Monday, August 11, 2014

Beekeeping: A Short, Cautionary Tale, From a Beginner

In recent weeks I have thought of the need to add a 5th box to the bee hive; I have been seeing many bees congregating at the hive entrance, and was worrying that they might have expanded to fill the available volume, and bee looking to swarm.  Since Nathan was around as an able assistant, having helped me to add the 3rd and 4th boxes back in June, the time to add the 5th box had come. After adding the 3rd and 4th boxes, I summarized the event in a blog post by stating, "The process of adding the boxes went more smoothly than I probably had any right to expect; it was executed without incident."  As it turns out, I indeed did not have any right to expect that it would go so smoothly.

Nathan and I assembled the necessary materials; the 5th hive box with top bars, a bee brush, the sugar-water spray, and a hive tool, suited up, and headed for the hive.  I took off the roof of the hive, leaving the quilt and 4 boxes sitting on the hive floor.  Nathan sprayed the bees at the entrance lightly with the sugar-water mixture.  I was worried about how heavy the hive would be.  When using a Langstroth hive, additional hive boxes are typically added above existing boxes, however with a Warré hive the new box(es) are added below the existing boxes.  Of course this requires that the existing boxes be lifted off of the floor to enable the addition of the new box(es).  And by now I expected those boxes to be full of comb and honey.  Keep in mind that honey is heavy, while water weighs 8.3 lbs. per gallon, honey weighs 12 lbs per gallon.  In the four existing boxes there could easily have been 80 to 100 lbs. of bees, comb, brood, and honey.  Of course the consequences of dropping the hive while attempting the move it, is not something I enjoy imagining.  Fortunately the hive did not seem to weigh more than 50 or 60 lbs., although my sense of the weight might have been off substantially, as I was more than a bit distracted.  No sooner had I lifted the hive off of the floor than the bees attacked with a vengeance.  With 50 or 60 lbs. of hive in my hands, I was unable to defend myself, or even to run for my life, so in short order I took four stings to the head and two to my right leg, but who's counting.  The bees were exceedingly unhappy with me, and would not let up in their defense of the colony.  Six of them made the ultimate sacrifice.  I went ahead, with great haste, and looked into box 4 to see if it was full of comb.  Box 4 was unexpectedly found to be empty of comb, so as quickly as prudence would allow, I replaced the hive on the floor, returning the colony to its original arrangement, without having added the 5th box.  After putting some distance between ourselves and the hive, Nathan and I discussed the need to put the roof back on the hive.  I thought it would be no problem, because with the quilt in place the hive is closed up, from the bees point of view.  I got within about 30 or 40 feet before they renewed their attack.  Discretion being the better part of valor, Nathan replaced the roof on the hive.

A reasonable person might ask, "well, dummy, how is it that you got stung with the bee suit on?"  And, that would be a great question.  The answer is that I did not properly don the bee suit, while Nathan did, and he escaped unscathed. In short, the top of my head was exposed, and there was another vulnerability in my preparations where the bee suit met my boots (see picture below).

I got lucky at the June install of boxes 3 and 4

The picture is from the June install of boxes 3 and 4, and it is exactly as I was also ill-prepared for the install of box 5.  If I had been wearing a hat, and if I had better secured my pant legs at my boots, I would not have been stung. Still, I was amazed at how quickly the bees found the gaps in my protection; it took only seconds, and very few of those.

By the time we got back the house Geri had two Benedryl capsules at the ready, and I took them immediately.  Then I asked her to get her tweezers, which she did, and she pulled four stingers out of my head, while Nathan pointed out where he had seen bees burrowing into my hair, and another two out of my right leg, just above my boot.  I do not know if pulling the stingers out is supposed to help, intuitively it seems like the right thing to do, but I do know that within a half hour I felt just fine.  Aside from a little itching, there has been no lasting discomfort.

All involved got a large dose of adrenalin for the day.  Which reminds me, we have stocked our medicine cabinet with two EpiPens to treat anaphylaxis if necessary (Epi is short for epinephrine, which is another word for adrenalin).  Obviously I am not allergic to bee stings, but we occasionally have guests who are, and it seems like a good idea for beekeepers to have EpiPens available.

Another lesson learned is that I need to find a mechanically advantaged method for lifting the hive off of the floor, it is simply too risky to be doing it by hand.  I could easily have panicked and dropped the hive boxes full of honey and bees.  I will be doing some research on how others are adding boxes to their Warré hives.  More generally speaking, it was yet another humbling reminder of how much I have to learn.

Did you know?  "...about 50 U.S. physicians report good results using <bee venom> to treat not only pain but arthritic conditions, multiple sclerosis, and other health woes."

Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.

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-- John, 11 August 2014

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Home Improvement - Heat Loss Prevention

Last winter, our use of propane was exorbitant, and with propane prices high and climbing, and availability limited, the situation presented real financial hardship for many.  Fortunately, Geri had locked in low propane prices when we moved in, otherwise it would have been literally twice as painful to absorb the cost.  In two deliveries, we put almost 1,600 gallons of propane in our 1,000 gallon tank, between December and February.

One day in mid-February, I was walking towards the back of the house, and with fresh snow on the ground, it was a beautiful scene; I took the picture below, and almost instantly recognized that something was very wrong.  As you can see, there is much less snow on the left half of the roof, than on the right half; this was absolutely counter-intuitive, because the right end of the roof is over a vaulted ceiling, and the left end is over an attic.  You can see actually see where the roof rafters are on the left end, by the effect of the insulation they provide to the roof deck.  I had fully expected to lose more heat through the vaulted ceiling, though obviously this was not the case.  The attic is sufficiently well insulated.  I had already corrected one major problem in the attic, that being that insulation had been stuffed down into the soffits, preventing air flow from the soffit vents to the ridge vent, resulting in high temperatures and excessive moisture in the attic.  The attic fan was controlled by a thermostat set for 105 deg. F, and a humidistat set for 35% relative humidity; it ran almost non-stop in the summer.  I removed the insulation from the soffits, and installed soffit baffles to ensure good air flow under the roof deck from soffit vents to ridge vent.  Additionally, the floor of the attic is decked with plywood, and there were four access holes cut through the decking to can-lights below; I removed the backing from fiberglass insulation to prevent fire, and laid about 18 inches of insulation over the can lights.  Clearly though, there was another problem, or problems.

Back of the house, mid-February 2014

After a bit more investigation, it seemed clear to me that a large part of the problem must be the ladder access to the attic from an interior hallway.  Also in the picture above, just to the left of dead center, at the peak of the roof, you can see that the shingles are actually exposed; that area is directly above the attic access ladder.  The structure of the pull-down ladder was not insulated, and not only was there no seal around the ladder when stowed in the up position, there was no easy way of rectifying that particular problem.  The solution I have had in mind for months was to put some sort of
Ladder access to attic
insulated box on the attic floor, over the ladder when it is in the up position.  (In the up position, the folded ladder protrudes about 8 inches above the attic floor.)  When ascending the steps then, the box would be hinged on one side so that it could be push up and over, out of the way.  When descending the ladder, the box would simply be pulled over the opening, before stowing the ladder.  I had made a few measurements, and also discussed the proposed solution with a couple of friends; it is always a could idea to get at least a second opinion, if not more.  This was a good project for a cool, rainy day.

At first I visualized a thin plywood box, lined with 2-4 inches of "blue board" insulation.  More recently, as in the night before construction was to begin, I decided it might be easier to construct the "box" as a framework of 1 x 2's, and that is what we built.
Completed box frame
My good friend Nathan came by, and suggested that we construct the walls of the box as stud walls are constructed, which was a wonderful idea, and really simplified the process.  In addition to the five 10 ft. 1 x 2's, we used 1-3/4 inch and 2 inch finish nails, and glue, in the construction.  With the box frame complete, we then laid in two layers of 1.5 inch thick, R-7.5, foam board.  The foam board is secured to the frame with construction adhesive.  The outside dimensions of the box are 5 ft. 9 in. L x 3 ft. 4-1/2 in. W x 13-1/2 in. H, allowing room for the folded ladder, after the 3 inches of foam board are attached to all interior surfaces.

We then centered the box over the opening, and marked the floor of the attic for hinge attachment.  Thanks to the stick-frame construction, the box is surprisingly light and easy to maneuver.  I do not suppose this is the most elegant solution that could have been devised, but it is simple and effective; I am confident that it will significantly reduce heat loss through attic.

Insulation installation in progress
View of box interior from bottom of ladder
I would encourage everyone to have a critical look into attics, and other possible escape routes of warm air from the house.  For example, bathroom or microwave/range hood vents that terminate in the attic, or pass through the roof or a wall.  The warm air is simply looking for the path of least resistance to climb, as we know heat rises.  Those examples I just mentioned are future projects at the homestead; a bathroom vent that terminates in an attic, and a microwave/range hood vent that passes through roof.

Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.

 Please "follow" the blog by clicking on "g+ Follow," or by e-mail at  "Follow by Email."   Also, "Like" us on Facebook at

-- John, 03 August 2014