. I decided it just wasn't worth looking inside the hive. Instead, I closed her up and ran away hurling Shakespearean curses at the loathsome, venomous shrews. Seriously, these two colonies scare the daylights out of me, and I'm already making plans to order new queens for them... if they survive the winter. I can promise that they won't be getting much coddling in terms of winter prep from me either.

What's going on? Where's the honey? 
I definitely smell honey, so I know it's in there even if I'm not seeing any in the storage area. Here is my guess as to what's happening. I have end entrances, so when I did my inspection today, I started from the end opposite the entrance. Near the back of each nest, there were some bars of empty comb. After the empty comb, Bubblegum and Elsa had one or more honey bars. Then came the brood comb. After seeing the first brood comb, I closed up.

I suspect that as the brood emerges in the part of the nest closest to the entrance, it's being backfilled with nectar, which moves the nest closer to the back of the hive (where I began my inspection). This is what I noticed happening in the springtime prior to Austeja's swarm preparations. Also, Buttercup (the only nuc that got a full inspection because I wanted to see if she'd repaired the bear damage) is doing exactly what I just described. She's got a full bar of nectar/syrup right at the entrance and is backfilling the nest.

In any case, there is plenty of forage right now, so I'm not going to feed them. Fingers crossed that they fill up the hives in the next couple of weeks.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Thinking Through Swarms, Splits, and Feeding

Warning: This is one of those rambling posts in which I sort of "talk through" something I've been thinking about, so you may want to bail out now.

Every year, it seems like there is at least one big question that I keep turning over and over in my mind. This year, the big question for me has been about timing splits. More specifically, what is the ideal time to split in order to prevent a swarm but still make honey? 

Austeja, my colony that came through the winter, made a load of honey in the spring, but then most of it got eaten up by the splits I made when she began to swarm. Bummer.  Although I didn't take up beekeeping for just the honey, it would be dishonest to say that I don't want any honey because I do, I do, I do. Even worse, I've had to feed all these splits, and 1) sugar syrup has been shown to be a poor substitute for nectar 2) it's a PITA for me.

Actually, over the summer, this is a complaint that I've heard from other new-ish beeks like myself. They split up queen cells & brood to halt the swarms, divvy up the honey bars between splits, and they still have to feed, feed, feed the splits to ensure they build up before the fall.

When Peter Borst lectured at my local beekeepers' meeting in June, I asked him about this, and he said the best time to split is when you see cues that the colony is preparing to swarm but before the bees start making swarm cells. Cues to look for would include making drones & building queen cups, etc. Although he advised against splitting too early (because a sudden drop in temps could chill brood), he said one could even get a jump on splits 1-2 weeks before the natural swarming period occurs. (In CT, this might be early May, but every location and every year is different.) The bees will quickly replace all the brood they lost at this time, so splitting won't have a huge effect on honey storage.

I thought this was helpful info because it coincided with one of the first pieces of advice I received as a new beek:

Maybe if you live some place really cold or really hot, this rhyme wouldn't hold true since your flows would occur during different months. In my area, though, the main flow occurs between May and June, so that seems right for me.

So I could see how splitting in May, like Peter suggested, would work. However, in observing my own bees and in talking to other TBH beeks in my area, it seems some people started seeing swarm prep around mid-May, but most people's bees didn't begin making queen cells until June or July, which was puzzling to me. If it was more advantageous for the bees to swarm earlier when the main flow was on, why were the bees waiting? Our dearth usually begins around the middle of July. Why swarm right before or during a dearth? (Ok, I concede the bees don't know when the flow will end, but still. They're so in tune with natural rhythms, why not time swarms with the main flow?)

Fast forward...

I finally finished reading Tom Seeley's Honeybee Democracy, a description of his research on swarm behavior. To say the least, it was fascinating and informative, and I can't believe I waited this long to crack it.

Available on

Anyway, he mentioned a couple of things in his book that I already knew, but they took on new meaning for me in light of Peter's comment and the experience that I and others have had with our own near-swarms.

The main piece of info that finally connected all the dots for me has to do with cavity size. Seeley's research says that bees prefer cavities that are approximately 40 liters. We all know bees will build in spaces larger and spaces smaller than 40L, but given a choice, they will pick a cavity approximately 40L.

For those of us stubbornly clinging to English measurements, 40L is approximately 10 gallons. If you've ever had fish or a hamster, you know how small a 10-gallon container is. The thing is, though, that most bee hives are much, much larger than this. For instance, my hive holds about 88 liters.

It's finally dawned on me that perhaps this larger size maybe why my bees, and bees belonging to other beeks I know, don't swarm until June or July. The constant addition of space suppressed the swarming instinct as they are manipulated into filling a larger cavity. However, with a TBH, eventually one runs out of space, and they begin to swarm. Given a 40L cavity, perhaps the bees would fill it faster and swarm earlier. Maybe they'd swarm in May. (Yes, I'm slow. It's only taken me 3 years to figure this out.)

Another interesting tidbit from Seeley's book is that 75% of swarms don't survive the winter, and a majority of those deaths result from starvation due to insufficient stores. He didn't really go into this detail in depth, and I'm curious about it. Does this 75% come from kept or feral bees? Were the surviving swarms from feral or kept bees? What months did the dead/surviving swarms leave their original hive? What types of cavities did they occupy? When was this research conducted? Have changing weather patterns affected counts? Etc. The list of questions goes on. However, if these swarms are leaving their hives just prior to or during a dearth, like the ones I'm hearing about, then it would make sense that they don't have time to build up. Therefore, without constant feeding, they would die out -- just like these late June/July splits we've all been making.

Of course, I've also considered another reason that I have to feed all these splits. According to beeks who've been at this for decades, the flows have changed. In particular, the fall flow is lighter, and the dearth is "dearthier." This year, the spring flow came much later than usual, too. The weather is beyond my control, though, so I'm going to focus on factors that I can manipulate.

Next year, I'm going to try splitting much earlier, before they're well into swarm mode and see what happens. For example, instead of waiting until they've filled out 30 bars, maybe I'll split at 12 or 15, since if they were wild with a 40L hive, that's when they would naturally take off.

Has anyone gone through a similar experience? What do you think?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Slinging out the sling

Well, slinging isn't exactly the right word, but the girls don't seem to appreciate the sling I made for their comb after Friday's bear attack. Here they are teasing it out a bit at a time.