Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sweet Mother of Apis Melifera; Tears of the Sun god Ra

                                Photo Credit: Sue Ann Vruno

You are too good to be true. You have spent the summer building comb, foraging for pollen, nectar and water. You have buried your heads deep, nursed your brood, fanned your wings, tended to your queen, guarded your hive  and now this:

Frame after frame of capped honey. For three years you have teased me. For three years I have waited for this, the opportunity to take a worthy crop  and share it with my world. Finally I can have a proper Tibetan blessing for you and show you and all your glory off!  Mother of Apis Melifera, tears of the Sun god Ra, your tears turned to bees now sweet for me.

Paula and I hit the road at 5:30 this morning, my time of day! We arrived at the bee yard, lit the smoker and set up to start pulling boxes of honey. We have never been faced with a job like this and it is overwhelming to think about how to prioritize, organize, manage and pull off. We made made one mistake, nothing that can't be recovered. One bee sting later we left with four full boxes of honey.

We are hobby beekeepers. We don't have the tools or the equipment commercial beekeepers have to get the job done. We have the two of us, a bee brush and and Tupperware containers. It isn't much but it is enough.

It isn't the best photo but you get the idea. Brushing bees causes a bee frenzy. Last summer I got no less than 15 stings, all above my neck the day we harvested and ended up with a three month cough. This year we made sure our veils were not draping our necks and I ended up with one single sting on my leg, from The Turquoise Bee of course. No big deal. We worked Crazy Comb first and took an entire brood box of honey. We should get about 3 1/2 to 4 gallons of honey from the box and we are not done. We don't need to leave any honey in this hive as we won't over winter these girls. Hopefully over the next few weeks they will cap the remaining frames in at least one super and if we can isolate our queen we may be able to harvest some of the frames from remaining the brood boxes.

I brushed and Paula worked the large Tupperware containers, moving the lid on and off trying to minimize the number of bees making their way into the Tupperware and minimize our casualties. I will be truthful, there were some losses, it can't be helped. The bees are stubborn and they burrow into the honey and . . . After Crazy Comb we took boxes from Royal Ruckus, Drone Den and The Turquoise Bee. All in all we ended up with four full boxes of frames, probably another 4 or 5 gallons I am guessing. The super frames are smaller than the brood frames and Royal Ruckus and Drone Den are smaller boxes with one less frame that our other boxes, so it is a little hard to estimate but I am guessing at this point we have a good 8 gallons sitting in the honey closet.

We moved our fuller supers to the top of each hive and put on bee escapes just below them, a device that allows bees to move down in a hive but not up. The idea is to get as many bees out of the top boxes so there are less bees to brush. When I got home and looked at the calendar I think it was a little premature for this maneuver so I am going to go back tomorrow and remove the bee escapes, giving the bees more time to finish capping the top boxes, maybe another two weeks.

By the middle of August we should be able to remove another three or four supers and think about our wintering strategy. Royal Ruckus and Drone Den should have enough honey in the brood boxes to cover them for the winter. The other hives, if we can isolate our queens into the bottom box and hatch out any remaining brood we could take more from the brood boxes. We could also save some frames from these hives for early spring feeding. Lots to consider!

Once we finished we carried the oh so heavy Tupperware containers half way to the car and brushed each frame again, making sure we didn't have live bees in the Tupperware containers. We loaded everything into the bee mobile. Since I'd been stung I had a swarm of bees pelting my helmet and veil and couldn't loose the bees. Finally Paula was able to get out of her bee suit and I got into the passenger seat of the car with my gear still on and we drove to our coffee shop before I was able to remove the suit. I celebrated with my first cup of regular coffee in over 6 months. I don't intend to make a habit of it, and even if I did, so what.

When we got home we made one final bee check before carrying the containers into the "honey house", essentially the back room of our condo that becomes transformed into a honey house for extracting at the end of every summer. We transferred the frames back into their boxes and stacked the boxes in the honey closet. Last year we stored our uncapped honey here for a full week while running a dehumidifier. No need for the dehumidifier this year, these frames are all ripe and capped. I will probably take some honey to Natures Nectar to measure the moisture content, just to be sure, but I am darn confident about this harvest.

You can see the joy in both of us. Giddy with delight. It took me awhile to clean up and get the drippings of honey out of the Tupperware containers. By the time I was done it was 10 am and I had four cups of warm honey. Tina promptly made some toast and honey while I threw the bee suits into the washing machine and poured a small jar of honey for Paula. I am taking the rest down to our land owner tomorrow when I go back to remove the bee escapes. It seems fitting that he should get some of the first harvest!

Oh  Mother of Apis Melifera, tears of the Sun god Ra, your tears turned to bees,  now sweet for me. I am grateful to you. To show my gratitude I plan to show you off and celebrate your crop. Mark your calendars Monday, September 3rd, details to follow. Since the Tibetan Monks were not able to come to the apiary for a Puja in June I am hoping they can join us for a traditional blessing before we extract. This is an opportunity to talk about how important bees are, the issues facing bees that could eventually cause the demise of our entire agricultural industry and see how we go from nothing to honey. No doubt we will put you to work. The frames need to uncapped and the extractor needs to be hand cranked. Bring your muscle and your family. Tina promises something on the grill and I promise a small taste of honey to take home. It will be the perfect way to close out the summer and celebrate the honey bee!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Capping Honey

That is a picture of a full frame of capped honey, what every beekeeper hopes for toward the end of the summer. Last summer the bees never got around to capping much of anything and we ended up with a scant half gallon of honey only after storing a few frames of uncapped honey in a closet with a dehumidifier for over a week.

I am going to try and make this as simple as possible. Bees spend the spring and summer foraging, collecting pollen, nectar and water. They use their tongues (called proboscis) like a straw to suck nectar out of flowers and store it in their stomachs. They carry the packs of pollen on their legs. Upon returning to their hive they deposit the pollen into hexagonal cells, called comb build by the bees from wax. The nectar is stored temporarily in their stomach and gets mixed with enzymes to become honey. The bees will regurgitate the honey and pack it into the comb,  repeating the process until the combs are full. As mother nature would have it the bees know they need to prepare for long term storage of the honey to make it through the winter. To do this, they fan the honey with their wings to evaporate the water and thicken the honey. It is a huge endeavor as nectar is about 80% water and honey is about 10-15% water. So they fan and fan until the honey is ripe and reduced to the right percent of water. When this is done the bees cap the honeycomb with another layer of wax. When the frame is covered with white wax cappings the beekeeper knows the honey is ripe and reduced. A prudent beekeeper will actually check the moisture level of honey with an instrument called a refractometer. If the honey is too moist and harvested too soon it will cause the honey to ferment. Unless your making mead you don't want that nor do the recipients of your honey.

Seeing a frame of capped honey is simply a work of wonder and art. It takes my breath away. Seeing boxes full of capped frames is pure joy.

That is what we found today when we went to check on the bees, frame after frame of capped honey! Colleen and I headed down in the pouring rain, hoping beyond hope that we might get a break in the rain to check the supers. We sat in the car waiting for a break, went for coffee, stopped for a bite to eat, and finally we got a small window of opportunity, about 20 minutes to get in and get out. Four out of five hives have three supers each. The following is an accounting of the boxes, suffice to say we have tuns of capped frames.  The first supers of all four are completely packed with capped honey and we have entire brood box full of capped honey. I am not sure how we are going to get that box out of the bee yard, it must weigh 100 bounds. The second supers are completely combed out and mostly packed with lots of capping, with is more that what was going on 10 days ago. There isn't much going on in the third supers but we also added brood boxes to two hives which the bees need to comb out first. It was good to see that all of the brood in the supers of Royal Ruckus is hatched out and the queen excluder has kept the queen at bay. The bees have moved up into the new brood box and started to comb it out. Same story in Drone Den. We poked our head into Mr. Abbott and I should have thrown a frame of honey into that hive. I could see bees head first into some bone dry comb. There isn't much of a change in Crazy Comb, no additional comb in the second super and not much activity. The Turquoise Bee is capping in the second super but not drawing much in the third. Hopefully the rain will give a boost to the nectar flow and the bees will just carry on.

I am starting to think about our harvesting strategy. We have never had this much honey before so it needs to be calculated and thoughtful. I am hoping we can actually start to pull off supers as soon as next week and store them in our "bee room" until we are ready to harvest. It would be nice to do it slowly and not get overwhelmed with a day long project.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Honey Honey Sugar Sugar You Are My Candy Girls

Whenever we approach the bee yard we turn up the volume on the bee mobile CD player and jam to The Archies Sugar Sugar. It is our theme song and a good way to transition from our dialog to our bee keeping.  I like to keep the car running while we suit up and get organized. We can't help ourselves from singing and dancing and getting jazzed up about seeing the bees. Lately I have been cranking up the music after our work as well. I have been looking for other honey and bee themed music to add to the CD for a video I hope to make of all the photos we have taken during our adventures.

Today I found myself particularly jazzed up and excited about our findings. It was a longer than usual visit with lots of work. I finally caved and bought a new smoker, it just had to be done. The bummer is that I threw out the old smoker and the new one needs some burns before getting that lingering smoky smell in the car. We also discovered that the new smoker blows threw fuel rapidly and we had to fill it and relight it twice during the hour and a half we were working.

We had our work cut out for us, focusing on Colleen's Royal Ruckus and Drone Den but of course we couldn't help but stick our heads inside Mr. Abbott. It does seem like the Yellow Lady is finally gone. We went through each frame carefully and only saw the unmarked Queen. Her brood pattern is much much better, even compared to a week ago but still it is a weak remedial colony of bees who won't produce a lick. Honestly if killing a queen easily were in me I would do away with her and move the bees back over to The Turquoise Bee to improve her foraging power. There isn't a prayer these girls will overwinter so they are doomed no mater what. Hum, I might have to run this idea past Paula.

Royal Ruckus is just a darn nice group of girls! I love going inside this docile colony and seeing what they have accomplished. It is getting harder to find our queens, marked or unmarked because of the growing population of bees in each hive. We made our way through each and every frame of every box in Royal Ruckus wanting to isolate the queen and make sure she was in one of the brood boxes. She has moved up to the supers and laid some  scant patchy brood. It is also getting hard to find our queens with a white marking because there is so much glistening nectar and white wax that confuse the beekeeper. When drops of nectar land on the bees head or thorax or small chunks of white wax are stuck on the bees it can actually look like a marking. The queen in Royal Ruckus is Yellow and I spotted her in the second brood box. She moved so quickly that Paula didn't get a chance to see her but I am sure that was her. We quickly added a third brood box and toped that with a queen excluder. Hopefully the bees will draw out comb in the new brood box quickly so the queen can use it to lay. I don't like queen excluders because in my opinion they are really bee excluders and often times the workers won't pass them to comb out and pack the supers. We have one super above the queen excluder that is completely combed out and packed but still needs some capping. The second super is almost all drawn out and they are starting to pack that one too. So we ended up putting on a third super. If we got some rain I am sure the bees would fill the second and third box in no time.

Same story in Drone Den but her first super is completely capped. We also saw some beautiful pink honey on two frames that the bees have capped. I am not sure where they are getting the pink nectar, perhaps a humming bird feeder with pink syrup. I wished we had photographed it. We couldn't find the queen but were very confident she wasn't up in the supers anywhere so we went ahead and added a third brood box, the queen excluder and a third super. Drone Den was a little worked up and defensive, nothing like The Turquoise bee but not docile wither. When we added the new brood boxes and supers on both these hives we took frames of nectar from lower boxes and moved them up to the new boxes. Hopefully this will draw the bees up especially now that we have the queen excluders in play.

We also added a third super on The Turquoise Bee as she drawn out her second box and started to pack it. Crazy Comb hasn't done anything in the second super so we left her be with just two supers. You can see we have a growing apiary.

Royal Ruckus and Drone Den are really getting tall. All in all we have 11 supers in play. Four are full and I mean full. One of the full supers is completely capped and the bees are working on capping off the rest. At a minimum we should get four full supers of honey which should be close to 8-10 gallons of honey. Three other supers are well on their way to being completely drawn and packed so if the bees cap those three off another 6-7 gallons. I doubt they will fill all 11 but if they do we are looking at 30 gallons or so. Regardless we are going to need some manpower to harvest our crop! Honey, Honey, Sugar Sugar you are my candy girls!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Duh, "Thank You Captain Obvious"

Smarter minds prevailed at the MN Hobby Beekeepers meeting last night. Marla's side kick Gary tackled my situation with two queens in one hive   Good thing Marla wasn't actually on hand or I would have just lost myself in her voice with that girl crush thing. Worse I would have felt like a fool for asking such a question. Beekeeping 101: Always impress Marla.

Gary Reuter, scientist, a.k.a. Gary-of-all-trades is Marla Spivak's right hand man. You remember Marla, the drop dead gorgeous Entomologist that I am always drooling over. The distinguished McKnight Professor at the University of Minnesota,  MacArthur Fellow and Genius Grant recipient. Back to Gary, this post isn't about Marla but I can't help myself from carrying on about her when I have the chance.

Gary pretty much runs Marla's bee lab at the University of Minnesota. He maintains all of the research colonies and helps train PhD students in the field. He designs cutting edge equipment, and runs the Extension short course in beekeeping. He is also a member of the Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers Association and does the "Hive Management" portion of the meeting every month. He also hosts hive demonstrations before each meeting so folks like myself can go learn from the experts, hands on and in the field. He is generous beyond measure and funnier than anyone I know.

According to Gary it just isn't that unusual to have two queens in a hive. Really Gary? Just when I think I know a thing or two about bees Gary proves me still a novice. Logic defies two queens coexisting in a hive and while I am still a novice I wasn't that off with my idea of a slow mother-daughter supersedure.

 Gary thinks our original queen, the marked Yellow Lady just didn't have good queen bee juju. You see honey bees have something called pheromones which are substances released by individual bees into the hive or the environment that cause changes in the physiology and behavior of the bees. It is actually a very complex system of communication. Its like having secret chemical messages secreted by queen bees or workers to elicit a response from other bees. When a bee sends off a pheromone other bees detect that chemical message with their antenna.

There are different kinds of pheromones, personally I am most familiar with the alarm pheromone, a somewhat nonspecific pheromone made up of about 40 chemicals that is secreted when a bee stings an animal or a person. It sends a message to surrounding bees to come over to the location of the sting and act defensively. Some people have actually speculated this pheromone smells like banana. Occasionally when we open a hive Paula can smell banana and we just close it up. You can imagine what the drone pheromone does, attracts other drones to create a drone congregating areas in areas suitable for mating with virgin queens and of course attracts virgin queens too. I could go on and on about all the different pheromones but you get the idea.

So Gary thinks our Yellow Lady didn't have the pheromone levels it takes to be a queen including a pheromone that allows worker bees to distinguish between eggs laid by the queen, which are attractive, and those laid by the workers which are useless. A queen needs enough of this pheromone to be accepted as the queen so the workers tend to the brood and don't start laying unfertilized eggs.  In addition to this egg marking pheromone a healthy queen will have something called the Queen mandibular Pheromone which is a super pheromone that affects the reproductive capability, and social behavior and order of the hive as well as  some other kind a pheromone called the Queen retinue pheromone which attracts the workers to the queen.

The bee beard photograph above is an excellent example of a queen with stellar Queen retinue pheromone. When a somewhat cocky or crazy beekeeper, and in this case Gary, wants to show off they create what is commonly known as a bee beard. It is quite simple really. Catch your queen in a queen cage and secure her. Stuff some cotton or tissue into your ears and nose so the bees stay clear of those sensitive orifices. Tape the queen cage with the queen inside to your neck and her following will rapidly make their way to their beloved queen. In the mean time keep your mouth shut.  It is a quintessential Minnesota State Fair Honey House activity. People love it! When the show is over just get the queen back in the hive and violá all the bees return to the hive.

Clearly the Yellow Lady was either missing these important pheromones or lacking in appropriate levels of them all along. Here is where good record keeping is helpful. In going back and reviewing Mr. Abbott's Little Bee hive records the Yellow Lady never really started laying well, the brood pattern was always spotty. So if I follow Gary's logic, that she just didn't have enough juju for the workers to think she was a queen her fate as a failure was inevitable. She had enough pheromone to lay eggs but not enough to convince the workers. The bees, thinking they were without a queen fed the brood royal jelly to make a new queen. The Yellow Lady carried on in her sloppy haphazard manner for another  month, just long enough for a new queen to hatch and get mated (which is about when we saw the new, unmarked queen).  The workers are happy because they have a new queen (and in fact our brood pattern is starting to shape up a little) so they think the Yellow Lady is just another drone and are letting her run amuck.

Gary thinks she will eventually disappear, by what means I am not sure. Both Gary and Marla are big proponents of letting the bees sort themselves out. Beekeeping 101: When in doubt do nothing the bees are smarter than the beekeeper and will figure it out.

So I am inclined to sit back and enjoy the show of what I still believe to be a rare occurance!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Bee Mobil

Meet the Bee Mobil! Little did Tina know four years ago when she gave me this car as a gift that it would turn into The Bee Mobil!

I didn't need a car. The car I had was just fine and had less than 70,000 miles on it, but Tina decided I did need a new car.  She and our nephew Chase picked out this spanking new Sapphire Blue Honda Fit. Sapphire Blue just happens to be my favorite color.

She surprised me, out of the blue one August afternoon and asked me to meet her in a parking lot out in Eagan, near her mother's house. She wouldn't tell me what was up, just that she needed me.

I remember being a little put out. It was hot and I was anxiously waiting for some biopsy results and didn't want to be away from the phone in case my physician called.

When I arrived and saw this cool little car I was confused and thought she had purchased it for herself. It seemed an odd choice for someone who spent an hour commuting to work each day.

Adding to the confusion was a mass of people waiting for my reaction, nieces, nephews, sister-in-law, mother-in-law . . . Once it sunk in that it was my new car, and she had even sold my old car I was very excited.

When I took up hobby beekeeping three years ago I didn't realize at the time how great a vehicle I had for such an endeavor. The Bee Mobil is a hatch back, perfect for loading and unloading. It has a huge amount of space inside, despite its small stature from the outside. The back seat folds down three different ways, opening up the entire back of the vehicle or leaving either one or two seats open for passengers.

As you can see I have it packed with equipment I need at the bee yard, smoker, smoker fuel, bee suites, extra hive boxes, and tool boxes with my hive tools, nails, baggies for scrap wax, magnifying glasses,  and a plethora of other bee stuff. I don't like to get caught without something. The bee yard is too far away for that. I keep a shovel and a weed whipper on hand as well as we find ourselves leveling land and keeping the grass in the yard cut back. Rarely if ever do we need more space than the Bee Mobil offers. However, come harvest time this year I think we are going to need a pick-up truck to hall the supers home. There's no way all the supers will fit into the Bee Mobil but I don't really want honey dripping all over my honda fit.

I will admit the Bee Mobil smells of smoke and honey. It is impossible to temper the smoky reside from the smoker we use at the hives to temper the bees and mask the alarm phermone from the guard bees. Personally I love the smell of smoke, especially from the bee smoker so I don't mind the lingering effect in the car. Since Tina is not so fond of the smoke we almost always drive her car when we are together which is another little perk if you ask me. I love being driven around town. There is also the persistent smell of honey coming from spare frames and the scraps of wax we collect while doing our hive inspections.

The bees like to comb out any spare space in the hives. We could spend all day removing the burr and brace comb that isn't needed and messes up the hives. It is a never ending job and in the middle of a nectar flow the wax is packed with honey. When we scrap off the excess from the frames we collect it into plastic bags. By the end of a visit we might have a pint of scrap wax dripping with honey that we place into a zip lock bag, occasionally trapping a bee or two. The wax goes into the freezer and in the fall, after the harvest Paula will turn it into candles.

I spent the day reorganizing the Bee Mobil today to fit in the new brood boxes and supers we need to bring down on Thursday, saving one seat in the back for our third beekeeper, Colleen. It always feels good to clean out the cabin and collect the scrap wax for the freezer. I try and keep it clean and organized through out the summer and in the fall, when the season is over I treat the Bee Mobil to a full cleaning and detailing.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Queen Bees Stump! Lesbian lovers or a slow supersedure?

I don't know what the heck is going on in Mr. Abbott's Little Bee but quite possibly we have a harmonious co-existence of two Queens. Could they be lovers? Lesbian Queen Bees? All joking asking, beekeeping 101: Apis Mellifera Queens are notorious for their royal battles, fighting it out until one remains. I have never heard of two Queens in one hive unless the beekeeper has set up a deliberate system called a two queen hive which is really a misnomer if you ask me because the queens are separated.

Mr. Abbott is our "child" hive from a divide off of The Turquoise Bee, a troubled hive from the get go when we did the divide and queened her. In my opinion the Yellow Lady never took so to speak. The population in the hive has been poor and her laying pattern has been spotty at best. There isn't a lick of nectar in the hive and not much comb. She has always been easy to spot, bright yellow, making her way slowing across a frame with few bees. We saw her every single week until the day before I left for Europe. Besides not seeing her, the brood pattern looked particularly awful that day and I thought the hive was headed for drone. While I was gone Paula checked on them and saw a plump unmarked queen. I was dumbfounded. Last week when I checked the I hive I saw our Yellow Lady, clear as day and her brood patterned seemed a little better. Yesterday we couldn't find her but both of us saw the unmarked Queen.

I am stumped? Are both of them in there? We never seem to see both of them at the same time. Is this some sort of slow supersedure mother daughter combo in action? Yesterday the brood pattern looked much better,  not great but better. Still there isn't much comb and there isn't any nectar and there are not many bees. It would make perfect sense to me that the girls tried to replace the Yellow Lady but why have they let her run amuck while another Queen is taking over. I am going to my monthly Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers Meeting tomorrow night where smarter minds will prevail and hopefully provide some insight.

We got to the bottom of Crazy Comb and I just have to say I am not convinced she swarmed. Her population is busting and we saw more swarm cells and queen cups. We didn't see a Queen but we have lots of beautiful brood and a super full of honey that the girls are starting to cap. We also poked out heads inside Royal Ruckus and The Drone Den. Unfortunately we have brood in the honey supers in both of them. Clearly they need more room so I ordered another brood box for both of them that will arrive tomorrow. Hopefully we can find our Queens, slip in queen excluders and hatch out the brood above. We have full supers on each of them and the girls are starting to comb out their second super.

The Turquoise Bee was aggressive and difficult again yesterday. We got to the bottom box but had to close her up, just too much activity and I am not in the mood for another sting just yet. Her population seems a little small. We didn't see any swarm cells or queen cups but I am thinking it may have been this hive that swarmed, not Crazy Comb. I guess time will tell. She has a full super and the bees are combing out a second box.

If the bees cap everything off we will have a minimum of 10 gallons of honey but I am not sure they are done. If they continue to pack second supers we could be talking 20 gallons. I have been waiting three years to host a harvesting party so get ready folks. I think this is the year.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Simple Glossary

Ziva Jane spent the night laying on my foot, helping me nurse the bee sting or stings I got the other day. The power of pets and a tincture of time . . . I woke up this morning with less swelling and less redness but the itching is making me crazy. I am already feeling more productive and instead of stalking facebook walls and scouring the internet for the perfect Baltic cruise I am going to make good use of the few hours I have before picking up Tina from the airport and heading to my brothers cabin for the 4th of July. It is hotter than hell here, just like everywhere else in the US and I am hoping my bees behave and weather the weather. Even if they have ample space the heat can provoke swarming and I don't want another one of those. We didn't get back down on Monday, my foot was just too swollen and wouldn't even fit into a shoe and it was too painful to stand and walk, hence the indulgent day on the internet.

So just what is a Queen excluder anyway and what is the difference between a drone and a worker? For those of you reading who are not beekeepers I thought it would be helpful to define some simple beekeeping vocabulary, words I throw out there without context or definition. I would imagine you might be wondering what some of really means.

So a Queen excluder is just that, something to "exclude the Queen" or prevent her from moving from one box to another. It is usually placed between the brood nest and the honey supers so that she does not move into the honey supers and start laying eggs. We used them religiously our first year, sporadically last year and this year we have nearly band them! I don't like them unless they are serving a very specific purpose like locating the Queen. I would call them a bee excluder. Whenever we have placed them between our brood nest and our honey supers we find that the workers don't move up into the honey super which is completely counter productive! Having had so much trouble getting the bees to pass the excluder we decided to remove them and see what happened. So far our queens have never moved up, we have never had brood in our supers. Even if that happened it really isn't a big deal. We could use a queen excluder at the end of the season to isolate her and hatch out any brood in the honey supers. So we are done with anything other than season use to isolate her for some reason. You can see an excluder in the photo above, it is just a metal frame of sorts. The slots are narrow enough for a worker to pass through but too narrow for the Queen to pass through.

Brood box: Also know as brood chamber or brood nest. These are the bottom boxes of a hive that are used for brood rearing. They are generally larger than super boxes and hold between 8 and 10 frames. The Queen hangs out in the brood boxes laying eggs all day long. Worker bees tend to the brood, feeding the brood, tending to the Queen and cleaning out the cells after a hatch. In the photo above you can see the box and a frame.

Brood: a term used to refer to the embryo, egg, larva and pupa stages of life of a bee or other insect. In the photo above you can see various stages of development. When I report that we have eggs on a frame I am referring to a very early stage of development and when I say we have brood I am referring to the capped cells you see above. It is important for beekeepers to be able to see eggs and identify various stages of development of brood as it gives them a good indication of the health and existence of an elusive Queen that can't be found. As the population in a hive grows it becomes more difficult to locate the Queen. If you can't find her but you can see eggs in an early stage of development you know she is there and she is healthy.

Queen-right: a term used to suggest the Queen is in the hive and is laying well.

Brood pattern: a term used to describe the pattern of brood on a frame. A good brood pattern like the one in the photo above  is one in which the Queen is laying in every single cell, not missing a cell in a concentric circular pattern on the frame with nectar and capped honey around the rim of the frame. You can see capped honey on the rim of the frame in the photo above and a fairly nice brood pattern. This is how most of our frames look in our brood boxes.

Spotty brood: A pattern in which the queen is missing cells and laying helter skelter. It is usually an indication that the Queen is not healthy or that there is a disease in the hive. This is what we are seeing in Mr. Abbott's Little Bee right now. Since dividing the Turquoise bee and taking half the bees from her to this new hive with a new Queen we have had nothing but poor performance. The brood pattern has been spotty at best, the population is low and we have had some questions about our Queen. Originally we put in a new marked Queen, Yellow to be exact. After a few weeks of spotty laying she disappeared. I could not find her to save my sole and yet it should have been easy since the population was so low. Worker bees will often make a new Queen if they think the one they have is sick or not laying well and while I was gone Paula is sure she saw an unmarked queen in there. While I never saw any queen cells it would have been possible for them to have replaced her. However this weekend when Colleen and I checked the hive she was there. So who knows what happened, maybe they made a new Queen and killed her. Regardless we have nothing to show but spotty brood in this hive. We won't make any effort to overwinter these bees and if the bees don't take care of the Queen themselves we will be forced to.

Drone Brood: Brood that develops from unfertilized eggs that is slightly larger than the worker brood seen in the brood pattern photo. In a healthy hive about 10% of the population is drone. In a hive that goes queen-less worker bees, the females will start to lay unfertilized eggs and the hive will go to drone which simply means over about a 6 week period of time you will end up with only drones and no reproductive capability in the hive and the hive will parish.

Worker, Queen, Drone: The workers are the female bees, the workforce of the hive. About 90% of the hive is made up of worker bees. In the course of their life they will assume multiple roles in the hive. Initially they are nurse bees and assist in the brood rearing and cleaning of cells. The may graduate to guard bee and help guard the hive from unwanted predators and on occasion medaling beekeepers. Eventually they become foragers and bring pollen and nectar back to the hive where other workers help convert all of this to honey and cap it off. Drones are the male bottom dwellers who do precious little other than leave the hive to meet a Queen on a mating flight. The Queen of course is the reproductive mama. She goes on one mating flight in her life heading out to a Drone Congregating Area and mates with multiple drones and the returns to the hive and lays eggs for the rest of her life. Workers and Drones live about 6-8 weeks but a healthy Queen can live for years.

Honey Super: A box, usually smaller than the brood box with frames on which the bees pack pollen and nectar converted to honey and capped off. In the photo above you can see nice comb packed with capped honey.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Hazards of Beekeeping and a Promotion

OUCH another whopper of a sting! It pales in comparison to the stinging frenzy of last August but the itching is pure torture. It stings, it itches, it is hot, it hurts to touch and my ankle is getting stiff. I just have to remind myself the bees are only trying to defend themselves and they have no idea I am trying to help. I react plain and simple. Getting stung over and over has not tempered my reactions. By tomorrow the redness and swelling will have ballooned up my leg (as if it hasn't already) and the itching will consume me. All this for the love of bees.

After news of a swarm on Friday that we lost we would have to go deep into the hives to check on the bottom dwellings. All in an effort to determine who had swarmed. I know what to look for but unless I have a marked queen that I  am able to spot there is no telling for sure. It would be easy if I could find marked queens in The Turquoise Bee, Royal Ruckus and Drone Den. I usually can find them but as the season progresses and the population multiplies it gets harder, marked or unmarked.  It is unlikely one them had swarmed but you never know.  Mr. Abbott would be tricky. Last time I checked I could not find the Yellow Lady we placed in Mr. Abbott in May but a week later Paula spotted an unmarked queen. What happened is anyones guess but that was two weeks ago. If I were a betting girl I would bet on Crazy Comb and since her queen is unmarked there would be no telling for sure unless she didn't re-queen. Bees are complicated.

I called Colleen, she was at my house within two hours. It was 95 degrees out. I wasn't sure we would be able to get in all the hives because of the heat. I was unsure Colleen would hold up especially if the bees were agitated. Dang that girl deserves a full promotion to beekeeper. I could not have managed without her. No longer an apprentice, Colleen is our third beekeeper, maybe not ready for partnership but she getting there. I love her enthusiasm for the bees and her concern for their well being! She takes measures I don't to make sure a bee isn't sacrificed during our laboring and heavy lifting.

We decided to do the easy hives first, the small ones that we know were queen-right two weeks ago. Both Royal Ruckus and The Drone Den are in great shape. We did not spot a queen in either on of them but we did see great brood patterns and eggs. If a hive is going to swarm the queen will usually stop laying and slim down for the flight. It is unlikely either of these hives swarmed given the amount of eggs present. Both of them have one super that is completely combed out and packed with nectar! The second super box on both is empty but given how much nectar is in the first super box and how docile the bees were I am sure there is a good nectar flow on right now.

On to Mr. Abbott, the little trouble maker. The population in this hive remains very poor, it has been since the divide and the queen just doesn't seem to be laying much. Most of her brood is spotty with some areas of good cover but nothing to brag about. There isn't a lick of nectar coming in and nothing is combed out. But there was the Yellow Lady, our original marked queen! I don't know what Paula saw two weeks ago but I now doubt it was an unmarked queen. If it was she isn't there anymore.

We took on Crazy Comb next, all five boxes but we didn't get to the bottom box. We found lots of swarm cells and queen cups, little peanut like cells that hang off the frames. Some were sealed some were not. When hives are fixing to swarm or replace a queen they feed Royal Jelly to certain eggs to "make" a new queen. Usually they make several for good measure and let the queens battle it out in the end. Remember a hive only has one queen so if a new queen emerges in a queen-less hive and there are other queen cells with emerging queens the bees will kill the others. We probably shouldn't have been so quick to remove the cells especially since we didn't spot a queen, although there were so many that I am sure we missed some and there may be more in the bottom box. I would place bets on this being the hive that swarmed but the population seemed so robust. There was also a super full of nectar on Crazy Comb.

We tried to look inside The Turquoise Bee but her bees were really cranked and just after removing the supers and getting to the brood nest I got stung on the ankle and had to leave the bee yard. The bees were quite aggressive and buzzing all over. Colleen kept her cool and got the hive reassembled while I managed the stinger removal and getting some deodorant on the sting. Colleen swears by deodorant to temper the swelling and itching from the venom. I am not sure it does much for me but I went ahead and applied it. Bees will also get agitated and aggressive if they are queen-less so I should not be so quick to think it was Crazy Comb that fled. Obviously we have more work to do and in the end we many never know unless the hive that swarmed goes queen-less and we don't catch it which would be a real drag at this point in the season.

We plan to go back tomorrow and hopefully get a better look inside The Turquoise Bee and maybe re-inspect Crazy Comb to look for a queen. In the mean time I am nursing my sting and remain dumbfounded by the gravity of my reaction. My ankle has already swollen twice as much as when I took the photo on hour ago and I am stewing about all this to no end.  Woe is me.

Losing a Swarm

Swarming is to the beekeeper what losing all of her calves is to a cattle-woman. Beekeepers try to anticipate swarming and assist the bees to reproduce in a more controlled fashion by splitting hives. This saves the "caves" and keeps the cow in condition to accomplish some work. I am not laissez-faire beekeeper. I am responsible and proactive and yet a hive has managed to swarm on me. There is an old English poem which reads:

A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;

A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;

A swarm of bees in July isn't worth a fly 

So in July let them fly. What does the beekeeper do on June 30th when they get the swarm call. I'd had a particularly horrific day at work and was looking forward to a picnic at my brother-in-laws. Brats, swimming, heck maybe even a bonfire. Driving home my cell phone rang, I didn't recognize the number with a 507 area code. "Cari, Steve Abbott here. I have a swarm in my yard, just like last August." The poem doesn't even mention a swarm in August which is almost unheard of. I had sort of doubted Steve last August when he told me weeks after the fact about a swarm he'd seen. However, early this spring it was clear Crazy Comb had re-queened so there was a possibility she'd swarmed. I sent Steve several emails this spring about swarms, what to do and who to call if he couldn't reach me. I made sure he knew if it happened again he should call so we could try and catch the swarm. Steve went on to describe the swarm, smaller than last August, hanging in a tree about four feet off the ground.

My heart skipped a beat or two,  I had a flood of emotion. How could this be?  Could I catch it? I'd never tried to catch a swarm before. I told Steve I would call him back as soon as I got home and got organized. I tried to reach Paula, my beekeeping partner. When she didn't answer I got a little more nervous. Could I do this myself? Shit was the only word that came to mind. The phone rang, it was Steve again.  "There moving north and up higher in pine tree. I have a ladder you can use." O.K. I knew I was over my head. I told Steve I would be home momentarily and would be making some calls to the Twin Cities Hobby Beekeepers Swarm Catchers hotline to get some help. I got no more than another few blocks and Steve called again. "They are not clustered, they are flying all around. I am not sure they are staying in the pine tree." I explained swarming behavior to Steve. They usually find an intermediary place to hang out while scout bees look for permanent home. Then they move again. It was weird they were not clustering and seemed disorganized. Maybe the queen didn't make it in the move. I would need some advice from the swarm catchers.

I was so glad when Bob answered the swarm hotline and explained the situation. Bob seemed to think they were on the move. He gave me the name of two swarm catchers in Northfield I could call. I knew the bees would need to cluster again before we could even consider catching them.

I called Steve back to tell him I was on my way down, it would take me an hour to get there. "There gone, not even on my property anymore. I can hardly see them and they don't seem to be in a cluster."

My heart sank, a lost swarm, even though it was nearly July I wanted those bees! I need those bees!  I couldn't believe it. Which hive I wondered. 8 days earlier I knew all the hives were stable. It couldn't be one of the new hives, or Mr. Abbott they have plenty of new room, new queens and no reason to bolt. Well, maybe Mr. Abbott but why would a small divide swarm, it didn't make since. The only hive we had not inspected deeply was Crazy Comb and she wasn't divided in the spring. I figured she had maybe swarmed in August and re-queened so I thought she would be o.k.

I am anxious to get down there and inspect the hives. Our apprentice beekeeper Colleen is going to help me since I can't reach Paula. Royal Ruckus is Colleen's namesake. She is a real trooper and after today I think she will probably be elevated from apprentice to beekeeper.