Friday, April 15, 2011

First Swarm of 2011

kayswarm hive on the right
With the gracious help of Brian Ronk I collected our first swarm of bees for the season! Brian and I climbed to the top of a two story house, and then I climbed up another twelve foot of extension ladder, leaning from the top of the roof up to the uppermost branches of a pine tree, to collect the large swarm of bees. 
They have been added to the 5th Street Apiary and seem to have settled in despite the rainy weather.  Hopefully Brian was able to get some good video and maybe we can get a link up.
If you see a swarm give me a call, 312.2122, and I will do my best to collect them.  Swarms do not have a great chance of surviving if left on their own and they may end up somewhere they are not wanted and be subjected to a can of wasp killer.  Not a good outcome.  Your reward is a free jar of honey!

UPDATE: Once the hive was settled in, we found (or rather didn't find) something unsettling.  The queen didn't make it with the rest of the bees.  Ug.  Fortunately, we'd made a split from Columbia last time we inspected her because we'd found capped and uncapped queen cells*. When no queen was evident in the swarm (you can tell because they don't act settled like they do when they're queenright), Grant combined the split nucleus we'd made from our booming hive (replete with a number of queen cells.  He inspected again yesterday afternoon and found a small queen had emerged!

* This time of year, when you see a hive building queen cells, it likely means they want to swarm.  Swarming is really just a hive--as an organism--reproducing itself and we'll probably need to dedicate a whole post to that process.  However, it is important to know that swarms are quite docile because they don't have anything to defend.  Anyway, so the workers need to make a new queen so the old one can go with the swarm, so they do so by making queen cells.  You, as a beekeeper, may try to prevent this by making a split.  More on all that later.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

More Bees Please

bulk bees
our five new packages
So after a few harrowing weeks of worried waiting, we got our packages!  Well, technically they're from a different company than the ones we originally ordered, but they're here!

So what are packages anyway? In a nutshell, they're bees in bulk--which is undeniably weird.  They are also the most basic of the three main ways you can get started as a beekeeper.

If you don't have hives to make splits from (or you don't want to reduce your current hives' population to make those splits), you have three options. You can get a fully functioning hive, which includes 2 hive bodies, 20 frames, brood, honey, pollen, several thousand bees and their queen ($$$); OR you can get a nucleus, which includes 5 frames of brood, honey and pollen, 10,000 bees and their queen ($$); OR you can get a package which is 3 pounds of bees in a box and a queen in a cage ($) (check out a video of the queen marking process here).

I say a queen instead of their queen because in packages they don't know each other yet.  And this is actually the riskiest part of the whole 'bees by the pound' process: the workers aren't guaranteed to want or like the queen you give them.  A queen a big commitment for them; they need time to figure her out.  In fact, if the bees don't like the queen (unfortunately, last year lent us some experience with this), or if something catastrophic or annoying happens to the hive during this introductory phase, they'll blame it on the queen, kill her and try to raise a new one (we'll go into that process later).  This doesn't necessarily spell doom for your hive, but it will set them back a few weeks.

Beekeepers have a neat way of enabling a gradual introduction of the queen with the hope that the workers will grow to trust her.  When you get a package of bees, the queen is actually in a little cage with a few "attendants."  A thick chunk of soft candy plugs the exit, which the attendants eat and then feed the queen. When you put your bees into their new
jess shaking the bees in jonquil
shaking the package into the hive 
home (again, weird; you just shake them out like grain), you suspend the queen cage between two frames.  While the workers are busy eating their way through the candy, the queen's pheromone slowly disperses through the hive.  As social insects, pheromones are key to the way that bees communicate with each other.  Bees that interact with the queen through the cage will pass the pheromone along through the ranks.  If they accept the queen, her pheromone will become this hive's identity.

We were fortunate on Sunday to have BEAUTIFUL weather, hot even.  Despite the light wind, everything worked out really really well with the package install (below is a video of Grant installing one of them) and by the end of the day we saw bees hauling pollen back to their new homes!
We keep telling ourselves these bees are not really ours.  They are not domesticated, they don't need us, and frankly, they'd probably rather do without our intermittent poking and prodding. But we can't help feeling like their guardians now; that this process is one of adoption.  "You're in a good place, ladies," we told them. "there's a variety of great food to eat,  no major pesticides, no bears.  We'll do our best to keep off the mites & pests and you'll be just fine."

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

...And Healthy Bee Bellies

Still no packages.  We're really trying to maintain our composure, but after two weeks, our excitement has fermented into anxiety, and we're wondering if we need to form a back-up plan.

Of course, one way of getting your mind off the worry is to just walk back to the beeyard and sit for a while.  This weekend's weather finally afforded us this opportunity again. We found evidence that the bees were just as fed up with the cold as we were.  They were BUSY.  And packing in every color of pollen.

streaking on columbia
Unfortunately, they were also messy.  Messier than last week even.  In a previous post we talked about the bees' need for cleansing flights.  They've tried to make due with the brief, sunny, crisp spells we've had, but we discovered this weekend that those haven't been enough.

We're still learning about this bee-physiology stuff, but you could easily see by the streak marks on Columbia that these cleansing flights were a long time coming.  One thing you always worry about with streaking is Nosema.  Nosema is essentially a severe dysentery caused by a fungus that's been charged as a possible accomplice in Colony Collapse Disorder.  Some beekeepers suggest that you preemptively treat your hives for Nosema by applying an antibiotic.  We do not wish to do this, though we did have to treat Ada last year when we found she had Nosema (it's actually quite common). To be safe, though, we didn't pull honey from her.

make-shift laboratory!
To test for Nosema, you can do a few things.  There is a bee researcher at Kentucky State that will analyze and diagnose your bees if you send him several sample bees (preferably some that you collect live).  First, you drown them in an alcohol/water solution and pack them in a ziplock bag.  We started this process last year, but then Grant pulled out the microscope and so we did it in-house.  The first stage was actually tragically comical, because I didn't drown them long enough or in a potent enough solution.  As they dried, they actually came to, drunkenly buzzing into walls.

The next stage is pretty murky.  You can macerate, blend, or even use a coffee grinder, but you have to make a bee paste to analyze under the microscope.  The Nosema fungus is in the gut and this is a straightforward way to see inside there.

We haven't done this test for the bees this year.  Honestly, we're just hoping that they've been cooped up for too long and just had to accommodate a lot of traffic at once.

bee poo 200x
However, Grant could not resist the temptation to dissect some of know, just to see. We'd found a fairly large number of dead and/or crawling bees outside the hives we could pull the sample from (again, the girls are neat by nature and it is not uncommon to see this sort of "spring cleaning" if they've been unable to remove their mess for a long time, so we're not necessarily worried about this). What we found is that their intestines were bursting with waste.

So then what? Under the microscope it goes! This isn't the proper test for Nosema or any other pathogen that we are aware of, just another way of seeing things.

All for now.  Fingers crossed for our packages, for more warm weather, and healthy bee bellies.