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When a Hobby becomes a Job!!!

Eleven or twelve years ago, I decided to purchase a couple of Nucs to start on a beekeeping journey. This is also when I decided it would be fun to see what all this “blogging” was about and started a beekeeping blog (this site!). It was great fun that first year, dealing with two hives and reporting some of my insane conclusions in those early days.

Of course, two weren’t enough, so I expanded to 4 in year two and believe I may have caught a swarm or two. By years 3 and 4, I was experimenting with every type of “bee increase” you could imagine (nucs, splits, raising queens, etc…) As the years went on, those first two hives became 80 hives. As with all of my hobbies, I eagerly took beekeeping over the edge!!!

It was not until last July, as I once again spent most of my free time on the Summer weekends either extracting a seemingly never ended pile of capped honey supers or running down various tasks in a multitude of beeyards, that everything became clear – I had once again turned a great, fun-loving hobby into a daggone job!!!

As I write this post, it occurs to me that my activity on this blog also dropped off substantially as the hive count rose. I enjoy running on here, on this blog. But, just managing the hives (along with family, work and so on) was preventing me from really enjoying this small bit of fun.

So, I have finally wizened up and realize that an ideal number of hives for me runs at two dozen, not 7!!! Therefore, this year I will begin to sell both Nucs and fully operational hives. I am hopeful of reducing my count over the next couple of years to something that is more of an enjoyable hobby than a full-time job! I plan to update the site with the relevant information shortly, regarding how to reserve a hive or nuc, costs and so forth.

Hopefully this is also a sign of more posts here, and more dialogue with fellow beekeepers across Virginia (and elsewhere.)

Beginner Frame Observations

A new beekeeper swung by to watch some of my misadventures in the bee yards and started off asking me what all the numbers on the frames were. At one end of an open hive, each frame has a number, right now ranging from 10 to 17. These numbers serve two purposes – primarily, they tell me the year that the frame went into production. “12” means that this frame “went live” in 2012. The wax is about that old and it helps me to identify which frames go to the wax melter each year (and are then filled with fresh foundation). I start removing frames in year 5 and absolutely have them recycled by year 10. The numbers also tell me the direction the frame is in – it helps me keep them oriented in the same direction they were before I started a deep inspection.

Medium Frame

A recycled frame

The next question the new beekeeper asked was about the wires that ran horizontally through the frame. That observation caused even me to pause and look at the frame. As noted back in 2012 (posted here), I have long since stopped wiring my frames. It has been so long that I never even think about it anymore (and I have long since recycled nearly all frames with this wire).

When I started beekeeping, everyone told me you had to run a wire through the frame horizontally. This would prevent the drawn wax from falling out of the frame on hot days. I dutifully (one could call it blindly:) followed their instructions and wired all of my frames, both Deeps and Mediums. All was good!

My beekeeping hives continued to expand and I was soon creating tons of new frames. This was taking a huge amount of time, so I purchased a frame jig and started using a nail gun. Bingo! Huge time savers! I experimented with different frame types and this cut even more time. Soon, the lion’s share of my time, for each frame, was spent wiring the daggone things. No matter where I looked, I found no easy (faster) solution to this. Finally, it dawned on me. Did I really need to wire these things? If ever there was something to experiment with, this was it. So, I started small – maybe 10 hives without wires. Let’s see what happened.

I am happy to report that I have not created a wired frame since 2013 and have not had a single instance of wax falling out of my frames. I do have wire embedded (vertically) in the foundation that I purchase and feel confident that this is the real reason that my drawn wax remains secure. I have only recently started to attend some of the local beekeeping association meetings again, so am unsure if “wiring” is still suggested to new beekeepers. I can only speak from my experience – wiring hives may have been a must have in the past, but they are no longer necessary for me.

I Need a Queen!

Over the last 24 hours, I have gotten a bit over an inch of much needed rain and more is in the future! Per usual, I will likely go from complaining about not enough rain to fretting about too much rain! It seems I am never satisfied with what Mother Nature dishes out:) Regardless, my Nucs are rocking and, with this rain, I am betting that I will have many very strong Nucs in 2 weeks. No doubt, I will have more than I currently have demand for and am likely to post to Craigslist soon! But, that’s a good problem to have so I am not complaining!

Over the past few days, between swarm calls, I have received a lot of calls and emails about queens. For one reason or another, folks always seem to be looking for queens this time of the year. Instead of launching into my typical spiel about sustainable beekeeping and that everyone should have at least one Nuc, I will point folks to a past spiel on that score (see http://richmondhoneybee.com/nucs/nuc.html). Today, I will talk about the supposed “queenless state”.

First, I will pass on a recent experience from a great lady out in the country where I have a very successful apiary on the James River here in Central Virginia. She began keeping bees a few years ago, purchasing a couple of Nucs from me and has been very dedicated to the hobby and doing it correctly. She was actively in her hives and noticed, in early April I believe, that one of her hives had no capped brood at all – not even drone brood. She found open queen cells, but nothing else. If you remember your bee math, this means that there has been no queen in that hive for possibly 24 days (drones hatch then). In my experience, a new queen (post swarm) is laying before all of the drones hatch, but it is possible to have a couple of days between a queen starting to lay and the last drone hatching, in cooler weather. She was fairly certain she was without a queen, so she dropped a frame of eggs (from a nearby, queen-right hive) into the troubling hive. I advised her to go back 3 weeks later to see if she had an open queen cell (the bees should raise a new queen within 14 to 16 days, if they were without one.)

Instead, she found several frames of capped brood and a thriving hive. What happened here? Even though it appeared that she did not have a queen, she actually did. The young queen was simply slow to get started and working on her own timeline, like they always do! The key here is that she had an available frame of eggs to put in the hive, just in case. It was simply insurance. It turned out she did not need it, but it was reassuring that she did.

The ability to maintain your hives under queens of local stock cannot be understated. Purchasing queens from out of state, from differing geographical regions, increases risk to your hives in my view and experience.

Wet and now Dry!

Mother Nature is definitely the most fickle lass that I know! Last year, we had a very wet Spring, coupled with a bout of freezing weather in late April that I believe was the primary culprit in the struggles of the last year. Rain washes nectar out of plants – not a good thing for bees. The freezing weather whacked both my blueberry and strawberry blooms. I have to imagine that similar things happened to many weeds out in the wilds (weeds that my bees rely on for nectar). All of this lead to a below-average honey crop and difficulty in getting new hives to build up as they normally do.

Fast forward to this Spring. The lack of rain has enabled me to create what may be a record number of Nucs. I think I have 30 out in the field, or there about. With the exception of one that I let starve (like a fool – even noted in my journal that their “resource frame was light” and that I should feed these gals…), my Nucs seem to be doing really well. But, it has been unusually dry by my reckonning. Over the last 10 days, I believe I have received 1.5 inches of rain. Not terrible for a June or July, but pretty poor for an April. They do not even forecast rain in he foreseeable future.

Although I do not think that there has been any impact yet, I do believe that I will change my tune on that score by the end of next week if we still do not have rain. But, only time will tell…

Spring Splits

This year, my main focus is increase. Due to the higher than normal losses over the past 6 months! So far, the stars have aligned nicely for this goal, as I have been able to create around 15 Nuc’s over the past couple of weeks.

It seems that many folks call a “Nuc” a Spring Split. For me, any split is dividing the frames in a mature hive evenly among two hives. I usually tackle splits (if I do ’em) in late April and early May, during a full on Flow. Regardless, this is the perfect time for me to create a Nuc (or Split!) in areas just to the east of Richmond, Va.

Bees on a Frame

What I mean by “working a frame”

Starting in March, I begin to gauge my hives – usually during the Spring clean-up (scraping frames and bottom boards, re-leveling, etc..) But, oftentimes I am simply pulling off the boxes until I get to the bottom deep and pulling a few frames in the center of the deep. My rule is to only pull a Nuc when the weather is right and the colony is at least working a few frames in the bottom deep. By gauging my hives in mid-March, I can usually tell when to next check them for possibly Nuc creation.

Once I identify the target colony, I need to find the queen. In fact, regardless of whether I take a Nuc or not, I make it an absolute must to find all queens by April 1 (and mark them). In this way, I know that any unmarked queen is last year’s queen – I have probably marked 10 white queens this Spring (the rest were either already white or even green and blue – I actually noted one Red queen, but once I realized that queen had to be from 2013, I wonder if I didn’t see some pollen or something….need to find that queen again!) I then place the frame with the queen off to the side, leaning up against the hive. It’s now work time!

The Nuc is a 5-framer. If I am creating a Deep Nuc (colony is working 5 or 6 frames), I move 3 frames to the Nuc (the remaining two are either already drawn frames or with foundation). I make sure that a frame with eggs is dead center in the Nuc. Once the frames are squared, I then shake 3 frames of bees onto the top of the Nuc frames. Lots fall on the ground, but they make their way back to the Nuc. Once done, I put the top on the Nuc and let her be for 3 weeks (it should be noted that I create all of my Nucs within 50′ of the parent hive – most times within 10′, and that’s where they stay).

For Medium Nucs, I have found that I need 4 frames from the parent hive. I also create most of them a bit later in the season (usually mid-April.) I may have 3 out there right now, but will create quite a few more in a week or two.

Once the Nuc is created, I let it sit for 3 weeks. By then, they will have raised and hatched a new queen, so I am ONLY actively looking for an open queen cell or two. If I do not see that, they receive another frame of eggs and I make a note to check again in 3 weeks. Once I see an open queen cell, I return in 2 weeks to find either evidence of a queen (eggs, larvae) or the queen herself. They get another frame of eggs if I don’t find one of these things, otherwise I note that we have a laying queen and come back 2 weeks later to mark the queen and take action on the Nuc (sell, convert to full hive, move, etc…)

These are the Split/Nuc creation basics. In some cases, I take several Nucs from the same hive. Some queens seem hell bent on growing like gangbusters. I will continue to revisit these hives, sometimes one week apart, creating a new Nuc each time. But, I never put the bees at jeopardy. I only do this with my really strong hives. They seem focused on building up to swarm, so I take advantage of this growth until they actually do.

Still Waiting on the Flow

Although I did have some concerns after learning of the swarming hive in New Kent (see previous post), I have been very pleased with the findings in my hives since then. The majority of hives have a very respectable force of walking drones and are building out nicely, in a measured fashion. If weather were not a potential factor, now would be a great time to create a good number of Nuc’s. I have created 13 thus far and expect to create a similar number this weekend.

On the down side, I did find yet another entire out yard with dead-outs (this only amounted to two hives, but it is still notable as I have never lost an entire yard before but have lost two this past Winter.) As stated earlier, I blame this more on me than the weather or the bees. The last 6 months of 2016 were horrendous when it came to other responsibilities in my life.

First a note about the Flow – or the period of time when the blooming plants really put out a ton of nectar for the bees – this is truly the GO time for my bee hives. I have a pretty simple system for determining when the flow is on – take a few tablespoons of raw honey and place it in a bowl on the picnic table in my backyard. If bees arrive soon, the real Flow is not here. If they ignore it (sometimes for days or weeks), the real Flow is here. As of yesterday, the real Flow was not here yet, despite all of the warm weather.

Now, on to the only hive I have (so far) had swarm on me this year. I have found that the colonies in Henrico County are anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks ahead of my hives in Charles City County (maybe the warmth of Richmond puts them ahead?). For years, I would start my Spring inspections in Charles City, seeing that I still had a few weeks to go (before overcrowding/swarm issues) during those inspections, only to find hives that had already swarmed in Henrico once I got there. It finally dawned on me that I needed to START in Henrico, which I have done the last few years with good effect. About a week ago, I was down to my very last hive in Henrico – actually a young hive that I had in my backyard. I pushed a couple of puffs of smoke through the entrance, then opened her up. The VERY second that I pulled off the top, bees starting rolling out the entrance. For about 20 seconds, I was confused about what the heck was happening – then it dawned on me. Looking up, I saw the swarm rolling above me and watched (sadly) as it eventually made its way to the treetops and moved on. There is no way to know for sure, but I have serious doubts that the old queen would fly like that. This made me believe this was a secondary or tertiary cast. The only thing that I noted here was that this was the 4th time this bloodline swarmed early on me. I like the bees (very healthy, put on good honey, etc…), but that is one trait that I am not overly fond of (early swarming).

So, the beekeeping Spring moves onward. As of now, I am in good spirits about the outlook, despite my higher than normal losses this past Winter. It appears that I have suffered 19% hive loss, largely due to my inattention to the bees in the last half of 2016. I am confident that I can recover from this based on what I am seeing in the yards today. But, only time will tell!!!

March Swarms

So, here I am, fairly confident that we are only about 2 weeks ahead of schedule in my beekeeping world and a buddy pings me with a large swarm caught in New Kent County, yesterday!!! For the most part, I have to tell myself that Mother Nature knows best, but having seen hives swarm in November (0% chance of success here), I know she sometimes is just experimenting…

Regardless, I took a few hours off today to dig into some of my Henrico hives to see where they were. Based on my findings, there are a few walking drones about and, maybe, a few flying, but I cannot believe this is a good time to create a Nuc yet. I created one, off of a very strong hive, just for kicks, but am thinking that this Saturday is going to be my first big Nuc day, with the following two weekends being even bigger.

For me, the main focus right now is prepping for April. I want lots of frames with foundation and a good bit of prepared drawn comb for the coming weeks. In general, I have found that placing foundation in hives (in March) does nothing to increase space in a hive. The bees do not seem to really draw out those frames – all I have accomplished is to reduce the number of frames that they are working! But, come mid-April, all of that changes and they readily accept the foundation.

The final oddity that I will mention is that I discovered that one of my queens had somehow gotten above the queen excluder over the Winter… Things like this turn an inspection from a 20 minute “breakdown/clean/level” to a 45 to 60 minute “hunt for the witch”. Fortunately, I found Her and she was marked Blue! Argh! There goes the “they must have had a late 2016 swarm and the virgin moved up there before she became big” theory! This one was my fault. My note taking has become somewhat lax or exists on multiple pads or scraps of paper (never easy to find!) So, I bit the bullet and started to use Hive Tracks. We shall see how it goes.

Walking Drones

Although I have heard of several eager beekeepers talking about creating Nuc’s (for a variety of reasons, mostly around purported queen cell creation in their overwintered hives) already, I never create Nuc’s until I see a lot of walking drones in my hives in a given area. I an definitively say that my areas (eastern Henrico and central/western Charles City County) do not have a good population of walking drones in the hives, based on observations of a half a dozen yards, at least, in each area.

In truth, I have already been down that road, in my early beekeeping days. Warm weather hits in February, a few hives look really strong and I was off to the races in my Nuc creation! Some Nuc’s failed and those that made it seemed to start off strong but always had issues in short order. On the other hand, I have found that creating Nuc’s when there are plenty of walking drones in the hive is a very good indicator of success (a strong, long living queen and hive.)

Some might ask what the heck I am talking about, when it comes to “walking drones”. The base of this practice focuses on a theory (that I personally have found to be VERY true) that queens (and their hives) do much better when bred very well (by 13+ drones) in their mating flights. To get this kind of mating, the local population of drones needs to be high enough to make this happen.

By the time we hit February, I rarely ever find any drones from the past year still in the hives. All were either kicked out the past Fall or have died of old age in the hive. As things begin to ramp up (pollen and nectar start ebbing into the hive), the workers will encourage the queen to begin laying drone eggs. The key for the Nuc creator is to determine when these new drones will be out to mate with their queens!

It comes down to good old Bee Math. Once a drone hatches and begins “walking around on the comb”, you have about 3 weeks before it starts flying out of the hive to do the “mating thing”. Thus, many beekeepers use the date at which they find “walking drones” as a good time to start a new Nuc. When you start a new Nuc, it takes the bees about two weeks to raise a new queen and then another week for her to get her legs under her before she goes out to mate, for a total of 3 weeks. Thus, “walking drones” (also 3 weeks) is a good indicator of when to start a Nuc.

But, in my view (and experience) this just means a few drones will be out when my queen is ready. I like to have A LOT of drones out there (see theory above). So, I usually wait a week or two AFTER I see the first walking drones before I even begin my Nuc creation.

As of yesterday, I have only seen capped drone cells in all of my hives (despite all of the warm weather) – not one, single walking drone. So, I am at least two weeks out from the creation of any Nuc’s as of now.

A first run out into the Yards

The first hive inspections of the year are always an adventure of up’s and down’s, although “inspection” is a strong word for it. Typically, I am going to 3 or 4 yards, checking hive weight (lifting the back of hive) and pulling off each super and/or brood chamber until I get to the bottom box and then I level her out for the year. Finally, I remove the entrance reducer if one was placed on her last Fall.

As long as there are lots of bees, decent hive weight and they are bringing in pollen that is about all that I do. I make a quick note about weight and how many bees are in the hive. The heaviest (with the most honey) are noted as emergency stores for any light hive and ones with the most bees are noted for early Nucs. The majority are simply noted for when I believe it will be good to check again and (maybe) drop a honey super or two on them. In rare situations (lots of bees, but low honey), I will make a note to quickly bring a super (or at least a few frames) of honey from another hive out to them.

Now, to the challenges! Sometimes, I find only a few bees. As will be noted from my past “lesson’s learned”, I do not like to spend a lot of time on a queen that is a poor performer. Even so, I will give her the benefit of the doubt (in these early inspections) and make a note to drop a few frames of capped brood in the hive (from a strong hive.) Maybe two or three at the most. I already know that a hive with this few bees is unlikely to produce honey this year, but I am willing to take a chance that her genetics are good, she just drew a poor hand this past Winter. But, that’s it. The hive needs to show marked improvement in about 40 days, otherwise I will be re-queening them.

Finally, the dreaded Dead-out’s. I know they are out there, the very first time I don the beekeeping suit for the year. The question is “how many”. I have been fortunate to only lose between 5 and 10% of my hives in any Winter, but I know the Big One is in my future. Will it be this year? My first outing this year was to my westernmost yard which literally looks out over the city of Richmond on its eastern side. That yard had two mature hives and one overwintered Nuc. For the first time in my recollection, I arrived at a yard to find all hives were deadouts. The nuc, in fact, had died the previous Fall (based on the wax moth damage). The other two were pristine, with a good bit of honey and pollen, but no bees. I could not help but wonder if this would be my experience with the rest of my hives. I did very little “Winter Prep” last Fall, due to work related issues consuming all of my time. Would I lose a ton of my hives?

As fate would have it, the next three yards that I visited had very strong hives and even one overwintered Nuc that was only in ONE NUC body (I run overwintered Nucs in 2 Nuc bodies, so this one slipped thru the cracks because of how busy I was last Fall.) That little queen had made it through the Winter on 5 frickin’ frames!!! Booyah! I did have a couple of other deadouts in other yards, but the rest of the hives were roaring strong. And so the year begins, with successes and failures. I like to think that the strongest continue to thrive and my genetic pool gets stronger and stronger with each passing year.

Wow!!!!! Technical issues!

The new year came in and things really started hopping in my beekeeping adventures. I was able to tackle a lot of the tasks that I slate for Jan and Feb, but end up rushing to complete in late March or even April! Things were going so well that I decided to go ahead and add a post and maybe become a bit more active on my blog this year.

Low and behold, I find out that the daggone thing has been down for a couple of months. After a bit of legwork, I discovered that the site was not recoverable and had to rely on back-up’s. Despite being in IT and knowing you need to take regular back-up’s, my last good backup was from 2013! Argh.

But, all things considered, I think it worked out fine. I have not been very active the last few years, so I am fairly certain that I didn’t lose much in this debacle. I still have some clean up work to do, but hope to begin relaying some of my bee adventures soon!