Friday, June 30, 2006

Surviving June

bees in vent holeIf October is the beekeeper's New Year, when everything gets carefully tucked away for the winter respite, June is the month of ultimate hustle and expansion. This picture of the bees busily making their way in and out of the new ventilation holes I am adding to the hive bodies (as time allows!) is pretty much how this month has gone for me, too.

June in this area usually brings the last, big burst of the nectar flow, a yearly orgy of pollen and flower juice. Around here, the big contributors are trees: tulip poplar and black locust are the ones all the beekeepers talk about, but the wide avenues of my fair city are also lined with lindens. The latter are called "basswood" by the old timers, and provide lots of honey that most around here find a bit on the tart side. On the street level, the lavender, Russian sage, and white clover come into their own, providing a follow-on harvest that is supposed to take us into July.

This year, the nectar flow was weird. We had a drought just at bloom time, and that seems to have held down the amount of nectar collected, caused the bees to clog the combs with more pollen than they could use in three years, and (perhaps) triggered a number of supercedures. It looks like the bees blame their queens for their hard times, much like people blame anyone they can, and seek solutions through regicide. Thus I learned that Queen Elizabeth is no more in the Wilde colony. I have not yet gotten around to marking and naming her successor. There's some trouble in this: it really seems like the colony is less active now, and we may have another case of a local girl who could not mate adequately in this low stock of drones.

This month was therefore spent, on the bee front, starting an early program of feeding bees in five hives and three locations. I had a leaky feeder that needed repair, and started taking advantage of a method MaryEllen uses which deploys poultry waterers with sugar syrup inside: no drowned bees at all!

I also spent two separate weeks in New England, helping my cousin disassemble one life and lay the groundwork for a new one. Newfound talent: I'm really good at tossing out stuff, if it belongs to someone else. If you will help me wrangle my bees, I will help you clean your basement. Be warned: I may send you out for beer and chips if you get too sentimental on me! Just close your eyes and think of England, OK?

Appropriately enough, a week of sad necessity was followed by a week of record rain, more than righting the drought deficit of the previous two months. But will it bring more flowers, you know?

too many boxesIf you will take my basement offer, I would be grateful. You see, I really do need some help in rationalizing my roof bees. Do you see these towers here? This is not some banner honey year, with two boxes of bees below and a pile of honey supers above. Oh no. This is the result of mixed woodenware (deeps with honey frames, mediums with brood, ugh!), the addition of a nuc's worth of bees to Twain in mid-June, and the proliferation of pollen-clogged frames in various sizes without always having enough foundation to replace them. At one point this month, I tried to use a hose to blow the pollen clogs out of the drawn comb (in order to re-use the latter — hey, some beekeepers say it works) and NOTHING happened. I have brood spread across four boxes in these hives, honey left here-there-and-everywhere as the bees found space, and pollen generally getting in the way whenever possible.

MaryEllen says she will come over to help me take the hives apart and somehow reduce these colonies to proper size. She says her husband is in the same boat.

There is lots and lots to show you from the month of June, but this post is too long already. Therefore, I'll be cheating a bit and in-filling previous dates with information about all the many goings-on, including the monastery and historical park bees. Every day this month I got up and thought about bees, and then blogs, and as each passed the work to get it all to you seemed more and more monumental. I apologize for those few who have been slogging away with me this long, and hope to make it all worthwhile some how.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Summer Camp, Part I

bee with mite taking honeyToday we had our first summer camp presentation, but (in this sad world of ours) pictures of the kids are not allowed. So here is a picture of a bee with a mite that we found today, which means that the time to treat for varroa is already here. This is another item on a growing list. The bee is taking honey from my finger, a picture taken by MaryEllen. I suppose with the clarity of those fingerprints, you could run me through Interpol now.

This has been a busy, busy month, divided across two states and at least 5 states of mind. And every once in a while, a ball gets dropped. This time, MaryEllen and I found out yesterday that our first presentation to a summer camp group of 5-10 year-olds was today!

The folks at the history park participate in a county-wide program of day camps for kids, and when asked about whether we could participate and on what day, we said, "Sure! How would every other Wednesday work?" Little did we know that, ahem, we had just concluded the official scheduling procedure!

One of my main motivations in life, these days, is sharing the joy of bees, and we have been presenting a lot lately, so we thought, "Fine!" There's just one other thing we did not know: because of the torrential rains this week, the swim camp could not swim, so 22 of those kids joined 22 of the history kids for our presentation. That's right, we got 44 5 to 10-year-olds with us in one room for over an hour! Yipes! We were totally out of our league.

First of all, there were lots of questions. It was basically impossible to make a presentation. So I tried to roll with what the kids wanted. At one point, I called on a little boy, maybe 6 years old, and said, "You have had your hand up for a while! Do you have a question?"

To which he answered, "Not so much a question as a comment."

Gulp. Welcome to the well-heeled suburbs of America, where even the kids have media training.

The camp counselors told us that we did OK, though the two barely 20-year-old child herders advised us on how to handle the kids better next time! Others have said that you can't expect kids that age to sit for more than 40 minutes. Ann, who runs the park, says we should have fewer kids next time — in two weeks — and MaryEllen and I may split the group by age and take some out to the hives while some are in getting a presentation in the barn, and then switch places.

We were due to encounter a presentation we could not handle. Thus far, these programs had all gone too-too swimmingly, with us getting a bit too used to winging it. We will be doing three camp presentations in all this summer, plus the odd interpretation if a group is into it. I will be speaking to an urban youth and family gardening group in July, and then there is the county fair in August outside the city.

By the way, the field bee with the mite will continue to live, though probably not as long as she would have. The mite on her back will eventually try to get into a brood cell in order to lay more horror eggs. It's not possible for big clumsy human fingers to pry the mite off her back, and if you look at the photos, you can see that such an operation mite do alot of damage if we even could get a clean grip. Bees don't heal after they become adults (there is no protein in their diets after that) so any wounds are permanent. Pity the poor honeybees, and please root for us as we try to take care of them and help more people who care about bees.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Budding Bug Fan

trent with beesMake no mistake, I'm as dangerous as a missionary arriving unbidden at your door. I insist that it is in your best interest to like bees, and am willing to speak to you earnestly for hours to win you to my cause. So imagine my delight when my sister offers me her first-born son!

Well, what really happened is this: somewhere, somehow, some day care provider talked about bees. Probably, it was an attempt to get the kids ready for the sting season. But my nephew knew that I had bees, and got a bit curious about visiting them. So we all went over to the monastery to make introductions (kids don't get to go to my rooftop apiary until they are ten years old: at that point, I figure they won't run off the edge. Tune in again in a few years when I change it to 18).

If you click on the picture above, you will get a Quicktime movie of Trent visiting the bees. Note the awesomeness of his mother: I'm wearing a veil, Trent is wearing a veil, but *MOM* is leaning right over the frame with that lovely black hair uncovered, and is happy as can be! Rock on, Alicia! Buzz on, bees!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Parade of Bees

On Wednesday, MaryEllen and I checked the colonies out at the historical park, and my hive (the one with the incredible brood pattern) had a bunch of swarm cells, including one that was nearly capped. Emergency!

This has been a very swarmy and supercedure-driven year. I lost a swarm from the Twain colony sometime in early May (or so I figure, I was not there when it happened, sigh) and the Wilde colony superceded sometime after.

Therefore, this was a serious business, and one we were utterly unprepared for on Wednesday. When you find a swarm queen cell, it means that the bees have been preparing to split their family in two for at least a week or two. This should be a success story — "A family so successful it can become two families!! — but a swarm gone wild almost certainly won't survive in these parts, and the weakened bees it leaves behind (with a new and unproved queen) faces real challenges, too.

The idea that the bees are preparing to swarm even before they build the swarm cells was new to me. It turns out that they are really mean to the queen, holding back on her food and reducing her egg laying, in order to slim her down and make it possible for her to fly off with them. A working queen is so portly that her wing beats are unequal to the task of lifting her butt. Apparently her daughters also push her and bite her to get her out the door! So you see, there is a large, organized, many-hundreds-of-bees-strong effort underway by the time a beekeeper sees swarm cells, and cutting out the cells is not guaranteed to stop it. In fact, it might result in a swarm taking off with NO new queen left behind. A recipe for colony death!

With no tools and no plan in hand for dealing with this on Wednesday, I did what I usually do: I called my bee guru, Larry. He tsk-tsked a little, and then offered the idea of "a shook swarm." Basically, you get the bees to skip swarming by convincing them that they already did. At the same time, you add space and checkerboard the frames, so the colony is a more spacious place. I also decided (being a glutton for punishment) to drill additional ventilation holes in the hive bodies as I moved frames around. This also seemed like it would materially change the inside landscape, would give me something to do while letting the bees cool their heels (if they have heels) outside, and would provide more entries to relieve congestion.

Larry told me to do this:

1) Find the queen, and put the frame with the queen aside in a safe place;
2) Take any frames with queen cells, and put in a box to raise elsewhere;
3) Place the telescoping hive cover in front of the hive, and provide a ramp back toward the entrance (I used a bottom board insert);
4) Shake (gently) at least half of the bees from the hive onto the hive cover;
5) Carefully carefully carefully shake the queen off her frame onto the cover, too;
6) Let bees mill around a bit;
7) Gently get queen headed up ramp, back to entrance;
8) Watch bee parade as thousands of workers follow her back; and
9) Close up hive, hope for best, check back in a few days.

Now, MaryEllen and I thought we could get this done in the morning, BEFORE a group of AmeriCorps volunteers was scheduled to stop by for a bee presentation. Instead, we were up to our knees in bees when they arrived, and were followed shortly by ladies from the garden guild. Yikes!

But the good thing was, we were so busy doing what we had to do, that there was not time to be nervous. Also, the goings-on were so interesting that there were LOTS of questions, and the volunteers (all young people around 20 years old, I think) got very excited about bees. Maybe we made some beekeepers!

Unfortunately, we were so busy that we got no pictures. Some of the AmeriCorps kids had cameras, and I asked them to send anything they got. I will add it here if any come.

It was a very stately parade up that ramp, you know, and I wish so much that you could see it.

Of course, now I have a (borrowed) nuc box with a frame of queen cells and a couple of other random frames in it. I planned on bringing the queen cell over to a fellow beekeeper in the club, a woman new this year, but when I got to her house, I discovered that her bees had superceded successfully, and she had a brand new laying queen. Therefore I have parked the cute purple nuc on my porch, and am awaiting some kind of plan. Will let you know.

Finally, the folks at the historic park have a newsletter for volunteers, and it was my turn to do the bee update, so what follows is my account of the events!

The Cockrill Colony Gets a Name and Entertains Americorps Volunteers

Both colonies of honeybees at the mill have names! MaryEllen Kirkpatrick's colony is named after the Millards, who once operated the mill. Her queen bee is named Emma, after Mrs. Millard. After a bit of research, Toni Burnham named the other colony "Cockrill," after the former proprietors of the general store. The second colony's queen bee is named "Maud," after Mrs. Cockrill.

Colonies are basically the communities of bees that live in the hive boxes you can see up on the hill. If the beekeeper is good, colonies live on year to year. The queen within the colony changes over time, though, so beekeepers have to keep track of who is who in which community, and give their queens separate names as a result. MaryEllen and Toni had discussed naming queen bees in honor of staff members or volunteers at Colvin Mill, but since queens tend to replace each other (or be replaced) every year, we thought that seemed a bit unfriendly.

In the midst of all this naming, there was a bee adventure on June 8! The beekeepers discovered that the Cockrill colony was preparing to swarm, and had to take action to fool the bees into believing they already had and should just settle down. Swarming is a confusing phenomenon to non-beekeepers: it should be a success story, because one colony grows large enough to spin off another. However, at this time of year and with the state of the pests in our environment, such new colonies won't survive long. So we try to keep them alive through tricks and hard work.

A group of Americorps volunteers stopped by to see MaryEllen and Toni shake out thousands of bees in front of the Cockrill hive in order to convince them that they were on a swarming trip. While the bees were getting their bearings outside, we shuffled up the hive's insides and added space, all just to fool the bees. We took special care to make sure that Queen Maud was sent out, safely, and the Americorps volunteers were treated to a "bee parade" when she began her stately march back up the ramp into the hive, followed by thousands of her daughters.

MaryEllen and Toni are always happy to have visitors when they are working the bees, and bring extra veils so you can come close and see. If you spot us up there, please stop by and say hi!

Monday, June 05, 2006

The New Twain Crew Comes Home

While in New Hampshire, I finally finished reading A Book of Bees, which gave me both inspiration to keep ploughing ahead with this blog and some advice about how to unite the new bees with the existing colony in the Twain hive.
Apparently, book learning is not what it is cracked up to be (yet again), because Larry got really worried when I told him what I intended to do with the bees he entrusted to my care yesterday. I was going to place them at the bottom of Twain, with some newspaper for the girls to chew through to delay contact and get them used to each other before the fact. Larry said it was not a great idea to put new bees below old. He even called me at home to reiterate this point! Therefore, I set the hive up the way you see it at left.

I placed the new nuc colony (the white box) above the old brood area, separated by a double screen board. The latter will allow the new queen's pheromone's to waft down on her new subjects, without allowing them to actually come up and chew on her or her daughters. Larry seemed unhappy with the double screen board idea, but I did not explore this with him.

Putting the new nuc there left me with a bit of a problem: what to do with the two medium boxes full of honey and comb and MORE bees from the old Twain crew? I'm terrified of wax moths (they turned up once already) and have no safe place to store it, even besides the problem with removing the bees. Therefore, I left an upper entrance/exit but placed two reversed bee escapes between the nuc and the supers. If this all seems too complicated, well it is, but it is what I did.

Finally, the part I have been avoiding. Before all this rearranging and stacking and screening and so on, I had to go through Twain to find Abigail. Her reign was so short, but I had to end it. I found her near the bottom, after looking through 20 frames (of course): she was a completely black queen, it's hard to believe her mother was Italian! It took me three tries to grab her, and when I finally had her in my fingers, I could not bear to squish her. My other hand was occupied with holding a frame, so I set her down in a nearby planter, intending to get back to the sad task. But a few seconds later I could no longer find her!

She had scurried off into a crack or under a leaf or maybe even (shudder) somehow back into a hive box! So much for a "known quantity!" And also so much for kindness: in the best scenario here (for the majority of the bees, that is, not Abigail herself), she will starve or die of thirst, unable to care for herself in a strange place. I did not live up to my responsibility with my over-nice ideas of how to dispatch a failed queen.

I've looked for her three times in the past 24 hours, feeling like an angel of death and a would-be ender of pain. No luck, not for either of us.

But each visit has also meant seeing Twain gain activity, energy and life. I think Larry and David gave me extra bees, folks! I am not kidding: I think I have almost enough to winter over in that box. It kind of explains why Larry kept encouraging me to get going on uniting the box, and was so specific on how to do it. There probably is not much room in there.

I plan on letting the girls share pheromones until Thursday, then let them get together.