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

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