Sunday, July 26, 2009

My Truck Smells.... Really Nice!

I love getting into the truck these days. I'm finding it's an olfactory delight. The smell inside the truck brings memories of happy times and relaxation and a hobby that I'm just loving.

A few years back I needed to take on a part-time job in addition to my full-time job to make ends meet. I went to college at night to take Aesthetics. I loved it and made some great friends. I opened a salon in my home and welcomed customers for acrylic nails, manicures, pedicures and facials. I also took an aromatherapy course. This is where we studied the benefits of essential oils and how to blend them to help people.

Aromatherapy is all about the olfactory senses - often a scent will bring memories with it, not always good ones unfortunately, but our sense of smell is uniquely tied to memories.

What's really interesting is how it's different for everyone. Some people would find the smell of cow manure offensive but for me it reminds me of my favourite place and that was my grandparents dairy farm. The smells of the farm, hay, manure, etc., evoke fond memories and warm feelings.

Now I hope you are wondering what on earth my truck smells like? Well, after my smoker goes out I keep it in the truck so that it won't get (a) stolen and (b) wet from rain. Often the cab smells like a campfire. That alone brings very fond memories of camping with my family all over the world. But lately the smell has gotten even richer. Why do you ask? Because underneath it all, underneath the like smoke smell is a sweet smell. It's the smell of honey and wax emanating from my clothing and tools. It's a wonderful mixture that I would just love to bottle so I can spray it every where.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Expert Hive Inspection

I was at work when the phone rang. It was a fellow beekeeper Henry Heimstra.

Henry has been in beekeeping for over 30 years and ran Clovermead Apiaries in Aylmer, Ontario, until his son took it over when he retired.

Saturday was supposed to be the annual Bee Beard Competition at Clovermead but due to an especially wet and cold summer, the decision was made to postpone the event until 29 August 2009.

That meant Henry had his Saturday free, and so did we. He said he wanted to come and see my bees. I gulped! It was such an honour to have Henry willing to take time out on a busy day to come and see the bees and to offer his advice but I was a bit nervous that I might have done everything wrong!

But at the same time I wouldn't pass up an opportunity to learn and get some advice from an expert.
At the swamp it was strangely a mosquitoe free day, actually the first time I've been to the swamp when I never had to put my gloves on at all.
The hives looked placid, with their normal buzz of activity. It was again an overcast day with the threat of rain and thunder showers.

We had a dry break in the morning so we all decided to make the run to the bee yard and hope to get through opening the hives before the rain came.
Henry commented right away that everything looked good. He said he could tell from the outside that everything was fine on the inside.

I can't wait to have that kind of experience. It will take time I know, but I do make a point of taking time to watch and listen from the outside so I can learn the sights and sounds of a normal happy hive.

I lit up the smoker and Henry, not wearing any beekeeping equipment at all, opened the hive. He commented right away that I had gentle bees. I was so proud of them I beamed.
I knew they were gentle, requiring almost no smoke and I actually had not received a single sting while working inside either hive since I started in June.

The bees had progressed very well in the second purple honey supers. Hive #2 were very busy building comb and they even had HONEY! Henry dipped in the hive tool and tasted it.

I immediately saw the huge disadvantage to wearing the veil but I snuck my finger into a spot of honey and slipped my hand under the veil to have a taste too.

Delicious. Especially delicious because the purple super contains the honey they are making from nectar only--no sugar water feeding after this second super was put on so it's pure flower nectar.

The pink super was the first box put on the hive and they were being fed sugar syrup at that time (to help them make wax to build comb) so that honey will be a mixture of nectar and sugar syrup. Mind you it still tastes like honey because I've tasted it a couple weeks ago and it would be perfectly fine to extract and have for personal use, just not for sale.

Henry commented too, not to feed them, despite the weather. He said they had enough honey to feed the hive and that I should expect to harvest some myself too. And from looking at the honey filling up the purple super, it's true. They are finding nectar from somewhere, despite the rain, despite the cold weather. They're simply amazing!

A couple days ago I took off the queen excluder on Hive #1 to give the bees more movement through the hive so they could build comb and you could tell when inspecting this hive that it did make a big difference. There were a lot more bees busy working to build up the comb.

Next week I will put on the third honey super box because they're approaching the 7 or 10 frames of drawn comb in the super below so they'll be ready for it.

Let's just hope the weather takes a turn. In fact, it'd be nice if the rain from Ontario would blow itself out west and help those poor people in British Columbia who are having forest fires and losing their homes because of a lack of rain. (Sometimes things just aren't the way we'd like them to be).

We found a queen supersedure cell in Hive#2 so I'm now aware that the bees have decided it's time to replace their queen. There's really no way to know for sure why they've decided to replace the existing queen. From my inexperienced point of view I think she's a great queen.

But queens should be replaced every year at best or at least every second year so it's not a bad thing. Henry suggested to let things be as they are and allow the bees to supersede the existing queen.

(Click on the photo at left to enlarge - notice you will see a tiny white crescent shaped larva sitting in a pool of white royal jelly inside this queen cup, which once completely built will be a supersedure cell). Once a new queen hatches in about 16 days, the new and old queen will fight for the right to rule the hive. The winner will take over the hive as the new queen.

On Henry's advice, we're going to let the bees make their own queen. I figure they know what they're doing.

I mentioned that I hadn't been delving down into the deep brood box for several weeks to make sure there are eggs down there because I didn't want to disturb them too much. (I was also concerned that the more I manipulated frames the increase in the likelihood that I could accidentally crush and kill my queen).

Henry said he avoids pulling frames from the deep because it really disrupts the bees. Instead, he watches for signs of young larvae to know the queen is alive and well and he relies mostly on how things look and sound from the outside.

This makes complete sense to me. If every time you pull frames you disrupt and set them back and if inspections are going on every week or two, that's a lot of interruptions. Also, I keep remembering running the gas heater to warm the room when I lived in Melbourne Australia (it was freaking cold there in winter without central heating!) Anyway, every time a door opened, great amounts of heat would escape meaning that the heater would have to run longer to warm it up again. Every time the hive is opened there's heat loss which I'm sure the bees have to re-create. So I think it makes more work all around. Also, bees die in inspections, by accident yes, but it happens.

I think inspections and monitoring are very necessary to be sure of the health of the hive, but I'm going to do my best to limit them to when I really think it's necessary.

The rain barely held off for us and it started to spit while we were finishing up the inspection. I was glad to have the trees which sheltered us from most of the rain.

I'm very grateful that Henry was willing to come out to the yard. I really did need to have an expert have a look see and let me know if I was on track or doing things all wrong.

What Queen Cells Look Like

If you're a new beekeeper like me when you lift out frames of comb and see bumps sticking up you probably ask yourself, what is that?

The drones (male bees) are usually laid in cells along the top and bottom of the frame. I'm not sure why the queen chooses that spot, maybe because the centres of the frame are focused for the workforce of the hive - the female worker bees.

When I see a row of drone comb along the rop edge of a frame I don't seem to have a problem recognizing it. But when I saw only two cells like the ones on this photo, I wasn't so sure.

This photo is a frame of honey with a patch of brood comb and within the patch are 2 drone cells. I had this confirmed by an experienced beekeeper and friend, Henry Heimstra, who looked at my hives.

Then I saw these two very large cells on the bottom of the frame.

The cells come out from burr comb so this time I was really unsure... were these 2 cells drone comb or queen supersedure cells? The cells just looked so huge and domed that it was really hard to tell.

Henry confirmed that the two large cells at the bottom of this frame are drone comb.

He said that queen cells are always directed downwards, not across.

(Don't hesitate to click the photos to see the enlarged version)

See the photo at left how the cell goes upwards? That's what makes it drone comb.

On Hive #2 though we did find a queen cell located at the bottom of the frame. See the photo below.

Dad managed to grab a photo looking straight into the comb where you can see the white puddle of royal jelly. If you click to enlarge the photo you can actually see a tiny white crescent shaped larva sitting in a pool of the white royal jelly.

The cells is on the bottom of the frame, turned up for the photo so you can see it.

You'll notice that the direction the cell is being built is downwards.

On closer inspection there was a larvae inside the queen cell.

So my bees have decided they'd like a new queen.

Friday, July 24, 2009

It's the Little Things That Get You

It's true what Linda commented on in a previous blog, that bees die every time you open the hive.

It's not a deliberate thing at all. After all, the bees are technically (or legally speaking) considered as 'livestock' and no wise farmer would abuse the creatures that bring in a livelihood.

But it happens, not as abuse though but as an unavoidable circumstance. The frames inside a hive (called a deep) are packed in very closely. In fact, they're packed in precisely, leaving 3/8 of an inch in between each frame. This space is called a bee space. When frames are set at the correct distance apart, the bees can travel up and down both sides of the frame and they can cross over to adjacent frames. When this space is violated by putting the frames farther apart, the bees then fill up the gaps with their burr comb. The burr comb creates little bridges so that they can move from one frame to the next more easily. This burr comb glues the frames into the hive making it difficult for the beekeeper to remove the frames to inspect the hive.

Inspections are really important to look over the bees and combs to monitor the overall health of the hive.
So, this precise space makes it difficult to remove frames of bees without injuring or maiming somebody. The frames are first very sticky, from honey and also from propolis, otherwise known as bee glue. Propolis is made from tree sap that bees collect and mix with their saliva. They use it to weatherproof the hive and to stick things down. The frames are stuck down and must be unstuck. Next, the frames are heavy because over half the frame is filled with honey.

The beekeeper makes their best effort to pull the frame out straight up without rocking back and forth, and don't forget the frame will often be covered with thousands of bees.

I do my best. When opening the hive I will sometimes see the body of a bee, squished totally flat because it happened to be on the edge of the hive when I set a box on top. It's a small regret but you know the death was a quick one.

The ones that bother me though are they injured bees, specifically the ones that I've accidentally injured.

This little gal is pretty young and would probably still be a house bee. A house bee is usually a young bee that does 'chores' inside. There is a fairly wide range of chores that go anywhere from feeding the baby larvaes to guarding the front of the hive. I'm not sure of her injury. Her wings on the right side are upright, looking like what could be "K-wing" (my Varroa sticky boards haven't shown any mite drops so far) and she appeared to have some type of injury or disability to her left side middle and hind leg, almost like they were paralyzed. I don't know if this was a hive related injury or something else going on.

I picked her up from the ground with my bare hands and held her a while. She was not interested in stinging. She was too preoccupied with her other issues.

The mosquitoes began to close in on my bare flesh though and so I put the gloves on. The little worker and I visited for a bit. I could admire her while she stood there and take a moment for photos.

She still has most of her fur because it hasn't been worn off yet due to toiling in the hive. Her fur still has the new whitish hair of a newborn and her body is still golden and not darkened with more rings of black as it would be when she's older.

(photo of frame from honey super, capped honey with the whiter cappings and a bit of brood marked by the more yellow-beige cappings).

I found a drone too, wandering around on the ground (sorry no photos), so I picked him up to say hello. He was content to sit and clean himself for a few minutes while I looked him over. After about ten minutes he took to the air, looping back in forth in front of the hive a bit before spiralling up into the air and flying off. I wished him well and good fortune finding his queen.

I think each bee could tell a story. Wouldn't it be amazing if they could talk?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Building Comb in the Super - Week 6

Mmmmm Honey!

The bees have been working very hard, and through some pretty crappy weather.

They've been keeping themselves busy first with creating wax (bees have wax glands on their abdomens that secrete wax which they chew into shape to make honeycomb). They've been keeping busy taking this wax to build up honeycomb on top of the plastic foundation that I've given them inside wooden frames placed in a box called a honey super.

They started to fill the honeycombs with nectar gathered from flowers even before the construction of the combs was complete. Bees are workaholics. They're very driven--that is as long as there's a queen present giving off her pheromones to keep them organized and focused.

This inspection was to check the progress of the first (pink) honey supers on both hives and then to see the progress of building comb on the second (purple) honey supers. The main focus of the inspection though was to determine if the queens from both hives were laying eggs up in the honey super, not a very ideal thing for them to be doing.

I left off a piece of equipment called a queen excluder which would prevent the queen from being able to travel through the whole hive. My reasoning was based on advice from many long term beekeepers that queen excluders tend to slow the bees down to build comb. They simply don't like having to crawl through an excluders narrow bars to move up in the hive. I can't say I blame them. It's probably like doing a limbo and then having to double check you get all your important appendages tucked in so they don't get injured. It would certainly slow them down from moving freely.

The photos are all from the second hive, because we got busy when inspecting the first hive so didn't stop for photos.

Hive #2 had all it's frames drawn in comb in the pink super and the frames were full of honey. The central frames were half capped as well. No queen was sighted and there was no presence of larvae or capped brood. I opted to not put the queen excluder on this hive since the queen was staying down in the deep (brood box). I want the bees to continue upward with ease to the purple super because they need to build comb on those blank frames waiting for them. On inspecting the foundation on the purple super, the bees were at work building comb, but no frames were complete yet. But at least they'd got started.

Hive #1 had not started on their comb building at all in the purple super. This was as expected because this hive is slightly behind the other hive in their production and the weather has been so cold and rainy that I'm sure nectar flows that would help them increase productivity haven't been that great. (The existing honey in the supers is most likely a combination of nectar and sugar syrup honey because I was feeding the bees while they were building comb).

Hive #1 did have their frames drawn in the pink super and they were full of honey, capped and uncapped. I removed frame #1 which was full of honey up into the purple super and then replaced it with a blank frame. I'm hoping that frame of honey higher up will encourage the bees to move up and build comb in the top super.

(Photo - this frame has only a small strip of starter comb across the top. Notice the bees have festooned and are holding on to each other while they begin to create comb. The shape of the festoon should end up being the shape of the finished comb. This will be my honeycomb to harvest).

The Queen was sighted in the pink super on Hive #1 last week, wandering around. I didn't see larvae at that time but on this inspection a week later there was capped brood (no open cells with larvae could be seen) on both sides of about 3 centrally placed frames in this super. I'd say she's a prolific queen which is great and I think she's wonderful--but she needs to stay in the brood box below and do her laying there.

So I checked each frame to be sure the queen wasn't in either super, scraped away some burr comb from the top of the deep and then placed in a white plastic queen excluder. This will ensure she stays below. I was hoping I wouldn't have to do that--lots of rain can make bees unhappy and get them thinking of swarming and the excluder also can make the queen feel she doesn't have enough room but because of her laying above it was time to put it in.

I'll certainly have to monitor their activity but I'm determined not to open the hive more frequently than once a week. My next inspection will be to make absolute certain that the queen is below the excluder (by the presence of no new eggs or larvae) and to keep an eye out for supersedure or swarm cells.

I did see one large bullet-like cell on the left middle of a frame on Hive #1 which I wasn't sure if it was a supersedure cell or a drone cell so I opened it with my hive tool, unfortunately killing the larvae, but preventing another queen from being made if it was a supersedure cell. (Now after the fact I wish I had taken photos so I had a reference to look back at to be sure--but I'm finding I get so busy dealing with the busy bees, trying not to crush or kill them, sticky fingers and heavy frames, the smoke, etc., that it's hard to stop for the photos but they would give me something to look back at because I'm finding I get those 'senior moments' when I don't remember everything I did!)

I'll drop by mid week just to observe from the outside to see if they have a contented hum or not.

(Video - sorry I don't seem to have software that will allow me to rotate the video to make it upright).

Monday, July 13, 2009

Supers are just.... Super! Week 5

Today I added my second supers to both hives. I just did a really quick check when I opened the hives - no photos of frames today.

Hive #2 had reached 7 of 10 frames of drawn comb in the super.

Hive #1 was at about 6 1/2 frames drawn so I went ahead and gave them their next super now too. This is the hive where I saw the queen in the first super a few days ago.

I was pleased to see lots of capped honey on the center frames in the super on this hive.

I expect I'll shortly be doing a full inspection with the purpose to locate the queen and put in my queen excluders.

I'm assuming that if the bees don't finished fully drawing out all the comb in the supers, I can probably rotate some frames into the center of the box so that they all get drawn out.

I'm noticing that things are moving fast--faster than I expected. I feel like I'm being taken by surprise, which shouldn't really be happening since for the most part I know what to expect.

I don't have any extracting equipment yet and I'm realizing that I'd better figure out what I want to do because it looks like I'll have at least two boxes of honey fairly soon. Yikes!! I mean, gee that's awesome!!!

I was relaxing for a few minutes watching the bees when I looked up to the trees above. The bees were zooming by coming and going to the hives. The sun was glinting off their bodies like a quick sparkle which I thought was really neat. What's even better is that it did show up on the video so I can share the moment with you too.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Here's the Queen

Today I removed the hive feeders from both hives. Now my babies are on their own.
A friend advised that Basswood trees are offering nectar right now among various other plants, even alphalfa (that is if the farmer doesn't cut it down before it blooms which he usually will).
(Isn't this queen lovely? She's got a very long abdomen and a dot of yellow paint on her back. I was glad to see her because I hadn't seen her for about 3 weeks when doing inspections - I looked for brood and eggs and found them so I didn't tear the hive apart just to see her).
The bees have been very busy in both honey supers drawing comb on the plastic foundation I gave them.
Hive #2 had 6 of 10 frames drawn with nectar in the central 3 frames. Nothing is capped yet and no signs of brood, eggs, larvae or the queen--I don't have a queen excluder on the hive so as to allow the bees to move freely to draw the comb.
Another thing I did on my friend Henry's advice was to add a 10th frame to the honey super. I had placed 9 frames which is what most beekeepers do. They use 9 frames so the bees will build the comb out a little more. That means when the cappings are cut off there's more wax.
Henry suggested adding the 10th frame just at the beginning while they're drawing the comb, otherwise they could draw it out wonky. So I gently shifted the frames over so that the 10th could fit in (glad I didn't nail in those frame holders that run along the inside edge - they only allow for 9 frames).
Hive #1 was the same as #2 except that they had about 5 frames of drawn comb done and the queen was in the super, wandering around looking for a spot to lay eggs.
I was tempted to grab her and put her down in the deep but I didn't. It's probably time to put the excluder in on that hive.
I figure that both hives will have the magic number of 7 of 10 frames drawn in the next few days so at that time I should probably put the queen excluder on and then add another honey super.
It's been a real thrill to see the bees making honey and I'm very proud of their hard work.
Once I put on the second super I hope to put in a few frames that are blank so that the bees will create honeycomb.

I'm presuming that their production of wax from here on will depend on their ability to find nectar so that they can produce the wax. Now it'll be up to them and mother nature. I'm sure glad the bees know what they're doing.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Drone Honey Bee

Most people--well, it's probably more accurate to say women--laugh when they hear that the drone doesn't do anything to help around the home.

All the work of the honey bee hive is carried out by female workers.

These workers don't reproduce, that function belongs only to the queen.

This social community is the same as ants and I think termites as well.

But we can't discount the drone. He plays a very significant role and that is to carry the genetics of the bee forward as he mates with his queen.

Drones fly off from the hive in the afternoons and they meet in Drone Congregation Areas. These areas are known to the drones - we don't know why they are chosen or how they know where to go but chemical scents probably play a significant role. The important thing is that the queen knows too and she can find them when she does her mating flight.

The drones mate with the queen in mid air and once he latches onto the queen he rotates his body backwards which unfortunately causes a certain male appendage to snap and then he dies. But he has done the job he was born to do.

The queen will mate with about 6 drones before she returns to the hive.

She'll spend the rest of her life laying eggs, storing the sperm from her mating to last her whole life long. The sperm is stored in her spermatheca.

Drones have extra large compound eyes - the better to see the queen with. The drone has a tiny proboscis and cannot feed himself. The workers have a longer proboscis which they use to probe into flowers and the bottom of a honey comb cell.

Drones are also sting-less. Since they don't fill a role as guarding or protecting the hive, there's no need for a stinger or venom. Drones can be handled very nicely and safely.

Around the hive, the loudest buzzing in flight comes from the drones.

They will fly back and forth in front of the hive, just like the workers do, to orient themselves with the look of the hive so they can recognize it when returning.

He's the noisiest because he's the largest honey bee.

The queen is not so bulky in size, and has a long narrow abdomen.

I find the easiest way to recognize a done in flight, aside from the loud buzz, is by his really long back legs that hang down when he's in flight.

In the fall, the workers force any remaining drones out of the hive and won't let them back in. They can't afford the extra mouths to feed through the long cold winter. The drones then succomb to the cold and/or starvation and die.
(Photo - my queen at left with yellow paint marking her as a 2007 queen. The other bees are workers except for the one large bee in the centre which is a drone.

He may not do much around the hive, but you have to admit he's kind of cute.

Today was a sweaty laborious day. My Dad and brother-in-law helped me lug bags of sand and gravel back the long lane to the bee yard. The high ground the hive sits on needed a little building up on one side. I collected field stones to make a retaining wall and then we loaded up the area with the sand and gravel.

With all the rainy weather we'd been having, walking around the one side was dangerous - a ski slope of mud which I figured was an accident waiting to happen--definitely not something you want to happen when holding a frame full of bees!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Not So Dead Bee

While at the bee yard the day before I picked up 3 dead bees. I did a visual check to see if they were moving and they weren't. So I put them in my queen cage to take home.

I have a small microscope at home and I wanted to get a look at some fresh dead bees. It really helps to understand their anatomy better I find when I can examine it minutely. I paint water colours of bees too and the more I know about their structure visually, the better and more realistic my paintings are.

The only problem was that when I got home and took out the queen cage, one bee was very much alive.

I think the bee must have been stunned from being shaken off the hive cover when I was working with the hive. The body had laid there for quite a few minutes which was why I thought it was dead.
So I fed her some honey, watching while her tongue stuck out to lick it up. I observed her for the rest of the day and then the next day I returned to the bee yard to do some work, so I took her along and released her.

That bee got to travel farther than she ever thought she would I bet. It's kind of funny because the book I've written about bees has a part where the bees travel a long distance... so maybe my book is coming to life in part. That'd be cool!

I know, it was a lot to do for just one bee. But it turned out that I was able to observe her for several hours at close quarters, and without mosquitoes biting me every few seconds which was a real pleasure.
While walking up the trail I saw this brown thing laying in the grasses. I was sure it was a young deer. I crept up with my camera and snapped a picture before it would run away or move. I thought if it was a really young fawn it wouldn't run away at all.
I got closer, closer. And then was able to see it.... a giant dead brown burdock leaf.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

To Exclude or Not to Exclude - Queen Excluders

Four days ago I added a queen excluder and honey super to Hive #2. I also left them the hive feeder - but only because they must build comb in the super before they can store honey - so I'll keep an eye on that.

Then my friend Henry called. He's been a beekeeper for well over 30 years and he called to give some advice. Whenever Henry gives advice, I listen.

He said to take the queen excluder out of the hive, otherwise the bees will likely swarm.

His explanation was that bees don't really like to go through the bars of an excluder and so they won't - at least not at first.

The advice was to remove the excluder, let the bees move freely and build the comb and start to fill it with honey. Yes, the queen might go up into the honey box and lay a few eggs, but she'll stop, Henry advised, once the bees get that super filling with honey.

Then later, check to be sure the queen is not in the honey super and put on the excluder. Then the bees won't be able to resist going through the excluder to get to their honey above.

So I returned the very next day and took the excluder off of Hive #2.

I also thought I'd better do a really brief inspection on Hive #1 to see if they had filled any more frames in the brood box. The last inspection they had 6 of 10 frames full.

I didn't plan to do this inspection for another 4 days. Thank God I did check it!

(photo - adding medium honey super with plastic foundation to hive #1).

Their frames were chockers with capped and uncapped brood - 8 out of 10 frames. They were more than ready for their honey super, so I added it right then and there, leaving them with the hive feeder on top of everything.

I did a little googling around about queen excluders and like many things in beekeeping, there's lots of opinions out there about them. But it seems the prevailing opinion is that it's more of a "honey excluder" than a queen excluder. That nickname being given because the bees swarm and leave rather than go through it with their nectar.

This web site had some good information:

It seems queen excluders have a few different uses: They can be used as Rotating boxes to keep the queen below; they can be used to create splits - watch for eggs to see where the queen is.

There are 3 different kinds of excluders - plastic, wood frame and metal. The bees will fill the spaces with burr comb - I have a metal excluder and I was told it's easiest to freeze the frame and then bang it to get the comb out.

Then there's this whole other group of beekeepers who don't use excluders at all. Instead, they rely on monitoring to know where their queen is and what she's up to. I think this method is probably for the more experienced beekeeper. I believe rotate the boxes to keep queen below.