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!
Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
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