It seems like half the bloggers I read regularly are starting bees this year. So I figure there are even more people out there interested in the process of getting ready for the first arrival of our bees. With less than a week to go until our packages arrive, we're hurrying to finish up our preparations.
This weekend we painted cinder blocks with used motor oil. This is almost as gross as it sounds, but there are - allegedly - a couple of good reasons for doing so. We're going to set our beehives on top of these blocks. The oil coating will apparently help minimize the wicking of moisture from the ground up to the wooden boxes of the hive. Also, it's supposed to deter ants from climbing up to the hive in search of honey to rob. A full colony of ants can overwhelm a honey bee colony, and that's one of the many things I'd like to prevent. The other tip I heard about keeping ants and other ground insects out of the hives is to use a water moat around whatever the hive stands on. But that would have to be either a pretty big moat, or four smaller moats for each hive. And besides, I just know that I'd forget to fill it, or a branch would fall in and create a safe passage. So we're trying this. I don't know if it will work for the insects, but it at least seemed plausible for reducing the transfer of ground water. I'll report later on whether it seemed to work.
Also in the interest of preventing rot, I put a couple coats of primer on the bottom of the bottom boards, which will be resting against the cinder block stands. We're using screened bottom boards for improved ventilation, and as a non-toxic partial control for varroa mites. (Any mites that fall off bees in the hive will theoretically fall through the screen and out of the hive, never to return. Apparently they neither fly nor crawl very well.) The other advantage of the screened bottom board is that it gives us a little more leeway in getting the hives level. A solid bottom board catches rain and condensation, which requires the hive to be tilted ever so slightly towards the opening in the bottom board. We don't need to worry about that with a screened bottom board. We'll just do the best we can to make the hive level and leave it at that. Having the frames fairly plumb is important as the bees will do their best to draw perfectly vertical comb, and I'd sure like that comb to be more or less neatly inside the frames.
Yes, we got a little whimsical with the painting. Just wait till you see all the boxes stacked up together.
We also laid a very large sheet of synthetic felt on the ground where the hives will be placed. This was part of the packaging that our passive solar heating system shipped in; so a good instance of re-purposing. The idea is that it's heavy enough and densely matted enough to prevent anything growing up through it. (Of course, old carpeting or new carpet remnants would work just as well.) That means that I don't have to mow or weed in the immediate area of the hives. Less maintenance, and I can keep a respectful distance with the lawn mower, not to mention, a little more lawn eradication. Bees really, really don't like any knocks or direct vibration applied to their hives, so keeping a decent margin that needs no yardwork is a good idea. We situated this in an area where the grass wasn't growing all that well anyway due to being shaded for much of the day. The hives will get early morning sun and very late afternoon sun, but be shaded during the hottest part of the day.
By the way, we had to choose between conflicting recommendations for situating and orienting the hives. Our first instructor recommended morning sun and shade for much of the rest of the day. Summers in our area are usually quite hot. Wax can actually melt in the hive if the temperature gets too high. Plus, bees will expend energy trying to keep the hive cool if it gets too warm. So the hive boxes need to be painted in light colors and all day sun is a risk. But morning warmth gets the bees going early, which can give them a competitive edge with other nectar- and pollen-collecting insects. On the other hand, our last instructor mentioned that colonies situated in full sun seem to have some advantage in fighting off varroa mites. In the end, we found the logic of the first instructor more compelling than yet another factor in the varroa war. But if you're in a cooler climate, it might make sense to put your hives where they'll get sun all day long. As for orientation, everyone seems to agree that the entrance of the hive should face southeast. On the other hand there's also the theory that bees will first follow a path straight out of the hive entrance in search of food. Since I know my property hasn't been treated with any nasty chemicals, I'd like the primary flight path to be over our land. That direction would be almost due west. So that's a decision we're going to have to make pronto.
I spent a few hours carefully nailing the side bars of 120 frames to the top bars of said frames. If you're a beekeeper, you know what the equipment looks like. If not, don't worry about it. Basically, it's just insurance to keep the frames from being ripped apart by me during hive inspection. Bees sometimes glue things together in a hive with propolis, their house-made glue. It's a very strong glue, more than capable of keeping the majority of a frame in the hive while the top bar is pried off. The work was a little tedious, but not as difficult as I had feared.
We still need a little preventative protection from the one honey bee predator common to this area. Skunks will approach bee hives at night, scratch the hive body, and wait for guard bees to emerge to investigate. Then the skunks eat the bees, leaving few if any indications of their visit. Obviously, this drains the lifeblood of the colony. There are a number of options open to the beekeeper to protect the colony from skunks. One is to raise the base of the hive more than 18" above the ground, placing it out of reach of the predator. Top bar hives accomplish this as an element of their design. Another is to use no bottom board on the hive at all, which allows the bees to emerge en masse and confront the skunk in strength. This is feasible for a strong, well established colony. A weak or new colony of bees cannot adequately defend so large an opening in the hive from other insects that would rob out the honey. The last option is to place a nail bed in front of the hive, creating a decidedly unwelcome mat for any nighttime marauder. This is the one we've decided on. It just needs to get done.
We're also still short an entrance reducer for one of the hives. We'll make do by stuffing a piece of cloth in the opening until a wooden one arrives. Entrance reducers are used to narrow the hive opening for small colonies, until their numbers increase so that they can adequately defend their honey stores. Of course, early on, my colonies won't have much to defend so this shouldn't be all that critical.
Last minute preparations will include mixing up a feeding solution for my packages. I'll get this done either the night before they arrive, or first thing in the morning before I go pick them up.
I've got to say that getting ready for the honey bees has been a lot more work than I had anticipated. Partly this is due to the type of hive I chose, the Langstroth. This is by far the most common type of hive in use in the US. A topbar hive might have saved me a good deal of this work. But then, there may be other drawbacks to that style that I'm unaware of. In any case, I'm way, way behind on getting my seeds started this spring. Frankly I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed. I'm playing catch up as best I can, but I'm probably going to succumb and opt to buy some seedlings as well.