Spring in the bee yard: Is there any better time of year? Here in the Pacific Northwest, we had a loooong winter with much dreariness, but only a couple events of cold, ice, and snow.
Last autumn, I found myself with four thriving hives: Three in straw, and one in my last top bar hive. I lost a few swarms that were not able to re queen, but the hives that survived went into winter bigger and more active any any hives of mine in the past. So, I crossed my fingers…
By March, all four hives were busy and building up rapidly! The weather remained really wet all through our first blooms, so I set out bowls of comb honey in my covered Beethedral so that the bees could all get to food no matter the weather.
I would not leave bowls in the open yard later in the summer, but in early spring, when the hives first get their legs back beneath them, I’ve never had a problem with robbing, or a bee-feeding-frenzy at the honey dish.
This past winter, I wove three new skeps, all of them two full inches thick. They are lumpy, and when cloaked with cow manure, ash, and clay to protect them from UV damage, look a bit like Jabba the Hut. Or a huge bot fly larvae.
Once they were done, I sprayed the insides with wax/propolis water that I save from my wax melting. I added a few bamboo rods through them to provide extra support for the free-hanging combs, but in these smaller hives, I really don’t even think that’s necessary.
Next, I spent a few weeks putting together three new eco-boxes. I had a few old Langstroth deeps laying around, so I boarded up the bottom, and put a large square of wood on top, into which I’d cut a 12” round. When the skep sits on top, the bees have access to the box, which I keep half-filled with garden mulch and sticks to provide a home to beneficial insects and organisms within the hive.
The eco-boxes are home to ant colonies, which give off formic acid when they die. Formic acid is one of the chemicals used to treat varroa, so I just let the ants provide the real thing. Also in the eco-floors are pillbug, springtails, lots of earwigs, spider eggs, and wax moths. The bees seem happy with all these neighbors. I also cut a small door in the front of the boxes so I can add food if needed, and I can snap quick photos of the building process with my phone, so no need to tip up the skep and poke around. Last fall, when the hops plants were flowering and fragrant, I put handfuls of the vine inside the eco-floors. Hops, also, is a mite treatment. I’ve heard that mints are also mite deterrents, so I’ll probably throw fresh handfuls of that in this summer, also. I have no idea of any of this helps, but I figure it can’t hurt.
Two of my skeps swarmed just this past week and settled low in my neighbor’s yard. They swarmed within five minutes of each other, so there was a lot of excitement in the sky as they sorted themselves out. Eventually Feather (my SunHive and the first to swarm) settled in a low butterfly bush, and Gobnait found a place she liked covering four fence boards.
Neither was an easy gather, but both are now settled in to their new skeps and bringing in the first bits of pollen after only two days in their new hives.
Two of my colonies are three years old this spring, and both are showing signs of deformed wing virus. The top bar hive, RainTree, is especially hard hit, and she is tossing between 10 to 20 deformed bees and bee larvae out of her hive each night. This has been going on for about three weeks now. Gobnait, too, as a few bees with the virus.
I’m a treatment-free bee tender, and this is a scary time for me. I know I have to let the bees sort this out themselves, but my concern is high for them. Conventional keepers say that untreated hives will crash by the third year, and are especially hit with mites in the third year. I am hoping that frequent swarming this spring will help them overcome this problem.
I’m very new to skeps, and learning as I go. This spring, for example, I discovered that if I don’t put screen between the skep and the eco-box, they are happy to build all the way down into the box and fill it with honey. So, I made screens for the new skeps!
I also discovered that the interior of the hive will grow mold in the winter if the bees have not filled it out completely. One of my colonies—a very late summer swarm—had left about a quarter of the north side of the colony empty, and this spring, I noticed some fine white mold on the side. But they’ve cleaned it up and built out the entire hive now, so the mold problems are done.
This coming autumn I’ll be attending the international natural beekeeping conference in Holland. Tom Seeley is the featured speaker, and I’m thrilled to be able to hear him talk about bees and how to best care for them. But I’m even more excited to be meeting bee folk with skep apiaries! I’ve even been invited to the home of one lovely man who has offered to teach me how to up my weaving skills! And we’ll be visiting a commercial skep apiary before the conference starts.
So far, the only skeps I’ve ever seen in the “flesh” are mine, and I have no doubt that my bee tending skills will jump up many notches thanks to this incredible opportunity the bees have brought to me! Who’d have thought I’d be “skepping” with the pros this year!
This fall, after my return from Holland, I hope to offer a couple of skep making classes. I’m growing my own grasses now, though it will take a few years for them to offer up enough straw to make a hive or two.
I’ll also be rehoming my last top bar hive with a friend. I just don’t want to play with wood hives anymore, unless they are logs! Nope, its skeps for me from now on!