Monday, April 30, 2012

Still Lazy

"Girls, when are you going to get moving?"  I found myself asking that question often today as I checked the hive for brood.  We had cool weather again (a high of 53 degrees) and a hard rain yesterday.  Even though I waited until the afternoon to go out and open the hive, my bees were still just balled up being lazy.  They seem to be drawing out beeswax, which is a good sign, but apparently not much more beyond that.  Compared to Coyote's colony, they seem very, very, very small and sleepy.

My main goal of checking the hive today was to verify that my queen had begun to lay brood.  It wasn't very sunny, so I had a hard time actually seeing any larva.  However, I do believe I saw a few in the frame nearest to the middle (where I had installed the queen cage).  It also appeared that the few larva present had jelly surrounding them, however, there were too few larva present to see any sort of laying pattern.  In light of the bad weather we've been having, it doesn't surprise me that the queen seems slow to mate.  The hive isn't acting as if they've rejected her, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that she wasn't eaten by a bird or something over the last few days.

While out working the hive, I also decided to do a little equipment rearranging to encourage the colony to stay strong.  Chiefly, I placed their supplemental feeder directly inside the of the hive.  Previously, it had fit into part of the entrance reducer, but the bees still had to exit the hive in order to obtain sugar syrup.  I wanted to make sure they were able to access high quality food despite all of these stormy days.  The bees also seem to be continuing to eat the pollen patty, so I'm taking this as a good sign.

It appears that I'm stuck waiting on warmer weather before any real excitement happens.  In the mean time, I plan to continue rereading several of my favorite bee books (and taking a nap or two myself).

Friday, April 27, 2012

Bee Math: 1 + 1 = 4

Today I spent the late afternoon and evening observing my unofficial beekeeping mentor Coyote and "helping" him install what was to be his second hive.  I say "was to be" because at the end of our adventure he has potentially ended up with four hives.

In his words, "I'm having an interesting bee problem. So, I was SO SURE that the big hive (hereafter known as the Green Hive) was queenless. They acted crabby, there were no eggs, no larva, and the brood comb was being filled with nectar. So I order a queen. Then the queen isn't shipped as soon as expected and then I find she'll be here even later than I thought. I get worried that the colony will get all PO'ed and take off.  So, today, I pick up my 2nd package of bees to start my second hive (the Dragon Hive, since Ivy painted psycho dragons on it). I also am convinced to buy an extra queen just in case the ordered one doesn't ever show up. And that if she *does* show up, I can just make another hive by taking some bees from the Green Hive. Cool beans.  WELL. I get home, and with help from Becky, we install the new colony. It goes smoothly. Then I open up the Green Hive. And what do I find??? Larva and eggs. Lots of them. There is a freaking queen in the Green Hive. I mean, what? So, not only do I have this unexpected queen, I have this extra queen sitting on my kitchen counter, AND I have a queen in the mail.  I'm going to make a third hive with the new queen I have and bees from the Green Hive. But I'm baffled as what I should do with the queen being shipped. I can't cancel the order - she's already coming. I would make a fourth hive, but I don't any more hive boxes. I could probably cobble something together Sunday, since she won't arrive until Monday. But ... I just abruptly went from one hive to four!!"

While he may end up with more hives than he was originally aiming for, it was interesting to hear him discussing splitting the hives and queens with NKY beekeeper Jack Hunt.  I also enjoyed getting to work with his established hive (the Green Hive) and thought it was really fascinating to look around, manipulate the frames, see brood, and use a fume board to take some early spring honey.  We spent a majority of time in the established hive since the new package install went so smoothly.  Rather than dumping the bees, as we did with my install, we simply set the opened package in the brood super and installed the queen cage.  Coyote keeps Italian bees, and it will be interesting to compare their temper, over wintering, and honey production to my Russian bees. 

Inspecting the queen cage.
Opening the travel box.

Helpful dog is helpful.
Discussing the action plan.
The only downside of the day was that I received my first sting as an "official" beekeeper.  To be fair to the bees, I wasn't paying close enough attention and was standing in front of the established hive's entrance.  A bee on the grass crawled onto my foot and stung me after I started walking.  My foot is still a little sore, but the sting wasn't nearly as bad as I remember them being when I was a kid.   I hate to admit it, because the bee had to die in order to sting me, but seeing the stinger still pulsing after it had been ripped from the bee was interesting.  Understanding the sting mechanism and how it continues to function independent of the bee is a topic I find very ientesting.  How Stuff Works: Bee Stings

My sting. Never mind that the arrow is bigger than the actual sting.

Being that I only have one hive as a new beekeeper, I feel lucky to have been able to work in an already established hive.  While it isn't "technically" hard to work with bees, understanding their "language" is essential.  During our visit, Coyote's bees went from indifferent, to irritated, to just plain mad, then back to not caring again.  Handling yourself with calm and knowing when to walk away are skills that will no doubt take time to develop.  With bees, practice truly does make perfect.

Opening the Green Hive and really getting to work.

Full frames!

Rhett is working hard!
New spring brood on the frame.
Coyote is letting his bees draw out their own comb without a base.
Beekeeping is so tough!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

They like her, they really, really like her!

Rain, rain, rain, and rain.  Our weatherman predicted rain for the yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  In light of this news I decided to suit up early  yesterday and check to see if the queen had been freed from her travel cage.  Apparently things went really well, the colony seems to love her, and she must have been freed in very little time.  This is good.  Really good.  My hope is that Catherine the Great (as I've taken to calling my queen Russian bee) is a strict task master when it comes to making brood and honey.

As for the weather, this is Cincinnati where our weather is very seldom, if ever, predicted correctly.  Rain did not come until much later yesterday and rather than "spotty showers" we had "15-minute-omgbbq-look-at-that-hail" storming.  I have to admit though, it was pretty cool seeing sideways rain on the river.  Today it has been cloudy off and on, but our temperature has stayed pleasant.  After another late morning the ladies decided to get up and go to work.  I'm beginning to think more and more that they just like sleeping in (really, who doesn't?)

I'm happy to see that the bees seem to be very pleased with a clover patch in the back of the yard.  I like watching them work as they are so busy, busy, busy.  While I still haven't seen a bee with pollen on its legs, that is high up on my "to find" on my list.

Finally, I learned that the smoker doesn't require that much fuel.  Actually, it only requires a very small pinch of fuel to produce a good amount of long lasting smoke.  While I might think it's hysterical, quizzical looks from the neighbors suggesting that I may be lighting my patio set on fire are not.  So note to self, less fuel next time.

Busy working the clover patch.
I wonder if they ever get dizzy?
You lookin' at me???
A completely clean queen cage (sorry for the low quality cell phone picture)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Slow Beginnings

After a very quiet day yesterday in the hive (probably due to cold weather), my bees seem to have started establishing themselves in their new home.  I'm still waiting for the appropriate amount of time to pass before opening the hive top, however, it seems as though they've assigned guard bees at the entrance and have a tentative flight pattern.  Their supplemental feed remains relatively full, but there are several blooming plants and the pollen patty for them to eat, so they are no doubt taking advantage of our spring abundance.  If you are using an inverted feeder with channels it is important that you put small stones in the channels for the bees to stand on.  Otherwise their wings get sticky and they drown (and that's no good!)

As a side note, my bees seem to be late risers.  Most of their outside hive activity doesn't begin until after 11:30 am or so in the morning.  Logically, this is probably due to the colder weather.  Today's high was 62 degrees, and the low was 42 degrees.  I personally like to think they don't get up early because they've been off doing something fabulous all night.  Perhaps raiding the annoying neighbor's swimming pool, deftly stealing sugar water out of hummingbird feeders, or doing their cute little bee communication dance.  I suspect that this behavior will change as the days get more reliably warmer.

In the mean time, I'm counting the days until I can do my first open top hive inspection and see their progress!
My cat Black Jack is an excellent assistant beekeeper.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The big day!

Today I picked up my package colony from my local bee supplier: Ron Spille Honey

It is always advisable to seek out a local supplier because bees born near where they will be hived are much happier.  For example, a Georgia bee in a Michigan hive isn't going to tolerate cold very well (this seems to be especially true for queens).

Although sunny today, it was cold!  The weather was only around 45 degrees.  I think this had a lot to do with how calm my bees were.  In their transport container they were essentially huddled together around the queen and feeding can.  There was very little movement other than an occasional repositioning as one bee traded spots with another in the cluster.

One 3lb box 'o bees!
My friend Coyote volunteered to come along and help me install the bees into their hive.  Thank goodness, otherwise my poor girls would have been ... let's just say, amazed by my frame building incompetence.  Luckily, Stewart and Coyote got the brood frames stable and then it was time to douse the girls with sugar spray.

Coyote hard at work rescuing my brood frames
Becky's Magic Bee Juice

My sugar spray formula apparently worked wonderfully.  Spraying the bees before installation is recommended because it temporarily prevents the bees from flying by making their wings heavy (of course you will have a few surly bees), but I was AMAZED at how calm they all were!  To install you pop off the top board, take out the queen cage, remove cork at the candy end of the queen cage, place queen, take out the transport feeder can, give a good but gentle shake to the transport box, dump the rest of the bees into the hive, and gently place frames over your massive bee pile.  After that, you wait.

I found it all pretty exciting and fascinating, and apparently my bees were super interested in my fancy hat.

Becky's Magic Bee Juice
1 part sugar
1 part water
4 tsp. of Honey B Healthy Honey B Healthy

I used 1 cup each of sugar and water.  This is also the solution that I am using as supplemental feed until my colony establishes itself.  For good measure, I also put a pollen patty across the top bars of the brood frames. 

Final note: You've undoubtedly noticed my fancy bee keeping suit.  Just make sure you can block off your wrists and ankles.  I used snow boots and gloves for this purpose, but you can make simple elastic bands or go full tilt and buy a special bee suit.  I'm starting out with nitrile gloves so I can get used to feeling the bees on my hands.  However, many experienced bee keepers rarely use gloves since they can be bulky and inhibit fine motor movement.

In they go ...

Starting to explore their new home!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

First Things First

The hive.  A lady needs a place she can kick her male companion out of every year, right?  Hive selection essentially comes down to two numbers - 8 or 10.  How big is the space you have to keep bees, and what is your main reason for keeping bees?  Typically, hives in the United States are of the 10 frame variety.  Their big, functional, and weight close to 180 lbs (one brood chamber, two supers) when full.  Being that I'm one girl with a small side yard who doesn't plan to produce commercial bee products, I found the 8 frame hive to be better suited for my needs.  You can find a really great comparison chart for the two hives here: 8 or 10 frames?

Besides being totally adorable, the English beehive is also extremely practical.  Ten minutes and a few coats of water proof paint and it's ready to go (unless you get your hive unassembled, in which case you're looking at a few hours of assembly time).  An assembled kit was the best fit for me (since I'm a totally new beekeeper), but all you really need to get started is a hive body, a few supers, frames, smoker, hat, and hive tool.  My kit came with the assembled hive and frames, beeswax base for the frames, a hive tool, smoker and fuel, bee brush, gloves, and book/dvd combo.  Kits can range from $100.00 - $400.00 depending on the style, size, wood type, and components that come with them.  My 8 frame assembled kit was very reasonable, even with shipping.

Placement.  Where should you put your hive?  All of my reading suggests someplace covered, facing east, and near a water source.  I chose a side corner of the yard that is under a maple tree.  It is also the awkward spot beside my raised bed garden where only rocks seem to grow.  So I considered adding a few cinder blocks and a hive as an improvement (take that stupid rocks).  I've got a birdbath and my house is about 300 feet away from the Ohio River, so I figured the water part was covered.  Why East?  So they can get up and get to work early!  Most books stress that hive placement is one of the most important decisions you make as a beekeeper, so select wisely!  In my case, I'm also pretty lucky to have a privacy fence that they have to fly over in order to leave the yard.  This will no doubt help keep their flight pattern high and curtail directly flying into someone walking down the alley.

The bees.  There are many, many, many, many, many, many, many resources about the different types of honeybees available.  I chose Russian bees.  Why?  Because they are hardy and more difficult to kill (both by pests/disease and the keeper).  They also over winter well, which is an important consideration here in the ever changing weather of the Cincinnati valley.  Although Italians are the most popular honeybee to be kept in the United States, I liked several traits of the Russian bees and thought they'd make a hearty choice for my first colony.  Russian vs Italian Honeybees

Easy as 1, 2, 3 right?

Here are some links I found helpful while researching what kind of hive and bees to purchase:
Brushy Mountain Bee Farm
Beekeeping for Dummies
KY Beekeeping Guide for Beginners
Northern Kentucky Beekeepers Association
Kentucky State Apiarist
The Russian Honeybee

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

You Do What Now, Darlin?

Why in the world would I want to keep bees?  As a thirty year old urban woman who bathes regularly, doesn't have a cabin in the woods, and has never owned a bowling shirt from the 70's, I  don't seem to fit the "typical" beekeeper profile.  (Have you seen some of the beginning beekeeper instructional DVDs??? These productions rival any 1980's health book!)  The simple answer for my decision to keep bees is that they are easier to manage than chickens.

There.  I said it.  Yes, I contemplated building a coop and even sprung .99 cents for the iPhone app, but in the end I wasn't sure I wanted to haul around 400 lbs of wood or have my dog terrorized every time he had to go out in the yard (because you know the chickens wouldn't be happy playing his favorite 'I'm-going-to-get-my-deflated-ball-and-knock-you-in-the-groin-with-it' game).

I can't say that I've had a fascination with bees my whole life, or that I come from a long line of beekeepers, but deciding to keep bees seemed like no big deal - especially after watching my friend Coyote keep a hive for a year.  Speaking of Coyote, he really should update his blog: Garden Skulls

Anyway, research materials, online forums, and YouTube videos about beekeeping are cheap and easy to find.  Many supply companies will happily send you a free catalog, and these catalogs usually contain a lot of really good basic beekeeping information.  Between all of the garden seed, flowering bulb, beekeeping and outdoor furniture catalogs I've been receiving, I'm surprised Monsanto hasn't showed up to collect my entire back yard.

But I digress.  The more I read about bees, the more I became excited to give urban beekeeping a go.  Besides being excellent pollinators and essential to our food supply, bees are just downright fascinating when it comes to how they live, work, and clean house (did I mention they forcibly eject all of the male drones to their death in the fall because they are, uh, unnecessary for colony survival?)

So without all the boring detail of the English royalty names I had picked out for my possible chicken flock (Elizabeth, Victoria, Longshanks), that's the story of how I decided to become an urban beekeeper.