The Longest Day

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Did you know that big beautiful queen you have working away in your hive has already begun to taper off her laying?  That’s right.  After the summer solstice, June 21st, the days begin to shorten, and though its gradual at first, your queen is beginning to reduce the rate at which she lays.  The length of the day governs her rate of laying.  It wont be noticeable for some time to come as the eggs she has been laying at a peak rate will not produce their young for weeks to come.

It wont be noticeable right away, because in August your hive will brim to overflowing with bees and on those hot days you will see a lot of them hanging out on the front porch of the hive.  (Or as a crusty old timer friend of mine says, “they just like a bunch of teenagers sitting around on the front porch smoking dope”.)  I love the humor but normally what they are doing is fanning the hive to help keep it cool.

Queens born AFTER the summer solstice will lay eggs at a high rate, just like a spring queen gearing up for summer, because they have not experienced the summer solstice.  Their egg laying rate will exceed that of a queen who lives through the summer solstice for about five to six weeks before it begins to taper off in preparation for winter.

This is a great time to split hives if you want replacement nucs or nucs to sell next spring.  Do a split today, June 28, and you will have a laying queen in the hive approximately 30 days from now, or about the 28 of July.  Just enough time for her to produce enough young to lay in the stores they need (you made need to feed just a little) and produce a large enough population to see the hive through the winter.  I did it last year on July 1 and every nuc (five of them) not only wintered, but exploded in growth this last spring when that young queen began laying at her full potential.

The longest day has already come and gone and believe it or not, just about the time you are kicking back in the shade with a cold lemonade or adult beverage on that hot summer day, your queen is thinking along the same lines and reducing her egg laying.  But don’t let that deter you from making some splits right now, splits that will serve you exceedingly well come this next spring.

May the honey soon flow and may it bee ever so sweet!

Cheers!

Help Your Bees Beat the Summer Heat

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Today’s temp. will near 100 degrees.  Now I know for a lot of you that may not be a big deal as you’ve probably already seen temps like that this year, but in Central Oregon this is our first real wave of hot weather this year.  So here’s a little trick to help your bees deal with the heat.

Naturally you always want to have a good source of water nearby.  The next thing you can do is to push back the top box on your hives to create a top entrance for the bees.  This helps air flow through the hives and improves ventilation.  That means more bees working to store honey and fewer bees working to cool the hive.

Secondly, a top entrance makes it easier for the bees to access the upper boxes.  By this time of year the lower boxes are filling with brood and when the field bees come into the bottom of the hive they must struggle against a hive full of bees to get to the top boxes.  Often times they will store the pollen and nectar they carry in the brood nest at the bottom of the hive and force the queen to move further up into the hive as she runs out of room to lay her eggs in the brood nest.

Consequently a lot of people put on queen excluders to keep the brood our of their honey boxes.  I’ve never used queen excluders and have found no need to do so as long as I open up the top of the hive like you see in the pictures.

So do your bees a favor and give them a little air conditioning.  It’s easier on the bees and they will reward you with beautiful clear honey.

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.