Beekeeping and Honey!

Losing a hive July 29 2014, 0 Comments

All the books and blogs tell you that you will loose a hive. They all say it will happen to you at some point: either by some mistake you make, from starvation or dehydration or some catastrophic failure from an outside factor...

Well, this last week it happened to us. And it really sucks.

We were finishing up our winter inspections of the various sites around Perth surrounds, and had headed out to site. The hives seemed a bit quiet, and even the property owner had commented on how quiet one hive seemed. After we set up the table, equipment and lit our smoker, we opened up the first hive. The super was pretty quiet, and as we started looking into the brood box we knew there was a problem. There was almost no brood (larvae that has been sealed off to metamorphose into bees). What brood was there was scattered and there was almost no lavae and NO eggs. We saw the Queen on the third frame and she looked well - the workers were deferring to her when she stopped walking on the frame. If the workers had rejected the Queen they would be either aggressive to her, or ignore her when she walked close by.

We quickly closed up the box after inspecting the other 7 frames and put the super back on. We decided the leave the super on for the time being because we were uncertain about why the Queen wasn't laying.

Over to the other quiet hive, and we only saw a couple of bees go in and out. The moment we opened the super we knew something was very wrong. The smell was unusual - stale and slightly musky - and along the tops of the frames, instead of the usual small amount of free comb and propolis, there was wax moth. Alot of it. With a sinking feeling, we pulled out a couple of frames there was no presence of bees on the frames. Pulling the super off, the brood box was worse - no bees and full of wax moth eggs. No signs of diseases, no mess on the bottom board, and less than 100 bees.

With the weakness in the first hive, and this hive completely gone, we packed up, gave a brief explanation to the property owner and decided to go directly to our Guru Beeman and ask his advice. On the way there, I Googled wax moth to find out why it was present in the hives. Having only read about it in books, seeing it reality was terrible and I couldn't remember whether it was a cause of hive failure or a symptom. It turned out wax moth can only gain a foothold in a hive that is severely weakened or dying. They will take advantage of ill health and slow/non present guard bees. The moth will lay eggs in the comb, and use comb and honey to develop from egg to moth.

After explaining the history of the hives, and the current situation of the hives, our Beeman told us that in his opinion; it was 99% certain that an outside factor was responsible for the demise of the hives, namely chemicals. Although it was a strong hive by the end of summer, this particular hive had a small die off in the summer, and another last spring. It recovered from both of these, and after explaining to our Beeman what the die-offs were like, he told us it was certainly not dehydration (as we had assumed) but over exposure from poorly applied pesticides. He explained that with some pesticides, the guard bees can smell it on the forager bees, and won't let them back in the hive. Others they can not smell on them and that is how they make their way into the hive (or they have been ingested and are laid down into the honey). Very soon, the Queen is exposed to a chemical and if she is damaged, the hive can die within 3 weeks. Sooner if the chemical is actively killing off the bees. If the bees brush up against the chemical, they will pass in onto many bees inside the hive if they are allowed to walk it back in, because bees are very tactile. They crawl all over each other - they clean each other and walk over each other and even pass nectar from themselves to other bees (like mother birds feed baby birds). This is why diseases and chemicals spread so easily within a hive.

This all happened quickly, within a few weeks and these strong hives have become extremely weak hives. Our Beeman listened carefully to our story and told us that in his experience of decades of beekeeping he had had more problems with pesticides in 'hobby' farm areas (or semi-rural) than in full agricultural areas. He suggested that because full-time farmers are more heavily regulated, and better educated as part of their livelihood, they tend to use chemicals differently than hobby farmers. Closer to season, closer to dusk, less liberally (because they have to spend so much money on it!) and if they have pollination services attached to the farm, they move hives away during spraying times.

In any case, Mr Beeman told us to feed up the alive Queen in the remaining hive and try and limp her along until Spring. There are no Queens available to re-Queen with during winter, and we can't weaken another hive by giving them a frame of brood to get them to raise another one. The bees are only producing enough bees at this time of year to maintain enough workers to get to spring. Feeding sugar syrup may entice the Queen to think there is a honey flow and re-start her laying. Mr Beeman also suggested crossing our fingers.

Mr T went out a couple of days later to collect the dead hive and reduce the live hive to one box (less energy to keep 2 boxes warm) and feed up the ladies. He said that there was a small amount of eggs on one frame, so hey, maybe the finger crossing worked...I'll keep you posted...

 

 

 


Wintering Hives June 18 2014, 0 Comments

We have had a few 'life' things come up in the last month or so with MrT working away and me coming down with every bug that is floating around at the moment (thank goodness for honey for soothing the throat!) So we have been a little tardy with settling our hives down for the winter. I say winter, but I really mean: the time in WA when it is a bitterly cold for a  month or so and it rains for a couple of days ;-)

The first winter we had with our bees, I freaked out about how much honey to leave the ladies with. Everything I read online was pretty much applicable only to places that have a real winter, so we ended up leaving lots of honey for them. It wasn't a problem, we just harvested what they left in the spring. But balancing what honey they will need for food, with the space that they will consequently need to keep warm over winter is a little tricky. Now after a couple of seasons, we are becoming more confident about gauging the strength of the hive and using long term forecasting of the weather for a guide. We tend to err on the side of slightly too much honey stores - mainly so that we don't have to supplement stores with sugar. Our bees tend to maintain the stores, since they can fly during the winter about 2 days out of every 4 - 5 days. When it is cold, windy or wet the bees don't tend to fly, so production grinds to a halt. Our observations have found that there is a very limited amount of food in the flowers (after rain washes out pollen and nectar) but because of our delightful winter sunny days between the big rain fronts, the bees can replenish a small amount of honey over the winter.

Here is a thermal image of a hive during winter. The bees cluster within the hive, around the Queen and brood, and spend time each day on the outside of the cluster, similar to penguins in Antarctica, before folding back into the cluster for food and warmth. Bees take turns inside the empty cells of comb to keep the brood warm so they can develop properly. They detach their wings from the socket and inside the cell they 'beat' their wings which causes vibration within their bodies that raise their body temps. This heat radiates from the bee to the brood in other cells. They can keep up to 8 other cells warm by raising their body temperatures to approx 44 degrees. This is about 9 degrees higher than their usual body temperature. Scientists are still baffled as to how they acheive this heat increase without cooking their brains!

From this picture, you can see the 'random' cells left empty. This is actually good planning from the bees to allow 'bee warmers' in to do their jobs! After looking at my hives in the yard and thinking (a little guiltily) how I need to do an inspection before the winter really sets in, I thought you all might like to see what other keepers do where they have a real winter.

UK: silver waterproof lining and hessian blankets. These keepers are very conscious of damp, which is worse for bees than cold temperatures, and have been careful to provide good ventilation.

 

(Photo: http://www.rosybee.com/blog/2010/12/beehives-in-winter, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/beekeeping/7740088/Readers-hives.html?image=1)

Northern US: These hives have slightly tapers tops for snow to drop off, and using a material lining, with black plastic over the top. The black absorbs whatever sun is out to add a little more heat inside the hive. In cold climates that don't have as much rain, ventilation area can be slightly smaller. The hives under all that snow would have the same...I think!

Snow covered bee hives at Brookfield Farm, Maple Falls, WA

(Photo:http://homebuggarden.blogspot.com.au/2010/12/rugged-up-until-spring-mammalian.html, http://brookfieldfarmhoney.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/hive-configuration-at-brookfield-farm/hivesinsnow4web/)

Here in Perth it is the heat that we worry about. The bees struggle with carting enough water to keep the brood cool. But that is a story for another day!

 


Pollinators January 13 2014, 0 Comments

I was first introduced to the notion of beekeeping, not for honey, but for pollination. I was lamenting to someone about my lovely veggie garden that didn't really produce any veggies. Off-the-cuff this someone said 'oh, you need a beehive' and something about that stuck.

Later, I started researching about what the sort of increase in pollination you can expect from an on site hive can be, and I began to get really excited about it. Quick searches were showing that pollination can increase from 30% to 100%. Many of the stats were from Government Ag Dep*1, and all of them showed a good-to-excellent increase of pollination directly attributed to on site beehives.

A gentleman came up to us on the weekend and spoke about being a canola cropper for a number of decades - and a beekeeper by default. He told us that before he started up with beekeeping, he was bringing in a yield of 600 kilos per/acre of canola a season. After he sited his hives, he was yielding 1000 kilos per/acre*2. That is an increase of more than 65%!

We have found the same in our garden. Each year we planted tomatoes, I would get about 2 per vine. Now, every flower produces a tomato and I get 8-10 tomatoes on each vine. So much Passata!

Why are bees so interested in pollen you may ask? Well, the plants and bees of the world have evolved together - bees need the high-protein pollen to feed the brood (they mix it with honey to create beebread) and the flowers need the bees to move the pollen around from flower to flower to fertilizer their sex-organs so they can reproduce by making fruit and later, seed. As they say, when you are deep in the bush, and you hear the melodic buzzing of insects, remember - that is millions of insects and plants trying to get laid! But, I digress. As the bees collect pollen in, they get brushed with it as well, and this travels with them to the next flower, where it brushes off and creates cross-pollination for flowers.

This is also why flowers have evolved to produce nectar. There is no benefit to the plant to produce nectar - in fact, it takes quite a lot of energy for the plant - but it is produced as a reward for a pollinator and many pollinators have evolved to use nectar as a food source. A bee will smell the sweetness of the nectar, and as it is always located at the bottom of the flower, she alights on the flower and rustles around in it to get to the back of the flower. This means that the pollen at the top of the flower will rub off onto her body, and since bees like collecting either pollen or nectar from the same type of flowers (rather than going from species to species) the plant has a double insurance policy of becoming fertilized, optimizing the chance of reproducing.

It isn't just bees that are pollinators: bees - solitary, bumble, carpenter, leafcutter and honey, hoverflies, but also butterflies and moths, a number of wasps, ants, thrips, bee flies, fruit flies, midgies, beetles, birds, possums and bats can be added to the list. Many species of plants can not reproduce without a pollinator, which includes most of our fruit and vegetables, and a number of crops that are fed to stock animals. And of course, they pollinate plants in the bush, in parks and gardens that provide the beauty of our landscape, oh, and the oxygen we breathe!

This year, Europe is predicting that there is a honeybee shortage ranging from less than a quarter needed in some areas to provide pollination services for food crops.*3

Our ladies are in a major decline and we need to seriously respect what they do for us but I think that is a post for another day.

Pic: Hoverfly approaching wattle flower.

*1:http://www.agric.wa.gov.au/PC_94123.html?s=1001

*2 1 Acre =  0.4 Hectare

*3 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25656283


End of Summer March 24 2013, 0 Comments

Coolibah BeeThis time of year is FLAT-OUT for beekeepers - there is the summer Red Gum/Marri honey that needs to come in and be extracted - the flow has been very prolific for the last 4-5 weeks. My local wholesaler, Mr B, a career beekeeper for probably 35 years or more, has been waiting for a number of weeks for the honey to make into the shop but the keepers are so busy they can't spare even an hour to bring it in for some pocket money.

I ended up with 3 days off from work this week because of  a bee sting to the ankle that made my toes disappear. When I limped in to see Mr B later in the week, and told the story of my 'quiet achiever' hive (Number 4, delightful, calm bees - usually) who ended up chasing TC and me across the yard, and stinging us through the suits, well, he laughed! It was like a red hot poker went into my ankle and although I haven't reacted badly to stings in nearly a year, but this one was a doozy! Mr B started telling me that everyone's bees were cranky and the reason was because last week it rained, washing out all the nectar from the Marri's and after weeks of being 'kids in the candy store' the bees had nothing so yummy to keep themselves happy. Hence, grumpy, withdrawing-from-Marri, cranky kiddies who were bored and wanting to sting me! Mr B ended up with about 100 stings from one hive too, so I decided the 1 sting was fine!

Aside from the extracting, beekeepers need to site hives for the autumn and winter periods and decide how much honey stores to leave over the winter. This is tricky because you need an area that will have some chance of providing nectar/pollen for the winter - weather permitting the bees to fly and not washing it all out - but mostly importantly, that there is enough stores to get the bees through the winter when they can't fly. We will leave one full-depth super full of honey for them this year. This seemed like a good amount last year and we didn't have to feed at all last year. Whatever stores they don't use, we can harvest in September when they start gearing up anyway, so it's a win-win :-)

Inspections to settle any queen and brood issues, ensuring that the brood patterns are clean and circular, that the bees are healthy is paramount now. This is because this is the last few weeks of being able to re-queen if need be and do any splitting or combining of hives. Good ol' Aussie weather is so unpredictable, that I would NOT want to count on the good weather for much longer. Although we have consistently been having later hotter Autumns and colder, wetter Springs - I still don't want to trust the weather (and my bees) to the fickleness of the Australian-Weather gods!


First Split February 14 2013, 0 Comments

Over the spring we noticed that our first ever hive, dubbed the very original name of 'Hive 1' was getting very full. As in VERY full. Even on the 'cooler days' there were bees all over the front of the hive, and at 2 full depth supers already on the brood box there was no way we were going to repeat the lunacy our first summer and go to 3 supers! As novice beekeepers we made the mistake of supering up, but failed to harvest at the same time, which lead to the problem of a huge summer hive with no space. Having read in the books about this magical solution, we added another super, then another... You get the picture, and by the end of summer, trying to do anything with Hive 1 was near impossible.

Emerging Worker BeeSoooo. After reading more, and some free advice from the local beeman - 'oh, ya don't need more than 2 supers' (you know what they say about free advice) we got them to a manageable 2 supers over 'winter'; you know when it is supposed to rain but doesn't (I have read about winters in books too) and waited for the activities of spring.

All through the spring we held our breath as we buzzed around the garden with our new nucleus and a caught/then hived swarm - dubbed, you guessed it, Hive 2 and Hive 3! And miracle upon miracle they didn't swarm. Even though alot of the bee books say that queens under the age of about 3 don't tend to swarm, the worry was there with such a strong hive. Finally, we plucked up the courage (probably bolstered by our successful removal of a hive out of a wall - Hive 4 - which is a story for another day) and decided to do a split.

Following the 3-P rule of preparation, preparation, preparation we picked a good weather day (only about 35degrees) and hopped to it. It started with removing the two supers from Hive 1, reducing the faces (exposed area of bees ie if the lid is off, that is an exposed face of bees), and opening up the brood box. BTW, a related side note. When getting a queen excluder - don't cheap out. Get a metal one that won't going to bend when it warms up. In Australia, the summer heat is HOT (we have had so many over 35's that I have lost count!) and the plastic ones bend. Add all the propolis the girls slather about and the excluder gets struck on the middle brood comb frames. As you go to lift the super from above, the frames stuck to the excluder, lift at the same time. This is NOT recommended! Your queen is most likely on these centre combs and if they get dropped, you run the risk of damaging her.

Anyway, back to the split-story. We decided to do a 4/5 frame split, leaving the queen in Hive 1 and taking about 1/2 of the brood combs to the new hive - Hive 5. We took 2 egg brood frames, 1 capped brood frames and 1 mixed brood. The egg brood is so the new hive can raise up its own queen. These must be less than 3 days old. This is because all bees are the same at this stage and can become either a worker or a queen bee, whereas at day 3 where their food changes and the nurse bees treat them differently. Once the hive realizes that there is no queen present (no queen substance can be smelt throughout the hive) they begin to raise a new one from the eggs on the frames, building a peanut shaped casing around a selected (or several) cells. We took all the house bees on those frames too, and shook quite a more bees into the new box too to add to the hive strength. Giving the new hive a variety of brood combs meant that there would not be so much of a gap between the raised queen's new bees and the old bees that would soon be passing. Summer is a hard time for the ladies; they tend to only last ~35 days and with a gap of about 18 days of no laying, there is a gap of about 2 weeks after the new queen starts laying.

It was fascinating to watch how despondent the bees became in the first three days without a queen - milling around on the alighting board, weaving back and forth on the sides of the box. It was like they had no sense of purpose that is so obvious with a 'normal' hive. Once the queen cells were built we saw renewed efforts in cleanliness, gathering behaviours and guarding the alighting board once more. At least, this is what we think because of course, we couldn't check inside the brood box to see if this was the case (with such upheaval if we had done an inspection, the bees would most likely have abandoned the attempt to re-queen themselves and absconded/swarm)Raised Queen CellsAbout 8 days later we carefully cracked open the boxes, and to our delight, there they were - beautifully made queen cells. Unsure whether we should remove all but one, we left them and I hopped online to ask the other beeman about them. He suggested removing all but one, and I intended to... well you know what they say about intentions. Anyway, several days later, all the queens had emerged and upon inspection  we found new eggs in the brood comb...

This weekend we will confirm Her Majesty by actually sighting her... how exciting!