Tuesday, March 31, 2009

frame full of bees

Honey Comb

Opening the hives for the first time is like Christmas: lots of buzz and surprises. Waiting to open the two new hives was tough - every day last week I put my ear against them, watched the girls bustling about on sunny days, worried that it was too quiet on cold dreary days.

Then: ta-daah! I opened them up to see how the bees were settling in. First thing I noticed was that both queens had been freed from their little isolation chambers. I could not find them in the throng of bees however, which made me feel quite amateurish. If you can't find your queen you can't know how things are truly going.

What I could see was lots of creamy white pure beeswax combs - especially in the blue Elizabeth hive. The bees had filled out all the frames in the box and were starting to make their own free-form comb in the empty box on top. The bees make long chains of bees when they do this, and when I lifted the top, to which they were stuck, they collapsed to the bottom in a shrill buzz. Definitely made them irked. But I smoked them and they all ran downstairs to the box below.

Smoke is an interesting tool for the beekeeper: when bees smell smoke, they turn and run into the hive. They are not "calmed" by smoke as some say, but actually set into alarm mode. The bees think their tree is burning down, so they go inside, put their heads in the combs and try to eat as much honey as they can. This way if they have to flee they'll carry provisions. All this preparation distracts them so that the beekeeper can disturb the hive without calling forth the troops (bees care more about the fire than they do about the irritating creature in white poking at them.

So after I smoked everyone out of the top box I added additional frames - now the Elizabeth hive has two stories. The green Kathryn hive is much smaller than Elizabeth. I thought I'd done a better job hiving the Kathryn bees (Elizabeth was first and I flailed around a bit with her bees). But Elizabeth's hive was flush and Kathryn's was small in comparison - and they were not done drawing out comb in the first story.

I have heard that sometimes when new bees are hived that they can drift between hives at first. Sometimes the bees have all come from the same previous hive and then won't stay separated into new hives but get back together in one of their new homes. It is mysterious.

Elizabeth bees are sugar syrup junkies too - they are downing jar after jar. They put a lot of it away in combs to feed what I hope are their incubating babies (couldn't see those either - I am failing on the two most rudimentary beekeeper tests!).

I also saw lots of pollen put away - and many bees coming in with laden saddle bags packed with bright colored pollen. The pollen colors are so various and sharp - my clever girls are finding their way around.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hail to the Queen

It was long assumed that the large regal bee sauntering around the hive was a King Bee. Then in 1586 some iconoclastic scientist noticed that the king was actually a queen, and that she spent most of her time laying eggs in the hexagonal cells of comb.

The queen is the center of the hive; all of the bees in her hive are bound together by her pheromone, or scent, that marks the hive's distinctive identity. If the queen is well, then the hive is well. Survival of the group depends on her ability to lay enough fertile eggs to produce the workers that care for the young, clean the hive, gather food, and make honey.

All of the latter jobs, by the way, are carried out by female worker bees. Male bees, or drones, have only one job: to hang around and mate with a fertile queen on her one and only "nuptial flight". That's right: the males just eat and have sex.

I'll say no more on that subject, but they do receive some form of comeuppance because they die after copulating; those that don't mate but just moon around hopefully get kicked out of the hive in fall when food is scarce.

The queen flies out of the hive only once, for an orgiastic mating flight where she can mate with multiple males. Afterward she comes home to the hive, carrying the sperm of all these mates. From this one flight she carries all the sperm she will use in her reproductive life.

After mating the queen lays eggs. Fertilized eggs become female workers; unfertilized eggs become beer-drinking, tv-watching Barcalounger dwelling males (ok that's not fair but I love the image). I should mention that somehow, mysteriously, the queen can choose whether to lay fertilized or unfertilized eggs. 

Right now my bees are setting up house. The worker bees are frantically building comb in which to lay eggs and store food. The bees make wax from glands on their bodies. To do this (not to mention to stay alive) they need food. Since they have nothing stored I must feed them sugar water (1:1 water to sugar).

Also the workers are freeing the queen; she was sent in her own little cage hung inside the package with all the workers. This is done to isolate her from them - these bees did not know this queen and consequently would kill her. Before this week, they identified with the queen pheromones from their home hives and would view mine as an impostor. After they've been around her for five days or so they will have imprinted on her scent.

She is now suspended in the hive in her little cage, one end of which is plugged with a piece of candy. The bees will eat this plug and free her; by the time they do so everyone will be a happy buzzing family. I hope.

I have two queens (one per hive) and have named them Elizabeth and Kathryn the Great. It is cold (46 F) and gray today. My bees are staying inside. 

I put my ear to the hives and listened; there was industrious buzzing inside.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Driving with 6,000 bees in your car is an electrifying experience.

I hived my bees yesterday with much drama and excitement (neighbors and kids in the yard, helpful helpers shouting advice to me from the safety of the porch, my dinner guest capturing it all on film).

Here's the chief point of dramatic tension: when my bees arrived I didn't have my hives ready or much of the necessary equipment. Oh My God. As my neighbor said, this was a beemergency (sorry).

Some weeks ago I had a dream of getting my bees but not being ready for them, so in the dream I put them in my socks and carried them around that way for a while. This is not an option in real life.

The company I ordered supplies from said they'd held up my shipment because they didn't have the kid-sized bee suit I ordered for my son in stock! I called today and told them "but my bees are here!!!!" So they said they'd send everything but the kids suit pronto. Sheesh.

What I did have was the wooden hive boxes and frames that are the shell and skeleton of the hive. But I did not have the sheets of beeswax foundation that go in the frames and on which the bees build comb to store brood and honey. Without these beeswax sheets I might as well keep my bees in my socks.

My ever-supportive husband painted the bee boxes, one light blue, one light green. Then he and our neighbor built and installed the hive stands - basically tables that the hives stand on (check out neighbor Gerry Frank's business, C'ville Construction. Gerry is the best builder anywhere).

Meanwhile I picked up the bees from Glen Clayton in Shipman, VA, a long-time beekeeper and supplier has a delightful sense of the absurd and also, very importantly, had sheets of beeswax foundation I could buy. From Glenn's I drove (with my 6,000 buzzing companions) to my beekeeping mentor, who coincidentally had invited me and two other newbees (sorry) to help her with her hives and learn.

After two awesome hours opening hives and talking through what we saw, the gals and I sat on the porch and finished assembling my frames so that I could put my bees to bed when we got home. Thank goodness for other beekeepers; they saved me. My mentor lent me some critical missing pieces of equipment (clutch: a beekeepers suit and veil to keep the bees out of my ears and from going down my shirt).

Hiving the bees is essentially getting them and their separately housed queen out of their carrying package and into the hive. This sounds so simple. My big learning experience is that you have to bang the package pretty hard to get them loosened up enough to pour them (literally) into the hive box. Another thing to keep in mind is - do not drop the queen's little cage down into the roiling mass of bees in the package or you will have to reach your hand in there and fish her out. That didn't happen to me but I thought about it.

I have two hives. The first package I didn't bang very hard so the bees clung to the screen and wouldn't be poured. I am afraid I lost a lot of them because there were a LOT of bees on the wing after that. The second package went in more smoothly.

I sound really calm about this experience, but I was very aware that a bazillion bees were flying around me and I wasn't at all sure I was going to have any success in getting them into the new home, let alone getting them to stay. When I was done and walking back onto the porch my son asked "was that harder than you thought it was going to be, Mom?" Kinda.

I was impressed at how mellow the bees are; I was in a cloud of bees pretty much all afternoon yesterday and only got stung once when one poor bee got stuck in my boot. These are Italian bees and are generally sweet-dispositioned. Plus bees being hived are not defensive (bees sting to defend their hive and these girls were confused and homeless until yesterday).

As of this morning the sun was on the front doors of the new hives (facing east as they should be); bees were taking little in and out flights from their new homes and seemed to be checking things out.

Now I am worried that they aren't able to access the food (sugar water) I gave them, but I am also worried about taking the top off to check and upsetting them... oh boy. Bee worries.

Wow. Pretty amazing.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Obamas are going to keep bees!

Check it out - the Obamas will have an organic vegetable garden...and bees! Can I tell you much I love Michele Obama?


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Getting Hives (the bee house kind)

So I would like to tell you about my new-found carpentry skills that have resulted from my hard work putting together the wooden boxes that will house my bees. I would like to but I cannot, because I am a total slacker. While my husband and father-in-law painstakingly assembled the hives, I went to the grocery store.

I tell myself that this was a wonderful time for the two of them to bond together and have quality father-son time in our work room, playing with tools and listening to NPR. But that would just be covering my own utter negligence.

The guys built four hives boxes and forty "frames". Hives are composed of stacking wooden boxes that come in various sizes. Big ones called "brood boxes" are for the queen bee to lay eggs in (vitally necessary so that the colony can multiply the numbers of worker bees). We need lots of bees to go out and gather flower nectar to make honey.

On top of the brood boxes are smaller boxes called "supers". These are for honey storage. Instead of the big/small collection I opted for getting all medium sized boxes. They are interchangeable and the big ones are not so dang heavy. A full box of honey can weigh 60 lbs or more. Getting all mediums was the recommendation of the beekeeping class I took this past February, through the county extension office. I highly recommend taking a beekeeping class if you are interested. It is terrifically interesting and beekeepers are lovely and enthusiastic people.

Hanging inside the boxes are 8 to 10 "frames" - sheets of beeswax held in wooden frames for the bees to build comb on and lay eggs in and store honey. Later I will talk more about the intricacies of bee reproduction and honey making, but for today we are just trying to set up house. Of course I've already fessed up that I was no help in that today.

My bees arrive in about 2 weeks (!!) so I need to be ready.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Bee doing her thing

Originally uploaded by Grandma BJ

New hives

So my beehives arrived today - not the bees themselves, the boxes that the bees will go in. Well, not the boxes either exactly, but the pieces of wood that my husband and I will assemble that will make the boxes that the bees will live in.

I didn't realize when I first committed to keeping bees that it would involve the same skills needed to assemble model airplanes, but there it is. The bees are worth it.

I became interested in bees when I learned about "colony collapse disorder" which since 2006 has ravaged the global bee population. In 2006 the bee population dropped by some 30-40%, and in the years since the syndrome has persisted. Given that 1/3 of all food depends on bee pollination, this is a big deal. The PBS program "NOVA" did a great overview of this phenomenon. The jury is still out on why this is happening, but one of several potential culprits to emerge has been pesticides.

I am not getting bees for food production, although I would be very happy if my garden produced more due to their presence. Nor even for the honey, although that certainly would be nice. I am in it for the bees.

Bees are extraordinary creatures, living in a highly specialized, exquisitely sensitive, matriarchal society. They communicate among themselves both by "dancing" to indicate where food is, and by chemical exchanges through pheromones and feeding one another. Since I work on environmental issues and chemicals as they affect human health, bees take on a richly symbolic and very real role in this light.

I lived for a year in Russia. While there my husband and I bought our food at the local farmers' market. There was a woman there who sold honey, and she had so many shades of honey - from white to amber to mahogany. Each color had a name. It makes me sad to think of the richness of this world we borrow being diminished. Keeping bees is my small way of contributing.

And the honey would be nice.