Monday, February 29, 2016

Signs of Spring

In beekeeping, one of the things that completely bugs me is how much advice resolves around doing something before something else happens. For example, if you plan to checkerboard, you're supposed to do this 6 weeks before the dandelion blooms, I believe, before the red maple flowers. Well, dang it. How the heck do I know when dandelions are going to bloom? If I had red maple trees in my yard, I suppose I'd check them every day for buds, but I don't, and I don't necessarily think about walking around in search of them. Fortunately, though, red maple isn't the only sign of impending spring.

So today's post is purely for my own record-keeping benefit. One of the things I've resolved to take more notes on is phenological events. Eventually, my hope is to put together some sort of yearly beekeeping calendar of activities that is based on events rather than on calendar months because, goodness knows, the weather can be dramatically different from year to year.

From Merriam-Webster

The first snowdrop sighting this year was at the end of January, and I've seen lots of daffodils coming up. However, within the last week, signs of spring have been popping up all around. One morning, I let the dog out and was greeted by the music of geese honking as they winged their way back north. Wednesday, my first chipmunk and robin spottings occurred.

Yesterday, we had a fantastic day over 50 deg. F. I just couldn't stand being in the house and skipped out on the work I was supposed to be doing in favor of performing some veg garden clean-up/prep. I was thinking of starting my cool weather veggies in a couple of weeks, but the ground in my raised beds was already soft and workable. In fact, some spinach that was planted last fall (but which was mostly eaten by the deer) was already volunteering! I guess it's time to ramp things into high gear around here! (BTW, instead of getting any work done, I ended up planting 4 1/2 out of 5 beds and starting a tray of flowers indoors. Then I played tag and jumped on the trampoline with my kids.)

This spinach is a cheery sight.

BTW, the bees greatly enjoyed the sunshine, too. My 6 colonies were all outside buzzing and interestedly investigating my blue shirt. They were all over the garden soil, too, which seemed curious. Perhaps they were looking for minerals or moisture. Oddly enough, Austeja (the only hive with a window) was also dumping all the sugar I gave her out of the combs and onto the hive floor. I don't know what that's about, but ok. Obviously, they're active, and they can reach the sugar if they need it, so starvation is no longer a concern really.

Dumping all the sugar out

My only disappointment of the day was when I realized that I wasn't seeing any pollen going into the hives. So even though spring is right around the corner, it's not quite here yet. Soon, though. It's going to be here soon.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Winter Book List

People think beekeeping is a  3-season activity from spring until fall. However, to me, winter is a good time to practice beekeeping by repairing/building equipment and reading up.

I've been keeping bees for a few years now, and I feel like I have a good handle on how bees act collectively as a colony. However, I've really been wanting to learn more about bees individually. So for Christmas, my awesome DH gifted me with a couple of books on my wish list and one that wasn't.

There are days I wish for a revolving book stand like Thomas Jefferson's because I've started all of my books at once and haven't finished any of them yet. So this won't be a real book review -- just a peek of what's on my nightstand.

Jefferson's invention holds 5 books.
Perfect for the 3 bee books and 2 novels I'm in the middle of.
So what am I reading...

I didn't ask for Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping by Dewey Caron, but my husband picked it out. Truthfully, I haven't gotten past the second chapter because, although it seems like a great book, so far, it hasn't really been what I wanted. My husband, who is not into beekeeping, actually found this one a fascinating and excellent read. So two thumbs up from him.

My friend Susan suggested The Biology of the Honey Bee by Mark Winston to me last year when her beekeeping course was studying it. It is exactly the kind of book that I was looking for. It's a bit dated (1987), but the information on bee anatomy, physiology and behavior is excellent and extremely comprehensive. This book has taught me an incredible amount already, and I've still got two-thirds of the book left. Well worth reading.

Michael Bush mentions Better Queens on his website, and it was recommended by a number of other people as well. I believe this is a revision of Smith's book Queen Rearing Simplified. In any case, this book had me hooked from the start with its simple and engaging writing. My favorite line from it:

As I grew in experience, I learned to go more to the bee for my information. I learned that should I ask a dozen men a question I might get a dozen different answers, while if I asked the bees a question I got just one answer, and that the correct one. No, they never gave me a five to four Supreme Court decision but their decision is always unanimous.

 How could I not love a book with a line like that?

So those are my bee books. My non-bee related reading includes My Uncle Napoleon, which is a screamingly funny coming-of-age story and a touchstone of Iranian literature. The Martian is another book that... well, actually I recently finished that one. I was disappointed by the ending, but overall, it was a terrific read (and way better than the movie). Highly recommend. Lorna Doone (another gift from my DH) and Ready Player One (a recommendation from my son who rarely enjoys books) are next on the list. For work, I've also been reading lots of journal articles about atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome and paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria; however, unless you suffer from insomnia, I highly recommend avoiding those.

What are your favorite books? Reading anything good lately?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Tips for finding the queen

When discussing how to look for queens, textbooks always show a close-up photo of a queen right smack dab in the center of the photo with a dot on her back and the most perfect retinue you've ever seen. Shoot. A blind man can find a queen like that.

My first year, I looked and looked, but couldn't find a queen to save my life. I even photographed each bar during inspections so that I could search later on the computer. No luck. However, each year since, I've gotten better and better at it. I'm still no expert, but I can now almost always find queens -- even in a hive chockful of bees. The lighter ones are especially easy to spot. Dark queens are still more elusive, but I'm getting better with those, too.

This past weekend, Aaron Morris from Double A's Bees in NY gave a talk on making nucs at our local bee club. One of the things he discussed was how to spot the queen. Basically, he said to forget the whole thing about looking for a retinue surrounding a queen. In real life, you just don't usually get  a textbook photo because bees don't read the books. My experience has proven him right about this. My queens are usually scurrying around the edge of the comb to duck out of sight. Or I see bees that look like they could be a retinue, but then... no, they're not.

Dang, I've never seen this!

Instead, Aaron showed a page from Where's Waldo and recommended using those books as queen-finding practice, which seems a wildly clever idea. (BTW, I found Waldo within seconds, so apparently, finding queens also improves Waldo-spotting skills.)

My own approach is very much like Aaron's and is something that I developed based on Scientific America's tips for finding 4-leaf clovers. After reading the article (it was an article then, not a video), I actually found a 4-leaf clover and figured, "Hey! Those tips should work with bees, too!"

Basically, these tips boil down to two things:

  1. Know where to look: The queen's job is to lay eggs, so frequently, I find queens on the bars with the youngest brood.
  2. Scan, don't focus: I start in the center of the comb and scan in concentric circles outward from there. I try not to focus too hard on any one area or on details. Instead, I'm just kind of looking for something that jumps out of the overall pattern. Things that would break the pattern include the queen's shape and color. Obviously, she's bigger and more pointy, but since queens are not as patterned as workers, they make bigger blocks of color. Queens move differently, too. I don't know how to describe it, but they're just not as buzzy as the other bees. To me, they seem more languid.

Are any of you really good at finding queens? Do you have any secrets to share?

P.S. -- If you're still looking for Waldo, go no further. But if you're dying to know where he is, I posted the answer below.

scroll down...

keep scrolling...

a little more...

almost there...

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Staying Alive, Staying Alive -- Whoo hoo hoo hoo

This morning, I did the unthinkable. Normally, I'm up and out of bed by 5 am, 5:30 at the very latest. Today, I didn't even open my eyes until 6:30, and I just lay there until about 9. Except for Boy #2, my entire family has been battling some kind of virus for the past week and a half, and we all feel like garbage.

However, bees don't stop eating honey just because their beek feels crummy, and I'm still responsible for them. Knowing we were going to have a lovely 55 F. day, I dragged myself away from the comfort of bed to check on their stores.

It's just as much work to lug all of the equipment down to the apiary for hive as it is for 7, so I figured why not check on all of them. I haven't cracked most of them open since the fall. Instead, I've been assessing their condition by looking for evidence of life at their entrances and hefting them (the nucs anyway). We had such a warm, prolonged fall, though, that I've been anxious about their remaining stores. This is the time of year, too, when many colonies starve.

This colony was started from a southern package in April, and she just never did well. Then sometime after Thanksgiving, she finally absconded. I didn't really inspect her carefully the last time because I wasn't wearing glasses. Today, I took a good look at her. Definitely a mite overload. Tons of mites on the floor and feces in the cells.  (BTW, don't ever let anyone tell you that colonies started from packages don't have mites/have fewer mites. It's just not true.)

All the dark dots are mites
You can see lots of mite feces in this photo.
Look at the cell on the left that is packed.

This is what I scraped out of that white cell in the previous photo.
It was not pollen.

The combs were mostly empty except for pollen and some thin honey bands, so I decided to just clean her out and remove the comb for melting. I think some people reuse combs that have had mites in them, but that seems icky to me. I don't have a problem melting them down. The idea of putting all those feces in a new hive grosses me out, and the bees can always build new comb.

More mite poo

Bubblegum, Buttercup & Peach
These nucs are doing very well in terms of stores. With 2-3 full bars of honey each, they should be set until spring. However, since they were open and I was there, I gave them each a bar filled with sugar. (BTW, my new method for hanging sugar in combs has worked out really well.)

Actually, Peach wouldn't have gotten any sugar today, but I accidentally knocked a comb of honey off the bar. Dang cold temps. Wax becomes very fragile. Anyway, if they use the sugar, fine. If not, a couple bucks of sucrose is cheap insurance.

Accidentally knocked this honeycomb off the bar

Elsa is my experiment with fully insulated hives. More and more, I'm liking this hive. I didn't even find the cluster in this one because after seeing about 4 full bars of uncapped honey, I quit looking for it. Besides, there were enough bees out front to tell me that she was alive and well.

My colony that swarmed late last season is the whole reason I went outside in the first place. A glance through the observation window told me she was low on stores. All the bars in back were empty, and she was desperate to protect what she had. I didn't want to rile her unnecessarily since the smell of banana was overwhelming as soon as I opened her up. Instead, she got 3 bars of sugar right off. If the other hives weren't already closed up, I would've stolen some honey from them for her. Maybe next time.

One thing I found interesting, though, is that theoretically, she should've had enough honey to last the entire winter. Going into winter, I think I made sure that each nuc colony had a minimum of 12-13 bars. (That's because my shortest nuc takes that number. The more recently built nucs take 15 bars.) Full-sized hives, like Austeja, had 13-15 combs going into winter. Each of my combs weighs an average of 4 lbs fully loaded with honey. All the other colonies had loads of honey, but I've fed Austeja three times now this winter. So why has Austeja been so light all season?

Lazutin says that smaller clusters will use more honey over the winter. He also says that colonies that are colder use more honey. Austeja was both of these things. After swarming in late August/early September, she wasn't as big as the other colonies. Also, because I wanted to see what would happen if I didn't insulate the walls and didn't mind losing a small colony, she was colder than my other bees, too.

So what are my takeaways?

  • Without supplemental feeding, Austeja would have probably starved in these subpar conditions. A larger colony, though, might have made it to spring.
  • So what if I fed her. Austeja still survived her second less than ideal winter despite everything, so she's a bad@$$ that I want to keep going.
  • Insulated roofs, I think, are a must, but insulated walls are not. This is what Sam Comfort keeps saying, but I had to see it to believe it. On the other hand, insulated walls seem to provide a great advantage to the colony in terms of keeping them warmer. Consequently, they use up fewer stores, so I'd rather use them than not.
I was going to leave this one alone because cold weather is known for making even the most docile bees cranky. Quite frankly, this one scares me even in the height of summer when most bees are their mellowest. Curiosity got the better of me, though. So, I saw about 3 1/2 bars of capped honey before I started seeing any bees climbing out. That's when I closed up.

One interesting thing was that both Hippolyte and Peach had puddles of water on the hive floor near the divider where the air gets colder. Both of these hives had a small top entrance. Since the water was on the floor of the hive and not on the bees, it's not a concern. Obviously, the water is not condensing over the bees. Still, it was unusual since I'd expected most of the hot air to vent out the top.

Puddles of water at bottom of hive.
(It's water. Against my better judgement, I tasted it.)

This is what the top entrance looks like

So after all the hives got a quick check, I sorted the combs from Persephone. I've been invited to speak about bees at my daughter's school in May, so some of the combs will be kept for "show and tell." Some went directly into my freezer. Personally, when I see a shelf full of wax, it always makes me sing, "Honeycomb's big, yeah, yeah, yeah. It's not small, no, no, no..." But I wonder what other people think when they open it up and see a shelf full hive parts? Maybe I should hang a sign that reads, "Not dinner. Do not eat."

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Marked Queens -- Yea or Nay?

This morning, a new beek asked me an interesting question. He wanted to know whether I thought it was better to get a marked or unmarked queen. I haven't ever used marked queens, so I have no personal experience with them. I don't have any strong opinions on the topic. I just use unmarked queens because marking them seems unnecessary to me. However, it's been a fun mental exercise thinking through the advantages/disadvantages of them.

Marked Queens

Positive BenefitNeutral Effect Negative Effect
Marked queens are easier to spot. New beeks love trying to find the queen, and it's really easier to find her when she's got a big bright dot on her back. Also, being able to find her easily means there is less chance of accidentally crushing her. Although seeing the queen is fun, it's not really necessary to find her. As long as you see stick eggs standing straight up in their cells, you know that she was there laying eggs within the last 24 hours.

Also, one of the main ideas behind TBH management is that one should not disturb the brood too often, so TBH beeks really shouldn't be looking for her with every inspection anyway.

You can track your queens and know how long she's been in the hive.  If you see a queen that isn't marked and don't see the marked queen, you automatically know that she's been superseded or that the colony swarmed.

In any case, whether you have marked or unmarked queens, open queen cells are kind of a dead giveaway that there has been a change in management.

The dot is tiny, so it makes no difference to the queen. The dot is tiny to us, but percentage-wise, it covers quite a large part of the queen's body. I could be anthropomorphizing, but I don't think I'd like to be covered with a blob the size of a dinner plate.

Also, I don't know enough about bee biology, but I always wonder if their exoskeletons absorb chemicals the way that our skin does. 

Marking a queen is cheap and easy to do.

(Listing this as neutral rather than positive because it still take some time and money.)
I'm sure most of the guys who mark bees have the process down pat and never touch the queen's abdomen. However, my experience with bees has been that if something can go wrong, eventually it does. Marking a queen means additional handling, which introduces an unnecessary risk of injury to her delicate body. 

Either way, I don't think it matters whether one uses marked or unmarked queens. I know people with marked queens, and they seem to be fine. Ultimately, this probably just comes down to personal preference.

What about you? Do you mark your queens, or do you prefer unmarked queens? What's your reasoning?

Friday, February 12, 2016

Bee-friendly Valentines

When I was a kid, class parties were simple affairs. We played one game and got a snack that contained every allergen imaginable -- gluten, nuts, dairy, eggs --as well as a generous dose of sugar. In 4th grade, I had a teacher who insisted on "heart healthy" snacks for Valentine's day. All the moms complied, but they dumped red food coloring in everything. Valentines were printed on perforated card stock, and you had to rip them apart and put everyone's name on one. That was it.

I must have been too old when I had my first kid (nearly 30) because boy, had times changed! When my kid started school, I found out that all the moms sent in goodie bags with candy, stickers, and toys. And you had to arrive at the school two hours before the party to take these things down to the school nurse along with a list of ingredients. She would check the class list of allergies against ingredients, and if your snack he didn't pass muster, you had to take it home. And moms did this for every flipping holiday! Halloween. Christmas. 100 days. Valentines... When I was growing up, whoever heard of a St. Patrick's goodie bag?

I blame Martha Stewart and Pinterest.

So anyway, I found out at 5:00 last night my son's class was having a Valentine's party. (Yes, the letter was dated 2/11, so it hadn't been sitting in a backpack for 2 weeks.) WTH???!!!

I'm not a big fan of cards that get thrown away or sugar, and I'm too lazy to do goodie bags and crafts. However, these 20 cent seed packages gave me an idea.

They're not fancy because I was printing labels up 15 minutes before we had to leave for school (running late because I'd already ruined four dozen muffins this morning and had to run down to the store to buy new ones). But a nice graphic, a frilly font, fun paper, and ribbon would make these super cute.

Best of all, this became an opportunity to support pollinators with a little "guerrilla gardening."

Thursday, February 11, 2016


Perhaps I'm overly optimistic about the status of my colonies, but because room is becoming scarce in my yard, I took orders for 4 splits. They were snapped up within hours, and a waiting list got started. Even more exciting, yesterday, my first downpayment arrived! 

In my area, a local nuc easily sells for $200 - $250. At this point, money is not my main objective, so I underpriced the bees by a considerable amount. Mostly, I just want to test the waters and get a feel for the process. 

I could probably easily sell 8-10 nucs as long as all 6 colonies pull through to spring, but I'd like to keep a couple splits for me and make some honey. Also, I wanted to limit the number of splits for sale because it's still a long way until the pollen comes rolling in, and I wouldn't like to disappoint anyone or weaken my own hives too much -- because that would mean less honey!

Still it's kind of fun to sell some bees. Hives don't seem to grown on trees, so it's nice to actually make this hobby pay for itself.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Certified Naturally Grown

A couple of years ago, Chris Harp mentioned some standards for becoming Certified Naturally Grown in a talk. However, he didn't go into details, and I didn't do any research on it until someone posted something about in in a FaceBook group I follow.

Eventually, this is something I'll consider doing when I'm making a bit more honey. For now, my family and friends seem to be gobbling up all my produce, but I'll get there. In the meantime, this post is as much a note for me as for anyone else.

Bee Culture posted a good article on what it means to be CNG and reasons why to do it. If you have a minute, I'd recommend reading it.

For more information about having an apiary certified, check out CNG's Apiary Certification page.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Out of the Woods

These are a couple of photos of my apiary taken last winter between January and February. I think we got 1'-2' of snow every Monday during that timeframe.

Here is a photo I took today. Daffodils are coming up! What a difference!

Today it was 57 deg. F, and the girls seized the opportunity to make evacuation flights. My car was covered in yellow splotches, so I now refer to it as the Poop Mobile. When you say it outloud, it sounds a lot like Pope Mobile, but the reality is far less glamorous.

The ladies were even hauling stuff back in their pollen baskets. It could be dust from bird feeders or yummies from my compost pile (which was teeming with bees). On the other hand, I've heard some people say they have snowdrops already. Others are reporting a bit of willow action starting up. It's kind of bizarre really, but I'm ok with the idea of an early spring. Although, that means I need to get a jump on making some new hives.

Something else that I found odd was that none of the bees were robbing out the pollen and remaining honey in Persephone (the one that absconded). I'll keep an eye on that. If they haven't robbed her out by spring, I'm just going to melt all those combs. To my way of thinking, if the girls won't touch those stores, there must be a reason.

Otherwise, all seems well. I hefted the nucs, and they seem heavy enough to get through at least another month. Knock on wood, but I think I'm out of the woods.