A Job Well Done

This Honeybee, Apis mellifera, is on her way to work.

The honeybee is headed straight into a Wild red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

She has an important job, one requiring experience and a certain level of maturity.  She knows where to go, what to do when she arrives at her destination, and how to meet her responsibilities.

She is determined.

She works for the goals of her community over her own personal interests.  Her Apis compatriots benefit from her expertise in the field and various other sacrifices.  Most of the time she works alone and unsupervised.

She makes a garden grow.

I’m delighted to join today with Anna’s Wednesday Vignette.  Pop on over and check out other garden and nature musings.

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!

 

A Bracket of Beehives

A few years back, I visited the Oregon State University (OSU) Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture which is a 6.5 acres space dedicated to research involving sustainable agricultural practices.  OSU is well-know for its horticultural programs.

On a partly cloudy, cool and breezy autumn day, I wandered the fields of experimental and heirloom vegetables, lined with perennial gardens abloom with pollinator plants.  During the walk, I happened upon a charming apiary hosting an array of beehives.  Tucked in a shady grove, the apiary was adjacent to a lab located in an older home renovated appropriately for the work of horticulturists and entomologists.  The delightful OSU apiary showcases different types of bee homes and augments research about and demonstrations of commercial and home horticulture.

At the time, I wasn’t yet a backyard Bee Mama, but was definitely interested and learning about the buzzy beauties.  I took photos of the apiary, dutifully downloading them to my computer upon my return to Texas, fully intending a post about the apiary.  I focused on writing about other gardening subjects near and dear to me, though I certainly recall the apiary adventure and planned a post about the apiary.  Recently, with year-end/beginning-of-year photo file tidying, I was reminded that the ‘OSU apiary’ folder was awaiting its turn for a blog post with a round of accompanying photos.

On that lovely afternoon in Corvallis I meandered along a mulched pathway and viewed a variety of beehives which sat, perky and productive, in service to honeybees buzzing in and out and all around,  going about their important business.

 

The classic Langstroth hive is a staple of any honeybee hive demonstration.  These two hives are each stacked with three brood boxes, or deeps.  This is where the queen hangs out, laying eggs and being taken care of by the worker bees and where the workers tend to the other tasks for hive integrity–making comb and honey and cleaning the hive.

At the bottom of these hives, the entire length of the box is open about a half-inch tall for the bees’ entrances and exits.  This is called the bottom board.

I typically reduce the bottom board opening to my hives so that my bees don’t have to defend a large area;  I leave about 2-3 inches for their comings and goings, but I think the standard practice is demonstrated above–leaving the entire width open.

 

I like this hive!  Just in case you’ve just landed from outer space and you have no idea what these stacked boxes are for, there’s a  bee door ‘knocker’ of sorts which may give you a clue!  I’ve often seen honeybee hives painted white, but I prefer boxes of natural wood, or boxes painted in brighter colors, as well as bee boxes with painted decorations or decals.

You’ll notice that each of these boxes differ slightly in height.  The taller box is the brood box which houses the queen, larvae, workers, and lots of honeycomb.  The shorter boxes are called supers and contain honeycomb (and worker bees of course!), but no larvae.  Once a hive is robust, a beekeeper may place a super at the top of the hive so that the honey is more easily extracted without damaging the queen and larvae. For those supers where the keeper only wants honey for extraction, the queen is prevented from crawling into the shorter boxes by a mesh called a queen excluder.  The mesh is too small for the big-thoraxed queen to squeeze through, but worker bees are svelte enough to easily manuever as they go about their daily routines.  In the white Langstroth above, the strip of unpainted wood between the top and second-to-top box is probably the queen excluder. In some hive management techniques, beekeepers will rotate boxes, placing a super at the bottom of the hive; you can see that demonstrated in the above photo.

This hive is a Kenyan top bar hive.  It has only one chamber and no frames. Bees build the honeycomb downward from bars, top bars, which hang horizontally across the width of the box.  The bees enter and exit through holes drilled in the box,

..like so.

 

With honeybee hive displays, it’s always fun to see the innards of a hive. This one demonstrates the workings of a top bar hive.

 

I liked this one!  It was a replica of an ancient Greek hive, discovered in an archeological dig.  This pot was thrown by a local Corvallis potter; she threw the pot, carving an opening at the bottom for the bees. I think this would make a very hot hive in the Texas summer, but perhaps Oregon is cool enough for a ceramic hive to function.

 

Have an old commercial plant pot sitting around and don’t know what to do with it?  As I recall, this makeshift hive was just such a pot.  The beekeeper drilled holes for the bees and placed cut wood atop the pot.

It’s a bit slap-dash for my taste, but there were bees living in it, so I guess it works just fine for a hive.

The apiary wasn’t just about honeybee hives, but also hosted examples of native bee/insect hotels.

Bee Daddy constructed our honeybee hives first, but we’ve since added Bee Daddy built bee/insect hotels for our native bees, which you can read about here.  If you want bees, but don’t have the time or interest in honeybee hives, check out the many designs for native insect hotels on the internet.  They’re easy to make, and it’s fascinating to observe and learn about native bees.  Native bees are even more threatened–and arguably more important for our ecosystems–than honeybees.  Leaving bare ground somewhere on your property, placing bee/insect hotels and cut limbs in the garden, refraining from pesticide use, and planting native and pollinating plants will help both the wild/native bees and the honeybees.

For an informative story about native/wild bees and their importance, check out this story from National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday: Honeybees Help Farmers, But They Don’t Help The Environment

I’ve been to Corvallis several times since the apiary visit, including for the complete solar eclipse in August 2016.  Unfortunately, I haven’t returned to the OSU apiary, but I imagine that it’s still there, housing happy honey and native bees, and serving as a fun and interesting educational exhibition for people.