Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Smallest Livestock ~ Bees

This year my bees are doing incredibly well, so far, so good, this has not been the case every year, I have lost my share too.  I would venture to say all beekeepers have lost hives if they've been raising them for any length of time. Yesterday I fed both my hives with sugar syrup, I began feeding sugar syrup back in the middle of February even though it was early, when I gave it to them they seemed hungry, and drank it up, I've made 3 batches so far.    Over the winter on real nice days I will peek under the cover to make sure the bees are all dry, humming away, and will smell the sweetness of honey that comes from a healthy hive, if it didn't smell sweet like this, I would be checking them closer.  I wipe off snow throughout the winter from the top, so it doesn't drip down over the hive, and the entrance so they have a breathing hole. 

In early December I added an insulating pillow case filled with wood shavings to the top box to absorb moisture and insulate the hive.  Bees make moisture in the winter, and this needs to be absorbed somehow, or the condensation can drop back down on them like freezing rain and will chill them, good ventilation is important, and will prevent condensation.  We are not in a cold enough climate here in the NW to have to wrap in tar paper, according to the bee expert at our local bee store.  Every other winter I have wrapped the hives in a wall of straw bales around 3 sides, with a plywood roof, covered in plastic to keep the rain and wind off.  This year I didn't do any of it, and they are stronger than ever.  I did medicate with Fumigilan B in the Fall, however this Spring I will not, and instead put menthol crystals on the top bars.  I will try to allow nature to guide in a more natural approach, and will be watching them closely, and seeing how they are doing.

One of the most valuable lessons I've learned in beekeeping is to treat the bees like mini livestock.  They need to be fussed over and cared for just like chickens, and rabbits.  I will walk by them everyday just to look at the entrance, and see any activity.  I'm now aware of what they need at different times of the year, I say now because in the beginning I wasn't in tune with them, to be attentive enough.  I now watch to be sure they have enough food in the Fall, and late winter, they also need to be fed in June sometimes, they can starve to death in June if the weather gets cold and wet. I lost almost every bee the second year I had bees in June, when the weather turned.  I watch the hive for dead bees at the front, and put food out right away if I see any.  By July I don't have to worry about them starving, but I will have to check inside the hive every week to 10 days to make sure they're not planning to swarm, and that there are no new queen cells being built, I make sure they have a good laying queen, watch the brood pattern, and add supers for extra room before they need it.  I have learned lessons about all these things.

Yesterday I took a few pictures to show what my hives look like when I peek inside this time of year.  I added two jars of sugar syrup to each hive, the bees hungrily lick it up, and within a short time of giving a the colony a drink of sugar syrup they are flying and real active, if the weather's warmer than 45 degrees that is.  The sugar syrup stimulates activity, and gives food for growth.  I'm looking forward to the fruit tree blossoms and dandelions this Spring, the bees get pollen and nectar from both.  The hives really come alive during nectar flows, our main nectar flow in the NW is blackberry blossoms, so most honey we harvest has blackberry as the main nectar, along with wildfowers. 
The beehive journal blog has a good reference for feeding sugar syrup and the ratio's, basically I remember
2 to 1 sugar and water in the Fall, and 1 to 1 ratio for the Spring.  In the Spring it's thinner, so 1 to 1 means, one cup water, one cup sugar, in the Fall it's thicker.  I usually mix a whole 10 lb bag at once.  I heat the water first, and then add the sugar to just boiled water, taken off the burner, then mix it thoroughly, let it cool, and pour it into jars.  I feed on the top of the hive with a holder that can hold 4 jars of sugar syrup.  You don't want to make too much of the syrup, as it can go bad, and possibly mildew if the weather is wet and cold before it gets used. 

Good cleaning is important to a healthy hive. I regularly swipe a stick on the bottom board to remove any dead bees, paying particular attention to the back corners. There shouldn't be a lot of dead bees, but I always find a few and sweep them out.  I plan to build a screened bottom board for both hives to put on during the nice Spring and Summer weather, they also help with preventing a build up of mites, and give air flow. I've put on mouse guards during winter, and make sure they are removable so I can clean.  I also make sure I have an entrance reducer on during most of the coldest days of winter, and will remove it for a day or two when it's nice weather and not too windy.  Basically I fuss over my bees like every other animal on this farm, everything requires tending to, and bees are no exception.   I'm still learning new lessons every year, out of 4 winters, I've lost my bees twice, there is a learning curve, just like everything new you try on a farm. I like to call my garden, an experimental garden, and my bees are no exception.  Each climate has it's own unique features that need to be taken into consideration.  I can only speak from my NW climate perspective concerning bees.

Spring Beekeeping Inspection is copied from the Beekeeping for Dummies cheat sheets,
you can go check them out, I include their link at the bottom of this page.  I'm not doing everything they recommend, however I have in the past.  I'm experimenting more with natural beekeeping as much as possible.  If it works I'll continue, and if not, I'll try something different.  I will write out more later about what I'm doing with natural methods. I do reverse the upper and lower deep hive bodies, and check the hive thoroughly, feed them sugar syrup, and put on menthol crystals.  I will do the screened bottom board and check for mites, and treat them if I find they need it.  Sometimes people medicate when they don't even need to, which is what I'm trying to be careful not to do.  If the hives are healthy I want to focus on keeping them going as naturally as possible.

Spring Beekeeping Inspection

Spring is a busy time for bees and beekeepers. Your spring beekeeping inspection is the first of the season. It’s time to start bee colonies or bring your colonies “back to life.” Here’s your spring inspection chores list:
  • As winter crawls to an end, pick the first mild sunny day with little or no wind to inspect your bees (50 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer).
  • Observe the hive entrance. Are many dead bees around the entrance? A few dead bees are normal, but finding more casualties than that may indicate a problem.
  • Is there brown spotting on the hive? These are bee feces, which indicate the presence of nosema disease. Even if you don’t see the brown spotting, your first spring inspection is time to medicate your bees with Fumigilin-B (antibiotic) by adding it to the first two gallons of sugar syrup you feed them.
  • Lightly smoke and open the hive. Do you see the cluster of bees? Can you hear the cluster?
  • Remove a frame or two from the center of the top deep-hive body. Do you see any brood? Look for eggs (eggs mean you have a queen). If you see no eggs or brood, consider ordering a new queen from your supplier.
  • Does the colony have honey? If not, or if they’re getting low, immediately begin feeding syrup to the bees.
  • Feed your colony a pollen substitute to boost brood production.
  • Use a screened bottom board or the sugar roll method to determine Varroa mite population. Medicate if needed.
  • Place a packet of menthol crystals on top of the brood nest to control tracheal mites. Putting this on a small sheet of aluminum foil will prevent the bees from covering the packet with propolis.
  • Dust the frame’s top bars with a mixture of Terramycin (antibiotic) and powdered sugar to prevent foulbrood.
  • Reverse the deep hive bodies to better distribute the brood pattern. Use this opportunity to clean the bottom board.
  • Later in the spring, add a queen excluder and honey supers (all medication must be off the hive at this time).  If you'd like to read more:

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