Sunday, July 1, 2012

Early summer update from Mark's apiary!

The calendar may say early summer, but it has been a long, hot season already. Here in North Carolina, we had a mild winter, a really warm spring, and now summer is guaranteed to be a real scorcher too.

The last three days have been some of the hottest temperatures on record. Even though Friday's official record breaking high was 102 degrees, here at my house the thermometer registered 105 degrees. It was so hot, the city parks were empty and there weren't that many people stirring around outside. Facebook even lit up with people posting pictures of thermometers showing the miserable heat. Then on Friday night, a storm blew through Virginia and into North Carolina which caused all sorts of havoc including trees down and thousands without power. Luckily the only problem at my house was the large limb of a black walnut tree that straddles my property broke off and hit the ground in my neighbor's yard.  

Even my honey bees are a tad testy because of the oppressive heat. Trying to be merciful, I had a Boardman feeder on one of the hives and figured that with that part of the entrance blocked, it had to be really hot inside. So I decided to remove it until the heat cools down in a few days. As always, I suited up and went down to take the feeder off -  when WHAM, I got stung on the back of my left ankle! One of the ladies who didn't want me around the hive hit me before I knew it. She found a spot not covered by my overalls and let me have it full force. It was, without a doubt, the worst sting I've gotten this year. I've been stung three times this year, once on the ankle and the other two under my right arm (30 days apart and in the exact same spot). Oh well, just one of the few hazards of being a beekeeper.

While the sting of a honey bee hurts, it is nothing compared to a yellow jacket. I make no bones about it...I hate yellow jackets! Here was the first (and hopefully, last) nest I've found this year. It was in the back yard and I found it while I was petting my neighbor's dog over the fence. I glanced over a few feet from where I was standing and there they were...a steady stream of nasty, ill tempered devils coming out of the ground. As you can see in the picture, it was easy to find the entrance hole since it was about two inches wide and going straight down. So I waited until it got dark and sprayed it with wasp and hornet killer. While I hate using chemicals, I'm not going to get into another nest of hateful yellow jackets. Been there, done that - but no more. After I found stragglers the next day, I stuck the water hose in the hole and ran it for an hour. That apparently ended that problem since I've seen no more yellow jackets there in a week. Oh, and this was the same location where I killed a nest in 2009. Last year's nest was 6 inches from my front walkway. I don't know what it is about my yard that attracts yellow jackets, but it seems I've had to kill about one nest per year since I've moved here. Needless to say, I've gotten really good at spotting them before they spot me, thank goodness!

Hope your summer is going well! More updates later!

Friday, June 8, 2012

High speed video of life in a top bar bee hive!

Here's a great little video that shows the beginning of life for a bee colony in a top bar hive in Sweden. 

The description on Youtube says it is "A compilation of three summer months from inside the beehive. From colonisation of the empty hive to the days following the swarm (that probably reduced the colony to less than half the number)."

By the way, the person that posted the video (andersHQ) has several other videos there that shows the bee hive in regular speed.


Saturday, June 2, 2012

All hail the queen! My new monarch is in residence!

I've been meaning to update everyone on introducing a new queen to my failing hive, but the last few days have been really hectic. Then when I got a post from my long distance beekeeping friend Mil over at Urban Farm and Beehives, I knew I couldn't keep everyone in suspense any longer and had to relay the good news!

I decided to check my orange hive on Thursday, May 29th. The new caged queen from Triad Bee Supply had been in the hive since Saturday, so most likely had already been released. While I felt confident she would most likely be okay, I was still a little apprehensive. Even though the process of introducing a caged queen is pretty textbook, I don't think you can always be 100% certain that everything will always work out. But when I opened the hive and took the cage out, it was empty. The good news was that she and her attendants were free of the cage. Now it would be the task of finding her to make sure she was okay. The apprehension was up a little once again!

Starting with the wall frame, I checked. No queen. I made my way from left to right, picking up each frame and checked them left to right and up and down. No queen. When I made it to frame #9 which was next to the last frame, I picked it up and there she was. There was no denying it was my new monarch. Between her young, bright yellow abdomen, and the new paint dot on her back, I knew it was my new queen. She casually made her way across the frame and didn't try to dodge the light as many queens do. So I gently put the frame back to make sure she wouldn't get hurt and so she could go back to work. She had apparently already started. I found new eggs on a couple of the frames, so I knew she had already been to work. By the way, that's her on the right. Isn't she a beauty? 

I also found a closed swarm cell on the bottom of one of the frames. Not wanting to risk it hatching and upsetting the new set-up, I cut it off and decided to open it. Inside was a developing pupa, but it appeared to be dehydrated. I am now wondering if the queen-to-be may have been killed by the old queen, a competing virgin queen, or possibly killed by my new queen. Or maybe she died of natural causes. I guess we'll never know.

And the frames of eggs and brood that I moved to the orange hive before I introduced the new queen are doing fine. When I examined things, I could see small, curvy larvae developing in the bottom of the cells. Apparently the bees that were left in the hive have been tending to things pretty well overall. So I added the second deep body and ten new frames and closed everything back up. I also added a feeder so the girls can draw comb. I'll check it again in a week to see how the progress is going.

I am very confident the new queen will save this colony. To be honest, I probably could have moved eggs over and hoped the bees would take the initiative to raise their own queen. But it seemed a little "iffy" since things had changed dramatically in a month's time. With the population low and no brood, I just didn't want to chance it. And with the new queen being raised locally, I'm sure she'll do just fine here.

More updates coming!    

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Trouble in the orange hive but a new queen saves the day!

One thing that all beekeepers learn quickly; always expect the unexpected. Things can change quickly, even in a well established hive. Just over a month ago, my orange hive was one bustling colony. With lots of eggs and brood and honey making well underway, things looked just fine. But over a period for several days this past week, I noticed that traffic had slowed down significantly. Compared to the other four hives, this one had slowed down to a crawl. So figuring that something had to be wrong, I got out the overalls and tools and went to work. And sure enough, I was right.

Things did not look like the picture to the right. That's how it looked in late April. When I opened the hive on Saturday, I had to look down between the frames to even find some bees. And there was very little noise either, just a faint, low hum. So I started pulling frames and finding a few bees here and there, and along the hive wall, a more bees. Then when I pulled the hive bodies apart, more bees..but nothing like I would have expected. In all, the remaining bees would have made up a small swarm. It was extremely depressing to see such a once brimming colony down to what some beekeepers wouldn't even deal with on a swarm call. 

Did they swarm? Were they sick? Was there something that caused them to leave? The answers were not readily there on the basic inspection, but the more I dug into the hive, I found some things that could have caused the problems. I did not see any dead bees were in front of the hive, nor were any inside the hive that appeared to be ailing. There were no eggs anywhere on the 20 frames. There was only one frame that held some capped brood, and all of those cells were filled with drones and some of those looked dead. Oh, and multiple supersedure cells in both deep hive bodies. So my best guess is that the queen became a drone layer and maybe she was superseded. But the next question? Where was the queen? I could not find a queen anywhere. Unless there was a slender virgin queen in the hive that I overlooked, there wasn't one there. So before this colony died altogether or one of the workers decided to become a drone layer, I decided to buy a queen and try to quickly save it. It was time to hit the road for a new queen.

So I called John down at Triad Bee Supply in Trinity, North Carolina, and asked if he had any queens available. Guess what? He did. And on a Saturday too! Matter of fact, they had ten Italian queens caged that very morning. I asked him to mark one and I would be on the way. That is her (to the left). See her? She's hanging from the cage, the lady with the large abdomen. This was the best of around six pictures I tried to snap. She would not stay still to have her picture made. But as you can see, she's large and extremely healthy looking, so I'm hoping she'll soon crank up and save this colony from dying out.

The first thing I did was remove the second deep hive body and ten frames. There was no reason to have all that empty space for a small amount of bees, so I cut it down to one deep. Second thing was to find some really full frames of capped brood from a nearby donor hive to beef it up. So I borrowed some frames from the hive next door and replaced those with empty frames from the orange hive. Third thing was introduce the new queen using the time tested method of placing the queen cage in the hive and allow the workers to eat through the candy and release her. As you can see, as soon as I placed the queen cage on top, the bees from the hive started checking her out. I kept watch to see if any kind of fighting or unusual behavior would start, but nothing happened at all. And that is a good thing. I've got my fingers and a few toes crossed that she will be readily accepted as their new queen. 

For new beekeepers reading this (or older beekeepers who need a walk down memory lane), the best method I've found for introducing a new queen is to hang the cage between two frames. First of all, remove the cork that protects the white candy or fondant. And always place the screen where it faces the bottom. That's so the workers can feed the queen and her attendants. Always place the cage where the candy end is slightly downward so the queen can walk out and onto a frame when she's finally released. Then shut the hive up and leave it alone. The worker bees will continue to eat through the candy until the queen is released, then she can go to work and rule the hive. After a few days, you can go back and check to see if she's out and in the hive. The best sign is finding new eggs which mean she's already gone to work.

I can't imagine what happened to this colony to make it change in a short amount of time. Maybe they swarmed and the new virgin queen left to mate and never returned? Did they kill the old queen if she became a drone layer? Who knows. And we probably never will know. But hopefully this new queen will be readily accepted by the existing workers and create a bustling colony of her own. There's always an excitement when introducing a new queen and seeing her become a success, and I can't wait to check and see that she's out and ruling her hive.

Update coming in a few days! Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Mark's tip of the day: Kill those weeds without chemicals!

I once paid a visit to a new beekeeper's hives and noticed that every weed under and around them was "graveyard dead" (as Jerry Clower used to say). I was in awe and wanted to know the secret. When I asked him how he was killing them, he didn't hesitate to say Round Up. While I praised his efforts to keep his yard free of weeds, I gave him some friendly advice and told him to stop using chemicals like that around his bee hives. While Round Up is an herbicide and not a pesticide, it has been shown to be toxic for animals, fish and humans. And it is more than likely toxic to honey bees too. I told him one natural weed killer is to mix one gallon of white vinegar and one large container of salt, then spray it like Round Up. You can also add some dish detergent to the vinegar and salt mix. The good thing, it really works. The bad thing, you have to reapply it frequently.  

Before I got my first colony of bees, I tried everything you could think of to kill a big bed of bamboo behind my house. The previous owners apparently planted it, and what they were thinking, I don't know. The stuff is relentless and you can't kill it. No matter what I've used, nothing has worked. I even read where people have poured concrete over it and the stuff will continue to grow and sprout at the end of the concrete pad. My best bet would be to get a panda but I don't think that is very practical.

Year ago while doing some research on how to eliminate this evil weed, I ran across an article that said of you will apply Morton's water conditioning salt, it will kill tough weeds but not impact the environment like toxic chemicals. So I tried it and sure enough it worked. Let me clarify, it killed the grass and other weeds where it made direct contact, but did little to the bamboo. While that part was a failure, I did learn that the water conditioner salt is a cheap and non toxic method to deal with grass. And it is perfect to put under bee hives since it has no smell and nothing that will hurt the bees if they come in contact with it.

The pellets are about the size of medium gravel. And they are big enough that they won't disappear in one rain event. So as they melt, they leave enough residue kill the grass and will continue to work until they disappear. Once they're gone, simply apply more pellets. I paid a little over $8 for a 40 pound bag, and you can probably get it cheaper if you shop around. But a word of warning - don't put them near flowers or other greenery you want to live. While it doesn't work with bamboo, it does work on other living plants, so be careful where you put it. And if you accidentally get some on plants you do want to live, get it up before it rains or you use a water hose.

Good luck if you try it and let me know how it works for you. Oh by the way, the bamboo is still out of control although I keep it at bay with clippers and the lawnmower. And who of these days, I may have to get that panda after all!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

To bee (cam) or not to bee (cam)? That is the question!

This has been an idea that I've been tossing around for a couple of years, and that's setting up my own "bee cam" system. Not a bee cam inside the hives, but one that focuses on the outside of the hives so you can watch the bees come and go. There used to be one that broadcast from somewhere in California, and as long as there was daylight, you could watch the bees flying in and out all day long. But something happened and the cam went offline and eventually disappeared. But it planted the idea that if I was so amused by the bee cam that others surely must have been as well.

So I started doing a little digging to find out how easy (or difficult) it would be to set up my own bee cam. And while the cost of camera equipment and software has dropped significantly over the last few years, it can still get pretty complicated to set up a system that will broadcast over the Internet. It seems that the toughest part of the endeavor would be to connect the system to the 'net. Many of the outdoor cameras are wireless so that would eliminate running cable from my house to the bee hives. And many of them broadcast a signal for hundreds of feet to reach the indoor receiver. But even though they send a wireless signal, they need electricity to operate, and I have no electricity near my hives. One solution would be to set up a solar battery system that would power the camera, but that will drive up the cost by several hundred more dollars. Anyway around it, it is not going to be cheap.

A friend who works with computer systems is doing some research to see what kind of camera and system would be the best for the circumstances. I already have a computer I can dedicate for the web stream, so it would come down to buying a camera and putting together all the connections to make it work. And I have another friend who installs security systems, including cameras, so I want to see what he can offer to make this a reality. Sounds easy, but so far it has been a task to figure it all out.

While this seems like a fun project and could really become popular (someone even suggested I could possibly sell advertisements to help pay for it) it all boils down to how complicated it could become. And of course, the money factor too. While I would love to do it, like many other beekeepers, I operate on a small budget and don't have piles of money lying around. I already know that if it is going to cost a small fortunate, and it just might, I'll just have to scrap it.

So what do you think about such a project? What do you see as the pros and cons of such an endeavor? Would it be worth it? Suggestions to make it work?

Comments please!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Introducing more color into my apiary with a purple hive!

As proud as I was of my temporary hive (which I made from two honey supers and two bottom boards), I knew it was time to put my swarm in a permanent home. They had been in the temporary digs since Saturday, April 7th, so they were due for some real estate they could call their own. So after my weekend trip to Triad Bee Supply, and two healthy coats of paint, it was time to install the new hive.

Check out the new hive set-up! Yep, purple! As you've probably noticed by now, all of my hives have a different color, and while I was at the paint store, I saw this pleasing shade of purple. Okay, maybe it is really more of a shade of lavender. But I really like it. I saw a really hot shade of red I liked, but I didn't choose it because I hear the bees only see it as black. So I'm sticking with lighter colors. And I have another hive that needs painting, and I already have the paint. In honor of the ladies, my next colony will reside in a pink hive. My apiary is definitely becoming a splash of color!

In the time that this colony has been re-hived, you can see that the queen has been one busy lady. She hasn't missed a lot of time in laying eggs as long as she has a place, and this frame came from another colony the same day I caught them (as you know, you always put a frame of brood with swarm catches so they will stay put). This is all new capped brood. And the other side of the frame was just as covered. So for an old queen, she's still got it!

And not only capped brood, but take a look at all the c-shaped larvae! As you can see (as with all my pictures, click for a larger view), all the larvae are pearly white and glistening which is an indicator of a healthy colony. This colony is well on its way to doing extremely well. In addition to the great looking larvae, most of the drawn frames were filled with a mixture of eggs, larvae, capped brood and the essentials to make honey (nectar and pollen). And nine out of the ten frames were fully drawn, so I added a second deep hive body and ten new frames. Of course I spritzed them with sugar syrup to attract the bees. By the time I was closing up shop, they were already working their way up.

By the way, I did a quick check of the blue hive and things looked great there too. I found new eggs and larvae, so I know the colony is queenright. That wasn't the case for the last few weeks. I'm beginning to think that this may have been the hive that swarmed instead of the yellow one. Why? Because the same day the swarm happened, I found eggs and brood in every hive but the blue one. I know that queens will stop laying before a swarm in preparations to leave, so I'm inclined to think that maybe it was the blue one after all. For every week I checked after the swarm, I could not find eggs or a queen. I was even beginning to worry that it may develop a laying worker. Now all of a sudden, I have eggs and brood. So maybe I have a new queen in residence and she's back after her mating flight and already working? Could be. The bees were extremely calm and things were running as usual, so I think things are fine there. My only concern is a few small hive beetles I've seen there so I'm going to start a treatment soon.

Looks like I have one happy (and colorful) apiary!