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I've been keeping this blog for all of my beekeeping years and I began my 13th year of beekeeping in April 2018. Now there are more than 1300 posts on this blog. Please use the search bar below to search the blog for other posts on a subject in which you are interested. You can also click on the "label" at the end of a post and all posts with that label will show up. At the very bottom of this page is a list of all the labels I've used.

Even if you find one post on the subject, I've posted a lot on basic beekeeping skills like installing bees, harvesting honey, inspecting the hive, etc. so be sure to search for more once you've found a topic of interest to you. And watch the useful videos and slide shows on the sidebar. All of them have captions. Please share posts of interest via Facebook, Pinterest, etc.

I began this blog to chronicle my beekeeping experiences. I have read lots of beekeeping books, but nothing takes the place of either hands-on experience with an experienced beekeeper or good pictures of the process. I want people to have a clearer picture of what to expect in their beekeeping so I post pictures and write about my beekeeping saga here. Along the way, I've passed a number of certification levels and am now a
Master Beekeeper Enjoy with me as I learn and grow as a beekeeper.

Need help with an Atlanta area swarm? Visit Found a Swarm? Call a Beekeeper. (678) 597-8443

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Friday, May 10, 2019

How to Be Treatment Free in Today's Beekeeping World

I've never treated my bees and this is my fourteenth year as a beekeeper. When I got my first bees in 2006, I bought them from someone who treated. They lived about four years. But then neither the varroa mite nor the treatments were as virulent.

For first half of my beekeeping years, I caught swarms, bought nucs, bought packages and over the years, I have lost many, many bees. I will never buy bees from a commercial dealer again.

Now all of my bees are treatment free and all have made it through the winters. Over the years I have caught swarms and some of those appeared to be from feral/treatment free sources. Every spring I make splits. When I can, I'm generous with my friends who are treatment free or with other beekeepers who want to try.

I had a discussion over dinner with Jennifer Berry this week and she thinks that one must be an experienced beekeeper in order to succeed at treatment free beekeeping. It does help to know what you are doing, but the real key element in treatment free beekeeping is the source of your bees.

If you buy nucs or packages from a commercial source, they all treat their bees heavily and you will have bees in your yard that must have treatment to survive. They have not survived the varroa mite and meanwhile the varroa mite who survives the treatment gets stronger and stronger. Tom Seeley says our bees need to be resistant to the varroa mite. Your bees from those commercial sources are not resistant to the varroa mite. They might last through one season, but they are highly likely to die the second year.

It's easy to say that it requires experience to be a treatment-free beekeeper, but what does that mean? Does that require you to start with bees from a commercial source who require treatment and then, when you decide to go treatment free, to kill all of your hives? That idea feels awful to me.

So how does one start out as a treatment free beekeeper? I have several thoughts:

1. Spend at least your first year as a beekeeper with no bees.

  •  Get a jacket, a veil, and a hive tool.
  •  Find someone in your area who is keeping treatment free bees and ask if they will be your mentor.
  •  Accompany them as they inspect their hives. Help them with their work as a beekeeper.
  •  Make a friend of that person and learn as much as you can about beekeeping from them.


2. The next year of your beekeeping experience (or longer if you need it), learn to set swarm traps.

  •  Then get on your bee club's swarm call list so that you can get a swarm or two.
  •  Chances are higher with a swarm that the bees from a tree or from the walls of a house. They may also be from a treating beekeeper's hive which means they are less likely to survive.
  •  You can hive them, practice on them, not treat them, and if they live through the winter, split them in the spring.
  •  Better yet, get two swarms! It's always better to start with two hives.


3. If you have a swarm hive that looks weak in midsummer, go to your treatment free mentor and ask him/her if you could have a frame of brood and eggs from one of his/her survivor hives.

  •  Kill the queen in your swarm hive.
  •  Wait five days (to make sure there are no available eggs from the old queen).
  •  Then get the brood frame from your mentor and allow your bees to make a queen from a survivor frame and you are in business.

Midsummer splits can be made successfully, so your new queen should get mated. And the new bees from the survivor queen should have inherited her survivor traits.

4. If you don't get a swarm, see if you can convince your treatment free beekeeper who you have helped over the last year or two to make you a nuc from her/his survivor hives.

5. Once you have a survivor hive going, give up your dreams of a bountiful honey crop for that year, and split, split, split in the spring to make sure you now have several hives of survivor bees.

6. Also if you get a swarm and don't know where it came from, then plan to requeen any swarm with a frame of brood and eggs from a survivor hive. The only swarm I got this year issued from the attic of the house across the street from where the swarm landed. So I had faith that they would be survivors. I do always ask if the person asking for the swarm to be collected knows where the swarm originated.

7. When it is time for honey harvest, err on the conservative side.

  • Leave the honey for the bees. How can they survive if you take all of their stores?
  • And don't tell me that you feed them to make up for it. Feeding sugar syrup doesn't come close to the nutrients provided in their own honey.
  • Leave plenty of honey for your hives' survival.

That is my philosophy for all of my hives: never take so much honey that the bees can't make it through the winter using their own supplies. Feeding the bees in spring is confusing and makes them build up before the nectar source is available to support them. If you leave them honey, they know what to do and when to build up their population.

8. If a hive dies, so be it. It's sad to lose bees, but I'd rather lose bees that can't live without my putting poison in the hives than keep them alive artificially.

And despite what all the guilt-inducing conference speakers may say, bees are NOT our pets. Hold to your values and avoid the poison.

9. Finally - keep learning and discerning. Don't believe every speaker you hear. Don't do something to your hives without making a studied conscious decision. Be a good beekeeper and the best one you know how to be.

10. For the record, here is my current roster of hives:
  • My hives at the elementary school haven't been treated in seven years. We've made several splits from those two hives this year. 
  • My little swarm hive from last March at the railroad yard is going gangbusters this year and I have made a split from it. The rail yard is thirty acres and I believe they came from a building or a tree. But if they die at the end of this, their second season, so be it.
  • My top bar hive holds a swarm that issued from a girl's hive which hadn't been opened or treated in four years. She saw the swarm leave the hive and land about twenty feet away in her yard. I collected it and it is doing well again this year. It is in my top bar so I didn't split it but will next year in its third year at my house (its seventh year of survival). 
  • And I have a survivor hive from a swarm that I collected in my neighborhood six years ago that is rocking along. I took one box of honey from it last year and may again this year. It never looks like a rock-em, sock-em hive, but every spring it has a healthy awakening.
  • I have several splits that are made from the above hives and hopefully will be in full sized hive boxes before winter.
It's not easy to start out as a treatment free beekeeper, but once you have survivor hives going, you will feel great about your bees, your honey, and your contribution to a healthier environment for both bees and people.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

A Spunky Little Swarm

On May 2, 2018, I got a swarm call to go to the Inman Rail Yard off of Marietta Street in Atlanta. I had no idea Atlanta had such a large train yard. Atlanta did start as Terminus, rather than Atlanta because of the many rail lines coming into the city. The rail yard is HUGE, covering many acres of land - I believe they said thirty acres.

The men at the rail yard were quite concerned and wanted to save this swarm of bees, so I gathered my swarm kit and drove very carefully into the rail yard. To get to the swarm, I had to cross track after track, each labeled with a large sign that said: DANGER, TRAIN DOES NOT STOP. 

As I waited to enter the monitored area, I watched the huge cargo trains go by my car:

Here's the fierce swarm I was summoned to rescue:


I shook this simple swarm into my box on the white sheet, covered it with a ventilated hive top, and waited a while to allow all the bees to join their sisters and the queen.




And to give you perspective on this Charlie Brown Christmas tree, here's how the tree looked post-swarm removal:

I imagine this swarm is from a feral hive because there are no obvious places for a backyard beekeeper to be within the thirty acres so I had high hopes of their survival. But I captured them on May 2 and in Atlanta, the nectar flow is almost over at that point. In Atlanta, a swarm in May is not worth a load of hay! 

I installed them in a hive at the community garden in my neighborhood. Because they were installed at the end of the nectar flow, they didn't have enough time to build up their hive and gather nectar for the cold months. Going into winter, they felt very light to me so I gave them two feedings of bee tea in a rapid feeder.


We've had a string of very cold days and now we are experiencing several February days that are like summer. Today the high is predicted to be 78.

I walked up to the garden yesterday to see if the bees are flying and indeed, the spunky little Charlie Brown swarm is flying and they have survived the cold.

When I opened the hive, I found the bees exploring the feeder in hopes that it would be tea time. So today I am going to pour just one quart of feed into the feeder to top off their stores, as it were. I don't want to feed them heavily because then the bees think there's a nectar flow on and start building up brood before there really is anything for them to forage.






Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Mary Oliver, poet and naturalist, has died

Mary Oliver loved nature and wrote about many parts of it. I've mentioned her poems about bees before, but since she died on January 17, 2019, last week, I want to note here about her contribution to the appreciation of bees. I love her poems about the bees because they are so close to how it is to be among the bees. Here's one I don't think I've posted before called "Hum."

Hum


What is this dark hum among the roses?
The bees have gone simple, sipping,
that’s all. What did you expect? Sophistication?
They’re small creatures and they are
filling their bodies with sweetness, how could they not
moan in happiness? The little
worker bee lives, I have read, about three weeks.
Is that long? Long enough, I suppose, to understand
that life is a blessing. I have found them-haven’t you?—
stopped in the very cups of the flowers, their wings
a little tattered-so much flying about, to the hive,
then out into the world, then back, and perhaps dancing,
should the task be to be a scout-sweet, dancing bee.
I think there isn’t anything in this world I don’t
admire. If there is, I don’t know what it is. I
haven’t met it yet. Nor expect to. The bee is small,
and since I wear glasses, so I can see the traffic and
read books, I have to
take them off and bend close to study and
understand what is happening. It’s not hard, it’s in fact
as instructive as anything I have ever studied. Plus, too,
it’s love almost too fierce to endure, the bee
nuzzling like that into the blouse
of the rose. And the fragrance, and the honey, and of course
the sun, the purely pure sun, shining, all the while, over
all of us.
I've posted other poems of hers here, here and here.
The natural world has lost a beautiful voice with her death.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Trying out a new honey filter

Recently I was asked to try out a new honey filter developed by an Atlanta baker. He had heard beekeepers talking about problems with the filters they were using and decided to try his hand at making a better one.

There are many things I love about this filter. It's a 400 micron filter, but filters as well as my 200 micron filter in my filter bucket. The filter is like a paint filter and holds to the bucket with an elastic top.




I crushed and strained honey from about the equivalent of two frames and put the crushed comb in the filter:


I did one bucket of light and one of dark since the super we removed had both varieties in the combs. I cut around the dark honey and kept it separate from the light.

When the honey was bottled, it was clear and very clean.



I couldn't figure out how best to show you the clarity. I held it up to a window so you could see how clear it was. And I held it up to my kitchen tile.







This was a very small amount of honey so the filtered honey didn't occupy much of the bucket. In a good year (this wasn't), I would filter a whole medium of honey at once. The honey, when filtered, occupies about half of a five-gallon bucket. 

The major disadvantage of this filter is how low it hangs in the bucket. You can see the bottom of the filter in this shot through the honey gate. In a full super's worth of honey, this filter would be hanging in the filtered honey. I tried pulling the elastic band down as far as I could and this is as high as I could raise the bottom of the filter bag. 




For quality and ease of use, this is a great filter. It is reusable and washable. The seams are on the outside so there's nowhere in the inside of the filter for the wax to get caught. It is easy to clean. 

Its biggest disadvantage at the moment is the length of the bag. Stacked filters that I purchase from the big vendors only occupy about the top 1/4 of the five-gallon bucket and never do I have the problem of the filter being IN the honey which is what would happen with this one. The good news is that I have told the inventor about this and he will redesign it on the next manufacturing run.

Meanwhile, for small harvests, this is a great filter. You can buy it from Amazon. A photo of the product is in the fifth photo on this post and you can buy two of them for only $15.99.

I had a very pleasant visit with Michael Yoss, the maker of these filters. He and I harvested the honey together and he accompanied me while I filtered it. I appreciated his efforts to make a good product for beekeepers.






Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Gonorrhea and the Varroa Mite

Today in my iPhone news source this article appeared. I read the whole article with interest because of my interest in the varroa mite and the "treatment" that is regularly recommended - no, pushed with great guilt-induction down new beekeepers' throats.

The title of the article is

Wherever you are in the world, time is running out for treating gonorrhea

The point of the article is that bacteria that cause gonorrhea are growing increasingly resistant to all drugs available for treatment. In the United States, the article says, cases of gonorrhea rose 50% between 2006 - 2015. And at the same time, the bacteria are growing more and more resistant. The future does not look good for new gonorrhea cases.

Beekeepers keep treating the varroa mite and it doesn't go away. Instead, we are developing a stronger and stronger varroa mite. As we proceed to treat the varroa mite ineffectively, we are in grave danger of finding ourselves with a SuperVarroa Mite. And the varroa mite will be just like gonorrhea with NO EFFECTIVE TREATMENT.

As treatments are tried, the varroa mite gets stronger and the treatment no longer works. So now everyone is encouraged to use oxalic acid. It's bad for bees (the only truly safe time to use oxalic for the bees is when the hive is broodless - and do you know any beekeepers who actually only treat in December?) and bad for the varroa mite (everybody loses - including the beekeeper who has to be extremely careful with the toxic "treatment"). Meanwhile, the varroa mite gets stronger and stronger as it lives through these efforts to obliterate it. 

I have bees that survive without treatment. Mind you, all of my bees do not. My bees that die are usually swarms I catch or bees I purchase (which I do rarely) from beekeepers who treat. I do lose hives when they don't go into winter strong enough - that may be caused by varroa. I don't have confidence in the survival of a hive until it has lived through two winters. But when my bees die, it's usually beekeeper error that I can trace and tell you what happened. I am only interested in my bees that do survive because that means they have the genetics to live WITH the varroa mite.

I have kept bees since 2006 without treatment. However, I lost bees when I moved in 2011 and they didn't get moved well. I lost my very best survivor hive last summer when I made mid-summer splits too late; the splits were robbed out the day I made them and the queen was accidentally killed in the original hive. Beekeeper error, not varroa, caused the loss of that, my best hive.

Right now I have bees from a swarm I caught four or five years ago that are thriving, surviving every winter and producing honey. I made a split from that hive this spring and I hope it does just as well. I have two hives on the roof of an Atlanta elementary school that were previously kept by a beekeeper who did not treat and are now my bees. Those two hives are overflowing with bees and have been alive for at least four years with no treatment. I made splits from those bees and gave away queen cells to a friend of mine so we can have continued treatment free bees.

I also have a swarm in a top bar hive. The swarm came from a hive that had not been opened, much less treated, in four years. I have great hopes for them. If they make it through the winter, I'll make a split from them next year. 
At Young Harris last week, I went to a very good presentation by Geoff Williams of the Auburn bee lab. His subject was "When chemicals and pathogens collide." My favorite part of the lecture (maybe because I answered a question and won a t-shirt!) was when he explained the relationship between chemicals and pathogens. There are many relationships - he had an entire chart. The relationships are defined by who profits in the relationship - the pathogen? the chemical? neither? both? 

But the relationship that seems most functional to me when I think of the varroa mite and the bee is mutuality (number one on Geoff's chart). We need a bee who can live with and tolerate the varroa mite and a varroa mite that can't destroy the bee, but can still reproduce itself. That is not going to happen as we continue to help breed a stronger and stronger varroa mite. 

I wish the universities would focus on how treatment-free hives manage to survive. I wish they would work on developing the strong genetics of those bees and that they would quit engaging in a process to develop the SuperVarroa mite, which is what they are doing now.

But you and I both know where the money comes from for university research. It's from Big Ag and not the backyard beekeeper. So the focus of university research is on bee survival for pollination of the almonds and other crops at whatever cost, rather than looking at balance in the beehive.

I went to another talk at Young Harris entitled The Top 10 Best Practices in Modern Beekeeping. The speaker began talking right from the start about varroa mites. More than midway through the talk, he never had moved into whatever the other nine practices were. 

I left when he did what many speakers do today - blame the treatment-free beekeeper for the strength of the varroa mite. I've heard so many people say that the treatment-free beekeeper has hives that are bringing the varroa mite into the hives of those who treat through a "varroa bomb" and we should be strung up on the highest tree (or at least that is implied). 

It would be encouraging if interest were expressed in why surviving hives make it through the winters rather than employing shaming toward people who are trying to take care of their bees in a way that works for them and for their bees. 

Instead, the top ten practices of modern beekeeping that are encouraged are 1. Treat varroa; 2. Treat varroa; 3. Treat varroa; 4. Treat varroa; 5. Treat varroa; 6. Treat varroa; 7. Treat varroa......I don't know what 8, 9 or 10 are because I walked out.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Where do your bees forage?

This map will draw a map of where your bees forage! This was posted on my bee club's Facebook page:

When I asked it to calculate a 2 mile radius circle for where my bees are most likely to forage, here is what it showed:





I've known that they are likely to forage at the Botanical Garden since it's only a couple of blocks away, but it's fun to see where they might gather nectar and pollen. Since bees can go about 3 miles away, you can imagine the boundary extending even further, but if I were my bees, I'd stop at the Botanical Garden!

Sunday, April 01, 2018

My New Top Bar Hive

My friend Andy Marcus is an air conditioning guy in spring and summer, but during the calmer days of winter, he builds top bar hives. Julia ordered one from him and I saw it and loved it. I called Andy, who told me he had just enough time to do one more top bar hive this winter.

When he finished it, Jeff and I went up to get it. Andy lives near Dahlonega, GA. We took Jeff's car, which is bigger than mine, because the hive is HUGE. It was a cold, misty, rainy kind of day in early February.

We were blown away by the gorgeous top bar hive that waited for us at Andy's house. Here it is with Andy, the builder:

To put this in the car, we had to remove the legs! Both of my sons-in-law carried it out of the car into my yard where it sat on a stack of hive boxes, waiting for me to paint the legs.

Last weekend, Jeff worked to attach the now-painted legs. Literally as he tightened the last bolt, my phone rang with a swarm call to pick up a swarm not too far away on an arbor - it was such an exciting swarm collection that I will do a separate post on it.

So here it sat in my backyard waiting for the swarm to arrive!


The hive boxes are under it because the top bar rested on the boxes while we worked on getting the legs attached.

I could sleep in this box - it's as big as a coffin!




Another check on the Buckfast bees

The Buckfast bees near Emory are doing fine. In the intervening week between St. Patrick's Day when we installed them and Thursday, the 29th when I last inspected them, we've had incredibly cold weather for Atlanta after the first day of spring. We've had nights in the 30s and day time with only about an hour above 52 degrees.

That is to say that the weather has not been very conducive to bees flying to collect nectar. They have to have nectar to draw wax, so neither of the Buckfast hives (in Emory neighborhood or at my house) had a huge amount of new wax drawn. But these hives are using the wax. In most foundationless hives as soon as comb is drawn, the queen begins laying in it.


The hive at my house had done some coloring outside the lines in their wax building. I tried to get them back on proper course with heavy duty rubber bands.


These hives are doing well and I am pleased. The nectar flow is about to begin in Georgia. There is some nectar coming in, but the big flow comes with the tulip poplar and I had one errant bloom fall into my backyard today. However, in general, the tulip poplar here is beginning to put out leaves but not blooms.




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