The Accidental Queens

I’m here to report SUCCESS on the queen-rearing front.

I read the books, watched the videos, asked my questions on the beekeeping forums. I bought the little plastic queen-rearing cells, the queen-rearing frames, the little larvae-lifting device, the queen-rearing nucs, and the mating castle. But before I could even begin my actual experiment employing all those suggested gizmos, a queen-killing accident in my strongest hive resulted in a slew of drop-dead gorgeous queen cells. They were sublime…at the same time horrifying and thrilling beyond imagination. I harvested the cells. From which queens emerged and mated and began getting down to work laying eggs in breathtaking patterns.

That accident taught me a lot.

So, I am now rearing my queens without all those devices. No larva-scooping device. No fancy cells or frames. I am simply populating a 5-frame nuc with a very strong number of bees, giving it a frame of honey, a frame of pollen, and a frame of brood…and once it realizes it’s queenless (24 hours after I make the nuc), I give it a frame containing four-day old larva. I then wait seven days and harvest the queen cells and Viola!, within three weeks I have beautiful queens with developed ovarioles ready to get to work.

This whole experience reminds me of my bread-baking experiments a number of years ago. While many of my friends were getting all heady about their fancy bread-making machines, I began makign the best bread imaginable using only my hands and a wooden spoon. I don’t even use a bread pan. I simply toss my hand-formed loaf onto a baking sheet. Something deep within me wants to avoid gizmos.

All of this is to say, Reader: I now have a strong number of very beautiful queen bees who are laying in some drop-dead gorgeous patterns. It makes me dizzy to see the beauty. I’ve chosen my queens from swarms I collected early this season…and from my surviving stock. Which means that these queens embody strong Midwestern genetics and stand a chance of surviving our winters. And their offspring know how to forage our Midwestern flora.

If you need a queen, my friend, I’ve got her right here (as long as I can keep up with demand while still producing strong queens…I’m not a queen factory. I delight over every queen…which, for some reason, seems important). And I can get one of these sweet queens to you.

 

My first batch of queen cells

Facing my Fears: Time to Rear my own Queen Bees

My first batch of queen cells

Reader, I think I’m on to something around here.

Let me tell you what’s been brewing and what I’m doing about it.

As you probably already know, the honeybees are having a rough go of it these past years. People ask me everyday what factors I believe have continued to cause the overall decline of the honeybees—and I have my ideas, though I’ll share those with you in another post.

As a result of the honeybee decline, many of our managed Ohio hives died this past winter…I lost a high high high percentage of my hives. And when it comes time to replace those lost hives, lots of people purchase 3-pound packages of bees and a queen. These packages arrive in Ohio mid April from southern states…states that, because of their more temperate winter weather, can get a good jump on building their hives and queens for shipment earlier in the season. If we in the Midwest or in the North receive our bees from southern states, we can get our new hives established more quickly.

I’ve ordered many packages of bees these past few years…both for myself and for others who then purchase these bees from me. And I’m very grateful to our southern beekeepers who have continued to supply us.

However (and I am not complaining here), it would take a numbskull not to notice that these packaged bees and the queens that arrive with them limp along for a long time once we hive them. The queens often fail completely and immediately. Either the hive goes queenless or the colony very quickly supercedes the queen. So the hive either fails completely or it crawls along, using resources from our other hives in order to develop its new queen, and then waiting a month or so for that new queen to emerge, mate, and begin laying. Very few of these hives develop with the vigor we expect from a happy, healthy, robust colony. Honeybees are generally enthusiastic, friends…they don’t naturally drag around.

And then, after nurturing a slow, weak hive all season, the colony often simply gives up the ghost over the winter…which is all very frustrating and expensive. So what do we do? We then order another package the following spring. To me, this cycle feels more and more as if I’m chasing good money after bad. Over and over and over again.

This spring, more of my packages failed than ever. And I’ve decided not to climb back on that treadmill.

Fortunately, it’s tough to dampen hope. So rather than give it all up, I’ve become resourceful. This season, I’ve begun to rear my very own queens.

I’m convinced, Reader, that we Ohio beekeepers can rear our own healthy queens…proven queens from genetics that have already survived our Midwest winters…queens that can rear worker bees genetically adapted to forage midwestern flora. And if I rear my own queens, I will not churn them out for massive shipments…which means I can give the hives the resources necessary to rear strong and healthy queens. It’s all in the resources, folks…rearing queens requires strong bees, honey, and pollen…and a knowledgable beekeeper who is doggedly determined to run a sustainable operation. And that beekeeper happens to be me.

 

 

 

 

Swarm in a pear tree

Like a Pro, Amy Captures Her First Swarm

I’m bursting with pride for Amy.

When I first met Amy, she had sort of an inferiority complex about her beekeeping skills. I tried to convince her that she could learn to be a good beekeeper…it’s just that no one had taken the time to teach her what to do.

So, I placed a few hives in her yard and we began working with the bees together.

Before I added my bees to her yard, Amy already had a single hive that had survived the winter, and we nurtured it along…perhaps we didn’t anticipate the strength of the flow this spring, because yesterday, when I was out of town at Deb’s mom’s burial, Amy text me with this image and said rather matter-of-factly, “There’s a swarm in my pear tree.”

Swarm in Amy's pear tree

Holy Smokes! I about fell off my chair when I saw this attached image. There sure as hell is a swarm in the tree. I text Amy back to tell her I was out of town but that I’d be back in the afternoon and could help her collect her swarm then. Or, I told her, she could call me, and I could talk her through how to do it on her own.

But before I knew it, Amy had sent me the following images. Without any suggestion from me, she had already climbed on a ladder, cut the swarm-containing branch from the tree, dropped the branch into a bucket, and then dumped the bees from the bucket into an empty hive we’d set in her yard for this very occasion. AMY DID ALL OF THIS ON HER OWN WITH NO INSTRUCTION FROM ANYONE. She operated solely on instinct. I love that. Love it love it love it love it.

(By the way, Amy’s life is not limited to bees. She has a helluva lot going on over at her place, and you can keep up with her over at her blog).

Amy's swarm on the ladder and in its hive

 

Amy's bees in their new hive
Top Bar Hive

Top-Bar Hives: Keeping It Simple

I’m back from a week on the beach. I’m tan. I’m rested. And now we can visit about top-bar hives, Reader.

To my mind, top-bar hives are the cat’s meow. I think they’re brilliant in their simplicity. They provide a close, calm, wonderful, affordable experience with the bees.

I think they give enough honey.

The hive boxes are low profile, so those of us who live in urban areas can keep a hive or two in our small yards without alarming the neighbors with those tall stacks of white boxes that announce BEEHIVES! Seriously, if you keep your top-bar hive as low as I keep mine, they look like restful little benches.

The hives boxes themselves don’t scream for attention…nor do our backs after our weekly inspections. Or as we harvest a bar or two of honey. These inspections and harvests become less of a production and part of a simple routine. They’re no longer A BIG DEAL. And the bees don’t fill the air and send the neighbors diving for cover as we inspect. This is a seriously low-key affair.

I believe beekeeping can be simple. And top-bar hives are the epitome of simplicity.

Now that I’ve whet your appetite, I’ll tell you more about how my own top-bar hives have evolved in tomorrow’s post.

Top Bar Hive
Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping

So You Want to Be a Beekeeper

My friend Wendy is thinking about keeping bees. So are my friends Heidi and Anne. So is my friend Liz. So is practically everyone I know. Frankly, every day people ask me how they can start keeping bees.  Perhaps it’s time I compiled these details in a single spot.

Almost everyone I know is drawn to beekeeping because they want honey. That’s what enticed me, too. But, after only a little while, honey becomes simply a reward for doing a good job at managing the hive…honey is the celebratory by-product of an entire experience. The bees—and the experience of observing, smelling, hearing, and feeling the colony as it lives and works and makes decisions—keep us…not the honey. And you should know this: You won’t harvest honey the first year. You may not harvest honey the second year.

So, yes, I know you want some honey, Reader.

I know you also want to improve the world. And keeping bees will do that.

What you may not yet know is that keeping bees will change you—it will change the way you think and the way you live and the way you feel.  I can almost guarantee it.

Here are some questions to consider as you embark. Your answers will determine how you’ll begin your adventure:

  1. Why do you want to keep bees?
  2. Yes, I know you want honey…but how much honey will satisfy you? Do you plan to sell your honey? Or do you need only enough for you and your family and perhaps a bit to give to friends.
  3. Where will you keep your hives (it’s best to begin with two hives…for reasons I’ll go into later)? How much room do you have for them? In other words…do you have access to a rooftop or a yard or a farm? Are your neighbors nearby, and do you have good relationships with them? Do children play in your yard?
  4. Bees do best in sun. They like to face East or South or Southeast. So, as you look around for a spot, keep those factors in mind.
  5. I like to watch my bees fly. You’ll probably want to watch yours, too. Keep that in mind as you think of a location, too.
  6. If there’s no water source nearby, can you provide a dependable source of water (by way of a birdbath or a water bowl)?
  7. How much time can you devote to your bees each week? An hour? Two?
  8. How much money are you prepared to spend? And if you don’t have $200-$300 for start up, are you handy with tools?

I’m too sleepy to write any more (I LOVE daylight savings time, but I’m still sleepy this morning) and you would get too bored with my suggestions right now, so…in tomorrow’s post, after you’ve thought about these questions for a bit, I’ll suggest ways to get started.

We’ll talk about ways to acquire your bees (packages, nucs, swarms, cut outs, splits) and which type of hive is best suited to your situation (Langstroth or top-bar hives…or variations on each).

Oh, and read. Read, read, read. Beekeepers are smart. Seriously. Begin with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the stove

Bee Stewards Are Not Dullards

At the stove

I get to hang out with some real characters. Dull people don’t usually want to keep bees. The people who want to keep bees are either already very interesting or they’re about to become that way.

Yesterday, Murphy the dog and I drove up to Wilmington, Ohio to scout out a place for bees on a farm there. The farm belongs to my diabetes doctor and her radiologist husband.

When I arrived, Mark and Barbara were boiling maple syrup they collect from the trees in their woods. I can’t tell you how elaborate the tapping and collection set up. Mark met me at my car and walked me through the woods until we found Barbara, dressed in Carhartt coveralls and a stocking cap,  ladling thin but bubbling syrup at a wood-fired stove.

When you first meet your doctors, you have no idea that this is what they do on some sunny, chilly Tuesdays. It makes me like them even more.

I have the greatest doctors.

Ladling maple syrup
Liz's wonderful KTBH

Low-Down and Uppity. But We Get Along Great.

Kim and Bob want to add another hive to their apiary. They have two seriously strong hives already. They’re  hooked on keeping bees, and they want to expand. This year, we decided to add a top-bar hive to their mix.

Bob is an architect. And I mean to say he’s perhaps beyond an architect. He’s a big-time architect. Big time.

Last week I alerted him that it’s time to begin thinking of building a top-bar hive (from here on out referred to as a KTBH…for Kenya Top Bar Hive). But, I told him, we need to build a KTBH that includes a window so we can watch the bees without disturbing them. Also, TwoHoneys may be installing a couple of KTHBs at the East End Veterans’ Memorial Community Garden this year, and I’d like those to have windows, too. The less often we disturb the hives (and the gardeners!) in a community garden, the better.

Bob wanted specifications: “Link?” he wrote. (Bob communicates in single-word emails, so this endeavor was not without its challenges).

But KTBHs are known for their lack of standardization. I responded in my usual eloquent way and included this image with a rough idea of its dimensions.  Which I’m sure cracked him up. Bob’s sort of into, you know, “specifications,” a word rooted in “specific.” I think more in terms of loose ideas.

Bob was silent for a while, and then he sent me an email with this link and wrote, “This is acceptable.”

I wrote back that his plan should work but that I thought the hive was a bit too fancy for my tastes.

He responded, “I’m an architect, not a junk dealer.”

See?! That’s what people actually think of my wonderful top bar hives! Which I absolutely love. Don’t you just love that old tin roof, Reader? I do.

I told Bob he was uppity.

Yesterday, Kim text me to say that Bob was already in full construction mode and that if I wanted to be sure things met with my standards, I’d better get over there soon.

Bob emailed me later in the day to say that he’d made not one but two KTBHs.

I’ll head over there today to see what wonderful creations have emerged. Don’t worry, Reader, I’ll supply you with pictures.

 

Gardener's hat by Tula Hats

My On-Going Quest for the Perfect Hat

The good news is…I am almost satisfied with my beekeeping hat. The bad news is…almost isn’t good enough.

Which means the quest for the perfect beekeeping hat continues.

Currently, I wear a dang good hat. I found it online, ordered it, and have worn it for months now. Then I went to the Apple store at Kenwood Towne Center and discovered a Tula kiosk right outside the Apple store with my hat hanging all over the place.

This is the hat I wear now:

Gardener's Hat by Tula Hats

I like it because the straw is firm enough to keep its shape no matter how much I toss it around. And the brim is wide and stiff enough to hold the veil draped nicely away from my face. It fits fine. For some reason, though, I don’t like the look of the crown. The crease bugs me a little bit. Don’t get me wrong, I am an absolute sucker for a beautifully shaped crown on a good hat. But I want my beekeeping hat to be creaseless. I want it round. I don’t know why.

So, this is the hat I’ve got my eye on now. I’ll probably be wearing it by the time you see me next.

The Ranch Hat

Perhaps you can’t tell the difference between the two, Reader, but I can. And I can report that I am not far from being satisfied with my beekeeping hat. I will look awesome in it. I may just go get that hat today…if it’s not available at the Kenwood Towne Center kiosk, then I’ll order it. (Tula Hats is located in Austin, Texas…which is practically my hometown. Which makes it even better.)

On another, non-beekeeping note: Below is the hat of my dreams…it’s worn by Mattie Ross in the newest version of True Grit. Made of pecan-colored pure beaver with a 1″ black satin ribbon with a little bow on the side. Sigh. I’m definitely gonna have it one day.

Mattie Ross hat
Smoke Bomb

Cardboard "Smoker Bombs"

I know, I know. I’d planned to visit with you about the “colony vs. hive” nomenclature challenge when it comes to writing about the bees.

But I’d rather tell you about smoke bombs instead.

Smoke Bomb

Keeping bees is challenging…which is probably why I’m so hooked. One constant challenge is keeping the dang smoker lit. Funny, this summer at the Zia Queenbee workshop, ten rather-experienced beekeepers all hauled our smokers and our veils to New Mexico to learn how to rear queen bees. It shocked me that each of us wrestled with our smokers. Of the ten smokers present, only one or two kept a good smoke going the one or two hours of our work in the hives.

Simon, my friend and one of my bee stewards, has convinced me that cardboard makes great smoker fuel. Then, I saw a video of a guy who uses rolled-up corrogated cardboard in his smoker…loading one of these bombs into the smoker feels good. It also provides for a slow, cool burn.

So, I began to roll what I call “smoke bombs” from cardboard boxes. I roll the cardboard tightly, making sure the corrugation runs up and down in the smoker so air can flow from the bottom to the top and out the smoker spout. I tie them off with string, or I wrap them with masking tape so they hold their shape, and I keep a collection of them in a bag with my bee stuff (some of them find their way under the seat of my car or other surprising places). So far, I can report that they burn better than anything else I’ve found. They’re lightweight, they keep forever, they’re completely portable, and it’s a good way to recycle.

UPDATE: If you wait until your bomb is smoking a bit, then pack some burlap around it, you’ll get a TERRIFIC smoke that lasts a very long time. Bingo.

P.S. I now use a propane torch I bought at Home Depot to light my bomb. These days, my smoke starts fast, lasts a long time, and doesn’t poop out.