Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year

Update: fixed link to PDF

You can find instructions for making this snowflake at:

Here's some Christmas-time silliness for you (though I wouldn't blame you if you skipped straight to the end.)

To the tune of Ding, Dong Merrily on High

Ding, dong happy in the hive
The winter bees are clustering
Ding, dong they are still alive
And new-laid brood are mustering
Bu-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-uzz, Long live her majesty, the queen
Bu-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-uzz, Long live her majesty, the queen

E'en so their beekeeper
lets fondant be a hungen'
and prays "oh, please, heaven, please"
may spring soon be a sprungen
Bu-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-uzz, Long live her majesty, the queen
Bu-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-uzz, Long live her majesty, the queen

Pray guard your remaining honey stores, 
you frugal winter workers
and warm your brood until the spring
you Carniolan nurses
Bu-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-uzz, Long live her majesty, the queen
Bu-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-uzz, Long live her majesty, the queen

Friday, December 19, 2014

Mead Categories

I've been curious about the various types of mead, but nobody has answered my questions well enough until now. (I suppose I could've done a Google or Wikipedia search, but it wouldn't have been have as much fun as walking around with a mystery. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.)

Anyhoo, my DH gave me a copy of Ken Schramm's book The Compleat Meadmaker awhile ago, and I just started reading it. [Note: beekeeping is the gateway hobby. You start by keeping bees (and if you're a TBH person, this probably involves taking up some basic woodworking, too), but then you begin gardening (or expanding if you already have a garden). Next, you start researching wild flowers and trees. Then it's finding recipes for honey, candlemaking, cooking up beauty potions and whatever else you can do with wax. Eventually, one comes around to mead, too.)

I'm still only up to page 20, so I won't discuss the book, but I do like how he defines all the various types of mead. I won't list all the types, but here is a basic description of the kinds that I normally see.
  • Traditional mead: Generally describes mead made only with honey, yeast, and water. However, some people contend that Anglo-Saxon post-Renaissance meads contains small amounts of additional flavorings
  • Show mead: A distinction made in some competitions. Mead made with only honey, yeast, and water -- no additional flavorings
  • Sack mead, or sack: A strong, sweet mead
  • Melomel: A mead made with fruit
    • Cyser: A melomel made with apples, apple juice, or cider
    • Pyment: A melomel made with grapes or grape juice. Can also refer to a wine that has been fermented with or sweetened with honey
      • Hippocras: A pyment that has spices added to it
  • Metheglin: Mead fermented or flavored with herbs or spices
  • Braggot, bragot, or bracket: Mead made with malted grain, usually malted barley
He also defines some terms for mead used in ancient/foreign cultures, but these terms are the ones I encounter most frequently. It's nice to know what I've been drinking.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

“In the depth of winter... within me there lay an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus

Sorry for the long silence. I've been distracted by a lot of things -- making Halloween costumes, Thanksgiving stuff, Christmas events and parties, gift shopping, company, etc. With back-to-back holidays from October through December, it's always a hectic time for me. However, things are well in hand now, so I can actually enjoy the last week before Christmas.

Ok, not exactly a bee photo, but it's proof that I
haven't been sitting idly by. ;-)
Here is the little one in her nearly finished costume.
(Elsa has to have sparkles, right?)
This one always picks out something fun. He has
to make up for his pragmatic older brother who
can't see the point of trick-or-treating when he can enjoy an
enormous bowl of candy in the comfort of his own home.
Before that, though, comes my favoritest day of the year -- the Winter Solstice! It's probably some vestigial streak of barbarian/pagan left in me that loves this day so much. Not because it's the darkest day of the year but because I know that from here on out the days are going to get longer and longer. Hooray! My annual plague of melancholy that lasts between Thanksgiving and Christmas is over. I can shake off the blahs and start looking forward to spring! Glorious spring!

Now that I have bees, the winter solstice is doubly special. The colony won't really explode in size until mid to late February, but that growth begins now. Shortly after the winter solstice (it could be the day after or within a couple of weeks after), the queen begins to lay eggs in preparation for spring. 

Of course, the next 6-8 weeks (until the maple and willows start blooming) will be kind of a tricky time for the bees in this northern climate. Up until now, the adults have been getting by keeping the hive temperature about 70 degrees F. With brood in the nest, though, they'll have to raise temps to 95 degrees F. This means an accelerated consumption of resources during the coldest part of the year when there is nothing coming into the hive.

Enjoying some sunshine

So far, my hives are all alive and, I hope, well. The electric fence has done its job keeping out all unwanted Pooh bears. However, I've been concerned over our unusually warm weather because the bees have been pretty active. I worry about them eating more honey than they would if they were huddled up in a mass. I dare not open the the hives, but this past week, we had weather in the mid 40's and all of the colonies were making cleansing flights. Persephone and Peach had the most activity. Not sure if that means they're the strongest or simply the most foolhardy. ;-) I also took a very quick peek through Austeja's observation window. The girls were clustered on the first couple of bars, and seemed to have ample honey. We'll see what they look like in a couple of months.

In any case, we're entering the homestretch. Fingers crossed. Spring is just ahead. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lessons Learned

Last autumn, I jotted down some beekeeping lessons that I learned (mostly the hard way) over the summer. I enjoyed the exercise because it really helped solidify what I did right/wrong (mostly wrong), so I figured I should repeat the exercise this year.

Lesson 1: Use a combination of narrower bars and spacers.
There are some things that I changed up this year, e.g., getting rid of observation windows and screened bottoms. Overall, I can't say whether these changes were good or bad. Mostly, they seem to be preferential decisions. However, one thing that I will definitely change next year is the width of my bars. When I first started researching top bars, I heard some people say to use 1 1/4" bars in the brood area with 1/4" spacers for the honey section. Other people said it was ok to just split the difference and use 1 3/8" bars for brood and honey. At that time, I had never seen the inside of a hive, I had no clue about how and when to use spacers, and I didn't really understand the finer points of hive management. I was generally worried that I'd screw things up, so I figured I'd play it safe and joined the 1 /3/8" camp.

However, now that my second season has ended, I feel like I get it now. I know how to recognize comb that will be used for drones or honey, and I'm getting the hang of management a bit more.  Going forward next year, I plan to use 1 1/4" bars with spacers. Having narrower bars, I've heard, encourages bees to build smaller cells. They also can fit more combs in the same amount of space. More comb = more brood. More brood = more honey. Having smaller, closer combs, I've heard, also improves overwintering because bees are in a tighter cluster.

Lesson 2: Forget any advice that doesn't instruct someone to just watch the bees.
I feel this should be a no-brainer, but it's something I learned the hard way.

Last year, I was told to feed a newly installed colony until it had drawn 20 bars. I didn't follow that advice, and things didn't work out like I'd hoped. This year, I thought to follow that advice, but it backfired again because my bees started swarming within a month of installation. I guess I had an amazing flow happening, and that extra syrup (plus a lack of attention) sent them into swarm mode.

So this is my new approach: Watch the bees. Let their activity rule any decisions I make.

Lesson 3: Hands-off does not mean hands-free.
I hear so many people say that they want TBHs because they want to leave their bees alone. Yes, TBHs are less intrusive, but that doesn't mean that they don't require management -- especially during a flow.

I installed my packages toward the end of May this year, and then I was horribly busy after that. I figured that since they were new packages, I'd be able to get away with neglecting them for awhile since they had to draw comb and fill it. Unfortunately, I couldn't have been more wrong. Within two weeks, each colony had drawn 8 combs. Within 3 or 4, they were ready to swarm.

Usually, top bar people will say that one should open a hive every 10-14 days during a flow. I've left my hives alone for several weeks at a time during a dearth, and I will probably still do that. However, during a flow, I've pretty much decided to make time for them at least once a week from now on.

Lesson 4: Clean up spills immediately. 
Urgh. I've learned so many lessons about feeding this year. For example, one day, I spilled some syrup on top of the bars of one of my hives. Since I didn't have any water with me, I figured I'd clean it up after topping up all of the feeders. Such a bad idea. It took less than a minute for a robbing frenzy to begin. I will never make that lazy mistake again.

Lesson 5: Read and reread.
The winter before my first beekeeping season, I researched TBHs non-stop for months. It was great preparation for keeping bees. However, this summer, I started rereading some books, and I picked up so much more than I did the first time.

Lesson 6: Don't be afraid to try something new.
Necessity has forced me to do so many new things this year. I've learned how to use a table saw, how to install a package (I ordered nucs last year), how to do splits, etc. I'm kind of terrible at some of these things. For instance, while I can piece together some pretty perfect quilt points, hive building is definitely not my forte. My Warre, in particular, resembles something constructed by The Cat in the Hat. However, overall, I'm pleased with my new skills, and the bees just keep doing their thing despite me.

As a side note, we had a lot of guys stopping by this spring/summer either to work on our house, deliver packages, give us quotes for stuff, etc. Anyway, they always express surprise when they see me at the table saw sporting hearing protectors, goggles, a flowy skirt and a cherry-printed apron with ruffles. LOL! Who says girls can't use shop tools? My husband's just delighted to have me on his side in case of a zombie apocalypse.

Anyhoo, these are the lessons that stick out for me right now. I'm sure there are more that I've already forgotten. Oh well, I guess I'll get to relearn them next year.

How about you? What lessons have you learned?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sweet Dreams

About a week ago, I read that honey is a common sleep remedy (or at least a component of sleep remedies) in a number of cultures. Some people, like retired pharmacist Mike McInness, author of The Hibernation Diet and The Honey Diet1, claim that honey causes the liver to create/store (I don't know, I keep using the wrong word and my husband very annoyingly corrects me every time) glycogen, which fuels the brain at night. I have no clue if this is true because I haven't read enough (or any) of the science behind these claims, but I figure if grandmas around the world have been using it for thousands of years, there might be something to it.

Being a rotten sleeper, I gave it a try. I took a tablespoon of raw honey2 before bed. Ugh. That much honey straight up and all at once bothered my stomach a little, but it completely knocked me out for the night. The next morning, I hit the snooze button and woke up an hour and a half later. I couldn't even get out of bed because I had that drowsy, groggy feeling I get after taking Benadryl. (BTW, I had a fleeting suspicion all that sugar might have induced some sort of diabetic coma, but I was wrong. Eventually, I fell out of bed.)

The next night, I tried a tablespoon of honey in some herbal tea about 45 minutes before bedtime. Again, I zonked out, but had to wake up in the middle of the night for the toilet. On the other hand, I fell straight to sleep again until morning. (Sorry if that was TMI.) Again, lots of issues waking up in the morning, too.

Since then, I've been experimenting with different amounts of honey and different delivery vehicles, like whole-wheat toast, cheese, fruit... but no liquids! A few times, I forgot to take any honey at all, and I was super restless those nights. Also, it seems if I had too little honey, I would sleep really well for a few hours, but then I'd be up again in the middle of the night.

My sweet spot (har, har) seems to be about 2 teaspoons -- enough to put me down for the count, but not enough that I can't yank myself out of bed in the morning.

My husband, the skeptical doctor, thinks I'm simply experiencing a placebo effect, but I've taken things like melatonin in the past, and they've had zero effect. So I wonder if any of you would be willing to try taking some honey before bedtime and share your results (if any). Just think of it as a contribution to science! :-)

1I haven't actually read either of these books, so I can't recommend them. If you've read them, though, please, let me know what you think!

2 I want to be clear that I used 100% raw honey. I don't know if it matters that it was raw. However, the stuff one finds in plastic bears the supermarkets isn't real honey, so if you use that, I doubt it will work.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mike's Beehives

Mike, one of the guys in my local beekeeping club, builds hives, and I wanted to share his work. You may say, "These are Langs! Why are you posting these on a top bar site?" However, they are really well-crafted, and I admire quality work of any kind. These hives caught my attention in particular since I personally build the world's most slip-shod hives. (BTW, I should note that Mike will build anything you want, so if you want a TBH or Warre, he can do that, too.)

This hive (which is currently pending patent) features:
  • Glass observation windows on the front and side. Glass is flush with the wall on the inside of the hive. He told me how they were fixed in place, but I forgot -- some sort of pin and glue, I think.
  • Slide out panels made of some sort of very thick plastic material. (I kind of like this because they slide very easily and look like they won't ever warp or scratch the windows.)
  • The slide out panels are right up against the windows, which is nice, too. A lot of hives with windows that I've seen have some space between the window and cover that has to be insulated in winter.
  • Vented quilt cover. The bottom of the cover is made of a fine-mesh screen.
  • Vented roof
  • Dovetail joints for stability and sturdiness
  • He can provide them painted or unpainted (Good news for nuts like me who graffiti their hives. ;-)
The quilt and vented roof remind me quite a lot of a Warre design, which is another reason why I liked this hive so much. If my shop skills ever improve, I'd love to make these slide-out windows on a Warre... Or maybe, I'll just order some boxes from Mike.

Anyway, if you are interested in contacting him, you can do so at Alternatively, you can find Mike's Beehives at:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Honey Tasting with Marina Marchese

Updated: Made some corrections.

This past Saturday, my local bee club had a wonderful opportunity to learn honey tasting from Marina Marchese of Red Bee Honey. Marina is certified by the National Registry of Experts of Sensory Analysis of Honey in Italy and is an expert in single-origin honey. She is also the founder of the American Honey Tasting Society.

Marina at the tasting tables
Marina is a terrific spokesperson for honey. She is articulate, smart, beautiful, effortlessly chic, and elegant. Most importantly, I've never met a person so passionate about honey. Her mission is to educate people about honey so that they will understand what a precious and rare treasure it really is. She does this by helping people discover the diversity of floral sources in honey from various locales.

Marina's books
Here are some notes I jotted down from the morning session:

On the Value of Honey

  • The Egyptians understood how valuable honey was. When Carter discovered King Tut's tomb, it was filled with things he would need during the afterlife. This include jars of fine wine, olive oil, and... honey.
  • One honeybee works her whole life to make a mere 1/12th tsp of honey. Good quality honey is rare. It's hard to make. It's hard to find. It really should cost as much as caviar.
  • In order to get the public to appreciate honey the way it should be appreciated, they really have to be educated on the real value of it.
The Difference between Honey Judging and Honey Tasting
  • The UK has a National Honey Show every October that lasts three days. It highlights a wide range of honeys from different floral sources. It's a spectacular event that beekeepers should attend at least once if they can. During the show, participants can submit samples of 4-6 jars (all jars are part of just 1 entry, not separate entries) which are judged. Judges put them in categories by color. They also judge features such as cleanliness (no fingerprints, debris, foam, bee parts), water content (17-18%), and clarity. However, they pay very little attention to flavor unless it is spoiled. Also, no crystallization is allowed, which means that many of the entries have undergone a bit of pasteurization -- a process that diminishes the flavor of honey. Unfortunately, this judging process means that very fine honeys can be overlooked for something as trivial as a fingerprint on a jar or an incorrect label. 
  • By contrast, honey tastings are a common event in Italy where she trained. Honeys are lined up by floral source in wine glasses, and they are sampled just like fine wines. Specially trained honey sommeliers conduct the tastings, and they're looking for sensory qualities in the honey like flavor, aroma, and color. Crystallization is fine as long as the crystals are not jarring to the senses. The emphasis in tasting is on quality and character rather than quantity and consistency.
  • If one is interested in attending an Italian honey festival (sagra del miele), which is one way to experience once of these tastings, it's best to travel in spring.  They occur all over the country.
You know you're in for a good time when you walk
into a room to this set-up.
  • Marina discussed the term "terroir" at length. In French, it means "soil, earth," and it invokes a sense of place. 
  • There are many foods that have terroir, foods that identified with one particular location and which don't taste the same if produced anywhere else. Some examples are Champagne, Vermont maple syrup, Chianti, Kentucky bourbon, Idaho potatoes, and Georgia vidalia onions.
  • There are also many honeys with terroir: Tupleo honey from Georgia and Florida, Maine blueberry honey, New Zealand manuka honey, California sage, North Carolina sourwood, lavender honey from Provence.
  • Often the foods or honey may not be grand. Sometimes the story behind the item is the attraction.
  • Terroir is shaped by a host of environmental factors like climate, rain, soil, weather, sun, mountain slopes, etc.
  • Environmental factors affect floral sources, which in turn affects bee behavior. It also determines whether there can even be any honey during a particular season.
  • During a tasting, we are tasting the terroir of the honey.
The Importance of Tasting
  • Allows us to identify defects in the honey like high water content and adulteration.
  • Ensures the quality and safety of honey.
  • It opens conversations with the consumer, thereby educating them. Educated consumers are repeat customers.
  • Allows beekeepers to connect with chefs and people in the food industry. These are people who get excited learning about food and who can pair them in creative and delicious ways.
  • Allows us to tell stories about honey and to demonstrate how all honeys are not the same. They differ by season and region. 
  • It provides culinary enjoyment.
Why Education is so Important
  • So many people who say they don't like honey have never had real honey. Even people who buy honey have often never encountered the real thing. They've only been exposed to "funny honey," which is little more than flavorless sweet syrup. 
  • The US produces only about 1/3 of our honey. The rest is imported, often in less than truthful circumstances. For example, a lot of honey is cut, blended, ultrafiltered, etc. A lot of honey is transshipped, i.e., honey from China is shipped to places like Australia where it is labeled as something packaged there and then imported into the US.
  • Other big companies that produce canola honey (which is a GMO product that has no flavor) blend it with a more flavorful honey and sell the diluted honey as "clover" or "alfalfa" or whatever.

Sensory Analysis
 During a sensory analysis, we are looking for things like:
  • Color. There are 7 colors rating from clear to dark amber. Some colors are even greenish or bluish. Kudzu produces a purplish honey that tastes a bit like a grape jolly rancher. Color is determined by floral sources and even mineral content.
  • Aroma, taste and flavor profiles. The nose can smell thousands of odors (aromas), but the tongue can only perceive five tastes (bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and umami). Flavor is a combination of aroma and taste.
  • Texture and viscosity. These depend on temperature, humidity, water content, and crystallization.
  • Nectar sources
  • Visual appearance -- the presence/absence of pollen, bubbles, dust, propolis, wax
  • Taking notes on honey tastings is a good way to remind oneself of how a honey tasted.
  • Properly stored honey never spoils. However, honey contains essential oils from their floral sources. As honey ages, the essential oils evaporate, so honey loses some of its flavor.
  • As honey gets older (or if it's improperly stored), it produces a chemical called hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). This also diminishes the honey's flavor.
  • The ideal spoon to use during a tasting is a plastic tasting spoon that doesn't impart any flavor to the honey. These can often be found on foodie websites.
  • A lot of how we experience flavors is based on memory and experiences. 
Tasting wheel
Those are my notes on the morning. In the afternoon, we did an actual tasting. Since my background is in instructional design, I was quite excited. I love practical exercises! Anyway, she wanted to demonstrate how flavor really is a combination of taste and aroma, and how so much of what we taste comes from our noses. We started out with Marina giving us all a spoon to dip into a brown powdery mixture. Then we pinched our noses and tasted. With no sense of smell, it just tasted a bit sweet. Then we got to breathe and taste. Wow! Cinnamon! 

Next, she provided us all with a honey tasting wheel, which we reviewed. We also got to sniff various glasses that she'd filled with things like coffee, lavender, soil, beeswax, etc. to get our noses in gear. 

Stuff to get our sniffers up to snuff
Finally, we sampled 5 different honeys that she had brought in as well as several other honeys brought in by some club members. My absolute favorite was a goldenrod/Japanese knotweed honey. There was also a buckwheat honey that I thought was positively foul. So glad I found that out today since I was considering planting a large patch of it next year.

Of course, by the end of the tasting, we were all sticky and buzzed from the sugar rush, but also feeling like a rather lot of happy Pooh Bears. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fancy Honey

Awhile ago, my DH had to travel to Portugal for a conference, and the delightful man brought me about 5 different jars of specialty honeys, including a very special lavender honey and an organic rosemary honey. I realize that 5 jars may seem like a lot of honey, but it goes fast in this house. (nom, nom, nom)

Anyway, my favorite one is Mel de MilFlores (Translation: honey of a thousand flowers, ooh!) by an apiary called Apimel. According to their website, this honey is derived from " 4 varieties of Heather, Rosemary, Eucalyptus, Tojo, Hollyhock, Thyme, Rosemary and Borage." (Note to self: One day, I must purchase large tracts of land and plant one thousand of these flowers in order to harvest a few gallons of delicious honey.)

Mel de Cortiço
Anyway, I digress. I also jumped the gun. What I meant to say is that I was so impressed by this nectar of the gods that I visited Apimel's website to learn more about it. In the process, I also had fun reading about all of their various award-winning products. One product in particular caught my attention -- "Extra Quality Mel de Cortiço!" The site describes it thusly (highlighting is mine):
This honey may not have the most delicate taste but its nutritional value is what makes it special.
The honey from Cortiço (the traditional Portuguese beehive) has to be pressed inside the honeycomb during the extraction process and as a result its properties are enriched by absorbing the waste of pollen, propolis and wax.
Two things:
  1. I'm dying to know what a cortiço do abelha looks like, but I can't find anything about it. Google, you disappoint me. 
  2. This description sound like a fancy way to say "crush and strain" to me. Maybe I wouldn't have used the word "waste" (which sounds gross), but if I ever start marketing my own honey, I'm going to have to remember to make my high-tech potato masher-based extraction process a "special feature" and charge extra for it. LOL!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Show & Tell Hive

This morning, I read a great thread on BeeSource that was too terrific not to share. Someone built an observation hive that holds just one bar.

Here are the beek's notes on building it:
The frame sides and bottom are 2x4. The bottom is screwed to a piece of plywood for the base. The viewing area is plexiglass screwed to the frame. The top of the frame is 2 pieces of 1x1 on each side, leaving a gap of 1.5" for the bar with comb, which is lowered in from the top. The ends of the comb bar rest on the side 2x4s.
The handled lid is a 1x4, which is then screwed through the ends of the combed top bar and down into the 2x4 sides with 4" wood screws. That way the lid can't be removed while being viewed. The screw heads are star bitted so some nut can't pull out a pocket phillips and try to remove them. 

When he wants to do a demo, he pops in the bar with the queen, takes her out for the day, and then puts her back in her hive at home when he's done. Love it!

Periodically, I get people (like preschool teachers) asking me if I would talk about bees with their kids. Next time it happens, I'm going to build one of these. It would be a great show-and-tell.

Friday, September 26, 2014


I read blogs by beeks like my friend over at August Cottage Apiary battling mice, but honestly, it's not something I thought I'd have to deal with. After all, there is a hawk who lives in my yard, and I see her/him regularly swooping down to pick off chipmunks and other small rodents. That is, I never thought I'd have to deal with it until today.

This afternoon, I noticed a lot of bees nosing around my empty Warre. I thought they might be scout bees from an autumn swarm, so I opened up the hive to add some lemongrass oil as bait. However, this is what I found.  

It's hard to see in this photo, but the nest is quite
beautifully constructed. The moss is so green and soft.
I'd love for her to make me a bed.

Doesn't that nest look cozy?

Protecting her pups. Such a good mama.

We opened up the hive several times (each time that someone came home from school/work). By the fourth time, mama and papa didn't even bother leaving the nest. Apparently, we weren't much of a threat.

Naturally, they can't stay in the hive, but I haven't the heart to kill them either. I mean, look at them! How adorable is that litter? 

Cuteness factor 9,001, says my son

I've been formulating plans all day, and I think I've finally settled on a plan of action. Tomorrow, I'll make a box out of scrap wood, which I'll place inside the hive. I'll move the nest into it, and once mama and papa have settled into the new box, I'll move it out of the hive. Sounds nice and simple to me. Fingers crossed, my squatters will be relocated by Monday.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Barely Cohesive Ramblings about Treatment-Free Beekeeping

If you haven't guessed by now, I started off with a pretty hippie-leaning attitude toward beekeeping. Now that two seasons have gone by, I can say that my overall approach has been refined and aligned with "treatment-free beekeeping." Essentially, this philosophy boils down to not adding any chemicals to the hive in an effort to preserve its ecosystem. The colony, as a superorganism, is teeming with thousands of different bacteria and fungi that are necessary to the bees' health. For example, bees use pollen to make fermented bee bread that they feed to their babies. Fungi is essential to the fermentation process. Using chemicals in the hive, whether they are treatments for mites (i.e., pesticides) or antibiotics for disease, throws off the delicate balance that exists.

What about "natural" treatments?
For example, some beeks use essential oils to treat hives.  Last year, my first season, I got some Honey-Bee Healthy at the advice of another beek. This is basically a sugar syrup that contains essential oils from lemongrass and mint. However, this year, I only  broke it out twice, once when installing packages and once when combining hives because I wanted to mask the different colonies' odors. Over two years, my thinking has evolved, and the conclusion I've come to is that in beekeeping, "natural" does not equate to the same thing as "occurring in nature." Let me 'splain (in my best Ricky Ricardo voice). Yes, essential oils are natural substances produced by plants. However, in nature, they do not occur in the highly concentrated forms that beekeepers use them.

Essential oils are something plants produce as a defense mechanism against insects that eat them. Putting unnaturally huge, concentrated doses of these oils into a colony of insects... well, it just doesn't make sense to me. Many essential oils also have anti-microbial properties which can upset the balance of bacteria and fungi in the hive. Plus, odiferous oils mask the pheromones bees use to communicate, so again, that's not something I normally want (though there are exceptions, like when I'm combining hives).

For the same reason, I rarely use smoke. I'm not against smoking bees (you know what I mean, blowing smoke on them, not stuffing them into a pipe) because I've found it very useful on several occasions, However, unless I'm in a bad way, I skip it. I'd rather have the bees able to communicate. Plus, listening to their noises also tells me a lot -- like for starters, when it's time to close up the hive.

What about dusting with powdered sugar? 
Powdered sugar is a common treatment that manipulates bees to pick mites off. A real treatment-free (TF) beek will tell you that this is a no-no because in addition to contaminating honey with sugar, it presents another form of interference. A hard-core TF beek will let bees that can't handle the mites die off because interference only postpones the day when we have actual mite-resistant bees. It's better to bite the bullet and take our losses now so that in the end, we have survivor bees that can take care of themselves.

As an aside, my first-year colony (purchased from a treatment-free beek) had a ton of mites. I never did a mite count, but the buggers were everywhere. I never dusted or treated them. Still, they were robust and healthy and went into winter with all their mites. In the end, parasites did not kill them; starvation & possibly lack of a queen did. Unfortunately, they were attacked by a bear three times in November, and even though I tried putting the hive back together, I did a crap job. They were still alive in February, but they just couldn't break cluster to move the the next honey-filled comb.

I guess this experience of seeing bees that can survive and thrive despite mite infestations really gave me confidence in the remarkable adaptability of bees.

How about monitoring?
You might be asking yourself why I bothered to post about powdered sugar rolls if I don't actually believe in treatment. The truth is that I'm on the fence when it comes to monitoring. Some TF followers don't see the point of monitoring if there is no intention to do anything about it. I can concede to that point of view because there is no sense in doing pointless work. However, other people feel that monitoring provides valuable information that can be used to gain a wider insight about bees, mites, overall health, habits, etc. Being somewhat naturally curious, I can totally get on board with that, too.

Even though I've never actually performed mite counts, I could see it being a cool science-fair project with my kids someday (always looking for those). If I decided to monitor, though, I'd have to make up my mind beforehand regarding my goals (which would be collecting data only) so that I wouldn't freak out if I saw any undesirable test results. (I have a low freak-out bar.) Michael Bush commented on a thread in BeeSource, and he sums up how I feel pretty well:

I did monitor for several years and I agree you may learn something in the process. If I had the time I would love to monitor what infestation levels are on small cell worker larvae and drone over the course of the year. In my experience often a colony would get bad before it got better. The numbers would go up and this would seem to motivate the bees in some way and then the numbers would go down. If you don't let the mites get bad this doesn't happen. Obsessing over counts can easily lead you down the wrong road and cause you to intervene when things were on the verge of resolving themselves...
Fetal monitors have become a "necessity" in labor rooms around the US. The mortality of babies in childbirth has not improved. The number of C Sections has skyrocketed... people often have too much information. "Blink" is a good book on the phenomena of too much information leading to bad decisions...

Do treatment-free beeks feed?
Generally, no. Bees are supposed to eat honey and not sugar. For the most part, feeding is done for reasons such as stimulating brood production, providing a substitute for honey that has been harvested, and administering chemical treatments (whether natural or unnatural), All of these reasons go against the grain of TF beekeeping.

An exception to the rule is preventing starvation. This is a great reason to feed. Even the best of bees can't control flows and dearths. Then again, there are those hard-core beeks...

You use "bee tea" in your syrup. What's up with that?
I'm a self-admitted proponent of bee tea . I don't know how a hard-core TF beek would feel about that, but I rationalize it to myself by saying that it provides essential micro-nutrients from plants that plain ol' sugar syrup lacks. Additionally, I've watched bees choose some of the nastiest puddles for collecting water. The lovely, clean bee waterer I've set up will go virtually unnoticed while they sip from brown puddles, full of leaves and organic debris. (Sounds kind of like bee tea, right?) They will go for the wet ground around the compost pile. They even like scummy water from buckets that haven't been emptied in weeks. I've also read accounts of bee-hunters using hollowed out pieces of wood filled with salt water to attract bees, so I'm thinking that bees probably actively search for micro-nutrients.

What if I go treatment-free and all my bees crash?
In the various forums and clubs I belong to, I hear about people who have bees that are used to living with treatments. They try going treatment-free, and all of a sudden, their bees are succumbing to every known disease and parasite. The problem is that most treatments create a vicious cycle. The treatment alleviates the problem for awhile, but then it creates treatment-resistant diseases and pests. These have to be treated with harsher chemicals, and so on.

I heard about one beek who went treatment-free, and in the first year, lost something like 70%  - 80% of his hives. However, the good news is that the bees that didn't die off were survivors and bred more survivors. After years of being treatment-free, I think he still loses about 20% of his bees over the winter. Not great, but certainly manageable.

However, even if one loses a bunch of hives (probably easier for a hobbyist than some one who makes a living keeping bees), one needs to start somewhere. Better now than later.I suppose an alternative would be to simply re-queen with a TF queen during the spring or summer. That way, they have a chance to build up TF brood before winter.

Of course, if one is just starting off and doesn't yet have bees, I would recommend getting bees from a local beekeeper with treatment-free bees. Local is important because those bees will be adapted to conditions in your area. Getting treatment-free bees puts you just that much ahead of the game since you won't be starting from scratch. (Naturally, if you can catch a swarm or get wild bees from a cut-out, that's even better, but in my area, there don't seem to be too many of those.)

More info on treatment-free beekeeping
There is an excellent Google-talk by treatment-free beekeeper Dean Stiglitz, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping, from Golden Rule Honey. He discusses what it is and why it's important to the future of sustainable beekeeping. If you want to learn more about it, that's a good place to start. There are more videos on YouTube and also forums for treatment-free beekeeping at,, and on Facebook.

Finally, someone in a forum I belong to commented. I really liked this comment, because it sums up my goal so well:
The fundamental difference with TF is that we are not trying to keep bees alive. We are trying to multiply living bees. Do not sprinkle them when [sic] anything. First of all, it doesn't work, surveys show that. Secondly, any treatment that does work does the multiplying for you, giving you (and the rest of the world) bees that cannot survive in the given conditions. Treated bees are unfit bees! Instead, learn methods of expansion, splitting, queen rearing, nucs, etc. Multiply your living bees. Forget trying to keep them alive. That's not treatment-free beekeeping.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Problem with being a Beekeeper...

... is that I now notice stuff like this, whereas I didn't before.

Item for sale on Etsy

You see it, right?

I know I have an unhealthy tendency to obsess over details, but these kinds of things drive me bonkers now.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Counting Mites Using a Powdered Sugar Roll

Lots of folks have been asking me whether I've done a mite count this year. The answer is no. Because I split my colonies, they all got a brood break. They also stopped producing drones in late July (which means they were hungry :( ). Therefore, the likelihood of having a mite infestation is pretty low. Indeed, while I'm sure there are probably mites in the hives, I haven't seen a single one this year. As a result, I haven't felt a mite count has been warranted.

However, I recently found some terrific instructions for doing a powdered sugar roll which I thought I'd share. These instructions are part of an informational poster produced by Gary S. Reuter and Marla Spivak at the University of Minnesota, which you can download in pdf format.

Yes, the instructions are illegible in this image. Download the pdf for a readable copy.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Tips for Combining Hives

Because I just had to combine top bar hives, I thought I'd come up with a post describing how I did it.

When combining Langs, most people will tell you to do a newspaper combine. During a newspaper combine, basically, the queen in the weak hive is removed. Newspaper is placed on top of the strong hive. Then the weak hive is placed on top of the paper. The bees from both colonies will chew through the newspaper, but the paper separates them just long enough to adjust to each other's scent.

When combining TBHs, it's a little harder to work with newspaper because it's difficult to get a tight fit. Some people, use tape to fasten the paper to the walls. Some people make a frame that is the same size as their divider board but with a paper-covered hole in the middle. The frame can be made of wood or cardboard.

Personally, I didn't do any of this.

Over the summer, I've moved bars of bees from one hive to another and always had positive results. So I asked on BeeSource whether anyone had ever tried using just powdered sugar during a combine and what their results were. Several people provided tips that did not involve messing around with newspaper. I figured Michael Bush must know what he's talking about, so I heeded his advice and put down the paper. For anyone who is interested, here are the tips I picked up.
  1. Remove the queen from the weak hive then wait 20 minutes before combining hives.
  2. When combining, do something to mask the differing scents of the two hives. Two methods that seem to work include: 1) Heavily smoking all the bees 2) Spraying the bees with sugar syrup that contains essential oils. I would recommend using anise oil or something like Honey-B-Healthy. (Note: Some people claim that this step isn't necessary -- that the idea of the bees fighting is an old wives tale. However, I figure better safe than sorry.)
  3. When adding comb from the old hive, put it at the end of the last full comb of the new hive. The last comb in your new hive might have brood or it might be a comb in the honey area. Doesn't matter which. 
  4. When adding combs from the weak hive, add them so that they are in the same order. 
A couple of other things. Once I was done moving the comb, I was left with a box of bees. Because TBHs are so bulky, I couldn't shake them into the new hive very easily, so I sprayed them all with syrup then tipped them out onto the ground as best as I could. I suppose I didn't need to spray them, but I figured that being covered in sugar might help them beg their way into the new hive. I don't know, it was just an impulse on my part.

I also moved/dismantled the old hive so that any returning foragers would have to join the surrounding hives. I'll put it back after the the bees have all re-oriented to their new homes.

I can't tell you if I did things right or wrong, but it worked out, so I figured I'd share. 

If you've ever combined TBH's, what did you do? How did things turn out for you?

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Swarm in July

A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July isn't worth a fly. 
 -- Old English saying
There are a number of variants to the saying above, bu all the variants are clear. May and June swarms = good. July swarm = not good.

Lucky me, my hives started swarming in July. BTW, one variant of the saying is "A swarm of bees in July, let them fly,"  but I can't do that.  That's how I ended up going from 2 colonies to 5 in a span of about 4 weeks. All five are pretty small, though, because of their late start, which began just before our summer dearth. One of them is doing quite well, though. Three are acceptable. The last one, Hippolyte, was (more on that past tense in a minute) performing miserably.

Last week, I started feeding Hippolyte extra syrup hoping she'd rally, but after a week, she actually looked worse. Her numbers were even lower than before. No stores to speak of. I didn't see any chewed comb, but I have a feeling she was being robbed before she could even cap any honey/syrup. Why? If you've been following my blog, you know that I started dyeing the sugar syrup I feed the bees to see how it gets used. Well, I started seeing a little bit of red syrup in Peach, and that's the one colony that I haven't fed at all, so I know those naughty girls have been robbing someone. Also, I saw a few holes in the bottom of Hippolyte, and bees were passing through it. A few were being mobbed on their way in, so I put 2 and 2 together.

With nighttime temperatures down into the 40's now, I decided I really couldn't wait much longer for Hippolyte to pick up steam. I had to pull the plug on her.

Tuesday morning, my DH asked what I was going to do with the queen, and when I told him, he remarked, "Wow, when you have livestock, you have to be a little ruthless."

Queen Hippolyte's last moment.
I feel so sad seeing her babies gathered around her.
Ugh. I justified my need to pinch the queen -- I had two choices. Option 1: She died, and the rest of the colony got combined with a stronger one. Option 2: She died along with all of her children.

Rationally, I know Option 1 is the kindest choice, but I was still miserable about it. Not having the courage to whack her immediately, I committed high treason against her majesty in the most cowardly manner possible -- I popped her into a small plastic container and then stuck her in the freezer. Hopefully, the cold lulled her to sleep before she died. However, to add insult to injury, I will probably use her as swarm bait for my empty Warre next year. Ok, that really is ruthless.

Within minutes of removing her from the hive, her babies began making the most horrible din. They were positively roaring. I could feel their anguish and confusion. It was terrible, simply terrible listening to them mourn for their mother.

Hippolyte had three empty combs that I stuck at the back of Peach. If they get filled with honey well and good. If not, the comb will still provide some insulation for the nuc. Austeja got the few remaining combs with brood.

Fanning to let her sisters where their new home is
All afternoon, Hippolyte's returning foragers buzzed wildly looking for their home. Alas, it was gone. I had removed it. They all appeared to be begging their way into the neighboring hives. Since they were carrying nectar and pollen, they were admitted entry. Hopefully, this will make all the remaining hives stronger.

Oh, look! This one still trusts me.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Something Cool I Learned about Bees

The amazing thing about bees is that there is always something new to learn. My new discovery yesterday was that the African Honeybee or AHB (A. m. scutellata), that bee that we all dread here in the States, is threatened in in its South African homeland. Apparently, South Africa is also home to another species of honeybee called the Cape bee (A. m. capensis) that is able to take over AHB nests due to an ability called thelytoky.

Image of Cape bees from

Thelytowhat? Yeah, I had to look that up, too. I learned that thelytoky is a kind of parthenogenesis in which female are produced from unfertilized eggs.

As you may know, in honeybees, diploid eggs (fertilized eggs that have two sets of chromosomes) are female bees. Haploid eggs (unfertilized eggs with one set of chromosomes) become drones. When an unmated European worker starts laying, she lays haploid eggs only. This is not always so with the Cape bee, which has a frequent rate of  thelytoky (pronounced thə-ˈlit-ə-kē). Once in a while, this trait occurs with the European honeybees that we all know and love, too, but it's a very rare occurrence with our bees.

According to Wikipedia, "Not all (Cape bee) workers are capable of thelytoky - only those expressing the thelytoky phenotype, which is controlled by a recessive allele at a single locus (workers must be homozygous at this locus to be able to reproduce by thelytoky)."

I'm not a fancy scientist or anything, but hopefully, I've retained enough from biology classes to explain it more simply (though with far more many words). Diploid organisms have two sets of chromosomes. Every chromosome has two genes and consequently two alleles that control various physical attributes of the organism. (Alleles are variants of genes. I heard an analogy that explains alleles like this: Think of a gene like a shoe. An allele would be a kind of shoe -- sneakers, dress shoes...) When the alleles are the same, that trait is said to be homozygous (e.g., wearing two sneakers). When they are different, the organism is heterozygous for that trait (e.g., wearing a sneaker and a flip flop).

Some alleles are recessive, some are dominant. The dominant trait is the one that gets exhibited in the observable characteristics of that organism (i.e., phenotype). For example, alleles for black or brown hair are dominant. The ones for blonde or red are recessive. So if someone has one allele for brown hair and one for blonde, they'll end up with brown hair. In order to have blonde or red hair, a person needs two recessive alleles.

In some cases, phenotypes are controlled by multiple alleles. For example, eye color is one of these things. Have you ever noticed the wide variety of eye color shades in people's eyes, though? Just look at blue eyes. Some people have intense deep blue eyes. Other blue eyes are more pale and watery. Some are in between. Some are mixed with green, and so on. That's because eye color is influenced by multiple alleles. Other physical characteristics are caused by just one pair of alleles. I think I remember a professor saying that baldness was one of these, but don't quote me on it.

In any case, Cape bees that are capable of thelytoky have two recessive alleles at that one crucial spot in their DNA strand, so these girls are capable of laying eggs with two sets of chromosomes -- just precisely what's needed to produce workers and queens.

But why do Cape bees need this feature??? I don't remember which article it was now, but I read that the Cape area is quite windy, which leads to a low return rate from mating flights. Thelytoky allows A. m. capensis to create backups. Amazing!

The thing about the Cape bee, though, is that these laying workers use pheromonal mimicry to sneak into AHB hives where they lay eggs which are cared for by the resident African bees. Unfortunately, the mature Cape bees are underrepresented in the hive's foragers (I don't know what they do exactly), but they continue to expand and take over the colony. As fewer AHB workers are laid, the number of foraging African bees dwindles. Ultimately, the hive reaches a tipping point where there are too many Cape bees for the AHB to support, so the colony dies, and the Cape bees fly off to infest a new host.

Once again, I'm flabbergasted by the weird and wonderful life of bees.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Inspection Notes: Feeling like the worst beek ever

The goldenrod is in full swing now. Lots of Japanese knotweed, Joe Pye weed, and asters as well. However, as of last week, I still wasn't seeing a lot of honey being put into storage, so I started feeding the girls a little (about 3 quarts for all the colonies except Peach who got none and Austeja who took only 2) because for the most part, I wasn't seeing any stores or much brood. It seems to have made a difference in what I saw in the hives this past Tuesday. So I've decided to check on them every day and feed, feed, feed until I feel comfortable going into winter.

My daughter and I went for a hike yesterday not too far my house.
The fall flowers were spectacular.
I feel like the worst beek ever because I really got sidetracked by some consulting jobs that I took on this spring/summer, company, and vacations. Except for some frantic hive building and splitting, my poor bees were really neglected this year. Perhaps if I'd coddled them more post split, the colonies would be a lot bigger by now. However, I really didn't feed very much, and a dearth hit while I was away on vacation for two weeks, so they haven't really built much comb since their splits. Currently, they each have about 8 combs apiece, except Peach which has 9 and is building a 10th.

Unfortunately, this fall is proving to be just as hectic as spring and summer, and I've been procrastinating when it comes to taking care of the bees. It's been months, and I still haven't made a roof for Peach or Persephone. I still need to build a platform for the nucs to sit on. I still haven't even finished painting Persephone or Josephine (the empty Warre). My littlest one starts preschool a couple days a week soon. Fingers crossed, I'll have some time coming up soon, but I'm not counting on it. All this busy-ness is really making me think more seriously about getting into Warres next year.

Anyway, despite my neglect, the bees, if not thriving exactly, are getting along fine for the most part.

Bubblegum -- Lots of eggs and brood. Lots of pollen. Starting to put away honey/syrup in the honey area. As an aside, I've begun dying my syrup ungodly unnatural colors this year like blue, green, and red. I figure that if the dye from an M&M factory didn't wipe out all the bees in France, a bit of food coloring isn't going to kill mine either. (Ok, it's probably not great for them either, but maybe some hyperactivity would be a good thing this fall. More red?) I did this because I was curious to see how the syrup was being used/stored. For example, how much of what was being stored was honey vs. syrup? Would they store syrup patches all by itself? Or would it be jumbled together with the honey? Would the girls move the syrup around from comb to comb? Etc. Etc. Inquiring minds want to know. Anyway, the photo below shows what I found.

Blue "honey"
You can see a bit of blue in the comb, but considering how much syrup they received, it doesn't seem like they stored much of it. My guess is that they've been using most of it for brood or just to support their daily caloric needs. BTW, in case you're interested, for the most part, it does seem that they store syrup and nectar in different cells. Also, it does appear to me that the honey and syrup are stored in groupings of adjacent cells (at least three cells in a grouping), though they don't mind storing them on the same comb. questions arise. I can envision a series of experiments on this in the future.

Also, I gave her a quart of syrup on Tuesday. By Wednesday, only 1/3 - 1/2 of it was gone. I guess she's finding nectar and preferring that.

Persephone & Austeja -- A lot of pollen & a little bit of honey starting to be stored away. Lots of brood, though. I feel like some heavy feeding should see these two through the winter -- if they'll take it.

Between Tuesday and Wednesday, Persephone had consumed only about 1/4 quart of syrup. Austeja -- well, it turns out I'd forgotten to give her any syrup. So I added a jar on Wednesday, and I guess she felt slighted because as soon as I opened her up, a guard shot out and stung me.

Comb from Austeja

Hippolyte -- Such a disappointment. No stores. Just a few measly honey bands on the brood bars. Very little brood. I was starting to think that a regicide and a combine were in her near future. There were so few bees, but I still couldn't find the queen. There were some nice eggs, though, so she had to be in there. I decided to give her a lot of syrup (1 quart jar and a half-gallon jar.) I figured that if I didn't see some real improvement in 3 days time, the queen's rule was going to come to a very abrupt end.

Unimpressive brood comb from Hippolyte

Wednesday afternoon, the entire quart jar was empty and the half-gallon jar was about 1/4 empty. So maybe this colony was just really, really hungry. I'm still waffling on the idea of combining her though. Even if she gets intensive feeding, I'm still not entirely sure she'll be able to build up enough strength in time for winter. What do you guys think? Any thoughts on this one???

 In any case, her reprieve has been extended until next week.

Peach -- I love this colony! I saved her for last, and I'm so glad I did because she let me end the inspection on a high note. Every single comb was filled with bees or honey, and she was busy starting a new comb. Just the fragrance standing when standing near her is amazing. I truly hope she makes it through to spring. It would break my heart to lose her.

Her numbers are good, too, because she's begun bearding. I've actually had to open another entrance for her.

Honey, honey, honey!

Some young'uns
Start of a new comb
The one other thing I did for all the hives was move any empty bars near the entrances to the back. I also moved any partial combs to the end. I know, I know, I should have done this a while ago, but better late than never.

How are your hives doing?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Bright Purple Pollen

This morning, a bee zipped into the hive carrying a load of purple -- bright purple, almost fuschia -- pollen. Wow! That's a color I've never seen before!

Dying to solve this mystery, I did some sleuthing. I checked various pollen charts to no avail. Then someone from sent me a link to some really nice pollen charts by Eversweet Apiaries in WV. The closest color is the palm-leaf marshmallow or teasel.

Eversweet Apiaries Fall & Winter chart.
They also have charts for spring and summer.
I first read up on palm-leaf marshmallow. It seems an unlikely candidate given that it's not native to the US, and I find no mention of it listed as an invasive species. It's a rather pretty flower, though, in the Malvacaea family, so it might have been deliberately planted in a garden.

Althaea cannabina (Palm-leaf marshmallow)

Next, I researched teasel. Again, not a native plant. It is indigenous to Europe, Asia, and North Africa. though. Nuts. Lots of interesting stuff, though, about this plant being used to raise the nap on fabric.

It looked like I had struck out again, but then wait! I found a note about this being an invasive species in the U.S.! Could the mystery be solved?

Dipsacus fullonum (Fuller's teasel)

Feeding Persephone

Sorry, no photos. I've been forgetting to take my phone out to the beeyard with me.

I've been watching Persephone closely ever since coming home. I'm worried about her because she just doesn't have the kind of action around the entrance that the other hives do.

The other entrances are buzzing with activity, and just about every bee that enters is loaded with pollen. By contrast, Persephone has had very few bees at the entrance, and very little pollen seems to be coming in.

I know part of the reason for this. I think the wood may have warped, so the divider bar no longer fits snugly. As a result, it's made an opening that some of the bees are using as an entrance. However, there are nowhere near the amount of bees next to this opening that I'd expect.

Persephone is also the last of my queens to emerge (around July 17), but she's not too far behind Austeja (about July 14). She's also in the spot with the least morning sun. Maybe these factors are creating the lack of activity that I see. Could the bees just be lying in bed late? Maybe. The activity does seem to pick up about 2 pm.

In any case, Tuesday morning, I broke down and gave her about a quart of syrup. By afternoon, half the jar was empty. I didn't check Wednesday morning (a miserable case of stomach flu laid me out for the day), but I assume it was gone by then. This morning, I added another quart for my thirsty girls.

Because I'm nosy, I peeked into the back of one of the nucs and noticed that it was getting filled nicely with honey. In fact, I see a lot of pollen coming into the other hives, so I think I'm going to hold off on feeding them even though the colonies are smaller than I'd like.

Hmm... I'm quite pleased actually by the amount of honey I saw in Bubblegum. I might have to do another inspection just to make sure they aren't running out of space.  Oh, the delightful headaches of beekeeping.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Inspection Notes: What to do? What to do?

11 pm., Wednesday evening, we plodded into the house, travel-worn and weary from a 13-hour trip from Athens via Frankfurt. By 3 am, I was wide-awake and dying to see my girls, whom I'd missed for two-weeks while we were away on vacay in Greece.

Of course, it was dark and 50 deg. F outside, so in the best interests of all parties involved, I decided to postpone the inspection until the afternoon. Meanwhile, I did a quick run to the store for some milk and eggs. On the way, I noticed that the goldenrod had begun to bloom while we were out of town. Hooray! The fall flow is starting!

My princess insisted on personally inspecting
"her" princesses, the nucs Princess Peach and
Princess Bubblegum.

Once the temperature warmed up to the 70's, I went out to the beeyard. Bees were coming in with pollen, a good sign for sure. Eagerly I popped open the hives and... WTH?!!?!?! With the exception of Hippolyte, there was no nectar in any of the hives. In fact, the bees looked hungry. Although they all had plenty of nectar and some capped honey before I left, within two weeks, they had eaten it all. In fact, they were also starting to break open the capped honey as well. Bees were digging deep, headfirst in the cells looking for the last drops nectar. Except for Hippolyte, none of the hives had drones either. I assume that the lack of reserves caused the girls to evict them.

See the raggedy caps on the honey? The bees have been opening the cells up.

However, all the hives had capped brood, eggs, and larvae, so that was a good sign. Additionally, I noted a lot of black pollen in Persephone that wasn't there a couple of weeks ago. My guess is that the purple loosestrife has begun blooming, too.

Some nice brood comb

This is probably going to be one of the last inspections before I close up shop for the winter. I'm troubled, though, by their complete lack of reserves and the unseasonably chilly weather we're having right now. What to do??? To feed or not to feed... I'm weighing a number of factors and options.

Black pollen. From purple loosestrife, I think.
Truthfully, I want to get away from feeding except in the most dire circumstances, but can I get away with it? Beeks usually recommend 12-15 combs for my area, but there are people who overwinter 5-frame nucs, so it must be possible to bring a small colony through the winter, right?

Because of all the splitting, my hives are about half the recommended size, about 6-8 combs total right now, 2-3 combs in each hive contain brood. I'm wondering, if they get all the combs filled with honey during this fall flow, will that be enough to sustain them? I've heard of a beek in Sweden who overwinters bees on two-frames. He is able to do this because bees shrink and expand the colony based on available resources. So if I don't feed them, won't they simply keep the colonies on the small side in order to better manage their resources?

Pollen is obviously coming into the hive, so I assume that nectar is, too, even though I'm not seeing it being put away. Of course, the goldenrod wasn't blooming when we left, so the fall flow must have started sometime within the last two weeks. However, it really is chilly, much colder than I'm used to this time of year. This concerns me because I'm worried the fall flow will be a short one.

All 5 colonies appear to have good queens, so I don't want to combine any of them. I'm thinking that I might do some feeding for about a week just to tide them over until the fall flow is in full swing.

What do you think? What would you do?

For the past couple of days, I've been thinking about something that Chris Harp said, "During my first 10 years of beekeeping, I killed 10 different hives, but in 10 different ways." Hmm... I already lost one last year. I'd like not to bring the count up to 6 this year.

Home, Sweet Home

There is a scene in Dances with Wolves in which Kevin Costner's character is being driven west to his new post by a wagoner. Along the way, they come across a broken down wagon and a skeleton. As Costner examines the skeleton, the wagoner approaches and laughs, "Somebody back East is saying, "Now why don't he write?" I have a demented sense of humor, so this is the only scene I remember, but I imagine you've all been thinking similar thoughts about me.

For the record, I am alive and well. Over the the last two weeks, we've been visiting my husband's relatives in Greece, and I've simply lacked an Internet connection. So instead of churning out blog entries, I've been working very hard at other things. I've been forced to hang with friends and family, dance, sing, eat way too much, drink some fantastic ouzo and various types of not-so-fantastic homemade rotgut (though the rotgut gets better with each glass), play tourist, and learn Greek. (Perhaps, "learning Greek" is too optimistic a way of describing my newly acquired communication skills. Mostly, I intertwined a few Greek words with a lot of monkey hand-signals. However, my DH's cousins and I communicated just fine that way.) All in all, it was a tough two weeks, I assure you.

Normally, all the decor is blue/white or teal/white. The splashes of yellow,
red and green in this street really caught my fancy.

Morning view from our rooftop patio in the islands.

Originally, we had planned to be away for three weeks, but some developments back home forced him (and consequently me) to cut our plans (including an excursion to Santorini) short. As much as I was enjoying myself, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to say that I'm not entirely sad about shortening our trip. Greece is a fascinating country, and I was having a lovely time with family. However, if you ever plan a trip there, I highly recommend going earlier in the summer. I've been to Greece twice in August, and this is just not the month for a visit. Even in the islands, it's brutally hot this time of year (which, unfortunately, is the only time during the summer I'm willing to leave my hives). Every day, I'd wake up at 7am to draw our daily water from the village well and steal some alone time on the roof, and it would already be 85 deg. F (that's 29 deg. C for my European friends). Seriously, the nighttime temps were hotter than my daytime highs in New England. Beaches and frozen mojitos were the only things keeping me sane. The day after we left, they got a heat wave (really? what had we been experiencing?), and temperatures soared into the 100's, forcing even the Greeks inside. It seems we got out just in time.

Apollonas, Naxos. The water really is that blue over there.

One thing I regret about coming home early is that I never got to tour a Greek apiary. While we were in the islands, I spied a large apiary and asked our friends, Stavros and Anda, who know everyone and everything about Naxos, about island apiculture. Stavros promised to talk to one of his friends and arrange a visit for me. Alas, we left on short notice, and I missed my opportunity.

Even though one can still see villagers on donkey,
I like how shepherding has been modernized.
Freshwater spring on Mt. Zas. According to myth, Rhea hid baby Zeus in a cave
on this mountain  so that Cronus wouldn't find him. She placed bleating goats
at the entrance to mask her baby's cries, and bees guarded the entrance
from intruders.
Even though I suffered honeybee withdrawal while were were away, I got my fixes here and there by observing other members of the order Hymenoptera.

John's cousin ordered a lot of seafood appetizers one day.
Turns out that's a sure-fire way to attract wasps. Dozens of them swarmed the table.
Half of our time there was spent on Naxos. Naxos is unusual in that it is the only island in the Cyclades with freshwater springs. In fact, it also has a huge freshwater reservoir (which was three-quarters empty when we were there) and supplies other islands with water. Because it has plenty of this precious resource, Naxos is a huge agricultural center. Of course, this description is probably misleading. When I think of farms, I think of the lush green acres here in New England or in the Midwest where I spent so much time as a child. Even on Naxos, the climate is so arid that patches of green fields and heavily-watered soccer fields never failed to surprise and delight me. However, it's quite wonderful how life has a way of bursting through the cracks and hanging on. Here and there, I'd spy a few poppies, wild thyme and oregano, mountain tea, etc. Wherever these hardy plants found a bit of water, they'd bloom, and wasps and bumblebees flocked to them.

My favorites were the huge black bumblebees (like carpenter bees, but bigger) that looked like flying olives. Sadly, I don't know what they are called or their exact species name, and nobody could tell me. They were so pretty, though -- huge and fuzzy with iridescent purplish-bluish wings. I must have taken a jillion photos of them, but I just couldn't get a good one.

Sorry, this was the best I could do.
One of the awesome things about having a hobby is that everyone becomes an enabler. Over the last two years, I've received lots of bee-related presents from people -- bumper stickers, books, mugs, etc. To tell the truth, I love it! It was no different in Greece where my lovely newly-found family (the newly found part is a another story for another day) welcomed me with gifts of thyme honey and sweets like sesame seeds and honey. They also introduced me to an island spirit called rakomelo (stress on the first "o"). Essentially, it is a honey-sweetened raki, a drink made by distilling the skins & seeds that are leftover from pressing grapes for wine. Plain raki has very little flavor, but it's strong enough to wake the dead. Often, though, raki is flavored with something like anise, spices, or honey. These jazzed up rakis go down much more smoothly.

A view of Stavros and Anda's windmill.
Stavros and Anda are the delightful couple who introduced me to rakomelo.
Anyway, in case you were wondering, I haven't perished over the Atlantic somewhere. However, it's 6 am, and I'm so jet-lagged that I can't decide whether to say "Καλημέρα" (Kalimera -- good morning) or "Καληνύχτα" (kalinykhta -- good night). I am home, though, and there will definitely be an inspection report coming soon.

I think Psipsina here has the right idea.