Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hive Division

Since I got lucky this year and my hives didn't all die over the winter, I get to do hive divisions this year!  Since I've never done them before I decided to start at home in case I made a real disaster of the procedure.

Hive division is the beekeeper's method of controlling colony growth and preventing swarming, which happens when a hive becomes too small for the number of bees. Throughout the year, but especially in the spring, a beekeeper looks for signs of the hive getting too crowded.

 In nature, when the colony becomes too big for the cavity in which it lives, the colony will communicate that swarming -more commonly called supersedure in beekeeping- is imminent and several queen cells will be made and the eggs laid in them will be tended as "queen cells".  This is done in order to raise a new queen for the colony that stays behind.

Though the eggs in the queen cells is the same as every other egg in the brood nest, these larvae will be fed differently than the others.  The difference in the quantity and quality of the food fed to the larvae is what determines the caste of the bee, as the increased frequency and greater nutrition leads to hormone system functionality in queen larvae that does not develop in the larvae of worker bees.

Specifically, the food provided to the queen cells -often called "royal jelly"- contains a much higher rate of mandibular gland secretions of the attendant nurse bees than do worker larvae, it also contains more sugars.  Additionally, the queen larvae are fed much more frequently than the workers.  According to the wonderful book 'Biology of the Honey Bee' by Mark L. Winston (currently the definitive book on honey bee biology), "...queens literally swim in a sea of brood food."

Queen larvae surrounded by royal jelly in their cells

This quantitative and qualitative difference in nutrition stimulates the stretch receptors of the mid-gut of the larva, which leads to an increased release of "juvenile hormone" by the larva's corpora allata, a large organ located in the esophagus.  The juvenile hormone in turn influences the production of other hormones active in the development of the bees cardio system, the brain and the nervous system.  All of this happens quite quickly, as the caste of a larva is decided by the fourth day of development.

Back to the topic of divisions...

Once a queen has laid eggs in queen cells and the colony knows that supersedure is underway, the queen will leave the hive and take the older half of the worker bees with her.  The colony will leave behind enough food and enough nurse bees to continue tending the brood in the hive.  As these nurse bees age, they will become foragers for the colony left behind.

When the queen larvae become pupae, their cells are capped and they continue to develop within the cells, out of sight.  Because the queen is substantially larger than a worker bee, the queen cells are built out on the face of the frame, hang slightly downward and are readily identifiable.  Supersedure cells are built on the bottom of the frame.

Supersedure (queen) cells hanging from the bottom of the frame
(Leominster Beeman)

The first of the queens to hatch will then kill the other queens in their cells, makes her "virgin flight" and then begin laying eggs for the colony. 

Meanwhile, the swarm of bees -the departing queen and workers that have left the hive with her- will cluster on a tree branch.  While they are huddled, scout bees are going out to look for a new cavity in which to establish their nest.

A swarm of honey bees
(Leominster Beeman)

A swarm of bees is very vulnerable and since the bees have neither a nest nor brood to defend, they are very docile.  Once a scout has found a good spot for the new nest, the swarm will move  to that location and begin to build honey and brood comb and the queen will begin laying eggs. A new hive established.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

First Queen Pick-Up!

After waiting for a call from Doug at Cannon Bee regarding the delivery of the Buckfast Italian Queens, I called him on Tuesday and guess what?  The Queens have been there for nearly a week...since the bee packages arrived.  Since I didn't order any packages, he didn't call me in spite of my having been there to pick up Queen separators the week before.

I went over tonight and picked up the Queens.  I was supposed to get eight, but two had died so I only got six.  The entire situation is making me nervous because if two perished in the hours between my call and my picking them up, how long do I have to get these Queens installed and will they flourish?

The stress these creatures are under is inestimable, sitting in a tiny plastic cage next to other Queens (they like to be one to a hive, remember) tended by a small cluster of workers.  The sooner I can hive them, the better.

 This is how the Queens are sent in bulk by the breeder via UPS or US Mail

 Inside the box are stands holding the Queen cages.  To the left bees are feeding on sugar and the white is a damp paper towel from which they drink

Worker bees feed the Queens through the holes in the Queen cages

Meanwhile I am working on responding to emails from folks inquiring about the Hive Host program.  I have had a HUGE response from a posting new Hive Host Theresa R. put on the Master Gardener listserv and that has been wonderful.  Not only did we gain another chicken yard with Theresa, but a great ally in our struggle to keep the honey bee in action.  She also has an amazing yard of wonderful plantings.  Photos to come!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Lilac Season!

The weather seems to have returned to "normal" spring temperatures and wetness, which is somewhat of a relief after the very strange spring we've been having. The lilacs are blooming and smell heavenly, but I didn't see any honey bees taking advantage of the blossoms yesterday late afternoon.  

Today was bright and sunny with temperatures in the mid-sixties, so maybe they were collecting lilac nectar today, although I haven't seen any bees on the tree.  Whatever they are collecting, they are mighty busy, which makes me happy.  I am hoping that they get a lot of brood hatched and more developing before my splits, which I expect to do this week-end, although I haven't heard anything from Doug at Cannon Bee regarding the arrival of the queens.

I was occupied ALL week-end, day and night, by some fascinating events at the University of MN, but all I could think about were my bees, worrying about the upcoming colony divisions and wishing that I could go visit the bee yards just to check in.  I was glad when, on Saturday, it rained.

One of my former Hive Hosts, Nissa, emailed me today to say that her split of the hive that she took over from me went well and that the new hive, located on their second floor balcony, seems to be doing well.  

This is probably the bee yard with the densest population around it and it thrills me to see it growing.

Also blooming this week for the bee's delight are the dandelion, which is usually the first nectar source here in Minnesota.  It's a late-comer this year, but I'm sure that they are happy to see it anyway.  Violets are in bloom and the Bleeding Heart is opening, though I don't know what kind of nectar source that is.

Dandelion...plenty of them here!

Bleeding Heart "Alba"

The violets that have taken over the back yard

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Planting for Pollinators

One of the easiest ways for people to help out native pollinators and honey bees is to plant for them in their yards and gardens.  How?  

Check out the plant list for the Upper Midwest featured on The Xerces Society web site:
Invertebrate Conservation Fact Sheet

Upper Midwest Plants for Native Bees

Written by Eric Mader & Matthew Shepherd

  • Pollinators are a vital part of a healthy environment.
  • Native bees are North America's most important group of pollinators.
  • Patches of flowers can be grown almost anywhere and will form an important food resource for bees.
Pollinators are a diverse and fascinating group of animals.  In addition to their beauty, pollinators provide an important link in our environment by moving pollen between flowers and ensuring the growth of seeds and fruits.  The work of pollinators touches our lives every day through the food we eat.  Even our seasons are marked by their work: the bloom of springtime meadows, summer berry picking, pumpkins in the fall.

Native bees are the most important group of pollinators.  Like all wildlife they are affected by changes in our landscapes.  The good news is that there are straightforward things that you can do to help: providing patches of flowers is something that we all can do to improve our environment for these important insects.  Native plants are undoubtedly the best source of food for bees, but there are also some garden plants that are great for pollinators.

This fact sheet will help you provide flowers that these vital creatures need and make the landscape around us -from small urban backyards to large natural areas- better for bees.  Below you'll find a simple guide to selecting plants for bees.

For more information, visit our web site where you will find other fact sheets and more detailed guidelines on how to enhance habitat for pollinators.  You'll also find information about the Pollinator Conservation Handbook.

Choosing the Right Flowers

To help bees and other pollinator insects -like butterflies- you should provide a range of plants that will offer a succession of flowers, and thus pollen and nectar, through the whole growing season.  Patches of foraging habitat can be created in many different locations, from backyards and school grounds to golf courses and city parks.  Even a small area planted with the right flowers will be beneficial, because each patch will add to the mosaic of habitat available to bees and other pollinators.

In such a short fact sheet it is not possible to give detailed lists of suitable plants for all areas of the Upper Midwest.  Below are two lists of good bee plants, the first of native plants and the second of garden plants.  Both are short lists; there are many more bee-friendly plants.  However, these lists, combine with the following notes, will get you started on selecting good bee plants.  Your local chapters of the Wild Ones, the Native Plant Society and native plant nurseries are worthwhile contacts for advice on choosing, obtaining, and caring for local plant species.
  • Use local native plants.  Research suggests native plants are four times more attractive to native bees than exotic flowers.  In gardens, heirloom vaireties of herbs and perennials can also provide good foraging.
  • Choose several colors of flowers.  Flower colors that particularly attract native bees are blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow.
  • Plant flowers in clumps.  Flowers clustered into clumps of one species will attract more pollinators than individual plants scattered throught the habitat patch.  Where space allows, make the clumps four feet or more in diameter.
  • Include flowers of different shapes.  Bees are all different sizes, have didfferent tongue lengths, and will feed on different shaped flowers.  Consequently, providing a range of flower shapes means more bees can benefit.
  • Have a diversity of plants flowering all season.  By having several plant species flowerihng at once, and a sequence of plants flowering through spring, summer, and fall, you can support a range of bee species that fly at different times of the season.

Native Plants

Native plants should be your first choice to help our native bees.  Listed below are some plants that are good sources of nectar and pollen for bees.  This list is not exhaustive; there are many other plants good for bees.  Individual species have not been included.  Not all of these genera will have species in your local area, but they do represent plants that will grow in a variety of environments.  Use a wildflower guide or contact local nurseries to find your local species.

Aster                                   Aster     
Beebalm                            Monarda
Blazing star                        Liatris
Cup plant                           Silphium
Wild indigo                        Baptisia
Fireweed                          Chamerion
Goldenrod                        Solidago
Giant hyssop                    Agastache
Ironweed                          Vernonia
Joe Pye weed                 Eupatorium
Leadplant                        Amorpha
Lobelia                            Lobelia
Lupine                             Lupinus
Milkweed                        Asclepias
New Jersey tea             Ceanothus
Obedient plant               Physostegia
Penstemon                   Penstemon
Prairie clover               Dalea
Purple coneflower       Echinacea
Rattlesnake master    Eryngium
Spiderwort                  Tradescantia
Steeplebush               Spirea
Sunflower                   Helianthus
Willow                         Salix

Garden Plants

Flower beds in gardens, business campuses, and parks are great places to have bee-friendly plants.  Native plants will create a beautiful garden but some people prefer "garden" plants.  Many garden plants are varieties of native plants.  This list includes plants from other countries -"exotic" plants- and should be used as a supplement to the native plant list.  As with this native plants, this list is far from exhaustive.

Basil                              Ocimim
Borage                         Borago
Catmint                        Nepta
Cosmos                      Cosmos
Lavender                     Lavendula
Oregano/Marjorum    Origanum
Rosemary                  Rosmarinus
Russian sage            Perovskia
Spearmint                 Mentha  
Squill                          Scilla

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
4828 SE Hawthorne Boulevard
Portland, OR 97215

Monday, April 16, 2012

Chilly weather!

30 F this morning and as we headed off to school snow flurries were falling from the gray skies and it was weather that was going to keep any bee from leaving the hive.  All of the fruit trees that were being pollinated yesterday are being stiffed today.

This afternoon I posted a recruitment message for Hive Hosts on COMGAR, the University of MN Community Garden list serve.  So far all I've received is the automated response letting me know that my message has been forwarded for approval, but I'm hoping that some of the community gardens or some of the intensive gardeners will come forward to join the fun.

I'm thinking of posting something at Lake Country School and maybe the Wedge as well...

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Gardening Matters!

My friend Amie and I signed up this year to be part of Gardening Matters Local Food Resource Hubs network. Today we went to Powderhorn Park (a stone's throw from the Dalal-Whelan hive!) and picked up our garden seeds and some seedlings.  

It was a beautiful sunny day and everyone was very excited about getting into the dirt.  We picked up packets for reporting our production back to Gardening Matters for them to track, which should  be fun and a reason to stay on track.

On our way out we stood by one of the big blooming crab apple trees, which was a hub of activity, no pun intended.  There were tiny pollinators, butterflies, Bumble bees and even honey bees at work collecting the goods!

If you don't know about Gardening Matters, you should check them out.   

According to the web site:

Gardening Matters is a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and preserving community gardening across the Twin Cities by connecting gardeners to each other and to the communities in which they reside. We provide training and resources to support community gardeners in achieving community gardens that are successful and sustainable.

We do this by  connecting gardeners to each other (no better resource than each other!) by hosting the community gardener listserv (COMGAR) where gardeners share opportunities and advice. And sharing information about the region's wealth of community gardens through our online map.

The Local Food Resource Hubs network  supports residents to grow their own fresh produce, helping to ensure greater food security and healthy food access.  They distribute seeds and seedlings, teach classes on gardening, processing and storing food and connect like-minded folks seeking a safer, sustainable food system.

Today I sent a message to COMGAR, the Community Garden listserv, asking for interested parties to consider the Hive Host program.  I'm hoping to connect with Community Gardens and individuals because I have eight more hives to place, hopefully in south Minneapolis.

Orientation Flights

What a day to be a bee!  The sun was out and there was nearly no wind and the temperature hit the 70s F.  There must be brood hatching in the white hive in the backyard because there was a sudden flurry of orientation flights about 2:30 PM which was quite a sight!

The pear and cherry trees are still blooming, but they are nearly finished.  Hopefully a day like today affords the bees plenty of time to pollinate to make up for chilly, damp weather we've been having on and off all week.

On our bike ride to the Birchwood Cafe (one block from the Konar-Steenberg hive!) Louis fell over on his bike and hit his arm on the sidewalk.  Teacup fracture of the humerus; two weeks in a sling.  I guess he won't be helping me with hive divides.  ;)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Plenty of Food

The weather this year is perplexing to nearly everyone.   One day it is 65 F and sunny and the bees are coming and going laden with pollen and nectar and the next day it is under 40 F and not one bee is out.  

I'm not worried about the colonies surviving anymore; there is no danger of the brood freezing now and the dandelions are out and the lilacs and tulips are blooming, but I worry a bit about the foragers getting out to bring in the available nectar.  In other words, I'm worrying about taking the bees being able to take advantage of everything that is  blooming so very early.

However, I am grateful for the relative lack of worry this spring.  Let's hope the fickle weather continues to treat the bees and the beekeepers well.