Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sugar and Fondant

bees with granulated and powdered sugarYou've seen me going on and one about the two main winter beekeeping issues around here: food stores and mites. This is the most interesting picture I could show you about how I've been trying to look after both.

This is a peek through the inner cover of the Wilde colony on my roof. The bees inside are covered in powdered sugar, and the cover itself is holding about 4 pounds of granulated cane sugar. The powdered sugar is a non-toxic mite control method: the varroa mites seem to be unable to hang onto powdered bees, and they fall off (hopefully leaving the lives of the bees altogether). The bees soon clean themselves off, and get a bit of a snack in the bargain. MaryEllen (the beekeeper, not the colony) points out that this method is kind of like flossing your teeth, though: you need to do it over and over to get much benefit.

bees with powdered sugarVery soon after sugaring up the bees, white-covered bees began emerging from the hive entrances, though this is just a close up from the top of a hive. To properly apply the sugar, you should remove each box, powder the top, place the next box on top, powder it, and so on. I am afraid to manipulate the bees much in cold weather: I could break the cluster, or expose the queen, or do some other typically awkward thing at a time when the bees have few options. So, for the sake of doing something, I put on the powder and then made another oxalic acid application.

bees with granulated and powdered sugarThe granulated sugar is a winter feeding method suggested by a beekeeper at the state meeting last month. Bees often stop taking sugar syrup when the temperature reaches freezing, but they will (apparently) creep up on the inner cover and grab some dry sugar when the need arises. You can put a shim on top of the cover, and then place the telescoping cover. I'm a little unsure of whether this is worthwhile, for a couple of reasons. The first is that I don't personally know any beekeeper who does this, and the second is that the bees will need some source of liquid water in order to access the sugar as a food source. This latter is also a concern when offering them fondant (bee candy), however, and I know that they take fondant just fine.

As an example, here are two pictures of fondant. The first is a flower-shaped (broken) brick of bee candy newly placed on the Cockrill hive at the mill. The second is a picture of a brick of fondant MaryEllen put on the neighboring Millard hive a week or so before. Chew chew chew!

fresh fondant for mill bees
ME mill bees and fondant

At the state meeting, the most experienced beekeepers agreed about one thing, as winter approaches: after 100 million years, bees don't freeze to death during winter, they starve. We've had warm temperatures, and I have seen bees flying almost every day and only the rarest of flowers in bloom. Though applying the oxalic acid to save the bees from mites will require 15 unique applications, it appears that far more of my time will be spent this year dishing out the sugar.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Unexpected Bee Death

dead bees

Soon after the new roof was installed, I noticed bee bodies piling up, mostly around Twain. It was hard to avoid the question: "Is the new roof killing the bees?" It was even harder to figure what the solution would be if I have an apicidal roof.

This is going to be one of those posts with lots of questions and muttering and head scratching, just so you are warned.

Initially, the first issue that hit me was that mostly Twain was affected. There were some dead bees around Wilde, but only in numbers that I associate with end-of-the-season dwindling. If the roof were killing bees, wouldn't both hives be affected similarly?

I remembered that Twain, being heavier, took a few extra shots while being moved for the construction, and also that with its larger population, that colony would show dwindling more obviously. However, this was very out of proportion. Was it robbing? David, the pumpkin-farming beekeeper for whom I am doing a web site, says it is always his strongest, largest hives that have the hardest transition to winter, often getting robbed in the process. Whenever I see robbers, I always wonder whether old Queen Eleanor and the girls are still around nearby, somehow surviving wild.

Finally, I remembered that at this time last year came the Time of the Creeping, when hundreds of sick, mite-bitten bees came crawling out of Twain. I "saved" them then by knocking down the mites, but the virus that caused the illness is still in there, mixed in the wax and the propolis and the bees' bodies themselves. With their increased cold weather confinement, was there an epidemic of Paralytic Mite Syndrome (PMS)?

To come up with any answer at all, it was necessary to get more data. The first thing was to sweep away all the existing bee bodies, and determine whether the die-off was continuing. This turned out to be hard to manage, because just enough rain fell at just the wrong time to make it hard for me to sweep around the hives. I needed to sweep in the twilight because waving big sticks around beehives is considered QUITE the provocation during business hours, and any later I would be unable to see a thing. I needed the roof to be dry, or I would just sweep wide swathes of mashed bee around the place – very disconcerting and sad.

My chance came about a week ago, and I swept the dead girls off to the other side. When dealing with dead bees, I try to toss their bodies up into the air, toward the sun, a kind of last flight and a thank you for all their hard work in their short lives. Sweeping them into a dust pan was a heartsore thing.

As of now, it appears that the bee death has stopped. If the roof was off-gassing, either temperature or time has caused that to diminish. If PMS was killing the bees, this month's oxalic acid application has perhaps curtailed its spread. There is still a daunting mite drop. If the dead are actually robbers, the thieving colony has either clustered now or lost too many bees to continue. Our weather has been awfully warm, too, with sudden cool-downs, and it is possible that the bees got caught outside at the wrong time. We had one afternoon when the temperature dropped 40 degrees F in two hours.

I keep wishing that it was more clear what a "normal" year would look like: to have an expectation of when dwindling would occur and what it would look like, to understand how heavy with stores the hives should be, and how much activity I should be seeing. But there is no such thing as a normal year, and urban rooftops are not often factored into your "normal" beekeeping expectations. These weird warm days are actually horrid for the bees in a light honey year like this, too, because they keep flying (and, potentially, trying to rear young) when there is almost nothing for them to forage.

But it must be said that the news is good, though answers are scarce. Whatever killed bees seems to have stopped, and there are still enough girls to make the winter. I will have a job of knocking down mites and topping off stores, but I like having something to do for them.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Light in the Winter

beeswax hannukah candlesSurprise, surprise: the bees are the lens through which I see the midwinter festivities now, and our celebrations are brightened (even literally) by the bees' presence and presents.

While rolling dozens of candles (pillars, votives, pagan trees...) to hand out to friends and family, it suddenly hit me that I could make Hannukah candles! We usually miss a night or two, so we had enough left over candles to cover about half of the nights this year. It only took about 20 minutes to roll up another coupla dozen more!

all three honiesBut we have an equal opportunity attitude to holidays around here, so I was also noodling around with bee-based gift baskets, and figured out an interesting way to present the three different colors of honey produced by the roof, monastery, and mill apiaries this year. MaryEllen gave me some special pastry plastic, and I taped together "flights" of honey: the lightest from the monastery, the medium from the roof, and the darkest from the mill. I also labeled some single-source jars for people whom might just like to have a usable amount of a single honey (rather than three somewhat impractical samples).

beeswax candles in menorahWith apologies for the blown-out quality of these pictures, here's our final result. The menorah looked homey and glorious with the beeswax candles, though they did not burn as long as expected. The gift baskets included honey, candles, soaps, and a bag of Honey Pecan "Crackerjack," a first-time thing for me that seems to have come out OK. The recipe is below (with instructions about embellishments in parentheses).

gift basketAll this craftiness was intended to simplify and refocus this special time, though it must be said that gift baskets are way more time consuming and kitchen-destroying than a trip to the mall. It's hard not to hope rather TOO hard that people will particularly like the effort, and perhaps to get too personally wrapped up in it all. After all, even when the goodies come from the girls, it is not about the stuff.

Honey Pecan "Crackerjack"

  • Stick of butter
  • 1/2 cup of honey (you can almost double this for extra sweetness)
  • batch of air-popped popcorn (about 3 quarts)
  • 1 cup of pecan pieces (or even 1 1/2 cups)
  • two cookie sheets (the ones with raised sides are best)
  • Optional: ziplock bags for packaging


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F

Melt butter in a saucepan with a thick bottom (burning is the enemy here). Stir in honey until blended, and keep it warm but NOT boiling.

Spread the plain popcorn on the cookie sheets (which I lined with silicone baking sheets, a help at clean up time). Sprinkle the pecan pieces over the popcorn.

Using a ladle, dribble the hot butter and honey mixture as evenly as you can over the popcorn and nuts. Use a plastic or wooden spoon to mix the nuts, popcorn, and sauce until everything is coated.

Place cookie sheets in oven for ten to fifteen minutes, depending. You want the mix in long enough to carmelize as much as possible, but not to burn.

Take crackerjack out of oven and pour into a bowl to stop cooking. When cool enough, begin spooning into ziplock bags, squeezing out extra air and sealing. Tie a ribbon around the bag and you are done!

Makes between 20 and 24 ounces of sweet stuff, depending on how free you were with the nuts and honey.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Bees at Thanksgiving

My daily family life is usually made up of Sam, my bees, my pets, and a beekeeper or two. This Thanksgiving, however, our table was set for 16! Yet another reason for thanks: we did it potluck style. And the third reason: people did not want to head home the next day before visiting with the girls.

Usually, no one under the age of 10 is allowed on the roof, mostly because I am too distracted by the bees to keep toddlers from toppling off the edge. Since all the parents were just as interested as the kids this time, solemn oaths were performed concerning child retention and my inability to cope with the guilt of any untimely demise(s), and the parents looked after their kids when we tromped up the spiral staircase. This picture shows pre-bee family. Up front, in a spare veil, is Duncan, to his left is Uncle Joe, and behind are the female cousins (for now).

cousins gather around

Now you see us all gathered around a honey frame I took from Wilde in order to show everyone where the sweet stuff really comes from. Interestingly, you can see that the only young one who is in danger of falling off the edge is my husband. My cousin Anna took these pictures.

It was hard to actually show them bees, because the day was too cold for them to fly in any numbers. Happily, when I popped the top, the bees were down low in the hive (where they are supposed to be at this time of year). If they are up top, it's a sign that they are low on stores, and have already tapped into the stuff that they placed farthest from their starting point in the bottom box.

intrepid cousinBoth of my cousins, Maria (shown here) and Anna (taking the picture) are teachers, and they immediately expressed interest in the bees as a learning tool for kids (I guess it's genetic for us to immediately decide "the kids gotta hear about this!") As I went back to put away the honey frame, Maria came along to take a peek. Note the lack of veil, fear, gloves, etc. She even leaned over and took a good long sniff of wonderful bee essence. One of my favorite things, and something missed in winter, is the warm sweet cloud of scent that wafts up whenever you open a beehive. Now she knows what I mean, too.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Am I Blue?

ribbons on honey jarsBlue comes in a coupla forms, actually. First, something I meant to mention this weekend: on Saturday, we had the state beekeeping association meeting, complete with a mini honey show. After scoping out whether there were any ants present, the judges gave the monastery honey a first in the beginner category for light color. The rooftop honey got a third for medium color in the same category. It is beginning to granulate, actually (more reason to eat it right away). This makes my collection of ribbons include a second (in a class of two), two fourths (in a class of four and of five), a third, and a first – a complete set, the last two actually meaning something. Interestingly, the wife of the judge who gave me the fourths said that THAT fair was overrun with ants this year. Hmmm.

The blue-er blue comes from the realization that several dozen bees (maybe more) died due to the roofing escapade. Some managed to leak out of the upper entrance to Twain (it seems that in trying not to expose them to too much duct tape, I allowed the industrious little arthropods to chew their way out) and they seem to have gotten too cold overnight. I tried to brush them back in, but they were too slow moving to walk onto the paper towel I baited with honey, and opening the top to toss in the few I could get seemed to let just as many crawl out. It was also after these oh-so-early sunsets, and I could not see a thing. It became clear that I was more likely to kill or crush girls than help them (again).

On the plus side, the roofers gave me reinforced pads that they said would not absorb water and helped me place the hives on them. They also gave me a walkway to the hives.

When I went up at around 3:30, there were foragers flying in and out of both entrances, packing pollen, so the colonies seem to have re-oriented OK. Let's hope this is all to the good!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New Roof Trifecta

roof guysIn August of last year, roofers next door outed the bees to our south-side neighbors, resulting in just 4 months of undetected beekeeping. Luckily, those neighbors are a little paranoid, too; they also thought the bees were cool, and decided to keep the matter to themselves. Then, this Spring, the north side neighbor got a new roof, and I became really worried, because Kathy is a normal, well-adjusted person with children and her reactions would therefore be alien to me. But it turns out that her roofers never told her, and as a result I outed myself last month (sort of) and she was kind of happy about the whole thing.

And now our roof leaks have reached critical (Editor's note: the leaks are nowhere near the beehives), so we have a team of roofers doing their thing up above today. The nice thing is, they like bees.

Messing with a roof is usually complicated these days – we have a satellite dish and a heat pump as well as a deck and some beehives up there. I've had a parade of workers tromping up there to disconnect and reconnect and move and otherwise get themselves introduced to the amazing life of urban rooftop bees. And here is the truth: between all the roofers north and south, the AC and the satellite guys, the folks who wrote up estimates for this and that, a total of over twenty people, not one single person had a breakdown over the bees.

Andre, the leader of the team up there today, was actually pretty excited. Back where he is from (El Salvador), lots of people keep a hive or two, and he had never seen a hive in the US. Juan, the (formerly) Dominican AC technician, used the bees as a reason to talk about his cat and aquariums he has known.

sealed beesBut you might be asking, what about the bees today? Well, they had to be moved onto the deck (which is not being messed with) and they had to be sealed in, because otherwise they would get lost.

The rule about moving bees is this: "either less than 3 feet or more than a mile." Bees build complex mental maps for where their home is located, basing them on things like large immovable landmarks and the angle of the sun. If you move a hive even 10 feet, the foragers will fly out, and then fly back to where their hive USED to be, hovering confusedly over the old spot. If you move them beyond their likely internal map, like 3 miles, they fly out, get confused immediately, and begin rewriting the map.

top view of sealed beesSo last night, after sunset (when all the field bees should be back home) I went up and blocked the entrances with plastic window screen material and duct tape, and covered the top with a screen that is usually used for added summer ventilation. Then you run a lashing strap around the hives (the kind with a clip that gets tighter as you tug on it, and you release by flipping a lever). The result is a bunch of hive bodies that are held tightly together while you pick them up by the handles on the bottom box.

Two guys moved the Wilde hive easily, though it was heavy enough. Things went a bit less well with Twain. There was still some water in the hivetop feeder (the side that didn't leak) and the guys staggered a bit when it washed over them. This joggled the bees quite a lot, and may have soaked some with cold, sticky sugar water. I hope no one was injured or gets sick from this! There have been some deformed wing girls emerging from Twain lately, and this is the colony (after the Mill girls) which concerns me most. Oh, I hope that Queen Abigail is OK.

The roofers agreed to build me a special reinforced pad and walkway to the bees, which is a good thing, and a place we may be able to move back to at the end of today. I'll take a quick look in tomorrow to see what the state of the colonies is after all this banging and moving.

November is as good a time as any for sealing up bees around here. There is little forage out there, and the bees are not so tightly clustered during the day that we were likely to crush lots of them when moving their homes. It's not so hot that they will overheat in there, either. The roof color should be lighter, now, so it won't get so hot in summer. If I can just keep them alive through this winter, it should be a nicer place to bee in 2007.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Feeder Leak, Ugh

stream of sugar from leaking feederYesterday was another feeding day, and Twain was the lucky colony... well, sort of. Remember how there seems to be a lot of bees robbing bees this year? Maybe I know why.

This morning, there was a stream of sugar water down the side of the Twain hive, along the roof, puddling at the side of the Wilde girls. Ugh. I knew something was wrong even before I got up there because I could see that wacky, hyper-caffeinated-but- clueless flight of robbers through the skylight.

Robbing bees are strangely insistent but dopey. It's as if their world gets unhinged: "Wait, you mean I don't actually have to WORK for food, that it just sort of shows up in great sticky pools that could form just ANYWHERE?" They literally act like over-amped American shoppers at a Walmart Christmas sale: trying to grab everything within a half mile all at once, with a halfway intention of taking care of their family, and an overstimulated inability to sort through the sudden onslaught of have-able desire-ables.

stream of sugar on roofRobbing bees make a different noise than your usual buzzing, and they tend to land all over you, checking to see if perhaps YOU might be a sticky pool of undeserved sugar forming directly in front of them. It's hard to move around without crushing bees, and besides the sadness of that, crushed bee smell is a motivator to get upset: just what you don't want in the middle of a cloud of over-stimulated felon bees.

bee flying head onOn the up side, while I was wading around the clingy bees, trying to develop a plan, I got a picture of this bee flying at me straight on. I was not trying for her picture: the camera tends to choose its own focal point, and she apparently was it. It's not great, but you can see her antenna on the left if you squint real hard.

I thought about just letting the bees clean it up, even though there was fighting going on. You see, almost anything I might do would be hard on the bees, too. But today is going to be very very warm, and the potential for a ten thousand bee melee (with yellowjacket accompaniment) was just too strong. So I turned the hose on mist, and tried to gently wash off the sugar, even though bees were still in it. Maybe that warm sun on its way will dry them off quickly and well.

So I hosed 'em down. All those robbers flew up in the air, and began to settle in a loose cloud on surfaces all over my roof and the neighbors'. By the time I started downstairs again they were back at their attempted theft: they won't give up for hours once they locate a source. I may go back up from time to time and sprinkle them again, if it seems to help control the mayhem.

From now on, it's a different feeder system for the rooftop bees.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Cold Weather Bee Feed

ingredients for november bee feedingOne pot, one kettle, and one ten pound bag of sugar equals a late autumn meal for one hive of bees. As the year winds down, beekeepers who want to ensure that the honeybees have enough stores for the winter mix 2 parts granulated cane sugar to one part hot water in order to make a heavy, honey-like syrup for the bees to sock away in the dwindling days left. The heavier syrup is supposed to signal to the queen that she should stop laying (if she hasn't already: some beekeepers around here say that in our climate she always lays a little through the winter) and the girls should get ready to cluster up and stay warm. By now, the drones are all gone, and things have become serious.

I've gone out and hefted my hives, and the rundown is like this:
  • The Carniolans in Wilde seem to be very heavy with stores, I can barely lift the back of the boxes. There is still a bit of mite drop;
  • The mixed-but-mostly Carnie colony in Twain needs more food, but is not at great risk. Some deformed bees are showing up, leading me to believe that they may be into the stores that have some virus in them. Low mite drop;
  • The Carniolan mill bees are kind of light and are still taking syrup. Worrisome mite situation;
  • The Italians in the Doug colony at the Monastery are a little light, but doing well for mites. Taking feed slowly, as usual;
  • The Carnies in MaryEllen are more vibrant, but could still use a bit more stores.

initial mix of two parts sugar to waterWhen at loose ends, I make food for the girls. This photo shows what 10 pounds of sugar looks like in about 5 pints of water, just out of the kettle. It's cloudly, and must be stirred for a while. The water must be hot to make such a super-saturated solution, and I boil it before pouring. You must never heat the sugar directly on the burner, however, because the bees cannot digest carmelized sugar and can get potentially deadly dysentery in that manner.

mix of two parts sugar to water after several minutesIn just ten minutes or so, the mixture becomes crystal clear. It has to cool before you use it, and once it does you sometimes get little floes of sugar ice floating on the top. It helps that my counters are stone and this pot is a thin, cheap one, because I can move it around on the countertop to make it cool faster.

This is about what I would give to one hive of bees in my usual hivetop feeder. The time it takes for the bees to eat it or store it varies with the temperament of the bees and the time of the year. Some hives don't seem to like to be fed, like Frances over at the monastery, or Wilde in the late autumn. I have a small ace in the hole stored in the basement, one medium with some half-filled combs, ready to be placed on top of a hive in need in February. These combs were pulled along with full ones during the honey harvest, one or two per hive riding along in honey supers that were mostly full. When I can no longer feed syrup, or if the girls refuse any candy frames they might get, at least I know that those may do the trick.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Last Presentation of the Year

local beekeeping calendarHere's a confession: this is a "pre-dated" post: as we are coming into the cold days, I seem to be slowing down, too (this post seems to be all up in my head, sorry). But here's a late update on our last presentation of the year out at the historic mill.

On this Sunday, the folks at the Mill asked us to participate in a day of activities at the mill, where residents of that suburban county were invited to stop by and take a look at the visiting blacksmith, to tour the mill itself (which needs repair after awful floods this Spring), to talk to we-the-beekeepers, and to sample some corn bread made with grain ground at the mill and topped with the girls' honey.

Apparently, the bees are still a kind of magic draw. Fifteen minutes ahead of time, the staff said that folks were up at the general store, asking where the bees might be. We probably had 75 people move through (or so the site manager said), more than usual for an autumn event. There's so much to do around here at this time of year, it's hard to get on family schedules.

MaryEllen made a brilliant display of hive products, an observation hive, and pieces of hive equipment, once again doing all of the heavy lifting. I supplied the handout above (you can click on the picture to download a full sized copy). The mill staff had apparently not really seen us in action before, and were pretty impressed. I think we may have made a couple of beekeepers, or at least friends of bees, and it was a good way to close the outreach year.

All around the mill, signs of the holidays ahead were beginning to creep in. A professional photographer was setting up on the grounds, and we wondered why, until family after family in "weekend best" arrived and began posing for their 2006 holiday greeting cards. It is a beautiful site. Inside, every once in a while the bees would go all buzzy in the observation colony, and we got to wondering whether there was some sound, vibration, or puff of smoke from the blacksmith working just outside that they could sense and we could not.

We were on from 2 to 4, and after two hours of talking we closed up and put away as the day got dark so soon. The leaves were still on the trees, but they were heading for sundown, too.

We both agreed that a load lifted off of our minds, with no more presentations ahead until next April at the earliest, and with almost everything we could do for the bees already in the past. I still want to shake some confectioners' sugar on those mite-infested mill yard bees, but have a nagging sense that my cards really have been played.

It's just sundown around here folks, a time to sort through what you think of what's just passed, and decide what to do with the quiet.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Return of Robbing

dead bees on roofEven though it has been quiet, I look in on the roof bees everyday — hanging around near the entrance, checking on activity levels, looking to see if any deformed bees are around. You see, this time last year the roof was mysteriously covered with bees creeping aimlessly around, and it turned out that the colonies had a raving Varroa infestation.

This year, not so many creepers... but over the past few days I had noticed a small uptick in deceased bees. This could have happened because of the rain, or because bees tried to stay out too late while the temperature dropped. There were also some drones, victims of their sister's decision to evict, and some deformed wings, so I did not think much of it. Sam and I had retrieved some more bees in the bathroom, too, so now I have another way to consider THAT, because...

Today I went up, and the roof was covered in hundreds (perhaps more than a thousand) of dead bees, and there was a clear robfest going on. Bees were fighting all around me, grouped around every crack in either hive, trying to get in. I was planning on giving Twain some more sugar today, but also ended up trying to take effective action to break the behaviour.

fighting beesOnce bees start to rob, they fight each other like the Dickens at every hive entrance. You can see them rolling around your feet like violent little honey-colored Yin/Yang symbols. They tend to persist, often because the robbing resulted from there being almost nothing else to do!

It looks like there have been battles this AM, but no successful thefts. I pulled the bottom boards to see if there was any torn-up wax (when bees rob, they rip the heck out of the honey cells of the victim colony, making far more damage and mess than the residents would). No sign of that in either colony. Just lots of fighting.

I already had entrance reducers in place, and all extraneous hive openings closed, so I was at a loss for what else to do. Hanging around, smoking would-bee robbers as they gathered around cracks seemed useless. I think Twain was the worse robber of the two, so I pulled up the top of that colony, and went about giving them sugar as planned. Some beekeepers say that opening the top of a robbing colony causes the guard bees to signal the foragers to come home and save the place. That did not seem to happen, since I think both colonies were frantically defending themselves against each other already, and the signal had long ago been given.

hive entrance restrictionsI have only one robbing screen, and two colonies, and it seemed important to balance my response so one colony would not get the advantage over the other. So I went downstairs to seek further guidance from the maarec.cas.psu.edu website, a place of great wisdom. One pamphlet there suggested throwing grass or other plant material over the reduced entrances, making them easier to defend, and/or placing a long board lengthwise across the entrance area, requiring a longer, more complicated, and (once again) more defensible approach path.

I used two makeshift bottom boards gleaned from abandoned political signs left over from the recent primary elections. People never seem to clean those up, even the "law and order" candidates. For plant material, I ripped the leaves off some cornstalks that grew where the birds had planted them (and I hadn't the heart to kill them).

Finally, I went out back and put some sugar water in that bird feeder again, placing a layer of window screen over it to create a honeybee feeder of sorts. Perhaps if the bees find an easier source of sweetness, they will abandon the fight.

Bees are like people in much of this. When times are tougher and gathering for your family is hard, it is tempting to use power to take what you want or need. It turns into a bad habit, quick, and can easily decimate both perpetrator and victim. Let's only hope that some diversion can help.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Gratuitous Bee Picture

bees in the feederIt has been a while since you got to look at a bee picture, so here you go. The year is definitely coming to a close, and my job mostly is to feed sugar syrup and take mite counts.

These bees were hanging out in the Twain feeder, licking their sweet-loving chops because they had eaten all their 2:1 sugar syrup (3 gallons!) and were about to get some more.

The girls over in Wilde are not taking their syrup, though. Ugh. I want them to suck it up because it contains a treatment for Nosema (a disease bees sometimes get in the winter because they cannot poop when temps are below 50 degrees F, and they therefore "hold it"), and also it's really really hard to clean out such a full feeder if they let it get moldy. Imagine a big shallow box full almost to the brim with sticky stinky old sugar water. Ugh again.

The Wilde colony is actually better off for winter stores, and some beekeepers don't even treat for Nosema around here (we have lots of winter days that break 50 degrees F at some point). Finally, the National Weather Service predicts another mild (or at least average) winter, so the main concern is the mess, I guess.

Finally, since we are approaching the cold days, I thought it would be a good idea to catch a glimpse of those golden bees. I'll soon be missing them, and I also like to go back through old photos sometimes, and think about how so many bees have come and gone. The idea that the light bounced off these few and made an longer human impression seems like just another kind of honey.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Boatload of Honey

davids honey in the sunLarry from the beekeeping association ended up putting me in contact with a guy who farms more than 30 kinds of pumpkins, squash, melons, and ... bees! He needed a website for his seasonal business, so with one thing and another I ended up helping him set up satellite broadband and a wireless LAN, as well as a site. I need his permission before I can send you there, though.

But I though you would want to see this. David is also an artist, and when his honey started crystallizing (his market is not heated, and the nights are getting cold) he set it out on the bottom of his silver canoe to catch some rays. Because he has the soul of a poet, you can see how he laid out his crop.

David's bees are all of the same species, but within just a couple of miles of his home in the country you can see what variety of nectar the plants have to offer. To confess a bit, this honey is from a couple of different harvests, so there is a time difference as well as color variation.

Truth to tell, there is probably even more color range among the pumpkins and squash. I tell you, he has TWO kinds of drop-dead-beautiful blue pumpkins.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Quick Record Keeping, With ApiGuard

bulk apiguardFirst of all, I want to tell you that the State Bee Inspector came by the historic mill on Tuesday, and he gave us the all-clear on American Foul Brood. In other words, we don't have it, or at least don't have it yet. He pointed out the big mite infestation in my hive there, though, and made various suggestions, including the use of Food Grade Mineral Oil (FGMO) to make those mites go slip-sliding away. I'll probably give it a whirl (there's no harm in it) but I have already completed two oxalic acid fumigations, and will make the third one on Monday. I think I am going to study up on how to double up on mite treatments, without unintentionally poisoning the girls with too much of a good thing.

So Sucrocide failed at the Mill. What did I do elsewhere? Well, two weeks ago, I placed "ApiGuard" on the rooftop hives, and followed up a few days later by placing it on the monastery girls (Saturday). ApiGuard is a 50 gram dose of concentrated Thymol, the same stuff that makes your Listerine potent. The idea is that you place the paste on the top bars of your hives, allow space for the bees to be able to move over it, and let their hygienic instincts ("Get this the heck out of there!") stimulate them to grab it, and move it among themselves to remove it from their home. In doing so, they expose the mites among them to a fatal dose (or so we hope). You put it on, wait two weeks, then put it on again.

The picture here is a ziplock bag filled with the paste. My friend (and mentor) Larry bought the bulk bucket, and he carefully measured out the correct doses for 4 of my hives, eight baggies in all. He instructed me in how I should put on gloves, carefully push the paste away from sides with the bag closed, cut off the edges, and then open the bag on top of the hive.

chewed apiguard bagThis picture shows such a bag two weeks later, The girls have cleaned it off, and actually started chewing the bag. The yellow stuff is propolis (no Carniolan party is ever complete without propolis). As of today, they got a chance to start over on a second and final dose.

According to the studies, this treatment is anything from 75% to 85% effective against Varroa mites, and does a number on the tracheal mites, too. I placed menthol on these hives at the same time as the ApiGuard, so the tracheal mites should have really taken a pounding at this point. After the Sucrocide experience, however, I absolutely intend to continue taking mite counts and to follow up with addition (maybe FGMO) treatments. I think oxalic acid is probably in the cards for January.

The whole experience at the Mill has made me more conscious of the importance of record keeping, and managing the tools, etc., from each apiary separately. If we had received a positive diagnosis at the Mill, all of my hives could be potentially infected. As it is, I plan on fumigating gear, washing bunches of tools and veils in bleach, keeping better records, and watching myself in future. Oh, and there may be more boring posts like this, and I apologize in advance.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Jobless Wasps Make the News at Discovery

me on discovery web siteFor those of you who wonder how that yellowjacket story from earlier in the month has played out, we have some interesting news. Actually, it's Discovery News Channel, because another person who uses the cemetery saw all the chatter about yellowjackets, and thought it would make an interesting story for the Discovery Science Channel.

Well, he did a great job, taking the information in the email and running with it, all the way to an entomologist at the Smithsonion Institution and an Emergency Room physician! If you click on the image above, you will be brought to a news viewer. Click on "Latest News" and scroll down to "Jobless Wasps Sting More" in order to see all he learned, and to hear how I sound in person (yup, I made it in!) Over time, I think you will have to use the "videosearch" function they offer in order to find this clip. If you type "wasps" into the search box, the clip shows up.

It would be great if this clip could somehow be used by beekeeping organizations to help inform people about the differences between bees and wasps, and the contributions of each. Both critters have valuable roles to play, and we can play ours right alongside them, too.

By the way, James (who made this clip) is a very cool guy. I helped him catch some wasps in order to get close up shots, but I put them in a plastic container and told him he had to freeze it to safely look at the insects. James did not want to do such a thing to living creatures just for a film job, so he carefully made a little hole in the lid, enticed a wasp into a wine glass with sugar water, and put a bit of plastic wrap on the top. Got some good shots, too! He said that the wasp hung around a while even when he went to release her, because she was still chowing on the sugar water. You rock, James! Way to remind me to take care of the small ones, even with the camera lights in my eyes.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Bad News at the Mill Apiary

Last Thursday, MaryEllen called to say that she had seen bees with deformed wings in front of the hive at the historic mill, so I went out and placed a sticky board, in order to get count of dropped Varroa mites.

There should not have been a large number of diseased bees, because there should not have been very many mites left after the sucrocide treatment we did in August. Just to remind, three times we went into that hive, and sprayed both sides of every frame with a solution that is supposed to crack the shells of the mites, causing them to dry out and die out.

Well, it did not work. Apparently, not even a little. I pulled the board, and there were more than a thousand mites. This is a red-light, sirens-blazing, hugely dangerous infestation. I decided, immediately, that this was a bad re-run of last January on the roof, and the only answer was oxalic acid.

Of course, I'd really hoped not to see such a thing, and had reason not to expect it (having been so proactive the month before), so I had absolutely nothing with me that I could use to take action. So I ran home, called (actually, bleated at) MaryEllen, and she met me back there directly with a hazmat mask and a helping hand.

Of course, I forgot to bring a board for the screened bottom (you have to block off all the openings during treatment) so we scampered down the street to find an election sign to fit the purpose. They work really well because the size is close and the material is designed to be water resistant. On a busy highway median, we found a place where 4 illegal signs (for a Republican) had been placed in close proximity, so we lifted one. (Before anyone screams at me, know that a state highway crew had removed all the others by the end of the day).

So now I don't know what will be with these bees. But wait, there's more!

MaryEllen found out, same day, that some bees she had placed at the mill temporarily were confirmed with a case of American Foul Brood (AFB), a powerful bacterial disease which (in some states) incurs a mandatory order to destroy the colony and fumigate any gear that came in contact with it. So there is a danger of AFB in the remaining colonies at the Mill (including mine) and,if I was not careful, I might have carried it elsewhere as well! This could be just terrible, but more information is needed.

The state bee inspector is coming to look at the Mill colonies next week, and he will let us know if they are infected. My plan, going forward, is to have all the gear that is not currently in use fumigated within the next few weeks, swap out the unfumigated stuff after that, and then fumigate the balance in the Spring. Suits and tools are going into washing machines (with bleach) and dishwashers as is approapriate.

Finally, we were asked to contribute an article to the Mill newsletter, and this is the downhearted gem I sent along.

bee with mite on back

The Bee Battle for Survival Comes to [the] Mill

By Toni and MaryEllen

For the past two decades, the numbers of beehives and beekeepers has been in decline, and most think this is for two reasons: disease, and the increasing difficulty of preserving the bees against the pests that prey on them. The apiary at [the] Mill is not immune to these forces, and we are fighting to keep the bees strong and healthy enough to winter over.

The main pest that beekeepers think about is the Varroa mite, Varroa destructor, a tiny arachnid that afflicts bees in a way similar to the way a tick can hurt people and dogs (but worse). The Varroa mite jumped to the honeybee from a Southeast Asian bee species that had better defenses: the bee colonies all of us see here now are almost inevitably destroyed if they are left untreated for Varroa.

How does this happen? The mites attach themselves to adult bees, and drink their bee blood (which is bad, a way to spread disease); they also lay their eggs in bee brood cells, and their offspring feed off and maim the young bees (which may be worse). Before long, the adults are weakened, the babies are crippled, and the colony dies.

Earlier in the summer, we applied a newer treatment against Varroa, a product called "Sucrocide," which comes from a tobacco leaf extract . Sucrocide damages the shells of the mites and causes them to dehydrate. It does not damage the bees or leave a chemical residue in the honey, however. For reasons we don't quite understand yet, this treatment does not appear to have worked, and the Cockrill colony (on the right as you face the hill) now has a dangerous infestation. We will therefore be applying at least one more type of treatment over the next few weeks to try to save these bees. We also expect a visit next week from the [...] State Bee Inspector, and he may be able to help us figure out more.

We won't consider using any of the nasty organophosphate chemicals, classic pesticides, in our colonies. Varroa are increasingly resistant to them anyway, and they present the danger of leaving residues in honey and wax,. We use both products in making food and soap, and would not want to expose our families (or anyone else) to them.

As you can see, all the monitoring and treatments that come with the Varroa threat place a lot of stress upon beekeepers, and many of the latter have left this pursuit because it got very hard. At [the Mill], we are lucky to be able to work together when the going gets tough, and we can put our heads together to work out solutions. Neither the bees or the beekeepers can truly go it on their own in this challenging world.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


fourth place ribbonsIt appears that a foolish consistency sort of inhabits this beekeeper's brain, because both the Monastery and the Rooftop honey have won the same ranking, fourth place, at a nearby county fair. And yes, one of them was fourth place in a field of four! Now, if I had managed to keep the ANT out of my rooftop entry, there was a chance I could have tied for first or earned second...

Yes, there was an ant, floating right near the top of one of the jars (the rules as you to enter three one-pound jars in as close to perfect and duplicate condition as possible, in order to pretend to people that somehow their food comes from some non-human-hands kind of place).

honeyed ant under microscropeHere she is, the interloper. Like a true friend, MaryEllen maintains that the ant must have crawled in during the judging, but I know that honey extracting brought me a temporary scourge of the critters... I also, shortly thereafter, admitted to needing reading glasses. So, put 2 and 2 together, and you get...fourth.

We had fellow geeks as houseguests the night that I brought the honey back home from the fair, and we got to talking about my geeky USB microscope, and about the ant, so we took a look. You all might not agree from this picture (which is a shabby capture of the original image) but I found this ant beautiful in an other-worldy kind of way. Under the 'scope, you could look right into her eye (nearly took my breath away) and trace the graceful curves of her antenna. Somehow, in all her travels, she lost the tip of the lower one. Her body is bent in a rictus that probably resulted from the very dry nature of honey. It is less than 20% water (according to the judge, I achieved a noteworthy 15.4% moisture, a total surprise), and dehydration caused her contract along her midsection. I don't understand all I see here — there are gray areas that look, for all the world, like muscles to me — but they could be scrapes, crystals, or bubbles, or something else I don't recognize.

True confessions: I entered this fair in a dead rush, after saying I would not bother with any this year. The bee inspector from up that way came to our club meeting early in the month, and asked fervently for entries because some snafu had left his best contenders stuck with their entries off in another county. So I rushed these in, did not take as much care as I might, and STILL kinda hoped for more (and expected less).

The bee inspector was also the judge of the competition, and I kind of wonder whether he is going to give me some friction because of that ant. I am already preparing, and this is how: Here in the U.S. there is this honey called "Really Raw" that is marketed for WAY too much money, and the gimmick is that all the bee parts and wax and you-name-it that we beekeepers usually filter or skim off is all included for the bee-eating public. Well, I intend to tell the bee inspector that I was test-marketing "Really CRawLY" honey, with extra protein for the Adkins Diet crowd. "Perhaps country folk have not heard of it yet?" ...Or would that be bad? ;-)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Back Atcha, Nate

drawing by nateIt seems absurd to say "thank you" because someone said "thank you," but my heart fills with gratitude every time I look at the piece of yellow construction paper that Nate's family mailed to me. Nate is (I think) one of the kids who listened to one of my Bee talks this summer, probably in July. And here we are, almost two months later, with an original bee-themed artwork, just for me!

You may not be able to see it so well (though there is a larger version linked to the image if you click on it), but Nate has drawn a picture of a tree with a beehive in it, flowers for the bees to pollinate, and himself in a bee suit. His message? "Thank you, bees!"

Folks, I'm thinking Nate's family gets a jar of honey. What do you think? Sweets from the sweet for the sweet.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Honey Harvest 2006

my three honeys 2006This post actually started seven days ago, when I finally extracted my first true harvest of rooftop honey. On Thursday, September 7, I finally went upstairs to see what was what, thinking that I could have anything from 80 to 200 pounds of honey up there. This was a daunting prospect, because it meant removing bees from seven or more supers, and hauling each (weighing anything from 30 to 85 pounds, depending) down a spiral staircase, across the second floor of the house, down the stairs to the first floor, then back across the house to the kitchen. And no MaryEllen around to make things easy this time!

Oh whine whine whine... sorry. The truth is that there were only about 4 boxes of honey, almost all medium frames, ready for extraction. The remaining 4 and a half or so boxes were pretty full of uncapped nectar: so close, but yet so far. I really need them outta there in order to reduce the hive's size and place the Fall medications, but the contents are not yet honey. So I left them in place, and have been scratching my head (until last night).

There are more timely details available about the honey extraction process on the long-winded page at right, but even it leaves out the part where I stumbled down and across the house 4 times with heavy honey boxes that also included dozens of bees along for the ride. I had used the fume board slightly wrong, so a few hardy bees would not leave until I got them downstairs, pulled individual frames, and stood at the back door (wearing my veil) blowing on them for all I was worth. Bees do not like human breath, and they basically gave up and flew back home when faced with mine. On the bright side, I have enough lung capacity to blow forcefully on 74 sides of frames PLUS 4 surrounding boxes without passing out.

It took a couple of hours to do the extracting, and another hour or more for the honey to finally pass through the three levels of filters I use (just fine mesh people, no chemicals, etc., here!) The net harvest was about 60 pounds, or one five-gallon bucket.

That's less than a third of my upper level estimate, but I am actually just thrilled anyway. The stuff is more precious to me than gold, and now I will have to be extra careful with it (only appropriate) to make sure it gets to those I love most and lasts until next year.

The picture shows something else that makes me happy. The three apiaries have produced very different honey crops. On the left, you can see the honey from the historic mill where we did all those summer camp presentations. It is very dark, almost as dark as buckwheat, and it has a molasses-like flavor. On the right is the light-bright honey from the monastery 3 miles from my house: it is as delightfully floral as a late Spring day. I swear, if the chefs in this city could get their noses on it, their eyes would pop out! (It just occurred to me what a disturbing selection of images I just provided...)

Finally, in the middle, the honey from the roof. It is golden and good and a happy representation of all the sweetness the girls have brought to my life. Those of you blog friends who have been promised honey have not received it yet, mostly because I was saving this batch for you.

Last night, I got easy advice for what to do with all that uncapped honey that is still up there. I will go up tomorrow, see if any more actually got capped, then take and extract any of that. The frames that are not capped by then never will be, and a master beekeeper told me how to set the boxes away from the hives to be foraged out by (mostly) the same bees. They will put the nectar down in the brood nest where it will actually get used this winter. I already let the bees clean out the comb that was extracted last week, though I did it sort of wrong.

After the bees have the last boxes for a day, I will be able to put them away without much fanfare. Then it will be medication time, and — soon — winter.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Knights in White Cotton

Vespula maculifrons copyright tom murrayWhat does it take to save 5,000 buggy lives and reassure a hundred or so humans to boot? One beekeeper's jacket, some old gloves, and a pair of worn pajama pants.

What is this about? This past weekend, I received an email which, to any beekeeper, amounts to a curiousity and a provocation. Its content?




"Ground nesting bees," in fluent beekeeper, translates to "Africanized Bee" (or "killer bee" to Hollywood idiots). Beekeepers try to keep an eye out for movements of Africanized bees, especially if they are not known to be anywhere near our area.

But the truth is, most people don't know the difference between any two arthropods with stingers, so these were probably yellowjackets, and bees were being libelled here!

Even so, our family (dogs and all) are members of this historic cemetery, which supports itself in part with fees from dogwalkers, so it seemed important to figure out the truth of the problem and a possible solution.

So I ignored the warning, sauntered past the security perimeter, and checked things out. Frozen, like a moment in amber, was a groundsperson's cart with it's dumper in mid-air, someone's sunglasses abandoned on the floor, rakes and hoes and stakes thrown willy-nilly. *Sigh* Some poor sod got stung but bad!

But today? Out of a nearby log came a steady in-and-out stream of yellowjackets. They are easy to spot if you are used to looking at bees. They are usually smaller and thinner, are smooth (bees are hairy), and they are a brighter yellow and black (bees are more gold-and-brown). The yellowjackets spent no time at all looking at me, however, and just went on their way. The picture you see above is of the species I think it was, Vespula maculifrons, courtesy of photographer Tom Murray. Thanks Tom!

So I wrote this email to the cemetery caretaker:
Hi there --

I am a cemetery member, but also a beekeeper, so I went down today to check this out. I think I can help.

The first thing you will probably be glad to hear is that there is no persistent danger here. It looks like your landscape folks disturbed a yellowjacket nest while emptying their vehicle of debris, but things have settled down, and people walking by will not be bothered. You literally have to agitate the nest or jump around energetically in front of the nest to cause a problem now.

HOWEVER, the yellowjackets (which are actually wasps) will certainly get temporarily agitated when you try to move that vehicle which has been left half-empty, and I can help there. I can suit up and move the cart, or I can suit up WITH one of your grounds workers and just advise while they move the cart. It should be pretty simple, and should only get the wasps going for a relatively short time.

These creatures probably frightened the workers quite severely (the yellowjackets were actually pretty upset themselves, seeing their home cave in) but I really feel that by sharing some information damage to humans could be avoided in future. I'd be happy to talk about this with your people, but the main points follow:

* The area where the nest was disturbed is almost certainly home to many more nests, and it is not practical to try to find and destroy them all. Plus, the nests will all die with the first frost (with the exception of one queen, who will be buried deep in the ground for a winter nap).
* The wasps/yellowjackets build their population up from that one queen who survives into the Spring, and this is the time of year when populations are at their highest. In our area, this is also a time when food is short, so the wasps are easier to rile. It's not going to surprise you to learn, then, that people get stung most often in late August and September.
* The spot where the nest was is perfect yellowjacket habitat: they nest in loose soil and in hollows in dead wood, and both are abundant at that spot. I'd recommend in future that chunks of wood like that be disposed of further back from the pathways and loading/unloading areas. It's also worth remembering, in late summer, that wasps are more common, and to take a quick look around a spot with lots of debris before dumping on it.

This point usually leaves people a bit dubious, but we are all actually better off with these creatures around. They feed their young the larvae of other insects (like mosquitos, flies, roaches, and so on) and the adults are fairly decent pollinators. By the way, wasps are not bees, though they are cousins. Wasps, as noted, are carnivores, while bees are vegetarians. This ends up mattering to humans because wasps are designed to sting over and over in order to catch prey, while bees can only sting once (and then they die). Also, "swarming" is a behaviour that bees engage in when they are splitting one colony in two, and half of the bees go looking for a new home. Bees almost never sting while doing this, and wasps don't swarm. We beekeepers would not call the army of wasps that went after the workers a swarm because it is not as organized and coherent as all that, though this information would not be much comfort to the landscape workers!



Tom, the caretaker, was pretty happy about this email, and I met him down there to suit up. He was wearing dark pants, so he had the rare privilege of having to pull on some washed out PJ bottoms that I only wear over my clothes when the girls are really cheesed off. He started the cart, drove it away, and I hung around about 25 feet away (dressed in my second-place veil and a longsleeved white t-shirt) to see how the wasps would react, and to compare their reaction to that of the honeybees I am used to.

The answer is that yellowjackets are unhappier about home disturbances than honeybees, but it is not on a horro-movie scale. When I moved a few feet closer, I attracted a single wasp and a sting. I'd actually been hoping to get a sting (hey, you don't have to shake your head... I know what you are doing!) in order to (a) see the beastie up close and ID her; (b) observe the differences in stinger use; (c) get an idea of their defensive perimeter; and (d) see for myself whether bee venom and wasp venom provoke different immune reactions.

The answer to these questions was:
(a) Vespula maculifrons, with a little help from bugguide.net;
(b) They use 'em alot like honeybees, and definitely go for multiple punctures if they can;
(c) They defend the nest at distances at least 3 times what I am used to from honeybees, 20 plus feet... maybe more if you are moving around; and
(d) I react to yellowjacket venom much more and much longer than I do to bee venom, but my first yellowjacket sting in 20 years was still not very painful or swollen. My exposure to beestings probably reduced my reaction here. I think the venoms are related, but distinct substances, and people can have different reactions to one than to the other.

The cemetery people were so happy with the quick and safe retrieval of their equipment, avoiding costly exterminator fees, and getting information about how to live safely with the bugs that I got more electronic hugs and kisses than you can shake a stick at. They also released the yellowjacket email to all the other dogwalkers, so they could be careful, too.

My name was not released, because this was not a very "low profile beekeeper" thing to do, and I might regret the publicity yet. But it seems like everybody was willing to give nature a chance, to allow bugs to continue to live in their midst, and to forgive the occasional pain when human and arthropod worlds collide.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Back to Vacation, or More on Gardens and Bees

scan of TimeOut articleWhen we got to London last month, it was as if the city had been arranging a festival of beekeeping to greet us! Magazines, gardens, and public markets all gave us fantastic tastes of the local honeybees.
TimeOut, the magazine guide to all that is buzzing in London, published a feature on the city's beekeepers just as we arrived! The London Beekeepers are headquartered at a youth garden center, with whom they cooperate on educational programs. I made an appointment to visit and got very excited!

map of Chelsea Physic Garden with Beehives highlightedBut I was late for my meeting, because there's another magic place in the middle of London, four acres in Chelsea with a rent of 5 pounds sterling per annum, with 400 years of history and several beautiful beehives. It's The Chelsea Physic Garden,", and even people who don't like bees (or plants) very much should go. If for nothing else, the gift shop sells the most wonderfully exotic seeds, like papaver somniferum and belladonna, though they had to stop offering hemp.

The garden is full of the most wonderful assortment of medicinal, dye, flowering, agrucultural, poisonous, exotic, and mystifying plants, and the plants are full of bees! The guides give terrific tours, and you really should take a walk with them. While we were standing next to a huge belladonna, the guide told us that every part of the plant — root, stem, leaf, and flower — is poisonous, yet I saw bee after bee dive into and emerge from the blooms. You know, a flower has very little evolutionary incentive to offer up toxic pollen and nectar: after all, the whole point it to get little animals to help in your reproductive process. It made me wonder whether the people who test plants for poisons really take a look at the things that matter to bees and other bugs, or whether we are stuck in our own concerns even there, even after 400 years in an apothecary garden.

The gift shop advises that honey from the garden hives — kept by a beekeeper named Fiona, for whom I left a note — is in terrific demand, and is rationed, one jar per customer. I put myself on the list, but I intend to follow up with emails, etc. They say it is not available until "some time in September," but that time has arrived, my friends! You simply cannot imagine the incredible variety of plants the bees were visiting, and I myself am willing to take the risk of tiny traces of nightshade in my tea.

My visit to Chelsea caused me to be late for my second bee garden of the day, where I met the director of the Roots & Shoots urban youth garden, Linda Phillips. She gave me a tour, and promised that, if I visited next day, I could meet the beekeeper featured in "TimeOut," so that's what I did, poor husband in tow! Lindsay Wright was there, and we chatted about bees a bit. Most interestingly, he showed me some interesting abodes he had developed for osmia and leaf cutter bees. He also told me that Britain had lost all its native bees, and that beekeepers are basically holding back the tide for the honeybees that remain.

Finally, he encouraged me to visit his booth at The Borough Market, that Saturday AM. The market is right next to Southwark Cathedral and Shakespeare's Globe, and is a phenomenon to behold. If you need antelope meat and hard cider, pistachio chutney and cheese, here is the plaace to find it. Londsay's booth was on the southwest side of the market, so we (heh heh heh) had to walk completely across about a hundred booths to get there from the Tube. Like every other beekeeper we have ever met, he tried to give me most of what he had for free, and finally took just a little money and a donation for "Roots and Shoots." He also showed me how to make a beautiful marbled honey and fruit product that will be the subject of a later post.

Finally, and you are not going to believe this, he told me that the folks who run the Borough Market apparently think that honey does not belong at a farmer's market and he is petitioning to keep his table. Can you imagine this? Are they mad? If you are a honey booster, and cannot get to London to sign Lindsay's petition, please drop a (polite and beekeeperly) line to Chris Denning, Market Manager to let him know how disappointed you would be if no beekeepers were present.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Drought or Drown

where are the bees?While working here today, the rain gauge on the roof informed me that today, September first, we have just received twice as much rain as we did during the entire month of August. Far from using this as an (admittedly tempting) opportunity to kvetch about the weather, I'd like to thank you intrepid urban gardeners out there...the ones who planted salvia, chives, lavender, Russian sage, crepe myrtle, augustache, Japanese Pagoda trees, and those few other late-summer bloomers that offer up nectar and life to the bees. And even more, who water them more per acre than any farmer could.

here are the beesThe wind has been whipping fiercely, too (over 30 MPH around 3 PM), so I went up to look at the girls, and this is where today's pictures come from. You may remember that I drilled extra entrance/exit and ventilation holes in many of my hive boxes to spare the girls extra work in coming, going, and cooling the hive. When I went up to peer into the holes on the windward side today, I saw no bees, and could not even arouse a guard bee's interest by sticking in a finger. This was worrying. Checking the wall-ward side of the hive, there were the girls, mighty crowded, too. The wind was affecting them badly, and they were trying to get far from it.

leaf blocks holeSo I searched around the roof to find something with which to temporarily block the holes, and found wind-blown maple and sycamore leaves. The first couple of attempts, using somewhat limp leaves, resulted in near immediate removal. Then some crisper specimens arrived with a blast of rain, and the deed was done. The last picture is the leaf protecting the box with the brood nest.

However, there was still the matter of the screened bottom boards — the foundation of the hive, which features a screened area in the middle to allow even more ventilation and mite drop, to boot.

leaf blocks holeOne of my major beekeeping shortcomings is taking counts of varroa mites on a regular basis. The reason for this is not laziness (or so I think). There are two main ways to count mites, one is a mite drop onto a board slid beneath a screen bottom board, and the other is a "sugar shake," where you trap a coupla hundred bees in a mason jar with a screened lid, put in a quarter cup or so of confectioners sugar, and shake it out over a bowl of water. The sugar knocks mites off of the bees, and the water makes it easy to count them as they drop. On a board, you just put it in, wait three days, pull it out, count mites, and divide by three.

The sugar shake always kills a few bees, and I hate that. It is easier on them than the old "ether roll" method used to be, and it can be done in hot weather, however. The bottom boards kill no bees at all, but they reduce hive ventilation, and in hot weather that just seems mean.

But it is hot no more, and the wind today is no friend, so I placed clean boards below the screens. Then I jeopardized the family Nikon by taking snaps in the rain, and I came down to talk to you. If you are an urban gardener, please know that lots of buzzing somebodies out there are awfully glad when you wield the hose. And if you don't mind the odd chive plant blooming in your lawn, they don't either.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Correct Me, I'm Yours!

This might not seem very honeybee-oriented, but in fact it is. The bees have opened up a great wide world of bugs to me, since I spend so much time now poking around in flowers, looking for bees. Sometimes you run into critters you don't know, sometimes the plants you leave for bees cause others to come visit you.

Paonias excaecata I thinkLast year, I posted this picture of a scary-big moth that flew into my house from the garden, and incorrectly called it a "Sphinx Moth," demonstrating my ongoing enthusiasm for, but lack of insight into, our arthropod friends. Well, last month, David M. emailed me with better information, and I thought you might want it, too (though he did not seem to want to receive credit by name).

[A]s to your bee keeping blog page that shows and mentions a visitor to your grape vine,

That's not a (Macroglossini) Paonias excaecata, but rather I think is the Pandorus Sphinx, Macroglossini Eumorpha achemon.
http://bugguide.net/node/view/66501/bgpage (You may also find http://bugguide.net/node/view/3936/bgpage of interest.)

Your moth looks very similar to the Macroglossini moth that occurs from England through Hong Kong
and even at times into the Philippines and Australia, Daphnis neri.

Now, of course we talked a bit more, to which he added:

"And, let the vine grow! It's a great food plant for quite a number of moth caterpillars, so you may see some other types munching away. Don't worry though, as you no doubt realize, they can't munch fast enough to damage the vine. 8-)

If you want to get into the swing of things, when you find some caterpillars on the vine, or on other plants you have, you can remove them to a large container with some leaves and observe their development and eventual adult form. Just keep the container clean; i.e. dump the caterpillar's "fras" out every couple of days. If the caterpillar has a small "horn" on the tail end, you might need to put a tissue in the container when it is getting ready to form a pupa, in order to substitute for soil. Some of the Sphinx moth types like to burrow underground before forming their pupa.

Meanwhile, if you find any other interesting bugs, you may look here
http://whatsthatbug.com/sphinx_moth_2.html for identification
or here: http://www.silkmoths.bizland.com/danjansphinx.htm
or here http://rusinsects.com/top/index.php?" for help figuring out what it is.

Have fun! Enjoy some honey!


black swallowtail caterpillarNow it's really cool that he mentioned all those identification resources, because only a month or so before, I had met this critter on a rue plant in the front yard. It turns out to be (probably...I am willing to hear other thoughts!) a Black Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar. As I write to you today, the butterflies are here in force, making their way to winter pastures. There are many monarchs visiting rose of sharon blossoms, and yes, some Black Swallowtails in the front yard. I'm kind of hoping they did some growing up there.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Nature Loves a Hexagon

basalt tiles at giants causewayThis grey Saturday morning, Sam and I were advised to get out of Londonderry ahead of the Ulstermen's march, so we went off to the Giant's Causeway, in North Antrim. It's just a short boat ride from Scotland, they say, and the location where some of the retreating Spanish Armada met the rocks. Please witness one of the first things you see when you walk down to the water: a vast expanse of hexagons, almost as regular as honeycomb.

Some say that there is a special place in Hell where people are forced to look at other peoples' vacation photos, but you should not suffer too much because our camera ran out of battery strength early.

bumblebee on what might be scots lovageThe environment thereabouts is rocky and almost alpine, but there were still several kinds of flowers in bloom, and bees working them. The temperature was only around 16 Celsius, or 60 Fahrenheit, with a steady wind, but the native bees at least were on the job. The bee in this picture is working what might be Scot's Lovage, though I am somewhat unconvinced of this plant identification. This bee is displaying a fine set of cream-colored pollen packs on her back legs, just below the wings.

One interesting thing about bees in cool weather is that, as cold blooded beings, they are slower and less prone to extra activity than they are in hot temps. It's much easier to get a photo on a cold day. Also, in a situation like this, you can actually reach out and pet the bees. I doubt they enjoy it, but they are quite fuzzy and no harm is done by a gentle (and brief) stroke from a finger.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Uniting and Departing

In the dizzy rush to depart, the were no pictures today, just news to tell you.

Today, as soon as the girls started to fly, I went upstairs to remove the window screen I placed between the returning Queen Abigail's colony and the workers that were left behind with her daughter queen during the swarm attempt.

Since I really needed these girls to unite firmly before I left — for two weeks there will be no one to intervene if there is a problem! — I tried using plastic window screening to let the scent flow freely between the returning and the remaining hive boxes. The bees will fight each other if you just plop them down together, though some beekeepers do that. Instead, with a temporary barrier present they will get small-but-increasing contact over the hours as they attempt to get at each other, during which time the beekeeper hopes they will decide on acceptance. Because the bees can't chew the screen (like they do with newspaper), however, I could not tell if the two halves of the colony-to-be had contacted each other much over the past 3 days.

You try to get the two brood nests as close together as possible when you unite colonies, in part because that's where most of the bees are and the larvae are really what makes a hive a home. The main clusters in both halves had been somewhat separated because this is absolutely a huge (and disorganized) colony, with brood and honey spread over an astonishing couple of deeps and mediums. They are Carniolans, so they like to form a narrow, tall column of brood nest.

Anyway, the deed is done. I like the tidiness of using the screen, but I will learn (potentially the hard way) whether the bees like it, too, by seeing what is left when I return.

As a final gesture, a beseeching and needy sort of futile effort to appease the bee-ish currents in the world, we went over to the Monastery and gave Joe (the president of the garden guild there) my veil, a hive tool, and some sugar so he could feed the girls over there. They really do look fine, but I will sleep better knowing that someone who cares is watching over them.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sucrocide, Then Split... Sort Of

sucrocided beesBack on June 28, we found a bee with a mite on it at the historic mill apiary, which raised an alarm about whether those colonies were seriously afflicted with the vicious varroa mites you have heard so much about here.

The poor mite-bearing worker bee told us, in effect, that we have to treat sooner rather than later. Usually, I'd be waiting until the temperatures began to fall in September, and I would use a treatment that diffused a concentrated essential oil or formic acid (none of which are organophosphate pesticides, or leave toxic residues). However, it's far too hot for that, and we can't afford to wait. It's bad enough that we all could not find a suitable date to work together before this!

Why do I say "we?" MaryEllen has bees there, too, and it's safest to assume that what is living in one hive has also reached out to the neighbors. MaryEllen's presence in this post is important for another reason, too. She and her husband, Doug, used a treatment called "sucrocide" to treat some of their colonies last year, and those colonies registered not one single mite when tested. Not one! So we decided to try sucrocide at the Mill. It's a bit tricky unless you have done it before, so I wanted their help.

The sucrocide treatment meets our standard for keeping poisons out of the hives. It is made up of a tobacco leaf extract and sugar, and it works by drowning the mites, and then disappearing from our lives. It really stuns the bees at first, too, but they are larger and shake it off as they dry. The mites are much smaller, and evaporation comes too late for them. Another bonus: it's really unlikely that the mites will ever develop resistance to this treatment, unless they can evolve beyond a need for oxygen.

sucrociding beesThe picture up top shows bees recovering from what I am doing in this picture: spraying sucrocide from a pump sprayer onto each side of every single frame in the hive, as well as the sides. We try not to spray Queen Maud or any open brood. By the way, this exercse has to be repeated 3 times, at one week (or so) intervals. Hard work.

The bees cling to my hands in a sort of drunken, but insistent, way. They really hang on, holding my skin with the hooks on the end of their legs that they also use when hanging together to drawn honeycomb. You cannot shake them off easily. It kind of feels like the "pins and needles" effect when you cut off circulation to a foot or hand. I like holding the clingy bees, but it freaks out MaryEllen and Doug. I just thought about how they were very wet and sort of cold, and how my hands were warm and in the sun.

hive of sucrocided beesWhen applying the sucrocide, though, we found ourselves disassembling hives full of bees in hot weather, and reassembling them into hives of sodden bees who just wanted to climb up out of the box to catch some rays and dry off. Kind of a bee-cano, since my colony out there is just brimming with bees, easily a peak sort of population for a hive around here. This picture is actually MaryEllen's colony, though. Those boxes get heavy at midsummer, and they are very heavy to settle down gently, one on top of the other, while trying to gently convince wet bees to move along. Thank goodness we did this together!

Though actually, I will be away for the final treatment. MaryEllen, Doug and I did the first treatment together on July 30, a week ago. MaryEllen and I did it today, and Doug has agreed to complete the process next week, when I go off to a wedding in Ireland (can you believe it?)

I am getting seriously bent out of shape about having to leave on Tuesday. This has been a trend in recent years: I like to travel, but hate to leave home. Adding the bees to my life has not made this easier, but not, perhaps, for the reason you would think. Sure, there is extra preparation before leaving, but I think the real issue is how connected I feel to the pile of dogs, cat, fish, bees, bird feeders, friends, neighbors, plants, and even squirrels about the place. Departing my eco-system for someone else's is good for the mind and for the soul, but it can be kind of hard on the heart.