Wednesday, March 30, 2016

What is R-value?

Apr 1, 2016 - Added link

If you've been following this blog for awhile, you know that Lazutin's book Beekeeping with a Smile and his emphasis on insulated hives has greatly impacted my thinking regarding hive construction.

My first insulated hive which proved amazingly
productive in the summer and warm in winter.

Why am I sold on insulated hives?

First, there was that original insulated hive that I built last year. I built it as an experiment, hoping to help my bees overwinter in my harsh New England climate. However, what I found was that not only did it over winter beautifully (and ate way less honey than the other non-insulated hives), but it was far more productive in summer because it didn't beard. As a result, I'm working on retrofitting my existing hives one by one. Going forward, any new hives will be built with insulated walls and roofs, too. Yes, it takes more time and $ to build them, but for me, the extra cost is worth it because:
  • It's more natural for bees to live in a well-insulated cavity.
  • The bees are more productive in the spring, summer, fall. 
  • The bees seem better able to move in the hive during winter in order to reach stores. In my climate, sometimes the lateral movement required in a TBH can be more difficult for bees if they're too cold.
  • Bees that are productive/overwinter successfully provide more honey and splits that you can use to multiply your bee yard or sell. Not to mention, an extra $30 in building materials is nothing compared to paying $165 to replace bees that died. That's all money in my pocket!
  • No winter wrapping. To winterize an insulated hive, I add a few screens over the entrances and fill the back of the hive with straw. That's it. 2 minutes and done. BTW, wrapping hives is a task that I truly hate. It's so cold at that time of year my fingers don't work. And if you have to feed them mid-winter, you have to unwrap and rewrap them all. I did that once while trudging through snow up to my thighs. It was the pits.
  • Less work and more peace of mind. In the spring, I don't have to unwrap hives (which I've heard can confuse some of the foragers who left before the hives were unwrapped). I also don't worry about weird cold snaps because I know the bees are snug.
So anyway, I've become a huge advocate for insulated hives. Of course, most people think that I'm just talking about hives with thicker wood walls. I suppose 2" thick wood walls are better than 1", but that's not my point. I'm talking about hives with some serious R-value in the walls and even more R-value above the bars. That's really important, btw. Moist air condenses on the coolest surface first (think of the condensation on a cold drink on a summer day), and you don't want that water condensing over the bees. So keep the roof super warm. Keep the walls nice and warm, but not as warm as the roof. You can leave the ends/bottom, which are furthest from the cluster much colder if you want (i.e., not insulated).

So what is R-value?

Basically R-value is a measure of how well a material resists transferring heat. Higher R-values provide more resistance. In other words, the greater the R-value, the better your material will insulate.

Here is a short video that explains R-value more eloquently than I could.

Given equal thicknesses, do all materials have the same R-value?

No. Every building material has a different R-value. The R-value for glass, wood, brick, drywall, etc. are all completely different. Different thicknesses will also have different R-values.

Let's go back to the idea of thicker wood walls. 1" of wood is rated about R1.5. It's a little lower than that, I believe, but I'm bad with the maths, so I round up to simplify. Anyway, that's not very warm. So if you double that wall to 2", you've got R3. Better, but still not great.

I think feral bees prefer something like 6" of wood in the walls -- that's 6" of punky wood, which has a greater R-value, btw, than the solid wood boards you find at your local dealer. (Don't quote me on the 6". You can read Lazutin's book. It might actually be thicker than that.) In any case, to simplify and compare apples to apples, let's say that 6" of wood in a feral bee tree is about R-9. That's a minimum of 3 times greater insulation than 2" of wood. It's probably starting to make sense now why I'm not advocating simply using thicker walls (at least not for my climate). I'm advocating adding insulation!

So how do I build more insulation into the hive?

I've taken Lazutin's advice and started building hives that have double walls -- just like you'd build a house. There is an exterior wall and and interior wall. The space in between those walls is filled with foam board insulation. (I like foam board in the walls because it's really easy to work.)

A hive in the process of being retrofitted with insulated walls

I also like hinged roofs that are full of insulation. I prefer the fluffy roll type insulation in roofs because you can get higher R-values for less money. The minimum R-value I would use in the roofs is R-13.

Batting type insulation made from recycled denim in roof

How do I calculate R-value?

If you do a Google search, you can find lists of R-values for different materials. Here is a portion of one such list. It's important to pay attention to the thickness of the material being rated.

Insulation will have the R-value printed right on them. Here are a couple of examples.

1 1/2" thick purple foam board on left has R-value of R-7.5
Recyled denim insulation on right is R-6.7, so I used 2 layers of it in the roof.

Once you know the R-values of all the materials you're using in an area, you can just add them up.

For example, I build my walls like a sandwich. Inner and outer walls are the bread, and insulation is the filling. So I've got a total of 2 wood walls, 1" each (R-1.5 + R-1.5) plus anywhere from 1"-1.5" of purple insulation board (rated R-4, R-7.5 respectively). So let's see how this adds up:

  • R-1.5 + R-1.5 + R-4 = R7
  • R-1.5 + R-1.5 + R-7.5 = R10.5

Do I need that much insulation in my hives?

Maybe not. My hives are well insulated because I live in an area that gets brutally cold. However, if you live someplace warmer, you probably won't need to insulate as much. On the other hand, I still recommend using some insulation, especially above the bars, even in hot weather. Insulation prevents the flow of hot air into a cooler area. In the summer, bees are working hard fanning the hive, and I think it just makes sense to use insulation to keep the bars cool.

Hopefully, this was a helpful explanation of R-value and how it can be incorporated into hive design. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Do I need an IPM?

Unfortunately, I missed Debbie Delaney when she spoke on genetic diversity at my local bee club a couple of years ago. I've heard that she's an incredibly engaging and informative speaker who explains scientific ideas in an easily digestible manner for the layman.

However, I ran across some talks that she gave the National Honey Show, and I particularly wanted to share this one on the sustainability of honey bees. One of the things she shared in her talk is that she does not use chemicals in her hives. Honestly, it's thrilling and refreshing to find a scientist that advocates using other methods to control varroa. Instead, she advocates strongly for an integrated pest management (IPM) system that, while it may use chemicals in small doses, relies much more heavily on hygienic genetics, monitoring, and swarming/splitting. (BTW, the answer to the question in this post's title is "yes.")

Dr. Delaney's data on the survivability of hives that have been split vs. control hives that weren't is really interesting, and I'm looking forward to an update on data regarding the best timing of splits.

Anyway, if you haven't seen this already, it's well worth watching.

Here is a link to another talk she gave on genetics. It's a pared down version I think of similar talks she's given. If you do a search on YouTube, you can find them.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The bears are risen! They are risen indeed!

In a weird twist for someone who is a beekeeper, I absolutely adore bears, and seeing them always makes me feel like God is smiling down on me and sending me a little love note. So this morning, when most people are celebrating with bunnies, we had an Easter bear. :-)

Isn't he handsome?

This gorgeous fella came into our yard looking for some treats, but sadly found none. He did, however, find the empty hive that I've begun retrofitting with insulation. (More on that in another post.) I was a little slow in starting the video and pressed Play just after he had knocked the roof off the hive. Also, I've met this guy before (he's a regular at the compost pile), and he's not one to be trifled with, so the blur at the end is me running for the door. LOL!

Tooth mark. Dang! I just finished fixing this hive up yesterday!

While I don't mind him knocking an empty hive around a bit, the line was drawn when he started to sniff out our garbage can. After a lot of banging on windows and yelling, he eventually got the hint and left our trash unmolested. Digging through compost now and then is ok, but our garbage can is not an Easter basket.

Waddling off after being chastened

Anyway, if you have bears in your area, I highly recommend electric fencing. Our morning visitor looked longingly at the hives for awhile, but he must have been zapped before because he didn't make even the slightest move toward them.

No Easter treats for you. Sorry.

Well, I hear my littlest on the stairs, and that means chocolate eggs for breakfast unless I'm quick enough to intercept.

Happy Easter, everyone!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My Bees Hate Me. Drone Comb

I've decided to sell some splits this spring, and one of the guys buying from me dropped off a nuc today. So I'm showing Bill my bees, and I don't know what happened with them, but they were very badly behaved all of a sudden. They were harassing and stinging me -- I wasn't even opening any windows, but they were horrid. Even back by the house, which is not even close to the hives, they were still attacking me. It was so embarrassing. I know bees tend to be more defensive in the early spring and fall, but what the heck? They've morphed into assassins!


This afternoon, I decided to check on Hippolyte since she's the one hive that I haven't inspected yet. I donned a jacket, veil, gloves... the whole shebang. She was testy, which I had expected. What I hadn't expected was seeing brood comb being backfilled and capped drone brood. It's barely even spring yet! I shoved a whole bunch of empty bars in between comb at the front of the hive, one in the middle of the brood nest, and a whole bunch between combs again at the back. Hopefully, this will slow her down a little.

Concerned about the other colonies, I decided to check them all.

Bubblegum (nuc)
Not making any drone comb yet, but I removed two bars of honey anyway and gave them to Austeja to make space. Also added an empty bar before and after the brood nest.

She's the weakest colony, so I made some space near the entrance for her. Also added one empty bar after the brood nest as well as bars between honey combs in the back.

By the time I got to Elsa, it was around 4-ish. She was not enjoying being inspected and let me know it with two stings in the legs (actually, I got stung even more, they just didn't penetrate my clothing). She was in the same situation as Hippolyte. All the empty bars I gave her last week were being built out with drone comb, and there were plenty of capped drones to boot. Gave her lots and lots of space before and aft of the brood nest. Also gave her three bars directly in the nest itself.

Peach and Buttercup (nucs)
I didn't get to these two. I started to open Peach, but she was angry, too, and immediately covered my face with a thick mat of bees, reminding me of that Irish ballad, "The Long Black Veil." It was just as gloomy a situation, too. Then I got stung on the face right through the mask and decided that if I didn't give it up, my DH would have to "visit my grave while the night winds wail."

Planning Notes
At least I was able to make space in 4 of the colonies and mark the honey bars from last year. As I make splits, those will be the first ones that get used. Actually, last year's honey may have to come out soon, too, just to make room, but I haven't any place to put them right now. At the moment, Bubblegum has about 3 empty bars. With their newly added empty bars, Elsa and Hippolyte are out to around 26 bars now -- and the hives hold only about 32 total.

Also, I need to start planning for splits soon since it appears that swarm season will soon be upon us. Another beekeeper one town over reported seeing drone brood in his hives today, too.

Since some of my drone brood is capped, I know it's at least 10 days old, maybe older.  Let's say 10 days. That means ~2 weeks until I start seeing drones emerge (April 6) and then another 10 days before they're sexually mature (April 16th). Queens, on the other hand, take approximately 16 days to emerge, so it appears that I can start making splits early as April 1st this year. Crikey, that's early! Even though I'll try to delay splitting until mid-April, my agenda for tomorrow has been revised to include lumber shopping and some woodworking. Sigh.

How are your bees? Are you seeing an early build-up, too?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Eggs and Brood

Slowly but surely, I'm getting rid of this flu that I've contracted. Thanks to some NyQuil, I even slept through the night. After waking briefly to get my boys off to school, I took another nap and slept until about noon today.

Feeling more energetic than I have in days, I ambled outside for a bit of sunshine and watched the bees gathering moisture and whatever else from a failed strawberry planter experiment. It was so beautiful outdoors that impulsively, I started inspecting 5 of the hives. (I left off with Hippolyte the Beest because I was still in pjs -- when you wake up at noon, changing seems a bit pointless.)

Bees sucking moisture & whatever else from soil in planter

All the colonies I looked at had eggs today. Elsa, my insulated hive, even had larvae and some capped brood. She was booming actually. Of all the hives I looked at today, she had the most bees -- at least double the size of the next largest colony. Weirdly, she was also the most defensive, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the hinged roof. I was standing in the roof's shadow during inspection, and maybe that set her off. One of her girls even popped me on the back of my hand, bringing my all-time total sting count to an even 60.

Taking a break

Except for Austeja, all the hives I opened today had loads of honey (avg 4-5 bars each) left over from winter, too. Austeja, my late season swarm, appeared to have barely squeaked through winter. She had a bar of eggs, but there weren't that many nurse bees. Almost all of her honey was gone, too, so she received two gift bars -- one from Elsa, one from Peach. Even though she got a late start last year, she's had a good laying pattern, and I'm hopeful she'll rebound with a little TLC.

Austeja -- Pulling sugar out of the combs.
The light yellowish dots are millet seeds collected from bird feeders.

A few of the colonies had some fallen comb or some slightly cross comb starting to happen, so I did a bit of clean up and got a nice little chunk of comb honey for my efforts.

Buttercup -- some comb tore off because of bridge comb connecting it to the next bar.

Ended up with a nice chunk of comb honey as a result.

I wish I'd thought to take a Sharpie or pencil out with me so I could've marked some of the bars I might consider moving over to the nucs that I'm going to make up for sale. Next time.

If the weather cooperates, I'd like to take a look at Hippolyte before next week. If external signs are valid indicators, I think I'll find a thriving colony inside her, too.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Bees Need Water, Too!

It's not officially spring yet. So although my weather has been warm enough to see bees flying, it hasn't been what I would deem objectively warm. However, I still spotted this fuzzy little girl yesterday searching for water. Just as much as nectar or pollen, bees need water to live. In fact, they'll even mark good watering spots with pheromones so that other bees can find them. I've also heard that feral bees like to build their hives near a water source, too.

Thirsty girl

In a suburban neighborhood like mine, it's a good idea to put out a watering hole for the bees. That helps keep them out of the neighbors' swimming pools and dog dishes.

Making a bee watering station is super easy. Any container full of rocks, sticks or corks (to give the bees something to land on so they don't drown) will work.

Large clay saucer filled with rocks

Some people use a chicken waterer or pet waterer with sponges or pebbles filling the trough/bowl to prevent the bees from drowning.

Five-gallon buckets make good waterers, too. If you search YouTube, you'll see all kinds of styles like wicking systems (which I like because mosquitoes can't get in the bucket to lay eggs) or open buckets filled with styrofoam peanuts or corks. Other people use five-gallon buckets for open-feeding syrup, but they could be used to provide water, too.

Once you've made a watering station, you just have to figure out where to put it. Obviously, it helps if it's somewhere along their flight path. Also, ideally, a bee watering station should be at least 15'-20' from the beehives because bees don't communicate distances shorter than that very well. You might also want to put it somewhere easy for you to reach -- particularly if you need to fill it frequently.

Anyway, seeing the bees searching for moisture yesterday prompted me to fill up the bee waterers yesterday. Although it wasn't necessary, I also added a couple drops of anise oil to help the girls find them faster. Within moments, there were quite a lot of ladies landing for a drink.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Two-Day Difference

Tuesday was a balmy 64 deg F, and the bees could feel spring in the air. Walking out to the hives, the air literally hummed with the sound of their tiny buzzing wings. Loads of bees were outside making orientation flights, bringing in pollen, and enjoying the sunshine. There were at least three different pollen colors -- orange (crocus), pale yellow (skunk cabbage, I think), and tan (???).  However, the pollen loads were still disappointingly light.

Yesterday, the thermometer reached an unbelievable 82 deg F. Unfortunately, I didn't get to enjoy any of it as I was laid up in bed with the flu and an even higher temperature of my own. Thus, my plans to build hive stands and check on the bees were completely derailed. But with another gorgeous day today (72 deg), I vowed not to let a little fatigue keep me away from the hives.

The difference that two days makes is positively astonishing. Today, the girls' pollen bags were so fat that they had trouble getting the pollen past the mouse guards. They're starting to get the pollen "stripes" that I associate with skunk cabbage season, too.

Even though this isn't a great photo, you can see the pollen that couldn't make it through the screen.

Lots of pollen from crocus and swamp cabbage.

I love seeing the pollen "stripes"

Apparently, Elsa and Austeja do not appreciate having their hives stuffed with straw and are trying to drag it out of the entrances. Unable to pull it out completely, they are propolising the straw.

Straw being propolised in the entrance.

To help the bees out, I pulled the mouse guards off all of the entrances. We might still get some freezing weather, but I think the danger of mice entering the hive is, to borrow a phrase from my eldest child, "probably maybe" over.

Although I'd love to do a little more spring maintenance today, I have to acknowledge my limits. We're supposed to have another day in the high 60's next Wednesday, and those hive chores can "probably maybe" hold for at least another week. The change in two days has been so remarkable that I can't wait to see the difference that a week makes!