Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Dreaming of Bees in Winter

Where beekeeping is concerned, I've been twiddling my thumbs a lot lately. Since a wretched bear wiped out my bees, I have two empty hives, so no need to make more right now.  However, that doesn't mean that I can't dream about bees (in addition to researching bear-proofing methods).

The guy who sold me my nuc last year seems to have gotten out of the business, so I've had to find a new supplier. If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know that I'm quite picky. I want natural-size, treatment-free, northern-bred bees, so basically, it came down to Gold Star Honeybees and Anarchy Apiaries for me. Last week, I placed an order with Anarchy Apiaries for two packages. Anarchy Apiaries won out because Sam sells what he calls "shook swarms." I could be wrong, but here is my understanding of what this means based on his explanation in a YouTube video I saw. (Sorry, can't find the link right now.) Basically, he takes a queen from a hive and shakes a bunch of bees from that same hive into the package. The advantage of this approach is that the bees do not have to go through an acceptance process for the queen.
Additionally, my DH has proven to be a great enabler. For Christmas, he presented me with a copy of Top Bar Hive Beekeeping: Wisdom and Pleasure Combined by Wyatt A. Mangum, Ph.D. I've only read about 65 out of 400+ pages so far (because I've had company since the 22nd), but I'm loving it so far. It looks to be the most comprehensive book on TBH's I've seen thus far, and I would go so far as to say that I prefer it to the books by Christy Hemenway, Phil Chandler, or Les Crowder. (Note: I'm not disparaging the other books. They're great books which give a high-level, concise overview of TBH keeping, and if you're just starting out, I highly recommend reading them, too.)

Admittedly, I've barely cracked this new book open, and I may revise my opinion by the end. However, here is what I'm digging thus far. All of the other books I've read discuss beekeeping under ideal, perfect conditions. From what I've experienced this summer, there is very little that is either ideal or perfect about it! Top Bar Hive Beekeeping contains a lot of information about how stuff goes pear-shaped. In fact, here is one of my favorite passages:
To stave off the relentless cold and unknowingly free myself for top-bar hive beekeeping in a big way, I was also selling my frame hives. True, it was painfully hard to see those precious hives go. Most of my young life had been invested in building up that first operation. Now I had to preside over its dissolution. Breaking it up. Selling it off. The other side of beekeeping. The downside. In all my beekeeping books, both new and even the old ones from the 1800's, where was the chapter on that? 
To me, this passage is an example of the heart-felt, personal presence of the author which pervades the book. It also sums up for me what this book has been so far -- the voice of experience that has seen the ups and downs of beekeeping, the kind of wisdom that isn't covered in conventional beekeeping manuals.

Additionally, if you like photos, this book is chock full of them. You can see a small sample of these photos on Dr. Mangum's website at:

At $45, the book is not cheap, but I feel that it's well worth every penny. Additionally, you won't find it on Amazon, so if you're interested in ordering it, you will have to do so through his website.

So anyway, this is where the end of the year finds me. Happy New Year, everyone. May your summers be long and your bees prosper! :-)

Monday, November 25, 2013

The New Worker Bees

I already new that honeybees were being trained to detect landmines. However, today, a friend of mine sent me a link to an article about how honeybees can be trained to detect cancer in addition to tuberculosis, diabetes, and any other disease that creates an odorous biochemical biomarker.

Yet another reason why bees are so freakin' cool!

Image from:

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Disaster Strikes Again

If you read yesterday's post, you'll know all about the bear attack on my hive. Unfortunately, that was not the end of yesterday's misery. Shortly after I'd uploaded that post, there was a horrible rumbling crashing noise that turned out to be a tree falling on our house. I'm ok, but it scared the pants off me as several branches hit the window I was sitting near. Thank God that the tree hadn't broken a foot or so lower to the ground -- I might not be writing this today.

As it was, my guardian angel did an awesome job directing the fall of that tree. It kind of grazed our roof, but it missed the kids' trampoline, our patio furniture, and outdoor lights.

Thank goodness for minimal damage.

Unfortunately, when we went outdoors to inspect the damage last night, we also discovered that the blasted bear had come back. There wasn't much I could do about it in the dark and the wind. Plus, shortly after the tree fell, the power company came by to turn off our neighborhood's electricity in order to work on the lines. Without light or water, there was no way I was even going to attempt doing anything with the bees. My husband turned the hive upside down over the comb to keep them warm.

This morning, though, I found that the !@#$% bear had come back a third time. A few clusters of bees were still alive, and it just wasn't in me to abandon them. I salvaged the few combs that I could and put them into a nuc. It was really hard, though. First of all, if you remember, I'd rubber banded the combs onto the bars, so I had to deal with those first. After I cut them off, I found that because the bands had sliced into the comb, the comb had a tendency to fall apart. Also, the weather was bitterly cold last night/this morning (in the teens), so the honey was super thick, gooey, and sticky. I could barely pry the combs apart, and my popsicle fingers didn't really want to move either.

Instead of rubber bands, today, I used wire stapled onto wooden bars.
I just kind of shoved that wire into the comb to hold it up.

When I consider how beautifully the bees constructed and organized the comb this summer, I'm appalled by the Frankenhive I've cobbled together. How I hope that bear chokes on the rubber bands I used yesterday!

I have no idea if I have a queen. Even if I do, I doubt that the bees will make it. There is so much empty space in that nuc that even in the garage (where I've stored them for now), I don't see how they'll be able to keep it warm. I suppose this is where I made my mistake. I probably should have put them into the nuc and into the garage yesterday.

If I can't come up with some kind of workable solution to the bear issue, I'm considering giving up the bees. I just can't lose all my bees again. After all the time, energy, and love I've poured into them, yesterday broke my heart.

I've just learned that my part of the state is one of the most heavily bear-infested areas there is. However, I also live in suburbia, and I'm reluctant to install an electric fence. Firstly, I have lots of kids in my yard, and I can only imagine how pissed off some parents would be if their kid got shocked. Secondly, my neighborhood is the kind where I don't think the neighbors would appreciate the aesthetics of an electric fence. There is a guy down the road who has chickens, and I've heard rumblings from some people about "The Beverly Hillbillies" down the road.

So now, I'm looking for advice. Do you have any ideas for how to deter/manage bear attacks? For example, I'm considering much smaller hives. Although swarming would be more of an issue, I could possibly store them in an outdoor shed area in the winter. I don't know. What do you think?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Very Unhappy Hour at the Top Bar

At 6:30 this morning, my husband roused me out of bed with these words:

"Julie, a bear got your hive.

I rushed out in a bathrobe to find this mess.

So many combs destroyed. So many bees dead. I didn't know what to do but try to put it all back together again.

The first thing I did was put some sugar in the bottom of the hive and moisten it. If by some miracle the queen survived in good shape, I wanted to make sure they didn't die of starvation. Then I started to address the broken combs.

Some bees still huddling in the hive.
Though I hope they were huddled around the queen, I'm not very hopeful.

I didn't have any hairclips to clip the comb on, and it was so cold I didn't feel like taking additional time to cut wire mesh to make holders for the comb. String turned out to be too unwieldy, so I settled on rubber bands.

Actually, the rubber bands weren't such a great choice either. They cut into the comb that was already so brittle from the cold, and because of their elasticity, they didn't keep the comb attached to the bars either. Definitely, this was one occasion on which I really would've liked to have frames.

Speaking of like-to-haves, I also wished I had a full-length bee suit. During the summer, I usually wore a long-sleeve shirt and veil for inspections. However, the bees were furious this morning, so I donned a jacket. Even with two shirts and a jacket, I still got stung multiple times. In fact, I discovered that my jacket with zippered veil is not entirely bee-proof as several enterprising ladies found their way through a tiny gap in front right where the two zippers meet.

One thing I noticed was that most of the bars that were left were honey bars. I didn't see any larvae at all. I guess the bear preferred whatever brood the colony had.

By accident, I noticed that if I put a piece of styrofoam next to the bees, they all started climbing aboard. That made shaking them back into the hive a bit easier.

In the end, I managed to get about 11 bars back into the hive. The rest of it got sorted out into groups.
  • Empty comb that was in bad shape, so I put it aside to melt
  • Empty comb that I kept in order to put into next year's hives for any new bees I order
  • Comb that was mostly capped syrup, which I'll feed back to the bees -- either this year or in the spring
  • Comb that was mostly honey, which I'll probably keep for myself.

Right to left:
1) comb that will be sorted for me or the bees,
2) empty comb
3) honey I scraped out of the roof that will be strained and given to bees

Some live bees that I picked out of the bowls.
I let them groom the honey off before taking them outside again.

I wish I could say I was pleased with this morning's work. The rubber bands prevent a tight fit between bars. I don't even know if I have a queen, so probably all that work trying to save them was for nothing after all. To top it all off, we discovered my husband is allergic to bee stings.

Ugh. My heart feels sick.

See part 2 of this story.

Friday, November 22, 2013

High-Tech Top Bar Hive

I know, I know -- the idea of a high-tech top bar hive is sort of an oxymoron. However, here's a wicked cool video of a top bar hive made using a CNC router, which is computer controlled. It also appears to be assembled without any nails or screws.


Did you watch it? I told you it was wicked cool! :-)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Does Size Matter?

Yesterday, I had the a delightful conversation with a bee buddy, and the issue of smokers arose. He wanted to know what kind of smoker I was using because he was considering purchasing one for himself. Since there isn't much going on for me in my bee life right now, I thought the question would make a good blog entry.

This past spring I got a large smoker (4"x10") with a pointed top and guard. I chose this larger size/shape based on some comments I'd read. Basically, the consensus seemed to be that smaller smokers (4"x7" and smaller) are harder to keep lit. Also, someone mentioned that smaller dome-top smokers go out more frequently due to condensation that forms inside the smoker. Nobody commented on taller smokers with domed tops.

BTW, here is my favorite comment from that online discussion:
There simply is no comparison between the amount of smoke you can lay down with the larger smokers. The smaller ones can't compare, in that they just don't put out enough smoke, are more difficult to keep lit, run out of fuel more quickly, etc. 
Here's a quick test - can you, in less than 30 seconds, put out enough smoke that the entire top of the hive can no longer be seen? If not, you needed a bigger smoker. There's times when you want to lay down that much smoke. Situations like a "dropped box". Yes, it will happen.
Wow! That guy is talking about making some serious smoke! I haven't tried that test yet, but I think I'm going to have to because it will totally impress my boys.

Since I have only one smoker, I can't provide any useful comparisons. However, based on my experiences this past summer, I'm glad that I got a big one because if it's not very tightly packed, it does have a tendency to burn out too quickly. (Though if it's properly packed, it will smoke all day.) I can only imagine how much more quickly a smaller one would die out.

There are several types of smokers available, though most of them seem to be variations on a theme. Probably the coolest one I've seen is the imker pfeife, aka German bee pipe, which is a mouth-held smoker. The video above shows a bee pipe. Apparently, those German bees are quite docile!

For those who want smoke without a smoker, some companies like Brushy Mountain sell Liquid Bee Smoke (though I've heard of people simply using liquid smoke from the grocery store), which can be mixed with water and applied with a spray bottle. When I see this product, it kind of makes me go "Hmmmm....," but since I have no personal experience, I'll refrain from any other comments. If you've tried this stuff, what do you think of it?

Of course, Sam Comfort doesn't use a smoker either. He just puffs a couple of times across a smoldering leaf. (BTW, I have been accused a number of times of "having a thing" for Sam. I would like to set the record straight -- the rumor is kind of true. LOL! ;-)  

If you're reading this, I hope you'll weigh in on the question of what makes a good smoker. What kind of smoker do you use? Are there any features you think are important to have? Have you ever hacked a smoker? I'd love to hear what you think!


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Drone Lovesong

Now that the bees aren't flying much, I'm back to watching bees and beekeepers on YouTube until spring. (sigh)

Today, I found this video of Sam Comfort of Anarchy Apiaries on YouTube. In addition to bucking every established beekeeping practice known to man, he's also known for his bee songs and ukulele playing. Anyway, this tune tickled my fancy, so I thought I'd share.

Monday, November 4, 2013

"Newbee" Notes

My first summer is over, and I'm heading into winter. Overall, this first season has been a very good experience, and nothing catastrophic happened (no absconding, no wonky cross-combing, no dead queens). However, I've learned a lot (i.e., screwed up a lot), so I figured I'd pass on some things I've learned from my mistakes. Hopefully, others can benefit from my headaches.

Order bees early.

If one orders packages of southern-raised bees, one can probably place orders well into February or even March. Getting bees from my area of the country is a bit trickier because they're in short supply and high demand.

I had very specific requirements for the kind of bees I wanted. They had to be northern-bred because they'd have a better chance of surviving winter than packages from the South. They needed to be treatment-free and hygienic -- again, I was looking for survivor bees. I also wanted bees raised on natural comb.

This left me with about 3 or 4 beekeepers meeting my requirements. I started calling around the first week of February, and most of them were already sold out. Lesson learned: Plan ahead and order early.

Get recommendations before buying.  

This past winter, I got so excited about finding top bar nucs that met all my requirements -- and were available for order -- that I impulsively purchased them without finding out more about the apiary. Afterward, I read a number of negative reviews about them on a forum I belong to -- real horror stories about poorly laying queens, no queens, no bees, no refunds, etc. Let me tell you, I was sweating bullets until the minute I picked them up.

As it turned out, I was one of the blessed few who got really great bees and had a refund processed quickly, but I did agree with many others that the customer service could've been much better. So I have some mixed feelings about whether I would order from him again. Fortunately, I don't have to make that choice because the website of the apiary I purchased from is down, and their domain is up for sale.

I know my complaints sound petty when the worst thing that happened was me fretting all winter, wondering if I'd get my bees or be out a few hundred dollars. Still... I would've preferred to avoid the worry (and possibly worse) by ordering from someone with a good reputation. 

Have a backup hive.

Originally, I ordered 2 nucs so that I'd have backup resources if I needed them. Unfortunately, the week before I picked them up, the apiary I purchased from had a bear attack, and one of the nucs I'd ordered was destroyed. The other nuc was very strong and made lots of bees and comb. I let it grow as big as it could thinking that it would be better to have a huge, strong hive for next year's nectar flow and that I could make splits from swarm cells next year.

In hindsight, I wish I had split my colony this year -- maybe even two or three times -- because they could easily have handled it. I would've had smaller hives, but I'd have had plenty of backup resources if needed. I would've also had 3 or 4 hives instead of just one for the flow next year.

Now that I'm going into winter, I really, really wish I had more than one hive in the off-chance this one doesn't make it. And this is the super inconvenient part of beekeeping -- one has no idea if one will need bees until about late February or March. However, bees go on sale during the winter, and usually by the time you know if you need them, they're sold out -- especially if you want northern-bred, treatment-free, natural cell-sized bees like I do. So I'll probably order a package or nuc this winter just in case, but it would have been nice to not need to.

Always bring a smoker to inspections.

I try to use smoke sparingly because it bothers my eyes and I don't enjoy smelling like a wood fire. Plus, I've heard that smoke alters the flavor of the honey. Usually, I use a spray bottle containing water mixed with peppermint oil or sugar syrup to keep the bees calm. However, I've discovered that there are times when you absolutely need a smoker, and it's better to have one ready than to stop everything to light it.

Plus, I started positioning my smoker on top of the bars so that the smoke wafts over the hive during the inspection. Kind of keeps everyone calm without having to pump too much.

BTW, if I need to keep the smoker lit for a while, it helps to pack it tight. They burn out too quickly if they're not jammed full of fuel.

Sometimes, feeding really is ok.

I want the bees to take care of themselves. I want to interfere as little as possible. With that said, sometimes it's just not possible when building that first-year colony.

This spring, my little nuc was born in New York state, where it spent the season building the colony rather than putting away honey. By the time I got it, the spring flow in my area was pretty much over. We had two, maybe three, good weeks of clover and then a dearth. I didn't start feeding until about the end of July/early August, and by that time, they had eaten what few stores they had put away (we're talking about even uncapping the little honey there was) and stopped building.

Since I had no plans to take honey this year anyway, it really didn't matter if there was sugar mixed with honey. So I was kind of kicking myself in the pants that I didn't take someone's advice to feed until they had built out about 20 bars. Then by the time the fall flow came, I think they would have filled the hive. As it is, I still have about 12-15 empty bars.

Move drone comb to the end of the brood nest.

I followed a well-known TBH beekeeper's instructions to always keep comb in the exact order that the bees build it. I found that this led to a somewhat disorganized hive (IMHO) that didn't have a proper honey barrier. This meant that the queen was laying all over the place.

I took some different advice from another well-known apiarist to move drone comb to the end of the brood nest so that it could be filled with honey after the drones had emerged. After I did, my hive got much more organized.

Periodically, flip bars around.

The same respected beekeeper who said to keep bars in order, also recommended putting bars back into the hive the same way they came out. This means that whatever side is facing the front of the hive when you take it out should face the front when you put it back in. The reason for this is that natural comb isn't perfectly straight. It curves a bit, and the curves on one bar will follow the curves on the bar before it. So if you put things back the way they came out, you'll keep all the curves in line.

I was quite neurotic about following this advice. I even drew a line in black magic marker along the ends of my bars. That way, when I put the bars back, I knew they were in "right" if the black marks were all on the same end.

Recently, someone on a forum I follow recommended just the opposite. He said that when he sees the comb starting to curve, he puts it in the hive backward. This creates a less-than-ideal bee space between the combs, forcing the bees to "fix it." As a result, this beekeeper says he gets straighter, more uniform comb that can be easily swapped between his hives if necessary.

I don't know if this qualifies as a real "mistake" on my part, but I will definitely try flipping bars around periodically next year and see what happens.

Keep some really big salad tongs in my hive kit.

Super big tongs are the perfect tool for cleaning up collapse comb. I only had one comb collapse on me, but cleaning up sure would've been easier if I'd had the tongs in the kit with me. You can read about how I learned this lesson if you like.

Take better notes about what's happening in nature.

All the people I've met and all the books I've read say things like, "Do XYZ by such-and-such a date." In watching the bees, I don't think they really pay attention to the calendar at all. Next year, I plan to take better notes about what is going on in nature (temperatures, weather patterns, what's blooming, animals that are migrating/hibernating/waking up) and see if I can correlate all that info to what is happening in the hive.

I think I need to come up with an app. Anyone want to help program???

Trap wasps in the spring.

I neglected to set out any yellow jacket or paper wasp traps this spring and am now inundated with wasps. As soon as the weather started cooling off and forage began to disappear, they came nosing around the bee feeder and hive. While they have been unsuccessful in their attempt to rob my bees (who guard the hive ferociously), I don't want them around my kids. Seriously, there are hundreds of them in the yard swarming around the playset. I'm constantly removing wasp nests, and we've had three wasp-related incidents this summer. I don't need wasps stinging the neighbors' children or mine.

I'm sure that traps in the spring won't eradicate the wasps entirely, but I'm hoping to cut down on the number of wasp colonies in the area if I continue to place a bunch of traps every year when they are establishing their nests.

Stop panicking over every little thing.

Bees don't read the same books I do, and when they don't do things "the right way" I wig out. In every instance that I've panicked, they've been following their own schedule and needs. In every instance, they've been right, and things have worked out beautifully.


Maybe after the spring swarm season, I'll update this post. By then I'll have a full year of beekeeping under my belt. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Does Anyone Know What This Is?

I was going through my photos today when I saw some images of this plant/shrub.

I remember seeing it in bloom a few streets over around late August, and my bees were all over it. I've been thinking about what to plant next year, and this might make the list -- if I could only figure out what it is.

Does anyone have any thoughts? Thanks in advance!

*** Update ***

I've been told this plant is called Fallopia japonica or Japanese Knotweed. The World Conservation Union lists it as one of the top 100 most invasive species. So I probably won't plant any, but my bees sure do love it. (sigh)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Snug as a Bug in a...

The forecast for this week predicts daytime temps in the 50's and evening temps in the 30's. Friday is even supposed to get down to 27 degrees F. Brrr....

So I decided that I should probably start insulating the hive. This weekend, I plugged up two entrances and added some styrofoam on top under the roof.

There is a gap between the windows and cover, so I also put some styrofoam in there as well.

I will definitely strap the roof down and maybe wrap a tarp around it to cut down on wind. However, the bees are still coming and going, bringing in orange and red pollen, so I haven't done it yet because I like to peek on them. The styrofoam is easy to pop out of the windows if I want a look.

Recently, I watched a video (below) of Sam Comfort from Anarchy Apiaries talking about the top bar and Warre hives that he keeps. At one point, he shows a hive that he was prepping for winter (somewhere around the 0:52:00 mark.) He does very, very little to prep his northern hives. His approach seems to be if they make it -- great. If they don't, he doesn't want them anyway.

In theory, I suppose that I agree with him. The only way to get survivor bees is to breed survivors, but when I have only one hive, the philosophy is a lot harder to put into practice than to say. So to my bees, I say, "Stay warm and toasty, girls!"

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Wasp-Kickers

The cooler weather and lack of forage means that all the Hymenopterans are getting a bit desperate for forage. As a result, the hive has started attracting lots of unwanted attention from yellow jackets. However, my girls are more than up to the task of defending the hive. They guard it with such ferocious vigilance that I almost feel bad for would-be intruders because they haven't got a chance.

Here is a short video I took. A yellow jacket tries sneaking into the hive, but guard bees quickly take it out.

My Conversation Pieces

Before setting the hives up this spring, I checked with my immediate neighbors to make sure they were ok living so close to bees. I checked with them again a couple times over the summer, too, to make sure they weren't being pestered. They all gave me an enthusiastic "thumbs up."

Recently, though, I've run into a number of neighbors out for walks. Turns out that they've all noticed the hives from the street, but they weren't sure what they were. One person thought I might have been raising guinea pigs.

Once I explain that I'm keeping bees, everyone becomes very interested. Most of them strongly encourage "saving the honeybees." My favorite comment came from a visitor who told me, "Now when I see a bee in my yard, I will know it's yours and say 'hello' to it."

Nearly everyone wants to take a peek at the bees, and they're all extremely impressed by the hive and how prolific the girls are. Also, one thing people seem to really respond to is the natural comb. People who've seen hives are used to comb built on foundation. This type of comb has to fit the pattern machine-printed onto the foundation. As a result, it's very regular and orderly. By contrast, natural comb takes whatever shape the bees want to build, so it has a more organic, sculpted quality. At any rate, everyone who sees it is amazed by the bees' ability to build such beautiful, straight comb all on their own without any "help."

Large-celled comb that will be used for drones or honey

When I decided to keep bees in suburbia, one of the reasons I chose a KTBH was that it doesn't look like a hive. It looks like some sort of birdhouse (or guinea pig cage, apparently). I figured this hive style would be less likely to freak out passersby. Turns out that I was worried for nothing. Instead, the bees have turned into a great way to meet the people in my neighborhood and spread a bit of good honeybee PR.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Newest Feeder Experiment

If you've been following along, you know that I've played with a few feeder designs. Some of them include a bucket feeder (below, white container), some are just inverted jars with holes poked in the lids.

Of all the feeders I've tried thus far, the bucket feeder
has been the most popular, and it doesn't kill any bees.
All the others have had minor to major casualties.

I also tried a jar filled with grass/plant stalks like some people I saw on YouTube. I didn't like that at all. Drowned way too many bees for my liking.

I filled the jar with lemongrass and lavender.
It was like an irresistible siren call
drawing the bees to their sweet, sweet deaths.

Here is my newest experiment. I made a hole into a piece of wood that would accommodate a canning jar. I didn't have a hole cutter that big, so I used a drill to make holes around the edge of the circle. Then I pounded the wood out with a hammer and sanded. Next I stapled #8 hardware cloth onto the underside of the board.

#8 Hardware cloth is really hard to find. I eventually found it on Amazon.
The downside is that you have to buy a huge roll.
But I plan to use the rest of it building nucs.

Originally, I had planned for three jars (a quart jar in the center, and two pints alongside). In the end, though, I made only one hole because I felt that the wood might not be able to stand up to all the hammering.

The feeder took up four bars in the hive, but I have plenty of space right now, so that's not a big deal. An inverted quart jar of syrup sits in the hole. The jar has a plastic lid drilled full of tiny holes to let the syrup out. You can get plastic lids for canning jars in the canning section of a store like Walmart or your grocery store. I like the plastic lids because you don't have to mess around with tops and bands, and they don't rust. 

The screen holds up the jar; it also prevents bees from flying out, which makes replacing the jar very simple. One of the problems I had with using inverted jars that were raised by sticks or pieces of wood (to give the bees access to the drip holes), is that the bees were everywhere when I tried to replace the jar. It was tough not to squash them or drip all over them.

The gabled roof of the hive fits perfectly over the jar, so it's protected from the elements.

I still have to trim the ends of the feeder board, but it works.
The weather has been super chilly (mid-30's to low 40's at night, 60's during the day), so I'm not yet sure how well this feeder will work. Even the bucket feeder, which is usually swarmed with bees, had only a handful of girls on it, so it could be that they're just not interested in foraging much right now. However, I peeked through the observation window yesterday, and noticed that the new feeder had some takers. We shall see.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Save the Scraps!

I must have a dozen quilt books with ideas for using up the leftover bits from sewing projects. But now I have a new reason for saving scraps -- smoker fuel!

I enjoy sewing, and lately I've been trying to catch up on a number of quilting projects. What I've found is that leftover batting scraps make terrific smoker fuel. Batting is a layer of cotton used in quilts to provide a bit of insulation. The particular batting I use is 100% unbleached organic cotton, so it doesn't have any nasty chemicals or dyes that would harm the bees, and it makes a lot of nice, cool smoke.

I know that a lot of people have their own preferred smoker fuel ranging from sawdust, sumac berries, and pine needles to dried forest pony dung. However, I don't have a steady source of pony poo or sumac. I've tried pine needles, but they burn a bit fast for me. On the other hand, once I'm done with a quilt, I have a ton of cotton batting scraps. I used to compost them, but now I'm saving them for inspection days.

Smoker and scraps of cotton batting

P.S. Often, quilters use a spray-on adhesive to sandwich their quilt layers together before they do the actual quilting. If you can find a quilter to save her scraps for you (sorry if that was sexist), make sure any scraps you put in the smoker are glue-free.

Nuts & Honey

I first found Tangiers last December when my oldest son, after watching The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, decided he wanted to try Turkish Delight. Since then, it has become one of my favorite spots in West Hartford.

In addition to the tastiest falafel, Tangiers sells a wide variety of Middle Eastern groceries. This particular display always catches my eye when I go in. Isn't it beautiful? These are jars of nuts soaked in honey.

These stripey jars contain crushed nuts and seeds in honey.

Maybe this time next year, I'll be making my own jars of honey-preserved nuts. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Drone Strike

I titled today's entry "Drone Strike," but I think that's inaccurate. The reality is that the hive is striking -- against the drones.

Today, I peeked through the observation window, and it seemed significantly less crowded inside. My guess was that the girls have been kicking the boys to the curb this past week. In fact, as I peered through the hive, I actually saw a worker latched onto a drone's leg and trying to pull him out. He seemed desperate to get away.

Although I'm still seeing goldenrod and asters by the road, they seem to be winding down. I guess the bees want to save their resources.

The comb must be quite full and heavy because there was lots of new attachment comb, and one bit of cross comb connecting a couple of bars. I suppose getting those two apart in the spring is going to be a mess, but I'll deal with it then rather than risk losing two bars of honey now. Hopefully, this decision will not turn out to be a monumental mistake.

One other thing I noticed is that the sound of the hive has changed. Their buzzing is normally quite loud. Today, the sound was a low, almost purr-like, hum. Don't know what that means, but it seemed noteworthy.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Inspection Notes: Comb Collapse

Inspection Date: 9/20

It's been 7 days since the last inspection, but I had put two new bars (Bars 9 and 17) in last week, and I wanted to see if they had been drawn. Bar 9 was completely drawn out. Bar 17 was about 2/3 drawn. The bees had started two new bars (21 and 22) ones as well.

BTW, if you read my last inspection notes, I've changed from sticky notes to pushpins as a visual cue because they don't fall off quite so easily. But I don't have as many colors to choose from, so i've modified my color coding system:

  • Yellow: Honey
  • Green: Worker brood
  • Blue: Drone brood
  • White: Empty bar
  • Red: Queen cells

I noticed that egg laying is still going on, but at a vastly reduced rate. Most of the comb is being given over to honey storage. I still don't have any completely capped combs, but it looks like the girls are working on it. At any rate, there is more capped comb than last week.

Bar 10, shown above, was a real bummer. It used to be a full bar, but the rest of the comb had dropped off. I'm not sure why. The weather wasn't particularly hot this week. Neither was the comb super new. You can see how the girls are already trying to rebuild it.

Peeking into the hive, I saw the fallen comb standing straight up, and the bees had started attaching it to the hive walls. I debated whether or not to take it out. It seemed ok, but in the end, I decided to remove it to avoid any future complications that I, in my newbie ignorance, could not possibly foresee or imagine.

Fallen comb

I've always been bad in crises. I do not deal well with cuts or blood or puke or anything nasty. Sticking my hand into a hive to pull out a fallen comb sort of counts as a crisis to me. I wasn't entirely sure I had the wherewithal for it. Turns out, I have nerves of steel, at least in cases involving bees.

Cleaning up fallen comb still isn't the easiest or pleasantest task, though. The comb is crawling with bees, so just finding a place to grab onto without squishing them is impossible. Then, when you gently, oh, so gently, try to grab the comb, there is nothing to hold onto. It just collapses between your fingers into mush, spilling sticky honey everywhere and attracting more bees. And the bees are pissed.

After two fruitless efforts, I hit on the idea of super big salad tongs to grasp and lift the comb out, a tool which worked beautifully, I might add. (You'll forgive me if there are no action shots of this process. Capturing the moment wasn't really top of mind for me.)  I'm even considering packing the tongs into my hive kit as a "just in case" tool.

Multipurpose salad tongs. Who knew?

I cut out a little bit of the capped honey so that my husband and kids could taste it (amazing!), but the rest of it went into a bowl for the bees to clean out.

By this point, of course, the bees were tremendously annoyed, so rather than continuing the inspection, closing up for the day seemed a more prudent course of action. I'll use the observation window to check their progress on rebuilding that collapsed comb, but this might even be the last inspection for the season. I'll keep feeding them, but they seem to be doing all right. No reason to keep harassing them, I think.

Bowl full of bees. In some parts of the world, fried bees are a delicacy,
but I'm good with just the honey.

I really did take only the tiniest bit of honey -- about a cup of it. It was awesome, though. Real honey and not capped sugar syrup. So yummy on a slice of toast. My oldest son is already licking his lips in anticipation of a spring/summer harvest!

A bee in hand is worth...
well, I'm not sure exactly, but I've got a lot of them.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Bees, Blood, and Bodily Waste

Recently, I was surprised to see my bees working a bowl of Cheerios. However, I've since learned that bees seem to like all kinds of weird things. My friend, Jodi over at Curious Acorn, told me that her bees work eggshells. I've heard other people say how much their bees like water that has run off from their compost. This morning, though, I learned something completely new.

A blogger I follow shared a post on honeybees that collect blood and urine. Whew! That's a new one to me. I don't think I'll ever look at honey the same way again, though it won't stop me from slathering it on my toast. However, my kids are pretty picky eaters as it is, so I think that's a fact I'm going to keep under my hat for awhile. ;-)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Great Bee Bummer

If you know me, you know I love TED talks. I've been a big fan for years, and this TED talk is too important not to share.

Marla Spivak is a professor of entymology at the University of Minnesota and is responsible for developing the Minnesota Hygienic line.  In this talk, you'll learn about:

  • "Tomato ticklers"
  • Social healthcare in the beehive
  • The interrelated causes that killing off bees
  • What people can do to help (Hint: Plant lots of bee-friendly flowers and stop using poisons!)
One thing to note is that this TED Talk was originally filmed in 2010, though it was only just released this September in 2013. That means Dr. Spivak's figures at the end of the video are 3 years out of date. So when she says that 30% of hives are dying out every year, that figure is a little off. Per a NY Times article, the figure was closer to 40% to 50% for 2012. That means that we are quickly reaching that tipping point Dr. Spivak describes. As a society, we really need to act quickly to save the bees -- not just honeybees, but all of the 20,000 species that inhabit our world.

In the Company of Bees

The past few mornings have been kind of chilly (in the 40's). The bees must think it's getting cold, too, because they're getting a bit sloppy with the housekeeping. Over the summer, I never saw any dead bees on the ground in front of the hive. I used to wonder why until I saw a few bees carrying out the dead. They always flew far, far away, up over the trees and out of sight with the bodies. Now that it's getting colder, I think they make it to the door and say, "To heck with that! No way I'm going out in this weather!"

Dead bee on ground near entrance.

The girls have also been ravenous lately.1 Yesterday morning, I put out another gallon of 2-1 syrup for them. Within a couple of hours, they had drained approximately a third of it and were scrambling all over each other to get the rest of it. I think they may have picked up the odor of leftover sugar syrup wafting from the kitchen, too, because they mobbed the door, trying to get in. A few of them actually slipped inside, so I spent a good deal of time on our honeybee catch & release program as well.

A very makeshift operation going on here.

Within minutes, the new feeder was mobbed.

Anyway, I wasn't keen on seeing them fight, so I whipped up a couple other feeders for them and sat down to watch for awhile.2 Maybe they liked my purplish top, or maybe they were attracted by the scent of sugar syrup that had splashed onto me, but a number of the girls appeared just as interested in me as in the feeders this morning. I gladly bared my hands and arms for them to land on, which reminded me of a beautiful (albeit sad) passage from one of Sylvia Plath's bee poems.
Bare-handed, I hand the combs.
The man in white smiles, bare-handed,
Our cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet,
The throats of our wrists brave lilies. 
Look at her proboscis. Adorable.

Unlike Sylvia, though, I didn't have the sense of anything frightening or dangerous. This was no suicide. Instead, it felt more of a moment of communion, an intersection of different lives sharing the same space and time for a second. And unlike the poor beekeeper in that poem, the bees did not sting me. Instead, they only explored my skin with their ticklish little bee feet.

I'm so sad that winter is almost here. I'm going to miss their company.

1 Yes, I've been using outdoor feeders, so it's quite possible that not all the bees are mine, but there are very few non-honeybee visitors.
2 In case you were curious, by yesterday evening, nearly the entire white bucket (1 gallon) was empty. The tall clear plastic container (about 2 gallons) was half empty. And somewhere between 1/3 to 1/2 of the 1/2 gallon glass jar had been drained as well. I have some very thirsty girls.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Inspection Notes and New Record-Keeping System

During my inspection on July 30, I noticed that there was very little honey in my hive -- either capped or uncapped. In fact, there had been almost no honey in the hive for at least a few weeks. So I began feeding 2-1 syrup, as much as they would take. And wow! have they been chugging it down. They would make any frat boy proud.

Today, I went into the hive again, and I was gratified to see my investment in sugar has paid off. My last inspection revealed that the girls were starting a collection of uncapped honey, but the difference between last week and this is unbelievable. There is a still only a bit of capped honey (syrup) on a number of bars, but there is uncapped honey all over the place.

During the last inspection report, I mentioned inserting an empty bar between the brood and honey area. In just 7 days, the bar has been completely drawn out and packed with brood and honey.

I also played around with a new record-keeping system. In the past, I've tried using a chart like the sample Christy Hemenway provides in her book on top bar beekeeping. I've tried making notes in an application on my iPhone. I've tried a couple other things as well, but none of them worked for me. Today, I was putting away some sticky tabs, and I got the idea to use them to keep track of what I was seeing. Basically, as I inspected each bar, I tacked on a sticky:
  • Green for new/empty comb
  • Yellow for honey
  • Pink for worker brood (because they're girls)
  • Blue for drone brood (because they're boys)

Because I'm a very visual person, this system actually worked pretty well for me. In the image below, I've numbered the bars.

  • Bars 1-4: I didn't inspect these because the bees were very unhappy once I started getting into the brood area. I wasn't seeing anything untoward, so I decided to close up.
  • Bars 5-11: Lots of worker brood in various stages on 5, 6, 6, 8, 10 and 11. I inserted a new bar (9) because it seemed like Austeja was running out of room. I suppose I should've put it after 10, but I didn't like the comb on 11 very much, so I decided to slip it in between better combs. Bar 11 is the brand new comb that was built out in a week (I think, because, like I said, those other tracking systems weren't working for me. I kept getting messed up.)
  • Bars 12- 20: All of these bars are at least 50% honey. The bars with only yellow stickers are at least 75% - 100% honey. The bars with multiple stickers are mostly uncapped honey, but they have some capped brood comb on them. No eggs or larvae, though. It appears that the girls are letting any existing brood on them hatch and then filling the empty comb with honey. Bar 17 has no sticker because it is another empty bar that I slipped in.
  • Bar 21: This is a brand new bar that's just starting to be drawn. Currently, there is palm-sized bit of comb on it. Cool!
The one big drawback to this new system is that the sticky tabs don't want to stick. It was a struggle to keep them on, so I think I may invest in some colored pushpins before the next inspection.

So I'm so relieved that everything looks good. Although I didn't check all the bars, I didn't see any dreaded queen cells. Lots of honey being stored away -- should be able to hit that 55lb goal soon before things get too cold.

Bees and Neighbors

The crash of the kitchen door yesterday was followed by angry accusatory wailing from a 7-year old who lives across the street.
"Your bee stung me!!!"
When I was a kid, my dad put mud on stings, but I was already in the kitchen, so I used a paste of baking soda and vinegar to draw out/neutralize the poison.

While I worked on my "patient," I ascertained that he and my son had been nowhere near the bees. My son's friend was stung while playing on the swings in the backyard. Unfortunately, the playset has been a favorite spot  this year for wasps building nests. We've already removed about four nests this summer. The real clincher, of course, was that there was no stinger in the wound, which I showed him.

 I decided to take the opportunity to do a little honeybee PR. I explained that:

  • He was stung by a wasp and not by "my bees."
  • Wasps do not have barbed stingers, but honeybees do. This fact, btw, was a source of endless fascination. He had all kinds of questions about what happens to bees after the stinger comes out.
  • Bees don't want to sting people because they die afterward. So bees attack only if people are bothering their hives, but wasps can sting over and over, so they can be more aggressive.
After a few minutes, he exclaimed that the vinegar and baking soda "felt great" and his ankle no longer hurt. (Another confirmation that the damage was done by a wasp because bee stings hurt like mad!) So I wiped the paste off, but I still applied some Benadryl cream and a bag of ice for the swelling. I also called his mom to explain the situation and how I had treated, to ask if she would like me to give him a Tylenol, and to confirm that he didn't have any allergies. Fortunately, she was very cool about it. 

Afterward, I went outside to check the playground. Sure enough, I found a wasp nest in the the playground area. There is a platform with a slide, and the nest was right under the platform. Normally we don't use anything poisonous or toxic in the yard (especially around the bees), but I'm also a mom, and anything that can hurt my babies must die. So the nest got a huge blast of wasp killer, and I didn't feel the slightest bit guilty about it.

When our neighbor kid left, I sent him home with the rest of the tube of Benadryl. And I called again later just to check on his progress and let his mom know that I did find and destroy the nest. She said he was fine and that she appreciated the Benadryl since she didn't have any. It was all good.

The event has really highlighted for me the importance of maintaining good will with the neighbors. Even though my bees were in no way involved in this incident, I can see how easy it is to blame them when someone gets stung by something. While my neighbor across the street is just overall very cool and awesome, I don't think that it hurts to do anything and everything that one can to defuse potential situations before they occur.

Do you have bees? Have you encountered any sticky situations with the neighbors? I'm really interested in hearing what happened and how you dealt with it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Queen Honeybee Mating Flight in Slow Motion

When the air is wine and the wind is free
and the morning sits on the lovely leaf,
and sunlight ripples on every tree
Then love-in-air is the thing for me
I’m a bee,
I’m a ravishing, rollicking, young queen bee,
That’s me.
I wish to state that I think it’s great,
Oh, it’s simply rare in the upper air,
It’s the place to pair
With a bee.

from Song of the Queen Bee by E.B. White

When people ask me about the lifespan of a bee, they're always surprised by the variability depending on what type of bee we're talking about. Queens can live for years. Workers live about 6-7 weeks during the summer, a bit longer in winter. But the drones -- either they die during mating or they get evicted from the hive when the weather cools down. In my opinion, it's better to burn out than fade away, but that's another topic.

So, as the title of this post promised, here is a link to a clip from a new documentary called More Than Honey, which shows a drone mating with a queen bee in mid-air. (BTW, I highly recommend watching the movie trailer, too.)

The filming of this just amazing. I read on Smithsonian that:
To get shots like this, the filmmakers used mini-helicopters equipped with ultra-high speed cameras (the clip above has 300 frames-per-second) and a so-called “bee-whisperer,” who carefully tracked the activity of 15 different hives so the crew could move them to a filming studio when a particular event was imminent. “The mating queen was the biggest challenge: we spent days on a scaffolding tower attracting drones with queen pheromones,” ... “Her wedding flight, which was 36 seconds, took more than ten days—and we only actually saw it one and a half times."

Can't wait to see the whole documentary! 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Drone Comb? This Time of Year?

Until yesterday, I hadn't done any inspections inside the hive for two weeks. When I opened it up yesterday, I saw that there was an awful lot of drone comb -- at least two bars of it. I really hadn't been expecting that now that nighttime temperatures have started dropping to the 40's.

I also noticed that the queen was laying eggs in the honey area and a bar that had barely been started two weeks ago was nearly fully built out. There were also lots of eggs and brood in the worker comb. Could they be running out of space? Is that why they're raising so much drone comb -- in preparation for a swarm?  On the other hand, the brood area is still filled with lots of brood and eggs; it hasn't been backfilled with honey, so that has to be a good sign that they're sticking around, right?

Lots of drone comb and a tiny bit of capped honey near the bar

Along the edges of a couple bars, I saw some larvae in cells that looked like they might have been queen cups, but I'm not entirely sure if they actually were. I was hoping they weren't because I was still seeing lots of eggs. Queens are supposed to stop laying prior to swarming, right? However, this morning, I found out that the key phrase in the previous sentence is supposed to stop, but most people find that they don't really stop.

This is the problem with reading about beekeeping. All the books discuss ideal situations. Nobody talks about the weird things that happen in reality. So now I'm on edge, planning another inspection mid-week just in case. I know I sound obsessed with the idea of swarming, but this past spring, I talked to a number of people who told me their hives swarmed about this time of year. Now I'm paranoid, of course, because I just have one hive. If I had two, I could adjust, but now I'm dependent on this one making it through the winter. (Ok, let's forget the fact that I still plan to order two more in the spring, I still want this one to make it.) Urgh. I feel caught in a cycle of inaction and indecision. Will they or won't they? Do I or don't I?

A couple of inspections ago, I noticed that there wasn't any capped honey at all and very little uncapped honey for that matter. To help them put up stores, I've been feeding a 2-1 sugar syrup since then. The thought was that the lower water content would make it easier to cap, and they would be less likely to swarm than if I fed them a simple 1-1 syrup. Yesterday, I was gratified to see that there was quite a bit of uncapped honey and even some capped honey along the tops of the bars, but still not enough for the winter.

Klutzy me, I accidentally broke some capped honeycomb off one of the bars. It just about broke my heart to see that hard-gotten honey pour out into the hive like that. I put the comb by the bee feeder, though, and they cleaned it right up. The wreckage did tick them off a bit, though, at the time.

So at the end of the inspection, I decided that I wouldn't wait so long for the next inspection. Also, I plan to keep feeding a 2-1 syrup as long as they'll take it so that they can continue putting away stores. Plus, I added one more bar between the brood and honey areas because I can tell by the "sweat sock" smell that they're bringing in goldenrod nectar, and the queen seems to be crossing the honey barrier looking for space. Even though it seems late in the season to be adding bars, I figure it probably won't do too much harm either. If they don't build on it, I guess I can always take it out before closing up for winter.

Fingers crossed that I haven't screwed up too much.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ah, Penny, Brown Penny, Brown Penny

Today, I took a quick look to see how the girls are doing. It wasn't a full inspection inside the hive. I was just observing the entrance to see what they were up to. They were quite busy bringing in pollen and nectar, and everything was sunny and lovely until an overzealous guard flew right into my hair.

Beehive hair from
As usual, I had my hair pulled back into my regular beekeeping hairdo. I know what you're thinking, but no, it wasn't a beehive. ;-) When I visit the bees, I just pull everything back into a loose knot so that they don't think I'm a bear or something. I guess that I should probably rethink that particular 'do (or at the very least consider a hat) since she still managed to get tangled up in my hair.

Needless to say, I sprinted away from the hive hoping she would fly out, but she didn't. That's when I yanked out the elastic holding my hair together, and a lot of head shaking commenced. For the record, I think that should be categorized under "what not to do while beekeeping" because things only got worse from there.

During this whole ordeal, all I could think of (quite inappropriately) was the line from Yeats' poem "Brown Penny":
I am looped in the loops of her hair.
Actually, that's not quite true. Periodically, a plea flickered like a strobe light in my brain -- "For the love of mercy, please, not in the eye!"

In the end, I did get stung, right along the temple. It was a totally nasty wound that bled, turned red, and hurt like a ...
Beep! Please, excuse us for a moment. We are experiencing some attitudinal difficulties with this blogger.
And now back to our regular programming.
... After scraping out the stinger, the bee was still alive and buzzing in my hair. I tried releasing her, but she wouldn't go until I brushed her out. Although I now have some swelling and a vicious headache, she fared much worse, I'm sad to say. You can see her insides hanging out here.

So I'm quite curious about this incident as it's the second time I've been stung in the past five days. (Saturday morning, I got it in the thigh.) Both times, I was doing something I've done a hundred times over the summer with no ill consequences -- just standing/sitting still off to the side of the hive. I was wearing light colors both times. I wasn't sweaty or smelling funky either time. So why the sudden change? Is it the weather? Are bees more defensive when they sense that summer is winding down and autumn is about to start? Are they protecting themselves from would-be robbers? Or could it be the new queen? Could she have mated with drones that have provided less "less friendly" genetic material?

If anyone has any thoughts on this question, I would love to hear what you think.

P.S. A few hours have passed, and I thought I'd add an update on the sting. The swelling has spread over my forehead and down my nose alongside my right eye. It's not hugely noticeable, but it's enough to smooth things out. Not that I had any real lines, but now I have no lines at all. Hmmm... this is better than botox; it's beetox.