Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Requeening and Hive Inspection

A couple of weeks ago when we set up our new hives at Andy's house we did everything we could to ensure success. Because this is agriculture nothing every works out 100%. Three of our bee colonies didn't accept their queen, and so we had to present them with new queens.

The first step was to look into the hives.

You cans see the bees are only on a few frames. They're clustered on the frames we originally put them in. Although 10,000 bees that come in a package may sound like a lot, a mature hive can have around 50-60,000 bees. So these 10,000 barely cover 3-4 frames. Also, bees only live for a few weeks, so we've already started to loose bees. We may have already lost 1-2,000 bees. So getting a laying queen in there is essential.

Here is a frame of bees on way comb they created. The ones that have a yellow color have been filled with pollen, food for the young bee larvae. The black cells are empty. They should each have a tiny white dot, a bee egg or have a developing larvae in them, but these don't.

The bees on the other hand are on top of capped brood. This queen must have come quickly out and started laying right away. The yellow color is capping wax that seals more mature larvae in for the final stage of development. Many times Priscilla and I have seen a new born bee chew it's way out of the capping to make her debut in bee society.

Here I shuffle things around int he hive to make room for the new queen, who waits in a brown paper bag before being introduced to her colony. I think the Queen of England does something like this too on state occasions.

Here is the view inside the bag. Each one of these girls will lay hundreds of thousands of eggs. We may think that machines are pretty amazing, but bees kick butt all over every machine ever made.

Curious worker bees observe the queen. They will feed her thorough the screen until she is released. The queen is held captive by a plug made of candy that the bees will eat away to remove her.

Here is a view between two frames of bees. I cannot express how amazing bee keeping is. If you're asking for an answer about why I do this, here it is.

We've been experimenting with different fuels for our smokers. There is some evidence that Sumac heads may be a mite suppressor. At any rate, it looks good. It's nice to be able to work with a natural product.

This picture you can see an active queen, can you spot her? This is what success looks like.

Hello. Curious bees check us out during the hive inspection. Here you can see that bees cover the tops of many frames in our over wintered hives. I know that bees are insects, but with their furry looking business I can't help but think of them as sweet somehow, as sweet as honey.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Some basics

I’ve been a bee keeper for four years now, and my wife Priscilla and I are making the transition from hobby bee keepers very small scale commercial bee keepers. We’ll have 5 hives in our back yard and 10 nearby at a friend’s house.

This is part of an overall move to urban farming by us. By this I mean we’ve replaced most of our ornamental trees with fruit trees and added berry bushes. We also converted much of our lawn to vegetable gardens. This is all part of a landscape plan for maximum food production, privacy and beauty done by the Conway School of Landscape Design.

Bees were a natural on our .21 acre lot. Our bees gather nectar from thousands of acres of flowering trees and bushes surrounding our home in downtown Northampton. Many people think of beekeeping as being a countryside activity, but in fact bees do great in urban spaces. Think of all the flowering trees and ornamental flowers you see in parks and yards.

When starting with bees you’ll need to order a “package” of bees from someone. This can be done by mail, but we get ours from Warm Colors Apiary in S Deerfield, MA. Most providers begin taking orders in December and are sold out by February. If you want bees in 2011, start reading and planning now!

Each package contains 9,000-12,000 bees and a single queen bee. Most bees on the east coast come from Georgia. Bees should arrive in April or May. You’ll place them in a hive that you assembled and painted over the winter.

As the colony settles in they will start producing wax to make honeycomb and the queen will start laying eggs. She can lay 1,000-3,000 eggs per day! It’s pretty astonishing.

In many ways, beekeeping is different from any other kind of animal husbandry you can imagine. A single hive can contain as many as 100,000 bees, but 50,000 is a more usual or optimal number. So, if all goes well, we will have 750,000 bees in our 15 hives this coming summer. At any given moment on a warm day in July we could have 300,000 bees out and flying over Northampton. We’ll need that many because it takes the nectar of 2 million flowers to make one pound of honey, and for this the bees will fly over 50,000 miles.

Though people know bees make honey from flowers, I find the actual facts staggering. In most flowers there is a tiny drop of sweet water there to attract insects, like bees. In most flowers it would take dozens of these drops to cover the head of a pin. Daily, our army of bees fans out over the city visiting lilacs and dandelions in every nook and cranny where they grow. They fly over the heads of women at the door of Serio’s market, past babies in strollers, over the mayor and around the library.

If you’re more than a few yards away from a hive, you’d likely not know it’s there. In an urban environment bees fly at rooftop level. Bees will almost always fly 10-12 feet above the ground, so you rarely see them except when they come down to visit a flower.

In future articles I’ll talk more about keeping and working with bees, but I thought some basics would be helpful. Bees are wonderful creatures, and about as different from cats and dogs and “normal” animals that we think of when we hear the word as they could be. I find them continually fascinating.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Lunchtime Swarm Prevention

We came home this afternoon to find the bees in the early stages of swarming!

Swarming is a natural reaction to favorable conditions by bees. They create a new queen and about half of the bees leave the hive with her to form a new colony elsewhere. This may be good for the bees, but it means that we have less bees to help make us honey. Moreover, since we are not there to take care of the bees that leave are very likely to die. So, really, nothing good comes of it. Therefore, we stepped in to prevent the bees from swarming!

Here you can see the mass of bees clustering on the ground in front of the hive and on the hive itself. Given another half an hour these bees might have all been in the air with a newly hatched queen off for who knows where!

So, into the bee suit! I had to think quick. I decided to make a "split". This creates an "artificial swarm" by dividing the bees in half so think they've swarmed.

Here I divide the bee hive in half. Now some bees "think" they've left the hive, since they are no longer in a hive with an active queen.

You can still see there are lots of bees in both sides, thousands of bees in fact. They started to swarm as a result of the colony being very healthy and of having used up all the room in the hive to lay eggs. The queen needed more room, so the bees decided to set off!

I shook the bees that were forming the swarm back into the hive. These bees are the "leaders" if they settle in chances are good the "split" tactic will work.

I painted some sugar syrup on empty frames to get bees to create wax comb in it. Bees will often draw comb (create wax) int he presense of weak sugar syrup. Time of of the essence here, since the bees are in a swarming mood! Anything I can do to help them draw comb, I will do!

It's very important that the bees draw comb quickly since the queen has filled all the available space with eggs and brood! The bees have been doing great this summer with the warm snap early on. This type of situation normally occurs in May or June.

Hopefully the bees will quickly draw out new comb for the queen to start laying on so they won't swarm even though we divided the hives!

And the combs go back in the hive!

Since conditions are so conducive to swarming (days getting longer, lots of natural pollen and nectar, strong hives etc) we still will have to work to prevent swarming this spring. Even this split isn't the final step for these two hives. We'll have to take them apart again this Friday and see what's happening inside.

That's bee keeping! There's always a lot to learn.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Some pictures from Hiving Day!

I met my wife Priscilla at the Woodstar Cafe on December 27th of 2008 when I needed to plug my laptop in next to her table. It was then that I saw she was reading a reprint of the 1966 Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Plan. As both an urban planning and zoning geek and a librarian I recognized hardcore nonfiction when I saw it. I saw her as a potential mate right away.

After the usual Western New England winter courtship of cross country skiing, discussing the virtue of woolen base layers and a spring of visiting more than a dozen maple sugar shacks for breakfasts she accepted my proposal of marriage at the Skinner House on June 1. We married by her father the Rev. Cannon Miner at the Pelham Public Library with the reception at Forbes Library on September 7th, about 9 months after having met.

Along the way we cut down an overgrown hemlock hedge around our property between State and King Street, Priscilla showed great braveness when multiple bees got stuck in her hair and we planned and built our downtown home into a small urban homestead. Work is ongoing, but 8 fruit tress arrived today from Miller Nurseries, worms are back to work composting and Grendel, our beloved American short hair cat, keeps the place mouse proof.

This story is about our new business Preservation Honeybee.

Here are some pictures from Hiving Day. We took delivery of our package bees from Dan Conlon over at Warm Colors Apiary last week on Thursday April 8. Since temperatures were so low we had to keep the bees on our dining room table until Saturday morning.

For Priscilla and I these 10 hives represent the transition from hobby beekeepers to business people. It wasn't cheap or easy to get started. We've borrowed money from both our families to start up. I guess, minimally, it costs about $250 to put a hive on the ground but there are expenses beyond that. These bees are being kept at our friend Andy's house. It's an ideal site in so many ways, We can easilly bicycle there and it's a stones throw from the community garden and downtown Florence. Best of all, it's a friend's place.

We are thankful to families, Andy and the Conlons for making this possible.

We assembled and painted the hives over the winter, with help from my Mom, Philomena. I am pretty meticulous about assembly and painting. We glued and nailed every joint. We primered and sanded between each coat of paint. All this means it took a lot of time to do this right.

For us, though, it represents good care of an investment. We want these hives to last for many years. As important, if not more, is the idea that durability is a cornerstone of sustainability. All our hives are produced on the east coast and the latest round comes from a producer a short drive away.

We're happy to be able to produce a quality food product from within the city of Northampton. In Northampton or in Florence Center a bee on flowers outside your window could very well be ours.

Now, on to the photos:

In this photo I am applying a mixture of food grade mineral oil and our own bees wax to the surfaces of the hives that will contact one another. I like to have only food grade substances near anything that will be inside the hive.

Here we have a smoker and some "punky wood" or rotten wood we use as smoker fuel. We didn't use the smoker this day.

Here is Priscilla filling up jars with sugar water to feed our bees. The newly arrived bees have no food store to get them started, so we need to help. Here is Priscilla being helpful.

Here we see an empty frame, the bees have not built wax comb onto it. So I pour some syrup onto it to help the bees accept it. Bees are stimulated to produce wax when a weak syrup of sugar water is ingested by them. So, to help them build we provide it.

We use paintbrushes to spread the syrup around.

Where possible we use "drawn comb" this is comb our bees from made last year. Since these bees are totally new they'd have no comb of their own if we didn't provide it. This gives these bees a huge head start. Best off all we know this comb was made by our own bee from our home apiary so we know it's pure, natural and disease free.

Yikes! Here are the bees! 10 packages of 10,000 bees each. That's 100,000 bees.

Here we set the bees out, you can see how beautiful this place is.

Priscilla sprays the bees with sugar water before we start working with them. This calms the bees. A well fed bee is happy and docile!

We remove the top and pry out the can of sugar water that has fed the bees in transit.

And we shake them into their home. They really fall out of the box like Cocoa Puffs. Well fed happy bees hardly fly at all at this point. They just drop in a go to work. I find this to be one of the strangest things ever. Also, this point represents the transition of months of planing, work and expense into a reality. It's pretty special.

Shake, shake, shake those bees in!

The bees settle into their new home.

Some final work before we sit back.

A view from one of Andy's outbuildings. What a great place.

We're confident of a great outcome. We may have some spring honey from our State Street Area hives in late June. We hope to be a place were people can learn about bees and be inspired to produce food in the city. In addition to bees we have fruit trees and a large garden in Downtown Northampton. Please check back with us often to see what were up to.