Things were booming at the end of late winter, and early spring was right around the corner. I had to get to work, as I'm selling bees as well as honey this year. I also am increasing my apiary. So on an early March Saturday, home from working in Miami and suddenly in low-40s and rain here in Charlotte, instead of tending the bees I got to building. Boy am I glad I did.
Cold, wet weather persisted in February and March, giving us a traditional winter and spring here in Charlotte. It's been a while since that's happened, and most everyone's been spoiled by the global warming springs here, with bees bringing in nectar in the middle of February. Just ain't right. So this year Mother Nature delayed everyone's plans and got back on her regular schedule. This delayed plans for nuc and honey deliveries, but that's how the wind blows. In the meantime, I got busy building a Queen Castle. This will let me raise 4 queens at once in the space of a single hive body. I measured a deep hive body, cut out the pieces in 3/4" playwood, and used my circular saw (I don't have a table saw or any other such helpful equipment) to cut dados in the front and back for the four chambers.
I borrowed the idea from Don at Dixie Bee Supply, known as the "Fat Bee Man" to his YouTube fans. He's awesome. I also combined it with the Dan Coates' nuc plan, where the handles atop the outside walls form the rest for the frames, eliminating the need to make a rabbit cut for the frame rest. The castle will hold 2 frames each on the outside chambers, and 3 frames on the inside chanmbers.
See? Pretty cool, hunh?
I made a solid bottom and screwed it in place. The screws will let me take the bottom off and use this as a regular deep hive body if I ever need to in a pinch.
Olive and Honey helped by Easter-egging themselves in an unused flower bed topped with hay.
I used a sheet of louan to cut the divider walls and the chamber lids. Since I'm doing this by hand, each chamber has its own measurements, so I numbered each and their lids. I made migratory top (no bricks needed, since there's no lip for the wind to catch and these lids are quite heavy ... just attached a cleat on each end and it's secure).
Each chamber gets a vent hole and an entrance hole, on opposite ends.
Make one center chamber's entrance on the back, and one on the front. And put their vent holes on the opposite sides. Here you can see that chamber 2's entrance is at the bottom and it's corresponding vent hole, which is secured with 1/8" hardware cloth and a hot glue gun (man, I love those things) is on the opposite wall and at top. The entrances are tiny so only 2 or 3 bees are needed to keep out robber bees. I knew robbing would be an issue since nectar's was only just beginning to trickle in, while I've stopped feeding. I used a 1/2" bit for the entrances, and a 13/16" bit for the vents. The vents confuse would-be robbers and help keep them out, too.
Put the outside chamber entrances and vents one on each side. Now all 4 chambers have their own entrances and vents, on different sections of the box. I put one outside entrance at the bottom and one at top. I think it's a good idea to alternate positions, and I tried to keep the vents alternating with the entrance positions also.
I made the castle walls 9-3/4" tall, which is a little taller than the standard 9 5/8" height. I wanted extra clearance underneath the frame, so if one of my new queens happens to be on the bottom of the frame while you're inspecting it and putting it back in, you won't squash her. No one wants a squashed queen. Deep frames are 9-1/8" tall, so she's got plenty of room to run around on the bottom while I fitz with the frame and put it back in the box.
Now I can raise 4 queens in a single box. Pretty cool, hunh? I'll be building more of these for sure.
I took a couple of my extra nuc boxes and did the same thing, alternating sides so I could put these nuc boxes side by side on the stand. I also put the entrance holes on opposite ends and heights from the queen castle they'd be beside.
Since I'm expanding my apiary and selling bees this year, I need to make more equipment. That includes tops and bottoms, which are easy to forget about. I use screened bottom boards, and had been putting off building one for a while. Seemed intimidating. But I found the necessary 1/8" hardware cloth at Little Hardware in downtown Charlotte. Now, it was time to unravel that screen and make one. I took some raw 2" x 3/4" lumber my brother gave me, and planed down the edges. I cut them to length, using another screened bottom board as my measuring guide. I then cut off a landing strip that was 4" wide, which will go under the hive body just a bit and give the bees a place to land. I have the smallest hand plane imagineable. I'll be correcting that soon. Really hurts your palms after a while.
I used 1x1's to make a rest for the screen. The screen will allow any Varroa mites that the bees groom off themselves to fall out of the hive, another vital component of Integrated Pest Management in my chemical- and treatment-free apiary.
I attached the screen to the top, using hot glue and finished off with some staples. I sealed up the board with a 1x1 slat on the endso the board will have 3 square sides for the hive bodies to sit on (and so bees can't get out the back).
I took some scraps of louan and sawed them into thin strips and glued them along the bottom edge. This now allows me to close off the screen, if the hive is weak and it's super cold outside, or if I want to spray oil on the board and count mites and see how the colony is faring.
Then I had two empty nuc boxes and a 4-chambered queen castle ready for splits. I'd be making more, so I also made another hive stand out of 2x2's and lag bolts, atop cinder blocks. The lag bolts let me adjust the stand to get it at the right slightly forward pitch and to level it out on this little hill. I do love the simpler 2x16" lumber stand someone gave me that I put the nucs and castle on. I'm sure I'll be switching over to those types of stands in the near future, and use pavers and bricks underneath as needed to level out the stand.
I got out my extra hive bodies I assembled over the winter, and a simple plywood top I made at the last minute (yet again, I forgot about tops), with frames at the ready for the next sunny opportunity to go in and make splits. More hives also means more entrance reducers. I make my own. They're so simple!
Just cut a 1x1 to size, and then drill three 1/2" holes in it ... plenty of room for an expanding hive and reduced entrances so a transferred nuc that needs help defending itself only needs 6 or 8 bees to defend the entrance. All in all, this super cold, rainy Sunday turned out really well. I was really proud of myself, not buying any of this outside of the 1x1's and plywood, and only having a circular saw, glue gun, stapler, brad nailer and ruler as my primary tools. I learned my lesson last year: use cold, rainy days when you think you can't do anything to build stuff you need, whether now or in the future. You won't regret it, especially when the sun shines and those bees start flying!
So yesterday I FINALLY was able to get into my hives. For the longest time this winter it's been 60 degrees or more during the mid-week, and cold and rainy on the weekends. As I write this the forecast for tomorrow, Sunday, is a cold 47 and rainy. Today, though, and yesterday? Low 60's! I had to move the straw bales behind out of the way. EVERY mentor I'd mentioned this to said it was unnecessary, but what the heck, worst case it provides a wind break for my bees. After all, T's Bees is a bee-friendly apiary. :) Notice the beautiful red blooms on the spindly tree behind the hives? I've never noticed them before until this season. I gotta find out what those are. They're beautiful. Another joy of beekeeping is learning a bit of botany. BTW, I forgot to mention that I'd been elected to be the new vice president of the Mecklenburg Beekeepers. Crazy and exciting!
Before I went out I prepared two Beetle Jails to be my pollen feeders. I did this last fall and it was a hit with the girls. It's simple and cheap. Forget pollen patties, which invites Small Hive Beetles. They're also icky and cause a mess. Just go straight pollen is what I say. First snip the centers of every other rung in a Beetle Jail top using a set of plastic snippers. Then use a precision knife to clean up the edges. I found that holding the knife away from me and using a simple upward motion achieved a quick and clean edge.
Just spoon pollen directly in, bap a few times on the table to let the pollen settle. When you've filled them, how will you transport them without them falling over and spilling out all the pollen you just spooned in?
That's easy. My wife Yvonne came up with this ingenious solution. Just use a rectangular piece of Gladware or Tupperware you may have. The edges of the trap feeders can hang on the lip of the container. They just barely were able to on this container, so we simply placed one edge down so nothing spilled out. It was very successful, even while bumping along on my garden cart on my way out.
I like to go gloveless when inspecting the hives. BUT I still have beek nerves when it comes to that, until I'm in the hives for a bit, then I settle down. Maybe I'll get over it one day. Honestly I'm kind of looking forward to my first couple of stings this year just to get them over with. I've come up with a natural solution that just may keep my stings to a minimum. There are natural products you can spray onto fume boards in place of chemicals to get the bees out of the supers come harvest time. A chief ingredient in these combinations of natural oils and essences is almonds. So I got me some almond oil and imitation extract (which does contain actual bitter essence of almonds). I assumed the oil would have the smell that bees don't like and would stay away from, but it didn't. It did make my hands feel great, though. I think I'll mix up the extract with the oil in a little spray container like the one in this photo (you can't have too many spray bottles I'm finding out). Another bonus of the oil is that it makes washing off all of the gunk you get on you when you inspect go away quick and easy. While I was at the store I got some lemongrass oil that I'll use in my bait hives, too. Even with my "almond gloves" I also smoked my hands before going in, which has become a ritual for me. I might've wasted my money on my almond idea, but we'll find out soon enough.
You should always have a single, main objective when inspecting so that you don't lose focus. If you forget to do everything you wanted in the buzz and hum of the moment, at least you'll have achieved your primary purpose that inspection. My main objective was to determine where the colony clusters were in Hive Boris and Hive Natasha. My second objective was to determine how strong their food stores were. My third objective was to feed them pollen (bees need protein in addition to the sugar stores they have for winter), which helps make them strong and stimulates brood rearing.
I must admit that I was nervous. It was the first time in 4 months that I'd gone into Boris and Natasha. I truly expected them to come at me with full force, since that had been my experience messing around with the straw bales outside the hives earlier in the winter. Honey bees do NOT like to be disturbed in winter. I had my smoke going. I've got that DOWN ... and yes, I use the smoke fuel that's sold at Brushy Mountain Bee Farms (it truly smells like pot ... must've come from a hemp factory). The compressed stuff is great AND cheap. MUCH better than pinestraw. Once lit this stuff stays lit forever until you cork the smoker, unlike pine needles. (I start with pine needles to get some hot embers going then put the Mary Jane smoker fuel on, and squeeze the bellows a few times, then cap the smoker and bellow some more. Great stuff.
Several times over the past couple weeks I've gone to the hives at night and put my ears up against their sides. The buzzing is loud (I was relieved to hear the sounds, as it meant each colony was alive and well). A few weeks ago the buzz was at the bottom at night. Then the other day the buzz was super loud at top, somewhat loud at the middle and nothing below. My ears told me that the colony cluster has moved into the top box, so it might be time to reverse. Mentor Libby Mack from Meck Bees told me that this is one non-invasive way you can tell where they're clustering. I also read recently, and was my experience last year, that slow and fluid motions around the hives really keeps everyone, bees and you, calm. Every time I was jerky on hive inspections last year I got popped. So slow, fluid and continuous motions was what I employed. It truly works (at least for me, as it calmed me down Saturday and the bees seemed to like it also). I lifted the outer cover corners and applied a bit of smoke, just like old times. While that settled I smoked the entrance. Each hive had a small-to-decent amount of orientation flights going on, signs that the Queen has been laying in small batches at least 20 days ago. Boris had twice as many orientations going on as Natasha, so that queen is more active. Through the winter Boris was feeling lighter than Natasha, also a sign that more bees are eating more food stores.
Boris greeted me with a few girls on top of the screened cover, upon which they'd begun putting a little burr comb. It looked pretty busy in there. I cracked open each corner of the top box and applied smoke. Nervous they were going to come at me, I put on my gloves. I quickly discovered this was my third pair of gloves to have holes in them! Thank you moths and mice. I think the universe is telling me to forget the gloves. So my almond experiment will be tested another day when I wasn't as jittery.
There were a lot of bees and honey stores on the top box. I didn't go into the frames for this first inspection. Time was running out and it just didn't feel right to me. I was a little disappointed in myself, wondering if I'd let my jitters get the best of me. BUT I've always found out that trusting your instincts especially around the hives is the best way to go. I managed to lift the entire upper deep of Boris without wrenching my back and arm this time, so they'd been eating. The top deep felt like 45 pounds to me. And BOY were there a lot of bees right here in the middle. I hefted the bottom deep and it felt like 35 pounds. I assumed the cluster was at mid-level of the hive. I didn't see any drones right off the bat, either, which is good. When she starts laying drones, it'll soon be time for swarm urges, too, is what I've heard.
I replaced the top box back into position not reversing Boris today. I realized I didn't know where the cluster was in truth. Below? Middle? Top? Hard to tell with all of these bee butts and eyes looking up at you inbetween frames. This shot is of the top box before I closed it up. I did feel great to see Boris is in such a strong shape. I took the covers back off and put the pollen feeder in place, then put the covers back on (second goal achieved).
There were a lot more girls to greet me on the top level of Natasha when I opened her up. So I was convinced the cluster was at the top on this one. I felt a bit ignorant, realizing later that I might've let daytime activity fool me into where the cluster is when it's cold out and at night. I later checked with MBA mentor Wayne Hansen who said on warm days the cluster breaks up and goes all over. Okay, lesson learned there. Trust the weights of the boxes and my ears.
Nope, same thing as in Boris. WAY more activity in the middle. Still no drones I could find. Again my instinct told me this wasn't the day to reverse or go frame by frame. Maybe this was a mistake? I'll let someone else judge me on that score. I'll soon get back into the hives. I thought it was a fine first-inspection, getting reacquainted with the girls. Again I hefted the bottom. Again the same result. About 35 pounds or so on bottom, and 45-50 pounds on top. Overall I was really surprised at how much food was left. The plus side of this is that I won't have to feed at all most likely this spring, as nectar flows are just around the corner. The down side is that the hives can get honey-bound, which can cause swarming. I'm going to take out a frame off each hive and replace it with an empty frame. I have decided to go foundationless from here on out. More natural, more naturally disease-resistant, more happy bees, more honey!
Wayne suggested putting in a blank, saving the older comb for a backup (after freezing of course) and watching their progress on the new frame. How quickly or not they build it back should be informative. I'll use those foundation combs as bait combs in my bait hives that'll be going up soon. I'll also take out all of my foundation-filled brood combs, which also keep those house and nurse bees busy and prevent them from making plans to leave. Bees without a job are bees in trees, I suspect.
I put the pollen feeder in place. It was then I realized how amazingly calm the bees were. It felt like old times last spring. I spent a few minutes just looking at them close up. A few met my gaze. They were furry and cute. I was falling in love with my bees all over again. No, I can rest easy that as long as I'm kind to them, and in slow fluid motions they'll be kind to me. I saw one bee outside of Natasha at the beginning of my inspection, which had a red slash of pollen down her head. It reminded me of yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar .
Noticing a little bit of pollen coming in, I saw the bee with the red slash on her face looking at me from the side of the top box as I closed up Natasha. We spent a few moments inspecting one another. I bid her farewell and good times.
My friend Bill jokingly tells me about a yogi who chants to her bees. I may do the same. Just as the slow fluid motions, I think the chanting will keep me calm and in good energy. It's something I think I'll try. The bees always return good energy with the same. Yes, I'm a yogi, a tree hugger and a naturalist. Some call it crazy. Me? I call it good times.
Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo. Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti!
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Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
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