It was only a few weeks ago that snow was on the ground, and Olive and Honey were busying enjoying playing in the snow. They made the most of it!
And it was only yesterday, wasn't it, when my two nucs and one hive were running for elected office? I always snag free, used political signs from the roadside after elections. I used them during two Siberian arctic blasts to quickly add additional insulation to the little nucs and my "big" hive (3 shallows of bees). See, elections do matter ... at least to T's bees.
So how did the bales of hay, vertically stacked nucs and additional pieces of correx work for the bees? Pretty darned great. All 3 survived the winter. Here they were when temps warmed up into the '40s after the last Siberian blast plunged high's down to single digits. It was obvious, though, that one nuc was stronger than the other. Amazingly, it, too survived.
I kept feeding the big hive blocks of candy I had stored, along with homemade pollen substitute: a $2.79 bag of soy flour (from a nearby Asian supermarket, Super G on Independence Blvd.) mixed with heavy syrup. I also had my strawberries, ready to plant while spinach, lettuces and kale overwintered in my homemade hoop houses. With persistent cold snaps and even snow, I was determined to give my bees all the protein and carbs they wanted during a long winter, and they gobbled it up, in addition to all the stores they had. Once temps steadily improved to high's in the '50s and lows in the '30s, I started feeding 1:1 syrup. March was already here!!
And before you knew it, April was here and so was Spring 2015! Our sweet knucklehead Honey celebrated on Easter Sunday by stealing one of Yvonne's socks and stashing it on some weeds near a favorite bed of flowering thrift, while Yvonne was busy uncovering our blackberries and raspberries out from that crazy tangle of weeds.
So, how had the big hive done? A couple weeks before Easter I found they'd actually INCREASED during winter. The February and March feeding paid paid off huge dividends. With temps in the mid '50s, I saw the BEST thing a beekeeper could possibly see, all boxes boiling over with bees. SO, my use of 11 narrow frames in a 10-frame box also had paid off. Thank you, Michael Bush! From here on out, brood chambers are 11 frames. More bees in the same space equals a stronger force to overwinter, and a stronger force to keep beetles at bay during spring. The big hive had gobbled up huge amounts of candy and pollen patties, while still finding pollen in the field. Check it!
And what's in those boxes? Here's the top of the first one:
The second shallow of 11 frames, in the middle. Nice cluster!
And the bottom box. Holy moley, I'd better add more space when temps permit. This hive is boiling over! The bottom shallow, which I picked up when I rescued these bees last year from an abandoned hive in Huntersville, NC, had 9 frames in it. Soon, this will become a honey chamber. Just waiting for that cluster to move on up.
So, it was time to get ready some frames, frames and more frames, shallow and deep. I put a fresh box of deep frames with starter strips, 11 in that box, with a couple drawn combs and 9 new frames. This year's queen color is BLUE, so that's the color my 2015 frames get. Last year's color was green.
A few weeks whizzed by, and suddenly it was Good Friday and Easter weekend. I determined to use Good Friday as my yearly hallmark for cleaning up hives from winter, combining or expanding nucs, and reversing hives. I was also D-O-N-E! with my hive stand configuration. I spent 7 times getting stung and chased off by robbing during the summer dearth, and some into the fall. Here's what my hives looked like a LOT last year when I was trying to inspect my hives:
This is how you shut down robbing, by throwing tarps and old fitted sheets over your hives. It also shuts down inspections, and any other work you need to get done! Master beekeeper Billy Davis preaches the importance of keeping your hives low to the ground, inspecting in a sitting posture, and not waving frames about in the air. I am now a believer. I also took a page from Michael Palmer's book, by ditching the concrete blocks, which did nothing but sink, and the row of stands. I decided to go with a simple box stand underneath each hive. I also decided to follow the advice of the "Beekeeper's Handbook" and NOT put my hives in a row, which also encourages robbing, among other things. But I realized I can get more hives in the same space, also, with a horseshoe configuration, which is how I'm rolling. I started by disassembling the stands, cut them down and made some nice 9- and 7-inch box stands for the hives to sit on. I discovered how easy it was to level them out, too. There's magic using a box underneath the hive. Palmer also has a mantra of, "Use what you've got," so I had aggravating row stands. I used 'em to make easy-to-walk-around box stands and even salvaged the nails to make the box stands. Notice, by the way, how horribly the concrete blocks had sunk on one side of my big hive over winter, so much so that I had to resort to throwing more blocks on that side to keep it from falling over. Making a box (or, if you have old supers available, you could just use those) seemed so much smarter. I am looking forward to working the bees and not falling down the slope for a change!
With all that done on Good Friday, it was time to for a first full-out inspection on a gorgeous Easter Sunday. I'd found the smaller nuc, the one on the left, had REQUEENED ITSELF sometime over winter, or very recently. I put a marked queen, with a white dot, in there last fall. That's NOT what I found, when I opened it up to see an amber beauty on broodless frames, waddling about. How this little nuc survived and managed to re-queen was a wonder. But I suspected the queen was unmated, not a virgin awaiting mating flights. I gave that nuc some frames of eggs to see if they'd spin out a queen cell. Yep, they did, but when I pulled the frames to inspect on Easter, the queen cell tore. So I dispatched that queen, and performed a newspaper combine to unite the now queenless nuc and the strong, queen-right nuc. CONFESSION: I goofed when I "dispatched" the unmated queen. I caught her quickly with my queen catcher, but did the same stupid thing I did last year: I flicked off a couple of attendants from the outside into the box from which they'd come. In doing so, the catcher opened up and the queen flew out. I THINK she flew away past my ears, but I couldn't be sure so I put a queen excluder on top of the newspaper just in case. I don't want the dud queen surviving and killing the good queen. I don't know if this is a good idea or bad, but we'll see.
(NOTE: while making the box stands, I also made three-sided one-inch shims for my West beetle traps I bought over Christmas from Dadant, at $11 each ... just make a shim and put it on top of your bottom board and you're ready to go. It's a LOT less expensive than the $35 Freeman bottom board beetle trays, which work wonderfully, but dang, they're expensive. Yes, I'm thrifty. After all, I'm a beekeeper.)
I found the strong nuc still had the 2014 locally raised queen in it I'd bought from G&S Bee Farm, and it was booming. TIGHT brood patterns and tons of pollen. It was a pure joy to expand this nuc into big quarters.
And there she was, with her white dot in tact and laying furiously away. Time to expand this nuc and give her plenty of room to lay and them plenty of frames to draw. The honey flow is starting up!
She's doing a fabulous job! Wall to wall eggs, larvae and brood being capped.
So, how was the big hive doing? I'd given it just two weeks ago eight empty deep frames to draw and one drawn frames in a deep up top. Well, it WORKED. The cluster continued moving up and up and they'd fully drawn out 6 of those frames quickly, even before the honey flow (I was using a frame feeder and 1:1 syrup to get them draw early). What's better is that the queen was somewhere up there, laying away in all that fresh virgin comb. White natural comb filled with those eggs is a beautiful site to behold.
Even this just-started frame had new cells with eggs and royal jelly in them. They love the starter strips of foundation on their otherwise foundation-less frames. Seems a perfect balance for the bees.
They were taking to their new brood chamber wonderfully. Frame after frame of newly drawn deeps, and a tight egg pattern abounded. This thing is going to BOOM in a few weeks. I took out two frames they'd only begun to think about and replaced them with two drawn deep combs from the former weak nuc I'd combined to give this jamming colony an even bigger head start. I had to plane down the frame bars even more, but I got 11 in that box. Took a lot of doing and some bloody knuckles, but it's worth it. Time to reverse!
I found a couple of empty queen cups on the bottom of two frames. Looks like they were staying in practice, just in case they felt like swarming. My goal is to convince them to stay and make lots of honey! I'll keep an eye on these cups to see if they start queen cells (and if they do, I'll harvest them for some new spring nucs). Also notice the abundance of capped worker brood on the combs at right.
Over winter I decided to put oil back in the bottom tray. So glad I did. Look at all the beetles it caught and killed. I stopped counting after 50. Yuck. I gladly gave the big hive a fresh, clean Freeman bottom board while I reversed.
My dear friend and mentor Hernan Atencio informed me that his hives had already filled up two frames with nectar. So the early spring dandelion and holly flow is on strong. It'll only be a few weeks before those tulip poplar blossoms open up in the neighborhood. But I'm making hay while the sun shines. I reversed the boxes, putting the deep with the newly drawn combs on bottom, and a new honey super on top with fresh frames using a 9-frame spacer. While I run 11 combs in my brood chambers, I love fat combs in honey supers. So 9 frames in a honey super makes it easy to harvest, and the bees pack a ton of honey in those fat combs!
I put a queen excluder underneath the honey super. The shallow that had been on the bottom all winter was totally empty. It will become a honey super. So on my next inspection I'll move the excluder down a level, so I'll have the equivalent of two honey supers already on and working, and the queen has the equivalent of two deeps to turn into her booming brood chamber (one deep + two shallows, all 11 frames each). The bees took to their new location just a few feet away from the old stand in no time. Nasinov fanners were on the front porch, fanning away, telling all the incoming foragers that "HERE, HERE, HERE IS YOUR HOME!" After many hours of work I also was gifted with my first sting (actually got it on Good Friday), while I was walking away. I laughed and rejoiced. First sting out of the way. And I felt "BONA-FIDE!" Happy 2015, everybody!! It's going to be a magical year.
Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
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