Tag Archives: backyard beekeeping

Winter Prep/Classes

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Are your bees snuggled into their hives with plenty of stores to see them through the winter?  Do you have a healthy queen with a small, but solid brood pattern?  Do you have some weak hives that might not make it through the winter?

These are things you need to be looking for as the winter storms begin to roll in.  Weak hives can be combined to make one strong hive.  You might even add some honey frames that you have saved back, or take them from strong hives that can spare them so other strong hives that need a boost in stores have what they need to get through the winter.

A good wind break is always helpful and some people wrap their hives with tar paper, but if you do, be careful not to close them up so tight they don’t breath and don’t make the mistake of closing up your hives so the bees cant get out for cleansing flights.  As your bees burn through their honey they will produce moisture that condenses on the inside of the hive.  You do not want this dripping down on the bees as it will kill them.  A simple solution is to slide a small piece of wood 3/4 of an inch thick or so (but no larger than an inch think) under the back of the hive so the moisture that collects inside will run to the front and down the front wall of the hive.  Also make sure you have your mouse guards in place.  Mice can quickly make a mess of any hive.

Here are some interesting temperature guidelines for different bee activities.

  • 93-94 brood nest temp for eggs and young bees
  • 68 queen does not fly
  • 61 drones cannot fly
  • 57 the winter cluster forms
  • 50 workers cannot fly
  • 40 bees die if alone

I’ve been busy preparing for the classes I will teach beginning this January.  They will encompass a full season of beekeeping.  For the local folk out there who have been following along, if you are interested in taking these classes please contact me at – whalersman@gmail.com

We will begin with the basics and later move into the more complex.  Classes will be held near one of my bee yards so you can get hands on experience and learn how to do a hive inspection and gain an understand what you are looking at.

Winter Hive Prep.

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Winter’s not here yet, but it is time to think about preparing your hives for winter here in the high desert of Central Oregon.  If you have staggered the hive boxes to help with summer ventilation, such as in the picture above, its time to close them up if you have not already done so.

Most importantly its time for a hive check to see if your bees have enough stores for winter.  Big strong hives will have put away plenty of extra honey making it possible for you to share in the bounty.  BUT WAIT!  Check your other hives first.  If you have made some late season splits or simply have a hive that has not done as well as you would hope, pull some frames of honey from the strong hives and share it with the weaker hives.  That way everyone is set for winter.

If your hives are low on stores and you need to feed, you want to feed a 2 to 1 mixture of sugar and water.  Two parts sugar to one part water.  Takes lots of stirring and hot water!

This is also the time of year the mite populations peak.  Do a mite count and see how your hives are doing.  One way to do a mite count is with a powdered sugar roll.  Collect one cup of bees and add them to a pint jar that is then capped with a screened lid.  Through the screen add a heaping tablespoon of powdered sugar.  Roll the jar to coat the bees and then let the jar sit for one minute.  After a minute, take the jar and shake out the powdered sugar (and mites) into a pan with a very shallow layer of water.  The water will melt the powdered sugar and reveal the mites.  Count your mites.

There is about 300 bees in a cup and you divide your mite count by 3 to get mites per 100 bees – or a percentage.  Anything over 5 percent and you may want to treat.  If you have been following along with my blog you know we don’t use chemical miticides in our hives.  Instead we create brood breaks to control mites and use essential oils.  If you must use a miticide, I suppose the Mite Away Quick Strips (MAQS) would be a choice to make as they are an organic acid that is corrosive, not toxic, thereby killing the mites physically and giving them little chance to build resistance.  Beware though!  A respirator is suggested use when applying this treatment and you would not want to apply the MAQS when temps are expected above 85 or you may harm the queen.  MAQS are effective but they are expensive and somewhat hazardous to apply.

If you prefer a softer, natural approach, use food grade organic essential oils.  Its not a silver bullet and not an immediate kill like the MAQS, but it is organic and will help to control your mites.  To make a concentrate, add 1 teaspoon of Wintergreen oil, 3/4 teaspoon Tea tree oil, a few drops of spearmint and a few drops of lemongrass oil to one cup of water in a blender and run on low for five minutes.  When done add this to a half gallon jar of water.  This is your concentrate.  When you feed this to the bees you add one cup of the concentrate to one gallon of 2 to 1 feed.

If your creating brood breaks during the season and following up with essential oils, you will lose very few hives to mites without using chemicals.

Dog Days of Summer – And Honey Too!

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That’s the Burls!   And Burly Dog thinks its just too stinking hot to be doing much outside.  (over 100 the last couple days)  So I’m writing this little piece instead.

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That there is a beautiful jar of comb honey!  I’m about half way through my honey harvest this year and this comb is cut from a foundationless frame of honey comb.  Using a foundationless frame gives you a deeper comb.

It’s also time for some mite control.  If you’ve been reading this blog for very long you already know that Worker Bee Honey is entirely free of miticides.  (Insecticides used in the bee hive to kill mites – I mean really, who wants an insecticide in their honey?  Those who purchase store bought honey???)  Anyway, the best and most natural way to control mites is to split your hives, thereby eliminating the mites food supply for approximately 30 days and achieving nearly a 100 percent mite kill.  I’ve already done that with most of my hives this year but for those I did not split I am going to feed some essential oils.

I do this twice a year, spring and late summer/fall, but this time of year the yellow jackets are on the prowl and feeding a syrup can encourage robbing.  So I’m going to share with you an essential oil recipe for making patties.  You may wonder about feeding right now.  Well most people do wait until a little later, but think about it.  If you did a mite count right now you are likely going to find a high count in the hives you did not split.  Mites bring disease and sometimes the hive is succumbing to the diseases the  mites bring long before the mites bring down the hive.  No reason to let those little buggers run around in your hive any longer than necessary.  Even though everything used in the essential oil mixture is organic, food grade, I do this after I have harvested the honey I’m going to take from the hive.

After much digging and research on the web I have found patty recipe that delivers approximately the same level of essential oils as the syrup recipe I have been using, with some minor differences.  This recipe makes 20 to 25 patties depending on how large you make each of them.

  • 3 Pounds of cane sugar  (Use cane sugar because beet sugar is from GMO beets in the US)
  • 1 Pound of Shortening (Organic Palm oil works well, but if you don’t have it available use an organic vegetable shortening)
  • Spearmint  5 3/4 teaspoon
  • Thyme  5 3/4 teaspoon
  • Tea Tree  3 3/4 teaspoon
  • Lemon Grass  7.5 teaspoon  (All of these are food grade of course)
  • 3 Tablespoons Honey (from your own hives)
  • 1 Tablespoon of Vinegar
  • 4 Tablespoons of Nozevit  (Produced from certified organic plant material)  It restores the natural PH and elasticity in the bees mid gut and contains probiotics that help bees digestion.)  Helps prevent and control nosema.

Mix the essential oils into the sugar, either by hand or with a hand mixer.  Then add the honey and vinegar.  (white vinegar or organic apple cider)  Vinegar brings the PH of the mixture closer to the ph of honey which makes it easier for the bees to digest.  Then add the Nozevit.  Finally, add the shortening.  Mix until the mixture is smooth and there are no lumps.  There should be just enough shortening to hold the mixture together.

I like to make the patties in the kitchen and lay them out between layers of wax paper, then take however many I need depending on the bee yard I’m going to visit.  Makes 20 to 25 patties depending on how large you make them.  If you don’t want to use syrup this fall, then give this recipe a try.

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That’s a frosty adult beverage.  It probably looks pretty good right now if your hiding out inside the house with the a/c on waiting for cooler temps before you mix up your patties and go to the bee yard.

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!

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.