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Hive Brander

Every year during the almond pollination, we hear stories of beehives being stolen or vandalized. Unfortunately most of the time its other beekeepers doing the stealing (which is a big shame). Last year a Russian beekeeper from Sacramento was caught with thousands of stolen beehives in Fresno County. He was caught when he tried selling beehives to another beekeeper that had been branded by the original owner. This is exactly the reason why we started branding our equipment a few years ago. In the unfortunate event that our hives are stolen, we have a chance of recovering them if they have been marked with our Apiary registration number.

We’ve been using one particular brander with great success. It is the model 2100 “beekeepers brander” from Brand New Industries. The model 2100 will set you back $550 and comes with everything included to start branding (torch, brass branding head, propane hose, and nice metal case). Ours has been working flawlessly for a couple of years now and it makes nice deep brands that look great even when painted over. When you get the brass head hot enough, you can very quickly brand a lot of wood. For anyone looking for a beehive brander, we highly recommend this particular model.

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We are not affiliated with Brand New Industries in any way. We just happen to really like their product and feel confident referring them to others. Here is a link to their website:

http://www.brandnew.net/estore/shopexd.asp?id=130

We’ve been building equipment like crazy lately and we certainly don’t want it stolen. I wish that we could keep a few Africanized beehives as decoys so that the bee thieves would learn their lesson when trying to haul them off. However, That idea is just too impractical as it would be ourselves getting stung most of the time… Our second best idea has been to brand our equipment and it does give us a little peace of mind.

Happy beekeeping

The Franken-Hive

Cleaning around the apiary last weekend, I ran into an old creation of mine. A beehive of my own design which I lovingly referred to as the “Franken-hive”.

Several years ago, I became fascinated by top bar hives. I really liked the simplicity of them and especially liked the ability to manipulate the entire hive without moving boxes around. I built a few traditional top bar hives and the biggest issue that I had was getting bees into them because all of our existing equipment was 10 frame langstroth hives. Yes you can always “shake” bees into the top bar hive from an existing hive, but that leaves the brood behind and in the same bee yard all of the bees want to fly back to their original location anyway. So my Engineer side took over and I proceeded to design a top bar hive that had a top bar bottom and a box that held regular langsthroth frames on top. It would basically be a top bar hive with a rectangular super on top. If you removed (or left a gap) in the top bar frames, the bees would actually be encouraged to build in both the top bar bottom as well as the super on top (careful consideration to bee space must be given so that the bees don’t build comb where you don’t want them to). Believe it or not, this franken-hive actually worked for transitioning bees from langstroth hives to top bar hives. It also worked well as a standalone functional beehive.

I tinkered around with this hive for a few seasons, but ultimately abandoned the idea. Mostly because such a design is not practical on a large scale (if you move your bees like we do). However, a hobbyist beekeeper looking to leverage the advantages of both top bar (clean wax) and langstrogth (can use honey extractor) hives can certainly find this design useful. Unfortunately I lost the original detailed design files so I cannot post them. However I did create some rough sketches for the purposes of this post. I figure that anyone with the drive to build their own hive can probably fill in the gaps in the design.

All that remains of the hive is the bottom top bar portion. So the top box is not shown in the actual picture, but it was long enough to hold 13 deep frames.

Anyway, I thought that I’d share one more of my crazy ideas. Maybe somebody will benefit from it.

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Plan 2Plan 3Plan 1

 

 

The Coming Varroa Storm

 

varroa on bee
A varroa mite sucking on a bee. If left untreated and if the hive cannot control the infestation, the hive will collapse. Survivor bees are better at dealing with varroa.

In my previous post about almond pollination I mentioned how mild our winter was here in California this last year. That was a very good thing for our almond pollination contract as we easily met the 10 frame contract requirement. Not only that, strong hives early in the year means that we should be able to double our operation this year. However, all of the good news comes with a catch. Since the hives never shut down brood production over winter, neither did the varroa mite.

The overwintering period with a “brood break” is one of the natural varroa control processes that favors the honeybee. During this period of time the bees don’t raise any drones, which the varroa mite prefers to parasitize because they get more bang for their buck. The bees also raise worker brood in very small batches, so the varroa mite is just out of luck and declines in population. Unless… the winter is very mild and the bees never go into full overwintering mode. When this happens, the varroa mite population levels begin the year dangerously high. Couple that with an exponential growth model and the severity of the matter becomes obvious.

Let’s explore an example of exponential varroa growth and the implications that it will have on us this year. I don’t know if there’s an actual exponential growth model for varroa (I assume that researchers have some), but let’s keep it simple and use the following equation P = N * 2s. Where “P” is the final varroa population, “N” is the starting varroa count, and “s” is the varroa reproductive cycles. We’ll use a simple doubling of population every brood cycle and disregard any other factors that affect population size. On to the example: Let’s assume that in a regular year, we enter February with 10 varroa mites. If so, in 8 reproductive cycles (about 6 months) the varroa population will be 2,560 (P=10*28). Now let’s assume that the mild winter allowed 15 varroa mites to survive AND they start reproducing one brood cycle earlier. In this case the mite count would be 7,680 (P = 15*29).  Clearly you can see how a mild winter, which allows the varroa mite to get a slight head start in the year could easily triple your mite count by fall of the following year. For this reason we are forecasting a varroa storm this fall for California beekeepers. It would be wise to have a varroa management plan in place early in the year. If you treat your bees for varroa, you may want to begin your treatments earlier than usual, at least one brood cycle earlier.

[If there are any biologists in the audience. The equation described above is oversimplified and used to attain a solution accurate enough for a rough order of magnitude – to illustrate an exponential growth rate.  An actual Dynamic model of varroa population should and would include negative/positive reinforcing loops for input parameters such as honeybee brood rearing patters at different times of the year, natural mite fall, mite re-infestation, weather, etc.]

Here at Estrada Farms our plan is to closely monitor the situation and employ natural varroa control tactics whenever possible, such as making splits with a prolonged broodless period (preferably after they’ve made some honey). If the mite levels are too high going into the fall, this may be the year that we deploy oxalic acid as a last ditch effort (ill write about our results if we do). However, our first line of defense is the bees themselves. They haven’t failed us yet and even if we do end up losing some hives to varroa, it will certainly cull out the least varroa resistant bees from our operation. The reverse is also true, and this type of year should highlight which hives manage to thrive despite the high varroa infestations. This would allow us to select the best queens to use as breeders for the next few years.

Every beekeepers goal should be to be treatment free. If we ever get there, it would mean that we finally allowed the bees to evolve natural mechanisms to deal with varroa (much like the Asian honey bee). So even in a year like this, don’t be afraid to let your bees feel the varroa pressure a little bit. If you can afford to lose half of your bees, then lose half of your bees. At least you’ll know that your bees next year will be better because of it.

Knowing that the storm is underway is the first step to being prepared. Good luck and whatever you plan to do to control varroa, make sure to start early.

2018 Almond Pollination

IMG_4729The 2018 almond pollination season is over and boy was it an eventful one. I am reminded of how massive the honeybee migration in and out of the state of California is when I see the steady stream of trucks hauling bees down the central valley. When I worked out of town I saw beekeeping trucks parked at every hotel off of highway 99, which runs through the heart of almond country. I took the time to meet a few of these beekeepers from all over the US. There were two main narratives that I heard. The first was that it was an usually high winter loss year (one beekeeper I spoke to had 60% winter losses). The second was the terrible pollination weather we had.

As far as winter losses go, we didn’t have that problem. As a matter of fact, we slightly exceeded our target hive count for pollination. Also, due to the very mild winter that we had, our hives were unusually strong for the month of February. In California we are spoiled anyway, but our winter this year was so mild that the hives never really shut down brood production for winter. I recall seeing drones in the hives even in January.

Then there was the weather. We hadn’t gotten a drop of rain all winter until the almonds started to bloom. Right around mid-February (when the almonds started to bloom), winter finally decided to show up. We had a one week long storm that dumped quite a bit of rain (I won’t mention the inches of rain as our east coast friends would probably laugh out loud). The following week we had a freeze followed by more rain.  To make a long story short, it’s not looking like a good year for almonds. On the Brightside, we did get a couple of days of decent flight weather and our girls rose to the occasion. When we were picking up our hives we noticed how much fruit-set our customer had. Those strong hives really made a difference when it came to crunch time. However, the weather did fake out our hives. The average hive actually lost weight during pollination. In other words, the bees were consuming more resources than they were bringing in. Some hives even went into emergency mode and began kicking out drones. Even so, we should be poised to have a good year.

in the video below, I managed to catch a worker bee pulling a drone with chewed up wings out of the hive. It just demonstrates how ruthless honeybees can be when it comes to survival. When things get though, the drones get going.

 

Our customer is bringing another almond orchard online in 2019 and we need to double our operation in order to keep up with demand. That means that our next move is to begin queen rearing. Your operation is only as good as the queens you produce and there are many factors that contribute to quality queens. It is this challenge that makes queen rearing one of my favorite things to do. So for me, the fun has just begun.

I hope that you all have a wonderful beekeeping year and make lots of honey!

 

First Hive Removal of 2018

 

In January we got a call from somebody who wanted a beehive removed from their garage wall. Those who are familiar with our operation know that we like doing hive removals, especially if they are survivor bees. In this case, since its February, most hives that would have collapsed from Varroa should already have collapsed (assuming the hive has been there over one season). So chances are that this particular hive may have good survivor genetics. In general, mid-winter is not the best time to perform hive removals, but in this case the bees either got removed or they were going to be killed, so we decided to remove them and hope that they survive.

In this post we’ll try to explain some of the hive removal basics, for those who may find removing a hive a daunting task (or who may never have performed one).

Every hive removal is different based on where you are removing them from (a tree, a wall, an attic, etc). But the general concept is the same. First you want to locate the entrance and blow some smoke into the entrance to calm the bees and reduce the chances of them “going crazy” and stinging everyone in the neighborhood.

 

 

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Expose the hive and locate the brood chamber. The bees will follow their brood, so capturing plenty of brood will increase the chances of the bees moving into your hive box. A mixture of open and capped brood is best.

 

Capture
This piece of comb has a good mixture of capped and open brood. “Spotty” brood pattern is not uncommon in an overwintering colony.

There are many ways to encourage the bees to build their wax into the frames. We like to cut pieces (very carefully) of their existing comb that fit into a frame. We then secure the wax into the frame using fishing string. If you secure the comb well enough, the bees will glue everything together in the coming weeks.

 

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Inside the beehive, you always want to put the brood frames in the middle and any honey or pollen frames on the outside.

 

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The final part is to get the bees into the box. Many people use a bee vacuum to suck up the bees. It certainly would help, but we’ve successfully removed many beehives without one. You’ll find that if you smoke the bees, they will form big “clumps” which you can just grab (gently) and throw into the box. If you are lucky enough to see the queen, you definitely want to grab her and throw her into the box as well. Having the queen and brood in the box will pretty much guarantee that the rest of the bees will follow.

After you have brood and bees in the hive box, place the hive close to the original entrance (if possible). The bees that flew out during the removal will want to return to their original hive location going through the original entrance. In our case, the entrance was a small hole, which we plugged so that they would go into our hive box instead.

If possible, leave the new hive in place for a couple of days so that all of the straggler bees make it into the hive. You can come back a few days later after dark, screen the entrance shut and take the bees to their new location.

In our case, we were unable to find the queen during the original removal. However, we found her on our follow up inspection. Three weeks later, the hive is thriving and exploding in population. We have marked the hive so that we can track its behavior throughout the year. If it shows good signs of “survival” traits, we may even incorporate it into our breeding program next year.

Capturing established survivor hives is the best way to incorporate survivor genetics into your bee stocks. Once upon a time we were into ordering VSH, Russian, and any other bees that were advertised by commercial breeders as the “next big thing” in varroa resistance. That road only led to varroa infestations and high winter mortality rates. In the last (almost) decade, capturing and propagating survivor bees acclimated to our area is what has given us the ability to operate treatment free as well as to regard varroa as a nuisance and not an existential threat.

We encourage everyone to at least consider this approach.

 

Oxalic Acid Calculator

On my previous post “Nuc Calendar Generator”, I wrote about a spreadsheet program that I created in order to help us quickly generate a calendar with all of the necessary information that we need to aid us in making our nucs. At the end of that post I mentioned that I would be writing a follow up post to tell the story behind the “Oxalic Calculator” tab. So without further ado, here is story:

Soon after I had finished my Nuc Calendar Generator program, I was invited by a friend to attend a social gathering. During this gathering, I ran into a gentleman that mentioned that he was making mead (honey wine) for his brother’s wedding. Being a mead maker myself, we struck up a great conversation. The conversation soon transitioned to beekeeping after he mentioned that he would like to keep his own bees to make mead using his own honey. He had already done a lot of research on bees, so he was full of questions. Of course, being a “treatment free” beekeeper, I had to give him my thoughts on treatment free beekeeping and why its the best approach for a hobbyist (in my humble opinion). During that entire conversation, I noticed an elderly gentleman (that neither of us knew) that was “hanging around” listening to our conversation, so we asked him to come join us. It turns out that the elderly gentleman was a retired beekeeper (that still kept several hives “just to stay busy”). He immediately corrected me on why it was so foolish to be treatment free. After all, he had ran a business for years keeping happy bees with the good old (over) treatment method. I respectfully disagreed, but we did have a good conversation about the advantages and disadvantages of treating bees, specifically for varroa. It turns out that this gentleman had used a varroa treatment for his bees (and still treats his current ones) using a chemical smuggled in from Mexico, as it is illegal to use and purchase in the US. He didn’t give me the name of it, because he couldn’t remember, or at least that’s what he said.

I have much respect for old-timer beekeepers and when I am fortunate enough to speak to one, I always try to learn from them. This particular beekeeper left me thinking about something. He said that when you have lots of beehives in one location, sooner or later you’ll have a varroa outbreak that will take out most of your bee yard. After all, having such a high concentration of hives in one area is not natural. He mentioned that not having a backup treatment plan is just plain foolish. On that point we could both agree. In past years, before we were in the almond pollination business, we weren’t afraid to lose bees to varroa. It’s how we ended up where we are today with very good survivor bees. However, we are now in a position where we must deliver a specified number of hives to our almond grower. This year, it means that we can only afford to lose about 8% of our bees and still meet our target. As a smart business decision, we should have a backup plan.

I personally don’t like to take medicine, although I’m not opposed to it either, and I will certainly take any medicine in a life and death situation. I think that I feel the same way about bees now. We need to have a backup treatment plan in case we ever experience a severe varroa outbreak that represents a life and death situation for our business.  I’ve thought about this before and I’ve even done some research on the best “organic” treatment methods but haven’t really taken any actions. I’ve decided in the past that if I had to treat with something during an emergency, it would be Oxalic acid. It’s not as effective as the hard chemicals because of the small residual time and the fact that it won’t kill mites present inside the capped brood. However, it can be pretty effective especially if you treat during broodless periods, and the best part is that it is an organic acid (like citric acid).

Well, since I had just finished making a Nuc calendar generator, I figured why not make an Oxalic calculator as well? If you are going to treat by using vaporized Oxalic acid then you don’t really need a calculator. I suppose that vaporizing Oxalic acid is a good way to go if you only have a few hives, but it can be slow and time consuming and the vapor is hazardous if you inhale it. For these reasons, I would use the liquid sugar/Oxalic dribble method instead. With this method you can make a big batch and treat as many hives as you need to fairly quickly and the solution is safe to handle. If you want to read more on the Oxalic acid treatment methods, I recommend reading the articles on the subject written by Randy Oliver on his website.

If you are going to use the liquid sugar/Oxalic mixture, you will need to follow a specific recipe. How strong you want the mixture will determine what recipe you follow. Also, the recipe changes if you are using wood bleach (diluted Oxalic acid used for commercial applications) or pure laboratory grade Oxalic acid crystals. Lastly, when following the recipe, you will need to make sure that your measurement units are correct (as everything needs to be weighed). There is a specific range of treatment where Oxalic acid is effective. Too little and it won’t kill mites and too much and it will kill your bees, so you need to be careful to get the mixture right. I’m the “measure twice cut once” kind of guy, except in this case its “get the calculations right once and use them forever”.  With this in mind, I created the “Oxalic Acid Calculator” and included that into the Nuc Calendar spreadsheet. This way if we ever need to treat, I can pull up the calculator and quickly generate a recipe without having to do lots of research.

Like I mentioned, treating with Oxalic acid is most effective if done during a broodless period when all of the mites will be exposed to the treatment. When you create nucs, you are making a broodless period between the time that the last eggs from the old queen hatch and the new queen’s larvae are capped. If you wanted a “clean” start to the nuc colony, it’s a very good time to treat them. For this reason, the Nuc Calendar Generator also provides the best dates to treat the nuc, reference Figure 1 below:

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Figure 1: Treatment window shown in the Nuc calendar

 

To end this post, I will describe how the calculator works:

You go to the “Oxalic Calculator” tab. Then you go to the “Input Parameters” section (at the very top) and select your four input parameters. Your options for mixture strength are Strong, Medium, and Weak. The options for Oxalic type are Pure and Wood Bleach. The number of colonies is simply how many colonies you wish to treat (at a dose of 50 ml per colony). The last input parameter is to select large units or small units. Large units are Kilograms (kg), Pounds (lbs), Liters (l) , and Gallons (gal). Small units are grams (g), Ounces (oz), milliliters (ml), and quarts (qt). I included this feature because if you are making a small batch, you likely don’t want to see 0.062 pounds. You are going to be measuring in ounces. The inverse of the same concept applies to large batches. I find the metric system to be much easier, so I use metric personally, but I included the US standard units for those who like harder math conversions. Reference Figure 2 below:

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Figure 2: Input parameter of the Oxalic acid calculator

Once you’ve entered the inputs into the calculator, you can find the recipes in both metric and US standard units, reference figure 3 below:

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Figure 3: Oxalic recipes in metric and US standard units

The page can easily be printed for your records. It might look something like what is shown in figure 4 below:

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Figure 4: a printed Oxalic calculator form with notes.

 

I’ve already tested the calculator by creating a batch of medium strength Oxalic solution and treating 10 hives. The results were inconclusive as I didn’t have any baseline varroa counts prior to treating. However, after 48 hours, I inspected the hives and found a few dead varroa mites on the bottom boards. The most that I counted was around 10, but I suppose that the bees could have removed some as I wasn’t using sticky boards (I have never actually used a sticky board). At the very minimum the solution killed mites and didn’t kill bees, which is a good sign. I used the treatment tables provided by Randy Oliver (very knowledgeable in Oxalic acid) to calibrate my formulas, so I am confident that the calculator will work as intended.

Well, it took an unexpected run-in with a retired beekeeper to finally  motivate me to get in motion with a backup treatment plan for varroa. Our long term strategy will never change as we firmly believe that the best plan to fight varroa is breeding bees that fight varroa (I’ve documented this in previous posts). But in a pinch, we now have a viable backup plan.

 

Nuc Calendar Generator

Anyone that manages a lot of beehives and multiple bee yards will tell you that record keeping gets harder and harder the bigger you get (especially if you’re a part time beekeeper). Up until this year, my brother and I had relied on text messages, a white board, and good old calendars to keep track of what beehives/beeyards needed what. This year we had a bit of a “misunderstanding” in one of our beeyards with regards to making up mating nucs. I setup the cell builder colony (and did the grafting) and my brother was supposed to make up the mating nucs. Well, let’s just say that the nuc’s never got made…

This little mishap got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a “program” where you enter the date that you are making nucs and it will generate a calendar with all of the pertinent information? Useful information such as when queen cells are capped, when to make mating nucs, when to insert queen cells, when the cells hatch, when to expect new eggs, etc.  Then I realized that I make “calculators” for things all the time due to my day job and I thought, why not make one? In my opinion, the easiest platform for such a program (to generate a calendar) is MS Excel, as it has  many built-in predefined date and arithmetic functions. So I sat down and created what I lovingly call: Estrada Farms nuc Calendar Generator. It’s not the best program out there I’m sure, but it gets the job done and will make generating such calendars much less time consuming.

It was only until AFTER I created my calendar generator that I decided to check the internet to see if anyone else had come up with such a generator already. A quick google search turned up a website that gives you a list of dates, but doesn’t generate an actual calendar view. I find the calendar view to be much more helpful than just a list of dates because you can see the days of the week (and you get a sense of when to do the task relative to your “today”). Writing such a program in HTML (or any web language) would be much harder, which is probably why it doesn’t exist and its the reason why I ruled out that option as well.

After I created the nuc calendar generator a friend (and hobbyist beekeeper) asked if it would work for walk-away splits as well. I thought about it and realized that all dates would be shifted by a day. I didn’t want to rework my formulas so I took the easy way out and just added instructions for splits in parenthesis next to the instructions for nucs.

I intend to share this spreadsheet program with a few people so the remainder of this write-up will be somewhat of a “how to” use the program.

The first step after you open the file, is to go to the right month tab and click the “Enter Date” button on top. See figure 1 below:

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Figure 1: Step one in calendar generation process

After you click the “Enter Date” button you will get a popup window. The popup window will have a nuc option on the left side and a split option on the right side. In this example we will select the nuc option. click the drop-down arrow on the date picker as shown in figure 2 below:

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Figure 2: Step two in calendar generation process

After you click the drop-down arrow on the date picker you will get a small calendar to help you select the date. The date you will pick is the date that you will be removing the queen from the cell builder colony. Reference figure 3 below:

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Figure 3: Step 3 in calendar generation process

If you prefer to use a different date as a baseline (such as when you graft) then you can “play” with the dates as necessary to get your desired results. When planning mating nucs, I prefer to use the date that the queen is removed as my baseline date.

After you select the right date, click the OK button and you will see the calendar generated. Make sure that you are in the correct month (based on the date you chose). reference figure 4 below:

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Figure 4: Step 4 in calendar generation process

If you start mid-month, the program will generate the right activities in the right months. For example, if I had chosen a date of April 15th, half of my activities would have been put on the May calendar. I used a date of April 1st in the example to try to capture as much as possible in one month.

Please be aware that I used “optimal” dates for all activities.  Some dates may change due to your specific conditions. A good example of this is the date that your queen will start laying new eggs. We all know that weather is a big factor in when queens mate and begin laying. So you will have to monitor your specific situation and make sure to account for the differences.

I hope to start using this calendar generator next year (2018). It is very likely that after I use it in real time that I’ll come up with other ideas and enhancements to incorporate into the program (it always happens that way). For now I’m pretty excited to start using the program and to hopefully have fewer “mishaps” due to lack of organization.

P.S. for those of you who are pretty observant: You may have noticed the “Oxalic Calculator” tab or the “Oxalic Treatment Window (if necessary)” task on the calendar. There is a story behind that and it will likely be the subject of my next post.