Friday, April 9, 2010

After a long winters nap, we're back! And ready for spring!

Steller Apiaries has been on somewhat of a hiatus, but now we're settled and ready to get back to business. We recently moved from our rented property in Whitmore Lake, to our new home, complete with eight acres for the bees, in Jackson. We've had an interesting off-season along the way. We went into the winter with thirteen beehives, some that we combined for over-wintering, so we figured it to turn into ten hives. We ran into some issues with mouse nests in our Kenyan top bar hives, and have since re-designed some of the key components to our most prized hive.

In addition to some trouble with mice, we took on some trouble with our township and their local ordinance. Mind you this was written in 1987, so I suppose I can't blame them, but I found it to be a tad ignorant that we received harassment from our township for housing "exotic pets" on our property; meaning the bees. After a meeting with our zoning administrator, we saw how our bees were going to be perceived and new we had a fight on our hands. A fight worth fighting! Through much research and tedious phone calls and emails, we were relieved to see that though the township has restrictions, they cannot trump what is accepted in the state of Michigan and the USDA as GAAMPS.

GAAMPS stands for Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices, and they update this document from time to time, and we were so relieved that a new chapter happened to be exactly the documentation we were looking for! Check out the link above, it has the official document related to the protection of the honey bee as well as the beekeeper when it comes to harassment, negative attention, and even lawsuits.
(You will need Adobe Reader to access this information)

Now that we're ready for spring to be here, we're busy building hive bodies, setting up removals of established colonies, harvesting our honey, and waiting for swarm season! More updates to come!

P.S. A very big thank you to those that stayed loyal over our winter season though you were without updates! Now we're in it full swing and you can rest assured you won't have to wait too long without a word from us here at Steller Apiaries! Happy beekeeping!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Bee Venom Therapy (BVT) or Apitherapy!

Check out some of this information on Apitherapy, or bee-sting therapy. Keith and I have been doing quite a bit of research on the effects bee venom can have on the central nervous system. There have been many benefits shown related to bee stings, including increased circulation, and reversal of paralysis-like feeling in nerve endings! Check out the link above for some information on a woman in Iran that suffered from GBS (Guillain-Barre Syndrome) which gave her numbness and paralysis throughout her legs and arms as well as severe fatigue which often confined her to bed for long periods of time! It truly is fascinating to learn what our little ladies are capable of!!

New (to us!) Hive Body Design!!

Here are some pictures of our brand new (to us, this theory was developed in the 1600's from the natural round skeps commonly used for "primitive beekeeping") hive body. It is known as the warre hive, named for its creator Abbe Emile Warre. The hive design is a hexagon, and the idea behind it is to maximize the bees space and allow them to draw and fill comb to their specific desire, but to also recreate a more natural environment for them. Remember that bees have existed for millions of year, evolving throughout time, but still desiring the shelter of an old, hollow tree to that of a commercial beekeepers hive body. The Warre hive eliminates pockets of heat and draft that can occur in a naturally oblong structure. When you think of the bees and their ability to cluster and stay warm in the frigid Michigan winters, part of their survival is related to their heat retention. Bees do not hibernate during the winter; they cluster into a ball and keep the queen in the middle nestled at around 93 degrees. Throughout the winter depending on the frigidity of the weather, the bees will contract and expand in the hive to cover combs filled with their winter stores of honey. Should there be too many cold days during a particular winter and it is not uncommon to see entire colonies that have starved to death mere inches from nourishing honey stores. If it is too cold for the bees to expand and cross the comb to, say the other corner of the hive, then they risk starving to death, not freezing to death. The principle of the Warre hive plays on that design. A hexagon is a geometric shape that has equivalent angles and compliments, but not specific corners. Using that principle, the colony has a better chance of retaining their nest scent and heat so they might never lost the ability to cover the comb they worked so hard to fill and cap during those hot summer days. Above is the link where we discovered information and photo's of the hives original design, and there are some pictures of our first established Warre hive.

We constructed the hive out of leftover lumber, 2 x 4's and a late-season feral swarm that took off from one of our four hives at Keith's parents house. Nectar flow is slowing right around now, even though some plants are sill producing pollen, it is only half the nutrition the bees need to create honey and survive. Typically swarms that form this late in the season do not survive. There is not adequate time for the bees to build comb, fill it with nectar and pollen and then store and cap the honey. There is also brood to be laid, workers will need to survive throughout the winter to keep the colony orderly and clean through the harsh winters.

This is the first hive we have attempted. We have been feeding them sugar syrup and they have established some comb with nectar, so we have a chance they could survive, but probably because we will be over-wintering them indoors to limit the stress on the bees.

It's true that we do want the fittest of our colonies to survive, but it doesn't mean we can't try some new approaches to make happy, healthy bees!

Progress check!

This is some of the progress we've had in one of our hybrid hives. For this particular hive, we got it as a nucleus hive from our supplier, Turtle Bee Honey Tree Farms. A nucleus hive is an established colony, usually with four to five combs drawn out with some brood and nectar. A standard Lang box will house ten frames, so we chose to use top bars in place of filling the rest of the box with frames. For a nucleus hive, the body that will house the brood, or baby bees, will be a deep super. This is just a natural step, followed by many beekeepers to give the bees their biggest house for maximum brood rearing. When it came time to add another super (another box) we opted to go with all top bars in their honey super.
This is some of the above progress. Notice that they still build the comb perfectly straight, as if it were in a frame? Without the foundation or the sides and bottoms to the frame, the bees are left to decide the perfect size for the cell. The bees do not naturally need to attach the comb to the side, but often use the sides as a bridge, because we as the beekeeper are obtrusive and our continuous opening of the hive causes them to need extra support. One thing we've become familiar with, is how to handle the top bars. Obviously they can can tear or crush from their own weight if you do not handle them with care. The shape of honey comb is naturally designed to be strong, durable, and handle the vast weight the bee's carry (Half of their body weight of nectar or pollen is not unusual!!) but there are natural ways the comb lie that will reinforce the cells integrity. Notice how Keith handles the comb by flipping it over end to end? That keeps the cell structure at its maximum, as well as uses centrifugal force to keep the nectar that is not yet capped honey from spilling from the cells. Fascinating huh? Who would have thought that mathematics, physics, woodworking, and agriculture could convalescence into such a perfect craft?!
We are preparing ourselves for winter and getting our strategy ready to get lots of work done over the winter so we can have happy bees come spring time!! Happy beekeeping!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Combining hives for winter

So the established colony that Keith and I worked so hard for in Holt, ended up having a injured, and eventually dead queen. It would not have been much of an issue if it had not been so late in the season, or if she were working strongly enough to lay some more brood to prevent a queenless colony. Sometimes when a colony become queenless, the worker's will take a larvae and remove it from a standard worker cell and put it in a queen cup.

This is a cell or 'cup' the bee's fashion out of wax, but each cell size is different, and those different cell sizes tell the queen or the workers what type of bee will be laid in that particular cell. Worker's (female) and Drones (male) are laid horizontal in the standard honeycomb shape. Drone cells are larger. Queen cups are built on the bottom of honeycomb and are vertical as opposed to horizontal. How each bee is fed and which cell the larvae has been laid, will determine the sex of the bee. A queen bee is just a sexually mature female bee and the worker population are just unfertilized and sexually immature females.

If a colony was to become queenless the female workers would take a laid larvae that has not been capped over with wax, and move it into that queen cup. Within a queen cup the new larvae is fed special blends of the bee's nutrients called Royal Jelly. That is why it is so valuable, not all bee's produce it, and it is only kept in very small amounts in the hive (especially compared to the amount of wax, pollen, nectar, and honey!) Since the queen does not tend to her own brood once they are laid, it is up to the worker's to provide protection and nutrition to the gestating larvae.

Sometimes when a colony becomes queenless, there is not enough established brood to simply remove a larvae and place it into a newly made queen cup. When this happens, a female worker bee (read: sexually immature and unfertilized) will try to step up and repopulate the hive. The major problem with this is that she is infertile and has not been inseminated by the drone population. Therefore the worker bee is only capable of laying unfertilized eggs, which will only produce more drones, or male bee's.

This is not beneficial to the hive at all. At season's end, when the female working population prepares for winter, they will drive all drones out of the hive. It's tough to say, but the bee's rely mostly on the female population to stay active and have enough stores of honey to survive; the males merely mooch off of their work and contribute nothing to the hive other than if they are part of the lucky few that the queen chooses to mate with.

The above scenario happens to be the situation we are in now. We captured an established colony, late in the honey-flow season, and the queen died. In her place a female worker tried to lay new brood, but only would produce a heavy drone pattern. We had decided on combining the hive to prevent the chance that we could lose the entire colony over the winter if we left them to survive knowing they were not strong enough. We have since introduced them to our WS1, which is the first feral colony we captured in Brighton. The hive is located at a small organic farm in Whitmore Lake, and appears to be improving by the day.

It is not a very technical procedure to introduce two colonies, but it is something to do carefully because nest scent and pheromones are a very integral part to the bee's acceptance of one another. To introduce two colonies you only need a sheet of newspaper; but the sheet is the most important tool in a successful combination of two colonies. Setting the newspaper between the established colony and the new weak colony you are adding allows them to keep a barrier. Slit a few holes in the newspaper for the bee's to chew through. In the meantime their personal nest scents are mingling and they are becoming aware of another presence. As the bee's chew through the paper their scent's will mingle and the queen will accept the foreign bee's into her colony. As the paper disappears, their heat and scent mix and the weak colony will accept their new queen and the stronger, established colony, will not harm the newly added bee's.

Ultimately our goal is to combine these two colonies for the winter, and to give them adequate stores to thrive in the cold Michigan winter, and to split them apart in the spring to create two healthy colonies.

To make a split it will involve using some of the healthy brood (baby bee's) and some of the existing worker's and putting them into another hive. Without a queen to produce that calming pheromone, the bee's will not have order and will become anxious. This is the case where we hope the first description of requeening will come into play. If the brood and worker's are healthy they will create a queen cup, move an egg into the cup, and create their own new queen!

Voila, two healthy colonies from one!! We'll let you know how 'D' and "WS1' progress throughout the season and into winter!!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Harvesting our first super of honey

Today we removed our first super of honey!
About a month ago, Keith and I supered two of our Langstroth hives. We chose to put the empty super above the brood chamber, but below the other super of drawn honey comb.

Early in the spring the bee's we having trouble building on the comb without foundation, but Keith and I have chosen not to use foundation in our hives; in fact we are going to be phasing out our Langstroth hives and switch completely to top bar hives that are either Tanzanian or Kenyan top bar hives. In the meantime we chose to let the bee's continue on their way and draw out the comb. However with the progress that they have made, we decided to super them earlier than planned. With that progress that has led us to take the plunge, and harvest our first super of honey! Keith and I took the comb out carefully so we could harvest as much cut comb as possible. We took it home today (in our filled five gallon bucket!!) to crush the comb and extract the honey. We filled lots of lovely mason jars, various sizes and with both cut comb and strained honey, and are ready for the purchasing!

I must admit that it was simply thrilling to harvest our first honey super! It was so exciting to see all of that drawn and capped honey, and the variety of color! There was golden straw colored honey down to deep, almost molasses colored! The taste is magnificent! It's so floral, yet light, I don't want to brag, but I think our bee's have created the world's best honey! Plus, it's medication free. Many conventional commercial beekeepers choose to medicate as a preventative measure, but I, first of all, do not find it necessary to medicate something that is not sick, and secondly, to put an unnatural chemical onto a natural, agricultural, process that has been around for million's of year seems to me, pretentious. Hooray for honey! Save the honeybee!

I must also mention I have entered a new chapter in beekeeping by re-queening our first hive! Keith and I had noticed that we had a very creative, yet slightly unproductive, colony. We have a few pictures of the intricate comb they established, but that along with a heavy drone pattern (a lot of male bee's, which are not a integral part of the hive's survival) it is a sign that the hive should be re-queened to insure the entire colony isn't lost in the cold of winter. So far the progress has been promising, I think it has helped and we didn't even feel too guilty squashing the queen; but a little guilty, I must admit! Off to dream of sweet honey and saving our lovely honeybee!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Top Bar Beekeeping and the Nucleus Hives: To combine or not to combine?

So as mid-summer approaches, we find ourselves thinking about winter, and over-wintering our bee's. It also has us considering what path we want to take as beekeeper's. Are we in it for commercial production?For manipulating for maximum honey production? Or do we want natural, productive, happy and disease free bee's? Yes, the answer was that simple for us too. It's just a matter of making use of all the materials we have invested in. Not to say that every beekeeper out there is a commercial beekeeper that trucks hives cross country to pollinate and produce maximum stores of honey; but if you're a beekeeper that only practices beekeeping using the conventional methods, then aren't you really just participating in their weathered ways of beekeeping?

Beekeeping started out as a hobby, but the more we've read, researched, and learned, the old ways of beekeeping could be what is making our bee's sick in the first place. We've now dedicated ourselves to the research of honeybee behavior, and how we're manipulating the bee's, and ultimately extinguishing their population with our practices.

We have 12 colonies (13 if you count the hive that we sold!) four top bar hives, and eight Langstroth hives.

The hive we sold was also a top bar hive, we now have a new design that is easier to construct, has a bigger observation window on the side and is much lighter! Though the top bar hives are not as portable as the Langstroth hives, when you think about it, beehives do not need to be portable.

The great benefit of using the top bar hive is that it is self-contained. A standard Deep Super (Langstroth box) holds 10 frames and measures roughly 9 5/8 inches deep. On average, a strong colony will have two of those deep boxes for brood, or baby bee's. On top of that, a first year beekeeper could figure to have three supers of honey stores. The honey supers are more shallow than the brood boxes, measuring about 6 inches deep, but are still the standard ten frame hive. Within each of those frames is a stamped piece of wax foundation. You will also need a coil of wire to crimp into the foundation to hold it into place (meaning you need a foundation crimper as well.)

Using standard Langstroth hives, you must have this equipment on hand, but you cannot store the un-used equipment on the hive. The bee's are designed to fill the space they are provided with, but to do so at too quickly a rate overworks the bee's and stresses them out. The stress causes them to gorge on more of their stores; to have to consume more food to work harder to either heat more space or work twice as fast to establish that space. So the material must be stored appropriately elsewhere.

The foundation also poses another problem. It conforms the cell size to one universal size. This is easy for the beekeeper, but detrimental to the bee's. If that particular genus of bee is smaller than the cell size, then the excess space is left open to disease, mites, and bacteria. If that particular bee's genus produces larger bee's than the cell size given, the bee's are forced to develop sub-standard brood and thus rendering some of the population developmentally delayed, or even mentally retarded. Over time the constriction of the cell size will gradually de-evolve the bee, and they will begin to show deficiencies that they could previously stave off. Does that sound like foundation is the way to go? That's like saying that once size fits all, for everyone, even if you are a colony, a million bee's strong.

Though Keith and I have decided we definitely want to continue using our top bar hive system instead of the Langstroth hives, we have two weak Langstroth Nucleus hives we got in the spring, late May, that have stopped progressing, and we aren't sure the next step we should take. They are in the standard Langstroth hive body, but they are a hybrid hive of both Langstroth frames and top bar frames (The pictures at the top of the blog are of an enclosed standard frame, and that of a top bar.) we cannot decide what we need to do with them to get them strong enough to over-winter? We are considering re-queening the colony, by buying a new, mated, queen and installing her into the hive after removing and killing the defective queen. We are considering combining the two weak hives into a top bar hive and letting the superior queen kill the weak queen, and use the strength of the bee's combined to take splits in the spring and possibly get two or three colonies out of it. We are also considering a method we have never practiced: Two queen colonies. We sat in on a seminar about it at a beekeeping convention this winter, but we aren't sure they are strong enough to be that productive. One queen may gain dominance and kill the other queen, in which case we would still hopefully end up with one decent colony.
The deadline to re-queen a colony in time for them to build up adequate stores for winter is August 1st. So I will surely let you know the status of our dilemma!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The White House gets Beehives

You can even see the White House in the background! I think this is truly a breakthrough for the agricultural world! Honey bee's are responsible for every third bite of food that we consume, yet not even every third person knows this fact. I think it says tremendous things about what this President wants to convey during his term with his actions and I couldn't be more pleased! Regardless of the social and political views, it is the actions they take that will truly be there Presidential legacy. I cannot say I have agreed with everything President Obama has done thus far in office, or will do throughout his term, but I will tell you this: It gives me pride in our president to know that they are a family, with a backyard garden, a swing set, and most importantly, a beehive! The White Hose kitchen isn't the only thing to benefit. The Obama's will enjoy bountiful harvests from their vegetable garden with increased pollination, as well as an eight mile radius around the White House! Not only will you get a direct benefit of having bee's but the indirect benefits to you and to your neighbours should be more than enough to convince you! Michelle Obama is the first First Lady to plant a vegetable garden since Eleanore Roosevelt did after World War II, which she called her "Victory Garden." I certainly don't think we need to be involved in a war for our President and his family to see that we've lost value in the fact that we used to be an agriculture and farming land. Mass agriculture poses threats to humans as well as to our honeybee's, so why not consider alternatives? The alternative is something as simple as picking up a shovel and sowing some seeds!!