There are times when I go out to the beeyard just to watch the activity at the hives. The girls zipping in and out, guards on the landing boards (along with drones, hanging out, drinking honey and talking up the girls), the occasional midair collision that harms no one, the (at times) clumsy landings and then crawling over other bees….it’s all a day in the life in the yard. The bees I see foraging today will be dead by next month, having worked themselves to death, and will be replaced by newly graduated foragers, heading out into the world to find its bounty and return it to the hive for the benefit of all. Have I mentioned I’m a writer?
I captured this with the new camera (a Canon Powershot SX730 HS as my pocket camera to replace my Fuji FinePix, which is good, but very old). I stuck it on a tripod in front of the mega hive (#8) while I went and had a look at the second split from that hive (#11). It’s very relaxing – so much so that the other night I almost fell asleep watching it. I should keep that in mind the next time the insomnia is really bad. (Of course, it could also be because I was sick, on meds, and had been doing some things outside that absolutely had to be done when I should have been resting. Who knows?)
We may finally be heading toward fall here at the ranch.
The maples have discarded most of their leaves, the water oaks are following suit, and the wind from the north carries with it the promise of our little piece of the planet cooling down just a tad.
(Two days later…)
Our forecast stands, thankfully: cooler weather will definitely help me get the gardens pruned back of weeds and covered for the next few months. And by “me”, I mean I’ll be pulling weeds and my sister will be putting the weedblock down. She hates weeding. And that’s okay, since I’m having her do the heavy lifting – I’ve done something to my shoulder and either damaged my rotator cuff or the labrum. I’m leaning more toward the rotator cuff, because of the clicking and popping and it hurts pretty damned badly to raise my arm. My right arm, I should clarify: my good arm, since the surgery from the (fuck you, cancer!) cancer removed muscle and nerve tissue from my left arm and while I can carry stuff with that arm, mostly, I can’t raise it up over my head like a normal person would. So, two damaged arms. One from surgery. The other probably from throwing the ball for the puppy without being warmed up sufficiently each round. The round where it popped was apparently the one that was trying to my attention and tell me to stop doing the stupid thing.
Cooler weather also brings in the time for making (which sounds like something out of fantasy novel, and who knows, that may very well be somewhere in the fantasy trilogy that’s bouncing around in my head). I can make a huge batch of hot sauce made from tabascos – obviously I can’t just call it “tabasco sauce”, since McIlhenny would probably sue me to death, so I need a name for it. But that’s a thing that needs to be done with all the windows open and fans going, and I still have to wear a mask while making it. The upside is that once made and stored properly, it will not lose a lot of flavor as it ages. It won’t go bad – there’s just vinegar, salt, and tabascos in it, so it’s by far the simplest thing I make as far as processing the harvest goes. But if it’s stored in a warm, hot place, it can lose some flavor.
The other item: some more coffee roasting. We’ve decided that really does have to be done outside, because some of the roasts are darker – I made an absolutely miller batch of columbian/sumatran been mix, roasted dark – but it does smoke a little, making the smoke alarms go off, and the whole house smells like a coffee processing outfit. The latter is not so bad, but the former is annoying. Since the weather is agreeable, I’ll be roasting up some combinations for my taste testers to do some trials. I did a medium roast on some Indonesian beans that my mom really liked, so that will also be on the agenda. Want some? Drop me a comment here, or drop me a note via email (clients: in a ticket is fine, it will reach me). It won’t be packaged in anything fancy, like an actual coffee bag, but we will vacuum pack it. Specify whole beans or ground – I recommend whole bean if you have a grinder, as whole beans retain their flavor longer than ground, but the ground version won’t be so much that you can’t drink it in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, in the beeyard, the swarm I caught last season swarmed away, and one of the new hives had to have killed the queen, made a new one, and absconded. In the newer hives, the queens have one wing clipped so they can’t go anywhere. And since I’ve been ill pretty much constantly this year, including three times in the hospital, I’ve not been able to pay attention to them as I would have liked. But, I did get out there the other day, and did a few quick inspections. Most of the boxes are bursting with bees (yes, I do like some alliteration), with one that’s straggling pretty badly, and I’m thinking that next season I’m probably going to have to commit some regicide and put a new queen in that box.
I also picked up, courtesy of the vast intarwebz, an idea for controlling small hive beetles. These little assholes get into the hives, poop everywhere, go through the comb, ruining the comb AND the honey in it, and are generally a royal pain in the ass. Specialty food/bar prep towels, cut in squares, and laid on the two back edges between two hive bodies has done more to keep the small hive beetles under control than any other non-chemical way I’ve used. The towels are thicker than usual paper towels, and have some tufting to them. The bees will pick at it, because it’s a foreign item in the hive and they want to clean it up and get it out, but more importantly, bees herd the beetles into corners on their own. When they do that without anything in place, the beetles are still alive and they will break themselves out when the beekeeper removes a frame. With these towels in place, the beetles get stuck, very much like velcro, because they have barbs on their legs. Leave the towels in for a couple of weeks, and then change them out for a fesh set. I thought I had a photo of some of the beetles caught in a couple of the hives I tried it in, but I can’t find that, so I’l just take some new pics on my visit to the beeyard tomorrow. I’ll be inspecting a few more hives, feeding the ones who need it, and generally getting them ready for “winter”, such as it is here.
Enough of the almost all word dump that doesn’t even do justice to anything. Until next time, peeps: be well.
First off: an aptly named “megaton” leek. This has overwintered along with some close friends, and is now officially just slightly less in diameter than my wrist. I can hear you now. “What on earth am I to do with giant, mutant leeks, farmer?”
Eat them, of course. Potato leek soup. Slice them thinly and add them to whatever dish you’re making that involves onions (just lessen the onion, and add some leek). Slice them, lay them out on parchment on a half sheet pan, freeze them, then bag them. They will last practically forever, and you can just reach in and grab some as you need. The possibilities are not entirely endless, but there are a ton of them.
So what is this “reclaiming your life” thing? It is: getting off social media instead of seeing all that time go down a black hole, purposeless and wasted. You might say to yourself that you’ll just spend ten or fifteen minutes checking in, and the next thing you know, it’s three hours later and you’ve not accomplished anything, gotten yourself pissed off or stressed out, or any other not very healthy thing. Plus, the crazy people pushing woo is simply unbearable. Other than posting something about people staying away from the ranch while I get rid of this pneumonia, and one phenomenal video of a guy singing Agnus Dei (Barber’s Adagio for Strings, if you’re not familiar with that), I have not been whiling away time on facebook, not getting other things done. I haven’t been keeping an eye on twitter. I’ve posted a few bee pics to instagram. And my life has improved for it, both from a productivity standpoint and a general sanity standpoint. It has also allowed me to return to the long form posting that just seems to be impossible on the various social media sites, as that is not what they are designed for, in the overall scheme – add to that weirdo algorithms that make people miss what you say (facebook) or trying to follow far too many people (all of them), and it’s just better without it. People who want to follow what I have to say will come here or to one of my other sites if they are so inclined, and I’m perfectly fine with that. I highly recommend leaving those things behind (except for business-related posts, of course) or at least setting an actual timer if you feel you must browse through what’s going on. You’ll probably find (as I did) that you’ve been spending way too much time on things that really don’t make a huge difference in the overall scheme of things. You’ll also probably find you have quite a bit of free time to work on doing whatever it is you really want to do. The benefits far outweigh the negatives of reading whatever people are having for dinner or that they’re going to the store (seriously, I’ve seen people post to facebook that they’re going to walmart). Leave it behind and reclaim that time and your life. End of rant.
Given the erosion of the bee population at the ranch – one hive went queenless and absolutely refused to make another, even after three tries, another hive simply absconded for no apparent reason I could determine after examining the hive, etc. – I ordered eight packages of bees. Two will ship in April and six in May, months that are not creeping toward us, but running at full speed as if we’re playing Red Rover, Red Rover. Yesterday and today, I finally got around to processing the frames of honey I had pulled in late December and January from various hives. Usually, I would leave them on, but since winter as most people know it hasn’t really paid us a visit at all save one night that got down to 23F and a few other random days and nights of cold weather, it’s been positively springlike here. Too much honey in the hives can leave the honeybound. That spells trouble as we jog along to spring, as the queens will be hunting around for somewhere to lay, and if they don’t like what they see or if the hive feels too crowded, they will swarm. Remember, last year we had a swarm in February. In order to get things going for spring, those pulled frames had to be extracted and gotten out of the way. Total: about 100 pounds of honey, which smells like it might be a bit fermented, but we’ll have to wait and see on that. It would be a shame to have to dump it, but unless I can find someone who wants to make mead with it, that’s what will happen. Pity.
Another sign that spring is barreling down at us: frog butts on the windows, and peepers singing at night, even though the nights are still on the bit chilly side. That’s when you know: get yourself together and start busting your ass to get things done.
First up: weeding. If I want to get sunflower seeds in, and start the first round of beans, the weeding needs to be done. That’s y goal this week, in addition to laying another brood box on the only single box hive still in the beeyard – which, handily enough, I can populate with some of the spun frames, as I had a dozen of them during the honey extraction process. Marvelous.
I hope you all are well and that life is treating you kindly – or if not kindly, at least with a sort of benign neglect that does not mean life hates you.
It isn’t quite Death of a Salesman, but it’s still a little sad. The small swarm I captured late in the season, which I was, for months, trying to keep alive to the point of combining it with the remaining bees and queen from hive #11 that absconded is dead. That’s the way things go sometimes, I suppose. Doesn’t make it any easier. I took the frames from those boxes and left them out yesterday afternoon for the girls from the other hives to clean. Late in the day toward sundown, I put them into a couple of hive bodies to avoid having them get rained on or collect dew. After a few more days, I’ll go out and collect those frames and boxes and store them in the shed until spring arrives.
In other news, yesterday was a bee day only, exercise-wise. We’ve had record breaking temperatures here and insanely high humidity. I did manage to get through the remaining hives I had not yet inspected and do all the things that needed to be done with #11. The other hives all seem to be going about their business normally. Hives #13 and #14, which are package bees from May of this year, never really built up to the level I would have liked to have seen out of them. Poorly mated queens can cause that, so those two in particular will require some watching next season to make sure the queens get themselves in gear to build up the colony – if they don’t, the bees themselves may decide to replace their queens as unproductive, a process known as supercedure. This would be fine with me, as it’s how I’ve let the other hives manage themselves.
As we did last year, we will be doing an end of year/beginning of year harvest of honey. The youngsters cleaned the extractor (thanks!), and will be ready for me whenever I’m ready for it. Generally, we wouldn’t be harvesting honey at this point, but the weird weather has this unexpected bonus round.
The first of the year is supposed to bring much cooler, winter-like weather to us here, but no freezes in the forecast as of right now. That’s good, as it will allow the girls to recognize that it’s time to slow down a little, and I’ll be able to focus more on clearing the beds for the upcoming season, checking the grow lights in the barn, doing some minor repairs here and there, and in general getting the soil ready for when it’s warm enough to start planting out.
Here’s to 2016 being a much, much better growing and harvesting year than 2015.
I started keeping notes on the hives back in October, when it was clear this was necessary to keep track of each hive and to remind me of what I was doing as we headed toward winter and started to wind things down. This has been a great help, given that winter does not appear to be in an hurry to arrive, and allows me to keep track of which hives I’ve swapped top and bottom boxes, which hives I’ve found the queens and larvae (or both), how many bees I’m observing in each hive, and all the other million little things that go along with keeping bees versus having bees.
Yesterday, after finding an abandoned queen, I took the small swarm I caught and combined it with the box where the queen remained, newspaper between the boxes so the new bees could get used to the new queen’s pheromones. Today’s visit to the beeyard including checking that combined hive, and there was no queen (at least I couldn’t find her) and very few bees . I’ve been nursing this small group of bees along for months, trying to get them to produce their own queen, and they simply haven’t gotten it down. I left the setup out there for now, but I’m probably going to have to write this one down as a loss.
The other hives I checked today, and where I swapped boxes, seem to be doing well: found the queens in a couple, found some larvae, found a good base population of bees, and found lots and lots of honey. So much honey that I’ll probably need to take some off so the girls don’t get any bright ideas about possibly swarming out because the amount of empty comb real estate is running out quickly. As with everything else in life, every day is a learning experience, and some days raise more questions than answers – right now, those mostly revolve around the weather and the extraordinarily high temperatures we’ve been having, since that means the girls remain active, foraging, drawing comb, and finding nectar and pollen to store.
Tomorrow, I’ll go back out to the hives and check a few more and get another great workout from moving heavy things, until all have been inspected as this month winds down. Who knows what 2016 will bring? Other than the need to determine the timing for making splits to form new hives when the existing hives start ramping up after winter, that is. If winter ever arrives.
I’ve joked in the past about the ranch workout. This is a very real thing. It doesn’t involve lifting weights the same way for x repetitions and it doesn’t involve working two body groups one day, then two others another, and then having leg day. No, you’re going to get an all-body workout, whether you like it or not. Case in point: today.
Every day (or every other day) I wander out to the beeyard and see if any of the hives need a topping off of their feeders. Today while doing that, I decided to take a look in a couple of hives, just to make sure things were all as they should be.
They were not.
I had out two supers on hive #11, because they were going full tilt gathering, even though it’s technically fall/winter. They don’t understand this because it simply is not cold enough here for that little trigger in their minds to understand they should be hunkering down to ride out the season and get geared up for spring. Even though the last two nights have been very cold (for us), at 35F and 34F respectively, the days are warm enough that the girls can fly – for non-bee people, generally if the temperature is 50F or better, they really have no issues going about their business as usual.
What this means is they continue to collect pollen and nectar – because the plants also don’t realize it’s fall/winter and are still in bloom – and they rapidly fill their combs with both. This raises the risk of the hive producing a swarm, as there is no way for the queen to do her one duty in life: lay eggs. During their lives, the bees also tend to move upward in the hives, so at times it’s necessary to swap the top and bottom brood boxes so they are downstairs with room to grow upstairs.
Today I found that hive #11 had absconded. A lot of people don’t understand this, and jump right to the conjecture that it must be colony collapse disorder (CCD), which as anyone who has even casually watched news items knows about. The bees simply pack themselves and fly off, for reasons that are not always readily understood. This hive, for instance, had plenty of stores, plenty of pollen, and I found some brood on a few of the frames. There was no huge infestation of pests that love beehives, like small hive beetles, and no incursion from other bees or critters that will happily rob out a hive that has become empty (yellowjackets are quite common around here for that). There is nothing environmental here that can account for their disappearance. They just left, for reasons I’ll likely never know. I also found this.
That is the queen for hive #11. She was part of one of the packages of bees I picked up earlier in the year. Usually, the existing queen goes with the swarm. As this queen is clipped (one of her wings is missing) she could not leave when everyone else did. I suspect the girls made another queen – a process called supercedure – and left with that one instead, leaving this gal behind.
Here’s the problem with that: not enough bees. The queen spends her time roaming around the frames, laying eggs and generally being attended by the other bees. It’s only natural, of course, since she is royalty. But, in a hive with a reduced population, having cooler weather is not a good thing. Luckily, we have not had any freezes, but the brood that was left in this hive is probably dead because there are not enough workers to tend them and keep the hive temperature up.
I captured a small hive late in the season, and they have been toiling away, but the queen in that swarm is either already in winter mode, or is just a poor layer. As swarms usually leave with the existing queen as noted above, that means they are traveling with an aged queen whose good laying days are over.The irony of this is that without intervention by the beekeeper, a poorly-laying queen may not lay well enough for the hive to create a new queen in a queen cup, feeding it larva royal jelly before capping off the cup and waiting for the new queen to emerge. As I hadn’t found a queen in the hive from which that swarm emerged, and given her poor laying now, I suspect her best days are over.
It may sound cruel, but this is where the management comes in. I found the queen in the captured swarm hived and dispatched her. The dispatched hive got a later of newspaper over it, and the brood box from the captured swarm went atop that. The newspaper is necessary to make sure the swarm bees don’t kill off the queen of hive #11 immediately – which they will do, since they still have the original queen’s pheromone with them. Having a couple of slits in the newspaper will allow the upper box of bees to get acclimated to the new queen’s pheromone. Eventually, they will eat their way through the newspaper and be able to move between the boxes. Most likely, the queen (and any of the bees that remained with her) will move up to the top box because their natural instinct is to move upwards. That’s fine, as I’ll just swap them top to bottom, bottom to top.
In the meantime, I had pulled a bunch of frames from the absconded hive: lots and lots of honey. Looks like we’ll have another extraction here at the end of the year, or perhaps during the new year. Either way, hive #11 had produced a lot of honey, and they didn’t remove it from the supers to take with them. Based on a look at the brood frames and their patterns, there was a good deal of honey that had been in those, and the swarm took that with them, leaving the supers undisturbed. There was also an indication of wax moth incursion to the hive, something not terribly surprising since there were not enough bees to protect against that. I cleaned up some of those by scraping off the comb they were in, but some I just laying against the hive stand itself, which invites the bees to rob out those frames and take the good stuff back to their hives. This is the hive disassembly.
I pulled a bunch of the honey because the diminished number of bees in the box won’t be using it. Everything related to beekeeping is heavy past the initial setup and settling in of the bees. The frames from the supers generally weigh anywhere from six to ten pounds apiece, which equates to a full box of 50-60 pounds thanks to the weight of the woodenware itself plus all the bees on the frames. The deep boxes can weigh 80-100 pounds apiece. All of this inspection, replacing, and shuffling of hive gear is just one more of the fabulous workouts to be had at the ranch.
I also checked a few more hives, and did a bit of rearranging, but I’d been out there for a couple of hours by that point, and my body was telling me – via the use of painful spasms – that it had had enough for the day, so how about we button up these hives and have another go at inspections tomorrow. And that’s what I did: pulled the wagon out of the beeyard, and it’s currently parked on the front porch so we can move the frames inside and either store them for now, or do a cleanup of the extractor and go ahead and do an extraction this week.
That leaves us with twelve hives now – eleven and a half, more accurately, I think, since one is an attempt to build a new hive out of two puzzle pieces. It also leaves me with a question: do I go ahead and place an order for a few more package bees, which will ship in the spring, or do I keep biding my time until spring and then start splitting the hives I have – or do I do both? Splitting them now could be problematic if all the drones have been pushed out of the hives here and elsewhere, as that would make it likely the new queen for the split hive would not be able to mate until spring since there would theoretically be no drones to fly with this late in the season. I am 99% sure we will be able to spring splits with these hives in any case, as they are pretty darn healthy. It’s a quandary.
Went out to the hive that swarmed anyway, without smoke, like a dumbass, to check it. Every single frame is empty, dry as a bone. No brood. A little pollen. Zero nectar/honey. I did find some open queen cells, but couldn’t spot a queen. There were quite a number of bees in the box, and they were mighty pissed off. I got two more stings out of it. I’m not sure if they were just in the to rob out any little bit they could or if they actually lived there. I’m hoping the latter, it would suck to have the entire hive abscond. At least I know my agenda for tomorrow morning: thorough hive inspections. With the smoker and a lot of fuel to make sure I can take my time.
Fed the bees this morning and took a look into a few, trying to see if I could determine which hive cast the swarm. I believe I found it: the number five hive, which itself was a split from another hive. The queen must have been amazingly productive, as the super and the top brood box were totally empty of all stores. Lack of food will cause them to swarm as they go off looking for greener pastures. I got two stings for my trouble, and for not taking the smoker out with me on this overcast day, but set a feeder on them to get them going again. I’ll have to go back through it, and probably reduce it back down to one brood box to let them build up again. I went through the others on the same hive stand, and they were all fine. Next step: moving to the next hive stand, to break down those hives and see what they have going on. With the smoker. My biggest problem is bees getting caught in the creases in my suit, so when I bend or move my arm to do something, they get crushed and I get a sting in an uncomfortable place (like the crook of my left arm and the inside of the bicep on my right arm). Fun times, kids.
This swarm apparently simply does not want to be caught. Even with a good soaking of sugar water, they won’t clump well and fall into the hive. Instead, the inner core breaks out and they all start flying around, landing back on the trunk of the tree and crawling up to wherever the queen is. If I’d managed to get her in the damn box, they would have happily crawled in, but it seems the pieces of the swarm I did manage to knock down did not have her in it. I left the hive out anyway, as there’s a storm rolling up, and perhaps they’ll be smart enough to take cover in the hive. Or, perhaps they’ll give me a final “fuck you” and fly off somewhere else.
What this means going forward is that I need to disassemble some of the older hives to check for swarm cells, food stores, and so on, as we head into the end of the season. I know this swarm did not come from the five new package hives because the queens in those are clipped (that is, one wing has been cut, so they cannot fly). When those queens need to be superceded, the bees will build a queen cup, and when the new queen hatches, the old one will be dispatched by her. The old hives, however, I’ve allowed to supercede as needed, and I have not requeened each year. Overall, I prefer to keep the genetics going of the bees that have survived in our particular climate. In this case, the old queen will swarm out of the hive with a bunch of workers, leaving the rest of the bees to take care of the new queen. The question is: which of those hives did this swarm come from? The answer involves backbreaking work to look into the older hives, to check for swarm cells in hives that might be thinking about swarming – in which case, they need to be split, with some bees, food, and brood (with at least one egg that is one to three days old, as the bees need that to create a new queen) moved to another hive body. I might be able to tell from which hive this swarm originated during the inspection process and determine why they swarmed.