Monday, March 28, 2011

Chilly Spell

cleaning her proboscis
So we didn't get our packages.  Due to a queen shortage experienced by our supplier (which hopefully doesn't portend bad news about winter bee losses), we'll be waiting another week to expand.  Given the freezing temperatures that swept through Kentucky this past weekend, it was probably for the best.

When you do your winter reading about bees, you'll often find that they won't/can't fly if the temperature is below 50ish (well, of course you'll find a number of thresholds cited, but they all kinda hover in 50s).  When you talk to other beekeepers, they'll affectionately remind you that bees don't read books. Point taken.

This Sunday, the temperature hovered in the low to mid 40s.  I'll admit, the bees didn't seem very adventurous.  Like kids cut loose for the first time from their parents, they seemed uninterested in straying too far from the hives, and instead scoured a 20 foot radius for ANY sign of nectar, pollen or water.  It created a weird phenomenon.  Walking back toward the beeyard, you eventually crossed this line--right about at our last raised bed--into wall of soft buzzing and a thin carpet of bees.

Poor girls seemed desperate to work anything they could, holding out that perhaps THIS lettuce head offered nectar within its leaves.  I was able to capture a pretty cool video of a bee drinking from a large water droplet on a sedum plant.  You can see the bee's tongue (proboscis) fully extended slurping it up.  Water droplets just look so solid and buoyant on sedum, don't they?

This video of Columbia's entrance--in addition to being hypnotic--shows another problem honeybees experience with cold weather: the need to eliminate.  Even in winter, bees are still processing honey and pollen and like all of us, need to pass waste.  Bees are quite fastidious, generally speaking, and dislike doing their business in the hive.  In winter, those random, freak warm days are essential for the bees to be able to take "cleansing flights."  You can tell they left the hive in a hurry by the high volume of bee scat on the alighting board below.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


one of ours w/ pollen baskets
feb 27th
We spend so much of our time staring at the pollen baskets on the ladies as they come back to the hive, we can't help but make guesses as to what it is.  We love this game, and recently, we've loved taking it a bit more seriously.  We have Grant's humble Tasco microscope from 8th grade that we've been playing with, though we can't really make assertions as to what pollen we're collecting from the bees, just seeing the diversity in the composition of different pollens is its own revelation.

unknown pollen
gathered feb 20th
The two "unknown" pollens pictured here were pulled from our bees' baskets.  We believe the one to the right to be maple (gathered on Feb 20th), but are not sure.  We'll continue to pull pollen and analyze it as the season progresses, but have not yet found a reference guide (or maybe the time) to identify it using this method.  But it's fun anyway.

To help us build our vocabulary, we've started taking walks around the neighborhood to get a better feel for what's in bloom and to collect pollen samples from known sources.  I love this habit. One of the
unknown pollen
gathered march 20th
beekeeping side effects that we most eagerly anticipated was the
heightened awareness of plants' bloom cycles. When you know that the health and productivity of your hives depends on the success of surrounding flora, you're more invested in the flowers and trees and you pay more attention.  It is pleasant enough to see trees and flowers abloom simply for the sake of their beauty.  To also see them also as dinner for the girls and as the makings of a fine-flavored honey is even more pleasurable.

Below we have pictures of just a couple of the plants in bloom around us now, alongside their pollen, magnified 200x. 

cornelian cherry in bloom
march 14th
cornelian cherry pollen
march 14th

glory of the snow pollen
march 14th
glory of the snow in bloom
march 23rd

And tomorrow five new packages of bees arrive.  Ten thousand bees in a box, how fun! Check back for an illustrated explanation of what a package is and what you do with it.

Monday, March 14, 2011


hive bodies waiting for spring
Winter is a waiting game for beekeepers. We approached our first winter informed through others' accounts that a beekeeper's winter work was that of building equipment, reading bee books, and waiting. The first two are easy.

We can officially testify that the latter is not quite as passive as it sounds. Especially during a winter as cold, snowy and altogether trying as the one we're finally leaving, the waiting game is one of anxiety, fretting, worry and every other synonym you can think of. And then there's the withdrawal.  For three months there's just no bee watching.  No analyzing pollen loads trying to guess what's in bloom, no playtime (where new foragers orient themselves to the hive's location before they're off), no peering into honeycomb looking for eggs.  The bees do what we do--hibernate--and you just miss them.

Our inspection this Sunday, however, proved our fears wrong and our patience worthwhile.  Aside from a bit of varroa mites and small hive beetle that seem somewhat inevitable, we were pretty pleased with the population and health of the hives. Huge sigh of relief.

Last week we quickly popped the top off the three hives in our backyard (Ada, Billy Jean and Columbia) and checked their lower boxes in the hope we could remove them. Here's why we did that. It is somewhat common practice to use two deep hive bodies for the brood nest and then use medium or shallow boxes up top for honey storage. Because frames with honey are significantly heavier than frames filled with pollen or brood, you typically use a smaller box for honey supers to save your back. An increasingly popular practice is to use a uniform size of hive body to increase interchangeability of your frames/hive bodies and also to decrease the back strain of lifting the heavy deeps.

comb cobbled from a deep's excess

As with many aspects of beekeeping, you can ask a few experienced beekeepers for their opinion on the matter and get a few dozen responses back. We really just needed to grow into our own opinion on how to organize and last year we opted for one deep on bottom and medium bodies on top. One year later, we find ourselves in the uniform equipment camp and were interested in converting the deeps we've already invested in into medium bodies. Therefore, our first item of business was to remove the deeps from our hives and cut them down.

That was last week. This week, we took the newly fashioned frames (the great part is that some of them had bee bread--honey+pollen=bee bread--still in them) and frames of fall honey we'd saved for the spring jumpstart and gave them back to the ladies. This time, however, we placed the boxes on top of the brood nest.

Afterward, we poured a tall glass of water and admired the girls.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

First Inspection of the Year

Through the winter, the bees form a three dimensional cluster and kinda do a group hug. They clasp their legs together and vibrate their wing muscles--which they very impressively disjoint from the wing. This generates heat and keeps the cluster of bees warm. They fuel this months long activity by eating the honey they've stored, gradually moving through the hive in search of more. If you plan well and are lucky, they are able to migrate to it as they need it. If you are unlucky, during prolonged cold or a cold snap they can starve to death within inches of honey to spare. Fortunately, we have not witnessed this firsthand. However, their movement through the hive often causes them to drift upward.

Due to the settlement patterns of our hives in the fall, we were unable to shrink them down to three hive bodies, so we had some deceptively tall hives through the winter months. It was finally warm enough this past week to quickly pop them open. All of them had--mostly--exited their bottom hive bodies and were hanging out in the upper bodies. We pulled off the bottom body (a deep)and gave each other a hive five. I was excited just to get back in them (I found out about 2 months into getting the bees last summer that I was allergic and had been banished from the beeyard while I had my allergy shots through the summer & fall), and Grant was excited to get the deep bodies off so we could have one interchangeable size of frame (we'll discuss that in a subsequent post).