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

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Treatment-Free Beekeeping

I spent last weekend in Oregon attending the Pacific Northwest Treatment-Free Beekeeping Conference which was nice change of pace from the typical beekeeping meetings where the treatment free crowd is sometimes an afterthought in the discussion.  One of the lasting sediments I took away from the conference is the idea that going treatment free is a step in the direction towards a sustainable future and leaving something for the next generation.  Before I left I wrote the following short article introducing the idea of treatment free beekeeping and in post conference review I wouldn't change anything.

Globe Thistle (Echinops persicus) is a very desirable nectar source right now.  

Concepts of Treatment-Free Beekeeping

Whether you just started keeping bees or are an old pro you are likely no stranger to the long list of chemicals a beekeeper might use inside the hive to address issues.  The list changes over time as pests adapt relatively quickly to whatever treatments are used and so books and classes devote a good portion of time to discussing when and how to apply them.  However what is often not discussed in much detail is the concept of treatment free beekeeping which is beekeeping that does not use any treatments in the hive.  The generally accepted definition of a treatment is defined as: "A substance introduced by the beekeeper into the hive with the intent of killing, repelling, or inhibiting a pest or disease afflicting the bees."

Going treatment free means you are going down a difficult road were you let the genetically weak bees die and propagate the most resistant genetics.  By selecting from the most resistant bees you help to accelerate the natural selection process so they can develop natural defenses to pests and disease breaking the treatment cycle.  Resistant bees are those that survive despite having been exposed to a pest as opposed to bees that survive because they are in a protected location or fortunate to have been spared exposure.

Taking the treatment free approach is not an easy path and for the most part if you simply stop treating bees that have been regularly treated you will likely have low survival odds.  However there is a way around this problem and that is by getting bees from a breeder that is already successfully raising treatment free bees.  Why start over when you can build on the work someone else has started especially when you may only have 1-2 backyard hives.  Having a treatment free genetics is only part of what is necessary to be successful and you will also want to take steps to maximize bee health and reduce stresses in the hive.

Many ideas exist as to how to reduce stresses and improve health from allowing them to build natural comb to only feeding their own honey.  There are also management steps to allow brood breaks to occur that would normally happen naturally as part of the swarming cycle.  Using natural comb and turning over combs more quickly helps to prevent contaminates from building up in the wax so that larvae can be raised in uncontaminated wax cells.  There is also much to be learned about the natural microbial environment of the hive that exists when treatments are not used and how those microbes can also help to keep diseases in check.  Treatment free beekeeping is not lazy beekeeping and can often be more challenging because you need to be able to make decisions several steps ahead of the hives needs to prevent problems from occurring to ultimately be successful.


I also recently had an opportunity to walk through the UW Medicinal Herb Garden to look at what was in bloom and while many of the plants are not natives they might be great ideas for your late summer gardens to attract pollinators.  Below are just a few of the photos I took of flowers that the bees were interested in.

Inula helenium with a leaf-cutter bee.

Purple Bee Balm provides nectar.

This girl is collecting pollen from a mallow plant.

Guizotia abyssinica provides nectar.

Verbena hastata provides nectar.

Eryngium yuccifolium provides nectar.

Leonotis nepetifolia is a nectar source.

Liatris spicata provides nectar.

Here are a few other plants growing in the area that are attracting the bees right now.

Nectar from a Star Jasmine vine.

Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is sadly another noxious weed that the girls like.

Native Spiraea douglasii provides nectar.

Hollyhock provides nectar and pollen.

One of the workshops at the conference was lead by Thomas Seeley and he had a swarm setup so we could watch the decision making process following the methods in his research.  Perhaps next time there is a tough decision to be made we should passionately dance for the result that we want.

Watching the bees dance.

Collecting pollen from clover.

This girl is collecting nectar from this Rose Of Sharon.  Sadly this is a hybrid variety and it takes more work to get to the nectar.

Hive checks (7/21/2013)
Plum Creek was moved to a new location.  I saw a decent laying pattern and a good amount of pollen getting stored.  Added a jar of syrup while they adjust to the new location.

Hive checks (7/22/2013)
Old Engineer Hive
This has the second daughter queen from the Geek queen in it.  Moved them to a new site.  The laying pattern looked good.  Added a jar of syrup while they adjust to the new location.

Hive checks (7/23/2013)
The hive is filling up with nectar and comb production is slow.  The queen is running out of laying space and I added an empty bar to the brood nest to force them to build more comb.  Hopefully it works.  I'm happy to report the daughters of this queen are far more pleasant to work with and they no longer feel the need to bang against my veil.

The queen was moving around quickly before the nurse bees could catch up.

The new queen looks healthy and she is getting attention from the nurse bees.  I saw eggs but no larvae or capped brood yet.  Hopefully her daughters will also show calmer traits, as after only a couple minutes into this hive I remembered how annoying these girls can be with their head-butting.

I really like her tiger striped markings.

Nice frame of stored pollen.

Hive checks (7/29/2013)

Icon Granddaughter
The laying pattern was so-so but it looks like the overall health of the hive has improved and I only saw one bee with DWV.  They aren't making drones but their numbers seem to be growing again and most of the bees have switched from dark to light coloring with the new queen.  I suspect the so-so laying pattern is due to them cleaning out varroa cells.  The queen seems very strong and was laying both sides of the entrance frame, which is something I only see in very motivated queens.

You'd never think that her mother was jet black.

Rosemary Swarm
Well apparently two weeks was too long to not inspect and they built some cross comb on the last bar.  They also picked up some of the foragers when I moved the Geek hive which helped with their buildup.  Since the hive was full I moved them into the Plum Creek hive.  Unfortunately the brand new cross combed bar was full of honey and not wanting to damage it I tried to just separate it from the rest so I could reset them to a straight pattern but just moving the comb to the new hive was enough to make it collapse.  It was mostly capped so I may just harvest it if I don't feed it back to them.

Whatever was slowing them down seems to have passed and they have picked back up again and there were several frames of brood on the way.  The hive in general is getting more defensive as they increase in numbers so I rushed through the inspection and didn't see the queen, but saw lots of brood.  I am thinking of trying to split them to get a new daughter that might be more gentle.

Curious as to why these bees seem smaller I took measurements of cell size. It worked out to 4.9mm which is in line with the other hives.

Ballard Swarm
Lots of great looking frames and brood on the way with and excellent laying pattern.  Comb building has slowed and they have spread themselves a little thin over all the new brood but the weather is going to be nice so they should do really well and increase in size quickly.

Nice frame of brood with capped honey at the top.  They all looked like this with the exception that their mother can be seen if you look closely.

Another nice frame.  I'm not worried about the lack of pollen for this time of year.

Hive checks (7/29/2013)

There was some setback in brood laying due to moving hives, but lots of new larvae and eggs on the way.  The hive was more runny than usual and I'm guessing it was related to the hive move and time of year.

Lots of pollen stores with a decent amount of honey.  I usually see a surplus of pollen stores as a good thing, but will wait and see how they do since they have so much more pollen stored than the other hives.  She does have a good laying pattern.

Nice frame of brood.

Geek Daughter
Lots of brood on the way and they are building up.  There is capped honey from previous years left still but not much nectar or pollen to be found.  About the only place I saw fresh nectar was on the frames just inside the entrance.   The queen does have an excellent laying pattern.  I may have to feed this hive.

Great brood pattern, but low on reserves.

Back to the bees.

- Jeff