Thursday, June 25, 2009

National Pollinator Week!!!

All Hail Honey bees (And Their Pollinating Pals)
by Deborah Franklin

In celebration of National Pollinator Week, NPR's Melissa Block checked in this afternoon with Tucson entomologist Steve Buchmann about the status of America's imperiled honeybees, and what backyard gardeners can do to help save them.

The precise cause of "colony collapse" among honeybees is still a mystery, Buchmann says. But he cites a glimmer of good news for farmers and produce lovers:
Mother Nature has lots of other pollinators -- typically five to ten types -- that visit a single plant.

Still, bumblebees and bats could use tending, too, he says. To improve their lives, try to plant local wildflowers and heirloom fruits and veggies. Native plants suited to the local climate and soil are likelier to flourish and feed bees. Steer clear of the ornately ruffled sophisticates that have spent generations in a hothouse.

Breeding a plant for our taste often inadvertently breeds out the goodies--the sweet nectar--that pollinators seek.

The Pollinator Partnership has an interactive online map to help you figure out what plants will please bees in your zip code. And you can hear more of Block's interview with the former beekeeper tonight on All Things Considered.

How are the honey makers doing in your neighborhood?
Have you noticed a bee decline?

Mission: Capture established colony in cement building

I do think the pictures really speak for themselves. Keith received a call Tuesday that we may have another established colony to capture. The owner of the building says they have been there for probably three years and have never been a bother to him, but the neighbours have begun to complain. This looks like a very healthy colony. If they've been there for three years, I wonder what kind of comb construction they have established within cinder-blocks. We will have to just wait and see, Saturday morning we are heading to Holt to meet with the property manager and see what we can do about capturing these little ladies! We also met with some, potential clients perhaps? A couple that are friends with Keith's Uncle that are interested in beekeeping. They had been wrongfully misinformed that to become a novice beekeeper you must invest a exorbitant amount of money. This is very untrue.In our first year of beekeeping we succeeded with just a single standard hive tool (A small crow-bar looking tool) and a smoker (Billows to feed smoke to the bee's which calms them and urges them to gorge themselves on honey should a fire come and they have to leave the hive). We bought a standard box hive, called a Langstroth hive, and extra supers and 10 frames for each of those supers, and foundation to put into each of those 10 frames. With all of that included with the actual bee's, we only spent maybe $200. Looking at how we have changed our practices of beekeeping in just a year, we have seen that our expenses can be trimmed even more when we construct the hives ourselves, and better yet, construct our own hive designs. But with this couples interest in us constructing one of our top-bar hives for them to use, which is the type of hive we have located at Keith's Uncle's Bed & Breakfast in Ann Arbor, we may have just branched into a new area of business!! It's fascinating to see where the bee's take you! You may just find they can change your life!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Swarm season is over!

So bee's have a typical swarm season, which typically lasts from about May 15 to June 15, typically. So we are thinking that our first year of capturing feral swarms during their prime season has come to an end. All in all it was great! It was fascinating to see a feral swarm up close and to explore another chapter of beekeeping. We captured three feral swarms and one established colony in the past month, and two of the feral swarms and the established colony are still thriving. One captured swarm did vacate the hive and we did not relocate them. Often when bee's evacuate a hive to swarm, they do not stray very far from the parent hive. The queen is larger, and also full for laying brood, so it is more difficult for her to gain speed and altitude, as well as travel for long periods of time. But with no luck, we had to let that hive go and consider it a loss. There will always be more bee's, we will make sure of that!! So to date we have on record four Top Bar Hives, and eight Langstroth hives, for a glorious total of twelve colonies! I am eager to see the progress the hives make throughout the summer. We are daring to be a bit experimental with out bee's and are using a combination of Langstroth hives (Standard box hives) and Kenyan Top Bar Hives that Keith and I built ourselves. We built the top bar hives and constructed an observation window in one of them. We have bought as well as built our own Langstroth hives, and we choose to use a combination of standard hive frames and top bar frames. For more information on top bar hives, which I highly recommend should any of you choose to explore beekeeping, I prefer this site: It gave us a lot of information about how to work with our traditional beekeeping knowledge and incorporate more natural ways to tend the bee's and give them a more suitable, less confining, habitat. It also gives you information on how you'll have to work differently handling the frames and extracting, information is not something you can ever have too much of. Learning of new ways to house the bee's and then to see their progress is amazing! Just look at what they create and you'll want them to be happy and productive! Because that's what it's really all about; making happy bee's!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

We've captured our first established colony!

So it was only a matter of time before we transitioned from just capturing feral swarms, to capturing a swarm that has established itself in a crevice of some sorts. Tuesday we got a phone call from Walter Pet. He's the head of entomology (study of insects, pollinators, etc) at MSU, and there was an established colony in a boarded up window of a martial arts academy! The coolest part about capturing a colony is that it is already established, meaning it already has drawn out wax comb cells with capped honey and brood in it! This is a good sign of a strong swarm and a good queen! The great thing about capturing this particular colony was that they were inside a window in a storage closet that had been boarded up, therefore it becomes an observation hive! We got to see the entire colony before opening it up and cutting it down!

We went in through the basement and looked at the colony, then it was off to work. The first step was removing the caulk and getting the plywood board down. We noticed that they had built comb long-ways in the hive from the inside, but when we removed the board, we noticed that they had built some extra starts of foundation in between the metal grate and onto the plywood!

Keith was like a superhero pulling the wood off the window and getting the grate off, then he went straight to work on getting each of the frames of wax down. They were well established, but probably had not been in that space for a long period of time. Sometimes, the progress of the honeybee can be astounding, but they can work mighty fast. I estimate that the colony had only been there for a month of two and had made a strong colony with good brood in that short period of time.

One issue we did run into when capturing an established colony is you cannot expect a feral colony to build all of their honey and brood cells to fit magically into the frames you'd like to transport them into. We ended up having to brush all of the occupying bee's into the hive body, cut down the entire comb, and cutting that down to string into different frames for the bee's to reattach. Over a short period of time, the bee's will take the cells that we had tied in there with cotton twine and reattach it with burr and bridge comb, and then they will cut the twine away and remove it from the hive! (Above is a picture of me holding a top bar frame with some established comb on it, and to the left, you can see some comb has been tied on with green string for them to reattach.)

We tried taking pictures of the capture, but unfortunately they did not turn out! Call us old-fashioned, but the only way to justly document our progress is on a real 35mm FILM camera!

We also feel more professional because we did break down and buy bee brushes and coveralls. The coveralls coming to the house was the first piece of official mail that has come addressed to Steller Apiaries! It's a small step but I'm easy to please! I'm also pleased my mom can sew and has the awesome ability to make patches, it'd be so cool to have company patches that say "Steller Apiaries" in a honeycomb pattern with my name on it and Velcro to close up my pant legs and arm sleeves; we've discovered those bee's like to climb!!

I hope every one's garden is coming along nicely, the rain has been healthy for our little green plants as well as for encouraging our lovely honeybee's to swarm! I'm excited to see what we harvest out of our hives as well as our multiple garden's this year with a grand total of 12 hives!!! TWELVE!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

On my way to capture ANOTHER swarm!

So it looks as though we had an issue with the second swarm we captured. The queen has vacated the hive. I checked it this morning and to my dismay, there were less than 100 bee's in the hive. A small or even weakened colony you could expect to see 3,000 - 10,000 bee's, so a triple-digit population is heartbreaking. On the plus side, we did find an ad on Craig's list.
Honey bees for bud light

but they're settling for some of our homebrewed beer and mead in place of the bud light. trust me, any sane person would do the same, I'm sure they won't be disappointed.

I'm off to Ann Arbor to save some more honey bee's then it's off to the hive on the other side of Ann Arbor to set a vacant hive next to one of our top bar hives, we may get a swarm off of one of our established hives this year! How exciting!!

Monday, June 1, 2009

We've captured another swarm!!

So Friday afternoon I received another phone call from Ron, the same guy that had called us about out first swarm in Brighton, he was calling to tell me he found us another swarm! Talk about a lucky charm! He works over near Kensington Metropark in those rock quarry's off of Muir Road, and inside a weight of a front-end loader, was a rather large swarm of bee's!

This is not your usual situation in which one comes across honey bee's, but when you find them, you either take them up or the swarm will disappear within hours. It's in the bee's nature to take habitat in a temporary place with their queen while other worker bee's go out and orient themselves to the landscape and search for food and shelter. How the bee's came to find shelter in a small cavity about the size of a carton of half and half, is beyond me, but I'm glad we met Ron and got that call!

Keith and I took to the bee's with just a spray bottle of sugar syrup and a small paint brush. Sugar syrup is a dream when you're working with bee's that are feral or swarmed, because they don't have anything to protect, so they're very docile but you don't have anything to calm them about because they don't have anything to protect(i.e. brood stored in cells and capped honey stores) Sugar syrup is 1 part cane sugar to 1 part water and helps the bee's to clump together and not fly around so much in a disturbance, and it also helps to calm the bee's because now they're concerned with cleaning each other off and making the most of this free nectar, rather than discovering why you might be invading their territory. The paint brush was not so much a technical tool as we didn't have any other way to get the bee's out of that crevice other than using our hand! There is a such thing as a 'bee brush' and it is a technical tool. It's made of very soft, durable fibers that gently brush bee's off of a frame or, say, away from a steel plate, which would enable us to scoop or brush them into the hive body we brought along. We never thought too much about using a bee brush, and we don't currently have one, but after capturing that hive, we have a new found respect for the bee brush. During the spraying and brushing of the bee's from the small cavity, many of the worker bee's sacrificed themselves and stung at the paint brush, alerting us to their dislike. But for lack of better options, we continued to use the brush.

Capturing a swarm is a rush, but it's not as terrifying or complicated as you might imagine it to be. We just show up with a spray bottle and spray them down heavily, then we brush them with the bee brush, or in our case, the paint brush, then we wait for a few to calm down and not fly so directly in to us to scare us off and then repeat the process.

Something to be aware of when capturing the swarm is that it can take hours for all of the bee's to migrate into a hive after you've located the queen, and it's not always possible to spot the queen when dealing with a swarm. A swarm is a time sensitive matter. There is always the chance that you're capturing a swarm without their queen and all of your work will be for nothing; a swarm without a hive, that is then captured without a queen has no chance of survival. So your choices sometimes fall down to either "stay and spot the queen and get her into the hive" or "get enough bee's into the hive body that will then alert the other bee's of a proper shelter space, and hope that they will lure the queen with their 'waggle dance.'" Luckily Keith did brush the queen from the front end loader, but it did take a good while to spot her. I noticed her walking across the bee's with her long abdomen, and she had a spot on her rather than striping like a standard bee. Most of the queen's we have do not have striping, however we are opening ourselves to the fact that a queen will always be most distinguishable by her size and shape rather than her coloring or striping.

The genus we captured this time was the standard Italian bee, which is what almost all of our hives are comprised of. The feral swarm we captured in Brighton however, was the European Dark Bee. The European Dark Bee used to be a Michigan standard bee to keep years ago. But they are prone to swarming, and do not overwinter as well as the Italian, so the Italian has become the standard practice of beekeeping, and the European Dark was left to become a Michigan Feral strain of bee's. The European Dark is also not as strong of a honey and wax producer, therefore, having a apiary full of European rather than Italian bee's will yield you less honey per harvest.