Tinkering in the bee yard
My favorite part of beekeeping is tinkering with the hives, trying a crazy idea I heard somewhere, or experimenting with a new piece of equipment. The process of learning, tweaking, and improvising is much more exciting to me than seeing how many pounds of honey I can squeeze from a hive. In some years, all my tampering goes awry and I end up harvesting nothing. In other years, I’m floating in the sweet stuff. But as long as I learn something—good or bad, positive or negative—I consider the season a success.
The time I spend with experimentation is a form of bee zen, an opportunity to be outside with the insects and the flowers and the sky. I often confer with cats—“Should it go this way or that?” I ask—but end up doing things my own way most of the time. The best part is leaving all the technology inside.
How many projects I get to try depends on how many colonies I can overwinter and how strong they are. This past winter came on the heels of severe summer and fall nectar dearths, and my bees have been struggling for months on nothing but sugar and pollen substitute. So far, they are hanging on, but I can feel them getting weaker by the day. Sometimes I feel like they will make it; on other days I wonder how many more rainy days they can take.
Still, I’ve been trying to think positive thoughts and prepare for this year’s try-its. Some are new and some I’ve tried before. My list of projects looks like this, assuming I have enough strong colonies:
- Double queen hive. This will be my first attempt at a double queen hive. I will be using the technique described by Bill Hesbach of Connecticut. The only difference is that I intend to stack comb honey supers on the double colony instead of extracting supers.
- Upper entrances in honey supers. I will soon begin drilling upper entrances in my comb honey supers, as described by Anthony Planakis of New York. I’m planning on one entrance for every two supers, at least to start. I may increase that once I see it in action.
- Temporary comb honey hive. If I can catch a swarm (big if, but I often get three or four) I am going to set up a temporary comb honey producer. The idea is to put a swarm with its queen (she’s likely an older queen) in a shallow box with a single frame of brood to keep it from leaving. On top of the shallow you put a queen excluder and then honey supers. Because swarms are primed to build comb, they should build it and fill it before there is enough brood for the colony to swarm again. As soon as the nectar flow is over, the bees can be combined with another colony and the queen used for another purpose, or not. Timing is everything with this one—it will happen very fast or not at all.
- Pollen trapping. As I explained earlier, this will be my first year collecting pollen. I intend to freeze it to use as a mid-winter or early spring feeding supplement. I also want to prise apart some of the pellets, peer at the pollen under a microscope, and see if I can learn where it came from.
- Open-centered dahlias. Every year I experiment with a new plant (new to me, that is) and this year it will be open-centered dahlias, compliments of Ellen Gehling, a Washington beekeeper. According to what I’ve read, the older varieties of open-centered dahlias are extremely attractive to all kinds of pollinators including honey bees. I may plant sunflowers again, too, but they have to be shorter than Lemon Queens; It’s hard to photograph bees from the top of an eight-foot step ladder.
- Glass jar beekeeping. This one is not new. Last year my bees actually built comb in my mason jars, but they never filled the combs with honey. Just as they started building, the nectar dearth arrived, and I don’t believe a single cell got filled. The jars look cool, but I was disappointed with the results. If enough colonies make it through till spring, I will try again. This one is a wait and see.
So that is my list unless something else turns up within in the next few weeks. What about you? Do you have a special project for the coming year that you want to tell us about?
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