Friday, March 29, 2024

Siberian squill

Siberian Squill
Siberian squill is a garden plant run wild.  You'll find it up by Capen Garden at Smith and around Round Hill Road.  It's also on State street. it's an invasive that you'll find nodding its head in the shade.  It's a demure little flower that you might not notice and it's far prettier up close. 

It's around at a time of year when we're not looking for flowers but bees are. Big daffodils hog the attention and snowdrops too, but squill is there, pretty and quiet in the shade. It's the only blue flower I know of that also makes blue pollen.

Squill is out at the same time as the mat green maple pollen and it's often too cold for bees to fly when it's here.  There must be thousands of times more maple trees but the bees faithfully bring in quite a lot of squill so they must like it. 

 When bees bring in squill they can build up strong before dandelion and fruit trees hit and they can field more bees for those crops.  Squill and maple are a big boost early int eh season when bees have neither resources or numbers. It's an auspicious start to the season.

No photo description available.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

We're back, again.

It's been a while since Northampton Honey produced any honey to sell.  My work situation changed and it was no longer practical to try an keep bees for honey production.  I wound up working more than I did when we started Northampton Honey. The trees grew up in our yard and made it too shady for bees. 

There were a couple of false starts along the way. We wound up owning a little vacant lot after we bought and dissembled a warehouse there, giving the parts to Habitat for Humanity.  We also remediated an oil spill too, cleaning up the land.  We've now planted it in clover to enrich the neglected soil.  It seemed only natural to bring back bees as well. 

We've had bees there since last spring, and they're doing great.  We hope this year we can extract a bit of honey for friends, family and for some for sale on a very small scale. 

There's a lot of changes that are happening in our beekeeping, all for the better.  One is that our bees will reside in boxes made by Union Bee Company next year. These boxes have roughened insides that would be more like a natural tree.  This causes bees to deposit propolis there.  This is sap they've collected from tree wounds.  It's naturally antibiotic and antiviral because trees use that special sap to heal wounds. 

This acts as a kind of shell that protects the bees. It's the first line of defense. Our smooth hives don't encourage this behavior and this makes bees vulnerable. 

Union Bee Company is a little company round an hour away.  He's a small time bee keeper and woodworker.  The wood for the hives is locally sourced and milled by him right into the hives and woodenware he sells. He's clearly thinking about how to make a better product with every product he sells. 

Because he keeps bees himself there's a level of practicality in figuring out what makes things better is a meaningful way. He said he made 500 top bars, part of a frame that holds comb for bees, before he was satisfied that he'd gotten it correct. 

Northampton Honey is coming back as something that is better than it was and I think sourcing product from small makers like this makes us better.


Sunday, June 25, 2023


This year's bees look as good at this time of year as I have ever seen bees look. I've been taking a lot of these slow motion videos because it helps me understand just how fast the bees move.  They're actually a bit bumbly in flight, more like zeppelins than jets. 

We now have been on our vacant lot and may soon have some in Florence again.  We didn't really have great spaces for a bee yard but that's changed. My friend Kari kept bees through what I think of as the dark times.  Mites were super bad when we stopped.  The best treatment was Mite Away Quick Strips but it was awful.  It was as likely to kill your bees as it was to do in the mites.  I've been following Kari lead and I am optimistic that one can again keep bees successfully. 

Thursday, October 6, 2022

What makes a good bee?

 In the beekeeping world you'll see a lot of emphasis on pedigree bees. I suppose this is a lot like the dog world or the horse world or the British royalty.  The headlines didn't say "rich old lady dies" they said the Queen is dead. They said that Charles will succeed her, as if just showing up and claiming the riches is success. 

I've toyed around with pedigree bees having had most of the major lines, and even Buckfast bees, so rare they're bred on remote islands to preserve their genetics. You also hear a lot about 'northern queens' which is a more generic term for bees that come from the north, like New England or Idaho, I would imagine.  

I'm less skeptical of northern queens than I am of pedigree, because it just seems to mean bees that have survived the winter. That's good for us, because we have a winter. 

Over the years I've become more and more enamored of swarm queens. What this really comes down to is nature over nurture. Most queen bees that you can get commercially are raised in a kind of farming fashion. 

The bees are made to raise many queens at once in a small box called a nuc. They do all right and the queens from this process can be good. 

My problem with it is that it's not how the bees would go about doing it.  In an what I am going to call an 'abundance swarm' the bees have survived the winter and charge ahead raising queens and getting ready to swarm.  The hive is literally abuzz with activity.  In the preceding weeks before the swarm this hive and all the other strong hives locally have been launching drones into the air in preparation. 

A complex reaction of pheromones and activity mean the whole hive of tens of thousands of bees, maybe 40-50,000 bees kicks into gear to raise perhaps a dozen queens. Everything that happens is a result of surplus. 

Like a rich household everything is supplied to these queens in abundance.  The bees that supply the queen with royal jelly are young bees with special glands developed to this task. In an abundance swarm these bees will number in the thousands, they will be just the right age, they will be optimally fed. Every bee along the way in that queens development, and there are many hundreds, is primed and ready for the job. 

When that queen emerges to go on her mating flight she will first murder every possible usurper to the throne before she takes to the air. It's hard to overstate the savageness and power of a swarm raised queen. 

A swarm raised queen is by definition of northern queen that has survived the winter. She's got the lineage of a hive that was strong enough in spring to produce in abundance. This is before she even launches into the air. 

When she goes on her mating flight she takes to the air and flies into a sea of drones from all the most powerful neighboring hives.  The other hives that survived winter in enough abundance to make useless drones who do no work and gather no nectar. 

What's more these drones are rich and varied.  The queen will mate with many to get enough seamen to lay the hundreds of thousands of bees she'll lay in her life. Like a litter of multicolored kittens these bees will have many fathers.  In my own bees now I can see the variation, bees both dark and like, orange and yellow. 

It's said a swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly.  This was because the later the swarm came the harder it would be for them to become strong enough to survive winter.  

I see that children's rhyme a bit different, linked to the value of a swarm queen.  That May swarm queen will fly into the densest population of drones from the strongest hives in the region. In June this is probably still mostly true. But those drones will be mixed with package bees that came in from the south.  By July she'll be mating with the results of disaster swarms too, were hives just pump put drones as a last chance cheap chance to procreate. These will mostly be package bees from the south that first year beekeepers got in killed straight away 

This genetic variance from successful mating is shown to keep the hive strong.  Like a town of people it takes all types. The variation probably helps the bees fight off disease because not every bee is the same.  They're not a monocrop. Yes, give me a swarm queen every time.

We started using a method called the Tranov method. This method does a lot of things but, in theory, it can cause the bees to swarm into the object of my choice.

This method is hard.  As shown here it's easy to mess up and not have a swarm queen but just have a swarm and lose half your bees, your best bees and have the whole hive set back weeks

The trickier part of Taranov is timing it right to prevent the swarm from happening. Someday I will be able to time this accurately and everyone will think I am a genius. Until then I will keep trying. 

I think that to large part people project onto bees their own prejudice. There's a broad divide between the survivalist, right wing beekeepers and the left wing hippies. They have their own take on what works and why. Not ever one for pedigree or respecting one's betters I think I am naturally predisposed to the wild, promiscuous mutt queens.  Honestly, how can you not be under the spell of the wild, promiscuous mutt queen? 

Monday, October 3, 2022

October bees, the start of winter.


Here's a video I took with a cheap endoscope of bees clustered inside the hive entrance on a cool day.  The left side of the hive is blocked off because the weather has turned colder and the bees don't need as much room to come and go.  This hive is strong but it's also peak robbing season and I have seen some fighting on the landing board so, just to keep things civil the entrance has been reduced by about half. 

I really hadn't expected to see this when I peered in there.  It's not like the weather is super cold, but it's cold enough to cause these bees to cluster or beard.  I can only guess that these bees are here to block drafts from entering the hive. 

I've spent a lot of time observing in both the conventional and unconventional ways with cameras, sensors and my own senses. This gives me some insight that maybe bees don't really require extreme temperatures to start thermoregulating in complex ways. 

It seems that right now the bees are well past producing summer bees and closing down on the production of winter bees.  These kinds of superbees will live many times as long as summer bees and be able to use fat as a fuel. This is required to raise the new bees in the darkest and coldest winter that will emerge into the spring to forage for nectar. 

In a week or two, by halloween for sure, the production of brood will stop completely. The bees will forage a bit but not for the most part they're closing down. They look good, largely pest free, and well set up to survive the winter.  The next big milestone is dandelions.  If this hive lives to see dandelions there spring experiment when they swarmed out of their hive will be successful.  This two year old queen who will have laid hundreds of thousands of eggs from a single mating flight will have won.

I love a swarm hive more than any other kind.  They're mutts, they're fighters, they're optimists. Who could not love that.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

We Don't Sell Marijuana.

If you're looking for marijuana it's not here. Marijuana is wind pollenated. Bees have zero interest in it.  Pretty funny that a dispensary is our name reversed but with 14 of them in town it was bound to happen eventually. 

By the way: Northampton Honey is an Apiary masquerading as an art project masquerading as a business. You can rearrange those parts, apiary, business and art project any way you want and it still makes about as much sense.  We just like keeping bees and having fun with it. 

Sensors Galore, but what does it mean?


The is a photo of our beehive.  We used to have 30 hives, now we have just this one.  The problem with 30 hives is that you can't really keep on top of them with a full time job.  They get killed by mites, swarm, go into winter too weak and die. So, we quit keeping bees. 

Now we just have the one hive and I keep keep on top of it pretty well. You'll note the two solar panels in the side.  These are the power supply for Wyze Outdoor Cameras

These cameras let us keep an eye on two things, one is how the bees are feeding inside the hive. Winter is coming and we had a pretty severe drought around here. The whole second half of the season was too dry.  There were flowers but mostly with very weak nectar and pollen. The hive made bees but never really stored honey or pollen. So we had to feed them. 

This photo is a still from the video feed from inside the hive. The tank at the center is sugar water. The powder in the dish on the right is dry pollen substitute. The yellow container on the right contains dry pollen substitute mixed with sugar syrup. 

The bees will almost always take sugar syrup but are less interested in it when there's a good nectar flow on.  These bees are very interested in this syrup even though at the time of the photo the best nectar flow of the year was on, goldenrod. 

In the upper right had corner of the photo you will see a small white box.  That's a Bluetooth temperature, humidity sensor.  Using that I can tell how warm the bees are keeping this part of the hive compared to the brood nest and the outdoors. I can see if the bees feed in cold.  So far I have seen that in cooler temperatures the bees seem to plug the hole to the brood chamber at night. They're insulating that interior of the hive with their bodies. 

We also have three Broodminder sensors in the hive.  These sensors measure the weight of the hive, the temperature of the brood nest, where the bees raise their young, and the humidity in the hive along with the outdoor temperature.  The line at the top is the overall hive weight of about 170 lbs. You can see little spikes on it where I've added feed.  

The most important part is the thin grey area in the middle.  That shows the temperature of the brood nest.  As long as the bees keep it between 92 and 98 the brood will survive. The bees keep the center of the hive, where the brood are at this temperature no matter if the temperature outside is 100 or if it goes down to 30 degrees. Since they start raising brood just after New Year's Day around here that outside number might me minus 10.  They'd have to lift that temp 105 degrees, insulating with their bodies and shivering to keep warm. 

 Here, above, you can see these bees are keeping the temp in the center of the zone with variance by less than a degree despite the outside temperature fluctuations.  These sensors read down to the 10th of a degree accurately.  Note the outside temperature goes up and down. 

On this hive we have one scale, two cameras, three temperature sensors and two humidity sensors?  That six sensors.  I started keeping bees 15 years ago, we've had up to 30 hives. I've had plenty of chances to observe bees. 

Still, after all this they're a mystery to me, more so now maybe then when they when I started.  I know more than ever how little I know.  

I kept chickens before I had bees.  Chickens have two arms, two legs and a head.  They're basically like us.  A beehive is a superorganism.  I stopped long ago thinking of it as made of individuals. I hive, the whole of it, the wax, the bacteria, the bees in all their casts are one body that blows up every warm sunny day and spreads itself out over 20 or 30 square miles.  It thinks with 60,000 minds that communicate with dance, vibration, pheromone, and sound.   

Right now these bees are raising "winter bees".  These bees have a switch flipped in them that allows them to store energy as fat. It also makes the bee more durable to last the winter.  Summer bees are like cars.  If they run out of gas (sugar) they die.  The beat themselves to death flying to flowers and dodging raindrops. They're expendable. The the nature of the hive is change now, change to a winter life where they line between success and failure is death for the whole superorganism, not just one bee. 

That's why fall is the start of the new year.  It's the plan, the change, for winter. 

Where these bees came from I have no idea, but they survived. They prospered enough to split and land in my yard. They took the risk that they would be able to divide their resources and come out of summer strong enough to make it though winter again.  

Bees now fight pests imported here from around the world.  Mites from Siberia, beetles from Africa, virus from everywhere. They live in a world with more drought and more rain too. We're in this together the bees and us. In return for my care they provide endless fascination.