Bee Mama Missive: Doing Just Fine

How are your honeybees, Ms. Bee Mama?  Why, thank you for asking!  Scar, Buzz, and Woody are doing just fine, thank you very much.

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I haven’t reported much on my three hives recently, but all are buzzing along: the  forager bees are reaping the bounties of the garden,

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…the other bees are tending to their chores,

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…and their queens are laying eggs and keeping up their part of the operation.

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It has been an interesting summer with our hives, having hived Buzz and Woody in early June, a little late in the season.   Both of these new Langstroth hives are progressing nicely and are certainly easier to work with than Scar’s Warre hive.  However, in early August on a hot and humid Sunday, I noticed that Woody’s queen had escaped her hive and was crawling along the ground, with bee attendants closely following.   Workers swarmed out of the hive to find their queen when she left, and then back in again when  we caught her and delivered her into the hive.  This happened several times that day and after the last great escape, we installed a queen excluder at the bottom of the box.  A queen excluder is a meshed, usually metal, sometimes plastic, grate that is placed between bee boxes so that the queen can’t move into a new box.

Bee keepers use queen excluders when they want a box that’s purely honey and comb, but no brood.  The queen is larger than the worker bees, and the excluder is designed so that she can’t crawl through it, but the workers can.

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Scar, the Warre hive, utilizes bars rather than frames. We placed the bars in the fourth box, and it on top of the queen excluder.

 

In this photo you can see a Langstroth excluder placed between the third box and a new, fourth box of Scar’s Warre hive.

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Scar is thriving and all three bottom boxes have brood, so we’ve decided to let the workers build comb and make honey for winter, but not allow the queen to lay eggs in that fourth box.  You’ll notice that the excluder doesn’t fit Scar’s Warre hive–it’s too big.

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That’s one good example of why we switched to Langstroth hives–all beekeeping paraphernalia is geared toward Langstroth hive beekeeping and none toward Warre hive keeping. Moving away from the Warre hive beekeeping and building and using Langstroth hives lands us firmly in the 21st century.

Back to Woody.  After the repeated queen escapes that fateful Sunday, I glanced out  my bedroom window the next evening and to my great surprise, saw a swarm of bees. The swarm congregated along the underside of a wooden structure, placed near the three hives, but supporting a shallow water pump/pan mechanism which was supposed to attract hummingbirds.  (As an aside, the hummer water feature was an abject failure–at least as far as the hummers are concerned. The honeybees were enthralled, though. ) I’ve read how to capture a swarm, but never needing that particular knowledge or skill set, I wasn’t quite what sure the swarm-capturing steps were.   It was near to sundown and Bee Daddy wasn’t home to confer with in person, so I called and had him Google “catching a swarm” while I donned the bee suite, mixed some sugar-water, and gathered my tools. After a quick phone tutorial, I caught my first swarm!!

A honeybee swarm is the method by which honeybees hives reproduce.  A swarm includes a queen and many (as many as half) of the workers of a hive, and they seek and find a new home.  Many folks are freaked out by swarms, because they view them as scary, but in reality, swarming is when honeybees are at their gentlest and most docile: they have no home, nor brood, nor food stores to protect–they’re just hanging out with their queen, chillin’.

I lightly spritzed the cluster of bees with sugar-water mixture and brushed the clumps of bees into an unused bee box.  I placed a lid on the box and left the box next to where the swarm congregated so that any stragglers left outside could find their way to their new home.  I said a cheery night-night to the newly housed bees.

In addition to swarmed bees, Woody had few bees in it, so it makes sense that it was actually Woody’s bees who swarmed and not some rogue group from somewhere else.  I don’t know to this day whether the swarm was Woody’s workers and the old queen (who was unnaturally crawling around on the ground) or if the bees made a new queen–which honeybees will do if the queen is weak, sick, or dead.  I never saw any queen cells in the hive (they look different from regular capped brood cells), but it’s always possible that we missed one.  I don’t think it was the old queen who led the swarm, because she waddled away, with one or two attendants and I didn’t see her again.  Regardless, early the next morning, we transferred the swarm to the empty Woody hive.

I placed 4 bars for comb-building in the hive and dumped the cluster of bees in the area left open.  We closed Woody and Bee Daddy and I whooped! and congratulated ourselves on a well-housed swarm.

Except, we messed up.

We should have reopened Woody within 24-48 hours and placed more bars, or better yet, frames with foundation, to fill the entire box, but…we didn’t.  We totally forgot that honeybees build downward and will do so, from whatever surface is handy. Two weeks later, during a regular hive check, we realized that Woody’s bees were happy and healthy, had built gorgeous comb, had a great queen laying eggs, and diligent workers making honey. But there was a glitch:  Woody’s bees had built the comb (with honey and larvae) on the underneath of the lid, NOT along the 4 original bars where WE would have preferred them build.

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This lid belongs to Buzz, but Woody’s swarm built their comb hanging from the underneath of its lid.

Ooops!  We forgot to make our wishes known and didn’t send out the memo about where we wanted the ladies to build comb.    If we’d reopened shortly after hiving and added the rest of the frames, the busy bees would have built on the frames, not the lid. This wasn’t the bees who screwed-up–it’s squarely on us.  The humans.

A decision of one of two choices was at hand:  we leave their (to our minds) miss-placed comb and never extract honey or conduct hive checks in a reasonable way, or we scrape off the comb and fill the box with full foundation frames.  The second choice would mean that they would have to start over.  Again.

Poor honeybees, having such incompetent, fumbling bee keepers.

We scraped the comb off the lid, added new frames to fill the entire box, then left that comb on top of the frames, because bees will re-use everything, except wax, to build new comb.

Part of our move to Langstroth hives is that  instead of using simple bars for the bees to build their comb from (like those in Scar) we’re now using full frames, with foundation. Foundation is honeycomb which is fortified with wire and fitted into the frames, so that the bees can build their own comb more quickly directly on the foundation.

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You know, 21st century bee keeping technology.

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Woody has two beautifully combed-out frames.

As of early September, in Woody there are only two full combed-out frames with honey and larvae, and another partly built out.  All seems well, though: the queen is laying eggs, brood is developing, and the foragers are foraging. All of that bee drama has meant that Woody is behind in her development.   Woody is a small–and therefore, vulnerable–hive as we head into autumn and winter.  I’ll continue feeding Woody (and Buzz, too) for the foreseeable future to help them along.

Buzz is flourishing with 7 of 10 frames completely combed out.  There’s lots of brood and some honey stores–in short, an active and healthy hive.

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The “clean” wood is currently un-used by the bees.

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Scar the Warre hive is strong,  as is evidenced by our need for a fourth box.

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My biggest concern with Scar is that it still hosts those nasty demons–small hive beetles. We add fresh Beetle Bee Gone cloths, which is a non-chemical beetle control, each time we check the hives in the hopes that the cloths will ensnare the beetles and keep the population controlled.

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The bees chew the cloths, which makes them (the cloths, not the bees) fuzzy, and the beetles get caught in the fuzz.  If there’s any justice in this world, they die a miserable death.

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A partially used Beetle Bee Gone cloth on a frame with foundation.

The method is working in the two Langstroth hives–which have few beetles, many caught in the cloths.  Unfortunately, Scar is still  plagued by beetles crawling rampant, as it has been all summer.  We’ll keep tabs on Scar, but it’s a robust hive and the beetle population should decline with cooler weather.

 

There’s never a dull moment with honeybees.

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Buzz

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Scar

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Woody

 

I’m glad to know them.

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In Praise of Bees

If you live in or near Austin, The Tour de Hives will be held this coming Saturday, August 15.  The tour of local bee yards  is in celebration of National Honey Bee Day and also a fundraiser for the Travis County Beekeepers Association, a nonprofit organization committed to promotion of and education about honeybees.  Check out the links for more information. If you live elsewhere, there are activities planned nation-wide–check out your local gardening calendars and/or beekeeping societies for activities and tours.

IMGP1077_cropped_3415x3060..new Honeybees and all other pollinators need us and we need them–our survival depends on their survival.  There are simple things that gardeners/homeowners can do to help declining pollinators, birds, and other wildlife:

–Remove sterile monoculture turf and replace with native perennials, shrubs and trees. You’ll find the gardening work easier, less expensive, more interesting and beautiful.

–Plant with intention, for wildlife and/or pollinators–after all, that’s who plants were invented for.

–If native plants aren’t readily available in local nurseries, choose pollinator plants that are not invasive to wild areas.  Additionally, growing plants from seeds is often easy and rewarding.

–Don’t use pesticides or herbicides–those products are unnecessary and disrupt the  balance that exists in the natural world.  Using native plants and wildlife gardening methods decreases harmful insect and plant disease infestations.

–Do your part to heal the world, one wildlife habitat at a time.

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Honeybees!!

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While honeybees are grand (aren’t my girls just lovely?), a more important group of pollinators are the unappreciated but vital-to-the-survival-of-everything, native bees. There are 20,000 identified native bee species worldwide, 4,000 of which live in North America, and over 300 known species in Texas.   Here are a few of the many which visit my gardens:

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Plant for wildlife, plant for life!

Bee Mama Missive: Beetles Bee Damned

In my last Bee Mama Missive, I mentioned that my hives have been invaded by Small Hive Beetles, Aethina tumida.

IMGP9694_cropped_2637x2392..newThese invasive ickies hail from Africa, appearing in the United States first in 1996.  Here in Texas, there’s nary a honeybee hive that doesn’t host these lovely creatures. Sarcasm here, folks. Our hives were invaded by them last year, too.  If the hive is strong, the beetles don’t cause all that much damage–bees will remove some of the beetles and their larvae, thus keeping the invaders in check.  But hive beetles are destructive; they can damage comb and the accompanying honey and pollen.  If the hive is weak for whatever reason, the hive beetles can destroy the hive and/or the honeybees will abandon their hive.

This summer, many beekeepers in Austin have reported prolific infestations of small hive beetles, owing to the heavy rains and resulting higher humidity that occurred in late spring.  My hives are no exception to the rampant hive beetle infiltrations. Last summer, I’d see a few beetles whenever we checked our hives, but only a few.  In the last three hive checks, I’ve been appalled at how many of the nasty critters scurried away as we removed the tops of our hives for inspection.

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One  suggestion to limit hive beetle infestation is to place hives in full sun–apparently the beetles don’t particularly care for the blazing sun and resulting heat in the hives. In my garden, there aren’t many “full sun” spots on my property and none of those spots are particularly appropriate for hive placement, so that’s not a remedy I can employ.  My hives face east and are under the shade of a large Shumard Oak.  I don’t use chemicals in my gardens and with beekeeping (for obvious reasons), chemical fixes are generally discouraged. While Bee Daddy and I can squish the hive beetles when we open our hives, that’s not a particularly effective or practical way to limit their population, no matter how satisfying the squishing might  be.   What to do?

I noticed that Beeweaver Apiaries sells a product called Beetle Bee-Gone.

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Basically, it’s a package of cotton cloth sheets that act to trap the beetles in the hives.

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The sheets are affixed to the frames and the bees will chew up the cloths, rendering them “fuzzy”. The beetles in the hive are then trapped because they have hooks on their legs and become ensnared in the fuzz.  Honeybees like tidy hives and they will remove the fuzz-n-beetles loose in the hive.

At $7.95 per 48 sheets, plus shipping and tax, I’m game to try just about anything against the helmeted menaces.

On July 22, just before I left on a trip, I placed two sheets in each of the top two boxes of both Scar and Mufasa.

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It wasn’t quite as easy as I’d envisioned, placing the sheets under bars while wearing thick gloves and crooning to the annoyed bees. Yes, I do that. I removed a couple of the center bars in the top and middle boxes, then tacked down each sheet with a little bit of wax, placing the bars back on top of the sheets.   I closed the hives, wished the bees well and left town with a good heart.

Sixteen days later and with some trepidation–Did the traps work? Will we see more beetles?  Is there beetle damage to the comb?–we opened and checked both hives.

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Mufasa is thriving!  Mufasa has a strong queen and the hive is healthy, active, a bit cranky, and loaded with beautiful honeycomb.

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With plenty of capped and uncapped brood–a new generation is underway.

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However, there was no sign of the sheets that I placed in Mufasa’s boxes.  A day or two before, I’d seen bees removing fuzz from the hive entry board.  Was it Beetle Bee-Gone fuzz?  Maybe, but I’m not positive.  There were still more beetles that scurried when we opened the hive than I would have liked, but significantly fewer than we’d seen in the last few hive checks.  We squished plenty; I’ve discovered an additional use for the hive tool.

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It’s an excellent beetle murder weapon when placed on top of a victim and pressed.

Generally pleased that the hive was healthy and that we saw fewer beetles, we closed Mufasa and moved on to Scar.  Scar was quite the revelation!!  Not as robust a hive as Mufasa, there were hardly any beetles–a few, but roughly in the manageable numbers that we saw last summer.  And in Mufasa, we were able to see the Beetle Bee Gone sheets in action.

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Or maybe post-action is a better description.  The sheets were obviously bee-chewed and fuzzy and there were beetles, dead and alive, caught in the fuzzy sheets.

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Victory!!

Scar doesn’t have the full comb in both top boxes like Mufasa has, nor the amount of honeycomb, but like Mufasa, Scar has lots of capped and uncapped brood.

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I added more sheets to both hives and will check on the beetle-trapping progress in a couple of weeks. I gathered up the used sheets with beetle bodies,

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…and tossed the whole mess where it will do some good–in my compost bin.

I feel good about the success of the Beetle Bee-Gone sheets and their trapping of some of the beetles.  Did we get them all?  No way and we also didn’t check the bottom, or main, brood box.  There could be beetles there, causing havoc.  But both Bee Daddy and I concur that we don’t want to go into the hive that deeply–the risk of rolling our queen is just too great. Been there, done that.  We’ll continue to monitor the hives from the middle and top box.

That will have to suffice.  Fingers crossed.

I think that giving the bees a hand in the maintenance of their hive may have allowed them to get ahead of their beetle infestation.  I won’t know if that’s true until we check the hives again, but we noticed that during  the last few hive checks and with full, gross beetle infestation,  our bees were quite cantankerous.  Really mean.  Even with adequate smoke, they were much more aggressive than usual. This hive check?  They were back to their (relatively) sweet selves. Yes, they get snippy when we invade their home, but they were tolerant of our intrusiveness this time, whereas in the last few checks–wowzers–they were tough customers!!  Was their over-the-top defensiveness because the hive was under siege?  I think that makes some sense, especially since they seem more normal now and the beetles seemingly have less of a presence.

For now, I have to give Beetle Bee Gone a thumbs up  in our war against the invasive Small Hive Beetle.

One of the best parts of checking the hives is that Bee Daddy always cleans our bee tools afterwards!

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Isn’t that nice?  Now for those dinner dishes….

Wishing the the girls a good August: success in foraging, in egg laying, and the raising of a new generation of bees and in the continued dissipation (dare I say eradication?) of the small hive beetle infestation.

If you live in or near Austin, The Tour de Hives will be held this coming Saturday, August 15.  The tour of local bee yards  is in celebration of National Honey Bee Day and is a fundraiser for the Travis County Beekeepers Association, a nonprofit organization committed to promotion of and education about honeybees.  Check out the links for more information.

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