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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

More Fiddling on the Roof

more roofersLet's review, shall we?

I'm in the city, I want to keep bees, and I want to annoy (and become known to) as few people as possible. Therefore, my bees are on a roof deck, and the only people who should be able to see me up there are the folks in an apartment house about a block away (who should not care) and some people with a roof deck just around the corner, whom I avoid.

So in less than a year, BOTH neighbors have their entire roof decks replaced, and it's not just the supporting joists that get exposed. My northside neighbor had told me that roofers would be coming, supposedly two weeks ago, and that she would call me the night before "so I would not be alarmed by the noise." I wondered then if she already knew, but I got information from the BeeSource folks about how to block the girls in (safely) for a day, so I figured all would be well.

But today the roofers arrived without warning, and so they get to see my girls in action! I decided to ask them if I could take their picture, and they said yes, and that was probably a good thing. As I was standing there, bees were bumping into my head and buzzing all around me on their way in and out, and I was barefoot. If a crazy yuppie woman showed so little fear, it appeared as if the macho factor was gonna keep these guys from objecting!

It's probably a good thing that just yesterday, ahead of a short drizzly rain, I did my interim check on the girls. I have hung back for the past two weeks, in part to try to gain perspective and calm down, and in part to allow them to recuperate from my many disruptions. This is the time of year to be careful about food stores, and to apply any Spring varroa mite treatments, and to decide whether any surplus stored honey should be removed in advance of the Spring nectar flow. So I just popped the covers and pulled the bottom boards for an in-progress scan.

bee carrying pollenThis girl was hanging out nearby as I lit my smoker, so it seemed like she wanted to pose with her sporty pollen packs. Those little yellow cuffs on her legs, near the ends of her wings, are probably maple pollen, and she seemed kind of heavily laden and taking a break. After a couple of pictures (the others were out of focus) she flew home.

The Wilde colony got the first check. When I popped the top, a wave of warmth and sweet smell reached me. The girls are definitely raising brood in there, and keeping the temps high for the bees to be.

semi-nibbled honey storesThe Wilde girls still have a decent amount of food, and the frame picture at right seems to indicate that they are sort of pecking away at their honey stores, and maybe bringing in a bit of the nectar that is now available in the wild. MaryEllen says that the bees prefer fresh nectar – that the honey they store is about as appealing as canned veggies are to us, and I suppose that it could get old after 4 or 5 months of winter – and that they will ignore honey when flower juice is available. The pattern on this comb seems to show that sometimes they eat fresh, and sometimes they are still plugging away at the comb honey. There seemed to be enough honey to support this pattern for a while, and the weather is supposed to continue in a pro-bee fashion this week, so I closed up and left them alone.

The Twain hive seemed a better candidate for extracting, based on the fact that I left them over 100 pounds of honey this winter, and the first deep frame I pulled was still full of honey. Toward the center of the deep box, however, I found that the cluster had moved into the bottom part of the middle frames: they might not need all this honey, but they'd probably be wanting some. So I decided to let it ride here, too. I moved the full frame to the middle (it's safer to move honey frames around than brood comb), took off the hive top feeder for cleaning, and closed it up.

For the past two Fridays, without telling you, I have been restarting the oxalic mite treatments because there are still several workers with deformed wings appearing each day, and the temperatures have been too low to use ApiLife Var. When I pulled the bottom boards, it does seem like the mite drop is receding, but the virus itself might not need the mites anymore if enough bees are transmitting it directly. Who knows? They say that the worst sign is if drones emerge with deformed wings – they are supposed to have greater resistance – and I have not seen any of them. I can only take what care is available, and be gentle.

Finally, with the Spring have come a number of invitations to place bees in new locations, including a monastery a bit over 3 miles (a perfect distance) from my roof. MaryEllen and I are collaborating on yet another bee project at a public historical park in the suburbs, and we gave a presentation to the other volunteers there not long ago. We'll make all this the subject of another post, since this one is so long.

Finally, I am sorry for the gap in posting, for those of you who wonder about such things. There has been a death in my family, not a terribly happy family, and I sometimes wonder if my love for the bees and their tight and collaborative world has anything to do with these long-past heartaches. Nonetheless, I've been in a pointlessly thoughtful fog, and welcome the needs and rhythms of the bees to bring me back to the world of the real and the alive.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Packing in the Pollen

maple pollen packsSpring has continued its early arrival in these parts with an 85 degree F day, which I celebrated by pulling the sliding panels out from the screened bottom boards of the hives. This gives the honeybees additional ventilation, and I get to look at what's been falling through lately. They also don't care at all about this operation, and are not disrupted in the least.

I was supposed to do a mite count on Friday, but I forgot, so I just poked through the stuff on the panels in order to find pollen packs. These are the multicolored lumps that the bees pack onto the pollen baskets on their rear legs, and they give a good idea of what the bees have been up to. The picture above is maple pollen, deduced from blooming information at and the knowledge that maple pollen is a lovely golden yellow. The bees get pollen all over their furry little selves, and they use their front and middle legs to comb it back, mix it with some nectar (to make it stick), and pack it on their back legs. That rounded shape is actually the largest arc that can be described by a bee arm: it's a more graceful shape than what we manage when we attempt to soap our own backs. The biggest pack here is about 2mm by 4mm, and things are looking a little greasy because of the oil on the bottom board. The pollen packs are also easy to squash, and have deformed a little.

willow pollen packsThis olive drab stuff is willow pollen, apparently a far less desirable product, according to beekeepers. The bees seem to think it's OK. The Twain colony had a lot of maple on the bottom board, while Wilde had almost all of the willow. This may only mean that the Wilde girls filled up the cells with willow before working on maple, or it might mean nothing at all.

The pollen-bearing field bees actually fly into the hive, back into a cell, and scrape the stuff off themselves. They pack only one kind of pollen in a cell, apparently, just like they collect only one kind of plant material on any single flight. The pollen packs that fall down are probably the result of misses, miscalculations, or overfilling. This whole business is a lot different from the way they handle nectar. When delivering flower juice, field bees find a house bee, give the nectar to her, and then fly away again.

I've been messing with the bees too much lately, but it's a bit of a conundrum. There's a risk of swarming, which means I should be checking or intervening, but I've been fiddling too much, which may endanger the colony. So I am sitting tight, watching pollen, and planning a cursory visit tomorrow.

There may be other visitors this week, however! My north side neighbor told me that her roof will be replaced one day this week, and she would call when she knows which day – purportedly because the dogs might be barky as a result. From the way she introduced the topic, I suspect that she knows! But she is a good person, and it makes me sad not to share this with her. Nonetheless, this is a great time of year for such a project, because the bees are in a good mood and it is not impossible or terrible to block them in their hives for a day, especially if it's a bit cooler than today. If anything, I want to meet the contractor who can guarantee a complete roof replacement in one day!

Friday, March 10, 2006


honeybee in rosemaryIf the bees were ready to swarm, they would have done it today, so I kept an eye on them. Instead of waving goodbye to a cloud of departing residents, however, I got to supervise a glorious working day for many hundreds of busy honeybees.

I sat on the roof near the hives, trying to see what they were bringing in. They have been thronging the birdbath and the planters, so some of the more wobbly arriving flights were probably packing H2O. Others had their panniers packed with bright yellow pollen: most likely maple, since you can now see buds on the trees, even from the ground.

Then it hit me, last year it had seemed a shame that I had no picture, or real idea where to take pictures, of where the bees were working each day. Therefore, I focused as best I could on incoming and outgoing bees, trying to see where they were headed or coming from. This is not easy! The bees tend to fly out of the front of the hive, spiral around higher and higher, almost beyond sight, and then take off like a shot in their desired direction. It almost seems as if they blink out of existence.

But some were headed right past me and down, past the bird bath, to something else nearby. I grabbed the camera, headed down the twisty staircase, and out in the alley behind the house, pursuing a generally bee-ish course.

rosemary bushAnd it turns out that the bees had found this rosemary bush, gloriously in bloom, in the yard of a neighbor who does not like me much. Honeybees on the job are notoriously difficult to photograph, and I was afraid to go in this yard, so I leaned on the fence, propped up the camera, and crossed the fingers that weren't pressing the shutter. Within a set of some 20 nearly random shots, the first picture above and the last one below managed to show happy honeybees in their first Spring blooms.

honeybee in rosemaryThis officially marks the beginning of the season where my poor dogs will have to wait as I poke my head into every bush during their walks, looking for the girls. It's time to root for even temperatures and nighttime rains, for abundant nectar and gentle winds. It's time to realize that it's way too soon for these things, but to feel them tantalizingly just ahead.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bad Beekeeping 'R' Us

queen eleanor of the twain colonyIf you have been looking here for beekeeping advice, please let this post be your version of the surgeon general's warning. I am a moron beekeeper. At left is the only worthwhile result of this morning's endeavors: a fuzzy picture of a slightly marked queen.

This morning, when the temperatures were too low for the bees to fly, I reviewed George Imiries' instructions for splitting a colony and sort of modified them a bit. I brought all the tools necessary to do the deed, lit my smoker, and waited until bees started flying. At 11:30 it was time to go.

I started taking Twain apart frame by frame, which annoyed them alot after going through a similar treatment yesterday. But I had to find the queen, move her and mark her. I counted honey frames as I went: I have just short of 8 deep frames of honey, as well 10 medium frames. That is a ton of honey.

Pulling frames, scraping burr comb, inspecting carefully: I was at it for over an hour when I came to the frame with the queen cell...and I broke it by mistake.

Holy cow, as stupid a thing as a person could do! If those bees swarmed NOW, one half of them would have no queen at all!

But wait a second! It was empty. Suddenly, it makes sense! Why only one cell, why in a screwy place, why so much honey still uneaten? My crazy comb building Twainians just waxed it over for the heck of it (like they attach everything else). It's not time to split, and this whole exercise has been a total waste of time, bee patience, and some bee lives.

So I'm in the middle of a colony of unhappy bees, and might as well make the best of it. Decision: keep looking for and mark Queen Ellie.

So I rummage down down through 2 more boxes. I'm in the bottom, still no queen. So I look to the left of my foot, on a frame that's sitting in an empty box, and there she is. To me, she looks like a Cadillac bee, but WHAT THE HECK IS SHE DOING THERE? I simultaneously reach for the nail polish (to mark her back) and the camera (to grab a close up) and she flies! I AM AN IDIOT.

Where the heck did she go NOW? I spot her on a random piece of wooden ware to my right, lift it, and try to shake her into the hive. She does not let go. I'm terrified she'll fly again. I jiggle it one more time directly over the cluster, and then I can't see her anymore. Did she go in?

I look all over, feet frozen in place. She's not to the left. Not to the right. Not in the box with frames. Not crawling around the outside of the hive bodies. Decision: CLOSE THIS MESS UP.

So tired but so careful, I place the top brood box, then the medium honey super, then the freaking-stooooopid incredibly-heavy chest-height deep with 60 confirmed pounds of honey in it, then the feeder, then the hive cover. I shuffled away, humiliated, with all the extra boxes, stands, covers, shards of beeswax, mashed bees and instructions for making a split lying just where they were.

I'll clean up tonight when I won't do as much damage.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

It's Splitting Time!

cracking the topA few weeks ago it became clear that I had to watch the Wilde colony for signs of swarming: Carniolans are known for it, and my bees were crowded. Since the weather is supposed to be quite warm by the end of the week, I popped the top (the picture here today) to check, and found no signs of honeybees with plans to run away from home.

For the heck of it, I looked over at Twain, and saw my first drone of the season. Hmmm. Colonies produce drones at about the same time that they think queens ought to be out and about!

So I popped the top, and got a BIG surprise. A capped queen cell on the bottom of the bottom box! (Unfortunately, the camera died right before: I'll get you a shot tomorrow). The last time we took the colony apart, February 28th, there weren't even any queen cups (the first stage), so the girls got right to work just after we went rooting around in there. We had removed an empty bottom box, though, which probably accounts for the strange location. Once again, the bees got busy just where the books said they wouldn't.

This means that tomorrow, before the Twain crew gets a chance, I'll be making my first split, becoming a mother of three (colonies, that is). There is some possibility that I will have FIVE colonies by the end of this year, if Wilde splits too. That's because there's a nuclear colony coming my way, intended for a new "out apiary" site that has not been blogged about yet.

One last note: in prying the Twain boxes apart, I also found that they had built burr comb with drone cells between the boxes (not sure why they did that, since the bee space is supposed to be correct), and several of those drone larvae had living Varroa mites scurrying about on them. Another battle not yet – perhaps not ever – over. The new microscope my husband bought is supposed to take movies, so I'm going to give my first ever horror flick a try tomorrow, and show you that, too!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Colonizers Become the Colonized

casa montejo bee coloniesYou may wonder why this bee blog is showing you a picture of a building. Well, it's like this: We just took a midwinter break, a quick run down to Merida, Mexico – a city in the Yucatan, and I look for bees everywhere. I thought the most exciting bee-attraction in Merida would be it's large open market (the biggest on the whole peninsula), a place I'd *surely* find interesting honey and bee products. However, as we were walking along the zocalo (the central square and park for the city), I noticed bees flying behind and around giant crests on an impressive old building.

The facade was stone, which means that no one in their right mind is ever going to try to cut those bees out (standard operating procedure for bees nesting in most houses). But what is MORE interesting is that the building was the home of the conquistador who first took Merida from the Mayans, a guy named Francisco de Montejo (not to be confused with his cousin, also Francisco de Montejo... but we shouldn't pick on the unusually close family ties of the Spanish nobility, should we?)

So the colonizers are now the colonized! But let me share one more thing with you.

The Mayans kept stingless native bees before the Spanish arrived, but these have gradually been replaced by European races of honeybees (which I understand to be somewhat more honey-producing than the stingless ones – there are projects to try to save them). But most, meaning perhaps 100%, of the Apis mellifera bees in the Yucatan are now Africanized: the killer bees we have been taught to fear by mindless moviemakers.

In case you wanna know, not 10 feet above the heads of the people passing through the busiest square of the largest city in the Yucatan are 4 colonies of Africanized honeybees, buzzing in and out with much better things to do than to bother anybody else.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Dirty Bees

bee sucking dirtWant to know a dirty little beekeeper secret? Bees prefer mucky water. Yup, they gather nectar, pollen, tree sap, and H2O to bring back to the hive, but they take the latter from the yuckiest place they can find. MaryEllen told me that an expert once claimed that the bees were trying to gather protein with the water, but I have my doubts.

Since this is the city, my garden is mostly containers, and many of those are "Earthboxes", biggish boxes with black plastic covers that keep water in and weeds out. The tomatoes that once grew there are long gone, but the honeybees have converted the openings in the covers into places of pilgrimage. On almost any above-40 degree day, I can pull back the cover and see some girls sucking dirt.

bee with tongue in dirtCan you see the little red tongue of the bee at right? It took 20 shots to get that for you (fuzzy as it is). Gotta get my viewfinder fixed. My bees are clearly somewhat soiled, in a couple of ways.

It is extremely comforting to see the bees, in this case almost certainly the cold-weather-loving Carniolans, around and about the yard, not just because they anticipate Spring. At a state beekeeper meeting last Saturday, there was a lot of advanced info around that once again put a scare into me. This blog has more crises than a bad soap opera, and I am afraid that the meeting will only induce more of the same. Like someone who sees a medical show on TV and becomes convinced that she has a terminal illness, the talk of mites and viruses has me shaken up about the girls. Again.

My mite counts are very, very high. The treatment I used is not proven — while it was the best available alternative and one clearly used by a bunch of us (gathered in a group like giggling high school girls, "Did you use it, too?! Tee hee!"). Add the concern that it might be too little too late! One presenter talked about a truly scary relationship between high mite counts and terminal loads of deadly viruses that go on and on even if the mites don't.

The wing deformation that I showed you earlier is not a result of just plain old mite vampires, but of a virus they deliver to the poor developing bees. Apparently almost every bee has some of it (and every part of the hive except the wax can harbor it), but the mites appear to do a one-two punch:
  1. weakening the bees by parasitizing them; then
  2. delivering enormous quantities of virus to the enfeebled host.
The deformed wings don't come from varroa mites, they come from the "Deformed Wing Virus (DWV)," and you don't see it unless the infection rate is very high.

It seems to work like human epidemiology. Name your bad infection (SARS, Spanish influenza, the plague, anything): all were present in the environment, perhaps for centuries, before becoming epidemic killers, or even getting a name. If the numbers of ambient infective agents get high enough, some diseases can make the jump from rare disease (or benign chronic bother) to rampant pestilence. It take billions of virii or bacteria, and hundreds or thousands of potential hosts, and they all need to be closely associated. At some point, a saturation point is reached or a mutation takes place, and the disease explodes.

Varroa mites operate in a large and crowded place full of life, a hive, an easy place to get into the disease delivery business. If you keep the numbers of the varroa low, the amount of virus they pass around never hits the critical mark. Once you have enough virii in place, though, you don't need the varroa around anymore to support the epidemic. The DWV virus can jump the rest of the way up a hyberbolic curve all by itself, and there is no cure. You lose the bees and all the hive products — anything that can't survive a fumigation —because all the bee accessories are now full of virus, too.

I completed a 4-day mite drop count this afternoon. Twain dropped 97 a day, and Wilde is back up to dropping 237. I have a lot of mites, still. During the last warm day (February 16), I saw many dozens, maybe hundreds, of girls with deformed wings creeping around the roof. The speaker at the meeting told us that the deformed bees only live 2 days, so (counting back 21 days plus or minus 48 hours) I know that they hatched on either February 15th or 16th, and the Queens laid the eggs from which they were hatched around January 25-27. These bee larvae should have been exposed to the first oxalic acid treatment (January 27): their honeycomb cells were still open. But they say that the oxalic takes up to a week to kill the mites once it is in contact with them, so it might just have been too late for this generation. The mites could have delivered the virus THEN died.

From the information that the speaker gave, and the many observations of creeping bees and medical mysteries that you can see in this blog, a kind of story line about the health history of Twain and Wilde is emerging.

Last year's weather was great for mites, and stimulated brood rearing until quite late, and the temperatures were too high to use my chosen treatment. I helped this along, by trying everything in my power to raise the number of bees in the Wilde colony before winter. So a really wonderful and prolonged breeding ground for mites was provided.

It was hot right until the temperatures began their drop in late September. The rapid change hard up against the start of winter weather meant the hives were exposed to the mite treatment for only a minimal time. Also, let's not forget the beginner errors that I almost certainly made. So the mite treatment took place under sub-optimal conditions.

Winter usually puts a temporary stop to brood rearing, and knocks down mites. A mild winter here, however, caused it to start up again almost immediately.

With a large initial population, few checks, and a return to pro-mite conditions, the varroa population exploded. The creeping bees I saw in November and again in latter weeks are the effects of the virus ramping up behind the mites. The first wave of DWV girls came when the inital varroa population crested in October, the second when they swung into action in January.

This is the story so far. The ending has not yet been written.

Two weeks ago I still had a lot of vibrant bees. The only question now is whether the oxalic acid nailed the mites, and whether it did so soon enough to stop a viral implosion.

I think there is hope. Some of the dirty bees in today's pictures were very young, newly hatched, and decked with perfect wings.