Well, it took spring a long time to get here, but when it did, the flowers were beautiful. The cool weather meant the blossoms lasted a long time and allowed the pollinators really do their job on the fruit trees and bushes. We should have good peaches, apples,blueberries & strawberries this year!
Here’s a few pictures to enjoy (If you click on a picture, it will enlarge & you can see each in more detail – along with a caption about what you are looking at)
My mead finished its first stage of fermentation about a month after I started it. The airlocks were no longer bubbling, indicating there was no more CO2 being produced by the yeast – either because it had eaten all of the honey or because the liquid had more alcohol than the yeast could tolerate. Just to be sure that the mead had fermented enough, I measured the specific gravity of the liquid. It was had dropped from 1.3 to < 0.8 meaning there was more alcohol than water! (the specific gravity of water is 1.0). There was also a pretty strong alcohol smell!
The next step in the mead making process was to siphon the liquid out the 3 gallon container and into smaller bottles for the next stage of fermentation. You need to siphon off the liquid (vs just pouring it out of the bottle) because there is quite a bit of “sediment” on the bottom from the yeast. I decided to break the mead into 3 one gallon containers – leaving one as is (no additives), adding strawberries to one and blueberries to the third . Last summer I had frozen blueberries & strawberries from the garden with the idea that sometime in the not to distant future I would use them for mead – so I put them to use!
As soon as I added the fruit to the two 1-gallon containers, the sugars woke the yeast up and the second stage of fermentation began. I’ll be letting these 3 gallons of mead ferment & age for the next 3-4 months… then we’ll sample to see how they came out!
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:
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.
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!
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!
I’ve never been a big fan of mead as any I’ve tasted have always been pretty sweet – that is until last fall, when I toured the Sap House Meadery in Ossipee, NH. I tried their mead – which was dry & delicious! When the owners talked about the ingredients needed to make mead, I realized that except for the yeast & yeast nutrient, I had everything I needed right in my yard – the water, the honey & different fruits!
I purchased “The Compleat Meadmaker” by Ken Schramm to read more about the process & what was required. Last week I went to a local beer & wine supply shop (the Kettle-to-Keg in Pembroke, NH) to buy the containers, airlocks, hydrometer & lots of other stuff – and last Sunday (2/19/17), I started my first batch.
Besides learning the process of mead making, I’m learning a whole new set of terminology like carboy (glass containers used to ferment wine, mead, etc), must (the unfermented mead) & trying to remember the things I learned in high school chemistry like specific gravity (measuring the density of a liquid vs water – you use this to determine how much fermentation has taken place.) !
The video below shows what I’m seeing 3 days after adding the yeast to the must – so far so good the yeasts are doing their job!
This first stage of fermenting will last 2-4 weeks after which I plan on splitting the batch into 2 or 3 smaller carboys – for the 2nd fermentation stage. I’ll add strawberries to 1 carboy, blueberries to another & leave the third as is so that we can try different flavors. The second fermentation stage will go for 4-5 months before the mead will be ready.
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
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!