Bedding Down for the Winter

The rain returns tomorrow, and even though we’ve had amazing weather since February, it is Oregon and we can’t escape it forever. So, it’s time to get the girls ready for winter.

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That means my hives need to have any empty bars/frames removed and all the brood and honey concentrated toward the center so the bees can get to it without expending too much energy. This hive started with five boxes…and here is what it looks like taken apart.

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We did have a few surprises–this guy was keeping warm and dry under one hive’s cover.

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And this gal had set up shop in the other. That piece of wood is 3″ tall, by the way. She was huge!

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Frame with lots of capped honey.

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Frame with brood.

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Queenie with her girls and babies (larvae in the cells).

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I also added a quilt box to this hive. This shallow top box has holes around it to help ventilate the hive. I filled it with some burlap and bark chips to absorb any moisture from the hive during the winter. If the moisture can’t either be absorbed or vent out, it can condense and “rain” ice water back down on the bees–an unsurvivable situation.

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We’re back to just three boxes (a smaller space also means less for the bees to heat) and ready for winter!

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Double or Nothin’

About an hour after I collected yesterday’s swarm it was back up on the fence. *sigh*  I think when I dumped the bucket into the hive, the queen had a chance to get out and everyone followed.    So, I donned my gear again and swept those bugs with the bee brush four or five times.  While a swarm of bees is typically very docile, by this point they were really upset with me and that darn bee brush.  I figured if I didn’t have the queen I wasn’t going to get her.  A nice sting to the wrist sealed the deal.  I was done.  Bees or no bees.

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I was so fed up with the bees by the afternoon that I didn’t even want to look at them. Fortunately, my youngest son played bee-spy for me and peeked through the neighbor’s fence on his way to the mailbox.  He came running back in the house to announce that there weren’t bees on the fence anymore because they were all in the box. Whew!

After it started to get dark, my husband helped me carry the hive back over to our yard. He doesn’t have his own set of protective gear and he still carried that hive like a champ.  I love that guy!

This morning the bees are busy setting up their new digs.

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Swarm season

So, lately, I have been anxiously staring into trees as I drive hoping to see a swarm of bees.  Not that I really need one.  I made a split on April 2 because my main hive looked so incredibly crowded I was worried about swarming (heh) even though I didn’t see any swarm cells.

Today was my day to check on the split.  I had read that any closed queen cells on day 7 should be destroyed because they were potentially weak queens who might kill the later, stronger ones.  I went out to take a peek and saw a lot of activity around my main hive.  Then I noticed that there were a number of bees lined up on top of the fence.  Are they looking for a water source, I wondered?  They were right above the, admittedly filthy, birdbath, so that couldn’t be it.  Oh, wait……I grabbed the nearest mirror, held it over the fence and saw this:

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A swarm.  In my neighbor’s yard….I knocked but nobody was home, so I’ll be leaving a nice note about how my bees swarmed and it’s really a good thing, honest, and I let myself into your backyard and that’s why there’s a box of bees back there and I’ll come get it later tonight and, oh, yes, here’s a nice jar of honey. *sigh*

I grabbed the nearest bucket and a strainer net to cover the top.  My bee brush managed to scoop most of the gals off the fence.  I just had to hope the queen was with them.  Covered the bucket mostly with the net and back to the house to find a proper box.

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And, of course, this is the point at which I realize that my gear really isn’t ready.  I planned to keep the split in my other top bar hive and house any swarm in a foundationless Langsgtroth.  I have the boxes built & painted but only about 15 frames made and none of them painted with wax to make it smell all nice & homey.  It also gives them a guide to build straight comb.  So, now I’m throwing together some beeswax in a double-boiler, and lugging the hive into the kitchen.  Worst part of Langstroths is they’re so cumbersome.

Wax done, I head back out to the yard only to find a bunch of really confused bees.  Apparently I did catch the queen because all the bees left on the fence headed straight for the bucket.  Enough to collapse the nice netting I left over it.  They can smell her, but can’t touch her.

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I manage to carefully extricate the net (oh, yeah, just imagine sticking your hand into a bucket of bees) and dump them into the nice new beehive.  Let’s hope the queen made the second transfer okay and they all happily join her. I’ll let you know tonight.

IMG_4604I did check on the split, finally, and saw one closed queen cell.  But, man, I just can’t bring myself to squish it.  Bleeding heart for the bees, you know.  I am going to email my mentor, though, and see what she thinks.  Didn’t open the main hive as they’re super active in the sunshine at the moment–and if it is the hive that threw the swarm, they’re probably not up for company right now, anyway.

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Catching Up

It’s been a looong time since I updated, so sit back and get comfy.  The swarm from last spring settled in just fine and did great over the summer.  They stored a lot of honey, so I didn’t interfere much and just let them do their thing.

My youngest son (7) got his first sting (to the nose, ouch!) in August while I had the hive open.  He wasn’t even that close, but got nailed by a determined gal.  He didn’t have much of a reaction, though, so I’m hoping that’s good news for the future. Also in August, I did a round of honey harvesting with my Oregon Master Beekeeper mentor.  Got to work with Langstroth frames, an uncapping knife, and honey extractor which was fun.  Also got stung which was not so fun.

We have had a ridiculously early spring in Oregon this year.  While the rest of the country has received record snowfalls, we had the warmest winter on record (avg. 45 degrees).  The bees were out for a cleansing flight as early as January 24th and we have seen a lot of them since then.

Back on February 22, it was so warm that I was out in the garden cleaning up when I noticed that there was something dripping down the legs of the hive…..drippyhive

Uh, oh.  Honey?  Why would there be honey loose in the hive?  Broken comb?  What would cause that?  Fortunately, it was warm enough for the bees that I could open the hive and have a look.

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The back half of the hive was pretty wet on the floor….the front half where most of the bees were was dry, so at least there’s some ventilation at work up there.  I took out the second set of entrance corks in hopes of drying the hive out a little.  As I pulled the top bars, I realized that there wasn’t any breakage.  They had plenty of honey.  But the bottom of the combs were drippy–where the bees have been collecting nectar from so many early-blooming plants thanks to our spring-like weather! Plus, I found some reddish honey/nectar which looks garish, but I assume it’s just from someone’s hummingbird feeder nearby.  Not sure why the nectar is running out everywhere and not staying put, but the bees seem to be doing great, so I decided to just close them back up.

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Yesterday, March 6, I pulled 4 combs of honey which was about half of what they have left. I’m starting to get worried that our great weather is going to cause early swarming, so I wanted to give the bees some more room but didn’t want to leave them without any honey at all in case we get a weird cold snap (it’s still March, after all, and I’d hate to jinx the sunshine).  I got a little over a liter of honey from the combs which is a nice treat for so early in the year!  I’ll pull the remainder in early April.

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Productive queen?

The bees were very active a few days ago, probably because it was so hot, but things have slowed down recently.  So much so that I figured I should check on them sooner rather than later.
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The bees were very mellow and gentle this morning and the queen wasn’t too hard to find.  Looking big & beautiful–but I definitely wasn’t finding the brood I thought she should have been laying, particularly since she had lots of open comb to use.  It looks like she has only been laying in the new comb they’ve built and none of the old stuff I gave up my freezer to overwinter…..  It has been a week and I would guess I only saw 30-40 larvae.  Nothing capped, yet, but maybe by Monday (larvae are capped on day 9)  Weird.  With a swarm I’d expect a lot more,  but maybe not if she’s only laying in the newly built comb.  Hopefully she’ll expand her horizons, soon.

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I also found a lot of detritus in the bottom of the hive where the workers have been cleaning up the old comb.  It looks great and they certainly took care of the spots of mold from the last colony.

Here’s hoping that they’re all strong and healthy and just taking their time moving in.

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The Bees Return

It is wonderful to have bees back in the yard again!  It’s comforting (to me, anyway) to watch them flying around and to hear their distinctive hum.  In fact, it only took me two days before I started hearing “phantom bees” in the house.  I don’t know if other beekeepers get this, but bees tend to have a certain pitch to their hum that really sticks in my ears.  Even after I’ve come in from the yard, I’ll often hear a bee that’s not really there buzzing around the house.

Monday night my friend saw a picture of a swarm of bees in her Facebook feed.  She immediately thought of me (aw, thanks!) and put me in contact with her friend.  Tuesday morning the bees were still there and things were a go.  The bees were reported to be 10-15 feet in a tree, but right over the sidewalk, so I tossed my 8 foot ladder in the truck and hoped it would be enough.  If there’s one thing you don’t want to do it’s falling off a ladder while stretching on tiptoe to grab a bunch of stinging insects.
6B4A7242smallThe kind woman showed me where the bees had landed in a neighbor’s yard.  Yep, they were right over the sidewalk.  Awesome.  But they were 15 feet up if they were an inch.  Not as awesome.  Hmmm….8 feet of ladder plus 5’4″ of beekeeper=not 15 feet.  I really didn’t know if I was going to be able to do this.  I had a quick conversation in my head that if I let myself do this I had to promise not to do anything stupid and stop if I felt like I couldn’t do it safely. My mom would approve.

After scoping it out from the base of the tree, I put on my protective jacket and climbed the ladder for a better look.  There was going to be no way to hold the box and shake the bees down at the same time.  They were too high and the box is too heavy having been made from 1″ cedar (note to self, build a lighter nuc box).  And then I saw the perfect “V” in the branches below the cluster of bees…. If I could set the box on the branches, I could use one hand to stabilize the box (or myself) while shaking the branch.  The tree was a bit too bendy to support the box on its own, but I had two bungee cords in the truck that I used to secure the handles to the tree.  We were in business!photo (24)
After securing the box, I had to stand on the highest step of the ladder (not the very top landing, that would be insane) to be able to reach the bees and see what I was doing.  I wasn’t keen on shaking them down over my head!  In a swarm clump, the bees are mostly just all hanging on to each other, so if you give the branch a hard, quick downward shake they usually all just plop off in a big ball.  In this evergreen tree, they did have lots of needles to hang on to, so it was a little harder to get them to let go.  I shook hard twice and waited.  There were a bunch still on the branch and I couldn’t tell if I had gotten the queen or not, so I shook one more time and then decided I was pressing my luck and should get down.  I placed all but one top bar on the nuc to mostly close off the top and left to go get a cup of coffee.
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Yes, I attempted that without coffee.  Usually, I don’t even attempt to get the kids on the school bus without coffee, but the adrenaline of capturing 6000+ stinging insects was able to tide me over.  And why just stop and take a break?  Well, if the queen is still in the tree, the bees won’t stay in the box; they’ll fly back up to the branch where she is.  So, if I check back in about an hour and the bees are still in the tree I can try to shake them down again. Fortunately, I went back and all the bees were in the box.  Success!  Now I just leave them until the sun starts to go down and let any foragers return to find all their sisters happily living in the box.photo (22)
I returned around 8pm, brought the box down, put the lid on and strapped it into the front seat of the truck (they don’t love vibrations, so I felt this was a better option than the truck bed).  The drive home was a little nervewracking.  I have never been so focused on what might happen if  I get into a car accident…..photo (23)
We all made it home safely and I put the nuc in the backyard until today when I dumped them into my full-size top bar hive.  There were already a few girls who had discovered it yesterday as it has old honeycomb in it and I’m sure smells and tastes like home if you’re a bee. Finding themselves in the hive was probably like moving into a fully furnished house with a stocked refrigerator!

I won’t peek in on them for a few days while they get settled.  I will also have time to get better pictures at that point and hopefully one of the queen.

Whew!  Free bees! Happy Spring.

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Minding My Own Beeswax

One thing that top bar hives excel at is providing the beekeeper with beeswax.

In Langstroth hives, the honey can be spun out of the combs with a centrifuge and the empty comb placed back in the hive.  With top bar hives, you use the simple “crush & strain” method.  You cut the comb off the top bar, mash it up (potato mashers work great) and then strain the resulting honey/wax mush with a fine cloth or strainer.

Here’s the comb. Mash it up!

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You know the saying, “Slow as molasses in January”? I think honey in February gives it a run for its money. Part of the issue was that this comb had been stored in the fridge for awhile, so it was very cold. In fact, after I mashed things up, I decided to place it by the fire to warm up a bit and get things flowing. That’s a two-gallon container with a strainer cloth over the top and the lid to hold things in place; honey-filled wax is heavy.

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Watching the honey drip is, apparently, grand fun for my kids. Like watching grass grow, I’d imagine. But a lot prettier.

After the honey drains overnight–what’s left? A cantaloupe-sized ball of wax that’s ready to be melted down. And that’s what I’ve been doing this morning. photo 5 Unlike honey, the wax has lots of leftover comb and bee parts in it, so you have to melt and strain it a number of times. Once it’s melted, you let it cool and the wax floats to the top (there’s still all the gunk underneath).
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But then you scrape off the gunk, remelt the wax and strain it through a screen or some layers of cheesecloth–or both! Pour into molds, let cool again, and pop out pretty blocks of beeswax!photo 2 It’s a bunch of work for a couple of ounces of wax–this is about 10 oz.. I’d buy wax if I were going to make something that uses a lot–like candles–but I love using my own natural, untreated/unmedicated wax for making things like creams and salves!

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