Split Believer

Split doing wellNever having seen a the results of a split before, I have always been hesitant, but fascinated to try one. When my last hive, Sandy, didn’t make it though the winter, I needed to secure bees late in the buying cycle. Luckily, a fellow Cape Cod beekeeper came to my aid, saying he’d split one of his hives and get me going. I jumped at the opportunity, both to have native bees, and to see a split done first hand.

For those still getting up to speed, a split, in its simplest terms, is taking a healthy hive and dividing it in two; the other half going into a new hive. One half gets the existing queen, and the other half, sensing it’s queen-less, makes a new queen.

This all sounds very logical and easy, but there’s much more involved, and much of it revolves around making a new queen. Consider that the queen-less part of the split needs to have young eggs that are just the right age for the workers to pick a few to turn into queens (they often make 7 or 8 at once to ensure at least one lives). If the eggs are too old, they can’t be made into queens, so timing the split when there it enough young brood is essential. Then you have to make sure there is enough capped brood for a new generation of workers to raise the queen. Oh, and better make sure there are honey stores there too, as the workers will be concentrating on making a new queen and not on making honey. Clearly, making a split is part art and part science. It is not, as many books will tell you, just pulling half the frames out of a colony and moving them to a new hive.

That being said, splits are traditional way of  creating bees for an additional hive, as well as swarm prevention. When done correctly they work well, as pictured above. Of the three colonies, the left two are packages from Georgia. The right is a split that is growing so fast I needed to add another super of frames for them to grow into.

It seems that I’m now a split believer.

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Three new colonies

Three Hives in a RowMay is often a busy month for beekeepers, and it has been for me. I’ve installed a split from a fellow Cape Cod beekeeper (thanks Bruce!), and two packages from Georgia.

As you know, I really don’t like packages from Georgia, specifically for their lack of genetics that will help them survive New England winters. But, I had trouble securing additional local bees, so in order for me to up the ante and have three hives this summer, I needed to supplement with non-local bees.

A package is in front of one of the hives as I couldn’t get all the bees out of it, and I knew they would follow their queen inside after a few hours. I had to leave for Boston soon after I installed the packages, so I can only cross by fingers and hope they are doing well before my next visit.

On the hive on the left, I placed the package inside the hive and opened it, a technique for a less traumatizing installation. Unfortunately that didn’t work well for the middle hive as the queen cage broke loose and a bit of chaos started, forcing me to put their package outside after I fished out the queen and placed her inside.

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Unusual bee pollination

No matter how long you’re a beekeeper, you still learn things about bees and pollination that surprise you, especially this Spring Harvest.

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Sandy: Starvation Due to Excessive Cold

Sandy StarvationA check of the hive on Feb 22 made me nervous. Even though it was about 55F when I went to check the hive, there was no sign of bees. Unusual, as I would have expected a few cleansing flights, but I didn’t even see traces of bee-poop in the bit of snow in front of the hive. Nervously, I put my ear to the hive and heard nothing. With a deep sigh, I steeled myself, and opened the hive.

What I saw brought me to tears – a dead colony that I had worked so hard to nurture. They died on the comb, thousands still in a cold cluster, hundreds “butt out” of the comb. There was 40-60 lbs of honey in their comb by the end of Oct, and not a drop when I opened the hive in Feb. The sugar was visually untouched, with just 5 bees clinging to it. I am sure they died of starvation from lack of honey, but not from the 5 lbs of sugar an inch above them (mountain camp method).

My guess, after talking with a number of beekeepers, is that while the official cause is “starvation”, the details are a little more complicated. There was plenty of emergency food (sugar) for them, but it was so cold that they couldn’t/wouldn’t break cluster to go and get it. I would label this starvation due to excessive cold, not starvation due to lack of food.

Heartbreaking, but I know this is part of beekeeping in New England. I will start again with a new local queen this Spring, and raise them up; this time working toward a critical mass of bees – around three colonies.
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Winter check-in

Winter cluster in SandyA quick inspection of the Sandy hive on Dec 30, 2013 showed a happy colony that had barely even touched the sugar I left for them. Since bees prefer their own honey to human processed sugar, this means they have plenty of their own honey to eat which was always my intent.

A few seconds after lifting the mountain camp feeder above, they started to surge out of the frames, clearly fearing an attack. I quickly snapped this picture, and carefully replaced the feeder above, strapping the whole hive down as I do year round.

While we’ve had a reasonably mild winter so far, the ladies are looking healthy and happy; hopefully ready for a split late this spring. And now, as beekeepers have done in colder climates for hundreds of years, I patiently wait for spring when I’ll check on them again.

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A Reminder of Who’s Boss

Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey

Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey

My bees are pretty gentile.  I often waltz up to the hives and put my ear to the back of the brood nest and listen for a the swish without any protection. As long as I don’t mess with their entrance, and don’t open the hive, they ignore me. The worst I ever get is a bee bump, telling me that it’s time to leave – and I do.

But today, just as I stood observing the hives at 15 feet, I was attacked by a solitary bee. She came out of nowhere, started dive bombing my face, and in a few seconds, made her target and stung me on my cheekbone.

Now I’ve heard honey bees are more aggressive in the fall, as they become more protective of their honey stores and their babies. I’ve even heard of a normaly gentle hive having an alter ego in the fall, but it’s 80F and a sunny day outside, hardly fall in New England. I didn’t come close to the hive, and I certainly didn’t block their entrance or open it up.

In the few seconds before she stung, I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t there to mess with the babies. I wasn’t going to steal their honey.  I’d even be happy to back off another 15 feet. Geez, woman, I’m the guy that fed your colony all last winter – remember? What did I do?

As I sat thinking todays event over, and their attitude over the past week when I was in the hive for an inspection, I think it must be due to the time of year.

Note to self – Always wear protection when approaching the hive in the fall. Ouch.

Side note: My wife and son were stung yesterday by a bumble bee gone out of control. She stung my son outside, jumped on me as we quickly went into the house, and when I shooed her away, dive bombed my wife inside and outside the house.  The bumble bee finally met her demise outside, under my shoe. What is it with bees and the fall?

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Trapping in the Summer?

Every beekeeper knows that swarm season is in the spring, but since bees don’t have a calendar, they swarm when they are ready. Swarming is an instinct of a healthy colony that has outgrown its current home and decides to split in two, with half staying, and half leaving to find a new spot to call home. The reason this often happens in the spring is due to the existing colony  population growing exponentially in the spring, sometimes to a point over overpopulation. Many beekeepers worry about swarming as it sets back honey production, but in the life of a colony, a swarm means healthily bees, and these days that’s something we need more of.

Next week I am going to set out a swarm trap, hoping to provide a home to half a colony that has recently decided to depart for better living conditions. Most beekeepers would think me nuts for doing this, but I’m going to try for a number of reasons:

  1. I built a nuc box, but was unable split one of my colonies into a nuc due to bad timing
  2. The nuc box will make an excellent swarm trap
  3. I have nothing to loose and everything to gain

So next week I will set a ladder up into a tree and tie up the swarm trap. I’ll bait it with some lemon grass oil, and see what happens. If I don’t get anything I’ll take it down in the fall. If I do get a swarm, I’ll nurse them though the winter, and hopefully will have an extra colony in the spring to use or give away.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Update: For those that asked, I built my own swarm trap out of some scrap wood, but added a feature where it can hold five medium frames. This allows the trap to become a nuc without disturbing the bees. The only part I bought was a metal nuc disk, as I don’t like using anything plastic in my hives.

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A Mini Harvest

First frame harvestedOver the holiday weekend, I decided the time was right to take a single frame of honey from Sandy. As this was the first honey I had taken from any hive, I was quite excited. Armed with some clever harvesting ideas from my friend Tim, we headed to the hives. With my trusty hive tool, I slowly pulled a single frame from the side of a medium honey super that was completely built out. It had a lot of cross-connected combs, but we quickly sliced through the cross-connects using a kitchen knife I had left in the sun for an hour. By then the knife blade was hot and easily slid through the comb, mostly melting it on contact. Once the frame was cut free of the cross-connected comb, it was easy to pull out. But now what to do?

Tim had previously figured out a medium frame would stand up in a metal oven pan we found, so we wedged it into the pan to work on it. As I didn’t use a smoker, there were still a few dozen bees on the frame. A little diligent work with a bee brush pushed most of them off and they returned to the hive. Then we took the frame about 200 feet away from the hive and put it in front of a large, portable fan. The fan blew a gentle breeze onto the frame, and the remaining bees left within a few seconds.

First frame before harvestingAfter checking ourselves and our frame for bees, we quickly took the frame into the house for harvesting. As the frame was still in the metal pan, it was easy to work on cutting away the comb, while any honey drippings fell into the pan. I did the cutting by going around the edges and then down, noting that the comb was thickest at the top, and generally tapered as it went down. Because of this I cut out the top of the comb for snacking on as comb honey (my personal favorite), and then the rest we used an innovative crush-and-strain method invented by Tim.

Draining comb in the windowThis method involved putting the comb into a zip-loc bag, trying to get out as much air as possible, and then zipping it closed. Then, with our hands, and later a rolling pin, we crushed the comb while in the bag, being careful not to burst the bag and have honey sprayed all over the kitchen counter. Once the comb was crushed, Tim added a small straw into the flat bag which held the comb off the bottom of the bag. He then clipped the bag up into a window so that the sunlight would slowly heat the contents, and allow for an even better flow. The picture shows two of these zip-loc baggies – one behind each other so you see two straws. Notice the honey pooling in the bottom of each bag. Tim gets the McGyver award for this design.

We let these bags sit overnight, and by morning we set aside the comb and had pure honey in each bag. Now the honey can be poured out, but I found it easier to snip the corner of each baggie and  let the honey drain out, a little like a pastry bag. While it does leave some honey residue, it’s very efficient for a mini-harvest of a frame or two. For anything more, I would use the more traditional bucket system, or at least a strainer over some jars.

As for the comb, I put it in a Pyrex cup and heated it in a 1,000 watt microwave for 30 seconds at 30% power. I had to do this a few times to make sure it was all melted, but not boiling. I then poured it through a strainer to remove the impurities, into another Pyrex jar. The idea here is that I want to reheat the wax again, so having it end up in another Pyrex cup means I can just put it in the microwave again. Remember that all items, the cup and the strainer, will be forever coated in beeswax, so I bought a few just for this purpose. I’m sure a dishwasher could get off most of it, but I also think it would clog up the drain. Heed my warning – dedicate cups and a strainer, and don’t plan on washing them very often.

So now I had the wax, which I put aside until I collected more on August harvest, and of course the honey. Tim made a delicious salad dressing with some of the honey, and we drizzled the rest over home made vanilla ice cream.

Thank you to all the honey bees that made this day possible!

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Busy Bees make Bountiful Bushes

Backyard hedge lineWhen I checked on my bees two weeks ago, the hedge in my backyard was about three to four feet tall. Being that most of these bushes were planted last fall and thus just getting started this spring, I didn’t expect them to be doing very well. I knew any new landscaping would take time to settle in, and I was prepared to wait. What I wasn’t prepared for was this: bushes over six feet high and budding fruit on some of the trees in just two weeks.

As I sat their pondering why the bushes were doing so well (Was it the soil? The salt air?), my wife gently pointed out – “it’s your bees, Dave”. Our landscape architect, a former beekeeper, nodded in agreement. Clearly I wasn’t seeing the big picture.

Focused on the health of my bees, I had forgotten that bees are opportunists, and a close pollen/nectar source gets visited more often. And so, this line of bushes in the flight path of my hives (they’re on the right side, buried behind the bushes) gets a lot of TLC from my bees. They’re close, they’re almost all “bee friendly” plants, and I’m reaping the benefits. Or the plants are. Or the bees. Funny how an ecosystem spreads the love.

So the next time you see your neighbors, quote the children’s rhyme, and ask them “How does your garden grow?”. My guess is their bumper-crop will coincide with the arrival of your first colony. Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors”, but I’d rather keep my neighbors happy by helping out their garden with my bees.

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And then there were two

2nd Hive 1st DayToday I installed my second hive, and put it both hives on my new stand (more about that in another post). On the left is the new hive named Sunny which came as a three frame nuc, and has a syrup feeder hidden under the top two medium supers. My original hive, named Sandy is on the right, clearly taller as it is a thriving colony. As long as I was going to change things around on the ladies, I thought I’d go the extra step of converting Sandy to a top entrance as well. I’ll do the same for Sunny when I get more time in the wood shop (a.k.a the corner of my garage) and can build another ventilated super.

More on this new hive over the coming weeks.

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