Our Bees – The Good, Bad and Ugly

Ray and I are fledgling beekeepers – we are newbees!  🙂

We started in this venture two springs ago with our newly built Top Bar Beehive.  We decided to use Top Bar Hives not only because we could make them ourselves (which saves money), but for quite a few other reasons you can read about on my previous blog post about top bar hives HERE.

I thought our first attempt at beekeeping would be successful, but noooo.  I circled in red some of the dead bees that were literally buried face first into the honeycomb, which indicates they were starving, yet there was honey still in the hive!

Lets start with the Bad.  Our first bee colony died.  We were so sad. 🙁  But we had been warned that this might happen, especially since we were new at this.  So what did we do?  We built another Top Bar Beehive and bought TWO bee colonies to populate both the old hive and the new hive.

Those bees did great!  Although we had a serious problem of predation of the bees by bald faced hornets and yellow jackets this last summer, the colonies themselves seemed to be largely uneffected and both entered winter weather fairly strong in numbers.  In fact, to help them along, we insulated the hives with – well – insulation!  And, since too much moisture in a beehive is not good, we placed a few diapers over the top bars, hoping that they would absorb any excess moisture within the hive.  We were trying to cover our bases.  Apparently, this strange approach worked.  We had bees sunning themselves on their doorstep and even foraging on warm sunny winter days!

We packed the rigid insulation in pretty tight, right up to the comb furthest back in the hive, and planned to remove a couple pieces a week as soon as the weather started to warm in the spring and some flowers were starting to bloom.

The Ugly?

Well, this past winter when I was away visiting a friend, Ray decided to spray our orchard with a pesticide that killed tree borers.  A couple of our fruit trees have boring pests in them and we were hoping the spray would help. Although we are trying to be as organic as possible, it was either spray or have dead fruit trees. Our two top bar beehives reside in the orchard, and, unfortunately, Ray forgot to cover the hives before he sprayed.  He didn’t even close their entrance holes!  Uggggghhhhhh!

I wasn’t aware of this until the next day revealed untold carnage.  I couldn’t figure out why our poor girls (all worker bees are girls) were dying by the hundreds outside of the hive! My first thought was that our neighbors, who are pot farmers, had sprayed their crops with pesticide.  But it was too early to have “those” plants out!  But then, when I showed Ray the carnage, he admitted that he had sprayed the fruits trees and forgot to close the hives for a day. Those poor girls weren’t even able to get back inside after they had found pollen for the new brood… they were just too weak from the poison.

These poor little girls didn’t have a chance!  And they worked so hard for that pollen!

Ray endured a few choice words from me, and they weren’t kind words.  Lucky for him, somehow both hives survived, but were undoubtedly weakened.

We are now thinking that the hives shouldn’t actually be in the orchard!  Right next to or even down the lane a bit, but if we ever need to spray ANYTHING on the trees to control a pest or a fungus, it would be better not to have the hives within the spray range.

mistakes in beekeeping

One of our local native bumblebees dancing in the blooming broccoli.

In the middle of March both hives were still alive.  It was still cold and rainy, so we didn’t want to open the hives to see how strong they were, but we certainly didn’t see many bees through the observation windows.

This picture was taken of the new hive (hive #2) after Ray had sprayed the orchard. There were bees still present, but not very many.

I actually thought we had made it through the winter, which is like winning a beekeeper’s medal!

WAHOO!  (happy dance)

Um

Nope

I was watching the hives right around the first of April and noticed that no bees were coming and going from the new hive (hive #2).  It was finally a warmish day, so Ray and I decided to open up the hive and see what was going on.

We were devastated.  It was UGLY!  There were just a few live bees left clinging together in a clump on the comb.  Since they weren’t all dead, we thought it would be best to just close it back up, leave it alone and watch for a few days. Well, a few days later there were no live bees left in the hive.  Bummer.

When I was cleaning out the hive and trying to figure out where we went wrong, I found a huge dead yellow jacket queen in the hive.  She was big and we couldn’t figure out how she had squeezed herself into the hive, but somehow she did.  Worse yet?  There was no brood.  None.  Nada. Who knows how many times the Yellow Jacket queen had come and gone.  Worse yet, there may have been more than just the one yellow jacket queen.  I guess the main reason we are sure the Yellow Jacket(s) was responsible is that while there was no brood, there was still a lot of honey.  Yellow Jackets are huge predators because they are carnivorous and feed insects (or pieces of your picnic hotdog) to their brood. She must have either killed or taken our honeybee queen (we never found her), and stolen all the brood to feed her own.

bull hornet

This is a picture of a Bald Faced Hornet that I took last year. Between this bee predator and the huge queen Yellow Jackets we have, our poor beehives are constantly under attack!

Urrrrgggghhhhhhh!  🙁

We figured this probably happened because the hive was weak due to the spray Ray had used a few weeks before.

Nuts!  Shoot!  &%$#@&%!

I’m not sure what we are going to do about this problem in the future.  We have reduced the entrance to the hives and we have hung numerous wasp traps, but the yellow jackets and hornets keep coming.  We haven’t seen any hornets yet this spring, but we know they will be coming soon.  Anyone have any ideas, because we are just stumped.

The good?  We decided not to give up.  Not yet.  We are almost there, but wanted to try one more time, so we bought one more package to replace the dead colony.  We will be installing those next week.

Installing bees into a top bar hive

Here’s a picture of Ray installing a bee package (3 pounds of worker bees and a queen) last year in the new (#2) hive, which is the one we need to replace. We hope to be successful with the install this year also!

So the saga continues.  We need prayers, good thoughts and some old fashioned luck sent our way, because if we lose these two colonies, we will have to just give up beeing beekeepers!  It’s sad, but sometimes you just have to understand your limits.  Besides, each box of bees and a queen is costing $125, which can make beekeeping a fairly expensive hobby.

Please don’t let me discourage you if you would like to keep bees.  Each situation is different, and I think living in a forest with all the wild creatures to contend with, our situation may be more difficult than others.  However, if you have been a follower for very long, you know that I always “tell it like it is” and prefer not to “sugar coat” anything.  Why tell a story if you can’t tell the truth?

So… any suggestions?

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Terror in my Green Beans!

Have you ever seen one of these?

bull hornet

Um – yeah.  I think they look like the insect equivalent of Freddy Krueger!  It’s called a Bald Face Hornet, or a Bull Hornet, or any number of different names.  Of course, I have a few more off-color names for them that I won’t reveal in this blog because I am a lady, for heaven’s sake.  But let me tell you, these things are menacing!

And they are in my green bean plants!

Thankfully, I have learned the four tones of the different bees in my beans:  The gentle hummmmmm of our honey bees, the annoying buzzzzzzzz of the yellow jackets, the loud “get out of my way!!” vroooooommm that emanates from the carpenter bees and bumble bees, and then the scary, terrorizing, deep and resonating (think Harley-Davidson) rumblerumblerumble of the Bald Face Hornets.

Bald faced hornets in my beans

I have trellised the bean plants to make it easier to reach the beans. So much easier (and safer) than a ladder, and easier to see one of those pesky hornets!

It started about three weeks ago when my green beans were really starting to put on beans.  I had a lot of pollinators buzzing around and was so happy because I knew I was going to have a great crop of beans!  Just like at our home in the valley, the carpenter bees, honey bees and bumble bees are the main pollinators. My beans are planted with cucumbers, amaranth and sugar beets (which are flowering right now), so there is a smorgasbord of pollen for the bees.

Then came the Hornets.

I started having to pick my beans with gloves on, because I noticed that they went toward the movement of my fingers.   Gaaaaaaaaaaa!  They would dart so close to my fingers that I could feel the vibrations of their wings on my hands.  I figured the hornets had moved into the area to pick off the honey bees as they were pollinating, which explains why they were excited by the movement of my fingers.  Which also explains why I don’t see any honey bees pollinating the beans anymore!  I think the bumble bees and carpenter bees are just too big for the hornets to bother with.

Funny story:  I enjoy eating the vegetables in my garden while I am working, plucking them off the bush, vine, plant and plopping it right into my mouth.  Mmmmmm…  tomatoes, green beans, strawberries.  Yum!  No – I don’t wash first.  A little bit of dirt didn’t hurt anybody.  Well, one day last week I was picking green beans, eating a few here and there, and when I chomped into one… it gooshed instead of crunched.  I spit it out and looked at it.  I didn’t have my glasses on, but it really didn’t look any different – it was green – but it was gooshy.  I threw it aside and didn’t think about it until the next day when I was picking beans again.  I saw a small hole in one of the beans and wondered, “what in the world?”  Then a few plucked beans later I saw it…

caterpillars eating green beans

Do you see it there? in the foreground? That plump juicy caterpillar that is EXACTLY the same color as the green bean? Um… yeah 😉

Ugh… a caterpillar and, eeewwwwww…  I must have bitten into a caterpillar the other day!

And they were eating my beans!

And that’s what is attracting the Bald Face Hornets!

The light bulb turned on.

Just this morning when I was picking beans I saw a hornet catching a plump, juicy caterpillar that was eating a hole in one of my beans!  So – even though the hornets eat my honeybees, they are also eating the caterpillars that are eating my beans!  So I guess every menacing creature does have redeeming qualities.  I suppose.  Sigh.

watering trough for honeybees

We bought this watering trough for several reasons, but the two most important were to have a place for mosquito fish to live (mosquitoes are horrible here in the spring) and also for our honeybees to get a drink of water!  Click on the picture to get a larger view 🙂

Then, I noticed the Hornets were also menacing my honeybees in their watering pond!  The bees have been using this watering trough all spring/summer, and everything has been copacetic – that is until the hornets moved in.  I sadly watched as bee after bee was literally plucked off the plants by the hornets!  Gaaaaaaa!  This is a sad, sad day, indeed, for the bees.  However, I don’t think the hornets will actually kill enough to hurt the hive.  You see, a queen bee can lay more than 2,000 eggs every day, so if the hornets take a couple dozen bees every day – well – I guess that’s just nature.  Sad, but true.  Not much we can do about it anyway.

So…  “how are my beans doing?” you might ask.

Oh!  Thank you for asking!

Chinese Red Noodle BeansGreat!  Holy cow, these things are producing like hotcakes. They are worse (or as good as?) the zucchini at this point!  We grew Kentucky Wonder beans this year, and they grew so tall that I had to trellis them, because they wanted to grow taller than my ladder could reach.  I have pressure canned two batches of beans already and am about ready to can another batch.  I just adore green beans in a beef stew, or tucked into a chicken pot pie, or just cooked up with some bacon, onion and black pepper.  Of course chicken with green beans cooked in an Asian stir fry sauce over rice just can’t be beat!  Yum!

This year I wanted to try growing some red noodle beans.  Last year I grew some Asparagus Long Beans and really enjoyed it, and learned a lot!  So, this year I wanted to try another variety of the long bean.

Bull Hornets

One of the red noodle beans. They really do stand out, so they don’t get lost in the bushes!

The red beans are great!  Not quite as prolific as the green asparagus beans, but they are a lot easier to find in the bushes due to their nice brick red color!  And with my aging eyes, that is a good thing, indeed!  One thing I learned last year about the Asparagus Long Bean was that one of their main pollinators were ants!  Can you believe it?  Ants, of all things!  Unfortunately, I haven’t found very many ants on my Red Noodle Beans, so maybe that is why they haven’t done as well as the green ones.  I think, just as an experiment, I will try both beans next year side by side to see which one is truly the winner.

green beans pressure canned

I like to raw pack my green beans when I pressure can – it is so much easier and the final product isn’t much different than hot pack!

Something else I am experimenting with this year is the amount of green bean plants to grow so I have enough to pressure can at least 42 pints of beans, which will give us one pint a week for a year.  Yeah – I know – there are 52 weeks in a year, but for the other 10 weeks a year we will be eating FRESH beans.

Until the harvest is done, the jury is still out, but right now I would guess that I will need somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 bean plants.  I’m also not sure which green bean is better.  Last year we tried a pole variety called Contender green beans. They did well, but when all is said and done, I don’t think they will have done as well as the Kentucky Wonders that we are growing this year.

We’ll see!!

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