Posts Tagged Beekeeping

Robber Barons

“What the hell?”

We’ve had bees for a summer now, so I’m used to seeing them in the yard. Even a lot of them in the yard. End of the night when they’re all coming home. After their hives were toppled by a branch during the derecho. This was different. The sun was setting, right at a perfect angle to illuminate the entire yard with nearly sideways beams of light, catching each bee and turning them into golden streaks. So many golden streaks. They filled the back like a galaxy.

Something was very wrong.

The right hive, the domain of Queen Victoria, had two full bee beards, one around the entrance, and one clinging to the out cover. Bees would occasionally drop off, straight to the ground. We thought at first they may be swarming, dissatisfied with the hive, the amount of space they had, the queen herself, there’s any number of reasons why a hive of bees will split and become two, an odd reproduction. Mitosis on a massive scale. Suited up, we examined a few clumps of bees, carefully looking for the old queen ready to take her faithful retinue off to form a new colony, leaving her successor behind.

The bees weren’t swarming. They were fighting. Each little battle was one-on-one combat as bee grappled with bee. The whole of the hive was at war, and there was only one reason for that sort of whole scale combat. The hive was under attack.

Bees will rob bees. If one hive comes across another and perceives weakness, decides that it’s easier to fight off other bees than to collect their own pollen and nectar, then the process will begin. We’d taken every listed precaution against the possibility. Wire screens across entrances which made it harder to fly in and right back out with honey. Keeping the bees fed so they’ll be healthy. Sometimes it still happens. We opened up the hive, and it was heartbreaking. Frame after frame of drawn out comb, all completely empty. By the time the robbing started, by the time we saw bees flying everywhere and fighting it out, it was already too late for anyone to do anything. Us, the hive, it was all over.

Soon we’ll have one hive. The robbed hive won’t make it through the winter, there’s no way it can store enough honey and pollen between now and then. The process is easy enough. Lay down a sheet of newspaper across the top of the healthy hive, cut a tiny slit so pheromones can pass back and forth, then stack on the supers of the robbed hive. Give it a week, and the bees will acclimate to each other, chew through the paper, and two hives will be one.

The only problem is Queen Victoria. A hive can only have one queen. She either has to be segregated with a few workers, or disposed of. I was glib about regicide while learning about beekeeping, but we’ve hit the first time where that’s an option. It feels silly actually giving a damn about an insect. Not bees in general, not our hives, but one specific bee who we’ve seen perhaps three times total.

So who robbed the hive? It’s impossible to know. I actually hope it was our other hive. First because it means they now have all the resources of both hives, and that’s not lost honey and pollen. Second because the alternative is an aggressor robbing hive somewhere in a three-mile radius of our house that could come back for our other hive. It’ll be bad enough losing one, losing both would be a real blow to our beekeeping spirits.

We always prepared ourselves to lose a hive, perhaps even both. Beekeeping isn’t easy, and even our mentors who have been in the hobby for years don’t have a 100% success rate on their hives. But it was a little brutal to actually witness, if not the actual death of the hive, at least the fatal blow being struck. Hopefully the combined hive will be healthy enough to overwinter, and come spring we’ll have all the wood ware to start a second hive, whether swarmed off the surviving hive or a newly created package or nuc.

This may put a serious delay in my dreams of fully homemade mead, however.

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Unrelated Weekend Things

Thing the first: We are now officially beekeepers.  Saturday afternoon my wife and I picked up our nuc from one of our fellow members of the Beekeepers Association of Northern Virginia.  The bees were just chilling in the dining room when we showed up, well secured in their cardboard travel case and humming away like mad.  There are few things that make me a safer driver than having a hatchback full of bees, apparently.  The buzzing was always just a little louder than the radio, especially when a stop or turn made their little cardboard box slide around.

It was raining when we got home, so we immediately broke my first and most sacrosanct rule of beekeeping: no bees in the house.  The cats were exceedingly concerned about the box, I suspect the sound of the bees humming sounded different to their ears.  I picked up our younger, stupider cat and let him have a good look from about five feet away.  He wanted no closer than that, tensing as I held him and scampering off when I let him down.  The rain tapered off, so we took the opportunity to suit up and get the bees into their new hive.  This meant doing things faster than intended, so we didn’t have time to identify the queen, even though she has a little yellow dot on her back.  We’ll need to go in again by next weekend anyway, we’ll get another chance then.

We were told to expect productive and gentle bees.  True to form, they only buzzed around us curiously while we assembled the hive, and by yesterday were already coming back to the hive with huge saddlebags of pollen, even with a patty of artificial pollen sitting right in their hive.  We did come across one bee who was a little braver than her sisters.  This is the bee that will hover right at eye level with us, really staring us down and just daring us to come in closer to the hive.  We’ve long planned to name one bee “That Bee” who we could blame any problems in the hive on.  I think we’ve officially found That Bee.

It’s unusual to harvest from a hive in its first summer, but this colony apparently produced around 100 pounds of honey last year, so it’s not out of the question that we might, might, get a taste of some honey in late August.  Of course by then I’ll be beekeeping solo for a few weeks, so we might just let them keep all the honey this year so they have more than enough to overwinter with.

I have some photos, but I’m having a hard time wrangling them at the moment.  I’ll update this post later in the evening and send a ping on Twitter when it happens.

Thing the second: Late yesterday I got word of a short story sale to an upcoming anthology.  I’m never sure if I’m supposed to share details of just which anthology, so I’m going to hold off until I see something official on their website or get a green light on email.  I will say I’m one of two Unleaded contributors on the author’s list, which is awesome.  Because of that, it’ll probably be over there not over here that I give more details, when they exist to give.  This is my third sale since getting serious about submissions, which is fantastic.  Means I need to write more short stories so I can have more rotating through markets.  If you’re a fellow Cat Vacuumer, yes, it was that story.

Speaking of anthologies, we are in the last week of the Kickstarter for The Memory Eater, and what was once moving fast and furious is now stalled out just shy of 80%.  It’s not too late to get in and preorder a copy.  I’ve seen Kickstarters pull in impressive last week numbers, but there’s certainly no room for complacency.  If you’re still considering, time is running low.  If you are already in, please consider giving us a signal boost on Twitter.  Doing so can even earn you free reward-tier prizes, check out the contest here.  Our deadline for funding is Saturday morning at 7:55am eastern time.

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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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