Sunday, October 24, 2010

DC Green Festival Presentation

cover slideWith apologies to those who are nowhere near Washington DC, this post is meant to direct anyone who might have attended today's panel on Urban Beekeeping at the DC Green Festival to supporting materials here.
Christy Hemenway of Gold Star Honeybees presented on this panel, too.

Local beekeeping clubs/short course opportunities:
Recommended books -- there are others!
cover of sammataro and avitabileThe Beekeeper's Handbook, Third Edition, Avitabile and Sammataro: Comprehensive, but could use an update.
cover of flottum bookThe Beekeeper's Handbook, Third EditionThe Backyard Beekeeper - Revised and Updated: An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden, Kim Flottum: accessible, good pictures, you will need more information than this

cover of flottum bookFirst Lessons in Beekeeping, Delaplane: compact, accessible, useful, but you will need access to additional information.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

No, They're Not All Bees

collage of yellow jacket wasp-bald faced hornet-european giant hornetTwo things happened yesterday to prompt this post: first, the DC Public Parks hive at the Lederer Youth Garden was wrongfully accused of harboring terrorists, and second, misperceptions about honeybee ferocity are causing nearby jurisdictions to get antsy about bees.

The collage at left depicts three critters which are not honeybees, but are far more likely to sting people than honeybees are—even so, people usually start the fight. They are, from the top, a yellowjacket, a bald-faced hornet, and a European Giant Hornet (here depicted eating a honeybee). I'm picking on the vespids for a particular reason: their lifestyle choices are really close to most humans', and there lies some of the reason for all the conflict.

Honeybees are purely vegetarian, with a stinger only suited to hive and last-ditch self defense. Hornets, wasps, and their kin are primarily hunters of other bugs, using that efficient stinging apparatus all day, every day. Honeybees get everything they need except water from plants, vespids get their protein mostly from other creatures, and if necessary, your picnic meats.
OK, back to the local story.

At Lederer, like at many gardens, there is a lot of hay around to use as mulch. Yellowjackets love to nest in low holes in rotting wood, vegetation, leaf litter, etc. For most of this year, that stack of bales was one heck of a great place to raise a family in their estimation. By mid-summer, when the gardeners got nearer the bottom of the pile, some disagreements arose. I think it is interesting that people have been working in that garden since April, almost every one of them passing through the gate next to the hay bales, but it took until July and the partial destruction of nesting habitat for there to be a problem.

Don't get me wrong: yellowjackets and people cannot share close quarters. It does not work, and I will agree that eradication is necessary in many (if not most) cases, though I will try to get you to use soapy water rather than pesticides.

In the MidAtlantic, if you run into a nest of stinging insects located at less than 6 feet above ground which is not in a human-made hive, you need to leave my honeybee girls out of it! Feral bees will want to be as close to 40 feet up in a hardwood cavity as they can manage. I've seen wild colonies making do at about 8 feet up, but not for very long, I'm afraid.

The second factor, local counties becoming unfriendly to bees and beekeeping, has begun to intensify in recent weeks. Howard County, Maryland recently reinterpreted its zoning to consider beehives as animal shelters, requiring the kinds of setbacks necessary for chicken coops and cow barns, distances dictating a minimum property size of 3.5 acres, with a hive set dead in the middle. Frederick County, Maryland, has recently fallen into a similar situation, where a beekeeper ran afoul of his homeowners association for one reason or another, and they decided to complain about his bees as well. At least in the first case, the complaint was based completely on paralyzing fear.

I understand fear, and its relationship to survival. But survival depends on knowing the difference between what you should fear (And why! And when!) and what you should live with happily. More is not more in the case of fear: you jeopardize both your own life and the viability of the surrounding environment by calling for the eradication of everything you do not understand.

So last year I made a handout which compares bees and the three species above, mostly for presentations to garden clubs and neighborhood associations. I'd like folks to use it if they think it works, comment on anything that doesn't.

Friday, June 25, 2010


bee parts in the tubMany, indeed, are the joys of beekeeping which I've wanted to share with you. For those of you with delicate spirits, please accept my warning that this one might be kindof gross.

This post is about things that eat honeybees, and why I am happy about this. Perhaps some background is necessary?

Honeybees (at least the ones that are alive today) are not native to North America, though they have been here either about 400 years (if you believe a Virginia colony ship's manifest from 1621) or maybe 500 (if you believe that the Spanish brought them to Mexico, and that the genetic traces being found out west by UDel's Dr. Debbie Delaney are the proof).

In the pro-pollinator community, some folks get a little sniffy about honeybees, raising an eyebrow at their foreign origins. Since no narrative I know of places human origin on this continent, I find this mildly amusing. Perhaps we pollinator advocates don't belong here, either?

Anyway, ever since my very first summer, I've seen European Giant Hornets, rogue jumping spiders, praying mantises, and the odd guilty-looking mockingbird hanging around the hives, and have been glad to meet them. Everything that lives depends on a network of other living things, and must die in its turn. Honeybee bodies in useless piles would do little for local ecology.

skylight over our tubWhich brings us to my bathtub. There's a skylight over the tub, and about 18 inches beyond the edge which you can see in the picture is the Wilde hive. Two feet or so to the left is the Twain hive. In season, about 4,000 bees a day die up there (have cheer: this year they are reproducing at least as fast).

We have problems with that skylight: it expands in the heat faster than the roof does, and little openings are created around the edges. For awhile, bees got into the bathroom on a regular basis, and I had to chase them around and put them back outside. But lately, it has just been bee parts.

bee parts in the tubThis is a fairly normal afternoon view of the tub. The close up above illustrates a number of things learned from this summer. The first is that bee heads and legs are apparently not good eating. The second is that the heads float pretty well.

What haven't I been able to learn? The name and nature of the creature who is eating the rest of the bee bodies. When up on the roof, I can just about see a little pile of bee bits in a corner of the skylight, and I do suspect a spider, but I have never seen the culprit either grab a bee or shove a bee bit over the edge.

It is probably not ants, because they tend to tromp around continuously and seem rather oblivious to observation, while this critter is crafty. I also don't think that this animal is a hunter, because I have never observed anything other than the usual hornets or yellowjackets messing with my bees directly. Also, there are very few bee corpses on the roof this year.

I teach new beekeepers that everywhere any creature lives is a habitat, and even human-centered places like cities count. Watching my bees integrate in yet another way with the cycle of life hereabouts, I'm truly grateful that the living things around me present daily proof of life beginning and ending and munching and flying and peering over the skylight into my people-centric world.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Spring Bees Slurp Algae and Forsythia

bees like green waterThis has been the Spring of Urban Beekeeping Promotion, and it seems to me that this photo might be the single most helpful thing I could show or tell to city beekeepers. Bees need to bring water back to their hives, especially during warm weather, and bees who wander into neighbors' yards to do so can inadvertently become the authors of their own demise. In Howard County, not far from here, a major zoning smack down started because a permanently (unsway-ably! steadfastly!) terrified man noticed bees were grabbing water from the air conditioner offtake in his back yard. No stinging required, just a few thirsty bees.

This picture shows you the dirty truth about bees: they like their water green and murky, and that dribbly air conditioner vent probably looked like heaven to them. This is a photo from a little water fall I built into a tiny fish pond in my front yard. It holds about 50 gallons and 4 fish: this would be the same size you would get with half a whiskey barrel, or any one of a number of pre-made plastic forms. The theory is that bees get trace nutrients with the algae and muck, and I can believe that, but I also think the biologically processed water may have less of the junk that we like to put in it. Urban beekeepers, do this: before your bees ever arrive, set up a bird bath, or a pot with a bit of water and some rocks in it, and let green things happen. Moving water is better for avoiding mosquitoes, but one little permanently moist and mushy place does not create a human health hazard, and if it is there before your bees are, just about everyone will thank you.

bees on wilty forsythiaOn other fronts, I would like to say that I still look after 9 survivor hives, but I don't call this season a success until April 1, when just about any decent laying queen and a few thousand workers can make it around here. The bees are flying from all the hives, some seem to be prioritizing nectar, and some are all about pollen. This, of course, worries me, since worrying is what I can do between the limited feedings some of them seem to need.

These bees are going to forsythia, which we are taught is NOT a bee forage plant, because the long fluted neck of the blooms is too long for honeybee tongues. Today, however, as the first round of flowers is getting loose and floppy, I saw bees digging in from around the sides. Some were still learning that going into the front did not work.

bee on wilty forsythiaAt first, I thought they might be foraging propolis from the buds, or that they might just be desperately trying to find any food at all, but on close inspection, I can see those little red tongues finding nectar after all.

The bees are definitely on the now-open maples, though it seems that many buds were damaged by the difficult winter. I am still looking forward to dandelion, and the full-on nectar flow they predict around here.

Two seasons are closing for me, and you could say two new ones are opening. I've spent the past month talking-talking-talking to classes and clubs and just about anyone, building the ranks of beekeepers and their supporters, trying to create a public that does not fear harmless honeybees who simply need a drink. But I would very much like to be a solo beekeeper, back to me and the bees and the wandering thoughts. The season ahead has fewer talks but lots more mentoring, and yet another round of splits and sharing and swarm control. While I have worked hard for a harvest of new beekeepers, I am pining most for those quiet days with the bees that may finally be at hand.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Free Urban Beekeeping Seminar for DC Residents

small version of flyer announcing seminarIf you are a resident of the District of Columbia, the Department of Parks and Recreation has a small number of seats available for a free seminar on urban beekeeping! You can click on the picture at left to download the flyer.
The seminar is complimentary, though you have to register in advance and are advised to purchase the accompanying text (Avitabile & Sammataro's The Beekeeper's Handbook, Third Edition)
Several member of the DC Beekeeping community have agreed to participate at each class, and to share their experiences getting started and going forward as a beekeeper in the Nation's Capital. No two beekeepers have the same story, and participants will discover their own adventures along the way, too.
Out hope is that this class will expand the group of volunteers supporting DC Parks and Rec's 5 new apiaries in 2010. This very short class can only hope to provide an overview, which participants can build on by learning-by-doing in one of the city's own apiaries.
For those of you who are already registered with a short course at a suburban bee club: trust me, you have also done the right thing, especially if your plan is to set up your own personal beehives in 2010. That is how I learned, after all!

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Uneasy Quiet of Winter

hive with no bees flyingDuring mid-January here, you'd have to search a long time to find a smug beekeeper. There has been a good long freeze this year, more than a month since the last time temperatures reached flight-worthy levels (also known as bathroom break levels—more important, though less poetic).
Beekeeping teaches this: nature is an amazing 360-degree extravaganza of millions of living things making their bets and living with the consequences. Last year, in late February, the temperature one Friday night was over 60 degrees F (16 degrees C) and as the sun set and the air chilled all the bees around here made group decisions about where to cluster together for the night ahead. This is about to get a little geeky, but you need to know this: bees cluster together to flex their little wing muscles and keep each other warm. They place themselves over stored food—honeycomb to us humans—about as much as they think they will need.
The colder it gets, however, the closer those bees need to mash together. A ball of bees the size of a basketball can look more like a honeydew melon if the temperature changes enough, and bees can face the choice between warmth and starvation as the honey they cluster over has to nourish more and more bees, and the edge of the stores above recedes a few precious inches away.
By Monday at the beginning of March in 2009, the temperature was 7 degrees F (-14 C) in downtown Washington DC. Every bee colony that bet on an average night in an average winter probably died by Monday morning.
Freaky, worrywart bees, or perhaps profligate "why worry" kinds of bees that were willing to place themselves WAY up above the edge of their stored honey supply were the ones who made it last February. And so bets were made, and whole families lived or died.
Some people tell me that generals are always fighting the last war, and perhaps the beekeeper equivalent is to prepare against the last winter. In January, all of us are facing the choices we made for our bees, as well as the choices they are likely to make for themselves. For millions of years, the genes they received from their ancestors stored up good choice-making tendencies that may be worth a lot less in the turbulent climate changes of today. For just a few years, I have been trying to figure out the challenges my patch of the planet presents to these small creatures, and to learn from beekeepers a whole lot more experienced than I ever will be. The bees place their bets, I place mine, and sometimes I know I am betting against the house.
And January comes, and the truth will out.
The not particularly interesting picture above shows the beehive at the Lederer Youth Garden in Washington DC. This week, for about 72 hours, we have flying (and pooping) weather, and I have visited all 9 hives. A whole bunch of them looked like this: too damn quiet for me. No bees flying, no bees obviously dying, nothing at all. Nine times I steeled myself for the worst, nine times I found warm bees inside.
Let me tell you my beekeeping sins: I treat for mites, though I don't count them enough. I am told to move honey close to clustering bees, but I am far too afraid to mess with the inside of a cold hive. Most of my hives go into the winter twice the recommended size. Some of my bees have viruses and I should let them die, some of my bees have queens more than a year old. Some of my bees get regular visits, some of my bees are on the wrong side of rush hour. But today, they are all alive.
When I think about the vagarities of the choices I make, of the way that Nature spreads her bets across the full spectrum of environmental possibilities, of the not-yet understood changes we all face from the weather, how can I possibly take pride in nine live hives? I can only be very humble, and very glad.