Friday, November 24, 2006

Bees at Thanksgiving

My daily family life is usually made up of Sam, my bees, my pets, and a beekeeper or two. This Thanksgiving, however, our table was set for 16! Yet another reason for thanks: we did it potluck style. And the third reason: people did not want to head home the next day before visiting with the girls.

Usually, no one under the age of 10 is allowed on the roof, mostly because I am too distracted by the bees to keep toddlers from toppling off the edge. Since all the parents were just as interested as the kids this time, solemn oaths were performed concerning child retention and my inability to cope with the guilt of any untimely demise(s), and the parents looked after their kids when we tromped up the spiral staircase. This picture shows pre-bee family. Up front, in a spare veil, is Duncan, to his left is Uncle Joe, and behind are the female cousins (for now).

cousins gather around

Now you see us all gathered around a honey frame I took from Wilde in order to show everyone where the sweet stuff really comes from. Interestingly, you can see that the only young one who is in danger of falling off the edge is my husband. My cousin Anna took these pictures.

It was hard to actually show them bees, because the day was too cold for them to fly in any numbers. Happily, when I popped the top, the bees were down low in the hive (where they are supposed to be at this time of year). If they are up top, it's a sign that they are low on stores, and have already tapped into the stuff that they placed farthest from their starting point in the bottom box.

intrepid cousinBoth of my cousins, Maria (shown here) and Anna (taking the picture) are teachers, and they immediately expressed interest in the bees as a learning tool for kids (I guess it's genetic for us to immediately decide "the kids gotta hear about this!") As I went back to put away the honey frame, Maria came along to take a peek. Note the lack of veil, fear, gloves, etc. She even leaned over and took a good long sniff of wonderful bee essence. One of my favorite things, and something missed in winter, is the warm sweet cloud of scent that wafts up whenever you open a beehive. Now she knows what I mean, too.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Am I Blue?

ribbons on honey jarsBlue comes in a coupla forms, actually. First, something I meant to mention this weekend: on Saturday, we had the state beekeeping association meeting, complete with a mini honey show. After scoping out whether there were any ants present, the judges gave the monastery honey a first in the beginner category for light color. The rooftop honey got a third for medium color in the same category. It is beginning to granulate, actually (more reason to eat it right away). This makes my collection of ribbons include a second (in a class of two), two fourths (in a class of four and of five), a third, and a first – a complete set, the last two actually meaning something. Interestingly, the wife of the judge who gave me the fourths said that THAT fair was overrun with ants this year. Hmmm.

The blue-er blue comes from the realization that several dozen bees (maybe more) died due to the roofing escapade. Some managed to leak out of the upper entrance to Twain (it seems that in trying not to expose them to too much duct tape, I allowed the industrious little arthropods to chew their way out) and they seem to have gotten too cold overnight. I tried to brush them back in, but they were too slow moving to walk onto the paper towel I baited with honey, and opening the top to toss in the few I could get seemed to let just as many crawl out. It was also after these oh-so-early sunsets, and I could not see a thing. It became clear that I was more likely to kill or crush girls than help them (again).

On the plus side, the roofers gave me reinforced pads that they said would not absorb water and helped me place the hives on them. They also gave me a walkway to the hives.

When I went up at around 3:30, there were foragers flying in and out of both entrances, packing pollen, so the colonies seem to have re-oriented OK. Let's hope this is all to the good!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New Roof Trifecta

roof guysIn August of last year, roofers next door outed the bees to our south-side neighbors, resulting in just 4 months of undetected beekeeping. Luckily, those neighbors are a little paranoid, too; they also thought the bees were cool, and decided to keep the matter to themselves. Then, this Spring, the north side neighbor got a new roof, and I became really worried, because Kathy is a normal, well-adjusted person with children and her reactions would therefore be alien to me. But it turns out that her roofers never told her, and as a result I outed myself last month (sort of) and she was kind of happy about the whole thing.

And now our roof leaks have reached critical (Editor's note: the leaks are nowhere near the beehives), so we have a team of roofers doing their thing up above today. The nice thing is, they like bees.

Messing with a roof is usually complicated these days – we have a satellite dish and a heat pump as well as a deck and some beehives up there. I've had a parade of workers tromping up there to disconnect and reconnect and move and otherwise get themselves introduced to the amazing life of urban rooftop bees. And here is the truth: between all the roofers north and south, the AC and the satellite guys, the folks who wrote up estimates for this and that, a total of over twenty people, not one single person had a breakdown over the bees.

Andre, the leader of the team up there today, was actually pretty excited. Back where he is from (El Salvador), lots of people keep a hive or two, and he had never seen a hive in the US. Juan, the (formerly) Dominican AC technician, used the bees as a reason to talk about his cat and aquariums he has known.

sealed beesBut you might be asking, what about the bees today? Well, they had to be moved onto the deck (which is not being messed with) and they had to be sealed in, because otherwise they would get lost.

The rule about moving bees is this: "either less than 3 feet or more than a mile." Bees build complex mental maps for where their home is located, basing them on things like large immovable landmarks and the angle of the sun. If you move a hive even 10 feet, the foragers will fly out, and then fly back to where their hive USED to be, hovering confusedly over the old spot. If you move them beyond their likely internal map, like 3 miles, they fly out, get confused immediately, and begin rewriting the map.

top view of sealed beesSo last night, after sunset (when all the field bees should be back home) I went up and blocked the entrances with plastic window screen material and duct tape, and covered the top with a screen that is usually used for added summer ventilation. Then you run a lashing strap around the hives (the kind with a clip that gets tighter as you tug on it, and you release by flipping a lever). The result is a bunch of hive bodies that are held tightly together while you pick them up by the handles on the bottom box.

Two guys moved the Wilde hive easily, though it was heavy enough. Things went a bit less well with Twain. There was still some water in the hivetop feeder (the side that didn't leak) and the guys staggered a bit when it washed over them. This joggled the bees quite a lot, and may have soaked some with cold, sticky sugar water. I hope no one was injured or gets sick from this! There have been some deformed wing girls emerging from Twain lately, and this is the colony (after the Mill girls) which concerns me most. Oh, I hope that Queen Abigail is OK.

The roofers agreed to build me a special reinforced pad and walkway to the bees, which is a good thing, and a place we may be able to move back to at the end of today. I'll take a quick look in tomorrow to see what the state of the colonies is after all this banging and moving.

November is as good a time as any for sealing up bees around here. There is little forage out there, and the bees are not so tightly clustered during the day that we were likely to crush lots of them when moving their homes. It's not so hot that they will overheat in there, either. The roof color should be lighter, now, so it won't get so hot in summer. If I can just keep them alive through this winter, it should be a nicer place to bee in 2007.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Feeder Leak, Ugh

stream of sugar from leaking feederYesterday was another feeding day, and Twain was the lucky colony... well, sort of. Remember how there seems to be a lot of bees robbing bees this year? Maybe I know why.

This morning, there was a stream of sugar water down the side of the Twain hive, along the roof, puddling at the side of the Wilde girls. Ugh. I knew something was wrong even before I got up there because I could see that wacky, hyper-caffeinated-but- clueless flight of robbers through the skylight.

Robbing bees are strangely insistent but dopey. It's as if their world gets unhinged: "Wait, you mean I don't actually have to WORK for food, that it just sort of shows up in great sticky pools that could form just ANYWHERE?" They literally act like over-amped American shoppers at a Walmart Christmas sale: trying to grab everything within a half mile all at once, with a halfway intention of taking care of their family, and an overstimulated inability to sort through the sudden onslaught of have-able desire-ables.

stream of sugar on roofRobbing bees make a different noise than your usual buzzing, and they tend to land all over you, checking to see if perhaps YOU might be a sticky pool of undeserved sugar forming directly in front of them. It's hard to move around without crushing bees, and besides the sadness of that, crushed bee smell is a motivator to get upset: just what you don't want in the middle of a cloud of over-stimulated felon bees.

bee flying head onOn the up side, while I was wading around the clingy bees, trying to develop a plan, I got a picture of this bee flying at me straight on. I was not trying for her picture: the camera tends to choose its own focal point, and she apparently was it. It's not great, but you can see her antenna on the left if you squint real hard.

I thought about just letting the bees clean it up, even though there was fighting going on. You see, almost anything I might do would be hard on the bees, too. But today is going to be very very warm, and the potential for a ten thousand bee melee (with yellowjacket accompaniment) was just too strong. So I turned the hose on mist, and tried to gently wash off the sugar, even though bees were still in it. Maybe that warm sun on its way will dry them off quickly and well.

So I hosed 'em down. All those robbers flew up in the air, and began to settle in a loose cloud on surfaces all over my roof and the neighbors'. By the time I started downstairs again they were back at their attempted theft: they won't give up for hours once they locate a source. I may go back up from time to time and sprinkle them again, if it seems to help control the mayhem.

From now on, it's a different feeder system for the rooftop bees.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Cold Weather Bee Feed

ingredients for november bee feedingOne pot, one kettle, and one ten pound bag of sugar equals a late autumn meal for one hive of bees. As the year winds down, beekeepers who want to ensure that the honeybees have enough stores for the winter mix 2 parts granulated cane sugar to one part hot water in order to make a heavy, honey-like syrup for the bees to sock away in the dwindling days left. The heavier syrup is supposed to signal to the queen that she should stop laying (if she hasn't already: some beekeepers around here say that in our climate she always lays a little through the winter) and the girls should get ready to cluster up and stay warm. By now, the drones are all gone, and things have become serious.

I've gone out and hefted my hives, and the rundown is like this:
  • The Carniolans in Wilde seem to be very heavy with stores, I can barely lift the back of the boxes. There is still a bit of mite drop;
  • The mixed-but-mostly Carnie colony in Twain needs more food, but is not at great risk. Some deformed bees are showing up, leading me to believe that they may be into the stores that have some virus in them. Low mite drop;
  • The Carniolan mill bees are kind of light and are still taking syrup. Worrisome mite situation;
  • The Italians in the Doug colony at the Monastery are a little light, but doing well for mites. Taking feed slowly, as usual;
  • The Carnies in MaryEllen are more vibrant, but could still use a bit more stores.

initial mix of two parts sugar to waterWhen at loose ends, I make food for the girls. This photo shows what 10 pounds of sugar looks like in about 5 pints of water, just out of the kettle. It's cloudly, and must be stirred for a while. The water must be hot to make such a super-saturated solution, and I boil it before pouring. You must never heat the sugar directly on the burner, however, because the bees cannot digest carmelized sugar and can get potentially deadly dysentery in that manner.

mix of two parts sugar to water after several minutesIn just ten minutes or so, the mixture becomes crystal clear. It has to cool before you use it, and once it does you sometimes get little floes of sugar ice floating on the top. It helps that my counters are stone and this pot is a thin, cheap one, because I can move it around on the countertop to make it cool faster.

This is about what I would give to one hive of bees in my usual hivetop feeder. The time it takes for the bees to eat it or store it varies with the temperament of the bees and the time of the year. Some hives don't seem to like to be fed, like Frances over at the monastery, or Wilde in the late autumn. I have a small ace in the hole stored in the basement, one medium with some half-filled combs, ready to be placed on top of a hive in need in February. These combs were pulled along with full ones during the honey harvest, one or two per hive riding along in honey supers that were mostly full. When I can no longer feed syrup, or if the girls refuse any candy frames they might get, at least I know that those may do the trick.