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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Installing Bees in a Top Bar Hive

We picked up our package of bees (read the previous post about how we got our bees here) and headed home.  For the first hour and a half going home, they buzzed quietly in the back seat.  We made sure they weren’t in direct sunlight and that they were getting fresh air, and twice I sprayed them lightly with a very light sugar syrup.  They were happy, we were happy, everything was right with the world.

Until…

…we got to the dirt and gravel road leading to our property.  Bummer.  You see, here in California it’s legal to grow marijuana if you have doctor’s orders saying that you need it.  Unfortunately, the county in which we live has been very permissive on how much you can grow, so several commercial pot growers have purchased or leased properties adjacent to us.  Why is this so unfortunate?  For several reasons – the most important of which is because of the drought we are currently having here in California.  Marijuana takes a lot of water to grow.  A whole lot.  So the commercial pot growers are draining all of the wells in the foothills, drying up streams and stealing from others.  You can’t even leave a water hose unattended anymore!  So, when the “growers” well goes dry and they run out of options to get cheap (or stolen) water, they have to pay to truck in water.  Some of those trucks haul in 2,500 gallons of water at a time – or more!  Let’s see – 2,500 gallons x 8 pounds per gallon – that’s 20,000 pounds (not even counting the weight of the truck itself) traveling across our dirt and gravel road several times per day!  Needless to say, they have torn up our road so much that it has become one rut and pothole after another.  The entire 1.6 miles of it!  Now we literally bounce and slide our way home.

Which brings me back to the bees.  With every bounce, bump, jump and jostle, they started buzzing louder and louder.  Let me tell you, they were not happy!  🙁

Once we finally got home we set the bees in the shade of their new Kenyan Top Bar Hive, I sprayed them down with a little more light sugar water, and we left them alone for about an hour.  Sure enough, by the time we came back, they had calmed down again.

Whew!

So now, the fun part was to begin.  Installation!

Kenyan top bar beehive

There it is: our version of a Kenyan Top Bar Beehive! To see how we made it, click HERE  

Have I told you how nervous I am about getting stung?  The fascination with the bees has partially overcome my fear of being stung (along with a nice bee suit and gloves), but nonetheless I decided I should be the photographer for this momentous occasion. 😉

I am blessed to have a very brave and understanding husband, and let me tell you, he looked like a pro while he was installing the bees!

Installing bees into a top bar hive

Doesn’t Ray look like a pro? Here he is getting ready to dump in the bees. You can see the queen cage, laying on top of a couple of the top bars, is covered already in bees!

The first thing we had to do was remove several of the top bars so that the bees could be dumped into the hive body.  We also placed a light sugar water solution in the feeder and a

How to get bees into a top bar hive

You can see the “bee patty” at the bottom of the hive, which is a first food supply for the bees. It has lots of protein, vitamins and minerals and gives the bees a kick-start for a healthier colony.

“bee patty” in the bottom of the hive. We do plan to raise our bees organically and naturally, and using a sugar water solution and a bee patty isn’t necessarily natural.  However, we did want to give our bees every advantage to get started, so we opted to make our own sugar water solution out of organic sugar.  The bee patty was just another bit of insurance, though we don’t really know how organic it is.  That being said, we will not be giving our bees any more bee patties, and will only give them sugar water if they need it.   Ray removed the queen cage from the box so that she could later be hung in her cage between two of the top bars.  Ray accomplished this task without any problem – just like they showed us during the demonstration at the Olivarez Bee Company Bee Day.  Once the queen cage had been removed from the bee cage and set aside, Ray set about the task of dumping the worker bees into the hive.

Just as instructed during one of the demonstrations given at the Bee Day, Ray removed the can of sugar water solution that the bees had been living on for a day, which also releases the bees.  A few bees started to fly out, already looking for and locating the queen.

Ray gently turned the box upside down, and shook it a few times.

Fwooommmph

Seriously – that’s the sound it made!   Fwooommmmph!

Most of the bees fell in one large clump into the hive!  It was so cool to watch!

Once most of the bees had been shaken into the hive, I sprayed them again with the light sugar water solution.  The sugar water solution hydrates the bees as they lick it off of their furry little bodies.  Because it has a little bit of sugar in it, it also feeds the bees and a fed, hydrated bee is a happy, complacent bee, less likely to sting!

top bar hive bee installation

Ray carefully placed two straws along the top of the little queen cage so that he could hang it between two of the top bars. Look at that – no glove on one hand!

We then replaced all of the top bars except one.  Ray stuck a couple of pieces of straw (carefully!) through the top of the queen cage and these pieces of straw were placed between two of the top bars with the queen cage hanging in the space where the one bar used to be.  In this way, the queen could be accessed by the workers from all sides.  Once this was done, we replaced the lid and roof, wished the bees good luck, and stepped back from the hive.

Once the bees were mostly in the hive, we replaced the lid and roof and stepped away.  The box that the bees came in was left right below the entrance, so the stragglers could find their way to their new home.

Once the bees were mostly in the hive, we replaced the lid and roof and stepped away. The box that the bees came in was left right below the entrance, so the stragglers could find their way to their new home.

There were about two dozen or so bees still left in the cage, but we were instructed during the demonstration at the Bee Day to just leave the cage near the hive in the shade, and these bees will find their way into the hive to be with their sisters.

We had our granddaughter’s birthday party to attend later that evening, so we made sure the hive was secure, latched the gate on the enclosure surrounding the hive, and said our goodbyes to the bees.  There was nothing more we could do for them right away.

The next day when we got home from the birthday party, there they were, flying in and out of the hive! It looked like some of the bees were still doing their orientation flight, which is the first flight out of their hive.  The bee will exit the hive door, fly right, then left, then up and down.  Once the little bee has done this, it will fly away to find pollen, nectar, water or whatever it’s job is.   It was amazing to see that some of the bees flying into the hive already had their pollen sacs full!  Jeeze Louise, these bees certainly didn’t waste any time setting up their house!

top bar bee hive installation

Here is ray checking to see that the queen has been released from her cage. Yes! She was free!

Now we had to wait at least three days, then check to see if the queen had been released from her little cage.  You see, she comes inside a cage for her own safety.  If a queen bee is introduced into a hive right away, the worker bees will most likely sting her to death because they see her as a foreigner!  However, if she is left in her little cage and the workers are exposed to her pheromones for 3 or 4 days, the will most likely accept her as their queen once she is released.  How does she get released?  Her escape route is plugged with hard candy, which the workers eat to get to the queen.  This usually takes about three days – sometimes four.  Clever system, huh?

So, after four days, we opened the hive to see if the queen had been released.  At first when we saw movement inside the little cage we were disappointed that she had not been released.  Then, on closer inspection, we saw that it was a worker bee in the cage, not the queen.  She had, in fact, been released!  Then we found her.  Olivarez Bees marks all of their queens, and this year an iridescent blue was used.  This is so that it is easier to find her and make sure all is well with the hive.  Well – there she was – in all of her iridescent blue glory, on a small comb that had already been constructed for her!

Top Bar Kenyan Bee Hive installation

Our first sneak peak into the hive through the viewing window. See all those little workers clustered? They had already started to make some comb and were clustered on the comb and around their new queen!

Well I’ll be.  We actually (ahem, my husband, Ray) installed our first bees with complete success!

And guess what – No Bee Stings!  🙂

So, now, the real adventure begins.

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