Bee journal, week one

Yesterday at the farmer’s market many people asked me how the bees were doing, so here is an update:

The feeder cans we were using belong to the club so we needed to give them back. Ted made feeders to replace them which we hung in front of the hives. Then he made entrance feeders. These have a piece that goes into the actual entrance of the hive so that only the bees in that hive can use the feeder. Stedman’s sells them, but they had sold out before we arrived on package day, and anyway it’s more fun to make your own.

Right after we hived the bees the nightime temps dropped to near freezing – I stayed awake one night worrying about the hives. This is why we continued to feed. That, and our concern that the new hive get started out comfortably; we took Italian bees raised in California and dumped them in an empty box in Washington state, so it was an understandable worry.

Entrance feeder

Entrance feeder

Every day when the temperature hits 50 the foragers start heading out. Mid-day when the sun is out the air fills with bees whizzing around. It really does look like a bee highway. I haven’t seen them on any plants nearby, they’re going out in all directions and coming back, and since they can forage up to three miles they could be anywhere. Ted has seen bees with pollen in their baskets (part of the hind leg where pollen collects). He’s also seen a pollen cake dropped by one bee and picked up by another. So we know they’re getting pollen and nectar. The big discussion now is when we stop feeding. On the one hand, it’s still cold and rainy. On the other hand, we saw a drone, so we could be overfeeding. We’re going to feed for another week and re-evaluate.

We hived the bees on Saturday April 16. On Wednesday April 20 we made our next big move. I put on the bee suit, Ted put on a veil and gloves, and we did the work in the afternoon sunshine. We haven’t used a smoker – we don’t own one, we want to try to get by without it. We talked through what we were going to do before we did it, so that when we did the work we could move deliberately and steadily, and open the hive the least amount of time. We removed the top of the hive, moved some of the top bars from behind the false back, moved the false back, and then carefully pried open the two bars where the queen box was suspended to pull out the queen box. This was heart-pounding because that’s where the Big Ball Of Bees was centered. In both hives we found the queen box empty, so the workers did eat the marshmellow and release the queen. We moved the false back to the end of the hive, replaced the top bars, and closed the hive. Both hives were only open five minutes or so.

Since then we have been watching the hives for hours on end. This is way better than television. We run out and look at them first thing in the morning. We have many questions that can only be answered by observation and experience. For example, did the bees accept the queens? I think so because the hives are industrious, and whatever has happened, both hives are the same. I really see the wisdom of having two hives to compare to each other.

The most burning question was, are they drawing comb? I had read bee forum and blog accounts of bees abandoning a top bar hive in the first few days, so I was worried whether they would stick with us. The Big Ball Of Bees in both hives seemed to be getting bigger so we thought they were. Yesterday afternoon when we looked in the windows of both hives we could actually see the comb. Woot! We spent all night saying, “We’ve got comb!”

We’re busily planting for the bees. The hives are behind the garage in a clearing we have been reclaiming from invasives. We’re down to the grasses now, and rather than using glysophate on them, we’re trying a Master Gardener idea and seeding red clover. This winter we mulched the front lawn with cardboard, leaves, straw, and then dirt, and planted a cover crop which has just started to take hold. I’ve ordered enough lavender plants to fill the yard, and if I can grow them correctly when they bloom in a year or two the bees should love them.

So now the bees are settled into their hives, and we’re settled into watching them. We have adopted the natural beekeeping approach (AKA barefoot beekeeping, AKA bee guardian) where we leave the bees alone and try to help them thrive. We’re going to diligently work to get them through swarm season in June and then take them through the winter. The big honey payoff in top bar hives comes in the second year so we have no expectations for this year. The books all say that top bar hives require more monitoring than other kinds of hives, but as we are watching them continually for fun this is really not an issue.

On the mason bee front, the day we hived the honey bees I saw female bees. I’ve seen a few female bees going in and out of the tubes so there is activity. I haven’t seen one actually finished and capped yet though. The mason bee house is in the same area as the honey bee hives. They checked each other out this week, we saw mason bees at the hives and honey bees at the tubes. I don’t know if they can peacefully co-exist, we will find this out. I haven’t seen bumblebees in the area, although I saw several queens earlier this spring.

Sometimes when we are sitting and watching the bees one of the big slow ones comes and flies around us. I swear it feels as if the hive is checking us out. The natural beekeeping books and forums recommend hanging out with the hive so it gets used to you. The Barefoot Beekeeper recommends listening to the hive and smelling it. Ted’s listening, I’m smelling. We’re happy as bees in clover!

Edit Monday 4/25: FYI, the West Sound Beekeepers Association list noted that we should be feeding as there is not enough in bloom just now to support the bees.

Big ball of bees seen through hive window

Big ball of bees seen through hive window

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