Thursday, May 5, 2016

Blackberries Are Starting

I knew the blackberry bloom was going to be early this year, but I wasn't thinking it would happen the first week of May!  Everything is early again this year, and while last year we were an impressive 2-3 weeks early we've blown that record away with them being 4-5 weeks early.  Usually blackberries start about the second week in June and from what I can tell all the other typical June flowers are coming out now as well.  

So why does it sound like I'm concerned?  Last year this setup left us with a LONG dry summer which created weak hives and great conditions for disease to flourish.

Blackberry bloom

The other benchmark of both the maple and blackberry flows are that they align with swarm cycles.  I've heard of several swarms already this season due to the early maples and would expect without the normal spring lull before blackberries the swarm that urge will be compounded in the next few weeks.  If you want to catch them before they do something you really need to be in there every 7-10 days right now.

Here a swarm in a thorny bush.  Ouch and not from stingers!

The queen is in the box and everyone is slowly moving in.

This is the buildup from the swarm pictured above after about 12 days.  The gap you see was left by the pollen/nectar they placed around the initial broodnest as the queen started laying eggs.  Not to be slowed down she skipped over the cells that weren't empty and kept laying.  Now that the food is used up from feeding the brood there is a hole or wave in the pattern.  As those cells are cleaned up she will go back and fill them in.

This comb is more of the text book look for how honey, pollen and brood should lay out on a comb.  Keep in mind this is a flipped view and the comb is actually upside down in the photo.

The below are couple photos from the overwintered Quickdraw hive.

You are seeing big drone cells at the bottom of a comb here.  Notice how they point upwards and not down like a queen cell would.  I get a lot of questions from new beekeepers that see these and think queen cells because they are big and at the bottom of the frame.  Queen cells always point downward and would be even bigger than these!

Some nice mixed pollen stores are building up.  I don't usually see them store pollen in drone sized cells and you can see the bigger cells on the right have nectar or drones.  I often see them when they are trying to box the queen into a smaller broodnest area.

Back to the bees,

- Jeff

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Multi Queen Swarm

It's warm, flowers are blooming, and nectar/pollen can be found in abundance which leads hives start their natural reproduction cycle called swarming.  When things are this nice it is highly likely that strong hives will issue not only a primary swarm but also secondary swarms.  The primary swarm is generally headed by the existing queen and any after-swarms will be headed by newly emerged virgin queens.

I recently picked up a 6ish pound swarm (18K bees) that was half on the side of a raised bed and half on the ground inconveniently located under a bush.  My guess is it started out on a branch that drooped down to the grass.  When they are on the ground you mostly have to scoop up bees until you get enough of them in the box to attract the rest, or the queen goes into the box.

So away I work and as I'm scooping I noticed several bees clustering around one spot in the grass.  Thinking the queen might have been there or still be there I gently moved the bees around and my heart sank at what I saw.  There in the middle was a dying queen.  I carefully helped her into a queen cage and added a few attendants and put her in the hive box hoping the scent of her dying body would be enough to get the workers into the hive.  

Wondering what happened I kept scooping up bees and then again at that spot were I found the dying queen a new small cluster of bees was forming.  I brushed the bees around once more and to my surprise found another weak queen but maybe not dying.  Not having a second queen cage on me just put her in the box.  Then shortly after that everyone else started going into the box and no new clusters formed.  

I didn't find a single dead bee on the ground besides that one dying queen so it wasn't an accident she was dying.  I suspect what happened is a secondary swarm issued from a hive and in the departure the new virgin queens became confused who was actually leading the swarm and all left together as one group.  Typically I hear about several small swarms on nearby branches that each have a queen, and sometimes they all end up in one mass and eventually work it out.  What surprises me is that the queens would fight inside the swarm like this. 

I suspect there were at least three queens in the cluster and hopefully the final victorious queen will be able to mate this week.  It'll be another week or so before I can start looking for eggs.

Sadly the photo's I would like to have posted aren't great since some rude bee was always flying in front of the lens, but not to leave you with nothing here's some related bee photos.

This was left over from someone's swarm and didn't have a queen, but is what I would expect to see if there were multiple queens leaving in little swarms.

Here's a photo of new comb that my overwintered hive is making.  The swarm will be making several frames of new comb like this while we wait for the queen to mate.

Back to the bees,

- Jeff

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Warrior Bees Are Early This Year

Flowers are out everywhere at the moment with some things blooming months early.  With the early warm weather and mild winter some things that usually would die back didn't and are picking up where they left off in fall.  To think just a few weeks ago I was saying how I would be worrying about swarms before I knew it, and now I am.  This is another early year and I've heard of a few swarms in the area already.  I will still try to stall the process in my hives for more reliably warm weather.  While I've had queens mate early in the year they never perform well.  I get reliably better queens if I can hold them off until a few weeks before blackberries start blooming and we are getting 65F+ days a few times a week.

After several years of looking at bloom times and different flowers I think I finally have figured out what plant makes this bright yellow pollen mark (not to be confused with the pale white one I've pointed out in other posts). Hyacinthoides hispanica has just started blooming and it's difficult for the bees to "hold on" to the flower and they appear to get the pollen all over themselves.  After they clean up they are left with a mark on their back.  I'm hoping to get some samples under a microscope to confirm soon.

This girl is getting a lot of attention from her sisters as she dances around.

Spanish Bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) are just starting to bloom.

English laurel is in bloom.

Tulips are in bloom.

I found this nearby hardy fuchsia at over 10 feet tall and it was already in full bloom and will keep blooming through fall.  Usually they die back to the ground in winter and then the bloom cycle starts again late summer.  However our winter this year was mild so they are just picking up on last years growth.

Trillium ovatum is in bloom.

Raspberries are forming buds really early this year.

Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) is in bloom.

Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana) is a native that likes shade.

Chocolate Lily (Fritillaria lanceolata) is another native in bloom.

California lilac (Ceanothus) is in bloom.

Rosemary queen.

The Quickdraw queen.  Notice there is a bee in the lower right part of the photo that has a varroa mite on her.

This frame looks pretty good for a hive in spring buildup.  Better brood patterns will come as the nights get warmer.

This is what backfilling looks like.  They should be putting those resources around the edge of the comb not in the center where the queen wants to lay.  By doing this they are forcing her to lay along the edges of combs.  If every comb looked like this then swarming would be soon to follow.

Lots of empty queen cups starting to show up along the edges of frames.  If the broodnest is backfilled the queen gets forced into laying here.

In the center of the photo is a new adult be emerging from the cell.  It's the only time you will see a head poking out of a cell.

Back to the bees,

- Jeff

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Boys are Back

In a northern location like Seattle I find that the long summer days sneak up pretty quickly.  Sometime in June I'll be working in the yard and get caught off guard that it's already 10PM, and it's still light out!  Beekeeping has a similar parallel for me as I check on them throughout winter to make sure the cluster has food hoping they will survive, and then in a blink they are making plans to swarm.

During my last inspection over the weekend I saw drones in my strong hives.  Drones are a sign that the hive is on a stable buildup cycle and can invest extra resources beyond just making workers.  However with the waves of sun/rain we've been getting, the hives can't take advantage of the nectar sources available and brood combs are currently looking light.  I consider a comb light when I don't see a 2-3" band of honey/nectar and another 1" band of pollen along the top.

I do hear about March swarms every year and yes that could happen this year if the sun were to come out for a few days.  A few hives get lured into early swarming by the surge in blooms and lack of early spring management to open up the broodnest.  Based on what I've been seeing I have started doing swarm management inspections every 7-10 days to stay ahead of them.  As long as the weather keeps up this pattern I'm not too worried, but if we get more than 3 days of sunshine in a row everything can change.

The plums were in bloom a couple weeks ago, and are mostly done now.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis).  This is one of my favorite bee friendly herbs with flower colors varying from white, blue, pink and purple.  Around here they usually have a robust bloom coming out of winter lasting into spring, but they also tend to bloom whenever they want any month of the year.  On a spring day in the sunshine these bushes will be covered in bees working them for pollen.  I've observed the flowers leaving a white/pale pollen mark along the thorax of workers which isn't quickly cleaned off and can be found during inspections. These evergreens are usually hardy enough to survive our winters, but can be damaged by deep freezes or extended winter storms over time.  Plant in a well drained sunny spot and they will thrive.  They also respond well to hedging and can be easily propagated from cuttings.

Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) is in bloom and tends to be more popular with bumble bees than honey bees.

Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica) is one of those wonderful blue pollen plants that will have you wanting to plant fields of them after you see the bees with blue pollen baskets.

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) is an early nectar source.

Red Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum) is actually more pink and is very appealing to humming birds.

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) is in bloom and a nectar source.

Quince is in bloom and a good pollen source.

Nice patch of brood in Rosemary hive.

Look at all the young fuzzy bees and drones in the Rosemary hive!

Pollen and nectar coming into the hive.

A drone warming up in the sun.  Some of them are mature enough to fly.

This is the Dyno hive queen.  They are still pretty small.

Emerging brood in Quickdraw.

Another patch of brood in Quickdraw.  It's hard to tell why it's spotty, but I suspect it's normal early spring buildup and will correct itself.

They were carrying a few dead bees out like this.  I couldn't tell when/why they died, but suspect they might have got left behind when the cluster condensed last fall.

The Quickdraw queen.  This hive has a lot of diversity in bees and it's nice to see that they like their queen.

Back to the bees,

- Jeff

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Hello Maples

Beekeepers tend to get really excited for the maple bloom every year, but usually it turns out to be a flop.  That's not because the maples aren't blooming, but because here in the Northwest we typically have periodic rain showers throughout the day during Spring (yes the whole season).  Sometimes if the Blackberry bloom is early that nectar flow can get dimmed as well.  However everyone still hopes for a 3-4 day period of sunshine during the peak maple bloom.  Just the other day I found myself thinking I needed sunglasses and an umbrella because I had the sun in my eyes and somehow was also getting rained on.

Seattle is a bit earlier than other parts of the Puget Sound, but I snapped the below photo today of a tree across the street from a few of my hives in Queen Anne.  Not all the trees are out yet, but they aren't far behind this one.  The maple flow is not exclusive to the native Big Leaf Maple and I've also seen other varieties of maples coming into bloom as well.  

Sadly I don't see any days without rain in the forecast for the foreseeable future, however if it does happen I would also expect to start hearing about swarms.

Big Leaf Maple bloom.

Back to the bees,

- Jeff

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Spring Is Early

Officially spring is still a couple weeks away, but things don't appear to care what the calendar tells us.  It's been warm the last few weeks with daily temps getting above 50F+ and also very wet!  There is a ton of stuff blooming, but getting out there between rainstorms is making it hard to get good photos.  Plums came into full bloom this week which is the first big tree and the bees are definitely noticing. 

I was lucky enough to get a few hours of sunshine this morning and was able to check all the hives.  Some are weak and have tiny patches of brood, but two stand out in particular and will be my breeder queens this year.  Unlike previous years I plan to replace all the queens of week hives this year rather than try and keep them going and waiting to see how long they will last before mother nature kills them.  Often these weak hives will build up and look great by the blackberry flow and it's easy to forget they almost didn't survive winter.  Last year I picked one of these queens to be a breeder queen because I got distracted by their great buildup and as a result I lost all the daughters over winter.

One of the hives I want to breed from this year is the Rosemary hive. I like this hive because they stored a good amount of honey and have kept the hive bottom board spotless all season.  The hive was split early spring last year and didn't have any other brood breaks.  My main concern is that the daughters from winter 2014 both died leaving queenless hives.  Other concerns are that they build crazy comb, and don't ignore you during inspections.  Sometimes that can turn into aggression with daughter hives.

The other hive I want to breed from is Quickdraw.  They already have capped drone brood and are building up very quickly and I'll be needing to do swarm management before the end of the month.  These bees are a little different from the other hives in that they stored a LOT of pollen mid summer and then had a big buildup during the dearth and then somehow replaced all the pollen with honey going into fall.  They build straight comb and ignore you during inspections.  However they didn't dry all the nectar and some of it fermented leaving the hive bottom board a bit "wet".  I also found a fair number of dead bees in the back of the hive on the bottom board.  Perhaps the dead bees were from trying to remove the fermented nectar. 

Sadly my camera battery died and I didn't get any hive photos today.  

Crocus are a great pollen source.

Calendula tends to start booming a little before the dandelions.

Lawn Daisy is already out in bloom.

Winter Daphne (Daphne odora) is a delicate shrub starts budding during the peak of our winter and is in full bloom by early spring.  These evergreens have thick waxy looking leaves with varieties ranging from either solid dark green, or yellow variegated.  The long lasting pink/white flowers are sweetly scented and tough enough to hold up in our late winter storms.  Plant in well-drained soil that can fully dry out between watering as they will quickly die in soggy or deeply watered locations which is why they have a reputation for being short lived plants.  A key to getting great blooms is to plant them in a location that gets morning sunlight and afternoon shade.  Pruning should be minimal and focused on removing diseased or dead branches keeping in mind that this is an open branched bush that needs airflow.  They can be easily started from cuttings, but will not transplant.

Most varieties of the Which hazel are just finishing up their bloom.

Dandelions are in bloom and are great pollen and nectar source.

Back to the bees,

- Jeff