Another Top Bar Beehive and DWV

We lost our beehive last winter. Well, we didn’t LOSE the hive itself, it’s just that the colony of bees occupying it died, and their death was probably our fault!  We felt soooooo bad.top bar beehive death in winter

However, since we thoroughly enjoyed being beekeepers, we decided to just go all in, make another hive and order two sets (one queen and 3 pounds of bees in each set) so that we would have two!  Not only would we have more pollinators for our fruit/nut orchard and our vegetable/herb garden, but we would also enjoy more honey and bees wax with another hive.  Besides, it would also double our chances of success getting a hive to survive the winter!

new hive 1This spring, once Ray was up to it and well on his way to healing (that story here), he made another top bar hive box in pretty much the same manner as our last one.  We did change a few things so there would be better ventilation, but the dimensions are pretty much the same so that we can share the top bars with each other.  Making this hive took a lot less time because we knew what we were doing.  We will see how everything goes this year and if the colonies make it through the winter, but we are hoping to make our third hive next spring!  🙂 a new top bar beehive

We bought our bee packages from Oliverez Bees, just as we did last year.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of the install.  I could give you some excuses, but the truth is that I was so excited and nervous that I simply forgot!  However, I did get a shot of the bees through the window viewing area just a few short weeks after they were installed.  Holy cow, these gals are building comb like gangbusters!

But then, one day about a month ago I saw this…

new top bar hive

Ugh!  Is that the deformed wing virus caused by the varroa mite?  I did a lot of research and, yes, it was probably the DWV.  UGH! UGH!  What were we going to do?  We wanted to have organic hives and not use miticide.  In fact, one reason we decided to use top bar hives was that the cells are smaller in Top Bar Hives (TBH), which produce smaller bees faster, which reduces the impact of varroa mites!  We knew that, unfortunately, there was probably no way to get around having varroa mites, which can kill a colony, but instead we could try to control them.

new top bar beehive

The California Buckeye, sometimes called Horse Chestnut, has a beautiful bloom and is a gorgeous tree when in full bloom. Unfortunately, the pollen causes Deformed Wing Virus in honeybees!

Another potential cause of the deformed wing virus, however, is pollen collected from the California Buckeye tree, which causes this deformity in brood.  And we have seen some California Buckeye Trees around.  If this was the cause, and all the brood was not effected, then the colony might be okay.

Well, when the bee with DWV was found, we were at the beginning of another honey flow.  There were lots of flowers blooming – especially the blackberries! And the weather report said that we were in for a week or so of 100+ degree weather down in the valley, though thankfully it wouldn’t get that hot here.

In researching miticides, I read that you do not want to apply during either a honey flow or during extreme heat, so even if our hive was being infected with the DWV, we had no choice but to watch it die right in front of our eyes.  The worst part of watching the hive die was knowing that the other hive would probably also be effected.  UGH!

So, the heat came and went!  Let me tell you, it was Hot Hot Hot!

When we checked on the hives a couple of weeks later, it was amazing!  They had literally doubled in size!  They weren’t dying at all, they were thriving!!

new top bar beehive

The colony as seen through the observation window in the side of the hive.

 

So…  how could this be?  I was actually prepared for another funeral!  Time for more research (don’t you just love Google?), and I think I may have found the answer.  I read on an entomologist’s research paper that while honeybees can live in 130-140 degree temperatures in the hive, the varroa mite cannot!  Wow!

So, if the DWV was caused by the varroa mite, the heat may have come at just the right time!  Of course, if the DWV was caused by the California Buckeye tree, then we will probably see some young bees with DWV every year in the future because we cannot cut down all the Buckeye trees within a honeybee’s foraging radius, nor would we want to.

Our tango mandrin in full bloom. The honeybees just maul this tree when it is blooming!

Our tango mandrin in full bloom. The honeybees absolutely maul this tree when it is blooming!

What we can do is plant more flowering fruits and vegetables and ornamentals that are good for bees, to keep them foraging at home.

Right now we have a small vegetable garden where our bees forage, and there are also numerous wildflowers around. In the spring the bees can forage from our fruit and nut orchard. Once our house is built we plan to have grapes, boysenberries and blueberries and will also plant a few more fruit trees here and there.  Furthermore, I want to expand our herb garden, which at this point includes rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender and sage, which I know the honeybees just adore!

Here it is mid-summer, and during a hive inspection I took a picture of some of the comb while Ray was lifting them up.  Although we didn’t plan to harvest any honey, we felt it was necessary to take one comb from the larger hive (the new one) as it was almost full. new top bar beehive The bees already had comb on about 2/3 of the top bars! A full hive is one that will potentially swarm, which is something you definitely do not want!  We also moved a few empty bars in around the center of the hive, to let the bees see that there was still a lot more room in there.

We chose one comb that had mostly capped honey and very little brood.  I extracted the honey by crushing the beeswax comb and hanging it in cheesecloth above a bowl for about twenty-four hours.  Once most of the honey had drained out of the comb, I put the beeswax on a paper plate and set it outside about 20 feet away from the beehives.  The bees clean the honey off the wax in a day or two.  I flipped the wax over and the bees obligingly cleaned up the rest of the honey.  I put the almost clean beeswax into the freezer and will finish cleaning it up later.

new hive 4

We got about a cup of honey from this small harvest.  This honey is very sweet and a bright golden yellow – perfect for cornbread!  Yummmmmm…

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Our Beehive Fail

I have always promised to tell the truth.  The good, the bad and the ugly.  This one was both bad and ugly.

There is just no other way to say it…

top bar beehive failure

Our bees died this past winter.

We aren’t really certain what happened, but we have a few ideas.

First and foremost, we weren’t at the homestead to see the first of the dead bees piling up on the ground in front of the hive.  When we were able to get back up to the homestead, it top bar beehive death in winterwas already too late.  They were all dead.  When I saw all the bees piled up I had a feeling of dread, but I also knew that some bees die, even during winter, and it is normal for the dead bodies to get kicked “to the curb”.  I didn’t want to open the hive if I didn’t have to, because that would expose the bees (if they were alive) to the cold, so I put my ear to the hive to hear that comforting, reassuring hummmmmmm.  I didn’t hear it.

🙁

When we opened the hive we saw that there was a lot of capped honey, a lot of uncapped honey, and a lot of dead bees inside clinging to the comb, the walls and on the floor. Not much brood, but that’s normal.  Hmmm………

Although all the bees were dead, there was still lots of capped honey

Although all the bees were dead, there was still lots of capped honey.  There was also quite a bit of uncapped honey!

It wasn’t wet inside, although there was some mold growing on the outside, especially around the entrance and where the bees were piled up at the door, so apparently mold wasn’t the problem.

Then we found the queen.  She must have been one of the last of the bees to die, because she was at the top of the pile on the floor in the middle of the hive.  So, the problem wasn’t due to a queenless hive.

I circled in red some of the dead bees that were literally buried face first into the honeycomb!

I circled in red some of the dead bees that were literally buried face first into the honeycomb! You can also see with the circle on the left that there were brood, and I even found a few eggs, so the queen had still been laying.

What we did find was some of the bees head first into the comb, with their little bee butts sticking out.  In fact, there were at least two dozen that we found that way.  That was our first clue as to what may have gone wrong.  When I did some research on the internet about what will kill bees during the winter, bees head first into the comb reveals that they may have starved to death.  Starved to death?  With all that honey still in the comb?

Yes.

Why?  Because they couldn’t get to the honey!  You see, the worker bees all cluster around the queen on cold days and flap their wings to warm up the small area around the queen, between two combs.  The bees will not leave their queen and the queen will not likely leave the area of the brood, and so if there is no honey to be had in that small area, the bees will starve.  Ones that do venture out of the small warming zone to find honey get too cold and die, right then and there head first in the comb!

But wait…

We live in an area of the country that rarely sees temperatures below 25 degrees Fahrenheit!  A lot of beehives survive temperatures much colder!  What happened?

Well…  I guess that was our fault, being beekeeper rookies.

top bar beehive

This was at a happier time, during the fall, when the weather was still warm and there was still lots of pollen and nectar to harvest.

When we first got our bees we did a lot of research and read several books about top bar beekeeping, and learned that if a colony of bees thinks their hive box is too small, they will swarm to find a bigger home.  That’s not good.  We read that to prevent bees from swarming a hive they might think is too small, you have to show them that there is a lot of room in the hive to keep the colony growing, by moving some of the top bars around. So, in early fall, during another small honey flow, we moved three of the combs full of honey toward the back of the hive and put three empty top bars in their place, not all in a row but spaced out within the hive.  Our mistake was not making sure that the center of the hive, where the brood comb usually is and where the queen usually stays, stayed clustered together.

We also neglected to pack the empty space at the back of the hive in preparation for winter. Why is this important?  So there is very little empty space within the hive during the winter and the bees don’t have to work so hard by flapping their wings to keep the queen and themselves warm.

Who knew?  Unfortunately, we didn’t.  Live and learn. I actually felt so guilty about killing our bees that I cried.

Getting ready to harvest what we could from the beehive.

Getting ready to harvest what we could from the beehive.

But, after the first shock of our disappointment, we realized there was still a lot of honey in the hive.  We knew the capped honey in the comb would be fine.  The problem was that there was still larvae (baby bees) in some of the comb, and although the weather had been pretty cold, they may have started to get moldy.  Eeeeeewwwwwww.

What we did was harvest most of the comb and separated it into comb with capped honey only and then comb with some brood along with the capped honey. We also saved four bars that had just comb with some capped honey and put it in the freezer, to help jump-start the next hive.

Honey harvested from our top bar beehive!

Honey harvested from our top bar beehive!  Isn’t it pretty?

I first extracted the capped honey and got almost four pints.  The honey extracted that had some brood in it (I cut out the comb with brood) gave us two quarts.  I have been using

This is my redneck, low tech way to extract honey from the comb. Hey - it works!

This is my redneck, low tech way to extract honey from the comb. Hey – it works!

this honey for baking and it is absolutely delicious!  We ended up wasting some of the honey because I was too squeemish to have dead bee pulp in my honey, and a lot of the uncapped honey was just washed out of the comb.  Later I found out that the uncapped honey is perfect for making mead. You learn something new every day!

So, we need to do some more reading and research, consult with our favorite beekeeper Kim (she lost a few hives this past winter also) and carry on.

All was not lost.  Yes, we were upset we had lost (killed) our hive, but we learned more about beekeeping and we got some delicious honey.  It’s always good to look at the bright side.

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Using The WHOLE Orange!

recipe for orange peel and chocolate candy

We had the most marvelous navel orange tree at our home in the valley.  We planted the tree soon after we moved in and enjoyed it’s wonderful, healthful fruit ever since. That is, until we had to leave it behind when we sold our home so that we could move up to our new homestead.

We eat oranges for dessert with dark chocolate…

A bite of orange.  A bite of chocolate.  Repeat.  Good thing mandarins are just as good this way, because we were able to move our potted mandarin up to our new homestead.

How to candy orange peelA while ago I followed a recipe for candied orange peels that I found in a wonderful book called 1/4 acre farm. They were absolutely devine!  The orange peels ended up with a wonderful chewy texture and were beautifully translucent.  Really, you have to try this!  I was so proud of the fact that we were actually using the whole orange!

But then I made those candied orange peels again yesterday, and when the candy was done, I kept thinking about how good they smelled and how my fingers got so slippery when I was scraping the pith from the orange peel oil.

Orange oil.

Wait…      ORANGE OIL!

I wondered – if I saved the water that the orange peels were gently boiled in, would there be any orange oil floating on the top when it cooled down?  I had to try it, which meant I had to make another batch of candied orange peels.  Ah Shucks.  😉

But, instead of dumping the water the peels were boiled in (the orange peels are boiled in water 3 times), I saved it all in a large pan.  When the water has cooled enough to handle, I used a funnel and poured the water into a large glass bottle, like these…

Brewing Fermented Sweet Tea

I bought the front two, clear bottles at IKEA. The darker bottle in the rear was purchased at a craft brewery nearby.  Just flipping the bale and slowly decanting the water seemed to work just fine.

When filled to the brim, I inverted the bottle, and carefully placed it upside down into the refrigerator.  Why?  Oil and water separate – especially when chilled.  After a few hours of chilling, I slowly (very slowly), without inverting the bottle, let the water trickle out of the bottom.  My thought was that oil generally floats, so if I let the water out of the bottom, the oil would be left on the top.  I stopped decanting the water when there was about an inch or so left in the bottle.  Then I poured in more water and followed the same procedure. Once I had done this with all the boiled water, I could definitely see a sheen of oil on the top of the water.

Yes indeedy, I had orange peel oil!

I poured the oil with the last bit of water into another smaller amber colored bottle for storage.  Since this bottle had a dropper, I got rid of more of the water by sucking out from under the oil layer – remember, oil floats!  This is what I ended up with before sucking all of the water out from underneath:

How to make your own orange oil

can you see it… right there in the middle of the jar? Orange Oil! Wahoo!

I know if I had a small distiller, I would be able to get a lot more oil out of the orange peel, and I also need to experiment with different methods of extracting the oil.  I am also going to see if it makes a difference whether I separate the water and oil when it is still hot, or let it get cold first. Then, I want to see if I can do the same thing with our lemon and mandarin trees!

What will I do with my orange soap made from turkey fatoil? Make orange scented soap!  Or my version of lip balm! Or orange scented beeswax candles!  Or…  well…  you get the picture.  

The best part?  I KNOW this is organic oil because the peels came from my tree which we do not spray! We already miss that tree, since right now is the time the oranges are beginning to ripen. Hopefully, someday, if we can build a walipini, we will again be able to plant another orange tree.

Have you extracted oil from orange peels?  Do you have a better method you would like to share?

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Preparing our beehive for winter

Hmmm…

We noticed the hive is starting to list to one side. And also a bit forward.  Why?

Honey!  Lots of honey!

Honey is very heavy, and a successful hive will (of course) have lots of it. Honey is bee food and the colony will need it to get through the winter. That is one reason we decided not to do a fall harvest.  We want to make sure the bees will have enough food to get them through the cold winter months when there isn’t much blooming.

Winterizing our top bar hive

Lots of honey – capped and uncapped. We have bar after bar that looks much like this one.

Ray decided to run down to the local box store, buy some lumber and screws, and shore up the hive.  We figure screws would be a bit less disruptive to the hive than hammering in some nails.  Knowing this, when we build our next (second) top bar hive this winter in anticipation of buying another package of worker bees and a queen this spring, we will make the stand a bit more sturdy.  Of course, when you think about it, we are lucky to have such a problem!

Getting a Kenyan Top Bar Hive ready for winter

Boards were screwed into all four sides, to help shore up our Kenyan Top Bar Beehive, and stop it from listing to one side. Since we used screws and not nails, the bees didn’t seem to be disturbed at all!

Liz, a homesteader in Australia and author of “Eight Acres“, has featured our beekeeping journey on her blog today with a question and answer post!  You can read about why Ray and I decided to keep bees and our reasons for choosing to use a Kenyan Top Bar Beehive over at eightacres dot blogspot dot com.  See you there!

Last month we had quite a scare with the hive.  We noticed a lot of activity around the hive with bees landing on and crawling all over the roof of the hive, along with a lot of loud buzzing.  At first we thought it was just the drones again.  Those guys make a lot of noise when they take their afternoon stroll around the neighborhood, but after a while we started to realize that the commotion had nothing to do with the drones.

Our hive was under attack!

How did we know?  I was watching the entrance of the hive and suddenly was witness to a death wrestle – three bees all wrestling in a ball, falling off the entrance ledge to the ground in front of the hive.  When the match was over, one bee was left on the ground, obviously mortally wounded, another flew to a nearby plant, also with mortal wounds. It became obvious, once we realized what was happening, that the bees crawling on the roof and sides of the hive were not our bees, and they were looking for another entrance into the hive. Our hive was under attack from another colony of honey bees!  To make matters worse, there were several yellow jackets flying just above ground level under the hive!

All summer long, we had been battling the yellow jackets.  We had seen several unfortunate honeybees taken away by yellow jackets, and so we set up traps all over the homestead to reduce their numbers.  We were successful in keeping the yellow jacket population low with both store-bought and home-made traps, but it was not our intention to kill all of them.  Though they are a menace, they kept the bugs and caterpillars in our garden to a minimum.  Sometimes you have to take the bad with the good.

But, we never thought we would have problems with another colony of honeybees!

The entrance to our top bar hive was already reduced, due to the attacks by yellow jackets, so we weren’t sure exactly what to do.  I ran to my laptop and did a quick google search and found that the first thing to do was to reduce the size of the hive entrance even more, so that only one bee at a time could squeeze through the hive opening.  If that didn’t work, we could throw a wet sheet over the hive that would confuse the attacking bees and help to isolate the hive for a day or so, until the attackers gave up.

So, Ray reduced the entrance.  We did see a few more wrestling matches and were thinking that we should start preparing a sheet, but then the loud angry buzzing stopped, the guard bees retreated into the hive, and the whole attack seemed to be over.

Preparing Top Bar Hive for Winter

The reduced entrance into the beehive – just big enough for one bee. It’s probably warmer inside also, which is just fine for the winter!

Whew!

And the yellow jackets?  After the honeybee attack was over, the yellow jackets left also! Apparently the yellow jackets were attracted by the loud buzzing and somehow knew that there was going to be “fresh meat” to eat.  Strange how mother nature works, but I never did see a yellow jacket actually attack a bee or the hive.  They only seemed to go after the bees that were already dying on the ground in front and under the hive. Easy pickin’s. Once everything was said and done, there was no evidence of the carnage that took place!

After reading about how two separate hives can literally kill each other off – by stinging each other until their numbers are so low that neither hive can survive the winter – I had nightmares for the next few nights!  

Apparently the attackers were feral bees.  Our homestead is basically in a forest and the few neighbors that we have, do not have beehives.  Bees will fly up to four miles to forage, but I really don’t think anyone within four miles of us has a beehive!  That is why I assume these were feral bees. Which makes me wonder where their hive is!  From what I have read, feral bees can be the strongest bees to have because they are acclimated to the area and have overcome some of the problems modern-day beekeepers have with mites, fungi and such!  Maybe we should think about finding and capturing the hive… or not. The attacking colony must not have produced as much honey as ours, or they wouldn’t risk losing their entire colony to rob another.  Food for thought.

Kenyan Top Bar Beehive

Our first snow of the season!

In the meantine, winter is finally starting to poke it’s head around here.  We got a decent snowfall last weekend and may get some more tomorrow.  We usually don’t get a lot of snow here on the homestead, but this being an el nino year, we just might get buried! There isn’t much more we need to do to take care of the hive for the winter.  Since the entrance is so small already, we decided against placing hardware cloth on it to exclude mice.  And since we didn’t harvest any honey, there should be plenty in the hive to get the girls through until springtime.  Our preference is to let the hive live as naturally as possible, so we will only add sugar water toward the end of winter (before the nectar flow) if an inspection reveals they need more food to survive. We did stack a few rows of firewood in front of the hive to give it a little bit of a windbreak, and we still have a bit more cordwood to split and stack, so the “windbreak” will get just a bit higher (not too high to exclude sunlight) and a few rows thicker. Since this firewood will not be cured in time to use it this winter, the bees can enjoy the windbreak until next winter.

The last few mornings I have noticed one, two or even three dead bees on the entrance board to the hive.  I assume this is natural as bees have a fairly short lifespan.  The workers clean house by removing their dead sisters from the hive.  Normally they would carry them off at least a few feet from the entrance, but since it is so cold they are reluctant to fly and instead are just kicking the bodies out to the front doorstep.  At least, that’s what I assume is happening.  There are no other signs of trouble and it is now too cold to open the hive to see what’s going on inside.

Now it’s just time to let the girls be on their own through the winter.  We sure hope we have done a good job of keeping our first hive strong, but our final results won’t be known until next spring.

So, come on winter!  We are as prepared as we think we should be with regard to our top bar beehive.  Of course, it seems everything else around the homestead is in total chaos, but then that’s another story.

Stay tuned!

Don’t forget to visit Liz on her blog, “Eight Acres”, for more information about beekeeping!

 

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