Nucs? or Packages?

With the surge in interest in beekeeping during the last eight or ten years, there are a lot of terms that get bantied about on the net, often with the writers not really knowing what they are saying. Two such terms are “nucs” and “packages”. So I am going to take a little time to explain what these are.

PACKAGE BEES; Package bees or “packages” are the most common way for beginners and small scale beekeepers to establish a colony of honey bees. Basically the package part is a wooden box with two screen sides. Inside this package is a framework that supports a can of syrup that provides a temporary food source during transport. The producers, usually down south or out in California, add three lbs of bees (about 10,000) and a mated queen who is also in a small cage inside this package. They also provide a can of sugar syrup as a temporary feeder during shipment. This is all you need to start a colony of bees and over the decades, millions of these have been shipped North during the months of April, May and June. Up until about 35 years ago, the Post Office handled most of these, shipping them with few losses and beekeepers would eagerly wait for a call from the local post office saying that the bees were in and to come get them. This started to change about the time I started keeping bees in 1980. Suddenly the quality of the delivery started to slip and often the bees would be rough shape when they arrived and beekeepers started to complain. This opened up an opportunity for specialized shippers to travel down to, say, Georgia, pick up a load of packages and drive directly home and distribute them in less than 24 hours. This has now become the preferred way to ship package bees.

Once installed into a beehive, the package bees get right to work, building comb and raising the next generation of bees. During the larval and pupae stages, beekeepers call these developing bees “brood”. Getting a good start on brood rearing is very important as during the warm months, an individual bee has an adult lifespan of less than six weeks. In addition, with package bees, the population of adult bees begins to decrease as the older workers begin to age out. We have to assume that it will take a week for the queen to be released from her shipping cage and begin to lay eggs.Then the newly laid eggs will require three weeks to hatch, grow through the larval stage, pupate and then emerge three weeks later. This means that it will be a month before any new adults are added to the colony and there has been a steady attrition in the population of bees that you purchased. This is similar to what happens when a colony is established by a natural swarm so its not really anything to worry about but it comes as a surprise to many beginners. Within 6 weeks from installation, the population in a healthy colony started from a 3 lb package will rapidly begin to expand and be on its way to becoming a robust colony by mid to late summer.

Lets step back and talk about how Mother Nature makes more colonies. After a beekeeper develops proficiency in keeping his or her bees alive throughout the winter, they will soon begin to have surplus bees come springtime. As a matter of fact, one of the most respected beekeepers in the world, Randy Oliver, has said that you aren’t truly a beekeeper until this happens. Each spring, a normal healthy colony of bees will replace the old wintered bees and then rapidly expand their population in preparation for swarming. Swarming is a process of colony division where the worker bees will stimulate the queen to lay 1200 or more eggs a day until they have 50-60,000 workers, several hundred Drones, (male bees), and between 10 and 20 special larvae that will become new queens. Usually several days before these new queens hatch out, the old queen and about half of the workers and drones will leave the hive to start a new colony of bees. Quite often, the hive will issue more than one swarm resulting in a dramatic reduction in the number of remaining bees. In nature, these parent colonies will end up with a new queen and sufficient bees to survive and rebuild into a colony that is capable of surviving till the next season. These swarms only have about a 25 percent chance of surviving till their first birthday. Nobody ever said that Mother Nature was nice!  Now if the beekeeper manages to catch these swarms and properly cares for them, they will have a much better chance of surviving and the beekeeper will have more bees. (Hopefully they will visit A&Z Apiaries to purchase more hives! ) The problem is that most often these swarms issue and depart without us even seeing them or they will alight 50 feet up in a tree and we cant collect them. Then they move into a cavity somewhere and become feral hives with a very uncertain future. Meanwhile, back at our parent hive, the population has been drastically reduced to the point where they will produce little or no surplus honey for the beekeeper.

So what can we do? One way that many beekeepers will attempt to circumvent the swarming process is by preemptively dividing the colony. The resulting divisions are called Nucleus colonies, or nucs for short. What happens is this; After the colony has recovered from winter and has begun to grow rapidly, the beekeeper will remove several combs of brood and the adhering bees. These combs are installed in a new hive box along with a comb of food reserves, several empty combs to allow for future expansion, and a new queen. This queen can be a mated queen that was usually raised down South or the beekeeper could insert a fully developed queen cell that is ready to emerge in a day or so. Once the queen has been released from her shipping cage or has hatched, matured and mated, she will begin to lay eggs and we now have a new colony of bees and hopefully our overwintered hive will have lost the urge to swarm and will settle down to storing a crop of honey for the beekeeper. Now the beekeeper also has one or more new colonies of bees that can be used to replace winter losses, expand the apiary, or can be sold to another beekeeper.

Other than the benefits previously discussed, there are a few more very important things to consider. In this day of Varroa mites and their associated viruses, there is a lot of interest in selecting bees that are adapted to the seasonal conditions that we experience here in the colder climates. I raise several hundred nucs each year, some to replace winter losses, some for increase in my apiaries and many for sale to other beekeepers. My breeding program is simple. Each spring I select the best 1% of my over wintered colonies. The queens from these hives are used to provide larvae that are used to raise the queens in my nucs. My selection process starts when I remove my crop in the fall by marking the best producers. Then I start eliminating hives from the pool based on mite loads, temperament, low late fall population, excessive food consumption, and presence of disease. When spring arrives, once again I evaluate them based upon food consumption, cluster size and brood pattern. I don’t baby my potential breeders, in fact I have moved some of my best colonies to my most exposed bee yards in Upstate New York just to see how they handle it. I don’t claim to have the perfect bee nor do I claim that they are immune to the mites, but I do try to the best I can.

Let’s discuss pros and cons of packages vs nucs. Packages are significantly less expensive than nucs. Packages generally arrive earlier than when our locally raised nucs are ready. Packages are far more plentiful than local nucs. When you first start a package, you assume the risk of the queen being successfully accepted by the bees, the queens in a nuc have already been accepted by the bees and we have evaluated her egg and larvae production. When you start a package, the population will start to decrease and won’t increase for 4-5 weeks, a nuc should have emerging brood from the beginning and will expand a lot faster than a package. The queen in a package was raised in the South or California or Hawaii, the queens in our nucs are raised here in CT from our best overwintered stock. A few more things to consider, especially for beginners. Each year I get nuc orders from beginners who then become anxious to get their bees early. They see the Spring going by and they want their bees. No matter what my customers want, I won’t deliver a nuc until I am certain that it is living up to my standards. Many times, the weather will also delay the production of nucs and there is nothing that I can do about it.

I hope that this essay provides some clarification of the terms that you will read about while researching honeybees. The Eastern CT Beekeepers Assn runs beekeeping classes during the winter months and if you are considering starting some Honeybee colonies, I urge you to take the class. there is more info on the club’s site .

Assembling Equipment

Today I assembled the last frame that I ever plan to assemble in my life. Thirty one years ago on March 30th 1980, I bought my first hive of bees. They were in a rotting hive that was leaning up against an abondoned chicken coop in Lebanon CT. I paid $75.00 for the hive and a pickup load of assorted empty honey supers. The bees I bought were in an old hive body that had a few frames, but mostly natural comb. Fortunately, I ended up at an A I Root dealers home for some advise and some supplies. The dealer, Bill Gerdsen, suggested that I add a second hive body of new frames and foundation above the original box and then wait for the bees and queen to move up. I then put an excluder under the new hive body and waited for the brood to hatch out. I next added a second new hive body and removed the old combs from my first hive body.

Thus began years of assembling frames with a hammer and nails. In those days, beekeepers went to either Root or Dadant dealers and bought hive parts from them ( at very high prices). Root frames were made like furniture. Even the bottom bars were drilled for nails. We used “Medium Brood Foundation” which had no wires so we put in  four horizontal wires and then imbeded them with an electric imbeder. We even put eye-lets in the wire holes in the side bars. It would take 8 hours for me to assemble, wire and install wax foundation for 100 frames.

As time went by, I switched to vertically wired foundation and just used two horizontal wires and then stopped putting eye-lets in the side bars. This speeded things up noticeably, I could probably do 150 frames in a day. Then, in 1989, I bought a pneumatic stapler. I could now assemble 100 frames in about one hour and fifteen minutes. I got so I could wire and install foundation in 40 frames each hour. This was how I did things for the next 19 years.The only thing I changed was that I switched to using budget grade frames. These worked beautifully and cost a lot less that the commercial grade. I tried using a few hundred Peirco one peice plastic frames. I had good luck getting them drawn out but did not like the way that the bees made so much brace comb that it made the frames and supers difficult to separate  from one another. I also found that my chain uncapper vibrated the flimsy plastic frames so much that it would strip most of the comb from the frame. I kept building wood and wax frames. Probably 20,000 of them!

It was Reg Wilbanks who convinced me to start using wood frames and plastic foundation. So, in 2008, I started using plastic foundation. I switched to grooved top bars and just snapped a sheet of plastic foundation. Now I could put together a completed frame a minute!  This brings me to this past week. I had purchased 1500 frames last year and just received my order of plastic foundation from Dadant. I went to work on the frames, vowing to assemble an average of two hundred each day. This would still allow me the bulk of the work day to help my friend Lex Nishbal build a new set of kitchen cabinets in my shop. Low and behold, in ten days I had all of the frames done, completing 600 last weekend. Feeling proud of my accomplishment, I tallied up the hours and calculated that I had worked nearly 30 hours to complete 1500 frames.

I got to thinking. How much would it have cost me to buy them assembled from Dadant? I checked the catalogue and found a price of  $1.71 each by the thousand. I had paid $0.58 for the frames, $0.69 for unwaxed foundation, and added in $0.19 each to allow for the cost of waxing. This comes to $1.45 each as my cost to buy the parts. I then subtracted my result from Dadants  price of a $1.71 and came up with$0.26 each to assemble a frame. This comes to $13.00 per hour. This does not even include the fact that I had to use $40.00 worth of staples and I still need to wax the foundation, something that I  do because I like a heavier coat of wax than is provided by the suppliers. 

I kept thinking, What could I have accomplished in those thirty hours?  My answer was a whole heck of a lot more than save $350.00 by assembling 1500 frames!!!!!!  This is why I will never assemble another frame for the rest of my life!

How big should my packages bee?

Its early January and the package orders are rolling in. I was going to say the phone has been ringing off the hook, but in reality most of my orders now come from the net. I resisted setting up a web site for years, mostly because I didn’t know what to do. I got some help to start and then took over the reigns. While I admit that this site is amateurish, it draws from an immense audience and my established customers can just send an email and I can respond on my schedule. If there are changes in the delivery dates, ( as  usually seems to happen), I can put up a notice and keep hundreds of customers instantly updated. Think of all those calls I don’t need to make. One thing is for sure, if you have a simple question or need to order bees, you can send an email. On the other hand, if you need a more detailed answer or just want to talk bees, you can always call me on the phone.

A lot of beekeepers email me with questions about what type of bees I sell and then there are the ones who want to know what size packages to order. Last week, someone asked about ordering extra queen less packages to augment the populations of the other two packages he ordered. He felt that adding bees would speed things up and increase the chances of his colony surviving.  While this will be an initial boost, I feel that, depending upon what he wanted to accomplish with his bees, he would be wasting his money. Let me explain. He was ordering bees for early April. If he needed a large population of bees to pollinate apple trees on May 5th then this would help. Six pounds of bees would give him an initial population of about 18,000 – 20,000 bees. This would result in more rapid drawing of comb and brood development. By the end of four weeks, he would have new bees hatching and the queen would start laying a second brood cycle in the oldest cells. This in turn would create additional demand for pollen and there would still be possibly  3000-5000 field bees available to collect pollen. This would be a great pollinator!

Now lets assume that he just wanted to start a new colony for honey production. A three lb package would give him about 10,000 bees to begin with. At the end of four weeks, the colony would have drawn out about eight frames and like the six lb package, new bees would be hatching. Unlike the large package, there would be just 1500 to 2500 bees available to forage. This is not a real problem. Here in southern New England, our spring honey flow can begin by the tenth of May and will be over by the end of June. Neither of these colonies would be built up sufficientlyto store a surplus honey crop on the early flow. The large package would probably have drawn its second hive body and the smaller package would still have some work to do but would be catching up rapidly. By the end of July, assuming that the both hives had some natural nectar or supplemental feeding, they probably would be similar in size and population and getting ready for the fall flow. Around here, this starts between the second and third week in August. If the summer dearth was pronounced, both hives would have required feeding just to feed the existing bees and keep the queen laying so there are young healthy bees available to raise new workers for the fall. The small 3lb package would need to finish filling its second box and the 6 lb package, well, you would need to feed all those bees you raised on the Spring flow and you still would have to raise bees for the fall. If there is a strong fall flow, both hives could produce a couple supers of honey and both hives would be strong enough to overwinter. The end result is that my customer would have spent an extra $75.00 to get to the same place at the same time.

Last summer, I set up a demonstration in the yard where our bee club does its workshops. I had one overwintered colony that was too weak for pollination but was building nicely. I added one that was started on drawn comb on March 27th but had been split on May 19th, one on foundation on March 27, one on April 25th, one from a five frame nuc on April 10th, one from a swarm in mid May and lastly one from the final load of packages on June 5th. I told the class that with the exception of the over wintered colony, all of these hives would be the same on September 15th. On September 15th, the overwintered hive had four supers of honey and all of the other hives looked exactly the same, two boxes of bees ready for fall feeding. Once again, if there had been a fall flow, they all would have had a couple boxes of honey.

This year, I plan on starting some 2lb packages for expansion. I am confident that they will  be plenty strong in time for the fall flow. So to summarize, The best hives are the ones that overwinter. If you have a young queen and prevent swarming then you have a good chance of a honey crop. The second best would be a package or nuc installed in late March on drawn comb. This hive has a chance at the end of the spring flow. Every thing else will have to wait until Fall. Naturally, this depends upon plenty of resources for the bees to build up with, either natural or provided by the Beekeeper. I will talk about starting new colonies in my next post. Right now I have 18″ of new snow on the ground to deal with.   Keep on Beein’   Adam

A new year

Today is the first day of my  beekeeping year. During bee school,  I am often asked when does the year start? This of coarse depends upon your point of view. I tell people to start spring feeding on September 15th, and from my view this is sort of the start for me. If my bees are not all fed to refusal then I have no right to expect them to be alive in March. As I have said many times before, fall feeding is not just to keep their bellies full, it also is to stimulate the queen to lay a final brood cycle into October. These young healthy bees will be the ones who go into the winter cluster and ultimately raise the brood in late winter. Healthy bees raise healthy bees! I have been able to take relatively week colonies in the fall and by feeding sugar syrup and a pollen substitute, I have been able to save colonies that would have died without my intervention. So sometimes September can represent the start of next year.

Today, the temperatures climed to 54 degrees and the bees were flying like crazy! The December weather had been cold and the bees hadn’t had a cleansing flight since sometime in mid November. I had moved some single story colonies into a winter yard down in Franklin in late November. The day got late and I never was  able to install the mouse gaurds and insulation boards between the inner and outer covers. Today was the first day that was warm enough to finish up. Off I went! I was suprised that mice hadn’t snuck in and ruined about 30 colonies. I checked what was going on in a few hives. Low and behold, I saw eggs in one hive! Not a lot, but a few none the less. Another thing that goes against common belief is that there were  drones left in many colonies. Conventional wisdom says that they should have been dead a long time ago. It also says that there should be no brood between November and February. Any way I closed things up and declared my bees ready for winter!

I keep thinking that this winter brood and the  drones in January could be some adaptation to the varroa mites. Maybe the bees that have late brood are more able to survive the winter. The continued addition of young workers would certainly help with the winter populations and ultimately the survival of the colony. I have no theory about the drones other than perhaps I never was looking for them in the past.

I plan to put an indoor/outdoor thermometer in a large colony to discover when the colony raises the temperature in order to keep the brood warm. I have done this before and it is amazing to see the cluster temperatures go from about 65 to 96 in a matter of one day. Usually I can find brood by early February in the larger hives and by March in most of them. This dovetails with my policy of feeding my bees heavily in the fall. Bees will  regulate the queens diet in order to keep her from laying eggs or as the days get longer and if they have enough food stores they will invest in more bees by increasing her diet of royal jelly. Raising brood accounts for most of the food used in the winter and especially in early spring. Years ago, Al Avitable from the University of Connecticut studied the winter consumption of stores by honey bees. While the numbers have escaped my memory, the long and short of it is that they need a surprisingly small amount  of honey for themselves and most of the stores to feed and keep the brood warm. Early brood = early buildup in the spring. Early buildup = strong colonies that can exploit early nectar flows. Here in Connecticut, some of our  major nectar plants have changed from Sumac that blossoms in late June and early July to Autumn Olive that can bloom in early May. Without early buildup from either natural stores or supplemental feeding, your bees will build up on the early nectar flow instead of storing a few boxes of nice light honey from it! It’s simple math. One medium super has thirty five lbs of honey. At a wholesale price of $3.00/lb that equals about $100.00. Not too shabby!

Working with bees today in the warm winter thaw gave me a large dose of Spring Feaver! I am sure that in a few days winter  will come back with a vengence! I have a lot of equipment to make and assemble in the next two months so the cold weather will help keep me focused on winter projects. I have lots of plans for this New Year, especially swarm control. Last year, I fell and bruised several ribs on the last of March. This laid me up for two months and while I was healing, my bees were swarming! This cost me a lot of early honey. In many yards here in Connecticut, this amounted to all the years crop. I may also move more colonies arround for nectar flow. My New York bees had a good summer and fall flow. I discovered this too late to move bees and I could have made thousands of lbs of additional honey if I had responded by August 1st. I also plan to put out pallets in each yard to store empty supers when the nectar flow ends in late June. So often I end up leaving supers on hives while waiting for the fall flow. This may seem easier but then I am not able to evaluate what is going on and if the dearth is drawn out, the bees hollow out the full supers. Another bunch of lost honey! Sugar is a whole lot cheaper than honey and when you have a lot of hives, this can add up fast.

January 1st begins a New Year, but my bees usually won’t start spring buildup for several weeks. It behooves all beekeepers to take the winter to get any new equipment ready while the snow flies because when it gets warm the bees will go full speed ahead and you need to be ready. That means plenty of empty honey supers and a few empty hives ready for swarms or splits. Make sure that you put a good paint job on the wooden ware NOW! Beehives are expensive and once put out with no paint they will warp. split and eventually rot.

Happy Holidays From A&Z Apiaries

Well, here we are, at the beginning of winter. I always seem to dread the cold weather but when it gets here it really isn’t so bad after all. This past season turned out to be all-right “honey wise”  Some yards did real well and others had no surplus at all. New york was the winner this year but due to a back injury this spring, I didn’t have as many hives there as I usually do. I also had a few disappointing years out there so I kept more bees home and invested my efforts here in CT. Of coarse, that’s when I had a banner year in New York! Some colonies produced 240 lbs each! In any event, Fall has become winter, the bees are clustered and I am doing other things.

In mid November I left for my annual deer hunting trip to New Brunswick. I love being in the North Woods at any time, but during deer season I get to spend hours in a tree stand and quietly observe nature. From my favorite spot “over the brook, past Fin Mountain”, I sit on the top of a ridge in mixed balsam fir and hardwood trees. As an avid birder, it is nice to see a different group of birds than what we have in Ct. Nothing says northern boreal forest like the Red Breasted Nuthatches , Cross-bills, Brown Creepers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Grey Jays, and Ravens. The Mammal population also is a different mix. I have seen Black Bear, Moose, Bobcat, Pine Martin, Red Squirrels, Long Tailed Weasel, and of coarse, White tailed Deer. The further north you go, the lower the tree diversity. My favorite spot is dominated by Balsam Fir, White pine, White and Red Spruce,White Birch, Yellow Birch, Sugar Maple, Poplar and Beech. There are some huge White Pines and White spruce on the steep slope leading up the ridge. Each year, I fear that Acadia Timber will come in and clear cut “my woods”. This is a real worry because they have cut very near to there in the past few years. When they cut a piece of woods, there usually is nothing left standing. They truly are brutal! Any thing that is not suitable for lumber or pulp is chipped for “Hog Fuel”.

On Saturday, my last day of hunting, we experienced the first lasting snowfall of Winter. It started about nine AM as light flurries and gradually increased to a light steady snowfall. Snowfall usually quiets down the woods and it was very peaceful watching the forest floor being covered up, probably until April. I tried to imagine what it would be like with twelve feet of snow on the ground and 30 below zero. Two years ago Northern Maine and New Brunswick experienced such a winter. The deer were unable to get to feed and starved by the thousands. Additional thousands were hit by cars as they used the roads to move around. Some areas lost almost all of their deer and most locations lost more than half of their deer. The reduction in the deer herd is most noticeable in the woods as the remaining deer feed in the fields, not needing to venture into the forest for suitable habitat. It will be years before the herd recovers. Needless to say I returned home without a deer.

What does all of this have to do with beekeeping? Absolutely nothing except that my beekeeping endeavors allow me to afford trips up North or out West or to Costa Rica, wherever. In this season of Thanksgiving I need to say that I am gratefull for all the hard work of my Honeybees and all of the rewards they give me.          Adam Fuller, Hampton CT

Dead bees and crow roosts

It is December 22nd, the first full day of winter. I always look forward to this day because from now on the days start getting longer.

In any event, I spent the day in New York State “paying the rent” and visiting with the landowners who allow me to keep bee yards on their property. On the 19th we had a major snow storm here on the East Coast and at my home  in Hampton, CT, we got about 16 inches of snow. Out in Dutchess County NY they got only a couple of inches. I took the time to visit a couple of yards just to look around and see if any bees were trying to fly. The temperature was 25 degrees F and the sun was shining. As expected, I watched a few bees leave the warmth of the winter cluster and fly a very short distance away from the hive, only to crash land on the snow and shortly thereafter, die. I keep ten hives in each yard and the snow was littered with dozens of dead bees. Healthy honeybees do not defecate in the hive, they usually wait until the weather is  warmer than 50 degrees and then will leave the hive to void their feces. In years past, I thought that this was what was causing the dead bees, even on cold days. The  bees , it seemed, were trying to take a cleansing flight and couldn’t make it back to the hive. However, there were none of the tell-tale yellow and brown spots that would have indicated a cleansing flight. I predicted that when I got home there would be calls from beekeepers who were wondering what was going on with thier bees. Sure enough, there was one phone message and one email wondering why bees were leaving the hive to die and hinting that something mysterious was happening.  This has nothing to do with CCD or any other malady. Here is what is going on.

I  recently read a book called Winter World by Bernd Heinrich. He is a well respected biologist, author, professor, endurance runner, beekeeper, the list keeps on going. One of his fields of expertise is in thermoregulation. Not just in insects but mammals, birds, turtles etc. In this book he talks about how organisms survive in the temperate winter and in one chapter writes about just this subject, why bees fly in winter.  He goes into great detail describing the methods he used in determining  that quite often the bees that are flying at low temperatures are actually leaving the winter cluster to look for sources of nectar or pollen!  He discovered that the cleansing flights actually took place at higher temperatures and involved much larger numbers of bees. His conclusion was that even if these foraging bees never returned, they were individually expendable due to the value of fresh food to the colony if some of them ultimately did find a  food source.

This makes sense to me when you consider that the older bees are the ones who would be leaving and they probably would perish before spring anyway. Some times there is a thin line between winter survival and starvation. It is surprising how early in the late winter we can see some bees returning with pollen on their hind legs. It is well known that bees finding skunk cabbage flowers in March are able to warm up in the protective spathe  that surrounds the flower. The temperature is several degrees warmer than the outside air. These plants are able to push up through ice in order to blossom.

In another of Heinrich’s books  “In a Patch of Fireweed” he has a series of  chapters dealing with how wasps and bees warm up and stay warmed up in order to forage. One chapter deals with swarms and how the bees regulate the temperature of the cluster. Its too involved to go into now, but the common idea that the out side or “mantle bees ” change places with interior bees in order to warm up is just not true.

Another essay in “Winter World” deals with winter roosts of crows. Two of Heinrich’s passions are Crows and Ravens. He wondered where and why crows roost at night. He discovered a large crow roost, not deep in the woods, but instead near a brightly lit shopping center!  There were thousands of crows flying for miles to roost in the trees in a well lit area. He determined that the crows were roosting there to avoid one of their most feared predators, the Great horned Owl (another passion of Bernd Heinrich, he once rescued an owlet after a late snowstorm and kept it semi domesticated for two years until he was able to integrate it back into the wild).

While I was returning home from New York tonight, I was driving on I 84 through Hartford CT as the sun was setting. There were hundreds of crows flying to roost in a group of trees in the west side of the city. It is near the former Xerox Building right next to the highway, another well lit area similar to the one Heinrich talks about. As I drove through the rush hour traffic in Hartford, I could see a steady stream of crows headed in that direction. I continued to see them all the way to East Hartford and the Manchester line, at least ten miles “as the crow flies”!  Several years ago, not too far from the crow roost, there was  (and maybe there still is) , a large European Starling roost under the highway bridges near the Hartford bus station.  These birds also form large winter flocks not only for feeding but also for roosting.  I don’t think that these flocks are for sharing warmth as much as for spreading the individual risk from predators over a large population. The individual bird, in this case, would be less likely to be taken by a predator than would one bird sleeping alone.

It never ceases to amaze me how organisms deal with the cold winters in the temperate regions. My friend Glenn has a very simple way of dealing with the long cold nights here in New England. He borrowed my copy of Winter World and went to Hawaii for the winter.  He says he will return with the Warblers!

Adam Fuller

The year with no Summer!

         Well it is the tenth of December and like it or not, the beekeeping season for 2009 is about done! I have been keeping bees for nearly thirty years and never remember a year like this past one.

          For the most part, my bees came through the winter in pretty good shape. I started feeding both Mega Bee pollen supplement and sugar syrup in early March. The bees built up nicely and of coarse the weather stayed cold well into April. Then around the 26thof the month, the temperature spiked up to 96 degrees for a couple of days.  After this it went back to cloudy and cool and stayed that way for ever! In late May we had a decent flow from  Autumn Olive and then the Black Locust had the heaviest bloom we had experienced in years. The day it opened up it started to rain and rained for weeks. When it wasn’t raining, it was threatening to rain. The result was no Locust honey, no clover honey, no sumac honey, no anything honey.

           I had started about a hundred nucs and packages to replace dead outs and for some increase. They had a lot of plastic foundation and no nectar. A real bad combination, so I started feeding them heavily. I hoped that if I built them up to double hive bodies they would be roaring for the fall flow!  Usually, I can plan on some help from Mother Nature to draw foundation. Well she is a fickle B#&%? and gave me nothing! I spent the entire summer feeding bees in order to protect my investment. Late August came and the Jewel Weed was six feet tall and loaded with bloom. You guessed it. No nectar flow! Goldenrod came into bloom, no nectar!  Aster came into bloom, no nectar! I did get some honey from purple loosestrife in two yards where it has not been killed off by those beetles that our all knowing government allowed to be introduced from Asia. I surely miss those 100 lb crops of loosestrife honey!  Now the swamps are filling up with phragmites, another invasive species that produces no honey and doesn’t have any other redeeming qualities as far as I can see.

      On September fifteenth, I harvested what little crop I had and started to feed. Usually,I need to give an average of two gallons of syrup just to fill in the gaps with many colonies needing no feed at all. This fall, I had to feed an average of  six gallons per hive with some taking as many as ten gallons. I just couldn’t seem to fill them up.

        The good news is that all of the feeding coupled with warmer than average temperatures, stimulated the queens to lay a lot later in the fall than is usual. This late flush of young bees should help with wintering. The bees consumed a lot of pollen in order to raise the brood so I will need to feed more Pollen Substitute in March to get good build up. I  seems like all I did this season was feed and wait for the nice weather that never came. Like Larry Connor says “some times you just need to write the check”.  I wrote a lot of checks for sugar this year!

        This poor crop wasn’t limited to the Northeast. From what I gather it was nationwide as well as world wide. Without getting into climate change discussions, I can say that the weather has been different during the last several years with 2009 being the worst season in my thirty years as a beekeeper. I need to locate a plant physiologist and find out just what makes a plant produce or not produce nectar. We had plenty of moisture and the late summer and fall had many nice sunny days that I thought should have been right for a honey flow.

      At any rate, in a few weeks the days will start to get longer and by February the queens will start that magic cycle all over again. I can’t wait.

          Happy Holidays from Adam & Charlene Fuller!

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.

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!