Our Bees – The Good, Bad and Ugly

Ray and I are fledgling beekeepers – we are newbees! ¬†ūüôā

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. ūüôĀ ¬†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 Рwell Рinsulation!  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! ¬†ūüôĀ

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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Organic Pest Control

I planted¬†two varieties of strawberries to see which one would do best here at our new home. ¬†They are both doing equally well. ¬†The Sequoia started blooming at least a month earlier than the Quinault, but now as the Sequoia are starting to give up, the Quinault seem to be coming on strong! ¬†I had no idea this would happen, but it’s wonderful because it will prolong our strawberry season. ¬†However, even though the¬†Sequoias were doing well and started putting on quite a few strawberries in early May, something was eating the fruit¬†just before it¬†became fully ripe! ¬†We couldn’t even taste the strawberries to see if there was a difference between the two varieties!

Well, this can’t happen. ¬†I’m not growing food to feed the forest critters, and we certainly can’t be very self-reliant if an uninvited guest is eating our food before we can.

The nerve!     Well, I never!     Heavens to Murgatroyd!

Judging from the little teeth marks on the half-eaten strawberries, I decided we were dealing with mice.  So, out came the mouse traps and peanut butter!  This method has worked fairly well so far.  One of our first scalloped squash was also half-eaten, I assume by mice, so we have a few traps by the squash as well.

Mouse trap for organic pest control

Good old fashioned mouse traps – they haven’t made a better one yet! Maybe these will keep the mice out of my garden so we can eat some strawberries!

Another pest I was afraid would descimate our garden was our native Banana Slugs.  I could imagine one of these slugs might take out an entire plant in one night.  Not cool!

Banana slug in Sierra Nevada Mountains

This is one of the many banana slugs we have found on our property. We saw it’s silvery trail and found this slug just chillin’. My middle finger is 3-1/4 inches long, so you can see Mr. Slugo is about 4 inches long – and fat! I’m sure he could devastate our vegetable garden overnight!

However, I read somewhere that slugs prefer not to cross copper. Apparently as their little sticky, sluggy tummies come into contact with the copper, it causes a very slight electrical current and the slugs prefer not to cross over it. ¬†Hmmmm….

Copper…

Pennies are made of copper, right? ¬†I had a whole bag of pennies! ¬†So, I decided to try placing a copper ring around all of my new “tender” plants to see if it would keep the slugs away. ¬†The verdict? ¬†It works! ¬†At least I think it must because I haven’t had any slug damage on the plants that have the penny rings around them, yet I have found several slugs within and around my garden!

I wanted to give these sunflower seedlings a fighting chance against our Banana Slugs.  Apparently copper really does work!

I wanted to give these sunflower seedlings a fighting chance against our Banana Slugs. Apparently copper really does work!

The biggest pest problem that I have been dealing with, however, has been the #$@%&#*& ¬†Yellow Jackets. ¬†Yellow Jackets are omnivores, which means they will eat meat (your hamburger, other bugs, or even you) and also sweet things like nectar, honey or your soda! ¬†In the garden, if you are careful when they are around, Yellow Jackets can actually be a good thing! ¬†Being meat eaters, they will eat caterpillars, grasshoppers, and various other insects. ¬†Unfortunately, one of their prey are honey bees! ¬†The Yellow Jacket is a more adept flier and can catch a honeybee in mid flight, and will eat the poor little honeybee’s softer abdomen as she kicks and flails her legs. ¬†Yes, it is really quite gruesome and I have witnessed this several times within a few feet of our new hive. ¬†I decided to go on the defensive against the Yellow Jackets, but what could I use? ¬†To make matters worse, when autumn comes, the Yellow Jackets will begin to smell the honey in the beehive and may attack the bees to get to the honey. ¬†I have read that¬†Yellow Jackets can take out an entire colony of bees and steal all their honey!

I didn’t want to use an insecticide for obvious reasons – I have an organic garden and I also didn’t want to harm the honeybees! ¬†We found some wasp traps at our local box

Redneck Organic Pest Control

This is one of those wasp traps you can buy at your local box store. They work but can be expensive if you need to control the Yellow Jackets through the entire season!

store and they work, but they cost $5.99 each and only work for about two to three weeks, then have to be replaced. ¬†We were¬†over-run¬†with Yellow Jackets (mild winters cause this) and knew we would need to have a fortune’s worth of traps to keep the Yellow Jackets at bay so our honeybees would have a fighting chance.

Then, my sister Machell told me about a method some guy was using and claimed it worked so well he hadn’t seen a Yellow Jacket for weeks.

It was simple.  Fill a shallow tray with water that has a few drops of dish detergent in it to within 1/2 to 1 inch of the top. Then, get a piece of wood that can easily rest across the top of the tray.  Now, either nail a piece of meat to the piece of wood, use twine to tie the meat on, or do what I did and use rubber bands to strap a piece of meat onto the wood.  I used 1/2 a strip of bacon.  Now, turn the wood over so that the meat is on the underside of the wood.  Set out where you have seen a lot of Yellow Jacket activity.

I was nervous that the water would attract honeybees as well as the Yellow Jackets, so I watched the water carefully for the next few hours.  Luckily the Yellow Jackets were interested but the honeybees were not.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. ¬†It really worked! ¬†Within two days I had a few dozen Yellow Jackets drowned in the water. ¬†This is so much cheaper that buying a lot of traps and I also don’t have to be concerned about having to dispose of the purchased traps with all their plastic! ¬†I found even a small piece of bacon (about 1″ x 1″) will work, but the bigger the piece of meat, the more the trap attracted the Yellow jackets.

Meat Bee Traps

Here is my Redneck Yellow Jacket Trap. Don’t laugh – it works! I think it is actually working better than the ones I bought at the store! ¬†It’s time to clean out again so I can catch some more!

The only disadvantage to this trap is that if it rains, your trap will probably accumulate too much water. ¬†So, if it rains in your neck of the woods very often, it’s best to place this trap under something to keep the rain out. ¬†Also, if you live in a hot, dry area, you will need to ADD water – probably once a day or so.

One more way I have been dealing with the Yellow Jackets is with those hand held, battery run bug zappers. ¬†I’m sure you have seen them. ¬†They look like a tennis racquet, but when you press a button, the metal grid becomes electrified. ¬†It is so satisfying to catch one of those nasty little buggers and hear them fry! ¬†They actually pop and sizzle on the electrified grid. ¬†Obviously I am not Buddhist! ¬†I learned that if I leave one of the fried Yellow Jackets on the metal grid, others come to cannibalize their comrade and I can zap a couple more without having to chase them down!

My forehand hasn’t been better! ūüôā

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