State of the Apiary Address

nucleus colonies

Beekeeping in today’s modern environment is probably one of the hardest forms of agriculture that exists. If you can think of a worse one, by all means leave a comment below to share with us lol. Meanwhile, the 2017-2018 winter was another rough winter for beekeepers here in Maine; many beekeepers lost a lot of hives─myself included. At first, with so much riding on the apiary I was afraid to tell anyone, but the fallout from those losses has not been as bad as I had feared and so I bring to you now a sort of “State of the Apiary Address”.

runamuk apiary_may 2018
The Runamuk Apiary, May 2018.

Another Rough Winter

Over the course of the winter this year I went from 21 hives to 1. After working so diligently to build my apiary last summer it was a huge disappointment that led me once again to question myself, my abilities, and my path as a farmer. What’s more, with my impending mortgage largely dependent on the success of my apiary, I was terrified that the losses would put an end to my farm-purchase. Both Runamuk and my family desperately need a home to call their own; my days as a landless-farmer have run their course and it is now taking a toll on us all. What would happen if the FSA knew I’d lost 20 hives?

I wasn’t the only one who experienced significant hive-losses, however. The brutal cold Maine experienced in late-December and early-January tested even the strongest hives and beekeepers across the state suffered losses.

Note: For more about the impact of the 2017-2018 winter on Maine bees, check out “It’s been a rough winter for bees” from the Bangor Daily News, written by Peter Cowin─Maine’s own “Bee-Whisperer”.

Telling the FSA

Word of the impacts of the winter on the beekeeping industry eventually reached the USDA and FSA offices and I got an email from Nathan Persinger, the FSA agent who has been handling my loan, asking how I’d made out.

Honestly, there was a moment of utter panic. I was so terrified that if I told him the truth I would lose my chance to buy a farm and secure a home for my family. But I’ve made honesty and transparency a policy in my life, and not telling Nathan the truth was not something I wanted on my conscience─though I admit it totally crossed my mind.

If I’m going to have a relationship with the people at the FSA for the foreseeable future, I want that relationship to be a good one. So far the people I’ve worked with at the government office have only ever tried to help me. They have these resources available to help farmers and they want to do just that─help farmers; even if they are required to abide by the regulations and stipulations mandated by our bureaucratic government.

Besides that─if other beekeepers were sharing stories of loss and I came out with none, how would that look?

When I initially submitted my application and business plan to the FSA back in September, I had included for them a brief report on the nature of beekeeping. It is not common for a farmer to specialize in bees, and I wanted to help educate the FSA staff so that they would understand how a beekeeper can grow their apiary fairly rapidly just by making splits and nucs, and by raising their own Queens, which I am learning to do. I wanted the USDA representatives handling my case to realize that-yes, annual mortality of hives may be high─between 30% and 37% depending on the statistic─but the nature of beekeeping allows savvy beekeepers to rebound from annual losses and still continue to have hives and grow a business.

Once the shock regarding the severity of Runamuk’s winter losses wore off I had devised a plan to recover the apiary. I ordered a combination of packages for honey production, nucleaus colonies for kick-starting my breeding operation, and a dozen Saskatraz queens (Bred in Saskatchewan!!! Should be hardy in Maine, right?). And I still intended to produce at least 20 viable Queens to overwinter as nucleus colonies.

Even with this strategy under my cap, and knowing that I had good people on my side at the FSA, and even knowing that those people had accepted the education I’d offered and had even taken it upon themselves to learn more so as to be best able to help me─I had to have supplemental encouragement from some good friends before I could respond to Nathan’s email about my winter-losses.

I admitted that I was down to 1 hive, and presented my plan for recovery. My heart was in my throat when I hit the send button on that email, and I awaited Nathan’s response in a state of hyper-anxiety─fearing the worst.

Lol, I needn’t have worried. Nathan accepted the facts and was confident that with my strategy the Runamuk apiary would recover and go on to meet the goals I’d projected in my business financials. He merely suggested that I apply for the ELAP program for reimbursement of those hive-losses.

The ELAP Program

usda_somerset county
USDA Service Center for Somerset County, located in Skowhegan, Maine.

The ELAP program─or “Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish”─provides emergency assistance to eligible producers for losses due to disease, weather, and wildfire. It turns out that the severe and prolonged cold spell Maine experienced in December and January qualified beekeepers for reimbursement of hives lost as a result.

So I went to see Scott Speck at the Somerset County USDA office, who is the County Executive Director. At this point I’d met everyone in the office but Scott, so now I am fully acquainted with my local USDA/FSA staff─yaaay! Scott gave me the details on the program, we filled out the application and he sent me off with some homework.

Note: For more information on the ELAP program, check out the USDA’s ELAP Fact Sheet.

To qualify for the ELAP assistance I needed to be able to show some record of the existence of said hives─which was easy to do since Nathan had documented and photographed those same hives last fall for the purpose of my farm-loan. But I also needed to have my hives inspected by the Maine State Apiarist: Jennifer Lund, to ensure that “Best Management Practices” had been followed and that the cause of death was actually due to the severe weather conditions.

State Apiarist Visits the Runamuk Apiary

In my nearly 10 years keeping bees I had never once had the state apiarist come to my apiary. Thanks to my volunteer work as the president of the Somerset Beekeepers (formerly), I was involved enough to know what sort of issues were facing the majority of  Maine’s beekeeping community. Any additional problems I encountered I’ve been able to turn to a variety of more experienced beekeepers with whom I am acquainted, so having the state apiarist come solve my problems was never really necessary.

Again I was filled with anxiety─I knew I’d been following the “Best Management Practices” as laid out by the Maine Department of Agriculture, but what if I’d missed something? What if my timing had been off in applying the oxalic acid? Maybe I should have treated just one more time? I didn’t think I’d taken too much honey from the hives, but what if I was wrong? And what if Nathan had suggested the ELAP program as a justifiable means of having my operation assessed before the FSA committed the funds to my farm purchase???

I needn’t have worried; everything turned out fine.

Jennifer Lund met me at the Runamuk apiary located at Hyl-Tun Farm on route 43 in Starks on a dreary grey day and we proceeded to go through the dead-outs on-site there. Jennifer is probably about my age; she studied at the University of Maine alongside Frank Drummond─one of the leading scientists performing research on native bee populations for the USDA. When Maine’s veteran State Apiarist, Tony Jadczak retired a couple years back, Jennifer applied for the job and got it.

Since she’d been awarded the position I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out why her name rang a bell in my head. We chatted as we surveyed my deceased colonies, and it turned out I had invited Jennifer to come to speak to the Somerset Beekeepers years ago! Mystery solved!

Jennifer checked my dead-outs to see the size of the cluster and their position within the hive, the amount of honey and pollen stores in the hives, along with signs of disease and mite levels among the population of bees. An alcohol-wash sampling revealed that mite levels were within reasonable range, and Jennifer concluded that in a normal winter even the weaker of my colonies likely would have survived. Cause of death was attributed to the weather conditions we’d experienced this year, and I was validated as a beekeeper.

With so many losses each winter it’s natural to wonder if you’re doing it right, and whether it’s worth the hassle and heartache. Jennifer put my mind at ease, and my ELAP application is moving forward at the FSA. I should receive a check towards the end of the season, which I intend to use to reimburse myself for some of the replacement bees I purchased this spring.

It’s Bee Season!

back of a beekeeper's car
Some of my favorite days are when the back of my car looks like this!

The season is well underway now. Runamuk’s replacement bees came in several waves: I picked up the first 5 packages on May 12th from Peter Cowin in Hampden, then went back on the 29th for another 5 packages. These will be my honey-producing hives, since the southern bred Italian packages tend to rev up fairly quickly they will ensure that I have honey available to sell and enable me to meet my financial targets.

On June 8th I fetched 3 nucleus colonies from Bob Egan’s Abnaki Apiaries in Skowhegan, Maine. I’d had 5 on order with Bob, but as a result of the harsh winter Bob was low on numbers. Having suffered significant losses myself I couldn’t hold that against the veteran beekeeper─we’re all in this together really. Bob raises a gentle strain of Carnolian bees that I’ve always had good luck with, and whose genetics I want as part of my breeding stock.

The 12 Saskatraz Queens are coming again from Hampden and Peter Cowin. They’ll be mated and ready to start laying when I bring them home the first week of July; the plan is to pair each Queen with 1 frame of brood taken from the existing hives and place them in a nucleus box with 1 frame of empty comb, and at least 1 frame of honey/pollen stores.

I’ll have to manage them fairly fastidiously so that I can overwinter them as nucs, so I’ve delayed pick-up of the new Queens til I can set them up at the new farm where I’ll be able to check on them more frequently. Ultimately, I’d like to have all the nucs and Queen-production happening at the Hive-House, while honey production will continue to happen at Hyl-Tun Farm where the Runamuk hives have miles of prime bee-forage in every direction.

Long-Term Apiary Goals

grafts 2018
My first grafted Queen-cells!

The end-goal I have for the Runamuk Apiary is to make the operation sustainable for the long-term viability of my farm. Though I have supporting ventures diversifying Runamuk, bees are the main focus of my farm-business and to truly be successful over the upcoming years I need to reduce inputs and expenses while continuing to expand the apiary.

To do that I need to be able to raise my own Queens and overwinter them as nucleus colonies that can replace the inevitable annual losses. Once I can ensure the continued survival of my own apiary, I can start selling nucs and mated-Queens raised from hardy Maine stock to local beekeepers.

Grateful for This Life

beekeeper profile
Accidental matching uniform at the apiary!

When I look back on the journey of my life I can’t help but marvel at the path that’s led me to this place in time. I did not set out to be the person I am today: female farmer, lady beekeeper, blogger, local food activist… I did see myself as becoming some sort of environmental activist however, and really everything I am stems from my love for the Earth and nature.

That love, along with a more recent commitment to be true to who I am and owning my story, has brought me here─doing work I love to do and paying my bills that way, on the precipice of purchasing my very own #foreverfarm and looking forward to bringing my vision for a pollinator conservation farm to life.

Yes, beekeeping is hard, and I’ll never be well-off as a farmer, but when I open a hive and the fragrance of warm beeswax and honey washes over me─or when I’m on my knees in the garden surrounded by plants and insects under the bright sun─I am filled with gratitude that I am able to live a life I love─one which brings meaning and purpose to my existence. Now that I’ve tasted this kind of wholehearted living, I could never give it up.

Thanks for reading and following along with my story! Feel free to share any thoughts, questions or comments below!

Feeding bees pollen-patties in early spring

feeding bees in early spring

Each winter, as we work to grow our apiary to the goal of 100 hives, I closely monitor the condition of our hives throughout the course of the long winter.  After each big snow, I make this trek out across pastures to ensure the entrances are clear for my girls.  I take advantage of the rare warm days to pop open the hives briefly, adding my sugar cakes if a colony is low on stores, and sometime in March, I reward my girls with a pollen patty.

feeding bees pollen patties in early springI won’t breathe a sigh of relief, however, until the dandelion bloom is underway.  February through May is the most difficult time of year for honeybees in our part of the world.  Even if a colony has sufficient stores going into the winter, there’s always the possibility that they may eat themselves into a corner and not be able to reach the other honey stores due to the freezing temperatures, and their own instinctual reluctance to break their winter cluster.

Typically colonies that die of starvation are those that are the most populous, but the nature of each individual winter can have an impact on the condition of the hive, too.  Warmer winter temperatures can cause more activity in the hive, resulting in quicker consumption of the colony’s stores.  Extreme cold, such as 2014’s “Polar Vortex” can cause a fatal chill among the bees.  Trusting in nature, I know that the strongest colonies will survive the long Maine winter, and as they begin to build up in population, growing into summer, I will again make my splits and Nucs to grow the Runamuk apiary just a little more.

And so, in anticipation of the spring season, I feed my bees pollen-patties.

What are pollen patties?

These are are a mixture of ingredients, including pollen, sugar, vitamins, lemon juice or citric acid, dried egg, oil, yeast, and honey, designed to stimulate brood production.  There are many different recipes out there, and so far there has not proven to be one that stands out above all others, and experiences among beekeepers will vary.

Pollen patties are stiff and thick and are designed to lay across the top of the frames inside the hive, directly above the brood nest, so that they are immediately accessible to the bees, even in frigid temperatures.

Why feed bees pollen patties?

stimulating brood production through supplemental feeding of pollen patties
This is a nice frame of capped brood, soon the young bees will emerge and be ready to get to work.

Not every beekeeper needs to do this.  The larger commercial beekeeping outfits feed supplemental pollen in order to build up the populations in their hives prior to going to the almond groves.  Beekeepers who raise Nucs and Queens to sell to other beekeepers, may feed their colonies pollen patties to build up the population before they begin making nucleus colonies or breeding Queens.  The average hobbyist should not need to worry about their bees having sufficient pollen available for the spring build-up, since pollen is often available even when nectar is not.  Pollen from trees is some of the first food sources available to bees early in the spring, and bees can even be seen bringing pollen in well into October.

Bees need both pollen and honey in order to reproduce.  While adult bees eat honey, the bee larvae are dependent on a supply of nutritious, high-protein pollen.  Nurse-bees consume the pollen in bee-bread form, which then allows the nurses to secrete the Royal jelly that larvae need during their first three days of life.  Then, as the larvae mature, they are switched over to a diet of bee-bread and honey.

By offering the bees an enriched diet through supplemental feedings of pollen–the nurse bees are able to secrete lots of Royal jelly, so they prepare cells for eggs, and the Queen in turn deposits the eggs, and suddenly brood production is in full swing.  Having a larger population as we move into the spring is desirable not only if you intend to make the apiary increases that I do, but also to increase the rate of honey production,

When should you feed pollen patties?

If you’re going to supplement with pollen patties to encourage brood production in your hives, when you begin feeding them is of crucial importance–it’s hugely dependent on your location, region, and climate.  Since the bees will usually refuse the pollen supplements once the good stuff is available outside, you’ll want as many bees as possible to take advantage of that first major pollen flow, which will continue to spur brood production gearing up for the start of the up-coming nectar flow.

feeding bees in early spring
Trees offer the earliest forms of pollen and nectar for honeybees and native pollinators.

Knowing when that main honey flow will begin allows you to count back 8-9 weeks before it will begin, so that you will have 4 good flushes of brood before the first honey flow begins.  So get a calendar, and if you don’t know when the honey flows occur in your area, go ask the beekeepers at your local beekeepers’ association.

Here in my part of Maine our nectar flows begin with the dandelion bloom, which typically starts around Mother’s Day in May.  Counting back 9 weeks from Mother’s Day will find me beginning feeding my bees supplemental pollen in the second week of March.  I won’t pin it down to a specific day because opening the hives to place the patties on will be dependent on the weather and temperatures.  I’ll wait for a warmer, sunny day with little to no wind, and then I will make my rounds, popping open each hive just long enough to place a patty across the frames.

Waiting for spring

For now, there is still snow on the ground, and even as I write this it is snowing outside once again, but it won’t be long before the grass will be green again, the trees will be sporting their freshly unfurled leaves, flowers will be in bloom, and the bees will be buzzing about the fields once more.

Supplemental feedings of pollen and pollen substitutes may not be right for every beekeeper, but at Runamuk, as we continue to expand our apiary little by little, ensuring that our hives have plenty of strong bees available for making spring splits and Nucs–and even just for successful honey production–it is a key component of our management practices.

Queen-rearing: if at first you don’t succeed…

queen cells

For the first time in my 7 years of beekeeping I am trying my hand at raising my own Queens. I’m excited for what this new skill means for my apiary and now wonder why I didn’t start sooner! We’re at the height of the growing season now and I am out there in the thick of it, loving every minute.

runamuk apiariesIn the field where the grasses are growing chest-high under the golden summer sunshine, elbow deep in a beehive amid a cloud of buzzing bees it is easy to forget that Runamuk is still homeless, that my vision for a pollinator conservation farm is still only a concept in my mind. Mostly I maintain a positive attitude about it: “It’s not the destination it’s the journey”; and “I’m so awesome I’m making an impact on my community even as a landless farmer.”

Raising my own Queens through propagation of hardy Maine honeybee stock means I will finally be able to stop buying in bees every year; it means I can move toward a more sustainable apiary. Such is the nature of beekeeping that the beekeeper must accept the fact that there will be annual losses of colonies; statistics site that the nationwide average of annual hive loss among American beekeepers is 38%. Beekeepers like Kirk Webster, Mike Palmer and Ross Conrad are mitigating those losses by producing their own bees to supply their apiaries. I figure if those guys can do it, so can I. I’ve read their books, listened to their talks, and this past winter I read Brother Adams’ book Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey which lent more depth to the process of overwintering Queens as nucleus colonies.

Something about the Queen honeybee is a little intimidating though. I’ve always been super protective of her and the idea of being responsible for numerous Queens was─and still is─a little scary for me. However the rewards of learning to produce good Queens was too powerful a draw for this beekeeper to resist. Not only would producing my own Queens provide me with the means to grow my apiary, but also create opportunity to sell overwintered nucs and mated-Queens, which are in high demand. That’s money in the bank for Runamuk.

humble abodesI did my homework, had a plan mapped out, knew exactly what I needed for supplies, and we trucked down to Humble Abodes for equipment. Humble Abodes is my favorite place to purchase bee-equipment; made with pine and milled right there at their facility in Windsor, it’s local, reasonably priced and I can drive to pick it up to avoid shipping costs.

Forever bootstrapping Runamuk along, we sought the cheapest way to make this leap possible. I decided to just buy the deep boxes and turn them into double-nucs myself. We happened to have enough plywood on hand that we could create the divider, along with bottom boards and top-covers. Paul cut the pieces and I assembled it all and before we knew it we had 10 divided nuc-boxes ready to go.

divided deeps for queen rearing
Divided deep boxes for mating nucs.
ventilated nuc box
I simply took the bottom off a nuc box and stapled metal screening to the bottom.

I made my ventilated cell-starting boxes and loaded it with young nurse bees. Then I took a frame of eggs from one of the 2 colonies I have that survived this last winter: the one with the best brood pattern and the calmest temperament. Instead of grafting, which can have a lower success rate because you’re moving the larvae around, I opted to try another method where you simply cut the frame with the eggs into strips and adhere it to the Queen-cell frame with beeswax.

queen cells
Proof of concept: started Queen-cells!!!

We were right down to the wire on this project. I had started the first round of Queens and then we ran for the equipment and rushed to get it put together. I even started a second round and put those cells in the finisher-hive too. By the time I got to the apiary to move the Queen-cells into mating nucs the first Queen had hatched out and killed the other 17 Queens before they even had a chance to emerge.

destroyed queen cellsTiming is everything in raising Queens. Instead of 18 new Queens I have 1 blood-thirsty bitch of a Queen. She better be the best damn Queen ever is all I can say.

queen cell prep in the field
Cutting comb to assemble another frame of potential Queen-cells. Since my apiary is not where I live, I found it was easier to set up right in the field than to truck my cell-starter all the way home to do it.

Not to be deterred, I’ve started a 3rd round. It’s a new skill and it takes time to master anything worth doing. I think I’m starting to get the hang of the process. Setting up the cell-starter seems to be the biggest pain, though prepping the Queen-cell frame is tedious. I’ve realized how crucial it is to know how old the larvae is that you use for Queen-production and how important the timing is too. There’s not much lee-way so the beekeeper has to be prepared.

the finisher hive
Queen-cells are started in a “cell-starter” then transferred to a “finisher hive” like this one!

Otherwise in the apiary this are going well. We’ve been selling the honey from the hives we lost this past winter at market all season; it feels really good to have that product on the table at the Runamuk at the Madison Farmers’ Market. The packages we bought from Peter Cowin ramped up with surprising speed and are now making honey. We got fewer nucleus colonies from Bob Egan than we’d initially planned, allowing me to pursue the Queen-project that was so important to me; those nucs have just about filled the brood nest and will be ready to make honey in earnest by the time the fall nectar-flow hits.

Depending on how many Queens I manage to produce the two colonies that came through the winter will get broken down to provide mating-nucs with combs and resources. It may seem counter-intuitive to take apart perfectly good, well established colonies, but those well established colonies also have well-established colonies of Varroa mites. Breaking up a colony also breaks up that mite-infestation and reduces the pest-pressure on the bees. Besides, if I can go from 2 hives to 40, it’s well worth the sacrifice in the long run.

To me it makes sense to raise my own Queens. What do you think? Have any tips for me? Feel free to leave me a comment below!

Installing Packaged Bees

packages waiting installation

installing packaged beesThis past Saturday I installed packaged bees into the existing equipment of my recently deceased hives in the Runamuk apiary. In my 7 years of beekeeping, this was a first for me; I’ve always bought locally raised nucleus colonies with hardy overwintered Queens. With so much comb and honey and pollen stores available following winter losses, and the promise of a good deal from a trusted beekeeping acquaintance, I decided to give the packages a shot this year.

What are packaged bees?

For the most part, packaged bees come from the south and are not acclimated to Maine’s conditions; they tend not to survive our winters. However, former Maine State Beekeepers’ Association president Erin McGregor-Forbes of Overland Apiaries in Portland, Maine did a SARE project which ultimately showed that imported packages re-Queened with northern-bred Queens have a dramatically improved survivability rate. Since I plan to raise my own Queens anyway this year I will follow Erin’s example and re-Queen these packages later in the season.

real food challenge

Note: It’s pretty interesting work and worth the read; see more about Erin’s research and the results of that SARE project at: A Comparison of Strength and Survivability of Honeybee Colonies Started with Conventional vs Northern Re-Queened Packages.

Paul and I ordered 5 packages a couple of months ago from Peter Cowin, Maine’s renown “Bee Whisperer” over in Hampden. Peter had come to speak with the Somerset Beekeepers a few years back when I was still president of that group, and I also follow Peter’s beekeeping articles in the Bangor Daily News. Every spring Peter makes the pilgrimage to the south and brings back a truck-full of packages to sell to Maine beekeepers.

Packaged bees consist of 3 pounds of worker bees and a newly laying Queen in a cage. They have no combs or brood, no honey or pollen, only the sugar-syrup in a can to sustain them on their journey. For established beekeepers like me─with plenty of equipment and drawn combs already on hand─packaged bees can be easily inserted to make use of those materials and replace winter-losses.

Road-trip!

Saturday, April 29th was the day for pick up of Peter’s imported packages. Since I normally work weekends I had to leave Johnny’s early that day to drive an hour eastward to Hampden. It was a beautiful day for it and Paul met me at Johnny’s Selected Seeds Call Center so that we could take the road trip together.

When we arrived at his location in Hampden Peter was right out straight. There was one uncertain couple ahead of us, and another guy pulled in right behind us. I already know the spiel on installing packaged bees and how to care for them so we loaded the 5 packages into the back seat and departed in short order, leaving Peter to his other customers.

packaged bees in the car
It’s such an amazing feeling to drive down the road with thousands of bees buzzing in the seat behind you!

It’s always thrilling to drive down the road with bees in the car, but Saturday’s trip was probably the most intimate road-trip I’ve ever experienced with bees. Always before I’ve purchased nucleus colonies, which are entirely contained in a plywood nuc-box with a few entrances that are closed with screen for the trip. Packaged bees however, are fairly open, with the bees housed inside a wooden frame that is screened on 2 sides, so the buzzing sound coming from the 5 packages on the backseat was much louder than anything I’d experienced before.

This Saturday afternoon happened to be only the first or second nice weekend day that our region has experienced yet this season and Mainers were obviously taking advantage of the fair weather to get some outside work done. As we drove across the countryside we saw lots of folks out raking their lawns, mowing, or burning brush in the backyard. What was especially interesting was that every time we drove past a house where someone was burning something in the backyard─where there was the smell of smoke in the air or smoke billowed across the road─the bees became agitated and they would get notably louder. You could hear the difference, and we knew that their ancient instinctive reaction to fire and smoke was at work.

How to Install Packaged Bees

Installing packages later in the afternoon discourages your new bees from absconding, so by the time we arrived at the apiary with the packages it was around 4 and we were able to install them right away. It’s a pretty straight forward process.

packages waiting installation
2 of the 5 hives we installed our packaged bees into.

We had all of our equipment set up and ready to go ahead of time: the bottom board, a deep box filled with combs, the inner cover and the telescoping cover, as well as an extra medium box to house my mason-jar syrup-feeder─and don’t forget an entrance reducer. Since I have lots of combs available, I found 2-3 frames of honey to put in each box, along with 1-2 frames of pollen, and the remaining frames were open combs where the new Queens would be able to immediately begin laying eggs.

I set the inner cover and the telescoping covers aside and removed 1 or 2 of the empty combs from each box before placing a package on top of it in preparation for installation. Then I suited up and with my hive tool pried the square wooden plate off the box to reveal the feeder can.

After opening the first package I realized that packaged bees are angry bees! I suppose if you’d been abducted from your home, unceremoniously dumped into a cage with a Queen Mother you didn’t know and trucked across the country on an epic 2 or 3 day journey, you’d probably be grumpy too! Go figure. But after being dive bombed by angry bees and having one or two persistent girls crawl up under my veil I decided it was best to do the remaining installations as quickly and efficiently as possible!

It was better to remove the staples holding the plastic tab that was attached to the Queen-cage inside the package BEFORE removing the feeder-can. Then use your hive tool to pry the can up so that you can grab hold of and remove it. Be sure to hang onto that plastic tab so as not to lose your Queen down inside the package!

I took the Queen cage out and placed the wooden plate back over the hole to prevent my workers from escaping before I was ready for them and slid the package back a bit on the hive so that I had just enough room to reach down between the frames in the hive-box. Then I removed the cork from the Queen cage and smushed the cage (with the screen parts facing up and down so as not to suffocate the Queen inside!) into the comb of one of the frames in the hive-box. Push that frame with the cage smushed into it up against it’s neighbor to help support the Queen cage so that gravity doesn’t land the cage on the floor of the hive.

Next I took the package with the 3 pounds of worker bees, placed the wooden plate aside and dumped the bees down into the opening where the missing frames should be. Knock the package from side to side a couple of times to get the bees out of the corners of the package, then set the package aside. Replace the 1 or 2 frames you’d set aside earlier and close it up!

I tried to be fairly quick with the installation of the workers. Having everything ready to go allowed me to have them from the package to enclosed within the hive in just 2 or 3 minutes.

how to install packaged bees
Post-installation it took a while for the bees to settle down. You can kind of see the bees in the air around that second hive from the left.

At first it looked as though one of the hives might abscond; while the others seemed to settle right in, there were so many bees in the air around this particular hive that it looked alarmingly like a swarm to me. I waited patiently nearby to see what they would do and after 15 minutes or so they had quieted down enough that I was no longer concerned.

I went back through and added syrup feeders to each hive: a medium box above the inner cover and a mason-jar with a perforated lid filled with 1:1 sugar-syrup, and the telescoping cover on top of all that.

If you are installing your packages onto un-drawn foundation you absolutely must feed your bees to ensure they have the resources they need in order to make wax and build combs so that the Queen can begin to lay eggs. Even with drawn combs like mine, it’s best to feed those bees to stimulate egg-production and ensure the new colony has all the resources it needs to grow.

newly installed packages
I placed the packages in front of their hives when I was finished, so that any stragglers still inside could eventually crawl up into their hives.

And just like that we had new bees at work in the apiary! Yay! #beesrock!

There are many ways to install packaged bees; this was how I did it. Have questions? Sage words of advice? Feel free to leave a comment below!

3 Reasons To Go Foundationless In Your Langstroth Beehive

foundationless bee-frame

It’s going on 5 years now that I’ve been using foundationless frames in my Langstroth hives, and I’ve come to swear by the method. Mainstream beekeeping dictates the use of foundation in hive frames to provide a structure for the bees to build their combs upon. However, I’ve found 3 reasons to contradict that way of thinking.

foundationless langstroth hives
The Runamuk Apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, Maine. August 2017.

I admit that going foundation-less in the Langstroth hive is somewhat controversial.  Old-school beekeepers believe that using foundation speeds up the comb-building process, or that you won’t be able to extract if you’re not using foundation. You hear people say that you’ll end up with a hive full of drones or that the bees like the foundation better.  Yet beekeepers employing the Top-Bar Hives have been going foundation-less for years with nothing but success, and I myself have been using this method in the Runamuk apiary going on 5 years now.

With all of this in mind, I’ve compiled 3 solid reasons to skip the foundation in your Langstroth hives.

#1. Avoid Contaminated Foundation

foundationless bee-frame
I sometimes run wire through the honey frames to give the comb added support.

Recent studies indicate that high levels of chemical pesticides are stored in the comb and even in the beeswax foundation of honeybee hives.  Since bees are effectively nature’s dust-mops, they pick up any insecticide or herbicide within the foraging radius of their colony.  Even beekeeper applied chemicals will be retained in the wax.

A beekeeper may choose to fore-go treatments in his or her hive, however they cannot control what the bees bring back with them from their foraging.  It is that precise reason that organic certification is so difficult to obtain for honey–unlike other livestock that a farmer can contain within fences, bees will travel between 2 and 4 miles in search of food, and even further if need be.

What’s more, commercial foundations are typically made from recycled wax, which can contain high levels of pesticide contamination as well.

#2. Natural Cell-Size

foundationless comb
This is foundationless comb that my girls are currently building–when they are finished with it, they will have filled the frame completely.

Standard foundation forces the bees to build cells at 5.4mm, in order to produce larger bees.  However bees will naturally build their cells to a size between 4.6mm and 5.1mm depending on what they intend to use it for.

It was about a hundred years ago that beekeepers started installing the larger-celled foundation in order to combat mites. They thought that bigger bees would be beneficial for a variety of reasons─from theoretically stronger immune systems to supposed increased production.  Now beekeepers are experimenting with small-cell foundation─same story, different type of mite.

FYI─small cell does not equal “natural” cell.

There is some speculation about natural cell-sizes aiding beekeepers in the fight against the varroa mite, though to my knowledge that has not been scientifically verified.

There are some who believe that allowing the bees to make their own comb will result in healthier bees, which makes some sense to me, since natural comb naturally means fewer introduced chemical pesticides, which can only mean healthier bees─but again, there is no scientific proof that I am aware of.

What we do know is that bees have been making comb on their own for thousands of years.  They know how to do it, and they will do it however they see fit, so why not let them?

#3. Save Money

foundationless honeybee comb
Every frame is a work of art and a feat in architecture!

I fully admit that money was a driving factor in my switch to foundationless frames. Beekeeping is an expensive venture, and my mission to utilize this niche to build my income from farming required me to consider alternative methods. Reducing expenses by skipping the foundation has allowed me to continue to grow my business, even on a bootstrap budget.

What’s more, sustainable farming methods strive to lower costs by reducing inputs from off site. Buying in, or even using my own wax to make foundation takes a lot of resources, and by skipping the foundation and allowing the bees to build their own combs I am able to save both time and money.

Try It Yourself!

Over the last few years I’ve found that it doesn’t take the bees any longer to construct comb on the foundationless frames than it does for them to build it on the wax or plastic foundations. I also discovered that foundationless frames are not really any more fragile than those bearing foundation. It is still possible to extract honey from them, but you should be especially gentle when extracting from combs less than 1 year old.

For the first couple of years going foundationless, I wired all my frames to give them additional support, but then I stopped wiring the deep frames used in the brood nest since those do not typically go through the extractor anyway. Now I don’t even wire my honey frames and I’ve found that once the bees have filled the entire frame with comb, it’s generally sturdy enough to withstand the extracting process without the extra support.

So much of what honeybees are exposed to is unavoidable that I feel really good about reducing pesticide levels in my hives and creating a healthier environment for my girls, even if it is only on a small level. But you don’t have to take my word for it; try it yourself and see what you think of foundationless frames in your Langstroth hive.

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Runamuk Apiaries in Maine has 3 solid reasons to consider going foundationless in your Langstroth hives; check it out!

How To Make Pollen Patties

pollen-patties-for-beehives

Not every beekeeper needs to use pollen patties on their hives. Here in Maine there is an abundant supply of pollen in the fall and our bees are able to store enough for the colony’s purposes through the winter, until fresh pollen is again available in the spring. Unless you’re planning to make early season splits or raise your own Queens, or if you’re building up in preparation for commercial pollination─you probably don’t need to use pollen patties at all.

how to make pollen pattiesOn the other hand, if you’re seeking to grow your apiary and make hive increases─then you might be looking to boost bee populations to be able to do that. Feeding bees pollen stimulates brood production: an enriched diet causes nurse bees to secrete lots of royal jelly, which spurs them to prepare cells for eggs and the Queen deposits them. If you time it right you can have a gang-buster colony that you can use to optimize your operation.

Note: For more info on what pollen patties are and why you might want to use them check out this article on the Maine Beekeepers’ website. For the purposes of this article, we will assume the reader is familiar with the pollen-patty and has performed his/her due diligence to learn why and how to use them. Also, take a look at this article by Randy Oliver over at Scientific Beekeeping; he did a comparative test of various pollen supplements compared to real pollen which is pretty informative reading.

Introducing Bee-Pro!

Bee Pro Pollen Substitute
Bee-Pro pollen substitute via Mann Lake.

The Bee-Pro pollen supplement offered by Mann Lake was recommended to me by beekeeping veteran Bob Egan of Abnaki Apiaries in Skowhegan, who was the Maine State Apiarist until he retired some years ago. Bob is a no-nonsense kind of guy─with a stern gaze, long white hair pulled back into a pony-tail that’s always under a ball-cap and a fabulously bushy gray mustache. He swears by the Bee-Pro pollen-sub and made a point to send me home with a sample of it last summer, saying the bees just crave it, they want it, they’re all over it as soon as you put it on the hive.

That’s high praise from one hardened beekeeper and good enough for me! We ordered a 50-pound bag of the stuff and are using it to make our pollen-patties this spring. Beekeepers who are seeking to significantly grow their apiaries can buy pollen-substitute in bulk to make their own patties and save money, since commercially prepared pollen-patties can be expensive. Making your own also means you’ll know exactly what went into the pollen patties that you’re feeding your bees.

Making the pollen patties

Step 1: Make sugar-syrup using a 1:1 ratio. I used a quart of water and a quart of sugar to make 2 quarts of liquid, but you can make smaller or larger batches using the same method. Allow the syrup to cool some before use. Just before using the syrup I added 2 teaspoons of Honey-B Healthy vitamin supplement to it and stirred it well to combine.

Step 2: In a large mixing bowl or a 5 gallon bucket (depending on the size of the batch you’re making) combine your pollen-supplement with the syrup to make a dough-like substance. The mixture should be similar to peanut butter cookie dough, or play-dough. Dry, but doughy.

Make Your Own Pollen Patties
I weighed out my dollops to .5lb each so that I could track each hive’s consumption.

Step 3: Place a large dollop of the dough in the center of a square of freezer paper. Sometimes the moisture from the pollen patties can soak through the waxed paper, causing it to tear easily. It’s a little more expensive than waxed paper, but the freezer paper holds up much better for storage and transport purposes. Place another piece of freezer paper over the dollop and flatten it some with your hand before taking a rolling pin to smooth and roll the patty out between the paper.

diy pollen pattties
For each patty I cut a 6 inch swatch off the roll of freezer paper, then cut that in half to make 2 pieces of paper.

Storage: Pollen patties don’t need to be kept refrigerated, but a cool, dry location is recommended. You can even freeze them for later use.

pollen patties for beehives
Ready for the bees!

Just remember that not every beekeeper needs to feed their colonies pollen supplements, and also that stimulating brood production early may mean you need to also feed more sugar-syrup to a bounding population. However, if you’re planning to make increases or Queens, or if you’re renting hives for pollination services and need strong colonies─then pollen patties might be a good option for you.

Have you ever made your own pollen-patties? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below for others to learn from!

Recommended Reading:

How to Make Pollen Patties – via Mudsongs.org

Feeding Bees Pollen-Patties in Early Spring – on the Maine State Beekeepers’ website.

A Comparative Test of Pollen Subs – from the Scientific Beekeeper, Randy Oliver.

 

How To Set Up Your First Beehive

how to set up your first beehive

Imagine you’re sitting at a four-way intersection, a red stop light hanging above you, while the hum of buzzing comes from a pair of rectangular wooden boxes strapped into the passenger’s seat next to you. The Nuc boxes–or nucleus colonies–contain more than 10,000 bees each.  Bees cling to, and crawl across the wire mesh stapled over the openings that prevents the insects from flying in and out of the boxes.  You can tell by the sound of their buzzing that they are agitated, frustrated that they are contained, unable to come and go as they please.

pkg pick up of new bees
Here I am with my packaged bees─in the car!

You can’t help but wonder what the drivers of the cars and trucks surrounding you would think if they knew that 20,000 bees or more sat so close at hand.  You imagine what the scene might look like if the unthinkable happened and there was an accident.  These thoughts are immediately followed by wondering if the wire mesh covering the entrances on the Nuc boxes is secure.  The light changes to green, and you gently edge the car out into traffic.

Driving down the road with thousands of stinging insects is one of life’s greatest thrills, I can’t even begin to imagine why everyone wouldn’t want to try it!  But before you can bring your bees home, there are a number of things you need to do to prepare for their arrival.

Select Your Apiary Location

choosing apiary location
Site your apiary in a location that will keep hives dry, buffered from the wind, and with good sun exposure.

When you’re trying to decide where to locate your apiary, consider the following carefully:

Nectar and pollen sources:  While honeybees will travel up to 3 miles or more in search of food, they prefer to have it easily accessible, within 300-500 yards of the hive.  There should be forage available to them in one form or another throughout the entire season–from early spring, through the fall.

Bees need water:  Just like every other living creature on the planet, bees need water to survive.  Not only do they drink water, but they also use it to reconstitute crystallized honey, and to make bee-bread–the mixture of honey and pollen which they feed their developing larvae.  If you don’t have a natural source of water nearby, such as a pond, or stream, consider placing a bird bath, or a 2-gallon dog waterer near the hives.

Exposure to sunlight:  Ideally your hives should be facing south, with a fair amount of southern exposure.  Yet at the same time, partial shade, or dappled sunlight can be a benefit to the hive during the height of the summer sun and heat.

Protection from wind:  Nestle hives up against shrubs, or at the edge of a forest; place them alongside a shed, garage, or other outbuilding so that colonies are protected from strong prevailing winds–this is especially important if you live in a climate where winter can send frigid gusting winds barreling down on your hives.

Keep hives dry:  Bees are susceptible to a number of fungal diseases which are promoted in wet conditions, so choose a spot for your apiary that is dry and offers good drainage during the spring thaw and prolonged periods of rain.  Also consider tilting the hives forward slightly so that condensation that builds up inside the hives runs out of the hive, rather than dripping down on the bees and brood nest.

Protect colonies from harmful pesticides:  Industrial farmers use insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides that all affect the health of honeybees in one way or another.  Even golf courses can pose a problem for your colonies.  If you live near such a threat, consider seeking an alternative location for your apiary, there are many landowners, homesteaders, or small farmers that would be more than happy to have you set up your apiary on their property.

Ease of access:  This is more for your benefit than that of your bees.  When you have your gear, tools, and equipment in tow, and you’re going to take honey off your hives in the heat of summer, you’ll appreciate being able to drive your truck to the apiary location.

Prepare your hives

assembling equipment for beehives
Assembling equipment yourself can help save money when making that initial investment into beekeeping.

Before you bring home your bees, your hives should be completely assembled and set up at the location you have chosen for your apiary.  All the frames should be put together, foundation inserted (if you’re using it), the exterior of your boxes should be painted (or not–depending upon your principles), and you should have settled the hive components in place upon the foundation of your choice.

A note about hive foundations:  Beekeepers use hive foundations to raise hives up off the ground to keep them dry.  You can use just about anything to serve as your foundation–from the commercially prepared types available from suppliers like Brushy Mountain, to cement blocks, logs, wooden pallets, or tires.

Also note that you will begin your hive with only one deep brood box, since bees grow their hives from the bottom up, and you will not add the second box until the bees have drawn and filled at least three-quarters of the frames in that first box.  The same goes for the honey supers–you will not add a super until the second box has been almost completely filled.  This prevents the bees from creating misshapen combs.

Packaged Bees vs. Nucs

starting a beehive_packaged bees vs nucs
Consider the Pros and Cons of each before investing!

Typically packaged bees are imported from the south (unless, of course, you’re in the south-lol), and come in 2, 3, or 5 pound packages.  You can get them with or without a Queen–beekeepers sometimes invest in a Queenless package of bees to strengthen weak hives in the spring.  Basically, these are the bees and that’s it.  Packages are ideal for beekeepers who have lost bees during the winter, and have drawn combs leftover from previous hives.

nucs arriving
Nucs arriving!

Nucleus colonies, or Nucs, are essentially a colony in miniature.  A box–either waxed cardboard or wooden–containing 3, 4, or 5 frames filled with brood (the bee larvae in all stages), worker bees and their egg-laying Queen, along with pollen and honey to sustain the tiny colony.  Often these are colonies that are started late in the previous summer, are overwintered, and are ready for a rapid population increase to build up into a new hive with the start of the spring nectar flow.

Nucs are relatively easy to establish. The downside is that it’s easier to transfer pests and diseases from one apiary to another this way–partly because there’s no way for you to inspect your Nuc when you go to pick it up (and often new beekeepers will not know what to be looking for anyway), but partly because the sale of Nucs is not regulated by officials.  Also, beekeepers who sell Nucs often use them as a way to unload their old combs, which should be swapped out every 5 years.  And finally, Nuc strength can vary from one to the next, and there’s no way for you to know what you’re getting when you take a Nuc home.

Installing Packaged Bees

packages waiting installation
Packaged bees awaiting installation.

When you pick up your packaged bees you should first inspect the package.  While some mortality is normal, half-an-inch of dead bees or more at the bottom of the package is not normal.  Protect the package from direct sunlight, and store them in a cool dry place until you’re ready to install them.  Be sure to feed your bees–a simple solution of sugar-syrup (a 1 to 1 ratio of sugar to water), in a spray bottle works well–mist the sides of the package and allow the bees to clean it off.  Install your packaged bees later in the day to prevent them from flying away from an unfamiliar hive, and do so within 48 hours of bringing them home.

There are 2 methods for installing packaged bees:

Method A

Allow the bees to exit on their own:  Firstly, plug the entrance with grass to prevent bees from flying away, then open the package.  Take out the Queen cage, remove the cork on the cage and pierce the candy blocking her exit using a toothpick.  Affix the Queen cage to the face of your drawn comb if you have it; if you’re beginning your packaged bees on foundation, simply place the Queen cage next to a frame containing the wax foundation.  In either case you should shake a couple of handfuls of bees onto the Queen cage so that she has plenty of attendants to tend her, and free her from the cage, then settle the package inside the hive in the center and close up the hive.

Method B

Install by shaking:  Spray the bees in the package with sugar-syrup to prevent them from being able to fly away, then remove the feeder can to open the package.  Take out the Queen cage, and tend to her in the same manner as described in method A, then gently shake all of the bees into the hive.

In either case, you should feed your bees sugar-syrup–especially so if you are installing your bees on foundation.  Bees need a strong nectar flow underway, along with lots of new, young bees (since it is at this stage of their lives that bees are able to produce wax), to build their combs.  And because drawn comb is necessary both for the Queen to lay eggs in, and for the foragers to store nectar and pollen in, your new colony cannot sufficiently increase in numbers until they have combs to work with.

Installation of Nucs

When you get your nucleus colony home, place the Nuc box directly on top of your assembled hive and immediately remove the screens covering the entrances.  The bees will begin to emerge from the box and you will see them alight, circling the air above the hive in what is known as an “orientation flight”, which allows the bees to determine the location of the hive in accordance with the position of the sun.  This enables the bees to find the hive when they are returning from the field with nectar and pollen.

You can leave the Nuc for 24 to 48 hours, or longer if the weather does not cooperate, and they will be perfectly fine coming and going from their miniature colony.  Keep in mind though, that some nucleus colonies are going to be stronger than others, and if you should see the bees “bearding” or hanging off the front of the box, you should take action to move the bees into their new home to give them more space to expand.

To transfer the bees from the Nuc box to the hive you’ve prepared, remove 3-5 frames from the center of the hive, open the Nuc box (wearing appropriate gear, and using your smoker as you would in any beekeeping situation), and carefully transfer the frames from the Nuc to the new hive.

inspect your nucleus colonies
Examine each frame as you install your nucleus colonies.

Take this opportunity to inspect the condition of the Nuc you’ve received–does it contain larvae in all stages of development? (eggs, grubs, and capped pupa)  Do the bees have frames containing both pollen and honey?  If you see anything out of the ordinary, or suspect a problem, you should contact your bee-supplier immediately.

Otherwise, place the frames from the Nuc box into the hive in the same order in which you found them–directly in the center of the hive.  Depending on the number of frames of brood your Nuc contains (ie – 3 or more) you may be able to insert an empty frame–or a frame of foundation–in between the brood, or between a frame of honey/pollen and the brood nest, to encourage your bees to begin building comb there.  However if you have less than 3 frames of brood, it is best not to break them up, to allow the worker bees to maintain the temperatures needed for the baby bees to mature.

When you’ve transferred the frames into the hive, check the inside of the Nuc box to make sure the Queen has not been left behind.  If you do not see her hanging out in the box, go ahead and close up the hive, but leave the Nuc box either on top of the hive, or on the ground in front it for another 24 hours so that any stragglers can join the rest of their colony.

Installation Follow Up

Once you’ve moved your bees into their new home, you can leave them alone for 5-9 days, with the exception of feeding.  At that point go examine them briefly.  Mainly you’re looking to see that the Queen is alive and well, and doing what she’s supposed to be doing–laying lots of new eggs.

If you installed packaged bees, with a Queen in a cage, make sure that she has been released from that cage, and if she has not, go ahead and remove the screen at this time, and let her crawl out of the cage onto a frame so that she can get to work.

In the case of nucleus colonies, simply look for new eggs, and you will know that your Queen is alive and thriving, offer the colony more space and frames as needed to fill up their first and second brood boxes.

Feeding Hives

feeding bees_top view
Feeding bees through the inner cover allows them easy-access even on cool days or in increment weather.

This can be a controversial topic at the meeting of your local beekeepers’ group (I know it is at ours!).  Some beekeepers have sugar available to their colonies throughout the year in one form or another, while other beekeepers refuse to put sugar on their hives at all, even if it means starvation for the colony.

Personally, I try to avoid using sugar if I can, even if it means that I will get less honey.  However, if my bees are at risk of starving to death, I will feed them organic cane sugar to see them through til the nectar begins to flow again.

And at the same time, feeding is especially critical for packaged bees on foundation who cannot begin to even build up their population until combs are established.

If you should decide to feed your bees there are a variety of methods available.  I suggest that beekeepers do their homework, and make the choice that best suits them, their principles, and the needs of their bees.

Go get your bees!

You’ll suddenly be filled with excited anticipation–and probably no small amount of trepidation–when you finally get the call from your bee-supplier that your bees are ready for you to pick up.  Take a deep breath!  Go over all your preparations one last time to ensure that everything is in order, and then go get your bees.

how to set up your first beehive
Fully established bee colony.

I truly believe that the growing numbers of backyard and homesteading beekeepers is vital to the survival of pollinators.  The relationship between plant and pollinator has made our planet what it is today, and that relationship is at risk.  By taking up the art of beekeeping, more and more people are coming to realize that these are more than mere stinging insects.  There is a world of marvel that most of us never notice because they are small and we are big, because society has deemed insects “icky” and many of us shudder at the thought of getting close to a “bug”.  But beekeeping opens our eyes to the beauty of pollination, we begin to see insects in a new light–suddenly we see the magnificent color, shape, and characteristics of the beneficial insects all around us.  We realize that we are part of this intimate relationship that plants have with their pollinators.

Good luck on your beekeeping journey!  The world is a beautiful place!

how to set up your first beehive

Putting the buzz in Johnny’s catalog

2017-johnny's-selected-seeds-catalog

It’s at this time of year─when the growing season for most farmers and gardeners is behind us and the world has become brown and drab, the days are short and the dark of night stretches long as winter descends upon us in full force─that we look forward to receiving all of the vibrant seed catalogs in our mailboxes. Those catalogs generate hope and excitement in every gardener as contained within the pages are new opportunities for the upcoming year.

2017-johnny's-selected-seeds-catalog
Photo credit: Joe Parker, Logistics Analyst at Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

At Johnny’s Selected Seeds we’re gearing up for another busy season in the Call Center. If you’re a customer of Johnny’s you may be looking for your 2017 catalog. We get a lot of compliments from growers who are impressed with the amount of information that is included within the pages and we are always happy to hear how much people appreciate that effort. The folks at Johnny’s are very proud of the annual publication; a lot of work goes into the thing and it takes a whole team to bring the catalog full circle from concept to publishing.

And yet there’s always room for improvement, so when the marketing team began gearing up back in June to put together the 2017 catalog they asked employees from all departments if there were any suggestions for changes to the catalog that we wanted to offer up. Being a devout beekeeper and pollinator conservationist naturally I suggested that there should be a symbol included for pollinator-friendly plants.

Note: Johnny’s includes numerous category symbols in their catalogs to help identify various characteristics of their products. There’s a symbol for certified organic seed, one for heirloom varieties, a symbol for cold tolerant crops-etc etc. You can also look up products on the Johnny’s website using those categories. 

I wasn’t alone in that request either. We’re getting more calls every year from home gardeners and farmers alike who want to help bees in small and large ways. They want flowers to attract bees, cover crops for beneficial insects, and they want to know about bee-friendly pesticides and growing methods. The people at Johnny’s listened and feel the same way. Advocates from the Call Center and from the Johnny’s research farm lobbied for some kind of symbol for pollinators or beneficial insects.

And the company agreed! I am so ecstatic! In their 2017 catalog Johnny’s Selected Seeds is adding an “Attracts Beneficial Insects” symbol!

attracts-beneficial-insectsAdding a bee-symbol to a seed-catalog to identify varieties as good for beneficials may seem fairly innocuous─like adding a beekeeper to the staff─but little changes add up over time. There is something we all can do. It doesn’t matter how small the contribution, every act counts. I really do believe that we can be the change. I’ve seen it first-hand. The more we do for ourselves, the more we are able to do. People around us see that and begin to think maybe they can do it too. It’s infectious! And the whole thing will just snowball until suddenly it’s an avalanche of change.

As you look through your Johnny’s catalog this winter look for the bee-symbol next to the seed varieties and try to add a few of these to your order. Including food and habitat for beneficial insects in your gardens and crop-fields will not only help your local pollinators, but also helps increase habitat for your garden allies─the predatory insects that help to keep the pest populations down. Many of these kinds of plants are also edible, or add nutrients to your soil, providing you with multiple functions for your sustainable landscape.

So plant flowers. Plant herbs. Plant cover-crops. Let bolting lettuce go to flower. And when you call Johnny’s to place your order this year, please tell them Runamuk sent you and that you love the new beneficial-insects symbol in the catalog!

Feeding Bees in the Fall

feeding beehives syrup in the fall

feeding bees in the fallIt’s that time of year when beekeepers are ramping up winter preparations for their beehives. We’re inspecting hives for colony strength, putting entrance reducers and mouse-guards on hives, applying mite treatments and feeding to ensure colonies have adequate stores to overwinter on.

I have 15 hives going into winter and some of them are incredibly heavy with bees and honey stores, but others are still alarmingly light. To prevent the bees from starving during the long Maine winter I’m feeding my colonies.

Read more about preparing your beehives for winter.

fall nectar sources
Japanese knotweed is a great fall nectar source.

Here in Maine we’ve been struggling with drought conditions all season long, which meant that the flowers were not producing much nectar if any at all. It wasn’t until the tail end of August and the beginning of September when the goldenrod and Japanese knotweed came into bloom that there seemed to be anything available for the bees to collect. I held off a bit on fall feedings to ensure the colonies were filling their combs with honey first, which is the ideal food for bees.

Last week though I opted to put the syrup on the hives in order to make certain there’s enough time for the bees to process the syrup and turn it into honey while the temperatures are still warm enough for them to do so. Excess water in the honey can cause dysentery and may lead to nosema in colonies, so ensuring proper processing of stores is vital. I asked Peter Cowin, Maine’s reknown Bee Whisperer, what the cut-off point for fall-feeding is and he said that he recommends hives be full by mid-October.

Generally the MSBA advises beekeepers to have 65-70lbs of honey stores on their hives going into winter; that’s with a 2-deep hive body configuration. Mike Palmer of French Hill Apiaries devotes 2-deeps and a medium to his hive bodies and says he prefers his hives to weigh in at at least 160 lbs (read more about Mike Palmer’s methods for overwintering hives in the north).

Mike has a scale that he uses to weigh his hives and he simply tips them over onto the scale to determine their weight, but if─like me─you do not own a scale you can gauge the weight by counting the frames of capped honey. Typically a deep frame will hold about 8lbs of honey, while a medium will hold about 6.

feeding beehives syrup in the fall

making bee syrupFall sugar-syrup for feeding honeybees is made at a 2:1 ratio. That’s two parts sugar to every 1 part water. We were able to avoid heating the syrup on the stove earlier in the year when we were making syrup at a 1:1 ratio, but with this much sugar it’s more easily dissolved if it’s heated on the stove. Once it cools we then pour it into gallon jugs to transport it out to the apiaries.

For more info about making syrup or candy for feeding bee colonies check out the MSBA’s online article.

Thmason jar feederere are numerous methods for feeding sugar-syrup, including the boardman-feeder, the plastic division feeders, pail feeders and baggie feeders. At this point I still prefer my mason jar feeders, which is a quart mason jar with a perforated lid that I’ve made. I simply place the filled jar upside-down on the opening of the inner cover and inside a medium or deep super (depending on what I have available). This method makes it easy to access and refill the jars when necessary without having to be too invasive.

The goal is to ensure the hives have enough food to sustain them during their long winter incarceration. At this point in the season time is running out, so if you haven’t performed fall inspections I strongly encourage you to make it happen because once the temperatures drop you won’t be able to get in your hives to correct any issues or deficiencies. All too often in beekeeping and farming timing is critically important, and this is definitely one of those times.

Swarm!

honeybee swarm

A swarm of bees is a beautiful thing. A veritable cloud of bees all flying in every direction as they search for a pace to land their Queen. They choose a spot and form a protective ball around Her; a mass of bees with only one goal in mind: finding a new home.

I didn’t even see the swarm until I got into the hives yesterday for inspections. I began with the strongest of my hives and looked in their honey super only to be disappointed that they had scarcely touched the thing. Wondering why this hive─which had been so productive all spring─was not filling the combs with honey, I set the box aside and dug deeper.

This particular hive is made up of 3 deep boxes, as I am adopting Mike Palmer’s method for larger hive populations. Mike’s theory was that providing a third box─either a medium or a deep─allows the colony more space for honey storage or brood rearing and can lead to larger, more populous hives that are more productive and so make more honey. Makes sense to me!

The next deep box had been filled with honey and it was heavy! I set the box aside on top of the honey super and then did the same with the second deep; I wanted to get to the bottom box where the brood nest should be.

I tipped that bottom box over so that I could look along the underside of the frames without completely tearing the thing apart. It’s a less invasive way of looking for swarm cells.

Sure enough there were several peanut-shaped swarm cells, neatly opened and abandoned by new Queens. I set the box back in place on the bottom board and pulled several frames out for a closer look. Immediately I could see that the ratio of drones to workers was off, and there were no new eggs in the brood nest. All of these things are indicators that this hive had swarmed recently.

Swarming is a natural occurrence. It’s how bees reproduce. The bees raise themselves a new Queen─usually several─and a large portion of the colony leaves the hive, taking the old Queen with them. At one point beekeepers believed swarming was a good thing─a sign of a strong and healthy hive; now we realize that swarming is an indication of mismanagement.

After losing all 6 of my hives in the winter of 2014-2015 to a combination of mite-pressure and harsh winter conditions, I’ve been fairly diligent with the hives these last couple of years. This spring I’ve been in and out of the hives every 7-10 days looking for swarm cells, making sure the colonies have enough space, that their Queens are laying and that everyone is looking healthy. But swarming is a natural bee-instinct, and sometimes a hive is so determined to swarm that there’s just no way around it.

Disappointed I looked around the bee-yard and happened to spot a large dark mass on one of the birch trees across the way. Had that tree always looked like that? From fifty feet away the mass rather resembled the black knot fungal disease that often afflicts chokecherry trees. But this was not a chokecherry, it was a beautiful young birch tree. Maybe it was a large piece of chaga? I’d recently learned of this mushroom from Chance Gonyer of Collective Roots Farm, who is a seasonal employee and a colleague of mine from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I’ve spotted several chaga mushrooms in the forests around Runamuk, but I did not recall seeing the fungus on any of the birches that surround the apiary.

honeybee swarmI had my suspicions though and went over for a closer look.

Sure enough it was a large mass of bees on that birch tree! My heart jumped up into my throat and then began racing as my mind worked through the possibilities. Could I reach them? Could I actually successfully capture the swarm?

I’ve caught a few in the past, but I’ve also lost a few. If the swarm is too high up in the tree and there’s no good way to get at them, sometimes you just have to accept the fact that you can’t catch them and then watch helplessly as they sail over the tree tops to disappear into the forest.

This swarm was up just high enough to be out of my reach, but still low enough that I could probably reach them with a ladder. So I ran across the road to the house, smoker still in-hand to look for equipment.

My preferred tools for swarm catching are a 5-gallon bucket and a spare veil to cover it with, but I also grabbed a frame-brush─since this swarm was all up and down the side of a tree─a nuc-box and a spare frame of comb. I fetched the step-stool from the barn (because I don’t actually own a ladder at present) and hauled everything, still with the smoker in one hand, back to the apiary.

I sidled up to the copse of birch trees and set the step-stool as close to the offending tree as I could get. Smaller saplings and brambles made it difficult to get at, the ground was uneven and my veil seemed more of a hindrance than a help as branches smacked me in the face and threatened to pull the gear off my head. But I climbed up on the the step stool with my equipment and proceeded to sweep the swarm off the tree and into the bucket (or onto my head for those who didn’t fall where I wanted them to). Then I jumped down and dumped the bees from the bucket into the waiting nuc box with it’s single frame of comb.

I put the cover on as the bees who didn’t make it into my bucket took to the air once more. I waited, watching the nuc to see if those bees remained or took flight to join the others. If I caught the Queen they would stay and the others would eventually join them in the nuc-box. If I did not catch the Queen they would all land in a new spot, and then the question would be could I reach them for a second attempt?

I stood in the sun watching as the several thousand bees filled the air, going every which way, admiring the spectacle. Prior to leaving the parent colony bees fill their stomachs with honey─the only resource which they can carry to their new home─so there is little fear of being stung by swarming bees because if they were to do so that most precious resource would be lost. And it really is quite a sight to see.

honeybee swarm_attempt 2They gathered on the V of a branch on another birch tree further towards the back of the bee-yard, some 12-15 feet up. And checking the nuc where I’d dumped the first round, sure enough it was empty once more. I would have to make a second attempt.

So I trekked across the road once more and came back with a pruning saw, which has a long telescoping handle and a bit of a hook that I could set the handle of the 5-gallon bucket into. In this manner I raised the bucket up under the swarm and knocked the branch so that the swarm fell into the bucket (as well as onto my head!). I lowered the bucket, covered the top with a spare veil and went to dump the bees into the nuc box.

Meanwhile the remainder of the swarm gathered once more in the same spot and fearing that I had not caught the Queen I hoisted my pail back up for a third try. This time when I went to lower the bucket the handle slipped off the hook on the pruning saw and came crashing down. Now I’d pissed the bees off and one of them actually stung me on the neck before I decided to take a break and let them settle.

When I do any significant amount of work in the apiary I load my equipment and gear into my Subaru wagon and drive it across the road to park in the bee-yard. So when I take a break between hives I can sit with the hatch open and drink water, make notes, and let the bees settle a bit before I go at it again.

After 5-10 minutes I went to look at the nuc box again and was encouraged to find bees still in the box. The cluster of bees remained up on the tree branch, but these ones were not leaving to join them, so it seemed as though I’d caught the Queen. Not one to count my chicks before they’ve hatched, I placed the nuc box on a nearby hive-bench and hoped for the best.

I resumed my hive checks and an hour and a half later as I packed up I gave the swarm-nuc one more check: there were still bees in it, coming and going as good bees should. It was safe to say that I’d caught the swarm and their Queen.

In the evening, after closing the chicken coop in the barn for the night, my partner Paul, and I checked the apiary one more time. We found the cluster of bees on the tree branch had dispersed. Either they had joined their swarm in the nuc-box, or they had returned to their original parent-colony. All was well in the apiary and I was feeling pretty good about myself.

Looking back over my notes, I realized that I had not actually opened that particular hive 7-10 days prior. I had only looked in the top to see how much space they had in that honey-super, and seeing that they had plenty of empty combs to fill I’d let them alone. In retrospect, that deep box full of honey had likely created something of a barrier in their bee-minds, and if I had instead placed that honey-super between the brood nest and that deep, perhaps the colony would not have felt the urge to swarm.

But as I said before, sometimes even if you do everything right, a hive will still swarm. It’s just the nature of bees─like other every living creature─to reproduce.