Bees in August -- 23 August 2013 --
In early August I noticed the beginnings of two swarm cells through the observation window. My first thought was, shit, I'm going to have to do a split and feed them to get them through winter. But I asked my sister and she distinguished between a "beanie" and a "peanut". I was seeing beanies, which are the beginnings of downward-facing queen cells, and which bees often make without swarming. The point of no return is when the queen lays an egg in the cell and they fill out the bottom into something that looks like a peanut shell.
To prevent this, I did another full hive inspection, removed four full bars, and gave them four empty bars. This time I was more careful about the bars I removed. You never want to take out any brood, and I'm not sure what other beekeepers think about taking pollen, but I love to eat it, and I figured it wasn't bad to take it since it would limit their ability to make new bees at a time when the hive was already packed. And unless you're selling honey in the comb, you want to take out the oldest, blackest comb. In a wild hive this is done by wax moths, which are symbiotic with bees and eat the old comb to make room for the bees to build fresh comb. A good beekeeper deters wax moths by doing their job for them.
Again the project took an entire afternoon, mostly cleaning. I pressed the comb for two jars of honey, then put it in the blender with water to extract the rest of the honey and the pollen, filtered it through a wire screen and a gold coffee filter, and ended up with a half gallon of deep yellow pollen-honey-water in the fridge.
The bees were super-aggressive, which is normal in late summer when nectar is scarce. In spring I would do minor hive work without even putting on the jacket and veil. Now I can't go within five feet without protection, and during the inspection two bees managed to get up my pants and sting my legs. When that happens, you just feel the pain and keep working, because a honey bee stings once and then dies.
I'm probably done for the year. A few days ago I did the final job, removing the screened bottom and putting the solid bottom board back on, because the nights were getting consistently below 60 and the days almost never above 90 (that's around 16 and 32 in celsius). This time I wore boots and tucked my pants in, and didn't get stung but two or three bees followed me angrily all the way back to the house. I killed one of them and I'm thinking I should make a practice of killing the bees that follow me too far from the hive, because individual bees have different personalities and you don't want the mean ones in a backyard hive.
Also, back in July I moved the brood nest to near the front, and in August I found the bees had moved it back to the middle. I'm not going to fight them on this. I figure they have another month or two to get their house arranged for winter, and in the worst case, if they stay in the middle and go in one direction eating only half the honey, I can feed them some old farmer's market honey in late winter to prevent total starvation, and when the flowers bloom next spring I'll harvest what they didn't eat.
Summer Bee Update -- 26 July 2013 --
July is usually the hottest month in Spokane, and this July has been hotter than usual. The month started with highs in the 90's, so I opened the bottom board and put on the screened bottom. Now I can look at the whole hive from underneath, and easily check for swarm cells on the bottoms of the combs, but I still can't see what's happening on the faces. And once they make a swarm cell, it's too late -- the best I could do would be to make a split, tricking the bees into thinking they've swarmed by moving them to my second hive, and then heavily feed them. This late in the year it would be almost impossible for a new hive to gather enough nectar to get through the winter.
To prevent the urge to swarm, I had to add a couple of empty bars in the brood nest, but there were no empty bars left in the hive, and I couldn't tell where the brood nest was. So I had to do a full hive inspection, take out some frames of honey, and replace them with empty bars in the brood nest.
I put on the jacket and veil, smoked the entrance and the bottom, waited a minute, took the screen off, and then took a long bread knife and went all the way along both sides cutting the wax attachments between the combs and the hive. Some parts were really hard to cut! Then I pulled and examined the bars from front to back.
In a crowded top bar hive, when you remove a bar, it's almost impossible to put it back without beheading bees that are trying to crawl between the bars, or crushing bees where the bar rests on the hive. I was careful but still probably killed at least a hundred. I ended up pulling a giant double-width frame of honey from the front of the hive, another frame of honey that broke when I was inspecting it, and a frame of old wax with mostly pollen.
I also cut off some combs that were sticking out too far, bent some combs that were curved, and moved the brood nest. As I feared, they put it in the center of the hive. This is fatal in winter because the bees do not have the motivation to switch direction, so they will eat their way to one end of the hive and starve with honey at the other end. So by pushing many bars at once through gooey propolis, I moved the brood nest to near the front of the hive, stuck in three empty bars in different places, and then brushed off as many bees as I could from the frames I had pulled, and left them out for a night in one of the plywood bait hives with an open top, for the remaining bees to find their way home and maybe clean some of the honey.
The bees were not happy. Later, going close to the hive to check on them, I got two stings. More of them died in the honey mess. But a few days later they were fine. It must be a lot like surgery on a human. You kill a lot of cells but the body recovers, and if you did it right, it's better off in the long term.
I put the combs in the freezer [update: I later found out that you only have to do this if you're keeping or selling honey in the comb, because freezing kills wax moth eggs]
, then thawed and warmed them on the hot back patio, and to extract the honey I ordered this mini fruit wine press
. Despite the name "Ferrari" and Italian manufacture, it's cheaply made. I'd like to buy a high quality press that's a little bigger, but no such thing is available in America. Anyway, this press is adequate, and from the two fresh combs I ended up with more than a quart of honey and a big wad of clean white wax. I put the old pollen comb in the blender with water before pressing it, and ended up with a quart of pollen-honey water and a handful of crumbly dark wax that was only fit for compost. And cleaning up took literally two hours. With the bees still thriving, I'll probably do it again soon.
Steth-B-Scope -- 11 May 2013 --
So I keep reading about how you can tell stuff from the sound of a beehive. Supposedly the bees buzz differently when they're queenless, when bad weather is coming, when they're about to swarm, when they're happy and unhappy, and so on. Maybe Langstroth beekeepers can hear their bees better since when they open the hive they expose all the combs at once. With my Top Bar hive, made of 1½ inch wood, exposing the combs one at a time and only every few weeks, I don't hear shit.
So I thought, I should get a stethoscope to listen to the bees. In a stroke of luck, someone on Craigslist was selling an ADC Adscope 603 for only $15 and she lived only two blocks away from me. I called her and had the scope in five minutes. But when I put it against the hive, I still couldn't hear much. Then I noticed that it has a reversible head. Twist it one way and you're listening through a membrane, and the other way there's an open "bell". Without the bell, there's a half inch diameter fitting. I stuck it to one of the holes in the hive and got great sound. Then I thought, I don't want to block the bees every time I listen, so I should drill a hole just for the scope.
I got out my brace
, because I'm not using a power drill on a hive full of bees, and a half inch bit, and drilled a test hole in a piece of scrap wood. I confirmed that the scope head fits snugly, and using a file on two wine corks, I made a plug and a backup plug to fill the hole when I'm not using it. Then I went out and drilled a hole through the bottom board. It works! Now every time I sit at the observation window to watch the bees I can also listen. I can hear the deep rhythmic scraping as the closest bees work the comb, and the buzzing of the nearby bees, and the background hum of the hive. I wonder if anyone has tried sticking a baby monitor in their hive so they can hear it all the time.
Bees: water and drones -- 3 May 2013 --
Here's a picture of the watering setup. From where I'm standing to take this, the hives are behind me and slightly to the right. You can see that the water from the garage awning drains into the barrel, which overflows into a dish with pretty rocks for the bees to stand on. Every morning I pour water into the barrel to refill the dish, but if I'm out of town they can still get it from the barrel, and hopefully not from the neighbor's hot tub! Floating in the barrel are some top bars that were too warped for the hive, and some wine corks cut in half.
There is one particular black rock that the bees love. It appears to be petrified wood. I think it's porous and soaks up the water so they can drink from the pores. So I went on eBay and bought some similar looking petrified wood, and also bought a box of raw pumice stone. The description says some of it floats on water, so I figure I'll put the floating stones in the barrel and the non-floating stones in the dish, and see how the bees like it.
Yesterday I did the second full hive inspection. I set up a video camera so I could take notes by talking instead of having to write stuff down while holding frames full of bees. But still, the novelty of holding frames full of bees, and the stress of trying not to squish them when I put the frames back, was distracting. I got caught up in trying to tell the difference between capped honey and capped brood. I had already researched this by looking at lots of pictures online, but every large comb was loaded with stuff that looked like capped brood, and I find it hard to believe they have such a huge brood nest in such a young hive, plus I think some of the caps were on comb that was built too recently for the bees to have capped brood already. So I forgot to look for the queen, and I forgot to examine the apparently empty cells for eggs and small open brood. The large open brood was hard to miss, and it was all in drone comb.
I first noticed the drone comb a week ago through the window, and compared to the other comb the cells are enormous! I tried to take a picture but it looked terrible because my eye is much better than a camera at separating the stuff behind the window from the reflections on the window. Looking more closely through the window, I could see the tiny eggs on the bottoms of the cells. These were the same cells where I saw open brood yesterday.
Here's my guess. The bees made lots of worker comb and had the queen fill it, and then they were like, that's enough workers for now, we want some drones, so they started building drone comb and the queen has been laying only drones for the last week or so. Drones are male bees that don't do anything but spread the hive's genetics by mating with queens from other hives. Every successful hive makes drones if the beekeeper lets them, and they are also made by hives that are about to die. Hopefully that's not the case here and the queen will go back to making workers. (Update: the next day through the window I saw eggs in worker brood comb.)
The first new workers should emerge from their cells in two or three days. They will become nurse bees, freeing more of the original bees to forage. Now that it's getting warmer and the bee population is about to grow, I drilled a third hole in the end of the hive, above the one they were using the most on the south side of the end. And guessing that they like the hole to slope downward on the way into the hive, I sloped it downward and they're already using it more than the one below it.
Also, during the inspection I moved the follower board and added three new bars, two near the front of the hive and one at the end. The idea is that if you keep adding space for the bees to fill, especially in the brood nest, they won't swarm. Here's a great reddit comment about how bees swarm
. This would be a bad year for it. We got less than an inch of rain in April and there is no rain in the forecast. If the summer is too dry, a new hive will have trouble finding food.
I figure a hive that came through winter in good shape will be growing so much that it's likely to swarm in the next ten days, so I've placed two bait hives, one under the garage awning in back and one in the hawthorn tree in front. I found a nice place on a big horizontal branch wedged between two vertical branches and held in with a rubber strap. It's only seven feet up, not the recommended 10-15 feet, but there's no way I'm lifting a box of bees from 15 feet up a ladder.
Bees: days 4-10 -- 24 April 2013 --
I'm going to call the installation day zero. That feeding failed, but I successfully fed them on the mornings of days 1-4 and the afternoon of day 5. That was Thursday. They didn't really get settled until Monday or Tuesday, and on Thursday already I could see three new white combs against the observation window. Thinking that space would soon be a bigger issue than warmth, I took off the lid and moved three top bars over to the bee side of the follower board, and fed them to make up for the stress. I fed them one more time on the morning of day 8, because it was going to be a cool rainy day followed by a cold night.
My feeling on feeding is that if the weather is good and flowers are blooming, they should be out foraging. I fed them at the beginning because it was cold and they were stressed, but now that it's warming up, they have comb, and they know where the flowers are, I doubt I will feed them again. I weighed the honey the last time I poured it into the tray, and it was 8-10 ounces. So it took a little more than three pounds of honey to get a package established in colder than average weather. Also I didn't find any evidence of bees drowning in my improvised tray. I'm wondering if they only drown in medium-thickness syrup, because if it's watery they can climb out and if it's thick they don't sink. The honey was even partly crystallized and they still ate it all.
Yesterday I finally opened the hive to pull out and look at the combs. They say not to bother a new package for the first ten days, but they also say that top bar hives have to be checked as soon as they start building comb to make sure they're straight. I don't know how to reconcile this, since by day ten they had already built six combs. But they weren't as big as they looked from the observation window because they were against the south side of the hive and didn't go more than halfway back. And luckily they're all straight, so far...
Going from the entrance end of the hive toward the back, I was worried that I wasn't seeing any eggs or brood, just honey/pollen, capped honey (or capped brood??) and empty cells. Then I found some open brood, big enough to be capped in a day or two, meaning the first eggs were laid on day 2 or 3. And at last I found the queen, so my direct release gamble paid off! I gave them three more bars, including one in the middle of the nest, so I shouldn't have to bother them again for a while. With above normal temperatures and lots of plants in bloom, the next ten days will be great.
I love the red LED flashlight. Through the window I can shine it around to see lots of stuff I otherwise couldn't see, including what they're doing on the bottom board. Also I've been watching them through an 8x25 monocular. From the kitchen I can see how active they are. They start foraging at around 50F, and above 55 they go crazy. Maybe they're fooled into foraging at colder temperatures because the hive is in a warm microclimate. When they're really busy I like to lie on the ground ten feet from the entrance, the closest point I can focus the monocular, and watch them going in and out. Almost all of the bees coming in have pollen, and I wonder if this is one reason that stimulative feeding (according to experienced beekeepers) doesn't work: because if they can get sugar at the hive, they don't have to visit flowers, and they don't get as much pollen.
At night I slide the lid down to one hole and plug both end holes with corks. They use one end hole a lot more than the other, so in the morning I unplug that one and open the top to three holes, and when it gets warmer I give them both end holes and five on top. I figure I'll drill them another end hole when their population grows.
Bees: the first 72 hours -- 16 April 2013 --
So on Saturday morning I drove out to Miller's Homestead on the west prairie to pick up my bees. They had one room set up as an office where they looked for my name and gave me a card, then I took the card to a dark garage where they gave me a box of bees. The guy asked, "Do you have a car?" and I said I have a truck, but later I realized he was talking about the bee variety, Carniolan. They're a little darker than the more common Italian bees, and they tolerate cold better.
Here's another guy's blog post, Installing Package Bees
, where you can see photos of a package exactly like mine, but my installation was different. First I leveled the hive, which is important if you're not using foundation. Then I set the follower board to give the bees about twelve bars of space, and stuffed dry leaves into the unused space to keep it insulated. Then I put on my jacket and veil and gloves, took off the bars, set some of my own food on the bottom board, pried the industrial food can out, pulled out the queen cage and looked at the bees around it.
Most people will tell you to keep the queen in the cage, inside the hive, with a tiny marshmallow plugging the entrance, so that by the time the bees eat their way through, they're used to the queen and won't try to kill her. Michael Bush recommends releasing her right away, because the bees will be happy to have a queen and will only kill her if another queen already got mixed in with the workers by accident. My sister advised me to delay the release, because she's seen bees angrily clustering around the queen cage. So I looked at the bees and they didn't look angry at all, and I decided to direct release.
First, and this is the scary part, I shook the bees to the bottom of the package, and then shook them through the hole into the hive. This took a bunch of shaking, and some of the bees stubbornly stayed in the package, so I set it aside and put the bars on top. Then I took the cork plug out of the queen cage, held the hole against one of the end holes in the hive, and she walked right in. For me the advantage of direct release is that I don't have to get in later to remove the cage, and the cage will not mess up the foundationless combs. If the bees had looked hostile to the queen, I had already drilled some tiny holes through one of the top bars so I could attach the cage with wires.
You can't put the queen on the bottom because the bees want to cluster on top. But you can put food on the bottom. There are a lot of feeding systems out there, and I'm trying a new one. I don't know what this wooden thingy was made for, and ideally it would be a little longer, but it has the right width to fit on the bottom board, and a good depth. The corks are for the bees to stand on and not drown, and you can't tell from this but they're cut in half.
Most people say that it's better to feed sugar syrup than honey from another hive, because it can carry disease. My philosophy is that disease mostly just finishes off something that's already weak and stressed, and it's better to keep the bees strong and happy. So I'm feeding them some raw local honey I bought a few years ago. My first thought was to also mix in some bee pollen, which I first soaked in water. So when I dumped them in, they landed in a honey-pollen soup in the tray. Sunday morning I opened the bottom, and it had several hundred dead bees, including dead or drowned bees in the food tray, and they hadn't eaten much.
I'm thinking the pollen was a mistake. At this stage they don't need it anyway because they only use it to build more bees, and they don't have comb yet to lay eggs. So I brushed off the bottom board, took the tray inside and cleaned it, and put it back in with just honey. The hinged bottom board is the best decision I made in building the hives, because I can clean it and stick food in without messing with the top bars or letting too much heat out.
Also, late Saturday afternoon, some of the bees were still clustering in the package box instead of migrating to the hive, so I shook it out on the ground and put a cardboard tent over the heap of bees for shelter. About half of them eventually got in the hive and the other half were dead on the ground Sunday morning.
Sunday afternoon it warmed up and the bees were flying around, but I didn't see them visit any flowers or their water source (rain barrel with floats and the overflow going to a clay dish with rocks). Monday morning I was busy, and didn't want to get in the hive in the afternoon because they looked too active. Then Monday night the temperature dropped to 25F!
On Tuesday morning I opened the bottom again wondering if I'd find hundreds of dead bees, but there were only five or six, and the honey tray was licked dry! I took it inside and refilled it and added a few extra bits of wood that you see in the photo, and stuck it back in the hive.
The next few days are going to be sunny but cold and dry, so I plan to keep feeding them as long as they keep eating, until it warms up and I see them out foraging. Also I found tiny wax flakes on the bottom board, so they're already building comb, but I'm not going to mess with the bars to look at it, and I can't see anything through the observation window, because during the day it's covered with bees. They can't see red light, so I've ordered a red LED flashlight to look through the window at night.
Mini/Bait Hives -- 29 March 2013 --
When I finished my big hives, I thought I might not find a local supplier of bees, and would have to catch a swarm with a bait hive. The idea is, in late spring a healthy hive will reproduce by sending out the old queen with a bunch of workers to find a new home, so if you build a perfect bee home, a swarm might move in, and then you can transfer the bees to a regular hive. The essential document is Bait Hives for Honey Bees (pdf)
by Thomas Seeley. Studies show that the ideal size is around 1.4 cubic feet, and bees like old wood, so I removed a sheet of 3/4 inch plywood that had been serving as a ramp outside my back door, did some sketching and math, and figured out how to most efficiently cut it up.
My original plan was to make every piece of wood 13 by 16 inches. Plywood is 48 inches wide, so you can make three 16 inch pieces with only two cuts and nothing left over. I sawed a bunch of 13x48 sections, and since they were all bowed from being a ramp out in the rain, I set them face down with a weight in the middle for a few weeks to bend them back, and then cut them down to 13x16. But by this time I was thinking, instead of a plywood lid, I should just use top bars, and then I can give the bees a few days to start building comb and just move the bars over to the main hive. Also I was reading more and learning about the many uses of a mini-hive. I went back to the sketchbook and altered the plans to so the top would exactly fit ten bars. The bars I use are 1 3/8 inches, or 1.375, and ten would be 13.75. There was enough plywood to cut one more piece, 13.75 by 48, which would make the bottoms of three hives.
Here are three finished hives, arranged so you can see them from three angles. The yellow dot marks the hive bottom, 13.75 by 16. Then I screwed on the two flush sides, then the end pieces. They're sticking out because it was easiest to just cut everything (except the bottoms) 13x16. And now they're easier to grip and will stay ventilated on the bottom. None of the wood was perfectly flat, so I had to do some bending to make everything fit, and I fit the bars in each hive before attaching the end pieces to make sure the top openings were square and the right size. Notice that the side pieces are attached on the sides of the bottom piece, not on top of it, to maintain the right internal dimensions. The final internal volume is 13.75 x 16 x 11.25 = 2475 cubic inches = 1.43 cubic feet. Also notice that I put all the weathered grey wood facing inside, and later I coated the insides with water with a few drops of lemongrass oil. I haven't made the entrances yet, but I think instead of one large hole with nails or wires to keep birds out, I'll drill three or four 3/4 inch holes, same as in the main hives.
They recommend putting bait hives up in trees, but that's a lot of work, and since I found a local source of bees I'm no longer desperate. I figure I'll just put them up on a shelf under my garage awning, and see if I know anyone with a good place to stick one.
Beekeeping -- 26 February 2013 --
I've been working on this project for months, and just added a new project page to the side bar on the left about building two top bar hives
I'm still not sure where the bees will come from, and in the best case it will be another 18 months before I start harvesting honey. I'm not even a big honey eater. The appeal of this project is to form an alliance with an extremely complex and nearly wild animal.
Rendering Lard -- 24 January 2013 --
Last summer Alexa and I split a whole pig from a local farmer, and I put the fat scraps in a big box in the bottom of my freezer, planning to eventually render them into lard. This winter when the nights got really cold, I took the opportunity to move all the stuff from the freezer to the back porch and defrost the freezer. I forgot the fat and left it overnight on the floor of the basement, so I figured it was time to finally cook it down. Winter is the best time for any big cooking project because heating up the house is a good thing.
This photo shows only a fraction of the job -- I did five or six pots that size. The procedure is simple: put the fat in a pot at a low temperature for hours. You're doing two things: extracting the oil from the solid stuff in the fatty tissue, and driving off all the water. The second thing is exactly like making clarified butter
. At the beginning of each batch I used the lowest setting on my induction burner to avoid burning the stuff on the bottom. Gradually the level of liquid rose, and I could get away with raising the heat a little to drive off the water. At this point the pot would be about half full of dark yellow bubbling liquid and shrunken partially cooked fat scraps. I kept it mostly uncovered, but I would partially cover it to see how much water was left by how much the bottom of the lid was steaming up. At some point I turned the burner back down to the lowest setting, and the fat scraps gradually got fully cooked. I knew they were done when I could squeeze them against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon and they would go almost flat.
Then I picked out most of the scraps, and poured the fat through a gold coffee filter into a big jar. The first two batches of lard were yellowish and super-hard like wax. The later batches were white and much softer, with a lower melting temperature. I did some research and found out that a pig has different kinds of fat in different places. The hard lard is from around the kidneys, and it is prized in baking, because the key to flaky pastries is for the fat to not melt until it gets cooked. The soft lard is mostly from the pig's back, and you can use it for frying. I think that's back fat in the photo above.
This is a whole pig worth of lard. The hard stuff is in front, made into "lard pucks" with a cupcake pan. First I poured water in the pan to see exactly how much was a quarter of a cup. Then I poured lard in to that level, let it cool, froze it, banged it out on the counter, and put it in the bags. This is five pans, or sixty pucks. A quarter cup of lard is almost exactly 50 grams, and two pucks make a nice pie crust. Now I can use these directly for pies without having to measure. I also tried putting the soft lard in the cupcake pan, but even at freezer temperature it's too soft to cleanly come out of the pan, and too soft to store without a mess. So all the soft stuff is in the jars. That big jar is a half gallon, and the total volume is almost three gallons, or around 11 liters.
The worst part of this project was the cleaning. Animal fat can eat up a tremendous amount of soap, and the hard stuff needs super-hot water. Whenever possible I would clean first with a paper towel, and then finish with hot soapy water.
By the way, I saved all the cleanest cooked fat scraps and salted them and put them in a bag in the fridge. These are called pork rinds or cracklings, and I don't know if I'll be hungry enough to eat them. I think pig fat is good for me, but you can do your own research, or better yet, experiment on yourself by eating different things and noticing how you feel. Here's the Weston Price fats page
TV Antenna -- 14 January 2013 --
Back in October I bought an HDTV, and over the weekend I made this antenna and mounted it in the attic. My design is based on this video, The best DIY Antenna for HDTV
, which I picked over many other designs because it looked easy and I already had all the parts... almost. I had coaxial cable, soldering equipment, and tinsnips to cut the pattern, but I didn't have a round biscuit tin, so I substituted a small cookie sheet that I got for a dollar from the dollar store. The video also says to make a little bracket for the cable, which I skipped.
The big challenge, not mentioned in the video, was soldering the outside wires from the cable onto the pan. Apparently they were coated with some kind of oil that prevented the solder from sticking. Yes, I was using leaded solder, and plenty of flux. I also tried cleaning the wires with a soapy paper towel, sanding them, burning the oil off with the soldering iron, and burning the oil off with a blowtorch, which also burned up the wires. I was about to try unbraiding two inches of wire and boiling it in a pot of super-soapy water, until Troy suggested a work-around: I used a wire nut to connect the cable wires to some copper speaker wire, which was then easy to solder to the pan. Then, rather than strip the foil off the insulation around the center wire, I put heat shrink wrap around it to get it up to where it connected to the top of the pan.
I don't know if a round biscuit pan would work better, but this thing works fine. I'm getting all the local digital broadcasts with clear pictures. After testing it in the window, I used a half inch bit to drill a hole at the edge of the ceiling, and happened to exactly hit a 2x6 in the attic, deeper than the bit was long. So I put on a head flashlight and dust mask and climbed up in the attic, and Troy and I tapped on both sides of the ceiling until I found the right board. I sawed the corner off to get to the hole, fed the cable down, drilled a little hole in the pan and nailed it to a roof beam.
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