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Both my colonies perished over the winter. When I opened them up in early spring I found only a handful of dead bees (no queen, that I could see), and quite a bit of honey left. It was too late, the bee bodies were too decomposed, to send off a sample to the Beltsville Lab, where they would try to diagnose the cause of the demise (for free, too). So I can only speculate about what happened. One scenario is that on warm days foragers left to look for pollen or water and, for some reason (pesticides, mite disease), didn’t return, then a new group was roped into foraging, dispatched, didn’t return, and so forth, till there was only a handful left. Or they all left en masse, in a massive death exodus…

I asked my neighborhood beekeepers. The results alarmed all of us: some (strangely enough those with apiaries with more then six hives) did well,  but most of us with smaller apiaries has 50-100% losses. Altogether, of the 23 hives that I know of (kept by 10 backyard beekeepers), 16 did not make it: a 70 percent loss. And in 90% of those cases the same scenario played out: a handful of bees left, and lots of honey stores. This situation is alarming because we don’t know the causes, so are groping for solutions – with a wide-spectrum approach on all fronts (pesticides, acclimated bee populations, mite treatment, etc.) a big task for the usual backyard beekeeper, and especially for beginners. It is also unsustainable. We can’t keep buying bees and queens from the state of Georgia…

Time to do something.

As a first step I put all my thoughts down in a letter to all my neighbors in our local newspaper (copied below). Then I ordered no less than four packages (yes, those Italians from Georgia – one last time) and started sourcing local queens. I also successfully petitioned the Wayland Conservation Commission to let me, and any local backyard beekeeper, keep those bees near the Community Gardens (pollination services), which is also near the Sudbury River and large stretches of conservation land (lots of bee forage).

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My four on the right. The two double nucs to the left are a fellow beekeeper’s. The empty pallet in the middle soon gained another colony from yet another beekeepers. It’s a community yard!

I hived those packages on April 11 and they are thriving. Soon I will check for mites with a sugar roll – a new bee friend showed me how to do it properly, so I won’t have to repeat my one disastrous attempt. Then, if necessary, I will treat with the oxalic acid fumigator. I will also start the bees on rearing some extra queens from the Italians, and I’ll buy, beg, or borrow some other queens (local Russians, Carniolans, and mutts), for optimal diversity. And then I will split those four packages, and split again, and again, aiming to go into winter with around twenty colonies (half in Langstroths, half in nuc boxes – let’s experiment with that as well). The ones that overwinter will be split again and will be made available to the local beekeepers – no more packages and queens from Georgia for them either! Sorry, Georgia, but it isn’t working out.

Stayed tuned for lots of bee fun!

Wayland Earth Month: New Ideas to Help Bees, by Kaat Vander Straeten (Wayland Town Crier of April 15, 2016)

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Every year the national news about the pollinators gets worse (for honeybees alone, the Bee Informed Survey shows this year’s losses at 40 to 45 percent), and every year it is matched by our local experiences. Of the 23 hives that I know of (kept by 10 backyard beekeepers), 16 did not make it through this mild winter. That’s a 70 percent loss. The alarm bells are ringing and I’d like you to hear them, too.

But to most of you, the complex of stressors assailing the bees (explained below) may seem like one of those Big Ones that is not 100 percent studied yet, or inevitable, or so difficult that there is nothing you feel you can do about it.

Let me tell you, when year after year I open my hives and find most of my bees dead, I know it’s 100 percent a sure thing, and I know that it’s not inevitable, and that there is a lot we can do.

The problems are complex, no doubt about it, but science and beekeeper experience have identified plenty of opportunities to contain them. Here’s one. Some years I have found my bees dead of starvation with plenty of honey only 3 inches away, but the long-lasting “troughs” of deep cold prevented them from breaking their warm cluster to get to it. I wrap my hives with insulation, and this year I will switch to a hardier breed.

Every year I see an abundant nectar flow in spring, with good amounts of honey to “rob” in early summer, but I’ve learned not to rob too much, because late summer and fall nectar flows increasingly disappoint. This indicates the gardeners and landscapers in my suburban neighborhood favor bee-friendly flowering plants in the spring, but not in late summer and fall, and that they’re good at eradicating the late-flowering weeds like goldenrod. Fall honey is the honey these colonies need to survive winter. Feeding sugar is a Band-Aid we often use, and we are switching to bee breeds that eat less in winter.

We also see more “shotgun frames,” capped brood frames in which many cells have been emptied out. Often this means that the queen mated with one or more drones too closely related to her. She is now laying “inbred,” nonviable eggs. The nurse bees have a way of sniffing these out, and they get rid of them. When the beekeeper replaces that queen, she may find the next one is just as bad. That is because the genetic diversity of our bees is coming up on a major bottleneck. Parasites and viruses, pollution and loss of habitat have wiped out the genetically rich feral bees with whom our queens could mate, and commercial queen breeders use too few queen mothers (it is estimated that less than 500 queen mothers are used to produce around 900,000 daughter queens annually for commercial sale in the U.S.). Moreover they breed queens for honey production and gentleness, not for longevity. All this is not so easy to solve, but breeders are working on it, and adding diversity to the backyard apiary will help.

We also see increasing pressure from varroa mites. Imagine a parasite the size of a rabbit sinking its teeth into you, spewing all kinds of viruses and diseases into your body. That is “varroa destructor,” the pest that, in the ’80s, killed off almost all the feral and “kept” bees (those were hard years). Injudicious use of pesticides soon created “super-mites,” which we cannot get rid of. Beekeepers can use Integrated Pest Management and organic treatments. We can also switch to so-called “hygienic” bees, which groom each other of most mites.

The lost bees of Wayland may have suffered from any or all of the above – not acclimatized, lacking in forage, compromised by their breeding, weakened by mites and diseases. Marla Spivak, in a TEDtalk that I recommend, asks you to think back to the last time you had the flu. Now imagine you have to search a long time to find any nutritious food, and that when you find it, it is poisoned.

Our bees may, at the end of fall, have had the misfortune of foraging a patch of late blooming and exceptionally toxic flowers. Or they may, over the course of the year, have foraged several below-threshold toxic fields of flowers – below threshold for one dose. Usually the toxin in question is a neonicotinoid, a type of systemic pesticide used in monocultures of corn and soy and in gardens all over our town. This would have weakened their immune systems even further and/or messed up their orientation. And so they didn’t make it home.

The last thing I want is for this lineup to masquerade as “hopeless.” It truly isn’t. With our BEElieve beekeepers group, I plan to change my beekeeping practices and start raising a diversity of local, acclimatized, hygienic bee – a “Wayland Bee.”

May I ask you to stop spraying the neonicotinoids, to ask your landscaper to stop spraying them and your favorite garden center to stop selling them? “Neonics” come in two forms. The first is in a bottle that anyone can grab at the garden center or hardware store. If the list of active ingredients names one of the following, that bottle contains a neonic – Acetamiprid, Clothianidin, Dinotefuran, Imidacloprid, Nitenpyram, Thiocloprid, or Thiamethoxam. You can safely dispose of it by returning it to the store or by bringing it to Household Hazardous Waste Day at the Transfer Station, which takes place twice a year, the next one on June 18 (register here).

The second way you may be importing neonics is in seeds and plants. Neonics are systemic in that you need to treat only one part of the plant, or the soil in which it grows, or even just the seed, and it will suffuse the entire plant, including the nectar and pollen. More and more ornamental plants are being grown by a few ultra-large suppliers, and virtually all of them use neonics. Ask your garden center if the plant you like has neonics in is history. If it does, or they’re not sure, leave that plant on their counter.

But wait, there is even more you can do! Grow bee-friendly gardens that set out a nectar buffet from early spring to late fall. Join me in asking our town, the state’s Highway Division, and the utilities to plant low-growing flowers in fields, along roadsides and under power lines. You will be helping not just honeybees, but all the pollinators.

We can do this out of admiration for these amazing, hardworking creatures, and also simply because we like to eat. Without pollinators, we’d have no broccoli, cucumber, tomato, eggplant, lettuce, watermelons, apples, pears, almonds, cotton, and much less meat (alfalfa, the main livestock food, needs pollination). Let’s make it safe for the pollinators to feed themselves, meanwhile feeding us as well.

Kaat Vander Straeten lives in Wayland and has been a beekeeper for six years. She can be contacted at kaat@transitionwayland.org.

 

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Bearding

I just went into my two hives. One of them at least has overcrowded and hot – indicated by the massive bearding that begins in the late afternoon and continues through the night until the foragers go out again in the morning. They don’t abandon this way of keeping the hive cool inside even when it rains: scores of bees drown then. No swarming, though. Knock on wood! But if these hives survive the winter, I’d better be ready come spring!

I harvested 90 pounds of honey at the end of July. Considering these were first-year packages (on fully drawn-out frames, however), that was a gift. For the harvest  I used a bee escape built and lent to me by a friend. It was the first time I used it and it worked  great, on both hives (24 hours each). No more brushing angry bees off the individual frames, what a relief!

Today’s quick inspection when the hives were in the shade was pretty mellow. I just took a peek in the supers. There’s some honey in there, not much, and nothing capped. This was expected as the nectar flow has been bad, what with the drought. I had one and a half supers still dripping with honey from the harvest, so stuck one on top of each hive to let the bees clean out the frames. I’ll take them off again in a few days, before they start putting new honey in there or putting burr comb all over them.

Hopefully there will be another honey harvest after the fall nectar flow. We’ve had a week of good, mostly gentle rains, so hopefully the flowers will get going and flowing again.

I’ve become a much more hands-off beekeeper over the years. In my first year I used to go in every two weeks. Now, every time I prepare (lighting the smoker, getting into my gear in the backyard) and walk over to the apiary, I need to take a bit of a breath to calm my heart. Over the years I’ve come to realize that these are massive organisms I am messing with, often 50,000 bees busily doing their complex and enigmatic thing, who knows in what kind of mood, under what stress. That I am bigger may mean nothing to them: they’re 50,000, I’m just one. I often imagine what it would be like to accidentally drop a full frame or box, to go in at the very wrong moment, smelling of the wrong thing. Yes, there’s some fear there, but not the paralyzing kind, so I am not hands-off because of it. If anything, it makes my experience when I go in so much more intense and pleasurable. No longer thinking I am in control, but more there, with them, more respectful and awed (I for them, if they respect me, I wouldn’t know or presume), and more myself, too. So, if we realize Neighborwoods –  a bit more land – I think that I’ll build a much bigger apiary. Twenty, even fifty, hives, with room for queen and bee rearing,  now that would be life!

On Monday I picked up my new bees – two packages. Before that I built quite a few extra deep frames for them. It was easy to do, as I had blogged the process before and just had to refer to that old post.

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Amie helped put the puzzles together:

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The reason I made new frames was that I had pulled quite a few moldy frames out of the dead hives. I had planned to throw them all out, even the ones with just that blue/green/white sheen on them. But then – after I made the new ones – I read that a bit of mold doesn’t hurt the bees. It may even inhibit other micro-organisms that aren’t good for them. So I rescued the least affected frames and set them to dry in a warm spot with a fan on them.

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The two new hives now have all drawn-out comb in their bottom deeps, and two frames of drawn-out frames in the middle of the top deeps, surrounded by empty frames. It’s always a good thing to exchange 1/4 or 1/3 of the comb every year, as comb accumulates pollutants. With the dried out box and the rest of the new frames, I’ll be ready for a third hive. Hopefully these two are strong enough and I can make a split soon!

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I sold some Fall 2014 honey today, then turned around and put that straight into the purchase of two packages (pickup mid April). Today was the first sunny day in a long time, and though still freezing, it felt warm. It definitely felt warm after a good 40 minutes of shoveling to get to my hives.

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I dug the hives out of the snow.

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One I knew was still alive. The bees had been flying, who knows why, and perishing on their snowy front porch. One got as far as three feet. When I started digging to get their bottom entrance free, one flew out – didn’t even make it half a foot. When I opened that one, I found a tiny cluster against the ceiling (under the burlap): probably not enough to survive, but I’ll feed them more sugar anyway. The other one was dead.

It’s been a while since I blogged. The reasons were house guests over the holidays with whom we gladly dug in like hermits, eating wonderful home-cooked meals, playing board games with the kids when we could locate them, and reading books by the fire. Also, we watched Sharknado 2: The Second One together. It’s a ritual, better not to ask any further. And we played with Google Cardboard.

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I also prepared a lot for homeschooling, which started yesterday. Here we are at the beginning of our first day:

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That’s my newest excuse (for not cleaning too): homeschooling is taking up a lot of time, but it’s a blast and both Amie and I have taken to it. We go from 9 to 3, learning awesome stuff – as you can see, I’m also adopting nine-year-old vocab. We started a home school blog where both of us post every day (so far), but because Amie is also writing there we decided to keep it private to those whom she knows personally. As a long-time blogger I know how fraught with difficulties public blogging is, One of the issues is not knowing who one’s audience is and, this way, she can picture her readers which makes it easier for her to write.

I’ll be sure to write about homeschooling here (the homestead-related angle) as I slowly get my head above water. Scheduling is a challenge, also creating pockets of time when Amie can work by herself so I can do “my own” things, like blogging and Transition work (and cleaning). Though, admittedly, a lot of what I teach in home school is also “my thing”. For instance, I’m revisiting my beloved Latin and learning about the Big Bang and first life and the evolution of humans, with my daughter. How awesome is that? Ha.

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One more thing I love about homeschooling is that there is no rushing out the door, waiting in line, etc. We keep a tight schedule (start at 9 sharp), but our first day, for instance, we remained in PJs.

During our hour of lunch and recess we visit the chickens, feed them, collect eggs. Today we did so in gently falling snow. It’s good to be out in the fresh air, and the hens are so happy to see us with warm water and kitchen scraps.

I just went to check on them. Our chicken coop door opener is a fantastic little machine and ultra convenient, especially in the mornings. But we do check on it every evening after dark to make sure it closed and that all the hens made it inside before it did.

The moon is just over the cusp of full, very bright still, high in the black, naked sky. The Pleiades twinkled through her light, though not so much the Milky Way (which we learned about today). The shadows were very crisp on the fresh blanket of snow, creaking under my boots. It is 8 F (-13 C), and falling, falling to a predicted -5 F tomorrow night (that’s – 20.5 C).

There’s only one chicken I’m worried about: one of the Buff Orpingtons. She looks scruffy and her comb and wattles are pale. The bees I worry about constantly. I’ll check on them after this cold snap.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Okay, okay, I stole the title from my friend and fellow beek Kath – though her blog post title is “That’s a wrap” so technically it’s not the same.

Anyhoo. This is what we woke up to this morning:

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and

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and
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The photograph above I call “Terrestrial.”

…And so also

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I had been waiting for a colder day to wrap the hives. It’s a hassle and a hazard, driving staples into their boxes, hovering all around and getting real close to small openings with a pair of scissors, when the bees are flying. This morning, before the snow started melting away and the bees started exploring the newly warm temperatures, I went to perform the operation.

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I used tar paper all around, stapled to the boxes as strategic places, and on the north and west sides I added link insulation boards, held together by a strap. All together this took me half an hour.

This is all I can do for them now, except for check on the candy board and wood shavings once in a while.

Be well, bees!

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After a few warm days of observing the candy board supers on the hives, I started to suspect robbing in one (the one to the left). This one has Honey-Bee-Healthy in the candy, which might be the main tip-off to other bees that there are goodies to be had. The other hive, where I decided not to use the HBH, has much less bees hovering around it.

The main point of attack, if that is what it was, was the rather large hole I put into the super, right at the level of the candy, for ventilation and winter access. Luckily I kept the two blocks I had chiseled out of the super, and today I put those back into those holes.

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Ventilation and top access are not an issue yet, anyway. Also, the bees should be all set with the small hole in the entrance reducer at the bottom, since there is not much to forage, except for water – anywhere there is a puddle or some standing water in a bucket, the bees are there.

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Their castles should be eminently defensible now.

I went into my apiary a couple of days ago to replace the rotted through pallet that served as the stand for one of the hives. (One day in summer I happened to look out Amie’s bedroom window and saw that hive visibly starting to tilt, tilt, tilt toward the other hive. Throwing on just gloves, I ran out and saw that the pallet had just given way. I shored it up with a couple of bricks and a cinder block. Imagine I hadn’t looked out: that hive, three boxes high, would probably also have taken the other hive with it.) I was dreading it, because those deeps can be really heavy, and moving two of them, plus hive stand, while the bees were in full swing getting the last nectar in, was a little enervating.

Imagine my surprise to find those deep to be very light. Too light. No honey in them! They might have been robbed, or ate it all, somehow, since I last looked and found plenty of honey stores. I checked the other one and it was a heavier, but still not up to par.

So, time to feed these bees. Winter feeding is done with hard candy board; the bees can’t afford to waste energy evaporating the water from syrups, and if they don’t and eat it, they get dysentery. Another advantage is that candy board can be situated right above the cluster, where the honey should be, so the bees can more easily get at it.

Not having the supplies to make two 2″ high frames, I opted for two shallows I had lying around. I followed these instructions.

First up, fun with hardware cloth! O how I love hardware cloth. Wear gloves! I stapled the cloth to the inside of the super.

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Not keen on cooking the candy, I followed these instructions, but I added some Honeynbee Healthy.

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I spread a sheet of blank newsprint over the cloth. This is to keep the sugar mixture in the box while it hardens. The bees will chew through it. The blue box is to keep that opening for the bees and for ventilation.

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Then I put a large pollen patty in and spread the candy all around it. It gets heavy (this was 10 lbs of candy, 2 and a quarter cup of water, 1 tbs of vinegar and 1 tbs of HoneyBee Healthy), and the hardware cloth sags under the weight, so I put an old fridge rack underneath in case I had to move it before it got dry and hard – which took over 24 hours, with a fan right on top of it.

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While I was at it, I decided to add an insulating function to this contraption, but just sticking an insulation board above the candy (as in the video) seems to be inviting a humidity problem: the bees will keep the hive warm, condensation will rise, some will get absorbed by the candy, some will hit the inner cover, make an icicle and that will drip down on them – not a good situation. I did some research and liked the way Warre Hives have a loosely packed “quilt of wood shavings” that serves as insulation and ventilation.

So, I cut another strip of hardware cloth, folding the legs so it makes a “stand” about 2 inches off the candy board:
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Then the Solarize lawn signs, of which I still have hundreds, came in handy (again). I had fun with the box cutter, cutting the sign to the size of the inside of the super, then cutting out a “grate”. I then cut a piece of burlap to that size and stapled two sides of it to the “grate”.

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Flip it over and place it on top of the hardware cloth “stand” in the super. Sturdy enough.
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As an afterthought I added a loop so I can easily pull it up and out if I want to go in and check on the candy.

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Then cover with about 2 inches of wood shavings.

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I plan to put the inner cover on top of this, then the telescoping outer cover. It won’t even have to be warm to go in and check on the shavings (too wet: replace) and the sugar candy in winter without chilling the bees.

We’ve had a couple of cold nights, in the upper thirties. Apparently, it’s beyond what an exposed colony can handle. I checked yesterday and except for a couple of stragglers, there are no bees left. I will ask my neighbor if he wants to climb up there and bring down that gorgeous comb.

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This mead is done! It was made with raw honey and champagne yeast. After more than a year in the carboy, I bottled it. It is quite dry, with that typical, somewhat surprising mead flavor reminiscent of honey. it can age some more in the bottle. Look how clear it is, compared to the next batch!

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I also racked the two 3 gallon carboys that I put together with the winterkill (hence pasteurized) honey at the beginning of August. One went into a fresh 3 gallon carboy (not pictured) – I had to top it off with brandy, since after leaving the lees (thick layer of dead yeast at the bottom) I no longer had 3 gallons. The other one went into two 1 gallon carboys and the leftover 3/4 gallon went into a bottle for immediate consumption. These are obviously very young and the taste isn’t as developed yet, but I hope after this thoroughly oxygenating operation, they’ll start up again. If they do, I’ll select one or two to add fruit. If they don’t, I’ll make one into a metheglin by adding spices. They’re sitting on my bedroom dresser, so I’ll know if they start bubbling again soon.