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.