Thursday, May 28, 2015

Do Bee Do Bee Do

Just completed the second hive check on our little swarm on the hill. The good news is, I think everything is going well! The bad news is, I am still new enough that I doubt I'd be able to see a problem before it got really big.

The good news there is that we have a thriving beekeeper community around here, and there are many people to go to with questions and concerns. One of the local honey makers - The Bee Shed - is having a workshop this Sunday on what to look for during a hive inspection, so that will be very helpful!

Today, since I've got bees on the brain, I thought I'd give a short primer on bees, just so people can get to know these fascinating little wonder creatures.

First off, nearly everyone knows that bees are major pollinators. That is, they help farmers grow the crops that feed us. Two-thirds of our fruits and vegetables are pollinated by bees, so they are pretty important to us humans.

Second, honeybees that help us are having some major problems these days thanks to chemicals used on crops to try and keep pests away. Neonicotinoids in particular are having a devastating effect on bee populations.

But let's delve a little into the life cycle of bees, just for fun. Because I'm betting there are lots of things that may surprise you about honey bees. I know I have learned a ton about these girls since adopting a family of them. And the more I learn, the more and more I respect and admire the honey bee!

For instance, the average worker bee is always female, and only lives around six weeks during the busy warm season. It takes 21 days for an egg to grow into a newly hatched worker bee, and then the new bee spends the next three weeks in the hive doing various jobs like nursing the growing brood, cleaning and maintaining comb, taking dead bees out of the hive, fanning the nectar to make honey, taking care of the queen, even a stint as a guard bee.

The last three weeks of life for a warm weather bee is spent flying free, looking for nectar and picking up pollen, and bringing it back to the hive, where it passes the goodies off to younger bees to store. bees at this stage will quite literally work themselves to death. Single minded in their mission to provide for the future of the colony.

When the weather gets cold, the bees stop flying and form a clump around the queen to keep her warm. Queens like it hot - around 90 degrees fahrenheit, so the winter bees have to shiver a lot to produce heat. The winter workers can live for a few months, so that helps get them through the cold season. It also takes a LOT of stored honey for the winter bees to eat to keep up the energy expended in heating the queen. We are aiming for at least 100 pounds of honey for our hive before winter hits. More if they will make it. We may not even harvest any honey this first year, just to help our new colony along as much as possible.

So, in a nutshell, the "Summer Bees" spend their lives making honey for the "Winter Bees" to get through the cold. And the Winter Bees survive the cold so that the Summer Bees can pollinate and make honey! Pretty cool, huh.

We have had our hive for about a month now, so in another few weeks, all of the bees in it except the queen will have been born in our back yard.

As for the Queen, she can live for 3 or 4 years, and after her mating flight (where she mates with many male - or drone - bees) she spends the rest of her life fertile and laying up to a couple thousand eggs EVERY DAY. That's a high turnover rate once the cycle is in full swing. Our hive, if it stays happy and healthy, should have around 50 - 75,000 bees buzzing around, doing their thing. The numbers will drop in the winter as they ball up to keep the queen warm.

During both of my hive inspections thus far I have seen baby bees in every stage of development, from tiny egg, to plump larva it goes through what are called instars. basically stages of development where you can kind of tell how old it is based on size ...

This picture has everything from egg (little tiny dots) to little larvae and medium sized larvae, right up to full grown larvae (maggot looking things) and even some capped brood - when the baby is called a pupa and does her final developing before emergence.

Now, for the record, I was a bit terrified of doing the first hive check. After all, 15,000 little bees means 15,000 little stingers, and I have a healthy aversion to pain. But spending the time around them that I have, I have found our bees to be remarkably gentle in their behavior towards me. They seem content to go about their business as I pull frames and look them over, and don't seem to mind being moved around as long as I am gentle. I will admit that it has sometimes taken every bit of effort and control not to swing wildly at the ones flying too near me and run off screaming... but I am getting better with each encounter. I am certain I will be stung at some point, but so far - not once!

Next time I go inspect, I'll take more pictures and get a little more in depth into their behaviors and other interesting things about them.

More Later

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Feather II

I volunteer with a group out in South Dakota called Re-Member. If you've read my blog before, you are probably already familiar. If not, in short, it is a group that works on light construction projects in one of the financially poorest counties on the continent. They also do some amazing cultural awareness programs.
Anyway, I am on the Board of Directors as well, and we are in the midst of a capital campaign to build a permanent presence on the Rez to continue our work until we aren't needed anymore. We have finally broken ground at the new location, but we still need financial help to get the project finished. None of the money for Feather II comes from the programs we already run. If you have other questions or want to help financially or with a visit, please contact me! Here is an e-mail that was sent out today...  Re-Member

Working with the Oglala Lakota Oyate on the Pine Ridge Reservation, S.D.
Hi John,

We're making history at Re-Member, as the first building goes up at Feather II, our new permanent home on Pine Ridge. Our shared goal - to live and work alongside the Oglala Lakota people is being realized - thanks to your help.
To date, we are roughly 1/3 of the way to our $1.5 million goal.

Your support is critical to our efforts, and your support has helped us achieve the milestone we are celebrating today.
Construction has started on our first facility at Feather II, but there is more to do.
  • $25 is important
  • $25 a month for a year is huge
  • $25 a month over three years will help ensure the successful completion of this incredible project
Please donate online today or mail your check to Re-Member, PO Box 8278, Grand Rapids, MI 49518.
Visit our Feather II project page to learn more about the ambitious plans - and dynamic opportunities - that Feather II will bring to our program.

Ted Skantze
Executive Director

Any help would be great! even at the $5 or $10 a month level, it all adds up! Even sharing the link to this blog post or to the Re-Member website could help. Please take some time to consider what you could do to make a difference today.

Thanks friends!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

BEE - utiful!

Yesterday, the Boyo and I drove up to Hackensack, Minnesota to pick up our package of bees. It was a four hour drive to get there, filled with great conversation and lots of anticipation. We arrived at the Mann Lake LTD store/factory at 1:00 and were greeted by a swarm of people.

Employees made up about half of the crowd, and people picking up their bees the other half. We were given a receipt and sent to a different part of the property to pick up our package.

There were tables stacked with packages of bees, but surprisingly absent was the loud buzzing I was expecting to hear. Mostly it was the rustle of wings that sounded like softly crinkling cellophane. We were given our package and got on the road. The whole thing took about twenty minutes.

This is our package at home, ready to head up to their hive on the hill. I was quite shocked to learn from the nice people at Mann Lake that our single package contained anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 bees! Never have I had so many pets, although to be fair I will probably not cuddle them too much.

When we got them home we gave them a spray of sugar water (in the blue topped bottle there in the photo) and got our bee suits on to get them into their hive.

Now. In the grand scheme of things, I don't fear bees. At least not in the ones or twos I usually see them in. And I know full well that they probably, more than likely, almost certainly will not sting me while they are out and about foraging for pollen and nectar and such. But I have never been in the presence of 15,000 of them all huddle together before, and as the Wife and I were on the hill getting ready to introduce them to the hive, my heart was thumping madly!

We uncapped the swarm and pulled out the little queen box. Inside was our Queen, Her Royal Majesty Queen Beatrice Blue. She has a blue dot on her back, making her much more recognizable to new-bees like me. She went into my pocket to keep her warm. Then came the rest of the girls.

My heart was flip flopping as my lovely wife gently poured the mass of buzzing into the hive box. I was skeptical at first when I heard that there were upwards of 15K of these little things in that box, but they poured out like clowns from a car. A seemingly never-ending stream of bustling, buzzing nightmare fuel. Yeah... I had some nerves hitting me at that moment. Even though we had sprayed them down with sugar water to both give them a snack and wet their wings (wet bees don't fly), a small cloud still rose from the box surrounding us as we worked. I believed there were fifteen thousand at that moment, because the bottom of the hive box was awash in little bees, and thousands seemed to be buzzing around us.

My amazing Wife was remarkably calm through the whole thing. She has no fear whatsoever of them. I was truly impressed. So we efficiently closed up the hive and I tried to think what else we needed to do before we left them alone.

Then it struck me... Queen Beatrice was still in her box in my pocket. So we opened the hive again and I carefully hung the queen cage from one of the frames. I had replaced the cork in the end with a marshmallow, giving the workers something to eat while they freed their monarch. We closed it up again and walked away, leaving a great many (to my mind) buzzing around outside.

We put a little grass plug in the "entry reducer" as instructed, to give the queen time to feel at home without leaving. I felt a little nervous about the bees left outside for the night, but when I checked on them this morning they were still bunched up where they are in the picture and seemed pretty happy.

Today it was time to remove the grass plug, check to see if the Queen was free of her cage, and check on their sugar water and pollen patty. I went out by myself this time and as soon as I opened the hive my heart went into overdrive.

Bees. Everywhere. The cloud around me made last nights group look pitiful and weak. The bees seemed to be buzzing quite loudly, and I was certain that they were signaling each other to attack.

As I removed the pollen patty (plenty left, by the way) I watched in dismay as the queen cage sank slowly into the mass of bees between two frames.

I was barehanded, as I had been the evening before, because I can't seem to grasp things well with the gloves on. But I did have the smoker fired up. So I squeezed a few puffs of smoke into the hive, as I've seen others do on TV and YouTube videos I had watched. The bees buzzed louder, but didn't seem to do much of anything else.

I took a deep breath and figured if they were going to sting me anyway, I might as well get the work done. So I carefully removed two frames, checking each one for Beatrice, and set them aside. Then I looked down into the small space and spotted the queen box lying on the bottom of the hive. Between it and me was 9 and 5/8 inches of bee covered frame, just wide enough to stick my hand down into and grab the box. My bare, bare hand. Which looked unnaturally pale and pasty. Which shook ever so slightly with a mixture of adrenaline and fear.

I held my hand over the gap and peered in again. The bees were making chains with their bodies across the gap. Other bees crawled busily across these bee bridges from one side to the next. The gap would be filled with bee bridges in minutes, I thought to myself. So I took a deep breath and held it, prepared for the stinging of my poor hand, and gently pushed my fingers into the breech.

I don't know how many people have felt the sensation of bees on the front and back of their hands. Covering every centimeter. Wiggling and jiggling. Little feet and wings setting off every nerve ending in my outstretched appendage. But let me tell you, it was all I could do not to run screaming. But I did it. I got that little queen box trapped between my two middle fingers and slid it gently out of the hive.

It was empty! Queen Beatrice was loose in the hive somewhere! I peeked in again and by sheer luck of the bee-ginner, I spotted our little queen bustling about on the frame, surrounded by her court who were following her every move. She looked content. The bees around her looked content. I was feeling relieved to have seen her.

I rebuilt the hive and closed it up. Then I went a few feet away, to the stairs leading from the hill, when something amazing happened. (Amazing to me, at least)

Not a single bee followed me, and I had not been stung or attacked the entire time I was on the hill. I pulled off my hood and sat down on the stairs to watch the bees.

The hive was covered. Bees everywhere. There were bees flying in great circles above the hive. Bees crawling at every angle on the hive. Some even buzzed around me. But none attacked.

I have read a LOT on bees since this project started becoming a reality. I read time and time again about how gentle honey bees were, and watched videos of people working bees in short sleeved shirts and hoods. Now I am finding out for myself that the bees are pretty gentle. It is one thing to read about it, another thing entirely to experience it. I am in awe of those little machines. My respect for them, I imagine, will only grow as time goes on and I gain more experience with them.

For now, my job as a beekeeper is to wait a week and let them settle in, then check to see that they are making comb and that Beatrice is laying eggs. The first of many thousands, we hope, that will lead to a strong, healthy colony.

Welcome to our yard little bees! We are glad to have you share the land with us! PS, the garden will be going in soon, so if y'all want to hang around there and pollinate all the veggies, I'd be completely OK with that!