Archive for the ‘Bees’ Category

I Have Bees!

IMG_6840A week ago I installed two packages of bees from Georgia. I think they’re Italians, but they’re some sort of well-behaved, as-domesticated-as-possible breed. Whatever they are, it was probably only about 55 degrees, though sunny, when I slammed the boxes on the ground and shook the stunned bees into the hive (that’s how you do it), and nobody was particularly threatening. I was a bit of a chicken about handling them, but I’ll get over it.


I left the queens in their cages hung on the back of the hive, but I did pull the corks two days later. I expect the workers have eaten through the candy stoppers by now and I’m hoping both of them will be laying by the next time I open up the hive. Technically you’re supposed to pull the cork the day you install the bees and then not touch anything for a week while they’re getting settled, but I’m just not that good at following directions!IMG_6859

I left each hive with a quart of 2:1 syrup (that’s two parts sugar to one part water) and a scattering of human-quality pollen all hidden under the second hive body to discourage robbing from each other and by other critters. I do plan to get to the point where feeding is a matter of final desperation, not a matter of course, but doing that with a box of bees is going to reduce your chances of a successful start. These girls have already been on a trailer being shipped up from IMG_6841Georgia stuffed in a box with other bees that are not their sisters and a queen that is neither their mother, nor is currently laying eggs. All of this is very stressful, and I need them to raise a whole new generation of bees before they die of old age and over work. That means supplementing them until we have more forage than a few hundred daffodils in flower.


I will be tracking my hives to see how they do which means they need designations. It seems logical to name my hives after queens, so I’m starting with Amina (from Zazzau) and Boudica (of the Icini). The plan is not to name the queen, but to name the bloodline. As long as the queen in the A hive can be traced to the Amina line it will retain that name. If the line fails, the hive will be renamed. In other words, they can requeen themselves or I can requeen them from a split off that hive and keep the designation. If they’re doing so poorly that I requeen the Amina hive from a Boudica split, the line is dead and I choose another name.


The one on the right is small cell foundation.

One of the things I’m tracking is the difference between standard foundation and small cell foundation. Since I have two sets of comparable bees that are not currently attached to any foundation, it seemed like an experiment was in order. Amina hive will be trying out the small cell while Boudica hive will be rocking the standard size. My interest in the foundation size has to do with the varroa mite that is causing havoc among American beekeepers as well as in other parts of the world. According to the conventional beekeepers, it’s pointless. According to the treatment-free beekeepers, they didn’t really have success in finding a balance with the mites until they were fully regressed to the smaller size.

My plan is to pursue treatment-free beekeeping to the best of my ability. You can find people vehemently for and vehemently against this in the beekeeping community. Bearing in mind that if you ask five beekeepers a question you’ll get at least six answers, I think that the final decision has to rest with the person or people managing each apiary whether it’s one hive or 1,000, as they will be the ones handling any fallout from it. My interest stems primarily from my concerns about the fragility of our current food system and my lack of interest in supporting the companies that I see as keeping it fragile. After all, Monsanto et al would go out of business in short order if we managed to remember how to feed ourselves without copious applications of chemicals and patented seeds. If I can work toward bees that can take care of themselves in the current, non-friendly environment, then I will be making one step toward a more stable food supply which is a step toward a more stable world.IMG_6876


Money’s funny. One number can seem like so much or so little to the same person, depending on the circumstances around it. If I had to pay $10,000- wow, that’s a lot of money! Where would I come up with it? If I were to receive $10,000, it’s a lot of money up until I start paying bills. Then it goes mighty fast.

I was doing some end-of-year looking at my spending in 2016. I’ve been tracking it for most of the year to help me figure out where it all goes and why there’s never quite enough. The number $10,000 came about because it’s an annual budget of modest spending for one excluding rent, food, utilities, renters insurance, and internet. Just for giggles, I wondered what it would take to gross $10,000 from my farming ventures.

If you know anything about farming, then you are familiar with the fact that gross and net income are not the same and often very, very different.

Honey: 1,250# at $8 per #. That’s 31.25 hives (call it 31) harvesting an average of 40# per hive

Nucs (nucleus hives): 67 nucs at $150, but only 56 if I sell them for $180 each

Eggs: 20,000 or 1,666.66 (call it 1,667) dozen at $6 per dozen

It was just an experiment. Everyone knows farming has no security and little if any prosperity attached to it, but some of those numbers looked almost possible. I don’t have much information on the net income for each, but I could make some educated guesses.

For the eggs, with the numbers I’ve been collecting since I got my chicks in the spring, to gross $10,000 I’d be looking at a net of $-20,000 or thereabouts. Yes, that’s a negative. The housing is killing me. I’ll never make money off of the eggs, but eventually I would like to at least get them to pay for the eggs and old hens the family eats.

For the honey, I found a place where I can get a kit with two deeps and buy one medium super for about $173 per brand new hive (2016 prices). At $8 per pound of honey, that’s around 22 pounds per hive to pay off the woodenware. If I’m buying bees, that’s another $125 to $190 or 16 to 24 pounds. With average harvests in Maine in the 40 to 45# range, that means I should be able to pay off even a purchased hive with the first full harvest- which isn’t until the second summer/fall. If I am splitting my own bees and/or catching swarms, I can make a dent in paying off the bear fence in the first harvest, too. Looking at my 31 hives, they will cost $5,363 for the hives themselves, no bees, and $300 for the bear fence with a potential income of $9,920. (31*40*8) That leaves me with $4,257 to either purchase the bees or pay for my time to split hives and catch swarms.

Splitting hives will mean making at least some nucs for my own use, and I can certainly make more for sale. I’ve heard of available patterns for making nucs out of ½” plywood, about four per sheet. At $20 per sheet that’s about $5 for the box. I also need 5 frames and 5 foundations, a total of about $18. That makes the gear requirement around $23. Nucs are selling around here in the $150 to $190 range for local bees, more if the nuc was overwintered. As a newbie I’d probably start selling at the low end, meaning that after deducting the gear, each hive could net me about $127 less the cost of my time. If I manage to make 67 successful nucs to sell, minus $23 per nuc for the gear, I could have around $8,509 to pay for that time.

If I have 31 healthy, producing hives, making 67 nucs shouldn’t be that hard. If I can do both simultaneously, I could spend around $7,204 but gross about $19,970 to net around $12,766. Hm.

These numbers aren’t taking into account some very important information. It doesn’t include rent/lease/mortgage on the land I’m using. It doesn’t include taxes. It also doesn’t account for the hive bodies and nucs that I have to buy and/or build for the hives that are too weak to produce honey or split into nucs. It doesn’t have room for the farm up the way to spray their fields at just the wrong time of day with the wind blowing in just the wrong direction that wipes out most or all of my hives. It doesn’t take into account the time it will take me, a beginning beekeeper, to learn the skills necessary to take care of 31+ hives and build 67+ nucs.

The numbers are still very interesting.

The Queen is Dead

I would say “Long live the Queen!” but I haven’t gotten a new one yet.

As a first-time beekeeper, my job was to get my hive through the winter and into the first honey flow intact. When I first started poking at them, I was thrilled to see that there were lots of girls climbing around what had been the brood area. It was slightly off to one side instead of truly centered, but if that’s where the queen wants to lay? That’s where the queen lays. I was so excited that I was telling everyone my hive had survived the winter! Until someone asked if my queen had survived. Good question.

I hadn’t had a chance to really get in there and do some spring cleaning until this weekend. Between work, weather, and the hike to get to the friend that’s baby-sitting them for me, it was a challenge. My friend has been watching them- and was really getting a kick out of watching them bring so much pollen back even very early in the spring. I had every reason to think that 100% of my hives had made it through the winter. How many beekeepers can say that?

The dark comb is from brood frames and the light comb is from the top of brood frames or honey frames- those places don't get walked on as much.

The dark comb is from brood frames and the light comb is from the top of brood frames or honey frames- those places don’t get walked on as much.

One of the early chores on a warm day is to check frame-by-frame for leftover honey, pollen, and brood pattern. I wasn’t the most attentive beekeeper last year, so I was also doing a fair amount of scraping off comb that had been laid down where it shouldn’t have been. There was honey left over, which explained why they weren’t really taking much advantage of the feed I had started giving them. As I got closer and closer to the brood, I started to get concerned. I ran into some drone cells (I really should have had my camera with me so I could show you) but I brushed it off as a rogue worker. But no actual brood ever showed up. Seeing as how there wasn’t even any sealed brood, I’m guessing I lost the queen months ago. Since I lost the queen but kept the workers, does that make it a 50% loss, or is it a 100% loss because they will die eventually and not be replaced?

Now, when you lose a queen, you have two choices. You can requeen them by buying a queen or, if you’re good, replacing her with one you happen to have bred yourself. Or you can just start all over again. (Hoping they will requeen themselves only works if they catch the loss when they have very young brood to work with.) In my case, I havea few concerns. With as old as my workers are, would they be able to properly care for a queen and the brood she would have to lay very quickly to get them up to par? I’m not really willing to bank on that, since it’s the very young workers that are nurse bees, not the ones that have nearly worn themselves out. There are also a couple of irregularities in the hive- not all of the drones had hatched and some were clearly dead in their cells, and there was something that looked a lot like sand all over the hive. Are they just being sloppy, or are they diseased?

Do you know what that yellow sandy-looking stuff is? I don't.

Do you know what that yellow sandy-looking stuff is? I don’t.

I’m reaching out to my apiary society for some help in determining whether either of these is a real problem if I decide to re-use the drawn comb and other hive parts. If I get a box of bees and I can install them in pre-drawn comb, that means they can get down to setting brood and gathering nectar that much faster. I could even potentially add them to the workers that are already there to give the population a little boost. The more bees I have already gathering nectar and pollen to feed them, the more of the younger bees in the box can be left inside to nurture the brood.

So far, the suggestion is to leave it in the care of the girls that are left. They should make/keep it tidy themselves. If I lose them before I get a new set to put in there, clean it out as well as I can and freeze the frames for at least 24 hours. This won’t affect any pollen or honey in the frames, but it should kill any mites or other issues in the wax. I will keep you updated as more information comes in.

On a more entertaining note, this video is awesome!

Bee School Part 2

Bees mean flowers. Flowers often mean herbicides and pesticides. Whether you have bees, your neighbors have bees, or you just want a flower garden for yourself, what you put on your garden and lawn will affect the bees and other pollinators. It seems that Bayer products in particular tend to have systematic pesticides. They stick around for a lot longer and have a tendency to build up in the wax and pollen. It’s a possible reason for Colony Collapse Disorder. One of the worst is the neonictanoids that Europe has found to be an unacceptable risk. America, of course, prefers to test chemicals on the general public until they are proven to be a problem, rather than restrict them until they are proven to be safe. This means that the flowers you just bought for the garden may have been treated with neonictanoids as seeds. This means you’re importing a very pretty poison to your bee yard. Be careful.

The next class was about diseases and pests. Right off the bat we were told to never buy used equipment. You don’t know what diseases might be lurking in the wood and any leftover wax. The odds are, it’s not worth the money you save considering the colonies you could lose. The first disease was a perfect example. American Foulbrood pretty much can’t be treated. It is possible to salvage the honey, but after that you have to burn not just the hive, but the bees as well. You don’t want to spread it to other hives if you can help it. If the person selling the cheap, used hive has no idea what happened, but his colony died? This is what you could be housing your new colony in. At around $100 for a box of bees, that’s an expensive experiment. Most of the rest of the little pests and diseases could be managed with a healthy hive and requeening as necessary. The bees should be keeping themselves clean and managing almost any health challenge.

Larger pests can be a bit more of a problem. Mice like to live in the corners of hives that are abandoned by the bees in winter when they cluster around the queen. They will do quite a bit of damage to your frames and the comb. It seems that metal mouse excluders are the best bet, since they have been known to chew openings in wooden ones. Skunks are another challenge. They will sit right in front of a hive and snap up the bees as they fly out. A board with nails stuck through it, or very sharp tacks, should keep them far enough back to let the bees angle away before they get eaten. Bears . . . well, bears got a class of their own.

Winnie the Pooh lied to us as children. Bears really don’t care that much about honey. What they want is the fat and protein of the brood. (Marmalade, however, I am sure is still a favorite.) Because of this, unlike skunks, mice, or raccoons, if a bear gets to your hive, kiss it good-bye. The brood is in the center of the bottom, and that’s where the bear goes, destroying everything else in the process. They also learn, so if you feed a bear a hive, they will keep coming back to see if there’s more to be had. It can take up to 30 return trips for them to figure out that you’re not giving them another hive. That’s a lot of time for a bear to be in your yard. There also really isn’t any part of town that can feel safe from bears. Whether you’re butting up to the mountains or snugly downtown, put serious thought into bear fencing. It’s expensive, but so is buying a new hive and colony.

If you have three or more hives, you can ask the Department of Parks and Wildlife for the materials to build a fence. Since that’s more than you’re legally allowed to have in the city, you’re probably stuck building your own. The three main points are for it to be stout, easy to access, and safe for both you and the bear. Stout is easy- bears are strong, smart, and big. If it’s easy to knock down, they’ll do it. Easy to access makes sense, too. If it’s hard to get in there, you won’t get in often enough to take good care of your hive and make the most of it. The safety aspect was the most interesting. Safe for you- of course. But when it really comes down to it, we don’t want to damage the bear. It’s not the animal’s fault that its home has been taken over by hysterical two-legged creatures that shove food in its face and then kill it when it tries to eat the food. We need to try and be civil neighbors, at least.

There is a perk to going all-out for bear fencing. If it keeps out bears, it keeps out dogs, skunks, raccoons, and curious children. If any of them run into 10,000 volts, they probably won’t come back for seconds. This will simplify your large pest control issues. I plan on planting mine with pretty herbs and flowers that would be a waste in the main yard because of the dog. No reason not to make the most of it.

Obviously, these two posts are just an overview of the classes. Aside from wondering if my brain might melt from over-use, I couldn’t be happier with what I got out of it. The cost of the fencing that I’m once again convinced I need to have is making me wince, but other than that, the class was great for pointing out the possible pit falls while still encouraging anyone who really had an interest in it. I recommend it.

Bee School Part 1

If you live in Colorado, and you want to keep bees, the Bee School put on by the Pikes Peak Beekeepers Association is awesome. For what they’re charging, I’d consider adding a hotel bill if you’re travelling from a distance to still be a fair price. It is two days and a ton of information. They encourage questions during the breaks and make it very clear that they will be available for more questions as the season goes on and we get our own hives and colonies. 

The day started off, as they do, with some basic housekeeping information. There were two points that stuck out, though. The future of beekeeping is not one beekeeper with many hives. It is many beekeepers with one or a few hives. It’s much more stable that way. The other is that in Colorado Springs we can expect to lose 15-20% of our hives annually. In California, the expectation is 20-50% of the hives. Plant flowers and stop using pesticides, people. We are not ready to see what happens if the bees disappear. 

The history portion was fast, but it was enough to whet my appetite to learn more. The oldest recording of stealing honey is 15,000 years old. The Egyptians moved their hives for pollination purposes. Current bee laws are based on Roman bee laws. Finally, the honey bee as we know it arrived in America in 1622. It was dubbed the “white man’s fly” since the bees tended to precede the arrival of the white man in a given area. However, beekeeping couldn’t be really commercialized until L. L. Langstroth, the father of American beekeeping, came up with the Langstroth Hive in 1860. The standardization and ease of access to the hive made it possible to do on a large scale.

The next portion was talking about the agricultural benefits. Did you know that it’s a $200 billion industry world-wide with the worth in the US being around $20 billion? Of course, when 1/3 of our food depends on these little animals, it becomes less surprising. Though more disconcerting when you consider their fragility. Bees aren’t just good for food, though. There are 7-800 conditions listed in the Egyptian Papyrus Ebers. Half of them include honey in their treatment. There’s more to honey’s health benefits than just help with allergies. Even propolis, bee glue, seems to have health benefits as an antiseptic, antibiotic, and even an antiviral.

There were examples of the necessary equipment that were passed around  for us to handle. During that lecture, we also got to hear anecdotes about things that were learned the hard way. This was when we were told that if you ask 5 beekeepers the same question, you will get at least 6 answers. There is a lot of science involved, but there is also a lot of art. Once you have learned the basics, it is up to each beekeeper to learn the ins and outs of their colonies and the areas where their bees are kept. 

Currently, each plot in Colorado Springs is legally allowed one hive, assuming your HOA doesn’t object. They are working on getting it back up to two. That way if you lose one, you’re not out of bees until the new one is established. If you live elsewhere, though, check your local laws. Just down in Fountain, you can’t legally have a hive unless you have at least an acre of property. Of course, if you’re planning to flaunt the law, keep the neighbors well bribed with fresh, local honey.

Did you know that the queen bee rules, but she does not reign? It is the worker bees that determine when she needs to be replaced and they are the ones that choose the worker eggs to turn into little queens. Of course, once the first queen emerges, she promptly stings through all of the other queen cells to remove any potential rivals. The workers also take on every job in the hive at some point in her life. 

Did you know that when a bee colony is searching for a new home, they make decisions as a group the way our brain makes a decision. There was a Nova show on it. Basically, they do their waggle dance to tell their sisters the good news, but they aren’t above whacking a sister who is waggling for a different destination. In the end, whoever has the most interested sisters wins the vote. It seems that neurons in our brain send positive and negative signals to waggle or whack to influence the vote in the direction they want. Who knew?

The class on hive assembly just talked about the Langstroth Hive, as that is what 90% of the beekeepers use. There are other options, like the Kenyan top-bar hive or the Warre top-bar hive, but they don’t have the same following. At least, not yet. I am starting with a Langstroth Hive, since I can easily get my hands on a kit, but I think I will eventually have at least one Warre hive. The Kenyans are more of a warm-weather construction and probably won’t do as well in our cold winters.

We watched a video on how to move your bees from their shipping package to their hive. It was helpful to see live bees being handled. I think that will make it a little less intimidating when I get my own buzzing box. A little. After the film, though, the instructor went through a couple of points of disagreement (we don’t need to medicate them- it’s been handled before they shipped) and some Colorado-specific points. Don’t do it on a windy day. They’ll blow away.

When it comes to managing our bees, we need to think of ourselves as bee assisters rather than bee keepers. The bees do 99% of the work. We just need to keep an eye on them and help out if they need it. In fact, our only job during the first summer is to feed them and make sure they’re strong enough to survive their first winter. Once they are an established colony, though, handling them is far from a daily task. However, when they are handled, don’t forget to forgo your perfume, aftershave, or scented deodorant. They will try to figure out what kind of flower you are and if you’re good to eat.

The rest will need to go in a second post, as this one is getting a bit long.