Bee Hives, Frost Heaves & Nor’Easters

While I sit here looking at the snow from the 3rd nor’easter in 12 days, it is hard to believe that only 3 weeks ago I wrote a blog post with a video showing all of my bees out flying around!

You might have noticed in that video a couple of the hives looked like they were leaning toward one side.  This was due to the frost coming out of the ground and causing heaving around the cement blocks the hive stands were sitting on.   For the last few weeks, I have been looking at each and thinking, I should probably try to do something to level those up, but then thought – nah – its just the frost, they will be back to normal in a week or two………

Well, in the first of the 3 nor’easters,  one of the hives tipped over due to the combination of the wind, the frost heaves and the softening ground.      Fortunately, nothing broke and the hive “sort of” stayed together, because I had a  “bungied” the top down to the hive stand.

When I noticed that something didn’t look right in the apiary, I put on my hive jacket and went to investigate.   The hive was too heavy to just tip upright, so I managed to get the bungy disconnected and remove the stand (which weighs at least 15 lbs).   The next step was to disassemble and reassemble the hive quickly on a level spot.  Fortunately, the snow had stopped, and it was in the low 30s so it wasn’t too bad to work out there.

Step 1 went fine – pull the bottom board and get it on a level/stable location..  Step 2- pull off the top so I could put a boxes one-by-one on the new location – didn’t go quite so well… the bees to put it mildly were “pissed”..    They didn’t appreciate the fact that I was trying help & not harm them  🙂  so they immediately started trying to sting me..   Enough got me where I went to the house to put on my full bee suit for the rest of the operation.

Back down to the bee yard with better protection, I did reassemble the hive, added some food  and got the top back on.   The bees that had been trying to sting me pretty much went back in the hive and left me alone.  The next day, I “shimmed” up the other hive that was leaning so it is level and shouldn’t suffer the same fate!

As of yesterday, I could hear the hive “buzzing” (none have been out since the weather has been so cold)… so I am hoping the queen survived the ordeal and the hive will be OK as we get closer to April.

Think Spring!… it can’t come soon enough for my girls!

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Beekeeping in Scotland – part 2

The following is the rest of the article I wrote for the NH Beekeepers Association’s Winter Newsletter:

The Highlands seem to have a similar winter climate to NH.  They get snow.  They feed sugar water to their hives until mid-Oct, and then do emergency feeding with fondant or candy boards until spring.    The Borders have milder winters – but no forage, so they feed sugar water throughout the winter.  I heard varying winter loss numbers, but I would say the most common was 10-15%.

When I asked beekeepers about their biggest challenge/issue, the answer was always Varroa.   They use a variety of treatments – including IPM, but oxalic vapor was the most common.   With their weather, I can see that Mite-Away or other treatments that depend on certain temperatures for dispersal could only be used for a very limited time.   I also learned that to use products like Amitraz, they must have a veterinary prescription.

They do not have small hive beetles currently, but they anticipate the bugs will eventually make it to Scotland so they are doing a lot of education for the beekeepers.

American Foul Brood (AFB) and European Foul Brood(EFB) are taken very seriously in Scotland and the entire UK.     Law prohibits the use of any anti-biotics in hives so they do not have many treatment options.  In England and Wales, if a beekeeper suspects they have either EFB or AFB, they are required by law to call the bee inspector.  In Scotland, it is voluntary to call – but most do from what I can tell.   The bee inspector comes out to check out the hives and brings a field test kit (aka Lateral Flow Device Kit).  They sample some larva and put them in a container with some ball bearings.  They shake it up, drop in a few chemicals and it tells you if you have EFB/AFB (there is a kit for each disease).   The inspector then decides what will be done with the hives.  If it is a very mild case of EFB, they will do a shaken swarm and then sterilize the hive.  If it is more severe, the hives are burned.   All of this is done under the supervision of the inspector.  This apiary is then flagged as “red”, and the inspector will come again the following year to inspect it.  Unfortunately, I did not get to ask how common EFB and AFB are.

They have both local bee clubs and the national beekeepers association much like we do in the US. They are laser focused on education.   The national association has worked with the equivalent of our community colleges to develop an accredited beekeeping course. They have a formal training program that starts with Junior beekeepers and ends with honey judging  : https://www.scottishbeekeepers.org.uk/images/education/exams/The%20SBA%20Education%20System.pdf  .

The two most interesting conference talks were by Dr. Robert Paxton, head of the Zoology at Martin Luther Universität, Halle-Wittenberg, and Dr. Jamie Ellis, University of Florida.

Dr. Paxton described the research his team has done on deformed wing virus (DWV), and how they have been able to show a direct correlation between DWV and hive loss.  They looked at many other viruses (including Nosema Cerena), but none had the direct correlation that DWV did.   DWV is very interesting because Varroa is ~90% efficient in transmitting DWV to honeybee pupae.  This research was done in conjunction with research groups from around the world, including the Bee Informed Partnership.    In controlled experiments, they also found that bees that did not have DWV lived ~40 days; those with DWV-strain A – lived ~18 days and those DWV-strain B – lived 14 days.

Dr. Ellis (some of you might recognize the name from his regular articles in ABJ) talked about beekeeping in the US.  It was very interesting to hear the reactions in the room when he talked about the migration of colonies to the almond pollination or that the biggest commercial beekeeper in FL has 60K hives.  Since most beekeeping in Scotland is either backyard hobbyist or very small-scale operations, the sheer scale of some of the US operations was hard for folks to imagine.

There was also big honey and wax show with entries with everything from baked goods to candles.     The most amazing thing I saw were flowers made of beeswax.  When I first saw them, I thought they were a silk flower decoration!  I talked to someone about how they make them, and apparently, they warm the wax, roll it out and then use molds made for creating frosting flowers to shape them

We found everyone we met in Scotland to be very friendly.  Not surprisingly, the beekeepers were as curious about our management practices as I was about theirs.   Our trip reinforced how much beekeepers, whether local or from another country, have in common, and how curious and willing to share experiences we all are.  I guess another way to say this is – We never get sick of talking about our bees!

Beekeeping in Scotland – part 1

We spent 2 weeks in Scotland in late August/early Sept 2017.   I wrote about the trip & a 1-day bee conference we attended for the NH Beekeepers’ Winter Newsletter.   Here’s the first part of the story:

Beekeeping in Scotland

What could be better than a vacation in Scotland?  A vacation in Scotland and getting to attend the Scotland Beekeepers Association Fall Conference while you are there!  That is what happened this year when my husband and I planned our vacation.   Once we had the dates for our trip, I looked to see if there were any bee club meetings I might attend so that I could meet some local beekeepers – and low and behold I found the SBA conference.

Scotland is a small country.   Compared to NH, they have approximately 4.5 times as many people (6 million in Scotland vs 1.3 million in NH), and approximately 3 times as much land.   The country is very rural – mostly made up of huge estates where they farm all sorts of things from livestock to barley to strawberries.    To give you an idea of how big these estates are – approximately 500 people own more than ½ the land in Scotland.

We drove all over the country during our trip, and I was amazed at how similar the landscape was to NH (but with a lot more sheep and castles!).     It is not as forested as NH is now – but I can imagine that NH looked very much the same during the “sheep boom” that we had in the early 1900s.

Scottish Landscape (purple on the hills is heather)

The weather in Scotland is generally wetter and colder than NH.  We were there in late August/early September, and the temperature was in the high 50s/low 60s.  They seldom have to water their crops or flowers (one B&B owner was telling me how dry it had been. She had to water her flowers once this summer!).

As I met beekeepers, I found it interesting how similar (varroa is their biggest challenge, they must deal with cold winters), yet different (hive types, honey crops, etc.) beekeeping is in Scotland.

Most beekeepers I talked to use “National” Hives which have 14”x12” hive bodies.  They use “British standard” frames which have much longer “ears” so they can fit in the hive body either left-to-right or back-to-front.  Poly-styrene hives instead of wooden ones seem to be much more common than here in NH.

 

They do not use inner covers – even on Langstroth hives.  Instead their outer covers are deeper (6”) and have ventilation built in.

Langstroth Hive – note the depth of the outer cover & the notch for ventilation

Most folks I talked to seemed to use 1 brood box and only 1 or 2 supers.  They were shocked to see a picture of my hives which are 5-7 medium boxes tall.  Unfortunately, I did not get to ask how big their typical honey harvest is or how often they harvest.  My guess is the fact that they have so much rain may limit how much their bees can forage; thereby limiting the harvest.

One of their biggest honey crops is heather – which blossoms in August/Sept.   We timed our trip so I could see “heather” blossoming (for obvious reasons!).  I figured we would have to go on certain roads or to particular towns to see the bloom (like going to Sugar Hill to see Lupine), but the heather was absolutely everywhere, covering entire mountain tops.   It was in full-bloom in the Highlands (northern Scotland) and had just gone by in the “Borders” (southern Scotland).

I also learned that in Northern Ireland, a big honey crop is a combination of heather and fuchsia which blossom at the same time.    Apparently, the combination of the two nectars has a wonderful taste.   Unfortunately, I never saw any “heather honey” so I did not get to sample it.

 

Making Candy Boards for winter feed

In the winter, bees cluster together to keep the hive at ~50F while they are not raising brood (Nov–>Mid Feb), and then when they start raising new brood to prepare for the spring (starting in Mid-Feb), they keep the hive at closer to 95F.     Generating this heat (by shivering) takes lots of energy so you need to make sure they have enough honey stores to make it through the winter.  Generally, in our area of NH, this requires  ~80-100 lbs of honey in each hive.  The exact amount each year varies depending on how many bees are in a given hive & how warm the fall & winter are.

Unfortunately, some years (and it looks like this may be one of them), they will go through more honey than what you left for them so you need to provide emergency feed – in the form of raw sugar, fondant or winter patties (a sugar/pollen mix).    In past years, I’ve made fondant and left some on the hive  in case they run out of food.   This has worked well for me, but this year I decided to try making “candy boards” to provide the emergency feed.

A candy board is essentially a frame of hardened sugar that you put on top of the hive so the bees can get to it if they need it.     There are many DIY instructions for candy boards on line, but I used some very simple instructions provided in the Pawtuckaway Beekeepers monthly news letter.  Here’s  what I did:

  1. For each hive, Mike made me a wooden frame that would fit on top of the hive and  about 1″ deep

    Candy Board Frame made from scrap wood
  2. I stapled 1/2″ hardware cloth  onto the bottom side (Hardware cloth is another name for metal mesh fencing – like chicken wire)

    Added 1/2″ hardware cloth to support the candy
  3. Lined the hardware cloth with wax paper  & put in two pieces of wood to block of areas that I wanted to leave without sugar (the right area is to allow bees access to the outside, the middle is for adding a “pollen patty” (aka artificial pollen) in the late winter to given the bees protein for the new brood.

    preparing for adding the “candy” by lining with wax paper & blocking out the areas that we want to remain open
  4. Mixed  8 lbs of sugar with ~1- 1/8 c of water & a few drops of honey-b-healthy to create a paste
  5. Put the wet sugar in the frame on top of the wax paper and let it harden

I made  5 of these boards & put them on top of the hives in early Dec (the bees won’t eat them if they don’t need them).   When I checked the hives after the early Jan cold snap:

  • one hive hadn’t touched the candy board (2016- overwintered hive)
  • one had eaten a very small amount (the 2017 package)
  • two had eaten about a 5″ square of the sugar  (one of the 2 hives I started from a split in the summer & the other overwintered hive)
  • one had eaten almost the entire candy board! (the 2nd of the 2 hives I started from a split)

What this tells me is that even though every hive had at least 80 lbs of honey/sugar water, at least a few have gone through most of their stores during the warm fall.  I need to stay on top of giving them additional feed – otherwise I’ll lose the bees to starvation over the winter.  I have given that last hive some fondant and am making a new candy board (with twice the amount of suger ) to give it later this week.  Fingers crossed spring comes early!

 

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!

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