Monday, July 25, 2005

Bees at Midsummer

crape myrtle Looking down from my roof on the north side, this is what you see: the top of a crape myrtle in full glorious bloom. Whether or not the bees like it, too, has been the subject of some obsession.

The answer, my friends, is yes! This evening, while sitting in my hammock, watching the field bees come in, I discovered that this was the middle of a bee freeway straight from that tree to the hives. There had been evidence of honeybees (and other bees) in there from time to time, and the pollen packs I had been seeing on the legs of bees at the hive entrances seemed to be of the same over-the-top yellow as the center of those blooms. Bees do not like people to hang out in the flight path, however, and the level of activity in that tree was brought home to me by the degree of displeasure at my presence. No stings, just a lot of that emphatic "What the heck are YOU doing here!" insistent buzzing around my head. I have dark hair, and that is a trigger to bees that hollers "potential predator!" Therefore, guard bees spend a lot of time around my face and head, and I generally cede the field.

Not that this makes me avoid field bees, or anything. When walking around, I tend to poke my head into everything blooming to see if any pollinators are in there. Interestingly, there is hardly ANYONE in white crape myrtles, but the pink ones have a following. And readers, if you want to do the bees a favor, please include coneflowers in your gardening plans. Begonias and impatiens do not seem to cut it. All this flower watching has given me a completely new (but related) blog idea: a daily chronicle, with pictures, of what the bees are eating around here.

But now for business: a catch up for those of you who would like more data on how the colonies are doing.

The short version is that Twain continues strong, but increasingly cranky, and Wilde is showing progress, but the seasonal signals are working against them I think.

Twain "donated" the two frames of honey that got extracted a week ago, and therefore the cursory check I wanted to make revolved around honey stores and whether or not a mistake had been made. The colony was busy capping the full deep that was just nectar last week, so I think they are going to be fine. A book I read said that every frame of a deep is 7 pounds of honey, so that means there is 70 pounds in that box alone. They will need to consume some to get through August, but they probably have over 100 lbs. again. (MaryEllen straightened me out on honey measurements: a pint of honey is way more than a pound, so I was worried for no reason). Today, I noticed something that has probably been true for a while, accounting for some creative comb building in Twain: one of the rear corners of the hive is tilted off the hive stand. I need to fix that, maybe this Tuesday before leaving for vacation, but this is no minor errand. Did I mention three boxes with more than 100 lbs of honey, with three more boxes home to 60,000 bees? *Sigh*

In another book, from MAAREC I think, I read that a colony needs a minimum of 14 deep frames covered with bees to survive the winter. As of Thursday (July 21), Wilde had 14 medium frames, and had eaten up all it's sugar water again. The queen is filling every cell she can get, and she really seemed to like those frames from the capped brood that got transfered over a few weeks ago. Her own kids are not building comb in any regular manner, but I think that is because of the seasonal signals they are receiving. Comb is built during the Spring, with cooler temps and a rampant nectar flow. These girls are getting a bunch of pseudo nectar, but these may be the highest temperatures of the year. The crape myrtle is ready pollen for brood rearing, but I actually ordered some more pollen patties to put on when those flowers are gone. I am hoping to get the population up during that lovely interlude in September. I may move just a bit more brood from Twain, too. I gave the girls in Wilde the last of my empty hive bodies, a deep, because in the top medium box (of three that they had) the workers were storing honey, something that environmental signals are probably screaming for them to do. Imagine all their senses telling them, "Midsummer! Fall's around the corner! Winter after that! What's in the pantry?"

Finally, we are going to be travelling, starting on Tuesday, and I am hoping that the shipment of pollen patties, along with a few more medium boxes and frames, gets here before we leave. It would be more comfortable if Twain had just a bit more elbow room, and if I could feed them just one more time. When we get back, I need to think about testing for varroa and administering menthol for tracheal mites.

If you have any swat with the powers that bee, please ask them for a good Goldenrod flow this year, and right after the crape myrtles, if possible. I want the girls to be busy while I'm gone.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Busted with a Capital Bee

roofersOn Monday, I awoke to what seemed to be the Royal Lipizzaner Stallions tap dancing on the ceiling. I was close. It was a group of contractors pulling up the entire surface of the next door neighbors' roof.

Can one's heart sink and one's nerves race at the same time?

The picture shows the roofers a few days later. My hives can be seen from the little copper roofs cleverly camouflaged by all the butterfly bushes and coneflowers I put there. This technique does not work from 4 feet away, in case you are wondering.

So I pulled myself together with a little pep talk. "They might not be from around here," meaning that they would not know anyone to tell or would not take much personal umbrage. "Just act like you would if the hives were bird feeders," was my final self-counselling: demonstrate an extreme lack of interestingness or anxiety related to the hobby...after all, fear is contagious. What I really believed was, after four years of having the roofline all to myself – and not taking proper advantage of it – not even four months into the pursuit of an odd little private passion, I had company.

Those who would indulge in hanky-panky should consider themselves warned by my example!

A few minutes–and a session with a hairbrush – later, I strolled up the spiral staircase to the roof, ostensibly to water the plants. I was greeted with, "Hey! Are you doing it for the honey?" And a big smile. I introduced myself, explained it was kind of more for the bees and the environment than for the gold stuff, and that I would be happy to work with him if the bees were in the way ("HOW?!" I shouted internally).

He said that the gals were no problem at all, should his crew just not wear certain colors, or something. I said that colors were no issue, that major rumblings or bumpings at the immediate location of the hives would be the only potential source of annoyance, and he said there should not be any.

Of course it is hot, and the bees are in a witchy mood, so I decided to hang around a lot and be sure.

We made it through the week with no stings, and I even had to open Twain a little to put back those frames and add some sugar syrup. I also gave syrup to Wilde and took a little look. But more on bee status in the next post.

The roofers were really interested, and definitely not freaked, even when I had the hives open. I think they think my roof is in danger, and they may be right. But I would like to get their card. They do good work, and maybe they could build me a reinforced pad next year.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Driven to Extraction

my honey 2005This Wednesday, the gentleman running our beekeeping club meeting put a bee in my bonnet (no wincing now, you have been repeatedly warned about the puns). There is a special beginning beekeeper category at our county fair, and Mr. Miller informed me that a special dispensation from Saint Modomnoc was given to novices who wanted to extract two frames of honey for fair entries.

(My friend Megan built a bee shrine for me, invoking the blessing of Saint Modomnoc, who was a beekeeper while a novice and whose ship was followed by a swarm of bees when he returned to Ireland. He is not so much the patron saint of beekeepers as the bees themselves. Maybe all that buzzing is not just inter-bee conversation after all.)

You might remember that MaryEllen invited me to help her extract this year, and that was something she set up for this weekend. This is all good. I asked her what she thought of this first-year extraction gamble, and she said it was not such a crazy idea. When developing colonies from packages of bees – bees, like mine, that arrive in a box with no honeycomb or honey or resources of any kind – you are not supposed to have a honey harvest the first year, so the whole thing seemed dubious, and, well...TEMPTING.

So I went upstairs, pulled two frames from Twain, got (rightfully) stung once, and brought the spoils over to MaryEllen's, where we spent the afternoon – with her husband Doug, a miraculous configurator of jigs for frames and screen boards, BeeCool knock-offs, and home-brew wine – pulling frames out of frenzied hives, peeling beeswax from the purloined frames, and whirling them in their very-own extractor. They very kindly let me do mine first, and, using their refractor, informed me that my moisture content was at 17.0: acceptable!

We managed to set aside time for a honey tasting (featuring star thistle, sunflower, and less palatable entries!) as well as chortling over various pets.

Finally, I was sent home with a food safe bucket that contained nearly three pints of honey! Two went into jars, and the remainder went on the counter, down the side of the bucket, around my elbows, onto the floor, over this morning's yogurt, and (eventually) into a series of spoonfuls for the bottler and her considerably less-sticky husband.

This figure of three-ish pints was very important to me. As my uncle Darold taught me, "a pint's a pound the world around," and this means that each of the three medium boxes contains only 15 pounds of honey. That is a bunch less than I thought. This means, I guess, that the one deep hive body on Twain has only 25-30 pounds (gosh it feels like more). All told, that means I have about 70 pounds of honey on hand, not the 100 pounds previously thought. Gonna have to feed those girls like the Dickens and hope for lots of goldenrod.

You might wonder, "How did the first harvest taste?" This would be a very intelligent wondering, as much of what the bees upstairs ate was the sugar syrup we gave them, a substance low on those nature-made floral scents and sugars that make honey interesting and unique. Well, I think it tastes lightly floral, and it has a pale golden color. Next year it will almost certainly have more character, and maybe more color. Right now I am considering the tiny little specks floating in the jarred liquid, hoping that they are just air bubbles slowly making their way to the top through my appropriately low-moisture elixir. After all, don't want points off at the Fair.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Bees on Earth

bee working sunflowerMostly the worker bees from both colonies, Wilde and Twain, take off straight up into the air, and it's impossible to trace where they are headed. Walking around the neighborhood, it is rare indeed to see a honeybee at work. Except lately.

We seem to be in a special middle interlude of summer right now. Earlier in the year, there were lots of tiny flowers blooming at the tree level: buds for fruits and seeds, in the hundreds of thousands really, far above our heads where we don't usually think about critter life taking place (plus or minus the odd bird song). The bees were up there, busily out of sight. Soon, the crape myrtles will truly take over for a few weeks, into early August. They look like tall, tree-like lilacs, but their blooms can range from white and light pink all the way to purple.

But right now, most of the blooms to be had are at eye level. Some, literally so, like this sunflower that was planted by the birds. My disorganized back garden has a crazy row of the things: once in Mexico they told us that the corn plant was considered a gift from the gods, so to this day Maya landscape workers often refuse to cut misplaced volunteers when mowing grass or road margins. You can go down a road and see one tall corn plant standing by itself, tassles and all. I feel that way about the sunflowers.

The birds dropped these seeds when flying away from the feeders last winter, and bees of all kinds have been frequent visitors. Every seed in a sunflower is a result of an individual pollinator visit, so there is plenty of work to go around. It seems like dozens of different bees, butterflies, (funky) wasps, yellow jackets, and unclassifiables have been visible at every time of the day. It is hard to see the bee in the sunflower above, because her golden body with deep brown stripes is a great fit for that blossom.

Paonias excaecata I thinkAlso filed under "glad I hate to weed" is the wild grape vine that has been allowed to climb the garden wall. The plant is a nasty invasive, eating entire forests around here, but last year it yielded an unusual visitor. A moth the size of a Cessna flew into the house late one night, literally causing me to duck under a couch cushion. It appears to be a "blinded sphinx," and it likes to lay its eggs on the wild grape vine. So I didn't pull the vine this year. The flowers were never very noticeable before, but yesterday the entire vine was covered in honeybees as well as natives, making quick work of the thousands of tiny blooms that this prolific reproducer keeps on hand. My work is probably cut out for me, if I want anything else at all to be growing in that garden next year, but my neighbors on the other side just planted something worse: bamboo. Perhaps this is nature's way of meeting an irresistible force with an immovable object.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Sending Dead Bees to Beltsville

comparing native beesSometimes, when completing the morning rounds of watering plants and watching the bees wake up, I find dead non-honeybees around the colonies, especially near Twain. Since Queen Ellie is such a potent potentate, and the Bee Cool units (used to help ventilate the hives when temperatures are high) vent so much of the internal air with her pheromone in it, they mostly collect around her domain. For some reason, it was very hard to get a good picture of my new collection of dead bees. My hubby took these for me.

Mostly, my patient friends react to my new bug-eyed fascination by nodding, and taking a couple of steps back when I stick what looks like a pile o'bees under their noses. But maybe this photo can help explain the differences I am seeing, and the questions they bring to mind.

First, the bee at the lower right is a honeybee, slightly smaller than in life because she dried out a bit. Above her, from right to left, are a Carpenter Bee, and then two true bumblebees who seem to belong to the same species. Finally, at left, is an enormous Mystery Bee that literally stopped me in my tracks. As much as my mind has been changing on the subject of insects, the latter reaction was straight from the flight-or-fight centers of what counts for my brain.

In real life, the Mystery Bee looks a whole lot like a bullet with wings and a stinger. It is at least four times the size of the honeybees I am used to. I hummed a couple of feminist anthems while (successfully) urging myself to pick it up.

closeup of big beeWhile working at the festival, I brought these pictures to a Master Beekeeper who was volunteering with us: Dr. Brenda Kiessling. She explained to me that every colony attracts native bees, and that these were probably drones (reacting to Ellie's enormous female mojo, no doubt). But drones don't have stingers... So what's up with the big one?

She suggested that I send the bee, and another individual if I could find one, to Dr. Bart Smith in Beltsville, where the US Department of Agriculture has a bee research project. It should be packaged in alcohol, if possible.

She also says that the Mystery Bee may not really have a stinger. There are lots of critters in the world who pretend to be scarier than they really are: flies that imitate bees, snakes with fake eyes on the back of their heads. I have decided not to test the faux-stinger hypothesis: while trying to take my version of these photos I was stung by a dead honeybee (quashed her under my wrist while positioning the camera). FYI: the trigger mechanism is clearly mechanical: no operator intervention was required.

So today I will be looking for a little alcohol-tight box (or two), and will continue fantasizing about the rare, prehistoric or incipient bee species that has chosen to inhabit the immediate environs. Unless it is a weird fly.