Monday, August 29, 2005

Robber Bees

bee confrontation cartoonThe bee population in these parts has been acting weird since last week, and the time finally came to determine whether there was really something wrong. However, if I knew how to formulate such a conclusion myself, I would not have needed so much determination. So I posted this on our beekeeping club's online bulletin board for beginners:

Date: Thu Aug 25, 2005  7:24 pm
Subject: Fighting Bees in Late Summer
Over the past week, there has been an increase in bee-to-bee combat: does anyone know what the cause could be, whether it is significant, and what I should do?

Probably the main questions are:
  • Is this a heat-related or seasonal behavior?
  • Is this a human management problem (like robbing)?
  • Is some intervention advisable?

I noticed a bit of fighting after working the bees last week. I had moved two frames of brood from my strong colony to my weak one, and after found a few dozen dead bees. It seemed possible that I had transferred too many bees with the brood or had not let the frames stand long enough before moving them.

But today, a week later, after cleaning up and feeding more sugar water, another (but smaller) number of dead bees appeared. I saw two fights, though they appeared to be drones getting beat up (the other dead bees were workers). Also, the fighting seemed concentrated around the stronger of the two colonies, not the one that received brood.

After such nice days, lovely cooler weather, and a plentiful sugar water supply, it seemed odd for something that seems stress-related to appear. Your thoughts welcome!

I also posted the query to And got the same answer. Which was:
  1. I screwed up by allowing any bees at all to transfer with the new capped brood: they might put up with it in Spring, but not in late Summer; and
  2. My feeding, by being at the wrong time of day (not early AM or evening) and with too many openings in the weak hive, had triggered some robbing.

So like a good little girl, I did a couple of things: on Friday evening I closed the second entrance to Wilde, and I cast baleful looks at Twain. Ta-Dah.

Big whoop.

On Sunday (8/28), I went up around 11 AM (notice how I still had not learned my lesson?) and there was a full scale robbery on: hundreds of bees in a cloud at the entrance to Wilde, a brawl, carnage, awful, and MEAN.

The previous excuse for a response had not been enough. So I quickly put in an entrance reducer on the only remaining opening in the weaker colony, and fed the heck out of Twain (home of the bloody minded bees). AFTER running downstairs in desperation, logging into my computer to get information and advice, I learned that Italian honeybees are well known for this behavior. Apparently everyone knows. I must have been late for class that day...

So today I worked out how to make an anti-robbing screen, another item which – if I had been paying attention – could have prevented the whole apiary cataclysm in the first place. You can see the details in the "Thwarted" photo page at right.

Finally, in order to churn some good out of this, I wrote a little article on this comedy because our club newsletter requested submissions. If there are more misconceptions, I hope they edit them out. The unexpurgated version is pasted below. Sigh.

The Thieves of August

Guilt, blame, and recrimination are such ugly experiences, yet they are the most natural things in the world at the scene of a crime. I'm talking about theft, assault, and murder, all taking place between neighbors and sisters. What is the world coming to? Late summer, my friends.

Yesterday morning my apiary became a bit of a killing field. By 11 AM, it was all abuzz with a full scale robbing attempt by the strong upon the weak. My gangbuster Italian colony was attacking my poor struggling Carniolans, and what was meant to be a peaceful Sunday morning bee feeding in front of curious visiting family members turned into another round of beginner scrambling.

Since hindsight is 20-20, problems in this picture are already becoming clear. Who demonstrates beekeeping in August? Why had my bees been aggressive even after the temperatures cooled? In times of nectar dearth, what was I doing opening hives or feeding in the middle of the day? Why didn't I know that Italian honeybees are notorious robbers?

And it gets worse. There had been other warnings. But here might be the main point: for the beginner, so much of beekeeping is to know what you are seeing. Let us not overlook a more subtle point: you also need to know what you should not be seeing. This is very hard to teach in a short course. This is very hard to teach without benefit of a late summer dearth of nectar. But sad experience is a great instructor. But maybe I can tell you what happened at this particular crime scene, and you can undertake a more successful neighborhood watch.

The perpetrators were first spotted fighting with unidentified bees shortly after the beekeeper messed up the process of moving two frames of brood between colonies in early-mid August. This seemed like a turf war, one gang eliminating some interlopers from their territory (something the beekeeper should have done ahead of time). Except that was only part of it.

There was also suspicious activity for some time at the back entrance of the smaller colony, a group that had never been all that keen on their sugar water before, but had taken to importing suspicious quantities. Law enforcement attempted to identify the suspicious characters frequenting the back door to the establishment, but found she was clueless.

As often happens in crime-ridden neighborhoods, gang members with crummy attitudes starting congregating in additional locations, annoying law-abiding citizens, including neighbors. Perhaps you could tell me what business honeybees had hovering over the floorboards of the back porch, occasionally bumping the sliding door and the exiting dog. A person on the street said, "Why are all these bees suddenly hanging out in my yard?" I got stung watering plants in the yard, and – for the first time – it was one of mine.

Finally, the Mid-August Massacre might have tipped off law enforcement. Dozens of dead bees carpeting the apiary between the colonies, more fights in plain sight. So I called in backup.

In the midst of this sorry saga, let us give thanks for the goodwill of experienced beekeepers, including those who answer queries on the MCBA bulletin boards and the good people at BeeSource. Because they were right that I was beginning to see robbing, but even being told did not help me to go straight.

Closing the back door to the weakened colony was not enough: common sense, not that I had any. That same afternoon, both colonies got more sugar water, since they are being raised from packages. This was the gasoline on the simmering coals of gang war.

I don't know how long the robbing went on, though there were only a couple of days between visits this time. There is an entrance reducer in place now, and I am going to make this groovy anti-robbing screen I found on bee source. I'm thinking I may not have a Carniolan colony anymore, but cluelessness can also mean pigheadedness, so I am still going to try to bring them along.

If any of this contains advice to wise, it would be:
  1. The bees of August are not the easy going girls of Spring, and you cannot treat them the same;
  2. Changes in bee behavior mean you are seeing basic shifts in the Bee Operating Protocol, that predictable pattern we need to manage them. Knowing when something is different is your only hope of bringing them back to that safe sameness we count on;
  3. Those particularities between bee families – like Italian bees rob and Carniolans tend to build population a little late for our area – can suddenly get really important, even to a beginner who did not pay enough attention in class; and
  4. An autumn Goldenrod flow would really help right now.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

On the Pleasures of Second Place

As you may have read here, first year beekeepers (like me) are not supposed to expect or extract a honey harvest. Our worker bees have got their papillae full just rearing new co-workers, building a new colony, and setting aside adequate stores for the winter.

But a single exception is made, or at least it was made when our beekeeping club was encouraging entries into the local county fair: a new beekeeper may extract honey from two frames in order to offer up a sample for the special newbee category. I did this with MaryEllen's help, and got me 2 jars containing maybe 5 pounds of honey. Translating this back into sugar water – you know, the stuff I feed them in order to make their work easier and faster – my entry started life as 3.5 gallons of nectar of one kind or another. That's a lot of work for critters who are maybe 2/3 of an inch long.

The fact that there was a special category really wasn't reason enough, nor was the (apparently universal) desire of a new beekeeper to see the fruits of her girls' labors, but the club itself seemed to need a good showing of interest, and that is what locked it for me.

There is a profound debt of gratitude in my heart: for the free class and the many hours of preparation, demonstration, and counseling that came with it; for organizing the monthly meetings with the guest speakers; for the newsletter and the field trips; and on and on. The club is also in a funny transition time, because the founding generation has retired from leadership and the kind of person who becomes a beekeeper is moving to include both the traditional biology fans and farmers as well as the Birkenstock set (like me). This reminds me strongly of the period when the Internet changed from a technical to a public forum, and all the sturm and drang that came with it. We live in times when folks are at each others' throats for much less: I'd like to sign up for a club that did not implode as soon as I joined it.

More personally, I've participated in the inadvertent extinction of several startups, a major reason why I have given up working just now. It's hard to pour your heart and best efforts into an endless battle for life, over and over. I want to do what I can to contribute to something that might thrive.

So, in summary, I entered because:
  1. I had permission;
  2. I had encouragement;
  3. I had the means;
  4. I had self-important philosophical stylings; and
  5. County fairs are fun.

And I won second place, which in this category was also last place. However, my score was just two off the winner, a 92 at that, and I was never one to sniff at A minuses in school. Plus the winner, Jim, is a totally good guy who has helped me with advice and just being good company at the meetings. Don't get me wrong, his favorite topic is his wife and kids. Let's just put it this way: losing to a better, more experienced beekeeper who is also a sterling individual is never bad.

Here's how the judges scored our honey, which was classed as "light amber:"
Winner (Jim)
Containers: Cleanliness and Appearance (out of poss. 10)
Freedom from Crystals (out of poss. 10)
Accuracy of Filling (out of poss. 10)
Cleanliness and Freedom from Foam (out of poss. 30)
Flavor: Downgrade only if something is wrong (out of poss. 20)
Density: Disqualify for water content above 18.6% (out of poss. 20)
Percent moisture content
Total points (out of poss. 100)

Jim gave me pointers on how to slay the foam problem, and I can fix up the container question just by going with regulation honey jars (Ball jars, while picturesque, are not The Thing). I'd like to point out that my moisture content is already better than his, though...

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Putting the Gloves On

empty cellsAfter a couple of weeks away – fourteen days of baking bees – I really wanted to check in, especially on Wilde, to see if the colonies were standing up to the high temps and low nectar flow of late summer in this area. They are clearly in a totally crappy mood. Guard bees are taking shots at me when I am on the other side of the roof, watering plants: there is no chance I can manage them bare handed right now.

Before leaving on vacation, I ordered two new medium deep hive bodies, some menthol for tracheal mite treatment, and a new (non-toxic) varroa mite medicine from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, and this had arrived precisely as I was leaving (late) for the airport. Well, all of it except for the "Api-Life VAR" varroa treatment, which I will have to reorder. I thought I had ordered pollen patties as well, but this apparently did not take place: pollen supplements might help the bees in Wilde rear more young faster, though I am not sure about this.

I need to paint the hive bodies before I can use them outside, and it is too hot for the menthol, so this check up will use the usual equipment – two hive tools, bee brush, smoker, fuel, lighter, veil jacket, two containers of sugar water, and ankle socks for tucking in my jeans. For the first time in a long while, I brought gloves. When I go up to the roof, I am carrying bags of stuff even when no new equipment is being deployed. I often look a bit spastic, trying hard to conceal the funky screen covering of the veil and the obvious shape of the smoker while going round and round a wrought iron spiral staircase.

I have placed a roof top storage shed on my must-have gift list. For those that are curious, that is. I prefer the one from Rubbermaid.

The photo above captures what seems to be the state of the colonies right now: it is a close up of a brood frame from near the top of the nest area in Twain. You can see nurse bees and brood at the lower right, and a band of empty cells above them to the left. There is still some honey stored in the corners. This means that the bees have been consuming the stores that had been packed in around the nest, and that these have not been replenished as fast as they were used. Adding sugar water today may help with that. I saw cells packed with pollen elsewhere, so maybe those pollen patties I was going to order would not matter. There were cells in the brood area itself that had no larvae or eggs, and Queen Ellie may be slowing her laying in response to these seasonal clues. Colonies often take a population dip in August, and add more in September.

These facts are for more worrisome for Wilde than for Twain. We have a real population deficit there, and it appears that nothing much happened to change that status while I was away. On the up side, nothing much happened while I was away: the girls are still there!

So today I decided to move two more frames from Twain to Wilde next week, something that will be easier to do once I get my new hive bodies painted and have some spare frames to substitute in. I am also hoping the temperature will be a bit lower: moving these hive bodies is pure murder with their heft, the heat, and how irritable the girls are when my motions are shaky or abrupt.

Home is Where Your Honey Is

copper roofWe got home on the oh-god-thirty flight from Boston, and as soon as I could get the (seemingly surprised) housesitter on her way, I mixed up some sugar water, gulped a few times and went to check on the girls.

While we were on vacation, a message came into my voicemail from the next-door neighbor with the amazing roof project: his crew had finally proceeded to the part of the project only 3 feet from the hive entrances, and they were getting stung. "Could you please call immediately and advise? We have a 'breathable' canvas that might work..."

Unfortunately, at that precise moment we were probably over Greenland.

So throughout the trip, when not actively bee-spotting the European cousins of my dear hometown buzzers, I had to actively banish all thoughts of what might have happened, whether the hives had been upset or damaged, whether the roofers had suffered similarly, or whether I was so absolutely, totally and irrevocably busted in my lame attempt at low-profile beekeeping that lawyers would be calling.

But, and you should be proud of me for this, I practiced a short mantra: "What is, is."

So what was up on the roof? By now you have probably checked out the photo with the museum-quality roof and the still-functioning colony before it. (That roof really is a work of art.) As of now, my neighbors have said very little to me about my apiarist obsession, but if memory serves they'll need our yard again later to install the museum-quality downspout. So perhaps we are all willing to pay the price of peace.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Note from the Road: A Better Place for Bees?

bee in red nasturiumFor the past couple of weeks, we have been on vacation in Europe. Highlights have included a visit with a real-life British beekeeper, purchasing honey from bees who live on the roof of the Paris Opera, and driving my family crazy with constant bee-spotting. This bee was working outside a small church in Warminster, Wiltshire.

It is much cooler weather-wise here than on the US East Coast, and I mean just about ANYWHERE on the East Coast. We have had nights in the low 50s (Fahrenheit) and no day has managed to break 80. This after flying away on a day when the temperature topped 100 and I prayed that the bee cool units would keep working for two weeks.

In England, France, and Germany (no, we were not in Belgium on Tuesday) the Hydrangeas are still blooming, and I would like to report the general ubiquity of buddleia. That's "butterfly bush" to those less annoying than me, a vigorous plant that attracts every kind of pollintor imaginable. The bumblebees mostly seem to have pretty white butts here, though there are some dark girls in the bushes, and the yellow jackets seem similar. The Germans told me that our word for bumblebee was better than theirs, and I told them that their weather is better than ours. Score one point for trans-Atlantic harmony.

Coming into Britain, there was a big picture of a honey jar with an X through it at Customs. This worried me no end. I asked everyone except the Customs people about it (why invite trouble?), but I might enquire on the way out, tomorrow.

Our friends, knowing of my obsession, arranged tea with a fellow bee enthusiast. The beekeeper we met in the English West Country had lovely woodenware that was kind of flared, if you can imagine that. I hope my pix come out. It was kind of odd in a way, I am so used to talking about what breeds o'bees that beekeepers are trying in the States, but he appears to have a healthy stock of wild bees around him, and naturally bred Queens that do just fine. It is just easier to be a bee on the Salisbury Plain.

From the railway between Paris and Stuttgart, every German town seems to have an abundance of pocket garden plots, perhaps a memory of those hard postwar days when a few vegetables (or jars of honey) could keep ones' children fed. Like the States, however, our German friends reported that general fear of bees kept apiaries out in orchards or rural hillsides, though I did spot at least one good sized set of colonies (painted blue) somewhere around Baden-Baden.

My luggage is now three jars of honey heavier as we prepare to return, admirable restraint if you ask me. Acacia, wildflower, and Paris City honey in case you are curious. I sure hope U.S. Customs isn`t.