Thursday, December 27, 2007
Well, the reason is this: during the winter, you don't see much of your bees. And when the temperatures are low, you really should not be smoking them, opening up their home, and poking around. You can very easily kill the creatures about whom you are curious.
One cheap-and-cheerful way to see if they are still alive, whether they are near the end of their seasonal stores, and whether a more intrusive visit is warranted is to knock and to listen. George says he can tell by the type of sound that the queen is OK, and maybe a few other things. Myself, I just listen to hear whether there are a lot of bees, and where they are positioned in the hive.
If I knock, and very clearly hear a big BUZZ, I know there are a lot of bees in there. I can also tell whether my ear is placed somewhere near their winter cluster, where the bees are all keeping each other warm. The position of that cluster tells me where the bees are with respect to their food supply.
When I put them to bed in the autumn, all my bees were in the bottom box of the stack, and I had placed supers full of honey above them. Because I am the worrying kind, I also put additional food above that. This is a picture of the Wilde bees chewing on some fondant I had put on earlier.
The Wilde hive had been worrying me for a while. There wasn't as much action out the front door as I like, and my knocking seemed to indicate very few bees in any one box, with the majority, perhaps, very high up! I did not see alot of dead bees around, but the presence of some concentrated crow poop meant that the birds may have finally taken to cleaning up departed buzzers, and I could have dying bees without a lot of visual clues.
Don't get me wrong about this: I am very pleased to see this kind of interaction between species. I know you all might expect me to be horrified that anything would eat honeybees, but when you have 50,000 of the girls going into the winter, there are going to be some dead bees around later. If other critters can turn this grim reality into sustenance, this means that the bees have done yet another service to the health of the world.
When knocking on the hives got me to thinking something might be wrong, I decided to do something that no one recommends: opening up a hive just before New Years Eve.
The very first picture above shows you what I found: almost the entire cluster was in the top box. Bees eat their way up all winter: they will not usually go back down for food they overlooked. This means that all those upper-level bees were facing starvation.
Having lost bees in the past, I can tell you that there is some comfort in knowing that you cannot control every force in nature. Disease will sometimes beat you. But I can also tell you this: I will have a hard time sleeping the day that my bees starve on my watch. Disease is tricky, but food is easy.
I don't have many more pictures from inside Wilde that day. It was only 47 degrees F, right at the edge of feasibility, and I needed to get in and out quickly. This is what I found...
The Wilde colony was clustering ABOVE its honey supply. Probably because I had fed so vigorously, they seem to have stored food all throughout the brood area on the warmer days. Bees have a hard time clustering over full cells of stores: it takes extra energy to warm up the diluted fondant, and it creates gaps between the shivering bees. My theory is that on cold days, they moved up over capped or empty cells, and clustered there.
My job was, therefore, to put that top box (and the one directly under it, which also held a bunch of bees) on the bottom of the stack, and move the honey bound boxes back up above. In other words, totally disassemble a winter beehive, reshuffle the boxes, and re-stack them. And a deep full of stores weighs a ton, my friends. Why do I *always* end up stacking an 80 pound full deep box on top of all the mediums? Is Mother Nature that committed to building my upper body strength?
And that really is the whole story. I was paying attention, thank goodness. The weather cooperated a little, as well, and with a little exertion and a few curse words, the bees got another chance.
Saturday, December 01, 2007
In mid-November, a local elementary school asked me to give a last-minute presentation about honeybees to the whole first grade. I cringed a little: the month had been full of talks to garden clubs, a suburban 3rd grade, a church fair, and … well, you get the idea. I was tired, temperatures were getting lower and lower each day, and the bees were not in a good place to recover from late-season mistakes. So, of course, I agreed to do it. They gave me a late afternoon time slot, agreed to do it bees-or-no-bees, and I began to prepare. Again.
I like to bring an observation colony to school presentations, but late November is not usually an appropriate time. Though the presence of the bees immediately focuses kids' attention, spurs more detailed and insightful questions, and demonstrates concepts in real life, it is awfully cold for opening hives, and it is foolish to even consider bringing a queen along: the workers can't replace her now that all the drones are gone! So I watched the temperatures, and we got to over 60 degrees. I packed up a deep frame of broodnest (without much brood) and a medium frame of honey (nicely full and capped), and took my borrowed observation hive to school.
Where I immediately broke one pane of glass with my car door upon arrival!
But I am finally becoming a true beekeeper, folks! I now travel with pliers and glue and old bed sheets and thumbtacks and window screen and, most importantly in this case, duct tape and printer paper to cover over the cracks. Several worker bees got out, but this time the school was less than two miles from my house, so I know that the girls were able to get home.
In case you were wondering, my husband chronically despairs over the condition of my car nowadays.
So, after arriving with two deep boxes, as well as a bottom board and telecover, and a skep, and bee-pollinated fruits and veggies (including a ten pound pumpkin), and honey samples, and gummy bears (they are coated with beeswax, if you want to use that gimmick yourself someday), and hive tools, and a smoker with fuel, and some handouts, I got to work.
We were scheduled to be together for 45 minutes, but in what seemed a short while I started losing my train of thought. The kids' attention was waning, too, so it seemed to be a lackluster session. There just wasn't enough bee passion in me to make it through November! At that point, however, one of the teachers mentioned that we had been talking about bees for an hour and a half, and the kids needed to get ready to go home.
As we began the laborious process of packing my car up, I brought the observation colony back outside — and groups of parents-picking-up and children-going-home quickly gathered around. No one, it seems, can resist a close look at a honeybee. There were lots of questions, but before very long the first-graders were all about, and I let them answer most of the queries. Way to warm a beekeeper's heart, kids!
After 20 minutes or so, the bees really needed to get home, and I really needed to get horizontal, so we left. And that, apparently, was that.
Except a couple of weeks later, one of the teachers left a thank-you scroll on my doorstep. If you click on the link, you will get a new window containing my prideful, precious presentation of their lovely gift. My husband and I hung it just inside the front door, ensuring that everyone who visits us would be required to look. :-)
Rock on, first graders! I hope to see you next November, too.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
First of all, here at the dawn of true winter, all six hives appear to be fine. Everyone in this area is a little light on stores for the cold days ahead, but we've been feeding, feeding, feeding, and don't intend to stop.
Second, as I sit here today I am hoping that the girls have gulped down their last serving of pre-freeze bee medicine. The only "unnatural" medication I apply is Fumidil, an antibiotic that helps the girls deal with Nosema (a digestive ailment that you might get, too, if you had to hold your poop for as long as the outside temp hovers below 50degrees F (10 degrees C)! I might have skipped it this year, but the roof girls are still suffering the after effects of the mighty mite battle of over a year ago (some deformed abdomens) and I want to give them the help I can.
Third, my blog life and my face to face life have become hopelessly muddled, and I am not sure what to do about it (Hi everybody! Yes, I could be referring to you...) The clipping you see above is from the October 2007 issue of Bee Culture, an honor my whole club knows about. I'm one of a distinguished company of bee bloggers, most of them much better beekeepers. And I could be very dramatic about being found out, etc., except I have been telling so many people about my blogly efforts for so long, it's hardly a surprise that SOMEONE would stop by!
But you know, this whole beekeeping thing is deeply personal and concerning, and to stand in front of someone you barely know discussing your deepest worries and failings and foolishness is, well, harder than telling folks on the other side of the world. Also, I cannot gossip effectively...
You know what, it is also very hard to stand in front of people I know *very well* and feel my heart out there on my sleeve, potentially receiving the odd bruise.
Suffice it to say that enough is enough, you have heard enough about my crowing and my cowardice, and that I promise to catch you up on stuff. I'm going to try to fill in a few entries from earlier dates (I have been taking pictures and thinking of you all, you know) and I apologize for any resulting confusion.
To say something final (and it does somehow seem required), I still love the sight, smell, and sound of a humming hive, and I care deeply for the bees. It was easier when it was a more private passion, but perhaps there comes a time to announce one's love out loud.
Saturday, October 06, 2007
So even though it is a little late, I have showed Joseph how to perform a sugar shake. This is a way to non-destructively (mostly) test your bee colony for the presence of mites. You can get pretty clear, short directions from Betterbee, but the upshot is that you cover a couple of hundred bees with powdered sugar, shake 'em until the varroa mites fall off, then count the mites. If you get a lot of mites, you have to treat, if you don't, you get to worry about whether you should treat.
Except for Joseph. We shook and shook, not one mite! So we pulled his bottom board. It had been in for WEEKS: maybe 2 mites.
Joseph does not have to treat for mites. Next year, however, Joseph does have to give me a daughter of the most hygienic queen I have ever seen.
Tuesday, October 02, 2007
Beyond the fact that you really should respect any bug that can turn its head and look you in the eye, both this type of mantis (Tenodera Sinensis) and the honeybee are not natives of North America. But they have both made their homes here, and nature continues on in her colorful, red-in-tooth-and-claw way. This hive is actually at MaryEllen's house, and she has a picture of a more succesful mantis, with a disappointed-seeming bee clutched in her claws. And so it goes: all living things take, all living things give, all living things pass...the tapestry of life weaves another row.
MaryEllen and I were supposed to be labelling the honey we pulled for the Mill apiary, but it was sunny outside, and you can see what really happened. In less than two weeks, we will have a presentation session there. The harvest was not huge this year: once again, we pulled the boxes in August, and then the weather (drought) caused the bees to burn through more of their stores than we bargained for.
I think we will have a few dozen jars in maybe 5 sizes for the Mill store, pretty good for hives started from packages this Spring. My hives were started on drawn comb, which was my rationale for harvesting at all. Once again, we will see how well our bets were placed. I can tell you this: we did not place enough labels on jars today!
Friday, September 14, 2007
It's a bit of a frenzy. Within 48 hours of packing up my stuff, reassuring the dogs (the cat pretends not to care), buttoning down the house, and jumping in the car, I also needed (psychologically as well as apiarily) to go through each of 6 hives in three locations, right down to the bottom board, in order to see what was what.
The good part is this: in each and every hive, it's as if about 60,000 complacent girls sat there, waving their antennae, saying "Go, go! Get out of here! See you in a coupla weeks!" They were peaceful, well-stocked, and busy with a bunch of late-summer babies to raise. Heck, they even put the honey in all the right places.
And so off we went. We usually hop a plane and go someplace expensive and exciting, but this year we figured out that there was a 600 mile stretch heading north that neither of us had every really explored, and so we went on a road trip. This also needs to be said: my cousin and I had an excellent road trip in May, so my husband seemed to want a bigger, better one for the two of us (everybody should be smiling at this, ok?)
The picture you see above comes from the St. Lawrence Market (you know, cheese stalls, vegetable stands, butcher shops) in Toronto. But this shop, staffed by an insistent Russian honey-sample pusher, is awash with bee-ly delights! I found propolis lollipops for MaryEllen, and exotic honeys from New Zealand that nearly made my eyes pop out! My blood sugar was a little high, because in all politeness I had accepted more than a dozen teaspoons of varietal honey samples before beating a retreat (almost purely in self-defense). Truly a lovely interlude, one where my suitcase got several jars heavier!
Now, in the Finger Lakes, we discovered a "Wine Trail" on which we located a cidery, a winery, and a meadery! Click the picture to go to the latter. I met and talked to Martin the Mead Guy, and you truly need to try his Cherry Melomel. Really. I am a young punk, wet-behind-the-ears, bee-grubber compared to Martin. He has "only" about 150 hives right now, and used to be a commercial pollinator. He told me a lot about that life: how difficult it is to make up costs on transport, and how increasingly hard it was to keep the bees alive. So now he makes mead next to a beautiful wild wetland park in an area full of lakes and rivers. You gotta go.
Now, I have had a hard time keeping up with this blog, partly because I have so much to tell you. For instance, the first picture up there is a henna tattoo from the Byward Market in Ottawa, where the nice young man had to be asked to include a thorax on his bee, and this last picture is from an impossible-to-describe glass bee artwork by Michael Rogers at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. But let this be enough for now: there will be more.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
That being said, we are having a nice respite here: these are usually the hottest days of the year, but they are more like early September. Therefore, it seems like a good idea to visit all six hives and get a picture of how these colonies are doing. I've learned one thing, though: the best way to ensure a short, heavy rain during this period of drought is to be up on the roof with a colony open! It rained hard, but only for 10 minutes. Harrumph. Hardly any nectar will come from that!
So you know my six hives, right? Twain and Wilde on the roof (#1 and #2), Doug and MaryEllen at the Monastery (#3 and #4), and the Cockrills and the Mallards (#5 and #6, named respectively for the family that ran the General Store and the duck family on the mill pond — and a play on the name of the family that used to run the mill, the Millards).
There are a number of story lines about which you have been in the dark (sorry again). The most dramatic is the sighting of small hive beetles (or so I think) in the Doug colony over at the Franciscan Monastery. In 5 visits, I have seen them twice, but I am pretty sure it's them. It would be best to capture a specimen and put it under the microscope, but until then it seemed prudent to install West Small Beetle Traps — one of the few options that did not require any kind of pesticide (one of the most common treatments involves soaking the area around your bees with permethrin, a substance that kills bees, and many wild things. Seems like a bad idea to me, and hardly in the Franciscan tradition!)
The beetle lays its eggs in the hive, but its nasty larvae need to climb out and pupate in the ground. Therefore, on their way out they will now have to negotiate a tray on the bottom board covered with diatomaceous earth (wicked scratchy stuff with no chemical action). The tray is also covered by a screen with holes too small for the bees, so they won't get exfoliated. This is going to make taking Varroa mite counts harder, but I wonder if Varroa will be suppressed at all if they fall into diatomaceous earth? I'll try to let you know.
Monastery Round Up
Getting new gear on the bottom board means, of course, that a full voyage through each Monastery Hive was required. Here's what I found.
Doug had lots of bees, with a brood nest of three mediums and another medium full of honey. They had stored a lot of nectar in the brood nest, which made the discovery of swarm cells (!!) no surprise. But oddly, two of the queen cells, including one in the supercedure position, appeared to have released queens already. I thought, "Perhaps a swarm has already left?" but then I saw this Spring's queen, the yellow-dotted Minnesota hygienic. Do you think the bees changed their minds about swarming or superceding?
There were brood babies at all stages, maybe not as many eggs as I would like, but we are in a dearth now. I installed the West trap, put the box with the queen on the bottom, put the empty-ish old bottom box in the middle, and the former middle brood box on the top, then closed up. The bee boxes needed to be draped by the time I got into the second one: the bees are a bit antsy now.
I did Doug first because I worked the neighbors in MaryEllen more recently. I decided to stop feeding until I could get the extracted honey supers back on. Later I will do my usual going-berserk- with-syrup- ahead-of-winter. I bagged up the hive top feeder where I had seen beetles, replaced the screened inner cover, and closed 'em.
Of course, right after this successful operation (only one sting, and my fault for pinching her!) I dropped my camera, telescoping lens down, and destroyed it. So that's it for photos today...
MaryEllen was its usual picture of health, but I spent less time poking around because by then I was starting to smell like the alarm pheromone from the hive next door. MaryEllen is a little tight for space: they only have a deep and a medium for brood space, and a medium super pretty full of honey. So I gave them a medium full of foundation last week, but it is not much help. I need to give them back a box of extracted frames, space they can use! Right now, they have more stores than brood, so I need to sort that out.
Even so, there were no swarm cells (I have been reversing regularly). I got to the bottom, installed the West trap, collected three stings for my trouble (not completely my fault this time!) There was a huge beard on the hive as I left, and a guard bee hassled me for quite a long time. I put the now-unused feeders in the car, and went home to do roof duty.
Roof Bee News
The Twain hive has been mighty quiet lately, so it seemed prudent to start there. It also seemed prudent to first wash my veil after that Monastery guard bee pheromone-d all over it, so I washed and waited.
When I finally got to the roof, toting all that gear up the spiral staircase, it quickly became clear that there is something odd about Twain (the hive that was strongest last year!) There was not a single cell of brood, but there was a good population and appropriate mix of workers and drones. I looked for a queen, and could not find one. I wonder if they threw a swarm, and the virgin queen left behind either failed to mate or failed to come back from her mating flight? But there was no laying worker, and the bees were in a good mood. That seems to indicate that a queen is in there somewhere. I'm going to ask Larry what he thinks, but my friend Jane is giving me a queen to put in there tomorrow anyway.
But oh! Wilde is a different picture indeed! There are two more supers of honey to gather, ample brood at every stage, and lots of activity out the front door! I will probably use some of that strength to bolster Twain during the queen introduction — a reversal of my first year! Wilde was the hive that was supposed to swarm in May, but I just don't think it happened. Don't ask me why: I showed you the pictures of the swarm cells, after all!
Two boxes up from the bottom in Wilde, the rain came, and I closed up. I would have liked to reverse those two boxes, and maybe had a look at the queen if she was evident, but that was not to be. I'll be back in a couple of days for sure, anyway.
Since I have not been feeding them (yet), it is clear that both colonies have found a decent source of nectar in the neighborhood — do you think a few pumpkin plants could provide so much? There is also a lot of Russian sage, and some other neighborhood garden plants that make me raise my heart in thanks (truly: I am considering whether or not to leave a jar of honey at certain very garden-y doors, but fear possible outing of my apiary to the authorities).
And tomorrow: Mill Bee Day!
Monday, July 23, 2007
I'm being bombastic here, but it's caused by just a bit of (non- reproductive) frustration. With the impact that Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has had on the news in this country, and the opportunity it has given to truly show people the most important part of the honeybee-human relationship, I'm still having trouble explaining pollination to kids. It's basically the way in which plants get the male bit (pollen on the stamens) over to the female bit (the ovaries in the pistils), hopefully on a different plant. They overproduce the pollen to guarantee coverage and offer a protein food, they produce nectar THEY DON'T EVEN USE down near the bottom to get the dusty bees to go where the action is. This picture shows the act in progress at the right, and the fruit of the deed at the left.
Flowers truly are miracles: tell me, if the only kind of intelligence is the human kind, how did every plant that sets a seed come to (successfully) open up its reproductive process to third-party participation? I don't mean to say that plants are out there secretly hedging foreign currency markets, but that our ways of gathering and leveraging knowledge are based on the space we live in. The fish in the pond out front are smart in finny ways, my dogs are good at sniffing and stealing, and people excel at thinking about themselves.
But if you do somehow find yourself thinking about flowers, you can easily see the wonderful shopping experience they represent for the bees. Every one is attempting to cut the deal that gets the pollination done. Some, like apple trees, are hard bargainers: each bloom is pip-squeaky about how much nectar and pollen it doles out, but there are tons of flowers, all nearby, and not much else going at the time. The honeybee in my back yard, in the picture up there, is just about drunk as a skunk in a puddle of nectar on the bottom of THAT bloom. The deal is probably like this: "I know you have lots of places to go, and things to do, but I will fill you up in one swell stop, and invite you to root around ALOT by offering tons of nectar and pollen. Unfortunately, I am only open mornings, so I need to get you here right away (so I will make a huge, bright flower)." You know all those seeds inside a pumpkin? Each one required a pollen grain delivery, so you can see that the plant wants that bee in there a long time, rolling around.
So each plant develops its marketing strategy of size, color, smell, rewards, and even configuration to attract the right kind of pollination. Some even concoct little landing strips that you can see in UV light: they kind of point at the good stuff. So next time you walk in a garden, or a flowery field, experience the sales pitch. A whiff of wonderful scent turns your head one way, a glorious bloom makes your head tilt right, a carpet of color draws your eye down. It reminds me of walking in markets in the Middle East, where vendors and merchants call to you, invite you to dicker, and serve you a cup of sweet tea.
But don't try to deal with the corn. The wind-pollinated crops, like grasses, don't even try. They just shake their tassles in a self-satisfied way.
Friday, July 06, 2007
We're working through the full-on impact of the mid-Summer beekeeping season around here, with all six colonies jammed full of bees and honey and the sun at full strength on the back of my veil. Going out to the beehives in the July sun is a lesson about success: the families are bustling and the harvest is sweet, but the boxes are heavy and the bees are more easily riled. No complaints, though: for the second year in a row, we will have a harvest, and the workout required has pared off a few pounds.
Since the nectar flow ended over a month ago, the harvest season is upon us (you might say it is all over us, too – as well as the floors, the counters and the dogs). That's the sticky part of all this. In late June, MaryEllen and I got together with Jane to help the latter harvest honey for the first time. Some of the usual panic ensued: "How do I get my honey frames out of the hive?!" But Jane worked it out – in this case, by using an approach more common in Europe. You can remove a limited amount of honey by reaching in, grabbing one frame at a time, walking away and shaking the bees off ,then brushing the remainder gently away and stowing the now bee-free frame in a covered box. This is good for only a few frames, because after a bunch of shaking the bees get Quite Unhappy. Jane cleared two boxes, and took home 5 gallons of honey! I pulled only 9 frames from the roof, and was pleased to get a bit more than two gallons of very light honey. I think it's a mostly-linden year!
We've also had very little rain, 4 inches less than usual, and it feels like our usual Summer dearth season may come early. Things that annoy honeybees are coming from out of the woodwork (and the woods), all contributing to an increased risk of getting a sting (or 5). I don't usually get stung when working the hives, and I'm still working with gloves off for the most part. I have pushed the limits from time to time, though – like using the frame removal method above with an already-riled hive! It's time to take experienced beekeepers' advice and try to work hives at the cool beginnings of sunny days, to work efficiently but slowly, and to work only when there is a good reason to be there. We're coming upon the days when we will just do mite checks and feed sugar syrup.
I got first-time experience with an unanticipated physical reaction to a honeybee sting (and so did Andrea!) when a first-time apiary visitor got stung while visiting the Monastery hives on Wednesday (Happy Fourth of July!) Andrea, someone with an excellent dog whom I know from frequenting a local park, knows that she is not allergic to bee sting, but got dizzy and passed out a couple of minutes after she got a sting on the hand. At first all seemed well: Joseph (one of the new beekeepers there) and I smeared our anti-sting ointment on the injury, and Andrea continued looking on. Then she said she was light-headed, and passed out briefly after we got her sitting down. Holy smokes! It was not an allergic reaction (was it heat? adrenalin? cosmic rays?), but something took her down. She was beyond cool, not freaking out at all, but it reminds me to be more serious and more careful when inviting people to experience bees first hand. Nature tells me over and over again that I am wrong when I get to thinking I've got everything under control.
Recently the Monastery's hives have been downright "spicy:" calm enough to be around, but easy to rile when the boxes are opened. This can be for any number of reasons – a clumsy beekeeper, dearth in the nectar supply, queen genetics, or constant threats from natural predators. The queens come from different sources, but I have seen giant hornets circling in front of the hives, and I think the latter may be the culprits.
When the bees are attacked, even by another bug like a hornet, the guard bees send out a near-constant stream of alarm pheromone, making them primed to see threats even before the beekeeper approaches. If nectar is drying up, like it has been around here, there are even more forager bees hanging around the hive with nothing to do (except, perhaps, respond to perceived threats). Now, the hornet picture I put at the very beginning of this post is meant to express just how threatening just that one predator can seem, even to a person. Online, scared enquirers have called European Giant Hornets (Vespa crabro) "School Bus Bees" (though they ARE NOT bees) and you can see why in person. The graphic is about life size: almost 1.5 inches or 3.5 centimeters. They kind of take your breath away when you first seem them.
But the "Dead" in today's title refers to an impressive hornet specimen found on the bottom of the Clare hive right after Andrea keeled over and was driven home. Though the hornet is easily twice the size of the worker bees, they nonetheless have a group defense against the interlopers. In this case, the presence of most of a hornet carcass confirms that the hives have been under regular attack, and have been defending themselves vigorously. The hornet is too big for the undertaker bees to move, so they have been chewing pieces off and disposing of them. Her abdomen, wings, and antennae are almost completely gone.
Even though we are thousands of times the size of such a creature, we humans often feel a great thud in the middle of our chests when we confront these beasts. When I was holding the hornet bits to try to get a photo for you, I could hear the distant "Ewwww!" of some frightened multitudes in the back of my mind, but the revulsion must be paired with an unescapable attraction, or why would our Porsches and muscle-car marauders choose to look so much the same?
Finally, I want you to know that June 24-30 was the first National Pollinator Week here in the United States, and in various combinations MaryEllen and I gave more than 8 hours of presentations at historic sites and community gardens. A thoroughly exhausting blast! Have (borrowed) observation hive, will travel. This summer has a number of summer camps in it, as well as a county and a state fair, so the fun won't stop soon.
Saturday, June 09, 2007
It has been a while, so grab a drink and a comfy chair. I'll try to keep this interesting (not, as I told someone recently, "and then they did this, and then I did that, after which they did this, causing me to decide to do the other...") because it has been another interesting and challenging year. Yet, things are changing— including how I'm handling the honeybees — and it is by turns mind-opening and a bit frightening to see what stays and what goes as we travel along this life together. But there is not much poetry in playing catch-up here, and I promise to do better later.
If there is a way to make this a short story, it is in the title of this post: last year ended with 5 hives, and 2007 started with only 4, when the mill hive died. For one reason or another (winning a package of bees at the club holiday party, deciding it made no sense to keep just one hive at the historic mill) by the end of April I had 7 hives in three locations. The monastery hives had trouble, though, and I had to fight to keep them alive, ending up uniting one of the struggling hives with the bodacious packaged bees (who just took off like crazy! Rock on girls!). So that makes six hives, all buzzing along quite nicely now, with almost no thanks due to me. It's a bit overwhelming, and I have been forced to take up a different kind of relationship with the bees: less "personal" if you will, but more respectful of them.
I have a lot to tell you even so, and therefore there are lots of small pictures on the left: if you click them they will pop up to the larger shots you might be used to here. This first one shows you one thing that has taken up alot of the past two months: assembling woodenware. The stuff at left is just the last batch of over 10 boxes (and associated frames) that joined our inventory this year. In previous years, I bought completely assembled hive parts, paying the extra money and banking the time. However, last year I read an article that said honeybees do better when given pure beeswax frames, and you can't get those shipped to you. Also, I felt a bit like a fraudulent beekeeping mentor when newbees ask me how to put their hives together, and I have been basically clueless.
Which brings me to my next great excuse for prolonged absence: I've been out trying to give what guidance I can to even newer beekeepers! The picture at left is my friend Jane in her apiary. I've been out there a couple of times (mostly because she worries too much!) and she has helped out at the mill, too. But I have also helped two new beekeepers set up at the Monastery (Joe and Joseph, with 2 and one hives respectively) and had a look into the hives of Bill, Andrea, and Jill. Mostly, new beekeepers just need a more experienced set of eyes to say "that's drone brood" or "this is a 3-day old egg) or "there's your queen" while they educate their own visual databanks. Sometimes there is an issue (like a crowded brood chamber) so I show them a few easy steps to sort things out. It's the kind of help I needed and got, and it is my duty to get out there myself.
Excuse number three boils down to even more doings in the world of humans, rather than bees, though it is the girls' fault to some extent. This picture shows my non-beekeeper cousin holding a frame of monastery bees (note this people: NO GLOVES!) We were on the road together for a week, celebrating her completion of another year of college on her way to becoming the teacher we all wish we had. She also helped me out with a surprisingly stressful commitment to volunteer in three different capacities (am I a moron, or what?) at the bicentennial of a historic site where I walk my dogs. This is the same place where we had the yellowjacket adventure last year, so the bees are really responsible for my rise to prominence (and exhaustion :-) ) over there.
Which brings me to the last figleaf of this post, but it is one to which you new beekeepers might want to pay attention: if you start looking out for bees and flowers, you are not very far off from butterflies and bats, and maybe snapping turtles and birds and ladybugs. Just after I began keeping honeybees, the world suddenly seemed to contain astoundingly more flowers and smells. This year, the yard seems to contain a remarkable selection of butterflies, birds, and native plants (which might have been simple weeds just a couple of years ago). When you open a door in your life, it's amazing the company you start to keep.
The Roof Bees
But you are probably more interested in bees than excuses, so perhaps you would like to know what is happening up on the roof. After losing the mill bees to mite-borne illness (or so I think today: ask me again in a few months...) I decided to get serious about Spring varroa mite treatment. Around here, the weather does not cooperate with the methods I like the best: I won't use the neurotoxin pesticides, and the essential oil and formic acid treatments have exacting temperature requirements. The roof bees were most similar to the colony that died in terms of persistent mite loads and the type of treatment they received last year, so I was VERY worried. I did not want to use oxalic acid again, and the confectioner's sugar treatment (more on that below) would result in a layer of frosting on my roof.
My solution was this: formic acid pads —"Mite Away II," in fact. As treatments go, it is pretty convenient and non-toxic. The temperature has to stay above 50 degrees F, and below 79 degrees F (at least during the first week), though. Around here, Spring is a bumpy time, and nights in the 50s quickly turn into days in the 80s. The pads have to be on for 21 days, and you have to get them out of there before the honey flow (in other words, May) so you can see that timing is everything. The heavy dose of formic acid which is release in the first week also hurts uncapped brood, which can put a hole in the workforce just before the honey flow here. The pads went on April 26 and came off on May 17. I've never tried a Spring mite treatment before, and truly hope this will make a major contribution to the health of the girls this season. They need every break they can get.
With apologies for the smear on the lens, here is the latest rooftop plot twist. These are supercedure cells in Wilde, my crazy Carniolan tribe. There were also THREE capped queen cells in the swarm position at the same time. We found them just as my cousin and I had to leave for our trip, so the next morning in the car, I sat there wondering whether they had left, and whether the formic acid treatment gave them a better chance of surviving if they did set up shop on their own. MaryEllen told me that the swarming impulse was considerably muted during the honeyflow, so maybe they would not go at all. As of today, it appears that they did not go. Perhaps they superceded, though their mom (a supercedure queen herself) is doing a great job.
The workers may have blamed her for the brood break that came with the formic, or they may have called it all off later. I am not sure, but I can tell you that there are three medium supers of honey on that colony, and probably 60,000 bees, so it is nonetheless a good year so far.
But what about Twain, you might ask? That hive superceded last year, too, and is still standing. The colony has fewer bees and less honey than Wilde, but it is definitely happy and strong. I was just in there today, giving another honey super to them. Even though most beekeepers here think that the main nectar flow is over, we have lots of linden trees planted along the streets, bursting with blooms. I hope that they will continue collecting actively for at least another week. While in the hive, I saw the darkest honey ever: tulip poplar, probably. There was no evidence of swarm cells, and lots of new eggs. While not as dramatic as the Carnies, Twain's Italian honeybees are buzzing along just fine.
The Monastery Bees
The Franciscan bees have presented the biggest scare and largest challenge of the year, so far. Sometime in late Winter, both queens became drone layers, and I had to pull all sorts of drone brood and requeen. Unfortunately, the Minnesota Hygienic queens that were available so early turned out to have problems. MaryEllen had several, none of which worked out, and one of mine ended up dying at my hand.
When the package bees I won arrived, I installed them in a nuc box at the Monastery as well. You can see the box at the left, with another upside down nuc box on top (to function as a feeder box). Those bees took off at once, with the queen laying wall-to-wall and happy bees flying to and fro all day long.
For several weeks, I went to the Monastery to monitor how the Minnesota queens were doing, from being released through initial laying. The queen in the Doug colony (furthest right in all of these pictures) came online relatively well, but the MaryEllen-the-Hive queen produced just a very few brood cells, then would stop, then would start, and I could never find eggs. For a month, I would go every few days, planning that "today is the day" I would kill the weak queen and unite the remaining bees with the nuc. You can see from this picture that the package had grown so big that they had been expanded into a full hive body. Then, in the next picture, you can see that they actually grew larger than MaryEllen-the-Hive.
Finally, I opened up the colony, and found that wax moths had started to breed, and that the bees had been too weak to fight them off. The time had come, as much as I hated to kill a poor, innocent creature who had earned no blame. To let her live, all her children would die, and a hive that could give life to thousands of wild plants (and the creatures that depend on them) would cease to exist. It was my responsibility, and I did it, but I wish she had not seemed so terrified and confused. It was not her fault.
But let me try to explain what I saw. Here's a shot of a really great brood pattern. Do you see how there are very few open cells? The edges of the frame hold nectar and pollen for the nurse bees to use in taking care of the brood. The queen began laying in the center of this frame, and little by little, cell by cell, spiraled outward, laying. The cells in the middle will hatch first: some of the empties near the edges may actually be brood that has not been capped yet. The queen will come back later and lay again in these cells, once they are cleaned and ready to go again.
This is a not-so-great pattern. If you click on this picture, you will get a bigger-than-normal photo, an attempt to show you something which is a little hard to see. This is a medium frame, but it is not even filled out top-to-bottom. There are more empties than filled holes. Finally, do you see the queen cups on the bottom? These workers know that they need a new mom, and are trying to get one. The cups are actually in a swarm position, but the hive is so low on population that there is no way they will swarm. I think they are just trying to get a new queen any way they can, and they are not succeeding.
So in early May I united the nuc and MaryEllen-the-Hive, and they seem to be doing really well now. I still need to watch Doug, because that hive still has a hygienic queen, the last among all the queens that MaryEllen and I installed from that shipment that still appears to be reigning over a hive. Therefore, there is reason to worry that she will peter out. But so far, so good.
You might wonder why I am not talking about varroa treatments at the Monastery, and you would be a smartie if you did. The reason that I did not do a Spring treatment is this: the drone laying and drone larvae removal was one massive IPM-style varroa treatment. The mites are attracted to drone larvae preferentially, and when you remove the boys, you generally whallop the varroa population. Also, requeening caused a big disruption in the hives' brood cycles, also depressing the varroa population. Therefore, I am holding off until Fall, trying not to interfere too much in these very messed-with hives.
The Historic Mill Bees
In a way, I've saved the simplest, most rewarding story for last. Here is the Mill apiary, with 4 hives and a nuc (the small colony with a red strap around it). MaryEllen-the-Beekeeper is having her swarmiest year ever, so she keeps having to stash a nuc of captured wanderers at the Mill while she plans her next move. Since last year, a big old tree that overshadowed the apiary had to be removed (or it would fall down) and you can see me in the background in front of our new privacy fence. The extra sunlight seems to have done wonders for the girls, because we are all doing really well so far.
Here are my two colonies. I am trying to replace all the green boxes with white to get away from the stripey look and to keep better track of my gear inventory, but you see how it is. These two big colonies were actually started from packages just two months ago, and they took off like a rocket. The packages were installed onto comb that the girls who died left behind, somethig that worried me. But there is no evidence of disease so far, and a general vibe of health and happiness seems to spread from those boxes. There were three medium supers of not-yet-capped honey on each hive when I visited a couple of days ago, really wonderful for colonies started from packages this year!
And also a bit unnecessarily, here is a picture of some mill nurse bees taking care of new eggs. It is more important to see eggs than to track down the queen, and these hives have made it very easy for me this year. They have grown fabulously and happily, and I just hope to stay ahead of them in meeting their needs, including varroa management. The mites killed their predecessors, and I want to do better this year.
After going to a state beekeeping meeting where the role of all kinds of chemicals was a concern in the recent Colony Collapse Disorder crisis, I became convinced that I should try a completely non-toxic, non-chemical approach to control at the Mill. Here you see two cups of confectioners' sugar ladled onto the screened top of a hive.
By brushing the powdered sugar into the hive, I can cause the varroa mites to lose their footing and fall off the bees. The powdered sugar literally clogs up the little hooks and hairs they use to grab bees, and the motes fall down to the waiting ants. The bees can actually eat any extra sugar, and the grooming behavior they use to remove it also helps in mite control.
The only problem with this treatment is that it needs to be repeated regularly and many many times besides. I know a beekeeper who used this treatment exclusively, and nonetheless lost her bees. Therefore, I need to watch for any signs of an infestation, and have another plan just in case one erupts. I have formic pads set aside as a fall treatment even now, but my jury is out on what to do if an infestation erupts during hot weather.
It can actually be a little entertaining to apply this treatment. The bees change their buzz as soon as you drop the sugar, and they begin flying around in a somewhat disoriented fashion, looking like little ghost bees. Here's a whitened bee lifting her nasanoff gland, followed by another grooming herself on a fencepost. Notice the little white spot she left when she landed!
The bees probably do not see so well with sugar in their eyes, and in the left picture you can see a bee that drifted into the hive next door during the mere 10 minutes between when I opened the first one and then the second to apply the treatment. The right picture shows a hapless bee that has been captured by a "Daring Jumping Spider," kind of a cool looking beastie itself. I know this may sound odd or wrong to you, but I am actually glad to see the bees become a part of ALL portions of the cycle of life where they are located. Honeybees are not native to North America, but if they can slip into an integrated role in a balanced ecology, they can provide tremendous benefit. I am sorry to kill bees, but not sorry to see life be succeeded by death and renewed life in the natural order of things.
Finally, while there I actually saw one of the Mill queens cruising around, measuring a cell, and laying an egg. Unfortunately, I smeared my lens again, so this is the best I could do. It was a treat to see an utterly unbothered queen, healthily going about her regal business, supporting a family that is doing well.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
I'm a hobbyist beekeeper, but my companions are a theme of my days. I speak to youth groups, summer camps, and festivals about the miracle and importance of honeybees — how they can plug a jaded urbanite into a world of sun, rain, and blossom. Kids and adults respond with wonder. The bees are the living embodiment of sunshine, dependent on plants and their blooms to flourish, a need which is returned by the wild plants — as well as crops — that depend on pollinators for another generation of seeds and flowers.
In the city, I live like a yuppie but think like a farmer. I know the temperatures of the past 6 months and the forecast for this week. I know how much rain we've had, and how much we need. Since the bees arrived, I've smelled the blanket of sweetness that the linden trees lay down in June. Have these been extra-fragrant years, or did I just never notice before?
The bees are Tinkerbell vegetarians, less than 1 inch long and hanging from borrowed-looking wings. You can see gold sunshine through their bodies, as if the sweetness of honey starts inside. Being a ham-handed mammal pawing through the delicate home of 50,000 bees has underscored the clumsy truth about power: it's impossible not to kill or injure on the way to staving off disease and starvation. I'm wrong from time to time about how to fight those foes. Size and strength are no help in fixing my mistakes, made by clumsy fingers 20 times the size of any bee, by limits on what I can see and understand about their lives.
Bees live in a tight family communities, something many of us crave. Workers that stow honey in May will never meet the December sisters who eat it. Yet the bees are ruthless: the ill are cast out, and the old try to die outside the hive. They can't change how they live, even with the new illnesses and parasites that humans brought. Paradoxically, they need us more, since they can't survive alone. We need them more, too, as other pollinators disappear with their habitats.
Living with honeybees, I see the life force of sunlight streaming through our lives, in sweetness and danger. I don't know if the bees and I are within the cascade of warmth, or if it is in us. But I know we are together just the same, and our very different worlds will have their stories written in the same light.
An explanation for this essay:
One of the public radio networks in the United States regularly runs a segment called "This I Believe," where listeners can contribute a personal statement of belief. The program hopes to get people thinking and talking about faith and belief, during these times when we are all so likely to tear each other apart over these subjects. Friends have suggested, from time to time, that the honeybees are an appropriate subject for such an essay from me, and I resisted until now. I've learned as much about what I don't believe as about where my faith resides, you see.
So I uploaded this essay, "500 words or less," and realize that it's a poor fit. Like a beekeeper with a particular way of looking after the hives, these folks have a unique project and a specific method in mind, and I did not follow the directions. But I am glad I did it, anyway.
Maybe the best part is this: after your no-more-than-500-word submission, they give you 800 words to reflect upon the exercise of writing your belief statement! This, my friends, may seem silly — but it is actually quite cool. This is what I wrote:
This is not the first time I have written about bees: they seem to provide the doorway to a deeper understanding of how to be a unique, living being in a nonetheless teeming world. I go back again and again to learn what I really think and feel and sometimes to change my mind.
Politically, I am a biased person, but the bees actually make me confront some of the principles I hold for convenience and comfort, rather than for the sake of truth. It splits apart the relationship with truth and false faith, where you cleave to a belief for reasons other than thinking that the force of life within you really supports it.
"This I Believe" was a necessary activity for me because it made me confront so many things about power and responsibility and limitations and life and death in this little community where my role is so important but not omnipotent. I cannot love the bees without accepting their brutality, I cannot understand the cruelty without the beauty. How else can a person understand themselves?
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
So, you all might be keeping score already, but let me sum up where we landed in March 2007:
- five colonies went into the winter: two on the roof, two at the monastery, and one at the historic mill park;
- one colony, at the historic mill, died. The apiary inspector (mentioned above) has given his opinion — which happened to agree with MaryEllen's and BWrangler's — that they dwindled due to mite-vectored disease, and that the frames and all can be reused;
- there was evidence of life in all the remaining hives; but;
- no one had been down inside any living hive since Fall to see the state of the colonies inside.
We returned from travel on March 17 (sometime, perhaps you can ask about the charm of being in Newark Airport during an ice closure, and how you can end up returning from Israel on the train!) By March 25, all four surviving hives had been surveyed (as well as a couple belonging to my friend Jane, who was worried about hers). MaryEllen, Doug and I had installed four new packages each at the mill. To clarify, I am a godmother of 6 honeybee families now: 2 on the roof, two at the monastery, two at the mill.
On March 20, the roof bees were simply marvelous. The year had truly begun, with both queens laying and abundant new brood. The picture above shows nurses covering new brood (no close ups, sorry: the camera ran out of gas). It seems that my constant desire to feed them left them very well stocked for the Spring, too: there was almost a medium super's worth of honey throughout each hive. I saw no bees with deformed wings, and lots of bees flying in and out. * Happiness *
On March 25, we did a simple thing that should not be overrated: we installed 4 packages of bees! Jane (another club member, who worries way too much about how she handles her bees) came along to help and to get more experience. Watch the sidebar for a detailed run-down of how we did it: I messed up a lot less than I did two years ago! My girls went onto drawn comb left by the deceased colony: this should help them get a much quicker start because the queen can begin to lay right away, and there is already honey in the hive for nurses to feed the young. MaryEllen checked a couple of days later, and said it all looked like a living apiary again. I will name one of the hives "Cockrill" again (hey, no superstition here) but am currently stumped for the other hive's name. I'm thinking about perhaps the current miller on the site...
The question at the monastery was more complicated. Both colonies were still there, but something had gone wrong with the queens. Both were laying only drones, which means that the queens had either run out of sperm or that their reproductive organs were not functioning right, and the colonies were going to collapse if a fertile queen were not introduces soon. But there were no queens to be bought, and Larry, the most experienced beekeeper I know, said I would be lucky to find queens by April.
While I was in the MaryEllen hive, I even saw the failed queen: she looked fat and beautiful, but she was not the marked beauty that was there in the Fall. Her daughters may have superceded here due to some hardship during this weird winter. If so, she did not mate. Could this have happened to BOTH hives? Larry said it was truly strange. Could it be an affect of the oxalic treatment in the fall? The roof bees got the same, and came back strong. Oh mysteries, and second guessing, and so little to do about it anyway.
But, as usual, I was saved by MaryEllen. She had ordered (WAY ahead of anyone else) queens for spring requeening of her hives, and she still had two left. And said I could have them, if I replaced them when queens became available.
Like before, I found the queen of the MaryEllen hive right away, and (quite terribly) had to kill her. I hesitated to do it, and set her aside in a box, but when I turned back to her, she was trying pathetically to climb back home. So then I did her in, and buried her near her hive. There is something heartwrenching about this task of killing a helpless being, who bore no fault for her state. Yet a healthy colony would do the same to one of its own. This is little comfort, and maybe comfort should not be had.
I placed the new queen, who came in a plastic cage that was way odd to me, and the girls freed her in three days. I will be visiting this week to see how she is doing. She has a yellow dot, and I am trying to work out a saintly name for her. Suggestions welcome!
The Doug colony was hard, hard, hard by comparison. The first time I went in there (and discovered all the drone brood) I had dropped a frame, and throughout that visit — and the next two! — I failed to find the queen, looking at each side of each frame, going in and going out. I began to freak, since I needed to be sure that there was no queen if those girls would ever accept a new one, but I had no way to make certain of the fact!
MaryEllen rescued me again. She suggested that I make a little nuc in a super with my new queen (still caged) and some bees and frames from one of my strong roof hives. They would free the queen, she would lay down her fertile-mamma mojo, and MaryEllen and I would visit on the next good day to see if we could find a queen below, and if not, to unite the two groups. She is quite the smarty, that one.
Of course, the weather has turned cold again, so I probably cannot get in again until Monday (5 days from now, and 12 since my last visit: much longer than planned) but I have hope for both colonies.
And more news: at least one other beekeeper will be joining me at the monastery, a direct result of the girls' presence there this year. Let us all praise Spring, the renewal of life and friendships, and time in the sun for people and bees!
Saturday, March 10, 2007
After that, we got to spend some time with Yigal, who runs the place. He has spent much of his life touring the world: he taught shepherding in Iran, and they taught him how to raise silkworms. He was stuck in NYC on 9/11, and is (understandably) reluctant to return to the states, even to see my roof bees. And one other thing: the universal rule that beekeepers will always find something about which to disagree (in this case, the likely role of hybridization on the temperament of Africanized honeybees) is absolutely intact!
He keeps Italian and Australian bees, and they enjoy a much more comfortable life than my girls. There is almost no winter, and the nectar flows throughout the year (though more at some times than others). He's using chemicals for varroa control, but he agrees that making strong colonies is the best control of all. He and other beekeepers in Israel are engages in a planting campaign, adding pro-bee plants like eucalyptus trees wherever possible to increase the nectar flow at low times. When I told him that our flow was so limited, he suggested that we plant more varieties, too — anywhere space could be found. As he said: "They'll kill you for cutting down a tree, but planting one?"
I have an official Dvorat HaTavorah staff t-shirt now, and am engaged to provide three jars of Capital Buzz honey for his educational display. And MaryEllen will be pleased to learn that the gift shop sells propolis mouth wash!
So I was all abuzz, as they say, when we left and were driving through the gorgeous agricultural area of the Galilee. Yigal says that there are about 5,000 beekeepers in Israel, and that they are extremely important for much of the food produced there (think Jaffa oranges). I made Sam pull the car over (and drive it back about a kilometer) when we found this picture-perfect setting for honeybee pollination of a young fruit orchard.
As I took the picture, however, I realized that the yellow flowers all around me were buzzing. These wildflowers, which I'll try to identify for you later, line almost every roadside. In fact, incredible wildflowers of many sorts (including, I think, papaver somniferum) are on roadsides, empty lots, and mountainsides all around the country just now. I laughed to think that the girls had been placed there to work the fruit trees, but were wallowing in the sun-baked wildflowers instead. It's Spring, it's beautiful, and I guess we are all on a vacation of sorts!
You will not be surprised to learn that there are more pictures of the bee center, of honeybees in wildflowers, and bee colonies seen along the road (as well as a random box turtle, rescues from a highway suicide attempt). These will probably be put on a sidebar page when I get home. You know, in some cosmologies, Hell is an endless review of someone else's vacation pictures. Would I do that to you? :-)