Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Ingrates

Were I not leaving for a month, I would not have bothered my bees today, but since I am leaving, taking the dog, the cat and the torts, the harsh reality is that my bees will not make the travel team. My friend and fellow new beekeeper, Susan, will check the hives in a couple of weeks, but she hasn't seen inside them for over a month and she needed to see how they are buzzing so she'll know if they continue to make good progress. We started off by checking her hives together. She has two hives, one doing okay, the other not. We did a little frame swapping to boost her weak hive. The most interesting thing I saw in her weaker hive was some spun silk in the corner of the lid. It was not beelike. I poked at it and a seriously large, black, fat-bodied spider fled. I know what that arachnid has been eating. It has a sweet tooth for honeybees.

In my own beeyard, I knew Hive 1 would be ready for another super (hive box) and that possibly Hive 3 would be also. I suited up and got the smoker going. As usual, I started with Hive 2, my weakest colony. Actually, it's looking very good! I saw lots of calm bees, capped brood, capped honey, and larvae in cells that have already housed larvae and pupae from which bees have emerged. I pretended to look for eggs, but didn't pretend I saw any. I didn't see any real eggs, either. I also found a few queen cells at the bottom of some frames, so I removed them. What I didn't see is the queen, but she has certainly been there since my inspection last week.

Hive 1 is still picture perfect and with most of the frames drawn out in comb, was indeed ready for the next super. The bees were calm. The queen eluded me.

Hive 3 seems to be going strong. I saw plenty of capped brood, capped honey and comb being reused, but I couldn't find the queen. Three strikes on Where's Queenie? It seemed to me that there was not as much larvae as I should have seen which makes me wonder if the queen is still there. Time will tell. The topmost super was about half drawn out in comb, but since I'm going to be away, I added a super anyway. I also moved some well developed frames into the bottom hive box, as a couple of frames there had not been drawn out in comb. I had this hive open for a while as I inspected all the way to the bottom, looking for the queen. I could tell by the amplitude of the buzzing that the bees were getting agitated.

I removed the feeders from all three hives, setting them on the ground. Each feeder had several bees walking about, so I left them to give the ladies the opportunity to mosey back to their hives. Here is a photo of the hives, with four boxes on two of them and three boxes in the middle. The embellishments are partially obstructed by the telescoping covers. If I get to add a fifth hive box some day, the designs will be completely visible. Hive 1 sports a caricature of my husband. His alter ego, Har-bee, is holding a dollar bill. My caricature designed for my labels is on Hive 3.

I put the empty feeders away in my basement. I'll need them again in the fall. It's always a good idea to keep the bees in the loop, so I went out to tell them I would be gone for a while and to say goodbye. I was dressed in my wicking walking clothes--no bee jacket or veil. I noticed that there was a gap where the top super of Hive 3 sits the hive box below it. I thought there might be some mulch or a stick acting as a shim, so I gently lifted the corner. BIG MISTAKE! Several bees shot out and came right at me. I felt a sharp sting at the top of my left leg as one of the guards defended her hive. Two other bees were viciously stinging a fold in my shirt, hurting no one but themselves. I was backing away from the hives, all the while being chased and pursued by ungrateful worker bees. I was lucky to have gotten only one sting, my ninth. Infinitely wiser, I suited up and lit the smoker, determined to adjust that box and close the gap. By now, I had Harvey's attention and he actually did the honors. I have reframed my thoughts about that gap, since it remains. It is ventilation! If the bees don't like it they will seal it up with propolis.

In my reading about bees, one beekeeper wrote that opening a hive without smoking it first is something you will do just once. Since I was stung through my shorts I got to skip the chapter where the imbedded stinger pulses bee venom into my skin. I got some Benedryl into my system and some topical medicine on my skin and so far, there is just a little swelling. I hope to not have another big, nasty reaction. Ever.

Sting count: 9.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Birds and Bees, Flowers and Trees

Early summer things are happening in the meadow. The baby house wrens have fledged. Harvey took this picture one or two days before they left their nest. I still see house wrens in and out of three of our nesting boxes. Maybe they will have another clutch.

The meadow is greening up. I see the usual weeds: violets (pretty, but unwanted), crabgrass, black locust volunteers, sour clover, other familiar mystery weeds. I called in my landscaper. Since he planted the seeds, I hoped he would recognize if any of them were sprouting or if we are just growing the Worthington version of Arthur's Weed Patch (remember the comic strip Miss Peach?). Jason, the Garden Guru, showed up the next day for a look. Yes, we have plenty of nasties in the meadow, but he pointed out tiny seedlings, the chosen weeds. We call them wildflowers. There are native grasses, rudbeckia, echinacea, and lots of other good stuff. Tiny, tiny seedlings, but seedlings nonetheless, all over. In the photo above you can see the remnants of our daffodils. The taller plants are undesirable weeds, but the all over green haze is a lot of the right stuff. You can also see the three hives, each three boxes tall.

This is a closer look at the infant meadow. Almost everything in this picture is desirable. The paddle-leafed plants are rudbeckia, easy to identify because the leaves are hairy. Many of the good seedlings are smaller than my pinky fingertip. The plan for meadow care this year is to not pull any weeds (and is that ever hard to do!) because some of the prairie seeds will take a year to germinate and pulling out weeds would not only disturb the still slumbering seeds, but also awaken the billions of weed seeds now dormant in the soil. Anything that grows taller than 6" this year can be whacked with the string trimmer because nothing that we want will grow taller than 6" this first season. The black locust seedlings can grow that much in a day. Because of the clay soil and our frequent showers, we have plenty of mud out there. These plants actually like dense clay soil.

This beautiful rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan) is one we planted last year--a plant, not a seed. This one just started to bloom, but even more exciting are the several baby Susans nearby, offspring of our second year plant. This plant, like many of the others in our prairie mix, self sows, which is why it takes a good three years to coax the meadow into becoming a riot of native flowers and grasses. I can now easily spot these seedlings in the meadow. Sticking up through the right side of the Susan is one of those pesky locust trees. The green sprinkles are all good things.

The bees are going to love what is happening in the beeyard/meadow.

Down in the ravine, the humans are staying slightly ahead of the poison ivy and honeysuckle. All our efforts to control the noxious plants exposed rich, leafy humus with oodles of earthworms. A walk down there today revealed extensive patches of worm castings (yes!) and a lot of erosion because the honeysuckle is no longer holding the soil in place (oh, no!). We have planted so many things down there, and most of them are doing well. Without the honeysuckle hogging all the light and all the terrain, other plants will now have a chance to grow. It is time to let benevolent Ma Nature do her thing.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I Felt So Safe

After receiving sting #8 on the tender skin of my inner upper arm resulting in a particularly nasty local reaction to the venom, I decided it was time to buy some protective clothing. The night before I left for a week's vacation in wine country, I stayed up late with my beekeeper supply catalogs spread out on the kitchen table. It seems like every beekeeper supplier has its own version of the suit. What the suits have in common is that they are white and have lots of pockets and zippers, but fabric content varies from nylon (how hot does the beekeeper want to bee?) to poly/cotton to 100% cotton. Whatever the composition, when I see these suits a little voice in my head says "E.T. phone home." I know the suits get toasty so I settled on the only one that is 100% cotton. Coveralls are for mechanics, so I selected the jacket with the zip on domed hood/veil and separate drawstring pants. These suits are not what one would call tailored. When the package arrived, I found both top and bottom to bee plenty roomy so I can wear my civilian clothes underneath. The looser the fit, the less likely I will be stung. I like all that air space.

The forecast for the next seven days is for thundershowers, so when the rain stopped late yesterday afternoon I decided to seize the moment. I donned the new gear and Harvey and I headed over to the hives. The inspection was as I expected. Hive 2, the weakest one, is still the weakest one. The original bottom hive box still has some frames with no drawn comb, but the 2nd story was quite full. I couldn't find her majesty but I found plenty of honey, capped brood, larvae and comb being reused as a nursery. It was overcast and close to 6PM, so I didn't even try to see eggs. This hive had several queen cells, which I removed. I added a third box to the hive so now all three colonies are three high.

Super duper Hive 1 is still super duper. I found the queen in the middle box so I stopped inspecting. This colony is everything I want it to bee. It could bee in the textbook for what a good hive should look like.

Hive 3, the latecomer to my beeyard is also doing very well and is not far behind Hive 1. I couldn't find the unmarked queen but I did see capped brood and larvae and that will have to do.

The protective beesuit did its job. These suits are not sting proof, but sting resistant. Even with 100% cotton, the humidity outside made a steam bath inside the suit. I wish I hadn't forgotten the sweatband I had procured from Harvey's bureau drawer. My hair was soaking wet and my shirt and t-shirt were soggy. My leather gloves were sticky with bee stuff and the fingers are too long. Alas, I crushed many bees while handling the frames and I saw some of my girls trying to sting my fingers (and I felt them vibrate against the leather), but thankfully, those gloves are sting proof. The new domed hood is a huge improvement over the hat and veil I had been using. So much of the beekeeping is done bent over and the old hat and veil would flop around loosely on my head, a serious distraction. The new domed veil zips to the neck of the jacket and this is a far better design. I have improved visibility and my hat can't fall off.

Sting count remains at 8.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Going Up!

I expected that the girls would be getting crowded again, so when I inspected the hives today I was prepared to add another box. Also, with the temperature in the mid 80s, I decided to wear my Underarmor walking shorts and a short sleeved shirt. It's plenty hot under the veil and long sleeves and long pants really make the beekeeper schvitz.

As usual, I started in the middle with Hive 2. You may recall that this is my weakest hive and the one with the new Ohio queen. Things are looking much better inside with lots of capped brood, stored honey and pollen. The frames in the upper hive have several empty sides not yet drawn out with comb. The lower box has frames not drawn out either. Since the rule for adding a new box is to wait until the frames are 70% full, this colony is not ready for more room. I did spot that lovely Ohio queen. She has been doing her job and I saw lots of larvae. O-H-!

On to Hive 3. This is the hive with the unmarked queen. In spite of that, I found her and saw plenty of capped brood and larvae. Another healthy colony. The upper hive box was almost full of drawn comb so I added a box.

Hive 1, my poster child hive, had frames so loaded with honey I had to break some comb to pry out the first frame. I saw lots of comb, lots of honey, capped brood from one end of the frame to the other, larvae and comb from which bees have already emerged. Another hive body was in order. I didn't spot her majesty in the upper hive box and since I have so much trouble seeing eggs and because the bees were being so calm, I decided to go into the lowest box and keep looking. I'm glad I did! I found the queen, and finding her way down there means she is doing just what I want her to do, which is reusing the comb from which bees have already emerged. I saw various ages of larvae in darkened, previously used comb.

All the feeders were dry. I have continued to provide syrup for the bees, but I haven't been giving them as much as I used to so I was not surprised that all the syrup was gone. They don't eat it all, but they move it into storage to be used later as food. They treat the syrup just like honey. Real honey can only be made from nectar they collect.

I was feeling pretty smug about the bees. The hives are thriving. The bees were calm. Two hives have another story of frames. All have syrup in the feeders. I found all the queens. The hives were completely reassembled. And no stings.


Just as I stepped away from Hive 1 and began to gather my tools and supplies, I felt that familiar tweezer pinch hold of the soft skin on the inside of my upper left arm.

Sting count: 8.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Neither Snow nor Rain nor Heat...

My niece Blair sent me this bit about a New York City swarm. She says if bees swarm because they want more room they ought not to live in Manhattan.

To read the whole article, click on the link and then click on "bugs" at bottom left under the image. Personally, I think the bee box looks way more interesting than the other ones.