Saturday, December 01, 2007

Sunshine in Late Autumn

This is officially the "holiday season" around here, a time about which I am somewhat skeptical, but I have already received a terrific gift!

In mid-November, a local elementary school asked me to give a last-minute presentation about honeybees to the whole first grade. I cringed a little: the month had been full of talks to garden clubs, a suburban 3rd grade, a church fair, and … well, you get the idea. I was tired, temperatures were getting lower and lower each day, and the bees were not in a good place to recover from late-season mistakes. So, of course, I agreed to do it. They gave me a late afternoon time slot, agreed to do it bees-or-no-bees, and I began to prepare. Again.

I like to bring an observation colony to school presentations, but late November is not usually an appropriate time. Though the presence of the bees immediately focuses kids' attention, spurs more detailed and insightful questions, and demonstrates concepts in real life, it is awfully cold for opening hives, and it is foolish to even consider bringing a queen along: the workers can't replace her now that all the drones are gone! So I watched the temperatures, and we got to over 60 degrees. I packed up a deep frame of broodnest (without much brood) and a medium frame of honey (nicely full and capped), and took my borrowed observation hive to school.

Where I immediately broke one pane of glass with my car door upon arrival!

But I am finally becoming a true beekeeper, folks! I now travel with pliers and glue and old bed sheets and thumbtacks and window screen and, most importantly in this case, duct tape and printer paper to cover over the cracks. Several worker bees got out, but this time the school was less than two miles from my house, so I know that the girls were able to get home.

In case you were wondering, my husband chronically despairs over the condition of my car nowadays.

So, after arriving with two deep boxes, as well as a bottom board and telecover, and a skep, and bee-pollinated fruits and veggies (including a ten pound pumpkin), and honey samples, and gummy bears (they are coated with beeswax, if you want to use that gimmick yourself someday), and hive tools, and a smoker with fuel, and some handouts, I got to work.

We were scheduled to be together for 45 minutes, but in what seemed a short while I started losing my train of thought. The kids' attention was waning, too, so it seemed to be a lackluster session. There just wasn't enough bee passion in me to make it through November! At that point, however, one of the teachers mentioned that we had been talking about bees for an hour and a half, and the kids needed to get ready to go home.

Okay, then!

As we began the laborious process of packing my car up, I brought the observation colony back outside — and groups of parents-picking-up and children-going-home quickly gathered around. No one, it seems, can resist a close look at a honeybee. There were lots of questions, but before very long the first-graders were all about, and I let them answer most of the queries. Way to warm a beekeeper's heart, kids!

After 20 minutes or so, the bees really needed to get home, and I really needed to get horizontal, so we left. And that, apparently, was that.

Except a couple of weeks later, one of the teachers left a thank-you scroll on my doorstep. If you click on the link, you will get a new window containing my prideful, precious presentation of their lovely gift. My husband and I hung it just inside the front door, ensuring that everyone who visits us would be required to look. :-)

Rock on, first graders! I hope to see you next November, too.


Anonymous said...

Why are drones needed to replace a queen? As long as the queen laid worker bee eggs within a day or two prior to her demise, isn't that all that is needed for the worker bees to raise up a new queen?

Phang said...

This is a good question, because it brings up the special issues faced by bee colonies at this time of year, in this specific place.

First, in late November there may be no new brood around here. Queens radically reduce their laying in the Fall, and by December are probably not laying at all, unless the weather is unseasonably warm. MaryEllen told me that Queens also reduce laying when their diet changes over to honey: a signal that winter has come and no flowers are blooming.

But why do drones matter? Well, the short answer is that a virgin queen is no good to a hive. Her phermones aren't right, but more importantly she does not have the capability to lay fertilized, worker bee eggs when the colony needs to ramp up population quickly in early Spring. We need big colonies by late April here if the bees are going to benefit from our main nectar flow, and temperatures don't allow for queens to mate in time to do that here.

So, summary:

a) there may not be brood to turn into a queen; and
b) even if there is right-aged brood, such a virgin queen is unlikely to be able to mate; and finally
c) virgin queens cannot lay worker eggs to keep a colony going.

Anonymous said...

Hope all is well? Haven't heard from you in awhile.