Posts Tagged ‘bees’

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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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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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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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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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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