Early Autumn 2018 in the Bee Garden

So much has happened since I last wrote! The big event, of course, was my trip to Holland to attend the Natural Beekeeping Trust’s (NBKT)international conference, “Learning From The Bees.” More than 300 people from 30 countries came to speak and share about their natural beekeeping experiences and wisdom.

Conference breaks found me on the meeting room floor, working on my new skep making skills. Soon, I was joined by a dozen others, and we had some impromptu classes on the spot!

I’ll be sharing what I brought home from that conference for the next year in our Preservation Beekeeping Club meetings, and on our website, PreservationBeekeeping.com. Please follow us!

Of course, I had a special interest in skeps, which are not illegal in most places in Europe. My greatest delight of the Holland adventure was that my bee colleague Jacqueline Freeman and I were invited to stay for a few days preconference with Ferry Schutzelaars of Smart Being. He is one of the only folks I know who weaves skeps as thick as forearms, and I wanted to learn how he managed it so beautifully.

Ferry takes down one of his skeps of “sweet, gentle” bees. Notice the eco-floor beneath the hive. It also serves as a feeding box.

Before I left for Holland, I started one more of my baskets, just to see if my weaving was significantly different after learning what I christened “The Ferry Method.” Well, as you can probably see from the photos below—it really made a difference!

The start on the left is “the Clunky Susan Method,” the ones on the right are with “the Ferry Method.” And I wove them in half the time it usually takes me! Thank you, Ferry!

Basically, Ferry did everything backwards from what I was doing, plus he weaves with no frame. Thanks to his patient and excellent tutelage, I am now working on skeps I hope to make a full 3-inches fat. With no frame. Whoopee! I’m a real skepper now!

Two weeks after our return from Holland, I cut the Karl Foerster grasses for my winter weaving. I hope to get three new skeps out of the straw, but I may only manage two, since they will be ultra-thick. The grass dried beautifully!

I love this grass to weave with. It is straight, supple, and easy to cut.

So, here we are at fall’s beginning. Out of the seven hives I had when I went to Holland, five are still going very strong. Almost roaring with activity. One skep is moving along slowly with bees on only a few combs: Faith hive took a LOOOOOONG brood break midsummer, and is only now kicking back into full gear. I believed she was queenless, but I realize now she had her own agenda…

The main autumn flow around my house is English Ivy, which covers a complete small forest area just blocks from my house. It should be going into bloom just about now, and I know from past experience, my bees really stock up on this nectar late in the season.

But just to offer the help I can, I plan to feed Faith comb honey in my feeder jars until winter sets in.

Here is little Faith. She’s about half the volume of my other skeps in terms of numbers of bees. My other three skeps are built completely out with bees and comb.

My SunHive, sadly, has perished. See the little video here. I can find no evidence of disease: no punctured brood, no bees half-hatched, no spotty patterns of brood, in fact, not one cell of brood in the whole hive.

The wax in the hive is three years old now, and I am wondering if these days, bees leave their nests to get away from contaminated comb. Others with straw hives have speculated about this, too. I still have the genetics from two colonies I brought into my yard three or four years ago. None of them are in the same hives. They swarm out to another hive, and carry on.

Wing–my beautiful SunHive. Isn’t she a wonder?

I’m choosing to call this success. With swarming—which these bees do all spring and summer, over and over—there is a lot of “musical hives” going on here as mother swarms move out, casts follow, and then the mother swarm starts swarming later in the summer.

I know which bees are where because I’ve kept a journal for the past six years, which tells me where “Faith’s” swarms went—to which skep. Then, to which skep those bees went.

I’ve taken short peeks into all the skeps. Faith was the only one I opened fully. The others were so crammed with bees, so heavy, and had built comb down into the log eco-floors.

Here is what I learned this summer:

1—The skeps really do need spleets along the inside to support the comb. I had thought mine were small enough to keep the comb stable through side attachments only, but I’m wrong. They are scary-wobbly when you tip them up, so all my new skeps will have three coming down parallel on each side.

2—Eco-floors are imperative! It was reinforced to us in Holland that bees in tree nest live with up to 8,000 beneficial creatures and organisms. None of these find safe harbor in our crappy wooden box hives. Many can snuggle into the straw cracks in a skep, but even better is to place a box beneath the hive filled with wood, straw, and mulch. And the wood is best cut in thin rounds, to expose the fibers in a way that absorbs the most moisture.

These are between 6-8-inches tall. I’ll need to add feeder jars and screens and bottoms.

I converted over to using short, hollow log rounds for the eco-floors, and I drill a hole through the log, to which I screw a mason jar lid. I can use a mason jar, then, for feeding! This method can work on any hive, and it works GREAT!

I get the logs from a local small wood mill only a mile or so from where I live. I also petition my neighbors for any hollow logs they come across. So far, I’ve had no trouble in finding all the logs I want or need.

Faith with her sock covered feeder jar.

3—About that eco-floor. You really do need to screen it from the top, or the bees will build all the way down past the bottom of the skep. This is not a problem unless you like to be able to occasionally tip the skep and see what’s going on. Next summer, I’m going to use screen that bees can’t crawl through, but make them a nice 3X3 hole in the screen so they can access (and propolize) the mulch floor.

Feeder jar in action!

4—I may make my skeps slightly smaller this year. Because I weave them so fat and so tight, they are quite heavy. I also plan to have my metal working friend, Angel, make me a half-round metal frame I can hinge onto the eco-floor and use to tilt the skep back and hold it steady so I can see inside when needed.

5—I learned about pseudo scorpions, or book scorpions, while in Holland. These tiny creatures eat mites, small hive beetle eggs and larvae, and wax moth eggs and larvae. They have been symbionts of the bees for millions of years. They exist on every populated continent. But they are considered now extinct in our managed hives because they simply can’t survive the cold, sterile environment. Researcher Torben Schiffer of BeeNature has created a booklet telling how to find, raise, and install these little bee friends into a hive.

My bee club is really excited about this, and a few of us are going to become scorpion hunters this spring and see if we can start a small breeding program. Maybe this little arthropod is the “magic bullet” for bee resiliency we’ve been looking for. Who knows? I’ll keep you posted.

6—This spring, I’m going to pour a cup of beeswax into the top of each skep to make their wax building a bit easier. I also hope to use my new skeps as “bait hives,” setting them in trees in my yard to see if the swarming bees will enter them on their own. I’ll have to cover them with something to protect them from spring rains. Perhaps I can use umbrellas!

My skep classes are filled for the winter, and next spring we have a strong plan for some serious grass gathering so I can offer more classes next year. Perhaps soon there will be fat skeps all up and down the west coast, filled with happy bees and little book scorpions.

Oh, and I got a bee tattoo! And old wooden hives make really good planter boxes…


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