Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking Forward to 2014

Winter solstice has come and gone and the calendar is about to tick over to 2014.  The days are ever so slightly getting longer by the second and I'm looking forward to seeing some late winter / early spring flowers.  With the extended cold spell we had there isn't much left blooming, but there are a few exceptions that somehow put on their best show in 30-40F degree weather.  The bees have noticed that shift back to longer days as well and some hives may soon be restarting brood rearing (although it's much too cold to check to confirm exactly when they start).  I've noticed the girls flying when the sun is out and it's at least 42-43F degrees, however some hives just won't roll out of bed until it is over 50F for several hours a day.

One source of that winter pollen coming into the hives is from the Winter Blooming Camellia.  Finding one in the heart of winter must be like winning the bee-lotto with their large rain resistant flowers and sweet scent.  Winter blooming varieties of Camellias prefer partial shade and do well under taller trees or next to buildings, and you will want to give them enough space to grow and have air flow to prevent disease. There are several colors available from white to red, and as always when buying pollinator friendly plants remember to look for single form flowers that allow easy access to the pollen.  Camellias are evergreen providing attractive foliage year round and require well drained soil that is slightly acidic.  If you have been looking for a nice container plant for a patio, balcony or entrance way this might be the one for you.

Winter Blooming Camellia.

There are native Mahonia varieties that bloom a little later in the season but the Asian varieties are in full bloom right now.

Catkins are forming and will be a good pollen source in a few weeks.

Hive Observations (12/23/2013)
The sun came out briefly and the temps jumped up to 50 for awhile this morning and I was able to do an entrance activity check on most hives.
  • Ballard Swarm, Rosemary Swarm - busting out of the hives.
  • Geeks, Geek Daughter, Rebels, Solis - medium activity.
  • Architects - very low activity
  • Icon Granddaughter, Luna - no entrance activity.
  • Sand - (this was the only one I didn't get to check)
Hive Observations (12/28/2013)

Found what I believe was the geek queen outside the hive (dead).  The last inspection I did on them was September 21st and I didn't see the queen at that time, but noted I saw signs of a queen.  Putting my optimistic hat on I'm hoping they raised a supersedure queen and went into winter with two queens and now that the days are starting to get longer they disposed of the old queen.  There is still good activity in and out of the hive, and it's not unheard of for hives to supersede late season and go into winter with two queens.  Next nice day I'll open them up to check to see what the case might be, however looking at long range weather forecast that might be awhile.

Her stinger was more exposed than I would expect to see.  If they drug her out I might expect to see more wing tearing but perhaps she died of natural causes that hopefully they detected was coming back in fall. 

Back to the bees.

- Jeff

Monday, November 25, 2013

Winter Flowers Arriving for Thanksgiving

This year I did all my winter prep back in August and early September and as a result there hasn't been much to update or write about.  The heavy rains and the occasional freezing nights have put the late summer and fall flowers to bed for the season.  However just as the landscape is starting to look dreary mother nature surprises us with winter blooming flowers.  While it is hard to see what gains could be made by the bees venturing out to collect pollen/nectar during these brief windows of sunshine that is exactly what they are doing. 

Collecting pollen from this winter blooming Camilla.

Grace Ward Lithodora have a few blooms now but it hardly compares to its spring display.

Some Rosemary bushes bloom in winter as well.

 Winter Daphne is just starting to bloom.  A little sun and you can smell their sweet fragrance in the air.

Winter Heather can add color and versatility to your winter gardens as well as supply food for pollinators on those occasional nice winter days.  Heather comes in several colors and depending on the variety can grow as a ground-cover or upright in mounds.  They do particularly well in rock gardens with acidic soils and like full sun but can tolerate some shade.  A common problem with Heather is they can get lanky and for winter varieties they need early summer pruning to keep their shape.

Winter Heather is a great nectar source.

Viburnum tinus is an evergreen shrub that is starting to bloom.

Choisya ternata or Mexican Orange provides pollen.  Typically they bloom in spring but every year I see them blooming in late fall as well.

Some Hebe varieties bloom in winter.

Most of my Asters have turned into corpses by now, but I'm really happy with this variety that is still going strong and putting out fresh flowers.

I have some inspection notes from October that I never posted below.  Today's inspection was a visual activity inspection which mainly tells me if they are alive but little else.  The only hive that had no activity was the Surf hive that was showing the worst signs of disease and wasn't building up at all.  This was one of the hives I expected to not make it.  The other at risk hives are the Sand, Luna, Solis, and Architect.

Hive checks (11/25/2013)

I suspect the numbers dwindled to the point that even with a single entrance hole they could no long defend the baseball sized cluster that was left.  Sometime in the last couple weeks and yellow jackets cleaned up anyone still alive before the recent freezing nights could kill them.  Any uncapped nectar had been depleted but capped honey and pollen remained and I transferred it to the back of the Sand hive.  The yellow jackets did not kill this hive but rather brood disease spread around by varroa back in late August.

The picture below if all that was left at the bottom of the hive and is the result of yellow jackets picking through the remains of the hive.

Sick brood they never pulled out of cells. 

They had good activity and I saw pollen coming in. I saw this little dead bee with pollen just inches away form the door.  A sad reminder that this isn't the best time of year to be foraging but her warning seemed to go unnoticed as her sisters zipped by.

Activity in this hive looked weak.  This is the sister queen to the Surf hive.

Had good activity and was doing much better than her neighboring hive.

This hive looked weak as well.  This is another queen from a similar genetic line to the Surf hive.

Rebels, Geeks, Geek daughter, Icon Grand daughter, Rosemary Swarm, Ballard Swarm
All of these hives have good activity.

...older hive checks below.

Hive checks (10/5/2013)

So so, they haven't been able to build up much and are still showing signs that DWV is an issue.  The queen is trying hard though.

No improvement.  Unlikely to have enough bees to cluster.

Not doing well and they still have signs of DWV.  Same queen line as Sand and Surf. Added sugar.

There is a little DWV but they have built up and look to have a good sized cluster for winter.  Added sugar.

Hive checks (10/6/2013)

Not looking good.  DWV is getting ahead.

Icon granddaughter
I saw DWV but not too bad, healthy brood. This genetic line seems to be able to keep DWV in check even if it doesn't go away.  Added raw sugar.

Rosemary Swarm
They were light so I added raw sugar.

Ballard Swarm
They were light so I added raw sugar.

On that note it's Thanksgiving this week and so here's a picture I took last month of an old summer forager with tattered wings collecting nectar for the next generation of bees that she would never meet.  Now that's something to be thankful for.  Perhaps it will motivate someone to tear up some grass to plant flowers.

Caryopteris x clandonensis, or Blue Mist Shru is a great late summer nectar plant.

Back to the bees.

- Jeff

Sunday, September 22, 2013

First Day of Fall and Winter Cover Crops

As a cue from mother nature, a windy & wet storm has arrived to kick off the first day of fall.  We have had several rainy days over the last two weeks which has revived the summer flowers and kicked off the start of fall flowers thus ending the late summer dearth we've been in.  In addition to all the asters I am seeing dandelions coming back into bloom and ivy has started to bloom which will provide the girls pollen and nectar though October to back-fill and stock the hives for winter.

Collecting nectar from Borage.

In mid August I made my winter preparations by condensing the brood nests to worker comb only and moving old or partial combs to the backs of the hive.  As a result I haven't needed to peak in on them much for September and for the most part don't need to look at most hives again until next spring.  However I like to know what's going on so will likely take a peak here and there, especially to keep tabs on the hives that are showing signs of DWV.  As far as feeding which I haven't done much of this year there are a few hives I will add some dry sugar to that haven't stored an ideal amount of honey yet for their colony size but otherwise I haven't been feeding since mid August.

Sunflowers are made up of hundreds of tiny flowers that provide pollen and nectar.

I took this one earlier in the month of a girl collecting nectar from Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus).  You can see a full berry on this bloom as well. Snowberries have a long bloom period from mid to late summer depending on how much sun/water their location gets.

The ground-cover Leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) brings brilliant blues to late summer gardens and is an attractive nectar source for bees.

Activity at the water sources I provide has switched from the warmer site in full sun that they have loved all year to one closer to the hives that is more shaded.  Not sure what was driving the change, but just goes to show that having multiple water sources available is important in keeping their interest.

Planting A Winter Cover Crop That Doubles As Bee Forage

Cover crops are a great way to protect and enrich your garden soil and can also provide early spring foraging options for the bees.  The main reasons gardeners plant cover crops is to replenish nutrients, keep the soil from compacting, stop erosion, and add organic material.  A cover crop isn't exclusive to winter and can be planted any time you want to give the soil a chance to rest and renew.

Any patches of bare garden soil will benefit from a cover crop going into winter and they are not limited to just vegetable garden plots and would even work for pots and planters that aren't in use.  Cover crops need very little care and are also great for helping keep winter and early spring weeds at bay.  Typically they only need to be watered for the first few weeks to get the seeds started or if there is a long stretch without any rain.

In the northwest with our mild winters there are many plants to pick from that make good cover crops however not all cover crops produce flowers that can also benefit the bees.  A few of the cover crops that produce flowers appealing to bees in early spring that I like are: Mustard, Winter peas, Crimson or White Clover and Fava Bean.  You don't need to plant just one type of crop either and a mix of plants can add variety and benefit the soil.

Cover crops usually start flowering a few weeks before you will want to till them into the ground to prep your spring gardens, but those February and early March flowers will be especially appealing for the bees when not much else is blooming.  Once the crop has flowered and you are ready to plant your garden in spring you can just cut down and till the plants right into the soil.  Planting a cover crop is relatively simple to do and come spring your bees will also be happy for the variety.

Asters provide nectar and pollen.

Asters are an autumn favorite for the bees with many native and hybrid options available to choose from.  When picking a variety remember that the bees prefer flowers with easy to access pollen.  Look for flowers with visible pollen at the center rather than a flower that is simply a mass of petals.  Some varieties grow in bushy clumps of various heights and others can grow a single long stem with multiple branches that may need to be staked up if not trimmed mid summer.  Asters range in colors from the shades of blue, pink and purple to even yellows so you have lots of different options for your fall garden.  While they can be grown from seed they also spread by root rhizomes in the ground and in just a few years a single plant will turn into a larger bee attracting clump.

Crape Myrtle has started to bloom.

This girl is collecting pollen from Liriope muscari another popular ground-cover in bloom.

Hive checks (9/2/2013)
Rosemary Swarm
These girls are being difficult and they built a little more crossed comb.  I was only planning to take a quick peak so I didn't do much to correct the issue.  I did move a comb of honey back out of the brood nest but otherwise didn't make any comb changes.  Besides the crazy comb issue they looked good.

Icon Granddaughter
The hive looked good and not much has changed since last inspection.  I suspect all the hives are just idling right now with how dry the summer has been.

Hive checks (9/8/2013)
They seem to be hanging on despite what I was seeing during the last inspection.  There is still a lot of DWV present in the hive but perhaps they could still turn around.

Unlike the Surf hive this hive is improving and the DWV is clearing up.  The brood laying pattern was looking good as well.

Hive checks (9/21/2013)
Geek Daughter
They have enough honey for winter in the hive and most of it is still uncapped.  I'm not sure why they haven't capped it and suspect they wont based on what I've seen from her mother.  No signs of disease and they look to be in good shape for the winter.  They have already reduced the cluster size down and are running lean typical of Carniolan bees.

I like this shot because it you can see the layers of propolis stand out on the edges of the cells against the cleaner white wax on the bottoms and walls.

Lots of uncapped honey in this hive.  You can see some wet and dry capped cells as well.

The brood nest is shrinking but she still has a solid pattern.

She has darkened a bit as she has matured over the last few months.

I'm also noticing lots of "bugs" hiding around the hives in protected areas.  The spiders are huge and are welcome as long as they are keeping yellow jackets out.  I wonder if they could possibly offer any side benefit in keeping robbing from starting by capturing snooping bees looking for unguarded access points since they seem to hid in all the cracks the hive doesn't use for access.  I've seen yellow jackets around and seen some dead outside the entrances so they are lurking but the hives are keeping them out.

Saw signs of DWV and varroa in the hive but not to the extent that I'm overly worried.  I shouldn't be surprised it's cropped up in this hive based on what I've seen with other queens from this genetic line.  They have good stores for winter and I pulled a capped frame out to extract.

The queen was running around in this hive and not giving her nurse bees a chance to catch up.

This was a shot of the brood pattern near the edge of the brood nest.  The other frames were fuller.

Icon Granddaughter
Good brood pattern and I'm only seeing a touch of DWV which is typically present in this hive.  The hive size has been pretty static since the supersedure in mid summer.  They only have a few frames of honey but with their conservative size I suspect with a little extra dry sugar they should be able to make it through the winter.

She's looking for a clean cell and it's hard to image how she squeezes into them to lay an egg.

Rosemary Swarm
These girls were a little lively today but otherwise not overly aggressive.  They have good stores and I left the one crazy comb alone and will fix it in spring.  They should be good shape for winter once they backfill a little more.

Nice brood pattern in this hive as well.

Here is another shot of larvae that are just starting to get capped.

Ballard Swarm
Besides being a more populated hive than the Rosemary swarm there were a lot of similarities between the two as far as their winter prep.  Unlike the other hives they still had a small patch of capped drones cells on the way.  I like to see hives take a few drones into winter so there are mature drones around for those early swarms in April.  I split two different lines at the end of April this year and those queens took a long time to get going which I think was partly due to poor drone coverage.

I also saw something unusual when I came across the queen in this hive in that she was laying an egg while walking over the comb.  Perhaps I startled her when she was going to lay in a cell but it was a first for me to see the queen laying an egg while walking around.

Notice she is still laying right to the edges of the frames.

You can tell the patch of brood in the lower part of the picture is older than the rest because it's darker.  She also seems to particular about only laying in the smallest worker cells and ignoring cells that are just a tad larger.  I am seeing this pickiness in most hives right now.

This was the only hive I didn't see the queen in, but saw signs of her so I'm not worried.  Like her daughter the hive numbers have dropped down and they have good stores built up for winter.

This hive is probably one of the most populated hives right now next to the Ballard Swarm.  The queen is still laying a lot of brood and the girls are pissy as usual.  Actually they were a bit more than pissy today trying to sting through my suit.  I rarely break out the smoke and didn't need smoke for any of the other hives today but I did for this one to keep them from going into attack mode.  They were reactive to the sugar spray as well as smoke going directly into their hive but smoking my hands between comb inspections seemed to be the right balance of smoke to keep them "calm".  I'm really curious to see how this hive does this winter since last winter almost killed them and I have done next to nothing to help them this year (maybe that's why they don't like me).

I usually like to see lots of colors in pollen stores, but this collection of orange pollen they are bringing in is really pretty.  Pollen is usually the trigger for this hive to build up so I'm curious if they will store this or start laying up a storm.

Nice solid brood pattern.

There are a few patches of Knotweed around but at least in my area it's not enough to create any kind of flow for the girls.  

Back to the bees,

- Jeff

Friday, August 23, 2013

Preparations for Winter

August is already winding down and the bees have been busy preparing for winter.  Yes that's not a typo, the hives are placing stores closer to the brood nest and raising bees that will be prepared for several months of minimal activity during winter.  With 21 days between each brood cycle there isn't a lot of time left for hives to beef up their numbers and make winter bees to replace the summer workforce.  As we nudge into fall and then winter the broodnest will get ever smaller as they back fill with honey and pollen.  Because these winter bees are so important for colony survival I have been hypersensitive about noting signs of disease and/or pests during my hive checks this month.

Collecting nectar from thistle.

Black Eyed Susan is a nectar source.

 Sedum Stonecrop is a good nectar source that is coming into bloom.

Russian Sage is another popular late season nectar source.

Plains Coreopsis also does well late summer. 

Milkweed is a nectar source for bees, and is also the only food source for Monarch caterpillars.  Butterflies drink nectar from many flowers but if you want them to reproduce you need to have a few milkweed plants around.

Goldenrod can be a big nectar source this time of year.  This plant was covered in tiny wasps.

I've noticed several Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) plants putting out a second bloom this year.  Usually they only bloom early spring.

A week ago I got a call to look at a beehive in a tree to determine if they could be removed.  When I got there I found a massive 6 foot diameter tree with a hole about 15 feet up.  The activity looked good and they looked as happy as bees could be and the tree was in excellent health as well.  It's hard to say how long the nest had been there but I talked them out of removal and to just let them exist since it's unlikely they would bother anyone with and entrance so high up and any kind of removal would likely kill them this time of year and potentially damage the tree.  I told them if it gets to be a problem we could try a trap out in spring otherwise just call me when they swarm.

The entrance to this bee fortress is at the indent in the upper right trunk.

Echinacea is a type of coneflower native to eastern and central North American forests and grasslands.  It has a distinctive spiked center with drooping petals and gets it's common name from Greek word "ekhinos" for sea urchin.  This perennial doesn't need much water and prefers airy dry soil and can take partial shade making it a good candidate for our northwest gardens.  They are often covered in bees when in bloom and produce ample nectar.  Where Echinacea is grown commercially a flavorful medium colored honey can be produced.

I've had a few people tell me they aren't seeing the bees on their Echinacea this year.  If the plant is too dry it won't produce nectar. 

In top bar hives you can get some honey combs mixed into the brood nest depending on what they were drawing when you added spacer bars.  This is the month I have been moving non-worker bars forward or back so that the broodnest mostly has combs that are worker sized cells.  I like 1-2 frames of storage frames inside the entrance that can be any cell size that they usually use for pollen and honey and then worker frames and then multiple frames of honey in the back.

Ideally I like to leave at least 5-6 frames of solid honey in the back plus whatever is backfilled into the broodnest so they have enough to feed on February through May.  This usually allows me to avoid feeding.  My frames when full are about 6-7 pounds so if I have 8 frames of honey and 8-10 brood frames I'm usually over the 80 pounds you want to have in the city.  I find that since I don't inflate the populations with feeding that usually is far more honey than they actually use in the winter, but it makes the difference in spring when they want to build up.

Hive checks (8/10/2013)

The population as a whole is down and they have multiple frames of capped brood on the way and good honey stores.  I saw signs of DWV and the larvae didn't look as moist as they should and I'm concerned about their overall health.  Reduced the entrances and condensed the brood nest to only worker frames moving out the drone frames.  I did not see signs of varroa.

Lots of nectar in this hive.

This hive looked to be in much the same situation as the Surf hive and I performed the same actions to condense the brood nest.   I'm hoping with the large amounts of brood coming that they can outrun the issue they are having, but sadly based on past experiences sick looking hives don't get better this time of year.  I am however more optimistic of this hive because this is a newly mated queen.

Can you see the eggs in the cells?

Hive checks (8/11/2013)

Geek Daughter
They took the syrup I gave them on last inspection and I'm seeing lots of new nectar stored on back frames, just not on the brood frames.  I'm not going to feed them again as the population size looks healthy and am going to wait and see why they don't store much honey at the tops of brood frames.  I did move two drone frames back behind the broodnest so the worker brood frames are all together right inside the entrance and will get the benefit of nectar and pollen coming in from foragers.  I'm not seeing any signs of disease.

This girl is bringing in propolis that is collected from trees.

The queen is off to a good start.

Ballard Swarm
Lots and lots of brood coming.  They are in buildup mode still.  They have 3-4 inch honey arches on every frame and have some pollen reserves as well.  They will be in good shape for winter once they start to backfill.  They are also still drawing comb which is hard to get them to do in August!

Getting attention from the attendants.

Rosemary Swarm
The girls were a little pissy today.  They are still drawing comb (slightly crazy comb) and trying to build up.  I added two spacer bars to see if they can draw them out. Hive looks healthy.

Another busy queen.

The girls weren't pissy until I got half way through the broodnest today.  I guess that's a plus.  I didn't see the queen but everything looks good and their population seems to have stabilized now.  Nectar is coming in and getting stored.  Hive looks healthy.

Hive checks (8/13/2013)
Icon Granddaughter
Things have definitely turned around in this hive since the supersedure.  This hive has had signs of DWV all season and I only saw one bee with DWV today which was an improvement.  The brood was looking a lot more solid than it's been the last couple months and the larvae was looking really good as well.

Lots of healthy looking bees in this hive now.

They are building up and things look good.  No signs of disease in this hive.  There is a fair amount of honey in this hive but also some partial combs they aren't drawing out anymore so I might have to do some swapping next inspection.

You can't tell she is three years old.

They had a surplus of pollen on last inspection and have been making good use of it raising a lot of brood.  The hive is bringing in nectar and building up reserves.  The queen is very active and everything looks really good in this hive.

She was running around too much and I couldn't get a good picture with attendants circling her.

Hive checks (8/19/2013)
Checked the hives at the new host site today and finally got around to naming them.  I decided on Luna, Latin for Moon for the West facing hive and Solis, Latin for Sun for the East facing hive.

Luna on the left and Solis on the right.

This queen is a daughter form the Surf hive that was raised in Plum Creek.  I'm feeding both hives to build them up a bit more so they go into October with better numbers.  Both hives have minimal stores as well.  I saw a few bees with DWV in this hive, which means all three daughters from the Surf hive have some level of DWV.  While this hive is small it did not give me the same sickly impression that her two sister hives did.  Pulled the drone/honey frames out of the brood nest to help them optimize their resources.

Not the greatest pattern, but it'll do.

Nice sized tiger striped queen.  She is well liked.

This hive is about on par with the Luna hive.  This is a daughter of the Geeks and they have established a small but stable brood nest.  Her pattern is also a little spotty in places but based on what I've seen before I think it will be better once they build up more.  This hive also coats more heavily with propolis.  They inherited several frames of brood from the original Icon Granddaughter hive that always showed signs of DWV, but the queen and bees introduced came from the "resistant" hive and now I'm not seeing any signs of DWV.  Pulled the drone/honey frames out of the broodnest to help them optimize their resources.

I'm going to have trouble keeping track of the queens in these two hives since the look like twins.  She is also well liked by her daughters.

Good looking frame of brood, but they weren't all like this.

The girls are also eagerly working the mint growing in the garden.

Back to the bees,

- Jeff