Tuesday, April 30, 2013

And So It Begins: Queen Drama

I was hoping for a season free of Queen drama. Lord knows we had our share of it last year. I will admit, part of my love for this hobby is the seemingly endless amount of learning to be had! I thought we had mastered Queen issues last year,  seen it all, solved it all. Heck we even had two Queens in one hive for about a month. Go smoke on that one! And then along comes a drone laying Queen. So here we are with a complete dud in The Turquoise Bee.

She was a brand new queen but she acted like a old knackered thing, remaining rooted to the outside frames, wandering around aimlessly, like a frail aunt in her white dressing gown. Being a novice beekeeper is a lot like being a novice parent. There are manuals, but most of what you learn comes from actually interacting with the little darlings. So for as much as I have read, and I have read a lot, until you see it you don't really understand or appreciate it.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing too, all the signs were there, I noticed them, even said them out loud but failed to take action until today and now I am hoping it isn't too late.

Not only was she frail and slender, without that plump protruding abdomen of a mated queen but she was a drone layer at that. She didn't lay much of anything and what she did lay was spotty spoiled drone brood. Now, I can't be sure it wasn't workers laying and in fact as I studied the bees today I am sure I saw a few workers stick their ass into cells and lay. However, having capped drone brood in a matter of 10 days after hiving the girls seems too soon for workers to start laying. My worry of course is that we let the situation go on too long and now the workers are in fact laying.

Workers depend on the pheromone of a queen and the pheromone of brood to know or think they are queen-right. If they they don't have brood or a queen or a healthy queen, in the hive eventually the lack of pheromone will stimulate their ovaries to lay unfertilized eggs. When this happens of course the hive goes to drone and without any reproductive capability the hive dies off. Catching and remediating laying workers is a huge challenge.

Our mission today was to get her out, assess the damage and make a plan. We have new Queen arriving tomorrow so we removed her today, creating the illusion of a queenless hive in preparation for the new Queen. We found her easily, on one of the outer frames, an odd place for a healthy Queen. Usually she will stay in the middle of the brood nest. Of course she has no brood nest. There was less spotty drone brood than a week ago so I suspect her condition was deteriorating. My eyes are 55 years old and I have zero ability to see eggs, much less appreciate the sloppy laying of workers who will deposit more than one egg in a cell, hit the wall instead of the center of the cell and so on. However as i studied the workers I did see what looked to me like laying activity. Hopefully if they are laying it has just started and we can turn the situation around.

We are hoping to trick the girls into thinking they have good brood pheromone. We took a nice frame of capped and uncapped brood from Patrick's Pollinator, our strongest hive to help The Turquoise Bee out. Hopefully they will get busy tending to the brood and notice their Queen is gone just in time for a new Queen which we will introduce on Thursday.

Keep your fingers crossed this beekeeping 305 and I am not sure we have it all right. Worse case we loose The Turquoise Bee which would make me very sad for any number of reasons. In the mean time I am sorting out the ethics of doing what needs to be done for the greater good at the expense of one. I was able to extract the Queen into a jar and took her home. She passed about an hour ago and I am going to keep her for show and tell. I am often asked to give little talks to school age kids about bees and beekeeping and she will make a great show and tell item. So for those of you struggling with the loss of life here just think of her as being reincarnated to academia.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Katriana's Drone Den Gets a Visitor

This weekend my friend Katriana was here to visit. Katrina won our hive naming contest two years ago. Little did she know when she came up with the name Drone Den she would be getting her very own colony of honey bees and a plethora of honey they produced at the end of the season.

Managing five hives is difficult, especially tracking all the activity in each colony. It became so much easier when we decided to give each hive a name to associate with their identity and activity. Finally, this weekend, after knowing each other via cyber space for some time now, we met and Katrina got to visit her bees.

It was a beautiful, sunny day. There was some activity outside the hives but not much. We got our protective clothing on, lit the smoker and headed into the bee yard. I love showing off the bees, especially to someone who really understands how important bees are to our agricultural system and food supply. Katrina is a expert in natural health foods and keenly interested in the link between bees and food sources. Plus she had total beekeeper zen!  Calm, deliberate and thoughtful, perfect qualities for bee keeping!

We inspected her colony first, a good group of girls who's queen is just getting started in her laying. There wasn't a lot of brood but enough to make me happy. We easily spotted the queen, nice capped brood and we saw a few bees with pollen on their hind legs. That sight right now perplexes me. I don't know where the heck the girls are getting anything but I saw it plane as day, bright yellow and some dull brown sacs packed on the back legs of a few bees. Perhaps they have found some sawdust or some ground animal or bird feed, who knows.  There is a dearth of pollen at the moment, not a single bud or bloom so likely they have found something to substitute. You can tell just by looking at the pictures how dearth it is! We have pollen substitute in the hives which the bees don't seem to be taking. It doesn't really matter though, the frames we are using from last year are packed with pollen so I know they are getting their protein. Anyway, it was fun to point out the sacs of pollen on the bees hind legs and to see the queen and some capped brood. We were even able to see some eggs.

We checked The Turquoise Bee next and while we found the queen my concern about her remains. I couldn't appreciate anything other than some spotty drone brood. A poorly mated queen will do this, lay drone brood which eventually will lead to the total demise of the colony. Sorry men, this is a  world in which the girls rule!  A drone laying queen is simply a reproductive mess and if she doesn't turn it around in the next few days she will have to go. I have never seen this problem before. We had a hive go to drone during our first year but that was because it went queenless and the workers started laying. I was hoping to get by without any queen drama this spring!

Finally Katrina smoked Patrick's Pollinator, probably the most active colony right now and we inspected her, found the queen and found a nice brood pattern underway. These are going to be some stellar girls, I can tell! I am really pleased with these girls and their queen, so far they are the best of the bunch!

I simply love taking people to the bee yard and finally getting met Katrina and introduce her to the bees was loads of fun!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Two Weeks Out

I have been hopeful and optimistic about our bees through the past two weeks which doled out two plus snow storms, a lot of rain, freezing cold nights and not a speck of sun shine. Today, I am a little worried, still hopeful but a little guarded.

Paula and I went to check on the girls today. We spotted all three queens which is always renders pure joy and a little relief. Four years ago I would have been satisfied by simply seeing her but now, well now I want evidence that she is healthy and laying well.

Patrick's Pollinator seems to be doing well although we didn't see the queen our first time through the box. We saw eggs and we saw spotty capped brood but we couldn't find her. And then, I dropped a framed, frame from the brood nest packed with bees. It was likely a frame she would be on. I was trying to manuver the frame while holding my hive tool. I know better! Slightly worried I looked around the hive carefully trying to spot her and when I was satisfied she wasn't on the ground we closed up the hive.

We moved on to Katrina's Drone Den. You can follow along with our hive inspection in the video. We located the queen, eggs and spotty capped brood.  I would have liked to see a better stronger brood pattern but the population seemed healthy and the queen looked good.

The Turquoise Bee has us worried. While we found our queen she seemed a little, well, off. She wasn't on a frame with many other bees and the only brood we saw was drone brood. I have never seen a drone laying queen but I am worried we might have one on our hands. We need to keep our eye on this  queen and group of girls closely and if things don't turn around in the next week we will need to re-queen these girls.

Once we were done I decided  to go back into Patrick's Pollinator. I didn't feel good leaving without seeing her Queen. As soon as we opened up the hive Paula found her on the inside of the top cover. Not a place I like to see a queen but at least she was there.

 The girls are not taking any syrup which is just fine, they have honey to eat, and they are taking very little of the pollen patties. We do have some pollen stores in all three of the hives but I'd like to see them taking a little more protein.  I did look back at our record keeping from last year and as it turns out it was between the second and third week that we reported good brood patterns in the hives. So, I am keeping my fingers crossed.  Warmer weather is on the way which I am hoping is going to kick start the queens. Hopefully the next time we visit all three hive will have beautiful, consistent brood patters and all will be well. Our fourth package comes next Wednesday which is when we will get Colleen's Royal Ruckus up and running.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

First Hive Inspections of the Season

The weather here has been grim, rain, sleet and snow every day. So many folks were worried about our bees who no more than got into their new digs when a winter storm hit. The girls weathered the week without a problem. We were really grateful today for a few hours of sunshine and 50 degrees so we could take a peek inside each hive and see how the girls were doing.

Mostly we just wanted to spot our Queens. It would have been nice to see eggs or larva but it was too cold to keep the hives open too long, we had to work quickly.

You might remember the only hive we were not 100% confident about the Queen was Katrina's Drone Den. Well, she is there, alive and well. We couldn't appreciate anything other than she is there. Same story in The Turquoise Bee.

  We took a little more time with Patrick's Pollinator, mostly because her highness was elusive and it took us awhile to find her. You can watch the inspection of Patrick's Pollinator in the video above, we didn't locate her until the end of the video after going through the frames a second time. I got a little worried after going through the frames once and I started hearing this sort of high pitched hissing, a tone we heard four years ago when a hive went queenless. However as we inspected we did see larva so I felt sure that she was there, even if we couldn't find her. Finally we did spotter her which always makes me feel better. Her white marking seems to be rubbing off a little, this has happened in the past but usually not so early in the season. Nothing we can do about it as we don't mark Queens ourselves.

It was an exceptionally beautiful afternoon, sunny, a crisp 50 degrees in the sun,t he smell of the smoker filling the bee yard. For a fleeting moment I thought it was spring. Another week of rain, sleet and snow begins tomorrow.  Today the bees were out and about, I am not sure exactly what they may have been foraging, nothing is in bloom and we didn't see them bringing anything into the hive but they sure were active. We can leave the girls be for a week or two, no reason to bother them other than we simply love working the hives and being in the bee yard.

Our last package should arrive in about two weeks when we will put in Colleen's Royal Ruckus. Since this weather isn't giving up no loss in time there. The fruit trees have not bloomed yet so hopefully all four hives will get on the pollination of the apricot and apple blossoms.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Oh What a Day

It is one of my favorite days of the years, a day I wait for with unbridled enthusiasm. It is to me the mark of spring. The day our new bees arrive.

Our first year of beekeeping we ordered bees from a local beekeeper who ships thousands of packages in from California every year. I love Jim and I love supporting his business, Natures Nectar. He is generous beyond measure. However his bees always come in late April and three years ago we wanted to get a jump start and package our bees early in April. Waiting until the end of April meant missing the apricot and apple tree bloom. Catching these blooms is good for the bees and good for our landowners fruit crop. So We started ordering bees from Walter T. Kelley in Kentucky. I must admit we get more fun out of going to the US Post Office to pickup the bees than I ever imagined possible. This year didn't disappoint.

The call comes early, usually before the Post Office is even open, you can hear the plea in the callers voice, "Your bees are here, please come pick them up". Usually I wait by the phone, anxiously anticipating the call but today I stuck with my LAF routine and the call came while I finishing up my workout.

When we arrive at the Post Office it took longer than usual for the bees to appear. As we were waiting Paula and I reminisced about our previous Post Office pickups. There was the first year when the postal worker was actually too frightened to get the bees and bring them to the front desk. He led us through a labyrinth of assembly lines and work stations to a large cage with a long chain lock securing the bees. The cage wasn't fit for anything smaller than a dog, with holes so large a small dog could get loose. He unlocked the chain and let us collect the packages. Last year we were mightily impressed by a female who simply brought the packages right up to the front desk without missing a beat. This year a crew of workers rolled the cage holding the bees right up to the front door all the while calling out warnings, "live bees, live bees" they shouted. Paula and I had to laugh, once again the cage couldn't contain a dog let alone loose bees if there were any.

 Paula grabbed the packages which were secured together with long pieces of plywood on the top and bottom of each package and we headed to the car where Paula's grandchildren were reluctantly waiting for the arrival of the bees. The girls were eager and yet concerned about the potential of loose bees flying about in the car but were easily convinced the bees were indeed secured.

Once we reached the bee yard we took time to get everything set up and in place before we split apart the packages. Each hive was set up with a feeder, two frames of honey on the outside of each side of each box with four frames of comb in the center of the boxes for the brood nest, the inner lid, pollen patty and telescoping outer lid in place. We filled the feeders with syrup and then started to pry the packages apart.

You can see the long strips of plywood holding the packages together on the top and bottom of all three packages. It was a good thing we were totally ready because what ensued was a near calamity. While prying off one of the top strips the corner of one package tore apart and we had a large gaping hole in the box with bees escaping by the handful. I quickly put the soft and thick pollen patty over the hole to contain the bees. We had to move quickly. We still had three strips of wood to release which was cumbersome to do with the hole. We worked quickly, releasing the boxes and then focused on the package with the hole. We quickly removed the Queen cage and can of syrup hanging in the box, spayed the bees down with syrup, and shook them into the hive. Whew, that was some quick thinking and working and a good save. As my friend Patty said "Such a perilous wonderful time, hiving bees."  All three packages went in without a problem, Queens included although we didn't actually see the Queen in Katrina's Drone Den once we released her  but were are confident she got in. The hives will say sealed up over night and tomorrow we will open up the entrance reducer so they can come and go as they please. In the mean time they are hunkered down getting cozy with their Queen and getting used to their new digs.

The weather here continues to suck, seriously suck. It isn't going to be warmer than the high 30's all week long which means the bees won't do any foraging this week at all. That's o.k. with us, we have ample honey in each hive, pollen patty's for protein and frames of comb for the Queen to start laying. We expect these first boxes to fill quickly and be ready for second brood boxes before the 1st of May, mostly because everything is combed out. We expect another new package to arrive early in May when we will hive Colleen's Royal Ruckus. In the mean time The Turquoise Bee, Patrick's Pollinators and Katrina's Drone Den and off to a good start.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Ready for the girls!

Paula and I set up the bee yard last night for three new packages of bees arriving Monday. We faced pouring rain and some wind. You can see how dry the land is, nothing blooming yet. This is the earliest we have ever packaged bees before by about two full weeks. Ordinarily I would be worried but we have frames with honey to put right in the brood nest and all of our frames are completely combed out. The girls will have plenty to work with for the first two weeks without ever leaving if this god awful weather continues. Tonight I am going to mix us some syrup, just for good measure but the bees will surely take the honey before they need to resort to the syrup. I pulled some pollen patties out of the freezer and we have everything else set to go for our Monday arrivals.

We did have one disappointment during our bee year visit last night. Our favorite Indian haunt is closed. We have a tradition of having a few Indian dinners after our bee yard visits throughout the summer. Lucky for us that in Northfield there is another Indian spot so we can just relocate.

Keep your fingers crossed for some nice spring weather on Monday. I know that is asking a lot these days but we sure could use a 50 degree day without wind and a little sunshine. Just for an hour, please!