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...
How much honey do you get? April 17 2014, 2 Comments
This is a question that I get asked very frequently!
The only other question I get asked more is...do you get stung alot? My answer to that one is 'not as much as you think!'
But the answer to 'how much honey do you get' is always a tricky and complex one, and I always feel like I am copping out when I say, 'well it depends'. Mainly because it does depend. It depends on the previous winter, the current weather, how much rain there has been in the last six months, and that week. It depends on how windy it is, what pressure systems are around, whether it is cold (under 20 degrees), or hot (over 33 degrees).
Previous winter: If the winter was a cold and rainy, then our big crops such as Marri or Wandoo (Red and White Gum respectively) will be all set to flower early in the 'season'. The beekeepers season in Western Australia is about September to March/early April. This is the time the bees are busy and the flowers are many. If the winter is like the one we had in 2013 - very cold and windy, but no rain - then most of the Eucalyptus delay in flowering, or do not flower at all, like a family favourite - Wandoo, which only has a secondary flowering period in March this year.
Spring: This is the time when the weather is warm, the Queen is revved up and laying up to 1000 eggs a day! Not my cup of tea, but thankfully I just have to worry about my 2 little eggs ;-) Now, if you have a spring like 2013, wet and cold and very windy this means that the bees are preoccupied with warming what brood there is. It also means there is no pollen in the flowers as it is being washed out, so there isn't food to feed new brood. As it takes energy to warm the hive, and more energy to fly in windy, cold conditions, if bees can't get enough feed during this period, they miss out on their chance to capitalize on the honeyflow during early summer.
Summer: 2013 saw summer start with a bang, and go on and on. And on and on! Usually in WA, we see a few days at 35+, then drop down for a bit, then back up. This year, we had weeks on end of over 34+. Bees have to keep hives at 32-34 degrees all year round, and in the heat of 34+, this means they spend all day carting water to air-condition the hive. With the delay of big flower crops such as the Marri - which usually flowers in November - but didn't start until late January, many hives were light on stores. Many beekeepers had to feed over the summer, because there was no nectar or pollen for the bees. This is very unusual, as feeding periods are normally winter if needed.
At the moment: This year lots of keepers are finding that the harvests are late, if at all. Yields are down from the previous two seasons. I am taking honey only from my strongest hives, and only looking at supers that have more than 5 frames full in them, taking only 1 or 2 at a time. This means that my ladies will have stores all through the Autumn, and enough to tide them over the Winter.
So, how much honey do I get? The short answer: it depends!
Desert Beekeeping December 09 2013, 3 Comments
I was chatting to a fellow beekeeper earlier in the month and he told me this great story:
Back in the Sixties, there were no restrictions on beehives, honey or basically any sense of bio-security. So, this old fellow was transporting a semi-trailer of beehives from the East Coast, back to Perth across the Nullarbor. More than 200 hives on the back of this truck, summer and stinking. And if you've seen a beekeepers truck, the 'modern' ones you see now are all from the 70's - old, faded, farting and rusty buckets held together with tape and cable ties. It is hard to imagine what the truck was like in the 60's!
(Photos Source: Wikipedia and Tourism Australia)
The hives had been emptied of all the honey, except what the bees needed to eat for the week's journey across the desert, because when hives are full they can weigh more than 60kg each! Honey is 1.3 times the density and weight of water. Millions of bees would have been on this truck as it set off into the horizon.
Almost two weeks later, he finds his way back to the truck. Dusty and pretty cranky from all the messing about with truck parts, he's glad to find his truck and hives untouched. Waving the truckie who gave him a lift 'goodbye' he plods over to his truck, only to find...ALL his tires, EVERY one was flat!!
(Photo Sourced: http://blogs.sun-sentinel.com/crime-and-safety/2011/04/05/coping-with-a-tire-blowout)
Who would risk the stings from the bees to vandalize a broken down truck?! Why would someone be so petty and stupid to slash 18 tires?
At least his ladies were still buzzing around the truck. He wandered about, looking for more damage, and realized he could smell something...something familiar...honey...Scratching his head, puzzled, the beekeeper looked again at the blown out tires, looked at the hives, smelt the honey in the air and realized...
No-one had vandalized his truck. There had been a honey flow, IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT, and his ladies had laid down full supers of honey! Remember how heavy honey is? Those bees had laid down so much honey, that the weight of the hives had blown the tires of the truck out!
So the beekeeper turned back to the road, and, stuck out his thumb again!
Winter Prep/ Re-Siting Hives May 20 2013, 0 Comments
Well it has been a very busy time personally and of course, winter preparation for the bees is quite time consuming as well. We have been using some 'spare time' over the last couple of weeks before we move house to do Winter Prep.
This involves re-coating the supers with Lanotec - a bee friendly lanolin based weather proofer, full hive inspections to ensure brood patterns are looking good, queen sightings (presence and health check), checking the bottom boards are clear of debris and a last harvest of any last summer honey to be had (of which we managed to get 6 frames out). We also put two hives back down to just the two boxes (1 brood, 1 super) so they all have a brood and one full super full of honey over the winter period.
Over the winter they tend to 'maintain' the honey stores rather than rely totally on the stores, but you can never tell how Australian weather will pan out and I like to make sure they have plenty over the wet months. I always try and leave enough so I won't have to feed the ladies sugar syrup, and last year they only went through about 4 frames of their stored honey, so we got off to a good start harvest wise in the spring when we supered up for the spring brood/honey flow.
So with all that done, the next thing to do was to prepare two of our hives for transport to our new site in Chittering. We met a lady a while ago who said she was happy to have beehives on her property of 6 acres backing onto state Jarrah and Marri forest! Last night after the ladies were all home after the lovely sunny day, we tucked the guards in (with only one hiccup for me *sting* insert sad face here!) and strapped the hives together. I have been told a couple of funny (and horrible) stories of highway spills and bees invading cars etc and we both decided that was NOT a good option. Accordingly, we voted for a double strap system!
This morning we loaded without incident, listened to our very angsty ladies who were not impressed that they were locked away, and drove up to Chittering - minus highway escapees!
Upon arriving, we quickly got the stands level and and the hives into place. Having only previously sited nucleus hives before (or swarms that were fairly small), we found the huge rush to get out of the hive an amazing thing to watch! Lots of bees everywhere, housekeeping started and a few guards to let us know they were not amused, who thankfully did not try any funny business with Mr and Mrs L, the lovely owners of the land we were on.
On the way home, we congratulated ourselves on having NO EPIC FAILS on Great Northern Highway, with trucks and motorists mingling with very cross ladies! Go Us ;-)
Collecting a Swarm - we know what we are doing... September 29 2012, 0 Comments
We raced out to John Guilfoyle Beekeeping Supplies on the chance we may be going to get our first swarm...and told not to fall off the ladder when we do it! Heading off with a new super, bottom board and lid, we braved peak-hour traffic toward the suburb we may be required to be! While TC drove, I googled 'tips to collecting bee swarms'! Ten minutes later, I get a call from Mr L who says that he has a bee swarm in the backyard and he is very relieved when we tell him we are happy to come and get it straight away.
Upon arriving and shaking hands with Mr L, we admire the beautifully shaped swarm, measuring about 30cm long and 20cm across. They had hung up in the outer branches of a small tree in the yard. Deciding to borrow a ladder, I set about laying out my quilt cover (unfortunately my nice one, but the only light colored one we have! Ahhhh, the sacrifices we make!) and TC set the ladder up and started pruning the branches back. Contrary to all the information I had read, these bees were not docile and dopey... they were guarding the swarm rather fiercely, and were not impressed that we were disturbing them.
After a quick debate about how we would proceed, we were ready to give it a go. I held the plastic box up under the swarm, and TC did the big, sharp shake. Presto! A bucketful of bees in less than a second. Watching our feet, and advising (yelling ;-) at Mr L , T1 and T2 to get inside - there were LOTS of angry bees buzzing around - we flip the box upside-down, propping up the front to let the workers make their way in. Luckily we must have dropped the queen in the box with the initial shake, as the workers start making there way into the box. TIP: use a dark box, to encourage them in (most like a hollow or hive), not a transparent one (yes, we had to use a blanket over the box to darken it!!)
After an hour of waiting for them to hang up in the box, and an unfortunate sting under TC's eye, we bundle up the box with the quilt and into the car. No loose bees in the car during the drive home (yay for us!). We decide to leave the bees in the car for the night, and 'hive' them in the morning.
After researching the two main methods of 'hiving' we decide to give the 'traditional' method a go.
Traditional Hiving: Create a ramp from the alighting board of the the super to the ground. Lay a blanket on the ramp and drop the swarm on the bottom of the ramp. After a few minutes, some bees should go check out the new spot, and after inspection, start fanning on the alighting board. Fanning is when the workers turn their bottoms facing away from the hive entrance, expose their Nasonov gland and beat their wings very fast to distribute the 'we are here' pheromone that is coming from the gland. This tells the hive it is fine to come on up the ramp. They then parade in a very orderly fashion, into the hive.
Modern Hiving: Opening up the super, removing about 4-6 frames, dumping the swarm into the super, replacing frames and putting the lid on and bobs-your-uncle.
So, come morning, we all suit up and set up the ramp. After making sure the car hadn't been over run with bees, to our delight it wasn't, we carry the swarm box to the ramp, do another big shake, and deposit probably about 3kg of bees on the ground. True to the 'guidelines' a few bees wander up the ramp, inspect the box and come out and start fanning. Slowly, a 'beeline' starts up, and after about 20 minutes, there is a brisk line heading into the new brood box. It was quite a magic sight to watch.
Or so we thought....
After coming back from some errands, TC meets me at the top of the drive to tell me that the swarm is now in the neighbours backyard in one of their shrubs! So, suits back on, and after assuring the neighbours we had 'done this before' (yeah, once!) we hacked the tree off at the ground, and did the modern method of hiving - shaking them into the half empty super.
Siting them back in our yard, we sit and watch them for a further hour to make sure they are maybe going to stay. Watching them on and off all afternoon, they start behaving more like a hive and do not hang up again...
Time will tell if they stay for good. Market day tomorrow, so we will have to hope they stay put for the day!