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Monday, July 17, 2017

A Special Visitor in the Beeyard

Top bar hives seem to be gaining more and more momentum every year, but when I started out, it felt like they were still few and far between. Most people at my bee club hadn't even heard of them, much less had any experience with them. As a result, I turned to books and online communities for mentoring and support.

One of the online resources I found was Buddha and the Bees, a blog about everyday experiences keeping bees, and it quickly became one of my favorites. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was because Don, the blog's author, was in the same boat as me. We were both just starting out with our TBHs and quickly realizing that bees are not the experts that all the books claim they are. They insisted on doing unexpected wrong things. ;-) It was refreshing to find someone who was writing not about how bees are supposed to behave, but about all the nitty-gritty, wonky stuff that happens in real-life (mostly about bees, but sometimes writing bravely about other things as well). Don is also a smart guy with a terrific sense of humor, so I always looked forward to his new posts (and I still do!)

One of the bonuses of living in a digital age is that one gets the opportunity to connect with people all over the world. Over the past few years, Don and I formed a digital pen-pal relationship that started with our blogs, but it has moved on to email, packages of honey, and FaceBook. Our friendship has even extended to our spouses who now follow each other on FaceBook. That's the power of the interwebs being harnessed for good!

Although Don lives out in Colorado, he has roots back East in my neck of the woods. That's lucky for me because on his recent vacation for a family reunion, he and his lovely wife, Diana, carved time out of their busy schedule to bless my family with visit. As I told Don, after so many years of correspondence, it was delightfully surreal to finally meet in person.  He and Diana are just as I'd always imagined them to be -- warm, giving, funny, kind, clever, and passionate. They are just brilliant, and it was a blessing to have them in our home. The only bad part was that they had to leave because I would have liked them to stay and stay and stay. My DH and I lamented all the next day that they couldn't be our neighbors.

Diana in the center, and Don on the right.

I can't even begin to express how much I appreciate Don and his blog. His blog is well worth reading just for its own merits. But over the years, he has also been such a generous supporter of me and my own endeavors -- raising questions I hadn't considered, offering his own experience and insights, suggesting solutions to problems, or even just leaving comments to let me know that I haven't been shouting into the void. (BTW, Don is a fantastic problem-solver, and true to form, he gave me loads of ideas during his visit, so more on those in future posts. My daughter, though, was more impressed with his genius for finding four-leaf clovers.)

When I started beekeeping, mental stimulation was one of my new hobby's most immediate benefits. Watching bees do their thing was endlessly fascinating. Later on, collecting wax and honey became other tangible benefits. However, what I didn't predict was that beekeeping would bring so many amazing people into my life -- people I never would have met any other way because we come from such disparate walks of life or different parts of the world. Don and his wife Diana are two of those extra special people that I feel so blessed to call friends.

Don makes the best comb honey ever. I shared some with my daughter's friend Emma who agrees.
She says it tastes like rainbows, cupcakes, and unicorns.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Vindication!!!

I'm a big proponent of learning through reading and listening to experts. On the other hand, I also believe that you have to trust what you see with your own eyes. To quote Syrio Forel, the fencing teacher from The Game of Thrones, "My words lied. My eyes and my arm shouted out the truth, but you were not seeing."




That's why my #1 lesson learned from 2016 was pull old comb. Be ruthless. Forget what you've heard about reusing for three years and stop worry about the energy spent on drawing wax. After watching my bees for a couple of years, I could see the ones who'd been given a "jumpstart" with old comb constantly struggling. (BTW, by "old comb" I mean comb that was built during the previous season and contained brood at some point.) The ones that drew fresh comb outperformed "the cheaters" every time.

Finally, I came to the conclusion that I didn't need to keep old comb around because even during a horrible flow, my bees could still fill up their hives and start swarming. It made more sense to let them build fresh, clean comb. By doing so, I could kill two birds with one stone. 1) The bees would have a more healthful environment. 2) Swarming could be delayed (hopefully), or at least better managed.

Well, that was my personal conclusion, but now I've been vindicated! I read an article by Jennifer Berry and Keith Delaplane on the effects of comb age on honey bee colony growth and brood survivorship. Their research, conducted at the University of Georgia, compared colony growth and brood survivorship in hives with old comb vs. hives with new comb over a three-year period. It's a fascinating article, so I highly recommend reading it. However, if you decide not to, here's a summary. Colonies with fresh comb produced a greater area of brood, a greater area of sealed brood, and heavier individual bees. Interestingly, colonies on old comb had a higher survivorship of brood, but as the study pointed out, that really is not a reason to keep old comb around. To quote the authors, "it is possible that the economic savings of using long-lasting comb may be offset by deleterious effects of old comb acting as a biological sink for toxins and pathogens or as a physical constraint on larval development."

Well, that's it in a nutshell, but here are a few more tidbits from the article that I found especially interesting.

On Age of Comb

The article indicated that the combs used in the experiment were of unknown age, but they "were dark and heavy as typical of combs one or more years old." [Bold face is mine.] OK, so maybe some  or most of the comb involved in the experiment was really old, but some could have been only a year-old. So I feel like my decision to cull 1-year-old comb isn't so crazy (or wasteful) after all.

On Brood Production

  • Old comb harbors numerous toxins and disease-causing contaminants such as nosema and foulbrood, which are spread from colony to colony by infectious wax. The queen may avoid laying in these cells.
  • Old comb may also be permeated with brood pheromones that can inhibit egg-laying because the queen perceives the cells to be occupied.
  • "Bees prefer to store honey and pollen in cells that have been previously used for brood rear-ing. In the wild, as a colony grows and continues to add new comb, brood rearing gradually shifts into this new comb and the honey is stored in the old brood comb." Actually, I thought this was interesting because all the books say that you should add empty bars between the brood and honey areas to keep the bees by the entrance and honey in the back. I've never found this to work for me. My bees just keep moving the brood further and further toward the back and storing honey in the emptied nest. Now I know why!
On Brood Weight
  • The cells in old comb are smaller than in new comb. As a result, the bees that are produced in old comb don't grow as much as bees in new comb. In fact, "Diminishing space may force larvae to moult to the non-feeding prepupal phase prematurely, causing nurse bees to cap the cells before larvae have developed maximally."
  • In this study, bees raised in old comb averaged 8.3% lighter than bees raised on new comb. However, other studies have shown that bees raised on new comb can be up to 19% heavier than those raised on old comb. It may not sound like much, but put it into human terms. Let's say an average woman weighs 140 lbs. A difference of 8.3% - 19% is 11.6 - 26.6 lbs. If a normal, healthy 140-lb woman lost 20 lbs, she'd be pretty unhealthy.
On Brood Survivorship

  • This is the one area in which old comb sort of outperformed new comb. Because comb absorbs and retains pheromones, the authors hypothesized that nurse bees may have been more stimulated to care for brood in old comb.
  • However, this performance was qualified because although brood in old comb was more likely to survive, colonies with new comb produced far more adult bees. This is probably due to the sheer volume of brood produced in colonies with new comb. More eggs are laid and more brood is sealed in colonies with new comb. (See table before.)
  • Although more brood survives in colonies with old comb, the number of adults in colonies with old comb was still lower. At least 35 different contaminants in wax have been documented. These contaminants may cause a high mortality rate in adult bees. Additionally, it's possible that returning foragers have a more difficult time locating their colony as contaminants may mask the hive's signature scent.



What do you think? How long do you wait to cull comb? Have you observed any differences in colonies with a preponderance of old or new comb?


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Little Buggers

As I was working by the kitchen window this morning, a black shadow caught my attention. It was a big black bear with three cubs.

Mama and a couple of her babies by the chicken coop

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One of the things that I like about my bear fence is that the "rails" are made of a plastic tape that has metal woven through it. So if you accidentally brush it, you won't get a shock. You have to clamp on to it with your hands (or mouth if you're a critter) to move it. But then it really does deliver a powerful shock. It's a great feature when you have lots of little ones in the yard.

However, it looks like I'll have to rethink this design since Boo Boo can slip right under the rails.

Look at that rapscallion! He sneaked in and out twice this morning!


I predict a trip to Tractor Supply in the very near future. I'm swapping those tapes out for the kind of wire my grandpa used for his cattle pen. Instantaneous zap. Sorry kids.