Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Weather On Top of Our World

davis vantage pro pictureSome of you may not be tickled by my ticker (a little javascript running near the top of this page, featuring the latest weather data from right up on the roof), but for me it is a glorified place where science meets romance. My husband asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I said, "Either a WeatherStation or for Google Earth to become real time." In both cases, the additional data streams were intended to let me watch over the girls in their rooftop hives, and to pump that data both onto this blog and into an archive.

The weather station totally rocks: It's a Davis Vantage Pro 2 with anemometer (wind), barometer (air pressure), rain collector, thermometer, humidity gauge, and RF wireless transmitter. It is solar powered, with a backup battery for cloudy days. If you live within 1000 feet of me, you can pick up my data, too. Hey, what's confidential about the weather??

There's more to this weather data thing than obsession with what the bees are dealing with today (though there certainly is that). You all know that this seems like a swarm-y year, and that the queens seem to have been superceded more than I thought they would. Earlier this year, I had a theory that early Spring resembled late August, and maybe the girls were being tricked into wrongful behavior by untimely drought and temperature triggers. Well, every theory needs a little data, and that means collecting temperature and precipitation and daylight and all that groovy information.

Please relax: I will not put you through discussions like "Barometric Pressure, Then and Now." But I will, over time, and if my hard drive does not crash, understand just how hot or cold it gets up there, and how rooftop life compares to that of my ground-bound colonies. I'm still kind of hoping to get a comparison of honey yields between the city and suburban sites, but this is not a fair year to do it — some colonies were split, others were just started, and one got mammoth reinforcements.

It will be interesting to see if there ever is a year (or a bee yard) that can be compared fairly to another, or whether I am going to have to learn to see more nuanced patterns.

One thing I can tell you is that this July has been HOT HOT HOT, the third hottest on the weather service records, but the only one from which I have any data at all. If you want to look at a bigger feed than the ticker, take a look at I have not had time to make it pretty yet. I'll post a monthly archive page when we have been up a whole month!

Friday, July 28, 2006

When Honeybees Go Camp-y

youth garden kids!When MaryEllen and I asked to put bees out at the historic mill site, we were asked (in exchange!) if we would talk about bees to the summer campers and for some general information sessions during the rest of the year. Snickering to ourselves a bit, we said, "Sure!" It's not like public speaking is our favorite task, it's just that every time we do, the people who attend the sessions give us as much as we give them. It has probably been said here before, but the curiousity, enthusiasm, and thoughtfulness which the bees seem to elicit from people really calms some of my worries about the human race.

That being said, this week is a challenge and a half!

The picture above is of the kids who absolutely won my heart today at the US National Arboretum Youth Garden program. The older kids aren't in the picture, but the group ranges in age from about 6 to 16 years. Yikes! The program teaches kids about food and nature by having them help run a vegetable and butterfly garden not far from here. I expected city kids to be especially afraid of bees, because in the absence of farms, most of the hymenopterae around here are yellowjackets, and even I give them a wide berth.

The best thing I did today was to catch a few bees that got out of the observation colony, and hold them in my hands. The bees are really lovely, and the ones that got out were very small young bees, still all fuzzy and not too good at flying. You can state, until you are blue in the face, that the bees are gentle, but there is nothing like sitting there for a half hour with a little girl exploring your fingers to calm and enchant everyone present.

Before long, kids that declared themselves enemies of bees had their faces pressed against the glass, and asked all sorts of questions about how bee families work and how people work with bees. They sniffed beeswax, ate some comb honey, tried on some bee gear and hefted some tools. We took some pictures, and made friends.
The bees in the observation colony came from Abby's crew up at the Monastery. I tried to catch Abigail, but could not find her in the short time I had. I also failed to grab any drones at all! Drat!

When returning the bees, however, I found Queen Abby, marked her (badly), and vowed to try harder tomorrow...because I am doing it all again for a family group then!
camp at the millAll of which follows our best-yet session at the Mill on Wednesday. MaryEllen took this picture of me waving my hands around with my eyes closed. I seriously thought of taking all 4 shots she got of me, and putting them in a little slide show, so you could see me with mouth open, hands all over the place, and eyes half shut! What a charmer!

Even so, the kids were truly with us this time. They were not jumping up and down with questions as before, but they paid attention, ate a bunch of honey, and had fun trying on bee hats before we took them up the hill to see the open hives. There was a group of girls of exactly the same age to sort of stick together, and watch each other for clues (rather than the bees), which made me a little sad. Even so, it's just a matter of time, I think, before their interest and energy gets the better of peer pressure and they come around to the world of wonder again.

As it stands, one of the non-clique-y girls asked me the best "gotcha" question of the day! She said "If honeybees can sting only once, how can an emerging queen sting her competitors and still survive herself?" I was so proud of that kid. (In case you want to know the answer, the Queen's stinger is not barbed like a worker's, and she can sting more than once. She is only stimulated to sting, however, by the presence — probably by the pheromone emissions — of another queen).

Sounds like she was paying attention alright! Those smart kids make my day: there was one little boy at the Arboretum who asked really good questions about the smoker. Count at least two more friends of bees.

Friday, July 21, 2006

A Swarm in July Isn't Worth a Fly

Queen Abogail of ReeceThis past weekend, we went off to a first-ever family reunion. Before leaving, however, there was yet another family to keep united: Twain was on it's way to swarming — again! (This is a picture of Twain's Queen, Abigail, with a bad smear of white paint and her entourage taking care of her!)

Swarm swarm swarm, that's all I've been talking about lately. The frantic goings-on you have heard about here all fall under the category of "swarm control." GOOD beekeepers suffer less panic, and spend less energy on swarm prevention. The difference sounds fiddly to the uninitiated (which, I suppose, includes me, considering all the fun this year). "Swarm prevention" means keeping the girls from ever wanting to leave: give them lots of space, move the boxes around so that the box that just hatched is above the queen (she likes to work up, and likes to find empty honeycomb above her), maybe even make splits to create more colonies if the time of year is right.

But the time is year is no longer right. All beekeeping is local: one reason to learn about it from a local club is that the times when you can get away with various decisions vary based on the onset of winter, and the length of bloom. Here, the old rhyme is definitely on the money:

A swarm in May — is worth a load of hay.
A swarm in June — is worth a silver spoon.
A swarm in July — isn't worth a fly.

You might remember that the Twain colony is the one that swarmed (Bye-bye, Eleanor! Hope you are still out there!) even after it was split this Spring. That swarm basically gutted the hive, requiring me to get reinforcements. Well, reinforcements worked: when re-organizing the hive to make it easier for the girls AND for me (I'm almost 6 feet tall, but the hive rose above chest level!) I found all sorts of swarm cells! Uh oh!

Therefore, last Thursday I grabbed the Nuc box that MaryEllen and Doug gave me, and went up to the roof to seek out Queen Abigail. The idea was to shut off the swarm impulse by removing the old queen (Abby) and some brood and workers, move the latter to the monastery apiary for a brief vacation, and let the Twain bees raise up a new queen. Twain's workers won't swarm once they realize mom is gone, and we should end up with a new queen to give to another beekeeper who needs to re-queen this fall (like most people in our club do).

Did I mention that I was sorting through a 5-plus-foot rooftop hive containing 50,000 bees to look for an unmarked queen on a 95-degree-F day in mid July? And that I was supposed to be packing and paying bills and going to TWO appointments and all those things you find yourself doing to get ready to leave town for an anxiety-inducing first-ever family conclave? Did I mention that??

The first time through the boxes, I found even more queen cells, but no queen. Got stung (and deserved it) a coupla times. I began to panic. Twain was clearly going to take off while I was gone and I was running out of time and I could not find the queen. As I reassembled the brood boxes, I went much more slowly. The lowest box was only capped brood. She would not be there. The next box had some uncapped babies, but everything was several days old. I put a capped frame and a few day old frame in the nuc, and replaced those frames with some drawn comb. Put the uncapped box on the bottom and the capped on top (because they were starting to hatch and would soon offer empty comb).

And so on, until I got to the first honey super. It had just a little bit of drone comb stuck on the bottom bar (meaning that the queen HAD been laying up there, where she is NOT supposed to be), so I looked closer. Hmm. Three day old eggs but no queen. I popped that frame into the nuc. Room for two more frames, one better have a queen on it!

Every frame got a look, every one, but ... No queen in the box! No queen! I set the box aside, and quickly looked through the other honey supers. Nothing. Then something said, look one more time, on a frame near that one with babies. And there she was, covered by her daughters, on the wrong side of a honey frame with some brood comb I had not noticed. At the very last minute, in the nick of time. In she went — nuc filled and ready to go to the monastery!

I swear, my hand felt guided to that frame like it was on rails. If I had not gone back, if I had not looked PRECISELY there, it was all gonna be over. Maybe those girls are finally getting through to me.

But wait, there's MORE!

The first hour of the first morning that we got back (Tuesday), I went back to the monastery (with a metal detector, in part to look for an earring, but that's another story). All weekend, I worried that maybe I had not found the queen, that it was just a big-butted worker. Since the girls needed to be fed sugar water anyway, I decided to check.

So I go through the nuc, and DO NOT FIND THE QUEEN. There are only about 5 thousand bees in there, it should be easy! No queen. There's some annoying bee — not easy to see through a sweaty veil — checking out my foot, but they do that alot. I close up, refill the feeder, and consider what to do.

Meanwhile, that annoying foot bee is on the grass next to my foot. It is acting funny, sort of leaping up, flapping like hell, and not achieving flight. That's weird. Is she hurt? I lean down to investigate. No, she is not hurt. She is the queen!

Queens in the throes of fertility can't fly. Queens about to swarm can (their mean old daughters put them on a crash diet to ensure this). This means that Abby is back to normal, except for the fact that she is about to be squashed by a clueless beekeeper. The first few times I try to catch her, she gets away. She is terrified. Eventually, I run around to the other side of the hive (so so carefully, keeping my eye on her!) and she crawls up on my hand. I lift the hive cover, place her near the passage down, and watch to see if she is welcome. One of her daughters gives her some tongue, Abby lifts her butt and scents like crazy, and down she goes. Phew.

What seems to be happening here, over and over, is that I am building enormous bee populations faster than they are spinning honeycomb to live in. The bees are telling me something about the environment here, and I need to listen. There is lots of pollen out there, and they feel compelled to save it, using up precious comb on the bee equivalent of the junk that clogs your basement. There is enough nectar for the bees to eat, building big families, in part because I feed them. But for some reason, there never seem to be enough young bees (the ones who can best generate wax) and enough nectar (it takes 40 pounds of nectar to make one pound of beeswax) to generate comb quickly.

Also those Carniolan girls aren't the biggest construction workers, anyway. They like to build these narrow, chimney-shaped colonies inside the box, and they don't like to spread out to use the space I give them. They come from a cold place, so they probably like to keep their families in a compact area that is easier to warm.

Next year, when we restart this process with all this year's honeycomb available, maybe it will be easier to stay ahead of the girls. I hope so.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

"No Honey, Please!" ...But Why?

anti-honey sloganFor those of you who seek out local honey, it might be interesting to learn that midsummer is the time when beekeepers look at the colonies they tend, determine how much excess honey is available, and bottle up the liquid gold that flows to teacups and tables around our region. It's a sticky, meticulous job, taking place when the temperatures are highest in part to ensure that the honey flows free-er, and in part to give the bees time to put away additional stores in case the winter ahead is particularly hard.

We are careful with what we take from the bees, and concerned not to take too much. Beekeepers around here like to leave from 50 to 75 pounds of honey on their hives. Last year, I left 100 pounds (I'm a worrier), and ended up with boxes of unused and unwanted (and now crystallized) golden syrup. Well, it's better than starving 100,000 treasured neighbors!

As this year's honey harvest approaches, I've come across some t-shirts being sold by an animal-rights activist that say "Save the Bees, No Honey Please!" which stopped me in my tracks. The two phrases seem to me to be in complete conflict. My main reason for keeping bees is to help them survive the current onslaught of diseases and pests, and every beekeeper I know has as his or her prime objective the health and expansion of those fascinating insect communities. Harvesting honey is mostly a hard and hot job, and necessary to keep the hives open enough for large bee families (and to show our relatives some rationale for this obsessive, demanding hobby)! Most of us local beekeepers lose money on it. I was literally shocked to realize that someone thought that keeping bees was all about honey, and about hurting the bees, to boot! I am generally an animal-rights kind of gal, so I got to wondering what it could possibly mean.

Perhaps the slogan comes from the sad truth that you cannot keep bees without (at least occasionally) killing a few. When a hive is dwindling, often a new queen must be introduced, and the old one dispatched. Sometimes the beekeeper does this just a week or so ahead of the queen's own daughters. Sometimes the beekeeper gets stung, and honeybees die when they sting. Also, at this time of year, when the bee populations in the hives are at their peak, it's very difficult to move parts around (to check for disease, to offer some extra sugar water, or to add more living room) without squashing someone accidentally. But this is not a goal, or even desirable. And re-queening is a process that no beekeeper enjoys — and one that many of us put it off longer than we should.

Perhaps the anti-honey position is based on the idea that animal life should not be dependent on the whims of humans. That's one worry that gets me every time I make a beekeeing error, and one that has even cost me some sleep. But the honeybees can't make it without people just now, even less competent humans, and the truth is that people can't make it without bees, since between 20 and 30 percent of our vegetable crops depend on honeybee pollination. Even more, considering how many days the beekeepers spend chasing around after the schedule set by the bees themselves — working in bee-approved weather, adding hive space when bees need it, offering extra food when weird weather makes nectar collection hard, preventing swarms, buttoning hives down for winter — we sometimes wonder who is in charge. We pay for our pride when we think it is us!

Perhaps a ban on honey is as simple as making a rule and sticking with it: no animal products. Well, in that case, it is more about the human's need for ethical and dietary clarity than it is about saving the honeybees. Our forests used to be full of wild honeybees: now, anywhere in the world where you can even find a forest, the buzzing is largely silent. Those wings won't keep beating unless someone offers the bees a safe home. Clarity and choices are to be respected — they make us who we are — but they do not change the 25,000 year-old beneficial relationship between people and honeybees. And clarity certainly does not save any bees.

One of the things that the bees have taught me is that we live in a world that surrounds us with wonders, not explanations, and I'll take the former if I have to choose. I will also take some honey, thank you, and share it with my human friends in much the same way that I share my caring, hard work, affection, and gratitude with the bees all year long. And for those who see this honey thing differently, I'm willing to just share the wonder.