Saturday, December 17, 2011

Benedictines and Bees

While on retreat this summer in Minnesota, I was delighted to learn of the connection between Benedictines and bees.  The abbey church features a wall of stained glass sectioned off into a honey comb pattern.

From the outside, the window resembles a giant Lite-Brite toy.

On the inside the color explodes, and it is easy to spend much of prayer time looking back at the bright liturgical colors.

For the men at St. John's the comb pattern takes on special meaning since honey was one of the things that constituted the diet of John the Baptist, for whom the abbey is named.

Meanwhile, a short drive away, the women's monastery also features the honey comb in their windows, but without the massive size and color.  For the women of St. Benedict's, the honey comb pattern stands alone.

The symbolism is rich for the women as well...monks, like bees, do not live individualistic lives, but focus on community life.  Most of the Rule of St. Benedict, the ancient guideline for Benedictine life, revolves around the ins and out of a spiritual life practiced in the context of the practical concerns of playing nicely together.  The comb of the hive represents both home and sustenance.

My friends told the sisters at St. Benedict's that I was a beekeeper, and the two women who had kept the bees for many years insisted on giving me a tour of their hives. 

It was great fun to swap bee stories, and to hear about the ways their bees have enriched their community sponsored agriculture (CSA) project.   We broke one of the sacred rules and were late to evening prayer, but no one said a word about our late appearance.  When beekeepers and gardeners get together, sometimes the schedule suffers a bit.

My favorite modern explanation of the Rule of St. Benedict is Joan Chittister's devotional book, "Wisdom Distilled from the Daily."  It has helped me deal with the frustrations of working with ornery human beings and the complexities of trying to be community together.  Good stuff.  Not much on beekeeping, but one can't live by honey alone.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bee Trees

Left to their own devices, bees do not live in wooden boxes.  They swarm, looking for a nice hollow tree.  When the Europeans first brought honey bees to North America, the native people would find that the "white man's flies" arrived a few miles ahead of the colonies of the white men themselves.  The swarming bees arrived first, with the swarming Europeans following behind.

Behind my friend Carl's house grows a majestic bee tree.  You can see the ladder propped behind the tree.  The ladder was useful in getting up close to the bee's main entrance.

Way up the trunk, where the branches all go in different directions, there is a large hole.  Bees come in and go out as they have for years.  Carl says one of his hives swarmed one day, and scout bees discovered a huge hollow in the tree.  They've been there ever since.

They come and go from a couple different places.  We debated for a while whether there is one colony of bees with two entrances, or two completely different colonies in different hollows of the tree.  The bees know.

These days the bee trees in our country have been largely wiped out by mites and disease.  But Carl's bees are perking along, year after year.  Perhaps the surviving bees will soon begin to spread again, bringing their powers of pollination with them.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tree Plantin' Time

I hear that fall is an excellent time to plant new trees.  If you are thinking about adding some tallish trees to your land, you might consider that here in Western North Carolina, trees provide most of our nectar for honey.  In the spring you'll be wanting Black Locust trees and Tulip Poplars for June honey.  Sourwood trees provide the most sought out local August honey. 

Trees will also provide the bees with resin to make propolis, which the bees use as both glue and as an immune system for the hive. 

Finally, I've also heard that it helps to plant a smallish tree with low branches not far from the front of your hives.  That gives the girls a convenient low branch to land on when they swarm, making it easier for you to catch them and put them in a new hive.  I don't know if it works or not.  My bees seem to like to go to the very highest branch they can find.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Still in the Honey Business!

 The hive that had tracheal mites in the spring ended up thriving.  Not only did we get five frames of honey from them in the spring, but today they gave us 18 frames today for a record harvest.  We left them with one full super of honey.

Meanwhile, the hive that we split in two because it was swarming every day ended up as two healthy hives.  They each have a full super of honey.  The original hive, in the middle, has a second super that is about a third full.  We didn't take any honey from them today, but may check back in later.

I don't know that I ever posted the pictures and jar count of the spring honey.  It was tulip poplar honey this year, something we'd never actually gotten before.  The honey was dark, characteristic of tulip poplar.  The lighter honey we've gotten in the past in the June harvest probably came from black locust trees.

The August honey is beautiful.  I'll post more pics after bottling.  I've dug out the old "how to measure pints based on the level of honey in the bottling bucket formula."  Will also report back on that.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bees at the Kentucky Shaker Village

On a recent trip in May to the lovely restored Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, I observed all manner of livestock: chickens, goats, cattle, horses and donkeys.  It occurred to me, as a beekeeper, to wonder if there were bees about.

Sure enough, during a morning stroll we found a couple hives in the apple orchard.  One hive was dead and empty, but the other seemed to be perking along quite nicely.

I don't know if the original Shakers had hives next to these apple trees, but I would like to think that they did.  I am fairly certain that someone kept bees there...for the honey to sweeten their food, and for the bees to pollinate their crops.

The Shaker's version of an assistant beekeeper, on the wall behind the hives.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Who Says You Can't Go Home Again?

During my picnic lunch on the back porch today, I watched the hive on the right swarm for the third time in two weeks.  Half the hive swarmed and departed, presumably with the original queen, two weeks ago Sunday.  Another football sized cluster went up in the pine tree on Thursday of this week and then departed to their unknown destination.

Today's swarm spiraled happily while I ate lunch (sort of like a golden snow globe, or an insect tornado), spinning in the air a long time before settling in the way tippy top of a black locust tree up above the hive.

They are way, way up there in that tall tree to the left.  No stress on me, since they were obviously too high for any rescue efforts.

So, I continued about my day, hanging out in the back yard working on projects, occasionally checking on the cluster.  After three hours, I heard the sound of the swarm on the move.  They spun around in the air, up in front of the pine tree, down closer to the yard, up around the pine tree, down closer to the yard.  I was hoping they would just chose to move into the small, empty hive we'd chucked back in the corner for just that reason.

The little empty hive is there on the cart.  The tall hive that produced the swarm is to the left.

More bees swirled in the yard, then more, until the whole swirl was down around the original hive.  The assistant bee keeper suggested that they had changed their mind and were going home, and I, expert that I am, insisted that bees NEVER go back home when they swarm.

And just like that they started landing on the hive they'd left three hours earlier.

They clumped around the entrance and several started putting their little fannies in the air to release the "this is home" pheromone.

And then they marched right back in the hive.

Needless to say, this led to googling and internet research.  We found many bewildered dialogues and conversations, all expressing the same slack jawed astonishment we felt.  The expert bee keepers said, "Yes, this happens, and you'd better split that hive immediately or they'll swarm again tomorrow."  The theory is that something happened to the young queen that accompanied them...or maybe she stayed home to do her nails.  Anyway, without a queen, they gave it up.


We did split the hive.  There are queen swarm cells in both the original hive and the new little hive.  Hopefully they will just get a healthy queen going without feeling the need to go up in the trees.  There are brood frames in both hives, and we have a super of uncapped honey on each.
We also moved the empty super that had been at the bottom of the tall swarmy hive to the top to give them room for packing away more honey.
Not wanting the "stay at home" hive on the left to feel left out, we poked around in it and robbed them of a super of honey.  We extracted five frames of beautiful, dark honey.  Pictures of the honey to follow.
Still stunned and now rather sticky from the honey, but wow, what a day.


Friday, June 3, 2011

A Sunday for Swarming

I walked out the back door on my way to Sunday lunch a couple weeks ago, and the air around the right hive was full of bees.  They were erupting out of the hive just as fast as they could go.

On the bright side, none of these thousands of bees had stinging on their minds, so I could walk right out in their midst and take pictures.

Unfortunately, it is somewhat like photographing the Grand Canyon.  Pictures don't quite capture the scope of the thing.

 I recommend clicking on these pics, particularly the green one above, for more of a view of the bees.  All those brown dots are bees swarming.

After a while they pick a spot, this time in the black locust tree, and they begin to gather.

More and more bees collect, until the whole group that has moved out of the hive are clustered around their queen.  They will stay here until the scout bees convince them to move on (or until the beekeepers come and either annoy them or convince them to be captured.)

At this point in the story, we were still hopeful of capture.

Here's the whole cluster...tens of thousands of my bees, up in a tree.  We suited up, got all our stuff and shook them out of the tree, but instead of falling neatly on the blanket and marching into the hive, they dispersed in the air, reclustered on the branch, and then headed off without us.

There are still bees in the hive and a new young queen.  This is how bees reproduce themselves on an organizational scale.

But it is a bummer for the beekeeper.
Click here for a more successful swarm story from a previous experience.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Spring Cleaning

We sorted out the two hives today.  Moved them from the wagons to their permanent locations on concrete blocks.  We're smarter than we used to be...put cardboard under the blocks to prevent weeds and used a bubble balance on the blocks to get them level before putting the hives there.

The hive closest to the garden, our hive with tracheal mites, looks pretty good.  There were five frames of capped brood in the top deep, nothing in the bottom and only honey in the super.  We left the super on top, replaced some of the blacker comb in the empty deep and reversed the deeps so the queen can move up and lay more eggs.

The other hive was looking very strong.  We've noticed that these girls propolize like it is going out of style, so we spend a lot of time getting the lid unglued and the frames dug out for inspection.  They had brood in their top super, so we put it on the very bottom so they'll move up out of it.  They had honey and brood in the top deep and not much in the bottom deep, so we also reversed their deeps.  We put the mostly empty frames in a new deep box with better handles for easier portability.  Later we plan to swap out the other deep box, as it likewise has shallow handles that are hard to grab.

We went ahead and added a super to the strong hive, as the tulip poplars and black locust trees are starting to bloom early this year.  This hive will probably be our main source of honey this year.  I can hardly wait to harvest.

Monday, March 21, 2011

It's a Wonder I Have Any Bees Alive at All

Please disregard the pictures on the post below.  I do not currently have a full pound of menthol on top of my bee hive.  "Sigh." 

Before putting it on yesterday afternoon, I read the packaging carefully.  It stated that the net weight was 1.8 ounces and that a whole package was a dose.  Then, overnight, I got to thinking about what I had paid for this package of menthol, and this morning I dug out the shipping order.  The invoice stated that I had purchased a pound bag.  After digging the package back out of the trash, I again read 1.8 ounce, net weight.

Freaked, I went out and scooped most of the menthol off the screen and then called Brushy Mountain, the supply company, to inquire.  The very helpful woman explained that a 1.8 treatment would be a couple of tablespoons, and that I indeed had a pound bag.

Poor bees.  No wonder they hummed in irritation.  It made my eyes water a bit when I took it off the hive.

So...further research on the internet indicated that the menthol should go in a mesh bag above the brood nest and below their honey supply.  That, for the moment, cannot be helped. 

The surplus menthol is going in a package in the fridge for the moment.  I'm going to make my own bags out of screen, I think, rather than pay for shipping. I'll work on that later.

Jimmy cricket, I feel terrible about dumping all that menthol on the hive.  That's where reading directions will sometimes take you.  Too bad the common sense took a few hours to kick in.

Forgive me, bees.  I was just trying to help.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Diagnosis and treatment

We finally received some info back from the bees we sent to the test lab in January.  Received the following email this week from our state bee inspector:

Congratulations, you were absolutely correct.  Some of the newer members weren’t keeping bees when tracheal mites were a problem.  Did you recognize the symptoms from experience or reading?  Again, good eye.  Menthol, formic acid, and grease patties are all good treatments, but requeening with a resistant stock is probably best, especially if the hive isn’t doing well. 
***My email address has changed to - please update your records.

So, tracheal mites it is.  These tiny mites live in the respiratory system of bees and can decimate a hive.  Jack initially did not think we had tracheal mites because they had not been prevalent in our area for a while.  Since the symptoms had matched the description of this type of mite when we researched back in January, we had gone ahead and put grease patties on top of the hive.  I also ordered some menthol, but waited until I heard a diagnosis before adding the menthol to the hive that had the crawling bees.

Both hives still had most of their initial grease patties when I peeked in today.  I left them right where they were, but didn't add any more.  You can see the white patties through the screen inner cover, pictured above.  The red around the edge of the screen and the yellow in the middle are both where the bees have added propolis to the screen to close it off some.  Propolis is part of their own immune system, so I love that the screen encourages them to put some around.


The screen was also handy for adding the menthol.  I put it directly on the screen over the center cluster of bees.  I suspect the grease patties are now in the wrong place....I read today that they are supposed to be on the top bars of the brood box, but for now, this is our situation.  Since I only ordered one package of menthol, we just treated the one hive today.  I'll order a couple more packages and hit both hives with a dose in a few weeks.  Spring is optimal menthol treatment time, particularly on warmer days.  We'll want the menthol off four weeks before the early summer honey flow.

The bees acknowledged the dumping of the menthol on their screen with an enthusiastic "vvvvvvvvvvvvv."  They were still buzzing loudly when I came back in the house.

The girls have been flying more with the warmer weather this year.  I've been seeing them come into the hive with pollen on their legs.  Will try to get a good pollen shot later.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Follow Up Inspection and Sample Collection

As per directions from Jack, our bee inspector, we took a pickle jar full of rubbing alcohol out to the area where the bees were crawling in the grass and collected around 100 bees.  We'll soak them overnight, pour off the alcohol and send them to the bee lab for analysis.

We then cracked open both hives.  The hive on the right (not pictured) had few bees in the top box, but that top super was chock full of honey.  We believe the cluster in that hive is in the top deep and has not yet moved up.  We popped a couple grease patties on the top bars and closed it up.  Then we cracked open the left hive (pictured above and below) to see how they looked.  (This is the hive with bees crawling in the grass as described in yesterday's blog entry.)

There seemed to be a lot of bees in the top super, ready to greet us.

We checked their honey supply, and found that some of the frames were empty, so we gave them two frames of honey that we'd had stored in the freezer.  Still, they had many frames of honey, having had a great fall harvest.

We had made the grease patties last night when our top theory was tracheal mites.  One part Crisco, two parts granulated sugar, one good squeeze of honey.  We've heard today that tracheal mites have not been prevalent in our area, but decided to go ahead and slap the grease patties up there for good measure, since they didn't strike us as terribly toxic.  We'll see what the lab says.