Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Further Preparations for Honey Bees

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.


Phillip said...

I've heard conflicting information of where to locate the hive too. Some say as sunny as possible. Other say morning sun with afternoon shade. We have fairly mild summers in St. John's, Newfoundland, so if I can get started this year, I don't think I'll worry about too much sun.

My main problem now is finding a local bee keeper I can talk to. There's only one I know of right now, who happens to be out of town until mid-April, and time is ticking. I think it may be too late to start up a hive by the time I find someone to guide me through it. I wouldn't consider doing it unless I could see a hive up close and speak to someone with practical experience.

I've heard of people starting new hives as late as June. I hope that's the case.

I'll be watching your progress either way.

Chiot's Run said...

Beekeeping is like everything else, everyone has their own opinion of how to do it. We've found we do best by reading various on-line sources and trying to figure things out ourselves in a way that works best for our view of beekeeping. We try to be as noninvasive as possible not fiddling with them. So we don't do all the stuff they tell you to do. We like to watch the bees from outside the hive and only check a few times during the summer.

Our hives were placed up on a cedar base. We're planning on planting creeping thyme around the hives. Figure it might help with mites & other pests. We live in an area with tons of ants and have had no problem with them in our hives.

One great thing about beekeeping is that they're wild insects. They'll do what they think is best and we can only guess what that is. They know what they need to do to survive, and it's fun to watch and see.

And to Phillip, we split our hive last year in July and it was a small hive going into the winter, but they're the stronger hive this spring. We've heard that from many many people (their smaller hives tend to overwinter better). I don't think you have to know a lot going in, it's a learning process and you learn as you go. It's easiest to research problems when you experience them.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Kate -- I LOVE your color scheme! Our hives are a uniform dove gray, because we happened to have exterior paint in that color.

I'd never heard of the motor-oil trick! We're going with diatomaceous earth as ant-repellent. It's less messy, but it may also be less effective. Since we've been warned over and over that bees don't like paint, I'm surprised they don't mind motor oil -- just goes to show, anything goes in the insect world.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for you to get congenial weather when your bees arrive. Good luck!

Kate said...

Phillip, have you looked around for a local beekeeper's association in your area? In the US they're pretty thick on the ground, and a great help to newbie beekeepers just getting started. Surely there must be more than one local beekeeper! Or do you live in a very remote area?

Chiot, that's pretty much what we're doing, reading, listening, and learning, and then sifting through the possibilities to see what feels right to us. I never thought of planting thyme by the hives, though we have a few plants growing in the garden. Interesting idea.

Tamar, I know, all this toxic stuff! With the used motor oil, I figure it's not going to be anywhere *inside* their living space. They can fly, so there's no need for them to land on the icky cinder blocks. And I positioned the entrance so that it projects over the edge of the blocks too. Oh, and really, just wait till you see the colors on all the other boxes. Thanks for wishing me good weather. Long range forecast as of today isn't all that promising, but we'll see...

Phillip said...

Phillip, have you looked around for a local beekeeper's association in your area?

Bee keeping hasn't caught on in Newfoundland yet. Being a big island in the middle of the north Atlantic, it's isolated in more ways than one. There are bee keeping associations just about everywhere else in Canada. I can't even get bee keeping supplies in Newfoundland. I'm pretty much dependent on talking to the one local bee keeper to find out how he did it. So until he's back in town, I'll be brushing up on everything honeybees. If I had the supplies and had a mail-order queen bee on the way, I feel confident I could start up a hive.

pelenaka said...

Hubby building a top bar bee hive has been on the agenda for a few years now. For our situation we will never be able to produce enough honey to recoup our investment this would be more for pollination factor. Until it becomes reality I'll live vicariously thru you.
Bee On !

Amy @ Homestead Revival said...

I'm soaking it all in. Great information.

Rachel said...

We have TONS of ants in our yard. Annoyingly so. You water a tree and they all come piling out and you better hope you aren't wearing sandals because those little boogers bite (and they aren't even fire ants). We have our hives on pallets with rebar legs that standing in tin cans filled with oil to keep the ants out. The cans are then standing on bricks on a flat layer of sand.

J.N. Urbanski said...

We're starting bees this year too. We've ordered ours and have taken delivery of our five hive this week. We're going to do it without pesticides too, although the more I read about the bee problem, the more I think that pesticides in the crops are killing them, especially cotton in California which is one of the top ten harshest crops for chemical use. I'll be reading your blog with interest.

denny said...

Been reading your blog for a while but never commented. Glad to see you're keeping bees!! That said, the used motor oil is very, very bad stuff. I was stunned when I saw that... seems like that might be worse than the problem it solves. Is there no other way? I think I'd first try it without the stuff and see if a problem develops and only use it as a last resort.

Sorry, I do not intend to be negative, especially on my first post! It just seems that if such toxicity must be used it should only be after a potential problem actually becomes a problem.

Good luck with your bees... great work you are doing there!

Kate said...

Pelenaka, given the start up costs for beekeeping, I'm doubtful that we'll ever reach a break even point on this endeavor, even if we factor in better pollination of fruit trees and garden, plus the manuring benefits of bee poop. I'm pretty much coming to regard both the monetary investment and the labor as a form of ecological penance. I know my Catholic roots are showing there, but I've got a lot to atone for.

Thanks, Amy.

Rachel, that sounds like a good strategy. Do you get much rain where you are? We get enough that I suspect it would float the oil out the top of any can, given enough time.

JN, I suspect you're right about the agricultural pesticides being a major if not THE major culprit in what ails the honey bee. I don't suppose there's too much that an individual bee keeper can do about it, other than promote the acceptance of organic practices whenever we get the chance.

Denny, welcome. I appreciate you de-lurkifying yourself and taking a kind tone with your concern. I may be making a huge mistake with the motor oil. I was given to understand that used motor oil isn't much worse than fresh motor oil, except that it's oxidized, or rancid, in other words. Granted, I wouldn't want it spread around my living room, but I don't anticipate that the bees will come into much contact with the soaked blocks themselves. Only the very edges of the bottom board are resting on these blocks. But certainly, if you know of other concerns I should be aware of, please tell me more.

denny said...

Hey Kate,

As I understand, it contains heavy metals as well as dioxin. It is considered to be highly poisonous to animals and I'd guess insects. Google it and you'll come up with LOTS of info. I would remove it and wait to see if you have problems that can be treated no other way.

Good luck.


John Harding said...

Hello Kate

I wish you well in your new venture.

My name is John Harding and live in Stourbridge UK having kept 300 hives up until 6 years ago.

I have kept Honeybees for the past 30 years and found that all beekeepers differ in their management skills, all of them are right even when their wrong as surprise surprise the Honeybees will always put it right, all you are doing is giving them more stress.

Find a local beekeeper that is friendly and avaliable at a moments notice using him or her as your mentor.

Read everything and anything you can and evaluate to suit what is best for you. Remember everyone is right so listen, you never know they just might be right.

I have not treated my colonies for the Varroa mite with no chemicals or sugar for 18 years as the approved treatments where killing my queens so I began my quest to find a natural answer which I am proud to say I have now found.

A natural answer that is free and chemical companies spending millions in trying to find a chemical or bacterial answer to the Varroa mite, CCD or disappearing bees.

I have written a book however if your name isn`t J K Rowling or Einstien it cost loads of money which I do not have.

If anybody out there can help this passionate UK beekeeper then please let me know.

Good luck Kate

John Harding

nina said...

Hi! My husband has been keeping bees for over 20 years. We are now located in San Diego. If you check his website, you will be able to see several videos all about bees and get lots of educational information.
Please let us know what you think!