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  • Bee Diary: May 9, 2010

    Beltane                                        Waning Flower Moon

    A new feature on ancientrails, the ancient trail of bee-keeping.  This diary will serve as my record of work with my colonies and a way to review the year’s learnings and prepare for next year.


    From left to right is colony 1, the parent colony of bees started with a package a year ago.  The parent colony has two honey supers on it now, the gray boxes, and a queen excluder which you can see as an unpainted strip of wood between the honey supers and the top hive box. The bottom hive box sits on a bottom board which rests on a leveled foundation, in this case bricks.  Colony 2, with the silvery metal cover, is the hive box, painted gray, and an empty honey super covering a plastic pail of 1 to 1 sugar syrup.  The green board underneath is the bottom board and the foundation in this and the next instance are a heavy plastic decking plank cut into small pieces.  Colony 2 was the third hive box on the parent which I divided a week ago and to which I introduced a new Minnesota Hygienic Queen on Monday.  The third box, with the copper top, which all the colonies will have eventually, is the colony started a two weeks ago from a 2 pound package of Minnesota Hygienics.   In the final frame I’m smoking the top hive box of the parent colony preparatory to an inspection of the frames.  Kate took this picture last Monday and the other pictures were taken on May 1.

    Today I started by preparing the smoker, the metal object you can see in the picture with me.  This has taken a long time for me to learn and I finally have found a way to colony3keep it working for the 30-45 minutes I need to do my inspections and whatever work I need to do.  I now use hamstermebee670050210 bedding to start the fire, throw in some compressed wood pellets, pumping the bellows to create a flame and embers.  Then I put in smoker fuel, a cotton product that I assume is leftover material from spinning cotton into thread.  Once this has established itself I put on the suit, zip up the headpiece, cinch up the sleeves and put my pants into my socks.  I learned this last one the hard way when that bee crawled up my pant leg and stung me on the butt.

    Each time you start work on a colony you smoke the entrance, which is to the back in the colony 1 photo and to the right side in 2 & 3.  Then, each you time you lift something, like the top or a hive box you put smoke under the object you’re lifting before you take it completely off.  The smoke calms the bees and, it just occurred to me, the beekeeper.  Often when you crack a hive box you have to use a hive tool to break the propolis the bees use to seal up their hive.  It’s a sticky, brownish substance that sets to a somewhat pliable but sturdy joiner.

    Each time you check the hives you look for several different things:  swarm cells, which are really new queen cells indicating that a swarm is imminent, larvae which mean the current queen is at work and present–this is a situation bee-keepers call being queen right, disease, this one is tough for me since I’m not sure what I’m looking for and pest invasions like mice or ants. In addition to this general inspection there are also specific tasks related to each inspection since the goal is to disturb the hive as little as necessary while maintaining a good weather eye.


    Colony 1 (the parent colony with a year old queen):  I checked the honey supers to see if they were full.  They weren’t.  Had they been I would have added two more.  I also removed the queen excluder and checked a couple of frames in the top hive box and underneath it for swarm cells.  After setting the top box on the ground, I did a similar inspection of the bottom hive box, then reversed the two by putting the top box on the bottom board and the bottom box on top of it.  Queen excluder.  Honey supers.  Top board.  Hive box cover.  Done.

    I noticed pancake shaped cells constructed on top of the cells on the frame foundation.  I have no idea what this means.  I saw a few swarm cells and what looked like a large number of drones, fat bodied male bees.  I also found larvae which meant colony 1 is still queen right.  You can kill the queen during an inspection.  That’s a buzz kill.  Ha.  If a colony is not queen right, it will not produce worker bees or honey.  This is one of the reasons you stay out of the hives as much as possible.  In addition, the bees know much more about being bees than you do.  Let them handle it.

    Colony 2 (child of the parent with a few weeks old queen):  There was pancake shaped cell structures in this colony, too.  Again?  I did see larvae here and an empty queen cage, so colony 2 is queen right.  It looked to me like a lot of these guys were drones, too, but what do I know at this point?  There were a lot of bees and they did look and sound crowded–a lot of buzzing–so I added a hive box with ten frames and foundations, left the original hive body on the bottom board and put the empty on top.  Then I closed colony 2.

    Colony 3 (package with few weeks old queen):  I lifted the copper hive cover, found the syrup pail still had plenty of syrup, smoked the hive box and lifted out a few frames.  There are larvae and the  beginning of the ovoid structure of brood, then pollen, then honey.  The pollen patty has had little activity, but I left it in just in case they need it.  After hiving a package, the population of the colony declines for the first 21 days as the queen lays and workers go out seeking pollen, many of whom will die.  After the brood begins to hatch and the nectar flow begins in earnest, the population will ramp up.  When 80% of the frames have brood, I’ll add another hive box on this colony.  Both colony 2 and colony 3 have the same task this year, build a strong parent colony, three hive boxes, that will over winter and divide next May.

    Colony 1, if all things go well, should produce honey this year.  Next year and from then on, again assuming things go well, we’ll always have two parent colonies producing honey and two child colonies in the process of becoming parents.

    Under any circumstances I go the Minnesota Hobby Beekeeper Association meeting on Tuesday, May 11th, and found what those pancake things are.  Until the next entry in the bee diary.

  • A Colony Divided Against Itself Can Stand

    Beltane                                      Waning Flower Moon

    The potato bed now has three bags of composted manure dug into it and the leek, sugar snap, bok choy bed has one and one more coming.  Kate has weeded several beds including the herb spiral and the sun trap.  It all looks better with the weeds gone.  I found the seeds purchased Friday, so I’ll be able to plant them after lunch and the nap.

    The honey house is swept out and ready for a large table and better organization.  It feels good to have a place just to store bee related things like frames, hive boxes, the smoker, smoker fuel, bee suit and gloves.

    I leveled the foundation for the divided colony and after lunch, as the winds die down toward mid-day, I’ll do my first division.  We’ll see how that goes.  This will be my third colony.  After this year I should run at four colonies until or unless I have a winter kill or disease.

    A full outside day with pleasant (60 degree) temps and a light breeze.  Not like the 40 mph gusts from yesterday.

  • Avoiding the Swarm

    Spring                                   Waxing Flower Moon

    A bruising middle finger, swollen passes the inflammation onto the top of the hand.  It itches.  This aspect of bee-keeping has its annoying moments.  Like using same finger to hit the i with regularity, or the comma both assigned to this one on the right hand.  This will, however, pass.  Kate says it is possible to develop an allergy of significance, I hope I don’t.

    This time of year in bee-keeping the primary task is to keep the colony from swarming.    My hive had burr comb when I opened it, comb on top of the top frames;  it also had swarm cells, that is, cells in which the larvae have been fed royal jelly to produce a queen.  Both of these are symptoms of a colony ready to swarm.  Swarming is natural, the way feral bees keep their population at optimum size and spread their kind.  It robs a beekeeper of the honey flow, however, because it is the over-wintered colony that produces the maximum amount of honey, so beekeepers want to keep their bees happy.

    One way to do this is to do a partial reverse, which I did Saturday.  Since a colony tends to move up during the winter, this puts the largely vacated middle box on top, thus creating more room for the hive.  A hive with room and food is less likely to swarm.  Another critical point comes in ten more days, when I then do the complete reverse.  About 10 days after that, I’ll split the colony in two.  That means I’ll have two colonies, plus the new one I’m starting this weekend while Kate’s away in Colorado.

    I’ll have three colonies through the fall, while the parent colony (if it doesn’t swarm.) will naturally die out.  If things have gone well, I’ll have two parent colonies next spring which I’ll split in May, thus giving me four colonies, two producing a lot of honey–the parents–and two perhaps producing some, but their primary task lies in producing a strong parent colony for the next spring.  Then, I’ll have two colonies which I’ll split and so on.

    Spread composted manure and hummus on the bed I plan to use as part of our kitchen garden after shopping at the Anoka co-op.   Not such a great experience at the co-op.  It was an old style co-op with few price labels, indifferent and largely volunteer staff, crowded aisles and only a modest selection of food.  Think I’ll stick with the Wedge.

  • Doing Stuff

    Spring                                                      Flowering Moon

    The netaphim ruined last year by dogs Rigel and Vega has repairs.  The repairs sit safely inside fences that Rigel has shown either no interest or no capability to penetrate.  They should last.

    The bees will wait until a less breezy tomorrow.  Wind blows the smoke around and I have to perform a reversal, hive check and clean off the bottom board.  The reversal of the top 2 hive boxes encourages the queen to move into the top box and lay eggs there to create an ovoid shape of larva outside of which the nursery bees will complete a ring of pollen and a ring of honey.  This makes the planned colony split on May 15th assured of one hive box full of larva, hopefully the top one with new larvae and therefore newly born nursery bees.  Nursery bees take more kindly to moving around than the older worker bees.

    Irrigation folks have scheduled Tuesday to come out and turn on the irrigation system.  A good thing.  They usually wait until the second week of May since our average last frost date is around May 15th.  I imagine that’s moved up closer to the first week of May on average, but a frost outside the average is still a frost so most planning still accommodates the old date.

    Tomorrow the bees and soil amending, that is, putting in composted manure and humus on the raised beds and adding some sphagnum moss (some more) to the blueberry beds.  The outdoor season with sun.  The great wheel turns.  Again.

  • A Warm-Blooded Insect?

    Spring                                         Waxing Awakening Moon

    Sunny, but cool though warm weather seems fated to come our way.  Ice out has advanced on Round Lake though there is still rough, weak ice over most of its surface.  Many daffodils have speared their way up through the leaves and other detritus from last falls end of the growing season.  I’ve seen a few hosta roll-ups, too.  I put in my last order of bee stuff yesterday, bringing seven honey supers, 70 super frames and 50 super foundations, a copper hive cover and 75 frame and foundations for the deep hive bodies.

    The old machine shed, now to be the honey house needs a thorough cleansing which will be an early task once the weather moves away from soggy and I have some time for outside work.

    Today, in just a couple of minutes, I have a call about Matt Entenza’s gubernatorial campaign.  They want my thoughts on environmental issues.  They can have every one of them.  After the call, on to the language of ancient Rome.  Later in the day I may revise Liberal II.  That novel just sits there right now.  Waiting.  Meanwhile my promiscuous creative spirit entertains other guests, a new project, a big project, that will follow After the Hawthorn Wars.

    Here’s another jaw dropper that I learned about bees during my bee course.  Over the winter the colony becomes a large cluster with all the bees hanging, literally, together, shivering.  The shivering produces heat and keeps the colony alive during the temperature drops of winter.  This means, said Marla Spivak, that in winter the colony, the whole colony, acts like a warm blooded animal.  The colony is a super-organism that gathers food, births larvae and nurses them, takes diseased and deceased members, defends itself and takes up a lot of time with architecture as well.

    Since the cluster happens inside the hive boxes, it is difficult to picture.  I’ve chosen a swarm in the picture here, to show you a cluster, but not like the one I had in my first colony this winter.

  • A Parent Colony, A Divide, And a Package Colony

    Imbolc                             New Moon (Awakening)

    Bees.  Bees.  Bees.  Bees.  I’ve had two 8 hour sessions of nothing but bees.  And more stuff about bees.

    Today I learned about dividing a colony, a successfully wintered colony, which is our situation here.  As Marla Spivak says, “If you’re not sure, just let the bees do it.”  That conforms to my work late last fall with the bees.  Mark, my bee beepackagementor, had a traumatic autumn and we just didn’t get together quite enough.

    Now, though, I understand the next step, which will create a parent colony–the old queen with two hive boxes–and a child colony, which I will treat in the same way I did the current one.  That is, the goal with it will be to get to late fall with three hive boxes with a combination of brood, pollen and honey sufficient to see the child colony through this coming winter.

    (2 lb package of bees)

    Here’s the difficult part.  The parent colony gets no care after the honey flow stops.  This means that its queen will die of old age and since the colony will then have lost its egg layer, the entire colony will die out over the winter.  There’s nothing cruel about this since it follows the essential biology of bees.  That is, queens live around 2  years and the workers 60 days, so the entire colony would die out under any circumstances without a new queen and even if a new queen were added, the bees that would become the new colony under her reign would be entirely new bees.

    There’s a big upside to this for all bees.  We can clean out the old hive bodies and frames, check for disease and virus and if necessary we can burn the old frames and start over.  This means that each bee colony will have a young, prolific queen and each hive will get a complete going over ever other year.  Both of these elements, cleaning and a young, prolific queen increase the colonies capacity to survive and thrive.

    The good news is that the parent colony begins making honey the minute the divide is complete.  Honey supers go on the parent colony right away and they start filling up.  A honey super is about half the size of a deep hive box and honey filled frames are their only result.  A queen excluder is put on the parent colony deep hive boxes, so the queen does not crawl up in the honey supers and start laying eggs, therefore only honey ends up in them.

    In addition to the divide Mark the bee mentor called and said he had an extra package of bees on the way.  I agreed to buy it because I thought my bees were dead.  Since they’re not, taking on another package of bees means we’ll end up with four hives next spring if everything goes well.  At that point, we should be producing some serious honey, possibly enough to sell at farmer’s markets.

  • The Dead Live

    Imbolc                                  Waning Wild Moon

    Big news.  The dead live.  Or, rather, the bee colony I declared dead last fall turns out to be very much alive.  I checked busy-honey-bees_1712this afternoon.  That means the whole bee thing looks more and more rosy here at 7 Oaks.  In the second year we can expect honey.  And a second hive.  Good thing I’m taking this  class.

    All about bees.  Nothing about birds.  Marla Spivak is the charismatic professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota who has a lot of knowledge about colony collapse disorder.  She runs this weekend program for beginning beekeepers, a tradition at the University of Minnesota since 1922, as well the Bee Lab and the whole Bee program at the U.

    You might not think much more about this, but when you realize that, as I learned today, the Upper Midwest is the primary honey producing area in the United States, flanked by California and Florida, and that there is no bee program in any of our surrounding states, Nebraska is the closest, then you understand the significance of her role and the U’s bee program.

    Last year there were 160 people in the beginning bee-keepers class.  This year there were 250 with a waiting list of 150.  Interest in bee-keeping has taken on the characteristic of a small groundswell.  This is great news for bees, not so much for the 250 of us who sat in a theatre today that had little air circulation and 250 human furnaces pumping out BTU’s.  It got hot.

  • Excluded Queen, Clean Fins

    Summer                       Waning Summer Moon

    The smoker worked.  Mostly.  The bees have had 2 to 2.5 months of breeding, brooding and comb building.  There are a lot more bees than there were in April when Mark showed me how to load a box a’ bees into the first hive box.  Weekly I’ve checked each frame, when there are three hive boxes on as there is now, that means checking 28 frames each time.

    The bee’s propolis had welded together many frames this time, so prying them apart proved more difficult than it had the first weeks.  With smoke to discourage angry bees each frame came out with minimal interference.  After checking a few frames in each hive box, I put the top box on the bottom, left the middle one in its place and put the bottom one of top.  If I understand it correctly, this encourages the bees to continue producing brood, making the colony more healthy for the winter while also expanding their honey base in the honey supers where the queen cannot go.

    In this way the colonies survival over the winter gains a higher probability while still allowing the bee-keeper to harvest some of the honey flow.

    Today, after the hives, I cracked the case of the outside air conditioning unit, took it off and sprayed off the literal blanket of cottonwood fibers that had collected around the fins which guide air past the cooling coils.  I could have done this three weeks ago, but I forgot about it.  It’s not fun for me since it involves lot of little screws, a cantankerous body of sheet metal that must line up with the holes just right and more bending than my deconditioned joints can stand.  A good prod to get back to the resistance and flexibility work as well as the aerobics.

    I tend to emphasize the aerobics since the heart and circulatory system and the respiratory system tend to cause death if not tended with care.  That’s only half of the battle though, the other half is having enough strength and flexibility to live the life time saved by regular aerobic exercise.

    The cantankerous sheet metal awaits.  I’ve written this while letting it dry off.  This all falls under the British category of estate management.  Where are all the servants again?  Oh, that’s right.  They are me.