Fairbanks received one of its larger rain storms yesterday, so Sarah and I decided to have a look today to see how the hives fared. I was also curious if the bees had begun moving up into the new box.

Both hives seemed a bit subdued when we visited this afternoon. It was pretty cool outside, probably somewhere in the 60s. However, we did see foragers returning with loads of pollen, so that's a pretty good sign.

The bees are bringing back several different colors of pollen. Seeing whitish pollen for the first time a few weeks ago blew my mind. I'd always thought of pollen as that yellow crap that made my nose run. However, there are several sources of white or grey pollen. In fact, it comes in a wide variety of colors.

I was curious to look around my mother's yard to see what was in bloom. It's only a partial inventory of what the bees could be visiting, as they have a range considerably wider than her yard, but what the hell, why not.

Let's start with the most abundant. The hives are both situated right next to wild rose bushes. Also, apparently, an iPhone has no idea how to focus on something dead center its field of view. >:(

Wild Rose
Wild rose bushes are all over the place in this area.

I love wild roses and my mother's plot of land is filled with them. They're the first the thing the bees see when they leave the hive.

The first thing that bloomed, however, were the dandelions. Typically considered a weed, they are a great early blooming food source for bees.

Dandelions
Dandelions bloom early.

My mother said she'd try not to weed them. Sorry neighbors, enjoy the seeds!

Another plant that grows prolifically in the area is wild strawberry. They started out in a small area, but have spread all over.

Strawberry vines
Strawberry plants spread across the lawn.

Unfortunately, we don't get many strawberries from these. Bugs and squirrels tend to be the first comers.

Dogwoods grow in the area, as well. These pretty, four-petaled flowers grow low to the ground.

Dogwood
Dogwood plants grow near the hives.

Raspberries seem to be the source of the whitish colored pollen. They grow in a couple different locations.

Raspberry Bush
Raspberry bush growing about 20 yards from one of the hives.

Bluebells also grow in a number of areas. I'm not sure if the bees visit them, as the cups are small and narrow.

Blue Bells
Blue Bells growing near the front yard.

I'm sure there are other native plants growing in the area, including cranberry and possibly blueberry, but those were the ones I spotted.

In addition to these there are number of decorative perennials and annuals. There's also a small vegetable garden. Currently the only veggie that I saw blooming was a pumpkin. I've never been successful with pumpkins. Maybe the bees will bring me some better luck this year.

House with garden
Mom's house with plants and flowers.

Lots of stuff here to attract some bees including columbine and delphiniums.

Like I said, that is only a small list of what the bees may be visiting. Lord knows what is growing on the neighbors land. Bees have a good three mile radius. Our bees could be helping to pollinate the UAF botanical gardens or checking out Ester.

Late last month, I was about to go on a week of vacation, so wanted to build the next box for the Langstroth hive. Now, bear in mind, that a hive box is just four sides, no top or bottom. This should be simple. And it seemed simple. But failure is just a measurement away.

Anyway, let's get on with this. I'm gonna build a simple box. Only takes three measurements: height, length and width. Again, pretty simple. Apparently, I'm not good at simple. Below is a photo of the finished box. Looks ok, right?

deep super hive box
A deceptively simple looking box.

Pretty simple construction, three screws per joint. All of the frames fit, sort of. The tightness of the frames in the box should have been my first clue something wasn't quite right. It wasn't until I put the frame on the hive that I realized things weren't measuring up.

New deep hive box doesn't fit
New deep hive box doesn't quite fit!

The box wound up being just around an inch too narrow. It had the right length, but somewhere I either screwed up a measurement, or my math skills betrayed me once again.

I left the box on the hive while I was on vacation. With a few shims, there were no gaps allowing things to get in the hive. But I resolved to come back and build a new box.

Of course, I forgot to take pictures of the building of the new box. But with Sarah's help, we got a new one made. And it fit!

For a bit of fun, we decided to let Sarah's kiddos paint it.

Painting the hive box.
Sarah and her kiddos painting the new hive box.

Not sure which wound up having more paint: the box or the kids. But we had a good time painting in the sun on my mother's lawn. When we finished we set the box aside to allow the paint to dry.

I came by the next day to put the box on the hive, transferring the frames from the too-small box. The new box fit nicely.

New box on hive
Two sides of the new, painted, bee box.
New box on hive.
The other two sides of the new bee box.

We've placed the queen excluder on, so the new box shouldn't be used for brood. Hopefully, we'll see the bees move into their new space, soon.

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Ok, my apologies to the Beastie Boys, there will be no rhyming going on here. But there will be lots of stealing! More precisely, honey robbing. Honey robbing by wayward, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, jerk-bees.

Sarah and I had noticed some odd behavior from the bees a while back. Sarah scoured the internet and the predominant theory was our bees were being robbed. Symptoms included seeing bunches off bees all balled up near the entrance, bees climbing the hive before taking off and other bees hovering near the entrance, bobbing up and down as if looking for a way in. Odd behavior, indeed.

A closer inspection showed that some larger, darker bees seemed to be trying to gain access (and often succeeding) to the hive entrance. Measures had to be taken!

You may be wondering, "Yo, Foulmouthedbeekeepers, how did you wind up with little flying assholes robbing your hive?" Well, let me draw your attention to a picture I have posted before:

makeshift bee feederYeah, this was a bad idea. Most beekeepers that provide sugar water for their bees do so with entrance feeders or internal feeders. I couldn't figure out how to do that with the top bar hive. Instead I filled a cat waterer with the syrup mix. Then I positioned the feeder a few feet from the entrance.

This worked great for feeding our bees... and every other insect in the neighborhood. Once the "foreign" bees figured out there was a food source here, it wasn't long before they figured out that sugar water may be nice, but honey is nicer. It was a short trip from there to the hive entrance.

Sarah's awesome blog hunting powers found us a couple of remedies.

  1. Narrow the hive entrance so the bees can better defend it
  2. Place a wet sheet over the hive: robbers won't be able to find the entrance and our bees will be just fine

We narrowed down the entrance to the top bar hive until only about five bees could fit through it, and covered it with a wet sheet.

covered top bar
Top Bar hive covered with a wet sheet.

It looked pretty sad, like the sheet you drape over a corpse, and both Sarah and I commented on feeling like we had failed.

While the Langstroth hive was not having as big a problem with the robbers, there were some. We did not cover it with a sheet, but we did narrow down the entrance way a bit.

hive entrance narrowed
Langstroth hive with the entrance narrowed.

Around four or five bees could enter at a time.

We kept the sheet on the top bar hive for a couple of days. During that time, it didn't appear that activity was curtailed all that much. We could still see bees swooping around looking for the entrance.

On the third day, we removed the sheet. Before we removed it, things seemed tense, with bees dive bombing and swooping. Weirdly, though, as soon as we got the sheet off, things calmed down. We speculate that some of the agitated bees we saw swooping were our hive bees trying to figure out how to get back in.

We noticed that there were still a few robbers around, but not nearly as many. I narrowed the hive entrance to the point only two bees could enter or exit at a time.

hive entrance narrowed
Entrance to the top bar hive narrowed significantly.

There was always a nagging feeling in my head that I had cut this entrance larger than it should have been. This sees to confirm it.

As it stands now, we know there are robbers in the area. Either someone else is raising bees nearby, or a feral hive survived the winter. The measures we've taken seem to have helped.

We'll next be out at the hives on Wednesday. Hopefully, we will find the bees happy with full larders.

I promised a post about building a top bar hive, and here it is.

When Sarah and I started looking into keeping bees, the idea was to build the hives we needed. In this case, a Langstroth hive and what we knew as the "honey cow". A little digging suggested that the honey cow was just a different type of top bar hive.

Top bar hives proved interesting to me for several reasons. First, they are simple to construct. They don't require any fancy joinery, just straight cuts fastened together with nails or screws. Second, the rounded or angled shape both mimics the shape bees naturally make comb in, and it looks nice. Finally, the setup more closely replicates a natural hive location, such as a hollowed out tree or log.

There are disadvantages, of course. With no frames, the comb is very fragile and care must be taken not to break them when lifting the top bars. They cannot grow larger than you built the hive, unlike Langstroth hives to which you can add boxes.

I found a few plans online, but ultimately wound up buying the embarrassingly named Building Beehives For Dummies. I like this book because it contains plans for several different types of hives, including Langstroth and observation hives. The hive I built is from the chapter on building the Kenya Top Bar Hive.

So let's get on with it and post some construction pictures!

The wood used in the construction was all 1"x12" pine of varying lengths. It starts with the two end pieces that define the slope of the box. In this case the top is 18" and the bottom is 5".

top bar hive construction
Top bar hive construction. End pieces.

Per the instructions, I made the sides 34.5" long. This defines the living space the bees will have. I didn't quite follow the instructions for installing them, which suggested butting up against the inside of the end piece, instead opting to screw them into the sides. Just seemed stronger that way.

top bar hive construction
One side of the hive installed.
building a top bar hive
Both sides now attached. The basic shape is there.

With all the sides attached, the basic hive is there. This will be the living space for the bees. Not shown is a mesh that is placed on the bottom to allow debris and mites to fall out of the hive and to provide ventilation.

The next step is to make the top bars. These have to be a fairly specific size. A measurement known as "bee space" determines the bars width. Bees are picky about space. Too much space, and they will build comb where you don't want it. Too little space, and they won't build comb. Like Goldilocks, they want a space that is just right. This space depends on the type of bee, but for this hive, the books suggests a bar width of 1.3".

I took another departure from the book here. The book suggests cutting a kerf down the center of each bar and slotting a piece of balsa wood in it. I'd read about a simpler method online of pasting a string down the center with beeswax. I decided to give that a shot.

building a top bar hive
Setting up top bars by using beeswax to glue down a central string.

While I made a pretty big mess, this would prove to work. It also took less time (and money) than cutting and fitting balsa wood. There are 24 of these on the hive.

building a top bar hive
The hive with top bars in place.

The next step was to build a roof. Bees do not live in this section, it is meant to assist in ventilation and provide some protection from the elements. It is wider than the hive body to allow rain to flow off and away, but maintains the overall look.

building a top bar hive
The hive with the roof in place.

The only thing left at this point was to cut a hole for the bees to access the hive and put it in place. We chose a spot behind my mothers' firewood stack that would provide quick access to our garden.

After placing the bees they seemed to take to it quickly.

building a top bar hive
Bees accessing the top bar hive.

That access hole is a bit over an inch across. If, as I mentioned in a previous post, we are being robbed by other bees, I'll need to reduce the size.

I know I posted the below picture last time, but hey, proof that this hive works!

bee hive comb
Comb and bees! Lots of capped cells. These girls have been busy!

I definitely encourage anyone interested in beekeeping to try their hand at building a hive. If I can do it, anyone can.

 

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And then the little shit stung me in the face.

Wait... that's a horrible place to start. Let me back up a bit.

This winter I started dating a wonderful, crazy woman named Sarah. As people navigating that whole tricky thing people call relationships we invariably started discussing things we liked, bizarre obsessions and hobbies. Turns out, we both had an interest in raising bees and robbing them of their sweet, delicious honey. Awesome!

We talked about it, read every book we could get our hands on, scoured the internet for info, and I ordered a bunch of crap online, 'cause that's what I do when I get obsessed with a new hobby. So, in the middle of winter, we had everything needed for bees except for hives and, well, bees.

Eventually, we ordered our bees from Northwest Bee Supply, a company out of Washington that supplies bees to, obviously, Northwestern states. Our bees were set to arrive on April 26. Ok, so now all we need are hives.

Sarah and I had been looking around online at various hive types. One that kept us interested was called a honey cow. The design was based around a hive body made of a half of a plastic barrel. But screw the design. I just liked the name "honey cow." We eventually decided on a standard Langstroth hive and what is called a "Top Bar" hive, similar to the above mentioned honey cow. We chose two hive types to learn more about how bees... uhm... work. Or something like that. If nothing else, building a top bar hive would give me an opportunity to improve my, admittedly feeble, woodworking skills. I'll get into the construction of that hive in a later post.

The Langstroth hive I was happy to find at Alaska Feed Company. I do like supporting local businesses, and this one has been around for a long time. It was pleasing to find out they sold beekeeping supplies. The basic hive kit came with a base and cover, a single deep brood box, and ten frames with foundation. Alaska Feed also sells additional brood boxes and all the odds, ends and tools.

Now all we needed were our bees. And since I haven't posted any pictures yet (I freakin' love to post pictures!) let's move ahead to bee arrival day: April 26.

Back of the bee van.
Back of the bee van.

Yup. That's a van full of bees. A bunch had already been given out by the time we got there. Wouldn't want to be the guy driving this thing, there were loose bees everywhere.

Boxes of bees and (somewhat impatient) customers.
Boxes of bees and (somewhat impatient) customers.

The bees were delivered near Pike's Landing, which made it awfully tempting go grab a bite and a drink. After waiting for a couple of Russian guys to stop haggling (no, you can't haggle for bees. A lesson everyone present learned.), we were given our two boxes of bees. We departed for my mother's house, where the hives had been set up.

The hives together. They were moved about 30 feet apart after this.
The hives together. They were moved about 30 feet apart after this.

I wish I had taken a picture of us dumping bees into the hives. It was a surreal moment where these little critters one usually avoids for fear of a sting are unceremoniously plopped into the middle of a wooden box. Overall, they don't seem to care about the whole ordeal.

Sarah and I had help in the form of her kids. This is an AWESOME hobby for kids to get into!
Sarah and I had help in the form of her kids. This is an AWESOME hobby for kids to get into!

In the hive now, the bees chilled for a bit. We came back a few days later to make sure the queens had been released, and found that they had indeed escaped into the inner reaches of their hives. Since late April, early May in interior Alaska is not known for its abundance of flowering plants (see the snow in the picture above?) we set up a couple of feeders full of sugary water for the bees to feast upon, which they did with relish.

Our makeshift bee feeders. Yes, they are cat feeders, but they seem to work fine. Some rocks in the feed area provides additional feeding locations.
Our makeshift bee feeders. Yes, they are cat feeders, but they seem to work fine. Some rocks in the feed area provides additional feeding locations.

Since then we've been visiting the hives from time to time to check on progress. An additional brood box was quickly added to the Langstroth hive, as they seem to be reproducing really freaking quickly.

We stopped by today to have a look. Sarah pulled one of the bars from the top bar hive.

Sarah pulling one of the bars. Is that comb I see?
Sarah pulling one of the bars. Is that comb I see?

Now, there's something important going on here. See how Sarah was wearing good, proper protective gear? Yeah, I was a cocky bastard and didn't do that. See, last week I'd stopped by to visit my mother and on a whim checked this hive. Didn't have any gear with me, so just winged it. The bees didn't seem to care, and I got away with it.

Not this time. One of those cranky bastards stung me on the cheek. Lesson learned. We knew the bees were riled up about something before we started. There were a bunch gathered around the entrance and they seemed aggressive. Poking around seemed to reveal some other bees, with a different color pattern (mostly dark abdomens, not as pronounced stripes) near the entrance. Perhaps we were in the process of being robbed. I'm still uncertain.

Anyway, karma is a bitch and she kicked my ass, or my face, whatever, today. That said, it's obvious that even after a few weeks, these bees have been crazy busy. The bees were released at the center of the hive and have already built up comb a few bars forward and back. They are collecting pollen and producing honey and more brood. I'm shocked at how fast these queens are producing brood.

bee hive comb
Comb and bees! Lots of capped cells. These girls have been busy!

And that is where we are today. Our goal with this blog is to post the things we see and learn. To complain when shit isn't going right and to cheer when it is. Sarah and I are now 1 to 1 in terms of stings and it is bound to go higher!

Look at this bee. This be if fucking awesome!
Look at this bee. This bee is fucking awesome!