Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bringing In Reinforcements

I'm in New Hampshire, helping my cousin to pack up one life and start another (the skillset required: I'm ruthless at filling dumpsters with other people's stuff). Because I am far from the bees, I do not have a picture for you, but I do have news!

It is far easier to advise others to toss away the parts of their lives in which they have invested than it is to take that advice yourself. Therefore, when MaryEllen emailed me yesterday to say that the master beekeepers who let me work with them a couple of weeks ago had bees for sale... well, I just decided to bring in reinforcements for Twain.

I've been telling myself that sometimes nature requires you to take a loss, and that you can pile damage on damage by trying to hold back the truth. But these guys breed awesome bees, and if I let Twain go, I could lose all the drawn comb and honey that the girls had managed to set aside so far. So I asked MaryEllen if she could help me, even though I am several hundred miles away.

Over the phone, I have been coaching my husband on which frames and boxes and covers and bottom boards and so on he needs to bring to work, where MaryEllen will pick them up, and bring them to the beeyard out where Larry and David are. This coaching involved him running around on a nighttime roof with a cell phone, describing various bits of woodenware in the dim light.

During another phone call seeking advice and setting up the purchase, Larry said that he will give me five deep frames of Carniolans and five deep frames of drawn comb. He'll put it all in my deep, watch it for a few days, and I can come get it this weekend, when I return.

After talking on the phone with Larry a bit, he and I decided on getting a new queen, too. Twain's home grown Queen, who I kind of don't want to call Abigail anymore, just does not seem able to perform. There aren't many drones in my neighborhood, so she might not have had a chance to mate properly...or it might be congestion in the hive, or it might be a temporary fluke of hive geography, or it might be something else. I need a known quantity, however, in order to understand what the girls need, so I just signed up to kill yet another queen. Ugh.

So let's say a word in honor and in sadness over the renewal of life, what it costs and how we somehow face the risks of making changes and going for greater vitality and a brighter future. It's wrong to think you can do it without cost, or that "going for the glory" is always the thing to do.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Monastery Check Up

bees flying homeToday was a monastery bees checkup day. The colonies there have been displaying what seems to be a law of beekeeping: where one colony flourishes, another must hang back. I was wondering whether the MaryEllen and Doug colonies needed more room to expand —another medium deep, or whether there might be a problem with Doug. When I called to say I would be coming by today, I found out that additional members of the Monastery Garden Guild really wanted to participate in bee management. The picture above shows bees heading home to MaryEllen.

I need to confess to you: having bees in three locations is very different from having all of the girls just up one flight of stairs, where I can hover and dote. It has changed the score alot, and it worries me a bit. Somehow I'm less connected to the "outyard" bees. Finally, perhaps, I'm being nudged toward a less personal and a more "herd health" attitude toward the girls, and I don't like it one bit. But each of these other colonies is more accessible to other people, and they get me in direct contact with folks who might actually decide to foster bees themselves.

Alexandra assistsBut bee-ing in these other places has gotten many more people involved, and several have become true friends of bees. Alexandra here is an officer of the Garden Guild, and she spent the better part of an hour with me today, head down in a beehive or two. Here we are checking the brood situation in MaryEllen. It is good! The Doug colony also has brood, though not quite so much, and they take less sugar syrup. The population is just building faster in MaryEllen, so they got another box today.

This difference in energy level has been true since the start: MaryEllen's workers released their queen faster than Doug's; they have added bees and taken sugar syrup more quickly, too. The starter bees in that colony came from Wilde. The bees in Doug came from Twain, which has seemed to have endless trouble ever since.

The original bees in both these colonies are long gone, so the tendencies they display should come from their respective queens. Yet, this is not true: the trends that were in place at the beginning still prevail now. Yet another place where the bees are recognizing and responding to the world in a way that leaves humans guessing.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Abby is Fertile, but Liz is On Fire

a few capped worker brood cellsToday was a big check up day, a time to answer the questions:
1) Is Abigail, the new Queen of Twain, properly mated and able to provide a new generation or worker bees?
2) Are there enough bees in Twain to keep the hive alive, and are any problems caused by weakness beginning to emerge?
3) Should I consider taking brood from Wilde to support Twain through all this?

The picture above pretty much captures the state of affairs. The good news is that Abigail is laying fertilized eggs. The few capped cells you see here contain developing female bees, honeybees who will eventually be capable of performing the work that makes a hive go round (actually, that makes a hive go "buzzzz"). Some queens don't mate well, or have some other problem, and lay only male drones. The latter cannot sustain a hive.

a few capped worker brood cellsThe bad news is, after finding just one frame with a few dozen capped brood (and maybe a couple of hundred more larvae besides) there was no evidence of any other brood in the hive. It's just not enough bees. Because there was so little empty comb for Abby to work with, I put some permacomb (the picture here) in, too, but the bees are ignoring it. I was warned about that: apparently, if there is any alternative at all to plastic, they will ignore the artificial stuff.

beeswax bridge above brood nestI continued on through the hive, looking for more brood and cleaning up the extra comb on the tops and bottoms of the frames — it seems to be everywhere this year, and it kills bees by pinching them when you move frames around. Therefore you scrape tops and bottoms (and save the beeswax) even if the girls are gonna build it up again. You can see that it's necessary to go slowly and carefully, because the bees basically don't get out of the way. I usually spend a few minutes freeing bees with stuck legs from the beeswax pile at the end of each session.

The next box below contained only honey, so I reversed it. That means that the box with the little bit of brood was switched with the lower honey box, and the latter was moved up and out of the way (it's just an obstacle to the bees at this point — there is no work to do in a capped honey super).

Also weird: I found a capped queen cell in the bottom box, in a supercedure position, but it was really small, and could have been left over from when the newspaper was still blocking the hive. Or the colony let Abigail lay a little, and they plan to supercede here...again. This is very bad. This hive will probably dwindle away to nothing if the bees somehow get the impression that the ongoing weakness is always the current queen's fault.

I wanted to be a smart, super-tough beekeeper and be able to make decisions like "Let Twain go, everyone loses a colony now and then," but I decided instead to gauge the strength of the neighbors, and see if I could let them lend a hand the next time I come by.

beautiful pattern of capped worker bee broodSo into Wilde, Queen Liz' kingdom, I go, and this, my friends, is what I am talking about! We still don't look like we will have a good honey year (Editor's note: So what?), but this, oh patient ones, is a deep frame full of capped worker honeybees! Do you see all those filled-in cells, with just a few empties interspersed? That, dear hearts, is a beautiful brood pattern from a happening queen. There were two frames in a row just like that, thousands and thousands of bees on the way. Another round of life, coming up!

strangely drawn combSince I am in the mood to show you pictures, here is a final one: after several frames of nicely stored honey and capped brood, you encounter this one. It's like touring the Old Masters wing of a stodgy art museum and suddenly encountering Christo. You are supposed to cull this kind of frame, scrape it down, and put it back for proper rebuilding (not at all unlike a Christo installation). I didn't. Not this time. Soon enough, though.

Right now, even though it's the dumb decision, I'm leaning toward moving a couple of frames of brood from Wilde to Twain, a kind of repayment for all the support that went the other way last year. The tough-minded reason for it is that all the drawn comb in Twain may get ruined if a lively colony of bees is not in there. The soft-hearted reason is that Twain suffered from my poor management — probably some swarming, some inept queen management, and the legacy of last winter's mite mayhem. In short, why start making sense now?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Chewing Through

honeybee chew marksToday was newspaper removal day, time to take a chance on letting Queen Abigail mix freely with her new foster daughters.

Here's a very reassuring picture: the worker bees had already chewed through to mommy. If you look at the picture, you can see how the slit in the paper looked when I placed it in the hive, and above you can see how the worker girls (in a space between frames) got to work on chewing the paper to make a passage.

Bees' mouths don't have any sharp or bite-like parts. Therefore, it's really dumb to talk about getting bitten by a bee. They do, however, have everything necessary for grabbing an edge and chewing. They need to do the latter all the time in order to shape wax flakes into lovely geometric comb.

The workers had made several holes like this, but this one included some of the original cut, so you could see the extent of their work. I particularly like the little yellow stains around the edges, yellow like pollen, liquid like nectar. Basically, bee spit. Bet it's a lot nicer than ours.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Abigail is Laying

newsprint dividing hiveThis past week has not been a good one. I have felt out of sorts and worried, all because this does not seem like last Spring, where triumphant life exploded out of two screened boxes full of bees. This is a lower energy year, with mite problems and queen problems and an odd nectar flow, and I am still waiting for that burst of exultation that took me so totally by surprise twelve months ago.

It has been six days since the box with young Queen Abigail was placed over the Twain colony, with that sheet of newsprint you see here dividing the new monarch from her foster daughters. For the first three days, nothing happened: looking in quickly, no bees had chewed around the slits I cut in the paper (or even started), and no eggs were present in the Queen's box. The workers were just hanging around, with little flying in or out. Acting queenless.

So I removed two relatively bee-less honey supers off the hive, moved the newspaper sheet down — so the new queen would be directly over the core population of remaining workers — replaced the Queen's box and then the honey supers, and closed the hive up. I was hoping that, by placing her closer, the Eau de Abigail pheromones would be stronger and might get the workers organized. I closed the bottom board, too, to boost concentrations. And I decided to wait three more days before interfering again.

Gets you wondering: exactly which Queen died last week? The imported one or the home-grown princess? If the virgin queen was triumphant, there would be a delay in her laying. And a delay we had. A virgin would have hung around a few days, taken a mating flight, and then started to lay. I have no explanation for why a mated queen would wait. So perhaps Eleanor's genes live on, and the outsider queen died. This does not make me feel better, somehow.

Today was the day to check again (even though I had no plan if I discovered the worst). Inside, there were a few new chew holes in the paper, and new eggs on one frame of comb. Nice laying pattern, too! The bees had filled up most of the rest of the nearby drawn comb with nectar and pollen, so I put a frame of permacomb nearby to give some space for more eggs. Hope that was a good idea!

This means that I need to watch for a few things, and should anticipate a couple of options. First, sometime in about 3-4 days I need to see how those new eggs are capped. If they are all big-domed drone larvae, I have a problem. You see, when you let a virgin queen be raised and mated naturally, she may not mate well or very many times (she may not even survive her flight). She needs to mate anywhere from a couple to a dozen times to get enough sperm to lay her 250,000 lifetime eggs. A queen who has not mated (or mated enough) lays drones.

For the past few days, I have been counting in my head all the known beehives within a three mile radius, and figure where there might be overlaps that promote a Drone Congregating Area (DCA). This is no joke: drone bees hang out together like youths at the gas station/convenience market in a small town. They are sexually mature, have nothing else to do, are anxious to mate, and are hanging out in mobs to identify likely females.

If those eggs turn out to be drone larvae, the Queen is a bust and I get to play executioner again. I would probably wait another week, though, on the off chance that she just got a weird start. If she is a bust, I can either buy another queen, or introduce some really new eggs from the Wilde colony, and let Twain try to raise their own again. Or I can close up shop in that hive for a year, and start over next year. I will probably try to find another queen (and give them some eggs besides).

If those eggs turn out to be worker larvae, however, I'm opening some champagne. I will probably give Twain a frame of Wilde's larvae (to help with the dwindling they have experienced) and feed them like the Dickens all summer long, since they will have missed out on the nectar flow. The colony that was gangbusters last year will be the dependent one this year.

But this story does not have an ending yet, and every time there is an ending some question arises to draw uncertainty and suspense along, like an insect serial drama.

If I do get to pop that cork, my first toast will be to bee years that are good for all one's buzzing communities, and that 2007 will be one of those.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Eleanor is Dead

Queen Eleanor was not laying, and was moving very slowly around her new domain, so I dispatched her today. She was born in Georgia, shipped to one midAtlantic state, lived in another, and died in a third. It was time to stop subjecting her to the whims of humans, and to let her return to nature.

She was buried with a buttercup and the hope that I gave her no more pain.

Today, it no longer seems so sure that her daughter was the queen who died, but it is certain that the Twain colony was reunited today, with a single queen. The nuclear colony was placed on top of the main colony, with a sheet of newsprint paper between (sliced in a few places to allow bees to start chewing through).

Mother's Day weekend here has seen a transition of generations among the bees, with mothers gone by and mothers-to-bee.

Over time, as little as a couple of days, the bees will become bewitched with the aroma of a young new queen wafting through the paper (a perfume for which they have probably been yearning for days) and will forget about the old monarch. But I won't.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Anguished Accession of Abigail

Princess Joan, deceased virgin queen bee Here is the sad tale of a dead princess, and a queen in waiting, and the beekeeper who vexed them both. Long story short: Twain will have a foreign queen instead of the young virgin they bred up for themselves, and the beekeeper is a little less ignorant at the price of being a little more sad. I have posthumously named the dead virgin queen bee you see here "Joan," after the princess daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine who died on the way to her wedding.

The story of all this is confused and long. Something was not quite right with the hives starting a couple of weeks ago – or, more accurately, it was NOTICED a couple of weeks ago – and so began the process of requeening the Twain colony, my first time (and poor Queen Eleanor's last, or so I thought).

With new Queen Abigail (after Abigail Adams) and a jar for old Queen Eleanor in hand last Friday, I found that Twain had hatched its own successor instead. In the world of bees, a newborn queen spends a week to ten days running around inside the hives, probably finishing the development of her wings and getting ready for the only extended flight of her life. While she does this, no eggs are laid, and a gap in the brood cycle develops. Right now, the main nectar flow for the year is on, so this gap will be reflected in a poor honey harvest. Also, virgin queens are not much bigger than workers, and are hard to spot, making it hard for the beekeeper to be sure where they are in all this.

Bad beekeeper, BAD beekeeper! Now I had a virgin and a caged queen (and a dowager, who basically no longer mattered), and when I asked for guidance, I was informed that the bees would kill the outsider queen if I released her. (If only I could express to you how downhearted this kind of thing makes me, time after time.) The best advice I got was to take my new queen, make a little nuclear colony for her to live in next door while we waited to see how the virgin would make out. Sometimes they don't come back from their mating flights, sometimes they don't find many drones to mate with. Therefore, it's a good idea to have a backup.

Yesterday, I went to the nuc to release Queen Abigail from her cage, because those bees should have been content to have her now — but she took flight! Oh no! Sometimes this means that the queen knows she will not be accepted, sometimes this means she has been freaked out by a beekeeper placing her in one hive and then another. In any case, she can't really go far, so I tried to find her. Watching every place my foot might fall, I crept around, and found her clinging to the side of a planter. Taking her gently in my hand, I placed my palm over the hole in the inner cover, and she slowly crept in. When I lifted the cover, she had a small circle of attendants. Good sign.

When I checked the Twain colony next door, it looked listless, and I could not find the virgin queen. This bothered me, all night long actually. In a way, therefore, it was no surprise to find poor Joan front of the nuclear colony, with two worker bees still trying to attend to her. You see, when I made the small colony to house Abigail, Joan must have inadvertently had hitched a ride.

Do you know, in the back of my mind little warnings about this went off, but I had no way to look out for it? In the royal battle that ensued, Joan died. In the world of bees, the main law is this: One queen, at least one, and no more than one. Joan herself actually killed at least one queen pupa after she emerged (yes, friends, I missed TWO capped queen cells). I checked the nuc after finding poor Joan, and Abigail is trucking along inside.

The picture of poor Princess Joan is included here not as morbid proof of the deed, but to help other beekeepers get a look at a virgin queen bee. I could not find a single picture online to help me (excuses, excuses). The hints I would give are this: the abdomen of a queen is almost always paler than the workers' and it comes to more of a point. There is a segmented smooth patch on the back of the thorax just like on a mated queen. Other bees will be very attracted, even to a virgin.

As we stand tonight, with a thunderstorm coming in and no time to make things right until the next time the sun shines, Twain has no queen, and the nuc which had two is back to normal.

So tomorrow, perhaps, I will be reuniting the nuc with the main Twain colony. Eleanor's genes will slowly disappear over the next 5 weeks or so. She was a good queen, and I would have kept her daughter. To heck with the honey harvest.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


bees wings make ripple in birdbathDuring week after week of idyllic Spring days, humans may exult, but bees are more practical. They seek out water, and they bring it home. Even so, it makes a bit of unexpected magic.

The force of their wing beats makes beautiful and fleeting ripples on the water's surface, a delightful surprise. Bees have to work hard to fly, and they look a bit like they are hanging from borrowed wings sometimes when they do.

If you click on the picture, you can download an 18 MB, one minute Quicktime movie of honeybees over the bird bath. At 11 and 28 seconds, and again right near the end, you can see ripples where no bee touched the water. Try to imagine jewel-like sunshine and a steadier camera hand, and maybe you can be there, too.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Eleanor is Exiled

Yesterday, I drove out to a town that was once a small farming community, and is now a suburb, and spent the whole morning working with two brother beekeepers who would sell me a queen. Larry and David were gentle, knowledgable, respectful... and skeptical of my story. They said they would nonetheless sell me a queen. In their opinion, whether through a swarm I missed or a natural supercedure, there is a new virgin queen running around in Twain. These are difficult to spot. Then they asked if I had my veil and wanted to spend some time looking at queens while they worked. I said YES, listened and watched and learned until my head spun, and then headed home with a bag of home-grown asparagus, some apples, and some squash. I also bought some Permacomb to help out my congested girls. More on Permacomb later.

Friday afternoon, I went into Twain, found Eleanor, and could not kill her, not yet. I placed her successor, Abigail, as Larry and David instructed me: in her queen cage with a hole in the candy, but the cork still in place for a while. I intend to name her Abigail, after Abigail Adams, if she survives my introduction.

I put a mark on Eleanor (for practice) and put her in a ball jar with some of the burr comb I'd cut. It also has some honey in it. I also grabbed a few attendants: I can always put them back, after all.

Eleanor managed to get out of the jar (lid was crooked) after I set her down: thought she was a goner then, but found her clinging to a curtain. Poor terrified thing. Even harder to kill her now.

I decided to think about it overnight. And what a difference a day makes! MaryEllen emailed me urgently – her observation colony needs a queen who does not lay so much! A perfect new kingdom for Eleanor!

So Eleanor will go on to a life in public relations, much like the British monarchy. I will keep you posted on the further adventures of Abigail.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Queen Must Die

Made a quick check of both Wilde and Twain today, mostly to see whether the start of the nectar flow had led to any bee needs. Long story short: Twain needs a new queen. There was almost no brood, the population of bees is pretty low, and you can feel the lack of life in the hive. This is hard, but this is life: the queen must die, long live the new queen.

I've found a beekeeper not too far away who can sell me a new Italian queen, and I will try to get her installed tomorrow. It's a sad day. Sam has offered to do the deed to poor Queen Eleanor to spare my heart, but I'm going to stand up to this responisbility. I may try to hang on to her to help a new beekeeper learn to mark a queen. Or not – not if if means keeping her terrified in a box without proper attendants for a day or so.

Anyway, more details to follow.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Saints of Field and Flower

This is no place – and I am no authority – to rule on matters of organized religion, but honeybees possess some kind of theological magnetism, and recent circumstances have me thinking in a saint-ly vein.

With two new colonies at our city's Franciscan monastery, it seemed churlish not to count blessings and offer thanks. Therefore, the colonies at the monastery have been named after my two benefactors, MaryEllen and Doug, and their queens will be named after appropriate saints.

Now, the question of "appropriate saints" got interesting fast. Honeybees have been with us longer than Christianity, and people have been quite grateful for them all along. Therefore, it appears that there are a bouquet of bee-oriented patron saints out there, each beloved of a certain nation. A quick look turned up(Saint/patronage/location):

St. Ambrose/honey and beekeeping/Italy
St. Alexios/bee keepers/Greece
St. Bartholomew/mead-making/Britain
St. Bernard of Clairvaux/bee keepers and candlemakers/France
St. Haralampi/healing properties of bees and honey/Bulgaria
St. Isidore of Seville/bees and hives were his emblem/Spain
St. Modomnock (or Domnock, or Dominic)/bees/Ireland
St. Sossima/beekeeping/Ukraine
St. Valentine/bee keepers/silly people
St. Urban/bee keepers/Hungary

There are almost certainly more buzzing saints. The strategy below, however, is how we are going to start playing the name game:

Hives Doug and MaryEllen

Of the two new colonies, MaryEllen is on the left, and Doug is slightly to her right. This is only right, if you know them. Please note the green woodland goodness that surrounds.

Saints Francis and Clare by GiottoThe queens of the Doug and MaryEllen hives will be Frances and Clare, respectively. It seems deeply right to name a queen after the patron saint of animals, and (for her part) Saint Clare was closely linked to Frances, and committed to a cloistered life of work and the ownership of no personal property. Very bee-like.

Other saints abound, unhonored, even so. There could be a Saint Joe (or two), a Saint Ann, and a Saint Ben as well, since so many volunteers with the Franciscan garden guild have made us feel so very welcome. Joe in particular faces a brilliant future as a beekeeper: he not only skips the gloves, he does not even want to wear a veil when he helps me. He also has a queen eye to beat the band!

In final note, it could not have tickled me more to learn that "St. Urban" was into bees as well. We city beekeepers can totally see it.