5/3 Bank, Thanks for Feeding my Honeybees!

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I know I just said no more bee posts for a while, but I don’t often get an opportunity to randomly thank a local business for doing something environmentally friendly. I was just at 5/3 bank near Harlem and North in chicago. I think every bee in the neighborhood, including bumblebees, orchard mason bees, honeybees and several kinds I couldn’t identify, were busy working the flowers planted around an otherwise grey concrete parking lot. Given the fact that my Sweet Melissa hive sits less than a mile away, chances are pretty good that at least a few of these honeybees are mine.

The plant that was so popular appeared to be something in the mint family and I’d love to know for sure. I wonder did the 5/3 Bank landscapers know they were going to feed bees or were they just looking for an easy, long flowering, drought resistant plant?  

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Anyway, when local businesses use plants like these around an otherwise lifeless expanse of grey concrete parking lot, they not only make it more inviting for their customers, but play an important role in the local ecosystem. I think these parking lot landscaping areas can and should serve multiple purposes. In fact they play a vital role in providing habitat for creatures that wouldn’t otherwise make it in an urban environment.

5/3 Bank, Whether you meant to feed my bees or not, thanks for the bee food!

A Tale of Two Queens

On June first I did a hive inspection that revealed no visible queen, no new eggs, and most of the capped brood hatched. So I figured most likely their attempt at supecedure failed and there was a real emergency in the hive. The bees were still very busy but not moving up or building new comb. However, I believe the cold rainy weather would have prevented them from doing much foraging. So, knowing that as soon as I put my money down on a fancy new queen from Texas (a Buckfast queen from BeeWeaver apiary, raised without chemical treatments and disease resistant) my locally raised lady would show herself.
On Saturday, May 25th I took advantage of a brief break in the rain to do an inspection. I wasn’t looking for the queen, rather I was trying to locate new eggs, which resemble tiny grains of rice sticking up from the bottom of the cells. Or, for tiny c-shaped grubs. I can see how I might have missed eggs, but larva I would have recognized. As I stared into a frame of bees debating whether I should brush some off to get a closer look at the actual comb (it is a bit difficult to see minuscule rice grains when hundreds of bees are crawling on them) when Sweet Melissa! She practically jumped out at me. She was gorgeous-most definitely the largest bee in the hive. Her workers fell behind her at a respectful distance (so as not to get in the way of laying eggs)? Yet they followed her every move. I watched her for a while hoping to see her laying eggs, thus giving me faith that my hive was, indeed, queenright. Alas, while she carefully inspected several cells, she did not back up and lay an egg.

So now, my situation was not so clear-cut. I could try to cancel my queen order before she shipped, but what if my local girl was poorly mated? Then I’d run the risk of not being able to get a viable queen in time. I could kill this queen while I had her in my sights, but what if they rejected the Texan Queen? The local girl, at the very least, had strong queen pheromones and ran a tight ship in the hive. Frankly, with the shortage of queens between Andy’s hives and mine, she seemed way too valuable to kill without making really sure she couldn’t make the cut. At least she wasnt a laying worker. Plus, I just couldn’t bring myself to kill this beautiful young queen. She looked perfect, large, plump, and rather dark in color, kind of like chocolate with a little bit of honey colored banding on her abdomen. Her mother, the Carniolan queen who came with my package of bees from Apple Blossom Honey Farm, was darker brown still. I know I was totally anthropomorphizing, but after all of the work the hive did to successfully raise their own queen, and given the fact that it was the very first time I’d seen a queen active in her hive, I couldn’t bring myself to murder her. I just had the strong feeling that these bees were going to be fine, and I was going to make matters worse by messing with them.

As it turns out, I was very wise to leave well enough alone. A few days later, on June 5th, my little Texan Queen arrived. She was actually quite a bit smaller than the one in my hive already, but she arrived looking spry and healthy and with all of her attendants alive and well. My brother Andy and I talked it over and we decided to attempt something rather difficult under the circumstances…make a nucleus hive from my hive using the new queen and some combs of honey and bees from my hive.  It would be great if it worked, since Andy lost 3 out of the 4 hives he ordered. If my hive was unable to right itself, I’d have this nuc ready to requeen it, and if my hive was fine, then Andy would get a nuc to hopefully grow into a full size hive for his blueberry farm, and we’d introduce some good genetics into the mix. However, this was an iffy proposition for a few reasons and, both being newbies, we thought we had a shot at making it work when it was probably a very long shot at best. If not flat-out impossible.

One, it is recommended that the new nuc hive be moved as far away as possible (a few miles!) from the parent hive so as to prevent the bees from simply flying home. Two, you are supposed to make such splits from a strong hive and provide eggs, brood and bees of all ages. This was impossible because my hive at the time had no new eggs and no capped brood, only adult bees. So, feeling like I was sending the Texan Queen to certain doom yet unable to bring myself to kill my local queen to make room for her, I built the nuc hive and hoped for the best. At the very least, they had plenty of food. I screened the nuc shut for a few days to  give some chance at the bees acclimating to their new home. My worst fear was that I would kill my Buckfast queen with a sloppy split AND my local queen would be a dud!

I waited a week. It rained and was cold several days during that week. I first opened up the nuc, and my worst fears were confirmed! The bees had eaten every spec of candy in the queen cage and she had indeed been released, but it was a sad picture in the hive. There were dead bees on the bottom of the hive, but it looked like most of them just went home to Sweet Melissa. The Texan queen was not found among the dead in the hive, so I do not know what happened to her.  Unfortunately I think the hive was not watertight and that was what did them in… some of the bees that remained were kind of soggy and the hive was damp. This attempt was a dismal failure, and I was crushed. Bad beekeeper!

Next, I took a deep breath and opened up Sweet Melissa. I went carefully frame by frame, and they were moving up to the next level, drawing out comb beautifully! When I got to the heart of the hive, on the very same frame I had seen her on before, was the queen. Only this time, she was laying eggs! I still didn’t actually see the eggs, but she was very diligently backing into each cell and doing SOMETHING. So I closed up my hive, fairly confident it was finally queenright! Yay!

On Sunday, June 16 did one more quick inspection, just to verify that there were eggs being laid. I didn’t even make it down to the bottom. There were 3 combs of capped brood in the second brood box, with a perfect solid laying pattern. The queen must have moved up to the second box practically after I closed up the hive, for the previous week that had been freshly drawn comb!  I was elated! This queen is not a dud! Not only had they gotten a good start on the second box, but the bees had moved up into the third box and were drawing out comb. I went from worrying about the survival of the hive to thinking, “hey, I’d better get another medium honey super ready a.s.a.p.! I might actually get to harvest a little honey!” I am also pleased to say that this locally raised queen is raising a bunch of really gentle bees. If anything, the hive has gotten less defensive and even more chilled out than before. Although I am noticing that the hive is getting more sticky with propolis. Andy’s bees liked to glue together everything…could it be the drones from his hive saved the day by being available to mate when the local drones weren’t out yet? Maybe hives with laying workers have something to contribute to the bee ecosystem after all? All pure speculation, but these things cross my mind.

So, I now have one strong, queenright hive. Other than checking to see when I need to add another honey super, I’m not going to do another complete inspection for another few weeks.

As for the little Buckfast Queen from Texas? I hated sending her off to certain death. Thinking I could make a split under such bad conditions was wishful thinking and I wish I hadn’t spent the money. Hindsight is 20/20 I guess.  I hope I’m never in that situation again. I hope that between Andy and I we’ll always have enough bees and queens to go around. Next year I’d love to order from BeeWeaver Apiary again and learn a bit more about the Buckfast bee…they seem really cool. I really like the Carniolans I have now, and would most certainly order from Apple Blossom Honey Farm again.

So, I think I’m going to take a break from writing about bees for a little while and do a few posts about some other cool things…like salad tables, tomatoes, and artists. Or maybe about artists who like salad tables and tomatoes. Or maybe I’ll talk about food and recipes. We’ll see.

But I’ll definitely let you know if I harvest any honey ; )

Meet Sweet Melissa

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I know this is a bit backward, but I’m a bit behind in my blogging. The first  video is of me feeding  my bees in the Sweet Melissa hive. I had just finished shaking the bees into their new home.  The second video is me feeding them again about a week later, after cold and stormy weather had finally broken. The plastic Ziploc baggie contains organic cane sugar and a bee attractant. The bee attractant was meant to be placed in the garden to attract and feed pollinating bees and other insects, so I thought they would like that. Plus I read that bees like herbs and some beekeepers put thyme and other herbs in their sugar syrup, so I put a few leaves of dried thyme from last year’s garden in there.  I later learned that the organic sugar may not be all that good for them…there are too many solids in the unprocessed evaporated cane juice that may cause dysentery in bees. So I ended up switching to plain, white, bleached overprocessed sugar to make my syrup, which they took much more eagerly, along with a pollen patty meant for feeding honeybees in the hive (my brother had extra and shared them with me). These are emergency survival foods meant to give a new hive enough calories and protein to survive until enough plants bloom to provide nectar and pollen. A new box of package bees has not a spec of honeycomb built nor a drop honey stored, so if plants aren’t blooming yet, they will quickly starve.

What I realized is that putting bees from unrelated hives in a box with an unrelated queen, shipping them in a truck hundreds of miles and shaking them into a brand new hive, is a highly inorganic, unnatural process anyway. Trying to make it natural by giving them organic sugar, while well-intentioned on my part, really wasn’t going to change that fact. In the future I will stick to plain ‘ole bad for you processed white sugar, if I need to feed sugar syrup. As long as it is pure cane sugar, for I’ve read that beet-derived sugar can cause the same type of dysentery as the brown organic stuff. But I will add a couple of thyme leaves, because I haven’t read anything bad about that and they seemed to really like it. Actually, in the future I hope to be able to have a backup stock of frozen frames of honey harvested from my own hives, so if I want to start a new package of bees I can give them real bee food…honey in the comb. It is not recommended to feed bees honey from an unknown source since it could carry bee diseases, so I can’t take a honey bear off the shelf of the grocery store and stick that in the hive!

I ended up feeding them in the hive for several weeks and placing feeding stations with the ziplock baggies in my yard, along with a shallow tray of rocks with water (that can be seen in the second video), both of which they eagerly visited until the second or third week of May. Then they abruptly stopped eating and drinking at those stations. I removed the food but not the water station. Given how expensive bee feeders can be, and the fact that my bees sucked the baggies dry both inside the hive and in my yard, I don’t see any reason to invest in any type of feeders at this point.