Friday, August 1, 2014

Foundationless in a Lang

There is a lot of desire among certain beekeeper communities to avoid foundation.    This is clearly the case among top-bar enthusiasts, many of whom conflate the notions of natural comb and foundationless beekeeping with the use of a horizontal top bar hive.  

I don't have an issue with the use of foundation, and prefer it in many cases, but I do create some foundationless frames.  Sometimes for the creation of cut-comb, and in some cases just because I needed to put a frame in a hive and didn't have foundation ready to go, as with the following frame:

This is just a regular deep frame that I would normally put foundation in.   It is a wedge top style, so does have a grove running the length of the top bar.   However, you'll note I didn't do anything special to entice the bees.  There isn't a starter strip at all, no partial foundation or Popsicle guides.   What I did do, though, was place the empty frame between two fully drawn frames.   This will make it really easy to get nice straight comb like this as the bees will naturally draw it out directly in the middle of the space between the two existing drawn frames.

If you've not tried this, I'd definitely recommend you do so.   It's fun and interesting to see the bees draw out fresh wax without a guide.   But do note, that depending upon the time of year and location in the hive, you may get a full frame of drone.   This isn't necessarily a bad thing, you just need to know what to expect and how to handle it withing your overall hive management approach.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

WSBA Master Beekeeper Apprentice

I recently took the exam to become an Apprentice in the Master Beekeeper program of WSBA.   The apprentice level was pretty straight forward.   I was provided a book that covered a lot of introductory topics and the exam was take-home / open book.  

After a few weeks, I received a nice certificate and a patch.   Cool stuff.

The next level is the Journeyman level.   I've already begun ... it involves 10 exams covering some more advanced topic.    A guide book is provided, but it's really a waste of the paper.    Seriously.   It contains an overview of the requirements and then it's mostly a print of Washington state code related to beekeeping.   This is reference material, readily available online.    It really is a waste of association resources to pay for the printing.     

The 10 exams are still provided to work on at your own leisure, allowing you to research correct answers.   Some of the questions are fairly ambiguous or poorly worded.   Others don't have solid authoritative material behind the answers.   Example, there is a question about the minimum amount of stores recommended to overwinter.    Washington state is pretty varied in climate, I'm not sure the requirements in the lowlands of the Puget Sound are the same as they would be in the Northern Cascades, for example.    I've not found any material on the WSBA website that can be referenced as a "recommendation" and I've sat in on presentations by two difference Master Beekeepers where they each provided different recommendations, and neither are the figures in the exam choices.      

So the exams look like they could use some work, but otherwise the program looks good, with solid requirements for public outreach, field knowledge, and keeping good logs (something I need to greatly improve upon as I do it only occasionally).

Monday, July 28, 2014

Hoverfly at Mima Mounds

This past weekend I visited Mima Mounds.   It's a curious place where there are acres and acres of prairie dotted with earthen mounds, each 3-6 feet tall.    There isn't a clear consensus on the cause of the mounds.  I thought it would be an interesting place to take a walk and indeed it was.

Along the path I began noticing what at first I thought was a bumble bee.   But I couldn't get a good look at it.  It would dart off a little too fast, then "hover" and land on the ground.   Each time it would land it would wiggle it's rear in the dirt and take off again. 

When I finally caught up to one that was patient enough for me to get a good look, I realized in was a mimic.   Some sort of hoverfly/flower fly, but I'm not certain the exact species.

Pretty good mimic if you ask me.    If anyone is familiar with the species or the wiggle behavior, I'd love to hear from you.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Jamming a Lang Nuc into a TBH

In an earlier post I mentioned that the package I installed in my new Top Bar Hive had absconded.   I was bummed.   The window of opportunity to purchase packages is pretty small.  So while I was sure I could correct the problems that led to the absconding, I really didn't have the option to obtain another package.

But I wasn't deterred, I was pretty well committed to getting a TBH up and running this year.   Unlike packages, NUCs are often available for a longer period of time.  Some folks actually offer NUCs throughout the year, though spring is still more typical.  

So, I purchased a NUC from a local supply shop, but then had the challenge of transferring a standard NUC made up of Langstroth sized frames into the very different shape of my TBH.    My plan was to shake the bees from each frame, one at a time, and then cut the frame to size on my band saw.  I was careful to ensure that the NUC would be made of frames with plastic foundation.   I wanted the extra stability as I cut through the comb.

I used the follower board as the template, laying it down on the frame and scoring the sides where I would make my cuts:


Obviously I would end up killing some of the brood, but overall the approached worked pretty well.  It was definitely messy.  If you attempt this, be prepared to deal with splatter and having to take some time to really thoroughly clean your tools afterward.   I did have some trouble with the band here and there as it gummed up and dulled cutting through the nails on the top bar (my TBH is not as wide as a Lang, so I had to shorten them).

In the end, I did have 4 frames (it was a four frame NUC + feeder) that fit nicely in the TBH.

I also took each of the corners, turned them around so the end bars were next to each other and wired them together.    This I think wired to a top bar so that it would rest properly in the TBH.    I don't have a photo of those, but hopefully this quick photo-shop gives a better idea of what I am describing than my words:

By doing this, I wasted as little brood as possible and provided as much cell space as possible for the queen to continue laying.     

Overall this approach really worked well.  It had the added benefit of meaning I would be placing quite a few very straight combs into the TBH, interspersed with brand new top bars, and would get some nicely drawn comb.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

PSBA Field Day

On May 17th, PSBA hosted a Field Day.   The morning began with a presentation by
Zachary Huang, PhD from Michigan State University.   Dr. Huang specializes in behavior influenced by physiologic and molecular mechanisms, i.e. pheromones.    His presentation was very interesting, and occasionally humorous.    Dr. Huang was also peddling his decent bee photographs, but not his MiteZapper.

The afternoon was the highlight for me.   It involved several "stations" that we visited in rotation, including a Q&A station hosted by Rusty Burlow, author of the Blog HoneyBee Suite.    The blog is great, always thought provoking.  Rusty also had on hand a collection of some of her excellent bee photographs.   They really are good.

The conversation with Rusty was informal and fun.   She shares a sometimes acerbic tone on her blog that doesn't present so much in person.   Rather she comes across as kind, gentle, and thoughtful in her responses to questions.     I really like her pragmatic approach to beekeeping, but also really appreciate her interest in pollinators in general, so it was fun to hear her talk about a few species beyond apis millifera.

I've been interested in Mason Bees for as long, perhaps longer, than honeybees.   Under our apple trees I found an old block for Mason Bees:

So I was really excited that another of the afternoon centers was hosted by Dave Hunter.   What a personality.   Dave began by telling the group that he knew what was causing CCD and proceeded to further tell the group that backyard apiarists are really more of the problem than the solution.    Wow.     I can't say that I didn't agree with a lot of his sentiment and I was seriously entertained by him, to be sure.  

He told me that a lot of the beekeepers he talks with a really put off by conversations about any other pollinator and often won't give him any consideration.   I was surprised.    As he was wrapping up, he gave me a box of assorted cocoons to take home and try, though it was late to being trying.   I was really happy though to give it a shot.

All were ready to hatch.   It was fun cutting a couple of cocoons open to watch the bees emerge.

The rest of the cocoons were placed at the base of the nesting block in hopes that they would emerge and claim the block as a home.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Top Feeders

I have a love-hate feeling towards hive top feeders.   In general, I like the concept.   Putting the feeder on top of the hive can make it extremely easy to fill.   You don't need to suit up or even put on a veil as you aren't entering the hive and the bees don't get upset by just opening the cover.   Some though even have screen covers or can easily have a screen cover added if it makes you more comfortable.   And they hold a lot of syrup (~2 gallons).  

There are several styles of top feeders, each with subtle differences.   The main differentiator though is how the bees access the honey.   This first style has two feed compartments.  In each compartment is a "float", a plastic or wooden platform that floats on top of the syrup.   The bees come up through the divide in the center and alight upon the floats.

This next feeder is similar in that it has two compartments and the bees rise up through the center.   However, in this style, a wire screen is folder over the center and down into the syrup.   This limits the bees from accessing the open pool of syrup and gives them a structure to cling to and climb up out of the syrup if the do enter it.    

With both designs, drowning can be an issue.    I once left an entrance in a hive cover open above the folded screen style of top cover.   Lots of bees entered the top entrance to access the feeder and subsequently drowned.

Another problem is bridge comb.   This is notably a problem with the plastic feeders with the folded screen.   I don't know why they aren't molded to better dimensions (think bee space!).    The separation between the compartments if wide enough for building comb ... and my bees have always loved building comb in that space.   Not just bridge comb either as more often than not I find it full of brood.

This year I have been trying something a little different and have placed an inner cover below the feeders instead of above, in the manner you would do for an inverted feeder, for example.  The bees will use the inner cover to help define the top of their hive and then will be much less inclined to build above the cover.   So far it has worked very well, though I think that bees have consumed less syrup as well.   Their consumption seemed to drop off dramatically after making the change, though that could also be coincidence in timing with the start of a nectar flow.  

I still prefer the hive top feeders to boardman, division board, or even baggie feeders, but they are definitely not without their challenges.    Still searching for the perfect feeder.

Friday, April 18, 2014

PNW Package Install and Absconding

It was sad to give away my bees in Maryland before moving to the Pacific Northwest.   I had several well established hives that were winter-survivors.    Starting over would mean another year lost to building back up comb and making splits.   On the other hand, package installs are always fun.   And my ever faithful companion, Aidan, was eager to help out.

To start, I purchased a total of four packages.  Two Italian and two Carniolan.   There are different trait characteristics, the Carniolans known for being more gentle, good overwintering, and resourceful in times of dearth.  I was mostly interested in just trying something new.  

I placed two Italians and one Carniolan package in the Langstroth hives and the remaining Carniolan into the top-bar.  For no particular reason.  Being prone to swarming, it probably wasn't the best choice, but on the other hand, the Top Bar was an experiment in itself and I so I wanted two strong Langstroths with Italians, the bees I am most familiar with.

The queen cages threw me off a bit.    I was expecting them to already be candy-filled, but they were not.  Corks in both ends.   I wasn't prepared for this so before hanging them, I had to run to the local convenience store and pick up some marshmallows.   

I hadn't used marshmallows before, but had read that it would work.    I suppose it does, but it doesn't last as long as the candy does, which didn't turn out well for the TopBar.   

Two days after installing the top bar, I opened the lid to first find that the bees had moved above the top bars, attached some comb to the roof, and already were packing in pollen.   (Read my previous post about my feeder ... I didn't place cardboard over the feeder area like I intended, thus leaving the top of the hive accessible).

More importantly, the bees were gone.  They had absconded.   This can happen for several reasons, notably because the bees determine their present hive inadequate.    When it does happen, the queen and the rest of the bees in the colony just pack up and ship off.    In my case, I think the primary contributing factors were:

  1. The hive was brand new.
    New hives aren't necessarily a problem, but bees are more likely to remain in a hive that smells like a hive and has some resources to get started with.   In the case of a typical Langstroth package install, there will be 10 frames of nice smelling foundation.    In the case of many top bar installs, there is nothing.  I did have one frame with some foundation, but otherwise, the hive was nothing but fresh wood.
  2. The queen released early.
    And the fresh would would not have been a problem had the queen not released.   The bees aren't going to leave an accepted queen (which this one was).    In a typical package where the queen cage is either candy filled or is manually released, you can leave the queen for days.  Enough time for the bees to really start drawing some wax and making the hive their home.     In this case, I think the bees went through the marshmallow in very short order, releasing the queen too early, and creating a ripe opportunity to abscond.
I was really looking forward to working the top bar hive.   But all is not lost.  I have another idea I am interested in trying out ... but that is a post for another day.