Sunday, April 17, 2011

Full inspection

One of MANY Sicilians very annoyed at me - notice how she's
drilling straight in for my eye!

When a bee finds its way up a beekeeper's pant leg, it will end badly for the bee, the keeper or both. I found that out the hard way yesterday. As I was ticking off her sisters (see above), one found the chink in my armor. The problem with a bee in your pants is that the only way to get her out alive is taking them off. I don't think the residents of Katy's farm would have appreciated that. Another problem is that if you don't slap the interloper dead the first time, she'll likely make the suicide sting. Yeah, that's what happened. She got me after I didn't quite get her. So I have a good sized swelling on the inside of my right knee. But enough about me.

Despite their annoyance, I'm quite happy about both hives and their progress this year. Unfortunately, John wasn't able to make the inspection and he missed out. The Sicilians' population is booming and they are finding plenty of nectar. The first Italians likewise are doing well. I did discover that we were overly optimistic putting the supers on. While several girls were exploring them, they had not yet built any new comb on them. The first Italians had smartly focused on the frame that I had broken at the end of last year and had about half of it rebuilt.

My big concern is that I didn't see much bee bread. While the bees are finding plenty of nectar, it seems that pollen is a bit more scarce. This could have quite an impact on their growth and health. Imagine a diet of nothing but sugar. That sugar high will wear off...

On to other things: expansion! While I didn't find any queen cells in either hive (I was hoping for sucha discovery and dreading it at the same time - I got a bit of anxiety about how and when to split the hives), their population growth leaves me smiling! A note on population: one of John's theories about bees was heartily shot down. He suspected that bees would reject darker frames and wax (as the wax ages and gets walked on by thousands of bees it gets darker and darker - some of the frames we have are a rich, dark brown, though it's not really asthetic compared to beautiful creamy white of new wax). In the first Italians' hive we have a very dark frame and it had the most larvae and brood of any of the frames I inspected. Admittedly, location means a lot to the bees and this frame was in the center of the upper hive body, perfect for a brood frame.

The reason I mention this comes from one of our goals. We want to start swapping out these darker frames with new ones as we get the feeling that, first, they probably harbor miticides from the dealer (something wax does unfortunately well with pesticides) we got the bees from and that they may have the same capacity for harboring diseases and malignant fungi. At least the girls are getting their use out of it in the meantime!

And I was a busy boy before the inspection, too...these pics are a modification of a design for a Top Bar Hive that I found online (which was a modification of the Kenyan TBH). I spent about $100 on supplies intending to build two. However, I accidentally bought 95% of what I need for three hives. It took me about two hours to build what you see here. So, about than the cost of one two-bodied Langstroth hives I can build three. I am totally digging the business sense of the TBH!

My version of the Top Bar Hive

Another view

To get the same amount of honey as from a Langstroth we'll need to visit the hives more often to harvest, but the advantages more than make up for it. I already mentioned the lesser initial cost, but the maintenance costs will also be much lower. The frame consisits of one bar and a strip of something on the bottom for the bees to build comb on. I'm still trying to figure out the best way to do this but I have a good idea for it. It's quite a bit cheaper replacing a 15" piece of 1x2 than it is replacing all four pieces of custom cut Langstroth frame. All of the cuts I need to do and assembly are easy enough for someone with the same basic carpentry skills as me - and that ain't a whole bunch! Also, since the hives are smaller, moving them will be easier and less strain to the back. Plus they can last years and years with minimal maintenance, unlike the Langstroth which might last 5 years without major renovation.

Consider this low cost, easy way to start a new hobby that will benefit you with the fun (minus the stings!)and the honey as well as benefit your garden or the world in general!

Friday, April 8, 2011

And now for something completely different...

...really! I'm just about finished reading a book by Stepehn Buchman called Letters From the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind. It's a decent book covering ancient honey hunting, Mayan stingless honey bee beekeeping, medicinal use of honey and much more. Buchman also includes a chapter on cooking with honey.

Cooking and eating is near and dear to me as I'm a bit of a foodie. Generally speaking, I'll try anything at least once. For example, when I worked at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, I made the mistake of telling one of the gift shop employees that I would try the chocolate cover insects they had for sale as a bit of a gag gift if someone else bought them. Well, long story short, she told a co-worker and I found out they were kinda bland and the only bad part was when a cricket leg got stuck between my teeth.

In some countries, when a fresh honey comb is offered to you, the author says that even the larvae tastes pretty good. This recipe, however, is very likely to be much more palatable than super fresh food like that. A staple of entertainment during the reign Queen Elizabeth I was gingerbread. This recipe hails from then and might be a bit different than one would expect as compared to modern gingerbread cookies and is quoted directly from Buchman's Letters:


Gingerbread was a popular staple thoughout medieval and Renaissance Europe. The recipe below is not significantly different from those found in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts and would have been familiar to the busy chefs of Hampton Court. Gingerbread was traditionally boiled rather than baked and was usually stamped with decorative designs. You may wish to express your own creativity with a cookie or butter press while your loaf is still warm and malleable.

Serves 8
1 cup honey                                                1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon powdered ginger                      1 tablespoon anise (fennel) seeds
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves                       1 3/4 cup dry bread crumbs

Heat the honey in the top of a double boiler. Add all the spices except the anise seeds and stir to blend. Now add the bread crumbs and mixthouroughly. Cover and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes. The mixture should be thick and moist. Place the gingerbread on a large sheet of waxed paper and mold the dough into small rectangular shapes. Sprinkle the anise seeds on top and press them gently into the dough with the side of a knife. Allow to cook, then cover and refrigerate for 2 hours. Serve the gingerbread at room temperature in thin slices.

This will make a nice spring and summer snack since very little stove time is required. I'll be trying it this weekend, I do believe!

Posted by Bob Nelson

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Can I get a small cell with that?

The girls building on a foundationless frame. They make
short work of seamlessly connecting those lobes.

In my last post I hinted at something that is widely becoming important in the natural beekeeping movement: small cells. First, a definition: foundation is a plastic or wax sheet that is imprinted with hexagon patterns and inserted in the frame. The idea is to quicken the bees' ability to produce honey comb (and, therefore, honey) and to make the frames more robust for extraction. While there is some argument about the first, the second defiintely applies. Most beekeepers use a centrifugal extraction process, spinning the honey out of comb. Without the foundation, newer comb can break and collapse, making a mess of an already kinda messy process.

Filled foudationless frame from early last year. The wax would
not be as translucent as this if you looked at it this year. New
wax is a beautiful creamy white to light gold color, but it
darkens as it ages. Fortunately, it also hardens as it ages.

When beekeepers first started putting in foundation for the bees to work on, they also realized that they could manipulate the size of the cells. And the American ideal is bigger is better, so they made the cells artificially large to grow bigger bees (bigger bees = more honey, right?). But there are problems with making something do what it wasn't intended to do.

First, bigger cells attract varroa mites. One physical control for varroa is inserting a drone frame or two into a hive. Varroa love drone cells for the length of time the drone takes to develop (drones develop in about 24 days as compared to 21 for workers and 16-18 for queens--click here for a Wikipedia article on bee development). So the mites will gravitate toward drone-sized cells and the beekeeper can capitalize on this by inserting a frame with foundation sized for drones. After the drone cells are capped so they can pupate, the frame is removes and its contents destroyed, thereby eliminating a generation of mites and reducing an infestation (this method doesn't sit well with me or John as raising a whole frame of brood for the purpose of killing them seems wasteful, counterproductive and unecessarily cruel).

But mites aren't smart enough to to know a large cell is going to be a drone cell, they just gravitate toward them. Hence, the large cell frames used to get bigger bees in general attract varroa mites and most breeds of bees can't detect infested cells. So beekeepers turned to miticides to deal with the varroa, and dealt a blow to their bees in the process (see my post , "A Call to Organic Beekeeping" for a discussion on this and more).
Infested pupa being removed from the hive.
See more at Growing Small Farms.
Second, bees build things differently in the wild. Generally speaking, they build larger cells toward the top of a comb and smaller toward the bottom. Part of this stems from the seasonal use of the comb - the generation that will overwinter is layed in the smaller cells - and part is the need for drone cells, but some of it is just simply a mystery. The thing to remember: bees do not design their hives based on man-made geometry or cookie cutter patterns. An thing of note when it comes to varroa, several breeds of bees, inlcuding Russian and Minnesota Hygenics, can somehow tell when mites are present in a brood cell and will remove the infected pupae. These breeds tend to practice behaviors that help them overcome more than jsut varroa. Hygenic habits such as grooming and evicting sick bees keep the hive healthier overall and more resistant to the problems plaguing the industry.

Third, and the most important from a commercial aspect, many beekeepers have discovered that bees build their comb without foundation faster than they do with. John and I discovered this with our hives last year. Our bees loved building their own comb and could finish off a deep frame in just over a week. For some reason, some hives show reluctance to build on foundationed frames at all.

Last (or at least the last thing I'll bring up here), wax absorbs pesticide residue readily, thus guaranteeing long term exposure to the bees. This is part of the reason we want to swap out the old frames that came in the nucleus hives last year. Likewise, a possibility exists that the wax can harbor diseases. A healthy hive will move when it deems necessary. And, while a hive can remain in the same place for years and years, this is the exception to the rule.

More than a bit ironic to me, the industry has seen the marketing potential for small cells and created foundation to meet the need. I wonder if that will just lead to some other problem sometime down the road. In the meantime, John and I will stick with foundationless and see how the results pan out.

Posted by Bob Nelson

Monday, April 4, 2011

First inpsection after the move

After putting together another hive for when when we split our current hives in a few weeks, John and family and I headed out to Katy Vincent's organic farm out in Strasburg to do an inspection. John met Katy trying to figure out sources to get better meats to eat - specifically non-hormoned, non-antibiotic, free range livestock. They bought a half pig from Katy last year and really enjoyed it. John had talked to Katy about the possibility of having some hives on her land and Katy was more than fine with the idea, especially since she was already hosting another beekeeper's hives and wanted to get more into it herself.

When we arrived, the other beekeper, another John who lives out in the Southlands area of Aurora, Katy and two other gentlemen were just wrapping up an inspection on their hives. Last year they had four hives, but two died out over the winter. Southlands John was happy that one of the remaining hives was exploding. This is his third year beekeeping and, at the moment, he has seven or so hives that are his or he is helping out with. After reading the blog by Dennis Murrell about his losses after commingling his bees with a commercial beekeeper's, I was a bit worried about our decision to move our hives to Katy's and letting them hang out with some unknown bees (ah, I can see English John reading this and making a comment about nanny-ing the bees - but he had the same concerns, too, I'll have you know). After meeting Southlands John and talking to Katy, we're all on the same page about non-natural beekeeping methods: forget about 'em!

Katy's stance reflects her farm. She won't allow any antibiotics or synthetics on the farm and that includes the bees. Add that to the isolation of Strasburg - very few people and probably less bees per acre - and I think we have a good recipe for generally healthy bees. Which leads me to the inspection. We had three big goals for the inspection. First, we wanted to see how the hives were doing in general. Second, we wanted to swap out some of the old, blackened frames that came with the bees when we bought them last year. And last, we wanted to swap out the solid bottom board on the Sicilians with a screened one (see the previous post about the different boards) I purchased at To Bee or Not To Bee, a local beekeeping supplies shop. Due to the strong afternoon winds and not wanting to unecessarily expose the brrod to them, we accomplished everything but the frame swap. Two outta three isn't bad in my book.

We started with the bottom boards. If you've read this blog, you know that our Sicilians are tempermental ladies at best. When we moved them to the farm the week before, we couldn't help but be glad that it was only 28 degrees out as they were more than a bit annoyed at the process. Luckily, the cold chilled their anger nicely! So, knowing windy conditions tend to make bees cross in general, I felt some concern for my hide in having to lift the hive up off the bottom board, exposing a large mass of the girls, to swap it out. To our pleasant surprise, they stayed Jekyll instead of going Ms. Hyde on us.

It continued to get better as we popped off the covers to inspect them: the queen is showing a good brood pattern with both new eggs and nearly-ready-to-pupate larvae and several large drones mingling with the workers. John thinks the bees are smaller this year than last; they looked like bees to me - I'm just taking his word for it. I'll profer a few possibilities for this if it's true. First, because we are not using manufactured foundation in about half of the frames, the bees are free to design their own cells instead of conforming to man-made specs (often larger than natural as to increase bee size: bigger bee, more honey - in theory). The bulk of the girls should be the size nature intends for them. However, the problem with this idea would lay (pun always intended) in whether the brood was raised mostly in our foundationless frames or in the foundationed frames they came to us in. The second possible explanation comes from overwintered bees themselves. To prolong the honey stores, the hive triggers something that causes the brood layed to be winter workers to be smaller than their spring and summer sisters. Many of these smaller bees could still be running around.

Drone, left, and worker bees
The third explanation (and keep this between you and me, okay?) is that John is off his rocker. While I'm not known for my abilities to pay attention to details, they really just do look like normal bees. The difference between the smallest cells a hive makes and the largest is about .5 millimeters. Drones come out of the largest and can easily be distinguished from the workers. Variation among the worker bee cells would be minimal comparitively. Still, it is possible that John has this one right, but you try to get a bee to stay still long enough to take measurements!

Good brood pattern - tight and mixed with
capped brood and newer larvae

The first Italians looked splendid. The queen also exhibited a good brood pattern: lots of it with all stages of development from egg to capped brood. Another thing that made us happy was the presence of fresh honey and freshly capped honey. The foraging workers are finding food and doing a good job of it!

The last thing I want to talk about is honey. Southlands John (this is going to be fun keeping track of all the Johns as Katy's husband's name is John also - oi vay!) told us that they harvested quite a bit of honey last year. It was light but tasty, garnering high praise from a very picky relative of his. The only reason I can wait for harvest season is that it harbinges the coming winter...and I've had enough of that ol' man for a while!

Posted by Bob Nelson