My Year in Bees 2013 – by Ernie Daley

Our Year in Bees on Denman – the highs and lows of 2013 (originally posted November 16, 2013)

I love the spring, with all the promise it brings.  This will be our fourth year keeping bees and we continue to learn as if it were our first.  So on a sunny day in late March upon checking our 2 hives we started last year from a nuc and a package, I was thrilled to see the boxes overflowing with bees, jam packed!  A great relief as we had lost our last two hives the previous winter, likely to moisture in the hive.  I ordered a couple of queens in anticipation of splitting the 2 healthy hives into 4, and for good measure I ordered another package. I had Big plans.

So the splits were made on April 28th, and the package installed.  Now we had to see if the queens would be accepted, the optimism was running high.  Everything was going according to plan.  The apiary was looking good, I had fed pollen patties (which they devoured) and they had good honey stores that we had salvaged and saved from the last seasons failed colonies.  Everything was going according to plan.

Swarm season!  But what luck, I am finding them, not losing them.  First one on the left,  May 11,  I hive in a dadent, and a few days later on the 13, I find another swarm on side of hive, this one I shake loose into a new deep and place alongside other hives.

Now I feel like a real beekeeper, two original hives expanding, two splits, two swarms and a new package, and it is only the middle of May!

But things were not what they appeared, the splits had rejected their queens, or so I thought.  I decide against introducing new queens and instead, give both hives frames of capped and uncapped brood from the original hives (they were bursting and could easily spare them) and let them make their own queens.

May 27 inspection, more bad news, the little swarm has laying workers, so I decide to shake off the house bees away from the apiary and let the flying bees return to a queen-right hive next door, much to my surprise this actually worked.  The other  larger swarm has vacated the deep they were in and so I am back down to the splits and the package.  Humbling experience, and upon further research I have learned more about catching swarms, (I should have read this first).

June 16 inspection, populations all look good, I find 2 queens in one of the original hives!  A little black one following/chasing a big gold one.  I leave them to sort it out.  One of the splits has uncapped brood and eggs, the other one still no eggs.

June 30th inspection, all hives look good except the last split, still no eggs so they were not able to make a queen.  I give them some frames of capped and uncapped brood from this year’s package, which had plenty to spare and they were the gentlest of the apiary.  This would be their last chance as far as I could see given the time of year.  Also set up wasp traps, you can see the yellow bags hanging.


I was away July and Aug and Tammy looked after the inspections, and took off a couple of honey boxes during the summer, things were looking good !

I return in Sept. and when we go over to inspect the hives we got the shock of the season….

Sept 7, all hives under attack from wasps.

Entrance reducers not keeping them out.  3 Hives full of wasps, no bees, no brood no honey.  Removed.

Wasp traps filling daily, impossible to control.

They fed as greedily on their own dead (see  below) as they did on bees and larvae.

We took the last two surviving hives home to Comox to see if we could save them (fewer wasps here) and upon inspection, each remaining hive is queen-right but contains very few bees as shown on left.  The boxes are shallows and light, but luckily the deeps below have lots of stores so I put the deeps with honey on top and the bees will go up and spend the winter there

So a year in beekeeping comes to a close, optimistic start, re-queening success and failures, swarm catching success and failures, feeding and wasp trapping and in the end I am left with less than I started with.  A couple extremely small hives which are now in a dry safe place.  With the addition of new and improved insulated top covers and moisture wicking egg cartons, new ventilation holes and I will also cover the hives to keep driving rain off, I must remain content that I have done all I can for the girls, hope for the best in the spring when we will start all over….

Wasp Update:

Now, after having talked to many other beekeepers it seems that catastrophic losses to wasps were experienced by many and we were lucky to loose only 3 out of 5.  And reports from non-beekeepers also confirmed a bad year for wasps all along the coast and in the world.  If  you read this article from the Guardian it will make our problems seem like child’s play compared to what this community in China is experiencing.   The sting of the highly venomous giant Asian hornet (vespa mandarinia), which measures about the size of a human thumb, can dissolve human tissue and cause kidney failure, (many people have died from numerous stings).  An Asian hornet below, devouring a honey bee.

The Bee Whisperer

Originally posted by unknown on September 22, 2013

Ever since I read A Recipe for Bees and The Secret Lives of Bees  I’ve been captivated by beekeeping.  I’ve longed to get my own hives, bottle my own honey, dance in the bee yard covered in my lovely, gentle bees. I imagined that I would totally be in touch with the inner workings of my bees, I’d anticipate their needs, and I’d communicate with them on a celestial level.  They’d know what I was thinking and I would know what they were thinking.  It would magical and people would think I was cool.

It appears that I don’t know jack squat about bees and they seem to care less about what’s going on with me.  Seriously.  I got my first 2 hives in May as nucs.  And my crash course bee school began:

“What do you mean I have to feed them?  They’re BEES!  They feed themselves, don’t they?”
“Oh, I can build and paint all these hive bodies and wire and embed all 60 frames in one weekend, no problem, says the internet.  I beg to differ.  How does one embed wax on a frame without electrocuting oneself or catching things on fire?”
“What do you mean the hive box has to be square?  Can’t I just eyeball it?”
“Swarms?  What the hell?  I just got these bees and they swarmed 3 times before July.  I read that new colonies don’t swarm in their first year!”
“How much equipment DO I need?  I thought they’d live in one hive forever and ever. “
“What the heck is a split?”
“Robbing? What’s that?”
“Where is my honey? “

Fortunately, despite my best efforts, my bees are very healthy and happy and I have learned a boat load.  The three swarms were hard to take but the remaining bees rallied.   My girls are quite friendly and I’ve only had one sting…and I’m not entirely sure it was a honeybee that stung me.  I can often tend to them without smoke or sugar syrup.  I’ve been reading and watching YouTube videos about bees non-stop since February, trying to cram all the bee knowledge into my head, only to have it explode at every bee club meeting where each bee keeper has the exact opposite advice as the next.

I love observing the bees in the morning, cereal bowl in hand, watching them trundle into the hive with pollen packs bulging, doing their bee thing. I really love my bees, those mysterious creatures are ever fascinating.

I have no idea what they are thinking, but they seem to be okay.
And so am I, even though I’m not the bee whisperer I imagined.


Vespas ~ by Jen Zacher

originally posted on August 25, 2013

I’ve always loved Vespas…until this month.  A Vespa is a classy Italian scooter that was popular in Europe in the 1960s.  It was cleverly named after the yellow- and black-striped stinging insect because both are known for their distinctive buzzing sound.  “Vespa” is the Italian word for “wasp”.

But this August, anything remotely conjuring up the image of a wasp irritates me.  I’ve been keeping bees since May and once August hit, I haven’t been able to keep the wasps out of my two beehives.

I first saw the wasps’ nest in the greenhouse rafters in mid-June.  At that time, there seemed to be only five or six.  They crawled slowly across their convex paper comb and seemed harmless enough.  I knew I should probably get rid of them before they became a nuisance to either people or our puppy, but I hadn’t really thought about them being a threat to bees.

After a bit of research, it turns out that wasps invade hives to steal honey and brood (baby bees).  They are parasitic and may paralyze other insects to feed as food to their own larvae.  Some people may find the wasp’s role of reducing the number of insects in one’s yard a blessing, but as a beekeeper, this wasp behaviour is a nuisance.  (I’m trying to be impartial because I feel such angst about wasps.  In reality, lots of people have been complaining about wasps being annoying this time of year.)

Instinctively, my initial thought when I saw the nest was to knock it down or spray it.  I’ve never been stung by a bee or a wasp (which is beekeeper blog topic for another occasion), so I didn’t want my first sting to be from several angry wasps who had a right to be aggressive.  As an environmentalist who is all-too-aware of the dangers of manufactured chemical pesticides, I was surprised that the idea to spray had even crossed my mind.  Why would I spray a pesticide inside the greenhouse with my food when I’m so opposed to agri-business doing the same?  What effects would it have on my Tumbler Toms and Thai peppers?  What was the cost benefit of doing so?  So, I did nothing.

Then at the bee meeting, a nifty robber’s entrance was presented and explained.  It was ingenious.  It allows a beekeeper to close up the hive to stop wasps (and other robbing bees) while allowing airflow through mesh on the front of the hive.  There’s a secret entrance for the resident bees to come and go freely while fooling the robbers.  The entrance is near a metal cover that hides the bee pheromones, so robbers get distracted and fly toward the mesh (where they can smell the pheromones) but can’t find the true entrance.  As an aside, one of my favourite parts of beekeeping (and Comox Valley Beekeeper Association meetings) is discovering clever contraptions people have developed to solve problems.

I admired this simple fix to the robber problem, but I didn’t buy the specialty hive entrance because I didn’t have a problem at the time nor the extra cash to warrant being proactive about the warnings that robbers would be coming.

Sure enough, within days of the bee meeting, I noticed that the wasps’ nest in the greenhouse had quadrupled in size.  I could hear them humming when I entered.  I went to the beehives and saw them frantically buzzing there too.  I fed the hives using my usual homemade feeders (upside down glass jars with holes in the top and a 2:1 sugar syrup inside), and my heart sank when I saw the sons-a-bitches inside the hive.

The wasps had gone too far, though, the day I saw a blatant attack on one my bees, in which the wasp grabbed her and flew her down to the ground.  I was videotaping and couldn’t tell what the outcome had been, but needless to say, I was pissed.

I left the feeders, knowing the wasps would probably be robbing it all day while I was at work, but I rationalized that it was better that they fed on the syrup rather than the actual honey the bees had already processed and stored for the winter.

I had already pulled out the bottom board to let the bees cool off in the summer heat (via the screened bottom), but I decided to close up the hive up top as well.  I pulled out the push pins that usually keep the outer lid propped up, and I let it close completely (as designed).  I quickly ran in the house and returned with the entrance reducers that allow one bee in and one bee out at a time.  I slid it into place, hoping it would give the girls a fighting chance.

That evening, I set up my second line of defense – the homemade two-liter bottle wasp trap.  I cut off the top third and flipped it over to insert it in the remaining two-thirds of the bottle.

In true north Vancouver Island fashion, I popped open a Lucky.  I poured it into the trap and dripped a couple of drops of dish soap in as well, to break the surface tension so the little buggers would more easily drown (it sounds cruel writing it now).  I had found complex recipes that called for jam, but this is not meant to be a complex or expensive hobby, so I just used Lucky.

It turns out, wasps love Lucky.  I caught at least 10 wasps (and probably more) within the first 24 hours.  One bee keeper told me to leave the dead wasps in the trap as it will attract more (which appears to be true).  I also read a few online beekeeper reviews saying folks found this simple homemade trap to be more effective than purchased traps, which is great because now that I’ve kept the wasps out of the beehives, I am back to pinching pennies for a Vespa…scooter.

p.s.  This evening, I Googled whether fig trees are pollinated by bees because we have one dripping with heavy, purple fruits.  I was looking forward to giving the girls credit for such a prolific tree, but then I found out fig trees are pollinated by wasps!?!??!

Fig wasps are a different species of wasp than the ones I’ve been battling, of course, but it illustrates that life’s ironic.  It’s also interesting that we appreciate some insects a lot (honeybees) but want to kill others (wasps).  It was also a nice reminder that if I’d had sprayed for insect with chemicals that I may have inadvertently killed the others I wanted around too.

p.p.s.  Bees and wasps construct similar looking comb, but bees have wax glands that produce the wax that is formed into comb.  I learned that wasps instead mix their saliva with materials (such as paper pulp or mud) to build comb.  When I was really upset with the wasps, I found this fact comforting – that the bees had such a dignified ability to produce a raw material rather than spit to make it.  :)

Creating sanctuary for bees

Written By Nao Sims at Honey Grove Farm, member of The Comox Valley Beeclub

originally posted July 11, 2013

There is nothing I like better than high-summer in the bee-yard. The hum of the hive on a sunny day is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard.

The smell of warm wax and honey that rises up off the hives and permeates the lower field where they sit, is utterly transporting.

Yes, at long last the sun has come out on the Pacific West Coast of Canada, and our second nectar flow has finally begun.

The bees are busy from dawn to dusk and the whir around the bee-yard brings a deep down contentment to my whole being.

Here on Honey Grove Farm, located in rural Comox Valley BC, on Vancouver Island, we had a great deal of rain during the months of May and June. The rain combined with a dearth toward the end of May could have brought a number our hives to starvation, had we not intervened and fed them sugar syrup. Despite the abundant honey stores that the bees came through winter with, they still did not have enough. Although we are dedicated to planting more bee-food here on our property, we have not yet managed to have enough flowering at the time when our bees seem to need it most.

And so, our dedication to create a sanctuary for honeybees continues, as we endeavor to plant more flowers and trees to support our bees. It is common knowledge that a great number of beekeepers will move their bees to the nectar-flow, as opposed to bringing the nectar-flow to their bees. Here on Honey Grove, however, we are interested in the latter (that is bringing flowers to bees, as opposed to bees to flowers). The below image is of a bee on phacilia, a flower which bees love that is rich in nectar as well as pollen, and that we have planted in abundance on our farm.

In our culture, in these modern times, beekeepers move their bees for pollination reasons as well as honey production. In fact, up until the early part of the 20th century, it was believed that this is a fairly recent practice (recent being over the last two to three hundred years) however, in 1914, at an archeological dig in Egypt, a number of papyri were uncovered which once belonged to Zenon, a Greek official who lived at Philadelphia in the Fayum, about the middle of the third century before Christ.

From the information recorded on these papyrus it would seem that ancient Egyptians also practiced what the Germans call Wanderdienenzucht, that is, moving beehives to different districts in order to take advantage of the earlier and later flowering plants. One of these documents reads:

“To Zenon greeting from the Beekeepers of Arsinoite nome. But it is now 18 days that the hives have been kept in the fields, and it is time to bring them home and we have no donkeys to carry them back. Unless donkeys are sent at once, the result will be that the hives will be ruined and the impost lost. (C.C. Edgar, “Selected Papyri from the Arrchives of enon,” No.106, p.41, in Annales du Service des Antiquities de l’Egpte, vol xxiv.)

I must admit that the first time I read this, I was in some disbelief, for I was always under the impression that moving hives was a more modern beekeeping practice, and yet the above quote suggests that beekeepers have been moving their hives for thousands of years, imagine. However, I think it is important to note that moving hives on carts pulled by donkeys, a few miles from one field to another, is a very different thing than moving hives on 18 wheeler trucks, thousands of miles, back and forth across America to pollinate mono-crops of almonds and blueberries.

All of this leads me to appreciate that being a beekeeper in these modern times is a very different practice than it once was. Here on Honey Grove, we are not fans of moving our bees great distances to pollinate mono-crops or for honey production. Sometimes we will take our bees on a 20 minute journey up the mountain into the alpine, to collect the clean unpolluted nectar of fire-weed that grows there, but that is all.

It is now recognized by scientists the world over, that moving bees to pollinate mono-crops is not the best thing for our beloved bees. Bees need a variety of nutrients to be fully nourished, healthy and thriving, and this means taking the nectar and pollen from a variety of flowering plants. Undernourished or malnourished bees appear to be more susceptible to pathogens, parasites and other stressors. Beyond this, a great majority of farmers are still using chemicals on their crops, and bees pollinating those crops are exposed to a plethora of toxins, some of which have the potential to not only weaken the bees, but to kill them outright. It has also been shown that leaving bees inside a hive with blocked entrances for 8 -24 hours during transport, is very stressful for bees, as they cannot leave to defecate and there is often not enough ventilation.

All of this considered, I have decided not to move my bees anywhere, and instead, to bring the flowers to my bees. It is my belief that bees have served humanity for far too long now. It is now time for us to be of service to our bees, in whatever ways we can. This does not mean we need to keep bees ourselves even. You do not need to be a beekeeper to plant flowers that support bees, or to buy honey from your local organic beekeeper, supporting practices that benefit bees.

For me, as a beekeeper, keeping bees means serving bees, it means creating an environment that fully supports my bees throughout the year. It means practicing organic methods of beekeeping in whatever ways I can, and not treating my bees with antibiotics for disease prevention. It means remaining dedicated to holistic methods of hive management which includes Integrated Pest Management ( doing a number of non-invasive practices throughout the beekeeping year to reduce the stress levels in the hive and to keep mite counts down). At this time in history, we can no longer ask what the bees can do for us, but rather, we must ask ourselves, what we can do for them.

Flowers we can all plant for bees
March/ April
Crab apple
Malus sylvestris
Hyacinthoides non-scripta
Cytisus scoparius
Prunus avium
Ajuga reptans
Erica spp.
Flowering currant
Ribes sanguineum
Pulmonaria officinalis
Pyrus communis
Goat willow
Salix caprea
Red dead nettle
Lamium purpureum
Rosmarinus officinalis
White dead nettle
Lamium album

Bird’s-foot trefoil / Paul
Birds foot trefoil
Lotus corniculatus
Allium schoenoprasum
Symphytum officinalis
Digitalis purpurea
Lonicera periclymenum
Kidney vetch
Anthyllis vulneraria
Lupinus spp.
White clover
Trifolium repens
Papaver spp.

Rubus idaeus
Red campion
Silene dioica
Salvia officinalis
Thymus praecox
Tufted vetch
Vicia cracca
Meadow cranesbill
Geranium pratense
Wisteria sinensis

July/ August
Borago officinalis
Rubus fruticosus agg.
Buddleia davidii
Centaurea cyanus
Alcea rosea
Common knapweed
Centaurea nigra
Lavandula spp.
Lesser burdock
Arctium minus
Wild marjoram
Origanum vulgare
Mentha spp.
Purple loosestrife
Lythrum salicaria
Red clover
Trifolium pratense
Scabiosa columbaria
Sea holly
Eryngium maritimum
Snap dragons
Antirrhinum majus
Helianthus spp.
Dipsacus pilosus
Cirsium dissectum
Vipers bugloss
Echium vulgare