Archives for category: aggressive bees

Long Live the Queen…Part 2

(What Were We Thinking?)

A.V. Walters–

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And, finally home in their hives.

We know better. There is no shortcut to proper procedure.

This pulls together a number of wayward thoughts, please bear with me.

 

Some months ago, one of the leaders of our bee group reported that she had a “hot hive” and had been stung over forty times when she tried to work it. “Forty Times!” I thought, “I’d quit bees in a heartbeat.” Shortly after that, I was visiting Garth, a bee-buddy of mine and I was stung. No big deal, it’s a part of beekeeping. Knowing that I react to stings, Garth grabbed my arm and sprayed it with his homemade “aphid spray.” He’d discovered that it helped to lessen the impact of a bee sting. Surprisingly, it worked—though I still swelled up, the large local reaction was half of what I usually suffer. We debated what the active ingredient might be—was it the mint? (peppermint and spearmint) The dish soap? The garlic oil? Garth wasn’t willing to experiment. After all, when it works, why bother?

Many years ago, my then-husband came up a mysterious rash—related to his new fitness plan of regular swimming. We thought it might be the pool chemicals. He ended up seeing a dermatologist. The doctor was intrigued. He did an “ice cube test” and determined that the problem was a relatively rare condition called cold urticaria. My husband was allergic to the cold, and the rash was simply hives. “Not a problem, then… we surmised. The Doc was quick to correct, “Not if it’s just a few patches, but if you get those raised welts over large swaths, it puts you at risk for heart failure.”

Now, the prospect of heart failure steps things up a notch. The Doc advised to seek immediate medical attention if the rash spread to more than a quarter of a body’s surface. He suggested considering another form of exercise. My husband opted to continue swimming, and over time, the rash abated.

 

Back to our bee story… we were in a hurry to get our two queenless hives re-queened. I drove half-way across the state to collect our new royals, so the first thing the next morning, we were up for the task of installing them. A new queen isn’t just dumped into the waiting hive. She must be kept in a queen cage for several days, so her pheromones can work her magic on the hive. Otherwise, she risks rejection by the colony, and murder. Generally, one makes the effort to install the queen at or near the bottom level of the hive. This is especially true, late in the season, so that the brood and ball of bees will be below the honey storage. That way, during the winter the bees can travel up, through the column of warmth generated by the huddled bees, to their food supply. If they have to travel down, or sideways, they risk “cold starvation.” An entire colony can starve, within inches of their food stores, if it’s too cold to make that short trip.

There were several considerations. We knew the hives were hot. We knew that the installation should be as brief as possible. They’d been pretty well-behaved during the split, so we weren’t too concerned. Because we expected this to be quick, we just wore our bee jackets, instead of fully suiting up. That was our first mistake. To speed up the process, we also decided to lift up all the top boxes at once, so we could place the queen cage directly into the bottom deep box, supposedly minimizing disruption. That was our second mistake.

Together, the top, inner cover and two medium boxes of honey, were a little heavier than we expected. As a result, our entry into the hive was not as measured and smooth as usual. And, perhaps because we were opening directly into the bees’ home (and not just the honey storage) we may have alarmed them…

Nothing in our beekeeping experience could have prepared us for what happened next.

Instantly, the usual background hive hum raised to a fever pitch and bees poured out in a tsunami of bee defense. No warning. No raised abdomens or threatening thunks. It was a full-scale attack. They got me first, covering me with stinging bees. The bee jacket mostly worked—only a few stingers got past its tight weave. But one layer of denim is no defense against determined bees and my jeans were covered with the angry, stinging mob. Even as the words, “We’re in trouble,” left my lips, I heard Rick’s cursing reaction as the bees found his ankles. Somehow, he still managed to shove that queen cage into the maw, before we jammed that hive shut. And then I abandoned him.

From the hips down, every part of me was on fire. When a bee stings, it gives up its life in defense of the hive. It also releases an alarm pheromone that tells other bees, “Sting here!” They did. I was a cloud of alarmed bees. Nothing I could do dissuaded them. I ran. They followed. I tried rolling in the dirt; still, they came. I grabbed the garden hose and sprayed down my legs and the bee cloud around me. It didn’t slow them down at all. (Though the cool water was a bit of relief.) And then I ran again, to get as far away from the hive as I could. Peripherally, I was aware that Rick was in a similar dance. I don’t remember screaming, but he says I was. I distinctly remember his cursing.

Finally free of advancing bees, I started scraping away the bees that were sticking to my jeans and socks. I saw Rick flicking them away with his leather gloves and followed his lead. As soon as we were clear of bees, we ran for the apartment and peeled out of our clothing at the door. Even then, there were some bees stuck to our jeans and bee jackets.

Once inside, near naked, Rick said, “Now what?” There was no time to debate. I’d always thought that Garth’s “active ingredient” was the garlic. It was a gamble, but it was all we had. “Garlic!” I yelled, and Rick started peeling cloves as I ran for the anti-histamines. I pulled out my epi-pen and laid it on the table, just in case.

Rick’s ankles were beginning to balloon. For some reason, that was his most targeted zone. Everything below my hips was mine. The rising welts were beginning to merge—I counted 47 stings on the front of my left thigh, before giving up on the count. It was more important to rub in the garlic. I figure I was stung over a hundred times. Many of those stings were “minor,” such that they did not go deep or leave a stinger—in that, our jeans saved us.

Garlic. We grated it, cloves and cloves of it. And then rubbed it into our tortured skin. It stung a little—but in the wake of what we’d been through, we hardly noticed. I was well aware that one, or both of us, would likely end up in the ER. In the back of my mind, I was remembering the admonition—if over twenty-five percent of a body welts up, it’s time to seek medical attention! For nearly an hour we grated and spread the garlic. The kitchen smelled like an Italian restaurant. If we had to go to the hospital, there was going to be some explaining to do.

Finally, it began to work. The welts began to dissipate.

Then, Rick did the unthinkable. He suited up again to retrieve the second queen (left out in the bee yard) to insert her into the other queenless hive. Granted, he just put her in the top—but at that moment, nothing could have convinced me to go anywhere near the bees. He was the hero of the day.

Not that we weren’t still uncomfortable. The stings continued to itch. For me it took two days for the welts to completely disappear—but normally, on me, a sting can remain inflamed for up to a week. This was a phenomenal recovery.

And the bees recovered, too. Both hives have accepted their new queens and they are merrily back to work, in their orderly bee way. Would I quit beekeeping? Not on your life. We’ve learned a lot.

Mostly, though… Garlic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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And, The Winner Is…

A.V. Walters-

hives

Home, sweet home.

Where is winter? We have no snow. Though the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) typically gives us a mild winter—this is the most extreme in forty years of Michigan, El Nino tracking. The temperatures are hovering in the mid 40s during the day, some days it’s warmer. If I’d known, I’d have planted chard, and maybe garlic. On warmer days, our bees are out and about, but I have no idea what they’re doing. There’s very little blooming in this odd December weather. I’ve heard that bees enjoy the occasional mid-winter jaunt—out to stretch their wings and to defecate. Like most creatures, they hate to soil the nest.

The mild season poses tough questions for us as newbee beekeepers. On one hand, the bees, so far, have not been subjected to the temperature extremes of the past few years. That must be good. On the other, they are out and about and active—potentially increasing their caloric needs. How do we balance this out? It’s like the old question, do you get wetter walking or running in the rain?

We were all ready to harvest some honey in October—but it didn’t get cold. We could see the bees out there, still gathering. So we waited and debated. We are in this, for the bees, and honey is a fringe benefit, not the primary objective. Our first inclination was to leave all the honey for the bees during the winter—perhaps to harvest a little in the spring. Our bee group looked at us like we were crazy. Not only was that a waste (in their view), they added that a hive, top-heavy with frozen honey, was a liability for winter survival. That swung us back towards a harvest. All this extra warm time has only compounded our confusion.

We have two issues: winter-wrap and harvest. In northern climates, beekeepers have a variety of bee protection measures to keep bees warm (other than carting them off to Florida.) There are simple hive-wraps, insulated hive-wraps, or baffled hive enclosures. Then, there are special feeding formulas, and the debate of the protein/carbohydrate balance suitable for winter nutrition. It’s daunting. The catalogues are full of bee pampering solutions, vitamins and herbal treatments. We shrug. Honey is bee food. We’ll leave them with their honey. After all, our goal was to keep Michigan-hardy bees. We selected our bees from Michigan over-wintered stock (not those pampered, Florida snowbirds.) We see over-pampering as part of the problem. As for the winter-housing, we do intend to wrap the hives when temperatures fall into the 20s on a regular basis. The biggest issue is to protect them from wind. Bees huddle and give off heat and moisture during the winter. The northern beekeeper must be careful not to impair circulation too much, because trapped moisture can lead to mold and mildew borne bee illnesses. Really, there are almost too many variables!

Finally, over the weekend, we did an inspection and took some honey. It was winter-warm—low 50s, so the bees were in slow-active mode. Mostly, they ignored us. At first blush, the hives looked terrible. We know that there is a normal fall die-off—but nothing prepared us for the mound of dead bees on the ground in front of each hive. Oddly, that may be good news. The location of the bee bodies (just below the entry) indicates that bees, dying in the hives, are being tossed out the front door—in a normal, housekeeping kind of way. A true hive collapse has few bodies—since the bees just fly away and die, mysteriously. Our active bees, though slowed by winter, look good. And the scouts are doing their jobs. Both Rick and I received “warning thunks” as we disrupted the hives, but no stinging.

We first investigated the two friendlier hives, Niña and Pinta. I’ve been worried about Pinta, since it was the first to slow down, back in October. We have limited experience, so we can only compare the three hives to each other. Pinta seemed listless—and had the most noticeable pile of corpses. But her guards were quick, and the bees inside were clumping in the middle—a good sign. We were disappointed that the top super (a hive box) held only some beeswax comb—no honey. Below, things looked good—plenty of honey and bees. We found the same situation with Niña, the other mild-mannered hive. We decided not to harvest honey from either of them. Maybe we are too conservative, but we’d like our bees to over-winter naturally.

Of course, the winner is Santa Maria, our beehive on steroids. Santa Maria, (our problem child of the summer) calmed down after we added an extra super to the hive. We think the aggressive behavior was just because the bees were busting out at the seams of their space. We’re lucky we caught it, and they didn’t swarm! This is the upside of an aggressive hive. They are industrious! These bees went right to work and filled that entire super with honey. We were shocked. Looking deeper, the hive had more than enough for winter—two full supers of honey! We relieved her of one whole super. (Ten frames from a standard, medium, Langstroth hive.)

This was the hive we were so anxious to trade! We’ll just have to learn to harness that energy, and keep them busy! (I remember parents saying things like that about us as kids. There may be something to it.) With this new appreciation for “busy as a bee,” we closed up the hives and carried off our bounty.

Next, we’ll deal with processing.

Note: I realize that the recycled photo, above, may give the wrong impression about the mild winter. I didn’t take pics when we harvested honey–so I used one from earlier in the summer. I didn’t think of it until later–but our trees are bare and most of the greenery is gone.

Queen Santa Maria: “Off With Their Heads!”

A.V. Walters

Too Close For Comfort

Too Close For Comfort

They say that a beehive takes on the personality of its queen. That may be a little much, but they are all her children. I don’t know whether there can be a true personality in a critter that has a colony culture. Much of bee activity is driven by pheromones. The queen’s chemical aura both binds the workers to her, and simultaneously suppresses their reproductive systems. They communicate via the famous “bee dance” and with a complicated and primal chemical/olfactory messaging. If you think bees don’t communicate, try disturbing the hive or, more tellingly, mess with one of the scouts.

Our bee adventure has had mixed results. At the outset, shortly after “installing” our bees, I became ill. As a result we lost precious time learning to speak ‘bee.’ Our bees had minimal interference for the first 6 to 8 weeks. Sure, we watched their comings and goings, but until I was back on my feet, we didn’t do full hive inspections.

Just watching from the outside, though, there were clear differences between the hives from day one. We started with two “nucs,” which are established mini-hives—a queen, workers and a few frames of comb with brood and food. Alternatively, you can buy “package bees” and a queen, but they take a little longer to get established. With our short season, we decided on the nucs. We started with two hives and the transfer was pretty uneventful. In the first few days it was clear that the activity levels between the hives was alarmingly different—one was inching along while the other was a bustling center of action. We thought there was a problem with the “smaller” group (who, to their defense had been smaller in number from the start.)

Then, we got the third hive. With three, we needed to identify them better so we named them—Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. Niña was the hive we thought was struggling. When Pinta arrived, it became clear that Niña and Pinta were far more alike, and that Santa Maria, (going gangbusters) was the outlier. Pinta came with a few more bees than Niña—so it was a little more active. That Santa Maria, though, was the New York hub of bee-dom. We even relocated the hives further apart from each other, out of concern that the Santa Maria mob might overwhelm the territory. Other than that, we left them alone to do their bee-thing.

It’s fun to watch them, their comings and goings. By careful observation you can see whether they’re coming back to the hive laden with pollen, or empty-handed. While gardening I spent a lot of time observing the bees. People from my bee group warned that there can be hungry times for the bees, between various blooms, even in summer. We saw no such lags. We are really well located to take advantage of several different biomes—forest, open fields, stream habitat and swamp. It seemed something was always blooming. Our intrepid workers were always coming home with saddlebags full of pollen. We’d check, peeking in from time to time, (especially when we had the ant problem) and as the colonies grew we added additional supers on to the stack. Even our little Niña was doing well.

It is enormously gratifying to see your own bees pollinating the vegetables in your garden. As we move around the property we keep our ears open for the buzz of pollinators. Sometimes its one of the local native varieties, but often we spy our honeybees out working the fields. There is something peacefully pastoral about the steady work rhythms of the bees. They remind us that “measured and steady” is a template for natural success.

Santa Maria, though, is like a hive on steroids. It is what beekeepers call an aggressive hive—and that’s a good thing. Aggressive hives produce far more honey than loafers like Niña and Pinta. Some beekeepers search out aggressive hives for breeding. If we get that far, it’ll be interesting to see how the different hive types do in over-wintering.

If we get that far.

You see, like some ominous Frankenbee hive, Santa Maria has become a problem. Our bees share the fenced area with the garden and the orchard, or at least Niña and Pinta do. Santa Maria is not so keen on sharing. Twice, I’ve been driven from the garden, stung, because something about my activity alarmed the Santa Maria scouts. Once I was coiling hose. The other time, I was weed-hacking, but not near Santa Maria. Beekeepers learn to expect the occasional bee sting. It goes with the territory. We suit up for working with the bees. The rule of thumb is, suit up and move confidently—without any fast or threatening maneuvers—and you’ll be fine. That is exactly the case with Niña and Pinta. Steady and just a touch of smoke and the bees tolerate an amazing level of interference.

But, Santa Maria has me wearing my bee gear to garden! We noticed last week that Santa Maria bees sometimes came from underneath the hive. A cautious peek revealed that there is hive building outside the hive box. That either means that these overly busy bees are building unauthorized honeycomb or, worse yet, that a small offshoot swarm has taken up housekeeping close to the old homestead. Either way, it helped to explain why they are so aggressive in the garden.

So, Saturday, we suited-up to investigate. Keeping in mind the general attitude of Santa Maria, it felt like we were arming for war (and it’s a good thing we did.) The objective was to lift and move each of the stacked bee boxes, so that we could flip over the bottom board to get an idea what they were up to, down there. This is a bit of a chore, because at this time of year, when the bees are well stocked with honey, each of these frame boxes can top 70 pounds! (We guess that ours were at about 50.) We got past the first two layers, oohing and ahing at the stores of honey. The bees were well smoked and on alert, but not hostile. When Rick cracked loose and started to separate the third box, the bees went crazy. Some people are afraid of a “swarm” of bees. A swarm is a relatively gentle bunch. They are in the middle of relocating and they have bigger fish to fry than some human. However, bees pouring out of a hive in defense of their home is a thing to behold. Within seconds I was inundated with bees. We kept our cool, that is, until the bees started stinging me through my jeans.

We had agreed, in advance, that in the event of a problem, the stung person would retreat and the remaining person would close up the hive. I retreated—bringing with me a small cloud of angry bees. Once I’d cleared the worst of them off my legs, I went back to help Rick. After all, the retreat didn’t really solve the problem and it wasn’t fair to leave him with the heavy lifting and the defensive smoking at the same time. Ultimately, we just closed the hive back up, but didn’t succeed in checking out the problem under the hive. So, we still have the problem.

Tonight is our beekeeping-group meeting. We are eager to get advice, from the more experienced keepers, on how to handle the-hive-on-steroids. For those of the group, who like aggressive bees, we may offer to swap for a kinder, gentler hive. Maybe what we need to do is replace the queen. (“The Queen is dead… Long live the Queen!”) Whatever the solution, we’re ready to gear up, again, (with more layers) and literally, get to the bottom of this problem.