Tag Archives: beekeeping

Feeding the bees, February edition

This morning the temperature has reached 50 degrees without a trace of breeze to disturb the February sunshine. Bees are flying around the hive, producing a ring of waste and corpses as they work at spring cleaning. It’s a perfect day to pop the top cover off and add to their stores as the first of their natural food sources won’t be in full production for another six weeks or so.

Bees in February

Last year I had correspondence with an elderly woman keeping bees in Visby, “The Gateway to Gotland” in northern Sweden. There is a tradition there of leaving the top super on all year with the “summer board” entrance covered over loosely with newspaper (traditionally it was birch bark). The advantages are that it allows for more air circulation, the newspaper or bark absorbs excess moisture (condensation is a bee-killer), and if the bees get restless for new space in the early spring they can move upstairs and build new comb. I find it’s handy for quick inspection and for feeding fondant and sugar syrup. This is my first year using the technique and my bees haven’t built any comb up there, but we have at least six weeks of winter yet to come – they have time on their hands and a play space if they want it.

They did come up through the inner cover to greet me when I dropped off the fondant.

Maine Bees fondant

 

Autumn bee maintenance – installing an in-hive warmer

This will be my first winter using an in-hive warmer and, as usual, I’m posting both to share the information and keep a history going for myself. I installed the Warmbees product in August during my last full hive inspection. (Note that Warmbees has changed the configuration on their heater from the one I purchased – the new model looks more compact and can be re-oriented for use in a top bar hive.)

in-hive heater

Photo credit: www.warmbees.com

Installation couldn’t be easier: select the temperature range (mine is set to low to maintain a temperature of about 40 degrees F), drape the wire ribbon with LED signal light and the cord over the edge of the hive box, and plug it in to an extension cord. Naturally, this requires the colony to be within cord distance of an electrical outlet. I haven’t quite figured out a battery/solar configuration yet. There’s no assembly required and you don’t need to know anything about wiring. The tiny LED makes a reassuring glow in the front yard:

hive box with heater

I used an Imirie shim installed with the opening toward the back of the hive to run the cord and ribbon through, and blocked the extra space with dry grass. When I wrap the hive with insulation for winter in November I’ll tape over the hole as the bees should be used to it by then. When I replaced the quart mason jar of sugar syrup for fall feeding today (they’ve been going through a quart every three days) I noticed that they’ve built beautiful, regular comb over the wires running on top of the frame.

The beauty of this device is that it is controlled by the internal temperature of the hive box. Other products that wrap around the outside of the equipment doesn’t sense the heat generated by the cluster of bees and by overheating them can convince them to fly in freezing weather. We had a frost last night but with a good sized cluster generating its own warmth the heater hasn’t needed to go on to keep the internal temp at around 40. I have high hopes that this product will help an otherwise healthy colony last through the long, cold Maine winter and the cold, wet spring that follows.

The garden in late September after the first frost:

September garden

 

Salad days – July in the garden

The garden in July is a nine-day wonder. Every year I’m amazed that the tiny seeds of March grow into a vegetable forest in only 100 days.

The dry gravel in the dooryard continues to improve with the addition of seaweed, hay, and now Bio-Char, a soil amendment of organic material heated in a low-oxygen environment. I find it changes the texture and moisture properties of the bed almost immediately. The early Romaine and Blue Lake green beans seem to like it very well.

lettuce and bush beans

I reclaimed a row of angelica as a new site for yellow, purple, and red raspberries this year but it’s impossible to get every plant – evidence below. Angelica makes excellent bee forage and, at 6′ tall, there’s plenty of forage on each plant. The basswood tree behind it didn’t flower this year and I miss the long golden racemes but I’m not surprised at the branch damage with the temps settling at 15 F below for days at a time last winter.

angelica

William Lobb, an old moss rose with intensely fragrant and sticky burr along each bud and branch, with a rugosa hybrid “Hugo” in back, both covered in bees.

hugo rose

One rhubarb plant is really all you’ll ever need. Seriously. To think I’d planned on three?

rhubarbOne of the new colonies, both of which are settling in beautifully. The bees are in the lower portion (or “deep”). The upper two boxes are empty and hold an inverted quart Mason jar with holes punched in the lid to feed sugar syrup during the colony’s transition to a new place. They’ve stopped taking the sugar so I haven’t refilled the jar. The bed of Phacelia (Bee’s Friend) directly in front of the hive is constantly alive with pollinator traffic of all kinds, not just the hived honeybees.

beehives

Phacelia is a new addition to the garden for 2015. I’ve sown it nearly everywhere I had bare ground this year. It sprouts generously and easily from seed under harsh conditions, the ferny undergrowth shades the soil to conserve moisture during these hot dry days, and the bees are on the flowers at all times of the day so the nectar flow must be near continuous. I think my next exploration is Nectoroscodum siculum, or Mediterranean Nectar Garlic – a fragrant allium that seeps nectar from drooping flower bells- wow.

Taraxacum Season, blown away

A post of just a few weeks ago included photos of a sea of yellow dandelion flowers in full bloom. Today the gold has turned to silver as every floret matures into a seed, and each plant can produce up to 2,000 seeds. Multiply that out by the plants in these photos and you can see next year’s dandelion forest in the making.

The bee colony in as a rock in a river of gray flower-heads:

2000 seeds per plant!

Dandelions guard the path to the driveway, with some centura and valerian waiting in the wings.

dandelion path

Also in bloom this week; Dyer’s Woad.

dandelions and dyers woad

 

The bees are coming, the bees are coming!

. . .so I spent most of Sunday making them a nice clean home.

New location for hive

Last year’s hives were down the hill in the garden proper (one of the originals is visible in the photo above). Unfortunately, neither colony was particularly strong and bald hornets attacked in July. They’re carnivores and attack the hives for their larvae as well as honey and pollen stores: neither colony survived the long Maine winter. The new site is not too far away, on the hillside overlooking the garden in a nice, sunny spot where the hornets may not find it right away. My research suggests it doesn’t take much displacement to confuse the predators.

Sunday was clear and warm although you can see that we still have plenty of snow around the yard. The exposed ground was soft and the air temp stayed @ 50 F during daylight hours. The first hatch of mosquitoes is still a week or so in the future (I hope) so it was a pleasant day to spend outdoors, cleaning and smoking the used hive boxes and bleaching the hive-top feeders. I may even have gotten a little bit sunburnt around the edges.

This weekend I’ll get packaged bees delivered from Spicer Bees in Whitefield and we’ll start the 2014 garden season with a new colony. I’ve fitted out the old hive box, below, with smoke-cleaned frames, applied Bee Charm to the inner surfaces, and left the bottom entrance fixture open to see if we can attract a swarm.

finished new hive

A view from the garden down the bee highway:

bee highway

 

Update from the hive

We’ve had very pleasant weather for far longer than is usually the case in October. There have been a few chilly clear nights but no hard frost here yet and the temperature is predicted to stay above 40 right through next week. Temperature doesn’t rule every living thing, however, and the pumpkins, green beans, tomatoes, and the bees, are all closing down as the day-length contracts and we move inexorably toward the winter solstice. We’ll see just over 8 hours of sun on December 21st vs. exactly 11 hours today.

Our bees have had a rough summer. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why there were so many corpses lying around (drones? disease?) the hive entrance, but I finally caught the culprit – we have predators! Bald-faced hornets are a North American species known for their large paper nests and for stinging aggressively in defense of their home turf. I’ve noticed them hanging around the fruit in the compost heap, but they have also been attacking the weaker of our two hives, robbing the honey stores and larvae and impeding the growth of the colony.

I picked up an old monograph on beekeeping at the Jesup Library book sale a few years ago. The cover is missing, so I can’t credit the author, but it includes some basic information about combining colonies when one is disadvantaged. The author suggests that this is easier on the bees when they have a common enemy – approaching cold weather, for instance, or predators. We have both, so I decided to give it a try. The weaker colony isn’t going to make it through the Maine winter by itself in any case.

I opened both hives and found that “Vanilla” (we name the hives for the color of their paint!) had not yet built out the outside frames with eggs or larvae. I removed those and then slid the active frames all the way to the outside wall on one side. Then there was just enough space to drop in the four active frames from “Pistachio” – it was a tight fit – against the other hive-box wall, with a section of newsprint between the two, formerly separate, colonies.

Merged frames

There were crowds of bees in the air during this maneuver, but I didn’t get stung and everything seemed to settle down rather quickly. I put on some sugar cake and buttoned everything back up with a Styrofoam box feeder on top (for a February syrup feeding). I left the Pistachio hive open, but empty of frames, figuring that workers might still be returning to that box. I may have sacrificed the field bees with this move, because the guard bees from Vanilla won’t be inclined to let them in.

Later in the day I found a moderate amount of activity but no fighting or new corpses. I imagine there will be some evidence tomorrow as the hive cleans itself out. I reduced the main entrance to provide more security and closed the top entrance loosely with grass that the bees can push away if need be. There were guard bees behind the reducer and they repelled a wasp while I watched, so that’s a good sign!

hives after merging

So now we wait and see – pretty much the gardening motto around here. I will no doubt be driving up to Skowhegan to Abnaki Apiaries next spring to pick up a new nuc hive, and return the boxes from this spring. Onward!

Bee-check

Our Boy is home for two weeks before school starts up again. It’s wonderful to have him here for all kinds of reasons, but the most important is how good he is at documenting the crazy stuff we get up to. Here we are opening the hives on a sunny Sunday afternoon; I’m opening the hive and R. is on smoker duty so we both have our hands full, and yet we still have photos!

Opening the hives

These hives started as nucs from Abnaki Aviary in Skowhegan this spring. We brought them home at the beginning a full month of heavy rain so they got off to a slow start. Both hives have now filled out the bottom super but the top box is still untouched. You can see the start of comb beginning to expand upward.

Open hive box

I’ve been loading them up with food in the form of dry sugar cake and commercial pollen patties. Both hives ate everything and one of them actually pushed out all the leftover waxed paper. Here I’m picking out some thoroughly cleaned refuse from the other hive.

leftovers

More food! August is traditionally a thin month for bees in Maine. Summer 2013 has been very wet and the goldenrod is coming along beautifully, but my new philosophy is to feed the colony no matter what the plants are doing. Pollen patty  on the left, sugar cake on the right, bees in the middle.

pollen patties and sugar cake

Next check up will be in late September when goldenrod and aster season closes out and the days are short. I hope to find the upper boxes filled out, the comb packed with honey and beebread for winter.

Hiving the bees

Meet Mr. White and Mr. Pink. These are nucleus hives, called “nucs“, and they are crowded with four frames each of bees, drones, and their queen. We brought the nucs home from Skowhegan on Wednesday night but the transfer has to be done on a sunny afternoon while the bees are flying and this is our first good day since then. Fortunately, I work for an organization willing to let me off on a weekday afternoon for a bee emergency.

Bees in nuc boxes

 

I always wear full suit when I’m going to be deep in the hives, but I prefer to work bare-handed. I was stung on the pinkie in the first 30 seconds, so went and got my church gloves on. The frames were full and made the transfer nicely. One nuc had a few supercedure cells, which I knocked off with my hive tool. Now I just hope they settle in and we can avoid a swarm.

Placing frames into the hive

 

These photos don’t really show the cloud of bees in the air – which is something you really notice while you’re working with them. The sound of thousands of bees, the smell of wax and honey, the warmth they give off in the hive, the simple energy and industry of the hive; none of it translates well to media. On the bright side – neither does getting stung.

 

New bees

We drove up to Abnaki Apiaries on Wednesday night to pick up two “nucs” (nucleus hives) of Bob Egan’s Maine bees. The weather nicely cooperated by not pouring rain so hard that we couldn’t see, and the non-highway part of the trip was very scenic. We arrived at 8 pm and it was still light enough to chat with the Egans and admire the piles of varied color nuc boxes under the huge old maple trees and lilacs in the front yard. Then we loaded Mr. Pink and Mr. White (with apologies to Quentin Tarantino) into the back of the Honda and headed home with @ 16,000 bees.

Meet Mr. Pink:

Nuc o bees

That picture was taken the morning after we brought them home. I popped the screens off and they’ve been free to fly around the garden (during breaks in the torrential rain) since Wednesday.

two nucs in the garden

 

The next step is to transfer the four frames full of bees from the nucs to the full hive boxes, but that may have to wait till we have sun on Tuesday – when I have to be back at work. Good thing R is now interested in beekeeping AND self-employed.

The garden continues lush and green under 3″ of rain a day for a week:

rainy garden