BEEKEEPING IN THE NORTHEAST - An account of my beekeeping, not a treatise of expertise, but for friends & family who wish to keep bees vicariously through me, and for the occasional apiarist passer-by.

Friday, February 12, 2016

What is a Beehive & Where Do Its Bees Come From?

Story & photos by Athena's Bees

The Bees
Honey bees are purchased from commercial beekeeping companies, other beekeepers, or caught in the wild. Honey bees can also be multiplied by "splitting" an existing hive. Honey Bees are not native to North America so "wild" is a relative term, but they have been growing with the U.S.A. from it's beginnings as a colony itself in the 1600s.
Photo above: My first experience with packages.
5 were purchased, three absconded, one died by fall.
The fourth made it through winter like a champ
and flourished into a second fall
but were killed by yellow jackets as winter set in.

Getting Bees From Commercial Sources: Commercial beekeeping companies sell "packages" of bees sourced from commercial beekeepers employed to travel with their bees around the country for the purpose of pollinating large orchards and farms.

At the end of the pollination season the colonies are shook together and systematically funneled into screened boxes. A queen, bred and mated by a Queen Bee supplier, is affixed to the screened box with the hope the confused honey bees will embrace her as their mother and form a bond as a colony in a common goal to survive. Statistically, with all the modern challenges honey bees are facing today, this is successful about 50% of the time or less. Packages are a cheap, efficient way to acquire bees but the price just in the past six years has gone from around $80 up to about $135.

A beekeeper obtaining bees by the package through the mail or by personal pick up, is willing to accept the risk of failure and will be taking extra steps to insure the bees are treated for diseases and mites acquired from their travels. BUT the risk is not limited to the purchaser. Neighboring beekeepers could be impacted by unhealthy bees brought in from the commercial bee industry. One recently discovered issue is the prevalence of infertile drone populations. A beekeeper working hard to breed northern, disease resistant bees would lose a colony queened by any mating with these drones. A queen is only as good as the drones she mates with. PLEASE DO BUY BEES RESPONSIBLY.

Always try to insure: 
1. Honey bees in the screened packages are showing some solidarity by clinging to each other and the queen before you leave the pick up place with them. 
2. You know where the queen is from. This will determine the resulting type of bees you will keep.
3. Bees are released into the prepared hive over drawn comb with a supply of feed or that you are prepared to feed the bees a sugar-syrup mix in the hope the bees will be stimulated into drawing out their own comb on new foundation. The Queen needs cells to lay in. The bees need cells to store pollen & nectar in.
4. Normally, no products will be harvested from the package bee colony the first year.

Getting Bees From Other Beekeepers: Obtaining honey bees from other beekeepers that raise bees in the same climate as the buyer is the preferred method for obtaining bees with the greatest chance for success. These honey bees are "split" off from a strong hive through the removal of two frames of brood and two frames of honey and pollen. A queen is either raised by the bees themselves from among the brood of the split or supplied by a Queen Breeder. Honey bees sold in this manner are referred to as "Nucs" or Nucleus colonies. Nucleus colonies run about $180 to over $200 each.

Always ask two vital questions:
1. Did the nucleus colony over-winter or was it made up in the spring?
2. Where is the queen from?
Did she over-winter with the colony or is she new? If you live in the north, make sure the queen is from a northern breeder. Often, nucleus colonies are just a package of bees put into a box with drawn comb by the seller in order to make the higher price in exchange for this service; but always ask.

Getting Honey Bees In The Wild: A colony that has escaped into the "wild" - housing itself in a tree or other natural cavity is called "feral". A feral colony should be left alone as they are now being considered the last hope of the honey bee species. Extraction of bees from an established feral location has a high percentage of queen loss. The bees are only as valuable as their queen.
Swarms: A "swarm" of bees that escape a beekeeper or that house themselves in a building etc, can be retrieved and put into a hive. Some beekeeping clubs and state beekeeping organizations have a "swarm hotline" in the hope that anyone witnessing a swarm of bees will call for its removal. These are "free bees" to the skilled beekeeper and there is much written on methods for "catching" a swarm. The colony may be easily housed into a suitable hive and most swarms prove to be very productive.

The Hive:
A beehive is the domicile where a beekeeper keeps their bees. A beehive may also refer to a hollow in the tree where a wild honey bee colony has established a home.
A honey bee colony, on the other hand, is a super-organism made up of a queen and her children. It helps when discussing all things "bee" to use the proper terms and not confuse "hive" or house with "colony" or the family that lives in the house.

Beekeepers want the colony to survive and produce hive products like honey, bee pollen and wax. The hive must be well planned with the climate and environmental challenges the bees will be facing kept in mind for this effort to be successful. There are a variety of styles of beehives unique to different countries that work especially well for their varied climates.
The traditional Skep hive used anciently is no longer appropriate as harvesting products from it require the demise of the colony. (See a great YouTube of an old skep operation here)

In the warm climate of Africa, for instance, the basic Log Hive is giving way to the more modern manageable Top Bar Hive. In cold and damp environments like England the WBC double walled hive is popular.

The standard in the U.S.A. is referred to as a Langstroth Hive. The design is a modern invention that allows a beekeeper to manage a colony of bees with the least amount of disruption to their survival routines. It consists of a brood box and expansion boxes called "supers". All the boxes contain removable frames where the bees accommodate the management of their colony by using the frames to build their comb, raise their young, and store their pollen & honey. The construction of a Langstroth Hive takes into consideration something called "bee space" or a margin of space between combs and between combs and the hive walls that bees maintain naturally in order to maximize colony efficiency. Materials used in the construction of a hive also must be non-toxic to insure success.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Royal Nursery

Ah... a sunny day in winter...
Wonder what the bees are up to?
Here in the Northeast we get used to 20F & 30F degree daytime temps in winter and when it warms up to 50 we think it's an opportunity to inspect the hives; but remember: most breeds of bees are too chilled to fly until temps reach 57F! Some will venture out on a void flight at 47F, but if there is brood to keep warm, you often won't see them flying even on a warm up day.

A few vital bits of knowledge to have in late winter-early spring:
  • Her Majesty usually resumes laying in February.
  • "Check on your hives"? When checking on your hives in winter-early spring, no matter how mild it is here in the Northeast, you NEVER break down the hive as you would in a normal inspection.
  • You NEVER unwrap the hive before days are consistently warm or above 50F in the spring. If you didn't wrap this season, don't break apart the propolis the bees have painstakingly put into place to seal off drafts and cold. The cold renders the propolis too hard to go back together.
  • Despite climate change, Spring still begins on March 20th. In the Northeast, that often happens sometime in May.
  • You DO NOT need to know if your bees are dead or alive. What possible good could you accomplish breaking up the hive to take a look, especially if they are alive?
  • You DO need to know whether or not your emergency feeding set up is working AND KEEP TABS ON IT.
  • Don't despair if you wish you had read this before you opened your hive. Every bee is willing to give its life for the perpetuation of its species. They really are. They have accommodated humans for thousands of years, teaching the beekeeper during a time in earth's history when other species of insects are becoming extinct at alarming rates. Thanks to their partnership with the beekeeper they have insured their survival and have become distributed throughout the globe as a reward for their sacrifices. You'll get it down. They have faith in you.   (see Nation Geographic Article on Insect Species)
Hopefully your bees aren't dead, just minding the nursery.... you don't need to know yet, just error on the side of them making it and make sure food is on top in case they need it. 

It's tough waiting out the winter. Last year my bees were confined for almost six & a half months and only had about five and a half months of foraging to prepare for that... but, there they were in the spring! Most springs I have found at least one colony dead and in no case did it ever help to know that before it was consistently warm enough during the day to unwrap the hive. Relax, read your books and bee journals. You are engaged in a worthy hobby. Confidence and skill will come, most assuredly, with failure more often than with success. Don't give up.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Dead Outs

Just a note here, as I'm getting several messages from local beekeepers during our current warm up... that their bees are dead.

Always error on the side of a miracle.

Every once in awhile some respected mentor of beekeepers will confess to something terribly stupid they once did. They usually don't confess until years later.... but eventually they realize we all screw up and it helps if you know someone more experienced than yourself has made mistakes in beekeeping. So here's my confession:

Beautiful, northern bees... I mean these bees were spectacular looking, grey, buckfast mix, northern hearty, disease resistant bees. I opened the hive on a warm day in March and to my horror, they were dead... but no, they weren't. They were just being smart...conserving energy... however, by investigating what I thought was a dead-out I ... well... I... actually killed them. Of course this happened years ago. I'm much smarter now... or at least I hope I am.

So... learn from the mistakes of others more experienced than yourself. It was the breeder of these bees that clued me in and I've never forgiven myself... my mind goes back to that day every time I open a hive in spring. Error on the side of a miracle. Leave your hives intact. Provide backup food stores... and if you haven't by now established a good emergency feeding option for your hives, improvise.