Male, Drone bees have large eyes and no stinger.

This weekend at Smoke Farm, with rain showers passing through and a steady plopping of spring droplets, I watched bees from the newly introduced Italian colonies emerge from the hive, perch momently on the edge of the bottom board, turn slightly and  look out into the vast world.  A sudden burst of vibration emanated from their body, and they were off, into the rain drops, the overcast, the unknown perils.  Such bold, willing sacrifice, I thought.

Initially, I took the naming of hives very seriously.  My first three hives were named Republic, Kingdom, and Rogue.  I wanted to evoke well-ordered, prosperous colonies as well as leave room for the rebels.  Republic and Kingdom did terrific for two years, and Rogue, although never growing out of one super, was always good for a frame of honey now and then.

Last year, I dedicated hives to the people who lived near those bees.  One for Matt, for all the work he put into building hive bodies with me, and one for Asha, my god-daughter.  One for Michael and Kelle, and one for myself.  Matt’s bees took on some obvious attributes of his–they worked incredibly hard, made a lot of honey, and they had a bad attitude once in a while.  Asha’s just did their thing, developing normally, making it happily through the winter, there to say “hi!” when I appeared.  Michael and Kelle’s were the most gentle bees, very productive too, and they had a penchant for swarming.  My bees died, and I wonder if there is a connection to all the changes I went through last year.

Temporary Swarm Housing at Michael and Kelle's.

For commercial beekeepers, as well as the literature that informs us enthusiastic hobbyists, bees meant for keeping should have certain attributes.  They should be gentle.  No one wants to open a hive that is constantly banging into your veil and pressing their stingers through your shirt and gloves.  They should also be productive, making an abundance of honey for the keeper to harvest.  Many commercial people look for a lack of propolis in the hive (a collection of resins from trees the bees use to seal the hive) because it is so sticky, and most honey producers will tell you that swarming is bad.  When the hive swarms, half the colony leaves with the old queen, and the laying of eggs and development of worker bees can be set back nearly a month, rendering the hive too weak to make the beekeeper honey.  And recently, universities and commercial beekeepers have been trying to breed or select bees that are resistant to varroa mites because untreated, a colony will eventually die.

The Longfellow Swarm's old home in a hollow Alder by Longfellow Creek.

To me, every colony is different, and rather than name or dedicate a hive, this year I want the bees to teach me who they are.  The colony at Michael and Kelle’s house that swarmed twice this spring left a whole box of pollen and honey-full frames.  I get the feeling they are geared toward swarming, but I also have a hunch that after this first impulse, they are going to settle down and produce a lot of honey this summer.  The queen of the Longfellow Swarm had just begun laying eggs, about a week after swarming, and the workers had set about filling the second box with new comb and honey.  These gals are going to be robust, and I have no idea what to expect from them later in the year.  Asha’s Carniolans are awaiting some attention from me, as I suspect they might swarm in early summer.  But before I get too bold and decide the fate of their stock, I want to get to know them better.  And besides, for many centuries the best way to expand your apiary was to catch swarms, which is incredibly fun and challenging every time.

A view from the Longfellow Swarm’s Hive in West Seattle.

Bee on the Wing in Blue Rosemary.

Last week began with the discovery of a new obsession–photographing bees on the wing with a macro lens.  The super-narrow depth-of-field of the lens made it difficult to catch a bee in focus, but in this image she is moving too fast for my shutter speed.  Still, after 75 shots, I think this one is a keeper.

Then it was off to pick up package bees on Friday morning.  The second and third week of April should be considered a national holiday, as every beekeeper in the King and Snohomish counties of Washington seemed to be as eager as Rachael and me to pick up their bees.  Our unintentionally extended adventure turned into a beautiful day together.

Rachael Poses with 4 lb. Packages of Bees.

The next morning I was up early and on my way to Onalaska, WA, to pick up Carniolans from Jason and Heather Sherwood.  A lot of people ask me where Onalaska is, and all I can say is it’s rural, southwestern Washington.  I was there at 7:30 and back on the road by 8:30.

Package Bees Awaiting Pick-up at the Sherwood Apiary.

Saturday, Sunday, and Monday night were dedicated to the introduction of package bees.  We welcome back colonies to the Central District and Capital Hill in Seattle, as well as Smoke Farm.

Throughout the weekend, just when I thought I might take a break and have lunch, my phone would ring.  Hives were swarming!  Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, as well as last night (Thursday 4/22), were filled with swarm catching.  Michael watched one form from his window on Saturday, and together we caught it without any protective gear.  Kelle helped me catch the swarm on their Blue House and temporarily introduce them to a nuc (a small, five-frame hive for rearing queens and keeping a small swarm).  But the swarm story to be told comes from West Seattle, where Rachael and I found a monster-sized swarm:

The Longfellow Creek Community Garden Swarm.

The call came in on Friday from Jayne.  Jayne Simmons, co-founder of Good Food Gardens, plants lavish healthy gardens in your yard, maintains the Longfellow Creek Community Garden, and makes salves, tinctures and infused oils as Sister Sage Herbs.  She and I had spoken earlier in the year about introducing bees to the Longfellow garden and even teaming up to introduce bees to her garden projects, but I just didn’t have the money to prepare the equipment and purchase bees.  The bees, however, had other intentions and came to her.

I asked Rachael if she would like the honor of catching this swarm, introducing it to a hive, and maintaining it at the Longfellow Garden.  Since my Valentine’s Day post, a lot of people have been wondering if I have introduced Rachael to the bees and if they approve of her.  Well, this was the weekend, and the answer is decidedly yes!

Rachael, aka Lady Awesome, Catches Swarm!

Later that evening, Rachael and Jayne introduced the swarm to a beautifully exposed corner of the Longfellow Garden.  This week ends with three new Women of the Swarm, Kelle, Jayne, and Lady Awesome!

Package Bees Ready for Introducing (2009)

I must confess, my favorite event of beekeeping has got to be opening up a successfully wintered colony in early March, but running a close second is introducing package bees to their new home.  It’s one of those rare moments in life when the counter-intuitive is actually the thing you want to do:

  1. Put Bees in Your Car. Yes.  Find a local supplier of bees (or have them shipped to you), wake up early and be the first person at their shop, pay the remainder of your balance and then put them in your car.  Here in Seattle I visit Jason and Heather at Sherwood Honey and Rachel and Jim at the Beez Neez to get my bees.  Don’t let them get too hot, as that happened to me last year and it stressed them out.  Drive home with the windows open.
  2. Put a Package of Bees in Your Friend’s Hands. Once they realize what is happening, it’s usually too late.  They’ll stand there with out-stretched arms for a few moments and then ask you to do something with them.
  3. Put Bees on Your Kitchen Table. Packaged colonies are usually introduced around dusk, so put them someplace where you can admire them until it is time.  It needs to be cool, so if you plan on holding the package for a couple days, put them in your basement or garage.
  4. Entertain the Idea of Letting Them Escape. Bees travel a long way to get to Seattle.  Some come from California and some come from Wisconsin.  There is a little can of sugar-syrup in the top of the package.  Turn the package over, letting the can slide out part-way into your hand, and feel the weight of its contents.  You are so close to liberated bees!  If it’s empty, drizzle some sugar water on them through the screen.
  5. Tell Your Friends NOT to Wear Protective Gear for the Introduction. It’s definitely a time to celebrate, so call your friends over and kids love it.  I wear a veil and give one to whomever is actually doing the introducing, but everyone else will be just fine.
  6. Put the Queen in Your Pocket. When the moment comes, and you have your bottom board, hive body, frames, inner cover, feeder jars, and cover exactly where you intend to keep them, gently bang the bees to the bottom of the package.  Turn the package on its side and remove the syrup can.  The queen is in the little box hanging from the center.  Take her out, admire her, and put her in the pocket over your heart so she doesn’t get chilled.
  7. Bang on the Package! Remove four of the frames and spread the remaining six to each side inside the hive body.  Vigorously dump the bees into the hive, shaking them, even banging the side of the package to get them to roll out of the hole.  Don’t worry; they’ll be fine, and you won’t get stuck there wondering how to get all the bees out.
  8. Introduce the Queen. Take her out of your pocket.  Give her a good look over because unless you go looking for her, the next time you see her will be a real gift.  Notice how slender she is… pretty soon she will be royal and matronly.  Holding her over the mass of bees on the bottom of your box, remove the cork from her mini package, and let her crawl out and join the colony.  Sometimes she won’t go through the little passage, and you’ll have to pop off the screen with a knife.  Don’t let her fly away….
  9. Let Them Do Their Thing. Close up the frames gently around the bees, adding the others to the outside of the cluster.  Put on your inner cover and feeding jars, put a hive body around that, and then put a lid on it.  Wish them well.

Introducing the Queen (2009)

A Spring Without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply, Schacker, M., The Lyons Press, Guilford, CT, 2008.

Having suffered the loss of four colonies this winter with some indications of winter starving but a lot of unanswered questions, I have turned my attention toward understanding Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Heat Map Showing Gene Expression

Last year, the breakthrough discovery [article] was the ribosomal RNA fragments in bees’ stomachs suffering from CCD symptoms: “If your ribosome is compromised, then you can’t respond to pesticides, you can’t respond to fungal infections or bacteria or inadequate nutrition because the ribosome is central to the survival of any organism. You need proteins to survive,” May Berenbaum, head of the department of entomology at the University of Illinois, said to the Illinois News Bureau.  Although two new viruses, IAPV and Nosema Ceranae, are present in American bees, neither has been isolated as a cause, and this study found no unusual expression of DNA responsible for immune response.  The main thrust of this argument and research is that the abundance of pathogens affecting honey bees is resulting in RNA degradation that results in CCD symptoms.

In his book, A Spring Without Bees, Michael Schacker goes through the list of common ailments afflicting honeybees and the implausibility of their implication in CCD, and then asks the obvious question: has the world seen CCD-like symptoms before?  Not surprisingly, the answer is yes, and for more than a decade French beekeepers have been fighting the Bayer Corporation to remove a new type of systemic pesticide, the neonicotonids, from agricultural use.  Through painting the pesticide on the seeds of agricultural crops, or soaking the soil with it, these pesticides enter every part of the plant, including the nectar and pollen, causing disorientation and eventual death to insects feeding on it.

French Beekeepers Protest Use of Systemic Pesticides

Through his analysis of the French situation beginning in 1996, he illustrates that the Bayer Corp’s research indicated that the new products were safe for bees, but they only did research down to 50 PPB (parts per billion).  As the French Ministry of Agriculture was forced to acquiesce to the demands of beekeepers to halt the use of these pesticides and begin a thorough study, they found that these pesticides can exhibit detrimental influences to a hive at 6 PPB, and even show indications at 3 PPB.  Bayer’s studies also did not focus on the concentration of pesticides in the soil due to repeated seasonal use, which takes several years and adequate rainfall to disintegrate.

2007 States Affected by CCD

Then he asks the question I had been asking.  Has anyone done a study correlating areas where CCD is present and any new use of pesticides in America?  Looking at the 2007 map of states with reported cases of CCD, it didn’t make sense that every state wasn’t affected by CCD.  Schacker’s research shows correlations between Environmental Protection Agency permissions to use systemic pesticides through an emergency use act and the presence of CCD in those states affected.

While the first half of this book illuminates the horrors of our modern agricultural world–millions of tons of pesticide use, pesticide companies heavily lobbying our representatives, and research grants to universities being largely funded by pesticide companies–it ends on several brilliant notes: bring bees into your backyard, keep bees organically, plant a bee garden, and call for government regulation of these pesticides.

Michael Schacker on Saving the Bees:

His blog, Plan Bee Central, offers lots of current reports of CCD and pesticide use in other countries.

I highly recommend this book for it offers the only informative and reasonable analysis of CCD I have found.  I have come to feel that here in Seattle, CCD is not a direct threat, as only one of our colonies failed and the symptoms can be attributed to starvation.  At Smoke Farm, in rural, agricultural Arlington, where we lost all three colonies, I’m still concerned.  We don’t know what types of farms are across the river and what types of pesticides they use.  The main threat of CCD is not that bees will necessarily go extinct (although many important pollinators have gone extinct because of habitat loss and pesticide use), but that our agricultural system could collapse on a national scale if CCD persists.  In a 2008 report, Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine, wrote for thedailygreen that CCD is only effecting 5% of America’s beekeepers.  About 1,000 of today’s beekeepers manage about 95% of all the colonies present in the US.  These are the beekeepers providing pollination services for almonds, blueberries, and citrus, keeping the agricultural system buzzing, and whose livelihoods are threatened with the loss of their livestock.  And while the government, universities, and media hesitate to point the finger at pesticides, master beekeepers, like Richard Blohm, seem to know from experience that pesticides are to blame, “Yeah, my hives survived very well.  I had normal losses.  Each winter, we expect to lose approximately 10 percent under normal circumstances. And my hives – I keep my hives in – it’s more of a non-agricultural area. So it’s more residential, suburban area, and they’re not exposed to as many pesticides.” [NPR Science Friday with Ira Flatow] Thanks to a recent study showing remarkable levels of pesticides in bee’s wax and stored pollen, and Schacker’s work, pesticide use may finally bee the topic of 2010.

Additional Reviews: http://ecolibris.blogspot.com/2008/08/spring-without-bees-by-michael-schacker.html, http://planbeecentral.wordpress.com/2008/06/04/one-of-the-first-reviews-of-a-spring-without-bees/

How a Honeybee Swarm Decides Where to Nest

My friend, Water Buffalo and the Swift Clicks, starts awesome rumors about me, like: “i was talking with my friends about bees and pollen today and you came up. i said you were a troll and that you whisper to the bees in beeish and they do your bidding and all that you sleep curled up in a potato sack underneath the hives and protect the bees from bears.  something like that anyway.”  She doesn’t capitalize and had asked me a while ago in response to my Please, someday enjoy bees over tea entry, “were there female bee keepers in medieval times?”

I haven’t discovered a suitable response to that question, but in the spirit of that question I want to tell you about three remarkable women and their passion for bees:

  1. Annie D. Betts (1884-1961) was an engineer and scientist who worked on aeronautical research during the First World War.  Her contribution to beekeeping history was the discovery of a common fungal disease effecting beehives, Chalk Brood.  She was also involved in the founding of the Apis club in England and served as Editor and President in 1930.  She was known to ride a motorcycle to work.  *
  2. Dorothy Hodges (1898-1979) was an artist and began beekeeping at 42 years of age, acquiring a small colony with no previous experience or handling knowledge.  From there she began drawing and painting bees, especially those carrying pollen loads, and that grew into an avid study of pollen, their seasons of production, color, size and shape, all drawn from images through a microscope.  She is best known for her book, “The Pollen Loads of Honey-bees.” *

    Juliana Rangel-Posada

  3. Juliana Rangel-Posadais is studying swarm behavior at Cornell University Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.  She has recently released a video of the changes inside a hive in the hour before and as a swarm occurs.  Swarming is a vibrant, populous hive splitting off to form a new hive.  She has discovered that a small percentage or oligarchy of bees release a piping sound that instigates the rest of the bees to swarm.  Although we know that swarming is influenced by over-crowding in the hive, the lessening influence of queen pheromone in the hive, and adequate honey and nectar available in the field, what we don’t know is the actual mechanism and trigger through which this event happens.  Her research is cutting edge and awesome to watch:

Video Link: Bee swarms follow ‘pied pipers’

*Information on Annie D. Betts and Dorothy Hodges was gleaned from Great Masters of Beekeeping, Brown, Ron, Bee Books New and Old, Somerset, UK, 1994.

The Good:

Having missed my chance to open Michael and Kelle’s hives in Maple Leaf, as well as Matt and Monica’s hives in the Central District, back in February when we had several amazingly flyable days, I waited for the weather to turn and was well rewarded.  Last Monday was incredible with temperatures over the 60 degree mark and the sun out in full force.

Big Leaf Maples are a major, April nectar flow in the Pacific Northwest

Three of the four colonies survived the winter in Seattle, two Italians and one Carniolan.  The Carniolans had consumed just about all of the honey they earned for the winter, and the nest was up into the top of the second box and about the size of a large football.  This was a really great opportunity to see just how much honey a colony needs to survive an average winter with several cold snaps, as well as the opportunity to learn what to expect in terms of colony size in mid-March from the Carniolan race.  They winter in a smaller cluster than the Italians, and although kinda small, the colony showed promise of being up and running at full steam by mid to late April.

The Bad:

Oddly, the strongest hive last year, the Italians at Matt and Monica’s house, perished.  There were a lot of dead bees beneath the hive and a lot of honey was left–at least 70 pounds.  They were also looking vibrant and mildly ornery when we lifted them up to put a new hive stand beneath them in late January.  This colony was huge in the fall… from their beginning as a small package in April they developed into two boxes full of bees and brood and almost two boxes of honey in September.  This was the only colony that offered up any honey to harvest–a beautiful 20 lbs worth in July.  There were some honey placement issues that could have been better on my part in the fall, but there was no sizable cluster of dead bees, there was no queen to be found, and some of the bees showed signs of Dwarfism, which I have learned means they were malnourished in their larval stage.  At some point this colony either became too weak to feed the young larvae or they became too hungry having clustered away from the honey.  Although I may have made some mistakes wintering this colony, this was a surprising loss and may be a result of Colony Collapse Disorder.

With reports arriving on the status of honeybees in the U.S. and the effects of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) this year, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the loss and our ignorance.  Almond pollinators in California are reporting up to 50% losses, and nationwide predictions are that this year could be worse than the 32%, 36%, and 29% losses of the previous three years.  And no one seems to understand the problem yet either.  One recent study from August 2009 found unusually high levels of ribosomal RNA strands in the bees’ stomachs, indicating  “that honey bees in colonies diagnosed with CCD had reduced ability to synthesize new proteins.”  Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, fungus, mites, viruses, pesticides and stress are still suspects, though as contributing to a cocktail of conditions resulting in collapse.

Updates on CCD:  Washington Post, Miami Herald, Capital Press, Discovery News, Mother Nature Network, The Why Files, and Desdemona Despair.  You can also read my Book Review for A World Without Bees and check out their website.

Recent report and study on pesticides in Honeybee hives as a contributing factor: Plos One (peer reviewed science), The Barefoot Beekeeper

Where government funding for CCD research is going: The Daily Green

RNA study: USDA and recent blogs on CCD by experts in the NY Times: NY Times

and The Beautiful:

Seattle bees busy in mid-March

Opening three hives in mid-March on a beautiful day is definitely a gift.  The Italians at Michael and Kelle’s house had enough bees to fill nearly two boxes, and the brood nest was approaching the box-and-a-half size.  There was so much brood!  Some of the brood was going to emerge soon, there were frames of newly laid eggs, and everything just looked like spring!  All over the city the flowers are blooming and I’m certain there is enough nectar and pollen available that these colonies just might grow quickly enough to make some Maple honey this April.

In all of the hives I lowered the brood boxes to the bottom levels, gave them a little extra honey from the colonies that had perished, and put honey supers on all of them except the Italians that swarmed last year.  I felt they needed a week more to develop before giving them some extra storage space.  In hindsight, I thought it might be a little too early to manipulate the frames with our evenings still getting cold, but it’s a lesson I’ll definitely learn based on observations in the coming weeks.  I feel like there is so much I don’t know about tending bees… I haven’t had the opportunity in the past to experience bustling hives so early in the year… but observing and interacting with all of this sweet life, the lingering scent of honey, wax, and propolis on my hands, the promise of a population explosion to go out and pollinate the world–it’s the ultimate cure for colony loss.

PS I posted a video from Michael and Kelle’s hives’ perspective on the Audio/Visual page.