26 Mar 2013

Where is the honey, honey?

This is a very silly season.  Normally at this time of the year I would expect lots of nectar coming from gum trees going into flower.  In the suburbs these would be local gums and also trees brought from WA or NSW.  On the farm there are grey boxes and ironbarks and now is their time.  Well, normally it is, but not this year, or at least not yet.

You might have heard on the news professional beekeepers lamenting lack of nectar.  The numbers I am getting from those weighing hives tell me the same story - nectar is nowhere to be found.  I was hoping for improvement with rains, but this is yet to happen.  On the farm we had 35mm of rain lately, but I have no clue where it went.  The soil is bone dry below the top 20 mm or so, with huge deep cracks that do not seem to close.  Few weeks ago hives started putting on weight but now it is all over - barely keeping steady.  I can see a few trees with flowers, but I guess that there may be very little nectar there.  Nectar production requires a lot of water.

To add insult to injury caused by draught, in the suburbs we have a plague of soldier beetles (Chauliognathus lugubris).  There nasties are around in plague proportions indeed.  According to Mrs. Google (and she knows best!), the adult beetles feed on nectar and pollen.  I can see them around in gigantic numbers.  There is a huge ironbark tree close to my home and now all covered in flowers.  The flowers, in turn, are all covered in these nasties.  I noticed that bees trying to access flowers avoid any with a soldier beetle on it. 

It seems that this is not a very good honey season indeed.  Unless the situation changes, it may be wise to be economical with harvesting.  Your bees need honey much more than you do and sugar is no substitute for the real stuff.

Foundationless Frames

To Foundation or Not to Foundation, that is the question. (Apologies to Bill.) With the introduction of the Langstroth Hive, using frames with foundation for the bees became standard practice. For commercial Apiarists of course the goal is to maximise honey production, so have a rugged frame that stands up to the rigors of mechanised extraction makes perfect sense. As does using foundation, sheets of beeswax with the cell matrix imprinted, also makes sense as it gives the bees a kick start in the production of honey storage cells.

However, bees don't produces all cells of equal size; drone cells are larger and brood cells are generally smaller. So is forcing the bees to build comb based on one size only actually productive or counterproductive. This is an ongoing discussion in bee keeping circles and you won't find the answer here. However I was pleasantly surprised to find some commercial bee keepers experimenting with foundationless frames.

Recently I and a few friends visited R & E Macdonald, Apiarists in Castlemaine, where Bob, the founder, spoke about foundationless frames, which he termed Stick Frames. Why Stick Frames I hear you ask ... (pause) ... because they insert a stick of wood in the middle of the frame for stability. The main challenge for foundationless frames when using mechanical extraction methods and the lack of support for the comb. This is overcome by placing the stick in the middle which not only provides support for the comb but strengthens the frame overall quite considerably.

The first shot shows the frame makeup, with the central stick at 45 degrees to
the frame as this creates the sharp edge for the bees to work to/from. A strip
of foundation is then inserted in the top to start the bees off, similar to what
Sarah mentioned the other night.

Another beekeeper with us stressed that the bees would start drawing from a
sharp edge, so that without that strip of foundation at the top, or some such
similar, the bees would start drawing from the edge of the frame itself thus
upsetting the central placement of the comb.

Shots 2-3 show more details, shots 4-5 show a full stick frame waiting to be

They paint the top of the stick frames Blue for easy recognition, and shot 6
shows a nuc box with stick frames. Whether those frames are new needing to be
built out or have been recycled with pre-built comb I am not sure - didn't look.

This pic - http://img138.imageshack.us/img138/6480/img5306v.jpg - is from a
chap in the US using the same technique, however, rather than starting with a
sliver of foundation at the top, he installs half-sticks at 45 degrees to supply
the starting edge for the bees.

7 Mar 2013

Nice bees, nasty bees

A few members reported recently problems with very aggressive colonies.  The subject is important and deserves broader comment.

Experienced beekeepers report that there are some colonies that are consistently nasty and aggressive - they will buzz out anyone coming near and sting at the smallest provocation or even without one.  But these are exceptions.  Any colony may become very aggressive, but do not put a "nasty colony" label on it after a single mishap.  Bee colonies are a bit like us - they have good days and bad days.  On a bad day ANY colony will be nasty.  The same colony, a few days later, may resemble a congregation of sweet little flying lambs.

A colony will easily become aggressive if it is facing a stress factor.  What could it be?  Not much to forage, an attack by wasps or robber bees, internal in-the-hive problems such as problems with wax moth larvae, bad (for them) weather coming etc. etc. I heard experienced beekeepers complaining that bees are very nasty when foraging on grey box trees.  I do not believe that nectar would make them nasty, but grey boxes flower very late in season when hardly any pollen is available.  Perhaps they were desperate for pollen to replenish their numbers reduced by heavy foraging - good enough (for me) reason for them to be stressed.

Stress factors may not always be visible to an observer.  I like to quote Michael Bush, a beekeeper not only with exceptional experience but also gifted with lots of common sense.  Here is his approach:

Sometimes a hive is cranky because of conditions, vandals throwing rocks, bees trying to rob them, etc.  I do the "three strikes you are out" method of deciding.  If I open a hive and they are cranky and I think they have cause (rainy, windy, late in the day etc.) then I don't count that.  If I don't think they have cause, I put a red push pin in the top box.  The next time I open them, if they are nice, I remove it.  If they are mean again, I add another push pin.  If they get to three, I requeen.  They should be allowed to have a bad day.  
The last sentence is worth remembering.  What to do if a colony is nasty?  First, realize the fact - bees buzzing you out angrily, "bombing" - flying straight into the veil as if trying to get through it, trying to sting gloves, getting all over you in pursuit of any chink in your armour.  If this is the case, call it a day, leave them alone and come back later.  The situation may be drastically different.  If you persevere, all you will get is stings.

Here is an interesting letter from a lady beekeeper:

Just my two cents....had an aggressive hive last year in my yard.  One time after checking on the hives, their reaction was more aggressive than normal.  They followed me 100 feet away, a dozen or so buzzing and banging into my veil.  Over a short time, my backyard become a "no go" zone in the daytime. The aggression escalated; they would fly over my house into the front yard and chase us. However, I noticed it was never more than a half a dozen or more.  Long story short, couldn't requeen them at my location but could no longer tolerate the aggression.  I very begrudgingly planned on killing the hive (dry ice), even set a date.  (I don't even kill spiders!)

A very trusted, LONG time beekeeper told me to leave them alone for a while and they would likely resolve their problem. Took her advice and they did resolve their issue within about 8 weeks.  They are a VERY honey productive hive and are now calm.  So glad I took the advice. 

 So if you face an angry colony, leave them alone and give them some time to recover.  And if they "get three red pins" as per Michael - re-queening is the only known remedy, but this is neither easy nor pleasant.