Monday, September 25, 2017

preparing for winter

bee hives IMG_7125

I'm in the process of preparing my honeybee hives for winter. I have two hives on the far side of my vegetable garden nearest the pond. They're on the northeast side of the yard with a southwest exposure. Both were packages I installed in early April, since both my hives died early last winter. One hive is much stronger than the other. The strong one has about 70 lbs of honey, while the weak one about 30-40 lbs. I'm guessing here from lifting the boxes.

This is what I've done and am planning to do for winter:

 - Removed super and extracted honey: In early September I removed one full super (a short box with 10 frames for building comb and filling it with honey) from my strong hive. I've extracted it into a bucket and will bottle in 4 lb jars soon. It'll be about 20 lbs plus or minus I think.

- Feeding weak hive: I've been feeding my weak hive so it can build up its honey stores for winter. There aren't many flowers left now, the goldenrod is gone. I only see the late aster in bloom now. The bees can't get much nectar from foraging anymore. I feed a 1:2 mix of water and sugar.

- Fed strong hive: Yesterday I put the super with wet frames (the same super I extracted, but since I only extracted about 80% of the honey, meaning 20% is still in the combs, it's called a wet frame) onto the strong hive.
     Mistakes: I made the mistake of putting the exposed wet super in a wheelbarrow and leaving it
     next to the hive while I started my smoker. Being exceptionally poor at starting a smoker, the box
     sat exposed for a while. Somehow, I also dripped some honey on the ground in front of the hive.
     When I returned to the hive with my somewhat lit smoker, a frenzy had started. Arrgh. My bees,
     my neighbors bees, who knows who all came to the party. I put the wet super on the strong hive
     and covered it up. Nevertheless the frenzy continued all day. - A couple of mistakes to avoid!

frenzy IMG_7114 frenzy b IMG_7114

- Increase sunlight: I trimmed the branches of the crab apple tree that's grown out and around the hives, especially the weak one. I still need to trim more next time I'm suited up. (I wonder if the lower amount of sun over the past season may have weakened this hive.)

Planning to do
- Get bigger feeding bucket: I've been feeding the weak hive about a liter at a time, but they eat it so fast I can't keep up with them, The bucket seems always empty. They only have a short time left when they can dry down the sugar water and store it as honey. Once it gets cold, they need all their energy to stay warm. So I'm planning to add a bigger container of sugar water today. I'm using a chicken water feeder with bent hardware cloth in the tray so the bees can climb down the the liquid.

- Count mites: I'm planning to do a sugar roll to count mites in both hives. I haven't treated for mites, but I'd still like to know what the load is going in to winter.

- Full inspection of hives: I plan to go through both hives, frame by frame, and get a good count of how much honey and brood are there. I'll check for the queens, and make sure they're laying well.

- Build a box to absorb winter condensation: I'm planning to build a box (called a quilt box) that sits at the top inside the hive and insulates, helps with airflow, and absorbs moisture. I will staple burlap to the bottom of a super and fill it with wood shavings. Pretty simple design. (I have to find out if it should go above or below the top board.) I'm hoping it will help. It's my guess I lost my hives last year because of condensation dripping into the cluster of bees. Bees can stay warm in cold weather, but not if they're wet. My hive are very close to the pond and we get lots of local fog from it.

- Remove super. I'll take off the super with wet frames from strong hive once its dry and all of the honey has been brought down into the hive.

- Add mouse guard. There a millions of mice in our woods, looking for a winter shelter. They can easily climb in through the lower entrance if it's left open like it is all summer. I bought a couple fancy mouse guards from Maxant. It looks like the holes will be better for the bees than hardware cloth I've used in the past. Its a nice sturdy product. The quilt box and mouse guard will go on at the end of October. (I'll check for any mice already inside the hive before putting on the guard!)

After this, they should be ready to go for winter. At least as ready as I can get them. Of course, I can always use advice. I've been keeping bees 3 years now, and have plenty more to learn. I learned from my class, from experts at my local bee club, from advice on this blog, and from my bees (trial and error). But still I almost never spot a queen, I'm very bad a string a smoker and keeping it going, haven't had the time to do mite treatments or sugar rolls yet. And I've only had 1 of 4 hives survive a winter. But I have produced over 150 lbs of honey so far. Really delicious honey. And me and the bees have fun hanging out in the garden.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

I lost both my hives :-(

empty hives IMG_6462

:-( The boxes of both my hives are now empty and stacked crosswise. I was sad to see so many bees die. I'm guessing they died from dripping condensation as I saw water droplets in the hive when I opened it.

I noticed bees begin to die in November, just after it got cold. They fell from the hive in huge numbers. Mostly they couldn't get cleaned out through the mouse guard, so they accumulated on the floor of the hive and I brushed them out. Both hives. I knew it wasn't good.

So, it could have been mites. I've never treated for them, or tested. I've only ever seen one on a dead bee. I know they're mostly in larvae, and they reduce hive numbers. Mites are thought to be a large contributor to colony collapse disorder (CCD), where adult bee populations effectively disappear suddenly, within a few weeks or days. My bees didn't disappear, they were right there - piles of dead ones.

I didn't see signs of any other diseases: foulbrood, nosema, wax moths, or hive beetles. I forgot to call the bee inspector, who probably would have a had a helpful opinion for me.

So I'm going to blame the moisture I saw in the hive. Bees can keep themselves warm but not if they're wet. They vibrate their wings and create heat for the cluster. They can't do this if they have water dripping on them. My hives are located 40-50 ft from a large pond, on pretty much the same level as the pond. We enjoy watching clouds of moisture rise from the pond on cold mornings. They are quite beautiful.

I've been reading about condensation in bee hives and elsewhere (e.g. our new garage ceiling...). If the top of the hive is cold, the inside is warmer, and the humidity is high, water will condense inside the top. Humidity is worse if there is poor air circulation.

I want to give it another try with my hives next year. I'd like to see if I can address condensation and get better winter survival. The only thing I did for it this year was to put insulation (standard ceiling panels) inside the top cover. I have two things I'd like to try next year:

- Move the hives to a higher site, further from the pond. This will be either in my new fruit tree "mini-orchard" on an open south slope 200 ft from the pond and about 30 feet elevation - or in my front yard, twice as far away and twice as high.

- Add a "quilt box". I'm still looking into how to built this. It's essentially a short hive box with a porous bottom filled with absorbent wood shavings and ventilation holes in the sides.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

the economics of hobby beekeeping

Remember the book "The $64 tomato"? Well, I did some calculating to figure out how much a jar of honey was costing me to produce. The bottom line - it's an expensive bottle of honey.

I figure a pound of honey costs me $27.63 to produce. A little better than that expensive tomato, but still a pretty costly jar of honey.

Now, I'm a second year bee keeper, so I had a lot of set up costs and they won't be recurring. My set up cost $918. Recurring costs are $640. I added in my time at $30 hr. I've spent about 80 hours producing my honey valuing my time at $2310.

Another way of figuring my cost since it's a hobby is to omit my time, which of course is all fun, not work. Also, I can omit set up costs. Now it's much better: a pound of honey is $4.57.

I'm impressed that local bee keepers can sell their honey at $9 to $11 a pound. I sure they are much more efficient than me.

I'm selling my honey for $10 a one pound jar, and for $7 a half pound jar. I've sold nearly 100 lbs, so I've made over $1000. After 2 years, I've covered my set up costs. Going forward, I really should charge based on my recurring expenses and my time. That's $21.07 a pound - I don't think I'd sell anything at $20/lb. I need to forget my hours or get more efficient. I could probably go to $12 a pound. It's very special honey after all! It does taste very good.

Monday, December 12, 2016

winterizing my beehives

I'd like to do the best I can to keep my bees alive this winter so I've been reading and asking at my local bee club. As they say, ask two beekeepers the same question and you'll get three answers. On top of that, bees have a mind of their own and you can treat two hives the same way and they'll still be totally different.

So, here's what I've done for my hives.

- I modified my mouse guard so the bees can get in and out better. I had used 1/4 inch hardware cloth, but dead bees accumulated inside. Rather than going to 1/2 inch (which small mice can sometimes get through), I pointed the tips down into the baseboard and cut out sections in the 1/4 inch material. There's a photo below. I've read about installing mouse guards and other bee things, but it often makes no sense to me unless I see a picture.

- I strapped 1/2 inch R4 insulation to the north and west sides of the hives. These are the sides with the lowest sun exposure.

- I put a stone on top of the hives so any strong wind won't blow the cover off. There is a board under the stone so it doesn't freeze to the top, form ice, and slide off.

- I put a basic Home Depot ceiling tile inside the cover for top insulation. The tile is above the inner cover. I left the inner cover escape hole open for venting moisture and to allow access if snow blocks the lower entrance.

- I'll check honey stores during the winter by feeling how heavy the boxes are. If they get light, I have honey frames waiting for them. I'll lay them inside the hive at the top for them to empty into their stores.

- Finally, I am thinking positive thoughts and hoping my bees are happy and and well this winter.

bees IMG_6121
bees IMG_6123

Friday, April 15, 2016

hive boxes flipped

In addition to freeing my stuck queen, I also flipped the boxes on my older hive today. I did a full inspection of the hive. There are several frames of brood and capped brood and obviously more bees than last time. They are only using the top box and going in and out of the top hole. So, I reversed the top and bottom boxes. Probably no real need to have done this. I just thought they should be using the bottom board for entry and exit.

Switching boxes gave me a chance to check the amount of honey left. Both boxes weigh about 30 lbs, I'd guess. I have plenty more honey saved for them. I'll see what things look like in a week. I think I should be doing brief weekly checks now, to make sure they don't run out of food.

bees IMG_5739 bees IMG_5757

I'm amazed at all the different colors of pollen they are bringing in now. In the lower right corner of this picture, there are many shades of blue, orange, yellow and red. It looks like they are sorting it by color!

queen stuck in cage

I checked on my newly installed bees this morning. The queen was still in the cage!! There was no sign that the bees were eating the candy plug at all! I can't believe it. I was so pleased that I installed the package right this time and now the bees didn't do their part!

Unfortunately, it's been 4 days since I installed them. (I had a busy week.) I hope the queen is OK still. I let her out. She looked fine. Small. I think what happened is that the bees were all to busy eating all the honey and pollen I gave them and they weren't interested in the candy plug.

bees IMG_5744 bees IMG_5746 bees IMG_5749 bees IMG_5750

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

crazy weather - lost hives

This crazy weather has had bad consequences on many things, including bees.

It's halfway into April and our weather is still chilly - rainy, dark and cold. What an odd year. After our incredibly warm February, I thought spring was here early. But now March and April have been wintry. Our early flowers were hit by frost and are now brown mush. A friend of mine lost two hives recently and she said others have had the same problem. Their bees broke their clusters in February and didn't reform when the cold hit, so they died in March. I think this happens when the queen lays early brood, the bees spread out to keep the brood warm. When cold hits, the bees don't know they can't keep all the brood warm, and the whole hive dies. Too bad - crazy weather.

(BTW- This isn't what happened to my hive - it died in the middle of the winter.)