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