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The Second Spring


The crocuses on Sunday.


The crocuses (with bees!) today.


The hive with a small blanket of snow (Sunday).

I went into winter with one queenless hive (Themyscira) and one hive going strong (Galactica). I’ve figured that the queenless hive probably wouldn’t survive the winter, and have been hoping that the other one would survive so that I can try to split it and grow a new hive in the spring. However, there has been NO activity at the hive entrance for months, even on warm-ish days. So worrisome!

Today was a lovely false-spring day, following snow(!) 4 days ago. The Galactica bees flocked to the newly blooming crocuses in the front yard and returned to the queen-ful hive laden with bright yellow pollen. Hooray!

I peeked at the Themyscira hive and saw no activity on the landing pad and no bees in the top box. I suspect they have all died, but I am not planning to give them a good look for a few weeks yet. Hopefully Galactica will hang in there and I can successfully split it!

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A yellow jacket eats a bee. Depressing.

A yellow jacket eats a bee. Depressing.

Yes, the title is true. The queenline of Thymescira hive has been lost and the hive is slowly dying out as we head into fall. The remaining bees are hanging in there longer than I expected. My hive has been queenless for almost 2 months now, and there are still bees heading out to forage. I keep hoping that they know something that I don’t – perhaps that the queen is just out on a mating flight and will be home soon. But I am pretty sure that is a futile line of thinking. I am comforting myself with thoughts that at least they are making more honey while the sun shines. I will toast them with a slice of honey toast this winter.

Meanwhile, I need to improve my honey harvesting techniques. Every time I pull frames for harvesting, I end up with a robbing situation. This last time I solved it by bringing the frames into the basement, but then I had to contend with robber bees in the basement. I let them spend the night in a closed room. In the morning, I opened the door to the outside world, and most of the bees chose to fly away. However, I am still vacuuming up bee carcasses from that adventure and would prefer to avoid robbing in the first place. I have seen one-way exit door for bees and think I might have to given them a try.

My biggest success this fall has been using yellow jacket traps. My hives were attracting abundant yellow jackets, which were driving both the bees and my family a little insane. The day I witnessed a group of yellow jackets hanging out near the hive entrance and slowly picking off my foragers was the last straw. One poor girl got her head ripped off right before my eyes. I marched straight into the house and clicked “buy now” on two yellow jacket traps. Now there is one hanging near out outdoor eating space and one by the hives and we are all happier. Those traps are effective! I am wondering what took me so long….

Soon, preparations for winter will begin. The chill is in the air. I am going to break out my trusty quilt again for the surviving hive and hope for the best!

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In the bottom center of this photo you can see a supercedure cell!

In the bottom center of this photo you can see a supercedure cell!

The great thing about my hives’ new rooftop location is that I can see the landing boards from my son’s room. This means I make up a lot of excuses to go in there, which has the side-benefit of my son’s room being much cleaner than it used to.

It also means that I am now keenly aware of my bees’ comings and goings, which sometimes causes consternation. For example, there are a whole lot of bees just hanging out on the landing board at all hours of the day. What are they doing there? Are they on time-out? Are they granny bees rocking in tiny rocking chairs? Are they the juvenile delinquent bees hanging out for a smoke? I just don’t know. But there they are.

A benefit is that I have a better sense when something is up with the hive without having to open it. So, when my stronger hive suddenly stopped sending out as many foragers as my normal hive, I was tipped off that something might be wrong. A hive inspection showed dramatically fewer bees than the previous inspection (about 4 weeks before). And two queen cells.

Queen cells are special brood cells made by the worker bees when they need to replace their queen (a process called supercedure) or when they want to swarm (and therefore need a second queen). If the hive has gotten so robust that it wants to split itself in two, it will make “swarm cells” or queen cells at the bottom of a frame of brood. This is the bees’ way of planning ahead. They know they want to make a queen. Queen bees are much bigger than worker bees. So, they make the queen cells in a place where they can make them large. A few thousand bees depart with the existing queen and head for the hills, looking for a new location for their live. The remaining bees raise a new queen and hope for the best.

When a queen is failing or dies, the bees are in a bit of a pickle. They have not planned ahead for this! So, they take the youngest larvae they can find and start feeding them royal jelly – a substance made by the worker bees that triggers the development of the larva and makes her queen material. Since the egg has already been laid – usually somewhere in the middle of the frame – the bees build the queen cell out into the free space between the frames. It kind of looks like a peanut shell has been stuck to the frame. My frame had two of these peanuts.

This hive – Themyscira – has always been the stronger of the two (though Galalctica is a workhorse). The queen was a champion layer, and must have produced an abundance of pheromone as well, since she managed to steal bees from the other hive twice. I have wanted to preserve her queen line, and it was suggested to me this spring that I might remove her from the hive to encourage the bees to grow some of her daughters into new queens. However, I have this thing about regicide. As in, I could not bring myself to off this abundant laying, strong queen. So I went with my usual beekeeping mantra, which is, “Let nature take its course.”

Now that it is late summer and my hive is queenless, my earlier aversion to regicide has been called into question. Had I replaced the queen in May, my bees would have reared a new queen, packed away the nectar and be starting to raise winter bees at this point. Instead, my dwindling bees are foraging for nectar and raising a new queen but NOT packing away the massive stores of honey they will need to see themselves through winter, nor are they raising winter bees. This could be their doom.

What the hive is getting right now is a break in the brood cycle, and right at the peak of varroa mite season (thus the mite population will be beaten back). So, it could work to their advantage. If a queen hatches, flies off to the mating grounds, successfully mates and returns to the hive without getting eaten by a bird or other predator, then the hive might just have enough time to raise winter bees and hunker down for the cold season. I can supplemental feed the hive if they don’t bring in enough honey (Not exactly letting nature take its course, but cheaper than starting over and with the benefit of continuing this queen line).

The big question for new has been – why did this queen need to be replaced? She was so strong! She had great pheromones! A fellow beekeeper told me that in his experience, those robust queens tend to die young. They have a fixed number of eggs to lay, and once they’ve laid them…kaput. This reference point will be helpful for the future, when I have to make that fateful decision about replacing the queen in spring. If she’s been a robust layer, she just find that her last thought is, “Et tu, Apiaria?”

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Anybody home?

Anybody home?

Through my lack of blogging for the past several months, I can deduce that I am significantly less anxious about beekeeping in year two than I was in year one! July finds both hives doing well and requiring little attention (for the moment), so I will attempt to recount the happenings of the winter and spring.

In November, we began construction on the back of our house, adding a room off the kitchen, which we designed to be sturdy enough to house the hives and some raised beds on the roof.  I had hunkered the hives down for winter with the quilt boxes that Dave and I had built, fully expecting to move them onto the roof in February or March, well before they were raising brood and while they were still happily nested into two boxes for overwintering.

However, this being a construction project, the anticipated 6-8 week project grew into a 6 month project. As spring wore on, a pit settled in my stomach as I wondered how on earth I was going to hoist my bee hives, now full of bees raising yet more bees, and actively leaving the hive in search of forage, up onto the roof. I enlisted our contractors for ideas. One brought out a beekeeping buddy, and the two of them discussed complicated strategies, including building temporary scaffolding; or two ladders placed side by side with the hives strapped to a board which they would shoulder as they scaled the ladder; a winch; one guy on the roof with a rope stabilizing the hives while two others shouldered the hives. All of these ideas made my anxious: the potential for dropping the hives and having angry bees stinging the contractors seemed great. I started to wonder if we should leave the bees on the round until winter. Of course, I was also chomping at the bit to landscape the backyard, so leaving the hives on the ground was undesirable.

Finally, the internet offered a solution. We found a heavy duty outdoor stairway which we could install for roof access, instead of using ladders. Once that was in place, I was able to hire a couple of local beekeepers to bundle and move the hives up the stairs one box at a time (and at the time they were at 3 and 4 boxes high). Corky and Brady, the beekeepers, showed up early so the weather would still be cool and the bees huddled inside the hive waiting to start a day of foraging. Dave and I cut plywood to the dimensions of the boxes. The beekeepers strapped these pieces of plywood to the tops and bottoms of each box, and carried them (they weighed 40ish pounds each), up the new stairs to their new home on the roof. After an hour and a half of heavy lifting, the hives were securely in their new home on the roof.

The next step was letting the bees know that their home had moved. As they were (mostly) happily in a closed dark box for the move, their natural response to the move would have been to leave the hive as if nothing had changed, forage, and return home – to the former location. To dissuade this behavior, we obstructed the landing board of each hive with branches. Many of them. The bees were forced to climb over and through these many branches before they could fly off. According to natural beekeeping guru Michael Bush, doing so would give a clue to the bees that they needed to stop and pay attention to their surroundings so that they could find their way back to the new hive location. Otherwise, I ran the risk of having all the forager bees return home to the old location. The branches were like a signal – hey something is different! Pay attention! It worked pretty well, with most of the forager bees returning to the rooftop at the end of the day. However, some of my bees did not get the memo, returning to the old hive location. So, for 3 days I left a small nuc box at the old site. Each evening, I would take the nuc box upstairs and shake the disoriented bees into the smaller hive. After 3 days, I gave up. Some of those bees just weren’t learning. Too bad for them. The remainder settled into life on the roof.

The hives are now located right outside Soren’s window, so I can peek at them frequently to see how things look on the landing board. I do this a lot. After a few weeks of watching the bees, I realized that Galactica hive (the smaller of the two) had fewer bees entering and exiting the hive than Themyscira. A LOT fewer. I had been inspecting the hives regularly, so I was pretty sure that I hadn’t missed a swarm. The queen had been laying in a pretty consistent manner. I opened up the hive and it felt empty. But there was the queen, laying away. I found several frames of broods. Foragers were returning to the hive. So what was wrong? I didn’t know, but some instinct told me to borrow brood from the hive next door to bolster Galactica.

These days I rarely make a hive-related move without consulting my bee group. I emailed the listserv to inquire about the wisdom of propping up my weaker hive with brood. The consensus was that I had nothing to lose (except, potentially, a couple frames of brood). The biggest debate was whether or not to move the nurse bees over with the brood or shake them off first. Given the emptiness of the hive, I opted to move the nurse bees over with the brood. I was concerned that there were too few adult bees in the hive to keep the bees properly warmed. The hive accepted the brood and nurse bees without problem, and after a few weeks seemed to be back on its feet. So what was the problem?

My current theory comes from fellow beek Patti who wondered if drift could be responsible. Drift occurs when the hives are close together and one queen is sending out stronger pheromones than the other. I suspect that Themyscira’s queen has always been the stronger of the two. In fact, that hive may have gotten off to a stronger start because bees from Galactica drifted to Themyscira when I was first setting up the hives. Luckily Galactica’s queen is a scrappy thing and keeps plugging away no matter the odds. Currently the landing boards on both hives show lots of activity. I’m due for an inspection this week, so I should have a better sense of how well the hive has recovered soon!

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February2013 013Well, thanks to a mild winter, my handy-dandy bee quilts and dumb luck, it appears that both hives have survived winter. These warm afternoons have brought my bees out in droves, and they have been returning to the hives laden with pollen. The bright gold crocus pollen was particularly lovely.

I’ve heard that March can be a tricky month for bees, so I will have to wait and see, especially since we will be moving the hives up to the roof in a few weeks. Won’t that be an adventure! Luckily one of my bee-mentors, Corky, is going to supervise the operation.

Over the winter, neighbors Kevin and Laura started a new bee-keeping group for our neighborhood. Who would think there were enough bee-keepers in Wallingford to sustain a group? But it looks like there are! Now here’s hoping there are enough flowering plants in Wallingford to sustain all of our hives. I imagine we will be experimenting with the beehive saturation point for a neighborhood if interest in backyard bees continues to grow.

Kevin uses his wire jig to complete a frame.

Kevin uses his wire jig to complete a frame.

At our last meeting, Kevin showed of the fabulous frame jig that he made. We are hoping as a group to share tools and techniques, which I am really grateful for! It is nice not to reinvent the wheel, especially if someone who lives 3 blocks away already has a jig.

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The farmers at Milkwood led me to this free e-book about bees, written 100 years ago. You can read online or download it. I’m looking forward to exploring this one with the kids, and to comparing what we know now with what we knew about bees 100 years ago.

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Mason bee at work.

I finally made some time to check on my mason bee cocoons a few weeks back. Mason bees are native stinger-less bees that live solitarily (not in a hive). They are great pollinators, and like most bees, need some support from the human community so that they can stay off the endangered species list. Back in the spring, I put out a bee house and some cocoons that I had purchased. The cocoons hatched readily.

For the next month, the kids and I watched the female bees return to the bee house to fill our cocoons tubes with mud and eggs. After letting them mature in the bee house for a few weeks, we moved the tubes indoors to prevent predators and parasites like birds and wasps from destroying our larvae. If we do this properly, the larvae will grow, metamorphose and hibernate until spring.

Opening the tubes reveals cocoons. So good so far!

The local bee guru who provided me with last year’s cocoons recommended opening the tubes and storing the cocoons someplace cold for winter. Opening the tubes gives you an insight into how many eggs were laid, how may male and female cocoons you have, and if there have been any problems.

Inside the first few tubes, things were looking great. A nice mix of male and female cocoons, properly formed.

The female (larger) and male (smaller) cocoons.

Then I opened a tube that had a dead worm-looking thing in it. I should have stopped there to figure out what I had in my tubes. Alas, I kept opening the tubes. I found more of the worms, and more normal cocoons. I left everything in a Tupperware, mixed together. Then, I emailed the bee guru, who responded,


Fossilized larvae among the mud.

Turns out that I didn’t have worms in my tubs, I had fossilized bee larvae, victims of a spore called “Foulbrood.” The good news is, it’s species specific, so my honey bees aren’t at risk. The bad news is, it’s a spore that gets everywhere. So, by mixing the dead larvae with the cocoons, I contaminated them. The bee guru recommended soaking the cocoons in a dilute bleach solution and hoping for the best, which I have done. I also have to sterilize the bee house with bleach and dump the leftover tubes instead of reusing them. So, once the holiday rush is over and I start dreaming of spring, I’ll bust out the bleach and get that little house cleaned up. Then we’ll see if any of those cocoons survived the bleach bath!

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The bee quilt I am hoping to make this week.

My friend Kat brought it to my attention the other day that I have been woefully neglectful of my bee blog. Largely, that’s because I haven’t had a lot of interaction with the girls lately. They have been busy doing their late summer thing and with the exception of putting fresh water out for them and peeking under the lid once in a while to see if I needed to add another box, I haven’t done much. Late summer is apparently the time of year in which bees are approximately as much work as a cat. Maybe even less. However, I am now getting into the “preparing for winter” groove. Especially since fall arrived rather suddenly on Tuesday.

About 2 weeks ago I did my fall inspection, which involved condensing the hives a bit to make them easier for the bees to keep warm during the cold months. Less space means less energy wasted on keeping the hive warm. And the less energy they waste, the less honey the bees will consume over the winter, thereby decreasing the odds that they will starve to death.

I made the choice not to harvest any honey except for what was in the burr comb (the bits of comb they built between the boxes that broke open when I did my inspection.  The honey is minty tasting and delicious!). My reason for not harvesting the honey is that I am trying to avoid supplemental feeding – that is, I do not want to give them sugar syrup. I would rather they eat their honey stores. Typically, beekeepers steal some honey from their bees in the fall and then feed them sugar or corn syrup to get them through winter if they eat their way through the remaining honey stores.

Of course, I can choose to do this because beekeeping is a hobby for me. I am not trying to make money at it, so I don’t need to sell my honey. And while I would certainly enjoy eating the honey, I am more interested in producing strong bees. I would like to do my part for combatting colony collapse disorder and for helping produce honeybees that can thrive in the Pacific Northwest, which is truly too damp for good honey-beekeeping. So, next year I am hoping that Gallactica Hive can join Themyscira hive in kicking its sugar addiction!

In case you’re interested in how the hives compared as of the fall inspection:

Themyscira Hive is my honey-fed hive. It is also the cranky bee hive. It stole workers from Gallactica early on, and so was always about one brood cycle ahead of the other hive. I also stopped using premade comb foundation in this hive sooner than I did in Gallactica, so the bees were able to regress, or to get smaller and closer to the size of feral bees. As of inspection time, they had one box of pollen, almost 3 complete boxes of honey, but only 2 frames of brood. While it is expected that the queen will be laying less this time of year, I am a little concerned about the small number of brood. Also there were very few drones. The bees are noticeably smaller than the ones in the hive next door.

Gallactica Hive chugged steadily along all season. The bees are so mellow you could practically pet them. I think perhaps this is because all of the adventurous, aggressive bees moved next door. The ones that stayed were laid back and not inclined to worry. While the hive never had the sheer numbers that Themyscira did, the queen has always been a strong layer. This hive had one box of pollen, 2 full boxes of honey, and 6 frames of brood. There were also many more drones about, mostly on the brood frames. I think they were helping keep the brood warm so that the workers could devote more of their time to foraging as the end of the season.

In the week ahead, I need to finish winterizing. I have found some plans for a “bee quilt” that Dave is going to help me make. The quilt basically helps absorb moisture from the hive during the winter and provides an additional layer of insulation for the bees. They will have to work pretty hard to stay warm, so I want to give them a hand!

Rumor has it that we are going to have a warmer, drier than normal winter here. I am not sure if that will be good news or bad news for my bees. When it’s warmer, they are more active and eat more. That’s bad. However, drier would mean fewer problems with maintaining the temperature of the hive (condensation in the hive can cause some serious heat loss) and it would decrease mold as well. That could be good! Only time will tell.

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Drone comb, which really does look like Kix!

A couple of weeks ago, I opened up my hive to find that the bees were making drones. Lots of them, exclusively on the brand new foundationless frames that I had put into the hive the week prior. There was worker brood on the frames with foundation, and I spotted my queen, so it wasn’t a problem with a laying worker. However, since I had been expecting lovely new comb and maybe even some honey, I was surprised to find this ugly comb riddled with kix-cereal type cells. It seriously made me start to itch.

To find out what my bees might be up to (hello…bees? I was feeding you until 10 days ago! Why are you wasting time making drones?) I emailed my beekeepers’ group. I lamented my bees’ choice of activities. Drones are a waste of resources! How could they? When are they going to start making some honey????

Several beekeepers offered their opinions about drones. Drones might not be a total waste of resources. They can help keep brood warm. They propagate bee genes. Bees like a 20ish percent population of drones, so maybe my hive has previously been under-droned. All good insights. But it was Patti who really set me straight, writing:

Hm, so you think the bees are making a big mistake? Why do you think that?

Indeed, why did I?

In my pre-child life, I was a midwife. I helped mothers bring new life into the world primarily through the wisdom handed down by generations of women giving birth and attending births, and confidence in the natural process.

One of the best pieces of advice I received from a midwife-mentor was to practice “sitting on my hands.” This was not an easy concept for me and was one that required me to majorly shift my thinking. I am not a naturally patient person. I like to help, manage, organize and myriad other “action words” in which a person with a busy brain might engage. However birth can take a long time and a good midwife does well to remember that sometimes all that is needed is tincture of time. It can be very tempting to try to hasten a birth by offering interventions. However, many of these interventions cause further interventions to be needed, and then instead of helping a mother follow her instincts and the natural flow of birth, you create a situation that needs medical intervention. Counterproductive to say the least.

Patti’s comment brought me back to that sage midwifery advice. Why did I think I knew better than the bees? If I had learned not to think that I knew better than a mother giving birth, why would I not extend that trust in the natural process to the hive?

In the past few months since I started caretaking my hives, I have been surprised at how much of what has been studied about honey bees and beekeeping practices has been done in support of industrial agriculture and commercial beekeeping. Commercial beekeeping uses medications, artificial feeding with tanker trucks of corn syrup, and bees as tools in large scale agricultural pollination with little thought given to their nutritional needs. Some beekeepers expect to lose their hives every year. They basically just work the bees to death and don’t give them the time or resources to prepare their hives for winter. From the sounds of it, not much attention is paid to the bees’ perspective. It is mostly about the convenience for the beekeeper and the farmers.

Which sounds a lot like what has happened to birth. Women delivering flat on their backs for the convenience of the doctor. Inductions and C-sections scheduled to fit someone’s calendar rather than with thought given to the needs of the baby. Drugs given to laboring women instead of support and encouragement. Interventions introduced well in advance of any indications that they are needed, and without trying natural solutions first.

I know full well that there are instances in which medical interventions are necessary for mothers and babies. They do save lives. But for most healthy women and their infants, these interventions are not needed. If 1 in 3 women actually required a C-section to give birth to a healthy baby, our species never would have made it this far.

Similarly, there may be cases in which medicating a hive is a good idea. I haven’t been there yet. And I know that I am definitely more willing to let a hive die and try again than I would be to sacrifice a mother or her baby to the “natural process.”

But it does seem to me, given that we are still dealing with Colony Collapse Disorder and worrying losses of honeybee hives, that it is high time to start thinking like midwives when it comes to our beekeeping practices. To think about what is normal, what is natural, and what is best for bees. To ask ourselves the hard questions about why we are following certain practices. To be willing to give an honest look at our assumptions.

To stop and be reminded of Patti’s question: So you think the bees are making a big mistake? Why do you think that?

It is humbling to be asked that, and humbling to realize my own hubris. That after one season of beekeeping (or even after 10!) that I might think I know better than my bees. As with the women I attended in labor, I could never know better. I can only be there to create an environment for the hive that functions as naturally as possible. To know enough about what is normal to recognize the problems. And to sit on my hands longer than feels comfortable so that my bees can have a fair shot at resolving the problems themselves.

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Encourage your friends and neighbors to garden organically! So many people don’t realize that backyard pesticides are harmful to bees. You can be the one to enlighten them! The girls will thank you.

Idealist Girl!

This spring I joined the ranks of the estimated 150,000 non-commercial beekeepers in the United States. Backyard beekeeping is quite the trendy hobby here in my neck of the woods, or urban forest as it were. Here in Wallingford, Seattle, I have already encountered four other beekeepers that live within walking distance. Within a few generations, our bees will probably all be cousins.

A lovely happenstance of backyard beekeeping in Seattle is that my neighbors all keep lovely gardens with plenty of plants flowering throughout spring and summer. Especially during nice warm spring seasons like this, my bees have plenty of forage from which to choose. I have always enjoyed walking through my neighborhood and admiring the lovely flowers, but I love it even more now that I am looking at them with a pollinator’s eye.

Soon I may find myself going door to door as a backyard beekeeping evangelist…

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