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We are welcoming our community on a virtual apiary tour, because we are conducting a remote inspection this year for our Certified Naturally Grown distinction, so we thought it would be fun to invite our friends and community to join us.
This video was created for the purpose of completing the inspection requirements, so there is some beekeeping lingo and some practices that folks who are not beekeepers may not be familiar with, so I’ve added some notes, clarifying information, and context below the video.
Please feel free to comment with any questions you may have about what you see here.
I’ve got some notes about the inspection, explanations of a bunch of practices that are demonstrated in the inspection, and a couple of corrections to things I said on the fly that are not 100% accurate. I’ve included the moment in time when these elements occurred during the video.
0:58 Technically you won’t see a ton of flowers in the video – the wildflowers I referenced are out on the wilderness land behind the property, about a five minute walk for humans and a quick minute or two trip as the bee flies.
2:20 FUN FACT: bees and wasps feed their babies protein, but wasps get it from meat and bees get it from pollen. So baiting the traps with meat means the bees ignore the traps, and the yellow jackets are drawn to them.
4:20 Out in the direction the camera is pointing, there is at least one yellow jacket nest we have not been able to find on the BLM land. We know where they live because of the direction they come from, so we have strategically placed traps far from the hives but along their flight path to the apiary. The strategy/goal is that some of the yellow jacket scouts will not make it to the apiary because they will be tempted by the meat smells coming from the trap.
Gross but true: the more dead yellow jackets are in the trap, the more attractive it is to the scouts; the smell of the rotting flesh attracts them better than the commercially available “yellow jacket attractant.”
4:30 The local water sources mentioned are small ponds in every direction, a large pond that usually has at least a small amount of water year-round even in the height of drought, and a pond out on the BLM land about a half mile away which has water roughly 10 months out of the year, and two different small creeks (one to the north and one to the south).
5:10 The antelope bottlebrush mentioned (“these little bushes”) and seen throughout the video blooms earlier in the summer, so you may not see a ton of forage at the apiary, but there is plenty of forage available to them out on the 2.3 million acres of BLM land that abuts our property.
5:42 Regarding the honey harvest, I conduct inspections to determine what resources the hives have, and what they can spare, while leaving them with the lion’s share of their hard work. I also ask for permission out loud before taking any honey harvest. I have found the bees respond quite clearly; feel free to accuse me of anthropomorphizing, it’s probably accurate. However that is part of our decision-making process regarding when to harvest and how much honey to take when we do harvest.
6:00 In late fall and early spring, it gets down to hard freeze temperatures at night and regularly snows, but it’s over 55 degrees during the day. Many of the plants can’t (or simply don’t) bloom in those conditions or at those times of year. Because it’s warm during the day (flying weather), the bees are using energy flying around looking for forage, but there isn’t much pollen to feed the hungry babies. So they take the pollen substitute during those times, as a stopgap measure so the babies don’t starve when it’s too cold for the plants to bloom.
7:19 The video actually features an inspection of Anya, the tall Russian hive (Anya is introduced at 9:19). The video didn’t record properly when I inspected Kamala, so that inspection is not in the video.
8:46 The “great source” is Coy Bees, a wonderful Russian bee breeder. Here is the link to their website if you are interested in learning more. They begin taking orders for the following year in November/December.
10:55 I misspoke – the frames in that box are not actually five years old (I’ve only been keeping bees for four years), but the frames in that box are the oldest original frames from the apiary, so they are slated to be melted down this fall. Doing this each year with four-year-old frames ensures that the beeswax is not around for long enough to become deeply saturated with chemicals that the bees bring home. Beeswax absorbs the environmental toxins that the bees have encountered and brought home (for example pollen/nectar tainted with pesticides from a commercial farm a few miles away), so it’s important to maintain fresh new comb in the apiary.
13:55 I said “1/3 cup” in the video but the measuring cup I’m holding, and the actual measurement of 300 bees is 1/2 cup.
Just so you know, one of the aspects of bee stewardship is checking for parasitic mites that are very very bad for our bees, and intervening when necessary to help the bees to manage mite populations in the hive. Almost every hive has some amount of varroa mites, but some of them can manage better – varroa mites can quickly devastate a hive and make them more vulnerable to other diseases, as well as multiplying the effect of pesticide exposure due to the weakened state of the hive when they are exposed. So the test that we do takes a sample of approximately 300 bees, and counts how many mites are on those bees. That sample gives the beekeeper information that we can use to support the bees in keeping mites to a manageable level.
Doing this test does kill the bees in the sample. That is sad and honestly I really hate doing it. But I think about it the way I believe a bee colony contextualizes the lives of individuals versus the health of the colony. If I asked the individual bees if they would sacrifice their life for the life and health of the colony, every single bee would say emphatically yes. So it is a sacrifice of the few for the many, and sampling for mites is aligned with the way bees view their colonies as a superorganisms that are prioritized over individual lives.
Part of shaking the bees into the bin is also to allow them to “volunteer” – this may sound “woo woo” but I actually ask them who will volunteer for the mite check sample. It makes me feel better about the fact that I have to kill them, by giving them a chance to fly away and opt out.
15:24 “I’m starting to smell bananas, you know what that means.” I realized that actually non-beekeepers might not know what that means. Bees communicate using pheromones and scents, and their alarm pheromone smelly like bananas. So if you’re working with bees and you smell bananas, you can tell they are agitated and letting each other know about an imminent threat. Beekeepers who use smoke would likely smoke the bees if this smell were detected – that confuses the communication between bees and can dispel their coordinated attack on the perceived intruder (me). Since I don’t use smoke, I try to work more smoothly and finish up my work as quickly as possible when I smell bananas.
15:50 I neglected to say why you want a sample of nurse bees. To get an accurate representative sample of mite infestation levels in the hive, we try to isolate nurse bees by selecting brood frames to shake, and allowing foragers to fly out of the bin. Doing this makes it more likely the bees that stay in the bucket are nurse bees, which tend to be more heavily infested with phoretic varroa mites due to their proximity to the brood nests (varroa hitch a ride on nurse bees to get from one baby bee’s cell to another one, as the nurse goes around feeding everyone, they are also carrying varroa mites). So a sample of nurse bees will yield a more accurate mite count than a sample of foragers which tend to be less heavily infested than the younger nurse bees.
18:00 Propolis is a substance that bees create by foraging plant and tree resins; it acts as the immune system for the hive. It has antibacterial properties, and it is also used to seal up small cracks or open spaces in the hive. It is like glue; many beekeepers don’t like hives that make a lot of propolis, because it makes it harder to work the hives (everything is really well stuck together, so it’s hard to get the boxes and frames apart). We have found that heavily propolized hives tend to be healthier so we are happy to battle the glue on inspections if it means that the hive has a strong healthy immune system and is managing their space as they see fit.
18:20 I actually shook and swirled the mite check sample for longer than it shows in the video; unfortunately I walked off camera for most of it, and the video was terribly boring for more than a minute so I cut that part out.
19:55 “IPM” means “Integrated Pest Management – it’s a set of rules that I created based on science and best practices to control varroa mites while minimizing invasive and chemical interventions. According to how many mites I find in the count, I may not need to intervene at all or I may need to do some cultural or structural manipulations for example creating a “brood break” (varroa mites reproduce inside the cells while baby bees are developing, so stopping the babies from being in the hive removes the opportunity for varroa to reproduce) or swapping in a screened bottom board. There are lots of options for this level of intervention, which can reduce mite counts if the infestation is small. If nine or more mites are found in the sample, the IPM calls for organic treatments (formic acid, oxalic acid) to be applied according to a set schedule.