Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Dr. Sharashkin: Part 2

Dr. Leo Sharashkin gave a two-day series of lectures on natural beekeeping and managing Layens hives for my local bee club a couple of weekends ago. Part 1 of my notes is in an earlier post. It covers some general notes on keeping bees naturally and on selling honey for a premium price. Today's post covers some of the tips Leo gave for managing Layens hives.

Before I go into my notes, though, I thought it would be helpful to provide some background info on Layens hives for those who are unfamiliar with it.

Layens hive
The Layens hive was developed in France during the 19th century by George Layens. It's a horizontal hive that uses deep frames. As you can see in the photo below, the frames are narrower than a Langstroth frame, but they are much taller than a deep frame. In terms of volume, a Layens frame is 30% larger than a Lang deep.

Layens frame dimensions.

Layens frames are narrower than Lang frames so that there is less unheated space around the cluster in the winter. They are deeper so that the bee cluster can stay in contact with their honey stores all winter and move upward more easily. (Lang hives have a break between boxes.) In Zone 6, there should be enough honey above the cluster that they never have to move to a new frame over winter. (That is a drawback with TBHs in severely cold weather.) Another benefit to having all the honey the bees need for winter on the same frames as the cluster is that the beekeeper never has to wonder whether he/she is leaving enough stores.

Layens frames touch each other like top bars

Because Layens hives are horizontal and don't require bees to travel between boxes, they have a solid roof like TBHs, there is much less disturbance to the bees during inspections than with a Lang. Also, since they are horizontal, they are much easier on the back, just like TBHs. A fully built frame with honey weighs about 10 lbs.

Seven Layens frames is about 40 liters in volume -- what bees look for in a cavity when swarming. However, it's not enough volume to harvest any honey. So Layens' original design recommended 14 frames. Leo, though, brought an extended Layens hive that had 19 frames. If I did the math correctly, 19 Layens frames is equivalent to about 25 Lang deep frames (which is also half the volume of a Lazutin hive).

In case you are wondering how these numbers translate to honey harvests, at one point over the weekend, Leo said that he averages 20 lbs of honey per hive. However, that is an average that includes dead-outs, new colonies, and honey spent feeding colonies. He said that some hives make much more than 20 lbs.

So that's some background info. On to management notes...

Goals for natural hive management
Leo stressed several times that when managing hives naturally, the beekeeper needs to do the three following things:

  • Increase hives through reproduction (i.e., splits & swarms)
  • Give every colony a yearly brood cycle break
  • Time the brood cycle break in sync with honey flows

Syncing egg production with natural flows
Eggs need to be laid in sync with local forage conditions to take advantage of the flows. Because of the amount of time it takes to develop from egg to forager, eggs need to be laid 6 weeks prior to peak flow.

Egg production also has to stop in sync with flows as well. Otherwise, the bees waste resources rearing brood that emerge and become "hungering mouths that eat all the resources."

This is one reason why Sharashkin recommends using local bees. Egg production behavior is genetically encoded. Local bees will start and stop production at the right time.

The diagram below shows the timing of splitting for Leo's area. The x-axis represents time, and the the y-axis indicates volume. So if you look at nectar flow (the blue line), at the beginning of the year, there is no  nectar coming in in January. However, by the middle of May/beginning of June, the nectar flow is at its peak, but it quickly tapers off by the end of summer.

The green line shows how the bees perform. Around the end of February/beginning of March, the bees start ramping up very quickly so that their brood production peaks about 6 weeks prior to the peak of the nectar flow. Leo splits his hive at that time, around May 1. As the nectar production slows down, so do the bees, though there may be a small increase in production at the end of the year as they raise their winter bees.

Note: This graph shows Leo's conditions. Your own local conditions may vary greatly. For instance, if you live in an area, with two peaks in the nectar flow, you will see your bees build up twice during the year.

Because of the emphasis on producing bees in sync with natural flows, Leo warns against raising bees with sugar because it forces bee colonies to grow and develop faster than they would in nature.

Traditional way to create sustainable colonies
Layens wrote that beekeepers should leave colonies alone for 2 years.

  • Year 1: Leave bees alone and let them collect reserves
  • Year 2: Let the bees swarm and continue to collect reserves. You can use the swarms to increase your apiary.
  • Year 3: You can harvest honey, leaving 50-60 lbs in the hive at all times.

Personally, I don't know how many people have the patience to follow that advice, but if you can do it, Sharashkin says you will have much more vigorous colonies.

Early Spring
Let's say you have a colony that has overwintered successfully. There are two primary tasks this time of year.

  1. Expanding the brood nest
  2. Splitting the colony

Expanding the brood nest.
In early spring, you have to expand the brood chamber. If you don't, the colony will keep doing it's thing, but it won't make any extra honey.

However, when expanding the brood chamber, you have to be careful that you don't add too much space because that could result in chilled brood or in your having to feed them.

Leo waits until nectar is flowing, bees are starting to build up, and the danger of chilling at night is over. He recommends talking to local beeks to identify the appropriate time for your location. For him, he is in Zone 6, and he waits until the redbud begins to bloom (about the last week of March). At that time, he opens the hive and expands the brood nest by 50%. So if the brood cluster overwintered on 6 frames, he'll add 3 empty ones. If they overwintered on 4, he adds 2 empty frames. The benefits of inserting frames this way are:

  • The brood area remains intact, so they stay warm if night temps drop.
  • The youngest brood is kept closest to the entrance where foragers want to drop off nectar. This reduces congesting, thereby delaying swarming.
  • Although Leo didn't say this, this approach has the advantage of automatically starting to cycle out some of the old comb.

Imagine the hive looks like this coming out of winter.
Brood bars are at one end of the hive near the entrance.

Expand the brood nest by inserting empty frames between the brood bars and entrance.
Expanding the brood nest this way has an advantage over the Lang hive because you can add as much or as little space for new brood as you need. In a Lang, you have to add an entire box, so you are limited to adding either 0% space or 100% space, even if a colony is not sufficiently strong to maintain or fill that space.

Note on feeding: In the event that something happened and you need to feed your bees in early spring, Leo offered an easy way to do this. If there is uncapped honey above the bees, the bees are highly unlikely to touch it because they view it as a reserve. If you absolutely need to fee them, break open the capped honey above their heads (a fork will work for that purpose) and lightly spritz the honey with a little water to dilute it a bit. The bees will treat it like nectar.

Splitting the colony.
Leo makes splits about 2 weeks after expanding the nest when he sees lots of capped brood. (He begins expansion about the end of March, so splits take place roughly around the 2nd week in April.) The presence of drone brood is another indicator that it's a good time to split.

At that time, he takes every other brood frame and every other honey frame and moves it to the back of the hive. Both sides should have eggs, larvae, and capped brood. A solid divider is placed between the halves. Make sure the bees cannot travel back and forth. If there are any gaps in the divider board, seal them off.

Split arrangement

If you know which side the queen is on, that's well and good. If not, notch the lower wall of 3-5 worker brood cells in both sides of the hive. This opens up the cells so that they look more like queen cells. Choose the youngest, tiniest larvae you can find.

Cut bottom of brood cells to jumpstart queen production.

Sharashkin says that splitting in the same hive allows the colonies to share warmth and conserve resources until spring is well and truly underway. At that time, you can move the split into its own hive.

In a Lang, splits should have a minimum of 4 frames, but as little as 2 will do. In a Layens, 2 frames is sufficient for a split, but Leo aims for 3-4.

Note: At some point in the year, the side with the queen will need a brood break. This can be accomplished late in the season by using a push-in cage to confine the queen for 3 weeks.

Note: If you want more honey, make sure the queen is by the old entrance so that she gets the foragers. However, if you want both splits to be more of an equal size, you could start your colony in the center of the hive and let them get used to using either entrance. Then split them up by putting each split on either side of the hive. Returning foragers will use both entrances.

Note: An alternative method to the split describe above is a shook swarm. Very early in the season (for him, early April) shake all the bees into a new box. Give them some new comb and a honey. Doing this early reduces the chances of losing a lot of brood.

Swarm Season
Hopefully, by the time swarm season arrives, you will already have split your hive. However, if you see swarm cells, you can try to head off the swarm by adding some empty frames near the entrance and removing all but a couple of queen cells.

During swarm season, Leo checks his swarm traps at least once a month. His traps are basically a Layens hive with 7 frames, which is 40 L in volume. Having traps that use the same frames and dimensions as his hives makes them easy to transfer if he doesn't get to check them right away.

Colonies that swarm at the end of the nectar cycle (June for him) will need to be fed.

You can read tips for catching swarms on his website.

Bait hive.
In warm climates, Leo recommends an upper entrance.
If your climate is cool, it may be unnecessary.
The beauty of the Layens hive in cold climates is that they provide ventilation for moisture with minimal heat loss.

When closing up for winter, any honey outside of the brood nest is surplus, so if there are any honeycombs, Sharashkin takes all but one of them. He leaves one frame for spring emergencies.

Wintering frames go in the center of the hive with a divider on both sides of the brood. The divider boards should have a 1/2"-3/4" gap under the divider board.

Insulation goes over the cluster frames. The roof of the hive has a 2" air pocket between the frames and the roof to accommodate the insulation. The roof also has screen openings on both ends to allow moisture to escape.

See the holes in the roof? Those are screened vents.
There is also 2" of space between the roof and the tops of the frames.

Warm air rises to the top of the cluster and preheats the honey they are about to consume. It also warms up the space between the cluster and divider boards. The gaps beneath the divider boards also provide ventilation, sucking moisture out of the hive.

Note: Sharashkin said that you can either winter with frames in the center of the hive or frames at one end of the hive (which is what the first diagram illustrated showing bees coming out of winter). However, the diagrams he provided regarding wintering showed all frames in the center, so that's how I've shown them here.

The diagrams above show the hive without any frames on either side of the cluster. The frames that get pulled are frozen for 48 hours. Sharashkin then allows the frames to come to room temperature and lets any condensation evaporate (you can use a fan to speed up evaporation). He then stores them in a hive that is totally sealed (all cracks are taped up.) However, if you are in cold climate, he says you can store empty frames in the hive behind the divider boards. Just be sure to leave a gap between frames somewhere behind the dividers for ventilation.

Sharashkin recommends insulating hives in a cold climate. Two methods he recommends are:

  1. Double-walled hives using straw, wool, or wood shavings as the insulation. He recommended using a natural material because they allow moisture to pass through the walls of the hive. 
  2. A mixture of fresh manure, straw, and clay or dirt in equal proportions with a few handfuls of ash mixed in and enough water to make it workable. This would be applied to hive walls and allowed to dry. He says it lasts quite a long time, even in severely cold climates. 

Dr. Sharaskin gave another talk called "Not by Clover Alone," which discussed the importance of varied forage. To be honest, I didn't take that many notes. However, one thing that interested me was a side comment about how thin-walled Langs came into being. Originally, Langstroth had proposed much thicker walls (double walls with insulation, if I'm not mistaken). However, these thick walls took up a lot of space, so as beekeepers began migrating bees, hive walls were made thinner in order to get more hives on railroad cars.

For awhile, I've been considering starting a Layens or Lazutin hive, but I've had trouble deciding which to try. Leo really inspired me to try the Layens. I now have a better understanding of how and why its management differs from a double-deep hive like Lazutin's, and I can see how it fits my overall goals better. So maybe in the springtime, I'll have a couple of new hives...

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Dr. Sharashkin: Part 1

The Connecticut Beekeeper's Association invited Dr. Leo Sharashkin to speak about natural beekeeping methods using Layens hives this past weekend. Wow! What a speaker! If you ever get a chance to hear him talk, seize the opportunity. You will be so glad you did.

The constant themes running through the various lectures he gave were:
  • Beekeeping should be a low maintenance activity
  • Use bees and a hive design that are suited to your local conditions
  • Use smaller hives, but have more of them
  • Let bees be bees

Dr. Leo Sharashkin

I won't share all the notes that I took, but here are some of the takeaways that were really notable for me.

An extended Layens hive with 19 frames

Beekeeping does not have to be labor intensive in order for bees to thrive or for beekeepers to harvest honey. 
Dr. Sharashkin shared a quote from a 19th century Russian text (1835) called Practical Beekeeping by Vivitsky. Vivitsky wrote:
 Peasant families commonly have 1000 hives. Tending these takes little effort, so the owner can work his fields and attend to other matters.

Nope. That was not a typo. People with no electricity or running water or any of our modern comforts were able to keep 1000 hives. Each year, beeks collected swarms that issued from these hives and populated new hives with them, accumulating them over time. These hives were passed down to their descendants who continued to accumulate their own hives. The actual harvest from each hive might be small (about 12 lbs), but with so many hives, the honey and wax added up. Other than catching swarms and harvesting, families did nothing with the hives -- so they had time to tend farms, cut trees, harvest crops, etc.

Follow Dr. Seeley's advice for having thriving healthy colonies.
Dr. Seeley, who has studied honeybees in the Arnot Forest outside Cornell for decades now, recommends the following for keeping healthy colonies.

  • Use local bees (either feral swarms or purchased from a local breeder) because they are adapted to survive in local conditions
  • Give colonies space 
  • Use smaller hives that allow for swarming each year
  • Don't use treatments

Local Bees. There was some argument at the club meeting regarding what constituted a local bee. For instance, caught swarms are not necessarily feral bees unless you can pinpoint the bee tree they issued from. And in order to develop a local strain, it takes bees about 10 years in isolation to fully adapt to local conditions. But isolation is a difficult thing to achieve, especially in a small state like CT, because you can't have any other beeks in a 10-mile radius. My personal feeling is that even though I was very careful about getting local bees developed from feral cutouts when I first started beekeeping, my bees have no doubt interbred with whatever feral bees and packages people have imported in the last 5 years so that a lot of different genetics have been introduced. Yet they continue to survive. So I figure that even if they may not be entirely local anymore, letting them be bees (not treating, allowing for swarms, minimizing the use of sugar, etc.) has giving them a fighting chance.

Space. If possible, give colonies space (about 100' between hives) because it helps reduce drift (and thereby disease transmission) between them. In an apiary with closely spaced hives, up to 30% of returning foragers may enter the wrong hive. Closely spaced hives has also been shown to contribute to the development of more virulent disease strains.  

If you don't have space in your beeyard, Sharashkin recommended reducing drift by:
  • Turning hives so that not all of the entrances face the same direction
  • Using distinct symbols at hive entrances. Many beeks paint their hives different colors, but honeybees can switch off their color vision in order to preserve energy. So when they return to the hive, they may be seeing in black & white. Instead, distinct symbols and patterns are more helpful to them.

Smaller hives. Smaller volumes are easier for bees to control the temp, and they encourage swarming, which creates a brood break and allows the colony to clean house. 

Not treating against disease. Treatments stress the bees out, and create their own problems. He said, "There is no such thing as being disease-free. Survival is about being disease-ok." In other words, we all have deadly bacteria all around us, but if we are healthy we can deal with it. It only becomes an issue when we are unhealthy and have compromised immunity. (Note: Dr. Sharashkin conceded that if you have bees that are not from the local area and are accustomed to being treated, they will probably die if you stop feeding and treating them, so you might have to prop them up to overwinter them. However, he cited several studies during his talks that even package bees that are kept without treatments, not fed sugar, and are allowed to swarm have a much higher chance of survival than bees from the same sources kept using conventional methods.)

Swarm Traps. Dr. Sharashkin spoke a bit about collecting swarms, and his website has a lot of info about catching them. However, there were a couple of points I thought noteworthy:
  • Scouts may start scouting 2 weeks prior to swarms emerging, so the bait hives should be set out early
  • If you don't have lemongrass and propolis to bait the hive, then you can use an old comb. However, if you DO have lemongrass and propolis to bait the swarm trap, then adding old comb as well is not shown to improve catch rates. Leo does not use old comb because he wants to encourage a brood break for the swarm.
  • When applying propolis to his traps, Leo sets a bag of propolis out in the sun to warm up. Once it is gooey, he just smears it onto the walls of his bait hive.
Wood taken from the wall of a feral bee tree.
Although it was a large chunk from a hardwood tree,

it was very light because of all the air pockets in it.

Why use Horizontal Hives?
Sharashkin second talk of the day was about using horizontal hives like the Layens hives that he uses. I confess that I didn't really take that many notes because I've read both Lazutin's book and more recently the one by George Layens. If you are interested in horizontal hives, I highly recommend reading both of these books. Layens wrote his book sometime during the 19th century and was one of Lazutin's inspirations when developing his own hive.

The real difference between these hives is that Lazutin's hive is much, much bigger (equivalent in volume to 5 10-frame Lang deeps). However, unless you have phenomenal forage in your area, Lazutin's hive may be much too large. It also doesn't encourage swarming. In his book, Lazutin indicated that he really had to force his hives to swarm every other year. By contrast, a 14-frame Layens hive is quite small -- equivalent in volume to about 18 deep Lang frames. The extended Layens hive that Leo uses has 19 frames (about 25 deep Lang frames).

He has the cutest kids.

Selling Honey for $20/LB.

Leo's last talk of the day was about selling honey for a premium price. However, since he recently wrote an article on that for Bee Culture (July 2017), I won't spend too much time on that. However, I did want to show how he packages his honey. Instead of using a regular label on glass, he uses a business card that is printed on both sides and folded in half. He says he pays about 2 cents per card and 5 cents for the string. However, the tag gives him extra space to market why his honey is special. It also allows buyers to focus on the beautiful honey instead of on the label.

A jar of Leo's honey

The inside of his packaging label

The back/front of his packaging label

Beekeepers are advised to feed colonies sugar syrup early in the spring so that they build up earlier and collect more honey when the spring flow hits. However, the danger in this is that if you get a late freeze, the cluster contracts and brood can be lost. If the brood is not cleaned out quickly enough, this can lead to putrefaction and disease. If the brood doesn't die, it may emerge but be sickly and weak.

However, there is another danger to feeding syrup. Dr. Sharashkin mentioned a study that was described in Robert Page's The Spirit of the Hive. Apparently, bees who are fed sugar syrup in early spring get spoiled, and their perception of nectar is altered. They become accustomed to the high-sugar content of the syrup and they will only seek out high-sugar nectars, ignoring nectars with a low-sugar content. They can even starve if a high-sugar nectar is unavailable despite plentiful availability of low-sugar nectars. Additionally,  brood that has been raised on syrup will share the same sweet tooth. This affects honey composition as well.

Layens bait hive and extended Layens hive

So there are my notes on Day 1. Hopefully, I'll get some time this week to share Day 2, which focused on managing a Layens hive.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Special Visitor in the Beeyard

Top bar hives seem to be gaining more and more momentum every year, but when I started out, it felt like they were still few and far between. Most people at my bee club hadn't even heard of them, much less had any experience with them. As a result, I turned to books and online communities for mentoring and support.

One of the online resources I found was Buddha and the Bees, a blog about everyday experiences keeping bees, and it quickly became one of my favorites. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was because Don, the blog's author, was in the same boat as me. We were both just starting out with our TBHs and quickly realizing that bees are not the experts that all the books claim they are. They insisted on doing unexpected wrong things. ;-) It was refreshing to find someone who was writing not about how bees are supposed to behave, but about all the nitty-gritty, wonky stuff that happens in real-life (mostly about bees, but sometimes writing bravely about other things as well). Don is also a smart guy with a terrific sense of humor, so I always looked forward to his new posts (and I still do!)

One of the bonuses of living in a digital age is that one gets the opportunity to connect with people all over the world. Over the past few years, Don and I formed a digital pen-pal relationship that started with our blogs, but it has moved on to email, packages of honey, and FaceBook. Our friendship has even extended to our spouses who now follow each other on FaceBook. That's the power of the interwebs being harnessed for good!

Although Don lives out in Colorado, he has roots back East in my neck of the woods. That's lucky for me because on his recent vacation for a family reunion, he and his lovely wife, Diana, carved time out of their busy schedule to bless my family with visit. As I told Don, after so many years of correspondence, it was delightfully surreal to finally meet in person.  He and Diana are just as I'd always imagined them to be -- warm, giving, funny, kind, clever, and passionate. They are just brilliant, and it was a blessing to have them in our home. The only bad part was that they had to leave because I would have liked them to stay and stay and stay. My DH and I lamented all the next day that they couldn't be our neighbors.

Diana in the center, and Don on the right.

I can't even begin to express how much I appreciate Don and his blog. His blog is well worth reading just for its own merits. But over the years, he has also been such a generous supporter of me and my own endeavors -- raising questions I hadn't considered, offering his own experience and insights, suggesting solutions to problems, or even just leaving comments to let me know that I haven't been shouting into the void. (BTW, Don is a fantastic problem-solver, and true to form, he gave me loads of ideas during his visit, so more on those in future posts. My daughter, though, was more impressed with his genius for finding four-leaf clovers.)

When I started beekeeping, mental stimulation was one of my new hobby's most immediate benefits. Watching bees do their thing was endlessly fascinating. Later on, collecting wax and honey became other tangible benefits. However, what I didn't predict was that beekeeping would bring so many amazing people into my life -- people I never would have met any other way because we come from such disparate walks of life or different parts of the world. Don and his wife Diana are two of those extra special people that I feel so blessed to call friends.

Don makes the best comb honey ever. I shared some with my daughter's friend Emma who agrees.
She says it tastes like rainbows, cupcakes, and unicorns.

Thursday, June 29, 2017


I'm a big proponent of learning through reading and listening to experts. On the other hand, I also believe that you have to trust what you see with your own eyes. To quote Syrio Forel, the fencing teacher from The Game of Thrones, "My words lied. My eyes and my arm shouted out the truth, but you were not seeing."

That's why my #1 lesson learned from 2016 was pull old comb. Be ruthless. Forget what you've heard about reusing for three years and stop worry about the energy spent on drawing wax. After watching my bees for a couple of years, I could see the ones who'd been given a "jumpstart" with old comb constantly struggling. (BTW, by "old comb" I mean comb that was built during the previous season and contained brood at some point.) The ones that drew fresh comb outperformed "the cheaters" every time.

Finally, I came to the conclusion that I didn't need to keep old comb around because even during a horrible flow, my bees could still fill up their hives and start swarming. It made more sense to let them build fresh, clean comb. By doing so, I could kill two birds with one stone. 1) The bees would have a more healthful environment. 2) Swarming could be delayed (hopefully), or at least better managed.

Well, that was my personal conclusion, but now I've been vindicated! I read an article by Jennifer Berry and Keith Delaplane on the effects of comb age on honey bee colony growth and brood survivorship. Their research, conducted at the University of Georgia, compared colony growth and brood survivorship in hives with old comb vs. hives with new comb over a three-year period. It's a fascinating article, so I highly recommend reading it. However, if you decide not to, here's a summary. Colonies with fresh comb produced a greater area of brood, a greater area of sealed brood, and heavier individual bees. Interestingly, colonies on old comb had a higher survivorship of brood, but as the study pointed out, that really is not a reason to keep old comb around. To quote the authors, "it is possible that the economic savings of using long-lasting comb may be offset by deleterious effects of old comb acting as a biological sink for toxins and pathogens or as a physical constraint on larval development."

Well, that's it in a nutshell, but here are a few more tidbits from the article that I found especially interesting.

On Age of Comb

The article indicated that the combs used in the experiment were of unknown age, but they "were dark and heavy as typical of combs one or more years old." [Bold face is mine.] OK, so maybe some  or most of the comb involved in the experiment was really old, but some could have been only a year-old. So I feel like my decision to cull 1-year-old comb isn't so crazy (or wasteful) after all.

On Brood Production

  • Old comb harbors numerous toxins and disease-causing contaminants such as nosema and foulbrood, which are spread from colony to colony by infectious wax. The queen may avoid laying in these cells.
  • Old comb may also be permeated with brood pheromones that can inhibit egg-laying because the queen perceives the cells to be occupied.
  • "Bees prefer to store honey and pollen in cells that have been previously used for brood rear-ing. In the wild, as a colony grows and continues to add new comb, brood rearing gradually shifts into this new comb and the honey is stored in the old brood comb." Actually, I thought this was interesting because all the books say that you should add empty bars between the brood and honey areas to keep the bees by the entrance and honey in the back. I've never found this to work for me. My bees just keep moving the brood further and further toward the back and storing honey in the emptied nest. Now I know why!
On Brood Weight
  • The cells in old comb are smaller than in new comb. As a result, the bees that are produced in old comb don't grow as much as bees in new comb. In fact, "Diminishing space may force larvae to moult to the non-feeding prepupal phase prematurely, causing nurse bees to cap the cells before larvae have developed maximally."
  • In this study, bees raised in old comb averaged 8.3% lighter than bees raised on new comb. However, other studies have shown that bees raised on new comb can be up to 19% heavier than those raised on old comb. It may not sound like much, but put it into human terms. Let's say an average woman weighs 140 lbs. A difference of 8.3% - 19% is 11.6 - 26.6 lbs. If a normal, healthy 140-lb woman lost 20 lbs, she'd be pretty unhealthy.
On Brood Survivorship

  • This is the one area in which old comb sort of outperformed new comb. Because comb absorbs and retains pheromones, the authors hypothesized that nurse bees may have been more stimulated to care for brood in old comb.
  • However, this performance was qualified because although brood in old comb was more likely to survive, colonies with new comb produced far more adult bees. This is probably due to the sheer volume of brood produced in colonies with new comb. More eggs are laid and more brood is sealed in colonies with new comb. (See table before.)
  • Although more brood survives in colonies with old comb, the number of adults in colonies with old comb was still lower. At least 35 different contaminants in wax have been documented. These contaminants may cause a high mortality rate in adult bees. Additionally, it's possible that returning foragers have a more difficult time locating their colony as contaminants may mask the hive's signature scent.

What do you think? How long do you wait to cull comb? Have you observed any differences in colonies with a preponderance of old or new comb?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Little Buggers

As I was working by the kitchen window this morning, a black shadow caught my attention. It was a big black bear with three cubs.

Mama and a couple of her babies by the chicken coop

Add caption
One of the things that I like about my bear fence is that the "rails" are made of a plastic tape that has metal woven through it. So if you accidentally brush it, you won't get a shock. You have to clamp on to it with your hands (or mouth if you're a critter) to move it. But then it really does deliver a powerful shock. It's a great feature when you have lots of little ones in the yard.

However, it looks like I'll have to rethink this design since Boo Boo can slip right under the rails.

Look at that rapscallion! He sneaked in and out twice this morning!

I predict a trip to Tractor Supply in the very near future. I'm swapping those tapes out for the kind of wire my grandpa used for his cattle pen. Instantaneous zap. Sorry kids.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Latest Notes

It's been a wet, wet spring, which is wonderful! The rain has everything growing so beautifully this year. However, it's been a bit tricky timing inspections. I also have a sick hen on my hands (a separate long story for another day), and nursing her has been time consuming to say the least. But I found a quick window of opportunity, and I took it.

The nucs
Overall, I was really pleased with the nucs.

Celestia and Bubblegum. These two ladies were chockfull of brood and honey. Since they were out of space, I actually had to donate some of the honey bars Hippolyte for to cure. I left each of them with 3-4 empty bars. Hopefully, they can build/start filling them before the clover ends (typically the first couple of weeks in July).

Peach has shattered all my expectations of her. She did so-so hive last year, and didn't come out of winter all that well. However, she boomed this spring. I chalk her growth up to a donation of capped brood and the removal of a bunch of old comb.

About three weeks ago, I made a shook swarm with her old queen for my neighbor. He stopped by last week to tell me what an amazing queen she was and how spectacular her brood pattern was. Not to toot my own horn, but while he thought she was one of his best queens ever, I considered her just ok.  So this is where I'm going to make a plug for treatment-free beekeeping. Dr. Seeley's studies show that treated queens and drones are nowhere near as fertile and vigorous as feral bees that are untreated. In fact, studies show that using chemicals in the hive actually decreases fertility.

Anyway, yesterday, I noticed that she had successfully requeened, and the bees -- oh, the bees were spilling out of the nuc. Like Celestia and Bubblegum, she had also filled up all her bars, so I donated 2-3 bars of brood to Buttercup.

Peach's bars and the underside of her roof were covered in bees.

Buttercup was a second split made from Celestia three weeks ago when I could tell that one split wasn't going to be enough. As far as splits go, she was pretty weak -- just 2-3 bars of brood & stores. But even she had managed to fill out about half of the nuc (about 7-8 bars). Hopefully, the donation from Peach will give her a good jumpstart.

The Big Girls

Austeja was the only disappointment of the day. I'd expected lots of progress; instead, there were very few bees and no new comb or brood. I suspect they absconded. The stragglers left behind appeared to have tried raising emergency queens but failed. Looking at the comb that I'd moved over to this hive with her split, I realized that all the combs were kind of old. Maybe that's why they took off.

To keep her moving in the right direction, I donated 5 bars of bees and brood on fresh white comb from Elsa because I wanted to keep Elsa from swarming. In hindsight, though, I wish I'd simply combined her with one of the nucs.

Aborted attempts to make queens in Austeja

Elsa is like Old Faithful, making honey and bees. Got no complaints. However, as I mentioned before, I do wish that I'd either combined Austeja with one of the nucs. A good alternative would have been moving Elsa's queen over to Austeja instead of just brood. Now I have this huge colony that still hasn't had a brood break this year. Perhaps, I'll ask around to see if someone wants a queen in a couple of weeks.

Hippolyte is humming along. Nothing exceptionally good or bad to report.

Persephone remains my problem child. When I requeened Persephone with a swarm cell from one of the nucs this year, I finally gotten rid of all the "bee-tches" from the psycho packages I bought 3 years ago. But she continues to be a menace. She's the sole reason I wear protective gear. At times, I've thought of burning her to the ground, but she's just incredibly productive and healthy.

Of course, I have to put things in perspective. 3 years ago, she was un-inspectable. My entire body would be covered in stings within seconds of opening the cover. Nowadays, she mostly issues a black cloud around my head, and my gloves take the brunt of her attacks. Compared to the old days, she practically treats me like a lover. I suppose this is what happens though when you name a hive after an underworld goddess -- you get bees from Hell.

Anyway, I could tell that she was starting to think about swarming -- nearly out of space, lots of queen cups and drones in the making... Ideally, it would be nice to wait for swarm cells before splitting her, but the truth is that I simply don't want to handle her any more than I have to. Waiting for swarm cells means having to crack her open a few more times, and she scares me a little! My neighbor doesn't mind uppity bees since he suits up completely for every inspection, so I gave him a preemptive shook swarm from Persephone, which he will take miles down the road.

In an emergency situation like this, it takes about 14 days for a new queen to emerge (July 4th -- Independence Day!). Then another 3-10 days to lay eggs. So we're looking at eggs somewhere around July 7th-14th. To be honest, though, I haven't decided yet if I even want to look at her again until harvest. Quite frankly, it would be a relief if she died out and left me lots of honey.

Don't remember which hive this was from, but it's so nice to see honey in the hives!!!

So that's it for the bees. The catalpa and clover are blooming, but they should be on their way out soon. So far this year, though, reminds me a lot of 2015 when we had exceptional spring and fall harvests and bees continued find nectar over the summer. Fingers crossed that the resemblance continues.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Full Beeyard Again

Last fall, an acquaintance of mine expressed an interest in seeing the bees since she'd like to take up the insanity that is beekeeping. Given the dearth we experienced most of last year and the onset of winter, my bees were super cranky. Not wanting to provide a bad first experience, I advised her to wait until spring.

During my previous full inspection, I'd made a 50/50 split with Celestia. However, I had no idea which hive Her Royal Highness was in, so I asked D to check with me.

D finally gets to see the bees. 

It turned out that Celestia was still overflowing with bees and queen cells, so I made a second split from her into Buttercup. However, she was indeed queenless. The queen had gone to Hippolyte, and the bees were busy filling that hive with comb.

We also took a quick peek at the nucs Bubblegum and Peach. Bubblegum was starting to make queen cups. Peach was completely un-inspectable. Have no idea why she was so angry, but it wasn't worth it. I closed the nuc up immediately, but the bees were all the way at the back, so she looked fairly full, too. (BTW, the other hives were beautifully behaved. Didn't even need gloves or jacket for them.)

That was on May 19. Fast forward to May 31. I knew Bubblegum was getting close to swarming, but I just never got back to her. Then yesterday, while listening to my daughter practice her guitar, a distinctive buzzing started up during This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land. I turned to find a small collection of bees gathering in my fireplace. Say what?!?!? After lighting a fire to smoke out any bees that were considering setting up shop in my chimney, I resolved to make another full inspection the very next day.

Silly bees. Chimneys are for fires.

Persephone: I don't know what the deal is with this colony, but they've abandoned the front entrance and have made their own entrance along the side of the hive. So their brood is toward the middle back, and all the honey is at the front. It's kind of inconvenient for me, but they've never expressed any consideration for me anyway.

The queen cells that I'd donated from Celestia were all open, and eggs were present - yay! I was planning to give the new queen and some bars to my friend J, but as soon as I found the new queen, I lost her again. Anyway, since all was well and good, I closed up.

Bubblegum: Bubblegum had a quite a few capped queen cells. My guess is that she's the one that swarmed and sent scouts down my chimney. Using the swarm cells, I was able to make a split for J. He may appreciate her offspring better anyway since Bubblegum is way mellower than Persephone.

Peach: I had promised a split to my neighbor, and Peach looked like she was starting swarm prep (backfilling, etc.), though no queen cells yet. Made up a shook swarm with her queen, and A will take her to his beeyard in a neighboring town this evening. Also, to speed up the requeening process, Peach got a bar of queen cells from Celestia.

Can you find Peach's queen? She's about halfway down the photo on the left.

Celestia: Celestia is one of the splits I made during the last inspection. The piping of a new queen indicated her presence, though, I didn't find her. 3 queen cells were about to emerge, and rather than let them be eliminated, I moved them to Peach. I also gave Celestia a bar of eggs from Hippolyte in case I had screwed up and moved the queen. Fingers crossed.

With no babies to care for, Celestia is making honey

Buttercup: Made this split from Celestia on the 19th with swarm cells. The queen has emerged, but no eggs yet. Just in case, she also got a donation of eggs from Hippolyte.

Hippolyte: Looks beautiful. Gave her lots of space and will try not to pester her for at least a couple of weeks.

Elsa: She had 3 empty bars left, and it looked like she was thinking about swarm prep, but she hadn't made any queen cells yet. Although, I'd prefer to use swarm cells for a split, I decided to split her preemptively since I'm trying to space out my inspections more this year. Moved some bars into Austeja so that about 1/3 of the hive is now open. Again, I don't know where the queen is, so will check in a few days.

Elsa is starting to cap honey, too.

Austeja: She's got bees again thanks to Elsa. However, I did learn a lesson. I had left her entrance open while she was empty in case some scouts decided to check her out. But I neglected to check the hive weekly, and the very first bar I pulled out had a small wasp nest attached. Fortunately, it was really tiny, and I only needed to rip it off and stomp it.

Surprise! Surprise!

Unfortunately, I never did get around to retrofitting Hippolyte and Austeja with insulation while they were empty, but oh well. All the hives are full again.

I have no idea which queen this is, but she's purty.

According to the US Drought Monitor, my area has finally been downgraded all the way from Severe Drought a few months ago to just Abnormally Dry. The forecast predicts a week of rain starting tomorrow, so maybe we'll be back to normal soon.

No room at the beeyard

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What TBHs look like after 30 days without inspection

Recently, rain, cold weather, work, birthday parties, and chicken-related jobs have all conspired against me. As a result, my TBHs haven't been inspected for a full month. But today was a glorious, sunny 72 degrees F. Not willing to let another day pass without peeking in the hives, I burned through work and took the rest of the day off to spend some quality time with the girls.

To keep the coop costs under budget, we had to finish up certain things ourselves like adding hardware cloth around the run, a chicken door, run door, nest boxes, etc. Not difficult tasks, but time-consuming. 

Primrose, scratching up some tasty treats

Olive, taking a break

Fully expecting to see a lot of cross-comb, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the bees had cooperated and built things out beautifully straight. It's so nice when they actually do things by the book. Here's a quick rundown of what I found:

Persephone: This colony has settled down considerably since she requeened herself a couple of times last year, but I still want to get rid of her because she's apt to go after my husband. A beek I know lost all of her bees over winter. She has a farm, and doesn't mind bees that are slightly testy since she suits up completely. So I made a shook swarm for her today. I also donated a queen cell from Celestia to speed up the re-queening process. Hopefully, the bees won't tear that cell down.

Celestia: Other than the ant infestation under the roof, this colony was the highlight of my morning. She was bursting with bees and had begun making swarm cells. One bar with swarm cells went to Persephone. Unwilling to attempt finding the queen, I did a 50/50 split with the rest of the colony, so Hippolyte has bees again as well. The only bad part is that I haven't had a chance yet to retrofit Hippolyte with insulation and a hinged roof. So I'll have to decide if that's something I want to try while it's full of bees or wait until it's empty again.

Freakin' ants. Yuck.
The back of the hive. Bees are bubbling out.
The first bar I pulled out. This hive is definitely going to have swarm cells in it.

Look at that brood pattern!

Bubblegum: She's not quite as far along as Celestia, but she's definitely getting close. In another week or so, I expect to see some swarm cells in this one as well.

A few queen cups getting started
Peach: This nuc was weak during the last inspection, which was unsurprising given how weak she was going into winter. However, the donated brood seems to have made a difference. She's picked up considerably since then. Although she's not anywhere close to swarming, she should continue to do reasonably well.

Buttercup: A month ago, I spotted a tiny queen and small entourage. I should have combined her with another hive (maybe Peach), but I wanted to see what would happen if I just let things play out. Given that it was already April at that time, I figured they might have a chance since stuff was blooming, and I was curious.

My hopefulness has given way to suspicion over the last couple of weeks because the amount of activity surrounding the nuc has lessened considerably. My fears turned out to well-grounded since this hive died out. However, last night, I talked with my neighbor who also keeps bees, and he also experienced a few smaller hives that made it all the way through winter only to die out in late March/April.

Elsa: Elsa continues to do very well. Given the amount of space she has, she's not as full as the nucs, but with 20 bars of brood, she is getting there as well. Lots of drones and some queen cups started. I gave her some empty bars to build on and will continue to monitor.

I don't remember finding Elsa's new queen last year. 
Turns out she's blonde, which was a surprise since all of her previous queens have been black.

So that's all for my inspection notes. As long as the weather holds out, I'll check on the splits in 3 days to figure out which ones have queens. Fingers crossed for continued sunshine (or at least some fair weather on Friday).

Monday, May 1, 2017

How hot are my bees?

Invariably, there are two questions that new beeks unaccustomed to working with honey bees ask:

  1. Are my bees aggressive?
  2. What do I do with them?

It's important to know whether you have mean bees or simply defensive ones because pleasant bees will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the hobby. 

In evaluating your bees, be aware that there are certain things that will make even the sweetest tempered bees temporarily crabby. For example:
  • A dearth
  • Bad weather (rain, snow, cold, etc.)
  • Attacks from predators
  • Being relocated (e.g., shipped in a package or hauled in a vehicle)
However, if your bees temper doesn't improve within a couple of weeks, or if they get noticeably worse as their colony size increases, it might be time to re-evaluate.

With that said, as I was organizing some bookmarked pages, I found a chart that was very helpful to me a few years ago. However, there were a few lines that I felt were a little confusing or that I disagreed on. For example, I'm not sure that an aggressive hive automatically needs to be destroyed. Yes, drones from a nasty hive will spread their DNA, but from what I've read, some of the hardier races of bees tend to be a bit on the less workable side, so maybe they have something worth keeping in the gene pool. Also, I feel there is something of a sliding scale when it comes to aggressive bees. For example, I've had colonies that would swarm me, stinging as often as they could, for more than 100'. However, with enough layers of clothing, it was possible, sort of, to inspect them. They were definitely hot, but they weren't like the bees that cover every bit of your veil until you can't see. 

So anyway, here is my re-worked version of the chart. 

If you've had experience with aggressive bees, how have you dealt with them?

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The grass is definitely NOT greener on my side...

it's most decidedly yellow!

A spring feast

It's taken five years of my youngest child "planting" dandelions, but I finally have a lawn that my neighbors probably hate and the bees love.

Grabbing a snack

Ever since we bought this house, I've been working on the gardens out front. When we moved in, the soil was hot, dry, and as hard as a rock. Nothing was growing. None of the shrubs were flowering. There were no bees, no pollinators, nothing. 

Here are some shrubs in an area that I haven't done any work on. (Yeah, I know, it's been 5 years, and I haven't done jack. Still deciding whether to try and save them or rip them out.)

Sad, sad, sad

Now here is a shrub on the other side of the front door that is in a spot where I've consistently been amending the soil for 5 years.  It used to look just like the shrubs above. This spring, though, it's glorious!

My pretty shrub

I've never seen honey bees on it before. In fact, I didn't think bees were overly fond of azaleas, rhododendron, and mountain laurel. My impression has always been that bees considered them the celery sticks of the nectar smorgasbord -- it's what they go for when nothing else is available. However, this shrub is humming with bees.

So many bees on this thing!

Yeah, I know honey from these shrubs is toxic, but it would take a lot of nectar to make honey that harm a human. So instead of worrying, I'm enjoying the buzz.