Monday, July 27, 2015

Battling Pests

I meant to post a picture of my wasp trap the other day. Here it is:

used a variety of liquid bait, but what has worked best is Mountain Dew (jacked up with added sugar) and apple juice/vinegar. The trap in the photo above is a jar with a small hole in the lid. I smeared the underside of the lid with jam. It has been very effective. I also used empty plastic bottles with the top cut off and inverted. These work, but not as well. 

Also effective is the bees themselves. Since I had to take the entrance reducer out (see Formic acid discussion below), the wasps were really crowding the door. The bees were being aggressive and defending the hive by knocking the wasps away. To help them a bit, I stuffed some grass in the opening. Seemed like a reasonable compromise. 

The bit of pink on the bottom of the hive in the picture above is sidewalk chalk. It is supposed to keep ants out, and seems to work. I just drew loopy doodles around the lowest brood box. 

I have had a visitor to the hives as evidenced by the picture below. 

I have found two such … piles. Fox, perhaps? I don't know. 

Yesterday I broke down and installed Formic acid dispensers in each hive (to treat varroa). In case you are interested, I'm using 85%. I was worried about how the bees would react to the acid. I didn't have any problem handling it-- although I wore dishwashing gloves and my glasses and brought a bucket of water with me -- but the smell is apparently quite strong, and the bees don't like it. Now I'm worried that it won't be strong enough to do the job, but everything I've read says "READ AND FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS!" So no going off piste here. That said, it looks like business as usual for the bees. No piles of sad bee corpses anyhow. At least not yet. 

I was told to open the hive door, but to install the tray that goes under the hive (which blocks much of the ventilation that comes from underneath). I was afraid this would be a problem, but seems okay. 

I'm reading more and more online about the benefits of not using foundation, particularly in terms of varroa treatment. Left to their own devices, the bees make smaller cells, and the mites prefer larger cells. As I replace frames, I'm going foundationless (with a Toblerone-shaped strip of wood trim at the top of the frame as a starter). 

Lots and lots of pollen going into the hive the past few days (well, perhaps longer, but I've been paying attention this week). I don't know exactly what it is, although says that chestnut and nettle is heavy this week. Not sure what color nettle pollen is. The picture above doesn't really show it, but there were as many as four or five bees with full pollen trousers in the hive entrance. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

WASPS! And Other Vermin

I have done some varroa counts over the summer and find my numbers seem to be off the chart. I treated the hives twice with powdered sugar (once I remembered to put the trays in so I could count what came off the bees -- it was impressive), but this method only removes varroa mites that are ON the bees and not any inside the brood cells.

I will have to treat with something stronger. Stand by for further details.

In the meantime, I was at the hive yesterday and noticed a LOT of yellow jacket activity. A quick google showed that this, too, is a problem and the wasps will raid hives eating larva and honey. I have read accounts of people discovering an entire hive wiped out in short order.

I swear this beekeeping thing is more stressful than parenthood. So much can go wrong!

One immediate suggestion was to reduce the size of the hive entrance so it will be easier for the bees to police themselves. My hives (all purchased hives) come with a removeable entrance reducer. I had a bit of trouble as mine seem to have swollen or otherwise reshaped themselves, but  I managed to install them and I think they are doing the job.

In the meantime, I have had a few discussions with several of the more experienced beekeepers I know about matters ranging from honey extraction to varroa treatment to preparation for winter. The adage remains consistent: Ask 10 beekeepers and you will get 11 opinions!

H and A are old school: they believe in managing the hives. M is more New Age: he manages his hives minimally, believing the bees know best. I wander all over the map, but more and more I tend to believe that, as in childbirth, Nature knows best. That many of our beekeeping problems have arisen because we get in there and try to control things. That many times beekeepers do something because that is the way it has always been done. That said, as in childbirth, I have only a few months experience. It feels uncomfortable to challenge a beekeeper with decades of experience.

My husband point out that the good news here is that H, A, and M all seem to have successful hives. If they are operating at opposite ends of the spectrum, perhaps there is no right or wrong way to do things. Time will tell, I suppose.

Tomorrow A is coming to look at my hives and give me some advice. Saturday is a practical session at M's hives. While I already know I am going to follow M's suggestions (I had a chat with him last week), I still want to hear what A has to say. I want to hear what all beekeepers have to say.

Sting Update: Got stung on my nose during my last powdered sugar treatment. I had my snout RIGHT in the frames, and a bee got me right on the side of my nose. My daughter reports that not only did I NOT drop the box of bees/frames I was holding, I didn't even swear. Further, I had no evidence of the sting by the time I got home. Oh, it HURT a LOT at the time. Made my eyes water. But very quickly I was fine.

Thursday, June 25, 2015


Faithful Reader Anita asked me to explain varroa.

Sigh. That's a huge topic, and one that is fraught with opinions and lots of things I don't completely understand.

The short answer is that there are two creatures living in my hives: honey bees (Apis mellifera) and varroa mites (Varroa destructor). Varroa is a mite that came from Asia. There, the mite causes little damage as the Asian bees are more tolerant. Since the 1980s, however, varroa has spread around the world. Our Western honey bees are much more susceptible to the varroa, which is credited as being one of the many things contributing to colony collapse disorder.

What happens is that the mites lay their eggs in the bees' egg cells. They are particularly fond of drone larva as those cells are bigger and the gestation period is longer and more to their liking.

Mite infestation weakens and maims the bees, causing them to be vulnerable to other parasites and diseases. Google for images of varroa and varroa damage. It's grim.

I do have varroa in my hives. Everyone does. When I did a basic count recently I was pleased to not see much. From time to time I see varroa on a bee. That makes me sad. One of my more experienced beekeeper mentors told me that this year has been good for bees in that the varroa doesn't seem to be as evident as in past years. Last year was apparently really bad. I don't know how much weather contributes to varroa levels in bee hives.

There are wildly disparate schools of thought on treating for mites from doing nothing (the idea being to encourage the bees to, via natural selection, breed themselves stronger as the mites only become resistant to treatment) to a variety of commercially available treatments. Somewhere in the middle are methods that include encouraging and then culling drone brood or splitting hives (artificial swarms) to disrupt the mite life cycle or sprinkling powdered sugar on the frames (the bees clean themselves, removing the mites, the mites have difficulty maintaining purchase and fall off).

I know beekeepers on both ends of the spectrum. I ask lots of questions, read as much as I can, but mostly I worry.

I worry a lot about my bees anyhow. Are they okay? Am I doing what is best for them? Am I too intrusive? Am I not reacting quickly enough? It's very stressful, and I lie awake at night often, fretting about my responsibility to all these creatures living under my watch.

This is a very short and vague answer, but I hope it helps.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Welcome Queen Isabel

Look who I spotted in the Little Hive last week:

There she is: a queen! All sleek and regal. We are calling her Isabel. 

I had run over to the hives last Tuesday (June 16) to pop in the white plastic boards that fit in the base of the hives. I was curious about varroa. You leave the white board in place for 2-3 days, and then you count the varroa that fall. This gives you some indication of your level of infestation. 

On Thursday, I retrieved the boards. I lined the mites up in groups of five to make them easier to count. I still needed a magnifying glass and the flashlight feature on my iPhone because I am old and Luxembourg is grey and gloomy. (Oddly, both hives had the same number of mites. Shouldn't the bigger hive have had more?)

Anyhow, I couldn't resist opening the Little Hive on Tuesday to see why everyone was so zen in there. And there she was: a queen. I wasn't convinced I knew what I was looking at at first. And she is spritely, moving around the frame very quickly. But I managed to take a picture which I then sent to my husband. He called me immediately and said, "Hey, look at that! We have a queen!" So I felt validated. 

I ran over to the Bee Store to get a queen marking kit, but then we had several days where it was too rainy and too cold to open the hive. (I don't want to open it if the temperature is below 16C, which, even in June happens here -- I even had the heat on last week.) In the end I didn't get back to the hive until yesterday (June 23). 

I took my oldest daughter with me to man the smoker, and together we looked at every frame (and there are only ten) twice. But no luck. The mood in the hive was still zen. Foragers were bringing in pollen. And we could see eggs and larvae. We knew she was there. But we could not find her. 

Today I couldn't stand it, and we went back again. We looked at every frame without any luck and were working our way back through the frames when we finally spotted her. Again, she was moving very quickly, and what followed was a series of amateur moves while we managed to catch her, glue a blue dot to her, and return her to her people. 

Now I'm convinced we manhandled her, and while I want to give them a break from my intrusiveness, I'm dying to spy on her now that she will be easier to see. Maybe Sunday. 

In the meantime, I have this picture of bees with propolis on their legs:

See the reddish-brown dots? We also saw a lot of grey pollen on bees, which, according to my sources, is probably poppy or berries (blackberries and raspberries). 

We also added some bee candy (sugar paste) to the Little Hive. The idea here is that you want the hive to reach a critical mass (10,000 bees) before winter. By feeding them, the foragers don't have to work so hard, and the queen has the energy for all the egg laying she needs to do to get the hive strong enough to winter over. 

Tonight I went to see an organic beekeeper. He has a small hive in a glass frame. You can see the bees working and doing their bee dances. And you could see their queen. She would look around for an empty cell, and then lay an egg in it. It was so cool to watch. Another thing to look for at my hives. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Honey Harvest Follow Up (Thurs, June 4, 2015)

After I brought home my giant bucket of honey on Tuesday, I decanted it into about 36 500 gm jars. I did not whip it, as is the custom here in Luxembourg. Yes, I will undoubtedly have crystallization. But I like runny honey.

After completing the extraction, I had ten frames that had previously held honey. We took these back to the hive on Thursday (this was when the DH got stung on his hand). We put two of the frames into the brood box of the Big Hive. To make room for these, we took out two frames from the Big Hive brood box that had uncapped brood/larvae. We brushed off most of the worker bees, and put these two frames in the Little Hive (which only had about five frames in it anyhow). In retrospect, we figured any Big Hive bees left on those frames would eventually exit the Little Hive, be a bit befuddled, and then just go home to the Big Hive.

We added five other honey-extracted frames to the Little Hive. It is now just one brood box with ten frames in it. We have not yet seen anything resembling a queen in it, and those bees were fractious and angry. Hopefully those workers will turn one of those new eggs we added into a queen.

Below, you can see Charlotte, Queen of the Big Hive (green spot).

Morgan Freeman Is a Beekeeper Now

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

First Honey Harvest (Tues, June 2, 2015)

I was fortunate to have a bee friend offer me use of his extractors this week. To prepare for this, Sunday night we went to the Big Hive and put in what's called an escape board. This is a wooden contraption that has a one-way door: the bees can leave the honey super, but they can't get in it. You place it below the honey super you want to clear of bees and usually within a day or so (one of my books says 48 hours) the bees will move down into the rest of the hive. Apparently the bees in and around the honey stores are foragers, so they want to get back to work in the fields. 

This morning we went over and took off the honey super and the escape board. The method worked well, and there were very few bees in the super. We gently brushed people off into the hive. Then we moved the super to the car. It was very heavy. This is why some beekeepers prefer half-size honey supers. 

Later we learned that the super (with the frames and honeycomb) weighed about 23 kg (about 50 lbs). 

I took it to my friend's house. He has two extractors. The one in the back of the photo below is electric, but, sadly, my frames don't fit in it (too small). So we used the hand-crank one in the foreground. It could hold two frames at a time. 

But first we had to cut the caps on the wax cells. I did this with a special fork. After you uncap both sides of the frame, you can put the frame in the extractor and give it a spin. 

Uncapped frames look like this. 

Here you can see me uncapping the wax with the fork. 

The honey comes out a valve in the bottom of the extractor and into a special bucket with a valve. I have a plastic one, but it leaks a little. I can see that it might be a good idea to use a stainless steel container (#ChristmasWishList). 

When I got the honey home, I weighed it. I forgot to weigh the empty bucket, but together they are a little over 19 kg (just under 42 lbs). 

Later this week I will dispense the honey into jars. Many beekeepers in Luxembourg like to whip their honey to prevent it from crystallizing. But this creates spreadable and not runny honey. I may take my chances, although this honey has a rather low water content (about 15%), which, as I understand it, is good, but might lend itself to crystallizing sooner. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Looking Ahead to First a Honey Harvest

It's grey and a bit blustery today, but tomorrow it's supposed to rain and we think we're ready to harvest some honey.

So today we went over and traded the two honey supers (the lower one was largely capped last week) and put an exit board in between them so the bees in the super we want to harvest will leave the super, but won't be able to get back. This should result in a bee-free super.

I have a bee friend with a honey extractor who has offered to let me use it, so I have an appointment for 9:00 Tuesday morning.

In the meantime we swapped mini hives with my bee friend in Cents. Today we moved those frames out of the styrofoam mini box and into a wood DN box. There were five frames in the styrofoam box. We put them in the middle with five other frames with foundation. We did not see a queen, but we saw bees bringing in pollen. There was some capped brood, including a few drone cells (5 or 6 … not many). We think the small number of drone cells suggests that there's not a worker laying, although we didn't see a queen. That doesn't mean there is no queen.

We left the empty styrofoam box next to the new little wooden hive. The few bees who were still outside were walking into the new hive as we left. We will go back later tonight and take the styrofoam box away so it doesn't blow away.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, May 25, 2015

Reader Mail

Loyal Reader Will B asked me to explain a few terms, which I am happy to do. It reinforces the material for me, and I always like bringing others along.

Question 1: What Is Brood?
In a hive we can find a variety of things. There are bees (a queen, worker bees, and drones). There are varroa mites. There is wax comb (which the bees can build free-hand or on wax foundation provided by the beekeeper). The wax is composed of cells that the  worker bees put things in and may then cap (cover) such as pollen, nectar, and honey (which is nectar in cells that has been capped and dried a bit). The queen bee puts eggs in cells. The eggs and resulting larvae/pupae/bees are referred to as the brood.

A beekeeper can tell by looking whether a cell holds a future worker bee, a drone, or a queen based on the size and shape of the cell. While the queen is the one who determines the sex of the bees, there are those that say the real power to determine the makeup of the hive belongs to the worker bees, as they are the ones who create the cells into which the queen lays her eggs.

Question 2: What Is a Honey Super?
There are many different hive systems. I happen to use a Deutsche Normal (DN) system, but there are as many ways to house bees as there are beekeepers. Typically, beekeepers use the same system as their mentor or teacher, but that doesn't mean people don't experiment or create their own methods. Beekeeping is equal parts apprenticeship and trial-and-error.

This is a long way to say that the boxes that make up a hive can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are some rather funky ones--for example, something referred to as a top-bar hive. There's a good explanation of top-bar and a couple other hive systems here. Of the three systems described in that link, the DN is closest to the Langstroth hive.

But basically all hives have a few boxes full of brood (where the queen is laying her eggs) and at least one box above all that where the bees are storing honey. Those boxes of honey are called supers. Many beekeepers (including me) put a screen called a queen excluder between the brood boxes and the honey supers to keep the queen from laying eggs there.

In some hive systems the honey supers are half the depth of a brood box. The advantage to that it is easier for the beekeeper to move those smaller supers. Honey is surprisingly heavy. DN hives have honey supers that are identical in size to the brood boxes. The advantage is that you can use a box for either brood or honey. The disadvantage is that you might want a helper when it comes time to move your honey supers around. Beekeepers seem to cultivate back problems.

This does not mean that there is not honey in a brood box. There is. The bees eat it. But out of a brood box with ten frames, maybe two have some honey on them (and these will be the outermost frames). Moving towards the center of the box you will find pollen, and then the brood, with the queen likely hanging out in the middle portion of the brood box.

Question 3: Why a Water Source?
Simply put, bees need water same as we do. Beekeepers like to provide a water source for their bees as this keeps the bees from visiting the neighbor's pool or bird bath. And this is one of those small things anyone can do to help bees and other pollinators. Look on the internet for water sources for bees or here to find ways to provide bees with drinking water. The key is to prevent drowning. Take a saucer from under a potted plant, and fill it with rocks or marbles to give the bees a way to access the water, but not get trapped in it (they aren't swimmers). At my hive, I have a small catch basin under a downspout. I put wine corks and pine cones and sticks in there. No Drink-N-Drown at Honey Bunny Hives, please!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

In the Beginning

This blog is for documenting my adventures in beekeeping with notes and photos.

I became interested in bees about a year ago when I attended a hive visit here in Luxembourg. Long story short, I am now involved in a local English-language beekeeping group and have my own bees. My darling husband and oldest daughter are also fond of bees (my youngest daughter is horrified), and are now my partners in this project.

I am using the Deutsche Normal (DN) system, which means my brood boxes and honey supers are the same size. They have ten frames in them. DN frames come with support wires because they are intended to be used with foundation. I would like to move away from prepared foundation, although these frames will likely require something at the top.

I acquired a hive (and by this I mean a FULL HIVE) of Carnica bees at the beginning of May 2015. I was not expecting to jump in with so many bees -- I thought I was going to begin with a few frames, and nurse them along for the season. This has been a blessing and a curse, as I have already had to split the hive once, and I think we are going to have to do it again.

Some photos:

The bees arrived on 1 May 2015 in this green and brown hive. It is plastic or styrofoam, which makes it light and easy to move. There is an advantage to that.

I have an arrangement with a local business park to keep my bees on their property. It is a rather ideal location as the bees won't bother anyone, but the setting is east-facing, appropriately sheltered, with a water source, and completely left alone. I'll add some photos next time if I remember.

A few days later (4 May 2015), we transferred the frames into my hive (I'll call it Hive 1). I have a wooden hive which I painted with linseed oil. As you can see in the photo, there were three boxes to start: two boxes of brood (on the bottom) and one honey super (divided with a queen separator).

The following week (11 May 2015), we finally found and tagged the queen, who I refer to as Charlotte after the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg. We knew she was there based on the activity of the bees (bringing in pollen, etc), but until then we just hadn't spotted her. It's difficult to pick out an untagged queen in a very full hive.

At the same time, we pulled out three frames of brood and put them with two empty frames in a small box. We took these bees over to a friend's hive location, the idea being that they would all go back into the big hive if we kept them at my site. If all goes well, this group will create and raise a queen, and result in a small second hive. For clarity, I'll refer to this as the Cents Hive for now.

Yesterday (23 May 2015), we went back to visit Hive 1. The honey super was largely full of frames that look like the one in the photo below:

We checked all the frames (found and destroyed unoccupied queen cells), added another honey super above (eight frames of full foundation and two frames of partial, just to see how that might work out), and went home.

But some things were bothering us. In Box 1 (the first or bottom brood box), there was little brood: it seemed to be largely pollen and nectar. Box 2 seemed full with honey in the outer frames and brood in all the others. Oddly, there were very few drone cells.

At home we mulled it over, watched a beekeeping video on swarm management (Demaree method), and thought some more. We were suspicious that the queen didn't have anywhere to lay eggs, and that if we didn't do something else, she would lead a swarm.

So we went back and opened the hive again. This time we moved six frames. Bear with me, as this is sort of complicated to follow.

Starting the Box 2 (brood), we took frames 1 and 10 (all honey) and moved those into Box 4 (the new honey super).

We took two frames of just new foundation from Box 4 and put them in Box 1.

We took two frames from Box 1 and moved them into Box 2. These frames were largely drawn comb, but with little else happening on them other than pollen. We thought this might give the queen more places to lay eggs, but we don't think this solution will last long. We are thinking, weather permitting, that we will go back tomorrow (Monday), and perform some sort of a hive split. We are still debating exactly what we want to do:

Do we want to create a total of three hives (Hive 1 and two small hives)?

Or a total of two hives (Hive 1 and a second hive that combines bees from Hive 1 and the Cents Hive)?

That is the question.