Winter is Coming

Winter is coming, and like the Starks and people of the north (for all you Game of Throne fans), the bees have known this for quite a while. But now it is time for the beekeepers (and Lannisters) to prepare as well. First off, we needed to evaluate the health of each hive. We looked to be sure that there was plenty of brood in the hives, and it looked like our queens were doing their jobs. There was a lot of brood, and any open cell had an egg in it. These will be the bees that will take the colony into the spring, so we’ve got to be sure there are plenty of new brood to survive the winter.

Next we looked at the honey stores. The top brood boxes were being packed with honey as the bees begin to prepare to store their winter food in the top and move the brood rearing to the bottom.

We looked for any diseases like foulbrood, chalkbrood, or American foulbrood. We found nothing there. Given the finding of American foulbrood at a nearby apiary, we were very pleased to see everyone looking healthy.

Possibly most important, we needed to access the mite load of each hive. A high level of varroa mites can decimate a hive, and is a contributing (or perhaps main) cause of over-winter losses. To get a rough idea of the number of mites, we did a quick sugar roll test. A half cup of bees (~300) were placed in a jar with a tablespoon of powdered sugar. After shaking for a minute, the mites dislodge from the bees do to the sugar. The sugar and mites were shaken through the #8 mesh lid onto a white surface. We had a mite count that was a little on the high end – one hive had around 6 mites (2%), the other had 12 (4%). The actual mite count is likely to be higher since the number of mites in the brood is not accounted for in this test. The hive with 6 mites is on the low end of needing treatment, and the hive with 12 mites is definitely in need of treatment.

We’re not hippies, but we don’t want to add synthetic chemicals to our hives, as there is a tendency of these chemicals to permeate the wax and contaminate any future honey stored in that wax. We decided to treat with Apilife Var, which uses thymol (extracted from thyme) to kill the mites. It has little effect on the bees (though they don’t particularly like it in their hive), and it doesn’t leave any chemical residues in the wax. The treatment regimen is three weeks, and after that is completed we will perform another mite count to be sure the treatment was effective.

Finally, we needed to be absolutely certain the hive had enough food for winter. They bees have been hard at work collecting nectar from goldenrod, asters, and jewelweed, but to ensure they have enough food stored for winter we supplemented their food with sugar water. We will continue to monitor their food storage, and later in the month we will weigh the hives to be sure they have the 80 pounds or so of food they will require to make it over the winter.

Winter is coming.

Waxing or Waning on Plastic

We opted to start out with plastic foundation because it’s cheaper than wax, easier to set up, and reusable.  Mostly because we’re it’s cheap.  But we did do some research and found that a lot of people love plastic foundation, commercial and hobby beekeepers alike.  There’s no mess wiring the frame – just pop it right into the frame and you’re done.  Plus when the comb gets old and needs to be replaced, you can reuse the plastic foundation after cleaning the old comb off of it.  So what’s not to like?

bad comb on plastic
Poorly drawn comb on plastic foundation

Apparently our bees don’t like it.  The hive we purchased (with wax foundation) needed to be expanded.  Our package seemed to be doing well enough with the plastic foundation so we added a second deep brood box containing undrawn plastic foundation.  But in the following week, they made a real mess of their comb.  Between the plastic foundation the bees had built the comb perpendicular to the foundation, not parallel, in essence gluing frames together.  It wasn’t just one or two frames, it was most all of them.  The little that was drawn correctly was very sparse, and poorly drawn at that.  A real mess.

After a little research we found out we’re not the only ones that have seen this problem.  While we did know that coating plastic foundation with some beeswax to encourages the bees to draw it out, we assumed the pre-coated foundation we bought was sufficient.  As it turns out, while the plastic frames are coated with wax, they aren’t coated thick enough.  It is highly recommended that you put an additional coat of wax on the frames.  With all the messed up comb, we ended up with a fair amount of wax that we melted and used to coat undrawn foundation.  With the partially-drawn frames we just shook off the bees and put a quick coat of wax on the undrawn portion.  Hopefully the bees will be much happier now.  We’ll post an update in a week or so to see if this actually works.

Our Adopted Hive

the new hive
What’s inside?  Hopefully bees and a queen.

When our brand new package of bees absconded, we weighed our options.  Package, nuc, pray a swarm takes up residence, give up?  After much debate we decided on none of those options.  We decided to just go big with a full blown hive.  We found very reasonable priced hives on Craigslist from someone who was moving and could not take all of their hives.  This seemed almost too good to be true.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to buying a full-blown hive.  A major advantage is that the bees are ready to go.  There’s no lag waiting for comb to be drawn and the hive to increase in strength.  We would have a pretty good chance of actually getting honey this year.  And it seems likely we will be able to make at least one nuc this year.  Plus there’s the benefit of having the actual hive body included.  The boxes and frames themselves were almost worth the price.

We also looked at the disadvantages. We knew nothing about the colony health or the queen’s history. The hive was already closed up when it was picked up, so we didn’t even know if there was a queen.  But we figured that if the queen was no good or missing, we could replace her and the hive would still likely perform well this season.  We also didn’t know the condition of the equipment or what treatments had been done.  After talking with the seller more about his beekeeping techniques we were pretty confident the bees were well taken care of.  In the end we could be buying a healthy, well oiled machine or queenless pile of mite-infested crap.  Yes, it was risky.  But we decided to take the chance, figuring we would be able to recoup the cost of this hive (plus loss of the absconded colony) if we could get a honey crop this year.

What neither of us really appreciated, however, was that there was no more easing into beekeeping.  It’s like adopting a 5 year old.  There is no prepping for what to do the first time you walk into Target and they throw a fit because you won’t let them buy another piece of junk from the dollar aisle.  Sure you missed all the poopy diapers, the spit up, the sleepless nights, the bottles, the potty training.  At least when you’re there from the beginning you know how to handle most situations.  Or it’s not as much of a shock to find the walls colored with crayons and marker, again.  Our remaining package was still in the cute baby phase, drawing comb, laying eggs, a few foragers bringing back pollen.  Very cute and gentle.  The adopted hive, that’s a different story.  Our learning curve just got a whole lot steeper.  

Pathetic Pink hive
Come on, Pink!  Get your act together!

After unloading the hive at the apiary, we did a thorough inspection. (Or as thorough as our limited
knowledge of  bees allowed)  We took the boxes apart and analyzed every frame.  We saw no signs of maladies.  We found eggs and larva.  Plenty of honey and pollen.  We even found the queen.  (Whew)  We reassembled the hive, putting the medium super that had been in the middle of the three on the bottom, as that is where the cluster was and we wanted to be sure they would expand into up into the deep.  Then we let them calm down a little bit.

After a few hours, we came back to see how everyone was doing.  The new hive had already found pollen sources and were busy loading up the new hive with it.  The amount of activity around the entrance was impressive.  Bees flying everywhere.  I then glanced over at our remaining package.  Sure there were bees going in and out, but it seemed really pathetic.  I found myself saying, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?  She’s only been here a couple hours and is already foraging.  You’ve been here a week, and what have you done?”  They may need therapy after they grow up.