Those Stinkin’ Skunks

As I mentioned previously, a skunk has been visiting my apiary at North Cooking Lake for the past few months. I’ve trapped two skunks so hopefully my yard is now skunk-free.

I first noticed them back in late winter. There were small tracks in the snow around the hives. I knew there was a fox around so I assumed they were small fox tracks (oh, I should have looked more closely!). But then one evening I wandered by the beeyard and interrupted a skunk at one of the hives! I realized I had been seeing skunk tracks, not small fox tracks! They’ve been pestering four hives in particular and the attitude of the bees have changed dramatically.  The skunks keep knocking off my entrance reducers, which is how I can tell which hives they are visiting and how frequently, and eating the bees when they come out to defend their hive. Now when I go near these hives or open them up, the bees are very aggressive and attacking me much more than the other hives. The skunks have got to go!

But how does one get rid of skunks in a beeyard? I’ve been trapping them and releasing them far away my farm in an area far from any other houses. I have a lot of experience with small mammel trapping so I’m quite comfortable with this method. So far I’ve trapped two and neither has sprayed while in the trap nor while being released. Other techniques I’ve heard for getting rid of skunks:

-electric fencing strung about three inches off the ground around the bee yard.

-wood frames covered with chicken wire placed in front of each hive. The idea is that the skunk can’t walk on the chicken wire. A similar idea to texas gates for cattle. I’m going to try this if I have more than two skunks.

-CritterGitters. A battery-operated device that emits an obnoxious noise when an animal’s movement or heat activates it. I haven’t tried this but if I have anymore skunks I’m going to get one of these too.

-Shoot it. This is the default option everyone immediatly suggests when they hear I have a skunk. However, it’s more difficult than it sounds! Apparently they stink like crazy if you don’t instantly kill them and I don’t want my beeyard stinking for years. And how am I supposed to find and shoot a skunk outside of my beeyard? And I don’t want to kill the skunk, I just want it out of my beeyard.

-Strichnine. Really??!! I read Robyn Davidson’s book Tracks a number of years ago and believe me, anyone who has made it to the end of that book will never in a million years consider using strichnine. It’s a horrible way to die, not to mention that’s it’s also an illegal substance.

And those are all the suggestions I’ve had for getting rid of skunks. Trapping is working for me but it’s a bit time consuming. It’s taken me about twleve nights of setting traps to catch two skunks. Both have taken a really long time to leave the trap when I’ve released them. I think they’d rather stay holed up in the trap for the day (because they’re nocturnal) than venture out into broad daylight in a strange area. It’s taken them each 1.5-2 hours to leave the trap once I’ve opened the door. So I think a combination of methods is best- put out chicken wire frames and trap them? If trapping doesn’t work or you can’t find a trap to use, try critter gitters. The nice thing about the traps is the skunk is gone once you get it, as opposed to being deterred but still around for when the frames or critter gitters are removed.

The Dead Hive Mystery, Part 2.

A few weeks ago I posted that my favorite hive, the one that made lots of honey last year, had died over the winter. At the time I didn’t have a good idea of what happened. My best guess was that the bees got dysentry, possibly from eating fermented sugar syrup. I think I’ve now come up with a better guess of what happened, thanks to the help of a couple of bee folks who know way more than I do.

Apparently fermeneted sugar syrup was probably not the problem because that would have made them sick right away, when they initially digested the syrup while filling the combs for the winter. Judging by how little food they ate from the combs, they probably died in November, so they made it past any bad syrup I may have fed them.

There is another salient observation about the hive: the cluster was split into two groups, one on the left side of the top box and another on the right side of the lower box. Apparently this is fairly unusual and indicative of a problem with the queen.

The folks-who-know-more-than-me wouldn’t even guess at what killed the colony until I mentioned the hive had been superceding in the fall. Sometimes a hive isn’t happy with their queen. When this happens, they will start rearing another queen, which is called superceding. This doesn’t always work and if the old queen is dying when the supercedure fails, the colony can end up without a queen. Without her pheremones to keep all the bees together and organized, the hive will die over the winter. I’ve been told those two pieces of information- the attempted supercedure in the fall and the split cluster in the hive- indicate there’s a pretty good chance the colony died because it was queenless.

Although sad, it’s good to know the colony probably didn’t die from a disease that I mis-managed. If I had more experience I may have noticed they were queenless going into winter but who knows. And I still don’t know for sure that’s what happened but it’s the best guess I have right now.

For those who are interested, the other hive is still doing really well. They’ve been bringing in lots of pollen so everything looks great.

And in a couple weeks I will be welcoming five new hives to the Beanstalk! I’ll post about their arrival when the time comes. I’ll have six or seven hives this summer, which probably won’t be enough to provide everyone who would like honey with some, but with my level of experience I’m cautious about getting much more than that.

And then there are the vegetables

My winter planning is continuing, although it is now becoming spring planning. I’ve had some feedback that my “thoughts on sustainable agriculture” post was depressing. I didn’t mean it to be sad, just realistic.

However, I feel I need to follow-up on that post. At the time of its writing, I had been planning on leaving the vegetables to concentrate more on honey. Vegetables are a lot of work and worry for very little profit, if any. But as the weather has been warming up I’ve realized I love growing vegetables. This will only be my fourth year but already I don’t know what to do with my spring if I’m not planning for my vegetable fields. Maybe I’m spring-crazed or maybe it’s because the hours at my other job are reduced for April and I suddenly have more time, but I don’t care anymore what my returns are for vegetable production. It’s just so wonderful to be growing veggies for people, spending time in the dirt, with only the birds calling in the trees and my dog lying on the compost pile watching everything I do.

So I will be growing all sorts of vegetables again this year. I even have a market stall at a market in Edmonton, which means you’ll be able to easily access my farm’s products! I won’t tell you where yet because it’s not 100% confirmed.

On a slightly different train of thought, I went to a market gardening workshop in September on Salt Spring Island. One sentence really stuck with me- “nobody should be growing vegetables for other people. Everyone should be growing their own vegetables. Farmers should be growing meat, eggs, honey and other livestock products that urban people do not have the space nor permission to produce.” Not all urban folks can grow their own vegetables either, but this is a sentiment I agree with. Everyone who has the interest, space and capability should have their own garden. I will try to integrate this idea into my farm however I can. I’m still thinking on ways I can do so.

(And about not being allowed to keep chickens or honey bees in the city-  just do it anyway! Bylaws shouldn’t be allowed to dictate our ability to be food secure.) But I didn’t say that. Nor do I keep chickens in town…

The Dead Hive Mystery

The weather has been warm and sunny for the last few days. Coincidentally, I’m also working fewer hours at my day job so I had an opportunity to check my hives yesterday. I’ve known for a few weeks that one of my hives died and that one was still alive. But yesterday I took the time to open up the dead hive to see what happened. Here is what I saw:

Dead Hive

Before I explain the photo, I will describe how bees overwinter. Bees do not hibernate- they remain active all winter, eating honey to give them energy and shivering to stay warm. They form a tight ball, or cluster, to conserve heat. In the centre of the cluster the temperature is usually around 32C. Beekeepers often put insulation around the hives so the bees do not need to work as hard to stay warm and to protect from sudden swings in temperature. Bees can go a long time without defecating in the winter, but they need to take cleansing flights occassionally. Defecating in the hive is unsanitary and can spread diseases so honey bees will not do it unless something is wrong.

Successfully overwintering a hive is the most challenging part of beekeeping (in my opinion). If a colony is in tip-top shape, with plenty of bees, plenty of food, and no illnesses or weakened immune systems, and if the winter weather is favourable, a colony will live. If one or two of those variables are not optimal, the chances of a colony surviving winter are lessened.

And now to the photo. All those brown specks are bee poo, which should not be in the hive. You can see the remnants of the frozen cluster in the upper left, just beside the shadow. I didn’t take off the top box to look at the bottom one; the cluster may extend down and become larger. To my surprise, there was lots of honey still in the combs. I had assumed they had starved but apparently something else happened. There were also many dead bees immediately outside the hive. Figuring out what went wrong is a bit like a detective mystery.

My best guess is that the bees got dysentry. Dysentry is not a disease in itself, it is symptom. It simply means the bees got diarrhea because they were eating something that was hard for them to digest. The sugar syrup I fed them this fall to help them build up their winter food stores may have fermented, which can cause dysentry.

But that’s just a guess. I’m not really sure what happened. I was also surprised that there were so many bee parts, rather than whole dead bees. Maybe the bees were carrying dead bees out of the hive and in the process the bees were falling apart, being frozen and brittle. If anyone has any suggestions on what happened to my hive over the winter feel free to leave a comment.