The bees know “Winter’s coming”

It’s no game of thrones for the bees at this point, they are all tucked in and prepped for the upcoming winter. The polar vortex is causing it to get mighty chilly quickly here in MI, yet I did still see some bees come out from three of my four hives during the sunniest and warmest part of the days this past week, visiting the birdbath I have set up for them.

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As for the 4th hive, I have not seen any activity (except for one bee, maybe a week ago). This is the same hive that is participating in the MSU Urban Pesticide Study. In July and August, it had been my strongest hive, the one that started from an experimental nuc at the beginning of the season; however, come September it seemed to dwindle its activity in comparison to my other three hives. I know that having enough space to continue their growth was not a factor, but it is also the hive that I have done the least number of inspections so as not to disrupt the study results. It really could be a variety of reasons for such a significant slowdown in activity. For one, being that I stopped feeding them completely because of the study. Or it could be the fact that we had such rainy weather and the ground was too moist for much to grow effectively. Even today, as I flipped my entrance reducers to the smallest setting on all my hives, I purposely tried causing enough of a ruckus that some annoyed soul should have come and checked me out, however, not a peep from the MSU hive! Even knocking hard on the hive with my ear pressed to the wood, I heard nothing! I do know they are in there as I have shined a flashlight through the top entrance and seen them, but I do think they probably have a much smaller population than what is ideal for going into winter. Regardless, it is much too cold to satisfy my curiosity now and open it up for a quick peek to see how many are in there – I will just have to be patient for spring to see what happens.

If I had to predict what my overwintering loss ratio will be next spring, I would guess 3 out of 4, and that’s not bad, with wagering on losing the MSU hive while the other three prevail. The other three I had fed and nurtured all summer long. During mid-september I treated the orange, pink, and yellow hives for the first time with mite-away strips in an effort to kill off the varroa mites that have been causing much distress on the colonies. I’ve also seen several bees demonstrating “k-wing” where they are holding their wings in such a way that it looks like a “K, a sign of stress and could be caused by varroa. As a side note, I’ve seen deformed wings in my orange hive which is the hive that started out from a package of bees this spring that I replaced the queen with one of my own genetics. That particular hive went through an evolution – from a delayed start due to replacing the queen, to the fact that I think they replaced the queen again on their own shortly after because she no longer indicated the marking I gave her, to suddenly becoming a super hive with a population explosion in late August. With such a disruption in the brood cycle in the spring and early summer, I am surprised to be seeing shriveled wings in that particular hive.

The mite-away strips I used were purchased in early spring, but I had taken so long in deciding whether or not I actually wanted to use them that I missed my opportunity for the correct temperature range before summer arrived. The temperatures remained above the threshold until September, and by the time it started to cool off and had I decided to treat for the mites, I realized that the strips have a very quick expiration date and had already expired in August. Without having time to re-order more and wait for delivery, I decided to go ahead and use them anyway. They still were fairly potent in smell, but they didn’t knock the breath out of me as many of my beekeeper friends have mentioned has done to them. I’m doubtful that the strips had much of an impact on the hives, and I will likely need to re-treat in the spring.

Aside from treating for varroa and prepping the hives for winter with the usual sugar-on-newspaper deal, on a nice day in early October I condensed my pink, yellow, and purple hives down in order to give an extra honey super to my orange hive (the one that got the late start on the season), so now all hives have adequate honey supplies for overwintering. Mid-September was also a time when forager bees were out in crazy numbers. There were so many everywhere, even my friends in other cities were asking me why they were suddenly noticing honey bees everywhere being “overly friendly” – I think it was the last push before winter, a period of time between rainfalls and warm weather and goldenrod blooming and final pollen collections. Two out of my four hives had become very aggressive, to the point that stepping foot in my backyard caused me to receive several warning messages, and I like to think it was solely because of how much honey stores they had to protect…but maybe it had to do with how hit and miss the weather had been this year, or maybe it’s just because they know winter is coming!

Regardless, I feel that my hives are fairly-well set up for success going into the winter this year, whereas last year I was completely clueless. Something I’d like to do for an overwintering experiment in the coming months is to capture some thermal photographs of my hives. I may have access to some thermal imaging equipment, and it would help provide me with some reassurance during the certain sub-zero weather we will receive this year of the state of my hives when I begin to doubt their survival.

 

Rolling in your riches!

Have you ever seen the opening credits to DuckTales? Where Scrooge McDuck is diving into a room full of gold, swimming in it, rolling in it?

Well, not to anthropomorphize my honey bees to oblivion, but after watching just how excited a couple of them were to stumble upon the pollen trap drawer full of pollen, it was impossible not to imagine them exclaiming, “It’s MINE! It’s aLL MINE…MuahHAHAHAHA!”

I decided to capture this little bit of video after observing a honey bee carefully select the perfect ball of pollen, pick it up, and fly with it back into the hive. While I didn’t get that amazing task on video, I had a lot of fun watching this other little girl meticulously shop for her perfect pollen ball:

 

Floods & Honey

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We’ve got HONEY! And a record-breaking flood – my, my, all very exciting stuff for one week’s time.

We extracted 8 frames of honey (well, 9 to be exact, but one of the frames we had an accident with so it turned into cut-comb honey) to address the honey-boundness of my hives and give more room for the queens to do their jobs, hopefully. It took pretty much all day from inspecting each hive thoroughly and deciding which frames to take, to uncapping and then extracting, to cleaning the rented extractor and returning it to SEMBA. Extracting honey, not my idea of a good time and certainly one of my least favorite beekeeping activities, but it really had to be done…now we have honey!

With a 17.5 water content, the honey is a nice light color but still within the acceptable range so that bacteria won’t grow. I bottled about 40 of these half-pound jars and stickered them all with what is turning out to be a very common label for local honey. Anyone who wants some local honey, let me know!

As for the flood, the bees, and the chickens, AND us for that matter, we are all ok. It  has been a really scary and stressful 24 hours from trying to race home in rush-hour traffic to beat the weather, to getting gridlocked, to finally entering my neighborhood and then flooding the car a mere several blocks from my house, to then walking the rest of the way in my absolute most favorite cutest shoes ever in nearly waist-deep water to get home. *SIGH* but, luckily the hives were high enough that they weren’t touched by the flooding; and while the chicken coop is pretty muddy, it will dry out over time. Only my poor basement and my husband’s car remain as question marks, so I should be, and am, very thankful for all the things I still have.

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Almost Famous, Bees!

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My bees are gonna be FAMOUS! Well…as famous as they can be, I suppose. Michigan State University (MSU) is conducting an Urban Pesticide Study‏, and I have volunteered one of my hives to partake in the research.

The study is taking place from July 2014 to June 2015 to determine when colonies are not near major agricultural settings, the type and amount of pesticides that are transported back by foraging bees at urban and suburban settings. Since honey bees can bring nectar and pollen back to the hive, and both nectar and pollen could be contaminated with pesticides, Zachary Huang, Ph.D. (Director, MSU Entomology Honey Bee Research Program) is going to collect samples of nectar and pollen from my hive each month through next June (with exception of the winter months). The pesticides in urban areas like mine could be a result of home garden pesticide use, and maintenance of parks and lawns. There are several other hives that are participating in the study as well, some in the detroit area and some in Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, Farmington, Troy, and Lansing.

I’m totally geeked to be a part of the project! Another step towards helping the bees!

It was great to meet Zachary Huang. I had seen him talk at the SEMBA conference this past March, at Schoolcraft Community College, where I first learned about the project. He came to my house around 5:45pm and took a look at my apple tree in the front yard, seemingly impressed by how fruitful the little thing was, and then proceeded to tell me that I should wrap it up to protect it. We went straight back to my hives where I gave him the run-down of the history of my hives this year, and the funny thing is remember the little nuc hive I started after my pink hive swarmed – the one I had kept in a cardboard nuc box temporarily while I continued in over-drive to build hive equipment for my bee explosion – well, that nuc hive became quite the tall beehive all through June/July, and I had to transfer the nuc into a regular 2-story hive body because it was getting too tall, AND I had to move that hive since it had outgrown it’s location by my garage (and that’s a-whole-nother story for another post sometime, whew!) – well, it was that particular hive that Zachary chose for his study. He liked that it had the most foragers.

Zachary installed a pollen trap in the entrance of the hive that has tiny holes to allow the honey bees to come in and out but knocks the pollen off of their legs as they come in to the hive. A sample of the pollen will be collected and taken back to MSU for the study as well as a teaspoon of honey that from a designated frame inside the hive.

Here’s a BEFORE and AFTER video of the activity of the foragers coming to and from the hive:

They’ll learn how to walk through it eventually, but at two hours later many of them have collected on the underneath of the hive. My poor, poor confused little bees. Oh the things I have put you through this past week.  From transferring their nuc to the regular hive body they are in now, to dropping a frame on the ground in the process and making them really mad, to moving their home across my yard and thoroughly confusing some straggler foragers who keep returning to the old location, to now installing a labyrinth in which they are forced to go in and out to forage. All for the love of bees!

Swarm Queen

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Yesterday’s inspection of the yellow hive (the swarm I caught from the previous week) was productive. While showing some friends, Kari and Kelly, what it’s like to open up a beehive, Kari immediately spotted the queen. She was a golden yellow with faint black stripes, and her abdomen was very large – she was absolutely beautiful as she waltzed across the freshly pulled comb her workers had produced for her all week.

Because the opportunity cropped up, I decided to mark the queen. This year’s marker color is green, and although this particular queen is actually very easy to spot amongst the other bees (or at least right now she is), I fully intend to keep track of whether she winters-over with the hive this coming winter or if the bees decide to replace her at some point throughout the year.  The green mark I put on her back will be my indication of either of the two scenarios occur – if she over-winters, then I should see the green on her back next year; if she gets replaced, then when I do my inspections I will notice a queen without a mark. Additionally, if this hive decides to swarm again, and IF I’m not lucky enough to catch them, at least maybe somebody will be able to see that it is a queen from 2014.

With all the excitement of finding the swarm queen, I was also pleased that 8 out of 10 frames of the hive had been pulled already. That’s a quick timeframe, but, then again, swarms usually pull wax very quickly – the bees come well-equipped with the tools to build their new home when they decide to swarm. On the second frame I took out of the hive, not only were there eggs, but there were larvae! I added the second story box to the hive to give them more room even though they had not yet filled 80% of the frames yet (there are just so many bees in there, I didn’t want them to feel crowded – again!) and then closed up the hive.

So – Woohoo! My queen is getting right to work and this hive is off to a great start. Whatta good girl!