When most folks think of a "Swarm of Bees", their immediate response is fear. Hollywood has capitalized on triggering our survival and panic instincts for many years. The slow creep of Africanized honeybees into our southern states has also contributed greatly to these negative reactions. Beekeepers typically fear swarms as well, but for different reasons; we don't want to lose our bees! Here is some information that everyone should keep in mind this swarm season. If you are not a beekeeper and you see a swarm, please contact a beekeeper. If you don't know any, most local police/fire departments have one they can call to retrieve a swarm. PLEASE never spray them, or harm them in any way! Note* If you are unsure, please remember; If you see that they're building a grey paper nest, they are NOT Honeybees.
Swarming in Honeybees is a reproductive function. It is not a group of rogue bees that has decided it wants to kill and eat people! (Yes, I have heard them referred to as such....) When a colony of Honeybees grows healthy and strong, they will fill up their cavity and then divide themselves into two or more colonies. In a strong colony, as the Queen bee moves about through the brood nest laying eggs, she will start to run out of room. A good queen can lay up to 3,000 eggs in one day, but will only lay as many eggs as the colony can keep warm enough to be viable. In the early spring and summer, colony numbers build progressively. The more worker bees that hatch, the larger the mass of the cluster, and the higher the numbers of eggs the queen can lay. At some point, the brood nest area of the colony becomes overcrowded. The queen with her tiny bee brain is a calculator of all sorts of information as she strolls through the brood nest. "How many eggs am I laying a day? How fast are the previous eggs going to hatch? How many open cells are present? How large is the colony as a whole? Are there drones present for mating purposes? Do we have plenty of nectar and pollen coming in?" Her most important calculation in reference to swarming is "When will we be too crowded? Incredibly, the queen makes this decision several weeks ahead of time. "We will run out of room in the next few weeks". When the queen comes to this decision, she will send out a pheromone to the rest of the colony to announce that it is time to prepare to swarm. Worker bees respond to this pheromone by building queen cups, which are the cells specifically designed to hatch new queens. (Workers and drones develop horizontally, queens vertically). A colony prepping for a swarm typically puts on a dozen or more queen cells as insurance against possible failures. The queen will lay fertilized eggs in these cups, and the workers will ensure that these larvae get the specific diet necessary to develop into healthy queens (Royal Jelly!) These larvae are meticulously cared for, as one of them will be the future queen of this colony. As the new queens mature, the original queen continues to calculate. "How far along are the new queens? Is the weather cooperative? What is my body mass?" She will go on an all-out egg-laying spree, to ensure that colony numbers will be at their highest possible before her departure. A full-on egg laying queen has a very large and heavy abdomen, rendering her flightless. A few days before the first new queen is ready to hatch out, the original queen will stop laying eggs completely, allowing her abdomen to shrink down enough that she is able to fly. As the new queens get close to hatching, they will begin to make a sound called "Piping" It is almost a whistling sound, which signals the original queen that it is time for her to leave the hive, A percentage of the workers fill their stomachs with honey to sustain the swarm for a short period of time while they locate a new home, and exit the hive with the original queen. This Swarm of bees will fly a short distance from the parent colony and cluster together around the queen. Depending on the original size of the colony, a swarm can range in size from a grapefruit to the size of a large watermelon, but is typically football to basketball sized. You can see them hanging off of a tree branch or fence post, even the eave of your home or the kids swing set! They settle in calmly, while a number of the workers set about looking for a new cavity to occupy. They are incredibly docile in this state, as they have no hive (comb, stores, eggs, etc.) to defend. They are calm and happy, as they feel "prosperous". They quite simply "hang out" in a cluster. You can walk right up to them, and even touch or pet the clustered swarm. The length of time that they remain in this spot depends entirely upon what the foragers find for a suitable cavity, and can range from just a few minutes to several days. Workers that are "foraging" for a new space will check out all kinds of things, from hollow trees or abandoned appliances, to the wall of a shed or your attic. They look for a space that is relatively well protected from weather and predators, and large enough to accommodate a full size colony. When a worker has found a space that they feel is compatible to their needs, they will return to the clustered swarm, and relay the coordinates of this space to other workers, who will then go inspect the potential new site. Once a general consensus for a spot has been reached, the entire swarm will leave as a group and move to the newly chosen space. A swarm moving is quite a sight to behold, and the noise is incredible! Once they all arrive at the new hive site, they set to work cleaning up the space and rapidly building new comb for the queen to lay eggs in.
Meanwhile, back at the original hive - The first new queen emerges. She has some decisions to make immediately. "Is it still very crowded? Are there plenty of stores? Is there empty comb ready to be filled with eggs? She may decide to leave with another (typically smaller) swarm and repeat the above process. If she decides to stay, she will spend the next few days going through the hive to locate and kill any remaining queens before they have a chance to hatch out. During this time, her wings stretch out and dry, and her exoskeleton hardens, in preparation to go on mating flights. Once she is well mated, she will return to the hive and begin laying eggs, never to leave the hive again until the next swarm season.
Spring feeding in Alaska brings us challenges. I like to use Feeding Shims with Ziploc Bags, as I feel it's a guaranteed way to get warm syrup into the brood nest regardless of what Mother Nature is throwing at us. One of the hazards with using a feeding shim is burr comb. Burr comb is any comb in a hive that is not placed on the face of the foundation. It is a waste of resources, and must be removed. If allowed to continue, they will add to it, eventually making your frames unmoveable. Feeding shims give the bees access to open spaces. Sometimes, instead of going into the brood box to build comb, the girls decide to utilize the free space in a shim. I find this occurs much more frequently when you have brand new foundation in the brood box, as opposed to drawn comb. I use 1"x2" Select Pine, which actually measures 1"x1 1/2". Basically, a shim is a box on top of your deep brood box, but it's only 1 1/2" tall. This gives them enough room to feed from the top of a one gallon Ziploc bag with just enough bee space, and no extra room. Extra space around the Ziplocs is great for placing your queen cage, as hanging her between frames can be dangerous. The combination of the queen laying on top of the frames, next to the feed, in free space is sometimes too tempting to resist, and they will start building burr comb. Deeper shims (such as a medium or deep brood box) are even more of an invitation to build burr. If I find that burr is being built in the feeding shim, I remove it and try to take up most of the empty space. This can be done by adding additional sugar bags, or empty bags half full of air. I have used pieces of scrap wood, even bricks! The point is to take up the empty space in order to convince the bees that there isn't enough room up top to start their brood nest, and force them down onto the frames. Make sure that you leave them access to the top of the Ziploc!
This is how I go about removing burr comb.
This is an experimental prototype hive with an equivalent of a medium hive body for a feeding shim. Although there is drawn comb underneath, they decided to start building up top instead.
In this situation, if there is comb being built, the queen is usually laying her first eggs there. Very carefully and gently brush the bees off of the comb, letting them drop into the brood box. Keep a close eye out for the queen! If you see her, gently move her into the brood box. She typically can't fly when she is in egg laying mode as her abdomen is heavy and distended. I did not spot the queen during this process, but as you can see in the last pic, she was clearly laying. I changed the configuration on this hive in order to remove this empty space, and will re-check in a week or so to make sure she is laying eggs down in the frames.
Get yourself a coffee can or bucket for any wax that you scrape throughout the year, it's pretty incredible stuff!
Often in the Spring, I get frantic calls about beekeepers thinking they're Queenless. Many don't see eggs right away, and get frantic searching for the queen. Personally, I don't look for the queen, just fresh eggs. Eggs can be very hard to spot, even if you have good eyes. This can be even more difficult if the fresh (white) eggs are on newly drawn white comb. I do my first hive checks about 10 days after hiving. Up until that point, I just check to make sure that the colony is consistently taking in syrup, that the queen is released within a few days, and that they are not building Burr Comb.
When checking for eggs in the spring, I don't pull all of the frames. It's pretty chilly outside, and I want to get them closed back up quickly, without chilling the young brood. When the queen begins laying, she will start in a circular pattern directly in the center of where the workers are clustered. I start by removing one of the outer frames that they are not clustered on, and setting it aside. I then use this extra space to split the brood nest down the center. I have removed 1 frame, leaving 9 in the box.
Say the bees are mainly clustered on frames 3-8. I would gently slide frames 6-9 to the far side of the box, leaving a gap in the center. If my queen is laying, she should have started on frame 5 or 6, so this is where I start looking. I slide frame 5 into the gap that I've created in the center before pulling it up. Remember your bee space every time you pull a frame! The bees will draw out comb on each frame, leaving just enough room in between for workers to pass back-to-back on the face of each frame. If you pull a frame straight up, you risk damaging workers. If the queen is halfway into a cell when you pull straight up, she can easily be damaged or killed. This is called "Rolling the Queen". Utilize that extra space every time you pull a frame, by sliding it into the open space you've created in the center. Pull frame 5, standing with the sun behind you. I gently blow in the workers right in the center of that frame. Bees do not like the smell of breath, and the workers will move away from the spot you're blowing on. I wouldn't recommend doing this without a veil! As the workers move aside, try to angle the frame so that the sun shines onto the bottom of the cells. Fresh eggs look like tiny grains of white rice, young larvae looks like a tiny white grub that is half curled in a "C" shape at the bottom of the cell. Larvae will have a milky substance puddled around them. This is Royal Jelly, secreted by worker bees, and is the larvae's first food. If I see either of these present, I quickly (and gently) replace frame 5 in it's original location, slide frames 6-9 back into place, and return frame 10. I know my queen is doing her job, and return my focus to feeding.
If I do not see either eggs or larvae, I check the other side of frame 5, and continue on to frame 6 with the same process. A magnifying glass can be very helpful. I also recommend taking pictures with your cellphone if possible. Enlarge them on your computer and you will be amazed at the details you can see, including eggs that weren't apparent. If 5 and 6 have no eggs or larvae, I will repeat the process with frames 4 and 7. If I still do not find any brood, (including taking and enlarging pictures), this colony is marked for a re-check in 4-5 days. At that time, without evidence of eggs I will introduce a new queen, but not before. Some would suggest stealing a frame of brood from a neighboring colony to give your queenless hive, and allow it to requeen themselves. I do not recommend this option in the early spring. While there may be a few drones present for mating, there likely aren't enough for getting your queen well mated. Additionally, this is the time of year where you want your colony numbers to be quickly increasing in order to reach the critical mass needed to capitalize on the Fireweed bloom. A new queen will take nearly a month to get raised, hatch, mate, and start laying. Raising a new queen will be a significant set back and detrimental to colony population in the long term.
This is a piece of burr comb that appears empty, and a close-up showing eggs.
When your package arrives in the springtime in Alaska, sometimes the weather isn't conducive to hiving immediately. These are my thoughts and opinions on caring for your girls until you can safely hive them. While honeybees can survive a week or even longer inside their package, I would NEVER recommend keeping them inside their package for more than a few days after you get them. When you receive your package, always ask your supplier what day they were packaged. Hopefully, it's only been a few days, but you want to make sure. Every single day that they remain enclosed, they will slightly deteriorate. You will notice more dead bees on the bottom of your package, and for the surviving bees, they will just be a little less healthy. I like to think of them like fragile fruit. While those grapes or tomatoes might still look ok sitting on your counter, the flavor and texture is in a continuous decline. Usually when packages arrive, there is still snow on the ground. Some years even several feet! This is ok. Sometimes, we are mid-snowstorm. This is much less ok....So we take calculated risks. We want the bees inside the hive where they can start building comb, and the queen can start laying eggs. We also don't want to accidentally kill them off by being too hasty. If it's actively snowing and blowing outside, check your forecast. (Those are never wrong!) If it appears that you will have a break in the weather sometime in the next few days, it's worth it to hold them in their package. A cement floor in an unheated garage is pretty perfect usually. You want your bees to be cool and dark, conserving their energy. This will further their lifespan. Ambient light is not that big of a deal, but you do not want direct sunlight on your package. Temperatures between 40-50F are ideal. The bees create their own heat, and keep each other warm in their cluster inside the package. If they are too warm, you will notice that they are much more active inside their package. You will see them running around on the screen and spreading out. You'll also notice that their "buzz" is louder. This will hasten their deterioration. They will expend more energy, and consume more feed, leading to fuller guts. You want to see them in a nice tight cluster, and hear a gentle buzz. Remember that package bees are already stressed out. By the time they get to you, they have been shaken out of their parent colonies, mixed with workers from other colonies, dumped into a box, given fake food, and had a new queen introduced to them that doesn't smell right. Then they get trucked to an airport and take a plane ride or two, while being handled by non-beekeepers who are typically scared of them and/or don't understand their basic needs at that stage. Have you ever watched baggage handlers? Eeek! After being picked up from the airport there is typically a road trip for them, sometimes multiple. They came from 70-80F weather, and will be lucky to ever see those temps again in their lifetime....My point is, we want to stress them as little as possible. Cool and dark, cool and dark! On that note, please do not put them in a box or tote with a lid on them! They generate an amazing amount of heat on their own. Air flow IS A MUST, even if it means letting in some light.
Package bees will arrive in Anchorage and Fairbanks on the afternoon of April 22nd. Sarah will be flying into Anchorage with Southcentral packages, Wigi will be flying into Fairbanks with interior packages. Distribution will begin as soon as possible, and dependent upon cargo handling times. Sarah and Wigi will be updating the Sarah's Alaska Honey Facebook Page with regional delivery updates as we have them.
The bees will be arriving between 3 PM and 5 PM. It takes some time for the bees to be unloaded from the plane, and then loaded into vans for distribution. The times listed below are our best guess of the times that bees will be available for pickup.
Here are the delivery times and locations:
Sarah will be distributing bees from Wigi's home in Sand Lake, starting at 4:30 PM April 22. The address is 3136 W. 64th Avenue, Anchorage, 99502. Here are the pickup times:
Crystal will be gathering the bees for the valley and driving them out for distribution. Don't expect any pickups before 5:30 PM, April 22nd. Watch for updates on Facebook. She will have your contact info, and you will get a text or email with her phone number. Please be respectful of her timing needs to meet others, and feel free to toss some gas money her way as she is delivering all the way to Trapper Creek. Thank You Crystal!
Wigi will be distributing bees in Fairbanks starting around 7 PM on April 22nd. The pickup address is 988 Ballaine Road, Fairbanks, 99709. This is the same location that beginner classes were held. Here are the pickup times:
Sarah will begin distribution of packages Tuesday morning, Here is the schedule:
On the day of pickup, the best way to get updates on our schedule is to check on our Facebook Page. As we have more information about pickups, including any possible schedule changes, it will be posted here first. Please keep in mind that this is an incredibly busy time, and activities are not always conducive to reading texts, checking voicemails, or answering phones. Safe and efficient delivery is our focus. If you have any kind of specific needs as far as package delivery, please reach out before this timeframe if at all possible. If you do need to reach us by phone or text, here is the contact info:
Package delivery dates are not yet set. We are aiming for the first half of April, and will be able to dial in closer on those specifics over the coming weeks. This year we will be bringing in the same Carniolan genetics as last year- as well as the Quebecs. All packages will be 4 pounds, all queens will be marked! Price for either strain will be $220. Extra queens are $35. This price is subject to increase! While we do not anticipate this happening, it is possible. Any orders paid in full previous to price increase will not have additional charges. Please order and pay for your bees as early as possible.
This year we are having a drawing. For every package purchased, your name/number will go into a bucket. For every 100 packages purchased, we will draw a ticket from the bucket. The winner will receive either an additional free package, or their payment refunded - whichever they choose. Undrawn tickets will remain in the jar for the next ticket pull.
There is a 3% card processing fee for in-store and online orders. Manual card processing (if you email me your info and I run your card) fees are 5%
The most cost-effective way to place your order is to stop by our store at 12498 Kenai Spur Hwy #3, or mail a check or money order to;
Sarah's Alaska Honey
33735 Gas Well Rd
Soldotna, AK 99669
Please feel free to call/text/email with any questions.
Follow us on Facebook!
Okay, so maybe it's not Spring yet, but it sounds a whole lot better than "Will this bitter cold ever end?", or "30 below zero on a Dark January Day". Cold or not, Spring will be here before we know it, and it's time to start planning ahead. We have some exciting changes coming up!
After 14 years of constructing complete hives for folks from Seward to Fairbanks, we will be scaling back significantly. Previously, we have spent several months at a time every spring working very long days in order to fulfill this need. Sadly, the cost of purchasing wood locally is now more expensive than ordering pre-cut hive parts and pieces. We will continue to build some hives locally, but they will be at premium prices. We will be bringing in large quantities of quality woodenware starting in February, and expect to always have equipment in stock. We will continue to do custom orders, our unique Screened Bottom Boards, and finally....Pollen Traps!
There has been an increased interest in beekeeping, particularly over the last several years. As this trend continues, we strive to bring you quality products and services. This year, we are planning to bring in our own package bees directly from the lower 48. We are hoping this will help us keep our costs (and yours) down. Additionally, we are increasing the number of beginner classes, and the areas that we offer them. Currently, we have classes scheduled as follows;
Kenai -Saturday, January 21st, 2 pm. Tuesday, February 24th, 5:30 pm at Sarah's Alaska Honey Additional Kenai classes will run through March, TBA
Palmer - Saturday, January 28th, 10:45 am and 2:25 pm at MatSu College
Anchor Point - Friday, February 3rd, 5:30 pm at Anchor River Inn
Homer - Saturday, February 4th, 11 am and 3 pm at Kachemak Community Center
Anchorage - Friday, February 10th 2 pm and 6 pm. Saturday, February 11th 10 am, 1 pm, and 4 pm at Aspen Suites.
Girdwood - Saturday, February 18th 2 pm at Thriftwood.
All classes are $20 per person, or $30 per couple. RSVP's requested for Anchorage classes due to limited space.
Beginner classes run 2-3 hours and cover all of the basics of keeping bees your first year. Intermediate and hands-on classes may be offered in Kenai as the season progresses.
We are crossing our fingers for a beautiful, warm, prosperous year!
As always, please don't hesitate to call, or stop by the store at 12498 Kenai Spur Hwy #3. You can also follow Sarah's Alaska Honey on Facebook!
Feeding your girls in the spring is necessary in Alaska as there isn't typically a naturally available source of nectar when they arrive. Here's how I make sugar syrup. This recipe is easy to modify for any size batch without measuring anything!
Start with a pot that is the approximate volume of syrup you want to end up with. For small batches, use a smaller saucepan. For large batches, break out the big pot! Fill the pot about halfway full of water and bring to a boil. As soon as it starts to boil, turn the heat OFF. Dump in plain, white cane sugar while stirring until the pot is almost full. Leave enough room for stirring without slopping! Stir gently for several minutes, until the sugar has dissolved. Wait just a few minutes, then come back and stir again to help dissolve any sugar that has settled out on the bottom. Cool completely and store any excess in the refrigerator. Packages needing to build new comb will typically need more syrup, more frequently. Do not feed cold syrup to your bees, room temperature is perfect!
Here's a quick clip showing how (in my opinion) to best feed your hungry packages in the spring. The feeding shim is simply a spacer between your brood chamber and inner cover. This spacer creates room for a gallon-sized Ziploc bag of sugar syrup. I prefer this method for a few different reasons. First off, it's cheap! Secondly, and most important, the cluster keeps the syrup warm. Workers only have to travel a few inches to the top of the warm bag of syrup in order to fill up and return. With both the Boardman feeder (entrance/canning jar) and the Top-Box feeder, the syrup is far more removed from the heat of the cluster. That means bees have to leave the cluster, travel a substantial distance (minimum 8-10"), fill up on cold syrup, and then make it back to the cluster. In freezing temps, this is quite difficult. The biggest drawbacks to the Ziploc style of feeding are that you can't pour on several gallons at a time like with the top-box type feeders. You must check and refill every few days. Some packages will drain a bag in a day or two. Also, occasionally I have a package that decides they want to build comb in that extra space instead of down below. In this scenario, I scrape the comb out as soon as I notice it, and either remove the shim and feed (if they have stores down below) for a few days, or, I use sandwich bags full of syrup to take up all the extra space, so they don't have room to make burr comb.
It is very important to have a sharp razorblade on hand. After you lay the bag of syrup across your topbars, cut your first tiny slit with the razorblade. Gently press on the bag and let any air vent out. Next make a series of small slits with the razorblade across the bag. It is imperative to make these slits large enough that the bees can get syrup, but not large enough that they can fit through the holes when the bag is empty. Too big of holes, and they will crawl right inside when the bag is near empty. They will get inside, but they can't get back out. It really sucks to open a hive and find hundreds of suffocated workers inside your ziploc.
When it's time to change the bag out for a full one, it can be tricky trying not to squish bees. I hold the new bag right above the old one and lay it down as I'm pulling the empty bag from underneath. Any workers that manage to get stuck underneath anyway can be coaxed back between the topbars by carefully lifting a corner of the bag partway - just enough to lift some of the pressure off of them so they can sneak back down below.
Good luck with your new packages this year, and remember, you can always give me a call if you have any questions!
If you're on the fence about it, jump on over! The grass is about as green, but the gardens and flowers buzzing with your own personal army is amazing!
Package prices and dates have been set, and if you haven't placed your order yet, it is time!
4lb. packages will arrive April 7th and 14th. Strains available are;
AHB (Alaska Honey Bee)
WQD (Websters Queen Daughters)
NWC (New World Carniolan)
Cost is $135
Extra Queen $25
For more information http://web.mac.com/klmalone/Alaska_Honey_Bee/Package_Bees.html
5lb Packages will arrive April 20th. Strains available are;
Cost is $140
Extra Queen $23
For more information http://alaskabeeproducts.net/
Feel free to order bees from these suppliers either directly or through me. All Kenai Peninsula packages will be transported by me from Anchorage to strategic pick-up locations. I have never charged for this service, but as always, I ask folks to pitch in towards my gas if possible. This season I will be making 3 trips instead of my usual 1 big motherload. It can certainly get interesting driving the 160 miles back home with 400-plus pounds of honeybees in the Suburban! (Code-name "The Stinger")
Please don't wait until you pick up your bees to ask for equipment! If you get down to the wire, I may be able to work something out for you, but I really need a heads up if you're planning on ordering hives from me. As always, these hives are completely cut and assembled in small runs right here in my garage! I may or may not have extra's on hand when bees arrive. Remember, quality IS guaranteed!
For equipment orders on the Peninsula, drop-off and/or pick-up is usually the best option. Shipping to other areas of Alaska is quite reasonable, but varies depending on your order.
As always, please don't hesitate to call me with your bee or equipment orders as well as any questions you might have.....or just to chat about bees!