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.

Three, Then Two

I last posted about my honeybee hives in April, describing with awe the drama of a  swarm out of, and then back in to, Buzz.  That event morphed into several months of beekeepers’ head-scratching and eventual realization that something wonky happened in Buzz and that our remedies to fix the wonk proved futile.  Rest assured that Scar, one of our original (Warre) hives, and Woody, our newer (Langstroth) hive,  have enjoyed success this 2017:  queens producing plenty of brood and workers creating generous amounts of comb and honey.

But it’s been a mixed-bag 2017 for our backyard honeybees.

Pollen covered honeybee on Rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala).

At the beginning of spring, Buzz was queen right  (meaning that she had a healthy queen), but by April, we saw no brood, which means the queen isn’t laying eggs, which means that the hive is no longer queen right. We requeened Buzz–twice, in fact–but the hive continued broodless, and without brood, there is no new generation of honeybees to carry on the tasks of the hive.  One long-time beekeeper suggested that perhaps Buzz had developed laying workers, which happens when a hive is queenless for a period of time.  Worker bees can lay eggs, but the eggs aren’t fertilized, so no larvae develop, and when there are no new larvae, there are no new adult bees.

Honeybees need their queens.

Laying workers are a particularly difficult problem in a hive and what I learned indicated that once that situation is in play, there’s little a beekeeper can do–the bees will continue killing any introduced “real” queen, and laying workers don’t produce fertilized brood, so the stage is set for a dying hive.

By late June, we accepted that Buzz was done; the gals would live out their lives and the hive would die.  It was a sad conclusion, but we did what we could for Buzz in re-queening and were out of options.  We went about our summer life and should have checked the hive in late July or early August for any problems, but didn’t:  some travel, some stormy weekends, and some laziness all conspired to delay our beekeepers’ responsiblity of checking the hive during that period.  In late August, we finally checked Buzz and horror met us:  Buzz was crawling with the foul and disgusting adults and larvae of the Wax Moth, Achroia grisella.  The comb was riddled with creepy-crawlies, nasty frass, and blackened, mutilated comb.   There were only about a dozen bees remaining in Buzz; the lassies had no comb, pollen, or honey stores left undamaged by the moths and their offspring. We were so appalled at the sight that we immediately and completely dismantled the hive, packaging the frames in plastic trash bags for disposal and undertaking a (somewhat) cathartic wax moth/wax moth larvae killing spree.

Wax Moths are an invasive insect which do great damage to a hive, but are usually only a problem if the hive is weak.

Yup, that pretty much describes Buzz.

Poor, poor Buzz.  I guess we should have attempted to dump some of Buzz’s honeybees into Woody earlier in the summer, but we didn’t.  Up until that last few weeks, we were checking Buzz regularly and while it was clear that there were fewer and fewer bees at each check, Buzz was buzzing.  Apparently, the moths moved in during the August checking dearth, and in short order, totally devastated Buzz.

We worked intensely to rid the hideous invaders from the hive and there was no time for photos of the mess that became Buzz’s innards. The larvae, moths and resulting hive damage was gross–really gross–so we worked quickly to get the job done.  If you want a peek-n-read about this nasty-to-honeybees critter, check out this article from Texas Apiary Inspection Service.

Buzz now sits, forlorn and alone.

I moved the empty Buzz away from Scar and Woody. I didn’t want Buzz’s cooties near the other two hives. There’s nothing scientific about this, just my weirdness.

What’s left is a bit of Wax Moth webbing decorated by larval frass (poop, for the uninitiated).

The inside of the hive is downright pristine, compared to what it was when we discovered the wax moths, larvae and resulting damage.

I need to clean Buzz (vigorous scrubbing with chlorine, water, and a brush should do the trick), and once that’s done, she’ll be ready to host and house another package of honeybees with a young and healthy queen; that’s on tap for mid-April.

As for the other two hives, the news is much better.  Scar–who we thought was a queenless hive at the beginning of 2017–not only had a queen but a wildly, massively egg-laying queen!  Every time we’ve check Scar, fresh brood and loads honey met with our inspections.  During summer, we took 8 full top-bars of honey, yielding a gallon and a half of honey.

Yum!  After crushing the comb and dripping the honey into jars, I always set out the crushed comb for the bees’ slurping pleasure.  There’s plenty of  honey that I can’t get to and I don’t want it wasted.  The honeybees should have it as because they’re the heroines of honey.

Anything with the goo of honey is fair game to lay out for the bees!

The honeybee version of Black Friday!

It doesn’t take long for honeybees to strip the comb of any available, edible honey, leaving dry comb which I dump into the compost bin.

By late afternoon, the comb is dry, the honey is gone.

 

This year we’ve kept our promise to be vigilant varroa mite inspectors and undertook four varroa checks in all three hives.

After shaking a half-cup of guinea-pig honeybees with powdered sugar, we pour them back into their hive, where, due to their sugary coating,  they become everyone’s BFFs.

Scar won the prize for most varroa mites.

Varroa mites are tiny, oval, and red-brown in color. The powdered sugar on the bees, combined with the shaking of  the bottle, sloughs off any varroa attached to bees. We shake the sugar onto a white plate, spritz with water, and count varroa mites.

Even so, there were not enough varroa in any hive check (there must be over 3% varroa found per total population of bees–yes, some math is involved here…),  to require treatment, which is definitely a win for the honeybees and their keepers.

The honeys (and occasional buddies) enjoyed leftover powdered sugar!

A paper wasp joins with the honeybees in nibbling spilled powdered sugar.

 

The honeybees have had a busy year.  What have they done in their spare moments when not tending brood and  producing comb and honey?  Performance art, of course!

Silly honeybees!

So closes our fourth full year of keeping–and learning about–honeybees.  We remain entranced with them, marveling at their work ethic and swooning at their honey. We confess an affection for them (even when we get stung!) and an appreciation for their life cycle and place in our eco-system.

 

Honeybee on a Plateau goldeneye (Viguiera dentata).

I’m grateful for their year-round work and partnership with me in the garden.

Honeybee on Gulf penstemon (Penstemon tenuis).