Monday, September 26, 2011

Almost Got Away With It

Yesterday was my target day to get back in the hives. My last encounter left me with one eye swollen shut for two days, after which my face was merely frightfully puffy and distorted, so I didn't venture close to the hives until Thursday. I am reminded of lessons about trust which we taught to our children. It is easier to keep trust than it is to regain it. I was feeling pretty rocky about all those girls. When I visited on Thursday afternoon I was happy to see lots of bright yellow pollen being carried into all three hives. I'm guessing that the pollen is from the goldenrod that is blooming in nearby weedy places. The nurse bees feed pollen to the larvae, so seeing it going into the hive is a good thing.

However, the bees needed to be dusted again with powdered sugar, they needed new pollen patties and they needed syrup, doubly sweet, in their hive top feeders so they would have enough food to sustain them through the winter. So, I gamely suited up and staged everything near the hives: syrup in covered containers, pollen patties, many bags of powdered sugar, stoked smoker, tool basket and hive top feeders.

A new item in my tool basket is a bottle of A1 Sauce. At the beeyard on Wednesday, I got to hear many stories from sadder but wiser beekeepers who have been at it longer than I have so they have had more opportunities to make stupid mistakes. State inspector Barb told me about being nearby when someone dropped a whole hive box fully loaded with bees. There were no happy beekeepers there that day. Barb's favorite topical treatment for a fresh sting: A1 Sauce. There is something about that tasty stuff that breaks down the enzymes in bee venom. She should know, right? I have room in my basket for something like that.

Meanwhile, back in the meadow, I had to decide which hive to open first. Since Hive 3 was the cranky one last time, I decided to start on the left with Hive 1 and save those nasty girls for last. Maybe the ladies in Hive 3 are jealous because Hive 1 is full of goody goody girls who are calm and just do what bees do without any attitude. Things in Hive 1 looked good, as usual. There was brood way up in the 3rd box up, so I switched boxes around to try to get the queen back down to the bottom. Many frames were heavy with capped honey.

On to Hive 2. I was surprised to find the queen. The colonies are now so full of bees that it is more difficult than ever to spot the queen. I really wasn't even trying to find her and would had been content to find larvae, but there she was. I do have concerns about this colony. It is only 3 boxes tall and many of the low frames have empty cells where bees have emerged but no new eggs have been laid. I was so intent on staying calm and radiating calm that I forgot to examine one of the hive boxes. I saw plenty of stored pollen and honey and I do hope that the frames I didn't examine are full of brood. Perhaps this Ohio queen is slowing down her egg-laying as winter approaches. There are plenty of bees, lovely calm bees, in the colony right now, but the newly emerged bees will be old bees, if not dead bees, come spring.

On to Hive 3, my nemesis. My smoker had not been producing as much smoke as I would have liked, but since the bees in the first two hives were so docile, I wasn't too concerned. Approaching Hive 3 without clouds of thick smoke didn't seem like what I wanted to do. I worked those bellows until sparks were flying out of the spout (not really the goal), cracked the cover, puffed in some smoke and did the same at the front door. I opened the lid.

When I started getting ready to head into the bee yard, it was a sunny, cool fall day, perfect beekeeping weather. By the time I got to Hive 3, the weather had changed. The sun was gone and it left behind a gloomy gray sky. This is not what I want the weather to be when I work on the hives. I hadn't yet noticed how the weather had changed, but the bees had. Or maybe the personality of Hive 3 is just all cranky, all the time. Bees were flying everywhere. They were banging into my hood, clinging to the screened face. I knew I was as protected as I could be, but still, it's disconcerting to have 4 or 5 bees angrily buzzing a mere inch away from my face. I talked to the bees, encouraged them to be calm, and went about my business.

Then I felt it. It was at the base of my thumb, right through the goatskin glove. It was not a loud, ouchy sting, but a minor annoying one. I applied more smoke to the frames and blew some on myself. I finished my work, feeding and dusting and got the hive buttoned up again. I was feeling pretty stressed and hurried to get away from the hives and back into the house, all the way across the meadow with bees crashing into my suit. It was then that I realized the weather had changed.

When I was safely back in the garage, I gratefully unzipped the hood and jacket. Even on a cool fall day it gets hot in the protective clothing. The adrenaline was pumping, I was sweating (or do lady beekeepers only glow?) and breathing hard from schlepping and tromping through the meadow in rubber boots. And I wanted to crack open that bottle of A1 Sauce. The smoker was finally producing great clouds of cool smoke, just in time for me to cork it closed to snuff the fire.

My body's response to the sting through the glove was slight. The leather didn't prevent the sting altogether, but it did keep the stinger from embedding in my skin where it would have pumped venom until I could remove it. I'm sure the A1 Sauce helped. Well, not really, but who knows? While I am sorry to have suffered yet another sting, this one is no worse than an itchy mosquito bite and has resulted in a non-eventful aftermath. I took another Benadryl, shed the rest of my protective clothing and spent the next hour in cool down mode.

Sting count: 13.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

No Photos, Please!

How many mistakes can a new beekeeper make and still live to tell the tale? Keep in mind that I don't make the same mistake twice.

The plan for today was to open up the hives, put grease patties on the bottom to prevent tracheal mites, check the pollen patties and generously dust each hive box with sifted powdered sugar to control varroa mites. I also wanted to see if the bees were storing honey again.

Starting in Hive 3, I began to examine the frames. Yes, there is new honey being stored, but it is not yet capped. I was glad to see this as it indicates that the flowers have nectar and the bees are finding it. This is goldenrod season, a boon for the bees and a misery for allergy sufferers. I have given up all thoughts of harvesting any honey this season from these three hives.

Dusting the bees with powdered sugar is an integrated hive management technique. Integrated hive management means the beekeeper uses natural products instead of chemicals and poisons to control and prevent problems in the hives. The pesky varroa mites can't hang on to the slippery sugared bees and all that white powder spurs the girls into grooming behavior. I was told to sift four pounds of sugar into each colony. This is a lot of sugar and the bees were heavily coated. While working on Hive 3, my high tech sweatband slipped off my head and the band was bouncing around the inside of my veil/hood. When I finished my work in Hive 3, I moved away from the hives to unzip the hood so I could remove the sweat band. BIG MISTAKE! I had the right idea to move away from the hives, but I didn't move far enough away. As soon as the hood was unzipped from the jacket, a bee found her way into the hood and slammed into my right temple. I was stung and I knew this was going to be bad. Another bee was flying around inside the hood which was still on my head. I quickly moved across the meadow to shed the jacket and attached hood. I could feel a bee in my hair and as soon as the jacket was off, I bent at the waist to shake out my hair. It was a good idea, but not effective, and I knew if I ran my fingers through my hair I'd be stung on the hand. I hurried into the house and went for the wide-toothed smooth metal comb I used to use on my Himalayan cat's matts. The bee combed right out of my hair and fell to the floor, along with another I didn't even know was there. Those girls went out the back door.

My fingers went to my right temple and I could feel the stinger. It brushed out easily. Because I don't make the same mistake twice, I had taken a preventative Benadryl before I ventured out. The site of the sting was only slightly swollen, a normal reaction, and as beestings go, not particularly painful. After a moment of decision-making (do I go back out there or hang it up for the day?), I donned my jacket and hood and went to finish what I had started.

The sugar-coated bees were bearded off the front of their hive--thousands of them spilling to the ground. I wish I had taken my camera as it was quite a spectacle. I went to work on Hive 2. I figured if Hive 1 was as crazy full of bees as Hive 3, I wouldn't be able to work the middle hive. The girls in Hive 2 were very calm. These the the offspring of my Ohio queen. Most of my original bees and the offspring of my Georgia queen are dead. I can see that the bees in Hive 2 are different. These bees are very dark, almost black, instead of golden. This queen is not an egg-laying machine like the Georgia queens, so the hive is not so heavily populated. Everything appeared fine in there. They got their grease patty and sugar and I closed up the hive. The bees proceeded to make a beard on the front of the hive, but not as extensive as Hive 3.

On to Hive 1. There is much honey production going on in there, too. These bees were also calm and easy to work around which was a good thing as I was running on adrenaline and really just wanting to do what I needed to do and to get safely indoors. Grease patty, sugar dust, close the hive, collect my tools and gather all those empty powdered sugar bags.

The pollen substitute patties I placed in the hives on Labor Day were all gone. When I open the hives next week for another sugar dusting, I'll give each colony another pollen patty.

My tool basket and tools were covered with sugar, so I took the time to clean them up and went inside to assess my face. Only the slightest swelling was there, just at the site of the sting. I had enough time to shower and still take Sam the Dog to the club for the annual Doggy Dunk, a riot of a time held the day before the pool gets drained for the season. I made some lunch and the swelling began. In no time at all, my right eye was puffy and I knew I wasn't going anywhere.

By 3:30pm, the eye was swollen shut. I have been treating it with ice packs, Benedryl and Advil. As stings go, it is not very painful or itchy, but it looks dreadful. If I try hard I can open my eye enough to see with it. I cancelled my dinner plans (who would want to eat looking at this eye?) and pondered this hobby, beekeeping.

Let me describe my face. The right eye is swollen shut. If I open my eyes enough, I can see, but my field of vision includes the edges of my puffy lids. My right cheek is slightly swollen, making my face somewhat lopsided. If you have ever seen anyone after a nose job or eyelid surgery, it's a lot like that, except there is no bruising. If I had gone a round with Muhammad Ali, I might look worse. Lucky for Harvey, he has an airtight alibi as he left town Friday and is a thousand miles away. No, I will not post a photo.

Sting count: 12

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Mystery of the Vanishing Honey or Who Stole the Sweets?

Today was supposed to be honey harvest day. The last time I opened the hives (3 weeks ago), the frames were loaded with capped honey. I signed up to borrow the extractor from my bee club (COBA) and begged for help from someone to please be here when I attempted my first harvest. Master beekeeper Dana agreed to help me if I promised to help someone else in the future. That was an easy promise to make.

The plan was for Dana to come this morning at 10AM. Good news: the temperature was cool. Bad news: the sky was very gray and had low ceilings. I didn't think it would rain, but I knew that this is not the kind of weather we want when we open the hives. Bees get downright cranky with we open their hives on days that are cloudy, windy or rainy. They like sunshine.

I secured the extractor to the pole that holds up the house in the garage, prepared the smoker to fire it up, schlepped my tools out to the hives and staged the equipment just so. And Dana declared a delay due to the weather. We postponed and decided to make a decision at 12:30. By then, the ceilings had lifted. The sun was nowhere to be found but we decided to go for it. Dana arrived and I suited up.

Notice that Dana and I do not appear to be dressed for the same party. I was covered from head to toe (boots this time!) and Dana was wearing well-loved pants and a sweatshirt. No veil. No gloves. No jacket. In this picture, we are looking at a frame from Hive 3. We saw bees. We saw larvae. We saw capped larvae. We did not see capped honey.

Dana pulled out more frames. I bent over for a closer look. No capped honey.

We closed up the hive and moved on to Hive 1, my poster child.

About this time, Harvey, who had been playing the role of photographer, got stung on the back of the neck, so he retreated to the safety of the kitchen.

Dana and I looked in Hive 2, just because. I knew I would not be taking honey from this hive as those girls just weren't as far along. Three weeks ago, Hive 1, currently 5 boxes tall, had one super completely filled with capped honey. Today, plenty of bees and larvae, but empty comb where the honey had been.

I fed a pollen substitute patty to each colony to help them maintain their vigor. We removed one super from Hive 1, gathered our stuff and headed back to the garage, sans honey. Being a master beekeeper, Dana was not surprised that we had not found honey. Being a newbie, I was perplexed. I knew those hives were loaded with capped honey. I saw it myself and that's why I added the supers. Dana had asked me more than once how long it had been since I had examined the hives. He knew, based on the variety of bees (Italian), the very hot, dry weather and the fact that there isn't much nectar available in August, that my girls would have been dedicating themselves to raising brood which requires them to use lots of honey to feed themselves. Since there was no nectar to convert to honey, they ate what they had been storing for months.

What I should have done was to harvest honey when I saw that it was plentiful 3 weeks ago. Then I could have been feeding them sugar water like I did when the hives were first established in April and May. The bees would have used that "honey" for nourishment and the last flowers of the summer, Autumn Joy sedum and goldenrod, would have provided nectar for late honey.

This has been a tough year for the bees. Our May was drenched with rain which kept the bees from foraging and knocked the pollen out of the trees and blooming flowers. Our July and August were hot and dry and the plants did not have much nectar.

We have little expectation for honey yields from newly established hives. We hope for a vigorous, vibrant population of bees and if we get a little honey, sweet! I know my hive in Madison County had some honey harvested from it in June. I wonder if there will be a late summer harvest.

Today, I beat the reaper. Sting count remains at 11.