Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Don't Code Your Hive Until It's Spring

Today, the weather is in the mid-30's F. Not too cold to go outside and look at the hives. (Ha! This tropical/sub-tropical girl must be adjusting to New England to believe that temps only slightly above freezing are ok. But I digress.)

Why did I want a look-see? Saturday was lovely -- upper 40's -- and bees were flying. But certain hives had less activity than expected. Thought I'd put a stethoscope on them to see if I could detect a heartbeet (sic -- get it?)

I started with Peach, then Austeja, and Hippolyte. The thing is, I really couldn't hear anything in any of the hives. So then I checked Elsa because, based on the number of bees pouring out of her on Saturday, I knew she was alive and extremely well. Dang it. I couldn't tell a difference between her and the others.  (Note to self: Get a Flir next year.)

What to do? What to do? I popped open Austeja's observation window. Not a single bee in sight. Had she absconded?

Hmmm... I tried one more thing. There is an almost foolproof scientific test for determining whether your bees are alive. It's called Kick the Hive. 

After some kicking and banging, a few heads began poking out of Buttercup, Celestia, and Persephone. Bummer. That gave me 4/8 colonies. However, after waiting another 5 minutes, some bees started pouring out of Bubblegum as well. Cool. 5/8 hives was fewer than I'd hoped, but not bad.

Bees starting to check out the banging 

Before heading back inside, I figured I might as well take some photos of Austeja's empty comb. That's when she gave me a surprise. On opening the window again, bees started breaking cluster and crawling toward the window. Now I'm up to 6/8!

The window is really dirty, but if you look really hard, you'll see some bees on the combs

What about my remaining two colonies? Until we get several consecutive days of 50+ F temps, I've decided not to diagnose them dead -- hence today's post title. 

So what's happening with my bees. I have some naive theories:
  • They may just be very tightly clustered, which is why Austeja's bees were originally not visible through the window. Maybe that's why I had trouble finding the clusters with the stethoscope.
  • They may simply be very quiet and conserving energy. Mike Palmer in VT says that the bees that overwinter best in his brutal climate are the ones that barely make a buzz in freezing temps. These are the ones he breeds. I got my original bees from Sam Comfort, who in turn collects local wild bees, but he's also got genetics from Mike Palmer and Kirk Webster in his stock. Could this just be a quality that my girls have inherited? I don't know.
  • Even though Elsa was alive, I gave her some good kicks and poundings, too, just because I wanted a Kodak Moment. Yet no amount of abuse would induce her bees to come outside. Hippolyte and Peach could be dead (seriously, I didn't have high hopes for Peach going into winter), but they could also be ignoring me like Elsa. So I'll just wait until the weather is warmer. After all, bees that I could've sworn would die/were dead have surprised me on more than one occasion.
In any case, I'm pleased to even have 6/8 alive. 8 hives was a lot of work last year, so if a few are dead-outs, that's fine. They'll provide space for new splits in the spring and give me a chance to retrofit a couple hives with insulated roofs/walls.

Going forward, I'll probably open the hives to make sure they have some sugar near the clusters, but that's for another day. A warmer one.

In any case, it's amazing how different I feel this winter compared to my first winter, or even last winter. My first couple of winters, I was on tenterhooks the entire season, praying every day that my bees would survive. Last year, I thought at least one or two hives might make it through winter, but I was still uncertain. Finally, I've reached this calm, confident place where losing 1, 2, even half of my colonies is not the end of the world. It's ok. I like this feeling.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


The Tuesday after Christmas was the last time I was able to see the girls. It's been too cold for the bees to fly, so they've stayed indoors since then. That's why it was a shock to see this on my windshield the other day.

Did you see it? How about now?

What is half a bee doing on my car? How did it get there? What could possibly have eaten it at this time of year? Dang. I hope everything is ok with the girls.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Small Hive Beekeeping

It's no secret that I love, love, looooove Dr. Seeley's book Honey Bee Democracy. This man's work is phenomenal, and his passion for wild bees... I dig it. So when someone posted the following video clip on FB this morning, it seemed a good time for a break.

Hopefully, you watched the video, but if you didn't, the main points are as follows:

  • Dr. Seeley advocates keeping bees in a way that's normal for bees to live by "using nature as a guide to developing new beekeeping techniques." He calls his method "small hive beekeeping."
  • Current practices are all about maximizing honey production, which is great for beekeepers, but not necessarily good for bees. Traditional methods in certain areas may yield harvests of over 100 kg per hive, but this leaves the colony susceptible to parasites, especially varroa.
  • Instead, small hive beekeeping relies on 3 primary strategies: 
    • Keep bees in smaller hives. He recommends using a 10-frame deep Lang box for the brood nest as well as a super with a a queen excluder in between. He recommends a 10-frame brood nest since it is the modal size of wild nests (approx 40L according to his book).  The super, though, can be a shallow, medium, or deep. 
    • Let bees swarm. A small hive will swarm every year, and the resulting brood break helps cut down varroa. Additionally, the brood nest will start to shrink in July as the bees fill it with honey. Again, this diminishes the varroa mites' ability to breed.
    • Spread hives out. Dr. Seeley recommends a minimum of 30 m between hives. Ideally 100 m between hives. If a colony does succumb to parasites, leaving space between hives will help prevent parasites from traveling to the other bees.
  • Although small hive beekeeping yields smaller crop, the bees will be healthier, and beekeepers will not have to treat. 
Unfortunately, on my 1-acre plot, it's not practical for me to keep my hives 30 m apart, let alone 100 m. However, the other two recommendations... those are things that I'm doing already.

Curious about the volume of my own hives, I did some quick calculations this morning. My nucs are approximately 43 L, and my full-sized TBHs are about 88 L. So they are on target in terms of the dimensions he recommends for a small hive (if using a deep as a super). It's also true that my hives swarm every year, and consequently, varroa has not been an issue.

This video also explains why my colonies seem to act a bit differently than the ones kept by various Lang beeks that I know. Over the past few years, I've noticed that my colonies start to shrink around July until the autumn flow starts up again in mid-late August. At that time, they start to lay some more brood, but they don't get really big. I'd always chalked up this event to my lack of feeding. While not feeding syrup may certainly be contributing to this phenomenon, it never occurred to me that the size of my hives could be another contributing factor. Interesting.

So now, just when I was almost ready to experiment with Lazutin hives, I find out that the small size of my hives (which is the #1 reason I was going to try switching) is what's keeping my bees so healthy. Hmmm... Hive-blocked. Got some thinking to do. Buckle your seatbelts. This could get dangerous.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lessons Learned: Another Year in Review

I've not written much or even visited my bees at all since November. This year has been especially crazy since, in addition to the normal nuttiness of daily life and holidays, we've thrown two simultaneous bathroom renovations into the mix. In fact, I've started working on this post several times only to be sidetracked by other matters.

However, before 2016 slips out the door as we leave the old year behind and welcome the new, I wanted to perform my annual review of screw-ups and lessons learned.

Pull old comb
If I've learned anything this year, it's get rid of old comb! Les Crowder recommends moving it to the back of the hive so that the bees can fill it with honey before you remove it. In the past, I've always removed old empty comb both when winterizing and during the spring before the bees started filling it up again. This year, though, I tried it Les' way, and it caused me no end of misery. My bees largely ignored it, absconded from hives with lots of old comb, or did not build up well in those hives. I also found that in at least one nuc, the old comb attracted hive beetles and wax moths. From now on, I will be ruthless in pulling old comb. In any case, the bees always build new comb, and having extra space to build slows them down in spring, delaying swarming.

Freeze old combs before bringing them in the house
Sometimes I save combs in the house to show kids. I usually keep them in a nuc with lots of space between each bar and leave them exposed to sunlight. It's never been a problem before, but this year, I had a terrible wax moth infestation -- in my house. So from now on, they'll get frozen first.

Remove rings
Fortunately, I haven't had to learn this the hard way. In fact, I never really thought about it before Don at Buddha and the Bees mentioned this tip. However, it makes total sense. If you get stung in the hands and your fingers swell up, a ring could easily cut off your circulation. Definitely following Don's advice to remove any rings before checking the hives.

Wait as long as possible to harvest honey
Over the past four summers, I've had an opportunity to see what great, horrible, and average years look like in terms of honey production. This year, was an absolutely miserable year. The spring flow was late, and the autumn flow was just barely enough to keep the girls alive. This situation was not helped by at least two large construction projects in a 2-3 mile radius from my house. Huge fields of goldenrod were razed to make way for luxury apartments and a strip mall. I'm pissed.

So anyway, I'd harvested some honey at the end of the spring flow, expecting the bees to store some in autumn. Well, they didn't, and I ended up feeding honey and sugar back to them. I'm going to wait as long as possible from now on before harvesting honey. So when is that?

  • Whenever the hives are bursting with honey so that they need room
  • In late October/early November, when I'm winterizing. Harvesting honey is sooooo much easier this time of year because the bees are clustered, and I prefer fall honey anyway.

Reduce entrances in the fall -- even if not ready to winterize
I didn't get around to winterizing until quite late, and I'd forgotten to close Hippolyte's top entrance during the fall. As a result, she suffered from opportunistic wasps, and I feel terrible about that. I didn't see a mouse when I closed her up, but that was pure luck on my part. (Update: Wrote this in mid-December. Dec 27, Hippolyte was a literal hive of activity, so I didn't kill her -- not quite yet anyway.)

Stop procrastinating, and just get things done already
Originally, I'd made a roof for Celestia, but it didn't fit, so I ended up putting some temporary Coroplast board on top. Well, temporary turned into 6-months. Toward the end of that time, the roof shifted during a period of rain, and the girls got a soaking. Not cool on my part.

If you're having a crappy spring/summer,  feed
Feeding is a pain, so I usually just don't do it. But this summer was so dry the flowers didn't provide nectar. I kept hoping that the bees could make it up in autumn. They didn't. They'd either lost too many bees or didn't make enough bees during summer that they had trouble building up in the fall. So instead of storing nectar from the autumn flow, they used it to make bees, and I ended up fall feeding. It would have been better to feed earlier so they could keep their population up and take advantage of the fall flow.

So for the future, I still maintain that if the bees are still bringing in some nectar all summer and their numbers aren't plummeting, it's better to avoid feeding them sugar. (I expect and rely on some dwindling over the summer to keep varroa in check. I just don't want them to get to a point where they'll have trouble overwintering.) My lesson learned is really about feeding during a severe summer dearth that's forcing the bees to eat up their spring honey and dwindle too much.

Top bars may not be the best hive design for me
Given some of my beekeeping parameters, I'm seriously starting to rethink whether I want to continue making TBHs. While there are many things that I love about them, I'm considering going to a Lazutin-style horizontal hive or an extra-long Layens. Basically, as I mentioned before, my spring flow is incredible. Even during a horrible year, it provides enough honey that a colony could go through winter on it. However, TBHs are so small that they just don't allow my bees to store an entire season of honey before harvesting. A volumetrically larger hive like a Lazutin or Layens hive would allow the bees to store all the nectar they gather and let me harvest in the fall.

Last Tuesday (Dec 27), we had a 50 deg F. day, so I seized the opportunity to visit the girls. Despite my screw-ups over the past year, all 8 colonies are alive and well. Peach had a bit less activity going on than the others, but she wasn't doing as well to begin with. Also, she has a top entrance under the roof which also makes it harder to see what's happening. The others were bustling, though. Even Persephone, who didn't get much in terms of winter prep (just stuffed the back with straw and added mouse guard), was bustling. Of course, the coldest days are still ahead of us, but their condition has me hopeful. Fingers crossed, they'll all still be thriving in spring.

Wishing you all the best in the upcoming year. Happy New Year everyone!