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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.