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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.

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.”

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.

A World Without Bees, Benjamin, A. and McCallum, B., Pegasus Books, New York, NY, 2009

Even when I have little money, a new hardback book on bees is tempting, especially when it has as extensive a bibliography as A World Without Bees.  To some extent, I had been waiting for a book like this to be written.  A lot of people ask me if the bees are in danger and I say, “Yeah, that’s what I keep hearing,” but to what extent I did not know.  This book elucidated the extent of the horror quite well.

The modularity of pollination networks

But first, let’s cite some examples from the book of how incredible bees are: 1.2 million hives are driven into California each spring to pollinate almonds.  Each acre of orchard is given two hives or about 80,000 bees.  Just estimating, the bees of each hive will have to make an average of 45,000 trips a day just to acquire enough pollen and nectar to raise its young and survive the winter.  30 years ago, an acre of orchard would produce 500 lbs of almonds.  Today, with bees brought in for pollination service, that same acre will produce 3000 lbs of almonds.

So consider now how dependent we are on bees, not just individually but on the scale of our culture and civilization, when around 70% of the food we eat is dependent upon insect pollination, and for our needs, honeybees do it best.  So now consider this statistic: during 2007 and 2008, over one third of all honeybees disappeared.  800,000 losses in 2007, and a million in 2008, all due to what has been called “Colony Collapse Disorder” or CCD, for short.

Varroa Mites

What is causing it?  No one knows.  Let me repeat that; no one knows.  Culprits?  1) The stress of agri-industrial beekeeping, in which bees are shipped from Maine to Florida to California to Montana on the backs of trucks.  Honeybee pests and diseases have been known to spread more rapidly because of this practice, and many if not all migratory beekeepers supplement their diet with sugar-water and substitute pollen to increase colony sizes in late winter.  2) A narrowing gene pool, in which the new colonies created by bee-breeders are drawing from limited stock and diversity to respond to new stresses in the environment.

USDA: Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the US

3) Varroa Mites, new strains of familiar viruses, fungi, beetles, and potentially viruses mutating to cooperate with mites.  And 4) Pesticides, GMOs, and monoculture.  A bee slurps nectar from a flower whose DNA has a fragment of shellfish DNA in it… is that okay?

Unfortunately, all research to date has been inconclusive because scientists can not isolate which problem for bees is causing the major problem for bees.  It’s either a perfect storm of all conditions, or something has changed.  If you don’t read this book, please start paying attention.  This is a really big deal.

Additional reviews:

http://thealternativeview.org/AWorldWithoutBees.html, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jul/20/scienceandnature

And a commercial beekeepers letter to bee journals:

http://www.biotech-info.net/bee_j_editorial.html

Flyable Days

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.

In recognition of Valentine’s Day, I offer you two options of advice regarding love and bees: either introduce your honey to the bees, or don’t.  The bond between bee and keeper is strong, and there is no finer discriminator of “the one” than Apis Mellifera:

“An apocryphal ‘telling the bees’ tale appeared in the November 1938 edition of the magazine Atlantic Monthly concerning the wedding of a young lass in the Lake District to a stranger to those parts.  Although the bride’s family had accepted their new son-in-law as an honourable man, the bees judged his character differently, and when he was taken to be introduced to the bees in accordance with the requirements of the ritual, they stung him to death.  It appears that bees had just cause to doubt the bridegroom’s veracity according to the evidence revealed during the investigation into his demise.  It transpired that the bridegroom was a bigamist, who had changed his name to avoid identification and was seeking a new young bride with a dowry.” *

I usually employ bees for determining a potential, viable mate.  I ask them to open a hive with me.  Not to see if they get stung to death by the bees, but to see if they are willing to be brave and curious, allured into the unknown through an act of daring.  If they refuse after I “guarantee” they won’t get stung, then I know they are not the person I am seeking.  The only exception would be the kind of allergic reaction that finds me giving an emergency tracheotomy in the field, but even then, I’m sure it would become a deal-breaker in the end.

But I have had experiences with bees and loves which in hindsight were telling of the direction of a relationship.  Several years ago I asked my girlfriend on a date to help me harvest some honey on a very hot, dry August day.  I had never heard a beehive roar before that day, but they were not happy with me or her.  By the end of the experience, we were both doing the bee-dance across the field.  I received seventeen stings, mostly to my left arm, and she received eleven.  It was one of those obstacles in a relationship that take a lot of time to reconcile if you ever do, and although she has become a dear friend and we can laugh about it now, the bees were telling us something that day.

Don’t worry; it’s not all stings and fleeing when we ask the bees.  May you find yourself sitting in reverie of your sweetie, with bees alighting nearby.  Indeed, there is no finer sign than that.

*In Pursuit of Liquid Gold; Ogden, R B; Penwell Limited; Callington, Cornwall; 2001

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.