Thursday, June 4, 2009

Hive move and queen check

I accidentally put the inner cover on backwards, so the hole in it was facing the wrong way. The bees were entering through the front entrance and also through this hole in the back of the hive, but they heavily preferred the hole for some reason. They were pretty confused and still trying to get in through the back when I turned the cover around. And to disorient them further, we moved the hive to it's permanent place. The day of the installation I was too lazy to move it, then the next day there was a big storm. Finally on the third day we moved it (be sure to seal up the hive good with duct tape when relocating so angry bees can't come out and sting), leaving a cloud of bewildered bees in the old spot. They were there for at least four days and gradually started disappearing. I read that lost bees will just go to the closest hive. It was probably mine though, because we only moved it about 50 paces away. 

It's recommended to check and make sure the queen has been released from her cage a few days after hiving a package. Four days afterward, I got the cage out and saw the queen still milling around in there, and now a couple of bees were in there with her. They had eaten away a huge hole in the candy, but still not big enough for the queen. You're supposed to poke a hole in there if the bees are slow to eat it away, but I figured they just needed a little more time so I put the cage right back where it was.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hiving videos

Hiving the package bees

I should have written this post a while ago. It's been a little more than 2 weeks since I hived the bees. Here's how it went.

Awoken by my phone ringing around 7 A.M., I picked it up to find that my bees had arrived at the post office and they were ready for pick-up. They had spent a couple of days extra in shipping and we were afraid they wouldn't be doing so well, but they were fine. The floor of the cage was dotted with bee corpses, but that is to be expected; there weren't a significant amount of dead bees. I don't know why but when bees are in a container they always climb up and hang from the top and from each other. I had brought a spray bottle of sugar water to the post office and gave them a sticky coat to eat while they waited to be installed. I did that because I figured they had eaten all the syrup out of the feeder can in the package, but when I took it out it was still half full. Also spraying the bees with sugar water keeps them from flying so much since they'll get drops of it on their wings. 

Once home with the package, I fired up the smoker and took the package and the hive parts to a temporary spot in the back, close to the place I had cleared for my hives. We have tons of cedar shingles from recent roof reparations, so I just make a small fire with some of those, dump it in the smoker and put sawdust on top to make a lot of smoke. I puffed the package a few times on each side with the smoker to engentle the bees, then I pried off the slat on top and took the feeder can and queen cage out. Some say to leave out a frame or two when you dump the bees in the hive body, but I forgot about that and just dumped them on top of all ten frames. You would think you're supposed to be more careful with a box full of bees, but it was as simple as shaking the whole three pounds of them out of the package and into the hive body. After that I pried off the thin slats holding the screen on and shook out the remaining bees. They were in a big mound on the frames, so I spread them out more evenly with my (gloved) hand to make them go down into the frames faster.

As for the queen, she was running around in her cage with quite a few bees clinging to it, trying to get her out. Or taking care of whatever needs she has while in a cage. The queen cage in a package of bees is plugged up with a candy and a piece of cork over that. So what you do when you get the bees is pop that cork off and the bees can eat away the sugar candy to free the queen. Also the queen eats on that while she and the others are in shipping. Dad dug that cork out Swiss Army knife and I then fit the queen cage snugly between two frames. Ah and the queen was marked with a shiny emerald green dot on her back, so she'll stand out from the other bees during hive inspection. You can spot the queen just by her different body shape and size, but for inexperienced beekeepers like myself, a marking helps a lot in that difficult task. 

Anyway, I got the queen cage in there and closed it up. I gave them an inner-cover feed of sugar syrup just like I did with the gangster bees, to give them immediate nourishment to start building comb. It's a good idea to feed a small fledgling colony with sugar syrup for a few weeks to give them a boost. The reason is that they don't yet have many foraging bees to go out and get nectar, so the sugar syrup right on top of their hive lets them get cracking much quicker. However, I want to take a 'natural' approach to apiculture, so I won't feed them sugar syrup or pollen substitutes if it isn't necessary to keep them in good health. Actually there are prominent beekeepers who say feeding them such things for too long weakens their immune systems (like us if we just eat junk food all the time). After supplying them with feed, I closed it up and put in an entrance reducer. We figured we'd leave it in the temporary spot for the time being, until all the bees flying around settled down.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


From the first day I had hived them, I noticed that on the front of the hive body, a good size ball of bees would clump up there, moving around and looking either busy or agitated (I couldn't tell which). I figured they were just trying to climb through a gap under the lid to get to the sugar water faster, without having to crawl through the inside of the hive. So I refilled their sugar water as soon as they emptied it, to keep them happy and busy, in the hope that they'd stay and make some honey.

Things seemed to be going pretty good. At dusk on the third day after capturing them, I went out to fill up their sugar jar again. I took the lid off and got the sugar jar out, but there were surprisingly few bees in there. Also, it seemed incredibly quiet in the hive, so I took the inner cover off to see what was going on. I didn't have any protective gear on, but I knew it was ok; I knew the bees had left even before I removed the inner cover and saw all the bare frames with their white plastic foundation. There were maybe two bees in there, but I think they were wild ones from our property, looking for more sugar water. 

Absconded is what you call it when an entire colony takes off like that. After talking with some people on the internet again, I found out it's not an uncommon thing for newly hived swarms to do. Some said I probably hadn't gotten the queen after all, others said maybe I had gotten her but she decided she didn't like it there and so the bees went with her. Perhaps they were mad that I'd broken their comb... Later I found out that the bees clustering up on the front of the hive is called a 'bee beard' and they do it when they're hot or crowded. So maybe I needed to add another brood box or super to give them more room? Well, they didn't like it there for one reason or another, so they've gone. Good luck to them. I'm not all that disappointed, because I've got my packaged bees all hived up and they're working hard bringing in pollen and draining that sugar jar. You'll hear about all that in the next few posts.

Photo: A souvenir of the swarm bees' time here, which I've got stored away in the freezer.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Swarm check-up

It had been about 3 days from the night of the capture of the swarm. I had been feeding the bees regularly with sugar water and they had started to draw out comb in there. Actually I had forgotten to put the 10th frame in there because I left that space to pour the bees into. When I lifted the inner cover to check on the bees a the day after I hived them, there was a mass of bees milling around on the underside of the inner cover. I turned it upside down to get a better look at what they were doing, and saw they were all covering a ruby-shaped object sticking up in the air. I guess I would've known had I had more experience with bees, but of course upon getting a closer look, I saw that object was some comb they'd recently built. Marvelling at their work, I sat there for a second debating whether to put in the 10th frame or leave them with their comb hanging from the ceiling. I decided to leave it as it was, but as I was turning it back over to replace it in the hive body, the comb broke off and slid down the inner cover and onto the floor. Too bad... Since I broke it off on accident, I robbed them of their comb to show it off to the family, and gave them the 10th frame to work on. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Combining the swarm bees

I could hardly sleep that night because I was so excited about dealing with the bees in the morning. That and my stings were itching a lot. At 6 the alarm rang and I put on my veil, gloves and some improvised sting protection gear (see photos). Using old cedar shingles Dad and I had torn from the roof during the repairs, I started a little fire on the ground then transferred it to the smoker with a shovel. Dad gave me the idea earlier to dump sawdust on top to make it smoke more. So I got a bowl of sawdust from under his table saw and walked on back to where the bees where.

The night before I had been on the internet, researching ways of getting all the bees together. I ended up chatting with some beekeepers on Beemaster's International Beekeeping Forum - . Basically they all just said smoke up the bees, open up the boxes and dump them all into the hive body. Another guy suggested just opening the boxes and hive and leaving them touching overnight, the idea being that the bees would just go into the hive body since it was the best suited for a new home. But I was too afraid of them flying away to try that.

Anyway I went over to the bee area in the back - I guess we can call it the apiary now - and smoked the bees through the holes in the boxes. The funny thing was that only the bees in the hive body and one other cardboard box sounded angry. Another box was naturally quiet since there were only a handful of bees in it. But hardly a buzz came from the third box, which was unusually peaceful compared to the others. I figured the bees in there had the queen with them since they were so quiet and guess what? - When tore the duct tape off the other boxes and the hive body, all the bees flooded en masse into the peaceful box... So I was thinking the queen must've been there. I waited until most of the bees had gone into that box, then held it upside down the hive body and gave it one good downward shake. There were so many bees that they were spilling over the sides like they did yesterday. I scooped them all onto the top as best I could, then put on the inner cover and an empty super over that. As had been suggested to me by the kind folks at BIBF, I put two blocks of wood on either side of the hole in the inner cover and on top of them inverted a pickle jar of sugar water with holes in the lid. The feeder. I forgot to mention I that before putting the bees in the hive body (also called the brood chamber), I sprayed all the plastic foundation with sugar water as well. I was told the bees are likely to set up camp in a place where they find food available. Makes perfect sense. After getting the feeder in there, I put on the lid (or telescoping outer cover, as they say in beekeeping books) and crossed my fingers, hoping the bees would like it there.

Photos from the top: spraying the frames with sugar water (you can see the bees flooding into that one box), dumping the bees, bees dumped, putting on the inner cover, putting on the empty super, beehive all set up. Photo credits to Dad.

Monday, May 18, 2009

First bee encounter - swarm at K's

So the other day was my first activity as an aspiring beekeeper: catching a swarm on the side of my little sister's friend's house. I'd been reading things on beekeeping and a package of bees was coming in the mail in a few days (which has since arrived - more on that later), but had never actually done anything with bees except feed wild ones sugar water. 

But I'd read that swarm capturing was pretty easy. Although they look dangerous, bees who have swarmed are usually docile, because before leaving the hive, they gorge themselves on honey in preparation for the journey they have to make in search of a new hive. Being so full of honey, they are quite relaxed and gentle (think of how you feel after a Thanksgiving meal). Though if they've been there a while, they'll be more aggressive since by then they'll have digested the honey they ate. So swarms are usually docile but you never know if they'll be pissed off for some reason. [By the way, I've only been keeping bees for a few days, so don't be fooled; most of the stuff I've learned from books].

Anyway so Dad and I were pretty excited when Audrey's friend K called about the bees. We went over just to scope out the situation and we saw that big swarm clinging on under the eaves of the roof.

We decided we'd go for it even though we were getting bees in a few days.  So we brought a hive body with 10 frames and a cardboard box for catching the bees in. We planned to catch them in the box and transfer them to the hive body while we were there. Dad had bought me a veil and some gloves for beekeepers, so I took those and we also wore jeans and long sleeves (Dad just wore a T-shirt, which he would regret later). We also brought along some duct tape to seal up the hive once we got the bees in. I figured we didn't need the smoker since I'd read swarms are already gentle and smoking usually isn't necessary. 

When we got there, K's dad was ready with a video camera. I set up the ladder next to wall where the bees were and got up there with the cardboard box. I had my veil and gloves on and just started scraping the bees off the wall and roof into the box. It was pretty cool, just huge gobs of bees plopping into the box and buzzing. I don't know why but they started climbing up the sides of the box (maybe so as not to suffocate each other). I got as many bees as I could and upturned the box over the open hive body (with 8 frames in it), and shook the bees out. They were flooding over the side of the hive body but generally seemed to be making their way down into the box, getting between the frames. I went back up to scrape off more bees and dumped them into the hive too. We waited for a while for the bees to go down into the hive, so I wouldn't squish them when I put the inner cover on. Dad went up to get the last bit, and that's when the bees got agitated (I guess we waited too long?) and they all started flying out of the hive box back up to where they were on the house...

And so we had to do it all over again, except now we were nervous about them flying away. I repeated the process, except this time we pushed all the bees into the hive, put on the inner cover and lid, and sealed it all up with duct tape. There were still plenty of bees in the air and clumped up on the house, so I went up to get more. K's dad had brought out some cardboard boxes for us to store the rest of the bees in. Up the ladder I went and scraped some weighty chunks of bees into the box. They had finally had enough, and I got stung once on the forearm and once on the thigh immediately. I didn't know bees could penetrate jeans... Dad came over to help me tape up the cardboard box and so the bees now went after him. He tried calmly walking away, but ended up having to run into a field across the street. He said later they just kept on stinging him, so he had to run for it. He ended up with about 10 or 15 stings on his hands and arms. At this point, we determined that we probably needed the smoker after all, to get the rest. Dad went to the house and picked it up real quick. I smoked the bees up good. They buzzed and fluttered a lot so I thought I was making them mad again, but then they didn't sting at all when I wiped them off the roof into the next box. We sealed that one and did one more, the last with hardly any bees in it. We loaded the hive body and the three cardboard boxes into the suburban and took them home. 

Out in the back of our house, we've got a wooded area full of mezquite trees, with some retama, huisache and other native trees. Earlier picked out a space for my bees and mowed the tall grass down, then later hoed up the clumps of dead grass and raked it clean. There Dad and I put some groundcloth so the grass couldn't grow up around our beehives. So out there we set the hive and cardboard boxes, still sealed up tight. We made airholes in each and left them there. By that time it was already dark, so we walked back up to the house, done for the day, but wondering how get all the bees together in the morning...