Hive health: Early season inspections

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Hive health: Early season inspections

4 things to look for when checking your hives

Trees are budding, hummingbirds are zinging by, and, after living all winter off of stored honey, honeybees have begun to emerge from their hives in search of fresh pollen. Now’s the time to begin peeking in to see how the hive is doing and if it needs any help from the apiarist.

When to inspect hives

In the early weeks of spring, just after the bees begin buzzing, you’ll likely be checking your hives once a week or so.  Beginning beekeepers tend to disturb bees too often. In our experience, checking them every week to 10 days is sufficient.

If you’ve just installed a nuc or package, you’ll check them about a week after installing them, and then again every 7-10 days until a healthy pattern is established.

If you have established hives overwinter, inspect them during the first warm days of spring (around 50 degrees), when you see the bees beginning to get active. If overwintered hives are two boxes deep, be sure to check both boxes -- even if the top one is queenright. It’s important to check check on bee coverage and brood in the bottom box to discern how big or productive the hive really is. Sometimes a small colony will be in the top box only and you might need to remove a box or reverse the boxes.

If the hive seems healthy after a few checks, you can taper off your inspections. The bees will happily do their thing mostly undisturbed, and you can just peek in and add boxes as needed.

If there are signs of stress, however, you’ll need to keep a closer eye on your hive, and know how and when it’s time to intervene.

Initiating the inspection

The first step of an inspection is to smoke the hive. Smoke helps calm the bees; it makes them stay close to the hive and less likely to sting. Once you’ve smoked the entrance, pop the lid and smoke inside, and then give the hive a second to settle down before you remove the lid. If the hive has supers, remove the super and set it to the side, then smoke the next box down.

The second step: look and listen. Before you pull anything apart, take a minute to assess what you’re seeing. How many frames are the bees covering? How active are they? Pay attention to what they sound like, too. With experience you can discern a healthy-sounding hive from a troubled one. As you develop these observational skills, you can tell how they’re moving, how aggressive they are, and whether they’re likely queenright.

4 things to look (and listen) for

Now it’s time to pry apart the frames somewhere close to the middle, gently remove a frame, and check for the following signs of health, stress, or disease.

1. Is the colony queenright? You’re not necessarily looking for the queen herself. That can take a long time and stress out your bees. Rather, look for signs that the queen is there and doing her job. Check for brood. You want to see brood of all stages, but especially eggs. The presence of eggs indicates the queen has been in the hive in the last three days, and is usually a sign that things are O.K.

While you have that frame removed, inspect adjacent frames to see how far from the center she is laying. This may be indicative of how large the colony will be. You can check from the center out or from the outside in and see where the eggs and larvae end. A good brood pattern means eggs in the center of the frame and frames are well filled out. A spotty pattern may indicate an unproductive hive and is something to keep on eye on in future inspections. If it continues, either you or the bees may decide the queen needs to be replaced.

2. How do the stores look? Check the frames to see how much honey and pollen is stored. Pay attention to the bees: are they bringing pollen home to feed the brood? There should be at least two to four frames of honey and pollen on the outside of the brood nest. If they don’t seem to have enough food, and the weather is bad or there’s not much blooming yet, you may choose to supplement. Supplementation can stimulate queens to lay and promote faster growth of small hives.

3. Is it time for a second deck? If your colony is filling out all the frames, it might be time to add a second brood box or a super. We generally like bees to be using the entire box either for brood or for stores before we add on a new box. We look for at least seven frames covered with bees and the last two or three frames covered with honey on the outside before we add another box. That’s not a hard and fast rule; each beekeeper can decide what her markers are for adding a new box.

If they have too much space, it’s harder for the bees to control the climate, especially in cool spring weather; they have more space to defend, leaving them vulnerable; and they won’t use frames economically: the queen will start moving up rather than filling frames out.

On the other hand, waiting too long to give them a second deck can trigger a swarm instinct, so pay attention when frames are getting full.

4. Are there signs of disease or stress? Honey bee diseases -- and their treatment -- warrant their own blog post. We won’t go into detail here, beyond noting that it’s important to know the signs for these common diseases and parasites: mites, foul brood, tracheal mites, chalk brood, nosema, deformed wing virus.

If everything looks good...

If your queen’s laying well and the colony is robust and making honey, don’t tear the hive apart every week to look for a queen. Once you see a consistent pattern of health, relax (a little bit), and assume that the honey will continue to flow.

by Kavita Bay & Brooke Barnett

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 An Ode to Dandelions: A nutritive, tonic herb that’s good for bees, people, and honey

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An Ode to Dandelions: A nutritive, tonic herb that’s good for bees, people, and honey

The birds are singing, last fall’s leaves and debris have emerged from melted slow, and worms have escaped the soggy soil to dry out above ground. About the only green visible against the brown equinoctial earth are those recognizable rosettes springing through bare dirt and cracks in concrete: the brazen, jagged-toothed dandelion.

These early-season, deep-rooted growers make me happy for myself and for the bees. The bright yellow flowers are one of the first available food sources for pollinators. So it’s ironic that these native, medicinal plants are considered a “weed” to many a green-grass-growing lawnkeeper (especially given that common turf grasses like bluegrass and fescue are actually insidiously invasive, non-blooming, and not nutritional).

Here are some of the facts about the humble, oft-disparaged dandelion:

Good for bees

Unsprayed dandelions are an abundant food for pollinators when they first emerge, hungry after a long, inactive winter. When those yellow flowery faces appear, the hives start to grow quickly thanks to this early source of nectar and pollen.

Good for people

All parts of the dandelion have nutritional and medicinal value, as long as it hasn’t been sprayed with insecticides or herbicides.

  • The root can be dug up any time of year -- though spring roots are best -- and dried for use in tisanes (herbal tea), tinctures, or pill form. Some even use it as a coffee substitute. It’s considered a detoxifying tonic for the liver and kidneys and is high in antioxidants.

  • The leaves can also be harvested throughout the year, though the early leaves, prior to blooming, are the tastiest, tenderest, and least bitter. The greens can be steeped to drink, added fresh to salads or pesto, or wilted in soups or stir-fry. With vitamins A, B, C, E and K; minerals such as calcium, iron, and manganese; and dietary fiber, these greens are said to aid in detoxification, support healthy digestion, improved skin, strengthen bones, reduce inflammation, and regulate blood pressure.

  • The flowers, before going to seed, can be picked for the joy of it (leave some for the bees!), and also for tisanes, cordials, pancakes, salads, and wine.

How to use Hindu Hillbilly herbal honey

Our dandelion-red clover-burdock herbal honey is a powerhouse for cleansing. Burdock root is considered detoxifying and good for the skin, and red clover has traditionally been used to balance hormones and boost heart health. Our dandelion roots and leaves were harvested in the spring and infused in the honey for many moons. (Roots take longer to extract, so herbal honeys with root infusions typically sit for 3 to 6 months.)

You can take it just like medicine -- a spoonful in the morning -- or add it to a tea or tisane, or just mix it in a cup of hot water. Get some here.

Excitement in the air

In Western Montana we’ve just begun to see those spiky green fingers poking up through the dirt again, and it’s putting a big smile on my face. The first dandelions are a sign that soon I’ll be spending time in the garden, digging my fingers into the dirt, and back among the bees, reconnecting with the sprouting, blooming world after a long winter. Before long we’ll be picking fresh herbs for next season’s honey.

by Kavita Bay & Brooke Barnett

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Beginning beekeeping basics: Nucs v. packages, plus tips for getting started

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Beginning beekeeping basics: Nucs v. packages, plus tips for getting started

As an aspiring novice beekeeper, one of your first questions will be: where can I get my bees?

You have two options, and, as with many things, they shake out as follows: the cheaper option is more accessible, and also more likely to fail. The more expensive option may be harder to acquire but has a higher likelihood of success. Here’s a bit more in-depth information about acquiring bees, honeybee subspecies, and hives and equipment, to help you get started.

Package bees: Cheap and plentiful

Most beginning beekeepers start with package bees for the simple reason that packages are more readily available than “nucs” (a nucleus hive, discussed below). Packages can often be procured through local feed stores or university programs. There’s often a waiting list, so if you want to start beekeeping in the spring, winter is the time to do your research and groundwork.

Bees typically come in 2 to 5 pound packages in a screened cage with a queen in her own separate cage.

Package bees are inherently riskier -- up to half of packaged bee colonies fail. So you have to do more work and more research to help them survive, especially in colder winter climates.

Challenges for package bees include:

  • Queen acceptance. The bees have to accept the queen over a matter of days -- the time it takes for them to eat through the sugar stopper into her cage -- and often she is not accepted.

  • Colony establishment. The bees are not an established colony and haven’t learned to work together yet. In addition, packaging and travel -- sometimes from long distances from a variety of different large apiaries -- puts additional stress on the group.

  • Hive building. On new equipment without drawn-out combs, they have to build wax on the frames. It takes long enough for the bees to become established that they likely won’t yield a honey crop in the first year.

Nucleus hives: Local, established, and pricier

A nucleus (nuc) is basically a very small hive with 2-3 frames full of brood and bees and an established, laying queen. Nucs are typically purchased through a local beekeeper.

Starting with a nuc puts you ahead of the game. They are already established and ready to grow. They also have some reserves like pollen and honey to sustain a growing beehive, and have comb drawn out for the queen to start laying.

Nucs are less stressed, but they are more expensive and may be more difficult to find depending on where you live.

How many hives? More than one!

Novice beekeepers typically want to start with one hive, but we advise beginning with at least two or three hives. Often throughout the season you need to move resources, like eggs or frames of honey. You’ll need to take from one hive to give to another.

Additionally, different hives may perform quite differently over time. Having more than one gives you a basis of comparison if one hive is doing poorly, so you can make changes as needed.

What kind of bees?

There are several different kinds of honey bees, including Italian, Carnolian, Russian, German, Caucasian, and Buckfast. Each has unique attributes (production volume, winter hardiness, aggressive/gentle natures, disease resistance, etc.). The right stock for you depends on your style, your environment, and your reasons for keeping bees. Educate yourself before buying.

Basic equipment

In addition to choosing bee stock, you’ll need to decide how to keep bees. There are a variety of hive styles to choose from (Langstroth, Warre, Top Bar), each with different qualities (manipulability, mobility, etc.). Learn more here. We use the Langstroth style, which is the most common.

Besides the woodenware (hives), there’s very little equipment needed to keep bees.

Protective clothing, a veil, gloves, a smoker, and a hive tool are enough to get yourself started. (If you’re doing Langstroth, you’ll also need a feeder.) In addition, you’ll have to learn about common pests and diseases and decide how to treat them.

Educate yourself -- and prepare to fail

Once you’ve decided to start your beekeeping operation, supply yourself with plenty of reliable resources. In addition to the plethora of information on the internet, get some good books, join a local beekeeping club, and seek out mentors.

Beekeeping has become very popular, which is great. It’s fascinating and really fun! At the same time, there’s a steep learning curve. You’re going to make some mistakes. Be prepared for trial and error, and be willing to learn from it and try again.

When we first began beekeeping, we stumbled quite a few times. Beekeeping now is nothing like it was 50 years ago. Keeping your colonies alive is a constant struggle, and losses can be heartbreaking, but it is a wonderfully rewarding hobby. Be perseverant, and make sure you have the time and resources to be a conscientious beekeeper. It is important to not become a part of the problem. Strive to maintain healthy, happy hives, and enjoy the journey along the way!

by Kavita Bay & Brooke Barnett

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Five Considerations for Pollinator-Friendly Spring Planting

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Five Considerations for Pollinator-Friendly Spring Planting

With the warm days of spring approaching we have all been dreaming of what we will plant in our gardens this year. Consider incorporating pollinator friendly plants into your garden plan. One thing you can do without much planning is to plant a small portion of your garden or flower beds just for bees and other pollinators.

1. PLANT NATIVE PLANTS

The decline in honey bee populations has been in the news for quite a while now, but it is just not bees suffering from heavy pesticide and herbicide use, our native pollinators could use a leg up too! Creating biodiversity near your home is one small way you can make a difference. Planting beneficial plants for these creatures will provide them with more forage and habitat. There are many native plants in every area that will attract pollinators to your garden, and not only will you be doing something good for them, they will return the favor by pollinating your flowers and veggies too. The following link is a guide to native plant listings by region: https://xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/plant-lists/. Using perennial native plants is a great way to attract pollinators, beautify you landscape will plants that are drought tolerant and require little care once established.

2. LET YOUR BRASSICAS BLOOM

What else can you do for our pollinators? You can let your brassicas in the garden flower after you are done harvesting your crop. These plants in the cabbage family provide a great source of food for bees, especially broccoli! The bees love it, and they will flower late into the fall when many other flowers are done blooming. I have spent many moments in the garden watching our honey bees collecting nectar and pollen from our broccoli plants in the fall. When I step into the garden there is a noticeable hum coming from the broccoli patch, and it is quite calming to sit and watch hundreds of bees working and collecting on a warm autumn day when not much else is blooming. It is tempting to pull plants out of the garden after they are done producing for you, but you may consider leaving them for the bees and enjoy an unexpected splash of yellow blooms in your garden too.

3. CREATE HABITAT

You can create all kinds of habitat for pollinators besides planting flowers. Consider drilling holes in standing dead or fallen trees for solitary mason bees. These bees like to nest in holes in fallen logs. Also leave good habitat on the ground at the edge of your garden or lawn. Insects need cover and lots of undisturbed places to nest. Follow this link to find out more on raising native bees like mason bees https://thehoneybeeconservancy.org/mason-bees/.

4. DON'T SPRAY YOUR DANDELIONS

Believe it or not many weeds are great forage for our flying friends! Lawn weeds like dandelions and white dutch clover provide an excellent source of nectar and pollen for honey bees and other insects. We have been molded to believe that these weeds are unsightly and a nuisance, that we must conform to uniformity! But if we take the time to appreciate these "weeds" for all that they do for us and for pollinators you may reconsider the urge to get rid of them. Did you know that you can add dandelion leaves to your salad. Dandelion greens offer many of the same benefits of other leafy greens that boost your immune system, are also a diuretic, and can help support proper liver function.

5. VISIT YOUR LOCAL FARMER'S MARKET

Visit your local farmer's markets and nurseries for the best selection of flowers and veggies this year. It's always best to know the people growing your plants. Shopping locally will allow you to ask questions first hand, know that your plants have not been treated with any chemicals, and you will be supporting your local economy! Did you know that  for every $100 you spend at locally owned businesses, $68 will stay in the community vs. only $48 when you buy from national chain stores!

That concludes our post on pollinator-friendly spring planting. Have anything else to add? Feel free to leave a comment below. Please share this post on your favorite social media platform. And please also be sure to follow us in social media! (links are in the footer ;)

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