PSBA Day of Learning: Natural & Lazy Beekeeping with Michael Bush

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Puget Sound Beekeepers Association hosted a jammed packed “Day of Learning” at the University of Washington Arboretum. Hating to miss a chance to beek out with the best of them, I signed up. Hating to miss a great blog post, I documented it with near Pulitzer worthy diligence. I also find myself gravitating towards his style of beekeeping, as it is intuitive, low on  interventions (unnatural or otherwise, less intense (it can get really intense) and I truly believe the bees know better than I.

Itinerary:

  • Michael Bush (of Bush Bee Farm Fame!) lecture on Four Simple Steps and Lazy Beekeeping (you can check out the same presentations here)
  • Hands on learning stations with great topics like waggle dance, queen marking, gardening, winterizing your hive (I am woefully behind), honey tasting
  • Apiary time with Michael Bush – working with a true bee keeping guru

Goals for the day

  • End the day a better steward for honey bees – CHECK!
  • Have fun! CHECK
  • Have an open mind to new ways of beekeeping – CHECK!
  • Learn something. Check. Check!

Here is a quick peak at the highlights for me.

The Four Simple Steps: What did I learn?

  1. No treatments:
    • Not even essential oils
    • Bees don’t eat pollen, they collect it and convert it to Bee Bread (analogy: cabbage to sauerkraut)
    • All about balance in hive – pH, ecology
    • Chemicals interfere with natural hive communication
    • Lots of other things live in the hive ecosystem: 170 kinds of mites (but only 3 are harmful), 30 insects and 8,000 microorganisms
    • Acaracides – are really pesticides in disguise (read kills bees and mites)
  2. Breed local survivors:
    • I need to find a more local package bee/queen supplier OR raise my own.
    • Great quote: If you are not part of the genetic solution of breeding mite tolerant bees, you are part of the problem – Randy Oliver
    • Hive health really depends on the queens health
    • Raising your own queens (or the hives raising it) helps to avoid the genetic bottleneck by breading in good characteristics (or weak ones out)
  3. Use natural food
    • MB uses a 5:3 syrup but only if there is a dearth and there is room (hive is light)
    • Add ascorbic acid to syrup so pH of syrup is closer to honey (you can test with pH strips) – will need to update my syrup post
    • Demo’d a method for dry sugar feeding in winter
    • Don’t wrap your hives (he doesn’t in Nebraska –brr) – not so much about food but key for winterizing, confirmed by local beek
  4. Use natural comb
    • Theory about cell size and influence on bee size/health (e.g. Bandoux, Huber)
    • Ways to make natural comb frames
    • What a cubit is (elbow to finger)
    • Bees build parallel combs, plum to gravity. If you see crooked comb fixit (already knew this but good to repeat – see what happens when you don’t. Remove your queen cage)

Self assessment: I do pretty good on all of them except # 2. For now I will gladly support someone else business of raising queens and packages. For #1, I will trial not using lemongrass to scent my syrup and slowing take the foundation out of my frames, so it matches my top bar.

The PSBA Apiary

Warre Hive – someday maybe in my bee yard

Check out these queen cells – up close and personal.

Waggle Dance Demonstration: mark them leaving observation hive and mark them at the food source strategically placed to learn how the bees communicate with unbelievable precision. Big take away – bees are the worlds best plant ecologists and the key to our sustainability.

Gardening: new plant to add, orange mint, in a pot and with vodka!

Love the bunting!

Arts and Crafts

DIY Push In Queen Cage – going to try this in the spring. MB FAQ

Queen Marking Practice: using drones (they don’t sting) and non-toxic water based paint pens. Note the international color coding system for marking queens. Five year rotation

Everything works if you let it – Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick

It’s Feeding Time at The Apiary – Sugar Syrup

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“They could eat all they wanted, for maple sugar never hurt anybody.” Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods


I don’t think Buddy the Elf could agree more either, but there is controversy out there about feeding your bees to help them get up and going in the spring time and set up for the long winter. My approach to bees over the last three years is to trust them to know what is best. However, I do feel though that I brought them to my apiary, in sometimes soggy Seattle and I need to help them out somewhat. Package bees are also an investment. My fledgling feeding philosophy is to feed syrup when I first get the packages going, or early spring for overwintered colonies and some feeding if needed depending on what they already stashed away. I am not doing pollen patties or dry sugar feeding and no medication or treatments. Maybe some year I will experiment with pollen patties but research and questioning more experienced beeks gives mixed results. Granted I am still pretty new with the bee thing, but I have found the advice of Michael Bush of Bush support my idea that bees are smarter than I am and aligns with the amount of time I want and have to put into it (read, not too too much).

You can get really scientific about what syrup concentration (sugar:water) is employed based on final goal. Some people want to use 1:1 in the spring to stimulate brood rearing, others do this in the fall so that have some new bees set to work the long winter. 3:1 could be used in the winter as you want them to put it away, not have to use as much effort to evaporate it down to the right concentration for capping (bees are so smart they know that at around 18% the honey won’t ferment and then cap off the cells, providing a visual cue that it is good to go, or stay). The thicker syrups don’t do much for brood stimulation. 2:1 is somewhere in the middle, more all purpose, so that is what I do. How do you make a 2:1 syrup?

Watch your chemistry and pharmaceutical calculation class come to life!

Remember (or learn for the first time) a gallon of water weighs about 8.3 lbs. So a perfect 1:1 gallon of syrup, add 8.3 lbs of white granulated sugar to a gallon of water. Brown sugar is not the same and organic sugar would be mighty expensive and debatable if really worth it. For a 2:1 syrup add 16.6 lbs of sugar to a gallon. You can also just grab a cup, bowl, milk jug, bucket, empty soda can or what every vessel you like to use as your “measuring cup” and just use it as your ratio unit. 1 “cup” sugar to 1 “cup” of water and so on.

There are lots of feeders out there; I use a frame feeder in the Langstroth’s and a Boardman feeder on the top bar. I have also tried the baggie feeder method described here, but not yet this year. You can also feed them dry sugar or fondant. I don’t have experience with this yet either…. Maybe this year. I just worry about the moisture in our air out here making a soggy winter mess…. In my frame feeder, I added some black plastic mesh so the bees could “walk” down it to drink; otherwise it is just a big pool to drown in. Not sure why it doesn’t come with it. The mesh is just “Gutter Guard”, conveniently already the right width.

This year I also had some remaining frames with honey and pollen in them from last year’s colonies. I put these into the hives to help the bees get started. Yes, I suppose I could be infecting them with whatever killed my hives this winter. BUT I really just think they either wore out or froze. There wasn’t evidence of dysentery, mites etc…. Some of the frames had some fluffy green mold but no worries, as it is likely Penicillium waksmanii and the bees will clean it off, good as new. The mold didn’t kill the bees, it came after they were gone and moisture increased. I am sticking to this.

Here is the picture play by play. A few last helpful hits: big buckets from restaurants, clip on spoon holder, ladle and cute vintage kitchen scale.

  1. Weigh out the amount of sugar you need. I measured out 16.6 lbs. Took two 8.3 batches, since by mixing bowl wouldn’t hold the whole amount. Don’t forget to tare your scale. (ooo, chemistry class in action!)

  1. Measure out the hot to warm water into a big bucket. It needs to be hot to help dissolve into solution.

  1. If you want, add a drop or two or three of lemongrass essential oil. It is supposed to be attractive to the bees and smell like a pheromone they emit from the nasanov gland. It is also quite pleasing to the human nose.

  1. Stir, stir, stir. Take a break and let it sit. Then stir some more.

A couple great bee sites and references:

http://www.bushfarms.com/beesfeeding.htm

http://beehivejournal.blogspot.com/2009/02/bee-sugar-syrup-recipe-11-21.html

http://www.honeybeesuite.com/

http://www.understandingbeeanatomy.com/gallery/

Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottom

The Practical Beekeeper by Michael Bush

Also, find yourself a nice old vintage bee keeping book, just for fun and perspective. I love my A to Z of Bee Culture from the 60s.