Splitsville

On Saturday, as planned (and hopefully not too late), The Engineer and I stole a frame of brood from OH, Girls to help encourage the Olgas (OH-lgas?) to accept their new queen. When you have laying workers, this is meant to make them think the new queen is laying, and therefore is a good queen worthy of their hive.

Yes, I do realize I’m ascribing them with human attributes. It’s the only way I can make sense of honey bee habits.

At any rate, that’s one of the suggestions Bee Culture magazine offers in requeening a hive with laying workers. Of course, their article says this should be done at the same time the queen is introduced and that the hive should be switched with a stronger hive.

We didn’t switch them, and the brood was added a few days after the queen. However, as I mentioned in the last post, we lucked out once before introducing a queen to a hive with laying workers in much worse circumstances, and they accepted the queen. (It was the very beginning of spring when there were no queens to be had for several weeks after The Engineer discovered the dead queen and certainly no brood to add or strong hive to switch with.)

This time, when we discovered the then-named GeeBees (now Olgas) had a dead queen, we put in a frame of eggs, hoping they’d make a queen. They didn’t, but at least for a few weeks they had brood. They now have brood again, as well as a queen, so I’m hoping this at least confuses their tiny minds enough to give Olga a chance.

We also checked OH, Girls, with the intention of splitting the hive. Her Royal Blueness has been laying so well we were worried the hive would swarm. Splitting a hive is sort of like a fake swarm controlled by the beekeeper.

There are many (many!) ways to split a hive. The easiest is called a “walkaway split.” Basically, you divide a strong hive into two, and walk away. The idea is the hive that has the old queen continues on their merry way, and the other raises a new queen. To do this, both hives need to have eggs, or at the very least, very young larvae.

We used this method last year, mainly because we knew the hive was getting ready to swarm and when we went to split it, we didn’t find the queen.

This year, however, we were going to try to do a proper swarm control split, where you take the queen and put her in a new hive with food and brood. You also shake in some nurse bees so the the split is populated.

Nurse bees will stay in the “new” hive, while any foragers caught up in the divide will return to the original hive. I believe this is because the nurse bees haven’t yet oriented to their hive. You see, when bees come out of their cells, their first job generally is cleaning and capping cells. Next, they become nurse bees, tending the brood and queen. Later, they cycle through other jobs (guarding, foraging), only orienting when they start to go outside the hive for their work. For more details, you can read this article from American Bee Journal.

So, by shaking in extra nurse bees, the beekeeper ensures the hive has enough bees to survive.

Meanwhile, both hives think they’ve swarmed. If all goes well, the queenless hive makes a new queen, and the split soon grows into a full-sized hive.

That was the plan for Saturday. However, things didn’t quite go as we intended.

It was a cool day (about 50 F, the coolest we’ll usually do a hive check), but OH, Girls were out foraging, and we thought we’d be okay. We probably would have been, had we not made the mistake of trying to catch the queen to move her when we could have just moved the whole frame.

Her Blueness fell (into the hive, thank heaven!). Unable to find her again, we closed up shop and decided to try again today (Wednesday), when it would be warmer.

GIven the weather that followed on Sunday, it was probably just as well we hadn’t made a new split/nuc. Bees don’t usually swarm when it’s cold, and a full hive has more bees to keep it warm.

Ah, yes, it was a lovely Mother’s Day here, worse even than the cold and rain that was predicted. Dear Readers, we got snow — a lovely, wet, slushy snow, slippery enough that I saw several cars in the ditch when I drove to visit my mom.

This is our deck, after the snow had started to melt.
And here (in this blurry photo — sorry) are some poor, bedraggled birds trying to shelter from the cold.
And this is a picture of the birds on our feeder, taken through the window. I just like the effect of the water on the window. It reminds me of a kaleidoscope.

It finally warmed up today, and I spent a few hours hauling around bags of soil and mixing them with compost (to be fair, The Engineer did most of the mixing). Then I moved all the tiny little plants I’d grown from seed into pots, along with a few others I’d picked up from the nursery. Ground cherries, lemon basil, tomatoes, and more ground cherries, if you want to know, plus I split off some chives and Hen and Chicks for Darling Daughter.

In retrospect, I probably should have first asked if she wanted them. ūü§Ē

Ah, well, at least she wants the lemon basil and tomatoes I also potted for her. And the chives and Hen and Chicks needed splitting anyway.

Here would be a good place to mention that the “last frost date” for this area is meant to be May 15, a mere three days away. Also, I checked the weather report before starting, and it didn’t mention anything about frost.

The alert came up on my phone when we finished and came inside to have a cup of tea and a snack.

Sometimes I hate living in Ohio.

Sorry, I digress. I’m supposed to be writing about bees, and so I shall.

After our tea (me) and snack (The Engineer), we again turned to our favorite insects.

Both hives were busily foraging, even though it’s still a bit cool — sunny and maybe 60 F as long as you stay out of the shade, but the breeze is chilly.

You can see OH, Girls are quite active.
Olgas were also foraging, with fewer bees going in and out. It’s a smaller hive, so this makes sense.

A (very) quick peek at that hive today revealed the candy plug still in the queen cage, though they are working their way through it. Also, the bees didn’t seem overly agressive on the cage, so that could be a good sign too.

We turned our attention to OH, Girls. Once again, my observant partner found the queen — unharmed, thankfully, though her blue is wearing off. And this time, we moved the whole frame into the waiting nuc box, gave her another frame of brood and some food, shook in the nurse bees, and closed up shop.

From left to right: OH, Girls nuc, Olgas, and OH, Girls.

Will OH, Girls make a new queen?
Will the Olgas accept their queen?
Will my tomato plants freeze?

I wish I knew. We’ll all have to wait and see.

I hope you can handle the suspense. ūüôā

Bee-ginning the Bee Year with Queen Worries

My apologies for the fuzziness of the picture below. I’ve included it so you see our girls are not exactly going gangbusters. By anyone’s standards, this is a weak hive.

Still, they’re alive and working hard, and that has to count for something.

When we checked them today, there were larvae and eggs. I’ve highlighted the eggs in the picture below (zoom in). The larvae are easy to spot.

I think the next picture looks like a painting, don’t you?

Here’s some capped brood, a few larvae, and a hardworking forager bringing in some pollen.

We are a concerned about Her Royal Blueness because she seemed to be moving slowly.
When we check the hive next week, we may have to make a hard decision concerning her future employment (and life, for that matter).

The problem is, when you replace a queen, you lose a week or two because you can’t release the replacement directly into the hive, even after dispatching the old one. The other bees would kill her. You have to leave the new queen in her cage for a week or so to let the workers get used to her pheromones.

So, we’ve put off that worry for another day.

In other bee news, The Engineer has made two swarm boxes in hope of catching a swarm this spring. He met an old beekeeper last year who told him how to go about it, but it was late in the season when he tried it, so we didn’t catch anything.

Some people bait the boxes with purchased lures, but our source said he always used lemon grass oil on a cotton swab and some frames of old comb, so that’s what’s in ours.

In theory, you know you’ve caught a swarm when you find the swab outside the box. Bees are fastidious about what they allow in their hive, and cotton swabs apparently don’t make the list.

We’ve got two boxes baited, and have seen several bees inspecting the accommodations, but they may just be interested in something that smells like free food.

Still, it looks like we’re on the right track.

Free bees! What could be better?

Behold, There Was Brood

There’s a quote I read about beekeeping that sums up our experience perfectly. I can’t find the exact words, but it’s something like “The more I learned about bees, the less I knew, until finally I knew nothing at all.”

From our last post, you’ll know there was no eggs, no larvae, and very little brood in any of our hives, with FreeBees having gone the longest with nothing in sight.

Consequently, I had ordered two new queens.

We used to name our queens but have long since stopped – we’ve been through so many. And if you wonder how much this turnover of queens costs, we pay $42 for a marked Saskatraz queen.

It gets expensive, which is why we were so delighted NewBees raised a queen. (That would be the one who has disappeared. Sigh.)

I’m sure part of the problem is we’re not the best at locating our royalty. The only solution for that is keeping on trying.

So, here’s where I admit I know nothing.

Before we put in new queens, we decided to check the hives one nlast time just to verify they weren’t “queen right” (when a hive has a laying queen and all is copacetic), even though we were pretty sure they were queenless (“queen wrong”?).

Buzzers had nothing, and we’re quite sure there’s no queen. She was marked – therefore easier to spot.

NewBees had nothing either. No new brood, no larvae, no eggs, therefore no queen, despite having all of the above a few weeks ago.

FreeBees was a different story. Not only was there now capped brood, there was also larvae.

Surprise!

After thinking about what might explain the no brood, then brood situation in that hive, I’ve come up with a possible scenario.

FreeBees was full of queen cells when we split it. We took out all but one, which we put in NewBees. Then we went to France. When we returned, NewBees was in great shape, but FreeBees was without a queen.

Or so we thought.

I think FreeBees had a queen, but she was a new queen who hadn’t mated yet, or maybe just hadn’t started laying because I think they swarmed while we were gone, leaving behind the new unmated queen. (When bees swarm, the old queen goes with the swarm).

Hence, the temporary lack of new bees.

That’s my theory.

But what do I know?

Today, we introduced the new queens into NewBees and Buzzers, so it’s possible we may end up with three full hives, which wasn’t our plan.

Queenless or queen right, all three hives are still growing heavy with honey, especially FreeBees.

In fact, next week, we’ll be pulling some full deep frames to store for them and replacing them with empties so they don’t get too crowded.

Below are some photos of the queens in their cages with their attendants before we put them in the hive. Sorry, I couldn’t get a really clear shot.

And here are pictures of FreeBees and NewBees hanging out on their front porches due to the heat. This is called “bearding”and sometimes – when there are a lot of bees – it can look like a beard on the hive.

It’s not surprising they’d want to cool off. It’s been in the 90s today, with high humidity. Sitting on the front porch fanning seems a reasonable reaction.

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. ūüôā¬†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.