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A Beekeeping Diary

Of Earthquakes and Hurricanes

Corinne Anthony headshotWhat a week it was! It started with an earthquake and ended with a hurricane. Then we were without power for five days. The bees, however, seemed to take it all in stride.

I never expected a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in rural Virginia, but there it was. I was inside the house when the ground rumbled like a huge truck was driving by. Then the chandelier started to sway, and I could hear the glasses in the cupboard clinking. Outside, the bees took no notice.

I was more worried about the predicted wind and rain associated with Hurricane Irene when it roared up the East coast. The master beekeeper who provides guidance at our monthly beekeeping club meetings sent around an advisory by e-mail several days prior to the storm.

At that time the winds were projected to be in excess of 110 kts at times, which was much more severe than we’d had in a long time.  “Winds at that strength can really cause problems with our hives, and it is in our best interest to prepare the hives as well as possible before the onslaught,” he wrote.

He advised us to secure our hives to their stands by using a ratchet strap, or tightly pulled line.  The theory is that if the hive bodies are tightly bound, they stand a better chance of not separating even if they do blow over.  Then he suggested adding extra weight on top of the hives, like heavy concrete pavers and blocks.The lighter the hive, the higher the probability is of it turning over in high winds.

My one hive just sits on a couple of loose concrete blocks, so I was plenty worried. I rummaged down in the basement and found a tie-down strap of some type and tied it roughly around the hive body. Then I placed two concrete blocks on top. It wasn’t the prettiest of set-ups, but I hoped it would be serviceable. Then I waited.

By the next morning it began to drizzle. By afternoon, it became a downpour, the wind started to pick-up and the electricity went off. It was a long night of howling wind.

But by morning Hurricane Irene was gone, and I was relieved to see just a few limbs down on my property. My bees were also spared. I think they were more ticked by the rain that followed off and on the whole following week. The wet weather prevented the forager bees from making their rounds amid the smattering of fall-blooming flowers. 

The autumn nectar flow is much smaller than the spring’s supply. We have goldenrod, wild aster and a wild flowering clematis, but not a lot else in my part of the state. I continue to feed the bees their sugar water and will do so as late as I can before the weather becomes frigid.

Some of you have wondered about the cost of getting into beekeeping. I’ll give you full details in my next posting. But here’s a small preview: Like most hobbies, it’s going to cost you money, not make you money. You do it because you enjoy it.

More in my next posting. 

Beginning Beekeeping: Bees Do What Bees Do

Corinne Anthony headshotTime has passed since I wrote my first post, and I’m happy to tell you that my second queen bee has been laying eggs successfully, increasing the bee population in my hive. And here’s how I know!

From the time a queen bee lays an egg, to the time a fully-formed bee emerges from its capped comb, takes 21 days. I took off a month to head north and get out of the hellacious summer of Virginia. During that time, a gracious (and brave) neighbor fed sugar syrup to my bees every other day.

My colony of bees was small and reigned over by a young queen. The life expectancy of a worker bee is six weeks or less when they are actively foraging for nectar. By the first week of July, the nectar and pollen flow slows down to a snail’s pace. There’s not much blooming in mid-summer. I needed my queen to lay eggs and lay fast. So to make it less stressful for the bees, they got their sugar water from a simple feeder.

The feeder is a quart jar with tiny holes pricked in the cap. When set upside down in its wooden stand, the bees are able to enter through an opening and reach the syrup oozing out the holes. The recipe is one part sugar dissolved in one part hot water, with a tablespoon of wine vinegar mixed in. This “bee brew” is the best formula for stimulating egg laying.

Bee at feeder
Chow time at the bee feeder. 

Upon my return home, I needed to open up my hive and check out how all was going. It had been a hot spell, and I thought it would be best to do my inspection early in the day, before the heat became too intense. First mistake!

There were a LOT of bees in the hive. The forager bees had not headed out in search of nectar yet.

I was too complacent about my protective garb. Second mistake!

Up to this point, the bees had been so docile because they had little to guard. I neglected to tie the cords around my pant legs. I failed to wear a long sleeve shirt under my gloves, so bare skin was visible through the mesh ventilation cuffs.

And then I skipped lighting my smoker. Third mistake!

The smoker creates a smoky mist by burning either store-bought inflammable fuel or tinder-dry leaves off the ground. When puffed out over the bees, it masks the scent of the hive, temporarily confusing them so they remain calm.

So, thus ill-prepared, I took the top off the hive, pried off the inner cover and started to check out the individual frames of comb in the top box. The bees were not pleased.

Suddenly I was surrounded by mob of angry bees. My face was protected, but not my arms where the mesh was. Then I became aware that bees were climbing up my legs. I was getting stung! After all, bees do what bees do!

I threw the tops back on the hive and ran like the wind, whooping and hollering, and swatting bees left and right! I must have looked pretty funny.

When my escape was complete, I surveyed the carnage. I’d killed a number of bees in my flight, and with 15 stings on my arms and legs, that meant 15 more dead bees. Oh, the humanity! I shall not make that mistake again.

On the other hand, I can certainly say I now have an active hive. Tomorrow I shall try opening up the hive again. You can be sure I’ll be dressed appropriately and properly equipped.

I’ll keep you posted!

New bees bringing home the goodies
New bees, bringing home the goodies. 

Bees Do What Bees Do!

 Corinne Anthony headshot 

 It’s been an number of weeks since I wrote my first posting. I’m happy to tell you that my second queen bee has been laying eggs successfully, increasing the bee population in my hive. And here’s how I know!

From the time a queen bee lays an egg, to the time a fully-formed bee emerges from its capped comb, takes 21 days. I took off a month to head north and get out of the hellacious summer of Virginia. During that time, a gracious (and brave) neighbor fed sugar syrup to my bees every other day.

My colony of bees was small and reigned over by a young queen. The life expectancy of a worker bee is six weeks or less when they are actively foraging for nectar. By the first week of July, the nectar and pollen flow slows down to a snail’s pace. There’s not much blooming in mid-summer. I needed my queen to lay eggs and lay fast. So to make it less stressful for the bees, they got their sugar water from a simple feeder.

The feeder is a quart jar with tiny holes pricked in the cap. When set upside down in its wooden stand, the bees are able to enter through an opening and reach the syrup oozing out the holes. The recipe is one part sugar dissolved in one part hot water, with a tablespoon of wine vinegar mixed in. This “bee brew” is the best formula for stimulating egg laying.

Upon my return home, I needed to open up my hive and check out how all was going. It had been a hot spell and I thought it would be best to do my inspection early in the day, before the heat became too intense. First mistake!

There were a LOT of bees in the hive. The forager bees had not headed out in search of nectar yet.

I was too complacent about my protective garb. Second mistake!

Up to this point, the bees had been so docile because they had little to guard. I neglected to tie the cords around my pant legs. I failed to wear a long sleeve shirt under my gloves, so bare skin was visible through the mesh ventilation cuffs.

And then I skipped lighting my smoker. Third mistake!

The smoker creates a smoky mist by burning either store-bought inflammable fuel or tinder-dry leaves off the ground. When puffed out over the bees, it masks the scent of the hive, temporarily confusing them so they remain calm.

So, thus ill-prepared, I took the top off the hive, pried off the inner cover and started to check out the individual frames of comb in the top box. The bees were not pleased.

Suddenly I was surrounded by mob of angry bees. My face was protected, but not my arms where the mesh was. Then I became aware that bees were climbing up my legs. I was getting stung! After all, bees do what bees do!

I threw the tops back on the hive and ran like the wind, whooping and hollering, and swatting bees left and right! I must have looked pretty funny.

When my escape was complete, I surveyed the carnage. I’d killed a number of bees in my flight, and with 15 stings on my arms and legs, that meant 15 more dead bees. Oh, the humanity! I shall not make that mistake again!

On the other hand, I can certainly say I now have an active hive. Tomorrow I shall try opening up the hive again. You can be sure I’ll be dressed appropriately and properly equipped.

I’ll keep you posted!
New bees bringing home the goodies
New bees, bringing home the goodies.

Bee at feeder
Bee at feeder outside the hive.
 

My Adventure in Beekeeping Begins

Corinne Anthony 

headshotMany people have asked me, “Whatever made you want to keep bees?”

My answer has been, “I just always wanted to.”

Of course, if I were really honest, I’d confess I had a romanticized idea of what beekeeping would be like. I envisioned myself out in a meadow of flowers, the wind softly blowing my long blonde tresses. (A real stretch, since I have short, salt and pepper hair.)

My bees would be buzzing sweetly around me, as I harvested my honey. I’d be dressed in a garb straight out of “Little House on the Prairie” – white cotton apron over a long calico skirt, and straw bonnet covered by a flowing veil.

In reality, today’s beekeeper is dressed in something akin to a haz-mat suit.

Modern Day Beekeeper 

My adventures in beekeeping began this past January when I signed up for an 8-week course in beginning beekeeping, given by the Northern Neck Beekeeping Club. The Northern Neck is a rural section of Virginia. I tell folks, we’re located where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay. I’m surrounded by farmland, small villages, and lots of creeks and rivers.

After the completion of the course, I waited impatiently for my three-pounds of bees and a queen to arrive. The arrival date was postponed five times. Something about cold, rainy weather and a tornado holding up bee production. Well, after all, bees are an agricultural product and do have a mind of my own. This was something I was soon to experience on a more personal level sooner that I expected.

Finally, the day arrived. The “bee wrangler” in Georgia, which is were most bees are raised on the east coast, made his trek up Route 95, dropping off packages of bees to expectant beekeepers all along the way. Our beekeeping club sent a duly-deputized member to pick up our order and distribute the boxes of buzzing bees at several geographically-strategic pick-up locations.

There are a number of different desirable breeds of bees in existence. Mine are Italians. They are by far the most common honey bee raised in the world, and are known for their quiet, gentle nature. I must admit, they do hum sweetly. At least that part of my romantic notion about beekeeping was true.

So after several days of letting the queen and her many “subjects” get to accustomed to each other, my bee “mentor” and I “shook” my bees into their new home.

My hive consisted of two hive boxes, each filled with eight frames of “foundation” comb. Foundation is a type of honeycomb-shaped mesh with a layer of beeswax brushed over it. It’s kind of a “starter” honeycomb.

On top of those two filled boxes, I placed an inner cover, which has a small opening cut out in the middle. On top of that, I put two empty boxes and some sugar-water in a jar to provide supplemental food while the colony established itself. An outer cover went on top, left slightly ajar by a small twig for better ventilation.

The queen comes in her own small cage, along with several bee “attendants,” who take care of her. On one end of the cage is a chunk of fondant candy and a plug. You pull out the plug and gently place the cage in the hive between two frames.

If all goes well, the bees will eat through the candy to release the queen within several days. This gives the colony even more time to accept their new queen. All the while, the queen gives off what’s called “pheromones,” a chemical substance released in the air. It is this substance that helps bind the colony together as a cohesive unit.

I’d like to say that all has gone well since that day, but it hasn’t. The queen successfully emerged from her cage, but when I went to check on my hive several days later, I took off the outer cover to a big surprise.  Most of the bees were in the top empty boxes where the food was, building their own comb hanging off the top of the lid.

“What are you doing?!” I asked my bees. “You’re supposed to be in the lower boxes, full of the nice comb I gave you!”

Apparently, my bees had started coming into the hive through the “back door,” the slightly-ajar outer cover. I could just imagine them saying to themselves, “Woo-hoo! Short-cut to the food!”

My bee mentor and I checked the rest of the frames, and saw the queen. Marked with a blue dot, she’s was fairly easy to find. But not much work was being done on the frames to “draw out” the comb with additional wax, and that’s what you need for the queen to lay eggs and honey to be stored.

So, we scraped the errant comb off the inside of the lid, removed the food and two empty boxes, and put the outer cover securely back on top of the two lower hive boxes. Then we placed the food on a box about two feet from the hive entrance.

It was a week later that we went back to inspect the hive and see how things were going. But search as hard as we could, we couldn’t find the queen. And there was no “brood,” beekeeping lingo for bee babies. This was not good.

“Where is she? What could have happened?” I whined.

All my bee mentor could suggest what that my queen suddenly felt cramped by the loss of the two upper empty boxes, and “swarmed.”

Swarms are the bane of a beekeeper’s existence. That happens when the colony decides they don’t have enough room, and half of them head out with the queen for new digs. My colony was now queen-less and half its original size. The remaining bees listlessly flew in and out of the hive.

Queenless hive 

What was I going to do? It’s not like you can go to the corner “queen bee store” and buy a replacement. And without a queen to lay eggs, my bees would soon die off, and all my time, money and effort would have been for naught.

But luck was with me. Several weeks earlier, a small batch of queen bees had been ordered by our club’s master beekeeper and instructor. They had just arrived THAT DAY! And there was ONE EXTRA!

By the next day, my new queen had been installed, and that’s where I am right now. I expect to go out and inspect my hive later this week. Hopefully, the queen will have eaten her way out of her cage, and is well on her way to laying eggs.

I’ll keep you posted!

Hive With Queen