A thousand square feet looks much smaller than it sounds. Meadow just sown and coveredIn what should be the first of several posts, this picture taken looking east on 2014-Nov-25 shows the results of our labors, a thousand square feet tilled, sown, and mulched. Not very impressive yet but we intend to regularly expand the area.

The tan expanse seen stretching across the picture was tilled weekly for a month and a half. The first session was to chop the existing turf; the later ones to bury any weedlings that had emerged. We unearthed a surprising number of fist-sized and larger stones in the process, a few of which managed to jam the tiller, and one of those refused to be dislodged. We had to use a masonry chisel to break it into pieces.

We began by seeding with a low growing prairie mix augmented with our hodge podge of seed packets of dubious viability accumulated over the years as party favors and door prizes at various nature and conservation events on behalf of pollinators. We also planted some viper’s bugloss seeds in the center of the eastern edge. The plant, a highly recommended nectar source, is uncomfortable to touch so this would keep it from walkers around the perimeter. The left corner has a transplanted russian sage and the right a shrubby St. John’s wort. The two orange stakes on the eastern edge (zoom in quite a bit to see) each mark a mountain mint.

All our tilled ground was finally covered with marsh grass, which introduces fewer weed seeds than straw would.

The tan strip on the left with spindly shrubbery is a stretch of ground that received similar treatment. In this case we transplanted our bush cherries into it, moving the someday hedge and windbreak for the beehives several feet forward, and overseeded with clover before mulching. To the left of that is the wall of bales with the hives behind it. The green bit between hedge-to-be and meadow-to-come is an area that remained untilled due to a very wide if low tree stump.

By now the snow has finally departed, even the reluctant mound in the shadow of a parked car. The vernal equinox has come and gone. At long last our first daffodils bloomed two days ago. Eventually we shall see some shoots in the meadow poking through the marsh grass. Then we shall wait even more impatiently for the blooms.

Along with the interest in tools used in any pursuit there is an interest in their storage. How are they stored safely, carried to the place of work, and kept handy. Consider this toolbox used by Adam Savage of MythBusters fame.

Adam Savage's Toolbox

Adam Savage’s Toolbox

In his own words: Ahh, my toolboxes. Obsessed with working quickly, I’ve spent years designing toolboxes with what I call ‘First Order Retrievability’. That is, that nothing need be moved out of the way to get to anything else. Above is version 2.0. The Scissor lifts are so that, when seated, I needn’t lean over too far to get to the tool I need.

When we began beekeeping we anticipated that with its hive tools and smokers and so on there would be some special toolbox or tote in which to carry them, even if not as elaborate and highly optimized as Adam’s for his work. In this we were disappointed. Most beekeepers seem to use any old hardware store tote or bucket. A few will make concessions for the heat of a lit smoker and cobble a special hook to keep it from the main body. We ourselves would have one of us carry the smoker and the other a largish basket in which tools and miscellany were willy-nilly tossed. We have since graduated to an Ikea plastic tray and still carry the smoker separately. At least the tray is divided into two compartments so we can keep sharp implements like hive tools and warre knives away from bags of syrup.

Looking in beekeeping catalogs we only find a Merrill toolbox. Its main feature seems to be that it is dimensioned as a nucleus hive so that if one suddenly discovers the need in a beeyard all its contents can be dumped and frames added. Other than a special hook for the smoker there are just elastic straps to hold various tools against the outside. Anything kept inside it does not fare much better from being kept in our basket or tray. In some way the depth of the box, handy for frames, would make finding small or short items worse. It does not show promise to become an Adam Savage toolbox for us.

Perhaps just as well since such a high degree of optimization must be idiosyncratic, suited to each individual’s situation. A beekeeper who needs to visit many remote hives has different needs than we with our few in the backyard. We must design one of our own then but with our few years of experience what must it accommodate? We can only keep lists of everything we ever take to the hives and then someday devise a carrier for all seasons.

HiveStanClosedWith our niece planning for more than one hive this year she would require a better hive stand than the discarded cable spool she had hastily dragged into service for her first hiving. So over a weekend we made the stand seen at left.

The general design can be seen in several places on the web, either for sale on commercial sites or for information in DIY blog posts, although with a paucity of construction details. We shall try to do better in this post although in our haste we took no pictures of the work in progress.

Parts List Features

28 ft. of 2×6" cedar

4 of 1/2" diameter, 4" long galvanized hex bolt

4 of corresponding galvanized nut

12 of 1/2" galvanized washer

one more washer or something the same thickness

36 of three inch coated deck screw

beeWeeClipArtIt is easily long enough for three Langstroth hives although we had envisioned one hive at each end with the space between used for holding hive bodies during inspections.

beeWeeClipArtAs seen in the second picture, the legs fold against the body for easier transport or storage.

beeWeeClipArtThe space between the long sides is chosen to let a frame dangle between them.

Cutting: We started with four, eight-foot long cedar two-by-sixes and would have about four feet left over. We have seen two-by-fours used but the extra width promised greater resistance to sagging in the middle and a wider footprint. Cedar is sufficiently weather-resistant to obviate painting the stand and has a rather low density to make the stand lighter lest we regret choosing wide lumber.

Trimming the ends of an eight-footer we cut a five-foot length for one long side (call it a stringer) and two sixteen-inch lengths for its legs with a bit of scrap remaining. We then cut the ends of the legs at a sixty-degree angle to make a parallelogram. Repeated with a second eight footer. This length of leg raises a hive a little more than a foot above the ground.

From a third eight-footer we cut four eighteen-and-a-bit-inch lengths to make the spacers between the stringers. You could make them longer and rabbet the long sides to hide the extra length. That would make for better rigidity but we opted for speedy construction and contented ourselves with butt joints.

From the last eight footer we cut a pair of two-foot lengths and beveled one long side of each to sixty degrees. These would be the cross-pieces joining a pair of legs at either end of the stand. The bevel is optional but lets them seat against the stringers to better transmit the weight.

Drilling: At each end of the two stringers we drilled a half-inch diameter hole about eight inches from each end and across the face. This would place the top of the leg more or less directly under a hive placed at the end of the stand.

For one end of each leg we bisected the angles and drilled a half-inch diameter hole at the point where the bisectors intersect. This allows the top of stand to be level with the top of the leg when open and the side of the leg when closed.

Along each edge of the cross-pieces, about 3/4 inch from the end, drill three holes of suitable diameter for deck screws. In our case this was one-eighth inch.

Assembly: Between the stringers we placed the spacers, one at each end and the other two in between to make three equal sized rectangular openings. Then we glued the pieces together with exterior water-proof glue and clamped being careful to keep the corners square and the whole thing flat.

After the glue has adequately cured, we applied three, three-inch deck screws into the ends of each spacer. After pre-drilling the holes, of course. The body of the stand was now glued and screwed and waiting for the legs to be attached.

With the body resting upside down, we attached each leg, pointing up and out, to the outside by pushing a half-inch diameter, four-inch long bolt through a washer, the leg hole, a second washer, the hole in the stringer, a third washer, and a nut snugly but lightly threaded. Repeat for the other three legs. All our hardware was galvanized. We would have preferred stainless steel but the big box store did not offer us that option.

We fit each cross-piece into the angle between leg and long side so that the wide side was against the legs and the beveled edge rested against the stringers. Then carefully without disturbing all the wide areas of contact we drilled and screwed through the middle one of the three holes at the ends of the crosspieces. Note that we eschewed gluing for these. If all the lumber were perfectly straight and our work all perfectly aligned we could have drilled and screwed all the holes at once. But if not then one could find upon trying to fold the legs in that they rub excessively against the stringers making it very difficult if not impossible to close up the stand.

So let us pretend that we did not do that at first. Nor that we wasted time trying to fix things by sanding and rasping. Instead we skip to just having the middle screws in place as we easily folded down the legs. Next we slipped a spare washer between the free end of a leg and its stringer and lightly clamped it in place. With the leg nowhere touching the stringer, we drilled and screwed the two remaining crosspiece holes for that leg. Repeated for the other three legs.

The last thing we did was to slightly unscrew the nuts, apply some Loctite to the threads, and retighten to a snugness that still allowed the legs to open and close easily. While hardly fine furniture it looks rather good, feels quite sturdy, and should serve for many a season.

This year Dr. Meghan Milbrath offered nucs of two different heredities.

The first kind, like last year’s nucs, would be raised using queens from her hives that overwintered in Michigan. Their offspring will carry genes vetted by several years of Michigan seasons, especially the harsh winters.

The second kind will be raised with open-mated daughters of two queens she sent to Florida with Huff’s Honey Farm of Pennsylvania. These queens are daughters from the "ankle-biter" queens developed by Dr. Greg Hunt of Purdue University in Indiana.

These bees have been selectively bred for grooming behavior that includes biting the legs off varroa. The crippled mites should then be less agile and less able to climb aboard bees for their pestilential, hemolyphagous acts or enter brood cells to reproduce.

Correction. The wounded mite does not heal and soon dies of dehydration. Even better.

While we much prefer to obtain hardy, local bees, the ankle-biting behavior sounds too interesting not to try just because of Florida paternity. We ordered two all-Michigan nucs and one ankle-biter.

The warm Saturday (40°F/5°C) should have seen cleansing flights but there were none. Out we went to thump the hives with rubber mallet in hopes of rousting a guard bee or two or, at least, raising a buzz audible through our stethoscope. No joy at all.

Removing the roof from Beatrix exposed some mouse nesting material atop the eke, which itself was intact. Lifting the eke and opening the hive we found combs of plentiful honey and, as expected, dead bees, most on the floor and a lesser number in cluster. There was also a snugly nested live mouse, which we evicted. At least there was no sign of damp.

Disheartened and learning nothing useful from our comb-by-comb inspection we gave Clarissa and Dorcas the most cursory of examinations merely to establish that they were mouse-free and turned to Dr. Meghan Milbrath for professional help in conducting the post mortem on the other two hives. While she rightly warned us that it could be difficult to come to a specific conclusion for the reasons for a deadout, we were rightly certain that she could point out things we had missed and their significance.

The following Tuesday we opened Clarissa and Dr. Milbrath worked her way through the hive from the follower board towards the brood nest. The combs began with a good number full of honey. Then a few less full and with some uncured honey. Finally in the brood nest, a small cluster around the original marked queen at the top of the comb. And eggs! Also a small bit of bee feces. But her most critical observation was how many of the odd flecks of detritus on the floor were dead varroa. Dorcas showed a similar pattern with an even larger brood chamber. We had certainly been lulled into false security by the lore that says first-year colonies need not worry about varroa. While often true any colony with a lot of brood is vulnerable, even a first-year if it grows to strength quickly.

The scenario proposed by Dr. Milbrath as likely is that the varroa weakened and killed many of the winter bees, those produced at the end of summer. That alone could have doomed our colonies but the warm spell we had made things worse by prompting the queen to lay eggs. When the temperature again dropped the diminished colony could not re-enter cluster as it fecklessly tried to keep the new brood warm and was further diminished. In addition the uncured honey may have fermented and sickened any consumers. Finally the tendency to climb rather than move to another comb for food would work against such a small colony even if it were not stuck trying to protect brood.

To prevent a recurrence with the nucs we have ordered for this year our plan is:

  • Monitor varroa, remove drone comb judiciously, and be ready to intervene with gentle chemicals.

  • Apply a mouse guard of some kind in the fall since our single entrance hole is less inaccessible to the little rodents than we had thought.

  • Crowd the bees once the drones are gone, that is, be slow in adding topbars. This will encourage the bees to backfill and cure the honey nearest the brood nest.

  • Be less timid about working the hives in colder weather.

  • In winter add a spacer under the eke where food can be placed (candy board or honeycomb from the back of the hive) and spread top bars to allow access to it.

  • Improve ventilation by make holes in the styrofoam top of the eke. This would allow gentle diffusion of air through the wool batting beneath without risking drafts. Possibly add small upper entrances or vent holes to the hive body.

Some of these are leading us away from our inclination to let the bees manage on their own as they see fit but that has not been working out well for them.


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