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[personal profile] doodlemaier

This is a pretty good example of the rewards of my beekeeping efforts last year: empty comb.
no dead bees, no stores. . . nothing.

This is all that's left of the Bentonville swarm that I caught on Easter in the bait box, forgotten and left out with a piece of brood comb inside. A feral swarm developed the site for three weeks prior and moved in. I thought then that I'd never have to buy bees again. Now, a little more than a year later, even if I were willing to I can't find them.

Not that I'm giving up beekeeping but I don't know where to go from here. . .
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[personal profile] doodlemaier
Much to my surprise, today I discovered eggs in one of the two comb failure hives I've been nursing through life all summer! It had been more than a month since attempting to remove them and I hadn't been able to find any vacated queen cells in either trap-out attempt and so naturally I feared the worst. My intention today was merely to clean all the putrid honey and SHB maggots out of the comb failure hive, reclaim the wax and combine the two colonies in order to free up some woodenware to house the trap-out that I've been ignoring at my in-laws. At any rate, I'm back in the business of feeding bees (if for no other reason, I wanted to test my cheap n'easy sheet cake tin hive top feeder on bees that I figured were as good as dead anyway).

I cooked up a gallon of 1-to-1 syrup and, per a friend's suggestion, I used some Honey-B-Healthy in the mix despite Mike Bush's warning about any non-native scents in the hive having the potential to disrupt communication within the brood nest, even those that are considered safe and "natural". I think it helped cover the scent a few hundred sudden new arrivals (only a couple frames of bees were left of the queenless cluster) and otherwise kept the colony with the laying queen busy enough to not want to fight about it.

I added a second box underneath - empty of frames - hoping the bees will draw nice double-deep uninterrupted combs from the open-bottom frames for winter optimization (more comb area with fewer gaps) and so didn't separate the two boxes with a sheet of newspaper with slices in it, as is customary when combining colonies. This technique creates considerable lag time between the bees of disparate colonies having to deal with each other and by the time they do everyone's pretty well taken on the scent of the hive and adapted. Luckily everyone seemed to get along okay right off the bat. Although the honey from the comb failure's ruined from the standpoint of human consumption, the bees were busy cleaning up all the little details I spilled. Everything out if the dead hive went into a large plastic trash bag and into the chest freezer to eliminate the SHB infestation, and after a week I plan to let that thaw and drain further and feed it back to them throughout the remainder of the season if they'll take it.

In the mean time I'm hoping they'll make good use of the extra space to ramp up the population a bit in case there's a secondary nectar flow later, as there often is here in the mid-atlantic toward the onset of autumn; the fantasy being that I'll transfer combs containing the survivor stock to a frame bearing variant of the Perone hive in the spring.
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This morning I discovered this open-comb, free-hanging, feral honey bee nest in my backyard at Medford. Naturally I'm wondering where this colony came from and how long they've been in the tree. It's not likely that either of the Easter colonies had the time/resources to swarm again so early in the season. They could be another random product of 2012 Swarmapalooza season, or my theory is that these are the survivors of a colony, Isis, that I kept at this location last year which I thought had succumbed early after I attempted to transition the summer cluster into a framed hive body, but I never did find the queen among the too few dead bees left behind in the hive. I remember being suspicious at the time that they might have absconded. The colonies that I have situated at this location presently were both acquired this season on Easter day, one as an early swarm from my own hive on Easter morning in Strasburg, and the other inhabited a bait box later that afternoon in nearby Bentonville. Hence the name the Easter Apiary at Medford

There are four large distinct combs, ranging in size from a Whamo Frisbee Flying Disc up to that of a standard toilet seat lid. I was hanging out this morning having coffee with the bees and they've been testy for days. Quite out of the blue I was stung on the head for standing there minding their business. I decided it was time to head to work after that and from the driveway, thinking about the sting on the top of my head, I looked up where the large nest apparent. I wonder how I didn't see it sooner.

Had they been there all winter? If this colony is Isis it means that they would've had to overwinter in the open, and for me not to notice them especially without the coverage of summer leaves the cluster would have to have been a lot smaller. Is overwintering like that feasible? Or are they just a random wild swarm? If so, when did they arrive and why there? They would've likely had to have developed that location before I moved the Easter swarms, in that I find it an unlikely choice for a feral colony to take up in such a close proximity to established colonies.

The nest is about fifty feet up in the storm-torn maple tree that hangs over the tiny Easter apiary. Can you see it there? (just left of top dead center) Last year Isis sat in the little shady cloister behind the chair.
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a Warre hive wears a thick coat of honeybees Thursday and Friday were considerably warm enough to cause the comb to fail in hive #2, Brigid's first swarm of the season. It didn't help in the least that I left the catchment drawer in place all week, which might've prevented the bees from supplying adequate ventilation which might've mitigated the impact of direct sunlight had I the foresight to leave it open. The original hive, Brigid, is only a few feet away and doesn't appear to have been affected at all, but also doesn't get quite the exposure as this one.

The coverage on the front of the hive is obvious from across the yard, like a thick rustling fur coat, but on closer inspection there is a significant amount of uncured honey oozing out from underneath the hive, and as the weekend progressed the carnage started to become more apparent as dead bees and contents of ruined brood cells were emptied onto the front porch. This is a pretty major set-back for this colony and not something I feel I can do anything to remedy, even if it were conventional woodenware. Hopefully, it's a result of my negligence and not a design flaw that prevents these hives from being placed in direct sunlight. I love the weathered look from a completely aesthetic point of view and figured that the inch and a half thick walls would offer enough R-value to guard against overheating as much as it prevents freezing but it's time to consider giving these hives a coat of white paint, too.
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While observing the hives on a mild afternoon in early January I realized that Lada was being robbed by her sisters from Brigid. Brigid's bees were all returning to the nest with pollen (even in January, wtf?) while the bees from Lada were coming and going with barren pollen baskets and and some acting nervous at approaching the entrance, indicative of robbing bees. My suspicion was confirmed after watching a couple foragers fly directly back to their own nest just a few feet away. The hive garbage drawer in the back had also been remarkably clear of mites for a couple of months, which I had thereto interpreted as nestduftwärmebindung working its magic, but also clear of the normal debris and cappings from honey cells as the cluster should surely be eating into their stores at this time of year. I rapped the side of the hive with a stick to excite the cluster and listened with my stethoscope for the low rumble of a thousand shivering bees but could not determine a locus for it from any side of the hive. I knocked harder trying to instigate the bees to rush out from the entrance and attack me which, much to my disappointment, didn't happen.

Although I'm loathe to open the hive for all but the most drastic of scenarios, my concern got the better of me and I removed the lid and quilt only to free a couple of the robbing culprits where I was hoping for a full frontal assault. No doubts, there was not a living bee in the nest and I decided then that I'd need to tear her down to minimize exposure of my last remaining colony to any possible residual pesticide or pests that might still inhabit the "ghost hive" that was Lada. I divided the hive bodies into manageable pairs and, as I expected the upper most pair was heavy with stores while the lower sections were considerably lighter. What was unusual was that I wasn't seeing the cluster of dead bees starved or frozen in an upper corner of the comb as I was accustomed to finding in the dead-outs of previous seasons. The colony had abandoned their entire summer stores and absconded completely. The separated sections of hive bodies each fit into large trash bags and were sealed closed with tape to prevent corruption by moths and ants and stored on the porch out in the cold until I could gather the meager materials I needed and make some in my schedule time to extract the honey.

The grid, serving as an array of top bars, is fixed over the upper-most hive body, first just by gravity and later by the bees with propolis. Just as I expected, the bees began drawing comb here and raised their first batches of brood as a fledgling (artificial) swarm. After the young bees vacated their cells they were cleaned out and back-filled with foraged nectar. Large folds of honey filled comb can be seen through the bars. (click through for larger views, and here for a close-up)

A view of the drawn comb in the bottom most hive body. Comb acts as a baffle for the currents of air entering the hive from the bottom entrance giving natural comb this beautiful undulating pattern. At this point the boxes are still firmly connected to each other by the internal attachment of comb which extends uninterrupted through the depth of the space created by stacked boxes. The sections are easily separated with a length of cheese wire.A view of the drawn comb in the bottom most hive body.

Using the longest serrated knives I could find at the local thrift, I separated the combs from the inside perimeter of the hive body to which they are secured by the bees when drawing comb. The spale, the length of oak rod that extends diagonally, is put in place before the swarm was introduced to provide support for the fragile comb as it's drawn. Although this design precludes regular internal inspections of the brood nest the bees in a conservation hive are not discouraged from making attachments to any and all surfaces within the hive. Much like the honey badger, honey bees don't give a shit, either!

Once all the attachments along sides of the box are severed the spale can be cut free and combs are removed individually. Pictured are brood combs from third hive body from the top. This comb is newer than the comb from the top two boxes and bore a cycle of brood but was never filled with nectar, likely having been drawn toward the end of the summer flow. A closeup of the abandoned brood comb reveals a few cells of capped brood and probably contains residual evidence of what might possibly have destroyed this colony. Although the sparse, patchy brood pattern suggests that this (packaged) queen was probably failing. In hindsight I should've kept the size of the hive at four medium boxes for the first season encouraged them to swarm rather than providing new empty framed boxes underneath.

After all combs are inspected all of the salvageable honey is collected in a capping tank where it's crushed by hand and allowed to drain through a double sieve in order to strain out the majority of the solid bits. Wax is reserved for the solar melter next summer.

The conservation hive is designed around the concept of the honeybee colony as a superorganism, where the hive itself acts as the exoskeleton. Colonies raised in this style of hive are free to progress without human interaction just as a feral colony would except with easy access for a bee keeper to increase his apiary by splitting strong colonies or to collect honey. Contrary to conventional woodenware, its smaller capacity maximizes the retention of nest heat and scent which bolsters natural colony immunity to pathogens but at the expense of large honey harvests. This hive yielded about 14 lbs. of raw honey that will serve to make a couple small batches of mead.

Bittersweet. . .


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