Archive for category Beekeeping

Gardening for Bees

Last night was the second-to-last beekeeping class, which means we learned about bee food sources.  Alright, that probably sounds a little grander than it was.  What we really did was look at pictures of flowers and trees that some people in the class were able to identify down to Latin name, and that I just thought looked like flowers and trees.  I finally recognized thistle, but so did everyone else, which made me feel less special about it.

Bees eat sugar and protein.  The sugar comes from sugar water, nectar, or honey.  The protein comes from pollen or pollen substitutes (yes, there are pollen substitutes, for those of you who are dissatisfied by the new year-round hay fever season here on the east coast).  They collect it, they store it, and then they show us another pictures of a tree.

We’re setting up our garden for this year.  It’s larger than last year’s garden, and we’re employing lessons learned, such as “tomato cages were invented for a reason.”  Yeah, the tomatoes and tomatillos took over the garden last year, so this year we’re reining them in.  I’m making another attempt at turning the yard into a fruit salad this year.  We’ve got two pawpaw trees going into their third year, one of which should be taller than me by the end of the summer.  Raspberries, black raspberries, and blackberries in the two side yards, four potted blueberries, nine strawberry plants, two quince bushes, and a cherry bush.  That’s just where we’re starting the year.  I need to add two more cherries (they work best male and female, but I can’t remember which one I currently have, and the tomatoes smothered its mate), my wife is talking lemons, and I’m always on the lookout for more berries.  Those are my impulse buys when I’m in a nursery.  I’ve had my eye on some hardy kiwis for the past year, but that’s going to have to wait until at least next summer.

Yes, Virginia, you can grow kiwi plants.

Bees love them all, which is fantastic, because my history with them is spotty at best.  Some of the plants I’ve been waiting to mature.  The strawberries will be my third year of trying.  I’ve figured out when to pick the berries before varmints get to them, but I’ve yet to save blueberry crops from the damned birds.  Last year my wife and I each got a blueberry.

One last class next week, which will be nice.  Not only because we’ve confirmed that the mead maker in the club is showing up, but because I’m ready to get my Tuesdays back.  It’s shockingly disruptive to my writing momentum to lose Tuesdays.  I already do little to no writing on Thursdays because I’m attending my writers’ group.  Yes, that sounds ironic and counter productive, but I feel I get more out of that than I would from an extra night’s writing.  Losing two days a week, especially two non-consecutive days, is hard to work around.

The bees will arrive at the end of April.  Look for more pictures in these beekeeping updates when they do.  For now the only thing I can really photograph is the pile of everything in my basement, and that’s all just too big of a mess to show off online.

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Bee-gicide

My basement is now full of unpainted supers rather than unassembled supers…and that’s where things are coming to a standstill for the time being.  Unfortunately our initial order of supplies came with the wrong size frames for the boxes we ordered (I was initially certain I ordered the wrong size, but a look at the invoice had me in the right).  Fortunately the company’s customer service absolutely awesome, so I should have replacements by next week.  So awesome I’m not going to mention who they are because I don’t want google searches to potentially bring up my story of wrong frames.

It’s a good thing they’re acting fast on a replacement, because the members of the club who overwintered nucs are reporting they’re shocking close to transplant ready.  Last week I talked about nucs vs packages, an overwintered nuc is just what it sounds like, one that was split off from the parent hive in the late fall and has developed on their own for the last several months.  These overwintered nucs typically spend most of the winter dormant, but that’s because they also spend most of the winter being much colder than they were this year.  Since we won’t know where our nuc is coming from or whether it was overwintered until we get a fateful call one day, this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll get our bees earlier than expected.  But we may, and I want to be ready to go with all woodware assembled.  Fortunately we have a few preassembled frames in the right size so even if the bees came tomorrow we could keep going for a week or so.

In last night’s beekeepking class we learned about regicide.

Okay, no we didn’t.  But that’s how I portrayed it last week on the blog, and at several points on Twitter.  It turns out the number of times that a beekeeper will go into the hive for the purpose of killing the queen are quite low.  Even in those times where the queen must be removed for the good of the hive, the master beekeeper running the class (yes, that is a specific title with well regulated testing requirements to earn it) says she’s more likely to move an old queen to a nuc just to see how she does.  Though this master beekeeper also runs 80 hives in two locations, not the two hives we’re starting at or the four hives that Fairfax County caps us at1.

Last night’s class was really about the beekeeping year.  About how we’re going to be sweating our asses off in protective clothing in late July and early August to harvest the honey.  Fighting the temptation to stick our noses in the box whenever we want.  Feeding bees when they’re hungry and leaving them the hell alone when they’re pissed off and being overly protective of their brood.

It’s work, but it’s worth it.  In two weeks they’re talking about bringing in a mead-maker to discuss the process of turning our honey into sweet, sweet wine.  Unfortunately we meet in a public school, so no tastings allowed.  It might not happen, but it might, and that makes me happy, cause that’s what I wanted to do to begin with.


1 The same Fairfax County ordinance that caps us at 4 hives for our lot size also dictates how many farm animals one is allowed to have.  It does this by creating the terms “animal unit” and “bird unit.”  For those interested, Fairfax County at the time I wrote this blog post defined an animal unit as 3 cows, 5 sheep, 3 horses, 5 goats, 5 llamas, or 5 alpacas, and a bird unit as 32 chickens, 16 ducks, 8 turkeys, or 8 geese.  Now you know.  The rules are more complex than that, and this isn’t a legal blog or official advice, so go check it out for yourself in FCZO 2-512 if you’re really curious.

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Packages and Nucs

Another night of beekeeping class, another post about what I’m learning.  There are a few ways to start a new beehive, but for us newbies they’re focusing on two: packages and nucs.  Packages are boxes of bees.  Really.  They put about three pounds worth of bees in a box, add in a queen and a can of sugar water, and send them about their merry way.  It’s actually possible to order these through UPS, though my coworker tells me it’s not a good way to make friends with your local driver.

Weird physics: put three pounds of bees in a closed one pound box, have half the bees start flying, how much does the total box weigh?  Four pounds.  It’s one of those have to think about things, but even though the bees are flying, their weight is still part of the entire closed system of the box.

Our bee club puts in orders for bee packages from Georgia, which is still not technically Africanized, even though AHBs have shown up in one county.  One member of the club goes down and helps put packages together, then drives through the night to deliver them to club members.  Alright, about a week and a half ago I got a Google hit “How not to be creeped out by bees.”  That person should not read the following math.  The bee package guy makes two trips a year.  Each time he brings back 900 packages.  Filled with 3 pounds of bees.  At about 3500 bees to the pound.  That’s a total of around NINETEEN MILLION BEES!  So, yeah, if you’re creeped out by bees, don’t think about the fact that you could be on I-95 sometime in the next month behind a truck carrying about 9.5 million of them.  And don’t think about the fact that that truck full of 9.5 million bees might tip over, because that never ever ever happens.  EVER!

Drive happy.

The steps for installing a package include letting the bees hang out in their box for a few days on a lot of newspaper, as they can fling poo up to three feet (yet another bees are better than apes argument shot) spraying them with water and syrup every few hours before finally going through about ten PowerPoint slides full of steps to introduce them into the hive.  You stack supers, you nail down the queen’s apartment, you fill bags with sugar water, you check several times, you rearrange things.

Then we went through the steps for installing a nuc.  This is what we’re going with.  A nuc is a mini colony, already started, and living on five frames in a cardboard box.  To move a nuc into your hive, you take out five of your frames, put in the five bee-ful frames, and then go have a beer because you’re done.  I feel like we’ve made the right decision.

Next week we learn about year two with the hive, which apparently starts in August.  I think that’s the class where they start outlining methods and reasons for regicide.

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Bee Pests

It’s Wednesday again, so time for more updates from the crazy world of learning about bees.  Our equipment shipped from Brushy Mountain yesterday, and all 115 pounds of it attached to three separate UPS tracking numbers left Raleigh about an hour before I wrote this, and should be blocking my way into my own house by tomorrow.  Which means we’ve got a hell of a project set for this weekend as we assemble all the unassembled bits.  We’ve got a little time, but it’d be nice to have all the paint and glue dried well before the bees move in.

Last night’s beekeeping lesson was on the various threats to bees.  Bacterial, viral, mites, and predators.  Surprisingly little about colony collapse disorder (CCD), which I learned isn’t a single event but is a broad umbrella term that covers all instances of “something went wrong with the hive, and we don’t really know what.”  Colony loss is cyclical, and we’re just living in one of the down points in that cycle, made more visible by improved scientific tools, faster communication, larger scale movable apiaries, and probably just a little by a more sensationalized media.  Which loves bees.  I was living in San Antonio when Africanized bees crossed the Rio Grande, and by god, you’d think they were going to KILL US ALL!  KILLER BEES!  RUN!  HIDE!  While I’m not going to raise Africanized bees, they became popular for a reason.  In several ways are easier to handle.

We also learned about mites, moths, skunks, and bears.  It all came with an interesting test.  Apparently what you do is take a cup of powdered sugar, put it into a sifter, and sift it over your hive.  Take a brush, and make sure it gets all down inside.  The causes the bees to be really fluffy and clean themselves.  Which results in them knocking off any pests and being about as cute as insects can be.  An oiled base board will catch the pests and allow for a good count.  If there are any bears, then you might have a problem.  Even one is too many.  Three or more bears found by this test probably mark a colony that can’t be saved.

Or was that the mites test?

I left my notes at home.

Updates on equipment in terms of arrival, assembly, and painting will probably be on Twitter.  Only a few months until we’ll have our dueling hives with their monarchs: Queen Kickass I and Queen Victoria Queen Victoria Queen Victoria.

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Bees are Creepy

Marvelous.  But creepy.  Fascinating.  But creepy.

Deeply, deeply creepy.

I’ve heard my entire life about how bees have a hive mentality, but I don’t think I really understood that phrase until last night’s beekeeping class.  I’ve heard about hives having their own immune system, capable of clearing out dead or diseased bees, not allowing sick or invading bees to come into the hive.  Last night I learned that a hive also has a stomach and a brain.  Just one.  Individual bees don’t go out and get a bite to eat or get a drink of water.  Workers go, they get the food and water, and bring it back where it’s shared completely by the members of the community.  A hive will share its food down to the last iota, and only then will it die of starvation as a whole.  The hive workers will decide, as a whole, when it’s time to forage, when it’s time to kick out the drones, and when it’s time to create a new queen.

The political analogies would make Thomas Payne proud.  Or, perhaps, Karl Marx.  The true power in a hive rests with the workers, not with the queen.  It’s such a poor name for her, she has no control over the population of the hive, she just lays eggs.  With the hive as an organism, she’s just the naughty bits, the pure biological imperative drive.  When the hive determines that she is no longer capable of being an effective queen, they start rearing a new one.  The workers control the creation of a next queen.  I’m not sure if it’s the communist uprising that lead to the USSR, or the French Revolution.  The workers demand new leadership, and they end up with a new queen, but of their choosing.

In the end, the queen has nothing to do with reproduction.  No more so than the cell division in your body has anything to do with reproduction.  The bees are not the organism, the hive is the organism.  It reproduces, but does so through the swarming process, not the egg laying process.  Within the human organism, internal reproduction (cell division) is asexual, external reproduction (baby makin’) is sexual.  With bees, it’s the opposite.  Sexual reproduction within the organism, asexual reproduction to make additional organisms.

It makes me see everything that was wrong with my hive-of-humans story I wrote a few years ago and never found a home for.  I’ll probably end up doing a complete ground up rewrite of the whole thing, once I’ve taken a few more classes about bees.

Creepy, creepy bees.

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Do It Yourself With Bees

This isn’t going to turn into an entirely bee-based blog, but it will get a little bee-ier as I’m learning about and setting up my hives, then probably again when it’s time to get the honey out of the hive.  Unfortunately one of yesterday’s lessons is that we won’t get any honey until our second summer.  That’s okay.  I can be patient.  I’ve put a lot of fruit trees and bushes into my yard that take several years to start producing.  I don’t expect to see any paw paw fruit until at least 2014, and I might finally get some raspberries or cherries this year if I’m lucky.

That’s fine, no honey this year, I’m getting used to the idea.  Mead is a multi-year process anyway, so a few extra months to get the honey isn’t that bad.  This first year is all about getting a hive set up and happy so it can survive next winter.  Last night was about the actual built stuff, what they call the “woodware” within the beekeeping hobby.  Those big boxes, called “supers,” the frames that go inside of them, the bases they sit on, the doors that let bees in and out, the lids, the lids that go over the lids.  All of it is pine and all of it has to be ordered by next class if we hope to get it all delivered and assembled by the time our bees arrive between early April and mid-May.

Oh yes.  Assembled.  And painted.  There’s a rather strong backbone of do it yourself mentality within the hobby.  Oh sure, you can get your supers pre-assembeled, even already painted, but what’s the fun in that?  Plus things get more expensive because shipping becomes bulkier and there’s a built-in labor cost, a tax against the lazy.  We’re going to be semi-lazy.  We’ll put together our own supers.  I even look forward to painting them, especially after painting a dresser two weekends ago.  We’ll probably draw the line at assembling the frames, each of which are four shaky bits of wood that have to be glued together then reinforced with no less than 8 nails.  For each of 8 frames.  For each of 4-5 supers.  For each of 2 hives.

We’re not going so far as buying the fancy pressed plastic frames that have foundation built in.  Foundation, we also learned last night, is the plastic and/or wax base from which the bees will build, or “draw out,” their comb.  So while we’ll get frames that are prebuilt wooden rectangles, we’ll still have to break a little piece out of each one, set the foundation in place, and then staple back the piece we broke out to keep the foundation from moving.  This is how things are done in beekeeping, fiddly little steps to let you know that you’re actually doing something.

I lobbied for the plastic frames, but stepped down when we multiplied the difference in cost over just how many frames we need to buy.  That’s fine.  I can’t have the entire hobby dropped into my lap and done for me.  Which is why we also decided to assemble our own queen.

This is, apparently, tougher to do, and many first time beekeepers choose to buy their queens preassembled.  The challenges come from identifying the left legs from the right (they come in little labeled baggies, but will sometimes be wrong, and will sometimes open in shipping causing the legs to get mixed up) and in choosing what to include or not.  Just like most LEGO sets have a few extra smaller pieces to allow for packing accidents, the queen will usually come with three antennae even though she only needs two.  In fact, the third can be quite disastrous.  The antennae work not unlike eyes in humans.  Look at the world through one eye, and what you see is basically two-dimensional as you lose depth perception.  Open your other eye, and the world becomes three-dimensional again.  Put the third antenna on the queen, and she can now experience the world in four dimensions, looking through both space and time.

You can understand how this would be disorienting for something with the mental capacity of an insect.

So next week the orders will be placed, and we’ll learn about the various species of bees.  In a few weeks it’ll be assembly weekend and paint party time.  I’ll probably end up posting a couple of pictures from that.

Yeah, I’m getting a little excited about beekeeping, something I didn’t expect.

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Beekeeping: What they Don’t Teach Us

I’ve mentioned my wife and I are getting into apiary.  Our second class is tonight, but two things I’ve already learned:

  1. In spite of the name, apiary is the art of keeping bees not apes making it a slightly less awesome hobby than I expected.
  2. I will not be allowed to put on a bear suit and dump bees on Nicolas Cage’s head.  Puffing the smoker and yelling “How’d it get burned?!” may or may not be okay.

Then there’s the lessons they don’t teach you in class (oddly, the whole “Don’t recreate The Wicker Man” thing was part of the initial meet-and-greet).  I have a coworker who comes from a family of beekeepers and ended up with a bit of good advice that I don’t think will come up in class.

“When the bees arrive they’ll have been in that box for a while.  Just think about that.”

“So they’ll be pissed off.”

“Well, they’ll be swarming, so they won’t sting you.  But it will feel like it’s raining.”

“Raining?”  I think a second.  “Oh.  Raining.  So…don’t hold the box over my head.”

“No, see, they’ll all fly straight up and around you.  I swear the first time I thought it was raining.  You don’t think that insects defecate, but they do.”

So there we go.  Today’s lesson in practical beekeeping.  Bees hold it in during transit and thank their new stewards for releasing them from captivity by anointing them with every bit of bee excrement that built up in their tiny bodies.  Oddly, my wife tried to sell me on bees over apes by pointing out that apes tend to fling their poo.  Suddenly bees have lost their edge in the less-projectile-scatology department.  Just got to tell myself, bees make honey, honey makes mead, mead makes writer happy.

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