Friday, April 17, 2009

A Visit With the First Bees

vent at top of first hiveIf there is one eternal truth in beekeeping, it's that committed beekeepers always get a bit nervous when someone else inspects their hive, especially if that someone else has kept bees even one week longer. I've got a few years on Charlie, bee-wise, but not that many. Even so, it makes my heart get all warm to see such concerns, because only people who really care have them. And the bees do so much better in the hands of those who care. Which is my way of saying that Charlie let me have a look at the White House honeybees today. Thanks, Charlie!

Before I go on, this needs to be said: everything touching on that particular place tends to get wrapped up in spotlights and drama, and there is a real danger of feeling self-important or personally special just because of that place and this time. When I share this with you, please keep in mind what this is really about: the bees, and their way of both supporting our environment and inspiring great wonder in those who look after them. I feel that we all owe Charlie a whole lot, and I want him and the Obamas (remember, it's their back yard right now!) and Sam Kass (whose garden project makes it all possible) to get their credit, too.

But I bet you want a look in, too.

how to work first hiveWith apologies for the rough crop of the photo, this is how you work the White House bees: on a board set on two sawhorses. It helps to coordinate your movements and to balance anything you are up to with the other person up there! It is a surprisingly stable solution, with the plus that the bees that fall during a manipulation don't end up getting stomped, and you don't have to tuck in your socks to keep them from crawling up a pants leg! The groovy piece of woodenware (the one shielded by some plexiglass near the holes) is a vent of Charlie's own design. The plexi helps moderate high winds, whether natural or from helicopters. One unforeseen benefit of the hive scaffold: it is really easy to look up through the screened bottom board to see where/how tight the bees are clustering.

As you might imagine, a couple of key concerns for bees in this location are swarm control, and monitoring temperament. Our visit today was mostly around the former: to keep tabs on how they are building up and reverse the hive bodies if that seemed useful, and to make sure there were enough supers in place for the current and soon-to-be-upcoming nectar flow.

First Queen BeeTo my mind, Charlie's queen is a good one for the job. The bees were extremely peaceful and gentle, and her pattern was OK, though not gangbusters. In a situation like this, I am all for the happy medium in terms of brood production! The drone brood was in the right place, she seemed to lay more from right to left than in a spiral starting in the center of the frame. You can click that picture of her for a slightly larger version.

When we opened some drone brood, there was a minimal presence of varroa. There were no k-wings and I saw no mites on bees. The hive has three medium supers with drawn comb, there is a fair amount of nectar in the first two, so Charlie is out ahead of this one. They had put aside some honey down below, but I am seeing that at home, too. Nice white cappings.

small swarmFinally, as I was saying goodbye, Charlie got a call aboutanother swarm at the north gate! I said I would take it if accessible. So we checked it out. It was clearly a second swarm, probably thrown off of the same nearby hive that produced the famous one last week: about 2 pounds (1 kg) of bees (image is clickable for a better view). Since I am giving away a split this weekend, I thought my friend might want this queen to go with it!

Charlie got me a box, poked some holes in it with a nail, and we borrowed some bolt cutters from the carpentry shop to lop a small limb off the swarm bush. Sorry bush! He sealed the box shut with blue gaffer's tape, and in a supporting page (a bit later) I will tell you about my hapless adventures in hiving it when I got home.

So once again, thank you for including me in this adventure, for doing such a wonderful thing, and for taking care of those girls the way any one of us would hope our own home hives get tended. I hope you get as much help as you could possibly need in helping them thrive so close to the heart of our nation!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Public Beekeeping and Rainy Days

honeycomb decorated hive bodiesThis is the second of two cold, rainy days in a row, and I must finally be catching up because this poor blog is getting some attention. You can see, in this picture, what Spring can bring when the only ways of working for the bees involve paint brushes, newspaper, and a fair amount of cursing.

This next note is probably only interesting to me, but over the past week or so this blog was visited by thousands of people, all of a sudden. That's because one of my friends, Charlie, is the beekeeper at the White House. But it is Spring for my bees, too, and it is time to stop being dazzled by the limelight and to get back to the sunshine of my own beeyard (once the Sun does come back again).

Basically, I've got a lot more apiaries to visit this year, though not the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW (Charlie might have me over at some point, if some skilled free labor is ever necessary).

This Spring, I've come out as a beekeeper to the Office of the Mayor and to my City Council representative, figuring this is the year to make beekeeping more legally welcome in the city. In response, the District of Columbia has invited me to place hives in two Parks Department-run youth gardens, and USDA has opened some doors at the National Arboretum. Two other beekeepers will take one of the DC gardens, a mentee and one of the staff at the Arboretum will (tentatively) have bees there, and I will cover the other D.C. park. We'll be placing hives and giving presentations to Summer camps. This is in addition to the sessions at Colvin Run Mill, where I am planning to put two new hives from packages.

observation hive
All of this means that there will be lots of summmer camps, at four locations, plus whatever comes up along the way. So I finally bought my own Observation Hive, this one from Betterbee.

I have borrowed many observation hives in my day, and think that MaryEllen's Ulster hive has been the best so far. I wish it could show more than one frame, however, and I am not really looking for a hive where the bees can live all season, so I decided to try this format. Most observation hives require you to slip a frame of bees into the equivalent of glass envelope, and most of the time some bees get squished. Inevitably, the smartest, nicest kid you present to points this out, too.

This observation hive works more like a narrow glass closet, and shows two frames. Let's see how it goes. Right now I am cursing the fact that I have one more complicated thing to paint.

The hive bodies you see way above will house the nucs that will begin hives on the roof of the Fairmont Hotel here. Those girls are due on April 23rd.

I was going to get packages for the hotel, too, but my go-to-guy, Larry, ended up with a more successful nuc progam than predicted this Spring, and I thought they offered a better chance for early success, and a partial harvest, which seemed a big goal for the hotel. The chefs at the Fairmont (whom I will be teaching-by-doing) seem a little hesitant all of a sudden, but I am willing to take their bees and this cute-i-fied equipment if they bail out.

But let's hope they don't read this blog, right?

My bees have wintered well: I lost just the nuc which was an experiment. Six mature hives survived.It seems to be a trend here to try to winter nucs, and accomplished beekeepers do it, but I'm missing the point, I guess. And missing those lost bees.Three of my hives are monsters that need to be split, and there are three OK ones. I'm giving one split to Joe at the monastery, because he lost some girls this winter and he is a good beekeeper.

Everyone has their first supers on, there have been several hive operations this Spring, and I will post more details on a supporting page in a bit. With the order of three nucs and five packages to cover all this, I will have 10 hives in my own apiaries, two in a city park, and four being managed by mentees.

I believe I have lost my mind.

This is the year for urban beekeeping, though, and as fearful as I am of taking a public role, there has never been so much public support, interest from new beekeepers, emphasis on "greening" the city, and coverage in the press (even a sidebar on city beekeeping in Scientific American!) I might get shut down, at least downtown, but I have the chance to reach thousands of childrens (and their parents) before that happens, if it happens. My friends in the 'burbs will help me find a place to hide out, if necessary! Please keep my girls in your thoughts as we begin this new phase of adventure.

Please keep all of us, famous, shy, winged, walking, and looking forward to the Sun, in your thoughts as this important season arrives.