Archives for category: beehives

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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A Multi-Part Saga of Succession: Part 1

A.V. Walters

Any population lacking authentic leadership is in trouble. Without authentic leadership, any group can fall for the antics of power hungry posers, whose influences, over time, can only disintegrate group cohesion and direction. You know the type, charismatic thugs capable of whipping up an excitable crowd. Don’t say, “It can’t happen here.” It has.

And such was the case with our largest bee hive. It’s been a productive year, ample rain has fueled a pollen and nectar bonanza. We’ve been doing regular hive splits, trying to avoid last year’s swarming losses. Those bees have been keeping us on our toes. But in early August, we ran out of woodenware, the boxes, bottoms and tops that make up a Langstroth hive. By then, we’d split all the hives, but one and we didn’t have time to build anew. Summer’s like that. We still had plenty of honey supers–so we just kept adding “up,” giving them space to grow, and to store all the honey they were producing. We needed the honey, because all those split hives were going to need resources, heading into winter.

Finally, we were able to catch our collective breath and assemble and paint new hive parts, to split the big hive. But we were too late. When we inspected, we could not find the queen–she and her entourage had already swarmed. There were still gazillions of bees, enough for at least two full hives, but there were signs of trouble.

A queen bee reigns by virtue of her hormonal influences. Not only are the bees connected and loyal because of pheromones, but all those female worker bees’ reproductive urges are suppressed by the queen’s control. When a hive goes “queenless,” either because of swarming, accident or mutiny (yes, mutiny), the bees will endeavor to create a new queen with one of the recent eggs or larvae. This takes a couple of weeks, and in the interim, you’re at risk of a “laying worker.” Without the constant hormonal suppression of the queen, a worker bee can begin laying eggs–and exert a similar hormonal control on the hive. The worker is unmated, so she can only lay drone eggs and she does not have the full complement of pheromones. A rogue hive like this can be mean and unpredictable.

Our inspection revealed problems, there were eggs–but no fresh larvae. The laying pattern was erratic–sometimes two eggs per cell and eggs laid on the sides of the cells, instead of the bottom. These are clear indications of a rogue, laying worker bee. The laying worker bee can interfere with normal royal succession. She may kill the larval queen–or kill her on hatch. After all, who wants to give up newfound power? To save the hive, we needed to re-queen it, and quickly.

Since the hive was still huge, even having swarmed, we opted to get two queens and to split the hive into two before we re-queened. As it was so late in the season, we wanted  already mated queens. We needed them to get in, and get to work, quickly. We wanted to find Michigan, winter-hardy queens, to maximize the chances of surviving the winter. We tried to see this as an opportunity to increase our genetic diversity, instead of just the loss of a truly productive queen.

Online, I found just what we needed–and I zoomed off to pick up our new royals. Though  we weren’t happy about having lost the swarm, we were confident that we could make the best of the situation.

What? Did you think I was carrying on about something other than bees?

 

 

 

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Honey, Cooking, and The Science Behind The Sweet

A.V. Walters

Honey is a foodstuff of almost mythical proportions. It is one of a handful of foods that, left in its original form, never spoils. Honey has been known to last literally thousands of years—and still be edible and sweet. Honey will crystalize—a condition that may put off the uninformed consumer—but crystalized honey is still good. If it offends, you can simply warm it gently and it will resume its liquid amber loveliness.

Honey has three characteristics that, acting together, serve as its natural preservative. Despite being a liquid, honey has a very low water content of only 14 to 18 %. Bees will not “cap” honey in the comb until it has reached this low moisture threshold. Most bacteria cannot survive in such a low-moisture environment. Honey is also highly acidic, with a pH between 3.0 and 4.5. That acidity will kill off the few remaining things that might want to grow there. And, as we all know, honey is sweet. That natural sweetness also discourages bacterial growth. Archeologists have found sealed honey in ancient Egyptian tombs that was still preserved and unspoiled. Add to these three basic characteristics are the enzymes in honey that come from the bees’ stomachs. These enzymes combine with nectar sugars to produce gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide—natural components of honey. Blended together all these characteristics make a super-food that keeps, nearly indefinitely.

Herbalists and healers of ancient times understood these qualities in honey. It was widely used to treat wounds, for skin ointments and to prevent infections. To retain its natural preservative qualities though, stored honey must be sealed. Because honey is hygroscopic (naturally low in water) it will absorb liquid from the air and eventually spoil if left uncovered. Though honey is naturally pure, it can contain trace amounts of bacteria, and while this is not a problem for healthy children and adults, raw honey is not recommended for infants or people with compromised immune systems.

What about cooked honey? Cooking honey poses two questions: Does cooking undermine honey’s otherwise beneficial qualities? And, is it actually toxic? Purists and practitioners of natural or ayurvedic medicine will tell you that cooked honey is poisonous, and should never be eaten. There’s a smidgeon of science that supports that position, technically, but most feel that’s a little extreme. At the end of the day, this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Honey is essentially a natural, supersaturated sugar solution. Added into that are enzymes, courtesy of our friends, the bees. Many of the purported health benefits of honey are connected to those enzymes. But, when you heat honey, the enzymes begin to break down, beginning at about 118 degrees, Fahrenheit. Over-heating may result in losing most of the beneficial properties, making honey just another sweetener. (A good reason to gently heat your crystalized honey. You can warm it in a bath of warm tap water or in a double-boiler, at very low heat, to protect its enzymes.) In cooking, you can preserve honey’s integrity by adjusting how and when you heat it. Whenever possible, wait and add the honey until later in the cooking process (this is especially true when sweetening sauces or glazes.) Or, you can also “dilute” any heated honey mixture with a larger quantity of unheated ingredients. Check your recipes to see if there might be ways to limit exposure to high temperatures. Needless to say, honey is always at its best when used in recipes that are never heated, like salad dressings, toppings, dips or icings.

But, is it toxic? When honey is heated, its fructose, in combination with its natural acidity, degrades and begins to form hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which is mildly toxic. The hotter it gets, the more HMF forms. The solution is dilution. Diluting the honey with other ingredients, (prior to heating) lowers the acid level of the honey, helping to prevent HMF formation. Even then, the actual HMF toxicity levels that result from normal cooking are very low. Our evolved human gut is fully capable of digesting cooked honey products, with no observable adverse affects. If you are a purist—don’t heat your honey. Otherwise, take reasonable efforts to preserve the maximum beneficial effects by keeping honey temperatures as low as practical. You can cook and bake with confidence, knowing that you are not putting yourself at risk.

There is one group that should never consume heated honey. That is your BEES! Bee guts and intestinal systems are relatively simple and cannot safely digest HMFs. Ingesting even a small amount of honey that has been heated can result in bees developing gut ulcerations. Many beekeepers use heat to separate wax from honey—and feed the resulting honey back to the bees. Don’t do it! Only give bees cold-processed, unadulterated, honey. Even adding water to honey, for bee feeding, must be done carefully because once water is added, the honey mixture is subject to bacterial spoilage, and fermentation. (Think mead!) If you use watered-down honey for bee feeding, make sure that it remains fresh. Remove any unconsumed honey blends within a day or so, replace with a fresh mixture, and periodically clean containers.

The very characteristics that give honey its extended shelf life can require some adjustments when cooking or baking with it. The most obvious is that honey is a liquid, so when substituted for sugar, you must adjust the balance of dry and wet ingredients to retain the desired texture. Every cup of honey used as sweetener contains about three extra tablespoons of liquid. So, you must reduce the other liquids in your recipe, increase the dry ingredients, or a combination of both. (The approach you take will depend on the recipe.)

It is often assumed that you can do a “cup for cup” substitution of honey for a recipe’s sweetener. Not so. In addition to increased moisture content, honey is sweeter than sugar when measured cup for cup. Depending upon the bees food source, and the seasonal time of production, honey can be anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 times as sweet as sugar. You’ll have to substitute accordingly, and remember to taste as you go. Honey has a lower glycemic index rating than sugar (55 compared to sugar’s 61) so it’s a healthier option, with a slower impact on blood sugar. It’s easier to standardize baking with lighter honeys—the darker honeys come laden with their own native flavors. They can add depth and character to your baked goods, but darker honeys are a shifting exercise in taste exploration. Since the sugars in honey brown faster than regular sugar, you might have to lower your baking temperature by 25 degrees and cook your baked goods a little longer. Even if all your adjustments are correct, remember that baked goods made with honey are moister than sugar baking. If you’re looking for a drier finish—carefully bake longer, at a lower temperature.

Finally, honey’s natural acidity can play havoc with the leavening in baked goods. Most leavening agents (baking soda/baking powder) are “base” ingredients. The higher acidity in honey can act to neutralize your leavening agent—leaving an unadjusted recipe as heavy as a brick! You will need more leavening to achieve a proper rise, usually an additional 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoonful per cup of honey sweetening. There is no need to adjust if you’re using yeast. Yeast usually does well in the more acidic environment of honey. Add the honey to the bread dough mix, itself, to avoid interference with yeast performance. Do not “proof” your yeast in a honey mixture.

Honey as a food product has been with us for thousands of years. Whether you revere it for its mystical healing properties, or enjoy it as a healthy sweetener, it’s helpful to know how it behaves in cooking and baking. Following these tips, along with a little experimentation, will yield light and tasty results.

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Taking the Sting Out of It–

A.V. Walters–

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We keep bees. People respond to that with raised eyebrows—and usually some positive acknowledgement. The raised eyebrows are about the dark side of beekeeping. Most people think of beekeeping in terms of being stung.

Yes, we get stung from time to time. It comes with the territory. Usually, when it happens, you can point to some mistake you made—you moved too quickly, you inadvertently crushed some bees while stacking hive boxes, you didn’t use smoke (or enough smoke, or too much smoke) when performing an invasive activity. There are rules and rhythms that protect you from being stung. Bees only sting when provoked, and often give plenty of warning.

I react to stings, so I take every precaution. I only handle the bees when wearing “the suit.” I listen to the tone of the bees during hive work—you can hear it if their level of alarm amps up. Rick and I agree that it isn’t worth it to work on agitated bees. It’s not good for them, and we’re not happy to be stung out of our own stupidity. We can always close up a hive, and come back to it on another, better day. We plan ahead of time what it is we hope to accomplish, in a hive, and endeavor to do it in the least disruptive way. The hive is their home. They have every right to defend it.

Bees demonstrate stages of annoyance. First, you should take note if the bees are looking at you. I laughed when I first heard that—except that it’s true. Usually, when you work in a hive, the bees go about their business and ignore you. But, if they’re lined up, looking at you, it’s a warning. (It’s funny looking, the first time you notice it—as though they were spectators at a circus and you’re the main attraction!) Then, if they raise their back ends—you’ve crossed another warning threshold. Listen closely to the tone of the bee’s constant hum. In an irritated hive the background hum raises in volume and pitch. Time for more smoke, or to close it up. Guard bees may “thunk” you, that is, fly right into your chest or face—to make impact, but not sting. Again, we’re talking serious, threat-level warnings here. Bees do not want to sting. A stinging bee is a dead bee—they lose their stinger and innards in the process, so it’s a KIA hero’s defense. Move slowly and deliberately. Try not to breath on the bees (certainly don’t blow on them.) Do not wave your arms in a swatting defense. It only makes things worse.

Timing is everything. Happy bees are less likely to rise to alarm. What makes for happy bees? Good weather, ample food and available water. We try not to open the hives in bad weather—the bees are stuck inside and as crabby as school kids denied recess. We do our bee work midday, so most of the bees are out in the fields. And we make our disruptions as short and productive as possible.

There are three physical levels of reaction to stings. A normal reaction includes the initial pain of the sting, some level of swelling and discomfort at the point of sting, usually resolving overnight. The worst reaction is life-threatening anaphylactic shock. If you respond to stings this way, you probably shouldn’t be keeping bees. I don’t have that problem, but I have an Epipen, just in case. I fall into the middle category, what’s called a “large, local reaction.” After the initial sting, the site swells well beyond the actual sting—often a painful raised welt up to eight inches across, that is painful, itchy and lasts up to a week. It makes me a little sick, too. I have to keep taking antihistamines until the swelling starts to abate. Things can get ugly if I am multiply stung.

There’s some good advice about how to handle a sting. First, get away from the hive. A stinging bee releases an alarm pheromone that attaches to the site of the sting. Other bees may zero in on it, and continue in a defensive attack. Rick and I work as a team, but if one of us is stung, the other closes up the hive for the day. Second—waste no time removing the stinger. Even unattached to the bee, the stinger continues to pump venom. Use a dull bladed object to scrape across the site of the sting. Do not use tweezers, as squeezing the whole assembly can result in injecting more venom. After the stinger is removed, you can gently squeeze the sting site to eject any venom still near the surface of the wound. Ice it, as soon as you can. Take an antihistamine—Benadryl or similar, to stave off any excess reaction. I use an herbal antihistamine called Hista Block, that doesn’t make me so drowsy. Depending upon the level of swelling (and discomfort) you can also take an analgesic. Some sources suggest using a topical spray, but others warn of possible cross-reactivity at the wound site, so I don’t. Most importantly, take these steps as quickly as you can. Time is critical in warding off the body’s defense to the venom—our defenses are the biggest problem. Depending upon your level of reaction, you may consider medical intervention if you have multiple stings. Afterwards, make sure you launder the clothing in which you were stung because the pheromone on your clothes can inspire later hostile actions by the bees. (Nobody told them not to respond to the outdated alarm.)

This is how I cope with the sting potential when keeping bees. I have beekeeping friends who do not react as I do, who handle their bees without suiting up, without even wearing gloves or a veil. I envy them. One friend actually welcomes beestings, because he claims they alleviate the arthritis in his hands!

Work smart and bee prepared. That’s my motto.

Of course none of this helped over the weekend when I was rescuing some tiger lilies from a construction site. Really, it wasn’t theft; they’d been bulldozed and would have died but for our valiant efforts to rescue them. Unfortunately for me, the bulldozer had disturbed a nest of Yellow Jackets.

Yellow Jackets are a whole different story, than bees. They are just rude! They sting, without warning—and a single yellow jacket can sting repeatedly! (Which it did, as I ran a quarter of a mile down the road, to escape it.)

Days later, I’m just recovering. The good news is that we got the tiger lilies planted, so there’s some reward for my experience.

 

 

 

 

It’s Working—

A.V. Walters—

I asked my landlady for the contact information for the farmer who leases the fields surrounding us. She reacted badly to the request—assuming, for some bizarre reason, that I would say something to him that would jeopardize her long-standing arrangement. She refused to give me his number, but told me where I could find him, half way across the county.

I had no such ulterior motives. I keep bees. He sprays pesticides. Though I have registered my bees with Fieldwatch, many farmers are not aware of it. I merely wanted him to give me a heads up when he plans to spray.

Before I could get contact information, the farmer showed up to prep the soil for corn. My landlady shot out to talk to him, like a bat out of hell, before I could get there. She was waving her arms and pointing at our property, jabbering. I walked out calmly to introduce myself. As soon as I was within earshot, the landlady lowered her voice, finally shutting up as I approached.

“Hi, I’m Alta. My husband and I have the parcel across the street.”

“Hi, I’m Dennis.” He reached out of the tractor cab and shook my hand. I handed him a slip of paper with my contact information.

“Are you putting in seed today?”

“No, just prep. The corn’ll go in tomorrow.”

“Good. If we know beforehand, we can close up the bees and avoid any pesticide issues. I’d appreciate if whenever you spray, or seed, you could give us a call, the night before.”

“Sure, I work with Julius the same way. You know Julius?”

I’ve never met Julius, but all the beekeepers in the area at least know of him. He’s a beekeeping institution and has mentored most everyone who keep bees in this county. “Don’t know him, but I’ve heard a lot about him. Good things.”

“Yeah. He’s a great guy.” He scratched his head. “I get the spray, but why do you need to know when I put in seed?”

“Most seeds, especially corn, are pre-treated with insecticides. Just the dust from those seeds can kill bees.”

“Yeah? I never knew. I’ll have to talk to Julius about that one. You new to bees?”

“It’s our second year—but we lost all our hives over the winter. We just installed our new bees this week.”

He nodded. “Julius lost a bunch, too. What do you think happened?” During this exchange, my landlady just stood slackjawed. I guess it wasn’t what she expected.

I shrugged. “It was a tough year. Bee losses generally for 2015 were forty-four per cent. I know one of our hives had varoa mites. But we also lost our strongest hive. You know, the warm winter is almost tougher on the bees than a cold one. And of course, we’re all struggling with pesticide issues. It’s tough to keep bees home.” I paused, “It’s a critical issue—bees are responsible for a lot of our food production.”

“Well, don’t you worry. Just like me an’ Julius, we can work together.” He smiled. “I like to eat, too.”

So, of course, I left a pint of honey on the seat of his truck. This is how it’s supposed to work.

 

The Scent of Bees

A.V. Walters

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I’ve wanted to keep bees since my age was in the single digits. My grandfather kept bees. And turkeys. And rabbits. We never knew how many hives he had, because he was forever loading them up into the back of his old Suburban, and carting them around to “someone who needed them.” I didn’t understand why someone might need bees.

He was a quiet man of many talents. He was not a big feature in our lives, because there had been a divorce. For their own reasons, neither my grandmother, nor my grandfather’s second wife, were eager to see a relationship between Grandpa and his grandchildren. The visits were few and far between. But he was interesting and different. He made things with his hands. He was, literally, always trying to build a better mousetrap. He didn’t talk much, but when he did, what he said was solid. Or funny. Sometimes, darkly funny. He thought it was funny to pick up hitchhikers when his Suburban was full of bees.

So, bees have always been in the back of my mind. But, there were always too many reasons why I couldn’t keep bees. In my urban years, my partner was adamantly against it. In Two Rock, my landlord was allergic to stings. (You don’t waste a good landlord, like that.) So the move to Michigan was my chance to finally become a beekeeper. I say “become,” because it takes some time to really be a beekeeper. There’s a lot to learn, especially now, when the bees are in so much trouble.

I’ve joined a beekeeping group. Many of us are “newbees” but in the group there’s a generous wealth of talent and experience—and the rest we make up for with enthusiasm. Our founder is a dynamic young man, willing to share his decade or so of experience.

When spring rolled around, our group put together an order of bees from a supplier down in Holland. It’s a three and a half hour drive to Holland, but our fearless leader, Matt, said he’d do the pick up. There was only one wrinkle, Matt’s wife was expecting their second child—if the baby came early, Matt needed a back-up driver. I volunteered. How hard could it be? Others in the group looked dubious. They teased me, advising me to drive with the air-conditioner on full—to chill-out the bees.

Of course, by volunteering, I somehow guaranteed an early delivery date (for the baby, not the bees.) The day before the scheduled pick-up I emailed Matt—to ask how his wife was doing. “Funny you should ask,” he responded. They were just checking in to the hospital. I was now on-the-hook.

I told my mother, who was horrified at the idea of sharing a ride with hundreds of thousands of bees.

I told my sister, who told me not to pick up any hitchhikers.

I told Rick, who devised a system of bed-sheets and boards—to put over the bees to keep them away from me in the car.

I’m not put off by a long drive. The morning of the trip, though, we lost our spring weather. On the way down, I experienced every kind of weather, driving rain, sleet, buffeting winds and hail. Finally, in Holland, I missed my turn. I didn’t worry; I could just double back—or so I thought. Holland was having its Spring Tulip Festival. Many streets were closed and the town was a maze of festival detours. It’s a pretty little town, and many of its streets are lined with tulips. Lots of tulips. The tourists were there, en masse, dressed for a spring festival despite near freezing temperatures and occasional snow squalls. And, predictably, traffic sucked.

Finally, I arrived at my destination. The bee pick-up was held in the bee-master’s garage. The car area was filled with bee “packages” and the adjacent shop area displayed many bee accessories—wooden-ware, bee tools and such. Bees are sold as three-pound packages, in shoe-box sized wood and screened boxes, each containing approximately 10,000 bees and a queen. They also come as “nucs”—mini-hives with five frames containing all the components of a working hive, bees; a laying queen, brood, drones, honey and “bee-bread” (the mixture of honey and pollen fed to the larvae.) I was there to pick up about forty packages.

The garage was not only filled with boxes of bees, it was awash with loose bees, and beekeepers. Beekeepers are an odd lot. The beekeepers assembled for the pick-up and bee related shopping were oblivious to the loose bees, drifting in and around the garage. Regular folk would flee.

The bee vendors loaded the car for me, concerned that I wouldn’t leave adequate space between the packages. “Bees need air, you know.” The bee-master was concerned that the car wasn’t big enough for the Club’s order. I was concerned that he’d want to put bees in the passenger seat, right next to me.

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Bees, in every nook and cranny.

Finally, after many adjustments, and one sting (not me), the loading was complete. Loose bees hovered in and around my open vehicle. The bee-master saw me unfolding Rick’s driver-protection-sheet, and shot out of the garage.

“Whoa, what’s that for?”

“To cover the bees while I’m driving.”

“No way. There’s too many bees—too much heat. You cannot cover them at all.”

“But it’s freezing out…”

“Good thing, too,” he replied. “I’d keep the AC on full, just in case.”

(FYI—when the temperature drops, the bees settle down and hunker together, to stay warm)

And so it was. I swallowed hard for a long drive with loose bees. I layered up my clothes and drove home with about 400,000 bees in the car, through the snow and sleet, and with the air-conditioning on full. The bees didn’t give me any trouble at all. I wondered what my grandfather would think of that! The bees had to spend the night, in the car. I worried, since it really was cold, but I needn’t have been concerned. In the morning the car was warm, and the windows were steamed up, all generated by the bees.

There was something else, too. Most beekeepers are familiar with the smells of their hives. On a warm day in the bee yard, the hives are redolent with the aroma of honey and the fragrance of beeswax. It’s a clean, sweet smell that I equate with beekeeping. But, that’s not really the smell of bees. In a small car with, 400,000 bees, you get to smell the bees. It took me awhile to figure it out—notes of the musky smell of barn and fresh cut hay, with a hint of tobacco leaf. That’s the smell of bees. I wonder if my grandfather, tooling about in his Suburban full of hives, ever caught the scent of bees.

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And, finally home in their hives.

 

 

 

 

Minding Our Bees and Qs

A.V. Walters

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Ah, The Sweet Smell of… Failure?! How can that bee?

We’ve just spent the better part of the weekend processing honey.  The house smells sweet and clean from honey and beeswax. Unexpectedly, we have a lot of honey. This is honey that was left in the hives so the bees would have something to eat over the winter. The problem is that the bees didn’t make it. We checked the hives a couple of weeks ago and confirmed our worst suspicions; all the hives were dead.

They must have died pretty early in the winter, because they left ample stores of honey. At least they didn’t starve. There’s nothing wrong with the honey, so, once we’d cleaned up the hives, and done our limited forensics, we collected up the laden frames for processing. We had very productive bees. Our mild winter appears to be melting into an early spring, and we wanted the hives empty before we have a bunch of grumpy, hungry bears roaming around.

The late season honey is very different from our first harvest. The honey from early in the season is light, with a floral aroma. The late season honey is thick and more strongly flavored—made with the robust pollen of Black-eyed Susans and Goldenrod. I can’t decide which I like better.

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We’re not quite finished processing, but it looks like we’ll end up with just shy of seventy pounds of honey. Add that to the thirty-five pounds we harvested last fall, fifteen pounds from the Pinta hive, and… well, it’s a lot of honey. Today we had to run out to buy another dozen quart canning jars. (Folks at the local grocery wonder out loud what you’re canning in March. It’s early, even for maple syrup.) The new quart jars, along with every jar and container in the house brings this batch to about 27 quarts. It makes for a bittersweet failure. We’d rather have the bees.

We’ve checked with the experts and the most likely explanation is that our bees succumbed to varoa mites (or to the viruses that the mites carry.) There was some evidence of mite activity in the two smaller hives. Our aggressive hive, Santa Maria, was not so clear a case. It could have been the weather. This winter’s warm/cold oscillations were very hard on local bees. We’re not the only ones who have had losses. Even experienced beekeepers are cursing this winter. It seemed mild, except (quite abruptly) when it wasn’t.

We have cleaned up the hive boxes, and set them ready for spring–we have new bees on order. I’ve also ordered a well-recommended book on natural beekeeping–and I attended a day-long class on advanced beekeeping techniques. I feel almost ready to try again. We’ll monitor mite levels closely. We’ll do mid-season splits (dividing colonies in half, and “forcing” new queens.) Splitting not only increases the number of hives, it also interrupts the varoa breeding cycles. And, we’ll investigate and experiment with natural methods of hive treatment.

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Bees’ combs are amazing structures.

Overall, we can’t complain. The retail value of the honey we harvested has covered our initial investments in bees and equipment. It makes good sense to try again. We plan to start with three hives, and split to six, mid-summer. At the end of the season we can assess the hives’ strengths, and either go into the winter with six, or recombine some for larger, stronger hives for next winter. Unfortunately, the new normal in beekeeping is to expect thirty percent losses–and that’s when you do everything right.

We’ll have to be a lot better about minding our bees.