Bee Escape Board

We did a honey harvest last week. One of the challenges with that is getting all of the bees safely out of the honey supers so you aren't carrying a few thousand angiry bees back when you go to extract the honey from the frames.  We've tried a few things to get bees out of honey supers to varying degrees of success. Neil found something called Bee Escape boards or Bee Mazes as we call them and they work like a charm.  We ordered one and then Neil's groundskeeper Hans built one for each hive.

Essentially it's designed so bees can crawl out but find it undesirable to crawl back in. Above is my friend Brie who had visiting a bee hive on her bucket list, so I incorporated her enthusiasm into our honey harvest plans. She's holding the Escape Board so you can see all the bees that have exited from the honey super.

The board should go between the smaller boxes called honey supers where bees store excess honey (the stuff you harvest) and the larger brood boxes where they raise young and have honey stores for winter. You set the Escape Board so that they bees will leave the supers and crawl down into the brood box.

One of our hives had some feral comb between the brood boxes and honey supers and the excess wax blocked the exit holes in the maze. The workers didn't vacate the the honey supers, they got blocked in!

Then Neil had the brilliant idea of setting the honey supers chock full of thousands of bees on a table near the hive and placing the Escape Board on top of them, as if it were a ceiling. Sure enough, the girls began to exit immediately through the top and fly back to their hive.  It was so hypnotic, I had to get a video so you could see how quickly they were getting the heck outta Dodge:


Which Bees Survived The Winter?

Last summer we had 7 hives: 2 carniolans, 2 Italians and 3 Russians. We had some bumps in the road and had to combine a couple of the Russians and went into the winter with 6 hives. We checked today to see who was alive with high hopes on the Russian bees since they are supposed to be very winter hardy. We discovered that only 3 of our 6 hives were still alive: 1 carniolan, 1 Italian and 1 Russian.

The 3 that are still alive are incredibly active.  We're having one strange winter right now, there's still lots of snow on the ground but it's been over 60 degrees Fahrenheit the last few days so the bees are anxious to be out of the hive and foraging, though there isn't too much to forage.  We did give them some buckets full of home made nectar so hopefully that will keep them busy until flowers start popping up.

To give you an idea of how active the live hives were, I set my iPhone in front of the entrance to record a video.  Apparently one bee was really interested in the phone and her buzzing kind of takes over, but it's a bit hypnotic to watch all the bees flying outside the entrance:


Bee Flicking

You need some bees off your frame?  Try Mr. Neil's excellent Bee Flicking technique.  Also a handy way to distract enemies should they surprise you in your bee yard. [vimeo][/vimeo]

No bees harmed in the making of this video and most were scooped up off the ground and gently placed back in.

Smoking Bees

This is a video of some of our bees just chilling out at the hive.  I started it to show what they look like when they are relaxed.  We had to dig deeper into the hive to see what was going on so I asked Non Birding Bill to smoke them.  When you puff your bees with wood smoke, it triggers a response that makes the bees go in and eat--there could be a forest fire and they may have to flee and who knows when they will eat again. The eating makes them less interested in defending the hive and stinging the large people moving around frames and boxes of the hive. When you smoke them it always reminds me of office workers who suddenly realized the boss is walking through and they all need to look busy, it's a joke I've done before but it still cracks me up.


Total Slacker Bees #Beekeeping

Dear Bees,

I don't want to get all Ned Stark on you, but Winter is coming.  You are bees of summer and it's been fun to fly around and explore, but seriously, dudettes, you need to start some serious storage to make it through the winter.

See, this whole socializing and not storing honey business is not going to do you any good.  I know, I know, Mr. Neil has been away for awhile and I've been busy counting birds this summer and you've been able to do your own thing, but that's because I believed you could handle the responsibility of being an adult worker.  And I realize that some of you are Russian Bees and that you have a reputation for keeping the hive small and still surviving the winter.  But all of you are bees of summer and bees of the south--what do you know of Winter?

I'm willing to compromise.  I know some books say you should have 3 deep brood boxes full of honey to get you through our northern winters, but we've had bees do just fine with only 2 boxes.  If that's all you want to do and not give us any excess honey this year--that's fine.  We'll help you with that.  But this business of only using one box and completely ignoring the second is not going to work, you must band together and get to work.

I know you think you're being clever by filling in any area that violates "bee space" but that's not enough.  And though we will subsidize you with food in a 2 box system well into fall and possibly early winter, we can't help you come February, that's when your stores are crucial.  And do understand, if you don't have enough honey, your hive will fail and you will die.  And though we will mourn you, we will loot your hive like the Hound loots a corpse.

I love you, but I understand that you are all insects and that you have to do as much for yourself as you can.  So, I hope you read my blog between gathering pollen and half-heartedly storing honey to understand how serious I am about your need to bump up production in order to survive the winter.  I also hope Mr. Neil doesn't mind me referencing another writer in a post about our hives.

Your Obedient Beekeeper,



Bees Plugging Away

After having all of our beehives die this past winter, it's so nice to finally have a warm spring day and look in to see bees industriously tending brood and filling up empty comb.  Our Italian bees are filling up hives like crazy, but the Russians and Carniolans are at a slow and steady pace.

Russians are known for smaller hives and to always have queen cells on hand to replace a failing queen if need be.  Even though this Russian hive had plenty of space, she had queen cells ready to go.  I doubt she'll swarm, but if she does, we have an empty hive near by that they are welcome to move into.  It was just Non Birding Bill and I out at the hives this time and we noted that the Russians make more noise than our other hives, but didn't bonk us to warn us they were about to sting.

One of my favorite things to watch for in the spring--fresh comb and lots of queen eggs.  Even though we didn't see the queen in this particular hive, we knew she was there and busy with all of these fresh eggs.  The yellow stuff in the bottom of the comb in the upper right corner is pollen workers have been bringing in.

Here's a bunch of healthy, gooey larvae--soon to be new bees.

We combined a couple of new hives in mid May using the newspaper method.  That worked well, you could see all the chewed bits of the newspaper in the bottom of the hive.  There were some queen cells and lots of drone cells but given the Russian tendency to rear queens I don't think it's a sign of a problem.

The hive had some good freshly capped brood and larvae in the empty holes.  This is a little more spotty than I'd like, but considering this is in a combined hive and the new and old workers had to work out some differences, I think this is a good sign.

At the end of the day, it's fun to go out and watch 6 healthy hives and see bees return laden with pollen and nectar, despite our chilly and rainy spring.




Solving the 2 Queen Problem

Remember how we had 2 queen in one of our Russian hives?  Well, they seemed to have sorted things out and the queen with the large white dot killed the newer queen with the small white dot.  So, that solved itself. However, one of our other Russian hives is queenless--that queen was alive when we installed it, she was the most active queen we had.  But there are no eggs and after searching for her three times we've concluded that something happened to her.

So, we decided to combine the queenless bees to the colony with one killer queen via the newspaper method. The box with the queen and colony is on the bottom.  We put a piece of newspaper on top, then the box from the queenless colony above the newspaper.  Above that is a box with a feeder pail.  The idea is that the bees from the queenless colony and the box with the queenright colony will chew through the news paper over the next day or two and in that time the queenless bees will absorb the queens pheromone and everyone will get along.  So, we've gone from seven hives to six but it's all good.

Our bees are ignoring the pollen patties that we provide as a supplement and seem to be hard at work gathering pollen from dandelions.  Many were returning with thick yellow baskets on their legs--yay!


Warblers Eating Honey

I'm in a quandary with my beehives and my love of birds.

On my way out to the Horicon Marsh Bird Festival, I stopped at Mr. Neil's for a quick check of our new beehives and some birding.  The warblers have arrived and the cool weather has forced those who arrive early in migration to search for alternate sources of food.  Yellow-rumped warblers like these would prefer insects.  Far too cool and far too few available, so the enterprising early migrants explored the bird feeders.

Despite the fact that Baltimore orioles are in the area and singing, none came to the feeders.  Yellow-rumps gladly took advantage of the grape jelly.

The warblers even jockeyed for position at the suet feeder among the four species of woodpecker that normally feed here.

Pine warblers are also hitting the feeders.  Whereas the yellow-rumps go for the suet and jelly, the pine goes for sunflower hearts.  It will also go for the suet, but seems content to eat the seeds.

While I was working around the garage, I noticed Neil's groundskeeper Hans had put out some old bee frames.  We do this so the bees from active hives will fly in and clean out the old honey.  These frames were from the hives that died over the winter.  The bees found it.  While I was working around the garage, I noticed warbles hanging out in the area.  At first, I thought the warblers were after the live bees and even said allowed, "I know you're desperate for insects, but you're far too small for eating bees."

Then, right about dusk when the honeybees were all tucked in their hives for the day, I noticed the warblers on the frames, pecking at them.  The light was dim but thanks to the auto timer on my Nikon D40 I was able to digiscope a Nashville warbler and a yellow-rumped warbler on the frames.

Based on the holes in the frame it looked like the warblers were going for dead bees.  Some of the frames had capped larvae that never hatched, so I figured the warblers were after the protein of old squishy non-hatched larvae.  We had more frames of dead larvae and honey in the garage so I set more out.  I figured the warblers could clean out the larvae and the bees could clean out the honey and help get a head start on their hives for the season.

The next morning when I went out for some birding, I checked the frames, they were covered in warblers.  Above are two yellow-rumped warblers and one Nashville warbler.  These were a small cross-section of about two dozen warblers waiting in line to feed off of my old beehive frames.  There were at least four species in the flock, the above two and pine warblers and orange-crowned.  I didn't get photos of the other two species, but got plenty of shots of the feeding frenzy.

Here are four warblers on one frame.  As I took pictures and watched them feed, it became clear that old bee larvae was not the only sustenance they were after.  They were very certainly eating honey.  I had a moment of panic...should birds be eating honey?  Honeybees are a fairly new species to North America, they came over with the early settlers.  Warblers did not evolve with honeybees.  Could they safely process honey and still migrate?

As I watched them I noticed that they tugged and chipped at wax foundation too.  Is that safe?  I've seen honeybees that have built comb out in the open on a bare branch, I remember seeing some abandon ones in Arizona and Texas...perhaps warblers have had exposure to this.

The air was so cold and their food scarce, I didn't want to take this source of food away if they were still trying to load up for their journey north.  I couldn't find anything about it on the Internet other than not using honey as a means to make nectar.  I wanted to plant myself in front of the frames all day long see how many species of warbler would come in but I had to go.

I also noted that as the sun got higher in the sky and our honeybees became more active, the bees didn't tolerate the warblers in close proximity and chased them off.  A few warblers still came in for the bounty but not four on a frame like at dawn.

I'm not sure if this is a good thing but if the warblers figured honey out, no doubt other birds will and I don't know if they should.  We already had one casualty of a tufted titmouse getting covered in honey while it explored some of our dead beehives.  I'm going to have to seek out an avian nutritionist to find out if this is a safe thing to offer birds.  If it is, this may be a new way to enjoy birds and bees and a new product to offer at bird stores.

2011 Bee Installation Part 2

This is Kelly McCullough, he came out with us to help hive four more packages of bees on Sunday.  His family kept bees when he was kid and I have to say, he's the first person I've ever seen get almost every single bee out of the travel cage.  I can't remember if it was in the comments or on Twitter, but they wanted to know how the bees got into the travel crate.  They were sucked out by vaccuum and put into the crate with a new queen in a cage.  It's pretty incredible when you think about all the "trauma" these bees have been through.

Happily chugging along with a queen in a hive in sunny California (or Texas or some other warm state).  Suddenly a big sucky beast invades their home, transports them into a darkness and then a cage.  They've lost their queen pheromone, the guiding force they've come to trust and are now in cage with thousands of other bees, suddenly a new queen pheromone works its way to them but they are trapped in a cage with no comb.  They have food, but just carbs, no protein.  Then they are shipped and jostled to colder parts of the country, colder than they have ever experienced in their lives.  A bit more jarring and tossing (akin to a huge earthquake and they are dropped into a mostly empty box.  A sense of duty based on age tells them to evaluate the home, explore the region and build.

Pretty resilient and pretty cool when you think about it and completely understandable that some bees look exhausted when they arrive.

The hiving of the four new packages went fairly well.  It's interesting to me that at this point, I'm happy to fall into naturalist/educator mode for installing bee packages.  I think having done just about all of them since the first year that I enjoy letting anyone else who wants to hive a package a go and be there for moral support and help getting queen cages open.  Lorraine has been there for most but still has some understandable nervousness since she had an unfortunate wasp incident as a kid.  Phobias are hard to conquer, but she still goes for it.  Kelly got a video of her installation and you can view it on YouTube.  It's kind of like watching some odd family therapy.

After all the new bees were installed Non Birding Bill and Kelly helped me check on the Russian bees we hived earlier in the week.  If you recall, there was concern that one of the queens was dead on arrival so Mr. Neil and Lorraine ordered a replacement.  Since that queen would be totally new to the hive, she would have to stay in her cage for a few days for the workers to absorb her pheromone.  Mr. Neil put her in on Thursday to give the workers a chance to get used to her.  Non Birding Bill checked it the next day and said, "She's already out."

That was too soon, I thought bees not used to the new queen could kill her.  But I figured we hope for the best and deal with this later.  When we were checking that hive on Sunday, we immediately found the queen because she's marked with a white dot:

See the reddish large bee in the center with the white dot, that's the queen.  Then NBB said, "Hey, the queen I saw had a much smaller dot.  I gave Kelly this frame to hold while I searched for a second queen on a different frame.

"There she is," NBB said noting the second queen (she's on the right).  We have 2 queens in 1 hive (insert sad trombone here).  Not sure what we're going to do about this.  I was trying to formulate a plan and NBB said, "Don't do anything, let the bees sort it out.  Every time we try to help, we screw them up and the hive fails.  Leave it alone."

Sage advice indeed.

I know there are systems for 2 queen colonies, but that's two well built colonies not two new ones.  If the queens find each other, they will fight to the death.  However, both could die in the fight.  We put the hive back together and I put a frame between the two queens.  Maybe if they survive the next couple of weeks we could try and set up something like this.  I have to admit that if one queen dies, I'll feel bad for getting them in this situation.  Ah beekeeping, you always leave me with more questions than answers.