Friday, May 3, 2013

The "Hived" Swarm: Update + My First Real Test As A Beekeeper

There's some good news, and some bad news about the Dothraki/patio hive. I've also run into my first real "challenge" as a beekeeper. The good news, is that I'm confident that this hive is going to be strong. The bad news is that they've taken one step forward and two steps back. More on that later on in the entry though. Going to walk through this in a chronological fashion.

Friday the 26th of April, 2013

Happy bees! The captured swarm has chugged almost a full cup of sugar syrup and I was advised not to disturb them very much. I figured the best way to let them bee was to just keep an eye on them while monitoring sugar syrup consumption, since syrup consumption = wax production. They had zero comb to start with so the girls were provided with three frames of wax coated black plastic foundation to build off of. According to the syrup chugging they were getting pretty hungry and were building like mad. At this point, the queen was also still in the clip, suspended between two frames. So far so good I hoped!

That night I headed straight up to Kissimmee to stay with my good friends, Osy & Brian, for the weekend's Nihon Ken Forum meetup. The NKF is a place where Japanese dog enthusiasts aggregate to talk about their dogs (five spitz breeds: Japanese Akita, Kishu Ken, Shikoku Ken, Kai Ken, Hokkaido Inu, and Shiba Inu) and there just so happens to be 6-7 of us in Florida. We usually try to meet up every 3 months and we're all 24-32'ish if I remember correctly. Here's the gallery if anyone is a dog person. I didn't get back until late late on Saturday night. So there wasn't a chance to check out the bees or release the queen from her clip.

Saturday: Away in Kissimmee/Lakeland, FL.

Sunday the 28th of April, 2013

Sunday morning I slept in a bit and woke up at 10am. As soon as I woke up though, it was straight outside in full gear. No smoke was used, these bees are really gentle. I had been observing them before the trip by sitting in a chair with my knees about 2ft or 2/3 of a meter away from the entrance, wearing nothing but a swimsuit. They didn't mind at all as long as there was no large, sudden movements. I could stand up and walk around without them coming by to inspect me at all, but if I stood up quickly or ran over there would be a guard bee coming up to see what the commotion was. Even then, just standing still or sitting calmly would make the guard be go back to it's regular post.

I did get fully kitted up for opening the hive though, since their temperament for inspections was still untested. Gloves, jacket/veil, and a hive tool was the equipment used. I didn't use any smoke, wore shorts, and no shoes. Partly because I'm forcing myself to get more comfortable with the bees. I still can't go in and move frame with my bare hands with 100% full confidence yet. The battle with my subconscious reaction to want to pull my hands away is still being fought haha. It's pretty funny to reflect on actually. My subconscious thoughts are so strong as to practically be manifested in actual though. It's really weird, and reading this probably sounds all sorts of crazy. But for any readers that aren't beekeepers, it's only something that you'll gain any understanding by actually putting your bare hands on a frame full of bees. I've never been skydiving or bungee jumping, but I would imagine it'd be the same feeling at the moment of exiting the plane or jumping off of a bridge for the first time. Everything in the primitive section of your mind is screaming "NO DON'T DO IT!".

Anyhow, back to the bees! Nothing seemed all that new upon first lifting the lid. There was some smatterings of white wax along the first, outermost frame that I lifted out, a good sign. Then I went ahead and lifted the queen clip out, those bees sure had been building wax... they practically built a whole 1/8 frame of comb on the queen clip itself! The wax was an incredible pearly white, almost fluorescent in the sun. Unfortunately that wax wasn't going to be very useable whatsoever. It couldn't be rubber banded or squished into the foundation. That would result in some crazy comb that was way too far off the foundation, ruining the ratio of "bee space" between the frames. In hindsight I probably should have just rubber banded the clip directly onto the side of a frame. That way they would have built directly around the clip and on the foundation itself. I brushed the bees off the clip and removed the wax, putting it into a sandwich bag for future melting.

I gently squeezed open the clip and the queen slipped out immediately, scurrying down into the frames. Another observation in hindsight, I was definitely too rough with the frames after releasing the queen. I was nervous that she might fly away and also a bit excited to be releasing my first queen. So one or two bees got squished between the frames and the box while inspecting the remaining two frames. Dead center in the above picture is the queen. A solid gold abdomen with no stripes, no fur on the top of her thorax, and larger "delta" shaped wings. Very pretty!

After quickly inspecting the two remaining frames and photographing the queen, the nuc box got closed up. Then that was it for the day.

Tuesday the 1st of May, 2013

I woke up and went outside to watch the bees as usual. It's turned into my morning "ritual" while waking up. I'll let Ren outside to do her business while I brew up some cafe cubano, then head outside to watch the bees as my brain brings itself online.

After a few minutes I noticed one of the bees was on the edge and just hanging there. It was definitely still alive, but just sort of... hanging there. It was lengthwise along the front edge of the landing board, with it's left legs splayed straight out, gripping onto the top edge. The right set of legs were arranged in a normal upside down V shape, bracing itself against the flat wood. "That's strange..." I thought. Looking down I noticed a dead bee under the landing, and as I looked away from the hive there were even more dead bees. There were about 5-10 dead bees that were arranged in a scattered pattern away from the hive entrance. 

The first lesson at the Palm Beach Beach Beekeeper's Association workshop was don't pick up bees on the ground and help them back into the hive. It's a nice sentiment, but sick bees will exile themselves from the hive. By sacrificing themselves they keep sickness out of the hive. I may be wrong with the first assumption, but I assumed it was one of two things. Either they were bees that were of the same age and had reached the end of their lifecycle in the same 6 hours, or there was a sickness that killed them. 

The first thing I did was check the hive externally for signs of sickness. That would be brown/black streaks across the exterior of the hive where bees are unable to hold their waste and excrete on the hive. Observing these streaks means that dysentery is going on in the hive, which could mean several severe situations. Thankfully, there were no signs of disentery. BUT I did notice immediately that there was some sort of mold/algae growing in the feeder jar (as can be seen in the above picture). Just like any sort of controlled situation, whether medical or experimental, I decided to change the most obvious variable. That being the infected sugar syrup. I took the entire feeder off, went inside, and put some water to boil.

I boiled 3/4 of a pot of water, with the jar sitting in the water for the entire time. This way the jar wouldn't get heated too quickly and shatter (boiling water hitting cold glass). After it was all boiling I removed the jar, put it in the sink, put the wood feeder + jar lid in the boiling water for two minutes, and then filled the jar with boiling water. This way every piece of the feeding system was sterilized as thoroughly as possible. I then filled the pot up with fresh water and made another jar sized batch of sugar syrup. Feeder and jar went back on the hive, and I let them be for the day.

Thursday the 2nd of May, 2013

The next day was supposed to be nothing but thunderstorms and rain past noon, so I figured it'd be a good day to just quickly check on how the Dothraki hive was doing. Afterwards I'd go check on the new feral hive I got from doing a water meter cut-out the day before (Wildling hive, the next post) and do a regular full hive check on Winterfell (Italian-Carniolans). I went back to the hive and double checked the feeder. No algae and no dead bees, good stuff! If the bees hadn't died from mutual old age then it looks like it was definitely some bad mold/algae that messed them up. 

I tossed on gloves and that's it, no smoker or jacket. I cracked open the hive and upon pulling out the second frame I saw these queen cells... crap! Right away this was bad news. Something was wrong with the queen or she was dead/gone. 

Queen cells that are built into the comb like this are supercedure cells. Cells built for new queens to supercede the old one are built when the hive isn't happy with the current queen (infertile, not laying in healthy patterns, etc) or there isn't a queen at all. If the queen cells are built along the bottom of the frame that means they are queens being raised for swarming. Meaning the current queen is getting ready to take off with half the hive in order to establish a new hive, leaving the new queen to continue on the current hive with the remaining half-hive of bees.

I quickly combed through the other frames in search of eggs, a sign that the queen had been active in the last 72 hours. No eggs and no visual on the queen. This wasn't good, and it was going to be all thunderstorms starting in the next hour or so! It was already overcast!

I had no game plan, but knew something had to be done... and quickly! My full collection of gear may have grown wings and flown into the car with how fast I collected everything to get moving. While loading gear I came up with a plan. The clock was ticking and with the loss of 15 or so bees already I didn't think there was enough time to buy a queen. I also didn't really want a second "domestic" hive, since the whole purpose of collecting these feral swarms is to eventually interbreed them with the Italian-Carniolans.

The saying in the military is that we don't rise to the occasion, we sink to our highest level of training. In this case, I'd been absorbing everything I could on beekeeping and attended a very solid workshop which covered a huge range of topics. Including a free class on queen raising, courtesy of D&J Apiary in Central Florida. After running through a few possible solutions, I reasoned that if moving in frames with eggs worked for queen rearing on a production level, then the same could be applied to this situation. But only if I could find a frame with late stage capped brood. It's only the newly hatched, baby bees that attend to the queen and it had been almost a week since capturing this swarm. A margin of error of only a week or two wasn't very comforting when it came to the age of the Dothraki bees. Without having done solid research on backbone techniques of beekeeping, both internet and workshops/meetings, then I don't think I'd have known what to do in this situation. So if you are new to beekeeping or are about to get into it, I highly suggest that you do your homework! Granted, I don't know if this is going to work or not, but if it does then that's $25 + in the event that I have to combine the Dothraki & Wildling hives, several months avoided of hive strengthening in order to split the hive back into two hives.

I rushed over to the bee yard with the newly painted full size, 10-frame Langstroth hive to transfer the Wildlings into. They were a rather large, strong cutout of 5 "super" frames (half the size of "deep" frames). So it wouldn't be a major blow to them to take a frame from them while moving them into a full size hive body. Although, they might just build wax straight downwards from the half sized frames in order to reach the "floor" of the hive boxy. That was definitely lower on the priority list than getting the Dothraki re-queen'd (or re-Khaleesi'd). 

As soon as I got to the bee yard it started drizzling. Not realizing my smoker wasn't assembled right didn't help. It took another 15mins to get the smoker lit. It was definitely time to hurry. I didn't bother putting on the jacket. It's too limited in vision and slows me down. If I wanted to get done with everything before the big, penny sized rain drops fell then I had to be fast! The only items/clothing used was smoker, gloves, shorts, "dairy boot" galoshes, a baseball hat, t-shirt, and hive tool.

I got the new hive body over to the hive table, where the Winterfell full size hive and Widlling nuc box were set up. After setting down the new hive on some plastic painting floor liner I smoked the Widling hive and moved their nuc box onto the plastic, then I put the new hive on the table and transferred all the frames from the nuc box into the new hive body. The perfect frame was there! The center of the pictured frame is all hatched out, empty cells surrounded by capped brood, then larvae, then eggs, then bee bread, and finally, honey. I smoked out all the remaining bees in the nuc, put this frame + attached nurse bees into the nuc box, taped it up, and loaded everything back into the car. 

The skies had opened up not even ten minutes into all of this, and overall it took about 30 minutes. So by the end I was completely soaked and had been stung once in the back. It felt like a straight jolt of electricity and made me instantly stand straight up. I think that made my shirt pull the stinger out though, so there wasn't much poison injected. No after effects, no throbbing ache, and no swelling. Can't complain with having an easy first sting!

So afterwards I got home and transferred the frame straight into the Dothraki hive (now with 3 deep frames + the new super frame). As far as I could tell, the only issue ended up being a single fight at the entrance of the hive. From my reading, the commercial guys just slap both hive bodies together or dump the bees straight in when they combine hives. Apparently they work it out just fine with no stacks of dead bees, so I skipped the newspaper. I'm going to do a hive check on them once I wake up, followed by driving out to the bee yard to hive check Winterfell. So there will be another update shortly.

I think I handled it pretty well for a very panic-worthy situation. I'm just hoping that the solution I came up with works. Both feral hives have been exceptional bees and I'd hate to lose either one of them. Even if it's to combine them.

Also, sorry for the uber long post! This last week was pretty busy, but it was all one issue. I figured it'd be easier to just put it all in at once vs splitting one issue up into several posts. That way anyone else who comes across this issue could just read about it in one post. If you think it would be easier to read in split posts then I'll be more than happy to split future issues into "episodes". Just comment and let me know!