Archive for the ‘Trivia and Factoids’ Category

Winter bee cluster. Photo courtesy of Steven's Bees.

Winter bee cluster. Photo courtesy of Steven’s Bees.

The cold temperatures have finally set in here in Seattle, causing my bees to go into cluster mode. If you’ve seen “March of the Penguins” then you can imagine kind of what it looks like inside the hives right now. The bees have amassed into a ball, with the queen in the center. The ball is constantly churning as the bees on the outer edges move towards the warm center. They displace the warm center bees who move to the outside and begin to work their way back in. In this fashion, the bees all get a turn at being warm.

Like other insects, bees are cold-blooded. So, how are they generating heat during these cold days?  Unlike other insects, honey bees do not hibernate nor do they die during the winter (if all goes well, at least). Instead, they eat their honey stores and use that energy to power their flight muscles. Without flying, they “shiver” their way through winter, generating heat like little bee-sized space heaters.

All of this heat-producing work is done by special “winter bees” who were reared at the end of summer. Unlike summer bees that live for 45(ish) days, winter bees will live for 4-6 months. Winter bees are physiologically distinct from summer bees, with fatter bodies to sustain them through the cold. They will never forage nor make honey. Their sole job is to get the hive through the winter.

Since the bees are eating and working, they have other biological needs that must be attended to. Warm days of 50 degrees or higher prompt the bees to make “elimination runs” or “cleansing flights.” Being the hygienic little animals that they are, the bees “hold it” until they have a chance to leave the hive. After a long cold snap, it can get quite crowded on the landing board on the first nice day.

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My two packages of Carniolan bees are due to arrive from California later this month. Over the past few weeks, as I’ve been slowly and diligently applying paint to my new hives (which is taking FOREVER because it has been too damp for the paint to dry quickly and the garage is small, so I have to paint in small batches), I’ve had plenty of time to think about my bees and wonder what they are up to down in California. Hopefully, they are hatching, eating and enjoying some better weather than we have had!

I also got to wondering how professional beekeepers make bee packages. By exactly what means does one get three pounds of bees into a wood and mesh box? Here’s what I’ve learned:

Bee suppliers are usually located in warm regions. For the Pacific Northwest, this means California. As spring arrives earlier in southern states, the beekeepers there have more time to grow queens and divide hives. However, California, with its dry climate, does not have enough forage to support many hives of bees. So, while they can grow the bees, California beekeepers rely on beekeepers from other parts of the nation to raise them in areas with better pollen production.

Almond tree pollination, which typically runs from mid-February to mid-March, is big business in California. Commercial beekeepers from across the country ship their hives to California to overwinter and then be used for almond farm pollination in the spring. They are paid for loaning their hives for this purpose. California itself cannot support enough hives to pollinate all of the almond farms. About one million hives are trucked in each winter and head home after citrus pollinating season later in the spring.

So, now that it is April, the hives that will give rise to my packages have finished toiling in the almond orchards. The beekeepers will now be growing queens and encouraging the hives to multiply almost to the point of swarming. They will divide the hives (hopefully before swarming occurs) and set them to growing again. They may put queen excluders into the hives at this point to make it easier for them when bee packaging day arrives. Or, they may just have a team of beekeepers who find the queen in each hive when the big day arrives.

When it’s time to package the bees, beekeepers will bundle a queen and a few worker bees (as queens cannot feed themselves) into a little mini-package called a queen cage. The beekeepers will have built hundreds of larger bee packages out of wood and wire mesh, with a large hole cut out of the top for one for a can of sugar syrup to feed the bees while they are traveling to their new homes. With these things ready to go, they don their suits and get their smokers going. And while the process varies from beekeeper to beekeeper (of course!) here’s how they typically get the bees into the package.

Bee Package Components
Photo by H. Mark Delman

Team A goes to the hives with the smokers and calms the bees. If they don’t have queen excluders on the hives, then Team A also finds the queen. They pull out frames from the hive, laden with worker bees. Team B has the packages and a large metal contraption that looks like a giant pot with a metal duct growing out of its base, and a wide-mouthed funnel attached to the end of the duct. The wide-mouthed funnel fits into the sugar syrup can hole. Team A takes the frames and shakes them (pretty hard sometimes!) into the pot. The bees fall down the duct, through the funnel and into the package.

This process is repeated several times until the package has the right amount of bees in it. The right amount is determined in at least two ways. Some beekeeping outfits use scales. Others have a “fill line” on the packages. So, they add bees, shake the package so that all of the bees fall to the bottom, and then see if the package is full enough. Once the package is full, the queen cage is placed inside, a can of sugar syrup is inserted and wood is nailed over the hole to seal the package.

This video shows one beekeeper’s approach. I found it via the A-Bee Honey & Costanza Orchards. They included this sweet disclaimer on their website, “Please understand that the information presented may not reflect the same attitude and beliefs of A-Bee Honey or Costanza Orchards in the various management practices that are exhibited in these video presentations.” Which is to say, the beekeepers in this video are pretty rough with their bees and smash or vacuum up a number of them. Yikes!

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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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