Monthly Archives: February 2016

Winter deadouts and spring swarms

It’s raining today, coming down hard, so we aren’t working in the yard.  Over the last few days we are starting to hear from various folks around the valley as they start peeking into the beehives to see how winter survival has taken it’s toll.  I’ve had more than one message and/or email from folks concerned about winter losses, and it’s a very typical scenario.  3 or 4 colonies went into the winter looking good, and now there are two or three left alive, everybody has one or more colonies that didn’t survive the winter, but also have a couple that are looking good.

There is a really important detail to remember at this time of year though, just because the colony looks good when you pop the lid and see 3 to 6 seams full of bees, it’s still February, and the winter is not over.  Queen failure season happens thru the month of March.  We have experienced this ourselves, a colony that looked really good when we started the feeding program in February, come middle of March when doing the first inspection that involves pulling up frames and checking the brood, to our horror we see 2 or 3 frames of capped drone brood and a queen proudly walking on those frames.  There are a lot of reasons the queen could have turned into a drone layer, my suspicion that in our climate, one of the primary reasons is that she got chilled over the winter and all of the sperm she is carrying became unviable.  I dont buy the ‘poorly mated’ arguement in the case of a queen that was laying good worker patterns in the fall, then starts producing drones in the spring.  If she was that poorly mated, we would have seen shotgun or drone brood already in the fall.  If she had a good pattern in the fall, and produces nothing but drones in the early spring, something happened over the winter to change her viability.

Another report that is all to common, a colony we thought was dead, turns out to have a small cluster of bees.  I learned this lesson the absolute worst way a few years ago.  We had a colony beside the house, and in December already we had started to think it was dead.  On the nice days, there was no activity at the entrance.  In February I popped the lid, and saw no sign of life, so I proceeded to start taking the hive apart for storage.  There was Gerry, no bee suit on a nice warm February day, with the top box in my hands after lifting it off, and that’s when I realized, there is a cluster of bees in the bottom box, and now they are very angry bees.  I took about 50 stings before I got away from the angry bees and went to find a bee suit so I could put that colony back together.  The lesson there, just because we _think_ it’s dead, doesn’t mean that’s the case, and if you are going to start disassembling the deadouts in February, have a veil on, full suit is better.

But back to the main issue today, the time to start planning for swarm control is now.  In general, swarm control boils down to two underlying methods.  I wrote yesterday about my aversion to spring splits in most forms as a method of swarm deterrence, it is a method that deters honey production as effectively as it deters swarms.  The other main strategy for swarm deterrence involves ‘give them space’.  The issue with this method is strait forward to understand, space does not mean fresh new frames with empty foundation, it means drawn comb that the bees can utilize right away.  For many of our local club members, the main problem is, they don’t have an inventory of drawn comb to work with during the swarm season, so they don’t have the option of working on a ‘give them space’ type of swarm deterrent strategy.  Putting a box of empty new frames doesn’t have the effect you are looking for, during May and June, the bees can’t build comb as fast as the nectar arrives, so without an inventory of drawn comb, you can’t stay ahead of the bees and the swarm becomes inevitable.  Once the bees start storing nectar in the brood nest empty cells, swarming is inevitable, and the only option to deter a swarm at that point is to do some form of split.

This winters dead hive, is your spring inventory of drawn comb to use for swarm deterrence.  The strategies we use are very unconventional, and fly in the face of what many of the online bee guru types tell us to do for managing our bees, but it’s a system that works well for us.

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This is a photo of two hives we built up last spring using our ‘give them space’ methods.  Click on the photo to see a much larger version with more detail.  They are located in a small raspberry farm and working the raspberry bloom.  6 boxes in each stack, 2 brood boxes and 4 honey boxes over an excluder.  I stopped doing inspections on these colonies for a couple of reasons.  First reason, lifting 4 boxes of honey / nectar off to get down to the brood nest is hard work, and more importantly, with all 6 boxes full of bees, it gets downright scary by the time you have the 4 honey boxes lifted off the stack and get down to the excluder.  The bees get angry, and there are a LOT of them.  These colonies did not swarm, and we harvested roughly 100lb of honey from each during our first extraction cycle.

How did we manage this, in an area where typical honey harvests are much smaller, and do so at a time of year when the bees natural instinct is to throw a reproductive swarm?  It was not easy, and involved a significant amount of work, with planning that went back to starting our bee work in February with the spring feeding program.  But the real key is, keep ahead of the bees with comb during the months of April and May.  Around April 1 we start our plan to ensure they bees always have space to work, and the queen has room to lay.  The first honey super goes on above an excluder when we see the first sign of maples blooming as a way of ensuring there is always some place outside the brood area to store nectar.  At the beginning of April we start helping the bees to expand the brood nest, by simply adding more comb to the nest.  The way I do it, I take a mostly unused edge frame out of the top box, push 4 frames over to create a gap between two brood frames, then put an empty drawn brood frame into that gap.  The following week, I do it again, this time taking one from the other side of the box.  The first two rounds happen in the top box of a double deep stack, the second two rounds happen in the bottom box.  We continue this strategy until we see comb being drawn, or we run out of drawn frames to use.  Every time we see the same result, for the first few days the bees appear to ignore the new frame, but when I look back a week later, that frame will be full of eggs and freshly hatched larvae.  At the same time, we manage the area they have to store nectar in a similar fashion.  When 5 of the frames in the first super have nectar stored, I put on another box of frames.  Starting with the second box, we switch it up a bit, each box has 7 or 8 drawn frames, with the remainder being fresh new frames interspersed between drawn frames,  with the goal being more comb in the honey supers.

When it was time to put hives in the raspberry farm, I will admit, we cherry picked the two strongest for this location.  At the time we moved them, the one on the left had 14 frames of brood, the one on the right had 12 frames with brood, both had two honey supers on, and we added two more as the raspberry bloom progressed.  We had no reports of swarms, and based on population sizes when I did go into them, it’s unlikely they swarmed.  We used the same concepts for the hives here on the back lot, and I know there were no swarms from the hives we treated in this fashion, I can see them out the window of my office, so I would have noticed swarms coming out.  I did have a few colonies started from nucs we purchased in the spring, and I was out of comb for managing those.  I saw both swarms that came out of those, managed to get one into our own boxes, and watched one disappear over the trees.

Our methods are based on a very simple premise, ensure the bees have space to work in the form of empty comb both for the queen to lay eggs, and for the workers to store and cure nectar.  As we all know, the standing joke amongst beekeepers, ask 3 beekeepers, get 3 different answers to the same question.  There is no right or wrong way to do things, but we have homed in on a strategy we can apply consistently, which seems to give us a fairly consistent result.  Yes, it’s a lot of work, and involves doing a full deep look into every hive once a week from the beginning of April thru till mid June.  Our goal is to harvest 50lb of honey from the producing hives over the spring flow, last year we managed to get 70 as an average over all the producing colonies.  A couple were up near 100, a couple more down around 30, but the overall average was 70.  We were happy with that result.

Planning the season

A small honey crop can easily be achieved in spite of how the bees are managed.  It is what bees do, they gather nectar to produce honey, and they will do this no matter how the beekeeper manipulates the hives.  The question then becomes, how to maximize nectar gathering for producing honey?  If we want a large honey crop, we need to manage the bees to maximize the hive population at the time of the strongest flows.  Two years of data from a hive on the scale show clearly the timeframes of interest, our flow runs runs roughly from the start of 2nd week of May, till the end of 2nd week of June.  I dont think it’s a co-incidence, this is also the time when we hear of the most swarms.  Last season, we first started hearing about swarms at the April bee club meeting, in the 4th week of April.  Temperatures are another item we need to look at when thinking about managing the bees, if various forms of splits are part of the strategy, we cannot do smallish splits until overnight temperatures are suitable for a small cluster with brood.

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The graph is two years of temperature data here on the farm.  Much like the hive scale, temperature is measured every 5 minutes and stored in a database from which we plot the graphs.  Click on the graph to see a much larger version.  I watched a show on one of the science oriented tv channels a couple years ago, and they had some very interesting insight.  The show is called ‘orbit’, it’s a 4 part series where 2 young women travel around the world and show various major weather events that happen consistently year over year, then they proceed to explain why, it’s all to do with the tilt of the earth and our orbit around the sun, which in turn changes the amount of heating various parts of the earth get during various parts of the year.  One of those ‘regularly scheduled’ events was fascinating, a waterfall in the northwest territories that freezes over.  It’s a north flowing river, the fall is near Hay River, and the ice goes out in that fall in the same week every year.  The reason for that, southern parts of the river start warming earlier in the season, and eventually the backlog of water is enough to start pushing the ice up to the fall, and it reaches a breaking point where you see a huge amount of ice give way and start cascading over that waterfall.  As the days get longer in the south, there is more daytime heating, less night time cooling, and eventually that tipping point is reached.  Timing of the ice letting go on the waterfall is driven by the length of day farther south, and it’s very consistent year over year.

We see a similar consistency here when I look at two years of temperature data collected on our property here at Rozehaven.  Overnight low temps consistently dip down below 5C until we hit the 3rd week of May.  But in around May 15, it’s like somebody hit the big light switch in the sky, and the overnight lows climb dramatically at that point.  This becomes a very important time for using small splits as a swarm deterrent strategy.  I like to use 2 or 3 frame splits for mating nucs when we start raising our replacement queens, but the data shows me, if I make those units up before May 15, they will have a high risk of chilling brood, which will set the nucs back so far they may not be viable anymore.

The other part of this equation then is the honey flows.  Scale data shows us, to maximize our honey crop, we need maximum bee populations in the hives by May 1, and we want to keep those populations large thru the month of May and into June, without swarms coming out of the hives.  This is the tricky part, because we are working against the bees natural instincts of trying to throw off a reproductive swarm during the spring flow.  The easiest way to apply a strong swarm deterrent here on Vancouver Island, is to split hives in mid to late April, they have grown substantially by that time, and a split will set them back enough to deter swarming.

But, lets take a good hard look at the anatomy of the basic walk-away split and how that works in terms of timing for our honey flow.  If we split a hive with a simple two box walk away split in late April, we end up with two halves.  The donor half (box A) is now a single box, with a laying queen.  They have roughly half the population and half the brood.  Over the next 3 weeks that brood will all emerge, and the population will recover somewhat by mid May.  The queenless half will start raising an emergency queen, and by mid May they will be in a situation of no brood left, it’s all emerged, with a queen just starting to lay.  This is the time when our honey flow begins in earnest, so box A will have a reasonable, but not great population for producing honey, they will be capable of filling a super over the flow.  In our second box, box B, 3 weeks after the split they have a freshly emerged queen, no brood, and a honey flow beginning.  Over the next 3 weeks of flow, population is on the decline, and what bees are left need to be feeding brood, so we have less and less to forage during the heavy flow period.  3 weeks after the queen starts laying, they finally have brood emerging and the population has reached it’s low point and starting to recover, just in time for the honey flow to be tapering off.  The end result of the exercise, one mediocre hive producing a box of honey, and one weak hive that will likely need support later in the season when it gets hot and dry.  This ofc assumes all goes well in box A, and they just carry on after the split continuing to raise brood and expand the population.  But that’s not been my experience in a walk away split.  My experience is, the bees in the queenright half realize something drastic has happened, and proceed to do what bees do in that situation, they immediately start supercedure.  There is a way to avoid the long and slow population decline in the queenless half of the walk away split, and that is to introduce a mated queen at the time of the split.  But, if you look at the timing I mentioned above, in late April we will not have our own fresh queens to introduce, so, the only option is to purchase an imported queen for introduction into the queenless half of the split.  If we do that, then both halves of the split will carry down the path mentioned above for box A, they both have a laying queen.

This is why I am not a fan of early splits as a swarm deterrent, the net result is two weaker colonies which will produce a small harvest at best, and in the worst case, no harvest at all from the spring flow we have at the lower elevations.  Many of our club members have over time realized, the ‘no harvest at all’ case seems to be more predominant than the small harvest case when you use April splits as a swarm deterrent.  This math changes dramatically if your focus for honey is targetting the later fireweed flow at higher elevations.  If your target for honey is the fireweed, that split in April with a new introduced queen in the second half, should build well over the spring flow at lower elevations, and give you two strong hives to take up into the mountains chasing fireweed honey.  That is a completely different strategy than we are using here, our target for honey flow it the spring flow here on our property.  We dont have enough colonies to justify the work and expense of building an outyard in a logged patch full of fireweed.  Instead, we participate in operation of a community yard set up by the local bee club, and just take a few of our colonies to that location for the fireweed flow.

The real issue as I see it when dealing with swarm deterrent methods, they come in two general forms.  The first form involves an activity of some type that results in two colonies, lots of different ways of doing it, but they all boil down to some form of split, with many names to describe different ways of doing that split.  The second form of swarm deterrent methods all revolve around ‘give them space’, and what a lot of new beekeepers fail to realize, ‘space’ does NOT mean fresh new frames of foundation, it means empty drawn comb where the bees have room to store nectar and/or raise brood.  In particular in our area, we have a very strong honey flow during the swarmy part of the year, and the bees can bring in nectar FAR faster than they can build comb to store it, so we need to give them comb in the form of drawn supers to stay ahead of the incoming nectar.  This is where your winter dead-outs turn into a godsend.  A double deep that died out over the winter is a golden resource when late April and May roll around, it contains 20 frames of drawn comb that can be used to help deter swarming in the surviving hives.

I ran into one of the newer beekeeper club members in Canadian Tire a couple weeks ago, he went into the fall with 3 colonies, and one of them died over the winter.  He was asking about purchasing a nuc in the spring.  My response is, you don’t want a nuc to re-populate that hive, you want to keep those boxes of drawn comb in inventory, then when the swarmy part of the season arrives, you have the necessary resources on hand to manage your colonies.  A winter deadout is the ticket to ‘give them space’ in May.  Manage those two colonies to deter swarming with your boxes of drawn comb, then think about splits for increase AFTER the honey flow.  Make your splits at the middle of June then manage them into the fall for increase by keeping the bees healthy and ensure they have food.  Two strong colonies with a surplus of drawn comb in May and June will give you FAR more honey to harvest than 3 colonies that are always short of comb, those colonies will more likely give you a swarm instead of an extra box of honey.

If I look back at our records over the last few years, I have come to an important realization.  Counting colonies is absolutely the wrong way to forecast your honey harvest.  The correct way to forecast your honey harvest is to sit back in February and tally up how many supers of empty drawn comb you have to give the bees when the flow starts.  Every box of comb we get drawn this year, translates directly to a box of full frames waiting for extractor next season after the honey flow.  There is no instant gratification with beekeeping, this years work is about next years harvest.  Our focus this year is less about increasing the colony count, and more about increasing the inventory of drawn supers to use for harvest in years going forward.

As we think thru the plans for this season with the bees, one thing is clear to me.  Last years queens and comb, translate into this years harvest.  When the overnight temperatures start up after May 15, we are already into the spring flow and the bees are starting to store the nectar that will be this years honey harvest.  We can start putting cells into mating nucs after May 15, but that work is not about the harvest this year, it’s about preparing for the following year.  What I find most interesting now as I sit down looking at the data, and planning our season with the bees, my focus has already shifted away from trying to plan what we will do about this years crop, my focus is now on what we want in terms of colony counts on stands by September, and how many empty drawn supers we can have in storage at that time.  The honey crop this year, will be what it is, the groundwork for that was done last year thru the season.  Our planning for this year is about how we can best prepare our bees and comb inventory for the next season.  When we will raise queens, and when we will start new colonies for increase the topic we are now working out specifics for.

 

Scale problems solved – I think

The erratic readings from the scale under a hive have been a problem since some time in December, and it seemed to get a lot worse after we moved the system from a spot on the lawn behind the house, out to the hive stands which now have a power plug installed.  At first I thought it may be wind or rain affecting things differently in the new location, but, in the end I became convinced the scale itself was the root cause of the problem, so I ordered a replacement.  Same scale from the same source, just a brand new one.

The new scale is in place, and like magic, the readings seem to have stablized dramatically.  We are using an inexpensive platform scale for this project, it’s not built to withstand the weather, and it is a single point load cell.  I’m not sure this type of load cell is meant to have a weight on it constantly over the long term, and I suspect over time the cell has possibly just bent a little internally, ie we essentially wore it out.  In the end it doesn’t really matter why the system became unstable, it had to be fixed.  Purchase cost of a replacement scale is in the same ballpark as buying one package or nuc in the spring.  Live data from a hive thru the spring flow has become a very important input for our strategies managing and in some cases micro-managing the hives for honey production.  With 15 hives set to produce honey this spring, scale data has more value to me than another hive, so this was money well spent.

Yellow and Red Pollen

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Not the clearest of photos, but, today we have pollen coming in at all the hives.  A few bees coming home with pollen sacs full of yellow pollen, and a few more with a red pollen.

At the local bee club meeting there were many folks commenting on the ‘early blooms’ this year, but, i dont see anything running much earlier than in years gone past.  A look at the Pieris Japonica hedge we have in front of the house, which is one of our earliest blooms that the bees tend to be ‘all over’ while it’s open, the flowers are getting close, but not yet open.  Maybe if we have a couple days of sunshine they will start to open up, can see the petals pushing on a few of the buds.  But is it early ?  Last year we saw the first flowers on Feb 28, today it’s Feb 24, they flowers are not open, but look like they will open up any day now.   It’s still 4 weeks till we expect the first dandelion to bloom, so, winter is far from over in terms of bee survival.

More bee food

We’ve had some terrible weather for a couple weeks, not helped by both Chris and I spending a week off because we were sick.  Today there is a nice break in the rain, the sun actually came out.  I made a fresh batch of patties on the weekend, but, weather hasn’t let me get them into the hives yet.  Today I went and started setting more patties onto the hives.

For the most part, I’m very impressed with how the bees look.  In a couple of the colonies, there wasn’t a scrap left from the first round, and in a few more just small bits.  I put two patties onto the smaller ones, and 3 onto the colonies that have devoured the last round.

The most impressive thing to me, is the size of those clusters.  There is absolutely NO doubt that these bees have started brooding up, the hive I showed a photo of from the first round of feeding had bees on 4 frames when we started putting on patties.  I forgot to take a photo while it was open, but today, that colony has bees on 8 frames, and there wasn’t a trace of the original patties left on the top bars, not even a scrap.

The norm for us over the years has been to put bees to bed for the winter in a double deep configuration, then in the spring we find they have moved into the top box, and cover about 4 frames in the top box by the time spring rolls around.  I typically see them expand slowly, and expect to see them moving back into the bottom box by the first week of April.  At this rate, some of these colonies will be moving into the bottom box by early March this year.  I can see that we are going to have to put a lot of effort into swarm management if this keeps up, because we will have swarmy bees by April.  This is not a bad thing, but, it does mean we will have to re-think some of the plans.

More problems with the hive scale

I noticed the scale was starting to give a few erratic readings back in December, then it seemed to settle down again.  In January, after w e moved it the readings were very erratic, and it’s just been getting worse as the clock runs forward.  I did some research this morning, and the final conclusion is, after being abused for 2 and a half years by being left out exposed to the weather, the electronics in our scale are no longer functioning correctly.  I broke down and ordered a replacement.

The scale we’ve been using up to now is the HD-300 from the folks at canadanweigh.com, so I ordered the same one to replace what we have now.  It’s not an ideal scale, suffers a bit from temperature sensativity, but I dont really want to spend the big bucks it would take to get a temperature compensated unit suitable for outdoor use, so we decided to just go ahead with the ‘devil we know’.

At this time of year, the scale data isn’t very interesting, and not terribly useful, but I do want a reliable system running again prior to April 1, which is the date I like to start the year over year comparison graphs if I can.  Hopefully it wont take to long for the new scale to arrive, then we will need a day with some reasonable weather to go out back and put the new one in place of the old one, that’s getting rather erratic these days.

 

The Blooms are starting

We’ve both been sick for a week, so, getting a little behind with spring chores around the farm, and yes, we are now legally a farm, even the BC Assessment Authority agrees.

Today we went for a drive into town to pick up the pieces that will become the new greenouse.  On the way home, we spotted an important bloom.  The Pieris Japonica along the hiway in town, beside the Husky station, has some flowers open, the bloom is just beginning there.  We have a hedge of these in front of the house, and when they bloom, the bees are all over them, for most of a month.  Last year, we saw the first flowers on Feb 28 on ours here at the house.  This timing looks ‘normal’, things along the hiway in town tend to bloom a week or two earlier than they do here at the house.  In the front yard, the snowdrops are up, and in flower this afternoon.  It’s been wet and miserable for a few days, but, if we get a sunny day, I’m expecting to start seeing bees all over these plants.  The weather forecast says, that’s probably going to happen by Tuesday.

After we got back and unloaded, I mixed up another batch of patties, and will put them on the hives tomorrow if the weather will let me.  I’m experimenting a little with this round, added one drop of lemongrass oil to the mix, otherwise it’s the same as before.  We’ve read so much about how different smells will make things more attractive to the bees, so, I thought I’d try this once, and see if it makes a difference in how fast they consume the patties.  We do have some blooms now, the bees will be bringing in some some pollen from natural sources when the weather lets them, but, forecast over the next week or so is mostly rain, so, we want to make sure they are not running out of protein and carbs for feeding themselves and the brood that’s on the way.  The long range forecast is looking nice, it shows a week of sun starting in another week.  But, it always seems to say ‘next week’ for the nice weather, so, I dont want to take a chance, we’ll get the patties on now while we can.  If the weather does hold up to the forecast, we should see a parade of blooms starting in another week or so.  The Pieris is another week or so off here at the house, then we’ll have the skunk cabbage and the willows should start any day now.