Mo Bloggin'

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Archive for the tag “honeycomb”

Comings and goings, or, more bumbling in the beeyard

A cute little drone came to visit while I sat outside typing this post.

A cute little drone came to visit while I sat outside typing this post.

I’m behind this time not because there’s nothing new, but because there’s a lot new.  For now it’s the bees’ story.

So we’ve had a week of delicious heat and sunshine, actually longer than a week, but you sort of lose track after a week.  After April’s fickle weather – hail, rain, frost – coming after the sunny delight we had in March, May seems to be a reward.  I happened to be home on May 1, waiting for the new propane tank to be installed*.  We had a light frost that morning, but the day dawned sunny with the promise of warmth to come.  I hadn’t been home to see the beehives in full sun for a month, so it was great to watch them wake up as the sun hit them after the chilly night.  Except Beatrice’s hive was pretty sluggish.  It was still chilly, so maybe it was just taking longer to warm up.  Regina’s girls were out and flying, reveling in the sun as the tiny sun worshippers they are.  By noon I was getting concerned.  Sure, the propane guys were late (they’d called, and were only an hour or so behind targeted time), but Beatrice’s hive was looking really bad.  A few bees flew in and out, aimlessly and almost as if they were confused.  Not good.

By the time the propane guys came and went (GREAT service by Pacer Propane!), the hives had been in the sun for several hours.  Regina’s hive looked just like it should – lots of happy, active bees flying in and out, full of purpose.  Beatrice’s hive, my two year old Langstroth, was a little more active, but nothing like it should have been, and nothing like it had been just a month earlier.  It was too late to do an inspection that day (something that should be done in full sun, at the height of the day’s heat, to reduce hive stress), and I knew the next day I’d be able to get to it would be Sunday, which promised to be a nice hot day.

I opened her up on a roasting hot Sunday noon.  The first two boxes of Westerns looked good, as they had in April.  The IMG881further down I went, the more mold I found.  There was a LOT of mold.  I stopped for a moment and went inside to look up what to do about it.  I’d always read that the bees would take care of the mold (I had the usual mildew on the wood, but also fuzzy green mold on the honey stores, and white mold on the pollen stores).  The Natural Beekeeper was reassuring, but also not – mold was harmless and the bees would handle it, unless the hive was weak.  I went back out to continue my inspection.  The frames on the deeps had honey, mold, some dead bees and…zero brood.  Not a single egg, no larvae, no capped brood cells, nothing.  Something had happened to Beatrice and my hive was queenless (I’ve only rarely seen my queens during inspection – I saw Aurora once or twice, and honestly hadn’t done a full inspection since Beatrice took the hive after Aurora swarmed back in July.

I was dumbfounded.  No brood means my hive was basically dying a slow death.  The bees there looked healthy and active enough, if a little aimless and purposeless.  They seemed young, too – like they were still in the early phase of life, where they stay in and work hive duty – usually caring for young…no wonder they seemed confused, there was nothing to do.  I finished up, putting the hive back together, minus one of the westerns (there was so much honey and no way they could all use it), and went inside to post on the local bee forum.  I needed a queen, stat!

Beatrice (RIP) on left, Regina, in the Warre hive, on the right.

Beatrice (RIP) on left, Regina, in the Warre hive, on the right.

In conversing with a couple people in the next few days, it sounded like I wouldn’t have enough remaining bees to rebound with just adding a queen.  I couldn’t remember how many were in there – a few hundred for sure, and one guy asked me how many cups of bees I had.  I estimated two or three cups, feeling like maybe I’d overestimated.  Once I realized I had no brood, though, I kind of lost track of the rest of things.

I wasn’t getting anywhere with the bee forum folks, so went to Craigslist.  There was a guy about 60 miles north of me that had nucs and packages listed.   This could work.  When I called him he said he only had nucs (a nuc, or nucleus, is a small box, usually four to six frames, of bees and a queen).  I made the arrangement to go up on Friday night.  The drive wasn’t bad; I left at about 6:45 p.m., and after a stop for cash and some fuel for the car, hit the highway with Daisy in the back.  We made good time, arriving right at 8:00.  The bees were still quite active (it wouldn’t be dark for another hour or so), but he removed the feeder and brushed the girls off and I was on the road, a Rottweiler and a box of bees in the back of my car.  I drove a little slower on the way home, but stopped at the grocery before heading all the way home.

From the weather forecast I knew I had a very short window of time to get the nuc installed, so as soon as it warmed up a bit

The nuc is installed.

The nuc is installed.

on Saturday, I was out prepping.  I needed to reduce my hive to just the two deeps, and would use the newspaper trick – a sheet of newspaper between the bottom and top boxes; by the time the bees chewed through it, they’d all be settled in and used to each other’s scent.  To add the nuc frames without some sort of buffer means an all-out war could ensue, potentially endangering the queen.  The newspaper slowed this, and the queen pheromones would also go a long way in getting all the workers playing nicely.  Beatrice’s girls were very docile, with no brood or queen to protect, they didn’t really have much to get angry about, so it was quick work.  As I did this, though, I realized I had a pretty healthy supply of resident bees, and probably could have saved myself $100, two hours on the road, and four gallons of gas by just getting one of the local queens I’d talked about on the beek forum.  Oh well.  It would be good to have the extra stock, too.  It’s not the first time I’ve blown a Benjamin when I didn’t have to.

I put the sheet of newspaper down, replaced the second box with all but four frames in place, and opened the nuc.  It was packed with hungry bees (no food since I’d picked them up, 16 hours earlier).  In theory adding them to the top box, with the newspaper between, would work well, but getting the resident bees out of the second box’s frames, and then, upon opening the nuc box, having those girls actually stay ON the frames as I transferred them into my hive box…well, I could only hope.  I made the transfer amidst a swarm of bees flying.

Sitting with Pal, watching the hive activity after the nuc installation.

Sitting with Pal, watching the hive activity after the nuc installation.

It all went pretty smoothly, but the mixing of bees was inevitable.  I saw a little interaction/altercation but considering what I was doing, it went fairly well.  I put it all back together and kept my fingers crossed.  I checked on them 30 minutes later and it looked like they were settling in.  In two hours it looked even better.  By the end of the day, all were in the hive, and on Sunday, a warm day, activity looked pretty normal.  So far so good.

The only good thing to come out of all this is the fact that there was a bunch of honey that was no longer needed.  So I harvested honey.

The only good thing to come out of all this is the fact that there was a bunch of honey that was no longer needed. So I harvested honey.

I cut the comb from the frames into a large bowl, then crushed it with a potato masher, then my hands.  After that I strained it in a colander over another bowl.

I cut the comb from the frames into a large bowl, then crushed it with a potato masher, then my hands. After that I strained it in a colander over another bowl.

I'm still working on getting it all in jars - I harvested almost 48 pounds of honey!

I’m still working on getting it all in jars – I harvested almost 48 pounds of honey!

*I switched propane service when I realized (after 3 years) that I’d been paying roughly one third more for my fills and annual lease with Ferrellgas than several other competitors.  I’d never had propane heat before, and since the tank was here when I moved in, I continued with them.  I just figured they’re all the same, or within a few cents, like gas stations.  I was depressed to learn I had been paying hundreds more each year with Ferrellgas 😦 as their price was almost $1.50 higher per gallon than several competitors, and the tank lease fee over $20 more annually.  Live and learn, I guess.



So, I wrote this a week ago and decided not to edit it too much.  It’s a bit stream-of-consciousness writing, but since I like to read that kind of writing (Terry McMillan comes to mind, or many essayists, as well as many (most?) blogs), I’m just gonna let ‘er fly as is, with some updates for today and the past week.

Okay, so full disclosure: I’ve had about 16 oz of beer (so far) as I begin to write this.  I’ll edit once the effects of said beer (Fat Tire ROCKS!) wear off, but there’s no denying the fact that inhibitions (a.k.a. the monkey mind or inner critic) are let go with a little bit of alcohol.  Why do you think there are so many legendary writers who are also known for their love of drink?  It often killed them in the end, this drunken love affair, but there is an undeniable connection. Hmm.  Note to self…

So here I am, sitting in front of my beehive on a delicious Friday evening in September.  The fact that it’s Mabon (i.e., the autumn equinox in the northern hemisphere) just makes it all that much better.  We’re having a bit of an Indian summer here, which is only fair after the spring and early summer we endured, and I’m loving it.  The dark-at-7:30 aspect of this time of year, not so much.  I’m beginning to wonder if I’m more suited to an equatorial location, where the length of daylight versus night doesn’t fluctuate so wildly.  There’s no question I love our 9:30 sunsets in July (except for this year, when we were stuck inside due to rain and chilly temps), but there is a certain franticness to the summer around here.  It’s best described by the old adage: make hay while the sun shines.  With the compressed weather pattern (essentially nine months of rain and clouds and three months of “the bluest skies you’ve ever seen” beauty) lends an air of urgency to everything.  Maybe it’s just me, my interests and proclivities (nocturnal), but the summer is kind of stressful around here.  It’s better when one doesn’t have to work full time (as I learned when I was unemployed for nearly 24 months about eight years ago) – the time to spend at home, doing what you love, enjoying and living the weather of the season(s) instead of sitting in an air-conditioned office with a jacket on, looking longingly out the window all day long (and pathetically grateful you have a window to look out of!) at the warmth and sun until it’s toot-toot quittin’ time and you can get out for the last few hours of daylight.  As it is now I find it hard to come inside the house before dark (in July and August this means I don’t get back inside until nearly 10:00 pm), and then it’s time to do all the stuff the inside needs.  It’s little wonder my house looks like something detonated inside it.  May I also interject that I would rather mow the lawn than vacuum (or mop, ugh) the floors, weed the garden vs. dust the house, muck the sheep barn vs. do the dishes.  By a wide margin, too.

So on this lovely evening, I’m sitting next to my beehive as the sun sets much too early.  The bees have been busy, but nothing like they were a month ago, when I’d come home from work to a hive so active it looked like it was swarming (I would often look to nearby trees, to see if there WAS a swarm).  Now they’re busy but not so thick with flights, with arrivals and departures in a seemingly chaotic abandon.  They’re a little more subdued as the days cool and darken by 7 p.m.  I sit and watch them as I type, the dogs coming over to see what I’m doing, Farley dropping his ball on my lap(top), to leave a soggy, muddy trail over my keyboard (and several typos) and screen.  It dries and makes me smile.  Daisy and Pal come over to “attack” my face and head, in range as I sit on the ground, licking my face, nibbling on ears, and leaning against my back and side as they vie for my attention (spent on the weird fold of plastic and metal on my lap).  Life is good.

The bees are good too.  I AM beginning to wonder, though, if I’m really cut out to be a “beekeeper.”  I’m actually wondering if perhaps what I should be called is a “Bee Guardian” in the fashion of many pet people these days, where no one “owns” their pets – dog or cat – but is rather a guardian to the animals they live with.  There’s some validation to the term, though I haven’t embraced it.  I still own my pets, and think that, ultimately, it more accurately describes our relationship.  I once read a blog by a dog psychologist type that kind of explained our relationship with our pets in a brutally accurate way.  They are essentially our prisoners (we “keep” them), but the whole pet parent and pet guardian is still too PETA for me.  Dogs especially have evolved (i.e., have been selectively bred) to a point where the vast majority would die off within one generation in any kind of apocalypse.  Of course the same could be said for our own species…

But I digress.  The bees and I are doing well, but I have to say, taking the honey feels…kinda awful.  I did a half-assed hive inspection a week or so ago.  Half-assed mainly because of my late factor (late in the day) and also because since it’s been so long (late schedule) since the last one (a month).  The bees have done a great job of cementing everything down with propolis, so it takes a long time just to get a few frames out.  And half-assed because of the time of year.  The bees now get Seriously. Pissed. Off.  Gone are my sweet, gentle girls of spring (literally, I’m sure – besides the queen, I’m sure all four pounds of those bees I dumped in the hive back in April have gone to bee heaven by now).  Now that it’s Fall, they are on high alert, and my clumsy intrusions (trying to unstick the glued down frames with the hive tool) are not welcome.  Perhaps if I did it more often (weekly, as is recommended), they’d be more used to it and not so protective.  At the very least the propolis wouldn’t be so thick.  Or perhaps I exuded some scent that agitated them.  For example, eating a banana before you go work with your hives is not recommended, as the odor is similar to the odor of a hive under attack.  Or perhaps I’m just being dramatic and this is normal.  They really weren’t horrible, but they were definitely angry and a few flew at me with intent.  Two leg stings this time.  One crawled down my Wellies an inch or so for a nice sting to my shin – there goes that theory (that they won’t crawl down into boots).

But I had my own intent, and perhaps they knew it.  I ended up with about half a frame of honey-filled comb from one of the frames in the super.  It’s sweet and delicious, and tastes of summer, but feels like contraband.  I seriously don’t think I could ever harvest a hive full of honey – all that hard work from thousands of flights and I’m going to come in and poach it?  In one statistic I read, a bee collects just 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her entire lifetime.  It takes the entire lifetime of 12 bees to make a teaspoon of honey.  How dare I come in and take it?  No wonder they were ticked off.

I knew my super would be packed with honey, and it was, and I wanted to be sure the lower boxes also had plenty of honey stores.  I only got a frame or two into the top deep, and it looked okay, but ended up giving in.  As I mentioned, it was getting late (I forget how early it gets late now – it’s dark by 7:30 now.  Sigh.) and it actually upsets me to disturb them so thoroughly.  When I first became enamored of the idea of beekeeping, it was because I had come across a blog about “natural” beekeeping with a top bar hive.  Rather than forcing the bees to build on artificial frames, it was basically just providing a box for the bees to live in.  Sort of like a bird house (in my mind).  Sure, you populate the box with a purchased queen and workers, but after that you just stand back and let nature do her thing.  Honey was never a goal for me, and still isn’t.  I wanted to help the bees, which are having a tough time these days.  But, for a variety of reasons, some I’ve mentioned before, I went with the conventional beekeeping methods for this first year.  Next spring it’s a new Warre hive for me!  My goal is to support the bees, to give them a leg up, so to speak, and hopefully perpetuate a robust, naturally healthy and disease resistant population.  One that I’ll protect from bears – watch out for me and my kale plant, Mr. Bear (see previous post) –  and encourage with plenty of room to grow (new hive boxes) strong.

Friday, September 30, 2011:  It’s a week later, and definitely a season later – the weather turned last Sunday and it’s been cooler and wetter, and more typical for this time of year.  We had a nice day on Thursday – I wish I’d left the office early to come home for a hive inspection.  But due to a dead battery in my car that morning, I got to work a little late and leaving early wasn’t in the cards.  I have learned that the top bar hive isn’t quite the trouble-free, easy-as-pie method that blog I read a year ago it made out to be, but I’m still planning to add one next spring for my second hive.  In the meantime, I’m waiting for another warm weekend day to do a better inspection, and be sure the bees have everything they need for a successful wintering.  The way it looks right now this may not happen, and I’ll just have to hope they’ve done everything right – I’m sure they have – and everything will be okay until spring.  Bad beekeeper!  But maybe, just maybe, I’m a good bee guardian.

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