Monday, 23 June 2014

Update on the Bees in our Top Bar Hives

My goodness, keeping bees is quite the education!  I don't feel at all like I can call myself a beekeeper just yet (I fear that label is YEARS away) but I CAN say that have a lot more confidence and WAY less fear than on this first day when we hived our nucs (late May).  We have fallen into a good routine of checking the hives weekly (usually on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon).  I like checking them every week on schedule because it gives us a good frame of comparison.  We can see how much change has occurred from week to week and then we are better able to judge succession and prepare appropriately (hopefully preventing a swarm).  

Fast forward a few weeks and you can see how busy the "girls" have been!  Right away, the worker bees started to draw comb.  Below, you can see how it starts...  a few lobes of comb drawn down from the top bevel of the bar.  Within days, those lobes are all joined together to form a full comb.

Here, you can see a full comb (which took surprisingly little time for them to create).   I've lost count of how many frames of combs are drawn in just one month!     

After 2 weeks we could see evidence of new brood indicating that our queens were laying (WHEW). We have managed to identify our queens each hive inspection, so that's very reassuring to us, (although it may get harder as the population increases) and we feel like we are getting familiar with our hives and their queens.  Both hives have a different "pulse" or "personality" (so to speak) which is fascinating to us. 

On the dark comb (above), there's a lot of activity - plenty of capped brood and lots of larvae (sorry - it's so hard to get a good close up in bright light and with gloves on).  This comb is from the original langstroth style nuc.  We trimmed the comb down on an angle and screwed the top of the lang frame  onto a top bar frame (without the bevel) and inserted it into our hive.   You can see the hexagon (outline) shape of our Golden Mean Top Bar Hives (notice how it's the same shape as a cell of comb).  The bees seem to like it and are happily building comb to suit the space.  No wonky comb, just straight gorgeous frames of custom created comb with the exact size and number of cells that the bees need.  

I've recently learned that dark comb is highly valued.  It's been polished and maintained by the bees for several generations of brood rearing.  Apparently, queens prefer to lay in dark comb (hence the high value).   I don't yet know why that is but we are respecting it and watching carefully to learn more.

Interestingly (although not surprisingly) the frames that have plastic foundation (from the original nuc) have been abandoned, showing that the bees clearly prefer to draw and work their own comb (just as we suspected).  We have swapped out those abandoned (nearly empty) frames for empty top bars which are fast being filled.  If we let the bees show us what to do, hive management seems so much easier.  

We keep adding new empty bars in between all the full ones to open up the brood nest and provide more space for the workers to draw comb in preparation for the queen to lay her eggs (which is working beautifully).  As the hive is expanding rapidly and there is a large flow of nectar and pollen on the horizon, we decided to super the strongest hive BEFORE things got out of hand (remembering that my instructor told us to stay ahead of the bees by 3 weeks).  We moved a frame of honey comb up into the newly placed super (as "bait") hoping this would encourage the bees to use the super for honey storage and the bottom hive for brood rearing.   After a full week, no change.  Drat.  The bees were NOT interested in working the super yet.  Disappointing and humbling.  Maybe our timing was off?  Maybe there weren't ready to work the super?   Plan B was mobilized to avoid a swarming situation (from overcrowding).  We "baited" the super with a frame of brood.  Success!  The bees began to work the super.  We have no idea if it was the frame of brood that brought them up or it was merely "time" for them to move up as the bottom hive was filling.  We have so much to learn.  Once that frame of brood hatches out, the bees will fill it with honey and we won't have any more brood up in the super (which should make honey harvesting easier).  

One of the other struggles we had with supering the hive was providing internal access for the bees to get up into the super from the bottom hive.  With top bar hives, there are no open gaps on top between frames.  We first tried leaving a gap/opening between top bars (instead of pushing them together as is the norm) which resulted in exactly what we predicted - "wonky" shaped, super thick comb (the bees tried to fill in the gap between the top bars).   Not good.  Plan B was put into place.  Hubby cut 5 notches into the top side edge of an empty top bar frame (which line up exactly with the "bee space" between the combs so that the bees can easily travel up into the super).  The bees do also have exterior access to the super via a front entrance.  At our next hive inspection, we shall see how effective Plan B is.  We did see immediate evidence of bees using the notches, but goodness, that doesn't mean they will keep using them.  Fingers crossed that they like Plan B.  Meanwhile we sort out Plan C (longer slits instead of notches).

We are also in the habit of peeking in the viewing windows a few evenings/week when all the bees are in for the night.  This gives us a good idea of what's going on inside without opening up the hive.    I LOVE top bar hives for this reason - there's no frame sides in the way - we just see a lovely row of beautiful comb, covered in bees :)

I'll take more pictures at the next hive inspection.  

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Purple Beauty and the Nasty Quack

Normally we don't see fog until later in the summer, but we were treated to a misty sunrise this week.  The sun burned it all off quite quickly and we had a lovely day to work outside.

Everything in bloom at the moment is purple.  I haven't planned that - it's just how the garden has unfolded.  Most of what I've planted has been given to me in the form of perennial splits but some of  my plants were started from seed.  The bees are quite thrilled with the blooms - they are working the flowers very busily, collecting pollen and nectar for the magical processes that occur within the hive.

This comfrey plant below was a recent addition to the garden thanks to generous free cycler.  I actually received 2 splits, so have planted one out by the compost pile (to add leaves between layers) and the other is planted across the property near a hose bib so I can easily make comfrey tea for the far garden.

Although it's not a good picture of it, the basket below was a thrift store find this Spring.  It's very sturdy and in excellent condition.  It's a bit large and heavy to use for harvesting in the garden, so I lined it with some plastic (leftover from a bag of purchased wood shavings) and have planted it out to petunias for the deck. Soon, those petunias will be spilling over the sides in every direction.

 My brilliant hubby ripped some scrap wood pieces into strips and "threw together" this melon support.  I'm hoping that having it in place will encourage these melons to grow quickly.  Now that we finally have some heat, they should take off (fingers crossed).  I'm a bit worried about them because the greenhouse roof panels have yellowed a lot over the last few years which has affected light transmissivity - they will have to be replaced with something with a longer life span.

I've seeded all the main crops and even some fall crops, but there's a few stragglers here and there that need a home.   That's on my current list of to do's.

In the photo below the curved, mulched bed on the right was just planted out to beans, potatoes and carrots.  This is my "extra insurance bed", to give the winter cellar/pantry a boost in case yield aren't strong from the main crops.  It was a bed that took a year to be prepared.  Last Spring we sheet mulched it with cardboard (on grass), a thick layer of wood chip coop bedding and"iced" with organic flax straw.   It had broken down quite well by fall, but as an extra boost, we seeded fall rye into it and worked that into the soil late this Spring.  The result of that "passive work" is truly beautiful soil that is chock full of fat earthworms.   The bed is probably a bit too rich for potatoes,  but I'll take my chances because I had nowhere left to plant them!  The carrots should thrive.

The borage looks happy, doesn't it?  It's set to bloom soon which will please the bees :)

Here's a shot of the front of the house so you can see what I've been working on for a few weeks.  That barrow is full of quack grass which I'm beginning to have nightmares about.  Those pesky rhizomes are never ending...  All the mulch is helping as the roots come near the surface and are at least easier to pull out.  Nonetheless, the quack is a real pain in my back (couldn't help myself).

This is my heavily mulched front bed.  Where you see the established plants growing were beds planted in previous years, but the newly mulched areas are the work of this year.  We rented a sod cutter and cut out what felt like MILES of grass (it carries on further to right out of the picture).  We've slowly been planting and mulching and it's coming together.  The seedlings are small but they are finally taking off.  A lot of this area is planted to potatoes ~ they should do a good job of breaking up the compacted soil and because the soil there isn't rich, they hopefully won't scab.

The hives are busy and seem quite productive.  We supered the strongest hive and at long last the bees are working the super!  It was a stressful 10 days waiting for it to happen.  Bees have much to teach us - we've learned that you can't make bees DO anything that you want them to do.  You can only facilitate them to do the work that bees naturally do.  Such a humble lesson.

Our grape vines overwintered well and are really taking off!  I'm so excited at the prospect of grapes in our future (probably not for a year or two yet).  We have planted hyssop with all the vines to help them out - it sure seems to be working.

A friend shared a horseradish plant and I'm needing to find an appropriate home for it - I hear it can be invasive so I'll have to think carefully of where to put it.

I planted my old kettles with alyssum - they have such a funny story behind them!  Many years ago, I was driving my children to school (in my nightgown because we had slept in) and I stopped to get out and pick them up.  Someone had left them at the end of their drive for free pickup!  I was so embarrassed but I did it anyway.  I don't think anyone saw me.  Hahaha!

There much more to share, but that will have to wait for another post.  I've got to get in that garden and re-seed the damage done by 3 naughty Rhode Island Reds who snuck in this morning!  BAD GIRLS!