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.