Swarm away!

Friday July 27 at 3:30 PM our hive Tylissos swarmed. They stayed thirty feet or so in that alder until today. It took them four days to make up their minds! At 1:30 they finally started moving. I was at work but Ted reports that he followed them. They went down the creek a ways. He lost them in a yard, but a helpful homeowner permitted him to poke around to try to find them. He didn’t turn them up. He left his phone number in case someone sees them. Beyond those homes are a lot of county woods, so they may have settled into a tree out there. We’ve got a lot of bees out there somewhere this summer.

2012 goals

Looking into the bottom of a Western super

Looking into the bottom of a Western super


This is only our second year in beekeeping. We started with the Backyard Hives DVD on being a bee guardian. We read all the books we could get our hands on about beekeeping in general and natural beekeeping in particular. One interesting thing we learned in joining the local association is that backyard beekeepers all pretty much share the same goals. We all want bees with these characteristics:

  • Locally adapted
  • Disease resistant
  • Fly in rain
  • Overwinter
  • Swarm seldom
  • Need as little feed (sugar water) as possible
  • Make lots of honey so we can take some

It turns out that back yard beekeepers in Washington state mostly share the chemical-free philosophy. The state apprenticeship program out of WSU trains beekeepers in organic treatment methods, like powdered sugar dusting to knock down varroa mites.

After the queen rearing class Ted and I evaluated our approach. The bee guardian idea is to rebuild the strength of the honey bee. That means locally adapted bees. We bought packages of Italians last year and Carniolans this year. These bees come from California, where they did a tour of duty pollinating the almond orchards before heading out to populate back yard hives everywhere.

Ted and I listed our priorities. Disease resistant is a top priority; the packages already came with mites and possibly other diseases, so you’re not going to avoid them, you have to learn how to deal with them. Some of our bees had dysentery, one hive has chalk brood, and we’re not going to use chemicals or antibiotics to treat for those. Swarming does break the varroa mite cycle, so low swarming is a lower priority for us than for beekeepers whose top priority is taking honey.

I made a chart showing the lines of queens (mothers) that we had going in the apiary. We are continuing to work with those lines. We have a line of bees from a Puyallup swarm that is at least two years into local adaptation. However, Jason Deal has been keeping bees locally for twenty years, and has lines of bees from Vermont and from local swarms that he is breeding for the same priorities. So we requeened our weakest hive with one of his Vermont queens. I am hoping to get one of his Gorst queens if he makes them available next year.

The aha! insight I had was that bee guardianship equals queen rearing. We’re also really lucky to have such a supportive association, they’ve really embraced our approach and encouraged us to learn as much as possible and teach immediately!

Top bar hive equipment

Ted has built four top bar hives from the Backyard Hives golden mean hive plans. Everyone thinks they’re pretty. Ted thinks it’s because the golden mean is inherently attractive to people. I think it’s because Ted does pretty work!

Kenyan Top Bar Hive built from Backyard Hive golden mean plans

Kenyan Top Bar Hive built from Backyard Hive golden mean plans

These hives are very easy for beginners to work with. Ted loves being able to look through the window into the hive any time of day or day of the year. Now that I am working with a Western box, which is quite heavy to lift and inspect, I love being able to just lift a single bar and look at it. It’s important to hold it up or turn it on its edge, don’t turn it perpendicular to the ground or the comb will fall off.

Inspecting a top bar

Inspecting a top bar

Before our first hive inspection Ted built a stand to hold up to three bars at a time. This is quite handy!

Top bar stand

Top bar stand

Inspecting a bar on the stand

Inspecting a bar on the stand

When putting bars back into the hive, bees boil out between the comb. The Backyard Hives people teach a little jiggle that will jolly the bees into moving out of the way. We still ended up with squished bees which we want to try to avoid, for several reasons: dead bees piss off the hive. Cleaning up dead bees spreads viruses in the hive and may weaken the hive. Also, it could be the queen.

To handle this problem, Ted cut a thin strip of wood he calls a Bee Barrier. You can push the bars pretty close together, drop the bee barrier between them to gently push the bees down into the hive, push the bars tightly against the barrier, remove the barrier, and finish closing the comb. Voila! No more squished bees.

Bee barrier

Bee barrier

As our skills developed into splitting colonies, we realized we would need a nucleus box. Ted built one that is basically a golden mean hive cut in half. It messes with your head to look at it, because the window is on the short side and the opening is on the long side. If you imagine two of these put together it helps make sense of it!

Top bar nuc

Top bar nuc

When we were asked to do a talk at a farmers market, Ted built an observation hive to hold a single comb. It has plastic sides, ventilation, removable covers for both sides of the box, and a handle for easy toting. This has traveled to a number of events this summer, it’s a crowd pleaser.

Top bar observation hive

Top bar observation hive

Some examples of equipment adapted for top bar use. Not available in stores yet – anyone who wants to make some of this gear can contact us, we’ll be happy to show and share.