Friday, November 25, 2016

All I want for Christmas is...

Hope you all had a fantastic Thanksgiving! But now that it's over, it's time to think about Christmas, and I'm putting in my wish list early.  So what would I like?

Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives by George de Layens

Dr. Sharashkin, editor/translator of Lazutin's Keeping Bees with a Smile, has finished translating George de Layens work, Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives. de Layens was the inspiration and source for much of Lazutin's approach to beekeeping.

According to the HorizontalHive's website, this book covers:

  • Time-tested methods boasting over 100 years of successful use
  • Horizontal hives: advantages and use
  • An honest overview of all hive systems
  • Keys to success, based on decades of experience
  • Extra-deep frames: advantages, design, and use
  • Detailed practical advice with 200+ illustrations 

Although this translation will not be released until January 2017, it can be pre-ordered for $29.95, which is a $20 discount off the post-publication price.

Advanced Top Bar Beekeeping by Christy Hemenway

Christy has a new book that is written for beekeepers who have survived their first winter.

The description on her website reads:
"The sequel to the original "The Thinking Beekeeper" book - this volume will take you into Year 2 and beyond. Splits, Swarm prevention, moving hives - all the things you're ready to learn in Year 2."
This book is priced at $29.00 and is expected to ship around Dec 22.

So that's it for me. My gotta-have list this year is pretty modest. However, if you're shopping for your favorite beekeeper, there is no end of things you can give to support his/her habit -- books, a Flir, new jackets or gloves, kits for making lip balms, lotions, mead, candles...

If you're a beekeeper, what would you like to see in your stocking this year? 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Winter is coming

Unfortunately, I have no new photos today since I accidentally dropped my phone in the dog's water dish. Poopie.

Anyway, work and other things have eaten up my time, so I decided it was time to close the hives up so I could stop worrying about them. Besides, winter, as evidenced by our first snowfall on Monday, is coming.

Different people have different strategies for wintering. For me, I pull any empty combs out of the hive. If needed, I add some sugar behind the last comb. Then I fill the back of the hive with straw. Mouse guards get slapped on, and insulation gets added above the bars along the sides of the hive. I strap everything together, and I'm done. (BTW, I love the insulated hives so much more every year. After removing any empty comb, I pop the mouse guards on and fill behind the divider board with straw. Boom. I'm done. It takes 5 minutes or less. No straps required because the roof & hive are so heavy. In the winter, that makes it really easy to feed if I have to.)

One of my major concerns for most of the hives this year is that they're underweight. I like to see at least 15 bars of capped comb. The hives were barely at 15, and most of the nucs were around 10-12 bars. However, even though the weather has been warm enough, it looks like most of the colonies had stopped taking syrup.

Even more problematic is that two of the hives (Hippolyte & Celestia) looked as though rain had seeped in -- they were flooded with about 1.5" of water. Celestia is my own fault since I never got around to building her a proper roof. Hippolyte, on the other hand, is a mystery. I couldn't find any cracks, and didn't have time to take the roof apart. Besides, I'd like to convert her roof to a hinged one in the spring, so it doesn't make sense to work on it now. As a stopgap, I wrapped the bars in tar paper before putting the roof back on. Will get some waterproof plastic or a tarp to make sure they don't leak during the winter. There were plenty of dead bees in both hives as a result of the water, but I don't know how the clusters are faring overall since it didn't seem like a good idea to break their winter seal. If anything, that would only stress them out more for no reason other than satisfying my curiosity.

One of my disappointments this fall was trying to bring Elsa up to weight. I'd given her several large jars of honey, but she barely ate any of it. The honey sat in the hive virtually untouched for weeks. I couldn't figure out why -- maybe because it was crystallized, maybe they just figured it was already stored in some oddly shaped cells. Who knows what goes through their little bee brains? Finally, I mixed the honey with some water to dissolve it, and the bees guzzled it up. Wish I'd thought to do that a couple months ago.

In the process of winterizing, I discovered that Hippolyte has been under attack. Wasps or hornets would be my guess. Decapitated bees littered the bottom of the hive and the tops of the bars. Again, this is my fault. I'd opened a top entrance during the summer to keep the hive cool, but I neglected to close it when the weather started to turn. The opening is just too big to patrol in the fall. Mice are another possibility, but I didn't see any evidence of a mouse nest or mouse poo inside -- of course, I stayed toward the back of the hive, not wanting to disturb the cluster, so maybe a more thorough check is needed. If there are mice, the entrance is closed up now, so they're not getting out until spring.

In the past, I've tried feeding over winter in various ways:

  • Fondant, which got soft and melted into a puddle in the bottom of the hive
  • Sugar piled on paper or cardboard in the bottom of the hive, which became messy and sticky as the sugar absorbed moisture in the hives and melted
  • Sugar bricks hung between bars in mesh bags, but lots of bees climbed through the holes and couldn't get out
  • Empty combs filled with sugar. That worked out amazingly well actually. The combs held the sugar beautifully in a place where the bees could reach them. The sugar also absorbed moisture in the hive. The downside was that I had to refill the combs periodically, and I didn't like having the hives open in the dead of winter. 

This year, I'm experimenting with something new. I picked up some disposable aluminum baking pans at the grocery store. I don't remember the exact dimensions, but in terms of width and height, they fit very well standing up in my hives. (Just a little bit of space around the edges.) The containers are deep enough to hold about 6 lbs of sugar in the form of sugar bricks.* Also, because the sides of the pans are sloped (so that it's trapezoidal), when I stand them up on end, they tilt backward a little bit, sort of like a cell in a honey comb. Since white sugar is hygroscopic, my fingers are crossed that it will absorb moisture in the hive. However, as the sugar bricks Hopefully, if the sugar bricks start to soften up, that bit of slope will keep them in the container rather than falling out into the bottom of the hive. (Dang, I really wish my phone hadn't fallen into a bowl of water because I had photos.)

Crude illustration of how the tilted pan will hopefully keep sugar inside
Also, added a cover to the bottom fourth of the pan to help keep sugar inside.

So here is the quick and dirty on each colony. Blue = Hopeful they'll pull through. Orange = I think they have a 50/50 chance. Red = Not holding my breath.

  • Elsa -- Has at least 15 bars, but only about 1/2 full. Will need to keep an eye on her over winter to make sure she doesn't starve.
  • Austeja -- Donated 2 bars from this hive to Peach. Currently has 15/16 bars. Looks good
  • Hippolyte -- Decapitated, drowned bees. Had stopped taking syrup. Fed her, but not feeling good about this situation.
  • Persephone -- I rated this one orange only because I couldn't check her. Crikey, she's a mean one. Stuffed her with straw, but she was attacking me so viciously I forgot to give her a sugar brick or even check on her stores. She's so contrary, I expect her to survive, but if she doesn't make it through winter, that's fine with me. I can't figure her out. She was perfectly nice before I transferred her to this hive. Maybe residual pheromones from the previous colony have made her so bitter.
  • Peach -- Received 2 bars from Austeja, but I don't think she ever really recovered from the robbing this fall. Added a sugar brick, but I don't think she's going to pull through.
  • Buttercup -- 12 bars fully capped. Looking good. Added some sugar for insurance.
  • Bubblegum -- Bees very busy in the back of the hive even on a 35-ish degree day. Popped in a sugar brick, but they look good.
  • Celestia -- Makeshift cover had shifted, and there were lots of drowned bees. Not hopeful, but I mopped up the water and added a sugar brick. Fingers crossed because I really liked this colony.

Looking at this color-coding, I'd be happy if just half of the colonies survive winter. I'd like to do some work on the hive bodies next year, and it would be nice to do that while they're empty. Plus, it would give me space to split. But who knows. Maybe the winter will be mild, and the bees will surprise me. Last fall, there were 3 colonies that I felt sort of iffy about, but 2 of them still survived. For such small creatures, they're much hardier than they appear.


*Sugar bricks -- Basically, 6 lbs sugar mixed with 1 to 1.25 cups of water/bee tea -- just enough liquid to hold the sugar together. Sugar is packed into a mold and allowed to harden up overnight.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A honey bee stinger

Started winterizing the hives last week, and I got stung twice for my troubles (well, thrice, but I'm not counting the stab I received from a yellow jacket.) One of the stings pierced my right temple near the eye. By the next morning, the entire right side of my face was swollen. The morning after, the swelling had started to spread to my left eye, too. Although I don't mind looking freakish so much, the accompanying headache and fatigue, which I still have 3 days later, are beginning to get tiring (no pun intended).

So what makes a honey bee sting so effective? I love this simple animated graphic that demonstrates what happens.

One thing this image doesn't show, though, is how quickly venom is pumped. Bee Culture ran an article back in June that recommends getting the stinger out as quickly as possible by any means necessary. According to the article's author, "Studies have shown that leaving the stinger in just eight seconds can increase the size of a bee welt by 30%. It doesn’t really matter how you remove the sting; just flick it off as fast as possible."

That there is some good advice.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Why honey bees make better voters

If you live on planet Earth, you may know that the United States has elected a new President.  However, I promise not to go into the outcome of the election. I won't rant about the ridiculously antiquated and flawed process that our country uses to select its leaders. Shoot, I'll even refrain from saying anything about the media and its lack of focus on more reasonable candidates during the primaries, which is why this country was left scraping the bottom of the political barrel yesterday.

On the other hand, I'd like to share a post I read on FaceBook this morning. A friend of mine wrote, "I knew I should've let my bees vote."

From an administrative point of view, registering all those bees and checking IDs would be something of a nightmare. However, my friend is right. Honey bees make better voters. In fact, this is a process they engage in when they swarm, and the democratic process they use when looking for a new home is something we could all learn from.

Here are a few reasons why honey bees are smarter than people (at least citizens of the USA).

  • Have a single overriding goal -- survival of their colony. That's it. Everyone agrees that is the most important thing, and personal egos just don't get in the way.
  • Put up the most qualified candidates -- Bees don't send babies and inexperienced house bees out to look for options. They send the oldest, worldliest bees with the most experience to scout out potential new homes. 
  • Provide lots of options for consideration -- Lots of scouts are deployed, and they come back with numerous options -- not just one or two.
  • Do their research. Instead of relying on their friends' FaceBook posts, Twitter, memes, etc., honey bees actually go out and examine potential homes that the scouts have presented. There's nothing like first-hand knowledge.
  • Know when to stop pushing bad ideas. Unlike our media that pushes stories for ratings instead of the good of the country, honey bees present ideas to the colony and then drop them. They know that if it's a good idea, other bees will take it up. If not, the idea dies.
  • Are flexible in their thinking. Bees may promote a particular option at first, but if a better option comes along, they'll easily adopt it.
  • Recognize the need for consensus. Bees don't look for 100% agreement, but they understand that they need a certain amount of agreement in the colony in order to make things work.
  • Work in unison once a quorum is reached. Once a majority of bees has picked a place, all disagreements are dropped. Not sure how those in the minority feel about that, but they keep on keeping on, working for the betterment of the colony as a whole.
Anyway, these thoughts are taken from Tom Seeley's phenomenal book Honeybee Democracy. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. It's a beautiful insight into the workings of bees.

Meanwhile, one good thing about this election is the abundance of Coroplast signs. I may ask around to see if anyone is willing to donate some to me. Since the girls can't read, I assume party affiliation won't matter to them. Recycling these political ads into hive roofs seems an appropriate way to turn something filled with so much bitterness this year into something sweet.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

New Favorite Smoker Fuel

This year, I used the smoker quite a lot since 1) Hippolyte was pretty mean until she'd been requeened a few times and 2) the general lack of nectar made all the bees crabby during the summer & fall.

For a couple years, I had stopped using the smoker because it always burned my eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Plus, it left me smelling like a forest fire. However, a spray bottle of scented water wasn't cutting it this year, so back to the smoker.

Forest pony poo is supposed to make a nice fuel, but being fresh out of forest ponies, I've had to make do with what was at hand. Pine needles, wood shavings, straw, cotton quilt batting, natural fiber twine -- these are some of the things I've tried burning -- all with the same stinky, stinging result.

A couple months ago, I tried dried lawn clippings, which was actually a pretty decent fuel. It burned easily, made a nice cool smoke, and lasted about as long as pine needles if well-packed. Plus, the smell was tolerable. The downside was that it took a lot of dried grass to really pack the smoker properly, and if there was any moist grass in the mix, it didn't work very well. But it wasn't bad, so I continued to use grass for a while until I found something nicer -- dried sage. 

While meandering through the local hippie market, I found some bundles of tightly rolled safe for burning. Lightbulb! My sage plant got an immediate heavy pruning, and the clippings were hung up in the basement to dry.

Gru is great

Sage burns much better than grass, makes a copious amount of cool smoke, and smells good (for smoke). While I still try to stay upwind of the smoke, I've found that it isn't nearly as acrid as other fuels I've tried. Another benefit is that the bees seem pretty relaxed with the sage. Some fuels cause the bees to start fanning a lot. Others seem to make them agitated and runny. Persephone, my most defensive hive, is unusually chill when I use sage.

My last bundle of dried sage this year. :-(

I currently have only one plant, which isn't anywhere near enough for my smoking needs, but the bees love sage flowers, too, so that's an added bonus. Next year, I envision planting a whole hedge of it somewhere.

What's your favorite smoker fuel?