Archive for March, 2012

…when it hits your windshield? It’s stinger!

Bad bee humor aside, bee brains (and insect brains in general) have been fascinating me recently, as you may have noticed from previous posts about insect emotions, thrill-seeking and the like.

Today I had the joy of discovering this new study done on the Japanese honeybee, bees that show increased neural activity in the face of danger which allows them to act cooperatively. Given the mythos of Japan, and how its people also seem able to activate some part of their brain to act cooperatively and live in hive-like cities, I am completely fascinated by this research and the evolutionary differences between the Japanese honeybee and the European honeybee.

Here’s the story: Japanese bees have an evil nemesis called the Asian Giant Hornet (which also has several more poetic names like the “tiger head bee,” the “giant sparrow bee” and the “commander bee”). This hornet is a fearsome creature with a wingspan of 3 inches and a non-barbed stringer of ¼ inch. Yes, non-barbed, meaning that it can and will sting you repeatedly. With venom that contains an enzyme capable of digesting flesh and bone. Did I mention this hornet is also called the “Yak Killer?” I think you can see why.

Giant Asian Hornet
Photo by Gary Alpert

No matter the strength of your exoskeleton, if you are a honeybee you live in fear of the AGH. The AGH is capable of killing 40 honeybees per minute by decapitating them with its killer mandibles. Three or four of these hornets can wipe out a honeybee hive of 30,000 bees in a few hours. They will then carry off the honeybee larvae as a food source for their own young. Nature can really be a bitch.

European honeybees are defenseless against these monsters, whose exoskeletons are impenetrable to honeybee stings. Thus, beekeepers in Asia no longer import European honeybees despite their higher honey production. The only way to fend off a potential AGH attack is to kill the scout hornet so that subsequent hornets will not follow its trail o’pheromones to your lovely beehive.

And this is where the Japanese honeybees’ highly evolved brains spring into action. As the first scent of Asian Giant Hornet pheromone, the brains of Japanese honeybees spring into “thermal mode.” Five hundred bees form a dense ball around the invading hornet and start flapping their wings like crazy. Vibrating their flight muscles raises the core temperature of the bee ball to 115 degrees. The bees keep it at that temperature for 20 minutes while the hornet cooks to death. A few honeybees may die in the struggle, but the elevated temperature does not seem to affect them the way it clearly disables the enemy.

The research released today found that the pheromone secreted by the hornet seemed to directly trigger a response in the bees. There’s not a “leader bee” and a bunch of “follower bees” in this situation. They all just spring into action. The researchers found this to be an interesting sign of collective hive intelligence. I suspect beekeepers all around the world have known about hive intelligence for eons. Still, it’s interesting when the science starts to catch up.

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Carefully haphazard tube placement

At long last, a beautiful spring weekend! It was surely time to work in the garden. Yesterday, we managed to add another coat of paint to the hives and build a small raised bed for veggies. Today my main goal was finding a new spot to hang the mason bee house and to put my cocoons out. That turned out to make for an exciting afternoon!

This is my fourth spring with a mason bee house. The first spring was spectacular. I ordered cocoons, which arrived just after Christmas. I carefully stored them in the crisper inside the refrigerator. When the cherry trees began to bloom, I put the bees out. That summer, bees filled 11 tubes in my bee house. They were happy little things, returning with fresh daubs of mud time and time again. The pear tree in our backyard was sagging with fruit by summer’s end.

I left the tubes outside the following winter figuring that the bees are native to this area, so they must be equipped to handle winter. We had a hard winter too. But they chewed their way out of the mud in the spring and the cycle began again. Except that this time, we got an infestation of earwigs. I have searched high and low for information on earwigs and mason bees, and found nothing. But I can tell you from my own experience that the earwigs nested in the empty tubes and ate their way through the larvae.

I discovered them destroying my precious larvae in the fall. In horror, I shook the earwigs out of the nesting tubes. But it was too late for the larvae. Either that or my shaking killed them. No one hatched last year. And no wild bees nested. I have heard from other mason bee tenders that last year was a rough one for their bees as well. It was so damp for so long and it never did get solidly above 50 degrees until September. Not good news for bees.

So, this year, it was back to purchasing cocoons. They arrived just after Christmas again and have been sitting alongside the carrots and beets in the crisper. Two weeks ago, I received an email from Crown Bees, suppliers of my mason bees, reminding me that it was time to put the cocoons out. Ironically, it was snowing that day. I ignored their advice and decided to wait until the weather got a little bit closer to “steady 55 degrees outside” like the cocoon package said.

Today was the third day of sunny weather, so I picked a new spot to mount the bee house and then emptied the cocoons into it. I arranged the new cardboard tubes in a carefully irregular pattern, as Crown Bees recommends giving the bee landmarks so they can find their way back to the nest. I imagined them thinking “mine’s the tube just to the left of that one that sticks out” or some such thing. If I thought they did a waggle dance, I would have imagined that instead.

Two cocoons show holes where the bees are getting ready to emerge.

Thirty minutes later, I returned outside thinking that perhaps I should hide the cocoons farther back in the house. To my surprise, one bee had hatched already and two more were on their way out! After grabbing the camera, I stood there and watched the second bee chew his way out of the cocoon and the third bee work on getting his head out. Bee two immediately climbed up onto the roof of the bee house to enjoy the sun and stretch his legs. Bee one periodically peeked at me from the inside of a cardboard tube. I couldn’t believe that in 30 minutes they had warmed up enough to hatch! The plum tree is in full bloom, the cherries are just starting and the pear tree is budded out, so I predict some good feasting on our block this week. Go bees!

Bee two gets some sun

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This urban beekeeper in Vancouver discovered mold in this hive. Corky talked to me a lot about dampness and its problems. Have any Seattle area folks encountered anything like this? What do you do in your hives to try to keep them dry?

Today was warm enough this afternoon that the bees were out flying in abundance. I saw a few with pollen of various colors and the entrance to both hives was busy.  Since my time this weekend for a hive inspection might be limited, I decided to do a quick look into Kashyyyk  or as it is called more often “the brown hive”.  After popping the outer and inner cover (the moisture quilt box was removed about a week ago) looking in it was apparent the bees were concentrated on the 5 frames on the west side of the hive. Replacing the inner cover I then took the whole box off and placed it on the outer cover beside the hive. There was about 3 or 4 frames of bees again concentrated on the west side of the hive.  Thinking that was strange, I used my hive tool to pull…

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My little worker bees

And quiet here in Wallingford, my hometown. The kids and I devoted several 30 minute chunks to painting the bee hives. They are almost finished, and a lovely shape of “purplish red,” which was the compromise color picked by the children. They do look like something that hummingbirds would love, so hopefully the bees will too.

We picked the shade based on Corky’s advice: Paint them a dark color so they will heat up quickly. But I just couldn’t go with black. A deep purple would have been my first choice, but winning the interest of my oldest won out. Corky gave me so much advice on warming and drying out beehives that I am inclined to install a dehumidifier next to them!

While wearing my 4 year old out at the gymnastics academy this week, I had the good fortune of meeting Jen, über mom and former firefighter. I explained my hive placement dilemma to her, and she was much more concerned about the structural integrity of the roof than the potential complications for firefighters. Her reasoning was that firefighters are already in the equivalent of bee suits, smoke calms the bees, and the odds of needing that particular window for egress are pretty small. If we have the presence of mind during such an emergency, she recommended telling 911 that we keep bees on the roof. However, she said that the likeliest thing would be that the firefighters would just knock the hives out of the way if they needed to and get on with business. Since the hives wouldn’t actually be blocking the window, I feel better about the potential for placing them on the roof. We’ll see…and soon!

And continuing with my theme of “do insects have feelings or personality?” this new report: Male fruit flies whose mating advances are rejected by female fruit flies deal with it by getting drunk.

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Would this whirligig encourage you to fly higher?

Last night I couldn’t fall asleep, so I devoted part of my insomnia to thinking about my bees. I have been working and reworking the rooftop plans in my head (no actual progress on building a platform yet, though we are steadily painting the hives). Since Jamie’s post about wanting to run away from the bees, I’ve been wondering if starting on the roof is really what I want to do.

The problem is that our yard is really tiny and we have two small kids. Which leads me to think that I should place the hives away from where the kids might be inclined to get at them. Also, the yard is well shaded by our large pear tree, and I know that bees prefer morning sun.

However, we also have plans to convert the roof to a green roof, hopefully within the next year. If I go forward with placing the hives on the roof right now, I will have to take them off the roof in six months or so anyway. And it would be a major pain to haul the full hives down only to haul them back up again a few months later when the roof is completed. Seems like any hauling would be best done once.

In the wee hours of the morning, two alternate plans emerged. I need to check on the legalities of them, since I know Seattle has rules in place about how far bees should be from property lines, etc. However, if I temporarily take down the bean teepee in the back yard, I think I could put the bees there. I would like to encourage them to fly up as soon as possible, so I am considering planting a row of whirligigs in front of the hives in hopes that the whirligigs won’t provide too much shade, but that their movement will steer the bees upward.

Another option would be to put the hives in the front yard. Aside from attracting unwanted attention from curious passersby, I am concerned that the bees might get too much shade from our extremely large Albizzia tree. This tree is so large it won an award from the city. It doesn’t leaf out until July so at least during the wet months the bees would get sun. But I am concerned they wouldn’t get much for July through September.

Hopefully after a night of good sleep, the best solution will present itself. Until then, I will leave you with a bit of bee trivia:

One teaspoon of honey is the life’s work of 12 worker bees. Thank you bees!

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Thrill Seekers at Work

I’ve met people that are adventure seekers. Especially in New Zealand. I can only imagine what sort of bold, solitary types originally set off for the Land Down Under Under. But I have met their progeny, and they invent things like these giant hamster balls that you climb inside of before being launched down hills.

In today’s Wired Science, this bit of research trivia. New evidence suggests that our blessed little worker bees aren’t as single-minded as we have been led to believe. Some have the “thrill-seeker” gene, the same one found in their adventure-seeking human counterparts.

This gene might explain why some bees become hive scouts when a swarm is brewing, and it might help determine which bees actually venture off with the queen. It may also lead some bees to try their feelers at being food scouts. And who knows what other behaviors and adaptations may result from the adventure-seeking gene.

Coupled with a 2011 study that observed pessimism(!) in bees, scientists are now buckling down to study whether insects may have emotions and personalities.

I’ve heard from other beeks that hives have personalities, but frankly I haven’t given much thought to the inner lives of individual bees. It would have some amazing ethical implications if it were determined that insects have feelings and personalities. Particularly if it forced a shift in the way the entire animal kingdom is viewed, and our relationship to it.

I’d love to know what any of you longer-term beeks have observed in terms of hive personality.

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"And the next time I come for my inspection, I expect your hive to be tidy!"

As I scrolled through a bee-related email in my inbox yesterday, I discovered at the bottom of the message this little tidbit:

King County 21A.30.020 of K.C.C. 11.04

All colonies shall be registered with the County Extension agent prior to April 1st of each year, on a state registration form acceptable to the county.

This gave me pause as I had no idea that I was supposed to register my hives and wondered what the purpose and benefits of registering would be. I have to admit that given the difficulty of the struggle to legalize city chickens and other urban livestock, I initially felt reluctant to register my hives. I immediately imagined clandestine visits from be-suited gentlemen ready to dismantle my freshly crafted rooftop system.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture website is woefully lacking in reasons for registering your bees and a description of what bee inspectors can offer to the apiarist. However, looking across different states and their apiary registration requirements (Tennessee and Illinois particularly have it figured out), it seems that three solid reasons exist for registering bees:

  1. Collecting data and samples for learning more about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and other bee-related maladies;
  2. Getting alerts as to disease outbreaks, particularly foulbrood; and
  3. Protecting bees from pesticide exposure.

Of course, protecting bees from pesticide exposure is more of a hazard in rural areas where large farms might use crop dusters, and pesticide drift must be planned for. However, should there be a potential exposure to something hazardous for my bees, I would want to be alerted. Likewise if there is a disease outbreak.

Collecting data and samples is something that I voluntarily want to be part of. So, I downloaded the registration form and am sending in my $5 to become a registered apiarist in the State of Washington.  I have to admit that I rather like the official title. And the ironic deliciousness of it as my first bee packages haven’t even arrived!

Because the code also states that bees must be kept in moveable frames, if I had decided to experiment with Warre or top bar hives (which ha

ve fixed frames) I might opt not to register. Which seems a pity from a research perspective. If we want to collect data on incidence of disease, CCD and other bee maladies, it would be useful to be able to compare types of hives. Some beekeepers postulate that foundationless beekeeping, which allows bees to revert to a more natural, smaller size, helps strengthen bees against Varroa mites and other ills. If all types of hives were registered, that data could more easily be compared.

And if I decide to experiment with Warre in the future, I will have to sacrifice my official title in the name of science. Such are the trials of the backyard beekeeper!

For your own research: Puget Sound Beekeepers maintains a page of links to local and state beekeping regulations. And here is a direct link to the Washington State Code.

Update: For a quick link to the WA State apiary registration form, click here.

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The roof in question

I thought the most difficult thing about putting hives on my rooftop would be hauling them up there. I imagined rigging up some McGyver-style pully system to carefully hoist my freshly-painted hives onto their new perch. The roof is perfect: flat, south facing, near a terrific observation window. What could be difficult?

This weekend I advertised on my local moms’ list for cinder blocks so that I could build a cheap and simple hive stand, and thus spare my back a bit. Plus, I figured that setting the hives directly on the roof would probably be bad, since perhaps things wouldn’t drain very well and the hive would rot. Plus Corky schooled me on how much bees dislike moisture.

And then the investigating began.

Fellow beeks told me I didn’t have much to worry about. Since the roof doesn’t have singles, I’m not likely to cause water retention in places I don’t want it. Wood pallets were suggested, with shims to level them out.

Contractor and architect friends started talking about weight, sagging rafters, kerfing support boards to improve drainage, and deflection. Yikes! They also suggested I place the hives away from the edge in case of earthquakes, and that I not block the window in case I need a “hunky fireman” to rescue me. While the hunky fireman was a pleasant thought, hunky firemen accidently knocking the hives definitely is not.

So, now I am playing around with our architectural plans and a picture of my rooftop to figure out the ideal location for the hives. Then off to buy some plastic lumber, which I will kerf for drainage and place perpendicular to the rafters. But not blocking the window and not too close to the edge in case of earthquake. And not using cinder blocks because those are too heavy and abrasive.

Any other rooftop beekeepers out there with creative and structurally sound ideas? Send them my way!

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Definitely a member of the tribe

Definitely a member of the tribe.

Yesterday I spent the morning with a beekeeper of local fame, Corky Luster of Ballard Bees. About three years ago, I took a class at Seattle Tilth from Corky as part of my fact-finding mission about urban beekeeping. At that time I had a small infant and was not yet ready to commit to caring for any other living creatures. Even though Corky claimed that bees were only slightly more work than a cat, I figured that two kids, one cat, a pet fish, a few house plants and a small garden were about all I could manage and stay relatively sane.

Fast forward three years: Both kids are now potty-trained, the cat is dead, we added two pet rats to the household, the garden has been turned over to perennials and volunteer seedlings, and my sanity is mostly intact. So, time to finally enter the world of beekeeping.

Corky helpfully outfitted me with a complete beekeeping kit, nudged me into starting with two hives, gave me tons of interesting factoids to process (some of which will becoming fascinating blog posts!), and helped me decide my Langstroth vs. Warre vs. Top Bar and Carniolans vs. Italians questions for this year at least. (I decided to go Langstroth as the path of least resistance for my first year, and picked Carniolans because Corky likes them).

While I was chatting with Corky, a pony-tailed nerd dropped by to return some honey processing gear and show Corky his first bottle of homegrown liquid gold. When I say ponytailed nerd, I say it with the greatest affection since both my husband and I fall into that category (he more than I as he works at a very large software company located in Redmond). Also, most of my friends fall into this category, including my friend Jamie, who doesn’t know it yet but is about to become my bee mentor. So, whenever I see a ponytailed nerd I feel a surge of affection. There goes a member of my tribe.

Meeting this man in passing got me to thinking about the beekeepers that I have encountered here in the Pacific Northwest. Most of us are more concerned with the future of the honeybee than with harvesting honey. Most of us tirelessly research the many options available to us as beekeepers, sometimes to the point of paralysis. Many of us totally geek out on the latest in bee research or beekeeping gear. I haven’t even been at it that long, and already I’ve found this guy!

A Geek-Beek would create a thing like this.

A Geek-Beek would create a thing like this.

Then it hit me: We are not just Beeks, we are Geek-Beeks! And so, I encourage any of you with fall into this category to join me in Bee-ing Nerdy. Post away! Guest blog! Supply me with helpful links! Let’s geek out about bees!

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One of Gene Hanson's many stunning photos of bees.

This is a blog post from my other blog, Wits and Witlings. For continuity’s sake, I have reposted it here. I have decided not to bore my many followers at Wits with a continual string of bee-related posts. So, you other geek-beeks out there can get your bee fix all in one place!

I’m a little infatuated with pollinators.

A few years back I attended the Bioneers Conference in the San Francisco Bay Area and began to learn about pollinators. Sure I knew about bees and butterflies, but I had never really considered that hummingbirds and bats might be pollinating right in my own back yard.

As soon as I started thinking about pollinators, I began to read some scary projections that pollinators were facing extinction-level threats. Lack of pollinators means lack of crops. Since I happen to be a fan of food, I thought it might be time for me to get involved in backyard pollinator preservation.

My backyard is what is lovingly called in these parts a “Wallingford postage stamp.” The footprint of our house is not big, but even so the backyard has only 500 square feet of space in it. Most of which is in the shadow of our very large and old Asian pear tree and the neighbors’ even larger cedar. The result is that I have to squeeze all of my urban homesteading tendencies into a very small space, along with the kids’ sandbox.

Which is why I decided to start small, with the orchard mason bee. The orchard mason bee, a lovely little bee without a stinger, is a pollinator native to these parts. I bought a little bee house for my orchard mason bees and some bee cocoons, which I set out once I saw flower buds appearing on the pear tree. It was such a lovely and easy thing to do, watching the tree for buds and then setting out the bee cocoons so that the bees would emerge just in time to sip the fresh pollen from the pear flowers.

It worked so well that I collected 3000 pears from the ground that summer, in addition to the ones we and our neighbors picked and ate, and the ones which we harvested for our local food bank. Holy smokes!

The following summer I planted flowers that attract hummingbirds. We have several native hummingbirds in Washington, with Anna’s hummingbird being the most common. Foxglove grows as a weed in my yard, so I merely added a few tasty hummingbird plants to it: bleeding heart, fuchsia, delphinium, penstemon, columbine, and evening primrose. All of them have proven easy to grow and winter well, which is important since my flower beds are alternately known as “Darwin’s Garden” with only the fittest, most low maintenance plants making it from year to year.

My flower planting spree had the benefit of attracting a number of butterflies as well, and ground-dwelling bumble bees. Last summer I discovered a bumble bee den in my front yard, nestled under some composting leaves and rocks. Until that moment, I didn’t realize that bumble bees lived a fairly solitary life, and not in a hive but in the ground.

Last summer I also placed a bat house in a sunny spot on the south side of the house. I think we had a bat resident living there by summer’s end, though possibly it was a sparrow. Whoever the bat-house-resident was, it stuffed the house with moss, which the bat ladies at the NW Garden Show said indicates an avian friend, not a mammalian one.  I am hoping that this summer we get a resident bat so I can officially start my journey toward being a bat lady.

Which brings me to this year, in which I officially embark on a beekeeping adventure. Honey bees. Beekeeping suit. Queens and drones and workers. I think I am going to place my hive on the roof where it’s sunny and out of the way of the kids. I have an appointment with Corky, Seattle’s bee guru, this Thursday to once for all sort out which type of hive and which variety of honey bee I want to begin with. I am leaning toward Italian bees (they are rumored to be lovers, not fighters). I would really like a non-commercial hive, like a top bar hive where the bees can built their own comb. But the vast majority of the resources out there are for the Langstroth hives. So we’ll see where that goes, for this year at least.

Next year there may be three hives on the roof and matching beekeeper suits for the whole family!

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