Back at it again
October 16, 2013
Home again. It's always interesting to go back and read the column from the previous week before I start another, I often read things, little details, that are already fading away and I remind myself that putting your thoughts and observations down at the moment is important to keep from losing them. Even though it has just been a few days the Mendocino Coast seems a long way away.
We got an early start from Koehnen's, the bees were ready to go and we loaded Wednesday morning and headed east. Because of the early start we saw parts of Nevada we would usually have been traveling through in the dark. It was more or less clear sailing coming home, with some pretty strong winds from Elk Mountain east, but no snow. We'd made it to Wendover, Nevada the first day, just west of the salt flats, and were back home by 6:30 the next evening. By Friday evening nearly all of the packages had been picked up, I had all of mine hived and the next afternoon I released the queens.
The queen is in a separate little cage and while she has probably been with her package of bees long enough that she would be accepted, I like to wait until the next day to turn her loose. As long as I have the queen I have a leash on the bees, they won't leave without her. If I was to release her when I put the package in a hive, they might, for whatever reasons, known only to them, leave. After 24 hours they've settled in, rearranged the furniture, adjusted the TV, gotten a beer out of the fridge and are at home.
Not all beekeepers feel comfortable actually releasing the queen and there is another way. There is a small hole in the end of the queen cage, the hole by which the queen was put in the cage. This hole has a small cork sealing it. A beekeeper can pop the cork and replace it with one of those miniature marshmallows, put the cage between two frames of honeycomb and within 24 hours the hive bees will have eaten through the marshmallow, releasing the queen.
I like to release the queen so she isn't caged any longer than necessary, so she can be out and laying, but there are some minor hazards. You have to be careful not to injure the queen, and every so often you will get a queen that wants to fly. I release them by pulling the staple that holds one end of the small screen that covers one side of the little cage, then hold the cage down just above two frames of comb I've separated to give a larger opening and then I bend the screen back. This is potential problem number one, because if the screen slips from your fingers it has enough spring in it to snap back and it can whack the queen just as she emerges.
The biggest problem though is a flyer, a queen that wants to hit the air. There is no way to predict this. While the vast majority of the queens will quietly slip down into the hive, every once in a while one will take off. I'll usually try to follow the queen's flight with my eye, but most often I lose sight. I will leave the top of the hive open in the hope that she will circle around and return, but often she may come back and I will miss seeing her. Eventually I have to just hope for the best, put the top back on the hive and go on to the next. Sometimes she will return, sometimes not, but there isn't much I can do. I leave the colonies for a week to give the new queens a chance to settle in and start laying and then come back and check for eggs and young larvae, and only then will I know if the flyer returned.
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The bird population at the feeder has changed in my absence. It looks like the Goldfinches I was enjoying have moved on and the Juncos too. Where I had a dozen or more of the bright yellow males and an equal number of females it looks like I am down to a single male and no females. I suspect they have all moved on to set up nesting territories, so maybe the male is my summer Goldfinch and the female is nesting somewhere close. I've seen a Scrub Jay or Pinyon Jay, a rare visitor, and a small flock of Grackles. Grackles used to come in much larger flocks and they were a problem at the feeder, they are flying little pigs and they waste a lot of feed. I debated for a while about what to do with them and finally decided on dog food pellets and a sling shot. The dog food pellets have a fairly good projectory up to about 20 feet, I rarely hit one, but got close enough to move them on and the dog food pellets would then just melt into the grass and feed the worms.
The Mason Bees are out, but in much smaller numbers than in the past and I think this is going to be a very hard spring for them. These periodic snowstorms have killed the fruit bloom, their main source of sustenance, and I think the very cold temperatures have killed many of the Mason Bees as well. They are solitary and unlike the honey bees they have no reserves to fall back on other than whatever they may have in their fat, so they can't last long without feeding. This is a good example of why we can't rely on native pollinators to take the place of honey bees. While we can exercise some degree of management and monitoring of the Mason Bees, for most of the natives we have little measure of how they are surviving from year to year and when they have a bad year we are just out of luck if we are depending on them for pollination.
When I started this column yesterday it was warm and sunny, but at dusk a light rain started and this morning before dawn it has changed to snow, with up to 10-inches predicted by nightfall. It will be a great day to do a candle run in the Honey House and that's where I'm headed. By Friday it will be back in the 60s and I'll be out checking queens. Ah, Colorado springtime. ❖