Saturday, December 29, 2012

Winter Solstice and Buying Bees

Seems like the winter solstice got swept under the rug this year with all the hype about the Mayan end of the world.  The bees however did notice the switch to longer days and should start raising brood again if only a few cells initially.  Temps are averaging around 40F during the day and activity is usually non-existent with the exception of two nucs that are breaking cluster to fly a little.  Many of the winter flowers I noted on my previous blogs are still in bloom and there is food out there to be found if any of the girls dare to venture out for it.

This is a Mahonia variety that blooms in December that is likely from Asia (relative of the native Oregon Grape).

Another variety of Winter Camellia that is blooming now.

While there aren't many pollen sources available in January there are a few non natives planted in abundance around the city to provide food for the girls on those occasional nice days.  Hellebore is one of these plants that will provide long lasting blooms full of pollen.  This European native is hardy here in the Northwest and some varieties keep their foliage year round.  They also grow well in shady locations with little to no care which makes them appealing to gardeners.

Hellebore blooms winter through early spring.

There isn't much to say about the hives this time of year other being aware that they know the days are getting slightly longer and will start to raise brood.  However without some nicer weather it's not worth disturbing the cluster to see what they are doing.  In the mean time I wanted to talk a little about buying bees and the advice I would offer new beekeepers or even existing beekeepers replacing lost hives.  This is biased for the northwest but can be easily generalized for any location.

Are You Ready To Order Bees?

A few years ago after a winter of reading beekeeping books and watching videos of beekeepers working their hives I was ready to get a hive and order bees.  Eagerly waiting for the first club meeting of the year I arrived to find answers to the questions I thought were important but left with even more questions and terms I didn't know.  As with everything in life decisions had to be made relatively quickly and everyone seemed to have a different opinion on what to do.  How was I supposed to order bees with so many questions before the beginner class had even started?

There are several ways to get bees and typically the cheapest way is to order a 3lb package (yes you order bees by the pound!) that come with a newly mated queen.  These typically come from CA in our area and are made up after the Almond pollination.  The bees you get in the package will come from multiple hives with an unrelated queen.  These bees are usually from commercial operations and the quality can vary from package to package (it may seem hard to tell but you don't want a lot of dead bees on the bottom of the box).  If you aspire for a treatment free beekeeping approach it would be best to replace the queen that comes with the package with a queen from a supplier that breeds for treatment free or low treatment qualities.  Of course going this route with a local queen will add to the total cost and will have to be well timed with package arrivals.

Another slightly more expensive option for purchasing bees is called a Nuc or nucleolus hive.  The advantage of a Nuc is that you are getting a functioning hive and will have young bees emerging in days rather than waiting for a package to build comb and a queen to lay in the cells which will then take 21 days to emerge.  Typically a Nuc is a half deep box (5 frames) with brood, honey and a young queen.  Some nucs are made with new queens and frames of brood from different hives put together in spring or even from packages started a few months before someplace warmer and brought to the area.  Things to be aware of with Nucs is old frames (very dark colored) more than 2-3 years old.  A highly desirable Nuc would be one that was put together in the fall and overwintered in the area.    

Another way to get bees is to find a local beekeeper that will split their hive.  This helps control swarming and if timed right can help with mite control for the existing hive.  This is not overly complex to do and is a great way to spread local genetics.  There is some risk that the new queen(s) may not mate well if it's too early in the season so this is also weather dependent.  The race of bee (Italian, Carniolian, etc) really doesn't matter and what's most desirable is to find local bees that do well in the cold & wet northwest.  There is also an advantage to having 2 hives so that you can fix problems if they arise and from a learning perspective to see how different hives behave (yes they are all a little different).  There is often very little agreement among beekeepers on any given topic, but most seem to agree on the benefits of having locally adapted stock.  

Back to the bees,

- Jeff

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Mild Fall Confuses a Few Plants

Fall has been pretty mellow this season in the lowlands around Seattle.  There hasn't been a good freeze yet and some early spring plants have started blooming early as a result.  Being in the city there are also lots of non-natives around the neighborhoods that are winter bloomers that could provide forage if the bees happen to be out flying.  The temperature has been hovering around 40F during the day and the sun is usually hidden behind low clouds and fog keeping the bees inside.

Pollen from a Winter Camellia bloom.

Winter Camellia is a good pollen source.

It hasn't been warm enough to do much of an inspection in awhile but I would imagine that all the hives are done raising brood for the next few weeks.  I've heard that after winter solstice they will slowly pick up again, but I haven't had an opportunity to confirm if that is the case in our climate yet.  I haven't seen much flying lately but I suspect they aren't too tightly clustered due to the mild winter weather.  I will likely need to keep feeding dry sugar in all the nucs until spring so the don't starve.  I'm not too surprised though as we usually have fairly mild winters here and the temps really only drop when the occasional storm system passes through.  

Schizostylis coccinea (fall - early winter bloomer)

Bergenia cordifolia (often will bloom both spring and fall)

A few Rhododendron blooms are out (a warm fall may confuse them into blooming before winter).  Some buds may stay dormant until spring, but the ones that have bloomed won't re-bud.

Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)

Pink Princess Escallonia (usually a spring bloomer)

Snowstorm bacopa

Centranthus ruber (another confused spring bloomer)

Hive checks (12/1/2012)

It got up to about 50F today so did a quick check on the excess sugar supplies in several hives and found that all except the Rebel hive had cleaned up the reserves I left for them.  I added more sugar to Plum Creek, Geeks, Architects, Gluttons, Icon Daughter Nuc and Librarian Daughter Nuc.  All hives except the Librarian Daughter Nuc had good activity and I suspect the cluster in this nuc is just too small to break at 50F.

Hive checks (12/9/2012)

Checked the Surf and Sand hives today to give them sugar.  It was 40F and no one was flying but a few came back to see what I was doing at the back of the Surf hive.  I was also glad to see the moisture issue in the Surf hive was gone and the back of the hive was nice and dry.  The Sand hive got sugar as well even though they still had a little left.  No one came to greet me, but they have a lot of comb in that hive and I was much further away from the cluster.

Here is an old pic of the Geek queen in 2011 (upper middle of picture).  I don't recall if she had stopped moving here but it looks like she has 11 attendants around her.  A quality queen will have a decent number of attendants surround her whenever she stops.

Back to the bees.

- Jeff

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Ball of Bees

With temperatures just a hair above freezing at night and a bit warmer during the day you would think that the bees would be in cluster by now.  Perhaps their exoskeletons are a bit thicker here than the average southern climate bee because they seem to think anything above 40F is perfectly acceptable forage weather... really!  Perhaps it's some paternal instinct for their well being that makes me think that they shouldn't be out flying, as I watch the entrance activity in my down coat and gloves.

Regardless of my opinion, it seems that Mother Nature is in agreement with them and the plants are providing both pollen and propolis.  There is however one difference from summer foraging and that is they greatly shorten the window of foraging time to the best daylight house of the day from 10-2PM.

Entrance traffic jam.

If a picture is worth a 1000 words well here are a couple video clips to give you a better picture of how busy they still are.  These were taken around 11AM on 11/26/2012 and the temp was reading 42F.

Clip 2 - A little closer.

As you can see there is some light yellow and whitish pollen coming in.  So where are they finding all this pollen?  Here are are a few places I found on a walk around the neighborhood:

Choisya (Mock Orange) sometimes can get confused by the weather and bloom in late fall.

The rain also has ivy putting out a secondary bloom.  There is a lot less competition on the blooms now with the lower temps shutting down the wasps (finally).

Japanese Aralia has a very similar flower to ivy, and this is an evergreen bush with large leaves.  The buds below haven't opened yet but the ones in the background have.

Penstemon is a hardy flower that blooms into late fall.  The bell shape of the bloom protects the pollen inside from getting wet.

Some varieties of Hebe also bloom in winter.

A few sunny spots still have fennel blooming.

 Winter Camellia blooms opening and have lots of pollen up for grabs.


Wow with all those flowers you might think Seattle was a topical oasis, but it is not and you just have to look at all the bare trees to know that it is indeed winter.  Perhaps the plants here are just thick skinned not too unlike the bees.

Back to the bees.

- Jeff

Monday, November 19, 2012

Winter Storms Arrive

In typical Northwest style we've been getting storm system after storm system with an occasional calm day thrown in if we are lucky.  We also haven't had a hard freeze yet and the bees still seem active even though they are "mostly" inside the hives on the crappy days.  Whenever things calm down between storms the bees pretty much pour out of the hives and busy themselves doing something.  Mostly it seems they are collecting water, propolis or bringing in pollen.  There are a few scattered pollen sources out there, but nothing the girls are likely dancing about.

Calendula bloom from spring to late fall providing nectar for the girls.

Collards bloom fall to late winter and are often covered by bees.

Since we haven't had a hard freeze yet the yellow jackets are still around harassing the hives.  It seems that they are a bit more desperate to get a to the honey stores and are taking more risks to challenge the guard bees.  I'm getting a really high success rate with my traps using a light sugar syrup bait.  The bees aren't interested in the weak syrup but it sure does a good job of attracting the yellow jackets and I caught 30-40 in each of my traps in just a few days and I'm seeing a noticeable decline in how many I see snooping around. I have also seen a few dead yellow jackets in the leaves around the garden so I think the weather systems are starting to get the best of them.

Speaking of pests, I have also been monitoring for the Apocephalus borealis fly.  Ever since it was reported that they found signs of "zombie bees" in the area I've been capturing any bees I find under lights at night.  So far of my two sample sets I'm happy to report that they were both negative for infection by the fly.  Unfortunately it takes a few weeks for samples to show signs of infection so it does take a bit of patience to go through the testing process.  Based on the latest data reports it appears that the fly has been positively identified 30 miles to the south of here and about 20 miles north of Seattle.

Viburnum tinus is an evergreen shrub that will bloom in this area all winter.  It's tiny blooms provide food for the bees on those occasional nice days we get.

The Hollyhawks are on their last blooms of the year.

Hive checks (11/3/2012)

They had about a quarter gallon of unfinished syrup left that I pulled out.  Tightened up the follower board and didn't inspect.  I did see a bee with DWV crawling around and there were a few dead bees back behind the follower which can sometimes be a warning sign.

This hive looked great.  Didn't do an inspection but their syrup was completely gone.  I gave them the rest of the syrup from the Sand hive to finish.  There is a wall of bees just behind the follower which is another good sign and partly why I didn't inspect further.  One odd thing I noticed with this hive was a lot of dampness in the back behind the follower.  There are no roof leaks and the hive/comb area where the bees are looked dry so I'm guessing they are venting excess moisture/heat into the dead space and it's condensing on the sides.  I usually push the top bars together so they are snug and nothing can get in, but left the bars in the back area a little looser to improve the ventilation into the attic area to see if that helps.

Winter blooming Rosemary is just starting to flower.

Hive checks (11/4/2012)

They seem to be stable again and the older Geek queen has several frames of brood on the way.  No signs of disease issues or DWV and they look like they are in good shape for winter.  They took about half the leftover syrup I gave them and I left the rest for them to finish.

These girls look awesome.  They have built back up and have cleaned up the rest of the hive with no signs of diseases.  I saw them storing pollen and the brood nest stretches across 8 frames with all stages of brood on the way.  I gave them a little dry sugar in back but they really didn't need anything.  Took a frame of bees and brood for the Librarian daughter hive.  I like to put dry sugar in sooner than later with our warmer weather.  In top bars there isn't an easy way to put the sugar directly over the cluster so I give them sugar to eat on our warmer winter days so they save their honey for those stormy weeks when they cluster tight and have a shorter reach into the hive.  At least that's what I think they should do, but the reality is they don't always follow my instructions.

This was one of their smaller patches of brood.  The bees are looking fatter than the summer bees I'm used to seeing.

They finished the leftover syrup and they have good numbers.  Didn't do an inspection.  Pulled the syrup bottle and tightened up the follower board.  Added some dry sugar in back.

Librarian Daughter Nuc
They look healthy and have a good patch of brood but are having a hard time getting over that growth hurdle so they can build up for winter.  Gave them a frame of brood and bees from the Rebel hive that should put their number closer to what they need to survive.  I introduced the frame by power sugaring the bees on the donated frame and the frames directly facing the new comb.  I usually would spray them with sugar syrup, but I don't want to chill them on these colder days or add any extra moisture to the hive and dry sugar is a good alternative.   The frame should have been mostly nurse bees so hopefully they don't loose any back to the Rebel hive.

Icon Daughter Nuc
Good activity and numbers.  Didn't inspect.

Glutton Nuc
They had as much activity as the bigger hives today and have good numbers.  They didn't take much of the leftover syrup and I added some dry sugar.  I find a little dry sugar under the syrup bottles helps to catch the moisture and entices them to take a bit more syrup.

Hive checks (11/11/2012)

Sadly this hive didn't survive last weeks cold spell.  The DWV and Parasitic Mite Syndrome (PMS) had taken it's toll and there just weren't enough bees to form a big enough cluster.

I've been reading up on bee diseases on what to call the condition I've seen take out several hives this summer and fall that is more accurate than DWV (Deformed Wing Virus) and believe the correct term is to use is Parasitic Mite Syndrome (PMS).  DWV is just one of many diseases the mites spread around the hive that can lead a hive collapse or CCD like symptoms.  The mites capability to spread diseases around the hive is not surprising but the speed that it can lead to a hive collapse is surprising with hives often failing within weeks.  The other surprising observation I've seen this summer is that the hives that failed were from over wintered nucs and even swarms.  Even the Engineer Queens Nuc failed which was essentially a swarm with empty comb created mid summer, and the Icon hive that was a early summer swarm.

Hopefully I'll have stronger genetics left next spring to raise new queens from and the 9 hives I have going into winter come through.  However I know that one of the nucs is weaker than they should be so we can only cross fingers for an easy winter for them.  I'm also curios how the Geek hive does and if they carry their viral resistance forward into next year.

Here's a shot of a Ginkgo tree last week before the storm blew the leaves off.

Hive checks (11/18/2012)

Plum Creek
Not really a hive check, but the girls finally got a real roof.  A few poked there head out to see what I was doing up there.  The roof is water tight and is lined with foam.  I see a lot of spiders around the outsides of these roofs but never inside them, which tells me that it stays dry enough to keep bugs out.  I like to believe that the spiders are helping the bees keep the wax moths under control too.

The new roof should keep them warm and dry.

Back to the bees.

- Jeff

Monday, October 29, 2012

Halloween Bees

After several weeks of cooler rainy weather we had a bit of sunshine Sunday and the girls were clearly happy to be out working.  The hives were doing orientation flights and bringing in lots of orange and pale yellow pollen.  In this area the orange is likely from Asters or Dahlias and the pale yellow is from ivy.  The girls will fly in the cooler weather and they have to be careful to not let themselves get chilled, which will leave them stranded without a way to warm up and fly back to the hive.  They also need to stay alert for wasps looking to take advantage of tired bees.

The hives are ready for winter and are around their winter cluster size and I won't be disturbing them much in the coming months.  I do plan to periodically check in to make sure they still have food, especially around early February when they are most likely to be at risk of starving.  Granted there isn't much I can do in a top bar other than to move a honey or sugar frame directly next to the brood nest or cluster as a last resort.  They should continue to raise ever smaller patches of brood in November and on nice days will fly to collect water or any pollen that's out there.  As the nights get colder they also seem to really bring in the propolis to seal up the hive against drafts and pests.

Resting briefly after bringing back a haul of pollen.  

Hummingbirds love the hardy fuschia blooms, and the bees only seem interested in the pollen.

On a recent trip to Yakima, WA to visit family I was talking with my grandfather about the family apple orchard and what they do for pollination.  In addition to planting pollinator trees at the ends of rows they also rotate varieties between rows to increase the odds bees will visit two trees of different varieties and cross pollinate the flowers. He showed me a pollen tray he adds to the hives entrances loaded with apple pollen.  The bees walk through the pollen on their way out of the hive and get a foreign variety of apple pollen to the area which will improve the odds to cross pollinating.  It's an interesting idea and I can see how the bees would get a light coat of pollen on the way out if they were on a nectar trip.  However I'm not sure what would keep them from just collecting all the pollen out of the tray and taking it back into the hive.  I'm curious to check them out in action this spring.

Bigger tastier apples are the rewards of cross pollination.

Hive checks (10/28/2012)

Plum Creek
They have several frames of brood and continue to build up slowly.  They didn't do much with the syrup I gave them and I pulled the excess out and tightened up the follower board.

They had a small amount of syrup left.  Removed the syrup and tightened up the follower board.  They have a good amount of honey stored and I pulled a frame of honey.  Unfortunately they are showing signs of DWV virus and if it's anything like what the Geeks had I think it will be unlikely they will make it till spring.

Gluttons Nuc
They finished off their syrup and I gave them leftovers from the other hives.  Their numbers look good and I'm curious if they will finish the leftover syrup this late in the season.

Icon Daughter Nuc
They look good and are still raising brood.  The boost of foragers to this hive has really made the difference. While I can't assume that this queen only lays darker bees I do know that the hive only had light worker bees and a handful of dark bees when merged.  You can see the number of darker bees that she has produced in the last 5 weeks vs the lighter forager bees that are likely left over from the Rebel hive.  They are still allowing drones in this hive as well.

Even a tiny queen can produce a nice solid brood pattern.

Librarian Daughter Nuc
There was some syrup left and I pulled it out and tightened up the follower board.  They have brood, but their numbers are less than ideal for a winter cluster.

They also finished the syrup they had and I gave them some of the leftover syrup.  They have good activity and numbers and seem to have picked right up with the Geek queen.  No inspection.  I found two wasp queens in hibernation under the cover waiting for spring to start new colonies.  Unfortunately for them they picked a bad location to hide out for the winter and got introduced to the hive tool.

They finished the syrup they had and I also gave them some of the extra to see if a bigger hive would still take it.  They have good activity and numbers.  No inspection.

They had good activity and they appear to have built back up.  No inspection since I pulled their syrup and tightened up the follower board back in early October.

Ready to carve.

Back to the bees.

- Jeff

Friday, October 19, 2012

What Are Resistant Bees?

Over last couple days I've been reflecting on how the hives did this summer and wanted to note my observations around what happened with a particular hive.  This hive came close to dying out but somehow was able to recover, and I have a few thoughts on how it pulled off this feat.  First it is important to know that I inspect my hives often, despite any setbacks it may cause in the hives.  This allows me to document what is going on in the hive and collect data can be invaluable in identifying issues later on such as in this case.  Hive dynamics change so quickly that if you aren't watching weekly you can miss something unexpected that is worth looking into further, and I would encourage all beekeepers to take good notes during inspections.

To add some background here I need to define treatment free or survivor bees and how I use those terms vs how another beekeeper might define them.  I think of treatment free bees as bees that have been exposed to pathogens or parasites and survived without "help" from the beekeeper.  They would also have to be easy to work (not too aggressive), not prone to frequent swarming and good honey producers.  I put "help" in quotes because there are many things beekeepers may add to that definition as a result of trying to maximize a honey crop or pollination.  This also means that a hive in an isolated location that has survived without help for years and has tons of honey might not be very resistant but rather lucky that they haven't been exposed to anything yet.

The girls are working hard to store an abundance of pollen for spring.

This year has been an interesting year with the hives and seeing the damage that mites can cause.  The mites themselves do not directly kill the bees (their hosts), but rather steal energy/resources and spread diseases around the hive from bee to bee, similar to how mosquitoes spread Malaria.  When the bees are building up they can out-pace the mites by creating new bees faster than the mites can keep up and the hive stays healthy.  However after the flow ends mid-summer that pace slows down and an abundance of mites is left behind for a decreasing population of bees to deal with and viruses can quickly spread.  While there currently is nothing available to stop the viruses, there are ways to suppress the mites which in turn slows the rate they spread diseases.  One natural way bees indirectly suppress the mite levels is to swarm which causes a brood cycle break.  However beekeepers work pretty hard to prevent this to maximize the colony size and resulting honey surplus so we look to "treatments" or genetics to solve the mite problem.

Now that we know a little about what damage the mites are doing in the hive here is a summary of my observations of the Librarian hive this year.  This was a second year hive with a late season queen from 2011.  The hive suffered all spring and into July with high varroa levels and deformed wing virus (DWV).  The population was never able to build up and they dropped down to just a few frames of bees limping along on the stores collected the previous year.  However a rather surprising thing happened mid summer in that the varroa didn't go away but the DWV suddenly cleared up.  I had long given up on powdered sugar treatments and yet somehow this hive turned around when it should have perished and the queen was able to lay frames of healthy brood and the hive started thriving again.
This type of recovery has also been observed by other researchers but is not fully understood.  It appears that the bees are able to transfer genetic code to each other that makes them resistant to DWV or another virus.  This immunity is most likely transferred in the royal jelly nurse bees make and feed to the next generation of bees, which then become resistant and can pass it on again to the next.  Perhaps a little like how mothers transfer their immunity to viruses on to their children through breast milk.  Unfortunately the queen of this hive died suddenly last month and had to be replaced.  She was replaced by a queen from a hive that did great up until the end of July when it too was overtaken by DWV.  Unfortunately that hive and another one could not recover from the viral outbreak and dwindled to nothing in a matter of weeks.  Those hives both collapsed with symptoms that could be described as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Should this hive survive the winter and show signs that they have passed on DWV resistance to the bees raised in spring I have plans to explore how this resistance can be shared with other hives.  I also have the late season daughter queen from this hive with bees and frames that came form this hive that might also carry this resistance.  I do find the idea exciting that a mechanism may exist that doesn't solely rely on a queen passing on a genetic trait to the next generation.  Of course this also means that you could mistakenly think you have a queen line with resistant qualities when in fact the hive is thriving due to a an immunity that isn't passed on through daughter queens, but through the workers.

Dahlia blooms last until the first freeze in fall.

Crape Myrtle is another late September bloomer that the bees love. 

Hive checks (10/7/2012)

I've decided to give all the hives names this week so everyone is easier to keep track of.

Plum Creek
They have taken some syrup and they have good activity.  They have built up fairly well and should be good going into winter if they make the most of the nicer October weather.  I've been noticing a small amount of bearding on this hive during the day.  My thoughts are they are trying defend hive or regulate the hive temperature.

Bearding around the entrance.

The queen is back in the swing of things and had laid out a solid pattern over several frames.  Not the full frames she was doing two months ago, but hopefully enough to pull this hive through winter.

The queen seems to have been accepted well by her grandchildren.

Nice patch of brood surrounded by bee bread and several types of pollen.

Nuc 2 - Architects
This hive is a daughter of the Engineer hive so the name Architects seems fitting for them.  These girls have built up and are still taking syrup.  They inherented several honey frames from the Engineer hive.

They are taking syrup and have good activity.

Librarian Daughter Nuc
They are taking syrup.  Two frames with nice solid patches of brood.  This queen might work out after all and no more signs of them trying to make queen cells.  My winter concern for them is they are still a small hive and they really need to make the most of whatever nice weather is left for the year to build up.  They got an extra frame of honey from the Engineer hive.

Icon Daughter Nuc
They seems to have accepted their new queen and there are no signs of queen cells.  The queen has kicked up her laying and has fairly large patches of brood over a couple frames.  There are a lot of bees in here, but I don't know how many are old foragers and how many are winter bees.

Nuc 3 - Gluttons
These girls are a daughter of the Geeks, and they continuously suck down the syrup but never seem to have much of a growth spurt so I'm guessing they are quick to substitute syrup for good forage and the Gluttons seems like a fitting name for them.   They should be in good shape for winter as they have been sucking down the syrup.  They got an extra frame of honey from the Engineer hive.

Engineer Hive
Sad news, the queen was gone and there was a handful of bees and a couple cells with larvae showing signs of DWV.  Broke up the remaining honey frames for other hives.  They stopped taking food weeks ago and I noticed a big cutback on brood, but I took it to be a sign she was shutting down early for winter when really DWV was taking it's toll on the hive.

Northgate Swarm - Rebels
These girls probably have some Russian genetics and raise a lot of brood and have good stores.  They are a little feisty too which is why I'm calling this hive the Rebels.  There is a lot of uncapped honey in this hive and I'm not surprised they really aren't doing much with the syrup all the way at the back.  They have several frames of solid brood coming and are building back up quickly.  They don't store much surplus pollen which could be an issue in Spring.  I've read that Russian brood up/down based on available pollen so watching the flowers should be a good indicator of what they will be doing.

They took about a half gallon this last week.

There are a lot of bees in this hive now.  No new comb this week and only took about half the syrup from the week before.  They have built up amazingly well this summer and have packed the frames with stores for Spring.

We seem to be loosing daylight hours pretty quickly now and the bees aren't as active at the start/ends of the day, but still have good mid-day activity.

Here's a worker taking advantage of the last hours of light to bring back a little more pollen.

Back to the bees.

- Jeff

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Borage a Forgotten Herb?

Borage is one of those plants every beekeeper should be familiar with.  It is a great producer of nectar and pollen and ranks pretty high on the list of favorite plants for honey bees.  Oh and don't forget that it is also their favorite color.  Borage is a self seeding annual and if you stagger the seeds you can produce crops in spring and fall at times when the bees are in need of good nectar and pollen sources.

Borage has star shaped flowers that typically hang downwards.

Speaking of fall crops, now is the time to start prepping your gardens for winter cover crops.  Cover crops are good for holding nutrients in the soil and depending on what you plant might even enrich the soil.  Kale and Collards will mature and bloom early spring and the flowers are very attractive to bees.  Other good choices are Crimson Clover and Winter Peas.

I've been asked a few times why I've been feeding syrup.  In some areas there are good patches of Knotweed to provide winter feed, but I just don't see those patches here in Queen Anne and I don't see the girls bringing in much surplus nectar.  Feeding works well in August and September when the nights are still warm, but come October the bees can have trouble drying it in time for winter and it can ferment.  The colder October nights also means that the syrup doesn't have much time to warm up during the day and the girls don't like cold syrup any more than Seattleites like cold coffee in the morning.

In top bars you will run into problems if they go into winter without enough honey saved.  In Langstroth hives you can always use the mountain camp method (dry sugar above the top frames) for a light hive.  I did try putting dry sugar in empty combs last year that helped to some extent but isn't really comparable to mountain camp.  You can also get them to take syrup longer in cooler weather if you have syrup directly above a warm brood nest in a Langstroth hive instead of the back of a top bar hive.

There are still a few flowers out there blooming to keep the foragers busy.  In addition to what I've discussed in previous posts here are some new ones I found this week.  None of them were in abundance and will likely only provide enough to keep the foragers going.

Fall blooming crocus.

Dahlia blooms.

Nasturtium flowers.

Mallow flowers (same family of plants used to make traditional marshmallows).

Wild Geraniums.

Another late season flower that people often forget about is ivy.  Yeah it stinks a little and the honey crystallizes quickly but if it has been a tough year it can offer the bees a little late season boost.  Pollen has a limited "shelf life" and having a few late season pollen sources like ivy can help them build up a reserve for the early spring bees.  There are other winter pollen sources but you never know with the weather around here if they will be able to get to them.  Ivy also seems to attract a lot of other flying bugs and I often see a lot of hover flies and wasps after the nectar.

English Ivy provides fall pollen and nectar.

In addition to seeing the syrup intake slowing down the hive actively has also been winding down for winter.  The girls seem to be a bit more cautious in their foraging and staying closer to home.  For the most part winter prep is done and the hives aren't trying to build up but rather to simply maintain themselves and conserve resources.  Inspections are little more than checking syrup and looking at brood on the weak hives.  There is still time to combine hives, but otherwise manipulations are pretty much done until March.

Hive Check (9/29/2012)

There is a small patch of larvae, but not as much as I would have hoped for.  They are taking feed.

Nuc 2
Taking a little feed.

They are taking feed.

Librarian Daughter Nuc
There was a queen cell, and a small patch of worker larvae on the way.  I removed the queen cell.  They aren't taking much feed.

Icon Daughter Nuc
Small patch of brood, lots of bees.  They were making queen cells in here as well that I removed.  I'm guessing that the foragers don't think she's a very strong queen.  I removed the queen cells on both hives because there is no time for them to be successful.  If the queens aren't working out then a combine is the only salvage option left.

You can see the white pupa and all the white royal jelly at the bottom of this opened queen cell.

Nuc 3
They are taking feed.

Engineer Hive
Not much brood.  They are taking feed.

Northgate Swarm
They have a lot of brood and they are light on pollen.  They are not taking much feed.  Gave them a frame of bee bread from the nuc they were in.

Queen Castle 1 - Slot 3
Moved into a new Nuc (Plum Creek) and added feed.  They have built up well. Decent amount of brood on the way.

The Plum Creek Nuc has a wood stamp on the lumber from Plum Creek showing right on the front of the hive and the name stuck. I'm been debating the naming of queens vs hive boxes and am thinking about a new system to track everything next year.

Hive Check (9/30/2012)

Gave them more syrup.  They took a half gallon this week.

Gave them more syrup.  They took a half gallon this week as well.  I was a little surprised to see these girls building new comb with a whole frame of solid eggs and several frames of brood coming.  Maybe they didn't get the memo that fall is coming.  This hive gets a lot of sun and I'm sure that is helping to extend the season just a bit beyond the other hives.

Observation in the below picture.  This comb is upside down so the honey arch is at the bottom of the pic.  It's a little hard to see unless you enlarge the pic but the capped honey cells are elongated more than the brood cells and you can see the cliff between the two cell heights where it transitions to brood comb (with eggs you can't see).  When you have natural cell you can also get shallower cells in addition to smaller width cells for brood.  Typically you only hear discussions about cell width being in the 4.9 -5.4 mm range.

Cell size differences.

Back to the bees.

- Jeff