Splits and other Beekeeping Gymnastics

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The spring season will pass into summer before you know it and the thoughts of many beekeepers will soon turn to the collection of honey.  Yes I know, we aren’t quite there yet, but in another few weeks (mid-June) you will be able to look into your hives and see which ones are going to produce a ton of sweet golden nectar for you  (At least that’s the case here in Central Oregon where the season is so short) and which ones are slow, struggling or for some reason just not getting on with things.

Something to consider is to take the slower hives and make splits out of them.  (I have already completed my spring splits which I do around May 1st, but recently I have taken to doing splits later in the season so I have nucs to winter that are ready to go in the spring.)  The ability to make splits is an essential tool that today’s beekeeper must possess to be successful, reduce costs and most of all, keep your hives healthy.  So don’t be afraid of taking the next step in your beekeeping adventure.

There are a number of ways to make splits.  One of the oldest ways of splitting a Langstroth hive is to set a new hive next to the existing hive and remove every other frame from the original hive and put them in the new hive.  The spaces left in the original hive are filled with new frames and the five frames that were removed from it are placed together in the new hive with the outside empty space filled with new frames.  Beekeepers who are making their first splits are often more comfortable making a split this way because they are not required to find the queen.  The hive that ends up without a queen will make queen cells, raise up a new queen and replace her.

That’s the old way.  The approach I take is outlined below and it should prove to be very effective in producing strong hives and healthy queens for you.

Any hive with at least four frames of capped brood can be split.  I go to the beeyard to make my splits in the afternoon when most of the field bees are out of the hive.  So for our example, let’s imagine a hive with seven frames of capped brood.  I locate the queen and place the frame she is on in a new hive along with a frame of capped brood (two frames of brood if the queen was not on a frame of brood when you moved her) and a frame of stores.  I then add a shake or so of bees (these will be mostly nurse bees since the field bees are out of the hive) to care for the larva and brood.

The new hive containing the queen is then placed in the exact same location as the original hive was.  When the field bee return they will return to the new hive.  The original hive that is now queenless is moved a short distance away (5 to 10 feet).  There is no need to move it far away as the field bees are returning to the same place they expect to find a hive and a queen.  They will not return to the queenless hive you have just created.

It takes about 7 days for new queen cells to be raised and capped, so you will want to return to the queenless hive a week after you make the split.  Waiting a week allows the strength of your healthy hive to raise up healthy queens.  So after a week we return to our queenless hive that began with 7 frames of capped brood.  (Remember it could be four frames of brood, but that is the minimum) We removed two frames of brood when we removed the queen so now we have 5 frames of brood left.  From these five frames we will create two new hives – one with two frames of brood and one with three.

When you make this split you locate the frames containing the newly made queen cells and split them amongst the two new hives.  If there are a lot of queen cells you should reduce them down to two or three for each of the two new hives you make.

In another 10 days the queen cells will begin to hatch.  After hatching, the new queen will destroy any other queen cells she can find.  If other queens have hatched they will fight to the death.  That is the reason to reduce the number of queen cells in the new splits to two or three.  The new queen will need time to mature and after a week or so she will begin to take orientation flights near the colony before going on longer flights to mate.  All in all the entire process will approach approximately 30 days before the new queen begins to lay.  That’s 30 days without a queen – and nothing could be more healthy for your hive!!!

Mites enter cells containing larva on day eight.  The bees cap the cell on day nine and the mite and any young it produces feed on the young larva before it hatches.  What that does to the young bee is another conversation entirely and is beyond the scope of this discussion but we all know it’s not a good thing.  So what happens when there is no larva in the hive for the mites to feed on?  The mites die of course and bingo!  You have the most natural control of mites there is.

So now let’s add a couple twists to our making splits gymnastics.

A the very beginning of this process, after you remove the queen and create the queenless hive you will want to “notch” some cells containing the youngest larva you can see with the naked eye.  Use your hive tool to break down the very lowest edge of the cells containing young larva WITHOUT harming the larva.  Break it down to the foundation.  I can’t always see the tiny larva so I usually overlap between eggs and young larva.  The bees will treat these cells differently and build queen cells wherever you have notched.  I normally do this on three frames.  Notching provides space for the bees to create the large cells necessary to build a queen cell.  This process has never failed me and will virtually guarantee your own success.

The next step is for creating smaller nucleus hives you want to winter.   After the summer solstice (longest day) queens begin to reduce their egg laying in preparation for the coming winter.  A queen that emerges after the summer solstice will lay like a spring queen for many weeks after she is born.  Because of this you can make late season splits from the hives that are coming along slowly.  I’ve done them as late as July 1, but prefer to make them around mid-June because of our short season here.   The splitting process is the same and the new hive will have just enough to time to raise up its numbers and put away enough stores to make it through the winter.   When spring comes, these hives with their young queens take off with a bang!  You can then use them to replace hives you lost or use them to sell.

If you learn to split your hives you will never need to buy bees again and the splits will maintain healthy hives throughout your beeyard.  There’s still time for you to try it this year and if using the methods described here your success is all but guaranteed.

SWARMS – the boon and bane of beekeeping

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Swarms

Swarms are an amazing site to see.  The cloud of bees in the air can seem as large as a house and the sound is unmistakable.  One of the greatest pleasures in beekeeping is catching a swarm.  They are fascinating to watch and after all, it represents a free hive of bees.  Of course you have to catch them first and there’s nothing quite so rewarding as the successful collection of a swarm.

Swarms can be the bane of a beekeeper too!  Numbers in a hive can build quickly in the spring and before you know it the bees are short on room and have decided to swarm.  Once they make up their minds it’s what they want to do there is little you can do to prevent it and when they go you will usually be left with less than half the bees you had to begin with.

So let’s talk about swarms, both the blessing and the bane of beekeeping.

If you have a bee yard chances are that one way or the other you’re going to see a swarm.   Swarms don’t usually travel very far from the originating hive.  Fifty to one hundred yards is probably typical, though I know they can travel further than that.  I think the reason you will begin to see swarms once you have established your hives is the pheromones coming from the queens in your hives.  It seems to me it just has to work as an attractant.

So what do you do if you find a swarm in your yard?  I know that vacuums are becoming popular for collecting swarms, but I’m pretty old school (that’s about the only thing in beekeeping I’m old school about) and still like collecting bees with my own hands.

When you find the swarm, see if the branch they are on is small enough to clip off.  If so you simply hold the branch over your nuc box and give it a sharp rap to dislodge the bees.  If you got the queen in the box you will almost immediately begin to see bees at the opening to the nuc fanning their wings.  They are sending out the pheromone for the rest of the bees to scent and saying come home the queen is here.  It’s really quite the treat to watch the bee’s line up across the front of the box to fan and is the sure signal of success for the bee keep hoping to collect the swarm.

But what if you can’t get to the swarm?  It happens.  The swarm is too high up or maybe it’s buried deep inside a bush that’s too thick for you to be able to collect the hive from.  In this case you will want to set out your nuc box with a couple drops of lemon grass oil inside.  The bees are drawn to this and the scout bees that are out on patrol looking for a new home for the queen to move into will smell the lemon grass and return to the swarm to tell everyone they have found a beautiful new castle for the queen.  It’s not perfect and doesn’t always work but it can be quite successful.

So be sure to keep some lemon grass oil around.  I’ve already caught one swarm this year using this method.  The swarm was on the trunk of an evergreen tree thick with foliage.  After four attempts to brush the swarm into a box I gave up for the night and set out the nuc box with lemon grass oil.  The bees were still in the tree in the morning and so I went about doing my chores and mowing the lawn.  After mowing the lawn, about one in the afternoon, I decided to check on the swarm and low and behold there were no bees in the tree.  There weren’t even many flying around the nuc box and I wasn’t sure where they had gone so imagine my surprise when I lifted the lid.  Boom!  There they were, all moved in.   It doesn’t get any easier!

But what if it’s your own hive that’s preparing to swarm?  What can you do? Losing a hive to a swarm not only costs you your bees but pretty well guarantees you will harvest no honey from that hive until next year.  What to do?  First off you want to make sure there is still a queen in the hive.  Sometimes the queen dies or simply takes off and the only place the bees have to raise queens is exactly where you would normally find queen cells.  Once you know the queen is still in the hive you need to proceed with an “artificial swarm” otherwise, one way or the other the hive is going to swarm.  You can make more space and continue to destroy the queen cells but at some point you will miss one and the hive will swarm.

So here’s what to do.  Find the queen and move the frame the queen is on to a new hive.  Find a frame of brood and move it to the new hive in addition to a frame of stores.  Now shake a frame of bees into the new hive (maybe two shakes of bees depending on how you feel about the numbers) and close the hive up.  Presto!  You have just completed an artificial swarm.  You do not need to move the hive far away if you have done the above procedure sometime in the afternoon when the field bees are out collecting.  The field bees will return to the original hive.  The bees you moved and shook in to the new hive will be mostly nurse bees and will stay in the new hive.

When the queen cells in the original hive begin to hatch, they hatch into a queenless hive and there is no reason for the new queen to leave.  Nothing in beekeeping is foolproof, but this is your surest approach to saving a hive from swarming.  (if you want, you could even split the original hive in two, assuming there are enough queen cells and brood to make up two new hives.)

In this way you have saved your original hive from swarming, even given it a “brood break” in the process (a brood break is the best way to control mites there is) and gotten a new hive out of the deal to boot!

Its all about the Queens

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Is there anything more inspiring, more filled with hope, than observing God’s creation come to life each spring?  The warming days green the fields and valleys lying below the snow capped mountains at which the yellow daffodils wave.  The spring sweet air and gentle temperatures caress and are a balm to the senses.  New life buds at every turn.  Serviceberry erupts into a white fountain of cascading flowers that join the red shower of quince blossoms and white/pink display of the ornamental pear.  The garlic planted last fall stands at full attention in awe of the awakening beauty and the erupting rhubarb bursting from the ground with a new found vigor.

There are new chicks in the barnyard next to a proud, protective mother hen who gently cares for the little peeps.  They are joined by the bawling of newborn calves in the nearby fields and aerial demonstrations of sparrow, dove, junco, nuthatch, chik-a-dee, raven and hawk pairing up for the nesting season.

The first fruit trees are breaking bud, but the apple trees remain smug, tightly under wrap, quietly mocking the apricot, peach and cherry for blooming so early, for they know that Jack Frost will soon return to give another show.  But these early bloomers are not fazed or concerned by the haughty attitude of the apple, for they know the strings of Christmas lights carefully stretched throughout their branches will be a castle wall against Jack Frost.  While the apple stands with crossed arms and bides its time, the cherry and apricot will reward their owner with the sweet blessing of first fruits.

In the midst of all this glorious activity the honeybees are exploring every new blossom, returning to the hive with the first golden nectar of the season.  (That’s an Italian queen in the first photo above) Each hives population is growing exponentially now as the new food sources and longer days spur the queen to lay an ever increasing number of eggs.  I have now been through all of my hives and each looks strong and healthy.  As is typical, each hive is a completely separate entity on its own time table.  A few are booming and will be watched closely to prevent swarming.  They are the beneficiaries of new young queens which came from splits made both early and late in the season last year.  Other hives are a little slower to come on.  Most of these are what I refer to as the Carnies.  In preparation for winter the race of bees known as Carniolan, or Carnies, reduce their numbers to a greater extent their Italian relatives.  They need less food stores to get through the winter that way, but it also means they are starting with fewer numbers in the spring and it takes them a bit longer to get up and going.

It’s looking like some hives will be ready to split in another month or so.  The hives I keep on the other side of the mountains where it is warmer, but also much wetter, are further along and I might be able to consider making splits there in another month.  I don’t do much feeding but when I am getting ready to make splits I will put out feeders with a one to one sugar water mixture about a month before splitting the hives.  This brood builder formula will boost the numbers in each hive in preparation for making splits.  I am happy to report that my favorite queen (a large dark Carney) is now three years old.  She wintered well and is still laying an excellent brood pattern.  She produces such calm and productive offspring that I want to keep her around as long as I can and it’s good to know I will have her for another season.  You can see pictures of her at the bottom of the page.  Notice the slight touch of red on her thorax.  She was part of a package of bees and was marked with the red dye.  Only the slightest trace now remains.

I do not expose my hives to the chemicals found in the commercial miticides used for  mite control and instead take a more natural, “softer” approach to controlling these destructive pests.  In the feeding mixture mentioned above I add essential oils for hive health.  The Tea Tree oil will kill fungus and disease while the wintergreen and spearmint will kill mites.  The formula I use is shown below.  Be sure to use pure food grade oils, such as those available through Lorann oils.

Brood Builder formula

1 teaspoon of Tea Tree oil

1 teaspoon of Wintergreen oil

1 teaspoon of Spearmint

10 drops of lemon grass oil

Mix the above ingredients in a blender with one cup of water.  I also add a tablespoon or so of my own honey to act as an emulsifier and help the oil and water to mix.  Blend on low for 5 minutes.  What you are making is a concentrate.  After blending pour the mixture into a half gallon container and fill with water.  Again, this is a concentrate.  You use one cup of the concentrate in a gallon of 1:1 sugar water mix when you feed your bees.

This feed will boost your hives and improve hive health as well.

Until next time – go smell the flowers.

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Photos are the courtesy of Janna Liewergen of “The Meadow of Lavender”   http://meadowoflavender.com/

Quick update

With regard’s to my earlier post about the poor quality of packages coming out of California last year, I wanted to update you that the company, GloryBee was not helpful at all when I contacted them about the problem.  Considering that all my other hives did very well with none lost and only the packages from GloryBee struggling and dying out I think its pretty clear where the problem was.

I’ve done business with this company for many years but that didn’t seem to matter when I contacted them, so my suggestion, based upon my recent experience would be to find someone else to purchase your bees from this year.  They clearly delivered an inferior product and weren’t interested in hearing what I had to say about last years poor quality packages.  I think you will be better off doing business somewhere else.  Again, that just my hands on experience but it cost me nearly a thousand dollars to learn this lesson.  Plenty of other companies to get your bees from and its only fair that you get a heads up with regards to this issue.

Have a good season all.

Clean Wax and getting Equipment Ready for Spring

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Its a balmy 60 degrees today and I just came in from preparing hive equipment for the coming season.  I’m going through old frames and cleaning them up by replacing the foundation in some and tossing out some old plastic frames I made the mistake of buying years ago when I first got “stung” by this great adventure.

I rarely tell people what kind of equipment to purchase because everyone has their own goals and way of operating.  Remember the only rule in beekeeping is that their aren’t any rules.  Everyone will choose their own route.  However, I sure do wish someone would have steered me away from the all plastic frames.  Even after scraping them off and hosing them down you cannot remove the imbedded pollen and “gunk” that sticks to the bottom of the cells.

Now just why do you need to keep clean wax in your hives you might ask?  Most beekeepers use chemicals in their hives to control Varroa.  Wax absorbs these chemicals and consequently your bees are constantly exposed to low levels of chemicals intended for the mites.  Even if you don’t use in-hive miticides the wax will become laden with the toxins the bees bring home from your neighbors yards (if you are in or near town) or nearby agricultural fields.  When the comb becomes really dark its time for a change.

Brood comb will harbor all sorts of nasty’s.  A few days after the egg is laid the larva pupates and spins her cocoon.  Before she does she empties her digestive system into the bottom of the cell.  After hatching the house bees clean up what they can but they cannot clean it all and the rest is sealed into the cell with propolis and wax.  After a few generations this comb will be nearly black and sealed within it will be any pesticides the bees were exposed to, nosema spores, foulbrood, etc.  It only adds to the stress level of your colony.

So every few years you will want to replace this comb and spring is the time to do it because much of the comb will be empty.  That is what I’ve been working on today and this brings me back to my original thought.  You want to purchase frames (I like the wooden frames) with removable foundation.  Pop out the old one and replace it with new.  Some folks like the duragilt foundation, which is a very thin sheet of plastic coated in bees wax.  The bees do take right to it and I have used it with great success.  However, most of the wax used to coat the plastic comes from commercial operations so you know its had some level of exposure to miticides and possibly some other chemicals.

Another way to go is to use Rite-cell foundation.  It too is coated with wax but bees don’t always like plastic foundation so here is a surefire way to guarantee their acceptance of it.  Today I put a piece of clean wax (gathered from my hives last season) in my solar wax melter to soften it.  I then take the new foundation and rub it down lengthwise with the softened ball of wax.  Some folks actually melt the wax and then brush it on, but I find rubbing it on to be the easiest.  A thin coating of wax from your own hives and the bees will take right to it.  It will also put a thin film of your own clean wax between your bees and the wax that came with the foundation.

Maintaining clean wax in your hives will reduce your bees exposure to toxic chemicals and other waste products that build up in the old wax.  You want to own the frames that allow you to pop out the old foundation and replace it with new.  A little spring cleaning will reduce the level of things your brand new bees being born this spring don’t need to be exposed to and make for healthier hive.

Be careful if your buying packages of bees this spring!

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The garlic is up and going gangbusters and the rhubarb is just breaking through the ground.  Naturally the temperatures remain quite cool, but we do get these windows of 60+ degree weather occasionally and I like to use them to make hive inspections.  The bees are definitely preparing for spring and you should be too.

In the last few days we’ve had weather in the low 60’s.  Equally important was the fact there was no wind, so I took advantage of those days to do a full hive inspection of each and every hive.  It’s important to know the condition of your hives as soon as the weather allows so you know if your bees need to be fed while they wait for the nectar flow.

In January I wrote a piece for this blog about the poor quality of queens coming with packages that originated in California last year.  After the inspections of the last few days I feel a duty to warn you again.  The results are in and anyone considering purchasing packages of bees that originate in California needs to be careful.

All of my own hives that have been here a year or more and all of my own splits, with the exception of one, made it through the winter with flying colors.  The queens have begun laying and there is excellent capped brood in every hive.  In fact three of the hives are so full of bees you would think it was mid-season.  Fortunately those hives also have a good amount of stores, though I did add one frame of honey from the dead out hive, to a hive absolutely packed with bees.  A number of these hives are from splits made last year and it should tell you something about what a split does for hive health.  They are all very healthy!

Let’s compare the existing stock to the 9 packages of bees I purchased last season.  First off let me say that I have purchased and installed packaged bees for many years and I have never experienced the disastrous results I had this last season.  I respect and generally have high regard for the company I purchased these bees from and I have done business with them for many years.  I will continue to do business with them but I will not purchase package bees from them again.

Last summer I purchased 9 packages because I can’t keep up with the demand for my honey, so I decided to expand my business.  Unfortunately it was nearly all wasted money and that is what you need to take away from this article.

Right from the start the queens in these packages struggled and all but two hives began a constant progression of requeening themselves, a process called supercedure.  Essentially as soon as a new queen would take over the hive they would soon replace her.  One of the hives came with a dead queen, yet even the replacement queen provided by the supplier was weak and the bees made a number of supercedures even after she was added to the hive.  The bees know when a queen is in poor health or failing and will replace her.  They tell us all we need to know about the condition of the queens that came with these packages.  Also keep in mind that in the same beeyard there were very healthy prospering hives that were not having queen issues.

A search of the web has turned up numerous discussions of this problem.  In other words it was common and not specific to my own operation.  There is speculation that a new fungicide being sprayed in the orchards in California led to the problem.  Some blame it on the drought and others simply say that the commercial stock the package bees come from, in addition to being exposed to various chemicals, is getting inbred and weak queens are the result.  Most likely it is a combination of all those factors.

What’s the bottom line here?  By fall, I had lost 6 of the nine packages purchased last spring!  With the exception of one weak split I made late in the season last year, all of my eleven other hives wintered.

So why go over this again?   Recent hive inspections have revealed the loss of yet another package of bees purchased last spring.  Seven of the nine packages have now been lost.  An earlier inspection in January during a two day spell of 70 degree weather revealed a small patch of capped brood in the hive just lost.  However, I could not find the queen, even though I found the queen in every other hive I inspected.  The area of capped brood in the recently lost hive was also smaller than any of the other hives I have.  In hindsight it’s easy to see that this queen was already gone.  She had begun to lay and then expired.

With spring coming and a lot of folks out there looking to order bees, I feel its important to pass this information along.  You need to know that it’s going to be very risky business spending your money on bee packages coming out of California.  Nothing has changed since last year.  All the issues that are combining to create the poor quality queens remain.  The company I bought from is GloryBee in Eugene Oregon.  I’ve done a lot of business with them over the years, but they didn’t seem to care about that when I contacted them.  I would suggest, based on my experience, that you do business somewhere else if you can.

So unless you like throwing your money away and wasting a season of beekeeping, I would suggest you avoid buying bee packages that come from California unless you specifically know the supplier and can be assured of a quality product.  Sorry, but that’s what the facts are telling us.  Your alternative is to purchase bees from a local source.  Get to know the beekeeper and learn about his/her practices.  And if you already have bees then learn to make splits.  We will be covering splits later this spring as I continue with a season of beekeeping in this space.

For now, make sure your equipment is in order and ready for the busy spring season.  Then take the time on a nice calm day to sit in your beeyard and enjoy your bees.  Watch the activity in the front of the hive.  See what pollen is being brought in and if you can identify the source.  In my neck of the woods the pussywillow is beginning to open and it will soon be followed by aspen and poplar.  If you have beehives as full of bees as mine, you will soon need to create more room in the hive to prevent them from swarming.  More on that later.  Take care all.

Honey For Sale

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Every year I get requests for my honey long after I am sold out. Honey is generally harvested in August and I always have a waiting list of customers so it goes fast.

This year I am expanding my hives again, so if you are local to the Central Oregon area and want some of my all natural honey, then its time to think about how much you might want.

Yeah I know, it seems early, but there is a demand for honey that is chemical free. Let me explain. I don’t use commercial “miticides” in my hives. What’s a miticide? A miticide is basically an insecticide. It is used to kill the mites which can destroy beehives. Miticides leave a chemical residue behind in the wax and the honey. Levels vary, but do you really want an insecticide in your honey?

I can do this because I am a small producer and can take the time required to manage my hives without these chemicals. It is simply too labor intensive for a large commercial operator to manage his/her hives without using these chemicals.

Also, keep in mind that some of the brands of honey you are most familiar with at the grocery store are cut with corn syrup. Thats right and if you don’t want to believe that just go do a little research on the web. Its there.

So, if you are in the Central Oregon area ( I know there are many of you out there following my season of beekeeping blog) and you want some of this seasons honey, start thinking about how much you want. It always sells out fast. You can contact me at whalersman@gmail.com

Spring is just around the corner and the bees will be making your honey real soon. Think about that the next time you go to spray a dandelion. Dandelions are a favorite bee food, so if you have to spray, kick the flower off the plant first, then spray. That will keep most of the bees from coming into contact with your spray. Thank you.