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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pressing Matters

The bees came through this year, surprisingly...even after the coolest and wettest summer I can remember in 20 years.  My hives yielded about 70lbs in all...very lovely, light colored honey which is now mostly pressed out and jarred up in my kitchen.

As the first real harvest season for me using top bar hives, extracting the honey proved to be something of an adventure.  I made the first run using (of all things) a hand-held potato ricer to press the honey out of the comb.  It was a slow, sticky, tiring process, one which prompted me to go in with my neighbors on a nice stainless steel fruit press.  That innovation proved vastly more efficient, especially after our technique came into line.

Our process was basically to put all the comb into a five gallon bucket and thoroughly mash it with a very large spoon to make a sort of thick soup of it all.  Then we ladled that into the press and slowly applied pressure to sieve the wax from the honey.  After pressing out all that we could, I rinsed the still very sweet wax in cold water and used that to make mead (results pending!).  Then I washed the wax again to clean it completely and set it aside to be melted down later for candles, salves, etc.

Pulling the honey from the hives this year was a real treat.  I was so happy to be able to do so without gearing up....relying instead on tuning into the bees, a little smoke, and just going slowly.  Didn't get a single sting across my two boxes or the other three I helped with.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Supers (sort of) and Swarms

This week we had a dollop of drama with one of our first year co-op hives when it decided to swarm.  

First year swarms are relatively uncommon, mainly because bees generally have plenty of space and supercedure swarms are rare for new (lively) queens.  (Come to think of it, all the queens I've known are lively.  Ahhh, but that doesn't belong in this blog.)

As we continue to explore the margins of relevance here, I'll also observe that the hive that swarmed was one that had been very generously fed this spring.  Feeding enables more rapid population growth.  Because the swarm was clearly a split (many bees remained in the old hive), I'm thinking they just plain ran out of space.

The swarm originally came out about a week ago, prompting the ever intrepid Sherry and Lise to ring me up on my cell phone as I was away for a few days, lollygagging in Portland on tedious business.  We (mostly they) managed a remote-control swarm capture and new hive installation.  There were ladders, ropes, saws, and exhibits of mad tree climbing involved in making the nab,  but in the end the bees had other dreams and promptly left the new box we'd prepared almost as soon as they were dumped in.

If the swarm was indeed a split as I suspect, that means this buzzing ball of bees was chock full of six-legged, airborne randiness:  virgin queens, hopeful drones, and all that hot stuff.  (Easy there, gentle readers!)  Putting this all together, I suppose its no wonder that they opted to stay out on the town a while longer than we had in mind.  

So, the bees disappeared for a few days...or so we think.  Yesterday a suspiciously similar sized swarm reappeared in a nearby tree whereupon we (the usual suspects, this time not on cell phones) made another nab and successfully planted them in a third hive alongside two existing co-op hive.  

Round two decision?  The winged throng elected to stay this time around (Sherry swears she caught a glimpse of the queen looking relaxed and having a cigarette...solid evidence in my book of a lucky drone and queen ready to settle down into the mind-numbing routine of laying upwards of 500 eggs a day) and now our co-op has increased by one hive.  That may sound like not much, but it represents a 10% boost in our overall hive small matter when you consider that Wall Street on average barely scores half that in a given year.

In spring, bees run out of space sometimes and as we've seen venture out to find better digs.  It's mostly a matter of population dynamics.  Prompted by this latest adventure, I visited three other hives (one of my own and two others), watched a bit, and then slipped a third super in betwixt the two already on the hive.  Hopefully no more swarms this season among our first-year hives.

Some of the signs (other than the blunt signal provided by our swarm!) that made me think another box was due  included lots of obviously food-bearing traffic in and out of the hive and, sometimes, in the evening/morning a 'beard' of bees on the front porch.  When weather is hot or humid, bees frequently park in alarming numbers on the front of their hives at night as a means of enabling better air circulation inside the hive for honey-drying purposes.  

This makes sense if you consider what goes on in a hive over the course of a day.  During daytime, a good portion of the bees are out in the field gathering nectar and pollen.  Inside the hive there's plenty of room as a result.  But bees come back inside at night (presumably to watch TV, just like us!) and that makes for crowded conditions. (Only room for so many sisters on the couch!)  On top of that, all of the fresh and very wet nectar brought in during the day needs drying at night.  So, space is both at a premium and acutely required in order to allow the miraculous bee breeze HVAC system to do its thing.  Hence, some bees adjourn to the porch to make room.  Fewer bee bodies in the comb.  More bee breeze.

I am reminded here of stories in my own family about my grandfather who as eldest of 19 children growing up hard on a Kansas farm was obliged to sleep out in a corn crib with one his brothers for a couple of winters.  I sleep out of doors several months each year here in our mild Oregon climate, but not in winter and this isn't Kansas either.

I meant to say something about the term 'supers' as it applies to our top-bar style of beekeeping here.  Strictly speaking, we don't 'super' (expand by adding to the top of our bee stacks) in the way we add to our hives.  Conventional (Langstroth) hives add to the top.  We insert in the middle or at the bottom of the stack instead.  

So, though I think we are super, we do not super.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bees In Wetsuits

This spring has been more than a little challenging for bees, especially new colonies.  Cool wet weather complicates matters greatly for new colonies, primarily because they have no honey stores of their own from the previous season upon which to rely for food when foraging isn't possible.  Without stores, bees have to get out and fly in order to eat and rain makes that hard.

Watching my bees this spring, I've learned a thing or two from them about opportunity.  Rain chases me indoors and dampens my spirits more than I'd like to admit.  When the drops stop falling, I look suspiciously at the sky and have to shake off my own sense of imprisonment before I venture out of doors.  Bees, meanwhile, practically leap out of the hive when then get half a chance.  They're off (on beelines) seeking whatever goodness they can find in whatever small sliver time has been granted. 

Seemingly, staying indoors is no easy solution for me or perhaps for bees either.  Cool weather challenges new colonies to heat their hive space sufficiently to raise brood and to make comb.  Bees need hive temperatures to stay in the 90's and are able to do so mainly using body friction/kinetic energy.  Small colonies have a tough time heating lots of open space.  Making comb is difficult in cold weather simply because wax is harder to manipulate.

Fortunately, all of our new co-op colonies seem to be doing very well despite our soggy weather.  Some of us have been feeding new colonies with sugar water.  Some not.  Both fed and not-fed hives seem to be thriving.  Most of the colonies have now grown into a second super and may even require a third this year once weather warms and the blackberry flower season fully opens.

The damp weather will decrease honey production this year, making it almost a certainty that our first year hives should be left with all of the honey they produce in order to safeguard the bees survival over the winter.

Swarms also seem to have been somewhat suppressed by the recent weather.  Personally, I've only seen two swarms this season, less than I'd expect.  We may see a run of late season swarms as weather warms up, but in most years the bulk of the swarms would have occurred already.

Yesterday I took my cues from my colonies, ceding outdoor territory only grudgingly during morning showers and running right back out when they stopped.  As I moved gravel and soil and raced to pack a week of chores into a day, I caught glimpses over my shoulder of my bees besting me at every turn.  Workers clustered at the hive door seemed impatient with drones hanging about on no particular mission.  They pushed their  lumbering and indolent brothers aside and bustled past back into the hive, time and again, with huge bags of pollen on their legs, right up until dark.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I'm Shocked! Shocked to Find That Bees Are Dying!

This week the USDA released the most recent results of this year's bee survey which revealed that 33% of all bee colonies under management perished in 2009.  The report sparked a brief flurry of news coverage (you can read some of these in the sidebar at right), but the stories were almost immediately and predictably eclipsed by breaking news regarding flooding in Tennessee, our Drill-Baby-Drill Drama off the Gulf Coast, Heidi Montag's most recent body work, and this morning a feature piece on the fattest cities in America.

I confess that I've never been able to understand why we call 'news' by that name.  Most of it is really old, or at least just unsurprising.  In Tennessee it rained a lot this spring.  The creeks and rivers came up as they have probably thousands of times and washed out whatever was in the way.  Off the Louisiana coast we punched a bunch of holes in the earth's crust for the purpose of releasing massive quantities of crude oil.  To facilitate this, we put in place a hugely complex (aka fragile), not to mention floating, system of extractive equipment.  When the 210,000 gallon per day spill started a couple of weeks ago, it was certainly a bad one, but in the end only one of about 270 which have occurred since offshore drilling began in the late 1960s.  As for the shocking revelation that we are fat, it's a virtual certainty that many millions more Americans heard that story on their car radios en route to get fast food than are aware that our sugar consumption has literally gone exponential in the last 20 years, rising from 26 pounds per capita annually to over 135 pounds, up from a modest 5 pounds in the late 19th century.

Viewed in the same way, the bee story is no more news than the rest.  Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the supposedly mysterious  'malady' behind this large scale die-off is about as real and about as surprising as Ms. Montag's dynamic curvature.

Certainly bees are dying at rates that make all of the world's wars of the last century combined look like polite disagreements over tea.  But CCD as a 'syndrome' is much less real than the fact that most beekeeping, like the rest of our industrial agriculture, is fundamentally extractive and destructive of life.  In the late 1980s, Wendell Berry noted in one of his essays that the amount of topsoil lost annually due to conventional farming practices far exceeded the amount of food produced in any given year.  Interestingly, one of our 'strategies' for accommodating (not countering) this destruction of the land has been to rely increasingly on petroleum to manufacture, transport, and apply artificial fertilizers.  Thank goodness we don't need soil to grow food.  It comes from supermarkets, silly!  Apparently, judging from the fleeting attention CCD coverage usually gets, we've determined that we don't need bees to grow food either.

Claude Rains in Casablanca perfectly expressed our cultural approach to 'news' of this nature when he delivered his famously fake lines, "I'm shocked!  Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here."  (croupier enters stage right and says to Rains, "Your winnings sir.")  With agriculture, forestry, energy, medicine, technology--really with virtually everything--we drive like maniacs toward a variety of cliffs and then somewhere about mid-launch into the abyss muster our most genuine affection of dramatic surprise to declare the existence of 'puzzles' and 'mysteries' and 'news' around the fact that we've just driven off the cliff.

As things accelerate alarmingly downwards, scientists are customarily called in to study matters and to suggest prudent courses of remediation.

Be a bee for a moment.  For millions of years you've evolved, freely breeding with the usual rapidity of insect populations, to become a creature accustomed to life in a stable, long-term colony probably housed in the protected hollow of a tree, a small cave, etc.  Your entire behavioral make-up is geared toward the gathering and storage of honey stocks to help your colony make it through winters, prosper, and even multiply.  The interior of your colony is a model of hygiene and order.  You've even learned to use naturally antiseptic plant resins as building materials which double as purifiers for your domain.  Nutritionally, your chosen food sources are nearly perfect:  complex sugar from nectar and pollen which is rich in vitamins B, C, A, D, and E and consists of about 35% protein.

Fast forward to the last fifty years or so.  (And, I do mean fast forward.  The shift from all of the above to what you're about to read in the new scenario has occurred almost instantaneously in the big scheme of things.)  You're still a bee, but your ability to breed freely and to adapt gracefully to environmental challenges has been utterly interrupted.  North American bee stocks have been bred down to a virtual genetic pinpoint focused entirely on honey production and docility.  Your home is no longer stable or even one that you choose.  Rather, you're given a thin-walled wood box, often augmented with artificial materials, paint, etc.  This salt box abode is also invaded on a regular basis and, in most commercial beekeeping setups, is actually moved from field to field several times each season, forcing your entire colony to reorient in search of food.  (The practice of regularly moving bees for agricultural purposes has been characterized as the single largest forced migration of a living species in history.)  What you find when you go out in search of food is mostly one thing (almonds, orange blossoms, clover, etc.) rather than the variety you're accustomed to.  Worse, it's heavily tainted with a variety of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used to support commercial agriculture today.  Undeterred, you still muster your numbers and your instincts to store up considerable quantities of honey and pollen to get you through the winter, most of which is stolen from you to be sold.  In exchange for this nutritionally complete bounty, you're fed sugar water and occasionally a cocktail of something a biochemist has dreamed up and agribusiness has sold to beekeepers as a 'nutritional supplement'.

That was a long paragraph, one full of the dismal and mind-numbing realities surrounding this little corner of commercial agriculture, aka The Way We Eat.  So, let's recap:

  1. Bees are undergoing a massive die-off.
  2. In quite literally the past 50 years we've:
    • Bred bees down to a very narrow genetic base.
    • Largely narrowed their food supply down to a series of mono-crops.
    • Adopted a practice of radically and regularly relocating a large percentage of the bee population.
    • Replaced clean bee food sources with new ones laced with a wide variety of poisons.
    • Convinced ourselves (apparently owing to the success of our self-experimentation on the linkages between sugar consumption and health...see above) that bees don't need real food and can live well instead on mainly sugar water.
  3. We have discovered a mystery called CCD.
What do you think?  

Well, here's what I think:  I think that real news might better consist of some serious exploration of how it is that we do utterly reckless things like burn off millions of years of accumulated carbon in less than a century, or intentionally inject massive quantities of toxins into the land and water and air, or wash off a significant portion of our topsoil, or enslave entire species, or utterly deplete global water supplies, or introduce radical genetic interventions in the form of GMO crops, or even radically alter our own diet in the service of we do all of these things and still keep a straight face when we call in the scientists to help us explain the wreckage that results.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Fair Winds

Sunday saw me on the wrong end of a shovel again (there is no right end...both ends give plenty of trouble), finishing up two days of digging on a new bean garden.  I at least had the sense not to take all that soil turning in one lump and so gave myself more than a few breaks throughout the day.

It was on one of these pauses, though I don't know how, that the idea of a nap occurred to me.  The new bed I was digging is conveniently located next to my beehives which sit amongst some tall grass and wildflowers.  It's an inviting spot.  I stretched out in front of a hive and watched the bees work for a while as I let the early May sun and the sound of their wings drift me off for a few minutes.  As the breeze came and went I caught the  occasional scent of new honey being put up inside the hive.  Though brief, it might have been the best nap I've ever had.

It was back to digging before long.  The day cooled off and the bees took their own turn to give it a rest.  Soon traffic in and out of the hive all but ceased as the last of the field bees brought in their sweet findings.  I finished my work in turn and squatted down to peer into the hive entrance again before I called it a day.  There just inside the door fanner bees line the hive entrance, butts pointed out, wings beating to push air out of the hive.  My bees are gentle, so I put my hand first and then my face right up within a couple inches of their front door.

I'm sure I went slack-jawed and let out a whooowheee next.  These fanner bees and probably thousands like them working in unison in the dark interior of the hive, all aligned heads up and tails down, were driving a steady, warm, sweet breeze out past me into the cool evening air.  The smell was irresistible, a mix of beeswax, springtime, and evaporating nectar.

People see the Virgin Mary in pieces of burnt toast.  Jesus pops up now and again in drywall stains, Cheetos, and pancakes.  Elvis is seen so regularly that someone awakening from a VanWinkle duration nap might be be sincerely doubtful of The King ever passing in the first place.

All of these miracles invariably end up on YouTube set to incredible music.  Though it's probably a failure of imagination, I can't really think of how I could have posted my bee breeze on YouTube.  It did cross my mind.

YouTube or not, my competitive side tells me that this bee breeze qualifies in every possible way as a miracle of the same rank and order as Elvis at The Mall, Holy Mother Toast, Jesus Mold,  or any of the rest.

My evidence is mostly circumstantial, but I'm virtually certain that Elvis, Mary, and Jesus would all enthusiastically endorse the miraculous nature of my bee breeze.  Proverbs 6:6, for example, tells us pretty clearly where to look, "Go to the bee, sluggard, and consider her ways and be wise!"  

I take this advice personally and am hoping that snoozing in tall grass in front of the hive at least counts for something.

Elvis, before he took his own long nap, the one fueled by years of too much of pretty much everything, gave us his own confession of...well, if not faith, then at least some indication of the powers of the universe that brought him to his knees in his eponymous 1957 hit Too Much which starts out, "Honey, I love you too much..."

If you think these are long shots, I have more evidence in support of Bee Breeze as Miraculous.

As everyone knows, real miracles have to go against the flow in some important way.  If every burnt bagel looked like Mary, we wouldn't run to YouTube so often.  Defiance of expectations needs to be a part of it.  So let's consider Bee Breeze for a moment.  Quite a while ago, Bill Nye the Science Guy discovered (on TV) that, normally, warm air rises.  Today, thanks to PBS, everyone except Sarah Palin knows this.  But, here's the thing:  warm bee breeze flows down through the hive out the bottom, against the natural direction of convective circulation.  Supernatural air flow at its finest.  If this isn't something to blog about, I don't know what is.

(As a point of factoid, bees tend to keep the air in their hives at about 92 degrees as a means of facilitating the raising of young and the production and manipulation of wax.  Those are just factoids, however, and not real miracles.  It's the hot air going down thing that makes all of this a miracle.)

Finally, I'll put my bee breeze up against the canon of official miracles any day of week simply on account of reliability.  The Faithful have been traipsing to Lourdes for centuries now, by all signs mostly in support of the shoe leather industry, but have only 67 recorded official miracles to show for all of those millions of visits.

My hives, by contrast, yield their fair breezes on any night of the week I'm willing kneel down before them to take in the vapors.  It's a sure thing.

So, when I do feel like betting, I bet with Walt Whitman when it comes to miracles.

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan, 
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky, 
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water, 
Or stand under trees in the woods, 
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love, 
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest, 
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car, 
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon, 
Or animals feeding in the fields, 
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air, 
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright, 
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring; 
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles, 
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bee TV, Banner Day for Nectar, Baby Bees, and a Hive Split

In an inspired moment about twelve years ago, I killed off my television.  I terminated it with prejudice, which in that time meant giving it to my Ex.  I'm pretty sure I didn't intend it as such, but this dubious act of giving surely amounted to a subtle form of sabotage, stealthy aggression along the lines of Trojan Horses or smallpox -ridden blankets offered up in the dead of winter.

Though no TV has as yet regained entry into my household, The Natural Instinct of Humans to Watch Television has nonetheless over the years reasserted itself with inexorable force.  This is surely one of the great engines of nature, probably tied to some sequence in our DNA, one lodged in our helix at a point close to those other sequences which leave us Powerless to Resist Shopping, Bound to Drive Automobiles, Unable to Put Down the Doritos, or Prone to Corporate Employment.

Along with Chance Gardner, I like to watch.  Happily, I've channeled this instinct into various forms of bestial backyard voyeurism:  Bee TV, Chicken TV, etc.  I sit, often in the good company of other misfits, and survey the life adventures of my bees, chickens, and whatever other species see fit to present themselves in my backyard.  It's no American Idol, thank God, but I pull up a chair or cop a squat on a rock on a regular basis and watch my bees or my chickens do their thing.  It's endlessly entertaining and there are no commercials.

I think it was my durable partner in gardening and dear love Kristin who coined the term Chicken TV a number of years ago.  We added the bee channel last year.  And, inspired by wine and good company the other evening, we opened discussions about a pirate channel for goats.

For my money, Bee TV puts all the rest to shame.  HBO, History Channel, Weather Channel, etc....even PBS are but weak alternatives.  I tune in sometimes sitting at a distance with a cup of coffee, or sometimes on elbows and knees with my face a few inches from the hive door.  Yesterday, I watched a worker bee gobbing propolis into minute cracks on the front of the hive where sugar ants had been entering presumably to rob honey.  Today, no ants.

Sometimes it's high drama, soap-opera sexual tension at it's best with shiftless drones and drone larvae being chucked off the front porch of the hive by female worker bees all about business.  "We have flowers.  Our queen is beautiful and already fertile.  What do we need you for?"  When new queens hatch some springs, there's rivalry that would make Joan Collins or even Gigi from One Life To Live look like rank amateurs.

More mundanely, on warm days when nectar is flowing, activity goes crazy and the somewhat small entrances to my hives are choked with bees pushing past each other to get in with nectar and out to get more.  Their passage is complicated by rows of fanner bees who moon me as I peer into the dark entrance.  They beat their wings to circulate moist air down through the hive and out the entrance past their little backsides, all part of the drying effort by which nectar becomes honey.

Saturday was a rock star day for nectar.  Bee TV at its best.  The frenzy of entrance activity made me curious enough to actually look into the hive Saturday and again Sunday.   Sure enough, the bees had added about 5 lbs. of new honey in about 24 hours.  Amazing.

The worst habits follow you wherever you go.  Bee TV, as it happens, also travels well.  This pretty much cinches it as a real instance of the genre:  after all, when I travel for work, I see people in airports carrying mobile TV and DVD devices.  I too take my habits travelling.  Just this Sunday I took my own viewing on the road around the neighborhood.  No wires or batteries required.  In Whitey's hive, we went nosing around for baby bees and were not disappointed.  They were easily spotted curled up in the bottom of their brood cells, no bigger than a grain of rice.  His queen is alive and doing her thing.  Several bars were also nicely built out with honey, bright, clear, light first year honey that I was sorely tempted to gnosh right there with the sun coming through it for the first time ever.  Watching is enough though for this year.  With luck, those happy bees will survive and thrive and generate enough of a surplus to afford us a harmless taste.

After Whitey's, a block to the west we also stopped in to check on a neglected hive that swarmed a couple weeks ago.   We caught and used it to make a new colony elsewhere.  But, checking in I see that the old box, much to my surprise, still has a very vigorous population.  The in/out traffic at the entrance is brisk, a sure sign of a healthy colony.  Apparently, the hive split instead of just relocating.  Judging the by size of the swarm we captured and the buzz remaining in the old hive, it must have been a gigantic bee colony before the swarm.  This week we'll put the old hive to right:  fix a broken bottom board, check in the boxes, and add a couple of supers.  We'll weigh in for a moment, adding a few niceties which, if we're lucky, will in some small way further the humbling, quotidian efforts of tens of thousands of bees over the course of the year and beyond.  I know hives in this town, wild ones, that have prospered on their own for decades.  We mainly add by not taking away.

Enthusiasm aside, it's a certainty that the Nielsen people do not have us on their radar.  All of this undoubtedly falls to the very remotely quirky tails of the viewing preference distribution.  Nonetheless I was shocked a few years ago to discover, quite by accident, that we are not entirely alone in our watching habits.  At a pub one evening we were almost howling out loud about some scenes we'd viewed earlier in the day on Chicken TV (full disclosure:  the scenes in question were decidedly MA on the rating system and involved the often shocking realities of Hot Poultry Love) when our waiter drew up short from across the room, out of earshot (we were gesturing), and came over to ask, "You've got chickens too?"

Now, he's cultured fellow, a talented professional musician who though he tours nationally and even internationally, still pours beer in support of both himself and the better funded segments of our economy.  On days when I catch myself zoning out in front of a hive or maybe channel surfing between bees, chickens, and compost pile worms, and I glance down at my ruined Carharts and my dirty nails and momentarily see Urban Yokel, I remember Dan and then Dan on stage somewhere singing to thousands of people and I am reassured
that my wiring is OK after all.  Liking bees more than Fox News or Lost does not make me defective and may even be a good thing.

Try it sometime.  Turn off your other set.  Find a hive.  Tune in.  See what happens.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Hearty Hello From Our Newest Beekeeper

I just had the pleasure of meeting Steve Woolf the other day while chasing (unsuccessfully) a swarm we intended to put in his backyard as the newest member of our little co-op.

Steve and his wife Dena and their son Bodhi live at 2723 Harris St. and he's still on the lookout for a swarm to capture!

If you find or hear of a swarm that we might grab to help him get started, please give him a ring or text message at  (415)341-6920.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Reading Resource Library

Interested in knowing more about your bees?

We have a small reading library on bees and beekeeping available here and from the menu toward the top of the home page of this blog.

If you have anything about bees to read and are willing to add it to this little library, please email details to me at and include a little information following the example in the links above.

Happy reading and happy Spring!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Queen Sightings

Intrepid paparazzi beekeepers Dan Parker and Lise Rein ventured into their hives a couple of days ago seeking photos of celebrity queens recently sighted here in Amazon.

In this first pic, Mr. Parker is seen seeking an encounter with one of the queens, moments before her bodyguards "got all huffy and up in my grill", as Ms. Rein works the camera.

Bystanders reported that the queen stumbled drunkenly out of the VIP room of her hive, buzzing profanely, and shouted out "Nice hat, a**hole!" to Mr. Parker just before the altercation occurred.

After the incident, bee police were called to the scene and served the hive owner with a warrant to inspect the premises.

At the scene, Chief Inspector Sherry Wellborn told reporters, "Officers discovered evidence of extensive unlicensed comb and even honey production in the VIP room of the hive.  We're taking this matter very seriously."

Asked for comment, David Stucky, who identified himself only as "a friend of the larger bee community and a hive employee" said, "Hey, we're providing a legitimate service here.  We're not looking for trouble from nobody."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Swarm Meets Swarm

Yesterday evening, in circumstances I'll get to in a bit, I was set to wondering again about balance between the helpings of chaos and whatever the other stuff is called when it isn't chaos that are dished up by the universe.

This is my 'God as Chow Line Monkey' version of How Things Are.

There are, of course, much better versions out there...versions I heartily recommend, especially if it means you stop reading this now in order to make room for them in your day.  Best of all, you don't even have to resort to anything that requires a concordance for intelligibility.

The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe noted at some length simply that 'Things Fall Apart'.  Tolstoy had an only slightly less pessimistic view about the probabilities for harmony/discord which he popped right out with in the first lines of Anna Karenina, "All happy families are happy in the same way.  Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Taken together, these observations basically come to:
  1. It's a lost cause.
  2. You can screw it up in a lot more ways than you can make it right.
So, back to our story, the setting for which is roughly as follows.  It's yesterday about 4:45pm.  I've got a meeting at 5:30 about a compost project and another at 7pm with a neighborhood group.  Despite this, I'm still working on things that occasionally result in ways to pay the mortgage when my phone rings and a voice I've never heard before spits out all of the following in about 5 seconds:

"Hi, my name is Nate and I've seen your garden and your bees and there are bees in my yard too but they were here when we got here and now they all just came out of the hive in a cloud and have landed on the fence in big clod which is huge and I'm wondering what do I do?"  
File:Bee swarm on fallen tree03.jpg
Nate's sounding like an advance man for Achebe's book tour, what with 40,000 or so bees doing their unpredictable thing near his hot tub and all.  

"I live about a block from you," he adds helpfully.

I look outside and notice that it's starting to rain.

Now, bee swarms are basically the winged embodiment of that very fine and wiggly line between things working and things falling apart.  Bees swarm naturally as part of their life cycle, mainly for reproductive reasons.  This reproductive facet should offer a clue for those of us acquainted with the orderliness which normally surrounds reproductive pursuits, especially in Springtime and most especially after beer in Springtime.  

On the one hand, you have to figure that getting thirty or forty thousand bees to do anything at one time represents a miraculous feat of organization, at least from the bees' perspective.  But, to most people, it's pure chaos.  

Visually, a bee swarm manifests as a moving, 3-D fractal, perfectly expressing the teetering cosmic amble between organization and randomness.  The bees rise into the air from the hive, variously forming a dispersed and then gathered cloud which darkens and shifts, but clearly shows itself to be tethered to an invisible center which is the queen and her hopeful but mostly hapless drone consorts.  In almost all cases, the swarm will quickly find a nearby resting spot such as a tree limb, the eave of a building, or Nate's fence.  After a rest, they'll rise again and set out full of purpose for another destination that they've also not yet identified.

If you're a beekeeper, swarms basically split the line the same way.  When one of your hives swarms, it's a drag.  Your helping of chaos is invariably served when you're busy doing something else (see above), and may well result in the loss of the hive.  On the other hand, swarm season (usually in May or early June) represents a great opportunity to capture swarms and use them to start new colonies, which of course then potentially recapitulate the swarm drama the next season.

So, back to the Chow Line.   Rain is coming.  I've just hung up on Nate.  And I realize that I don't even have a completed hive box to put the swarm into if I catch them, much less a place to put the hive that I don't have.  Possibilities for failure abound.  Things are normal.  

What happened next was all accident (again, see above), but this morning a narrative suggests itself which I thought worth some consideration.  Here's the sequence of events.

I literally shout over to my neighbor Loren who is mostly minding his own business, "Hey, how would you like some bees and what are you doing right now?"  Then I call my friend and co-beekeeper Erik (who also has to be at the 7pm meeting) and say to him, "Up for a little adventure?".  Erik calls our mutual friend Dan, another beekeeper, with the same query.  We humans rise up in our own little cloud to swarm with the unruly bees down the block.  

Faster than you can visit a flower, we get the rest of a new hive put together, site it in Loren's backyard, gather our gear and show up at Nate's place where he and several friends spontaneously join our numbers, contributing a big cardboard box and a roll of tape to the effort.

At Nate's we sugar the bees up to calm them and then gently brush them into the box, trying as best we can to  get the large mass centers of the clump where the queen is likely to be.  The whole operation takes about 10 minutes.  We mist the bees in the box once more with sugar water and then shut it with a little tape and then make ourselves a weird little parade back down the block to Loren's place:  me in bee gear holding a big buzzing box, Erik with a couple of spray bottles, a dustpan, and a brush.  I'm wearing coveralls and big rubber boots to match my amazing bee hat.  Erik, a poet of customarily urbane appearance and demeanor, is sporting a puffy coat buttoned up to the neck, making him look more than a bit like Kenny from Southpark.  It's a little surprising that we are not arrested en route, but it's only a short walk.
kenny south park
At Loren's he's done a masterful job of setting up.  We we dump the bees into the prepared hive, put the top on, and block the entrance loosely with a couple of handfuls of grass to prevent the bees from bailing on us precipitously.  We shake hands and split up again to go and chase our meetings, eat dinner, and whatnot.  The bees have a new home.  Loren now has bees.  Erik got stung twice.  I've got things to think about.  I hope Dan has got something out of it too.  Nate is looking more relaxed.  The sky opens.

Queen bees lay on the order of a thousand eggs per day.  The 40,000 or so bees in a colony, each of which produces only a tiny fraction of a teaspoon of honey in its entire life, conspire to produce as much as 100lbs of honey each year.  As many as a hundred bee visits to a single blossom are required to pollinate some food plants.  Swarms like the one we caught yesterday commonly contain many virgin queens who will ultimately duke it out for the solitary privilege of working in the dark interior of the hive until they die, all in the service of their colony.  Erik and Dan and Loren and Nate and I snatched a hive, dinners, and couple of meetings out from under a rainstorm on a moment's notice.  

It is, of course, still a lost cause and the opportunities for failure are legion, but numbers matter.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Looking for Pollen in All the Right Places

Within about a week or so, one thing to keep an eye out for around our new hives will be bees carrying pollen into the hive from the field.  

Bee Pollen

It's easy to spot...looks like gigantic (relatively speaking) yellow or orange MC Hammer pants on the bee's rear legs.  (Insects with camp?!  Who knew?)

Pollen going in means that the queen is likely laying and that workers are feeding the pollen to young bees (brood), an important milestone in the establishment of a new hive.

Many keepers open the hive soon after starting a colony to check and see if the queen is alive and laying.  I prefer the less invasive option of watching the hive from without.  Much can be understood about what's going on inside the hive simply by observing bee behavior at the hive door.  There's a great little book on that topic (I have a copy if you're interested) called 'At the Hive Entrance' by H. Storch.

Bee Factoid of the Day:
The average honeybee produces only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its entire life.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Colony Check

On Monday, I did a quick check on five of the nine colonies we installed Saturday and was pleased to see good, purposeful activity in all cases.  Bees were out foraging.  Flight paths indicated pretty clearly that they'd already located good food sources.

Bee factoid of the day:
Queen bees actually make an audible sound called 'piping' which is believed to have something to do with queen-on-queen (sounds racy) challenges within the hive.  It's reported to sound something like a child's toy horn and usually comes in at about a G# tonally.

Now, if we could get one of our colonies to do an E, another a B, and a fourth a D, we'd have barbershop!

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Entrance of the Bees Into Valhalla

We Bee People had a great hive starting day Saturday. The weather smiled gently on us with a little sun and nice temperatures. After some breakfast and socializing, we set about our day's work: installing bees into nine new hives!

Most of the new empty hive boxes had already been setup the day before and were ready for bees which come in small screen-sided shipping containers. We got 3lbs of bees for each of our new hives, about 10,000 bees per hive. We split our new hives pretty evenly between Carniolans and Italians, the two most common breeds in the United States today.

Inside each container, a smaller cage suspended from a metal strap holds the queen!

After dowsing the bees with a 1:1 spray of sugar water to calm them, the first step is to get the queen into the hive.

When we pull the small queen cage from the larger shipping container, a clump of bees usually hangs on as you see here in Erik's hands.

Notice that Erik isn't wearing any protective gear. When bees have no hive to protect, they're very docile and can be handled easily. Over the course of the day, even working without gear most of the time, we only received three stings...and those occurred largely due to our own clumsiness.

Erik then shakes the clump of bees surrounding the queen into the hive so that we can work on the queen next. The open shipping container is sitting next to Erik with bees beginning to mill about. Because it was a little cool Saturday (about 50 degrees F), the bees are a big sluggish. As the day warmed up, they became more active with successive hive installations. Sugar water helps keep them busy eating rather than flying around.

During shipping, the queen is kept separate from the workers for a couple of reasons. First, she's not from the same colony, so a good chance exists that if mixed too abruptly with the workers, they'd kill her. The second reason is that queens are expensive and easily lost if mixed in with thousands of workers. So, keeping her separate allows us to keep an eye on her and know that she's healthy.

Now we pull the small cork from the queen cage to replace it with a piece of soft candy, a gummy bear in this case. We take care to put a finger over the hole during the swap so that she doesn't escape!

Over a day or two, the workers are able to eat their way through the gummy bear to free the queen. In the time they take to do so, they also have an opportunity to get to know her and accept her as their own.

Once the gummy bear is in place, we hang the small queen cage inside the new hive with the screen side out so as to maximize contact between her and the rest of the bees.

Then we rather un-gently shake the bees out of their shipping container and into the new hive.  You have to rap the sides of the container pretty vigorously to knock them loose.  There's a little commotion, but no aggression.

In this picture, I'm wearing gear (first hive of the day...just seeing how everyone's feeling after riding around in a truck for several days!), but after a couple of hives we did everything pretty much without protection.

Once the bees are in, we use a soft brush to get stray ones off the hive top and then replace the 'quilt box' which is part of the Warre system we're using.  Then we put the roof on and we're done!

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Over the next few days...

Great stuff on Saturday everyone!  All 9 neighborhood hives went in nicely.

I made rounds on Sunday morning to check in on most of the new hives and all looked pretty good:  bees all still there and making purposeful forays out to find food sources.

The next few days should be pretty easy for us and for the bees.  Here's what to expect:

  • Weather is going to be mild...plenty warm, but not hot.  Bees should be able to nicely venture forth to find food sources they need.  This is a good thing and the primary concern for a new colony.  I'm of the mind that the less 'unnatural' food we give them, the better off they'll be.  Feeding is helpful and perhaps even necessary in some scenarios, but I'm pretty confident that with our mild upcoming weather the bees we put in will be fine.
  • You should see modest traffic in and out of your hive with bees making gentle, rising, spiral patterns out to find food.  Most bees will remain in the hive for now.  On warmer days (like this Thursday), activity will increase a bit.
  • Within about a week, start to watch the traffic more closely.  If you see bees carrying pollen into the hive (yellow or orange 'saddle bags', that means the queen is probably laying already...a very good thing!
  • For those of us that put the feeder can in the roof and left the quilt box off, the can will probably be empty in a few days.  At that point, I'll be in touch to remove it and place the quilt box on the hive.\
  • Within about 30 days, some of our more successful hives will require that we add a 'super' or hive story.  This is an easy procedure that can be accomplished in about 15 minutes.
  • If you have any concerns or questions...please feel free to call me at 541.543.6458.
Great work everyone!


Monday, April 5, 2010

Final push for 2010 hives....

Greetings Bee People!

A bunch of us have been plugging away at our 2010 batch of hives this past week, making great progress and having a good time despite the fitful and sometimes dreary weather.

Our results are turning out to be handsome indeed as a number of people have commented.

 Here's a pseudo-complete setup (minus roof box) consisting of bottom board, one super, and a quilt box.  (Note flash of sunshine leaking in from the open shop door in the background!)

One hive has been delivered already.  The rest are still mostly in the shop awaiting final assembly.  We have about 20 top bars remaining to make (ran out of oak on Sunday) and the bottom boards yet to assemble.

Here's one of our ace hive carpenters looking casual on the job next to one of the roof assemblies.  Yes, we make it look easy, but that's mostly an illusion!

Not to dwell, but these hives are in fact so good looking that most observers seem compelled to inquire gently about what might easily be perceived as a measure of indulgence.  After all, bees in the wild (somehow) survived for millions of years without digs like these, preferring (insanely) the insides of old trees, crevices in rocks, etc.

Well, I can't answer for all those millions of years of roughing it, but these hives of ours are certainly a good upgrade--even a practical one--from the basic white-washed clunkers (yes, them's fightin' words) you see most everywhere.

The practical side of it is that our hives are:

  • WARMER in winter and COOLER in summer owing to the thicker walls and the nicely vented roof
  • Probably more DISCOURAGING TO MITES because they're made of slightly aromatic cedar
  • DRIER owing to the quilt box stuffed with shavings which absorb and release moisture as needed
  • LESS ACCESSIBLE TO ROBBERS AND WEATHER owing to the controlled opening size
  • MORE DURABLE because they're cedar
  • LESS TOXIC because we use no paint
  • MORE SUSTAINABLE because they don't require purchase of wax foundation or frames
And, did I mention that they also just plain good looking?

Our costs to make these ritzy bee havens came in at about $62 for a four super setup with roof/quilt/bottom board.  Co-Op members get them at cost which is a really, really good deal since comparable two super hives go for about $240 commercially.  So, twice the bee space for a fourth of the cost (plus a little sweat equity).

These are slightly adapted Warre hives.  We use metal screening on the quilt box instead of the prescribed burlap.  If closet purists among us surface, we can always trade out the metal for cloth later.  We also modified the dimensions slightly in order to make them easier to fabricate using inch measures rather than metric measures.  Beyond that they're pretty much by-the-book.

I'll be working up a set of how-to instructions with photos for anyone interested in detailed specs.  With a little prep, you can make a hive in decently appointed wood shop in about 2 days.  Batches make things quite a bit more efficient.

My only reservation about these hives is the amount of wood required to make them.  One 4-super unit requires about 22 board feet of wood.  While there are few things I'd rather see a nice piece of wood go to, the tree-hugger in me still bridles a bit at seeing that much timber go under the saw.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Bee Day--April 10

Dear Amazon Bee People,

For most of us, the day to install our new bees will be Saturday, April 10. Bees can actually be picked up at Glory Bee on the 9th, but there will be more help available for getting them into the hives Saturday.

I plan to drive out to Glory Bee about 9am Saturday to fetch bees in my vehicle and am happy to pick up anybody's bees if they ask. Anyone wishing to ride along and help is also most welcome!

Installing the bees is easy...especially if the hive is already setup, leveled, etc. in advance. When we distribute hives next week, hive hosters/keepers should set aside time to find a spot, get them setup and ready, etc. Choose a sunny spot, preferably facing east or south, not directly in front of a human traffic area.

If those with hives could please email to let me know when it would be most convenient to bring bees by on Saturday, I'll try to work up a schedule. Since we have 10 hives to do, we'll have to be efficient! Also, please let me know if you'd like to join the bee crew doing the actual's fun and simple, albeit a little unnerving the first time.

Anyone with a conflict Saturday should try to let me know ASAP so that we can work around it.

Best regards,


Monday, March 22, 2010

12 More Boxes....and a great website

Lise and I made up 12 more supers today. We worked and she told me a little about boating adventures on a number of excellent rivers in the West. We passed the time easily.

Here's a great website for beekeeping information. It's maintained by a sensible fellow genuinely concerned for the welfare of his bees. He hits on number of points which seem to be also addressed by the type of hives we're setting up to use.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

IMPORTANT: Bee Orders Due by April 2

Attention all Amazon Bee People! VERY IMPORTANT

Everyone wishing to get bees needs to order from Glory Bee by April 2 for pickup April 9.

To place orders please call the Glory Bee factory store at (800) 456-7923 x110.

I recommend you get the Carnolian in a 3 lbs package. 2 lbs are a little less, but the extra pound only costs about $12 more and will get your hive off to a faster start.

Please call me if you have any questions! 541.543.6458

Hive Day Off To a Great Start

Thanks to some solid effort, we (Dan, Lise, and David) got a huge amount of work done toward construction of the 10 hives we've committed to build.

We picked up materials on Friday at a cost of about $60/hive (includes 4 supers)...all of nice Western Red Cedar with oak top bars. We looked at redwood too, but it was a little spendy and not sized optimally for our adventures.

Saturday Dan and I cut the 2x10's to length, anxious to get them indoors ahead of the rain forecast for Sunday. We made it!

Sunday we started off with scones, coffee, and eggs and then got busy thickness planing the various pieces down to their final 1 3/8 thickness. Dan's a marvel at setting up shop for efficient production, so the work went much (much) faster than it would have without him. Dan did most of the cutting and rabbeting on the table saw. We planed together. Then Dan did the roof pieces and cut the oak top bars while Lise and I glued up boxes...which look great! We finished 13 supers (only 32 left to go!)

With nearly all of the milling behind us, the assembly will go relatively quickly from this point on. More hands will be exceedingly welcome as we do the rest of the assembly, sanding, and finishing.

Photos coming soon!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Hive Building Day!

We'll be building hives this Sunday, March 20...probably most of the day. We're going to try and get eight built....which would be a great success.

We're making them after the Warre model (see here: The finished products look like the ones in the photo here. They're bee-friendly, easy to make, and require no special materials.

We'll have a good time! More photos soon.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Let's Make It Happen!

Honeybees are amazing! These lovely, gentle, and industrious creatures account for upwards of 80% of the pollination required for human food crop production. Happy and healthy bees are essential to our own survival.

Bees have also had a very difficult time in recent years. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has resulted in a decrease of up to 40% of the bee population. Many experts agree that CCD is probably not caused by a single factor, but more likely by a combination of increasing pressures on honeybees including radical inbreeding for commercial purpose, use of pesticides, over-harvesting of honey, and too frequent relocation of hives.

Though no hard statistics exist, many non-commercial beekeepers report substantially better fortunes with their hives in recent years than do commercial keepers. Keeping a beehive as part of your garden can offer bees a more bee-centric place to live, one less subject to the pressures associated with commercial beekeeping.

By creating a Bee Co-Op for the Amazon Neighborhood, we can play a small role in supporting our own local bee population by directly increasing the number of colonies in the neighborhood. A co-op approach has a number of benefits:

  • It’s more fun. Bees are a lot of fun. Sharing fun with others is always better than having fun alone.
  • It’s easier to support a healthy network of hives. Hive losses do occur. When a small individual beekeeper loses a hive, sometimes it’s necessary to wait an entire year to restart. Working with others makes it easier to share bees as a means of supporting weak hives or even to build new colonies from existing ones.
  • Work is easier. Though bees are really simple to keep (you mostly leave them alone!), it’s nice to have an extra pair of hands around when you do work with them. Some beekeeping activities like harvesting honey and swarm management tend to happen all at once, making more help a welcome thing.
  • We can share expertise. We all learn by doing. Different hives present different challenges and hence learning opportunities. Sharing experience means more success and happier bees.
  • Costs of keeping bees go down. We can share effort and expertise required to build hives for the cost of materials and can share hive supers (the ‘stories’ or ‘levels’ which make up hives) as well as other equipment such as gloves, veils, smokers, honey harvesting gear, etc.
  • We can help more people enjoy bees. A co-op approach will enable more people to keep bees themselves and will help some people to simply host hives kept by others.