Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Creeping Bees

creeping beeMy roof is a place of creeping bees, with dozens and dozens of them wandering about yesterday, and only a few trundling around today. The weather got cold last week, and yesterday the temperature got warm (up to 60 degrees F), so you might expect to see the girls out and aloft, but it's not clear to me what all this ambling means.

When it got cold, they formed a cluster inside their hives and probably did not go outside for days and days. The warm weather might have caused something a lot like what happens when you shampoo your hair after skipping a couple of days (let's just say you were camping, or perhaps holed up in a Parisian hotel in some kind of ardent 48-hour embrace). The tangle in the drain might convince you that you are going bald, but it is just the concentration of several days' deceased fall-out. Perhaps all those dozens of creepy crawly bees are the concentrated remains of the summer bees, finishing their 6-week run all at once. It's a little late, but until just 12 days ago it was a little warm.

But there might be another explanation or two, something other beekeepers have mentioned. Perhaps there is a problem mite infestation after all, or some kind of toxic exposure. Or perhaps (and I am sure this will come as a surprise...) it is my fault, that these are the bees who were weakened by our trip to the TV studio in non-optimal weather.

Well, I have medicated for everything, and what's done is done. Please though, if you have any pull with the authorities, put in a good word for my poor struggling Wilde Carniolan girls.

During the warm weather on Sunday, the bees were with me as I raked the leaves and cleaned the garden out front. It's like they had nothing to do, and needed to investigate the undersides of the leaves, the rhythm of the rake, and the cuts where I pruned off dead and dying branches and fronds. MaryEllen says her bees have been investigating her ears while she washes her car in the drive way. As proof that I listen to what she tells me, I dreamt about ear bees last night. Bonus: I also dreamt that I got a place to put three more colonies next year!

how to feed a beeFinally, to close the day, one of the creeping bees showed up in the bathroom. It's become easy to tell the buzz of a lost girl from the whine of a fly. It was far too late to put her outside, so I gave her a meal of honey-on-a-stick and put her in a box with a damp kleenex for the night. She was still alive in the morning, and I set the whole box outside. In an hour, she was gone: whether to home or the sunset, I do not know.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Bees On TV (Perhaps)

AP Green RoomThe cold season has arrived, with a thump, and most of the bee-oriented concerns revolve around temperatures and wind speed, and repeated reassurances (from self and husband) that honeybees have been through this before. For millenia. In even tougher locations. With less food. (Chant the former as often as necessary to reassert psychic well-being...)

Temperatures were actually my primary concern on the morning this picture was taken, November 19, 2005, in the Green Room at Animal Planet. We (the bees and I) were due at the studios at 1 PM to potentially participate in an upcoming special about people with weird pets. I'd responded to a call for stories, telling myself that it would be a good thing to get people to think about bees and see how wonderful they can be. What seems likelier, however, is that I had a double-secret underground agenda to be able to show that this beekeeping thing was as noteworthy a passtime as actually working for a living, something I will eventually have to start doing again.

The problem with the whole project was this: temperatures that topped 70 degrees F earlier in the week were not breaking 40 by Friday, and cold bees are dead bees. David, the president of the beekeeper's association of which I am a member, lent me the observation hive you see here, but I still would have to pop open a colony and move frames through the cold air into the warm box. I hovered around (as I do) all morning, planning to call in and cancel, and then, around noon, the Carniolans started to fly. These are the bees of Wilde, the weaker colony, the one I did not intend to bother. But there they were, and some quick research indicated that they were the more cold tolerant breed anyway. I grabbed three frames from a honey super, maybe 1000-2000 bees, less than I would have from lower down but also less risk to the queen and the colony as a whole. Plus these TV folks don't know nuthin anyway...it would still look like a bunch of bees.

My hubby drove me to the studio in the mini because it had GPS to guide us, but it was a horribly bumpy ride in such a tiny car. *Sigh* The guy in the picture with me is Ian, a production assistant, and I assure you that the production assistants are far nicer than the on-air staff and more deserving of being featured here. Only when working on the picture did I discover the lunatic quality of my hair (no makeup artist assigned to me!) In the Green Room, I got to hold a foot long African millipede and touch a Tarantula. Guess it was bug day. Once we were called to the studio, the sound guy got this look of wonder on his face and said, "Wow, I can hear them!" and I believe a bee fan was born.

The interviewer was kind of dismissive, I thought, but so what. I figured there was more potential that they would make me look like a whack job than a role model, and this seemed to confirm it. However, they did ask good questions, including what the bees had done for me. Never thought about that. I said that they had brought me wonder and connection, a sort of real time tuning-in to the world around me. At the end, the producer (I think that is what he was, he was also the camera man) told me that I was the only interviewer who was clearly enraptured with her critters. That sounds OK to me.

Best part: after the mikes and cameras were off, everyone in the room gathered around the bees, asking questions and making exclamations. Even the interviewer who put me off before could not resist. Go you golden girls!

If this segment is included, me and the girls will be on during Animal Planet's primetime programming on Valentine's Day. You heard the buzz first right here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What a A Long Strange Trip It's Been

colonies at end of seasonMonday was the day to remove the last packets of spent medication, take a sounding of how much honey was stored up for the winter, and step back for the quieter days of winter. The past few months have left me filled with wonder about the bees, as well as fuddled by periods of bad temper, knocked out by the weight of hefting the honey they have stored, confused about the what and when of medications, and gratified by the help and insight of my fellow beekeepers. Who knew I would be hanging out with a veil after all!

This is how the colonies look today. Just for a blast from the past, below is a photo they looked on the day that I installed the honeybees, April 9, 2005: colonies at beginning of season

Going into the hives, I realized that some of the honey disappearance that seemed to be going on was actually bee housekeeping: they move honey down to the bottom of the hive in the winter, into the area where they raise young bees in warmer weather. On cold nights – basically all nights now – they form a ball-shaped cluster over their stored rations. During the course of the winter, they munch upwards. One of the things I am supposed to look out for in the months ahead is whether the bees are nearing the top of the colony. If they do, it's kind of an all-battle-stations emergency to get them more food. Quick.

Monday's errand involved going all the way to the bottom of the Twain colony to remove the menthol packet which I should have grabbed before, and trying to find all of the screen packets of ApiLife Var anti-varroa medicine. After the last visit, I was a bit like a surgeon who is missing a scalpel, and fears the worst. I was also kind of curious about whether the girls had gone after the grease patties I tossed in, and I needed to be sure they were moved to the side (in order to stay out of the way of the cluster's upward movement in future).

We are going to be picture-heavy today, I think.

I started with Twain this time, taking on the heavy work first. The girls were pretty slow, I think because of the temperatures. Neither colony was particularly defensive. I thought I saw bees fighting, which would have been a bad sign, but it turned out to be workers kicking out relatively well-developed larvae. The bees have decided that they have the team they need to make it through the winter, I guess, so they are kicking out the young they cannot afford to feed.

twain's grease patty is etHere's the top of Twain's brood area: you can see those bumptious bees have totally wolfed down the grease patty that was in the middle. The light brown area in the center is the humble remains of the parchment on which it was sitting. The actual piece of paper is edged with little bee bites. I have already pulled the med packets out here, and thankfully there were only the right number. Putting things back together, the bees seem dazed, though. I think the low temps slow down their bee CPUs, and I have to be careful not to step on anyone.

twain's grease patty is et The voyage into Wilde came next. There is plenty of activity at the front door, maybe more than Twain, but these girls did not do much with their grease patty. I took away the med packets, pushed the patty to the side (broke it, though), and closed her up. A carpenter bee was hanging around Wilde, but it did not look like there was robbing. The top honey super seemed light, so I will give these girls some more syrup sometime (and hope they take it).

My work for the next months boils down to waiting for warm-ish days, then peeking inside to make sure that there are adequate stores. There will be few if any bees visiting me in the house for the next few months, and I will not be seeing them in the bird bath, or when I walk the dog. Sometimes I think of the honeybees as living sunshine, but we are now in the nighttime of the year.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Minding My Beeswax

beeswing in beeswaxThe three main products of the hive are (in approximate order) pollination, honey, and beeswax. The first is a service that my bees perform mostly for trees, wildflowers, and nearby urban gardeners, though the wild birds are probably pretty happy about the extra berries and fruits in the neighborhood. This year, the honey crop boils down to the pair of one-pint mason jars I entered in the fair, though it seems that the girls produced enough that we could have extracted more after all. Beeswax, however, still harbors some mysteries for me.

As a beginner, I found myself fumbling around with little bits of wax that did not seem worth keeping at the time, or which were curiousities I could show to friends at dinner parties. They mostly got lost along the way. As the colonies grew and I felt more confident, I saved a little, and began to wonder what to do with it.

beeswax raw and meltedIt turns out that most clued-in beekeepers have something called a solar wax melter into which they dump the beeswax bits and parings over the year, and the sun turns them into a lovely little pool of wax. Upon asking where one gets such a thing, most of the beekeepers in my club start going on about table saws and routers and all those things that I don't have in my basement, but perhaps I can buy one next year...preassembled like all my other bee gear. The second picture gives you an idea of how beeswax scrapings compare to melted wax. The variance in color is ultra cool, to my mind. The bees have dirty little feet from running around in the same world in which we live, and the wax varies in color depending on whether it is from a comparative bee highway, or maybe a newly paved suburban cul de sac.

raw beeswax with beeEven after you melt the wax, however, there is this small problem of bee bits. The top photo shows a beeswing preserved in wax. I opted to melt a handful of beeswax in water using a double boiler, and got a lovely yellow disk with the odd bee leg or wing floating near the top, and some undefined scunge on the bottom (I broke a bit and turned it over so you could see).

Now, beeswax candles take much more wax than I collected this year, so I have the alternative of making neat-o projects like lip balms and lotions. I have enough for that. Folks seem less inclined to use face cream that has bee legs in it, though, not to mention anonymous brown bumps. So I need to figure out what to do.

Apparently, most beekeepers pare off the brown stuff, which I suppose I could do, and sweatshirting is a good filter for the bee bits. After the paring and the filtering, though, I wonder what I possibly could have left.

All this may result in a cosmetic achievement which is only the size of a ChapStick, but if there is any, you will see it here.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Grease is the Word

last meds plus grease pattyToday was the appointed time for placing the last round of autumn medications on the bee colonies. Just to recap, I chose to use medications for tracheal mites, nosema, and varroa mites, and the remedy I chose for the latter required that I open up the hives three times, at intervals of a little more than a week, and place wafers impregnated with essential oils right over where the bees are hatched.

Since my last visit, I did some reading about the use of "grease patties" to help with mite infestations. The patties are a one-to-one (by volume) mix of granulated sugar and vegetable shortening (like Crisco). You mix up a lump of about 1/4 cup and then place it on a slip of wax paper inside the colony. It seems that the tracheal mites in particular, but perhaps the varroa , also, have a hard time hanging onto greased up bees. It's also a way to feed them sugar at the end of the season, when they are less inclined to take syrup.

The picture above shows you the patties on a paper plate, along with my ziploc bags of ApiLife Var wafers-to-go.

Just like last time, I did the Wilde colony first, and things seem to be OK in there. The bees in both colonies have been nibbling at their winter honey stores, so I think I may bring a last blast of 2:1 sugar syrup on my next visit. Mystery of mysteries, though: when I left the roof I could not find the old, spent wafers from Wilde. My guess is that they somehow got stuck to something, and may have ended up back inside a colony, probably Twain. This did not seem enough cause to break the colonies down again, though it really makes me wonder where my brain is.

The picture from Twain below shows its grease patty in place with the last round of ant-varroa wafers. The bees seem pretty relaxed in there, and there are still quite a few of them. I took some more pictures while I was in this colony, because the girls were in a good mood and the light seemed to make everything look beautiful. You can see those supplementary shots via the link on the right.

meds in place on Twain colonyBecause I could not resist, I pulled a frame from the deep honey super inside Twain, and they had emptied one side of the first frame. That's 4.5 pounds of honey, an amount that they can (more than) replace if they take another feeding of syrup from me in 12 days — the time I am scheduled to return and remove all my packets, and begin the long quiet winter time.