Category Archives: bee talk

Dust off your pollen-baskets…

…because spring is definitely here!

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Witch Hazel

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First we had Witch Hazel. I have never seen honeybees forage on it personally; here, it blooms in January, so maybe they are on it, but I am cozy inside during the greatly reduced foraging hours of winter. Is it a bee plant in our region? Not sure. The second pic is of a redder flowering sort that is less commonly planted.

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Then the hazelnut trees bloomed! As I write, they are just finishing up.  As a wind-pollinated plant, hazelnut does not rely on pollinators, but bees surely benefit from this great source of early season pollen.   When the hazelnut trees bloom, that is when I know it’s time to start finding all the bee stuff again.  The wintertime bee reading goes away, and I start rummaging around for the random sacks of pollen patties kicking around in the freezer.  Actually, this picture is reminding me of the several glorious days we had in February.  The sun will come out again, Vancouver! It will happen.  (I just checked my weather app, hoping for a clear spot to do some hive checks.  Perfect forecast, if your bees like to wear rubber boots! That would be so many rubber boots.)

Last week, we were able to get out to our bee yard in Surrey, and do some solid hive assessment.  In an effort to be more systematic about how I select my breeding stock, I tried out a system where I assigned every frame a score of 20, so that each side is worth 10. Then, as I was going through the hive and cleaning up the frames and the bottom board, I kept two running totals in my head, one for brood, one for honey.  So, if a frame was full of honey on one side, I counted 10 honey. And, if a frame had patch of brood filling about half the side, I counted 5 honey. And so on, keeping a running total through all 8 frames.  Eventually, I’d end up with a score like, 22 brood, 45 honey.  I did this with all my potential breeders, and it was interesting to see how the numbers told a story that I could never capture by saying Hive 7a has “good” brood.  For example, if a hive had a higher brood score than honey, that indicated a hive that would go hungry very quickly if unable to forage (for example, if your long range forecast includes rain for every single day).  And there were hives that had maybe the same honey score, but a much smaller brood area to support.

I also gave each a rating for gentleness, pollen stores (are they storing it in a nice ring around the brood), and estimated the number of frames of bees.

It’s not a perfect system, mainly because of operator error — it’s kinda tricky for me to keep two running totals going simultaneously in my brain, especially when decimal points are involved! And, I have to tell you, the last few hives, when I was most tired, went the slowest, just because I lost count a couple times.  And, anytime someone asks me a question while I am counting?  GAME OVER! But, I think even if not perfectly accurate, I hope it will give me a pretty good picture of what my bees have done, and what the baseline was that they started with.

I plan to do this same level of assessment in 1 month, just before the beginning of April, and compare; I’m hoping this method will make it so that I can see how individual hives have built their populations, and how each has used their stored resources. Have they grown slowly but kept honey in the bank? Or have they turned all resources available into more bees? Then I can select my breeders based on that information, in combination with results from our hygienic behavior tests.

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Bees are “Rest-a-holics”

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What do beekeepers do in the winter, when our bees don’t need us?  We rest, recuperate, build equipment for next year, plan, and…catch up on our bee reading, of course! I recently finished “Bee Time”, by Dr. Mark Winston, and it is a really fantastic read. It won the 2015 Governor General’s award for non-fiction, and is engaging and informative for both beekeepers and the general public.  I loved this book; if you are one of the many, many people  who have asked in recent years, “What’s going on with the bees?”, you want to read this book. Because the explanation is complex, but the solutions required are completely possible — all that is required is the will of the public to change the direction of our current agricultural system. For that to happen, people need to understand what the problems are, and Dr. Winston paints a clear and vivid picture of what is happening, and how we can turn it around in order to help bees and ourselves along with them.

Really want to know what is happening with the bees? Read this book. It does the best job of explaining the situation that I have encountered so far. I could tell you if we met at a cocktail party, but my explanation would be meandering, long,  less entertaining and would contain way less science to back it up.

Here’s another highlight for me:  Winston talks about how bees are really “rest-a-holics”, that is, they spend 2/3 of their time doing…nothing. Simply resting, or wandering about the hive.  It would seem like a waste of time to us productive-happy humans.  Yet, he says, this reserve of untapped “work” is essential when it comes to the hive being resilient. He talks about a study that I think his students did, where they monitored hives that had bees taken away for package production. Packaged bees are just that, a couple pounds of bees, shaken from 1 or more hives, and sold to other beekeepers along with a queen.  After losing so many adult workers, you would think the hives shaken from would be permanently disadvantaged.  Yet, the researchers found that those same hives rebounded, and caught up with control hives (no packages taken) by the end of the season. They did this by tapping this reserve of “rest-a-holic” bees — worker bees began to forage early then they normally would, and worked harder than they usually would, carrying more nectar.  This enabled the colony to catch up in terms of production, but at great personal cost to the individual workers, who died much earlier than they normally would.  Winston notes that this resiliency that the societies of honeybees maintain, by having individual member rest much of the time, could contain a lesson for human societies.

Here’s hoping you, dear, reader, are using the short days of winter to rest up a little too!

Fall: Time to Cull

Now it’s really fall. It’s good, because the rest of the world synchs up with my worldview, which is that not too far into August,  I start doing all the things we need to do to prepare for winter: treating for mites, combining mating nucs so that they are big enough to survive the winter, and making sure all the queens are in tip-top shape.

(Pictured below: a five-frame nuc on a day that I combined it with another nuc. Don’t worry: they all went inside eventually!)

IMG_1266Basically, much as I spend most of the year telling people I’m a year older than I am, so that I’m ready when my birthday arrives, I spend most of August mentally projecting Fall Beekeeping mode.

There’s a lot of different ways to do things with bees, and that old saw about asking 3 different beekeepers and getting 4 different opinions definitely holds true, but one thing you can’t mess with is timing. There are definitely windows to do certain things, and if you miss those windows, you are hooped.  So, out of fear that I will not be prepared when Fall comes, August is a busy month.

Now that it’s Fall for real, I’ve been feeding those that need to be fed, and doing the 1st cull. Culling is probably my latest major beekeeping lesson.  It’s been said to me before to “Take your winter losses in the fall”, but I don’t think it ever really sank in until very recently.  In fact, I think I first heard that like, 7 years ago, but didn’t really get it. What that means is, if you have a hive you doubt, cull it early in the fall. It’s not going to get any better, and if it gets worse, there is a possibility it will succumb to some gnarly brood disease, simply because it is weak.  Then you have to deal with diseased comb, and it’s a pain in the ass. What it means for me personally is checking through the hives with the intention of culling. Otherwise, I let stuff go when I shouldn’t.  Don’t worry, non-beekeepers, that doesn’t mean kill the bees.  You just need to cage out the queen for use in another hive, if she’s good, or release her from her service if she’s bad (that’s the hardest part for me. I’m not very sentimental, but I feel my feels when I have to kill a queen).  The bees can crawl into another hive, where they will be very useful in boosting its population.

An queen who had stopped laying. Uh-oh…you know what happened next!

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I was at the monthly Richmond Beekeeper’s Association meeting last week, and our Provincial Apiculturalist, Paul Van Westendorp, said something that rang true, roughly that you need to remember that by the first week in December, 30% of the adult bee population in a hive will have died.  Why? Those are old bees, not the winter bees who were born in the fall to live through to the spring.  So, you need to look at your hive and imagine 1/3 less bees.

And then think, do I need to cull this hive?

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So, that’s what I’ve been doing. Culling now, and in two weeks, I’ll cull a second time. Hopefully that will set up the remaining hives with optimal chances for survival.

Ok, last thing: Super dark honey! It’s fall, and that means darkest of the darkest nectar. Don’t know what the source is, but it looked like coffee syrup, and tasted deep, dark, not so sweet with a hint of bitterness. Saw it at two different city bee yards at least a kilometer apart.  From the amount coming in, I’m thinking some kind of tree? Bee mystery! If you think you know what it is, tell me!

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Late-Summer Update


So, between May (our last post) and now, basically all the beekeeping happened. Undocumented, of course! That’s not to say that I didn’t take pictures; lots and lots of bee pics were taken, with lofty intentions for pithy posts.

There was the time we took our dear friend with us on a hot July day of backyard hive checks: Don’t worry: only 1 sting, and it was a bee that got squished against a calf!

There was all the zillions of enraptured photos I took of bees on other peoples artichoke plants. Did you know that the flower is what happens after the part we eat goes to seed?

   It’s hard to see here, but I counted 11 bees on one flower! One day I will succeed in growing a plant, seed to flower (you have to start the seeds in February in order to get flowers that year. I’ve grown a plant, but too late in the year, and then we move, during which the plant died. Which was a major bummer cuz I don’t even like eating artichokes. I just wanted the flowers).

There was that time during the recent, severe nectar dearth (due to drought in our region), that we had that crazy incident with robbing bees and our sticky truck. I won’t get into the details, but it involved our truck being in the vicinity of hundreds of marshalled hives (not ours, ready for moving), and our truck collecting so many bees that passersby were visibly dismayed.

Robbing bees= bees are really great at finding honey, especially when all the nectar has dried up.  They are also fantastic at communicating. So a foraging bee finds this amazing, truck shaped nectar source, goes back to the hive, and recruits, like, 100 other bees to go collect it before it’s gone! Multiply this by as many hives are in the area, and you get robbing. Bees can get pretty crazy when there is no nectar flow, and will completely raid whatever is in that spot they communicated about until it is gone, even other beehives.

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But that incident aside, this summer has been a good one for our bees.  Lots of great mating weather for our queens has made it a laid-back year for queen-rearing. Also, it’s exciting to be able to transport our bees using a truck rather than a hatchback, where you have the fun and enjoyment of all the bees inside the cabin with you! Yes, while our hatchback was a loyal steed, I definitely don’t miss that aspect of it!

So, I’ll sign off with one of my favorite bee plants, one that is still blooming right now: Phacelia. I love how it kind of looks like a sea creature, with curls and tendrils. It’s incredibly easy to grow, and bees love it!

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How to Sneak up on Bees

During the winter (beekeeper’s vacation time: I think if you keep bees long enough, you are forced into enjoying winter sports), I was reading Bees: Their Vision, Chemical Senses and Language by Karl Von Frisch.  Von Frisch was the scientist who discovered how bees communicate through dancing. He also did work with bees and color, and contributed to what is known about what colours bees can perceive.  It’s interesting to think about what colours bees can see, and how that relates to their favorite flowers; Von Frisch says that bees can see yellow, blue-green, blue, and ultraviolet.  But, there are many great nectar sources that have white flowers (blackberry, horse chesnut, apple etc.).  Previously (until five minutes ago, when I cracked the book again), I thought this meant that bees can see white excellently, too. But actually, as Von Frisch points out, “white” coloured light contains all the colours in the spectrum visible to us, because you can split it through a prism into ROY G. BIV.  For bees, “white”, then, would be composed of all the colours they can see,  (YGBU!).  If one component, ultraviolet (which humans cannot see) is taken away, what is leftover would no longer appear white to a bee,  and would be a complementary colour to ultraviolet, maybe blue-green, Von Frisch suggest.  And it turns out, most white flowers in fact absorb ultraviolet light.

So! All along, I’ve been painting some of my bee boxes white because I think they will be able to see it well, and it turns out that maybe yes, that particular white paint may absorb ultraviolet rays, leaving behind the complementary colour to ultraviolet, which bees can see great.  But also, maybe the white paint I select may instead reflect ultraviolet, making it a true “white” to the bee, and therefore uninteresting and not memorable (as discovered by Dr. Mathilde Hertz).

Unfortunately, I can’t see ultraviolet, so there is sadly no way for me to tell the difference when I’m buying my paint from the hardware store!

All this is to say, before I got sidetracked, is that bees cannot see red.  They only perceive it as black.  So today, when I wanted to open my queen box to check on the queens, and I knew there would be stray loose bees inside, I took it into the bathroom, turned off the lights, and used Liam’s headlamp on the red-light setting (because it is frowned on in our household to release bees inside. It is also apparently not done to set down nucs right next to the front door, no matter how short a time one plans to leave there).

  
So cool! Bees don’t fly if it’s dark, and it’s the neatest thing to be looking at bees in the red light, and them not being able to see, so they don’t fly up at you.

Here’s a pic of horse chestnut, a fantastic bee tree:

   
 

It produces spiky balls for kids to throw at each other, and has an amazing scarlet coloured pollen.  Some varieties have pinkish red flowers, but most trees have these massive cones of white flowers:

  

Bee condos!

Liam spent time yesterday checking through all our city hives, looking for signs of swarm preparation. Last year, I won’t tell you how many swarms we had, but it got to the point in mid-May where we started to dread phone calls coming in from our host yard-owners, because we knew the conversation would begin: “Um…so there’s A LOT of bees in the air right now…”

The novelty of successfully plunking your giant clump of bees into a bucket wears off exceptionally fast, especially when ladders are involved!

Anyway, we’ve been trying to keep ahead of the swarming impulses this year by systematically removing excess brood frames with bees on them, and making them into nucs, mini colonies. Our first round of queens is not quite ready yet, but we make these nucs up queenless, and then take them out to our mating yard in Surrey. The bees make their own queen, and she is able to successfully mate in an area with sufficient drones, in a way that doesn’t really happen in Vancouver proper.

So…bee condos get to stay the weekend in our backyard until Liam moves them out to Surrey on Monday:

 
That’s our regular size backyard hive on the left, with 4 nucs stacked apartment style on the right.

  
And this is where Liam will take them:

  

First Round of Queens

Ten days ago, we did our first graft of the season (to make new queens). It’s the earliest in the year that we’ve done one. It can be chancy, because you need around 18 degree weather (Celsius) for queens to mate properly. If it’s rainy, or too cold, the queens and drones won’t fly.  But, we’re feeling hopeful that the weather a week or so from now will turn out somewhat decent. Fingers crossed!

Queen cells, ready to move into mating hives

We spent the weekend making up little nucs (nucleus colonies) to put our queen cells in.  We took a lot of excess bees and brood from our city bee yards, and brought them out to our mating yard in surrey, where we can count on a reasonable concentration of bees for good mating flights.  Once in a while, we end up leaving a city hive with a queen that those bees have raised themselves, and that’s fine for a while — it’s a good stopgap measure. But, the concentration of bees in the city is pretty low and haphazard, and we almost always end up replacing that queen later when she turns out to be poorly mated.