Thursday, April 27, 2017

The grass is definitely NOT greener on my side...

it's most decidedly yellow!

A spring feast

It's taken five years of my youngest child "planting" dandelions, but I finally have a lawn that my neighbors probably hate and the bees love.

Grabbing a snack

Ever since we bought this house, I've been working on the gardens out front. When we moved in, the soil was hot, dry, and as hard as a rock. Nothing was growing. None of the shrubs were flowering. There were no bees, no pollinators, nothing. 

Here are some shrubs in an area that I haven't done any work on. (Yeah, I know, it's been 5 years, and I haven't done jack. Still deciding whether to try and save them or rip them out.)

Sad, sad, sad

Now here is a shrub on the other side of the front door that is in a spot where I've consistently been amending the soil for 5 years.  It used to look just like the shrubs above. This spring, though, it's glorious!

My pretty shrub

I've never seen honey bees on it before. In fact, I didn't think bees were overly fond of azaleas, rhododendron, and mountain laurel. My impression has always been that bees considered them the celery sticks of the nectar smorgasbord -- it's what they go for when nothing else is available. However, this shrub is humming with bees.

So many bees on this thing!

Yeah, I know honey from these shrubs is toxic, but it would take a lot of nectar to make honey that harm a human. So instead of worrying, I'm enjoying the buzz.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


Last week, temps were in the 70's perfect for inspecting. Unfortunately, I was in Florida all week, so my first inspection of the season waited until today.

Before I left, I was seeing activity outside 7/8 hives. Then yesterday, which was a beautiful 85 F, there was much less activity than I would have expected. The magnolias are in full bloom, and even some dandelions are starting to pop out. But the bees. Where were all the bees? Concerned, I decided it was time for a hive inspection.

Celestia, Elsa, and Persephone were all doing extremely well (Note: Elsa & Persehone are my double-walled hives). They had brood on about half of their bars (7 for the nuc and 14-15 for the full-sized hives) and were making drone brood. The dandelions are just starting to open, so I'll go in next week and remove their leftover stores.

Bubblegum, one of the nucs, was doing fine with brood on about 4-5 bars (including some drone brood), but given the amount of activity I'd seen a couple weeks ago, I had sort of expected more.

Peach, another nuc, had a few bars of brood, but since I wasn't really expecting her to pull through, that was a good surprise. Elsa donated a bar of brood to help boost that nuc.

There wasn't any activity surrounding Buttercup, and in fact, I expected to find a dead-out. However, when I got to the front, she had 2 bars of eggs/larvae and a really tiny queen. Really tiny. Where and when did the bees make that queen? Last fall maybe? I should probably requeen/combine that hive, but I'm kind of curious to see what's going to happen.

Austeja, as expected, was a dead-out. There was evidence of dried out eggs and larvae, so it must have happened some time this spring. My bees usually don't start rearing brood until the swamp cabbage starts blooming, so my guess is that she died out sometime during March. 

You can see the Austeja's dead queen in there.

Hippolyte was more of a surprise. There was activity a couple of weeks ago, but when I looked in the hive today, all the bees were gone. There was a lot of old, dark comb, though. My guess is that they absconded. This sort of reinforces my resolve to be more aggressive about pulling old comb this year.

So 5/7 hives remaining isn't bad. In a way, I'm kind of glad to have the space for splits, and those two hives needed some repair work anyway. This is a good opportunity to do that.

What does stink, though, is that I have about 1.5 hives worth of capped syrup that didn't get eaten. One of my hives holds 32 bars -- so that's something like 48(!!!) bars of syrup. Crikey. What am I supposed to do with that??? My freezer is jam packed, but I don't want to waste all that syrup either.  I'm thinking of crushing & straining and storing it in jars. If I end up having to feed again this fall, the syrup should be immediately cappable.

So that's my spring report. Hope your bees survived winter, too!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Georges de Layens: Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives

Just returned from a trip to Florida, and the plane ride to/from Orlando was the perfect opportunity to catch up on some bee-related reading that has been languoring by my bedside. Specifically, I was able to skim through my new copy of Georges de Layens' book Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives. Actually, it would be more accurate to say my newly translated copy since the original was written by Layens, a French beekeeper and biologist in 1897. (The recently published version was translated by Mark Pettus and edited by Leo Sharashkin.)

Can order from:
I've been wanting to read this book for awhile since it was one of the works that inspired Lazutin's approach to beekeeping. 

To say that this book is an amazingly comprehensive work doesn't really do it justice. It is thoughtfully organized into 4 sections:
  1. An intro to beekeeping focused on bees, the colony and the hive
  2. A tutorial that takes beekeepers through the first three years of beekeeping
  3. Other hive systems
  4. General observations on beekeeping, eg., apiarity products, diseases, pests, nectar sources, etc.
Some of the information is irrelevant to the modern reader (such as the information on skeps and how to transfer bees to a Layens hive from a fixed comb hive). But to me, those bits seems like an interesting little window back through time.

There were also lots of interesting little tips that I found delightful -- like rubbing one's hands with a lemon to reduce the chances of being stung (something I look forward to testing). I especially liked the chapters on nectar sources and yields. 

Another fascinating aspect of the book were Layen's feeding recommendations. By today's standards, they seem so minimal. I don't know if it's because sugar was so much more expensive then, or if modern beekeepers are feeding too much. My guess is a little of both, but if we experience another terrible season this year, I'll certainly reconsider how much sugar I purchase.

Anyway, this book is available on Amazon or, and it is a wonderful resource for anyone looking to keep bees with minimal interference. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Fun Science Fair Project

About 2 months ago, my daughter burst through the door and announced:
"Mom, I wanna do a science fair project about bees!"
I didn't know whether to be delighted that she wanted to experiment with bees or dismayed by all the tears that would inevitably ensue due to the work involved.

Anyway, Girlie Girl had lots of ideas. However, because our weather has been very uncertain, party-pooping mom talked her out of them since they involved actual flying bees. Given that the fair was April 5th and we got snow on April 1st (and still didn't have flying bees), that probably turned out for the best. Instead, we focused on a project involving honey. (BTW, I didn't come up with this idea, but I don't remember where I saw it.)

We took 10 petri dishes filled with agar and divided them into sets of 2. Each set was swabbed with bacteria collected from some part of the house/body:
  • Mouth
  • Toilet
  • Garbage can
  • TV remote
  • Floor
We also made holes in the agar for one plate in each set. Each hole was numbered and filled with one of the following:
  • Antibacterial cream
  • Manuka honey
  • The cheapest store honey
  • Local honey 1 (fall)
  • Local honey 2 (spring)

Top row is our control so we can see whether anything in our swabs can actually grow in the agar.
The bottom row is for our test. And in case you are wondering, I decided against testing multiple batches for a statistical analysis. This is only first grade after all.

Next the dishes were placed in a warm location to grow, grow, grow. One thing that was interesting to me was that after 1 day, all the honeys had been absorbed by the agar. The antibiotic cream, though, being petroleum based was still in place. Sort of makes me wonder if that happens when you put honey on a cut, too, but anyhow...

After 3 days, we measured the clearing around each hole. Because of the irregular shape of the clearings, we took three measurements for each hole and averaged them.

Of course, there were a lot of issues with the experiment. For instance, honey and antibacterial cream are so thick and sticky that it was really hard measuring out equal amounts. Also, 6-year olds tend to get honey all over everything, which may have skewed some of the results.

However, much as my daughter hypothesized, Manuka honey performed the best. After that came Local Honey 1 (fall honey), Local Honey 2 (spring honey), and antibiotic cream in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th respectively. Cheap plastic bear honey, as we predicted, was dead last.

It would have been cool to see if applying different honeys to an existing bacterial culture would kill it, but by Day 3, the stench of our petri dishes was vomit-inducing. (I was seriously dry-heaving while taking measurements. Not even Vicks under the nose helped. My daughter ran away.) Unable to endure the smell another day, we chucked the dishes in the garbage.

The day of the fair. There was a lot to write up, so she talked and I typed.
Very proud of all her work

Anyway, the project has gotten me thinking about fall honey and how it affects the health of winter bees that have to hold on until spring. It might also be interesting to see if different bacteria are more prevalent in spring/fall and whether honey produced at certain times of the year is more suited to staving off the germs that are circulating (or maybe germs that will be circulating during the following season when the honey will be consumed). Actually, I can think of a whole slew of follow-on experiments. It's a good thing my little scientist has 5 more years of elementary school fairs.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Spring is Finally Here!

I've been waiting for a day above 65 F to check on the bees. So far Mother Nature has been loathe to cooperate. Seriously, it snowed on Saturday! Meanwhile, folks closer to the coast are reporting drone activity. What the heck? Drones?!

My daughter hanging out with the chickens on a glorious Sunday

Further inland, we got a couple of warmish days mid-Feb (warm enough for the bees to fly anyway), but not warm enough to open the hives. Just from observing the entrances at that time, I was pretty sure at least half of my hives had survived winter. A couple of them were difficult to decipher without any pollen coming in.

Anyway, Sunday and Monday got almost up 60 F, so the bees were out in full force. Elsa, Celestia, and Bubblegum were especially active. The others had fewer bees coming and going. At first, I thought they might have been robbing dead-outs, but then I spotted a couple of bees with pollen entering Buttercup, Peach, and Persephone. So my guess is that they're alive as well.

Elsa carrying in the grocery bags

I didn't see any pollen-bearers entering Hippolyte, but girls at the entrance seem engaged in normal activity. So there's a chance that one survived, too. Austeja is more suspect, and I'm not holding my breath for that one. Time will tell.

Yesterday also marked my first sting of the season. Contrary to popular advice, I frequently wear black or dark colors around the hives without any ill consequences. On the other hand, wearing a blue shirt in the early spring/late autumn is a guarantee that every bee I own will home in on me. I have a hypothesis that bees respond to scent as much as they do color. I think they know my scent and so leave me alone despite my clothing color, but why does a blue shirt fool them every time? Idk. 

Lost pollen means it's time to remove the mouse guards.

Anyway, I was sporting a black sweater in the bee yard. Plenty of bees landed on my hands without showing any aggression, but then one got caught in the knit. Unable to escape, she stung me, and her pheromones were a battlecry for the others, so I pretty much skedaddled on out. Note to self: Only woven fabrics in the apiary.

Hopefully, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, your spring has begun (or is just around the corner), and your bees are waking up as well!