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Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

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.

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

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It’s funny the way the mind works.  To me, beekeeping is primarily an exercise in observation.  One approaches the hive, observing the comings and goings of the bees, noting the particularly strong hives, questioning the less active ones.  As you come closer, you observe what the bees are doing around the entrance: some are departing, others are fanning, some are coming out to greet those that are returning.  Of those that are returning, some have their pollen baskets full and others I assume have their honey-guts filled with nectar.  One can just tell, by the power of observation alone, that all is well.

As you open the hive, recollections appear of the last time you were here.  Maybe the top box is filled with capped honey, when last time is was just beginning to be filled.  Moving deeper, one can see where the new brood is being laid by the queen, and the old cells, the ones that were young last time you were there, are turning gray and crinkly, with new life ready to emerge.  The weather changes of the last few weeks go through your head, as well as those nearly unconscious observations of what’s blooming in the field.  All of these things begin to take shape in the mind and you try to understand the life of your bees.  How are they?  What’s going on?  How can I be of assistance to make their lives fuller?  Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you don’t.  But each time you grow a little closer to the bees, and they repay you kindly with stings for your transgressions.

When a hive dies, it is particularly hard.  You aren’t given the opportunity to make amends.  They are gone.  No more looking forward to the dandelion bloom, or a Big Leaf Maple with its drooping blossoms filled with bees.  Those families of bees, their genetic strengths and weaknesses, all of that which wished to develop through future descendants, are gone.  Aristaeus, son of Apollo and the nymph Cyrene, brought the gift of bees down from the mountain for humankind, and I was not prepared for the responsibility.

You can only begin again.  Thankfully, new families of bees will be available soon, and maybe some will take kindly to us.  And maybe I will have learned just enough of helping sustain life to make here their home.

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Flyable Days Ahead! Thursday, Sunny. Highs in the mid 50s. Northeast wind 10 to 15 mph.

Let me introduce you to one of my favorite phrases of the beekeeping craft: ‘flyable days’.  About that time in late winter when the sun pops out and the temperature warms up a little, inspiring you and me to maybe work around the yard or go for a walk in the park, on those days the bees also emerge.  Sometimes it’s just warm enough to make a quick evacuation of their bowels, but sometimes a few daring foragers are going to go abroad to see what’s available.  These days are so exciting to me.  It means spring is coming and I”ll have the opportunity to ‘crack’ open a hive soon.

The Carniolan

Here in the Northwest, the maple buds are just beginning to turn red, a few cherry trees have bloomed, and I spotted some catkins on a birch tree this weekend, all very good signs for the bees and ourselves.  At Matt and Monica’s house in the Central District, the Carniolans were out collecting pollen from somewhere, dull white balls pressed into their pollen baskets.  That observation speaks volumes right there: the queen is laying eggs and the workers are retrieving pollen to feed the larvae.  My bee-sense is telling me they are happy, and barring an unusually cold and wet pre-spring, they’ll get off to a good start this year.  But the Italians were quiet.

"Glowing" Italian

The Italians are beautiful bees, quite golden in color, and I swear they seem to glow with the sun coming through them.  They are famous for being gentle and developing huge populations that produce copious quantities of honey.  However, from what I have read, heard, and observed, the Italians prefer 55 degree temperatures before they venture out into the day.  They also maintain a large-ish population through the winter, which means they require larger stores of honey to survive. The Carniolans, on the other hand, are purported to fly at around 50 degrees, and the queen will let the populations shrink through the fall and into the winter, ensuring less mouths to feed during the darker dearth.  It must have been just right for the Carniolans, and not quite right enough for the Italians.

Today was not quite a flyable day, but we had a long, suspended flyable moment, with the sun beaming for a while and then a cold front moving in.  On my porch late this morning, I spied a honeybee in the crocuses, filling her pollen basket with bright orange pollen.  Per my ritual, tomorrow morning I’ll be checking the Weather Underground for fairly accurate predictions of the day’s weather.  Here’s wishing you many flyable moments tomorrow until we reach flyable days.

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