The “b” stands for “bitch”

Let me tell you something about bees. They can be real bitches sometimes. This is a swarm today from a hive I just checked four days ago. No swarm cells, plenty of room to roam. And here they are, swarming out this afternoon. Then, just after that swarm had landed, another swarm quite literally started from the hive right next to that one. That one likewise had an inspection four days ago. These two hives were the one I thought had gone queenless but had not; they turned out to be strong, vigorous hives. Perhaps too strong and my lesson learned: obviously we are doing something right here because we have strong bees. Obviously I am doing something wrong, and next season, instead of looking for signs of impending swarms, I will just go ahead and make splits without waiting, knowing now that they are incredibly hardy.

First swarm Mar 29 2015

 

Having said that, they are also sometimes incredibly annoying. The second swarm went not just to the same tree, which would have been very convenient, but to the very same branch, which is not. The combined weight of the two swarms bowed the branch to the ground as you see in the second picture.

Second swarm Mar 29 2015

I set up two boxes and tried to separate the clumps to attempt to get a queen in each box, but missed. The bees from the second box went into the first after I dumped them into that second box, resulting in a gigantic batch of bees in the first box. So, I improvised a little. I took several frames from the full box and shook them into the second, hoping like hell that one queen was now in the second box. Then I put a queen excluder on the first box and put the second box on top, with the top cover propped open. This way, the queens cannot pass through between the boxes, but the workers can. What I am hoping is the fanning the bees do at the entrance of the stack (at the bottom) and the fanning at the cover (at the top) will call all the workers into their proper spaces. If this works, I can then just remove the top box off to its own place, and presto: both swarms captured. We will see how that works.

Here’s a closer look at the two swarms sharing the same branch.

Combined swarms Mar 29 2015

That is a fair number of bees, yes. I’m hopeful they’ll stay.

Hive inspections

Today was hive inspection day at the ranch. Inspections are necessary to gauge the health of the hives, making sure they have not gone queenless (and if they have, are they making a new one?), checking for mites or small hive beetles, ensuring they are bringing in adequate pollen and nectar, that there are larva and capped brood, and seeing if they have enough room to expand – a crowded hive is one that will swarm.

Swapping boxes

 

This hive is quite healthy, and one I was concerned about possibly swarming. In the top brood box, there were plenty of larva/capped brood, the foragers are bringing in pollen and nectar, and all is well. I wanted to check the lower box, so pulled the top one off. In the lower box, there were some empty brood frames, and some capped brood, along with stores. Since bees tend to move upward, I decided to swap the top and bottom boxes, putting the main action on the bottom, and leaving the top box for expansion. I didn’t find any real indicators of a potential swarm, but now that we’re moving into the real season, I’ll be keeping an eye on them, as with the others.

Future honey

This is a frame from the super (the honey storage area) on this same hive. They have drawn out the comb and this will be future honey, once the cells are filled, the liquid is dried to a certain percentage of moisture, and then they cap it.

The foundation on this frame is thinset. I hate it, and so do the bees. Fortunately, we don’t have a ton of it in use. As I find it, if possible I’ve been swapping it out for a new frame with a foundation called Rite Cell, which is plastic with a beeswax coating. I’ve found the bees will often not fully draw comb on the thinset as seen here, and that it is not sturdy enough to handle the weight of a frame full of honey, brood, and pollen. This one I could not replace immediately due to the brood on it, but I moved it into the top box of this hive, so when the brood hatches and they start using it for stores, I can swap it out (leaving the frame leaned up against the hive so they can retrieve their stores and move them back into the hive).

Thinset foundation

Once the larvae reach a certain age, the bees will cap them off. When they mature, the new bees will chew through the capping to let themselves out. On this frame, we can see some larvae in the process of being capped.

Capping larvae

The pollen the girls are bringing in is a delightful mix of colors, testament to all the various things blooming in our area.

Pollen colors 2015

Some of the pollen is neon orange – could it be from the neon cheese plants Kraft grows for their mac & cheese?

Neon orange pollen 2015

We also found a new bee breaking out of its cell.

Birth of a bee 2015

This is what we like to see: good brood (some already out, obviously), with an arc of pollen that isn’t really visible here, and the outside arc is capped honey.

Brood frame

These are queen cells – one capped off, two others in progress. Queen cells can be a sign that the hive went queenless, but not before there were eggs suitable to be replacement queens, or that there is a possibility of the hive preparing for a swarm. Generally in the case of the latter, we will also find drone comb attached to the bottoms of the frames in the upper box, and affixed to the tops of the frames in the lower. This frame, shown upside down here, had no drone comb at the bottom, only one section of drone comb on the bottom of the adjacent frame, and they seem to have plenty of room for brood and stores, so I don’t think this is an imminent swarming. It may just be a safeguard, or they may want to replace the existing queen for some reason, like poor laying. I didn’t really see any bad brood patterns in any of the boxes, but who can read the mind of the bees and what they think they want to do? What this means overall is that I’ll need to keep an eye on them and check back on them in about a week.

Queen cells 2015

The bees in this hive drew out some truly funky comb in the shape of an arc, and another piece perpendicular to the foundation. It does not appear the queen cared all that much, as she laid eggs in both and the bees capped them right off. Bees can be so weird sometimes.

Weird comb patterns

This frame had a bit of comb drawn and nectar in some cells, but was otherwise unremarkable and almost empty. I did not originally see the queen on the frame, and didn’t expect her to be there. Looking over the photos, though, she and her entourage were on the frame.

The queen and her entourage

Did you find her? Here she is (black arrow) with her attendants (red arrow). They have their butts in the air and are flapping their wings to help spread the queen’s pheromone.

The queen and her court

 

We looked through all the hives, and found no mites and no small hive beetles. The captured swarm hive is expanding itself nicely, and has drawn out six of the right frames in the box. The two hives I initially thought had gone queenless are both working to draw out comb in the additional brood boxes I put on them toward the end of last month. Things are looking good in the bee yard!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mowing it down

In past years, when it was time to mow the orchard/bee yard, I would give the hive stands a fairly wide berth until right at the end of mowing that area, then drive the tractor as quickly as possible in front and back of them about ten feet away. I did this without a suit on, because there were few hives, and the speed generally got me past them and away before they figured out what was happening. This resulted in much less area to whack to knock down the grass and weeds in that ten foot area before and behind them (suited, of course), but was still kind of a pain. Obviously, getting nearer to the hives with the tractor would be much better, efficiency-wise, leaving much less area to have to manually whack. The very first year with bees, I did run up right across the areas directly in front of the hives, as they were young hives, and there wasn’t much danger in doing so.

Now, with six very active hives, another hive likely to come from a split of one of those, and more bees coming, efficiency is definitely key, as is spending as little time possible annoying them with motors or vibrations. After all, I want them to be able to focus on their work pollinating, collecting pollen and nectar, making new bees, and generating honey. So today, I suited up, climbed on the tractor, and started mowing, running right up in front of the hives. The girls were supremely pissy about this: bees boiled out from every single hive, some coming to knock against me and the tractor, others forming up on the landing boards, and some flying around in front of their homes, ready to attack in force. Suiting up: excellent decision!

At one point I hopped off the tractor to pull the two new hive stands out of the way to mow under them, and when I turned to climb back on, there were bees buzzing around the tractor, attempting to communicate their displeasure to it about its motor, and the vibrations from the blades disturbing their piece.  On the down side: it can be a little hot in the suit, even on a cooler day like today. On the plus side: I swept a couple of bees off the seat before I climbed back on, so no stings in the butt (or anywhere else), and the orchard/bee yard is mowed right up to and behind the stands, leaving much less to whack, and that just right under each stand.

Next project: digging out the grass from under each stand, laying landscape fabric in, and topping it with mulch. My desired end result: no whacking necessary around the stands at all. Easy and efficient is the name of the game, particularly with the brutal summers we have.

Easter egg hunting, ranch style

Not really easter eggs, but what you find sometimes when weeding out and prepping a bed for the new season.

Not really eggs
Not really eggs

This particular bed is one I went through previously, digging potatoes at the end of the season – that month or so that we take a short break. I know I missed a few, but I also intentionally left a few seed bits in place, to see how they would do without any attention.

Answer: not bad at all.

New potatoes March 2015

I collected about five pounds or so of two types of potatoes, all told. About half were of a size and not sprouting to be separated out for us to eat. The other half will go back into the bed tomorrow, and I’ll dig it all up again in just under three months.

Lots of potatoes

 

 

 

Calling it corny

The “official” spring is not here, but after another 90F+ day yesterday, I’m calling winter over. Mother Nature may kick me in the butt for doing so, but it’s time to once again tilt at my personal windmill: I’ll be planting the first round of corn at the ranch this week. We’ve been here since the middle of 2007, and didn’t really plant anything that year. Since then, here are the results for the corn:

2008: planted, but the native soil was too weak, since most of this area used to be pine forest. Poor germination, poor growth.

2009: incorporated manure and topsoil into a plot of the native soil. Better germination, still poor growth that stalled at about the one foot tall mark.

2010: no crops, thanks to another round of cancer to beat back.

2011: good germination, steady growth. Trampled by deer, as it was in an unfenced area.

2012: moved the sowing to raised beds. Zapped by multiple tropical  storms as it was beginning to tassel.

2013: sown again in raised beds. Good germination, good growth, tasseled out, fair pollination, some pushover from storms that caused a good number to lodge. Winter squash and beans sown with the corn (the “three sisters” method). Corn earworms got into a lot of the ears, and total harvest was half a dozen ears. No harvest of the beans or squash, as neither produced.

2014: sown again in raised beds. Good germination, growth, okay pollination. Winter squash sown underneath. Got sick during a visit from relatives, couldn’t keep a close eye on it, as the illness hung on and on for over a month. The corn survived most of the storms, but no harvest.

2015: will sow again in raised beds, but without any complementary planting. I intend to use some stakes and string to create a matrix for the corn to grow through, to try to keep it upright during our summer storms. Since corn is wind pollinated, and here, the wind is often fierce enough to blow the pollen away out of the plot, the plan is to help the pollination by hand. We don’t have a thousand acres of the stuff to capture all the pollen being blown around, which would just leave the perimeter planting as an issue if we did have that much  in the ground.  That means monitoring for the tassels being fully open and anthers to start forming. Once this happens, and I can see the pollen, I’ll start cutting the tassels and brushing them over the silks of the ears that will begin forming at about the same time the tassels are ready. Hopefully, this will be just the thing to get over the Sisyphean hill that has been corn planting at the ranch.

Spring is coming

With all due apology to George R. R. Martin and GoT, spring is on the way. It may already be here, looking at our ten day forecast, with daytime temps bouncing around between the mid-50s and low 80s. Yep, Florida is a weird place during this transition time. The fact that we’ve already see a swarm this early in the season is also a sign, of sorts – it means the queens in the hives have still been laying more or less at the same rate as they always have. In the winter, they generally slow down or stop, so as not to have a ton of bees in the hive that need to be fed and kept warm during the cold. Since Mother Nature is a bit wacky this year, and the winter has been mild, the bees are going full bore. Nothing wrong with that, except chasing down a swarm and trying to stop other hives from swarming.

When the state apiary inspector was here, I noted the two colonies I thought had gone queenless were looking a bit cramped. Checking on them again, it was clear the queen was doing her thing, as the frames in the brood box were full of bees, brood, pollen, and honey – in other words, a very healthy hive. There were also bees bearding on the landing board and front of the hive. In the heat of summer they will do this to relieve the heat within the hive. On milder days, it can be a sign there simply is no room left for expansion. Given that it was also time to check the gear to determine what supplies needed to be ordered, I decided to go ahead and expand both the one looking overcrowded and the one next to it, that was also going strong.

Storing hive bodies, supers, and frames is a necessity. Storing them properly is an even bigger necessity, to ensure critters don’t move in to them and take over, and the ensure wax moths don’t take up residence and destroy the woodenware and any comb that might be on any frames.

Wax moth damage
Wax moth damage

That’s done by stacking them soundly with no entrances available, and using paradichlorobenzene in the stack. What’s that, you say? It’s a kin to traditional mothballs, and smells like them. But regular mothballs you use in your closet are napthalene, and bee folks say use paradichlorobenzenne instead – so that’s what we do. I had put down a couple of sheets of newspaper, sprinkled the crystals on, then stacked the hive bodies on top of them, closed off with an overturned top cover.  That would take care of any wax moths, keep rats/mice from getting in, and also keep Florida wood roaches out. It worked out fairly well, although next time I suspect using a bit more of the crystallized stuff would be better, as it kind of just melts away as time goes by.

Dead wax moth and feces
Dead wax moth and feces

It worked out pretty well,  as you can see from the dead moth on top of that frame (and the poop, but no larvae present). There were some frames I pulled out that had dark comb, as it had been used for brood once and then packed with pollen as the brood hatched. A couple of those had the remnants of wax moth damage, as wax moths lay in dark comb. Those went into a box set out near the shed where I was working. The bees immediately found it and notified a couple thousand of their closest friends to come help gather it and clean.

Cleanup crew
Cleanup crew

There was a bit of fighting going on between bees from different hives as they went about gathering from the frames, but in general, they were well behaved, and completely unconcerned with me – a good thing, as I was not wearing any protective gear.

Eventually, all the gear had been unstacked, examined, cleaned when necessary, or given over to the bees to clear. That left me with an inventory list of what was available, about to be put into use for the two lively colonies, and what needed to be discarded.

Sorting in progress
Sorting in progress

Once this chore was done, it was time to have a look in the hives. That will be a separate post. Stay tuned!

 

 

Beeeeees!

Here in Florida, everyone who keeps bees is supposed to register with The Man. Not everyone does, of course, sometimes because they just don’t know they’re supposed to, and sometimes because they’re some anti-government whackadoodle who doesn’t think it’s any of the government’s beeswax. They should, however: one of the jobs of the apiary inspector is to look for instances of American foulbrood, which is a very nasty business. If foulbrood is found in a hive, the hive has to be destroyed – by burning. That’s how bad it is. I asked bee man how often he sees it, and he says just once or twice a year. Remarkable: consider that this guy and another spend literally almost all their time driving around doing inspections, in beeyards with one hive or a thousands. Finding foulbrood that rarely out of that many hives says that the bees are doing well and that the beekeepers are, too.

I had thought two hives had gone queenless, as they were not ramping up from the splits I had made previously, and I hadn’t found good brood patterns in them. I’ve also not really gone into the hives except to pop the cover and listen for pissed-off bees in about a month-ish, except for one hive from which I made the newest split (that I am not sure actually hatched a queen that mated; there is definitely no brood in there). BUT! Upon inspection, both of the hives I thought might not make it have brood in them. Score! This means they are well on their way to earning their keep here at the ranch.

As some people know, we had a swarm earlier this week – that originated from the hive from which I had made a split trying to forestall that swarming – and the swarm landed in one of the very tall pine trees, about 50 feet off the ground. That was not a swarm that I could safely attempt to retrieve, so I wished them well and just kept checking them every day. I also put out the swarm lure in a nearby tree, to try to coax them into it as a suitable landing place. One day as I was heading out to replace a couple of feeders, a clump of bees fell off the swarm. When I checked later, they had formed a smaller ball on the end of the same branch the original ball was on – but again, in a place it would not be safe to try to capture them.

Initial swarm
Initial swarm

Today, while waiting for bee man, I went out to replace some feeders and check on the swarm. As I was heading into the bee yard, I looked up, and finally, after five days, no bees way up in the tree. I figured the scouts had finally found a suitable space and everyone had taken off. This was not the case. As I shifted my gaze downward, what did I spy but the swarm, reformed about five feet off the ground in one of the hardwood trees nearby. An excellent prospect for capture.

Hello, ladies
Hello, ladies

We have attempted swarm captures before here at the ranch, with no success. Between then and now, though, I’ve done a lot more research, and picked up some pointers on how to get them in the box without them immediately flying right back up to where they were. With those tips in mind, I pulled out four frames we were storing from the last honey extraction and put them into an empty hive body box. Directly under the swarm, I laid down a couple of white sheets, then put the hive box (with bottom board) on those. The next step is the one that is terrifying to some people: using a hive tool, or brush, or just your hand to run along the tree limb, breaking the ball’s hold on the branch, causing them to fall into the box in a giant clump. This also results in a bunch of disturbed bees flying around. When they’re swarming, they are not really aggressive most of the time, because they’re all full of honey. But, if the swarm has been out of the hive for a few days, some of the bees may no longer be so full of honey, and may think your head is a terrific place to target with their asses, where their stinger resides. Luckily, I was completely suited up, and was not stung at all. Some of the bees, disturbed into flying, flew right back to the branch, so it took a couple of tries to get enough bees in the box for everyone to recognize that was a viable home.

 

With a bunch of bees in the box, I put on the inner cover (which has a slot in it) and then the outer cover, propping the edge of the outer cover up with a piece of a branch. This allows the bees to enter from the side as well as the front, and is a good thing, as there were quite a lot of bees on the side of the hive body. With the outer cover propped open in this manner, and with a little luck, the bees will march right into the hive. And that is exactly what they did.

Bees on the box

By the time the bee man made it here (about 4:30), the branch was empty of bees, and the box was full of them. In just a bit, I’ll head out to remove the branch prop and close the cover. Tomorrow, I hope they will still be in the box, and if they are still there by Saturday, I and my bro Chris Abbey​ will be able to move the box back to the hive stand, and I can stick a feeder on them. If all works as planned, this will be our first successful capture of a swarm!

Bees in the boxAll photos and video are courtesy of my mom, who has now also been instructed on the proper way to shoot video (landscape!) from her phone when the needs arises. Thanks, Mom!

Winter. Spring. Spring. Winter.

This is our weather here. We’re northern enough in the state to get a taste of winter now and again – and by that, it’s highs in the 50s and lows sometimes dropping under freezing down to the teens – but southern enough overall that a lot of days during the winter months are more like spring. Yesterday, and now today (after a front blew through, raining and moving along), we are yet again experiencing a spring-like day: some clouds, but mostly sunny, mid-60s temp, and a fair amount of wind. It is a bit like Groundhog Day – appropriately enough, AMC has a little marathon of that movie going today – as we continue the cycle of getting through the months that the gardens are not fully in production, starting flats, pulling weeds, and in general, waiting for our real season to get underway.

Germination!

 

Doing the grunt work

One of the things about the ranch that remains constant is that there is always something to do, either inside or out. This past week, the goal was weeding the back garden area and chopping up the vetch (which, hilariously enough, the autocorrect on my phone wants to correct to “kvetch”) that has regrown, so it can be used both to mulch the transplants when the time comes and so it can compost in place to return itself to the soil for later years. Today: achievement unlocked! The two rows in the foreground need some topping off with fresh soil and manure, and that will be done well before the transplants are ready to go out.

Back Garden Feb 2015

Next target: the front gardens. In addition to the weeding chores, keeping the bees fed and happy during these winter days is also very important, as is keeping a good water supply for them. I do this with a birdbath near the beeyard, with some sticks in it to allow the bees to drink without drowning themselves. Even with this in place, we still have to fish them out of the pool from time to time, but once they dry off, they’re off again back to their hives. I found this one girl hanging out at the edge of the birdbath basin, drinking up.

Bee, drinking Feb 2015

Just another day at the ranch on a beautiful day that felt more like spring than winter.