A girl worth waiting for!

IMG_4425We know our kids have to learn the realities of life. Sometimes the family fish dies, before we can make it to the pet shop to get an identical one to slip in the bowl. (Hang in there Norbert, awesome beta fish of ours, we really like you!) The seeds they carefully plant and tend never come up, and we secretly plant new ones. It is heartbreaking to see them feel sad, and as parents we often try to fix it. We had almost reached that point this week…

Our littlest beekeepers wanted their own hives, so my husband pulled splits from our hives to start a nucleus (nuc) colony for our 7 and 11 year olds. A nuc has several frames of brood, eggs, and larvae, stolen from a larger, stronger hive and placed in a small hive. The nurse bees on the frames can use the fresh eggs/larvae to raise a new queen.

Pretty cool huh?

The girls raise the queen by building a special queen cell around the chosen egg and then feeding the larva extra portions of royal jelly. Royal jelly is milky white, protein rich food for baby bees. Worker bees are fed royal jelly for only three days, but the queen gets it throughout her development. (Thank goodness I’m not a baby bee, because I sampled some and it tastes terrible! Very acidic. Nothing like yummy honey!) The extra royal jelly makes the larva develop into a queen, with ovaries, rather than a typical worker bee. A pretty neat (and useful) trick, isn’t it?

Maylan's Queen LarvaThe photo below shows a queen cell built out from the existing cells on the frame. If you look inside the opening on the cell, you can see the developing queen larva inside. The nurse bees feed her for 8 days until it is time to cap the cell with wax and allow her to develop. They may build several queen cells in hopes of getting a healthy one to emerge and mate successfully.

For whatever reason, big sissy’s hive took off like a rocket. Her queen emerged, flew out to mate, and returned to lay eggs like crazy. Little brother’s queen, on the other hand, never appeared. For weeks, he’s been checking his hive for signs of a queen. Each time we’ve added fresh eggs for them to try again, but still no queen to be found. We hypothesize that his queen flew out to mate, and met with some untimely demise on her mating flight, but we can only guess.

imageWe had almost given up hope. A plan was in place to stealthily sneak out and combine his hive with another nuc with a healthy queen. With fingers crossed, last night we peeked in one last time to check how things were going, and lo and behold, there she was. I only got a quick shot of her because the girls were a little annoyed with the red cover on my cell phone. Thank goodness the little guy’s hive has a queen, and we didn’t have to bee sneaky! The right girl is always worth waiting for, and this one is a beauty.

Y’all bee sweet, cause the royal jelly is not!

 

Will You Bee Mine?

imageValentine’s Day at the Bee Sweet Bee Farm brought Hershey kisses, Reese’s hearts, caramels, and heart shaped boxes of chocolates to the beekeepers. Our junior beekeepers have a bad habit of biting into the filled ones and putting back the flavors they don’t like, but I don’t really blame them for putting back the fruit flavored ones! Not to be left out, the bees got their own version of Valentine candies. This time of year, beekeepers worry that their bees might not have enough honey stores to get them through the winter. It is really depressing to lose a hive of bees for any reason, but we really don’t want to let any of them starve, when we can easily help them out. During warmer weather, we can provide sugar syrup, but when the temperature drops, we swap over to sugar bricks as a way to provide a food source.

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Compared to spun sugar, fudge or taffy, in the world of candy making, these bricks are pretty simple to create, just a mixture of cane sugar and water. Specifically, a 4 pound bag of sugar and 1/3 cup water, mixed thoroughly together, are the only things we need to make bricks. A stand mixer makes it easier to get it completely mixed. The mixture is poured out onto a prepared cookie sheet, lined with waxed paper.

imageCompact the mixture with a rolling pin and cut it into bricks with a knife. Pre-cutting is important because once they are dry, it’s impossible to cut them without destroying the blocks of sugar. Preheat the oven to 200°, place the cookie sheet inside, and turn the oven off. Leave the bricks undisturbed for 24 hours, imageallowing the water to evaporate. Invert onto another cookie sheet or cutting board to allow the bottom to dry completely as well.

The bricks work well because bees release a small amount of moisture when they breathe. The moisture condenses on the sugar brick, softening the outside of the block a tiny bit. The bees lick the dissolved sugar and transfer iimaget to the honeycomb for later use, so basically we’re making bee lollipops! The sugar has to be in lollipop form because the bees would carry granulated sugar crystals out the hive door, thinking it was trash.

The bricks go on top of the brood nest, so they’re easily accessible to the bees below. We place a wooden spacer on top of the boxes and under the inner cover to allow space for the sugar bricks. They can be left in place until spring to fill in any gaps between honey stores and the maple trees that begin to bud in February.

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We’re hoping the Bee Sweet bees won’t need their sugar brick lollipops at all, but just in case they do, the bricks are waiting as a little extra insurance policy. Hope your valentine did something kind for you today and that you took time to Bee Sweet too!

 

 

 

Snow Day!!!

IMG_20160122_104049711_HDR (1)Here in the NC Foothills, we don’t get a lot of snow. So when it happens, we go, well, a little nutty. Ah…the dream snow day… sleeping late and easing into the day with a warm cup of coffee… catching up with my facebook friends… cuddling in on the couch with a pile of magazines and a snuggly blanket. Maybe a little sledding or playing outside and then coming in for some warm cocoa. Sounds pretty dreamy, doesn’t it?

In my real world, snow days usually include searching the house for someone’s snow pants, rounding up matches to gloves, locating warm socks and convincing kids that long underwear makes life better. Sometimes by the time I get the third one completely outfitted in winterwear, the first one has already decided to head back inside, only to leave a trail of soggy mittens and drippy boots all over the wood floors.

Guess what y’all?!?! The bees have it all figured out! In the winter, the girls combat the cold weather by snuggling together in a tight ball called a cluster. The inner part of the cluster is the warmest spot, and that’s where the queen bee gets to hang out. As the bees on the outside of the cluster get chilly, they make their way to the inner part to take a turn warming up. The rotation of bees makes sure that no bee freezes. The queen bee stays in the middle of the cluster, snuggled up the whole time.

The bees create heat by flexing their flight muscles, but they do it without moving their wings at all, kind of like us shivering to keep warm. The colder the weather outside the hive, the closer the bees snuggle together. On warmer days, the cluster loosens up a bit and moves to another area of the hive to eat the stored honey in different places. The more bees in the colony, the warmer the cluster will be, thanks to more bees flexing thier muscles and creating heat. Small bee colonies have a hard time staying warm enough through a cold winter.

Thermal ImageBee Culture magazine has a neat article that provides a glimpse inside the hive using thermal imaging. The warm cluster of bees shows up as a bright red area compared with the rest of the colder air in the hive. The bees don’t waste energy heating the rest of the hive.

So the bees make it through the winter by snuggling up close and sticking together, taking turns in the warm spot of the cluster, and making sure their valuable queen is protected and warm at all times. Not a bad plan to keep their colonies from freezing. So as the storm drops snow outside our door, I’m going to follow their lead and snuggle up too. Y’all BEE SWEET and stay warm.

January Beekeeping Checklist

Seems like JanuaryNC Map would be a pretty quiet time of year in the apiary, but there are always a few tasks that need attention. So what are the beekeepers and the bees up to here in the Foothills of North Carolina?

Bees may BEE…

Clustering: During freezing weather, the bees huddle together in a tight ball to keep themselves (and their developing brood) warm. On warmer days they still move around the hive and take care of business, but extreme cold calls for snuggling up close. Pretty much like me and my favorite blanket. There’s not much better than curling up with it and some hot chocolate on a January evening!

Taking cleansing flights: Extremely cold weather keeps the bees tucked safely inside the hive. Since they will not release any waste inside the hive, occasionally they take a quick cleansing flight to relieve themselves. It must be above 40° F, and the bees only fly a few feet from the hive entrance. If only our farm dog was this well trained. We can hardly get him to go out when the weather is cold or yucky.

Foraging: Weather warm enough for the bees to fly (50° F and above) lets them forage the budding maple trees and camellias.

Can you spot the queenRearing brood: After the winter solstice, the queen begins to lay eggs and workers raise brood in preparation for the spring nectar flow.

Beekeeper’s are currently…

Weighing hives: Periodic weighing of the hive lets us estimate how much food remains in storage. We have been weighing our hives since October and recording the results in a spreadsheet in an effort to estimate the amount of honey the bees have remaining. Weights should be declining, as the bees eat their stored honey. Most of our hives currently weigh about 80-90 pounds, total weight, including boxes, honeycomb, honey stores and bees. Our system isn’t perfect, as we can only weigh one side of the hive, but we use that to estimate the total weight.IMG_3665.JPG

Making sugar bricks: Sugar bricks work as extra insurance to guard against starvation over the winter. A sugar brick is like a huge sugar cube that serves as an emergency food source when all the honey is used up, and the beekeeper can’t provide liquid sugar syrup due to freezing weather conditions.

Inspecting the hive:  In late January, we will take advantage of any unusually warm days to open the hive and do a quick inspection. We will try to only keep it open for a few minutes, as to avoid losing their precious heat, but it will be a chance to observe that brood is present, and if we are really lucky, to get a quick glimpse of the queen. Absence of brood would indicate a problem, most likely that no queen is present.

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Woodenware in progress

Evaluating woodenware needs: January is the perfect time to stock up on woodenware in preparation for the upcoming season. We plan to build hive boxes and other hive components this year. The photo shows hive boxes in progress. These boxes are complete except for a coat of protective stain on the outside. The littlest beekeeper likes to help out with that job. We’ve also been freezing existing boxes and wax frames that were removed from the hives at the end of the year to kill any pests that might be lingering in the woodenware. Wax frames are also sorted depending on what the frames were used for last year.

Attending bee school: Winter is usually the time for bee classes offered by local beekeepers associations or the cooperative extension service. If you are interested in learning more, this is an ideal place to start.

IMG_4801So even in the middle of a chilly January, we stay busy as bees, gearing up for the spring nectar flow. Well everybody except our trusty farm dog, Jingles. He seems to think it’s time for a long winter’s nap, probably cuddled in my favorite blanket. Even a dreary, winter day is no excuse to not BEE SWEET! Have a great day!

 

 

Happy New Year!

Wow! Between family holiday fun, birthdays, school projects and parties, recitals, substitute teaching, and a very successful BEE SWEET holiday sale, we’ve been busy as bees, resulting in No-blog November and Deserted-blog December. Please forgive! My New Year’s resolution is to be a better blogger in 2016!

Bee Sweet products

Bee Sweet products

Bee Sweet Bee Farm sends out a huge thank you to everyone who supported our first online Tiny Business Tuesday Christmas sales event. Hopefully everyone enjoyed your products, and you felt the love we put into each item! Our younger staff members each chose a charity to support with some of the profits. The Cleveland County Partnership for Children, Foothills Farmers Market-Farmers’ Foodshare Program, and the Thomas Jefferson Talon Challenge benefiting the Jimmy V Foundation all received donations this year. Thank you for helping us give back!

The weather here is just plain WONKY! We’ve been wearing shorts and t-shirts through the last days of December, which is a nice treat for cold-natured me, but it’s pretty confusing for the bees. The gradual lengthening of days and warmer temperatures trigger bees to raise brood (baby bees) for the spring. Parents, you remember what it’s like to bring a newborn home from the hospital. You spend all your time either preparing to feed, feeding, or recovering from feeding that baby. Just like human infants, baby bees need to be fed almost all the time, and constant feeding uses lots of their honey stores.

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Nurse bees tend to bee larvae

Warm temperatures also make the worker bees want to forage for food, but there are very few plants in bloom right now. About the only thing we have available in our yard are dandelions. (See neighbors, there’s a reason we cultivate those instead of the lush green grass y’all have in your yards!) The bees expend a huge amount of energy looking for food, find very few nectar sources, come home hungry, and eat stored honey. It would be similar to you driving your car around from place to place to look for work. You burn lots of gasoline while driving, but you don’t get paid anything if you don’t find a job.

All this early winter use of honey prompted us to use the extra warm days as an opportunity to feed a little bonus sugar syrup to the girls, just as a little insurance that they have plenty of food to get them through the cold days that are most likely still to come this winter. Normally we wouldn’t be able to feed them syrup this time of year because of freezing night temperatures, and in typical years they wouldn’t need to be fed because they would have plenty of honey stores to last through the winter. So far, this winter is anything but typical!

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Adding syrup to top feeder

There are several choices of feeders for beehives. We use a top feeder that simply stacks on top of the existing hive. Sugar syrup is poured into the feeder, equipped with a floating framework for the bees to stand on and slurp up the syrup. Bees don’t swim, so they must have a place to stand and drink. They ferry the syrup to empty beeswax cells in the hive below and store it for later use. Other feeder designs attach to the entry way of the hive, but these can attract robber bees and pests. Since we sometimes have issues with the feral bees in our area, top feeders work well for us.

Wow! What a year! Bee Sweet Bee Farm would like to say thank you for an amazing 2015. None of us can be sure where life’s adventures will take us next, but we are thankful for our bees and the fun and relaxation they bring to our lives. We are grateful for all our supporters. Your beautiful words of encouragement mean so much, and those who check in on our babees on a regular basis bring a smile to our hearts and faces.

Please celebrate safely as we bring 2015 to a close. Remember, 2016 is a blank slate, full of opportunities to BEE SWEET! Happy New Year!

Bring Out Your Dead

It’s Halloween at the Hive 

It’s only fitting that we finish up the spooky season with a tish more hauntingly interesting happenings around the hive. Now when I clean house, I deal with a lot of yuck! Dirt and grime, absolutely. Lost socks and dirty laundry, yep, constantly. Unidentified leftovers that must be evicted from the refrigerator, sure. But thankfully, I don’t have the job of removing undeveloped siblings and tossing them out the front door. And to think many kids complain that they have to take out the trash! Now, of course, the bee girls don’t walk through the hive shouting, “Bring out your dead!” Monty Python style, but they do occasionally go ahead and move out a bee that’s not quite dead as a way to protect the hive.

Worker on robber screen

A worker bee struggles to remove an undeveloped larvae through a robber screen.

The bees do an excellent job of watching the development of the bee babies. If something seems awry in the growth of the larvae, the workers open the cell, kill the developing bee, and transport the body out of the hive. Reasons may include hygienic removal of pupa infested with mites, poor development from genetic problems, and pupa that is growing in comb that has been broken open, perhaps from an intruder or careless beekeeper. If the hive is starving, they may even choose to eat some of the babies, to serve as a source of protein for the colony.

yello jackets eat bees

Yellow jackets devour an undeveloped larvae.

A few times, I’ve watched as a worker bee painstakingly struggles to haul out a corpse and toss it from the entrance.The larvae and pupa are white in color and look freakish and ghostly when they are being thrown out. Yellow jackets and birds watch and wait, hoping to pick up an easy meal at the door. Many beekeepers have free range chickens that love to forage outside the hive. My husband even snagged a picture of a mantis enjoying a bee for lunch.

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A mantis snacks on a bee on top of a hive.

The fight for survival has been pretty graphic around the hive lately. Between neighbors that plummage the hive and cause an all out battle, evicting the drones as winter sets in, and hauling dead larvae bodies out of the hive, the girls have had some morbid jobs to take care of lately, but I suppose it’s all a part of beeing a bee. All that dirty work is really what it takes to keep the hive healthy and strong.

Wishing you lots of treats from all of us at the bee farm! I promise we’ll rejoin our regularly scheduled programming, filled with fun and frivolity next week. Until then, watch your back at the beehive, and BEE SWEET!

Oh and ladies, as we bring Breast Cancer Awareness Month to a close, make sure you get your BOO-BEES checked out regularly if you are over 40, earlier if you have a family history!

Dead Man Walking…or Flying

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Drone Bee

Ah…the life of drone bees (that’s the males) is such a carefree, easy thing. The worker bees raise them, feed them, and send them off to “work” each day at the drone congregation areas. While at “work” they wait around to see if a virgin queen comes by and happens to want to mate with a few of them. (Now for the lucky guys chosen to mate with the queen, the story ends there, cause they die after they do the deed.) But the bachelor drones, they just return to the hive to be fed by the workers, rest, and do it all again tomorrow. They play all day while the female bees do the real work. To be fair, if the hive is too warm or too cold, the drones do help with warming or cooling the hive, but that’s about it.

Until October.

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Female Worker Bee Attacks Drone Bee

When the weather starts to cool down, the girls wise up. Winter is tough for the bees and resources are scarce. There is nothing extra to waste on drones who don’t contribute much to the well being of the hive. One day the boys come home, expecting to be cared for and catered to, but instead they are met at the hive door with a rude reception.

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Yellow Jacket Finds A Tasty Drone Snack

The workers attack the drones and will not allow them back into the hive. Drones don’t even get issued stingers, so they are no match for the waiting females. Eventually the drones are killed and fall to the ground in front of the hive, where yellow jackets are waiting to eat their dead bodies.

By pure luck I was out at the hives at just the right time and caught a video of the girls kicking the guys to the curb. It was pretty ruthless, but in the animal kingdom it’s all about survival. The drones are easy to spot in the clip because they are larger and darker than the workers.

Yep…it’s Halloween at the hive. Sometimes the girls just can’t Bee Sweet, but that’s no excuse for you not to bee!