Sunday, December 21, 2014

Winter Solstice and Hive Activity

So far winter here in the Puget Sound has been warm and we even broke an all time record with 66F degrees on Dec 10th.  A few cold snaps have also blown through that took out pretty much everything that wasn't supposed to be blooming for this time of year, and forced plants into their winter dormancy.

One perk of the warmer weather is I was able to do a full hive inspection to see what they were up to for this time of year, and likely will have another chance to do another full inspection this season.  A downside is that I suspect they are burning through food reserves being so busy right now.  Another risk they could run into is that they could get caught in period of freezing weather with a lot of brood to keep warm.

I'm not sure how often people look around the site, but I've updated the Bee Plants page to bring it up to date!  Here's the newest profile:

Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) is a small evergreen tree that adds an exotic look to our Northwestern gardens with it's large glossy leaves.  This plant is a native to south-central China and while it does need slightly warmer weather than our area can provide to produce mature fruit, it will still flourish as an ornamental.  New leaves will be fuzzy red to yellowish in color and slowly mature to a dark green.  Stems of the tree are light brown and also slightly fuzzy and while it looks delicate is actually pretty tough in our climate.  In December it will produce clusters of whitish flowers that give off a sweet scent that can smelled for a distance.  Once established trees will show a degree of drought tolerance, however they have a shallow root system and care should be taken to not disturb the soil under the canopy.

Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica)

Here's the Ballard daughter hive on 12/5/2014.  If you can't see the video, use the following link:

Crimson clover is slowly growing in my planters as a winter cover crop, and am thinking I should start it earlier next year.  Hopefully the birds and squirrels let some of it survive till spring so that it can do it's magic to amend the soil, and maybe bloom to provide an early nectar source.

Bodnant Viburnum has come into bloom.

Mahonia powers through our winters essentially immune to whatever mother nature throws at it.  They are amazingly drought tolerant as well.

Hive checks (12/5/2014)
Ballard daughter
It was 52F today with calm weather and I did a full inspection.  This is the latest point in the year I've ever done a full inspection on any hive.  The queen looked good and I found a patch of brood across 3 frames.  Largest patches of brood were on the sides of the comb facing the back of the hive away from the entrance.   The brood nest started on frame 5 in from the entrance.  I saw a few 7-8 day old larvae in the brood nest as well which means they were raising brood during the last cold snap.  On the very last frame of the brood nest I found a small cluster of dead/dying bees that couldn't get around the comb to the warmer parts of the cluster.  The side of the comb there were on also didn't have any honey stores left.  They are currently robbing honey from the Roma hive and I moved some of the best frames into the hive to save them effort.  These bees definitely have Italian traits.

Dead bees at the end of the cluster on a side of comb with no food reserves.

They have drones!  There were more than just these two.

The queen is laying!

I often find wax moth larvae trying to hide in the grooves above the top bars.  They don't actually get into the hive and are usually safe unless I'm inspecting which exposes their hiding spots.

There were a few frames like this and I didn't want to brush off the bees for a better photo but the brood is there in the middle and there was also uncapped larvae.

Sadly they didn't make it.  I moved the best frames of honey to the Rosemary daughter, Ballard daughter and Rose hives.

This is what it looks like when comb is torn open to get the honey.  Oddly I never see this rough behavior when they are opening their own combs to get honey.  Perhaps they just clean it up better when it's their own comb.

Scriber Creek
I thought it was odd there was no activity and when I took a look was surprised to find they died in the last cold snap.  I last inspected them on 10/5/2014 and they looked great and didn't see signs of disease.  There didn't seem to be very many dead bees on the bottom of the hive and I did notice what think were a few zombie bee flies (Apocephalus borealis) running around.  I find it interesting the flies survived freezing weather without the benefit of a warm bee cluster. I pulled a few random dead bees from brood cells and a few did have varroa and signs of DWV which I had never seen in this hive before.  In October they really would only have had one more brood cycle for winter bees which seems odd they would have crashed that fast.

No inspection, but swapped an empty frame in the back for one with capped honey and pollen.

Rosemary daughter
No inspection and filled the back of the hive with honey bars.

Hive checks (12/6/2014)
Visual Checks on the Ballard, Rosemary, Solis and Dyno hives and they all had entrance activity.

Back to the bees,

- Jeff

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Winter Storms Have Arrived

Winter storms are here and we have just started our second below freezing cold spell for the year.  If hives aren't setup with food near the cluster these long cold spells can quickly starve them.  The tricky part about overwintering in the Puget Sound area is we bounce around during winter from warm to cold weeks.  This means they are burning more energy looking for forage on warm days and they are also breaking up the cluster.  Studies have shown bees do better when they have a consistent cold that keeps them inside most of the winter with an occasional nice day to do cleansing flights.  On the plus side these long cold spells are also good for finishing off other pests like the yellow jackets that don't have a food reserve to keep them going.

Snow on the Aster stems.

A good roof should keep the hive body dry.  Another perk to the top bar hive is that we would need about 4 feet of snow before it would be high enough to start blocking the entrances.

Winter blooming Camellia provides pollen.

False holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus) is a good mid November bloomer.

With a few warm days we've seen some Dandelions come back into bloom.

This Fennel plant is putting out blooms a bit late in the season.

Hive checks (11/8/2014)
Rebel Daughter
The brood diseases I saw last inspection have killed them.  I split up the resources between the Roma and Ballard Daughter hive.  This hive and queen line had struggled every year just to survive.

Every year I find a few overwintering yellow jacket queens.  Usually they are under the hive roofs in living hives.  In spring they will wake up and start new colonies assuming nothing squishes or eats them.  

If you see brood like this in your dead-out, your hive was sick.

Ballard Daughter
I checked a few frames in the cluster and they still have a good amount of brood coming and also saw larvae.  There are a good number of bees in this hive, and I was surprised to see this conservative hive still raising brood.

Brood in November.

They are still holding on, an I didn't look much past the last frame they were clustered on.  Moved the best honey frames from the Rebel Daughter hive next to the cluster.

They looked like they were doing good and have gotten ahead of the brood diseases.  They appear to have a good setup for winter and the hive is now full of comb they inherited from the Luna hive.  Now the question is whether they have enough bees to keep the cluster warm during storms.

An Assassin bug hiding under the cover.  I've been seeing these around everywhere this year.

I was surprised to see them already gone.  I knew they were sick, but they had a lot of bees and I was thinking they would make it a little later into winter.

They didn't make it and the hive was getting robbed.  Brood disease took them out quickly.

Plum Creek
They weren't able to recover form the brood disease either and were gone.  The queen was oddly still alive, but she was alone minus a few robbers and yellow jackets.  I stuck her in a cage and she's on my desk at the moment.  There isn't anything I can do with her unless I stumble across queenless hive in the next day or so which is not likely to happen since I don't plan to inspect anyone else right now.

They appear to have gotten ahead of the brood disease and had a good number of bees.  Didn't inspect further than the last frames and they were robbing out the other hives.  The hive is now full of the excess honey frames from both Plum Creek and Quickdraw.

Hive checks (11/27/2014)
Saw robbing activity between the Ballard daughter and Roma hives, but didn't inspect with the weather changing.  I suspect the Roma hive either died during the last cold spell or is too weak to stop robbing.

Back to the bees,

- Jeff

Monday, November 3, 2014

Halloween Brings Gloomy Weather to the Apiary

Up until a week ago we still has some summer flowers blooming and now after being soaked with several inches of rain there is hardly any sign of them left.  With the recent weather change I think it is safe to say summer is officially gone and the hives aren't going to get too many good foraging days again until March.  Hives are still raising brood and have managed to build up good stores of honey and pollen for the winter.  The surplus pollen doesn't keep forever like honey, but will last a few months and will help fuel winter brood production giving hives a head start on spring buildup.  I typically see brood production until mid-November in hives.  However we don't have enough warm sunny days between late Nov and Mid-Jan that I can get in enough inspections to definitively say when (or if) brood production ever completely shuts down.

There was interest in keeping bees treatment free at the meeting this month and I wanted to reiterate a few important points related to getting started (based on my opinions) that help to make some people successful when others might fail:
  • You should start with bees that are adapted to the local climate.  Local bees will in general outperform bees imported from somewhere else and will respond quicker to the season changes to build up and will overwinter better.
  • In addition to locally adapted bees you want to get genetics from lines that have been kept treatment free if at all possible.
  • Avoid using wax foundation that retains chemical residue. Let them build comb and allow them to regress the cell size.  The thought here is that smaller bees reach adulthood faster which may give them an advantage.  Also there is a lot of research yet to be done on the overall micro-flora of the hive and clean wax will provide a better foundation for this to develop like it would in nature.
  • Having an semi-remote apiary, which is not possible in an urban environments.  I have found that there are on average 50-75 other beekeepers within a mile radius anywhere in the Seattle city limits.  With so many people importing bees every year this creates a wave of foreign drones which can and will wash out any localized genetics you have with each queen mating. 
  • Luck.  You can't plan for this.  Perhaps this means you luck out with a great genetic line.  Or perhaps this means your bees don't get exposed to a pest or disease and ultimately do very well for awhile.  It may take you awhile to realize which kind of luck you have.
The take away here is that there are a lot of variables with going treatment free and some of them exist outside of your control, especially in an urban area.  To be successful it is necessary to work with other beekeepers to achieve common goals knowing that it may take several years to identify good genetic lines.  Simply applying treatment free approaches to the CA package you purchased is not likely to yield rewarding results in the long run.  With that said local queens are next to impossible to find in spring so you will likely need to start with a non-local package with plans to re-queen as soon as local queens are available in summer.

Chrysanthemum "Hillside Sheffield" is a good pollen and nectar source.  Finding bee friendly mum's is a challenge in a market saturated with all-petal varieties.

English Ivy is a plentiful fall food source around the city and offers pollen, nectar, and an unmistakable musky scent.

Rosemary blooms pretty much all year round if in a sunny location and is a good nectar source.

Hardy Impatiens (Impatiens omeiana) is another nectar source.

Tea (Camellia sinensis) is in bloom and a good pollen source.

Viburnum tinus "Laurustinus" is an evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean with a long winter blooming period that starts in November and can last until late spring.  They produce slightly fragrant clusters of white and light pink flowers that stand out against their dark glossy green leaves.  These shrubs are fairly versatile and bloom best when given a sunny or partially sunny location with regular watering.  When plants become established they can even show drought tolerance qualities during our long dry summers.  They need minimal pruning to maintain shape over time and can be a good pick for low maintenance hedges.  Their shiny dark blue berries are a food source that attracts birds and other wildlife.

Viburnum tinus is a winter food source.

Seven-Sons-Tree (Heptacodium miconioides) is an early fall bloomer and buzzing with bees.

A few Dahlias are still hanging on.

Choisya ternata is actually a spring bloomer, however it's pretty common around the city to see them putting out a few flowers in early November.

I think this one is a Chrysanthemum "Redwing" and it's another good option for bees.

Fatsia japonica is a nice evergreen shrub with large maple tree sized leaves that does surprisingly well here in the Puget Sound.  They are just starting to come into bloom and are a good pollen and nectar source.

Toad Lily (Tricyrtis) is a nectar source.

Asters are still providing pollen and nectar.

Hardy Fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica) is a nectar source.

Hive checks (10/11/2014)
Moved the Ballard and Rosemary Nucs to the p-patch about 5 blocks away.  I put grass in the entrance holes to help them reorient, to prevent loosing too many foragers back to the old location.

Watching the next day it looked like a few foragers still came back to the old location circled around and joined with the Scriber Creek hive that was the closest hive to where their hives used to be.  Both hives had a good number of bees so loosing a few hopefully shouldn't put them back too much.

Their new home.

Hive checks (10/12/2014)
Overall the hive looked pretty clean and they were trying to be very hygienic.  I did see some varroa and signs of DWV.  I also noticed a varroa running over the queen (yuck) and got a picture before they cleaned it off of her.  That's never a good sign.  The hive has done a great job building up stores of honey and pollen from running lean all summer.  Noticed some crystallized honey as well that is likely ivy.

This is a nice looking frame of brood.

Another good looking frame of brood at the edge of the broodnest.

Hard to see but a varroa mite is running over this queen.  

Here is a good shot of the nectar crystallizing before they have a chance to even cap it.  I suspect this is ivy nectar.

Plum Creek
I was surprised to see DWV in this hive and it looks like they are struggling with it a bit.  This is a hive that pulled out of a bad DWV outbreak last fall and then did wonderful all spring and summer. Seeing how both the child hives are also fighting DWV. I'm thinking that perhaps the genetic line just isn't quite got what it takes.  The hive has good stores of honey and pollen.  Closed them down to one entrance hole.

The queen is still trying to pull them out of it, but you can see a few varroa on worker bees in this photo.

Like the other two hives this hive is also dealing with DWV.  Their population has dropped off significantly from what it was at last inspection.  Decent stores of honey and good stores of pollen.  Closed them down to one entrance hole.  Like the other hives I was seeing good hygienic behavior in the hive.

Lots of pollen stored to use in late winter.

Hive checks (10/19/2014)
There are a good number of bees in this hive and they have good stores of pollen and honey saved up.  They are still dealing with DWV and the brood nest is just a small area on a few frames.

You can see a bee in this photo with a varroa on it.  

Rebel Daughter
There are just a few frames of bees left in this hive and it doesn't appear they were able to get ahead of the DWV issues.  The bees that are left all look healthy, but the cluster just isn't going to be big enough to survive a winter storm.  I've been nursing this line of queens along for several years and perhaps it's for the best.  They were never much fun to inspect being so aggressive and have never produced a surplus of honey.

Back to the bees,

- Jeff

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Treatment Free Bees and Assessing Hives for Winter Survivability

The long days of summer have faded and hives are making the last push to; raise winter bees, pack in pollen, and cap/dry nectar.  Unfortunately this is also the time of year that newer beekeepers start to panic because there might not be enough food for winter, or they are seeing disease take over.  As a treatment free beekeeper I get a lot of questions about what do when someone sees one of these issues occurring in the hive.  The answer almost always comes back to the fact that if you are seeing something in October, then you are already too late.  Winter planning should be underway by August and waiting until October is too late to do anything from a treatment free approach.  Switching to last minute treatments plans to fix already sick winter bees is likely to do little to help them survive.

I often run up against this "idea" of treatment free beekeeping and desire to not use chemicals, vs. the often cold reality of what treatment free really means.  Mother nature is not kind and will kill the weak, so by going treatment free what you are doing is letting genetically weak hives die.  This is made difficult by the fact that there are a lot of bad genetics out there so if you aren't getting queen genetics from someone that is having success with treatment free you are likely going down a difficult road and are going to loose a many hives along the way.

For me, having successful treatment free bees means that I am able to get the same genetic lines of bees through multiple winters.  Everything in the Northwest is a race to winter, so often there is not enough time to breed a new queen in June, then have the workers of the hive turnover with the new queens genetics, and then assess hygienic traits of the offspring before fall with enough time to try and replace a queen again to prevent total hive death should the hive not have desirable traits.  The assessment period for all practical purposes is really from Summer to following Spring.

Having a single hive that survives for a few years is not the same as having a lineage survive multiple years.  Sometimes excellent hives only produce 10% good queens/hives and sometimes it's 90%, but rarely do you get 100% that are as good as or better than the mother hive. The odds of a treatment free locally raised queen surviving a Seattle winter are better than the odds of say an imported CA queen, however that doesn't mean you can't get great CA queens and crappy local queens.  For this reason you never really get to a point where you have that perfect apiary of treatment free bees.  You are always working to breed from the strongest hives and working to maintain those good genetics from year to year.  This is especially true in the city where you have a saturation of foreign genetics every spring from imported bees.  My solution to this is that I make multiple nucs in summer from my best hives to take into winter which improves my odds for getting a few good queens/hive through winter.

Passion fruit vine provides nectar and actually overwinters well here.

Getting nectar from the last of the Lavender blooms.

Knotweed is a good nectar source if you have it around.

For some reason they really like broken granite pieces over all other types of rocks.  Maybe it's just easy to hang onto, or maybe it's leaching some trace minerals.

Asters are the winners for fall blooms and a great nectar and pollen source.

More Aster blooms.

Romneya coulteri is CA native poppy and provides pollen.  However this one is growing next to a patch of Feverfew which will likely keep the bees away.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is biannual herb and NOT bee friendly.

Another type of Aster in bloom (Aster frikartii), and one of my favorites.  This one blooms a little less densely than the others but seems to start blooming sooner and doesn't stop until it freezes.

Cosmos can stand out in fall.

Some varieties of Sunflowers also last into fall.

Another Knotweed photo and in this case she is collecting pollen.

Clover is blooming and a good nectar source.

Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a nectar source.

Kangaroo Apple (Solanum laciniatum) is in bloom.

Stonecrop (Sedum) can be a nectar source.  I think they can be stingy when they give out nectar and I've only see bees on these when they are in direct sunlight.

Catmint (Nepeta) has been blooming since spring and is still going.

Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)

The Rose of Sharon comes to life in late summer with a long lasting display of tropical looking flowers that last until fall.  This late summer blooming shrub provides both pollen and nectar for hungry bees trying to find food at the end of the summer dearth.  Mature plants can get to 10-12 feet tall and are hardy in the northwest if planted in a sunny location that gets regular water during dry stretches.  There are many varieties and colors available to pick from, but try to avoid the double petaled varieties that make it harder for bees to access the pollen and nectar.  Another plus is that blooms are produced on new growth so winter pruning isn't going to set them back for the season.  The only negative is that they are deciduous and often stay in a long dormancy period coming out of winter and may look dead until early summer.

Crape Myrtle

These fast growing trees add a tropical look to our northwest gardens with their sweet smelling blooms at the end of summer.  The flowers of these trees range in colors from red to white, and have also evolved to attract pollinators by producing two types of pollen.  One is a false bee friendly pollen that is well suited for bee digestion, and that other pollen is used for fertilization.  These trees have also been known to produce honeydew if aphid infestations get out of control, which would also attract bees when nectar is scarce.  Originating from southeast Asia, they have moderate water requirements and some newer hybrid varieties are able to perform well here in the northwest if given a full sun location.  Crape myrtles produce flowers on new growth and will need light pruning to keep them in shape.  In addition to their late summer flowers they also have striking fall color when their leaves change as well as attractive multicolored pealing bark.

Hive Checks (8/31/2014)
Both the hives at this location are under heavy patrol by yellow jackets.  Did a quick inspection of Solis and they are light on resources and I will need to steal some from the Luna hive to get them through winter.  There were some signs that DWV had returned.

The queen is looking good.

Closed up one of the entrance holes so that they only have three now.  They were a little on edge because of the yellow jackets so only did a quick inspection.  They have good stores, but mostly older from early summer and it didn't look like any new stores had been added recently.

This queen still seems small to me.

Contrary to what I've seen previously they were storing nectar.  Not much capped yet, but it's a good sign to see nectar coming in this time of year.  The population looked good with an excellent brood pattern.

Plum Creek
This hive sits at ground level and was being targeted by yellow jackets over the other hives.  I cleared some weeds so there would be fewer places for them to hide.  The hive is clearly in defensive mode and I skipped inspecting them.

Lots of brood in this hive and they have a decent amount of stores.  They look to be in good shape for winter.

Hive Checks (9/30/2014)
Gave them some crushed comb pieces to lick clean.  Inspection looked good.  Saw a few bees with DWV but they seemed to be keeping it under control.  Good stores of pollen and honey.  Most of their stores are towards the front of the hive with the brood towards the back.

Still going strong.

Nice frame of brood.

Still raising drones!

Here is one of the all black bees.  Also notice the drones are still allowed in this hive.  Seems that this queen mated with a lot of drones form different places.

Some nice frames of pollen which they will put to good use in late winter and early spring.

Hive Checks (10/4/2014)
Ballard Daughter
Activity has been slow for this hive much like the mother hive in the Ballard Nuc.  They have condensed down and have a tight broodnest with an excellent laying pattern.  I would like to see more stores around the broodnest.  The combs are mostly empty with the top 3-4 inches capped honey.  The whole hive is like this which isn't a good clustering setup for winter unless they can keep moving back all winter from comb to comb.  I'd also like to see the hive more densely populated.  They could easily be stuffed in one of my nuc hives.  I pulled 6 mostly full honey frames from the Rebel hive and put them next to the broodnest. Saw a few bees with DWV.

Very nice brood pattern.

The queen looks good.

Here's a winter bee just emerging.  Winter bees tend to look slightly wider than summer bees.

Rebel Daughter
Things aren't looking good and it seems that DWV is getting ahead again.  It wasn't looking good in spring and then they seemed to turn things around over summer where it was pretty much gone.  However now it's back and the broodnest is small and I don't think they will make it through an extended cold spell.

Here is the queen.

Ballard Nuc
The nuc is populated with bees and they seem to be in good shape for winter.  I almost think this queen would do good in a nuc most of the year as they really haven't done much this year.  Saw some signs of DWV.

This old queen is still going.

Tight brood pattern.

Rosemary Nuc
The hive looks awesome and the bees have that healthy glow/shine to them.  Frames are heavy with honey and covered in bees.  There are some pollen stores building up as well.

Brood in any open space.  I'm not going to be too critical here because the hive is out of space and they are backfilling.

The queen looks good.

Rose Nuc
For a late swarm they are doing great and surpassing even their mother hive in the Rosemary Nuc.  The frames are heavy with honey and the bees are looking great.  They are even building comb with surplus from whatever sources are still producing nectar.

Nice brood pattern.  They are filling in a little better than in the mother hive.

Now that's a honey arch!

The queen looks well cared after.

They are drawing new comb! 

Hive Checks (10/5/2014)
Things looks good and they have been storing nectar and pollen.  The brood pattern looked good and only saw a couple bees with DWV.  Gave them a partial frame of capped honey so they should be in good shape for winter.

This queen seems to have gotten a little darker.

Nice brood pattern.

Unlike the sister hive I don't think they are going to make it.  DWV has taken hold and they are really struggling.  This was the stronger hive of the two and still has a good number of bees, but they don't look like healthy winter bees.  This hive looks like most of the other queens I've had in this line going into fall with the exception of the sister and mother hives.

The queen is trying to pull them through.

Scriber Creek
There are a lot of bees in this hive and they look great and are super clam.  The brood nest is looking solid and they have pollen and nectar buffering the brood on practically every comb.  There are a few combs at the back that are empty and the combs in the front are mostly pollen stores.  I don't usually see them pack pollen back into the broodnest frames like this, but I think it's a great trait to have and will benefit them well in the spring buildup or if the weather is cold.  Also interestingly this hive has a small patch of winter drone brood, and also a few drones hanging around.  This hive seems to have a lot of qualities that would benefit it coming out of winter in the Northwest and has the potential to do great next year.  I'll likely  have to watch them for early swarm attempts.

Nice brood pattern with pollen and honey arch.

She is a well liked queen.

Drone brood coming.

Lots of pollen surplus.

They like their drones.

Rosemary Daughter
This is looking like a great line of bees.  Like the mother and sister hives, this hive is also doing very well.  They have a good number of bees in this hive, a great brood pattern, and good stores.  I haven't noticed aggressiveness outside the hive, but there weren't very happen to get inspected today.

Very nice brood pattern.

Another well liked queen.

Back to the bees,

- Jeff