Monday, March 28, 2016

Springing Forward

The swarm that started it all!
With the hope of ending 2016 a bit stronger than this last year (hopefully by tripling our hive count), this is the time of year when we have to do some planning. Of course, we plan the best way to split hives – there are a couple ways to do that. We plan the best strategy for watching out for and dealing with swarm cells, when the hives get too big and decide they want to make a new queen that will then take most of the young, strong bees to a new hive. Swarms are also a means for us to grow our yard, though, because when a swarm, either feral or from another bee yard does a surprise landing in some stranger’s back yard, we can go out and gather it up. It was a stray swarm landing in our yard four years ago that made us start this journey in the first place. We will be trying some ‘split hives’ where we put a divider right into the hive, like a bee condominium, with queens in each side. This allows them to keep the hive warm yet, and gives them a chance to get established without having to start completely from scratch. We will do a blog on this as we get into actually doing it.

Early hive activity 2016.
We have to plan on what purpose our bees will fulfill. They could strictly produce honey for us and this usually involves putting them into orchards and crops for the purpose of pollinating those crops. This is a very important part of having honey bees, and some would even argue that it is the only reason for having them. We could put pollen traps on the hives and gather the pollen for sale, because of the medicinal values. We could do likewise for propolis, which can be used in natural therapies. Some people raise bees simply in order to create more bees, breaking up the hives frequently and allowing those fragments to grow into full hives for sale, or for their own use. Queen rearing is a big business, and takes a special skill, because the queen cells are grafted into several dedicated frames, and are then caged and sold. There are even some apiasts who gather bee venom. Just about everything about bees can be used, so the options are many. Thankfully we don’t have to commit to just one thing, and can try our hand at several of them.

Another issue to make decisions on is where to put the primary bee yard. Right now, we have a small yard near the house, but if we are going to grow the number of hives, we also have to grow the area, then make sure it will be safe from any rather unwelcome guests, including (but not limited to) skunks, racoons, and bears. Since we have been spending the last few days refencing the property, we have been able to give this problem a bit more consideration, and believe we finally have a spot picked out for it. The next step will be to get it fenced and set up for moving the bees. Of course, not all of them will go to one spot in our yard. Hopefully we can find several other locations to set them out, allowing them to access more sources of pollen, and also to ensure that if something happens to one yard, we still have some bees to carry on with.

While it might be right that these plants are
protected from unwanted pests, they fail to
mention how deadly they are to pollinators.
Being avid gardeners at heart, we also need to consider what plants we want, and where we want them, to offer the best advantage to both the gardens and the bees. Some plants are just not what the bees want, while others can attract bees from miles away. Finding out which is which is a much more challenging undertaking than we thought it would be, because opinions differ greatly for many plants. Ideally we will avoid double-flowering plants – the ones that originally had just one layer of petals but now have been hybrid to the point of having two or even three layers of petals, making the flowers much fuller. By making them fluffier, it also makes them harder for the bees to find the pollen. We also must avoid any plants containing neonicotinoids. ‘Neonics’ are absolutely NOT bee friendly.

We also need to consider the flavors our plants will add to the honey. Some plants, like sunflowers, add no noticeable change to flavor but are an excellent source of pollen for bees (and the birds love the seeds all through the fall and winter). Others, like the blooms on the locust trees, add a wonderful flavor to the honey that is easily detected, and in some areas will add value to the finished product. We have a lot of locust trees on our property, and will soon have more, but we are also leaning toward planting more lavender. Alyssum, cosmos, and of course, dandelions are all plants that bees love, and that are vital to them. Planting some of these near the vegetable garden will ensure that all our plants are well pollinated and produce as much as possible – well, not the dandelions; the wind will take care of planting them all over the yard. It already looks like we are in for a bumper crop this year.

One of our bees on an apple blossom. 
The final consideration in choosing plants is blooming season. We want our bees to eat for as long as possible, but sometimes there are dry spells in a season where not much is happening, at least as far as flowers are concerned. Living in a rural community, we can count on the alfalfa and clover to provide for them throughout the summer and fall. We know that corn crops will do nothing, but berry crops will be wonderful in the spring. Of course, the orchards need bees, and our bees need fruit trees, so we have that one covered, at least for this year. We need to find plants, like primula, that will bloom early in the year, and some, like goldenrod, that bloom late. The value of the plants to the bees also will vary because of geographic location and anomalies, so it’s all a learning curve, but we’re more than happy to experiment to see what we like, and what our bees like.

It goes without saying that there are many more things to think about and plan for, like keeping the bees healthy, and the need for water, but at this time of year, these are the priorities in our bee yard.
BooBoo Bear was just a little guy last year, but even when little
these guys can do a lot of damage to a hive. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Pollen, Pollen Everywhere

Almond orchards in California
We are learning that pollen is often available, even when one wouldn't expect it to be about. That's what makes this an interesting time of year for bees. We receive a lot of questions regarding what happens with bees when they want to get out of the hive, but they have no place to get pollen. In large part, the answer to that depends on the local climate in general, and the day-to-day conditions. In some areas of North America, primarily California where almost 7 million tons of almonds are grown annually, the bees have been working for weeks already, pollinating almond trees, a substantial task, and a bit of a juggling act for beekeepers in the US. The need for the bees is massive, requiring bees to be shipped from one coast to the other in order to provide enough bees to do the job. The problem becomes ‘what do they do with them when almonds are done but nothing else is ready for pollination’. For bees from naturally colder climates, this is not a small problem.

Bee on pussy willow
However, we are blessed, especially this year, with our moderate winter and early spring. The bees, at least ours, are never totally locked away. They always have access to get outside the hive. On warmer days, they will go out to do their business – it can be a long time for them to keep their little bee legs crossed. Sometimes they take flight and realize too late that they underestimated the temperature, and we see a number of dead bees on the snow around the hives. They got too chilled to make it back. Some days, we see the results of their cleaning around their hives, where they have already started to remove those who didn’t make it through the winter.

When the bees start winter, they form a mass in the center of the bottom of the hive. They use their wings to keep the temperature constant and to create heat – hard work in very cold weather. Their only purpose is to keep the queen protected and alive, and they will keep their wings moving 24 hours a day to that end. They do not hibernate. As the winter progresses, the mass will move up the hive, dictated by the food they have stored away. They need to have enough depth of hive and enough food stores to last them through the entire winter. Once they get to the top, you know they have run out of food, and it becomes time to feed them, which we do every spring.

Female bloom on hazelnut tree.
So it’s early March in the Okanagan. This year, our snow is gone. The temperatures are above normal. The bees are out and about... and to our great surprise and greater joy, they are already bringing in pollen... a LOT of pollen. There are no flowers, no grasses, no crops. There are no leaves on any of the trees yet, although the leaf buds are definitely swelling. So, where are they finding pollen?

Believe me, it’s there, but the flowers are so small, you really have to look for them. The first source for them is the wonderful, woolly pussy willows. Remember how, as kids, we would cut them and bring them in, the first true confirmation that winter has passed, spring was coming as promised, and life was going on? It’s understandable, but please remember, these little fluff balls are critical to bees early in the season, so leave some for them. This is the source of the deep yellow pollen they are packing into our hives right now.

Female hazelnut flower with male catkin in background

The second source would be hazelnut trees. Most people never notice the blooms on them... they are early in the year, when people aren’t looking for blooms on anything, but they are there. The hazelnut tree has both male and female flowers, the female being a very small star-like purple flower on the end of the bud. Hanging around these little ladies are long, thick catkin, about 8 inches long. In reality, the tree is NOT pollinated by bees at all. The plant is designed so that the wind does all the work, but there is so much pollen on the male catkins, that it is a true feast for the bees. The bees have absolutely nothing to do with the small, delicate female flowers. The catkins would be the source for the paler yellow pollen being stored away in our hives.

Hazelnut tree with catkins evident. 
Our search isn’t done. Today we saw they are bringing in bright red pollen. The search is on to find the source of that! The top of our suspect list is the weeping willow.