Wednesday, March 29, 2006

More Fiddling on the Roof

more roofersLet's review, shall we?

I'm in the city, I want to keep bees, and I want to annoy (and become known to) as few people as possible. Therefore, my bees are on a roof deck, and the only people who should be able to see me up there are the folks in an apartment house about a block away (who should not care) and some people with a roof deck just around the corner, whom I avoid.

So in less than a year, BOTH neighbors have their entire roof decks replaced, and it's not just the supporting joists that get exposed. My northside neighbor had told me that roofers would be coming, supposedly two weeks ago, and that she would call me the night before "so I would not be alarmed by the noise." I wondered then if she already knew, but I got information from the BeeSource folks about how to block the girls in (safely) for a day, so I figured all would be well.

But today the roofers arrived without warning, and so they get to see my girls in action! I decided to ask them if I could take their picture, and they said yes, and that was probably a good thing. As I was standing there, bees were bumping into my head and buzzing all around me on their way in and out, and I was barefoot. If a crazy yuppie woman showed so little fear, it appeared as if the macho factor was gonna keep these guys from objecting!

It's probably a good thing that just yesterday, ahead of a short drizzly rain, I did my interim check on the girls. I have hung back for the past two weeks, in part to try to gain perspective and calm down, and in part to allow them to recuperate from my many disruptions. This is the time of year to be careful about food stores, and to apply any Spring varroa mite treatments, and to decide whether any surplus stored honey should be removed in advance of the Spring nectar flow. So I just popped the covers and pulled the bottom boards for an in-progress scan.

bee carrying pollenThis girl was hanging out nearby as I lit my smoker, so it seemed like she wanted to pose with her sporty pollen packs. Those little yellow cuffs on her legs, near the ends of her wings, are probably maple pollen, and she seemed kind of heavily laden and taking a break. After a couple of pictures (the others were out of focus) she flew home.

The Wilde colony got the first check. When I popped the top, a wave of warmth and sweet smell reached me. The girls are definitely raising brood in there, and keeping the temps high for the bees to be.

semi-nibbled honey storesThe Wilde girls still have a decent amount of food, and the frame picture at right seems to indicate that they are sort of pecking away at their honey stores, and maybe bringing in a bit of the nectar that is now available in the wild. MaryEllen says that the bees prefer fresh nectar – that the honey they store is about as appealing as canned veggies are to us, and I suppose that it could get old after 4 or 5 months of winter – and that they will ignore honey when flower juice is available. The pattern on this comb seems to show that sometimes they eat fresh, and sometimes they are still plugging away at the comb honey. There seemed to be enough honey to support this pattern for a while, and the weather is supposed to continue in a pro-bee fashion this week, so I closed up and left them alone.

The Twain hive seemed a better candidate for extracting, based on the fact that I left them over 100 pounds of honey this winter, and the first deep frame I pulled was still full of honey. Toward the center of the deep box, however, I found that the cluster had moved into the bottom part of the middle frames: they might not need all this honey, but they'd probably be wanting some. So I decided to let it ride here, too. I moved the full frame to the middle (it's safer to move honey frames around than brood comb), took off the hive top feeder for cleaning, and closed it up.

For the past two Fridays, without telling you, I have been restarting the oxalic mite treatments because there are still several workers with deformed wings appearing each day, and the temperatures have been too low to use ApiLife Var. When I pulled the bottom boards, it does seem like the mite drop is receding, but the virus itself might not need the mites anymore if enough bees are transmitting it directly. Who knows? They say that the worst sign is if drones emerge with deformed wings – they are supposed to have greater resistance – and I have not seen any of them. I can only take what care is available, and be gentle.

Finally, with the Spring have come a number of invitations to place bees in new locations, including a monastery a bit over 3 miles (a perfect distance) from my roof. MaryEllen and I are collaborating on yet another bee project at a public historical park in the suburbs, and we gave a presentation to the other volunteers there not long ago. We'll make all this the subject of another post, since this one is so long.

Finally, I am sorry for the gap in posting, for those of you who wonder about such things. There has been a death in my family, not a terribly happy family, and I sometimes wonder if my love for the bees and their tight and collaborative world has anything to do with these long-past heartaches. Nonetheless, I've been in a pointlessly thoughtful fog, and welcome the needs and rhythms of the bees to bring me back to the world of the real and the alive.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Packing in the Pollen

maple pollen packsSpring has continued its early arrival in these parts with an 85 degree F day, which I celebrated by pulling the sliding panels out from the screened bottom boards of the hives. This gives the honeybees additional ventilation, and I get to look at what's been falling through lately. They also don't care at all about this operation, and are not disrupted in the least.

I was supposed to do a mite count on Friday, but I forgot, so I just poked through the stuff on the panels in order to find pollen packs. These are the multicolored lumps that the bees pack onto the pollen baskets on their rear legs, and they give a good idea of what the bees have been up to. The picture above is maple pollen, deduced from blooming information at and the knowledge that maple pollen is a lovely golden yellow. The bees get pollen all over their furry little selves, and they use their front and middle legs to comb it back, mix it with some nectar (to make it stick), and pack it on their back legs. That rounded shape is actually the largest arc that can be described by a bee arm: it's a more graceful shape than what we manage when we attempt to soap our own backs. The biggest pack here is about 2mm by 4mm, and things are looking a little greasy because of the oil on the bottom board. The pollen packs are also easy to squash, and have deformed a little.

willow pollen packsThis olive drab stuff is willow pollen, apparently a far less desirable product, according to beekeepers. The bees seem to think it's OK. The Twain colony had a lot of maple on the bottom board, while Wilde had almost all of the willow. This may only mean that the Wilde girls filled up the cells with willow before working on maple, or it might mean nothing at all.

The pollen-bearing field bees actually fly into the hive, back into a cell, and scrape the stuff off themselves. They pack only one kind of pollen in a cell, apparently, just like they collect only one kind of plant material on any single flight. The pollen packs that fall down are probably the result of misses, miscalculations, or overfilling. This whole business is a lot different from the way they handle nectar. When delivering flower juice, field bees find a house bee, give the nectar to her, and then fly away again.

I've been messing with the bees too much lately, but it's a bit of a conundrum. There's a risk of swarming, which means I should be checking or intervening, but I've been fiddling too much, which may endanger the colony. So I am sitting tight, watching pollen, and planning a cursory visit tomorrow.

There may be other visitors this week, however! My north side neighbor told me that her roof will be replaced one day this week, and she would call when she knows which day – purportedly because the dogs might be barky as a result. From the way she introduced the topic, I suspect that she knows! But she is a good person, and it makes me sad not to share this with her. Nonetheless, this is a great time of year for such a project, because the bees are in a good mood and it is not impossible or terrible to block them in their hives for a day, especially if it's a bit cooler than today. If anything, I want to meet the contractor who can guarantee a complete roof replacement in one day!

Friday, March 10, 2006


honeybee in rosemaryIf the bees were ready to swarm, they would have done it today, so I kept an eye on them. Instead of waving goodbye to a cloud of departing residents, however, I got to supervise a glorious working day for many hundreds of busy honeybees.

I sat on the roof near the hives, trying to see what they were bringing in. They have been thronging the birdbath and the planters, so some of the more wobbly arriving flights were probably packing H2O. Others had their panniers packed with bright yellow pollen: most likely maple, since you can now see buds on the trees, even from the ground.

Then it hit me, last year it had seemed a shame that I had no picture, or real idea where to take pictures, of where the bees were working each day. Therefore, I focused as best I could on incoming and outgoing bees, trying to see where they were headed or coming from. This is not easy! The bees tend to fly out of the front of the hive, spiral around higher and higher, almost beyond sight, and then take off like a shot in their desired direction. It almost seems as if they blink out of existence.

But some were headed right past me and down, past the bird bath, to something else nearby. I grabbed the camera, headed down the twisty staircase, and out in the alley behind the house, pursuing a generally bee-ish course.

rosemary bushAnd it turns out that the bees had found this rosemary bush, gloriously in bloom, in the yard of a neighbor who does not like me much. Honeybees on the job are notoriously difficult to photograph, and I was afraid to go in this yard, so I leaned on the fence, propped up the camera, and crossed the fingers that weren't pressing the shutter. Within a set of some 20 nearly random shots, the first picture above and the last one below managed to show happy honeybees in their first Spring blooms.

honeybee in rosemaryThis officially marks the beginning of the season where my poor dogs will have to wait as I poke my head into every bush during their walks, looking for the girls. It's time to root for even temperatures and nighttime rains, for abundant nectar and gentle winds. It's time to realize that it's way too soon for these things, but to feel them tantalizingly just ahead.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bad Beekeeping 'R' Us

queen eleanor of the twain colonyIf you have been looking here for beekeeping advice, please let this post be your version of the surgeon general's warning. I am a moron beekeeper. At left is the only worthwhile result of this morning's endeavors: a fuzzy picture of a slightly marked queen.

This morning, when the temperatures were too low for the bees to fly, I reviewed George Imiries' instructions for splitting a colony and sort of modified them a bit. I brought all the tools necessary to do the deed, lit my smoker, and waited until bees started flying. At 11:30 it was time to go.

I started taking Twain apart frame by frame, which annoyed them alot after going through a similar treatment yesterday. But I had to find the queen, move her and mark her. I counted honey frames as I went: I have just short of 8 deep frames of honey, as well 10 medium frames. That is a ton of honey.

Pulling frames, scraping burr comb, inspecting carefully: I was at it for over an hour when I came to the frame with the queen cell...and I broke it by mistake.

Holy cow, as stupid a thing as a person could do! If those bees swarmed NOW, one half of them would have no queen at all!

But wait a second! It was empty. Suddenly, it makes sense! Why only one cell, why in a screwy place, why so much honey still uneaten? My crazy comb building Twainians just waxed it over for the heck of it (like they attach everything else). It's not time to split, and this whole exercise has been a total waste of time, bee patience, and some bee lives.

So I'm in the middle of a colony of unhappy bees, and might as well make the best of it. Decision: keep looking for and mark Queen Ellie.

So I rummage down down through 2 more boxes. I'm in the bottom, still no queen. So I look to the left of my foot, on a frame that's sitting in an empty box, and there she is. To me, she looks like a Cadillac bee, but WHAT THE HECK IS SHE DOING THERE? I simultaneously reach for the nail polish (to mark her back) and the camera (to grab a close up) and she flies! I AM AN IDIOT.

Where the heck did she go NOW? I spot her on a random piece of wooden ware to my right, lift it, and try to shake her into the hive. She does not let go. I'm terrified she'll fly again. I jiggle it one more time directly over the cluster, and then I can't see her anymore. Did she go in?

I look all over, feet frozen in place. She's not to the left. Not to the right. Not in the box with frames. Not crawling around the outside of the hive bodies. Decision: CLOSE THIS MESS UP.

So tired but so careful, I place the top brood box, then the medium honey super, then the freaking-stooooopid incredibly-heavy chest-height deep with 60 confirmed pounds of honey in it, then the feeder, then the hive cover. I shuffled away, humiliated, with all the extra boxes, stands, covers, shards of beeswax, mashed bees and instructions for making a split lying just where they were.

I'll clean up tonight when I won't do as much damage.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

It's Splitting Time!

cracking the topA few weeks ago it became clear that I had to watch the Wilde colony for signs of swarming: Carniolans are known for it, and my bees were crowded. Since the weather is supposed to be quite warm by the end of the week, I popped the top (the picture here today) to check, and found no signs of honeybees with plans to run away from home.

For the heck of it, I looked over at Twain, and saw my first drone of the season. Hmmm. Colonies produce drones at about the same time that they think queens ought to be out and about!

So I popped the top, and got a BIG surprise. A capped queen cell on the bottom of the bottom box! (Unfortunately, the camera died right before: I'll get you a shot tomorrow). The last time we took the colony apart, February 28th, there weren't even any queen cups (the first stage), so the girls got right to work just after we went rooting around in there. We had removed an empty bottom box, though, which probably accounts for the strange location. Once again, the bees got busy just where the books said they wouldn't.

This means that tomorrow, before the Twain crew gets a chance, I'll be making my first split, becoming a mother of three (colonies, that is). There is some possibility that I will have FIVE colonies by the end of this year, if Wilde splits too. That's because there's a nuclear colony coming my way, intended for a new "out apiary" site that has not been blogged about yet.

One last note: in prying the Twain boxes apart, I also found that they had built burr comb with drone cells between the boxes (not sure why they did that, since the bee space is supposed to be correct), and several of those drone larvae had living Varroa mites scurrying about on them. Another battle not yet – perhaps not ever – over. The new microscope my husband bought is supposed to take movies, so I'm going to give my first ever horror flick a try tomorrow, and show you that, too!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Colonizers Become the Colonized

casa montejo bee coloniesYou may wonder why this bee blog is showing you a picture of a building. Well, it's like this: We just took a midwinter break, a quick run down to Merida, Mexico – a city in the Yucatan, and I look for bees everywhere. I thought the most exciting bee-attraction in Merida would be it's large open market (the biggest on the whole peninsula), a place I'd *surely* find interesting honey and bee products. However, as we were walking along the zocalo (the central square and park for the city), I noticed bees flying behind and around giant crests on an impressive old building.

The facade was stone, which means that no one in their right mind is ever going to try to cut those bees out (standard operating procedure for bees nesting in most houses). But what is MORE interesting is that the building was the home of the conquistador who first took Merida from the Mayans, a guy named Francisco de Montejo (not to be confused with his cousin, also Francisco de Montejo... but we shouldn't pick on the unusually close family ties of the Spanish nobility, should we?)

So the colonizers are now the colonized! But let me share one more thing with you.

The Mayans kept stingless native bees before the Spanish arrived, but these have gradually been replaced by European races of honeybees (which I understand to be somewhat more honey-producing than the stingless ones – there are projects to try to save them). But most, meaning perhaps 100%, of the Apis mellifera bees in the Yucatan are now Africanized: the killer bees we have been taught to fear by mindless moviemakers.

In case you wanna know, not 10 feet above the heads of the people passing through the busiest square of the largest city in the Yucatan are 4 colonies of Africanized honeybees, buzzing in and out with much better things to do than to bother anybody else.