Saturday, May 28, 2005

Bee in the Street Interview

bees at entryBeing with the bees is a sensory treat, and photos alone just don't do it. It is a challenge to convey to you how it feels to work with them, a set of sensations that may explain the extreme enthusiasm noted by some of our friends.

For one thing, they are very interesting to watch, but they move around so quickly that our collection has many blurry images of really cool stuff that we just did not catch in time. Bees grooming each other, the queen dashing around, workers sipping sugar syrup in the feeder with their tongues sticking out. The photos do help some with that, though.

For another, it smells good inside a hive. One of the reason I bailed out of wearing gloves so soon (other than a desire to keep extra bees from getting squashed) is that the smell of beeswax and propolis ("bee glue") clings to my hands for many hours after. The camera buttons got covered in the light yellow propolis when I worked the frames this time, and the aroma is still right here on my desk with me.

Finally, there is the sound, and it changes as you work. Approaching the busier colony, I can hear them buzzing from a distance now, low and even. When you puff smoke at a group of them, there is a concerted, bee-like "whoa" wave of a buzz.

Now, I cannot give you a scratch and sniff web page, or a taste of honey, but we have been working on the sound thing.

the real buzzThe following sound clip comes from a 15-year-old Sony dictation recorder that we stuck in the entrance to Colony 2. (Ah, the residue of corporate life!) My husband found a way to plug the earpiece jack into his hi-res sound capture card, and rendered it for me. It's a 2.8 MB mp3, so feel free to download it to your iPod. You need to play it at a fairly decent volume, because there are lots of things going on at various levels. The main voice you will hear is a guard bee who crawled all over the mike, issuing stern opinions about interlopers. After she finishes guard duty, she will become a field bee and spend more time with flowers than nosy humans.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Photo Envy

MaryEllen's Beautiful Honeybee photoOK, the first thing you need to know is, well, this is NOT MY honeybee picture. This is the one that has eluded me every day, as I sit near the hives, watching the girls start flying for the day. It is, in fact, MaryEllen's honeybee portrait, and doesn't it just figure? Since she last appeared in this blog, she has been getting queens (inadvertently) to cohabitate and capturing elusive runaway regal bees. Did I mention she can make pastry? Also, she is going to let me help her harvest honey this summer, and *that* is something good to do a couple of times with someone who really knows how (and in case we are not jealous enough, MaryEllen also has her own honey extractor). But we all should relax: she only uses her powers for good. Um, and I forgot to ask permission to use this picture, so perhaps this might be a good time to ask for forgiveness instead...
This picture was taken as the bee in question was drying off from the recent rain, and warming up in the sun. To the left is a spot of honey that MaryEllen provided as a snack. This week has been really cold for late May, and I, too, spent some time on the roof, trying to fish bees out of puddles. They can drown pretty easily, and it seemed like a chance to make up for some of the squashed girls along the way. In each case, the struggling bee would cling to the proffered finger, and I would sorta hold her out in the breeze to dry off (bees don't like people-breath, so blowing on her was right out). It was cold, so I cradled my hands around her, sortof. It got a bit funny and annoying each time, because the bees did not seem to wish to go back down to hives or fly off. But the trouble turned into coaxing bees off in order to get back downstairs–and back to work– myself. I must have been a bunch warmer than the weather.
Sam's bee wing detailSince today is all about sharing the photographic spotlight, this picture represents a special guest appearance by my husband. He used an Intel kid's microscope hooked up to his PC to get this 60x magnification of a wing detail. Bees are in the class Hymenoptera, (honeybees are Apis mellifera, meaning "honey-bearing bee"), and the class name refers to the two united pairs of wings possessed by bees. It's therefore kind of cool that he got this shot. When the bees get stuck in puddles, it often seems as if their wings get pasted to the wet roof via surface tension, and drying them off seems to be a combination of watching the wings get less stuck together and hoping the breathing holes are clearing, too.
Two last things, the beekeeper's association that gave the class which enabled all this has a bulletin board for new beekeepers, and the moderator encouraged posting of pictures today (which is how I ripped off MaryEllen), so I decided to share the way in which digital photography helps me see, analyze, and understand what is going on upstairs. Hope it helps. I also volunteered to work at a festival in late June and early July that will feature beekeeping and honey. Don't worry, there will be pictures...

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Magical Apistry Tour

worker drawing waxIn all this bee blather, do you wonder what it is that beekeepers are doing and thinking when they bust open a colony and start moving bits around, cutting other stuff off, and so on? Even a few days after, I struggle to keep the details straight, and I was there.
More seriously, it's important for beekeepers to know what they are there for and to remember what they see, though all that info (both rambling thoughts and the extra pictures taken for the purpose of second-guessing myself later) is a bit too long and larva-oriented for a blog post.
So here is a slide show that, if you are up for 13 pictures and a lecture, will take you through what was going on during the visit to the sisters of Colony 1 on May 19th (Colony 2's slides will come tomorrow). The captions have not been corrected to reflect what might have been in error or just plain hopeful: this is not gospel, but it is true.
And yet, this is all posted three days later. Why the delay? Beekeeping, which is one of the liveliest things I have ever done, has run into the many complications of life. It has been hard to do right by the bees or by this blog as a result. Please rest assured that I let this blog and friendly contact with other humans suffer before the girls upstairs.
There have been weddings, and several days in another city, training the person who will take over my job, which I am leaving. It is very hard to both do ones' job and to explain it, let alone show someone else how to do it. Choosing to leave was no uncomplicated thing on its own, many loopy feelings on the topic. But the bees buzz on, and so will I.
If you don't want to page through the slide show, here is a summary of bee affairs:
  • Colonies 1 and 2 still have their undistinguished names, though that does not mean that the suggestions received have fallen on deaf ears. I'm sorta waiting for more data before deciding.

  • If I had to give a one line diagnosis of Colony 1, it would be "reviving but short on workers and comb."

  • Colony 2 is a raging, rip-roaring cloud of bees these days, though the colony had not yet filled up the new medium deep super they received on May 12. I am thinking they may get a newly painted FULL deep, obtained courtesy of MaryEllen and her husband, either Monday or Tuesday. My goal is to make the deep their eventual brood chamber for the winter.

  • I need to read up to see if this is how to do it.

A bumblebee landed on my left hand while I was painting the new deeps this weekend (and seemed like she wanted to stay). What a different beastie she was from the honeys on the roof! She was way squarer and fuzzier, she had big eyes like yellow snowglobes, and carried a mouth full of pollen. She was rubbing her antennae and lifting her butt like crazy: guess I smell bad. I need to find out what manner of bumbler she and her backyard buddies are.
A final note: My husband rescued a honeybee from the bathroom on Saturday, with tenderness and pride. He assured me that she was fine, just lost. My god I love that man.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Bees going in 5 directions

Or is it the beekeeper?

It's hard to collect just one coherent message to record here, there is so much to say. These bees are leading me in agricultural, philosophical, social, organizational, and even political directions that seem so very odd.

Today, details about beekeeping, because keeping track is increasingly important.

This week has had lots of events, none of them catastrophic, thank goodness. The weather went from slightly chilly to really really warm, and that has affected the speed of developments. On Wednesday, I removed the paper that separated the top and bottom halves of Colony 1 – the troubled gals who got the new queen last Thursday. No effort had been made to chew through at all, but all seemed really quiet (too quiet to my mind), so I took it out. The queen was still fine upstairs, and she had definitely been laying. She was working a mostly full frame with capped brood, some of which had hatched. I got to thinking that she needed more comb, and more workers to draw it. In the absence of hostilities, she got access to those things. Colony 1 has started to show some interest in the syrup feeder, without drowning any bees like the last time. Feeding them lots is a way to get them to pump out the wax, so this is what we like to see.

Colony 2 is, of course, the party colony. They got more syrup on Monday, ate it, and got a whole gallon more today. They filled most of the frames that they got 8 and a half days ago, do I gave them another 10 frames in a medium deep hive body. The colony is simply roaring: they are capping brood on a frame placed there only days ago: this means that they drew the comb and it received eggs within a day of placement. I am not sure this makes sense! The nectar flow around here is supposed to be beginning either now or over the next few days. I am not sure what this means for how high Colony 2 may go.

There is a CLOUD of buzzing bees around the front entry. You can hear them from several feet away. I'll try to get you a recording. Yesterday, when it was really hot, a few hundred bees were on the sides of the hive, fanning rapidly to cool things down. It seemed like the right time to bring the new 4 foot tall butterfly bush – bought especially as a source of shade, with a bonus August bloom time – up to the roof and place it to throw a shadow. You can see the arrangement at left.

The local beekeeper association's monthly meeting was last night, and there was much talk of odd weather this year and its affect on Queen breeding. A beekeeper of nearly godlike status in the field mentioned that he had received 7 "dud" queens from the 45 packages (FORTY FIVE PACKAGES!) he had ordered this year. He got his bees from the same guy I did. How many colonies must a guy have to need 45 packages?

Anyway, the Spring was late here and in Georgia where the bees were bred. That means, in order to meet the promised delivery dates, the Queens were bred at the first possible moment, and that may have resulted in a larger number of poorly mated or just plain not mated queens. It seems unlikely that I would get a dud with only two packages, but what it might mean is that I was in a shaky situation that was not really tolerant of beginner error. Our cold weather right after the first brood were laid did not help,

There is much more to tell, but since the hives should be left alone tomorrow and Saturday, I will save it until then. It's just great watching the buzzing hoards of bees in the sun, many of them now born right here!

Monday, May 09, 2005


Today was a perfect sunny Spring holiday for bees, so as soon as the neighbors went to work, so did I. The task? First, to discover whether the New Queen introduced to Colony 1 three days ago was accepted, and therefore still alive and laying eggs, and second, to monitor the progress of uniting the poor troubled "laying worker" part of the colony with the nuclear colony containing the New Queen.

Just to review: the nuclear colony (or nuc) contains some bees and frames from rambunctious Colony 2, and our hope is that by placing it on top of (but separated from) the problem colony and gradually uniting them, all the bees will become one big happy honey hunting family.

We are pleased to announce that the New Queen, who is properly known as a Kona Carniolan, is a properly ensconced monarch. If you all want to start humming "God Save The Queen," I have no objection. When the colony was opened, I found her on the second frame containing brood, surrounded by a textbook circle of attendants (you can see some fuzzy photos via the link at right). Close examination of a frame of uncapped cells that was provided did not show any obvious eggs, and there was no new drawn comb in evidence, so of course there is a way to worry about this if I want to.

Now onto Task 2: Reunion

Looking down through the double screened board that we used to separate the nuc on top from the problem children on the bottom, there were no apparent hostilities. No bees were clinging to the screen on either side, though there was plenty of coming and going at the front entrance. It seemed we were ready to go ahead with the next step.

To slow the process of introducing potentially hostile bees to the same hive, beekeepers often create a barrier between two hive bodies with a couple of sheets of newspaper that they poke or tear a few times. The bees can't make holes in the paper, their mouth parts aren't built for it (another bit of bee knowledge from MaryEllen), but they can chew a path over time if you get the ball rolling. This is what was done today: we had some plain newsprint left over from when we moved in, and that seemed like a nicer choice than stuff printed with furniture ads and baseball scores. We made several small holes across the width and breadth of the paper, and then placed it on top of the laying workers, and beneath the nuc.

Let's all hope that there is enough life in the girls to get to it now. The energy level in there is still not what one hopes to see.

What about Colony 2?

Colony 2 is rocking and rolling as usual. I brought sugar syrup along today because those greedy gals can't seem to get enough, and Colony 1 might be starting to use more of it, too. When taking off the cover of Colony 2, they had drained it dry again! Rock on, Colony 2! The bees were actually so greedy that they started climbing into the feeder to drink while I was trying to fill it, even after being smoked. Hmmm. Wonder if it was BECAUSE they were smoked? Anyway, the next time someone acts all frightened about bees, tell them that I was lifting hungry bees out of a feeder with my bare hands, and was not even threatened with a sting.

Finally, a word about this whole "Colony" thing:

My friend Megan brought to my attention that this whole "Colony 1" and "Colony 2" thing was a little abstract and easy to confuse, especially since the two hives have such different personalities. "How about 'Red' colony and 'Blue' colony, or 'Go' Colony and 'Ambivalent' Colony, or some such?" says she. I don't want to go with "Red" or "Blue" because I do not want to find myself (or anyone else) politically biased against one or the other of the colonies. Also, if naming is at all fateful, it seems unfortunate to hang "Ambivalent" on a group of gals who may yet come around. My husband, I am sure, would like to name them "Godzilla" and "Mothra."

So this idea is under consideration. There is a comment link just below: you are welcome and encouraged to make suggestions!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Every little thing gonna bee alright

honeycomb in hand
This morning, something genuinely wonderful happened: help came from someone who had the power to make good things happen in her hands, in response to a request that was never even effectively articulated.

Let me tell you something about MaryEllen: she is good with bees, she is gentle and patient with people (even antsy-clueless-panicked ones), and she is an expert pastry chef. Folks, this is a Human Trifecta. I guarantee this: you wish you knew her. It is only through the greatest good fortune that I do. Thank you, Mary Ellen.

This is what we did today:

Colony 2

We started with the up side: a voyage through Colony 2, with an eye to identifying and marking the queen. While she eluded us, a number of really good things happened. First, we spent alot of time looking at bees, and it was very helpful to really get a handle on what a drone looks like, and to start understanding the wide variety of coloring that bees can have (not every blondie with a big butt is a queen, and you can quote me on that). Also, these bees are avid wax generators and comb builders, and I had let them do too much of it. MaryEllen showed me how to cut off and clean up comb with minimum damage to the bees. In searching out the queen, she also discovered that a hive body I had (inadvisably) placed below the main one, and which I had expected the bees to ignore, actually contained several frames of comb I had not suspected! The girls worked DOWN *and* UP! This is an extra relief, too, because I had pulled three frames of comb out of Colony 2 to make the nuc, and this means that I deprived them of a much smaller proportion of their bees and work than first thought, and jeopardized them less.

Other great discoveries: very white beeswax, very nice honey cappings (this is a mark of honeybee product machismo, though totally a product of genetics – another way in which bees are like people), and actual new bees emerging before our very eyes! Welcome girls! You are beautiful.

As a management note, we placed the very full hive body that had been in the middle on the botttom, put the one that had been worked more than I knew in the middle, and put the emptyish one that had just been added back on top. The frames ended up being put back in a more or less disordered fashion, which is not desirable, but it allowed us to make sure that proper bee space was maintained. This means the workers won't waste their time in future building comb and storing honey that they will lose when I have to cut it out.

Colony 1

Colony 1 is where profound appreciation for bee sense, experience, and judgement comes into play. MaryEllen recently dealt successfully with a "laying worker" situation of her own (rock on, MaryEllen) and immediately identified the same situation in Colony 1. Things had gotten worse since Sunday: there were many many cells with 2 or more eggs, not in the center, drone comb in really bad shape, and so on. But on the up side, she noticed that my bees were more relaxed than her laying workers had been, and that the situation had not advanced as far. Bees in a "laying worker" situation are in a very bad mood: they are confused and their hormones are messed up and they think they might be in charge. Colony 1 was more docile than that. This is a good thing: they will be more likely to accept a real queen if they are not all ramped up on their own.

And now the psychic bee-ness really comes in. We took a look at the nuc colony I made on Tuesday– the one with the queen I had recently uncorked but not released. MaryEllen could tell that the bees in the nuc really wanted their new queen, even though at least two of the queen's attendants in the cage had died. She thought the queen was ready, too.

We set up the hive box with the laying workers on the bottom, placed the double screen board that MaryEllen both made and brought on top, and then placed the nuc on top. We took the queen cage, and prepared to release the queen directly into the nuc box. Here we stopped.

MaryEllen told me that, if the queen did not think she would be accepted–and she would know–she would shrink when we let her out of the cage. But MaryEllen thought she was raring to go. When the screen was pulled back on the queen cage, the new queen immediately popped out and slipped between two frames, a new retinue of attendants close behind. And MaryEllen said, "she is SO home."

And I felt so good, too.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Help is on the way

Perhaps it was the implicitly panicky tone, maybe it was the cluelessness of the questions asked (they're pasted in below) but a beekeeper who knows lots more has offered to come to the rescue in person. Mary Ellen is in her third year, but almost more importantly, she is not very far away and is OK with the idea of climbing up to the roof. We have plans for first thing tomorrow. Oh thank you, Mary Ellen! And thanks to the other beekeepers, too, in case my gratitude has not reached you yet.

We reviewed what had been done so far:
  1. one unused hive body was retrieved from the basement;
  2. three frames of comb and some bees were taken from Colony 2;
  3. the new queen was removed from danger in Colony 1; and
  4. all the above were placed together in a new "nuc" or nuclear colony.

The queen was still in her corked cage (meaning she could not get free), and the nuc was placed on top of a barrier sitting on top of sickly Colony 1. A "double screen board" is what people who know recommend for this (a piece of plywood with a hole in the middle, covered on either side with metal screen which bees can't chew through – they can see and smell each other, but they cannot hurt each other). I used two queen excluders with some cardboard because it would take too long to get or make a double screen board.

Mary Ellen said several comforting things at this point:
  1. The situation is stable – in other words, this nuclear option was not a bad thing.
  2. The new queen should be freed in her new home in order to get the ball rolling – so I should remove the cork and let her new workers free her (uncorking now complete).
  3. Because Colony 1 is relatively new, the "laying worker" situation could be reversible, and the "nuc" on top might actually be unite-able with the sad girls on the bottom; and
  4. Mary Ellen is good at spotting queens, so she can spend time with me to look at Colony 1, see if there is a queen still in there, analyze the brood; and otherwise settle the current question about what is going on.

Maybe we can mark the queens of Colonies 1 and 2 if we can find them. I hope she is not just horrified at all this incompetence.

There will be pictures of all this eventually, but in the scramble to try to work this out, the camera would not have helped these clumsy hands.

As promised, below here's the plea that was posted to the beekeepers' bulletin board.

From: "phang"
Date: Tue May 3, 2005 1:21 pm
Subject: Are These Emergency Queen Cells?

With apologies to those of you who have been pestered already, I'd like to ask for some guidance or confirmation.

I have a struggling colony whose queen may have been injured during installation of a package three weeks ago. When I checked the weak colony on Sunday, what little comb there was had misshapen cells all over it, and not much more than a week previous.

Could anyone take a look at the pictures taken of this at and tell me:
  1. are these emergency queen cells, or something else?
  2. I tried to find the original queen to remove and replace her and could not. Is she dead already?
  3. Yesterday a new queen was purchased and this AM, still in a corked cage, she was placed in the hive. Is she safe? Should I remove her?

Thank you, and please please someone else ask some questions so I can ask some more without being the only pest!

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

So bad that I'm not sure how bad it is

Since last Thursday (the last entry), the fortunes of Colony 1 seem to be in a sudden downward spiral, or maybe I only just figured it out. This whole thing is proving very hard to figure out, or maybe this proud city resident just is not coming from the right place.

The basic story is that something is wrong, and that deciding what is wrong determines the course of action to address the situation. A laying queen was spotted in Colony 1 over a week ago, but since then no new comb has been spun, very little laying has taken place, and what did occur seems to have resulted in a disastrously messed up "drone comb.' Drone comb is often laid by something called a "laying worker," a worker bee who has been stimulated to lay, even though her offspring can only be drones and therefore not support the colony, because the queen is either gone or incapacitated.

Since the last entry (and before I saw the mystery comb), I considered whether I had to dispatch the queen and replace her, and I went looking for advice. Perhaps I have been too reticent to ask, or just too clueless to keep bees because I need too much guidance, because whatever I have done, I seem to have waited too long. Between "gee she is slow" and "what the hell is going on?" only 4 days passed. I think the vote goes to "clueless."

It seemed reasonable that I should wait awhile, and give the original queen more time since she might just be getting a slow start. I decided to take that advice, and check in later. What I found, instead of progress and recovery, was the same few frames of comb NOW covered with drone cells in no particular pattern. I didn't even know they were drone cells: I thought they were queen cells. Colony 1 is so week they probably CAN'T raise their own queen. Probably a colony in its death throes if big, correct action is not taken.

It turns out that MY planned course of action, requeening, in a "laying worker" situation will not work, will not only not fix the situation but probably result in the death of the new queen. I had placed the new queen in that hive for almost 5 hours before I learned this -- more accurately, before I listened carefully enough or figured out what the key elements in the decision were.

There are very few ways to bring a hive back from a laying worker situation, and I am not sure I understand them.

One piece of advice that came from someone who actually saw the pictures I took of the situation was to consider making a "nuclear" or nuc colony by assembling a few frames from Colony 2, adding my new queen, and placing all of them in one of my empty hive bodies. This nuc is placed over the troubled colony with a bee proof barrier in the way. I did this, killing hundreds of bees in the process, because of my deep impulse to save some semblance of a second colony and the new queen. Maybe the pheromones of the new queen will eventually permeate and bring 'round the ones below. There is some chance.

This may have been just plain stupid. The bees in Colony 1 probably cannot be made to come back around to a "queen right" (the opposite of :laying worker") situation with the tools and skills I have, and it might be wiser to leave those three frames of bees, brood, and honey where they were thriving instead.

I keep thinking I have to decide, to take action now, because with what I have done already hundreds more may be dying RIGHT NOW. The alternative is the dwindling death march of one colony and the probable health of the other.

I wish I had the judgement to know where the probabilities were: whether this is panic or well-founded hard nosed logic.

I hope I can afford to do what is coming next: a major Internet push to find out what I can about situations like this. Then maybe there will be enough information to make a decision for the best.