You lose some, you win some-Part 1

This is the “lose some” portion of the story.

I went out into the yard on Thursday and was investigated by several bees. I didn’t think anything of it, just thought they were looking for flowers as the afternoon was sunny though very cool. And it had been raining for a couple of days.

Friday turned out to be a beautiful, sunny day. After I came home from work, I took a stroll down to the bees to watch them zip around (as I love to do on sunny days) and immediately noted that the Pink hive had a lot less traffic than normal and slightly less than the other hives. My brain immediately went to the fact that it was a sunny day after days of rain and such days are prime swarm days.

I looked around the yard and lo and behold, there they were, clustered at least 15′ high on my neighbor’s peach tree. I got my husband and we moved into “swarm-gear.” Which essentially consisted of me recalling every swarm account or video I have ever read/watched, trying to quickly educate my husband and searching for a hive to drop them into. I was so unprepared.

Nice and high.

Nice and high.

Got a plastic tarp (next time use cloth as the plastic was too slippery), our only ladder (not tall enough and yard is heavily sloped), a wooden hive body with a cobbled-together bottom and a tree-saw on a pole. My husband was all for cutting the branch and letting it fall. I wanted to shake the branch. The problem with both methods was this: the hive body was too heavy to hold at an angle under the swarm for shaking and so it had to be on the ground. But cutting the branch and letting it drop would result in lots of bees dying on impact, the cluster reforming on a potentially higher branch and possibly injuring the queen. The step-ladder on the incline was the main hindrance and I had to put a branch behind me and hold onto it to avoid falling off the ladder while I stretched my right arm as far as I could under the swarm. It just didn’t work.

The bees were shaken, a large mass dropped (and FYI, they drop really easily) and landed to the side of the hive body. I had added some lemongrass oil and honey frames to the box. They flew back to the branch. I kept trying to see the queen but I did not see any marked queen and mine was just marked a few weeks ago.

Missed!

Missed!

We shook several times with them all returning to the branch. Then we cut it, but because of the slope and the poor ladder reach, the branch dropped. It looked like the bees were marching into the hive body for a few minutes, but if you watched them you saw them eating the honey and then returning to the tree.

Swarm 2

I tried trapping what bees I could and keeping them in the box. The night was pretty cold and the next day, the swarm was still there. I tried to collect more of them while they were in their “chill coma” but a stubborn number of them remained on the branch. Later, I went through the hives and stole some frames, including one with larvae, in an effort to keep the swarm bees “anchored.” They were festooning in the box like they do in packages. I opened the entrance which had been closed since I caught them. The Pink hive had opened swarm cell cups and others that were still capped. The capped ones were not killed so I wonder if afterswarms were/are planned. I cut out a couple of capped swarm cells and added those to the nuc as well. I noticed the swarm got bigger after I opened the swarm box entrance: likely because the trapped bees rejoined their group and by the mid-afternoon, the swarm was gone. The Pink hive and the nuc have queen cells, at least one should end up with a queen. If one ends up queenless, I’ll combine them; if they both have queens, I may offer the nuc for sale but if no one wants it, I have no problem keeping it.

Just a few of the numerous swarm cells I found in the Pink hive

Just a few of the many swarm cells I found in the Pink hive

Though my first swarm catching attempt failed, I learned a few things.
1. I’m quite sure the bees swarmed on Thursday, the day I thought I was being investigated as a potential flower. I think the swarm had already alighted on the tree and I was just so dunce that I never looked up! Ack. Next time, if I notice unusual behavior, I’ll look up.
2. Cardboard nucs are extremely useful and light, very easy to hold up even at an extended arm reach, so have one at the ready at all times. For what it’s worth, I have FIVE of them and not one was assembled!
3. Use a cotton sheet or cloth tarp to place in the “drop zone,” plastic provides no traction for the bees and is harder for them to maneuver upon. Also, you can place the ladder on it if needed.
4. A tall, straight ladder is useful to have. A step ladder is very challenging and unstable on an incline.
5. Have a bait hive set up. I do now, about 30′ away from the hives, but I may move it farther away. Just don’t know where.

Spring Cleaning

Every beekeeper’s smoker gets a bit cruddy: creosote from the fire collecting on the inside, propolis and even honey sticking to the outside. Mine was looking pretty bad so I decided it was time for a clean!
Here it is in all its dirty glory:
DSC04597

The top of the smoker sported a VERY thick layer of creosote.

The top of the smoker sported a VERY thick layer of creosote.

Cruddy smoker.

Cruddy smoker.

Look how pretty!

Look how pretty!

DSC04608

I used Easy Off Oven Cleaner. I can tell you there was nothing “Easy Off” about this job, it took multiple cleanings and repeated spraying to clean the creosote. I unscrewed the bellows from the smoker, scraped off the propolis, cleaned and conditioned it even though I’m pretty sure it’s fake leather. Now it’s ready for another season although I may upgrade to a larger smoker as this one is a bit small and the fuel burns out quickly.

We all make mistakes

Foolish, foolish woman. I managed to get through 3 hives on Saturday (digging very deeply: marking queens, cleaning propolis and burr comb from frames, etc.) before I had a visitor in my veil that told me I FORGOT TO ZIPPER THE VEIL TO MY JACKET!!! I’ll get to that in a minute. There aren’t many pictures because of that as well.

I was on a mission to clean the frames and make them easier to put back in the hives; cleaning the burr comb off the sides of the topbars helps to prevent any extra bee squishing. The bees neither like to be squished, nor do they like to have their frames scraped. I was asking for it.

We searched through the Aqua hive several times in an effort to find and mark the queen only to discover that she was already MARKED!! The Aqua hive has a 2014 queen. Wrong hive Anna… Then I remembered it was the Pink hive that had a new queen. That took some digging and searching but my hubby found her. It was this hive that reminded me I hadn’t zipped my veil down. I marked the new queens with a bright blue color. I use these pens which are easy to find: http://elmers.com/product/detail/W7571

Nice bright blue, should be easier to find her now. I prefer my queens marked because it lets me know whether the queen has been replaced.

Nice bright blue, should be easier to find her now. I prefer my queens marked because it lets me know whether the queen has been replaced.

Overall, we got quite a bit done and thankfully, I had anticipated it being a looong inspection. We were in the hives almost 3 hours. We managed to clean almost all of the frames in the Pink hive (bottom box 3 frames on the right still need to be cleaned). We condensed the Aqua hive to 2 deeps and took out empty frames. We marked the queens in the Pink hive and Orange hive. I spotted a bee with deformed wing so I may be doing a spring mite treatment. I should do a varroa sugar roll during my next inspection. I added medium foundationless frames to the top deep hive bodies to use for drone trapping as part of the IPM method for mite-control. The bees will draw drone comb on these frames and I can just cut it out. They will also build drone comb on the bottom of the frame because of the space left by a medium frame in a deep hive body. I’ll show you a picture when they’ve done it.

I colored the top of the frames pink to help me identify them more quickly. I had writtent the word "drone" on a frame and it has all but disappeared from the propolis, burr comb and constant foot traffic from the bees.

I colored the top of the frames pink to help me identify them more quickly. I had written the word “drone” on a frame and it has all but disappeared due to the propolis, burr comb and constant foot traffic from the bees.

On April 11th, I had moved the Purple hive queen over to the Orange hive and the Purple hive made queen cells, as planned. There were A LOT. So we moved 2 frames of capped queen cells into 2 nucs (one frame per nuc) and a frame of pollen/honey for food into each, the remainder of the queen cells remained in the Purple hive. The nucs were also each given a drawn frame and a frame of wax foundation. I’ll leave those queen cells to hatch, let the surviving queen mate and check back in a couple of weeks. The queens should emerge Saturday April 25. I would check for eggs starting May 2nd. My only concern is that the nights are cool right now (in the 30’s) and I hope it’s not going to be a problem for the developing queens.

Aqua and Pink had anywhere from 6-8 frames of brood, Orange had 4 or 5, it was most impressive. Several times I looked at frames and thought they were empty only to discover they were covered in eggs. It was insane. I’ll probably make 2 more nucs as mediums rather than deeps as the beekeepers in our area seem to be shifting to mostly mediums for the hive bodies.

Overall plan:
1. Do sugar rolls during next inspection
2. Make 2 more nucs (maybe)
3. This week I will need to add honey supers as the dandelions have started to bloom- DONE on Tuesday 4/21

As for the veil…as I proceeded to piss-off the Pink hive even more by continuing to clean frames despite their increasingly grumpy disposition, I heard a buzz that was way too close. I realized I had a bee in with me and figured I would just kill it. Well, then I looked down and realized the veil was not zippered to my jacket and suddenly I heard WAY more buzzing. CRAP! I had at least 10 bees in there and I walked quickly away from the hives (mind you I had just marked their queen and she was still sitting outside drying), I frantically tried to get the veil and jacket off. As I pulled it off the buzzing lessened somewhat until I realized I had at least 3 bees caught in my hair. Now, for those who are unaware, bees do not like being trapped. And if they feel entangled they will swiftly sting whatever is trapping them as a defense mechanism. Well, I bent over and was desperately trying to comb them out with my fingers only to feel them and hear them getting closer to my scalp–you have to understand that scalp stings are especially bad because there’s no “flesh” and so the venom will spread from the top of your head all the way down to your neck and face, it’s not pretty–I finally decided I was going to kill them instead and proceeded to slap them against my head and slap my hair between my hands. I succeeded for the most part. From getting my jacket and veil off to finally killing them, I ended up with only 2 stings: one right on the dead center of my neck and one under my shoulder blade. Not too bad when you think of it. I ran into the house, downed 800mg of Ibuprofen, put on another veil and shirt and went back out, less than 2 minutes is my guess. Thankfully my husband had put the queen back in the hive and had closed them up. Later on he said he watched me as I ran from the hives and when he saw the clothing start to come off he figured he better proceed with the hives…smart fella.

I later got a third sting (on my scalp, thank you very much) when I moved a frame that was left out by the Pink hive. I was like a magnet for the guard bees of the Pink hive, the INSTANT they saw me they actually LAUNCHED themselves at me. Anyway, I was stung but I must have kept the venom sac from pumping because I barely had a reaction. I actually combed a couple of dead bees out of my hair later on. What’s interesting is how you can easily read the “mood” of the bees. It becomes more than obvious when they’ve had enough of you, but you have to be smart enough to listen. Oh well. Nothing Benadryl and Ibuprofen can’t take care of.

New research site

I subscribe to the APIS newsletter and clicked on a link in the newsletter for varroa detection and it took me here:
http://www.coloss.org/beebook/II/varroa/4/1

COLOSS is a non-profit association of various scientists, students, agricultural extension specialists and veterinarians from around the world. They put together a Beebook which includes varroa information such as the link above. I found the various methods of varroa monitoring interesting and will be reading the remainder of the Beebook as I have time.

As I read the BROOD EXAMINATION section, I noticed that the instructions called for the cells and pupae to be flushed out. I guess that is to dislodge mites that may be lingering in the cells. There is also a link to a picture of the poop left by mites which I found very useful.

Brief update

Sorry folks, no pictures on this one as I was working alone and tried to do this quickly. I spotted walking drones last weekend and usually, that is a good indicator that you can soon make splits or nucs. Once I spot them, I like to wait a week or two before making a split. Drones are needed to mate with virgin queens so there’s no sense in making splits if there are no drones to mate with! I am making a split for myself and another beekeeper who is buying a nuc from me. A key principle to making good queens is to have many bees that can tend to the larvae. If you take out a couple of frames of eggs and capped brood and put them into a nuc, you can expect to have a poorly cared for queen larva and as a result, she may not last as long as a queen. However, if you move the already existing queen out of the parent hive and place her in a smaller nuc, you leave the parent hive, which has A LOT of resources — bees, honey, pollen, open and capped brood — to make the new queens. You are then increasing the likelihood that the queens made by the parent hive will be very good queens. It takes many bees to make good queens, so letting the larger hive make the queens is the preferable way to go.

I’ve been toying with buying the Nicot queen rearing system but I think I’m going to hold off. It involves having many queen cells in one hive that are cared for by the nurse bees. That requires A LOT of bees and I do not have the space for mating nucs or for the equipment at this time.

So this was the plan I came up with: take the laying queen out of the purple hive (which looks overstuffed with bees at this point) and put her into the defunct orange hive. I would add a frame of nurse bees and brood from each hive and thus start a new hive for myself to replace the orange one that died. By stealing a little from each hive, I lessen the impact on any one hive. The queen will keep laying; the open brood, capped brood, many frames of existing honey and pollen and adhering nurse bees will continue to grow the new hive. Any foragers that may have been on the frames will return to the original hives leaving the nurse bees and house bees. My only concern is that the foreign bees not kill that queen, I added more frames from her hive to increase the likelihood that her bees would protect her. We’ll see. I had to go through the Purple hive 2x to find her. Turns out I have 2 new queens and one queen from last year in my hives. The Pink hive still has their queen and the Aqua and Purple hive both have new queens, from this year. I hope they emerged during good weather…

Oh, I almost forgot the most important part! Once the parent hive makes the queen cells, I will cut them out gently (I use wax foundation so this should be fairly straight-forward) and place them in nucs with capped brood that is added. Once the queen has mated and has started laying, I will mark her and then sell the nuc. I try to prevent swarming by taking brood out and decongesting the hive. Making nucs is a good way to do this. I hope to make about 4 nucs a year, so far I’m making 2 and I may make a 3rd one for someone who wants to start keeping bees.

Melting wax

For several months I had a 5 gallon bucket full of old comb–brood and honeycomb. As it was winter and no chance of the solar wax melter working, I decided to try using my crock pot. I used a liner to protect the inside sleeve from the wax.
Put a little water into the bottom, turned the pot on HIGH. Once it was nice and hot, I turned it down to LOW and started adding the wax. As the wax would melt, I would add more. Incredible how much wax fit into that little 4 qt pot and how these large pieces of wax would melt into mere teaspoons of wax. Never fails to amaze me.

Did you know that one pound of beeswax can hold about 22 lbs of honey?

Once it was all melted I poured it over cheesecloth into a cardboard milk container where it hardened. After that, it’s very easy to remove by tearing away the milk container. I prefer using paper towels for filtering as I can then use those as a fire starter, especially for my smoker.

5 gallon bucket of wax resulted in 1 pound of melted wax!

5 gallon bucket of wax resulted in 1 pound of melted wax!

First dead hive

So Saturday March 21st was my first true hive inspection of 2015. On the first day of spring, it snowed! Saturday, all morning I was bemoaning the weather and how foggy and cloudy it was, by 11am it was only 34 degrees! How was it ever going to get high enough for me to check them?? The weather forecast promised 56 degrees but I was having a hard time believing it. I had been planning this all week so I was “chomping at the bit!” Lo and behold, by 12:30pm the sun had come out and by 2pm, 3 inches of snow had melted! The bees were happily buzzing and I announced to my husband “I’m going in, are you joining me?”

Off the bat, it was easy to see that all hives were extremely active, except for the orange hive. This hive had the smallest cluster going into winter and was alive about 2-3 weeks ago. But apparently, during this final cold snap, they gave up the ghost. No bee greeted us and the only live critters we saw were the curious ones alighting on the frames as we pulled the dead hive apart. I have to say, I’ve been very fortunate since starting this adventure in 2011: this is the first hive I’ve lost. And even though I had 3 very strong hives, I felt horrible and like a failure. Ugh. What can you do?

I’ll tell you what I saw and didn’t see as we pulled the hive apart. The top box was filled with honey. I run deeps so that was approximately 80 lbs of honey. The bottom deep had empty frames on the ends, a couple of full frames as we moved closer to the middle and finally, in the middle, essentially empty frames. Bees were dead in an expanded cluster over 5 frames. We found the dead marked queen and many bees with their bottoms up in the cells, a classic sign of starvation. There was a large pile of dead bees on the bottom board.

During the winter, I use a flashlight and shine it under the screened bottom board into the bottom hive body. This allows me to see bees that may be on the bottom frames but also the numbers of dead bees on the bottom board. I had noticed there were a lot of dead bees earlier in the winter and this hive always seemed to have less activity.

Our county bee inspector looked at my hives last summer and despite my hives being colored, he used the “block of wood,” “the 4×4,” to differentiate my hives in the report. When both pieces of wood were 4×4, with the only difference being the length of wood, it was difficult to determine to which hive he was referring. Based on what I remember, I’m pretty sure the orange hive had what is referred to as PMS–Parasitic Mite Syndrome.

You know what else I found which was SO bizarre? Queen cells. Two queen cells which both had perfect exit holes. And NO brood. Not one single dead capped cell.

What do I think happened? I think the queen was failing and unable to lay the brood needed. The workers, in an effort to replace her, made queen cells but clearly there were no drones to mate with, so the queens wouldn’t have mated well. Also, the winter came on pretty hard and cold, the virgins likely never made it out of the hive. If the cells were made more recently, the virgins still would not have mated. With a failing queen, the hive was doomed.

Even if I had known about it a few weeks ago (there were NO days that allowed deep hive digging–and if we were lucky enough to have sunny days then the winds were ridiculous), I would not have boosted them with capped brood because the hive’s only hope was a new queen but there were no drones for mating, least of all flying temps! Essentially, the hive was doomed.

Classic picture of starved bees--butts visible as they starved scrounging for food that wasn't there.

Classic picture of starved bees–butts visible as they starved scrounging for food that wasn’t there. You can see the dead queen at the bottom of the picture–light green mark on her thorax.

Queen cell. There were 2 with nicely opened ends. No queen cells as far as I know, going into winter. Either way, no mating would have happened.

Queen cell. There were 2 with nicely opened ends. No queen cells as far as I know, going into winter. Either way, no mating would have happened.

Big pile of dead bees on the bottom board. I could see a large pile early on in the winter, but nothing like this.

Big pile of dead bees on the bottom board. I could see a large pile early on in the winter, but nothing like this.

Windbreaks

I’ve lived in Maryland since 2002 and have NEVER experienced a winter like this. The issue is not snow or days of cold temperatures but rather, the ridiculous windchill. Last weekend started the insane windchill weather: -25 F which is -31 Celsius, thankfully this would occur at night, but during the day it was -15F which is -26C. Wind gusts were 60MPH. I can’t even explain to you how cold this is. We would give the chickens water in their coop and it would be frozen solid in an hour. Faced with such marked cold windchill, I decided to wrap the hives. Not insulate them, just wrap to give them an extra layer of wind protection. As you know, wind markedly increases our perception of cold and very quickly strips you of any warmth. Any cracks in a hive, any drafts on chickens will greatly increase their experience of cold and “chill” them. Which is why it’s so important to build windows in a coop that are ABOVE the chickens’ heads when roosting–to avoid persistent drafts on the birds. This is also why bees use propolis, to seal any cracks. But if you’ve checked on the bees, then you’ve broken the seal.

It is very unlikely that you would NEED to wrap the hives, especially in Maryland. I didn’t NEED to as I knew the colonies were strong, there was only one I was worried about.

So we used ratchet straps to strap the hives down during those wind gusts and wrapped them with roofing paper. They were not tightly wrapped, plenty of air flow was allowed, I also have not closed off the screened bottoms to the hives–they’ve been open all winter as they have been since I started in 2011. No insulation, just hefty paper providing more windbreak.

Roofing paper wrapped around hives, no insulation.

Roofing paper wrapped around hives, no insulation.

We received about 12″ of snow yesterday and the kids are enjoying it immensely. This picture was taken yesterday in the middle of the snow storm.

When we had a warm day 2 weeks ago, I was able to get in the hives and add pollen patties, the bee candy was still being used though all hives felt very heavy with stores.

Adding pollen patties. Bees look good.

Adding pollen patties. Bees look good.

I actually overwinter my bees with bee candy sandwiched between each hive body, that way, no matter where they go, they’ll find food. So far so good.

Winter update

Just a quick update on the hive situation, no pictures though as we’re moving stuff to a new computer. I went into the winter with 4 hives, 3 of them are 2 deeps and one is 3 deeps (result of a combine after the large hive went queen less). All 4 still have bees in them, the 3 deep hive is INSANE with activity compared to the others. We have had quite a few very windy, cold and wet days. After particular bad stretches of weather, I check on them by putting my ear against the bodies and listening to them; to gauge their strength I’ll rap on the wood and that certainly riles them up. So far I think the orange hive appears to be the weakest in terms of “buzzing”. I’ve had sugar water out for community feeding when the days are warm. They (and other hives I bet) have taken in 3 and 1/2 quart jars. I plan to go in on Saturday and provide sugar patties (ready in the freezer) as well.

Wishing all of you a happy and healthy New Year for you and your bees! Merry Christmas!