Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Managing Moisture in the Hive

Beekeepers interpret winter as the time to leave the bees alone and hope they make it through to Spring. This is not entirely true. A deadly threat beekeepers should be conscious of is moisture build up in the hive. A strong colony can tolerate the cold during winter but add moisture to the mix and the colony will not survive.

As hives are sealed up for the winter, the temperature difference between the warm inside of the hive and the cold outside can cause moisture buildup at the interface of the warmer and colder air. Respiration from bees and evaporation from honey are other influences on moisture within the hive. Ventilation helps in deterring this dangerous threat from building at the interface, condense and rain down onto the bees and brood below.

One of the simplest ways to provide ventilation to relieve moisture is by opening their upper entrance on their inner cover. To open it just leave the gap under the hive top (they are a little longer than the hive) on the side of the hive with the entrance.It will it provide an additional entrance if the bottom hive entrance gets cluttered with snow or debris as well as an escape for building moisture. An alternative method is propping up two corners of the inner cover with Popsicle sticks or thin pieces of wood. The Popsicle Sticks provide larger gaps for moisture escape but not large enough for bees to get through.

If using the inner cover alone still isn’t enough to control moisture then there are several other resources and tricks you can use.
  • Place an empty medium or shallow super above the Inner Cover and fill with crumbled newspaper or hay. They help absorb excess moisture as it rises through the center hole in the inner cover. You will need to check the newspaper often to make sure it doesn’t get too saturated. If it does then just replace it with fresh newspaper. If you are worried about the bees getting up with the newspaper, then all you need to do is cover the center hole with a small piece of 8-mesh or 5-mesh hardware cloth.
  • Replace the inner cover with a Wintering Inner Cover or a Vivaldi Board. Both can be used year round and can be manipulated to control moisture.

Wintering Inner Cover: Place the deep side down if you intend to feed your colony with hardened candy. The moisture that rises will actually help soften the candy so it will be easier for the bees to eat. It takes moisture and turns it into a resource. Insert a Homasote insulation board into the deep chamber and place on the hive with the shallow surface down to allow the Homasote to absorb excess moisture.

Vivaldi Board: It comes with screened opening on both short sides which provide constant ventilation all year while still protecting from robbing insects. For feeding it works roughly the same as the wintering inner cover but instead of filling it with sugar candy, you sprinkle a ring of dry sugar around the central entrance and place the provided screened box over the sugar to protect it. Placing a folded burlap sack over top absorbs any excess moisture, using it to soften the dry sugar making it easier for the bees to feed on. Of course you can also just use the burlap sack to absorb moisture, but just like the newspaper you will want to check it and replace if it gets over-saturated.

  •  Replace your hive top with an Ultimate Hive Cover (available for 10 frame hives only). It has been designed to provide ventilation via the air space built into the walls. It does not require painting but you may need to place something heavy like a brick or rock on it to keep it from coming off in bad weather.

Even though moisture is a big issue most beekeepers experience during the winter, with a few simple tricks it doesn’t have to be. Using tools like the wintering inner cover and Vivaldi board, moisture can even use to your advantage when trying to provide feed for your hive. When temperatures get below 55 degrees F you do not want to open up your hive otherwise the heat they built up will escape. Tools like Vivaldi Boards or Wintering Inner Covers provide ways to assist with moisture control without fully exposing the hive to the cold. Just like everything else with beekeeping, it’s just a matter of observing your hive and seeing what their needs are before you decide what method(s) to try.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Using a Digital Hive Scale

A year ago, I would have told you a hive scale was just a toy for rich beekeepers. After all, I have been getting by without one for many years, using the tried and true method of lifting the back of the hive to get a sense of weight. Sometimes called hive tilting, this lifting technique works best when you have several hives to compare against. But all you can really do is rank your hives, using loose rating terms like "light", "moderate" and "heavy".

This brings up the question, why spend good money on a hive scale? It turns out there are now some really good reasons: First, the price of hive scales has dropped enough to entice even tight fisted sceptics like me. Second, after actually using one for a bee season, I find it actually improves the quality and timing of my beekeeping decisions. It gives me actionable information, not just about one hive but nectar flow in my bee yards.

In one of my bee yards here in Oregon, the nectar flow has been very poor. We were hit by a drought, and are still in the grips of it. Our main nectar flow, blackberry, was a bust. But this is only a vague description. The hive scale brings the problem into much sharper focus. It told me the rate of nectar flow, when the nectar flow had peaked and indicated the start of hive weight decline. I simply could not have got this kind of precision by hive tilting. With a single hive scale, I was able to get a good indication of the nectar flow for the whole bee yard, and this guided my feeding decisions for the whole yard. Armed with this evidence, I decided to feed sooner than I ordinarily would to build up their weight for winter and, with any luck, extend the brood season.

In the chart below, you can see the same colony weight for a three month window. It is quite apparent the nectar flow peaked around the second week of July, quite early for our area. And even before this I could see that, although the hive was gaining weight, it was not gaining enough to justify harvesting honey. The hive was on a trajectory to barely have enough for winter. So I did not super any of the hives in this bee yard, and this turned out to be a good decision. They are going to need all they could get just to survive the winter.

So what did the scale do for me this year?
  1. It told me the rate of weight gain, (below normal year)
  2. It guided my decision to not add honey supers
  3. It told me when the nectar flow had peaked
  4. It told me when the nectar flow started declining
  5. It gave my decision to start feeding to improve winter survival
(It could also have told me about swarm events and hive robbing, but this hive avoided those problems.)

So what is my conclusion? For me, having at least one hive scale in every bee yard is a good investment. It gives me actionable information that influences my management decisions about the entire bee yard. It gives precision and trends to make evidence- based beekeeping decisions. One day hive scales will become inexpensive enough to put one on every hive, but for now, one per bee yard is a good start. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Benefits of Digital Hive Tracking

Broodminder Hive Scale
Collecting Data from our Broodminder Scale
As the craft of beekeeping continues to expand, so to do the tools and technologies beekeepers have at their disposal to better understand the health of their hive. Digital hive tracking has not only grown in popularity over the past couple years, but has brought significant advancement in tracking that have made quite the impact on beekeepers. Some of the major benefits of digital hive tracking:

Constant observation of your hive: While hive inspections are a vital component to being an effective beekeeper, there is such a thing as too many hive inspections. Every time you open up the hive to take a quick peak, it disrupts the hives growth. Digital tracking allows the beekeeper to view important data to quickly interpret the colonies health in between regular hive inspections. Strong fluctuations in the data could indicate issues in the hive that could have gone unnoticed until your next inspection.

Collected data can help you understand your colonies activity: Using data collected over time, you can make better judgement such as when to feed and when to harvest honey. Weight starting to go down in your hive? That could indicate the nectar flow has diminished and the bees are starting to feed off their stored honey. At that point you can add a feeder to help them keep their food stores strong. Notice an intense plummet in weight? Their might have been a robbing. Most hive trackers also include the option of a public data center where you can compare your information to others in your area and around the US that could help determine if there may be a greater issue in your area.

Solution Bee Hive Scale
Inspecting a hive on a Solution Bee hive scale
With the rise in technology integrating with beekeeping, some beekeepers may wonder if it's too much. After all, one of the joys in the beekeeping is cultivating a tactile relationship with the bees and the natural world. Just like with concerns about technology ruining relationships between humans, some people hesitate incorporating technology into their beekeeping practices.

Can technology really change the beekeeping experience that much? We believe it does not. No matter how many different gadgets you stick to the hive, there is nothing more important to keeping your hives healthy than going in regularly and visually making sure everything is functioning properly in your colony. As the technology tells you about the colony status when you are not looking, it can help you time your inspections better, and to make more informed decisions about your colony's needs.  Most of us don't want to interfere with a thriving colony, but we do want to know when one needs help.  Hive tracking helps you interfere less with the strong hives and to identify the hives that really need help.

At Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, we currently offer two brands of digital hive tracking

Solution Bee Hive Scale: Reading both the weight of the hive and outside temperature, it can provide a constant flow of data you can use to follow your hives growth or decline during the weeks in-between inspections and through the winter.

Broodminder: Using a weight scale and in-hive thermometer/humidity reader, you can continuously monitor colony health from your smart phone without touching your hive. By using the smart phone app, you can use the recorded colony history to check on queen productivity, brood rearing, swarming, hive robbing, food storage, nectar flows, moisture problems, and more.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Propolis: It Binds the Hive Together...Literally

We've all been there; pushing with all our might on the hive tool just to pry the frames out of the hive, after which, we have this gooey resin stuck to our gloves or suit. Propolis is a nuisance for the beekeeper but a valuable asset for the honey bee. The sticky nature of propolis makes hive inspections challenging, stain pretty white beekeeping suits, and requires a heavy cleaner to remove from your hands. Beekeepers despise this resinous substance but the benefits far outweigh the cons.

Your first thoughts of resin may be that conifers or birch but there is a vast range of different plants and trees that produce a resin to protect their leaf buds from predators. Take a look at a poplar or cottonwood when they begin producing buds and you will find a yellow, brown, or red resin seeping out. There is a dedicated class of worker bees that will forage for resin, scraping it with their mouthparts and store in their pollen basket until they return to the hive. Upon their return, they will go to the areas that require the resin (now propolis) to fill in nooks and crannies. Other house bees are required to remove the propolis from the forager’s pollen basket as the carrying bee is unable.

So why do bees do it? Propolis is not consumed, a pain to collect, and is a specialized task.

  • Bees will use propolis throughout the hive to add structural support. Rougher wood will be smoothed over, holes will be filled, and frames will be secured with propolis. It is the bee’s glue and sealer.

  • Propolis can help in fortification against opportunistic pests. Bees will entomb small hive beetles in crevices with propolis or build “propolis prisons” that prevent the hive beetles from reproducing. The presence and contact of propolis is toxic to wax moth larvae in its early developmental stage.

  • Bees also require the variety of resins to build their immune system and reduce the immune functions of individual bees as they build stronger defenses. Studies have shown that bees exposed to propolis have a lower bacteria load in and on their body.
ProPlus Hive
Healthy bees are essential to a healthy colony. 
Proplus Hives provide a natural way 
for bees to build upon their immune functions.
Colonies will increase the rate of resin foraging during evidence of pathogens. Your colony is constantly vulnerable to fungus, molds, and bacteria. Luckily, honeybees instinctively coat every surface inside the hive with propolis for protection. Propolis provides the bees a natural defense against pathogenic microorganisms. The Brushy Mountain ProPlus Hive delivers a textured surface that encourages propolis production to increase colony health.

We push for beekeepers to provide feed supplements to their colony to increase the overall colony health. Here is another weapon in the arsenal to help beekeepers manage healthy bees. 

Next time you go in for a hive inspection, the headache of prying the equipment should be less painful knowing that the sticky resin is helping your bees!