Ah, beautiful Easter weekend in Carolina, how I love thee.
It rained the majority of the time, preventing me from working the bees. But I had no need to this weekend, thanks to my spiffy new software Hive Tracks. It keeps me organized, including a constantly changing and updating to-do list. On that list? Installing new foundation into frames. I made the leap to Plasticell foundation from Dadant in all sizes, buying the waxed plastic sheets that are re-usable and sturdy. But just to make it even more irresistible for my bees to draw, I re-coated the sheets with their own wax, too. Having never done this before, I opted to use a shallow pan on my hotplate since I don't have a ton of wax. Doing this requires a cement floor and a place out of sight to hide the mess.
The shallow rectangular pan was a perfect size to dip the sheets into, deep, medium and shallow foundation. However, the pan expanded and contracted as the hot plate did its work, so I had to constantly watch the pan and make sure it didn't tip over (yes, it did a couple of times, so there I was scraping wax off the cement floor).
After 40 or so I got the hang of it, sliding and dipping one side, rotating it, then knocking it against the bottom of the pan to release excess wax. Then I stood the sheets up vertically to cool. After 20 were done, I went back and coated the undipped halves.
Once all that was done for this round of waxing foundation, I got some of the sheets installed into the frames. Remember my divided bottom bars on some of my frames? Well, Plasticell needs a grooved bottom bar. So on those I stapled a popsicle stick on the bottom and it was good to go. Those sheets snapped right into place, then bam, bam, bam I stapled in the wedge and one frame done in seconds. THAT makes me love Plasticell. I went with black on the deep and medium sheets to help my eyes see the tiny bee eggs when inspecting (the shallow sheets are yellow). As I was coating these sheets, I had a few visitors buzzing around my room. My bee room smelled so amazing and wonderful of beautiful beeswax. All in all I used up almost 8 pounds of wax on 20 sheets of deep foundation, 20 medium and 20 shallow sheets. Now that's cleared from the shelves. I also rendered my collection of wax cappings from last year's honey harvest I'd taken out of the freezer a day earlier, some stretched foundationless frames of partial combs and a whole bunch of burr comb my mentees and I had gathered off some boxes this spring. So I've got another round of wax ready to harvest and use to coat more sheets. "It's THEIR wax, give it back to them!" I kept telling myself, sometimes out loud. "They'll reward me with so much new comb, new bees and new honey!"
When it wasn't raining, T's Bees were hard at work (and sometimes even when it was raining). Here a lovely bee works this spring's holly blooms, which smell so wonderful and permeate the breezes here in Carolina.
It was the day after the first step of my spring increase attempt. There was one capped queen cell on a frame with several others, which I would harvest and give to one of two chambers in my queen castle. But that "castle" immediately began to fail and not work on Sunday. I could see bees going to and from each chamber. The idea is to have several chambers in which to raise queens. Maximize productivity with the least amount of equipment and bees invested. So I decided to change queen castles, which meant I needed to make up another and fast since all of my nuc boxes have been turned into bait hives. Last year I made divider boards (also called "follower boards") out of 3/4" plywood. My old queen castle had ZERO beetle protection, so I upgraded that. I took a deep hive body, inserted the divider. I made two vent holes and screened them off with 1/8" hardware cloth and some hot glue in opposite corners. Then I placed the hive body on a bottom board outfitted with a West beetle trap and a one-inch shim which the body sits on top of, the trap nestled underneath. An entrance reducer allowed one side to be open, here on the right you can see that entrance, which is opposite the vent holes. The entrances should be opposite the vents so there is cross-ventillation. There was a gap between the divider board and the beetle trap, so I folded up some window screen and nestled that nice 'n snug underneath.
On the other side, opposite of the entrance reducer opening, that chamber needed an opening. So, I simply drilled a 1/2-inch hole into the shim. Again, this entrance is opposite the vent hole and on the opposite side of the hive body, which will allow me to raise two different nucleus hives or "nucs", each with their own queen. The divider board is flush with the top and sides of the box, so each chamber is secured.
Here's another look at the "front" side of the divided hive body. Using this design I only have to use one top, one bottom board and one beetle tray in order to get two queens and nucs started.
So, what to do for an inner cover? I have those feed bags hanging around (thanks, Dan!), so I quickly cut out two pieces and stapled each to opposing sides of the hive body. This make-shift "queen castle" was taking shape. I know the bees will propolize the bags down securely, but since neither has propolis on it I wanted to keep the flaps from blowing away on the breeze, hence the small staples along the edge.
Then a little trimming down the middle was needed so that the inner cover flaps could easily meet on the divider board. Voila, two separate chambers, two inner covers, two entrances and opposite vent holes and constant small hive beetle protection. Not bad for 30 minutes of work.
Time to get to it. I went back to my top nuc on my double-hive set-up and located the frame with queen cells. The day before there was one capped cell which I intended to place in one of the chambers of the queen castle.
Lo and behold a second small cell had been capped nearby the one I intended to harvest. Heck, I'm gonna give each chamber a capped queen cell. Why make 'em draw out a new queen when they can just use these? It's more efficient and less stressful on those bees. I felt really guilty about removing those frames of happy bees from their hives on Sunday and putting them all alone. They'd been queenless now for 24 hours so they should readily accept the cells. This being fresh comb but unsecured on the bottom as it's brand new, I simply used scissors to cut out a piece of the comb holding these two capped cells. Note they were working on a third on the bottom left and would probably cap that off had I not culled this piece of comb. I am IMPRESSED with how efficient and amazing top nucleus hives can create queen cells. So my backyard queen rearing approach is beginning to take focus. I will use queen-right hives full of bees, start nuc's on top. Separated by queen excluders and honey supers, moving frames of eggs up on top draws nurse bees far enough away from the queen below. The hive hasn't lost any bees in this process, but it's far enough away from the queen and her pheromone for them to act queenless. Therefore my "cell starters" will be my "top nuc's", just as I learned from reading Pellet's book, "Practical Queen Rearing". Practical indeed! Then I'll cut out and remove the capped cells as they're ready to a couple or three frames of bees set aside into a queen castle a day before, just as I've done here. The top nuc's continue raising queen cells. These girls are not satisfied with one, two or six queen cells on this single frame, they were making a seventh. Totally works for me and my amount of equipment.
On Sunday a large cluster of six queen cells were almost ready for capping. A day later? Capped! And finished those six cells had become a cluster of four. In a day two cells were completely torn down and removed by these master engineers. This is a LOT of great work done by a few bees, but they're super motivated and have lots of royal jelly to offer the cells, because they're part of an overall larger hive. So they're not under stress, but are motivated. This setup's working! Notice the just-emerged little bee near the top center of the photo. She hasn't even gotten all her color yet, but is hard at work right after emergence. Amazing. I gently put this frame back into the top nuc and will allow them to raise a queen up there while I'm away on vacation next week. Also I've got 5 frames of bees in the queen castle, plenty for the two chambers in each.
Okay, two queen cells culled. I was super gentle handling the comb. I am getting more used to the sensation of nurse bees crawling on my fingers, though I still have that annoying "flinch" reaction. I cut out one piece large enough to cull the two cells from, then cut those apart. It's important there's enough comb around the cell to push into the comb on the frames I'll be placing them on.
Great plan, right? Well, Mr. BUTTERFINGERS here squished the first cell when moving it's frame close to another frame. The cell was still intact but I'd damaged it. So I tossed it. Also I had MUCH FEWER bees in each chamber than I was expecting. Drats and double-drats. Live and learn, out in the field. A lot of the bees on those frames had flown back to their original hive. What remained were nurses. One chamber had enough, the first one didn't, and I'd ruined one cell. So I decided to move all frames into a single chamber. I made an indentation on a food frame, then gently pushed the queen cell into place, making sure it was pointed down. In this next photo it's of the first cell, just before I damaged it. But I repeated the process, making the indentation on a frame near the top, enough to push the cell comb into and mash it together enough to hold it in place, making sure the cell is pointed down and then GENTLY and CAREFULLY pushing a nearby frame close enough but not touching it. Whew, I did it! At least, I'm pretty sure I did. It's so hard to see into those spaces. I should've done what Fat Bee Man suggests and put one finger in front of the cell while I pushed the comb closer to it. That way I'd know exactly how far to bring it, without damaging the cell. But I chickened out of that this time. Something to improve on. I'll try doing it his way, the better way on my next attempt.
I removed one partially drawn frame that didn't have much to offer in the way of food, bees or eggs. Four frames fit nicely in this chamber, so okay, four frames in each chamber. If I make up another one of these, I could use two divider boards to create three chambers, but I'll save that for another day (and I'll make sure to only put nurse bees in the queen castle ... live and learn!). The queen cell is on the frame on the right, near the center. You can see bees instantly finding it and beginning to clean up the honey around it from the indentation and repair the comb, properly affixing it to this comb. I left plenty of space so I wouldn't harm this queen cell! Dear Lord, please don't let me have damaged that cell. But you know what? There are eggs on other frames if I did. They have lots of chances here, plenty of nurse bees and plenty of nectar, honey and bee bread to raise a queen, from the capped cell or an egg. I'll return in 14 days to see if this queen emerged, mated and has begun to lay. Cells are capped on Day 9. The queen emerges on Day 16. Then I estimate 2 days of "hardening off" for the newly emerged queen, 2 days to make orientation flights, 2 days to mate and then another 2 days of firming up before egg laying begins on Day 25. Fingers, toes and hive tools are crossed! Then I'll repeat the process in this chamber. Continual increase is a big goal of mine this year.
Here's a closer view of the queen cell. Every drop of that precious honey is being sucked up and nurse bees were instantly crawling on the cell. The sound of the bees had gone from stressed and agitated from being queenless for a day and moved around to suddenly quiet and much better. These bees have a future with a new queen underway. Spring increase IS happening, which means more bees and more adventures into the coming years, "Lord willin' and the creek don't rise". Now, I can go on vacation and rest a lot easier!
With 2014 being a "comback year" for T's Bees, the final cold months of winter were time to get ready equipment-wise. I quickly realized the overwhelming scope of all those frames I'd been ignoring and tripping over. I had 3 different sizes, shallow, medium and deep. A supplier sold me a couple or 3 medium boxes and 30 or so medium frames as deeps. I was too ignorant at the time to realize it. So when I built my overhead frame shelves in my little storage room, I decided to segregate the sizes. Makes pulling a specific size frame out quite easy. I ended up building 5 of these shelves, out of 1x2's and old shelf supports. Currently I can store over 200 frames in my storage room, and I still have plans to build more frame shelves. No more pulling out boxes filled with frames wondering if they were clean and ready to use, or needed lots of work, let alone what size they were. Quick and easy, see it overhead and know where you're at and what you have. Boxes? Store separately.
A lot of my frames would've gone on the kindling pile of most of my fellow beekeepers. Last year I did the dumbest of things: store equipment, including frames and comb, outside and in the apiary. What resulted was a small hive beetle and moth explosion that caused lots of ruin and heartache for my bees and I. But being stubborn and miserly, I just can't afford to toss out $1.30 at a time. I rehabilitated my frames instead. After harvesting the combs for wax, I painstakingly scrape off all excess wax and propolis, remove the wires, remove the wedges and clean out in-between the grooves. Spackle if necessary. Ugh, so much work! And then sand off the year I'd written in black magic marker on the top bars of each frame to date the frames. After all that? Give each a bath in bleach + water solution (1/4 cup per gallon), to kill any remaining eggs from wax moths or SHB that were overlooked, as well as any mold or mildew. I stuck the frames end up in an old cat litter container and set the timer for 10 minutes. Then it was time to rotate the frames so the other half got a bath. Another container holding bird seed made a good weight to keep the frames from floating out of the bath. The frame wedges were removed and got a soak, too. After 10 minutes each side, I rinsed all with a long, powerful spray.
Then I applied my new dating system. A simple colored dot will do. The color corresponds with the queen color for that year. Each year, queen breeders (are supposed to) mark their queens with either a white, yellow, red, green or blue dot, depending on what number the year ends in. Years ending in a _ or _ get (color):
1 or 6 get white
2 or 7 get yellow
3 or 8 get red
4 or 9 get green
5 or 0 get blue
After all the cleanup, these frames looking like they were on their last legs sprang anew. I couldn't believe how new these oldest of frames looked after cleaning. When I started keeping bees 4 years ago, frames were $1 each. Now they're $1.30 each, with some places even selling for $1.45 each. Multiply that in the hundreds as you expand your apiary, and you quickly see how that adds up. I suspect one day I'll be building my frames. But regardless, a bit of organization and thorough cleaning will keep these frames in service for years to come.
Frames weren't the only thing getting cleaned and spiffed up, ready for a new beekeeping year. I've got so many boxes needing work. So I started with the first two hive bodies and outer covers that would soon be home to my two packages I'd bought for this spring. Each interior was cleaned with a hive tool, some curse words, a going over with a wire brush, some glee with a bit of sanding as it really did the trick, and an application of bleach + water spray before being thoroughly rinsed and allowed to dry.
I also decided to use my last few frames of drawn comb in my new hives. It's something I'd debated much about. Should I start completely fresh and virgin? If so, I'd need to alternate my empty frames with frames and foundation. I just hate using that stuff. Chemical-laden wax from commercial beekeepers make up foundation. And, it gets in the way. I decided to roll the dice and use my last remaining drawn combs from my last hive that I'd saved and not melted down. The combs had been frozen for at least 48 hours and then thawed. Cursing about the bozo who sold me the medium frames, I quickly cut out some comb off the mediums and did one of my favorite beekeeping tricks: suspend the comb on a frame using hair clips and plastic cable ties. Works like a charm! I decided to give my two packages a big head start with having some drawn comb. Each got 6 empty frames, and a frame or two of fully drawn comb and a couple of partially drawn frames like this one that they'll need to finish out. So my bees got a good 40% head start on drawing out their deep hive body. So far nectar hasn't started flowing yet, and the tulip poplar trees in the neighborhood only just sprang out their leaves by the end of the first week of April. It's looking like the main nectar flow is still a few weeks away. My goal is to get these girls to draw out combs and then explode in numbers. We'll see if it's in time to harvest a little bit of honey. It's a long shot, but weirder things have happened. I'm not counting on it, but maybe I'll just get lucky.
Spiffing things up also meant painting. The new Freeman bottom boards (background) got primed and painted, and Boris & Natasha each got fresh coats of yellow after I painstakingly repainted their cartoon faces. While I was at it I decided to use white as a spot color for their flesh tones to really make 'em pop. :-)
After a couple hurried weekends of all that work, it was soon time to install the packages. Here you can see those few remaining bees that didn't get shaken out of their packages making their way to the entrance of their new home. It was a glorious sight to see in no time a few fanner bees out front at the entrance, fanning their Nasinov glands to tell the stragglers, and world at large, exactly where their new home was. I made sure to reduce each entrance, since feeding's underway.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the packages were finally put to bed, as blueberry blossoms are filling our nearby bushes. Berry season is just beginning, and the apple tree is unfurling its spring blooms as well. I'm so glad that my bees, and I, made it in time.
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Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
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