Where has the last 6 months gone?

Wow, its has been 6 months since I last created a post – how time flies.  One of my new year’s resolutions should be to be better about giving updates on the apiary!..  Well, here’s a start & a quick synopsis of what’s been happening with the bees since July:

The bees did a great job pollinating the garden & fruit trees this year.  We had a bumper crops of blueberries, apples & strawberries along with getting enough  sour cherries to make a yummy pie.  This is the first time I’ve gotten more than one or two cherries since I planted the trees 3 or 4 years ago.  I froze so much from the garden (in addition to the stuff I normally can), that we didn’t even have room for ice cubes in the 2 freezers we have!

Had a great apple crop in 2017
2017 brought a bummer crop of strawberries
2017 was the first time I harvested sour cherries. I put those with blueberries and made a great pie

Honey Production was also good this year.    I harvested 75-80 lbs of honey from the hives & still left enough for the bees to eat over the winter.   The new “package” (the one from the video I posted earlier this year) – produced an amazing amount of honey for its first year.    I entered some of the “light, spring” honey into the NH Beekeepers Fall Honey Tasting contest, and tied for 3rd place!

NH Beekeepers 2017 Honey Tasting Contest Winners

I started 2 new hives by taking a few frames of brood, eggs & bees from of the strong hives that made it through the 2016/7 winter and putting them in NUC boxes (which are basically mini hives with 4 frames in a box instead of 10).   These two new NUCs didn’t have a queen so they raised their own and did well enough during the summer that I moved them from their NUC boxes into regular hives.        Going into winter I have 5 hives  (2 that over wintered last year,  1 that I started from a package of bees & 2 that I started from the splits).  As of today, they are still all alive & appear pretty strong.

Apiary in Early Sept:

In the picture above:

  • Far Left(yellow) & Far right (light blue)  hives over wintered in 2016/17;
  • the tall aqua hive in the middle  was the package started in 2017
  • The two shortest hives (2nd from left & 2nd from right) are the ones I started from a split of the yellow hive

The end of the year brought an invitation from  Gilmanton’s Own, a non-profit organization that promotes the products from Gilmanton farms & artisans, to include my hand cream, honey & lip balms in their winter market at the Brick House Antique Shop at the Gilmanton 4-corners.

Heather’s Harvest Honey For Sale at the 2017 Gilmanton’s own Winter market

I also volunteered at the market which was really interesting to learn about all of the products produced in town.  I found out we have somewhere between 35-40 farms in this small town!  The most difficult part of volunteering was on the drive home not eating the freshly baked loaf of bread that I bought each time I worked!

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Drone Frame Bird Feeder

As you know, varroa mites are one of the biggest challenges that bee colonies face.   The mites weaken the bees and make them susceptible to viruses and other diseases.   Beekeepers use multiple techniques to manage the mites in a hive including the integrated pest management  (IPM) method of  “drone frames”.

First a little honeybee biology….   A drone is a male bee that develops from an unfertilized egg that the queen lays.  Drone bees are bigger than worker bees so the cells they develop in are larger than those used for workers.   Drones have 1 purpose in life – and that is to mate with virgin queens.   They do not help “run” or do any chores in the hive.    The queen can tell the difference between the honeycomb cell sizes, and if she encounters a cell that is “drone size”, she will lay an unfertilized egg.    Drones go through the same stages of development as worker bees  (egg, larva, capped brood), but they stay in the “capped brood” state 3 days longer than workers.   Bees will naturally create drones in the colony as a preparation for swarming.

A drone frame, as its name implies, is a frame that you insert into a hive that has characteristics that cause the worker bees add beeswax to the frame & draw it into drone comb.  When the queen starts to lay eggs on the frame, she will note the larger cells & lay unfertilized eggs.

Why does having a drone frame help you manage mites?   Mites feed on both adult bees as well as larva, but they prefer larva – especially if it is in the “capped brood” stage. The wax capping covering te capped brood protects the mites from being “groomed off” the larva.   Mites are attracted to drone larva over worker or queen larva because it is in the “capped brood” stage for the longest of the 3 types of bees.  By having a frame of all drones, you attract many of the mites in the hive to this larva, so when it is capped, you can remove the frame from the hive and freeze it to kill the mites.  It does also kill the drones – but unless you are raising queens to sell,  this won’t affect your colony.

Once the frame is frozen for 24 hours, you can put it back into the hive & the bees will clean out the dead larva – but that is alot of work for them.  So I’ve been using these larva as bird food – and they love it!     I first tried this late last year when a friend of mine mentioned that is what she did with her drone frames to clean them out before giving them back to the bees.   I found an old turkey lifter which fit my frame perfectly & tried it:

sparrow trying out the larva on the first version of my drone frame feeder

It took a little while for the birds to figure out what this new fangled  thing was.. but a few tried it and figured out this was good stuff!

Mike didn’t like the looks of the turkey lifter… so he built me a very fancy frame holder complete with perches & wire for the birds to hold on to.

Drone Frame feeder – rev 2

The birds love it!   We have birds on the frame all day long.

The Nuthatch would grab a larva & go back to its nest
The three-toed woodpecker only moved off the frame when it was taking larva back to its young!

We’ve seen woodpeckers, sparrows, chickadees, nuthatches, titmouse (mice?), and  rose breasted grosbeaks all enjoying the high-protein food.   It takes them about 3 days to clean out a frame.     I have the drone frames on a ~3 week rotation for being pulled from the 3 hives so the birds get to enjoy this treat a good part of the week.

 

#honeybees #droneFrameFeeder

Inspection of the New Bee Hive

The bee hive I started in April is doing well.  I wore the GoPro while I did an inspection a couple days ago..

The video which is just over 10 minutes long  came out pretty well (and yes – I even got a small sting!).  Just click on the image below if you’d like to watch it.

CSI on My Dead NUCS

I started the winter with 2 NUCS (and 5 hives) – but the NUCs were dead by the end of December.   Last week, I took the dead hives apart to clean them as well as to do some Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) to try to determine why the hives died.

When I opened up the NUC, I found plenty of  capped stores (honey and sugar water) so I know they didn’t starve.  What I also found on the bottom board was some chewed wax along with a bunch of black specs. The chewed wax was most likely from the wax cappings the bees chewed to access the stored honey.   The black specs, while too small to ID with the naked eye (at least in my case). I suspected they might be Varroa Mites – one of the three biggest challenges to bee health (the other two being monoculture & pesticides/insecticides).

I collected samples, looked at them under my digital microscope, and confirmed my suspicions  – both NUCs most likely died due to the weaknesses from varroa mite infestation.   The sample I collected had ~20 mites in it:

Varroa Mites collected from dead NUCs
This gives you an idea how small the mites are – the gray stick at the right is mechanical pencil lead.

As you can see from these pictures the mites are very small compared to the bee – or even a piece of mechanical pencil lead.

As I mentioned above, Varroa Mites are one of the three biggest threats to honeybee health.  They are blamed for the major decline in our feral honeybee colonies.  These parasites  not only weaken the bee from sucking their blood,  but they are also  a “vector” for other diseases. The combination of the holes a mite creates in the bee’s exoskeleton along with being in a weakened state makes them susceptible to other viruses & diseases – especially ones carried by the mites such as deformed wing virus. These “other” virus & diseases is what most often kills the bees & colony.

Varroa mites are found in all hives through the US (and all countries in the world except Australia), It isn’t a question of   IF you have mites, it is a question of what level of mite activity do you have.   We cannot eradicate mites from the hive but must control them to a level where the colony can remain healthy.  Many  beekeepers use a combination of Integrated Pest Management methods and treatments to control the mites.   Unfortunately, the mites have already developed resistance to some of the treatments.

Even if you do everything you can to control the mites, sometimes, events are out of your control – the latest buzz words for a mite infestation is “varroa bom”.  One example is when you have a colony that is healthy, but they start robbing stores from one that has a heavy varroa load (a “varroa bom colony”).  Your bees now bring home mites, causing a heavy infestation in your hive.

My guess is that my NUCs  raided the hive of my “bees in the tree” after they died in early fall.  (this swarm that took up residence in one of my maple trees, but died in the fall).  I don’t know why the bee in the tree died but probably from Varroa since they couldn’t be treated.

Managing varroa mites in your colonies and developing varroa resistant bees is one of the biggest areas of honeybee research.  I don’t think they’ll find a silver bullet to solve all of the issues, but I’m sure as we learn more, we’ll be able to manage the colonies so we have fewer losses.

#hiveLoss  #VarroaMites

 

 

“Banking” queen bees

One of the things I love about beekeeping is that I’m always learning something new!  The  latest is about “queen banking”, and while the first thing you may have pictured was me going into my local bank branch with a tiara on – nope that isn’t what it means!

I started the winter with 5 hives & 2 Nucs.  I lost the two Nucs in late Dec & one of the hives in early February.  In Mid-march the other 4 hives were still alive – 2 were very strong & 2 were alive – but weak.   Unfortunately,   the last 2 weeks of March were unseasonably cold & rainy… and the two weak hives perished – one the third week of March & the other a week or so later.

When the weather got a little nicer, I opened the cover of one of these recently deceased hives to see if I could figure out why it died.. I pulled a frame, and there was the queen bee + 4 other attendants with her. My first thought was – “oh that’s too bad, they must have froze because there weren’t many bees around”.  I proceeded to nudge the queen with my finger & she started walking around!

Knowing that she wouldn’t survive in the hive by herself (queens required attendants to keep her warm & feed her), I scooped her up along with the other 4 or 5 bees and put them in a tupperware container  with some sugar water in a dish, put a screen over it, and placed the container in a dark area. of the house   Checking on her an hour or so later, she was starting to move around well & looked like she would survive!   Next I had to figure out what I was going to do with her  – if it were later in the year, I’d pull some frames of brood from the strong hive & start a new colony with her, but April is too early to do that since they are just starting to raise brood.  I know I can’t add her to one of the existing colonies because the queen that is already  in the colony will try to kill her.  So the  $10,000 question  – how do I keep the queen alive until I can split one of the other colonies?

I called one of my beekeeping mentors, Allen Lindahl, and he said – “oh just bank her” to which I responded “what? I’ve never heard of that!”  I learned that banking queens is a common practice among beekeepers who raise queens – it is a way to keep them alive & healthy while waiting to go into a hive.   What you do is, first put a queen excluder into a strong hive (  A queen excluder is a metal grate with openings big enough to allow worker bees to pass through but not a queen). Next,  put the queen  you want to save & her attendants into a queen cage, and place it on top of the queen excluder.     The “banked” queen will be protected from the other queen by the queen excluder & the cage, but the worker bees in the colony will feed the “banked” queen so she will survive.

I figured – what do I have to lose, she’ll die if I leave her in the tupperware container or put her in a hive to early – so I “banked” her in the stronger of the two surviving hives about 1.5 weeks ago.  I checked on her just the other day & she looks great!.. She is running around her little queen cage wanting to get out, she is very fat – meaning she is ready to start laying eggs… so now all I need is to wait another couple weeks to be able to pull a frame or two of bees & brood so I can put her in a NUC to start a new hive!

Stay tuned!

#queenBanking

 

 

Starting a New Hive of Bees

I lost 2 1/2 of my 5 hives  and my 2 NUCS over the winter.   I think I lost the NUCs due to mites.   I need to look at some droppings I took from the hive with my nifty digital microscope to be sure.   It is unclear why I lost the other hives  – I suspect it is because of the crazy March weather we had & possibly Nosema Cerena.

You’re probably thinking how do you lose 1/2 a hive?   Well. technically I lost the whole hive – but amazingly I found the queen alive!.. so I have her in a queen cage and am “banking” her until I can pull some brood to start a new hive (the banking is a topic for my next blog!)..

Because of the hive losses, I decided to purchase a “package” of bees to restart one of the hives.   A package consists of a queen + 3lbs (~10K) honeybees.   I picked up my package on 4/9  from  Hillside Bees in Merrimack, NH and “installed” them in a hive that evening.

I wore a Go-pro camera while I was hiving the bees & the video came out pretty well for my first try.  Click on the picture below if you’d like to see how you start a hive!  (it is about 9.5 minutes long)..  The camera is on a chest harness so occasionally my arms block the view.. but you see most of it.  Also, toward the end of the video you’ll hear one of the bees buzzing really loudly.. She decided that she liked being on top of the camera body!

 

#installingBees #hivingBees

Gotta Love Seeing Bee Poop in Feb!

Went out to the hives today & there was  “bee poop” everywhere!  I know you are probably saying “yuk.. that’s gross!”..  but when I see see bee poop this time of year, I’m thrilled.  Here’s a picture of what I saw.. the yellow snow is the bee poop

Bee Poop - 2/8/17
Bee Poop – 2/8/17

The reason I am very happy when I see bee poop in February is that it means at least some of the bees hives are still alive.    Bees are very hygienic creatures so they do not go to the bathroom in the hive unless they are very sick.   Unfortunately, this becomes difficult for them in the winter because they can’t fly if it is too cold outside (instead they need to stay clustered together to keep warm).   Because they can’t fly & they don’t want to go to bathroom inside the hive, they “hold it” until a day that is a little warmer to take a cleansing flight.  If it stays too cold for too long & the bees can’t take cleansing flights, they run the risk of getting dysentery.

On  a warm day like today (low 40s), I try to check out the apiary in hopes of seeing lots of yellow snow (which I did!), and also hoping I don’t see lots of brown streaks at the hive entrances (which I didn’t)   Brown streaks at the hives entrance means the bees have probably developed dysentary.   I also often see dead bees – if you look closely the black dot on the right side of the picture is a dead bee. This can also be a good sign, as long as there aren’t too many of them.    Typically, these are workers that are at the end of their life.  They will leave the hive to take a cleansing flight & instead of going back to the hive, they will stay outside & die so they don’t bring pathogens back.

As of today, all 5 of my regular hives are alive!.. I lost the 2 NUCs in Dec (I wasn’t really surprised as they seemed weak heading into winter & it is also the first year I’ve tried to winter over NUCs).

February is always a tough month for the bees.  1) It is cold.  2) They are getting low on food. 3) Later in the month they will start raising brood to replace the old “winter” bees and to  get ready for foraging. Once they start raising brood, they need to keep the inside of the hive @90-95F which takes alot of energy!  I’ve given each of the hives some fondant & some pollen patties just in case they have used up all of their honey  & pollen stores.

For the rest of Feb & March, I’ll be checking the hives at least weekly to see if they’ve touched the food I gave them (if they have it means they have no other food in the hive) & also to see if I hear “buzzing” (you don’t always see the bees because they may be deep in the hive – but you can hear them!).

so cross your fingers.. we’ve only got to get through another few weeks & they will be able to start collecting pollen!

#HoneybeesInWinter

Bees are ready for winter

Now that it is November it is time to get serious about getting the apiary ready for winter.

Bees do not hibernate in the winter so they need enough food to carry them over until the first blossoms come out in late March/early April (imagine not being able to get groceries from Sept -March!).   Ideally,each hive would have 100 lbs+ of honey for the winter.  When I checked the hives in late August, most had about 12-14 frames of honey = 40-50 lbs – so only about half of what I’d like to see.  I gave each hive 5 gallons of 2:1 sugar syrup – which should approximately double the stores they have.  While sugar syrup isn’t as nutritious as honey, it will supplement their stores so they can survive the winter.

NH beekeepers stop feeding sugar syrup around mid-Oct. After that, the bees won’t have enough time to store and “cure” the sugar water – and also, it is starting to get cold enough where the bees are not out flying and “cleansing” (aka going to the bathroom) every day – so we want to minimize liquid we add to the hives.

Just a side note – Bees are very hygienic – they don’t go to the bathroom in the hive (unless they are very sick).  This means during the winter when it is cold, the bees have to “hold it” until it is warm enough for them to take a cleansing flight – that could be a week or more in our cold winters.    When you get one of those nice January thaw days, you can bet the bees will be out flying around, pooping all over the place.. and leaving little yellow dots on the snow all around the apiary (and on you if you go see what they are doing)!

Besides not having enough food, there are three other challenges the bees have in winter :

  1.  Excess moisture in the hive– if the hive doesn’t have good ventilation, excess moisture can build up and freeze at night.  The next day as the sun hits the hive, the frozen moisture melts, causing a small rainstorm inside. If the bees get wet, they can’t easily dry off and will freeze when it gets cold again.

I do a couple things to ensure my hives don’t have excess moisture.  I use a screened bottom board which I leave open all winter so air gets into the hive and can flow up through the frames and out a notch in the inner cover.  Also, I put an “absorption board” on top of the inner cover so it can absorb any excess moisture in the hive.  I’ve found that in the winter, the bees will actually go to this board if they want to get a “drink” since it holds that moisture.

  1. Cold temperatures – most think the bees need to be protected from the cold because they will freeze – which technically, if a bee is by itself  can happen, but in the hive,  as the temperature drops, the bees form a cluster & huddle together.  While in the cluster they flap their wings generating heat & keeping the cluster temperature between 45-60F – no matter how cold it is outside.   The center of the cluster is the warmest – that is where the queen is.  The workers will rotate from the center to the edge so everyone gets to stay warm.   The real issue with cold is that the lower the temperature, the less the bees can break cluster to  move around to get food. Generating heat by flapping their wings  burns lots of calories.
  1. Wind  – is one of the biggest problems in winter because if the wind gets into the hive, it can blow away all that warm air the bees are generating.

To help the bees with the wind (and it does help some with the cold), I wrap my hives sometime in mid-Nov and leave the wraps on until early-to-mid April.   I wrap them either with tar paper or some “bee cozies” that I made from marine vinyl & board insulation.  The wrap’s primary purpose is to prevent the wind from entering via any unsealed cracks, but it also helps heat up the hive a bit. As the dark surface heats up, it radiates into the hive.

I wrapped my hives earlier this week:   Here’s how it looks – the black wraps are the tar paper & the green ones are the bee cozies.

Hives all wrapped & ready for winter
Hives all wrapped & ready for winter

On the couple “warm” ( > 45F) days this week,  the bees from all the hives were out taking cleansing flights.  My fingers are crossed that they all make it through the winter. I’ll be checking them about once a month to see how they are doing & will  post a status to let you know!

#NHbees  #winteringBees #BeeWraps

 

 

TED talk showing a honeybee being born

Last year, there was a TED (Technology, Education & Design)  talk by a person who raised honeybees in his backyard and figured out a way to video what happens in the cell from an egg to the birth of the bee. He also talks about varroa mites (one of the honey bee’s biggest challenge) and the current research on varroa resistant bees.

It’s a pretty amazing video:

https://www.ted.com/talks/anand_varma_a_thrilling_look_at_the_first_21_days_of_a_bee_s_life?language=en

Did you know this about honeybees?

  • A typical honeybee hive has 60,000-100,000 bees in the summer and 10,000 bees in the winter.
  • Most of those 60-100K bees are female .  In the summer, the hive will have a few hundred drones (males) – but that’s all. There is typically only 1 queen in the hive.
  • Drones have exactly one job in a hive – to go out during the day and mate with a virgin queen.. (Once they mate they die!)..
  • The female bees (aka worker bees) do all of the other jobs including housekeeping, taking care of the larva (nurse bees), guarding the entrance, undertaking (removing dead bees from the hive) and foraging .
  • The queen bee’s job is to lay eggs.  The workers take care of feeding her.
  • Female bees have stingers but can only sting once and then they die.
  • Drones don’t have stingers
  • The queen bee has a stinger, but she only uses it to kill rival queens. She can sting multiple times.
  •  The venom in a bee sting is acidic.. and causes our bodies to produce cortisol (similar to cortizone) – which is why some folks use “bee sting” (or apitherapy) for a variety of issues.
  • Worker bees live only about 6 weeks in the summer (and a few months in the winter).
  • Queen bees can live up to 3-4 years (if the beekeeper doesn’t accidently squash her!)
  • Honeybees don’t hibernate in the winter.  Instead they get in a tight cluster, with the queen in the middle.  They stay warm by vibrating their wings.
  • Because they don’t hibernate, bees need to have enough stores in the hive to make it through the winter months – this means they need 60-100 lbs of honey if the hives are in the New England area.

#honeybees,#honeybeeFacts