Thursday, April 27, 2006

Before the Deluge

tulip poplar blossomWith all the reallocation of bees that has been going on, you might think that the girls on the roof had somehow slipped my mind. Hardly! Two things occupy me on their behalf: number one is the timing and preparation for the Spring nectar flow; and two is whether the wonderful queen of Twain, Ms. Eleanor, will soon be experiencing regicide. The flood of nectar and the effectiveness of queens are major concerns at the tipping point of Spring, and none of the new colonies is yet much affected by these changes.

The picture you see here today was taken on Monday (with my cell phone, yielding the unique graphic quality we have come to expect from that medium), and what you see is a Tulip Poplar bloom, harbinger of the sudden and intense nectar flow that characterizes the months of May and June here.

buttercup toesI walk the canine portion of our menagerie (which includes indoor and outdoor fish, roof bees, bird feeders, one cat, three dogs, and a couple of uninvited squirrels) in an old cemetery in our neighborhood. While they bounce around, I look for pollinators and wild birds. Today the buttercups turned my toes yellow while we were mooning around. On Monday, a young Tulip Poplar in the cemetery set forth that first bloom, and I began to strategize.

buttercup toesThe "waste" areas and the fences and the walls around the cemetery are filled with blooming bush honeysuckle. The blooms smell like heaven, but remind me of popcorn. As they age, the white turns to a medium yellow, like the popcorn at the movie theatre. The bushes are full of pollinators in late afternoon, which means they must be absolutely teaming in the morning. I tried to get pictures of the three or more native bees that were working them today, not to mention the butterflies. I have seen honeybees there that are almost certainly not my girls: I suspect another local beekeeper.

But back to my own roof! The first point in my nectar flow game plan: the honey supers on both Twain and Wilde are once again in the wrong order. I should have placed the ones with the bare foundation beneath the ones with mostly drawn honeycomb. I had my reasons (I want the bees to move the brood nest up into that fershlugginer deep box that got filled with honey last year) but these efforts were – once again – sincere but misdirected.

When I made the splits, I stuck lots of bare frames in the lower boxes, so that has probably occupied alot of honeybee time and energy in the interim, but it is probably time to set things right, with all the boxes deployed appropriately. Also, I had a medium super with drawn brood comb in the basement, but the wax moths had begun to set up shop in it. I froze the moth-eaten frames, cleaned them up some, and put them back in, too. They need to be checked, nonetheless: if the girls are using the damaged comb to raise drones, I should pull them once they are capped as a varroa control measure. If they are not using them, I should be sure that the wax moths are really truly dead, or maybe (ouch) just cull the frames. Finally, I might need to pull out all the frames that, like my buttercup feet, are full of pollen, because they are just gumming up the works and the bees will only take fresh now anyway.

Every day I go up to visit and to worry, but the girls seem to be buzzing along as usual. Making the splits was an opportunity to commit any amount of mayhem (smooshing queens, disrupting the brood cycle, annihilating the transferred bees through jerky driving). I could not find Eleanor in the Twain colony during all this, but the master beekeepers I talked to on Saturday said that the nail polish I used to mark her was likely to have been groomed off within the hour. The bees and I therefore have something in common: we neither of us have particular use for the stuff, and "pollen yellow" suits our tootsies better.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Adventures in Bruising: Monastery Garden Bees

Just last month, I got a (welcome) phone call. As some of you may know, this blog has gone on endlessly about whether or not to split the Twain and Wilde colonies of rooftop bees ever since it was discovered that they were the opposite of dead: there was in fact a bit of a population boom. During this time of false starts and endless speculation on how exactly to go about splitting one's bees, our beekeeping club got a call from the volunteer garden guild of a nearby Franciscan monastery: they wanted to know if it was possible to place bees in the garden.

It's a lovely garden, dear friends, and it would make a wonderful home for bees. The site offered is actually at the edge of a grove of Tulip Poplar trees, the main sentinel of the honey flow in these parts! On April 10, my bees checked out as ready to split. MaryEllen got me two new Italian queens from Wilbanks on April 18, and therefore I spent the 19th setting up the site. Setting up mostly involved buying and hauling 8 cement blocks and two 8 foot, 4 by 4 landscaping timbers, as well as bunches of rocks to level out this construction. For you SUV aficionados, please note that our Toyota Matrix handled it all, and more. Me, I got covered in scrapes, slivers, and bruises. A normal day, really.

route from roof to car via spiral staircaseTo prepare the bees on the home front, I needed things like window screen material for blocking entrances, and ratcheting cinch straps to keep the boxes together in transit. Luckily, there is an awesome independent hardware store near my home, and a Home Depot for emergency items en route between home and monastery! So I should have been ready to spend the 20th moving in the bees. Or should I say we would spend the 20th moving the bees...

The picture above shows you the one complication in the scheme that kept me up at night. Access to my roof apiary is via a two-story wrought iron spiral staircase. Get down that, then take a few steps to get off of the back porch, and follow it with a simple trip across the yard containing the three energetic dogs and you're done! Did I mention that each colony weighed between 80 and 100 pounds? Oh yeah, and I hoped to do the whole thing by myself.

splits ready to goI started assembling splits at 8 AM. This is as far as I got as a soloist. Twice I picked up a split, got to the top of the stairs, and feared for my life. At 10 AM, I had to leave for an appointment (for which I was late, and during which I kept trying not to think about trapped bees baking in the rooftop sun.)

By 11:30, I was calling MaryEllen and begging for help (actually, in my head, I was screaming for it). Who else would be available on a weekday, with no notice and no terror, to haul 200 pounds of bee stuff down 20 feet of spiral staircase? No brainer, right? Joe, the president of the garden guild, had asked to be included in the installation, so I was also feeling a bit of time pressure and had slightly messed up my placement of the hive supports already. He was waiting, I did not know him so well, and I was truly desperate.

And so she came. By the way, even before this I had decided to name the monastery colonies "MaryEllen" and "Doug" (her husband) due to all their help and kindness. I'm a little stumped about what to name "the Queen of Doug," but I am taking suggestions.

new hives at monasteryWhen we arrived at the monastery, Joe was there, and so was Ann, a frequent volunteer, We lent them veils and everyone hung around while we moved the splits into place, removed the straps, opened the entrances, installed the new queens, placed and filled the hive top feeders, and closed them up. There were lots of good questions (the bees always seem to inspire exceptional mental acuity, if you ask me) and Joe even participated. Rock on, Joe! MaryEllen confirmed the excellence of this apiary location.

MaryEllen helped me pack up the empty sugar syrup containers, smoker, veil, tools, straps, and endless accoutrements of bee wrangling, and I took her to a late lunch, then to the subway (her car was parked at a station in the suburbs).

So there is a new home for bees in the world, and maybe some new friends of Apis mellifera. I am sore and covered with bumps, but this is a new level in beekeeping. I now have two apiaries, and 4 families of bees to look after. I hope that the expansion does not dilute the wonder, or undercut the caring for their challenges and world. This bee thing only serves to make my universe grow.

Note: This is yet another post that was published several days after the fact. At least I am catching up, OK?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Transatlantic Bee Tourist

Etienne James Hunter Pollard holds honey framePlease meet Etienne James Hunter Pollard, Consummate Houseguest, Credit to Britain, and (now) Experienced Bee Wrangler. Jamie (we call him this, but you probably aren't allowed) has been a friend of the family longer than me, meaning that his parents knew my husband before I did. Nonetheless, it has been my pleasure to see him grow from secondary school through a round the world trip all the way through university and on to success in business, and I celebrated this by shoving a frame full of bees into his gloveless hands.

Just before being whisked off to the airport after his two week visit to many parts of the U.S., he was asked about (and showed enthusiasm for) a visit to the bees. He got to wear my better veil (hey, we here in the States try to know a little bit about hospitality, too!) and was very attentive and asked good questions when I popped the top off of Twain. Perhaps I should have asked him, or could have paid more attention to the little gasp that might have been emitted, before I pulled a frame and gave it to him.

To my mind, there is nothing like a frame full of honey and contented bees to spur the imagination. It's heavier than you think, it smells good, and it's hard to be afraid of an animal that so studiously ignores you while you manipulate its world.

Etienne James Hunter Pollard and coloniesFinally, our final photo shows Mr. Pollard as he stands fearlessly between two colonies of perhaps 50,000 bees each. One might mention a "stiff upper lip," "one more into the breach," and so forth, but I think the girls had actually shown him a good time.

Note: the management admits that this post and the pix were conceived on the date given, though published well after. We also know that we misquoted Tennyson. Sorry.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Beeswax and Bath Soap

curing soapMuch has been happening in the the three weeks since I last wrote (much of it inside my head, and therefore hardly relevant), but what one mostly has to show for it is soap. Kind of a lot of soap.

Since March 19th, I have made beeswax soap three times, and have done so with a range of other people, and none of them twice. In short, I have been a saponifying flibbertygibbet, a faithless converter of bee products into bathsuds. It just seemed like the thing to do.

On March 19th, my dad was dying and I did not know. That day, Kameha (a new friend from the beekeeping club) and I made beeswax and palm oil soap that turned an unearthly golden shade of brown. On March 25th, my sister and I got together (with my friend Gerry, too) to sort-of sort-out all manner of confused feelings, and made some beeswax and lavender soap. By mistake I put in twice as much lavender as required, but people seem to like it. Last Saturday, MaryEllen came over and we made a very simple beeswax and honey soap for sale at an upcoming event. That is the soap pictured here. I made molds out of PVC pipe, half-and-half containers and a box in which some fancy Calvados came years ago, and you see all that soap in its pre-cutting up phase in the picture above.

empty queen cupYou would almost think there were no bees anymore, only beeswax, but that's not true. I visited the girls on April 10 to check on swarming tendencies, and whether we were still on target to make splits this Spring. We are. The second picture here is of an empty queencup, evidence of crowded conditions but no swarm yet: it would have to be filled and capped for a swarm to be imminent.

There is nonethless so much news, so much going on, and it's a little anxious making. Last Thursday, MaryEllen and I drove to a Dadant beekeeping supply store, a humble little place, taking all day to do it. I purchased all the woodenware necessary to become a mother of five (colonies of bees, that is: getting two more hive set-ups in addition to the two already on the roof and the one out at a park in the suburbs).

Did I tell you about the park in the suburbs? Well, if not, I must have totally neglected the fact that (in addition) I will be placing two more colonies at a monastery only a few miles from my house. Finally, just a week ago, three new beekeepers installed two packages of brand new honeybees just a mile or so from there, with some advice from me. One of them told me he became interested in beekeeping due to an article I wrote for a local food co-op. That felt so wonderful, I am so grateful to them for joining the world of the bee-lovers.

Tomorrow, two new queens should arrive, and I will have everything I need (and no more excuses) for moving ahead with the two new monastery colonies. The bees for the park will arrive later in the month, in a much less intimidating fashion.

I've tried not to hassle the bees too much lately, but I also think I am sort of anxious about what I am getting myself many bees. But it's not really the bees, it's worry about how a life is spent, and about concentrating on universes so small and orderly, rather than the big scary one from which I am taking a sabbatical of sorts.

Writing this blog is a way of picking up the threads and gathering them together again, of deciding what to think and what to do. This is the first blog entry of my second year of beekeeping, an activity that has come to mean more to me than I ever would have guessed. Soap and philosophy and friends and flowers. A lot of thoughts about life and death, and visits from both. Sometimes it seems like it's just too much, and sometimes not enough.