Bee week

Wow, what a week. Let’s start with the mason bees. In the last few years I had noticed that areas under my deck were being used as nesting sites. It started with the pile of unfolded blue tarp which formed creases that ended up filled with pollen pellets and eggs. These fell out when I decided to clean up the space and finally FOLDED the tarp 😦  I felt so bad as I saw those pellets of planning and hope come tumbling out.

Then there was the folded top of a bag of peat moss–(crevices are popular apparently)—and then came the wheel wells of a garbage can holding firewood permanently parked by our back door. All nesting sites used by the mason bees.

Last week, as I entered and left the back patio, I noticed chubby bee activity (mason bees are easy for me to identify because their abdomens end in a blunted shape versus a honey bee which has an elongated abdomen) by the wheels. As I bent down to look there arrived a female carrying pollen on the underside of her abdomen and disappeared into a wheel well. The nests next to her showed chewed out holes indicating the previous brood had emerged and now the current generation was obviously working on the next….a never ending cycle (I hope!)

Hmmmm…what to do? Every day there were more bees in that area and though I had set out a pile of paper straws in a can, they were completely ignoring them. Were the straws too small? I didn’t know. When I saw a female entering and exiting my SMOKER (!!!) I knew I had to do something. She was leaving the little hole at the base of the bellows and there was NO WAY I was going to let her set-up house in there.

So I found an untreated block of wood, used a drill bit that was the same size as the straws but when drilling I twirled the drill to carve out a bit more wood. I was able to keep most holes from poking through the block of wood. I then set it by the back door and waited. And waited…and waited. While the females kept investigating the cardboard boxes, the ash bin, etc., I was crossing my fingers that they would settle on the block of wood. Check it out:

See the bee butt on the left? And a little head poking out to the right? And then they filled the holes!! YAY!

But it gets better!! They started to finally use the straws:

Nesting in straws

Mason bee buzzing

Those straws have been under the deck for a long time, I even moved them over next to the wheels to try and expand the bees’ options to no avail. But once that drilled wooden block was placed in the area, it’s as if their eyes were opened to the possibilities…and the straws became worthy as well. I am very thrilled.

As to the next neat bit of bee news…I had to do some rapid swarm prevention last night. I’ll leave a tantalizing picture for the next story I need to share:

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Garden chores

In an effort to stay on top of the garden and it’s various requirements, I’ve been out over the last few weeks cleaning up and pruning before spring. I started with the blueberry patch to rejuvenate and remove old wood.

I found an excellent video on youtube produced by the University of Maine. I have read various bulletins, books, instructional sheets about how to prune blueberries but this video finally helped put it all together for me. Pruning helps to keep the bushes productive and ensures a long life for the plants and lots of berries for us 🙂

The picture on the left is of an unpruned bush, the one on the right has just been pruned (different bushes but this gives you an idea of what it should look like). Six to eight canes are left and the branches with many leaves and buds starting are the ones that have been left. Any branch that was sparsely budding was removed. I find I have to go over the bush several times to catch any branches I’ve missed. The same with weeding, going back to an area several minutes later helps me see more weeds I missed the first time around.

Ever since I implemented advice I received from an employee at Glyndon Gardens the bushes have had excellent berry production: use cottonseed meal and cover with peat moss. This is advice for our area, not sure that the same would apply everywhere. So I sprinkle cottonseed meal, then peat moss, then Leaf Gro and cover with a straw mulch. This is the only place I use peat moss in my garden as it is not considered to be a renewable resource.

The weeds have had a fieldday over the last few weeks with some of these warm days and I’ve been out weeding the various beds. It’s been really nice to go out and EXPECT to weed a huge expanse, only to realize there’s just a very small patch because of previous weeding sessions.

The maples started blooming a couple of weeks ago and on those warm days the bees were working the flowers heavily. Since the trees are so tall, I don’t have a picture of the bees, but here’s a bloom:

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I put out my lemon tree to enjoy the warmth as well and within 45 seconds, the bees had found the flowers:

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This morning, the temperature said it felt like 9 degrees, I went out to keep weeding but ended up scraping the hive equipment [best to do this when it’s cold because the bees won’t be flying–they’re always interested in anything that smells like home] and surveying the garden (making plans in my head), cleaning up the asparagus bed, laying down more cardboard to kill the weeds between the raised beds.

I’ve started using my garden notebook more solicitously to keep track of what is planted where and using sturdy metal plant labels for the same reason. The plastic tags plants are sold with or the white labels you can buy have a tendency to become brittle either from the sun or from the cold and end up broken and useless. The best thing I have done for my sanity is to buy metal plant labels. I get these and I love them. I also think taking pictures of the garden bed in question, annotating the photograph (iPhone has a program where you can add text to a picture) and printing the picture would prove to be useful. I may invest in one of those iPhone photo printers as I suspect I would use it often. I can print a picture, paste it in the book and have a reference to use over the planning season. Even better, you can take pictures during various stages of growth to get a good idea of what the bed looks like at various times and purchase or move plants as needed.

Looking forward to productive growing season. Get ready for spring!

Robbing?

As I posted before, I purchased a Broodminder scale when the indiegogo campaign was occurring this summer. My favorite part is just uploading the data to my phone, no plates or balance arm needed. It’s low profile, sleek and light.

The scale provides data showing the humidity and temperature levels. As the electronic portion of the scale is well protected, I believe the humidity level is not super accurate. However, the Broodminder folk do have an in-hive temperature and humidity sensor that one can install if one is interested.

I just have the scale and I love it. I love seeing the bees leave the colony, come back and evaporate their stores. If I choose to, I can have real time data uploaded every second or two. But I have it set to an hourly reading and I think that’s enough.

It’s not perfectly calibrated (you do that by placing a known weight on the hive and adjusting the scale factor) but it’s pretty close. I’m hoping to play with that this weekend.

Here is what the data look like:

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This is what the screen looks like. I can move the bottom chart to see any part of the green line; I can also zoom in and out–just like with my phone, by moving my fingers together or apart. The increments are 6 hours apart, so you can see the weight of the colony drop as the foragers leave and then slowly increase as they bring stores back to the colony.

You may notice that the colony has put on 10 lbs of weight a day for the past few days…I suspect robbing and now need to check my other colonies to make sure they are not the victims. I’ve watched those bees and they do not appear to be going to one of my other hives. I suspect they are robbing someone’s weak colony.

I strongly, strongly recommend getting and using a scale. I can’t wait for spring.

Broodminder Hive Scale

I’ve been on the lookout periodically for a hive scale for some time. Craigslist is the best way to locate a farm scale which tends to be the standard hive scale back yard beekeepers use. What I don’t like about the grain scales is their bulk, lack of availability, need for weight plates and your physical presence to assess the hive weight.

My dream scale was low-profile, easy to use, digital and ideally, moveable from hive to hive. Digital scales cost ~$600, which was why I hadn’t bought one. Then Rusty posted about the Broodminder-w. A digital, low-profile, crowd-funded scale which uses an app for the data. And it cost $150. Brilliant! I ordered one and anxiously waited.

It arrived last week and was installed Sunday.

So simple and unobtrusive!

The metal part (lower part of screen) is the support for the scale, the green part is a plastic piece that goes between the metal base and the scale which serves to protect the bottom of the wooden scale. There is a clear plastic cover that covers the top of the wooden scale to protect it from the elements as well.

A 2×4 is placed at the opposing end, the app is downloaded and after zeroing the scale, the scale is installed, the app picks up the scale and after a few minutes, you have a weight! Since the scale is slightly thicker than a 2×4, another one can be placed behind the scale to allow easy transfer to another hive, just a simple lever against that 2×4 allows me to pull out the scale and put it under another hive.

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The best part is that while I’m on vacation (posting from Lisbon now!) the data continues to be collected and once I get back, I can just upload the data to the app. Nobody has to weigh it for me in my absence!

 

New queen update

Yay!!! Pink hive has a queen! I gave them eggs last weekend and checked for queen cells Saturday, no cells. But what did I see?? Eggs! Single eggs! I looked quickly and there she was…a beautiful queen. All those cells that had been polished and waiting for the last couple of weeks, were being used…fantastic. When checking the colony there was a palpable sense that the hive was in this anticipatory state and it is so gratifying to see their plans and expectations realized.

Checked the new queen (Carniolan), and the workers were completely covering the queen cage. When I put the cage in, I taped the candy plug to delay introduction. Because I’ve had issues with nuc robbing I was delaying her introduction to avoid having her killed. I wasn’t aware that the JZBZ cages are impregnated with queen pheromone to improve acceptance. The cages have other features I’d like to review in a future post. So, General wisdom states to not release the queen if the bees are biting the cage. Honestly, how I’m supposed to see that it beyond me. Another oft made recommendation is to try to move the bees off the screen gently with your finger, if they are difficult to move then they are likely gripping the screen with their mandibles, if they are easy to move, then they have supposedly accepted the queen. I moved one bee, she resisted, I moved a few more and they seemed to move easily…I think.
So I watched them, thought I saw some bees extending their probosces after which they were clearly grooming themselves, as this was how bees spread queen substance among themselves, I decided all was well and took the tape off the candy plug. There were queen cells started which were dispatched. I’ll check the cage in a few days to see if she’s released, then leave them alone for a couple of weeks.

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Using a toothpick to suspend the cage between frames. You can see how the cage is covered. Friend or foe?

 

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You can see their eagerness for the queen.

Status check

Checked hives on Sunday: Pink hive still no queen, not unhappy. Gave them a frame of eggs from the Aqua hive. Need to check the frame for queen cells on Friday or Saturday.

Aqua hive still has the blue queen, doing very nicely.

Two mating nucs robbed out, no queens though nicely exited queen cells…sigh. VERY difficult to have small nucs near the big hives when there’s a dearth.

Gave the nuc a few more frames and expanded their space into one of the failed mating nucs.

Orange hive: hopelessly queenless. Was hopeful when I saw larvae until I realized it was drone brood. Kept checking cells until I found what I was looking for: several eggs in one cell and eggs on sides of cell. SIGH…. Letting this one go. I knew I would have to steal brood from the other two hives to make a nuc for the new Carniolan queen coming on Monday and I didn’t want to weaken my hives any further by boosting a failing laying worker hive. Done with this one.

Purple hive–doing fine, needs more food.

Monday, made up a nuc and picked up the queen. Kept her in my closet. Added her Tuesday night, no queen cells on the brood frames. Will check Friday for queen cells and make sure it’s not robbed out. Will open the worker space to allow interaction with queen on a minimal basis. Crossing fingers!!

Queen piping

Last week, my husband helped with my colony inspections. As we were looking at my strongest colony (Pink), he looked at the queen excluder and said “That’s an interesting looking bee.” I quickly looked and discovered a virgin, trying to make her way through the excluder, she was likely newly mated as she could no longer fit through the slats.

There were a few supers above the excluder and an imrie shim which allowed super access for the foragers. She very likely made her exit via the imrie shim and then struggled to get back into the brood chamber. I had no idea how long she may have been there. I marked her on the off-chance she would be the reigning monarch.

I kept her caged as we went through the colony. We found lots of queen cells, they appeared to be for swarm prep as, in my brief experience, they don’t make 20-30 queen cells for superseders.

I left them as is, released the newly marked queen and closed them up. [Likely swarmed]

The next challenge came in the Orange hive. It was apparently queenless but had polished cells that appeared to be waiting for a queen. But they were markedly unhappy. I saw queen cells that were opened, thought I saw closed queen cells and polished brood cells but no eggs and they were clinging to us and head-butting incessantly. We closed them up as they were obviously unhappy with our intrusion. [Likely queenless or waiting for a queen to mate]

The Purple hive appeared to have eaten through everything they had so I gave them a quart jar of sugar syrup (had one conveniently in the freezer from spring feeding!) That was emptied in 2 days so I’ve been feeding them to get some stores for them. [Hungry]

The Orange hive was bothered again on Wednesday as I had decided to take one frame of queen cells out (that I thought I saw in there) and make another nuc. They were even worse tempered than previously! I decided to give them a frame of eggs to see if they were queenless or waiting for a queen to mate and lay. I pulled a frame of eggs from the Aqua colony next door (very calm–markedly different reaction to being opened).

I rechecked the Orange hive yesterday–still no queen laying that I could see, no queen cells on the frame I gave them and no evidence of a laying worker. Their temperament was better so I’m crossing fingers that there will be a laying queen next weekend. [More likely a queen needs to mate]

Now for the fun part. I wanted to see if the Pink hive kept that virgin I marked and whether she had destroyed the remaining queen cells. I checked all 20 deep frames and found 17 neatly opened (from the bottom end) queen cells. In addition, as I checked the first few frames in the brood chamber, I found 2 queen cells still capped. I heard this tiny squeaking and thought some little bug was flitting about my head or that I was hearing a new bird far away in the woods. As I picked up another frame, this one also with 2 capped queen cells, I heard the sound again. As I looked at the cells it hit me! The queens were piping! They were either challenging a queen I couldn’t see or each other while they were still in the cells. What to do? What to do? Can you hear the hand wringing?

I quickly decided to make queen mating nucs, these queens would be emerging very soon and I wanted them alive. I used my queen castle to put one frame in each. This queen castle was already housing the blue laying queen (she’s a laying beast) from the Pink hive, and will now hold her 2 daughters in neighboring chambers.

ETA: found an audio of queen piping: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYecvVhkpKI

Extra queens are always handy to have on hand. I much prefer using queens the bees have decided to raise rather than creating a tiny nuc with few resources and expecting them to raise a good queen.

I’ll check next weekend to see how they’re faring. I hope to be marking 4 queens. Mind you, I have another queen on order that should be coming soon.

To keep my brain straight, these are the queen genetics currently:

Queen castle, Pink and Aqua colony same lineage. Orange colony is distant VSH. Purple colony (still original from Peter’s? Bjorn Apiary over 15 years ago.)

 

 

 

 

 

Hive scale

Rusty at honeybeesuite posted about this indiegogo campaign:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/broodminder-w-wireless-beehive-scale–3#/

I’ve been on the hunt periodically for a farm grain scale to use as a hive scale. One thing about farm scales is that they are heavy, you have to find one in good condition and in 1/4lb increments to work best for a colony of bees. I’m just not a craigslist “troller” so I’m not likely to find one that way. Such scales are also not portable and weighing each hive is impossible. Just google it and you’ll see what I mean. Plus my apiary is on a slope so a level space would need to be made and the bulky scale hauled into my backyard.

Other hive scales (digital and lighter) are VERY expensive and out of the reach of most beekeepers. 

You can make manual scales using a variety of techniques (yes, even a bathroom scale). We have enough projects as it is and is not digital.

Enter the Broodminder-w. Exactly what I pictured when wanting one: it sends data, is easily moved from hive to hive, is very low profile and essentially invisible and way cheaper than other scales. If they can get the price down to their target, I’ll buy even more.

Beekeepers (or non-beekeepers) can buy one of the campaign perks (such as the hive scale) or support the campaign with a donation. Rusty gives him high marks on product development so I’ve decided to get one and see what it’s like. But they only make them if the campaign is fully funded! If they don’t raise the funds they need, the purchase is refunded. So if you’re interested at all, check it out.

Early season

This is a very unusual spring. About 2 or 3 weeks ago I heard of beekeepers checking hives and finding drones. DRONES! I checked a friend’s hive and found the same thing on March 12th. Finally had a chance to look at mine on the 18th and found drones, unbelievable. Last year I saw walking drones around April 6th. So the drones this year are appearing a month earlier. Everything is early except for the numbers of bees.

Flowers starting blooming a month earlier than prior years. This year, the maples started by the first week in March and were done by the 16th. Redbuds started blooming on Monroe Ave. on the 9th and dandelions were spotted on March 16th in sporadic areas. March 18th saw forsythia blooming in spots around our area. Bradford pears started blooming in Baltimore yesterday (22nd).

For contrast, in 2013 I posted April 8th as the Redbud bloom, the maples were almost done in my yard at that point and Bradford Pears in Baltimore on April 8th.

I suspect El Nino is the cause of this early bloom as the winter has been markedly mild.

I have a prediction: either the honey harvest will be non-existent (due to the disparity between blooms and foragers available), OR it will be very small and very early.

In addition to the drones, there were reports of queen cells in hives. That completely blew my mind. Well, check out my overwintered VSH nuc, a virgin queen who just emerged from a queen cell (found the laying queen as well):

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The virgin is in the above picture almost exactly in the middle. And below is one of TWO queen cells with nice, neat openings. This hive worried me when I opened it because it had fewer bees than 2 weeks ago, now I know why. There is a laying queen and 2 virgins in here. Interesting, interesting. image