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.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Honoring the Wildness - Swarming

Swarming never gets boring. Such a thrill to witness this remarkably well-choreographed event. I could feel it happening Sunday morning at 11:30 am. Something in my being picked up on a need to run to the window and there they went... off into the sky to land in a grand old ash tree settling precariously, it seemed, on a branch just high enough out of reach for them to wave "Goodbye!"

I knew I had failed to take seriously this robust over-wintered nuc. I was busy working with moving and splitting an over-wintered colony hoping if I piled enough boxes on the nuc all would be well. Now I realized I gave them too much drawn comb. Maybe more foundation frames? We've been relocating onto a recently purchased property where I hoped to contain and control any antics my bees may throw our way, but we were exhausted with all that began to entail. Now this.

Okay, girls, I thought, "Goodby & Goodluck!" Maybe they would be out there in the woods someday as proven survivors, mating with my colonies of the future.

My husband said, "This is a call to action!" He so wanted to have the experience of "catching" a swarm and broke open the hive box storage shed, setting up mock hives all over the property. A ladder appeared. I reluctantly filled in the gaps in his knowledge of honey bee biology recalling tidbits as I could from "Honey Bee Democracy" which resulted in his placing one hive box high off the ground on top of our storage barn.

This land has been an exciting surprise this spring with successional tree and wildflower blooms into one humid, hot, dry summer. My colonies have been so occupied and content despite New Hampshire moving toward a moderate drought situation for most of June, but rain was on its way!

My nuc apparently did not pick up on a weather forecast of several days of thunderstorms moving our way. She spent two full rainy, windy nights in that grand old ash tree.

I spent the 48 hours keeping vigil, sleeplessly imagining climbing on our metal ladder in these summer thunderstorms, the only ladder with a chance of reaching them, pulling the van up under the branches, bravely rescuing my drowning darlings; but deep inside, I really want my colonies to finish what they start and plan for. If I miss my chance to manage their need to swarm, it's on me.

Yes, those bees put a lot of planning into this event. Scouts were out in rain and wind investigating all their family's options for travel to a safe haven, with just the right volume - they pace it out! - and just the right height off the ground - just the right opening - just the right smells. If you haven't read Seeley's "Honey Bee Democracy" this may seem crazy, but knowing all that goes into it I so wanted them to be successful for all their work and sacrifices to leave behind the cozy protection and resources of the parent hive.

Tuesday, 11 am with shower after shower passing through, I couldn't contain my anxiety and decided if they did not swarm out of that tree by 11:30, by ladder or by van I was getting them down! I went out to watch and it seemed they were suddenly all alive! There was waving, there was flying, there were dances! Dances all moving in the same direction! And then, at 11:16 thunder rolled, wind blew... but we had lift off!

I ducked as they flew overhead and followed them with the only camera that worked in the house, my smartphone. It was... surreal... just amazing... beyond amazing. I was certain they headed for the woods across the street... but WAIT! The hive on top of the barn came into view. They hovered... they settled... they were home!

This is the way I want to "catch" every swarm, but understanding the needs of a colony is so important for the beekeeper. Prevention and Control are principles I teach but sometimes we just can't do it all. When we can't we can usually trust the girls to know what to do. They've been doing it for millions of years, after all. My hope is that since they took two days to decide on this location, they'll stay. Once they have brood happening, maybe in five to seven days, I'll move them to the apiary.

Understanding their biology in such situations I believe is the key to honoring their wildness and it sure worked for us this time. Here is a link to Paul Kelly at Guelph University explaining some important principles of managing swarm behavior in honey bees.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Pitfalls of Ordering Hives Online and Buying Kits

Updated 11-03-2021 - Most beginner beekeepers feel over-whelmed and are grateful for the option of ordering a kit online. Most folks running beekeeping retail operations selling these kits are beekeepers themselves and hope for your success, so these kits are pretty much well thought out; however, if you do not have the wonderful advantage of a beekeeping club's Bee School and mentor program to guide you in your desire to start beekeeping, listen up.

In our New Hampshire climate, there are important considerations. Florida and Arizona beekeepers look at us sideways when we tell them our bees are confined to their hives for as much as 6 months of winter weather. This is not the norm for the rest of the U.S. and most hive kit producers, especially the one-box hardware store mass-marketed kit makers, are in the dark about such beekeeping challenges. 

Cost: Beekeeping is in no way a cheap hobby, but I've seen displays at hardware stores with mass-marketed kits for way more dollars than the informed beekeeper would need to pay. One box of plastic frames "ready to go" for $175 will not get you through a season. Some promise a lead on bees only to have you call the number to find yourself in a one-year queue.

Plan on about $250 for enough supers (boxes) with all the thoughtful extras like a weighted telescoping cover, notched inner cover, frame assembly kits with beeswax foundation, slatted rack, screened bottom board with a back to stop drafts, appropriate beespace (see below). The bees themselves run about $150 to $200 depending on your choices in bees and availability.

Plastic frames, for instance, might be fine in the short run, but I personally would not want my bees dependent on them through a long winter's confinement period. Honey bees communicate through their beautiful beeswax hexagons; vibrations, smells, and sounds are important. Studies done in southern or mid-western climates may indicate no difference between plastic and beeswax, but I want my girls to have every advantage possible when over-wintering.

New Hampshire shares few of its growth hardiness zones with other states and bees eat what grows in those hardiness zones in a very short season in this neck of the woods. This is another consideration with several supers being necessary to hold the honey and pollen stores they will need during confinement. Sugar, as well as pollen substitute, are not long term solutions to the nutritional needs of your over-wintering colony but sometimes you do not have a choice of sharing honey from a hive that can spare it. Sugar or sugar fondant will actually sustain them in addition to what they have processed and capped.

Here are other things I've had to consider that have helped me keep bees successfully in New Hampshire's unique climate:
  • Langstroth concept or vertical design. Bees can move up through frames toward honey. Horizontal hives are doable and convenient for the beekeeper, although more hands-on; but clusters in winter do not naturally reach horizontally for food stores. Horizontal hive require attention to moving frames with honey to the bees over the season if the cluster has not been able to reach them.
  • 8 Frame-wide Hives are my choice so colonies can follow the heat of the cluster up in winter without bypassing their honey stores. 10 Frames have been used up here since the beginning of beekeeping-time; but colonies are reportedly smaller going into winter these days. Any experienced beekeeper can keep bees in any kind of hive as honey bees are very accommodating, but my goal is to make things as uncompromising as is natural for the colony being asked to wait out our winters indoors.
  • Moisture-wicking winter set up
  • Brood box protection using a slatted rack as a brood buffer for traffic coming and going as well as providing a hangout for foragers during rain or cold weather.
  • Bee space planned into a hive design varies with manufacturers. Once you invest a substantial amount into hive equipment you should make sure any additional equipment you buy fits with what you have. A common error I see on hive inspections among my shop customers is a brood box with beespace built into both the top and the bottom of the box; when stacked to make up a two-brood box set up, as some breeders of northern bees recommend, the beespace doubles and burr comb complications are the result.
  • Hive width: Ten frame hives have dominated the market because commercial beekeepers can conveniently keep syrup feeders in them on the road to pollination sites. Backyard beekeepers normally do not leave a feeder in the hive all season long. The newer 8 frame designs were made wider than beespace so these feeders could be used with them as well. As a result, backyard beekeepers find 8 frame hives "wonky" or too wide for the frames, but again, bees are very accommodating and will make it work with deeper combs, but is that good for them when held up for winter?
  • John of Hampshire Hives makes hives to accommodate proper beespace for the frames we use built next door in Maine at Humble Abodes. 8 frame hives offered online are usually 13.75 or 14 inches wide. Keep this in mind. The choice is somewhat of a commitment to proper beespace. Bying a supplemental super for a commercial 8 frame from one manufacturer could end up slightly wider than one you purchased elsewhere. John makes the hives with sustainably harvested New Hampshire pine.
  • Painting Your Hive - click here to learn about that important step.
What else? Attend bee school as soon as it becomes possible during our current COVID situation; and attend club meetings, online or when they start up again, to help you with your equipment choices. Beekeepers keeping bees in our climate or a similar climate can be found online, if no local school is available. As I write this the COVID-19 virus is responsible for this winter's in-person Bee School cancellations but most of us are learning to teach and learn online. I can't stress enough how much trouble and failure can be avoided by working with and learning from other beekeepers. HOWEVER, and this is important, please respect the volunteer mentor. So many seasons teaching I find myself knowing more about my students' bees than I do my own simply because of the time required to respond with support. Do your due diligence where preparation and follow through are needed.

Thanks for coming by, and good luck this season. It will be spring before you know it and the bees will be coming!
Athena Contus, Athena's Bees