Hives with ekes behind windbreak of bales of marsh grassThe picture shows our hives as ready for winter as we can make them behind a southern wall of marsh grass bales (fewer weed seeds than straw bales) and sporting their long-promised ekes. To the west they are shielded by the barn and on the remaining sides by a thicket of sumac. The rest is up to the bees themselves. They have been raised from colonies that survived last year’s fimbulwinter so there is perhaps a glimmer of hope for overwintering.

We had erected the bale wall in timely fashion when the weather began to cool. Eventually the growth of the bush cherries and other to-be-determined plantings ought remove the need for these annual fortifications. We had also covered the shiny rooves with black landscape fabric and corked most of the entrance holes. The construction of the new-and-improved ekes on the other hand we continually postponed for other tasks until two Saturdays ago when we were threatened by predictions of a fierce drop in temperature that night.

Our original eke design for Annabelle and Beatrix consisted of a wooden frame of 1"x3" with a windowscreen bottom and filled with wool batting to absorb humidity and insulate. Unfortunately the open top allowed mice seeking refuge from the bitter winter cold to move in. The new design therefore is screened top and bottom. It is also thicker, made of 1"x6" to allow more layers of wool batting and a top layer of foam insulation board to be enclosed.

The ekes for Clarissa and Dorcas posed a special problem. Beatrix has rabbetted sides like a Langstroth hive body so her eke could have screen stapled flat against its bottom as well as the top. Having found the rabbet a hindrance to easy lifting of top bars we did not include one when designing the twins. Their ekes therefore had to have the bottom screening stapled a little bit within the frame so that the edge of the eke would rest flat against the walls of the hive. Even more of a pain in the sit-upon than it sounds.

By the time we finished construction it was dark outside and, fortunately ignored by the bees, we installed the ekes by lantern light. Frustratingly none of the ekes sat quite level, not even Beatrix’s, but in the insufficient lantern light we could not tell why.

The next day, luckily a warm one, we discovered that proper seating of the ekes was being thwarted by the thin wooden strips we had been using to cover the top openings in the frames. With a well-fitting eke they would no longer be needed so with each hive we removed roof and eke, cracked the strips of wood free of their propolyzed bonds and removed them, applied heavy smoke to repel the bees, who very much noticed this operation and came flooding out the openings, and finally replaced eke and roof to see a much better fit.

For now, all is well. Where eke and hive body still do not mate perfectly there is the merest sliver of a gap. The various walls against winds should blunt a piercing blast sufficiently to prevent fierce entry. And perhaps later, when we are done with agitating the bees for the season, we can run a layer of residue-free duct tape around the seam. And next year perhaps apply some spongy weatherstripping to the bottom of the eke frame to seal in spite of small irregularities.

And so we move from the time of worrying about what we need do for the bees to the time of worrying because there is nothing we can do but hope to see them come springtime.

Short prairieIn other news we have cleared and seeded some land to start a prairie. The clearing consisted of weekly tilling to taunt weed seeds into sprouting only to be chopped and buried to decompose. The first tilling was the hardest as that one had to chop the existing lawn. After that the main problem was the occasional large stone jamming the tines. After six weeks we were able to scatter a low-growing prairie mix to which we added some other bee plant seeds we had acquired and cover it with marshgrass mulch. With luck it ought resemble the picture at right by next year or the year after that.

And lastly we planted a dwarf Shinseiki Asian pear to be a pollinator for our Hosui.

ladderInBarnBehold the wonder of the ages in the picture at left! Don’t be shy! Click for larger image! Half-ladder! Half-staircase! All mobile!

Okay, that quite exhausts our quota of exclamation points. As mentioned in an earlier post our new barn has lofts on either side. We had been gaining access to them by means of an extension ladder, shown lying on its side in the left of the picture. It is rather heavy to easily move from reaching one loft to reaching the other. It is also more difficult than one would expect to put in position securely with neither tipping nor slipping, particularly during the precarious dismount at the top, stepping to the left or right off the ladder. Remounting to descend is even more scary. Worst of all there is not much one can safely carry while climbing it.

Out interim procedure has been to have one of us climb the ladder to the loft as the other kept the floor end stable. Items were then tossed or passed between us or raised/lowered on a sheet of plywood attached to a drywall lift, barely seen behind our construction. We made it work but the inconvenience moved us to consider better solutions.

After rejecting many permanently attached solutions we settled on building the beast in the picture. The platform is a simple two foot by six foot rectangle of two-by-fours, made rigid by a quarter sheet of plywood at the one end, with five-inch, locking swivel castersladderCasters at each corner and directly below the upright supports. The stringers are two-by-eights sloped for roughly eight and half feet of rise per five feet of run. The treads, attached by a trio of three-inch deck screws on each side, are two-by-sixes with the top one even with the loft floor. The uprights supporting the stringers are made of paired glued-and-screwed two-by-sixes, effectively four-by-sixes. And the cross-bracing is made of two-by-fours.

With casters unlocked it easily glides about the floor. Butted against either loft with casters locked there is a very, little rocking as the climber approaches the top but it does not at all feel unsafe. Best of all with the stringers extending past the top tread one can simply walk straight onto the loft. OSHA would surely grumble but we are dead chuffed.

Having caught up on our hives, we should now catch up on the trees we have provided specifically for for the bees, an update for last May’s planting and a belated report of new planting this May. While their days of abundant nectar are still years away last year’s plantings all survived fimbulwinter. The locust and bee bee tree were but tiny sticks and died back nearly to the ground but they have rallied with new foliage. Meanwhile the European linden, which had caused us the most worry after planting, looks incredibly hale.

We had planted it in a low area where the water table can get quite high because something we read suggested that it should tolerate that. But soon after planting came frequent heavy rains and the tree showed unhappy signs of overwatering. At four feet high it was already suffering from the shock of being dug up, shipped across the country, and replanted much more than its foot-high fellows. And now before it could develop a proper root system it was drowning. We had decided that in the unlikely case it survived until spring we would move it to a drier area and plant something more suitable in its old place. To our surprise it survived and thrived with water on the surface only yards away.

Meanwhile its intended replacement had arrived, a black gum or tupelo. Probably not the same species made famous by the movie Ulee’s Gold and comfortable in swamps, it is close enough that our occasionally wet site should be no problem. We planted it about twenty five feet from the linden. It has a short bloom season from late April to May in Florida. We shall see what it does in Michigan.

Clethra alnifolia, also called summersweet or sweet pepperbush, has a fragrance that can reach far out to sea from coastal plantings, giving it the additional name of sailor’s delight. We have wanted one to perfume our garden even before we had plans to keep bees. Indeed it is reported to be merely a minor source of nectar but it blooms during July and August when any nectar may be welcome while awaiting the goldenrod.

When bunches of pussy willow branches again became available at the local farmers market we once more bought some and hoped they would develop roots. Willows of all kinds are so fond of developing roots that willow water, that is, water in which willow has been soaked is a home made substitute for the rooting hormone one buys at garden centers. A few did and were to be planted out in the wet area with the one survivor of the four from a previous year. Life, as usual, intruded and we did not plant them in time. Next year, perhaps, we should just stick them straight in the ground. The ones that do not root may at least provide decoys for the deer.

That leaves our little orchard of dwarf fruit trees begun two years ago, still alive but yet to bloom. This year we have added a Hosui Asian pear, for which we ought to be getting a pollinator in the fall.

Since reporting our happy discovery at the beginning of July that Clarissa was queenright after all we have written about our niece’s bees, bee plants, and cut-out bees but not the colonies in our own backyard. It is time to catch up.

  • TopBars004In a frenzy of sawdust during the weekend post-hiving we made fifty-six brand new top bars per the procedure described in our Making Top Bars post. Those were enough bars to finish populating the part of each hive on the unoccupied side of the follower board with some extra bars remaining. The rooves have been much more level ever since.

    Building of improved, mouse-resistant ekes must happen before winter threatens but with the coolness of the summer and lack of bearding other, non-apicultural tasks continue to have greater urgency at the present.

  • This year’s novel problem was the formication of all three hives with small black ants, much smaller than the ones we found in Beatrix last year. Not only did they show great interest in the syrup we provide in the unoccupied part of the hive but they even invaded the space between observation window and shutter. Per beekeeping lore from several sources we successfully repelled them by scattering cinnamon powder where we saw them inside and outside the hive. The bees do not seem bothered and should in their own time carry it out as rubbish.

  • Otherwise we have simply been adding top bars, opening more entrances, and swapping syrup bags as needed. Each hive has by now gone from the original five frames to a dozen frames/bars and four entrance holes with Beatrix slightly behind her new sisters. It may be that she gets the first morning sun a little later or it is just the usual variation among colonies.

    In past years we tended to simply add new bars just before the follower board, extending the occupied volume without moving any of the existing bars. Now we judiciously insert them between other bars already bearing straight comb. This forces the comb-to-be-built to also be straight. In particular we have taken to inserting them at the boundary between brood and food comb. Appending new bars would result in their bearing honey comb while inserting into the brood chamber would result in more brood comb. Rather than helpfully coaxing them one way or the other, this lets the bees choose the use of the new comb.

  • We have once again found a nest of yellow jackets in a hole in the ground near the hives and will be applying the dreaded glass bowl. Eradicating them is becoming a regular part of late summer beekeeping.

And so we return to watching the girls work the basil, oregano, cup plants, buckwheat, and we know not what else as we wait for that funky smell in the hives that tells us the goldenrod flow has begun in earnest.

Such was the subject of an email broadcast last week to the Ann Arbor Backyard Beekeepers. A house once occupied by a beekeeper had been left unoccupied (except by bees) for six or seven years and was now scheduled for imminent demolition. Recruits were being sought to help transfer the bees into Langstroth deeps to be moved to Matthaei Botanical Gardens, where they would be cared for as teaching hives. There was also a hopeful wish expressed for a battery-powered saw since there would be no electricity available. Since we possess a handy Milwaukee Hackzall and the house was not far away we volunteered for the mission.

As the experienced know and the innocent can imagine, a cut-out has the potential for many a surprise. Until the investigation begins, one never knows which inaccessible cranny caught the colony’s fancy. Much ingenuity may be required. In that regard we were fortunate. Since the house was going to be demolished the day after cut-out we could be as destructive as needed without a care to fixing any damage we might cause.

CutOutFirstColonyExposedWe arrived at the site nine-ish Sunday morning with our saw, a few ladders, and bee suits to join a handful of beeks of varying experience, most only a few years like ourselves. Dr. Milbrath was there to advise and coordinate and lend use of her bee vacuum bodged from a cordless DeWalt. CutOutBeeVacuumPreliminary reconnaisance had already been accomplished by tearing away the siding where the bees could be seen flying in and out. On one side of the house a seemingly small colony had neatly occupied the space between a pair of ceiling joists extending from the outer wall inward with no inclination to spread. A larger colony had done likewise on the other side of the house.

CutOutFirstColonyCombExposedWork began with the smaller colony so that we could all get a bit of practical experience before tackling the more populous one. The ceiling was cut away to expose the comb, most of which was surprisingly empty, and tracks where long-gone comb had once been. The bees were surprisingly unconcerned by our remodeling. While one can not be certain Dr. Milbrath theorized this might be a small swarm having only recently occupied the space left by a previous colony that had absconded.

CutOutStaplingHiveBottomA bottom board was stapled onto each of the two Langstroth deep hive bodies we would be using. Carrying them up and down ladders and stairs would be awkward enough without trying to deal with a separate bottom board as well.

CutOutFirstColonyRubberbandingCombThe comb was cut away from the ceiling and floppily fixed in frames by rubber bands. Even before the process was completed a whiff of lemon could be detected. The bees within the hive body were accepting their new home and calling their fellows.

To speed the process one sturdy soul climbed the step ladder to hold the heavy, comb-filled hive body directly below the former location of the comb, where bees were still clustered and milling about. A second beek went up the other side of the ladder with a bee brush and swept as many of the remaining bees into the hive as possible before the hive-bearer’s strength was exhausted. This process would have been even more fraught had the bottom not been stapled on.

CutOutFirstColonyLureOn the floor above, directly over the former space a hole was punched through the outside wall to make a new entrance. The hive, full of comb and with inner but not telescoping cover in place, was then placed on the floor facing out. The top of the inner cover was full of fanning bees calling their sisters through the new entrance and into their new hive.

Unfortunately not all the bees heeded the call. An increasing number were returning through the original entrance to cluster where their comb had been. Some scent of home was apparently lingering on the empty boards. An attempt was made to herd the bees back outside where they might find the hole leading to the hive body by gently puffing smoke at them. Sadly it was not sufficiently gently done and the attempt failed. Rather than the more typical confounding of bees by filling the air with smoke this technique required them to be able to detect a clean-aired escape from the smoke if they went back out the old entrance to re-enter the new one above. In the end the bee vacuum was employed and some scrap wood nailed over the old entrance.

CutOutSecondColonySawingThe procedure was repeated with the second colony, much larger and with significant honey stores. The bees were somewhat more bothered as the scent of banana in the air indicated they were releasing alarm pheromone. They poured out of the saw cuts as soon as a pry bar widened them enough for a bee body.

CutOutSecondColonyExposedAs before comb was cut from the ceiling, this time making a mess dripping honey onto beeks. The brood comb was fastened into frames as before and the bee vacuum again deployed. The honey comb, however, was simply tossed into one of three five-gallon buckets. Honey comb is usually too heavy to be bound to a frame. Instead once the hive full of bees was in its new location the honey would be fed back to them by placing a completely empty hive body above the inner cover and the comb dumped in taking care only to not block the opening.

By now it was noon and Dr. Milbrath had to leave to teach a beekeeping class. The rest of us broke for lunch before completing work on the second colony. Being so close we dashed home to return with a folding card table on which we served crackers, apples, cheese (aged cheddar and velvety St. Andre), a bit of salami, and a bowl of cherries. To wash it down we had iced water and elderflower lemonade. Beekeepers must keep up their strength.

CutOutSecondColonyHiveOnLadder Returning indoors we finished cutting away the remainder of the honey comb and then putting the hive body full of brood in position to be found by returning bees. This time the hive body was placed outside the house blocking the old entrance. We used one of those three-sectioned folding step ladders that can be configured as a straight ladder, step ladder, low scaffold, or, as we used it, an upside-down L-shape. Bracing the short leg of the L against the wall resulted in a steep ladder topped by a shelf on which the hive body was placed.

And so we were done at two-ish to wait until dark to allow all the foragers to return and get over their confusion at the new look of their homes. To while away the time we returned home where, with some trepidation for our beekeeper whites were filthy are honey spattered, quickly inspected our own three hives and uneventfully saw that all seemed well with them. We drove to Matthaei Botanical Gardens to catch Dr. Milbrath finishing her class so we could return some batteries she had left behind. By the time we again returned home it was late enough for supper, during which we watched an episode of Midsomer Murders, fortuitously one in which a beekeeping monk plays a part. We have not had a day so filled with bees since the last SEMBA conference.

At nine thirty that night, when all or nearly all the bees could be assumed to be within their hives, the organizer returned to seal up the hive bodies and transport them along with the buckets of honey comb to Matthaei. We came back to assist and retrieve our ladder. Some unruly bees made this more exciting than we cared for after such a long day, finding gaps in the seals and our bee suits, administering a few final stinging insults, but we managed to contain them whereupon we returned home while they were chauffeured to their new location.

And so ends the tale of our first cut-out, an intense, educational experience. Stings were acquired although nowhere near the number one might expect considering the destruction being wrought. We two collected five altogether. Between the accumulated dirt of abandonment, the raised dust of wrecking activity, and the steady drip of honey from overhead this was the filthiest and messiest of our bee-related activities to date as well as the longest we have had to stay suited up. And yet it had its moments of wonder such as holding a huge chunk of comb and feeling it vibrate in one’s fingers from the combined quivering of the bees riding it. And, of course, we could feel virtuous for helping to save some bees.


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