Friday, May 23, 2014

Back to Blogging

There are many times I think about what I would blog about if I had the time to do it.  Pretty much every time I visit my bees or walk in the meadow I make mental notes about blog topics.  That said, today I discovered a website/app for consolidating blogs I follow.  It's called Bloglovin and if this tool is of interest to you, here're the link.

<a href="">Follow my blog with Bloglovin</a>

Sunday, January 20, 2013

No, They're Not Sleeping

Do bees hibernate?  No!  In the winter the bees form a cluster (hold hands) and shiver their wings to create heat.  They keep the inside of the hive at about 90 degrees.  Bees on the outside of the cluster rotate into the middle of the cluster where it is warmer.  It takes a lot of food to keep this energy going, which is why we leave 50-60 pounds of honey in the hives for the winter.  

Bees are very clean and do not poop in the hive.  When we have a warm spell like we did last week, the bees leave the hive and take a cleansing flight.  While they are out, they'll forage for pollen and nectar, but this time of year there is none, so when they return to the hive they rely on stored honey and pollen.  Sometimes they run out before nature provides in the spring. When the temperature is below 50, the bees won't take sugar syrup in a feeder.

On the first of those two days of glorious spring in January, I went out by the hives. Bees were actively flying in and out of Hives 2 and 3, but Hive 1, my swarm hive, was a ghost town.  In the late fall there had been a lot of dead bees in front of that hive and I feared the hive had not survived even half the winter. The second day of our January spring, I was delighted to see that there was activity in Hive 1, too!  

At a bee conference last fall I learned about sugar blocks as an emergency winter food supply. Bees generally start out the winter in the bottom of the hive and slowly work their way up, eating as they go.  If they run out of stored honey before the nectar starts to flow, they will starve.  I decided to try this winter feeding method. My husband build a spacer that rests on top of the inner cover, an enclosure for the 6 X 6" blocks. As the bees move up the hive, they hopefully find the sugar brick resting on top of the slotted opening of the inner cover.  

I don't know why the bees do a lot of what they do, but as the cold weather approached late last fall, the bees in Hive 3 were hanging out at the very top of their hive.  Apparently, they didn't get the memo about where they should be positioned. A couple of weeks ago I peeked under the lids of the hives.  In Hives 1 and 2, all was quiet.  If the bees were in there, they were deep in the hives. In Hive 3, those girls were still up top and had worked their way about halfway through their sugar block.  I knew I would have to replace their food supply some time soon.
Warm air rises in beehives, just like everywhere else, so taking the lid off the hives in winter is never a good thing, but a few seconds of cold air allows a beekeeper to know if they need food.   The sugar bricks in Hives 1 and 2 were untouched, but Hive 3 had very little left.  Yesterday's warmer temperatures seemed like a good opportunity to add a new brick for the hungry girls in 3.

When I took those prior peeks into the hive, the girls in 3 paid me no mind.  In my first mistake of 2013, wearing no protective clothing at all, I removed their lid.  I quickly saw that they were close to finished devouring the first brick.  Then a guard bee flew at my head.  As I reeled away from the hive, she got into my hair, an ominous, distressing feeling indeed!  Bent over at the waist, shaking my head, trying not to fall down the hill into the ravine, was the scene.  The bee shook out and I headed back to the hive to place the brick.  The next thing I knew I was picking a stinger out of my finger, brushing bees away from my pants, hearing bees near my head and feeling one in my hair again.   The hive had been open for too long and I used the new brick to move the remnants of the old brick out of the way. The bees that were feeding were getting angrier by the second and the dreadful sensation of the one buzzing my hair got the better of me.  I placed the new brick on the inner lid, no doubt crushing many bees.

By this time, my white knight had arrived to aide his damsel in (great) distress.  He ran for a dog brush while I headed across the meadow, hoping I could get the bee disentangled without incurring another sting, fully aware that the hive was still open.  The dog brush did the trick and I managed to remove the last couple of bees from my clothing without another sting.  

I went indoors for a double dose of Benadryl and Sir Lancelot went out to cover the bees. Then I waited for the swelling to begin; it didn't take long.   I had the presence of mind to remove my bracelet and wedding rings. My left paw is hot, puffy and itchy.  Considering the number of mistakes I made, I think I got off lucky.

2013   1
2012   7
2011   14

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Urban Beekeeping, Live on TV

After we planted our meadow and introduced bees to the ecosystem we decided to completely re-invent the rest of our back yard. The project, started in the fall of 2011 continued through the winter and the transformation was completed in the summer of 2012. The owner of the company that created and implemented the design is Tom Wood.  Stay with me and you'll understand what this has to do with beekeeping. 

There is a news show called NBC4 Today in Columbus on Saturday mornings. For 23 years, the show has included garden segments hosted by Tom McNutt. Tom retired this past spring and the new Tom McNutt is Tom Wood. If you are reading this and live in Central Ohio, tune in September 15, this Saturday, to channel 4 at 8am. Throughout the hour, there will be four segments about urban beekeeping and a special corner of our yard we fondly refer to as Turtle World.

Tom, who is not a beekeeper, hoped I would open up a hive for the camera. My gut feeling about doing so for live TV in the chilly early morning hours in mid-September--perhaps not a great idea. The population in the hives is at its greatest this time of year. And the bees are hungry. And they are not on their best behavior. Think about how you feel getting rousted out of bed before you are ready. Hungry + chilly + early = cranky.

Foraging bees have a late start to their workday.  Ordinarily, beekeepers work their hives after 10am and before 5pm, not because the beekeepers want to sleep late (although this one does) but because before 10am and after 5pm the foraging bees are present in the hive.  We want to work in the hives when at least some of the bees are not home. I don't intend to count them, but in the fall, strong hives (which mine are) can have as many as 60,000 bees.  In my beeyard, multiply by three.  Even using a more conservative number of 40,000 bees per hive would come to 120,000 girls with stingers.  

This morning at 10:30, I opened the hives to apply a second round of powdered sugar and to sneak in a quick inspection of the colonies.  I was determined to work extra mindfully so as not to squash any bees with my gloved hands. I found lots of bees, some honey, some pesky hive beetles, and brood in the bottom boxes. The queens are finally down in the lowest boxes where they belong.  I saved Hive 1 for last since it is my most populated hive and also the most aggressive.  I was ever so careful handling the frames and the hive bodies and got my work done with no stings.  The last hive was reassembled and I started collecting my tools.  When I bent over to pick up my smoker, I felt the sharp pain of a sting.  A bee had been on my bee suit right where I folded at the hip and I got stung at the very top front of my left leg.  It was a natural, defensive move for the hapless worker.  She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Getting stung on the thigh, even through the protective bee suit which prevented the stinger from embedding, is more painful that getting stung on the hand through goatskin gloves. Working around all those stingers, one would think one wouldn't be surprised at getting stung, but I was already congratulating myself for a successful, stingless day in the beeyard. If anyone had been around, she would have heard my shout of surprised pain and a choice bit of cursing.

My gut was correct.  Opening a beehive on live television is a bad idea.  It is, after all, a family show.

2012  7
2011  14

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Caterpillars, Butterflies and Bees

A week or so ago, I saw a black swallowtail butterfly visiting my parsley. I hoped it was a female laying eggs. Ever since, I have been watching for caterpillars. And here they are!

Keep in mind these caterpillars are on parsley leaves.

At first I spotted three of the tiny caterpillars, but the next day I spied a fourth. These larvae are the size of a clipping from a baby's fingernail. Husband Harvey didn't think these were the same kind of caterpillar because the markings and colors are different from the gorgeous caterpillars daughter Rebecca found a few weeks ago on the same parsley.

Today, the beefiest of the foursome shed it dark skin and it now looks like a micro mini me of the beauties I watched before, except for the coloration.

Tiny caterpillar in brand new skin.

Caterpillar Rebecca found 3 weeks ago. Check out the foliage for scale.

The day after I discovered these tiny caterpillars, I saw a black swallowtail on our deck not two feet from the planter with the parsley.  One part of its wing was broken and it couldn't fly.  Butterflies only live for a couple of weeks and exist to mate and lay eggs, so I put this injured one on the parsley, hoping it might be a female and even if it couldn't fly, it could complete its destiny and lay eggs.  It stayed on the parsley for two days and nights and then disappeared. I thought I was raising culinary herbs (parsley, basil, oregano, thyme), but actually I am providing nectar and pollen for my bees and a nursery for swallowtails.  I am perfectly fine with that.

The front segment of the left wing is the problem.

Note the tear, bottom right.


I treated the bees for varroa mites by disassembling the stacked hive boxes and sifting confectioners sugar over the top bars of each box of frames.  The powdered sugar makes the bees slippery and the mites fall off.  All that sugar also encourages the bees to groom, which also makes the mites fall off.  This treatment needs to be done three times at weekly intervals.  Sugar dusting is Integrated Pest Management (IPM) at its best--safe for the bees, safe for the environment, solves the varroa problem without chemicals that can linger in the honey or the comb.

It is disconcerting to see thousands of sugarcoated, dusty bees hanging out on the front porches of the hives. The girls in the swarm hive, Hive 1, were the most agitated about the intrusion and they gave me a clear message that they were annoyed. There was much zooming and dive bombing and many of the workers landed on the legs of my bee suit. I was grateful for my protective clothing.

The veil is  the most important item of protective gear. Bees love small spaces and the veil keeps them out of ears, eyes and collars. It also keeps them out of the beekeeper's hair.  Hearing and feeling a bee caught in the hair and the subsequent dreadful wait for a sting to the scalp is best avoided.  I also wear soft goatskin gloves with long canvas sleeves. The downside to wearing these gloves is I can't feel the soft bzzz of a bee that gets in the way and from time to time, a bee is accidentally crushed because I didn't see her and couldn't feel her. The upside is when I get stung on the hand, the stinger does not embed in my skin. An embedded stinger continues to pump venom into the skin long after the eviscerated bee is gone. Since I get big local reactions to stings, I am willing to accept the collateral damage to the bee to avoid days of itchy and painful swelling on my hand. Sorry girls.  In fact, every sting I have received this season has been to the hand.  So the sting I incurred on the pad of my left ring fingertip from one of the workers from Hive 1 added to my sting count but caused me little pain and misery. I wish I could say the same for the poor bee.

2012   6
2011   13

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Who 'Ya Gonna Call?

Catalpa tree with colony of feral bees

When my friend Susan heard about a swarm of bees in a tree in Upper Arlington, she called me to come with her to check it out. Swarming is something that happens when bees get crowded in their hives, primarily in the spring. The later in the season, the less likely the bees will be able to successfully relocate in a hive box and store enough honey to survive the winter. Since my last call about swarming bees a couple of weeks ago actually turned out to be nasty yellow jackets, and since it is way late in the summer for bees to swarm, we had no idea what we might actually find.

Nevertheless, Susan packed a ladder and her bee gear and I bought along all my protective clothing. In the surreal way life sometimes imitates art, as we rang the Upper Arlington doorbell I felt like we were a cross between the Keystone Cops, Ghostbusters and Winnie-the-Pooh. Trish, the homeowner, led us to her backyard. Even from the house, I could see bees zooming around about 12 feet up in a huge old catalpa tree.

Sure enough, just like my bees hang out on the front porch of my hives, there were hundreds of honeybees gathered around a silver dollar size hole in the trunk.  Just chillin'. This was not a swarm, but a natural bee tree, a first for Susan and me. It is likely that these bees were a spring swarm and the scout bees found this terrific catalpa tree with a nice hole. A perfect home!  The tree is probably hollow and is now filled with honeycomb, honey and brood. Trish had noticed the bees all summer and was not alarmed about them, but was willing for Susan to capture them and take them away.

See them now?

I will ask about this in the beeyard tomorrow evening, but I believe the only way to capture these bees, including their queen, is to cut down the tree. As far as I know (which really isn't much), until the tree dies or splits, with some luck those bees will overwinter and just keep on beeing a feral colony.  If they survive the winter, next spring it is possible the bees will make another queen and half the bees will swarm.

Trish, keep your eyes on those bees on warm days in the early spring. Who 'ya gonna call?

Meanwhile, back in my beeyard, this over anxious beekeeper didn't listen to the more experienced beekeeper who told me to keep the new queen cage taped closed for several days.  I wanted the queen to be released before I left town last Thursday so I removed the tape and stuffed more fondant in the passage.  When I opened the nuc last Wednesday, what was left of the queen was in the queen cage along with a dead worker.  The honey in the frames had all been robbed out. There were dead bees on the bottom screen.  Sadder but wiser (and poorer), I disassembled the nuc and put the frames with brood back into the other hives.

The other hives were buzzing.  I had mixed up sugar water with Honey B Healthy, a delightfully fragrant mixture of essential oils that is good for bees, and had planned to start feeding the bees.  The fall flowers are yet to bloom (especially goldenrod, a significant source of nectar) but if my nuc had been a going entity, those bees would have needed to be fed and if I feed one hive I need to feed them all to prevent ugly robbing behaviors. The frames in the three other hives had lots of honey, mostly uncapped.  Without a refractometer (tool to determine the water content of the honey) I can't tell if uncapped honey is ready to harvest.  Since the syrup was already made, even though the three colonies would probably have produced more honey for me to harvest, I officially ended the harvest season in Worthington by feeding my girls syrup and pollen patties.  I will not harvest this adulterated honey.

Two of the 3 hives have deep boxes as their bases. I noticed that most of the frames were empty. I did find some stored bright yellow pollen and the smallest bit of brood in the deeps, but it is clear that the queens prefer the medium hive boxes.  As the frames in the upper boxes fill with honey stores, the queens will be forced to return to the deeps to lay their eggs.

Because it has been so dry, the bees were hungry and not happy about me fooling with their colonies.  There was lots of zooming about and I used plenty of calming smoke.  Still, one of the girls gave up her life to protect her hive and I got the slightest bit of a sting through my glove on the top of my right index finger. Her heart wasn't in it (nor was her stinger) so the tiny red spot was gone in 24 hours.

2012  5
2011  13

Thursday, August 16, 2012

How Sweet It Is!

There are 20,000 kinds of bees, but up until a moment ago, I thought the European honeybee is the only one to produce honey.  Wikipedia says there are a few others that do, too.  Since Wikipedia is not the bee all, end all authority on anything, I'm sticking to the thought that honeybees are the only practical source of honey. I just returned from a COBA meeting and my bee mavens assure me that only honeybees make honey in any useful amount.

I have been getting a lot of questions about honey.  One of my South Carolina friends commented about fresh honey.  Since honey doesn't spoil, freshness  is not an issue with honey. Honey has been found in Egyptian tombs.  And yes, it was still good!

Some more important considerations than freshness are:

Know the beekeeper
You don't need to personally know the beekeeper, but it doesn't hurt.  If you know who is keeping the bees you can ask about her beekeeping philosophy.  There is a wide range of acceptable practices when it comes to beekeeping, but I prefer the ones that are free of chemicals.  Integrated Pest Management enables the beekeeper to use natural products like confectioners sugar and essential oils as well as mechanical traps to control common hive pests and fungi.  Some chemicals can't be used when there is honey to be harvested in the hive. There are certainly reputable beekeepers who correctly use chemicals to manage their hives, but unless you know your beekeeper, you won't know if these chemicals were properly handled.  

Got allergies?
Buy local honey.  It is thought that because bees pick up pollen and bring it to the hive that people with seasonal allergies benefit from eating local honey. There are traces of those allergens in the honey. Some beekeepers collect pollen from the pollen baskets of foragers returning to the hive.  This pollen can be purchased and ingested and is also considered therapeutic to allergy sufferers. Bees travel up to five miles for water, pollen and nectar. That's local.  Even if you don't have allergies, do your local beekeepers a favor by buying their honey.

Read labels
Whether you buy at a local farmers' market or especially if you buy at the grocery store, read the label to find out where the honey comes from.  What you absolutely, positively DO NOT want is honey from Asia.  I have seen a documentary about how some Asian "honey" producers feed cheap corn syrup to their bees.  The bees eat it and make "honey" but we call it adulterated.  It looks like honey, but real honey is made from nectar.  Some beekeepers, including me, feed their bees sugar water from time to time in order to sustain a new hive or to help the colony store enough food for the winter, but bees are fed after honey is harvested, not before, so what is extracted is real honey.

Eat it raw!
When honey is spun out of the frames at harvest time, it drips into a barrel shaped container with a gate at the bottom to allow honey to drain into another bucket with a double sieve at the top. This strainer catches bits of wax and anything else not honey. This is all it needs before it is bottled.  Some beekeepers heat the honey before bottling. This is not necessary and if the honey gets over a certain temperature it changes the essential properties and destroys beneficial enzymes.  It's still honey but it has lost something in the processing. How do you know? Ask the beekeeper if he heats the honey. Those who do think it's fine to do so, so they'll tell you.  Because you have no way to know if the temperature was controlled, buy someone else's honey.

Some honey is sold with chunks of honeycomb.  If you have ever had it that way, you know how wonderful it is to bite down on comb and to feel the honey squish out of the cells.  When I was a kid we used to chew the wax like gum and then spit it out, but I now know that the wax is perfectly edible.  Go ahead and swallow it.  

I have tried a product that contains honey, propolis, pollen and beeswax all mushed up in the jar.  Propolis is a very sticky gluelike substance that bees make from pine sap.  Any cracks or crevices in the hive are sealed with this stuff which is why we need to use a small pry bar to pull out the frames and unstick the stacked hive boxes.  It is also edible and has therapeutic qualities when eaten.  I can't remember what the stuff is called but Whole Foods carries it.  Very raw. Very unprocessed. Expensive stuff. It does taste good.

When bees draw out honeycomb on a new foundation, it is creamy white.  As generations of brood are raised it darkens the comb.  The frames get moved around the hives as needed, so sometimes honey is stored in new, white comb and sometimes it is stored in comb that is brown because brood has been raised there or because honey has been stored there. One of my fellow beekeepers told me tonight that when she has frames of honey with snow white cappings, she slices off the cappings to harvest the honey, saves those honey-laden cappings in a jar and shares it with her family. It is the equivalent of comb honey without the hassle of trying to make comb honey. I might try that instead of draining the cappings for days or putting them out for the bees to go bonkers over.

Varietal honey

Pale, pale yellow spring honey

My jar of Humboldt Fog honey--spring above, fall below

Golden, late summer honey

Van Morrison sang, "She's as sweet as tupelo honey." What is that, anyway? Honey is named for the kind of flower from which the bees have collected nectar. If you watch bees you'll note that when they are visiting blossoms they stay on one kind of flower. When the clover is blooming and its nectar is flowing, they collect from clover to clover to clover. When the black locust and honey locust trees are blooming in the spring, the bees love it and collect just that nectar. Same for dandelions, honeysuckle, blueberries, lavender, goldenrod, etc., plants that grow around here in Ohio. If the beekeeper takes honey right after the lavender nectar flow then she will have lavender honey.  Back to tupelo...the tupelo is a gum tree that grows in northwest Florida, the only place where tupelo honey is produced commercially. There are bee hives all along the river swamps in this area and when the nectar flows in April and May, the bees produce this very delicate, light amber honey. Each variety of honey has its own distinctive taste and color. Honey that is light in color is light and delicate in flavor. The darker the honey, the stronger the flavor. Clover honey is light (but not as light as my spring honey) and buckwheat is very dark. Other varieties you will find at grocery are sage (one of my favorites) and orange blossom. When honey is harvested once a year it is a combination of all the nectars the bees have collected from many different flowers.  We call that honey wildflower.  When you travel look for honey that's local to wherever you are.  It won't do a thing for your allergies but it will make your tongue happy. It's all good.

A few last things to know about honey

  • While honey does not spoil, eventually it will crystallize and become sugary. Re-liquify it by putting the bottle into a bowl of hot water.
  • Cream honey is honey with air whipped into it, delicious as a spread for bread. Carmen Conrad, of Conrad Hive and Honey in Canal Winchester makes fabulous cream honey, including flavors.  My favorite is jalapeƱo. Look for Carmen and Barry at the Clintonville Farmer's Market on Saturdays.
  • Honey is good to put in you and to put on you. It has loads of antioxidants and is antibacterial.  It is soothing for coughs and sore throats. Google honey home remedies and learn more ways to use this great gift from the bees.

2012  4
2011  13

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Robbery, Carnage, Mayhem

Before I get to the carnage and mayhem, I will write about the sweet harvest.  This happens to be the linear order of what occurred.  I intended to leave Hive 1 alone on this harvest day because of the piggyback arrangement with the weak hive.  I knew Hive 4 had a full honey super when Susan opened it a week earlier so that was the place to start.  Last year, a full super in this same hive location (different bees) turned into a disappointment when I opened the hive for harvest only to find that the bees had eaten all their honey. True, it was theirs, but I was astounded to discover that they didn't leave even one sticky drop for me.

Earlier in the week I saw that some of the frames had capped brood, but when I examined the frames, there was only wall to wall capped honey.  The bees had emerged, a good thing because I don't want brood in the honey.  I don't know what the queen was thinking, going way up in the top super to lay eggs.  She is supposed to stay in the bottom two boxes.  Apparently, she didn't get that memo. I took nine frames of honey from this hive and headed to the garage where Harvey had set up the extractor. The bees were so very calm in spite of the fact that I was robbing their honey.

Harvey went next door so the neighbors could watch the harvest.  Jenn came over with her two oldest, ages six and eight or so.  They have eaten this honey but wouldn't dip their fingers into the comb to taste. All kids know that food comes from the grocery store, not from neighbors' garages. They did both enjoy taking turns cranking the extractor and they got a crash course from me in bee fundamentals. Always a teacher.  Harvey was a big help and wielded the hot knife, slicing the caps off the comb. The whole harvest runs better with help than when I did it alone.

I replaced the empty frames in the hive and opened Hive 2.  There were four frames with capped honey. One frame only had capped honey on one side but the cells on the other side were empty and dry, so I included it in the harvest.  Many other frames had honey, some capped, some not.  It is easy to see the glistening honey in the uncapped cells, and tempting to take it, but the moisture content of the uncapped honey is too high and if it is harvested, it will mold. There is a fancy gizmo that can measure the moisture content so the beekeeper knows if she should take the honey, but an even easier way to tell is to trust the bees.  They take nectar from the flowers, pass it to other bees who add magic enzymes and ultimately it is stored in cells.  The bees fan the honey with their wings which evaporates the moisture.  When the honey is ready, they secrete wax and cap the cells.

All in all, we harvested 30 pounds of beautiful, sweet honey.  It is darker than the spring honey but lighter than last year's fall honey. The later in the season, the darker, and stronger tasting the honey. This weekend, when I reorganize Hive 3, I will harvest Hive 1 and check Hive 2 again.  I am hoping that the girls will have capped more of the honey that wasn't quite ready last week. It's a shame that all the hives couldn't be harvested at once because the work is messy and the cleanup is, too. Since Harvey did the bottle filling, this harvest was far less messy than when I did it myself in June. He has a steady hand for filling and wasted very little.

About the robbery, carnage and mayhem...

When the cappings are trimmed off the frames, honey oozes out of the cells and drops into a container that catches both.  This is a slushy, sticky mess of wax bits and honey and we pushed the cappings to one side of the bin and tilted it to let the honey pool.  After straining, we filled a one-pound bottle with this honey but there was plenty more trapped in the bits.  When we were finished filling the main harvest, we put these still wet cappings into the strainer and let them drain. There are solar devices that melt the wax and separate the honey but I don't have one of those. I decided to spread the cappings out on foil and let the bees come and get it. I put the foil on the new stone counter on our deck. They would take the honey just like they collect nectar from flowers and return it to the hive. I tried this last spring but the bees never really showed an interest in it.  That was then. After this very hot, dry summer, the bees were hungry for the easy food. Within 10 minutes, the deck was zooming with bees. They were all over the cappings, all over the deck, banging into the windows and door.  We're talking THOUSANDS of bees.  It wasn't safe to go out the back door. This was what is called robbing and it was mighty to behold. There were bees locked in mortal combat. There were maimed bodies on the deck, dead and dying.  Also at the feast were bumblebees and two kinds of wasps. Hours later, as dusk approached, it had calmed from frenzy to merely cranky and I went out to take pictures. The video is a Sunday school picnic compared to the earlier scene.  Also in the video is the bin that held the cappings. I knew if I put it out for the girls to clean up there would not be a bit of stickiness left.  They did a great job.

The next day I swept up at least 100 dead bees.   Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea.

A big bowl full of only slightly tacky cappings.  Pure beeswax.

2012  4
2011  13