Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Midsummer Bees

looking at inner cover at monasteryThis is a geeky hive-management report, the kind of post that I cannot imagine someone else reading. Since it is also the sort of thing that has been preoccupying me lately, and you have not heard much (sorry), well, here goes. You know, I would welcome your feedback on this kind of subject matter, either in comments (below) or emails to me (phang@tonitoni.org). Questions are also welcome!

That being said, we are having a nice respite here: these are usually the hottest days of the year, but they are more like early September. Therefore, it seems like a good idea to visit all six hives and get a picture of how these colonies are doing. I've learned one thing, though: the best way to ensure a short, heavy rain during this period of drought is to be up on the roof with a colony open! It rained hard, but only for 10 minutes. Harrumph. Hardly any nectar will come from that!

So you know my six hives, right? Twain and Wilde on the roof (#1 and #2), Doug and MaryEllen at the Monastery (#3 and #4), and the Cockrills and the Mallards (#5 and #6, named respectively for the family that ran the General Store and the duck family on the mill pond — and a play on the name of the family that used to run the mill, the Millards).

There are a number of story lines about which you have been in the dark (sorry again). The most dramatic is the sighting of small hive beetles (or so I think) in the Doug colony over at the Franciscan Monastery. In 5 visits, I have seen them twice, but I am pretty sure it's them. It would be best to capture a specimen and put it under the microscope, but until then it seemed prudent to install West Small Beetle Traps — one of the few options that did not require any kind of pesticide (one of the most common treatments involves soaking the area around your bees with permethrin, a substance that kills bees, and many wild things. Seems like a bad idea to me, and hardly in the Franciscan tradition!)

The beetle lays its eggs in the hive, but its nasty larvae need to climb out and pupate in the ground. Therefore, on their way out they will now have to negotiate a tray on the bottom board covered with diatomaceous earth (wicked scratchy stuff with no chemical action). The tray is also covered by a screen with holes too small for the bees, so they won't get exfoliated. This is going to make taking Varroa mite counts harder, but I wonder if Varroa will be suppressed at all if they fall into diatomaceous earth? I'll try to let you know.

Monastery Round Up

Getting new gear on the bottom board means, of course, that a full voyage through each Monastery Hive was required. Here's what I found.

Doug had lots of bees, with a brood nest of three mediums and another medium full of honey. They had stored a lot of nectar in the brood nest, which made the discovery of swarm cells (!!) no surprise. But oddly, two of the queen cells, including one in the supercedure position, appeared to have released queens already. I thought, "Perhaps a swarm has already left?" but then I saw this Spring's queen, the yellow-dotted Minnesota hygienic. Do you think the bees changed their minds about swarming or superceding?

There were brood babies at all stages, maybe not as many eggs as I would like, but we are in a dearth now. I installed the West trap, put the box with the queen on the bottom, put the empty-ish old bottom box in the middle, and the former middle brood box on the top, then closed up. The bee boxes needed to be draped by the time I got into the second one: the bees are a bit antsy now.

I did Doug first because I worked the neighbors in MaryEllen more recently. I decided to stop feeding until I could get the extracted honey supers back on. Later I will do my usual going-berserk- with-syrup- ahead-of-winter. I bagged up the hive top feeder where I had seen beetles, replaced the screened inner cover, and closed 'em.

Of course, right after this successful operation (only one sting, and my fault for pinching her!) I dropped my camera, telescoping lens down, and destroyed it. So that's it for photos today...

MaryEllen was its usual picture of health, but I spent less time poking around because by then I was starting to smell like the alarm pheromone from the hive next door. MaryEllen is a little tight for space: they only have a deep and a medium for brood space, and a medium super pretty full of honey. So I gave them a medium full of foundation last week, but it is not much help. I need to give them back a box of extracted frames, space they can use! Right now, they have more stores than brood, so I need to sort that out.

Even so, there were no swarm cells (I have been reversing regularly). I got to the bottom, installed the West trap, collected three stings for my trouble (not completely my fault this time!) There was a huge beard on the hive as I left, and a guard bee hassled me for quite a long time. I put the now-unused feeders in the car, and went home to do roof duty.

Roof Bee News

The Twain hive has been mighty quiet lately, so it seemed prudent to start there. It also seemed prudent to first wash my veil after that Monastery guard bee pheromone-d all over it, so I washed and waited.

When I finally got to the roof, toting all that gear up the spiral staircase, it quickly became clear that there is something odd about Twain (the hive that was strongest last year!) There was not a single cell of brood, but there was a good population and appropriate mix of workers and drones. I looked for a queen, and could not find one. I wonder if they threw a swarm, and the virgin queen left behind either failed to mate or failed to come back from her mating flight? But there was no laying worker, and the bees were in a good mood. That seems to indicate that a queen is in there somewhere. I'm going to ask Larry what he thinks, but my friend Jane is giving me a queen to put in there tomorrow anyway.

But oh! Wilde is a different picture indeed! There are two more supers of honey to gather, ample brood at every stage, and lots of activity out the front door! I will probably use some of that strength to bolster Twain during the queen introduction — a reversal of my first year! Wilde was the hive that was supposed to swarm in May, but I just don't think it happened. Don't ask me why: I showed you the pictures of the swarm cells, after all!

Two boxes up from the bottom in Wilde, the rain came, and I closed up. I would have liked to reverse those two boxes, and maybe had a look at the queen if she was evident, but that was not to be. I'll be back in a couple of days for sure, anyway.

Since I have not been feeding them (yet), it is clear that both colonies have found a decent source of nectar in the neighborhood — do you think a few pumpkin plants could provide so much? There is also a lot of Russian sage, and some other neighborhood garden plants that make me raise my heart in thanks (truly: I am considering whether or not to leave a jar of honey at certain very garden-y doors, but fear possible outing of my apiary to the authorities).

And tomorrow: Mill Bee Day!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Pollination Redux

honeybee in pumpkin flowerEvery flower is an invitation, people. Perfectly respectable plants swallow up a bunch of energy, generate a bud and a bloom, and then bang out an explosion of color and scent and pollen and nectar. There has to be an important reason to go to this much effort, to divert this many resources from the business of photosynthesizing and growing, and wouldn't you just know that it has to be sex?

honeybee in pumpkin flower and pumpkin fruitI'm being bombastic here, but it's caused by just a bit of (non- reproductive) frustration. With the impact that Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has had on the news in this country, and the opportunity it has given to truly show people the most important part of the honeybee-human relationship, I'm still having trouble explaining pollination to kids. It's basically the way in which plants get the male bit (pollen on the stamens) over to the female bit (the ovaries in the pistils), hopefully on a different plant. They overproduce the pollen to guarantee coverage and offer a protein food, they produce nectar THEY DON'T EVEN USE down near the bottom to get the dusty bees to go where the action is. This picture shows the act in progress at the right, and the fruit of the deed at the left.

Flowers truly are miracles: tell me, if the only kind of intelligence is the human kind, how did every plant that sets a seed come to (successfully) open up its reproductive process to third-party participation? I don't mean to say that plants are out there secretly hedging foreign currency markets, but that our ways of gathering and leveraging knowledge are based on the space we live in. The fish in the pond out front are smart in finny ways, my dogs are good at sniffing and stealing, and people excel at thinking about themselves.

But if you do somehow find yourself thinking about flowers, you can easily see the wonderful shopping experience they represent for the bees. Every one is attempting to cut the deal that gets the pollination done. Some, like apple trees, are hard bargainers: each bloom is pip-squeaky about how much nectar and pollen it doles out, but there are tons of flowers, all nearby, and not much else going at the time. The honeybee in my back yard, in the picture up there, is just about drunk as a skunk in a puddle of nectar on the bottom of THAT bloom. The deal is probably like this: "I know you have lots of places to go, and things to do, but I will fill you up in one swell stop, and invite you to root around ALOT by offering tons of nectar and pollen. Unfortunately, I am only open mornings, so I need to get you here right away (so I will make a huge, bright flower)." You know all those seeds inside a pumpkin? Each one required a pollen grain delivery, so you can see that the plant wants that bee in there a long time, rolling around.

So each plant develops its marketing strategy of size, color, smell, rewards, and even configuration to attract the right kind of pollination. Some even concoct little landing strips that you can see in UV light: they kind of point at the good stuff. So next time you walk in a garden, or a flowery field, experience the sales pitch. A whiff of wonderful scent turns your head one way, a glorious bloom makes your head tilt right, a carpet of color draws your eye down. It reminds me of walking in markets in the Middle East, where vendors and merchants call to you, invite you to dicker, and serve you a cup of sweet tea.

But don't try to deal with the corn. The wind-pollinated crops, like grasses, don't even try. They just shake their tassles in a self-satisfied way.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Sticky, Stingy, Woozy and Dead

European Giant Hornet approx actual size photo by Sven TeschkeThe title here is not the name of an odd law firm or a long-forgotten track by the Rolling Stones, and the bug pictured did not actually sting me...but it all applies to June and July. Welcome to the heart of the hot season around here, with all of the thrills (and very few chills) it brings.

We're working through the full-on impact of the mid-Summer beekeeping season around here, with all six colonies jammed full of bees and honey and the sun at full strength on the back of my veil. Going out to the beehives in the July sun is a lesson about success: the families are bustling and the harvest is sweet, but the boxes are heavy and the bees are more easily riled. No complaints, though: for the second year in a row, we will have a harvest, and the workout required has pared off a few pounds.


Jane harvests for the first timeSince the nectar flow ended over a month ago, the harvest season is upon us (you might say it is all over us, too – as well as the floors, the counters and the dogs). That's the sticky part of all this. In late June, MaryEllen and I got together with Jane to help the latter harvest honey for the first time. Some of the usual panic ensued: "How do I get my honey frames out of the hive?!" But Jane worked it out – in this case, by using an approach more common in Europe. You can remove a limited amount of honey by reaching in, grabbing one frame at a time, walking away and shaking the bees off ,then brushing the remainder gently away and stowing the now bee-free frame in a covered box. This is good for only a few frames, because after a bunch of shaking the bees get Quite Unhappy. Jane cleared two boxes, and took home 5 gallons of honey! I pulled only 9 frames from the roof, and was pleased to get a bit more than two gallons of very light honey. I think it's a mostly-linden year!


We've also had very little rain, 4 inches less than usual, and it feels like our usual Summer dearth season may come early. Things that annoy honeybees are coming from out of the woodwork (and the woods), all contributing to an increased risk of getting a sting (or 5). I don't usually get stung when working the hives, and I'm still working with gloves off for the most part. I have pushed the limits from time to time, though – like using the frame removal method above with an already-riled hive! It's time to take experienced beekeepers' advice and try to work hives at the cool beginnings of sunny days, to work efficiently but slowly, and to work only when there is a good reason to be there. We're coming upon the days when we will just do mite checks and feed sugar syrup.


I got first-time experience with an unanticipated physical reaction to a honeybee sting (and so did Andrea!) when a first-time apiary visitor got stung while visiting the Monastery hives on Wednesday (Happy Fourth of July!) Andrea, someone with an excellent dog whom I know from frequenting a local park, knows that she is not allergic to bee sting, but got dizzy and passed out a couple of minutes after she got a sting on the hand. At first all seemed well: Joseph (one of the new beekeepers there) and I smeared our anti-sting ointment on the injury, and Andrea continued looking on. Then she said she was light-headed, and passed out briefly after we got her sitting down. Holy smokes! It was not an allergic reaction (was it heat? adrenalin? cosmic rays?), but something took her down. She was beyond cool, not freaking out at all, but it reminds me to be more serious and more careful when inviting people to experience bees first hand. Nature tells me over and over again that I am wrong when I get to thinking I've got everything under control.


Recently the Monastery's hives have been downright "spicy:" calm enough to be around, but easy to rile when the boxes are opened. This can be for any number of reasons – a clumsy beekeeper, dearth in the nectar supply, queen genetics, or constant threats from natural predators. The queens come from different sources, but I have seen giant hornets circling in front of the hives, and I think the latter may be the culprits.

When the bees are attacked, even by another bug like a hornet, the guard bees send out a near-constant stream of alarm pheromone, making them primed to see threats even before the beekeeper approaches. If nectar is drying up, like it has been around here, there are even more forager bees hanging around the hive with nothing to do (except, perhaps, respond to perceived threats). Now, the hornet picture I put at the very beginning of this post is meant to express just how threatening just that one predator can seem, even to a person. Online, scared enquirers have called European Giant Hornets (Vespa crabro) "School Bus Bees" (though they ARE NOT bees) and you can see why in person. The graphic is about life size: almost 1.5 inches or 3.5 centimeters. They kind of take your breath away when you first seem them.

front of Vespa crabroBut the "Dead" in today's title refers to an impressive hornet specimen found on the bottom of the Clare hive right after Andrea keeled over and was driven home. Though the hornet is easily twice the size of the worker bees, they nonetheless have a group defense against the interlopers. In this case, the presence of most of a hornet carcass confirms that the hives have been under regular attack, and have been defending themselves vigorously. The hornet is too big for the undertaker bees to move, so they have been chewing pieces off and disposing of them. Her abdomen, wings, and antennae are almost completely gone.

side of Vespa crabroEven though we are thousands of times the size of such a creature, we humans often feel a great thud in the middle of our chests when we confront these beasts. When I was holding the hornet bits to try to get a photo for you, I could hear the distant "Ewwww!" of some frightened multitudes in the back of my mind, but the revulsion must be paired with an unescapable attraction, or why would our Porsches and muscle-car marauders choose to look so much the same?

all around the observvation hiveFinally, I want you to know that June 24-30 was the first National Pollinator Week here in the United States, and in various combinations MaryEllen and I gave more than 8 hours of presentations at historic sites and community gardens. A thoroughly exhausting blast! Have (borrowed) observation hive, will travel. This summer has a number of summer camps in it, as well as a county and a state fair, so the fun won't stop soon.