There are certain pursuits which, if not wholly poetic and true, do at least suggest a nobler and finer relation to nature than we know. The keeping of bees, for instance. --- Henry David Thoreau

"Well," said Pooh, "what I like best -- " and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do,
there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called. -- The House at Pooh Corner

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Swarm x 2

This is the time of year when all the bee blogs start posting articles on swarms and catching them. So, um, why should this blog be any different? Here's my report on "two at once":

Ed called me on Thursday 5/13 and told me that the City Bees and the Country Bees both had bunches of bees crawling around on the outside of the hives. He was concerned that they might be absconding. When I got there, sure enough ... the bees were gone. I was afraid he was correct until I looked in the hive windows and found there were more bees than ever! The last time I had looked was about two weeks ago and they appeared to be still the same remainder bees who had survived the winter. Since the plants were blooming all around, I just let them be to sort themselves out for Spring. In those two weeks they expanded their combs to double what they had before. The Country Bees had filled up their 30-inch kTBH hive to nearly 90 percent capacity. That's apparently the magic number for them, and they had swarmed.

The City Bees had grown in their 36-inch kTBH to nearly 75 percent. Ed had been watching when both of the hives just magically decided to take off at the same time. The City Bees headed for some trees to the right of those in the picture at the top of this blog. I went for a quick scout with Darwin, but the bees seem to have gone to a place deeper in the woods and weren't "catchable". There are lots of hollow trees in that grove, so both Ed and I were happy that they were going to populate his woods and add to the feral population. That's part of the whole sustainable natural beekeeping idea, right? I assumed both swarms had headed for the forest.

As I was packing up to go, I noticed a little group of bees flying in a cloud right over one of Ed's whiskey barrel planters in the garden. When I got up close I discovered a large - volleyball sized - cluster of bees attached to some dead stems of catnip from last year's bumper crop of Just the Buds catnip. It was the Country Bee swarm! In no time at all I had them in my yellow cardboard bee box. They were so docile I could pick up the straggler clumps with my hands and dump them in the box.  I left the box open a while to make sure all the flyers got back safe. When they were all inside I taped the box shut and headed to Karen and Maria's place. These would be enough for a large colony, perfect to replace those that had died out at the end of winter in their big 48-inch kTBH.

I couldn't believe how fast they took to the new home.  I shook them into the hive; and before I could get all the top bars back in place they were already making chains on the guides of the top bars and starting to sort themselves out and build some comb. These gals were ready!  I had put a piece of plastic queen-excluder over the entrance, since our experience last year was that bees would abscond from this hive easily. Watching for a moment, I observed that the straggler bees didn't seem to go into the hive easily and bounced against the excluder several times before giving up and trying to get in through the screened bottom. It seemed obvious to me that they were having too hard a time getting through the small openings. Since the gals inside were already moving furniture around and hanging drapes, I figured they were gonna stay anyway; so I removed the excluder and left them two open cork-holes to go in and out by.

It was a glorious Spring day. Up into the 70's. It's so interesting that both the hives would swarm within minutes of each other. I don't know the dynamics of all of this, but clearly the temp and the weather have a big influence on the timing of the swarms.

The Country Bee hive is still very near capacity and I don't doubt they will cast a secondary swarm out pretty soon. That's just great with Ed and me - and Darwin. Oh, I'm gonna put a bait hive out there, I have those new Warrés and that biodynamic Lang to fill yet this year. But if we populate those woods with bee colonies, that's a nice secret area ... safe from pesticide spray and any other man-induced fooling around.

Just right.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A "Biodynamic" Lang

In an earlier post I mentioned acquiring a Langstroth hive to add to my little apiary. The idea is to practice organic and natural beekeeping while retaining the advantages of standard beekeeping equipment. Last week, if I had had this Lang hive ready, I could have picked up a colony one of the local Beek Association members was removing. She was keeping all her woodware, just relinquishing the frames and the bees only. I don't want to miss an opportunity like that again.  Basically, now that I have at least one Lang hive, the next time a nuc is available, or a box o' bees, etc., I'll be set up to take 'em.

So, here it is, all painted with latex exterior house trim paint left over from last year's back porch remodel:

Inside, the frames are standard Lang-type frames, only there are no foundations --  I merely turned the top bar wedges sideways and fixed them in place with brads and some carpenter's glue. There are as yet not all that many places on the web to gather information on foundationless Langs, but this link is about the best place to get started.

This way the bees can build their own combs, their way. With all 10 deep frames for the brood, plus 10 Western or medium super frames above, the whole colony will have to produce a lot of their own wax, but this doesn't seem to be asking too much. Last year Ed's City Bees built a dozen combs on kTBH (Kenyan Top Bar Hive) top bars, and Karen's kTBH had a similar amount when we opened it at the end of winter. Ed's Country Bees were a very small swarm, yet by the beginning of winter they had built eight combs on their top bars too.

For the City Bees and the Country Bees, I had gone through that messy process of pouring melted beeswax in little slots cut down the center of the 1 1/4" top bars the way it's shown here. (Never again.) It's all nice and 3rd world-like in its simplicity; but it's not necessary after all is said and done. Using the popsicle-stick guide method, Karen's bees managed to build straight combs on all the top bars just as nicely.  Karen and Maria simply rubbed cake beeswax on the bottom edge of the top bar popsicle sticks. Since that worked out so well, I'm doing the same on the bottom of the frame wedges of this Lang. (Actually -- as you can observe -- I'm letting Dashel take over that job.)

This idea of using Langstroth hives in a more natural organic way is starting to be referred to as "biodynamic beekeeping" in the UK, and there's a whole section on it in the Biobees forum. "Biodynamics" has a little weirdness for baggage on account of Rudolf Steiner's bee lectures. You can learn all you need about that by going here. Another term for it here in the US is holistic beekeeping, and has been applied to several different variants of beehives.

Speaking of variants of beehives, I've added the "Biodynamic" Lang to my tiny apiary of  kTBHs and Warré hives, as shown here in my raised bed garden with my new redwood Warré. Both of these new hives have floors and stands integrated into one unit built with pressure-treated wood "feet" so the Oregon mud won't rot them. It's based upon the idea I posted in the links section, modifying the Ruches de Brunehaut French design.

So now I can make a split for a beek using Langs; or do any of those standard manipulations without rigging up a Frankenhive, or a bee Warré/Kenyan/Lang condominium or other setup.  To move bees into a Warré or kTBH it can be a simple matter then of brushing the bees into the hive, or using swarm catching frames -- modifying them and the combs to fit the kTBH or Warré hive shape of any hive in my apiary. Since I now have a Langstroth to receive the initial frames and bees, I can do this patiently, without any haste. And ... prolly more "biodynamic" Langs will come along eventually.
It's the first week of May, and here in Oregon reports of swarm captures are starting to trickle in. It won't be long now before those hives are occupied.

I hope your bees are doing fine.

Monday, May 3, 2010

On Not Being An Agent for Cruel Natural Selection ...

Over on the Organic Beekeepers Forum, there's another go-round about feeding our bees, what to feed them, what not to feed them, etc. Dee Lusby says don't never ever feed 'em sugar, feed 'em honey and don't cheap out. Fred says "allow" newbeeks who don't have much money to use sugar, just to get the honeybees started. The other regular forum posters take positions along the spectrum, mostly trying to stay in line with the ideology of sustainable, natural, organic beekeeping. The principle they are all working around is to not raise weak little bees who can't fend for themselves. Don't give in to anything that prevents evolution via natural selection from working its cruel magic in promoting only the fittest honeybees. Yep. Sure. Only ... the minute you took the bees and put 'em in your boxes, you disrupted whatever purity there was in that theory. (I won't 'splain that any further. You either get that concept or you don't.)

The same day I read part of an article about CCD which touched on this feeding issue. Here's a quote: "Now here’s a dilemma. If Mother Nature does not provide enough to eat for bees in an area, what’s a beekeeper to do? On one hand, a beekeeper can feed the bees sugar or corn syrup. But if he does, he is criticized for feeding an unnatural diet to these all natural creatures. But if he doesn’t, they die. You can make any choice you want based on any philosophy you have, but I won’t stand by and let my bees die if I can help it. I doubt any farmer would intentionally let his livestock perish if saving them somehow was possible."

Now there's danger in that approach as well (and again, you either get the concept or you don't.) but I'm thinking that in reality this is where most beeks are gonna end up in their decision making. It may be Natural Organic heresy, but it's prolly what's gonna happen, isn't it? So far, I'm going with this idea, at least to the extent of feeding them. I'm not gonna be the one to let 'em starve in the name of Darwin.

Just my two cents. (YMMV)