Sunday, May 27, 2012

Bees: Neglectful Beekeeper

I have been neglectful in posting and neglectful as a beekeeper. Last year, my bees got inspected once a week for the first month then every other week for the second month then a couple more times after that. They do a pretty good job on their own, once established, but I really feel like I have been shortchanging both hives for attention. That said, mostly I have neglected writing up anything. The biggest reason I didn't write anything up is because I haven't been taking pictures. Today, I managed to inspect my second hive (which doesn't have a name yet) a got a couple shots.

These bees are doing surprisingly well considering my gross missteps previously. I think they like their home, although they certainly made a mess of it. The first box ended up totally unmanageable. They built the comb in-between the frames instead of on the frames. At this point, my plan is to wait until Spring and take the whole box, frames and all and try to realign the comb when it's empty. They got a second box, this time with every other frame of drawn comb and every other frame of starter wedges. They did a great job drawing that out and filling it up with eggs and nectar. So much so, that they needed a third box. The new box is pure wax foundation. The bees seem to like it better than the coated plastic.

Anyway, here are some shots I got. One thing I found is that it is really hard to take good photos in bright sun while wearing a net over your head. Next time, I think I might bring the good camera and take the net off my head.

A little blurry with the queen (yellow dot)

Clear shot, but I missed the queen

Just got her this time (right edge) plus eggs

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Bees: Making hand lotion

As I pass the dawn of my life into the middle somewhere, the skin on my hands has become more prone to drying and cracking. During Winter (from shoveling snow) and Spring (from dirt and subsequent washing) my hands have the texture of Velcro with random spots of blood from the deepest cracks. I just ran out of my Burt's Bees almond milk hand cream at work. I generally like it. It doesn't make my hands sweaty, smells inoffensive and comes in a nice little jar that fits under my monitor. That said, it's $9 per little jar (up from $5 a few years ago). I happen to have some extra beeswax so I decided to try making my own.

Ideally, I would replicate the texture, smell and performance of my preferred brand. If it was quick and easy to make in smallish batches, it would be even better. At the very least, I needed something functional and not offensive for less than $4.50 per oz., otherwise, I might as well buy it.

The basic principle is pretty simple. Beeswax is solid at room temperature. It needs to be mixed with one or more room-temperature liquid or semi-solid oils. As I said, I already have the beeswax. The stuff I like has almond oil plus some other things. Most of the recipes on the web call for olive oil, coconut oil, cocoa butter, shea butter, jojoba oil, avacado oil, etc. I happened to have olive oil and coconut oil on hand as well, so I decided to use those.

The wax and oils need to be melted together. I did this in a double boiler at a bare simmer, keeping in mind that I wanted the wax melted not smoking and scorching. I added 7 oz. of coconut oil, 1.75 cups of extra virgin olive oil and 6 oz. of beeswax.Once it was fully melted, it needs to be fully homogenized and emulsified. What that means is that it needs to be thoroughly mixed with a little water. From what I gather, if you don't mix it as it cools and/or you don't add water, it will be rock hard. I saw people suggest a blender or a fork as viable options. Personally, a blender would be impossible to clean and a fork would just be a pain. I happened to have an old KitchenAid stand mixer which was perfect. I used the mixing bowl as the insert of double boiler so there was less clean-up. Since everything I used is edible, I wouldn't be afraid to use the primary mixer (if my wife wasn't around).

So, I transferred the mixing bowl of melted wax and oil to the stand and turned it on. I tried a couple different speeds. It turns out that the slowest speed was perfect. It kept it mixing and minimized the solids that needed to be scraped down back into the mix. After about 15 minutes of cooling and mixing, I stopped the mixer, scraped down the sides, restarted it and added 1/3 cup of hot water. After that, it just needed to be mixed and scraped down a few more times until it was warm and soft, but manageable. I spooned it into four 1/4-pint mason jars and one pint mason jar. In other words, the recipe made a quart of lotion.

Lessons learned and personal review: I want to try some almond oil and possibly some other stuff like cocoa and shea butters. I might even consider using mineral oil. It had the right texture, but it had a strong smell of olive oil. I would also like a different scent to this. I like the smell of olive oil in my pasta but I don't know if I'll like it on my hands perpetually. I could see infusing some rosemary or lavender in the olive oil would be a nice addition. It had a nice feel on my skin, but it was really efficient so I used way too much the first try. I can see this will be a fun, quick project which I can mix it up every time I need it. Looking at the cost, the coconut oil was about $4 and the olive oil was about $6. That makes it $10 per 16 oz.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Bees: What ever can go wrong...

Yesterday was one of those "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong" days for me, as beekeeping is concerned*. Back in January, I decided I wanted to ensure that I would still have bees. With care, about 33% of hives die in the winter. Without treatment, losses are typically 50%. Figuring that I would be unlucky, I decided to purchase another package. I had to pick it up in Northern MA, right on the NH border. It was a haul, but it seemed worth it to get bees this early. After it stopped raining, it was a pleasant drive.

I was a little concerned about hiving the bees in the cold, but really didn't have a choice. When I got the bees home, I sprayed them with a little mist of water. They settled down a bit, but still seemed a little on edge. As dinner time approached, I drove over to my hive that I set up on Sunday. I went through the process of hiving the package, but unfortunately a bunch of things went wrong. First, it was a little cool, so the bees were testy. Shouldn't be a huge deal because they should be a passive swarm. Well, passive they were not. Even after a little spritz with water, they were buzzing loudly.

Second, as I said, it was cool so I still had on my dark green fleece over my t-shirt. This, of course violates the first rule of bee-appropriate clothing which is to wear white or light colors because dark colors upset them. Oh, and speaking of bad clothing choices, I had lose-fitting pants and ankle socks which provides a nice patch of bare skin to angry bees. After realizing my fleece mistake, I took it off, thereby allowing access to my t-shirt sleeves which also make nice hiding spots for angry bees.

So, at this point, other than angry bees and bad clothing choices, things weren't too terrible. Well, I forgot to knock the bees to the bottom of the package cage, so as soon as I lifted the cover, the (angry) bees all swarm up and into my face and hair. Oh, a little side note... I don't own a bee hat/veil. My first hive was so docile that I never needed one before. I got one of those bug nets from WalMart, but expecting passive bees, I left it at home.

So, to recap up to this point, thousands of angry bees flying in my face, hair, and everywhere all around me. I figure, I just need to get them in the hive, close it up and get out of here. Well, in the rush, the queen cage fell to the bottom of the hive, resting on the screened bottom board. Figuring, I'll just grab it with the hive tool when I get the rest of the bees dumped out, I continue. Well, that's when the stings started.

First, they were stuck in my hair and started stinging my scalp. Then, they moved onto my back and face. After a couple dozen or so, I abandon the idea of doing anything else other than getting away. I got a few more stings trying to get away, but nothing as bad as the first round. I did, however knock off my glasses trying to get an angry stinging bee out of my temple.

Once safely away, I try to come up with a plan to get the two missing frames back into the hive, secure the queen cage and close it up considering the fact that I now must reek of hive invader smells from all the stings. Of course, the most useful tool aside from a full bee suit would be my smoker which was also securely stored in my shed. I figure, if I'm careful, I can generate a good amount of smoke with newspaper and arborvitae leaves (fronds, needles?).

I return to the hive with smoke and a spray bottle of water with my shirt tucked in and my fleece over my head to keep the bees from stinging my scalp any more. I slowly move up to where I dropped my glasses and promptly step on them. Fortunately, I was able to bend them back into shape and get the lens back in place. So, as I approach the side of the hive, the bees resume their attack against everything moving. A half dozen or so attacked the burning newspaper in a kamikaze raid. The smoke seemed to confuse them more than settle them, which I guess is an improvement. At the very least, I was only getting the occasional sting.

If all went well, I should have been able to scoop out the queen cage, secure it and put the two missing frames back. That, however, would require something to go right. Well, I decided to go with unwired "cut comb" foundation. That way, I could just crush and strain the comb to extract the honey. The wired stuff I started my other hive with needed no addition support or securing. This stuff was so light and thin that it just collapsed with the weight of the bees. The queen cage was now under a sandwich of 3 lbs. of angry, defensive bees and 5 medium foundation sheets. And, since I can't catch a break, it wasn't just a regular sandwich. It was a multi-layered club sandwich of angry bees/foundation/angry bees/foundation/etc. I tried to salvage the install, but the bees were now picking their attack back up. I had to retreat several times.

I almost wish I had just left the hive as is and let these bees die. I managed to get several of the sheets of foundation out, but darkness was approaching. I figured it would be better to lose the queen and let the bees settle down. I couldn't even find the cage under all that mess. I pushed the three frames with intact foundation together, put the empty frames in as well, put the feeder and cover on and left with two more ankle stings and an armpit sting for good measure.

I decided there were two highly remote possibilities that the workers could get to the queen and keep her from freezing to death. I went back today (with smoker and netting and light colored clothes and better frames) to see if they had calmed down. They were, if anything, angrier than yesterday. I couldn't get within about 15 feet of the side of the hive without being dive-bombed. I didn't even manage to get close enough to see if there was any hope of salvaging things. In reality, I don't know if I even want to salvage them. I ended up with somewhere between two and three dozen stings. I know they will be replaced by the queen's offspring, if she is released, but she likely didn't even survive the night given that she would be outside the cluster and it was just above freezing last night. Still, given they behavior, I suspect these bees have been somewhat Africanized. If that's the case, a queen from the same area would likely be just as Africanized. I'm going to give them a couple more days to see if they calm down. If not, I'll suit up in bee-proof clothes and exterminate them. Worst case scenario, I'm going to try to make a split or capture a swarm if these bees don't survive the installation.

* - Also, my car thermostat stuck open, I stepped on my glasses, and burned myself in the sink.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Bees: Looks like they made it through

I haven't opened the hive yet, but it looks like some portion of the bees have made it through our extremely mild winter. They have been cleansing every somewhat warm day and for the past week, they have been foraging. I had my "cold frames" set up which are really just teepees made from two windows, attached with hinges. Inside, the weeds were blooming happily in the slightly warmer micro-climate. The bees were working the handful of flowers right outside the cold frame, so I figured they were hungry. I removed the teepees and a couple hours later, the bees are all over the blooms. I took some photos. Here they are:

A bee

Another bee

Umm, another bee
Two bees for the price of one

Buy two bees, get the third bee free

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Bees: I didn't think I would...

I didn't think I would post anything this winter about bees. I figured that they were done for the season. That said, I figured I should provide a small update. So, here it is:

We have had a few warmish (unseasonably warm, but still cool) days. Even though it has only gotten to 50 or so a few times in the past couple weeks, the bees still came out. Granted, there aren't hundreds or thousands of bees coming and going in the hive, but there were a few clinging to the front of the hive and a few dead bees which were carried out by the mortician bees. Thankfully, that means they are still alive, at least for now. That has been my biggest concern.

Keeping bees the first year is all about establishment of the hive. Keeping bees the second year is about production. The reason you usually don't get honey the first year is because the bees have to draw out all the honeycomb AND store enough honey to make it through the winter. I was lucky that they did that plus gave me a quart and a half of honey.

So, as I said, the second year is about production. An overwintered colony has enough bees to provide Spring flower (apples, berries, etc.) pollination. It also has large enough numbers with established comb so it can fill it quickly the hive (and then some) with the spring nectar flow. Now, my concern is one based on percentages. Every beekeeping guide, class, experienced beekeeper, etc., will tell you to start keeping bees with two hives. There is a lot of great wisdom in this. With two hives, you have something to compare to see relative progress. With two hives, you can manage a queenless situation by transferring a frame of eggs. Basically, two hives gives you a better ability to manage the resources of each individual hive. That said, I really didn't want to start with two hives. If I found that I really didn't enjoy it, got discouraged, lost interest, etc., I would now have two hives that I bought and paid for.

Now, assuming you don't encounter a major issue like American Foul Brood, one colony should make it through the active beekeeping season without any insurmountable problems. The big potential loss point is Winter. Depending on management, weather, hive condition and luck, Winter hive losses are between 30 and 50 %. With two colonies in a worst case scenario, you should theoretically still have one hive left after the Winter. That would allow you to make a split and restore to two hives, giving the new split a major leg up with all the established comb. With only one hive, in a best case scenario I have a 1 in 3 chance of having no bees come Spring. If my bees die, I could just get another package, but the problem is I won't know if they are dead until late February/early March. Generally, packages sell out by the middle/end of January. So I have to either take a risk of having no bees or take a risk of having extra bees. Given the options, I decided to order a package. If my bees die, I will have a new package ready for the hive. If my bees live, I will set up a second hive. In a worst case scenario, I could offer them for sale for a small profit. Seems like a win-win situation to me.