Queen of the Sun

September 17, 2010

Thanks to my friend John for letting me know about this new documentary. From what I can tell, the film explores possible contributors to colony collapse disorder. I’m looking forward to seeing it.


Bee Update

August 21, 2010

Several friends have asked me recently how our feral hive is doing. In one word- fantastic! Hive three (my feral hive) is by far the strongest of the three. When I take the inner cover off, the bees are literally brimming over the top- and that’s with two hive bodies and three honey supers- in other words, they have lots of room. And, they’ve produced lots and lots of honey.

At a recent San Mateo County Beekeeper’s Guild meeting, there was some “buzz” (sorry) in the group that everyone’s feral hives were their strongest hives. Many beekeepers think that this is because the feral bees are the best adapted to our particular climate. Interesting. We’ll see how hive three does with mite resistance over the next year or so.

Meanwhile, I had to re-queen hives one and two. The good news is that the colonies accepted both queens, and there’s lots of brood and honey as we start to wind down for autumn. All in all, things are going well.

We’re at the tail end of honey flow, so Charlie and I have been busy with the bees. We’ll go into the hives again this weekend to take honey out, and then depending on how the bees are doing, we’ll wind down for the autumn. I thought that you might be interested in learning just a bit about robbing and honey extraction.

There are different ways to rob the hives. Some people use a fume board and a stinky chemical to drive the bees down lower into the hive. Some people use a bee escape which allows the bees to fly lower in the hive, but it doesn’t let the bees back up. When you put a bee escape on the hive maybe 24 hours before you rob, it can significantly reduce the number of bees that are up in the honey supers (the boxes where the bees are storing honey). I use a method that many small scale beekeepers use. It’s called shake and brush- and that pretty much sums it up. You pick up each frame and give it a vigorous shake so that the bees fall down into the hive. Then, you brush off the remaining bees and put the frame in a box with a lid to prevent robbing. It’s actually fairly simple- except for the ticked bees.

Now for the sticky part . . .

Our friends Isaac and Wanjiru came over to help us with extraction. You use the uncapping knife and take the cappings off the frame. Then, use a scratcher to uncap any cells that the knife couldn’t reach. The cappings go into an uncapping tank. It’s got a vat in the top to hold the wax, and then the honey drains down into a lower compartment.

When the frames are uncapped, they go into the extractor. We borrowed an extractor from our friend Rusty. There are different kinds of extractors. This was a very nice stainless steel extractor that holds four frames at a time. Essentially, it’s a centrifuge, and you have to flip the frames to get all the honey out of both sides of the frames. Everyone wanted a turn with the crank. Here’s Elizabeth giving it her best shot:

You can see the honey flowing out of the honey gate at the bottom of the extractor. It then goes through a filter and into a honey bucket.

After the honey is filtered, it’s ready to be bottled. There is a honey gate at the bottom of the bucket to use with bottling. I use canning jars from the hardware store. A trip through the dishwasher is all that is needed for the jars to be ready. The kids help with the labels, and we’re done.

Except for the eating part- yum!

Drone News

June 1, 2010

Charlie and I went into the hives on Saturday. One of the first things that we noticed was that hive number two had lots and lots of drones at the entrance. It’s normal to see drones- but we were seeing way more drones than normal. You’ll be able to identify the drones below by their larger bodies and huge eyes.

More drones at the entrance than one would expect. Also notice the full pollen baskets on the workers.

Remember how I told you about a month ago about pulling drone comb as a way to control varroa mites without chemicals? I guess that I didn’t expect the empty frame that we put into the hive to actually work as a drone trap. Don’t even ask- I guess that I’m an experiential learner. Turns out that the drone trap did exactly what we wanted it to do- only we didn’t pull it out in time and all the drones hatched. Sheesh- so not only do we now have a large population of drones in our hive, but we also probably have an increased number of varroa mites. Beekeeper bone head error. Learned my lesson. Unfortunately, I saw three workers with deformed wings in our broccoli patch, which is adjacent to the hives. Deformed wing virus is one of the viruses which is carried by varroa mites. So, if you see bees with deformed wings, it means that you have a varroa issue. We’re going to be (a lot) more careful about pulling drone comb.

Here is a drone trap (made from an empty frame). Notice that the drone brood below is sort of bullet shaped or bumpy. This is different from worker brood, which has a smooth surface. It is also slightly larger than worker brood.

I did get some good pictures of hatching drones.

You’ll also recall that drones don’t have stingers. So, here’s a just-hatched drone walking on my son’s finger.


May 13, 2010

We have a queen! Charlie and I went into the new hive today, and we were so excited to see beautiful worker brood (female capped larva). If you click on the image to see a close-up, you can also see the uncapped larva. The worker brood that we put into the hive when we installed the swarm would have hatched yesterday at the latest. So, all of the worker brood that we saw today was from a functioning queen. Wonderful news.

My colonies made from swarms have not always done this well- and it’s still too soon to be too confident. But, I’ll take the good news.

So, what does it look like if the hive isn’t doing well? There would be a dwindling population of bees. There is often also a good deal of drone (male bee) brood. Drones are made from unfertilized eggs. They can be laid selectively by the queen. But, when a hive is not queen-right, worker bees will start to lay eggs. The eggs are not fertile, so all of these eggs produce drones. You’ll remember that drones’ only function is mating- they contribute nothing to the maintenance of the hive. If you have laying workers in your hive, without swift intervention, the hive will die. Indeed, even with swift intervention, you may lose your colony.

So, hive three is doing well thus far. They took all of the sugar syrup that I fed them. They also took a good deal of the capped honey I had put in there. I will continue to feed them to help them draw out comb. Within a month, I should be able to stop feeding them. Again, I want them to draw out comb so that they’ll have a place to store honey, and so that the queen will have a place to lay eggs.

A huge thank you to the women over at Bees and Chicks for allowing me to use their photos. They got some fantastic shots of varroa mites. Also notice that this is a different sort of hive. They are using a Kenyan top bar hive. It’s a type of hive that I would like to use at some point in the future. Click here if you want to read what they have to say about varroa and top bar hives.

The New Hive

It sounds like a country western song, doesn’t it? I’ll just go with that theme and say “Dang! It hurt!”. I had forgotten how much it hurt to be stung. Not immediately- but within about five minutes. Ouch! There I was, mindin’ my own business, trying to get one of my last two beds double dug. I was about twenty feet from the hive- enough to feel comfortable. But, one of the workers kept buzzing me. I just ignored her, thinking that she was foraging and that she would leave me alone. Bees don’t typically sting you unless they’re threatened. All of a sudden she landed on my neck and stung me. A victim in my own back yard. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that I swatted at her . . . hmmmm.

And then there’s Sally. She’s my only girl with a broody tendency. When hens go broody, they want to hatch a clutch of eggs. They stop laying and sit in the laying box all the time. They lose weight, and they don’t eat or drink enough. Their comb gets droopy. All in all, they get sort of pathetic. It’s a hormonal cycle that lasts roughly 21 days- long enough to hatch a clutch of eggs. There’s a lot of talk among chicken owners about how to break a broody hen. Some measures are pretty draconian. Some will put their hen in a cage by herself and suspend her from the roof of the hen house. Some withhold food and water for a day or two. I’m not really comfortable with any of those measures- so I just let her stay broody and do her thing. It is sort of a pain, though. Like I’ve said before, she gets nasty when she’s broody. She poofs out her feathers to look big and aggressive when you get close to her, and she growls at you when you reach underneath her to get eggs out. As much as a chicken is capable of cognition and emotion, I think that the other girls get sort of irritated with her. They all like to lay in the same nesting box, and when she’s broody, Sally monopolizes it for three weeks straight. It’s sort of funny, though, to see two big hens trying to cram into the same box.

That’s it for now. More adventures from the garden later.