Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Before and After, Part 2: After

brood from twainBoth hives have brood, bees to be. I am so grateful, relieved, and embarrassed to find myself in such a weirdly opposite place to my last post. I also need a shower.

The bees actually seemed quieter when I got up to the roof, ominously so it appeared. "Maybe so many have died?" I wondered... To work with them, I hauled smoker, lighter, fuel, tools, bee brush, an empty hive body, an extra set of baggy PJ bottoms to wear over my jeans, gloves, sheets of old fabric to cover open colonies and prevent robbing...

Oh I just hauled up everything I could think of, to put off what seemed like the inevitable.

I loaded up my smoker for bear, using sisal twine and some well-washed cotton scraps to get things started this time: I figured I might be working for a while, and I needed a reliable source. I smoked the bees a bit, and then postponed a bit more by gathering up the dirty roof coverings for cleaning, sweeping up debris, moving plant pots.

Then I went in. The feeder in Twain was stuck to the frames in the deep hive body below, requiring all sorts of prying. The worker bees stayed remarkably calm through all this. I removed the feeder, and then carefully took off every honey super, a total of three mediums and a deep, all of which weighed a ton. Then I arrived at the two medium boxes at the bottom, where the brood should bee.

The first frame I pulled out was full of honey on one side, pollen on the other. Not good but not really meaningful. The next was honey with empty brood cells. Gulp.

But the next was the lovely frame with capped brood that is featured above! Hurray! I did not see eggs or larvae on this frame, but I opted to close and assume the best for the bottom box, since squashing queens and otherwise committing beekeeper errors is such a high probability and source of nightmares (complete with sound track). Also bees at my feet began to fight, and I wanted that to Stop Right Now.

I carefully put the colony back together, taking a bit of time to scrape off the bits of beeswax that were sticking frames to feeder: the bees really hated that, but I would be extremely unlikely to be able to remove it later if I let them continue. I set the beeswax aside, and then turned to look at Wilde.

I did not want to go in.

There could be a handful of reasons, all of which would be excuses:
  1. I was tired and clumsy and sweaty;
  2. The Italian bees in Twain had a history of robbing the Carniolans in Wilde, and the former were already fighting and riled up:
  3. Twain for sure had an active queen, guaranteeing (for now) that there would be bees to winter over regardless; and
  4. I already suspected that I would lose Wilde, and it would hurt to see it as a fact.

But Twain had settled down so completely, no bees going after me only a few minutes after closing, and the smoker was still going and all the tools were out and it is supposed to rain tomorrow and on and on and on...

So I went in.

Wilde came apart quicker: the feeder was not as stuck, and the hive bodies were a bit lighter. I took time between removing each body to throw some fabric over the top before returning to the colony to pull off another piece. This seems like a very helpful thing for keeping the peace: fewer bees able to get to the beekeeper, as well as fewer robbers able to get at the lawful residents.

Wilde's brood nest is in a medium and a deep, slightly larger woodenware than Twain. The last time I checked, there was almost no brood in the deep.

But not today! I found capped brood on the third frame in, meaning perhaps as much as 6 frames in the deep, plus whatever is in the bottom. This is MORE than ever before. Once again, I did not continue all the way down: I will be back soon enough to place ApiLife VAR and the Fumagilin-B I have yet to buy. (This endeavor is still more full of chemicals than I like.) Wilde could also use a bit more sugar, in retrospect, but maybe I will do the candy/paste thing rather than sugar from now on.

Both colonies have queens, both have bees in the making, and Wilde is even marginally better than before. I am so grateful, so pleased. And there is more to come. Wonder what the theme song will be while I sleep tonight?

Before and After, Part 1: Before

When I get stressed, tunes get stuck in my brain, whether I like it or not. Because of the persistent questions about whether the bees are making it, and a maddeningly apparent subconscious addiction to puns, last night my dreams were full of Ben Folds Five's "Smoke", a song with the refrain, "there will never be(e) another one." Consider it a beekeeper joke: we are the among the few people who discuss smoking as a tool or management choice, rather than a health problem.

Today, this entry is being added before I go upstairs to see whether there are any eggs or brood in the two colonies on the roof. This is a serious question. If I killed the queen(s) or if the bees killed each others' queen(s) during the robbing episode last month, my colonies will dwindle and die soon. Both of them.

Why would I even ask this question?

The bees have continued to be temperamental, and the twice weekly feedings (then menthol placement) seemed like they might be making the situation worse. When the menthol went in, I realized that there was an absolute ton of stored honey in each hive, so it also seemed like feeding them sugar syrup had been pretty much a bad idea. This blog has been post-less for over a week because I hoped that the tide would turn toward happier bees if they were disturbed less often.

So I left them bee, not entirely meant as a pun. A phone conversation with a more experienced beekeeper also made the menthol seem less necessary than I thought – apparently scientists are studying whether or not the tracheal mite this chemical is meant to kill is still a problem in our area! – and I am getting quite tired and discouraged.

I went to a different beekeeper's association meeting last night, and more than one experienced beekeeper there said that my bees seemed meaner than they should be, and asked if there was brood. I did not see brood when I placed the menthol, kids, though I was so tired and hot when I got to the bottom of the coloinies (where the brood nest is) that I did not check as thoroughly as I should have.

So today, with dread and absolutely no energy for the task, I am going to take apart both colonies to see if there are any queens active in there at all. Queen Lizzie, in Wilde, is marked so I have a chance of seeing her. Queen Eleanor, in Twain, is not, and I may just have to look for eggs or supercedure cells (structures the bees build when they know they are in Queen trouble), to decide what to do.

If there are eggs and brood in both colonies, there are healthy queens in place and I can stop worrying.

If there are no eggs and brood in one or the other of the colonies, a queen has died and I will have to unify them and hope for the best. If that happens, I will be calling MaryEllen to ask for her help and to borrow some equipment I would need to do it.

If there are no eggs, no brood, and no queens, I guess I am done. Perhaps I could scare up a queen somewhere, but it is probably a bit late for that.

Then the question might be whether I keep doing this at all.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Wilde, Now with Menthol

menthol tucked in bottom board slotToday, I cheated.

It's no pleasure to work the bees these days, and they pay and pay for the trouble, too, so I decided not to take Wilde (the weaker colony) apart to put in their menthol, but dodge the bullet by sliding the packet in through the slot below the screened bottom board. I should have checked on honey stores, on brood size, on any number of things, but today there were a couple of hundred dead bees around the last hive I disassembled...and that, my friends, was enough of that.

If you look at the slit near the bottom of the green boxes, you can see a ragged edge of what looks like window screen poking out. It actually *is* window screen, cut into two 6 inch squares and sewn around about a quarter cup of little menthol pellets that look like junior moth balls. The screen keeps the bees from crawling around on the chemical, or chewing it, or otherwise damaging themselves. The white crumbs you see are flakes of menthol that objected to being crammed through a slot. The orange cord is the power for the BeeCool unit, which I opted to leave in place for this hive (let's call it "the experimental method" rather than "fear of carnage," OK?) I left the screen sticking out for ease of retrieval and to limit direct contact between menthol and the materials that make up my roof. You never know.

Beekeepers place menthol in their hives in the autumn in order to (try to) drive tracheal mites out of their colonies. These mites are one of the plagues that has jumped into the honeybee world (along with varroa and American foul brood and so on) and the late summer and beginning of fall is when you must/oughtta/have to take steps to fight them.

You see, the bees are about to enter their winter survival mode, when they all cluster together and the core population of bees that starts the winter season has to survive WAY longer than usual in order to renew the life of the colony in the spring. They live longer, cluster together for warmth, and are therefore more susceptible to spreading and catching diseases and pests and you name it.

For everyone out there who was ever told or believed that sex causes disease, or thought that the latter was the punishment for the former, know this: it's not sex, but closeness, interdependence, and intimacy that makes us vulnerable to each other. And life is not worth living without a bunch of that dangerous stuff. Remember, there are few organisms as blameless as a bee, and few who have faced such a punishing assault on their well being in the past few decades.

And I hate being a punisher. Sometimes I think about how beekeepers play god, and how those worker bees must see me as the Fifth Horseman -- you know, Famine, War, Death, Pestilence, and That Brunette With The Smoker.

So after I slipped in the cheating menthol, and dropped a gallon and a half more syrup into the feeder (while waving at yet another set of roofers across the alley, sigh), I resolved to leave those girls alone until the daily high temps drop into the 60 degree F range (right now they still bounce around in the mid 80s).

And what will I do then, you ask?

Then it is varroa medication time, which will overlap with the nosema treatments, and the measures I will have to take against marauding mice (my husband is not going to like that last part).

And during this time, I will be deciding whether or not to try to build insulating sheaths for the colonies like the Reece brothers do, or to take some other steps to ward off the cold.

And then, perhaps, I will watch to be sure there are enough food stores, and hope for Spring to come soon.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

A Round of Stingers

bee stingers on a slideWhen working the bees, many more of them light on me and yell at me and bang at my veil than actually sting me, and my hope had been that all those girls trying fervently to land one through the veil and the jacket were doomed to fail... and therefore to continue living.

If a honeybee stings, a honeybee dies, so even beside my own enlightened self interest there is plenty of reason to hope they don't get into attack mode during attempts to handle them.

I decided to wash my jacket and its hood/veil thing because of the general atmosphere of mayhem that prevailed by the time I finished yesterday. The bees leave behind pheremone traces of how they felt about you, and you can literally carry your bad karma around from hive to hive if you don't wash up. Sadly, as I took the veil off to launder the rest, I saw all the sad stingers still in place at various locations. So the lesson learned is that sometimes a bee can fail to sting me, yet still get stuck enough to perish in the effort.

Above is a slide with the stingers that were still in the hood by the time I got down to the laundry room. I picked them out to get a better look. My husband has a groovy digital microscope that we bought for the nieces and nephews, but we ended up liking it better.

There are more photos and stinging remarks at the right. I'm going to go up and attempt to telepathically transmit apologetic thoughts at the bees now.

Friday, September 16, 2005

One with Menthol, One Without

sting fixerSometimes working the bees is like playing god, and sometimes it's more like playing the heavy in the Divine Comedy. Today was such a day.

Luckily, a couple of days ago, my husband ordered some stuff from that came with a sample packet of "The Mitigator," a salve for bug bites and stings. Talk about intervention from on high: the stuff works, and thank goodness!

Today was menthol placement day, and yesterday I mixed up 4+ gallons of sugar water in hopes of making the medicine go down sweet. Nice try, but..

I started by taking Twain apart, down to the bottom board, for the first time since mid-July. During the intervening weeks I have been either on vacation or dodging stings as I pour sweet stuff into the feeders. So I needed to figure out:
  1. whether or not their honey stores had been depleted through the past few weeks of drought and dearth;
  2. whether any brood was still being produced;
  3. whether bad things like "becoming pollen bound" or similar meant some frames should be manipulated; and
  4. whether there was any evidence of disease like American Foul Brood, since I knew some people who had it.

It was just brutal, kids. At the club meeting on Wednesday night, I felt a bit reassured because Barry, a really experienced beekeeper, shared with me how his girls were like to "eat him alive," these days, and that there was no way to find a good time to do anything right now. You just have to.

After a relatively calm start, trying the light smoking and calm movement advice again, I still ended up with a boiling mass of furious bees when I reached the bottom. There is very little brood, meaning that not only the field bees but the nurse bees are at loose ends. I need to ask if the absence of any capped brood is a bad thing for this time. I removed the BeeCool unit from the top, closed the screen bottom board, and left a screen packet of menthol on the bottom, then closed her up, at speed. Yes, lots of squashing, but I was sweating terribly, and in the places where I soaked through the veil I got stung: back of neck, tip of right ear, inside of elbow. 6 in all.

So after finishing one colony, I retreated and sighed. I gave Twain a full two gallons for their pains, though it raises more questions: they already have a deep hive body and two mediums full of honey, plus a few frames in the brood area. I think this means they already have 100 pounds stored against the winter, before the 8 pounds of sugar they received today.

I slapped the Mitigator on my wounds, filled the tub, and soaked my sore spots. MaryEllen and I are going to another Bee club's meeting next week, so I can ask all those new victims all my questions about "how much honey is too much?" "should I worry about brood?" and all the other wonderings we have as we face the upcoming winter.

And I get to look forward to Menthol Monday for the Wilde colony!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

My First Bee Tourist

Todd the Tourist Yesterday, my apiary hosted it's first-ever bee tourist: my friend Elizabeth's cousin Todd from Berkeley.

Cooler heads would have postponed hosting group activities until cooler weather, but we only had Monday or Tuesday to visit, and the invitation was issued. The girls are still surly, but if we just stopped by to take a look, they might not cause a whole lot of trouble. Nonetheless, I asked many questions about bee sting allergy and general freakiness, received proper assurances, and we were off!

Todd. my visitor, has travelled the world and dealt with stuff like poison spider bites in Madagascar (no joke), so my warnings were probably misplaced. She is also a birder and a lot of fun to talk to. I asked her to come back in the Spring, when I could actually give her a frame of friendly bees to hold in her hands. Showing her my spare wooden ware and some busy hive entrances is just not the same.

I only have one spare veil, so Todd got to wear it. Elizabeth, with whom I went to college, hung back in order to be our photographer. She, of course, got stung. It was, as I'd like to believe, one of those near-blameless events: 1) Fly-by bee gets caught in veil-less hair; 2) Reflex to slap complete before conscious brain engaged; 3) Finger receives sting; and 4) Apologetic beekeeper picks buzzing bee remnants from hair.

Not quite ready for bus tours, eh?

We went downstairs and had some water, then chatted for a bit. Todd said that she did not see beekeeping in her future, but appreciated my enthusiasm. I think Elizabeth may be somewhat less positive on the subject at this point, but she's on my list for honey this year. Not that you have to get stung first, I swear!

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Bee Keepers, Havers, and Meddlers

bees on stonecropThe photo this time shows a pot of stonecrop on my roof, a feasting site for bees of all persuasions over the past week. It's included here for two reasons: finally there is something out there for the girls to eat, and it turns out to be something I can happily plant en masse on a hot city roof. Where coneflowers and buddleia have failed, bring on the succulents!

Speaking of sources of consternation and hope, beekeepers all over mention the name George Imirie with reverence and wonder. On the BeeSource forums, the experts write, "If George said it, you can take it to the bank." An authority, and a personality. Legend has it that Mr. Imirie once demonstrated the harmlessness of honeybees by wearing only a speedo and playing his clarinet in a screened in cage containing a couple of colonies. Less legendary: he founded the bee club of which I am a member, and only retired from it (and this geographic area) a year ago.

George Imirie wrote much valuable (and very forceful) advice about beekeeping in a series of pamphlets known as "the Pink Pages," and it would be a mistake to ignore them. But he also made a CAPITALIZED distinction between "beeKEEPERS" (i.e. good and responsible citizens of the apiary world) and "beeHAVERS" (dissolute sorts who kill their bees and still dare walk the streets with heads held high).

Having been born an anxious soul, it's perfectly obvious that I would get a complex about this. However, there is more to say on the topic.

As is often the case when a great leader passes the mantle, whispers start in the wings. "Well, George always said 'menthol by Labor Day' but it was just too hot this year..." or "I just don't think the Imirie shim gave me anything but more bridge comb ..."

But beekeepers still very much refer to George Imirie's expertise, even as we continue to teach Newton in the age of Einstein (and we even teach Einsteinian shortcomings now). This week, a fellow member of our beekeeping club called, and of course I pestered him with question after question, and the conversation came round to "What Would George Do?" I told Marc (the other beekeeper) that I figgered myself for a lowly beeHAVER, and he paused before he responded. This summer was a hard one for Marc: he lost several colonies to American Foul Brood, and had to make lots of decisions about how to manage the whole apiary while dealing with the infection. He said he had posed the question, "HAVER versus KEEPER" to the person whose orchard he was pollinating. And she said, "You are more a beeMEDDLER I think."

Perhaps there are other fraternities of bee enthusiasts to which I could pledge my loyalty: the beeFUMBLERS, the beeWORRIERS, the beeDAZZLED (sorry about that last one). Though a lowly sinner, I also claim beeVANGELIST.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Bees Without Enough To Do

bee on late summer flowerA week out, it appears that the robbing crisis is over, at least unless some other incident – syrup spillage, opening the colonies, spite – triggers another bout. The gentleman who told me about setting up robbing screens said that his bees regained their sweet disposition within a few days of the reinstitution of the rule of law.

Well, mine haven't.

If I hang around the roof more than a few seconds, guard bees come flying at my big dark mop of hair...quite emphatically. It's not clear how well the feeling can be described. The bees fly right up and bounce off your head. In the Spring, they just tend to bounce and go. In this season, they are instead attracted to dark holes: eyes, ears, nose. Since my hair is nearly black, they can land there and get a bit tangled. You can hear them up there quite clearly, too. It quickly evolves into a weird, mixed blessing or "negotiating with Fate" situation: "If I have to get stung, please let it be my scalp!"

So I retreated from the roof with fingers in ears and nose, eyes closed as far as I could, trying not to breathe out too much of that CO2 which annoys them so much. And you need to go slow, because sudden movement is annoying. And you need to go quickly, because one angry bee usually attracts others. As I sit here, every tiny crawl feeling on my head feels like a bee leg.

The guard bees generally give up pursuit when descent of the stair case begins, however, and so I was off. Unstung, but much ruffled.

After I put in the anti-robbing screen (with a feeding), the bees got two more fill-ups of sugar water, an offering intended to boost health and improve mood. Now I wonder if it just made them crankier. My logic was this: if the lack of late season forage makes bees cranky, home delivery of chow should delight. But bees cycle through each day with a program, and the field bees want to do it for themselves. They are like ornery older relatives or toddlers in this respect.

Pouring in the sugar water is kind of cool. The bees are initially teed off when I slide back the roof of the hive: the buzzing actually changes tone (will try to record this somehow). At least a handful of bees immediately proceed to flying at my head and, now especially, face, though I am always wearing a veil. (Many beekeepers on the bulletin boards talk about working without even a veil, but I just don't know how.) I begin by picking up this square one-gallon-plus Rubbermaid container, and carefully start to pour very slowly from one of the corners into the hive top feeder. The feeder has floating balsa wood frames in it, and I try to pour in such a way that any bees underneath have a chance to grab the wood, and the sugar water floats them up and over. If the frames are stuck – meaning that they are not floating, with the potential for trapping bees under there – I reach in with my hooked hive tools and pull it free. I put about half a container of syrup in each side.

In these times, the bees are so hungry that you can see girls run right up to the main flow of my pour, and they stick their little tongues in. Most of the bees who started to bubble up from the colony below are diverted directly to the nearest patch of syrup, and they settle in. Within 2 days, I can count on the feeders being dry.

It has been dry, dry-dry-dry, and we are not scheduled to have rain for another week. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina missed us last week, and we really needed moisture then. So you see how it is.

No rain means no nectar in the few plants that are flowering now. I found my girls going crazy over a plant in a front yard a few blocks from here, though even it looked kind of dried up. The picture from my phone was lousy, so we'll take another try today, both to post here and to try to ID it for possible roof planting next year.

They are bringing in pollen in spades: saw a native bee just rolling inside a rose of sharon bloom yesterday. I have to open up my colonies, have postponed twice now because of foul moods, but one thing I will have to check for is whether the brood areas are pollen bound.

Tomorrow, I am facing a prolonged encounter with Bees with Attitude. The brood needs to be checked, the hives need to be weighed, menthol needs to be placed, and maybe even the varroa treatment. I need to bring up extra equipment for covering hive bodies as I work to cut off robbing at the pass. And I still need to wear gloves.