Busy As Bees

Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

Once you own a beehive, you soon get a clear understanding of the etymology of that phrase, and it’s the only one appropriate for the progress our bees have made.

We’ve checked on our girls twice since you last heard from me, and they have been very busy indeed.

One thing we’ve learned is they seem to like the security of having queen cups ready to go. Too bad the sight of them has the opposite effect on me. (As I’ve already mentioned I’m not quite ready to handle a swarm.)

Here’s a couple of pictures so you can see what I mean. If you’re not a beekeeper, look closely at the frame, and you’ll see a couple of oddly shaped cells. Two of them (one on far right middle of the photo and one almost covered with bees at the bottom) are shaped a bit like a piece of Kix cereal. These were not so worrisome because they were small and uncapped. It’s the bigger one, shaped like a peanut, at the bottom of the frame that was a concern. IMG_2233

I handled the longer cell the only way I could think of: I scraped it off (out of sight, out of mind?). We also added a second deep box as planned. (Bees swarm when they feel crowded, but if their hive is too big, they can’t protect it from raiding wasps, yellow jackets or honey bees, so the timing on this is important.)

We saw our Bee Guru during the week, and that’s where we learned that some hives like the security of having a queen cup or two ready. (I didn’t actually mention the longer cell, because I wasn’t 100% sure that’s what it was. Or maybe I just didn’t want to admit that’s what it was.)

Thankfully, there was no sign of swarming before our next check. (And we would have noticed. The Engineer and I are very protective of our bees.)

Also during the week, we attended a session on using the Apiary Diagnostic Kit we got from the Ohio State Beekeepers Association. This organization got a grant to provide these kits (worth over $80!) free of charge to new beekeepers. The goal (per their website) is increasing “beekeeper confidence in hive management by providing tools to help monitor and diagnose changes in the hive before they reach a critical stage and the hive dies.” If you’re a new beekeeper (starting in 2016 or 2017), click the link to get one. Experienced beekeepers can order kits for $49.99 (plus shipping), which is still a deal.

No, this is not a commercial for this project. I just think it’s great that the OSBA made it happen. And the educational sessions about using the kit, which are being offered around the state, make the program even better.

But back to the hive. Varroa Mites and Small Hive Beetles are creatures whose sole existence seems dedicated to wreaking havoc on honey bees and reproducing so their offspring can do the same.

And when I say wreak havoc, I mean it literally. If unchecked, these pests can (directly  or indirectly) cause the demise of a hive (or hives).

Since we don’t want that to happen to our hive, we were grateful for the opportunity to learn more about protecting them. And after attending the OSBA class, we felt prepared to try out some of the tools they’d provided to help us do just that.

This is the time of year to get a base count of the Varroa, so we decided to do a sugar roll (also called a sugar shake). Check out this video from Hudson Valley Bee Supply to see a demonstration.*

Seriously. Watch the video. Even if you don’t keep bees, you’ll find it fascinating.

You can do a similar test using alcohol. It’s more accurate, but it kills that 1/2 cup of bees (about 300). We don’t like killing bees, so we used sugar.

We also inserted both the “Beetle Blaster” and the “Beetle Jail.” These are variations on a theme — both shallow trays baited with cider vinegar inserted between frames. The Jail uses cooking oil to trap the beetles, and the Blaster is designed so they can get in, but not out.

Before closing  the hive, we put strips of microfiber in its dark corners to try to catch even more beetles. (The next day, we found one of the strips at the entrance to the hive where the bees had evidently dragged it. Clearly, one or more took a dislike to the cloth and wanted it gone.)

As you might guess, this hive check took longer than previous checks. Not only did we have two boxes to check, sugar to roll, Jail, Blaster, and microfiber to insert, The Engineer had surgery on his dominant hand on Thursday and was somewhat hindered in using it.

So we were especially grateful to one of our classmates who agreed to come over to help/learn/participate.

The difference from last week was amazing. Our bees are amazing. We couldn’t believe how hard they’ve been working. The queen, whom our classmate spotted first, must be an egg-laying machine! There were loads of eggs, plenty of larvae, lots of capped brood, some lovely glistening nectar and yellow pollen, and some capped honey.

Oh, there were also a couple of queen cups too (as you can see).

IMG_2244

We were so proud! I wish I’d taken more pictures, but we were so busy admiring the results of their labor, I just forgot.

The sugar roll resulted in us finding one mite, and we spotted (and killed, of course) another one on the top of a frame. However, I re-read the directions after we came back inside, and we may not have shaken the jar long enough, resulting in a number that skews low. And with all that beautiful capped brood, well, you just know those mites are going to be after our growing larvae.

Once we feel confident the hive is full strength, we may try the drone comb to try to offset some of that issue.

Quick explanation for those who aren’t beekeepers: Drones are male bees. There aren’t as many drones as workers because they don’t do much for the hive, but their growing cycle is longer and coincides better with the mites’. So mites really like drones. The type of egg — worker or drone — the queen lays is based on the size of the comb the workers draw. If the workers feel the hive can support drones, they draw (make) drone comb, the queen lays drones, and the mites are happy. You can force the issue by inserting a special kind of foundation, with drone-size cells started on it. The workers then draw drone comb, the queen lays drones, and the beekeeper takes the foundation out before [that’s really important] the drones hatch and set any mites free into the hive. The beekeeper then uses a special tool called a capping scratcher to open the cells and count the mites. And also kill them. In this way, the drone comb serves as both a diagnostic tool and a treatment measure against drones.

Okay, so maybe that explanation wasn’t so quick. At least you get it now, right?
Your reward for being so patient is one more picture of the girls. 🙂 IMG_2245

Our next visit will be a simple check — having a look for the queen, seeing if the bees are still doing well and when they might be ready for a honey super, and looking in our Jail, Blaster, and microfiber for dead(!) beetles.

*After doing a bit of research, I have one correction to the information provided by the film: Domino Powdered Sugar is no longer cornstarch free. We used a powdered sugar that has cornstarch for our first roll; I purchased Heinen’s brand for the next time. It’s organic and uses tapioca starch instead, which seems like it might be a bit better for the bees.

Everything But the Bees

On Friday, we drove to Blue Sky Bee Supply to buy The Engineer a bee jacket and veil.

Then, on Sunday, we took down a dead tree, a preventive measure to prevent it falling on our hive during some future storm.

I also did battle with a wild rose that was taking over that area of our property.  The rose won — I have scratches to prove it — though I retaliated by hacking it to the ground.

The wild rose (also know as multi-flora rose, rambler rose, or Japanese rose) has a self-preservation instinct strong enough that the Ohio Weedguide calls it a “noxious weed.” The plant earns this distinction partly due to its prolific seed production (up to 500,000 per bush per year) and partly because one bush can cover a patch more than thirty-three feet in diameter.

Also, did I mention the thorns? Wickedly sharp and plentiful, they seize any piece of clothing or skin that happens to brush against a cane, and refuse to let go.

And yet, the scent of this plant is beguiling, sweeter than any hybrid on earth, so I can’t bring myself to kill it, even if I could manage that near-impossible feat.

rose

Photo from Ohio Weedguide

I predict our bees will be sipping its nectar within the year.

With tree and rose bush down (or at least in temporarily restrained), we were able to place the paving stones for our hive stand, mulch the area, and (finally!) place our stand outside.

Here it is. FullSizeRender-13

All we need is the bees, which brings me to the point of this post. (You did know there’d be a point eventually, right?)

When people learn we are going to keep bees, they inevitably ask one question: “Where do you get them?”

I can’t answer without mention a fact I found astounding: Honey bees are not native to the U.S., although there are many native bees, which also pollinate. If you’re not squeamish about insects, check out this Popular Science article. It includes lots photos and a link to the U.S. Geological Survey’s great database for even more bee photos.

So, all honey bees came from somewhere else. Later, I’ll write a post about the different kinds, but for now, let’s talk about where you can get them.

Probably the most common way of populating a hive is to buy a package of bees. A package is basically a box of three pounds of bees (about 10,000 insects) and an unrelated, unmated queen. This can be shipped or picked up depending on where you purchase. For example, Draper Super Bee Apiary uses either UPS or Priority Mail. (This is not an endorsement. I just found them online and know nothing about them.)

In our area, many people purchase their package from Queen Right Colonies, a local bee supply store. Queen Right orders their packages from California, bringing in two semis full of bees each spring.

Since a package queen is unrelated to the bees she’s shipped with, a beekeeper must make sure she’s accepted before introducing her to her hive. Otherwise, the other bees will kill her. Since she’s unmated, there is a lag time involved for her to mate and produce eggs, as well as the amount of time it takes to raise the eggs into worker bees. (Drones generally come only after the hive has enough bees to get the work done.)

queen

Here’s a queen from a package, safe in her little cage until she’s accepted. Photo from Donce.Lofthouse.com‘s photo essayy on hiving packaged bees.

This lag time can be useful for new beekeepers, allowing them time to get comfortable with their hive before they have new bees. But if the new queen doesn’t take, she’ll have to be replaced, starting the introduction process all over.

A second option is a nucleus hive or nuc. This is like a starter hive, usually including three or five frames with a mated queen and brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae). Having a proven queen and brood can provide a head start on developing a strong hive. On the downside, nucs cost a bit more, and you have to trust the person you’re buying from since nucleus hives tend to come from individuals or smaller beekeeping businesses. If you buy from the wrong person, you could end up buying someone else’s problems (pests, diseases).

nuc-270x250

Cardboard nuc box. Photo from Southern Oregon Beekeepers Association

A third way to acquire bees is to buy someone’s hive(s). Rarely available and ditto on the idea of buying someone else’s problems.

Lastly, some people get bees by swarming. This can be done using a swarm trap, hoping to attract swarming bees, or by placing your name on a swarm list for people to call when bees swarm on their property. While I’m not sure we’ll ever be ready to acquire bees this way, it looks interesting. That many bees can seem a bit scary, but I read somewhere swarming bees are at their most gentle because they have no hive to defend. Sometimes, they’ll just walk right into the box.  Click through to see it happen.

Did we make the right choice? Only time — and our bees — will tell.

Links
Queen Right Colonies’ summary of pros and cons of the four methods of getting bees.

Map showing where wild bees are disappearing via Bee Culture magazine’s “Catch the Buzz” newsletter.

Another swarm marching into a hive via YouTube.