I have been pretty sketchy on posting about the bees lately but there has been all sorts of stuff going on. Every year around tax time, I add supers to the colonies in preparation for the honey flow. It’s that time of year when the blooms start and the nectar flows. In the hive, it is a boom time and the period that makes or breaks the bees as well as my honey harvest later in the summer.
This year has been a strange year (as they all have been lately). We had a good warm-up early but then we have had cool temps and rain for what seems like an eternity. The WV Department of Agriculture sent our advisement that they were seeing bees starving this year due to the weather. You see, the queen lays a lot of eggs as it warms in the spring. That makes for a lot of bees and when all goes well, the spring honeyflow coincides and provides more food than the bees can eat…thus stored honey. In a bad year though, the bees still increase in number but the food is sparse….that signals bad times unfortunately. My bees still look pretty good but it will depend on the remainder of the season to know what the end result will be.
Anyhow, my Mom helped me prep things earlier this spring. It was her first time working with me in the bee and I know she enjoyed it even though it was hot, heavy, time-consuming work. Like most people who first see a lot of bees, she got a case of the creepy-crawlies. When I first started keeping bees, I remember feeling like bugs were on me hours after I was out of the hives. She managed her heebie-jeebies pretty well though and we got honey supers in place on the hives.
This was a pretty good swarm year too. I am not aware of any swarms out of my colonies (which is a good thing), but I got a number of calls and was able to capture several swarms around Charleston. I also made a new friend in a local beekeeper. We met at a swarm where we had both gotten a call to capture it. We now pass calls back and forth which is pretty cool. He’s a local firefighter so can’t always get to the swarm calls he receives.
I have pics of two swarms that I caught. As always, I like to pet my swarms (because I am a show-off) before I catch them. Don’t try touching a swarm on your own if you ever come across one. It’s just not a good idea unless you know bees a little. I love catching swarms and it is likely my favorite part of beekeeping. Here’s to hoping this season turns itself around and makes for some great honey!
Quite a title, I know, but that’s what it’s called in the beekeeping world. This weekend, I looked into my colonies and added honey supers as necessary in preparation for the honey flow which starts soon in WV. I mostly found good colonies with healthy queens, good worker build-up, plenty of eggs and larvae, etc. In one hive, I found a problem though.
Sometimes, when a hive loses its queen, the infertile female worker bees sort of change into queen-wannabees. Every hive needs a queen to survive as she is the one which controls the mood of the hive, ensures future bees and generally runs the show. When a colony goes queen-less, all of that falls apart. Something in a number of worker bees triggers and they begin to sort of convert into queen bees. These infertile bees are called laying workers. Their bodies begin producing eggs. Since the aren’t really queens though, they cannot fertilize the eggs and something is just not right about how they roll…they don’t know how to properly lay eggs like a real queen would.
Instead of laying a single fertile egg in the center of each honeycomb, laying workers lay multiple eggs in the honeycomb, on the honeycomb walls, heck, sort of everywhere. If the eggs develop into anything, they would turn into male drone bees but in most cases, they are just junk and signal the end of a hive.
Some beekeepers used to say that they could save the non-laying workers by shaking all of the bees out of the hive at some distance, say 500 yards, from the original location. The idea was that, like a typical real laying queen, laying workers would not really fly and so would die where they were shaken out (queens can fly…when they breed in their first week or so after emerging from a queen cell and when they swarm…in both ). Non-laying bees would return to the hive where the beekeeper could install a new fertile queen.
Research has shown that it doesn’t really work that way though…or not consistently. I prefer to shake the bees out and remove the actual hive from the location where it once stood. Any bees that return have to either transition into a nearby hive that will not tolerate laying workers or die where their old hive stood. It’s a harsh reality I suppose but the only viable solution in my yard. Sometimes it happens which is a drag, but I am pleased that I have a good number of healthy hives that will hopefully produce a lot of good honey…if the predicted frost tomorrow doesn’t kill all of the nectar-producing blooms!
We seem to be running around a lot lately but I can’t tell you much of anything that we have done that was either interesting or productive. I guess that’s just how things are nowadays. As a reprieve from the apparent chaos in our lives, I thought I would take a few pics of the critters around our place…some of which I care for, some of which I do not.
Of course, the chickens are as crazy as always. They are laying eggs but it is pretty haphazard. I get at least one egg per day and sometimes 4. I never get 2 green eggs a day as I should be though so either one of my Easter-eggers is not laying at all or they alternate pretty wildly. I figure I’ll let Spring kick in a little farther before I worry too much about it. Neither Easter-egger seems to be having any problems so I don’t think they are egg-bound or anything like that. I figure it might be light or cold related.
My favorite bird is Fezzik. She’s a nut but super loyal to me. She runs to me every day and demands to be petted, even if for half a minute. The other birds, except Houdini, will tolerate petting, but Fezzik demands it. The kids feel trepidation as they get cornered by her looking for a quick pet. Maybe it’s good to keep them on their toes!
I looked in on the bees a few weeks ago when we had a really nice day. Everyone had come out for a quick poop and stretch of the wings. I’ll look in again in the next week or so and get a better sense of how this Spring and Summer will progress. It was a super cold and slightly longer than usual Winter this year so this might be interesting. I suppose the bears are out of hibernation now and still no evidence of one coming by to look at the hives makes me happy. I know there are bears near my ridge so let’s hope they don’t like the electric fence!
I didn’t order any bees this year. I had to many last year and it was more work than I wanted. I plan to just focus on keeping these colonies healthy and hopefully productive. I will definitely re-queen in the early Fall to ensure healthy stock going into next Fall.
We have a new guest around the house too. We used to have a neighbor who collected cats. By “collected” I mean bring home and turn loose in the neighborhood. She didn’t care for them and get them fixed. She has since moved away and the population thinned significantly. Only two of the original 20 or so remain. With only 2 outside cats wandering around, our squirrel and bird populations have finally started to recover. I guess I like most creatures and have a live-and-let-live attitude about even the ones I don’t like. But especially, I like to watch squirrels wander around doing squirrelly things. I caught this guy munching a hickory nut watching me get ready to take a drive. Two separate times he watched me. The second time I got within 3 feet of him. Maybe the nuts he was chewing was especially tasty. For his sake, I hope he recognizes that although I am friendly, the remaining two cats might not be as pleasant!
For many creatures out in the great wild, winter is a potentially life-threatening period. Heck, for me it sometimes feels that way. Anyhow, many mammals hibernate and some creatures otherwise adapt their behavior to just make it through. Honeybees are like that. Winter is a time to just survive. Honeybees are cold blooded so cannot self-regulate their temperature. Individually, they would freeze to death quickly if exposed to the cold of winter. Luckily bees live in community and work together to keep the inside of their hive warm through the winter.
Honeybees progress through various job functions between hatching and becoming field workers that collect pollen and nectar. Some bees clean honeycomb cells, others guard the hive from intruders and others take care of the queen. Researchers have discovered a previously unknown job in the hive. There are “heater bees” whose job it is to keep the hive warm in fall, winter and spring when temperatures are low. Basically, they can vibrate their abdomen or…get this…decouple their wings from their wing muscles so they can vibrate those muscles without having fluttering wings flying around all over the place in a cramped hive. Muscular vibrations cause friction which causes heat. Beekeepers have always known that bees somehow vibrate in a hive to keep warm, but the discovery that there is a class of workers who can detach their wing muscles to manage heat is new.
So, last week we had a few nice days. As I have mentioned before, bees don’t poop inside the hive (as long as it is a healthy hive and they don’t have nosema…bee dysentery). They still eat honey through the winter as they need the energy to keep warm…food in means they still make waste…but they hold it…until nice days like last week. I wandered down to the apiary to see how the bees were faring….to see if they were surviving the winter. If things aren’t just right, bees can starve to death, freeze to death, or otherwise disease to death. On nice days, I like to take a look to see how many colonies are flying…warm sunny days guarantee the bees will head out to poop! I love to see them out on these kinds of days as they are generally pretty docile and seem to enjoy landing on me to gain a little warmth. Sure, they can sting, but they rarely do.
So, friends, the bees look pretty good so far this winter. We are nowhere done with winter and many hard days are yet ahead, but this is a good sign for the midpoint of winter in the apiary!
I am always amazed at what creatures do to prepare for the winter…and for that matter, just survive each day. A few weeks ago, someone had thrown some watermelons outside. I think their intent was to feed deer as there were apples and other deer-friendly things about as well. I don’t think deer would have enjoyed the melons as I found them:
Anyhow, during the Fall, things can get pretty tight for any nectar-eating insects. There are limited things blooming. Goldenrod and asters and mums and a few other Fall flowers do produce a lot of nectar, but many people view those plants as weeds and cut them down or otherwise try to minimize their presence.
I often see yellow jackets attack my beehives trying to get any bits of honey or nectar that they can get…the yellow jackets always lose but it is a lot of effort for the bees to fend off attacks all day long. If I am around, I sort of help the bees. I have literally mashed a dozen yellow jackets at a time as they land on the hives. Yellow jackets on a bee hive seem to be wary of the honeybees but apparently never see me coming. Anyhow, you may have noticed that anything left outside…pop cans, watermelon, and hummingbird feeders all attract yellow jackets and honeybees as they make a final push to survive the Fall and stockpile for the Winter.
When I saw these pieces of watermelon, it was most interesting the number and variety of insects that were all sharing time filling up on as much sugar as they could. I saw hornets and yellow jackets and wasps and honeybees…all working side-by-side. They were desperate I suppose though they didn’t act desperately. It’s juts a matter of life for them I guess, and outside of their home nests, there was no fighting for food. I think there is a lesson there but I will leave that for you to determine (and fill me in if you want!)
There is an old saying in beekeeping…”A swarm in May is worth a load of hay. A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon. A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.” I am not sure what a swarm in September is worth but I am pretty sure I owe somebody something.
You see, I got a call over the holiday weekend about a swarm that had just landed at someone’s house. I sort of had to do a double-take. Honeybees don’t usually swarm this late. I figured the homeowner had seen a hornets’ nest or maybe a bunch of wasps or yellow jackets. Those critters are all pretty common this time of year and I often get calls from people asking me to deal with their “bees”.
I looked at the picture they sent and sure enough, they had a swarm of honeybees swarming on their gutter. Now swarm catching is one of my all-time fav-o-rite things to do in beekeeping so I grabbed my stuff and headed over.
Sure enough, a small swarm had chosen the lucky homeowners and it wasn’t too high off the ground for me to get. I coaxed the bees into the swarm box that is part of the swarm catching gear that makes my excited trip each time I get a call. Into the back of the car they went and we all happily headed home! The bees are currently on my garden wall where they will probably remain through the next few weeks until I can determine if they are worth trying to keep all winter as-is or if I should combine them with another colony.
So, what caused them to swarm this late in the season? Who knows? Maybe their tree-home was cut or fell down. Maybe a bear or other creature messed up their place. I do not know for sure but I think this is my first ever swarm that is worth less than even single fly!
It’s that time of year again. Each year around tax day, I add honey supers to my hives. It’s no exact science, but I like to keep honey supers on my hives from, roughly, Tax day to Independence day. The bulk of the Spring and Summer blooms occur during that time period so my bees get an opportunity to work the best blooms and store away honey. Usually this process works well and I harvest several hundred pounds of honey. I see some variance as you might expect…some years I get 200 pounds, some years I get 500+ pounds…either way, a good bit of honey
I harvested the honey last weekend with high expectations as the grass around me was green and trees and things seemed healthy. Unlike my friends elsewhere in the country, we have had a good deal of rain so things are growing well here in WV. Imagine my surprise then when I cracked the first hive and found only a frame or two of capped honey. I repeated this same scenario in hive after hive. The bees seemed mostly in pretty good shape but I found very little honey.
A sudden mini-panic set over me as I closed up the last hive….something is wrong! As I pondered it, my only conclusion is that our late frosts, cool spring and abundant rainfall came at the exact wrong time on my ridge top apiary and it left me with a poor honey crop. As confirmation (I need this now…it hurts my heart you know…), none of my fruit trees bore a single piece of fruit. My sorghum crop flopped. In general, it was just bad I think. As I mentioned, the bees look good so I have to blame it on the weather. That line of thought settled me down. I was so frustrated though, that I barely took any pics of the harvest this year. Instead, please enjoy this picture of my cat…the internet loves cats, right?
We processed the honey and all-told, we got around 60 pounds of honey. That’s 10-20% of normal so you can see the problem here. Unfortunately, that means I am already sold out of this year’s honey crop. Not a great way to pay for hive repairs or new queens. Alas, that is the life of a beekeeper I suppose…
The only other thing that is noteworthy is this cool Marbled Orb Weaver spider I found outside one of the hives. He was a pretty thing. I tend not to mess with stuff around the hive. I figure everything has a purpose…well, except mosquitoes and ticks…those things just suck. Anyhow, a pretty spider always goes a long way to brighten my day too! Next year, we’ll hope my new spider friend brings me good luck and a better harvest!
I mentioned last time that there was more swarm news over a very busy weekend. Of course, the first swarm settled itself in a tree and I captured it in the usual fashion. During a part of the process of catching the first swarm, I witnessed two other swarms leaving two of my other hives simultaneously!
Rats! I failed in preventing uncontrolled swarms! I had looked in on each of the colonies several times in the weeks prior to the fateful weekend and saw no clear evidence of crowding, queen cells, lack of new eggs…the stuff that sort of signals that a swarm is eminent. I supered up the hives with extra honey supers and went on my way without splitting the hives that eventually swarmed. You see, a split is a sort of controlled swarm where I take a number of the bees, brood, honey and pollen and start another colony. Typically, a split will open up some room and avoid wild swarming. I usually have pretty good luck in catching the right conditions and avoid swarms…but not his year.
So, as I trudged across the yard, I watched as two hives poured forth bees in great number. A swarm coming out of a hive is pretty impressive. Imagine 10-20 thousand bees per colony in what appears to be flying chaos! I watched as the swarms buzzed around and settled nearby and low.
The first swarm settled in a pine tree 20 feet from the apiary in a pine tree about 4 feet off the ground…easy-peasy. The second swarm was just a few feet from that swarm, but they were far more gravity-challenged. It’s fairly weird, but the second swarm plopped right down on the ground under a bush.
Now I have talked about getting swarms out of trees by shaking them into a hive box and that’s how I handled the pine tree swarm, but how does one shake a colony off of the ground? Well, I didn’t…luckily I had a screened bottom board with large screen in place such that the queen and bees could crawl up through the bottom board (floor of the hive) and into the typical white box. I just set the empty hive right over the swarm-on-the-ground and let them be for a week. When I returned, the swarm, queen and all had migrated upward into the hive body!
So, while I am not thrilled that three colonies swarmed, I am always delighted when I get a chance to catch swarms and I would rather catch one of my swarms than let it get away. Assuming they do well, I will have more colonies than I have ever had before which may make things interesting…and may make a lot of honey…next year!
We were all out at the deluxe deer stand working on drywall last weekend when a few of the neighbors came by on atvs. One neighbor asked if I was busy and if not, whether I could help him with something. It was clear it was something urgent so I jumped on the back of his atv. He drove me over to his brother-in-law’s place…another neighbor, to see a huge swarm of bees!
Dang it! It was a huge swarm, undoubtedly out of one of my hives. A number of people asked me why bees swarm and why I was mad they were my bees. Bees swarm usually when their hive location becomes unsuitable…usually when they run out of room. In those cases, the worker bees prepare a number of new queens by feeding royal jelly to fertilized larvae. When the time comes, the old queen and half (or so) of the original bees strike out on their own to find a new place. That is how bees naturally propagate and it is not unusual. I don’t like when my bees swarm, however, because that leaves me with two colonies, neither of which is probably big enough to make much honey. I like having more colonies, but I prefer when they make me honey too.
I usually try to intervene before the bees decide to swarm. I usually make a split…basically, I take a number of bees out and sort of make my own controlled swarm. By controlling the size and the timing, I can usually prevent swarming and end up with plenty of honey.
So, the neighbors called around and a bunch of folks gathered to see me hive this colony that was 7 or so feet up in a tree…that’s a perfect height. I showed off some of course. I stuck my hand up into the swarm. I got super close and took pics. I sang the song of the bee people…well, not that part. Anyhow, I brought my new hive box in and shook the bees into the new box…easy-peasy…except not.
The next day, the bees had decided the new box was not acceptable. This time, they decided to swarm again about 20 feet up in the same tree. I didn’t have much of a way to get them up that high so I did what any young (?) strapping(?) American (check) boy (check) would do…I tied a rope around a hammer and threw the hammer up in the tree so I could use the rope to shake the swarm out. That worked well and I re-hived this swarm again. We’ll see what happens. It occurs to me as I ponder the process, that throwing a hammer over my head into a tree might not have been all that smart, so don’t try that at home. Still, it worked and hopefully I still have my bees!
Well, this is long enough…I have more swarm stories to tell so I will put them off until Part II