Growing a better future...
Living colonies & changes
With bees, you want to plan ahead. Planning a year in advance is not too far ahead. At a minimum, you need to have planned several months ahead. With time, you will see the need for this.
It's January 1, 2012 and we have four living colonies of honeybees. We're making plans for how these bees will be used in the coming year. Some of the plans will match reality. Others will not. That's one of the biggest parts of keeping bees: making plans and adjusting to reality. We think these 4 colonies will become 7 through the splitting process. Nice plan.
News came 12/31/2011 that the colony in the top-bar hive (TBH, see picture) at Braden's (the Longmont girls) was overturned by wind. This is, at least, a significant set back, and at most, a death sentence. It's all part of being "in" nature. If they were chilled and/or if the queen is lost, then they are toast. This is a perfect example of how our beekeeping learning opportunities may come suddenly and will frequently be weather related. I'm heading to Braden's now, about 11:30AM, and plan to spend a good bit of the afternoon there. I suspect I will be there tomorrow also, the temperature tomorrow is supposed to be in the 50s, which is key. Above 50(F), bees can move about freely and a beekeeper can open the hive without killing them with cold. I have not completed my plan of action yet. I'm considering moving the colony into a Langstroth hive (see picture below). I have to plan out the equipment and the place. More planning.
We anticipate capturing 4 swarms this year. There is no way to plan for this better than just knowing that swarm season starts in April and will run through June. During this time, you may get a call that a swarm is available at a certain address. You are invited to roll on that call. You will learn a lot if you choose to participate. On the other hand, if the timing doesn't work for you, that's not a problem, just do what you can. This would bring us to 11 colonies, assuming all goes as planned.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), 11 colonies is not enough to fill all the hives we have available. Luckily, we have students willing to purchase bees. My first choice in advising about your bee purchase is to point you to Minnesota Hygienic bees. This strain of Italian bees were developed from the research by Dr. Marla Spivak at the University of Minnesota. My friends at Denver Bee have bought these bees and bragged about their honey production. That is the basis of my recommendation. I have not purchased bees by mail, but if I was buying, this is what I would choose. These are expensive.
As a less expensive alternative, I will also recommend:
The advantage here, in addition to price, is local delivery to Denver. This is a big deal in terms of bee safety as well as saving money. Again, I have not purchased bees from this vendor. My motivation for this recommendation is the local delivery.
Here's a little story about ordering bees:
In January, 2010, I knew I would need additional colonies, so I ordered 2 nucs from New Mexico. The advantage of these bees is they are bred in high elevation, so they would be better acclimatized to our local Colorado weather conditions than a colony from somewhere like Texas. These were $150 each and came in a cardboard nuc box, 5 frames, but not reusable. My friend, Eric, picked up our bees personally in New Mexico and drove them all the way here same day. Unfortunately, one of my nucs got overheated in transit (NOT the vendor's fault). The bees never thrived and had to be combined with another colony before the first summer was done. The second colony seemed to do well for a first-year colony. They did not produce surplus honey, but that was not a surprise. Bee population seemed strong. They survived the winter of 2010-2011 and I had high hopes for a honey harvest in 2011. Well, that didn't happen either. They seemed healthy enough, but produced nothing for harvest. I ended up trying to force a supersedure (replace the queen). This resulted in them swarming to the point that they had too small a population to defend the hive. In the end, they were robbed to death. My point is: that was a $300 attempt that produced nothing in 2 years of effort. You too will experience failures along the way. You will also experience joys. Be prepared for both and give it time.
Dealing with Disaster
Thankfully, Colorado provided us with the ideal day, 1/2/12, to work the bees in winter soon after the big wind that turned over the Longmont girl's top-bar hive and brought down one of Braden's big trees. Thanks to Ruth and David B. for being there to help. These girls had to brave two nights in the teens (F-degrees) in that jumbled mess of broken comb and spilled honey. But it looks like they came through fine.
We arrived just after 11AM while it was still too cold to open up the hive. This gave us plenty of time to get the new Langstroth hive set up, ready to accept the girls. We used one deep for the new hive setup with 4 frames of honey as the outside frames and 5 frames of empty drawn comb in the middle (nine frames in a ten frame deep; extra space left on the outside). It was probably around noon that we started seeing bees in the air. This is the perfect indication that the temperature is now ready for us to open the damaged hive. Once we opened it up, it became clear that leaving them in place (which was the plan B option) would not be the best plan. The 7 frames of brood were a broken mess, 4 broken off the top bars, 3 still in tact. Her highness is a very productive queen as demonstrated by her capped brood and larva approximately the size of two golf balls. I had expected no brood at all. I am fairly sure she is alive and well in the Langstroth hive because I saw the bees migrating from the top-bar disaster to the Langstroth with purpose. This behavior indicates there is a live queen in the destination. Here's why: If the queen was still in the top-bar mess, the bees would have wanted to stay there. Further, the bees we had dropped into the Langstroth would have been moving back to the top-bar. On the other hand, if there was no queen alive, then the disoriented bees would have shown no preference for either the top-bar (old home) or the Langstroth (new home). Who ever found themselves in the top-bar would have just stayed there & likewise in the Langstroth. There would be no strong pull one way or the other.
This was a sticky, messy job. We were covered with honey on our hands the whole day. By the time we completed the move, about 1PM, most of the bees were settling in to the new home with clear preference for that over the top-bar. Clear indication of a live queen within the new home. After that, we had some lunch, then we went out to clean up the mess of comb and honey left behind in the top-bar hive. This took until near 3PM, but leaves us with a top-bar hive covered in honey (inside and out) and basically ready to accept a new colony which will have to start over drawing out new comb.
It's not every January 2 we get to work the bees. Ruth got only 1 sting, because she had not cuffed her pants & a bee went up from ankle level. I got 3 stings, one like Ruth's, one on my neck & one on my hand.
What Should be Ready Now
It's January 8, 2012. If you are going to have a hive on your property this year, your hive stand should be in place now. Since we all live in the northern hemisphere, you will want the front entrance of your hive to face South (for full sun exposure) and the stand should provide a slight tip downward toward the front of the hive (to ensure rain runs out). My stands are built with two or three cinder bricks on the ground and two landscaping timbers placed on the cinder bricks (see picture above). I can easily put two or three hives on a stand like this. Be sure your chosen placement accounts for a wind break on the North & preferably West sides (we get prevailing winds from those directions). Notice the hay bails in the picture.
Quite a few things are of note on that picture. Next to the Langstroth is a wooden nuc. It's very handy for moving a colony. The circular piece over the entrance lets you set it to allow various sized bees to pass through or not. There is a setting to allow no bees to pass which I use to transport bees in my car. Other settings let only workers pass, workers & drones or all bees (wide open). It's a six frame nuc. Nucs also come in 3, 4 or 5 frame size. Further to the right is an outer cover that is not a telescoping outer cover. Notice how it would allow 2 hives to sit next to each other without a gap of space between. That's the advantage. The last thing to the right is an old bee package. This shows you an example of how bees get shipped. The circular cut in the top is where the syrup can rests. It's also where you dump the bees out. Notice the carpet in front of the hive stand. This suppresses the grass leaving the airport clear and suggests a safe distance to stand clear for humans. Lastly, notice various wind-breaking materials in the background. You will want to take note of your environment when selecting an appropriate hive placement.
You should have picked out your bee suit and ordered it by now. At a minimum, you need a veil. It is not realistic to think you can be a beekeeper and not get stung. This means that, even if your chosen suit is a full body suit, you should expect to get some stings. Do you know if you are allergic to bee venom? If not, do not inspect bees without a partner until you have been stung and you know how you react. I recommend that you have gloves and some way to seal off your pant legs at the ankles. Consider wearing boots to cover those ankles or expect that bees will sting through your socks.
Now, lets get familiar with some hive vocabulary. Starting at the bottom and working our way up, a Langstroth hive is made of these parts:
Bottom board (I prefer screened bottom boards which help with ventilation & mites)
Deep - a box intended for holding frames. Deeps are usually 9 5/8 inches deep for a standard 10-frame box. This is the area for the queen to raise brood. It is generally not used for honey.
Deep - a second brood box. We want a lot of brood.
Queen Excluder - a plastic or wire grid within a plastic or wood frame. Spaces between are big enough for worker bees to pass, but too small for drones or a queen to pass. The purpose of this is to keep egg laying below the queen excluder in the deeps. We don't want eggs / larva in our honey.
Super - a smaller box intended for holding frames. Medium supers are 6 5/8 inches deep for a standard 10-frame box. This is the area where honey is stored. This term is also used for ANY box that is placed above the brood area no matter how deep it is, so this can be a point of confusion. For example, if I wanted to collect honey in a deep and I put it over the brood area, then I would refer to it as a super. Since honey is heavy, it's usually more convenient to store in a smaller super.
Inner Cover - a flat board, sometimes framed, with a hole in the center which allows bees to pass through. This is analogous to the ceiling in a home. It's important for when you want to use a top feeder. It also provides some insulation.
Telescoping Cover - a wooden roof, sometimes covered with metal, which not only covers the top, but comes down a bit on each side of the hive (this ensures it doesn't fly away easily from wind) and prevents rain from entering the hive. Commercial guys don't like the overlapping part because it takes up extra room, so you will see some that don't have that.
We will target 3/25, 26, 27 for our splits. If that is rained or snowed out, we will use 4/1, 2, 3. We can do this because I know that, in 2011, I had capped drone cells on 3/12. This means drones will be emerged no later than 3/25 (13 days after being capped). Once you have male bees available, you can make new queens and get them serviced. Queens take 16 days, so, theoretically, you could start them 16 days before 3/25, or 3/9, but that's too early in our climate. Assuming we successfully split on 3/25, we will have new capped queen cells by 4/1 and queens emerging on 4/8 (Easter). Give her two weeks to fly / mate and get settled into her home. At that point, she should be laying eggs, that's 4/22 (Earth Day). My visual impairment keeps me from seeing eggs, so I wait another week before inspecting. I want to be able to see larva and possibly some capped brood 4/29. That's when we know the split has been successful. Two weeks later, 5/13 (Mother's Day), new brood is emerging and the population of the colony starts growing quickly. The first tree bloom opens about 4/9, so, the nectar flow is on during this time which keeps the bees fed and healthy.
Here's what you need to know to calculate a plan like this. You might want to memorize this information.
Queen: capped at 9 days, emerges at 16 days
Worker: capped at 9 days, emerges at 21 days
Drone: capped at 11 days, emerges at 24 days
The first swarm of 2011 was seen in Longmont 4/25. We get our nucs on 4/21/2012. We may be able to use those nucleus boxes to collect swarms this year.
What if my split is not successful? What if I don't see capped brood 4/29/2012? The answer is that I need to be prepared to purchase a new fertile queen on short notice.
Early Spring Thinking
Now, it's 1/19/2012.
In 2011, the first blooms were seen 4/9/2011. You need to make a habit of marking these things in your calendar because it's very helpful to be able to look back and see what happened a year ago, two years ago, etc. I also mark on my calendar every time I see live bees flying around the entrance over Winter. That way, I can pretty accurately identify when death occured, if I run into a dead-out, and I can connect the death to weather, starvation or disease.
Let's suppose you are a colony of bees and you want to hit the flow, mid April, with 50,000 bees. You are gearing up for that now. Your queen can lay, conservatively, 1000 eggs each day, but not this early in the year. She cannot lay more eggs than can be kept warm by the current cluster. Because your bee population is at its smallest right now, her brood nest is very limited, maybe 100 bees, 50 on each side of a frame. That's approximately the size of a golf ball diameter. Maybe there are enough bees to do two frames like this. It all depends on the population of workers left. Each brood cycle takes 21 days (workers). Some cycles of brood may overlap in time. Each time they emerge, your colony immediately starts another cycle, this time a bit bigger, because you have more workers. By mid February, we should be able to see a noticeably larger population at the front door.
About that time, the girls will begin preparation for swarm season. The first order of business is to produce some males. There are no males in the colony at this time, we will explain why when we get to Fall. But soon, males will be worth having around because the bees will be preparing for virgin queens. Target date for an emerging drone will be mid to late March. The eggs have to be layed 24 days ahead of that. Roughly, the end of February. Drones get capped after 11 days. Therefore, when we are doing first inspection, about mid March, we are hoping to see capped drones. When we start seeing the capped drones, we can start anticipating swarm season and we can start swarm prevention efforts.
This year we will perform first inspection 3/11/2012, weather permitting. Backup dates are 3/12, 3/13 or 3/18. We will begin with the TBH at the Broomfield Organic Garden. We will work our way South from there hitting each hive along the way: Crescent Grange, the Applewood Permaculture Institute. We will be using the smoker. Expect to spend some time getting it lit each stop. That NIGHT we will move hives in anticipation of splits.