Bees Be Nice

I haven’t written about my honeybee hives in a while and thought it was high time I catch you up on their antics.  Both Langstroth hives, Woody and Buzz (seen below) are humming along beautifully, though spring saw each as quite cranky.    In our first early spring hive check, both hives were full of busy bees with lots of larvae, meaning that the queens were doing their job.  By late March, our bees turned mean.  Really mean.  I couldn’t go near the hives without one of the scouts harassing me, which usually ended in (at least) one sting for me.  Dreading the necessary hive checks, we suited up and popped into each hive a couple of times over the course of a few weeks and found that both hives had developed queen cells.  One cause of a hive developing queen cells is that the original queen has died or is critically ill and not laying eggs.  For a hive to survive and thrive, it needs a constant replenishing of eggs, larvae, and adults.   We  pulled off Buzz’s first set of queen cells, thinking that queen development was preparing to swarm because of overcrowding. We misread the clues.  When we checked again two weeks later, the workers had created more queen cells. We realized that the queen was probably dead, so we let nature take its course.  Worker bees can and do make their queens when necessary;  after all, honeybees know their stuff.  It takes two weeks for a queen to develop in the hive, then she exits for her mating flight which lasts up to a week.  Afterwards, it’s back to the hive and the start of her career of egg laying.

We learned our lesson with Buzz and so let Woody do its making-a-queen thing and within a month, the hives were happy with their respective new queens and back to their gentle selves.  Honeybees are aggressive when they’ve lost their queen, but gentle when they’re queen right, meaning that they’re living with a healthy, active queen.

Both hives have two kinds of boxes, brood and dadant.  The deeper boxes are primarily for brood, but also contain some honey.  The dadant (shallower) boxes are only for comb and honey.  If you look closely at the hives in the photo, you’ll notice double wood pieces between the top brood box and adjacent dadant box.  That’s where the queen excluder fits into the hive structure.  The exluder is a metal mesh in a wooden frame in which the mesh is large enough for worker bees to climb through–and up into–other parts of the hive to continue honeycomb making, but too small for queens to get through, so their egg laying is limited to the brood boxes.

What can I say?  Queens are fat bottomed girls.  Sorry, Queen.

Honey creation is what honeybees are driven to do, whether or not the queen is in the box. Excluders allow the worker bees to make honey in the upper boxes while the queen is  unable to crawl in and lay eggs on the comb.  With a box of pure honeycomb, beekeepers are then able to take honey without damaging larvae or possibly injuring or killing a queen, which is a win for everyone.

In Woody, the bees have combed out the frames of the bottom dadant and made honey in several frames.  The top dadant also has comb, but with no honey; we probably added that box too soon, though no harm done.  In Buzz, its lone dadant is nearly full of honey and we’ll add another dadant soon.  I expect to extract honey from dadants of both hives by fall and that will give us a chance to finally use our honey extractor  purchased some months ago.

Buzz’s one dadant is full of honey; we’ll add another soon.

But we won’t have to wait until fall for new honey–we extracted some from our original Warre hive, Scar.  Scar’s top box was jam-packed with thick comb and gooey honey, so we cut chunks of the sweet stuff off of six of the eight top bars.  Removing honey from a Warre hive is a messy job which spills plenty of honey into the hive and displaces bees.  For about 48 hours, some members this remarkably productive hive stayed outside the hive structure, though I noticed yesterday morning, most were back inside early in the morning.

Because the Warre hives holds top bars and not frames, the honeycomb must be crushed and the “extraction” involves a solid afternoon of work, squashing comb and sieving honey.  This past weekend, the result was nearly a gallon of honey!

These are 9 of the 11 jars of our newest honey collection.

In our four years of beekeeping, the Warre hives–specifically Scar–have delivered all the honey we’ve ever extracted.  While a difficult hive to check, Scar has proved a wonderfully prolific hive and its honey is liquid gold!

This mid-July finds our honeybees nice-n-sweet, ignoring me when I’m in the garden, and making delicious honey.

 

A Sweet Year

As beekeeping goes, it’s been a banner year for us and our resident stingin’ sisters.  The girls are in fine form and their queens are tough and strong, making good bee decisions and producing lots of bee babies for the next generations.  I haven’t taken many photos of the hives in the last few months and our last hive check was in October, but it looks like we’ll end 2018 on a good–if sticky–note.

We’ve extracted several gallons of the sweet stuff during 2018.

One of several groups of bottled honey for this year!

 

These photos were taken in the summer and demonstrate the strength of our hives.

The top part of the frame is capped honey, below are the cells where larvae are nurtured and bees are hard at work for the hive.

The metal contraption at the left of this photo, is a frame holder. When we remove a frame, we can hang it here while we poke around in the hive.  It can comfortably hold three frames.

 

Because the bees had completely filled the large brood boxes in both hives with honey and larvae, we added a shallower box, called a super, on top, and placed a queen excluder in between each top brood box and super.  The queen excluder is exactly what it sounds like:  a separation piece with mesh bars that are large enough for the workers to crawl through, but too narrow for the robust queen.  Workers can traipse through the excluder and into the super to make honeycomb and the queen can’t get through to lay eggs, so she rumbles around in the brood boxes doing her egg-laying thing.  The result is that in the super, there’s pure honeycomb, no larvae.

We added the super to ease overcrowding which could lead to swarming–a perfectly natural response to an overcrowded hive–but not one that a beekeeper wants to encourage.  We want to keep our bees and we want some of their honey.  That’s why we keep’em!

Those silly bees continued to build comb along the queen excluder.

We scraped off the comb-n-honey bits, kept some for ourselves, and left the rest for the bees to enjoy.

We observed this goofy comb-building during a couple of hive checks and then endured a head-slapping realization.  The bees built the wonky comb in the super because we, their keepers,  placed top bars, rather than full frames with wax foundation, in the supers.  Until our two Langstroth hives, Buzz and Woody, became honey producers (which happened this summer!), our honey extraction has been very low tech endeavor.  Our original hive (Scar) utilizes top bars with no foundation and the bees employ a free-form downward build as they make comb.  When we’ve taken honey from Scar, we cut the comb from the bar, then crush the comb and let the honey drip into a bowl.   I pour that honey through strainers and deposit into bottles.  All in all, it’s a relaxed process, albeit a bit hard on my wrist.

Langsthroth hives are best used with full frames and foundation, and are geared  for the keeper to extract honey efficiently, while limiting damage to the comb.  Our use of top bars in Buzz and Woody was a poor decision.  Of course the bees were going to build comb to their needs and not ours–we’re the silly ones, not the bees!  Bees couldn’t care less what shape the comb is. They’re just doing what honeybees do–build comb and make honey– while our choice of using the inappropriate-for-Langstroth hives top bar, which resulted in “messy” comb, was our lame and misguided attempt to delay the inevitable:  the purchase of a mechanical honey extractor which is how grown-up beekeepers extract honey.

Well, we’ve learned our lesson!

We assembled new frames for the supers for both hives, complete with foundation. The bees are now happy and productive, and gone are the wavy-gravy combs.

It’s humbling when you’re outsmarted by an insects.

So what’s next for the backyard beekeeping adventure?

Honey extractor with electric, heated comb knife,  and strainers.

A brand new, never-been-washed, manual two-framed honey extractor!  Don’t worry, we’ll wash it before we use it, but that won’t happen until sometime in late February.

When we last checked, both Buzz and Woody had completely filled each of the second brood boxes and their supers with honeycomb.  We’ve left all in the hive for winter so that the girls have plenty of the sweet stuff to slurp throughout the cold, wet days and nights.   In late winter, we’ll take some frames out before the queens ramp-up for spring egg-laying and fire-up the extractor. The use of the honey extractor advances us into a new level of beekeeping.

I’d say it’s been a good year for the honeybees and their keepers.

Here’s to sweetness for all!

 

De-bugging Buzz

At the end of 2017, I wrote about the death of Buzz the beehive due to a wax moth infestation.    We have plans to re-hive Buzz in April, but winter projects on my to-do list include moving both Buzz and Woody about 10 feet from where each originally stood, and to finish cleaning and disinfecting Buzz from the yucky remains of the wax moth infestation.  I’m pleased to say that I’ve achieved both goals, well ahead of the April re-hiving date!

When we discovered the invasion of wax moths, we removed the offending invaders and most of their accoutrements, therefore the ick of infestation remaining in Buzz consisted primarily of webbing, some frass (okay, lots of frass), and a few possible larvae cocoons.

All laid out on the back patio, ready for the cleaning.

Webbing from the moth larvae, with frass in the mix. The dark spots are frass.

One sneaky cocoon left over from the initial elimination of the insects and their remains.

Another hiding cocoon.

I thoroughly vacuumed each box and all section pieces of Buzz, and then with brush, gloves, and bleach water in hand, proceeded to scrub-a-dub-dub the inside parts of the hive.  In some spots, I used a utility knife to clean out narrow gaps and remove the remains of cocoons.  I certainly don’t want any cocoon hanging around, awaiting release from dormancy for the purpose of reinfection.  If the new hive is strong–which it will most likely be–a re-infestation is unlikely, but just to be on the safe side….

After rinsing the entirety of Buzz with fresh water, I left the dismantled hive out for a few days in the cold to dry out.

The parts shown, left to right: brood box, top lid, another brood box, mesh, base, bottom board.

There are no frames because we destroyed and trashed them–the frames were too infected with wax moth nastiness and not salvageable.

 

Meanwhile, we moved Woody to her new spot in the garden, and placed a marker right next door for Buzz–for when she’s ready.

You’ll notice a bottle of sugar-water on Woody’s bottom board.  The bees are foraging on warmer days, but during this time of winter honeybees are at their greatest risk of starvation.  There’s not much blooming and it’s possible that the girls have used up their honey stores.  It’s too cold for me to check the hives, so the easiest thing to do is to mix up some “nectar” and see if they go for it–and they have!  Honeybees like their sugar!  Well, I can’t criticize, I’m well-known for my sweet tooth, too.

All situated, Woody is buzzing and Buzz is awaiting.

Of course, Buzz has no buzzy bees, so she sits, in decorative mode for now: no bees, no sugar-water, but all nice and clean and ready for spring!

Scar, our Warre hive, is also being fed.

 

In my garden, there’s currently little flowering, thanks to the cold, dry winter boasting of several hard freezes.  However, my three  Leatherleaf mahoniaMahonia bealei, are reliable winter bloomers and the bees are all over the cheery blooms as they open.

How many bees can you count?

Of course the bees also fly 3-4 miles for other nectar and pollen providers.  The honeybees aren’t exactly bereft of blooms, but neither are there bunches of blooms for them to choose from.

I’ve recently planted this green shrub in hopes of providing more winter sustenance for my honeys.

It’s a Sweet Olive Tea tree, or Fragrant Tea OliveOsmanthus fragrans.  I’ve been angling for a winter blooming, non-invasive, and evergreen plant, and happened upon this specimen during a nursery sojourn.  A non-native plant, the Sweet olive tree is primarily known and grown for its fragrant white blooms.  It’s drought tolerant once established and also deer resistant, though (thankfully!) that’s not an issue for me.  The Sweet olive tree is also something that isn’t particular about soil and will tolerate my clay and supposedly will bloom in sun, part-shade, and shade.  The spot I chose in my garden for this large shrub/small tree receives winter sunshine, but is somewhat shady for the remainder of the growing season.  I’m  confident that it will prove a good source of nectar and pollen for my honeybees during winter.  I also plan to add more mahonia to my garden, though I’ll probably choose other varieties than the Leatherleaf for the sake of diversity in plant material.

Honeybee season is nigh, as is the season for native bees.  The first native bees in my garden will be the Blue Orchard bees, who will emerge, buzzing and beautiful blue, from their pollen-packed holes (in bee hotels and masonry) sometime in the next few weeks.

Bees are starting to happen!