Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Difference Between Up and Down

bees clustered belowAs much as I like to show you bees, on January 23, this is what I like to see.

These are bees on the down-low, clustered Carniolans in the Wilde hive who still have enough food in the hive to remain below the top level. Oh sure, I stop by and refill these feeders as necessary (if they will take sugar syrup, I will surely give it), but the weather has finally turned cold and they are not drinking much. Today it was 39 degrees F (about 4 degrees C) while I was on the roof, and these girls were all cuddled down inside, not a bee in sight. The little marks you see are dirty bits of much-travelled beeswax.

bees clustered at topNow offered for your consideration: honeybees up top. This is the Twain family, big and bustling in the Fall, and perhaps too numerous for its own good now. They have burned through just about all the honey they had stored, but scarily have only taken two quarts of sugar syrup since the last time I came by. It's so cold, they may not be able to access enough of the food to keep from starving.

Interestingly, their behaviour is reminiscent of the dearth days of August: around here, there is almost nothing for the bees to collect during the absolutely-crazy- hottest time of the year, and the bees get ornery. It's certainly not hot now, but some of that risibility is certainly present. I got a January sting last week from these girls (luckily it was on the ankle of the foot where I seem to have tendonitis, and it seems to have helped).

bases filled with dry sugarI decided to refill the two empty feeders in Twain, and to use the two feeder bases left over to hold dry dugar. The bases are stuck with propolis to the frames below, and I do not like knocking frames around when bees are clustered all over them.

The bees kept jumping in while I poured in sugar, so I would stop occasionally to root around with my finger and uncover them. You can see a couple of bee heads emerging in the picture, I think. The trouble with reaching into the hive is that dearth-y bees react more to everything, and some would try to take flight to defend their hive each time I reached in. It was cold enough that they would probably not be able to fly back, so I stopped reaching in, and tried to pick up and put back the bees I could find.

Apparently I had some stowaways on my veil and my tool bag, because I found bees inside, buzzing the windows, after I went back to the house. I opened the door and let them out, confident that a few minutes at room temperature allowed them to warm those wing muscles enough to fly back home.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Drying Bees for Fun and Profit

wet cold bees on towelFew things in daily life hurt my heart like the cold, wet body of a honeybee victim of winter. There seem to be many more of them these days, in part because all of the beekeepers around here have to work hard now to keep putting sugar syrup out. The bees are running through their stores this winter because it is warm(er), they are more active, but there are no more flowers.

Warm as it is, the nighttime temps usually get pretty low even without a frost, generally 40 degrees F (4 degrees C). I learned from MaryEllen that at 46 degrees F (8 degrees C) bees go into something called a "chill coma." They cannot move, they cannot fly, and they can sit there in the middle of a pool of golden honey and still die. All that sugar syrup gets as cold as the surroundings, and sometimes I think, when a bee drinks up too fast, her temperature falls below coma level, and she is in trouble.

But, the important lesson *I* have learned is this: honeybees are rarely as dead as they look. And my husband now has another of my behaviour quirks to live with.

I've taken to collecting (Careful! They are small and fragile!) and reviving the sodden bees around and in those pools of winter syrup. Here's how you can, too.

Start with a roll of paper towels. The unbleached ones are best, because the dioxin in the white ones seems to poison bees with extended exposure (I cannot always find the brown ones). Expose a couple of full sheets (I like to keep them attached to the roll), and gather as many bees as you can, placing them gently into the middle.

bees waking upPlace the towels carefully over a heating register or other gentle source of heat (a blow dryer would be too rough). I hold down the edges with heavy books.

Get your husband equivalent to turn up the thermostat or crack a door or something to get the heat to kick on. The prepare for a wonderful, up close experience in bee-watching.

As the bees dry and warm, they begin to buzz and walk around. They will spend alot of time running their front legs over their antennae and wings, cleaning and drying. Their butts will go up as they start rubbing their hind legs together. The buzzes come at first in little bursts, as they get back control of their wings and warm those muscles up.

The bees come online gradually, and not all on the same timeline. I use the register nearest my back door, because as each individual achieves critical warmth, she will rise up and fly. I can see the sun through her translucent body. Then I just pop the door open, and off she goes.

At first, the bees come online in one-sies and two-sies. But the rate is like an air popper for popcorn. You get one or two right away, then there is the great crowd, then the last couple of laggards, and then one or two that never fly again.

The good news is that I have done 18 bees at a time, and had them all fly. I've also picked up 6, and found that one or two awakened with damaged wings...I had done them no favors. I might think I am fooling with raising the dead, but my limitations in helping them are humbling. Still, I wonder if bees return to the hive with the equivalent of an old-time prophet's testimony: "And then did the pudgy brunette make the winds blow warm..."

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Refilling Feeders, More Bee Death, and Unseasonable Drones

drone in januaryThis is one very, very warm winter, apparently the warmest in over a century so far. The bees fly every day, so I fret over whether or not I can keep them fed until the flowers bloom (unless they bloom early, and risk death by frost when, or if, the winter arrives). I last fed the roof bees 6 days ago, so I trooped up there to see what they had eaten and refill the feeders.

All sorts of uncomfortable sites awaite, including the one in the picture above: a great big fat hairy drone. Don't get me wrong — I'm kind of fond of the lazy bugs — but he should have been dead by November. As near as I can tell, the only reason this dude has been kicked out of the hive is that he is missing an antenna. The girls have probably continued raising brood throughout this mild winter, further stressing a food supply that was light to start with. As it stands, Twain took almost a gallon of 2:1 sugar syrup in 6 days, which I replaced. Though Wilde still seems heavy, I gave those girls three quarts.

dead bees in front of Mill hiveThe second, but more heartbreaking sight was the return of dead bees around the Twain hive. The picture here is of dead bees in front of the Mill hive out in the 'burbs, though. Why is it here? Because I think that the two hives have a lot in common, including difficult-to-manage varroa infestations and signs of Paralytic Mite Syndrome (PMS). The varroa have probably been knocked down by now, which means their larval habit of crippling baby bee wings is less obvious. But the virus they have already imparted to the bees may be shortening lives. Both hives share the unique characteristic of major K-wings earlier in the season. I think it's PMS.

And there is a rub to that: I should probably stop reinforcing those hives, and try to reduce virus levels by shaking them out onto clean foundation in the Spring. The virus gets into the wood and the wax and the bees' bodies, and cannot truly be eradicated. By setting them up clean, I can reduce the levels and perhaps give them a chance to develop some resistance. More logical people might let the colonies pass on naturally.

underside of droneBut back to the out-of-season drone. Here's what his underside looks like. Can you see how lovely and fuzzy he is, particularly around his front legs? I'm kind of wowed by the scalloped pattern of his exoskeleton under there, so pretty. Do you notice that the base of his abdomen has a little golden cone-shaped outcropping rather than a stinger? That's why I could be so free in photographing him: he can only buzz at me. But I have a kind of freaky curiousity to show you, too.

drone genitaliaWhile working in one of her hives over a month ago, MaryEllen discovered this dead drone on the bottom board. As you can see, his wedding tackle is fully deployed, something neither she nor I had ever seen before. You can see why, when mating in flight, there is no way that retraction is an option, and the drone dies. And this drone is a little dried out by now (MaryEllen originally gave him to me to try to photograph under my microscope, but the object was actually so big that I could not get good depth of field. In the course of my manipulations, the poor guy's head came off, sorry). If you click this picture, you can get another view of the same thing (it seemed morbid to post more than one here).

I need to run away now and try to get some more food on the Monastery bees, if they need it. It will rain and rain (and be over 60 degrees each day) tomorrow and the day after. At least those girls don't seem to have so many dead sisters on their doorstep.