Monday, October 30, 2006

Last Presentation of the Year

local beekeeping calendarHere's a confession: this is a "pre-dated" post: as we are coming into the cold days, I seem to be slowing down, too (this post seems to be all up in my head, sorry). But here's a late update on our last presentation of the year out at the historic mill.

On this Sunday, the folks at the Mill asked us to participate in a day of activities at the mill, where residents of that suburban county were invited to stop by and take a look at the visiting blacksmith, to tour the mill itself (which needs repair after awful floods this Spring), to talk to we-the-beekeepers, and to sample some corn bread made with grain ground at the mill and topped with the girls' honey.

Apparently, the bees are still a kind of magic draw. Fifteen minutes ahead of time, the staff said that folks were up at the general store, asking where the bees might be. We probably had 75 people move through (or so the site manager said), more than usual for an autumn event. There's so much to do around here at this time of year, it's hard to get on family schedules.

MaryEllen made a brilliant display of hive products, an observation hive, and pieces of hive equipment, once again doing all of the heavy lifting. I supplied the handout above (you can click on the picture to download a full sized copy). The mill staff had apparently not really seen us in action before, and were pretty impressed. I think we may have made a couple of beekeepers, or at least friends of bees, and it was a good way to close the outreach year.

All around the mill, signs of the holidays ahead were beginning to creep in. A professional photographer was setting up on the grounds, and we wondered why, until family after family in "weekend best" arrived and began posing for their 2006 holiday greeting cards. It is a beautiful site. Inside, every once in a while the bees would go all buzzy in the observation colony, and we got to wondering whether there was some sound, vibration, or puff of smoke from the blacksmith working just outside that they could sense and we could not.

We were on from 2 to 4, and after two hours of talking we closed up and put away as the day got dark so soon. The leaves were still on the trees, but they were heading for sundown, too.

We both agreed that a load lifted off of our minds, with no more presentations ahead until next April at the earliest, and with almost everything we could do for the bees already in the past. I still want to shake some confectioners' sugar on those mite-infested mill yard bees, but have a nagging sense that my cards really have been played.

It's just sundown around here folks, a time to sort through what you think of what's just passed, and decide what to do with the quiet.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Return of Robbing

dead bees on roofEven though it has been quiet, I look in on the roof bees everyday — hanging around near the entrance, checking on activity levels, looking to see if any deformed bees are around. You see, this time last year the roof was mysteriously covered with bees creeping aimlessly around, and it turned out that the colonies had a raving Varroa infestation.

This year, not so many creepers... but over the past few days I had noticed a small uptick in deceased bees. This could have happened because of the rain, or because bees tried to stay out too late while the temperature dropped. There were also some drones, victims of their sister's decision to evict, and some deformed wings, so I did not think much of it. Sam and I had retrieved some more bees in the bathroom, too, so now I have another way to consider THAT, because...

Today I went up, and the roof was covered in hundreds (perhaps more than a thousand) of dead bees, and there was a clear robfest going on. Bees were fighting all around me, grouped around every crack in either hive, trying to get in. I was planning on giving Twain some more sugar today, but also ended up trying to take effective action to break the behaviour.

fighting beesOnce bees start to rob, they fight each other like the Dickens at every hive entrance. You can see them rolling around your feet like violent little honey-colored Yin/Yang symbols. They tend to persist, often because the robbing resulted from there being almost nothing else to do!

It looks like there have been battles this AM, but no successful thefts. I pulled the bottom boards to see if there was any torn-up wax (when bees rob, they rip the heck out of the honey cells of the victim colony, making far more damage and mess than the residents would). No sign of that in either colony. Just lots of fighting.

I already had entrance reducers in place, and all extraneous hive openings closed, so I was at a loss for what else to do. Hanging around, smoking would-bee robbers as they gathered around cracks seemed useless. I think Twain was the worse robber of the two, so I pulled up the top of that colony, and went about giving them sugar as planned. Some beekeepers say that opening the top of a robbing colony causes the guard bees to signal the foragers to come home and save the place. That did not seem to happen, since I think both colonies were frantically defending themselves against each other already, and the signal had long ago been given.

hive entrance restrictionsI have only one robbing screen, and two colonies, and it seemed important to balance my response so one colony would not get the advantage over the other. So I went downstairs to seek further guidance from the website, a place of great wisdom. One pamphlet there suggested throwing grass or other plant material over the reduced entrances, making them easier to defend, and/or placing a long board lengthwise across the entrance area, requiring a longer, more complicated, and (once again) more defensible approach path.

I used two makeshift bottom boards gleaned from abandoned political signs left over from the recent primary elections. People never seem to clean those up, even the "law and order" candidates. For plant material, I ripped the leaves off some cornstalks that grew where the birds had planted them (and I hadn't the heart to kill them).

Finally, I went out back and put some sugar water in that bird feeder again, placing a layer of window screen over it to create a honeybee feeder of sorts. Perhaps if the bees find an easier source of sweetness, they will abandon the fight.

Bees are like people in much of this. When times are tougher and gathering for your family is hard, it is tempting to use power to take what you want or need. It turns into a bad habit, quick, and can easily decimate both perpetrator and victim. Let's only hope that some diversion can help.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Gratuitous Bee Picture

bees in the feederIt has been a while since you got to look at a bee picture, so here you go. The year is definitely coming to a close, and my job mostly is to feed sugar syrup and take mite counts.

These bees were hanging out in the Twain feeder, licking their sweet-loving chops because they had eaten all their 2:1 sugar syrup (3 gallons!) and were about to get some more.

The girls over in Wilde are not taking their syrup, though. Ugh. I want them to suck it up because it contains a treatment for Nosema (a disease bees sometimes get in the winter because they cannot poop when temps are below 50 degrees F, and they therefore "hold it"), and also it's really really hard to clean out such a full feeder if they let it get moldy. Imagine a big shallow box full almost to the brim with sticky stinky old sugar water. Ugh again.

The Wilde colony is actually better off for winter stores, and some beekeepers don't even treat for Nosema around here (we have lots of winter days that break 50 degrees F at some point). Finally, the National Weather Service predicts another mild (or at least average) winter, so the main concern is the mess, I guess.

Finally, since we are approaching the cold days, I thought it would be a good idea to catch a glimpse of those golden bees. I'll soon be missing them, and I also like to go back through old photos sometimes, and think about how so many bees have come and gone. The idea that the light bounced off these few and made an longer human impression seems like just another kind of honey.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Boatload of Honey

davids honey in the sunLarry from the beekeeping association ended up putting me in contact with a guy who farms more than 30 kinds of pumpkins, squash, melons, and ... bees! He needed a website for his seasonal business, so with one thing and another I ended up helping him set up satellite broadband and a wireless LAN, as well as a site. I need his permission before I can send you there, though.

But I though you would want to see this. David is also an artist, and when his honey started crystallizing (his market is not heated, and the nights are getting cold) he set it out on the bottom of his silver canoe to catch some rays. Because he has the soul of a poet, you can see how he laid out his crop.

David's bees are all of the same species, but within just a couple of miles of his home in the country you can see what variety of nectar the plants have to offer. To confess a bit, this honey is from a couple of different harvests, so there is a time difference as well as color variation.

Truth to tell, there is probably even more color range among the pumpkins and squash. I tell you, he has TWO kinds of drop-dead-beautiful blue pumpkins.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Quick Record Keeping, With ApiGuard

bulk apiguardFirst of all, I want to tell you that the State Bee Inspector came by the historic mill on Tuesday, and he gave us the all-clear on American Foul Brood. In other words, we don't have it, or at least don't have it yet. He pointed out the big mite infestation in my hive there, though, and made various suggestions, including the use of Food Grade Mineral Oil (FGMO) to make those mites go slip-sliding away. I'll probably give it a whirl (there's no harm in it) but I have already completed two oxalic acid fumigations, and will make the third one on Monday. I think I am going to study up on how to double up on mite treatments, without unintentionally poisoning the girls with too much of a good thing.

So Sucrocide failed at the Mill. What did I do elsewhere? Well, two weeks ago, I placed "ApiGuard" on the rooftop hives, and followed up a few days later by placing it on the monastery girls (Saturday). ApiGuard is a 50 gram dose of concentrated Thymol, the same stuff that makes your Listerine potent. The idea is that you place the paste on the top bars of your hives, allow space for the bees to be able to move over it, and let their hygienic instincts ("Get this the heck out of there!") stimulate them to grab it, and move it among themselves to remove it from their home. In doing so, they expose the mites among them to a fatal dose (or so we hope). You put it on, wait two weeks, then put it on again.

The picture here is a ziplock bag filled with the paste. My friend (and mentor) Larry bought the bulk bucket, and he carefully measured out the correct doses for 4 of my hives, eight baggies in all. He instructed me in how I should put on gloves, carefully push the paste away from sides with the bag closed, cut off the edges, and then open the bag on top of the hive.

chewed apiguard bagThis picture shows such a bag two weeks later, The girls have cleaned it off, and actually started chewing the bag. The yellow stuff is propolis (no Carniolan party is ever complete without propolis). As of today, they got a chance to start over on a second and final dose.

According to the studies, this treatment is anything from 75% to 85% effective against Varroa mites, and does a number on the tracheal mites, too. I placed menthol on these hives at the same time as the ApiGuard, so the tracheal mites should have really taken a pounding at this point. After the Sucrocide experience, however, I absolutely intend to continue taking mite counts and to follow up with addition (maybe FGMO) treatments. I think oxalic acid is probably in the cards for January.

The whole experience at the Mill has made me more conscious of the importance of record keeping, and managing the tools, etc., from each apiary separately. If we had received a positive diagnosis at the Mill, all of my hives could be potentially infected. As it is, I plan on fumigating gear, washing bunches of tools and veils in bleach, keeping better records, and watching myself in future. Oh, and there may be more boring posts like this, and I apologize in advance.