No Rest for the Honey Obsessed

Winters here in Central Texas are mild, punctuated from time-to-time by cold snaps which typically don’t last long. This winter has been historically warm and the honeybees have remained busy with their obsessive collecting of nectar and pollen for the hive. Before winter made an appearance last week, there were still a few blooms available and the bees were all in. These little gals are collecting pollen from the pretty pink flowers of Purple Heart, Setcreatsea pallida.

At the last blooms of Forsythia Sage, Salvia madrensis, these two are sipping nectar, using a process called nectar stealing or nectar robbing. This is a foraging activity where an insect doesn’t crawl into the flower to nectar, but instead bites or pokes a petal and sticks its proboscis through, directly sipping nectar and bypassing pollination. Interestingly, until this year, I hadn’t seen honeybees on this sage, only native bees, particularly the Horsefly-like Carpenter bee, Xylocopa tabaniformis.

Before the sage’s bloom cycle was ended by the blast of cold last week, honeybees, alongside one or two Mexican Honey wasps, Brachygastra mellifica, and a couple of small skippers, were the main pollinators visiting these yellow lovelies.

The blooms are gone now, the plants freezer-burned and dormant. In my garden, there is little for the bees to forage on. Honeybee activity slows during winter, but they still need to exit the hive to pee and poo and they’re driven to forage for whatever they can find in this flower limited period of the year.

When we last checked the hive in mid-October, Bo-Peep’s second (top) brood box was honey-bound and its honey box (the top-most box) had several frames of honey, but it wasn’t full. That’s probably enough honey until spring, especially given the protracted blooming in autumn and winter. Even so, I always fret in winter: do they have enough to sustain through winter and when do I add some supplemental feedings?

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to open a bottle of honey and let the bees have at it. It took them one full day and part of the next to clean up the trays where I’d poured the gooey goodness, but like good girls, they cleaned their plates. That’s a quandary: should they get dessert? After honey, what would that be?

You might wonder about the sticks on the platters. I place sticks across the honey so that the bees have something to crawl on as they’re eating. Otherwise, at least a few drown in the gooey goodness. Sad, but at least they die happy.

For January and February, once a week or so, I’ll be mixing a bottle of sugar water (a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water) as a feeding supplement. If the hive was larger and more established, I probably wouldn’t bother, but I suspect Bo is just young enough to need some extra feeding during this time before the first spring blooms appear. I won’t feed more often than once per week because I don’t want to encourage the queen too much, so that she decides its time to get busy with new brood and ramps up for spring egg laying. That’ll come, but I prefer to delay that until mid-to-late February. That said, the queen will do what weather conditions and her DNA demand and she probably won’t consult me about her decisions.

By the time I got around to taken a photo, Bo’s bees had emptied the bottle.

With cooler temperatures, I finally covered the bare ground of the bee ‘yard’ with a thick layer of newspaper, topped with an equally deep layer of pea gravel. Going forward, when we check the hive(s) after a rain, we won’t come away with mud-bound shoes.

Instead, there’s always at least one rock wedged in the treads of my shoes.

It’s always something.

The Big Move

My back garden forms an odd, pie-shaped situation and for the past decade, has become increasingly shady, especially in the back corner section of the garden.

These two photos are several years old and most of what is blooming in the shots either no longer exists or doesn’t bloom due to the shady conditions. Some bloomers here include Turk’s caps, with their summer tiny, twirled flowers, a Mexican Honeysuckle bush, whose orange flowers appear when the mood strikes, a leaning Frostweed which blossoms as it reaches for autumn sun, and a few small, shade-tolerant perennials and grasses. This darkened corner is best suited for foliage and, as of March, the beehives.

When Bee Daddy built the Langstroth hives five years ago, I see-sawed about which would be a better spot for the two hives: in the back, shady corner, a generally out-of-the-way spot, or in one of the opened graveled sections of the main part of my back garden.

.

I opted for the main area of the garden, and while that wasn’t a mistake–it was easy to work around the hives and they received some nice bits of sun–I’ve come to accept that it’s better to have the bees tucked in a part of the garden where no one but yours truly ventures.

In autumn, I decided to move the hives to the back section of my garden. Really, it was only one hive that needed moving, because Buzz absconded last spring, the hive sitting empty for the year. Picking up and transporting Buzz’s truncated hive–base and roof–was a snap. In the new beehive spot, I also expanded the limestone border between the negative space and the garden, enlarging the beehive area a bit. I intended to mulch or gravel, but February’s snow storm and the months-long cleanup which followed, plus a bum back to boot, rendered that segment of the project incomplete before the two colonies of bees moved in, Woody in March, the new one in April. I added a few more shade-tolerant grasses to the garden itself.

In this photo, taken in January, you can see short little Buzz sitting all alone in its new cul-de-sac of the neighborhood, while tall, stout Woody, remains in the original spot.

There are about 17 feet between the two hives. Our plan was to suit up and smoke Woody sometime after the first couple of winter freezes, then move Woody 2 to 3 feet a day for 5 to 6 days. It’s best not to move bee colonies more than a few feet at a time because bees use visual clues and pheromone signals to exit the hive and return. If hives are moved too far, too quickly, bees are lost.

After the move, the two hives would then sit side-by-side in their shady, corner garden. I knew that as we moved Woody, we’d need to traipse across some plants, but accepted that the few evergreen plants bothered wouldn’t be particularly damaged. The awful February storm made one thing easier: all my perennials, even the so-called “evergreens” were knocked back completely. So after I pruned all the plants to the ground that were in the hive’s pathway, it was time to move Woody.

What fun.

The big move progressed reasonably well for the first 4 or 5 days. The hive is ponderous and awkwardly tall with its two brood boxes and two honey boxes. Bee Daddy did most of the “heavy lifting” while I skootched the hive along, keeping it vertical. The last day was, for whatever reason, the worst. It was chilly, which should have made it easier because the bees are slower in cold weather, but it took us longer to get the hive set and leveled in its new place. When working the hives, I wear a full bee suite, with veil, and Bee Daddy wears jeans, boots, and a jacket with a veil. As we were finishing up, Bee Daddy’s bum fired up in pain; he realized that he’d forgotten to put a belt on his jeans and, well, you can guess what happens when the jacket rides up, the jeans slip down, and bees find a way into clothes and onto bare skin.

Poor Bee Daddy.

Ouch! Itch!

In April, we hived a new colony and renamed the hive Bo-Peep. If you’re familiar with Pixar’s ‘Toy Story’ franchise, you’ll know who Bo-Peep and Woody are–a great pair!

Drat! I wish I’d had the time to mulch before we moved the hives. The weeds are going to drive me nuts this growing season!

Both hives are thriving. We continue to feed sugar water to Bo-Peep, as she’s still combing out the frames, but she’s almost done so the supplemental feeding will end soon. Bo’s queen is laying eggs and she appears to be off to a good start in colony life. Soon (we should have already done it!), we’ll remove one of the two full honey boxes from Woody and add an empty one for them to fill during the course of the blooming season. Then we’ll have another gallon or more of honey to process; we already have an embarrassment of riches in that category.

From both a garden aesthetic and a practical positioning, I’m glad the hives are in the back of the garden. The bees don’t care where their hives sit as long as there is plenty of nectar and pollen available, and honey to make and hoard.

In our subsequent hive checks, Bee Daddy hasn’t once forgotten to put on a belt! Lesson learned!

Scar No More

Bee Daddy and I have hosted honeybees in our garden since April 2014. Our first two hives, the Warre hives Scar and Mufasa, provided sweet honey, pollinator entertainment, and a foundation of education about honeybees’ life cycles and quirky bee habits. I should add that honeybee education is on-going; those critters always present new and interesting issues which challenge their human colleagues. We lost Mufasa to a varroa mite infestation in December 2015, which you can read about here.

Scar continued honeybee life with little interference from its human admirers. The Warre hives were always difficult to maintenance, so we mostly let Scar be. If it was honey-bound, we’d take some to open up space for the bees to continue their obsessive honey-making, but otherwise we left it alone and busy with its bee goings-on.

In autumn I recognized that Scar was declining and I figured that if we enjoyed a typically mild winter, Scar would either rebound in spring, or not. What I didn’t expect was the week-long freeze, accompanied by a half-foot of snow with attending ice, and a couple of nights single-digit temperatures–snowpocalypse.

Poor Scar. It was so weak and had so few bees to keep itself warm, that during the frigid temperatures the remaining bees froze.

When we opened our two hives for the first check of the season a few weeks ago, all of Scar’s honeybees were dead. Huddled in between frames, clustered together on honeycomb, and dropped to the bottom of the hive–all of Scar’s bees were dead.

As sad as the sight was, for both Bee Daddy and myself, the most poignant was the clusters of adult honeybees over the brood, some capped, some uncapped. Even in their last moments, they were protecting the next generation.

In the photo below and toward the bottom right, you can see some bees with their faces at the opening of the cell. Those are emerging, newly adult bees. The rest of the reddish covering on the honeycomb cells are capped brood.

In this photo you can see adult nurse bees, bums up and visible, as they nurture the larvae in the individual cells. Looking carefully, you’ll notice milky coloring in some of the cells. Several show just a dab of milky coloring, while in others, the milky bit is more pronounced. Those are honeybee larvae.

We’ve taken what little honey there was, only netting about two quarts. With Warre hives, we must crush the comb for the honey to drip and it’s impossible to get all the honey. We have four containers with crushed comb and honey which we’ll lay out for the bees at a later date, when there is a dearth of blooms. The bees from our other hive(s) will slurp the honey, creating their own with it, and continue their hives’ lives.

We’ll remember Scar as a remarkably sweet little hive of bees. We almost (almost!) didn’t need smoke to calm them, they were so easy to work around.

Our remaining Langstroth hive, Woody, is full-to-bursting and very active. We’ll soon remove some frames of honey, as they had so much left over after winter. Woody is so full, I expect a swarm at some point and that’s normal spring behavior and just fine: more bees out in the world! In late April we’ll also be getting another “package” of honeybees, a queen and 10,000 workers, thus bringing us back to our two-hives standard.

Just like everything else, death is a part of beekeeping. It’s always sad to lose a hive, but it is part of beekeeping and part of gardening.