Package Bees in March

About two weeks ago we brought back package bees from Wilbanks Apiaries in Claxton, Georgia. Our first load was originally scheduled for April 12th but early buildup conditions were ahead of plans. Reg called in early March to ask if we could pick up a load on the 25th. His concern was that if he didn’t start shaking bees soon they would end up swarming.  That would be a big loss for a package producer! 

Any chance that I get to start packages early I jump at it. These bees have the ability to buildup in time for the Locust flow in early June. With a 3 lb package costing  $77.00 this year, it is good to be able to recoup some of the investment in early summer.  This does not come without a price, on April 1st in Connecticut we usually have some pollen coming in but nectar is weeks away. When I set up the colonies for new packages, I was able to include at least one frame of honey and one of pollen for each hive. These came from dead outs that I brought in and cleaned up during late winter. I like to start new colonies, whether packages or nucs, with a reserve of both carbohydrate and protein so the queens can start laying and keep going regardless of the weather. The only problem is that it takes a frame of honey and pollen to raise a frame of brood. This is where the “Domino” nectar flow comes to the rescue. I keep a division board feeder in each colony at all times. It is an easy task to fill the feeder with  a gallon of sugar syrup without disturbing the bees. If we don’t have any pollen coming in, I can add a pollen substitute patty over the top bars. I fill the feeders when installing the bees and keep them full until they have three full frames in reserve and there is natural nectar coming in.

When starting bees on foundation,whether wax or plastic, it becomes even more important than ever to keep the feed on them. The good news is that if the bees can get to the syrup then they will be able to draw out the foundation and make room for the queen to lay. This is the place where I get on my soap box and scream about how useless boardman feeders are. There is no place in any northern beekeeping operation for these toys!  When out side temperatures are below 55degrees, the bees can’t get out of a loose cluster to get to the feed. This creates a lack of energy for the bees to consume so they produce enough heat to enable them to make wax or raise brood. In many cases the bees can starve to death six inches away from their feeder. If the temperatures are suitable for flying then the small colonies are set up to be robbed by other stronger hives. Yet another problem is that they don’t hold very much syrup and you will need to refill them very frequently. Boardman feeders are probably the biggest cause of starvation in small colonies of bees, so get a good division board feeder with a float to keep the bees from drowning! I recently bought some of the new two gallon feeders from Mann Lake. They work very well and you can get a lot of syrup in a hive without having to refill every few days and they don’t cost nearly as much as a hive top feeder. In addition, hive top feeders can have the same problems as boardman feeders in that the bees can’t get to them when it is cold.

This will be a good time to talk about introducing queens. If you read the literature, you will find all sorts of methods to introduce queens. One from about 100 years ago even suggested that you immerse the queen in sugar syrup and then let her go! My method is a little different. First, weather you are introducing a queen with a package or re queening, I always begin by feeding sugar syrup. This simulates nectar flow conditions and greatly improves the level of success. Queens come with a candy plug in one end and this should be exposed either by removing the cork or in the case of packages you will remove the metal disc on cages that are supplied with packages. I always secure the queen cage in the upper rear corner of a frame near the center of the cluster. If installing on drawn comb, I squash it edge first into the comb so the screen is accessible to the bees when the hive is put back together. The bees need to be able to tend to the queen at all times. In addition, they will be able to spread her pheremones to the rest of the bees. I never disturb the bees, except to fill the feeder, for seven days! I believe that this is a critical step in the procedure. I often say  it is like a first date, the bees think that they like the queen but they need time to get to know her!  They don’t need Mom or Dad bothering them.  After a week you can check for fresh eggs and larvae. If, in the rare event the queen has not been released, you can remove the plug from the other end and let her run out into the colony. Often times beginners, and even experienced beekeepers ,will get worried that she won’t get released in time and disturb the bees too soon. This all too often results in the queen getting killed by the colony.

So to sum it all up, feed and be patient!  There is nothing to be gained by rushing the relationship and a lot to loose if you try to hurry things up.  After you fail to introduce the first queen, the next try will be even harder to get accepted. One final thought, it is not necessary to remove the attendants that come with the queen. More often than not the queen may fly away while you are fumbling with opening the cage to release the workers. In most cases I never have trouble re queening a colony that doesn’t yet have laying workers! If you have laying woorkers then you are usualy better off just combining them with another hive and then starting over.

I guess that I have rambled on enough for a while!  Later, Adam

Spring is coming!

Wow, what a week. Last Sunday we had no snow. On Monday we got 8″ of snow. Tuesday and Wednesday mornings the thermometer was on empty ( 0 degrees F). By Sunday the temps had increased to 60 degrees and the snow had all melted! This week looks like the daytime temps will be in the mid to upper 40s and the nights will be in the low to mid twenties. Perfect weather for making Maple Syrup.

Many beekeepers  in New England also make Maple Syrup. It is a similar but very different pursuit that kind of dovetails with keeping bees. When I was a kid, I used to help my grandmother make a little syrup. We lived on a small farm down in Bozrah and had a few nice Sugar Maples to tap. We never had all the right equipment but managed to get some syrup of varying degrees of quality. If I had a sugar bush close by I guess that I would  think about taking it back up. There are a couple of problems with a new endeavor, one being that the way I generally dive into projects means that I would spend a small fortune setting up a top notch sugar house and all the accompanying equipment. I am getting sick of spending money like that!  My wife keeps mentioning retirement funds etc.

The other problem is that this time of the year is also when my bees need a lot of very necessary attention. When the sap is running, maple syrup producers have to hustle in order to keep up with collecting and boiling off all that water to make syrup. In times of a good run they just can’t afford the time to work bees. Because of this they generally have to ignore their bees in March and therefore often miss the important early spring management steps that result in good spring buildup of honey bee colonies. I have too much invested in bees to let that happen. My time is better spent insuring that my bees have ample nutrition so they stimulate the queen to lay up to 1200 eggs a day. I accomplish this by placing a pollen replacement patty over the cluster of bees and weekly filling of the division board feeders that are a permanent fixture in my hives.

One of the things that always amazes me is how quickly the flowers start blooming witha little warm weather. This Sunday, when I was adding Mega Bee Patties to some hives in Lebanon, I noticed a bee with lemon yellow pollen on her legs. I opened the hive to see if there had been more natural pollen coming in and sure enough, there were several hundred cells with fresh pollen in them.  The queen had laid a nice pattern of eggs in the center of the frame. While there is nothing like natural pollen to get things rolling, the problem in March is that the weather will change on a dime and shut off any additional incoming pollen for days or even weeks. When the bees run out of resources, the first thing to go is brood. In many cases the bees will cannibalize young brood in order to recycle the nutrients and in severe cases avoid starvation. Enter the Beekeeper.

When I teach “Bee School” I often will say that the best time to start spring feeding is on September 15th. There is nothing  like a well supplied colony of bees going into winter. This will avoid starvation and insure a good supply of stores to be used in spring to raise lots of new bees. Reality can be somewhat different. Often by March the honey and stored pollen supply are getting a little thin. Only by supplementing both incoming protein and carbohydrate sources will the queen be able to ramp up her production of eggs and the workers be able to keep the larvae developing. I generally keep pollen replacement patties on the hives until mid April when I am sure that there is a continuous influx of natural pollen. I also feed sugar syrup as long as the bees have less than three full combs of stored honey. Sometimes I have to go back to feeding when we have a long cold and rainy period in May. Most hives starve out in April or May when the nutritional demands from  thousands of growing larvae quickly consume the stored reserves in a hive. Beekeeping is really about raising healthy bees, then the bees make the honey.

I am not sure what the source of the pollen was last Sunday. I think that it must have been either skunk cabbage or a Silver Maple tree. At any rate I always look forward to the first pollen as both a sign of spring and that the annual cycle has come full circle. Now I need to go make a batch of sugar syrup.

End of Bee School 2009

I would like to take a minute to thank all who helped run the 2009 Bee School. It  would not be possible to put on such an event without the involvementof the membership. Each night, there were about 120 people in attendance with around 75 new members. This thing keeps growing! I would also like to congratulate all of the students who are the future of our association. I  hope you all share the same enjoyment that I get from keeping my bees.  Adam

Life in my hawthorn bush

Shortly after we bought this property, A dear friend, the late George Colburn, gave us some saplings he had received  from the Arbor Day Foundation. One of them was a Hawthorn about ten inches tall. For lack of a better place, we planted it in the lawn in front of my shop. The main stem had been broken so I made a splint to hold it straight. As the years passed the tree grew and soon it was eight feet tall, as sturdy as a hawthorn ever gets, and at some point it started to flower in mid June.

This tree is an incredible source of pollen and nectar for insects. Not just bees but wasps, beetles, flies, butterflies, moths, almost everything but the kitchen sink visits this plant!  The first day it flowers, it is attractive from 7:00 Am until after 3:00 Pm. There are literally hundreds of insects of many kinds buzzing along collecting  pollen and apparently nectar in huge quantities. I can hear the noise from 75 feet away!  On each following day the frenzy starts an hour later and ends an hour earlier until after about four or five good days it is over!

Last year a pair of American Robins had  nested in the midst of its dense folliage and I wondered if all this activity disturbed the birds at all. Birds  have evolved being exposed to nesting in flowering trees so I don’t think that this would be any exception. At any rate, as summer progresses my tree becomes covered with thousands of small green berries that ripen into  pea sized fruit in the fall. These fruit are very hard and aren’t very sweet so they stay on the tree until well into the winter.

Usually sometime in late February on early March, a flock of Robins will descend upon the tree and in the course of a day or so will eat every last one of those berries. The iconic image of a Robin pulling a worm from the lawn is still too far in the future to do these early birds much good!   The birds that return the earliest will be able to claim the best nesting sites, but part of the price is scarce food supplies until worms and insects are readily available.  No doubt, in the naked light of yet another late winter cold snap in New England, this fruit will help keep dozens of birds from starvation. It reminds me of the old addage about not wasting food in the summer because some winter day it will taste mighty fine!

Its February 23rd, 31 degrees outside and the robins are back! I can’t wait for spring, but for now I need to tend the fires.         Adam

Bee schools and fstops

Bee schools and  fstops.

Last night was the first evening of the bee school sponsored by the Eastern CT Beekeepers Assn. Members of ECBA spend various amounts of time  planning and preparing for the four nights of class. My involvement as President of the club consists of oversight of the entire process as well as presenting several segments of the classes. Therefore, I get a lot of the limelight and each year my job becomes easier as now all I  have to do is slightly modify last years presentation to reflect changes in beekeeping practice.

The real work  is performed by the soldiers of the group, the members who agonize over  how many students to plan for, print and assemble the notebooks, order reference books, register students, haul all the materials to and from class, account for the money, update membership data, bake cookies, buy supplies, make coffee, make more coffee, usher students to the last available seats, find more chairs and on and on!

Then there are the fellow instructors who plan and present their class segments. Each one updating hand outs, hauling in their stuff, showing students how to hold a hammer and nails etc. Two of them have a background as professional instructors while we other two are carpenters. The one thing we  have in common is that we all have a passion for beekeeping and a desire to share this with other people.

This year we have more than sixty new students as well as fifty current beekeepers who want to update their skills. This reflects a renewed interest in beekeeping that is occurring not only in our area but across the nation as a whole. Many people are tired of the disconnect from food sources that has happened in the last couple of decades. Our food is most likely shipped hundreds or thousands of miles from farm to table, many times coming from overseas, grown in countries that don’t have the standards of our farmers here in America. By starting a hive or two of bees, some one can not only produce some honey for themselves, but they can also contribute to the pollination of local food sources as well as the plants that make up our environment. Some estimates claim that 40%  of our food requires pollination from insects in order to grow and reproduce. That’s quite a responsibility for a bunch of bugs!

So what does bee school have to do with fstops? Years ago, Charlene and I took up photography. Like most people all we really did was ruin a lot of film and once in a while, mostly by accident, we got an good photo. One day we decided to take an introductory photography class.  It was at a local Middle School and was taught by a skilled photographer. She spent the next several nights teaching us how a camera works. Things like shutter speed, fstops, depth of field, composition and so on. By learning the basics, photography no longer was frustrating.It became enjoyable and we could predict results, not just waste film. We now have many photos that we can be proud of.

Beekeeping is a similar endeavor. If you spend the time and money starting a colony and then don’t know the basics, all you will do is kill bees. At beginner classes like ours, you will benefit from the experience and knowledge of seasoned beekeepers who will save you from the pitfalls that trip so many beginners.  It costs over $300.00 to set up a beehive. If you go to a beginners class and pay attention, you can have a reasonable expectation of keeping the bees alive and perhaps harvesting a little honey for your self!My good friend Lex with a couple of honey supers!