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Archive for the ‘Maintenance’ Category

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!

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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)

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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.

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As we could see all around us, dark bees, probably of the Carniolan race, were coming and going.  Some were entering the middle hive, with the Carniolans, and others were going into the third hive, the other Italians.  When we checked the Carniolans in early October, we could see the entire top box filled with capped honey, and so we didn’t look too deep.  “They would be fine,” we thought.  “So much honey they gotta make it through the winter.”  From our initial glance, it seemed like the other Italian hive had died, and the Carniolans coming and going were robbing the other Italian hive of its left over honey.

All that was lost.

“That’s okay,” I thought.  “At least the Carniolans made it.”

Terrance and I cracked the Carniolans open.  A couple of living bees, but primarily just a top box filled with honey.

We went down a level.  Half-filled frames of honey abounded, but no nest or cluster of bees, just the odd stragglers.

At the bottom, there was nothing.  No dead bees, no dead cluster, no dead anything.  Literally an empty hive filled with honey.  There is absolutely nothing to report.  130 lbs of honey and no bees.  Those few stragglers were from a neighbor’s hive, presumably, come to rob this empty hive.

In the other Italian hive, a similar situation appeared, just not so much honey left-over.  There were a lot of dead bees on the screen at the bottom, but upon closer examination they must have been from the summer, or even from the bottom of the package when we introduced them because they were nearly decomposed.  A mouse had moved in beneath the carcasses under the bottom board.  I did find a few Varroa mites on the bottom board, but no signs of infestation.  There was no dead cluster of bees, no sign of supersedure, just an empty hive with some honey.  Ironically, these bees were observed in the top box when I fed them in January, so some time in the last month they just disappeared.

Is this CCD, aka Colony Collapse Disorder?  I’m not sure.  Could we have done things differently last fall?  Yes.  The two Italian colonies were borderline strong enough to survive the winter, and they should have been combined.  Did that kill them?  Probably not.  Is it possible that we killed the queens when we were performing maintenance, and the colonies failed because of that?  The occasional accident with a queen is not unprecedented, and maybe that happened in the first hive we opened, but the likelihood of all three perishing that way is highly unusual.  For these two hives, I don’t know what to call the phenomenon, but I had the same first thought as the guy who first reported CCD, “All the bees are gone.”

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Saturday, February 20th was a totally flyable day, and Terrance and I opened each of the hives for a late winter, early spring inspection at Smoke Farm.

A living bee's proboscis.

I knew from my mid-January feeding up there that one of the hives had died.  Between two of the boxes, a few bees’ heads were popping through, their proboscis hanging out.  When you see their tongues hanging out like that, it’s usually an indication of starvation, and it was horrifying to see them like that.   I didn’t tell anyone for a few weeks what had happened.  It hit me hard, but by this Saturday, I was through the grief and ready to see what had happened inside the hive.  I was also extremely excited to see how the Carniolans were doing; they had so much honey going into the fall, I anticipated a bustling, beautiful hive.

We began opening the hive I knew had died, the Italians on the left from the front of the bee-house.  Usually in a starved hive, one will find the cluster of bees around the queen and many bees head first in empty cells of honey.  It’s a very clear portrait of their last moment of life.  As we opened the hive, we observed the top frames all half-filled with capped honey, about 40 lbs worth.  So I thought, “Maybe they clustered away from their stores during a cold snap and couldn’t make it to the honey.”  That will happen from time to time.  The bees will cluster up to keep warm but be just a little too far away from the bulk of their stores to survive the cold snap.  There were also queen-like cells on one of the frames with bees in them.

Oddly, there were not many bees at all.  We found one cluster of 20 bees, but there was no queen present in it.  Many frames were completely absent of bees, and others had only 1-3 on them.  The brood box below was empty.  At the bottom of the box in the screened area there were about 250 dead bees.  That might sound like a lot, but this hive had 20-30,000 bees going into the fall.  I collected the dead and inspected them later.  No queen was present and some of the bees were unusually small, like they had either been raised in a small cell or perhaps had gotten chilled toward the end of their development.  There were no mites present on the bottom board or that I could find when I shook the bees out on white paper.   Nothing really made any sense to me.

The queenless cluster of the Italian hive.

In hindsight, I now know that this colony was a little too small going into the winter because they need a mass of bees to maintain heat, but still, many thousands of bees disappeared between October and February.  Did the living bees manage to drag them out when the weather got warm?  They had eaten very little honey, so does that mean they perished in late autumn?  Did the queen die unexpectedly and the bees try to raise a new one?  Did the colony leave as a new wave of brood was about to hatch?  Were these smaller bees the result of chilled brood that managed to survive, or is there a disease at work? Was this a case of Colony Collapse Disorder that left young brood ready to emerge, only to find their sisters gone?  There is just so much I don’t know.

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So I hope you will entertain the idea that Michael and Kelle’s bees in the Greenlake neighborhood of Seattle were calling me.  It is not so far-fetched an idea as it might seem.  Somewhere in my library of bee-books there are stories of medieval practices in the event of the death of a beekeeper.  Some European cultures felt the bees had to be notified of the death of their keeper, and the new one had to ask the bees to take kindly to him, otherwise they would be aggressive or grow weak and die.  Another story I remember is the hive had to be moved just an inch or two in the event of a beekeeper’s death so the bees would be made aware of the shift coming to their lives.  But perhaps the best advice that illustrates the connection between a beekeeper and his or her charges is the frequent reporting to bees of major events like war or marriages, as well as anything that may be on the mind of the beekeeper.  I like this last bit of advice.  I don’t talk to my bees, but I don’t keep any secrets from them either.

This one particular hive residing at Michael and Kelle’s has beautiful bees in them: incredibly gentle, industrious, and prolific.  They are so industrious and prolific,  that by mid-June of last year they were working on drawing the comb and storing honey in their third box, after only two months of residency.  They also decided to swarm.  After quite an adventure and with Kelle’s help, we caught them and put them in a new hive.  I gave them a few frames of honey and one of pollen from their old hive, and set them on their way to building their new home.

I could have fed them sugar syrup to provide the many necessary calories it takes to build out a new hive, but it wasn’t even summer yet and I assumed with the honey I gave them they would be alright.  By mid-September they had drawn out a second hive body, but about 40% of the honey was uncapped, which I feared might ferment in our wet winters.  Additionally, it was clear that their behavior had shifted and they were remaining closer to the center of the colony with the young brood for the winter.  I assumed the uncapped honey was going to remain that way.  So I knew going into this winter that starvation was a threat for them.

The past couple nights before going to bed I had a worried feeling in my gut, and in my mind I kept seeing bees searching around an empty hive for food as my thoughts made their transition to the stuff of dreams.  Finally today I could bear it no longer and headed over to feed them.

Michael and I made sugar-water, and since we heated it on the stove I wanted to give it time to cool before giving it to them.  It was taking a while so I suggested we have tea and go outside.  We sat in the tea house catching up on news looking out upon the hives in the rain.  Gradually the rain subsided and the sky lightened up enough to cast diffuse rays of sunlight upon the hives, and the first few bees emerged.  Our conversation turned to deeper questions of life as one hive awoke sending dozens of foragers out looking for spring, and the other, the one I was worried about, gradually did the same on a much smaller scale.

In the top box of the weaker hive, there were bees milling about, but no evidence of honey in surplus.  I didn’t pull out any frames, as it was a little too cold, especially for such a weakened colony, but if there was any honey in there, it was scant.  I placed the inner-cover over the frames, then the feeder tray, then the jars of sugar syrup, a hive body around that and then the lid, leaving them with many wishes for a tolerable winter and early flowers, as well as many thanks for the privilege and pleasure of watching them over tea.

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