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A truck loaded with wrapped hives

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Saturday April 1st, 2000

Saturday -- a day of peace and quiet.  No April Fools jokes at all today -- as far I can tell anyhow.

I was planning  to do a few things around here then head to Westcastle for some boarding, then on to a meeting in Lethbridge Monday morning. Turns out, though, that the meeting, for beekeepers pollinating canola, is not until 2 in the  afternoon.  With all the rush around here to get ready for packages and to feed and unwrap, I've decided to drive south on Monday morning instead.

I was looking through the photos I took this week and found a few more good ones:

Click on any of the pictures below for an enlargement

Click to enlarge

Here is Matt opening a four pack wrap in preparation for feeding and checking the hives.  It's still a little early to unwrap, but we have to get started sometime or we'll never finish.

Click to enlarge

This is a nice hive of bees.  It's quite typical of 80% of the bees we opened.  As for the rest, 10 to 20% are dead, or are weak enough they will not likely amount to anything. 

We just shake out any hives that are hopeless.  Such hives could keep us busy full time, then return nothing while our good hives are neglected.

 An extender patty and the remains of a protein patty -- as well as the plastic from the Mite Wipes we used in the fall to control varroa and tracheal mites -- are still visible.  Fears of queen loss due to formic use seem unfounded.

We didn't spend much time looking at frames, but this one looks pretty nice.

Click to enlarge

MakeBCs.jpg (69694 bytes)

Gareth and Ryan and Steve (not shown) are hard at work going through brood chambers in preparation for our 400 packages that come on April 4th and 8th.  I'm starting to think we have too many bees, but who knows, maybe the price of honey will go up.

As I said, I was planning to work on the house a bit and tidy, maybe even do some more bookwork, but then I got entangled in the question of honey bee comb sizes and spent the whole day working on that problem.

Cell Counts: I spent hours designing and refining a spreadsheet that converts all the legitimate schemes of comb measurement into one table for reference. Such a table is pretty well necessary to read Dee Lusby's articles or Roy Grout's article, all of which Barry Birkey has been working over to present on his excellent beekeeping web site.

In the evening Ellen & I moved some more furniture around. As I mentioned before, we are adding south windows and eliminating many of the east and west windows in our Old Schoolhouse. The south ones gave us light and heat in winter, but now the sun is high enough that it barely shines in them at all, but in morning and afternoon, the east and west windows can make this place like an oven.

We had a big wind today, and when I looked out, I could see bee wraps scattered all over the field south, as well as the railroad track. A tarp was luffing badly in the south pasture.  We have warned our people over and over that we get these winds up to 100MPH, but every time we get a big blow, we find things are not secured.

Sunday April 2nd, 2000

Spend quite a bit of time on the cell size thing.  Got some results for other countries.  Seems the bees build cells in the range of the foundation we are used to, with some variation.  Nothing earth shattering yet.

Worked on the house a little.  I am pretty tired today.

Monday April 3rd, 2000

Weighed the remaining items coming back from Blue Sky, did a few other things, then off to the meeting in Lethbridge.

I like to use my cell phone to break the monotony on the trips, so I talked to Jon Peterson over at Cutknife SK, who is going to be making us some cells this spring.  We have decided to use mated queens for th early splits and the cells for the small splits for increase later, so we moved the date back a bit -- to both our satisfaction.  I also called Eric and learned he has sold all his bees.  Glad to hear that.

It was a good meeting -- nothing new, particularly --  but it is always nice to get to see the other beekeepers and hear that things are going well.  Although we are all competitors in a sense, we all share and help one another like family.

Everyone seems to have too many bees after the good winter.  Everyone ordered packages to be sure of meeting their contracts, now they have to find homes for them.  We'll see.  Things could change, depending on the spring.

Apparently one beekeeper got some make-up packages from his supplier, who shall remain unnamed here, to compensate for the fiasco last year and is trying to sell off the queens for $7 (Canadian) and cannot get anyone to do anything but laugh, even though they are currently paying up to $13 for queens from suppliers they trust.

The supplier in question has made a terrible name for himself in Western Canada over the past few years and cannot even give away his packages because of the queens.  The bees are fine, but the queens are just awful, according to reports.  It's not that people haven't given him more than one chance either.  I remember a while back one beekeeper I know replaced every one of the queens in hundreds of packages at his own cost after he observed their performance.  Last I heard, the supplier has dropped his prices, but no one will bite.

I had supper with Jean and Chris at Sven Ericksen's Restaurant after the meeting and stayed at their place for the night.

Tuesday April 4th, 2000

This morning I had been planning to go to the growers' meeting that followed the beekeepers' meeting, but was tired and also eager to get home and make sure nothing went wrong with the packages.  I checked some yards along the way and arrived home around noon.   I arrived home to several calls about bees in shavings and chop.

It's always a hard decision: unwrap early and keep the bees cool so they stay home, or unwrap later and keep them warm, but put up with all the calls.   We had intended to put out boxes of soy flour and BeePro for the bees to distract them, but have been a little slow off the line.

Package Bees:  Although it was sunny and warm this morning it's turning out to be dull and cool, with suggestions of rain tonight, with  no frost, so it is ideal for packages.  We had expected the bees to arrive at noon, but, when I arrived, the packages had not come.  On phoning Morley's cell, I found he was bucking a cross wind -- much worse than a head wind -- and would not arrive until 6.

P4040004.jpg (103427 bytes) The guys had pretty well everything ready when I got home, but on discussing the details, I found they only had 280 hives ready for bees, not the 300 required.  I had mentioned a few times there might be only 280 on this trip, and I guess they liked the smaller number and did not hear that Ellen & I both clearly said many times that we had to have 300  ready.  Fortunately the glitch was discovered in time for us to ready another 20.

As I write this, I am waiting for the truck so we can get the job done  The hives are ready and open. The feeders are full, and everyone is keyed up to go.  The actual installation, including a complete cleanup of all feeders, cages, and pallets, will only take an hour or two with five people but we have been looking forward to this for weeks now and are excited.

10 PM:  Morley arrived around six in the midst of a terrible wind.  We had started taking off the lids and removing frames in anticipation Nice Packagesof starting install, but found we had to stop and put them on again when the wind blew the frames -- which were leaning against the hives -- around the yard.   Then rain and snow started to fall. That was when Morley arrived with the bees.  They looked pretty good.

After Morley left,  we sat in the honey house and waited for the conditions to change. After a while, Matt ran to town and brought back a couple of pizzas.  One was half gone when he arrived <g>.

We ate pizza and decided that we had to do something, so we found a spot south of the building which was sheltered and set up a plan whereby Steve, on the green Swinger, gathered up the hives and brought them out of the wind, Ryan  and Gareth removed frames, put on pattiesInstall.jpg (120351 bytes), pillows and lids while Matt shook the bees out of the cages into the hives.

Then Steve took the pallets of bees back out and put them down and checked the entrance reducers.  By this time it  was 8 PM and dark; we worked by the forklift lights and by floodlights.  Snow fell in large fluffy flakes, but it was warm and a sweater under the bee suit was plenty for warmth.

At first, we set out 10 or so packages to wait their turn.  On warm days, we like them to cool a little and cluster so that they don't go nuts when we let them out, and so that the queen is not too runny.  However, tonight, we found that they were getting a  little too slow and had to keep them inside until the last minute.  It would be a shame to find the next day that they had not come up onto the combs.

We never know what to expect since we stopped getting packages from California years ago.  At that time, packages were standard, and a 4 pound package was a four pound package.  They were all identical.  Now, tSawzall Required - Click to enlargehe packages come made out of everything from cardboard to hardboard.  These particular ones are wood with hardboard tops and a different feeder that seems to work well, but it  dislodges when the boxes are being shaken, as they must when the bees are cool and hanging on with their tiny claws.  We wound up cutting the screens to get the feeders out so we could shake the cages.

Moreover the packages are stapled onto heavy strips of wood that we could not pry loose.  This is good in transit, but at the installation site, it is a puzzle.  The boxes would give before the staples that held the slats, so we finally just got out the Sawzall and cut them apart.  The boxes themselves were made from a heavier wood than we are accustomed to, and do not flex when slapped between the hands to dislodge clinging bees.

El and I helped out at first, until we were sure everything was going well, but have stepped back to let the others finish.  Together, in our younger days, we've installed hundreds of packages in a night without help, while our two small children slept in the truck , but are not as spry -- or foolish (I hope) --  as we Night Work - Click to enlargeonce were.  The spirit is willing, but...   and, for some reason I am feeling a bit under the weather tonight.  I was off to a good start, but I find I have a headache and sweat when I exert myself, so I begged off, and  I am in here writing my diary while the guys finish the job and I wait to make sure they will not need me.  It's at times like this that I particularly appreciate my friends.

Wednesday April 5th, 2000

As soon as it was light, and we had breakfast, El and I checked in daylight to see how things had gone the night before and the bees looked good.  The snow was mostly gone and when we lifted a few lids, everything looked fine.  There were 45 four pound packages left to go, so we put them into the dark to wait for their turn to be hived and El sprayed them with a little sugar syrup for good luck.

Research Project: Adony came by at about 9:30 and we discussed the research he will be doing and what we have to do to get things ready for him, then we went out looking for chalkbrood mummies.  We visited three yards and looked at the doorsteps.  He was able to find enough to use for his experiments since most hives have not cleaned their floors yet.  There wasn't  a lot of chalkbrood to be seen.  Most of it was on the doorsteps of a few hives.

We had a pleasant lunch and then Adony was on his way.  At two, the crew came to work in good spirits and eager to get the job done.  They had finished up around one in the morning and had about 90 hives left to install from the 45 four pound - two queen packages remaining, and some cleanup and chores to do.  The weather was around five degrees C, all afternoon -- ideal for package bee installation -- so they were able to go right to work installing as soon as they were organised.

I was still tired and a bit weak, so left the job entirely to them.  I think my problem must have been a fish sandwich I had at a Dairy Queen in Strathmore on the way to Lethbridge.  It had tasted a bit 'off', but I had eaten it anyhow and not complained.  I should have known better, but one so seldom gets bad food these days.

The guys were done well before dark and able to head home to get back on a daytime schedule.  There had been a few queens dead or missing, but mostly the queens had been fine;  we still have half of the percentage queens left .  I did not see any packages with many dead bees, although some had built comb in the boxes, a sign of young well-fed bees coming off a flow, and the guys saved some for me, since they know I am trying to measure cells.

I tried measuring the cell size on these samples, but the new comb was so flexible and soft and full of syrup that I was unable to conclude much except that it seemed to be in the 5.2 to 5.4 mm range.  Frankly I am unable to see how people put much emphasis on cell size as having much importance although my mind is open and I am trying hard to understand.

The one exception in that regard is is in relation to varroa.   Adony was explaining to me that the way that varroa set up in a cell, the male and female are in different spots and only have a limited time to get together to mate, after which time the communication space is blocked by the growing bee pupa.  If I understood him correctly, I can see how a smaller cell could inhibit reproduction in varroa.

Tomorrow is a regular day.  If Environment Canada is correct, it will be cool, and that is good for getting the packages settled in, although I worry about them getting to their frame feeders.  Some of the brood chambers are a bit dry as far as feed is concerned.

Thursday: Mix of sun and cloud with a 40 percent chance of light snow. High 4.

Friday looks like a better day for the new bees to get around in their hives and maybe get out a bit to tour the neighbourhood

Friday: A mix of sun and cloud. Low zero. High 12.

We have the 100 brood chambers to prepare for Saturday's 50 four pound packages and the feeding and inspecting of the overwintered hives will continue. After looking at the number of bees in a package hive, the good overwintered hives look big and the weak ones don't look as bad.

Friends came by for supper and then we turned in at a more reasonable hour than the previous night.

Thursday April 6th, 2000

I got the numbers on the packages from Ryan and it turns out they averaged 3-9/10 pounds each.  We always weigh our packages and it is interesting to see who gives full measure and who does not.  3.9 is  pretty close to the 4 pounds they are rated at and a lot better than the 15% shortage we saw with the NZ packages we had the last two times before we gave up on that source, but not as good as the 10% bonus we had on the previous Australian bees we bought two years ago.  

I was waiting to see what the results were because I had noticed some variation in the apparent size of the cluster in the packages.  We did not track the variation, but I imagine some packages were only three and half pounds or less, while some were four and a half.  Some fluctuation is is pretty much unavoidable, but if it is very great it reduces the chances of  success and also introduces some variation in the size of the resulting hives that may need to be addressed later.

I went to the doctor around noon for a follow up call from my stress test and was told to eat garlic tablets to get the cholesterol down.  It's not that high, but with a family history they don't like to take chances.  Cholesterol in a diet is essential for bees since they need it for their chitin, and cannot make it themselves, but I guess it is not good for people, although I understand that we manufacture most of the what is found in our blood in our own bodies.  I had though that the cholesterol scare had been debunked, but I guess not.  Drat!

I did a little shopping and took the tires to the tire shop again.  Had to leave them there because they were busy.  Went home and did a little desk work and slept.  Still exhausted from whatever that me. Hope this is the end of that.

The afternoon turned cool and had a nasty breeze.  It was below freezing by the end of the day.

Tonight: Periods of snow this evening giving accumulations up to 4 cm. Low minus 4.

I wonder how much snow we'll get.  Four cm is enough to make things muddy.

Friday: Becoming mainly sunny. Wind west 20 km/h. High 12.

Tomorrow, it looks as if most of the crew will be working all day on finishing the brood chambers,    I hope Matt and I can get out and work on more of the wintered bees.  We hauled the blue truck to Linden to have it checked over and the fuel pump problem diagnosed.

The guys are still making brood chambers.  The job has taken about twice the time we know it should.  I suspect that they have been dragging their feet and hoping the job would pass.   The total of a bit under five hundred -- we intend to finish all that are on hand because we will need them at splitting time if we don't use them now --  has so far taken three strong, young guys over a week and it looks as if they will have to work Saturday.

Granted, they have had chores to do and other distractions like installing the bees, but a good man or woman can do an easy 100 a day if the site is organised and the people are motivated.  If the boxes are not in need of too much work, -- and many of these we are processing were almost ready to use as found -- Ellen and Jonathan have done two hundred in a single  morning, so we know it can be done.

It's amazing how impossible a job can look if the people responsible don't really want to do it.  If we had not done this exact same job ourselves many times over the years and trained many crews to do the job, and recorded the results, we would have certainly believed that the job is impossible from what we saw this week.   We normally don't harass our guys if they are slow or even a bit recalcitrant -- we understand that everyone is not always energetic, motivated and fast -- but at one point, Ellen finally had to go out and do 8 in a half hour to convince strong, young, healthy guys that it can be done easily, quickly, and by a 5 foot, 105 pound, middle-aged woman.

I hope they decide to get down and finish this job, since we have to get out and start working the wintered bees, and this task is running late.  They could be done tomorrow and have Saturday mostly free, but at the present rate of progress it looks as if they could be here all weekend.  They have run out of time and the job must be done.

I'm not hard-hearted and it's not that this is not a great bunch of guys.  It's just that even the best team sometimes just doesn't get its act together.  The measure of the team is not whether they fail occasionally or not, but whether they can pick themselves up quickly, get over a defeat, and win again.

Saturday Mainly sunny. Low 1. High 13.

Then, on  Saturday, the last packages come.  If the forecast is correct., we'll have to wait until dusk to install them, since we may have flying and drifting if the temperature gets much above the forecast.

Hope I'm back to my normal self tomorrow.

Friday April 7th, 2000

Bees at entrances.  Click to enlargeThis was another day of making up brood chambers and preparation for the packages coming Saturday.  The packages were flying a bit and snooping around for food.  There is nothing much for them yet.  Crocus is still two to three weeks away.  The flight at the hives was reminiscent of robbing, but we are confident it is only orienting. The bees are settling in nicely and eating the protein patties that we placed on the top bars when installing

It will be a few more days before we can check them.  There should be eggs by now, but it will be a full week from installing before there will be enough brood to make queen checks worthwhile.  At that time we will just pull a centre frame and give a quick glance for pattern.  We have left out one frame at the outside of each brood chamber to make this easy.  We'll replace that frame once they are pronounced OK.

The guys have been slow on the brood chamber job and will have to come in tomorrow to finish cleaning up the last few boxes, before installing the 100 hives that arrive sometime during the day.  Adony will be here to supervise the ones that comprise his experiment

Brood chamber making must be completely done and the site cleaned up because time waits for no man in this business at this time of year, and the next several months are fully scheduled.  It's do or die.  Missing a few days or getting behind can cost thousands of dollars.  We need to get out and visit every hive during the next two weeks and feed.  I'm hoping we will get everything done on time and that we will be paying a fat bonus.

Saturday April 8th, 2000

The guys showed up around eleven and got back to work on the brood chambers.  I finally managed to track down Morley (my package bee trucker) around noon on his cell phone, to find when the bees are arriving and it turned out he was at the Vancouver airport picking up the bees at that moment, not near Calgary ready to meet me and deliver them as I had previously understood.  That means that it will be tomorrow night before we install them.  Well, everything should be ready by then.

Preparing Fondant: This batch has fifty hives for Adony's experiments.  Maybe I'll outline them here later, but for now, I'll explain how I spent some of my Saturday afternoon.  I put fondant into bags to go on the package bees.  Some of the bees are to be installed on foundation and may have trouble reaching a feeder if the weather is cold, so this is insurance.  I have series of pictures to show how it works.

Here is the basic set-up. Each picture below is a thumbnail and when clicked, should give a full screen picture at 640 x480.

Cuting & Bagging Fondant.  Click to enlargeFirst, the 15kg box of fondant is inverted on a counter and the bag pulled down and off it, leaving a chunk of fondant (right).

Then a knife or cleaver is used to cleanly slice the block into reasonable sized chunks.  The amountCutting fondant.  Click to enlarge should be calculated to make a patty that will fit under the quilt or lid of the hive it will go on when placed into a gallon ZipLoc bag and flattened.

The knife can be kept in a pot of hot water when not cutting, and the water can be dribbled into the cut as it is made, to lubricate the fondant and to avoid getting everything gooey.  This may or may not be necessary.  The fondant I have cut fairly well dry if the kerf is kept open by pulling the cut-off away from the main fondant chunk while cutting.

The bagged fondant, ready to use.  Click to enlarge.The small chunks then go into the bags which are partially zipped (the air must be able to get out) and pressed underfoot until the correct pancake shape is achieved.  Then they are zipped and placed into  a box.  I got 60 bags out of six boxes to average around 2-3/4 pounds per bag.

Before use at the bee yard, several long slits are made in one flat side of each bag with a razor knife before the bag is placed flat on the hive top bars with the slits down.  The slits allow the bees to climb into the bag to get the candy.  When removing empty bags later, watch the queen is not in there.

This advice is courtesy Murray McGregor in Scotland.  This is the first time I've ever done this and it went well, thanks to Murray's detailed instructions

The fondant we are using is from CSP Foods in Saskatoon and has been tested for bee safety by Rob Currie at the University of Manitoba.  (Thanks Rob).  I understand that in his region, Murray can supply beekeepers with a special fondant that is made on the continent just for bees.

Comparing Foundation and Drawn Comb: Murray also gets credit for the idea behind one of the experiments Adony is doing with us hiving bees on foundation.  Murray and I chat a bit, and he sent me a private note some time back about the surprising success beekeepers in some northern European countries are achieving using very high levels of comb renewal.

Most experienced beekeepers from northern regions around here believe that dark comb is part of the secret of success, both for good crops and for good wintering.  This report flies in the face of this conventional wisdom, so we are going to make a little test under local conditions.

I don't recall if I mentioned it, but Adony graduated from Simon Fraser recently after studying under Mark Winston.  I know Adony and his father from when he spoke at the Alberta Beekeepers Association convention some years  back about his experiments with Neem and other 'natural' compounds for mite and disease control.

Adony has decided to pursue a career in independent bee research.  He is hoping to get grant funding and also to come up with some saleable products that will help beekeepers and also keep him in sufficient funds for his work.

I admire his ideas and hope he is successful.  So far he is mostly financing his own work.  To help get things off to a good start, we are working with him to do some studies using our bees and equipment and labour.  We supply the bees and the inputs, he supplies the design and does the science.

There are two projects that he is working on here:

  • A year-long comparison of identical hives started on four different types of brood chamber comb (or foundation) and

  • Tests of irradiated pollen  for use in spring supplementary feeding using pollen that has known levels of disease spores before irradiation.  He plans to examine disease incidence after feeding various treatments.

For the second experiment, we are going to start and run 10 package hives exclusively on each of

  • White waxed Permadent,

  • Black waxed Permadent,

  • Recently drawn white drawn comb and

  • Our normal dark brood combs

We may also do 10 on black waxed Pierco frames which we have handy, if  we have time, but it is not in the current design.

We will monitor build-up, health, feed consumption, production, and wintering and see if there is much difference.  I have strong doubts about the future of the foundation-only colonies, but I'd love to to be proven wrong.

Adony is also doing some work in BC on a parasite that shows promise for varroa control this spring.  That could be pretty exciting if methods of application work out and all the other factors are not negative.

Stay tuned...

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Allen Dick 2000.  Permission granted to copy with attribution and in context .

"If I make a living off it, that's great--but I come from a culture where you're valued not so much by what you acquire but by what you give away," -- Larry Wall (the inventor of Perl)