I’m not feeding them! Can’t get those boxes off. Maybe by Fall…
Our local club President, Danny Cannon, delivered one of the best lectures I’ve ever sat through at a MSBA meeting a few years ago. It was titled Flexibility in Beekeeping, Being Flexible in Beekeeping, or some such similar title.
That lecture keeps ringing through my brain lately and for good reason. One of the components of the lecture was moving backwards as easily as we move forwards in our management. For instance, recently I’ve been playing musical chairs with supers, frames, and bees. Let me explain.
In the Spring it’s all about adding, expanding, and growth around here. Things seem to get bigger. A lot of addition taking place – boxes, hive stands, and new hives. The thinking is, If I can stay ahead of them with “more” they won’t swarm. Add, add, add. Grow, grow, grow. Feed, feed, feed. Pollen, pollen, pollen. Gotta add more boxes! Look and act – usually with more, more, more. Find a swarm and be flexible enough to have an extra stand, bottom board, and box – capture, and add to the apiary. And that’s how most of the management goes in the Spring.
And then comes the post flow Summer, Fall, and Winter management. But can I break that addiction to adding? Can I be flexible enough to read the bees and the situation? The queen will slow her production down as nectar wanes and more so when the days start getting shorter. Can I tap the brakes, slow down, make changes? I’m just too reluctant to pull that super off that I worked so hard to build them up to needing. Or maybe they’ve swarmed and the hive is half empty now, yet I want to leave those boxes on in hopes they will build back up – and they very well might if I’m flexible in my management!
Maybe a queen fails and it becomes noticeable at the hive entrance that activity has slowed. But it’s hot and I’d rather not look inside; say it isn’t so because I’d really rather not track down a new queen. Or I have two hives that are in steep decline, should I combine them with stronger hives? After all, I have a vision of how many hives I need to complete the mental picture I have of my hives sitting on their designated hive stands in my well designed apiary. I want X number of hives not X – 1 hives.
And so, I return to the topic of flexibility. Can I be flexible enough to respond appropriately during these months post nectar flow? Oh, it’s difficult. But if I don’t employ the same discipline of flexibility in removing unpopulated boxes, combining weak hives, or replacing a failing queen what penalty is paid? Unlike the threat of swarms in the spring, the lack of flexibility now is paid for with increased pests, hive failures, and loss of valued comb. Hives no longer able to cover comb with bees allow Small Hive Beetles to go unchecked and run amuck in nectar. Worse still is the bane of Wax Moths that move in on weakened hives and steal your most precious resource – your hard earned comb. Weak and declining hives need to be combined with strong hives and I must look at that empty spot on the hive stand and tell myself that maybe a split may be possible later in the year or at least next Spring.
It’s all flexibility. I’ll read the bees as best I can, make adjustments, go with the flow every time I visit the apiary or open a hive. It’s a roller coaster with ups and downs, round and rounds, bright lights and dark tunnels. When I get off the ride I don’t say I enjoyed the ups but not the downs or the round and rounds. No, really I enjoyed the ride itself. Be flexible.
As always, All beekeeping is local. Here’s my offering for the beekeeping calendar for the South Carolina Midlands for the month of June:
Elderberry, Magnolia in earnest. Clover at end of month.
Plan on checks twice this month.
Pull supers and process spring honey ASAP but no later than by end of month.
Place wet supers back on hives for clean up.
Assessing bee population, remove any supers not needed and store.
Dearth begins this month. Start feeding when dearth begins with plan to keep alive until August then start stimulation.
Employ entrance reducers to discourage robbing. Remove Imirie shims.
Strong hives handle wax moths, beetles, and robbing better. Keep hives strong by equalizing space with population.
Any hive that is overachieving should be split and allowed to rear own queen now.
Check for Varroa. If levels met treat for Varroa mites using method of choice.
Keep water sources for bees filled.
1)Harvest honey crop.
2)Replace wet supers on hives for the bees to clean up.
3)Assess and treat for Varroa.
4)Make summer splits.
5)Begin feeding program if needed.
6)Consider moving bees to sourwood or cotton to capture late summer flows.
7)Attend monthly meeting.
8)Volunteer at association event or festival.
Occasionally, bees or wasps will make their home in the walls or a tree on your property. While getting them out may be tricky, it is worth finding out if it is possible. Read more about why you should have them removed instead of exterminating them below.
Typically beekeepers do not do removals from structures or trees, but some do. Removals from homes are most often a fee for service situation. Removals necessitate a specific skill set not taught in beekeeping.
Another call I received in late summer had me arrive to find an inpatient landlord spraying inside an attic. He told me that he determined that the bees clustered on the outside were actually entering the house and had established a hive in the attic. He thanked me for coming, but said he didn’t have time to wait as he hoped to have the house rented later that day. Before leaving I told him that unless he wanted a damaged ceiling, drywall and furnishings, he should consider having the hive removed because without the bees fanning the wax comb, the comb would melt releasing perhaps gallons of honey, and he’d be receiving complains from his new tenants. (not to mention the smell of decaying bees and larva and attracting ants, roaches, and other pests for months to come).
In closing, consider that spraying the bees is a poor effort to quickly eliminate a complex problem, and will often lead to more expensive problems in the days that follow. The time spent consulting a local beekeeper or bee removal service first is time well invested.
Always eager to improve methods of hive assessment, I have now developed the non-invasive queenlessness test method, hereafter known as The Number 6 Method.
Step one: Suit up well. No, really well as in “rubber bands around your pant’s cuffs” well. An extra cap under your veil is also advised.
Step Two: Clear the yard of bystanders.
Step Three: Crank up your riding mower and proceed to cut a swath directly down the front of your hives at normal cutting speed. If the mower hits a stob or cuts off during this procedure be prepared to abandon ship.
Step Four: Do not stop but as you loop away from the hives take a brief glance at the front of the hives. If a hive appears to be swarming out the front entrance console yourself that they aren’t swarming.
Step Five: If this was the hive you suspected of being queenless, the final assessment should present itself almost instantly in the form of a cloud of 50 -100 bees now chasing you and your lawnmower.
Step Six: Feel good about not unduly disturbing the bees with invasive inspections to determine queenlessness. You deserve a pat on the back as you shift into Number 6 on the lawnmower’ s speed control. With any luck they won’t follow you more than 100 yards. Be amazed at how honey bees can stick to your veil like Velcro.
Step Seven: Properly performed, this test should be conducted at the end of your beekeeping day. Returning to the bee yard sooner that 12 hours is not advised.
Embarrassing as it is, the above is based on a true story.
Departing from the nuts and bolts of beekeeping, today’s post asks the reader to insert his or her own thoughts on the matter of beekeeping as an art, science, or both.
I came across this article while brainstorming some approaches to teaching newcomers to the world or beekeeping. I’ll leave my thoughts out of the matter for now and simply say the student may need to be cognizant to the approach taken in their instruction.
Accepting What Is
As the local beekeeping association Secretary I get lots of email and often it involves a request from non members wanting to get involved in beekeeping. They’ve done their homework which, mostly, has consisted of surfing Facebook and YouTube. They’ve asked lots of people how to best get started in beekeeping. After polling the answers they start to see two particular suggestions rising to the top: 1) Join your local association and 2) get a mentor. From there they deduce that they can most likely accomplish both by sending an email to the local association asking for a mentor to help them get started.
I have a very nice, polite email I send back moving them in the right direction to accomplish both getting them in contact with experienced beekeepers and a course of action to increase their likelihood of success.
As beekeepers know, it takes numbers to be successful. If you don’t believe me make a split with insufficient nurse bees or capped brood. Timing is essential as well, start a task at the proper time and all goes easily. Success with a swarm in early April is a piece of cake; success with a swarm in August is difficult. And so it is with folks not yet knowledgeable of the mechanics of beekeeping. They want bees and a mentor not knowing the amount of effort it will take nor the proper timing in order to increase the chance of success that first year.
You too will get inquiries from friends and people you come in contact with once they know you are a beekeeper. Be prepared to help them get off to a realistic start if you want them to be successful. And that’s what it’s really about isn’t it? One hundred new beekeepers joining the association is great but not so impressive if half fail their first season because they had unrealistic expectations.
Let’s look at the “getting a mentor” concern. The old school model of getting a mentor went something like this: The mentee sought out a mentor and agreed to spend the first year helping the mentor in the mentor’s bee yard. The mentee would show up at an agreed on day and time and look over the shoulder of the mentor as he went through his hives, talking as he did so. Watch, listen, learn. Move boxes as needed and help the mentor as the tasks necessitated. This would go on for a season and the next Spring the mentor would make a split and give it to the mentee to take care of at the mentor’s yard. The mentee would work his new hive and the mentor would look over his shoulder to make sure he didn’t make any mistakes and was able to correctly comment on what he was seeing and the correct action to take. At the end of that season the mentee took his hive home and became a beekeeper.
Somewhere along the way we have deviated from this model. Now we take new comers into the hobby, put them through a 20 hour course and expect them to survive. It’s like making an early March split – risky. Nowadays the mentee wants the mentor to make visits to the mentee’s yard for instruction. And inasmuch as the clubs and associations have promoted getting the newcomers’ bees perhaps that seems reasonable to take some responsibility for assisting with issues that will naturally come up.
If we are going to move to a new model then perhaps we need to clarify and revise some terms. As it now stands we’re mixing and matching old school and new school. The new beekeeper wants a mentor, bees, and instruction. That’s reasonable. The problem is one of numbers though (remember that early Spring Splits analogy?). Most clubs can’t provide a 1:1 mentor for 100 new beekeepers every year nor should anyone expect mentors to volunteer to run around town visiting mentees weekly. So we must marry the expectations of the new beekeeper and the club acting as mentor. Each side gives and gets a bit.
We do that by returning to the old school model whereby the mentee gets his/her education by visiting the mentor but no longer at the mentor’s beeyard nor by a single mentor. The new model has the mentee visiting many mentors at events like 1) monthly meetings, 2) local educational events, 3) dinner before meetings, 4) online discussion groups 5) State Conferences, 6) connecting through fellowship with bee buddies, community outreach, etc. The list goes on… The mentee that wants to learn this art, like historically, has the resources offered and available, and they go to learn – as before. The club or association organizes monthly meetings, presentations, events, newsletters, club library, allows for face to face fellowship time monthly, and online discussion groups. All things considered, the new beekeeper has more opportunity nowadays to gather knowledge than they used to with the old school model AND they get their bees their first year.
If you’ve suffered through my ruminations this far, I commend your endurance. I gave two similar presentations at this year’s South Carolina Beekeepers Conference. I encourage the new beekeeper to take advantage of what is. There are multiple opportunities available to new beekeepers – enough to succeed. I also push the concept of bee buddies and fellowship for those that need a 1:1 relationship. Occasionally I hear someone moan about not having a mentor as they had hoped. That’s unfortunate because they are cheating themselves out of the good of what is while wasting time wishing for the unlikelihood of what they envisioned. The fact of the matter is they have a room full of mentors at every meeting, at every gathering, at every conference. My mom used to say, “Go do the very best you can with what you’re offered. You do everything You can and You’ll succeed.” Mom was smart at marrying “what is” with success.
No Straight Lines in Beekeeping
My first year I had 1 hive. The following spring, in March, it swarmed twice two weeks apart and left me with nothing for all my hard work getting them through the previous summer, fall, and winter.
But, having been hooked with the fascination of that first hive, I had already purchased 6 packages and had spent that first winter building boxes, frames, bottoms, and tops. I had lost that first hive earlier in the month but I now had 6 fresh starts. That spring, in the first weeks, I spent a couple tanks of gas driving around collecting swarms, some failed and some succeeded. By the end of summer I had 13 hives. In autumn I lost a couple to their being weak but I learned a few things and combined a few more to strengthen them and went into winter with 7 hives.
By the next spring I had lost 4 of those 7 colonies because I failed to adequately ventilate and reduce moisture during the winter. In fact I had promoted moisture by wrapping the hives “for their protection.” The learning curve can be brutal in beekeeping. By this time I had spent some time over winter reading about splits so I split those 3 remaining hives (remember I’d had 13 the previous year) and had about 8 hives at the start of the flow, Again on the swarm trail, I added another half dozen colonies and did some more fall splits. I actually made honey and sold a bit and closed the season with 18 hives.
That winter took less of a bite out of my bee yard and as I recall I lost about 5 hives and came out with 13 in the spring. Hey, maybe I’d learned something! Up to 21 that season and made honey again. Always spending the money on more boxes, frames, wax, lumber. Learning the dangers associated with mites, moisture, weak colonies, hive beetles. Learning the seasons from my mentors and when to do this or that. Like a dedicated AA member, never missing a meeting because Frank, Danny, Wes, Staci, Dave, Todd, Patrick, William, a visiting speaker, or someone would be there to tell me what I needed to be seeing in the hive and what I needed to be doing over the coming month. I am an information addict and those folks repeatedly told me what I sometimes resisted.
By the next winter I had a couple notebooks worth of meetings’ notes. Also, I had attended the beginning beekeeper class not once but twice – only a bee nerd would do such a thing. I actually sat down and wrote January, February, March… on blank pages and copied three years of meeting notes on each month’s respected page. Not surprising, year to year the information was very similar but I had some gaps in my notes and combining the notebooks helped me learn a few things. By then I had also attended a few conferences; I added to my notebook and beekeeping calendar.
The winter I signed up to be MSBA Secretary I lost less than 10%. I learned a great deal from visiting the bee yards of many of our members. I continued attending conferences, meetings, hearing it over and over; sometimes it took multiple times before I relented and relinquished some of my bad ideas. In the spring I decided to save gas money and stop chasing swarms. It had become easier to make splits. I still caught one or two to get it out of my system but my problem became one of more colonies than I had boxes. And still my own bees swarmed. By this time I had kind of stabilized at 20 hives and fluxed up or down a few at any given time.
The next year, again less than 10% failure rate over the winter. I think primarily because I had become convinced the previous year that treating for Varroa actually produces positive results, as does feeding them when needed, and strengthing colonies with combines in the early fall. I had bought only queens for two years, no packages or nucs, and increases were made when the bees cooperate in the spring. I was starting to think like a bee.
And here we are again going into winter. I failed to make the few combines I should have this fall because I’m a hard head so I lost a few. But I grew to 40 this year and whether I had made combines or let them fail I’d still be down to about 35 now. It’s flux; ups and downs. I hope to come out with a good survival rate in the spring of 2017. I’d like to make queenless splits and get a little closer to a true sustainable bee yard.
Sustainable is possible but straight lines aren’t. I wrote an article some time back for the MSBA newsletter speaking to flexibility in beekeeping. It was based on a lecture Danny gave at a meeting a couple years earlier. That lecture changed the way I view beekeeping by helping me see the big picture a little clearer. Roll with the punches, always learn, be ready for change, capitalize on times of increase, brush yourself off and accept times of decrease, follow the bees’ nature and ride that wave whenever you can, enjoy the ride.
It seems a parallel exists between bees, bee yards, and Presidential Elections. The ebb and flow, rhythm, and normal fluctuations all fall within the big picture.
Beekeepers accept the growth of the bee yard during the spring. Things expand on their own with little or no help from the beekeeper. Most beekeepers assign that expansion a positive value but, in fact it’s neither positive nor negative – it’s just a direction. In the autumn there is a corresponding reduction of colonies and things change, again neither good nor bad – just change. Beekeepers learn over the years that flux is the norm and without the connotations our beliefs wish to assign to individual events. It is what it is, we merge with the changes – or we don’t and become angst ridden. But how do we get to an acceptance of the flux? One way I have learned to adapt to the flux is by taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture.
Some colonies thrive for a season and then unexpectedly go out with a mighty thud. Other never build up. Still others chug along fully average in every way. But regardless, all can expect to come and go with time. Another example is the notes I write on the tops of my hives. After some time passes my notes become meaningless. Sometimes I look at those notes and try to remember the urgency that inspired my note written last season. In the bigger picture of the bee yard, after the bees swarm and the new queen comes in with her genetics it’s only a short time before the bees of the former queen are gone having been replaced by a new queen and her offspring. A new queen brings her genetics yet in the big picture things simply continue. And so it goes on every organizational level. Changes take place in the bee yard with hives being moved, replaced, swarms captured, queens failing. It’s all birth, change, flux, and impermanence. That’s okay, it works out, the bees offer us the opportunity to learn to enjoy the variations within the journey.
Reading the book, The Buzz about Bees – Biology of a Superorganism by Jürgen Tautz, I am reminded that the changes above are both disruptive as well as beneficial to the species. The biological makeup changes and the fate of the species is strengthened by these disruptive events. However to see this as beneficial we must back up and look at what’s happening from a long term point of view. Short term we only see disruption, possible loss of a honey crop, colony, or other inconvenient situation for the bees and beekeeper. Taking the long term view however, we see that flux is key to a balancing taking place in the colony, the bee yard, and even the species itself.
Beekeepers are slow people; I mean that in a good way. We patiently look to spring, then we make plans for summer dearth, then fall nectar flows, and then we prepare for winter. We are both methodical and boring. While mostly dull, we are also reassured that all is as it should be and we remain excited with each predictable change of the season. We learn that change and disruption is normal, even beneficial, and not to be feared. It’s only disruptive in the short term but not if we consider the long term. How could it be otherwise?
So, the colony has been disrupted. The big picture is it’s seeking balance again – be patient! It’s neither good nor bad – it’s just what is. As we often say, “we do our part and the bees will work it out if we let them.” Maybe not today, nor tomorrow; maybe not this week or this month. If we are patient, in time we’ll see change that pleases us the bee yard next year. For now though, maybe we can sit down and think things through and come up with a plan to help things along next season. Regardless, the big picture is so much larger than we are that we struggle to fully see how change is beneficial to seeking balance. As humans in an inpatient world we struggle with concepts of time, change, and balance. Don’t be alarmed; everything in this world is subject to disruptions and change yet always seeks balance.